The New Beautiful is Being Ugly

Scott Westerfeld. Uglies. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.
I don't want to be ugly all my life. I want those perfect eyes and lips, and for everyone to look at me and gasp. And for everyone who sees me to think 'Who's that?' and want to get to know me, and listen to what I say.

Tally Youngblood has lived in the dream of becoming a pretty her entire life. She has diligently counted down the days until her sixteenth birthday when the operation will take place that finally transforms her from an ugly to a pretty. She will finally be a part of the endless parties and the flashing lights of New Pretty Town, while rekindling her strained friendship with Peris.

However in the midst of Tally's daydreaming about life as a pretty, Shay enters her life, a girl who turns Tally's conception of ugly on its head with her belief that although "they may not be gorgeous, at least they're not hyped-up Barbie dolls." A girl who offers Tally two options: remain ugly and free forever or turn pretty and lose the person she used to be. Shay attempts to persuade Tally of a life where outward beauty isn't the only factor that determines your happiness. It is a life where people are valued for what's on the inside, where being ugly means little to nothing. It is a life in The Smoke. Shay's proposal is only the beginning of the difficult choices that Tally will be forced to make between her own desires, societies norms, and the bonds of friendship.

Through Tally's inward battle Westerfeld reveals the deception that comes with living in a world of ideals. On her quest to aid the city in wiping out all traces of individuality by revealing where The Smoke is located, Tally's eyes are opened to the reality of life outside the city's harsh demands and ideals. Surprisingly she doesn't hate what she sees. As she takes in the view above The Smoke she realizes that "she had spent the last four years staring at the skyline of New Pretty Town, thinking it was the most beautiful sight in the world, but she didn't think so anymore." Her eyes are opened to the reality of nature in its purest and truest form, where no outside forces were trying to alter its natural beauty. She begins to see that "nature, at least, didn't need an operation to be beautiful. It just was."

Tally begins to see that the nature around her is not the only thing that has natural beauty. As her relationship with David blossoms, Tally reflects that she was "no longer a spy, and she couldn't call herself a Smokey anymore. Hardly a pretty, but she didn't feel like an ugly, either. She was nothing in particular. But at least she had a purpose." Tally no longer belongs to the cities preordained groups of "ugly" and "pretty" and with this freedom Tally begins to appreciate herself and those around her. Westerfeld uses the character development of Tally to reveal the bigger theme of basing a persons value on the content of their character rather than their physical attributes. The cities ideals to make everyone equal based on physical merit eliminated the need for the individual character to shine through. This paints a beautiful, light-hearted face on the community while an infectious disease is taking hold underneath. The pretties seem to represent pure perfection and beauty on the surface, yet in reality they are a weed killing all unique life forms as they spread, much like the field of dandelions that "were so beautiful, so delicate and unthreatening, but choked everything around them." The question remains of whether or not Tally will let them choke her.

Although Westerfeld succeeds in illustrating the importance of inward beauty and the hazard that societies pressures can become, his character development and depth of symbolism were lacking. It is difficult to paint a clear mental image of Tally or the other characters and therefore it becomes difficult to connect with them. The few physical features that we know about Tally include frizzy hair, a flat nose, and thin lips, leaving very much up to the imagination. This is not always a bad thing but in a plot line where the reader feels pressure to connect with the main character a clear mental image always helps and Westerfeld does little to aid the reader in creating this image. The indifference that is produced as a result creates little motivation to defend the main character or get involved with the plot line. Also, Westerfeld is very straight forward in his symbolism, leaving very little room for questioning in the point that he was trying to get across. On the middle school level this could be helpful but it would not be challenging enough for high schoolers.

Overall, Westerfeld's book The Uglies is an original, dystopian novel that successfully challenges the norms society dictates, but it could have been even more compelling with further character development and depth of insight.

Recommendations for Teachers

Themes that could be used for a Unit: True beauty, cause and effect of choices, friendship, outward appearances.

Discussions of the topics above could be used to initiate a response of feelings from students and to help them better comprehend Uglies. Uglies is full of topics relevant to middle/high school students' lives today. The book would be wonderful to use as an individual reading project, then a collaborative group project using technology to complete it. Students could compile a video of one of the scenes from the book, create a trailer for if the book became a movie, develop a podcast reviewing the book, rewrite a chapter from Shay or David's perspective, etc.

