She was not beautiful, but she looked like she was. She was practically famous for it in the cloistered social universe of the liberal arts college where I had just arrived. Women whispered about her effortless elegance in the bathrooms at parties, and a man who had dated her for a summer informed me, with the dispassionate assurance of a connoisseur, that she was the hottest girl on campus. The skier who brazenly dozed in Introduction to Philosophy each morning intimated between snores that she looked like Uma Thurman, whom she did not resemble in the least. I knew this even though I had yet to see her for myself, because I had done what anyone with an appetite for truth and beauty would do in 2011, besides enroll in Introduction to Philosophy: I had studied her profile on Facebook—and discovered, much to my surprise and chagrin, an entirely average-looking person, slightly hunched, with a mop of mousy hair.
Her? I thought. This is the great beauty I’ve heard so much about? I was a freshman and prepared to be impressed by my elders, but as I clicked through photo after photo, I could not escape the conclusion that she took after my ancestors. Yes, I nodded as I scrolled grimly on, she had the sickly countenance of an Eastern European peasant at the turn of the century. It was true that she was leggy and lithe, but she also had a great beak of a nose and hands that hung heavily at her sides. I was enormously disillusioned. Could the proto-adult world provide nothing more inspiring than this spectral personage, so evidently lactose-intolerant? Was I doomed to a life of aesthetic deflations?
Weeks later, when I glimpsed her in person at last, I was dis-disillusioned. It wasn’t that I had been wrong, exactly: she did look malnourished and possibly tubercular. But what she lacked in anatomical perfection she made up for in physical charisma, of the sort that athletes and dancers and other vitally corporeal types emanate as they move. She swept into the party in a jangle of jewelry and a blur of amorphous fabric, her fingers clanking with rings. Space crackled around her. Lesser people dutifully assembled, like royal subjects, to listen to her pontificate about something inane in her smoky, mellifluous voice. She smelled herbal, but glamorously so, and I was mesmerized by the way she gestured, with sharp staccato movements, as if she were conducting a jerky symphony. Years later, when I watched footage of Elizabeth Holmes, I could not shake the sensation that they were somehow twinned, even though they looked nothing alike—the one blonde and hulking, the other gangly and brunette. Both were compelling in a specifically aesthetic way, but neither was even attractive.
The night I watched her holding court, I thought of evolutionary psychologists asking college students to rank photographs of faces in a vain attempt to unravel the mystery of human beauty. I realized that I had unwittingly conducted a similarly stupid experiment: I had mistaken a disembodied photograph on Facebook for a person in motion. Perhaps the object of my fascination was gaunt and sallow out of context, but the fact is, people are trapped in context. They are always standing straight or slumped, always moving through a room with or without poise. This was not a case of someone unphotogenic who looked different in person. She looked exactly like her picture, but what she looked like had become beside the point.
She was beautiful not because of her appearance but in spite of it. A skeptic could still object that she was bony and thin-lipped, and the skeptic would have been right. But the skeptic would also have betrayed a philistine’s fixation on the letter to the exclusion of the spirit. She had succeeded in convincing everyone that she was beautiful—and what does it mean to possess the appearance of beauty, if not to possess beauty itself? Was she the sort of person that Frank O’Hara had in mind when he wrote so enigmatically, “It is easy to be beautiful; it is difficult to appear so”?
I could not shake the conviction that this woman deserved her loveliness, at least to a greater degree than those who were born with nice faces or hourglass forms. My college was an epicenter of “Greek life” (a phrase that I stubbornly persist in linking, emotively, with Plato and Aristophanes, rather than drunken lacrosse players), and it was accordingly overrun with sorority girls. They were thin, improbably buxom and giggly—hot, but fatally predictable. It was no wonder that people were always nursing debilitating crushes on her and not on the gilded creatures who clutched their Longchamp bags at tailgates. If they could have spoken, the infatuated masses would not have demeaned her by claiming she had a “better personality”: they would have said that she was a more beautiful and therefore more interesting person, and they would have been right.
If we were not so prone to treat beauty as evidence of moral worth, we would not be so frequently warned against the temptation. The philosopher Mary Mothersill notes with disapproval in her opus Beauty Restored that “we expect people who are beautiful in one way or the other to be good in every way” and wonders:
Is it that beauty as “good appearance” slips easily into “appearance of good”? Why is it that poisonous blossoms or beautiful witches strike us (apart from practical hazards) as eerie and anomalous? (Of course it works the other way too: Cinderella, being good, needs only a few props and the right setting to be seen as beautiful.)
