Musings

The Problem with “Beautiful”

I am generally all for the overall expansion of our culture’s idea of what is “beautiful.”  It’s fantastic that we are seeing a greater acceptance of various body types and stylistic preferences within our concept of beauty.

That being said, when I saw this on Facebook the other night, a small part of me sighed in exasperation.[1]

Cancer Barbie

Now, I understand where this person is coming from.  Showing girls with cancer bald Barbies and telling them, “look!  Barbie doesn’t have hair either, just like you!  That means that you can be beautiful even without hair!” might yield some positive results in the short term. There’s a good chance that some of them would really enjoy this and would feel better about their situation.

The problem that I have with this is that doing so reinforces for them the idea that beauty is the ultimate goal and a major source of a person’s worth.[2]

Nowadays, it seems like when we as a culture want to convey the idea that something is “good”, we do so by calling it “beautiful.”[3]  Unfortunately, it’s easy to then follow that linguistic trajectory to the understanding that, for something to be good, it must be beautiful.[4]

I do not have a child with cancer, nor do I know any children who are going through cancer treatment.  But, if I did, I believe that I would prefer to take this approach with them while dealing with the issue of self-worth:

You is Kind

I’m of the opinion that believing this about yourself does more for your self-esteem than believing yourself to be beautiful ever could.

I think that, in a situation when you’re dealing with a child who is going through an ordeal that makes them feel different and undesirable, what they really need is honesty and perspective, not a Barbie doll.  No, they do not currently fit the beauty standards of their culture.

You could deny to them that this is the case.  Or, alternately, you can impress upon them the understanding that they are not made worse by that fact.

Disconnecting a child’s sense of self-worth from their physical appearance is probably one of the best things you can do for them.  As cliché as it sounds, beauty is fleeting.  And if that’s where they find their worth as a human being, they’re going to be pretty miserable when they don’t match up to the cultural standard.

Would it not be better for someone who is naturally outside the cultural definition of beauty to spend more time growing and developing as a person and less time counting calories, applying cosmetics, and exercising at the gym?  For that matter, wouldn’t it be better if we all used as least as much time to better ourselves mentally, spiritually, and emotionally as we do focusing on our appearance?

Maybe I’m alone in this, but I’d much rather have a coffee with a person who was interesting, or clever, or funny, or imaginative, or intelligent, or insightful than I would with someone who was just beautiful.

Over the years, I have been privileged to know several people whom I honestly could not describe in terms of physical attractiveness.  I haven’t a clue how physically beautiful they are because they have such vibrant, radiant spirits that my mind literally cannot think of them as anything but attractive.  “Attractiveness” is not, after all, synonymous with “beauty.”  An attractive person simply has something about them that makes other people want to be around them.

Feeling beautiful is undeniably nice.  Feeling the opposite is something that we all have experienced and can probably agree is not particularly enjoyable.  But maybe if we stopped using “beautiful” as the highest (and, often times, default) praise for anything and everything, feeling physically unattractive, whether because of chemotherapy or for other reasons, wouldn’t seem like such a big deal.


[1] Small, but vocal and opinionated.

[2] Equating Barbie with beauty in this way can also lead to body image issues down the road, but I digress.

[3] Seriously, keep an ear out for this word.  Everything is “beautiful,” nowadays.  I’ve even heard it used as an interjection in the same way someone might use the word, “great!”

[4] My original title for this post was, “What Else is There?” a la Swan Princess, but I decided that it might be a little too lighthearted for the subject matter.

Xboxes are for Everyone

Historically speaking, I have not spent much time around children.[1]  My family lives in a very rural area and most of my neighbors are old enough that their kids are either grown up and moved away or in their later high school years.  I do like kids, though, so when I encounter one, I tend to take notice.[2]

Such was the case last week, while I was at work.  I work at Best Buy, specifically with the Geek Squad.  Not many kids come in needing computer help, though I have very much enjoyed assisting those few who have.  Usually, when there is a child in the store, they are either grumpily playing with their smartphones[3], screaming because everything in the world is terrible[4], or running around while their parents attempt to keep them from getting into too much trouble.[5]

I happened upon a little girl and her mother while walking to the back of the store the other day.  She was probably a little less than one year old and was toddling around a few feet ahead of her mother.  When I saw her, she was pointing at the Xbox display and giggling.

