Episode 1: Reclaiming UGLY as an Act of Queer Pleasure with Vanessa Rochelle Lewis
Written by Lilac Vylette Maldonado, edited by Amira Aro
Podcasting, like other modern forms of storytelling, have marvelously allowed our generation the capacity to share our wisdom with the masses; to generously share our insights with each other, bound only by the limits of technology, and our own imagination. Recently, Reclaim UGLY’s founding director, Vanessa Rochelle Lewis, was invited to speak on the topic of reclaiming ugly as an act of queer pleasure by the podcaster, healer, and coach, Nick Venegoni MA & CHT on his podcast The Queer Spirit. Throughout this enlightening interview, Vanessa touched on an array of subjects, such as the white supremacist roots behind US history that began their stranglehold over this land with the uglification of indigenous peoples which they used to justify atrocities like genocide and land theft, and have recently born bitter fruit in the form unwarranted self-uglification and self-victimization which uprising insurgents used to justify their fascist attacks on the US Capitol on January 6 of this year. She challenges our desire to perpetuate the harm uglification has done to us by inviting us to consider the futility behind employing similar uglifying tactics to exact revenge upon our oppressors, and asks us to reclaim both our capacity for empathy and our ability to imagine a better world for everyone. She also explores how we can dismantle uglification in our own lives and by interrogating our personal biases that form our inclinations to uglify not only each other, but first ourselves, to live richer and fuller lives.
Vanessa informs us that “uglification is what happens when we choose to perceive or portray other people as ugly for a purpose.” She elucidates this concept further by exploring how uglification has been used for the purpose of nation building here in the US. Vanessa reminds us that from this country’s inception, “in order for the pilgrims and the colonizers to come and create the USA, they had to uglify the indigenous people that were here. They convinced themselves that the indigenous that were here were monstrous, or less than human, or ‘savage;’ and used that idea to justify murder, to justify war, and to justify the stealing of land and the stealing of children.” As we know, nation building was also carried out on the backs of the enslaved, who even erected the internationally famous white pillars that stand on Pennsylvania Avenue. The enslaved were also subject to uglification: it is through the lens of uglification that white settlers were able to dehumanize the Africans they ensnared, and shipped to stolen lands in order to construct the very infrastructure that built and sustained this nation. Vanessa, again, reminds us that this country’s sordid legacy of slavery lives on through epigenetic trauma, and systemic racism that Black Americans face today, the results of centuries old uglification. “Right now, there is this statistic going around, this study that shows that black women especially around 55 to 70…, their organs are seven years older than white women of the same age. It is a direct result of stress, a direct result of how we are somatically engaging with the harm and the violence that we experience.” There is an undeniable correlation between the historic oppression justified by uglification and the systemic barriers to wellness and social equity that Black and indigenous folks face today. That is because no earnest attempts have been made to redress the atrocities committed in the past, or to redirect the course of the future.
When the entitled heirs of this nation’s architects besieged the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. on January 6, they did so by claiming unwarranted victimhood. They employed uglification to self-flagellate themselves into the frenzy necessary to break in to the very halls they claimed to be sacred, and attack and kill the very ‘blue lives’ that they swore mattered months ago when outraged Black Americans took to the streets protesting George Floyd’s brutal killing at the hands of racist police. Vanessa emphasizes that “our country exists because of uglification, and it thrives within it.” Together, Vanessa and Nick delve deeper into the ways that these insurgents and millions like them nationwide that subscribe to white supremacy choose to engage in a cognitive dissonance in order to disconnect from their own humanity, and enact modern day atrocities, like what we saw at the nation’s Capital earlier this year. Our podcast’s host further reflects on what he has gleaned from Vanessa and Reclaim UGLY. “In order to disconnect we need to dehumanize, and the easiest way to dehumanize is just to say ‘oh that ugly’, ‘that’s disgusting,’ ‘that’s wrong, ‘it’s sinful’, ‘it’s against the law’, ‘that’s not God’s plan’.” Uglification is what separates us from our own humanity enough to dehumanize others.
As historically marginalized people, the impulse to retaliate against our oppressors is palpable within our communities. It goes back to the old adage, hurt people hurt people, meaning that our initial reaction to receiving harm may be to lash out at those who have perpetuated harm toward us. Vanessa ponders whether uglifying our oppressors, a form of instant gratification, is actually proliferating the very standards that will continue this cycle of violence. “Maybe we’re uglifying other people to make ourselves feel better. Maybe we are uglifying other people because we’ve been taught these certain standards or ways that their bodies are configured, or the ways that they have desires or exist in the world is wrong.” Perhaps it is a primordial instinct to uglify those who have uglified us, however Vanessa invokes the words of the Black feminist scholar, Audre Lorde, to inspire us to lay down the very weapons that harmed us, because instruments of destruction can only serve to further maim us. “I think it goes back to the master’s tools. Replicating violence that was done to us is not going to stop that violence, it’s not going to heal things.” The only suitable salve for the wounds uglification has incurred against both us and our oppressors is to reclaim our capacity for empathy, and our ability to imagine a better way of existing in harmony. “Reclaiming our ability to empathize with other humans. To see other humans as tender delicate people were worthy of living and safety…Reclaiming our imagination from this standard, this idea of what is right and what is wrong, what is beautiful and what is ugly.” It is simply about opening our minds to new ways of thinking that can catalyze healing for us all.
