“I have an essay in
@newyorker online today. It’s about my big chin and other defects,” Amanda Filipacchi tweeted at twitter. Defects? What defects? She’s beautiful:
Her latest novel, The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty, will be published by Norton in February 2015. Her New York Times essay is a haunting commentary on our times, our values. Cosmetic surgery is a booming industry, despite how expensive and invasive it is, despite how often it makes patients look worse, not better, after undergoing the knife.
Cosmetic surgeons sound like the kind of villains we should put in our science fiction novels, except it isn’t fiction. “I was born cross-eyed,” Amanda’s essay begins, “not all the time, but some of the time.
“My right eye drifted inward, especially when I was tired or daydreaming.
“Meanwhile, my mother was extremely beautiful. She was one of the top Ford models of the nineteen-sixties, frequently appearing on the covers of Vogue, Elle, and all the other major fashion magazines. My father was very good-looking as well. My brother inherited their looks. I didn’t.”
“When I was six, my mother suggested I have an operation to straighten my eye. She said it was entirely up to me, that I didn’t have to do it. I could tell she thought it was a good idea, so I said O.K. The result of the operation was that my eye drifted outward—when I was tired or daydreaming.
“When I was twelve, my mother suggested I have another eye operation, to fix the first operation. This was a new kind of operation, performed by one of the top eye surgeons in New York.”
(Click here for the graphic details of this procedure.)
“…And each time I fainted, I was carried to another room, revived, scolded by the frustrated surgeon for fainting, instructed not to faint again, and brought back in to let him try pulling on the thread again. I did my best not to faint, but I kept fainting. The result of that operation was that my eye was much straighter than before, but not perfectly straight. And with time, some of the improvement faded.”
That wasn’t the end of the cutting and tinkering with this girl’s body. Next, four permanent molars (not wisdom teeth; permanent!) were taken out because her mom trusted the orthodontist. The result: her jaw was no longer square enough. “It swooped up from my chin to my ear in too severe an incline.”
As a teenager chewing gum she heard her dad say, “Why is she chewing gum? Her jaw is already big enough as it is.”
She stopped chewing gum.
Even at a dental appointment, we might here of ways surgery can “improve” our looks. Amanda’s dentist said to her, “Well, you know, there is a surgery to make the chin smaller, but it’s really very painful. They have to break your jaw, cut a piece out, push your chin back in. The recovery is endless and it really interferes with your life.”
I looked at him in shock, not having mentioned my chin once to him. I said, “I thought I looked O.K.”
He said, “Oh, don’t get me wrong, I think you’re very cute. I’m just mentioning it in case you’re interested.”
A few years later, my first novel, “Nude Men,” was about to be published, and Viking sent an author photographer to take my photo for the book jacket. As soon as the photographer saw me, he said, “Don’t worry about your chin—I retouch my photos.”
I said, “What do you mean? What’s wrong with my chin?”
Please read the whole article, folks. I’m posting excerpts only here.
A woman asked Amanda, out of the blue, “Do you think the reason you’ve loved your mother so much is that she’s so beautiful?”
I was a bit stunned and depressed by this question. The answer was no, definitely not. And yet, once posed, that question troubled me, and made me wonder if, on a subconscious level, my great love for my mother might have been partly caused by her beauty. I hoped not—and I very much doubted it. She had always been a warm, loving person—nurturing, passionate about animals, and adored by everyone. The eye operations she encouraged me to have were what most loving parents would have encouraged their children to have if they’d been in the same position. I’m glad my eye was straightened. As for removing four of my permanent teeth, that was a common procedure at the time, and the dentist had made a persuasive case.
Later, a man she was interested in romantically said, “It must be hard to have a mother who’s that beautiful.”
“No, not at all,” I said, surprised by his comment. “It’s been great. I’ve always been very proud of her.” And I meant it.
Things did not go further between that man and me.
The next part of her essay is eerie because I know so many authors who report the same phenomenon. One even wrote a character out of her novel when he materialized in real life. Who’d believe she invented him before she even knew he existed?
Several years later, I noticed a disturbing pattern: many of the things I wrote about in my first three novels later came true in my life. For example, in my first novel, I wrote about a character getting a fatal brain tumor, and soon afterward, one of my best friends got a brain tumor and eventually died. I almost felt as though I had caused this tragedy by simply writing about it. In my second novel, my main character falls in love with a weather scientist who looks like Jon Bon Jovi. They have a strange and tumultuous relationship. Not long afterward, I was at a literary party and in came a man who looked like Jon Bon Jovi. I introduced myself. He was an astrophysicist. We had a passionate but stormy romantic relationship for a year. And in my third novel, the main character suffers from an ailment I’d never experienced nor heard of and thought I’d made up: she finds herself, to a painful degree, wanting nothing; she has lost her desire for all things. Soon after, the same disorder befell me—turns out it’s a symptom of depression, called anhedonia.
Here comes a quotable quote:
None of my novels had been autobiographical, but after writing them, I was starting to feel that while I wasn’t writing from life; life was writing from me.
With her first three novels “partially coming true,” Amanda began her fourth novel as “a fictional meditation on beauty—a disapproval of it, but also a celebration of it.”
I admire beauty, both the straightforward kind … and the more subtle, magical kind that is hidden in ugliness and emerges slowly, but only to some eyes. I’ve often been able to see great beauty in physical ugliness and have not understood why not everyone could.
“The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty” includes “a young woman so ugly that she can’t find love. Even her extraordinary talent can’t make up for the disadvantages that she suffers at the hands of her ugliness.”
For many people, even intelligent and brilliant ones, why does beauty count for more than anything else in their appreciation of other human beings—particularly of women? Why don’t other qualities count for more?
What a great topic, timely and profound. It’s no wonder body dysmorphia (suffering the impact of imaginary or perceived defects in their appearance) afflicts far more females than males and can be fatal (anorexia). The fashion industry trains students to draw models with legs 30 percent longer than humanly possible. The clothes look good only on skeletons. Corsets to shrink a woman’s waist to an impossible 18 inches caused enough suffering, but today’s women face the added pressure of undergoing surgery to make their bodies more pleasing to behold.
Imagine the irony, and my dismay, when our daughter decided to major in fashion design and merchandising (oh, she’s quite the illustrator and artist!), and our other daughter is majoring in Pre-Med with the goal of becoming a plastic surgeon. The kind who looks at a face, discerns what’s “wrong” with it and reconfigures it to look “better.”
It must be the only way they can find to rebel against their mom.
Please read Amanda’s essay and her novel when it comes out. The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty is a message we need to instill in the whole human race.
Amanda Filipacchi is the author of four novels: “Nude Men,” “Vapor,” “Love Creeps,” and “The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty,” which will be published by Norton in February. Her nonfiction has appeared in the NY Times, WSJ, and The Atlantic.