What if women weren’t judged primarily by their beauty?

When I was in middle school and high school, there were (as I’m sure is the case in a lot of schools, both then and now) so-called “cool” or “popular” kids. And there were less-than-cool or even “loser” kids. I was definitely in one of the latter two categories, depending on whom you asked. I think a lot of teenagers waste a lot of time trying to either become cool new selves or to re-label their current selves as cool. For most people, once you go to college or the working world (and beyond), you realize that “cool” just doesn’t matter as much as you thought it did back in your adolescent years.

The fight to have different kinds of teenagers considered “cool” is, I think, a worthy one, as long as these uncool teens don’t lose sight of the fact that this is a temporary time of the cool and uncool, and that better times are on their way.

But sociological problems do tend to come in complementary pairs. For example, if someone tries to insult you by calling you (or worse yet, insinuating that you are) gay when you are straight, there are two problems. Problem #1 is using “gay” as an insult. Problem #2 is insulting you. But by calling you gay as an insult, that person is perpetuating both of those problems. Likewise, if you create yet another movie in which a good straight white man saves the poor abused Asian woman from the evil Asian man, you are perpetuating both (#1) that white men are more desirable than Asian men are and (#2) that women are just pawns in a racial game of winning-losing decided by men.

Right now, as far as beauty and women goes, there are two problems that are intertwined. Problem #1 is that the media and those of us the media affects (almost 100% of us in varying degrees) continue to have a very narrow view of what defines a beautiful woman. Problem #2, which is less talked about, is that women are primarily (or at the very least secondarily) judged by their beauty.

So when I see Pretty ugly: Can we please stop pretending that beautiful women aren’t beautiful? talking about how sitcoms should stop pretending conventionally beautiful women are ugly and should show more less–conventionally beautiful women as beautiful, or when I see Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty; I applaud those efforts. Yes, we do need to redefine beauty. There are diverse kinds of beauty. Beauty isn’t just a tall, skinny, blonde (or maybe light brunette), white, straight woman with narrow cheekbones, and tiny nose. Lots of women are beautiful. That’s important for us to get straight.

Let’s not lose sight of the big picture, though. There is still a second problem. Why do we care how beautiful women are or aren’t? Why do newspapers always have to mention how female political candidates looked or comment on how fashionable or unfashionable their dress is? They’re politicians, not runway models! Kathryn Bigelow looks great. Sure! She’s beautiful and her arms are buff. I agree. Uh, but why does that matter? I thought we were awarding her for best director, not best-looking director.

I will, like many other feminists, continue to celebrate and appreciate different kinds of beauty. Still, I cling to the hope that one day we will all graduate from the high school of life, and we’ll see that beauty isn’t what it’s all about.

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18 Comments

  1. Nice post :) A few things I wanted to add though:

    In the gay-bashing example, I thing there is a third problem: calling someone else gay-as-insult usually solidifies one’s own self-image as not-gay (“If my ‘other’ is gay, I cannot/shall not be”). That, I think, is informative on the frailness of the hetero-self-image…

    In terms of the Dove commercials, it might be important to note, in passing, that these are commercials nonetheless: they depend on commodifying certain objects, and bodies as well (they are linked to those objects), and inserting them into capitalism as part and parcel of the profit-making system. I think your later paragraphs hint to this problem: that whatever the beauty standard, the very idea of “beauty” in the contemporary context is problematic (especially when, in commercials, those who ‘possess’ it are themselves commodified as desirable for profit-making).

    But that very idea (beauty as problematic) is a risky move: it gets us a bit too close to the Platonic ideal that the body should not matter and is inferior to the mind (“soul”). There is quite a lot of literature on the links between mind-body binary and the ideological maintenance of patriarchy. You get quite close to this idea, I think, especially in your last two paragraphs. The one before the last paragraph implies that the body does not matter, but the mind does; the last one argues, less obscurely, that the mentality that emphasizes the body is an inferior mentality (“Beauty does not reside in the body, it resides in the mind / in what the mind accomplishes”).

    I don’t write this as bashing your views or arguments though. I just like playing around with underlying assumptions that might prove problematic when they are pushed a bit further than what their author intended :)

  2. vajorie, thanks for your comment and pointing out the third problem in the gay-bashing example.

