Reflection on Youth and the Drive To Be Beautiful
True beauty really isn't only skin deep
I certainly could have written this article in a way that would make it less vulnerable to criticism. I have before my eyes the image of a boy and a girl — both students of mine — who have just decided to modify their bodies with plastic surgery. They are two 18 year olds who, upon coming of age, asked for this operation as a birthday present.
These cases are numerous enough to provoke a negative and expected commentary on the "cult of appearance" and the pedagogically weak reaction of parents of these young people and of thousands of their peers, permitted at an ever younger age to change their looks with plastic surgery.
Yet, precisely because the phenomenon is so widespread, it calls for thought and not merely a questionable protest.
'What makes you diet and dress that way?'
Today, one of the most recurrent topics in my lessons as a teacher is the discussion of the relativism of aesthetic judgment. This is, of course, the first stage, if I succeed, in a process of elevation that aims higher than visibilia (what can be seen).
So I amuse myself by teasing the youth — who easily repeat as a mantra to ward off evil: "Only what I like is beautiful" — about the contradiction that seems to emerge between the easy appeal to the unquestionableness of personal opinion and the attempt to resemble a model and, to a certain extent, to measure up to a standard.
I ask the students, "What makes you diet and dress that way?". And of course, I find their ready answer far from satisfactory: "Because it's the fashion".
What is fashionable or "trendy", as the young like to say, is simply a vehicle for a deeper need that goes beyond its manifestations, less transient, however, than we may like to believe: male and female beauty can certainly vary: a few extra kilos here or there can disguise very different frames.
Obese men or women, however, are not beautiful today and never have been. There have been times, of course (and still are), when real perversions in taste have been cultivated. They are now known as "fashion extremes". They are nonetheless provocations and last no more than a season.
Likewise, at an obviously loftier level, certain aesthetic choices of strictly ethnic origin do not endure or are simply overshadowed by a stronger culture; but in disappearing they lose their intimate character as a sign of identity rather than of aesthetics.
Thus, young people seek beauty, unconsciously and at times with a very wrong approach. They often do not even call beauty by its name since they steer clear of demanding words.
They say "I like it" or even "it feels good", and the latter is an especially revealing expression; but they have a confused awareness, even in their initial interpretation and understanding of aesthetic reality, of the unexpressed need to go beyond subjective judgment.
The body, therefore — and this is not at all paradoxical in the Christian perspective that accepts an ascetic dimension and contemptus carnis but is not totally fulfilled in it —, becomes the first context in which young people can learn to mould themselves on a model other than pure circumstance. This is or can be the beginning of a disciplinary process or rather, of an intellectual and spiritual education.
What is important is to make young people aware and so enable them to overcome a dangerously trivializing approach, typical of the young, of course, but also of their conversation partners.
The example of Paula and rediscovered beauty
I am thinking, for example, of the case of Paula: without mincing words, she had gone in a nasty direction. And the signs of her transformation were clearly visible first and foremost in her body; however, the craftiness that is sometimes a feature of young people had urged her to keep up her exceptional school work.
But she had radically changed her image: her clothes, her hairstyle, her outward attitude blatantly demonstrated a will to transgress that is fairly common but, unfortunately, often accompanied by habits far from commendable — drug abuse, for example, in the first place.
In brief, Paula had become, or rather, she had made herself, ugly. In this context she had, as it were, enrolled in the bad girls' club.
This was clear to everyone with the notable exception of her parents; on the contrary, they considered the "new Paula" a more mature and conscious version of their little girl of the past.
As the Lord willed, the young woman managed to extricate herself from the terrible situation into which she had daily driven herself. And she did so almost on her own.
We at school realized it as we saw her gradually shedding the "alternative" uniform that had masked her attractiveness and even her personality.
The paradox rests in the fact that Paula's parents now regard with a certain suspicion the rediscovered external dignity of their daughter. They see what in the first place is the rediscovery of a moral, hence, also an aesthetic order, as a dangerous, permanent regression to normality, or the norm.
The One who made beauty beautiful
After all this has been said — and it derives from a theology of beauty that goes from Augustine to von Balthasar — it is clear that the pedagogical frontier is not on the moralistic plane (largely incomprehensible to young people) of annoying criticism of externalism and good looks.
Rather, an attempt must be made to overcome the exploitation of beauty as a pure instrument of consumerism. We must discover it as an existentially authentic, if rudimentary, way to the transcendent order.
Why waste this opportunity for dialogue with young people? They well know that the values of interiority are objectively superior. They know this because it is a truth engraved in the human conscience and in Western culture. This is also why they feel uncomfortable and guilty in their search for beauty and live it out as though they were "breaking the law".
Let us not follow them on this path. Instead, let us teach them that if they seek beauty it is because they long for the One who made beauty beautiful, who was determined, and did not leave it to chance, that beauty should dwell in creation and that human beings should recognize it.
Weekly Edition in English
10/17 August 2005, page 10
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