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The nature of beauty is one of the most enduring and controversial themes in Western philosophy, and is—with the nature of art—one of the two fundamental issues in the history of philosophical aesthetics. Beauty has traditionally been counted among the ultimate values, with goodness, truth, and justice. It is a primary theme among ancient Greek, Hellenistic, and medieval philosophers, and was central to eighteenth and nineteenth-century thought, as represented in treatments by such thinkers as Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Hume, Burke, Kant, Schiller, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Hanslick, and Santayana. By the beginning of the twentieth century, beauty was in decline as a subject of philosophical inquiry, and also as a primary goal of the arts. However, there was revived interest in beauty and critique of the concept by the 1980s, particularly within feminist philosophy.

This article will begin with a sketch of the debate over whether beauty is objective or subjective, which is perhaps the single most-prosecuted disagreement in the literature. It will proceed to set out some of the major approaches to or theories of beauty developed within Western philosophical and artistic traditions.

1. Objectivity and Subjectivity

2.1 the classical conception, 2.2 the idealist conception, 2.3 love and longing, 2.4 hedonist conceptions, 2.5 use and uselessness, 3.1 aristocracy and capital, 3.2 the feminist critique, 3.3 colonialism and race, 3.4 beauty and resistance, other internet resources, related entries.

Perhaps the most familiar basic issue in the theory of beauty is whether beauty is subjective—located ‘in the eye of the beholder’—or rather an objective feature of beautiful things. A pure version of either of these positions seems implausible, for reasons we will examine, and many attempts have been made to split the difference or incorporate insights of both subjectivist and objectivist accounts. Ancient and medieval accounts for the most part located beauty outside of anyone’s particular experiences. Nevertheless, that beauty is subjective was also a commonplace from the time of the sophists. By the eighteenth century, Hume could write as follows, expressing one ‘species of philosophy’:

Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty. One person may even perceive deformity, where another is sensible of beauty; and every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment, without pretending to regulate those of others. (Hume 1757, 136)

And Kant launches his discussion of the matter in The Critique of Judgment (the Third Critique) at least as emphatically:

The judgment of taste is therefore not a judgment of cognition, and is consequently not logical but aesthetical, by which we understand that whose determining ground can be no other than subjective . Every reference of representations, even that of sensations, may be objective (and then it signifies the real [element] of an empirical representation), save only the reference to the feeling of pleasure and pain, by which nothing in the object is signified, but through which there is a feeling in the subject as it is affected by the representation. (Kant 1790, section 1)

However, if beauty is entirely subjective—that is, if anything that anyone holds to be or experiences as beautiful is beautiful (as James Kirwan, for example, asserts)—then it seems that the word has no meaning, or that we are not communicating anything when we call something beautiful except perhaps an approving personal attitude. In addition, though different persons can of course differ in particular judgments, it is also obvious that our judgments coincide to a remarkable extent: it would be odd or perverse for any person to deny that a perfect rose or a dramatic sunset was beautiful. And it is possible actually to disagree and argue about whether something is beautiful, or to try to show someone that something is beautiful, or learn from someone else why it is.

On the other hand, it seems senseless to say that beauty has no connection to subjective response or that it is entirely objective. That would seem to entail, for example, that a world with no perceivers could be beautiful or ugly, or perhaps that beauty could be detected by scientific instruments. Even if it could be, beauty would seem to be connected to subjective response, and though we may argue about whether something is beautiful, the idea that one’s experiences of beauty might be disqualified as simply inaccurate or false might arouse puzzlement as well as hostility. We often regard other people’s taste, even when it differs from our own, as provisionally entitled to some respect, as we may not, for example, in cases of moral, political, or factual opinions. All plausible accounts of beauty connect it to a pleasurable or profound or loving response, even if they do not locate beauty purely in the eye of the beholder.

Until the eighteenth century, most philosophical accounts of beauty treated it as an objective quality: they located it in the beautiful object itself or in the qualities of that object. In De Veritate Religione , Augustine asks explicitly whether things are beautiful because they give delight, or whether they give delight because they are beautiful; he emphatically opts for the second (Augustine, 247). Plato’s account in the Symposium and Plotinus’s in the Enneads connect beauty to a response of love and desire, but locate beauty itself in the realm of the Forms, and the beauty of particular objects in their participation in the Form. Indeed, Plotinus’s account in one of its moments makes beauty a matter of what we might term ‘formedness’: having the definite shape characteristic of the kind of thing the object is.

We hold that all the loveliness of this world comes by communion in Ideal-Form. All shapelessness whose kind admits of pattern and form, as long as it remains outside of Reason and Idea, is ugly from that very isolation from the Divine-Thought. And this is the Absolute Ugly: an ugly thing is something that has not been entirely mastered by pattern, that is by Reason, the Matter not yielding at all points and in all respects to Ideal-Form. But where the Ideal-Form has entered, it has grouped and coordinated what from a diversity of parts was to become a unity: it has rallied confusion into co-operation: it has made the sum one harmonious coherence: for the Idea is a unity and what it moulds must come into unity as far as multiplicity may. (Plotinus, 22 [ Ennead I, 6])

In this account, beauty is at least as objective as any other concept, or indeed takes on a certain ontological priority as more real than particular Forms: it is a sort of Form of Forms.

Though Plato and Aristotle disagree on what beauty is, they both regard it as objective in the sense that it is not localized in the response of the beholder. The classical conception ( see below ) treats beauty as a matter of instantiating definite proportions or relations among parts, sometimes expressed in mathematical ratios, for example the ‘golden section.’ The sculpture known as ‘The Canon,’ by Polykleitos (fifth/fourth century BCE), was held up as a model of harmonious proportion to be emulated by students and masters alike: beauty could be reliably achieved by reproducing its objective proportions. Nevertheless, it is conventional in ancient treatments of the topic also to pay tribute to the pleasures of beauty, often described in quite ecstatic terms, as in Plotinus: “This is the spirit that Beauty must ever induce: wonderment and a delicious trouble, longing and love and a trembling that is all delight” (Plotinus 23, [ Ennead I, 3]).

At latest by the eighteenth century, however, and particularly in the British Isles, beauty was associated with pleasure in a somewhat different way: pleasure was held to be not the effect but the origin of beauty. This was influenced, for example, by Locke’s distinction between primary and secondary qualities. Locke and the other empiricists treated color (which is certainly one source or locus of beauty), for example, as a ‘phantasm’ of the mind, as a set of qualities dependent on subjective response, located in the perceiving mind rather than of the world outside the mind. Without perceivers of a certain sort, there would be no colors. One argument for this was the variation in color experiences between people. For example, some people are color-blind, and to a person with jaundice much of the world allegedly takes on a yellow cast. In addition, the same object is perceived as having different colors by the same the person under different conditions: at noon and midnight, for example. Such variations are conspicuous in experiences of beauty as well.

Nevertheless, eighteenth-century philosophers such as Hume and Kant perceived that something important was lost when beauty was treated merely as a subjective state. They saw, for example, that controversies often arise about the beauty of particular things, such as works of art and literature, and that in such controversies, reasons can sometimes be given and will sometimes be found convincing. They saw, as well, that if beauty is completely relative to individual experiencers, it ceases to be a paramount value, or even recognizable as a value at all across persons or societies.

Hume’s “Of the Standard of Taste” and Kant’s Critique Of Judgment attempt to find ways through what has been termed ‘the antinomy of taste.’ Taste is proverbially subjective: de gustibus non est disputandum (about taste there is no disputing). On the other hand, we do frequently dispute about matters of taste, and some persons are held up as exemplars of good taste or of tastelessness. Some people’s tastes appear vulgar or ostentatious, for example. Some people’s taste is too exquisitely refined, while that of others is crude, naive, or non-existent. Taste, that is, appears to be both subjective and objective: that is the antinomy.

Both Hume and Kant, as we have seen, begin by acknowledging that taste or the ability to detect or experience beauty is fundamentally subjective, that there is no standard of taste in the sense that the Canon was held to be, that if people did not experience certain kinds of pleasure, there would be no beauty. Both acknowledge that reasons can count, however, and that some tastes are better than others. In different ways, they both treat judgments of beauty neither precisely as purely subjective nor precisely as objective but, as we might put it, as inter-subjective or as having a social and cultural aspect, or as conceptually entailing an inter-subjective claim to validity.

Hume’s account focuses on the history and condition of the observer as he or she makes the judgment of taste. Our practices with regard to assessing people’s taste entail that judgments of taste that reflect idiosyncratic bias, ignorance, or superficiality are not as good as judgments that reflect wide-ranging acquaintance with various objects of judgment and are unaffected by arbitrary prejudices. Hume moves from considering what makes a thing beautiful to what makes a critic credible. “Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to this valuable character; and the joint verdict of such, wherever they are to be found, is the true standard of taste and beauty” (“Of the Standard of Taste” 1757, 144).

Hume argues further that the verdicts of critics who possess those qualities tend to coincide, and approach unanimity in the long run, which accounts, for example, for the enduring veneration of the works of Homer or Milton. So the test of time, as assessed by the verdicts of the best critics, functions as something analogous to an objective standard. Though judgments of taste remain fundamentally subjective, and though certain contemporary works or objects may appear irremediably controversial, the long-run consensus of people who are in a good position to judge functions analogously to an objective standard and renders such standards unnecessary even if they could be identified. Though we cannot directly find a standard of beauty that sets out the qualities that a thing must possess in order to be beautiful, we can describe the qualities of a good critic or a tasteful person. Then the long-run consensus of such persons is the practical standard of taste and the means of justifying judgments about beauty.

Kant similarly concedes that taste is fundamentally subjective, that every judgment of beauty is based on a personal experience, and that such judgments vary from person to person.

By a principle of taste I mean a principle under the condition of which we could subsume the concept of the object, and thus infer, by means of a syllogism, that the object is beautiful. But that is absolutely impossible. For I must immediately feel the pleasure in the representation of the object, and of that I can be persuaded by no grounds of proof whatever. Although, as Hume says, all critics can reason more plausibly than cooks, yet the same fate awaits them. They cannot expect the determining ground of their judgment [to be derived] from the force of the proofs, but only from the reflection of the subject upon its own proper state of pleasure or pain. (Kant 1790, section 34)

But the claim that something is beautiful has more content merely than that it gives me pleasure. Something might please me for reasons entirely eccentric to myself: I might enjoy a bittersweet experience before a portrait of my grandmother, for example, or the architecture of a house might remind me of where I grew up. “No one cares about that,” says Kant (1790, section 7): no one begrudges me such experiences, but they make no claim to guide or correspond to the experiences of others.

By contrast, the judgment that something is beautiful, Kant argues, is a disinterested judgment. It does not respond to my idiosyncrasies, or at any rate if I am aware that it does, I will no longer take myself to be experiencing the beauty per se of the thing in question. Somewhat as in Hume—whose treatment Kant evidently had in mind—one must be unprejudiced to come to a genuine judgment of taste, and Kant gives that idea a very elaborate interpretation: the judgment must be made independently of the normal range of human desires—economic and sexual desires, for instance, which are examples of our ‘interests’ in this sense. If one is walking through a museum and admiring the paintings because they would be extremely expensive were they to come up for auction, for example, or wondering whether one could steal and fence them, one is not having an experience of the beauty of the paintings at all. One must focus on the form of the mental representation of the object for its own sake, as it is in itself. Kant summarizes this as the thought that insofar as one is having an experience of the beauty of something, one is indifferent to its existence. One takes pleasure, rather, in its sheer representation in one’s experience:

Now, when the question is whether something is beautiful, we do not want to know whether anything depends or can depend on the existence of the thing, either for myself or anyone else, but how we judge it by mere observation (intuition or reflection). … We easily see that, in saying it is beautiful , and in showing that I have taste, I am concerned, not with that in which I depend on the existence of the object, but with that which I make out of this representation in myself. Everyone must admit that a judgement about beauty, in which the least interest mingles, is very partial and is not a pure judgement of taste. (Kant 1790, section 2)

One important source of the concept of aesthetic disinterestedness is the Third Earl of Shaftesbury’s dialogue The Moralists , where the argument is framed in terms of a natural landscape: if you are looking at a beautiful valley primarily as a valuable real estate opportunity, you are not seeing it for its own sake, and cannot fully experience its beauty. If you are looking at a lovely woman and considering her as a possible sexual conquest, you are not able to experience her beauty in the fullest or purest sense; you are distracted from the form as represented in your experience. And Shaftesbury, too, localizes beauty to the representational capacity of the mind. (Shaftesbury 1738, 222)

For Kant, some beauties are dependent—relative to the sort of thing the object is—and others are free or absolute. A beautiful ox would be an ugly horse, but abstract textile designs, for example, may be beautiful without a reference group or “concept,” and flowers please whether or not we connect them to their practical purposes or functions in plant reproduction (Kant 1790, section 16). The idea in particular that free beauty is completely separated from practical use and that the experiencer of it is not concerned with the actual existence of the object leads Kant to conclude that absolute or free beauty is found in the form or design of the object, or as Clive Bell (1914) put it, in the arrangement of lines and colors (in the case of painting). By the time Bell writes in the early twentieth century, however, beauty is out of fashion in the arts, and Bell frames his view not in terms of beauty but in terms of a general formalist conception of aesthetic value.

Since in reaching a genuine judgment of taste one is aware that one is not responding to anything idiosyncratic in oneself, Kant asserts (1790, section 8), one will reach the conclusion that anyone similarly situated should have the same experience: that is, one will presume that there ought to be nothing to distinguish one person’s judgment from another’s (though in fact there may be). Built conceptually into the judgment of taste is the assertion that anyone similarly situated ought to have the same experience and reach the same judgment. Thus, built into judgments of taste is a ‘universalization’ somewhat analogous to the universalization that Kant associates with ethical judgments. In ethical judgments, however, the universalization is objective: if the judgment is true, then it is objectively the case that everyone ought to act on the maxim according to which one acts. In the case of aesthetic judgments, however, the judgment remains subjective, but necessarily contains the ‘demand’ that everyone should reach the same judgment. The judgment conceptually entails a claim to inter-subjective validity. This accounts for the fact that we do very often argue about judgments of taste, and that we find tastes that are different than our own defective.

The influence of this series of thoughts on philosophical aesthetics has been immense. One might mention related approaches taken by such figures as Schopenhauer (1818), Hanslick (1891), Bullough (1912), and Croce (1928), for example. A somewhat similar though more adamantly subjectivist line is taken by Santayana, who defines beauty as ‘objectified pleasure.’ The judgment of something that it is beautiful responds to the fact that it induces a certain sort of pleasure; but this pleasure is attributed to the object, as though the object itself were having subjective states.

We have now reached our definition of beauty, which, in the terms of our successive analysis and narrowing of the conception, is value positive, intrinsic, and objectified. Or, in less technical language, Beauty is pleasure regarded as the quality of a thing. … Beauty is a value, that is, it is not a perception of a matter of fact or of a relation: it is an emotion, an affection of our volitional and appreciative nature. An object cannot be beautiful if it can give pleasure to nobody: a beauty to which all men were forever indifferent is a contradiction in terms. … Beauty is therefore a positive value that is intrinsic; it is a pleasure. (Santayana 1896, 50–51)

It is much as though one were attributing malice to a balky object or device. The object causes certain frustrations and is then ascribed an agency or a kind of subjective agenda that would account for its causing those effects. Now though Santayana thought the experience of beauty could be profound or could even be the meaning of life, this account appears to make beauty a sort of mistake: one attributes subjective states (indeed, one’s own) to a thing which in many instances is not capable of having subjective states.

It is worth saying that Santayana’s treatment of the topic in The Sense of Beauty (1896) was the last major account offered in English for some time, possibly because, once beauty has been admitted to be entirely subjective, much less when it is held to rest on a sort of mistake, there seems little more to be said. What stuck from Hume’s and Kant’s treatments was the subjectivity, not the heroic attempts to temper it. If beauty is a subjective pleasure, it would seem to have no higher status than anything that entertains, amuses, or distracts; it seems odd or ridiculous to regard it as being comparable in importance to truth or justice, for example. And the twentieth century also abandoned beauty as the dominant goal of the arts, again in part because its trivialization in theory led artists to believe that they ought to pursue more urgent and more serious projects. More significantly, as we will see below, the political and economic associations of beauty with power tended to discredit the whole concept for much of the twentieth century. This decline is explored eloquently in Arthur Danto’s book The Abuse of Beauty (2003).

However, there was a revival of interest in beauty in something like the classical philosophical sense in both art and philosophy beginning in the 1990s, to some extent centered on the work of art critic Dave Hickey, who declared that “the issue of the 90s will be beauty” (see Hickey 1993), as well as feminist-oriented reconstruals or reappropriations of the concept (see Brand 2000, Irigaray 1993). Several theorists made new attempts to address the antinomy of taste. To some extent, such approaches echo G.E. Moore’s: “To say that a thing is beautiful is to say, not indeed that it is itself good, but that it is a necessary element in something which is: to prove that a thing is truly beautiful is to prove that a whole, to which it bears a particular relation as a part, is truly good” (Moore 1903, 201). One interpretation of this would be that what is fundamentally valuable is the situation in which the object and the person experiencing are both embedded; the value of beauty might include both features of the beautiful object and the pleasures of the experiencer.

Similarly, Crispin Sartwell in his book Six Names of Beauty (2004), attributes beauty neither exclusively to the subject nor to the object, but to the relation between them, and even more widely also to the situation or environment in which they are both embedded. He points out that when we attribute beauty to the night sky, for instance, we do not take ourselves simply to be reporting a state of pleasure in ourselves; we are turned outward toward it; we are celebrating the real world. On the other hand, if there were no perceivers capable of experiencing such things, there would be no beauty. Beauty, rather, emerges in situations in which subject and object are juxtaposed and connected.

Alexander Nehamas, in Only a Promise of Happiness (2007), characterizes beauty as an invitation to further experiences, a way that things invite us in, while also possibly fending us off. The beautiful object invites us to explore and interpret, but it also requires us to explore and interpret: beauty is not to be regarded as an instantaneously apprehensible feature of surface. And Nehamas, like Hume and Kant, though in another register, considers beauty to have an irreducibly social dimension. Beauty is something we share, or something we want to share, and shared experiences of beauty are particularly intense forms of communication. Thus, the experience of beauty is not primarily within the skull of the experiencer, but connects observers and objects such as works of art and literature in communities of appreciation.

Aesthetic judgment, I believe, never commands universal agreement, and neither a beautiful object nor a work of art ever engages a catholic community. Beauty creates smaller societies, no less important or serious because they are partial, and, from the point of view of its members, each one is orthodox—orthodox, however, without thinking of all others as heresies. … What is involved is less a matter of understanding and more a matter of hope, of establishing a community that centers around it—a community, to be sure, whose boundaries are constantly shifting and whose edges are never stable. (Nehamas 2007, 80–81)

2. Philosophical Conceptions of Beauty

Each of the views sketched below has many expressions, some of which may be incompatible with one another. In many or perhaps most of the actual formulations, elements of more than one such account are present. For example, Kant’s treatment of beauty in terms of disinterested pleasure has obvious elements of hedonism, while the ecstatic neo-Platonism of Plotinus includes not only the unity of the object, but also the fact that beauty calls out love or adoration. However, it is also worth remarking how divergent or even incompatible with one another many of these views are: for example, some philosophers associate beauty exclusively with use, others precisely with uselessness.

The art historian Heinrich Wölfflin gives a fundamental description of the classical conception of beauty, as embodied in Italian Renaissance painting and architecture:

The central idea of the Italian Renaissance is that of perfect proportion. In the human figure as in the edifice, this epoch strove to achieve the image of perfection at rest within itself. Every form developed to self-existent being, the whole freely co-ordinated: nothing but independently living parts…. In the system of a classic composition, the single parts, however firmly they may be rooted in the whole, maintain a certain independence. It is not the anarchy of primitive art: the part is conditioned by the whole, and yet does not cease to have its own life. For the spectator, that presupposes an articulation, a progress from part to part, which is a very different operation from perception as a whole. (Wölfflin 1932, 9–10, 15)

The classical conception is that beauty consists of an arrangement of integral parts into a coherent whole, according to proportion, harmony, symmetry, and similar notions. This is a primordial Western conception of beauty, and is embodied in classical and neo-classical architecture, sculpture, literature, and music wherever they appear. Aristotle says in the Poetics that “to be beautiful, a living creature, and every whole made up of parts, must … present a certain order in its arrangement of parts” (Aristotle, volume 2, 2322 [1450b34]). And in the Metaphysics : “The chief forms of beauty are order and symmetry and definiteness, which the mathematical sciences demonstrate in a special degree” (Aristotle, volume 2, 1705 [1078a36]). This view, as Aristotle implies, is sometimes boiled down to a mathematical formula, such as the golden section, but it need not be thought of in such strict terms. The conception is exemplified above all in such texts as Euclid’s Elements and such works of architecture as the Parthenon, and, again, by the Canon of the sculptor Polykleitos (late fifth/early fourth century BCE).

The Canon was not only a statue deigned to display perfect proportion, but a now-lost treatise on beauty. The physician Galen characterizes the text as specifying, for example, the proportions of “the finger to the finger, and of all the fingers to the metacarpus, and the wrist, and of all these to the forearm, and of the forearm to the arm, in fact of everything to everything…. For having taught us in that treatise all the symmetriae of the body, Polyclitus supported his treatise with a work, having made the statue of a man according to his treatise, and having called the statue itself, like the treatise, the Canon ” (quoted in Pollitt 1974, 15). It is important to note that the concept of ‘symmetry’ in classical texts is distinct from and richer than its current use to indicate bilateral mirroring. It also refers precisely to the sorts of harmonious and measurable proportions among the parts characteristic of objects that are beautiful in the classical sense, which carried also a moral weight. For example, in the Sophist (228c-e), Plato describes virtuous souls as symmetrical.

