Thanks to my ancestors for making me ugly

Friday, February 9, 2024
William Northcutt is a writer for the State Gazette and former Professor of English at Dyersburg State

Last weekend, my sister gave me a photo trove of our ancestors. Because I’m vain, I searched through them to see where I inherited my looks. Never mind the intellectual or artistic talents that might have tricked into me. I wanted to know which relatives, like me, lacked ear lobes.

I can trace my unibrow back to the 1800s. I’m glad photographs don’t go back ten thousand years. There’s no telling what kind of disaster I’d see and then forever recognize in my own face. Doesn’t give a man much confidence to realize that he has the features of some miscreant Troglodyte.

Seriously, though, I come from some fine looking folks with English, Scottish, and Irish ancestry. My Mom said we were part Cherokee too, but everybody in the South says that about themselves. I’m probably more “off-key” than “Cherokee.” None of my family was ugly, but I inherited some of the more “unique” features.

A common trait of the men on Dad’s side was a pot belly, and my head is like my maternal grandfathers: big as a bucket—I had to cut a hole in the roof of my truck so that I wouldn’t have to drive with my neck crooked.

One of my favorite pictures is of my Great Great Uncle Lytle Prater, son of my Great Great Grandfather Arch Prater, son of my Great Great Great Grandfather King Prater, and his Great4 Grandfather Baron Osgarath MacDorrigib von Bonekirkcorndogkarlsbadburgenschlosssputz, aka “Muk.” Lytle had a look on his face in that photo that you can read from 100 yards away: “I’m getting ready to make a smart Alek remark.” He was obviously muscular enough to back it up. I have that look too and people mistake my intent. I don’t have Uncle Lytle’s muscle, so I generally run.

I also resemble my aunt, who never understood that you could occasionally drink water instead of vodka. Her eyes were permanently squinted like mine. In my defense, I don’t drink often. It’s just that I can’t see well, even with glasses. It has created a furrow within my unibrow. People mistake it for a scowl. Really, I’m just trying to decide whether I’m looking at a person or a giant, wavy piece of bacon.

Truthfully, looks aren’t as important to me as is kindness to people and animals, the capacity for understanding and acceptance of all, the desire to do better, the resolve to treat everyone equally, and the effort to love not only family and friends but to love all people, all life.

I’ve exaggerated here. While I’m no George Clooney, my looks don’t frighten children too much or scar any people for life. I’m a victim, though, of the TV/film generations—it’s not easy to match up to these famous dudes in their prime: the Hemsworths, Denzel, Brando, Newman, Cary Grant, Brad Pitt, DiCaprio, De Niro, nor even Pee Wee.

It's sad that instead of trying to fix our hearts and intentions, we try to fix our looks—we use photo filters to make us look skinny, to make our skin smooth, to make us “perfect.” We feel pressured to look young and turn to the scalpel or injections. Men my age use beard dye meant to make them look younger—it doesn’t work. Yet we still feel insecure. “If I could just get rid of my double chin.” “If my ears didn’t stick out.” “If my face were shaped differently.” “If I could just look like this or that….my life would be perfect too.”

Silly when there are so many, much more important aspects of who we are. When we act beautifully to ourselves and others and the world around us, we are beautiful. You are beautiful, and Tasmanian Devil unibrow or not, I can be too. On the inside. Where it matters.