I was visiting the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg and I came across a very large poster of Malala Yousafzai. Her ever-so-slightly distorted face never fully recovered from the damage done by the bullet fired by a would-be Taliban assassin. He shot this fifteen-year-old because she was speaking out for the human rights of girls.

Gazing at her face, I think about the meaning of beauty.

Is the concept of beauty an objective or a subjective human response to the world?
In ancient times, the Greeks and Romans say beauty is objective, and so that is generally believed until the 18th century Enlightenment, except for the Greek Sophists.
Aristotle sets the framework by linking beauty with ideal forms or proportions, along with the concepts of order, symmetry & harmony.
Beauty is also linked to love. Think of the judgment of the god Paris, picking Aphrodite (the goddess of Love) as the perfect woman.
I’m reminded of the famous words of Sappho – she says that the beautiful is “whatever you love the most.” Notably, this makes beauty subjective, which aligns Sappho with the Sophists.
This leads me to 18th and 19th century thinkers, such as Hume and Kant who place beauty solely “in the mind” (Hume) and being “nothing but subjective” (Kant). I’ll call them modern Sophists, although they also acknowledge there is a cultural and social inter-subjectivity around the idea of beauty.   
Indubitably, I cannot forget Feminist critiques about the objectification of women’s bodies and the exploitation from the cosmetic and fashion industries.

In the Swat valley, Pakistan, on October 9, 2012, a Taliban gunman entered a busload of children riding home from school. The gunman screams out: “Which one of you is Malala? … Speak up or I’ll shoot all of you.” Malala identifies herself. The gunman puts the gun to Malala’s left temple and pulls the trigger.

The bullet travels 18 inches from the side of her left eye, grazing the eye, skull and brain, lacerating her facial nerve, shattering an eardrum, breaking jaw joints and ending up wedged in her shoulder near her spine.

The bullet damages the left portion of her brain, causing it to swell. To save Malala’s life, surgeons must remove part of her skull to reduce the swelling. The bullet’s damage to her facial nerve results in a paralysis of the left side of her face. Five hours of surgery are required to reconstruct her skull. Her hearing is restored with a cochlear implant.

Having been in a coma, Malala doesn’t remember anything since the shooting when, ten days later, she wakes up in the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Birmingham, U.K. She asks for a mirror. Seeing her damaged face for the first time Malala sighs: “I only recognize half of my face.”

It takes eight hours of surgery to repair her facial nerve. Malala reports that her facial nerve is restored by 96%.


 So: here I am,

standing in the gallery – with my male gaze –

looking at the poster of this now-famous woman,

and finding myself riveted and transfixed by Malala’s image –

as I mutter under my breath:

“Malala is one of the most beautiful women in the world.”

david r. topper
David R. Topper is a published writer living in Winnipeg, Canada. His work has appeared in Mono, Poetic Sun, Discretionary Love, Academy of the Heart & Mind, and elsewhere.
Synchronized Chaos Magazine nominated his poem Seascape with Gulls: My Father's Last Painting to Sundress Publications as a 2023 Best of the Net.

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