Saturday, December 17, 2011

You Aren't So Beautiful


by Gaije Kushner

original photo by André Natta
Driving around Birmingham and its endless suburbs does not exactly offer a feast for the eyes most days. The 280 traffic, the ridiculous SUVs, remnant Bush Jr. stickers clinging to their bumpers, the ubiquitous chain stores and restaurants, especially Chick-fil-A, and the Starbucks here, there, and everywhere. Step out of the car, and it’s all unfortunate hair and pleated khaki shorts. On those days coming across one of those, “You Are Beautiful” signs is the visual equivalent of nails on a chalkboard.

It’s nothing to do with their questionable legality, placed as they are on private buildings and public structures, nor with the aesthetics of graffiti. It’s the message itself that troubles, assuring each and every passerby he or she is beautiful. Because most people really aren’t so beautiful. You probably aren’t, neither am I.

Beautiful is a word, with a specific meaning. Applied to people, it refers to someone unusually appealing to the observing eye. It is utterly superficial, and not terribly inclusive, which shouldn’t be a problem for us. Some people are better looking than others. However we might wish that truth away, it isn’t going anywhere, which shouldn’t be a problem for anyone either. No one has trouble acknowledging other physical or mental traits exist along a continuum. Some people are taller, smarter, better runners, more intuitive, more all kinds of things than others. We’re okay with those distinctions, yet we want beauty to exist in a strange, vacuum-packed category of its own. We want to see both the word and the thing itself as infinitely malleable, but neither is.

Efforts to redefine what we mean when we talk about beauty like You Are Beautiful Birmingham have two rather contradictory goals. To expand the definition of physical beauty so everyone gets a turn at it, and to remove the physicality from beauty altogether, redirecting our attention to internal qualities instead. Simultaneously saying, “this thing is not at all important,” and, “this thing is so important no one should be left out of it.” That doesn’t really work, in fact suggests a disconnection from reality and language.

We like to believe in beauty’s subjectivity. We tell ourselves and one another how widely ideals of beauty vary from one person or culture to another. It’s a generous impulse, really, wanting to believe everyone will be seen as beautiful by someone, somewhere. Unfortunately, it doesn’t hold up to the scrutiny of science. For decades now, study after study has found that across culture, race, class, gender, and sexual preference, we find symmetry and certain proportions most attractive in face and figure. Recent research suggests these traits are effective markers of genetic and reproductive health, personality even. However subjective our individual assessments of beauty may feel, however random our standards of beauty may seem, they are based in our biology, one more expression of our shared DNA.

Definitions of beauty consistently specify it as something particularly pleasing to the physical senses. Again, it is a word, bearing a limited meaning, one inapplicable to intangible inner qualities. This doesn’t diminish their importance in the slightest. They are almost unspeakably important, far more so than external appearance. But being imperceptible to the senses, to please them or do otherwise, they cannot rightly be described as beautiful. Why should they be? With so many other, better words with which to discuss interiority, why the insistence on this one? A revalorization of interiority deserves to be taken up on its own terms, not uncomfortably wedged into one that will never quite fit.

We absolutely value and reward physical beauty beyond all reason. It benefits us all to challenge those realities, no matter what we look like. But pretending differences in beauty don’t exist isn’t the way to go about it. Neither is an attempt to force the word itself into a meaning it doesn’t carry. If we describe everyone as beautiful, inside or out, we only succeed in stripping it of meaning altogether, making it that much more difficult to make any sense of one another whatsoever.

2 comments:

  1. Scrooge? Really? I'd think more Cruella de Ville, if I'm going to go villainous. Like me, she is dog obsessed, and awfully stylish.

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