Once a swan turned into an ugly duckling. Or, to be more precise, 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, it had learned over the years. 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 TV and online passed along rumors that its love life was in a death spiral for the hundredth time. And that last cover of Smart Set magazine—they could at least 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 magazine covers at the grocery checkout stand. Gloating millions who needed reassurance that the swan’s beauty was in fact only skin deep, for how else was the loveliness of others to be borne by the plain and the grace-challenged? They probably told themselves that on the inside, the swan must be as unattractive as they were. No, more unattractive, for if they hadn’t a prayer of matching it for outward appeal, then it had to be more ill-favored, even downright revolting, within than they were. That way 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 photos of its droppings amounted to their psychological consolation. You only had to compare how they all sighed over ugly ducklings. And the uglier the better, it seemed. Oozing empathy for those trapped in a body they blessed their lucky stars they themselves had been spared, they were free to imagine an inner beauty in the waddling little unfortunates that must outweigh all surface flaws. But that wasn’t all. Congratulating themselves on their ability to recognize the inner beauty of ugly ducklings made dismissing outer loveliness like the swan’s a proof of their own allegiance to more idealized 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 outwardly appealed to the eye actually had to be a cover for something hideous. No wonder they fixated on the swan’s droppings as a way of showing they themselves weren’t really slaves to blind infatuation. Inner beauty did have the advantage of not betraying one’s age, the swan had to admit. The older and more wrinkled one grew, the more thankful one might be to remaining 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 through plastic surgery and so forth might conceivably make your personal decay that much easier to bear. With so much of popular opinion going against it, the swan decided, why not turn itself into an ugly duckling? With that metamorphosis, it might be able to spend the remainder of its life under the dewy gaze of its present detractors, those who’d long obsessed over its beauty and grace while remaining confident they had more of both within. What it didn’t take into account in its decision was living out its days as an ugly duckling trying to forget it had ever been a swan in the first place.
Copyright © 2020 by Geoffrey Grosshans