We live in a superficial world where a person's worth is judged mainly on the basis of looks. Our icons are youth, beauty and the toothpaste-ad smile. Although not many of us would be deliberately cruel or callous, the daily judgments we automatically make can have a devastating effect on those who aren't "beautiful people." Hopefully this article will make us all more aware of our power to help or harm others by the way we react to their appearance. Shopping, in a hurry, I practically tripped over the wheelchair. A big-eyed face looked up and grinned, and I smiled back automatically. Then my smile froze and I turned away in disgust. The pleasant face was attached to a head twice as big as it should have been, to a body with no legs and stubby arms with no hands. I hurried away, careful not to look back. My face was burning and I almost lost my lunch. It was an unthinking, automatic reaction, something I couldn't control — revulsion, fear, near panic — brought on by another friendly human being who happened to be cursed with a very ugly body.
A Common Reaction
My feelings weren't unusual. We all share the universal tendency to be repulsed by someone else's appearance if it is grotesque or different. If I had stopped to talk, I might have really liked the person. She seemed friendly and intelligent in spite of her handicaps; but I never got that far. Of course this is an extreme example, but this sort of automatic people-sorting goes on to a greater or lesser degree all the time. Everybody does it. It is easy to make superficial judgments, to quickly reject the unattractive people around us and receive the beautiful people with open arms. In our society tanned, trim WASP's have life handed to them on a silver platter; the Toulouse-Lautrecs in our midst have their troubles in spite of whatever admirable talents they might possess. Dr. Vincenzo Conigliaro has studied the effects of physical ugliness on the personality. He made this sobering observation in a recent article: "Think for a second about the child who is considered ugly, that helpless victim of unbelievable cruelties suffered at the hands of his friends or even his parents. If they don't attack him with ridicule and sarcasm, they savage him with indifference and neglect. When you begin to realize that this behavior is not an angry reaction to a child who has been bad or destructive but, rather, is an unthinking, insensitive attitude toward a child whose only crime was to be born ugly, the effect is chilling. And it is usually because of this traumatizing treatment in childhood that the ugly person may have to stand alone at the sidelines of life through all his years, forever scarred by the slurs of his youth" ("The Tyranny of Looks," Cosmopolitan, July 1975, p. 133).
Outside the In-Crowd
Automatic judgment on the basis of looks affects all of us to one degree or another. But normally its most damaging effects are felt by people who differ from the cultural norm. The "uglies" among us — the fat, the old, the acned — face painful indifference or rejection. The handicapped or retarded are ignored or neglected. Racial minorities face something more malignant — inbred prejudice carefully handed down for generations. Many find their intelligence, ability, and even their humanity automatically called into question because of a genetic variation they happened to inherit. We have the power to destroy peoples' lives by our unthinking responses to their appearance. One woman, an intelligent journalist, spent time in New Mexico living among the Navajos. After her stay she "passed" for an Indian, working for a white suburban couple in Southern California. The only difference between her and her employers was her outward appearance, her "Indianness." Here are some of the thoughts she put down afterwards: "Morton [her employer] is still in the kitchen... I feel [his] intense gaze on me. Perhaps I am trying too hard, but I fumble and drop the tray. 'Betsy! I never saw anyone so dumb!' he shouts harshly. 'Can't you ever learn!' Since our self-esteem tends to depend on what others think of us, I am depreciated and depressed by the remark, even feeling it justified. I can sympathize with Rosemary Yellowhair's [a Navajo friend's] appraisal of herself as 'retarded' after a white instructor placed her in a class for retarded students. And if I stay here for a year, won't I in fact become the 'dumb Betsy' Morton presumes me to be? My self-respect is draining from me" (Grace Halsell, Bessie Yellowhair, p. 173). This woman soon couldn't take it any longer — she ran away from her white family and resumed her own identity. But what if she had really been an Indian servant? Where could she have run? Every day people who can't escape bear the brunt of thoughtless remarks and automatic classification into comfortable stereotypes. "They're all stupid and shiftless." "He'd probably steal something if I turned my back on him."
Judging Your Local "Ugly"
You don't have to be the wrong color to be looked down on, either. You might be a divorced woman. Or make that a poorly dressed, fat, divorced woman with several small children on welfare. Picture someone in the above condition, walking into a new church for the first time. The minister is nominally polite; the people say hello, perhaps, or maybe they are too involved with their own particular clique of friends to even notice her arrival. Her children are bored and misbehave, but nobody offers to help. Maybe that wouldn't happen in your church — perhaps you would invite somebody like her home for dinner. Possibly. But there are enough people who wouldn't do so to inspire the apostle James to write the following admonition to some Christians he knew: "My brethren, show no partiality.... For if a man with gold rings and in fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, 'Have a seat here, please,' while you say to the poor man, 'Stand there,' or, 'Sit at my feet,' have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?.. But you have dishonored the poor man.... if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors.... For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy; yet mercy triumphs over judgment" (James 2:1-13). Maybe it would help to stop to consider why someone might find themself in such a situation as the divorced woman described above. Was it because she sinned far and above the average woman? Maybe so, but maybe not. Perhaps family circumstances forced her into al} early marriage to someone less than ideal. Maybe her husband was laid off; maybe his unemployment check stopped coming; and maybe he had to "desert" her so she could go on government aid. Maybe her clothes are old because she can't afford new ones and keep the kids in shoes too. Maybe she is fat because she can't afford to buy anything but starchy, filling foods that go a long way. Get the picture? It is easy to denigrate someone with an obvious sin or failing: "The sins of some men are conspicuous... but the sins of others appear later" (I Tim. 5:24). Does the fact that a person's sins are obvious make him less of a worthwhile human being than the person who can cover his up because he has the means? God takes all of this into account when He looks down at us. He is so objective that He can say things like: "It shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom (full of degenerate deviants) than for you (upstanding citizens who refused to believe the gospel)" (see Matt. 11:24).
Judgment Without Mercy
Christ warned us to "Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get" (Matt. 7:1). Realizing this, can any of us afford to look at people in a way we wouldn't want God to look at us? The apostle Paul said he didn't even know how to judge himself (I Cor. 4:3). Only God could know how well he measured up internally — how well he fought with the weapons he was given (verse 4). God is not a respecter of somebody's gorgeous face or outward goodness (Acts 10:34-35). He looks on the heart (I Sam. 16:7). Again James writes: "Do not speak evil against one another, brethren. He that speaks evil against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you that you judge your neighbor?" (James 4:11-12.) None of us have been given the responsibility to judge our fellow human beings, to talk about their failings behind their back, to pick apart their appearance, to correct them to their face, to even take notice of their failings or omissions. We are supposed to be too busy with the "beam in our own eye" (Matt. 7:4) to be unduly preoccupied with the speck in someone else's. Our responsibility is merely to treat each and every human being as we would Jesus Christ Himself — no matter what they look like, how they are dressed, what color their skin is, or how "sinful" they appear to us on the surface. God will deal with us as we deal with our brothers and sisters — the judgment we render is the judgment we are going to receive. Christ reminds us that "As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me...."