Beauty is ultimately a touchy, touchy subject with most… A lesson I learned the hardest way possible last year after I asked the Celtic Polytheist community on Tumblr about a trend that I had noticed in the stories and in my research.
While studying several of the myths, I had begun to notice a trend in several areas. That trend was that the focal character’s beauty was almost always mentioned as a significant point… Having noticed this trend, though, the question I posed to the community was relatively simple: Was “Beauty” in these instances an allegory for something else- beauty of Character or some other abstract concept, perhaps… Or was is a direct reference to actual, physical appearance and the social Beauty Standards of Early Ireland?
After a short while, the wonderful Allec over at the Guide to Gaelic Polytheism chimed in and confirmed that it was, in fact, a trend focused on physical appearance specifically. However, they then went on to say they viewed it as abelist and did not believe that such a virtue had a continued place in modern polytheistic faith systems (saying, specifically “vanity and ableism. It’s a value I don’t like to say has a place as a virtue today, though it was certainly one in the past“)… Unfortunately, this would not be the last time I heard such a thing.
One user said:
“Even though the historical definition was a physical one, times change! This isn’t a 100% reconstructionist thing we’ve got going on […] The best thing I think to do, is too look at the values that are at the core, the essence I suppose, of the lore. While at the time the definition would have been physical beauty, we can 100% say ‘well, with our personal values and such, inner beauty/self love would make sense as a modern analog’”
They then went on to assert that Self Love was a perfectly acceptable substitution for Beauty as a virtue- or at least was an acceptable way in which the modern polytheist could redefine it; another, later, said something very similar- stating:
I should note that none of us are starting our own fiefdoms or kingdoms, and so our physical looks have absolutely nothing to do with other people’s perception of us.
Indeed, I would hear it again and again from various users at different points; the post would fall dormant for a bit, and another user would pick it up and reiterate roughly the same viewpoint before the post disappeared again waiting to resurface.
Eventually I disagreed. In fact, I disagreed from the beginning; I felt that Beauty did have a place in modern Polytheism. More than that, I didn’t think turning it into “Self Love” or “Body Positivity”, in and of itself, was an accurate method of modernizing it. Instead, I felt that that the continued emphasis on physical appearance in association with beauty was integral to reconstructing and modernizing the faith… And so, not being one to shy away from my beliefs I not only disagreed, but I disagreed publicly– going on to write the original incarnation of this three part series.
People didn’t care for my disagreement much. I received several Anonymous messages on Tumblr about it… Some were polite. Others were curious. Even more though, were rude, condescending, patronizing, or even outright accusatory; I was called everything from Classist, to Abelist, to Transphobic even for thinking that Beauty mattered or had a viable place in Modern Spirituality. On such person (someone who had never said a single word to me that I can find recorded) even went so far as to attack a friend of mine- someone I had only been speaking to for a month then- for even daring to associate with me.
Beauty, as I found out, is a polarizing subject. But even now, the main reason for my disagreement remains the same… And that is that we are judged- and we are often judged harshly- on our outward appearance in modern culture; how attractive we are, how aesthetically pleasing, how well we conform to the idea of beauty our culture, our community, our society holds. It is the whole foundation on which people make their initial judgement about us, and this judgment- whether we want it to or not- effects every aspect of our lives.
In short, how we look it affects our pay rate and hireability. It affects other’s willingness to help us. It affects how people interact with us or approach us, whether or not they respect us, their willingness to believe us or listen to what we say, sympathize with us, and so much more. To other levels, our own appearance can even affect how those around us are perceived- and it also affects even our own views of ourselves; the external state of our appearance is not only directly related to our internal emotions, but also has a significant impact on our mental and emotional health in various ways.
Please don’t misunderstand me, though… Stating this truth does not mean that I think it is always right or fair that we are judged on the foundation of our appearances alone; that we are judged by whether or not we conform to conventional beauty standards in the various societies and cultures and communities that ewe inhabit… Such judgment isn’t always fair or right- and I know this all too well as a person with tattoos, with brightly colored hair, who is overweight, who dresses a bit eccentrically compared to everyone else, and so on and so forth; I am myself no stranger to unfair stereotyping and judgement based on my outward appearance… And for a lot of us, the pressure to conform and that judgement that we face for not conforming is rooted in deeply ingrained Sexism.
But unfortunately, it doesn’t change the fact that it is the truth- and it has always been the truth since the dawn of Humankind… And yet I can’t help but feel that sometimes this judgement has a place and a purpose; that while it is wrong in some areas, it is right in others; that it isn’t always a bad thing. This comes largely from the fact that I fully believe that Beauty Standards fall into two very different (yet related) categories.
The first are those standards of Conventional Beauty– which, admittedly, is where I believe the disconnect primarily comes from; most people when they hear of Beauty Standards think of Conventional Beauty, or those traits, behaviors, actions, and manner of appearance [sic] which we as a general society (through marketing, or what have you) have determined to be the traits which make one sexually desirable. In other words, it is small feet, log necks, blue eyes, blonde hair, and pale skin- to name only a few examples of Conventional Beauty standards from various areas of the world.
But there is also another category that often gets overlooked… And those are the Beauty Standards for Participation in Polite Society; these are standards such as being hygienic, looking put together, smelling nicely, and essentially not looking (or smelling, or feeling) like you just crawled out of a garbage pit in the depths of hell.
I can see where these would often get confused with Conventional Beauty Standards- especially since they are likewise appearance based and dictate a number of things concerning our appearance… But they’re not “Beauty Standards” in the same sense; while related, these standards are often very different from what we consider Conventional Beauty Standards. Instead, the are standards and requirements for polite participation in general society… In other words, they are the standards that we must conform to in order to be accepted on the most basic level by our community, and not be shunned as that greasy mouth breather who stinks till Sunday.
Stop for a moment and think about people you’ve met who put little or no effort into their personal appearance. Think of people with bad breath or greasy hair and how your opinion of them subtly changed when you noticed these things. – Investing in Yourself: Personal Appearance and Hygiene
And believe me… That’s a rather unpleasant way to put it, but it’s ultimately true. We’ve all known that person. More than that, very few of us willingly make attempts to interact with them; most of us have a sort of ingrained prejudice against people who don’t take care of themselves outwardly… And if you don’t, you’re truly a lucky person. Not many of us, however, often have the privilege of claiming the same.
Yet while true Conventional Beauty Standards serve no real, tangible purpose? I believe that this set of standards truly do– and I believe they do for a number of reasons. The largest reason, however, is simply a matter of respect and health (something I will explain in more depth much later in this series).
This is Part 1 of a multi-part series detailing the reasons behind my decision to include “Beauty” as a Spiritual Virtue in my own Historically Oriented Polytheistic Religion and Faith (Irish Polytheism). For the rest of the series, please go here– or move directly to Part 2.
For a list of IriPol resources, including those I used to inform the opinions mentioned in this article, please view this page here.