The Beautiful People

Is it legitimate to criticize someone’s physical appearance? I don’t mean: is it legitimate to have or even express personal preferences about someone’s physical appearance. I mean: is it legitimate to issue an objective verdict on someone for looking the way they do, e.g., criticizing the very structure of a person’s face for giving them the facial appearance they have?

It seems a stupid question with a self-evident answer. The answer, in case you lack a gift for the self-evident, is “no.” Yet taxpayers in the United States of America, right now, fund government programs premised on a “yes.”

Am I bullshitting you? No reader, I am not. Or if so, only a little.

My housemate works on a government contract for the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the so-called Nation’s Report Card, funded by the U.S. Department of Education. Every night when I get home, I sit at the dinner table where she works, stare over her shoulder, and comment on whatever she’s doing. It annoys her. It’s fun. She has no idea I’m writing this, by the way. Neither does the National Assessment Governing Board or the executive leadership of the U.S. Department of Education. So let’s keep this post on the down-low.

Right now, H (for “Housemate”) is working on a reading assessment for fourth-graders. Living as we do in the twenty-first century, this assessment is to take place online, and like all online apps (except this blog, when I’m writing), it makes essential use of images. The students are asked to read dialogue “spoken” by computer-generated (images of) fictional fourth-graders (meaning that the dialogue appears written out in bubbles above the speaker’s head). These computer-generated fourth graders are, I emphasize, purely fictional, created entirely out of the imaginations of the project’s graphic designers, and given fictional names. Naturally, they are a “diverse” lot: male, female, androgynous; of various different skin tones and ethnic features; heavy, slim, in-between; dressed various different ways; etc.

When I got home tonight, H was vetting images for the latest iteration of the assessment, in anticipation of criticism she expected to get from the client. What kind of criticism? Well, criticism of the physical appearance of the fictional fourth graders. She was literally going through slides of the images arranged in pairwise fashion, making pairwise comparisons in each case, and on that basis, treating some images as “better than” others, i.e., accepting some and rejecting others. Did I mention that this work is funded by the hard-earned tax dollars of the American people?

What (I ask you) are these cavalier pairwise comparisons if not criticisms of peoples’ physical appearance at public expense? When I pointed this out to H, aghast at the moral horror of the scene before me, she merely passed the buck: she was not, she protested, expressing her own judgments about the physical appearance of the characters in the assessment. She was merely anticipating criticisms that might be made by the client.

Very well, then–let’s blame the client. Not that doing so really helps. This is, after all, a democracy. The client is the government. The government represents us. Representing us, the government is us: what is representation but re-presenting the very thing that was first presented? When “the government” judges people on the basis of their physical appearance, then, it does so with our authorization. Put another way, we are the client. No sense in trying to dodge the moral bullet, then: we are judging others on the basis of physical appearance. How could we?

That is what’s going on, right? I can’t, alas, show you the actual images H was using, because they’re proprietary, and I’m not quite brazen or stupid (or enterprising) enough to upload them here. So you’ll have to take my word for it: the alleged problem with the “problem” images was not that they were somehow imperfectly or incompetently rendered. It’s that a given image didn’t, in some ineffable sense, “look right,” or didn’t look as good as some other image in a pairwise comparison. The nose was “wrong.” The hair was “dumb.” The lips were “off.” And so on.

Yet any one of these supposedly problematic images might have been an accurate representation of a hypothetical person. The nose that was “wrong” might have been someone’s nose. The hair that was “dumb” might have been someone’s hair. And so on. It was entirely possible for a real person to look like any of the rejected images. To criticize the appearance of one of these “problematic” or undesirable images is tantamount to criticizing the appearance of the fictional person represented by the image. Granted, being fictional, these fictional people are not easily offended, and have no legal standing in a court of law. All the same: they would have the right to be offended if they had been real people. And if voicelessness is an issue, who among us is more voiceless than the discarded graphic image of a fictional character in a fourth-grade reading assessment?