My immediate thought was something along the lines of “Awww, good choice, kid!”  I smiled and walked on past, but nearly tripped when I heard what her mother said next:

“Those are for boys, sweetie!  Can you say that?  ‘For boys!’

This was said in a singsong voice, as if she was explaining to her daughter what a duck was.  It was pointing out the obvious, instructing her as to the simple facts of life.

Naturally, I was horrified.  In the interest of being professional, I didn’t attempt to reeducate the woman, but I couldn’t help but look back in shock after I heard this.  She did a bit of a double-take when she saw me in my uniform, but that was the extent of our interaction.

Now, I’m not going to make the argument that this little girl was obviously interested in video games and her mother was shutting down her hopes and dreams.  She’s one.  The Xbox display was colorful and shiny.  That is what caught her interest, not what was actually being advertised.

While this is adorable, she’s probably playing “Jump Start Preschool,” not World of Warcraft.

I am going to say that I truly pity this little girl because she has a parent who so obviously has very strict opinions on what is and what isn’t a suitable interest for a woman to pursue.  If this is a woman who is teaching her daughter from this age that video games are exclusively for boys, I shudder to think of what else this child will be raised with.

The world is a huge and wonderful place with countless amazing things that are worth pursuing.  We are blessed with the opportunity to follow what catches our interests, to chase after them and experience the joy of learning and exploring that which we consider to be important and appealing.

I don’t understand taking a child, a tiny human being with limitless potential, and imposing such a limit on them before they can even tie their shoes.  Placing restraints on what it is and isn’t okay to like is, in my opinion, a recipe for disaster.

Suppose this little girl is the perfect image of femininity, according to her parents.  If so, great!  Everyone is happy.  But, if she isn’t, that is going to cause some trouble, within the family and/or within herself.  What if she has the potential to be an amazing programmer?  Or what if she’s gifted in math and would be happy and successful as a physicist?  Would she even realize her potential in this area if she has been told since birth that that kind of thing is “for boys”?

Or would she spend her life trying to fit into a mold that is unnatural and uncomfortable for her, either being miserable in the role in which she has been cast or eventually rebelling against it, potentially harming familial relationships because of the family’s expectations of her?

I’m of the opinion that people have the right to decide who they are.  Parental guidance is, of course, important, but so is respect for one’s child.  They are people, too – just smaller, inexperienced, and significantly clumsier.  It isn’t fair or, frankly, realistic for anyone to decide what another person is or will be in the future.

So, no, little one.  Xboxes are not just for boys.  Xboxes are for people who like video games.  And it’s okay for both boys and girls to like to play video games.  Heck, it’s even okay for them to like to play those games together!

But, you know what?  It’s also okay for you to not like video games.  There is no rule that says that girls must like A, B, and C and boys must like X, Y, and Z.  And, if there is, it’s a rule that people have made up in order for them to make sense of their world and has nothing to do with you.  If you do like A, B, and C, rock on!  Those things can be interesting and worthy of pursuit!  But don’t be afraid of your interest in Y, either.

Even if you are a girl who likes shoes, makeup, and romantic comedies, that doesn’t mean that you can’t also like Xboxes.  Because Xboxes are for everyone.

EVERYONE.


[1] My little sisters don’t count, as I was a child alongside them.

[2] At least, I think I like kids.  Like I said, I haven’t collected that much data on the subject.

[3] These are usually the older kids, though not exclusively.

[4] These are usually the very young kids, though not exclusively.

[5] …or while their wives attempt to keep them from getting in too much trouble.

One Foggy Day

I live in Michigan and, if there’s one thing we have in abundance, it’s water.  The Great Lakes alone contains about 84% of the fresh water in North America, which is somewhere around 6 quadrillion gallons of water.[1] [2]  And that’s not even counting our 46,199 inland lakes.[3]

The point is that Michigan is a rather damp state.  We also have really inconsistent weather, which means that it can be a good 40 degrees cooler in the morning than it will be in the afternoon.