Tolstoy is more succinct. “It is amazing,” he writes, “how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.” The philosopher Rachel Zuckert deems this the “‘beauty is good’ inference pattern” and notes that it is operative in the many paintings in which “saints, angels, and the Virgin Mary are (for example) consistently represented as beautiful, while devils, demons, and Judas are routinely represented as hideous.”
The conflation of beauty and goodness is generally assumed to be fallacious because beauty is generally assumed to be a natural endowment, as undeserved as cancer. “I knew from a young age that I hadn’t done anything to earn my beauty,” writes the supermodel Emily Ratajkowski with fey insouciance in her debut essay collection. Instead, she claims, it is merely a genetic inheritance, “passed down” by her svelte parents in much the same way that they might gift her “a piece of bequeathed jewelry.” The small handful of scholars who have taken up the question of personal beauty have almost universally accepted the account implicit in Ratajkowski’s remarks.1 Evolutionary psychologists, with their computer-generated images of denuded faces and their fetish for waist-to-hip ratios, have long maintained that a person qualifies as attractive whenever her features (facial symmetry, pronounced secondary sex characteristics, smooth skin and so on) signal to prospective mates that she possesses fitness-enhancing genes. Political philosophers, who often address personal beauty in passing, also tend to speak of the phenomenon as “natural” and, therefore, unearned. On the one occasion when John Rawls discusses the beauty of persons in his monumental A Theory of Justice, he includes it on a list of “natural assets” along with “imagination and wit.” Elizabeth Anderson follows suit in her canonical article “What Is the Point of Equality?,” where she classifies “beauty and other physical features” as “native endowments.”
But there is another tradition in philosophy, one that indulges the urge to treat beauty as some sort of achievement. “We know, we can still see for ourselves, how ugly he was,” writes Nietzsche of Socrates in Twilight of the Idols.
But ugliness, in itself an objection, is among the Greeks almost a refutation. Was Socrates a Greek at all? Ugliness is often enough the expression of a development that has been crossed, thwarted by crossing. Or it appears as declining development. The anthropologists among the criminologists tell us that the typical criminal is ugly: monstrum in fronte, monstrum in animo (‘monster in face, monster in soul’).
Ugliness—in itself an objection, even a refutation! Who is not tempted to see it as such? For our intuitions about beauty are sharply conflicting. We insist that it is natural, but at the same time, we persist in seeing it as a sign of spiritual finesse. We emphasize that it is a matter of luck, but we cannot stop ourselves from treating it as an achievement. And we do not merely appreciate beautiful people in the dispassionate way that we admire dramatic landscapes: we fall in love with them, which suggests that we are induced to view them as holistically worthy people—as masters of some art. So why not? Socrates’s ugliness was, if not quite a moral failing, then at least a character flaw.
Granted, the father of philosophy could not have made his nose less bulbous any more than he could have reversed the retreat of his hairline. But he could at least have invested in nicer sandals, instead of walking around barefoot all the time. He could have designed a more arresting toga. In short, he could have done what the belle who did not look like Uma Thurman did with such verve and originality: he could have reimagined his life as a work of art. It is easy—and underwhelming—to be beautiful (to be born with a small nose). It is difficult—and impressive—to appear so (to muster so much charm that your features cease to matter).
I suspect that everyone has met someone like the woman I admired, someone unassuming who nonetheless manages to surpass the scaffolding of her body by way of her aesthetic ingenuity. There is something heroic about such people. Perhaps this is why they make for many of the most memorable female protagonists in modern literature. In Henry James’s The Golden Bowl, the captivating Charlotte Stant is all out of proportion. Her face is “too narrow and too long, the eyes not large, and the mouth, on the other hand, by no means small, with substance in its lips and a slight, the very slightest, tendency to protrusion in the solid teeth.” Yet there is consensus among the people who populate James’s novel that she is stunningly beautiful. Her eventual husband, the art collector Adam Verver, exclaims, “She’s beautiful, beautiful!” At a party, she seems to glimmer as she advances down the stairs. Her appearance and her clothing “all hung together, melted together, in light and color and sound.” She appeals in part because she is so socially graceful, in part because she is so exquisitely dressed, so adept at exercising what one admiring character calls her “genius” when she pairs unexpected items. Her clothes are “simply the most charming and interesting that any woman had ever put on.” She also appeals because of how she carries herself: her lover prizes “her special beauty of movement and line when she turned her back, and the perfect working of all her main attachments, that of some wonderful finished instrument, something intently made for exhibition.” Moments after he notes that her teeth stick out, he mentally likens her to the work of the “Florentine sculptors.”
