2.02.2010

Beauty & American Exceptionalism

Two apparently unrelated observations:

1) Americans are as obsessed with physical beauty as ever.
2) Americans have begun thinking of the British as authorities again.

When I was growing up, it was stuff like this that gripped my (ahem) "imagination":

Later, as I overcame (or sublimated) my attraction to that relatively pedestrian kind of beauty, I experimented with art-appreciation, an interest in unconventional beauty, and even wondered whether literature could be "beautiful." But I never for a minute effectively stopped longing for beauty.

--Until now!--. Just kidding; I still think Beauty's like the best thing going. Let me get to my point: Americans often think of their own "obsession" with Beauty as a kind of embarrassment. We tell ourselves that we know that it's inside what matters even as we watch Miss America pageants or look at persiankitty.com (what?!). But I'm developing a counterpoint. See I can admit that we Americans are more obsessed with Beauty than almost all the other nations combined. Yes, we photoshop, primp, curl, botox--whatever it takes for Beauty. They don't do that in Bhutan.

But isn't this evidence that American exceptionalism* has never been stronger? To be attracted to Beauty is to know about idealism--is to be an idealist. Of course, the argument could be made that even if what I say is true, a focus on exterior Beauty is a relatively dysfunctional kind of idealism. But still, though we may argue about whether Giselle's body is more beautiful than Beyonce's (that is, though we argue about what the ideal is), we almost never admit, by our actions, that the argument doesn't matter.

Oh, and, Gordon Ramsay, Simon Cowell, and the British guy who dances on So you think you can dance?--what's going on there? I suspect that we've stopped trusting our instincts. We've collectively started wondering whether we know what Beauty (and Tr-th!) looks like. Same thing happening here (in the "Orthodox Movement"), I suspect. But I hope Americans wake up to their special mission again; I hope we recognize that judgment deferred is a loss of not only power, but also of vigor. Trust thyself, America.

*Some contemporary academics would have us feel bad about our exceptionalist attitudes. I disagree with some contemporary academics.

4 comments:

Insignificant Wrangler said...

I have a few students posting on fashion this semester, one of them pointed me toward this upcoming trend(?).

Casey said...

Yeah, tattooing is one of these interesting challenges to the traditional notion of American Beauty. I think that's interesting, and necessary, sometimes for as much as half-a-generation... but eventually (if I'm right here) America will find its center of balance again and start judging according to an ideal form.

Until the ideal form becomes too restrictive, too limiting. And then we'll be postmodernists again. Don't worry.

fenhopper said...

1) so evaluating beauty=idealism. even tho idealism might be shallow. but it's still exceptional. so then what's the big deal about exceptionalism? if it's that easy, who cares?

2) how are the obsessions of other nations additive? so if america is 'reeeally' obsessed, and like, a thousand other countries are 'quite' obsessed, would america be more obsessed than those thousand countries combined? would it be more obsessed than like a hundred thousand 'sorta' obsessed countries combined?

3) when did americans stop seeing brits as 'authorities'? that's been a general attitude towards "that hoity toity accent" for as long as i can remember. "like that big phony, winston churchill." (plus several of these british judges created/starred-in/produced these shows in UK before the US adapted them.)

4) i will never understand your attraction to kathy ireland.

waffle

Casey said...

Fen--your questions are hard.

1) It's an appreciation for highest quality that I take to be the point here. I don't see that as simple human nature, even though it has felt like that, to me, at times, because I've grown up "American." Now, I do recognize that every culture "does idealism" to some extent--but I think Americans do it harder. Being "obsessed" with highest quality seems to me to be the foundation on which progress might be constructed. And when we can't agree on what we're progressing toward, we can always give that impulse an outlet by re-directing it to beauty-hunts. Hm. I'm unconvinced. I'm thinking aloud here, trying to explain to myself this fact: [America consumes what I feel is an inordinate amount of beauty-stuff. What explains that?: 1) my exceptionally repressive psychology, or 2) an actual national excess when it comes to beauty-consumption?]

2. Did I say "more than all other countries combined?" That was stupid if I did. I just mean America has a reputation (I think?) for being the leader in beauty-consumption. I heard a conservative Egyptian woman explain why she wears the veil on Oprah last week: "Of course I enjoy the idea of being desired by men. But I purposely do not make an effort to increase their desire for me." Oprah and her whole audience were like, "What?" -- Hmmm. I'm still not convinced.

3. Well if Americans never stopped seeing Brits as authoritative, that's pathetic. I can tell you that I personally don't accept their judgment as superior to my own. So even if I'm wrong about my history, I aim to be right about the future--trust thyself, Americans!

4. If Beyonce and Giselle (ideal A & ideal B) had a baby girl, she would look like Kathy Ireland. So now you understand.

Yes, please--with syrup and brown sugar.