Christina Patterson: Beauty... a commodity ripe for taxation

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the beholder seems remarkably unimaginative
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Yes, Gordon did mess up the Budget. Not a great idea, perhaps, to double the tax paid by the lowest earners in the country (though strangely unnoticed by the press and crusading class-warrior Cameron at the time). A shame, too, to squeeze a mere 30 grand (that's 30 of Samantha Cameron's Nancy handbags) out of that new breed of migrant workers whose idea of a bit of light shopping is a football club in the morning and a mansion in Belgravia in the afternoon.

But there was one gargantuan revenue-raising opportunity that the Iron Chancellor turned gelatinous Prime Minister entirely missed. A tax on the good-looking. It's an idea that has been mooted by Argentinian TV producer Gonzalo Otalora in his bestselling book !Feo!, or Ugly!, which calls for taxes to be levied on the beautiful and donated to the ugly. And, unlike those Stepford feminists who raged against the tyranny of appearance, but whose jacket photos could just as well have served as a cover for Vogue, Otalora's manifesto for a hitherto unchampioned minority has been forged in the crucible of the true pain of the plain.

At school, he says on his blog, he was "the kid with the Coke-bottle glasses, the spots, the braces... Going out with girls was torture – I had to make hundreds of phone calls just to get a date and the goal was to try not to get dumped on the street corner as soon as they saw me". He had hair implants and laser surgery on his eyes, tried "all kinds of diets" and spent hours at the gym. In a country with "the most beautiful women in the world" – and one of the highest rates of plastic surgery – he was, he says, "a slave to the mirror". At times, he contemplated suicide. "I'm still struggling," he says, "to get over it."

Closer to home, barrister and part-time judge Constance Briscoe wrote a bestselling memoir, also called Ugly, about a childhood in which she was beaten, bullied and abused by her mother and taunted for her ugliness. As an adult, she had extensive, and excruciatingly painful, plastic surgery to alter the features – nose, lips, eye bags and even her feet – that her mother found so offensive. In a recent interview on Woman's Hour, she said that she was planning more.

Briscoe is, at least according to her photograph, an extremely handsome woman. Otalora, too, is not the elephant man his narrative might lead you to expect. These, in spite of protestations to the contrary, are tales in the traditional mould of ugly duckling turned swan/Don Juan. But in both cases, clearly, the scars of perceived ugliness are so deeply ingrained that they're unlikely to go away. That sense of the human carapace – the flesh and features and skin – that mediates between the you inside and the world outside, as a curse to be agonisingly negotiated, has led to a self-loathing swinging well into dysmorphia.

Many adolescents have a taste of it when hormones course and curdle into a toxic brew that explodes on foreheads, chins and cheeks. When pre-lapsarian peach-like smoothness gives way to an array of pustular lumps and bumps, something is always lost. Usually, it's regained, but not always. When, after a spotty adolescence, I developed severe acne in my early 20s, and my skin became a raging interface between me and the world, I felt as if some outer shell had been punctured. For a while, every shiny surface – a spoon, a window, a saucepan lid – became a mirror, reflecting back to me the horror of what I had become. I longed to be invisible. In the end, it passed, but I'll never forget that terrible feeling of being trapped.

It's just a fact, as Otalora says, that life is easier for the good-looking. It's easier to pull. It's easier to get a job (not on a newspaper, obviously, where it's all scrupulously meritocratic) and it's easier to get promotion. Doors open. Stops are pulled out. Opportunities knock, all the time.

Many women don't notice this, because, increasingly in the Western world, they suffer a lack of confidence about their appearance bordering on the dysmorphic. Even the most beautiful women look in the mirror and see only flaws. Supermodels moan about their noses and their lips. Entire nations (or the female half of them) dream of losing half a stone. They don't notice, in fact, the advantages their looks bring them until they stop. Until that middle-aged moment when they become invisible.

The trouble is this, and it's quite a big one. We're animals. We can legislate till our bovine relatives come home – and we should, we should. We can produce big, fat manuals detailing appropriate behaviour in the workplace. We can ban the appellation "love" in bars. But if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the beholder seems remarkably unimaginative. Across cultures, across the globe, across the centuries, the perceived norms of beauty have remained depressingly consistent. Men like big eyes, luscious lips, mammary glands ranging from the pert to the pneumatic –and, above all, youth. Women like a Mills & Boon cliché – tall, broad-shouldered, dark and handsome – but will, like Carla Bruni, Ivana Trump and Penny Lancaster, swap some or all of the above for money or power.

There is a tax on beauty, of course. It's called old age. As if there were indeed some justice on this planet, it robs the physically blessed of what they had and offers the actively ugly a blessed respite in the realm of the invisible. Equal opportunity suffering for all, but just a tiny bit better for those who've had the practice.

c.patterson@independent.co.uk

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