Once a swan turned into an ugly duckling. Or, to be more exact, the swan turned itself into an ugly duckling. Being a symbol of the beautiful life wasn’t exactly a quiet glide across a still pond. Dodging the paparazzi every day was bad enough, but reading one’s own press could be much worse. Every two-bit gossip columnist had it in for the swan, it seemed, while hip entertainment hacks on evening TV passed along rumors its love life was in a death spiral for the hundredth time. And that last cover of Smart Set magazine, they could have cropped out the droppings, couldn’t they? But oh no. Those droppings were the whole reason for printing the picture, the swan suspected. It wasn’t enough to have millions ogling its svelte body in peek-a-boo pics at the checkout stand. They needed reassurance the swan’s glamour was in fact only skin deep, for how else was the loveliness of others to be borne by the plain and the grace-challenged? On the inside, they probably told themselves, the swan must be as unattractive as they were. No, more so, for if they hadn’t a prayer of matching it for outward appeal, then it had to be more ill-favored, even revolting, within. That way, on balance, any one of them could feel better about failing to have been born a swan. Not to mince words, the swan grumbled to itself, but its droppings were their psychological consolation. You only had to compare how they all sighed over ugly ducklings. And the uglier the better, it seemed. Profuse with empathy for those trapped in a body they blessed their lucky stars they’d been spared themselves, they were free to imagine an inner beauty in the waddling little unfortunates that must, again in the balance of things, outweigh all surface flaws. And prizing this inner beauty, having the inner beauty yourself to recognize it in those less comely than you, made dismissing earthly attractions like the swan’s a proof of your own allegiance to more exalted definitions of the beautiful. In short, if plainness could be declared to house the gift of true beauty, then by contrast, they must assume, what appealed to the eye actually had to be an illusion, a cover for some hideous corruption of the soul beneath. No wonder they fixated on swan droppings as proof they themselves weren’t really slaves to blind infatuation. Inner beauty also had the advantage of not showing its age, of course. The older and more wrinkled one grew, the more thankful one was to remain a knockout within. Confident of your inner blessings, watching the decline of the physically endowed and the desperate measures they took in hopes of holding off the inevitable must make your own decay that much easier to bear. With so much against it, the swan thought, why not turn itself into an ugly duckling without further delay? Having made the change, the rest of its life could be spent under the dewy gaze of its present detractors, those obsessed with its beauty and grace while remaining confident they had more of both at heart. Living out its days trying to forget it had ever been a swan in the first place.
Copyright © 2007 by Geoffrey Grosshans