FM's recent spread of "Beauty at Harvard" began with the question: "Tell us, Harvard, what is beauty?" The article goes on to discuss the perceived ideals of attractiveness among three groups of non-Caucasian women students: Jews, Asians and Blacks.
At no point is it suggested that the answer might include men. Beauty has become so political that we are unable to imagine its textures in any but the most clichd terms--a set of particulars, a qualified body, or, ideally, a fine specimen.
But to define by examples is, ultimately, to mislead. At best, they provide the listener with intuition impossible to separate from the examples' individual qualities. And from any finite example--especially the sparsely populated sets of traditional "beauty"--generalization, or a definition of essence, is nearly impossible.
So when we answer by example--when, as in the case of beauty, examples are all we can give--it is because we, struggling to negotiate our own identities, do not know what beauty is. We have rarely engaged the truly beautiful, and so we are left cataloguing its affectations.
But the question of beauty, asked differently, is about the moment at which art reaches such a high point of perfection that it retreats again into the inimitable, the unconstructable, the unconscious. The difference between impeccable grooming and beauty is the same leap between high intelligence and genius, a trained dancer and a kid with rhythm, or academic fluency and native fluency in language.
What is the difference, how can the line be crossed, and how will we know if we have done it? For we cannot easily separate our search for beauty, the thorough study of beauty's traits and trademarks, from our own soul-crafting. It is the beautiful person whom others imitate and we all, in our own ways, crave the kind of mastery that spawns imitation.
Consider the student body, striving in our various ways for the marks of achievement: the callouses, muscles, patterns of speech, gestures and language whose presence belies an intimate familiarity with our subject, our sport, our ideology and our passion. We search and less often find that edge where practice gives way to creation. And these strivings expose a side of beauty much deeper and more personal than perfect specimens.
Modeled thus, the gendering of undergraduate beauty is gross oversimplification. Body image and the beauty myth are necessary discussions, but focusing "Beauty" so narrowly on this ground does not give a fair idea of its power. Men can be beautiful, the same way that men can also be geniuses, that men also dream of crossing invisible boundaries and of achieving mastery.
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