Monday, December 10, 2007

The Importance of Being Ugly

Ah Monday. Time to argue.

Today's pontification comes to your courtesy of this post over at Ultraviolet, that covers a lot of ground but achieves very little depth. I'd ignore it, except the issue is important, and deserves something more analytical than a garbled regurgitation of half-chewed ideas.

So. It seems to me that underlying all this talk about stereotypes of female beauty there are really two distinct issues: a) the significance we attach to female beauty and b) the way in which that beauty is defined. Think of them as the weight a subject has on your overall grade and the way that you're marked on that subject. It's my opinion that the real problem, indeed from a gender perspective the only problem, is the former, not the latter.

The trouble is that we live in a world governed by the assumption (shared by men and women alike) that women are supposed to be beautiful. Years of systematic social conditioning, liberally aided by propaganda from clothing and cosmetic companies makes us attach undue importance to female beauty, making it a critical if not defining part of a woman's identity. And that is just silly.

The comparison with male beauty (or handsomeness, or good looks, or whatever) is instructive. It's not that standards for male attractiveness are any less stringent or outlandish. Take a look at your standard underwear model with his rock-hard abs and / or his pretty boy good looks (ooh! yum...errr...sorry, got distracted there for a minute) and you have a template of male beauty every bit as unachievable for the ordinary guy as any that applies to women. The crucial difference is that with men, society makes the eminently more sensible assumption that most men aren't going to come close to that standard. Oh, I'm sure there are men out there who care a great deal about their looks. But this vanity is not (or to a much lesser extent) socially imposed - nobody seriously cares that you're not good looking. Or rather, it's a small part of who you are - along with intelligence, professional success, personality, sense of humor, etc. - and not something to get too fussed about. Nobody, for instance, would call me handsome (except perhaps a short-sighted aunt or two), but I can't say that I've ever been anxious about this, or felt the need to invest time, money or effort into doing something about it. And based on my (admittedly unscientific) observation of people I'm friends with, I think that's an attitude generally shared - on average, female beauty is a much bigger deal (to men and women both) than male beauty.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not for a moment suggesting that the more sensible attitude to male beauty is in any way a reflection of the relative smartness (or not) of men; notice it's the attitude to male beauty, not the male attitude to beauty. You might just as well argue that the fact the male beauty is less critical is a tribute to the greater maturity of women when it comes to looking for a mate (though I don't seriously believe this). No, on the whole I think we're all products of an inherited set of social norms that unfairly emphasize the physical attractiveness of women. As Germaine Greer puts it:

"clothes are expected or altered to fit the man; women have somehow to try to fit the clothes. There are a few male fashion victims; all women are victims of fashion. Men will not buy cosmetics; in the United States women spend more than $ 10 billion a year on make-up and beauty aids" (The Whole Woman, Anchor Books 1999, pp 150)

All of this is patently ridiculous. And mouthing platitudes about how "all women are beautiful" or "every woman is beautiful in her own way", while expressing a pretty sentiment, does more to devalue beauty than to help women. Let's face it - most women are not beautiful. They are at best vaguely nice looking, frequently plain, occasionally ugly. Pretty much the same distribution, in fact, as you find with men. And the point is that this doesn't and shouldn't matter. Physical attractiveness shouldn't be the defining characteristic of any individual, it should be a valued but minor trait, like good driving skills, or the ability to juggle or remember phone numbers.

What we need to fight then, is not a particular definition of beauty but the conspiracy of beauty itself. And yes, this means ensuring that we weed out the role of beauty as a selection mechanism in the workplace; it means that we ask ourselves tough questions about media reports that place undue emphasis on a woman's looks or manner, that, for instance accuse Hillary Clinton of "having a grating voice and bad taste in clothes"[1]; it means that we work to change masculine attitudes that evaluate women purely or primarily on the basis of their looks. It also means that women need to make a conscious effort to deny the feminine privileging of beauty, to keep themselves from being manipulated into an emphasis on their looks that is, frankly, unnecessary. It's easy to say "oh, but looks do matter" (just as it's easy for men to say "oh, but it's women themselves who are obsessed with looking beautiful") but real progress will only get made if we attack the perverse selection mechanism from both sides.