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Read more essays like this in our
“What is beauty for?” symposium,
such as “On Superficiality” by Johnny Thakkar.
and “Routine Appearances” by Jess Swoboda.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The woman who drives the eponymous Swann into a frenzy of destructive passion in Swann’s Way is similarly disappointing as a raw physical specimen. Swann is intrigued when a mutual friend describes Odette as “a ravishing creature”—but when he meets her, he finds “her skin too delicate, her cheek-bones too prominent, her features too tightly drawn.” Her eyes are “so large that they seemed to be bending beneath their own weight, straining “the rest of her face” so that she appears “unwell or in an ill humour.” Later, Swann puts a reproduction of a Botticelli that reminds him of Odette on his desk, and he often gazes “at the large eyes, the delicate features in which the imperfection of her skin might be surmised, the marvelous locks of hair that fell along her tired cheeks.” Odette is haggard, pallid and piqued. And yet not only do the lights of Paris society agree that she is “ravishing,” but Swann himself comes to find her so beautiful that he can hardly bear it. He is transfixed for hours by the very image in which the woman’s face, which so closely resembles his lover’s, is so patently “imperfect.” Despite Odette’s flaws, he is impelled to make the same curious comparison as Charlotte’s paramour: she is “his own living Botticelli,” a living, breathing “Florentine masterpiece.”
What accounts for Odette’s widely acknowledged loveliness is the same thing that accounts for Charlotte’s: the spectacle of her self-presentation. “There was never anyone so well turned out as she,” writes Proust. She is a figure of “royal dignity.” When she appears in the park for her constitutional, she puts on a magnificent performance,
letting trail behind her the long train of her lilac skirt, dressed, as the populace imagine queens to be dressed, in rich attire such as no other woman might wear, lowering her eyes now and then to study the handle of her parasol, paying scant attention to the passers-by, as though the important thing for her, her one object in being there, was to take exercise, without thinking that she was seen, and that every head was turned towards her.
Swann finds her beautiful because she “contained in herself what satisfied the utmost refinement of his taste in art”—the frailty, the delicacy, the effervescence.
If beauty is anything like a Botticelli, then it must take work (and means). Even the raw physical traits so esteemed by evolutionary psychologists require effort, resources and, occasionally, dramatic medical interventions. Ratajkowski admits as much when, shortly after describing her looks as a stroke of good fortune, she also happens to mention that she took up smoking in an effort to skip meals. A person’s beauty depends on, among other things, her diet, her Peloton subscription, her hairdresser, her plastic surgeon, her orthodontist and her dermatologist. By extension, it depends on her income (although both Charlotte and Odette become such virtuosos in part because their straitened circumstances compel them to develop their creative capacities in especially innovative ways).
But beyond the narrowly bodily qualities that turn out to be so surprisingly irrelevant to beauty is the more important matter of style, which involves a whole coterie of cosmetics, costumes and choreographers in its own right. Not for nothing do Charlotte and Odette’s lovers make so many allusions to art. One thing they mean to be stressing is that they are responding with such helpless ardor to aesthetic value in particular. It isn’t that Swann loves Odette for her intellect (he regards her as vulgar and stupid) or her moral scruples (he dismisses her as selfish and vain). Nor is he drawn to that inferior good, the consolation prize of “inner beauty,” of the sort that Socrates’s suitor imputes to the outwardly misshapen philosopher in a drunken rant in the Symposium. No, Swann is openly besotted with Odette’s surface, almost in defiance of her personality, which he can barely tolerate.
James and Proust also mean to emphasize that beauty is a matter of artifice, of design and deliberation—not that its cunning makes it one iota less substantial. In a story by the great French writer Colette, the narrator responds to a friend who protests that cosmetics conceal her “real face”:
No. Your real face is in the drawer of your dressing table … Your real face is a warm, matte pink tending toward fawn, set off high on the cheeks by a glimmer of deep carmine, well blended and nearly translucent—which stops just under the lower eyelid, where it disappears deep into a bluish gray, barely visible, spread up to the brow.
