What is Beauty?


When I teach my class on body image and the media I break up the lecture by asking, “what is beauty?”

At first, this question seems to be a common sense notion. After all, everyone knows what beauty is. It’s…

Well, it’s…you know…

Sociologists are forever at war with common sense notions. That through which we understand beauty is, arguably, one of the most pernicious of all.

I do get some attempts at an answer. The most common response is the safe and sure, “beauty is subjective, it’s in the eye of the beholder.”

Whereas that might be true in some philosophical sense, sociologically this idea is problematic. Beauty isn’t entirely subjective, it’s socially constructed. Beauty isn’t in the eye of the beholder, because culture shapes the lens through which one beholds.

If I show my classroom a bunch of pictures of people and tell them to sort the images according to beauty, there would be an overall consensus as to the most beautiful and the ugliest. There might be some debate with regard to those who fall in the middle of some beauty spectrum. Overall, however, there would be significant congruity between the beholders.

That’s because every culture has values with regard to physical beauty through which we can all be judged to greater or lesser extents. Some of us more closely approximate those standards than others.

In the United States, with visual media becoming increasingly influential in our culture, when we think beauty we often think visually appealing.

But re-read the initial question. I’m not asking what physical beauty is. I’m asking what beauty is. Beauty in general. Stop and think about the things you consider to be beautiful, it doesn’t matter if it’s a man or woman or an orange sunrise. What quality do these things possess that make them beautiful?

At this point my students are silent. None of their answers satisfy me. It is an evening class, after all. There’s only so much they are willing to deal with, here. At that point they just throw their hands up in the air and say, “nobody really knows.”

But that’s not true.

I know.

And because I’m a good person, I’m willing to share that answer.

Beauty is that which makes you feel happy to be alive. That is the one essential quality of beauty. Without it, nothing else matters.

Image result for beautiful mountain lakesBeauty can be found in a sunset or a mirror-like glacier lake. It might be a flawless rendition of Mozart or a lick of blues guitar, or the sound of your children laughing. When you experience beauty, you experience happiness in life. I know of mathematicians who are moved by beautiful proofs and algorithms. Any symbolic experience that excites this sense of happiness is beautiful…including people.

So, yes, there are cultural influences on those things that we consider beautiful.

And, yes, some human beings can excite such an emotional response by simply standing there.  Most of us cannot.

That being said, we all have qualities that we can cultivate that can be considered beautiful. Whatever this quality is may not be immediately obvious to others until they get to know us, but those qualities are there. They can be cultivated and developed and someone, with the right eye, with the right perspective, with the right relationship, can recognize that quality and see us as beautiful.

Image result for the most beautiful woman in the world
Can we quantify beauty. Yes, but to do so we must also include a human happiness variable to the algorithm

That means, no matter who we are, no matter what we look like, we can all be beautiful to someone. We can all be that one thing that makes someone happy to be alive, to wake up in the morning. That is beauty. When we realize this simple truth, burden of striving for and vainly preserving those fleeting qualities of physical beauty is lifted. We can focus our energies on cultivating whatever beautiful qualities we have, be it our talent, our empathy, our charity, our work ethic, our love. With this understanding, beauty becomes something that is within our control.

Furthermore, beauty is taken out of the hands of those who would profit from our feelings of inadequacy. And this is a problem. According to a Beauty Industry Analysis, the beauty industry pulled in over $56 billion in 2015. The report points out that the beauty industry is very resilient, experiencing little fluctuation even during times of economic crisis.

Our culture has a schizophrenic relationship with physical beauty in many ways. In one way, we laud physical and put it on a pedestal above all other forms of beauty. We do have an increasingly visually driven media, television, YouTube, glossy print media. At the same time, we reduce beauty to a commodity that can be bought and sold. Our market uses beauty to sell just about any product while at the same time selling image as something that can be achieved by purchasing the right pills, the right workouts, the right diets, the right make-up, the right hair style. There are so many avenues for achieving physical beauty that if one cannot measure up, it must be due to some personal shortcoming on the part of the individual.

Yes, every culture has ideals of beauty, but it is understood that this ideal is out of reach. Only a select few can come close. Today, however, physical beauty is not presented as an ideal, but rather as a norm. Those who cannot measure up are just not trying hard enough–or spending enough money.

It makes sense that physical beauty is the locus of our so called “beauty industry.” After all, if you look at the list offered above, physical beauty is the easiest to sell, the easiest to commodify. It’s difficult, if not impossible to sell us products to make us more empathetic, harder workers, more charitable, more talented, more loving. But we can sell the hell out of products to clarify our skin, to highlight our cheekbones.

So it becomes profitable to narrow the focus of human beauty to the physical, to create an impossible ideal through a Photoshopped popular culture, then to sell us the solutions to our sense of inadequacy. The last thing “the industry” wants is for us to learn that the spectrum of human beauty is much larger and not subject to profit margins.

Beauty can, and should be seen as a personal project of evolution and growth, not defined by an “industry” but rather communicated through an ethic of self development. Sure, there are those for whom the physical can be central, at least for a time. There’s nothing wrong with physical beauty and the kind of happiness it can inspire in others. Beauty, however, should not be reduced to the physical. There are infinite ways bring happiness into the world.

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