Ugly is as ugly does
Life has been cruel to Tehanu, a character in Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea series. She was assaulted as a child, shoved into a fire, and left for dead. Half of her face is gone, destroyed. Under the care of Tenar (former priestess of darkness, now a widow) and Ged (former Archmage, now ordinary man), she has grown up to be a timid but wise young woman.
People are cruel. Their open horror at her appearance makes her hesitant to go out in public. They whisper that she is cursed. They shun, avoid, dread, hate.
Why? Her face is burned.
Her horrific scars aren’t her fault. But others treat her as if her appearance reveals something disparaging about her character. That’s horrible. It’s also easy to stay at the shallow and cliched conclusion that LeGuin is criticizing hating someone for their looks, or that real beauty and worth is found inside a person.
But what if . . .
Her appearance does reveal something significant about her character, and in that revelation, we see her true significance.
She’s a survivor.
She’s an unusual person.
In fact, she’s not a person at all. She’s a dragon born as a human.
And what do dragons do? Breathe fire and remain unharmed. It’s only because Tehanu has a human form now that she has those scars. If she returns to her dragon-state—her true identity—then she will be whole and unscarred. It’s in her dragon-form that she might help save the world of Earthsea. The wizards, who see her with their wizardly powers, recognize this and are awestruck.
The revelation of her real worth does lie in her appearance, just not the way the bullies think it does.
The Club of Cool
I saw a headline on the cover of GQ: Male anorexia on the rise! (or something along those lines). Intrigued, I searched for the article.
I flipped through page after page of ads with ripped, buff guys, all impossibly good looking, all sexually appealing, all advertising their membership in the exclusive (and elusive) club of coolness. All sending the corresponding message: you don’t look like us and you don’t belong with us and your pathetic attempts to try to join us will be met with disdain. Cool disdain, of course. All your money, connections, power, and brains won’t get you into THIS club.
No pressure, guys.
I felt insecure looking at the ads, and I’m female. I can’t imagine what the effect is on a young man.
Actually, I can imagine. It’s the same feeling I feel when I flip through a ladies’ magazine and wonder how the models manage such gorgeous skin (and why I’ve never met a real life woman with flawless skin. Hm.) Why are male eating disorders on the rise? I wonder.
But is there an element of truth to the message in those ads?
If membership in the Club of Cool depends on appearance, then nothing else, no matter how valuable, will grant membership status to a person who doesn’t meet that standard. On the flip side, appearance won’t get you into the higher ranks of the clubs revolving around money or power or brains.
Which reveals something else. The standard changes. It changes depending on which criteria must be met. It also changes depending on whether the person meets that criteria at that particular moment. Beauty is fleeting. So are riches and power. So are brains.
And the opposite is true, too. Someone who doesn’t meet the criteria now might meet it later. The line between “in” and “out” are flexible and ever-shifting.
And we rarely can predict where those boundary lines will fall, can we?
Too Thin, Too Pretty
Several years ago, I read an acquaintance’s newsfeed the day after the Academy Awards. She and a few friends were criticising Angelina Jolie’s appearance. She’s too thin. A skeleton. Fatten her up! Eat a hamburger. Too thin. Yuck!
Finally another person commented, “You know, some of us can’t help being thin.” This woman has suffered a serious illness that has left her very, very thin; apparently she often comes under harsh criticism from strangers. That silenced the Angelina bashers. (It elicited an apology from the original commenter as well.)
So even beautiful people can be criticized for their appearance. The promised land that so many of us yearn to enter—the land of beautiful, thin, cool people—is be anything but a utopia of freedom from judgement.
Why appearance matters
It’s all too easy to say, “It’s what’s inside that counts,” or “don’t worry about how you look,” or “appearances don’t matter.”
Yes, they do matter. But they don’t matter for the reasons we usually believe that they matter.
It’s not that beauty (or lack thereof) should determine who is cool. It’s to show how arbitrary and fickle the standards of coolness are.
It’s not that a beautiful appearance is to be desired because then we’ll be free from ridicule. It’s to show that even an attractive appearance cannot protect from others’ desire to hurt and slander.
It’s not that beauty or ugliness are where our worth lies. It’s that our appearance reveals that our worth does not lie there. Our worth lies within.
And every once in a while, that appearance hints at our true identity.
That we are so much more than ordinary.
That we are valuable, created in God’s image.
That we are bound by this flesh now, but later, all will see who we really are.