I like this fact because it results in a lot of really nice fog.  I love fog.  Foggy mornings were, by far, my favourites on the days I had to ride the bus to school.  I live in a very rural area and the sides of the road would have miniature clouds hovering above the wetlands that are pretty much everywhere around here.  On those mornings (and I use that term loosely because it was at least an hour before sunrise), I used to daydream about dressing up in white and just standing in a fogbank by the road to freak people out.

Though that idea has not entirely lost its appeal, my idle thoughts on foggy days have since grown a bit more sophisticated and have evolved into a three-phase (ish) process.

  • Identification: “Hey, that’s fog!”
  • Evaluation: “That fog is pretty!”
  • Reflection: “Why do I think that the fog is pretty?”[4]

I feel comfortable in assuming that most people agree with me that foggy days often have positive aesthetic value.  A scene like this is, I’d suggest, fairly universally beautiful.

Photo courtesy of Terri Moore Photography http://terrimoorephotography.squarespace.com/

The puzzling thing about that fact is that we judge something to be beautiful when we can’t see it very well.  In fact, I would argue that we judge it to be beautiful because we can’t see it very well.

When you look at something close up, you see it in complete detail.  Everything that is good about it is evident, but so is everything that isn’t as good.  Even when the positive aspects of the object in question outweigh the flaws, the flaws do tend to build up in our minds so that we think of that object as beautiful in spite of its flaws instead of just beautiful.

However, when something is shrouded in a light fog (or strategically draped clothing, or a fresh coat of paint), you see it in a much less detailed way.  The general form of the object is visible, but the flaws are hidden.  And, as we all know, humans are exceptionally good at ignoring problems we can’t see.

On the other hand, we’re also really good at imagining problems we can’t see and that probably aren’t real.  While fog can add an ethereal beauty to a landscape, it can also inspire fear, as evidenced by such horror films as The Fog:

There’s nothing scarier than an army of oversized Jawas.[5]

I know that I prefer to be in environments where I can see what is going on around me.  It’s a survival instinct – if you don’t know that the dinosaur is standing behind you, you don’t know to run away.[6]  When fog is thick enough to actually conceal what is around you, it can get reclassified from “beautiful” to “dangerous”.   After all, anything could be hiding in the fog, just waiting to attack you as you stand, blindly, unaware of its approach.  And, even though there’s probable nothing there, we tend to invent a few attackers if we look at the fog long enough.

Perhaps what we see in the fog are not really solid objects, but the idea of the thing.  A tree shrouded in mist can be what we visualize as the perfect tree in a way that a completely visible tree cannot.  Likewise, the monsters in our minds tend to be hiding in the fog, as well.

When we can see things perfectly, we will generally admit that they are not perfect.  When we cannot see them at all, we open ourselves up to worry about what might be lurking out of sight.  A light fog seems to be the middle ground between sight and blindness, between knowledge and ignorance, that we can find truly and perfectly beautiful.


[1]http://www.great-lakes.net/lakes/ref/lakefact.html

[2] Yes, “quadrillion.” I’m not making that up because “lots” wasn’t big enough.

[3] http://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,4570,7-153-10364_52261_63251-160092–,00.html

[4] There’s always been a Step Three, but it was previously “plan practical joke”, not “form thoughtful response”.

[5] I have not seen this movie, but I’m guessing my version of the plot is better than the reality.

[6] *Disclaimer* I am not an expert on dinosaur attack survival skills.  This blog post should not be taken as advice as to what to do in the event of a dinosaur attack.

If You’re Happy and You Know it.

When it comes to my mental life, I am very prone to tripping over random phrases or objects and tumbling down a rabbit hole after them.  For example, the other day I was walking through my kitchen, minding my own business, when I happened to glance down at the comics page of my local paper.  There, I saw this comic:

Rose is Rose by Don Wimmer and Pat Brady, 7/7/14

Normally, I don’t care for Rose is Rose; it’s a little too “sunshine and daisies” for my taste.   But this one got me thinking about that song we all used to sing when we were kids.

“If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands.”

For the most part, this is just a silly song that gets kids moving, helps them learn to follow instructions, keeps them out of trouble, etc.  But while we were all clapping our hands, stomping our feet, shouting “hooray!”, and doing whatever else our parents and caretakers could think of, we overlooked something that my slightly more mature brain now finds very interesting.

“If you’re happy – and you know it?

