We all know the “ugly pretty girl” trope: she’d be so pretty if she just took off those glasses and rags, or just lost some weight, or just put on a little makeup! After her makeover, we see that people treat her better, that her life becomes more fulfilling, and that she comes closer to realizing who she actually is. But this lesson doesn’t exactly hold water in real life, and adds to the already overwhelming societal pressure to look and be a certain way. But the ugly-to-pretty girl story can also teach us about the link between inner and outer beauty, and how confidence in one can lead to confidence in the other. And that transformation doesn’t have to happen from the outside in.
The ugly pretty girl: you’ve seen her story. She’d be so pretty if she just took off those glasses and rags, or just lost some weight, or just put on a little makeup! After her makeover, we see that people treat her better, that her life becomes more fulfilling, and that she comes closer to realizing who she actually is. This trope teaches us that if we go through a makeover –and fit in with predominant standards of beauty and femininity – our life might come together in the same way. But this lesson doesn’t exactly hold water in real life. For instance, the actors behind these characters are often already stereotypically beautiful, so the supposed “drama” of the makeover is fabricated. And obviously the idea that we need a physical makeover in order to be happy is harmful, since it adds to the already overwhelming societal pressure to look and be a certain way.
“Cher, I don’t want to do this anymore. And my buns, they don’t feel nothing like steel.”
But the ugly-to-pretty girl story can also teach us about the link between inner and outer beauty, and how confidence in one can lead to confidence in the other. And that transformation doesn’t have to happen from the outside in; it can also happen from the inside out, or through some combination of the two.
“I don’t understand, I’m supposed to be beautiful.” “But you are beautiful.”
In 2022, ideas of beauty and self-acceptance feel far more fluid than ever. So does the old-school “ugly-pretty girl” story even work in today’s context? Here’s our take on where this trope is headed, and what its stories are saying today about the real difference between ugly and pretty.
CHAPTER ONE: THE POWER OF A MAKEOVER
The ugly pretty girl has often been cast as a kind of diamond in the rough. Like in the ugly duckling fable, she has great potential beauty; it’s just that her beauty is hidden under a bad outfit, unflattering glasses, or a lack of effort. And this holds her back from becoming who she really is, according to others who are often of higher social status. As she apparently “comes into herself” through embodying beauty norms – and following the people who see “potential” in her – she often rises in social stature. In My Fair Lady, this is made explicit, with snobbish. Professor Higgins working on Eliza Doolittle’s etiquette and eloquence — effectively her class status — alongside her appearance. The same is true in The Princess Diaries. Mia doesn’t want anyone to see her but who she truly is, according to her bloodline, is a Princess who’s destined to be widely seen and adored. And if she is to become who she is within this social hierarchy, she has to undergo the ugly-pretty transformation.
“I can teach you to walk, talk, sit, stand, eat, dress, like a Princess.”
- Princess Diaries
In a similar story, She’s All That, the status aspect is key too. This time, however, it’s not about the political but the high school elite. It’s now popular guy Zack’s project to turn the awkward, sullen Laney Boggs into Prom Queen. And again, this is equated with her coming into herself. When we first meet Laney, not only is she swallowed up by unflattering overalls and mismatched clothing; we also get the impression that she’s not connecting to the “real” her, and that this may be to numb the grief over losing her mom. The gradual makeover she undergoes, then, isn’t really about her looks, but about her taking back control of her life, and not allowing this sadness to define her
“Can I have the last dance?” You can have the first.”
- She’s All That
The makeovers these teenage girls undergo allow their inner beauty to come through – and there is some truth to the idea that cultivating conventional beauty and feeling happy about your looks can improve self-confidence. According to a OnePoll survey, about 75% of women surveyed said they felt more empowered when they thought they looked good, and this resulted in more positive interactions with others. Beauty rituals can also be a form of self-care. In Legally Blonde, when Elle inspires her friends at the nail salon to flaunt their attractiveness through her iconic “bend-and-snap” routine, it’s not really about changing how they look –– it’s about helping them feel more confident, valuable, and owning what they’ve already got.
