It is said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and beauty, being a subjective thing, certainly is. The lack of any objective standard for measuring it is one reason why aesthetics as a branch of philosophy has thrived for the past few thousand years, despite the best efforts of Plotinus and other bold thinkers. This isn’t to say there can never be consensus as to whether something is beautiful. Quite the contrary. We can think of any number of cases that, were someone to deem a thing not beautiful, that someone might have to explain himself to incredulous inquisitors. But mere general agreement isn’t an objective measure, and so the beauty debate persists.
Despite the subjective nature of beauty, no word has recently been the object of so much attempted redefinition. Lately the most egregious offender in this viral-motivated effort has been The Huffington Post, which in 2014 informed us on no fewer than six different occasions that beauty was being “redefined.” One of those articles, Redefining Beauty, nobly commanded, “Stop letting the media define beauty for you,” but then immolated itself when the author declared, “I am not, by the standard definition, beautiful,” implying at once there is such a thing as a “standard definition” and that the author is privy to it. But the author is no more qualified to speak of standard definitions of beauty than the ill-defined “media,” against which she rails.
Another post, Redefine Your Own Beauty, lamented the unreasonable expectations of America’s Next Top Model, on which the author had once desired being a contestant. The author wrote, “Image needs to be about the self,” but “if you ever need a refresher…look at your kids. Look at the love, respect and admiration in their eyes. To them, you are a beauty queen and a genius and the entire universe all rolled into one.” No recourse is suggested for those without children or those with children who might be more inclined to critique mom.
A mere six days after that article was published, The Huffington Post again informed us that beauty was being redefined by a contestant on none other than America’s Next Top Model in a piece titled, ‘Top Model’ Contestant Is Redefining Beauty, Inside and Out. Here we learned of a 19 year-old model with vitiligo — a rare skin condition that’s discolored part of her face — who was nonetheless selected to appear on the show. Beauty was redefined once again.
Then came the briefest installment, a poem with a warm and fuzzy New Age feel titled, Let’s Redefine Beauty, Radically, in which we were told that beauty is peace, wisdom, nature, diversity, gratitude, and — most unhelpfully, “all-compassing.” After implicating “society and media” for defining beauty, it reissues the clarion call to “redefine beauty,” and radically so.
Next came the tale of a pair of precocious teenagers in Two Girls Want To Redefine Beauty, One Whiteboard Message At A Time. Echoing the common theme in all these pieces, we found that these girls were fed up with “society’s narrow-minded definition of beauty,” and so they invited Facebook users to upload photos of themselves holding whiteboards with messages explaining why they are beautiful. Among the featured prerequisites are smiling, refusing to be defined, expressing an opinion, and existing — yes, mere existence apparently makes one beautiful.
Finally, it all came full circle in a piece with the exact same headline as the first featured here, Redefining Beauty. After being warned that some might consider the images in the article NSFW (apparently, beauty is not work-appropriate), the reader is presented with topless photos of a woman who has had a mastectomy. She participated in a photo shoot as part of The Grace Project, which “is a series of portraits of women who have experienced Mastectomy Surgery in order to survive breast cancer.”
I invite the reader peruse similar articles and videos online, some of which are nothing more than sly corporate gimmicks (witness, Dove’s “campaign for real beauty“) to grasp the prevalence of this phenomenon, for which there’s even a nonprofit called the Beauty Redefined Foundation.
While it can be argued that such efforts to “redefine beauty” are well-intended, it can just easily be advanced that the aforementioned posts and others like them are specifically designed to tap into that vast reservoir of insecurity in countless individuals — especially women –when it comes to the images they have of themselves. Most people likely do not consider themselves beautiful, and so any content that liberally adjusts the benchmark for beauty will necessarily come as a welcome development, and one that the authors hope those people will share on social media. And even those who do regard themselves as beautiful will find it beneficial to share such content to show how open and inclusive and accepting they are.
Tempting as it may be to accuse yours truly of abject cynicism, this is simply how it works. Any candid social media strategist worth his or her salt will tell you as much. It’s a low risk, high reward strategy for producing what will hopefully turn out to be viral content that will boost traffic, ad revenue, and the website’s overall profile.
There is of course nothing wrong with trying to get people to feel better about themselves. After all, far too many women and men wear their self-image like albatross around their neck. But the whole idea of “redefining beauty” is flawed to its core. To say, for example, that a woman is redefining beauty because she lacks certain characteristics typically associated with beauty or possesses ones that are not, is to say that the definition of beauty needs to be expanded to include her and whatever perceived shortcomings and stigmas she has.
It may be countered that beauty needs redefining only because “society and media” have created certain conceptions of beauty that are unreasonable or harmful, for example, but there are two fundamental problems with this. For one thing, it implies that somebody’s subjective understanding of beauty — be it an individual’s or “society’s” — can be flat-out wrong, and that there in fact can be an objective measure of beauty, which would for better or worse, would put the aforementioned attempts at a distinct disadvantage because they do not conform to the consensus.
The second problem is that these attempted redefinitions speak of “society” as if somehow it is not actually comprised of individuals with opinions about what beauty is that has led “society” to arrive at certain conceptions of beauty in the first place. “Media” as a boogeyman fails for much the same reason, as it is simply a reflection — however imperfect — of the society from which it has arisen. Whatever you may think of the glamorous celebrities who incessantly grace magazine covers and the homepages of innumerable websites, there is a reason we keep seeing these same people on our newsstands, computers, phones, and tablets, and we know what it is. And no amount of vague, all-inclusive, and “all-encompassing” redefinitions of beauty propagated by media outlets can plausibly convince one otherwise.
Especially when they’re the same ones pushing the very “narrow-minded definition of beauty” they claim to abhor.