She’s sitting across from me in a pub. It’s well after dark and the shadows are closing in around her. It’s cool outside, so she has elegantly wrapped a thick, black, impeccably embroidered Kashmiri shaal around her shoulders. Her hair is pulled back, as she used to wear it back then, and she’s leaning into the back of her seat. The smile on her face is perfect: it’s the final second of a closed-mouth smile, before her mouth comes open and she gives me that big, bright, loving smile that I’ve seen so many times since then. Her lips are pursed, her head angled to the side, and her eyes are absolutely gleaming at me.
It is a vision of pure beauty.
Not quite eight years ago, through dumb luck, I managed to capture a photograph of the exact moment – the precise second – I realized that my wife is the most beautiful woman I had, and have, ever seen in my whole life. I don’t mean that the photograph is a favorite photograph I have of her. No, I mean that even had I not snapped that photograph, that moment would still be the moment I came to that appraisal of her. It was just my dumb luck that I happened to be taking her photograph when I realized it. Lucky me.
There are two reasons why I’m not including that photograph in this blog post. First, I’m not going to plaster my personal life all over a public forum. Take that, Kim Kardashian! Second, even if I did, nobody else would see in that photo the same image I just described. They’d see only a pretty young woman smiling for the camera. It’s not that you had to be there, it’s that you couldn’t have been there – you weren’t me. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
You have to take your own photograph.
I suspect that most people will have a similar experience at some point in their lives. Those of us who have had such an experience tend to look at beauty in a different way than it is commonly discussed. If you read a lot of magazines – especially women’s magazines – you’re accustomed to the concept of “beauty” being discussed as follows:
The objectification and scrutiny we put women through is absurd and disturbing. The way I am portrayed by the media is simply a reflection of how we see and portray women in general, measured against some warped standard of beauty. Sometimes cultural standards just need a different perspective so we can see them for what they really are — a collective acceptance… a subconscious agreement. We are in charge of our agreement. Little girls everywhere are absorbing our agreement, passive or otherwise. And it begins early. The message that girls are not pretty unless they’re incredibly thin, that they’re not worthy of our attention unless they look like a supermodel or an actress on the cover of a magazine is something we’re all willingly buying into. This conditioning is something girls then carry into womanhood. We use celebrity “news” to perpetuate this dehumanizing view of females, focused solely on one’s physical appearance, which tabloids turn into a sporting event of speculation. Is she pregnant? Is she eating too much? Has she let herself go? Is her marriage on the rocks because the camera detects some physical “imperfection”?
That’s Jennifer Aniston in The Huffington Post, writing about how she is “fed up” with celebrity journalists speculating about whether or not she is pregnant. She continues:
Here’s where I come out on this topic: we are complete with or without a mate, with or without a child. We get to decide for ourselves what is beautiful when it comes to our bodies. That decision is ours and ours alone. Let’s make that decision for ourselves and for the young women in this world who look to us as examples. Let’s make that decision consciously, outside of the tabloid noise. We don’t need to be married or mothers to be complete. We get to determine our own “happily ever after” for ourselves.
This would be an empowering message indeed, were it not delivered to me through a medium that funds itself on display advertisements. Here’s a screen-capture of the specific advertisement that The Huffington Post chose to display for me while I read this article.
NB: the media doesn’t actually care what standard of beauty it perpetuates, as long as there is a high click-through rate. If a picture of Irina Shayk doesn’t get you clicking over to JC Penny dot com, then media is more than happy to send you an ad with a bit more, shall we say, gravitas.
Someone really smart wrote a whole article about this we’re-all-beautiful-now-buy-my-face-cream bait-and-switch. I won’t repeat it here, but do read the whole thing. It’s tempting to call Aniston a hypocrite for using a tirade against external standards of beauty to promote external standards of beauty. But I take it on good faith that Aniston believes what she wrote. That her chosen platform merely used her to sell her audience JC Penny clothing is not actually her fault. That’s just how the machine works.
Furthermore, Aniston’s message is actually a good one, an important one. I don’t think she’s wrong, I just wonder whether her article is reflective of a diminished ability to talk about beauty outside the context of public-facing images. This is why I introduced this post with a discussion of the beauty in an image you cannot see. You have to think about it instead. Moreover, if you’ve lived through a similar experience, you have a mental reference to a concept of beauty that exists independent of ads for yoga pants, no matter how fat or slim the models are.
Words Fail Us
But, specifically, what do I mean?
For one thing, there’s something very unsatisfying about a beautiful, famous celebrity arguing from authority that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Now in her late forties, Aniston is finally experiencing the kind of negative attention that the less-beautiful have experienced all their lives. Her Wikipedia entry, for example, notes:
In 2005, Aniston became the first-ever GQ Woman of the Year. She has frequently appeared on People‘s annual list of “Most Beautiful Women“, and was number-one in 2004 and recently in 2016. She also topped the magazine’s Best Dressed List in 2006. She has been a regular on FHM‘s 100 Sexiest Women list since 1996, ranking at number 79 in 2012, number 81 in 2010, number 24 in 2009 and number 27 in 2008. In 2011, The Daily Telegraph reported the most sought after body parts of the rich and famous revealed by two Hollywood plastic surgeons who carried out a survey among their patients to build up the picture of what the perfect woman would look like. Under the category of the most sought after body shape, Aniston was voted in the top three, alongside Gisele Bündchen and Penélope Cruz. In the same year, readers of Men’s Health magazine voted Aniston the “Sexiest Woman of All Time”.
Don’t get me wrong, I think her heart was in the right place. It’s just that the beautiful people are always the first to tell us that it’s inner beauty that counts, having never lived a life in which inner beauty was all that there was to offer.
One might object that this is a cynical, unfair criticism to make, but if that’s what you’re thinking, then I caution you that you might have misunderstood me here. If we need to hear from the “Sexiest Woman of All Time” that beauty doesn’t matter, then we’re still subconsciously bound to an external authority, a Final Arbiter of Beauty, who gets to settle the matter once and for all. You don’t need Jennifer Aniston to “okay” it in order to tell yourself you’re beautiful, so why does it matter that she said it?
In the old days, beauty was considered rare, something only few possessed. The rest of us had to be otherwise talented: smart, good at doing something, reliable, trustworthy, kind, loyal, whatever. In today’s world, we have a separate problem: we believe that everyone deserves to be beautiful. This implies that everyone can be beautiful, i.e. that it is even possible.
And that belief is the one that comes from the media. That’s the one that causes all the problems. That’s the one that Jennifer Aniston herself is perpetuating. Anyone can be beautiful, anyone! You just have to decide for yourself what that means!
Here we thought we were talking about beauty, and now we’re talking about self-image. Aniston tells us that we can all be beautiful if we change our self-image. She says we can be “complete with or without a mate, with or without a child.” But she never say that we can be complete without beauty. It probably didn’t even occur to her.
The Beholder, Not The Beheld
Get out of your own head for a minute. Being ugly isn’t a self-esteem problem. Being old, getting overweight, losing your position as the Sexiest Woman of All Time… none of these things are self-esteem problems. They are esteem problems, but not self-esteem problems. So Jennifer Aniston isn’t really upset that the media holds her to an impossible standard; she’s upset that she has held herself to the media’s standard.
I wasn’t casting society’s objectifying yoke on my then-girlfriend’s shoulders when I took that glorious picture of her. I wasn’t thinking about society at all. I was simply bathing in the warm gaze of the two most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, not the beheld.