Eye of the beholder?

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There exist in our culture various opinions on “beauty.” Unfortunately, repulsive and superficial extremes have led to dangerous promotion of well-intentioned, but ultimately misguided acceptance of unhealthy lifestyles.

Generation after generation of humanity has attempted to offer up the epitome of beauty by highlighting specific individuals or attributes. Though such discussions and/or assertions encompass both male and female physique, the most common arguments revolve around the definition of beauty with regards to women. Sadly such assertions by so many  has resulted in the shortening of lives too many to count due to depression, self-loathing, unhealthy habits, and outright feelings of rejection by the whole of humanity. The topic is not an easy one to discuss, and is certainly a painful one for all involved. Even so, the consequences of not discussing this topic are too great for too many others offer false assertions that have harmed too many.

Since the definition of “beauty” in various cultures is different, and the definition itself changes over time even within any particular culture, can we truly say that there is even a universal standard for beauty? Or, is the adage true, beauty is in the eye of the beholder?

The implications of such a discussion will reach far more than just a superficial discussion on sexual attraction (unfortunately, this is where most discussions are grounded) but rather on the very health and well-being of humanity itself.

So, where shall we begin on this discussion? Well, it is often a good idea to begin at the beginning; at the genesis of the human race, in none other than the book of Genesis.

God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27)

Like it or not, believe it or not, humanity was fashioned in the Image of God; the author of Beauty. By Beauty par excellence. Without getting lost in a long description of what exactly beauty is, where it originates, etc. we shall simply say that being made in the image of Beauty itself, we are all, intrinsically ordered towards beauty. That beauty is beyond a simple physical reality. When Christina Aguilera sang “You are beautiful, no matter what they say.” She was spot on in her assertion. However, I fear that her words neglect the fullness of what those words should mean to each and every one of us.

Let us start with Christina’s song and place that true statement within the context of something Pope Benedict XVI said at the Mass of his receiving the Fisherman’s Ring:

“And only where God is seen does life truly begin. Only when we meet the living God in Christ do we know what life is. We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary. There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know Him and to speak to others of our friendship with Him.”

We are beautiful, no matter what they say because we are each a thought of the excellence of Beauty (God); we are willed by Beauty (God). Each of us, are intrinsically beautiful, each of us is beautiful by our very existence. Nothing can take away from that. The capacity for us to love, and forgive, and commune with one another is what makes us, each and every one of us, beautiful. That capacity is the result of the Author of Beauty making us in the image of Beauty.

So, this intrinsic beauty, does it mean that physical beauty, physical reality is inconsequential to beauty? By no means. What it does do is put physical beauty in context with a greater understanding of beauty; and the Beauty.

We were each created out of love, for love. We were created within a communion of persons.

The human body, except for anomalies such as genetic disorders, physical disabilities, etc. was created to be like all other humans; we all stem from one basic genetic code (with variations, of course). The human heart still exists in my body for the purpose that it does in yours, it pumps blood. My eyes exist to see, as do all eyes. Fingers, toes, feet, lungs, pancreases, and on, and on, and on; all in existence with specific functions. When the entirety of the human body is functioning properly, as it should, no disease, no injury, no hypertension, no hypoglycemia, no seizures; when that happens we have perfect health. The body is as it was intended to be. There is beauty in striving for excellence in a thing. The closer to excellence that a thing gets, the closer to the Author of Creation that thing gets; and the closer to Beauty. This means that one’s physical beauty is not necessarily synonymous with one’s physical attractiveness. Each and every person is unique and therefore, each and every person has their own physical structure. Some women have bony hips, others have curves. A man may be short or tall. What the discussion ought to revolve around is not necessarily all of the specific of what features are most attractive; but whether or not a person is healthy. Is their body approaching excellence or falling away from it? Do you have high blood pressure? Is your weight preventing you from becoming the best person you can? Does it slow you down so as not be able to enjoy life to the fullest? Are you so underweight that you’re anemic? Do you exercise so much that you are actually doing damage to your body, causing premature deterioration of joints, ligaments, and muscles? Our human form cannot last forever. Skin loses elasticity with age. Hormones change and cause the body’s metabolism to slow. The immune system weakens with age. However, our actions can promote greater health or harm our health. When our body is healthy, truly healthy, that which it was created to be, it approaches excellence of form, it approaches beauty. The healthier we are, the more beautiful our physical body will be. Again, this may appear in different forms for different people.

There are many songs, movies, campaigns, public opinions that promote ideologies on beauty that are not actually promoting beauty of the body. We have rap, rock, and country artists denigrating women, over-sexualizing the female form. We have people aggrandizing obesity “big is beautiful” or just as problematic, reducing the whole discussion of beauty to “attractiveness” like this website promotes. We have entire groups dedicated to promoting anorexia and bulimia (read the high fashion industry here). None of these gets us to beauty, in fact, they detract from beauty.

Already having established that each of us is beautiful by our very existence and moving to the discussion of physical beauty being the approach (but not necessarily fulfillment of) excellence of health we can gain a greater, fuller understanding of beauty.

If you want to discover both interior and physical beauty, look at pictures of Dorothy Day in her later years. See the struggle of Pope Blessed John Paul II in prayer. See the smile of a child following the earthquakes in Haiti. When we reduce our understanding of beauty solely to a sexual attraction we are no longer talking about beauty. When we begin the discussion of beauty with “big is beautiful” or “thin is in” and any number of other notions that are really just talking about sexual attraction, we have set our footing on shaky ground; the foundation of our understanding, and the resulting actions that we take individually and as a society, will be set upon shifting sands; for, sexual attraction changes with time, as do all fads but beauty is constant, universal, eternal.