On Beauty and Being Known

We often spout off lines about the unimportance of beauty, or at least its subservience to other, greater things. We say things like, “Beauty is only skin deep” or “It’s what’s on the inside that counts.”

But I want to ask: Is this really true?

Certainly we would say that a person who cares only about physical beauty and disdains knowledge or understanding of the interior is a very shallow person indeed. We would probably go so far as to say that they are “not a very good person at all.” However, concern for physical beauty does not necessarily align with the all-or-nothing approach. A person might care about physical beauty (in themselves and in others), though this is not all they care about or the primary thing that they care about. My question is not only, should we care about physical beauty? but also, is it possible for us not to care about physical beauty?

I want to start with the second question first. I am going to assert that it is not possible. Sure, it sounds very virtuous to be able to say, “I do not care at all about what people look like or what I myself look like.” But there is an important distinction to make here. There is a key difference between noticing and responding. I would liken this to the way in which we deal with our feelings. Feelings are not something which we can control. Sometimes I feel a surge of fear that seems in no way connected to my current situation. If I dismiss the fear or replace it with peace, then I have responded to the feeling in a positive way. If, on the other hand, I respond to the feeling with added panic and interpret the feeling in a particular way in my thoughts, then I have responded to the feeling in a negative way, and it might spiral into something greater.

I do not think that feelings are the same things as observations of physical features. But I do think that a comparison can be made here. When we see another person for the first time, we are struck initially by their physical characteristics. This is the main point I am trying to make: we can’t help noticing these features and we can’t often separate the effects these features make on our first impression of the person. What really matters is not that we refrain from noting these features, but that we do not stop there in our estimation of the person. It takes time to see beyond this initial impression. However, once the novelty of particularly “obtrusive” physical aspects of the person wear off, we no longer see just those aspects; we see the whole person.

Yet the whole person does not exclude these physical characteristics. They do not simply disappear or become insignificant to our relationship with the person. Now we come to the first question which I posed above: should we care about physical beauty? I would answer yes: we should, but we should do so in a different way.

Beauty does not have to do with a standard set of characteristics and it also does not deserve to be denigrated in the face of inner beauty. Instead, I think beauty can be integrative: beauty can integrate the mind, body and spirit, because that’s what constitutes the human person. I think that beauty (all kinds of beauty, but let’s stay specifically with the physical within the confines of this post) can change, grow and develop. Although it might seem a contrary notion, physical beauty is not static. It is dynamic, because, I believe, it depends on being known.

I want to be quick to qualify the above statement: beauty (and by extension, value) do not in any way, shape or form depend on outward perception. This is an important point and must be stressed. Our beauty and value rest in our being and in our being loved by God. Because of this, it doesn’t matter if anyone ever gets to know us enough to discern our true beauty; we are always beautiful, and the most profound loneliness could not detract even the tiniest bit from our beauty.

However, when we are speaking of human relationships, true beauty can come from being known. The more that the lover comes to know the beloved (note: when I speak of lover and beloved, I am not referring to romantic relationships specifically, but any form of loving bond, be it friend, family, or spouse), the more familiar the beloved becomes to them, and the more they love all that is familiar about the beloved. Think of someone you love or have loved: perhaps a quirk or peculiar physical habit or characteristic comes to mind, as in the way they clear their throat or crack their fingers. To a stranger, these things might be completely unnoticeable or even annoying, but to the lover they are laced with meaning; they are beautiful because they belong to the beloved, because they are part of the person who is loved. These little details are beautiful because reveal a dimension of the uniqueness of the beloved, who, if loved authentically, is loved because they are they and not anyone else.

So does beauty matter? Should we attempt to principally eliminate thoughts of physical beauty from our interactions with other people? I think that instead we should look at each person’s unique physical features as a unique dimension of their unique personhood. We should give people the space and time for observation to develop into understanding and for understanding to develop into love, for the person as they are and not as they might have been. Even if the person is a stranger or mere acquaintance, with whom we will not gain such a level of intimacy and familiarity, we can look at these physical details as a reminder of the amazing and unfathomable complexity of every person, and the resulting ethical imperative to treat every person with sympathy and sensitivity.

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” as Keats so eloquently said. But beauty belongs to the whole person and the whole person is always beautiful in its own (and only its own) way.