The ancient Roman architect Vitruvius epitomizes the classical conception in central, and extremely influential, formulations, both in its complexities and, appropriately enough, in its underlying unity:

Architecture consists of Order, which in Greek is called taxis , and arrangement, which the Greeks name diathesis , and of Proportion and Symmetry and Decor and Distribution which in the Greeks is called oeconomia . Order is the balanced adjustment of the details of the work separately, and as to the whole, the arrangement of the proportion with a view to a symmetrical result. Proportion implies a graceful semblance: the suitable display of details in their context. This is attained when the details of the work are of a height suitable to their breadth, of a breadth suitable to their length; in a word, when everything has a symmetrical correspondence. Symmetry also is the appropriate harmony arising out of the details of the work itself: the correspondence of each given detail to the form of the design as a whole. As in the human body, from cubit, foot, palm, inch and other small parts come the symmetric quality of eurhythmy. (Vitruvius, 26–27)

Aquinas, in a typically Aristotelian pluralist formulation, says that “There are three requirements for beauty. Firstly, integrity or perfection—for if something is impaired it is ugly. Then there is due proportion or consonance. And also clarity: whence things that are brightly coloured are called beautiful” ( Summa Theologica I, 39, 8).

Francis Hutcheson in the eighteenth century gives what may well be the clearest expression of the view: “What we call Beautiful in Objects, to speak in the Mathematical Style, seems to be in a compound Ratio of Uniformity and Variety; so that where the Uniformity of Bodys is equal, the Beauty is as the Variety; and where the Variety is equal, the Beauty is as the Uniformity” (Hutcheson 1725, 29). Indeed, proponents of the view often speak “in the Mathematical Style.” Hutcheson goes on to adduce mathematical formulae, and specifically the propositions of Euclid, as the most beautiful objects (in another echo of Aristotle), though he also rapturously praises nature, with its massive complexity underlain by universal physical laws as revealed, for example, by Newton. There is beauty, he says, “In the Knowledge of some great Principles, or universal Forces, from which innumerable Effects do flow. Such is Gravitation, in Sir Isaac Newton’s Scheme” (Hutcheson 1725, 38).

A very compelling series of refutations of and counter-examples to the idea that beauty can be a matter of any specific proportions between parts, and hence to the classical conception, is given by Edmund Burke in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Beautiful and the Sublime :

Turning our eyes to the vegetable kingdom, we find nothing there so beautiful as flowers; but flowers are of every sort of shape, and every sort of disposition; they are turned and fashioned into an infinite variety of forms. … The rose is a large flower, yet it grows upon a small shrub; the flower of the apple is very small, and it grows upon a large tree; yet the rose and the apple blossom are both beautiful. … The swan, confessedly a beautiful bird, has a neck longer than the rest of its body, and but a very short tail; is this a beautiful proportion? we must allow that it is. But what shall we say of the peacock, who has comparatively but a short neck, with a tail longer than the neck and the rest of the body taken together? … There are some parts of the human body, that are observed to hold certain proportions to each other; but before it can be proved, that the efficient cause of beauty lies in these, it must be shewn, that wherever these are found exact, the person to whom they belong is beautiful. … For my part, I have at several times very carefully examined many of these proportions, and found them to hold very nearly, or altogether alike in many subjects, which were not only very different from one another, but where one has been very beautiful, and the other very remote from beauty. … You may assign any proportions you please to every part of the of the human body; and I undertake, that a painter shall observe them all, and notwithstanding produce, if he pleases, a very ugly figure. (Burke 1757, 84–89)

There are many ways to interpret Plato’s relation to classical aesthetics. The political system sketched in the Republic characterizes justice in terms of the relation of part and whole. But Plato was also no doubt a dissident in classical culture, and the account of beauty that is expressed specifically in the Symposium —perhaps the key Socratic text for neo-Platonism and for the idealist conception of beauty—expresses an aspiration toward beauty as perfect unity.

In the midst of a drinking party, Socrates recounts the teachings of his instructress, one Diotima, on matters of love. She connects the experience of beauty to the erotic or the desire to reproduce (Plato, 558–59 [ Symposium 206c–207e]). But the desire to reproduce is associated in turn with a desire for the immortal or eternal: “And why all this longing for propagation? Because this is the one deathless and eternal element in our mortality. And since we have agreed that the lover longs for the good to be his own forever, it follows that we are bound to long for immortality as well as for the good—which is to say that Love is a longing for immortality” (Plato, 559, [ Symposium 206e–207a]). What follows is, if not classical, at any rate classic:

The candidate for this initiation cannot, if his efforts are to be rewarded, begin too early to devote himself to the beauties of the body. First of all, if his preceptor instructs him as he should, he will fall in love with the beauty of one individual body, so that his passion may give life to noble discourse. Next he must consider how nearly related the beauty of any one body is to the beauty of any other, and he will see that if he is to devote himself to loveliness of form it will be absurd to deny that the beauty of each and every body is the same. Having reached this point, he must set himself to be the lover of every lovely body, and bring his passion for the one into due proportion by deeming it of little or no importance. Next he must grasp that the beauties of the body are as nothing to the beauties of the soul, so that wherever he meets with spiritual loveliness, even in the husk of an unlovely body, he will find it beautiful enough to fall in love with and cherish—and beautiful enough to quicken in his heart a longing for such discourse as tends toward the building of a noble nature. And from this he will be led to contemplate the beauty of laws and institutions. And when he discovers how every kind of beauty is akin to every other he will conclude that the beauty of the body is not, after all, of so great moment. … And so, when his prescribed devotion to boyish beauties has carried our candidate so far that the universal beauty dawns upon his inward sight, he is almost within reach of the final revelation. … Starting from individual beauties, the quest for universal beauty must find him mounting the heavenly ladder, stepping from rung to rung—that is, from one to two, and from two to every lovely body, and from bodily beauty to the beauty of institutions, from institutions to learning, and from learning in general to the special lore that pertains to nothing but the beautiful itself—until at last he comes to know what beauty is. And if, my dear Socrates, Diotima went on, man’s life is ever worth living, it is when he has attained this vision of the very soul of beauty. (Plato, 561–63 [ Symposium 210a–211d])

Beauty here is conceived—perhaps explicitly in contrast to the classical aesthetics of integral parts and coherent whole—as perfect unity, or indeed as the principle of unity itself.

Plotinus, as we have already seen, comes close to equating beauty with formedness per se: it is the source of unity among disparate things, and it is itself perfect unity. Plotinus specifically attacks what we have called the classical conception of beauty:

Almost everyone declares that the symmetry of parts towards each other and towards a whole, with, besides, a certain charm of colour, constitutes the beauty recognized by the eye, that in visible things, as indeed in all else, universally, the beautiful thing is essentially symmetrical, patterned. But think what this means. Only a compound can be beautiful, never anything devoid of parts; and only a whole; the several parts will have beauty, not in themselves, but only as working together to give a comely total. Yet beauty in an aggregate demands beauty in details; it cannot be constructed out of ugliness; its law must run throughout. All the loveliness of colour and even the light of the sun, being devoid of parts and so not beautiful by symmetry, must be ruled out of the realm of beauty. And how comes gold to be a beautiful thing? And lightning by night, and the stars, why are these so fair? In sounds also the simple must be proscribed, though often in a whole noble composition each several tone is delicious in itself. (Plotinus, 21 [ Ennead I,6])

Plotinus declares that fire is the most beautiful physical thing, “making ever upwards, the subtlest and sprightliest of all bodies, as very near to the unembodied. … Hence the splendour of its light, the splendour that belongs to the Idea” (Plotinus, 22 [ Ennead I,3]). For Plotinus as for Plato, all multiplicity must be immolated finally into unity, and all roads of inquiry and experience lead toward the Good/Beautiful/True/Divine.

This gave rise to a basically mystical vision of the beauty of God that, as Umberto Eco has argued, persisted alongside an anti-aesthetic asceticism throughout the Middle Ages: a delight in profusion that finally merges into a single spiritual unity. In the sixth century, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite characterized the whole of creation as yearning toward God; the universe is called into being by love of God as beauty (Pseudo-Dionysius, 4.7; see Kirwan 1999, 29). Sensual/aesthetic pleasures could be considered the expressions of the immense, beautiful profusion of God and our ravishment thereby. Eco quotes Suger, Abbot of St Denis in the twelfth century, describing a richly-appointed church:

Thus, when—out of my delight in the beauty of the house of God—the loveliness of the many-colored gems has called me away from external cares, and worthy meditation has induced me to reflect, transferring that which is material to that which is immaterial, on the diversity of the sacred virtues: then it seems to me that I see myself dwelling, as it were, in some strange region of the universe which neither exists entirely in the slime of the earth nor entirely in the purity of Heaven; and that, by the grace of God, I can be transported from this inferior to that higher world in an anagogical manner. (Eco 1959, 14)

This conception has had many expressions in the modern era, including in such figures as Shaftesbury, Schiller, and Hegel, according to whom the aesthetic or the experience of art and beauty is a primary bridge (or to use the Platonic image, stairway or ladder) between the material and the spiritual. For Shaftesbury, there are three levels of beauty: what God makes (nature); what human beings make from nature or what is transformed by human intelligence (art, for example); and finally, the intelligence that makes even these artists (that is, God). Shaftesbury’s character Theocles describes “the third order of beauty,”

which forms not only such as we call mere forms but even the forms which form. For we ourselves are notable architects in matter, and can show lifeless bodies brought into form, and fashioned by our own hands, but that which fashions even minds themselves, contains in itself all the beauties fashioned by those minds, and is consequently the principle, source, and fountain of all beauty. … Whatever appears in our second order of forms, or whatever is derived or produced from thence, all this is eminently, principally, and originally in this last order of supreme and sovereign beauty. … Thus architecture, music, and all which is of human invention, resolves itself into this last order. (Shaftesbury 1738, 228–29)

Schiller’s expression of a similar series of thoughts was fundamentally influential on the conceptions of beauty developed within German Idealism:

The pre-rational concept of Beauty, if such a thing be adduced, can be drawn from no actual case—rather does itself correct and guide our judgement concerning every actual case; it must therefore be sought along the path of abstraction, and it can be inferred simply from the possibility of a nature that is both sensuous and rational; in a word, Beauty must be exhibited as a necessary condition of humanity. Beauty … makes of man a whole, complete in himself. (1795, 59–60, 86)

For Schiller, beauty or play or art (he uses the words, rather cavalierly, almost interchangeably) performs the process of integrating or rendering compatible the natural and the spiritual, or the sensuous and the rational: only in such a state of integration are we—who exist simultaneously on both these levels—free. This is quite similar to Plato’s ‘ladder’: beauty as a way to ascend to the abstract or spiritual. But Schiller—though this is at times unclear—is more concerned with integrating the realms of nature and spirit than with transcending the level of physical reality entirely, a la Plato. It is beauty and art that performs this integration.

In this and in other ways—including in the tripartite dialectical structure of his account—Schiller strikingly anticipates Hegel, who writes as follows.

The philosophical Concept of the beautiful, to indicate its true nature at least in a preliminary way, must contain, reconciled within itself, both the extremes which have been mentioned [the ideal and the empirical] because it unites metaphysical universality with real particularity. (Hegel 1835, 22)

Beauty, we might say, or artistic beauty at any rate, is a route from the sensuous and particular to the Absolute and to freedom, from finitude to the infinite, formulations that—while they are influenced by Schiller—strikingly recall Shaftesbury, Plotinus, and Plato.

Hegel, who associates beauty and art with mind and spirit, holds with Shaftesbury that the beauty of art is higher than the beauty of nature, on the grounds that, as Hegel puts it, “the beauty of art is born of the spirit and born again ” (Hegel 1835, 2). That is, the natural world is born of God, but the beauty of art transforms that material again by the spirit of the artist. This idea reaches is apogee in Benedetto Croce, who very nearly denies that nature can ever be beautiful, or at any rate asserts that the beauty of nature is a reflection of the beauty of art. “The real meaning of ‘natural beauty’ is that certain persons, things, places are, by the effect which they exert upon one, comparable with poetry, painting, sculpture, and the other arts” (Croce 1928, 230).

Edmund Burke, expressing an ancient tradition, writes that, “by beauty I mean, that quality or those qualities in bodies, by which they cause love, or some passion similar to it” (Burke 1757, 83). As we have seen, in almost all treatments of beauty, even the most apparently object or objectively-oriented, there is a moment in which the subjective qualities of the experience of beauty are emphasized: rhapsodically, perhaps, or in terms of pleasure or ataraxia , as in Schopenhauer. For example, we have already seen Plotinus, for whom beauty is certainly not subjective, describe the experience of beauty ecstatically. In the idealist tradition, the human soul, as it were, recognizes in beauty its true origin and destiny. Among the Greeks, the connection of beauty with love is proverbial from early myth, and Aphrodite the goddess of love won the Judgment of Paris by promising Paris the most beautiful woman in the world.

There is an historical connection between idealist accounts of beauty and those that connect it to love and longing, though there would seem to be no entailment either way. We have Sappho’s famous fragment 16: “Some say thronging cavalry, some say foot soldiers, others call a fleet the most beautiful sights the dark world offers, but I say it’s whatever you love best” (Sappho, 16). (Indeed, at Phaedrus 236c, Socrates appears to defer to “the fair Sappho” as having had greater insight than himself on love [Plato, 483].)

Plato’s discussions of beauty in the Symposium and the Phaedrus occur in the context of the theme of erotic love. In the former, love is portrayed as the ‘child’ of poverty and plenty. “Nor is he delicate and lovely as most of us believe, but harsh and arid, barefoot and homeless” (Plato, 556 [Symposium 203b–d]). Love is portrayed as a lack or absence that seeks its own fulfillment in beauty: a picture of mortality as an infinite longing. Love is always in a state of lack and hence of desire: the desire to possess the beautiful. Then if this state of infinite longing could be trained on the truth, we would have a path to wisdom. The basic idea has been recovered many times, for example by the Romantics. It fueled the cult of idealized or courtly love through the Middle Ages, in which the beloved became a symbol of the infinite.

Recent work on the theory of beauty has revived this idea, and turning away from pleasure has turned toward love or longing (which are not necessarily entirely pleasurable experiences) as the experiential correlate of beauty. Both Sartwell and Nehamas use Sappho’s fragment 16 as an epigraph. Sartwell defines beauty as “the object of longing” and characterizes longing as intense and unfulfilled desire. He calls it a fundamental condition of a finite being in time, where we are always in the process of losing whatever we have, and are thus irremediably in a state of longing. And Nehamas writes that “I think of beauty as the emblem of what we lack, the mark of an art that speaks to our desire. … Beautiful things don’t stand aloof, but direct our attention and our desire to everything else we must learn or acquire in order to understand and possess, and they quicken the sense of life, giving it new shape and direction” (Nehamas 2007, 77).

Thinkers of the 18 th century—many of them oriented toward empiricism—accounted for beauty in terms of pleasure. The Italian historian Ludovico Antonio Muratori, for example, in quite a typical formulation, says that “By beautiful we generally understand whatever, when seen, heard, or understood, delights, pleases, and ravishes us by causing within us agreeable sensations” (see Carritt 1931, 60). In Hutcheson it is not clear whether we ought to conceive beauty primarily in terms of classical formal elements or in terms of the viewer’s pleasurable response. He begins the Inquiry Into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue with a discussion of pleasure. And he appears to assert that objects which instantiate his ‘compound ratio of uniformity and variety’ are peculiarly or necessarily capable of producing pleasure:

The only Pleasure of sense, which our Philosophers seem to consider, is that which accompanys the simple Ideas of Sensation; But there are vastly greater Pleasures in those complex Ideas of objects, which obtain the Names of Beautiful, Regular, Harmonious. Thus every one acknowledges he is more delighted with a fine Face, a just Picture, than with the View of any one Colour, were it as strong and lively as possible; and more pleased with a Prospect of the Sun arising among settled Clouds, and colouring their Edges, with a starry Hemisphere, a fine Landskip, a regular Building, than with a clear blue Sky, a smooth Sea, or a large open Plain, not diversify’d by Woods, Hills, Waters, Buildings: And yet even these latter Appearances are not quite simple. So in Musick, the Pleasure of fine Composition is incomparably greater than that of any one Note, how sweet, full, or swelling soever. (Hutcheson 1725, 22)

When Hutcheson then goes on to describe ‘original or absolute beauty,’ he does it, as we have seen, in terms of the qualities of the beautiful thing (a “compound ratio” of uniformity and variety), and yet throughout, he insists that beauty is centered in the human experience of pleasure. But of course the idea of pleasure could come apart from Hutcheson’s particular aesthetic preferences, which are poised precisely opposite Plotinus’s, for example. That we find pleasure in a symmetrical rather than an asymmetrical building (if we do) is contingent. But that beauty is connected to pleasure appears, according to Hutcheson, to be necessary, and the pleasure which is the locus of beauty itself has ideas rather than things as its objects.

Hume writes in a similar vein in the Treatise of Human Nature :

Beauty is such an order and construction of parts as, either by the primary constitution of our nature, by custom, or by caprice, is fitted to give a pleasure and satisfaction to the soul. … Pleasure and pain, therefore, are not only necessary attendants of beauty and deformity, but constitute their very essence. (Hume 1740, 299)

Though this appears ambiguous as between locating the beauty in the pleasure or in the impression or idea that causes it, Hume is soon talking about the ‘sentiment of beauty,’ where sentiment is, roughly, a pleasurable or painful response to impressions or ideas, though the experience of beauty is a matter of cultivated or delicate pleasures. Indeed, by the time of Kant’s Third Critique and after that for perhaps two centuries, the direct connection of beauty to pleasure is taken as a commonplace, to the point where thinkers are frequently identifying beauty as a certain sort of pleasure. Santayana, for example, as we have seen, while still gesturing in the direction of the object or experience that causes pleasure, emphatically identifies beauty as a certain sort of pleasure.

One result of this approach to beauty—or perhaps an extreme expression of this orientation—is the assertion of the positivists that words such as ‘beauty’ are meaningless or without cognitive content, or are mere expressions of subjective approval. Hume and Kant were no sooner declaring beauty to be a matter of sentiment or pleasure and therefore to be subjective than they were trying to ameliorate the sting, largely by emphasizing critical consensus. But once this fundamental admission is made, any consensus seems contingent. Another way to formulate this is that it appears to certain thinkers after Hume and Kant that there can be no reasons to prefer the consensus to a counter-consensus assessment. A.J. Ayer writes:

Such aesthetic words as ‘beautiful’ and ‘hideous’ are employed … not to make statements of fact, but simply to express certain feelings and evoke a certain response. It follows…that there is no sense attributing objective validity to aesthetic judgments, and no possibility of arguing about questions of value in aesthetics. (Ayer 1952, 113)

All meaningful claims either concern the meaning of terms or are empirical, in which case they are meaningful because observations could confirm or disconfirm them. ‘That song is beautiful’ has neither status, and hence has no empirical or conceptual content. It merely expresses a positive attitude of a particular viewer; it is an expression of pleasure, like a satisfied sigh. The question of beauty is not a genuine question, and we can safely leave it behind or alone. Most twentieth-century philosophers did just that.

Philosophers in the Kantian tradition identify the experience of beauty with disinterested pleasure, psychical distance, and the like, and contrast the aesthetic with the practical. “ Taste is the faculty of judging an object or mode of representing it by an entirely disinterested satisfaction or dissatisfaction. The object of such satisfaction is called beautiful ” (Kant 1790, 45). Edward Bullough distinguishes the beautiful from the merely agreeable on the grounds that the former requires a distance from practical concerns: “Distance is produced in the first instance by putting the phenomenon, so to speak, out of gear with our practical, actual self; by allowing it to stand outside the context of our personal needs and ends” (Bullough 1912, 244).

On the other hand, many philosophers have gone in the opposite direction and have identified beauty with suitedness to use. ‘Beauty’ is perhaps one of the few terms that could plausibly sustain such entirely opposed interpretations.

According to Diogenes Laertius, the ancient hedonist Aristippus of Cyrene took a rather direct approach.

Is not then, also, a beautiful woman useful in proportion as she is beautiful; and a boy and a youth useful in proportion to their beauty? Well then, a handsome boy and a handsome youth must be useful exactly in proportion as they are handsome. Now the use of beauty is, to be embraced. If then a man embraces a woman just as it is useful that he should, he does not do wrong; nor, again, will he be doing wrong in employing beauty for the purposes for which it is useful. (Diogenes Laertius, 94)

In some ways, Aristippus is portrayed parodically: as the very worst of the sophists, though supposedly a follower of Socrates. And yet the idea of beauty as suitedness to use finds expression in a number of thinkers. Xenophon’s Memorabilia puts the view in the mouth of Socrates, with Aristippus as interlocutor:

Socrates : In short everything which we use is considered both good and beautiful from the same point of view, namely its use. Aristippus : Why then, is a dung-basket a beautiful thing? Socrates : Of course it is, and a golden shield is ugly, if the one be beautifully fitted to its purpose and the other ill. (Xenophon, Book III, viii)

Berkeley expresses a similar view in his dialogue Alciphron , though he begins with the hedonist conception: “Every one knows that beauty is what pleases” (Berkeley 1732, 174; see Carritt 1931, 75). But it pleases for reasons of usefulness. Thus, as Xenophon suggests, on this view, things are beautiful only in relation to the uses for which they are intended or to which they are properly applied. The proper proportions of an object depend on what kind of object it is and, again, a beautiful car might make an ugly tractor. “The parts, therefore, in true proportions, must be so related, and adjusted to one another, as they may best conspire to the use and operation of the whole” (Berkeley 1732, 174–75; see Carritt 1931, 76). One result of this is that, though beauty remains tied to pleasure, it is not an immediate sensible experience. It essentially requires intellection and practical activity: one has to know the use of a thing and assess its suitedness to that use.

