Amanda Filipacchi on Why Female Beauty Still Really Matters (Sadly)

Amanda Filipacchi, Photo: Marion Ettlinger

Author Amanda Filipacchi lives in a fictional world that’s all her own. It’s a world where her main character Barb, an objectively beautiful woman, disguises herself in a fat suit in order to find real love. Barb’s comely but musically gifted best friend Lily attempts to seduce her love interest with supernatural and persuasive piano-playing abilities. While both Barb and Lily navigate the never-ending shallow standards of beauty, a murder mystery amongst their friends also begins to unravel.

Filipacchi’s reality tells a different story. Though she was raised by a mother who was a former Ford model, Filipacchi’s own appearance was far from perfect. She was born with a drifting eye, which was later corrected with a surgery. She was often criticized for her big jaw. And, it is this recurring theme of beauty (or lack thereof) that became a catalyst for Filipacchi’s dark comedic novel The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty (W. W. Norton & Company), which is out this week.

Yahoo Style caught up with Filipacchi to discuss superficiality, why ugly men can fare better than ugly women, and where she stands on the normcore trend. (Hint: She never heard of it before.)

Yahoo Style: Let’s start with your New Yorker essay “The Looks You’re Born With and the Looks You’re Given,” which was published two months before your book’s release. Was it your relationship to your mother, who was a former top Ford model, which inspired your novel?

Amanda Filipacchi: Since the novel is in the point of view of a very beautiful woman and she also happens to have a mother who was an ex top model, I was worried that some people might wonder if I’m really deluded about my own appearance, like “Does she think she’s beautiful?” [Laughing] But that’s not the case at all. When I set out to write the book I never intended to write a book about beauty. It was a little detail I put in there — it was meant to be in passing, no big deal — that I made the character beautiful. I thought jokingly to myself, “Well, maybe that will rub off on me.”

YS: What were you like as a child?

AF: [Appearance-wise] I was born the record-setting biggest baby girl at the American Hospital of Paris. I was a little over 10 pounds so I was always very tall for my age, at every age. I always ran the fastest of any boy in my class. I was also shy which didn’t help when I moved to the American school. I was very imaginative, always daydreaming, making up stories for my brother. I loved fairy tales.

YS: Speaking of fairy tales, there are magical elements you touch upon in the novel. Like a fable, is there a lesson to be learned at the end of the book?

AF: I would just like for people to notice that the situation is sad. I don’t think there’s anything that we can do about it. It’s purely biological. But even the biology is sad. It’s sad that people have to value beauty. And it’s unfair for people who don’t have it. I think the most important thing in the world, at least in my opinion, is love and to find someone you can have a great relationship with. It is something I completely lost hope in ever finding when I was 34. I had many terrible relationships and then suddenly I found my great love Richard, and we’ve been together for 13 years. But, the lack of beauty can really make a difference, I think. On the surface it may seem frivolous to talk about, but when you realize the consequences of not having beauty, it could mean that you end up alone without love.

YS: Do you find men and women to define beauty differently?

AF: It’s happened to me before when I would meet men who weren’t just unattractive but downright hideous. But then very quickly, after talking to him, I started finding him attractive because of the way he talked or the things he said or the way he moved. I’m not sure if men — or anyone, really — have that ability from the start.

YS: Have you learned anything about yourself since writing the book?

AF: A young woman asked me if writing this novel has changed my perception of beauty and I told her no. I’d been thinking about it for years so I put all my thoughts in the book. My own taste has changed over the years, however. When I was younger I used to wear makeup. And I used to seriously wonder how any woman could not wear makeup because it would shock me how unattractive I found them without it. Then, when I had to start wearing glasses in my late 20s, I gave up on makeup because I thought, “Well, the glasses ruin the whole effect so why even bother to look good?” But eventually I started to find women who don’t wear any makeup to be more attractive.

YS: In what ways do you relate to the characters of Barb and Lily?

AF: I don’t really relate to Barb because I don’t feel beautiful at all. But I can completely relate to the way she’s so suspicious of why people love her. Haven’t you ever wondered about someone’s motives for liking you? I relate to Lily, of course, because she is ugly and sometimes I feel ugly, too. I can relate to her creativity, to her passion, and her art.

YS: Finally, what are your thoughts on the normcore trend and how “ugly-chic” — such as dressing expensively to look like Seinfeld — is having a moment?

AF: I’m not into fashion and I never shop for clothes, so I don’t know about this trend! It reminds me of the French expression jolie laide for women, which means “pretty/ugly,” or ugly in an attractive way. Someone at my publishing house was lamenting the fact that the phrase doesn’t exist here in America, and that it’s too bad. Actually I’m looking at “normcore” right now, and it’s funny because that’s kind of how I dress anyway. I wear sweatpants all the time.

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