The Subjectivity of Beauty

Welcome to Part II of my Hottie v. Healthy series: Beauty and sexiness are very subjective.

(Part I can be found here.)

Just to review, I agree a lot of women, for myriad reasons, may not openly admit that the desire to look good is what fuels their efforts to lose weight, exercise, and/or eat right. Moreover, there’s nothing wrong with admitting that you want to be and look at your best. But herein lies the rub: How do we define a hot body or looking good?  Your best might be very different from my best or from the what media might suggest is best.

One look at the covers of fashion magazines, billboards, and some of the top Hollywood female stars, and it’s clear there’s a big emphasis on nearly unattainable standards of beauty. Many of these public beauties don’t resemble most typical women. That’s because very few typical women have the luxury of personal trainers, dieticians, hair and makeup artists, personal stylists, and/or the budget to pay for these things or to even pay a heftier price in the form of plastic surgery or deprivation diets. (And most of us don’t Photoshop or airbrush the photos we put out there or have a chance to edit our tagged photos over on Facebook. If only…)

Now, if, on the other hand, we define “hot” as being at our set point weight – or the weight most of us naturally seem to return to again and again when we’re eating mindfully when we’re actually physically hungry and putting the fork down before we’re stuffed and also getting moderate exercise – then, yes, let’s all try to be hotties. Unfortunately, though, our individual set point weight is not how a lot of us would define being hot.

What seems to be frequently be missing in a lot of discussions about weight and how we are responsible for being healthy and attractive, is who exactly defines what is beautiful, hot, or good looking?

The media? Our husbands? The mirror we look into every day?

In her post exploring her own thoughts on beauty and body image, blogger Kimberlie writes,

“Yes, I want to look good, I want my husband to think I am hot, and I want to be healthy.  What it really boils down to for me though, is I want to be the woman who God intended me to be from the beginning before I decided to hate His creation (me) and mess it all up. That’s what I want.”

I want all of this, too, especially to be the woman God intends me to be, but here’s the tricky part (for me anyway): How do we figure out exactly what it means to look good when the media accost us with unrealistic images of women? How do we get back to that woman God intended us to be from the beginning? Who is she? What does she look like? Is her body at its most natural state “hot” by Western standards?

Unfortunately, I’m still trying to figure out the answers to these important but difficult questions. What I do know is that we can’t talk about weight and wanting to look good without considering how we’re going to define beauty as well as how our own personal body image might affect the way we see ourselves and the lengths we’ll go to achieve hottie status. As I defined it briefly in my first post, body image is how we see ourselves physically, and social constructs greatly influence it.

Maybe many women who desire a great body (more than a healthy one) are being realistic. Their great body doesn’t boast the measurements 36-24-36. But a lot of women deal with body angst for much of their lives because the body they’re trying to attain may be “hot,” but it’s not realistic or maybe even healthy for them. In fact, there are a great deal of women who have beautiful figures even by Western society’s strict standards; yet, they  still think they’re fat and unlovable.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association website, eating disorders are on the rise “wherever the Western notion of beauty is becoming accepted.” The simple explanation for this is that the Western ideal stresses a lean, taut body. (I could also argue that many eating disorders are very much about control, and something that’s easy for an American woman who has access to all sorts of food to control is what she puts into her mouth.)

Although we currently live in a world where thinness is exalted, this wasn’t always true. (What has remained fairly constant, however, is that there’s always room for improvement when it comes to your body.)

When I was 19 years old, I was standing in the The National Gallery museum, taking in walls and walls of great art, and all I could think of was how fat these fleshy women looked by today’s standards. Someone remarked that cellulite was much tougher to paint than smooth skin. Well, Rubens must have been a master, I thought, as I stared at his Three Graces and their dimply skin.

I’d been brainwashed into thinking that a beautiful body was a lean one with breast implants, but history shows that whatever was more difficult to obtain was what was glorified. Believe it or not, plumpness was once held in high esteem, as noted by the real advertisement (pictured above left) from the late 1890s offering help to women who longed to be fatter (HT: Body Positive). Yes, fatter! Contemplating this fact, my dear friend, Cathy, once joked that maybe we were all just born in the wrong century.

Our human idea of beauty changes. I personally believe economics has a huge impact on what becomes the ideal standard of beauty. Today we worship tanned, toned beauties because to get that way often requires not only sacrifice but frequently money as well. True there are some naturally thin women with perfect olive skin, but many women who are beautiful, especially those in the public eye, pay a premium price to get that way. I’ll read about a Hollywood star who got her pre-baby body back within a couple of months by eating healthy meals prepared by her personal chef and by working out with her personal trainer, and I’ll think, “No wonder it only took her a few months to shed the weight.”

Once upon a time women wanted to be on the plump side because it was once the sign of wealth. When food was scarce, you didn’t want to be skinny because that suggested you were poor. In an agrarian society of the past, being thin and tan was a sign that you were working in the fields all day while the wealthy and rounder folks were profiting off your labor.

Of course, what defines beauty is more complicated than all of this, but we have to be careful about saying it’s okay to promote wanting a hot body as the primary motivator to eating well and exercising – if what constitutes a hot body is something that only a small percentage of women can naturally attain.

If you’re a mother to daughters, consider this: Do you encourage your child to fill up on green, leafy veggies and whole grains as well as to exercise instead of snacking in front of the television all day because you want her to look like a knockout? Or is is the predominant reason you encourage healthy habits is so she’ll feel good and be healthy? As a mom to three girls, I choose the latter. I ought to choose the same for myself, no?

We also have to consider our individual husband’s preferences. I had a co-worker once who truly did find extremely thin women attractive. He’s probably in the minority because most men I know prefer women who look like women – curves and all. I knew right away I could never date the dude (not that I was interested). I’d never feel thin enough for him. I have a wonderful husband who thinks I’m beautiful even when there are circles under my eyes, and my hair’s all askew. But there are surely some men whose level of female hotness might be more scrupulous.

Beauty and sexiness are extremely subjective as well as malleable, but the kind of health God desires for us is not. God would, I suspect, advise most of us to pursue health more than hotness and if our personal healthy set point weight gives us a hot body, then yippie for us. If we are consuming healthy foods, moving our body because we can, and taking care of ourselves, and we have no underlying health problems that might be causing the pounds to pack on, then we’ll likely be at a good, healthy weight for us. Whether this gives us a hot body or not depends on where we live, the kind of cultural scripts we adhere to, our husband’s or other men in our lives personal taste, and our own body image.

I’m not advocating that we push “fat” aesthetic ideals over thin ones (my mom grew up with a friend who was naturally stick-thin and very insecure about her straight body and was always eating high calorie foods to fatten up); we shouldn’t push any ideal other than health over another in my opinion.  Nor am I suggesting we don’t try to be as beautiful as God intended us to be in the physical and spiritual sense. When serious Christians bring spirituality into discussions about weight and physical attractiveness, there often exists a temptation to relegate the temporal to second-place status or to even completely dismiss things of the earth. I don’t agree with this extreme at all.  We have to break free from the mentality that things like physical beauty are completely superficial and irrelevant when we focus on virtue and holiness.

There is no shame in wanting to be attractive and there can be plenty of virtue in it; yet, I’ll continue to argue that we have to be careful how we define looking good and maintain a broader appreciation for the human body whether it’s proportional and sexy or not. Let’s be careful as well to not conform to whatever prevailing aesthetic ideals we’re bombarded with and to learn to appreciate the diversity of looks in the human race.

Eat well. Be well. Break a sweat as a means to better health and a way to honor your body. Adorn it with clothing that accentuates your assets without flaunting them. Wear makeup if it suits you. But try to see your body not as an ornament – flashy and hot or not – but as an instrument in which you must try to keep healthy in order to live a fulfilling life.

Please stay tuned for my final installment in this series.


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5 Responses to “The Subjectivity of Beauty”
  1. Colleen says:

    I think I may be one of the “lucky” women who can honestly say that I want to be healthy more than a hottie. I think when we focus on our health, we will do healthy things to accomplish this, but when we focus on being hot, we will do unhealthy things to get there. Plus, if you’re healthy – you are a hottie!! But if you’re a hottie, you’re not necessarily healthy.

    I totally agree that we should eat the way we feed our kids (assuming we are trying to feed them healthy!) Why do I say no to them for a sweet dessert, but then eat it when they go to bed? It’s hypocritical!

    And finally, because I am a HUGE exercise lover, I want to point out that getting on the treadmill or whatever your activity of choice is, is not just about losing weight. Exercise makes me feel strong, gives me self-confidence, more energy, a clear head and more positive outlook on life, and allows me to sleep well at night. Health is not just physical well-being, it’s emotional, mental and spiritual too :)

    • Kate Wicker says:

      Colleen, I agree 100 percent with all that you said, especially with your comments about exercising. I guess I’m lucky, but I’ve always enjoyed exercise. Although there have been times when I’ve pushed myself too hard physically and used fitness as a punitive measure, now I break a sweat because of how it makes me feel and because there’s no way I personally could have the stamina to keep up with my littles without being in decent shape!

      God bless!

  2. Kimberlie says:

    I was away for the weekend so I am just catching up on your posts. I want to say that I am really gleaning a lot from them and also it’s causing me to better focus why I am trying to lose weight.

    It’s been a bit of a tightrope walk for me the past couple of months. Initially, as I started to lose weight, I also started to feel the old feelings come back. The “this is good losing weight but I have so much to lose, I need to do more. Maybe I should exercise twice a day (I exercise once per day for no more than 45 minutes – this is just my restriction because I am trying to keep balance). Maybe I should cut my calories to under 1000 calories per day (I won’t go below 1200 and keep them around 1400).” These thoughts are all in pursuit of faster results not health.

    Four weeks ago if I skipped more than one day of exercise per week, I would panic that the scale would suddenly register a 10 lb gain. In the last two weeks, I have only exercised 5 days each week because of life circumstances, and I don’t worry about the scale. I think I am getting closer to the perspective that I really seek: what is it that God desires for me, not trying to meet the “world’s” definition of beauty.

    Sorry to be so lengthy but this topic is just such a relevant one for me right now and it’s something that I am really trying to work through.

    God bless you!


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  1. […] Part I can be found here, and Part II (the subjectivity of beauty) is here. […]

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