Beauty: a peace issue

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August 22, 2011
Susie Guenther Loewen |

What would you say if I told you that beauty is a peace issue? It seems bizarre, I know, but I’ll try to explain how I got to this point. If one reflects on the extremes to which the present-day cosmetic industry has gone to make most of us feel insecure about our bodies for their financial benefit, it doesn’t take long to recognize the cruelty of it. This is something that affects women especially, but there are increasing pressures these days for men to also look flawless, to aspire to impossible ideals of male beauty.
Two issues arising from our cultural obsession with certain definitions of beauty strike me as especially sinister. First of all, there’s the sheer amount of time, energy, thought and resources that we as a society spend on “beauty.” We’re encouraged to be preoccupied with our appearance, to worry about whether or not our bodies conform to the shape or size promoted as beautiful, to try and alter our facial features with the optical illusions of makeup, to be ashamed of and hide gray hair (or any natural hair colour) or baldness, to make sure certain parts of our bodies which naturally grow hair are hairless, not to mention keeping up with the latest clothing trends. All of this effort, just for appearance – something pretty frivolous in the end, yet it takes so much of our mental, emotional, and economic resources away from other, more pressing and important issues. The example of cosmetic surgery comes to mind as an especially harmful branch of the industry. Not only does it waste medical professionals and supplies on completely unnecessary (and risky!) surgeries, it also promotes viewing normal, healthy bodies as in need of surgical “repair.” In her essay in Relocating Postcolonialism (Blackwell, 2002), ethicist Rosemarie Garland Thomson argues that cosmetic surgery ads portray “the unreconstructed female [or male] body as having ‘abnormalities’ that need to be ‘corrected’ by surgical procedures that ‘improve’ the appearance by producing ‘natural looking’ noses, thighs, breasts, chins, and so on,” a message which ends up making altered bodies the norm against which real bodies are measured. While many of us may not go to the extreme of cosmetic surgery, the same logic is at play in ads for makeup or cosmetics, which claim to have scientific research behind their products to give you, for instance, “healthy-looking skin,” actually a euphemism for flawless, airbrushed skin – which isn’t healthy, natural or real at all!
The other issue of great concern is the problem of eating disorders, especially among youth and young adults, and predominantly among women, since, as Elizabeth Palmberg writes in Sojourners Magazine, nine out of ten people with eating disorders are women. The impulse behind obsessive exercising or anorexia or bulimia is in one sense similar to cosmetic surgery, in that it’s self-harm for the sake of “beauty,” understood as thinness to the point of starvation. As Palmberg argues, it’s seen as a kind of power too: power as the ultimate in willpower, self-control and the disciplining of one’s body into submission. But it very quickly becomes self-inflicted violence, especially since close to one in five people don’t survive eating disorders. Palmberg notes that among Christians, an emphasis on self-discipline and a thinly-veiled contempt for the body don’t help matters; one example she cites is a woman who covered up her anorexia by telling her family she was fasting as a spiritual discipline, which raises alarm bells for me when thinking about 24-hour famines and other similar activities church youth and young adult groups are encouraged to participate in. Though it’s important to raise awareness about food injustice, to those with eating disorders, such events must seem like a welcome time to deny themselves food, with a feeling of spiritual righteousness to top it off.
So what are we supposed to do? Recently, I’ve heard of two encouraging signs. Here in Canada, a young woman named Lea Clermont-Dion has succeeded in getting the Quebec government to adopt a “charter for healthy and diverse body image,” which would encourage fashion magazines and other media to depict real people, somewhat like Dove soap’s 'Real Beauty Campaign' (though, is it just me, or was that campaign really short-lived?). In the U.K., the Advertising Standards Agency has banned a makeup ad that it said was just too airbrushed; it amounted to false advertising (see also Dove’s short video “Evolution”).
But I don’t think we can rely on advertisers to change their tactics substantially – as Naomi Wolf writes in The Beauty Myth (Harper Perennial, 2002), advertising itself “works by lowering our self-esteem,” by presenting an impossible, unnatural goal that is always out of reach. So she advocates turning our backs on advertising and looking to each other to make our own definitions of beauty, beauty which is “noncompetitive, nonhierarchical, and nonviolent” because it is deeper than looks (pp. 276-7, 286). This is not to say that we should turn to a puritanical obsession with plainness; it does mean forging an alternative, constructive aesthetic where clothing and self-adornment, among other things, express who we are instead of pressuring us to conform to the generic and grossly unhealthy trends in the fashion and cosmetic industries, and the pressures they exert on us to do violence to our bodies. If we do this, I think we’ll begin to appreciate the holiness of the body, which 1 Corinthians calls “a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God” (6:19). I also think we’ll get some peace from a lot of this worry about what we will wear and what we will eat (or not eat), taking a lesson from the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, whom God feeds and clothes (Matt. 6). And instead of being fixated on shallow beauty, we’ll be able to see beauty in more profound ways, like in one of my favourite lines from Isaiah: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace” (52:7).

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