Rethinking concepts of beauty

For more of Nancy Kranzberg’s commentary, listen to KWMU (90.7) St. Louis on the Air the first Friday of each month at approximately 12:50 p.m. She also hosts a weekly Arts Interview podcast for KDHX (88.1), available at

By Nancy Kranzberg, Special to the Jewish Light

In 2016, I saw an inspiring show at the Goodman Theater in Chicago. The name of the play was “Another Word for Beauty” and it was a stirring music-filled work by Academy Award nominee Jose Rivera and Grammy winner Hector Buitrago. 

Each year the female inmates at a Bogota, Colombia prison compete in a beauty pageant intended by their jailers to motivate and rehabilitate them. While the pageant’s parade of gorgeous gowns, exotic headdresses and rhythmic dances provides a distraction from daily suffering, its real impact on each woman is more than skin deep. 

Inspired by true events, “Another Word for Beauty” is a haunting and soulful examination of women trapped within a prison’s walls and the events and circumstances that led to their arrests.

The work was extremely powerful and Buitrago’s music touches the soul. Upon arriving back home, I was watching the nightly news on Channel Five and saw another powerful piece. There was a clip about another kind of beauty pageant sponsored by Promise Christian Academy, a school for special needs students, and Kirk of the Hills Church. 

The gala was entitled “A Night to Shine.” The attendees ranged in age from 16 to 73. Every contestant was a winner and was given a crown to wear. These intellectually challenged people didn’t fit the mold of Miss America or Miss or Mr. Universe, but their inner beauty and beautiful smiles came shining through.

The Anti-Defamation League, an organization that has fought for civil rights and the fair treatment of all people since 1913, has a program called “Concepts of Beauty and Bias.” This program is designed to increase self-esteem and decreases bias in young people while providing an opportunity to study art objects from a hand-selected collection in the St. Louis Art Museum.

Students demonstrate critical thinking skills, develop the capacity to create and sustain an environment that respects cultural differences, fairness and equity, and acknowledge that concepts of beauty are greatly influenced by culture, time periods, places of origin, wealth and power. Students also develop a common vocabulary for issues of diversity, bigotry and discrimination, and the capacity to recognize and acknowledge prejudice and discriminatory behavior.

Maggie Rutherford, in an article on the ancient Egyptian concept of beauty says, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and this is never more true than seen over time and between different cultures. Over time our concept of beauty seems to fluctuate, particularly concerning people, sometimes favoring rather heavy individuals and at other times skinny ones. In different cultures, parts of the body may be purposefully exaggerated in the name of beauty, the effects of which might even seem grotesque to those of another culture. For example, various tribes throughout the world use different methods to lengthen necks, exaggerate mouths, ears and even the shape of the head.”

In her 2010 book “The Beauty Bias: The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law,” author Deborah L. Rhode writes that in national surveys, “between 12 and 16 percent of workers report that they have been subject to appearance-related discrimination.” 

Rhode, a law professor and the Director of the Center on the Legal Profession at Stanford University, felt that she fell into this percentile. Despite being an accomplished law professor at Stanford she had many experiences with colleagues and students judging her performance based on her appearance. Her personal experience brought her to write “The Beauty Bias,” which takes a look at appearance-based discrimination in America and argues that people deserve to be legally protected against that kind of discrimination.

Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet, jurist, theologian, Sufi mystic and Islamic scholar says, “Let’s all rethink what our own concept of beauty is.”

How can we not agree?