Beauty

Age and the Single Story

“The older, wise woman has rarely had a starring role in the American story, beyond grandma and her cookies.”

This line from a Washington Post story on Hillary Clinton struck me. I wanted to share it, even though at the moment I am on a tight deadline on my forthcoming book and won’t have time to comment at great length.

The Karate Kid goes to Mr. Miyagi. Luke Skywalker goes to Yoda. When it comes to mentors, there are all these guys.

Yet we have few narratives about women beyond beautiful object of longing and desire, and parent. Even that second role is limited. We have stories about perfect mothers, and occasionally villainous wicked step-mothers, but few dramatic parenting narratives.

What struck me in the Washington Post story is how deeply ingrained these assumptions about the role of women are. Because the very next sentence, after the one I quoted is this:

“Plenty has been said about the way American women feel invisible once they reach 60, or 50, or — gack — even 40 today. We live in a culture where gorgeous Maggie Gyllenhaal is being told she’s invisible before she’s out of her 30s.”

Note how Maggie Gyllenhaal’s relevance in her 30s is defended. She is “gorgeous.” Even while making the case that women can be sages, the author resorts to a “still sexy at sixty” framework. She should not be dismissed, because she is still attractive. These ideas run very deep.

 

See also: The Happy End: Male vs. Female.

 

“Unattainable Standards of Beauty”

Balthus, Nude Before a Mirror, 1955

Balthus, Nude Before a Mirror, 1955

I have a pet peeve about this expression.

It tends to come up in articles that criticize media images of women, generally in fashion magazines and advertisements. The latest appearance is in an article about an Australian model who is rebelling against the label “plus size.”

“I am a model FULL STOP,” wrote Stefania Ferrario, a size 8 model described as “curvy” in the article. “Unfortunately in the modeling industry if you’re above a US size 4 you are considered a plus size, and so I’m often labelled a ‘plus size’ model. I do NOT find this empowering.”

The article concludes: “The fact that these are pictures of a supposed ‘plus size model’ shows how ridiculous and unattainable our beauty standards have become.”

Stefania Ferrario is the latest in a line of non-skinny models to make the bold declaration that she is beautiful as she is and that our standards of beauty are narrow.

Of course she is, and they are.

But arguing for a broader standard of beauty fails to question a deeply ingrained set of problematic cultural assumptions.

1. That it is vitally important that women be (or at least feel they are) physically beautiful. Note how the idea of beauty and the idea of power are linked in the model’s quote. Being called “plus size” is not “empowering.” A woman’s power is derived her physical attractiveness. Historically women had few options to achieve power in the world besides attracting a powerful man. This is no longer the case, but cultural assumptions are slow to change. We need to abandon this antiquated mindset.

2. It accepts the premise that pointing out a woman is larger than another (with the label “plus size”) is negative and shaming. You don’t have models taking a stand and saying “don’t call me a blonde model, I’m just a model” or “don’t call me a petite model, I’m just a model” because blondeness and petiteness are considered descriptive, neutral qualities.

3. It frames beauty as something that can– and should– be “attained,” generally through the purchase of fashion and consumer beauty products.

One of the first articles I ever published on this blog back in 2011 was called “In Defense of Beauty.”  What I wrote then bears repeating:

For some time American women, and to a lesser extent, men, have been made to feel threatened by images of beautiful people. We have been trained to see beautiful fashion models and actors as a commentary on our plainness. But why?

When exposed to a painting of a reclining nude in a museum, or a statue of Venus or Michelangelo’s David, we appreciate the physical beauty but we do not take it as a commentary on ourselves. We do not resent the artist for presenting an idealized physical form. We simply delight in its beauty…

Our deeply held assumption is that we are not only meant to look, we are meant to look like the beauties we see in media. Who said that? Who told you that someone else’s beauty is something you should strive to “attain?” My guess is that they were trying to sell you something.

The problem is not that models are beautiful. It is not even that they are impossibly beautiful—extraordinarily young, skinny and photoshopped. It is only our relationship to the images that is unhealthy and dangerous.  The danger is in our unshakable belief that our beauty ideal is aspirational, that perfection is something we should always strive towards.

What marketing does that museums do not is to transform our natural appreciation of a beautiful form into a push to buy a product. A model is presented with a call to action—buy my make up, buy my jeans. Advertisers create the implicit promise that not only can this beauty be contemplated, it can be imitated. And it is easy to do so, just buy the jacket, the perfume, the deodorant, the car. If it is so easy to become beautiful, if all you have to do is buy a shampoo, then it really is a personal failing if you don’t make the effort…

That is a shame, not only because of the way it makes us feel about ourselves, but also because it robs us of the joy of simple aesthetic appreciation of rare physical beauty. We should celebrate the capricious twist of genetic fate that creates a Heidi Klum, and be grateful that it occasionally happens.

