The Power of Looks

A short-short story.

Posted Nov 29, 2017

There’s no honest way to get around it: Josh was an ugly child. He was born healthy but cosmetically deformed with an asymmetrical forehead and cheekbones.

At preschool, Josh’s parents watched him playing alone while other kids were playing with each other, at least in parallel play. She asked Josh, “Don’t you want to play with them?” He said, “They don’t want to play with me.”

It was the same story in elementary school. Josh lamented to his mom, “I try to be like the other kids but they don’t like me.” By fourth grade, the students were willing, indeed, happy to explain why: They called him “Punched In” because his face indeed looked like it had been.

Even Josh’s teachers seemed to be affected by his looks. A bright, eager-to-please child, he’d often raise his hand but rarely get called on, let alone singled out for plums like getting to take a note to the school office.

Fast forward to adulthood and Josh had a hard time finding a romantic partner. He thought about reconstructive surgery but was too afraid. As he’d walk down the street, he’d notice women approaching and making eye contact and even smiling at attractive guys. In contrast, they’d catch a glimpse of Josh and avert their eyes and often even purse their lips. He adjusted his hope: “Maybe there’s someone out there who’d be attracted to me because I’m ugly; it might make them think, 'Because he can’t get by on his looks he’d have to work on his personality, so he’s probably nice.' Or, they might feel secure with me because they know I’d be unlikely to cheat.” At 23, to end his virginity, he resorted to a sex worker.

Josh chose a career with minimal social interaction as an artificial intelligence software designer. But even in that career, he had to attend some meetings. He had the sense that his ideas were ignored or rebuffed more than they should be because he’s ugly. He had been at meetings at which mediocre ideas forwarded by one of the Pretty People were embraced while his clearly superior ones were rejected, ignored, or appropriated.

Josh’s isolation had the benefit of his being able to work undistracted and his article, “A New Model for Active AI” in Deep Learning Review got him an appearance on a cable news network. There, he did so well that he was offered a recurring spot as a technology analyst. That renewed his interest in having reconstructive surgery — "If I’m going to be on national TV every week, maybe I should look good. It might open more doors.” He searched thoroughly and found a surgeon he trusted and the surgery succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations.

Josh was now handsome, and no longer needed to turn to sex workers, far from it. Women came on to him in droves and after a year of making up for lost time, he decided he wanted a monogamous relationship and a child but not the legal encumbrance of marriage. He found a good woman, Michelle, who agreed.

Alas, their child inherited Josh’s face, and Michelle and Josh debated whether to have their baby undergo reconstructive surgery. Michelle worried about expending society's limited medical resources on cosmetic surgery, the risks to the baby, the pain of the surgery, and didn't want to reinforce society's lookism, its last acceptable "ism." Josh argued that it was unfair to saddle their baby with a lifetime of disadvantage despite whatever societal benefit might accrue from withholding the surgery.

What do you think?

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