I was on my way to Los Angeles Sunday night and caught the Miss USA beauty pageant on the plane. While I was very proud that our standards of beauty have broadened so much that the first Arab-American was crowned, I was still cringing the whole time. The contestants were certainly attractive, and I’m sure very savvy, driven, and resourceful (or they wouldn’t have gotten this far). But the show was designed to make the women seem ridiculous. Not only did the women parade around in a highly dramatic fashion but in the pageant’s attempt to include intelligence and eloquence as criteria, the women ended up fueling the pretty airhead image people have of good looking women. These women had one minute to answer thorny questions that top politicians, economists, or social theorists struggle with. I mean, come on! How on earth can these women appear intelligent when the pageant is designed (intentionally or not) to make them appear downright stupid?
Poise and eloquence have been a part of these pageants for decades, and I appreciate the attempt of the pageant to reflect our need to see women as more than pretty mannequins. But it backfires. All it does is actually reinforce the notion that beauty MUST be associated with stupidity. Let me explain. My 6-year old son, Boaz, is an awesome chess player, and just last weekend he set a record for his school at the national championship in Atlanta. Why do I bring this up? At his tournament he was asked to play chess. That’s it. He wasn’t expected to show off his throwing arm or his musical abilities. He was born with a skill that he has honed over the past few years thanks to my husband’s tutelage (I can’t play for my life by the way!) The tournament was his chance to test his skill and have some fun. He certainly has other talents. He knows how to make friends fast, he acts out dramatic battles with his brother and he’s very loving to his sister. But there was no expectation that he reflect these abilities at the tournament.
Like my son, these pageant contestants were born with a gift: beauty. And I’m sure, no, I know, they have other gifts. Surely they are highly disciplined, have a strong work ethic and a gift for persuasion to get so many people to support them. But why must a beauty contest be anything more than what it is? The focus on beauty isn’t implying that these women are ONLY beautiful. Just as my son’s tournament isn’t implying that he’s defined solely by chess. In fact, by adding more “talents” to the criteria list, the pageant is belittling beauty. And, like I said before, the additional criteria force these women to appear ludicrous. Let’s face it, if you asked a bunch of adult chess players these same questions in front of millions of viewers, do you think they could answer them brilliantly in 60 seconds or less?
I have nothing against pageants. They have been part of our history for centuries and have served many women over the years. Pageants elevated women out of their often poor socio-economic stations back in the 19th century (see Lois Banner’s American Beauty for more detail) and, decades later, gave many the means to go to college. In essence they’ve actually empowered women. While some women get scholarships because they were born with a talent for shooting hoops, there’s no reason others shouldn’t be rewarded for their innate talent to attract others.
That being said, if someone asked me whether I’d be willing to prepare my daughter for and encourage her participation in beauty pageants, I would probably say no. Partly because it’s so hard for me to imagine, as she’s a big tomboy (thanks to having very “boyish” brothers.) But really I think it’s because I’m affected by the very prejudice that I’m decrying. I don’t want her to be labeled vain, frivolous and stupid. I would want her to put her time against more cerebral pursuits, especially because she’s a girl. While women’s power has grown exponentially in so many spheres — take Elena Kagen as a recent example –- I’m still holding on to that itch to prove we can do stuff just as well as, if not better than, the boys.
Perhaps my reluctance has a lot to do with HOW the contestants are portrayed and how beauty is being defined. Why must the contestants always look so posed and happy? Why can’t we get a true sense of who these women really are and how hard they worked to get to this point? Perhaps they could do real video grabs of their prep experiences where they actually appear human. Or perhaps the shows could mix up the segments so that we see the contestants dressed in fashions from different cultures. Beauty isn’t dumb, though the means by which we present it may be.
As Nancy Etcoff in Survival of the Prettiest points out, we’re not going to stop desiring and being fascinated by beauty. And if there are people out there who can empower themselves through it, why ridicule and demean them? It just makes those who cultivate their beauty, gain from it, and display it, i.e.. our pageant contestants, seem stupid when they are actually just following the American dream of pushing oneself and using all available resources to succeed. Let’s continue to celebrate beauty, but let’s call for a new format: one that respects these beautiful women and gives them a forum to truly succeed.
