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Sound Off: What Is Beauty?

Northwestern professors and an alumna offer perspectives on beauty and who gets to decide what is beautiful.

Spring 2020

Renee Engeln, professor of instruction in the Department of Psychology

Most of us long for beauty — in nature, in art, in what we see in the mirror and what we see in romantic partners. Physical beauty captures our attention, whether we want it to or not. One layer of physical beauty is relatively universal. For example, around the world, humans find features like clear, flawless skin visually appealing.

A second layer of physical beauty is determined by historical forces and cultural norms. Some fashions that strike us as ugly now were viewed as beautiful just a few years ago.

Physical beauty is evaluated according to ideals, and ideals are, by definition, difficult to attain. Our quest to attain physical beauty for ourselves drives a startling array of behaviors — everything from purchasing cosmetics to chronic dieting. Our desire for physical beauty in others leaves us prone to biases. We are told not to judge books by covers, but this tendency is nearly impossible to shut down when it comes to physical attractiveness. 

Janet Dees, Steven and Lisa Munster Tananbaum Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Block Museum of Art

When I think about beauty, I think about this constellation of external qualities that are linked to eliciting positive emotions. I think about the feeling of pleasure, but I also think about what more can beauty do — what work it’s doing.

Beauty can be one of those things creating that pause, that moment for us to take time and pay attention. Artists can use beauty to draw us in and point us to some deeper understanding about our social situation, our history.

The end result can be about education or social awareness, and that’s pleasurable in its own right.

Jennifer McGee Preschern ’98, ’00 MA, English professor at Johannes Kepler University Linz in Austria and strength and conditioning coach for the upper Austrian girls soccer development program

As a fitness instructor for 20 years in America and as a CrossFit athlete, I’ve often heard women say, “I want to be strong, but I don’t want to be big, as in too muscular.”

Women will limit themselves in what they are physically able to do because they’re worried about not looking feminine. That’s really interesting to me because you wouldn’t say, “I don’t want to study anymore because I don’t want to be too smart.” Why are we limiting ourselves in this way?

I coach teenage girls for soccer and I hear them say, “I’m not pretty” or “I want to be attractive to boys.” I told them to forget about that. They’re bombarded with this message of fake beauty by Hollywood. Instead of focusing on the physical, “what I look like,” change that and say “Wow, what can my body do? How strong can I be?” I think it’s a complete reframing of the concept of beauty. This is about being the best possible version of yourself — and that is beautiful.

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