Ugliness: A Cultural History

Henderson_Ugliness_CoverUgliness: A Cultural History (interdisciplinary nonfiction, published by Reaktion Books of London/University of Chicago Press 2015, translated for Turkish, Chinese, Korean, and Spanish editions in 2018)

Ugly as sin, the ugly duckling—or maybe you fell out of the ugly tree? Let’s face it, we’ve all used the word ‘ugly,’ but have we ever considered how slippery the term can be, indicating anything from the slightly unsightly to the downright revolting? What really lurks behind this most favored insult? In this actually beautiful book, Gretchen E. Henderson casts an unfazed gaze at ugliness, tracing its long-standing grasp on our cultural imagination and highlighting all the peculiar ways it has attracted us to its repulsion.

Ugliness Turkish EditionHenderson explores the ways we have perceived ugliness throughout history, from ancient Roman feasts to medieval grotesque gargoyles, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to the Nazi Exhibition of Degenerate Art. Covering literature, art, music, and even the cutest possible incarnation of the term—Uglydolls—she reveals how ugliness has long posed a challenge to aesthetics and taste. She moves beyond the traditional philosophic argument that simply places ugliness in opposition to beauty in order to dismantle just what we mean when we say “ugly.” Following ugly things wherever they have trod, she traverses continents and centuries to delineate the changing map of ugliness and the profound effects it has had on the public imagination, littering her path with one fascinating tidbit after another.

Ugliness Chinese.pngLovingly illustrated with the foulest images from art, history, and culture, Ugliness offers an oddly refreshing perspective, going past the surface to ask what “ugly” truly is, even as its meaning continues to shift.

Ugliness is in the eye of the beholder – or is it? Ugliness asks this central question and answers it in an engaging and exciting way. Accessible and amusing, you need to read it to find out whether ugliness is only a cultural or a brain construct!

~ Sander L. Gilman, Distinguished Professor of the Liberal Arts and Sciences and Professor of Psychiatry, Emory University, and author of Illness and Image and Sexuality: An Illustrated History

Ugliness KoreanIs the truth always ugly? If so, Gretchen Henderson has disproven that possibility by writing a beautiful book, not only in content, but, importantly, in style as well. I was completely caught up in her argument from page 1 and happily remained there until the last page. Rich in content, Henderson’s documentation forms a comprehensive library of all we need to know on this important subject. This book is certain to become a classic in its genre and will challenge and change assumed knowledge on a vital topic.

~ Leonard Folgarait, Professor of History of Art, Vanderbilt University, and author of Seeing Mexico Photographed and Mural Painting and Social Revolution in Mexico, 1920–1940

Fealdad.jpgUgliness is not fixed, and is not the opposite of beauty. From Cinderella’s stepsisters to Massys’s Duchess, this is a fascinating meditation on a slippery subject . . . Ugliness is a cultural construct, local and particular, rather than a universal value. Yet it turns out that even such a relatively capacious definition won’t do for Gretchen Henderson, the author of this absorbing ‘cultural history’ of ugliness . . . This is all kinds of clever . . . enjoy Henderson’s wide-ranging field of reference . . . Ugliness in Henderson’s generous handling, becomes a synonym for whatever is shocking, difficult, displeasing in one moment but reveals itself as containing real value and delight in the next. It is the cultural studies equivalent of kissing a frog.

~ Review by Kathryn Hughes in the Guardian

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then so is ugliness. For proof, look no further than the concept’s own history, most recently traced by Gretchen E. Henderson. Although there are some objectively repugnant moments–until the late 20th century, cities including Chicago and Omaha had ‘ugly laws’ that made it illegal for people with disabilities to appear in public–many transgressions that once seemed ugly now look like progress. Among them: the 17th century Chinese painting Ten Thousand Ugly Inkblots, which resembles lauded work from Jackson Pollock, and the music once described as ‘grunts and squeaks,’ also known as jazz. ‘Rather than mere binaries,’ Henderson writes, ‘ugliness and beauty seem to function more like binary stars.’ They orbit and attract each other, and we can admire both.

–Review by Lily Rohman, TIME Magazine

We tend to use the word confidently, as though ugliness has a self-evident and unchanging meaning. In fact, Henderson writes, the ‘shape-shifting’ term has a long, strange, and ‘unruly history.’ Breaking her lively study into sections ––‘ugly ones,’ ‘ugly groups,’ ‘ugly senses’–she touches on an impressive assortment of cultural eras in order to form a rather, well, unbecoming picture of human fears, anxieties and prejudices . . . through this well-illustrated study, she makes a terrific case for how we’ve regulated the borders of acceptability and mistreated whatever crosses the line.

~ Review by Brett Josef Grubisic, Maclean’s Magazine, Canada

In her wide-ranging and frequently illuminating study, “Ugliness: A Cultural History,” published this month, Gretchen Henderson traces the connections—some obvious, but many not at all—between aesthetic norms and cultural anxieties, from antiquity to the present day… Henderson artfully links the Polyphemus myth to the “hierarchy of species” found in Aristotle’s “Generation of Animals.” Aristotle’s “downhill slope” is topped by men, followed by women, then devolves into “hybrid offspring” like satyrs and fauns. This motion, from powerful to exoticized, illustrates the trick—later employed at the height of phrenological and eugenic crazes—of forcing the worth, and, ultimately, the humanity, of certain individuals to correspond with often arbitrary aesthetic categories…In a particularly exciting section of “Ugliness,” on “ugly sound,” Henderson excavates the self-contradictory but undeniable fact that aesthetic advances—discoveries of new species of beauty—have often been spurred on by ugliness…Beauty does more than simply seduce: it masks and perfumes, freezes moral categories in place. Ugliness—with all its seams unconcealed—is sometimes the closest thing to the truth.

