Reflections on Beauty
By Keith Allen

In Association with

Reflections on Beauty
18 March, 2008 (originally posted on Blogger, 13 February, 2008)

Over and over again, I have heard people complaining about how unhealthy standards of beauty are in the West today. There are endless numbers of diatribes available in virtually all media of communication that bemoan our supposedly unrealistic and even damaging models of beauty. I am not entirely sure what these people are seeing. For all the faults I myself do see in our standards, I have to say, we currently have the healthiest and freest models of beauty the world has ever known.

Before going any further, I should note that the word beauty can be used in different ways, and this can lead to confusion. I firmly believe that there is beauty in all things. For me, saying that a thing is beautiful means nothing more than expressing an appreciation of the innate worth of that thing. Even the repulsive and the terrifying can be beautiful. I find, for instance, both Grunewald's monstrous pictures of the Crucifixion and Goya's ferocious images of witches and fiends to be beautiful. This beauty, which I might call 'beauty in general,' is not what I'm talking about here. I'm talking about sexual beauty. I'm talking about what makes a person attractive, as a potential sexual partner, to another. I'm talking about 'beauty' as the word is ordinarily used.

While there are trends in concepts of beauty today that are frankly moronic, our age has healthier, more liquid ideals of beauty than any other age has had. We have come to a time when beauty is found in expressions of personal freedom and in independent healthiness. Conformity and unwanted demands of submission do still color our concepts, but they do so to far less of a degree than has ever been the case before.

Whether a person looks at the pre-modern West, ancient India, classical Greece and Rome, or countless other places, he is likely to discover a similar ideal of male beauty. Over and over again, it is the healthy, athletic physique that is admired. There are, undoubtedly, numerous variations on this, but there is a consistency as well. Today, it is still this healthy athleticism that is the standard of male attractiveness, and, since most people currently accept it as such, the most common ideals of our own age are really neither much better nor much worse than are those of other times and places.

Fortunately, while this athleticism was once the dominant ideal of many cultures, there are alternatives to it now. Those who are physically male need not strive for this ideal if they do not desire to do so, and yet they can still be regarded as attractive by many people. There are, for instance, those who might adopt thinness and pallor as marks of beauty. Others take up characteristics traditionally associated with femininity. Others yet drop a male identity completely and take on a female persona, often with such effectiveness that they can be nearly indistinguishable from persons who are biologically women. Even these categories do not, however, represent the entirety of our now diverse ideals. There are countless others. Although I do not mean to imply that all persons will find each and every one of these types attractive, each type is a reflection of an ideal accepted by some group of persons to be found in the world today. There has been a fragmentation of ideals. One ideal is not completely dominant. There is one that is predominant, but this predominance is simply a reflection of the tastes of the majority. It allows for minority standards that can differ considerably from the majority standard.

A similar diversification of ideals of feminine beauty has also occurred, and this is to be commended as much as is the diversification of ideals of male beauty. There has, however, been another shift in ideals of female beauty that is even more noteworthy.

Ideals of female beauty have not been as consistent from one part of the world to another or from one age to another as have ideals of male beauty. Without a doubt, there do appear to be biological factors at play in determining what is beautiful in women (just as there are such factors at play in determining what is beautiful in men). If there were not, it would be hard to explain why, for example, certain hip to waist proportions are fairly consistent marks of beauty from one culture to another. Nonetheless, there has been significant variation. Waif-like thinness seems to have been admired in the late Middle Ages of Europe. Pre-modern Indians praised a woman with full breasts, wide hips, and a very thin waist. The Chinese apparently admired slim, dainty women, while the Greeks liked their wives to be rather husky.

As diverse as these standards are, one thing that they have in common is that athleticism was not a quality admired in women. Even the solidly built women of Greece were not muscular. They look far more suited to household drudgery and the carrying of healthy sons than to competition with men. In fact, whatever the country a person looks at, a comparative weakness seems to have been admired in females. Women simply were not to have the physical capacities of men. They were not to be competitors. Instead, they were to remain at home where they could obediently produce children.

Today, this has changed. The dominant ideal of feminine beauty in the West is now the physically fit woman. She is no longer the frail, helpless being who must depend upon a man. She is as vigorous and as energetic as he is. This is certainly a change for the better. Perhaps there are those who admire the flabby, floundering women of the past (after all, I'm sure they were easier to dominate physically), but most men who are not insecure about their masculinity are likely to want to be with an equal, not a slave.

That said, I would not deny even such individuals from finding persons who correspond to their ideal. I do not want to see anyone, man or woman, controlled against his or her will, but, if a person desires to enter into a relationship as a submissive partner, then I will support that individual's choice to do so. Consequently, if there are still people who strive for this old fashioned ideal, either to attain it themselves or to find it attained in another, then I am happy that our standards today have so diversified that these individuals can find fulfillment in striving for goals not desired by the majority. Though I do not share the ideals of these individuals, I do defend their right to make choices for themselves. I certainly have no right to tell them that they are wrong about what they find beautiful. In fact, it would be stupid to do so.

Now, I will grant that the reasons I've given for touting changes in female beauty are largely ideological, but they are not the only reasons I have for preferring the fit, taut woman of today. Because this image is one of healthiness, if it is aspired to, it ought to inspire women to be physically fit. Instead of becoming the sickly Victorian ladies of a century ago, women now often enhance their beauty with exercise. The dominant standard of beauty is one that leads to health not illness, to strength not weakness.

