Many years ago, an uncle of mine was talking about one of my distant cousins: about how hard it would be for her to get married, because she was, you know, kind of, how do you say it, “ugly”? He didn’t use the word, of course. He said something like “Her face is a little, you know, kind of…” And then his voice trailed off. He couldn’t bring himself to say it. Her looks were a singularity of sorts, a precipice to be approached with care, perhaps alluded to, hinted at, but not addressed. She faced spinsterhood as a punishment; why make matters worse with that kind of explicit reference?
A dozen or so years ago, in the course of a drunken conversation with my girlfriend and her friends, one of them, giggling loudly, said she always felt sorry for “ugly” people and always said a silent prayer when she saw one on New York City’s streets: “Girl, I’m so sorry this happened to you, but thank God it didn’t happen to me.” She was thankful that in life’s sweepstakes, her cards had come out just right. She had been saved, she had dodged the bullet; she could now try to make her way through this world unencumbered by homeliness of the worst kind.
So, pity in the first instance, and in the second too. In both cases, the appearance-challenged were women; in the first case, a particular woman, in the second, a class of women. (Though the initial reference was to “ugly people”, my interlocutor’ s use of “girl” seemed to indicate she had women in mind.)
Both these folks were correct in one cruel sense; we are an appearance-obsessed society. Looks matter. The data confirms it: if you are ‘good-looking’, you get more interviews, better jobs, higher salaries, live longer lives. You get better service in restaurants and stores; you’ll get seats offered to you. (Though there seems to be some evidence that being attractive works better for men than it does for women.) Psychologists have offered a variety of explanations for this bias–some of them, unsurprisingly enough, evolutionary in flavor. You can guess the outlines of those: partner-seeking takes many forms, including hiring at the workplace, or taking better care of your clients.
And so, my uncle saw his niece’s looks as a curse; she would not be able to find a suitable groom; she would be rejected again and again–as indeed, till that stage in point she had been, though I do not know if her looks were ever cited as the reason for why. And then, she would become a source of anxiety for her parents; perhaps even an economic burden. My ‘friend’–I use the scare quotes because I was never very friendly with her–also saw the looks of the folks she pitied as a curse. They wouldn’t be able to hook up; they would not be able to score; they would not be able to enjoy their youth’s appropriate quota of sexual abandon.
Talk of beauty being skin-deep was never going to make much headway against such deeply rooted discomfort.
Note: Needless to say, our society regards obesity as a form of ugliness, which, because it seems like a personal failing is to be castigated in especially severe terms.