Recently, I read two books of the same name but with very different content.
The first was Beauty by Bri Lee. If you don’t know who Bri Lee is you are officially in a right-wing-ABC-free bubble. Bri Lee is the best selling author of Eggshell Skull and is often invited on talk panels including a recent Q&A.
The next book I read was Beauty by Sir Roger Scruton, and, if you don’t know who Roger Scruton is you are in a left-wing bubble — but I hardly think I need to explain who he was to a Spectator Australia audience.
Lees’ book is an addition to the canon of popular literature that underpins the body positivity movement along with titles like Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth. Lee begins by telling the reader the deeply personal story of the pains she went to slim down for the cameras and attention she received due to her first book.
The body positivity movement has a point. In many ways, beauty standards are a kind of fiction. More aptly they are a heuristic.
In 1981 researchers found that the population of Australian jewel beetles was vulnerable to extreme decline. The reason was that beer tops are shiny in a way that indicates a fertile female beetle. Their heuristic for reproductive fitness led to them not reproducing at all because they would constantly try the moves on completely infertile twist tops, not the actually fertile females.
This is a comical example, but it points to the truth underlying the body positivity movement; critics of which say that of course models are slim because slim is healthy. But being slim and being healthy correlate but not one and the same. A beauty standard is a wrong approximation for health, and like the beetle trying to breed with beer bottle tops, it can lead to completely unhealthy behaviour such as — euphemistically — redecorating the bathroom after every meal.
But instead of using actual indicators, the old beauty standard is being torn down by representing slim women as unhealthy, unnatural, and unfeminine.
In 2014 a bunch of songs were released that purported to celebrate body positivity but did so by slamming skinny women as “bitches”. Niki Minaj was speaking for the underdog when she sang “My anaconda don’t want none unless you got buns, hun” and in the same song “Fuck you if you skinny, bitches.” Likewise, when Meghan Trainor sang that “every inch of you is perfect from the bottom to the top” and also “I’m bringing booty back/Go ahead and tell them skinny bitches that” she was celebrating every figure.
This is when the classical and the modern ideas of beauty ought to speak to each other because the answer to the problem of bad beauty standards lies not in reversing them but in the understanding of the difference between objectification and subjectification that Sir Roger Scruton explores in his book on beauty.
When the fashion industry defends their use of super-slim models because “they are just a human coat-hanger” they objectify women. Literally. They are saying that the only reason they put the textiles on humans as opposed to an inanimate object is that they can catwalk.
Feminists have long crusaded against the objectification of women. The problem with these – often puritanical – women is they don’t understand the difference between human beauty as an object and that which is the subject – particularly when they launch campaigns like Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum?
The classical example of a feminine form in art is the Birth of Venus. By modern standards of beauty, she would probably be described as “frumpy” and not given space in a glossy magazine of any stripe – men’s or women’s. But she is still seen as a pinnacle of beauty.
The reason for her timelessness is the subject of art — not the object — she is there to be appreciated not just for her figure, but the facial expression, her personality, her posture (natural rather than faked or reproduced). She is her own woman and we (the viewer) “are presented with this woman’s body through the lens of her own awareness.”
An obsession with beauty standards doesn’t lead to the appreciation of human beauty because it is necessarily reductive. It can never represent people as a sum total of both inner and outer charms. It never treats humans as a subject, only an object either having or not having a particular physical attribute.
A true rallying cry against beauty standards would be to “Subjectify Beauty” but I won’t hold out hope that we — as a culture — might be so wise as to take our lessons about appreciation of beauty from the past.
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