Thanks to the Fark user who posted: “Yes, Virginia, there are generally accepted standards of beauty, no matter what the fatties and frumpies have told you,” kicking off the start of my personal holiday season (marked every year by the first person to tell me there’s a Santa Claus) and directing me over to “Advice Goddess” Amy Alkon’s travesty of an essay on Psychology Today.
In what mostly feels like a shameless ploy to top Marie Claire’s controversial fatties essay, Alkon explains that “The Truth About Beauty” is as follows:
…if you’re a woman who wants to land a man, there’s this notion that you should be able to go around looking like Ernest Borgnine: If you’re “beautiful on the inside,” that’s all that should count. Right. And I should have a flying car and a mansion in Bel Air with servants and a moat. […] It just doesn’t seem fair to us that some people come into life with certain advantages—whether it’s a movie star chin or a multimillion-dollar shipbuilding inheritance. Maybe we need affirmative action for ugly people; make George Clooney rotate in some homely women between all his gorgeous girlfriends. While we wish things were different, we’d best accept the ugly reality: No man will turn his head to ogle a woman because she looks like the type to buy a turkey sandwich for a homeless man or read to the blind.
Well. That’s helpful. Go make a bathroom run, refill your coffee and get comfy, folks… because BOY, do I have some things to say about this. First up: Who actually subscribes to “this notion?” Where is this “Uglytopia” that Alkon is so worried we’ve all moved to, where we get to live some blissful no-beauty-rules apply existence? I think pretty much everyone is willing to admit that looks play a role in every aspect of our lives. I just don’t encounter a lot of widespread denial about this. Perhaps Alkon only hangs out with the makers of inspirational throw pillows?
At the same time: Way to throw men under the bus. Because yes, we all like pretty people. But how f*cking tired is this only boobs need apply rhetoric that assumes all men are in fact sharing a brain and only want One Thing? Maybe Alkon uses whether a guy “ogles” her (so charming!) as the basis for forming lasting relationships. The rest of us, men and women alike, are looking for a whole rather nuanced variety of physical attributes, character traits, sitcom preferences, political leanings, soda brand allegiances, what have you, in a potential mate.
Only Alkon says we’re not, and then proceeds to go the “science has proved it” route (“There is a vast body of evidence indicating that men and women are biologically and psychologically different, and that what heterosexual men and women want in partners directly corresponds to these differences”) without citing a single specific study. That’s just lazy. If she can’t be bothered to do her homework — beyond watching the Jessica Simpson show where they visit tribal woman fattening themselves up for husbands — I don’t think we need to pay this section too much mind either.
Here’s what we will get into: Alkon’s take on feminists who perpetuate “the absurd notion that it serves women to thumb their noses at standards of beauty.” She writes:
But take The Beauty Myth author Naomi Wolf: She contends that standards of beauty are a plot to keep women politically, economically, and sexually subjugated to men—apparently by keeping them too busy curling their eyelashes to have time for political action and too weak from dieting to stand up for what they want in bed. Wolf and her feminist sob sisters bleat about the horror of women being pushed to conform to “Western standards of beauty”—as if eyebrow plucking and getting highlights are the real hardships compared to the walk in the park of footbinding and clitoridectomy. Most insultingly, Wolf paints women who look after their looks as the dim, passive dupes of Madison Avenue and magazine editors. Apparently, women need only open a page of Vogue and they’re under its spell—they sleepwalk to Sephora to load up on anti-wrinkle potions, then go on harsh diets, eating only carrots fertilized with butterfly poo.
OK. I too, get extremely frustrated when feminists (I actually don’t think Wolf is one of them, but it is a common enough argument) claim that women are selling out if they care about their appearance. We talked about this just the other week when Katha Pollitt wrote how Feminism is about getting that stuff out of your head. And I was like, how’s that working out for us? Not so much, right?
But it’s a cheap shot and an inane comparison to say that we’re so mad we have to pluck our eyebrows when African women have to deal with FGM. I am actually extremely concerned about FGM. I am also concerned about the 30 million American women with eating disorders, including the 20 percent of anorexia patients who will die from their disease — the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. And I’m pretty concerned about the low numbers of women holding CEO jobs and public office and how beauty standards reinforce those glass ceilings while also fueling a $330 billion global industry that profits off our beauty insecurities and often non-negotiable need to conform to the young/thin/sexy standard in order to get and keep a job.
