Is Beauty Truth, or is Truth Beauty?

"Not so pretty" organic apples for sale, Mountain View, CAThe Apple of my Eye

During a recent visit to California, my friend took me to the local Farmers’ Market in Mountain View.  As we were walking around the stalls, we came across a vendor selling organic apples.  It was a treat to sample some  varieties of apples that I’ve never tasted before and certainly have never seen in any of the supermarkets in my corner of the world (the Pacific Northwest).

The flavours of these apple varieties made my taste-buds sit up and take notice.  What also caught my attention, though, was the sign drawing attention to the “Not so pretty” certified organic apples on sale for a dollar per pound.  Granted, some of the apples were a bit blemished and were not “perfect looking” compared to the conventionally grown apples we see in supermarkets, but they had their own kind of natural beauty to them that shone through in their taste.

The sign advertising the “not so pretty” apples reminded me of a comment  left by Evita  (a blogger who writes about wellness and spiritual development) about an earlier article I’d written on our food system.  I had stated in my earlier article that compared to the produce that ends up on display in supermarkets, organically grown fruits and vegetables often don’t look as “beautiful” even though from a nutritional and agricultural sustainability perspective, the organic produce is a much better choice.  Evita very graciously pointed out directly what I had merely hinted at.  Here’s her comment, almost verbatim (I’ve added the emphasis to some of the words.)

I will just add in one quick observation about the organic food not being beautiful…

I have to say I think it is; it is all a matter of the relative definition we assign

to beauty.  To me, kale with huge holes in it (from the little creatures chewing

into it) is beautiful, whereas an overgrown, waxy apple actually is not. I compare

it to how we view humans, the natural beauty [versus] the fake, make-up

based beauty.   (Evita Ochel, September 2010)

The following weekend, I returned to the same stall at the Farmers’ Market and asked the vendor if I could take a photo of the “not so pretty organic apples” sign to include in this blog post. (Thank you for allowing me to take the photo of the sign and the apples.)  When I explained why I wanted to take the photo and mentioned how most of us have been conditioned to only think of the perfect looking apples we see in the supermarket as beautiful, she told me about a close relative who came to the U.S. for a visit and could not quite believe that the large, highly polished (waxed) apples in the supermarket were real.

You have to wonder about apples that look so perfect they could be mistaken for imitation apples.  Yet these are the kinds of apples we have been led to believe are beautiful, never mind that they may have been sprayed with toxic pesticides and coated with wax to ensure they stay fresh looking and keep their shape in the long journey from orchard to supermarket.   I’m beginning to think that most of us have also been taken for a ride, and we’ve ended up in a place with mirrors that give us a distorted view of the relationship between beauty and perfection.

Defining Beauty

An online dictionary defines beauty as

The quality present in a thing or person that gives intense pleasure

or deep satisfaction to the mind, whether arising from sensory manifestations

(as shape, color, sound, etc.), a meaningful design or pattern, or something else

(as a personality in which high spiritual qualities are manifest).

This is a broad definition of beauty that clearly goes beyond tangible objects and physical appearance.  It also implies that perceptions and experiences of beauty are highly subjective.  What I don’t see anywhere in this definition, though, are the words “perfect” and “flawless”. If we consider the aesthetics of beauty, it would appear that we’re more inclined to describe something as beautiful when it is perceived as being in balance and in harmony with nature.

Ancient Greek philosophers noted that people are more inclined to describe the physical appearance of an object or person as beautiful if the features are symmetrical and proportional.  The results of a 2006 study conducted by an evolutionary psychologist, Gillian Rhodes, seem to confirm the much earlier observation of the ancient Greeks.  But how did we get from our original definition of beauty that included the satisfaction derived from a variety of sensory experiences (The apples might not have looked perfect, but if they tasted divine you might still say they were beautiful.) and spiritual qualities or other traits that please us to the belief that only blemish-free, “perfect” objects and people deserve the label “beautiful”?

Perhaps the larger question here is why we seem to be so fixated on the surface appearance as the main criteria for making judgments about beauty. Is this really an accurate or fair way to assess the overall goodness, vitality or beauty of the person or the object?  Is what we see really what we’re getting?  The short answers to these two questions are “no” and “not always”, respectively.

Out, out Damned Flaw

According to Jean Kilbourne, we see hundreds of ads per day through various types of mass media, and we are more influenced by those myriad two-dimensional images than we might consciously realize.  Ads don’t just sell products: As Kilbourne points out in her article “Beauty…and the Beast of Advertising”, ads also sell values, images, and a completely unrealistic ideal and standard of beauty that most real women will never attain—no matter how much money they spend on cosmetic products or diet aids. (By the way, the weight loss industry raked in just over $46 billion in 2004 and the combined sales for just the top five cosmetics producers topped $50 billion in 2004.)

