Beauty as Power

At my job I handle magazines. There are magazines of every sort. News magazines and sports magazines. Car magazines and business magazines. In all of them you find beautiful people. In the advertisements you find beautiful people, on the editorial boards you find beautiful people, and, most emphatically, in the personalities portrayed in the articles you find beautiful people. In these magazines these beautiful figures are held up as something extraordinary, as something other. This is the tone in all the publications, regardless their persuasion. It didn't take me long working at my job to notice this. Maybe twenty minutes. Having abstained from media for the couple of years previous, I had fallen out of the habit of seeing these sports heroes and politicians, these pop stars and web barons in such flattering light. In fact, encountering them then afresh, I saw through this visual hyperbole right away. It was startling. A few minutes later I came to the conclusion I was no longer convinced by this display. In fact, I looked at this "beauty" and I felt rather offended that it was presented to me as something extraordinary.

"I see women as pretty as this in the supermarket all of the time," I thought. "You can go into any nightclub," I thought, "And find a girl as sexy as that fairly easily. You don't even have to try."

My job counting these magazines into bundles for delivery requires me to look at them again and again, repeatedly, for ten or so hours at a time, two days a week. Over the next three months, as I continually endured this strange and fresh affront, I thought about what was happening in the magazines I handled. And I considered, too, what was beginning to happen in me as I looked at them. For my magazine naivete began to breakdown. I, like everyone else, began to believe. Even as I surrendered, though, even as I began to accept and embrace the "beauty" of the images, I knew they were not particularly impressive. Intellectually I saw that the faces in them were not remarkable, but emotionally I still felt drawn to them. What was going on?

It seems to me now, after a year or so of sorting this process out in myself, that we are drawn to these images by a sly but very potent need in us. Unconsciously, I think, we all seek to understand the most appealing part of our own beings, the most prized in us, or, our own beauty. And we have intimations of what our beauty is, we sense it. But, in those intimations, we also sense our beauty's power. This scares us. We react then by giving our beauty a symbolic form, a form we can hold out at arm's length, objectively, safely apart from ourselves. This is my explanation for why we so willfully hold up such normal looking people as examples of such extraordinary beauty. We are using them, I believe, as symbols of a greatness within ourselves, a greatness we cannot face.

This impulse does not stop at physical beauty. We do it in other genres of significance as well. We are always making things grander than they are, giving them more force than they truly have, and then holding them at a distance. The best restaurant in town, for example, is not going to be in the building at the end of our street. It's going to be on the other side of the city. It is a thing of excellence, of beauty. It is a greatness. Therefore it must be far away, distant, barely approachable. The most appealing object in our collection of marbles is not the one we swapped with our next door neighbor, but the one we found in a distant foreign land. Our most prized wisdom is not the familiar wive's tale, but the contents of the arcane scroll, or the seldom uttered formula, or a generations-old family recipe. The "most beautiful" things around us are never the most familiar, like, say, the grass in our yard or the color of the bricks in our town.

We see the highest beauty in what is far, in what is apart, distant, other, different, like celebrities. And yet, in holding these symbols before ourselves, in finding a way to make our own beauty objective instead of subjective, we inevitably mistake the symbols we have created for the reality they represent. This is what the magazines capitalize on, this mistake. It's what they teach us to do even. And what they profit from to our glowing satisfaction. We get so caught up in how the symbols of our beauty move us that we even lose our intimations that its reality is far from extra and even ordinary. These symbols make it possible for us to look upon the unapproachable greatness of ourselves without being consumed by the greatness of ourselves. But, at the same time, they obscure the fact that our greatness is closer to us even than the girl in the supermarket, or the marble in our pocket, or the wisdom of our children.

Our beauty has a power that cannot be contained. Its force is so great that, despite us, it escapes us to become objective symbols. We behold it then apart from ourselves, tamed into images and personalities that aren't that extraordinary at all. But the true reality of our beauty is there to be discovered by the daring. Definitely, it is. Find a man brave enough to realize the woman in his bed is more beautiful than the actress in the film; find a man who realizes the square meter of earth he stands on is as exotic as any square meter beside the river Seine; find a man who understands that silent longing in his chest is a more powerful song than any music he will ever pay to hear, and you have found a man who is courageous enough to embrace his own beauty, who is strong enough to grapple with his own reality, to face its force truly, stripped of all symbol and disguise.

John Dishwasher

Beauty as Power