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27. December 2012

On objective physical beauty and the concept of fashion

Filed under: philosophy,sex,Theology — admin @ 21:52

When in the course of discussion, seemingly irreconcilable differences become manifest concerning the existence and preference of beauty, such differences oftentimes appear indicative of beauty’s subjective nature — that beauty is in the eye of the beholder; that because men visibly differ in preference, nature acknowledges no formula for the definition of “attractive.”   But yet I believe the opposite can be proven: that a standard not only exists, but that the pursuit of beauty and fashion only maintain legitimacy within certain boundaries; and that if the pursuit of beauty transgresses its limitations, it becomes a perversion. It is the object of this essay to prove this theory, perhaps not defining the particulars of beauty — not to say which shades or shapes are beautiful –, but rather to present a general defense of beauty’s objective existence.

To begin, whether or not certain men consider a woman with large glasses, clown-red lipstick, and bangs like Cleopatra’s to be beautiful, I personally see nothing attractive about it.  I’ve never been a fan of tattoos, either, nor ever enjoyed seeing a woman in a gigantic mullet, except when considered as a matter of sport.  But looking at magazine covers (both popular women’s and men’s magazines, but particularly ones concerning fashion), one could almost be led to think the opposite was true.  Unhealthily skinny, airbrushed quasi-mannequins border every checkout stand, projecting an appreciation of beauty which, although not entirely backward (since the women aren’t covered in mud, or missing teeth), frequently offends the natural sense, and drives gullible women to seek perfection in what could only otherwise be noted as imperfections.  Few full figures are to be found, faces are unnaturally smooth like painted dolls, natural colors suppressed by unrealistic tones; dark, sickly shades; miserable expressions, and the like.

It could be argued that in light of my disagreement with popular magazines, there’s no such thing as an objectively beautiful woman, that these magazines pursue a particular ideal, and that they represent a particular view of woman — as all representations must.  But if we’re to imagine a scale of beauty, one end being supremely beautiful, and the other extremely unattractive, it wouldn’t be difficult to determine on which side a young Sophia Loren or the Wicked Witch of the West belonged.  And I believe that an overwhelming portion (that’s to say, all) of humanity, would agree.  So, then, there must exist some objective understanding of beauty; if there wasn’t, then Sophia and her counterpart wouldn’t be counterparts.  They would essentially be equals.

What is this elusive factor, then, which divides the beautiful from the ugly?  The wrong way to go about its definition would be drafting a series of beautiful features, and then tallying them to see who possesses most, without taking into account that certain proportions must prevail between them (this error is most blatant in actresses — usually aging — who inject collagen into their lips, resulting in obvious deformation).  And it would also prove a fatal mistake to assume that all beautiful women share the same features: roses differ in size and shape without losing beauty, though they quickly lose aesthetic appeal when they begin to wilt.  But we must begin, first, by recognizing that Providence has endowed mankind with a certain aesthetic appreciation, and that regardless of whether one can say a perfectly beautiful person exists, beauty is recognized.  We needn’t explain beauty’s objective existence if two truths, a general appreciation of beauty, and certain women’s placement on the scale of beauty, are universal givens.

Let us leave the example of the beautiful woman behind, and consider other aspects of nature to prove the point. To look upon a green valley, covered in spring’s flowers, bordered by snow-capped mountains and cut in two by a softly-flowing river, one would be struck with a sense of beauty.  There exists nobody, unless insane or perverted, who would say otherwise.  And yet, for the sake of argument, supposing one were to build a ghetto the midst of it, and cover the ghetto with trash, and pollute the skies with a thick brown smog, there would still remain an essence of beauty, however marred.

These remnants of beauty would still speak to the human soul, however maligned by human intervention, and couldn’t be hidden unless entirely suppressed.  Men would catch glimpses of them, even if only in the grass rising through the cracked pavement; they would still see the crystal waters, though they ran into unkempt drains.   Whatever maligns perfect beauty, then, almost always leaves a trace in some form or another: the individual onlooker may recognize certain portions more than others; he may notice the flowers on the outskirts, or perhaps the snow-capped mountains, and either may be more important to him than the other.  We may even say that his own imperfections cause him to recognize perfections differently.  But should he see what the valley once was, his heart would weep: he would wish to see the valley not as the ghetto, but as the paradise.  Man often sings praises of amber waves of grain, never broken windows with steel bars.

