by Sara Protasi
As soon as the summer season approaches, the internet is inundated with articles and slideshows with such titles as: 37 Totally Perfect Bikini Bodies. Rule No.1: there are no rules or 9 Stunning Bodies That Shatter Society’s Stereotypes About the ‘Perfect’ Body and with memes that suggest that, in order to have a perfect bikini body, one just needs to have a body and wear a bikini, because “every body is beautiful.” These popular articles are grounded in the feminist imperative of dismantling sexist and oppressive aesthetic norms that harm women. But what kind of aesthetic ideal lies behind the slogan?
Image description: This is a black and white photo of a woman in a bikini. It’s a rear view shot and she’s standing at the edge of the beach. Licensed under creative commons. Bikini Beach Days by micadew.
Philosopher Sherri Irvin has recently proposed a sophisticated articulation of this view (in a yet-to-be-published paper). Irvin proposes an original model of aesthetic practice that she calls aesthetic exploration. In short, aesthetic exploration involves a tendency to approach an object carefully seeking it out its aesthetic affordances with the specific intent of finding pleasure in them, and a tendency to do so with a sense of curiosity and adventure. Every body is beautiful because all human bodies are replete of features such as colors, textures, forms, possibilities of movement, and so forth. If one can’t see that, if one sees a human body as ugly, that means that one has not properly and carefully cultivated the right attitude.
Irvin’s view is very appealing, and it encourages us to engage in an enriching activity. But can it function as the feminist ideal of bodily beauty that we are looking for? I worry that the very strength of this view, its inclusivity, is also its major weakness: according to this view, nobody can fail short of the ideal, provided they are gazed at in the appropriate way. But I worry that this view isn’t as aspirational and empowering as the ideal we are looking for.
When everybody meets the standard of beauty, there is no need to appeal to it, because it does no work of weeding the non-beautiful from the beautiful. It is a psychological fact of human nature that we care about being beautiful because it sets us apart from others. If everybody were all equally beautiful, we would come to care a lot less about beauty.
So maybe when we say that every body is beautiful, we don’t mean it literally. What we mean is that there are many ways of being beautiful, many more than conventional standards of beauty allow for: fat women, muscly women, androgynous women, and so forth—all these women can be beautiful.
But once we start looking for more inclusive standards, another worry arises: where do we draw the line between the beautiful and the non-beautiful? Let me quickly consider two plausible candidates.
First, someone might argue that, while fat women are beautiful, very obese ones are not. But we have evidence showing that obese people are greatly harmed by conventional ideals of beauty that deem them as ‘disgusting’, and they are discriminated against in many other settings. Therefore, we have ethical reasons to resist the suggestion that obese people are ugly just in virtue of their obesity.
Another possibility would be “health”: healthy women are beautiful. This suggestion is, however problematic, according to a disability-positive perspective. Within this framework we find the idea that disabled, thus conventionally “unhealthy” and “dysfunctional” bodies, can be, and in fact have been throughout the history of art, sources of beauty, as illustrated in the work of Tobin Siebers, a recently-deceased disability studies scholar. The disability aesthetics perspective makes it impossible to draw a line by using any traditional standard of bodily beauty, such as proportionality of limbs, symmetry and so forth.
Interpreting the idea that “everybody is beautiful” in this way, then, fails at being sufficiently inclusive, and thus falls short on its ethical motivations. In order to find a satisfying ideal of bodily beauty, we have to look outside of the purely aesthetic domain.
We often talk of internal beauty, of being beautiful on the inside. This notion of beauty is metaphorical, but there is a non-metaphorical way in which what is “inside” a person—her spiritual, moral, and intellectual qualities—affect her “outside”: it affects the way people perceive her.
This is especially evident in loving relationships. Imagine someone slowly reciprocating the love of a person previously assessed as unsightly, won over by that person’s internal beauty. Moved by her attraction, she will discover valuable aesthetic features of the beloved, and at some point she will look at her or him, and see beauty. Her perceptions have changed, and, even if and when she falls out of love, she will never look at that person as she used to look at them before loving them. Or think about how we see our children, siblings, parents: our affection makes us go beyond their aging, their physical flaws, their imperfections. Every loving parent sees their infant as the most perfect creature on earth, even when bystanders (secretly) beg to differ.
So when we say that everybody is beautiful, I think that we mean that any body can be an appropriate object of a loving gaze. According to this view, the most beautiful individuals are the most lovable ones, independently of what they look like from the outside. Some not-so-lovable individuals will retain some degree of beauty, because they are still appropriate object of love from the perspective of some people (for instance, their mothers) but will not be very beautiful, even if they look good from the perspective of conventional standards. Finally, others may be so underserving of love that those who can look inside them will see them as utterly ugly, like Patrick Bateman.
This view of bodily beauty is inspirational, empowering and inclusive.
Of course, personal preferences may still be at play, as they are in our loving relationships. That everybody is beautiful does not mean that every particular individual will actually see everybody else as beautiful. This is a view about who can be objectively assessed as beautiful. And the answer is: (almost) anyone
This post is an abbreviated version of an academic paper that can be found here: https://philpapers.org/rec/SARTPB
I’m an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at University of Puget Sound. My current research focuses on emotions, in particular love and envy. You can find more professional information here: http://saraprotasi.weebly.com/ I trained semi-professionally as a ballet dancer, and consider myself a dancer as much as a philosopher. I’m also a mother of daughters, and I hope they both grow up to kick ass and be compassionate human beings. My partner is a feminist and teaches philosophy as well.