Beauty, envy, and "the material world"

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Posted by HSG on April 26, 2005 at 18:01:57:

In an off-forum literary discussion with Julie M. (a regular reader and occasional contributor to this site), we noted that, as the dominant voice in literary criticism has shifted over the past half-decade, from a predominantly Christian viewpoint (e.g., F.R. Leavis) to a highly political perspective, the same full-figured temptresses who were once vilified in criticism are still vilified, except on different ideological grounds.

Thus, someone like Ginevra Fanshawe in Bronte's Villette, who was once described as a "negative" character because she embodied anti-Christian principles such as vanity (but in a charming, irresistible way), is now viewed as a negative character because she embodies a feminine (and therefore, anti-feminist) mode of behaviour.

Julie's response was so intriguing, that we would like to quote it in full, below.

Her response also led to a further observation on our part about the relationship between envy, full-figured femininity, and the "material world" in which we live, that readers might find interesting.

Julie writes:

I have noticed from time to time how now it's wrong to enjoy being curvy, and dressing to enhance your beauty, and actually enjoying being a woman, because it's hindering "the movement" (whatever the movement is, the feminists change their minds all the time over what is "in" and what is "out" as far as what they will sanction). You're right, it now has very little to do with "religious" standards at all.

But to me, the attackers are just the same as they were in other centuries -- the ones who are on the "outside looking in", sort of. The people who have an axe to grind with anyone who is enjoying their life without apologizing, and anyone who has anything more than they do...and that would include beauty, in this instance. I don't think all the voluptuous female characters in literature (Ginevra Fanshawe for one) were so bad at all. They just irritated their less-endowed peers and made them feel wanting. It would be so easy if you were just a hard-working, dour little slip of a thing, everyone expecting you to carry the load of work, and be morally good, to feel bitter toward someone who, maybe, you grew up with, who had the lion's share of attention since day one, because she was plump and pretty and dimpled, and fawned over, and indulged. It would be easy to accuse that person of "immorality", or "vanity", or "laziness", or whatever was handy. That's how I see some of the characters in the literature of old being set against each other.

And now, it's still the same...except if you enjoy the attention you get, and enjoy being feminine, and care a whit about how you look in a traditional feminine (not feminist!) way, you're "old-fashioned", "anti-feminist"...and meaner names!

But there must be something about the traditional feminine beauty, in its richness and fullness, that will always set some people off. I tend to notice that the girls irritated by their "more fortunate" peers are the girls with chips on their shoulders. The thing is, most people ARE vain, to some degree. The feminists are vain about only being seen a certain way, not the traditional feminine way to be sure. But they will make sure that you are aware of all the academic accolades, all the professional titles they've been afforded. And that's not a bad thing! But let a woman be proud of her body, of her curves, and SHE'S the "bad one"! Never mind that the plus-sized beauty might have five degrees in various subjects, and run her own company. It seems like her achievement isn't "as good", because she still looks like the traditional feminine ideal.

The only thing I can put it down to is jealousy. It must go deeper than that, but envy really does eat at the human heart, doesn't it? I think all through the ages, people have done all kinds of evil, masquerading as good, because of pure malice and envy, even though it's "dressed up" to look like something else.

I just don't see what is so wrong, morally or otherwise, about being "vain". I think we all are to a certain degree, it's human. But there are politically (and, before, morally) sanctioned ways to be vain. It seems like since the dawn of time, though, it has been wrong to be vain about personal appearance, and what your personal appearance might bring to you. (I don't mean that in a tawdry way either!) But, actually, on that subject, do you know what I think is weird? The fact that the girls who are very thin usually spend an INORDINATE amount of time worrying about their appearance (trust me, I know, I have been there) to the point of worship of thinness, of athleticism....but nobody thinks it odd, or wrong. But let a woman be curvy, and happy about it...that's termed "wrong". That makes absolutely no sense to me.

