We pretend not to care about physical appearances, but then our responses to beauty or lack of it tell a different story. Our world is filled with products and procedures that we purchase and use to improve our looks. We study the icons of pulchritude with an eye to imitating the imagery that they project. We don’t want to be shallow enough to react on the basis of someone’s physical traits, and yet whether consciously or subconsciously we somehow seem to judge facial features, body types, hairstyles and clothing. Researchers have told us that those with pleasing physical attributes are often perceived as being more intelligent and worthy of leadership positions. Even as we pray that we ourselves will not be judged solely by the way we look, we somehow fall victim to viewing others in such ways and worrying about how they in turn are seeing us.
We are often our own worst critics. I remember reading an interview with Keira Knightley in which she laughed at the very idea of being a beauty. She proceeded to point out every flaw in her face and her body as though it was common knowledge that she was in truth a rather homely girl. I recall thinking that we all do such things with ourselves as we gaze in the mirror day after day. Each of us sees aspects of our appearance that go unnoticed by others. I hate my lack of a strong chin and the fact that one of my eyelids droops just enough to make my eyes seem uneven. I suspect that most people really never think of those things when they see me, and yet deep down inside I am self conscious and even find myself wondering what they are thinking about my features.
Sadly we are a superficial society in spite of our protests that such things don’t really matter, particularly when it comes to women. We dissect every inch of our female political figures, critiquing their hairstyles and their wardrobe choices. Little wonder that young girls begin to worry so much about how they are developing as they bloom into womanhood. They take note of whether are not they are ever complimented as a beauty even when they understand that such things should not matter. They watch the cruelty of their classmates toward those who don’t possess the attributes deemed attractive by the public. Adolescence can be an extremely stressful time for anyone who is a bit different and most of us have endured that trying time, so we should know better than to fall victim to superficialities.
There is an exceptional book by R. J. Palacio called Wonder that tackles the topic of who we really are by telling the story of Auggie, a young boy born with Treacher Collins syndrome, a rare disease in which the facial bones do not form properly. Auggie has been homeschooled because of the many health issues and surgeries associated with his illness. Now he is ready for middle school, and his mom believes that it is time for him to attend public school and learn how to navigate in a world that can sometimes be very cruel. His journey is fraught with not just the usual junior high taunts and stresses, but with the added difficulties resulting from his physical differences. In the end Auggie and his best friend learn the importance of what really makes each of us incredible, and Auggie himself realizes that he is truly the wonder that his mother tells him that he is.
Wonder has become a best selling novel that is treasured by young and old readers alike. My granddaughter who is an avid reader counts it among her all time favorite books. This summer a grandson will read it as part of his summer assignments for entry into the sixth grade. I suspect that many people have been challenged to rethink how they view the people around them while learning about the miracle that is Auggie. The novel demonstrates that sometimes the people who appear to be the most lovely have very ugly souls, while those who do not fit our standard definitions of beauty are in fact the most gorgeous people in our lives. It reminds us not to judge a book by its cover or a person by his/her face.
We all know that once we truly love someone we lose the ability to see them as anything other than amazingly wonderful. We care little about how they look for we have experienced their kindness, their generosity the very depth of their souls. We are able to see inside their beautiful hearts rather than only gazing at the skin deep aspects of their appearance. Wonder laments those who are incapable of experiencing the true meanings of life even while it celebrates our true essences. It focuses on the importance of friendships, character and the uniqueness that makes each of us special.
This summer a movie based on the book will be released and it is sure to become a classic. We owe it to our young people to either watch the film or read the novel together and then discuss a topic that we too often ignore. It is our duty as adults to help our children to realize that each of us is absolutely perfect just as we are. It is in finding the beauty in ourselves that we begin to see it in the people around us. Once we move past our own worries and concerns a whole world of possibilities opens up for us and it is spectacularly lovely.