“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is a phrase most people have heard at least once in their lifetime. Credited to Margaret Wolfe Hungerford, this line often references the belief that beauty is neither inherent nor something that can be possessed, but rather that beauty is a subjective matter that only exists depending on the person who is judging.
Debates over what makes something beautiful have been largely about whether beauty is objective or subjective. Does beauty have rules or signifiers, or is something aesthetically pleasing truly unique to each individual?
If someone were to survey a group about whether they prefer daisies or roses, there would probably be mixed answers, meaning that beauty is subjective, case closed. However, if someone were to survey a group about whether they preferred daisies or Gastrodia Agnicellus‒the world’s ugliest flower, and it is important to look up an image‒there would probably be fewer mixed answers, because one flower is inherently ugly to a majority of people.
Ancient Greeks believed that mathematics and beauty were intertwined and believed that three aspects contributed to beauty: symmetry, harmony and proportion. This is called the golden mean and the idea of balanced ratios can be replicated in architecture and seen in nature. The theory claims that things that have this perfect ratio are subconsciously considered more beautiful.
If beauty is a matter of ratios and symmetry, it would make sense why societal beauty standards exist. Why is it that women are seen as conventionally attractive with an hourglass figure or men when they are tall? Maybe beauty and standards are just a matter of biology and mathematics. But then why do standards differ between people and places? Across the globe and across time periods, certain standards of beauty have shifted greatly.
Beauty may not be set in stone, but there are certain attributes that humans will be universally attracted to, no matter time and place. For example, nature has been respected throughout history, with various cultures trying to replicate its beauty through art. Even so, the beauty of someone or something can never be guaranteed and largely depends on perception rather than existence. As Oliver Wilde once said: “No object is so ugly that, under certain conditions of light and shade, or proximity to other things, it will not look beautiful; no object is so beautiful that, under certain conditions, it will not look ugly.”