“Trust me Paulette, you have all the equipment. You just have to read the manual.”
- Legally Blonde
But why does this ugly-duckling transformation onscreen have to happen in this direction – from outer to inner? It’s both discouraging and misleading to see so many stories present physical beauty as a prerequisite for feeling happy, supported, or becoming who we really are. In Miss Congeniality, Gracie is not seen as traditionally feminine or beautiful, and because of this is completely degendered, desexualized, and made fun of. Yet despite this negative feedback from her peers, she gets a sense of self-assuredness and confidence through her work, and in fact only undergoes a makeover for her job. After, she’s stunned by how her new outer beauty leads people to notice her more in general. These older ugly-pretty stories then send the message that – even if you do pretty much know and like who you are – complying with beauty standards is the only way to completely self-actualize and make others see you for you.
“This experience has been one of the most rewarding and liberating experiences of my life.”
- Miss Congeniality
CHAPTER TWO: THE SEXUALISATION OF PRETTY
In many of these transformations, the girl is never not conventionally pretty in the first place. So what we’re really seeing is a coming-of-age story about a girl going from sexless to sexy through changing her look and/or attitude. In Grease, Sandy is pretty enough for Danny’s summer fling, but she’s not accepted by the popular group because she largely refuses to sexualize herself until the film’s final scene – when (in her new, tight clothing) she’s at last welcomed into the Pink Ladies and can openly date Danny. Similarly in Dirty Dancing, Frances is already pretty at the start, but she seems young, boyish, and de-sexualized. The fact that she’s called Baby, and is so close with her father, infantilizes her. Through emancipating herself from that father/daughter relationship and developing an adult romance with her hot dance instructor, she undergoes something similar to the ugly-pretty transformation; she becomes sexualized through her dancing, which manifests in her appearance. By the film’s end, she’s in a low-cut backless dress and high heels, and highly sensuous and in control of her body movements So here, more overt sexuality is presumed to come along with maturity.
“You wanted me to change the world and make it better. But you meant by becoming a lawyer or an economist…and I’m proud of myself”
- Dirty Dancing
On the flip side, Baby’s transition is also about opening her snobby upper-middle-class family’s minds to the value of the working-class characters’ sensual dancing. And in some stories, characters’ sexualities need to be toned down in order to fit beauty and femininity standards, especially of a certain class. In Pretty Woman, Vivian has to desexualize herself to embody elite beauty and social norms. As she transforms into the kind of tastefully dressed who fits in at the Beverly Wilshire hotel – a far cry from how she was styled the first night there when she caused a stir – it’s less about changing how she actually looks, and more about adopting the signifiers of having money. In a spiritual update to My Fair Lady, Edward guides Vivian through this class transformation, which involves not just dressing Vivian the right way, but also exposing her to high culture and instructing her in proper behavior. But again, this lower-to-upper-class transformation is presented as a proxy for becoming the “real” her. In her life as a sex worker, Vivian is framed as being disassociated from who she actually is. When new potential client Edward asks her name, she offers to be whatever he wants, and seems almost in disguise when she’s working on the street. As she blossoms into the more upper-class Vivian, she both seems more comfortable being herself and more empowered to assert her own boundaries and value. Still, the film’s fairy-tale happy ending is that, in her new form, Vivian gets the happy-ever-after romance with rich Edward. So it ends up perpetuating the message that molding your expression of beauty and sexuality to fit socially prescribed external ideals will attract the ideal partner, which will lead to ultimate happiness.
CHAPTER THREE: FINDING INNER STRENGTH
As the saying goes: beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It’s not an objective standard. And attraction? That’s even more subjective and interactive. Wendy Parris writes in Psychology Today, “Our movements and gestures, our emotional expressiveness, how much we light up when speaking to someone we just met…all are components of dynamic attraction.”
