When I ask you to picture beauty, what image forms in your head? Is it the face of someone you love? A particular object or artwork, a scene in nature? Or is it something less physical and can actions be beautiful in themselves? In everyday life, and especially the media, beauty is a concept much obsessed over and thus holds huge power over society itself. The real question is, why have we let beauty become monopolised by social media and influencers, when the actual concept is so subjective?
As previously mentioned, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and us as humans follow trends both as a collective and individually about what can be deemed beautiful. To fully convey just how free this definition is, I decided to ask myself what my own definition of beauty is and compare that to both of my sisters in an effort to demonstrate this difference. If three people from the same family and culture can have different views of the same concept, then it serves to illuminate how false this monopoly on beauty is in reality.
My older sister, Lily, is currently at university studying to become a midwife, and had an interesting take on the subject:
“At the age of 16, heading into the modelling industry was terrifying yet exhilarating. To walk into the headquarters of an established modelling agency and see respected, stunning, 5″11 models practising their walk was surreal. Then after a year or so you get used to it. You realise the concept of beauty is an illusion society has fabricated to persuade consumers to purchase the next trendy ‘skinny tea’ or makeup brand.
After leaving the industry at 20 years old and pursuing a career in Midwifery, I’ve experienced a different side to beauty. The beauty of a couple hearing the heartbeat of their child for the first time. The beauty of a family seeing their baby’s face on sonograph. The beauty of a baby’s first cry, seconds after coming into the world.
A different kind of beauty, one the media seems to neglect, focusing on the perfect waistline or the perfect cheekbones. It seems irrelevant compared to the beauty of life coming into the world.”
Having seen both sides of the coin has allowed my sister to more accurately define her own version of beauty, seeing it in the actions of creation and the love that is involved within the process; as well as putting my news of a good essay result in perspective with the act of bringing life into this world. Thanks Lily, you always had to one up me!
Seeing beauty in actions is not a new concept of course and is found in the thoughts of philosophers throughout history, one such influential example being the Italian poet Dante. Dante in his work ‘The Divine Comedy’ sees beauty itself as the motivator to act, establishing it as crucial in the cause of human behaviour. Within the work Dante asks the representation of the classical Roman poet Virgil what love is, “che mi dimostri amore”.
Virgil explains that the soul is created quick to love and is susceptible to pleasing things that awaken this capacity to live within it. This moves the soul to act and respond to the thing that pleases it. If the soul is inclined towards the object of desire, then that inclination is love and now enters on a quest to make the beloved object happy. This explanation can be summarised with the idea that ‘beauty awakens the soul to act’ and therefore beauty is synonymous with desire. Beauty moves us along the path of life by directing our actions, therefore, not only are certain actions beautiful but beauty also exists as the motivation to act in itself. This can be seen in my sister’s interpretation of beauty which has been increasingly focused away from purely visual aspects.
On an interesting side note, a famous portrait of Dante by Italian painter Botticelli, who also painted ‘The Birth of Venus’; the quintessential picture of the goddess of beauty, amongst other things, depicts Dante wearing laurel leaves upon his head, something strikingly similar to the Snapchat filters of today. I wonder if Dante would have embraced these filters that work to exemplify one’s own perceived beauty or if he’d compare it to the idea of hell he famously created:
Figure 1- Dante and me as friends on snapchat
My own thoughts on how I perceive beauty are linked closely to the poet John Keats, being something of a romantic at heart, I can find association in his view that beauty exists in the natural state of things. He derived great aesthetic delight at the sight of objects of Nature, and aimed at expressing beauty for its own sake, not only those things that are beautiful according to the recognized standards. To me, beauty is shown in truthfulness, something nature personifies completely, explaining my love for the outdoors. Deriving aesthetic delight through the senses, grounds me in my own reality and I know when I am feeling out of order and confused, taking some time to myself amidst nature helps to realign my thoughts.
Keats wrote, ‘What the imagination seizes as beauty must be true’, therefore what is ugly also cannot be truthful, one can find truth through beauty and beauty through truth’. This therefore encourages one to accept all realities of a situation, encompassing joy, sorrow, happiness and melancholy. There is beauty in being real, real to yourself and others. I know I am most happy when I can be myself around others, the most beautiful people I know are the ones I feel I can trust are real and natural.
The lines of Keat’s poem ‘Endymion’ personify the eternal state of nature and its everlasting beauty, unchanged by corporations or social media:
“A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness”
Finally, I asked my younger sister Cate, a poet I find inspiring and refreshingly current, on what her thoughts around beauty are:
“I have always found it hard to grasp the media’s concept of beauty. I believe that beauty presents itself in so many different ways, and it is definitely not skin deep. However, even if you are a gorgeous person in the physical sense, if you are a bad person at heart, and you give off bad energy into the world, I think outer beauty cannot fix that.
Although, that is clearly not what it is like in the media as you see so many models and celebrities who so many people have had bad experiences with. Yet they continue to be famous because of their physical beauty.”
A poem Cate wrote about things she loves, and thinks are beautiful within herself:
“I love the way you laugh.
Unapologetically and loudly and childlike.
I love the yellow rings around your eyes that only I have noticed, and I love how your eyes flicker when you’re thinking.
I love the little gaps in your teeth and the freckles that only come out when you see the sun and I love how you love like you’d die if you stopped.
And I love that I’m learning to love you.”
Only you can define beauty, find yours and immerse yourself in it.