Does Appearance Matter? The Case of La Callas, Part II
This is a two part series, Part I is here.
Returning now to Maria Callas and the story of the physical transformation that made her an icon, I’d like to dig deeper into the question: does appearance matter?
I’m struck by a few things.
First, it’s not clear to me whom Maria Callas altered her appearance for. Was it the result of external pressure, or the internal kind? In other words, did she become what she thought other people wanted of her, or did she become what she wanted of herself? It’s a fine line, but it merits distinction. Folding to external pressure is problematic because it seems to me a rule in life that no amount of self-worth can be found in seeking validation from others. That is a certain path to discontent. Acting based on internal pressure, on the other hand, feels more compelling because in that case, Maria Callas might have known that transforming herself on the outside was somehow important to what she knew she could be on the inside. After all, only we know what we are truly capable of becoming if we strip away all of the fears and insecurities and doubts that hold us back. To each of us, that might entail a different kind of transformation, maybe a physical transformation, or maybe a practical one—maybe we know we’re meant to do something different from what we currently do; maybe we know we’re meant to be different from who we currently are. No one but each of us knows what’s within. Maybe to really transform opera, to become arguably the best opera singer in the history of the art form, Maria Callas knew she needed a certain appearance. Opera has never been the same since Callas, and it will never be—yes because of her voice, but also because of her persona, which in part resulted from her image.
Second, while a change in appearance seems like it only deals with our surface, is that actually the case? Can a change in our appearance actually signal a change in what’s happening internally? For Maria Callas, there was so much emotional pain from a life of feeling less than loved, maybe somehow her appearance reflected that hurt? If so, did a change in appearance signal some deeper change within, either in her capacity for self-love or self-care or a shift in her thinking about self-worth? Maybe, then, a change in appearance is not superficial at all.
Finally, it was Einstein who said the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over again and expect different results. Could it be that when we’re ready to change our outcomes, we somehow end up, even subconsciously, changing our appearance? In Maria's case, ever the perfectionist, she had grown tired of second-rate productions. She wanted only the best; she worked incessantly on her craft only to feel that the entire production ended up disappointing her. She knew, inside, she was capable of more. Perhaps the change in her appearance came about as she raised her internal bar, and set her sights on becoming one of opera's greatest singers. I don’t mean to rely on the robust evidence base that is Hollywood films, but if you think about it, isn’t any major transformation in outcome almost always prefigured by a transformation in appearance (Pretty Woman!)? We can argue whether that’s real or whether it’s Hollywood reducing the complexities of the character’s internal process to something that we can easily see and comprehend. No matter the case, a change in appearance very often signals a more significant change to come—maybe in the form of fulfillment, self-actualization, or growth. That’s nothing if not substantive.
As usual, you do your part and get to the end of this post and I tell you that I don’t know the answers! If the case of Maria Callas shows us anything, it is that our appearance is a complex subject, and the reasons behind why we look the way we do may be even more so. As anyone who has been judged or stereotyped or profiled or bullied for looking a certain way can tell us, appearance matters. When it comes to fashion, the pressure to have a certain appearance, often resulting from a bombardment of carefully manipulated images of women who have exactly that appearance, is real. I have certainly struggled with it, especially around body image. And I navigate my relationship with it constantly—what’s healthy, what isn’t, what’s me, what’s not, what’s important to being who I could become, and what’s holding me back from being just who I am.
Because appearance is an undeniable companion in our human experience, thinking about it in a healthy and honest way should be as well. I hope that over time we can do that here together. In the mean time, I would love to hear from you. How do you navigate your relationship with appearance? And ultimately, do you think appearance matters?
Feature image is the cover of Maria Callas Remastered. Image courtesy of Bowers-Wilkins.