By her very existence, an attractive woman appears to be a challenge to human notions of fairness, a repudiation of the belief that "all people are created equal." Nature seems to have endowed her with more than her rightful share of beauty, and, on some level, an individual who envies this fair damsel may subconsciously feel as if someone else must have been robbed of beauty, so that this princess could have so much of it (especially is the envious individual feels that she, herself, has not been allotted her "fair share" of physical appeal).

But those who envy a beautiful woman are somewhat consoled if the object of their envy is painfully thin. This indicates a satisfying humility on the attractive woman's part, as if she is commiserating with those who are less aesthetically fortunate. The envious individual subconsciously thinks, "Well, she may be pretty, but at least I know that she is starving herself." And this perceived suffering on the part of the fair maiden is a source of dark consolation those who secretly envy her. (We are all familiar with the concept of Schadenfreude, yes?)

However, a plus-size goddess appears to have eschewed any such self-imposed guilt. Her luscious, satiated appearance suggests that she is reveling in her own beauty, even flaunting it. It jars with the levelling impulse that is so prevalent in modern society.

But perhaps the most intense emotions (both negative, and positive) are stirred when a full-figured goddess indulges her appetite freely, and dares to augment her beauty even further, by enhancing her dress size.

To those who are envious of her beauty in the first place, this situation seems to be the most outrageous injustice of all. As the attractions of the goddess increase, it seems as if she is willingly appropriating even more beauty for herself, taking even more of something of which she had "better than her fair share," in the first place.

"How dare she?" the envious thin individual thinks. "Here I am starving and torturing myself, trying to look at least a little bit attractive, according to the rules that I have read in all the magazines, while she [the goddess] is flagrantly violating those rules--and enjoying herself doing so. Yet the more she breaks those rules, the more voluptuous and beautiful she becomes, and her "victory" over me is that much more complete! It's not fair!!"

By way of analogy, consider the feelings that a poor man would have towards a rich man, if that rich man were spending his fortune freely, and living life to the fullest--and yet, in doing so, was somehow becoming even wealthier. And all the while, the poor man is denying himself any expenditures, simply in order to survive financially. On some level, the poor man cannot help but think, "The only reason he has so much, is because I have so little. And perhaps if he had less, I could have more."

But useful as that analogy may be in revealing the hidden feelings behind the envy of beauty, it also explains why those negative feelings are so misguided.

The error comes in seeing the world exclusively in materialistic terms.

And yet, that is how we have taught to evaluate existence, in modern times. Critical theorists have instructed us to view the world through a utilitarian prism. We have been trained to assess life exclusively in terms of "modes of production," and "economic conditions." The first questions that we ask are, "Who has how much?" and "How did they get it?"

But beauty is not a finite quantity, like a geologic resource, or like capital. It is not a means of production or distribution. It is not something that others must be deprived of, so that others may have more. It is not a utility.

Rather, we should think of beauty in the same way that we think of artistic talent--or genius of any kind. And we should respond to it the same way that we respond to art, not the way that we react to capital, or to material wealth.

We should respond to it the way that we respond to a symphony of Beethoven, or a play by Shakespeare. When we experience these great works, our minds are not poisoned by envy at the genius of the creators. Rather, we delight in the works themselves, because they are testaments to the glory of humanity.

Popular slogans to the contrary, we are not living in a "material world." We have only been taught to see it that way. And beauty, better than any other quality, reveals the weaknesses and shortcoming of that petty, utilitarian world-view.

Once we throw off the ideological shackles of the politico-economical mindset that the modern world has clamped onto us, we can respond to beauty the same way that humanity responded to beauty prior to the dawn of the modern age--as a source of delight, and inspiration, and Imaginative fulfillment.

The incomparable beauty of Shannon Marie--an image from her last known campaign, for Fashion Bug, Spring 2001--at a time when she was fuller-figured, and more gorgeous (and undoubtedly, the source of more envy, and more inspiration) than at any point in her career:

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