It is generally understood that beauty is to be desired, it is desirable because it is inherently good. When asked to describe beauty, it is difficult to do so in terms that are divorced from concrete experience. Philosophers have argued about it for millennia. Feminists have tried to reclaim beauty by rebranding it, in this brave new world beauty has been unfettered from the restrictions cast upon it by the Western tradition and has opened its gates to everyone. But why do we put such a high price on beauty?
In ancient Greek there is a wonderful noun that is often translated as “beauty”: kallos. It also occurs frequently as an adjective and adverb (kalos/kalos), and happens to have been a particular favourite of golden boy Plato. In truth this one concept is used to denote both physical beauty and nobility, because for the Greeks the two are inextricably connected. Being beautiful is a natural by-product of nobility, and thus the physical appearance of attractiveness denotes greatness of soul (megalopsuchia), or virtue. Greatness of soul was not available to the baser sorts of people, ie the lower classes, slaves and barbarians, because they were not deemed capable of attaining it, and even if they were, they did not receive the elite education that would allow them to attain this state of transcendence. Other concepts confirm this bias, like the Greek word for “nobility of birth”, eugeneia, which also denotes generosity, a fierce spirit, bravery, and bodily excellence, among other things. Beauty of this kind is not available to those who are not of high birth.
It’s 2 500 years later and we have still not shed this distinction between beauty and nobility, and we still deem it a sign of virtue even if we don’t know why. Attractive people are paid as much as 12% more than their less attractive peers, even when controlled for other possible factors such as race, gender, experience, education, etc. They are generally considered to be more intelligent and healthy, both mentally and physically. We especially consider people who are beautiful to be more socially adept, which has the effect of engendering more confidence in those who are aware of their physical attractiveness, in essence creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Attractive people are also more often judged as good people upon first impression, and the converse is true as well, we tend to distrust less attractive members of the community. As a result, attractive people are more likely to get away with criminal offences, while unattractive people are likely to also get a sentence that is 22 months longer on average than an attractive peer. We place a premium on beauty because we consider those who possess it to be inherently more virtuous than those who don’t.
The concept of beauty is inextricably linked to the idea of the “good”. It allows those with privilege to define the criteria for megalopsuchia, and to exclude those they do not deem worthy. It should come as no surprise that the exercise of this privilege interacts in a myriad of complex ways with other biases to exclude people from megalopsuchia on the basis of gender, race, sexuality, disability, body weight, and a myriad of other criteria for beauty. In an attempt to counter the effects of this imbalance of power, some have tried to redefine beauty in order to maintain its identification with virtue. Most often this takes the form of the idiom “true beauty lies on the inside” or its cousin “inner beauty”, which is not always deployed successfully. Others have tackled the privilege head-on, with the body-positivity movement claiming that we are all beautiful, no matter what our imperfections.
But this may not be true. Perhaps we are not all beautiful. Maybe beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Maybe it doesn’t really matter all that much, because we do not need to be beautiful to be noble, and we do not need to be noble to be beautiful. We certainly do need to reclaim the right to define the limits of virtue. In order to set the conditions for social progress we must first reject the obligations of beauty. We must reject beauty’s claim to the “good”. Beauty is nothing more than a genetic potluck, where the best you can hope for is that your parents brought something other than a quiche to the party. Virtue is a choice. Even if your parents were those people who rocked up with a banana salad, you have the inherent ability to attain the “good”. I’m not going to define virtue for you. Not today. But I am telling you that beauty is not a precondition for it, and it’s time we stop treating it like it is.