Gratitude Challenge – #27 Beauty

The Gratitude Challenge’s twenty-seventh topic is “Beauty”.

What a basic yet so controversial topic. People blame each other for being superficial, but at the same time yearn for eternal youth and beauty.

People say beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, but then there seem to be very coherent beauty standards across the world – with certain variations but overall, still somewhat consistent, at least within cultures and regions. Hence, the idea of “beauty” is much less of an individual perception as the saying wants us to believe.

People say that even if they do not find someone particularly attractive at the beginning, as they get to know each other better the attraction can grow. Now, beauty and attraction are of course not the same, but for me personally I have never experienced this phenomenon in first place. Call me superficial, but either I find someone very beautiful at the beginning and then this perception remains, or I do not find them beautiful, and this also doesn’t change.

It’s not one of my proudest episodes but telling myself that I’m not that superficial I’ve dated people who I did not find particularly attractive physically but who impressed me with their wit, intelligence, humour. And it’s not bad, but I realized that it’s not fulfilling for me when I look at my partner and think “could be better”. Sure, I feel guilty. Sure, I feel superficial. But well, then I’m superficial, I can accept it.

Yet, what I also realized is that “beauty” is actually somewhat boring for me.

Here in Taiwan many people admire Japan, saying that Japanese women are so cute, pretty, that their makeup and style are perfect. And it’s true, especially in Tokyo you can see that many people put a lot of effort into looking flawlessly. It’s pretty indeed. But also boring.

There are no edges, no surprising departures from the expected. There is still a lot of creativity (different from Korea for example, where I feel everyone is following exactly the same beauty standard and style), but it’s all very smooth, fluffy, nothing rough.

I think I’m much more attracted to a kind of “femme fatale” (is that still acceptable of a word to say or considered sexist?!). An aura of mystery, a sense of imminent danger, the thrill of playing with fire. It seems to be a common attractor across cultures. For example, as Christine Marran writes in her book “Poison Woman” about such women in Japanese history:

[…] frightfulness portrayed through negation (“she wouldn’t wave knives around”, “she wouldn’t toy with poison”, “she wouldn’t threaten”) suggests more strongly the very possibility of those acts.

Marran, C. L. (2007b). Poison Woman: Figuring Female Transgression in Modern Japanese Culture; p. 149.

In Mandarin, the saying goes:

男人不壞,女人不愛 – nánrén bù huài, nǚrén bù ài

The literal translation “[if] the man is not bad, the woman doesn’t love [him]”, i.e., women love “bad” men. I think many “nice guys” complain that the prettiest women tend to fall for the worst guys.

But well… look who’s talking! It can be the reverse, too: If the woman is not “bad”, the man is not interested!

Fair enough, in Taiwan – and presumably in most East-Asian cultures, many guys seem to like their girls to be 乖 – guāi. This word is actually used to refer to well-behaved children and hence carries the connotation that the ideal Asian woman should behave just as the stereotype that exists about them: Obedient, docile, shy, low maintenance. Everything but threatening.

I can understand the idea of “cuteness” in this ideal, but wouldn’t it be very boring if the other person never gave contra, never disagreed, never expressed their very own opinion first and stood up for it?

At the same time, a bit of containment in other aspects can be attractive, too. We live in times where nudity has become normal, today’s music videos would have shyly been traded as pornographic content not too long ago. But all this in-your-face sexuality can become somewhat off-putting.

At the end of the day, beauty and attraction originate in our minds. And having a fantasy in our minds can be extremely arousing. If everything is in plain sight, if nothing is left to discover, if nothing remains unsaid, there is no mystery, no wondering, no anticipation, no imagination. It is all in our eyes, but our mind – the final decision maker for what we find attractive – is largely forgone.

In Japanese aesthetics, there is the concept of 幽玄 – yūgen – which Nancy Hume describes as follows:

When looking at autumn mountains through mist, the view may be indistinct yet have great depth. Although few autumn leaves may be visible through the mist, the view is alluring. The limitless vista created in imagination far surpasses anything one can see more clearly.

Hume, N. G. (1995). Japanese Aesthetics and Culture: A Reader. State University of New York Press; p. 253–54

While nudity nowadays may be anything but “blurry”, the idea of binary gender identities and traditional gender roles are becoming less and less clear.

