July 3rd, 2011

The Shame of Loving Beauty

As typical humans, we share many moral disgraces; we are not saints, but those who have been -that is, those whom we consider qualitatively superior to us in moral reasoning and instantiated moral heroism- do not share one of our more universal, more pathetic failures as creatures of reason: our imbecilic concern for physical beauty.

A beautiful woman looking at her image in the mirror may very well believe the image is herself. An ugly woman knows that it is not.

Note that Simone Weil doesn’t say that an ugly woman believes that it is not; she knows, and she is right: we are not our appearances, not at all. We are all aware that whatever physical beauty is, it’s not reflective of internal beauty, persistent beauty, the beauty we putatively seek when we long for another.

(In this sense, the ugly have an advantage: they don’t believe the self is bounded by beauty, while the beautiful often do; the same principle applies to all defects, and is the great leveling countermeasure to fundamental human inequalities).

Physical beauty as we understand it is

  • defined nearly entirely by corporations, advertising, the lowest sorts of art, pornography, commerce, and the occasional vestigial evolutionary priority;
  • ludicrously ephemeral, certain to decay with age in nearly every case, incompatible with all sorts of natural biological phenomena and inevitably to vanish as we enter senescence;
  • outrageously hostile to the typical shapes, sizes, features, and natural configuration of almost every body in the world.

So: what we call physical beauty is arbitrarily defined for us, inherited by us from cultural sources who are neither aesthetically nor morally concerned with beauty as such but mainly with sales, and it tends to be fundamentally irrational in its demands, effects, and uses. 

Even beyond the obvious effects of this stupidity -the body dysmorphia, the self-loathing, the unhealthy beautifying practices, nightmares of high school- is the simple fact that nearly all of us cannot love someone as a partner unless they conform to these standards we didn’t devise and do not respect.

We all value physical beauty; we all long for it, seek it, exclude would-be lovers who lack it -no matter their tenderness, goodness, kindness, humor, generosity!- attempt to exhibit it at great cost. This insane stupidity is shameful; it is a moral lapse; it leads us idiotically astray as we chase what vanishes, what is unimportant, and turn from what ought to be the proper concern of love.

To return to Weil’s lovely formulation, we might say: not only is the beautiful woman fooled into thinking her appearance is herself, but so are we. Even though we know from history that physical beauty is nothing innate, is as faddish as fashions, we concern ourselves with it precisely as some do with money or social pedigree. And let us be honest: to allot love based in any way on attractiveness is not in any way different from allotting it based on wealth, standing, or fame. We are all gold-diggers.

But if it is not physical beauty we should love -because the book is not its cover, because it is not predictive of anything that matters in a relationship, because it will degrade and, if it was important to our love, so will the love itself- what should we love?

We tend to contrast the superficiality and arbitrarity of appearance with the qualities of the self, as we understand them: moral decency, kindness, humor, dynamism, etc. But, as Tragos noted, it is not difficult to extend the argument against valuing beauty to those qualities as well: to such an extent, all are the happenstance of genetics and environment, even if some are presumably less necessarily transient than beauty. For this, Weil has an answer which is harder to immediately understand:

What is sacred in a human being is the impersonal in him… Our personality is the part of us which belongs to error and sin.

What do we love when we love another? What should we love, or is “should” an absurd word to use in this context? Is it as ludicrous to cherish intelligence as beauty? If we value what seems to matter most for a relationship’s longevity, are we merely chasing a different, comparably reductive sort of goal as the one pursued by the gold-digger or the beauty-seeker?

What in a human is both distinct and worth loving in itself?

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    Physical beauty as we understand it isdefined nearly entirely by corporations, advertising, the lowest sorts of art,...
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    I love this because it puts advertising and pornography in the same sentence and is absolutely right.
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Hello! My name is Mills Baker. I write about art, culture, love, philosophy, memory, history, and more. Here are some relatively better posts. This site has been featured on Tumblr Tuesday and is listed in the Spotlight, but it pines for its youth as a coloring book. (Header lettering by the amazing Chirp).