Moshtari Hilal is an artist, curator and writer. In her artwork, she has been exploring beauty ideals and notions of ugliness for several years. Now she has published a book on this subject, in which she combines biographical anecdotes with a look at science, history and art, in a style that is both lyrical and narrative. She complements the text with images, self-drawn, selfies with filters, screenshots, movie stills, advertisements, and so on. As readers, we are allowed to accompany the sometimes painful process of coming to terms with what is constructed as ugly, in order to realize that ugliness is actually what is behind this construction.
First, Hilal addresses the nose and so-called rhinoplasty – the surgical alteration of the shape of the nose in accordance with common beauty ideals. And already at this point, right at the beginning of the book, it becomes clear that everything that is considered beautiful or ugly has to do with power. Ideals of beauty have historically been shaped by racism, antisemitism, and ableism. For example, in the early 20th century, many “Jewish-looking noses” were operated on. Seeming Jewish was dangerous in a Germany obsessed with proving the foreignness of Jews. Some scientists and fields of (pseudo) science participated in the quest to prove differences between people, e.g. physiognomy, in which character was inferred from physical appearance. The study of the dimensions of the head, phrenology, in particular claimed to be able to determine the (criminal) “nature” of certain people from their skulls. Another instance is eugenics, which sought to “improve” human genetic material and in this way declared countless people worthless. After the nose, Hilal turns to body hair, the chronic infectious disease leprosy, and finally sick and dead bodies. Ideas of ugliness evoke oppression, hatred and self-hatred.
Ugliness leads to both rejectionist distancing and fascination. Hilal shows how ugliness has always been publicly exhibited as a phenomenon, in so-called freak shows or during visits of actually isolated lepers, which were more reminiscent of trips to the zoo. Where ugliness is cast out, beauty is a powerful status symbol. People also like to flaunt this status. At this point, Hilal refers to Iran, where some people who cannot afford surgical “beautification” of their noses stick the patches on their faces even without surgery. The anecdotes about seeing and being seen are extremely eye-opening.
Even though the focus is on ugliness and hatred, there is a lot of love in the design of this book and much care given in the associative, multi-layered narrative style and the serious examination of these subjects, which are not at all superficial. Hilal makes a plea for critically questioning one’s own search for beauty, for resolving oppositions, and for striving for reconciliation.
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