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.


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

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.


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


[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.