Love Opens Our Eyes to Beauty

According to Jean Anouilh, “Things are beautiful if you love them.” Love opens our eyes to beauty. In our culture, consumerism, materialism, and superficiality have created an epidemic of insecurity and distorted notions of beauty and attractiveness. And racism is intertwined with these lenses that warp the perceptions of many.

I recently ran across a terrific speech by Lupita Nyong’o in which she spoke about being younger and feeling unbeautiful—being teased about the shade of her skin and praying to God to have lighter skin. Her mom provided her with the wisdom that beauty was not something that she could consume, but something she just had to be. And she came to identify beauty with compassion.

When famous black women like Lupita Nyong’o are held up as symbols of beauty, it can perhaps help to alleviate some of the insecurity that young women with dark skin might experience, but her own story points to the limits of this. And she herself recognizes this, which is why she counseled girls to “get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside.” This focus on compassion and character is an important, valuable message.

But even beyond this, there is a need to move past the artificial divide between external and internal beauty. When we love someone and recognize their beauty, we see the whole person. To divide them and focus on their internal or external nature is to depersonalize them, to strip them of their fundamental unity, their integral nature.

The reason Lupita Nyong’o’s mom could recognize her beauty was not because she looked at her internal beauty rather than her external appearance. It was because her mom had the ability to see her as she truly was, as one whole person. Love does not blind us to real beauty; it opens our eyes to it. The people who completely love the way their loved ones look are the ones who are right, not the ones with distorted vision. They become capable of seeing the beauty of this human person who has been made in the image of God—closer to seeing this person the way the God of Love sees each of us.

The way we see our loved ones should teach us about the worth and preciousness and beauty of each person. It should motivate us to dispense with notions of beauty and attractiveness that are inevitably dehumanizing, rooted in prejudice, and deeply harmful to others.

But if love cannot motivate us to do that, perhaps the desire to eradicate racism can. Even if the colorism and racism of aesthetic preferences that so many consciously and unconsciously accept feels uncontrollable or inevitable, it is not. There is a responsibility to dig deep into oneself and root out that bigotry, even if the majority of people casually accept it, and to view people as they are, as unique whole persons who are made in the image of God.

When I see little black girls express shame or disdain for their hair or the darkness of their skin, whether on the playground or in viral videos, this wounds me. I am physically sickened by the racism that generates deep insecurities and self-hatred. And my heart aches, not just because of the hurt experienced by these little girls and the pain their loved ones must experience when a precious child of God is blind to their own beauty, but also because of how casually our culture accepts this.

It’s time to start caring. It’s time to eradicate this bigotry. It is time to treat all human beings as whole persons.

One of the great champions of this type of personalism—of seeing and valuing people as they are—was Fred Rogers, the subject of the recent documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor. And in one of his most famous and beloved songs, Mr. Rogers expressed what it’s like to truly see someone and appreciate them:

It’s you I like,
It’s not the things you wear,
It’s not the way you do your hair–
But it’s you I like.
The way you are right now,
The way down deep inside you–
Not the things that hide you,
Not your toys–
They’re just beside you.

But it’s you I like–
Every part of you,
Your skin, your eyes, your feelings
Whether old or new.
I hope that you’ll remember
Even when you’re feeling blue
That it’s you I like,
It’s you yourself,
It’s you, it’s you I like.

A loving parent knows what it is like to love every part of a person, just as Mr. Rogers describes in the song.  A truly loving spouse does too. Once we see that we are perfectly capable of seeing people as whole persons, we can turn our backs on a culture of objectification. When we recognize that love opens our eyes to beauty, we can set aside those prejudices that we call preferences, and more and more people will feel comfortable recognizing their own worth and beauty.


Through a Father’s Eyes

“She’s so cute. I mean, all babies are cute, but she is seriously, like, the cutest baby I’ve ever seen.” People tell me how cute or beautiful or totes presh my 16-month old daughter is basically every day we are out and about, and I’ve heard some version of that initial quote about a dozen times. Despite my rather strong feelings on the objectification of human persons, particularly young girls, this doesn’t really bug me.

