Repost: The beauty of women

Here’s one of my posts from back when Throne and Altar was getting ten hits per day:

love to look at pretty girls–I could watch a beautiful woman for hours an be completely content.  Christ says that this is adultery, and I don’t doubt it, but it’s also a curious phenomenon.  Why do so many of us find the beauty of women so enthralling?

Dumb question, you might be thinking:  it’s my sex drive, vile sinner that I am.  Now there’s no doubt that I’m sexually attracted to women, and these desires can be strong, but I don’t think that’s it, at least that’s not most of it.  The way I respond to a pretty girl is nothing like the way I respond to, say, a juicy steak.  I’m interested in the steak for the satisfaction it can give me by eating it; if I can’t eat it, it might as well not exist as far as I’m concerned.  When I see a lovely girl, my thoughts are seldom on how she might delight me in bed.  In fact, my experience is ecstatic in the old sense of the term–I am lifted outside myself; I joyously forget about myself completely.  For an instant, the girl is everything–her face, her eyes, her smile, her hair.  I’m enthralled; I would be content to just look forever.

Is this the disinterestedness of a true aesthetic response, or am I just fooling myself?  I don’t think I’m fooling myself, for three reasons.  First, it’s not just men that are enraptured by women’s beauty–I’ve seen it have the same effect on women and children.  I can remember times when one of them (say, my wife or one of my little nieces) pointed out a pretty girl to me.  “Look at how pretty she is!” they say with the excitement that comes not from desire but from delight.  A beautiful woman brings happiness to everyone who sees her:  men, women, and children.  We rejoice that something so lovely exists.

Second, I find that I can have a similar, but much weaker, appreciation for the beauty of some animals.  Perhaps you, too, have been struck by the gracefulness and perfect design of a cat, and you’ve thought to yourself “What a magnificent creature!”  We can appreciate the grace and perfection of a woman in the same way, although for a woman the impression is much, much more intense. The reason, I think, is that human women really are more beautiful than cats, although desire might augment our interest (as might our appreciation of the woman as a fellow person, with consciousness and intelligence).

I have another reason to think that the appreciation of female beauty isn’t purely carnal, but I’m afraid I don’t know a delicate way to say it.  When I judge a steak, I do so solely on the basis of how much pleasure it would give me to eat it.  Now, this can’t be the “edge” that a pretty woman has over a plain one, because, frankly, sex with either one would probably feel about the same to me.  Furthermore, the thought of adultery is not only morally, but also viscerally repellent to me.  If looking at girls always meant plotting to sleep with them, I would rather have an urge to avoid it.

Furthermore, the awe elicited by a pretty girl doesn’t just come from the form of her face and body (although she needs these to be pretty).  What most enthralls us is this form charged with life.  We love to watch her hair bounce and her body sway as she walks, to see her lovely eyes move from one object to another, to watch her concentrate, blush, smile, and laugh in turn.  A woman’s vitality is part of her beauty.  This is why a pretty girl in a movie is much more alluring than the same girl in a photograph.  And this is still all at the level of superficial appreciation.  Even if I don’t know or care about a girl, I can appreciate and be attracted to her vitality and her femininity.

The appreciation for a woman’s beauty is thus a spiritual as well as a carnal affair.  This makes it both promising and dangerous.  It is promising because it can fuse with and complement real love so easily.  If my desire for a woman was the same as my desire for a steak, I could perhaps both love her and desire her in this way, but the two feelings would be totally separate.  In fact, they would tend to oppose one another, since one treats her as an end and one as a means.  On the other hand, attraction to a woman’s beauty, vitality, and femininity can merge seamlessly with love for her as a person and a child of God.  Both aesthetic appreciation and love are value responses; both treat the object as an end in itself.

On the other hand, this spiritual element can make the desire for a girl a more dangerous temptation than a mere carnal desire could be.  If I want a steak but know I shouldn’t eat it, it’s not too hard to change my attention to something else.  The steak had only made a claim on a part, a fairly humble part, of my soul.  A woman, though, can entrance and intoxicate me body, soul, and spirit.  This is all to the good if she is, or can become, my wife.  If she’s not,  then it might require all of my strength to put her out of mind.  Christ was right to turn us away from such danger.

9 Responses

  1. I know what you mean – but I call the women that produce this effect ‘lovely’ to distinguish them from the other types of attractiveness.

    It is to do with the face, mostly – and has to do with signalling something like cherishability, openness, kindness, innocence, the (apparent) ability to be devoted – and stuff like that (whether or not this is true – this is the effect of loveliness).

