Provocative Theories of Beauty: Why & How It Stirs Us

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“As the force of physical attraction, beauty drives fertility, inspiration, creation, and reproduction. Beauty ricochets through the body and mind … Beauty has been the root of deep division and politicization.  But our attraction to beauty endures.”  — Andrea Lipps and Ellen Lupton

This sums it all up for me.

I stole the quote from a great review by CNN of the “Beauty—Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial” exhibition.  The article describes how the exhibit’s artists, ranging from jewelry designers to ceramists to lighting designers, bring to life the many different definitions of beauty.  I’ve summed up these diverse explanations of beauty as follows:

  1. Ever changing.  Objects of beauty transform, e.g., we age or clay hardens. And of course, beauty ideals alter, e.g., overly tanned skin was out then in and now out of style.
  2. Expresses the passing of time.  To quote the article directly:                                                                                              To honor his grandmother’s failing memory, Tuomas Markunpoika welded small rings of steel around a hulking wardrobe. He then burned away the wood, leaving behind a lacy shell of blackened metal.The piece became “a physical memory of the furniture—kind of a smoky, shady, semitransparent memory of it.”
  3. Ignites our senses.  Beauty isn’t just visual but can stimulate our aural and olfactory senses as well.  In one instance, visitors can experience the scent of New York Cit’s Central Park.
  4. Challenges our perceptions.  From dresses made out of straws to images of decay, beauty pushes us to react, think, analyze and see the world anew.

This last description is, by far, my favorite.  In fact I’ve been especially taken by beauty as represented by death and decay (see my post: Beauty in Decay, Dirt and Death).  I know I may sound gruesome, but that’s not my point.  Rather, I’m blown away by expressions of beauty that challenge our expectations.

And that is the real purpose all my posts.  Originally, I chose to focus on beauty because I spent a number of years working with beauty brands, and it’s a topic that never goes out of style.  But as I dug deeper into the topic, I realized how complex, fascinating and wondrous our relationship to beauty truly is.  The topic of beauty can be a source of fun, angst or even ridicule.  But downplaying our understanding and reaction to it isn’t the answer.  Things of beauty may just strike us at first glance, but upon deeper reflection it becomes a window into our culture and ourselves.  It can open our eyes to how we live, what we value, and how brilliant and creative we, human beings, truly are.

If you get a chance to visit the exhibition, let us know what you respond to.

“87% of girls aged 11-21 think women are judged more on their appearance than on their ability” And What We Can Do to change that

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I came across this stat in a study conducted by Girl Guiding, a charity for girls and young women in the U.K.  Though the study is a few years old, it was recently quoted in a Guardian article, “From Social Media to the Catwalk: Is Fantasy Beauty Failing Young Women?”

As you can imagine from the article’s title, the Guardian story reflects on the preponderance of images of models and idealized portraits of women in social media, and how this imagery gives false and harmful notions to our girls about their own bodies.  The statistic is indeed alarming, and unfortunately a belief that will be hard to break.  Why?  Not so much because of the actual imagery put out there.  Frankly, I think we, as a society, have begun to show a greater range of what’s considered beautiful.  After all, Kim Kardashian in by no means a size 0.  And digital’s ability to cross borders means we get to see images of people from all different ethnicities and backgrounds that we never have before.  Check out the posts I wrote: Beauty From Around the World and Why It’s Contagious  or What’s the Definition of Beauty Anyway?  (a story celebrating people with “abnormalities”) both of which tap into digital’s revealing of new ways to think about beauty.  Do I think we can go even farther in presenting more realistic images of girls and women?  Sure!  But that’s not going to change our being judged by our looks.

The reason this will be a hard habit to break is that we are a visual species.  Our ability to analyze information is far more sophisticated and quicker via our eyes than via language.  That is why we’ve glommed on to all the photo taking, altering and sharing in the digital space.  And it’s not such a bad thing!  By taking, sharing, and appreciating images, we get to see a deeper story behind people’s lives.  Images give so much more texture than mere words.  Images offer nuance and emotional details that our texting would normally leave out.  Moreover, these images remind us of the tremendous beauty that’s around us or oceans away.  And that reminder elevates our daily lives — showing us how amazing our world truly is.

