I often wonder why we have such complex reactions to the concept of beauty, to beautiful things and to beautiful people.  We’re both in awe and disdainful of it.  We see the pursuit of beauty as frivolous in some cases and, yet, critical to our daily lives.
And when it comes to women‘s beauty, the complexity intensifies.  American women pay attention to and enhance their beauty on a daily if not hourly basis.  There’s a reason the beauty business is so huge!  But at the same time we feel conflicted about the role it plays in our lives.  It can open doors but also define us, often in inaccurate ways — do the words “bimbo,” “vapid” and “desperate” come to mind?
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.”
Wow.  Women can’t win!
Now we all know times have changed.  But there’s still a ton of evidence that this “ambivalence” still exists.  Hopefully, this little post explains it a bit better.  And if we understand from where this conflict stems, perhaps we can do a better job challenging it and eventually erasing it all together.

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