On Beauty

I confess I don’t know much about the subfield of theological aesthetics, but I certainly do think quite a bit about constructions of the beautiful vis-a-vis theological anthropology, specifically, the appearance of human beings, and even more specifically, the appearance of women’s bodies. It seems entirely natural to most of us, most of the time, and often in common parlance, to describe somebody, usually a woman, as beautiful. (It’s not unheard of to call a particular man beautiful, but doesn’t that usage typically elicit some kind of stifled smirk from others unless the speaker is somehow being self-conscious about the usage?) And when this happens, listening conversation partners are left to draw some “commonsense” conclusion about what that must mean.

Admittedly, the label has some degree of fluidity, as every person has his or her own variation on the theme (and all of these notions might fall under the category of something like: “particularly striking and also pleasing to behold, possibly to the point of sexual excitement”). But in its most reified, crusty, superficial, and horrifyingly influential form in mainstream US culture when applied to women, it means something like: straight white teeth, typically long and lustrous hair, symmetrical face absent wrinkles, strong-but-not-mannish features, thin but somehow curvy and perky body (according to nebulous, punishing, troglodytic male standards…), generally nubile, and perhaps blonde (and typically Caucasian, then) is also kind of best if we really have to pick, etc. It’s all about the shared assumptions that inform our understanding of the American “classic beauty.” You get the point.

It should be added that if you happen to have any of these traits and receive positive attention for them, that’s all well and good (it’s certainly not badand you won’t catch me saying otherwise), but these are also privileged parts of the trope of the feminine beautiful, and that’s what interests me for the time being. It should also be added that, in my observations, many women who possess many of these traits are just as liable as any other women not to feel adequately beautiful to others and to herself, so that’s another part of this particular construction of beauty: it seems tethered to specific physiognomic traits but is actually ever-elusive: you can never fully encapsulate the ideal aesthetic standard because there is always something you deem to be wrong with your body that, if you could just tweak, would make all the difference. Too bad you just have man shoulders, or weird eyebrows, or, a crooked smile, or bulging eyes, or a weak chin, or an inconvenient nose. (Can I even count the number of times I have cursed the particular roundness of my nose, among other things about my body?) The horizon of beauty is ever-present, ever-punishing, ever-receding. And then what are we even to say about those women who don’t even come close to fitting the billed standards of beauty? You know, those cases where a lot of people would rudely volunteer the “objective truth” that these women are ugly? –Cruelty is integral to the project of beauty.

It’s potentially a cliche for a feminist blog to have a post on misogynistic standards of beauty, but this issue keeps rearing its *ugly* head over and over. Just recently, blonde, British woman Samantha Brick wrote an article for the Daily Mail on how, because she is blonde and thin, she receives special attention from men, and jealous women hate her for it. Her life has been ruined by frumpy women everywhere! Thickly-proportioned female bosses have prevented her promotions at work and have gunned for her ritual execution! Friends have never asked her to be a bridesmaid, and have in fact petitioned for her exile to a distant island somewhere in the Mediterranean! (Just kidding about some of that; I think she was asked to be a bridesmaid once.)

…Now, this kind of article obviously wasn’t going to go well, and the amount of vitriol she received from both men and women for her “I’m such a beautiful woman and all you haters make me sad” spiel was predictably intense.

Just a couple things about that. First, Brick’s assumption of her own socioaesthetic superiority over other women, combined with her acute feelings of persecution and self-exculpation, truly grated on me. Obviously. That’s not even the interesting part really. Because second, at the same time, she’s not wrong that women do scrutinize each other’s appearance mercilessly and often behind each other’s backs. (But, you know, men scrutinize women’s bodies all the time, and just because one woman happens to be on the winning end of that spectrum doesn’t actually make it okay under any circumstances for other women, and also it’s not actually somehow more acceptable for men to judge women’s bodies than it is for women to. These are just points predictably lost on Samantha Brick, but that’s fine I guess–just oversights that are bad in merely the most banal way.)

