By André AcimanAndré Aciman is the author of “Call Me by Your Name” and “Find Me. c.2019 The New York Times Company and André Aciman
Humans have engaged with the concept of beauty for millennia, trying to define it while being defined by it. André Aciman (Credit- Simone Noronha) Plato thought that merely contemplating beauty caused “the soul to grow wings.” Ralph Waldo Emerson found beauty in Raphael’s “The Transfiguration,” writing that “a calm benignant beauty shines over all this picture, and goes directly to the heart.” In “My Skin,” Lizzo sings: “The most beautiful thing that you ever seen is even bigger than what we think it means.” We seek beauty. Yearn for it. Condemn it. Celebrate it. Question and envy it. But why? We asked a group of artists, scientists, writers and thinkers to answer this simple question: Why is beauty, however defined, so important in our lives? Here are their responses.
André Aciman (Credit- Simone Noronha)
By Constance Wu(André Aciman is the author of “Call Me by Your Name” and “Find Me.”) c.2019 The New York Times Company and André Aciman
“The purpose of sex is procreation,” a straight cisgender man once told me, trying to defend his homophobia. “So that proves that homosexuality is scientifically and biologically wrong. It serves no purpose.” I was quiet for a moment. “Huh,” I then said, “so ... what’s the science behind blow jobs?” That shut him up real quick. I often hear arguments that reduce human existence to a biological function, as if survival or productivity were our sole purpose, and the “bottom line” our final word. That is an attractive stance to take because it requires the least amount of energy or imagination. And for most animals, it’s the only option — the hummingbird sipping nectar is merely satisfying her hunger. She does not know her own beauty; she doesn’t have the capacity to perceive it. But we do. We enjoy art, music, poetry. We build birdfeeders. We plant flowers. Only humans can seek out and express beauty. Why would we have this unique ability if we weren’t meant to use it? Even quarks, those fundamental parts at the core of life, were originally named after “beauty” and “truth.” That’s why beauty matters to me. When we find beauty in something, we are making the fullest use of our biological capacities. Another way of putting it: When we become aware of life’s beauty, that’s when we are most alive.
Constance Wu (Credit-Simone Noronha)
By Cristina Mittermeier and Paul NicklenCristina Mittermeier and Paul Nicklen are conservation photographers and the founders of SeaLegacy.) c.2019 The New York Times Company, Cristina Mittermeier and Paul Nicklen
The marketing machines of modern life would have us believe that beauty is about physical attributes. With the benefit of the wisdom we have attained after many years spent traversing the planet as conservation photographers, we know otherwise. Beauty has less to do with the material things around us, and more to do with how we spend our time on earth. We create true beauty only when we channel our energy to achieve a higher purpose, build strong communities and model our behavior so that others can find inspiration to do better by each other and our planet. Beauty has nothing to do with the latest makeup or fashion trends, and everything to do with how we live on this planet and act to protect it. Every day we learn that species, landscapes and indigenous knowledge are vanishing before our eyes. That’s why we’ve dedicated our lives to reminding the world of the fragile beauty of our only home, and to protecting nature, not just for humanity’s sake, but for the benefit of all life on earth. Committing our time, energy and resources to achieve these goals fills our lives with beauty.
Cristina Mittermeier and Paul Nicklen (Credit- Simone Noronha)
By Elizabeth BlackburnElizabeth Blackburn is a co-recipient of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. c.2019 The New York Times Company and Elizabeth Blackburn
Science enriches us by bringing us beauty in multiple forms. Sometimes it can be found in the simplest manifestations of nature: the pattern of a nautilus shell; the colors and delicate shapes of a eucalyptus tree in full flower; the telescopic images of swirling galaxies, with their visual message of great mystery and vastness. Sometimes it is the intricacy of the barely understood dynamics of the world’s molecules, cells, organisms and ecosystems that speaks to our imagination and wonder. Sometimes there is beauty in the simple idea of science pursuing truth, or in the very process of scientific inquiry by which human creativity and ingenuity unveil a pattern within what had looked like chaos and incomprehensibility. And isn’t there beauty and elegance in the fact that just four DNA nucleotides are patterned to produce the shared genetic information that underlies myriad seemingly unrelated forms of life?
