What Does it Mean to Be Beautiful?
Marc Barnes of Bad Catholic has a post on human beauty that really hits some fine points. Please read it- and if you're not familiar with him you ought to be. I love how he points out that we never actually see ourselves- that what we see is some representation of us- either in a mirror, or else video. But never ourselves. C.S. Lewis uses this to great effect in some of our writing. Since we can see the image of our face and of ourselves, we usually forget that this was not the case for most of human history. When St. Paul tells us we see dimly, as in a mirror, it was because the mirrors of his day and age were so bad that you'd never get a good idea of your face. To get a painting done of you was the only way you'd know your face. Nor could you watch yourself dance, because video was not invented.
But his key point is what fascinates me today- that we look for beauty in the wrong place- in the world, to the dominant culture, when the people we need to seek it from are those we love and live with- or community. And I want to share what some of what dance has taught me about beauty.
Before I had learned to dance, my dancing consisted of going to weddings and jumping around, or occasionally of going to a night club and jumping around. I would need to have a others go ahead of me so that I would not be ashamed of how I might look dancing on the floor.
When I started to learn to dance something different happened. I became much more focused on the connection, and I was very self-concious about the fact that my dancing was not so good as the other guys. And early on, when the ladies would tell me that they enjoyed dancing with me, I would simply ascribe it to them being nice. But after three months and hundreds of times being told by the woman I was dancing with that I was such an awesome dancer, it hit me that they really must mean it. That I was a great dancer.
Now I was in the opposite track. Before I had dismissed the beauty I had. Now I imagined I had beauty that I did not. It was extremely frustrating to enter competitions and not make the cut again and again. I also would see pictures of myself dancing and not like them. Yet it took almost four years for me to admit the obvious- I was nowhere as good as I thought I was. So I started taking lessons from different pros from around the country, and they all said the same things- my back was slouched, my arms didn't flow, my feet were aligned poorly, etc. As I worked on my form my dancing got better and better, to the point I finally advanced in competition and to where all of my pictures look good. Even my smile has changed. I had not liked my smile growing up. Then during a session for a routine my coach pointed out that we needed to fix my smile. That's right- we needed to fix my smile, because I was doing it wrong! Having shown me the right way to smile, I love to smile now. I love the way it looks.
So is this to say that beauty is objective? Yes, but not merely objective. It's also subjective. I cannot tell you how much more beautiful women become when they learn to dance. A plain woman, if she knows how to dance, will look more beautiful than a fashion magazine model who can't. As a woman progresses in dancing she becomes more and more beautiful. Not only that, but even if her progression is not particularly fast, my knowledge of her beauty does grow quickly I think it's because I see her body and spirit, not just body, and it's this combination that renders her beautiful. My repeated encounter with her opens my up the greatness of God's love. Even though a great deal of skill is not necessary for this to happen, some very modest degree is required. Along with that there must also be an openness on the part of both of us to the mystery to have this happen.
The constant in here is what Marc talked about- the need for a community that will recognize that each of us is beautiful, inspire us to grow in beauty, and to hold us accountable when we go off either direction- to assume we have a beauty we do not, or to deny one that we do.