    The idea of the body not mattering as much as the soul is definitely relevant to the discussion I’ve brought up, but for me it isn’t a matter of what is better or what matters more so much as what is appropriate. In the examples I gave (politician and director), the media is judging women by appearances whose public roles should have nothing to do with their appearance. Being a politician should be about your ability to legislate and represent your constituencies. Being a director should be about your ability to direct actors.

    The body is appropriate to consider in professions that are visually oriented (clothing model) or even athletically oriented (Olympic competitor).

    I don’t think it makes sense to say we shouldn’t care about the body or about beauty. It just shouldn’t be the primary thing that all women are judged by.

  3. I think that the problem is “beauty” itself, and I say that not in an attempt to say that the body is unimportant, but rather as a sort of “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” notion taken to the extreme.

    I’d argue that the very concept of “beauty” is entirely socially constructed and that it is nothing more than a culturally enforced hierarchy of what traits are “beautiful” or “not beautiful.” Of course, in our society, the traits marked as “beautiful” tend to be those which are generally specific to white people or to the bourgeoisie or to the “able.”

    Rather, I would advocate for a world where no one is considered “beautiful” or “not beautiful.” Everyone would be potentially attractive, and that attractiveness would be entirely subjective based on the observer’s personal preference.

    Of course, I recognize that even socially constructed forces have a power over us, as we are, after all, social animals. It is impossible to individually exit the system of beauty, but I believe by taking similar “paths of least resistance” to the ones that Allan Johnson describes in his essay “Patriarchy, the System” we can slowly dismantle the system of beauty.

  4. Given that nearly every species on earth that procreates sexually devotes resources, time, and attention to issues of beauty to gain a competitive edge, I am very doubtful that this can be changed by even a cultural consensus.

    Our evolutionary heritage literally breeds into us and hard-wires our brains to make “beauty” an important facet of life to attend to. From plants that invest in floral displays to avian plumage to humans “painting their faces”, we’re thrown to place value on this as a biological imperative.

    Those that have “gone against the grain” either because they truly don’t care or find it “not PC” to care tend not to win (at least as much in) the competition to pass on and place their DNA in positions of power — and future successful propagation.

    Humans aren’t excepted from this, biologically, but I will accept that our minds have the ability to transcend it (as they do other carnal instincts). But given that those who do are a minority (and the media is not sympathetic), it seems to be swimming against a strong current…

    Nevertheless, I would like to see an easing of the mentioned stereotypes –which I personally find boring– and less “programming” by the media — which I find intellectually offensive. I guess I’m in that minority. :^)

  5. @Ted:
    In what appears to be a defense of evolutionary psychology, you claim that beauty is somehow programmed into our psyche. I disagree.

    Your argument ignores the huge amount of variance in what has been considered “beautiful” throughout time and space. It was only a couple of centuries ago that in the US, someone who might today be considered “fat” would have been considered beautiful.

    You might argue that it is the concept of beauty, not the details, that is programmed into our psyche, but such an argument would be of questionable meaningfulness. After all, in a society such as ours in which the “beautiful” are privileged, how can one distinguish between an innate desire to legislate attractiveness and an innate desire to be part of and associate oneself with privileged groups?

    Ultimately, I don’t think the science in which you frame your argument can actually back it up.

  6. @yonayona:
    We both seem to agree that “standards of beauty” are not programmed into our brains. And that such “standards” can and have varied from one culture to another and over time. And that there is a commonplace desire to “be part of” groups that are considered “beautiful” — and therefore privileged.

    Your arguments about beauty itself indicate your acknowledgment that it *is* a meaningful concept –however defined– and something which humans are pre-occupied with. The question is ‘why’ and where/from what it originates. You state that it is “entirely socially constructed”. But I call into question the existence of any science to back that up; if you can cite something, it would make for an interesting read.

    I contend that the instinctive reaction of attractiveness is innate, can be demonstrated by toddlers (and others who have not been “programmed” by social constructs and similar influences), and has been shown to influence mate selection in not only animals, but plants as well (those which depend on attracting pollenating insects, for example). The literature is full of such “proof which this margin is too small to contain”. And even so, citing such would be beside the point here.

    I suspect our differing viewpoints arise from my defining “beauty” too loosely for your purposes. You’re making a social statement about the moral correctness of judging human beauty — which follows from the original post, of course. I’m more wary of “judging judgments” and today’s tendencies to refashion the world into a utopia of “everyone gets a trophy”, so to speak.

