A four-year-old enhancing her vocabulary and taking a fancy to pronouncing big terminology adds, among others, the words ‘bioluminescent’ and ‘discrimination’ to her list. While the science project in pre-school summer camp gave her some rough idea that ‘bioluminescent’ was related to light, she in her pure childhood innocence was totally ignorant about what ‘discrimination’ meant. But it is not surprising that when the word is so much in the air, a little one is aware about the existence of such a word. Be it racial, cultural, or color discrimination; gender bias; or an anti-LGBT stance, the world buzzes with prejudice. And though not explicitly discussed as the other forms, there prevails discriminatory treatment against physically unattractive people that comes under the banner of Lookism.
It was an early April Fool’s day for me when one morning, I opened Facebook and saw the picture of my friend on the cover page of a fashion magazine. As I was trying to figure out how the modeling assignment came her way, several other magazine covers met my eyes, and they all had faces of people I knew. What was it all about? Titled, “Your face on a glamorous magazine cover in seconds”, it was apparently an app which gave a total makeover to a face once a photo was uploaded. The new face was then superimposed against a magazine cover. It was a fun activity, and sure there’s no harm thinking you are a diva for a few fleeting moments. But it only speaks as to how most of us are enticed by the glitz, the glamor, and the sophistication, and yes, we love to sport an attractive look!
Why does physical appearance need to be pleasing to the eyes? Starting off from the very minuscule level of fairy tales and children’s literature, we see how the nice characters in the majority of these stories are depicted as beautiful and handsome individuals while the villains are painted with ugly looks. Such representations do play a big role in shaping the child’s psyche. It gets ingrained in one’s system that it is essential to look pretty to be accepted in society.
Danish poet and author Hans Christian Anderson’s literary fairy tale “The Ugly Duckling” centers around the theme of personal transformation and self-image. A bird that hatches out of an egg mistakenly left by the mother in a duck’s nest faces physical and verbal abuse by the other ducks who consider him plain and ugly. He flees from the farm, and after many wanderings where he is taunted and treated with insult and humiliation, he finally finds his true identity amongst a group of elegant swans. Looking at his reflection in the lake he realizes that over time, he himself has matured into a beautiful bird and happily joins his breed where he is welcomed. The story of “The Ugly Duckling” unfolds in the human world too as people struggle to be accepted and treated with respect.
A sad truth, but there are many who have suffered simply because they are not considered attractive. As much as the world moves ahead in terms of economic and scientific progress, we regress several steps backwards in humane values when we judge someone by their looks. It is a shame that people with visual disfigurements are at times ostracized and face the pangs of isolation. An Indian human rights activist Shirin Juwaley is an acid attack survivor who now helps many others who have gone through that same trauma as her. It was an odyssey fraught with many challenges, and she says about her post-attack agony, “It dawned on me quite by shock that people were scared of my face. It was painful to be constantly stared at, listen to the gasps and expletives, and watch expressions of fright when people saw me.“
In her candid and humorous 2010 TED talk, former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright shares how there was so much discussion about how she looked, and what she wore when she was in prominence. She also made a reference to how Condoleezza Rice was criticized for wearing boots at some event. Well hand in hand with the stigma of lookism, what comes in here is gender bias too because as Albright says “no guy ever gets criticized” for that. For these diplomats, honesty, integrity and professional accomplishments need to take the limelight; wardrobe closets fall into the extraneous section and should not be the topics for gossip.
Indian actress Priyanka Chopra who has also made her impressive mark in Hollywood was appointed as the global UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in December 2016. Just shortly after this honor was conferred, a news headline read, “Priyanka Chopra showing off her tummy with pride is a punch in the face of lookism”. The article described how she looked chic on the red carpet, how to the surprise of a few, she let a slight paunch show through her figure-hugging dress which was “a welcome relief for real girls across the world.” Well, Miss World 2000 could truly provide inspiration to those youngsters so insanely obsessed with thinness, thereby resulting in severe dieting and excessive weight loss.
In no way am I advocating in favor of an unkempt, dishabille appearance. To be properly groomed, to dress tastefully and appropriately is itself an art. I am not being judgmental about anyone taking good care of their health, exercising, and eating right to keep off the extra pounds. Blessed are those who look young for their age or who have that charming countenance. But mankind needs to see far beyond, and treatment of fellow beings should not be guided by prejudice of any form. The underlying premise is that beauty is skin-deep. So you might as well ignore the mirror that pronounces, “Who’s the fairest of us all!”