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.

 

What Do Beauty & Cannibalism Have in Common?

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The title isn’t a tease.  I’m going to give you the answer but I need to back track a bit.

Beauty can now be judged by artificial intelligence.  Yep, there is going to be a beauty contest using robots to judge people’s appearances.  The reason for the new type of contest?  According the recent article about this contest, Beauty Contest Features Algorithmic Judges, human judges are too biased to judge beauty fairly.

As a tech-lover and someone fascinated with A.I., I wanted to appreciate this new type of contest, but the idea is all wrong.  I’m sure many of you would begin by protesting the whole concept of a beauty contest.  I have mixed feelings about the benefit of these contests, and I’ve written about the pros and cons of them in many past posts.  But, for today, I’m actually going leave that argument alone.

What I will challenge instead is the idea that a robot can truly detect beauty.  This isn’t an argument for embracing inner beauty (though I appreciate that too).  Rather it’s argument against the idea that our definition of beauty is only measurable.  I agree that we are attracted to symmetry and a certain ratio of eyes to chin to forehead, etc. as a survival mechanism from our ancient pasts.  The thinking here is the more symmetrical our features, the healthier we are, and the healthier our offspring would be.  Of course a digital device would better discern these measurements.  I also agree with the story that human judges can be biased due to cultural norms.

My issue with such a contest is that what we perceive as beautiful is strongly associated with a person’s “essence.”  I’ve written about this concept in an earlier post, the Pleasure of Beauty.  According to author and Yale psychology professor, Paul Bloom, in his book How Pleasure Works: The New Science of What We Like What We Like, we derive pleasure from things like art, sports and beauty.  But this pleasure doesn’t just come from the rational combination of factors (think technical skills like amazing batting speed or the perfect pirouette) but from the ESSENCE of things and people.  The essence is that which lies beneath the surface –the history, background, personality, you get the picture.  As Bloom writes: “things have an underlying reality or true nature that one cannot observe directly and it is this hidden nature that really matters.”  This is why we pay tons of money for an original painting versus a counterfeit.  It also explains, not to gross you out, why some people are cannibals…they want to connect with the “inner-ness” of the person.  Net net, we seek the essence to truly get pleasure from things.

This goes for physical beauty too.  We all have an essence that comes forth to make us more or less beautiful.  Maybe you call that our “stories”, a certain depth, or our many sides.  And this essence shapes our perceptions of others’ beauty.

Bloom cites an experiment with college students in which classmates were asked to rate people’s looks.  The participants weren’t acquainted with the classmates beyond sitting with them in the same lectures.  Interestingly, attractiveness ratings went up when classmates saw people more often.  It’s not that now they had a better view of the people they were rating.  The point here is that more exposure to who a person is — their ESSENCE — the greater the appreciation of even his/her physical attractiveness.   In fact, what I think is even more interesting is that the subjects (i.e. the people assessing others’ beauty) didn’t even interact with their classmates!  They didn’t form their opinions because one was nice or the other was obnoxious.  It was merely the closeness that developed over time, and the greater recognition of the others as human beings, that affected their views.

This is not a call for eschewing physical beauty in favor of inner beauty.  And I’m not saying inner beauty determines our assessments of who is beautiful.  Rather, what I take from Bloom’s analysis is that beauty is a combination of physical characteristics and one’s essence.   Our sense of attraction can’t be deconstructed to include ONLY physical characteristics.  We just aren’t wired to see the world this way.

Yes, a bizarro beauty contest can turn beauty into something scientific and objective.  But, and what we all probably know at some level and what Bloom confirms, our physical attractiveness is actually quite deep.  We are beautiful because we are not just perfect, symmetrical robots, but because we are human beings.

 

“Things of Beauty Affirm Our Power to Change the World for the Better,” Roger Scruton: Why Beauty Matters Now More Than Ever

The Symmetry of Paris
The Symmetry of Paris

I have to admit I had a hard time thinking of what to write for today’s post.  After the tremendous horror of this past Friday night in Paris, I did not now how to respond.  All of the beauty stories that filled my feed seemed trivial compared to these events.  How could I write about a recent story regarding the genetic factors underpinning our perceptions of beauty or about the controversy in social media over the site 100 Years of Beauty?  They are all interesting stories, but they all seemed so banal.  How could I talk about beauty at a time like this?

But then I remembered Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky’s famous quote, “Beauty will save the world.” At a time like this, maybe this is EXACTLY what we need.  I’m not talking about being pollyannish and seeing the good or beauty in everything.  No, I’m talking about the actual social need for beauty, and how satisfying this need may actually make the world a better, safer and more loving place.

