Sunday, November 28, 2010

"The Truth About Beauty"

(excuse the lack of's law school finals...)

As soon as I saw the cover of the magazine, I knew that Psychology Today's piece, "The Truth About Beauty" would annoy me. And I was correct. The author, Amy Alkon, makes several ridiculous claims and drastically over-simplifies issues of women and self-image.

The basic premise of the article is, "it would be nice if inner beauty triumphed over outer appearance, but men are designed to care about packaging over content...the only way to get ahead in life and love is to accept the not-so-pretty facts about looks."

The summary on the title page is enough to make me want to rip my hair out. Aside from the fact that this statement assumes heterosexuality and that sexual orientation is fixed throughout one's lifetime, the snazzy little synopsis also assumes one monolithic definition of "getting ahead." Naturally, the author never defines what "getting ahead is"--but I wouldn't be surprised if it was something in the form of marrying a rich man and reproducing (since the author is also coming from an evolutionary biology perspective, and clearly, under that lens, that's all we women could ever want).

Shocker: all women are different, despite some sweeping mainstream generalizations. Depending on what the end goal is, most women consciously or subconsciously decide at the margin whether continue and to what degree to pursue "beauty." That's right--we each conduct our own cost-benefit analysis. Yes, I could forgo this dessert and most desserts in general to look like [insert under-weight celebrity here], but the cost of lost joy is OR is not worth it. For different women, the cost at the margin might be more or less than others, e.g., if you live in L.A., your "ideal weight" or "look" might be less realistic or less attainable than some non-urban center.

What is more, not all of us with a vagina a) have a heteronormative female gender performance; b) desire to marry a man; c) desire to marry a man who subscribes to the western idealized cultural script of masculinity; d) is sexually attracted to men; or e) ever wants to reproduce.

But fine--let's be nice. Let's at least get through the cover page and into the article. BOOM--all it takes is one paragraph: "Welcome to Uglytopia--the world reimagined as a place where it's the content of a woman's character, not her push-up bra, that puts her on the cover of Maxim."

Ms. Alkon, first of all, some women strive for goals other than landing on the cover of Maxim. Further, I doubt there is any reasonable person that believes mainstream society does not value looks. However, women are entitled to non-conform altogether, or to non-conform to whatever degree they so desire, and to seek a partner who non-conforms to a similar length. I am also sure women who do not engage in any self-grooming are aware that their compatible partner will most likely not be a typical mainstream hetero male. If said woman desires this sort of mainstream man, then, at the margin, I am sure she would do her eyebrows more and ditch the moo moo.

Moving along, the author also states that "Americans are so conflicted and dishonest about the power of beauty..." What? Are you serious? Where have you been living? Please view Exhibit A below (hat tip to e.k.):

Don't worry, the over-generalizations keep going. The author also insists on a singular definition of "feminism." Newsflash: there are multiple different types of feminisms. While the author, who refers to "feminist sob sisters" is trying to convey a brand of feminism that urges male/female equality in a strict sense, other brands of feminism, like cultural feminism, emphasize that men and women are different, and that those differences are commendable.

I also find it interesting that the author can chalk superficiality off to evolutionary biology, but then also dedicate a paragraph to explaining how ideals of beauty differ from culture to culture....meaning that, although deeply ingrained, these standards are arbitrary and reasonably transcend-able. (My mind goes back to a story I read of a man dating an under-weight woman, and the joy he took in later falling in love with a fuller-figured woman who loved life, pasta, and was not afraid to occupy space. When his ex said, "I didn't know you like fat girls," he responded, "I like happy girls").

After writing a very extreme article, seemingly positing a bi-polar perspective of "ugly" versus "beautiful," the author tosses in a sentence about moderation at the end: "...we, too, need to understand that a healthy approach to beauty is neither pretending it's unnecessary or unimportant nor making it important beyond all else."

This leads me to believe that, in a feeble attempt to make a splash and say something avant-garde, the author hid a more temperate message behind an extreme narrative. While the magazine somewhat off-sets this by including a small blurb article called "Can You Be Too Beautiful?" this article focuses on how pretty women are disadvantaged in job interviews. Neither article discusses the possible ramifications of "beauty" on self-identity and self-esteem.

1 comment:

Alex said...

LoL you crack me up!!!! You are so funny and witty.
Good job on this one... solid critical thinking! You should teach a critical thinking class... we need more of it in this world.