This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

Contribute Thoughts | Search Serendip for Other Papers | Serendip Home Page

Beauty,Spring 2005
Fourth Web Papers
On Serendip

The Paradox of Beauty

Katy McGinness

Countless odes, poems, prose, musical pieces, paintings, sculptures, and songs have been created throughout the ages in the name of beauty. The fact that most of these types of art continue to be relished and admired to this day speaks volumes about the emotional power of beauty. Beauty is almost always regarded as a positive trait and something that is inherently good. And yet some of the planet's most horrendous atrocities have been committed in the name of beauty. Notions and ideals of beauty indeed have profound social and political implications, particularly for women. To ignore this fact would be delusional. Equally delusional, however, would be the idea that beauty is inherently bad and must therefore be dispelled with in the human psyche. Yes, beauty has been involved in some pretty heinous crimes, but it has also brought indescribable joy and even hope to people since the beginning of time. Regarding beauty, I believe that it is yet another part of life that one must take the bad with the good, and hopefully try to ameliorate the bad.

Beauty is by its very nature unequal. How else can we consider something beautiful if it does not stand out from the average? This fact can have negative consequences for those who strive to be beautiful. Someone will always be more beautiful, no matter how much one diets, starves oneself, exercises, puts on makeup, or undergoes expensive plastic surgery. In their article "Beauty is the Beast," Elayne A. Saltzberg and Joan C. Chrisler note the fact that "The value of beauty depends in part on the high costs of achieving it. Such costs may be physical, temporal, economic, or psychological." Young women have wasted away and died in a desperate and tragic search for the ever elusive and cruel ideals of beauty. For these individuals, beauty has
been associated with acceptance and love: if only they could be just a little more attractive, surely everyone will like them and accept them with open arms. Until only very recently in Western countries (and to this very day in some non-Western countries), beauty essentially was a woman's only bargaining tool to use against men. Philosophy professor Christine Koggel notes that beauty has provided women with a false sense of power over the ages, as the primary judges of physical beauty have been men. Only if she was beautiful would a woman be accepted by men, yet only by using her beauty in manipulative ways could she maintain at least a semblance of control over herself, such as withholding sex from her amorous man and always keeping him wanting. In recent years, it has no longer been the case that women are so pathologically dependent on men, yet I would argue that the majority of women still base much (if not most) of their self-esteem on their outward physical appearance. The ideal of beauty, in this sense, is internally driven. One could and should argue that Madison Avenue is largely to blame for transmitting unrealistic ideals of femininity, yet most of the women who buy into these ideals seem to have an unrealistic mental model of their own beauty. Anorexics, for example, seem to base their senses of beauty on their own unhealthy cognitions and beliefs, while those around them likely are horrified and would do anything they could to help these poor individuals.

Other ideals of beauty are externally directed and, in many cases, all the more heinous. Perhaps the single worst deed that has ever been committed in human history—the Holocaust—can be argued to have been based on the "beauty" of the Aryan race and the "lack" of beauty of the Jews. "Ethnic cleansing" going on the Balkans, too, can at
least partially be explained by superficial and esoteric standards of beauty (though, in this case, religion undoubtedly plays a larger role). On a less extreme scale, criminals who are judged to be "unattractive" are given harsher sentences than criminals deemed "attractive." People are more likely to befriend or help a stranger who is attractive than one who is not attractive. The saying "People like you better if you're pretty" is sadly very true. On all these counts, beauty does not seem to be such a positive trait at all. Indeed, it seems to be the instigator of everything that is wrong with the world.

On the other hand, we absolutely cannot get rid of our senses of beauty. Biology professor Paul Grobstein describes how the experience of beauty is, first and foremost, a biological process. Whether it aids us in an evolutionary sense or in a more day-to-day sense of "that which is beautiful is good and should not be avoided" sense, perceptions of beauty clearly are useful for humans in many ways. Only through serious and extreme alterations in our neurological systems could we avoid our experiences of beauty. The Chiang sci-fi documentary on "calliagnosia" presented an eerie and almost fascistic world in which one's subjective perceptions of beauty could be turned on and off like a faucet. While social justice seemed more likely to exist in this fictional world, it also sounded, well, boring. I know that may sound a little cliché, but think about it. Forget human beauty—don't we all experience an emotional high when we hear a beautiful song that we love? Don't we all get shivers down our spines when we experience something we consider beautiful? Don't we all enjoy a beautiful, sunny spring day with the colorful flowers, beautiful birds, and balmy weather? Isn't love itself something beautiful?

We cannot experience these instances of beauty without also regarding some of our fellow humans as beautiful. It feels good to look upon an attractive person. I for one find it highly emotional and fulfilling to gaze upon a beautiful face. People who are beautiful often give me inspiration and renewed hope for humankind. Furthermore, even "ugly" people can be considered beautiful in their own ways. Beauty is subjective, despite what Madison Avenue tells you. I truly believe that we are all beautiful. Beauty itself, then, is clearly not to blame. People who abuse it and enforce their perceptions of it onto other people are the real culprits. Instead of making futile attempts to eradicate human perceptions of beauty from the world, I believe what we instead should endeavor to do is to trust our own personal experiences/perceptions of beauty, become comfortable with our own unique beauty and forget what the media dictate to us, and move on with our own lives.

Sounds swell, but how do we do it? That is the Achilles' heel. I will be honest—I have absolutely no idea. It may not even be possible. But to have an idea and to recognize that we have been duped throughout the ages on what is truly beautiful can at least clue us in to the fact that there is more to physical beauty than what meets the eye. Considering all that standards of beauty have wrought upon us over time, to at least have a plan, however vague and idealistic that plan surely is, seems to me at least to be a good first step. We can ameliorate the bad that standards of beauty incur. I don't know how to do it, but maybe someday someone will figure it out. Until that day comes, I for one will strive to be confident enough in my own unique, personalized standards of beauty to enjoy my life and not get too hung up on what Big Brother tries to tell me. In the end how we feel about ourselves, and not how others think about us, is what truly makes the difference.

| Course Home Page | Course Forum | Science in Culture | Serendip Home |

Send us your comments at Serendip

© by Serendip 1994- - Last Modified: Wednesday, 02-May-2018 10:51:35 CDT