“It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.”
― Leo Tolstoy, The Kreutzer Sonata
There’s this universal truth that beauty is pleasurable and the one thing we all strive for as humans is pleasure. We wish to feel content and satisfied, we wish to be wowed. Beauty does just that. Through our various senses we experience beauty, but the one we use most is our sight. Sight lets us experience beauty from afar, admire it up close, or just watch it for infinite periods of time. However, today I’d like to explore why the universal truth is a misconception and why society’s view of beauty (of people) is warped.
Leo Tolstoy has an interesting idea about beauty, and quite cautiously I will state that I agree with it wholeheartedly (I state this cautiously because this essay is a journey and I don’t know my destination until I arrive there). For now, let’s focus on the delusion of beauty. What do we know about beauty? In all honesty, nothing. We cannot know everything there is to know about beauty because it’s definition varies for everyone. What is the common definition though? Well according to Google:1. Beauty is a combination of qualities, such as shape, colour, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight. 2. Beauty is a beautiful or pleasing thing or person.
I’m going to throw a bone out there, and for the sake of this post, assume that those definitions are the general ways society views beauty. But these definitions still don’t describe what beauty is. So I Googled “what do we know about beauty?” and a bunch of search results that had to do with plastic surgery and skin care products popped up. Is this our distinct way of thinking about beauty? From what I’ve gathered in my short life, I’ve come to the conclusion that what most of us find beautiful is purely based on aesthetics. The old cliche of beauty is only skin deep is what drives our society’s thoughts about what pleasures us when it comes to beauty (when I mention society here please note I am talking about North American society as it is the only one I know).
Do something for me, think of the most beautiful person you know. Are they beautiful because of who they are? Or are they beautiful because they look aesthetically pleasing? Again, for the sake of this post I will be assuming the latter and there’s nothing wrong with that. Even I, the one who is trying to point out flaws in the way society thinks about beauty, talk with my friends about people we find to be easy on the eyes. When I thought of my person for the exercise, I was mentally scrolling through all the pictures I’d seen of aesthetically pleasing people. I know, I know, I’m a horrible contradiction but I shared this with you to show you that everyone does it, even when they are aware of the fact that beauty isn’t only skin deep. More on that later though.
Next, let’s talk about why our delusion of beauty is complete. How do we know beauty has to do with aesthetics? I bet when you picture the person you find most beautiful, you can’t understand why they are beautiful. Or you find the little things like their eyes, their lips, their nose, their hair, etc… Well those things play a factor in beauty, but the base of why people are beautiful to us has to do with symmetry. If you’ve ever taken an art class then bare with me for a second. For those who haven’t: when we are taught to draw portraits we go through certain steps to make sure they look like the person we are drawing (obviously). First, the shape of the head is drawn. But the next part is where it gets interesting, what we are taught to do is draw a line horizontally through the middle of the head shape and on this line, the eyes will be measured out using calculations. The nose will stem from that line and then the rest of the features will be mathematically calculated as well. That’s how I was taught at least. Here’s a picture of what I mean:
The point is, everything that is drawn (the lips, eyes, nose, ears, eyebrows, etc…) is all calculated to be as close to perfect as possible. We find perfection beautiful. Perfection is pleasurable, it is aesthetically pleasing. We like to things to be neat and orderly, to be in symmetry. The bases of a face like pictured above, is what we find to be appealing to our eyes. However, we also things to be unique, to vary. This is where eye colours, tones of skin, hair shades, and such come into play. They are the things that make the person even more appealing but they are built on the same face symmetry. Below are some pictures that include the same person with their exact features, only they have different skin tones, different hair colours, or different eye colours.
As well, if someone goes through a makeover, nothing changes except for how they present themselves. Their features, their symmetry was there all along, it was just brought forward more. That is why uniqueness and variety play a role in why we perceive certain people to be beautiful.
“There is no exquisite beauty… without some strangeness in the proportion.”
― Edgar Allan Poe
One thing that should be kept in mind is that everyone has their own idea of the “perfect” symmetry. Whether we know it or not (most likely the latter) we find a certain group of people appealing. They have a certain feature that is different, something our conciousness doesn’t recognize. It might me a dip in their lip, an eye that is slightly lower, their nose is slightly to the right, whatever it is, it is a miniscule difference that is impossible to tell unless we use technology to map out someones face.
Scientifically speaking, we prefer people with facial symmetry because it indicates “superior genetic quality” and “developmental stability”. In other words, if babies are made they will turn out to be gorgeous and healthy. Because the biologic job of a human is to reproduce, this type of thinking can be brought back to caveman times. Survival of the fittest right? In this case, it might be survival of the fittest and the most symmetrically blessed. So as you can probably see, this idea of beauty goes back to when we were first on this Earth.
Finally, let’s talk about how beauty isn’t necessarily good. What are the implications about the way we think? Well, for starters it leads others to feel “inferior”, to not feel good about the way they look. It’s a big problem in modern times and one that I don’t think will go away for a long time. It’s not only girls that feel this either, boys do too, and people of all ages. Insecurities are understandable, I mean almost everyone has something they don’t like about them and that’s human nature because we strive to be perfect. What’s not okay though is when our insecurities overrule our lives. What’s not okay is when others pick on those with insecurities because the bully is perceived to be more “beautiful”. What’s not okay is that our idea of beauty is only relevant to us, and that we cannot be open-minded to other people’s beauty. Those things are not okay and those things happen. Those are the things that make beauty not good.
Beauty has a delusion of being completely good, but that’s the great thing about delusions: it’s very easy to morph them. What we know to be beauty now can easily be changed. Scientifically speaking those with close to perfect facial symmetry are more beautiful, however beauty isn’t only skin deep (I know, an old cliché). I think for our views to truly morph we need to realize that maybe beauty is more than just aesthetics. Possibly it’s about who we are, the things we do, and how we carry ourselves that make us exquisite creatures.