It takes a moment’s thought to realize the unfairness of it. All my life I have been and I will be judged by it. Whether I am tall or exceptionally short everybody will notice at first glance. Whether I am black or white, yellow or brown, will determine how thousands will look at me; volumes have been written about racial and ethnic bias. Whether I have a protruding breast and how I do my hair will be instantly seen and made the basis of a guess whether I am a boss or a secretary, a doctor or a nurse. And, yet, I have scant control over it. I may shorten my mustache or dreadlock my hair, but I can never look like Frank Sinatra or Marilyn Monroe and evoke in other people the reaction they did.
I had the misfortune of being close in age to an elder brother who was good-looking, and I saw daily the different reaction to us of the people who passed through our living room. The sting of that memory is perhaps what prompts me to write on the subject. I also remember a friend in my school who was noticeably handsome – he ended up as a successful movie star, playing the lead against beautiful heroines – and recall how quickly he gained countless friends compared to the rest of us of homely appearance.
The notion of good looks of course changes over time and place. The beauties immortalized by Titian and Rubens would have been summarily cast aside by MGM and Warner Brothers as being unduly rounded, in current parlance ‘of plus size.’ Hollywood cast Jennifer Jones as a Chinese woman and Ava Gardner as a biracial Indian, because no Chinese or Indian woman in their view would have been pretty enough to be the star of its films for the world market. The New York Times has just reported on the recent success of black contestants in beauty competitions, unthinkable a few years back. Olivia Wilde, actress and producer, remarked querulously that anything she achieves is not unrelated to how she looks. One may consider her lucky that she is pretty, but she realizes that her prettiness is also a cage. In a man’s world – and so many worlds are just that – it would hard for her to know whether the studio chief she was talking to was playing her along because she is pretty or was genuinely interested in her merit.
A horrific case that illustrates how our body can encage us and decide our entire life is the story of Joseph Merrick. He was born normal, but by five developed terrible deformities. Huge lumps appeared on his forehead, his lips grew enormous, the two hands turned disproportionate, his head looked massive and his skin took on an animal-like dark, rough, lumpy character. It was a common superstition those days to believe that a pregnant woman’s experiences directly shape the child; many supposed the fact that a fairground elephant frightened and hurt his mother while she was with child caused Joseph’s monstrous appearance. In addition, Joseph had an accident, broke his hip and became lame for life.
That is how he came to the attention of a kind doctor, Frederick Treves, who wanted to examine him and eventually found a place for him in the London Hospital, where, Treves arranged for him to have whatever he needed – except a mirror. But Joseph, understandably, did not enjoy being relentlessly tested and probed by medical specialists. He was written up in The Times and the British Medical Journal, and toward the end he had some attention from kind people. He died at 27, without ever having experienced a decent, humane, loving environment.
[When I first read about the Elephant Man, about whom now books have been written and films made, I was surprised to find that his pious mother had given him the middle name of Carey from the famous missionary William Carey, who went to India and wrote the Bible in Indian languages.]
While Joseph Merrick’s was a spectacular example, the truth is that a person’s body is given highly disproportionate importance in most cases. Contrary to the often-mouthed wisdom that glittering objects are not necessarily golden, both society and individuals seem to blithely assume that good looks are an indication of some hidden qualities and, contrarily, unwholesome looks are a sign of incipient wickedness and incurable idiocy. This is partly the reason why colonial rulers, in whose eyes the indigenous people almost always looked distasteful, could so easily treat them with unspeakable brutality.
Whether we look good or bad – and often our own opinions differ greatly from those of others – our appearances are a fetter on our life. It takes a rare degree of wisdom or insouciance to overcome the handicap.