Posters and advertisements are endemic to university life. Whether they are plastered on the walls, shoved under doors, hurriedly pinned against the corridors of student halls or left outside to brave the elements, they’re always somewhere, to advertise the goings-on of campus. But the poster is by no means limited to physical spaces, as some individuals have appeared to show their preference for the digital realm, with many seemingly uncontent to merely tie their message to the impermanence of matte paper or rigidity of concrete walls.
The University of Warwick’s student union has facilitated this trend by installing various grey monitors that resemble something halfway between a telescreen and the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Ordinarily, these vertical monitors are little more than background, a place to placate wandering eyes with bright colours in gentle motion. Often, these eyes are my own, as they too are unimmune to the soft lull of their dulcet tones.
However, on my most recent visit to campus, the monitor presented me with something that managed to break me from their usual doldrum. Instead, what appeared would irk for reasons I couldn’t quite articulate, it was a feeling that I couldn’t let go. This poster was a simple graphic declaring that “every body is beautiful”, in large capital letters, surrounded by cartoon depictions of semi-clothed people prancing around with faintly coquettish grins.
Now, I should qualify, it wasn’t the mere presence of activism that bothered me here, everyone has a cause of some sort it seems these days and there is no space sacred from proselytising on a university campus – which is something you get used to pretty quick. So, why would the simple message of everyone’s body being beautiful unsettle me? It seems a fairly innocuous message and it’s not exactly ground-breaking either, for this sentiment has been swilling around in the public consciousness for a good while now. It is precisely this that troubles me. While the people behind it are doubtlessly well-meaning, I think there is something cold and warped hiding under that well-intentioned surface that deserves unearthing through critical inquiry.
This inquiry starts with a very simple question, one that many people simply don’t ask, is it even possible for every single body to be beautiful, with our current understanding of beauty? I would argue it is not. Beauty is, of course, a very complicated phenomena, the perception of which is deeply tied to cultural and societal perspective. It’s certainly beyond my scope here to formulate any sort of complex philosophy that attempts a complete unravelling of those threads. Nonetheless, I think it’s possible to demonstrate the infeasibility of this sentiment.
Instead of getting tangled in what beauty is and isn’t with regards to the human body, it is much easier to simply ask what are the key, irreducible elements that beauty needs to exist as a concept. Once you’ve boiled it down, the three key components are as follows: plurality, diversity and tangibility. To illustrate this, here is a brief thought experiment. Imagine an art gallery, the world’s first and only art gallery, with all the paintings in the world that currently exist. Now, I will go about analysing these three key elements for beauty to see if these paintings can still be evaluated as ‘paintings’ in a meaningful way.
Imagine if this art gallery, which we have already agreed is the sole one in all of existence, has just one painting in it. Could one judge that painting fairly? No, as a painting it certainly couldn’t. Inevitably, its merits would simply be evaluated through the standards applicable to whatever medium it closest resembles. If the lone painting were of a medieval battlefield, it’s quality would be based on how historically accurate it was, if it were a portrait of a man, its beauty would be determined on how handsome he looked. If, for example, Salvador Dali were to submit his finest work to act as this lone painting, it would remain unlikely that anyone would be able to appreciate it in any manner at all.
If we were to now decide that this imaginary art gallery could have lots of paintings, but that they were all copies of one another, created by an assortment of different artists, we would once again be placed in a situation where a fair judgement could not be reached. Even if one allows for the slight differences that would occur naturally, as each artist attempts to recreate this image, the standard by which we would judge these paintings would inevitably become not what they are, in and of themselves, but how closely they mirror the standards of something else.
Imagine that this art gallery is filled with, as you might typically expect, lots of paintings, all of which are different. However, all the artists exhibiting within this gallery have used a special type of ink, that has neither smell, taste or physical texture and after just a short period of time fades away so that it cannot be seen by the human eye. Again, I ask could these paintings be meaningfully appreciated? They might be masterpieces or miseries. Either way, the viewer would be none the wiser, for we couldn’t possibly sense them in any regard.
Now, if plurality and diversity are requirements for discerning beauty, which I think has been reasonably demonstrated here, does it not seem obvious that some bodies (whether they be of the artistic or corporeal), will be seen as less beautiful than others? Furthermore, if appreciation is also grounded in the tangible, would that not mean that all beauty must go through the ever-subjective eye of the beholder? We don’t even know whether people see the same shades of blue the exact same way… If we can’t be sure of something like colour, which is something grounded ‘objectively’ in the electromagnetic spectrum, how can one possibly make such authoritative statements about the much more slippery concept of beauty?
Just to nail the point in a little harder, I want to return to our art gallery one last time. Imagine this time that all the paintings that actually do exist in the world are there and I do mean all of them…not just the Rembrandts but the absolute no-names, the incomplete works, the first complete sketches of every amateur. If you were to go to this gallery, perhaps with a group of friends, I think it’d be fair to assume that while some paintings would consistently draw praise and others acrimony, overall there’d be quite a bit of difference in the exact pieces everyone individually liked or disliked. Now, seriously picture somebody trying to pull the “every body is beautiful” spiel here, claiming that every errant stroke on each canvas was a magnum opus. Could you ever imagine yourself finding such a view credible? The ridiculousness of the sentiment now comes into full view, it simply isn’t compatible with our conception of beauty. Therefore, in order to regard all bodies as beautiful, one must change beauty, necessitating the erasure of one of the three core elements (plurality, diversity, tangibility) we use in discernment and removing it from our mental toolbox.
At this point, I think the whole idea loses its luster to most people. To make the utopian vision possible, bodies either merge into a giant fleshy singularity that we lose ourselves in reverence to, or we must succumb to a sickening amnesiac indifference, with each body before us reduced to a commodified, transient smear, just on the edge of our vision, or we collectively amputate our senses until the only reaction we have left to anything is a vacant, lobotomized grin.
Unfortunately, I think that this notion of incompatibility between our current idea of beauty and the ideas put forward by the body positivity activists is quite possibly the whole point. I doubt anything I have written here comes as anything more than dissatisfied buzzing to the convicted few that are the brains behind this and other similar movements. As such, it is not to them that this article is geared towards but instead to the indifferent passerby, to the person described earlier who at worst would regard this as mere fluff, or at best might think it a noble aim, if a little sappy. To those people, to the people either on the fence or just crossing over, I would implore you, don’t abandon your critical faculties for a brief feel-good fuzz. This isn’t enlightened tolerance, or progressive inclusivity, it’s absurd relativism stretched to the point of nihilism and you shouldn’t throw away your passions in servicing this end.
Instead of the maxim of “every body is beautiful”, I think perhaps the one made famous by Lord Tenyson is one much better to embrace for those seeking inspiration, “’tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”.