And so I just can’t stomach Alkon’s “you can’t beat ’em, so pretty up and join ’em” solution to these problems:
It turns out that the real beauty myth is the damaging one Wolf and other feminists are perpetuating—the absurd notion that it serves women to thumb their noses at standards of beauty. Of course, looks aren’t all that matter (as I’m lectured by female readers of my newspaper column when I point out that male lust seems to have a weight limit). But looks matter a great deal. The more attractive the woman is, the wider her pool of romantic partners and range of opportunities in her work and day-to-day life. We all know this, and numerous studies confirm it—it’s just heresy to say so. […] As the classic commercial says, “Maybe she’s born with it. Maybe it’s Maybelline.” (If it increases her options, who cares which it is?)
Alkon is simultaneously creating this “problem” (that we’re all somehow in denial about the role of beauty in our culture — we’re not, we get it!) and claiming the only solution is to accept this most fundamental kind of discrimination and make yourself look really, really good so you don’t have to worry about it applying to you. How is that not insulting women (and men, too), to suggest we all keep playing what everyone knows is an un-winnable game?
Especially as Alkon proceeds to randomly start making fun of older women trying to practice exactly what she’s preaching: “Note to the menopausal painted doll: Troweled on makeup doesn’t make you look younger; it makes you look like an aging drag queen.” So you’re damned if you do — unless you’re French of course. Here Alkon borrows yet another tired stereotype (that every French woman is alluringly thin and beautiful) to preach her version of the beauty myth, where women should avoid extreme makeovers, but do their best to maintain an hourglass figure even once you get a man. This is super important:
Yeah, you might have to put five or ten extra minutes into prettying up just to hang around the house. And, sure, you might be more “comfortable” in big sloppy sweats, but how “comfortable” will you be if he leaves you for a woman who cares enough to look hot for him?
This is pretty much the point in Alkon’s essay where I feel a sudden need for Scotch. ven though it’s not even noon. And I hate Scotch.
Because look. If I have to choose between existence-still-not-proven Uglytopia and Alkon’s world, where every man thinks with his dick and cheats on his wife unless she uses her beauty as a tactical diversion, well hell, put me down for a quarter acre and a split-level on Main Street, Ugly Town, USA. I’d rather keep fighting against such an oppressive set of standards, while also holding on to my last shred of faith that people are actually rather idiosyncratic and unique and don’t all engineer our love lives to run like the B plot from the last episode of “Real Housewives.”
And the reason I want to keep fighting — not rejecting in the old-school feminist way, but challenging, questioning, and changing — is because I actually think that there is a third option for a better kind of world here. Okay, rejecting the Beauty Myth didn’t work. Yes, the influence of beauty standards on our relationships and careers is clear (there really are studies, even though Alkon was too lazy to look them up) and to some extent, unavoidable.
So what if — instead of ignoring it and instead of rolling over and just taking it — we got to make up our own minds? And that would mean some of us might say, “Gosh, I don’t think I will marry the guy who will cheat on me if I wear sweatpants.” It would also mean some of us will say, “You know what, I’ll take the Botox and I like how I look in fifty pounds of makeup, thankyouverymuch.” And there would be a whole actual spectrum in between where women got to pick and choose which beauty things we like (pretty shoes! shiny blowouts! whatever!) and which felt like a huge pain in the ass (pretty shoes! shiny blowouts! whatever!). And decide when it felt fun and appropriate to emphasize that hour-glass figure for a (certain) man’s enjoyment, and when it’s more useful to remind some of them that our eyes are up here.
But we wouldn’t judge each other for all of these different choices, making a knee-jerk assumption that Sweatpants Girl is going to end up sad and alone instead of able to find a partner who thinks sweatpants are kinda hot and oh yeah, likes her for other reasons too, or automatically deciding that Painted Doll must be in total denial about her appearance because there’s no way she actually wants to look like that.
We’d be like, cool, she’s rocking beauty on her own terms. And so am I. And it’s all good here.
Because that’s how you change the game — no whopping denial or irritatingly useless stereotypes required.