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Beauty,Spring 2005 Fifth Web Papers On Serendip

Coping with a Misrepresentation of Beauty

Tanya Corder


BEAUTY is but a vain and doubtful good;
A shining gloss that vadeth suddenly;
A flower that dies when first it 'gins to bud;
A brittle glass that 's broken presently:
A doubtful good, a gloss, a glass, a flower,
Lost, vaded, broken, dead within an hour.

And as goods lost are seld or never found,
As vaded gloss no rubbing will refresh,
As flowers dead lie wither'd on the ground,
As broken glass no cement can redress,
So beauty blemish'd once 's for ever lost,
In spite of physic, painting, pain, and cost.

The Passionate Pilgrim, XIII William Shakespeare (1564–1616)

Aristotle once said that beauty is the "gift of God," and it is true that in this world we are blessed with this ability to perceive and bask in beauty. However, because of the nature of human beings, we have universally misused and abused this boon, and our actions have led to a new negative outlook on beauty. Humans have become accustomed to mutilating themselves, discriminating, and even killing in the name of beauty and beatification. Shakespeare's poem above lists many of the negative attributes we have placed on beauty because of our inability to cope with it. He calumniously describes beauty as "vain", "a gloss," and even fleeting in the line "dead within an hour." These descriptions demonstrate how our attitudes toward beauty have evolved to resent beauty. I feel that we, especially westerners, have forgotten the true meaning of beauty and the blessing that it was meant to be. In order to reclaim beauty and take full advantage of its benefits, we must understand the causes behind these beauty-driven injustices and learn to appropriately respond to them. We must realize that it is not beauty that is inherently bad but the way we as humans interpret it and respond to it.

"Our beauty receptors receive more stimulation than they were evolved to handle; we're seeing more beauty in one day than our ancestors did in a lifetime. And the result is that beauty is slowly ruining our lives" (Chiang 296). Although this statement was from a fictional documentary, the story reflects the sentiments of many today regarding the role of beauty in mainstream media and its infiltration into our lives. Nancy Etcoff's statement in Survival of the Prettiest that "We have to understand beauty, or we will always be enslaved by it" adds to this notion that an overflow of beauty is capable of overpowering our judgment and freewill. First of all, many of the issues that we have with beauty are not actually brought about by beauty, but rather society's representation of it. We become upset when society does not portray beauty in a way that fits our own personal standards. This causes us to feel unacceptable and leads to our questioning of both society's standards as well as our own. Our fear of not fitting into society leads to problematic responses. We become preoccupied in trying to find satisfaction in belonging and that is when we feel that beauty is controlling our lives. However, I feel that we shouldn't even blame society or the media for our discontent. Society actually plays a role in promoting beauty. Understanding the motives behind society's standards and why they are in place can help us come to terms with society's as well as our own standards.

Cultural standards are also guidelines that we, the general populace, create in order to form some sort of consensus regarding beauty. We've been told "beauty is in the eye of the beholder," and these standards are a way for us to objectify beauty and explicitly define it. Beauty is ultimately subjective, but having a standard helps us to consolidate these subjective responses. However, should someone not fall in into "the standard," they have the option to remodel themselves into it or they may also remain the way they please knowing that beauty is subjective, and they fit someone else's personal standards. "The old definition of beauty...was 'multitude in unity" (Grobstein). This is illustrated by the fact that in our society there is a united idea of beauty, but each of us that make up the multitude hold our own individual standards. That is one of the beauties of beauty.

The media will always portray this unobtainable ideal of beauty so that beauty withholds its elusiveness. Society and the media aid in preserving the idealness of beauty, and thus beauty's value and worth. Plato classifies beauty as a "special Form" or ideal comparable to the Good or Truth (Koggel 1). This comparison helps to shows how beauty is meant to be desirable and difficult to come by, like the Good and Truth. "An ideal, by definition can be met by only a minority of those who strive for it. If too many women are able to meet the beauty standards, ...then those standards must change in order to maintain their extraordinary nature." (Chrisler 2). Cultural ideals of beauty need to change in order to maintain its challenge and prevent the ideal of beauty from becoming valueless. Dewey in Art as Experience informs us, "The enemies of the esthetic are ... the humdrum; slackness of loose ends; submission to convention in practice and intellectual procedure (40). Therefore, society portrays a near impossible standard in order to help preserve the value of beauty and accurately represent this extraordinary attribute of beauty.

Societal standards cannot incorporate everyone's ideals of beauty, but usually embody the majority's ideals. Living in a world where the standards are accommodating to everyone's personal preferences is not only unrealistic, but would hinder personal growth. Part of growing is learning to make your own decisions despite outside influences and learning to take on challenges. Although the human psyche is trained to respond to social and physical stimulants, I believe that we as human beings- beings who are argued to be substantially more intelligent than animals and who possess the ability to reason and make rational decisions – should be able to evaluate media-presented messages in an appropriate and educated way. We must learn not to allow these societal standards to overpower our free will, but learn to overcome insecurities and regain our sovereignty. We must "come to terms with ourselves as we are. We must understand out needs as individuals, and we must be honest about our faults as well as our good points (Robinson 56). Although societal standards can at times be demanding, it is we who ultimately decide to follow them or not. What it ultimately comes down to is not how outrageous these demands are, but how far we are willing to go to satisfy them. Societal standards force us to question our own value system and self-confidence. For example, if we wanted to mold into these standards, we do not necessarily have to completely adopt every attribute society deems beautiful. We can remodel to different degrees. This allows us to adopt societal standards while maintaining our own standards. For example, I can wear the heels and low-cut jeans, but choose not to starve myself because I find my full figure beautiful. Having challenging standards allows us to make such decisions and allows us to develop ourselves.

