You are beautiful, says Katy Perry, without having seen you. I am beautiful, you must agree, without having seen yourself. But our insecurities cannot be healed by bursts of individuality when they are a direct result of the destruction of community. Our fashionable self-affirmations do not represent a greater awareness of our individual worth, a greater liberation, or a greater acceptance of “all kinds of bodies.” They represent the attempt to fill in the pit left by strong local communities. How can we know that we are beautiful when the only source of this knowledge — the eyes of other people who see us — is increasingly distant?
Divorce, absentee parenthood, the shrunken family size, the transition of all human beings into commuters who leave their homes for work, play, food, and religion; the constant advertisement of a global market, which offers us the posed and altered bodies of people we don’t know as our models of beauty in place of the mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers that we do — through all of this, the look of love grows rare.
When a husband tells his wife, “you are beautiful,” it is a perverse construction that has her think, “Yes, you think that, but the ‘real world’ may not.” When a father tells his daughter that she is beautiful, she must take his love for her as an insight born out of care-filled study — an insight that no pop-star, no matter how sincere his general affirmation to a faceless crowd, can make. We must trust our communities to tell us about ourselves with greater truth than a faceless public — with greater truth, even, than our own reflection. They alone keep our bodies in view. In turn, we must tell the truth about our neighbors. We are first of all responsible for keeping the body of our neighbors and only secondarily owed the same being-kept.