Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Trouble With Ugly

 This is reposted from my (much more general) personal blog. Originally posted on August 23, 2011:

Recently, I have stumbled across some well-meaning blog posts addressing people who make poor choices. That is not a big deal; we all make poor choices, some of us more frequently than others, and learn from them at our own speed. What is a big deal is that these bloggers call the people making poor choices "ugly". Specifically, ugly on the inside.

Here's a surprise for you. I have taken high school biology classes, and I can tell you we are ALL extremely ugly on the inside. We are filled up with guts and blood and food in various stages of digestion, mucus, pus, you name it. Inside of a human being is very gross and disgusting. It's also awesome and amazing and beautiful.

Now, I am assuming that the people whose posts I take issue with were not being quite so literal. One woman, a professional photographer, found that some girls who had booked sittings with her were openly involved in online bullying. She cancelled their sessions and emailed their parents explaining why she was unwilling to take their photographs. That is fine; admirable, even. But calling another human being ugly in that context is damaging. She failed to make the distinction between the person and the action when she made the statement "If you are ugly on the inside, I’m sorry but I won’t take your photos to make you look pretty on the outside!" Sure, the actions those girls took, the poor choices they made, were very ugly. But the people making those choices and performing those actions are not ugly. To say otherwise would be to doom them forever to remain "ugly", making poor choices, and hurting others. It's the same distinction between saying "I did a stupid thing" and "I am stupid." The first statement acknowledges my stupid choices and actions while allowing me to learn from them and move on, hopefully making wiser choices in the future. The second statement implies that stupid is something ingrained in myself, something that I cannot change. By saying "I am stupid," I am saying that I am, always have been, and always will be stupid. That is a very dangerous distinction to overlook.

 The "I won't take your picture if you are ugly" thing has been bothering me since it crossed my screen a few days ago, but what really spurred me to speak up about it was a post by a childcare provider and early childhood educator calling out "ugly" parents. The issue here is parents who are afraid that doing "girly" things will make their sons into homosexuals, or that doing "masculine" things will make their daughters into lesbians. She really has a number of good points, but it is still damaging to call parents "ugly" because they are misguided and/or misinformed. A parent of one of the girls at the childcare centre where I work was concerned because her three-year-old daughter started saying the word "penis" all the time. The parent can't even bring herself to say the word. She was upset that we would ever teach her child such "filthy and sexual" language. The parent was not being "ugly", she was trying to protect her child from perceived harm. We explained to the parent that we use the correct names for all of our body parts, and when her daughter tries to urinate whilst standing facing the toilet, we have to have a conversation with her about why she cannot do that without making a mess, even though boys do it all the time. When a child walks up to a teacher several times in a week, sometimes several times a day, and asks "Girls has penis?" she is not being inappropriate. She is seeking information. She wants to make sure it's still true, that we all give her the same answer, and that the answer isn't only true in the bathroom. "No, girls do not have penises; girls have vulvas." The child's parent is not "ugly on the inside" for being afraid of such conversations. She is struggling with her own upbringing. She genuinely had no idea, until we told her, that using the correct terminology for human genitalia is important for protecting children from abuse and for fostering healthy body image. She just thought her child was using filthy language to talk about filthy things and if she had ever said something like that when she was a child, she would have gotten a smack.

I'm not sure I am explaining this very well. No parent wakes up in the morning and says "I think I will limit my child in the most damaging way possible today." Every parent does the best he or she knows how to do with the resources he or she has available. Every parent wants his or her children to be healthy, happy, and successful. No parent has all the right answers or the right information. Misguided, misinformed choices can have ugly results, in parenting as in every other area of life. That doesn't mean the parents are ugly.

And then there's the whole issue of our appearance-based societal values being bought into by such talk, but I am not prepared to open that can of worms just now.

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