Beauty is a universal preoccupation, one that has lasted through time and across different cultures.
We express beauty in art, music, poetry, and dance. We glorify and we have built an entire cult around beauty, desiring it in ourselves and in others.
But what exactly is beauty?
I myself wonder about this. Throughout human history our standards of beauty have varied widely and have reflected whimsical tastes which upon later reconsideration, become bizarre, laughable, sometimes even cruel. Think for example the powdered wigs worn by European gentlemen in the 18th century, or the excruciating practice of foot-binding that endured in China until the 20th century.
History shows that when the idea of beauty is left to the caprice of humanity, we get abstract definitions that change with the passing of time.
In our search for a clearer definition, we would expect nature to be more reliable as a guide. After all, nature is the author of flowers, birds, butterflies and all the things we’ve come to use as metaphors for beauty. But nature can also be fickle and inconsistent when it comes to the role that beauty plays.
In nature beauty works to increase an organism’s chances for reproduction because it is taken to be an indication of health. But this is not always the case.
For example, among peacocks, those with the most colorful tails have greater chances of mating and passing on their genes. But in fact, these peacocks end up having shorter lifespans because their cumbersome tails make it difficult to avoid predators.
Beauty, the very thing which is supposed to reflect health and longevity, ends up being the factor that cuts short their lives.
Photo by National Geographic.
Today, if we were to think only in terms of the survival and advancement of the human species, then popular culture’s standards of beauty are neither adaptive nor practical.
Western society’s preference for starved, deathly looking models is a far deviation from the idea that beauty must be an indication of good health. In fact the opposite idea has taken root. Now sickliness and passivity is the cultural mode. The amount of lifeless, spidery bodies plastered across fashion magazines and billboard advertisements is disturbing and dangerous. Not only has sickness become equated with beauty, but the images portrayed are also suggestive of aggression and sexual violence.
These marketing tactics are usually shrugged off as harmless artistic edginess. But when these messages become internalized in the minds of a society, beauty becomes a destructive system of oppression and exploitation.
We cannot leave it to others to define for us what is beautiful. We must be active agents and seize a definition of beauty that is our own. And when we find it, it should add value to our lives rather than subtract.
Our search for a constant and meaningful definition begins with an inward gaze. A light already exists and shines within each of us. Recognizing this light is a simple practice of acknowledging our inner beauty.
It can be difficult for some but it is a practice that must often be exercised because once it is learned, it will allow us to expand our recognition of beauty beyond the narrow definition to which we’ve been confined.
Perhaps we’ve never before entertained the idea that there is beauty in our imperfections. But we are all perfectly imperfect creatures. Acknowledging this fact is incredibly bold and the beginning step towards a life filled with harmony.
Harmony means, we will no longer fight ourselves to mold our bodies in a way that will be perfect and beautiful for others.
It means, rather than experiencing our bodies based on how we imagine others must look at it, we will actually begin to live in our own bodies and gain an awareness of ourselves from within. Our thoughts, behavior and choices will help us to find our own unique, natural balance. It is a balance that must take place not only between ourselves and our bodies, but also between our relationships with others and with the outside world.
There are many types of beauty in this world, but only few which can be experienced.
And none that can add as much value to our lives as the Beauty of Harmony.