On Beauty

I made the mistake of watching some of the Olympics last week. Except for brief YouTube intrusions in the music I listen to while working, I haven’t watched programming with advertisements in several years. I don’t like the disruption to my attention, and of course I despise the goal behind advertising generally. I don’t watch the Super Bowl not merely because I hate the grotesque violence, the rampant racism and the sheer idiocy of American football (I mean, really! it’s one guy throwing a weird-shaped ball, one guy catching it and running around with it, and a couple dozen extras engaged in knocking each other over); I also hate the ads (for many of the same reasons, with extra side helpings of misogyny, among other things). 

For various reasons, I haven’t watched the Winter Olympics in something like a decade. I wanted to see the skiing to catch up on what amazing people are up to these days in terms of records and ability. Silly me for thinking I’d get to enjoy that experience. I lasted maybe 50 minutes, of which I’m fairly certain 30 were spent watching either actual ads or the ludicrous “packaging of athletes” — the object of which is to manufacture a story of defeating adversity for every competitor who might be on the medal risers. Never mind that they all have to work damn hard to simply be Olympians, they must also have emotional traumas to overcome and rags to riches transformations — even though we all know that all Olympians have at least a level of privilege that allows them to spend a great deal of time and resources training to compete in a sport.

In theory these videos of tearful trials and tribulations are supposed to humanize the athletes, make it so a couch-potato television audience can relate to them, something to balance their wholly alien athleticism and drive. But what television manages to produce is an even greater degree of remove — because it is packaged, it is artificial, it is edited, it relies on trite imagery that has been shorn of all meaning. We are watching mini-Hollywood productions, not stories of real human beings. And we are watching… we are not engaging any other part of ourselves. The athletes are turned into things we watch. 

This watching of things has been bothering me recently, more so than usual. It may be that social distancing has heightened our tendency to passively observe rather than engage the mind and the body. It might also be that I’m working in retail (again) where interactions are superficial, largely fake, and almost exclusively visual — all of which are seemingly made worse in the plague era.

I’ve never been a superficial sort of person, so these trends toward increasing surface skimming are disconcerting. But these trends also force me to deal with what image-mediators seem to think humans want to watch. All these surfaces add up to what we in this culture consider to be desirable, attractive, beautiful. And I don’t share this aesthetic. For me, beauty — which actually means “goodness” — is something very different, implying health and vitality and grace. It is not a surface feature. It is certainly not obtained through the abuses commonly committed in pursuit of this shallow “beauty”. And all the foulness entailed in pursuing image, to me, points to much uglier, much deeper motives behind our preferences. 

Look at the irrationally destructive things we’ve done in this quest for an imposed — a mediated — ideal body image. Foot binding to create deformed lumps that are impossible to walk upon. Dilating eyes with deadly nightshade — bella donna — so that while they may not be able to see, women are always peering out at the world in wide-eyed, watery adulation. Skin creams made with arsenic and lead to eat away surface features and bleach the epidermis to a deathly pallor. Plastic sacks of silicon jelly surgically inserted in breasts to make them seem engorged with milk. Crushing the torso and cracking ribs under corsets to achieve a waist that can be encircled by a husband’s hands. Botulism injected into the face muscles to freeze them into the smoothly rounded firmness of eternal youth. Filling hospital beds with the frail, emaciated bodies of children who are afraid to eat lest they seem fat and thereby unlovable.

Now, don’t think that all of this abuse has solely fallen upon the bodies of women (though it is mainly directed at the bodies of women). Think also of the contorted landscapes and distorted lifeforms we create in the name of beauty. Not just the places and beings that are invisible collateral damage to our whims — all the blood in diamonds, the ocean islands of toxic plastic waste in the name of hair and skin “care” and wrinkle-free shirts, the forests destroyed for tissue paper. Even the beings we look upon every day are twisted and damaged. We have bred dogs that can’t breathe, cats that can’t smell, horses that are so over-large for their legs that one twist is fatal. (Because we also don’t keep them alive after they’ve broken a leg.) Look at the desolation of a suburban lawn with its expanses of lifeless grass poisoned and purged of all beings except the crippled blades that we never allow to grow. Or a formal garden with its lonely, wasted blooms and truly strange hedges slashed into inert shapes that nature abhors.

I believe this last is the underlying reason we do all this — to show nature that we are in charge. We are as gods, making the world in our own image. Ugly gods, apparently. Gods of death. Gods of disease and destruction. Gods that have no bloody taste!

Because none of this is objectively beautiful! Our weirdly fantastic notions of art and design. Our homes, our clothes, our sculpted and manicured bodies. Even the poison-hued colors we smear all over our world. It’s all bizarrely ugly. An alien who landed in the midst of affluent suburbia would think we were all warped and diseased. In mind and body.

