Why Are We So Hung Up on Beauty?
Amanda Filipacchi has written a novel about how we only pay lip service to the idea that beauty is skin deep. She talks about how we might break that habit and then blithely ignore what we preach.
Amanda Filipacchi gets into the meat of the matter right in her title: The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty. The novel, her fourth, is a critique of how society’s visual valuations override the importance of character: a “don’t judge a book by its cover” manifesto.
The narrative spotlights a group of friends, but specifically Barb and Lily—described as very attractive and unattractive, respectively—in their quests for romantic relationships. Barb, a costume designer, camouflages her attractive looks as a litmus test for how she’ll be treated, wearing a fat suit and frizzy wig over her thin pretty frame. Lily, a musician with close-set eyes, disguises herself too—either behind a mask, or by playing a transformative music composition that makes people see her differently. Both embody the frustrations women deal with: being superficially courted, or woefully overlooked. Though it sometimes falls into flattened characterizations, the novel suitably jabs at the shallow attitudes that displace meaningful connections.
Your December New Yorker article, “The Looks You’re Born With and the Looks You’re Given,” felt like a preamble to this book. Was it intended as such?
My essay was my attempt to clarify my relationship to beauty and to my novel. I felt a little embarrassed about having written a first person novel in which the main character is incredibly beautiful and has a mother who is an ex-model. Since my own mother is an ex-model, I worried that journalists might think I’m mightily deluded about my own appearance and have a psychotically healthy self-esteem. To my surprise, the essay seemed to resonate deeply with readers and even ended up on The New Yorker’s list of “14 Most-Read Blog Posts of 2014.”
The book is described as a parable—that is, a didactic story illustrating a lesson. What was the foundational lesson at heart that you expected readers to come away with?
I think my novel was intended as a bit more of a complaint or criticism rather than a message or lesson. The complaint being, “Excuse me, but can you please take a look here at how unfortunate it is that beauty is so important in the world and to everyone? Can you please notice how it is valued above all else, especially in romantic love? Let me illustrate it for you. Don’t you find it sad?” It’s not so much a criticism of people, or even specifically of males, but rather a criticism of biology.
Loving people for reasons other than looks is an extremely pleasurable activity. I highly recommend it. You notice something in them, a little something that is unusual and wonderful. And you appreciate that person more—which is not only pleasant for them, but for you; and not only good for their self-esteem, but for yours, because, after all, it’s nice to feel like an evolved person with advanced powers of appreciation.
Beauty is framed in very polar terms—ugly/beautiful—but doesn't acknowledge a sliding scale of subjectivity. Why did you frame the notion of beauty so extremely?
The sliding scale of subjectivity is more present when the subjects looked at are not very extreme—either extremely ugly or beautiful. I chose two very extreme characters to more clearly illustrate the problem. In the real world, there is of course some subjectivity in people’s tastes and perceptions of beauty, but not as much as would be ideal. An overwhelming majority of people (including myself) find supermodels beautiful. And a majority of people will agree on who they consider ugly. The point I was trying to make in the novel is precisely that—that the sliding scale of subjectivity is, overall, not as subjective as I wish it were.
Early on in the book, the main character cavalierly states: “being dowdy is liberating.” As her “ugly” friend Lily points out later, it is offensive of Barb to hide her beauty like a martyr instead of acknowledge its existence. Did you worry that the main character would be unrelatable, and perhaps unlikeable, for being sanctimonious?
Being beautiful in front of Lily pains Barb—like having a feast in front of a starving person. Barb also has other reasons for hiding her beauty—some are traumatic, such as the suicide of her best friend—and she does indeed feel that being dowdy is liberating. She doesn’t want to follow in the footsteps of her mother who married a man who values a woman’s looks to a great degree. Barb wants to find someone who is able to fall in love with other aspects of her so deeply that her relatively unattractive appearance not only has no negative effect on his love, but is possibly even loved, too. She is fixated on this goal.
Yes, I did worry that my main character might be unrelatable to readers, because very few people in the world are as beautiful as she is. But on another level I think all readers should be able to relate to her, because who among us has never worried about why we were loved, and whether we were loved for the right reasons?
The “ugly” character Lily is so fixated on an indifferent man that her looks seem less of an issue than the fact that she is so dependent on someone’s personal and romantic approval. Does her neediness dilute the aesthetic issue?
