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 bad, and 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.