We listen to musical virtuosos, not a class room full of music students, even though the virtuoso level is “unobtainable” by most people. We like to watch professional athletes performing at a skill level that is “unobtainable” by most people. Most people will never “obtain” the level of a professional ballet dancer at ABT, but that is exactly why we go to watch. Appreciation of the extraordinary and rare is not unhealthy or destructive.

Clothing stores want to sell you clothing. They do not care if they sell clothing by making you feel insecure or making you feel sexy. Whatever works.

This is why I instinctively question it whenever a company that wants to sell me something starts to coo about how beautiful I am at my real woman size. It is not that I don’t like to be told that I am lovely and that I’m included in the beauty party. Who doesn’t? But being called beautiful, while pleasant, is not my aim in life. It is not my primary source of self-esteem.

It helps marketers if we continue to believe that our power is tied to our physical beauty, that it is imperative that we are, or at least feel, beautiful, and that beauty is something that can and must be obtained (by buying their stuff). That state of affairs is good for them, but bad for us. Whether that message is packaged in aspirational or inclusive imagery, we need to question it.

It is not being plus size that takes away my power. It is taking cultural cues from companies who are only interested in selling stuff that takes away my power. Let them sell stuff. That’s their job. We need to shape the culture. That is ours.

Why #Choosebeautiful Irks Me So

Dove is at it again. They’re trying to get women to buy their soap through shameless flattery. I realize I am in the minority in this, but I hate the message of the Dove Real Beauty series of ads. I do not find it to be particularly empowering.

In this ad, women are given the option to walk through a door with the word “beautiful” over it or one with the word “average.”

(Which door did the men walk through and who interviewed them about their choices? If they did not walk through the “beautiful” door are we meant to understand this is an existential tragedy?)

Where is the door that says “competent” or “intelligent” or “accomplished”? Most people have average looks. That is the meaning of the word “average.” But the message in this video is that it is a tragedy for a woman to admit she might not be above average in the looks department. Why should that be?

According to a study conducted by Dove, most women (96%) said they wouldn’t choose the word beautiful to describe themselves — although about 80% said there is something beautiful about them. Feeling beautiful is a personal choice women should feel empowered to make for themselves, every day.

Suppose women were to make the choice for themselves every day that they weren’t going to feel ashamed of looking average? Wouldn’t we be more “empowered”?

As the word “beautiful” means above average, extraordinarily pleasant to look at, then defining it as the top 4% doesn’t seem entirely out of line. The fact that 80% of women say there is something beautiful about them says to me that vast majority of women actually do take pride in ourselves, but that we’ve been asked to define all of our positive qualities under the umbrella term of “beauty.” If we do not use this language, we are accused of having woefully low self-esteem.

When we define all of our positive qualities in terms of beauty we are implying that the main benefit is that these qualities will be attractive to men. It also affects what we value in women. Certain kinds of qualities lend themselves more readily to being defined in terms of beauty. A “beautiful personality” calls to mind someone compassionate, optimistic, nurturing more than someone who is strong, challenging, powerful.

Try changing the gender and the adjective in this sentence:

“According to a study conducted by Dove, most men (96%) said they wouldn’t choose the word “genius” to describe themselves — although about 80% said there is something genius about them.”

Wouldn’t you infer that, in fact, these men had quite healthy self-esteem? Of course most would not be arrogant enough to insist they be defined as genius. That doesn’t mean they don’t have their own areas of expertise. If 80% felt that they had some genius qualities, that is pretty darned good.

How does this sentence sound?

“Feeling beautiful is a personal choice men should feel empowered to make for themselves, every day.”

And why not make a personal choice, while you’re at it, to believe you’re a great dancer, a brilliant mathematician, naturally gifted at sports? Because it is not all in your head. We’re not equally gifted in everything. My proposal is a simple one: rather than expend mental energy trying to define all of your positive qualities as “beauty” and then express how beautiful you feel, how about skipping the middle man and just be confident about what is great about you?

I would walk through the “average” door with my head held high, and if they asked me afterwards why I had chosen that one I would say “because my looks are average.” (Not ugly, just average, thank you very much.) But you know what? I’m a very good writer. Where is that door?

 

 

In Praise of Idleness

photo by Jake Givens from unsplash.com

“Lord Henry smiled and, leaning down, plucked a pink-petalled daisy from the grass and examined it. ‘I am quite sure I shall understand it,’ he replied gazing intently at the little golden white-feathered disc, ‘and I can believe anything provided that it is incredible.'”

