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Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder

real beauty, beauty in the eye of the beholder, Dove real beauty sketches, feminism and beauty, makeup

In the last few weeks and months a spate of music videos and commercials have gone viral for promoting the idea of “natural” or “real” beauty. Videos by John Legend and Colbie Caillat, for instance, challenge beauty standards by featuring women who do not fit the supermodel mold alongside empowering messages of finding beauty within.

It might seem a bit surprising for someone like me with absolutely no vision to offer comments about beauty in advertising. To many sighted people, the concept of living in a world without vision yet still permeated with beauty seems illusory, if not altogether impossible. Acquaintances have often remarked that I am lucky to be unaffected by the image of what currently passes for the acceptable female form, and my comments that a particular item is “beautiful” are often met with a perplexed attempt to understand what that word could possibly mean to a blind person.

But the truth is, in many respects, my experience with beauty is no different from any typical young woman. As any of my girlfriends who have been victim to my 5:30 a.m. hairdo photo bursts or bungled attempts to video myself from behind can attest, I, like many, long to feel and be perceived as beautiful. And, like all too many other women, I too have experienced the nasty side of a culture that prizes perfection over reality. I went blind from a form of retinal cancer which left my eyes a little too small, a little too far back, and a little too glassy to ever have a face considered “beautiful” by the standards of mass advertising.

I will never forget the day that a well-meaning professional told me at sixteen that I might consider hiding my eyes behind sunglasses because it would make me more datable, or the time an intoxicated woman at a party cornered me to tell me that it was not fair that a body like mine was wasted on someone who could never use or appreciate it—that if there was a God, He would switch our faces. As many women with beauty battle scars will surely empathize, it is no surprise that in my weakest moment, those instances where self-confidence is most needed yet most fleeting, these experiences, and not the myriad counter-examples from friends and family, threaten to co-opt my internal dialogue.

It is from this lens that I contemplate beauty and, particularly, how advertising can show the authentic beauty of others with differently formed bodies.

I find the efforts of artists like Legend and Caillat and advertising campaigns such as Dove’s Real Beauty admirable, and I do not doubt that the stars involved—Caillat in particular—had the best intentions for these projects. To me, however, this all-or-nothing approach, where either the glamour status quo remains intact or videos feature exclusively “naturally beautiful” women, risks simply inviting one more form of divisiveness in a realm already riddled with factions.

It implicitly pits the “natural” woman against those who genuinely enjoy self-expression through makeup, clothes, shoes, and accessories. It overlooks the fact that women who might be strikingly, conventionally beautiful, even in their “natural” state, might struggle with the same deep-seated insecurities as the natural woman. And it fails to address the fact that body shaming can be experienced by the naturally thin as well as women of other body types. If there is one thing that those affected by the fashion industry do not need, it is the creation of one more “in group versus out group” classification for determining who has legitimate claim over the title “beautiful.”

But, more than that, I wonder whether these messages suffer from the problem of reiterating the what—we are all beautiful—without the why. Why is it that, in the words of Caillat, we don’t have to try? Without this deeper substantive answer, these messages become mere platitudes, where they will likely continue to lose out to the far stronger and pervasive negative images which not only tell us what we lack, but why we should feel unhappy until we have it.

My own, albeit solely anecdotal, source for the why lies in the following: I mentioned earlier that I experience beauty in many of the same ways as a sighted person. However, one principle difference has formidably impacted my ideas of beauty, and this is what I wish to share. Because, you see, if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then I have had the distinct and wonderful privilege of having the tapestry of my life painted by hundreds of beholders, all attempting to describe to me in words the visual scenes they find most riveting.

These beholders come from all walks of life, with many ideas about what constitutes beauty. But in each case, the beholder seems trapped by the simultaneous desire to describe and the knowledge that whatever he offers to me will never suffice. Sentences are left half-said, to be interrupted and interrupted once more. Adjectives are chosen, mulled over, and discarded for ones which turn out to be equally displeasing. Sometimes words cease altogether and the beholder can do nothing more than squeal, intensely squeeze my hand, absentmindedly tap fingers, or give up the endeavor altogether, lapsing into complete stillness. These experiences have taught me that the mainstay of beholding a beautiful object is a recognition of its total uniqueness—to the beholder, it is irreplaceable, unrepeatable, irreducible, and not confinable to the boxes of finite, linguistic concepts.

What a stark contrast, then, with the way that my beholders often paint their own self-portraits. Rather than grappling for a precise mode of representation, they often move from head to foot, matter-of-factly stacking adjectives such as dull, flat, big, stumpy, stringy, one on top of the other as if engaging in a giant addition problem where the sum total of all the mediocre or negative characteristics equates to everything they are as a person. Rather than wrestling with precise verbiage, they employ adjectives and nouns that could be used to describe anything from a warehouse to a field of weeds. True, familiarity does breed contempt, but there must be something more to this story.

