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What Is Beautiful?

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I have been bothered lately by things being described as “beautiful”. There is nothing wrong with my aunt sitting in front of the Christmas tree, taking a decorated vase out of a gift box and saying, “Oh my, that’s beautiful”, right? Yet it started to bother me the more I heard it being used by the people around me. So recently when my father said, “It’s such a beautiful day”, as we got in the car to go to the store, I ignored it. When my friend showed me his new car and asked, “Isn’t she a beauty?” I quietly agreed. I had been going on like this and was stopped cold when my four-year old daughter was playing with her dolls and said very innocently, “My favorites are Belle and Sleeping Beauty.”

Well, for some reason those words sounded like an old record being scratched by a needle, making me suddenly aware that I was more worried about this “beauty” thing than I realized, so I asked her, “Why are they your favorites, honey?” She gave me that look (that I can tell will be the same when she’s a teenager and I ask why she wants to borrow the car) and put her hand on her hip and slanted her head sideways. “Because they’re beautiful, Dad.”

“Okay, that’s… fine,” I said as I got up and went over to the computer. I don’t know why, but I was compelled to quickly type the word “beauty” in the search box and hit enter. What did I get? 466,000,000 results in 0.14 seconds! Ten possibilities appeared on the first page and there were links to cosmetics, Botox, make-overs, dating, a Wikipedia article, and the film American Beauty.

I checked out the Wikipedia article about beauty, and it begins like this: “Beauty is the phenomenon of the experience of pleasure.” So, I suppose, if we accept this, that my father was pleased to see a sunny day, my friend with his new red car, and my daughter with the faces of her little dolls. If pleasure is undeniably a factor, then I have an idea why people put such a premium on being beautiful, but I’d still say we’re all guilty of misusing the word beauty or beautiful in our lives. We are no doubt also victims of the concept of beauty, for in the pursuit of happiness we have sought the beautiful without fully understanding why or how it pleases us.

The ancient Greeks, Romans, and Hindus all had goddesses of beauty (Aphrodite, Venus, and Lakshmi respectively). This is probably the reason why to this day some women say they want their men to treat them “like a goddess”. But why was there a goddess of beauty in the first place? Was it because human beings put such a high value on appearance? Is the aesthetic value of something inherently linked to its overall worth?

The old poets had a great deal to say about beauty. Here are some of the lines I recall from over the years, though I do not remember all the actual poems from which they come:

She walks in beauty like the night. – Lord Byron
Thy beauty haunts me heart and soul. – William H. Davies
A thing of beauty is a joy forever. – John Keats
Beauty is truth, truth beauty. – John Keats
The trees are in their autumn beauty. – W.B. Yeats
But beauty vanishes; beauty passes away. – Walter de le Mare

Is Beauty an affliction? – Emily Dickinson
Beauty is but a vain and doubtful good. – Shakespeare

The idea of the beautiful is very poetical. For someone like Keats, beauty is as everlasting as truth (in this case related to the Grecian urn, an inanimate object), yet he does not go on to define what is beautiful in other categories. Most poets do not. They focus on their object of the moment: a sunset, a lover, an ocean view. Of course, if we want to know what is beautiful shouldn’t we also define it by what it is not? Looking at the above quotations, I believe de le Mare, Dickinson, and Shakespeare get closer to that way of thinking. Beauty isn’t always good; thus, good people aren’t always beautiful. Therefore, sometimes so-called “ugly” people are good and maybe even defy accepted norms and are beautiful. In this way beauty is always dubious simply because it is subjective and therefore a fallible concept.

How many times have we heard about “the beautiful people” who are to be found in Hollywood? One magazine always lists the most beautiful people; others highlight the sexiest man and woman, the hottest bodies, and so on and so forth. We have beauty contests where women are judged wearing evening gowns and swimsuits (oh, yes, and the talent competition too), and now there are “reality” shows with the sole purpose of either making people more beautiful (making them over literally) or thinner. I wonder how difficult it is for all these people to be beautiful and to maintain their beauty. It would seem beauty is indeed an affliction.

