My strong preference is not to personalize my public writings, but because my recent article, “Physical Beauty and Its Effect Upon Human Psychology: A New Yorker’s Perspective,” appears to have generated considerable interest as to my motives for writing it, I will say a few words.
In my appraising my childhood and early adolescent experience, I would say that I experienced a fair amount of self-consciousness about my physical appearance, comparable to what an average teenager would endure. That is, neither an obsessively morose, nor an unduly vain, self-impression, but rather one that fell squarely in the center of a standard bell curve. Nor was I the object of school-buying and the like, but rather saw myself as a “floater” who generally got along well with everyone, despite being quite reserved and shy. I was involved in several sports, including tennis and basketball, which enabled me to blend in rather well. I also found comfort in befriending a few popular classmates under whose wing, along with my older brother’s friends, I was protected. Moreover, despite being an ethnic minority at a predominately all-white school, the young kids in my hometown were, and still are, remarkably tolerant and welcoming people, and I scarcely remember being subjected to any kind of race-based harassment. Although I was not particularly desired by girls, they were generally kind and pleasant to me, if only because I was such a harmless fellow—a “non-threat,” as they say.
But if there was one aspect about my physical experience that I did not particularly like, it was my nose. Like many first-generation Americans living in the diaspora, I felt that some of my features, especially my nose, were disproportionately large in comparison to most people, and thus often felt uncomfortable in intimate one-on-one setting where the obviousness of my prominent feature could not be denied. I recall studying the writings of Malcolm X who sharply rebuked members of the black community for the self-disgust and embarrassment that many experienced on account of their distinctly African features. He talked about the importance of self-acceptance before any genuine social change could be affected in black communities. Slowly, I found that my features began to “balance out” after which I became quite pleased with the way I looked. Today I regard my olive skin and nose as something to celebrate and ironically embrace my ethnic features as a source of pride and distinctiveness.
Setting myself aside, I often find that when appraising someone’s physical appearance, those who possess slight facial anomalies, that is, deviations from a “textbook” definition of beauty, are often the most beautiful of all. The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, is described in the authentic traditions as a man of stunning physical beauty. He too was described as having a slightly arched nose that is common to Semitic cultures. I came to believe that it represented something beautiful. Notwithstanding a dose of vanity that is, in my mind, innate to all human beings, today I have developed a sufficient degree of confidence by which I no longer give undue thought to my appearance and, as my mother and friends are wont to remind me, arguably suffer more from excessive self-adoration than its opposite.
That would be my personal story, but would still leave unanswered the question, why did I become so preoccupied with the idea of physical beauty, especially given my unremarkable childhood? I believe my reserved nature as well as my father’s example had something to do with it.
Due to my innate shyness, I did not talk a lot and would spend considerable time observing others and how their behavior would alter given a change in circumstance. I would often ask myself, why is this person so kind when we’re speaking one-on-one, but suddenly seems to acquire an almost unrecognizable personality when placed in a group setting? In A Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky wrote, “schoolchildren are a merciless group; standing alone, they are God’s angels, but together, especially in school, they are the worst demons.” I found this was especially true if an attractive girl was in the classroom. In an effort to distinguish oneself from the herd, I noted that other boys would expend great effort to present themselves as witty, charming, and desirable, no matter how badly they lacked in all departments. Their efforts would not be so contemptible, I thought, were it not for the fact that their attempts at endearment were characterized by backbiting, lying, putting others down, and indeed using any artifice at their disposal to “win” the girl over. These young charlatans appeared to apply the maxim, “all is fair in love and war,” which seemed to me absurd on its face, with a vulgar kind of literalism. I sometimes wondered who I despised more: the boys who sought to win the girls’ affection through their extreme acts of charlantry, or the girls who encouraged such behavior by delighting in the attention they were receiving, sometimes to the point of inciting physical confrontation. I’m still agnostic on this question.
In short, years of observation and hyper-analysis sensitized me to the way people would treat one another on account of one’s perceived attractiveness. It was clear to me that race and gender were not the only bases for discrimination, and now matter how much people wanted to insist “looks don’t matter,” I knew looks most emphatically did matter (although they shouldn’t).
Without wanting to give way to immodesty, today I am quite welcomed by my “popular” and “attractive” peers in New York and elsewhere, and do no feel the least bit threatened by their “beauty” (that word must always be put quotes, since often those perceived as beautiful by others are downright ugly, in my mind). Even so, if I am honest with myself, I find most of them to be insufferably dry and boring individuals whose only topics of conversation consist of how “hammered” they got the night before, their uncanny tolerance for banned substances, and their sexual conquests of members of the opposite sex (I rarely believe them, in this regard). What’s worst is hearing their fumbling attempts at discussing “philosophy, politics, love, and relationships” with a feigned seriousness that only further highlights their intellectual shallowness. They love to quote Oscar Wilde, I’ve noticed.
I always knew that I felt far more at ease with simple and honest people, no matter how they looked, and with whom I could have a genuine heart-to-heart without feeling the need to engage in false and ostentatious behavior. My late father had this quality as well. Despite being a highly successful doctor and investor (and quite handsome as well), his closest friends, with a few exceptions, were not fellow doctors, but rather students, racial minorities, orphans, and poor members of the local community. I knew that he much preferred their company to having to feign an interest in yachting or engaging in silly displays of consumptive vanity—he shopped at JC Penny and K-Mart and, indeed, his combined wardrobe was likely worth less than my Air Jordans.
I recall that in my eighth grade science class, I sat next to a fellow by the name of Andrew who had a slight facial deformity. He was one of the kindest, most gracious and gentle individual I’ve ever known. He didn’t talk much, but because I was a rather nonthreatening fellow myself, he opened up to me and we would spend almost all of sixth period discussing sports and girls. He would come to class enthusiastic to share stories about his mother, father, and older brother–both of us seemed completely at ease with one another and I considered his friendship a true blessing. I remember one day during our industrial technology class, several students ganged up on Andy and began hurling insult upon insult on him. One pretty girl, Melissa, even began taunting him sexually, in a clear effort to humiliate him. Although he didn’t break, my sense was that he was moments away from being reduced to tears, as would any person in his situation. I remember desperately wanting to come to his defense, but I didn’t possess the confidence to face such a formidable mob and feared being excoriated myself, had I interjected. I went home that night—and perhaps here I’m being a tad too transparent–but I wept for Andy and felt very sorry that no one was there to protect him. It’s those kind of experience that never leave you, and there are surely many others I could relay.
So why did I write about “beautism”? I am now at a point of my life where I no longer fear being judged on account of my appearance and thus felt it my duty to put my audacity and confidence to use by writing about a subject that is irresponsibly ignored. In the end, there are ways to avoid getting embroiled in sensitive debates about “beauty and attractiveness.” That is, regardless of who is bullying or being bullied, pretty or not-as-pretty, children must be protected and nurtured in a way that will enable them to live rich and fulfilling lives, rather than being forced into a state of depression that often stems from negative childhood experiences. In my mind, the longer this issue is ignored the more violence will be done to the hearts of young children throughout the county, and indeed the world. It is no surprise that madmen like Hitler and Napoleon were victims of constant childhood bullying–hence the expression “Napoleon complex.” My strong belief is that anti-bullying initiatives ought to achieve a prominence comparable to what the United States witnessed during one of its most glorious moments, namely the Civil Rights Movement.
Despite my best efforts to avoid sounding like a narcissist, I cannot help feeling a sense of shame for having written this piece. Going forward, I hope this will be the first, and very last, time I compose something so personal.