How can I complain? I love pointing out babies to my daughter and seeing her react excitedly, as I say, “Look at that cute little baby!” Seeing a baby or toddler, especially when they are playing or laughing or smiling, is wonderful. They each bring so much joy and hope into the world by their little presence. I love seeing babies and kids on my social media feeds. And while I only comment on the cuteness of those who cannot comprehend what I am saying and only tell my daughter she is beautiful rather than that she looks beautiful, I can understand why people find toddlers and other little kids so cute they feel compelled to express it. So when a friend, former student, social media pal, or stranger tells me my daughter is cute, I just feel glad that she brings a little sunshine into their lives. I’m glad that she gives them a tiny fragment of the immense joy she gives me on a daily basis.

But there have been a handful of times when I’ve felt otherwise. One experience involves walking through the mall. There is a modeling recruitment kiosk in the center of our local mall, and every time we walk by this spot, I’m bombarded by compliments about her appearance from the recruiters. I try to be as polite as possible while not breaking stride. But sometimes, when I have to walk across the mall a couple of times, I think about how annoying it will be to pass them and go out of my way to take an alternative route. And while doing this, I have thought about how this small inconvenience is likely a harbinger of the many annoying and unjust things she will face as she grows older, particularly as a teenager and young adult, because she was born female and lives in a culture obsessed with the objectification of girls and women. Thinking about it fills me with both dread and sadness. I will do everything in my power to try to get her to see that objective standards of beauty simply do not exist and that she is more than her physical appearance, but I’m also aware of the limits of parental influence in a toxic culture.

Another experience was far more painful. In a play area at the same mall, my daughter was playing with a young black girl who was probably in kindergarten or first grade. The older girl was trying to help her climb, patting her head, and giving her the occasional hug. After a few minutes, she turned to me and said, “She’s soooooo beautiful.” She started touching her hair and commenting on her blue eyes and “beautiful blonde hair.” And she was rubbing her fingers on my daughter’s cheeks. The compliments continued and as she was talking, I could hear in her voice and see in her eyes a certain sadness, anxiety, and sense of longing. I could tell that in her own mind she was contrasting these traits with her own.

I smiled, but inside I was gutted. And recalling the incident still makes me emotional, even as I write this. I couldn’t help but think of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the videos I have seen of kids associating being black with ugliness or badness (and being white with the opposites), and everything else I have seen that confirms the intimate link that exists between our society’s standards of beauty and racism/colorism. To see the evil of racism penetrating and twisting the minds of children, creating insecurities, is a heartbreaking experience.

But beyond this, I could not help but feel bad about that particular girl and her inability to grasp her own beauty because of structural sin and widespread ignorance. Many of the people that comment on the cuteness of my daughter cannot comprehend how truly beautiful she is, particularly strangers. I can, because I see her—the person. What I see is not based on some fleeting, capricious standards that are detached from objective reality. There is no inner and outer Avery—she is a unified person. And my love for her allows me to see her as she actually is. I value her absolute uniqueness. I know her infinite worth. I see how beauty permeates her entire being.

One of the most wonderful things about being a parent is that it might enable us to have a concrete experience (in loving our children and seeing them this way) that helps us to understand the unfathomable love God has for us and the way he views us. Everyone who truly loves another person may also get a glimpse of what this divine love looks like, and those who have embraced the truth and the Way will see more clearly than those blinded by sin and ignorance. But there may be something special about being a parent—integral to this special relationship with a child. I have no doubt that that little girl’s father sees her as beautiful. And it’s heartbreaking that she doesn’t realize he is right.


Around the Web

Check out these recent articles from around the web:

CCHD: Putting the Gospel into Practice by John Gehring: “At a time when 1 in 6 Americans live in poverty and extreme income inequality is growing, a contribution to C.C.H.D. is a powerful way to affirm Catholic identity and empower those struggling to lift themselves out of difficult situations.”

“Getting” Pope Francis, or Not by Michael Sean Winters: “Here, too, we see the greatest point of continuity between Pope Francis and his two immediate predecessors, both of whom, in different ways, were rooted in the Communio school of theology we associate with the Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar. The Christian proclamation is first and foremost about God and His accomplishments and only consequently about us and our obligations, moral and otherwise.”

