Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. That is to say that beauty is subjective and, despite the human condition that every one of us shares, is subject to cultural biases as well as personal ones.
This point was underlined recently with an online social experiment conducted by journalist Esther Honig, Her project, Before and After, used a single photograph of Esther herself posted to a freelance website called Fiverr to find Photoshop professionals from around the globe. 27 artists from 27 different countries replied to her ad and each of them got one photograph and the same instructions: make me look beautiful.
It is fascinating to see how photoshop experts from different countries manipulated the original picture to fit their own standards of beauty (and in some cases morality – although in no way explicit, the original photo contains no clothing. Not surprisingly, some participants made sure to add some – and some added more than others).
As fascinating as that was, however, it surprised me that some photoshop experts didn’t turn Esther into an alien. Surely there would have been at least one science fiction fan out there who would have turned her into an Orion slave girl from STAR TREK. Where were the photoshop artists who could have turned her into one of the cast of AVATAR? Perhaps a robot? Where were the artists whose standards of beauty are beyond the mere cultural?
Now, I don’t know whether Esther did receive entries like that and just ignored them. Perhaps there were artists who transformed her into an exotic alien beauty and she chucked them out because they skewed the experiment. Clearly that wasn’t an area in which she was interested. But that does beg the question: Why do our standards of beauty have to be so narrow?
Take the Miss Universe competition. Started in 1957 in Long Beach, California, the Miss Universe pageant began life as a simple bathing beauty contest. It has grown to encompass many more attributes, and has been bought by Donald Trump, but it still seeks to define what is, essentially, a personal preference.
The most egregious outrage of this pageant is the name. How typically arrogant that we would hold a contest to decide the most beautiful woman in the universe and then only allow contestants from one planet to participate.
And then, of those contestants, they must meet certain criteria – they must be single and must remain single for the duration of the pageant, they must never have borne a child – the result of which is that you have representatives from participating countries who meet a specific criteria… a group of women who are all virtually the same… to compete to see who is the best example of one who meets this specific and very narrow criteria.
Never mind that in 2014 we are still even holding beauty pageants, an archaic ritual where men have an excuse to watch women parade around in various costumes (as if we need an excuse… that basically describes the entirety of Western television or the internet) but the fact that standards of beauty are so narrow as to be laughable is what makes this travesty of a competition so outmoded, outdated and irrelevant.
We as science fiction fans, should be above that… however, we are human (and half of us are male, which is kind of a strike against us) and we can’t help but be attracted to certain archetypes of beauty. At least, as science fiction fans, we can expand our ideas of beauty beyond the mere cultural, beyond even merely human. Our standards of beauty at least can include a whole rainbow of skin colours, and even incorporate synthetic limbs. We can find others beautiful who sport pointed ears, fur, scales.
Does this make science fiction fans better than non fans? I wish that were the case, but sadly it isn’t as anyone who has followed the controversy over sexist staements from the SFWA or seen the internet set ablaze over the inclusion of women into online gaming communities.
We are science fiction fans and, as such, we are, or should be, more open to concepts and ideas that are strange and new than most of the population who are not. This should include standards of beauty and, to some extent, it does. We can love the alien, but it doesn’t make us any less human that we do.
So, until such time as the Miss Universe contest opens its doors to contestants from other star systems, we will have to keep trying to expand our own notions of beauty– standards that look beyond the narrow criteria of size, age, religion, culture or skin colour — on Earth.