January 9, 2022 • By Peggy Shinner
TWO SIGNS FLANK the corner of Foster and Ashland and tell me that I’m beautiful. They tell you that too. They’re democratic, meant for everyone.
One is on the old Trumbull Elementary marquee, the school closed now, a casualty of the mayor’s 2013 public ed blitzkrieg, and the marquee, once like the town crier, dispensing news and notifying parents of the next local school council meeting, repurposed for fashionable positivism: you are beautiful. Even the typography is democratic, all lower case.
The other, across the street — bigger, the outsize letters affixed to a chain-link fence enclosing the Swedish Museum’s parking lot — is in cahoots.
you are beautiful.
That’s how I feel, stopped at the light, catching sight of first one and then the other. Hemmed in by these converging signs, this suspicious sentiment. Or maybe the suspicion is all mine. What is this public treacle? I balk at being forced to feel good by signs put up by feel-good public artists. It’s coercion with a smile.
When I mentioned the you are beautiful signage to my friend M. — who’d seen it as well, in another part of the city, this time against the backdrop of Lake Michigan — she said it felt like a prayer.
I much prefer this New Yorker cartoon I come across a few days later. It seems like a well-timed act of cultural providence for those who favor the scouring effects of reality to the desperate fakery of well-meaning pablum. The cartoon is set in Times Square. Throngs of tourists — many of whom are taking pictures with their outstretched cell phones or tablets, devices raised in salute to self, kitsch, food, money — are dwarfed by the manic commercialism surrounding them. Everyone is jammed together, seen from the back, assembled like a congregation in worship of the Square, except for one guy turned away from the mainstage and stuffing an oversized sandwich in his mouth. Screens reign; even the empty square of somebody’s backpack looks like a laptop. The signs — all but McDonald’s, whose arches dominate — dispense with the corporate signifiers of the stores and cut right to the chase. You’re too fat/You’re ugly/You’re hungry!/You’re thirsty/Eat now/Eat more/You’re horny/You’re poor/You’re very ugly/Be less ugly/Boobs/Escape/Spend more $/Just Fat/You’re still ugly/You are dumb. A cab’s top light gets in on it too: Eat. The packaging has been ripped off, the messages relentless. Warning, insult, mockery, yearning. An American flag flies overhead. We don’t know what we’re buying but we do.
But how can I prefer this? One of the You’re ugly signs (there are three) has a sketch of a slightly screw-eyed woman underneath. Are we having fun yet?, her goofy expression seems to ask. I welcome the cartoon’s commitment to exposure, to honest crassness, to sidestepping the admen and getting to the ugly core. You’re hungry, the cartoon exclaims front and center, and although, on its surface, that manipulates and intensifies our urges and turns them into dollars (and in case we don’t get it, Spend more), it’s also an acknowledgment that we are all hungry for something, something more.
you are beautiful
Three short words. One beautiful message.
Fifty yab one-and-a-half-inch-by-two-inch stickers, for $10. A yab hoodie for your stickers, $50. A five-pack of postcards for $5. A two-foot cursive arch, free-standing or wall-mounted, $25. A street sign, also called a Beautification Kit, for your hood, with slight surface markings [to give it] a charming rugged look, $25. A rubber stamp kit (You’ll stamp with pride), $24. Metallic tattoos, classic or cursive, for branding your person (This tattoo is temporary. Your beauty is forever.), $5. A hard hat, $35. A holographic pillow, $25. A floor mat (Say something nice in an unexpected way), $10. Smart gloves, $5. A glowing LED mirror, $175.
Add to cart.
Years ago, when I was a student living in Costa Rica on a coffee farm, neighbors called me gordita, little fat one, meant as a term of endearment, an appreciation of the plump, (or a nod to the well-fed, una norteamericana con dólares), perhaps like pleasingly plump, but I wasn’t pleased; I was shaken. Sweetly, it meant chubby, and pejoratively, fatso. When I look up the word now, I see that it can also be a form of address, Darling, as in ¡Venga, gordita! No te pongas triste. / Come on darling! Don’t be sad.
