“The ugly sap us of our spirit and our energy.” ~ Friedrich Nietzsche
My mother’s family was known for their beauty. Although we lived abroad and I was not very familiar with my aunts when I was little, the youngest of the three was always my favorite. She was the most beautiful. I had no problem admitting the reason for my childlike fascination.As I grew older, I became close to my second aunt because she lived in the same city that we do. I also enjoyed my oldest aunt’s company because she was simply hilarious. But still I continued to dote on the youngest. As a young adult, I was no longer as open about the reason for my infatuation. It made me feel superficial and in some inexplicable way, somewhat ugly on the inside.
The ancient Greeks would have had no problem admitting that they venerated my aunt for her beauty. In fact, they may even have memorialized her in statue form as a quasi-deity and implored her to endow them with some of her mesmerizing looks. When I go back home, I am often taken aback by certain people’s strangely honest reverence of good looks. Passers-by ogle the beautiful, and marriages are decided upon the configuration of facial features. Like the Greek, they make celebrities of the beautiful and pray that their children never have to face the disgrace of ugliness.In the West, we are more discreet about our obsession with beauty. Rare is the person who will admit their preference for good looks. But then, rare too are those who would rather not win at the aesthetic lottery, and perhaps luckily, divine gifts are no longer our only bet. Cosmetic and even surgical interventions abound. It is easy to comply with the unsaid societal demand for beauty and perfection. Even as we deny our propensity to idolize outer beauty, we continue to put ourselves under the razor of cosmetic surgery and our children to the torture of dental braces.
However, in our politically correct world, we pretend that our antennae for beauty do not exist. We shower attractive people with all kinds of positive qualities and hide our innate bias from our own selves. We assume that we have eliminated the very category that led to discrimination in the past and blind ourselves to actions that betray our inherent prejudices. No wonder then that subtle discrimination continues to operate at the level of mundane interactions, even if not through laws and conscious decisions.
An Evolutionary View
This difference in cultural norms makes me think of the little me and the later me. Even though I learned to recognize other qualities in my aunt that I unconsciously employed to mask my partiality, I continued to be in awe of her beauty. Perhaps to this day, at some subconscious level, I still am. Is there something in our innate nature that makes us veer towards the beautiful?The physical worlds of our early hunter-gatherer ancestors held cues for survival. They avoided the ugly, the sickly, and the disfigured for fear if the harm they signified. Perhaps that was the beginning of the emotion of disgust. They approached the beautiful and the symmetrical because beauty and symmetry denoted successful reproduction and the health of the tribe. Admiration, awe, and desire became linked to beauty. We have continued on that path into the 21st century.
However, a meme that was helpful for our race at a particular stage in our evolution is not necessarily appropriate for the modern world. People still tend to associate beauty with qualities it no longer possesses, such as greater fertility and health. Even worse, in the current environment of unfulfilled inner needs such as approval and belonging, it makes us yearn for happiness through superficial outward means that leave us totally dissatisfied.
Inner needs need deeper answers. When we look to the physical world to satisfy an inner need, we become blind to the real beauty that can glow in all of us. Socrates challenged the Greek assumption that physical beauty was necessary for happiness and claimed instead that virtue was the path to eudaimonia. Aristotle went on to call moral beauty the purpose of all virtues. That is a wonderful meme to steer our race successfully into the next millennium.However, we took the Greek philosophers’ wisdom one step further by skimming over their claim that beauty is an inner quality that has to be displayed through virtuous acts. Instead we allowed ourselves to believe that it is ours for the taking and happily laud ourselves for a trait that stays buried unless we exercise it. Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence is more than denying ugliness. It is about understanding our place in the larger framework and fulfilling our duty towards it. For when we fail to shine the light of our consciousness on acts of kindness and altruism, on the warmth of a Duchenne smile, and on the grace of restraint, we let our notions slide off the slippery surface of facial features and into the abyss of superficiality.
A Social SpeciesMoral beauty pays tribute to our stature as a social species. It elevates us towards selfless pro-social behaviors and connects us at the level of common humanity across time and space. Physical beauty, on the other hand, ties no familiar thread across time and culture. The plump female figures of the 16th century and the Twiggy-like bodies of today have both been symbols of beauty to different times. The foot-binding in ancient China, the lip plates of the Mursi tribe, the obsession with fairness in the Indian subcontinent, and the worship of perfection in the West are all extreme attempts at outward appeal. Yet they are worlds apart.
This past week of March Break, the children and I decided to put old photo albums in order. As they poured over my childhood pictures, they saw my aunt in the splendor of her youth.
“Was she your favorite?” asked my youngest, her eyes gleaming with adoration.
“Why do you ask?” I held my breath.
“She is so pretty!” came the honest reply.
My heart skipped a beat, even as I suppressed a smile at her innocence. She is still young. She will change. Like most of us, she will learn to become politically correct about her admission. But that will barely be a battle won. I have to step in now and teach her to value the goodness of actions over the hollowness of good looks. I have to step in now and guide her to appreciate the kindness of a smile more than its shape. I have to step in now because external forces prey on impressionable minds.
I have to step in now, for the sake of true beauty.
Algoe, S. & Haidt, J. (2009). Witnessing excellence in action: The ‘other-praising’ emotions of elevation, gratitude, and admiration. Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(2): 105–127. Abstract.
Bloom, P. (2014). Disgust, Harm, and Morality in Politics. Political Psychology, 35(4). Abstract.
Plato translated by Jowett, B. (1988). Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo (Great Books in Philosophy). Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books
Puleo, R. (2006). Are beautiful people thought to be better? An example of the relationship between physical attraction and expectations. Journal of Undergraduate Psychological Research, 1, 35-37.
Russell, P., & Russell, P. (1998). Waking Up in Time: Finding Inner Peace in Times of Accelerating Change. Novato, CA: Origin Press
Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence. VIA Institute on Character.
Egyptian goddess courtesy of Tilemahos Efthimiadis
Torture of dental braces courtesy of Valentina Powers
Symmetry courtesy of Axel Naud
The golden smile courtesy of Kamyar Adl
Mursi Tribe, lip plate courtesy of Roy Waddington