June 17, 2013

Many moons ago, on a long, long trip in the car with my family, we listened to a book on tape called "The Giver".  It was a fascinating story about a town made ‘perfect’ by the strict control by its leaders.  There was no pain, there was no death, everything was neatly sanitized through special language and the truth subsequently hidden from the average Joe.  Everyone ‘in the know’ understood how important language was in keeping the truth hidden.  One scene has stuck in my mind – a scene where one little boy says, “I’m starving” and his mother replies, “Precision of language darling, you are hungry, not starving.”  (My husband and I still joke about that – precision of language darling, I don’t ALWAYS do that.)   And it’s so true.  Words have meaning – and it is very important to use them correctly, most especially when we’re speaking about issues like Abortion or Euthanasia. 

This is the gist of what Simcha Fischer wrote about recently – that words are deeply significant - an intriguing little ditty called “Stop Saying All Women Are Beautiful.”  Her premise was that when we have to say that everyone is beautiful no matter what (because our society demands we do this), we’re teaching ourselves not to trust our instincts and working ourselves into a corner where it is unfashionable – or dangerous even - to state the obvious.  She says, “If you are never allowed to think, “That woman is not beautiful,” then it’s just a short slide to never being allowed to say, “That behavior is immoral” or “That relationship is unhealthy” or “That world view is not humane.”” 

And I agree wholeheartedly with her.  It is very important to acknowledge truth in your words both spoken and written.  Yet her article troubles me deeply, and it’s not because of the premise and point, but because of the example on which she bases her argument.  The beauty of women.  I don’t think this is a good example to use for many reasons. 

First, a woman’s physical beauty is deeply and inextricably linked to her self-worth and femininity.  In theory you can separate them, but in actual practice, you cannot.  Why else would the women undergoing mastectomies need counseling around their identities as women?  It’s because at the heart of every woman there are two profoundly vital questions she is searching to answer.  Am I beautiful?  Am I worth fighting for?   And unfortunately for her it's all or nothing.  If she is 'found' to be lacking beauty, she will conclude that she is not worth fighting for.  We wrestle with this our whole lives through, PAINFULLY aware that we are likely more on the ‘Flannery O’Connor’ side of the beauty-scale than on the ‘Kate Middleton’ side.  We do everything we can to disguise ourselves – tan, pluck, shave, stretch, tighten and tone – in the desperate attempt not to be found out for what we’re terrified that we really are: Ugly and Unlovable. So I have a huge problem with the premise that says, “You and You – you’re absolutely, stunningly, beautiful.  The rest of you, well, I’m sure you have other gifts.”  

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Secondly, using physical beauty as an example to illustrate the importance of language is complicated since physical beauty is, to use a tired, old clich√©, in the eye of the beholder.  Not only that, but the beholder’s eye is influenced greatly by the times in which it lives. A few hundred years ago what was considered beautiful was what we would now consider about 100 pounds overweight.  (Make that 150 – since they are now making size zero’s)  So that beauty-measuring scale is in perpetual motion, and therefore impossible to gauge.  I remember meeting a couple who were fostering a girl with a laundry list of special needs.  She drooled constantly, had only a few teeth, needed constant care and was chair-bound.  Yet the husband spoke of her as if she was the most beautiful little girl he’d ever seen and couldn’t understand why nobody would adopt her.  He was so genuine I still get teary-eyed thinking about it.  Yes – everyone is entitled to his or her opinion.  Yes – we should trust our own instincts.  Yes – we should be able to state the obvious in our society without blame, shame or danger.  But using physical beauty as an example of this?  Confusing!  Because you know what?  Every woman (and man) IS physically beautiful to God and I’d hazard a guess to at least one other person.  We don’t necessarily have to acknowledge that we see it in everyone, but we have to acknowledge that God finds every person beautiful. 

I think what Simcha’s referring to isn’t necessarily beauty, but rather aesthetic appeal (precision of language, darling).  I can easily and readily admit that I don’t have a whole lot of aesthetic appeal for the times we live in.  I could stand to lose a few pounds, pluck a few more ‘feathers’ and tone a few more muscles.  (...although my husband might argue otherwise.)  I can also see and can state unabashedly that Audrey Hepburn is absolutely more aesthetically pleasing than say, Mother Theresa or Barbara Streisand, and I would have no trouble encouraging my children to trust their instincts by allowing them to distinguish between who they find physically appealing and who they don’t.  Where I do have an issue is teaching my children that some women have beauty, and some women do not, because that, my darling, is simply not true.

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  1. Thank you for your post, it is a wonderful commentary on that article and a much needed one. You make a great point that for women beauty and desirability are completely linked in their minds, I can totally relate. It is funny, because I have also heard it applied to men... women will often talk about which man is the most handsome (that probably goes with men talking about women too), but I have found that when you get down to their basic point it is not that then men are more handsome physically (though the term beauty 'handsomeness' is in the eyes of the beholder applies here as well). No, it is that they are more attracted to some men more than others because of character traits:). I am positive that that also applies to woman as well.

    Thank again, it gives much food for thought.
    God bless,

  2. Precision of language! Words to live by.
    You've got to do what you mean, mean what you say because one thing leads to another, right?

    What is True and Good is also Beautiful - because ultimately God is at the heart of it. When God made all of creation, He saw that it was Good and I take that to mean it was also Beautiful. God made man in His own image and saw that it was very good.

    I wholeheartedly agree that the beauty we innately possess because of our divine origin is very different from the subjective standards of physical or aesthetic attractiveness. I find the emphasis on 'sexiness' disturbing and limiting as it overlooks other more important and lasting qualities.



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