I realized as I thought of all these things that the way beauty is emphasized in our modern world, the manner in which it has been publicized and made into a commodity, is what is troubling me. Because of this obsession with appearances, I fear that my child is getting the wrong messages and they will ultimately have a negative affect on her life. Will she choose playmates based on appearances? Will she become overly concerned about her own appearance? Will this lead to unhealthy choices in her quest to become more closely like the societal ideal?

Currently we see young women who are supposed to be beautiful starving themselves to death in pictures in magazines, on television, and in movies. These models, actresses, and celebrities are all striving for a size 1 it seems, and it is a stark and striking reminder of a time in the 60s when the androgynous stick figure look was in vogue. Still and all some of these same emaciated women get breast implants, thus sending even more dangerous messages about appearance. Is the motivation for all of this to simply be attractive or does it go even further? Are women actually trying to become the ideal creature they aspire to be or to be the antithesis of the ideal, thus establishing a new order of beauty?

I have come to no conclusions at this point, but I do know that what I find beautiful has changed over the years. It started when I got the courage up to ask out this girl many years ago that I worshipped from afar. She had the perfect figure, long blonde hair, big blue eyes, and a little turned-up nose. I couldn’t have created a better fantasy date than “Betty” if I tried. Well, amazingly she said yes when I asked her to go out, and we went to a fine restaurant here in NYC that cost me (I was twenty years old) most of my weekly salary.

Anyway, the wine flowed and things were going well. I told her about my plans to travel around the world, keep a journal, and eventually write books about it. This is when that needle on the record started scratching across the perfect song of our date thus far. “Well, you’re not going to Africa or India or places like that are you?” Betty asked. I said that of course I was going to go everywhere and see how people lived. This is when she revealed herself to me. As she went on making racist comments, I looked up at her face and her beauty disintegrated right before my eyes. The gorgeous girl I picked up and brought to the restaurant was gone; she had become the most hideous monster I’d ever seen, and yet her face remained conventionally pretty if not beautiful, but to me she was just ugly.

What I learned on that date over twenty years ago has always stayed with me. After that I went out with a number of women, but I never focused on “traditional” beauty as being the deciding factor for me to ask them out on a date. Sometimes I found beauty in their actions (a worker on a political campaign, a volunteer at an animal shelter, an ER nurse) or in their words (passionate writers, singers, or poets), but their appearances definitely didn’t matter (nor their race or religion). All the time I found them to be as physically beautiful as their personalities, but sometimes friends would say otherwise. I responded to them the same way as my cousin had many years before when she got married. A Marilyn Monroe look-a-like, her husband was a man who made old King Kong look handsome, but when she was chided about his appearance she would say, “You don’t see him through my eyes.” When I used that line with my friends (replacing “him” with “her”) they never knew how to take it and just left me alone.

So I guess it all does come back to a cliché, maybe one of the most famous ones ever: beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I know it is still that way for me. I sat down with my daughter after I had thought everything through, took her other dolls out of the box (Jasmine, Cinderella, Ariel, Mulan, Snow White, and Pocahontas) and explained that they were all beautiful. Unfortunately, these Barbie-like dolls are never made any other way. Their proportions are so unreal; no wonder women are starving themselves; however, women are human beings and not dolls who never gain weight, age, or get wrinkles. I have to make sure this truth becomes very clear to my daughter as she gets older.

I will work over the years to help my daughter see the difference between aesthetic beauty and reality; I will strive to get her to find what makes people attractive is not external but internal (she likes the Beauty and the Beast story very much, so she should already have an idea about this). Still, I know I have a long struggle ahead, but I am determined and I love my child and she loves me.

That’s what is really beautiful, dear readers.

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About Victor Lana

Victor Lana has published numerous stories, articles, and poems in literary magazines and online. His books In a Dark Time (1994), A Death in Prague (2002), Move (2003), The Savage Quiet September Sun: A Collection of 9/11 Stories (2005) and Like a Passing Shadow (2009) are available online and as e-books. He has won the National Arts Club Award for Poetry, but has concentrated mostly on fiction and non-fiction prose in recent years. He has worked as faculty advisor to school literary magazines and enjoys the creative process as a writer, editor, and collaborator. He has been with Blogcritics since July 2005, has edited many articles, was co-head sports editor with Charley Doherty, and now is a Culture and Society editor. He views Blogcritics as one of most exciting, fresh, and meaningful opportunities in his writing life.
  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com/ Eric Berlin

    Fantastic piece, Victor!