This treatment of beauty is often used, for example, to criticize the distinction between fine art and craft, and it avoids sheer philistinism by enriching the concept of ‘use,’ so that it might encompass not only performing a practical task, but performing it especially well or with an especial satisfaction. Ananda Coomaraswamy, the Ceylonese-British scholar of Indian and European medieval arts, adds that a beautiful work of art or craft expresses as well as serves its purpose.

A cathedral is not as such more beautiful than an airplane, … a hymn than a mathematical equation. … A well-made sword is not less beautiful than a well-made scalpel, though one is used to slay, the other to heal. Works of art are only good or bad, beautiful or ugly in themselves, to the extent that they are or are not well and truly made, that is, do or do not express, or do or do not serve their purpose. (Coomaraswamy 1977, 75)

Roger Scruton, in his book Beauty (2009) returns to a modified Kantianism with regard to both beauty and sublimity, enriched by many and varied examples. “We call something beautiful,” writes Scruton, “when we gain pleasure from contemplating it as an individual object, for its own sake, and in its presented form ” (Scruton 2009, 26). Despite the Kantian framework, Scruton, like Sartwell and Nehamas, throws the subjective/objective distinction into question. He compares experiencing a beautiful thing to a kiss. To kiss someone that one loves is not merely to place one body part on another, “but to touch the other person in his very self. Hence the kiss is compromising – it is a move from one self toward another, and a summoning of the other into the surface of his being” (Scruton 2009, 48). This, Scruton says, is a profound pleasure.

3. The Politics of Beauty

Kissing sounds nice, but some kisses are coerced, some pleasures obtained at a cost to other people. The political associations of beauty over the last few centuries have been remarkably various and remarkably problematic, particularly in connection with race and gender, but in other aspects as well. This perhaps helps account for the neglect of the issue in early-to-mid twentieth-century philosophy as well as its growth late in the century as an issue in social justice movements, and subsequently in social-justice oriented philosophy.

The French revolutionaries of 1789 associated beauty with the French aristocracy and with the Rococo style of the French royal family, as in the paintings of Fragonard: hedonist expressions of wealth and decadence, every inch filled with decorative motifs. Beauty itself became subject to a moral and political critique, or even to direct destruction, with political motivations (see Levey 1985). And by the early 20th century, beauty was particularly associated with capitalism (ironically enough, considering the ugliness of the poverty and environmental destruction it often induced). At times even great art appeared to be dedicated mainly to furnishing the homes of rich people, with the effect of concealing the suffering they were inflicting. In response, many anti-capitalists, including many Marxists, appeared to repudiate beauty entirely. And in the aesthetic politics of Nazism, reflected for example in the films of Leni Riefenstahl, the association of beauty and right wing politics was sealed to devastating effect (see Spotts 2003).

Early on in his authorship, Karl Marx could hint that the experience of beauty distinguishes human beings from all other animals. An animal “produces only under the dominion of immediate physical need, whilst man produces even when he is free from physical need and only truly produces in freedom therefrom. Man therefore also forms objects in accordance with the laws of beauty” (Marx 1844, 76). But later Marx appeared to conceive beauty as “superstructure” or “ideology” disguising the material conditions of production. Perhaps, however, he also anticipated the emergence of new beauties, available to all both as makers and appreciators, in socialism.

Capitalism, of course, uses beauty – at times with complete self-consciousness – to manipulate people into buying things. Many Marxists believed that the arts must be turned from providing fripperies to the privileged or advertising that helps make them wealthier to showing the dark realities of capitalism (as in the American Ashcan school, for example), and articulating an inspiring Communist future. Stalinist socialist realism consciously repudiates the aestheticized beauties of post-impressionist and abstract painting, for example. It has urgent social tasks to perform (see Bown and Lanfranconi 2012). But the critique tended at times to generalize to all sorts of beauty: as luxury, as seduction, as disguise and oppression. The artist Max Ernst (1891–1976), having survived the First World War, wrote this about the radical artists of the early century: “To us, Dada was above all a moral reaction. Our rage aimed at total subversion. A horrible futile war had robbed us of five years of our existence. We had experienced the collapse into ridicule and shame of everything represented to us as just, true, and beautiful. My works of that period were not meant to attract, but to make people scream” (quoted in Danto 2003, 49).

Theodor Adorno, in his book Aesthetic Theory , wrote that one symptom of oppression is that oppressed groups and cultures are regarded as uncouth, dirty, ragged; in short, that poverty is ugly. It is art’s obligation, he wrote, to show this ugliness, imposed on people by an unjust system, clearly and without flinching, rather to distract people by beauty from the brutal realities of capitalism. “Art must take up the cause of what is proscribed as ugly, though no longer to integrate or mitigate it or reconcile it with its own existence,” Adorno wrote. “Rather, in the ugly, art must denounce the world that creates and reproduces the ugly in its own image” (Adorno 1970, 48–9).

The political entanglements of beauty tend to throw into question various of the traditional theories. For example, the purity and transcendence associated with the essence of beauty in the realm of the Forms seems irrelevant, as beauty shows its centrality to politics and commerce, to concrete dimensions of oppression. The austere formalism of the classical conception, for example, seems neither here nor there when the building process is brutally exploitative.

As we have seen, the association of beauty with the erotic is proverbial from Sappho and is emphasized relentlessly by figures such as Burke and Nehamas. But the erotic is not a neutral or universal site, and we need to ask whose sexuality is in play in the history of beauty, with what effects. This history, particularly in the West and as many feminist theorists and historians have emphasized, is associated with the objectification and exploitation of women. Feminists beginning in the 19th century gave fundamental critiques of the use of beauty as a set of norms to control women’s bodies or to constrain their self-presentation and even their self-image in profound and disabling ways (see Wollstonecraft 1792, Grimké 1837).

In patriarchal society, as Catherine MacKinnon puts it, the content of sexuality “is the gaze that constructs women as objects for male pleasure. I draw on pornography for its form and content,” she continues, describing her treatment of the subject, “for the gaze that eroticizes the despised, the demeaned, the accessible, the there-to-be-used, the servile, the child-like, the passive, and the animal. That is the content of sexuality that defines gender female in this culture, and visual thingification is its method” (MacKinnon 1987, 53–4). Laura Mulvey, in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” reaches one variety of radical critique and conclusion: “It is said that analyzing pleasure, or beauty, destroys it. That is the intention of this article” (Mulvey 1975, 60).

Mulvey’s psychoanalytic treatment was focused on the scopophilia (a Freudian term denoting neurotic sexual pleasure configured around looking) of Hollywood films, in which men appeared as protagonists, and women as decorative or sexual objects for the pleasure of the male characters and male audience-members. She locates beauty “at the heart of our oppression.” And she appears to have a hedonist conception of it: beauty engenders pleasure. But some pleasures, like some kisses, are sadistic or exploitative at the individual and at the societal level. Art historians such as Linda Nochlin (1988) and Griselda Pollock (1987) brought such insights to bear on the history of painting, for example, where the scopophilia is all too evident in famous nudes such as Titian’s Venus of Urbino or Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus , which a feminist slashed with knife in 1914 because “she didn’t like the way men gawked at it”.

Feminists such as Naomi Wolf in her book The Beauty Myth , generalized such insights into a critique of the ways women are represented throughout Western popular culture: in advertising, for example, or music videos. Such practices have the effect of constraining women to certain acceptable ways of presenting themselves publicly, which in turn greatly constrains how seriously they are taken, or how much of themselves they can express in public space. As have many other commentators, Wolf connects the representation of the “beautiful” female body, in Western high art but especially in popular culture, to eating disorders and many other self-destructive behaviors, and indicates that a real overturning of gender hierarchy will require deeply re-construing the concept of beauty.

The demand on women to create a beautiful self-presentation by male standards, Wolf argues, fundamentally compromises women’s action and self-understanding, and makes fully human relationships between men and women difficult or impossible. In this Wolf follows, among others, the French thinker Luce Irigaray, who wrote that “Female beauty is always considered as finery ultimately designed to attract the other into the self. It is almost never perceived as a manifestation of, an appearance of, a phenomenon expressive of interiority – whether of love, of thought, of flesh. We look at ourselves in the mirror to please someone , rarely to interrogate the state of our body or our spirit, rarely for ourselves and in search of our becoming” (quoted in Robinson 2000, 230).

“Sex is held hostage by beauty,” Wolf remarks, “and its ransom terms are engraved in girls’ minds early and deeply with instruments more beautiful that those which advertisers or pornographers know how to use: literature, poetry, painting, and film” (Wolf 1991f, 157).

Early in the 20th century, black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey (1887–1940) described European or white standards of beauty as a deep dimension of oppression, quite similarly to the way Naomi Wolf describes beauty standards for women. These standards are relentlessly reinforced in authoritative images, but they are incompatible with black skin, black bodies, and also traditional African ways of understanding human beauty. White standards of beauty, Garvey argued, devalue black bodies. The truly oppressive aspects of such norms can be seen in the way they induce self-alienation, as Wolf argues with regard to sexualized images of women. “Some of us in America, the West Indies, and Africa believe that the nearer we approach the white man in color, the greater our social standing and privilege,” he wrote (Garvey 1925 [1986], 56). He condemns skin bleaching and hair straightening as ways that black people are taught to devalue themselves by white standards of beauty. And he connects such standards to ‘colorism’ or prejudice in the African-American community toward darker-skinned black people.

Such observations suggest some of the strengths of cultural relativism as opposed to subjectivism or universalism: standards of beauty appear in this picture not to be idiosyncratic to individuals, nor to be universal among all people, but to be tied to group identities and to oppression and resistance.

In his autobiography, Malcolm X (1925–1965), whose parents were activists in the Garvey movement, describes ‘conking’ or straightening his hair with lye products as a young man. “This was my first really big step toward self-degradation,” he writes, “when I endured all of that pain, literally burning my flesh to have it look like a white man’s hair. I had joined that multitude of Negro men and women in America who are brainwashed into believing that black people are ‘inferior’ – and white people ‘superior’ – that they will even violate and mutilate their God-created bodies to try to look ‘pretty’ by white standards” (X 1964, 56–7). For both Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X, a key moment in the transformation of racial oppression would be the affirmation of standards of black beauty that are not parasitic on white standards, and hence not directly involved in racial oppression. This was systematically developed after Malcolm’s death in the “natural” hairstyles and African fabrics in the Black Power movement. Certainly, people have many motivations for straightening or coloring their hair, for example. But the critical examination of the racial content of beauty norms was a key moment in black liberation movements, many of which, around 1970, coalesced around the slogan Black is beautiful . These are critiques of specific standards of beauty; they are also tributes to beauty’s power.

Imposing standards of beauty on non-Western cultures, and, in particular, misappropriating standards of beauty and beautiful objects from them, formed one of the most complex strategies of colonialism. Edward Said famously termed this dynamic “orientalism.” Novelists such as Nerval and Kipling and painters such as Delacroix and Picasso, he argued, used motifs drawn from Asian and African cultures, treating them as “exotic” insertions into Western arts. Such writers and artists might even have understood themselves to be celebrating the cultures they depicted in pictures of Arabian warriors or African masks. But they used this imagery precisely in relation to Western art history. They distorted what they appropriated.

“Being a White Man, in short,” writes Said, “was a very concrete manner of being-in-the-world, a way of taking hold of reality, language, and thought. It made a specific style possible” (Said 1978, 227). This style might be encapsulated in the outfits of colonial governors, and their mansions. But it was also typified by an appropriative “appreciation” of “savage” arts and “exotic” beauties, which were of course not savage or exotic in their own context. Even in cases where the beauty of such objects was celebrated, the appreciation was mixed with condescension and misapprehension, and also associated with stripping colonial possessions of their most beautiful objects (as Europeans understood beauty)—shipping them back to the British Museum, for example. Now some beautiful objects, looted in colonialism, are being returned to their points of origin (see Matthes 2017), but many others remain in dispute.

However, if beauty has been an element in various forms of oppression, it has also been an element in various forms of resistance, as the slogan “Black is beautiful” suggests. The most compelling responses to oppressive standards and uses of beauty have given rise to what might be termed counter-beauties . When fighting discrimination against people with disabilities, for example, one may decry the oppressive norms that regard disabled bodies as ugly and leave it at that. Or one might try to discover what new standards of beauty and subversive pleasures might arise in the attempt to regard disabled bodies as beautiful (Siebers 2005). For that matter, one might uncover the ways that non-normative bodies and subversive pleasures actually do fulfill various traditional criteria of beauty. Indeed, for some decades there has been a disability arts movement, often associated with artists such as Christine Sun Kim and Riva Lehrer, which tries to do just that (see Siebers 2005).

The exploration of beauty, in some ways flipping it over into an instrument of feminist resistance, or showing directly how women’s beauty could be experienced outside of patriarchy, has been a theme of much art by women of the 20th and 21st centuries. Georgia O’Keeffe’s flowers and Judy Chicago’s “Dinner Party” place settings undertake to absorb and reverse the objectifying gaze. The exploration of the meaning of the female body in the work of performance artists such as Hannah Wilke, Karen Finley, and Orlan, tries both to explore the objectification of the female body and to affirm women’s experience in its concrete realities from the inside: to make of it emphatically a subject rather than an object (see Striff 1997).

“Beauty seems in need of rehabilitation today as an impulse that can be as liberating as it has been deemed enslaving,” wrote philosopher Peg Zeglin Brand in 2000. “Confident young women today pack their closets with mini-skirts and sensible suits. Young female artists toy with feminine stereotypes in ways that make their feminist elders uncomfortable. They recognize that … beauty can be a double-edged sword – as capable of destabilizing rigid conventions and restrictive behavioral models as it is of reinforcing them” (Brand 2000, xv). Indeed, vernacular norms of beauty as expressed in media and advertising have shifted in virtue of the feminist and anti-racist attacks on dominant body norms, as the concept’s long journey continues.

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How to cite this entry . Preview the PDF version of this entry at the Friends of the SEP Society . Look up topics and thinkers related to this entry at the Internet Philosophy Ontology Project (InPhO). Enhanced bibliography for this entry at PhilPapers , with links to its database.

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aesthetics: British, in the 18th century | aesthetics: French, in the 18th century | Aquinas, Thomas | Aristotle | Ayer, Alfred Jules | Burke, Edmund | Croce, Benedetto: aesthetics | feminist philosophy, interventions: aesthetics | hedonism | Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich: aesthetics | Hume, David: aesthetics | Kant, Immanuel: aesthetics and teleology | Kant, Immanuel: theory of judgment | medieval philosophy | Neoplatonism | Plato: aesthetics | Plotinus | Santayana, George | Schiller, Friedrich | Schopenhauer, Arthur | Scottish Philosophy: in the 18th Century | Shaftesbury, Lord [Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of]

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What Is Beauty? (Philosophy)

What Is Beauty?

The concept of beauty has been a major theme in Western philosophy for centuries. It is a subject that has captivated the minds of ancient Greek, Hellenistic, medieval, and modern philosophers alike. Beauty is often discussed in relation to other fundamental values such as goodness, truth, and justice, and has been a source of inspiration and contemplation for thinkers throughout history.

So, what is beauty? How do we define it? The meaning of beauty can be elusive, as it encompasses a range of diverse interpretations and perspectives. Beauty is not solely confined to physical appearance, but also extends to art, nature, and the experiences that evoke a sense of aesthetic pleasure.

Beauty can be seen as a quality that brings delight and evokes positive emotions. It is both a subjective experience, influenced by personal preferences and individual perception, and an objective characteristic, rooted in the qualities that make something aesthetically pleasing. The interplay between subjectivity and objectivity in defining beauty is a topic of ongoing philosophical discourse.

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Key Takeaways:

  • Beauty is a central theme in Western philosophy.
  • It encompasses subjective and objective aspects.
  • Beauty is not solely confined to physical appearance.
  • It can be experienced through art, nature, and aesthetic pleasure.
  • Philosophers have explored different perspectives on the meaning of beauty.

Table of Contents

The Objectivity and Subjectivity of Beauty

One of the most debated topics in the philosophy of beauty is whether it is subjective or objective. Some argue that beauty is purely subjective and dependent on individual perception, while others believe there are objective qualities that make something beautiful. Ancient and medieval philosophers generally viewed beauty as objective, while philosophers like Hume and Kant emphasized the subjective nature of beauty. However, there is also a recognition that beauty is often experienced and appreciated in similar ways by different individuals.

Objective Beauty

In the realm of objective beauty , proponents argue that there are inherent and measurable qualities that determine the beauty of an object or work of art. These qualities may include symmetry, proportion, harmony, and balance. According to this perspective, beauty can be objectively evaluated based on these criteria, and certain objects possess inherent beauty regardless of individual perception.

Subjective Beauty

On the other hand, the subjective nature of beauty suggests that beauty is determined by personal taste, cultural influences, and individual experiences. Beauty is seen as a subjective experience that varies from person to person. What one person finds beautiful, another may not. This interpretation acknowledges that beauty is influenced by personal preferences, emotions, and perceptions.

Beauty perception is influenced by various factors, including cultural background, aesthetic education, and personal experiences. Different cultures and societies often have their own unique standards of beauty, shaping individuals’ perceptions and influencing societal expectations.

While the debate between objective and subjective beauty may never be definitively settled, it is clear that both perspectives contribute to our understanding of aesthetics. Beauty can be appreciated and experienced in multiple ways, encompassing both objective qualities and subjective interpretations.

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definition essay of beauty

Philosophical Conceptions of Beauty

Throughout history, philosophers have proposed various conceptions of beauty. These philosophical perspectives provide different insights into the nature of beauty and how it is understood. Let’s explore three significant conceptions: the Classical conception, the Idealist conception, and the Hedonist conceptions of beauty .

The Classical Conception of Beauty

Influenced by the ancient philosophers Plato and Aristotle, the Classical conception of beauty emphasizes objective qualities such as proportion, harmony, and symmetry. According to this perspective, beauty is not merely subjective but can be objectively recognized and appreciated. The Classical conception suggests that there are inherent standards of beauty that exist beyond individual preferences and cultural biases.

The Idealist Conception of Beauty

The Idealist conception, exemplified by thinkers like Plotinus, approaches beauty from a metaphysical standpoint. It attributes beauty to the realm of Forms, emphasizing the participation of objects in these abstract entities. In this conception, beauty is seen as a transcendental quality that transcends the physical world. The Idealist perspective suggests that beauty lies in the inherent essence and perfection of an object, beyond its physical appearance.

The Hedonist Conceptions of Beauty

Contrasting the Classical and Idealist perspectives, Hedonist conceptions of beauty focus on the pleasure and sensory experiences associated with beauty. According to Hedonism, beauty is subjective and dependent on individual pleasure and desire. This perspective suggests that beauty can be found in experiences that elicit aesthetic enjoyment and sensory gratification.

Each of these philosophical conceptions offers a unique lens through which to understand and appreciate beauty. The Classical conception highlights the objective qualities of beauty, the Idealist conception delves into its metaphysical dimension, and the Hedonist conceptions explore the subjective pleasure of beauty. By considering these different perspectives, we gain a more holistic understanding of the diverse ways in which beauty is conceptualized and experienced.

The Politics of Beauty

Beauty is not only a philosophical concept but also holds political significance. Throughout history, beauty has been tied to social hierarchies and power dynamics. The association between beauty and aristocracy has been prevalent, with the upper classes often being seen as the epitome of beauty. This dynamic reinforces societal inequalities and perpetuates exclusivity in defining beauty standards .

A feminist critique of beauty challenges these traditional beauty standards and explores how they are influenced by social construction and gender norms. It questions the narrow definitions of beauty that have been imposed on women and emphasizes the importance of embracing diverse forms of aesthetic expression. This critique aims to dismantle the oppressive beauty ideals that contribute to unrealistic expectations and the objectification of women.

Furthermore, beauty has been used as a tool of colonialism, with Eurocentric ideals being imposed on non-Western societies. This cultural imperialism has led to the erasure of indigenous beauty standards and the marginalization of non-European aesthetics. It is essential to recognize and celebrate the beauty diversity across different cultures and to challenge the dominance of Eurocentric beauty ideals.

However, beauty can also be a form of resistance. Challenging dominant narratives and celebrating diverse forms of aesthetic expression can empower individuals and communities. By embracing their unique beauty, marginalized groups can assert their identities and challenge the oppressive beauty standards imposed upon them.

In order to understand the politics of beauty, it is crucial to acknowledge the ways in which beauty is intertwined with systems of power, privilege, and oppression. By questioning and challenging societal beauty norms, we can strive towards a more inclusive and equitable understanding of beauty.

Beauty in Society

Beauty is deeply intertwined with society and its cultural norms. Across different cultures and societies, beauty standards vary, reflecting the unique values and preferences of each. These beauty standards often dictate what is considered desirable and attractive within a given society.

