5.10.2007

Truth About Beauty

The first, and most important, truth about beauty is that it is entirely and completely subjective. There is no such thing as objective beauty – that is to say, nothing that is intrinsically beautiful. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder; in other words, it is a value judgment placed on a sensory experience. The closest a thing might come to being “objectively” beautiful is if the thing were somehow “universally” beautiful: appreciable by anyone and everyone as beautiful. The idea that someone, somewhere, sometime, might make or achieve universal beauty seems extremely implausible, although I would not want to keep anyone from trying.

That being said, this essay is about women’s bodies.

In writing an essay about women’s bodies titled Truth About Beauty, I am hoping to address (or at least partially address) a cultural situation that severely lacks honest, straightforward conversation on the subject. Women are largely under the impression that to have a beautiful body one must be thin, toned, tan; one must use one’s clothes, accessories, and physical demeanor to be sexually expressive without coming off as a slut; muscle tone and feminine curves go in and out with the fashion season, depending on the media reaction to some celebrity or other who has recently made a non-underweight public appearance.

Efforts to change cultural perceptions of beauty from its current artificially rigid standard are starting to be made, such as the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty , ads like this, or even music videos like this one by Evanescence. Meanwhile, Killing Us Softly has been watch-dogging the extremely negative role advertising usually plays in cultural perceptions of women and female beauty for years. But until these truths are mainstreamed and the average woman becomes aware both cognitively and instinctively that her body is beautiful, there will still be work to do. The fact that body image is a contributing factor for as many as 10 million American women struggling with eating disorders indicates that we have quite a ways to go.

The second truth that needs saying is that physical beauty is different from physical health. Right? A relatively inactive, naturally slender woman who takes advantage of her quick metabolism to habitually eat high-fat, high-cholesterol foods could still be at risk for heart disease; and there are plenty of very overweight women considered to have beautiful bodies, partially if not wholly because of their size. (If you doubt this, Google the acronym BBW. The sheer number of plus-sized porn sites you find – over 1 million – ought to prove my point, if rather crudely, and there’s almost the same number of hits of a more tasteful nature dedicated to Big Beautiful Women.) It’s time we stopped muddling beauty and health. Being active and eating well are good ideas from the standpoint of health, but for many women they won’t provide the kind of body that our culture seems to call beautiful. And many women, pursuing that specific form of beauty, push themselves – through unsound diets and/or excessive exercise – from one kind of unhealthiness into another, spend their lives bouncing back and forth between the two, and only achieve a body that satisfies them for brief periods of time. Many women also justify their unhealthy pursuit of a specific beauty, ironically, as the pursuit of good health. The truth is that a body can be beautiful but unhealthy, or healthy but unattractive, or any other combination of the two characteristics, and the pursuit of one does not preclude achieving the other. So let’s stop confusing health and beauty – it’s only getting in our way.

The next truths about beauty are elaborations on the first truth, that beauty is subjective. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, than whether or not a body is beautiful depends entirely on who’s looking at it. Broadly speaking, the audience for a body is divided into to categories of people: ‘self’ and ‘others’. ‘Others’ can be further divided into categories like ‘lovers’, ‘family/friends’, and ‘everyone else.’ Here’s the third truth about beauty: achieving universal beauty is impossible. Forget trying to be something that everyone finds equally appealing – you won’t even be able to be something that all people find remotely appealing. You just can’t. No matter what your body looks like, you will never be beautiful to absolutely everyone. Humanity’s aesthetic tastes are too specific, too individual for there to ever have been or ever be a true Helen of Troy.

So, if you want a beautiful body, you should try to begin with satisfying yourself. You know what you yourself find visually and sensually pleasing in a female body; if it’s feasible, you can strive to be that. Many women, however, find that they aren’t capable of being satisfied with their own bodies. This is often because they have been so trained to think of beauty in very specific, mass-media terms, or because they genuinely find a body type other than their own to be more appealing, or general self-criticism, etc. Affirmation from the three categories of ‘others’ – lovers, family/friends, and acquaintances/strangers – plays a huge role in feeling beautiful and in perceiving oneself as beautiful (humanity is, after all, instinctively communal). I shouldn’t need to point out that everyone needs to surround themselves with people who are both affirming and honest; that’s a social truth that applies to beauty as well. Our self-perception affects how others perceive us, just as their perceptions of us affect how we perceive ourselves.

