I was walking to class and a friend came to me and said, “you look really good today.” I was a little defensive. I didn’t like the thought of being valued for merely how I look especially by a guy. As the day went on I thought about my reaction. Why didn’t I like what he said to me?
I had uncertainty in my beauty as a woman, and I discovered I had a question. Was the source of my beauty in its effect on other people or a quality I possess? When a friend tells me I look good, I say to myself, “my beauty exists!” but I immediately feel the limitation of receiving knowledge of my beauty’s existence from the outside without an internal correspondence. My reaction to the complement show me that I am not satisfied with my beauty being merely an effect on another.
“There is unfortunately a widespread prejudice with regard to all values; one says that they are not qualities of an object, but only feelings or effects that an object evokes in us” explains Dietrich Von Hildebrand in Aesthetics (1). Beauty may evoke a feeling, joy may intensify as I drive and all the sudden see the mountains and the sun rising above them, but the beauty does not originate in my joy. It originates in the mountain. Beauty is a quality of the mountain.
This is the difference between objective and subjective beauty. Let’s look at more examples from Von Hildebrand (2). He talks about colors. We do not usually say that colors are beautiful for me, but that colors are beautiful. The importance of the color does not find its origin in its pleasant effects on me. The importance of the color is in itself. It is not limited to its effect on me. The color yellow is important in itself even if I have some unique repulsion to it. The same is true of a woman’s beauty. Her beauty is important in itself. It is not dependent, nor should it be reduced to the pleasurable effects it has on another person.
This is liberating for women. Our beauty is objective. It is a quality we possess and is not dependent upon its pleasurable effects on others. This means my beauty cannot be detracted based on me having a less pleasurable effect on a person. It may be detracted by choices I make against my beauty, but it cannot be detracted merely because I am having an unpleasable affect on a person.
We can see the effects of subjectifying women’s beauty in our culture. Women constantly changing based on pleasing others with no objective criteria. I’ll act this way to be pleasurable here, I’ll talk this way to be pleasurable here, and soon we’ve wasted weeks or months making judgements in preservation of a reduced beauty. Seeking it from an outside source, unaware that it is a quality we already posses, and we possess it in every aspect of our person.
I concluded that what I had separated, my physical appearance and my heart, my friend saw as a totality. This is Emma and she, Emma, looks good today. I moved from defensive to excited. Someone was seeing me as a whole person. I am everything I am and this includes my physical appearance. My beauty is a quality of who I am, and it penetrates every aspect of me from my physical to spiritual nature. This compliment was given as a response to the effect my beauty had on my friend, but with an understanding of my objective beauty I am able to receive it without anger. The compliment doesn’t get me excited because my beauty is finally coming into existence. It gets me excited that someone is able to respond to my value. I am objectively beautiful.
I am not the only one who holds this objective characteristic, nor do I hold it to the highest degree, but in any event I am beautiful. What it means that I am beautiful goes beyond how I look on a particular day, but it encompasses all of me. It also isn’t something I could’ve created, even if I did put together a nice outfit. There is something deeper about my beauty that is not created by me. This beauty is brought to light when I say yes to an opportunity for patience, and emphasized it with a little mascara. Most of us agree women are beautiful, but not all of us agree that the depth of this beauty is uncreated.
We may prefer particular ways to realize the beauty of our womanhood. For example, a woman might pay particular attention to her appearance on a specific day to illuminate her beauty. She may put forth a lot of energy on a project to illuminate her beauty. She might consider how to be more patient with a friend to express her beauty. When I wear unbecoming raggedy clothes, don’t develop a clear point to my project, or rashly judge my friend, it means nothing for me to claim these things as beautiful, for they cannot be shared with another. They are outside the gift of beauty given to me as a woman. It isn’t created by us, but given to us. Our creativity does not come through our defining, but our expression.
“You look good today” was the compliment I received from a friend who knew me well. This moved me to reconcile the question, “Am I beautiful?” I was not content to limit my beauty’s existence to his affective response. Thanks to this Fellowship I’ve begun to grasp it is a quality I possess.
I am objectively beautiful, and particularly as a woman, I believe this is so.
(1) Dietrich Von Hildebrand, Aesthetics, 17.
(2) Ibid, 16.