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Everyone wants to be beautiful. In our world of gyms and plastic surgery and beach bodies that’s not a surprising statement.
No one ever stops to ask, "What does it means to be ‘beautiful’?"
We all know the quick, easy answer to this question: Beauty is having a slim, muscled physic. The right hair, the right clothes. We all have a clear picture of what Beauty looks like.
But Beauty isn’t an absolute value. It changes from culture to culture. We might learn that from watching National Geographic or marveling at paintings of Renaissance "Beauties" who would be considered homely today.
In fact, our silicon and plastic picture of Beauty is relatively young. Before about a century ago (give or take), Beauty was abstract, mostly the stuff of metaphors. It was the advent of print advertising that brought about our contemporary conceptions of what is Beautiful.
The Ad Man stole our imaginations and and replaced them with Barbie dolls. Why didn’t we notice?
Photography didn’t exist until the 1800s, and even then wasn’t of a quality to be used in advertising. We couldn’t point to a photograph and say, This is beautiful. A Beauty in one town might never been seen by most people a few towns away. Before the photograph, Beauty was a lot more abstract.
In fact, before the modern era, Beauty was a metaphor. Consider, for instance, how the Beloved is described in the Song of Songs:
"How beautiful you are, my darling, how beautiful! Your eyes are like doves." (1:15)
"Your lips are as sweet as nectar, my bride." (3:11)
Even when the Lover chooses to get racy, he uses metaphor:
"Your thighs shelter a paradise of pomegranates with rare spices… You are a garden fountain, a well of fresh water." (3:13-15)
A beautiful woman has… eyes like doves. Sweet lips. Pomegranates between her legs.
These are metaphors. They don’t communicate anything concrete about the woman. Any woman could aspire to be the Beloved in Song of Songs. And any man the Lover.
So in the Ancient World, we have Beauty personified as the idealized woman of Proverbs 31. Note that she’s described primarily as a list of virtues. Compare her to the ideal woman from Weird Science, who is meticulously designed to be perfect – physically. Today we’re told perfection is a physical attribute.
In the ancient world, children wanted to grow up to be good. Now we want to grow up to be Pretty or Handsome. Beauty lived in our imaginations, and we all dreamed we could become Beautiful. Not today, though. Today, beauty is for those who can afford it.
What happened to Beauty? How did we move from aspiring to a Character to chasing beach bodies?
The Ad Man happened.
With the Industrial Revolution came the Factory, and with the Factory came Mass Production. Which led to a problem we’d never had before in human history:
With this surplus of inventory, advertising shifted from primarily informative to persuasive. The only way to sell stuff no one needs is to convince everyone they do need your stuff. That’s the goal of modern advertising is the manufacture of desire. The average person sees 250-500 advertisements per day. In 2010, we spent over $300 billion in advertising. $300 billion was spent to convince you you’re not good enough.
The Ad Man needs us to feel incomplete. The Ad Man needs us to feel lack. If we don’t lack, then we don’t buy.
And that was a real problem when it came to Beauty. Because metaphorical Beauty is obtainable. The Beauty that lives in our imaginations can become a reality.
I can easily imagine that I have eyes like doves, or leap over mountains like a swift gazelle. Frankly, there’s not much the Ad Man can do to help me become a metaphor. Certainly he can’t help me become good or charitable or hard-working. The Ad Man can’t sell Virtue.
Photography makes this immanently possible. Now the Ad Man can show us a person and tell us he or she is Beautiful.
We don’t have to use our imaginations anymore. We can just point to Beauty. Now it’s this model or that actor. We have endless pictures of them, assaulting us from every direction. Reminding us we’re not good enough. Reminding us that we need something to make us Beautiful.
And of course all we have to do is use the Ad Man’s product du jour and we too will be Beautiful.
But the models and actors live lifestyles that are impossible to imitate, with professional dietitians and trainers. Oh, and they’re airbrushed. Their Beauty is literally impossible to attain. And that’s the way the Ad Man wants it. Because as long as you’re unhappy with your body, you’ll continue to buy his products.
The Ad Man’s impossible picture of Beauty is designed to make us hate our bodies, to need products to fix them.
The Scriptures, however, teach us that our bodies are gifts from God. And just as our ancient mothers and fathers did, we are to pursue Beauty not as an Appearance, but as a Person. We are to become imitations of Jesus, whatever body we’ve been given.
As with every gift, we should be good stewards. We should exercise, keep our bodies healthy. We should maintain a healthy, sustainable diet. Observing socially-accepted hygiene isn’t a bad idea. But all of this should be as an act of worship, not to "fix" ourselves. Remember what Paul told the Christians in Rome:
"Dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice– the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect." (12:1-2, NLT).
It really matters how we interact with the advertising world. It really matters what magazines we read, what television or other media we consume.