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.