The Self and its Ever-Corrupting Shell

Lionel Shriver quotes one of her own novels’ characters to explain the different worlds inhabited by attractive and non-attractive people:

People who’ve always been good-looking, she says, “haven’t a clue that how they’re treated—how much it has to do with their appearance. I even bet that attractive people have a higher opinion of humanity. Since everybody’s always nice to them, they think everybody’s nice. But everybody’s not nice. And they’re superficial beyond belief … Ugly people, fat people, even people who just aren’t anything special? They have to work harder to please. They have to do something to prove out, whereas when you’re pretty to look at you don’t have to do anything but sit there and everybody is plumb delighted.”

Absolutely true, and this doesn’t even take into account that we less-than-stunnings often are not only ignored, but tormented. Just as posited in a previous post, I often wonder if I’d be the attention-needy entertainer I’ve become if not for the struggle to treat social water for so many of my most awkward, formative years.

Shriver brings in her own experience:

For me, having my teeth straightened [after being bucktoothed] at 15 was instructive: I was still the same person, yet suddenly my classmates were kinder. To be sure, no longer feeling self-conscious about my front teeth has made me more confident—but that just means that being spared all those cracks about Bugs Bunny has helped me to be more completely myself.

Have you ever had some feature about you that perhaps was particularly unattractive, and maybe even you didn’t realize it? And then have you had that aspect of your physical self improved or corrected? If so, you already know, it’s not even that people are just nicer, they are palpably relieved. Thank goodness you fixed that, it was difficult for me to cope with.

More Shriver:

Socially, cosmetic transformation makes a big difference—an appalling difference. And maybe the discipline of regular exercise builds mental muscles for the pursuit of more important goals. But beyond that, our contemporary equivalence between the self and its ever-­corrupting, malady-prone shell profoundly diminishes what it means to be a human being.

There’s one thing I’ll add to this, that it is not exclusively a cosmetic transformation that can have this kind of effect. All of my middle and high school years I was subject to fairly relentless bullying, mockery, and general social torment. I was goofy looking, small, unathletic, and did not, to most of my peers, to possess any redeeming qualities. I was just this thing.

Most of them had no idea that I was a pretty goddamn good actor, though. And why would they? They’d never see a play even if they were paid.

One morning, my senior year, the closed-circuit morning announcement “news show” reported that I had won first place in a state drama competition the preceding weekend (for comedy monologue, as well as a slew of other awards, I do not at all mind telling you).

In the hallway soon after as I moved to my first class, one of my usual tormentors, a kid also named Paul I seem to be unable to forget, a big, handsome jock type, stopped me. He has mocked me for years, and was part of a coterie of well-to-do school athletes that delighted in my misery.

“You won an acting prize?” he asked.


“Wow, man. That’s great.”

He nodded, genuinely impressed. He was taken aback. After years of knowing only that I was a little slug-thing for him to amuse himself by, a weird boy who did nothing but sort of poorly exist, he found out that I had a talent, a skill, that I actually excelled at — officially, even!

It was as though I had grown 6 inches in height and a set of muscles overnight. Only then did I have value. It was a nice feeling in the moment, but in hindsight it bothered me a great deal that, well shit, I’ve always been this guy you’re now impressed with. Maybe you and your dudebros could have laid off, even a little, just until you knew for sure whether or not I was merely local nerd fauna for you to feed off of.

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