One thing I’ve been having a bit of trouble with lately is trying to negotiate some kind of balance between what I’ve come to understand about how perceptions of beauty are mediated by social and cultural convention against the fact that ultimately, I really rather do appreciate the beauty of the human form, of people. And that I find some people more exceptionally beautiful than others. Let’s say… Benedict Cumberbatch? Andrej Pejic? Gael Garcia Bernal? Kim Petras?
How do you allow yourself to appreciate given traits when you know they’re all so conditional and relative, and even help prop up perceptions you’d rather rid yourself of? Are we willing to just take the hit, decide “whatever beauty I perceive is a projection, not really there” and move on?
For a lot of people, that may not seem like much of a loss. As much as it is given a ridiculous level of unfair, unconscious privileging in day to day life, and seems to trump all else within mainstream media, down here in the social fringes and margins and amongst the progressives it is openly devalued and regarded as a shallow, frivolous consideration (albeit one that still carries its preternatural sway over people’s perceptions). It’s hardly admitted to being a desirable, appreciable quality at all, and may in fact be a liability in so far as we still instinctively imagine it to be somehow mutually exclusive with other qualities like “intelligence” or “education”. “It doesn’t matter” is the public face, while it continues to matter so very much.
But on what justification do we devalue it or try to ignore its impact? Does doing so carry the risk of just leading us to not acknowledge the sway it has over our perceptions, while the mainstream at least recognize its influence? Is this just classic wishful Vulcan thinking on our part, again, “we’d be more rational and objective if aesthetic considerations didn’t impact our judgment, so therefore we’re going to claim we’ve already gotten to that point”?
Or is it maybe connected to the way that physical qualities in general are considered less worthwhile and less “earned” than intellectual and social, interpersonal qualities? Does it mirror the scorn you find amongst the various “geek” communities towards sport and athleticism, regarding them as frivolous, silly and pointless, while still investing their own energies into comic books, toys, video games and long-standing BBC science fiction shows about funny little time travelling men in blue boxes? This silliness gets beautifully illustrated in this Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comic.
Why would we consider a physical quality less earned than others? Intelligence, charisma, scientific skill and artistic talents are to pretty much the exact same extent the product of getting lucky with a degree of natural born skill mixed with the right amount of training, hard work, passion and practice. Beauty exists as a continuum between the two as well. Anyone who has ever watched the physical decline of an addict knows that it doesn’t stay fixed regardless of upkeep.
And do these traits have less influence, end up being pointless, having no pragmatic value? Not any more so than the qualities we are willing to openly hold in esteem. Just like intelligence and creativity may get poured into relatively pointless pursuits (like, say, blogs), physical talents can go “wasted” on entertainment or whatever, but they can equally well be applied in pragmatic ways. Soldiers. Sex workers. Police officers. Etc.
One almost gets the sense that its just plain resentment and narcissism that leads to this. Ours are communities primarily defined by our intellectual talent. Beauty is incidental. Some of us might well be awfully good-looking, but many of us aren’t, and many of us have ignored cultivating it in favour of other things we personally held to be more important and meaningful for us. So we pat ourselves on the back for being so smart and insightful and talented, and then sneer at the other human qualities that we don’t necessarily possess. We get to think that we are exceptional in the only ways that matter, while everyone else who is exceptional is only exceptional in regards to an ultimately frivolous and pointless consideration.
Being okay with appreciating it on that level is no big fuss. One just says it isn’t really shallow to simply acknowledge something being pleasing or nice, and there’s no real harm in acknowledging particular human qualities as long as you don’t go imposing weird little hierarchies where you only consider certain ways of being exceptional worth valuing.
But reconciling it with awareness of how it’s a culturally relative value becomes a lot harder. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s not all that difficult to notice how racial categorism has caused us to regard physical traits associated with Caucasian women as being more desirable, feminine and beautiful and those traits associated with women of African descent. We could also easily imagine that entire dynamic being inverted if we lived in a society where the racial power dynamics and distribution of privilege ran the other way.
Those cultural filters on perception extend to gender too, of course. Visible gender variance in forms where it is suggestive of transsexuality or intersexuality are regarded as ugly, gross, creepy… that for a trans woman, beauty is directly relative to how well you can come across as a cisgender woman. But by the same token, androgyny in the cases where it isn’t directly suggestive of any such “flaw” in terms of gender identity or physiological sex, where you can still come up with some kind of binary, normative assignment to whomever you’re looking at, all of a sudden it moves back into the realm of being beautiful, alluring. David Bowie, anyone? Louise Brooks?
Those of us who’ve been immersed in queer and gender variant circles, becoming accustomed to seeing a diverse range of ways a body can be gendered or sexed, diverse ways gender can be expressed, and who have gradually managed to shed the negative cultural baggage attached to perceiving transsexuality, transgenderism and intersexuality as wrong, disturbing or gross, can also develop the ability to appreciate the beauty of these different kinds of bodies. I’ve learned to stop feeling pity and disgust towards visible gender variance but instead appreciation for that particular iteration of human beauty. In gender variance you can notice considerable strength, individuality, confidence, self-determination and sexual self-awareness inscribed into those bodies.
So if my experiences can cause these kinds of shifts in how I perceive the beauty of a human body, to such an extreme that what I was once taught to see as ugly or disturbing can instead become something compellingly beautiful and powerful, how much is there a concept of beauty at all? How do I go ahead and happily ascribe this quality to others when I know it is simply extending from perceptual categories? That in saying “so-and-so is beautiful” I’m really saying “so-and-so’s body meets my cultural conventions and standards, and doesn’t threaten or challenge my perceptions”? But again, I come against that sense of loss associated with giving it up.
And if beauty isn’t all that dissimilar as a positive appraisal of particular traits, are other human virtues and qualities similarly culturally mediated? Is what we regard as charisma just the ability to perform your identity in a way that fits into social expectations and conventions? Is what we regard as intelligence just having a brain that does well what others expect or want it to do? Could these concepts shift just as easily, in circumstances of placing someone in a radically different socio-cultural context?
Is beauty really, as the cliche goes, simply in the eye of the beholder?
Well, I’ve never much bought the idea that we have to throw out terms and concepts the moment they become subjective or relative. I, for one, am not aspiring towards absolute, perfect precision in all I do, say, or think. Rough concepts can work, and fuzzy, gray, relative ideas and terms are often the best available. The world itself is fuzzy, gray and relative, or at the very least our ability to perceive and apprehend it is. The indistinct nature of language and ideas is not a liability at all in so far as it better allows us to adapt to the shifting and indistinct nature of the world we find ourselves in. If “beauty” is imprecise and mediated, does that really suddenly render it an obsolete or destructive concept?
What I can do is be open to adapting my concepts of human beauty. Rather than mistaking it for some kind of absolute quality that exists objectively in the world, in the person to whom I assign this perception, I can simply try to remain aware that it’s a yardstick of my own perceptions. It allows me the capacity to appreciate and enjoy, to take pleasure in being alive and find joy in the human beings around me. Recognizing it can allow for empathy, for compassion, for love. And if I’m aware that that perception is indeterminate, and could at any point be expanded to encompass further types of human bodies, than the potentially harmful consequences of assuming, conversely, that other types of bodies not presently held within my personal boundaries of the concept aren’t in any real or objective or external sense “ugly” or “wrong”.
Awareness of the relativity of human beauty, and the way in which my own perceptions modify how I regard it, is not a good reason to limit or eliminate the concept. But it’s a very good reason to be open to expanding it. Nothing lost there, is there?