De gustibus non est disputandum, goes the medieval Scholastic saying: “About taste, there is no dispute.” At first blush, this seems a pretty straightforward statement, opposing reason—which is purportedly objective—with preference, which is subjective.
For instance, I like ladies in hats. Not the pillbox, Jackie O–type, or the Roaring 20s close-to-the-head, cloche-style, or even the fedora-style, but hats with brims, floppy hats, summer hats, the kind of hats which to me, even make the Wicked Witch of the West look good, the kind Julia Roberts wore in “Pretty Woman.” I also like raspberry sherbet in a waffle cone. Both of these preferences do not admit to some kind of logical argument. If I were asked why I like ladies in hats and raspberry sherbet, I’d just say, “because.” I would feel no imperative to explain, no need to go on social media to bolster my statement with some ideological gymnastics.
I suppose those who MUST have a tidy answer to everything, or those who claim some insight into the dark and labyrinthine recesses of the human consciousness, would say something mind-boggling mushy, something which smells like psychological determinism: I like women in floppy-brim hats because my mother or grandmother or sister or first grade teacher wore them; I like raspberry sherbet because one idyllic summer I was sharing a raspberry sherbet cone with my first crush and I had my first kiss on a grassy knoll overlooking a placid lake.
Except I didn’t. I still remember a woman I loved. I thought she was beautiful: in body and mind, a woman who excited and enthralled me. I don’t know if she WAS beautiful to anyone else; I don’t know if she would be beautiful to the judges in a beauty pageant; I do not know, if I saw her today, if I would still be gobsmacked by her; I don’t know who else would be as aroused and, well, smitten as I was. I just know I preferred her above all others…I can still recall her voice and form and that wonderful face, but I do not believe she resembles any women in my family, I never once wondered WHY she did for me what she did. I was just immersed in her and that’s all. There is no dispute about that in my mind.
Protagoras, a Sophist who claimed to be able to teach virtue to others in the conduct of their daily lives, is credited with the famous (or is it infamous?) dictum, “Man is the measure of all things” (relax, judgmentally woke reader…he meant “humans”). This refers to the relativity of preferences in people, as well as their judgments…for, after all, if a person has a certain preference, he or she makes judgments about it: good or bad, wanted or eschewed. For me, a lady in a floppy-brim hat is just a pleasure to see. She doesn’t have to be gorgeous; she doesn’t have to have long legs, a bubble butt, or breasts that look like a 3D cartoon. And that’s because I just prefer the hats, so I was surprised to discover that I was wrong. Beauty isn’t in the eye of Protagoras or me, it’s in the numbers.
We can first blame European Renaissance artists, then, later, scientists—specifically, mathematicians—later, when we have more time, we can blame either the Republicans or the Democrats. You see, it’s all about the “Golden Ratio”. A beautiful person’s face has the ratio of 1.6, meaning the length of the face is 1 ½ times longer than the width. There are other measurements (aren’t there always?), but the math leaves out the context, the magic, the little buzzing things in the brain. A woman is a floppy hat? Her face is automatically pretty, her body, attractive, and that hat makes me wonder about her personality, her own preferences. The math leaves out the evolution of one’s tastes, it leaves out context.
Search any list anywhere and you can find “The Ten Most Beautiful Women in the World” or “The Ten Most Beautiful Women in History” or maybe something like one from the UK which included Ava Gardner and Beyonce and Bardot and Hepburn and Monroe and…well, the list goes on and is just one list among many. When I saw this collection of names, I agreed that some of them were pretty nice to look at—to me, but what about that older lady I saw at the market, the one with her silver hair in a long braid down her back? And the woman I saw arguing with her husband (in Spanish) at Mickey D’s? I thought THEY were attractive, too. They were not, alas, on any list I ever saw, or am likely to see, but I liked their looks. Just my preferences.
No matter how many philosopher and mathematicians struggle with defining beauty, no matter how many ratios and measurements are used in however many combinations, real-world experience tells a more complicated, nuanced story: There is the guy who is always going on about his “perfect woman”, complete with Himalayan breasts and legs that go on forever. But his wife is dark, short, cubby-legged and her breasts are there somewhere. Or the woman who is looking for Mr. Right, with his six-pack abs, broad shoulders, and a family-sized package, but her beloved husband gets his six-pack from the store and has shoulders not quite wider than his hips, who has an adequate package which still has gotten the job done lo, these many years.
So what happened? Didn’t these people take math classes in school? Did they, and all the other couples world-wide, cave, give up their dreams, settle for what they could get? Or did they fall in love? Did their fantasies crumble under the weight of a preference each wasn’t aware of having? Isn’t that the way it usually goes? A preference admits of no rational formula, no equation, no rigid delineation of criteria. Did tenth-century Chinese, who bound the feet of young girls know about the math? Did the Medieval Japanese believe ohaguro, the blackening of teeth, was a mark of beauty? You betcha. Is it? I don’t know, but they preferred it.
I do not decry any attempts to grapple with the mystery of beauty, of using the human mind to investigate, come to grips with some knotty issue. But lived experience, coupled with past life and the myriad of incidents, the trials and errors of living, the totality of the contextual essence of having been alive, cannot be broken into equations or theories. Miss Universe may be a fine-looking woman, but she is just one small slice of the Beauty Pie, one grain in Beauty’s Beach.
So before any of us decides to tell others of us what is right and wrong, what is evil or good, what is acceptable or not, remember that a preference is not a Categorical Imperative. And remember those ladies in hats.
If you enjoyed this piece, check out the automachination YouTube channel and the ArtiFact Podcast. Recent episodes include a dissection of Steven Pinker’s pollyanna philosophy, an in-depth look at Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Cat’s Cradle’, and a broad discussion of aesthetics between painter Ethan Pinch and writer Alex Sheremet.
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