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The line of Beauty

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This week’s Economist contains an excellent article entitled “The line of Beauty” which discusses the impact looks have on people’s success in life. Unsurprisingly, in an image focused society, that impact is rather important – physically attractive women and men earn more than average-looking ones, and very plain people earn less (we’ll leave the question of measurement to another day).

According to Daniel Hamermesh, an economist at the university of Texas, over a lifetime, “a handsome worker in America might on average make $230 000 more than a very plain one.”(p68) This in turn has sparked outrage amongst those who insist looks should not be a basis for discrimination, something Deborah Rhodes of Standford University argues in her book “The Beauty bias”. According to Rhodes, virtually all females consider their looks as key to their self image – hurray for liberation then eyhh ladies! Indeed, “over half of young women said they would prefer to be hit by a truck than be fat.” At a time where a fifth of Americans lack basic health care, Rhodes points out that billions of dollars are spent on the cosmetic industry (90% of it by women!).

The article feeds into an argument made in, “Living dolls: The return of Sexism”, by Natasha Walters. Walters ‘book is a reappraisal of her previous stance that the hypersexualisation of female identity was merely a milestone along the road to liberation and not a problem in and of itself. She now argues, like Ariel Levy and others, that whilst in theory the opportunities available to women have expanded greatly, the hypersexualisation of women in the public sphere has reified the female persona so that one’s sexual allure is now the primary if not the singular means through which women can and do receive public recognition.
Through the glamour-modelling culture, through the mainstreaming of pornography and the new acceptability of the sex industry, through the modishness of lap and pole-dancing, through the sexualisation of young girls, many young women are being surrounded by a culture in which they are all body and only body.” (p125)

In other words, it’s great you’ve become one of the few female MPs in our parliament, but if you don’t look ‘hot’ doing it, expect to be judged and berated publicly for your lack of ‘femininity’, in other words, your ability to live up to male penchants, and if you do look ‘hot’ doing it, expect your physicality to take precedence over your actions and for any and all attention to be focused on your sex appeal rather than any genuine contributions you may be making to the political domain. In the City, expect to be paid less than male colleagues and to have to spend more time worrying about how you look. Only recently, female lawyers at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer were advised to team their stilettos with skirts rather than trousers to ostensibly ’embrace their femininity’….
Walter’s lists a number of particularly shocking examples. When Ann Widecombe, the conservative MP appeared on Have I Got News For You in 2007, many of the jokes focused on her looks and how ‘unsexy’ she was said to be and when Harriet Harman, Labour MP called for more women in power in 2009, a commentator in the Spectator responded: “So-Harriet Harman, then. Would you? I mean, after a few beers, obviously, not while you were sober… I think you wouldn’t.” (p121) When Sarah Palin ran for vice-Presidency in 2008, manufacturers released a ‘naughty schoolgirl’ Sarah Palin doll with a red bra showing through the school uniform (we’ll leave the discussion of the sexualisation of school girls for another day) and even a blow-up sex doll… Walters rightly argues that this bullying of women who choose to enter the public sphere, the public berating of any female figure who doesn’t live up to the porn star ideal, leaves many uneasy about entering the field at all. I wonder why!

This assumption that a woman should be valued primarily for her sexy appearance is having a real effect on women’s visibility in our culture. For instance, in sport, it was revealed in 2009 that in the Wimbledon tennis tournament the women selected to play on centre court were being chosen for their looks rather than their tennis rankings. In television in 2009 an older and more experienced woman, Arlene Philips, was moved aside for a gorgeous but inexperienced woman, Alesha Dixon, in one of the BBC’s flagship family entertainment shows Strictly Come Dancing. In such instances, we can see how a focus on women’s physical attributes means that their other attributes, from their sporting prowess to their articulacy to their experienced, are devalued. So the equation that is often made between hypersexual culture and women’s empowerment is a false one. Far from being empowering, this culture is claustrophobic and limiting. This is particularly true of women who may not have other paths towards success and status.” (p122-123)