Elizabeth Blackburn (Credit- Simone Noronha)
By Jameela JamilJameela Jamil is an actress and the founder of the “I Weigh” movement. c.2019 The New York Times Company and Jameela Jamil
Beauty is just another way the tendency of our society to create hierarchies and segregate people expresses itself. The fact that over the past century certain individuals and businesses realized that it is incredibly lucrative to push upon us ever-changing beauty standards has only made things worse. The glorification of impossible ideals is the foundation of the diet and beauty industries. And because of it, we find ourselves constantly in flux, spending however much money and time it takes to meet society’s standards. First, we didn’t want ethnic features. Now, we are all about plumping our lips and getting eye lifts in pursuit of a slanted eye. Skin-bleaching treatments and tanning creams. The ideal is constantly moving, and constantly out of reach. The concept of beauty is a permanent obsession that permeates cultures around the world.
Jameela Jamil (Credit- Simone Noronha)
By Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McColloughLazaro Hernandez and Jack McCollough are the co-founders and designers of Proenza Schouler. c.2019 The New York Times Company, Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCollough
A person’s definition of beauty is an abstract, complicated and highly personal ideal that becomes a guiding light throughout life. We crave what we consider beautiful, and that craving can easily develop into desire, which in turn becomes the fuel that propels us into action. Beauty has the power to spawn aspiration and passion, thus becoming the impetus to achieve our dreams. In our professional lives as fashion designers, we often deal with beauty as a physical manifestation. But beauty can also be an emotional, creative and deeply spiritual force. Its very essence is polymorphic. It can take on limitless shapes, allowing us to define it by what makes the most sense to us. We are extremely fortunate to be living at a time when so many examples of beauty are being celebrated and honored, and more inclusive and diverse standards are being set, regardless of race, gender, sexuality or creed. Individuality is beautiful. Choice is beautiful. Freedom is beautiful. Beauty will always have the power to inspire us. It is that enigmatic, unknowable muse that keeps you striving to be better, to do better, to push harder. And by that definition, what we all need most in today’s world is perhaps simply more beauty.
Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCollough (Credit- Simone Noronha)
By Zac PosenZac Posen is a fashion designer. c.2019 The New York Times Company and Zac Posen
I spend most of my waking hours (and many of my nightly dreams) thinking about beauty and its meaning. My whole life’s work has been an attempt to express beauty through design. I see beauty as something ineffable, and I experience it in many ways. For example, I love gardening. The form and color of the flowers I tend to fill me with awe and joy. The time I spend in my garden frequently influences the shape of my gowns, as well as the objects that I choose to surround myself with. It even brings me closer to the people who have the same passion for it. As humans, we all are more or less attuned to beauty. And because of this, we all try to engage with it one way or another — be it by being in nature, through poetry or by falling in love. And though our interaction with it can be a solitary affair, in the best cases, it connects people who share the same appreciation for it. Beauty is what allows us to experience the extraordinary richness of our surroundings. Sensing it is like having a visa to our inner selves and the rest of the world, all at once. The interesting thing about beauty is that there is simply no downside to it: It can only enhance our lives.
Jameela Jamil (Credit- Simone Noronha)
By Joy HarjoJoy Harjo is the United States poet laureate. She is the first Native American to hold the position. c.2019 The New York Times Company and Joy Harjo
The Life of Beauty
The sung blessing of creation Led her into the human story. That was the first beauty. Next beauty was the sound of her mother’s voice Rippling the waters beneath the drumming skin Of her birthing cocoon. Next beauty the father with kindness in his hands As he held the newborn against his breathing. Next beauty the moon through the dark window It was a rocking horse, a wish. There were many beauties in this age For everything was immensely itself: Green greener than the impossibility of green, the taste of wind after its slide through dew grass at dawn, Or language running through a tangle of wordlessness in her mouth. She ate well of the next beauty. Next beauty planted itself urgently beneath the warrior shrines. Next was beauty beaded by her mother and pinned neatly To hold back her hair. Then how tendrils of fire longing grew into her, beautiful the flower Between her legs as she became herself. Do not forget this beauty she was told. The story took her far away from beauty. In the tests of her living, Beauty was often long from the reach of her mind and spirit. When she forgot beauty, all was brutal. But beauty always came to lift her up to stand again. When it was beautiful all around and within, She knew herself to be corn plant, moon, and sunrise. Death is beautiful, she sang, as she left this story behind her. Even her bones, said time. Were tuned to beauty.
