Don’t get mad, get even, so the saying goes. But for London feminist collective The Ugly Girls Club it is more than that: they want to get ugly.
One day back in October of 2015, Hillary Rock-Archer was feeling a new look. She was ready to lop off her shoulder length do for a short and sharp platinum blonde. It would be an edgy look: short blunt fringe halting midway down her forehead with a cute blonde bob flicking around her ears, but what she got was “a haircut so bad that it made me question my identity.” Think Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka with Crayola’s “Unmellow Yellow” coloring. It was an eyesore and it was ugly.
Smiling with her teeth, a smile probably not dissimilar to the clenched grin of Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka, Hillary managed the “oh that looks great, thank you” before fleeing for her apartment.
But in the comfort of her own home, she found little comfort in her new appearance and instead “dedicated a lot of time crying about it.” It was time consuming, and took that time away from matters Rock-Archer greatly cares about and advocates for, such as gender inequality, Israel’s occupation of Palestine and environmentalism.
That’s when she realized she wanted to reclaim the word ‘ugly’.
“As much as I had tried post-haircut, I just couldn’t relate with this ‘everyone is beautiful’ narrative. I saw the only way forward was to detach value from appearance all together. I kinda felt we should be side-stepping and shutting down the conversation of attractiveness so we can start to talk about real shit,” Rock-Archer says.
Rather than letting ‘ugly’ be something that can be used as an insult against women, Rock-Archer says she and co-founder Alice Leverton decided to start The Ugly Girls Club, which would champion it as an affirmation: “Yes I am ugly, and I am more than my appearance”. The club would consciously acknowledge and praise women for their ideas, actions, humor, and intelligence, before their appearance.
The initiative began simply enough, Rock-Archer says: “We should do some t-shirts”.
T-shirts turned into underwear, and by 2016 Rock-Archer and Leverton were working with female artists to produce ethically made, limited-edition underpants with feminist themes. Artist Liv Thurley’s ‘Heartbreaker Thong’ features a dagger stabbing a crying heart], while artist Lois Orchard’s “Sex Brief” is a layered composition of leather clad lovers, female masturbation and bondage.
The undies were sold via monthly subscription, with the rationale that using a convenient, popular business model (“like Netflix and phone-plans,” Rock-Archer says) could serve a dual purpose for the club.
“It felt like the new way of doing business was to subscribe to something, and [with The Ugly Girls Club] people could also subscribe to this idea –- something that is not like a zine, but something they can wear close to their bottoms.”
However after a few limited-edition runs, their manufacturer American Apparel closed down leaving the club without an ethical and sustainable underwear manufacturer to match their values and budget. In spite of the economic difficulties in finding an equivalent supplier, the Ugly Girls Club had still managed to build a devoted community of people who subscribe to their ideals through their website.
“It is hard to keep moving forward and championing all these progressive ideas, because the rest of the world has not caught up, so you are forging new values as well as putting them into action because there is no real space for that yet,” Rock-Archer says.
Since its founding in 2016, The Ugly Girls Club has grown from a mantra to an underwear line to a grassroots movement, recruiting artists, musicians, writers, poets and performers to advocate ugly and collaborate on events to create body positivity in their community.
The club now regularly enlists writers to discuss aspects of the feminine experience, as well as maintaining a steady event calendar.
In July 2017, the club hosted “Test Your Tits” as part of the Leverton Legacy initiative, the eponymous effort of Leverton who lost both parents to cancer. The legacy fundraises for cancer research and Macmillan Cancer Care.
As an example of what you might expect at an Ugly Girls event, Test Your Tits involved two nights of female performers, from Pussy Liquor, a hard-core feminist punk rock band who “put the amp in tampon,” Abby the Singer, a young woman who has just gone through a year of chemo and is coming out the other side, a burlesque performance of how to check your body for lumps by Snookie Bahookie, as well as songs from Lucy Powell, an acoustic musician.
Looking forward through 2018, Leverton is working on a series of workshops and seminars to bring to communities interested in exploring the value of appearance, while Rock-Archer is producing a variety show for the Brighton Fringe this May called “Love Letters to Rappers”.
The spoken word and comedy show is an extension of the club’s core values, she says. “A playful but serious response to rap culture’s misogyny.”