The “power” of beauty

(From Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty,” before and after photo retouching.)


(Originally posted at riotsnotdiets)

Recently I’ve had a couple of experiences that have given me cause to think about the concept of beauty more often than I usually do.

This is not to say that I don’t already think about beauty, in some form or another, on a daily basis.  I think about beauty a lot, in fact, as well as my own super complicated relationship with the idea of “being beautiful”.  As a feminist, I struggle with my desire to be pretty and my “need” to put on makeup (however little or much) before I leave the house.  As a feminist and a fat activist, I understand how Western beauty ideals contribute to the societal oppression not only of “unpretty” women or fat women or women of color or women who, for whatever other reasons, do not “measure up” to these ideals, but to ALL women, regardless of physical appearance.

But I’m not writing to dissect beauty in this way, to ask WHY it’s important (in part because I think it’s pretty clear why it’s important).  I’m not writing about how, if only we had better representation and visibility of all kinds of women, beauty wouldn’t be so darn oppressive (even though I think this at least partially true).

I’m writing, I think, because beauty is dangerous.  Loaded.  It is simultaneously unimportant to—and paramount to—the daily lives of women (and non-women).  And, like I said before, I have had some recent experiences that have given me the chance to think through beauty in different and unusual (for me) ways.

Recently, a friend and I started talking about the concept of “beauty,” about whether it is necessarily damaging, or whether its “powers” can be used for good.  An argument that she raised, which is one that is invoked often by post-feminists, non-feminists, and even some feminists, is the idea that women can be empowered through beauty.

The last time this particular friend and I talked, I recommended The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women by Naomi Wolf.  It has also occurred to me, although I have not yet recommended it, that a viewing of Jean Kilbourne’s Killing Us Softly 3 might be helpful, at least in understanding how images of beauty are problematically deployed in the advertising world.  I’m not sure if she’s read the book I recommended, but I do know that at least one of the books she read is The Power of Beauty. A book that, I have since learned, would lend a certain kind of authority to the claim that girls can be “empowered” through their own physical beauty.

The author, Nancy Friday, argues that women are NOT brainwashed by popular culture’s obsession with beauty, but by “evolution, by nature. There’s one thing we all respond to, and that is the natural desire, the natural attraction, to youthful beauty.”  She goes on to agree that “there is an obvious natural hierarchy of beauty in the world — physical attributes aren’t evenly divided, biology isn’t democratic.”  I don’t necessarily disagree with ALL of these claims (I’ve taken at least a few classes on evolutionary psych, and there does seem to be evidence that we are inclined to certain physical traits that display “healthiness” in general), but what Friday totally ignores is the absolutely constructed nature of these ideals. We may be “predisposed” to partners who are “attractive” (read as: healthy enough to reproduce with), but what we read as “healthy” or “attractive” varies widely across place and time.  Western beauty, that is the thin, white, conventionally pretty woman, is a creation, one that is re-produced and re-presented throughout popular culture.

Some “post-feminists” (and I think I can include Nancy Friday here) want to say that “yes, we understand that beauty is this thing that is imposed upon us, but why don’t we use this to our advantage?  Why don’t we assert ourselves—get what we want—through our beauty?”

There are so many things wrong with this kind of argument that I don’t even know where to start, so for the sake of brevity I will bullet-point my thoughts:

  • If beauty=empowerment, and only some women get to be conventionally “beautiful”, then only some women get to be empowered.
  • How should women who don’t “measure up” (too fat, too ugly, too dark-skinned, too manly, too hairy, too disabled, too whatever) find empowerment, if not through beauty?

OR, in other words:

  • Who is this “we” that is invoked when some women purport to speak for all women?  Who is left out?
  • This argument uncritically accepts that there is something we “want” that we can get by manipulating people (men?) with our looks, or our sexuality.
  • What do women “get” when they use their looks to obtain power?  Attention?  Visibility?  Money?
  • This “power”, as it is based on Western notions of beauty and a decidedly male gaze, isn’t really power at all—it only serves to reinscribe the very unequal power dynamic it purports to equalize.
  • Why should women have to “use” beauty to get what they want?
  • Furthermore, and this is perhaps a non sequitur, why do we see rich and powerful but conventionally “ugly” men dating and/or married to super “hot” women and never vice versa?  Are we supposed to use the “power” of our beauty to attach ourselves to successful older men for whom we are merely a fetish or “trophy”?

UGH.  At some point I’m not sure if this is even worth arguing, because I know this has all been said before. But then I’m reminded of the very real women for whom these ideas about “beauty as empowerment” have been enormously damaging. This is what I am referencing when I say that beauty is “dangerous”.

The following is the story of someone who is very near and dear to my heart.

For the sake of anonymity, I’ll call her Jasmine.  I’ve known Jasmine almost all my life—we grew up in very similar worlds, with some few key exceptions.  For some of the people who knew us growing up, I was the “smart” one, and she was the “pretty” one.  This in itself was damaging—for the longest time I believed that my smarts were all I had going for me, and I know that Jasmine learned to prize her beauty above all other aspects of her identity.  (For what it’s worth, I was not smarter than Jasmine—she was incredibly intelligent, creative, caring, and loyal—everything I could ever want in a best friend.)