The fourth truth, and this is very important, is that the specific, individual criteria for beauty expressed by each person means that a cross-section of humanity reveals an extremely wide range for what is beautiful. The only quasi-constants, when it comes to the female body, seem to be wrapped up in symmetry and proportions. If you want to speak about “what men like,” for example (although I know this is only about 49% of the population of opinions on the subject), all you can assert with confidence is that most men, not all, prefer women whose bodies are symmetrical left to right and whose hips are fuller than their waists. That’s about as specific as you can get. When it comes to types of figure, there seem to be just as many male fans of apples or pears as there are of hourglasses, while men who genuinely prefer model-skinny women are in a definite minority, along with those who are attracted to extremely obese women. Just look at the women we date – we date real women, normal women, and it’s not because men aren’t picky. It’s because what we find beautiful is radically more than the one facet of beauty that advertising and Hollywood consistently shows.

Just so we know exactly what we’re talking about, let’s describe the mainstream media’s “beautiful body.” In the language of Killing Us Softly, models are naturally long-legged, narrow-hipped and broad-shouldered, genetically thin (though many starve themselves anyway), and usually small-breasted – a body type that less than 5% of American women have. On top of this, most models who sport cleavage have been artificially “enhanced”, surgically or otherwise, and their photos and footage are digitally “cleaned up” – lines are altered, features are softened or accentuated, skin is airbrushed. In essence, the media’s portrayal of a beautiful female body is a body that does not exist. Little wonder that beauty products and programs are such a lucrative industry – advertising has women spending money to chase down the ends of rainbows.

That description is important because a fifth truth about beauty is that beauty is non-exclusive. No body type has a special claim to beauty. Women whose bodies are different from the mainstream portrayal are not expressing an “alternative” form of beauty; they are expressing beauty itself.

Having said that, I don’t want anyone to mistake this essay for a false nicety that says every woman has a beautiful body just as she presently is. That may be true; but I doubt it. There is a difference, a line, between attractive and unattractive, and there are bodies on both sides of it. I have a theory as to why.

We already know that there are several different kinds of body types, and that beauty isn’t reserved to any one type or types. However, and this is the sixth truth, beauty is expressed differently from type to type, and many women are struggling to express the wrong kind of beauty for their type. For example: most women desire to be thin, but the reality is that there are relatively few women who are genuinely capable of looking good while slender – it requires a small bone structure of the kind you can’t produce by diet and exercise, and women who have more normal skeletal structures often end up looking bony when they ‘succeed.’ I understand that a lot of women find delicacy beautiful and would like to appear that way but, honestly, there’s a big difference in appeal between looking delicate and looking breakable. There is probably a similarly small percentage of women who are genuinely capable of looking good while extremely fat as looking slender; after a certain point, which varies from person to person, just about everyone stops putting on weight in sensually appealing ways (even to those who find full-figured women attractive). The good news is that the women who won’t look their best skinny or obese – the majority of women – have a natural size range somewhere in the middle which is both generally and personally beautiful.

Seven truths about beauty comprise a lot of good news for the female body, and here’s the seventh and final truth: women can stop obsessing over their weight. They can stop obsessing over their size. They can let go of the need to have a body that is different from the one they actually have. They can let go of unrealistic expectations society has taught them to have for themselves. I may be skeptical about every woman having a beautiful body right now, but I’m not skeptical about this – in fact I firmly believe – that every woman’s body has the potential to be beautiful, that every woman’s body is designed to possess and display a specific beauty all its own. I also believe that society can be changed – indeed, that it is beginning to be changed – to define and acknowledge beauty in all of beauty’s forms. I believe it’s arrogant and presumptuous of anyone to uphold one attractive body over the rest and pretend it has universal appeal; and I believe that by living out these truths we, you and I, can make a difference to the people around us by opening their eyes to a fuller experience of true beauty.

