Nathan Biberdorf would like us all to stop affirming each other by asserting that everyone is beautiful. It’s doing more harm than good.
There are plenty of people that are not physically appealing to look at, the primary and most widely used meaning of the word “beautiful”. So why do we use the word as a catch-all for any sort of positive attribute?
Nobody says, “Everybody is a good listener.” Nobody says, “Everyone is athletic to somebody.” Nobody says, “You are an amazing writer, whether you know it or not.” I keep waiting, but they never say it.
Beauty is the only trait that everyone gets free access to. Why?
Because we have created a culture that values beauty above all other innate traits…for women, at least.
Marc Barnes (Bad Catholic) took aim at a similarly pernicious umbrella term:
This trend — “Smart is the new sexy!” — is the best thing that’s happened to men who objectify women since feminists began calling prostitution “sex-work.” Why? Because now we can reduce women to sexual objects while fighting sexual objectification! We’re feminists, see, we value and respect women for more than just their bodies. Look!
Hopefully the full stupid of the situation is obvious: You cannot fight the problem with the problem. The net result of “ennobling” our view of women by saying their “brains” are objects of sexual arousal is to make women more completely and totally sexualized — to further reduce the number of female characteristics valued for reasons other than their effects on genitalia.
Except, I could imagine swapping Marc’s word into Nathan’s essay without anything having to be changed but couldn’t quite make it work if I made the exchange the other way around. It makes more sense to say that all human beings persist in the form of the Beautiful than in the form of Sexy.
Sexy is an instrumental attribute; it triggers an appreciation in the viewer that usually falls into the category of what C.S. Lewis would call Need-Love. Sexy causes the viewer to want the viewed for the sake of intimate congress. The initial attraction isn’t complete in iteself; it seeks a further consumation.
But beauty can be transfixing without triggering any desire but the chance to keep looking, or even simply the desire to give thanks for having been allowed to look at all. There’s nothing more I want to do with one of the geometrical construction games I play but to marvel at the beauty and elegance of a solution, once I work it out. What it ultimately feels like is the pure, joyful note sounded in the final line of the song below: “I could look at him/her forever…”
A person can catch our attention in the same way, with beauty expressed through appearance, grace of movement, elegance of speech, depth of kindness, etc. I understand that colloquial use often reduces beauty to simple (or oversimple) prettiness. But ‘beauty,’ unlike ‘sexy’ is a rich enough word that I don’t want to let it go without a fight.
I mean, I can hardly turn to “awful” as the next best substitute for traits that leave you awe-stricken.