Study Guide

Nine Perfect Strangers Appearances

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[Ben] avoided looking at her. He was trying really hard to get over that. There were men who stayed married to women who were disfigured by accidents, burns or scars or whatever. It shouldn’t make a difference that Jessica was disfigured by her own hand. Not literally her own hand. Her own credit card. Willful disfigurement.

And then all her stupid friends encouraged her, “Oh my God, Jessica, you look incredible.”

He wanted to yell at them, “Are you blind? She looks like a chipmunk!” (5.22-24)

Jessica’s appearance is a constant source of stress in their marriage. After they win the lottery, Jessica goes a little overboard with the cosmetic improvements. Ben misses the way his wife used to look but Jessica seems to enjoy her new body. Should a husband really get to dictate his wife’s appearance?

Frances averted her eyes from the number. She had no idea of her weight and no interest in learning it. She knew she could be thinner, and of course when she was younger she was indeed much thinner, but she was generally happy with her body as long as it wasn’t giving her pain, and bored by all the different ways women droned on about the subject of weight, as if it were one of the great mysteries of life. The recent weight-losers, evangelical about whatever method had worked for them, the thin women who called themselves fat, the average women who called themselves obese, the ones desperate for her to join in their lavish self-loathing. “Oh, Frances, isn’t it just so depressing when you see young, thin girls like that!” “Not especially,” Frances would say, adding extra butter to her bread roll. (6.124)

When Frances first comes to Tranquillum House, she’s not especially interested in her weight. It’s only after she observes so many healthy people at the “health retreat” that she starts to feel a little more self-conscious.

None of the three of them needed to lose weight. Weight was just not an issue for Heather! She weighed herself every morning at six on the dot and if she ever saw the needle move in the wrong direction she adjusted her diet. Her BMI was in the “underweight” category but only by a kilo. She’d always been lean. Zoe sometimes accused Heather of having an eating disorder, just because she was kind of picky about when and what she ate. She didn’t put just anything in her mouth—unlike Napoleon, who ate like a vacuum cleaner, hoovering up whatever was around him. (10.11)

The Marconi family isn’t worried about their appearance. Their issues are more than skin deep.

#starlightmeditation #healthretreat #learningaboutkoans #wejustsawafallingstar #whatisthesoundofonehandclapping.

That last hashtag would have made [Jessica] look quite intellectual and spiritual, she thought, which was good, because you had to be careful not to come across as superficial on your socials. (16.7-8)

Of all the guests, Jessica is the most concerned about her appearance. This budding social media influencer is completely obsessed with how she comes off to other people…and it’s part of what’s destroying her marriage.

[Tony] remembered a different body. A different time. The almighty roar of an ecstatic crowd. The way the sound used to vibrate in his chest. Once there had been no barrier at all between his mind and his body. He thought “run” and he ran. He thought “jump” and he jumped. (18.43)

Ah, those glory days! Tony looks back fondly on days when his looks better matched his identity. Now he’s at Tranquillum House hoping to lose weight and find that same sense of meaning he had when he was playing football.

Now [Frances] was stuck in the pool because she didn’t want to get out in front of him. She would have thought she was too old to worry about her body being observed and judged in a swimsuit, but apparently this neurosis began at twelve years old and never ended. (19.5)

Guess Frances is a little bit concerned with her looks after all?

Men often used that phrase: “drop some weight.” They said it without shame or emotion, as if the weight were an object they could easily put down when they chose. Women said they needed to “lose weight,” with their eyes down, as if the extra weight was part of them, a terrible sin they’d committed. (25.10)

This is a pretty interesting observation about the different ways men and women view their bodies. Do you think Masha has it right? Do women internalize their extra pounds, while men view them as just a minor inconvenience to be tossed off at the first chance?

Carmel wasn’t wearing a body. It was so wonderful and relaxing not wearing a body. No thighs. No stomach. No bum. No biceps. No triceps. No cellulite. No crow’s feet. No frown marks. No cesarean scar. No sun damage. No fine lines. No seven signs of aging. No dry hair. No frizzy hair. No gray hair. Nothing to wax or color or condition. Nothing to lengthen or flatten, conceal or disguise.

She was just Carmel, without her body. (36.2-3)

Here Carmel is having a real breakthrough with regard to her body image. And, yes, she’s doing it while high, but stay with us. Carmel came to Tranquillum House hurting from her divorce. Her husband left her because he was no longer attracted to her. Carmel feels her body has betrayed her. The experience of being without her body is freeing for her.

“What I’d find truly transformative right now is a long hot shower,” said Lars. He smiled up at Masha with the full force of his gorgeous face. It was like he was holding a glowing lightsaber up to the screen. Frances would bet that smile had opened many doors before.

But not this one. Masha just smiled back. It was an epic battle of beauty and charisma. (62.20-21)

Lars’s gorgeous appearance has obviously opened doors for him before. But in this moment, it’s failing to impress Masha. It probably doesn’t help that she’s a bit of a raging psychopath.

[Carmel] realized that Joel wouldn’t even notice any difference in her. You never changed your appearance for men, you changed it for other women, because they were the ones carefully tracking each other’s weight and skin tone along with their own; they were the ones trapped with you on the ridiculous appearance-obsession merry-go-round that they couldn’t or wouldn’t get off. Even if she’d been a perfectly toned and manicured gym junkie, Joel would still have left her. His “lack of attraction” had nothing to do with her. He hadn’t left her for something better, but for something new. (75.25)

And finally, Carmel comes to it. It’s not her body that’s betrayed her—it’s her jerk ex-husband. You go, girl.

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