The Attack on Beauty
Narcissus (c. 1645) by Gerard van Kuijl (cropped, wikicommons)

The Attack on Beauty

Marilyn Simon
Marilyn Simon
10 min read

There is a pop song by Canadian artist Alessia Cara that my daughters have learned to sing in their school choir. The song is “Scars to Your Beautiful.” It is a catchy, simple song. Many readers probably know it. The message it promotes is, by all accounts, a positive one, which is presumably why it’s being taught to children at school. The chorus goes like this:

There’s a hope that’s waiting for you in the dark,
You should know you’re beautiful just the way you are,
And you don’t have to change a thing,
The world could change its heart,
No scars to your beautiful,
We’re stars and we’re beautiful.

In spite of my girls’ sweet singing voices, and the intention of the lyrics, I think it is one of the most disturbing songs my kids have ever learned in school (right up there with Lennon’s insipid and juvenile “Imagine”). It is a narcissistic anthem painfully unaware of its hypocrisy. It reinforces the notion that beauty is rightfully a girl’s desirable goal, and that her aspiration to be “a star” is not only attainable—without any corresponding effort or talent on her part, naturally—but also the world’s ethical responsibility to ensure. In other words, there are no standards, ideals, nor any objectivity; instead the world needs to change its heart in order to conform to an individual’s subjective self-desiring.

Narcissism isn’t merely an issue of having an inflated ego. It is the condition of being enamored with one’s idealized projection of oneself to the exclusion of reality and of one’s real self. This occurs not because one is vain, but because one is too fragile to admit failings or fault. It has nothing to do with self-love, but rather with being locked in a solipsistic gaze with a fantasy of one’s self. Contemporary culture has taken classic narcissism and turned it into a new moralism. What we deem goodness now is that everyone else affirms the delusions of one’s wishful thinking as objective truth. Cara’s song, for instance, first reinforces the fantasy that each one of us is equally beautiful, and then makes the claim that the world must “change its heart” and endorse the image of oneself that is, in the first place, a self-interested desire. In other words, the mythology of “Scars to Your Beautiful,” and of our self-positive, identity-affirming culture as a whole, would suggest that not only is Narcissus correct in falling in love with a projection, an unreal and unreachable image of himself in a pond—something the Greeks thought was quite bad enough—but also that the rest of world must affirm his reflection as the real thing and celebrate his dead-end obsession with it.

So, positive reinforcement of self delusion is now a social good. The individual and society reject what is objectively real and instead embrace infantile narcissism, where the self’s fantasy of its own perfection is reaffirmed by the uncritical and unconditional love of a universal parent. Cara’s song intends to be encouraging, and in some ways it is (I’m not entirely deaf to my pre-teens’ rebuttals of “Mommm! You’re so depressing. It’s just a song to make us feel good!” and I will assent to the wisdom of my 12-year-old that healthy self-esteem is a good thing). But at its core, the song is self-delusion dressed in the garb of pop psychology. This is an accurate picture of our contemporary moral code: Everyone’s ideal projection of her or himself must be coddled and adored by a soft and nurturing world. Only a bad person would suggest that not everyone is equally beautiful, that not everyone is the “star” she imagines herself to be. (And only a monster would suggest that some people don’t even have inner beauty, either.)

“Competitive individualism,” writes Christopher Lasch, has channeled “the pursuit of happiness to the dead end of a narcissistic preoccupation with the self. Strategies of narcissistic survival now present themselves as emancipation from the repressive conditions of the past, thus giving rise to a ‘cultural revolution’ that reproduces the worst features of the collapsing civilization it claims to criticize.” Lasch’s words, written in 1979, predict so much of our contemporary upheaval—in our efforts to overcome racism, we have fallen into the trap of making (almost) everything about race. In our efforts to end sexual harassment, we have traded natural, often playful, interactions between women and men for institutional policies, while simultaneously treating women as somehow less than fully human, incapable of deceit and of misreading situations, and incapable of deftly handling sexual innuendo and sexual tension. The same thing has occurred with our culture’s criticism of our esteem for idealized physical beauty, particularly female beauty, while we make the contradictory insistence that we are all ideally beautiful, and should be admired accordingly. Beauty, we say, shouldn’t be venerated. That’s shallow. But we should also all believe that “we’re stars, and we’re beautiful.” That’s virtue.

