More Than Your Average Miss Universe
What defines physical beauty? Is it a certain eye color, skin type or chin length? What factors cause one person to bear taunts from classmates while another is crowned Miss Universe? And why have human beings been created so differently? Philosophers, scientists, and a certain missionary have each asked a form of this question.
One proposed answer is the scientific theory of "Averageness," founded by Sir Francis Galton in 1883. At the time, it was thought there may be certain facial characteristics common for criminals. For instance, all criminals might share large noses or crooked grins, or squinty eyes and cleft chins. Sir Francis was determined to find out once and for all. His hypothesis had possibilities; if it were true, we could judge if a person engaged in illegal activities simply by looking at him. Although nowadays we may call this "stereotyping" and a scary thought, in 1883 it was considered plausible.
After piecing together the noses and eyes of many a male criminal into a composite photograph, the result was a face that was surprisingly...handsome. Though Sir Francis could never provide evidence for a specific criminal stereotype, he did spark an idea:
What if it is the most average men and women that are considered the most beautiful? What if people are considered "ugly" simply because they look different? Thus, the theory of averageness was born.
Further scientific study showed that although averageness isn't the only deciding factor of a person's physical attractiveness, it is important. More composite images, such as those of the Miss Universe 2005 contestants, reveal those considered physically cream of the crop often possess similar characteristics. With narrow noses, high cheekbones and wide smiles, some of the Miss Universe composite images look like identical twins. According to the theory of Averageness, "Beautiful people" look alike.
What is the moral of this story? If you wish to be beautiful, science says, be born average. Or, if you don't have that luxury, try your best to conform.
And yet, science's answer to "the beauty question" seems a bit too simplistic. It explains what humans find attractive, but is that necessarily the same thing as true beauty? Given an answer that is only skin deep, we are still left scratching our heads.
One night, my friend, Daria and I stumbled upon an important clue to the true nature of beauty. In a moment of desperate boredom, we had decided upon the oh-so-nerdy "game" of "philosophizing." The point of the game is to argue philosophically about a topic you know nothing about. And win.
I came up with the first question. “Okay, Dar. Here it is: ‘What is beauty?’”
She rolled her eyes. “Great. You pick a hard question and I’m supposed to answer it?”
“Okay...do you want me to define beauty in people or in things?”
“Define it in....” I struggled for a challenging subject. My eyes caught the pencil holder on Daria’s desk, which gave me an idea. “Define beauty in a pair of scissors.”
“Scissors aren’t beautiful!” she cried indignantly.
“How do you know? What makes a pair of scissors beautiful?”
Daria grabbed the pair of scissors on her desk. “They’re…uh…scissors are beautiful because of how well they function.”
After a moment I asked, “So...if they work the way their maker wanted them to work, then they’re beautiful?”
Although most arguments-for-the-sake-of-arguing are without substance, I think my friend and I discovered a key idea that extends much deeper than a pair of scissors. Beauty isn't about the eye of the beholder. It's about the eye of the Creator.
Scissors are "beautiful" when they accomplish the purpose of its maker. If they cut well, they've done their job. In the same way, God has designed us specifically to carry out a certain purpose. The Psalmist expressed this when he sang,
"For You formed my inward parts;
You wove me in my mother's womb.
I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Wonderful are Your works,
And my soul knows it very well.”
It may be hard to believe at times, especially when we look in the mirror first thing in the morning, but our looks are not an accident. God created us with deliberate intricacy. He has not given everyone the body of a supermodel, because I doubt His purpose is for everyone to be a supermodel. However, every hair and freckle was given for a reason.
In her book, Let Me Be a Woman, Elisabeth Elliot tells of Gladys, a young woman who realized this truth:
“You have heard me tell of Gladys Aylward…she told how when she was a child she had two great sorrows. One, that while all of her friends had beautiful golden hair, hers was black. The other, that while her friends were still growing, she stopped. She was about four feet ten inches tall. But when at last she reached the country to which God had called her to be a missionary, she stood on the wharf in Shanghai and looked around at the people to whom He called her.We may never have a moment like Gladys Aylward's, in which we see clearly the reason for our design. But we may safely say that God has given our bodies as tools to accomplish His purpose; and when His purpose is fulfilled in us...it's a beautiful thing.
‘Every single one of them,’ she said, ‘had black hair. And every single one of them had stopped growing when I did. And I said, ‘Lord God, You know what You’re doing!’”
- Miss Universe composite images can be found here.