This post is a response to the article, “To those that have, shall be given” from the December 22nd, 2007 issue of The Economist. You can find the article here. I would like to encourage everybody to write to the Economist about this issue (e-mail - or post something in the comment box below.

The (unnamed) author of the above article makes the following argument: ‘The ugly are one of the few groups against whom it is still legal to discriminate’ –however, there are good reasons to be prejudiced against them: various scientific studies have shown that there are links between how ‘symmetric’ someone is and their intelligence. People are, therefore, correct to assume that someone they consider ‘beautiful’ is also smart, intelligent and capable – much more so than someone they consider ugly. So, in choosing a partner or a person for a job one should really favor the so-called ‘better-looking’ candidates. There are some very serious issues with this argument. The author’s naïve and unproblematic use of the term “beauty,” her/his insensitivity to ethical issues, and the callous acceptance of scientific evidence all reek of eugenics and dangerous biological determinism.

Does the author of this article not realize that the category “beautiful” is not something absolute and definite: it cannot simply be based on simplistic and vacuous criteria like ‘good symmetry’? It is a label that confers privilege, but it is also a label that is largely limited to the privileged. Beauty is a category that is raced, gendered, classed, and usually confined to those that are temporarily-able-bodied. This is not to say that people of diverse races, genders, classes, shapes and abilities cannot be valued as beautiful (from time to time) in dominant discourse, but that the very definition of beauty can play a major role in patterns of discrimination. For example, in India (as in many other parts of the world) being beautiful is often defined as being light-skinned – thus, ‘beauty,’ in this case, is based around race and is a racist construct. Beauty is also dependent on ‘appropriate’ gender performance. Although high fashion has, on occasion, pushed the boundaries of the feminine and the masculine, it has largely ignored trans people and women that are just ‘too masculine’ and men that are ‘too feminine’. Trans people and other gender ‘misfits’ are routinely portrayed as ugly caricatures in popular culture – the category of ‘beauty’ is unavailable to them inside dominant discourse. The same goes for the disabled: people in wheelchairs, amputees, or those with conditions like spina bifida probably do not meet the ‘symmetry’ requirements of this Economist article or the less specific ‘beauty exigencies’ of dominant discourse.

Furthermore, the article under discussion fails to acknowledge the gendered nature of beauty: the extreme pressure on women to be beautiful (in a narrow, socially acceptable way), and its systematic effects, such as the silent, creeping dominance of eating disorders. The saddest thing is that women are all too frequently judged based on their beauty and are encouraged to judge themselves by these same criteria. Men are also judged for their beauty, but not as intensely. They have a considerably broader and easier range of behaviors, grooming, and ways of dressing that constitute ‘male beauty.’ For a lot of women, beauty is a complicated full-time occupation, practically a second job – makeup, clothes, hairdos, dieting, ‘corrective’ surgeries etc… Few women are taught that they are beautiful as they are – instead, they are told that they must work hard everyday to become beautiful, that this beauty is their major bargaining chip vis-à-vis the world (i.e. – getting jobs, husbands), and that staying beautiful should be their most important task. Being thin, having the ‘right’ skin tone, wearing the appropriate clothes and makeup, having ‘pleasant features’ - all of this requires work, time and money that some people who do not belong to the upper or middle classes simply may not have. The resources spent on trying to attain this unattainable ‘beauty goal’ fuel a beauty industry that rakes in hundreds of billions of dollars a year, and beauty-obsessions keep women in a subordinate position success-wise: all of the time they have spent beautifying, applying, extracting, removing, shopping, dressing, washing, brushing could have been used for career advancement, spending time with family and friends, or other activities.

And for what? For a ‘beauty ideal’ that masquerades itself as essential, timeless and an absolute necessity, but in fact, is none of these things! Take a peek in other cultures or take a glance back through history, and anyone can see that beauty is relative. Men used to wear lots of makeup in 18th Century Europe. Larger of fuller-bodied women are considered the pinnacle of beauty in some African countries and were highly valued by European Renaissance painters. The beauty standards that people are held to nowadays are not definitive in any way – they are a time-bound, historically-influenced construct and they do not deserve the absolute reverence that popular culture and magazines tend to bestow on them.

Overall, I have tried to show in this post that ‘beauty’ is not something absolute that exists plainly for everyone to see – but that it is a category of privilege that can often be racist, sexist, ableist, upper-class/Western, and limited to people of a particular size and shape. Therefore, the author of the article under discussion – by approving discrimination against those considered “not-so-beautiful” – has also tacitly approved the entire list of prejudices that I have outlined above. In addition to not being able to extricate itself from an oppressive context, beauty is also strikingly relative – what may pass for sexy and handsome in one day and age, may not in another. Does this not mean, then, that we should encourage people to be less obsessed with beauty? And that justifying discrimination against people who are not considered beautiful is a very unjust thing?

***For More Information***
There are several classic feminist texts that deal with the beauty issue. Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth examines the economic effects that the socially imposed obsession with beauty can have on women. Germaine Greer’s The Whole Woman also addresses similar issues: she discusses how relative beauty standards across are time and culture. For a powerful account of a fat person’s attempts to deal with beauty myths and standards, see Frances Kuffel’s Passing For Thin and her website. I am as yet unaware of any discussions of beauty from a queer theory perspective, but if you know of any, please write to us in the comment box below! For a fascinating disabled person’s account of how he dealt with a beauty-obsessed gay male culture, check out Body, Remember by Kenny Fries. The anthology Queer Crips: Disabled Gay Men’s Stories (Guter and Killacky, Eds.) is also worth a look.

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