    My interest lies in why beauty seems to matter so much as an emergent characteristic of “how the human machinery works”, which, as you allude, is more “hard science” (once termed “natural philosophy”) than “social philosophy”. However, I know just as well that the social issues always seem to create the more lively debate.

    Would that the beauty of science not be judged primarily by its looks… But, then, isn’t that attitude entirely socially constructed itself? Indeed! You may be right after all… ;^)

  7. @Ted:
    You state that you “agree that ‘standards of beauty’ are not programmed into our brains,” but you go on to argue “that the instinctive reaction of attractiveness is innate [and] can be demonstrated by [those who have not been ‘programmed’ by social constructs and similar influences].” This leads me to believe that I have failed to make clear enough the distinction I am drawing between beauty and attractiveness.

    I am defining attractiveness as a subjective phenomenon requiring both a subject and an object. The object’s attractiveness is arbitrarily determined by the subject’s personal preference.

    On the other hand, I am defining beauty as a supposed objective measure by which the attractiveness of any person can be determined. In such a system, such a trait as “symmetrical” might be classified as “beautiful” (and therefore universally or almost universally attractive), whereas “not symmetrical” would be classified as “ugly” (and therefore universally or almost universally unattractive).

    I never argued that attractiveness was socially constructed, but that beauty was. Essentially, I contend that the “standards of beauty” ARE “beauty”—that without standards of beauty, there is no beauty, but that attractiveness remains.

    You, however, appear to be using “attractiveness” and “beauty” interchangeably. So, if I were to reframe my argument using such language, I would put it like so: “Standards of attractiveness are entirely socially constructed, and those traits marked as ‘universally attractive’ tend to be those which are generally specific to privileged groups. Attractiveness itself, however, is not necessarily socially constructed.” I get the impression that we agree on this.

    Still, I take issue with two other insinuations you make.

    First of all, I assert that it is impossible to find a human “who has not been ‘programmed’ by social constructs and similar influences,” that even a toddler has been significantly socialized and cannot be represented as a creature of pure instinct.

    Next, you attempt to refute my suggestion that what I refer to as “beauty” is entirely socially constructed by “[calling] into question the existence of any science to back that up.” However, I take issue with the privileging of empiricism as a way of knowing here, and I assert that the topic at hand here is not one that can be debated empirically (what sort of experiment could tell us anything meaningful about the nature of beauty?). I maintain that beauty (by which, again, I mean “standards of beauty” or “standards of attractiveness”) is entirely socially constructed.

  8. Not judging anyone by their appearance would be very difficult as that is the first thing we do when you look at someone. That is why there is the quote about first impressions.

  9. Ran across this interesting bit of research, cited by Mario Livio in his book, “The Equation that Couldn’t be Solved” (Simon & Schuster, 2005):

    “For a long time it has been assumed that the criteria for beauty are largely cultural, and therefore learned rather than innate. More recent studies by University of Texas at Austin psychologist Judith Langlois have totally overturned this conventional wisdom. Langlois first had adults rank pictures of both white and black females for attractiveness. Then the pictures were shown in pairs (one more attractive than the other) to infants in two age groups — two to three months and six to eight months old. Infants in both age groups were found to gaze longer at the faces ranked more attractive. Similarly, one-year-old infants were found to play for a significantly longer time with facially attractive dolls.

    “Other studies tested for changes in taste across cultures. Psychologist Michael Cunningham found an incredible consensus in the judgement of facial attractiveness of women of different races by men of different races. The agreement persisted even when different degrees of exposure to Western mass media were considered. Studies that were performed across geographical and ethnic boundaries (e.g., with Chinese, Indian, South African, and North American men) produced very similar results. Taken together, all of these studies seem to indicate that there do exist some universal criteria for beauty, and that attractive faces enjoy a far-extending appeal that emerges very early in life and is consistent across cultures. The beauty detectors may not quite be innate, but the human mind may have innate basic rules from which templates of beauty are constructed.

    “Even the area in the brain that responds to beauty has been identified. Researchers used magnetic resonance imaging to investigate the activity in men’s brains when they were shown pictures of particularly attractive women. They found that beauty triggers the same area in the brain that is triggered by food (when a person is hungry) or by other subjects of addiction (e.g., when a compulsive gambler sees a roulette wheel).”

