The Relativity of Beauty.

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The narrator, of Khushwant Singh’s ‘The Portrait of a Lady’, says at the very beginning of the story that the thought of his grandmother being young and pretty was almost revolting to him. Immediately after, he starts describing this lady who had been everything to him in his childhood days. He takes immense care in noting each detail, even the ‘criss-cross of wrinkles running from everywhere to everywhere’. In the end he says:

“She could never have been pretty; but she was always beautiful.”

These are the words he uses to describe a terribly old woman. She was beautiful in the eyes of her grandson even after she had passed her prime a very long time ago. Most of us feel the exact same way about our mothers and grandmothers. So beauty is not really associated with age, or for that matter, any visible characteristics at all. It is not objective.

But we are all hypocrites when it comes to our own assessment of beauty. Society has its own rules about what is beautiful and what is not. A few decades earlier, the melanin content of the skin was the only determining factor. There are fairness cream advertisements which still promise to reduce the melanin content of our skin. While avoiding sunburns and tanning makes perfect sense; being unhappy with the original melanin content of our skin, does not.

The concept of fairness is very complicated. The idea that being dark is somehow inferior has been embedded in our brains. So even the kindest people say things like, “Don’t say you’re dark, you’re fairer than me.” to console someone who is worrying about their complexion. No one really says that it’s okay to be dark; it is not an insult to say that someone is dark. Somehow beauty and fairness have formed such an unhealthy entanglement that it’s impossible to separate the two concepts.

This immediate talk of fairness and darkness may seem to contradict my initial theory that beauty does not depend on any visual characteristics at all. But I want to level the field first. Just as being fair does not make someone beautiful, neither does being dark. It’s not about that at all. Nor is it about body weight or statistics. Of course, being healthy is important and being fit makes a person feel happy. But extreme diets and torturous workouts in order to impress others doesn’t really help. People may appreciate someone’s toned figure but they never once say that she or he is ‘beautiful’ solely because of that.

Khushwant Singh’s distinction between prettiness and beauty is very significant. Prettiness and beauty are not synonymous. Superficial characteristics like a person’s weight, height and skin tone can determine whether a person is pretty or not. It’s a shallow concept and not really complicated at all. We see a person travelling on the train and we are immediately attracted to that person because of her nice dress or the way she ties her hair. That makes her pretty, not beautiful. We see her once and we remember her for her haircut and her dress, not for her own self- because we know nothing at all about her.

Beauty is subjective. Some say a person’s eyes or smile makes that person beautiful. Those who say this do not understand that they are not actually taking about the person’s visible attributes but the emotions that are reflected in those eyes and that smile. It is not often that we find a random person in the bus or train absolutely beautiful because we do not know that person. So is it absolutely necessary to know a person personally to find him or her beautiful? Not always since in some rare scenarios we do fall in love with complete strangers but in those situations, out minds supply us with an imaginary back-story behind the smile on the stranger’s face.

But beauty does not only lie in happiness. Beauty can be morose. There can be beauty in seclusion, loneliness, rage and grief or any passion at all. It is not at all difficult to find beauty anywhere. It just doesn’t depend on what we think matters the most. The choice lies with us- do I or do I not find this beautiful? ‘Why do I find this beautiful?’ is never really a valid question because something that subjective and relative cannot be explained with reasons. We can explain it to ourselves maybe, but never to anyone else. That is simply because to that other person, that particular thing of beauty can have a totally different interpretation. We all find certain things and certain people beautiful but every single beholder has a different reason to find it so.

This is why beauty is exquisite even though it is not rare. The path that our subconscious mind travels to find beauty in a person is undefined. This is why hearing three simple words, “You are beautiful” is inexplicably empowering.

One more question remains unanswered. Whom do we find beautiful? The most direct answer to this question would be- the people whom we love. The actions of a person define who they are and how beautiful he or she is. Even people who are obsessed with things like complexion and body weight, learn to ignore these facts when they really get to know a person and fall in love with him or her. This is why we find the unlikeliest of people extremely beautiful. It is then that we understand that being beautiful has nothing to do with being pretty.

I’d like to address one more issue. Can men be called beautiful? Yes they can. Again the term ‘handsomeness’ can be considered to be the male counterpart of ‘prettiness’. By now we have already established that beauty is not at all related to these two things, so men can be considered beautiful. Beauty is gender neutral.

So I agree with John Keats, whose words may seem shallow but are not so. ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’ -he is right as an individualist because the beauty of a person determines who he or she truly is. It is the Person that we fall in love with, it is the Person who is beautiful.