Ugly as Sin: Beauty, Morality, and the Politics of Prettiness

Steph Kretowicz Arvida Byström Alex Quicho Monilola Olayemi Ilupeju

HAU Hebbel am Ufer
Oct 29

Replacing the 18th-century idiom of “ugly as the devil” and commonly used to describe something as physically or spiritually hideous, the simile of “ugly as sin” was first recorded in 1801, but its associations have existed for far longer than the turn of the 19th century. The equivalence of wickedness with monstrosity, goodness with attractiveness can at least be traced back to early Christian characterizations of pagan gods as frightful and illegitimate, medieval depictions of corrupting female lust carved into churches as architectural grotesques, and Protestant praise for “the beauty of holiness.” 

So deeply rooted are the cultural and artistic, historical and political links between beauty and morality in Western society, they’ve not only shaped our understanding of taste and aesthetics but they reveal the deeply held prejudices—crossing gender, race, sexuality, ability—that these values support. As French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argues in his infamous Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, the Kantian concept of “aesthetic judgment” serves to reproduce class structure through norms defined, imposed, and endorsed by a dominant group, at the expense of anything else. “Taste is first and foremost distaste, disgust, and visceral intolerance of the taste of others,” he writes, which begs the question, “is the devil ugly, or does the devil wear Prada?”