When someone compliments how you look — your new shoes, your new haircut, your big eyes, your feminine figure, how often do you accept the compliment with a simple “thank you”? If you’re like me, not often. I usually respond with some self-deprecating, amusing retort. Of course there are moments when I know that I look like hell and assume that the compliments are just a courtesy. But most of the time I brush off such praise because I feel uncomfortable agreeing with it. Why? One reason is that this lack of acceptance reflects the complicated relationship we women have with beauty. We don’t want to be totally defined by it, and yet we know it’s critical to catching a guy (or gal), impressing clients and navigating certain social circles. (And I will surely dig into this conflict in my blog at a later date — stay tuned!) But more fundamentally, I truly believe that we have a general unease with beauty — our own or even the beauty of others.
This unease with our beauty probably springs from our Calvinistic heritage which promoted hard work, economic progress and efficiency. Interest in and attention to beauty only gets in the way. It’s frivolous. Combine this with our Puritan background that eschews anything too dramatic and flagrant, and the result is a long-standing expectation to downplay our beauty.
To this day the pursuit of beauty is often considered superficial and wasteful when there are so many more critical issues to tackle and problems to solve. Interestingly, this notion of beauty as frivolous arose in a recent interview with Harvard Business School professor, Geoffrey Jones, who just published a book on the history of the beauty industry, Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Business. In the interview Jones is asked why the industry has been neglected by business school faculty. He first cites the fragmentation and mystique of the industry as a reason. He then states: “(T)here is the frequently observed gender bias in business school faculty. I suspect male faculty, who comprised the majority in most schools until quite recently, regarded this industry as a feminine domain and rather frivolous.” (The History of Beauty, HBS Working Knowledge.) In fact, the sheer dearth of scholarly explorations of beauty is also a testament to this. There’s certainly been a number feminist critiques of the beauty industry, but I can count with my fingers the number of academic deep dives into the definition and role of beauty in our culture. (I’ve listed a few below.)
But is this lack of respect for the pursuit of beauty truly serving society? Are we better people for it? We spend countless hours and billions of dollars beautifying ourselves. And if the past millennia tell us anything, it’s that we’re not going to stop this quest for beauty. It’s important, gratifying and transformative. So why must we consider it frivolous? There’s no question that we shouldn’t focus entirely on outward appearance. As kids we were taught not to judge a book by its cover and to look for inner beauty. I’m certainly not rejecting this advice. But it’s time to celebrate beauty! It’s time to view beauty not as the inhibitor of progress but an inspiration for it. Yes, it’s elusive and even magical but that doesn’t make it any less worthy. If anything it is extremely worthy! Beauty begets more beauty. It’s no coincidence that many places of worship are beautiful. Beauty can lift our spirits. Beauty can enlighten. Beauty can even bring us closer to our spiritual selves. I’m not arguing that buying the latest eyeliner or self-tanning lotion necessarily will turn us into more enlightened, spiritual beings. But I am saying we should feel good of our pursuit of beauty, as beauty is a wonderful thing. We should enjoy it and celebrate our individual beautiful selves. And we should acknowledge and celebrate the beauty of our friends, colleagues, family members, lovers and even those we pass on the street. To quote Nancy Etcoff in her Survival of the Prettiest (one of the few academic investigations of beauty I wrote about earlier), “How to live with beauty and bring it back into the realm of pleasure is a task for the twenty-first-century…the solution cannot be to give up a realm of pleasure and power that has been with us since the beginning of time.” p. 27.
So, I hope the next time someone praises your beauty, you accept the compliment with happiness, satisfaction and pride. And I’ll try to do the same.
Some “light” reading:
Survival of the Prettiest Nancy Etcoff
Dress Codes, Ruth Rubenstein