Anyway, as Jezebel recently pointed out, it seems as though the Daily Mail is sneakily trying to fan the flames of this kind of toxic aesthetic criticism of Samantha Brick, precisely through including multiple pictures of her smiling for the camera. I admit that it is very difficult not to examine the pictures of her and say something like, “Wow, she’s actually really not that good-looking.”  But then as soon as you do that, you’re toast; you’ve already bought into the disgusting game of judging women’s appearances. It’s quite seductive. Because the placement of these pictures baits the readers into comparing Samantha Brick’s written self-perception with what is there in the pictures, and the idea implicit in all this is that, if she actually is “super hot” or whatever, then her words are less of a problem. But if she is anything less, whatever that means, then she’s an ugly bitch. As if the validity of her thought depends upon the assumed beauty of her countenance. As if we’re willing to take this kind of physical beauty hierarchy shit from women who actually “merit” such distinction.

I think the main problem with Samantha Brick’s article, and all the reactive criticism she’s received, is that nobody really bothers to evaluate our standards of beauty, and to ask the crucial questions: who sets the terms? Is beauty always exclusive? Do certain people always have to lose? Is the standard of beauty so deeply ingrained in us, and spontaneously clear, that we should just give up? Or is there any hope of carving out a more expansive understanding of beauty, one that doesn’t feel as lifeless and suffocating and nasty and brutish and state-of-war-ish?

I suppose I’m looking for a way to opt out of this framework, even just a little bit, that isn’t just ignoring it and focusing on other pursuits. I’d at least like a break. I want a way for us to talk about the beauty that we all have, but not through resorting to the saccharine (“We’re just all special and unique, whatever that means…”).

And I don’t know how to answer all these questions, but I do know that I am tired. I’m yearning for a different way to inhabit my own body, my own face, that isn’t so needlessly scrupulous according to a misogynistic, heteronomous code of measurements and demands. We women who have some critical distance from the standard codifications of beauty act as if it’s so easy to let ourselves out of the maze, to stop ourselves from drinking the Kool aid. Certainly we are all affected in different ways by aesthetic pressures, and perhaps some feel it less viscerally than others. But I think we’re all still swimming against the current, against a system of aesthetic hierarchizing of women’s bodies which places some women at the top, some in the middle, and some at the bottom.

In terms of alternative conceptions of beauty, I confess I often recall a short but powerful article that was in the Yale Divinity School’s issue of Reflections entitled “Women’s Journeys: Progress and Peril” from Spring 2011. The article, called “Skin Deep,” was written by recent Yale MDiv grad Kat Banakis, and she explores the exact kind of aesthetic pressures I have discussed here. Feeling unattractive as a young woman, Banakis candidly confesses, “Once I decided that I wasn’t attractive, any compliment about my looks obviously had to have a different explanation. My parents regularly told me that I was beautiful. I thanked them but thought, You have to say that. I’m your daughter. After taking a college psych class my internal monologue matured: The cognitive dissonance would be too great if the self didn’t think I was wonderful when it was investing all available resources in me.”

Banakis decided that, as a Christian woman, she would hunker down, be decidedly countercultural, and not worry about the aesthetic standards of the world. But these kinds of questions, about her own countenance, her own embodied place and value in the world and before God, still drove her: “How could it be that I was created in the image of an indescribably incredible God and yet perceived myself as really rather dumpy?”

She eventually decided to spend some time intentionally observing people all around her, to decipher what exactly it was that made them all attractive across their differences, in her own opinion: “Some were big, others were small. Some had obvious confidence, others held back. But what beautiful people have in common is, as it turns out, what they have in common with the rest of us: they, we, live. We have breath. We are the quick, not the dead. We are alive.”

Banakis also realized that a corpse, even one made up perfectly, can never really be considered beautiful, because there’s something about beauty, about true beauty, that’s intrinsically bound up with our life force, our vitality, which is available to all of us in complicated ways. I don’t think this is saccharine; I think she might be onto something true but difficult to express:

I cannot grasp what it would be like to feel pretty all the time. But I do know what it’s like to feel so very alive that I forget to think about how I look at all–neither good nor bad, just alive. I am alive when I’m problem-solving with colleagues in a strategy session and we’re all on deadline. I can get lost in a piece of music and in friends’ woes and joys…I used to think that moments of forgetting my insecurities were mere escape, but I’m beginning to think that these moments are actually true and accurate in the face of the absolute beauty of being made in the image of God…All we must do is live. And I remembered good old Karl Barth’s contention that the essence of God is live action and St. Irenaeus of Lyon’s statement that the glory of God is the human person fully alive. That I can do. If that’s imitatio Dei, that I can be. I can live. Life–the gift, the pulse–is the root and image and engine of beauty, everyone’s beauty, and that’s what marks the image of God upon us.