In 2015, Zimbabwe held its fourth annual Mr. Ugly contest. Ugly wannabes strutted down the catwalk of a Harare nightclub and, to a jumble of cheers, lights, sirens, and percussion, showcased their attributes on stage. One, wearing tribal dress, squeezed out a grimace that looked close to tears; another, in torn coveralls, smiled ghoulishly, exposing gums stuck with random teeth; and a third, in red-and-white-striped prison-like garb and chained wrists, rolled out a beefy tongue and raised his eyebrows leeringly. Thirty-six men vied for the title.
Pageant organizer David Machowa began the contest to dismantle, or at least reframe, the stigma of ugliness. And to cash in on the idea of a beauty contest. Beauty contests for women, ugly contests for men. “Looks are God given. We should all be proud of who we are.” The criteria? Judges focused on facial features, confidence, and responses during a Q-and-A session. We’re looking for “natural ugliness,” Machowa said.
The outcome itself was contested. Forty-two-year-old Mison Sere won, with the judges citing his missing teeth and “grotesque facial expressions,” but rivals claimed he was “too handsome” to win and his ugliness was illegitimate. Several accused him of pulling out his teeth deliberately. “Do we have to lose our teeth to win?” a contestant asked. “I’m naturally ugly,” claimed runner-up and former winner William Masvinu. “He is ugly only when he opens his mouth.”
What does it mean to win at being ugly? In Zimbabwe, where the unemployment rate was over 11 percent, the stakes were high: Mr. Ugly earned $500. Sere, unemployed, “hope[d]to get a TV contract” in order to showcase his ugliness to a wider audience. To “perform” it, as he said, suggesting a sense of artifice and the ability to milk it, adjust the dial, another chance to turn it into cash. Masvinu only got $100 for not being ugly enough.
Once I find yab, yab seems to find me. During the 2016 presidential campaign, it showed up on my computer screen. I’d been reading about former Klan leader David Duke, who was urging his followers to support Donald Trump, because it would be “treason to your heritage” not to. “Get off your rear end that’s getting fatter and fatter […] [and] volunteer,” he admonished, his cheap shot to their backsides patently Trumpish.
Then, to the right of the Duke piece, a series of glittering you are beautiful stickers suddenly cascaded down the page like confetti. Their silver free fall disoriented me. Google, proud partner of the National Security Administration, was apparently tracking my internet searches and pitching me an ad. Did I want to buy a pack of stickers? PayPal conveniently popped up too, to make the transaction easy.
In her essay “White Debt,” Eula Biss writes of trying to view a video of a Black man being shot by a campus police officer — she doesn’t want to watch it, but remembering that Emmett Till’s mother asked the American citizenry to give witness to her son’s body, Biss begins to watch — then she’s derailed when an Acura commercial opens on her computer screen. “[T]he possibility that the shooting death of Samuel DuBose in his old Honda was serving as an opportunity to sell Acuras made me close the window.”
For my part, I kept the tab open: Duke, Trump, Google, PayPal, you are beautiful, jarringly cohabiting the same page in 21st-century America.
yab also found me via the US mails. Our carrier misdelivered a you are beautiful postcard to our house that was addressed to a woman one block over. The card was silver gray, shiny, but not garish, the corners rounded as if to take off any edge. The stamp, cancelled by what looked like waves, was a seashell, spotted brown, which, had I found it on a beach, I might have kept as a souvenir. you are beautiful, brand and slogan, advertised itself as a message on the front and back, a hashtag (#yabsticker), and a website (you-are-beautiful.com), ensuring that even if the card wasn’t meant for you, you could easily buy one, or if it was meant for you, you could share the sentiment and buy one for someone else.
The errant card fell through our mail slot the day after Halloween. In angular, fine-point cursive, it read:
You are beautiful
both inside and out.
Never forget that!
I love you so very
I walked the card over to its rightful recipient and slipped it in her mailbox, but not before I read and copied it, because, I told myself, it partially and providentially belonged to me.
Mommy … What the child might have called her and what she now calls herself.
Mommy, thinking of my own … I can’t even remember what I used to call her.
