Monday, October 1, 2012

Dictionary of Micro Rants: Beauty

Beauty: in the human form, the biological equivalent of a backhanded compliment.

One of the biological markers of facial beauty is averageness: those faces that stray from the human or from a racial average are considered plain or ugly, while faces that are most average are the most beautiful--and by “average,” I take it, the finding is that a beautiful face is the one whose measurements occupy middle positions and are thus average in the sense of the median rather than the mean or the mode. For example, most noses are either large or small, round or thin, whereas the beautiful nose falls somewhere in between.

Of course, there’s also a qualitative aspect of beauty, which is that the most normal face is commonly identified as the most desirable. This teleological aspect seems strongly influenced by Plato, the point being that normality reflects ideality: the most normal face, for example, stands as an exemplar of the abstract Form of the perfect face, a face that doesn’t exist in nature, like the perfect circle or the perfectly straight line; meanwhile, actual faces strive to embody that ideal, as imperfect copies. Thus, we sometimes say someone is “achingly beautiful,” and the ache is due to the reminder when we behold such a face that the whole natural order is flawed compared to a more ideal realm that taunts most of us with such blatant evidence of our deficiencies.

A similarly curious reaction to a beautiful body occurs when a male sees a curvaceous female and feels compelled to exclaim “Damn!”--short for "God damn that ass!" Often, the man who's struck by those curves is left with his eyes squinting and mouth agape from exasperation, as though he'd been punched in the gut. Why the apparent anger or frustration with such a beautiful sight? There are mundane reasons, such as the fact that seeing a woman’s extreme curves can cause a man to have an uncomfortable erection and may compel him to think, at least, of going through the time-consuming and humiliating rigmarole of wooing her. He may also be jealous of the shapely woman’s boyfriend or husband. 

But there’s a deeper reason for the oddness of any hidden hostility to beauty, which is that we dread the prospect of an alien, supernatural realm that surpasses our understanding. Whereas facial beauty is largely a matter of the face’s abundant normality, the parts of a woman’s body most likely to arouse a curiously mixed reaction from a heterosexual man, which is to say her large and round, or “phat,” buttocks, are recognized for their strangeness. The man’s reaction to a woman’s phat rear is similar to how a person would respond to the sight of an extraterrestrial creature: with shock, incomprehension, and even annoyance that the sight is so apparent even as it defies familiar categories. And so physical beauty can be otherworldly, symbolizing the limits of our understanding and thus the absurdity of our way of life from an objective or foreign perspective that transcends those limits. Thus, beauty can repel even as it attracts, like a backhanded compliment.


  1. aside from exclaiming "damn" why do you think guys react toward a woman with a beautiful body and/or a big ole nice ass?

  2. I give some reasons in this short article. The least mundane reason is that beauty is strange in an imperfect, ugly world, and so beauty haunts us with the possibility that there's a transcendent, supernatural realm, a world beyond our limited understanding. This is Plato's reason.

  3. That's a dime, top of the line, cute face, slim waist with a big behind.