The World, Seen: On Beauty and Women

When you call a woman beautiful, what are you saying about her?

Any number of factors could go into beauty’s assignation. In the case of works of art, for instance, beauty could result from symmetries and harmonies, artistic skill and handicraft, poignancy of theme or the work’s placement and ambiance. When people call art beautiful, they could be referring to any or all of those qualities.

Feminine beauty, though, involves a different league of complication. In particular, beauty politics abound. Here is an example. You are chatting with a friend, and a woman whom you both know walks up wearing noticeable amounts of make-up and a new dress. Your friend gushes that the woman looks beautiful, and she blushes and looks pleased. You, of course, follow suit, and the woman responds by complimenting your own looks, usually “handsome” for men and “beautiful” for women, or maybe just “great.”

Now, to start with the obvious: you probably would have followed your friend’s lead no matter what the woman looked like, and her response was similarly socially necessitated. No one expects those comments to have much real content; they are empty greetings of mutual appreciation. Often, entire conversations occur in such necessitated manners, without any transfer of information beyond the expressed willingness to spend time with each other (communicated by no one’s leaving to go talk to another person in the room).

Nevertheless, the initial claim made by your friend about the woman’s beauty might have really been heartfelt. I want to look at those moments: the moments before reflexive agreements and returned compliments, the ones that occur before the beauty politics that have emptied the cache of one of our most powerful words.

The most cynical evaluation of that first claim, the “you look beautiful, Fill-in-person’s-name-here!” that brings a new person into the sanctioned conversation fold, would be that it is an exclamation of appreciation for the work that the woman put into her appearance. “You look beautiful,” then, would really mean, “I see that you spent some time making yourself look like you do now, and I commend you for spending that time and doing those things that many people unconsciously expect women to do before they present themselves!”

Sometimes, I think that is exactly what people mean when they call a woman beautiful. It works in equilibrium, from both sides: people spend time preparing themselves for others to see them, and then make others happy by acknowledging the time that the others have put into doing the same thing; in return, people receive the same acknowledgements from others, and the system self-perpetuates.
A similar story could be told about beauty as a word of attraction, with beauty serving as a fill-in term for a more complicated, socially constructed (and in this case sexually construed) compliment. However, these explanations fail to capture what it means to look beautiful in the first place, focusing on reactions rather than evaluations; neither really has anything to do with beauty at all. We can do better.

A second pass at the phrase “you look beautiful!” might reference the traditional systems of beauty discussed by writers of aesthetics. Plato would suggest that the woman somehow exemplifies heavenly perfection of form, while the Neo-Platonists would claim that her perfection turns your thoughts to moral goodness and perhaps to the heavens themselves. The two great aesthetic thinkers of the Enlightenment, David Hume and Immanuel Kant, would take opposing stances: Hume would argue that you are noting the woman’s ability to illustrate culturally defined tastes, while Kant would counter that you are in fact taking pleasure in the woman’s form conforming to your unconscious expectations about women’s forms in general.

Such a list of writers, of course, could go on ad infinitum, and continues expanding today. One intention of this column is to explore those various historical discussions of beauty, looking to the past to shine light on today’s ever-more-thorny aesthetic questions. However, without going into considerably detail, none would be very helpful for our example. Instead, for the time being, I turn to what seems to me to be the fundamental building block underlying all of these various philosophies, its place of convergence hidden in technical vocabulary and arcane propositions: value.

People value beautiful things. Indeed, the economic value of beauty, as seen in the art market, cosmetics market and photography market, among others, is enormous, but I will leave that subject for another time. When a person says, “You look beautiful,” they are making a claim that extends beyond their own beliefs. They are not saying, “You look just like I like people to look,” or “I take pleasure in your looks, but I do not expect anyone else to”. Instead, I think that they are saying, “There is something about you, something real and outside-of-me and good, that I value, and I am expressing that value to you so that you know that you are being valued.”

The question of the objectivity and subjectivity of beauty, or of whether beauty is “in the eye of the beholder,” is contorted and difficult, and will be the subject of a later column. Still, no matter which you believe, the claim that people value beauty and beauty’s existence in the world holds true. Elaine Scarry, Professor of Aesthetics at Harvard, phrases the argument this way: imagine two worlds, one in which there was a beautiful cave that you would never see, and the other in which there was no such cave. Wouldn’t you want the cave to be there, even if you never saw it? Wouldn’t you think that it was good for the world to hold more beauty, even if it was outside of your individual experience?

Scarry’s line of questioning above implies that the creation and propagation of beauty might offer just the sort of exogenous value that people seek in asking that ubiquitous question: “What is the meaning of life?”. On this interpretation, we call a woman beautiful for the same reason that we call a work of art, natural landscape, piece of music, work of literature or swing of a baseball bat beautiful: because we believe that the world is a better, more fit place for people to live given its existence.

I am a philosophy major writing a senior thesis on Immanuel Kant and Kantian aesthetics. I intend to use this column to explain some of the intricacies and inner workings of beauty illuminated by focusing on beauty as a field of study, with the hope of providing something that interests, teaches and nourishes. I think that beauty fascinates people, and I want to write this column in order to share some of my personal fascination. In a sentence: this column will examine beauty through current events and campus happenings, picking it apart piece by piece and object by object in an attempt to explain beauty’s value and clarify beauty’s inherent importance to human life. I hope you will enjoy.