    Reminds me for some reason of my time living in the UK. At the time, it seemed (and perhaps now as well), it was very common for the English to stereotype (and not without reason) Yanks for saying “Have a nice day” without really meaning it.

    Perhaps American culture particularly has devalued the power of words and language with overuse of super and ultra and extra strength and even love and beauty?

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com/ Eric Berlin

    I originally had a question mark mistakenly entered in the first line above which I changed as I fortunately have such powers…

    It is a fantastic piece, really!

  • Baronius

    Victor, interesting piece. I don’t envy you the task of teaching perspective to your daughter.

    I got in a spat in the music subdirectory when I argued that there is such a thing as beauty. It seems a paradox: at a time when we are obsessed with female beauty, we no longer believe in the philosophical concept. But there are a lot of paradoxes in the subject. You note one above, “cosmetic” surgery in pursuit of something that isn’t particularly attractive. A perfect example of the horrible state of affairs: Lindsey Lohan talking about her eating disorder in a magazine, with a “sexy” picture of her in underwear on the cover.

    I suspect that there is such a thing as objective beauty, that some sunsets, songs, or people are more beautiful than others. But real or subjective, Betty’s beauty can’t hide her nature. (I know; she’s a friend of a friend, except she’s a brunette.) Maybe the truth is that beauty is real, but not very important. Remember Shakespeare’s Sonnet #130, a love poem for a not-so-beautiful woman:

    My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
    Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
    If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
    If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
    I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
    But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
    And in some perfumes is there more delight
    Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
    I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
    That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
    I grant I never saw a goddess go;
    My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.
    And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
    As any she belied with false compare.

  • http://dianahartman.blogspot.com/ diana hartman

    good stuff victor…
    i used to wonder about such things when my girls were younger… i wasn’t as concerned with my older daughter because she didn’t realize she was a girl until she was 15… my younger one did concern me and for the same reason you were concerned about your daughter… ah, but play has a way… my daughter had assumed identities for her dolls — they were well-mannered, smart, generous, kind, playful, and thoughtful… she’d already decided their “insides” were beautiful, so she was right to think they were beautiful on the outside as well… this realization didn’t come right away, i had to put in a lot of tea time before she indicated these things to me…

    it’s natural to migrate toward beautiful people (read: those with natural symmetry from head to toe)… it’s probably part of the evolutionary process especially with regard to breeding… but we also migrate toward those who most remind us of the first faces we saw and felt as loving… most often that would’ve been our parents but it might also be grandparents and other family, even friends of the family… we may have positive, if not loving, association with certain physical characteristics and will assume that someone with similar characteristics is the same way (kind, helpful, intelligent) until proven otherwise… case in point: the blonde you dated…

    belle from the beauty and the beast movie was a good person and a good daughter… sleeping beauty was a kind person… why should your daughter think them any different in “real” life?

    as parents we often unwittingly make the associations for our children that kindness and manners equals beauty… sometimes we even more unwittingly do this with how we treat strangers, and pass on lessons that we maybe shouldn’t… have you ever been asked for directions by a stranger in the presence of your child? we ourselves respond more positively (and generously) to those we consider beautiful versus those we don’t consider beautiful…

    while there is a world of difference between a supermodel and a hobo, the difference between a homely young lady and a mildly attractive middle aged woman is way more subtle — but our reactions to each are not lost on our children… somewhere in their heads they’re taking notes: be kinder to (prettier people, well-dressed people, people with all their teeth, people with bigger eyes, people with all their body parts, etc)…

    you didn’t keep dating the racist beauty, saying yourself that she transformed on the outside because of who she was on the inside… don’t you think you’ve taught your daughter about such things just by how you live? it doesn’t have to be in the form of a formal lesson for kids to get what’s wrong and right…

  • http://crowscry.blogspot.com John Spivey

    Having raised a daughter (a stepdaughter really, but in the end no matter) who is now 21, I’ve found that kids learn more from observation than from what we tell them. Our daughter has absorbed what her parents find attractive and beautiful in life. Our actions always speak louder than calculated words. I think if we can daily live our concept of beauty, then that’s the best we can do.

