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UGLY…

…is still NOT a neutral word. (And that’s ok!)


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“I was super curious about the content, I just didn’t want to buy something called ugly.”


This was, by far, the most common feedback I got about my coaching program Project Ugly.


Jessi Kneeland

I understand why, of course— in a world where appearances matter, and beauty is celebrated and rewarded, the word “ugly” is thought of as a terrible insult, a moral failing, or just a flat-out rude thing to say.


It reminds me of the pushback I always get when I talk about the importance of not complimenting people’s appearance. 


Giving people compliments on how they look is so normalized that we often do it without even thinking (ie: “oh my gosh it’s so good to see you, you look amazing!”), and it can be difficult to understand how saying something so obviously positive like that could cause harm. 


But it does. Comments like that reinforce the idea that a person’s appearance is the most notable and praiseworthy thing about them, which tends to make folks feel more self-conscious, anxious, and preoccupied with their appearance over time. They also tend to inadvertently uphold harmful and oppressive beauty and body ideals. (For example, people who have lost weight due to stress, illness, or an eating disorder often receive well-intentioned compliments on how amazing they look.)


Despite that however, people tend to get upset when I suggest we stop giving these kinds of compliments, and argue that actually these comments aren’t just superficial because they’re actually about the person’s inner beauty. And while this always makes me wonder why we don’t just say what we mean, I do understand where they’re coming from. 


On an intuitive level, I think we all understand that true beauty comes from within, and that anyone who is a good person, with a good personality and good energy, can be beautiful. After all, what we find attractive certainly is informed by how we feel about a person. It’s why so many of us can look back at our exes—who we once found incredibly attractive—and wonder what the hell we were thinking!


So, yes. Beauty is about so much more than a person’s physical qualities. But the kind of beauty being talked about here (inner beauty) is different from the kind of beauty most often celebrated and rewarded by society (based on conforming to specific and oppressive physical ideals). And the reality is that people who don’t conform to those physical ideals are statistically more likely in our society to face discrimination, marginalization, exclusion, and violence– no matter how good their personality and energy are. 


Anyway, one of the reasons I decided to use such a heavily loaded word for the name of my coaching program was as a nod to the way many marginalized communities have reclaimed the very words which were once used against them as insults.


When I was a kid for example, calling someone “queer” was a highly offensive slur, but nowadays the queer community and I use it to describe ourselves! Reclaiming a word this way is very empowering, because it was never the literal meaning of the word that was being used as a weapon, but rather the moral significance attached to it. 


Using a term like this is a way of saying “yes, I’m queer, but I no longer subscribe to the idea that queerness is a bad thing.” 


I’ve seen a similar reclaiming in many sex-positive circles around the word slut– it’s a way of saying “yes I enjoy sex, but I no longer subscribe to the idea that enjoying sex means something bad about me.” 


And a lot of people in bigger bodies have reclaimed the word fat for the same reason. It’s about returning the word to what it always was: an objective and neutral descriptor (if not positive!) “Yes I’m fat… but I no longer subscribe to the idea that fatness is a bad thing.”


As both a writer and a body neutrality coach, I love seeing words stripped of false or undue moral significance. I literally wrote the book on body neutrality after all (hehe), and I define it as the process of stripping our bodies of false (or inflated) moral significance! 


Body Neutral

Neutrality, in all of its forms, is about seeing things for what they really are, and nothing more. 


This is why I find it super interesting that the word “ugly” still has so much meaning, and feels so wrong to people. It still carries a lot of moral significance, whether we’re using it to describe a person who doesn’t conform to conventional beauty ideals, or a person lacking in “inner beauty.” Because we still place a high moral value on beauty (using either definition) the word speaks to a hierarchy, in which “ugliness” is clean at the bottom. 


A person who is “ugly” is still viewed as a moral failure, no matter how you define it. 


If you’re deeply invested in appearances, then an “ugly” person is someone with a lower status, who is less valuable to society, and is less worthy or deserving of the good things in life, like respect, love, inclusion, and happiness. If you’re focused on inner beauty, then ugliness implies a bad personality, a lack of character, or some other innate moral failing. 


Either way, it’s an insult, right? The word “ugly” can’t be a neutral descriptor, because the slippery combination of definitions makes it impossible– it can be used from a place of hatred or bigotry (i.e.: to describe a fat, disabled, gender non-conforming person of color) or it can be used from a place of moral righteousness (i.e.: to describe a supermodel who bullies people). It can be used to belittle, abuse, and dominate, or it can be used to describe people who try to belittle, abuse, and dominate others. 


This makes the word “ugly” a tricky one to talk about, which is exactly why I used it in the name of my coaching program. 


Since the program was all about breaking free from internalized oppression (especially the rules we learned under patriarchy about how women and femmes are “supposed” to look and behave), I wanted us to start thinking and talking about the fact that this word carries such a powerful moral and emotional charge. I wanted us to consider the negative moral significance and interpretations we associate with it, and start stripping them away so we can see things for what they really are. 


That said, having talked to many of my clients and followers about how the title landed, I can see that we’re not there yet. We’re not ready for “ugly neutrality” yet, as it were; not ready to reclaim this word. 


Honestly, I’m ok with that, and I’m happy to admit when I’m wrong. I am, however, curious what you think I should change the name to!  


I’ll be sharing the program’s syllabus content with my Patreon subscribers over the next 8 months, and while the course material itself will stay the same, I want to give it a new name… and I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas!


Feedback with pencil

I’ve thought about straightforward and descriptive titles like:

  • Breaking Free From Patriarchy

  • Resisting Internalized Oppression

  • Unlearning Self-Objectification


But I know those can come off as a bit too cold or harsh, so I’ve also thought about naming it something more positive, like:

  • Project Empowerment

  • Project Liberation

  • The Confidence Project


I wonder, though, if those sound too… fluffy? Maybe something with a little more punch would be better, like:

  • Disrupt the Patriarchy by Stepping Into Your Power

  • You Have More Agency Than You Think

  • Taking Back Your Power and Worth

  • Fuck the Patriarchy


Clearly, naming things is not one of my strengths as an entrepreneur, lol. If left to my own devices (again), I’d probably name it something desperately uncatchy, like “Unlearning Internalized Patriarchy, Resisting Coercive Control, and Breaking Free from Self-Objectification by Tapping Into Your Innate Power, Worth, and Agency.” 


So please, don’t let me mess this up again. I need your help! 


Hit reply and let me know what you think I should name this course material– you can “vote” for your favorite of the above options, make edits or suggestions to them, send in your own unique ideas, or just give me your feedback and thoughts about how different words and titles impact you! 


I’ll swing back and let you know what I decide on, but in the meantime be sure to join my Patreon (at the $25/month level or higher) to get access to the webinars and worksheets, community calls, and other benefits! We start this month, and I cannot wait to share this empowering and transformative material with you… no matter what it’s called. ;-)


Big hug,

Jessi

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