Beauty has never meant much to me. It’s a shameful thing to say, but it is true. My family loves hiking, loves towering trees and crisp air and glistening streams, and while I have no qualms about jungles or mountains or oceans, I have no special fondness for them either.

“What’s the point of going to a forest in person,” I’d always ask as a kid, “when I could just see a picture of one online or in a book?” It might’ve sounded dismissive or rude, but it wasn’t a rhetorical question at all—I genuinely wanted to know because whatever feeling that rose in my mom’s chest when she saw a street topped by a leafy canopy of live oak tree limbs was, for me, simply absent. I tried to feel it, over and over again, and every time I failed. This seeming abnormality pulsed in me like shame for years. It wasn’t just about appreciating the wonders of nature: was there something deeply wrong with me, some ability to feel that was just missing? How could everyone else innately tell that something–whether a waterfall or painting or cathedral–was beautiful? How did they all know but me? After all, I could tell when something was ugly, really ugly, although maybe that was only because I had an arsenal of descriptors at hand to identify it. Neon sequined tube top with bright orange gemstones? Tacky, therefore ugly. A slime-coated sewer, a pollution-spewing smokestack? Disgusting, therefore ugly. A zombie with rotting flesh and an undead gaze? Grotesque, therefore ugly.

There were many types of ugly: bland and boring, nasty and gross, clashing and garish. But there were no cheat sheets of helpful adjectives for beauty. Radiant, gorgeous, alluring, magnificent—all the words about beauty just seemed to circle back to the fact that something already WAS beautiful, and never helped me understand how or why people knew that to begin with. 

So I watched, and I learned. Over time, I grew to understand which places, art, and people were “beautiful,” but only because I was told that they were. The distinction didn’t stem from some organic sensation or inner certainty, but instead arrived via a process of logical deduction: that forest is very lush, thus it must be beautiful. Those flowers are very bright, thus they must be beautiful. That water is very clear, thus it must be beautiful. My understanding of beauty was synonymous with convention; if people dubbed something beautiful, I believed it, and incorporated it into my definition of beauty. Eventually, my beauty-radar could function on auto-pilot, without the fresh input of others. Whenever I came face to face with any possible object of beauty, my internal machinery had become sophisticated enough to autonomously collate past data and then rapidly churn out an answer.

But these days, especially when it comes to human-made culture, it feels as if people keep calling things beautiful that, according to my hard-won and scientifically-proven understanding of beauty, are decidedly not. Maybe it’s always been that way and I simply never noticed, or maybe the concept of ‘ugly-hot’ truly has swept the nation. It doesn’t matter; either way, everything has gone haywire. 

Everything feels ugly to me—fast fashion feels ugly, high fashion feels ugly. Gazing out at a dance floor only to see dozens of metallic Shein miniskirts and black Urban Outfitters “Modern Love” corset tops? Ugly. Veritable armies of hunched-forward models skulking down a runway in getups so uniformly bizarre it’s as if they walked straight out of a Hunger Games’ Capitol banquet? Ugly, really ugly. Cookie-cutter neighborhoods with identically bland houses feel ugly, but so do the desperate attempts modern architects make to create “unique” buildings, ones that are taller, shinier, hipper—ones that would stick out like sore thumbs, were they not surrounded by others just like them. Ugly AND homogenous. What is there to love? What beauty can even be found? My algorithm can’t answer, at least not positively. These days, when running my surroundings through my personal Aesthetic Computation Meter™, the only verdict that pops out is “nothing.”

When I go to a party, I see three girls wearing identical ill-fitting jeans and the same oddly-cut ROMWE halter top (why is there a cut-out on the rib?)—but then, their respective friends shower them with compliments of “beautiful,” and I feel my internal machinery sputter. I give my parents a campus tour, showing them the Center for the Arts and its depressing and austere brutalist architecture (so gray and bare it takes dominion everywhere, truly)—but then my dad says “beautiful,” and my internal machinery starts smelling faintly of smoke. I open Instagram and scroll past a classmate’s picture of an entirely unremarkable beige wall (why even bother taking the photo, I wonder)—but then I see that all the comments beneath it read “beautiful,” and my internal machinery spontaneously combusts.

These days, I keep seeing think-pieces about the ugliness of everything, articles desperately seeking an answer to the question: “why is everything so ugly?” Our modern obsession with mass-produced, uniform, light-polluted ugliness, our infatuation with neon-lit streets, expensive pre-ripped t-shirts, blanket suburbia, sleek oblong skyscrapers. It’s all ugly, so why do we love it? 

Wallace Stevens says, “The world is ugly, / And the people are sad,” and most days, I feel inclined to agree. But if I take a second to look, really look, something becomes clear: the world is ugly and people are happy anyways. I want to understand. I want to make sense of it. I thought I HAD made sense of it—most days I still do. Most days, I see some city street looking like repackaged industrial waste, and think confidently: “ugly.” But then I look around and see a teenager nodding in approval at an enormous advertisement plastered prominently on Houston Street showcasing the most horrendously tacky trench coat I’ve ever seen. Then I see a little girl petting her disgusting hairless dog with love in her eyes, then I see a father with glasses point excitedly at the most grotesque excuse for a building imaginable, and suddenly I feel seven years old again, staring up at a Spanish-moss-draped tree I don’t feel any warmth towards, surrounded by grinning, glowing people who do. Suddenly I feel like I know absolutely nothing at all, like I’ve been spending my entire life facing the wrong direction.

On any given day I’m overwhelmed by imposter syndrome—everyone here is smiling for a reason and I’m awkwardly straining to match their expression, pretending to know or feel something I don’t. But on the outside, maybe I just look like another happy person in an ugly world. And maybe that’s what’s happening with everyone else: maybe everyone is just as lost and confused as I am, just as desperate to understand as I am. Maybe there is no beauty or ugliness and we’re all just imposters pretending to know which is which, all only grinning because we’re afraid we’re the only ones who don’t have a reason to. Maybe we’re all experiencing the same thing but refuse to talk about it because we’re so convinced that we’re alone in it.


But probably not.


Casey Epstein-Gross can be reached at 

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