I was struck by the little detail, so wonderfully aesthetic, of the flower in this bit of dialogue from The Picture of Dorian Gray. He plucks a flower and contemplates it.  It made me think that perhaps we could use a bit of an aesthetic revival, bring back those subversive ideas about encouraging idleness, and making a religion out of the practice of art and the contemplation of beauty. Not being productive and busy seems so much more blasphemous than it did in Victorian times. Yet they too felt rushed and pressed upon by modern life.

Things go by so quickly, there is a fear you might miss something– that one tweet that will change your world.  Do you ever click on a link in your tweetstream and get bored before you read the first paragraph of the article?

A phrase in an article I read yesterday jumped out at me. “…posting stories engineered toward ‘virality;’ to court their new social-media kingmakers.”

On Word Press you can check your stats, several times a day if you like. It will tell you how many clicks you got. It becomes something like a drug, you have got to know– is anyone listening? You start to measure your success as a writer by the number of clicks you got. It is a measure of the success of your headline more than your content. It is not a measure of quality or beauty. It is, however, the only quantifiable thing you’ve got.

We are asking how many, how many how many? We should be asking how much? How much beauty or meaning or value can I convey? How much more can I see? How much is this world revealing to me right here, right now?

Normally, I would have gazed right over the description of the flower to move on to the important things– the next point in the plot, the next revelation of character.  Today I stopped. I tried to visualize that flower. That’s when I noticed something odd.

Oscar Wilde’s “pink-petalled daisy” is “golden white.”

Perverse Incentives: Paying People More to Make Life Ugly than To Make it Beautiful

“We allow people to make huge profits doing any number of things that will hurt the poor, but we want to crucify anyone who wants to make money helping them,” Dan Pallotta told the New York Times.

Surely we value the work of those who help the poor, and yet charity, like art, falls into the category of things that we expect people to do for love rather than money.

To put that in a Pallottian soundbite: We allow people to make huge profits by making the landscape more ugly, but we are uncomfortable with paying people to create beauty.

A team of researchers at Yale University call this the “tainted altruism effect.” They found that ”

People evaluated efforts that realized both charitable and personal benefits as worse than analogous behaviors that produced no charitable benefit. This tainted-altruism effect was observed in a variety of contexts and extended to both moral evaluations of other agents and participants’ own behavioral intentions (e.g., reported willingness to hire someone or purchase a company’s products). This effect did not seem to be driven by expectations that profits would be realized at the direct cost of charitable benefits, or the explicit use of charity as a means to an end. Rather, we found that it was related to the accessibility of different counterfactuals: When someone was charitable for self-interested reasons, people considered his or her behavior in the absence of self-interest, ultimately concluding that the person did not behave as altruistically as he or she could have. However, when someone was only selfish, people did not spontaneously consider whether the person could have been more altruistic.

In other words, the researchers confirmed what Pallotta observed anecdotally. If you make a million dollars feeding the homeless people will judge you more harshly than they judge the man or woman who made a million dollars and didn’t feed the homeless. Put another way, the guy who got rich by foreclosing on people’s homes (creating the homeless) probably seems more respectable than the guy who took a large salary for running a homeless charity.

Why are people so uncomfortable about the idea of people making lots of money helping people, caring for people or creating art? It is what I would call a prostitution anxiety. Money is a depersonalizing force, as a universal medium of exchange, it replaces the need for an ongoing relationship between people who engage in commerce.

To really understand this it helps to know a bit about the history of money.  Most people have a notion that money evolved out of barter.  The idea is that the guy who owns a cow trades the milk for some eggs for the guy who has chickens. But what if the guy with chickens is lactose intolerant? How does the cow owner obtain eggs? Money was invented to solve this dilemma. (This notion of the origin of money is used in this 1947 educational film by RCA.)

Economic anthropologist David Graeber calls this “the founding myth” of economics. In an interview posted on the blog Naked Capitalism, Graber explained:

Obviously what would really happen, and this is what anthropologists observe when neighbors do engage in something like exchange with each other, if you want your neighbor’s cow, you’d say, “wow, nice cow” and he’d say “you like it? Take it!” – and now you owe him one. Quite often people don’t even engage in exchange at all – if they were real Iroquois or other Native Americans, for example, all such things would probably be allocated by women’s councils.

So the real question is not how does barter generate some sort of medium of exchange, that then becomes money, but rather, how does that broad sense of ‘I owe you one’ turn into a precise system of measurement – that is: money as a unit of account?

