Nguyen mentions in passing that the name “Beauty Without Borders” “deliberately allud[es] to” Doctors Without Borders, the nonprofit that travels to countries in need and provides medical care for those without access. I found that this tied in quite well with our recent discussions of the medicalization of beauty. Even in countries experiencing extreme violence, poverty or suffering, the “absence” of or “inaccessability” of beauty is still seen to be a pressing issue that needs taking care of, perhaps before addressing the other aforementioned problems. In fact, Nguyen asserts that beauty “engender[s] a measure but also a medium of personhood and rights”. In other words, “beauty is a category through which (particularly, especially, feminine) bodies achieve humanness”. Beauty is associated with freedom, civilization, modernity, humanity, and, most importantly, with vitality – with valid vitality.
Conversely, then, we can surmise that ugliness (or what we perceive as ugliness) is associated with inhumanity, savagery, primitiveness, a lack of personhood, and even death or invalid existence. Nguyen cites the burqa as a common example of what “well-intentioned” Westerners see as ugliness, but she uses interesting language: the burqa “hobbles the feminine body”. Hobbling is a deliberate restriction of movement; the burqa is likened to something restrictive and potentially crippling. Wearing the burqa is, therefore, similar to having a medical disability. It prevents the body from being fully “healthy” – a word which is associated here with the “fully liberated” Western idea of beauty.
This further medicalizes beauty in this context, which brings us to an interesting junction: beauty, just like medicine, “becomes a human right through the traditional concept of dignity”. That is, the inhuman, undignified, crippled individual (who has clearly been crippled by The Evil Status Quo in her country/region/faith) has the right to reclaim her humanity through (Western) beautification. Much like the critically ill, these women must cling to their dignity; they must use beauty as medicine to restore their self-esteem – for, as we have already learned, low self-esteem is a critical ailment. To look and/or be Western is to be healthy, to be valid, to be real, and to love yourself. Ugliness and disability are the opposite of prettiness and ability.
Have you ever felt crippled for not subscribing to a Western beauty ideal, or abled by intentionally playing into it?