Unreal World: ’80s heartthrob turned writer Andrew McCarthy explores the beauty of self-acceptance

Andrew McCarthy beauty of self acceptance
Andrew McCarthy beauty of self acceptance

By Andrew McCarthy

First, the disclaimer: I’m a man, so I can’t speak first-hand to the pressures women feel to look a certain way. But as an actor, and consequently someone who has made a living based largely on how I look, physical appearance is a topic I consider frequently. In my youth, the idea of cosmetic surgery amused me as something relegated to Beverly Hills dowagers and fading starlets. But as the years have passed, and with the advent of so many new techniques, more and more of my peers have succumbed. The buff and plump, to say nothing of the nip and tuck, have become de rigueur. Yet something about all the peeling and freezing troubles me. I just couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was—until recently.

It isn’t necessarily the physical effect, though I often find that odd and unnatural-looking. The thing that is so unsettling, so worrisome to me, is the message cosmetic surgery is broadcasting about the person who has had the work done. I know it’s not the signal they want to send.

What got me thinking about this, and how I came to my realization, was learning that a certain (male) rock star—someone whose career I have long followed, whose albums I own and whom I have admired for his seemingly genuine sense of self—admitted to having Botox. Some may praise his courage in coming clean, but this information made me sad. And I wondered why it did.

While it’s difficult to find a newscaster sitting behind a desk on television who can knit his or her brow when reporting horrific stories, this revelation about my rock idol shed light on something that I had previously not considered. It told me something of his character that I wish it hadn’t. I was somehow disappointed in my rock star.

In examining my disappointment, I found myself asking: What exactly is it that’s attractive about a person? For me, there seems no one specific physical characteristic that is consistent in all the people I find beautiful. Something more elusive, it seems, is at the heart of the matter; something that is perhaps not even a physical trait. It finally dawned on me that every person I find beautiful in one fashion or another does share one quality: the acceptance—I’d go so far as to say the embracing—of their imperfection, humanity and fallibility. Their willingness to let others see their humanity, instead of some mask, is what I find so attractive. It is, to me, at the core—perhaps the very essence—of beauty.

Have you ever seen a fat man dance well? It’s a gorgeous thing—somehow even more dazzling than seeing a thin man dance just as well. I think the reason is it boasts a certain joyful confidence born of self-acceptance, which is undeniably attractive. And it’s just that lack of self-acceptance that I see broadcast across my rock star hero’s forehead—when what I know I’m meant to see is a smooth and chiselled polish.

I understand that not everyone can be Helen Mirren or Jacqueline Bisset, the poster children of graceful, sexy, natural aging. But isn’t beauty—and sexiness, for that matter—more evident in a certain aura, or energy, than it is in a jaw line? Don’t we all know a man whose nose is across his face, or a woman whose smile is crooked, yet when we look at them it doesn’t seem to matter—they’ve simply got it? But what exactly is it? Isn’t it something intangible these people radiate that proclaims (with humility), “I’m me”?

There are things about my own face I’d be very happy to see realigned. My nose bends off to the right, my mouth droops a little on the left—in fact, the entire left side of my face hangs lower than the right side. As for that extra skin under my chin, I’d be very happy to live without it. Then there are the three scars and my crinkly neck. But they are me, and if I change them, what kind of message am I sending myself, let alone the world?

Perhaps I’m attaching too much meaning to all this. People often say they simply feel better about themselves after cosmetic surgery, so why the hell not? And if aging has taught me one thing, it’s that my feelings and positions evolve. (And thank God for that. At nearly 50, would I still want to be listening to The Doors sing “Light My Fire” every afternoon?) So maybe one day I will have myself plumped, scraped, tucked, lifted and buffed. But for now, I think I’d rather go dancing.

Andrew McCarthy is editor-at-large for National Geographic Traveler and author of the travel memoir The Longest Way Home.