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Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Face Values / The Tablet

The feature article this week in The Tablet - Face Values - is about physical appearance and how it reflects our true nature.

This subject has had significance to me my whole life, from when I was a kid too unnattractive to make friends at school but too attractive to my stepfather, to now when I'm getting used to a 3 inch facial scar. The issue of physical appearance affects us all ... studies have shown that people (even children) prefer those they consider attractive and attribute positive qualities to them. How much of this is learned and how much is instictive? And what does it really mean - is Beauty intrinsically Good, and if so, what does it then mean to be ugly?

But enough about my personal demons :-) here below are some bits from the Tablet article, which begins with a reference to Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Grey, and moves on to discuss the effect of face-covering veils and face transplants ...

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... there is a widespread belief that the face is a window of the soul and reveals our innermost nature ...

Perhaps this sense that there is an intimate connection between a person's character and his or her face helps to explain some of the recent controversy both with regard to the Muslim face veil (niqab), and in terms of public reaction to the news that a British surgical team has been given ethical approval to carry out this country's first face transplants. These issues invite reflection on why we invest so much significance in the face when it is less vital to our physical well-being than our body organs. Perhaps it is because the face is uniquely and inseparably associated with the social aspect of our being, so that the concealed or disfigured face affects that fundamental dimension of our humanity which we experience only in relationship with others ....

Each individual's face is invested with his or her sense of being, and the faces of our loved ones occupy a unique place in our affections and responses. That's why, when discussing face transplants, people ask what it would feel like to have another person's face, or how that person's loved ones might feel if they encountered his or her face on another's body. When we have to communicate with a veiled face, we may feel that person is resisting interaction by withholding something vital ...

There is also a gendered dimension to all this, in a society in which young girls and women go to ever greater lengths to acquire the perfect, ageless face. Our culture has a very narrow concept of beauty, so that the result of this striving after perfection is an increasingly costly conformity to an ideal which in itself masks the true beauty of the human face with its capacity to reflect the stages and ages of life ....

All this should make us pause for thought before we condemn those who withdraw behind the veil as a way of dealing with the conflicting pressures that women face with regard to these distorted concepts of femininity and sexuality ....

We also need to re-examine the association between physical appearance and moral characteristics inherent in Wilde's novel and in the equation of beauty with goodness and ugliness with moral depravity ... face transplants may offer hope to those who have suffered extreme facial disfigurement, ...

From the beginning, Christians have been drawn to imagine the face of Christ .... "He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him" (Isaiah 53: 2). This reminds us that the graced vision is that which sees the beauty of God where others see only ugliness, and which takes pity on the diminished soul that we sometimes glimpse behind the most aesthetically pleasing visage. It is only when we resist the seduction of the beautiful mask that we are able to glimpse the face of the human made in the image of God, who stands before us as an invitation and a challenge to our own sense of what it means to be human.

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