So there you have it. Primitive as it seems, physical appearance must matter a great deal to us, after all. We pay the government to vet the images of the fictional characters that populate our nation’s reading assessment, on the premise that some of these images are better than others, and some are problematic enough–dare I say, ugly enough–to be discarded like digital trash. The government wouldn’t do it unless we wanted it to; its sensitivities represent our sensitivities. Look in the mirror, then, if you have the courage. The hideous Dorian Gray-like visage you see is your own rotten soul made visible.

Are we really that shallow? I guess we are. Forget the fourth graders. Someone should assess us.

9 thoughts on “The Beautiful People

  1. I used to work long ago for a government department that was trying to lure girls into traditionally masculine apprenticeships. We produced a booklet showcasing all the great female electricians, etc, and then came the question of who to put on the cover. We agreed that the best looking girl… she was a plumber… would be it, to help persuade high school girls that you could be glamorous and wield a welding torch or whatever. When we don’t do that any more, feminism will have progressed.
    We sell things with beautiful people. It’s hard to rid oneself, as a woman, of the notion that unattractiveness has a meaning beyond the physical. Particularly unattractiveness that’s caused deliberately or by neglect. You think, why don’t you do something about that? Why don’t you try harder? And I’m not a particularly attractive woman so it’s ironic that all this judgement is going on!


    • Over a decade ago, I started what I wanted to be a book on this topic. But as often happens in my life, I was derailed by events. I wrote a paper, gave it a few times, revised it, then got lost in reading and complications, and never finished.

      There happened to be a reporter sitting in on the first version of the paper that I gave:

      As he says, I basically regard appearance as irrelevant to moral judgment, but I also wanted to come up with an explanation for why people might ever see a connection between them.

      Since then, I’ve thought a lot about what I called the “concomitants argument,” the idea that we can “see” a person’s moral success by how they look. People seem obsessed with this today.

      Imagine that you haven’t seen someone in a decade or so. Think how common it is to judge the decade they’ve had by how well they’ve “aged.” The idea seems to be: they look good because they’ve lived a wholesome life. Whereas someone who hasn’t aged well seems to have lived a dissolute one. The whole thing is very seductive and hard to resist. It goes to your point about neglect. It’s as though we have a duty to live up to our potential for looking good. To do less is to waste that potential.

      My own view is that we inherit these attitudes from our specifically pagan past–from Rome. They then find their way into the modern world through the Enlightenment’s emphasis on individual happiness. Happiness becomes a measure of moral success, and physical beauty becomes a proxy for happiness. It’s a seductive set of thoughts.

      Old school Christianity and old school feminism are, in different ways, a corrective to that set of thoughts. I regard that as a point in their favor, but I also doubt this is a battle they can win.


  2. Appearance perhaps is a different matter than attractiveness. Appearance is a wider term I think, taking into account the clues a person’s physical self gives others about their internal state, moral and otherwise. For instance excess weight does generally indicate something wrong, either with lifestyle or mental health, and people who think unpleasant thoughts on a regular basis end up looking unpleasant, often. But inner beauty also imparts outer beauty, once the beholder is aware of it…as your article says, if you love someone they become more beautiful to you. However I can’t for the life of me see how a receding chin, which is basically a matter of bone structure, can indicate a weakness of will. I know someone who is badly burned, but they’re a nice person, and I don’t see the burns as relevant to their personality. Then again someone who chooses not to care for their physical self is by some measures conveying a lack of vanity, by others a lack of respect. The Greek ideal tells us to care for both body and mind. I can’t myself see a link between happiness, beauty and morality, but I can see why people, having only the outside to judge by, judge by it.


    • Appearance is the broader concept, but I think appearance and attractiveness are ultimately the same issue: it’s an attractive appearance that’s equated with what’s morally good.