The word ugly is defined, not by what it describes or looks like, but by what it provokes. It derives from the 13th-century Old Norse ugglig-r, meaning to be feared or dreaded. Offensive to the sight, in Samuel Johnson’s 1755 A Dictionary of the English Language. Ugly orients not to itself but to what is outside itself. It seems to require an audience. Ugliness is a provocateur: one sees it and feels horror.
Or one sees a beggar.
The Chicago ugly law, on the books since 1881 and finally repealed by the City Council in 1974, banned anyone who was “diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object,” from being in the “public view.” The law sought to “abolish all street obstructions.” Aimed at the “unsightly beggar,” the offense was threefold: being disabled, being poor, being seen. Violators were fined up to $50.
Unsightly, Middle English, related to the Dutch onzichtelijk, invisible, ugly. How could something be both invisible and ugly? The first is literally driven from sight, unseen, and the second is hyper-seen, or seen to the point of obliteration.
My mother never liked me. Bookish and bullied, I needed her protection, and people who need protection are rarely liked by their protectors. She wanted me to nap with her, to lie down next to her, which I found suffocating in its intimacy; mortifying. I lay there stiffly, counting the shoes in her closet, as if each pair marked off time. (In secret I would try them on. Once I wore a pair on Halloween, when I dressed up as her.) She was hurt. I was weird, prissy, cold. I was smart, which is not a winning trait. She certainly didn’t think I was beautiful, inside or out. She thought I was subject to improvement. Why would you want to be natural? she’d said before my nose job, surgery she’d pushed me to have. She loved me, a mother’s love for a child, formal, obligatory, impersonal, having nothing to do with me. Before she died, she said she wasn’t worried about me, she was worried about my brother, and that felt like a dismissal, because isn’t worry a form of love?
“Injury, I believe, is the most accurate opposite for the word beauty. […] My book might have been faulted for not using the word ugliness; I just don’t use it. I just don’t quite recognize what it is, what the word means. Whereas injury, I very much recognize what it means. Beauty presses us to justice, but the spectacle of injury, which is very close to the word for injustice, can also press us toward justice” (Scarry).
“If a misfortune afflicted a city as a result of divine wrath, whether famine or plague or some other catastrophe, they led out the ugliest person of all for sacrifice [beating and burning the body], to be the expiation and pharmakos of the suffering city” (Tzetzes).
There is a class of words, according to one 19th-century etymological dictionary, where sound and bodily responses correlate, where one imitates and expresses the other. Take pain. “A deep […] seated groan, arising more from mental than bodily suffering, is represented by the Lat. væ, vah, G. wehe, AS. wa, from whence our woe, wail.” Or terror. It checks
the action of the heart and depress[es] the vital powers. The shoulders are shrugged forward, and the arms and closed hands pressed against the chest, while the muscles of the face and jaw are kept rigid. The deep guttural sound uttered in this condition of the bodily frame is imitated in English by the interjection ugh, expressive of […] horror, whence the Scotch and OE. ug, to feel abhorrence at, to nauseate.
This ugh/ug, the dictionary goes on to say, derives from ugly, completing the circle: abhorrent, ugh, ugly.
“I came to see that the work of beauty is really the diminuation (sic) of pain and injury” (Scarry). Beauty as a form of reparation.
“Which is more inexpressible, the beautiful or the terrifying?” (Ruefle)
you are beautiful is the work of artist and designer Matthew Hoffman, who refers to himself as its Custodian (capitalization his), a designation that seems to suggest that he didn’t so much as conceive of and design the project as he was entrusted, by unseen forces, with the job of looking after it, like a caretaker or guardian. His website, with its folksy url heyitsmatthew.com, is modest and grandiose at the same time: yab is a project which betters the world in small ways. It started in 2002, with a hundred stickers. “I could put this little sticker up and not to really say anything to anyone but […] still do something really positive.” Now yab is a colonial export, over five million stickers distributed globally (one of which adorns a stuffed toy penguin set in a field of real penguins in Antarctica, another stuck on the Great Wall of China), translated into a hundred languages, umuhle (Zulu), ti si lijepa (Bosnian), eres hermosa (Spanish), He ataa hua koe i (Maori), kamu candik (Indonesian), ndiwe wokongola (Chichewa), ou bel (Haitian Creole). you are beautiful, you you you and you.