The Christian Intellectual by R.R. Reno: “Love and freedom. There’s nothing uniquely Christian about these qualities in an intellectual. Socrates had both. But grace perfects nature and helps us overcome our weaknesses. The Christian intellectual may not be welcome today as a Christian, but it’s as a Christian that he can be salt and light.”

TJP Sits Down with Coach John Beilein by Dennis Baker, SJ: “I do the Examen all the time during the season.  That helps me put things into perspective—how grateful I should be for the life I’ve been blessed with.  Sometimes I write my Examen down with my iPad.  I have pages and pages and pages during the season.  So I think it’s just the overall appreciation of understanding your purpose in life, understanding God’s will for you.”

The Triumph of C.S. Lewis By Fr. Robert Barron: “He was not someone to whom religious conviction came naturally or effortlessly; he had to work his way to it, in the face of often harsh opposition, both interior and exterior. This very personal struggle gives him credibility with the millions today who want to believe but who find ideological secularism and militant atheism enormously challenging.”

When Children Are Traded by Nicholas Kristof: “A first step to address this issue would be to make adoption agencies responsible for children they bring to America, including finding new homes when adoptions fail. If we have rules about recycling bottles, we should prevent children from being abandoned and recycled. The larger point is a more basic failing in America: inadequate child services. Kids don’t get the protection they need from predators, nor the nutrition they need, nor the books and reading programs they need for mental nutrition. The threat to the food stamp program, whose beneficiaries are 45 percent children, is emblematic of this broader problem. Children don’t have votes and are voiceless, so America’s most vulnerable become its most neglected.”

The GOP’s Cruel Crusade Against Food Stamps by Norm Ornstein: “I would love for all sides to find common ground here: Provide the kind of job training that will enable people to find work and move out of poverty while helping them with the basics of food, shelter, health care, and transportation. But to cut, slash, and burn that aid mindlessly without regard for the human cost is stupid, cruel, and reprehensible.”

Father Albert Foley: How one priest took on the KKK by Kristen Hannum: “Everything changed for Foley in 1943, when, as a young Jesuit, he was assigned to teach the class ‘Migration, Immigration, and Race’ at Spring Hill College in Mobile. His research—which included interviewing local black Catholics and wide-ranging reading—opened his eyes: Segregation was sinful. He looked to the church fathers and social justice teachings to better understand his new realization and to discern what should be done.”

The Habit of Gratitude and Hopefulness by Christopher C. Roberts: “We are praying that a good community of peers will be in place when they become teens. And we are trying, gently for now, to prepare our girls for being different from the surrounding culture in sometimes uncomfortable ways. I hope for the moment that we’re laying in the spiritual and psychological resources to see us through whatever’s coming.”

Now and Then I Feel It’s Working by J. Peter Nixon: “There is always a temptation as a parent to think that your children are clay that you are called to shape. The truth is that we are merely stewards of something precious that ultimately belongs to God. If he can call a prodigal like me back to him, he can certainly do the same for my children if he so chooses. In the end, faith is his gift to give, not mine.”

How Children Succeed: You Should Read This by Jason King: “We need grit to be able to confront sin—personal, social, and original sin—and keep going.  We need grit, but we also do not develop it by ourselves.  We need a community that is safe enough for us to develop trust and confidence in our decisions and actions.  We also need a community that fosters vulnerability, one not closed off to adversity, not closed off to others.  We need the Church to help us become disciples who perpetually pickup our crosses and follow Christ.”

The pope is forcing us to redefine ugliness by Benjamin W. Corn: “Because our aesthetic standards are arbitrary, our definitions of beauty have shifted slightly, over time, to encompass, for example, anorexic-appearing fashion models with little resemblance to the shapeliness of Botticelli’s Goddess of Beauty. There is one vital point in that dynamic: the arbitrary—including our ideas of what is beautiful, ugly, visually acceptable, or socially stigmatizing—can change. And each of us can contribute to that change.”

In Central African Republic, thousands turn to bishop for protection by Barb Fraze, CNS: “More than 35,000 people are living on the 40-acre diocesan compound in Bossangoa, Central African Republic, seeking protection from rebels who are targeting Christians, said the local bishop.”


