Beauty is but a vain and doubtful good


When I was a child and began discovering myself in a mirror, I wondered about my nose. I thought it different from my friends -different from Teddy’s at any rate. He was my best friend and we went everywhere together. We had the same kind of jeans, and shared a similar taste in ice cream. We even rode the same kind of bikes to school. But he had a small, straight nose, and mine was fatter and had a little hook in it. Teddy didn’t think much about it -but that was because there was nothing wrong with his. Mine was ugly.

Only later did I begin to understand that it wasn’t ugliness I had been noticing, it was difference. And that looking the same as someone else wasn’t really a sign of beauty, any more than looking different was something shameful or unfair. But that awareness requires some maturity, I think, a Weltanschauung born of more experience than we can expect of a child.

And yet, what is beauty? Can one define it in isolation from what it is not, or must one be forever trapped on a Mobius strip of perspective? And where, on a Bell Curve, does beauty start -or ugliness begin? Short of a Goldilockean definition of ‘just-right-baby-bear’, is beauty actually amenable to definition? Or is it dependent on culture? Historical epoch?

Humanity has struggled with this at least since records have been kept. And the beauty/ugly antipodes have survived largely as antagonists, dependent on each other as contrast -each is what the other cannot be

At any rate, always alert to the nuances of the struggle, I was pleased to come across an essay on the history of ugliness in the online Aeon magazine, written by Gretchen Henderson, a teacher at Georgetown University and a Hodson Trust-JCB Fellow at Brown University: https://aeon.co/ideas/the-history-of-ugliness-shows-that-there-is-no-such-thing

‘This word [ugly] has medieval Norse roots meaning ‘to be feared or dreaded … Ugliness has long posed a challenge to aesthetics and taste, and complicated what it means to be beautiful and valued. Western traditions often set ugliness in opposition to beauty, but the concept carries positive meanings in different cultural contexts. The Japanese concept of wabi-sabi values imperfection and impermanence, qualities that might be deemed ‘ugly’ in another culture.’

‘‘Ugly’ is usually meant to slander, but in recent decades, aesthetic categories have been treated with growing suspicion. ‘We cannot see beauty as innocent,’ writes the philosopher Kathleen Marie Higgins, when ‘the sublime splendor of the mushroom cloud accompanies moral evil.’’

As Henderson says, ‘When we call something ugly, we say something about ourselves – and what we fear or dread.’

I have to say, I am very attracted to the concept embodied by the Koine Greek word for beautiful: horaios­—etymologically related to hora, or ‘hour’. In other words, beauty means being in one’s hour. Wikipedia gives an example: ‘a ripe fruit (of its time) was considered beautiful, whereas a young woman trying to appear older or an older woman trying to appear younger would not be considered beautiful.’

So, can a nose be ugly? And what would that mean, exactly? To Teddy, it seemed a non-issue, and my constant reference to it bothered him.

“You talk about ugly,” he finally yelled over his shoulder at me as we were racing our bikes to school one morning. “Just look at Cindy, eh?”

“What’s wrong with Cindy?” I shouted back in little grunts, as I tried to catch up with him. Cindy was a girl that sat a few seats in front of me in class. I kind of thought she was cute, although I was much to shy to tell her.

“Ever look at her ears?”

I hadn’t, actually. But she had long brown hair that hung down to her shoulders in big, wavy curls, so the only thing that showed on her head was her face. I didn’t need to see her ears. And anyway, if you couldn’t see something, then it didn’t seem fair to call it ugly.

It made me glance up at Teddy’s ears as I finally caught up to him on a corner near the school, though; I hadn’t noticed them before. They were kind of weird -especially the way the little skin lobes hung down and danced around like earrings when he pedalled.

I checked my ears in the big mirror in the boy’s room when I got to school. Mine were normal, at least. Actually, if you ignored the nose, my face wasn’t too bad either. Everything seemed to match, and as far as I could tell, was in the right place. It was reassuring that I wasn’t a total mess.

That day, as I daydreamed in class, I glanced at the kids around me. Jacob’s chin was kind of long for his face, but Brian’s was almost not there -his neck seemed to join his face with only a little bump just below his lips. I hadn’t noticed that before. Janna had greasy hair, but of course that was no surprise -she also had red marks all over her cheeks, like she was infected, or something.

I could only see Cindy’s back from where I sat, of course, but it was wonderful enough to see her hair dancing over her shoulders as she moved around trying to find something on her desk. It was perfect hair -even Teddy couldn’t deny that. And I was pretty sure that it would smell like roses, or whatever. Beautiful girls were like that.

I think she could feel me staring at her, because just before the class ended she suddenly turned her head and glared at me. He face was tight with… well, with anger, I think, and she screwed her face up into a really horrid scowl. I’d never seen her like that before, and for a moment, I wondered if I’d misjudged her. Without warning, her beauty disappeared, and her eyes ripped into me like knives. Fury is really scary when you don’t expect it. Then, seeing that she had succeeded in punishing me, her face relaxed again and she turned away -whether back to beauty, though, I couldn’t tell.

And yet I suppose we are all different people at different times, aren’t we? Looking back at that memory after all these years, it seems obvious to me that the way we see the world is dependent on factors that are often out of our immediate control. Even our appearance in the mirror is contingent… although I’m used to my nose now.

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