A few summers ago I bought a Barbara Kruger postcard, which was stark with accusation, rage, resignation. I bought it for that reason. Admit nothing/Blame everyone/Be bitter. And sent it across the country to a friend. There was some personal chitchat on the backside, but the red blunt bands with Kruger’s signature Futura Bold font said it all, illuminating our national moment and speaking for something inside me, even though I wasn’t exactly sure what that was. I vaguely wondered if I could be arrested for fomenting ill will through the postal service, even as I recognized this as a silly bit of self-regard. And vaguely hoped that I would, in a cheap and martyr-ish kind of way. It felt good to be cryptically livid across the mails.
Will I be all right? she asked, pacing up and down the hallway, and I said I didn’t know. She was coughing up blood. And although it’s true that I was scared and couldn’t reassure her, it’s also true that out of a parsimoniousness of spirit I refused to reassure her, as if there were a moral high ground to be had in choosing honesty over comfort; something noble about ripping the cover off and flinging it at her. I don’t know. I wanted to be honest but I also wanted to be brutal, as if brutality were more authentic. She stopped in disbelief, and tore into me. What kind of a daughter are you? Her eyes were wild, her face clammy. She was wearing a housedress and faux gold lamé slippers. It was a Friday.
Yesterday, not for the first time, I saw the sign Everything Will Be OK. This time it was a yard sign, stuck in the grass; the first time it was in the window of a neighborhood furniture store that specializes in salvaged items. It made its appearance in the early days of the pandemic, pablum for panic. It read like a slogan pulled out of a hat or a cookie. (Once, though, I did pull a slogan out of a cookie, and then kept it in my wallet for safekeeping until the strip of paper disintegrated: Nature has neither rewards nor punishments. Only consequences.) The message on the sign was borrowed from artist Jason Kofke, who’d paired it with various images: the space shuttle Challenger; debris from Arctic shipwrecks; MLK Drive in Savannah; a Mead composition book, where the phrase was handwritten five thousand times which, in its deadening aggregate, was a prolonged stutter of desperation. Baldwin once said you have to be resistant to the slogan: “It always hides something else.” This slogan was hiding, though not very well, fear, and the obscure hope that the virus would prove to be passing. It was also hiding an aversion to thinking, instead falling back on wishing and hoping (which Dusty Springfield, after giving it a go, cast aside: “You won’t get him / Thinkin’ and a-prayin’, wishin’ and a-hopin’”).
In fact, the sign was provisional. It came down. The store is open for business now. Capitalism is back in the saddle. I am partaking. In the morning I go next door to the furniture store, to my current favorite coffee shop, and buy a cappuccino. Everything Will Be OK. Is the sign gone because the wish was fulfilled, or is the sign gone because the wish cannot be fulfilled and some things go on anyway? Police killings go on, for instance. White supremacy goes on, although signs in my predominantly white neighborhood now decry it. Statues come down, too, with at least 33 Columbuses toppling. The one in St. Paul was yanked down by a rope tied around its neck, about 10 miles from where the life was squeezed out of George Floyd’s neck.
There are so many signs, but what do they all mean?
We put a BLM sign in our front yard, between the periwinkle and the hostas. Is it a lawn ornament, a protest, a declaration, a demand, an outcry, a plea? I didn’t want to be left out of the conversation, left on the sidelines which, as it happens, is not always a neutral zone; consider Colin Kaepernick, who took a knee there and then was denied access to his well-paid but dangerous job. Silence is complicity, but there’s a sign that already says that. (Yet wasn’t I already part of the conversation, the same brutal conversation that Carolyn Bryant, for instance, was part of when her husband and brother-in-law murdered Emmett Till and threw him in the Tallahatchie River?) George Floyd took a knee too, on the neck, on the carotid artery, outside of Cup Foods, and it was after his murder and the storm that followed that our alderman offered his constituents a BLM sign, and we took one. I was part of the conversation, too, marching in two demonstrations — one sign, held by the guy in front of me, read 400 yrs, 8 min, 46 sec — until COVID anxiety took hold and then I watched from the sidelines. What is the conversation? It’s not the talk Black parents have with their kids about the police who may stop, frisk, cuff, and kill them. Am I talking to other white people who walk their dogs and strollers down the street? The two gay guys across the street, whom we’ve never met but waved to on their way back from the corner beer garden, in showy solidarity? The Black FedEx man? He delivered our new stationary bike today, made in China, and on sale for $454, free shipping. He helped Ann push it into the house because it weighs over a hundred pounds.
