I am possibly not the worst-looking guy in the world, but there are certainly moments when I feel the title within my reach. Mornings are reliably a dangerous time for literal self-reflection, at least until I’ve steamed the sleep out of my face and beat my hair into a semblance of a semblance of order. But terror strikes when least expected: the sudden glimpse in the shop window, the improvidently proffered snapshot from which the unguarded reality of my mug comes screaming back at me. It grows no less shocking with the years — not surprising, really — how far the face I see is from the face I carry in my head. And the face I carry in my head is no Cary Grant. As long as I am not having my face shoved in my face, I get along with it pretty well. On a good day, in the right light, or half-light, I might even think myself not without a certain oddball charm. I am no longer the peerlessly insecure teenager who stood before the glass traveling his features like they were Stations of the Cross — bewailing for a while my nose before moving on to my mouth, then fretting over the set of my eyes, then decamping to the angle of my ears, and so on, staring hard as if by concentrating I could morph myself into an accepted model of handsomeness, or even averageness. (If anything, I think this might have had an effect opposite from the one desired.) I understand that this is all vanity, and that no one judges my face as harshly as I do; everyone (except the extremely unfortunate) has his own face to worry about. I have lived a long time without having been solicited for a sideshow or put on the cover of the Weekly World News, so I guess I am all right, even while I relentlessly suspect I am not. No one has ever fainted or turned to stone when I walked into a room; my face does not crack mirrors, even if I am sometimes tempted to crack them myself.
Recent science posits an absolute standard of physical attractiveness — a Golden Mean of facial symmetry and proportion to which we are congenitally programmed to respond and which cuts across time and race and the vagaries of fashion. This seems like bad news for the asymmetrical, disproportionate rest of us, but practically speaking, human beauty remains in the beholder‘s eye: One man’s Ginger is another man‘s Mary Ann, one planet’s horrible mutant another‘s pretty TV starlet. Untangling the psychomechanics of case-to-case physical attraction is more complicated than putting a ruler up to Denzel Washington’s admittedly very nice face. And even the most bodily perfect of pop-cultural Ubermenschen, whose images instruct the People in that which they lack, are no more safe from the rip tides of taste than were shag carpeting and macrame; one may appreciate their fleeting perfection without taking it too seriously, since it is, after all, deviant.
But one appreciates it all the same. Beauty is relative and real beauty shines from within and the people we love are beautiful because we love them and the smooth pelt of careless youth is no match for the face whose lines tell the story of a life fully lived, except of course in the sense of its being smooth and young, but I am talking about something else: the excellent shell. It gives way eventually to gravity and time, or is fixed by cosmetic re-upholstery into a mask of desperation, but while it lasts it is a powerful force. I have stood beside both hunks and hotties — yes, I have known some personally, even intimately, though I take it from what I imagine your expression to be that you have your doubts — and have watched all eyes swing their way; I have seen the squeegee stares that press upon every curve and into each dimple, seen human beings scanned as if by a Xerox copier in a way I‘ll never be, short of plastic surgery, personal training, platform shoes and a time machine. I accepted long ago that mine was not a face or form that would open doors, and yet I am not entirely free of the stupid desire to be desired not for the substance but for the skin-deep surface — to turn the heads of strangers, even of people I might not actually care to know, but would like nonetheless to be able to impress, on a purely animal level. Sometimes it seems better than being, you know, smart, or nice — it’s difficult to get the same effect with SAT scores or lists of charitable contributions, even if you could devise a way of casually advertising them. (A tattoo, possibly.)
Not that a person can‘t be shockingly beautiful and super smart and really really nice, though this does seem an affront to common notions of fair play and ultimate balance — the idea that nobody gets all the luck. It is easier, not to say comforting, to believe that such inordinately gifted people do not exist, and that there is some sort of inverse relationship between looks and brains, between body and soul. But it may not be all Britney and Justin and tan lines and protein powder with them, those beautifully beautiful people; perhaps they are only waiting to be asked to sit down and discuss Thomas Merton or the late Beethoven quartets, or how to keep the film from cracking on the quartz substrate during cold fusion. Perhaps they weary of their intimidating beauty. The fairy tale tells of the ugly duckling that grew up to be a swan, which in fairy tale terms is about the best bird you can be. But ducks have their special appeal too, their sterling qualities, their ducklike beauty. Maybe in every swan there’s an ugly duckling trying to get out, wanting nothing more than to be loved for its homely self. I suppose it‘s not impossible, in the strict sense of impossible.
But I can only guess. Like the rich man, the scientist, the nun and the football star, they operate on other principles, the hunks and hotties, the babes and beauties, they move in a different medium from mine, an atmosphere as remote from the particular air I breathe as the bottom of the ocean. Sitting with my afternoon caffeine at the window of my local cappuccinarium, on a street ever teeming with the proportionate and symmetrical, I watch them swimming along brightly; they are tropical fish to me. And I am full of ichthyological admiration, invisible, unreflected, behind the sun-darkened glass.