There are many more questions to ask about this alternative theological take on beauty, and perhaps some might think that this kind of appeal to our life force is too distinct from considerations of beauty proper to really give us much leverage. But I think there’s at least the start of something very interesting and relevant here. And all I’ll say for now is that it’s an alternative that I like very much, that allows me to breathe and to inhabit my own body in a way that approximates something like feeling beautiful, I think.

18 thoughts on “On Beauty

  1. Would you say that all human beings have true beauty or would some people inevitably be left out even of “true” standards of beauty? I know “aesthetic” does not mean simply the perceptible, but would you say that “aesthetics” or beauty is in some way about what people look like? And do you have any thoughts about whether “the beautiful” adds anything to “the true” and “the good” or are these three terms identical?

    I know those were super loaded and complex questions so feel free to avoid answering them. lol.

    • I’ve been thinking about these questions, and I guess, first, I would say that it seems unnecessary to insist that beauty has some kind of metaphysical parity (whatever that means) with things like truth and good (and justice). I don’t know much about the transcendentals but that means I know even less why they’re supposedly set in stone. At the same time though, it seems to me as though we keep reaching for some kind of language of beauty when we want to talk about things that please us through the senses (usually but not exclusively in a visual way). I don’t actually think this kind of discourse has to be bad, but from what I am learning the history of it is fairly bleak. But I also don’t think we can really get rid of it and might as well work to subvert it as much as possible.

      Now in terms of the potential exclusivity of how we construct beauty, I think I might want something like: we all have an inherent kind of beauty by virtue of existing corporeally that can’t be taken away, but then maybe there’s a more restrictive sense that’s tied to exercises of vivacity/flourishing or something. (But it wouldn’t be entirely reducible to flourishing, because there’s something about the sensory/concrete pleasantness of flourishing that deserves to be recognized.) Regarding the first kind, I think there’s some textual support for this worldview even in a couple sermons of Augustine that colorfully talks about stuff like the glory of our organs (lol). And actually, that also reminds me of the Baby Suggs sermon in Beloved (“Love your flesh…”). At this point in my thought I’m not sure what to do with more classical conceptions of human beauty that relate to things like facial symmetry and structure and such. All I’ll say for now is that I think our understandings of who’s beautiful actually are more fluid than we tend to assume.

  2. I like this a lot, and I think it is a starting place that we could build from.

    For example, if being created “good” in the image of the living God means to be alive and if true beauty in this sense is truly living then we can say some tentative things about how beauty manifests in varying ways in people. For example, we can say that things like health, joy, passion etc… are beautiful. If we have these things we are more alive than if we don’t. This matches my experience. Who hasn’t found themselves attracted to someone who seemed vibrant and full of life even when that person’s physical appearance didn’t match our cultural standards of beauty?

    • Right, exactly. I think there’s a counter-narrative about beauty that most of us have some sense of but don’t really know how to talk about in a theologically rich way yet.

  3. This raises some interesting points about intersubjectivity. If I think about how another person measures up to a culturally constructed standard of beauty, I reduce their alterity by assigning who they are (at least in part) to how they conform to or deviate from that standard. I don’t usually wax Levinasian, but I think this is at the heart of the challenge of the face of the Other. If I make a judgement about the relative attractiveness of face of the Other it is really just one of my many, many ways of collapsing the alterity of the Other into the order of sameness. Worse, if I do so as a way of comparing my appearance to his/her’s in terms of this arbitrary standard of beauty, the face of the Other is utterly rejected because I seek to see only myself. I treat the face of the Other as nothing but the idol of my own solipsism.

    • I like it. There’s probably an article in there about Levinas and anthropological aesthetics and feminist consciousness…

      From what I understand, theological aesthetics is a category important to Christian ethics right now, but I think it may not be done very well (nebulous interconnections made between justice and beauty and such), but I would really like to see this kind of tie-in to ethics.

      Andrew also likes your point.

