TikTok Says “Ugly” Is In — But Who Actually Gets To Be Ugly?

Photographed by Flora Maclean.
If there is one celebrity I am really enjoying at the moment it’s Julia Fox; she’s cracked the code of being a celebrity, playing the role and doing it very well. It is refreshing. So many stars are yet to conquer down to earth quite like Fox, who understands that being relatable is one of the strongest currencies at the moment. The actor and self-proclaimed “muse” takes us back to a nostalgic time when celebrities would give us avant-garde costumes on the red carpets. Think Rose McGowan and the naked dress, Lady Gaga and the meat dress, Björk and her swan dress — you know, when celebrities used to have fun. She feels honest and messy in a post-Kardashian, post-Photoshop, highly curated world. 
Fox has also become an edgy feminist voice on Tiktok, giving Gen Z viewers advice with messy, smudged mascara whilst sitting in a bathtub without her nails done; telling us she dyed her eyebrows yellow as it’s a "man repellent" that will piss off her ex. She takes pride in being undesirable to the male gaze, and, in a recent video, told her 1.4m followers, “just so you guys know, ageing is fully in; like, fully, dirty girl, ugly, not wearing clothes that fit your body type, just fully just wearing anything you want."
Many great points were made but this video left me with a very raised eyebrow. It felt incredibly self-serving and the furthest thing from intersectional. It’s a privilege to even say that ‘"ugly is in’’.

Looking ‘’undesirable’’ for Black women in the way Julia Fox professes comes at a high societal cost with harsher penalties.

I thought about #MeToo founder Tarana Burke who writes in the first pages of her memoir Unbound: My Story of Liberation and the Birth of the Me Too Movement that ugly "is the funny way people interact with those they deem physically unattractive... I know this because I’m ugly. At least that's what the world finds ways to tell me every day.’’ Burke goes on to describe how being an “ugly” Black woman meant she felt chosen to be at the hands of sexual assault and harassment because she was made to feel less attractive.
So, the real question is who gets to be ugly? Because as a Black woman, there has been plenty of messaging in my lifetime that has told me I am already ugly, and sure, I can define and reclaim ugly for myself but not in the same way Julia Fox can. Looking "undesirable’’ for Black women in the way Fox professes comes at a high societal cost with harsher penalties.
Fox’s comments on ‘’ugly’’ are ingrained in privilege because beauty is rooted in white femininity. Even approaching her feminism in a nihilistic way, with smudged mascara and unbrushed hair, is privileged beyond belief.  She has been able to experience beauty on a mainstream societal level because she is thin, white, does not have a disability and is famous. These physical privileges mean she can exist at both ends of the spectrum and still be successful and have a viral voice. She gets to be “ugly’’ in an artistic manner because she is still "hot’’ in the eyes of the male gaze even if she doesn’t feel ‘’hot’’. The key point here is choice. She can choose to be ugly. 

Lolll just found this in my drafts omg

♬ original sound - Julia fox
For many Black, brown, fat and disabled people there is no choice. We are perceived as "ugly’’ in the eyes of the mainstream gaze or simply not even looked at in the same way because we are furthest away from white beauty ideals. As a Black woman, there is much consciousness around undesirability and how that intersects into Black womanhood, mainly because femininity is so deeply entrenched in white womanhood it became a marker of beauty. And so, being Black, or close to the spectrum of Blackness, banishes us outside the mainstream definition of beauty. 
Black people historically were associated with being unclean, lazy and childlike, which is why there has also been a backlash against the 'clean girl' aesthetic due to the use of the word “clean”.  A Twitter user mentioned that anyone outside of this trend who was Black was made to feel "dirty’’— in a very different way to the ‘"dirty girl’’ Fox talks about.  
Many Black women online feel far removed from Fox’s TikTok trend because they are pressured to conform to a higher beauty standard. There was a TikTok video that went viral a few weeks ago about the standardised Black girl look in the UK, where Black women were talking about how they don’t want to have to feel like they should look polished all the time (with wigs laid perfectly, or have their nails done) to look "perfect’’ to the outside world. 

Black women like me are not seen through the same ‘’male gaze’’ Julia Fox speaks of... as we are not only responding to the gaze of gender but also of race.

We have all somewhat enrolled into the school of celebrity feminism, where we see celebrities like Emily Ratajkowski use their platforms to encourage young women to be in their ‘’bitch era’’  and be less concerned with how they’re perceived and using female rage to disrupt the status quo.
Emmeline Clein, in 2019, coined the phrase 'Dissociative Feminism'  to describe a subset of feminism characterised by jadedness and “interiorising our existential aches and angst, smirking knowingly at them.” Similarly to Fox, this kind of feminism and fight against the male gaze is very much centred on their own personal choices and wellbeing, and not on collective liberation for all women of all races —  and Black women are not even in the group chat. 
In a 2019 essay, Rebecca Liu pointed out a similar trend in TV with the "archetypal young millennial woman". Referencing US comedy-drama Girls, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, and Sally Rooney novels, she writes that this woman is “pretty, white, cisgender, and tortured enough to be interesting but not enough to be repulsive”. Liu adds: “Often described as relatable, she is, in actuality, not.”
In 1992, bell hooks published an essay called "The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators" and discussed in detail how Black women have “our own reality, our own history, our own gaze — one which sees the world differently from ‘anyone else’”.  Where Black films have allowed Black men to look at white women without punishment in cinema through film, white women were also able to see themselves by being the protagonist in mainstream cinema. Meanwhile, Black female spectators couldn’t identify with a white woman objectified by the “male gaze” or identify with a Black male perpetrator of the “male gaze”. This gave Black women a unique gaze. This means that Black women like me are not seen through the same "male gaze’’ Julia speaks of, and ugliness doesn’t exist in the same way, as we are not only responding to the gaze of gender but also of race.
I can’t look to Julia Fox to define what ugly is, so I have to ask myself: what does ugly mean to me? To me ugly is feeling like I can be unique in any way I choose to be; whether that is hair, style, fashion, outside of my skin colour or feeling like I have to dress or look a certain way to feel accepted within and outside of my community. The feeling of not having to be in a box.
Unlike beauty, being ugly is not something to be censored or policed, it means to be free to express yourself however you like, and guess what? You get to choose. As Toni Morrison said in the novel The Bluest Eye, “they took the ugliness in their hands, threw it as a mantle over them, and went about the world with it.” And that’s exactly what I am going to continue to do.
This article was originally published to Unbothered UK
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