In some cultures, certain physical features or characteristics are regarded as more beautiful than others. For example, in Western societies, there is often an emphasis on thinness and youth as beauty standards. On the other hand, in some African cultures, fuller figures may be prized as a symbol of beauty and fertility.

These cultural beauty norms shape individuals’ perceptions and influence societal expectations. They can affect self-esteem and self-worth, as individuals strive to meet the prescribed beauty standards. Furthermore, the portrayal of these beauty ideals in media and advertising can perpetuate unrealistic beauty standards and narrow definitions of attractiveness.

However, it is important to recognize that beauty is subjective and can vary widely based on cultural context. What is considered beautiful in one culture may not align with the beauty standards of another culture. Embracing diverse beauty norms and celebrating different forms of aesthetic expression is essential in promoting inclusivity and breaking free from restrictive beauty standards.

Table: Cultural Beauty Norms in Different Regions

The Importance of Beauty

Beauty is not just a superficial concept; it holds significant importance in our lives and has a profound impact on our well-being. The presence of beauty can evoke a variety of positive emotions and inspire us to look at the world with fresh eyes.

When we encounter something beautiful, whether it’s a work of art, a breathtaking landscape, or even a well-designed product, it has the power to captivate our senses and uplift our spirits. Beauty stimulates our imagination and creativity, encouraging us to think beyond the ordinary and explore new possibilities.

Moreover, beauty has the ability to bring us joy and create a harmonious environment. When we surround ourselves with aesthetically pleasing elements, such as a well-decorated space or a beautifully arranged garden, it can enhance our mood and overall sense of well-being.

It’s also worth noting that beauty can be found in the simplest of things in our everyday lives. From the delicate petals of a flower to the symmetrical patterns on a butterfly’s wings, beauty surrounds us in countless forms. Taking the time to appreciate these small moments of beauty can bring us a deeper sense of connection to the world around us and foster a greater appreciation for life itself.

The Impact of Beauty on our Well-being

Research has shown that exposure to beauty can have various positive effects on our well-being. This includes reducing stress levels, improving cognitive function, and enhancing our overall quality of life. When we engage with beauty, whether by visiting an art museum, spending time in nature, or enjoying a well-curated space, it can provide a sense of tranquility and inner calm.

Beauty has also been found to promote social connections, bringing people together through shared aesthetic experiences. It serves as a common ground for individuals to connect, appreciate, and discuss the beauty they see, fostering a sense of community and human connection.

The Importance of Beauty in Everyday Life

By recognizing and embracing the importance of beauty in our everyday lives, we can cultivate a greater appreciation for the world around us and seek out opportunities to engage with beauty in various forms.

Beauty and Subjectivity

Beauty is a concept that can be both objective and subjective, but ultimately, it is the subjective experience that holds the most significance. Each individual has their unique perception and interpretation of beauty, making it a deeply personal and subjective matter. What one person finds beautiful may not necessarily be the same for another, and that’s the beauty of it. It allows for diverse expressions and interpretations, encouraging individuality and personal preferences.

Subjectivity in beauty means that there are no fixed or universal standards that determine what is beautiful. It is a fluid and ever-evolving concept that varies from person to person. Beauty is not confined to physical appearances or societal norms; rather, it encompasses a vast array of elements, including emotions, experiences, and aesthetics.

This subjectivity opens the door to a world of individual choice and interpretation. It allows individuals to appreciate and find beauty in things that resonate with their own personal experiences and values. Whether it’s a visually captivating artwork, a melodious piece of music, or the serene beauty of nature, beauty perception is a deeply personal experience.

Furthermore, beauty subjectivity encourages the celebration of diversity and uniqueness. It emphasizes the importance of appreciating and respecting different perspectives and aesthetics. The subjective nature of beauty fosters an inclusive environment where everyone’s unique perception and interpretation can coexist harmoniously.

The Diversity of Beauty Perception

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

This popular phrase captures the essence of beauty subjectivity . Beauty perception is not limited to one standard or definition; it encompasses a multitude of viewpoints. Different people find beauty in different places, objects, or experiences. What one person considers beautiful may not resonate with another.

In essence, beauty is a reflection of personal taste and experiences. It is influenced by cultural backgrounds, upbringing, education, and individual preferences. Beauty perception is deeply rooted in our unique perspectives, and it embraces the richness of diverse interpretations.

Here is an example to illustrate the diversity of beauty perception:

As shown in the table above, different individuals have distinct perceptions of beauty. Sarah finds beauty in the majestic mountains, while Michael appreciates the bustling cityscape. Lisa is captivated by the delicate beauty of flowers, and David is drawn to the abstract forms and colors of art. Each person’s perception is equally valid and unique, showcasing the subjective nature of beauty.

Ultimately, beauty subjectivity gives us the freedom to explore and appreciate the multitude of aesthetic experiences that the world has to offer. It invites us to embrace our own personal preferences and celebrate the diversity of beauty perception.

Embracing Beauty Subjectivity

In a world where beauty standards often dominate media and societal norms, it is essential to remember that beauty is subjective. Recognizing the subjectivity of beauty allows us to break free from rigid expectations and embrace our own unique perspectives.

By embracing beauty subjectivity, we empower ourselves to define and appreciate beauty on our terms. We can find beauty in the small moments of everyday life, in the simple joys that bring us happiness. From a breathtaking sunset to a heartfelt smile, beauty is all around us, waiting to be acknowledged and cherished.

While objective aspects of beauty may exist, such as symmetry or harmony, it is the subjective experience that truly matters. It is the personal connection and emotional response that beauty elicits within us. By embracing beauty subjectivity, we open ourselves up to a world of discovery and appreciation.

By celebrating the diversity of beauty perception, we foster inclusivity and respect for different viewpoints. We can learn from one another and gain new insights into what is beautiful. This understanding cultivates a greater appreciation for the multiplicity of aesthetics and encourages us to challenge traditional beauty norms.

Beauty subjectivity invites us to question societal standards and redefine beauty in our own terms. It encourages us to celebrate individuality and embrace diverse forms of aesthetic expression. In doing so, we create a more inclusive, accepting, and beautiful world.

The concept of beauty is a fascinating and complex subject that has intrigued philosophers and society alike for centuries. From ancient Greece to modern times, beauty has been the focus of philosophical debates, with varying perspectives on its nature and significance.

Beauty encompasses both subjective and objective aspects, with different conceptions and interpretations. While there are cultural norms and societal values that influence our understanding of beauty, personal preferences and individual perception also play a crucial role. It is this blend of subjectivity and objectivity that makes beauty such a captivating and enigmatic concept.

Beauty holds great importance in our lives, as it shapes our perception of the world and has a profound impact on our well-being. It is through beauty that we find inspiration, evoke emotions, and experience aesthetic pleasure. Whether it is found in art, nature, or everyday experiences, beauty has the power to uplift our spirits and create a more harmonious environment.

Understanding beauty requires a nuanced understanding of its philosophical underpinnings and its diverse manifestations in society. By exploring the rich history and different perspectives on beauty, we can gain a deeper appreciation for its significance in our lives and broaden our horizons. In the realm of beauty, there is always room for exploration and contemplation, as it continues to inspire us and enrich our understanding of the world around us.

What is the definition of beauty?

Is beauty subjective or objective, what are the different philosophical conceptions of beauty, how is beauty tied to society and politics, are beauty standards the same across different cultures, what is the importance of beauty in our lives, is beauty a subjective experience, related posts.

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Beauty definition essay

Beauty is based on what the viewer feels on a conscious and base-instinct level. Most of what we consider to be beautiful is based on our genetics and our environment. This essay defines beauty and its influences when it comes to sexual attraction between humans. This essay focuses on beauty in human terms and takes no account of how this may work in the rest of the animal kingdom.

Beauty is genetic

A person becomes beautiful if they win the genetic lottery and grow to be viewed as sexually attractive to other humans. How you grow and develop does depend on your genetics, otherwise identical twins would not grow to look the same.

How we view beauty is also based in genetics. Humans are given instincts in order to further their race, and one of those instincts is a lust for sex. This is driven by sexual attraction. How attractive a person is will be (on some level) based on your sexual drive and base instincts.

Base instincts and survival

Beauty is often determined by your own base instincts and the survival of your offspring. A person that is sickly is not attractive because your base instincts tell you to avoid sick partners because they make for less productive parents. Pink and red lips in men and women suggests good health, as do red cheeks, white eyes and good hair–all of which are therefore attractive qualities in a potential sexual partner.

A strong and large body on a man is sexually attractive because those are traits that parents want in their kids (on a base instinct/biological level anyway), in the same way that large breasts and wide hips are a sign of good health and a potentially better parent; i.e. a parent that is the most likely to have a child survive to adulthood.

Even is better

How even and balanced a face is, is also a sign of good health and is therefore more attractive. If a face is the same on one side as it is the other, then people tend to be viewed as more attractive. Tests were done showing two pictures, one with a person with an unaltered face, and one that was made from a face with one half mirrored on the other side (competently done so that people couldn’t tell). Most found the mirrored version to be the most attractive because both sides of the face were more even.

What is available?

Due to our base instincts, it is again possible to find beauty in what is there. The Eskimo people at the North Pole are possibly the most unattractive race on the planet, but because they all grow up around each other with few outside influences, they find some members of their race to be incredibly attractive and some to be less attractive.

Beauty is a matter of opinion, and does not take attractiveness into account because people are often attracted to personality too. A lot of what we consider to be beautiful is based in genetics and in our base instincts. It also has a lot to do with how well each person may raise a child to survive to adulthood, and how even a face is. There is also an element of finding what is available to be beautiful.

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André Aciman: Why Beauty Is So Important to Us

By André Aciman Dec. 7, 2019

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A quest for our better selves

definition essay of beauty

Humans have engaged with the concept of beauty for millennia, trying to define it while being defined by it.

Plato thought that merely contemplating beauty caused “the soul to grow wings.” Ralph Waldo Emerson found beauty in Raphael’s “The Transfiguration,” writing that “a calm benignant beauty shines over all this picture, and goes directly to the heart.” In “My Skin,” Lizzo sings: “The most beautiful thing that you ever seen is even bigger than what we think it means.”

We asked a group of artists, scientists, writers and thinkers to answer this simple question: Why is beauty, however defined, so important in our lives? Here are their responses.

definition essay of beauty

We’ll do anything to watch a sunset on a clear summer day at the beach. We’ll stand and stare and remain silent, as suffused shades of orange stretch over the horizon. Meanwhile, the sun, like a painter who keeps changing his mind about which colors to use, finally resolves everything with shades of pink and light yellow, before sinking, finally, into stunning whiteness.

Suddenly, we are marveled and uplifted, pulled out of our small, ordinary lives and taken to a realm far richer and more eloquent than anything we know.

Call it enchantment, the difference between the time-bound and the timeless, between us and the otherworldly. All beauty and art evoke harmonies that transport us to a place where, for only seconds, time stops and we are one with the world. It is the best life has to offer.

Under the spell of beauty, we experience a rare condition called plenitude, where we want for nothing. It isn’t just a feeling. Or if it is, then it’s a feeling like love — yes, exactly like love. Love, after all, is the most intimate thing we know. And feeling one with someone or something isn’t just an unrivaled condition, but one we do not want to live without.

We fall in love with sunsets and beaches, with tennis, with works of art, with places like Tuscany and the Rockies and the south of France, and, of course, with other people — not just because of who or what they are, but because they promise to realign us with our better selves, with the people we’ve always known we were but neglected to become, the people we crave to be before our time runs out.

André Aciman is the author of “Call Me by Your Name” and “Find Me.”

The marketing machines of modern life would have us believe that beauty is about physical attributes. With the benefit of the wisdom we have attained after many years spent traversing the planet as conservation photographers, we know otherwise.

Beauty has less to do with the material things around us, and more to do with how we spend our time on earth. We create true beauty only when we channel our energy to achieve a higher purpose, build strong communities and model our behavior so that others can find inspiration to do better by each other and our planet. Beauty has nothing to do with the latest makeup or fashion trends, and everything to do with how we live on this planet and act to protect it.

Every day we learn that species, landscapes and indigenous knowledge are vanishing before our eyes. That’s why we’ve dedicated our lives to reminding the world of the fragile beauty of our only home, and to protecting nature, not just for humanity’s sake, but for the benefit of all life on earth.

Committing our time, energy and resources to achieve these goals fills our lives with beauty.

Cristina Mittermeier and Paul Nicklen are conservation photographers and the founders of SeaLegacy .

Science enriches us by bringing us beauty in multiple forms.

Sometimes it can be found in the simplest manifestations of nature: the pattern of a nautilus shell; the colors and delicate shapes of a eucalyptus tree in full flower; the telescopic images of swirling galaxies, with their visual message of great mystery and vastness.

Sometimes it is the intricacy of the barely understood dynamics of the world’s molecules, cells, organisms and ecosystems that speaks to our imagination and wonder.

Sometimes there is beauty in the simple idea of science pursuing truth, or in the very process of scientific inquiry by which human creativity and ingenuity unveil a pattern within what had looked like chaos and incomprehensibility.

And isn’t there beauty and elegance in the fact that just four DNA nucleotides are patterned to produce the shared genetic information that underlies myriad seemingly unrelated forms of life?

Elizabeth Blackburn is a co-recipient of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

A person’s definition of beauty is an abstract, complicated and highly personal ideal that becomes a guiding light throughout life. We crave what we consider beautiful, and that craving can easily develop into desire, which in turn becomes the fuel that propels us into action. Beauty has the power to spawn aspiration and passion, thus becoming the impetus to achieve our dreams.

In our professional lives as fashion designers, we often deal with beauty as a physical manifestation. But beauty can also be an emotional, creative and deeply spiritual force. Its very essence is polymorphic. It can take on limitless shapes, allowing us to define it by what makes the most sense to us.

We are extremely fortunate to be living at a time when so many examples of beauty are being celebrated and honored, and more inclusive and diverse standards are being set, regardless of race, gender, sexuality or creed. Individuality is beautiful. Choice is beautiful. Freedom is beautiful.

Beauty will always have the power to inspire us. It is that enigmatic, unknowable muse that keeps you striving to be better, to do better, to push harder. And by that definition, what we all need most in today’s world is perhaps simply more beauty.

Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCollough are the co-founders and designers of Proenza Schouler.

Beauty is just another way the tendency of our society to create hierarchies and segregate people expresses itself. The fact that over the past century certain individuals and businesses realized that it is incredibly lucrative to push upon us ever-changing beauty standards has only made things worse.

The glorification of impossible ideals is the foundation of the diet and beauty industries. And because of it, we find ourselves constantly in flux, spending however much money and time it takes to meet society’s standards. First, we didn’t want ethnic features. Now, we are all about plumping our lips and getting eye lifts in pursuit of a slanted eye. Skin-bleaching treatments and tanning creams. The ideal is constantly moving, and constantly out of reach.

The concept of beauty is a permanent obsession that permeates cultures around the world.

Jameela Jamil is an actress and the founder of the “I Weigh” movement .

The Life of Beauty

The sung blessing of creation

Led her into the human story.

That was the first beauty.

Next beauty was the sound of her mother’s voice

Rippling the waters beneath the drumming skin

Of her birthing cocoon.

Next beauty the father with kindness in his hands

As he held the newborn against his breathing.

Next beauty the moon through the dark window

It was a rocking horse, a wish.

There were many beauties in this age

For everything was immensely itself:

Green greener than the impossibility of green,

the taste of wind after its slide through dew grass at dawn,

Or language running through a tangle of wordlessness in her mouth.

She ate well of the next beauty.

Next beauty planted itself urgently beneath the warrior shrines.

Next was beauty beaded by her mother and pinned neatly

To hold back her hair.

Then how tendrils of fire longing grew into her, beautiful the flower

Between her legs as she became herself.

Do not forget this beauty she was told.

The story took her far away from beauty. In the tests of her living,

Beauty was often long from the reach of her mind and spirit.

When she forgot beauty, all was brutal.

But beauty always came to lift her up to stand again.

When it was beautiful all around and within,

She knew herself to be corn plant, moon, and sunrise.

Death is beautiful, she sang, as she left this story behind her.

Even her bones, said time.

Were tuned to beauty.

Joy Harjo is the United States poet laureate. She is the first Native American to hold the position.

Beauty is a positive and dynamic energy that has the power to convey emotion and express individuality as well as collectiveness. It can be felt through each of our senses, yet it is more magnificent when it transcends all five.

Over more than 30 years as a chef, I have experienced beauty unfolding through my cooking and in the creation of new dishes. Recipes have shown me that beauty is not a singular ingredient, object or idea, but the sum of the parts. Each dish has an appearance, a flavor, a temperature, a smell, a consistency and a nutritional value, but its triumph is the story all those parts tell together.

When my team and I launched Milan’s Refettorio Ambrosiano, our first community kitchen, in 2015, beauty was the guiding principle in our mission to nourish the homeless. We collaborated with artists, architects, designers and chefs to build a place of warmth, where gestures of hospitality and dignity would be offered to all. What I witnessed by bringing different people and perspectives around the table was the profound ability of beauty to build community. In a welcoming space, our guests had the freedom to imagine who they would like to be and begin to change their lives. In that space, beauty wielded the power of transformation.

When I visit the Refettorios that Food for Soul, the nonprofit I founded, has built around the world over the years, what strikes me as most beautiful is neither a table nor a chair nor a painting on the wall. Beauty is the spontaneity of two strangers breaking bread. It is the proud smile of a man who feels he has a place in the world. It is the emotion of that moment, and its power to fill a room with the celebration of life.

Massimo Bottura is a chef and the founder of Food for Soul .

Who wouldn’t argue that some things are objectively beautiful? Much of what we can see in the natural world would surely qualify: sunsets, snow-capped mountains, waterfalls, wildflowers. Images of these scenes, which please and soothe our senses, are among the most reproduced in all of civilization.

It’s true, of course, that we’re not the only creatures attracted to flowers. Bees and butterflies can’t resist them either — but that’s because they need flowers to survive.

Lying at the opposite end of the beauty spectrum are reptiles. They’ve had it pretty bad. Across decades of science fiction, their countenance has served as the model for a long line of ugly monsters, from Godzilla to the Creature in the “Creature From the Black Lagoon” to the Gorn in “Star Trek.”

There may be a good reason for our instinctive attraction to some things and distaste for others. If our mammalian ancestors, running underfoot, hadn’t feared reptilian dinosaurs they would have been swiftly eaten. Similarly, nearly everyone would agree that the harmless butterfly is more beautiful than the stinger-equipped bee — with the possible exception of beekeepers.

Risk of bodily harm appears to matter greatly in our collective assessment of what is or is not beautiful. Beauty could very well be a way for our senses to reassure us when we feel safe in a dangerous universe.

If so, I can’t help but wonder how much beauty lies just out of reach, hidden in plain sight, simply because we have no more than five senses with which to experience the world.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist with the American Museum of Natural History, where he also serves as the Frederick P. Rose director of the Hayden Planetarium. He is the author of “Letters From an Astrophysicist.”

Beauty can stop us in our tracks. It can inspire us, move us, bring us to tears. Beauty can create total chaos, and then total clarity. The best kind of beauty changes hearts and minds.

That’s why the bravery of our girls is so beautiful — it can do all these things.

Over the past year, girls have moved us to tears with impassioned speeches about gun control, sexual assault and climate change. They have challenged the status quo and brought us clarity with their vision of the future. They have changed the hearts and minds of generations that are older, but not necessarily wiser.

Girls like Greta Thunberg and Isra Hirsi are fighting for the environment. Young women like Diana Kris Navarro, a Girls Who Code alumna, are leading efforts against harassment in tech. Girls like Lauren Hogg, a Parkland shooting survivor, and Thandiwe Abdullah, a Black Lives Matter activist, are speaking out against gun violence. The list goes on and on and on.

These girls are wise and brave beyond their years. They speak up because they care, not because they have the attention of a crowd or a camera. And they persist even when they’re told they’re too young, too small, too powerless — because they know they’re not.

Their bravery is beauty, redefined. And it’s what we need now, more than ever.

Reshma Saujani is the founder and chief executive of Girls Who Code and the author of “Brave, Not Perfect.”

I spend most of my waking hours (and many of my nightly dreams) thinking about beauty and its meaning. My whole life’s work has been an attempt to express beauty through design.

I see beauty as something ineffable, and I experience it in many ways. For example, I love gardening. The form and color of the flowers I tend to fill me with awe and joy. The time I spend in my garden frequently influences the shape of my gowns, as well as the objects that I choose to surround myself with. It even brings me closer to the people who have the same passion for it.

As humans, we all are more or less attuned to beauty. And because of this, we all try to engage with it one way or another — be it by being in nature, through poetry or by falling in love. And though our interaction with it can be a solitary affair, in the best cases, it connects people who share the same appreciation for it.

Beauty is what allows us to experience the extraordinary richness of our surroundings. Sensing it is like having a visa to our inner selves and the rest of the world, all at once. The interesting thing about beauty is that there is simply no downside to it: It can only enhance our lives.

Zac Posen is a fashion designer.

“The purpose of sex is procreation,” a straight cisgender man once told me, trying to defend his homophobia. “So that proves that homosexuality is scientifically and biologically wrong. It serves no purpose.”

I was quiet for a moment. “Huh,” I then said, “so … what’s the science behind blow jobs?” That shut him up real quick.