      I’m skeptical of this:

      For instance excess weight does generally indicate something wrong, either with lifestyle or mental health, and people who think unpleasant thoughts on a regular basis end up looking unpleasant, often.

      Excess weight can indicate a problem with lifestyle or mental health, but need not. There are too many causes of excess weight to yield a quick inference in any given case. For instance, certain medications cause weight gain as a side effect. And even when “lifestyle” explains it, that can tell us more about the milieu than the person.

      I’ve been both slim and overweight at different times in my life, and though lifestyle mostly explained it, the basic variables were whether my work was sedentary or physical, and if sedentary, whether I had free time or not. When I had a physically demanding job in 2021 (and work-subsidized access to a pool), I weighed a full nine kg (20 lbs) less than I do now. Right now, my job is sedentary, I can’t afford a pool membership, and I have little free time, so I’m overweight. But my mental state is about the same as it was then. The basic difference is that my job then involved an eight hour workout, whereas my job now involves eight hours of sitting in front of a computer.

      I also don’t know about thinking unpleasant thoughts and looking unpleasant. The clearest connection I can think of is anxiety. Anxious people look anxious. But absent any information about why they’re anxious, it’s hard to know what conclusion to reach. Some of the most evil people I know look absolutely innocuous.

      On inner beauty: One of the more depressing moments of my life was a remark someone made to me after my wife’s death. In an attempt to sympathize with me, he mentioned all of the problematic things my wife had done in recent memory (the point being that I no longer had to deal with such things). In an afterthought, he added, “And she wasn’t even particularly good looking.” That remark jolted me out of my belief in the inner beauty I thought saw in her. No one had ever told me so clearly that they saw nothing of the sort. It made me wonder what I had seen, and generally, what anyone sees when they say they see “inner beauty.” I cling to the thought that it must be something real, but I don’t know how to describe it.

      It’s a great irony that my wife’s favorite streaming series was “Penny Dreadful,” about humans in monstrous form. She literally, explicitly modeled herself on the protagonist of the series, Vanessa Ives. (The link gives away some of the plot.)


      • That was an insensitive thing for your friend to say. I think the wonderful thing about love… and I’m not in general a fan of it…is that the lover sees the true beauty of the loved. Ideally, anyway. Penny Dreadful I’ve watched ages ago, one or two episodes. It’s a bit crude, but then I had a thing for True Blood. Why did she see herself as that character?


        • “Why did she see herself as that character?”

          I think, like Vanessa Ives, Alison saw herself as misunderstood, abandoned, doomed, and alone–in a plague. She oscillated between seeing me as a monster and as her best friend, and oscillated between thinking of herself as a monster and as the victim of the monsters–other people–that populate the world. The Vanessa Ives character is burdened with a sense of herself as demonic, and I think Alison felt much that way about herself. Like Vanessa, she was deeply disillusioned about many things. And I suspect she wished to be as beautiful as the actress but at the age of 57, and in great pain, knew that it was no longer possible. She pretended not to put great stock in looks, but I know that she did.

          The final photo she posted of herself on Facebook shows her looking straight at the camera, in a self-conscious attempt to leave a final, unforgettable impression. It’s not beautiful. It’s heart-rending. It wouldn’t surprise me if she took it just before she killed herself. She experienced a psychotic break sometime in the fall of 2020, and wrote the equivalent of her last testament on Instagram a few days after, which I’ll quote here at some point if I can find the right way to do it. That, too, is heart-rending, at least to me.

          The photo and the statement together vividly depict what things were like for her at the end–much as they were for the Penny Dreadful character. I know at some point I’ll need to write about it and reproduce it here, but it’s so morbid and terrible that I hesitate.


          • Yes it is heart rending, because it’s someone that you loved deeply and couldn’t help. Why did you love her so deeply? If you had the opportunity to explain to her, or to someone, what was truly beautiful about her, what would you say?


  3. Pingback: She had a long, curious nose… – butimbeautiful

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s