Despite a common belief that men and those with power set the standards, I feel everyone plays a role in establishing as well as promoting societal standards of beauty. By being a member of a capitalistic system, judging based on appearance, and our biological desire to mate are all ways that we contribute and promote these standards. Understanding our contributions show how the negatives associated with beauty are our own doings.

Americans believe in laissez faire government because it promotes competition, ingenuity, and motivates the society to work. As with most economic systems, there are negatives associated with capitalism. The one that we are concerned with is exploitation and ruthlessness. The media is the means by which society advertises its ideal of beauty. However, the media's main objective is not to inform viewers of what is beautiful or not; it only uses the ideal of beauty to sell a product. Beauty has always been a tactful way to trigger emotions and lure consumers. Beauty is such a powerful means of attracting attention for numerous reasons. First, we are biologically programmed to respond to physical beauty. It is "an essential part of our humanness and an essential part of Nature's survival strategy" (Robinson 56). Also, Fisher explains in Wonder, the Rainbow, and the Aesthetics of Rare Experiences, that aesthetics incite wonder, questioning, and close attention (46). To add to that, Scarry adds "beauty is a call" because it provides a "generous availability to sensory perception." (109-110). It appeals to our senses, our emotions and hormones, and our curiosity, which makes it so hard not to respond to it. However, this bombardment of beauty was all brought about by a desire to make money in a capitalistic system. Therefore, capitalism indirectly promotes societal standards. However, because we are the consumers who buy the products, we subsequently promote the ideals. Also, the ideologies behind capitalism, Social Darwinism and competition, help promote the ideology that beauty is a competition, it is something that can be bought, and it is reserved for the elite. Therefore it is this desire to come out on top that prompts extreme behavior in order to acquire beauty, and leads to negative consequences.

Another way we promote societal standards is through lookism. We discriminate based on appearances, usually favoring those who fit the societal norms, and this is what prompts more and more people into wanting to adopt societal standards. In order to be rewarded in this society, one must possess the attributes that society deems worthy. Appearances play a role in any selection process, whether it is which applicant to hire or which presidential candidate to select. Despite the fact that we know we may not fully fit the standards, we still favor those who do. It is because by judging others, we are taking attention away from our own insecurities. However, our judgments foster insecurities in others as well as fuel the societal ideals. This in turn prompts others to become more insecure and judge. As you can see, it becomes a paradoxical cycle that will only end when we learn to deal with lookism and conquer our own insecurities.

Lookism not only promotes the negative side affects of cultural standards, but is an issue within itself. Judgment based on appearances has had a detrimental effect on social relations, social equality, and self-image throughout the past few centuries. Effects range from anorexia and unfair job hiring to six million dying in the Holocaust because of un-Aryan attributes. We teach our kids not to judge a book by its cover so that they will not prejudge matters before gathering all the necessary information. However, humans instinctively form preconceived notions based on appearances. It is as uncontrollable as wincing in response to pain. Paul Grobstein claims, "'Beauty' is the result of an unconscious analysis and is reported to the I-function as the resultant of that analysis without any information about how the analysis was carried out." Humans just get the results; they have no influence over the formation of these opinions. Ted Chiang in Liking What You See, concurs by stating, "Evolution gave us a circuit that responds to good looks – call it the pleasure receptor for our visual cortex" (296). He goes on to add, " our natural environment, it was useful to have." Grobstein also deduced the same conclusion that, "Even if one could, one would probably not be wise to abolish the category since "beauty" as a discriminative category is a result of evolution and likely to have some value." Therefore, not only is it ok to judge, it has a purpose; it is a mechanism for survival, proliferation, and advancement.

It is apparent that judgment cannot and should not be restricted, however our personal responses or prompted actions due to our judgments are what lead to problems and injustice. We've been taught to respect other opinions, and this is an ideal we promote throughout our society. It is taught in classrooms and is evident in the first amendment of the Bill of Rights. Therefore, one is entitled to believe someone is of lesser aesthetic value than another. However, our society discourages and places regulations on inappropriate actions or behavior. Teachers encourage us to "challenge the ideas, not the person." Therefore, although we may not necessarily be drawn to another person, we still have to learn to play nice. Ted Chiang's Liking What You See: A Documentary demonstrates what it would be like if we could be programmed not to judge based on appearances. Clearly that type of a world would be un-stimulating, and moreover we should not need scientific technology to prevent our discriminative actions. Brittany Pladek in our course forum explains how it would be a form of "moral laziness." We should learn to regulate our own behavior because in the end it results in a more functional, fair and fundamentally beautiful society.