I often hear arguments that reduce human existence to a biological function, as if survival or productivity were our sole purpose, and the “bottom line” our final word. That is an attractive stance to take because it requires the least amount of energy or imagination. And for most animals, it’s the only option — the hummingbird sipping nectar is merely satisfying her hunger. She does not know her own beauty; she doesn’t have the capacity to perceive it. But we do. We enjoy art, music, poetry. We build birdfeeders. We plant flowers.

Only humans can seek out and express beauty. Why would we have this unique ability if we weren’t meant to use it? Even quarks, those fundamental parts at the core of life, were originally named after “beauty” and “truth.”

That’s why beauty matters to me. When we find beauty in something, we are making the fullest use of our biological capacities. Another way of putting it: When we become aware of life’s beauty, that’s when we are most alive.

Constance Wu is a television and film actress.

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1.1: What is beauty?

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“ What is Beauty? ” YouTube, uploaded by CNN, 16 Mar. 2018.

What is beauty?

In 2018 CNN made a brief video tracing how women’s beauty has been defined over time and how those perceptions of beauty “leave women in constant pursuit of the ideal.” How have perceptions of beauty changed over time? How do those definitions apply to things beyond women’s beauty? Rory Corbett addresses beauty from an interesting perspective in his essay, “What is Beauty?” in which he notes that, “beauty is not just a visual experience; it is a characteristic that provides a perceptual experience to the eye, the ear, the intellect, the aesthetic faculty, or the moral sense. It is the qualities that give pleasure, meaning or satisfaction to the senses, but in this talk I wish to concentrate on the eye, the intellect and the moral sense.” What does the author mean by “the moral sense”? How does Corbett’s essay expand your thinking of what beauty is?

Art and the Aesthetic Experience

Beauty is something we perceive and respond to. It may be a response of awe and amazement, wonder and joy, or something else. It might resemble a “peak experience” or an epiphany. It might happen while watching a sunset or taking in the view from a mountaintop, for example. This is a kind of experience, an aesthetic response that is a response to the thing’s representational qualities , whether it is man-made or natural (Silverman). The subfield of philosophy called aesthetics is devoted to the study and theory of this experience of the beautiful; in the field of psychology, aesthetics is studied in relation to the physiology and psychology of perception.

London - Tate Modern - beautiful woman painting

Aesthetic analysis is a careful investigation of the qualities which belong to objects and events that evoke an aesthetic response. The aesthetic response is the thoughts and feelings initiated because of the character of these qualities and the particular ways they are organized and experienced perceptually (Silverman).

The aesthetic experience that we get from the world at large is different than the art-based aesthetic experience. It is important to recognize that we are not saying that the natural wonder experience is bad or lesser than the art world experience; we are saying it is different. What is different is the constructed nature of the art experience. The art experience is a type of aesthetic experience that also includes aspects, content, and context of humanness. When something is made by a human, people know that there is some level of commonality and/or communal experience.

Why aesthetics is only the beginning in analyzing an artwork

We are also aware that beyond sensory and formal properties, all artwork is informed by its specific time and place or the specific historical and cultural milieu it was created in (Silverman). For this reason people analyze artwork through not only aesthetics, but also, historical and cultural contexts. Think about what you bring to the viewing of a work of art. What has influenced the lens through which you analyze beauty?

How we engage in aesthetic analysis

Often the feelings or thoughts evoked as a result of contemplating an artwork are initially based primarily upon what is actually seen in the work. The first aspects of the artwork we respond to are its sensory properties, its formal properties, and its technical properties (Silverman). Color is an example of a sensory property. Color is considered a kind of form and how form is arranged is a formal property. What medium (e.g., painting, animation, etc.) the artwork is made of is an example of a technical property. These will be discussed further in the next module. As Dr. Silverman, of California State University explains, the sequence of questions in an aesthetic analysis could be: what do we actually see? How is what is seen organized? And, what emotions and ideas are evoked as a result of what has been observed?

Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

What has influenced the lens through which you analyze beauty?

Works Cited

Corbett, J Rory. “What Is Beauty?: Royal Victoria Hospital, Wednesday 1st October 2008.” The Ulster Medical Journal , U.S. National Library of Medicine, May 2009, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2699193/ .

Ginsburg, Anna. “What Is Beauty? .” YouTube , CNN, 16 Mar. 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5utnc_yspSo .

Silverman, Ronald. Learning About Art: A Multicultural Approach. California State University, 2001. Web. 24, June 2008.

“What is Beauty?” YouTube , uploaded by Merav Richter, 16 Mar. 2.

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What Is Beauty?

Jason Burrey

Table of Contents

definition essay of beauty

The concept of beauty is studied in sociology, philosophy, psychology, culture, and aesthetics.

It is regarded as a property of an object, idea, animal, place, or a person, and it often interpreted as balance and harmony with nature.

Beauty as a concept has been argued throughout the entire history of civilization, but even today, there is neither single definition accepted by many people nor shared vision.

People think that something or someone is beautiful when it gives them feelings of attraction, placidity, pleasure, and satisfaction, which may lead to emotional well-being.

If speaking about a beautiful person, he or she can be characterized by the combination of inner beauty (personality, elegance, integrity, grace, intelligence, etc.) and outer beauty or physical attractiveness.

The interpretation of beauty and its standards are highly subjective. They are based on changing cultural values.

Besides, people have unique personalities with different tastes and standards, so everyone has a different vision of what is beautiful and what is ugly.

We all know the saying that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.

That’s why writing a beauty definition essay is not easy. In this article, we will explore this type of essay from different angles and provide you with an easy how-to writing guide.

Besides, you will find 20 interesting beauty essay topics and a short essay sample which tells about the beauty of nature.

What is beauty essay?

Let’s talk about the specifics of what is beauty philosophy essay.

As we have already mentioned, there is no single definition of this concept because its interpretation is based on constantly changing cultural values as well as the unique vision of every person.

…So if you have not been assigned a highly specific topic, you can talk about the subjective nature of this concept in the “beauty is in the eye of the beholder essay.”

Communicate your own ideas in “what does beauty mean to you essay,” tell about psychological aspects in the “inner beauty essay” or speak about aesthetic criteria of physical attractiveness in the “beauty is only skin deep essay.”

You can choose any approach you like because there are no incorrect ways to speak about this complex subjective concept.

How to write a beauty definition essay?

When you are writing at a college level, it’s crucial to approach your paper in the right way.

Keep reading to learn how to plan, structure, and write a perfect essay on this challenging topic.

You should start with a planning stage which will make the entire writing process faster and easier. There are different planning strategies, but it’s very important not to skip the essential stages.

  • Analyzing the topic – break up the title to understand what is exactly required and how complex your response should be. Create a mind map, a diagram, or a list of ideas on the paper topic.
  • Gathering resources – do research to find relevant material (journal and newspaper articles, books, websites). Create a list of specific keywords and use them for the online search. After completing the research stage, create another mind map and carefully write down quotes and other information which can help you answer the essay question.
  • Outlining the argument – group the most significant points into 3 themes and formulate a strong specific thesis statement for your essay. Make a detailed paper plan, placing your ideas in a clear, logical order. Develop a structure, forming clear sections in the main body of your paper.

definition essay of beauty

If you know exactly what points you are going to argue, you can write your introduction and conclusion first. But if you are unsure about the logical flow of the argument, it would be better to build an argument first and leave the introductory and concluding sections until last.

Stick to your plan but be ready to deviate from it as your work develops. Make sure that all adjustments are relevant before including them in the paper.

Keep in mind that the essay structure should be coherent.

In the introduction, you should move from general to specific.

  • Start your essay with an attention grabber : a provocative question, a relevant quote, a story.
  • Then introduce the topic and give some background information to provide a context for your subject.
  • State the thesis statement and briefly outline all the main ideas of the paper.
  • Your thesis should consist of the 2 parts which introduce the topic and state the point of your paper .

Body paragraphs act like constructing a block of your argument where your task is to persuade your readers to accept your point of view.

  • You should stick to the points and provide your own opinion on the topic .
  • The number of paragraphs depends on the number of key ideas.
  • You need to develop a discussion to answer the research question and support the thesis .
  • Begin each body paragraph with a topic sentence that communicates the main idea of the paragraph.
  • Add supporting sentences to develop the main idea and provide appropriate examples to support and illustrate the point .
  • Comment on the examples and analyze their significance .
  • Use paraphrases and quotes with introductory phrases. They should be relevant to the point you are making.
  • Finish every body paragraph with a concluding sentence that provides a transition to the next paragraph .
  • Use transition words and phrases to help your audience follow your ideas .

In conclusion, which is the final part of your essay, you need to move from the specific to general.

  • You may restate your thesis , give a brief summary of the key points, and finish with a broad statement about the future direction for research and possible implications.
  • Don’t include any new information here.

When you have written the first draft, put it aside for a couple of days. Reread the draft and edit it by improving the content and logical flow, eliminating wordiness, and adding new examples if necessary to support your main points. Edit the draft several times until you are completely satisfied with it.

Finally, proofread the draft, fix spelling and grammar mistakes, and check all references and citations to avoid plagiarism. Review your instructions and make sure that your essay is formatted correctly.

Winning beauty essay topics

  • Are beauty contests beneficial for young girls?
  • Is it true that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder?
  • Inner beauty vs physical beauty.
  • History of beauty pageants.
  • How can you explain the beauty of nature?
  • The beauty of nature as a theme of art.
  • The beauty of nature and romanticism.
  • Concept of beauty in philosophy.
  • Compare concepts of beauty in different cultures.
  • Concept of beauty and fashion history.
  • What is the aesthetic value of an object?
  • How can beauty change and save the world?
  • What is the ideal beauty?
  • Explain the relationship between art and beauty.
  • Can science be beautiful?
  • What makes a person beautiful?
  • The cult of beauty in ancient Greece.
  • Rejection of beauty in postmodernism.
  • Is beauty a good gift of God?
  • Umberto Eco on the western idea of beauty.

The beauty of nature essay sample

The world around us is so beautiful that sometimes we can hardly believe it exists. The beauty of nature has always attracted people and inspired them to create amazing works of art and literature. It has a great impact on our senses, and we start feeling awe, wonder or amazement. The sight of flowers, rainbows, and butterflies fills human hearts with joy and a short walk amidst nature calms their minds. …Why is nature so beautiful? Speaking about people, we can classify them between beautiful and ugly. But we can’t say this about nature. You are unlikely to find an example in the natural world which we could call ugly. Everything is perfect – the shapes, the colors, the composition. It’s just a magic that nature never makes aesthetic mistakes and reveals its beauty in all places and at all times. Maybe we are psychologically programmed to consider natural things to be beautiful. We think that all aspects of nature are beautiful because they are alive. We see development and growth in all living things, and we consider them beautiful, comparing that movement with the static state of man-made things. Besides, maybe we experience the world around us as beautiful because we view it as an object of intellect and admire its rational structure. Nature has intrinsic value based on its intelligible structure. It’s an integral part of our lives, and it needs to be appreciated.

On balance…

We have discussed specifics of the “what is true beauty essay” and the effective writing strategies you should use to approach this type of academic paper. Now it’s time to practice writing.

You should write whenever you have a chance because practice makes perfect. If you feel you need more information about writing essays, check other articles on our website with useful tips and tricks.

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a woman closing her eyes as someone applies her makeup

  • WOMEN OF IMPACT

The idea of beauty is always shifting. Today, it’s more inclusive than ever.

Whom we deem ‘beautiful’ is a reflection of our values. Now, a more expansive world has arrived where ‘we are all beautiful.’

The Sudanese model Alek Wek appeared on the November 1997 cover of the U.S. edition of Elle magazine, in a photograph by French creative director Gilles Bensimon . It was, as is so often the case in the beauty business, a global production.

Wek, with her velvety ebony skin and mere whisper of an Afro, was posed in front of a stark, white screen. Her simple, white Giorgio Armani blazer almost disappeared into the background. Wek, however, was intensely present.

She was standing at an angle but looking directly into the camera with a pleasant smile spread across her face, which wasn’t so much defined by planes and angles as by sweet, broad, distinctly African curves. Wek represented everything that a traditional cover girl was not.

four women preparing for a pageant, walking toward a mirror

More than 20 years after she was featured on that Elle cover, the definition of beauty has continued to expand, making room for women of color, obese women, women with vitiligo , bald women, women with gray hair and wrinkles. We are moving toward a culture of big-tent beauty. One in which everyone is welcome. Everyone is beautiful. Everyone’s idealized version can be seen in the pages of magazines or on the runways of Paris.

We have become more accepting because people have demanded it, protested for it, and used the bully pulpit of social media to shame beauty’s gatekeepers into opening the doors wider.

Eye of the beholder

Technology has put the power to define beauty in the hands of the people. Mobile phones allow people greater control of their image, and include apps that come with filters used for fun, appearance, and entertainment.

two people lying in a yellow ball pit of emojis, taking a selfie

Wek was a new vision of beauty—that virtue forever attached to women . It has long been a measure of their social value; it is also a tool to be used and manipulated. A woman should not let her beauty go to waste; that was something people would say back when a woman’s future depended on her marrying well. Her husband’s ambition and potential should be as dazzling as her fine features.

For Hungry Minds

Beauty is, of course, cultural. What one community admires may leave another group of people cold or even repulsed. What one individual finds irresistible elicits a shrug from another. Beauty is personal. But it’s also universal. There are international beauties—those people who have come to represent the standard.

For generations, beauty required a slender build but with a generous bosom and a narrow waist. The jawline was to be defined, the cheekbones high and sharp. The nose angular. The lips full but not distractingly so. The eyes, ideally blue or green, large and bright. Hair was to be long, thick, and flowing—and preferably golden. Symmetry was desired. Youthfulness, that went without saying.

This was the standard from the earliest days of women’s magazines, when beauty was codified and commercialized. The so-called great beauties and swans—women such as actress Catherine Deneuve , socialite C.Z. Guest , or Princess Grace —came closest to this ideal. The further one diverged from this version of perfection, the more exotic a woman became. Diverge too much and a woman was simply considered less attractive—or desirable or valuable. And for some women—black and brown or fat or old ones—beauty seemed impossible in the broader culture.

many barbie heads of all different skin tones and hair types

In the early part of the 1990s, the definition of beauty as it applied to women began to loosen thanks to the arrival of Kate Moss , with her slight figure and vaguely ragamuffin aesthetic. Standing five feet seven inches, she was short for a runway walker. The British teenager was not particularly graceful, and she lacked the noble bearing that gave many other models their regal air. Moss’s star turn in advertisements for Calvin Klein signified a major departure from the long-legged gazelles of years past.

Moss was disruptive to the beauty system, but she was still well within the industry’s comfort zone of defining beauty as a white, European conceit. So too were the youthquake models of the 1960s such as Twiggy , who had the gangly, curveless physique of a 12-year-old boy. The 1970s brought Lauren Hutton, who stirred scandal simply because she had a gap between her teeth.

Even the early black models who broke barriers were relatively safe: women such as Beverly Johnson, the first African-American model to appear on the cover of American Vogue , the Somali-born Iman, Naomi Campbell, and Tyra Banks. They had keen features and flowing hair—or wigs or weaves to give the illusion that they did. Iman had a luxuriously long neck that made legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland gasp. Campbell was—and is—all va-va-voom legs and hips, and Banks rose to fame as the girl next door in a polka dot bikini on the cover of Sports Illustrated .

beauty ads in along the buildings of Times Square, New York

Wek was a revelation. Her beauty was something entirely different.

Her tightly coiled hair was sheared close to her scalp. Her seemingly poreless skin was the color of dark chocolate. Her nose was broad; her lips were full. Her legs were impossibly long and incredibly thin. Indeed, her entire body had the stretched-out sinewiness of an African stick figure brought to life.

To eyes that had been trained to understand beauty through the lens of Western culture, Wek was jarring to everyone, and black folks were no exception. Many of them did not consider her beautiful. Even women who might have looked in the mirror and seen the same nearly coal black skin and tightly coiled hair reflected back had trouble reckoning with this Elle cover girl.

See and be seen

Fashion and beauty magazines present a paragon of aspiration, often setting beauty standards for women across cultures. The magazines also serve as giant advertisements for the industries dependent on selling these ideals to willing customers.

a woman on the cover of Elle magazine with dark skin on a white background

Wek was abruptly and urgently transformative. It was as though some great cultural mountain had been scaled by climbing straight up a steep slope, as if there were neither time nor patience for switchbacks. To see Wek celebrated was exhilarating and vertiginous. Everything about her was the opposite of what had come before.

We are in a better place than we were a generation ago, but we have not arrived at utopia. Many of the clubbiest realms of beauty still don’t include larger women, disabled ones, or senior citizens.

But to be honest, I’m not sure exactly what utopia would look like. Is it a world in which everyone gets a tiara and the sash of a beauty queen just for showing up? Or is it one in which the definition of beauty gets stretched so far that it becomes meaningless? Perhaps the way to utopia is by rewriting the definition of the word itself to better reflect how we’ve come to understand it—as something more than an aesthetic pleasure.

a woman putting on her makeup with a handheld mirror

We know that beauty has financial value. We want to be around beautiful people because they delight the eye but also because we think they are intrinsically better humans. We’ve been told that attractive people are paid higher salaries. In truth, it’s a bit more complicated than that. It’s really a combination of beauty, intelligence, charm, and collegiality that serves as a recipe for better pay. Still, beauty is an integral part of the equation.

But on a powerfully emotional level, being perceived as attractive means being welcomed into the cultural conversation. You are part of the audience for advertising and marketing. You are desired. You are seen and accepted. When questions arise about someone’s looks, that’s just another way of asking: How acceptable is she? How relevant is she? Does she matter?

Today suggesting that a person is not gorgeous is to risk social shunning or at least a social media lashing. What kind of monster declares another human being unattractive? To do so is to virtually dismiss that person as worthless. It’s better to lie. Of course you’re beautiful, sweetheart; of course you are.

We have come to equate beauty with humanity. If we don’t see the beauty in another person, we are blind to that person’s humanity. It’s scary how important beauty has become. It goes to the very soulfulness of a person.

Beauty has become so important today that denying that people possess it is akin to denying them oxygen.

a person walking in a fashion show

There used to be gradations when it came to describing the feminine ideal: homely, jolie laide, attractive, pretty, and ultimately, beautiful. The homely woman managed as best she could. She adjusted to the fact that her looks were not her most distinguishing feature. She was the woman with the terrific personality. Striking women had some characteristic that made them stand out: bountiful lips, an aristocratic nose, a glorious poitrine. A lot of women could be described as attractive. They were at the center of the bell curve. Pretty was another level. Hollywood is filled with pretty people.

Ah, but beautiful! Beautiful was a description that was reserved for special cases, for genetic lottery winners. Beauty could even be a burden because it startled people. It intimidated them. Beauty was exceptional.

But improved plastic surgery, more personalized and effective nutrition, the flowering of the fitness industry, and the rise of selfie filters on smartphones, along with Botox, fillers, and the invention of Spanx, have all combined to help us look better—and get a little bit closer to looking exceptional. Therapists, bloggers, influencers, stylists, and well-meaning friends have raised their voices in a chorus of body-positivity mantras: You go, girl! You slay! Yasss, queen! They are not charged with speaking harsh truths and helping us see ourselves vividly and become better versions of ourselves. Their role is constant uplift, to tell us that we are perfect just as we are.

And the globalization of, well, everything means that somewhere out there is an audience that will appreciate you in all your magnificent … whatever.

We are all beautiful.

a woman standing on a sidewalk with a "Miss Sao Paulo" sash on

In New York, London, Milan, and Paris—the traditional fashion capitals of the world—the beauty codes have changed more dramatically in the past 10 years than in the preceding hundred. Historically, shifts had been by degrees. Changes in aesthetics weren’t linear, and despite fashion’s reputation for rebelliousness, change was slow. Revolutions were measured in a few inches.

Through the years, an angular shape has been celebrated and then a more curvaceous one. The average clothing size of a runway model, representative of the designers’ ideal, shrank from a six to a zero; the pale blondes of Eastern Europe ruled the runway until the sun-kissed blondes from Brazil deposed them. The couture body—lean, hipless, and practically flat-chested—can be seen in the classic portraits by Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, and Gordon Parks, as well as on the runways of designers such as John Galliano and the late Alexander McQueen. But then Miuccia Prada, who had led the way in promoting a nearly homogeneous catwalk of pale, white, thin models, suddenly embraced an hourglass shape. And then plus-size model Ashley Graham appeared on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue in 2016 , and in 2019 Halima Aden became the first model to wear a hijab in that same magazine , and suddenly everyone is talking about modesty and beauty and fuller figures … and the progress is dizzying.

a woman facing a breeze as her hair flies behind her

In the past decade, beauty has moved resolutely forward into territory that was once deemed niche. Nonbinary and transgender are part of the mainstream beauty narrative. As the rights of LGBTQ individuals have been codified in the courts, so have the aesthetics particular to them been absorbed into the beauty dialogue. Transgender models walk the runways and appear in advertising campaigns. They are hailed on the red carpet for their glamour and good taste but also for their physical characteristics. Their bodies are celebrated as aspirational.

The catalyst for our changed understanding of beauty has been a perfect storm of technology, economics, and a generation of consumers with sharpened aesthetic literacy.

