Want to Fight Sexism? Don’t Eschew Beauty — Embrace It!

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Nigerian feminist and author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi, hits the nail on the head, again!  This isn’t the first time I’ve brought her up.  You may recall that I wrote about this in a recent post,  Stand Beautiful on Feminism — For More Reasons Than You Think.

And this past week I brought her up again.  I had the privilege of speaking a lovely and brilliant group of people: the Professional Beauty Association.  While the topic of the conversation was tapping our innate creativity, there was NO WAY I wasn’t going to reference points of view of, examples of and my own stories around beauty.  One such example was Boots No.7’s recent partnership with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi.  I chose this story to point out how all brands, especially beauty brands, can have a bigger purpose than the just selling products. For Boots No7, make-up is a way for women to “speak louder.”  Who better to represent that thought than the brilliant, make-up wearing author?!

But the real reason this gorgeous and brilliant spokesperson is top of mind for me has to do with a recent interview of her I read in the New York Times.  In it she explains how she felt very comfortable in her native Nigerian expressing her beauty. But when she started moving in Western Circles she was worried she wouldn’t be taken seriously if she wore make-up and embraced her femininity with high heels or womanly clothing.  At first she succumbed to those fears and stopped wearing make-up.   But then she got her mojo back and went back to embracing her love for beauty.

More interestingly is her take on WHY we deem such behaviors — donning cosmetics, feminine clothing and high heels, as frivolous in the first place.  She attributes this disdain not on feminism but sexism! Here’s how she puts it:

“It’s about a culture that diminishes women. The things we traditionally think of as masculine are not things our culture dismissed as frivolous. Sports, for example, we think of as masculine. It’s something that our culture takes quite seriously. … I think it’s part of a larger picture of a world that simply doesn’t give women the same status that it gives men.”

Aha!  This reminds me of a post I wrote a number of years ago, When Goddesses Ruled. I tried to explain our culture’s discomfort with beauty.  Here’s what I wrote:

What explains this discomfort with beauty in our culture? I’ve spoken about the strong influence of Calvinistic doctrine that emphasizes productivity over sensual pursuits and the Puritanical aversion to Catholicism’s appreciation for the aesthetic (see Beauty is Beautiful).  And as women have fought to gain equality over the past few decades, they have sometimes felt the need to purposefully push “traditional” behaviors (like beautification) aside for more male ones, e.g. playing sports or working on Wall Street.

Here’s yet another explanation.  In “Look at My Ugly Face!”, Sara Halprin, psychologist, author, and documentary film-maker explains that in ancient societies, “women’s procreative power was understood to be linked to all sorts of creative abilities.”  Goddesses ruled!  But as men took on the claim of being the “creative ones,” and the more powerful of the two genders (and also more violent and competitive), around 4,000 years ago ,the biological act of childbearing, along with female sexuality and appearance, was downplayed.  Women’s sexuality had to be “visibly harnessed to the service” of men. “To justify the subjugation of women,” she continues, “her beauty was viewed with profound ambivalence, as a threat, a danger, as evidence of impurity, and at the same time, as the sole justification of a woman’s existence.”

Finally, Halprin points out how, up until recently, women were expected to be obedient to men and their beauty served as decorative support to their husbands.  Ironically though, women also ‘suffer from being perceived as dangerous to men…a woman’s beauty is associated with her sexual appeal and sex is viewed with suspicion by patriarchal society.”

As I examine my thoughts from the past and Ngozi Adichi’s words, I can’t help but think that NOT embracing our beauty is our giving in to social pressures and the ideals of masculinity over femininity.  Of course I believe we all should decide for ourselves what femininity looks like but all I can say is we shouldn’t shun it but rather relish in it.

Erotic Capital: What We Think Of It

A number of months ago British sociologist, Catherine Hakim, published Erotic Capital: The Power of Attraction in the Boardroom and the Bedroom, a study of the benefits of employing one’s erotic capital in the workplace.  As you can imagine, she caught a lot of flack for it.  I wanted to wait to read all the comments before I shared my opinion.

There were certainly some eyebrow raising moments in the book, especially with regard to the sex trade.  But for the most part, I found what she said to make a lot of sense. Of course, because of the Puritanical culture we live in, she’s going to get shit for endorsing sensuality in the workplace.  And she makes no bones about fighting against the old-school feminist ideology that, she argues, is keeping women back.

At first blush, you’d think she’s promoting short skirts and sleeping with the boss to get ahead.  Not at all. She’s just opening our eyes to the notion that how appear, like who we know, which schools we went to, which companies we worked at, and which projects we worked on, makes a difference.  It’s certainly not the ONLY reason behind people’s success.  But we need to all face the fact that it is a part of the mix.  And frankly, I don’t see why it shouldn’t be.

Hakim broadly defines erotic capital to a mix of a few or all of the following:  fitness, liveliness, social skills, charm, beauty, sex appeal, finesse, even smiling!  It’s not just about being sexy or pretty.

Interestingly, its men, not women, who have benefited from it the most.  Studies prove that the more hair, the taller and the better looking you are as a guy, the more likely you’ll get hired, promoted, and make more cash.  Women actually suffer a bit from their good looks in short-term, as employers may regard them as “too feminine” and therefore not up for the “manly” challenge of some jobs.

Pishaw!

There’s no question men and women must develop their intellectual and social skills in order to succeed in business and the world in general.  But there’s no reason to make a bit of effort to look good too. And if it means it gives a little more edge over the next guy, why not?

Comment or tweet me your thoughts @beautyskew