The Curse of Outer Beauty

Why it’s strange that sexy, rich people aren’t all Buddhists

Image by Vera Arsic, from

Why aren’t all TV stars and celebrities Buddhists?

Reality TV stars make the paradox of their infrequent Buddhism most apparent, since they expose their personal life to public scrutiny, but the attraction to Buddhism should be overriding for all rich or physically attractive people, and I’ll explain why.

What you typically see on a reality TV show, for example, are telegenic young men and women arguing vociferously about who stole whose man or woman. The men have six-pack abs and a chiseled jawline, while the women are equally stunning with hourglass figures, long legs and so on.

The contestants or actors date, hook up, and promptly break up, but what’s peculiar is that they seem to care at that terminal point in their public romantic cycle. They care a lot when they don’t get what they want, when their partner cheats on them. They cry, they break the set, they attack each other. The mystery is why they care at all.

Of course, those shows aren’t documentaries and the drama may be intensified or coached. But even if the stars of these shows are acting, they’re surely not Oscar-worthy actors. They’re not entirely faking their emotional reactions. Perhaps they’re steered into the drama, but these cute young men and women don’t seem to have what you’d expect them to have in spite of their childish emotional outbursts, namely a Buddhist’s perfect indifference to romantic encounters.

The Downside of Never Having to Settle

The reason you’d expect physically attractive people not to care about the outcome of such entanglements is that the high desirability of their bodies entails that they need never settle. Suppose, for example, Roderick is a very handsome young man and he picks up Tiffany and has sex with her, but she proceeds to ignore his follow-up calls and never wants to see him again. Why should Roderick care in the slightest about his loss of Tiffany? With his looks, he could score over and over again with a different girl each day of the week for at least two or three decades.

Roderick has the potential, in short, to have short-term relationships with literally thousands of young women. So why should he care about a single one of those women, when he can so easily replace each of them? Why should he be offended if some girl dumps him, when he needn’t have settled for her even if she were to have chosen to stay with him and compelled him to dump her?

You might think the answer is obvious: he cares because he wants a long-term relationship. He wants intimacy and a lifelong emotional bond, not just meaningless flings. But there’s a harsh possibility that maybe deep down no one really wants what we’re all supposed to want. Maybe we who aren’t so conventionally attractive only tell ourselves we want long-term intimacy because our physical flaws force us to settle for whatever partner we’re lucky enough to end up with. Maybe we’re excusing those flaws, and love is for suckers.

At any rate, Roderick should have an especially hard time settling down with a lifelong partner, because he’d have to suspect he could always do better if he just reentered the dating scene. Suppose, instead, he marries Tiffany. Of course, no one knows whether their life partner is truly their best possible one, because there are billions of people on the planet, most of whom we’ll never meet. But because of his objective, rare attractiveness, married-Roderick must know not just that there are many other candidates for his attention, some of whom might please him more than Tiffany, but that he has the opportunity to explore swaths of that population, to resume the search and canvas thousands of women since most wouldn’t refuse his advances.

You’d think, then, that handsome men and beautiful women would be disproportionately Buddhist or at least that Buddhism would be their psychological end point. These beautiful persons needn’t say anything when dating since in most cases they only have to show up, present their perfect bodies and have at it. By thusly cycling through a host of romantic partners, by learning firsthand the superficiality of such encounters, you’d expect celebrities, for example, to minimize their ego and lose their emotional attachment to anyone. Of all people, they ought to stop caring.

Instead, the opposite seems to happen. Celebrities have monstrous egos, the expansion of which is fed by all that extra attention they receive. When you know you’re so desirable, you figure you must deserve all of that sex, lust, envy, and tearful resentment (when things go awry). If you end up becoming numbed by the emptiness of your success in handling people as objects, you develop not Buddhist indifference but something like psychopathic selfishness. You’re so used to treating others as objects because they’re attracted mainly to your beautiful exterior, and you lose the capacity to imagine what they’re feeling. Eventually, you’re unable to care about them as people, which is, albeit, halfway to Buddhism.

But the Buddhist would go further in not caring so much about herself too. Attractive young men and women, though, typically retain concern for themselves; indeed, they become spoiled narcissists who are enraged when they don’t get what they want, not because they care about that thing they’ve lost, but because they presume they deserve to have all their whims satisfied since their exteriors are evidently so superior. Their physical attractiveness acts like a curse since it condemns them to a monstrous inner life.

The Curse Spreads to the Viewers

However, maybe the curse is on the rest of us as well. Maybe what’s especially hard to do here is to empathize with anyone who has it all or who has it so easy. Maybe we can’t see past the enviable exterior and we presume anyone who lacks glaring physical flaws would have to be emotionally hollow, so we idolize or demonize them; in either case, we treat them as inhuman.

When I see beautiful young women squabble over each other on a reality TV show, which is admittedly seldom for me, I often think part of the absurdity of such scenes is that they teach us something of what Heaven’s emptiness would be like. The immortal soul that could have anything she desired merely by forming the desire and watching the thing magically appear would have no reason to care about any of those “rewards” and thus no reason to form any of those desires in the first place. Her desires would negate themselves because of the triviality of fulfilling them, and Heaven would turn into Hell.

It’s that ambiguity of “life in the fast lane” that’s fascinating. On the one hand, the spectacle of gorgeous young adults acting like spoiled children is amusing and their reality TV antics make for so many harmless comedies. On the other hand, these shows can appear tragic, because the actors or contestants are trapped in mere virtual encounters in which nothing ought to matter to them, because they always have a realistic chance of finding something better down the road.

To be sure, the beautiful person’s advantages liberate her from the poor or less desirable person’s squalor or anxiety. But those luxuries that free her from hardship would seem to condemn her to the nightmare of having nothing to live for, nothing aside from her enslavement to her grotesque ego. Yet the curse of a flawless exterior extends to voyeurs like me who are invited to gawk at these paragons of outer beauty and try to puzzle out how the spectacle of their misadventure can be sustained, without my adding to the degradation.

Knowledge condemns. Art redeems. I learned that as an artistic writer who did a doctorate in philosophy. We should try to see the dark comedy in all things.

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