Of course, none of this is new, and all of it is easier said than done. But I think it's a critical first step to recognize that it's not really about how we define beauty - whether it relates to skin color, or to a particular shape or body type. The simple fact is that beauty must, by definition be exclusionary. A world where everyone is beautiful is a world where no one is. We can certainly replace one stereotype with another (as an aside, would someone care to explain to me how a currently common definition of beauty can be an 'ancient' stereotype?) but all that achieves is some minor reclassification of who gets to be beautiful - it's a bit like (forgive me, I can't resist) rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

But surely, you're going to say, judging people on the basis of the color of their skin is a form of discrimination? It is if we use beauty to judge people (especially women), if we make our assessments of their physical attractiveness a basis of providing access to opportunities or selecting for jobs. But if we were to get over our obsession with female beauty and relegate physical attractiveness to the position it deserves, then the whole question of fairness' relationship to beauty would become largely irrelevant. I personally have never understood the obsession with lighter skin, but there are certainly things I find attractive in a woman (though I'm obviously not going to be stupid enough to list them here) and, by extension, women who I think are beautiful. But I don't (or at least I think I don't) base my friendships or my relationships with women at work, or even my romantic relationships (few and far between as they are) on how the women in question look, simply because in the big picture that hardly matters. And that, I'd argue, is where we want society to be headed. The more time we spend debating what makes a woman beautiful rather than why this matters, the longer we stay trapped in a reductive emphasis on beauty that serves little purpose except to bolster patriarchal power.

see also: Fair, though hardly lovely


[1] Is it just me, or do other people find the media coverage of Hillary Clinton annoying? I'm not really a supporter of Ms. Clinton, but just reading all these articles about how she dresses and whether she's "too hardened" to be a leader (because how can a tough woman who never cries possibly be 'inspirational' tchah!) I'm rapidly getting to the point where I'd vote for her (if I had a vote in this country, which I don't) just to spite the people who write these stories.


Space Bar said...

I agree that the article was very badly argued, and I kind of agree when you say that we ought to think more about why we want women - and only women - to be beautiful rather than get caught up in specific ideas of beauty, which are culture-specific and changeable.

A biologist will tell you that beauty in women is important because certain markers once indicated health and wealth and to choose those characteristics over others in women meant better genes and better chances of survival. While we need not allow biological determinism to rule our lives today, we have to recognise that that is, in some sort, an answer to your first question. What you want is for people to rise beyond all ideas of beauty. I'm not sure that's possible.

It remains then, for people to point out what is wrong with our current ideas of beauty; how in trying to conform to it, women spend their time and energy that might be better utilised elsewhere; how this is desirable for a patriarchal system that can coopt the language of feminism to contain it.

I think a part of the point of that article was to show how uniform our ideas of beauty have become, partially because such an opinion is manufactured by the media. That's a whole other argument, though. (I'd better post about it on my blog instead of chewing up comment space here!)

pg said...

ilike your blog

Kusum Rohra said...

I have always found the whole attitude of men basing not only romantic relationships but also friendships or relationships with women at work primarily on looks/beauty very irritating, primarily because I was, well actually still am, a victim of such discrimination and have wanted to write on this for a long long time.

Such discrimination at work still bothers me but as far as friends or lovers are concerned in the end I feel it has helped me weed out people who think looks are the primary factor that define a person .

