Saturday, March 04, 2006

Post No. 56: The Quest For "Beauty"

Most, if not all, of us are on a quest – a quest for “beauty”. In other words, there is in us the desire to want to be “beautiful” (note: for simplicity’s sake, my use of the term “beauty” in this essay refers only to physical beauty, that is physical attractiveness). Just consider the evidence for this. One, the large number of advertisements in the newspapers and on TV that purport to sell us “beauty”. For example, there are advertisements that promote slimming centres & their weight-loss packages, diet pills, anti-hair loss programmes, facial treatments, breast enhancement packages and the list goes on. Although my Economics may be a bit rusty (having not revised it since my ‘A’-level Economics paper), isn’t it a common understanding by most that demand creates supply? Of course, there is also Say’s Law which claims that supply creates demand but, in my opinion, this law does not apply in this case. Hence, bearing in mind that demand creates supply, we can see that the reason for why the “beauty” industry is so lucrative is that we, the consumers, have a strong demand for “beauty”. Two, be honest with yourselves now, have you all at any point of time in your lives desired to be more “beautiful” and/or tried doing something to make yourselves look more attractive physically? Well, I suppose that if you all were honest enough with yourselves, you all would have given a positive answer to this question I posed. Even I, who am usually quite nonchalant about how I look physically, still bother to maintain a basic facial cleansing regime of washing my face with facial wash at least twice a day and to dress up on certain rare special occasions so as to look more attractive physically. Hence, considering all this, it is quite clear that there lies within us a desire for “beauty”.

Yet, why do we desire “beauty” so much (in fact, there are those amongst us who are obsessed with attaining it) in the first place? Also, what is “beauty”? And what implications, positive and negative, does our quest for “beauty” have? These are the questions which I, in this essay, would attempt to discuss and, if possible, provide answers to. However, I must state beforehand, lest any of you all be mistaken, that any answers I may provide later are, by no means, definitive answers. Instead, they are just answers which, drawing upon my limited knowledge, I have come up with for these three complex questions. Thus, I am humble enough to concede that these answers may well be totally wrong. Of course, it is sometimes through wrong answers that we find the path leading to correct answers.

Okay now, I suppose that I have rambled on enough already and would now move on to the discussion proper.

What is “beauty”? Is it something universal and definite? Or is it something that is most relative? How do we differentiate between “ugly” and “beautiful”? Do we instinctively recognise what is “beauty” or are we conditioned to do so? Well, if my memory does not serves me wrong, there have been scientific reports a few years back on how people recognise symmetrical faces as “beautiful”, that is the more symmetrical a person’s facial features are, the more “beautiful”/physically attractive others would find that person. Also, if I’m wrong, there has been evidence pointing to most males’ instinctive finding of females who have curvaceous figures (i.e. the 36-24-36 figure) as having a “beautiful” figure as being a result of such figures being somewhat instinctively recognised by males as hinting at a healthy child-bearing ability. Likewise, there has been evidence that suggests that females find tall males with broad shoulders physically attractive because the presence of height and broad shoulders in a male hint at his strength/ability to protect them. I’m not 100% certain how true these claims are but if they are indeed true, they would undoubtedly strengthen the case that “beauty” is something universal and we humans instinctively recognise it.

Yet, there is also evidence that contradicts such a view. Yes, while most males find an ample female bosom “beautiful” (mea culpa…), there are also those who think that “size does not matter” (get what I mean?). Also, while males supposedly should find curvaceous figures “beautiful”, there have also been stick-thin supermodels (no curves of any sort there…) who are deemed “beautiful” by males (anyway, I personally don’t think a “stick” can be “beautiful”… :P). In fact, it is my opinion that the mass media plays a part in conditioning us to recognise certain physical characteristics as being “beautiful”. I mean, if you keep seeing fat people being portrayed on TV as being unattractive, in contrast to people who are unbelievably slim, I suppose that, over time, most of us would come to equate “thin” with “beautiful”. Furthermore, although I have not traveled much outside the borders of our sunny tropical island country, I suppose that definitions of “beauty” differ from culture to culture e.g. the Asian definition of “beauty” will most likely differ from that of Westerners. Also, definitions of what is “beauty” have also differed within a culture with the passing of time e.g. (if I’m not wrong) in the 50s & 60s, full-bodied figures (think Marilyn Monroe) were deemed “beautiful” in the U.S. while thin figures (think Calista Flockhart a.k.a. Ally McBeal and Kate Moss) are now deemed “beautiful”. In addition, it does not say much for the case that “beauty” is an universal ideal when females Orlando Bloom, Russell Crowe and Sean Connery, three men who differs quite greatly (from my viewpoint) in terms of looks, all as “beautiful”, does it? My conclusion on what is “beauty”? Well, despite what Plato may have said about there been an universal ideal for what is “beautiful”, I think that “beauty” is something that is most relative and the definition of what is “beautiful” differs from person to person (or as it is always said: “Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder”). A person’s “beautiful” may well be another’s “ugly”.

