Last November, when you Googled the phrase “ugly Black woman,” Vanessa Rochelle Lewis’s photograph was the second to come up.
“Which I’m offended by,” says Lewis, a Bay Area–based artist and writer, “since I’m an Aries and I like to be number one in everything.”
Lewis’s photograph first made its rounds on the internet last November when a Los Angeles–based party promoter hiring women to appear in a music video created a meme that mocked Lewis’s appearance. “Me looking for baddies,” it read. Under Lewis’s photo were the words, “The type of women who respond.”
Lewis responded by organizing the inaugural Ugly Conference, a daylong conference in Oakland she created to examine what she calls “looksism” (also known as “lookism”): discrimination against people whose appearances don’t meet societal standards of conventional attractiveness.
She views the conference, which hosts about 50 people, as the first in a series of gatherings designed to combat image-based prejudice and abuse. The conference, held on Saturday, March 23, is funded in large part by a grant from BGD (formerly Black Girl Dangerous), a blog featuring the writing of queer and trans people of color, and admission is donation-based.
This first event is held in a communal living space with peeling yellow walls and is strewn with secondhand furniture and sparkly mesh curtains. Supplied with homemade snacks and a “whisper space” attendees can retreat to if the conference becomes overwhelming (it offers chocolate, coloring books, and medications “of the Eastern and Western varieties”), the event feels like a post-seance potluck.
Though I do meet some of society’s standards of attractiveness (I’m white, able-bodied, cisgendered, and relatively thin), The Ugly Conference calls to me. I have often found myself monstrous, sometimes to the degree of near-lunacy. As a teenager, I was certain I looked like a baby from medieval portraiture, the kind that appear as elderly people trapped in tiny bodies. More recently, I developed the unshakable sense that I resembled a cyst.
I don’t know if my disdain is for my appearance so much as it is the very notion of appearance. Being forced to occupy an exterior I had no say in choosing can feel like a Hadean punishment. What could be more damning than being trapped in a randomly assigned flesh-sack? Some days, I find this idea so disturbing—and the notion of my body as a representation of my personhood so repulsive—that I avoid going into public. In short, my body mostly does not feel like my own.
It’s not that I long to occupy a body other than the one I do. Rather, it’s that I’d like, impossibly, to dodge the problem of embodiment as a whole. Once, I admitted to a college therapist that I wished to become a brain in a jar. “Let’s make it happen for you,” he replied, inexplicably. I find I am still hoping it will happen for me, against all odds and reason.
This sense of entrapment can be exhausting; it inhibits me from partaking in the joys of daily life. So I’ve come to The Ugly Conference in pursuit of a new strategy for moving through the world: one that might allow me to come to terms with my physicality—and perhaps even, and this seems unlikely—to like it.
Throughout the Ugly Conference, Lewis, who wears a red floral dress and signs her emails “Your Faerie Princess Mermaid Gangsta for The Revolution,” gets the audience’s attention by breaking into rallying cries and, later, made-up songs. To commence the event, she stands before a black paper backdrop on which the word “UGLY” has been spray-painted in gold and leads the audience in a cheer.
“I deserve–” she calls out.
“ –to take up space!” we reply per Lewis’s instructions.
“ –to experience love and belonging!”
“ –to be a whole-ass motherfucking person!”
Though my personal cheering quota has thusly been fulfilled for the day, we’re in for a lot more of it. Next, Lewis’s friend Ifasina T.L. Clear, who teaches dance classes designed to meet the needs of fat people and people with limited mobility, instructs us to stand up (if we are able) and drum our chests lightly with alternating hands.
“ Me, me, me, me,” we chant, tapping our hearts to the beat. “ Me, we, us, you.”
Clear says this is meant to help us connect with our bodies and one another. I’m hesitant: I have long avoided connecting with my body, and to venture to do so in the presence of others feels somehow obscene, like clipping your nails on the subway. I engage anyway, and to my surprise, hearing the rhythmic voices of those around me makes me feel lighter; more at peace. Acknowledging my body’s existence lightens its burden, and doing so alongside others— me, we, us, you—renders the entire experience less daunting.