Could it be that we, as a culture, have lost the sense that, like the scenes my beholders attempt to describe, we are all irreplaceable, unrepeatable, irreducible, and not confinable within finite linguistic concepts? That despite our best efforts, a part of us will always defy definition, remaining forever beyond the grasp of even our most intimate friend or lover? Could it be that we have forgotten that our essence as individuals cannot be reduced to our bodies (easily described with a few terse adjectives) but must also encompass our minds, our experiences, our struggles, and our joys–each shaped by a unique life of love and loss which has never been and which will never be again? In short, it seems to me that the most natural thing about each of us, and what makes each of us authentically beautiful, is the wonderfully simple fact that we are all beautifully, tragically, mysteriously alive.

So how do we own this? How do we incorporate this idea into our advertising? Well, first of all, we can learn to acknowledge and embrace the notion that, because our life experiences happen not only to our mind but also to our bodies, it is only “natural” that our bodies will memorialize at least some of the unrepeatable details of our unique life narratives. We can learn to embrace the notion that a naturally beautiful woman is rightfully called beautiful in the same manner as the Grand Canyon; it is majestic and breathtaking because of, not in spite of, its craggy rock faces, scrub brush, and fatally steep cliffs. We can embrace the notion that the naturally beautiful woman is rightly called beautiful in like manner to the peaks of Mt. Fuji, whose source of resplendency and suffering is one and the same. Whether it is post-birth baby bumps, colostomy bags, insulin pumps, breast cancer scars, or external manifestations of attempted suicide, our bodies reflect our struggles to be and find and live and understand our lives, to turn pain into joy and joy into permanent self-identity.

We can teach ourselves to be beholders of beauty, in ourselves and in each other, by learning to look at each other as integrated, complete, unique persons. Our beauty does not stem exclusively from the value of either our body or our mind, but from the mysterious and uniquely human fact that we possess both, each influenced and modified by the other.

And then we can ask advertisers to do likewise. Perhaps this sounds idealistic, but stranger things have happened. Money talks, and advertisers have responded, albeit slowly, to fringe markets as they have grown in popularity. If consumers can exert pressure to remove high fructose corn syrup and shampoo sulfates, surely we can exert our desire to live a bodycentric-free lifestyle. I do think that it is possible to use our strength in numbers to convey the message that we want advertisements which serve as a constant reminder that, as the source behind one recent viral video put it, “Beauty is more than what we see with our eyes. We are more than our conditions.”

The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty and Nordstrom’s advertisements featuring people with disabilities represent a step in the right direction which should be supported and hopefully expanded. While I take issue with Dove’s use of the word “real” to describe its approach, I still believe these strategies, by and large, seek to create a more holistic concept of beauty that includes the lives—not just the bodies—of all types of women for all types of women. I hope these movements will help to provide momentum for these new ideals and inspire more and more women to add their voices to the call for change.

By: Laura Wolk

Laura Wolk is a second year law student at the University of Notre Dame.


  1. Gabby says:

    Love this. Thank you

  2. Ann says:

    A very thoughtful – and thought-provoking – reflection. Your words are truly…Beautiful.

  3. Joseph Saad says:

    Very nice piece Laura! It opened my eyes to things I never gave much thought to before. You’ve definitely given me a new perspective on beauty.

  4. Patricia says:

    Dear Laura, you are a very talented and insightful woman!

  5. Joyce Everett says:

    Laura, what a beautiful person you are and what a beautiful article! Thank you for your input and especially your inclusion of women who have the battle scars of life visible to all, but whose stories are not heard, whose deep creases between the eyes and on each side of the mouth say volumes if only someone will listen.

  6. Bridget says:

    Laura, your insights are beautifully written – I especially like how you walk us through how you experience beauty, by relying on another’s ability to express with words – or through their body language – the power of beauty. As professor Prof Renée Kohler-Ryan explains, beauty should shock us. You’ve showed us how it does. Have a listen to her interview on Cradio here – xx “Beauty is something that surprises you, because it goes beyond mere personal preference and goes to the core of what something really is,” – Prof Kohler-Ryan.

  7. Liz Reinsmith says:

    Thank you for writing this “beautiful” essay from your unique viewpoint for a new generation. Well done, well said, Laura.  

  8. Cristina says:

    You are an eloquent writer–thank you so much for your thoughtful article. Although I do not live with any chronic illness or disability, as a nurse, I have taken care of people with a variety of different medical conditions that can overwhelm their lives and identities.
    We don’t want our struggles to define us, even though they shape and grow us, becoming a part of who we are.  Beauty defined as “alive” testifies to our vim and vigor–where we have been and the adventures to come! 

  9. Jenn Sands says:

    I couldn’t put my finger before on why I wanted to like the song Try but could only get halfway there.  This explains it very well.  I certainly don’t have to try in order to earn love, but have worth in and of itself as a human being, however, I don’t have to be shamed by the fact that I like make up and fashion.  

  10. Marlene says:

    There is an openness and eloquence in your writing which is wonderful.  

  11. Britainy says:

    Just splendidly stated. I am moved to call my aunt and read this to her over the phone; thank you for a wise message she and many others will benefit from receiving.

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