Feminists have long argued that conceptions and representations of feminine beauty are a tool of patriarchal oppression. Naomi Wolf’s bestselling book, The Beauty Myth, did much to popularize the idea that the patriarchy has been codifying ideals of women’s body types and facial features for decades, if not centuries, in the masculine machinery’s ongoing effort to keep women quiet, submissive, and weak. In the cultural soup of social media, I cannot number the amount of times I have come across Wolf’s critique of thinness: “A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession with female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.” It is difficult to know how to begin dismantling the number of assumptions that Wolf takes to be facts (an intellectual lesson she has yet to learn, as evidenced by the research errors within her most recent book, Outrages, which were so egregious that the US pressing had to be withdrawn by its publisher). For starters, I have been hungry often. Never has it made me “obedient,” (it’s made me, instead, rather intractable: “hangry” is the word). And it is unclear how exactly the physical sensation of hunger—which presumably men feel from time to time, too—might effect one’s disposition towards compliance.

Would we ever suggest the opposite—that being well-fed makes one rebellious? I have made concerted efforts at different points in my life (especially after pregnancy) to be intentional about diet and exercise. Never has this type of self-government made me “tractable” to patriarchal control. If anything, self-discipline has made me less susceptible to external influences, and more in control of myself. In spite of these obvious refutations of Wolf’s quote, I have frequently seen it reposted on social media not for the purpose of endorsing a women’s political movement towards empowerment or control, but rather as an excuse simply to validate a woman’s own body as itself the ideal. The messaging, in other words, is not designed to fight the patriarchy or strengthen women (both of which require effort), but to invalidate any external standard of beauty, as though the sublime human form is itself at fault. (Once again, the Greeks who immortalized the human physical ideal in monuments of marble would be puzzled, and troubled, by our apparent hatred of it.)

The feminist objection to the influence of the patriarchy on representations of female beauty is founded on society’s primal sin of finding some women beautiful and others less so. Yet rather than focus on other attractive qualities a woman might cultivate, such as humour, generosity, intelligence, toughness, and kindness, what contemporary culture does instead is, as Lasch observed, to reproduce the worst features of the civilization it claims to criticize. The moral thing is to democratize beauty, to make it egalitarian, and equally distributed so that we can all be ideal. The new beauty contest has less to do with our physical vanities and more to do with our moral ones. What we want to do is show our goodness by promoting equal forms of female beauty in a consciousness raising effort to establish all women as beautiful.

This does little, of course, to alter reality. Some women are prettier than others, and some figures more pleasing than others. It feels mean to say this aloud. But why should it? It is nobody’s fault. Nature is undemocratic, and bestows the aristocratic privilege of beauty on some and not on others. Youth looks better than age. Health looks better than infirmity. Perfect teeth and glowing skin look better than the alternatives. Fitness and firmness look better than obesity. The objections to this, I am aware, are that cultural norms determine female beauty, and readers will point to the Muratanian preference for larger women, or the historic Chinese practice of deliberately making a woman infirm through foot binding. These practices, however, have more to do with status than with beauty, and for the majority of us plebs, we still recognize that symmetry, health, and youth are more desirable than not. It isn’t democratic, and it certainly isn’t fair. So it goes.

But fairness is the overwhelming ethic of our age, which is why the attack on beauty is so morally compelling. It is a betrayal of democratic principles if anyone is given an unfair advantage in life. This is what privilege is all about. And there is much evidence to show that better looking people have better outcomes in life. Beautiful people get paid more than the rest of us. They can find more attractive mates. They also get treated better by others. It is incredible to observe how much faster they are seated in a crowded restaurant, how kindly they are approached in a retail store, and to watch how they are regarded with deference and courtesy by perfect strangers. Aesthetic privilege. What an offense. In our culture’s obsession with fairness and equality, it is no wonder that we want to tear down any idealized standard of beauty—while at the same time making the claim that we are beautiful. No matter how much we might want to diminish beauty’s market value, we all seem to want it as an asset.