  • http://journals.aol.com/vicl04/THESAVAGEQUIETSEPTEMBERSUN/ Victor Lana

    Thanks to all for your comments. Baronius, it’s funny that you brought up Lohan because I recently wrote something about her. This is like a follow-up piece to that.

    I know I am teaching my daughter by living the way I live, but there are just so many outside influences that worry me. I suppose that will never end, but I understand that; I just don’t like it.

    Oh, and Diana, your comment about Belle and Sleeping Beauty and “real” life got me thinking. My daughter dislikes all the “bad” characters: the witches especially. These are usually depicted as sordid creatures who are just plain mean things. Even the Queen in Snow White turns really “ugly” before she goes to give poor Snow the apple.

    Maybe it is about what’s inside, but the overall perception always seems to come back to what’s on the outside.

    Again, thanks to all!

  • http://dianahartman.blogspot.com/ diana hartman

    “Oh, and Diana, your comment about Belle and Sleeping Beauty and ‘real’ life got me thinking. My daughter dislikes all the ‘bad’ characters: the witches especially. These are usually depicted as sordid creatures who are just plain mean things. Even the Queen in Snow White turns really ‘ugly’ before she goes to give poor Snow the apple.”

    it works both ways especially for kids…if a “pretty” person acts in an ugly way, the kid with particular associations will not see “pretty” anymore — just like with you and the blonde…
    i used to worry so much about so many things like this…now that my oldest is 20 and a good kid with many of the right ideas, i worry less about my youngest…i just do what i do just as i did with the older two…

    i try not to often, but if you think about it, you have a lot more influence over your child’s thinking than you might think you have…the more you get in before they hit the teen years the better…those who wait for the teen years to impart jewels of wisdom do so at their peril…

  • http://journals.aol.com/vicl04/THESAVAGEQUIETSEPTEMBERSUN/ Victor Lana

    Diana,

    I think you’re right; at least I know I under estimate my affect on my child. Sometimes out of nowhere I hear her say something to someone else that I have said (usually verbatim) and I am awed. I think, “Man, she was listening!”

  • Sara

    Dear Victor, as I began to read you made me think of what true ‘beauty’ really is. As a 20 year old woman I am ashamed to admit that I do strive to be what other people see as beautiful. My sisters 18 and 13 years old are littarly the same size, a size 7 or smaller, as well as small busted. I on the other hand am big breasted and a size 12. They fit the right critera of what ‘beauty’ is, and when your young and even now it can be a battle to keep your own self-esteem on track.

    Having a good self image starts at home and I’m glad your daughter has a father who will be her role model in that aspect. I loved your piece and it did open my eyes to what really does count. It’s nice to have alittle reminder and I believe I’ll post it on my favorites, and go back to it every now than. Beauty does shine from the inside out and I guess thats what counts. So thanks again and happy holidays :)

  • http://journals.aol.com/vicl04/THESAVAGEQUIETSEPTEMBERSUN/ Victor Lana

    Thanks for your comments, Sara. After almost a year, I never expected to get anything on this piece.

    It sounds like you can be a big influence on your sisters. Good luck!

  • Jenny

    Victor, thank you for this. Thank you.

  • http://journals.aol.com/vicl04/THESAVAGEQUIETSEPTEMBERSUN/ Victor Lana

    Thank you, Jenny. It’s quite a nice surprise to get a comment on something that I haven’t heard about in a while.

  • Ashleigh

    The point you made in your writing was truly beautiful. Tankyou for this. A while ago we were talking in church about what your eternal companion should be (husband, wife), and I remember one boy and the first thing he said; cute, she has to be cute. And this was a boy about 15 years old, and I the same. Ever since then that has been haunting me in the back of my mind. But I beleive that if everyone in the world was good, and took care of themselves healthily,
    EVERYONE WOULD BE BEAITIFUL.
    lately I have lost track of that, thankyou for reminding me.