Our relationship was complicated, in part because we did envy each other’s “best” attribute—I wanted desperately to be pretty, and was crushed when Jasmine had her first boyfriend at 12 and I had to wait until I was 16.  Jasmine, even though she was three years younger, did almost everything before I did—wearing makeup, kissing boys, showing her cleavage in low-cut tops.  She was even hit on before me, at age 9.  (And as fucked up as this is, I was proud the first time I was cat-called walking down the street at age 12).  For her part, Jasmine was jealous of my natural abilities in school.  Although she was smart, she did struggle with schoolwork (most artistic geniuses do), and I think she felt like she never “measured up” to me or my expectations of her.

The older we got, the further we grew apart.  Once inseparable, we soon felt that we lived worlds apart.  She hung out with the pretty girls who were into indie music, heavy eye makeup, and cocaine (although it’s still a mystery to me whether or not she ever took part in the drugging aspect of this lifestyle) while I stuck to my crowd of honors kids and musical theater geeks.  The older I got, the more my future seemed certain—college, career, family.  I don’t know if Jasmine ever had an idea of what she wanted from life.  Mostly, it seemed, she just wanted to be loved, and the best way she knew how to feel loved was through her looks.

The boys at school were gaga for her, and at 14 she had a 28-year-old madly in lust with her.  She learned how to manipulate men, how to “get what she wanted” from them.  All it took was a low-cut top, a mischievous look in her eyes and a pointed smile, and they were putty in her hands.

At 12, Jasmine was molested by an older boy she should have been able to trust.  At 14 she was “dating” a guy twice her age.  At 18 she was raped.  At 19 she was being regularly abused by her partner.  I very recently received a frantic call from one of Jasmine’s family members when, following a fight with her most recent boyfriend, Jasmine cut herself so deep she needed stitches.

How did this happen?

Even today, in this moment, I am at a loss.  Just listing it all out like that is enough to knock the wind out of me.  I want to cry.  I want to scream.

Doesn’t Jasmine know she’s better than this?  That she deserves more from men?  That she is beautiful, yes, but that her beauty doesn’t define her?  What happened to the girl I once knew?  She is a shell of who she used to be.  Every time I think about her, and what she is doing now, it’s like mourning the loss of a loved one even though she’s still, technically, alive.

I know some people will argue that it’s a huge leap to say that “beauty”, as a concept, as a physical attribute, as a whatever, did this to her.  Beauty did not hit her, did not climb on top of her, did not violate her.  But she is definitely a victim of beauty, of the mentality that a woman’s strength or ability to get what she wants lies in her beauty or her sexuality.  Even today, perhaps especially today, when we walk down the street together I catch her looking at the men we walk by, giving them that look, the one where she emphasizes her “bedroom eyes”, because she has been taught to crave the attention that follows; because she has been taught that her worth is caught up in and defined by this attention.

Before leaving the house, she will spend hours in front of the mirror, even if this means making everyone else late.  I have seen her cry because she didn’t feel like she looked good enough to be in public but, for whatever reason, was forced to be out and about.  If I didn’t know her better, I would think she was the vainest person in the world, but here’s the ironic thing: the more attention she gets from men, the more she allows her self-worth to be defined by what others think of her, the uglier she feels.

And this is totally common, right?  Most of us have at least one or two friends who are conventional beauties and appear super confident who are actually the most insecure of us all.  If they’re lucky, they get away with just having low self-esteem and some disordered eating habits.  If they’re unlucky, they’re like Jasmine, who has suffered—and continues to suffer—from all that and more.

But what’s the point of all this?  Yeah, Jasmine’s story is incredibly sad, and she might have had a better life if she were uglier, or lived in a world where beauty wasn’t considered a legitimate route toward female empowerment.  But she’s just one person, right?

Except that Jasmine isn’t really that unique.  I know of so many women who have similar experiences with beauty, men, and power.  We’re all taught, in this crazy way, that beauty is important because we can use it to get things.  For some women, like me, who actively try to work against traditional notions of beauty, the ideals are still so ingrained that it’s a struggle to rid ourselves of the “need” to put on makeup before leaving the house.  For others who struggle with weight, for example, so much of who they want themselves to be is so tied up in an idea of themselves as thinner that they don’t really “live life”, instead putting things off until after they’ve lost that extra 10 or 50 lbs. For others, beauty ideals manifest themselves in other ways.  But they’re there.

No one, in America at least, is able to escape the Power of Beauty—this power, of course, does not lie in beauty’s ability to empower, but to do quite the opposite.  And while it’s certainly admirable (and I think, important) to try to expand definitions of beauty so that they are more inclusive, to teach young girls that no matter what they look like, they are beautiful, the idea that one can be unproblematically empowered through physical attractiveness is the greatest beauty myth of all.