Why Notions of Attractiveness Poison Our Society

Dove’s recent “Real Beauty Sketches” ad campaign has sparked strong praise from those who think it opens the eyes of women to the way their self-image regarding their physical appearance can become twisted and distorted (for a whole number of reasons).  Critics argue that the takeaway is that the women featured in the commercials really are closer to “beauty” than they realize, seemingly reinforcing an illegitimate standard of objective beauty or attractiveness.  My feelings are mixed, as it does both.

In all aspects of life we can magnify small or nonexistent shortcomings and stress over them, and this is particularly true for women and their physical appearance, as they live in a culture that glorifies the objectification of women.  At the same time, the Dove commercials do reinforce illegitimate stereotypes regarding attractiveness that negatively impact the perceptions of self-worth held by many women.

Yet the critics seem too tame when it comes to confronting the real menace.  It is not simply that common cultural standards of attractiveness at this moment in American history are wrong and harmful, but that any embrace of standards of attractiveness—the rating, sorting, and objectifying of human persons based on their physical appearance—is incompatible with respect for the dignity and worth of the human person and stands as a serious obstacle to the common good.

If we really want to cure or greatly reduce some of the most destructive ills in our society, including divorce, infidelity, suicide, bullying, sexual assault, the sexualization of children, sexual and street harassment, the pervasiveness of pornography, racism, colorism, materialism, greed, insecurity, superficiality, eating disorders, sexism, and human trafficking, our society needs to reexamine the way it views attraction and attractiveness.  Fundamentally irrational notions of attraction and attractiveness are widespread, and they lead to the dehumanization—or  the depersonalization—of others, opening the door for injustice, insecurity, hatred, and exploitation.  To be clear, these are all complex problems and they each require a myriad of responses in order to move toward the common good (far more than reducing the physical objectification of others), but what many consider frivolous and fun is actually a grave underlying problem.

Our society glorifies disconnecting people’s physical appearance from their spiritual, intellectual, and emotional natures in order to objectify them so that they can be used instrumentally as sexual objects or observed, classified, and rated like pieces of art or inanimate objects.

This fosters insecurity in millions of Americans.  Few things cause more widespread unhappiness in our society.  It can tear relationships apart with spouses looking outside of their marriage for affirmation of their worth as a person or spouses resenting the other based on whether or not each spouse is seemingly measuring up to standards of attractiveness.  The result: conflict, dysfunction, infidelity, and divorce.

It can lead to malicious bullying, which in turn can produce fear, self-hatred, eating disorders, self-harm, substance abuse, sexual promiscuity, reckless behavior, and even suicide.  And all of these can exist without bullying when people, especially young people, measure themselves against airbrushed models or even their best friend and find themselves lacking the traits that supposedly make one attractive.  They turn to these self-destructive behaviors to fill that void, to overcome insecurities, or perhaps just to escape the pain and unhappiness of the moment.

Irrational notions of attractiveness foster materialism and greed because attractiveness can be purchased if one has the financial resources for expensive cosmetics, clothes, stylists, and even surgeons.  It reinforces the individualism that permeates our society by inciting the person to treat him or herself like an object that can and must be improved, and this self-absorption—this obsession with the superficial—leads people to betray other values like authenticity, community, and justice.

On a societal level, the obsession with physical attractiveness and pressure to conform to the fleeting, capricious standards of the moment bear a heavier burden on girls and women.  Those women who refuse to conform are often faced with scorn, contempt, and mockery, particularly those in the public spotlight, those shattering glass ceilings.  And those women who do accept conformity as a necessity or by choice are nevertheless often punished, seen as less serious than their male counterparts.  This plays no small role in the inequalities that exist between men and women in the workplace.

And this obsession leads to violence against women.  Certainly the desire for power often plays a dominant role in sexual assault, but sexual desire based on physical attraction cannot be left out of the equation.  It is integral to rape culture.  It drives sex trafficking and forced prostitution.

Notions of attractiveness also reflect and fuel ugly forms of bigotry in our culture: racism and colorism.  The preference for lighter skin in American society is both pervasive and repulsive.  Unjust, indefensible prejudice is dismissed as preference and harmful effects are ignored.