Luckily for us, Vanessa and Reclaim UGLY have a roadmap for the healing journey necessary to recover from the harm uglification has caused us. The first step is to create safe spaces, or environments that foster a culture of nurturance and growth. “To create a more liberated society we need spaces that nurture each other. We need safe spaces that are going to energize us and ground us in our values. Within these spaces we need to use our radical imaginations to think about how we take care of ourselves without perpetuating or succumbing to the harm.” Vanessa reminds us that “we are smarter than the white supremacy, let’s act like it!” The next step is to find a suitable replacement for that instinct to reenact harm, and the natural candidate is the polar opposite of pain, pleasure. “Center your pleasure; the more you center your pleasure the more you’re going to be invested in the peace and the pleasure of the people around you. You’re going to be less inclined to uglify other folks, less inclined to uglify yourself.” Pleasure is a guiding principle at Reclaim UGLY, and a vital tool for uplifting, glorifying, and loving yourself, and creating a world where others can to. Look for more juicy conversation between Vanessa Rochelle Lewis and Nick Venegoni on the newest episode of The Queer Spirit podcast wherever you find your podcasts today!
Highlights from the episode:
“The very creation of this country: in order for the pilgrims and the colonizers to come and create the United States of America, they had to uglify the indigenous people that were here. They convinced themselves that the indigenous that were here were monstrous, or less than human, or ‘savage;’ and used that idea to justify murder, to justify war, and to justify the stealing of land and the stealing of children.” -VRL
“We see uglification in the ways that we look at ourselves. When we think, ‘Oh no, somethings wrong with my body, I need to work out so that I can look good when i go to the beach’ that’s uglifying your fat or when you think “Oh no, I’m aging my face doesn’t look good” you know? That’s uglifying the fact you’re alive, that you have a human body that’s living” -VRL
“We even uglify each other in activist community when we say that someone is not woke enough, someone is not using the right language, when we try to push people out because of conflicts instead of trying to work through them.”-VRL
“In order to disconnect we need to dehumanize, and the easiest way to dehumanize is just to say ‘oh that ugly’, ‘that’s disgusting,’ ‘that’s wrong, ‘it’s sinful’, ‘it’s against the law’, ‘that’s not God’s plan’.” – Nick Venegoni
“A lot of us are terrified of being perceived as ugly, as unattractive, because of the ways that we treat people who we perceive as attractive, and the opportunities that we extend to people that we perceive to be beautiful.” -VRL
“We create hierarchies based on looks, and a lot of us are aspiring to be at the top of that hierarchy for safety, for access, for love, but we’ve convinced ourselves that it’s moral, that it’s natural to want to be beautiful and whatever standard you perceive you need to be.” -VRL
“Reclaiming our imagination from this standard, this idea of what is right and what is wrong, what is beautiful and what is ugly. Reclaiming our ability to empathize with other humans. To see other humans as tender delicate people were worthy of living and safety.” -VRL
“I think it goes back to the master’s tools. Replicating violence that was done to us is not going to stop that violence, it’s not going to heal things.” -VRL
“There are 2 things that need to happen. One is those of us who are doing the work to fight uglification to create a more liberated society, we need to create spaces to nurture each other, to protect each other, to take care of each other, to remind each other how precious and beautiful we are. We need those safe spaces that are going to energize and ground us in our values. The second thing is, in these spaces I want us to recognize how brilliant we are; we are brilliant, we are creative, we are aware, we have studied oppression, we have studied history. We know how oppression works. so now it’s time for us to use our imagination our radical queer imaginations our radical black imaginations, to think about how do we take care of ourselves without perpetuating the harm, not only without perpetuating the harm but without succumbing to the harm.” -VRL
“When humans first started contemplating who was ugly and who wasn’t ugly the first place they went to where elders and disabled people, and it was all about these rituals, like we have old people and have disabled people, the gods don’t like them we need to remove them.” -VRL
“I do think it’s in oppression, I also think uglification is what seeds our inclination to oppress others. It’s that fertile bed that grows oppression flowers.” – VRL
“Our country exists because of uglification, and it thrives within it.” -VRL
“It is taking the time to be with yourself, to explore compassion with yourself, to get to know yourself, to get to know yourself without judging yourself.” -VRL
“Center your pleasure. The more you center your pleasure the more you’re going to be invested in the peace and the pleasure of the people around you. You’re going to be less inclined to uglify other folks, less inclined to uglify yourself.” -VRL
“Confront what your biases are, confront what your values are around beauty, around worth, around professionalism as we are talking about, and then start to heal it.” -VRL
“I don’t need to be at war with people who are perpetuating uglification. Instead, I am choosing to find people who are in alignment with me and that’s who I interact with.” -VRL
“Right now, there is this statistic going around, this study that shows that black women especially around 55 to 70, somewhere around those numbers, their organs are seven years older than white women of the same age. It is a direct result of stress, a direct result of how we are somatically engaging with the harm and the violence that we experience. So that is why I am deeply invested in a revolution without bodies laying in the streets.”- VRL