The age before beauty Essay: When people were ugly, life was more interesting. Now, better living means fewer are homely, but all these pretty faces really aren't much to look at after all.

November 07, 1996|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

Friends from Washington can be burdensome, especially when they come up here and say things like, "Baltimore is such a real town?"

Are they condescending? Do they really envy us our commonplaceness? The creaky literary hip is worse: "Ah, Baltimore! There's so much there there."

Viperish responses leap to mind.

But now and then these visitors see things we miss for being so close to them, as my friend did some time back in the Lexington Market. We had gone there for clams with horseradish, and he had a thunderous realization. I knew it the moment I saw bivalve No. 3 halt halfway to his lips, then return to the paper plate in front of him.

"These people," he gasped. "I don't believe They're so ugly!

It was the usual lunchtime crowd. People eating, shopping, pinching the produce, loitering, maybe contemplating a snatch and dash -- the everyday mix. Somehow, I had always regarded them as average-looking. They were like the people in my hometown, Philadelphia, which shares other characteristics with old Baltimore -- white stone steps to mention one more.

My friend, you should understand, was not repelled by this. On the contrary. His eyes flitted from face to face, full of delight, as they would in a museum, from picture to picture.

He had come originally from Texas, a big state with more than its fair share of the uncomely. But his long residence in Washington had withered the roots of his memory: The comforting images of all the seamed and toothless countenances of his youth had been forgotten; the burled and craggy angularity of those faces had been horribly prettified by time.

Washington had become his point of reference for the rest of the world, and everybody knows that Washington is full of beautiful if vacant faces, visages with monotonously straight and unexpressive features of the sort one sees on "All My Children," exercise cable channels and Barbie dolls.

Since that day I have realized that, notwithstanding our good fortune here in Baltimore, there just aren't as many ugly people in our world as there used to be, and we are poorer for it. For true ugliness is in its own way -- well, beautiful. It is beautiful because every ugly person is a unique entity, peculiar, distinct. He or she asserts the aesthetic of the particular.

Beauty's curse -- one of them -- is its regularity, its sameness. Just another pretty face is just another pretty face, is just another pretty face, like the receding images in a fun house hall of mirrors that only diminish but never actually vanish.

The ugly past

When I was a kid, there were simply a lot more ugly people around. The world was rich in pendulous noses and batwing ears, collapsed cheeks and bulging Adam's apples, mouths that looked like vandalized cemeteries, full of crooked, green tombstones.

There were people with nostrils each of a different caliber; there were the bug-eyed and slack-jawed, legions of the sunken-chested, men and women. Here and there one spied a goiter, looking like a pregnant neck. Life's wounds were all on display, and most men of 25 could pass for 40. Most men could get senior citizen discounts long before they were 50, except that there weren't any senior discounts.

Much of this was probably less the product of weak genes than deficient diet. Food quality, not clothing, makes the man (and woman), as a former employee of this newspaper in Tokyo once pointed out. Her name was Hideko Takayama. She observed that members of the generation that followed hers in Japan were, on average, taller and straighter than hers.

All the beef and milk that arrived as Japan grew wealthy after the war brought this about.

"Japanese women," she said, "aren't bow-legged anymore."

I remember many more skinny people than one sees today, though most of them didn't want to be that way. Everybody wanted to be a little broader, more heavily planted.

Men were unashamed of their paunches; these were regarded as the chevrons of success. Women actually wanted some heft on their hips, and elsewhere.

Skinny wasn't good

Why? Maybe because skinny was so common. Maybe it suggested that you didn't make money enough to put meat on your table.

Of course, there are other factors driving this, other technologies, new attitudes. Today everybody wants to look younger, thinner, more beautiful. People will do what they have to to achieve these goals. Cosmetic surgery is skyrocketing, especially among the members of the mammoth baby boom generation in this country. More and more men are having their faces lifted, their tummies tucked.

Even with such artificial re-arrangements, ugly men have always had more luck with the opposite sex than ugly women. That's probably still the case. Men had all the money and power, situation that is supposed to be changing. But there was another reason. Women have never been so averse to ugliness in men as men are to that same quality in women. Women really know that beauty is skin deep. Men only pay that notion lip service.

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