~ Review by Vinson Cunningham in The New Yorker

In this wide-ranging survey, Gretchen Henderson looks at the differing perceptions of ugliness. Her exploration ranges from medieval gargoyles to Dr Frankenstein’s monster and from Nazi perceptions of art and jazz to brutalist architecture; it asks whether ugliness is the necessary opposite of beauty and a vital component of diversity, or something more complicated aesthetically and philosophically. In her study, ugliness ebbs and flows and, thought-provokingly, it resists simple definition.

~ Review by the New Statesman

Henderson leaves no sense of the word unexamined as she closely observes various cases of ugliness, wandering through centuries with a keen eye, nose, ear, and mouth…Henderson defends her analysis of ugliness beautifully, using poetic language that reads less like an art history textbook and more like philosophical musings.

~ Review by Zakiya Harris, The Rumpus

Engaging ugliness beyond the realm of art and aesthetics and into the realm of sound, sight, and embodiment, Ugliness: A Cultural History makes a valuable contribution to the contemporary study of ugliness and its myriad functions in Western culture. Henderson traces how ugliness moves ‘beyond “ugly” anomalous individuals and resistant ugly groups to break down borders through “ugly” senses that place all human beings into an equal camp ‘. . . Henderson’s work ultimately demonstrates that ugliness is far more than an aesthetic category. Instead, ugliness operates relationally between people, things, spaces, bodies and modes of being, and that it continually negotiates different meanings and challenges its own stasis. It is ugliness, as much as beauty, that makes us human.

~ Review by Sara Rodriguez, Pop Matters

Reading this book makes us question our own standards for acceptable beauty, and how often our own bias towards other’s look mirrors our own insecurities as how we are perceived. Ugliness: A Cultural History is truly a beauty of a book.

~ Review in Shelf Life

Henderson’s multidisciplinary approach to the topic makes the book a valuable resource for scholars throughout the arts and humanities. This would also be a useful text for freshman seminars because the writing style fosters discussion and critical thinking. Overall, the book is a highly recommended addition to academic and art libraries.

~ Review by Amanda Woodward, the Art Libraries Society of North America

Gretchen E. Henderson approaches her topic through an impressive number of examples, spanning disciplines, mediums, usages, geographies and chronologies and including works of fine and popular art, architecture, mythology, cultural moments, historical facts and human individuals and groups…The focus on the body also means that Henderson includes how ugliness manifests itself in the body of the perceiving subject: in all its senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, touch and the ‘sixth sense’ of the mind and interpretation. As a result the author manages to take the discussion of ugliness into its own territory, beyond a mere opposition to beauty. This book provides an engaging and accessible cultural history that is informative and entices the reader to see things in a different perspective.

~ Review by Catherine Berger, History Today

Ugliness: A Cultural History is a provocative book because, while exploring our relationship to that which we brand as ugly (or beautiful), Gretchen Henderson forces us to reflect on our tastes and fears, our social conventions and our everyday notions of justice. Such a call to attention is always very useful; in our prejudiced age it has become essential.

~ Review by Alberto Manguel for Literary Review

Gretchen Henderson’s cultural history of ugliness skates, at an entertainingly high speed, across large swathes of territory, cultural, historical and biological, always fascinating…[I]t is certainly refreshing to have so many actual examples…[T]he existence and resistance of the ugly is a reminder – urgent and intense and necessary – that the world does not exist for us alone.

~ Review by Ian Ground for Times Literary Supplement (cover story)


Full-blown examination of deformity through history—the medieval gargoyles, monsters, human-animal hybrids in so-called ‘freak shows’ and the like.

~ Sarah Murdoch chooses “Hot summer reads on the good and the bad of ugly (ideas)” for the Toronto Star

Henderson has written a multifarious book about ugliness, exploring the subject in its multiple forms … Engagingly written and copiously illustrated.

~ Review by J. M. Carvalho in Choice.

Gretchen Henderson’s excavation, Ugliness, on the cultural meanings of repulsion joins a number of other great texts on the subject — all variations of the same title — by writers such as the late Umberto Eco and British critic Stephen Bayley. Her treatment, however, spends more time on ugly sounds, and the history she traces is fascinating.

~ Review by Cynocephalus in Tiny Mix Tapes 

Henderson packs an abundance of fascinating case studies and thought-provoking insights into a stimulating conceptual framework, all in the service of her argument about past and contemporary relationships with ugliness…Henderson’s approach is generous and inclusive. She makes good use of data from a variety of disciplines, including anthropology, psychology, neuroscience, gender studies, philosophy, literature, history, and art history. She engages with an impressive range of visual and textual sources, putting her collected case studies in conversation, tracing the processes of their “uglification” in the context of ancient, medieval, premodern, and modern societies from various corners of the world…Ugliness: A Cultural History is a highly readable, erudite, and compelling account that opens up many avenues for further consideration of its topic. 

~ Review by Agata A. Gomółka in


Download the book’s press release here, or find the book online here.

The following clips come from longer interviews on Ugliness: A Cultural History: one at Georgetown University for the Georgetown University Forum and the other at NPR Headquarters in Washington, D.C. for Australian Radio National. Other radio interviews include National Public Radio and Irish National Radio.

At NPR studios:


To read more about Gretchen’s publications, see here. To read about her other books, visit The House Enters the Street, Galerie de Difformité, On Marvellous Things Heard, or Wreckage: By Land & By Sea.

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