  • http://journals.aol.com/vicl04/THESAVAGEQUIETSEPTEMBERSUN/ Victor Lana

    Thanks for your comments. I think what is innately beautiful about human beings is their spirit. When we pass on all the trappings of this world are lost, and then beauty is of the true nature of each individual soul. It’s a shame that some focus on all the things that don’t matter while here on earth.

  • Hannah Fisher

    I am in year 11 at school and am doing my sociology coursework on a similar matter. I found this article amazingly helpful and inspiring. It is a great read and truly fascinating. About time someone addressed the matter on a serious note.

    I hope the writer recieved a great deal of praise for this article.

  • Victor Lana

    Thank you, Hannah. Your comments are appreciated and the kind of praise I like most.

  • Hannah Fisher

    I hope that many more people read this article, i even recommended it to a few school friends and my sociology teacher.

    You are definitley a talented writer with an intense passion for what you believe in and i greatly respect that.

  • Hannah Fisher

    Also one quick question, i wondered if you mind allowing me to quote and reference your article in my sociology work. I would greatly appreciate it but completely understand if you would rather i didn’t

  • Christina Wallace

    My friend Hannah directed me to this article, as we were both researching our sociology coursework.

    I thought that this article was absolutely fantastic. You really hit the nail on the head.

    Thanks for a great and inspiring read.

  • http://blogcritics.org/archives/2007/09/10/113622.php Victor Lana

    Hannah and Christina, please feel free to quote away. I am honored that you find the piece worthy of scholarly consideration. Good luck with your course work.

    Regards,

    Vic

  • Hannah and Christina

    Thank you very much, we apperciate it alot. and i am sure its not just us, i am confident many other people would use this article and find it helpful. Thanks again.

    Hannah and Christina.

  • Faith

    Like Hannah and Christina, I came across this article whilst doing coursework for my AS Photography project.

    I found what you had to say really inspiring, and its nice to see a piece like this written by a male for once.

    It’s also been really interesting to read what other people have had to say.

    Thank You :]
    Faith

  • http://journals.aol.com/vicl04/VictorLana Victor Lana

    I am happily surprised that this article is still getting read. Good lukc with your course and research, Faith.

  • Joni

    I happen to be looking at an artist’s page and saw a couple of drawings of slim women. Then I thought to myself, is that the only type of beauty for a women? Even an artist sees it that way. I then felt compelled, as you were to look it up. I typed in what is beautiful? This was the first link I looked at and I’m glad to have found this. Thank you.

  • khing

    yup, glad to have stumbled here. sad truth … but anyway, speaking of Barbies… i think you should tell your daughter about this little piece of information. : )

  • Patty

    Thanks so much for this article. I was directed to write a short piece on a stereotype that needed to be debunked, and this was by far my topic of choice. Your words are inspiring and true, and provided great insight into my paper. Keep up the good work!

  • http://journals.aol.com/vicl04/VictorLana Victor Lana

    Thank you, Patty. Every so often someone comes across this article and uses it for a paper or research. I am honored each and every time.

  • http://magicallyfool.blogspot.com/ Sara

    I’m amazed about this post, and so glad that someone know what beautiful truly means, at least to me, beautiful is every human, I mean, look at us, we have 2 hands that can do magic. A nose to breathe and exhale the air. Our body is built perfectly, I don’t know why anyone would want to modify it with non-natural things.
    Thank you so much for this.

  • Fatou

    I searched What is Beautiful? on Google, desperately seeking something to define the appeal of those who are named beautiful. In doing so, I have found so much more.

    You’ve opened my eyes. We are victims of our concept of beauty. This piece is brilliant. Thank you. While reading this, I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of beauty wrote it.

  • http://viclana.blogspot.com/ Victor Lana

    I appreciate new comments on this piece. It seems that that its message has struck a chord with people, and they have responded well to it. A writer cannot ask for anything more than that.

  • Emma Scull

    Thanks so much for this article, i have been doin my dissertation on beauty, based on if it can be created my maths? possibly the golden ratio? Thought this may help you, and others to focus on this as an apperance point of view and see if you can understand why people really do think that beauty comes from apperance. enjoy guys!!

