Definition Essay on Beauty in Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
Many authors have tried their hand in dystopian fiction. Yet with each series phenomenon, with every brooding teenage heroine and her mythical boyfriend- comes critics. Critics who wash the dystopian fiction genre into young adult fluff, romance with added fantasy that serves no true purpose. However within many tropes of this genre exist works that do in fact hold up a mirror to society, including the revolutionary Uglies series by award-winning author Scott Westerfeld. Uglies uses society’s obsession with perfection and ideal beauty standards as a tool for the government to keep society pacified under their corruption. With the use of symbols, character choices, and mimicking parts of real society, Westerfeld’s dystopia is able to reveal the depraved effects that equating ideal physical beauty with acceptance causes in it’s citizens.
The beauty industry is currently worth over 532 billion dollars (according to a 2018 study done by Zion Market Research), and makeup brands, artists and influencers are more popular now than ever. What they sell is an ideal image, what one can be with their help, their products. Their industry peddles the idealistic image of societally acceptable beauty, and what it means to be perfect. Westerfeld takes the image this industry promotes and essentially brings it to another level in his novel, with two simple terms: ugly and pretty. Every citizen of Westerfeld’s dystopia, taking place on earth 300 years after an unnamed apocalypse, begins their lives as a “little” from infancy to age 11. Then, from ages 11-16 they are known as “uglies”, and on their 16th birthday they undergo the “pretty operation.” To put it simply, at 16 each citizen is allowed to build the ideal image of themselves, to fit the societally praised version of beauty to best assimilate into the life of a pretty who live separately from the uglies (Westerfeld,“Part I: Turning Pretty.”) Each citizen undergoes the surgery as a rite of passage to join society, much like a distorted version of a sweet sixteen or other coming of age ritual.
The secrecy in the surgery is not revealed until later in the novel, yet is critical to Westerfeld’s core theme. The surgery yes, turns each citizen into the most beautiful versions of themselves, but also takes something out of their brain- making their thoughts light, silly and altogether senseless, a process at first hidden but subtly hinted at by Westerfeld making observations such as, “of course, everyone was always laughing here. Unlike an ugly party, there’d never be any fights, or even arguments.” (Westerfeld,“Part I: Turning Pretty”, 12.) Just that thought of no conflict existing in the world of the pretties, on the surface seems positive yet truthfully only shows how hollow these celebrations are. The whole population simply living under the guise of utopian joy. The pretties have achieved what is seen as ultimate success and happiness yet have given up their essential free will in order to be beautiful, to be accepted.
One of the symbols that clearly portrays the ingrained societal divide between the uglies and the pretties, much like the laughter or lack thereof in their separate parties- is the difference between their environments. The two living areas aptly named Uglyville and New Pretty Town are separated by a river and both are surrounded by woods. The river both physically and metaphorically represents the barrier between the uglies and pretties further spreading the message that until one can cross the river, they will always be an outsider. And the forest surrounding both areas closes in the population, keeps the societal structure trapped and set in its ways. Reflecting the age-old phrase, “the grass is always greener on the other side,” 15-year old protagonist Tally can see the gleaming gated condominiums of New Pretty Town seemingly taunting her from across the river. After the surgery, it is against the law for the opposites of society to cross the river yet when Tally breaks this law to secretly meet with Peris, her best friend who has undergone the surgery; she first begins to see the signs of change, not just physically, within him (Westerfeld,“Part I: Turning Pretty.”)
Peris blends in with his surroundings seamlessly, beautifully and shining in the night and beams down at Tally in her ugly state like someone pitying a dying animal.When the novel ends and he mourns for Tally’s choice against the pretties, he acts in the same manner as before, repeating himself robotically “you said we’d be pretty together. You said that’d you’d be with me soon.” (Westerfeld,“Part III: Into The Fire”, 122.) Peris’s static character represents the allure of the ‘pretty’ operation, everything Tally could be, what she should be. His unchanging stature in the novel reveals just how the surgery changes the population, how being pretty becomes their entire identity. Without having enough left in the pretties mentally, physically or emotionally- beauty is all they have left. And when one’s physical appearance is all that matters, one becomes shallow, vapid and emotionless in many ways. Though the pretties of Westefeld’s dystopia have their missing concious to blame, what is the excuse for society today? Why is societally praised beauty considered often, the ultimate form of achievement?
Peris’s antithesis exists as Tally’s friend Shay, who is starkly against the pretty operation. She is described as a cynic, bitter amongst other negative descriptors. The world Westerfeld builds is so hell-bent on this operation, this dawning of new life, that Tally is at first baffled by her friend’s disinterest. Shay can see through the veil that their government has put over the eyes of all their citizens, representing all those in society nowadays who try to fight back against unrealistic beauty standards and champion body positivity. Shay’s character existing as the black sheep of the dystopia kickstarts Tally’s journey of self-discovery, to consider the choice to run away just as Shay does and skip the surgery which although unheard of- is still a choice (Westerfeld, “Part II: The Smoke.”) Stuck between Peris and Shay, the light and the dark, the angel and the devil so to speak Tally’s character fluctuates between the lines of right and wrong, across the river or in the woods. With the use of Tally’s friends as symbols of society, her physical world as a symbol, Westerfeld builds up the choice of whether or not to become pretty as an ultimatum, to be accepted or be an outcast for the rest of her life.
Westerfeld takes plenty of inspiration for his dystopia from modern society, including the clear comparisons between New Pretty Town and Hollywood or modern celebrity culture as a whole. Take for example, today’s ‘starving artist’, saving up after audition after audition, to get lip injections, a tummy tuck or a nose job- all in the name of acceptance, seeking entrance to the glittering world of fame. All Westerfeld does is take that common struggle and emphasize the pain, taking it and making it into something that every citizen experiences- making in turn, the escape from the pain, New Pretty Town, utterly alluring.
Joining the pretties or joining celebrity culture erases all flaws, and is considered a path to ultimate happiness. Everything that could be wrong gets forgotten once one achieves acceptance and perfection. To an outsider, either one of Westerfeld’s uglies or to the average person in real life, celebrity and or pretty culture seems just like paradise. A world full of beautiful people praising each other, glamorous galas and all night parties, no consequences whatsoever (Westerfeld, “Part I: Turning Pretty.”) And it is this beautiful image that so sweetly hides everything wrong with each world, fictional or real, the true issues lurking just beneath the surface.
With enough glitz and glamour, anything can be hidden. Scott Westerfeld takes society’s obsession with beauty and meeting the expectation to be perfect and turns it into his dystopia full of uglies and pretties alike. The surgery at 16 represents a new beginning for each citizen, a pathway to join a utopia of others who are all just the same, a world without problems of any kind. His world mimics that of society’s eyes on Hollywood and celebrity culture and makes it into something accessible for all citizens. Through the choices of his characters, an abundance of symbols and making his world shockingly similar to that of society today, it is not hard to follow the destructive effects of equating ideal physical beauty to acceptance causes.