The technology is social media in general and Instagram specifically. The fundamental economic factor is the unrelenting competition for market share and the need for individual companies to grow their audience of potential customers for products ranging from designer dresses to lipstick. And the demographics lead, as they always do these days, to millennials, with an assist from baby boomers who plan to go into that good night with six-pack abs.

a woman receiving eyelid surgery

Hyejin Yun undergoes eyelid surgery in the Hyundai Aesthetics clinic in Seoul. The procedure makes eyes look bigger. South Korea has one of the highest rates of plastic surgery in the world; one in three women ages 19 to 29 has had cosmetic surgery.

Social media has changed the way younger consumers relate to fashion. It’s hard to believe, but back in the 1990s, the notion of photographers posting runway imagery online was scandalous. Designers lived in professional terror of having their entire collection posted online, fearing that it would lead to business-killing knockoffs. And while knockoffs and copies continue to frustrate designers, the real revolution brought on by the internet was that consumers were able to see, in nearly real time, the full breadth of the fashion industry’s aesthetic.

In the past, runway productions were insider affairs. They weren’t meant for public consumption, and the people sitting in the audience all spoke the same fashion patois. They understood that runway ideas weren’t meant to be taken literally; they were oblivious to issues of cultural appropriation, racial stereotypes, and all varieties of isms—or they were willing to overlook them. Fashion’s power brokers were carrying on the traditions of the power brokers who’d come before, happily using black and brown people as props in photo shoots that starred white models who had parachuted in for the job.

But an increasingly diverse class of moneyed consumers, a more expansive retail network, and a new media landscape have forced the fashion industry into greater accountability on how it depicts beauty. Clothing and cosmetic brands now take care to reflect the growing numbers of luxury consumers in countries such as India and China by using more Asian models.

Marked by beauty

We’ve been chasing beauty for millennia, primping and painting our way to a more desirable ideal. Cultures in every era have held different standards of feminine beauty and myriad means of achieving it, from the toxic lead cosmetics of the past to today’s Botox injections. But the standards often serve the same aims: to attract and retain a mate; to signal social status, wealth, health, or fertility; and of course, to simply feel beautiful.

a woman wearing heavy eye makeup

Social media has amplified the voices of minority communities—from Harlem to South Central Los Angeles—so that their calls for representation can’t be so easily ignored. And the growth of digital publications and blogs means that every market has become more fluent in the language of aesthetics. A whole new category of power brokers has emerged: influencers. They are young and independent and obsessed with the glamour of fashion. And fashion influencers don’t accept excuses, condescension, or patronizing pleas to be patient, because really, change is forthcoming.

The modern beauty standard in the West has always been rooted in thinness. And when the obesity rates were lower, thin models were only slight exaggerations in the eyes of the general population. But as obesity rates rose, the distance between the reality and the fantasy grew. People were impatient with a fantasy that no longer seemed even remotely accessible.

Fat bloggers warned critics to stop telling them to lose weight and stop suggesting ways for them to camouflage their body. They were perfectly content with their body, thank you very much. They just wanted better clothes. They wanted fashion that came in their size—not with the skirts made longer or the sheath dresses reworked with sleeves.

a woman getting her makeup done as another woman puts on lipgloss

They weren’t really demanding to be labeled beautiful. They were demanding access to style because they believed they deserved it. In this way, beauty and self-worth were inextricably bound.

Giving full-figured women greater access made economic sense. By adhering to traditional beauty standards, the fashion industry had been leaving money on the table. Designers such as Christian Siriano made a public point of catering to larger customers and, in doing so, were hailed as smart and as capitalist heroes. Now it’s fairly common for even the most rarefied fashion brands to include large models in their runway shows.

But this new way of thinking isn’t just about selling more dresses. If it were only about economics, designers would have long ago expanded their size offerings, because there have always been larger women able and willing to embrace fashion. Big simply wasn’t considered beautiful. Indeed, even Oprah Winfrey went on a diet before she posed for the cover of Vogue in 1998. As recently as 2012, the designer Karl Lagerfeld, who died last year and who himself was 92 pounds overweight at one point, was called to task for saying that pop star Adele was “a little too fat.”

Attitudes are shifting. But the fashion world remains uneasy with large women—no matter how famous or rich. No matter how pretty their face. Elevating them to iconic status is a complicated, psychological hurdle for the arbiters of beauty. They need sleek élan in their symbols of beauty. They need long lines and sharp edges. They need women who can fit into sample sizes.

many women tanning on a rooftop

But instead of operating in a vacuum, they now are operating in a new media environment. Average folks have taken note of whether designers have a diverse cast of models, and if they do not, critics can voice their ire on social media and an angry army of like-minded souls can rise up and demand change. Digital media has made it easier for stories about emaciated and anorexic models to reach the general public, and the public now has a way to shame and pressure the fashion industry to stop hiring these deathly thin women. The Fashion Spot website became a diversity watchdog, regularly issuing reports on the demographic breakdown on the runways. How many models of color? How many plus-size women? How many of them were transgender? How many older models?

One might think that as female designers themselves aged, they would begin to highlight older women in their work. But women in fashion are part of the same cult of youth that they created. They Botox and diet. They swear by raw food and SoulCycle. How often do you see a chubby designer? A gray-haired one? Designers still use the phrase “old lady” to describe clothes that are unattractive. A “matronly” dress is one that is unflattering or out-of-date. The language makes the bias plain. But today women don’t take it as a matter of course. They revolt. Making “old” synonymous with unattractive is simply not going to stand.

The spread of luxury brands into China, Latin America, and Africa has forced designers to consider how best to market to those consumers while avoiding cultural minefields. They have had to navigate skin lightening in parts of Africa, the Lolita-cute culture of Japan, the obsession with double-eyelid surgery in East Asian countries, and prejudices of colorism, well, virtually everywhere. Idealized beauty needs a new definition. Who will sort it out? And what will the definition be?

twins holding dolls as their mother braids one twin's hair

In the West, the legacy media are now sharing influence with digital media, social media, and a new generation of writers and editors who came of age in a far more multicultural world—a world that has a more fluid view of gender. The millennial generation, those born between 1981 and 1996, is not inclined to assimilate into the dominant culture but to stand proudly apart from it. The new definition of beauty is being written by a selfie generation: people who are the cover stars of their own narrative.

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The new beauty isn’t defined by hairstyles or body shape, by age or skin color. Beauty is becoming less a matter of aesthetics and more about self-awareness, personal swagger, and individuality. It’s about chiseled arms and false eyelashes and a lineless forehead. But it’s also defined by rounded bellies, shimmering silver hair, and mundane imperfections. Beauty is a millennial strutting around town in leggings, a crop top, and her belly protruding over her waistband. It is a young man swishing down a runway in over-the-knee boots and thigh-grazing shorts.

Beauty is political correctness, cultural enlightenment, and social justice.

many young girls standing in an outdoor ballet studio

In New York, there’s a fashion collective called Vaquera that mounts runway shows in dilapidated settings with harsh lighting and no glamour. The cast could have piled off the F train after a sleepless night. Their hair is mussed. Their skin looks like it has a thin sheen of overnight grime. They stomp down the runway. The walk could be interpreted as angry, bumbling, or just a little bit hungover.

Masculine-looking models wear princess dresses that hang from the shoulders with all the allure of a shower curtain. Feminine-looking models aggressively speed-walk with a hunched posture and a grim expression. Instead of elongating legs and creating an hourglass silhouette, the clothes make legs look stumpy and the torso thick. Vaquera is among the many companies that call on street casting, which is basically pulling oddball characters from the street and putting them on the runway—essentially declaring them beautiful.

In Paris, the designer John Galliano, like countless other designers, has been blurring gender. He has done so in a way that’s exaggerated and aggressive, which is to say that instead of aiming to craft a dress or a skirt that caters to the lines of a masculine physique, he has simply draped that physique with a dress. The result is not a garment that ostensibly aims to make individuals look their best. It’s a statement about our stubborn assumptions about gender, clothing, and physical beauty.

two people holding drinks and dancing

Not so long ago, the clothing line Universal Standard published an advertising campaign featuring a woman who wears a U.S. size 24. She posed in her skivvies and a pair of white socks. The lighting was flat, her hair slightly frizzed, and her thighs dimpled with cellulite. There was nothing magical or inaccessible about the image. It was exaggerated realism—the opposite of the Victoria’s Secret angel.

Every accepted idea about beauty is being subverted. This is the new normal, and it is shocking. Some might argue that it’s even rather ugly.

As much as people say that they want inclusiveness and regular-looking people—so-called real people—many consumers remain dismayed that this, this is what passes for beauty. They look at a 200-pound woman and, after giving a cursory nod to her confidence, fret about her health—even though they’ve never seen her medical records. That’s a more polite conversation than one that argues against declaring her beautiful. But the mere fact that this Universal Standard model is in the spotlight in her underwear—just as the Victoria’s Secret angels have been and the Maidenform woman was a generation before that—is an act of political protest. It’s not about wanting to be a pinup but about wanting the right for one’s body to exist without negative judgment. As a society, we haven’t acknowledged her right to simply be. But at least the beauty world is giving her a platform on which to make her case.

an older model looking up as sunlight hits her face

This isn’t just a demand being made by full-figured women. Older women are insisting on their place in the culture. Black women are demanding that they be allowed to stand in the spotlight with their natural hair.

There’s no neutral ground. The body, the face, the hair have all become political. Beauty is about respect and value and the right to exist without having to alter who you fundamentally are. For a black woman, having her natural hair perceived as beautiful means that her kinky curls are not an indication of her being unprofessional. For a plus-size woman, having her belly rolls included in the conversation about beauty means that she will not be castigated by strangers for consuming dessert in public; she will not have to prove to her employer that she isn’t lazy or without willpower or otherwise lacking in self-control.

When an older woman’s wrinkles are seen as beautiful, it means that she is actually being seen. She isn’t being overlooked as a full human being: sexual, funny, smart, and, more than likely, deeply engaged in the world around her.

To see the beauty in a woman’s rippling muscles is to embrace her strength but also to shun the notion that female beauty is equated with fragility and weakness. Pure physical power is stunning.

“Own who you are,” read a T-shirt on the spring 2020 runway of Balmain in Paris. The brand’s creative director, Olivier Rousteing, is known for his focus on inclusiveness in beauty. He, along with Kim Kardashian, has helped popularize the notion of “slim thick,” the 21st-century description of an hourglass figure with adjustments made for athleticism. “Slim thick” describes a woman with a prominent derriere, breasts, and thighs, but with a slim, toned midsection. It’s a body type that has sold countless waist trainers and has been applied to women such as singer and fashion entrepreneur Rihanna who do not have the lean physique of a marathoner.

Slim thick may be just another body type over which women obsess. But it also gives women license to coin a term to describe their own body, turn it into a hashtag, and start counting the likes. Own who you are.

When I look at photographs of groups of women on vacation, or a mother with her child, I see friendship and loyalty, joy and love. I see people who seem exuberant and confident. Perhaps if I had the opportunity to speak with them, I’d find them intelligent and witty or incredibly charismatic. If I got to know them and like them, I’m sure I’d also describe them as beautiful.

If I were to look at a portrait of my mother, I would see one of the most beautiful people in the world—not because of her cheekbones or her neat figure, but because I know her heart.

As a culture, we give lip service to the notion that what matters is inner beauty when in fact it’s the outer version that carries the real social currency. The new outlook on beauty dares us to declare someone we haven’t met beautiful. It forces us to presume the best about people. It asks us to connect with people in a way that is almost childlike in its openness and ease.

Modern beauty doesn’t ask us to come to the table without judgment. It simply asks us to come presuming that everyone in attendance has a right to be there.

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In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Beauty

Introduction, anthologies and reference works.

  • The Sensuous and Desire
  • Beauty and Art
  • Beauty and Disinterest
  • Beauty and Nature
  • Beauty Contested
  • Beauty Experienced
  • Beauty and Evaluation
  • Beauty and Aesthetic Form
  • Beauty and Autonomy
  • Beauty and the Form of Perfection
  • Aesthetic Judgement and Community
  • Beauty and Truth
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  • Aesthetic Hedonism
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Beauty by Jennifer A. McMahon LAST REVIEWED: 26 April 2021 LAST MODIFIED: 31 July 2019 DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0038

Philosophical interest in beauty began with the earliest recorded philosophers. Beauty was deemed to be an essential ingredient in a good life and so what it was, where it was to be found, and how it was to be included in a life were prime considerations. The way beauty has been conceived has been influenced by an author’s other philosophical commitments―metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical―and such commitments reflect the historical and cultural position of the author. For example, beauty is a manifestation of the divine on earth to which we respond with love and adoration; beauty is a harmony of the soul that we achieve through cultivating feeling in a rational and tempered way; beauty is an idea raised in us by certain objective features of the world; beauty is a sentiment that can nonetheless be cultivated to be appropriate to its object; beauty is the object of a judgement by which we exercise the social, comparative, and intersubjective elements of cognition, and so on. Such views on beauty not only reveal underlying philosophical commitments but also reflect positive contributions to understanding the nature of value and the relation between mind and world. One way to distinguish between beauty theories is according to the conception of the human being that they assume or imply, for example, where they fall on the continuum from determinism to free will, ungrounded notions of compatibilism notwithstanding. For example, theories at the latter end might carve out a sense of genuine innovation and creativity in human endeavors while at the other end of the spectrum authors may conceive of beauty as an environmental trigger for consumption, procreation, or preservation in the interests of the individual. Treating beauty experiences as in some respect intentional, characterizes beauty theory prior to the 20th century and since, mainly in historically inspired writing on beauty. However, treating beauty as affect or sensation has always had its representatives and is most visible today in evolutionary-inspired accounts of beauty (though not all evolutionary accounts fit this classification). Beauty theory falls under some combination of metaphysics, epistemology, meta-ethics, aesthetics, and psychology. Although during the 20th century beauty was more likely to be conceived as an evaluative concept for art, recent philosophical interest in beauty can again be seen to exercise arguments pertaining to metaphysics, epistemology, meta-ethics, philosophy of meaning, and language in addition to philosophy of art and environmental aesthetics. This work has been funded by an Australian Research Council Grant: DP150103143 (Taste and Community).

Anthologies on beauty that bring together writers who, while they may discuss art, do so in the main only to reveal our capacity for beauty, include the excellent selection of historical readings collected in the one-volume Hofstadter and Kuhns 1976 and the more culturally inclusive collection Cooper 1997 . Recent anthologies on beauty can take the form of a study of aesthetic value, such as in Schaper 1983 , or more specifically on the ethical dimension of aesthetic value, such as in Hagberg 2008 . Reference works in philosophical aesthetics today tend to focus on the philosophy of art and criticism. They typically include one chapter on beauty, and in this context Mothersill 2004 treats beauty as an evaluative category for art; and in keeping with this approach, Mothersill 2009 recommends a historically informed understanding of the concept beauty derived from Hegel. A recent trend toward environmental aesthetics brings us back to beauty as a property of the natural world, as in Zangwill 2003 , while McMahon 2005 responds to empirical trends by treating beauty as a value compatible with naturalization. The comprehensive entry “ Beauty ” in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Aesthetics is divided into four parts. It begins with Stephen David Ross’s brief but excellent summary of the history of concepts that underpin beauty theory and philosophical aesthetics more broadly. It is followed by Nickolas Pappas’s dedicated section on classical concepts of beauty, and then Jan A. Aertsen’s section on medieval concepts of beauty. The entry concludes with Nicholas Riggle’s discussion of beauty and love, which introduces contemporary themes to the topic. Guyer 2014 analyzes historical trends in approaches to beauty theory in a way that sets up illuminating contrasts to contemporary perspectives.

“Beauty.” In Abhinavagupta–Byzantine Aesthetics . Vol. 1 of Encyclopedia of Aesthetics . 2d ed. Edited by Michael Kelly. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

In the course of setting out the historical foundations to the concept beauty, we are provided with an excellent summary of the key concepts that still dominate or underpin philosophical aesthetics, including pleasure, desire, the good, disinterest, taste, value, and love. Available at Oxford Art Online by subscription.

Cooper, David. Aesthetics: The Classic Readings . Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1997.

Introductions are provided to some of the classic readings on beauty followed by an extract from the relevant work. They are discussed in terms of their relevance to understanding art rather than value more generally.

Guyer, Paul. A History of Modern Aesthetics . 3 vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Guyer traces the development of key concepts in aesthetics, including beauty, within a context of broader scaled trends, such as aesthetics of truth in the ancient world, aesthetics of emotion and imagination in the 18th century, and aesthetics of meaning and significance in the 20th century.

Hagberg, Garry I., ed. Art and Ethical Criticism . Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008.

DOI: 10.1002/9781444302813

A series of papers on the ethical dimension of art, the authors draw out the ethical significance of a particular art/literary/musical work or art form. It is worth noting that the lead essay by Paul Guyer argues that 18th-century writers on beauty did not hold any concepts incompatible with this approach.

Hofstadter, Albert, and Richard Kuhns, eds. Philosophies of Art and Beauty: Selected Readings in Aesthetics from Plato to Heidegger . Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.

Well-chosen readings from classic works, with commentary provided, marred occasionally by the editors’ anachronistic emphasis on art. The readings provide a good introduction to various conceptions of beauty as a general value.

McMahon, Jennifer A. “Beauty.” In Routledge Companion to Aesthetics . 2d ed. Edited by Berys Gaut and Dominic Lopes, 307–319. London and New York: Routledge, 2005.

A historical overview drawing out the contrast between sensuous- and formal/value-oriented approaches to beauty, culminating in the contrast between Freud’s pleasure principle and the constructivist approach of cognitive science.

Mothersill, Mary. “Beauty and the Critic’s Judgment: Remapping Aesthetics.” In The Blackwell Guide to Aesthetics . Edited by Peter Kivy, 152–166. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.

DOI: 10.1002/9780470756645

Setting out the change in focus in philosophical aesthetics between the 19th and 20th century, Mothersill then proceeds to analyze beauty with a view to its significance for understanding aesthetic value in relation to art.

Mothersill, Mary. “Beauty.” In A Companion to Aesthetics . 2d ed. Edited by Stephen Davies, Kathleen Higgins, Robert Hopkins, Robert Stecker, and David E. Cooper, 166–171. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

Mothersill considers the contributions made by key historical figures before settling on Hegel’s historicism as providing the most helpful insight for the present context. Available online.

Schaper, Eva, ed. Pleasure, Preference and Value . Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

A series of essays by prominent philosophers on the nature of aesthetic value, which are very useful as an introduction to the study of value theory, including essays on taste, pleasure, aesthetic interest, aesthetic realism, and aesthetic objectivity.

Zangwill, Nick. “Beauty.” In The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics . Edited by Jerrold Levinson, 325–343. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

An introduction to the tradition of analytic approaches to value theory, beauty is analyzed into its components and relationships, and its status considered in terms of subjectivity and objectivity.

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Home — Essay Samples — Arts & Culture — Aesthetics — Beauty Definition Essay

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Beauty Definition Essay

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definition essay of beauty

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An argument about beauty

definition essay of beauty

Susan Sontag has been a Fellow of the American Academy since 1993. Best known as a novelist and essayist – her books have been translated into thirty-two languages – she has also written stories and plays, written and directed movies, and worked as a theatre director in the United States and Europe. In 2000 she won the National Book Award for her novel In America , and in 2001 received the Jerusalem Prize for the body of her work. Last year, a new collection of essays, Where the Stress Falls , was published. Her next book, Regarding the Pain of Others , will appear in early 2003, and she is also writing another novel.

Responding at last, in April of 2002, to the scandal created by the revelation of innumerable cover-ups of sexually predatory priests, Pope John Paul II told the American cardinals summoned to the Vatican, “A great work of art may be blemished, but its beauty remains; and this is a truth which any intellectually honest critic will recognize.”

Is it too odd that the Pope likens the Catholic Church to a great – that is, beautiful – work of art? Perhaps not, since the inane comparison allows him to turn abhorrent misdeeds into something like the scratches in the print of a silent film or craquelure covering the surface of an Old Master painting, blemishes that we reflexively screen out or see past. The Pope likes venerable ideas. And beauty, as a term signifying (like health) an indisputable excellence, has been a perennial resource in the issuing of peremptory evaluations.

Permanence, however, is not one of beauty’s more obvious attributes; and the contemplation of beauty, when it is expert, may be wreathed in pathos, the drama on which Shakespeare elaborates in many of the Sonnets. Traditional celebrations of beauty in Japan, like the annual rite of cherry-blossom viewing, are keenly elegiac; the most stirring beauty is the most evanescent. To make beauty in some sense imperishable required a lot of conceptual tinkering and transposing, but the idea was simply too alluring, too potent, to be squandered on the praise of superior embodiments. The aim was to multiply the notion, to allow for kinds of beauty, beauty with adjectives, arranged on a scale of ascending value and incorruptibility, with the metaphorized uses (‘intellectual beauty,’ ‘spiritual beauty’) taking precedence over what ordinary language extols as beautiful – a gladness to the senses.

The less ‘uplifting’ beauty of face and body remains the most commonly visited site of the beautiful. But one would hardly expect the Pope to invoke that sense of beauty while constructing an exculpatory account of several generations’ worth of the clergy’s sexual molestation of children and protection of the molesters. More to the point – his point – is the ‘higher’ beauty of art. However much art may seem to be a matter of surface and reception by the senses, it has generally been accorded an honorary citizenship in the domain of ‘inner’ (as opposed to ‘outer’) beauty. Beauty, it seems, is immutable, at least when incarnated – fixed – in the form of art, because it is in art that beauty as an idea, an eternal idea, is best embodied. Beauty (should you choose to use the word that way) is deep, not superficial; hidden, sometimes, rather than obvious; consoling, not troubling; indestructible, as in art, rather than ephemeral, as in nature. Beauty, the stipulatively uplifting kind, perdures.