  4. But isn’t there an extent to which looking for ‘beautiful’ characteristics is just buying into beauty as the absolute standard by which everything must be measured? I always think it’s strangely liberating to read, say, Jane Austen novels, where people talk about each others’ looks without it being the be all and end all of their worth as a person. Or that moment in Little Women where Jo gets her hair cut off and everyone says, ‘Your one beauty!’ Isn’t the problem just that someone’s conformity to a particular standard of beauty become the primary measure of their worth as a person? What if the goal is to live in a world where our worth comes from something else, where we could say of someone, ‘shame about her nose, but she’s hilarious/adorable/a great cook/brilliant with her hands?’, or ‘she’s stunning, but she’s the clumsiest person I’ve ever met’, and everyone still feels ok about themselves?

    • In my opinion, that’s one of the central questions to ask. I’m certainly with you in terms of construing our worth in more complex terms, i.e., with respect to our fundamental existence given by God, and then more specifically, in terms of our capacity to exercise love, and then our capacities to think and create and be vital members of the communities to which we belong. At the same time, I think that questions of anthropological beauty, at their base, are about how we can talk meaningfully about how our bodies can be understanding to be pleasing to behold, even just to ourselves. And the problem is that we *do* have to suffer the pernicious discourse of a certain kind of beauty as it exists in the United States, so my concern is that if we ignore that discourse always in favor of talking about other things, we won’t have the theological resources to subvert it appropriately. And I think there is great fluidity there that we haven’t tapped into sufficiently yet. Thanks for the comment.

      • Thanks! You’re right, it’s a question of how best to subvert the standard of beauty. But in terms of how we relate to our bodies, I just wonder if there are limits to the subversive impact of just trying to change our aesthetics. What if we started to see our bodies in ways that weren’t just aesthetic? I’ve taken up playing sport recently, and have found it fascinating to notice the different ways it makes you look at women’s bodies: you notice strength and speed, grace and skill. Kira Cochrane wrote a great article a little while ago about the way that weightlifting had changed her relationship to her body (http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2011/jun/13/weightlifting-could-change-your-life). Being beautiful is only one of the things our bodies ‘do’: I wonder how much subversive potential there is in realising that. And now I’ve written all that, I wonder whether it’s actually pretty close to what you and Banakis were saying anyway!

      • Sure, I want to affirm that this is definitely an appreciable limitation to this question that I will continue to think about (and I think some of the rest of the WITS are wholeheartedly on board with your concern!). And yet, the more we talk, the more I wonder, as you do, if we’re nearer to intersecting than presupposed initially perhaps! For example, as somebody who, years ago, *used* to run to lose weight (because being thin apparently meant being a Beautiful Woman), and now runs to have a good heart rate, clear my head, and do something nice for and with my body, I think I’d like some concept of the aesthetic that approximates the following: looking down at my squarish, stocky feet that I have used to run and make myself powerful, and delighting in their form, and angles, and curves, precisely out of gratitude for the sheer goodness of being and having a body, even though I’m pretty sure these feet would never get me a modeling job or be the envy of any other women in the mainstream media. So maybe it’s a reformulation of the aesthetic that’s really a *supplement* to the kinds of liveliness and capabilities of the body that I want, and it seems as though you want some of that as well. I think I just don’t want to have to deny myself that hard-earned pleasure of a reformed *beholding*.

  5. Interesting article. I’ve been looking at this from the other perspective lately – the focus on women’s bodies as “special” and “sacred”, particularly in the context of asking women to be more covered either by veil or by other clothing. I think you hit the nail on the head by mentioning that life ought to be at the heart of beauty.

    The trouble with so many of the standard conceptions is that they seem to reduce female beauty to that of an art object, as though a beautiful statue or painting. It’s damaging to women to put forward this kind of beauty ideal, because it damages the idea of beauty as a living concept – and thus reduces the “beautiful woman” to the status of an object.

    • Yes, exactly. I think your point fits with Noel’s invocation of Levinas for this issue (above). And your point about the reduction of beauty to the aesthetic static is just exactly what I am trying to get at when I talk about the reification of beauty in the United States into a certain set of features, a kind of calcified beauty check-list. When in reality it’s all so much more complex and dynamic.

  6. I like it. On the front of theological aesthetics, I think von Balthy would say something similar to Noel’s point about Levinas.

    For von Balthasar, beauty is a transcendental property of being because all existing things show forth their own splendor through their own form. It’s this manifestation of interior splendor through exterior form that he refers to as beauty. The most beautiful works of art are the ones that we can return to again and again that continually disclose their own depths. When it comes to people, beauty is at a high point because we have more spiritual depth or splendor to be manifested than, say, a rock.

    vB heavily criticizes a kind of “aestheticism” that would want to have the surface “prettiness” without the ontological depths. I think he would probably describe the problem you are facing here as an instance of aestheticism: the problem is precisely that a person’s worth is being reduced to their external form, cut off from their personal depths.