    It only somewhat overlaps with other types of attractiveness – and may be seen in ‘plain’ women, or at least women not ‘conventionally’ attractive or ‘popular’.

    There are approximately zero women in the public sphere (TV, Hollywood, music, modelling etc.) that I would describe as ‘lovely’ – the only possible exception I can think of is Samantha Cameron, wife of the British Prime Minister (although, naturally enough, public life is taking its toll on her).

  2. I was smitten with Zooey Deschanel when I first saw her (I think in a TV spot for 500 Days of Summer), but I’m starting to get overexposed to her and her generally flighty personality has long since started grating on me.

  3. Consider the following phenomenon:

    1. There are some women, a very few, who inspire massive desire yet are objectively quite ugly.

    2. There are women who are astonishingly beautiful yet do not inspire much in the way of desire.

    3. Some female children are also astonishingly beautiful, yet do not inspire any desire at all.

    4. Female genitals are objectively quite ugly yet inspire massive desire.

    5. Both the steak, a piece of seared flesh, and female genitalia, a slimy, hairy hole, would normally be quite disgusting to us. But they are instead produce a strong desire.

    From this I have reached the following conclusions:

    1. Beauty is one of the things that can produce attraction.

    2. Beauty is not the only thing that produces attraction.

    3. Beauty does not necessarily produce attraction.

  4. I would add Enya (who I think is a practising Catholic).

  5. Aesthetic value seems to have two features:

    1. It is about things that we are passionately interested in.
    2. It has objective features that inspire objectively appreciation.

    As a man, consider your reaction to looking at, say, Cary Grant. Certainly one takes a an enormous amount of pleasure in contemplating such physical perfection. But looking at Cary Grant does not, for me as a man, have that same sense of being overwhelmed as when I look at a really beautiful girl. Because male beauty just isn’t something that I, as a man, am passionately interested in.

    Consider also the impact of writing that is absolutely beautiful from a stylistic point of view, yet deals with relatively frivolous subject matter. We will often be more attracted to writing that does not have the same perfection of style, yet deals with subjects that have more emotional import.

  6. Consider yet some examples from nature.

    Does the male warthog find the female warthog beautiful? I would say no, a male warthog does not find a female warthog beautiful. Because beauty has certain objective features. But he is sexually attracted to her nonetheless and this is because beauty is not the only thing that produces sexual attraction.

    However, there are some animals that are objectively beautiful and in them beauty may well be the method of producing attraction. I have no problem thinking that a male cat would be attracted to a female cat because of her beauty.

  7. 2. It has objective features that can inspire disinterested appreciation.

  8. Consider also the Cary Grant example from the female perspective. For a woman looking at him would probably produce the same sense of being overwhelmed that looking at a beautiful girl does for us, while looking at even the most beautiful girl would not.

    Which would seem to support my contention that aesthetic response has both interested and disinterested components.

  9. This is a beautiful philosophical meditation, but unfortunately, I have to call you out on some science:

    “Now, this can’t be the “edge” that a pretty woman has over a plain one, because, frankly, sex with either one would probably feel about the same to me.”

    While this statement seems to make sense, there are other evolutionary contributors to our perception of beauty. From opur dearest friend Wikipedia:

    [quote]Standards of beauty have changed over time, based on changing cultural values. Historically, paintings show a wide range of different standards for beauty. However, humans who are relatively young, with smooth skin, well-proportioned bodies, and regular features, have traditionally been considered the most beautiful throughout history.

    A strong indicator of physical beauty is “averageness”, or “koinophilia”. When images of human faces are averaged together to form a composite image, they become progressively closer to the “ideal” image and are perceived as more attractive. This was first noticed in 1883, when Francis Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin, overlaid photographic composite images of the faces of vegetarians and criminals to see if there was a typical facial appearance for each. When doing this, he noticed that the composite images were more attractive compared to any of the individual images.

    Researchers have replicated the result under more controlled conditions and found that the computer generated, mathematical average of a series of faces is rated more favorably than individual faces. Evolutionarily, it makes logical sense that sexual creatures should be attracted to mates who possess predominantly common or average features.

    A feature of beautiful women that has been explored by researchers is a waist–hip ratio of approximately 0.70. Physiologists have shown that women with hourglass figures are more fertile than other women due to higher levels of certain female hormones, a fact that may subconsciously condition males choosing mates.[/quote]

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