My good friend George alerted me yesterday to a recent news item from The Hamilton Spectator. Recently a young student, Paul Gomille, was suspended for two days from a Catholic high school in Ajax for distributing a speech he’d written, which was ironically not about creationism versus evolution, gay rights, racism, terrorism, the existence of God or any of the other subjects that usually raise red flags. Instead, the piece was a thought-provoking essay on the nature of beauty. The gist of the suspension was that he had asked his principal for permission beforehand but was refused because of some language in the piece that was considered “judgmental,” and he went ahead and did it anyway. He was suspended, the school argues, because he had disobeyed staff. What is remarkable to me is that this is obviously a message Paul felt very strongly about sending out. His essay, which you can read for yourself at the link above, speaks directly to those who feel marginalized because they do not fit the ideal of the glossy magazine cover, because even though their hearts need love as much as anyone else, they are passed over for failing to live up to an unrealistic expectation set by corporations. That someone so young should choose to tackle the subject of the beauty of all women, in this climate, when women’s rights are under attack in the United States by impotent old men, when the level of debate among his classmates is pronouncing one girl or another “f—in’ hot” based on the shortness of her skirt, is a cause, in my opinion, for celebration, not suspension. I get that he disobeyed an order. Couldn’t he have been asked to write lines a la Bart Simpson instead?
Beauty is a difficult concept, and its paradoxical nature is one of the many examples of the human contradiction. We are hard-wired to respond positively to physical characteristics we find appealing – it’s the primate in us, the genetic drive to find the most suitable mate capable of creating the strongest offspring. Instinctively, I am more attracted to dark-haired women, always have been, can’t help it – it’s my nature. (No offense to blondes and redheads.) When a woman catches a man leering at her and accuses him of being an animal, well, unfortunate as it is to society’s mores and the concept of proper behaviour, that is sort of how it’s supposed to work. There is certainly nothing wrong with physical attraction, indeed, that’s how 99% of relationships start out anyway. However, it used to be, in the days before mass media saturation, that our ideals of physical beauty were limited to the people we interacted with. Some historical Don Draper then figured out how to use beauty to sell you his wares – by making you feel ugly and inadequate in a way that only a specific product could cure. Nowadays, go to Google Images, search for “beauty” and all the pictures that come up will be variations of the same perfected female face, Photoshopped within an inch of her life, staring blankly back at you in an expression meant to be smoldering, inviting, and at the same time, berating. You don’t look nearly as good as me, but if you buy this lipstick you just might come within a thousand miles. These non-people are everywhere now, like gods casting wary eyes down from skyscraper billboards at the homely mortals ambling through meaningless lives. And despite ourselves, we look up to them as impossible ideals. My better half and I kid each other about our celebrity crushes – I have Kate Beckinsale, she has Alexander Skarsgard. But there’s every chance that if we were ever to meet either of them we would find them off-putting. (Particularly Beckinsale – she smokes like a chimney.) In fact, one can obsess over, but cannot love, a fantasy. And one should not be intimidated by fantasy either. What makes us fortunate is that as human beings, we don’t have to be.
Where we differ from our animal cousins is that our intellect makes us capable of responding to the radiance that lies beyond the physical. Our desire for love can only be satisfied when our soul connects with another, beyond biochemistry, beyond pheromones. When we reach beneath the hardened shell to touch dreams, fears, insecurities and longings, and embrace them with our own. The capability to love and truly devote oneself to another comes when we attain the maturity to see the complete person inside. Paul Gomille seems to have reached this understanding far sooner than other boys his age, and for that, at least, he should be admired. The other guys will make the cracks about Mary’s legs and Cindy’s chest, and recycle the cruel joke about the girl who fell from the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down, but someday, they’ll get it. At least you hope they will, otherwise they are fated to live very lonely lives. The beauty of the soul is where it’s at; where lasting and fulfilling relationships are forged. And where “what’s hot” may be framed by Vogue and Vanity Fair, what’s beautiful is everywhere around us. Like the movie American Beauty says, look closer. Look past the physical. Look into the heart. Paul sums it up very nicely. All women are capable of being beautiful. All women are beautiful.