WORKING in the fashion business for the past twenty-some years, I have frequently had cause to contemplate beauty in its most conspicuous forms and also the apparent lack of it. We are raised on stories in which some ravishing heroine, the soul of goodness, is menaced by a wicked witch recognizable by her ugliness, and there is a kind of justice in this that we are loath to relinquish. I myself subscribe to the notion that by the time you're fifty, you have the face you deserve, which might seem no more than a cynical, grown-up attempt to keep alive that fairy-tale law of nature except that there is indeed some truth to it: after five decades of repetitive scowling or laughter or worry, one's attitude toward life is etched on one's face. And here is where the issue gets complicated -- because in the end it is not the geometry of one's nose or the shape of one's eyes or mouth that makes a face attractive. Rather, it is that "raw material" as manipulated by our expressions over time. The older we get, the more expression takes over, until the faces of the elderly are so full of personality -- so dominated by it -- that the actual contour of their features seems immaterial. If some of us find the prospect of plastic surgery unsettling, that is, I think, largely owing to some deep-seated suspicion, borne out by observation, that appearances aren't purely arbitrary -- that they contain important information, and by altering those appearances we falsify that information.
And yet who hasn't felt misrepresented by the face in the mirror, or registered the discrepancy between the people we know ourselves to be and the way others perceive us? We identify with Cyrano's suffering -- that of an exquisite soul eclipsed by a single unfortunate feature. Today, of course, a plastic surgeon could intervene, rendering Cyrano every bit as handsome as Christian, his rival for Roxanne's affection, and the story would have a happy ending. Or would Cyrano, an outcast and a laughingstock all his life, so readily accept the privileges that good looks confer? His is the soul of a poet, and his experience, however excruciating, has taught him tenderness, irony, reflection, and compassion. Similarly, in Little Women, Amy learns to live with her anomalous nose, and is the better for it.