Of course, there are those who will object to this ideal, who will actually say that it is unhealthy or unobtainable. Such claims, however, are nothing more than self-deceit. At the least, they are for the majority of people making them.

Unfortunately, we live in an age that allows people to become monstrously fat. Many individuals in today's society can be so lethargic that they're virtually immobile. What's more, while living such sedentary lives, these persons, at the same time, consume quantities of food sufficient to feed whole villages in other parts of the world. Then, having lounged for years upon a couch while gorging themselves on herds of cows, sounders of swine, and enough ice cream to form a glacier, such persons complain that being physically fit is too hard. Worse than that, these gargantuan mountains of flesh insist that they're beautiful.

I have no sympathy for such dishonesty.

There are, without a doubt, people who find the grossly obese attractive, and their perspectives are as valid as are those of anyone else. That said, obesity is the very opposite of healthiness, and encouraging anyone to be fat is actually morally reprehensible.

If there is going to be a dominant ideal, it is far better that it should be one of healthiness than one of unhealthiness. Of course, those who are already fat, or who lack the self-restraint to prevent themselves from becoming so, can have their admirers. None of these people should, however, expect all persons to share that belief. If anything, they should be aware that most people will find the obese grotesque. Now, as I've already said, there is beauty even in the grotesque, but it is not a kind of beauty most people are able to appreciate, and that fact ought to be admitted.

By saying this, I am not trying to impose my own preferences as being better than the preferences of others. What I am saying is that there are biological imperatives guiding some of our preferences. There are particular features that people find attractive. For example, human beings, especially males, are likely to find signs indicative of youth to be attractive, while, conversely, finding traits associated with advancing age to be unattractive. I am not making any moral judgments about this. It's simply an observation.

Should a person not pick up on such traits, or should a person prefer traits indicative of advancing age, then such are their tastes. I'm glad, once again, that the person is living in an age that's reasonably tolerant of differences in taste. I'll even go so far as to say that, hopefully, one day the prejudices many hold with regard to such persons will vanish completely. I frankly don't like to see a person condemned as sick because he's attracted to someone who's "too old" for him. Nonetheless, individuals with such tastes need to be aware that they are going against biologically ingrained reactions which will, very often, incline people to be disgusted by the very things these people find attractive.

I am not saying that the old or the fat, or those who admire the old or the fat, should deny what they find attractive. I am simply saying that they ought to be aware of the fact that these things are not found to be attractive by others. In other words, these people, like everyone, should be honest with themselves. They certainly shouldn't impose their ideals on others or denigrate others' tastes.

If anything, it is the ideal of those who find obesity to be beautiful that is problematic. I cannot imagine that anyone would claim that it is physically preferable for a person to be overweight than to be fit. Virtually anyone who strives for fitness is going to be better off than is someone who strives for sickliness.

Though our understanding of what beauty is has moved in a healthier, more genuinely feminine direction, insofar as women are now admired for their athleticism and capacity to take care of themselves, I cannot say that this is the greatest change in perspectives. Most dramatically, we have, as I've already noted, accepted that there can be a variety of standards of beauty. Today, this has been given expression in the ways that we take control of our bodies and transform them as we see fit. Some people, being especially bold, even make their bodies into living works of art, crafting them into shapes that are not possible naturally.

Actually, human beings have, throughout history, modified their bodies. Some cultures admired scarification, others tattooing, others yet preferred some other change to the natural human form. These trends were, however, more often than not, imposed. Today, we are able to choose freely what our bodies look like. We are able to mold ourselves into whatever we desire ourselves to be. I cannot imagine a more noble endeavor than the effort to create beauty in this world. While one person might find the modifications another makes on his or her body to be repulsive, these changes are enjoyed by the person who makes them, and it is this person's perspective that matters. It is, after all, their aesthetic ideals that are being expressed, not those of the other person. Now, if a man finds it beautiful to extend his earlobes, he can do so. If a woman wants to adorn her body with tattoos, she can. If a man wants to have artificial horns implanted in his forehead, he can. If a woman wants larger or smaller breasts, she can have her body modified. We can shape ourselves into whatever we find beautiful. We are freer to express ourselves, to transform ourselves into works of art, than we have ever been before. On top of that, there is such a splintering of ideals today that one ideal does not overwhelm others so completely that all rival possibilities of beauty are pushed out by that one ideal. In changing our bodies we give physical expression to our freedom, to our aesthetic ideals. We have entered the age where beauty is what we decide it should be.

As much as I have praised the standards of beauty prevalent today, I do grant that many of the old prejudices still survive, and that a natural human tendency towards conformity does still hold us back. We have moved in a wonderful direction, but we still have ahead of us much of the path that leads to real diversity, to a world where every person can make choices for himself without others judging him. Happily, we are moving in that direction. We are slowly, so slowly trudging forward, away from the narrow restrictions of the past into an age when every human being can express himself as he sees fit and bring to life his ideal of beauty.

So let us work towards this end. Instead of attacking someone else's ideal of beauty, let's aim to have our own recognized as being just as valid, though not more valid. Let's fight for diversity. Let's fight for what's good for us. Let's fight for a time when no person need apologize for finding anything attractive.

By Keith Allen

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