H.L. Mencken wrote exactly 100 years ago: “The female body, even at its best, is very defective in form; it has harsh curves and very clumsily distributed masses; compared to it the average milk-jug, or even cuspidor, is a thing of intelligent and gratifying design.” He added that the female body “suggests a drunken dollar-mark,” and that it lacks “genuine beauty.”
I presume I speak for most members of the male sex when I say that Mencken, as was often the case when he was trying to be curmudgeonly, is dead wrong.
Yet the Baltimore satirist might be surprised to learn that American culture now celebrates the harshest of curves and the clumsiest of distributed masses, given the increased ubiquity of “plus-size” models. Sports Illustrated last month featured on its front cover plus-size model Yumi Nu. Popular psychologist and writer Jordan Peterson was having none of it, responding on Twitter: “Sorry. Not beautiful. And no amount of authoritarian tolerance is going to change that.” In a follow-up tweet, Peterson warned that progressives are desperately trying to “retool the notion of beauty.”
What is beauty? The answer is not self-evident. Perhaps some might say “I know it when I see it,” recycling the phrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart used to describe pornography. Others would say that beauty lies solely in the eye of the beholder, or in an inclusive spirit, that everything is beautiful.
Such answers are unsatisfying. British philosopher Roger Scruton observes in his book Beauty: A Very Short Introduction that beauty is “rationally founded,” and that “people associate beauty with their highest endeavors and aspirations, are disturbed by its absence, and regard a measure of aesthetic agreement as essential for life in society.”
In other words, humans cannot help but take beauty seriously, and when we do, we become, however temporarily, absorbed in its aesthetic purpose. Scruton adds: “We call something beautiful when we gain pleasure from contemplating it as an individual object, for its own sake, and in its presented form.”
This aligns well with how beauty has been understood in the Catholic tradition. Aquinas (Summa Theologiae I Q. 5) says that “beautiful things are those which please when seen. Hence beauty consists in due proportion; for the senses delight in things duly proportioned.” Later in the Summa, Aquinas expands on this by adding that beauty results “from the concurrence of clarity and due proportion.” (Summa II-II Q. 145)
Moreover, beauty is the prerogative only of rational beings, which would imply beauty has to do with reason rather than solely with feelings. That humans even bother to debate matters of aesthetic judgment also suggests an objective standard to which we might appeal. Our inability to resolve those disputes is no more proof of beauty’s inherent subjectivity than is our inability to resolve matters of politics, philosophy, or religion.
Scruton’s reflections on the intersection of beauty and sexuality are especially helpful here. He notes that in sex, a person seeks to unite with, and even possess the other person who inspires him or her. Yet that desire for possession is fleeting and incomplete. “Lovers are always struck by the mismatch between the desire and its fulfillment, which is not a fulfillment at all, but a brief lull in an ever-renewable process.”
Indeed, eros also separates us from other animals, because the human sexual urge is different and more complicated than the animal’s “structure of hunger and thirst.” We want to relish and cherish the other person, to know and be known.
Of course, the experience of that person’s body is part of that relishing and cherishing. But it is not its totality. “The distinctive beauty of the human body derives from its nature as an embodiment,” the “flesh animated by the individual soul, and expressing individuality in all its parts.” In other words, humans appreciate beauty in personal terms.
Beauty is thus not simply a matter of corporeality but of the soul. “The beautiful soul is one whose moral nature is perceivable, who is not just a moral agent but a moral presence, with the kind of virtue that shows itself to the contemplative gaze.” This happens to us all the time – we meet someone who is, perhaps, somewhat physically attractive, but becomes more beautiful once his or her virtuous qualities are known.
Beauty, then, is also connected to the transcendent and sacred. When we see the bride on her wedding day, our description of her as beautiful has less to do with her sexual appeal than it does with her image as someone set apart. The bride, presented to us in a white wedding gown that communicates purity and solemnity, “affects us as sacred things affect us, as something that can be more easily profaned than possessed.”
That appreciation of female beauty reaches its pinnacle in the Blessed Virgin, “whose sexual maturity is expressed in motherhood and who yet remains untouchable, barely distinguishable, as an object of veneration, from the child in her arms.” Mary’s beauty is tied up in her purity, “and for this very reason is held apart from the realm of sexual appetite, in a world of its own.”
Our experience of Mary’s beauty is actually a “signpost to a realm beyond desire,” transcending the sensuous and concrete for the eternal, “the soul’s highest longing in this world.” When those who have had visions of Mary describe her as the “most beautiful woman in the world,” they don’t mean she should grace the cover of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition, but that her beauty helps us to better perceive and appreciate the divine.
Of course, none of this answers the question of whether or not plus-size models are beautiful. Human beauty certainly conforms to the same objective standards cited by Aquinas and Scruton: proportionality and clarity. This is why most men would say Scarlett Johansson is more beautiful than Amy Schumer.
Alternatively, human beauty is not confined to the body – a beautiful soul in a palpably imperfect human body can attract us in surprising ways. “Our attitude towards beautiful individuals,” writes Scruton, “sets them apart from ordinary desires and interests, in the way that sacred things are set apart.” I’m not sure the normalization of plus-size models accomplishes what Scruton is talking about, but neither does the hour-glass supermodel necessarily.
Perhaps, then, the more important question is whether or not commercially marketed images of women in revealing, sexualized swimsuits or lingerie clarify or obscure true feminine beauty, and form the viewer in the qualities required to appreciate it.
I think we already know the answer.
*Image: The Virgin Mary by Jan Van Eyck (detail from the Ghent Altarpiece), 1432 [St. Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium]. The Deësis, in which Christ crowned is flanked by Our Lady and St. John the Baptist.
You may also enjoy:
Francis X. Maier’s A Candle for Roger
Brad Miner’s How to Find the Perfect Woman