We're all familiar with the danger of euphemisms. It's so distressing when an ugly concept is drained of the power to frighten us, just because someone managed to attach a sanitized name to it. It's the simplest trick in the book: just call evil by a nicer name, and people really will believe it's a nicer thing. And so we have "reproductive healthcare" and "selective reduction" for abortion; "enhanced interrogation" for torture; "data mining" for spying on citizens.
But here's something just as distressing: when a worthy concept gets drained of its power just because not everyone is up to the challenge. Somehow, that frightens me even more than when sanitized words are used to hide evil. Don't forget, in Orwell's prophetic novel 1984, the government made the people accept hellish concepts as everyday, but it worked just as hard to render positive words meaningless, or fluid in meaning.
What am I talking about? Beauty, for one thing. With the best of intentions, more and more people are doing their best to make the word "beauty" meaningless -- especially when we're talking about the beauty of women. I'm not taking about interior beauty or intrinsic worth -- I'm just talking about simple, aesthetic, physical attractiveness (so you in the back, with your "Mother Theresa is more beautiful than Penelope Cruz" picket sign, you can just relax).
Now, it's a good thing that the definition of feminine beauty is being stretched a bit. It's no longer acceptable, at least in many quarters, to say that, in order to be considered beautiful, women must be tall, gaunt, pouty, either blonde or raven-haired (but nothing in between), and almost noseless. It's admirable that people are saying things like, "Of course Adele is a beautiful woman, even though she wears a size 16" (or whatever). I'm delighted that there are more black women, more Asians, more Hispanics, even more Down Syndrome models appearing in ads and commercials. Narrowness is never a sign of health, and bad things happen to woman and to society in general when our definitions of beauty are too narrow.
But what happens when they become too broad? There is such a thing. The last few decades have seen more and more cultural campaigns insisting, "All women are beautiful."
I understand the impulse behind it. We're sick and tired of having our worth defined by how tight our abs are. We want our character to count, we want our experiences to be worth something, we want our heredity to be accepted. We have had enough of being told that the only way to be beautiful is to divide our time equally between the gym, the salon, and the plastic surgeon. We want to know that we haven't become some kind of human debris just because we have stretch marks or crow's feet or big thighs. We don't want women terrified to have children because it will "ruin" their bodies. We don't want girls killing themselves with diet pills, and we don't want married couples' sex lives to be ruined because either spouse finds the wife's imperfections intolerable. These are all worthy concerns, and there's plenty of battle left to be fought. The CEO of Abercrombie and Fitch deserves to be mocked for his juvenile ideas of what makes a person attractive; and while he has every right to limit his clothing line to certain sizes, the consumer has every right to boycott them in favor of companies run by a human being.
And yet. What are we really aiming for here? Do we want society to acknowledge that there are many forms of beauty? Or do we want society to start pretending that there is no such thing as beauty? Because that's where we're heading at the moment, and that way leads to disaster. We're telling people, "Everything is beautiful. Everyone is acceptable. Beauty is subjective, and therefore there's no possible way to say that any one particular thing we see before our eyes is not beautiful. Thin is beautiful, fat is beautiful, dressy is beautiful, messy is beautiful, everything is beautiful, and don't you dare say otherwise."
What's dangerous about this? Surely it's a good thing when we are pushed to stop judging each other, right? Surely it's a step forward when we are discouraged from labeling each other.
But the problem is, we don't stop. We just start being afraid to say it out loud. We learn to guard what we say in public, but on the inside, we all still have pretty steadfast ideas of what we find beautiful. There is no power on earth that can make me think that Rosie O'Donnell is just as beautiful as Lauren Bacall. I also think that Kim Kardashian is more beautiful than the Flannery O'Connor. Thinking so doesn't make me a sexist or an ageist or a sizeist, or shallow or arrogant or prejudiced. It just means I have eyes.
It's a good thing to realize that not all women can or should look like porn stars (and that not even porn stars look like porn stars), and it's a very good thing to be capable of seeing more beauty around us, rather than less. But it's a very bad thing to be told, "Don't trust your eyes. Don't believe your instincts. Don't admit that you know what you know." We've had quite enough of that already. If you are never allowed to think, "That women is not beautiful," then it's just a short slide to never being allowed to say, "That behavior is immoral" or "That relationship is not healthy" or "That world view is not humane."
You see, this is how Hell operates in the 21st century: it makes it unfashionable, even dangerous, to say the obvious. One minute, you pretend to think that all women are beautiful; the next minute, you have to pretend to think that all actions are unjudgeable.
In our zeal to be fair and compassionate, let's not become fools. Words have meanings. When we insist on preserving these meanings, some people do get left out. It's hard on them; but not as hard as living in a world where nothing we say means anything in particular.