The best theory of beauty is its history. Thinking about the history of beauty means focusing on its deployment in the hands of specific communities.

Communities dedicated by their leaders to stemming what is perceived as a noxious tide of innovative views have no interest in modifying the bulwark provided by the use of beauty as unexceptionable commendation and consolation. It is not surprising that John Paul II, and the preserve-and-conserve institution for which he speaks, feels as comfortable with beauty as with the idea of the good.

It also seems inevitable that when, almost a century ago, the most prestigious communities concerned with the fine arts dedicated themselves to drastic projects of innovation, beauty would turn up on the front line of notions to be discredited. Beauty could not but appear a conservative standard to the makers and proclaimers of the new; Gertrude Stein said that to call a work of art beautiful means that it is dead. Beautiful has come to mean ‘merely’ beautiful: there is no more vapid or philistine compliment.

Elsewhere, beauty still reigns, irrepressible. (How could it not?) When that notorious beauty-lover Oscar Wilde announced in The Decay of Lying , “Nobody of any real culture ever talks about the beauty of a sunset. Sunsets are quite old-fashioned,” sunsets reeled under the blow, then recovered. Les beaux-arts, when summoned to a similar call to be up-to-date, did not. The subtraction of beauty as a standard for art hardly signals a decline of the authority of beauty. Rather, it testifies to a decline in the belief that there is something called art.

Even when Beauty was an unquestioned criterion of value in the arts, it was defined laterally, by evoking some other quality that was supposed to be the essence or sine qua non of something that was beautiful. A definition of the beautiful was no more (or less) than a commendation of the beautiful. When, for example, Lessing equated beauty with harmony, he was offering another general idea of what is excellent or desirable.

In the absence of a definition in the strict sense, there was supposed to be an organ or capacity for registering beauty (that is, value) in the arts, called ‘taste,’ and a canon of works discerned by people of taste, seekers after more rarefied gratifications, adepts of connoisseurship. For in the arts – unlike life – beauty was not assumed to be necessarily apparent, evident, obvious.

The problem with taste was that, however much it resulted in periods of large agreement within communities of art lovers, it issued from private, immediate, and revocable responses to art. And the consensus, however firm, was never more than local. To address this defect, Kant – a dedicated universalizer – proposed a distinctive faculty of ‘judgment’ with discernable principles of a general and abiding kind; the tastes legislated by this faculty of judgment, if properly reflected upon, should be the possession of all. But ‘judgment’ did not have its intended effect of shoring up ‘taste’ or making it, in a certain sense, more democratic. For one thing, taste-as-principled- judgment was hard to apply, since it had the most tenuous connection with the actual works of art deemed incontestably great or beautiful, unlike the pliable, empirical criterion of taste. And taste is now a far weaker, more assailable notion than it was in the late eighteenth century. Whose taste? Or, more insolently, who sez?

As the relativistic stance in cultural matters pressed harder on the old assessments, definitions of beauty – descriptions of its essence – became emptier. Beauty could no longer be something as positive as harmony. For Valéry, the nature of beauty is that it cannot be defined; beauty is precisely ‘the ineffable.’

The failure of the notion of beauty reflects the discrediting of the prestige of judgment itself, as something that could conceivably be impartial or objective, not always self-serving or self-referring. It also reflects the discrediting of binary discourses in the arts. Beauty defines itself as the antithesis of the ugly. Obviously, you can’t say something is beautiful if you’re not willing to say something is ugly. But there are more and more taboos about calling something, anything, ugly. (For an explanation, look first not at the rise of so-called political correctness, but at the evolving ideology of consumerism, then at the complicity between these two.) The point is to find what is beautiful in what has not hitherto been regarded as beautiful (or: the beautiful in the ugly).

Similarly, there is more and more resistance to the idea of ‘good taste,’ that is, to the dichotomy good taste/bad taste, except for occasions that allow one to celebrate the defeat of snobbery and the triumph of what was once condescended to as bad taste. Today, good taste seems even more retrograde an idea than beauty. Austere, difficult ‘modernist’ art and literature have come to seem old-fashioned, a conspiracy of snobs. Innovation is relaxation now; today’s E-Z Art gives the green light to all. In the cultural climate favoring the more user-friendly art of recent years, the beautiful seems, if not obvious, then pretentious. Beauty continues to take a battering in what are called, absurdly, our culture wars.

That beauty applied to some things and not to others, that it was a principle of discrimination , was once its strength and appeal. Beauty belonged to the family of notions that establish rank, and accorded well with social order unapologetic about station, class, hierarchy, and the right to exclude.

What had been a virtue of the concept became its liability. Beauty, which once seemed vulnerable because it was too general, loose, porous, was revealed as – on the contrary – excluding too much. Discrimination, once a positive faculty (meaning refined judgment, high standards, fastidiousness), turned negative: it meant prejudice, bigotry, blindness to the virtues of what was not identical with oneself.

The strongest, most successful move against beauty was in the arts: beauty, and the caring about beauty, was restrictive; as the current idiom has it, elitist. Our appreciations, it was felt, could be so much more inclusive if we said that something, instead of being beautiful, was ‘interesting.’

Of course, when people said a work of art was interesting, this did not mean that they necessarily liked it – much less that they thought it beautiful. It usually meant no more than they thought they ought to like it. Or that they liked it, sort of, even though it wasn’t beautiful.

Or they might describe something as interesting to avoid the banality of calling it beautiful. Photography was the art where ‘the interesting’ first triumphed, and early on: the new, photographic way of seeing proposed everything as a potential subject for the camera. The beautiful could not have yielded such a range of subjects; and soon came to seem uncool to boot as a judgment. Of a photograph of a sunset, a beautiful sunset, anyone with minimal standards of verbal sophistication might well prefer to say, “Yes, the photograph is interesting.”

What is interesting? Mostly, what has not previously been thought beautiful (or good). The sick are interesting, as Nietzsche points out. The wicked, too. To name something as interesting implies challenging old orders of praise; such judgments aspire to be found insolent or at least ingenious. Connoisseurs of the interesting – whose antonym is the boring – appreciate clash, not harmony. Liberalism is boring, declares Carl Schmitt in The Concept of the Political , written in 1932 (the following year he joined the Nazi Party). A politics conducted according to liberal principles lacks drama, flavor, conflict, while strong autocratic politics – and war – are interesting.

Long use of ‘the interesting’ as a criterion of value has, inevitably, weakened its transgressive bite. What is left of the old insolence lies mainly in its disdain for the consequences of actions and of judgments. As for the truthfulness of the ascription – that does not even enter the story. One calls something interesting precisely so as not to have to commit to a judgment of beauty (or of goodness). The interesting is now mainly a consumerist concept, bent on enlarging its domain: the more things that become interesting, the more the marketplace grows. The boring – understood as an absence, an emptiness – implies its antidote: the promiscuous, empty affirmations of the interesting. It is a peculiarly inconclusive way of experiencing reality.

In order to enrich this deprived take on our experiences, one would have to acknowledge a full notion of boredom: depression, rage (suppressed despair). Then one could work toward a full notion of the interesting. But that quality of experience – of feeling – one would probably no longer even want to call interesting.

Beauty can illustrate an ideal; a perfection. Or, because of its identification with women (more accurately, with Woman), it can trigger the usual ambivalence that stems from the age-old denigration of the feminine. Much of the discrediting of beauty needs to be understood as a result of the gender inflection. Misogyny, too, might underlie the urge to metaphorize beauty, thereby promoting it out of the realm of the ‘merely’ feminine, the unserious, the specious. For if women are worshiped because they are beautiful, they are condescended to for their preoccupation with making or keeping themselves beautiful. Beauty is theatrical, it is for being looked at and admired; and the word is as likely to suggest the beauty industry (beauty magazines, beauty parlors, beauty products) – the theatre of feminine frivolity – as the beauties of art and of nature. How else to explain the association of beauty – i.e., women – with mindlessness? To be concerned with one’s own beauty is to risk the charge of narcissism and frivolity. Consider all the beauty synonyms, starting with the ‘lovely,’ the merely ‘pretty,’ which cry out for a virile transposition.

“Handsome is as handsome does.” (But not: “Beautiful is as beautiful does.”) Though it applies no less than does ‘beautiful’ to appearance, ‘handsome’ – free of associations with the feminine – seems a more sober, less gushing way of commending. Beauty is not ordinarily associated with gravitas. Thus one might prefer to call the vehicle for delivering searing images of war and atrocity a ‘handsome book,’ as I did in the preface to a recent compilation of photographs by Don McCullin, lest calling it a ‘beautiful book’ (which it was) would seem an affront to its appalling subject.

It’s usually assumed that beauty is, almost tautologically, an ‘aesthetic’ category, which puts it, according to many, on a collision course with the ethical. But beauty, even beauty in the amoral mode, is never naked. And the ascription of beauty is never unmixed with moral values. Far from the aesthetic and the ethical being poles apart, as Kierkegaard and Tolstoy insisted, the aesthetic is itself a quasi-moral project. Arguments about beauty since Plato are stocked with questions about the proper relation to the beautiful (the irresistibly, enthrallingly beautiful), which is thought to flow from the nature of beauty itself.

The perennial tendency to make of beauty itself a binary concept, to split it up into ‘inner’ and ‘outer,’ ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ beauty, is the usual way that judgments of the beautiful are colonized by moral judgments. From a Nietzschean (or Wildean) point of view, this may be improper, but it seems to me unavoidable. And the wisdom that becomes available over a deep, lifelong engagement with the aesthetic cannot, I venture to say, be duplicated by any other kind of seriousness. Indeed, the various definitions of beauty come at least as close to a plausible characterization of virtue, and of a fuller humanity, as the attempts to define goodness as such.

Beauty is part of the history of idealizing, which is itself part of the history of consolation. But beauty may not always console. The beauty of face and figure torments, subjugates; that beauty is imperious. The beauty that is human, and the beauty that is made (art) – both raise the fantasy of possession. Our model of the disinterested comes from the beauty of nature – a nature that is distant, overarching, unpossessable.

From a letter written by a German soldier standing guard in the Russian winter in late December of 1942: “The most beautiful Christmas I had ever seen, made entirely of disinterested emotions and stripped of all tawdry trimmings. I was all alone beneath an enormous starred sky, and I can remember a tear running down my frozen cheek, a tear neither of pain nor of joy but of emotion created by intense experience. . . .” 1

Unlike beauty, often fragile and impermanent, the capacity to be overwhelmed by the beautiful is astonishingly sturdy and survives amidst the harshest distractions. Even war, even the prospect of certain death, cannot expunge it.

The beauty of art is better, ‘higher,’ according to Hegel, than the beauty of nature because it is made by human beings and is the work of the spirit. But the discerning of beauty in nature is also the result of traditions of consciousness, and of culture – in Hegel’s language, of spirit.

The responses to beauty in art and to beauty in nature are interdependent. As Wilde pointed out, art does more than school us on how and what to appreciate in nature. (He was thinking of poetry and painting. Today the standards of beauty in nature are largely set by photography.) What is beautiful reminds us of nature as such – of what lies beyond the human and the made – and thereby stimulates and deepens our sense of the sheer spread and fullness of reality, inanimate as well as pulsing, that surrounds us all.

A happy by-product of this insight, if insight it is: beauty regains its solidity, its inevitability, as a judgment needed to make sense of a large portion of one’s energies, affinities, and admirations; and the usurping notions appear ludicrous.

Imagine saying, “That sunset is interesting.”

  • 1 Quoted in Stephen G. Fritz, Frontsoldaten: The German Soldier in World War II (Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 1995), 130.

On beauty (2002)

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Essays About Beauty: Top 5 Examples and 10 Prompts

Writing essays about beauty is complicated because of this topic’s breadth. See our examples and prompts to you write your next essay.

Beauty is short for beautiful and refers to the features that make something pleasant to look at. This includes landscapes like mountain ranges and plains, natural phenomena like sunsets and aurora borealis, and art pieces such as paintings and sculptures. However, beauty is commonly attached to an individual’s appearance,  fashion, or cosmetics style, which appeals to aesthetical concepts. Because people’s views and ideas about beauty constantly change , there are always new things to know and talk about.

Below are five great essays that define beauty differently. Consider these examples as inspiration to come up with a topic to write about.

1. Essay On Beauty – Promise Of Happiness By Shivi Rawat

2. defining beauty by wilbert houston, 3. long essay on beauty definition by prasanna, 4. creative writing: beauty essay by writer jill, 5. modern idea of beauty by anonymous on papersowl, 1. what is beauty: an argumentative essay, 2. the beauty around us, 3. children and beauty pageants, 4. beauty and social media, 5. beauty products and treatments: pros and cons, 6. men and makeup, 7. beauty and botched cosmetic surgeries, 8. is beauty a necessity, 9. physical and inner beauty, 10. review of books or films about beauty.

“In short, appreciation of beauty is a key factor in the achievement of happiness, adds a zest to living positively and makes the earth a more cheerful place to live in.”

Rawat defines beauty through the words of famous authors, ancient sayings, and historical personalities. He believes that beauty depends on the one who perceives it. What others perceive as beautiful may be different for others. Rawat adds that beauty makes people excited about being alive.

“No one’s definition of beauty is wrong. However, it does exist and can be seen with the eyes and felt with the heart.”

Check out these essays about best friends .

Houston’s essay starts with the author pointing out that some people see beauty and think it’s unattainable and non-existent. Next, he considers how beauty’s definition is ever-changing and versatile. In the next section of his piece, he discusses individuals’ varying opinions on the two forms of beauty: outer and inner. 

At the end of the essay, the author admits that beauty has no exact definition, and people don’t see it the same way. However, he argues that one’s feelings matter regarding discerning beauty. Therefore, no matter what definition you believe in, no one has the right to say you’re wrong if you think and feel beautiful.

“The characteristic held by the objects which are termed “beautiful” must give pleasure to the ones perceiving it. Since pleasure and satisfaction are two very subjective concepts, beauty has one of the vaguest definitions.”

Instead of providing different definitions, Prasanna focuses on how the concept of beauty has changed over time. She further delves into other beauty requirements to show how they evolved. In our current day, she explains that many defy beauty standards, and thinking “everyone is beautiful” is now the new norm.

“…beauty has stolen the eye of today’s youth. Gone are the days where a person’s inner beauty accounted for so much more then his/her outer beauty.”

This short essay discusses how people’s perception of beauty today heavily relies on physical appearance rather than inner beauty. However, Jill believes that beauty is all about acceptance. Sadly, this notion is unpopular because nowadays, something or someone’s beauty depends on how many people agree with its pleasant outer appearance. In the end, she urges people to stop looking at the false beauty seen in magazines and take a deeper look at what true beauty is.

“The modern idea of beauty is taking a sole purpose in everyday life. Achieving beautiful is not surgically fixing yourself to be beautiful, and tattoos may have a strong meaning behind them that makes them beautiful.”

Beauty in modern times has two sides: physical appearance and personality. The author also defines beauty by using famous statements like “a woman’s beauty is seen in her eyes because that’s the door to her heart where love resides” by Audrey Hepburn. The author also tackles the issue of how physical appearance can be the reason for bullying, cosmetic surgeries, and tattoos as a way for people to express their feelings.

Looking for more? Check out these essays about fashion .

10 Helpful Prompts To Use in Writing Essays About Beauty

If you’re still struggling to know where to start, here are ten exciting and easy prompts for your essay writing:

While defining beauty is not easy, it’s a common essay topic. First, share what you think beauty means. Then, explore and gather ideas and facts about the subject and convince your readers by providing evidence to support your argument.

If you’re unfamiliar with this essay type, see our guide on how to write an argumentative essay .

Beauty doesn’t have to be grand. For this prompt, center your essay on small beautiful things everyone can relate to. They can be tangible such as birds singing or flowers lining the street. They can also be the beauty of life itself. Finally, add why you think these things manifest beauty.

Little girls and boys participating in beauty pageants or modeling contests aren’t unusual. But should it be common? Is it beneficial for a child to participate in these competitions and be exposed to cosmetic products or procedures at a young age? Use this prompt to share your opinion about the issue and list the pros and cons of child beauty pageants.

Essays About Beauty: Beauty and social media

Today, social media is the principal dictator of beauty standards. This prompt lets you discuss the unrealistic beauty and body shape promoted by brands and influencers on social networking sites. Next, explain these unrealistic beauty standards and how they are normalized. Finally, include their effects on children and teens.

Countless beauty products and treatments crowd the market today. What products do you use and why? Do you think these products’ marketing is deceitful? Are they selling the idea of beauty no one can attain without surgeries? Choose popular brands and write down their benefits, issues, and adverse effects on users.

Although many countries accept men wearing makeup, some conservative regions such as Asia still see it as taboo. Explain their rationale on why these regions don’t think men should wear makeup. Then, delve into what makeup do for men. Does it work the same way it does for women? Include products that are made specifically for men.

There’s always something we want to improve regarding our physical appearance. One way to achieve such a goal is through surgeries. However, it’s a dangerous procedure with possible lifetime consequences. List known personalities who were pressured to take surgeries because of society’s idea of beauty but whose lives changed because of failed operations. Then, add your thoughts on having procedures yourself to have a “better” physique.

People like beautiful things. This explains why we are easily fascinated by exquisite artworks. But where do these aspirations come from? What is beauty’s role, and how important is it in a person’s life? Answer these questions in your essay for an engaging piece of writing.

Beauty has many definitions but has two major types. Discuss what is outer and inner beauty and give examples. Tell the reader which of these two types people today prefer to achieve and why. Research data and use opinions to back up your points for an interesting essay.

Many literary pieces and movies are about beauty. Pick one that made an impression on you and tell your readers why. One of the most popular books centered around beauty is Dave Hickey’s The Invisible Dragon , first published in 1993. What does the author want to prove and point out in writing this book, and what did you learn? Are the ideas in the book still relevant to today’s beauty standards? Answer these questions in your next essay for an exiting and engaging piece of writing.

Grammar is critical in writing. To ensure your essay is free of grammatical errors, check out our list of best essay checkers .

definition essay of beauty

Maria Caballero is a freelance writer who has been writing since high school. She believes that to be a writer doesn't only refer to excellent syntax and semantics but also knowing how to weave words together to communicate to any reader effectively.

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Definition of beauty

  • esthetics
  • attractiveness
  • beauteousness
  • beautifulness
  • gorgeousness
  • handsomeness
  • sightliness

Examples of beauty in a Sentence

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'beauty.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History

Middle English beaute, bealte , borrowed from Anglo-French, from bel, beau "beautiful, good-looking" (going back to Latin bellus ) + -te -ty — more at beau

14th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Phrases Containing beauty

  • bathing beauty
  • beauty bush
  • beauty contest
  • beauty is in the eye of the beholder
  • beauty mark
  • beauty part
  • beauty queen
  • beauty shop
  • beauty spot
  • meadow beauty
  • spring beauty
  • the beauty part

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Cite this Entry

“Beauty.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary , Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/beauty. Accessed 2 Jun. 2024.

Kids Definition

Kids definition of beauty.

Middle English beaute "beauty," derived from early French bel "beautiful," from Latin bellus "pretty" — related to beau , belle

More from Merriam-Webster on beauty

Nglish: Translation of beauty for Spanish Speakers

Britannica English: Translation of beauty for Arabic Speakers

Britannica.com: Encyclopedia article about beauty

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Beauty Standards and Their Impact Essay

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Introduction

Beauty generally refers to the mixture of aesthetic qualities such as form, shape and color that pleases the eyesight. Beauty is divided into two broad branches, that is, human beauty and beauty in things around us. Human beauty can also be classified into physical beauty and beauty of the soul. Beauty in things around us entails architecture and physical features.

Society at large has always put emphasis that beauty being admired and looked after trait. A good example in a society is a Marketing and Advertisement Industry that sells all everything by showcasing its beauty. Some countries however hold beauty more highly than others. Such countries include The U.S is the leading.

The physical beauty of a person opens ways for the person to get their soulmates without struggle. It is usually the first impression that makes the attraction to a mate much easier. It smoothens the bumps that life gives during the search for a soulmate. However, you should take into account that its importance fades away quickly with time. As you go through life, you realize that what you thought was beauty fades away. During this period, people tend to embark on the other kind of beauty which is the beauty of the soul. The beauty of the soul entails traits such as personality, sense of humor, intelligence and other factors that entail a person’s character.

The beauty of the things around us such as the works of architecture such as unique buildings, bridges and others and physical features such as mountains and water bodies are very important as they bring happiness and joy to our eyesight. They are used as sources of recreational facilities for both children and adults. Children go to places rich in physical features to break class monotony. Adults go to beautiful places while depressed or just while they need some refreshment. They are also used as sources of learning facilities for persons of all ages. Children go to learn new things in their environment and that is the same with adults.

All people need beauty but it depends on which type of beauty is in question. To explain this, children only find beauty in things such as toys and also in places they go. Adults on the other hand see the world clearly and thus they need beauty in everything they do and places they go. Some people however need beauty more than others. Women for example tend to be more obsessed with beauty in almost everything. They always look for perfection in their body and also in everything they do on a daily basis. This has consequently made them turn to cosmetics in order to look more beautiful. Some are now even doing surgery to modify their faces and other parts of their bodies. People always need beauty in their lives. This is always largely contributed by things around them. Take, for example, a beautiful compound with a wonderful house and a beautiful garden in the backyard that will always bring happiness and improve the lives of people living there.