What all this ugliness does achieve is the silent screaming of one word — control. 

Take the foot binding. This is but one example of many mutilations of female bodies, but it is one that most clearly illustrates the true motive. And it’s not beautiful feet. These lumps are hideous and monstrous, malformed and so obviously painful that we involuntarily wince when these foul things are exposed to daylight. However, when they have achieved this tiny foot wrapped in silken slippers, women physically can’t escape the bonds of men. They can’t manage more than a whispering, cringing shuffle from room to room. They are as firmly bound as their feet.

Or look at this obsession with fat — which increasingly affects not just women but young men too (or old men who are desperately trying to appear young). There is nothing appealing about protruding bones and hollow eyes and patchy, desiccated hair. It is unhealthy in every sense of the term. But to achieve this fat-free body is to control what is eaten, to deny the body its wants, to force willful mind over base matter. We are masters over our material bodies. We can control even the most basic bodily urge to sustain itself with food. We — whoever or whatever that is outside the body — are superior to this world of nature. We are able to force the body to obey the will even to its death.

Do not think that this is just the taint of consumerism and hyper-sexuality in this modern culture. Our problematic beauty has deep roots, and the philosophy of aesthetics is not reassuring. To begin with, our definitions of beauty are bound up in our reactions to an object, not in the thing itself. Beauty is subject to human perception; it is not a quality intrinsic to nature. There is nothing of vitality or wholeness or innate goodness in our notions of beauty. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, not in the thing beheld. Moreover, as that beholding is of the essence, beauty is largely visual. There are nods to harmony and melody, but scent and taste and texture and all the other less consciously quantifiable and more intuitively felt senses are ignored. (Except in esoterica like feng shui, which is less about beauty than creating balanced energetic flow.)

Moreover, there is also nothing of context or relationship in beauty except that beholding. Beauty can contain toxicity, destruction and death because we only look at isolated snapshots of a thing, we do not consider the greater existence of the thing. Consider our habit of cutting flowers. We make lovely arrangements of carefully groomed blooms and greens and set them on our tabletops to admire. These days we often isolate and abstract the moment even further by taking a photo on our phones to share on social media. But those flowers and leaves are already dying before we put them in the vase. They will wilt and be tossed on the compost pile within days (if they aren’t tossed in the trash and thereby completely removed from any living cycle). We have severed the reproductive organs and food factories of our garden plants for a very brief encounter with what we name beautiful. More importantly, we have generated this beauty; it comes from our hands and our will. We are empowered by our creations. Like kindergarteners we rush to tell the world “Look at this thing I made” — where the “I made” is much more important than the thing.

Edgar Allan Poe summed up our experience of beauty in “The Philosophy of Composition”.

That pleasure which is at once the most intense, the most elevating, and the most pure is, I believe, found in the contemplation of the beautiful. When, indeed, men speak of Beauty, they mean, precisely, not a quality, as is supposed, but an effect—they refer, in short, just to that intense and pure elevation of soul—not of intellect, or of heart—upon which I have commented, and which is experienced in consequence of contemplating the “beautiful.”

“In short”… beauty is what elicits a feeling of transcendent superiority in men. It has nothing to do with life.

Contrary to the “sex sells” motive in advertising, most of our notions of ideal image are not even about attraction. We are not putting out the most radiant displays of good health and fitness. We are not creating nests that will nurture our futures. We’re advertising our dominance. A beautiful thing is one that is subject to our artifice. It is also, notably, a thing. It is objectified, rendered lifeless, taken out of time and context, sundered from conscious will or any sort of relationship, and made an object under our control.

We do this to our very bodies.

It is no wonder we are increasingly unhappy. Every last thing we look upon is fouled by this need to dominate. Moreover, even with all the toxic tools and poisonous product we bring to bear on our physical world, we are never successful. Because there is no “we” outside the physical world. Because the physical world is real and will manage itself around our idiotic intellectual ideals. Because control is never absolute, but especially not so when the controlling thing is small and not particularly important to the grand scheme of existence. We are tiny. Small beings subsumed in an enormously complex system. We don’t even know all the variables that need controlling. We can’t possibly exert our influence over everything when we can’t define everything. And that’s true even in these tiny bodies.

It is a mission that will fail. Every time. For all time. And in the process of failing we produce all this hideousness. Putrid bodies and lifeless homes. Empty lives. Endless insatiable want.

And advertising to manufacture more of it.

We are delusional.

And we are not beautiful…

©Elizabeth Anker 2022