Amanda Filipacchi's 'The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty' Will Make You Question What You Think When You Look In The Mirror

To what extent do our looks determine the course of our lives? In some ways, the question is kind of absurd. Most people love to believe any number of traits are more important than the exterior we present to the world. The attractiveness — and importance — of qualities like kindness, humor, intelligence, and ambition are self-evident to the degree that naming them feels a little silly. Yet, women are reminded time and time again that our looks are extremely important, reinforced daily by images in media, conversations among friends, and the standards we impose on ourselves.

Like almost all the women I know, I’m used to dealing with the importance of beauty, but question it regularly. That's why I read Amanda Filipacchi’s New Yorker essay “The Looks You’re Born With and the Looks You’re Given” with enthusiasm. “For many people, even intelligent and brilliant ones, why does beauty count for more than anything else in their appreciation of other human beings — particularly of women? Why don’t other qualities count for more?” she writes.

This is one of the questions Filipacchi seeks to explore in her novel The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty (Norton). Filipacchi contemplates these subjects from a unique point of view: she’s the real-life daughter of a supermodel, Sondra Peterson, who did not inherit her mother’s stunning looks. In her New Yorker essay, she discusses experiences like undergoing multiple surgeries to correct her cross eye and having a dentist, unprompted, detail a painful jaw surgery to correct her chin’s appearance. She is asked by a family friend if she thinks the reason she loves her mother so much is because of her mother’s beauty. She is told by a potential romantic interest that it must have been hard to have such a beautiful mother. (“Things did not go further between that man and me,” she writes.)

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The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty is therefore a self-consciously personal novel, exemplified by a character who goes by the name Sondra Peterson for part of it. Filipacchi explores the topic through two characters who are each other’s opposites in terms of both their looks and their attitudes toward beauty. The book’s main character, Barb, is an extraordinarily beautiful woman who eschews her looks in favor of an elaborate disguise involving a fat suit and a wig. She believes the getup will enable her to find true love, with a man who appreciates her for more than just her looks. Lily, a close friend of Barb’s, is a profoundly ugly woman who seeks beauty in order to win over a man who admits it’s what he looks for in the opposite sex.

The novel contains a number of absurdist elements, including a plot twist that enables Lily to achieve beauty on a level similar to Barb’s. In this way, Filipacchi is able to explore how difficult it is for both a beautiful woman who makes herself very ugly and an ugly one who appears gorgeous to find love.

Why does physical attraction seem to trump other types of compatibility? How much do our looks make us who we are?

Filipacchi’s examination of the effects of beauty and ugliness on attraction and romantic love turns to extremes for storytelling purposes, but the questions she explores are universally relatable: Why does physical attraction seem to trump other types of compatibility? How many emotional and intellectual connections do we miss out on because of how another person looks? How much does beauty impact falling and being in love with someone? Does caring about a partner’s looks make someone superficial or bad? Is it possible not to care? What happens when a significant other’s looks change? How much do our looks make us who we are?

The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty is a page-turner, partly because it involves a murder mystery, but also because Filipacchi’s satirical writing is engaging, and her characters are wacky in a way that makes for unusual and entertaining scenarios. Barb and Lily belong to a tight knit group of friends who are either artists or those who admire artistic talent. The group’s eccentricities lead to situations like a dangerous dinner party whose antics go far beyond the realm of normalcy in a way that is laugh out loud funny.

Despite a number of highly amusing scenes and other truly riveting ones, The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty does at times fall short in being a provocative examination of its subject matter. Certain elements of the book, like Barb’s ritual of approaching men at bars in disguise and then removing her costume to watch them transition "from jerk to gentleman," don’t quite read as thought-provoking. Although Barb acknowledges the reality of the situation (“I scan the bar ... for a possible scapegoat, for a shallow man to represent all shallow men”), a guy who ignores a woman he thinks is ugly only to become much more attentive when he realizes she is, in fact, breathtakingly gorgeous does not provide much insight into the the dynamics of beauty and attraction — especially to anyone who has spent even a nominal amount of time in New York City bars.

One of the concepts from Filipacchi’s New Yorker essay that intrigued me was the possibility her love for her mother was stronger because of her mother’s beauty. Reading The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty, I wondered about the impact of Barb and Lily’s appearances on their non-romantic relationships. Is Barb more beloved in their group of friends? Why or why not? Does pity for Lily’s ugliness, which is described as “inoperable,” ever diminish their respect for her and her talent? How does Barb’s disguise make Lily feel? We get glimpses, especially towards the end, but it feels like a missed opportunity. In general, the characters are somewhat underdeveloped, defined more by general eccentricity than relatable feelings and traits and flaws.

It prods at the question of the role beauty plays in dating, and reminds us that love that doesn’t purport to have all the answers.

Still, The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty is quite an enjoyable read, difficult to put down because of Filipacchi’s skillful, animated prose. It offers a fantasy version of living as a creative person in New York City that is fun to dive into. Most of all, it prods at the question of the role beauty plays in dating, and reminds us that love that doesn’t purport to have all the answers.

Image: Ley/flickr; Grazia Ippolito