Joy Harjo (Credit- Simone Noronha)
By Massimo BotturaMassimo Bottura is a chef and the founder of Food for Soul c.2019 The New York Times Company and Massimo Bottura
Beauty is a positive and dynamic energy that has the power to convey emotion and express individuality as well as collectiveness. It can be felt through each of our senses, yet it is more magnificent when it transcends all five. Over more than 30 years as a chef, I have experienced beauty unfolding through my cooking and in the creation of new dishes. Recipes have shown me that beauty is not a singular ingredient, object or idea, but the sum of the parts. Each dish has an appearance, a flavor, a temperature, a smell, a consistency and a nutritional value, but its triumph is the story all those parts tell together. When my team and I launched Milan’s Refettorio Ambrosiano, our first community kitchen, in 2015, beauty was the guiding principle in our mission to nourish the homeless. We collaborated with artists, architects, designers and chefs to build a place of warmth, where gestures of hospitality and dignity would be offered to all. What I witnessed by bringing different people and perspectives around the table was the profound ability of beauty to build community. In a welcoming space, our guests had the freedom to imagine who they would like to be and begin to change their lives. In that space, beauty wielded the power of transformation. When I visit the Refettorios that Food for Soul, the nonprofit I founded, has built around the world over the years, what strikes me as most beautiful is neither a table nor a chair nor a painting on the wall. Beauty is the spontaneity of two strangers breaking bread. It is the proud smile of a man who feels he has a place in the world. It is the emotion of that moment, and its power to fill a room with the celebration of life.
Massimo Bottura (Credit- Simone Noronha)
By Neil deGrasse TysonNeil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist with the American Museum of Natural History, where he also serves as the Frederick P. Rose director of the Hayden Planetarium. He is the author of “Letters From an Astrophysicist.” c.2019 The New York Times Company and Neil deGrasse Tyson
Who wouldn’t argue that some things are objectively beautiful? Much of what we can see in the natural world would surely qualify: sunsets, snow-capped mountains, waterfalls, wildflowers. Images of these scenes, which please and soothe our senses, are among the most reproduced in all of civilization. It’s true, of course, that we’re not the only creatures attracted to flowers. Bees and butterflies can’t resist them either — but that’s because they need flowers to survive. Lying at the opposite end of the beauty spectrum are reptiles. They’ve had it pretty bad. Across decades of science fiction, their countenance has served as the model for a long line of ugly monsters, from Godzilla to the Creature in the “Creature From the Black Lagoon” to the Gorn in “Star Trek.” There may be a good reason for our instinctive attraction to some things and distaste for others. If our mammalian ancestors, running underfoot, hadn’t feared reptilian dinosaurs they would have been swiftly eaten. Similarly, nearly everyone would agree that the harmless butterfly is more beautiful than the stinger-equipped bee — with the possible exception of beekeepers. Risk of bodily harm appears to matter greatly in our collective assessment of what is or is not beautiful. Beauty could very well be a way for our senses to reassure us when we feel safe in a dangerous universe. If so, I can’t help but wonder how much beauty lies just out of reach, hidden in plain sight, simply because we have no more than five senses with which to experience the world.
By Reshma SaujaniReshma Saujani is the founder and CEO of Girls Who Code and the author of “Brave, Not Perfect.” c.2019 The New York Times Company and Reshma Saujani
Beauty can stop us in our tracks. It can inspire us, move us, bring us to tears. Beauty can create total chaos, and then total clarity. The best kind of beauty changes hearts and minds. That’s why the bravery of our girls is so beautiful — it can do all these things. Over the past year, girls have moved us to tears with impassioned speeches about gun control, sexual assault and climate change. They have challenged the status quo and brought us clarity with their vision of the future. They have changed the hearts and minds of generations that are older, but not necessarily wiser. Girls like Greta Thunberg and Isra Hirsi are fighting for the environment. Young women like Diana Kris Navarro, a Girls Who Code alumna, are leading efforts against harassment in tech. Girls like Lauren Hogg, a Parkland shooting survivor, and Thandiwe Abdullah, a Black Lives Matter activist, are speaking out against gun violence. The list goes on and on and on. These girls are wise and brave beyond their years. They speak up because they care, not because they have the attention of a crowd or a camera. And they persist even when they’re told they’re too young, too small, too powerless — because they know they’re not. Their bravery is beauty, redefined. And it’s what we need now, more than ever.