Lorrie Moore’s “You’re Ugly, Too”, examines the inner thoughts and day-to-day life of a single history professor, Zoë Hendricks. Zoë is characterized as being eccentric and wildly different from those around her, and in turn, socially inept. Through her train of thought, we are able to see that Zoë is preoccupied with her own shortcomings, both in her appearance and in her social relationships. Moore’s choice to set her story in the conventional and homogenous American Midwest serves to show the stark contrast between Zoë and those around her. This contrast leads to Zoë’s alienation, which is only exacerbated by her relationships with men. In all of Zoë’s experiences with men she is put down and is made to feel inferior about her appearance and personality. Through Zoë’s memories and thoughts we are shown the effect that these experiences have had on her psyche. Through the reactions of her students and her failed relationships with men, we see Zoë is so constantly criticized about her actions and appearance that it makes her untrusting and unable to communicate with others. By showing us Zoë’s thoughts and stream of consciousness, Moore shows us the extent to which society’s critiques and expectations of us can bring us down. Zoë teaches in a private liberal arts college in the Midwest. This location serves to emphasize Zoë’s eccentricities. The Midwest is known for its lack of diversity, conformity and conservative values. This homogenous area is so drastically different from Zoë’s features and personality that she is constantly at odds with it. “Everyone was so blonde there that brunette’s were often presumed to be from foreign countries”(Moore, 69). People who look different are viewed as foreign and judged. Everyone was expected to look the same and conform to the area’s standards. Apart from just her appearance Zoë stands out from the general population in her temperament and personality. In the Midwest, people are expected not to question anything and not complain.
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Zoë is characterized as being outspoken, opinionated, and sarcastic. Her students are so unused to hearing a dissenting voice that they are shocked by her teaching. In her student evaluations she is denigrated in their comments about her. “‘Professor Hendricks has said critical things about Fawn Hall, the Catholic religion, and the whole state of Illinois. It is unbelievable.’” (71). The students are disturbed by Zoë’s criticisms because they have been taught to blindly accept what they have been told. Their comments also criticize her eccentric personality and they often write her off and disrespect her. Throughout the story these comments appear in Zoë’s train of thought, showing how personally she takes them and how affected she is by their criticisms. Among all the criticisms that Zoë endures, the one that shows her vulnerability and inferiority most is her appearance. She is judged for her appearance regularly. “She was almost pretty, but her face showed the strain and ambition of always having been close but not quite.”(68). Throughout her life she has been made to feel that she would never be good enough, no matter how hard she tried. She tries to fix her looks with makeup and accessories, but it only ends up making her features worse. Zoë’s preoccupations with her appearance surface whenever she is feeling most insecure.
This insecurity is represented by the hair that she finds on her chin. Whenever Earl asks her a question about something she is embarrassed or sensitive about, she becomes aware of the hair. She becomes obsessed with removing the hair, even to the point where she hurts herself. “She stabbed again at her chin, and it started to bleed a little. She pulled the skin tight along the jawbone, gripped the tweezers hard around what she hoped was the hair and tugged. A tiny square of skin came away with it, but the hair remained, blood bright at the root of it.”(88). No matter how hard Zoë tried to remove the hair she could not. This struggle symbolizes how no matter how hard Zoë tried to alter her appearance with make up and jewelry she could not. No matter how hard she would try to let her appearance not bother her she could not. Her appearance is another thing that makes her stand out from the average people. In the Midwest she is thought of as foreign because of her looks and at the party she stands out from the crowd of “sexy witches”. Zoë’s insecurities about her differences and appearance have a profound representation in her mind. Her insecurities are often exacerbated by her relationships with men, who often criticize her appearance and make her feel inferior.
Zoë’s past experiences with men have all ended with her being undermined, criticized and disrespected. Because of these failures, she has resigned herself to believe that all relationships will end poorly for her. When being introduced to new men, Zoë would often find herself thinking of everything that could go wrong in their relationship. “As the man politely blathered on, she would fall in love, marry, then find herself in a bitter custody battle with him for the kids and hoping for reconciliation, so that despite all his betrayals she might no longer despise him, and in the few minutes remaining, learn, perhaps what his last name was and what he did for a living, though there probably there was already too much history between them”(83) Zoë is so convinced that there is no hope for her romantically, she writes it off and imagines how the relationship would fall apart before it even begins. When asked about her opinion on love, Zoë further shows her hopelessness by telling her “love story” about her friend. Her friend’s relationship started off well, but soon after her partner began belittling her and making disparaging remarks towards her until, finally, she killed herself. The relationship depicted in this story closely mirrors many of Zoë’s own relationships. In Zoë’s digressions about her former relationships she reveals how she was chastised and talked down to for her behavior.
Again, Zoë’s insecurities about her appearance show up as being intensified by the men in her life. Zoë is more aware of her differences when talking to men. She becomes self-conscious about the fact that she does not look like other women. “Deep down she came too realize that all men, deep down, wanted Heidi. Heidi with the cleavage. Heidi with the outfits”(72). She recognizes that it is not only her appearance, but also her personality. She realizes she will never be like the “Heidi” that men are interested in. Still though, she feels inferior when men tell her what she should do to change her appearance. In one of her relationships in particular, Murray disrespects her by going out with women he found attractive and flirting with them in front of her. “Usually the wives would consent to flirt with him. Under the table sometimes there was footsie, and once there was even kneesie”(73).
This served not only to make Zoë feel uncomfortable, but also to make her self conscious about her appearance. It is after her confidence has been knocked down, that Zoë begins to show her social incapability. This shows that her rejection from men is a cause of her alienation and social problems. Moore paints Zoë as an outsider whose eccentricities cause her social failures. By telling the story from inside Zoë’s head we are able to fully understand her interactions and the causes for her behaviors. Her stream of consciousness helps to illustrate Zoë’s mental state and feelings of inadequacy. The comments from her students and her relationship stories address how Zoë is judged and put down. The judgment that Zoë receives for being outspoken and abnormal is only made worse by her location in the conservative Midwest. She stands out because she looks and acts different from normal people. The constant criticisms and suggestions of what she should to do improve her appearance weigh on her and bring her confidence down. She in turn is unable to function socially and is preoccupied with her shortcomings and failures.