Human Beauty

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?




  1. says

    Did your link to SMBC evaporate? Also a few typos: notice incredible strength; so-andso is beautiful; and on your tangential reference to time lords, most of the funny actors in the said blue box have been over six feet tall, which I can’t bring myself to think of as ‘little’ (only Two and Seven are of mere ‘average’ height).

      • says

        Also hierarchies, which I think I noticed this one on another of your posts, but didn’t think it worth mentioning at the time.

        I’m also raising a quizzical eyebrow at you when you say ‘us’ in one paragraph to say “racial categorism has caused us to regard physical traits associated with Caucasian women as being more desirable, feminine and beautiful” in contrast to the ‘us’ a couple of paragraphs later: “Those of us who’ve been immersed in queer and gender variant circles…” That sounds very presumptuous of you, if you don’t mind me saying.

        I’ll put my cards on the table to say I was brought up in a predominantly Anglo culture (Australia) with distinct and pervasive sexist and racist mores, which despite some setbacks (like the Howard dictatorship years) has gradually embraced multi-culturalism in many positive ways, one of which is the acceptance of non-Western standards of beauty not being regarded as merely exotic or unusual, or as exemplary only because of tokenism. In that sense I cannot identify with the first example I gave where you said ‘us’. In spite of main stream media continuing to push narrow, stereotyped conceptions of acceptable body images and beauty, a lot of ‘us’ have done our best to put the sexism and racism in our upbringing behind us and are waiting for the MSM to catch up.

        • says

          Valid point. I think I was sort of being careless with my “us” in general, using it to mean “geeky intellectual people”, “mainstream north american culture” and “the trans / queer community” at different points.

          • says

            I know, I know. I fuck up sometimes. But most of my readership definitely do come from mostly anglo/white countries, that generally have similar problems with how they consider beauty along lines of race. I’m not necessarily going to take at face value the claim that Australia is now above all that, for instance.

          • says

            Certainly not – there is still a whole lotta terrible racism, and endemic sexism, and every other -ism. But the ‘us’ in Natalie’s post either has to represent individuals who prefer Caucasian looks over all others, in which case I beg to not be identified as one of them, or it has to be a generalised person-in-the-street type of ‘us’, and surely the average Australian has to be less influenced by colour now than say a generation ago; we have had such significant migration that exoticism is no longer an excuse for most of us, even allowing for open xenophobes of the likes of Pauline Hanson (wiki her if you must). The MSM is rather further behind in pushing the stereotype of the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Aussie, which is increasingly distant from being the whole picture. 🙂
            (Thanks for admitting the ‘us’ did vary somewhat from paragraph to paragraph, Natalie.)

          • says

            No, that’s not what that “us” suggested… that “us” suggested people who were taught to measure beauty by caucasian standards. Whether or not we still maintain that mentality is not implied by my rhetoric.

          • echidna says

            Natalie, don’t worry, she’s apples. Just enjoy the added complications that blogging to a wider audience than you would normally meet in RL brings.

  2. Anders says

    Well, at least you know we read your posts… 🙂

    I’ll think of this while I sleep. Just remember, if you ever want to see visages that make you retch or feel pity, look through a dermatologist’s casebook.

  3. says

    I definitely think you’re on to something. Consider how our perception of the physical beauty of someone can change when they attract us in other ways. We’re more accepting of their deviations (we all have ’em) from the “norms” we are presented with as we develop our sexuality. I’ve had many women who didn’t care for hairy men come to be turned on my my body hair, and I have come to be attracted to things I never thought would do that for me in turn.

    I think those who don’t leave themselves open to appreciating diverse ways of being beautiful are missing out, honestly.

  4. Dalillama says

    I tend to lump physical beauty in with hobbies, musical preferences, and tastes in food. All of them are entirely matters of personal perception/opinion, but cultures tend to establish broad realms of preference that are held by a majority. Like any majority trait, there’s also a tendency to denigrate/exclude people who deviate to maintain ingroup conformity, and then the various outgroups tend to cling more closely to each other and denigrate the more popular tastes in return. That being said, these are things for which objective standards are basically impossible. You can’t really say that someone is objectively beautiful, but only in the context of personal preferences and/or the norms of a particular culture. This doesn’t actually have to be your personal tastes of the norms of the culture you identify with. I van think of a number of occasions where I’ve pointed out someone who I didn’t find especially attractive to a friend whose tastes differed, or noted someone who had, e.g. 1940s Hollywood looks, the kind that attractive movie stars had then, but the people considered attractive movie stars now don’t.

  5. Praedico says

    To me, that beauty is a subjective rather than objective quality, far from diminishing it, actually enhances it.
    If it were an objective property, to call someone beautiful would be akin to pointing out that they have eyes. That it’s subjective makes it about your opinion of the subject; that they are beautiful to you. It’s a much more personal compliment.

    I think it’s worth adding that when it comes to personal interactions, someone’s beauty is likely to change based on your experiences with them. Someone with whom you have a wonderful relationship is liable to become far more beautiful in your eyes. This hypothesis is based largely on my experience of a woman who got more and more beautiful the longer I knew her. Plus, the only time I’ve ever been described as even remotely attractive is by people who are at least friends, which suggests the effect is quite powerful…

      • sjrosewater says

        Ugh.That was meant in reply to your quote that I tried (unsuccessfully) to blockquote.

        “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?”

        I’ll just show myself the door…

  6. says

    Something I’ve always found odd: being attracted to bodies is considered shallow, but being attracted to faces is considered deep. Your face is pretty much a matter of the genetic lottery, whereas diet and exercise make a big difference for your body. Doesn’t a person’s body tell more about them than their face?