Beauty, like art (Florentine or otherwise), is a feat not of nature but of imagination. Thus, beauty, like art, is an accomplishment: it may not be goodness, but it is still something to be proud of.
On the one hand, the insight that beauty is not a natural endowment promises to be freeing. Biology is not fate, both because it is alterable and because it is less important than style and sensibility. If beauty is achieved, not bequeathed, then its bases can be redistributed, and access to its rewards can be equalized. This is not to say that everyone would be equally beautiful if everyone had the time, money and aesthetic education to transform the self into a work of art. Some people would stubbornly persist in having poor taste, while others would simply remain indifferent to the arts. Still, vastly more people would care, and everyone would at least have the chance to.
On the other hand, the revelation that we are responsible for our beauty might seem to impose unsavory obligations. The cosmetics entrepreneur Helena Rubinstein once remarked, notoriously, that “there are no ugly women, only lazy ones.” In a way, she was right: there are no people (or at least, very few people) beyond cosmetic salvation. But in a more obvious way, she was wrong: plainly, there are good reasons to devote time and energy to nonaesthetic pursuits. Not everyone has to be a great artist, and as much as I like to rib Socrates, it was his prerogative to focus on philosophy to the detriment of his wardrobe. Beauty is a genuine good, but there are other genuine goods. The pursuit of loveliness should be praised, but it should not be required.
What Rubinstein’s harsh quip brings out is that, for a certain population, beauty is required. It is not coincidental, nor is it innocuous, that Charlotte and Odette are female. The pageantry of self-curation is so central a component of women’s traditional vocation that theatricality often seems to be built into the very concept of femininity. Long before Judith Butler’s famous proposal that gender is a performance, Colette described a friend dressing and making herself up. The woman’s ritual, she writes, is characterized by “the activity and chatter of the theater, the nervousness of an actress about to miss her entrance… Except for the elegant boudoir, you couldn’t tell the difference.” And as Susan Sontag puts the point in a 1972 essay, “being feminine is a kind of theater, with its appropriate costumes, décor, lighting, and stylized gestures.”
Still, the problem is that the theater of beauty is compulsory, not that its fruits are celebrated as aesthetic accomplishments or that its rigors are taken seriously. As Colette maintained, we would err in regarding a made-up face as less real than an unadorned one. We would make a similar sort of mistake if we dismissed beautification as frivolous, or extolled dowdiness as evidence of profundity—as do the proud slobs of Silicon Valley, who wear the same outfit each day in hopes of demonstrating their depth (but succeed only in demonstrating their drabness). When we exonerate badly dressed academics like Socrates, of whom there are still a surplus, we should avoid reinforcing the tedious idea that concern with personal beauty is low-minded. We have only to look at drag queens, who both exaggerate and meditate on the usual process of self-fashioning, to see that appearing beautiful is an art as worthy and arduous as any other.
What is frivolous is clambering to thoughtlessly reinforce received wisdom about what counts as beautiful. For women are not instructed to be beautiful, not really. They are not encouraged to be great artists of the self: to interact with their given genre (the naïf, the grande dame and so on) inventively, to devise fresh ways of appearing and invite fresh ways of seeing. Instead, they are driven to echo cheap standards, as vulgar and trite as the ones applied to Marvel movies by cultish devotees. They are exhorted to be thin in the expected places and thick in the expected places, to grow long hair and purse plump lips, and to converge as closely as possible with one another, much like flocks of sorority girls or influencers bearing identical “Instagram faces.”
But good art is never so derivative, never so studiously unchallenging. A great beauty is always surprising, and she arranges not only her person but her life with skill. Odette is beautiful because of how she walks and what she wears, but she is also beautiful because her rooms are filled with luscious sprays of flowers, even in the winter. The woman I knew in college was beautiful because she lit candles every night, because she contrived to stuff an antique vanity into her tiny dorm room. If ugliness, as Nietzsche says, is an objection, then so is a shallowly conventional prettiness. Timid repetitions of the going mores have nothing to do with beauty and its daring. The sorority girls were obvious: to glance at them was to understand their easy allure completely. The woman I knew in college was difficult but rewarding to look at. Her secret was that her success could not be subsumed under a ready principle or captured by a familiar formula. She had invented a new rule, and she tantalized us with the prospect of understanding what it was. Of course I couldn’t. Of course I still don’t, which is why I am still looking.
Art Credit: Alma Haser, Cosmic Surgery, Patient no. 3, 2013, Courtesy of the artist.