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Voicing Rhetorics of Beauty

Gavi's picture

Voicing Rhetorics of Beauty

I. Rhetoric

            We talked in class about culture as disability, about how culture can disable individuals and groups. The qualities that are considered “abling” (or empowering or desirable) in a culture are only definable because of the absence of these qualities. Therefore, any created culture necessarily shuts some people out; it “teaches people what to aspire to and hope for and marks off those who are to be noticed, handled, mistreated, and remediated as falling short” (McDermott and Varenne). Modern Western culture is a culture of consumption; many of our abling judgments are based off the concept of consumption through vision (Garland-Thomson 29). Two valued abilities in our culture are the abilities to see, and the right, legitimizing ways to be seen; the ability to consume, and the ability to be consumed. In this essay, I’ll argue that beauty—as the standard to which the objects of vision and consumption are held—is disabling, that modern concepts of disability can be read as beauty, and that the conflation of these constructs can yield empowering results.

            How do we enable people within a culture of beauty? Margaret Price asserts that one way to able individuals is through rhetoric—by giving people the space and the legitimacy to communicate in whatever way makes most sense to them.  Rhetoric is “who we are allowed to be” (Price 27).  I’ll be illustrating my argument, then, through constructing the imagined rhetoric of a few individuals who are turned into consumed objects by Western visual culture. I will try to allow these individuals to cross the semantic line and become subjects. I will try to allow them to be

II. Beauty as Disability           

            Beauty has developed under the gaze. Historically, the subject of vision/consumption has been the male, and the object of vision/consumption has been the female. Those who pass and identify as female are “born within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men,” a world in which “men act and women appear.” In the reproduced appearances of women in paintings and magazines, idealized women are the consumed, the “sight” of men (Berger 46, 47).  Women are thus made beautiful, or are judged unbeautiful and therefore “are not beautiful,” through the gaze (Berger 52). Women, as the objects of consumption, can be disabled in two ways. 

One way in which beauty disables is through fragmentation.

Women, I say, Women, we are called, Women, we call ourselves, Women, we say and are said to be, if our bodies have the right measurements, if our sex can be codified, if who we appear to be “fit[s] the words.” [i] I fit the words. Fumbling toward perfection: I fit, I pass. I am “the face of one body, the breasts of another, the legs of a third, the shoulders of a fourth, the hands of a fifth.”[ii] It was said that my body would “glorify Man.” What about my glorification? I am pieced and parceled. I am every Woman. I am no Woman. I am the assembled Object of your imaginings, Spectator. I am the holy future writ by which you can measure all others who may lie in front of you, waiting for a chance of recognition, over whom you will wield the knife of your paintbrush, whose bodies you will cut disabled and dead and sew onto your canvas or your billboard. And the mirrors of your females will be filled with bodies pried open and peeled back, picked and preened to resemble the divisions on my assembled Self, so that they might appeal to you, Spectator. O Women: my Sisters, my Strangers.


(Durer, Woodcut from Four Books on the Human Proportions)

Another means by which beauty disables is through elision.

Stop: I am not here. You may look through this painting of ethereal white women floating toward Edenic pastures of spectatorship and sublimity, but I am not pictured here. You may turn from this reproduction to your televisions and magazines and the advertisements on the side of your Internet browsers but I am not there, either. 

You may see me in other places.

I am the “before” picture in the weight loss commercials on daytime TV.

I am walking down your street, deformed and heavy.

I am in your places of work and worship, ugly and strange.

I am your friends and your family, hairy and misshapen.

I am in your mirror.

 I am what you can overcome. They promise you that I am a temporary disability—after the shopping, after the surgery, I will be just a memory. You can burn the pictures. Tomorrow, you will be new, and you will be beautiful. You can pretend I never existed.

(William BouguereauLes Oreades)

III. Disability as Beauty

            If beauty depends on the gaze, then disability hinges on the stare. To be gazed at is to be objectified, to be fragmented and elided. To be stared at is to be considered “unusual,” “extraordinary,” and “unpredictable.” These labels are most often assigned to the “functional and formal conditions of our bodies that are termed disabilities” (Garland-Thomson 19).  We gaze at women; we stare at those impossible people who are termed disabled by the conventions of the time, who are called so by the doctors and by the heads on TV.