I forget who said “beauty is truth, and truth beauty,” but, whoever it was, he was expressing an idea that is way too abstract for me to buy into. Although – I’ve gotta say that sometimes, like now, the truth really is beautiful.

17 comments:

  1. A response essay:

    http://dksramblings.blogspot.com/2007/06/true-beauty.html

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  2. To Derek:
    What I am arguing about the subjectivity of beauty as it regards women's bodies is that beauty is completely subjective across the whole range of human opinion.

    I do not mean that beauty is subjective to the individual - it would be absurd to claim, for example, that a husband finds his wife's body 100% attractive and 100% repulsive. Any individual has standards for what constitutes a beautiful body, and though of course that standard could change, it is still an "objective" standard for that individual in terms of its functionality.

    It's also possible, at least theoretically, that there is a standard by which bodily beauty is "objective" beyond or above the scope of human opinion. I'm afraid I feel rather agnostic towards that theory. Since the point of my essay is solely to address the problems caused by human opinions, I will leave that theory to the philosophers (see Confessions of a Comic-Book Hero).

    My point is that beauty is not universal and is therefore not objective. There is no secret standard by which a woman's body can be made to look beautiful to all people, and there is practically no body (certainly none of those considered "normal") that will not be found beautiful by some people.

    The latter half of your essay addresses a separate issue from mine, one that I heartily agree with; namely, that there is more to a person's beauty than a body, more even than overall physical appearance. The next step in this dialogue is an attempt at defining beauty comprehensively. Perhaps we should write a new post together on the topic.

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  3. http://www.collegehumor.com/video:1713822

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  4. Pretentious English NerdNovember 2, 2007 at 9:47 PM

    John Keats, "Ode to a Grecian Urn."

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  5. Wow. I love your ideas.

    I happen to fall in that 5%.

    It rather sucks though. I mean, think about it, if you aren't thin, as I am, you are ostricized for being fat and "unhealthy." Then when you are thin, you are called anorexic or bulemic.

    Hahaha, my favorite was a girl who told me "your size puts you in the category of anorexic." Anorexic is a behavoir, not a size.

    " it requires a small bone structure of the kind you can’t produce by diet and exercise, and women who have more normal skeletal structures often end up looking bony when they ‘succeed.’"
    Exactly! I must say, I think healthy women always look more attractive, but healthy and skinny are not synonymous.

    There is no healthy weight. A doctor can advise you, that's it. All these magazines tell you BMI can judge. no, it can't. If you are average, iot can give you a roundabout estimate. Hey, my friend was anorexic and fit well into the "normal" category. It can't judge health.

    Your ideas rock.

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  6. Kelli,

    Thank you!

    You're completely right. I had a conversation with a beautiful, healthy, naturally thin girl a few years back who told me she'd once been rejected by a guy who said she needed to gain weight. Meanwhile, her roommate was a heavier, curvier type who often fretted about size. Right now they're both engaged to men who love them and find them beautiful as they are.

    I also know plenty of girls who've been accused either of having an eating disorder or of taking drastic steps to lose weight, often by people whom I suspect are guilty of jealousy.

    And yet if I'm honest, when I'm getting to know a girl who is atypically thin, I find myself checking subconsciously for signs of an eating disorder - simply because I know how prevalent EDs are. One girl expressed her perception to me this way - "every guy wants a skinny girlfriend, but nobody wants to know how she does it." Nothing could be further from the truth, but that is what she felt, and (I think) what many women feel.

    The dark side of being naturally thin is, as you said, convincing others that the kind of beauty you have is real - not unhealthily induced, not artifically derived, but actually you. And for awhile, people who are fighting to broaden societal beauty standards may accidentally or misguidedly demonize you, along with your fellow 5%. But keep at it. Stand your ground, be who you are, and keep educating the people brave enough to talk to you about your size. The only way out of this situation lies in opening people's eyes to reality, in giving them permission to express the beauty they have and to pursue the beauty they find attractive.