How many of us stop to ask ourselves whether these are truthful depictions of adult female beauty?  And do we ever ask how those images were created? In “Beauty…and the Beast of Advertising”, Jean Kilbourne notes that all beautiful women in ads conform to the same narrow norm, regardless of age or ethnicity:  The women in these ads are generally tall, thin, long-legged, free of blemishes or wrinkles, and young–never mind that, according to the Canadian Women’s Health Network, the average height and weight for women in 2005 was 5’4” and 148 lbs, respectively.

As for those flawless, eternally young complexions and perfectly proportioned bodies and faces, well for the most part, the images are created artificially. Yes, you read that correctly!  Even photographs of models are airbrushed and photo-shopped before they appear in print (Canadian Women’s Health Network, 2005).  If you have never seen the Dove make-over photo-shop video on YouTube, I highly recommend that you take a few minutes to watch this video.  Note carefully what it says at the end of the video about our perceptions of beauty.

By the way, it isn’t just women who are subjected to cosmetic and digital makeovers before appearing in the pages of magazines.  Even food gets styled, made-over and touched-up before appearing in ads, food magazines, cookbooks, etc.  We’re not even getting a realistic image of what food actually looks like!

Those freshly washed grapes or just tossed salads that look so appealing in the food magazine have most likely been drizzled with glycerin (or other “ingredients”) to make them look that way and keep them fresh looking after sitting under the bright lighting required for studio photography.  And as for why your hamburger never looks as good in real life as it does in the television ads, well check out this YouTube video on what one food stylist has to say about the tricks of the trade.  Is it any wonder that our perceptions of what real food is supposed to look like are almost as distorted as our mass media shaped ideas about beauty?

The Price of Artifice

We are doing ourselves a huge disservice if we continue to allow artificial standards of beauty and faked pictures of perfection to exist without challenging the truth of these images.  For one thing, it sets people up to believe that physical attractiveness is the most important trait (or more accurately, commodity) for determining our happiness and success in life.

For another thing, some women (and now, increasingly, men) spend a fortune on weight loss and/or cosmetic products and procedures that are anything but good for their physical health—all in the name of trying to meet an unrealistic standard of beauty.  If you want to see what goes into some of the products we use on our faces in order to get that youthful, healthy glow, you might be interested in looking at the Environmental Working Group’s cosmetic safety database.

We also risk perpetuating unfair comparisons, judgments, assumptions and stereotypes, and negative social consequences that arise out of our distorted perceptions and beliefs about beauty.  The attractiveness factor can lead to higher grades (at least in high school), higher salaries, and even lighter sentences for some types of criminal offences (Patry, 2008, p. 728) for the “beautiful people”.  We can see quite plainly the negative effects for those who have been discriminated against on the basis of looks.  And in the long run, we’re not doing beautiful people any favours by rewarding them (or not handing out appropriate punishments for wrong-doings) based on looks rather than merit or good behaviour, either.

As I mentioned a couple of paragraphs back, even our perceptions of what real food is supposed to look like are becoming distorted by the mass media  Organically grown food typically will not look like its conventionally grown counterparts; it most likely won’t meet the artificial standard of food beauty established by mass media.  We need to be especially wary of falling into the trap of using the “beauty is goodness” idea where our food is concerned: beautiful does not necessarily equate to goodness or health.

Our conventionally produced fruits and vegetables look unbelievably blemish free because they’ve most likely been treated with pesticides to stop little critters from sampling the goods before we get a chance to eat them.  If pesticides are toxic to the critters that eat holes in our kale or bury into our fruit, why would we believe those chemicals would be any less harmful to us if they accumulate in our bodies over long periods of time? Framed this way, those “perfect” looking foods don’t seem so pretty after all.

Re-Framing Beauty and Reclaiming our Power

It seems to me that it is time we recalibrated our modern standards and perceptions of beauty and re-empowered ourselves in the process.  We can do this by taking the following steps.

1.      Broaden your definition and perceptions of beauty. We don’t have to keep buying into the idea that beauty is only about surface appearance or that beauty equals perfection–especially when the images we’re presented with are illusions.  What if we expanded and reframed how we define the aesthetics of beauty?  What if we chose to equate beauty with authenticity rather than an artificially created flawless appearance?  What if we decided to embrace a more natural approach to beauty—imperfections, wrinkles, and all?

2.       Become media literate. Take some time to learn how women are portrayed in the mass media.  Jean Kilbourne’s series of documentaries “Killing Us Softly” provide a great analysis of how women and girls are portrayed in ads.  Websites such as the Centre for Media Literacy, Media Awareness Network, and About Face are also great ways to learn how to deconstruct the images we see and become immune to their messages and impact.  Share what you learn with your friends and family and empower others through teaching them to see through the fakeness of the beauty ideal presented in the mass media.

