Imagine you just finished watching a movie, hearing a song, or viewing a painting. The first thought enters your mind that, despite being a mostly enjoyable experience, something felt off. Maybe something was missing, or there was too much of something, even if you can’t pinpoint what exactly was not right. This feeling arises as a comparison. We experience a plethora of images, films, and sounds throughout our lives, and each new thing we experience elicits a comparison—consciously or subconsciously—to previous experiences. Because our brains average things we see, especially human faces, we immediately notice when there is something that deviates too far from what we’re familiar with. These differences do not have to devolve into discrimination, but understanding that we have these instinctual responses helps us deal with them optimally.
We compare with our past experiences, but we often imagine exemplars as well—things we hold as the highest realization in a given context, like a painting, landscape, or person. Many early philosophers, often for religious reasons, believed that there is an actual perfect example of everything that exists; for example, a perfect tree, dog, or human. And these exemplars existed in the mind of God or in a perfect realm of ideas. Without having to commit to any beliefs about immaterial examples, people forge their own opinions about the best of different categories. Consciously or not, we compare newer experiences with those past ones we hold in high esteem. Upon hearing a new band, we might think they’re good, but not quite as good as our favorite band. A system of absolute exemplars might not exist, but through our experiences, the tendency to rank and compare things manages to persist.
This act of comparison demonstrates a condition of beauty proposed by thirteenth-century philosopher Thomas Aquinas. He referred to this condition as integrity or wholeness. Aquinas believed that objects, especially natural objects (including animals and people), possess a number of parts that makes them what they are. Dogs have four legs. Humans have two arms. But, more importantly, these components enable these natural objects’ ability to operate as the kind of being (or thing) that they are. Medical science and technology enable animals and people to perform functions that were previously difficult, or even impossible, when Aquinas lived. And if we focus only on parts or abilities, it becomes easy to criticize this view as narrow-minded or prejudicial. After all, integrity, in its contemporary usage, refers more to someone’s character than their appearance. But when we apply this word in a different context, that of structural integrity, we begin to see how it might relate to beauty. Beauty is not only skin deep, as beauty often also encompasses a process, function, or ability. The graceful movement of a dancer or the efficient movement of an athlete provide apt examples in a human context. The seamless blend of function with beauty provides a better product or result than function alone.
Nowadays, we don’t put as much importance on the expectation that people possess the correct numbers of parts. Modern science allows us to adapt, but also alter, our physical bodies. Trends around our bodies continue to expand in new directions. No longer satisfied with tattoos alone, some people brand themselves. Rather than merely enhancing parts of their body, people manipulate or more drastically enlarge their body parts. Body modification pushes the limits of how people understand the body’s integrity. People enhance their bodies with adornments that can be easily removed, like makeup or jewelry, but they also undergo long-lasting procedures, like tongue splitting to look like a lizard or adding filler to create unnaturally large lips.
Some may find these new adornments to be weird or shocking. On the one hand, we might just say people are entitled to their opinions. On the other hand, those who are shocked by these adornments show a lack of familiarity with oversized lips or breasts. We are wired to favor things with which we are familiar. The opposite is also true that we evade what is unfamiliar. At least, our instincts give us pause. When we experience things that are familiar, our brains can easily process new examples. For certain subcultures, these modifications are not only familiar but also fetishized, which has enabled them to override any initial apprehensions. But when unaccustomed people experience things that deviate too far from their norm—what their brains perceive as an average—their brains must first comprehend it before they can truly decide whether they like it or not. Too often, I suspect, people assume they don’t like something because it is so new to them.
The phenomenon known as the “uncanny valley” further demonstrates the importance of integrity and wholeness for beauty. Often when referring to interactions with robots, people experience the uncanny valley upon seeing a robot that is human-like, yet not human enough. The emotional disparity that results from this encounter leaves them with a sense of eeriness. The resemblance of these robots to humans elicits an almost negative aesthetic response.
Our brains, without our conscious activation, collect and average human faces whenever we see them. Because humans possess slight differences in proportion, body size, and hair color, we become familiar with these differences through experience of these variations. However, when a face or body deviates from the average by a very large margin, people tend to respond with a deeper, more visceral reaction. This is not necessarily a matter of ethical or cultural judgment; our instincts can explain why we respond to exaggerated proportions that carry familiar objects or beings beyond a level of comprehension.
People occasionally claim that makeup and beauty products should enhance someone’s natural qualities. Integrity provides justification for the idea of an ideal range for applying enough, but not too much. However, this does not mandate a strict law of fashion or adornment. People are free to go “over the top,” but it’s helpful to understand why some individuals are apprehensive when they perceive more or less than they expect. Of course, some people have more experience in perceiving extreme body modifications so that it doesn’t faze them. Tattoos, for example, have become more mainstream and accepted by a wider swath of culture. The more people experience diversity of clothing, body modifications, and makeup, the more likely people can turn their instincts for aversion into a more accepting and familiar reaction. Whether we genuinely like something, though, will continue to change throughout our lives and be dependent on our taste.
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