Ugly Duckling: Definitions of Beauty

Ugly Duckling: Definitions of Beauty
Eleanor Roosevelt: First Ladies' Lives

Skill: Elementary School
Time Required: Two days


When she was a very young child Eleanor Roosevelt’s mother called her “granny" because she saw the child as plain and awkward, rather than as beautiful and socially graceful as herself.   Eleanor is described by many biographers as having a life long struggle with shyness and insecurity which can partially be tied back to her mother’s harsh criticism.  Nonetheless, in her autobiography, This is My Story (1937), Eleanor Roosevelt wrote “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” 


The objective of this lesson is for students to examine the degree to which physical appearance influences how one is viewed in society and to also gain an understanding of how the definition of beauty has changed throughout history.

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet and/or a public library, a ream of copy/printer paper, and crayons or colored pencils.


As can be seen in the sources and resources section of this lesson plan, numerous sources exist on the history of beauty and many of these sources could be described as contemporary publications.  Though numerous sources & resources exist on this topic not all are appropriate for all audiences due to their sensitive nature. Furthermore, the writing in the suggested texts and web pages are of a higher academic level than typically achieved by elementary students; the photos and drawings in the sources are what is of value in an elementary classroom.   Prior to this lesson, teachers are advised to review and obtain the sources students will use in their research.

1. Together as a class, read aloud the story, The Ugly Duckling.  Prior to the story being read tell students to listen for definitions of beauty and ugly in the text.

2. At the completion of reading the text, have a class discussion using the following questions:

  • What was the plot of the story?
  • What characters represented beauty at the beginning of the story and why?
  • Which character represented beauty at the end of the story and why?
  • What adverbs and adjectives were used to describe beauty in the story?
  • How did others treat the ugly duckling and why?
  • What did the ugly duckling want to do because of how others treated him?
  • How did others treat the ugly duckling by the end of the story?
  • What does an ugly person look like?
  • What does a beautiful person look like?
  • How are ugly people treated by others?
  • How are beautiful people treated by others?
  • Is it a “good thing” to treat people differently based on their appearance?  

3. At the end of the discussion, explain to students that they will be drawing, as a class, a timeline of the history of beauty and going on a visual scavenger hunt of history.

4. Distribute a piece of copy paper to each student and make available colored pencils and/or crayons.

5. Either distribute books obtained from the local library or provide students with web addresses to search on the classroom computers.

6. Announce to students a time period and/or location and have them search for a male and a female image from that time period and/or location.  Use the following time periods and geographic locations for the scavenger hunt: seventeenth century, eighteenth century, nineteenth century, and twentieth century in Ancient Egypt, Ancient Near East, Ancient Judah, Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, India, Greece, Japan, Turkey, China, Central Asia.  If a world map is available show students the location of geographical locations mentioned.

7. Once most students have found an image, have the class look at all of the images and then draw a picture of beauty for males and females during that time period and/or location.

8. Repeat this process for each time period and/or geographic location.

9. Once all of the time periods and/or locations are drawn, have students, in the hallways, create timelines of beauty based on their collections of drawings.

10. If space is limited, have students work in groups of three or four in the scavenger hunt and drawing of beauty.

Extending the Lesson:

To extend this lesson, have students speculate on fashion and beauty in the future and draw pictures of “beautiful” people in the future and add them to their timelines.

Sources & Resources:

History of Beauty: 
   Begoun, Paula.  The Beauty Bible: The Ultimate Guide to Smart Beauty. Seattle: Beginning Press, 2002. 
   Brumber, Joan Jacobs.  The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls.  New York: Vintage Books, 1998. 
   Eco, Umberto and McEwen, Alastair.  History of Beauty.  New York: Rizzoli, 2004. 
   Etcoff, Nancy.  Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty.  New York: Random House, 1999. 
   Freeman, Sally.  Ageless Natrual Beauty: Every Woman’s Guide to Ageless Natural Beauty.  Lincoln: Barnes & Nobles Books, 2000. 
   Gilbert-Rolfe, Jeremy.  Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime (Aesthetics Today).  New York: Allsworth Communications, 1999. 
   Greenfield, Lauren and Brumberg, Jacobs.  Girl Culture.  New York: Chronicle Books, 2002. 
   Greenfield, Lauren and Rodriguez, Richard, and Fisher, Carrie.  Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood.  New York: Chronicle Books, 2004. 
   Hau, Michael.  The Cult of Health and Beauty in Germany:  A Social History, 1890 – 1930.  Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003. 
   Puffer, Ethel D.  The Psychology of Beauty.  New York: Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, 1905. 
   Pacteau, Francette.  The Symptom of Beauty.  London: Reaktion Books, 1994. 
   Peiss, Kathy.  Hope in a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture.  New York: Metropolitan Books, 1998. 
   Pick, Nancy and Sloan, Mark.  The Rarest of the Rare: Stories Behind the Treasures at the Harvard Museum of Natural History.  New York: HarperCollins, 2004. 
   Riordan, Teresa.  Inventing Beauty:  A History of the Innovations that Have Made Us Beautiful.  New York: Broadway Books, 2004. 
   Scranton, P.  Beauty and Business; Commerce, Gender, and Culture in Modern America.  New York: Routledge, 2001. 
   Steams, Peter N. Fat history:  Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West.  New York: New York University Press, 1997. 
   Walker, Nancy A.  Shaping Our Mothers’ World: American Women’s Magazines.  Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000. 
   Wolf, Naomi.  The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women.  New York: HarperCollins, 2002.
History of Cosmetics: 
   Angeloglou, Maggie. A History of Make-up.  London: Studio Vista, 1970. 
   Blum, Virginia.  Flesh Wounds: The Culture of Cosmetic Surgery.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1956. 
   Davis, Kathy.  Dubious Equalities and Embodied Differences: Cultural Studies on Cosmetic Surgery (Explorations in Bioethics and Medical Humanities).  Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc, 2003. 
   Davis, Kathy.  Reshaping the Female Body: The Dilemma of Cosmetic Surgery.  New York: Routledge, 1995. 
   Gilman, Sander.  Making the Body Beautiful.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999. 
   Haiken, Elizabeth. Venus Envy: A History of Cosmetic Surgery.  Baltimore: The John Hopkins Press, 1997. 
   Reynolds, Helen.  A Fashionable History Of: Make-up and Body Decoration.  Portsmouth: Heinemann Educational Books, 2003. 
   Rustenholz, Alain.  Make-up. London: Hachette Illustrated, 2003. 

History of Fashion: 
   Arnold, Janet.  Patterns of Fashion: 1660-1860.  Durham: Drama Publishers, 1977. 
   Bradfield, Nancy.  Costume in Detail: 1730 – 1930.  Hollywood: Costume & Fashion Press, 1997. 
   Cosgrave, Bronwyn.  The Complete History of Costume & Fashion: From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day.   New York: Checkmark Books, 2001. 
   Cumming, Valerie.  Understanding Fashion History.  Hollywood: Costume & Fashion Press, 2004. 
   Evans, Caroline.  Fashion at the Edge: Spectacle, Modernity, and Deathliness.  Italy: The British Library, 2003. 
   Fakai, Akiko, Suoh, Tamami, Iwagami, Miki, Koga, Reiko, and Nii, Rie (Kyoto Costume Institute).   Fashion: A History from the 18th to the 20th Century Volume I: 18th and 19th.Century. Hohenzollernring: Taschen, 2005. 
   Hart, Avril, North, Susan, and Richard Davis.  Historical Fashion in Detail: The 17th and 18th Centuries.  London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 2003. 
   Johnston, Lucy. Nineteenth-Century Fashion in Detail.  London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 2005. 
   Koda, Harold.  Extreme Beauty: The Body Transformed.  New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004. 
   Steele, Valerie.  The Corset: A Cultural History.  Singapore: The British Library, 2001. 
   Taylor, Lou.  Establishing Dress History. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004. 
   Taylor, Lou.  The Study of Dress History.  Vancouver: University of British Columbia, 2002. 
   Waugh, Norah.  Corsets and Crinolines.  New York: Routledge, 1954. 
   Waugh, Norah.  The Cut of Men’s Clothes; 1600-1900.  Great Britain: Theatre Arts Books, 1964. 
   Waugh, Norah.  The Cut of Women’s Clothes; 1600-1900.  Great Britain: Theatre Arts Books, 1968. 
   Wilson, Verity, Wearden, Jennifer, and Crill, Rosemary. Dress in Detail from Around the World.  London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 2004. 
History of Beauty:
History of Cosmetics:

History of Fashion: 
Ugly Duckling Story:  

This lesson was developed by Debra L. Clark, Kent State University