All of this should lead to one conclusion: retaining superficial attraction to those toward whom we are not genuinely attracted (as persons not objects) and maintaining standards of attractiveness regarding members of the opposite sex, or even our own, are harmful practices and morally indefensible.  Human persons, equipped with reason and the capacity to recognize the dignity of others, can and should discard them.  They should stop objectifying themselves.  And they should take on social structures that reinforce and perpetuate these practices.  The result would be greater human flourishing for both those who objectify and those who are objectified.  Deconstructing these irrational prejudices would lead to a more widespread appreciation for the dignity and worth of each person and make evermore present the kingdom of God.

Legitimate Attraction

For one whose life is directed by the desire to reach their full potential as a human person, the purpose of physical and sexual attraction is to find joy through communion in a unified relationship with a spouse.  Our notions and understanding of both legitimate attraction and standards of attractiveness should flow from this reality.

For those who are married (or in relationships of that nature, as well as in relationships on the way to marriage), legitimate physical attraction is based on genuine love that manifests itself in the desire for physical unity and sexual expression with one other person. This legitimate attraction is based on love and truth, not prejudice and cultural programming.  It reflects a real desire to be with another person, to share one’s self with them in a unique and intimate way.  And it inspires sentiments and desires that correspond with this legitimate wish for unity.

It is among these couples where we are most likely to find people who have discarded the erroneous belief in the objective beauty of others and turned away from superficiality and the objectification of others.  And it is most often not the product of a conscious choice to reject these, but instead the result of experiencing unparalleled attraction to another person and intuitively comprehending the authentic nature and sources of beauty.  Past notions of what is and is not attractive then seem silly and absurd.  This type of authentic attraction to another person, the real desire to love that person and become one flesh, contrasts sharply with superficial attraction, which is in fact fleeting, arbitrary, and useless.

To try to discern the attractiveness of others for whom we lack this desire and these feelings is to irrationally cling to an artificial construct that generates destructive prejudice and helps no one.  It is fundamentally irrational and pointless, disconnected from the lived reality of genuine, authentic attraction.  There is therefore a responsibility to make one’s understanding of attractiveness align with this reality and to deprogram the prejudices we have inherited and invented regarding superficial attraction and attractiveness.

For those still seeking a spouse, it is better if physical attraction flows from a real connection that holds the possibility of future communion—grounded in some mixture of common values and personal chemistry—rather than acting as a tool to arbitrarily spark relationships with people whose physical appearance will change with time, but whose values may never allow for genuine communion. This is not to say that authentic one flesh relationships cannot be sparked by a superficial attraction shaped by one’s subjective understanding of attractiveness, merely that these relationships would be the fairly rare, exceptionally fortunate outcomes of an approach that tilts heavily toward failure.  The divorce rate may actually be surprisingly low rather than surprisingly high when we consider how many people choose to build their marriages on such a shaky foundation.  But again, real attraction can supplant arbitrary attraction so failure is not inevitable.

A better approach to finding a spouse would be to discard one’s superficial standards of attractiveness and personalize the search for one’s spouse—to base it on the future one would like to build with a spouse and that ineffable, intuitive attraction to the spirit of another person instead of on meaningless, capricious predilections.

It is not just sensible and rational to deconstruct these prejudices; it is a Christian duty.  We are called to treat each other as brothers and sisters.  Think about how ridiculous it is to try to objectively determine the attractiveness of your brother or sister, mom or dad, son or daughter.  Is your assessment distorted by your love for them?  How about the fact that you are familiar with their spiritual and emotional natures?  Are you failing to objectively see them as they are in reality?

In fact, once we realize the notion of objective beauty is a preposterous, fanciful delusion, we might come to see that we are seeing them as we should—as a unified, whole person with not just a physical, but also an emotional, intellectual, and spiritual nature—and that capricious standards of attractiveness are in fact distortions of reality.  Our vision is not distorted by the proximity of the relationship, but rather because we love the person and know the person, we see him or her as an integral whole, just as God sees persons, not as a collection of parts or features.  And the more we love someone, the more easily we can see their genuine beauty.

And it’s not a matter of seeing their so-called internal or inner beauty.  We have all heard the aphorism that “beauty is only skin deep,” but this is not true.  The internal vs. external beauty divide is fundamentally false, possible only when we fail to view the other person as they are, as an integral whole with a physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual nature.  To appreciate beauty is to see how it permeates another person’s entire being.

