So NPR was reviewing this novel, today, and it got me all riled up. NPR claims this about Amanda Filipacchi’s The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty: it “reflects on the unearned power that beauty confers on its recipients; rather less convincingly, it also tries to make a case for the psychic damage of being beautiful in a world that’s all too eager to rate women primarily on their looks.”
Ok, NPR, I’m gonna have to stop you right there, before you go saying something that sounds suspiciously like, “sour grapes”. “Unearned” – ok.
Do you have any idea how much time and effort some people put into their looks? You don’t, apparently, somehow, so I’m gonna take my time spelling this out for you and anyone who agrees with you.
You’re probably familiar with the concept of makeup. You probably are aware that it’s expensive, and requires time (maybe lots of it), to apply. I’m assuming you’ve heard about clothes, as well, and are aware that clothes cost money, and are aware that purchasing clothes takes effort. Add to the list that there are things like hair dye and colored contact lenses, and (at the risk of triggering your beauty-sucks gag again), I’ll just mention plastic surgery in passing.
You should be aware that the way people look can change, and that this change is often the result of a conscientious choice. You should be, but somehow you aren’t, and so you’ve missed something of a powerful nuance, in that some people know how to apply makeup, and style hair, and design ensembles, better than others. You know this is so, because some people are professionals at doing these things, and have taken classes, and get paid, to do these things. You know there’s a science. What you fail to see is that there’s also an art.
Style is a thing, and it goes beyond the cannon of what is “in” or “out” this year. There’s a way to wear things – makeup, hair or clothes. There’s a way to move your legs to keep your pants fitting you right. There’s a way to tilt your head to catch the light. There are magazines, actual documentation of the changing trends of top artists in the cosmetic world, available at every cash register’s side to flip through while you wait in line. There are self-checks, body scans that many women do several times a minute to see that posture, facial expression, lighting and such are synchronizing in an aesthetically pleasing manner. There are things you can eat and ways of sleeping and exercising and bathing and moving and breathing that all go to constitute, if you add it up, some very freaking hard work.
I don’t like hard work. Beauty’s not a priority to me, a hardy goblin of the interwebs, hence I spend no time applying makeup, sport hippy-long, unstyled hair, and wear pajama pants in public as often as I like. I have a double-chin, compliments of all the cookies I eat to remind myself what a good job I do all the time. I have no sense of how I look before I stumble in view of a mirror, and all the time I spend waiting in lines is devoted to captioning cat pictures. My priorities are set, and hence, it doesn’t bother me to acknowledge that other people who work harder for it are more apt to be credited with hotness. I still get doors held open for me. I still get free stuff at bodegas, and people still tip the crap out of me at work. I’m confident that I’ll still be benefiting from the stereotypical offerings of beauty when I’m Betty-White old, on account of I know a few Betty-White old ladies who get smiles and celebrity status everywhere they go. Left out of NPR’s analysis of beauty is any acknowledgement whatsoever for the force of presence that can make models millions of dollars who have big ears and bony elbows and extra lines around the forehead, that have made the Golden Girls by far the more popular icons than the Spice Girls wound up being, and that can make a sassy sallow-faced chubster like myself just the absolute bell of whatever gas station I traipse across.
The fact is, a person has to wear their bones, as well as their clothes, and some people are better at it. Marilyn Monroe’s big mole became her “beauty mark”, because of the way she wore it. And eyes are something else again. Have you ever met a person capable of making their eyes glow – such that when they look at you, there’s nothing in your mind but the power of that feeling they convey? What do you think it costs them to look at other people like that – nothing? You think they just were born with these extra-shiny eyeballs that make life easy all the time?
There is such a thing as a person, running deeper than hair or skin or fat or bone. Tempering our concepts of what is and is not beauty, there is such a thing as force of spirit. The comfortable dismissal of conventional beauty as unearned and accidental implies a ruthless ignorance of these forces, an intentional insensibility of the power of human presence that goes beyond convention and aims to disarm beauty itself.
This is wrong, so wrong. Most animals perceive beauty, but humans alone have taken brush to wall, or stick to mud, or knife to rock, in order to create beauty. This is our birthright as people – not to passively have our be led by immorphable carbon-copy DNA strands, but to perceive and pursue beauty hitherto undiscovered. It happens externally, as with the creation of a poem or picture. It happens internally, too – in the ways we use our forces to draw other people around us. There really aren’t any limits to this. You think I’m too fat? I can make you want to be fat. You think my boobs are too small? I can make you admire the ribcage between them. You’re staring at my scar? Good, because it’s awesome and I’m the only one who has it.
Sure, some of us have to possess more force of spirit than others to make ourselves admired, but beauty takes guts and work for all of us, in varying degrees. If it’s not worth the effort for you to make others admire your face or your body it’s because you have decided to focus your efforts elsewhere – because the benefits aren’t all that great in the scheme of your priorities. That’s fine – you have every right not to make it your priority. It’s by the same set of standards, though, that we grant the beautiful people – the people who have made this priority – their due.