            No binary can remain static; binaries shift with our culture. The dichotomies of abled/disabled and beautiful/unbeautiful transform and overlap, creating patterns that we often can only see when divorced from time (Berger 18). At whom do we gaze? At whom do we stare? When are we the object and when are we the subject? The answers are not fixed, but they can be traced. Visual art offers a striking access to these constructed binaries, and analyzing reproductions of art can teach us how we have deconstructed and constructed old and new ways of seeing.

They name me Madonna with the Long Neck. I am bathed in the clothing of Judea like the swan is birthed in lake water. Our sister necks arch up and out and we are called long-necked, we are called beautiful. My limbs are long, my fingers slender. I am the chosen model. From me came the blood of your nation.

After this child on my lap grows and goes, once I am alone in the painting, I may start to falter. My eyes may grow myopic; my back may spiral into serpent slopes; my heart may enlarge, tear, and burst.[iii]  Your doctors call it Marfan Syndrome.[iv] With the proper treatment, they say, I will live as long as you.

But I don’t want you to see me that way. Truly, now, I do not feel infirm. Look at me: I am whole and hale. I am not disabled. I am beautiful. Beautiful, they call me beautiful. 

(Parmagianino, Madonna with the Long Neck)

IV. Intra-sections

            How might we reconcile our gazes and our stares? How can we step over the lines of sight and sentence to become subjects? Rosemarie Garland-Thomson suggests that our very compulsion to look can be powerful and transformative. By “bearing visual witness” in the process of “recognizing a ‘newness’,” we can be pushed toward becoming “ethical subjects.” Binary-bending sights can jolt us from complacency and force us to reevaluate our “visual… [and] ethical status quo” (Garland-Thomson 188).  We have no choice but to constantly see people and possibilities.

            We must first listen deeply and speak truthfully. Alison Lapper, a British artist whose sculpted body adorned Trafalgar Square, writes about listening through seeing. Through her voice and her art, she breaks down barriers of who gets to prescribe and who gets to be ascribed. She names herself as a beautiful woman within the shifting binary fields of Western culture. She counters both the gaze and the stare through her own rhetorical creations.

Over time I came to focus entirely on able-bodied subjects for my life painting…One of the art tutors, Madeleine Strindberg, was looking at all the work I'd done and said, "I think you paint all these pictures of beautiful people because you don't want to face how you look, and who you really are."…  

I went off to the art library in a restless mood and began aimlessly flicking through books, using my nose and mouth to turn the pages. And then one particular book I was looking at fell open at a photograph of the Venus de Milo. It showed a white marble statue, in the ancient Greek style, of a woman with both her arms missing. There was a flash of recognition - hey, that's me! …

I cleared away all my life drawings and embarked on a new project. … By halfway through my second year, I had a whole wall filled with plaster fragments of my body. I used to sit in my studio looking at them and thinking, "God, you're not ... yes, you're different, but you're not that different. Your torso's still made up like a torso." My hips were a bit odd, and my legs, but on the whole it all seemed quite beautiful in its own right. It was a real revelation for me. I thought, Wow, you look pretty good here, girl (Lapper).

(Mark Quinn, Alison Lapper Pregnant)

By allowing more individuals access to rhetoric, and by taking their rhetoric seriously, hopefully we can recast the ways in which we discuss beauty.  Herve Varenne, in responding to objections to his “culture as disability” argument, admits that “there cannot be any culture that does not disable some”(2).  Every culture or society we construct will enable some and disable others in myriad and interwoven ways. Varenne contends that “active recasting of the research activity” can lead to increased agency of and decreased limitations on individuals in a culture (6). By constantly looking through the ethical lens of change, we question the binaries. Seeing and listening to the ways in which some are enabled and others disabled by beauty can lead to dynamic interpretations and intra-actions in the social landscape. 


[i] Wilchins 76

[ii] Berger 62

[iii] Dietz

[iv] Hooper 


Works Cited


Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: British Broadcasting Corporation. 1972. Print.

Bouguereau, William. Les Oreades. Private Collection. 1902. Painting Palace. Web. 30 September 2011.

Dietz, Harry C. “Marfan Syndrome.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. National Institutes of Health. 18 April 2001. Web. 30 September 2011.