    • sjrosewater says

      I think this is because body attraction is physical, whereas facial attraction is usually indicative of a “deeper” attraction to ideas that you associate with that face. You could say the same about clothing.

  7. Anders says

    How large a cross-cultural variation is there with virtues like intelligence, beauty, etc. What do the anthropologists say? And what are the deeper values that are being expressed?

    For instance, in the past being fat was considered attractive. Now thin is in. Have the values changed? Well, no. Because there is an underlying factor at work here – the desire to be different from the unwashed masses. Historically these have always been thin for obvious reasons, and so big is beautiful. But with the advent of cheap food for everyone, obesity has spread like a wildfire through the population at large. And so, as a reaction against this, slim is now the new black.

    As I am wont to do, I think a compromise position between the nature and the nurture side of this issue is the best. Virtues can vary quite a lot, but there are some boundaries that are not crossed. The life of a late-stage schizophrenic, one where the negative symptoms are so pronounced that ze* needs care 24/7, is probably (almost) universally viewed as undesirable. Likewise, a severely depressed person who spends his life staring at the wall and composing his own suicide notes is not something to envy.

    • says

      Well, I think there is a problem with your question. Contemporary anthropologists do not generalize across cultures, especially about things like beauty and intelligence.

      I can only assume you are speaking cross-culturally given your question and a “for instance” indicating that you are providing an example. But your example seems extremely ethnocentric. Being fat is still considered attractive to many people in many societies. I’m not sure you can fairly claim that the underlying factor driving attractiveness is a desire to be different (I’m not even sure that’s the case in the United States). In Hawai’i, for example, large bodies have been considered attractive because they indicate higher status (access to more resources). You can’t fairly make generalizations about why certain traits are attractive across cultures. And “everyone” does not have access to cheap food.

      Your final paragraph seems to me to confuse beauty/attractiveness with desirability. I also question your claim about caring for “a late-stage schizophrenic” being universally undesirable. Seems presumptuous and also culturally driven. There are plenty of societies that have radically different ideas about caring for others, even those with schizophrenia and depression.

      I would say that it is probably not possible to pin down any universals concerning beauty. And any attempts to do so generally stem from ethnocentric positions with unexamined biases.

      • Anders says

        Not “caring about a late-stage schizophreniac.” Being a late stage schizophreniac. If I wrote anything else that was not what I meant.

  8. Lukas says

    Just an interesting note: I am currently designing a language (just for fun, not for any practical purpose), and in that language, there is no word for “beauty” or “beautiful”. Instead, there is a word “tsuqo” (the “q” is pronounced as a click sound, like in some South African languages), which roughly translates as “aesthetic attraction” or “perception of beauty”. Instead of saying “X is beautiful”, one would say “tsuseuqo X”, which means something akin to “I am aesthetically pleased by X”. I feel like using this sort of construction emphasizes the subjectivity of beauty, and shows that it is a perception on the part of the observer, rather than an innate characteristic of the person/thing being observed.

  9. Aliasalpha says

    As a completely nerdy aside, am I the only one who thinks that the vulcan suppression of emotion is an act of cowardice? They can’t deal with the power of their emotions and instead of learning to control them which would minimise the potential dangers, they try to cut them off at the source and reduce their own potential.

    Jedi are much the same, they can’t figure out a way to manage love & the force so they just forbid love, wimps. At least the sith can get some lovin’ even if they have a substantial risk of being stabbed in the back whilst in the middle of it…

    • Sas says

      Both are seriously cowardly … but then again, both are just clumsy attempts to inject drama after the fact, so it’s no surprise they both suck as explanations.

      The Jedi thing is particularly egregious. There was never any indication that Jedi couldn’t love until they needed a reason that Anakin and Padme couldn’t hook up.

      In a way, the fear litany from Dune was a much more nuanced way of showing someone controlling their emotions, since even though it says, “I must not fear”, the part of it about “I will face my fear, I will permit it to pass over and through me” indicates you have to let the fear happen and experience it but then let go of it.

      • Anders says

        It is by caffeine alone I set my mind in motion.
        It is by the beans of Java that thoughts acquire speed,
        the hands acquire shaking, the shaking becomes a warning.
        It is by caffeine alone I set my mind in motion.

  10. Alt+3 says

    I’ve never really given much thought to why I think certain people are beautiful. I don’t think it’s a huge issue for me seeing as the whole concept of “beauty” is purely theoretical for me. It’s as meaningful for me to say “I think Emma Stone is very pretty” as it is to say “The Equinox is my favorite starship”.

  11. Sinéad says

    I think about this a lot because, I’m fat, trans and and a woman, so basically…I have nothing going in my favor. But I also think about it like this, that the people I’m actually attracted to are often self critical of their flaws. I like overweight women. I like women with quirky expressions (not Zoe Deschanel faux quirky). I find my attractions to heteronormatively acceptable forms of beauty to be merely out of some biological thrust, and just superficial.

    My attractions to men are different. Because I’m primarily a gynesexual person, I want to speak of my attraction to conventional male appearances. I actually find myself more attracted to the chubby geeky guys than to the svelte jock or ripped abs and sharp facial lines. Sure I find many men to be beautiful, but I’d rather shag Nick Frost than Johnny Depp. Likewise, I’m frustratedly attracted to Simon Pegg more than I am Angelina Jolie, and by frustrated I don’t mean about my sexual identity…I mean…deer lord, Simon Pegg is a fucking beautiful man and that picture of him playing with toy dinosaurs makes me really fucking hot and horny. I say this as someone who has been crushed out on Jemima Rooper since Hex.

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