What do I mean? I’ve actually written about this topic in posts a few years back.  But the thinking, while super heavy, is still true today. Elaine Scarry points out in On Beauty and Being Just, the pursuit of beauty is really the quest for improvement. This dense but provocative piece explains: beauty’s spectacle encourages replication and further creativity. When I see a beautiful woman, for example, I’ll check out her look and make it my own. This inclination towards creativity affirms our uniquely human ability, that is, our power to make change and create a better, more just future.  Yes, the world sucks sometimes, but we KNOW that we can make it better.

In Beauty, Roger Scruton explains beauty is so vital, as it presents our ideals and compels us to seek them out.  Here are my words from my post, Beauty: A Moral Imperative: “things of beauty, like art, move us because they take us out of our everyday ‘by providing us (says Scruton) with objects, characters, scenes and actions with which we can play … in play … free (of) contemplation, reason and sense are reconciled, and we are granted a vision of human life in its wholeness.’  He goes on to say: ‘Our favorite works of art seem to guide us to the truth of human condition and (ultimately)… show the worthwhileness of being human.'”

Trying to summarize Scruton further, I wrote: “In our attempts to experience beauty, we measure our lives, circumstances, and surroundings against the order and fittingness presented … and we have the freedom to challenge the injustices, hardships and disharmony we see around us…Things of beauty affirm the transcendental part of all of us and our power to change the world for the better.”  We are compelled — at the moment we encounter beauty or after contemplation of it — to see our world in comparison to it.  This forces us to challenge ourselves and our world.

What am I really saying here?  When we feast our eyes on a painting at the Louvre or a garden at Versailles, we are seeing something extraordinary.  It shows us the power of people to make something from nothing.  We have the ability to improve our world.

When terrorists choose to massacre innocent people, we can’t just wallow in misery or cower in fear.  We need to believe we can overcome such horrors.  Sometimes it’s hard to have that sort of optimism or strength.  But when we engage with things of beauty, we are reminded that we have the brilliance and creativity to do so.

The topic of beauty may seem to irrelevant to us this weekend.   We are grieving, we are trying understand how something so terrible can happen, and we are challenging humanity.  But don’t dismiss it.  Embrace it. Things of beauty remind us that we can all be better.  Beauty not only soothes us during these moments, but it shows us we have the agency, the creativity, the sense of justice, to get us all closer to harmony.

When the Seemingly Ugly Is Very Beautiful

IMG_20151106_091859Imagine this: you walk to work surrounded by cranes in the sky, trucks roaring beside you, cars impatiently waiting at a tense standstill as heavy mobile cement mixers drive against the traffic.  Then imagine having to take walking detours as men in hard hats motion you to get out-of-the-way of a huge load of metal rods that are being lowered onto the street.  And almost every street has scaffolding obscuring any character of the buildings you pass.  There are no scents of flowers or shady trees.  There are no sculptures or mini parks.  There’s just concrete, trucks and wooden make-shift walls.

“Ugh,” you’re probably thinking, “what a horrible place to be.”

Well, this is my commute, EVERY SINGLE DAY.  I walk from 59th St and 10th avenue to my offices on 15th street in in Manhattan. For over 40 blocks I can’t avoid any of this.

And, yet, I love it!  I find all this hassle, men in hard hats, grinding sounds of construction and boarded up buildings, well, beautiful.  There is an energy to all of this construction.  Men and women are hard at work, yelling commands at one another, measuring distances or hustling to manage some sort of construction material.  You can really see the imagination and brawn of humankind taking shape. It’s quite magnificent.  It literally takes my breath away.

Why am I sharing this experience with you all?  Because so many of us live in cruise control.  We don’t notice the beauty around us.  More importantly, we don’t the notice the beauty that may be hidden to us at first glance.   We are constantly on the move trying to achieve the next thing — picking up our kids, getting to work, prepping for our presentation.  And let’s be honest, there may not be any flowers to stop and smell along the way.  But I guarantee you that there is beauty taking shape in interesting ways all around us, all the time.  We just need to tilt our heads in a slightly different angle and truly notice it.

This desire to see the beauty in the seemingly mundane — even ugly — things around us is one of the explanations for the preponderance of banal images that seem to overwhelm our internet feeds.  In my research I found that people are attracted to these everyday pics MORE than the the unusual, out-of-this-world stuff because we crave the beauty in the everyday.  Such a discovery elevates our everyday and reminds us that our daily lives are full of wonder, not just the grind.

What may seem ugly, drab or boring may just be quite beautiful.  We just need to scrape away the layers a bit and truly take the time to think about it.  But when you do, you’ll realize how cool our everyday world really are.

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