Durer, Albrecht. Woodcut from Four Books on the Human Proportions. 1528. The Morgan Library & Museum, New York. Elder Forest Publishing. Web. 30 September 2011.

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. Staring: How We Look. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.

Hooper, John. “Enigmatic smile of Leonardo da Vinci’s Monal Lisa a sign of ill health.”The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited. 5 January 2011. Web. 20 September 2011.

Lapper, Alison. "Beauty Unseen, Unsung." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited. 2 September 2005. Web. 25 September 2011. 

McDermott, Ray, and Herve Varenne. “Culture as Disability.” Anthropology and Education Quarterly. 1995. 323-348. Web.

Parmagianino. Madonna with the Long Neck. 1534-40. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. The Art History Blog. Web. 30 September 2011. 

Price, Margaret. Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press. 2011. Print.

Quinn, Mark. Alison Lapper Pregnant. 2005. TopTenz. Web. 30 September 2011.

Varenne, Herve. “Extra Burdens in the search for new openings: on the inevitability of cultural disabilities.” Columbia University. Teachers College, Columbia University. 17 November 2003. Web. 18 September 2011.

Wilchins, Riki. Gender Theory, Queer Theory: An Instant Primer. Los Angeles: alyson books. 2004. Print.






Gavi's picture

Problematic Presentations


Thank you for your comments! You’ve gotten me thinking in return.

Regarding the technical confusion you had, at the time I wrote the piece it was just easier to format the titles of the art pieces so that they came after the dialogues (mauve text). Now that I’m rereading my essay through your questions, however, I actually like their placement. The women depicted in the selected artwork are (exempting Lapper) known only by these titles, by the names of their makers and the names of the pieces in which they reside. These titles are their only signifiers. If I had placed the titles before the women’s dialogues, the dialogue would be unattributed and dangling.

As for the dialogues, I wrote the first three. The last portion of dialogue is an excerpt from Alice Lapper’s autobiography My Life in My Hands.

And in a paper so focused on the power of (self-) representation, the issue of my own representation is quite important. I think that on this site, I’m pretty open in discussing who I am. My username is my personal name, and my user picture is pretty clearly just a picture of myself. Like you pointed out, the space where ambiguity emerges is in the paper itself, where I make pretty constant references to this “we.” I don’t know the exact location of the “we,” and that’s part of its power—the word and the rallying gestures it carries can refer to as few or as many people as it wants, and can obliterate my biased position as the paper’s author. I have a lot of trepidation in using the first person singular in an essay—I feel that if I were to not attach myself to some larger interest through a plural subject, my essay might become meaningless; and then, what’s the point? 

Anne Dalke's picture

Rhetorical Self-Representing


What a powerful sequence of images and words! You've really gotten me thinking….

I understand, following the stages of your argument, how beauty, "as the standard to which the objects of vision and consumption are held," can be disabling, how it disables through fragmentation, and through elision. And I see how, counterwise, disability -- the “unusual,” the “extraordinary,” the “unpredictable” -- "can be read as beauty," how the "stare" can become the "gaze." And I follow your third claim, the "intra-action" in which "the conflation of these constructs yields empowering results," as in the work of Alison Lapper.

I did experience a bit of a technical confusion here -- shouldn't the painters and the names of their paintings appear after the images, before the mauve text? And I'm confused about the sources of those textual passages -- some of them are quotes, some of them are by you? But I really REALLY like the poetry of those interpolations, and the way in which those passages "allow the objects" to become subjects, to speak, to be (or @ least offer the illusion of such). "By allowing more individuals access to rhetoric…we can recast the ways in which we discuss beauty." And the ways in which we see, and experience it. This goes way beyond rhetoric, into activism.

Several of your classmates also experimented w/ subjects' self-representation; see's look @ Shakespeare's Richard III  and chelseam's stare @ Jess Sachse's Body Language/Image.

Which brings us, of course, to the question of your own self-representation. To repeat the queries I asked in class last week: What does your reader know about the author of this piece? How clearly do you locate yourself? You have a name, and are represented visually, by your avatar--but what information do you reveal about your own investment/involvement in the projects you are studying? What signals/gestures/context/presumptions does your text make about your relationship to your audience? There are gestures, @ beginning and end, to "we"….dare you speak for us all??