As the say goes, beauty is in the beholder’s eyes. The perception of people on beauty is influenced by cultural heritage. For instance, American culture perceives youthfulness as beauty and European perceives flawless skin as an ideal beauty. In Africa, however, a filled-out large figure is referred to as beauty. In today’s society, beauty is people are beginning to relate beauty to be prosperous and happy. Many cultures have fueled the obsession with women being pretty and that in turn led to the introduction of cosmetics among different cultures. Almost all the cultures in the world value beauty so highly that many quantitative measures of beauty are constructed socially.

There are some types of beauty that the media have long forgotten and no longer classify as types of beauty. These include architecture and music. The media nowadays classify architecture as more of a science than art while the music on the other hand is long forgotten when they talk about those categories. Through the help of the media, our concepts about beauty can be globalized more so through social media networks as almost all the young people in this new generation are using social media networks and the information can travel faster.

There are many controversies about beauty in nature compared to that in human form. It is important that we consider all as having beauty but the one has more beauty than the other. Human being has a beauty that fades away with time while nature has a permanent beauty that never fades away. For example, take a look at the sky, the moon, the river and so on, their beauty last forever. Men are interested in the beauty of other things than that of their own while women always tend to be self-centered when it comes to beauty. Concerning your appearance is normal and understandable. In today’s society, everywhere you go be it at work, school, or interview, your personal appearance will always influence people’s impression of you.

Looking at the other side of the coin, the standards that society has put on women have enabled some women to thrive and become successful. Let’s take America for example, a country that produces many models and enables women to develop their careers in terms of beauty. It has led to many other opportunities such as selling cosmetics and fashion design.

The physical beauty of human beings fades away with time. The beauty of nature and of the soul is permanent. Society has set some unrealistic standards for women in terms of beauty which are vague and should be overlooked.

Skivko, M. (2020). Deconstruction in Fashion as a Path Toward New Beauty Standards: The Maison Margiela Case. ZoneModa Journal , 10 (1), 39-49.

McCray, S. (2018). Redefining Society’s Beauty Standards.

Capaldi, C. A., Passmore, H. A., Ishii, R., Chistopolskaya, K. A., Vowinckel, J., Nikolaev, E. L., & Semikin, G. I. (2017). Engaging with natural beauty may be related to well-being because it connects people to nature: Evidence from three cultures. Ecopsychology, 9(4), 199-211.

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Definition Essay

Barbara P

Definition Essay - Writing Guide, Examples and Tips

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Published on: Oct 9, 2020

Last updated on: Jan 31, 2024

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Many students struggle with writing definition essays due to a lack of clarity and precision in their explanations.

This obstructs them from effectively conveying the essence of the terms or concepts they are tasked with defining. Consequently, the essays may lack coherence, leaving readers confused and preventing them from grasping the intended meaning.

But don’t worry!

In this guide, we will delve into effective techniques and step-by-step approaches to help students craft an engaging definition essay.

Continue reading to learn the correct formation of a definition essay. 

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What is a Definition Essay?

Just as the name suggests, a definition essay defines and explains a term or a concept. Unlike a narrative essay, the purpose of writing this essay is only to inform the readers.

Writing this essay type can be deceivingly tricky. Some terms, concepts, and objects have concrete definitions when explained. In contrast others are solely based on the writer’s understanding and point of view.

A definition essay requires a writer to use different approaches when discussing a term. These approaches are the following:

  • Denotation - It is when you provide a literal or academic definition of the term.
  • Connotation - It is when the writer provides an implied meaning or definition of the term.
  • Enumeration - For this approach, a list is employed to define a term or a concept.
  • Analogy - It is a technique in which something is defined by implementing a comparison.
  • Negation - It is when you define a term by stating what it is not.

A single or combination of approaches can be used in the essay. 

Definition Essay Types

There are several types of definition essays that you may be asked to write, depending on the purpose and scope of the assignment. 

In this section, we will discuss some of the most common types of definition essays.

Descriptive Definition Essay 

This type of essay provides a detailed description of a term or concept, emphasizing its key features and characteristics. 

The goal of a descriptive definition essay is to help readers understand the term or concept in a more profound way.

Stipulative Definition Essay 

In a stipulative definition essay, the writer provides a unique definition of a term or concept. This type of essay is often used in academic settings to define a term in a particular field of study. 

The goal of a stipulative definition essay is to provide a precise and clear definition that is specific to the context of the essay.

Analytical Definition Essay 

This compare and contrast essay type involves analyzing a term or concept in-depth. Breaking it down into its component parts, and examining how they relate to each other. 

The goal of an analytical definition essay is to provide a more nuanced and detailed understanding of the term or concept being discussed.

Persuasive Definition Essay 

A persuasive definition essay is an argumentative essay that aims to persuade readers to accept a particular definition of a term or concept.

The writer presents their argument for the definition and uses evidence and examples to support their position.

Explanatory Definition Essay 

An explanatory definition essay is a type of expository essay . It aims to explain a complex term or concept in a way that is easy to understand for the reader. 

The writer breaks down the term or concept into simpler parts and provides examples and analogies to help readers understand it better.

Extended Definition Essay 

An extended definition essay goes beyond the definition of a word or concept and provides a more in-depth analysis and explanation. 

The goal of an extended definition essay is to provide a comprehensive understanding of a term, concept, or idea. This includes its history, origins, and cultural significance. 

How to Write a Definition Essay?

Writing a definition essay is simple if you know the correct procedure. This essay, like all the other formal pieces of documents, requires substantial planning and effective execution.

The following are the steps involved in writing a definition essay effectively:

Instead of choosing a term that has a concrete definition available, choose a word that is complicated . Complex expressions have abstract concepts that require a writer to explore deeper. Moreover, make sure that different people perceive the term selected differently. 

Once you have a word to draft your definition essay for, read the dictionary. These academic definitions are important as you can use them to compare your understanding with the official concept.

Drafting a definition essay is about stating the dictionary meaning and your explanation of the concept. So the writer needs to have some information about the term.

In addition to this, when exploring the term, make sure to check the term’s origin. The history of the word can make you discuss it in a better way.

Coming up with an exciting title for your essay is important. The essay topic will be the first thing that your readers will witness, so it should be catchy.

Creatively draft an essay topic that reflects meaning. In addition to this, the usage of the term in the title should be correctly done. The readers should get an idea of what the essay is about and what to expect from the document.

Now that you have a topic in hand, it is time to gather some relevant information. A definition essay is more than a mere explanation of the term. It represents the writer’s perception of the chosen term and the topic.

So having only personal opinions will not be enough to defend your point. Deeply research and gather information by consulting credible sources.

The gathered information needs to be organized to be understandable. The raw data needs to be arranged to give a structure to the content.

Here's a generic outline for a definition essay:

Are you searching for an in-depth guide on crafting a well-structured definition essay?Check out this definition essay outline blog!

6. Write the First Draft

Drafting each section correctly is a daunting task. Understanding what or what not to include in these sections requires a writer to choose wisely.

The start of your essay matters a lot. If it is on point and attractive, the readers will want to read the text. As the first part of the essay is the introduction , it is considered the first impression of your essay.

To write your definition essay introduction effectively, include the following information:

  • Start your essay with a catchy hook statement that is related to the topic and the term chosen.
  • State the generally known definition of the term. If the word chosen has multiple interpretations, select the most common one.
  • Provide background information precisely. Determine the origin of the term and other relevant information.
  • Shed light on the other unconventional concepts and definitions related to the term.
  • Decide on the side or stance you want to pick in your essay and develop a thesis statement .

After briefly introducing the topic, fully explain the concept in the body section . Provide all the details and evidence that will support the thesis statement. To draft this section professionally, add the following information:

  • A detailed explanation of the history of the term.
  • Analysis of the dictionary meaning and usage of the term.
  • A comparison and reflection of personal understanding and the researched data on the concept.

Once all the details are shared, give closure to your discussion. The last paragraph of the definition essay is the conclusion . The writer provides insight into the topic as a conclusion.

The concluding paragraphs include the following material:

  • Summary of the important points.
  • Restated thesis statement.
  • A final verdict on the topic.

7. Proofread and Edit

Although the writing process ends with the concluding paragraph, there is an additional step. It is important to proofread the essay once you are done writing. Proofread and revise your document a couple of times to make sure everything is perfect.

Before submitting your assignment, make edits, and fix all mistakes and errors.

If you want to learn more about how to write a definition essay, here is a video guide for you!

Definition Essay Structure 

The structure of a definition essay is similar to that of any other academic essay. It should consist of an introduction, body paragraphs, and a conclusion. 

However, the focus of a definition essay is on defining and explaining a particular term or concept. 

In this section, we will discuss the structure of a definition essay in detail.

Introduction 

Get the idea of writing an introduction for a definition essay with this example:

Body Paragraphs

Here is an example of how to craft your definition essay body paragraph:

Types of the Term/Concept 

If applicable, the writer may want to include a section that discusses the different types or categories of the term or concept being defined. 

This section should explain the similarities and differences between the types, using examples and anecdotes to illustrate the points.

Examples of the Term/Concept in Action 

The writer should also include real-life examples of the term or concept being defined in action. 

This will help the reader better understand the term or concept in context and how it is used in everyday life.

Conclusion 

This example will help you writing a conclusion fo you essay:

Definition Essay Examples

It is important to go through some examples and samples before writing an essay. This is to understand the writing process and structure of the assigned task well.

Following are some examples of definition essays to give our students a better idea of the concept. 

Understanding the Definition Essay

Definition Essay Example

Definition Essay About Friendship

Definition Essay About Love

Family Definition Essay

Success Definition Essay

Beauty Definition Essay

Definition Essay Topics

Selecting the right topic is challenging for other essay types. However, picking a suitable theme for a definition essay is equally tricky yet important. Pick an interesting subject to ensure maximum readership.

If you are facing writer’s block, here is a list of some great definition essay topics for your help. Choose from the list below and draft a compelling essay.

  • Authenticity
  • Sustainability
  • Mindfulness

Here are some more extended definition essay topics:

  • Social media addiction
  • Ethical implications of gene editing
  • Personalized learning in the digital age
  • Ecosystem services
  • Cultural assimilation versus cultural preservation
  • Sustainable fashion
  • Gender equality in the workplace
  • Financial literacy and its impact on personal finance
  • Ethical considerations in artificial intelligence
  • Welfare state and social safety nets

Need more topics? Check out this definition essay topics blog!

Definition Essay Writing Tips

Knowing the correct writing procedure is not enough if you are not aware of the essay’s small technicalities. To help students write a definition essay effortlessly, expert writers of CollegeEssay.org have gathered some simple tips.

These easy tips will make your assignment writing phase easy.

  • Choose an exciting yet informative topic for your essay.
  • When selecting the word, concept, or term for your essay, make sure you have the knowledge.
  • When consulting a dictionary for the definition, provide proper referencing as there are many choices available.
  • To make the essay informative and credible, always provide the origin and history of the term.
  • Highlight different meanings and interpretations of the term.
  • Discuss the transitions and evolution in the meaning of the term in any.
  • Provide your perspective and point of view on the chosen term.

Following these tips will guarantee you better grades in your academics.

By following the step-by-step approach explained in this guide, you will acquire the skills to craft an outstanding essay. 

Struggling with the thought, " write my college essay for m e"? Look no further.

Our dedicated definition essay writing service is here to craft the perfect essay that meets your academic needs.

For an extra edge, explore our AI essay writer , a tool designed to refine your essays to perfection. 

Barbara P (Literature, Marketing)

Barbara is a highly educated and qualified author with a Ph.D. in public health from an Ivy League university. She has spent a significant amount of time working in the medical field, conducting a thorough study on a variety of health issues. Her work has been published in several major publications.

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definition essay of beauty

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The definition of beauty to each her own.

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Our perceptions differ along cultural lines about the definition of beauty and how to achieve it.

Since cosmetic plastic surgery patients come from all walks of life, the plastic surgeon must learn how to relate to people with a wide range of cultural, financial, and educational backgrounds.

An approach to building trust with one patient may be completely different from what is needed to build trust with another. That relatability is key to an open, honest, and trustworthy relationship between the patient and surgeon.

In fact, in some ways, plastic surgery seems to unify people irrespective of background. Everyone wants to feel good about themselves, to be accepted by the people around them, and to look good.

People in sales jobs or the public eye especially want to look refreshed, pleasant, and approachable—and that transcends all differences. Because childbirth physically changes a woman’s body pretty significantly, women from all races and cultures come to us for procedures to help them regain their pre-pregnancy bodies and start feeling like their younger selves before they have children.

While we all have similar objectives—to be accepted and to feel good about ourselves—in my practice I’ve seen how our perceptions differ along cultural lines about the definition of beauty and how to achieve it. People from different cultures want surgery that accomplishes different goals, and certain surgeries are desired more by certain cultures than others.

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For example, in my practice, we’ve found that some cultures see beauty in curves and fullness, so women from these cultures more often request the procedure known as the Brazilian butt lift or fat grafting to augment the bottom.

Culture can also influence expectations regarding outcomes. For instance, women from cultures that value fuller figures typically ask us to leave some curves when performing liposuction. Other cultures seem to focus more on facial features, requesting fillers and other procedures to help restore volume lost in the cheeks and lips.

Regardless of culture, we’ve seen that the definition of beauty can change over time. What matters in your twenties may not be what matters to you in your forties.

For example, a patient who had large breast implants placed when they were in their twenties and implants were in style may come in years later looking for a reduction in their overall breast size. That reduction may involve a smaller implant or a reduction of natural breast tissue. As we age, our bodies continuously change, as does our ideal body image. As a patient’s goals evolve over time, cosmetic plastic surgery offers a wide range of procedures to meet those changing needs.

I used to think that replacing large implants with smaller ones would surely make a patient unhappy, but every woman we’ve performed that surgery on says they feel better physically, and they feel better about themselves.

When they were young, getting implants was about fitting a perceived image; now, taking them out is about their own self-happiness. They are no longer concerned with impressing someone else; they have become content with who they are and what is most comfortable or practical.

When it comes to cosmetic plastic surgery, it’s not about what other people think—it’s about what’s best for you. People who are the most critical of others often have many issues themselves. What one person likes, wants, or needs may not fit someone else. And that’s OK—it’s OK to want something different than what others want. If you try to do for yourself only what someone else thinks is reasonable, you’re not going to be happy.

At some point, you have to decide what matters and whether the procedure is right for you. After that, it’s the role of the plastic surgeon to determine whether plastic surgery can deliver the expected results.

When you’re happy with your outcome and more comfortable with your new self, when your family and others see that you had cosmetic plastic surgery to bring to the surface your inner beauty, then they’ll be more confident and understanding of your new you.

Dr. Dennis Schimpf

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COMMENTS

  1. Beauty

    The nature of beauty is one of the most enduring and controversial themes in Western philosophy, and is—with the nature of art—one of the two fundamental issues in the history of philosophical aesthetics. Beauty has traditionally been counted among the ultimate values, with goodness, truth, and justice. It is a primary theme among ancient ...

  2. What is Beauty: Inner and Physical

    Inner beauty is the beauty emanating from the soul, which appears in personality and feeling. When you one beautiful from the inside, if will reflect in your face. The beautiful person is one who leaves a smile on your face when you remember him. Patience, humbleness, and wisdom are all qualities of a beautiful person inside.

  3. What Is Beauty? (Philosophy)

    Beauty is a central theme in Western philosophy. It encompasses subjective and objective aspects. Beauty is not solely confined to physical appearance. It can be experienced through art, nature, and aesthetic pleasure. Philosophers have explored different perspectives on the meaning of beauty.

  4. Beauty definition essay

    Beauty definition essay. Beauty is based on what the viewer feels on a conscious and base-instinct level. Most of what we consider to be beautiful is based on our genetics and our environment. This essay defines beauty and its influences when it comes to sexual attraction between humans. This essay focuses on beauty in human terms and takes no ...

  5. André Aciman: Why Beauty Is So Important to Us

    A person's definition of beauty is an abstract, complicated and highly personal ideal that becomes a guiding light throughout life. We crave what we consider beautiful, and that craving can ...

  6. 1.1: What is beauty?

    Beauty is something we perceive and respond to. It may be a response of awe and amazement, wonder and joy, or something else. It might resemble a "peak experience" or an epiphany. It might happen while watching a sunset or taking in the view from a mountaintop, for example. This is a kind of experience, an aesthetic response that is a ...

  7. What Is Beauty: Tips On Writing Your Definition Essay

    The concept of beauty is studied in sociology, philosophy, psychology, culture, and aesthetics. It is regarded as a property of an object, idea, animal, place, or a person, and it often interpreted as balance and harmony with nature. Beauty as a concept has been argued throughout the entire history of civilization, but even today, there is ...

  8. The idea of beauty is always shifting. Today, it's more inclusive than

    The new definition of beauty is being written by a selfie generation: people who are the cover stars of their own narrative. The new beauty isn't defined by hairstyles or body shape, by age or ...

  9. Beauty

    A series of essays by prominent philosophers on the nature of aesthetic value, which are very useful as an introduction to the study of value theory, including essays on taste, pleasure, aesthetic interest, aesthetic realism, and aesthetic objectivity. Zangwill, Nick. "Beauty.". In The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics.

  10. Beauty

    Overview. Beauty, together with art and taste, is the main subject of aesthetics, one of the major branches of philosophy. Beauty is usually categorized as an aesthetic property besides other properties, like grace, elegance or the sublime. As a positive aesthetic value, beauty is contrasted with ugliness as its negative counterpart. Beauty is often listed as one of the three fundamental ...

  11. Beauty Definition Essay: [Essay Example], 390 words GradesFixer

    Beauty Definition Essay. Beauty is a concept that has been debated for centuries and can be interpreted in many different ways. One common definition of beauty is that it is a quality that pleases the senses or gives pleasure to the mind. This often focuses on physical appearance, such as the symmetry of a person's face, the smoothness of their ...

  12. An argument about beauty

    8. Beauty is part of the history of idealizing, which is itself part of the history of consolation. But beauty may not always console. The beauty of face and figure torments, subjugates; that beauty is imperious. The beauty that is human, and the beauty that is made (art) - both raise the fantasy of possession.

  13. Essays About Beauty: Top 5 Examples And 10 Prompts

    Rawat adds that beauty makes people excited about being alive. 2. Defining Beauty By Wilbert Houston. "No one's definition of beauty is wrong. However, it does exist and can be seen with the eyes and felt with the heart.". Check out these essays about best friends.

  14. The Elusive Definition of Beauty: Exploring Perspectives and

    Essay Sample: The word "beauty" can mean an unlimited amount of things to so many people. Some people see beauty as a woman with a small figure, with her hair and ... The first and most commonly referred to definition of beauty is external beauty, or superficial beauty. "Beauty is only skin-deep", as some people may say. ...

  15. Beauty Definition & Meaning

    beauty: [noun] the quality or aggregate of qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit : loveliness.

  16. Beauty Definition Essay

    Beauty Definition Essay: It is probably the hardest task in the word to define the term "Beauty." There's a popular saying that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. The saying throws light on the fact of how there are different perspectives of beauty and how it differs from person to person. Beauty can be vaguely defined as a specific ...

  17. Definition Essay: "The Beauty Question"

    Appreciation of beauty is often transmitted through the use of senses. What is more, beauty is usually appreciated by people because of the pleasure they derive from an object, an individual, or even a thought. The opposite can also be argued in the sense that some people perceive life as something that is meant to achieve beauty.

  18. The Definition of Beauty Essay

    Synthesis Essay #2 The definition of beauty is a characteristic of a person, animal, place, object, or idea that provides a perceptual experience of pleasure, meaning, or satisfaction. Beauty has negative and positive influences on mostly people. Beauty is described by the inside and outside of us. Due to beauty, our self-esteem has been hurt ...

  19. The True Meaning of Beauty

    True Meaning of Beauty. Beauty is not necessarily the physical appearance. Beauty is the inner aspect of the heart that causes humanitarian reactions. True meaning of beauty therefore touches on personality and self-esteem. Self-believe brings out the true meaning and feeling of beauty since one is able to love and accept oneself as well as ...

  20. Beauty Standards and Their Impact

    Human being has a beauty that fades away with time while nature has a permanent beauty that never fades away. For example, take a look at the sky, the moon, the river and so on, their beauty last forever. Men are interested in the beauty of other things than that of their own while women always tend to be self-centered when it comes to beauty.

  21. Definition Essay

    An explanatory definition essay is a type of expository essay. It aims to explain a complex term or concept in a way that is easy to understand for the reader. The writer breaks down the term or concept into simpler parts and provides examples and analogies to help readers understand it better.

  22. What Is Beauty? Essay

    Beauty is a very subjective thing and while many people might define it in a different way, Margaret Hungerford defined it in a very beautiful way in her novel 'Molly Bawn'. According to her, "Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder" (Hungerford, 1978). Merriam Webster defines beauty as "the quality or aggregate of qualities in a ...

  23. Definition Of Beauty Essay

    Beauty is the combination of qualities that give us pleasure to the body, mind, and soul. As defined by the Merriam Webster Dictionary, beauty is defined as the quality or aggregate of qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit. However to some people, beauty is looking like a model ...

  24. The Definition of Beauty? To Each Her Own

    Our perceptions differ along cultural lines about the definition of beauty and how to achieve it. getty. Since cosmetic plastic surgery patients come from all walks of life, the plastic surgeon ...