Reading About Beauty

Tressie McMillan Cottom
3 min readDec 21, 2020

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3 sketches of models wearing cocktail dresses.

I wrote a short piece about Lizzo for Harper’s Bazaar this week. I have said it before and it remains true that nothing riles up readers more than beauty. I’m still getting letters from a nearly decade old Miley Cyrus essay and then new letters about “In the Name of Beauty” in my book THICK and then all the angry messages about my thoughts on AOC.

It is interesting how deeply we hold that beauty is natural and our desires are immune to capitalism and racism and colonialism and sexism and ableism and politics and, well, social construction.

I have a lot of thoughts about why even the most radical among us become Archie Bunker when we talk about beauty. Some of those thoughts are in my latest essay on Lizzo in Harper’s Bazaar:

From health care to celebrity, our culture’s ideas about what constitutes a body worthy of being in public has one imperative: Protect the idea of white bodies at all costs.

I have written before about what we mean when we label some bodies “ugly”. That is one way to surface the boundaries of what we consider “beautiful”. Another way to surface those boundaries is to read. That is what I invite you to do. Here are three books I recommend to explore the nuanced, hidden, intricate power relations of beauty in our everyday life.

  1. Gender Trouble by Judith Butler

There is no way around it and you shouldn’t look for one. Just read the grandparent of modern gender theory. Everyone who tells you that the language is obtuse hates puppies. Ignore them.

2. Being Ugly: Southern Women Writers and Social Rebellion by Monica Carol Miller

This is hands-down the best read on beauty and ugliness that I have read in quite some time. That it theorizes from Southern literature is a huge bonus. That is also its strength. Where but the South are you going to be forced to reckon with the fundamental racial capitalism of beauty? This is where it was created to justify global disposession.

3. Ugliness: A cultural history by Gretchen Henderson

Henderson gets right at the heart of what we are doing when we ascribe power to aesthetics. This book brings high-minded concepts like justice and beauty and tastes down to the gritty everyday politics of how we actually make those things.



Tressie McMillan Cottom

Sociologist. Writer. Professor. MacArthur Fellow. Books, speaking, podcast: