Read an Excerpt
If a woman, it is said in a Tantra, abandons herself often enough to the dreams that spring from her heart, the mood that arises will color the whole of her person. Is it not one of the most common of common places in conversation that in moments of intellectual or emotional excitement the features ofthe plainest person assume an aspect of exquisite beauty?
mulk raj anand and krishna nehru hutheesing
Every single human being wants to be beautiful. It doesn't matter whether we are young or old, female or male. The desire for physical beautyand the capacity to recognize itseems deeply ingrained in the human psyche. A common index of beauty is harmony or proportion, and developmental scientists believe that our innate ability to perceive the symmetry of the human face is a mechanism for survival. With no understanding why, infants instinctively light up at a friendly, pleasant face, and cry at ugly or distorted expressions, providing a built-in signal of potential danger. By age four or five, children are well aware of subtle physical differences among people and will judge others on the basis of appearance. They are also conscious of their own looks, and love to experimentthe more elaborate or glamorous they can make themselves, the better. Just watch any youngsters playing dress-up and notice the delight when they see their reflection in the mirror.
No civilization on earth has existed without some standards of beauty and dress, even if those standards have differed radically from our own. As anthropologist Ashley Montagu observes, "Each society has found its own ways of decorating, and thus celebrating,the human form." Indeed, the history of art and culture is, in large measure, a testament to the universal allure of beauty and humanity's quest for perfection.
vanity of vanities:
the quest for beauty in a bottle
Unfortunately, this age-old quest has become in contemporary American life little more than a fixation on images fueled by media and advertising, and compounded by public attitudes towards health and aging. Historical ideals of beauty, which stressed the perfectability of our deepest nature, have eroded in mass culture into something more aptly called "good looks," which we achieve with the right makeup, the right wardrobe, the right personal trainer, and if all else fails, the right plastic surgeon. In recent years, for instance, fashion and rock video joined forces to popularize a "look" and a dance form epitomized by the exaggerated styles, postures, and attitudes of runway mannequins; Madonna branded it "voguing," in apparent homage to the beauty magazine. The notion of a beauty thatlike fine arttakes time to create and bring to the surface in all its subtle and varied shades, is virtually lost from the common visual lexicon. What we see instead is the cover-girl glance, the Hollywood pose, the MTV clip, the commercial spotall visual equivalents of sound bites. Our unprecedented capacity to endlessly reproduce and instantly flash these glossy images around the world creates an infinitely distorted reflection of ourselves, not unlike a fun-house hall of mirrors. The effect might be humorous if the supermodel look itself were not so extreme, and if its proliferation were not a significant factor in the rise of eating disorders, depression, and other self-esteem problems among women and teens.
Our point here is not to disparage the role of cosmetics, fashion, or entertainment. On one level, these glamour industries are just playing out for the collective psyche the same sorts of fantasies we enacted as children dressing up. At any age, dressing up is, as Montagu suggested, an act of self-affirmation, not to mention fun. However, these highly stylized, homogenized images, by their very ubiquity and form, have fixed our vision of physical perfection in two dimensions, reinforcing the misguided belief that beauty is only skin deep. As a result, this society has literally lost sight of what it meansand what it takesto be beautiful.
At the same time, modern medical advances have led us to hope that we can find eternal youth in a bottle, and freedom from disease in a pill. Americans today, both in our personal lifestyles and public policies, exhibit a blind and blinding faith in the power of science to cure all ills, no matter what we do to cause them. Many people are happier to take drugs with toxic side effects, or even to go under the knife, than they are to change their diet or cut out harmful habits. Health insurers themselves will cover the high costs of lung disease treatment, for example, but not necessarily the low cost of an aid to stop smoking, even if it has been medically prescribed. Moreover, most physicians here are trained in allopathic practices, which focus on the treatment of acute disease, not on how to prevent it. In fact, despite its victories over polio, smallpox, and other terrible sicknesses, allopathic medicine has little to do with wellness. Rather, by chemically suppressing the symptoms of illness, or surgically removing diseased parts, it allows us to achieve an appearance of good health without actually having to be healthy. This treatment strategy is not so beneficent as it may seem. It masksnot healsthe fundamental physiologic imbalance; and temporarily out of view, the disease process can establish new strongholds in previously healthy tissue while surviving strains of infectious agents grow ever more resistant to treatment, as we are witnessing in some diseases treated with antibiotics.