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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Beggaring All Description

Beauty is many things, I suppose, and attempts to define it are fraught. It seems to vary between societies and eras, with some cultures deciding it is appearance, and some opting for demeanour. One such view, influenced by the Greek diaspora following the conquests of Alexander the Great, Koine Greek, used an adjective for beautiful: horaios, which derives from the word hora -or hour. There was a delightful description of this in (sorry) Wikipedia: ‘In Koine Greek, beauty was thus associated with “being of one’s hour”. Thus, 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.’

I find this useful, because it suggests that beauty -at least in a person- resides in being recognized for what one actually is -not what artifice may try to disguise. Admiration, in other words lies in more than appearance. I am reminded of Shakespeare’s Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: ‘Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind.’

And yet, whose eyes -one’s own, or that of others? How we see ourselves is almost as important as how we are seen. Think of the agony than can be inflicted by acne in the teenage years -a time when self-identity is often linked to group identity, and self-esteem is dependent on the approbation of one’s peers. It is a time when we are defined by others, because we have not yet defined ourselves.

Memories of my own speckled past were awakened, Phoenix-like, by a short article in the Conversation on the beauty -or not- of skin: https://theconversation.com/beauty-is-skin-deep-why-our-complexion-is-so-important-to-us-91415?

As the author, Rodney Sinclair, Professor of Dermatology, University of Melbourne observes, ‘We’re all attracted to a beautiful face. We like to look at them, we feel drawn to them and we aspire to have one. Many researchers and others have investigated what we humans identify as “beautiful”: symmetry, large evenly spaced eyes, white teeth, a well-proportioned nose and of course, a flawless complexion. The skin is of utmost importance when people judge someone as beautiful.’ There may be an unintended bias on his part, of course. A dermatologist would see the world through a lens of pores and complexions, but I suspect he is merely tapping into the current ethos -one that seems characteristic of an era of Snapchat, and Facebook posts where ‘Even the best facial structure can be unbalanced by skin that is flawed.’

I’m not certain I agree with some of his views about how much we value complexion. For example: ‘When choosing a mate, men rank female beauty more highly than women rate male appearance. Female beauty is thought to signal youth, fertility and health. Beauty can also signal high status. People with “plain looks” earn about 10% less than people who are average-looking, who in turn earn around 5% less than people who are good-looking.’ I suspect there has been a bit of cherry-picking of studies that bolster his opinions, although I suppose we all do that.

But his point about the importance of the cosmetic industry nowadays certainly seems spot on: ‘People spend a lot of money in attempts to regain their youthful appearance. The global cosmetics industry is worth about US$500 billion. Sales of skin and sun care products, make-up and colour cosmetics generate over 36% of the worldwide cosmetic market. We use foundation makeup to conceal freckles and blemishes, moisturisers and fillers to hide dryness, concealers to disguise broken capillaries and pimples.’

And yet, I find myself inexorably drawn to that Greek idea of beauty residing more in ‘being of one’s hour’, than in forcing one’s time. Accepting the ineffable allure of the moment in which each of us lives.

Many years ago, I met Dora, a woman with quite visible facial scarring from long-ago acne. She was probably in her early thirties, and was employed as a receptionist in a doctor’s office. But she was so gregarious and friendly, I had ceased to see her face whenever I had occasion to visit. A warm smile would emerge like a puppy bounding from the woods and greet me from across the room. Her eyes were alive, and sparkled even under the unremitting glare of the overhead fluorescent lights. But she would have lit a path to her desk even in a power failure.

So overwhelming was her presence that I would never have remembered what she was wearing, had I been asked. Everything was subordinate; she ruled the room like a queen and the radiance lingered even when she was on vacation, or had taken a sick day. It was as if the empty the space was holding its breath. Or so I thought.

One day, when I arrived for my appointment, the office seemed smaller. Duller. It had been more than a year since I had been there, and so I couldn’t immediately decide what had changed. Dora was not there, unfortunately -I had been looking forward to seeing her again, but I assumed she had taken a few days off.

As I approached the desk –her desk- I was tracked by a set of razored eyes as if I had inadvertently chosen the wrong door. The wrong office. There was a smile, of course, but it was cool, and applied like the makeup on the rest of the obviously impeccable face. Long blond hair fell in ringlets to her shoulders onto a dark blue silk blouse -a very attractive person to greet the entrant, I suppose. But it was not Dora.

I forced a smile onto my lips and introduced myself. The woman immediately checked her computer screen and her face marginally softened at what she found. I took this as an opportunity to ask about Dora.

I could see her pupils momentarily contract and something tensed in her cheek.

“Dora no longer works here,” she said with a forced affability, and as if she were tired of having to explain.

I couldn’t hide my disappointment, I’m afraid, and the woman noticed.

“The doctor thought she was a bad advertisement for his practice,” she said with an obviously rehearsed face.

“Oh…” was all I could think of to respond.

The face perked up briefly. “He did offer to help…” she stared across the empty room for a moment. “But she said she was happy with who she was –‘with who she’d always been’, was how she put it…”

And then, although she tried to disguise it, she rolled her eyes and sighed. “Anyway,” she said, unrolling her eyes and resting them on my cheeks, “she decided to resign.”

But when I continued to stare at her, she shrugged, as if everybody was better off with Dora gone. “He gave her a good reference, though,” she added at the persistence of my disappointed expression, and shifted her attention back to the screen in front of her with a little smile.