The more cynical and rational portion of my mind promptly suggested that the phrase “and you know it” was tacked onto the first half of the phrase in order to make the song more singable, because “if you’re happy, clap your hands” sounds pretty dumb when you try to sing it to the original tune.  I do concede this point because there’s probably some truth to it.

Meanwhile, most of the rest of my mind chuckled at the ridiculousness of those lyrics.  After all, who the heck doesn’t know when they’re happy?

But then there was that quiet portion of my mind that didn’t fit into the previous two categories that responded, “maybe you don’t.”

I was taken aback by this and proceeded to think about that revelation for the next week or so and will continue to do so, possibly for the rest of my life.  Because if people can be happy and not know it, the implications of that fact are huge.

The pursuit of happiness is central to the human experience.  Arguably, it is our primary drive.[1]  We don’t like something about our lives and/or imagine that our situation could be made better, which is what motivates us to do and build and create.  Action does not arise from apathy, so the pursuit of happiness can be named as a major cause of much of the development of human society, as well as the arts and sciences.  We live the lives we live because our ancestors sought new ways of furthering their happiness and minimizing their unhappiness.  If you look around the room in which you are (I assume) seated, practically everything you see has the primary function of making people happier than they would be without that thing.  Your chair exists because it’s more comfortable to sit on it than on the floor. Your mp3 player exists so you can enjoy music at any time and any place .  Your computer exists so you can watch videos of Maru the Cat.

Because Maru makes everyone happier.

We spend our lives constantly surrounded by objects and experiences that have the primary function of making the human life happier.  And, yet, we’re miserable.  According to the CDC, in 2013, 1 in 10 American adults were taking antidepressants.[2]  While I am not saying that depression isn’t a serious condition and one that shouldn’t be medically treated, what I am suggesting is that maybe we are, as a culture, terribly unobservant.

This wasn’t the conclusion I had in mind when I began writing this post but, through writing it, I’ve decided that I believe that happiness is not something that can be achieved.  It is, however, something that can be experienced. I am aware that this sounds contradictory, but hear me out.[3]

Humans are programmed to want to make their lives better, to be some level of unsatisfied at all times.  This is a good thing.  Dissatisfaction encourages change and growth, which is the natural state of mankind.[4]  That being said, it is important to remember that our focus, to some degree, does determine our reality.[5]  If we allow ourselves to be entirely focused on our drive to improve our lives, we risk not experiencing our own current happiness.

Sometimes, when you improve something, you’re taking something that is “bad” and making it “good,” like when a family restores a broken-down house.  That isn’t always the case, though.  Often times, when you’re improving something, you’re taking something that is already “good” and making it “better,” like when cooking or re-writing a computer program so that it runs more quickly and efficiently.  The fact that a thing or a situation can be made better does not necessarily mean that its original state was “bad.”

I don’t believe that it is possible for humans to create an object or situation that is so perfect that it cannot be improved, which means that “perfect happiness” is likewise impossible to achieve.  Thankfully, plain, ol’, run-of-the-mill happiness is still pretty great.  We just tend to ignore it while we look for things to improve.

This has been a real eye-opener for me and I’m fairly certain that I’m not going to look at my life in quite the same way after reaching this conclusion.  While there is a great deal that I would change in my life had I the means to do so, I think that I am, overall, fairly happy in my current situation.  And, if I remember correctly, that probably means that I should start clapping my hands more often.


 [1] Some of you will protest this statement, saying that there are more important motivators, such as seeking food and shelter.  I would respond by pointing out that it’s a lot easier to be happy when you’re not starving or dying from exposure, so pursuing food and shelter is pursuing happiness.

[2]http://www.cms.gov/Medicare-Medicaid-Coordination/Fraud-Prevention/Medicaid-Integrity-Education/Pharmacy-Education-Materials/Downloads/ad-adult-factsheet.pdf

[3] Since you’re reading this instead of listening to it, I suppose this should be “so read me out.”  That phrase, however, has an entirely different meaning than the one I was attempting to convey and I’d rather people didn’t do that.

[4] This subject will definitely get its own blog post in the future, which I why I’m not expanding on it now.

[5] Yes, I did just quote Star Wars: Episode I.  Sue me.  Qui-Gon Jinn is awesome.