Social media is like a corridor with a thousand mirrors that forces each of us to ponder our outward image. It’s no wonder, then, that the technological age has vastly increased writing on the subject of beauty.
Nineteenth century, the golden age of dandies and aestheticism, also led to many books on beauty, but then the 20th century sent the word out of fashion in favor of irregularities and the avant-garde. Now we can finally confess again – we have always been obsessed with and haunted by beauty. Even when it wasn’t cool to address it directly, we engaged with the subject through avoidance.
In a true Whitman-esque manner, the word “beauty” is large; it contains multitudes. Its associative imagery is different for every person. So what do we mean – usually, generally, casually – when we label something or someone “beautiful?” And what has the word meant for the labeled, historically? Let's delve into these questions.
Beauty as Good
“WHAT IS BEAUTIFUL IS GOOD” is a truism we all wish were true. As humans, we desperately want beauty to mean something beyond simple aesthetics. A leftover enchantment, maybe, from our childhood fairytales in which the good always comes in a beautiful package?
This fairytale idea of beauty is uncanny and speaks the old Roald Dahl truth that “a person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly.” In this simpler world, what’s beautiful is equal to what’s virtuous and ugliness is reserved for dungeons and preserved in poisons.
Beauty, viewed through this lens, represents a longing for the sort of unaware ignorance that never saw the foxy maid from American Horror Story turn back into an old lady. We wish we never knew the forbidden shadow of ugliness. Moreover, we wish we didn’t long for a hint of it to spice up the fair perfection of the princess’s face. We wish the most accessible information – someone’s aesthetic and sexual attractiveness – contained more than it does, so we wouldn’t have to spend time getting to know a person. This wish, this nostalgia is then labeled as beauty. “Beauty as Good.”
Beauty as Pain
History knows well that beauty is pain. According to a Russian proverb, beauty requires sacrifice and in some cases a sacrifice of bodily functions. For example, the Chinese foot binding practice – a traditional sacrifice of broken bones and muscular atrophy at the altar of beauty – persevered for seven centuries. Hell, even now some agree to squish their organs into one messy pile to achieve that hourglass silhouette.
The milder irrationalities of today are stilettos: why would you want shoes to prevent you from going as far as you can as fast as you can, if not for the sake of ephemeral beauty?
Pain, like directed energy, like ritual, has the twisted ability to create meaning – at least in the person’s mind and at times in the minds of whole societies. So, oppressive practices with time can become associated with beauty. "Beauty as pain."
Beauty as Perception
We all think we know beauty, when we see it; its one universally accepted trait is it’s easy on the eyes – regular features, a type of girl, who, by virtue of embodying the standard, reminds you of someone you’ve seen before. When you stumble upon the rare treasure that is classical beauty, your gaze stops, unable to grasp onto any imperfection.
But then sometimes you encounter a beauty that requires a second glance, a return to it. That type of rare beauty doesn’t give away its secrets at once. It becomes an experience, instead of an image; a subject, instead of an object. It’s when you’re unable to separate someone’s smile and gestures, flair and walk, character and smell from their appearances that beauty gains its full dimensions. "Beauty as Perception" is the mystery that falls between the first and returning glances.
Beauty as Aspiration
Literature canon usually refers to beauty as something mysterious. “Beauty is terror,” writes Donna Tartt, “Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it.” Beauty in its abstract sense is something that reminds one of bigger concepts and ideas, takes one out of the moment, transcends reality, and reminds of mortality. But because the literary definition of beauty doesn’t fit well with the way our society works, we try to reduce beauty to something aspirational.
Cue the Youtube tutorials. You can just hear an instructional voice start to coo: you, too, ordinary person, can master the spell and here’s how. Here, beauty turns from a quality to a commodity, from a subject’s to an object’s trait. Beauty gets fetishized – lingerie and red lipstick then become the keepers of female sexuality, an unconventional hair color holds our quirkiness, etc. The demystification of beauty means seeing beauty as an aspiration.
Beauty as Health
People like to remind us that beauty equates with desirability, as societal dominance has been around since the beginning of times. There’s some biological basis in our preference for child-bearing hips and long, far-running legs, of course, but beauty as health has mostly become a pretense. We have moved so far away from the original thought, we have to remind ourselves what it was in the first place – gene spreading, right?
Besides, beauty as health raises some questions about what it means to glorify health in a world where health is a privilege. Even if it weren’t, our health and bodies supposedly belong to us – most things on Earth are communal, so it’s nice to have at least that – and when beauty standards rely on capabilities, it's hard not to see capitalism's influence. (If you're "healthier," surely you can labor harder.) Beauty as health is a beautiful concept, but unfortunately rarely applies.
Beauty as Balance
Susan Sontag wrote, “What is most beautiful in virile men is something feminine; what is most beautiful in feminine women is something masculine.” In the postmodern age, where our horror stories revolve around the fear of someone familiar being actually foreign – abducted, replaced, etc. – beauty lurks in familiarity that posesses just a touch of the unfamiliar.
At its worst, beauty is a product. At times beauty is an unfulfilled promise of something more than life as we know it – a shot at greatness, at adventure, at immortality. At its best, it’s someone’s gesture repeated so many times it’s achingly familiar. I guess at its ultimate best it’s love with just a hint of something “other.”
What does the word mean to you? Is it a category, a feeling, an action? What are your criteria for defining the word? Let's talk.