    In other news:
    BMI is hilarious to me. It's not good at taking into account differences in bone density, muscles mass, and so on. It's only meant to provide a ballpark estimate, and yet so many people consider it authoritative. According to it, I'm overweight. I'd have lose the little bit of bodyfat I have (a good and healthy thing to carry around, by the way) and a decent bit of muscle - 10 pounds in all - to hit the "normal" range for my height. Take my advice - don't be judged by BMI. It's too quick, too sloppy, and it's not specific enough to you.

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  7. Well, I have no problem with people looking for SIGNS, but when the signs aren't there, people just have to know when to back off.

    And, if the signs ARE there, saying "you're sick and you need to eat something, freak," is probably not helpful to the situation.

    I think you rock. ;-D

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  13. I think many a man has attempted to say something similar, and that most women are actually aware that the average man on the street doesn't share the rigid beauty ideals put forward by the media. Men, however, seem largely unaware that women's insecurities aren't entirely based on our beliefs about men's tastes. Women still face discrimination based on appearance (yes, women you might find attractive). Thinner women might not have a significantly easier time finding a mate, but it is documented that they have an easier time finding a job, get paid more, and are more likely to be found innocent by a jury! Men might find a wider (no pun intended) range of women attractive, but that alone can't liberate women from the tyranny of the social ideal. It isn't a delusion women suffer from, but a nigh-inescapable feature of the cultural landscape.
    There is some benefit to saying the things you've said here, of course. It's worthwhile to contradict the prevailing message, but sometimes it seems to me that men overestimate the power of their own opinions in this issue, and imagine they have the ability to wave a magic - er, wand - and make the problem go away. That would be true if it were all in women's heads, and all about sex, but it goes beyond that.
    Sorry for the long ramble. My point is, to put a personal spin on it: I'm "curvy", an hourglass, baby-got-back, honky-tonk badonkadonk, etc.. All the praise my shape might get from men does not make me less of a second class citizen and therefore can't assuage my negative feelings about my dress size. Please don't think I'm crazy, or vain; it's not all in my head, even if you might call me beautiful.

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  14. Dear Gee,

    You're right, of course - the biases, judgmentalism, prejudices, and discrimination are all very real. Moreover, the cultural landscape is complex; it *is* all in our heads, but it's a thicket and tangle of unrelated ideas that seem to support one another, but upon examination, really don't.

    Social beauty standards aren't really about beauty; they're about power. Social criteria for a "beautiful" woman has always been those associated with wealth and leisure. Personal beauty insecurity isn't usually about beauty, either; it's usually about perceived worth to others. Media beauty portrayals aren't about beauty; they're about money (they use social beauty standards to prey on personal beauty insecurity, attempting to convince us we can buy our way to loveliness / social value). Popular health standards aren't based on real health science, but rather a convenient way to justify the reactions of fatophobes, a small but noisy minority. Lastly, those men who do prefer physically insubstantial women fall into a few categories: desire to advance their own social status through the woman they're seen with; men whose own self-perceptions influence them towards a girl they feel able to protect or dominate physically; and last, but not least, men who genuinely appreciate slim figures.

    Obviously these ideas are not like a Jenga tower we can unbuild simply by removing the right block near the base and bring it all crashing down.

    That doesn't mean we have to accept the situation. There are positive choices we can make:

    (1) We can choose to never be part of the problem ourselves - never judging anyone else based on a false standard, even mentally, and never repeating others' judgments of us to ourselves. Hardly easy, but worthwhile.

    (2) We can try to gently disentangle others from contributing to the problem.

    My mother loves many styles of garden, but thinks wild trees are ugly. But she doesn't tell me I shouldn't spend my time walking in the woods, and doesn't advocate the trimming of forest trees into shapes she can appreciate. We're all limited in our capacity to appreciate beauty, but we shouldn't assume someone isn't beautiful simply because we don't find them so, and we should respect those who can appreciate a different beauty than we can.

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