I have to confess, I have a major “girl crush” on my new French colleagues. They are in their mid-forties, smart, statuesque, thin and have great style. At a reasonable 5 ft 5 in, I feel like a munchkin compared to them. They appear so sensual, womanly and edgy at the same time. Oh yeah, they make is all seem SO effortless. If I could just bottle all that class and beauty, I’d make a killing!
I’m certainly not the first person to wax poetic about the particular beauty of the French. I mean, how many of you haven’t read French Women Don’t Get Fat? Recently Jessica Simpson investigated French women for one of her episodes of The Price of Beauty (a pretty good show by the way). We’re raised to see them as the icons of beauty and style. If you look at historical sources on beauty, you’ll see that American women looked to Paris for fashion and beauty trends even back in the 1700’s and 1800’s.
I don’t pretend to know their secrets. Yes, you can dissect their wardrobe, beauty regimen, diet and bone structure and extract some good tips. But what I’ve seen that’s most inspiring is their attitude. Forget the cliché of French snobishness. That’s not what I mean. And, honestly, I’ve only experienced warmth and collaboration from the French women I’ve encountered. What I’m referring to is a general ease with themselves. Their overall lack of pretense and comfort with their own individual beauty and their overall selves is palpable. I read a blog post about a year ago on the difference between French and American women and it spoke of how French women “think of themselves as bodies in motion….the average well-dressed Frenchwoman produces an impression of much more elegance in person than can really be captured in a static photograph.” American women, in contrast, “assemble themselves in front of a mirror and construct a very static image of beauty.” (Pandalous) The French approach is so much more natural because the human experience is one of motion not of stasis. When I refer to natural I don’t mean that they are devoid of make-up and grooming. Au contraire! I mean they are true to themselves and don’t try to be anyone else. They are loose, human and full of authentic emotion and energy. In posts from France I saw even more ammo for this. In a French blog called: Au Secoures, j’amie la mode!, a young women writes: (translated from French) “We just need to be natural and not to feel insecure with ourselves. Charm makes all the beauty of a person.”
As trite as this may sound, I don’t think we all truly believe it. So many of us are insecure and we feel we need to be more poised, or more eloquent, or more sophisticated. Certainly I’ve felt this many times. Following their example requires us to relearn a lot. It means loosening up a little and not guarding our emotions, thoughts and energy so much. If we do that I really think we could start capturing some of that amazing French “je ne sais quoi.”
Now, if I could only learn how to tie my scarves just so…
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
It was my 38th birthday yesterday and I gave myself that day (or a day or two afterward as unforeseen events do happen, like my daughter coming down with an ear infection) to start this blog. Why my birthday? Well, it’s obviously a key date on my calendar but actually I chose the date because of the significance of getting one year older as a woman in America. For most of us, one year older means more accomplishments under our belts, another adventure taken, a bunch of failures and successes. But it also signifies getting closer to losing a sacred part of all of us: our beauty. Of course one could argue that beauty doesn’t diminish with age but rather alters, even improves with it. But lets face it, we live in a culture where youth is held on to for as long as possible.
And yet, this year, I don’t feel that sense of dread. For one thing, I can’t help but believe that our perspective on beauty has and will continue to evolve as our roles in society change. After all, for the first time ever American women outnumber men in the workforce. That should say something! But the reason I feel so differently this birthday is that I’ve spent the last year or so digging into the complexity, the fun, the mystery, the scariness, and the role of beauty in American women’s lives. In this process I have developed a deep fascination with and a profound respect for the pursuit of beauty. In reality, though, this journey began as an young girl (as it does with all of us) when I experienced the joy of dressing up, or felt the complex emotions that come with the reactions of others — either positive or negative — to my appearance, or when I would hear the message that looks are much less important than brains. And like any other woman, this journey with beauty will never end. But now, thanks to what I do for a living and my recent concentrated effort in understanding the role of beauty, I feel that I will face this journey with more insight and excitement.
I’ve been fortunate enough to look back into the history of beauty in our country, examine our relationship to it versus that of other cultures, and view beauty through the lens of American values. I’ve had the privilege to talk at length with women around the country about their definition of beauty and get perspectives from experts as well. And because this topic is so complex and multi-faceted, I continue to investigate the role, definitions and expressions of beauty with different people, through different means and with a new set of eyes everyday.
Please join me on my blog as I share what I’ve learned and continue to learn throughout this journey. And I encourage all of you to share your thoughts, musings and observations as well! Since it’s still my birthday (in a way), I will finish the evening with my family and dig into the study of beauty in my next post.