“The Perception of Beauty is a Moral Test.” – Henry David Thoreau
I find this to be a fascinating quote by Thoreau, one which really causes me to stop and reflect. Is what he is saying true? Is our individual perception of beauty a moral test? If so, is it something I pass? Is it something as a society we pass as a whole?
The individual view of beauty has always intrigued me. We all notice physical beauty such as new flowers in the springtime, a gorgeous sunset or even in classically defined good looks. And while there is nothing wrong with this, is it not also important to see something more?
Should we not go beyond the physical and seek out beauty on a deeper level? Do we search for the kindness of a stranger, listen to the symphony of nature usually ignored or do we remain apathetic, indifferent?
Certainly, I find the representation of beauty in media to be oftentimes troubling. Many times on the cover of magazines or on movies and TV and even in books, beauty is presented to be very outward. And this creates a negative perception of beauty in and of itself. We see the ideal, at least as Hollywood presents it, and begin to believe at an early age that we must look like these models and starlets. These unrealistic expectations create a sense, or lack thereof, of self-worth. The perception of beauty which has been created is not real (literally when one especially considers the photoshopped images on a magazine cover). Does this not mean that Hollywood in a way fails this moral test Thoreau speaks of?
There is a troubling example I want to bring up. Back in 1983, the popular teen series Sweet Valley High was introduced with book 1, “Double Love.” Back then, the twins Elizabeth and Jessica were described as being a “perfect” size 6. In its re-release in 2008, Random House actually PROMOTED that they modernized the books for the new teen audience. And one of those changes they were apparently so proud of? Elizabeth and Jessica are now described as being a “perfect” size 4. Apparently, the 80s descriptions of sizes were too fat for a modern audience. The perception of beauty created in the 80s (albeit calling any one size as perfect is a bit too shallow) was purposely changed to create a new perception of beauty for today. From my perspective, this promotes eating disorders, self-esteem issues and a warped perception of perfection. To me, this is anything but moral.
Going beyond media, how does our own perception of beauty reflect our own moral character? Obviously, perception is subjective and can never be equal to anyone else’s perception. Basically, this perception of beauty can never actually be defined definitively. So, if there can never be one definition, how does one pass this test?
…our own perception of beauty reflects our inner character.
I think what Thoreau was really trying to say is that our own perception of beauty reflects our inner character. What do we find beautiful? This is a question only an individual can ask themselves and it requires deep soul searching. But certainly how we answer that question does reveal a lot about who we actually are. Hopefully, when we can learn to see beyond society’s “created” perception of beauty, which is not always easily discovered by the waking eye, we will be able to learn what real beauty is, even if it is and always will be subjective!
To end, I thought I’d share this very moving video from the Dove Campaign (proving that not all media “fails”) about women and how they perceive themselves:
What do you think? Do you agree with Thoreau’s quote? Or disagree? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!
Read about C.S. Lewis on Writing and Criticism
Check out The New Age of Book Banning
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