And if we can see that is the case with our close friends and loved ones, we should be able to see why this standard—viewing people as whole, integrated persons—aligns with Christian responsibility to treat all as brothers and sisters.

If we do this, we might be able to live up to the challenge Christ places before us—to eradicate lust in our hearts.  This is among his most radical teachings and to most contemporary Americans it must seem like an entirely unreasonable duty.  That is probably true unless effort is made to get to the very root of the problem by eliminating that prejudice that generates that lust.  A person is perfectly capable of leaving behind this prejudice.  And once they do, they will see their past celebrity crush or random object of desire as a human being, a person with dignity and emotions, someone to whom they are not actually attracted, rather than seeing them as an object.  They will then live in reality, where their perceptions match their authentic desires and values.  At this point, the everyday obsession with capricious standards of attractiveness will look just as silly as when Brent Musburger embarrassed himself on national television doing what millions of Americans do every day.

Beauty is Subjective

The science of attraction/beauty is heavily contested.  Some studies equate symmetry with attractiveness while others claim “averageness” is the key to beauty, findings that are irreconcilable.  And this is just the beginning of the contradictions.  These studies range from what we might generously call ‘inconclusive’ to those that can only be identified as outright pseudoscience.  And many of the results, which are supposed to transcend cultural prejudice, seem to resemble precisely what one would expect to see in a similar study from the 1930s by Nazi eugenicists. Can an actual scientist in this day and age actually believe in the aesthetic superiority of whites?  Sadly, yes.  From dubious variables to missing variables to the failure to isolate environmentally-constructed biases, these studies are rife with methodological errors and fail pathetically in their attempt to prove a universal standard of physical attractiveness.  Many reflect the humorous fact that people tend to rate more highly the attractiveness of others who share their own features, leading to results that are more likely to reflect simple narcissism than confirm the existence of some imagined innate ability connected to passing on genes.

Further, in seeking to find some evolutionary basis for objective standards of attractiveness, there is a tendency in these studies to ignore the impact of some of the most powerful forces shaping understandings of attractiveness—fashion, cosmetics, status, talent, fame, public personality, etc.  No person with even a modicum of common sense could deny that these heavily shape understandings of beauty.  Whole industries exist because of their success in shaping perceptions of attractiveness, fostering insecurity, and promoting their products as remedies.  The media is often complicit in this.  This is why people wear makeup, get dressed up, have their hair done a certain way, and engage in various other activities that they have learned will make them more likely to meet contemporary standards of attractiveness.

The reality is that beauty is fundamentally subjective.  Notions of attractiveness are overwhelmingly shaped by personal prejudice, whether inherited from mainstream society, formed by a subculture, influenced by personal experience, or consciously constructed.  Even those with disdain for mainstream culture’s standards of beauty often retain some level of illegitimate and irrational prejudice regarding the external appearance of others.  They might be drawn to those who dress like a hipster or attracted to those who look like their ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend.  And they may feel superior to those who accept popular notions of attractiveness because they have largely deconstructed these.  They have not, however, moved past the type of illegitimate discrimination that impedes the quest for authentic communion.

The alternatives to seeking a spouse based on how they fit momentary standards of attractiveness are often equally facile, whether one is using another’s status, wealth, innate intelligence, “winning personality”, confidence and charisma, or any other characteristic that is not intimately connected to the character of the potential romantic interest.  Certainly these could reflect character traits.  Wealth may signify wisdom or temperance, but not necessarily, making it an ineffective proxy for character (and those interested in wealth are probably more often interested in the wealth itself than in the character traits that may have helped generate it).  There is no correlation between having equally high innate intellectual abilities and achieving marital bliss.  The link is not there between sharing a socioeconomic status and having an increased capacity for communion.   The construction of “types” can only inhibit the quest to find a spouse with whom one can achieve real, enduring emotional, physical, intellectual, and spiritual unity.

The foolishness of those who claim to identify objective standards of beauty can be exposed by anyone familiar with history, art history, popular culture, anthropology, cross-cultural studies, or a variety of other fields.  The knowledge of other cultures and eras make it clear that notions of attraction are fleeting and capricious.  They change radically with time and across cultures, even in the era of globalization.  The idea that “beauty is in the eye of beholder” is a bit of ancient wisdom that remains just as true today.  This becomes clear when one reflects on the radically different notions, for instance, of what constituted an attractive woman in the Renaissance, Victorian England, the 1980s, and today.  Contrast the past appeal of bound feet in China with how repulsive someone in the United States would find them today.  The differences are so obvious that explaining them would simply belabor the point.

