I’m going to share a story I absolutely hate.
In her book, Dwarfism: Medical and Psychosocial Aspects of Profound Short-Stature, Betty Adelson discusses various experiences she’s had as an advisor to parents of children with dwarfism. Half-way through she recounts the story of a particular woman who phoned her up, shaken from the news that her seven month-old fetus had been diagnosed with achondroplasia. The woman’s main concerns revolved around how this development would disrupt her and her husband’s seemingly perfect life. They were in their thirties, living in the suburbs with enough wealth to make frequent trips to the ski lodge. Why would they not want to welcome a child with achondroplasia into their very comfortable lives?
“We’re both very good-looking,” she insisted.
After she talked it over with her husband, they decided this was reason enough to terminate the pregnancy.
Whenever I’ve recounted this story to friends, it triggers a seemingly endless debate about abortion law—which is not something I want to go into here—while the horror is always directed at the woman and her husband. “A woman like that should be banned from parenting so that she can’t raise any other children to be as horrible as she is,” sighed one friend.
But last week I examined the problem of judging strangers for their personal decisions. What upsets me most about this story is not the individual choice the couple made, but that our collective obsession with narrow definitions of physical beauty scared them into doing it. This is where vanity in extremis can lead us.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The birth of Betty Adelson’s achondroplastic daughter, Anna, had driven her to become a leading member of the Long Island chapter of Little People of America when my parents and I joined. She went on to publish the most comprehensive books on the history and social aspects of dwarfism to date. Anna went on to found LPA’s first LGBT group, forcing the American dwarf community to face up to a long tradition of homophobia. Pro-diversity etiquette dictates that I should now insist that Anna is beautiful. But do you need to know what Anna looks like? What do we “need” to know about people we’ll never meet?
Since they are human, I think it’s safe to assume that both Anna and her mother do care about her looks to some degree. But what degree of vanity determines the difference between Adelson and the woman who rejected her dwarf child? Do we have a choice about how vain we end up? When we entertain the idea of our lives as fairy tales, we all identify with Snow White and the Prince, not the dwarves. (As I’ve written before, I nurtured a childhood obsession with the average-sized princess that felt only slightly ironic considering my shared diagnosis with the supporting characters.) Yet the very crux of the story is the crucial difference between being Snow White and wanting to be Snow White: A need to be the fairest of them all makes us more like the Evil Queen than any other character.
One of the primary features of narcissism is being jealous of good-looking people. The beauty determining “good-looking people” in this context is in the mind of the narcissist; that is, those she perceives as garnering lots of positive attention for their looks. Another primary feature is being easily humiliated by criticism. Both can lead to placing great value on appearance and others’ opinion of our appearance. We all indulge in this, at least every now and then, perhaps because the best defense argument for an indulgence is “Everyone does it!” But does this mean that if enough of us stop doing it, we’ll all stop? The most dangerous aspect of narcissism is not that it causes us to waste hours in front of the mirror that could be spent elsewhere, but that it depletes our ability to empathize, reducing the likelihood that we will put others’ needs ahead of our own. Whatever values inspired Adelson to keep her daughter both alive and out of an institution are the opposite of those that fuel vanity and lookist snark. And it seems that they’re the values we should be promoting ad nauseam in the media, on Instagram, in gossipy conversation over coffee at the ski lodge.
Indeed, anyone who regularly talks about the importance of their own looks for more than a few seconds or thinks that a middle school level of cattiness is something that should be seriously continued into adulthood is someone I snark about with friends. Because not only does it seem necessary to kill the Evil Queen in all of us, but it’s also really hard to keep a straight face in the presence of such openly shallow people. Until they refuse a child who can’t live up to their own standards of beauty.
Is my snarking fair? Will it change the world enough to prevent such rejection? I love beauty as much as I fear vanity. I want to hear from certain people that I am beautiful, and I want to know that it’s inspired by genuine affection or an admiration for the way I carry myself, not by an ability to make the cut into an elite club built on the modern rules for aesthetics. I want to look at pictures of my pretty friends, and I want to stumble upon them, not have them presented in any way that reveals an overwhelming need for physical acceptance. I feel that need, and I also feel its relation to the desperate urge to dump an ugly child. How do we deal with it?
Please feel free to share your own ideas in the comments below.
Note: Please refrain from derailing the discussion with the issue of abortion law, if anything because there are plenty of other places on the Interwebs for anyone who wants to have that discussion.