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Botticelli To Body Shaming: How Our Ideal Of Beauty Went Awry

Modern society has it wrong: Beauty is about love, not looks.

Sadly, the never-too-thin image dominates our modern aesthetic.
Sadly, the never-too-thin image dominates our modern aesthetic.
Juan Eduardo Tesone

-Essay-

BUENOS AIRES - What or whom do we consider beautiful today? Surely there aren't really any beautiful or ugly bodies, but only beautiful or ugly individuals, or perhaps people with beautiful or ugly behavior. Such would depend not on evaluating curves or physical traits, but rather changing our definition of beauty itself.

Beauty, beyond its subjective evaluation, is strongly anchored to a particular time period. The current preference for thin — sometimes excessively thin, or even anorexic — bodies, as seen on the catwalks, is a far cry from the beauty ideals of other eras.

During the Italian Renaissance, beauty ceased to be considered a reflection of the Divine, as it had been in medieval art. Instead, artists began to depict the naked body in harmony with humanistic values and human exceptionalism. Botticelli's Three Graces exude an intense warmth and sensuality in their curves, yet one could safely state that they would never make it on the catwalk today. Or Goya's Naked Maja: thousands may admire her in the Prado, but would a modern fashion house ever hire her?

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Three Graces detail from Botticelli's Primavera

The definitions that dictate what is beautiful today generally depend on imagery the advertising world imposes on us. The body is now an object-image, admired like a magazine picture taken out of context, and the result is a stream of statuesque bodies with frozen expressions. Where is the creativity here? Does it lie in the often identical bodies of models, or in designers' ability to highlight all sorts of bodies? Perhaps personal beauty and sensuality do not stem from our more or less conventional physical appearance, but from our intelligence, our way of carrying ourselves and our attitude.

How could you describe someone's body as beautiful without listening to what he or she has to say? Photoshop, which allows pictures to be retouched "to perfection," is the ultimate symbol of this paradigm. It presents something false as beautiful, implying that it exists and that you could, and should, hope to encounter it when you walk out onto the street. Like Snow White's mirror, Photoshop lies, sending us on a dispiriting yet unrelenting quest for an identity that alienates us from reality.

Touched-up, fatless, lifeless, standardized and anonymous bodies... taking these literally as their models of beauty, people can end up killing themselves with eating disorders, or resorting to "beauty" surgery that turns their faces into death masks. And even then, they cannot truly hide the passing of time and defeat life's inexorable, natural progression.

Has anyone ever become more beautiful through such surgery? It's unrelated to the sort of reparative surgery intended to help people recover from traumatic accidents and bodily injuries.

Cultural relativism aside, subjective personal taste also shapes our ideas of beauty: While beauty is related to sensory perception, the 19th-century German poet Goethe believed it had more to do with internal feelings than external sensations. Plato connected beauty with love and, beyond that, with goodness.

Beauty is connected to pleasure, which has nothing to do with results-driven utilitarianism that drives contemporary society. The authentic joy that beauty triggers in an individual can never be experienced universally, it is shared between the giver and recepient of said beauty.

Like a window opening onto a garden, it is our gaze that creates beauty. And this sense of beauty, colored by affection, transcends time and place. Love is the greatest beauty product ever made, and it works wonders on us all.

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Iranian woman wearing a headscarf

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