Preferences for certain body types would seem to be the most likely biases to reflect a survival of the fittest instinct, yet these four eras alone show that there is no objective standard wired into the human brain.  Even today, when we look across the globe we can find cultures that obsess over thinness combined with voluptuous breasts (like ours), but we can also find others where the mark of an attractive woman is large physical size (which can be seen as a reflection of health, wealth, fertility, or simply what a woman is supposed to look like).  The dominant traits of attractiveness in one place can be seen as thoroughly unattractive—repulsive even—in another.

One needs no special knowledge of science, history, or culture to see how subjective notions of beauty can be.  Personal experience can show us how notions of attractiveness can (and do) come and go, rather than merely reflect animalistic programing.  A sour experience with someone can make one less physically attracted to them.  Many have developed a strong physical attraction toward someone who they did not find physically attractive initially. As one ages, it is common to shift one’s perceptions of the attractiveness of people at various ages.  For instance, 14-year old girls and 40-year old women are likely to rate the attractiveness of various boys and men in radically different ways.  Dating someone new can dramatically change one’s type.  A change in mainstream culture can alter how one views past attractions, as those with an embarrassing celebrity teen crush can confirm.  Nearly everyone has experiences that confirm just how fleeting and superficial these are.

Reason over Instinct

Let us imagine that there is some inherited instinct to use the appearance of heath and youth and (if we are really willing to stretch it) body type and facial bone structure to find fertile mates to pass on our genes.  It would nevertheless be preposterous for a civilized human with free will and the capacity to use reason to instead rely on irrational prehistoric prejudice to find a suitable spouse.  Animal instincts that reflect a primitive mind are no excuse to fail to develop one’s intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and even physical capabilities.  Reason allows us to connect notions of attractiveness to actual attraction.  The idea that we should evaluate spouses by their external appearance because cavemen did it and we must be controlled by the same impulses is more than mildly absurd.  Perhaps instead we should select our spouses based on their ability to kill a wooly mammoth.

Others should not be treated based on the supposed natural instincts of the homo sapien.  If an unfaithful man tries to hide behind his natural instinct to spread his seed, this defense rightfully is typically seen as ridiculous and indefensible.  If a man gets into a dispute and turns immediately to violence and kills another man, does he get a free pass?  Not in any civilized society that values human reason, free will, morality, and justice.

We are free to pick a spouse based on our desire to be with someone who will be a good partner and parent, someone with whom we would enjoy building a life together, someone with whom we have a desire to become one flesh.  To do otherwise is to turn away from our highest capacities and embrace irrationality.  Human persons are not ethically permitted to act like irrational animals driven by extinct.  There is a moral duty to eliminate immoral prejudice.

And ultimately if one wants to pick a spouse based on his or her fertility, perhaps relying on their skin tone or the size of the bridge of their nose is not the most reasonable, reliable method.

Race and Attraction

This all ties in to a reality that receives far too little attention: racism has an intimate relationship with popular notions of attractiveness in the United States.  In numerous studies, ideal features eerily resemble Aryan standards of beauty based on notions of racial superiority.  The argument that people are genetically more attracted to others because of their facial bone structure, hair type, or skin color is simply a contemporary manifestation of eugenics.  The premise that attraction based on race, which is itself a social construct, could be driven by natural rather than environmental factors is patently ridiculous.

Yet such prejudice is pervasive.  Data culled from dating websites show an astonishing amount of racial discrimination by those seeking a romantic partner, even among those who claim to not care.  Look at Maxim’s Hot 100 List which is full of blonde white women, yet has only a handful of black women. Consider the fact that fewer than 4% of runway models are non-white.  And where black women are included in a catalogue of objects we are to admire, there is a strong tendency to include only or predominantly light-skinned black women, reflecting and reinforcing colorism.