I owe you one. I helped you and so we are in a relationship together. You are socially obligated to return the favor in some way at some point. Money, as the author James Buchan says, is “frozen desire.” Those who accumulate it can use it for whatever they see fit. You can go into a shop, hand over some paper or coins or electronic digits, and you can walk out with as many gallons of milk and cartons of eggs as you like and you are under no obligation to the person who owned the cow, or the chickens, or the person who leases the building, or the clerk who works behind the register. Money ends the transaction and dissolves the relationship. You can go back to the store if you like, but you are not obligated to. Likewise the store clerk has no obligation to remember your birthday or acknowledge you in any way after she leaves her place of employment. Money is a depersonalizing force.

Buchan’s book, Frozen Desire, says that in ancient times there was “a contest between the moneyless and moneyed forms of social organizations…Money is normative. So pervasive is its influence on our lives that it makes less moneyed ages incomprehensible, consigning them to barbarism or folklore. Yet history is not inevitable: antiquity did not aspire to our present condition and might have generated a quite different present.”

After the fall of the Roman Empire, Buchan says, Britain for a time shifted to a non-monetary economy.  That means that in the time of Jesus and his contemporaries, the money model was not yet set in stone. We read accounts of Jesus telling his followers to take nothing with them, not to use money, and to rely on the kindness of others. This concept, in our time, has to be much more radical than it was in his. In villages like Galilee, there was probably little use for money, except when dealing with outsiders like the colonizing Romans. Amongst themselves, locals most likely still relied on systems of trust and mutual obligation.

Buchan, in his chapter which specifically addresses Jesus says it is “as if Jesus recognizes money as a competitive authority: that in embodying happiness and reward in tangible, earthly form, money is more persuasively heaven than Heaven.”

We have come so far from these times that we can barely even conceive of getting along without the tool of money. Yet we intuitively retain some sense of what money replaces– relationship. Thus we fear allowing it into certain areas. We make it illegal in most places to pay someone for sex because we fear what would happen if sexuality were completely divorced from emotional attachment. Likewise, we get uncomfortable about people taking money in order to do compassionate work because we fear what would happen if people only acted compassionately if they were paid to do so. We believe real artists create for love and dismiss artistic projects that have commercial success as selling out because we want art to be a relationship between the artist and other souls.

Thus begins a strange and vicious cycle. It is precisely because we value the human element so much that we fear contamination of them by money. We are afraid that money will make compassion, inspiration, and care disappear. The sad consequence is that we, in effect, starve them out.

We use money to attract “the best and brightest” to banking, but those who would like to make a living in the non-profit sector or the arts must commit to a kind of vow of poverty. In turn, we discourage humanities education because its practitioners do not make any money. (The link above is to a quite interesting article on misconceptions about liberal arts education, especially English literature as exhibited in the movie Dead Poet’s Society.) We argue for the relevance of music education by saying it improves performance in math rather than by saying children should study music because we value music.

What the market does not value, we do not value– except that, in our heart of hearts, we value it quite a lot. We value music, literature, painting and charitable work so much that we are afraid to contaminate it with the one thing that would ensure its thriving.

It seems unlikely that we are going to go back to a non-monetary social structure any time soon.Therefore, if we want charity and arts to survive we need to find a way to reset our priorities.

People tend to think of self-interest and other-interest as opposite poles. You can do something for the love or for the money but not both. This is obviously not true, you can love caring for the elderly or writing novels and be financially rewarded for it.

Is there a way to reverse people’s thinking on this? The authors of the Yale study offered one glimpse of hope. It comes down to how information is presented. Here is how James Choi summed up the researchers’ findings on his blog:

Their experiment on Gap (RED) presented four conditions: in the control condition, participants were simply given information about the Gap. In the altruism condition, participants read about the Gap and the (RED) campaign, through which 50 percent of profits were donated to charity. In the tainted-altruism condition, participants read about the Gap (RED) campaign, its donations, and the fact that the other 50 percent of sales profited the company. Finally, in what they called the counterfactual condition, after reading that Gap (RED) raised money for charity and earned a profit, participants were reminded that the Gap did not have to donate to charity… whereas people would have typically judged charity paired with self-interest more negatively than no charity at all, by mentioning that Gap could have simply kept all the money, this perspective disappeared.

Dan Pallotta could have devoted himself to earning money by not helping people, would that be better for society? Our artists could devote themselves to earning money by not making art. Does that make our world a better place?

Weird Article Juxtaposition of the Day

From Marie Claire Magazine’s 5 Things You Need to Know Right Now:

4. Science says materialism is keeping you unhappy. Just in case you didn’t realize, a new book aggregated a ton of data on the subject and found that “the materialistic tend to be unhappy, those with material goods will remain unhappy, and the market feeds on unhappiness.” [Raw Story]

 

5. This female Harvard Business School student just figured out how to 3D print MAKEUP. Just watch this immediately.