What Do We Even Mean When We Say — Beautiful!

Beauty — one concept on earth that has built cities, razed them to the ground, caused wars, and then devoted poems to it. Some say it is a blessing, some consider it a curse (though the reality really lies somewhere in the middle). Some swear by it, some spit on it. Some have made their lives by it, some look at it as something to be admired from afar, some are scared to touch it, and some can’t stop touching it.

Beauty, in whatever form, has touched each and everyone of our hearts at some point or the other. It troubles us, when we don’t have it in our hands and when we have it in our hands, we want to throw it away. We can’t stop looking at it, it hynotises us. And like scared little kittens then, we skulk away. Beauty, they say, is power, but it has taken lives too (just think of Helen of Troy). It makes our lives meaningful, but yet, it seems so artificial, false. It is something that everyone has warned everyone about, at some point or the other. It enchants us, it scares us, it pulls us in and we push apart. We talk of inner beauty, we talk of outer beauty, we talk of beauty in nature, and of the imperfection of beauty.

In short words, humanity has been obsessed by beauty. Everyone from Goethe to Ivanka Trump has something to say about it. And here, after all, we are dealing with beauty pageants. Our business is beauty. We deal with beauty, day in and day out. And you know what that means? It means its time to understand one of the most elusive concepts of all times. It is time to define beauty.

WHAT DO WE MEAN WHEN WE SAY — BEAUTIFUL

So. How do we define beauty? What do we really mean when we say something, or someone is beautiful? Well, according to the Merriam Webster dictionary, beauty is a ‘quality or aggregate of qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit’

Can’t think of a way to argue with that. But let’s look at some more. The Oxford dictionary says that beauty is ‘a combination of qualities, such as shape, colour or form, that pleases the asthetic senses, especially the sight’

The Cambridge Dictionary asserts that it is the ‘quality of being pleasing, especially to look at.

The Collins Dictionary is a little more specific in telling us that it is ‘the quality attributed to whatever pleases or satisfies the senses or mind, as by line, colour, form, texture, proportion, rhythmic motion, tone, behaviour, attitude etc’.

So I think we can safely agree that beauty — human beauty in this case, broadly refers to anything that pleases our senses, whether in look, or in behaviour, or in speech or in attitude. Taking this as our starting point helps us understand the basic make-up of pageants everywhere.

But this obviously begs the question -

WHAT MAKES SOMETHING PLEASING TO THE SENSES?

That’s a tall order. There is a number of things that can make something pleasing to the senses. Ultimately, it depends on what you want. If you are financially insecure, money is beautiful to you. If you are hungry, food is beautiful. If you are looking for an adrenaline rush, a bungee jump is beautiful for you. But these are experiences. And in pageants, we are looking at something a lot simpler (and paradoxically, more complex too). Human beings, like most animals, are creatures of genetic instinct, which makes categorizing human beauty very easy. But at the same time, human beings are also creatures of tradition and habit, and that kind of complicates things a bit. Let me explain. First of all, let me divide ‘Beauty’ into two types (and then a few more):

A division of the concept of beauty as ‘Biological’ and ‘Aesthetic’ with an elaboration of the factors that affect it

Biological factors that define beauty are primarily genetic in nature. They are hardwired in our psyche, meaning that these are factors that we usually can’t do much to dispute (though sometimes, aesthetic factors do override). And most pageants, especially those catering to the big four (Miss Universe, Miss World, Miss International and Miss Earth) tend to lean more towards these. These are universal. They usually override tradition and culture. These are aspects that we all find pleasing. And why not so? If you look closely at them, they all have mainly to do with survival and passing on one’s genes to the next generation. How healthy are you? Health (which is usually indicated by clear eyes and good skin) indicates fertility, which is our next point. Fertility indicates symmetry and the proper placement of all body parts in proper places. And symmetry leads to overall survival too. If your legs are symmetrical, you can run fast. If your upper body and lower body are symmetrical, you can balance well on two legs, meaning you can run, you can jump, you can farm, and basically live well. If your head is symmetrical to your neck, that means your neck can balance your head well and you won’t go tumbling everywhere. That’s the logic, really.

But Aesthetic Parameters, having evolved out of centuries of human prejudices, are a little more problematic. And these are the factors that have nothing much to do with the biological side of beauty. A lot of the times, they are purely meaningless, and often harmful. Take corsets for example. Or bubble butts. Or the Tudor black teeth. These examples that I have just mentioned are examples of the cultural and traditional factors. These are subjective and differ from society to society, from community to community. They all start out as cultural. And as long as they are cultural (and fads come under culture too), they are still pretty harmless, since the choice to whether follow it or not remains with the individual. But culture breeds tradition. To put it another way, tradition is nothing but culture that has been followed for a few generations continuously. And these are usually more harmful, since there is a societal expectation associated with it. Chinese foot-binding is a good example. Or in our so called enlightened age — high heels. When a prestigious festival such as Cannes asks its attendees to step off the red carpet just because she is not wearing high heels, you know that it has ceased being a cultural trend and passed on to rear its ugly head as a destructive tradition.

Another parameter under the Aesthetic side to beauty that we have not spoken about yet is the Economic/Financial parameter. The standards for beauty, in the larger cultural eye, has always been set by the way the high and the mighty live. Our unfair fairness standards can be attributed to that. As can the standard of obesity in many cultures. When the rich stay sheltered from the sun, their fairness turns from being just a complexion to something that showcases your lifestyle. A lifestyle many want to emulate. When the rich overeat and put on weight, again, it turns from being just a case of putting on weight to a show of affluence. An affluence many would want to emulate. It is the equivalent of today’s Louis Vuitton monogrammed bags or Gucci loafers (though the fairness issue remains an issue even today). The bags and the loafers really have nothing to do with the beauty of the human form, but in our convoluted psyches, they are intrinsically linked.