It becomes evident that the problems brought about by human beauty can only be corrected through individual reformation. Society as a whole will always place demanding standards on us, and we are genetically programmed to judge. Therefore, the only solution to our frustrations with beauty is to make more informed decisions and regulate our behavior. We cannot rely on society standards to change in order to accommodate to our individual preferences. We can only look to ourselves to overcome them. Robinson expresses my own sentiments when she says, "we humans are very resilient and inventive, and I am positive we will find ways to survive and thrive, just as we have done in the past" (56). This is how we will grow individually and as a society.

There is no doubt about the importance of physical beauty in our lives because it is a way in which we humans can embody beauty, an entity we naturally seek to enrich live. "We naturally seek beauty as we seek good" (Hoffman 2). We've seen how this embodiment helps us attract a mate, who is seeking beauty as well. It also promotes our sense of belonging in society. However, this causes us to forget everything else that beauty can encompass. There are other means in which we may utilize beauty and they tend to provide a lot more emotional sustenance than mere physical embodiment.

There a variety of ways in which we respond to beautiful experiences. Such experiences usually result in an overload of emotion that requires another means of expression. Expression is a way to release some of this emotional energy. Most artistic expression is prompted by some sort of beautiful encounter. After the experience, the artist is moved to recreate the poignant personal experience. Their recreations heighten the experience for the artist because "beauty... may be personal but gains strength when it is shared with others" (Hoffman 1). However, it also creates a possible new beautiful experience for the viewer. "A work of art... is recreated every time it is aesthetically experienced" (Dewey 108). Because of natural beauty, beauty is recreated into music, dance, paintings, sculptures, and the written word. These are forms that truly enrich our cultures, our lives, and the world. It's a display of the capabilities of mankind and is a way in which we as humans can share our beautiful experiences with others.

Natural beauty is also used to uncover scientific truths. "Einstein...was quite convinced that beauty was a guiding principle in the search for important results in theoretical physics...Nature, at the fundamental level, is beautifully designed" (Zee 3). Zee believes that theories with beautiful attributes, symmetry and simplicity, are more likely to be accurate. Therefore, recognizing beautiful features help eliminate incorrect solutions to natural phenomenon and choose the most accurate models. Reciprocally, scientific truths help define and provide the formula for beauty. "Aesthetic imperatives of contemporary physics make up a system of aesthetics that can be rigorously formulated"(4). Fisher raises the idea that it is beauty in nature, like that of the rainbow, which prompts a desire to discover fundamental truths in the first place. "The sudden appearance of the rainbow, its rareness, its beauty are all part of this initial act of striking us, trapping and holding our attention by means of beauty and the unwilled response of wonder" (40). Beauty's role in the sciences has led to many remarkable discoveries. These discoveries in return make our even more beautiful.

Aside for the arts and science, beauty has numerous other benefits. "Beauty can wake us up to care, to enlarge our world, to go beyond our skin, to feel the pleasure of being alive" (Gebara 25). Beautiful experiences open our eyes to the world and remind us what it means to live. It provides us with our purpose in life and reminds us why it is enjoyable. Beautiful experience can range from and intense conversation to running through a thunderstorm. These experiences can incite love, happiness, passion, and so much more.

We should celebrate and rejoice in the beauty of the world not use it as justification for destructive and immoral behavior. In today's society we become bombarded with all of these downsides and injustices brought about by beauty and in our efforts to correct these injustices, we forget what true beauty really is. Beauty should be internalized. We determine what it means to us personally and how we want to apply it to our lives. Because beauty is subjective, it is we who ultimately have control over it, and we who decide how we want to apply it to our lives. Through creating beauty, observing beauty, or embodying beauty, we can find emotional and psychological sustenance, which is the purpose of beauty. Any negatives associated with beauty are only describing our behavior in response to beauty. I leave you with the following poem to experience as beauty and remind you of what beauty should truly represent.

WHEN Beauty and Beauty meet
All naked, fair to fair,
The earth is crying-sweet,
And scattering-bright the air,
Eddying, dizzying, closing round,
With soft and drunken laughter;
Veiling all that may befall

Where Beauty and Beauty met,
Earth's still a-tremble there,
And winds are scented yet,
And memory-soft the air,
Bosoming, folding glints of light,
And shreds of shadowy laughter;
Not the tears that fill the years

Rupert Brooke (1887–1915)

Works Cited

Chiang, Ted. Liking What You See: A Documentary. Tom Doherty Associates. New York.
Dewey, John. Art As Experience.
Fisher, Phillip. Wonder, the Rainbow, and the Aesthetics of Rare Experiences. London, England: Harvard University Press, 1998.
Gebara, Ivone. "Yearning for Beauty." The Other Side. July & August 2003. 24-25.
Grobstein, Paul.
Hoffmann, Roald. "Thoughts on Aesthetics and Visualization in Chemistry."
Robinson, Julian. The Quest for Human Beauty. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998.
Scarry, Elaine. On Beauty and Being Just. Princeton University Press. (for poems)
Zee, A. Fearful Symmetry. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1999.

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