Consider further that the above simply addresses natural beauty, the sights that nature furnishes; not those which man arranges from nature.  Man can also build flying buttresses, towering Gothic cathedrals, and Parthenons — all beautiful in their own right, taking the elements of nature and organizing them in recognizable and praiseworthy unison (a unison which Jonathan Edwards noted as the foundation of beauty).   But whatever man builds can never be said to improve the appearance of the majestic elk, or the cloud; only to add non-cloud, non-elk beauty alongside them.  Man may tame the wilderness and tend the Garden of Eden, bringing an element of order and harmonious direction to the beauty of nature — geometric patterns, striking columns, rows of vines and trees and patches of flowers; but his projection of order onto the landscape introduces a new element, and never replaces the old, the eternal, the natural.

In this same sense, woman may wear eyeliner to accentuate the eyes, to bring a sharpness of appearance to what would otherwise be dull, or perhaps she may wear some other form of makeup to touch upon imperfections; but she can’t really add anything to what we already consider beautiful.  No, beauty is something recognized by the human mind, a fine boundary immovable as a mountain — never arising from nothing.  Beauty must be drawn out, and imperfections erased; it requires a firm foundation upon which to build, and should it step beyond the foundation, seeking to go beyond what nature dictates, it becomes illegitimate; perhaps a form of expression, but certainly never truly beautiful.  Were glasses ever a portion of the human frame to be considered beautiful, or were lips ever meant to be marred by paint as red as a rose, then the most beautiful women in the world would naturally possess perfectly red lips and have glasses physically attached to their faces.

Along the same lines, clothing, which is necessary to preserve the modesty of man — modesty being a beauty of mind, to be discussed in another essay –, combines artistic beauty with human beauty, but the former can never contradict the latter and remain aesthetic. In pursuit of modesty, and in adornment of natural beauty, man is practically led toward fashion; but fashion doesn’t make ugly people beautiful.  And should fashion contradict natural beauty, detracting too much from a woman’s objective qualities, or should it introduce an element of disorder even within itself, like a column within the Parthenon being visibly out of synchronization with the rest, then it serves a purpose contrary to aesthetics (for example, overweight women prefer baggy sweaters because the sweaters hide disproportion; well-shaped women avoid them — especially when trying to impress others).

Recognizing, then, that a foundation exists which cannot be contradicted without losing aesthetic value, there’s perhaps nothing more dangerous to the fashion industry than natural beauty.  For the industry thrives not only upon constant change — whether toward or away from true aesthetics –, a change without which it cannot be an industry; but upon human efficacy, the idea that a combination between individual effort and product consumption can bring about an ideal state of beauty: the belief that woman, particularly, can be perfected by certain exercises, certain procedures, and certain paints. The fashion industry may coast for a time on natural beauty, as it did in the 1960′s and 70′s, but it cannot for long: it must act, change, convert, propose — pervert, destroy, perplex, confuse.  And then, when it’s gotten so far from its natural standard that it cannot deny its own illegitimacy, it begins it return, like the prodigal son to his estranged but forgiving father.  Fashion may always be called fashion, but in truth it is only cyclically fashionable.

In conclusion, we must note two points.  It oftentimes appears cruel, to many women, to have a forthright discussion about the nature of beauty, especially considering that any discussion of beauty inevitably requires a discussion of ugliness.  This discussion is generally where pride and jealousy both make their entrance, and we see heated arguments over black or white, thick or thin, blonde or brunette — all certainly preferences, as men vary in their tastes for wine, and beautiful women can be found in every category (though my personal opinion is that far more beautiful women exist in certain categories).  But we must remember that while it is our duty to promote a natural respect for the providential dispensation of the aesthetic, and to praise our Creator for His wisdom and kindness therein, that we must cherish beauty in all forms, and never mistake a corporate and plastic approach to beauty for beauty itself, saccharine for sugar, pyrite for gold.  If we must chase the infinite Creator and seek Him not simply in His word, but in His own personal artistic works, then we cannot exclude aesthetics without denying His beauty and genius as well.

Secondly, acknowledging that the discussion of beauty is a discussion of our Creator, we must also acknowledge that the lack of beauty, or if we’re so bold to call it so, ugliness, is not simply a result of beauty’s existence, but of our fallen nature.  Jesus Christ Himself was said in Isaiah 53 to have nothing particularly attractive in His physical qualities; in a sense signifying that He bore our fall from beauty as well.  In the pain of imperfection, we must recognize our current misplacement, that home — beauty, virtue, excellence — lies not only on the horizon, but within a Person.  Therefore, the existence of ugliness is not proof that Christianity is false, but rather further confirmation that it is true.  And when we finally see Him, how beautiful will He then appear!

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