  • SB

    Thank you for writing this piece. As a senior in high school, I have struggled especially this year to understand what makes someone beautiful. In high school, it seems, so much of beauty is merely surface level, and it has depressed me to think that college and life beyond that might just be the same appearance-based beauty. It seems that it’s all about who you’re with and how good-looking he is. I love your line for someone who doesn’t see someone’s true beauty. This blog gives me some hope that maybe things get better.

  • http://viclana.blogspot.com/ Victor Lana

    Thanks for your comments, SB. I don’t envy you in your last year of high school. It’s a social milieu that is based on 90% appearance. It should change but does not really. Appearance even is a huge problem in adult lives and sometimes parents don’t want their kids playing with certain ones on the playground (because of appearance).

    Anyway, the best thing you can do is remember you are unique and a special creation. No one is like you. What matters most is internal beauty. That is forever. The other stuff is trivial and ignore these things as much as you can.

    With that said, enjoy your last year of high school as much as you can. Good luck!!!

  • kate

    this is a really nice piece

  • rachelle

    i find the advertizments on this page funny.

    you make a good point.

  • http://viclana.blogspot.com/ Victor Lana

    It is rather incongruous to have ads about “body fat” on this page with my article which is about the conspiracy of appearance mattering more than a person’s inner beauty. Strange but nothing that wouldn’t be encountered anywhere else I imagine.

  • Cindy

    Victor,

    I’m so glad to have gotten the chance to read this piece. It’ll be one of my favorites I’ve read on BC.

    I share your views about beauty and about culture and the implications for how people can become self-accepting or self-deprecating. It’s so good to see such as thoughtful parent too.

  • http://viclana.blogspot.com/ Victor Lana

    Thanks for your comments, Cindy. It amazes me that after more than 3 years since this was posted that I’m still getting comments. That’s the amazing thing about this magazine. Thank you, BLOGCRITICS.

  • Ali

    This is an absolutely amazing, beautiful, and inspiring piece of work.

    I myself am more perplexed than ever to find out what the meaning of beauty really is. I’m heading for the 8th grade next year and am subjected to peer pressure, of course, as all of you sometime in your lives probably were.

    I have always thought the concept of beauty the way you described it; I always had my opinion and thought that beauty was from within, and, in the eye of the beholder. However when I hit middle school my mind was constantly pressured and influenced that beauty was all looks. I never judge anyone based on their appearance, but right now, I’m constantly aware of mine. Probably because people are seemingly obsessed with how everyone else looks and that slightly effects me…And my mind is sort of stuck and confused right now, sometimes I view myself as “ugly” or myself as “beautiful” on the concepts and ideas that everyone else seems to think ugly and beautiful is, but not my own. As a result, I’m much more self-conscious of my looks when I shouldn’t care so much!

    This piece has opened my eyes again, for the time being, and I hope I can keep it alive in my mind for at least the next couple years. I’d like to thank you for posting this wonderful piece and for reawakening my mind to this topic.

    I’ll be sure to come back and re-read this in the future! ;)

  • sjb

    it was interesting. but the cliche was a dissappointing end. even if the cliche is what you decide is the best ending for your piece, it is always better to create an original way to communicate the same idea, in my humble opinion.

  • Courtney

    I really appreciate this article! I was curious of what others thought of as beautiful and I feel as though this really explained what beauty is and how it is sadly perceived. I also loved the comments they added to the article. Thanks victor! Its been over two years and people are still reading this learning about what beauty really is. Thanks again! (:

  • Jane

    This was a great article. It’s also proof that some boys do become men.

  • http://viclana.blogspot.com/ Victor Lana

    Why, thanks very much, Jane. After all this time, I still thrilled that this article is read and has a positive impact.

  • http://www.literarynobody.com Toya

    This was a great piece Victor. Beauty truly is one of lifes most remarkable things. I could relate to your date and the girl losing her beauty right before your eyes. Very touching and thought provoking post!

  • http://true2uphotography.com/ Anita Robicheau

    What a refreshing piece! THANK YOU for publishing what so many people battle with; the idea that the external has greater value than what we already are inside.

  • Carly

    This piece is absolutely inspiring. Beauty is a complex thing because of te world in which we live today, but if you just step back and see what’s inside a person it becomes much more clear.
    This article has opened my eyes and I thank the authorbfor that!