On Men, Women and the Conversation About Beauty

I read or hear about beauty and women about every single day. Partly, I'm in it, so to speak — the rabbit hole of things women think and talk about. But also it just comes up a lot in the background of conversations about being alive. And it's always pretty much in the exact same way: Women are supposed to be beautiful. It is sad when they are not. It is good when they are. It can also be sad/hard for them. But don't forget how sad/hard it is for men, who are quite helpless in its presence. And so on.

You're never going to hear me argue that women don't get the shit end of the beauty stick. That goes without saying. But this doesn't mean we can't move this conversation down the road a little bit to a more advanced understanding of the issue. For instance!

Beauty is a pleasing thing or person. It is not a gender.

Anyone or anything can be beautiful, and to call it/them so does not make it/them feminine. It has never made sense to me to say a man is beautiful "like a woman," because if the man exists and looks like he looks, then it only follows that this is a way men can look. This is like saying someone looks good "for their age." No, they look good or they don't. Age has nothing to do with it. There is no "looking good" that automatically requires the good-looker to be young. It's a pointless qualifier.

Men do not have a monopoly on liking, seeing, or being drawn to beauty.

We are all utterly human. We have eyes. We are drawn to symmetry and order in the chaos that is nature. I don't know about you, but I'm able to see beauty in many many things, from people to children to flowers to rock show posters to the arrangement of small amounts of food in a series of tiny colorful bowls. Absolutely, women and men are taught to express desire and attraction differently, but we mistakenly conclude that because men get to lay it bare every second of their lives like idiots, that beauty is a thing only men go nuts for and women only cultivate in themselves so men will go nuts for them.

As if women aren't aware of the arrangement of features or the proportion of a body. Hello? Women are just as literally surface. And what, pray tell, is Pinterest but scads of women channeling culturally appropriate examples of order among chaos? Pinterest is beauty on a cult scale. It's a user-created lifestyle magazine, driven by desire and reined in by norms. Duh.

Male artists and writers aren't the final word on beauty.

This New Yorker piece on the problem of female beauty in novels makes a great point: that many novels "fail to meaningfully address the issue of beauty." Essayist (and novelist) Adelle Waldman writes:

In a recent essay in New York, the novelist Lionel Shriver argued that “fiction writers’ biggest mistake is to create so many characters who are casually beautiful.” What this amounts to, in practice, is that many male characters have strikingly attractive female love interests who also possess a host of other characteristics that make them appealing. Their good looks are like a convenient afterthought.

This is, unfortunately, sentimental: how we wish life were, rather than how it is. It’s like creating a fictional world in which every deserving orphan ends up inheriting a fortune from a rich uncle. In life, beauty is rarely, if ever, just another quality that a woman possesses, like a knowledge of French. A woman’s beauty tends to play an instrumental role in the courtship process, and its impact rarely ends there.

She goes on to contrast two particular "acute chroniclers of the male gaze" and their treatment of beauty in their work. It's worth a read and beautifully written, but there are some perspectives I'd like to see here. One, that of female novelists specifically and how they handle beauty. And two, the acknowledgement that because of the way Literature and most Art blatantly values male over female, it mistakenly creates the impression that female writers aren't as concerned by the subject in their own work/lives — their own beauty or the beauty of other women/men.

Because they are. Every writer, photographer, painter, author and filmmaker in existence, male or female, is, ultimately, concerned with the question of beauty. That is art. It is the ordering of chaos. (Even when it is ugly it is a reaction to that ordering.) In fact, I prefer the way female artists and writers and filmmakers think about beauty, because it so often unpacks and subverts the notions we're usually force fed, and yet still pays homage to them, because how could it not? It is in our very humanity.

We are all suckers for a pretty face.

I don't know a single woman who has not mad-crushed on a beautiful man or woman endlessly, who has not made the mistake of devoting herself to a relationship with someone purely based on their looks and not actual compatibility, who has not been blinded by appearances over personality. We've all been in shit relationships with hot people against our better judgment. Again, this is not the domain of men.

The more power women have, the more beauty becomes central to discussions of all kinds of attraction.

Part of women coming into their own is that we can be just as tyrannical about looks — no longer resigned to having to simply strive for beauty when we would prefer to look at it, too, and not just in the mirror. When we don't need men to act as our guardians, economic or otherwise, we can choose the men we want, for better or for worse. And that bears out with the divorce rates and increasingly casual attitudes about commitment from men and women, and men's greater attention to their appearance.

But I'm highly amused by a New York Times piece from wayback-year 1981 titled "Effects of Beauty Found to Run Surprisingly Deep." It lays out a lot of stuff that's now pretty common knowledge: Beautiful people have it better, get paid more, are treated to any number of positive assumptions about their character and ability and intelligence simply for being good looking. Even then, we were talking about the fact that the more independence women have, the more men are in the "meat market" alongside us, fretting over vain considerations that were once the province of us alone.

But then it lays out something we still don’t discuss much. A professor of psych at the University of Minnesota whose research presented all of the above, concludes:

'We can't yet answer the questions most people ask: What is good about being ugly? What is bad about being beautiful?"

Well, for one, ugliness has quantifiable benefits. And it has more subjective ones, if you subscribe to the notion that unattractive people spend more time developing things like personalities and skills. But that leads us to another important reminder:

But beauty, like everything else, has a price.

Such as not being taken seriously, or neglecting other aspects of your personality. It could mean limited choices because of the negative assumptions people make about your character.

And this is especially true for female artists, who end up inadvertently becoming walking examples of How to Be a Woman. It's a damned if you are, damned if you aren't kind of scenario.

You're probably super-sick of the Miley Cyrus Tongue-Twerk of 2013. And you're probably also already sick of Sinead O'Connor's response to it, which walked a fine line between truth-speaker and concern troll, and which has escalated into a bit of a tiff.

But what you might not have read yet is Amanda Palmer's open letter to Sinead's open letter (I know…). It doesn't matter if you're a fan of the Dresden Dolls singer or not, but this paragraph really struck me:

I want female musicians to feel like they can do MORE with their mad artistic energy, not LESS. I want women to feel less trapped inside their bodies, less afraid to express themselves, less afraid to be nailed to the cross of the cultural beauty standard. But that necessarily means there needs to be room on the vast playing field for Adele to wear a conservative suit, room for Lady Gaga to do naked performance art in the woods, room for PJ Harvey to wear high-collared 18th century jackets on stage, room for Natasha Kahn to pose boldly naked on the cover of her last record, and room for Miley to rip a page out of stripper culture and run around like a maniac for however long she wants to.

We're never going to stop talking about beauty.

I suspect we will be to the end of time, unless by some mutation we cease to need to procreate. But Palmer's take is salient. Beauty and how we manage it is never not going to be part of our presentation as people and women. The best we can do is continue to work toward autonomy, to give each other the space to sort out how we manage our own notion of what beauty is, and to work toward owning the machine.

This is a great shift away from talking about beauty in terms of how to please others. There's no mention in Palmer's piece, for instance, about whether it matters in the slightest what men think about how young women present themselves. In fact, let's stop even wondering about that in the abstract, and instead begin to consider that when the beholder and the object are the same person, there is more control than ever, and that is the message we should want young women to see.

Image via Getty.