“You could see the signs of female aging as diseased, especially if you had a vested interest in making women too see them your way. Or you could see that a woman is healthy if she lives to grow old; as she thrives, she reacts and speaks and shows emotion, and grows into her face. Lines trace her thought and radiate from the corners of her eyes as she smiles. You could call the lines a network of ‘serious lesions’ or you could see that in a precise calligraphy, thought has etched marks of concentration between her brows, and drawn across her forehead the horizontal creases of surprise, delight, compassion and good talk. A lifetime of kissing, of speaking and weeping, shows expressively around a mouth scored like a leaf in motion. The skin loosens on her face and throat, giving her features a setting of sensual dignity; her features grow stronger as she does. She has looked around in her life and it shows. When gray and white reflect in her hair, you could call it a dirty secret or you could call it silver or moonlight. Her body fills into itself, taking on gravity like a bather breasting water, growing generous with the rest of her. The darkening under her eyes, the weight of her lids, their minute cross-hatching, reveal that what she has been part of has left in her its complexity and richness. She is darker, stronger, looser, tougher, sexier. The maturing of a woman who has continued to grow is a beautiful thing to behold.”
I read an article in the Style section of The New York Times the other day called, “You Won’t Look Like Sharon Stone at 59.” Now, this is not news to me. I am not even disappointed. Because I have had many, many years — indeed decades — to adjust to this truth. I will never look like Sharon Stone and there was never a time in my life when that would’ve been a possible “look” for me. For starters, she’s taller than I am (though at 5’7″, not nearly as much taller as I thought she was). And she’s got short blond hair (well, okay, I’ve got short blond hair too). And she’s white and a model and an actress known for her beauty.
Sharon Stone is gorgeous and has been since the first day I laid eyes on her (I think it was when I saw Basic Instinct). We all know this about her. And I do not begrudge her her beauty one bit.
But I had to roll my eyes when the lengthy article that goes into painstaking detail about her beauty and fitness regime, naming specific products and where she gets them and so on, ended with this:
Also, for me, it’s more about real inner beauty. It’s important to have a philosophy or way of life or faith that keeps you balanced. For me, that has been Buddhism. It’s something that brings you back to center, and is really the key to serenity and beauty — an internal sense of form and elegance.
Now maybe she has this. I mean, I like the neutrality of Buddhism too and though I wouldn’t say I’m Buddhist, I’m naturally drawn to some of its tenets. But the simple fact is, whatever she would like it to be about, it’s a rare confluence of many forms of privilege that allows her to eschew the outer for the inner. I mean, would it be as easy to say, “I’m really all about inner beauty,” if she didn’t already have the conventional good looks of a blond, thin, white Hollywood celebrity?
Just to be clear, the article is as follows: Three detailed paragraphs about skin care are followed by an additional SEVEN about make-up (granted there was a two paragraph foray in to false eyelashes that she devoted several hours to learning to do herself). Then we get a couple of lines about fragrance (Chanel No. 5), three paragraphs on hair (she cuts her own but goes to a salon for color), and a little synopsis about “other services” (regular massage and a steamer in her shower). Finally, we get a paragraph on diet (no processed food, no caffeine, very little soda or alcohol, no gluten because celiac, meat and dark chocolate, a bit of sugar in her tea … and other than that “I just eat like a person — whatever I’m hungry for.”) And then there is that paragraph about how what really matters is inner beauty.
So why the long account of the ins and outs of the outer routine? It’s just not convincing. And I like Sharon Stone (I remember the time she wore something from The Gap to the Oscars — no “who are you wearing?” for her that night! The Gap!).
But don’t go into all that detail about your beauty routine and then end by saying you’re all about inner beauty. You’re not. You’re gorgeous, have always been gorgeous, spend a bit of time and money maintaining your goregous-ness (which is fine), and wouldn’t have the life you have today if you didn’t look like that. I need more proof that Sharon Stone actually believes it’s all about inner beauty.
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
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.
Because of my size, I have to lose a lot of weight before I get compliments on my changing shape.
The complications that follow from dealing with the well meaning noters of weight loss is a whole other post. Needless to say it’s overwhelming, dispiriting, and a big mess. More about this later.
But inevitably, without fail, the first thing people do notice is wrinkles. They don’t say that. No one ever says, “Wow you look wrinkly.” (Okay, teenagers might.)
Friends say, “You look tired.”
“Have you been working out too much?”
“Getting enough sleep?”
But I know that what they are noticing (since I notice them too) are new lines on my face.
It fascinates me that people don’t associate this change with weight loss. Since all weight loss is positive, on mainstream accounts of beauty, any bad effects must be due to something else, like sudden onset aging or lack of sleep.
When I lose weight I lose first and fastest from my face and then my waist.
And a sad fact about my age: it’s either thin body or smooth skin. Take your pick. You can’t have both.
My mother and I share this, plump faces and smooth skin.
So many people compliment me on looking young, but they don’t even consider that it’s a side effect of being overweight.
Writing about fasting, Krista Scott Dixon sounds like she actually likes her skinny face but she’s younger than me, fewer wrinkles.
“I loved the way my face looked as my bodyfat dwindled. Leonine, I said to myself, looking at my chiseled jaw. Androfemme. I enjoyed the feel of both of these words in my mouth. My father had other words for it. You look like you just got out of a prison camp, he said. (Actually he said Auschwitz. But he has a flair for inappropriate hyperbole. Please excuse him. As you can see, the acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree. Love you dad!)
Your face! So skinny! said the coffee shop barista. (Yes, the barista.) Drink more milk.
You have your thin wrinkles, said my quasi-Aspie friend with no internal editor. You know, the wrinkles you get when you’re too thin. Right there, around your mouth.”
It sounds like the dreaded skinny face only happens to Krista when she’s at her very leanest. The sad part for me is that it happens first. Luckily I can live with the wrinkles if I get to go up hills faster and keep my hips, knees, and ankles happy for another thirty years or more. That’s the reason why I’d like to be leaner even though it’s clear to me that being fat and fit are perfectly consistent.
I’m typically not bothered much by traditional standards of beauty and whether or not I match them. Life’s too short. We all die in the end. The people who care about mainstream beauty don’t much interest me much anyway so why should I be concerned with what they think?
“We all die in the end anyway” might strike you as a gloomy thing to think or say. But really once you adjust to that big piece of bad news everything is small potatoes. It’s quite liberating. The joys of philosophy.
But as you might imagine there’s lots of angsty ink spilled in women’s magazines about this conundrum. Here’s a snippet:
There’s an old saying that, as you get older, you need to choose between your face and your rear end. In other words, if you’re skinny you’ll look good from behind, but your face will suffer.
Depressing as it may seem, there is some truth to the saying. A couple of studies have found that women with a low body mass index (BMI) have increased skin aging — including one study of identical twins. When the twins were under age 40, the heavier twin looked older. But after age 40, it was the thinner twin who looked older
Do skinny women just look older, or do they actually have more wrinkles? Actually, both are true. “In general what happens is, as your BMI goes lower you lose some volume of soft tissue, particularly over the age of 40,” explains Robert Weiss, MD, Dermatologist at the Maryland Laser Skin and Vein Institute, Associate Professor of Dermatology at Johns Hopkins University, and Fellow with the American Academy of Dermatology. “When you lose that volume of soft tissue, the wrinkles do either become deeper or more noticeable.”