When we are very concerned about certain of
our physical features – a nose that is stubbornly
a bit too large, eyes that are slightly too
far apart, hair that is not as lustrous as
it should be – we miss an overall point about
our relationship to our appearance: how beautiful
we feel has nothing to do with the objective
structure of our face or body; it isn’t
what we look like that counts. It’s how
we feel inside. Our self-assessments are in
the end solely based on our relative degrees
of self-love and self-contempt.
There are people of ideal proportions and
exceptional beauty who cannot bear what they
see in the mirror and others who can contemplate
a less than svelte stomach or a no longer
so supple kind of skin with indifference and
defiant good humour. And at a tragic extreme,
there are heart-breakingly fine-looking people
who starve themselves to ill-health and eventually
die out of a certainty, immune to every logical
argument, of their own unsightliness.
We are surrounded by industries that seek
to help us to improve how we look: dieticians
who are on hand to reduce our waistlines,
aerobic teachers who offer to tone us, beauticians
who will equip us with foundation and mascara.
But however well meaning their efforts, they
fail completely to grasp the sources of a
healthy regard for one’s own appearance.
The issue is not whether we look extraordinary
today, but whether or not we were once upon
a time, when we were small and defenceless
before the judgements of those who cared for
us, sufficiently loved for our essence. This
will decide whether our appearance can later
on be a subject of negligible concern to us
or not. The truly blessed among us are not
those with perfect symmetry; they are those
whose past affords them the luxury not to
give too much of a damn whatever the mirror
happens to say.
The way to help someone feel beautiful is
not to compliment them on their looks, it
is to take an interest in and delight in their
psychological essence. We know that the more
comfortable we feel around someone, the less
effort we will make about how we appear and
conversely, the more anxious we are about
the judgement of others, the more our reflection
has the power to horrify us. The issue is
never that of our appearance, it is about
our sense of our vulnerability to humiliation.
When we meet people who are perpetually sick
with worry that they are not attractive enough,
we should not rush in with physical compliments;
this is only to foster and unwittingly reward
an aggravating criterion of judgement. We
should learn to spot the wound in their early
relationships that have made it so hard for
them to trust that they could matter to others
in their basic state and that therefore perpetually
evokes in them an unflattering self-image.
They are not ‘ugly’ per se, they were
- when it mattered – left painfully unloved
and ignored to an extent that they are liable
never to have recognised or mourned adequately;
their arrival in the world did not delight
a few people as it should have done, and they
therefore need compassion, sympathy and emotional
validation far more than they will ever require
the tools of outward beautification.
Feeling ugly stems from a deficit of love,
never of beauty.