Yesterday, while my 7 year old daughter and I were watching a stunning documentary about caves, and the animals living in them, she suddenly said; “When I grow up, I don’t want an ugly boyfriend. I want a beautiful one.” For a second my brain was searching for a good reaction, and I witnessed myself offering the political correct comment; “isn’t it also important that he is nice?” “Yes,” she answered – and she topped up my correctness by adding, “and good at helping out around the house.” Then the documentary showed a 100-meter tall mountain of guano, (excrements from bats) alive with millions of cockroaches, and that rare sight reclaimed my daughter’s attention.
This morning the concept of beauty has been was on my mind. While visiting countries like Thailand, Japan and China I have noticed how differently they interpret the ideal of a “handsome pop star,” compared to my neighboring countries like Sweden, Germany and Poland. In western media it is often discussed how the notion of a beautiful woman has been changing through time and will continue to do so. Light skinned or tanned, or the never ending Voluptuous curves vs. the infamous Twiggy figure.
It’s easy to blame the media and fashion industry, but in reality it’s not entirely their fault. They are only perpetuating our desire as consumers to view what society deems as beautiful. It’s us, the people, who buy the glossy magazines and the products they promote. And it’s not just our specific society. Look to the cultures that are free of the photo shopped images and shiny lip-gloss, and you’ll find societies over extending their physical forms through lip plates and neck rings. A painful price to achieve what is considered to be attractive and beautiful.
And the varying perception of beauty isn’t limited to just people’s appearance. Our views on what constitutes a beautiful environment also depend on cultural taste. For example, in my native Denmark, an ocean view from either ones home or office is deemed the most beautiful (which is reflected in a very real way by real estate prices). On the other hand, when I visited Greenland a few years ago, I was surprised at how unimpressed the local population was with their ocean views that left me awestruck. This made me think that perhaps the rarity of something is what made something beautiful—like diamonds, ivory, or the view from outer space. However, as a counterpoint, some rare items are viewed as unattractive by the majority of us — such as extra appendages, the Australian Blobfish, or a family wearing matching tracksuits.
So how do we make sense of all this talk about beauty, and our focus on the subject? What is the right strategy, given that we want to carve out as much happiness in this life for ourselves and others? Is beauty part of the solution or the problem?
Beauty surely has some merit. Anne Frank, who died at age 15 in a Nazi concentration camp March 1945, famously wrote in her diary, “I don’t think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains.” Without beauty in this world, whatever it may mean to each of us, we would be in bad shape (if you haven’t already, watch The Road to get a realistic, and terrifying, experience of what a world without beauty could look like).
So we need beauty, but at the same time it often makes us miserable and feeling insufficient. What should we do? My suggestion is to introduce a seemingly small, but important distinction:
1) Beauty that is defined by the culture, or subculture, that we are living in
2) Beauty that is instinctively felt by each of us individually, without taking into consideration how others think about the topic
For me a well-organized warehouse is a true beauty. I think it’s due to my first job. When I was 12 years old, I was responsible for keeping the order at my dad’s company’s warehouse. I loved that job, and I was good at it. It was the first feeling of taking on a big responsibility and being good at something that grownups valued. So to this day, I still think a warehouse is nothing short of beautiful.
In our house we have a huge map of the world. I stare at it filled with joy and excitement more times every week. To me that quite detailed world map is prettier than any original Picasso painting could be. And it’s surely a lot cheaper too. Why is it so much cheaper? Because it’s not rare, and because it’s an expression of beauty defined by myself, not defined by the majority of the world population.
I love the woods. For me, it is nicer to spend time in a forest, than on beaches, which are too windy and exposed for my taste. That’s why I opted for a cabin in the woods, rather than a beach house. Luckily, this particular preference allows me to avoid the ridiculous coastal real estate prices we have here in Denmark.
From an objective standpoint, there really is no attractive or unattractive. Nothing is pretty or ugly. Throughout our history, we as people have made a big deal out of agreeing on a standard for what we are to believe is aesthetically pleasing. This standard impacts our view of something as vast as nature, to individual’s clothing, jewelry, body shapes and sizes, and our creative outputs. But inside all of us there lies an intrinsic appreciation for beauty. We may be born with it, or it may become learned as we grow, but there is undeniably an innate detector of beauty within us that we can benefit from listening and adhering to. Besides becoming more true and satisfying, we will come to see the joys of a varying beauty, making it valuable for us as individuals, while often being a lot easier to obtain than what the majority defines as beautiful.
A book that has helped me on my personal journey to become more true to myself (an ongoing journey), and less absorbed by stereotype perceptions, is Don’t Despair by the Danish IT entrepreneur and philosopher Matias Dalgaard. If you don’t feel totally at ease after reading this article, you might want to give his book a read.