Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

May 8, 2013

Lion and the Lamb: In the eye of the beholder

By Ted Braun
Chronicle contributor

CROSSVILLE — The May 5 issue of People magazine appeared with an astonishing cover. It proclaimed in big letters "World's Most Beautiful Woman!" and featured 40-year-old actress Gwyneth Paltrow. The issue also included the facial pictures of over a hundred other American beauties from age 15 to 70.

There are two problems, however, with a title such as "World's Most Beautiful Woman." The first is with the last three words. Beauty is a culturally conditioned perception that has changed over the years. Fullness, roundness, and curves were prized when Rubens painted beautiful women. Today, "thin is in," even to the point of prizing anorexic-appearing fashion models. In days of racial segregation and bias, black women often tried to straighten their hair and lighten their skin. Then came a new perception, at least among them, that "Black is beautiful."

Today in our nation the default setting for beauty is still whiteness, or in the case of African-Americans, a lighter brown color. The pictures in People magazine, when including a few people of color, show primarily light-skinned persons, the result of racial mixing over the years. North Americans who travel to the Caribbean area often find the mulatto color quite attractive. In fact, Canadian and U.S. tourists can often be found on Caribbean beaches trying to acquire a tan and become more mulatto, even if temporarily.

Over time standards of beauty have changed, depending on changing cultural values. It is important to remember, however, that there are always two components to human beauty: inner beauty (personality, intelligence, grace, integrity, kindness, empathy) and outer beauty (physical attractiveness). Each person can discover such beauty in other people. To a husband, a wife can be for him the most beautiful woman in the world. Beauty is thus always in the eye of the beholder.

In the magazine title "World's Most Beautiful Woman," there is also a problem with the first word. The global presumption is astonishing. This is not just a People magazine or American title, but a world title! It's the same kind of thinking that assigns a global title to the baseball team that wins the World Series.

This presumption also points to an arrogance that undergirds the imperial pretensions of our American empire. Through our growing fleet of drones, with the power to kill anyone, anywhere, we are now in the process of establishing control over the rest of our planet. In this context and mindset, to call someone in the metropolitan center of this expanding empire the "world's most beautiful woman" doesn't seem out of place, despite the fact that other countries in this world may have different perceptions of beauty.

We hear many comments today about how our nation is the best one in the world. Even our president has mentioned how exceptional it is. Yet people in other nations often think of their own as the best. Back in 1934 Lloyd Stone wrote a hymn, "This Is My Song" (set to the tune of Finlandia), that has been included in some hymnals. It refers to this perception about one's own nation. But it can also apply to one's perception of another person as the "most beautiful woman in the world":

"This is my song, O God of all the nations, a song of peace for lands afar and mine. This is my home, the country where my heart is; here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine; but other hearts in other lands are beating with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

"My country's skies are bluer than the ocean, and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine. But other lands have sunlight, too, and clover, and skies are everywhere as blue as mine. O hear my song, O God of all the nations, a song of peace for their land and for mine."

The view from the eye of a beholder is always a crucial one.