3.      Vote with your wallets and your T.V. remote control. What do you suppose would happen if we only rewarded the advertising industry and mass media for depicting more authentic images of beauty across a wide spectrum of ages, ethnicity, and body shapes? If you decide you are no longer going to reward a magazine or TV show for perpetuating unrealistic images and standards of beauty, let the broadcaster or publisher know why.  The About Face website has some great information on how to write complaint letters.

4.      Let your food be your main beauty potion. Buy those less than perfect look apples or bunches of kale that are pesticide free—your body will think they’re beautiful, and if the produce is locally grown and freshly harvested, the food will also taste a lot better.  Beauty really does emanate from within, so if you want your skin to reflect good health and vitality the least expensive and most effective way to meet your goal is to eat those 5 -10 servings of (pesticide free) fruits and veggies, drink lots of water (preferably not bottled), get some exercise, and get lots of sleep.

October 18, 2010 · Susan · 6 Comments
Posted in: Social Justice

6 Responses

  1. Kate - October 19, 2010

    Dear Sue,
    I agree wholeheartedly about reframing and reclaiming our definition of beauty. I’ve also experienced this in the way some people see bikes as messy and ugly and see cars as tidy and appropriate. I had to give my head a shake. And it made me reflect on how disconnected we’ve become.
    Thank you for the definition of beauty. It is wonderful in how it touches on the inner and outer dimensions. (By the way, I’m using the Einstein quote from one of your earlier posts all the time. Thank you!)
    Thank you for your rich vein of reflections.
    I think magazine articles when I read this.
    Love Kate

  2. Susan - October 19, 2010

    Hi Kate,

    Thanks so much for your wonderful feedback and for your rich vein of reflections. For the most part, our culture has really been sold on the beautiful equals perfect/ spotless/sterile, etc. The sad thing is that in our drive to strive for an artificial ideal and keep everything neat, tidy and under control, we have as you have so aptly pointed out become disconnected with what life and nature are really about–diversity and constant change.

    I’m glad the Einstein quote resonated so well for you and that you are sharing it so widely. It’s through sharing these kinds of little gems as a means of offering “another way of thinking about things” that we encourage empowerment and facilitate change.

    Bright blessings,

  3. Karl Staib - Work Happy Now - October 19, 2010

    I’m buying organic more and more. What I’m actually getting into is creating my own garden. My wife and I have a little herb garden that helps us spice up our foods and nourish us. I am hoping to grow some tomatoes and peppers next year. This organic food also saves on gas.

    It’s a win win and it’s a great teaching tool to pass on to kids. So really its a win-win-win. 🙂

  4. Susan - October 19, 2010

    Hi Karl,

    That’s great that you and your wife are getting more into gardening and growing your own herbs (and eventually veggies). Growing your own food organically is a real win-win for you and the environment and it is a great way to help kids get connected with and understand where and how their food grows. I used to live in a place that had a southeast exposure so I had a little balcony garden. It’s so important to get people to realize that real food does not look like the pictures we see in the media and to expand our views on what we think is beautiful.

  5. Evita - October 29, 2010

    Hi Susan

    Oh you did such a fantastic job with this topic (and thank you for including the words I shared as well.)

    I remember when I first found out a good few years back now, that most if not all models, actresses, etc are “photoshopped” and when my husband showed me with my own photo what can be done. It is amazing how we accept those images as real, when they are not. And the thing is, that there isn’t anything wrong with a blemish here or there. I am all for taking care of ourselves, but we should be more accepting of ourselves, not feeling inadequate because we compare ourselves to “false” images.

    And so is the case with the food we eat, instead of looking at a tray of organic berries, apples or whatever fruits as a treat for the senses, we prefer the factory colored and molded items, that should not even be considered food.

    And how cute that the farmer actually had a sign saying “not so pretty”… cute, but a little sad to me. I know those apples were worth more and way better then perhaps any conventional ones.

    Thank you for sharing this message 🙂

  6. Susan - November 4, 2010

    Hi Evita,

    Thank you so much for your feedback–and thank you for encouraging me to tackle this subject. I really enjoyed writing this article and
    doing the research to add in all the links. I have to admit that seeing the sign at the Farmers’ Market was the “flirt” that pulled it all together for me.

    By the way, the less than perfect apples tasted beautiful. I’m also pretty sure the vendor intended that sign as a bit of tongue-in-cheek humour–she’s a wise woman. She knew exactly what I was talking about when I told her why I wanted to take the photo.

    It is a little astounding to think that even models (whom we think of as being closest to meeting the beauty “ideal”) have their images photo-shopped before the photos appear in the magazines. If people get nothing else out of this article, I really hope that readers will go and tell all of their women friends about the fake beauty ideal and how apparently even models aren’t “perfect enough” for our distorted associations between beauty and perfection. I think the more people we can empower through educating them to think independently and critically, the better off we’ll all be on so many levels. I’m happy to keep posting messages like this one and I’m happy to collaborate with others who want to get similar messages out.

    Bright blessings to you Evita!

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