Why are we still talking about beauty?
I’ve been away for a very long while and I apologise for the prolonged absence. This little space has been a bit neglected but I have been doing lots of other things related to beauty, so please bear with me!
My new adventures are in academia, where I’m now pursuing a PhD in Women’s Studies, researching in particular the various aspects of beauty, bodies, femininity and the impact of new online campaigns in pushing back against beauty ideals. As I’ve just start the PhD, I’m spending a lot of time reading existing literature, honing down my research focus and participating in seminars with MA students.
One seminar in particular looked at fat studies and fat acceptance / fat positivity movements. And inevitably, the subject came back to beauty — for example, the idea that although a certain person is fat and doesn’t at all fit the body ideal of mainstream media, she is still so beautiful! Or the broader concept that it’s okay to be fat or differently shaped or sized so long as you’re still embracing beauty, letting your ‘inner beauty’ shine through, discovering ‘your own beauty’.
At some point, someone asked, “Why are we still even talking about beauty? Why is beauty so important?”
I’d been spending a whole term reading about beauty and feminine ideals as they’re experienced and imposed upon women (in particular) so this question really struck a cord. Why indeed is it so important?
First, a pause to explain why I’ve chosen this image to accompany this article: I had wanted to take a photo of myself to send home while I’ve been away. It didn’t need to be fancy, it just needed to show me hanging out in my room. But still, it took me about 12 tries before I got ‘the right shot’. Beauty — it’s in every selfie, every photo we take, every moment we present ourselves to the world. No matter how nonchalant I purport to be with regards to my own ‘beauty’, no matter how intensely I may be researching it from a theoretical point of view, no matter how much I argue that the beauty imperatives we face are damaging on so many levels — I will still want to put my prettiest face forward, even if it’s just in a photo to send home to people who already love me.
Is it a biological thing? Physical attractiveness may play a part in our biology in the same way, perhaps, that peacocks show off their feathers or lions display their manes, but beauty has a far stronger bearing on far more aspects of our human lives than as a mere Darwinian function of reproduction and survival of the fittest.
Our physical beauty now stands for the moral qualities we uphold, it reflects how capable or not we are in the jobs we do and it represents what kind of a person we are. We make entire judgements of a person — whether knowingly or not, intentionally or not — based sometimes on nothing more than what they look like. And we ascribe all kinds of other qualities, entirely unrelated to their physical appearance, based solely on these first physical impressions.
So why is beauty so important? How is it that the flat outer layers of our skin, an arbitrary configuration of body parts assembled together holds so much more significance than all the rest of us — our speech, our movement, our thoughts, our ideas and creativity, our actions, our passions?
I presented a short talk to other research students on this very question of beauty and was surprised to see how many questions followed, from both men and women. Whenever I’ve talked to people generally about what I’m researching for this PhD, everyone has had a story to recount, a question, a quiet insecurity they feel they can now ‘confess’ to me. It seems like everyone has something to say about beauty, some vested interest in one way or another. It doesn’t matter how successful, how happy they are in every other aspect of their lives; there is almost always something to say about the beauty imperative.
I thought then, that it would be useful to come back to a beauty full mind and look at why I started this in the first place. I had intended for this site to take the focus off physical beauty but not to disregard the concept of beauty altogether. It has its place, I believe, in the way it grants us an appreciation and gratitude for all good things — not just what looks good, but what evokes feelings of goodness in us: all the cliched but important things like joy, strength, love, kindness, peacefulness.
We talk of people having a beautiful mind, a beautiful voice, a beautiful heart and I think it’s important to explore this a bit deeper — what these kinds of beauty mean, what it evokes in us, why it’s important to us in ways that are far more complex than assuaging physical insecurities (which are never really just about our physical bodies anyway).
Questioning beauty ideals isn’t about merely erasing beauty altogether. There’s no denying that we appreciate and love beautiful looking/feeling things. But what I hope to do — through this research, this website and hopefully too, in the way I live — is in expanding the definition of beauty to encompass so much more than what we merely look like.
That old adage that beauty is more than skin deep — yes, it is, but it is also about things that aren’t anywhere near or under or around our skins. It may have nothing at all to do with skin and all that is contained within that. What it actually is or what it could be? Well, that’s what this website is here to find out, and I hope you’ll help by adding your definitions to it.
(That, and the years of research I have ahead of me!)