Curiosity is embedded in our DNA. Especially here at the start of another new year. We are annually programmed to wonder what our future is about to bring us.
At the same time, we would be right to also wonder how we got this far to even have a future. As individuals, as a society, as a species? Consider for a new-year’s-moment what our species was like, say 500 years ago. If they were to see us now, what would they think, what would they say? Very likely they would marvel at the heights of our technology, and the depths of our politics. But perhaps before anything else: “Gee, everyone looks so beautiful!”
Now it’s true there were beautiful people 500 years ago. However, they were the small minority of elites. Royalty, aristocracy, clergy. While beauty was not quite the same industrialized obsession it is today, those elites moved in a state of beauty, as they understood it. To a great extent, that was because they had the wherewith all to bathe and beautify themselves. Meanwhile the masses had neither the money nor the time to do the same. Life for them was more about existence than adornment.
Our visitors from the 16th century would immediately notice how many of us today look cleaner, better groomed and more stylish. To them, beautiful people would seem to be everywhere in our 21st century. On the boulevards…in the eateries… in the malls…dressed for work… attending events…on television ….in movies….at the anchor desks…grinning at us from the billboards and commercials….collectively announcing the imperative of beautiful to all those who aren’t.
Were these visitors to check closer, they would find how this passion for beauty totals tens of billions of dollars a year in pricey clothes and cosmetics, medications and treatments, schools and salons. The United States spends more money in the pursuit of beauty than in the pursuit of either health or education. Our visitors might be stunned to realize how radical the shift in our values and priorities now that we have gone beyond the struggle for daily subsistence.
And they would be right to be stunned. More than at any other time in history, more people are more likely to be deemed more beautiful than ever before. If so, this then might be our visitors’ bottom-line question, as only one generation can put it to another: “Just how do you survive this first-in-history condition? How do you feel when you know beauty is a national obsession, but that most of you can’t claim it for yourself?”
If that question doesn’t trigger a little twinge of recognition, good for you. That means you may be immune to the obsession. But for the rest, our time-travelers’ question would be disturbingly appropriate. When, even after all the prescribed lotions, elixirs and surgeries the morning mirror betrays the truth of our ordinariness, just how do we step out each morning for another joust with the cult of beauty?
To a Jihadist, the very question is another symptom of Western decadence. To a Fundamentalist, a hint of end-times. To a network or studio executive, a matter for next Monday’s production meeting. However it’s seen, this national fixation with beautiful people — those who are and those who would if they could — has perhaps made more people more unhappy than all the politics and poverty in their world.
To that point, the decidedly un-beautiful Eleanor Roosevelt once wisely wrote: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Possibly the best concise advice for navigating a world of in which we are told beauty is True North.
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