We make assumptions, draw conclusions and make judgments based on what we see, first.  Should we be content with the high percentage of girls who believe they are judged by what they look like alone?  Of course not.  We have to face the reality that our eyes will draw conclusions.  Let’s not ignore that.  What we can do is urge one another to not STOP at what we see, but rather dig into what’s behind the exterior.  And we must start with ourselves.

I actually think there’s even another way to look at this issue. Let’s not devalue the exterior beauty of what and who is around us. Let’s certainly NOT pretend it doesn’t exist. We SHOULD recognize it. In fact, let’s appreciate all people’s beauty, and recognize that how people uniquely appear is part of the story to be sussed out and listened to. It’s not an all or nothing proposition. We should value all the amazing characteristics of things and people — their unique beauty along with their origins, their stories, their talents and generosity. If we see — and remind our children and friends to see — that all people are a collection of traits, some physical, some emotional, some spiritual and some intellectual, we will value people as a whole that much more.

We have the amazing power to look AT and look INTO our world. Let’s do both and maybe that statistic will be a thing of the past.

 

Beautiful Protests: Don’t Dismiss Beauty Queens. The Chinese Govt is Downright Scared of Them & for Very Good Reason!

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There’s a lot of different ways to protest.  Unfortunately, we’ve seen some of the worst of them over the past few weeks.  But, for the most part, challenging the status quo, the social wrongs we see, or just plain ol’ anachronistic thinking is an incredibly valuable and innate human behavior.  And, tonight being the first night of Hannukah — a commemoration of the Maccabees’s protest against the repressive Greek regime of their day — it’s only fitting to celebrate it!

The more tyrannical or oppressive the object of our protest, the more crafty, clever and creative we must be in our rebellious acts.  We can’t always march in the street or publish our thinking.  We need to use what we have at our disposal.  And that is exactly what a few feisty beauty queens did as they protested against the Chinese government.  Over the course of the last few days, I saw news story after new story highlighting not just one, but two, beauty pageants that have enraged the Chinese government.

At the Miss Earth beauty pageant, the contestant from Taiwan, Ting Wen-yin, refused to change her sash from “Miss Taiwan ROC” to “Miss Chinese Taipei.”  Her explanation: “I was born in Taiwan, my sash now says Taiwan, I represent Taiwan, and I’m going to use the name of Taiwan in appearing at this pageant.”  She also shared in social media the horrible treatment that all the contestants were subjected to like not being served some meals and forced to attend night clubs to flirt with men.  The result? She was reprimanded, banned from certain activities, and not allowed to be in pictures.  Eventually she was kicked out all together. (For more of the story, read here)

Around the same time, another story hit the news stream about Anastasia Lin, a Chinese-born woman who was crowned Miss Canada.  She has been using the pageant’s platform and the subsequent press coverage to speak against the Chinese government.  She has also created films and written essays to share the corruption and repressive acts of her former government.  And the Chinese leadership was pissed.  Majorly.  They tried to ban her from the Miss Universe pageant.  This, of course, backfired creating an even bigger uproar and heightening her efforts that much more.

Needless to say, the Chinese government is super skittish now when it comes to beauty pageants.

What these stories show us is that the “popular” cultural activities, like beauty pageants (and the people who participate in them) which we may snicker at, can play a powerful role in society.  While I have a hard time endorsing the parading of women around in bathing suits, I also have the seen the power of these “institutions.”  Since the beginning of time and into today, pageants have served as spaces where women could achieve something — whether a way out of poverty or a podium to protest.    I applaud Lin and Wen-yin who not only risked their success to tell their stories, but who realized how to best use the gifts they had and the circumstances they found themselves in, i.e., beauty contests, to do it.  Would they have been listened to if they didn’t use this platform?  Maybe…but, then again, maybe not.

It’s easy for us to look down at people who want to show off and get rewarded for their physical beauty.  But many of us aren’t in the same social, economic and political situations as these people.  Moreover, when beauty contestants use their beauty, and the pageants that showcase their beauty, in ways that most of us wouldn’t have the guts to, how can we NOT admire them?

Lesson here? First, let’s never ever assume that beauty queens are dumb.  Second, we shouldn’t assume that the popular, seemingly frivolous events, like beauty contests, don’t have a potential role for social betterment.  Finally, let’s appreciate the fact that we live in a society where we CAN protest a multitude of ways without fear of reprisal.