    So we can take our pick as to what we wish to believe on this subject: ‘conventional wisdom’, social philosophy, political correctness, or controlled scientific experiments.

    I’ll continue to side with the science, cold and unromantic as it may be: ‘Beauty’ is not socially constructed; it’s mostly innate — and is therefore not subject to “being corrected”. The idea of a world where people are (surgically?) stripped of their natural tendency to perceive (and therefore judge) the beauty around them –including that of the human form– is not one I would wish to live in.

    People need to get their politics in line with their nature, not try to twist nature to align with their politics. Beauty may not be what it’s all about, but our biology constrains us such that “attention must be paid”. And our societies and cultures (which *are* constructed) need to amicably take that into account rather than denigrate it as something ‘politically incorrect’. To make it ‘wrong’ is simply fruitless.

  10. Interesting article.

    what i see here is that you are speaking your mind and your heart.

    the reason why men and even women dictate beauty by outward appearances is because we have something called “the flesh”. This is the part of us that seeks self gratification. it is also called ego.
    our flesh dictates and processes information by the knowledge of good and evil as a cause of the fall of Adam and Eve.

    unless we stop eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil we as humans will NEVER be able to control our soul(mind, will and emotions) to stop false judgement, self gratification, lust, hypocrisy, backbiting, slander, etc.

    The only way to live a life of complete freedom is by eating from the Tree of Life(Jesus) through knowing and believing God’s Love for us, not what we can do for God.

    The root of all mental bondage is sin. The strength of sin is the law. By the law we have the knowledge of good and evil. so the only way to separate from bondage is living under God’s true love.

  11. This post reminded me of the Larson cartoon with a kid trying to enter a school for the gifted by pushing on a door marked pull.

    As the poster Ted said, it’s only natural to experience attraction.

    As the poster Jerry said, if you don’t like it, work on yourself with God.

    “Yes, we do need to redefine beauty.”

    To borrow from a Pixar review of yours, there is external conflict and there is internal conflict. You seem to want to make this an external conflict (how people judge you, how to perhaps “educate” them to stop), but it is an internal one (how you judge yourself and others).

    Adding the whole “gay” thing into this is what really killed the argument. The P.C. mantra about gays is that “they can’t help how they feel”, which I’m betting you’d swear allegiance to. Why trot out that gelded horse as a sideshow, expecting prim applause, in the middle of decrying what people find attractive? How can it be true that A) gays can’t help how they feel, but B) people who aren’t attracted to you, can? You can’t have it both ways.

    Stretching in conclusion: with Ted’s view as thesis and Jerry’s view as antithesis, the synthesis is that life is like a box of chocolates but you don’t have to eat them.

  12. It seems some people want to use this as a soapbox to push their own armchair evolutionary psychology instead of addressing the actual content of my blog post.

    Nowhere do I mention that beauty has no value whatsoever, especially with regard to romantic or sexual relationships. What bothers me is that women are judged primarily by their beauty in many arenas that should primarily be about other things (athletic ability, intelligence, eloquence, analytic thinking).

    What also bothers me is promoting in the media a narrow set of beauty instead of showing that there is diverse set of what can be considered beautiful (even if we’re just talking physical beauty and not “inner beauty”).

    How can it be true that A) gays can’t help how they feel, but B) people who aren’t attracted to you, can? You can’t have it both ways.

    I’m not asking anyone to be attracted to me. I don’t understand where you’re pulling this straw man out of. When did I say you should decide to be attracted to someone you’re not attracted to?

    I really hate to be an aggressive comment moderator, but really—from now on if you post a comment that doesn’t directly address the content of my blog post, I’m just deleting it. This is starting to get ridiculous.

  13. After that lengthy read, I just felt compelled to add another comment. I’m not an intellectual person, not by a long shot, but I think the real problem here, is the fact that we are mixing what is beautiful with what is actually constructive. Where beauty has no relevance to certain situations. A director winning an award, who cares about what their wearing or how they look, we are awarding them for what’s in their mind and how well they’ve performed. The same with a politician. I hope I caught the right end of the stick with this one, like saying; “She won the 100m sprint and she was looking good, although her shorts weren’t flattering”. Who cares? She won! How did science even come into it? It’s not a debate about who is and who isn’t, it’s about context. I’m sorry if I’m too ‘layman’ for the masses, but as I say, I just had to add another comment. {coat}

  14. You’re right. Judging women by their appearance is just as shallow of an insult as telling someone they aren’t cool. But continually holding women responsible for their looks and judging their character upon them is just one way our society keeps women in check. Like you said, regardless of career or standing, even if a woman was the most powerful woman in the world, there will always be comments and criticisms on her beauty (or “lack thereof”.