In 1970, Toni Morrison wrote The Bluest Eye, which is about a young black girl, Pecola, who has internalized standards of beauty that reflect racial bigotry and longs to have blue eyes.  This poison persists in our culture.  On Race in America on CNN, they showed a little girl who was ashamed of her “ugly” black skin.  The real ugliness is the racism connected to the way our society commonly defines beauty.

There simply is no rational purpose for maintaining prejudice regarding facial features, skin color or tone, or other features of this nature.  One can try to hide the ugliness of prejudice behind the word preference but it does not change the basic reality of the situation.  Is it acceptable to refuse to be friends with someone because of the color of their skin?  Is that mere preference?  Then why do so many feel like it is acceptable to exclude those of a certain race from an even more important, more intimate, more potentially joy-inspiring relationship?  Why are we not indignant when we see SWM seeks SWF in a personal ad?  Why is this one area where racial prejudice largely gets a free pass?  There is no good excuse for this.

What the Church Should Teach

The Church should teach a personalist understanding of attraction and attractiveness.  This starts with the recognition that all people have dignity and worth as children of God and that each has an emotional, physical, intellectual, and spiritual nature.  The responsibility to love others as brothers and sisters demands treating them as integral wholes.  To isolate their physical nature and judge them based on this is to objectify them, to depersonalize them.  To truly appreciate the beauty of another person requires seeing their beauty as a person—undivided—and being animated by love for that person.  Appreciation for the beauty of another can become authentic attraction when it reflects a real desire to pursue the unique, intimate relationship shared by loving spouses.  Romantic, physical, and sexual attraction to others is fundamentally irrational and worthless, and looms as an obstacle to the full communion of spouses, their ability to become one flesh, which all married couples are called to become.  Persons can and should discard irrational notions of attractiveness and illegitimate attraction by deconstructing the prejudices that foster them.

It is not enough to work for individual conversion, it also essential to work for the breakdown of social sin embedded in social norms and structures that punish authenticity and promote the objectification of others.

The Church should work for a society that allows authentic spousal love to flourish.  It should stand against materialism, consumerism, and superficiality.  The idea that we can manipulate our physical appearance through conformity to fashion and cosmetic trends in order to find authentic, enduring love is absolutely senseless, and the Church should make that clear.  The responsibility is to be countercultural—to unapologetically promote a radical understanding of human dignity and love.

I once read a conservative Catholic periodical discuss how you can notice the cute waiter or waitress, but don’t flirt with him or her and embarrass your spouse and kids.  Others subscribe to the “you can look, but not touch” philosophy.  These are pathetic guidelines that reflect a weak, milquetoast faith that is infected by bourgeois values, particularly the supreme bourgeois value, individualism.  We live in a culture where relationships are often two people pursuing their own individual interests and desires, joined together by collective behavior designed to achieve these individual ends through enlightened self-interest.  Catholic marriage instead finds inspiration in the Trinity, seeking genuine communion based on selfless love.  This reality should permeate everything the Church teaches about human sexuality, including attraction and the recognition of beauty.  Sexuality without intimacy and exclusivity is beneath the dignity of the human person.

By opposing the objectification of others, the Church can provide a solid foundation for an assault on numerous forms of injustice and make a major contribution to the common good and human flourishing.  Only when we reject the legitimacy of capricious, fleeting standards of attractiveness can we really take on the insecurity epidemic present in our society and the evil that objectifying others can foster.

Otherwise, how can we tell teenage girls to focus on their character, academic performance, and the other things we value rather than their physical appearance when we fail to reject the legitimacy of their objectification and it has such a concrete impact on their everyday lives?  How can we convince spouses to feel secure and relish the joy of marriage when their spouse is attracted to others and disconnects the attractiveness of others from his or her actual feelings toward the person?  How can we fully utilize the gifts and talents of the female population when social norms often suppress their potential to serve the common good and create rivalry with other women?  How we can destroy rape culture without destroying the legitimacy of viewing other persons as objects to be consumed?   How can we eradicate racism when it is so deeply connected to the most important, intimate aspect of people’s lives?

We cannot get to the heart of any of these social ills unless this type of objectification is wholly and unambiguously rejected as illegitimate.  Given how pervasive notions of attraction and attractiveness are in our society, the promotion of these ideals represents a monumental challenge, but there is no alternative.  Truth, love, and justice demand it.