I remember a long conversation (via e-mail) I had with a male friend some 3 years back. As usual I was cribbing about men being so much into the female beauty and my friend replied with something that I wish was the reality and hence I saved that mail. He wrote:

Looks do matter, but I think not all that much. For example, I find it impossible to think of any female friend of mine as "ugly". At the same time, I find it difficult to consider any girl I know reasonably well, as "very very beautiful", unless of course, I'm in love with her at the time. As they say, beauty really _is_ in the eye of the beholder. The way a girl crinkles her nose, furrows her eyebrows, looks out the window, combs her hair, swings her hips as she walks, runs her hands through her hair, purses her lips, pouts, twiddles her thumbs, bends over the notepad as she writes... All these things _become_ what the guy loves about her. And these things become attractive _because_ he is in love with her. People have confused cause and effect here.

For that matter, all the really good looking girls I've known, I couldn't even _think_ of being "in love" with. So maybe looks matter, but it's not how people generally imagine it. And anyway, if their personalities aren't compatible, no amount of good-lookingness(?) is going to keep two people together. Don't you think?

Falstaff said...

sb: Yes, people usually use biology to justify their bad habits. Of course, if you believe Gide then it's the male of the species who should be more into display.

At any rate, I don't want people to rise beyond all ideas of physical beauty - just to recognize that it's not a big deal. After all, it's not as though we don't have an idea of beauty when it comes to men (see Aishwarya's blog for notable examples) just that we place less emphasis on it. I'd be content if we got to the same level of indifference to physical attractiveness with women.

As for media making our ideas of beauty uniform - perhaps it has (I'm too out of mainstream media to be qualified to comment). Though I think there's a lot more than the media at fault here. Personally I'm tired of blaming the media or engaging in the whole 'does the media imitate life or does life imitate the media' debate. I think we need to move beyond that. What I'd like to see, for instance, would be someone championing a 'No Cosmetics Week' - an initiative where women voluntarily stop wearing make up for a week. Or 16 days, since that seems to be the fashionable time span for these things now.

pg: Thanks

kusum: Yes, and I think it's precisely in the domain of casual friendships / work relationships that it's a problem.

I don't disagree with the 'beauty in the eye of the beholder' bit, and I think your friend's description of the transformation that happens as a result of our feelings for someone is entirely accurate, but I think that's a different kind of beauty, not really what I was discussing here. It's like there's the 'poetry' of a Hallmark card or a piece of silly verse that comes from a loved one, and then there's Poetry. It's entirely possible to love the former without confusing it with the latter. And the same thing applies for Beauty as well.

The selection mechanism point is a good one - does one really want to be valued by a person or a company that judges purely (or primarily) on looks? The trouble is obviously that in a world where the majority of companies / people judge you on that basis, the pool of potential employers / friends / partners becomes very small. So while it's comforting to think that such discrimination helps us 'weed out' undesirables, it is still a problem. Plus, of course, it doesn't work so well if you actually are really good-looking, because you then spend all your time worrying that people are valuing you / respecting you only for your looks and not because of all your other qualities.

Aishwarya said...

A couple of things though (mild incoherence lies ahead) -

You're right, the significance attached to female beauty and the way we define it are two different issues. And obviously the first is a gender issue. And I agree that the greatest problem here is the importance given to women's looks.


What about the way we define beauty? Isn't that also related to gender? And race? And class? And power relations within society in general?

I ask this, because you say here that

All of this is patently ridiculous. And mouthing platitudes about how "all women are beautiful" or "every woman is beautiful in her own way", while expressing a pretty sentiment, does more to devalue beauty than to help women. Let's face it - most women are not beautiful. They are at best vaguely nice looking, frequently plain, occasionally ugly. Pretty much the same distribution, in fact, as you find with men.

And when you say this you seem to be implying that there is some universal definition of beauty (male and female), and I'm not sure how far that's true. What about how notions of beauty change with time? What about the obvious ways in which power affects the prevailing notion of beauty? What about the various subcultures with their non-mainstream definitions of beauty? Or even just individual preferences? I guess what I'm trying to say is, throwing beauty open to be defined and redefined by everyone, allowing those multiple notions to exist, the whole "every woman is beautiful in her own way" thing is useful alongside making beauty less important in general.

