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The Binds of Beauty

On the perils of culturally ingrained standards of attractiveness

We often bemoan the fact that beauty counts for more than anything else in our appreciation of other people. Beauty distorts other qualities and filters them through its prism. We assign meaning and value to beauty far beyond its murky functions. The “halo effect”—a cognitive bias whereby people ascribe positive qualities to beautiful people, regardless of whether these actually exist—is real.

Though advantages conferred by beauty cut across gender lines, they’re far more compromised and fraught for women. And the disadvantages of lacking beauty hit women harder. The world opens itself up to handsome men, but it locks beautiful women into a curious double bind. Mad Men’s Don Draper, for instance, was able to build an imaginary persona merely on the basis of his handsomeness, which got him everything he ever wanted. Joan Holloway’s dazzling beauty, on the other hand, got her things other people wanted to get. When a 33-year-old dental hygienist in Iowa was fired by her married boss for being “irresistible,” she in turn sued for sexual discrimination. But a district court dismissed her case, maintaining that she wasn’t fired for being a woman, but for posing a threat to her employer’s marriage—a decision the Iowa Supreme Court later upheld. The hygienist, as it turned out, was also married, and creeped out by her predatory boss. But how she felt, and what she did, didn’t matter. She was penalized for what he saw.

The age-old practice of rating women according to their looks has been codified in recent years to the point that the mere appearance of a woman who, conventionally speaking, isn’t spectacularly beautiful almost always leads to a fervid referendum on her right to show herself in public. That she positions herself as a sexual being while looking like an average girl makes some people think Lena Dunham is getting away with something shady, maybe even criminal, and elicits in them the kind of outrage one would imagine more suited toward public disclosures of hedge fund managers’ salaries. Even her admirers have described her willingness to show herself as “brave” and “subversive,” as though she were a freedom fighter combating an oppressive regime—which, in a sense, she is. This says a lot about how our culture has trained us to look at women, and how willingly we submit.

“Lookism” is the last socially acceptable form of discrimination, in part because it provides a handy cover for misogyny. But it’s also a reaction formation that arises in counterpoise to the anxiety-producing feeling that everything we’ve been taught about who we are and what matters to us is a lie. In his analysis of the Caitlyn Jenner coverage, Jon Stewart brilliantly skewered our culture’s insistence upon judging all women by their sex appeal. The issue has also been a central theme on Inside Amy Schumer, which sends up example after example of this insidious form of oppression. In a sketch titled “Plain Jane,” Schumer plays a Miami detective whose homeliness literally makes her invisible, and therefore hugely effective. In the music video “Girl, You Don’t Need Makeup,” she lampoons songs telling girls they are flawless just as they are—as long as they are actually flawless (“Maybe just a little natural-looking makeup!”). And her “Last Fuckable Day” skit mocks the Hollywood ageism that all but stages Viking funerals for the sexual attractiveness of women over 40. It culminates in a “remake” of Sidney Lumet’s hung jury classic, in which an all-male jury argues over “the single most important question of our time,” i.e., whether Schumer is attractive enough to be on TV.

What Schumer is zeroing in on is not just that media-created beauty standards are crazy, but that they are ideological and inescapable. The boundary dividing our actual perceptions from our conditioned responses to the relentless beauty propaganda is hard to locate. What’s really behind her most ardent detractors’ anger, she seems to be suggesting, is an anxious ambivalence between what they see and feel, and what the culture compels them to see and feel. Deviating from the culturally-imposed makes them feel like deviants. The 12 Angry Men parody was inspired by a blogger writing that Schumer’s looks made her an “unrealistic” choice for starring in a movie about a girl who gets a lot of action. “Unrealistic” is a pretty interesting word choice, considering what he meant was that Schumer looks too real to pass as “real.” Because it’s one thing to imagine the aura of beauty reflected in other, mirage-like positive qualities, and it’s another thing altogether to insist that reality conform to the twisted fantasies fostered by the media-entertainment complex, and call it human nature.

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