I have a lot of trouble with the concept of beauty.
As a Sensitive New Age Man, I’ve swallowed the notion that focusing on physical attractiveness is shallow and probably sexist.
As a plant-based educator, I shy away from physical attractiveness as a marketing hook because I want my clients and students to focus on their health and vitality, not their looks.
And at the same time, I can spend far too many minutes in front of the bathroom mirror, critiquing my own body like a 10th grade expository writing teacher correcting a sloppy first draft.
So what’s up with all that? Is there something important and valuable to learn by focusing on beauty, or is it just ego and vanity and superficiality?
And what does it have to do with eating plants?
Expanding the Definition
The French author Stendhal once defined beauty as “the promise of happiness.”
I like this very much, because it explains why beauty is so important to humans (and most other animals).
Physical beauty in our ancestral environment (that is, before L’Oreal and liposuction and Lagerfeld) signified good health and reproductive fitness. Attraction was an eye-blink physical exam: If they got you hot and bothered, they were statistically very likely to provide you with healthy offspring.
Flowers, those universal metaphors and stand-ins for beauty, are, after all, nothing more or less than the promise of sweet fruit. Of delicious, life-sustaining calories.
So the first expansion of the definition of beauty is that it can’t just be a present-time thing. It’s got to signal future happiness for the beholder.
As I sat and mused on beauty, the phrase “walk in beauty” came to me. A little Googling revealed this to be the name of a Navajo purification prayer, used to reintegrate returning soldiers into the community.
The soldiers were presumed to have maimed, killed, and generally seen and caused a lot of mayhem. That energy might be necessary in a warrior but had no place in civilized society. So it needed to be purified and transformed back into something positive for the tribe.
Here’s a translation of the beginning of that prayer:
In beauty I walk
With beauty before me I walk
With beauty behind me I walk
With beauty above me I walk
With beauty around me I walk
It has become beauty again
Today I will walk out, today everything negative will leave me
I will be as I was before, I will have a cool breeze over my body.
I will have a light body, I will be happy forever, nothing will hinder me.
I’m struck by the dependent nature of beauty, as expressed by this prayer. Beauty here is less of a noun than a relationship. The supplicant isn’t beautiful but gets to walk “in beauty” by virtue of his connection with the environment. Before, behind, above, and beyond also must be “with beauty.”
How does the speaker contribute to that beauty? Not by preening or dolling up or flexing a righteous set of pecs but by allowing all negativity to leave his body. By having a “light” body.
The darkness of the soul that accompanies bloodshed is cleansed by opening up, by being vulnerable and yielding to the energies and entities that surround us. We don’t bring beauty into this environment; instead, we acknowledge the beauty in nature – before, behind, above, around – and that saves us. We become unhindered, free.
And we heal: “I will be as I was before.” Before the darkness, before the bloodlust, before the alienation from life that is required of those who take death into their hands.
So, the second way I propose to expand the definition of beauty is to make it dependent on our relationship with the wider world. If we are to be beautiful, we must release our inner toxins and allow the cool breeze to sweep us clean. We must seek harmony with, not dominion over, our non-human relations.
Now that I have a working definition of beauty that pleases me – something that promises future happiness not only for the beholder but for all of creation – I’m ready to talk about beauty and the plant-based lifestyle.
I’ll be brief – you’ve no doubt heard all these arguments before. But let’s see what happens when we couch them in this new frame.
The Inside/Outside Effect
“Beauty is more than skin deep,” the saying goes.
We are beautiful on the outside when we are beautiful on the inside. When our gut microbiome is harmoniously balanced. When our physical sensations of pleasure and our emotional apprehensions of joy translate into an outer glow. When our attractive mien and gait and musculature are manifestations of our focus and capability and energy.
Plants, of course, nourish our bodies to optimal health. And that gets reflected in our skin tone, the inquisitiveness and intelligence in our eyes, and the lines of our body.
