The price of beauty

19 Sep

Uglies, by Scott Westerfield takes place in a post-apocalyptic society where on your sixteenth birthday, you are given an operation to turn you from an ugly into a pretty – crafted to genetic and evolutionary specifications for perfect beauty, so that you can spend the rest of your life having fun. Enter Tally Youngblood, three months away from her sixteenth birthday, and desperate for her transformation. But when she befriends the rebellious Shay, Tally’s understanding of what being pretty really means is shaken forever.

Tally thought that hanging out with Shay – sneaking out after dark, playing pranks on the littles, riding hoverboards – was all just ugly messing around. But then Shay reveals the unthinkable: she doesn’t want to be a pretty. When Shay runs away, Tally learns about a whole new side of her world, and it isn’t pretty. The authorities give her an ultimatum – find Shay and the rebel uglies who have taken her in, or be an ugly forever. But as Tally voyages in the wildernes and tastes the world offered by the ugly rebels, she begins to wonder which side she’s really on.

In Tally, Westerfield gives readers a character who thought she understood the world, but is forced to realize that she didn’t actually know anything. But Tally is more than capable of thinking for herself. While she hides her deception from the rebels for most of the 425 page story, she is quick to see the dark truth of the pretty transformation. It doesn’t hurt that her conclusion is about loving the way you look naturally, and all the things you miss out on if you let yourself subscribe to a superficial view of the world.

The world Westerfield creates in his novel is reminiscent of The Hunger Games. A dominant authority uses propaganda to control the clueless populace, and to create a sharp divide between the haves and the have-nots. But his world isn’t so far-fetched. The rationale between transforming the uglies to pretties is that difference creates adversity, and if everyone looks the same, everyone is equal. But the theory is linked up in actual evolutionary fact – wide eyes ask for protection, full lips and symmetrical, proportional features promise strength and health as a mate. Even now we are subconsciously evaluating appearance based on those characteristics, and Tally’s world has perfected it.

But the pretty authorities do more than that – they have snuck so much ideology into the culture that it crafts the populace into believing that before the surgery, they are ugly – though we would call them normal by our standards. They create games where uglies can play with how they’ll look as pretties, and each ugly is nicknamed after their “worst” trait: Squint, Skinny, Nose, etc. While I like to think our society isn’t quite that bad, there are certain uncomfortable similarities between Tally’s world and ours…

The series continues in three more books: Pretties, Specials, and Extras.

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