Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Beauty Protest

"In such an ugly time, the true protest is beauty." —Phil Ochs

When I first saw this quote, I balked.

Aight, I thought (channeling my inner sophomore boy). Really? Beauty? Not courage or truth or anything like that? Beauty. That's not ennobling at all. Beauty. That's just another word for conformity, for passiveness...in the face of corruption, racism, hatred, is beauty really more effective as a protest than letters to legislators or grassroots campaigns? Or does "true" != "effective"? Beauty. Beauty?

I still haven't decided whether I accept or reject Ochs's quote. But I have thought about it--well-expressed thoughts with which I disagree tend to stick in my head--and I do think that I need to revise the thinking on my end somewhat.

Namely, I need to investigate what we really mean by "beauty."


Often, beauty is taken to mean only aesthetic pleasingness, and the word's etymology supports this connotation with visual attractiveness. Back in the dark days of freshman year, when I still read teen magazines once in a while, the "beauty" section was really about makeup and product.

What is invalid about this definition? Well, nothing inherently. I don't personally use makeup, but many of my friends do and they consider it part of their identity, something that contributes to their self-confidence, or a tool to help them express themselves.

Beauty as a way to improve upon your natural features artfully does not offend me. However, beauty is often presented with only this definition, which explains why I took offense to the Ochs quote.

Let me explain: if we apply this physical definition of beauty to Ochs's quote, then we're equating physical attractiveness with moral goodness. Not that we don't do that already, subconsciously: the link is woven into our cultural DNA. But I view it as a bug, a mutation, something to try to eradicate rather than support. Are pretty people inherently more moral? Is beauty the best way to protest against the ills of society?

As a teenage girl in America, you (I) get irked by the constant and overwhelming focus on appearance. Yes, we know that we're going to get judged on what we look like. Yes, we know that making yourself look good is a pragmatic way to improve how others view you. But it's boring. I don't want to have to consider what other people think of me, as I get dressed in the morning.

Before you go on, read or at least skim "Defining the Lady Code," Goss's most recent blog post. In it, she discusses how girls/women are supposed to dress/look in order to be considered professional and proper.

A useful article, and I appreciate that she wrote it because it does seem accurately to describe the standards by which I and other females will be judged. What particularly drew my interest was this bit:
Coco Chanel popularized long ropes of fake pearls, but she was a fashion designer, and a lady is not fashionable. She has style, which is a different thing altogether. Fashion stands out: style is discreet and understated.

But discreet and understated does not mean "easy." The cultural default of appearance for girls is a few levels of effort above my default. To look good, it's usually assumed that girls need makeup, need to do something with their hair besides comb it, wear flattering clothes (even if they are, following the Lady Code, understated) and shoes (I wore flats the other day and felt as though I was cosplaying as the pretty version of myself), etc.

And honestly? I can't be bothered, and strenuously resist attempts to make me bother. Rationally, I would not want to sneer at and belittle people who tell me I should start wearing necklaces again, but I do. Why should I need to change my appearance to please others? Will getting my ears pierced make me more effective as a student, as a thinker?

Note: Going too far in the other direction doesn't make sense either--after all, personal hygiene and appropriate clothes do make life and interaction with others easier, and those who shame girls for using makeup need to stop doing that.

I think my diatribe against forcing people to meet social standards of beauty has gone on long enough. "Beauty" when taken to mean physical attractiveness is too weak to be the "beauty" of Ochs's quote. What other kinds of beauty could justify it?

Inner beauty: what is this? When we say that someone is beautiful on the inside, what do we mean? That they're good-hearted, that they're pure, that they put others before themself, what?

Maybe I just have a flawed perception of the phrase, but even "inner beauty" seems passive. Like one of those icons of religious figures, just radiating light in a gold-flake circle around their heads. Virtue rather than virtu'. What are the nuances? Caring about others? Am I the only one who, upon hearing the words "inner beauty," thinks the term is more often applied to women than to men? Why is that?

This post is getting too long already. Some final thoughts:

Ochs could be talking about art as beauty--the creation of beauty, through art. But is this really the truest form of protest? Art is nontrivial, I agree, it serves a deep and valid purpose in keeping people sane, but I would be dubious if anyone said that art had more to do with the fall of the Berlin wall than economic pressures.

In general, is it valid to say that "the true protest against x is -x"? I would say, generally, no, with the implication that in this specific case I also end up rejecting Ochs's quote.

The true protest against violence is nonviolence. => Armed intervention to stop a genocide is a-OK with me.

The true protest against hatred is love. => I don't think I disagree with this.

The true protest against stupidity is intelligence. => Not completely--education and understanding, maybe, but sheer intellectual might isn't as effective as you (I) might hope.

The true protest against ugliness is beauty. => Now that it's phrased this way...I say no, definitively. Once again, I argue in favor of understanding. This, I think is the reason beauty loses out: because beauty is about being seen, and to solve problems, it is more important to see.

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