Walter’s also found that the more emphasis women are made to place on their physique, the less they are able to focus that energy on the meaningful development of their human potential: “This kind of punishing attention to their looks may have an effect on women’s ability to fulfil their potential in other ways. There has been intriguing research published recently that suggests that women who are put into situations where their attention is directed to their bodies, by the clothes they wear or the advertisements they watch, score worse on maths tests and are less likely to see themselves as decision-makers. Such studies suggest that the narcissism that is being encouraged so relentlessly among young women may be affecting their ability to take up the roles that they would otherwise embrace.” (p. 124)
Following a discussion with a young women who felt stifled by the limited options available to her, Walters notes the lack of dissent amongst feminists, afraid to seem prudish by suggesting that one may not wish to begin sexual encounters so young, nor to offer up sex to anyone who’d take it. The consequence is a generation of girls who confuse sexual objectification with sexual liberation despite the fact the hypersexual culture means boys are more likely to view them as objects (not people whose consent is required!): “There aren’t any other options. There isn’t anyone speaking out against it. You’re just a sex object, and then you’re a mother, and that’s it. There is no alternative culture. There’s no voice saying that girls can be anything else or do anything else.” (p. 83)

This ultimately means that whilst the former and formal barriers which limited women’s entrance into various fields may have been rescinded, the more insidious and pervasive cultural pressure to place a primacy on one’s physicality rather than on one’s skills is actually limiting women’s horizons in a far more pernicious way because it cannot be addressed through purely legal initiatives, but requires a cultural overhaul, a reassessment of the way we portray women and conceive of female success.

Could we be in need of a reassessment of the value of modesty, thrown out as a traditionalist shackle designed to curb women’s sexuality…? and yet, if we consider modesty as a tool to limit the emphasis on our physicality in the public sphere only, there is no need to assume it is stifling of female sexual expression in private. .rather, it contains an equalizing potential by placing the primary emphasis of human interactions on our moral, human worth and not on the ephemeral and aleatory physique which has come to define our very value as human beings. To escape our stiletto jails, we need to reduce the importance we as a society place on the material and recall that human worth is not premised on an anatomical disposition, but on our contribution to the world, to humanity and its betterment. Ultimately, the shift away from materialism requires us to escape the capitalist consumerism which sees happiness as tied to the acquisition of things to the detriment of the development of the self in relation to others, including the Divine other.


Written by Myriam Francois

September 1, 2011 at 21:13

6 Responses

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  1. I always wondered why some Lebanese banks offered specific plastic surgery loans to employed people – this explains it…


    September 4, 2011 at 12:17

  2. A.S
    This is a great article.
    Thank God someone adressed this.


    September 9, 2011 at 22:16

  3. What a brilliant article. The hypersexualization of societies and the reduction of women to their physi-

    cality is a global problem and in many societies including Iran and Lebanon it is far worse. Now my

    question is: How can a woman with an Islamic background escape this image obsession when it is

    part of her culture, not Islam???

    And what about Islamic societies in which women spend huge amounts of money for beauty in private

    ladies-only sessions? Is that acceptable?


    September 12, 2011 at 00:43

    • Hi Sabrina,
      I cant really comment on other contexts which im not as familiar with, although I’m aware that this is a significant problem in many countries. I think one can seek to ‘escape’ it by consciously choosing to minimise the focus one places on externalities and not buying into the “heat”, etc culture which is based on promoting women on the basis of their looks (or their husbands!) rather than on any specific achievements they may have made themselves..
      I dont see personal hygiene or grooming as problematic in and of itself unless it becomes a significant focus in one’s life – ie you start to believe your self worth is dependent on it!
      kind regards,


      September 12, 2011 at 15:26

  4. Excellent.

    umma ali

    September 12, 2011 at 06:45

  5. What a great article. Well Done!

    I. Qureshi

    September 17, 2011 at 06:47

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