The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty by Amanda Filipacchi reads quickly—it is part twenty-somethings living in NYC, part mystery, and part social commentary. The novel revolves around two close friends whose physical appearances are highly divergent: Barb is considered to be a spectacular beauty, and Lily has “the kind of ugliness that is inoperable.”
Both women labor under these designations, feeling like men, in particular, cannot see beyond the way society perceives the aesthetics of their faces.
Overrun with suitors and a friend who becomes obsessed with her appearance, Barb decides her beauty is a thing of danger. A costume maker by trade, Barb creates a disguise that will render her ugly: a fat suit, frizzy gray hair, brown contacts, and fake teeth.
Barb wears this disguise every day. She hopes to encounter a man who will love her for “her,” and not for her beauty. Her friend Lily, meanwhile, is ugly by nature and has never had a boyfriend. When Lily falls in love with a friend, she works long hours composing music, hoping she can create a piece so bewitching it will seduce him.
The book has a somewhat pessimistic take on the role beauty plays in romantic love, implying very few men will fall in love with a woman with an ugly exterior. There’s no doubt in superficial interactions—at a bar, at a party, online—most men will not seek out ugly women. Superficial interactions, by nature, revolve around appearances.
But in situations where men and women have extended contact, can most men fall in love with an ugly woman? The book doesn’t answer this definitively, although it seems to imply not, at least not during youth: no one falls in love with Lily, despite her “inner beauty” and talent as a musician.
Indeed, the man Lily longs to date is not even a catch. He is average looking, and not particularly interesting or talented. Are ugly women forced to compromise in relationships? To accept flaws in men their beautiful counterparts can easily avoid?
There is something tragic about this, that the genetic accident of ugliness can prevent a woman from being loved romantically. Yet there is some truth to it—from whatever combination of culture and biology, men seem less likely than women to overlook physical flaws in a romantic partner. If most men won’t even consider dating an ugly woman, these women are left with a much smaller pool to choose from. But Barb dons an ugly disguise precisely because she wants someone from this small pool: someone who will love her even if she is hideous.
Without her ugly disguise, Barb never knows if men are interested in her primarily because of her beauty. This is a rarefied problem, but a real one nonetheless. It’s a common human desire to want to be loved by our significant other unconditionally—to have a romantic love that would persist even if our bodies were to become diseased or malformed.
It is small compensation that ugly women have the advantage of knowing, even in their youth, their significant others love them no matter what they look like. Few of us would choose to be ugly. The potential for loneliness and the other social losses are too large.
But perhaps being beautiful isn’t all that great either. Maybe it is better to be in the middle, where most of us are: so our looks form a reasonable part of our romantic relationships, and the inevitable decline of our bodies is not a great blow to those relationships, or to our identity. The influence of beauty seems to peak in our youth—partially because beauty diminishes for us all with age, but also because, one hopes, as people age they become more knowledgeable and wise, and thus are more attracted to traits other than appearance.
The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty isn’t pedantic. It has a story that unfolds quickly. But throughout the story, it offers sharp and often poignant observations about beauty’s “unfortunate” influence on our lives and relationships.