Another suggestion for how teachers could use the book would be to have students compare both worlds in the book, New Pretty Town and the Smokies, and see if they can find those comparisons similar to what the world faces today with the media's pressures shaping our idea of what true beauty is. For example, the teacher could ask questions such as why was it so important to the Smokies to run away and stay Uglies? Did they consider themselves Uglies? Why did Tally's mind change after she stayed in the Smokies with David and his family? What products of the media can you think of that may compare to Specials? Do you ever feel like Tally did when she was one of the Uglies and looked at herself in the mirror? What/who do you think has influenced this?

One last idea is to have students each create blogs when the class begins to read the book. They may choose from Tally, Shay, David, or Dr. Cable, and they must write ten blog posts over the course of their reading from the viewpoint of the character. The class will peer edit and review each others' blogs. This will allow them to bounce ideas off of one another and to gain a deeper understanding of each character. While peer editing and reviewing, they must look for the elements of dystopia vs. utopia, ugly vs. pretty, true friendship, betrayal, and how wants/desires can have an effect on actions.

About Scott Westerfeld

Scott Westerfeld, a well-established science-fiction author of young adult literature, is responsible for writing works such as Evolutions Darling, The Secret Hour, and series such as Midnighters and Uglies.
Born in Texas on May 5, 1963, Westerfeld’s education includes a BA in Philosophy from Vassar as well as graduate work in Performance Studies at NYU. Currently living in Sydney, Australia as well as New York City, Westerfeld married his wife, fellow author Justine Larbalestier, in 2001. Before becoming an author, Westerfeld held a variety of jobs such as substitute teacher, textbook editor, software designer, and ghost writer.
His books have received many notable awards and recognitions. Evolution’s Darling was a New York Times Notable book, So Yesterday received the Victorian Premier’s Award, his first book in the Midnighters series The Secret Hour won an Aurealis Award. In addition, two of his most notable series- Peeps and Uglies- were both named Best Books for Young Adults in 2006 by the American Library Association.

Multimedia (Video or Audio)

The clip from the episode "Number 12 Looks Just Like You" from the series The Twilight Zone shows some very eerie similarities to the plot of Uglies.

The clip, "The Evolution of Beauty", from Dove's self-esteem campaign begins with what the world would see as an average woman and shows all of the quick makeup and hair touches, as well as the photoshop touches that transform her into our perception of beauty for a billboard. This reminded me of the part in the book where Tally messes with Shay's image for what she might look like as a pretty. The Pretties were why the Uglies were considered Uglies-the world's view of what beauty was had been distorted.

Additional Resources:
  • Westerblog- Scott Westerfeld's personal blog includes entries from Westerfeld, a forum for fans, photos and videos, etc.
  • Teenreads- A well-known site dedicated to providing a place for book discovery and discussion reviews Uglies.
  • Teaching Literature- A comprehensive look at teaching Uglies in comparison to other works of literature.
  • The Uglies Series Facebook Page-Allows fans to "Like" the series, as well as check out extra information extracted from Wikipedia.
  • "The Ugly Truth About Beauty"-An ABC 20/20 article about beauty triggers and how the world perceives beauty.
  • With a Good Book-A book club discussion on The Uglies, which includes questions that could be used in a classroom discussion.
  • A Glossary-The Uglies series glossary for unfamiliar words that Scott Westerfeld has used to create a different world.
  • Scholastic for Teachers-Has ideas for promoting literacy, includes resources, books, lesson plan ideas, etc.
  • Uglies Discussion Kit-A more extensive guide for icebreakers, activities, and discussion questions to use with the Uglies book.
  • Scott Westerfeld Quotes-Quotes from both the Uglies series and Scott Westerfeld's other books
  • Literary Analysis-A brief analysis of the book as a whole including syntax, tone, and diction
  • "Teen Plastic Surgery"-A closer look at the plastic surgery craze on the rise among teenagers in response to low self-esteem
  • Can Plastic Surgery Be Good for Teens?-An article discussing the motives behind teenage plastic surgery
  • BookAngles-A unique angle on The Uglies from a traditional family-values standpoint
  • Novel Links-A detailed overview and analysis of The Uglies including themes, vocabulary, and enrichment resources

Katherine Blumenstein
Steph Hagger
Erin Toth