We see this with Shrek’s Princess Fiona. She may be more stereotypically beautiful in her human form, but as an ogre, she feels attractive to her love, Shrek, and (in the sequels) authentic and uninhibited to herself.
In recent years, we’re seeing more examples of characters who reflect that ugly-pretty transformations can happen not only through following beauty ideals, but through building self-confidence, which will ultimately have an effect on how you present yourself to the world (in other words, from the inner to the outer). In Shrill, Annie’s external world frequently sends her the message that she should feel ashamed and insecure about how she looks, and initially Annie accepts that she should apologize for her body, politely receive strangers’ advice about how to change it, and settle for less in her personal and professional lives.
But what makes her start to feel better is not an upheaval to her diet or exercise routine; it’s ceasing to acquiesce to these wider assumptions about her. She blossoms through finding a community, which helps her live with less shame and feel beautiful. She does change how she looks, but the change comes from affirming who she already is – choosing clothes not to hide herself, but instead to show off her body. Annie’s journey is similar to that of Will in Dumplin’. Throughout, Will’s weight clashes with her Mom’s ideals, as well as her interest in beauty pageants. But instead of changing who she is to fit into the pageant world, Will’s able to convince her Mom that she belongs there without changing. Her ugly-pretty transformation, then, is centered around finding support for who she already is.
“I am Dumplin’. I am Will. I am Willowdean. I’m a beauty queen.”
In I Feel Pretty, after Renee has a fall, she suddenly wakes up with a newfound confidence in her looks that transforms her whole life – making her ultimately realize that the key to feeling empowered isn’t altering her appearance, but altering how she thinks about it. Senior Year has a similar premise – when a pretty, popular high-school senior wakes up from a 20-year coma, she has to undergo an inner-beauty transformation – realizing that valuing true friends over popularity is what makes you a happy (and good) person inside. This simple yet profound idea that focusing on what’s inside is the key to getting our lives on track is the core of plenty of classic stories going back centuries. In the 1897 play Cyrano De Bergerac, a nobleman who’s insecure about his big nose uses a more handsome proxy to deliver his love letters to the woman he loves, Roxanne – and this story has been retold countless times in adaptations like Roxane, The Truth About Cats and Dogs, The Half of It and Sierra Burgess Is A Loser. In all of these stories, the character woos their love behind the disguise of a more conventionally attractive person, but eventually – when the love object finds out the truth – it’s the writer they really care about, because love is truly about connection with a person’s deepest nature, and not just a pretty face.
“You are exactly my type. You’re smart, and funny, and beautiful and talented.”
- Sierra Burgess
In recent years, we’re seeing the rise of an “ugly-pretty” fashion sense that doesn’t seek to erase the so-called ugly part – but actively embraces what it adds to the picture. Once upon a time, crocs shoes, bucket hats and sweater vests were all firmly in the ugly bracket, but now they — and other once “ugly” items — are desirable specifically because they’re different from the “pretty” norm. The shifting cycles of trends means that what was previously out is eventually likely to come in. Amanda Brohman writes in CR Fashion Book that the new “ugly fashion” trend could be a continuation of normcore, prioritizing unpretentious clothing in reaction to earlier hipster and alternative movements that were hyper-focused on distinguishing the self from the mainstream. But Brohman adds that the “ugly” trend may also be connected to the #MeToo movement, and the idea that women aren’t just beauty or sexual objects, but complex human beings who deserve to be respected for whatever their unique mixtures of inner and outer beauty may be.
So in this context, the updated ugly pretty girl story teaches us that it’s not really about how we look, but about how we feel. For a “makeover” of any form to be successful, it has to bring us closer to who we really are, and who we want to share ourselves with That can be done through a flattering outfit or full face of makeup, yes, but also through enjoying our hobbies, supporting our communities, living by our values, or donning a pair of crocs.
“Find out who you are, and try not to be afraid of it.”
- Never Been Kissed