    I like to play a little game and whenever I see anything in the press or media involving a woman or girl, I see if they mention her looks first or something else. It’s the most fun (or…depressing?) when I read the backs of DVDs and movies. For example, I think Disney’s “Princess and the Frog” was the first one I’d seen where Tiana’s beauty was mentioned only SECOND to her hard work and intelligence. All the other ones, beauty comes first. This happens a lot in the media too, depending on what source you’re reading from (Fox news will probably start with her looks).

  15. But the interesting question this poses is, “Which came first? The innate biological pre-occupation with feminine appearance, or this sort of socio-cultural behavior that is reflected in the media and consequently encouraged and perpetuated?”

    If it were strictly a cultural construct, then there’s the possibility of cultures that could overcome this behavior and treat women on an equal footing with the way men are treated. Would that seem weird (to either males or females)? How about a play or movie that has that as a central theme? Does anyone know of this issue being treated in the arts in this way? (I don’t, but it would be interested to watch and see what the emotional effect would be…)

    OTOH, if it’s an emergent behavior caused by an innate biological imperative, then can it/should it be overcome? What forms might the agent of change take? (I’m reminded of “chemical castration” as a pharmaceutical attempt to reprogram the urges of men who are repeat sex offenders.) Social programming at an early age is another means… but effective? Either way, what would be the side effects of attempts to repress such natural tendencies? Would there be the risk of some sort of collateral undesirable social behavior?

    And given that there seems to be just as much a focus (albeit different) in the case of women judging women by their looks, would women, too, need to be “reprogrammed” to alter their behavior?

    Looked at another way, if this behavior is just a simple outcome of the natural (innocent) fascination with sexual attractiveness, then are we judging something inherently “good” (for the species) on the basis of social political correctness? Or have we not evolved to the point where we can reconcile our physical reality with the need for increasingly sophisticated social structure and associated cultural expressions that support it in this modern world? (I.e., are we “growing up too fast”? There are probably a lot of parallels between where we are socially and the typical adolescent…)

    I suspect we need to learn to live with this phenomenon (‘How?’ is a good question), but it would also be prudent to reign in our media and its excesses (good luck!). Declaring it entirely a cultural construct is to deny biology and declare that everything has a political solution… but declaring it strictly biology and that we must submit to our urges on these things is to be equally foolish.

    We care what women look like because we’re driven by that. But how we *choose* to react to that and how we treat women is an issue of our self-control — which the media seek to exploit. Maybe the question should be, “What if the media weren’t preying upon and tempting our basic instincts and instead supported a more socially mature attitude towards women?” (at a cost of profits) Can we treat each other with respect and dignity without resorting to desexualizing ourselves in the process?

  16. I think, inherently, the problem lies with the fact that people are treated differently. The simple solution would be to not care how people treat each other. Actually, more generally, the solution would be to just not care.

    Some people simply will never grow up, and I don’t think anyone, except the Almighty One, is able to change that. It is much easier simply to acknowledge that most people are shallow, and will either judge a woman based on how she looks, or even worse, on how the media says she should look.

    That issue aside, I applaud you for your insight into seeing the hidden problems that some actions can cause, as well as all the responses, for their elaborate study of this matter.

  17. Not caring would not be the solution. It is just hiding the whole problem in the darkness and running away. And at this point in time, one simple and effective solution would be to take a step towards making conscious choice driven by the notion of what is appropriate and what less appropriate or not at all-the notion of appropriateness and inappropriateness guarded by education and awareness. And the choice would be to begin keeping an open mind and leaning towards making politically (instincts aside) valid and respectable judgments about women. After all,the struggle is about what is morally and politically appropriate and what not, as long as there is no inherent hazard conveyed to the members of society or the social construct itself-existence of such hazard if any persists,i fail to recognize.

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