Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder

Inspiration: a brief philosophical excursion on Facebook on the concept of “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, and the idea that any measurable quality (like beauty) can only exist because someone is there to do the measuring…

So I built this kind of like a fan fiction for the first and second Shrek movies, with an important life lesson built in

I look in the mirror and remember what I was like back then. Long silky red hair, delicate features, pale white skin, a slender body and a cute smile. That’s how everyone at the palace used to describe me, especially all the lords’ sons who wanted to one day marry me. Mom and Dad had already insisted that most of them were after me for my title as heiress to the throne of Far Far Away, but when I read some of their love letters I realized how they saw me and knew it wasn’t just that.

Then, when that handsome Prince Charming fella was first to dare to go right up to Dad and ask him for my hand, he was turned down and my world turned upside down from that moment. After the third proposal, Dad took me aside and told me about my curse. He said he wanted to make sure I really married someone who deserved me, someone who would go through so much just to deserve me that when we finally met that would lead to true love’s kiss and my curse would break immediately. And the only way to ensure this, he said, was to send me to live alone in a tower in a dragon-guarded, lava-moat-surrounded castle. He did mention it would be kind of like finishing school, and that he and Mom would stay in touch.

When I heard this, it shattered my dreams. I was so afraid of dragons, I didn’t know how I would survive that, let alone all the knights who would attempt to rescue me and have to fight it. I was afraid of being alone too. I’d never been allowed to attend sleepovers with my friends or even have dinner with them.

And who could blame my parents for forbidding it? every time the sun set I’d end up a large green beast with weird wiggly ears, a squashed nose, and even facial hair. Hardly the looks of a true princess.

And then the most unexpected thing happened. I was rescued from the tower… by an ogre. Shrek was really quite ugly, at least to my young dreamy fairy-tale eyes. We had our obvious difficulties at first, but during the journey back to Lord Farquaad’s castle a bond started to form. I realized he wasn’t all that bad or even all that ugly. He was sensitive and caring, and more human than many men I’ve met.

Then I was to wed Farquaad. At the last minute, Shrek burst in to confess his feelings and try to get me for himself. Cornered and out of time, I’d had to let the curse come out and everyone saw what happened at sunset. And that was the first time I realized quite how subjective beauty is, how cultural, how much it depends on people’s education, and mostly – and this is the biggest point of all – how much it depends on others. On others being there to see and appreciate. On others’ way of seeing things through the lens of their own backgrounds.

Indeed, while Farquaad set his soldiers on Shrek and myself, Shrek then told me that I was beautiful, even as an ogre. I may never know what he meant completely: physically beautiful or beautiful on the inside? But I do know that Farquaad’s notion of beauty was purely human, purely physical, purely cultural. It was clear to me that as far as he was concerned, I wasn’t fit to marry any man or even live amongst humans. As an ogre, I was naturally the enemy. Shrek told me later on how he’d ended up on the quest to rescue me just because of a ridiculous fluke.

So I went on to marry Shrek and move in with him. And I kept being confronted with this issue: how was I, castle-born, royally raised, Princess Fiona going to adapt to living in a dirty, muddy swamp that even with Shrek’s regular careful cleaning always looked worse than the dirtiest pigsty in my parents’ kingdom? But I stuck with it, and got used to it, and now appreciate the beauty of the trees around the swamp, the flowers, even the exotic foods that no cook back home in their right mind would even dream up.

Yes, beauty, propriety, lifestyle were cultural things. They depend on having observers around to notice them and evaluate them according to their own frames of reference. I may regret the days of old when I made all the Lords’ sons’ heads spin, but I know now that I am beautiful not because I think I am, but because others out there think I am. And not just any others. Those that matter most to me. Shrek, Donkey, Dragon, Puss, Pinocchio, the Pigs and the Mice, Wolfie, all of them. And that’s the only way I can be beautiful.

I think that ultimately, that is the biggest life lesson I’ve learned from the whole experience. Beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder. But it does need a beholder. One can’t simply declare oneself beautiful or otherwise. In fact, when one does, on what basis does one do it? On the same cultural basis as most others do it. And what conclusions does one draw? The culturally accepted ones.

We keep judging ourselves by the same cultural standards with which we judge others. This often leads us to ignore the true value of who we are and instead focus on comparisons. We need to learn to see ourselves for what we are, and see outside judgment in the right way. We need to learn to not be affected by outside judgment, and only accept that which matters most to us: the true and sincere opinions of those who truly care.

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