This is the 100th post on Broken Cameras & Gustav Klimt and I’m delighted that it’s the first ever guest post. And it’s a stunner from Sara Kewly Hyde. If you want to write a guest post please get in touch.
What is beauty?
A philosophy? A physical attribute? Something that grows from the inside out? Does the way I choose to define beauty tell you about me, or more about the society I live in?
The ancient Greeks used it in the phrase kalos kai agathos (approximate transliteration), which literally meant beautiful and good/virtuous. But it was also used as a coverall term for the perfect and balanced gentleman. We used to write it in cards to each other in sixth form as a compliment “Carry on being your kalos kai agathos self, I love you” (I then failed the Ancient Greek exam).
The Bible uses the term both to describe physical beauty like Queen Esther’s, and also to point to something much deeper in a verse like Psalm 27:4 “One thing I ask of the Lord… to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and seek him in his temple.” Although the use of the word “gaze”, may still point to something observable.
For my new year’s resolution, I thought that for every penny I spent on my outward appearance, I’d give the same to charity. And in so doing I’d understand more tangibly how much I throw my resources after the pursuit of the external.
I haven’t done it, I was too lazy, too scared. How do I perceive beauty? Is it about my desire to look like Jessie J? Or is it about small moments of kindness, a smile from my baby niece – interactions that make my heart cry out that was just beautiful?
So I believe beauty can be a heart attitude, but I’m going to focus more on the physical, on the external, on the industry. I am a slave to the beauty industry, to 21st century consumerist capitalism. We cannot divorce the ideal of beauty that constantly surrounds us, telling us how to be a woman, how to be human and the huge market forces behind it. I see an image in an advert of a woman. I compare myself to that. I find myself hideously lacking. I spend lots of time thinking about how I could look more like that. I start to turn the thought in to action and buying products and clothes to make me more like that.
More acceptable aesthetically. More likely to succeed. This works for me, I feel momentarily better, I feel more attractive because I am a millimetre closer to her “perfection”. Rinse, repeat. Each image I see feeds my insecurity that I am not physically up to scratch, each product I buy tells me I can fix it with an item acquired by financial transaction and then the bar is raised higher the next time. I know what the ideal is, an ideal that I’d need to be an anorexic with a boob job and permanent real-time air-brushing to achieve. Good-o. The beauty industry laughs all the way to the bank, while we’re left trying to force our bodies to conform to the market’s latest aesthetic ideals and grappling with even bigger insecurities.
Who cares? Why does this matter? We need to ask who is setting the beauty agenda. Who gets to say what is beautiful? We need to wonder why only one kind of aesthetic rules. We need to think about how this impacts upon our treatment of those who lack representation in the “ideal”, the disabled, the disfigured, those unable to afford the right clothes or products to reach the beauty bar. It becomes a discriminatory issue. Getting caught up in a paradigm that privileges the visual, turns women into sexualised objects whose value is solely contingent on their appearance and denigrates many other types of beauty, is a dangerous one-way street to misery. We will never be good enough. Women will punish their bodies in to further conformity. Men will measure women more against the model standards. Our humanity, our capacity to interact, to love and be loved is reduced by the fantasy world projected all around us. We try, we succeed, we fail, we learn. But in a world of perfection, where is the room for failure? For humility? For recognising our brokenness and need of each other?
I say I only want to be a slave to Christ, to righteousness, but if that is true, why do I shave my armpits, worry that my grey hair will render me undateable and my large pores be the death of me? I know too well the verses about God looking on the heart and not on the external and I’m glad about that, but what about my potential partner? How can I focus on developing what’s on the inside when if I went to work in the same clothes every day for a week and no make-up, HR might pull me in to have a word?
We need to be honest about the impact that our visual culture has on our faith. I love the Message translation of Romans 12: 2, it is a constant reminder to be aware of my context at this point in space and time “Do not become so well adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking”.
What happens when the church pursues the beauty myth? We get our priorities wrong in what we are for and who we welcome most.
We spend too much money on assuaging our insecurities when we could be more generous to those who really need it. People get lonelier and we are alienated from our humanity. We need to reclaim beauty, to wrest it from the oppressors and celebrate the beauty in the small, the everyday, in every one who is made in the image of God. I’m still learning how and I’m getting it wrong, but I have to try because Jesus came to set us free.
Sara Kewly Hyde is a theatre maker and thinker who works with women in the Criminal Justice System. Follow Sara on twitter or find out more at www.kewly.org