  7. The aesthetic experience of real and true beauty is a human necessity, which is even fundamental to the structure of the human body-mind-complex. The aesthetic experience of real and true beauty is neurologically based, or pre-“wired” into the human nervous system and brain.

    Any counter-aesthetic effort, or any effort that opposes, or runs counter to, the “beauty-wired” aspect of the human structure is, is effect, a form of abuse of the human being, and of the necessary right acculturation of humankind as a whole.

    The true and traditionally undewrstood purpose of art is to draw the human being into the sphere of the aesthetic experience, in which the entire brain and nervous system, and indeed the entire body-mind and active life, is profoundly “tuned” to Beauty, or the Beautiful Itself, and altogether.

    There is a profound human necessity for such a resonation of vibratory participation in The Beautiful, beyond conventional yes and no, beyond conventional “beauty” and conventional “ugliness”, beyond conventional socially defined “realism” and beyond egoity altogether.

    Such human profundity is a great and necessary purpose, which true art, and, altogether, true culture and right civilization, should and must serve.

    • Natalie, your comment really made me think through what I believe beauty is, so I thank you for that. Unfortunately, I can’t get on board with what you’re proposing here. Your pocket manifesto on Beauty has the strident air of German Romanticism to it and I find your appeals to Beauty as a transcendent universal somewhat problematic. I might stray a bit from the issue of body image to deal with some more broad aesthetic issues here, so I apologize for going off topic

      You point out that “participation in The Beautiful” is “beyond conventional ‘beauty.’” As far as that goes, you seem to agree with Elizabeth on the point that standards of beauty can be socially constructed. I agree with you on this first bit, but I don’t think it’s helpful to appeal to “The Beautiful” as a corrective. What sort of B/beauty can stand outside of culture and context? And if it existed, how could it be mediated to us? I have to admit, I have no idea what a “vibratory participation in The Beautiful” would feel like. Tingly, I guess.

      Without culture, without context there is no mediation. The temptation to seek immediate, transcendent, universals (we might call this “the temptation to capitalize stuff”) is a flat rejection of our human contingency. It’s the way that we chaff against our limitations and determinacy. The only way this doesn’t end in disaster is if it aspires to apophasis, which is okay by me but it leads us down a path more mystical than practical. Or, I suppose, it could take you the direction of a real dyed-in-the-wool Platonist. But it’s clear that you’re advocating neither apophasis nor straight Platonism but rather a “true” version of art that actually delivers the goods on Beauty. And this is where I get the most worried. Who is arbiter of what counts as “true art”? Who decides what makes a culture what you call “true culture?” Which civilizations are what you term “right civilization?” Those are dangerous determinations.

      And it’s not as if we have to choose between being depraved nihilistic relativists or yearning for the unified ideals of God, Beauty, and Society from the Middle Ages (I’m looking at you, German Romanticism). No, we can allow that all art and all beauty arise in context. Art is mediated through culture and suffers the weakness of contingency and determinacy just like our human bodies. Our art, like ourselves, always finds itself in a mess of structural injustice and social sin as its starting point. Art shows us what beauty is –not by rising above this mess and flying toward a divine universal– but by transforming our experience of life in the world. It actually allows us to imagine the world differently, to paint a different picture, to tell a wondrous story, to sing a new song.

      Beauty is all about the full humanization of humans in history. Aesthetics has everything to do with ethics, and if it doesn’t then what it shows us probably won’t look beautiful at all. In so far as becoming one with God means becoming more fully human, art and beauty cooperate with God’s grace in drawing us ever more deeply into God’s self.

      • Grace Jantzen contrasts Plato’s idea that we see beauty in individual people, love them for it, and then are led onto Beauty itself with Sappho’s idea that we recognise people as beautiful only after we first love them. If God made and sustains each one of us in being, then each one of us must be beautiful (albeit broken). Just as culture makes it easier for us to see particular aspects of God’s goodness and harder to see others, maybe you could make the argument that culture helps us to see particular sorts of beauty more easily than others: perhaps part of learning to love others and to see them is beautiful is part of what it means to see God in everything.

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