Okay now, perhaps “beauty” is indeed in the beholder’s eyes but that does not explain why we desire it, does it? Be patient, I would now move on to discuss this intriguing question. Well, I suppose there is in us all a desire of wanting to be admired, as Saint- Exupéry has allegorically pointed out in his “The Little Prince” with the character of the conceited man on Asteroid 326. And, in my opinion, this desire for admiration somewhat contributes to the desire for “beauty”. Let’s face it. We admire those who we perceive as being “beautiful”. We envy them and are sometimes even jealous of their supposed “beauty”. Seeing how the “beautiful” are admired by those around us, it is perhaps almost inevitable that we too want to be “beautiful” so as to win the admiration of others. In short, “beauty”, for those who desire it, is an ego booster of sorts.

In addition, “beauty” is desired for the incidental advantages that it bestows on people. By this, I mean that people have the perception that if you are “beautiful”, you will most likely be in a more advantageous position when it comes to certain things. I don’t know how true this is but it is perceived that in the event of a competition or conflict between a “beautiful” person and a non-“beautiful” person, a third party will more likely favour the “beautiful” person. For example, at a job interview, if it was a choice between 2 equally-qualified applicants but with the difference of one being more “beautiful” than the other candidate. Anyway, let’s be completely honest with ourselves now, think about it: who will you all behave better towards? A “beautiful” stranger or a non-“beautiful” stranger? This prejudice against non-“beautiful” people is aptly referred to in the story of Zhong Kui (钟馗). For those who aren’t familiar with this story, it is in short about Zhong Kui, who after becoming the top scholar (状元) in the imperial examinations of ancient China, was initially denied an official position by the emperor whom found his looks somewhat hideous. Having the idea that “beauty” is favoured while “ugliness” is discriminated against, isn’t it quite obvious why there are those who desire “beauty”, some even to the extent of obsession?

Moving on, the third possible reason for why people crave “beauty” is perhaps quite similar to the two stated above, if not a mixture of them. Simply put, people crave “beauty” because it increases their chances of success with the opposite gender, romantically & sexually. Yes, you all may dispute that a romantic relationship is and should not be based only on physical attraction. Well, while I agree that a romantic relationship between 2 persons is and should not be based solely on physical attraction, I am also of the opinion that physical attraction undeniably plays a part in most romantic relationships. Love at first sight? More like lust/physical attraction at first sight. Don’t be mistaken, I’m not saying that physical attraction must be present before a romantic relationship can be formed or that it’s the most important part of a relationship but only that people will be more likely to consider a romantic relationship with someone that they are physically attracted to (i.e. they find them “beautiful”) than someone they find physically repulsive. Perhaps I’m wrong about this or I’m too sweeping in my generalisation but still, it cannot be denied that being more “beautiful” will most likely put one in the good books of the opposite gender. If being “beautiful” means being more successful with the opposite gender, who seriously would not desire it?

Okay now, having look at what “beauty” can possibly be and why people desire it, I will move on to examine the implications of our quest for “beauty”. Well, I don’t know about you all but I really can’t see any positive implications arising from our quest for “beauty”, except perhaps possibly a more “beautiful” world and massive profits for those purporting to sell us “beauty”. Don’t be mistaken, I do not find anything wrong with people wanting to be “beautiful”. However, it is a different case when people start to become obsessive about attaining “beauty” regardless of the possible cost. This, and I suppose most of you all would agree, is most unhealthy, to say the least. As I have already mentioned above, “beauty” is something, in my humble opinion, which is most relative. Yet, there are many who, not realizing this and being influenced by those around them (the effect of the mass media is especially prevalent), struggle to attain what they (or rather those around them) perceive as an ideal form of “beauty” (which, of course, in my opinion, does not exist). In other words, they find themselves chasing, as Naomi Wolf has termed it, after a myth – the “beauty” myth. If figures provided by AWARE (in their letter, 29/1/2006, of reply to the Sunday Times’ article of “Botox Babes”, 22/1/2006) can be trusted, this pursuit of the “beauty” myth has led to poor self-image in many young female Singaporeans, which in turn contributes to a sixfold increase in the number of young female Singaporeans suffering from eating disorders since 1994 and less than 25% describing themselves as “beautiful”. Of course, there can also be other contributing factors to these trends but, undeniably, the obsession with becoming “beautiful” plays a significant part. Don’t be mistaken, while I have focused mainly on females suffering an obsession with “beauty”, this does not mean that males are exempted. In fact, they are also susceptible to the ill-effects arising from an obsession with “beauty”. My advice to those who are obsessed with attaining “beauty”? Wake up and see that the “beauty” you all are so obsessed with is nothing but a myth. There are more important things in Life than “beauty”. It isn’t the end of the world if you are not “beautiful”. Though we may not recognise it, all of us are “beautiful” in one way or another. Trust me on that.

In the end, physical beauty is but skin deep, true beauty still comes from within.

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