Otherwise even supposing (and wouldn't it be wonderful) we could all get to a point where beauty in a woman was just one attribute (and not THE attribute) I suspect our definitions of what counts as beautiful would still be steeped in raceclassgenderpoweringeneral.

And I realise that you probably do know most/all of this, and that you've chosen to focus only on the significance attached to female beauty for this post, but. Just thought I'd get this out there.

Falstaff said...

aishwarya: No, actually, I'm not suggesting that there is a universal definition of beauty, only that all meaningful definitions of beauty are exclusionary. What person A considers beautiful may be radically beautiful from what person B does - but both will have a pecking order of beautiful, nice, plain, ugly, and by each one of their definitions only a small proportion of women will be beautiful. Otherwise it isn't much of a standard is it? So a) the majority of women are not going to be beautiful no matter what definition of beauty society accepts and b) almost all women are not going to be beautiful by the majority of possible definitions of beauty conceivable.

To see this, let's take the extreme case where we define a scale of beauty for every woman on the planet, where every deviation from the focal woman is a loss of beautiful. So on the 'Aishwarya' scale of beauty the more someone looks like you the more beautiful they are. By definition, there are some 3 billion such scales out there. What proportion of those scales do you think you're going to qualify as 'beautiful' on? And how delusional do you have to be before the fact that you're the most beautiful woman in the world on the 'Aishwarya' scale makes you feel happy about yourself?

And while I agree that notions of beauty will continue to be steeped in race class and gender - I'm not sure why that matters if beauty is irrelevant anyway. Again, it's not like conceptions of male beauty aren't steeped in raceclassgenderpower, but when was the last time you heard dark-skinned, balding, pot-bellied men complaining that nobody considered them good-looking because of some ancient stereotype?

blackmamba said...

A couple of things I might as well add to the discussion (though not directly related to skin tone),

- One of the subtle but important difference between a more traditional definition of beauty vs. a standardized global definition is that the latter is portrayed as one that is easily achievable (if only you tried). Attainable standards put more pressure on women who would otherwise have given up on trying to appear beautiful and pursued more useful, interesting and significant goals. Instead they spend their time injecting botox, getting implants, starving and lightening / tanning their skin.

- Youth is an important factor in the definition of beauty, esp. as valued in women, and so by definition beauty diminishes with age, while intellect, income (and other factors cherished in men) are mostly enhanced with age. To put it bluntly, the shorter shelf-life makes women focus on higher returns over time.

- In an ideal society where women and men wield the same power, I would say, women are most likely to (and be conditioned to) choose more beautiful or handsome men over those who are not.

blackmamba said...

Also, skin color has been used as a traditional metric for social class. In some cultures, paler skin implies you did not have to get out in the sun much, which in turn means you could afford hired help.

In other regions where a good tan is a luxury, healthy tanned skin would imply you could actually afford a vacation by the sea.

Either way, with all the chemical assistance at hand, these standards don't really apply. Just as they don't with better eye-sight or teeth that were again indicators of a healthier wealthier lifestyle - before the advent of laser / contact lenses and tooth caps.

tangled said...

Reading your posts makes me agree with you totally until I read comments that disagree with you.
Now that's some power you have, sir.

Amit Panhale said...

For things to change, the world I guess needs to be hynotized like the way in which Hal Larson was in 'Shallow Hal'.

would be cool, na?

Falstaff said...

tangled: Thanks. Though one hopes you don't completely disagree me afterwards

amit panhale: :-). Ya, well - if every woman looked like Gwyneth Paltrow with superficial make-up that might make things easier as well.

Anonymous said...

Beauty is of some importance because that is how the world judges you. Most men if a woman is not hot they will pay her no attention. I know personally I'm a sucker for a beautiful woman, example, just last year while vacationing in europe I spent a great portion of my time driving by and oogling a billlboard of the World's most beautiful woman Beau-Latasha. Her beauty was so visually spectacular like nothing I have seen before.
~~~ Dr.Justin~~