These observations are not a critique of women who want to feel beautiful, much less a criticism of those who are insecure or even self-loathing about their bodies. As a woman fighting off the inevitable entropy of age, I empathize with the desire to be made to feel beautiful, and participate willingly in the economy of beauty. And as the mother of two pre-teen girls, notions of self-worth that are tied to physical standards are not merely academic for me. Of course I want them to feel good about themselves. But I don’t want to treat my girls as too fragile to deal with their physical appearance, and how it might be less than the ideal. Nor do I think it’s beneficial for them to waste psychological energy in trying to reconcile the gap between their self-fantasy and social ideals. This seems anxiety-producing rather than self-loving. (One of my girls has, frankly, the worst hair I’ve ever seen: it’s stringy on top and frizzy at the bottom—a disaster. She asked me recently, in a quiet little voice, “Do I have pretty hair?” I wanted to tell her that she did, but instead I paused before responding, “Not really. So we can either put some real effort into styling it, or you can just learn to deal with it.” She shrugged, put on a colourful hat, and walked cheerfully out the door. Bravo, kid. Better to showcase the chutzpah you have, than complain over the features you can only wish for.)

The morality surrounding women’s beauty has taken two directions in recent years. On the one hand we have the commonplace modern narcissist—the individual who insists that the world celebrates her own conception of herself as beautiful. I can’t be the only person to recognize the irony at play whenever I have encountered body-positive messages on social media. The friend or the influencer who is posting it is commonly outside of the “ideal” female body type, and is posting a message about beauty in order to both feel validated that she is not dieting, for instance, and to assert that her, typically larger, body type is in itself beautiful. The messaging apparatus of body-positive thinking is to critique external codes of beauty while simultaneously claiming that one’s own body should meet the externally mandated codes of beauty. This expresses a hatred of objective reality, and demands that the imagined inner subjective experience be taken as real: “You must affirm what I say is true about me, and even though you cannot see me the way I want to see myself, you must pretend that you do, because I must see my wish of myself fulfilled in your regarding of me.” In spite of feminism’s professed desire for women to not be objectified, women in general, and often the very feminists who condemn men the most for seeing women as physical objects, nevertheless work very hard to overhaul social ideals of physical beauty so that the parameters of the objectively beautiful are enlarged. In this way, all women can enjoy feeling objectively beautiful. Turns out, we want to be objectified.

On the other hand, we have a new kind of woman—she is usually young—who works towards making herself ugly in an effort to demonstrate her liberation from the social norms and from, especially, male desires. You may have seen her: She often has green or blue hair. Somewhat strangely, she often dresses in cropped shirts or short skirts, but this is not done to be pretty or sensual (ostensibly), but rather it offers her a chance to demonstrate her superior virtue in being free from the tyrannical control of the patriarchy. It also provides her with the opportunity to scold or scorn a man for objectifying her. She wants to be judged, publicly, as herself a righteous judge of ethical thought. This young woman spends much time cultivating her “individuality,” and expresses her uniqueness in her hair dye, tattoos, and counter-trendy clothing. All of which is, of course, merely skin deep. Her anti-beauty aesthetic is more carefully curated than the average girl’s, who just wants to wear something that looks nice.

In both cases, we see the worrying trend to do away with ideals, which diminishes the beauty of the human. We see a suffocating preoccupation with the self, which makes each individual the centre of her solipsistic universe, turning external reality back towards the self in order to turn oneself into an ideal. This flattens humanity, and results in our culture’s obsession with self-worth. What is the benefit to getting “the world to change,” as Cara sings, if the change of heart we are wishing for is merely for the world to reinforce one’s claustrophobic narcissism?

I enjoy seeing the unattainable images of gorgeous women on the covers of fashion magazines. I want to be reminded that others have what I do not. I want ideals of female beauty to surround me, and be external to my sense of value. I want to gaze on female beauty, be in awe of the human form, appreciate the beauty of another woman’s body and face: her full lips, sensual eyes, her perfect curves and slender waist. My God! What creatures we can be! How does it diminish me to delight in another’s genetic good fortune? And I want to teach my daughters that another’s beauty needn’t have any relationship to them at all. Why must they be taught to feel that images of beautiful women should be attainable? Why must it have something to do with them? I don’t want my daughters to expect the world to join them in affirming their soul-murdering obsession with their face in a pond. I want them to discover the beauty in reality: the soul-expanding possibilities of a world that does not revolve around them.

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Marilyn Simon

Dr. Marilyn Simon is a Shakespeare scholar and university instructor. She is currently working on a book entitled "Fucking: An Inquiry."