Beauty requires no introduction. When someone comes along who looks like Julia Roberts, no one has to say, “Now let me explain.” You understand instinctively that the whole of creation just hit the jackpot. Exceptional people offer a glimpse of paradise. You’re towed into heaven on their tan lines.
If an appealing face and a bewitching body have so much allure, then why do we have such mixed feelings about them? Encounter them while in a certain mood, and a little voice inside you says, “What are you doing gaping at Madonna when you could be weaving sackcloth for Mother Teresa?” Or a stern vision appears before you in a toga, holding the scales of justice. On one scale, she places frisky, 16-year-old supermodel Niki Taylor. On the other, algebra. Niki wins. (Surprise!) But the table of logarithms will forever make a nagging claim on your conscience.
Beauty is easy to look at, hard to think about. It doesn’t help that our sense of the matter is wrapped up in teenage traumas. There comes a point in adolescence when you start to imagine that some people are born with every molecule in place. Every high school boasts its elite squad of lookers: sparkling teeth, merciless anatomy, sunny filaments of hair—even their cuticles are kind of interesting. Between classes, they parade down the halls, trooping their supremacies like Clydesdales. Everybody else is supposed to feel like a waste of protoplasm.
That sort of thing can complicate your feelings toward physical beauty for the rest of your life. But when the mists of adolescence part—eleven sooner, if you’re a sensible kid—it begins to dawn on you that beauty exists for larger reasons than to establish your high school pecking order. (You even begin to realize that you’re not half bad-looking yourself.)
So what is beauty good for? For gelling ahead, a cynic might suggest—a cynic armed with statistics. Sociological studies show that terrific-looking people advance faster in their careers than folks of ordinary mien. But is that all?
For once, let’s get clear on this beauty question. Let’s flip through a list of benefits that Great-Looking People (GLPs, for short) bring to the world. Let’s see if they’re worth all the fuss we make over them.
I. THEY TICKLE THE EYE
This is easy. On the most fundamental level, GLPs are a big relief, the tenderloin inside the gristle of everyday life. That’s what we like about Kristina Malandro, General Hospital‘s Rx for the eyes. Watching her could be habit-forming. Or take Remington Steele‘s captivating Pierce Brosnan—a face with the standard stuff subtracted. He radiates reassurance. Or contemplate Andie MacDowell—the human form in jubilee mode. As for Mel Gibson, he has so many entertaining features, he’s a one-man amusement park.
II. THEY FLESH OUT OUR IDEAS
GLPs, give us a picture of qualities that are otherwise hard to put a finger on. In generation after generation, certain spiritual attributes—nobility, spunk, sensitivity—become associated in our minds with certain ideal arrangements of form and feature.
Consider two representative beauties of the 1950s. Ava Gardner’s dark succulence was the very image of worldly experience. Somber and pillowy, she seemed to be the sum of nocturnal wisdom, the wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night intuition that much of life’s path is scorched earth. (Aren’t these the subtle messages we also receive from Isabella Rossellini?) Meanwhile, Audrey Hepburn, skinny as a 10-year-old, was flesh in its lightest drapery. On her, even the skeleton twinkled, the motion of her joints was musical. She was—heck, still is—the emblem of everybody’s hopes that our brightest assumptions might yet prevail, that optimism is just another branch of common sense. (Likewise Julia Roberts.)
III. THEY POINT TOWARD HEAVEN
It is not just individual human qualities that GLPs help us picture. It’s some broader realm of perfection and possibility itself. This is part of the explanation for the British obsession with Princess Diana. The Brits want Di’s twinkling radiance to sum up their better nature and cast its glow upon their future—in more ways than one, she’s the girl of their dreams. When they dwell on her hemlines or every new flip in her hair, it’s a picture of their own prospects that they’re trying to make out. If the Prince of Wales had married somebody who looked like Leonid Brezhnev, the British people might have loved her anyway. But would they have claimed her as the emblem of their best collective selves?
IV. THEY’RE A TURN-ON
GLPs bring out the mammal in all of us. And when they dance, we’re goners. Ain’t that so, Gerardo?
V. THEY SHARPEN THE MIND
This may seem a surprising claim at first. If anything, what’s so unsettling about beauty is the way it can make an end run around our better judgment (see Point IV). Beauty dynamites the brain, then invites infatuation into the wreckage. (Why do you think they called Jean Harlow the Blonde Bombshell? Chynna Phillips is a postmodern version, a kind of smart bomb of cool sexuality and feminist self-possession.) But it’s not that simple. For one thing, the power of GLPs requires a certain amount of active agreement on our part.
Some people find blondes very alluring. Some people think they’re neither here nor there. What’s an obsession to you is an eyesore to me. And so on. The cookie-cutter looks of so many soap stars and pop singers go stale overnight. But you could hone your eye for a long while on the beguiling harmony of eyes-nose-mouth in actresses Tamlyn Tomita and Joanne Whalley-Kilmer or the rakish beckon of Jason Priestley on Beverly Hills 90210. We’re all instinctive connoisseurs. Deciding that somebody is beautiful turns out to be a heady capability, as though the whole of creation might be submitting itself to your approval.
V. THEY TWIT THE REAPER
As we said earlier, we’re always on the lookout for beauty because it says things we can’t express in words. One of those things is our desire to live forever. And in their way, GLPs kindle our hopes for eternity. Because the gleaming human form is renewable in each generation, they speak to our deepest desire for rebirth. The surfer Kelly Slater, the model Naomi Campbell, the dancer Bill T. Jones—confronted by these supple versions of the mortal coil, death seems outclassed. So long as we keep turning out such deluxe editions of ourselves, who’s to say that the Reaper gets the last laugh?
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty” said the poet John Keats, who obviously never watched a starlet on a TV talk show. It would take a romantic poet to overlook the fact that sometimes we go for baloney if it’s agreeably packaged. But in a larger sense he was right. There is some fundamental virtue to beauty, even if Great-Looking People aren’t always squeaky clean in all other respects. No doubt many of them are models of decency and clear-headedness. And some have the moral fiber of a slave auctioneer and the brains of an after-dinner mint. But whatever else may be true of them, because of their beauty alone they bring something necessary to the rest of us.
Beauty at its best invites a response, an embrace of life and its possibilities. The I daily transaction between ourselves and what we desire is what entangles us with the world. It’s the starting point for deeper attachments. To put it another way, it’s beauty that makes us want to claim this sometimes sad and forbidding place as our own. And you thought Sinéad O’Connor was just a rock singer.