Lewis instructs us to partner up and share a memory of being hurt by another person, not specifying whether our memories should pertain to ugliness. Unsure of what to say, I tell a lackluster anecdote about a marginally upsetting altercation with a fourth-grade teacher who refused to publish a poem I wrote in the class newspaper because it was “too dark.” My partner tells me about a professor’s refusal to enroll her in his creative writing class on the basis of her disability, which requires her to use a wheelchair.
Perhaps confused about the relevance of my anecdote, my partner asks my reasons for attending the conference. “I guess I’m looking for some sort of resolution to”—and here, I employ a phrase I have often used to avoid explaining my interest in ugliness—"the thorny condition of being seen.” She nods politely.
When attendees are invited to share their memories with the group, the mood in the room grows somber. We hear stories of doctors who questioned patients’ ability to care for their bodies. A person with Tourette syndrome recalls being harassed on the street during a tic. Someone recounts being pelted with objects after being told she was ugly. Several attendees describe being sexually assaulted by perpetrators who suggested they deserved such treatment because of their appearance. Some of them once believed their assailants, convinced they were lucky to receive any sexual attention at all.
“Ugliness is a gatekeeper to being worthy of love,” one participant says. “We have [not spoken up about] violence because we thought we didn’t deserve love.”
In the essay “Lost Cat,” Mary Gaitskill describes a fight between two children in which one says about the other, “He’s ugly!”
“We’re all ugly,” Gaitskill tells him.
The idea pleases his six-year-old adversary, who gleefully repeats, “Yeah, we’re all ugly!”
When I first encountered the essay, I felt similarly taken with this idea. The notion that everyone is beautiful had long seemed as stifling to me as the beauty standards which it purported to unwind. Though essentially the same in meaning, the opposite construction— we’re all ugly—seemed freeing: If everyone was ugly, no one could judge my appearance or my failure to come to terms with it.
We’re all ugly, I think when the thought of being seen is painful. We’re all ugly, I once said to myself in the mirror before a date with someone I feared would find me unattractive. We’re all ugly, I reminded myself on the morning of the conference as I tried to coax my hair into an acceptable shape.
I understand after hearing the stories of my fellow attendees that this is not true. We are not all ugly, and to declare otherwise is to erase the pain of those who are perceived as such daily—who are bumped into on sidewalks because others literally don’t see them, or else harassed on those sidewalks because their appearances offend others. The condition of being seen may be thorny, but the condition of being unseen, of being monstrified, is razor-sharp, vicious, and excruciating.
Another chant (“Me–” “–ow!” “I am–” “–so damn fine!”) morphs into an announcement of the next activity, a conversation about the direct experience of being regarded as ugly. Those who have not dealt with what Lewis calls “ugliness stigma” are asked to refrain from participating. Instead, we go to the adjacent room and create “ugliness maps,” documents archiving the fluctuations of our beauty privilege over the course of our lives.
As I sit down, crayon in hand, to create my map, it occurs to me that there are no fluctuations to record. Despite my perennial sense of ugliness, I have never been perceived as ugly, and, moreover, that this matters. Ugliness is not an instrument for liberation, and particularly not for the liberation of those whose appearances allow them to move through the world with relative ease.
“Ugliness,” Lewis says, “is a thing that’s done to people. It’s an action, a behavior—not an adjective.”
“I do not identify as an ugly person,” she tells me. “I do identify as a person who has features that the world perceives as ugly. I grew up with everybody telling me that I was ugly, and that was used to validate violence against me. But I am not ugly. This is a name that was placed on me, and I don’t want to embrace this term that was used to hurt me.”
We write messages to those who have hurt us on thick pieces of oak tag and place them inside shallow bowls of warm water as a symbol of letting go of the past. Mixing the bowl’s contents with a wooden spoon, I watch as bits of paper dissolve and turn the water cloudy.
Dissolution is big at The Ugly Conference. Many of the activities veer from the planned course of action (a discussion of “Desirability Politix & Healing,” for example) and become an opportunity for attendees to speak into the microphone about their experiences with appearance-based maltreatment. Not infrequently, a participant will apologize for talking for too long, and the audience, along with Lewis, encourages them to continue by chanting, “Take up space! Take up space!”