The Me/World Economy
Evolution has fixed the game so that only species that create a net positive for their environments get to survive and reproduce and thrive. Any creature or plant that was a drain on its environment (or even neutral) would be supplanted by a competitor who contributed more than its share to the whole.
Evolution plays a long game. So long, in fact, that the last few hundred thousand years of human existence seem to contradict the “survival of the most generous” hypothesis. We come, we see, we conquer, and we devastate.
And we’re starting to see the breaking point, where we’ve exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet.
According to the Navajo prayer, it’s impossible to be beautiful at the expense of another, or at the expense of the world around us. When we consume food that comes from feedlots and slaughterhouses, we must reflect the ugliness of those environments. As Sir Paul reminds us, “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarian.”
We support entire industries via our knives and forks. Do we vote for gardeners and small farmers or for feedlot and slaughterhouse employees whose daily existence represents a kind of soulless warfare without respite? Do we pay for jobs that regenerate the planet or that despoil it?
Our culture trains us to consume mindlessly without considering the effects of our consumption on other humans. It’s like we’re the first person on line at a buffet, and we’re encouraged to ignore totally the people behind us when we fill our plates. “Not enough for all? Too bad, but not my problem.”
When our consumption deprives others of their fair share, that’s the opposite of beauty. And plant-based eating, low on the food chain with a minimal of processed foods, is the best way we know of to choose responsibly and lovingly from that buffet line.
The Human/Greater World Dance
While we’re thinking about our effects on the environment, let’s extend our lens beyond the human realm. How can we live in beauty if our choices leave an ever-growing slag heap of pollution in their wake?
When we eat flesh, our fellow creatures are choked out of their habitats via Amazonian deforestation to make room for cattle crazing, via poultry and pig effluent runoff in our streams and rivers and lakes, via aquifer drawdown in our western and central states.
Where’s the beauty? You may get ripped on a ketogenic diet (and look fit and healthy for a few years if you’re blessed with robust genes), but the externalities caused by your consumption are a festering sore upon the planet that contains you and everything you love.
Even if milk did “a body good” (which, rest assured, it doesn’t), that raises the question: whose body? What about the milk giver, confined to a concrete jungle, repeatedly impregnated by technology, repeatedly torn from her child, hooked up to a machine for her entire “useful” life until the logic of profit and loss dictates that she is turned into hamburger. Her ability to nurture her young with milk is doing her absolutely no kind of good.
What about the trembling calves, destined to become veal if male or Atwoodian handmaids if female? Their bodies aren’t doing so “good” either.
And what about the invisible victims of our mindless and insatiable consumption patterns? Those species without PR or cute babies or enchanting antics, hanging on for dear life in a world unbalanced by a world of humans?
The Beauty Diet
It would be inconvenient, if not downright tragic, if the diet that made us physically attractive required that we dominate other species and destroy the environment. This essay would have to be a heck of a lot longer and more cogent to make a dent in our collective consumption patterns if meat, eggs, dairy, and processed foods gave us that inner wellbeing and outer glow.
But luckily for us, there’s no conflict. As I’m sure you’ll read in the rest of this issue, whole plant-based foods are the ticket to great skin, great energy, and a vibrancy that can only be called sexy.
We veg-eaters must not shy away from the concept of beauty, as I did when I began writing. We have the precious opportunity to show the rest of our fellow humans “a promise of happiness” far more profound than the momentary high from a juicy steak or bubbling slice of cheese pizza.
We get to be embodiments of wholistic beauty: the whole package. And when we show others how to release our own negativity, our own complicity in the war on nature that humanity has been waging for millennia, then we will help to restore harmony.
And the beauty that we express will return to us in the natural order of things. The Navajo prayer concludes:
In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, lively, may I walk.
In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, living again, may I walk.
My words will be beautiful…
Creating a “trail of beauty” requires all of us. We must bring everyone with us on the journey from destruction to creation, from the trauma of war to the balm of peace.
Our words must be compassionate, not divisive. Hopeful, not bitter. And beautiful, so beautiful, as we describe the world that is possible.