Beauty is truth. April 9, 2012Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
Tags: beauty, John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn, Samantha Brick, Stephanie Nielson, the nature of beauty, transient beauty
It’s so hard being beautiful. All you homely-to-ugly women out there should feel really sorry for me, having to endlessly bear the burden of my gorgeousness. Poor, poor me! Nobody suffers as I suffer.
Silence Dogood here. No doubt all of you have, by now, heard about the furor stirred up by Samantha Brick’s article in the London Daily Mail (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/, “‘There are downsides to looking this pretty': Why women hate me for being beautiful”), in which she complains about how she’s discriminated against by other women for her stunning looks. Two quotes from the article: “I have written in the Mail on how I have flirted [with male bosses] to get ahead at work, something I’m sure many women do.” “If you’re a woman reading this, I’d hazard that you’ve already formed your own opinion about me—and it won’t be very flattering.”
I wonder why. Especially given the numerous photos of Ms. Brick included in the article and, subsequently, in the publicity after the response. Ms. Brick is a perfectly normal-looking woman who takes good care of herself, works hard to stay in shape, and tries to optimize her appearance. Few women could take exception to that, since most of us try to do the same and know just what it takes to pull it off. It’s the attitude that’s inconceivable.
It would be one thing if the speaker were Elizabeth Taylor, Halle Berry or Claudia Schiffer. Or Olivia De Havilland or Beyonce or Liv Tyler or, say, Nefertiti. But please do go online and check out Ms. Brick’s appearance for yourself. I very much doubt that, if you’re a woman, you’ll come away feeling any worse about your own appearance. Instead, you’ll probably be thinking, “God! What a fakey-looking dye job,” “She’ll never get those upper arms toned,” and “I look better than that, so what the hell’s she going on about?!” We should be grateful to her for making us feel good about ourselves.
If it hadn’t been for the backlash and her response to it, I’d have assumed the article was an Onion-style parody. Now I wonder if it was simply a way to catapult its author into a very lucrative series of appearances on late-night talk shows and (inevitably) a book deal. If so, I have to applaud her brilliant strategy if not her mundane looks. I hope she calls the book Poor, Poor, Pitiful Me.
Whatever the case, I have a little wake-up call for Ms. Brick: It’s your attitude and behavior, not your appearance, that turns other women off. In your article, you say “I can’t wait for the wrinkles and grey hair that will help me blend into the background.” Right. Please bear in mind that men also recognize a manipulator and mercenary flirt, and aren’t shy about turning that blatant behavior to their advantage. That airline pilot who gifted you with a “complimentary” bottle of champagne was doubtless hoping for a return on his investment, and thinking it likely that he’d get one.
Getting back to you readers, as you can see, Ms. Brick’s unwarranted self-promoting behavior really frosts my flakes, as our friend and fellow blog contributor Richard Saunders would say. But I’d have kept my response to it to an irate rant directed toward our friend Ben and our black German shepherd, Shiloh, and out of the annals of Poor Richard’s Almanac were it not for another article on beauty—and the loss of it—that made the cover of Easter Sunday’s Parade magazine.
The cover showed a dreadfully disfigured woman sitting on a sofa with her husband. I thought, “Oh my God! Is this the woman whose face was torn off by the chimpanzee?” It was, instead, a woman who’d been burned over 80% of her body in a small-aircraft crash, with the worst damage on her face and neck. She was just 27, the mother of four children, all under 6, and her husband had also been badly burned and injured in the crash.
Photos of people who’ve been disfigured disturb and shock us. (In addition to the Parade cover, the Time cover of the beautiful, noseless Afghan girl who’d been mauled by the Taliban and the Esquire cover of Roger Ebert after disastrous surgery for esophageal cancer come to mind.)
The reason isn’t far to seek, either: This could be us. One minute, we’re driving home from an evening out; the next a tree has fallen on our car (as happened to a couple in a little town near us), completely crushing but not killing us. One minute, we’re happily hiking a trail in a national park; the next, we’re mauled by a grizzly or a mountain lion. One minute, we’re sleeping peacefully; the next, our house is on fire. One minute, we’re busy wheeling and dealing as usual; the next, a terrorist plane has hit our office building. One minute, we’re sightseeing in any major city; the next, we’ve been attacked by drug-crazed robbers and gunned down or repeatedly slashed. One minute, we’re enjoying a country drive; the next, we’ve been slammed by a drunk driver.
Life is tenuous, our bodies are fragile, and safety is an illusion we’re able to maintain because dreadful things, mercifully, don’t happen often. So visual reminders that they do and can happen to anyone, at any time, are profoundly disturbing.
It’s one thing if you dare disaster to take you, like climbers on Mount Everest who are lucky to escape with just a few fingers and toes lost to frostbite, and their less-fortunate peers whose frozen bodies litter the slopes like discarded water bottles. It’s another if you’re Natasha Richardson taking a beginner ski lesson and ending up dead, or someone who tries hard to avoid risks of any kind but is still caught up in a holdup or a car crash.
I’ll say it again: Life is uncertain, and we are much more fragile than we think. I’ve often had to point out to the overconfident, 6’2″ our friend Ben that a gun is a big leveller, even in the hands of someone who’s 5’1″. So is a fire, or a famine, or an epidemic, or a plane crash.
I read the Parade cover story with admiration for the brave woman who fought the pain and the disfigurement and the alienation and the losses with love, faith, family support, and courage. But I didn’t cry until I saw the photo that had been taken of her just four months before the crash, and saw the extent of her loss. Not many people are blessed with looks like hers. The “before” must have made the “after” that much harder.
She sums up her feelings, revealingly, in an excerpt from the article: “I knew the world didn’t accept people like me. People were relentlessly critical and rude, or sickeningly condescending. I never wanted to be seen again.”
Perhaps that had indeed been her pre-accident attitude. But I can’t imagine anyone being critical of, or rude to, or condescending towards a disfigured person. I can, however, easily imagine them being sickened, sickened with fear (This could be me), and shocked into letting it show.
It takes real guts to face a world that flinches away from you, that averts its eyes, that turns away. It takes wisdom to recognize that it is fear, the fear of our own fragility and mortality, that sparks that reaction, rather than crassness and personal distaste. It takes real greatness of soul to show love and compassion in the face of such hurtful reactions.
I’ll never forget reading a story some years ago about a woman who’d been shot point-blank in the face with a shotgun, resulting in horrific disfigurement. She was grocery shopping one day when she heard a little boy, catching sight of her, blurt out something to the effect of “Mommy! You said that monsters weren’t real. But there’s one over there!” Pointing, of course, to her. Rather than heaping abuse on the child or simply turning away, the woman came up and said, “I’m not a monster. See? I used to look like this.” (Pulling out a photo of her very attractive former self.) “I just had a terrible accident.”
God bless that woman, and the woman in Parade, and that beautiful, noseless Afghan girl, and all the rest who lose limbs to accident or disease or are born without them or suffer other forms of disfigurement but continue to soldier on, to bear witness in a world that doesn’t even want to see them, to say that life—and a rich, full life—is possible, even when you look like they do or suffer as they do. They at least have found what true beauty is. I honor them.
‘Til next time,
Note: This post’s title is taken from a line from the poet John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty: That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”