People choose pronouns other than he or she, they do not identify with their biological gender or not with the binary label male or female at all. Before, people who were attracted to “both” genders were described as “bisexual”, but with the idea that there are more than two – possibly an unlimited number of – genders, the concept of pansexuality came up – attraction towards people of all genders. Identities are not considered fixed and constant anymore, but gender fluidity and sexual fluidity have become established concepts.

This can be a very polarizing and triggering topic. In a world of ever more complexity and constant information about dangers in the world and therewith a perceived increase of insecurity, can’t we just agree on something as basic as gender already?!

If you go to YouTube and dare to jump to the comment section of a video that discusses such topics, you’ll soon find yourself immersed in anger, disgust and outrage instead of respectful and empathetic discussion.

In my opinion, something that makes people feel so strongly is an underlying fear and insecurity when they realize that the very basic believes and convictions which they built their lives on are now questioned, their worldview shaken. Anger and insult as a means of defence, “we, the sane, versus them, the crazy young generation that does not have any other problems than thinking about new gender pronouns”.

I understand that it can be confusing and sometimes also annoying to deal with these concepts. Today you identify as a wardrobe? Seriously?! I also think that these rather novel ideas should be handled with a sense of proportion. Apparently you can get sued for misgendering someone.

Considering that most people would still probably not even know, what exactly the term misgendering means, I would assume that draconic penalities rather cause more outrage among the people who would not even know what they did wrong. Calm and cooperative discussion is probably a better way to reach a compromise where people can live with each other peacefully, instead of punishing them for something they do not understand. Especially if hostility comes from fear and insecurity, the idea of 化干戈為玉帛 (huàgāngēwéiyùbó) – turning hostility into friendship – is very much possible.

Despite these conflicts, I’m grateful that I live in a world where people can think about such concepts, express – in some countries and contexts – what they feel and be themselves. I’m grateful that people can find communities where they are accepted for who they are, even if it is far outside from societal norms and expectations. While I consider myself to be very much a part of general society, substantially profiting from it as a cisgender white man, I very much value to have the chance to meet people who think differently from how I think.

It can be annoying, it can be triggering, it holds the mirror up to myself showing me just how judgmental I often am. But it also gives me a chance to learn, to broaden my horizon, to change my views or to hold on to them more firmly after some thorough scrutinization.

For some reason, the way I talk, move and laugh let’s many people assume that I’m gay. Wikipedia’s article on Effeminacy expresses my own behaviour quite well:

Prior to the Stonewall riots, inconsistent gender role performance had been noticed among gay men:

“They have a different face for different occasions. In conversations with each other, they often undergo a subtle change. I have seen men who appeared to be normal suddenly smile roguishly, soften their voices, and simper as they greeted homosexual friends […]

Many times I saw these changes occur after I had gained a homosexual’s confidence and he could safely risk my disapproval. Once as I watched a luncheon companion become an effeminate caricature of himself, he apologized, ‘It is hard to always remember that one is a man.'”

While I still identify as a heterosexual man, I do not understand why I should behave a certain way to be considered “manly” or that otherwise it’s “female” and hence “gay”. I think we all have so many facets, feelings, moods, faces. Why abandon most of them just to adhere to what society expects from us?

When I moved to Mexico my friends warned me that even if I wasn’t gay, homophobic aggression in Mexico was a real danger and so I might be in trouble for mistakenly being considered gay. Fortunately, nothing happened, but it also made me realize that I’m very grateful for coming from a country that allows same-sex marriage, that allows freedom of speech and freedom of expression and that many times encourages opposition.

I’m grateful to work in a company where regular diversity educations are the norm and where being yourself is encouraged (within limits that you can expect from a traditional multinational corporate). I’m also grateful to be with a partner who encourages exploring and who makes me feel safe to be myself, without needing to fear that I do not fit into an expected role. Want to put pink nail polish and wear my skirt today? If it makes you happy, go for it!

In this article I focussed solely on human beauty and sexuality, and indeed I’m grateful for having a very beautiful partner 😉 but beyond this I am grateful for having so much beauty in my life and the tools to remind myself that real beauty is in the basics: A rising sun, a bird chirping, petrichor, the sound of waves… I’m grateful for the abundance of this world’s visual, audible, olfactory and tactile beauties.

This article was written by Fabian

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