We haven’t suffered for having a BLM sign but others have. Ours hasn’t been defaced or our windows broken. No one has tagged our yard with racist graffiti. (In Kenosha, white people painted over the BLM murals, preferring LOVE.) We’ve expressed our support scot-free (scot being an archaic term for a tax paid to a sheriff or bailiff). But in rural Wisconsin, a domestic violence shelter put up a BLM sign, followed by a statement in support of BLM principles, and a week later lost $25,000 in funding. “If they’re gonna be blowing the horn for Black Lives Matter,” a country board member said, “we’re not gonna give them the $25,000.”). The county, for its part, blew the horn for law enforcement. “Stay in your lane,” police officials advised shelter staff. Subsequently the Sheriff’s Department severed all ties with the agency.
On Halloween, our next-door neighbors laid out a blanket and had a picnic in their front yard, munching on boozy gummy bears, while we put out a makeshift table with bags of candy, which the squirrels quickly tore into, burying the M&M’s not far from the BLM sign. There’s a Nest sign in our yard as well (Nest is a Google product), signaling to would-be intruders that our house is protected 24/7 against them, because we were robbed three years ago, when we were unprotected. I didn’t and don’t want to be the kind of person who has a security system, but I also didn’t want to be the kind of person who got robbed and had her computer and back-ups stolen. The system cost four dollars, but we got a discount through the son of a friend, who works at Google, and recommended it. (Through my computer, Google surveils me, and through a Google product, I can surveil, i.e., identify, robbers.) The Nest sign is a friendly blue and shaped like a shield. Sometimes we leave the house without turning it on, in casual defiance.
you are beautiful has received nothing but good press. sign sows cheer messages of positivity brighten your day Chambers of Commerce love it. No rocks, shattered glass, insurance claims. No lost business. It’s on the wall of my hair salon, where your hair can be colored, chin waxed, brow threaded, décolleté spray tanned: the happy alliance of art, money, and self-improvement, because even if you’re beautiful, you can never be beautiful enough.
And then there’s love@properties, another yab project. love where you’re @ (echoes of Stephen Stills’s love the one you’re with), pairing lowercase cursive love with residential real estate sales.
I’ll never forget this as long as I live. She said this when she didn’t have long to live. We were stopped at a light, or in front of a chain-link fence, the car running. Memory rearranges things for its own convenience. There was an empty field on the other side of the fence. It was spring. Some weedy wildflowers crowded in. There was nowhere to go except in reverse. We were going shopping; that’s what we did together; tried on clothes at Hit or Miss. In the front seat of the car, we looked ahead, emptying our voices into a vacuum. Forget what? I said. She didn’t answer right away. Forget what? I was desperate for an answer. Finally she said, and with finality, If you don’t know, I can’t tell you.
In their Vanity Fair essay on art and activism, writer Danez Smith suggests you can’t read the signs without the frames. The frame is part of the picture. The summer uprising is spent and Smith is too, and now they’re immersing themselves in the art and the damage, the pain and the rupture. Minneapolis is a boarded-up canvas. George Floyd, BLM, MLK, Fuck 12, Breonna Taylor. Slogans, murals, propaganda, pleas. Kitchen Window is the frame; Apple is the frame; Urban Outfitters is the frame; Sephora is the frame. Money, money everywhere, is the frame. Sephora, Smith notes, is painted in trans flag colors and a black fist with a live red heart inside. Why does Sephora get to be beautiful on behalf of my people?
