What Is Beauty?

There are many things that can be considered beautiful. For example, you might consider a painting a thing of great beauty. A particular song, a pair of shoes, a deer in the woods, an elegant theorem — all might be considered beautiful.

But what exactly does that mean?

Studies have been done where people rate the attractiveness of faces shown to them. As it turns out, people tend to prefer a face that is more symmetrical. Why? The presumption is that symmetry denotes health, which means a good candidate for successful mating. What we find beautiful is encoded in our genes as an evolutionary strategy.

Or is it? It seems that notions of beauty change over time. In the middle ages, women as depicted in paintings tended to be larger than the wafer-thin models that stride the catwalks.

Are we simply programmed by our society as to what constitutes beauty? The people we see in magazines and on television… are they in our media because they are beautiful, or do we consider them to be beautiful because they are in our media?

Similarly, we can consider the art world. Imagine a particular painting is prominently displayed in a museum, or is sold for a large sum of money, or is presented in an art history class. Might we not start to assume it has great beauty?

Some people describe ideas as being beautiful. But what does beauty mean in that case? Does it simply mean that it is useful? Some might describe a theory that explains a complicated idea in a few short words or equations as elegant. Is “beauty” in this case just a synonym for “simple”? And do we mean the same thing when talking about art, or ideas, or faces?

What is beauty?

Related questions: Why do we like what we like? How much of our thoughts are our own? How important is the artist to art?

4 thoughts on “What Is Beauty?”

  1. Beauty cannot be pinned down to a singular essence. It often finds its origins in the unique five senses, backgrounds, and minds of the beholders. Oftentimes, this diverse sense of beauty should be celebrated, as it promotes accepted pluralistic thought, belief, and tastes.

    Conversely, shared mores and conventions may provide people with more of a collective sense for beauty. This too can be healthy — a way to build community through healthy, shared pride.

    However, these things noted, when an individual or collective sense of beauty is harmful or exclusive of well-intentioned others, we should be critical. Social pressure or even isolation should rarely be embraced. And bullying is poison.

  2. There are two types of beauty, superficial and true.
    Superficial beauty lies only on the surface of a person or thing. A person may have beautiful features, but have an ugly heart. A building may have a beautiful facade, but have a crumbling foundation and termite infested walls. An perfect looking fruit may hide a mushy, tasteless interior.
    True beauty, on the other hand, goes far beyond the surface. A plain person may have a generous and loving heart. A simple looking building may have a strong, well built foundation. An imperfect looking fruit may contain the sweetest, most intense flavor.
    Our responsibility is to look beyond the surface to discover whether or not something/someone is truly beautiful.

  3. We have an instinct for noticing and appreciating things that are pleasing to the eye. We can build on that instinct by thought, contemplation, and conditioning; but for beauty, like for everything else about us, the instinct has to be there in the first place and is the foundation.

  4. See my answer on Michael’s facebook post for this question. As the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words.
    And I agree with Michael that some ideas about beauty can be harmful – for example, encouraging young girls and women to starve themselves or subject themselves to cosmetic surgery, not to mention the low self esteem. Look what happened to Karen Carpenter, and probably many others. And Cecily hit the nail on the head – we need to look beyond the surface to see real beauty in people. I have friends who aren’t much to look at physically, but underneath are truly beautiful. In fact, part of being truly spiritual is to see the beauty (or the face of God) in each person you encounter.

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