Whether it dilutes it is debatable. If it does, I think it’s in a good way. But on the other hand one can argue that it doesn’t dilute it and that perhaps on the contrary it enhances it and brings it to life. Beauty was not the only topic I wanted to explore in this novel. I’m also fascinated with unrequited love and the degree to which it can damage people’s lives. I’ve known several people (including myself) whose lives contain big chunks that were wasted on a futile unrequited romantic passion. And getting out of such a phase is incredibly difficult. I find this kind of self-destruction very interesting.
You make explicit reference to your mother, Sondra Peterson, as one of the characters’ favorite 60s-era models. What was the intention behind this mention?
It was just meant as a tiny private affectionate homage to my mother, whom I love deeply. At the time, I assumed most readers would have no idea that reference was to my mother, and that the few who figured it out might get a small kick out of it. In this novel, I enjoyed incorporating the names of some real people in my life. My dad makes a cameo appearance as a stranger who tries to pick up beautiful Lily during her blind date at a bookstore. He gives her a copy of his autobiography, entitled This Is Not an Autobiography. It’s a translation of the actual title of my own father’s autobiography, Ceci N'est Pas Une Autobiographie, which was published only in France. The stranger signs it “Danny.” My dad’s name is Daniel. I incorporated my editor into my novel, too, but changed her name slightly from Jill Bialosky to Jen Bloominosky.
As someone who comes from a family involved in publishing and magazines, how has that colored your approach to analyzing what is diffused through the media—and what responsibility it has in perpetuating distorted standards?
The fact that my dad was involved in magazine publishing did not have much effect on me nor did it affect how I analyzed what is diffused through the media, at least not on a conscious level. He never really brought his work home and as a teenager I never went to fashion shows or fashion parties or, in fact, parties of any kind, really.
I think that if the retouching of fashion photos didn’t exist, we would all consider each other and ourselves slightly better looking than we currently do because there wouldn’t be as wide a gap between us and those artificially perfected models on covers of magazines. But I’m not seriously suggesting we ban photo retouching because I know we enjoy striving for that “beautiful” distortion, that inaccurate “perfection” in images—even if it means we’ll enjoy the people around us, and ourselves, less.
Do you think there will ever be a tectonic shift in how media portray beauty standards, as some magazines suddenly do in the book?
There have been many shifts already in our lifetime. Before teeth bleaching existed, there was an episode of “Friends” in which Ross painted his teeth pure white (if I remember correctly). He looked ludicrous to everyone and to himself. Practically everyone has teeth now that look as white as his teeth did in that episode, and we no longer find it ridiculous. We got used to it.
But I doubt there will ever be a tectonic shift in how media portray beauty standards. I can’t imagine that one day human beauty (whatever it may be at that time), will no longer interest human beings. It would be fascinating, though, if that ever happened.
The male gaze is a featured aspect of the story. Do you think misogyny and misandry are necessarily part of the discussion when dealing with the pressure and unfairness of how women are perceived and treated?
Women might feel it’s unfair that their looks should matter more to men than other great qualities and achievements they may have. Many men who hear this complaint say it’s just as unfair the other way around—they claim that lots of women value money and that they will reject men who don’t have a high enough salary. Is that as unfortunate as overvaluing beauty? I don’t know. When people get rejected in romance, they often get angry at the entire gender that their rejector belongs to. That’s when misogyny and misandry sometimes surface.
Without divulging it, there is a neatness to the ending. Do you believe people can resolve their issues with their looks for themselves—and find accepting partners who do, too? Or was this purely a fairy tale ending?
When I was writing my last novel, Love Creeps, I had lost all hope that real love existed. I’d had such bad luck in love and such bad relationships that I was convinced love was a myth. And then, during the writing of that novel, which was extremely pessimistic about love, I happened to meet my life’s love. We have been together for 13 years now. So, my current position on the topic is that finding a great love is rare, and that few people find it, and that I could so easily never have found it, but I got very lucky. Fairy tale endings are rare, but they can happen. I think the key to a happy life is to assume they won’t, and to figure out a way to make one’s life happy enough without them, with friends and possibly a lover or two. If you do find that great romantic partner who is as in love with you as you are with him/her, that’s the cherry on top.