Our BLM sign stands under the canopy of the linden, which spreads across the front yard, casting its leafy shadow. We bought the tree in Cedar Rapids, where Ann’s parents lived, and wedged it into the hand-me-down VW bug they gave us, 40 or so years ago, our first car, free, no interest. When we planted it, we had no idea it would get so big. We had no idea it would smell so good either, its modest yellow flowers sweetly scented. Or that every few seasons we’d have to hire a professional tree trimmer to keep it in check. We bought the house at around the same time, for $47,000, a bargain even then. Our parents gave us money for the down payment. Now we own it outright. No loans, no liens on the property, just equity.
Before the BLM sign, we had a Hate Has No Home Here sign. The sign appeared in response to the 2017 Muslim Ban, an Executive Order barring foreign nationals from seven countries entry into the United States. Twitter and Facebook lit up with breathless calls to action — LAX Bradley Int’l! — and allies immediately rallied at the designated airport in support of the detainees. Ann and I did that, rushing off to O’Hare with our sign (yet another) and our good intentions. On the train we met the female lead in the Chicago production of Hamilton, who asked if she could take our picture. We were the stars now.
Soon, an ad-hoc community group, based in the city’s most demographically diverse neighborhood, came up with Hate Has No Home Here, translated into five languages — Arabic, Hebrew, Spanish, Korean, and Urdu. We put one in our living room window, but I was always a little uncomfortable with its awkward alliteration and self-claiming righteousness. Hate Has No Home Here, but what could you count on us to do, exactly? A question that became even more pressing last week when a Black man came to our door demanding something, his anger palpable, his request undecipherable, and subsequently ripped the BLM sign out of our yard.
Hannah Arendt, discussing the post–World War I generation in Europe, noted
its curious mixture of despair and joie de vivre, its contempt for conventional codes of behavior, and its penchant for “playing it cool,” which expressed itself […] in Germany in a widespread pretense of wickedness. […] In Berlin, one joked about this fashionable inverted hypocrisy, as one joked about everything: “Er geht böse über den Kurfürstendamm” — meaning, “That is probably all the wickedness he is capable of.” After 1933 […] nobody joked about wickedness anymore.
I read that with a jolt. Nobody joked about wickedness anymore. Can the same be said for the years since 2016? When we’ve been immersed in unrestrained public cruelty, what’s the joke? Is it indefensible now to laud You’re poor You’re very ugly You are dumb? What’s wrong with a few million you are beautiful stickers plastered across the globe?
Looking at the yab website recently, I saw they’d launched a virtual winter art exhibit: 150 artists from around the world had been invited to complete the phrase you are — and the works are up for sale now. Many had already sold, you are loved, you are radiant, you are stardust, you are fire, but one notably had not, you are THE IMPOSTER.
The sign on the window of the C. G. Jung Center in Evanston says Be More Human, suggesting that human is good and more is better. But aren’t we human enough? Isn’t that how we got here, with our surfeit of humanness. “it is hard to remain human on a day / when birds perch weeping / in the trees and the squirrel eyes / do not look away but the dog ones do / in pity” (Clifton). Be more humane, Ann counters when I point out the sign. Be more animal, she adds.
After she died, I dressed her up for the grave. Piser Weinstein gave scant criteria; no valuables, they stressed. I wanted her to be comfortable. If I chose pants, would I have to include the calf-length girdle? What about her breast prosthesis? She would never go out without it, but she suffered the loss it signified. Now the comfort or discomfort was all mine. I wanted her to look good because she’d wanted to look good. I was vain on her behalf. She was a looker, a friend had once said, but this was not how she saw herself. She saw herself as fat. In the picture above my desk, she’s not fat. That’s the picture my friend was looking at when she called my mother a looker. She looks winsome my father’d once said. She looks easily hurt. She’s wearing the brown brocade dress I buried her in. We used to dress up to go downtown. We took the Kimball bus, the L, and the subway and emerged out of the dark tunnel into the basement of Marshall Field’s. Then we went up to the first floor. Gloves, millinery, Frango mints, hosiery, perfume. “Here we go […] on the shipless ocean. Pity us, pity the ocean, here we go” (Carson). It took an hour to get there.
Peggy Shinner is the author of You Feel So Mortal/Essays on the Body (University of Chicago Press). “you are beautiful” is from a book in progress on shame.
Featured image: “You Are Beautiful Urban Street Art Portland” by Tony Webster is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Image has been cropped.
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