Having majored in gender studies at a progressive liberal arts school, travelling in the sort of circles that quoted the SCUM Manifesto as though it were Friends, I have often been prompted to “take up space,” and the expression’s meaninglessness has always irked me. Here, among people who have spent lifetimes being told that their bodies were too unsightly to grant them basic respect, the phrase does not ring as hollow.
The refrain is repeated throughout the “Healers, Elders, and Fighters” panel, in which activists discuss their work around looksism and its intersections with homophobia, fatphobia, and transphobia. One major theme is appearance-based discrimination against people whose appearances are additionally marginalized, which the panelists reference in relation to their experiences: Within the fat-positive community, hourglass figures that come closer to recalling femme beauty standards receive more attention than those that do not; in butch circles, femmes tend to pursue the same few coventionally handsome butches.
The group sits before a whiteboard scrawled with the question “What is looksism?” and try to identify an answer. The belief in self-love as panacea comes up: Many attendees have been told that their lives will improve if only they’d boost their morale.
“There’s no amount of fucking self-esteem that can erase the world thinking you’re ugly,” one participant says.
Part of Lewis’s practice is to help people socially and romantically connect with one another to combat the fraught politics of desirability. Throughout the day, attendees get to know one another via a game of Ugliness Bingo, which includes prompts like, “Find someone who’s done performance or theatrical art around lookism or beauty privilege,” and, “Find an activist working for the rights of survivors and thank them for their work.” At the end of the conference, the winner of the Bingo game is awarded with a “Fatties Against Fascism” tote bag, an at-home stick-and-poke kit, and a Hitachi vibrator (“Game’s pretty much over,” jokes the winner, an older woman, regarding her relationship to self-pleasure). The audience applauds her.
Finally, Lewis instructs us to approach our “conference crushes”: three people whose ideas and affects moved us. Hugs abound, and words of admiration fill the room.
I have trouble engaging in the exercise, in part because I’m not part of the Oakland-based activism community the conference has attracted, and in part because I’m still thinking about an issue that was raised during the previous discussion on lookism: the deep sense of loneliness it engenders. The group has discussed how the notion that sexual attraction is involuntary allows people to ignore “ugly” bodies in their romantic lives. We considered that this phenomenon is the result of a lifelong conditioning that allows us to regard certain bodies as valid, while ignoring those that aren’t represented in culture as sexually viable.
“Attraction is the last field where discrimination is acceptable,” my partner from the earlier exercise said. It hit a nerve with the group. For the first time in the conference, someone cried.
One woman said that when she goes to a social event, she does so anticipating a sense of isolation and rejection.
“I’ll dance by myself,” she told the group, “but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt that nobody wants to dance with me.”
But Lewis, who speaks often and lovingly of her partner, Eri, in part as a means of showing the conference’s participants that reciprocal love is possible for them, sees dealing with the daily struggle of lookism as a source of connection, too.
During a musical performance by the artist Lafemmebear, I watch as two attendees close their eyes and sway. At one point, they embrace each other, with one attendee’s head resting on the other’s shoulder. They don’t let go when the song ends.
Later, during a snack break, one of the two asks me, “Can I give you hugs?” I’m moved by how they say “hugs” rather than “a hug,” as though even after the conference, when I go back to my own city, they will still be there to hug me in the times when I need to be hugged. And so I say yes to hugs. I’m uncomfortable, aware of the people who might be watching me in embrace with a stranger, and of the awkwardness of my arms; the stiffness of my body. But out of the discomfort arises a strange and deep kind of solace: the sort that might only emerge at a place people at war with their bodies go in pursuit of a sense of peace. And I hug back, tightly.
Still, I leave the conference feeling drained in the way I do after a long day of being seen. On the street outside the conference, a man yells an obscenity at me, and though he is telling me I am attractive, I feel betrayed by my own embodiment and long to disappear. I understand that, in spite of this, there are other ways to deal with the problem of having a body. One is using that feeling, and that body, to connect and identify with others: To follow the instructions Lewis gave us at the conference’s conclusion: “Go be ugly in public with each other.”