CAN YOU MEASURE BEAUTY?

The simple answer would be, yes it is. But it really depends on the type of beauty that you are talking about. Are you talking about biological beauty? Or aesthetic beauty?

With biological beauty, it’s really very practical. In most cases, anything that is honed and aids survival and the propogation of the human race, is pleasing to the eye. Waist to hip ratio, in women for example. A certain flaring of the hips is pleasing to the eyes for us because we intrinsically know that a wider pelvic bone structure means a more spacious womb. Which means easier childbirth. And a small waistline helps to accentuate the flaring of the hips. Flat feet, on the other hand, are not looked upon as pretty since our brain automatically associates it with the many balance issues that it can pose. And those are not what you want to pass on to the next generation. Blue eyes can see better in the dark, and so in regions where long, dark, winters are common, blue eyes have been looked upon favourably. But at the same time, certain African tribes (where such light sensitivity is not as needed) have been known to look upon blue eyes as a sign of the evil. So ideally, if you pull a Leonardo Da Vinci, and measure out the ideal human body proportion which promotes better survival in the wild (since that is where these instincts come from), you would be able to mathematically measure beauty. And the good part is that most of us are primed for survival, biologically. So as long as we take care of our body, it will fit standards of biological beauty. If it still doesn’t, it is worth looking at what you are looking at again to see if you are simply assuming the presence of all these factors. It might even be something as small as bloodshot eyes. Because though it might be simply because you were just crying, the brain is trying to fit it into a category, which can include anything from tiredness and conjunctivitis to life-threatening viral fevers. Remember, these senses of ours were honed back when we (or rather, our ancestors) lived in the wild. Every imperfection mattered.

Aesthetic Beauty, as always, though — not as simple. At times, they are derived out of biological beauty standards. Bubble butts for example. It is simply an exaggeration of the natural flaring of the hips. But at other times, it is simply illogical or outright debilitating. Like tight corsets, or elongated necks. Sometimes, it is simply pointless and does not really pose any harm, like stretched earlobes. But it is always in a flux, ever-changing, ever-mutating. As the culture changes, it changes too. And that makes it hard to measure. All you can do is keep an eye open for it. Ignore it when you can, for it means nothing useful. If it is harmless and you like it, maybe even play around with it while it lasts (like I do with my high-waisted jeans, hoping that the trend won’t go away this time). But unfortunately sometimes, in certain scenarios, it can also be a necessary evil (um.. stilettoes, anyone?). In such cases, there is nothing much to do really apart from bite the bullet, go with the wind for a while but stay aware of the dangers so that you can take care of yourself.

BUT WHY BEAUTY?

Why not beauty? Isn’t that a meaningless question?

Beauty, for whatever reason, is an instinctive experience hard-wired into our brains. We cannot help but notice beauty. It makes us happy. And human beauty is just a small gamut of what wide array out there. After all, anything that pleases our senses is beauty, right?

But yes, I hear you. We are not talking of the beauty that exists in the most complex mathematical equations. We are not talking of the beauty apparent in Van Gogh’s paintings. We are talking of a very controversial side of beauty here. The beauty of the human form. We dislike talking of the beauty of the human form for many reasons. Some are as simple as plain old jealousy. Now, jealousy sounds simple. But it has caused wars. It has launched a thousand ships. It has threatened to throw civilisations into such disarray that at some point, we even decided to make it a cardinal sin. And the premise for jealousy is very simple. You have something that I want, and so I am jealous. And why do I want what you have? Because I like it, because it appeals to my senses. Or in other words, it is beautiful.

Period.

Now, such coveting of beauty can still be tolerated as long as these are inanimate objects (though not always). But with humans, it can bring out a very ugly side, leading to violence, harassment and in extreme cases, trafficking. And so, we, as a civilization, have learnt to view human beauty with a distrusting eye. We have learnt the hard way, that it can bring destruction for everyone involved. We have learnt the hard way that it can cause great harm to the one considered beautiful for no fault of their own. And we have learnt to be cautious of it. We have learnt to put it down, to keep away from putting it on show.

Indeed, the showcasing of human beauty can only be a sign of a mature society. For it can only happen peacefully in a society that has seen, at the very least, some amount of content-ness and stability. Where there is stability, a certain laissez-faire attitude develops. And where we are laid back, we are like to covet less, and less.

And I’d like to think that we live in a society today, where that is possible. If not entirely, at least to an extent. Let’s face it. We live in an age of plenty. Never ever, in the recorded history of humans, have we ever wasted so much food. We produce more than what we can eat, statistically. If that doesn’t tell you something, I don’t know what to say. We eat more nutritious food than the generations before us. We have more psychological freedom than the generations before us. For the first time in a long long time, we have started taking happiness seriously. Even in the middle of a war, the average citizen stays untouched by tragedy. Basically, as a society, we have everything needed to optimize our intrinsic biological beauty, should we choose to do so.

Now, is it perfect? Of course not. Everything that I have mentioned above is absolutely false for a large section of society. And we definitely are in the middle of a pandemic too (though how untouched by it, so many of us are, also goes to say something). But this is probably the closest to perfect we have reached in a long time. And so it is time we started appreciating the beauty in us. It is time we stopped being scared of it. It is time we started embracing it, working with it. And it is also time we stopped taking it so seriously. It is time we started playing with it, experimenting with it. And finally, it is time we start growing comfortable with the idea of putting it on display. If there is beauty, there is beauty. It should not matter what form it takes.

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