The Ugly Side of Beauty. Connie Woodring.
“You can buy a woman for $10,000 and you can make your money back in a week if she is pretty and she is young. Then everything else is profit.” Convicted racketeer Ludwig Fainberg
“One of the results of anger is to receive ugly bodies in future lives. If you look ugly, people won’t want to see or hear you, won’t want to help you and won’t pay attention to what you say. Worse than that, you will have to experience the unbearably heavy sufferings of rebirth and hell. Lama Zopa Rinpoche
If those quotes don’t put the fear of ugliness in all women, listen to Rodney Carrington, a country singer. He wrote a song, “Ugly Women.” His description makes Halloween witches look like Audrey Hepburn: unshaven legs and armpits, curlers in their hair, spitting snuff, gaps in their front teeth and bad breath.
Determining what makes a woman sexually attractive might require more than listening to a country radio station, however. A study done in 2001 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management indicates that men’s brain responses measured through computer imaging when presented pictures of beautiful (my italics) women were similar to triggers for food and addictions. According to a study by Cindy and David Struckman-Johnson on male rape victims: “Men are also likely to have a strong negative reaction when they are exploited by a woman while they are intoxicated, especially if the woman is unattractive.” 1
It is no surprise that unattractive women are not rewarded in our society. Enter the cosmetic industry which is deeply invested in having men’s brain responses register in the addictive end of the spectrum. Perhaps we should thank that industry, more than any others, for the survival of the species. The New York Times 1995 best seller, The Rules: Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right by Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider, should be thanked also. One of the secrets: “Never leave the house without wearing makeup. Put lipstick on even if you go jogging!” It is also interesting to note that in most movies women go to bed with their makeup still on. In 2013, a female cable television host did a brief segment on the sexual objectification of young girls. To emphasize the point, she wore no makeup on the set, an action she felt was shocking to do. Her female guest also came on unmasked, and the host thanked her for being a brave warrior.
But who says only females are beauty objects? Many bird and animal species, as well as some primitive tribes, adorn males in order to attract the most viable females. They strut, dance, display feathers and fight mock battles just to win favor. So, who has the power now? Those males who are not attractive may not reproduce and carry on their genes. Perhaps men cannot handle the stress of such scrutiny and turned the tables on beauty power as soon as they could.
In 1920, women won the vote, and in 1921 the Miss America Pageant was created. In 2018, CEO Sam Haskell and two other executives left the Miss America Organization after emails leaked to the Huffington Post revealed uncomplimentary remarks made about contestants’ appearances and sex lives. 2018 was also a historical date for the beauty pageant: it banned the bathing suit category.
According to a United States 50-year (1939-1989) cross-generational mating study, one of the most consistent differences between the genders is that physical attraction is more important to men than to women. 2 How does that difference affect women? It can keep them out of jail, if one believes Debra Lafave’s lawyer. The 25-year-old ex-model and school teacher was convicted of sexual abuse of a 14-year-old male student. Although she could have received more than 15 years in prison, she pled guilty and was placed on seven years’ probation. Her lawyer argued that prison would be too dangerous a place for a woman so beautiful.
Female beauty can bring power rewards of fame, money and (not-to-be-snickered-at) the ability to bring grown men to their knees in adoration. Women have so much beauty power that in some Muslim countries the muttawa, or religious police, demand women wear their abayas, thereby reducing them to shapeless forms in black cloaks. The female body has historically been seen (mostly by men) as sinful, the fulfillment of creation, the embodiment of artistry, the treacherous spider web that traps lust-filled men and the all-encompassing vagina that rips a man’s member asunder with teeth or razor blades. The ambivalent love affair that men have had with women’s bodies cannot be underestimated or fathomed. If men can become powerless in the presence of beauty, why would they perpetrate its existence? Why wouldn’t all men want abayas rather than strip clubs?
Columbia has the highest incidence of acid-throwing on women’s faces, so perhaps abayas aren’t so bad after all.
It is curious that many societies require women be beautiful at any cost. In the Victorian era, for instance, when women’s waists just had to be fashionably thin, lung restricting corsets were used to get the desired look. Since women could not breathe most of the time, they fainted; fans were introduced as a complimentary fashion statement. Fans and swoons added to the attractive fragile aspect of femininity. Today some women starve themselves to obtain that desired look. Others inject their faces with botulism toxin, enhance their breasts with toxic fillers that may contribute to immune system malfunction or use cosmetics that can cause blindness. We won’t even mention the rabbits and other animals who daily sacrifice their lives in lab tests in order for the human species to survive.
Many a fiery debate rages over who creates this beauty terror, men or women. But we should at least ask: “Who sets beauty standards, who profits from them and who suffers the most?”
To be sure, beauty power divides and conquers many women. For instance, the stereotype of “catty” women is a form of pitting one woman against another in the eternal fight to win a male’s attention: “Look at her, acting like a hussy,” or “She’s so beautiful, I want to rip her face off” are actually desperate calls of help: “Get me out of this beauty rat race, please!” Young girls and babies are entered into the foray by ambitious mothers wanting fame and fortune. I would rather not know the disparaging remarks made in kiddy pageants.
One way of getting out of the beauty rat race is to be a lesbian. Lesbians, like heterosexual women, place less value on the physical attractiveness of their mates. In personal ads, lesbians are least likely to mention their own physical attractiveness (30%). Heterosexual women mention their physical attractiveness 69.5% of the time, and gay men mention their physical attractiveness 53.5% of the time. 3
Of course, beauty power comes with no guarantees. Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield and Nicole Brown Simpson are just three famous women whose beauty did more harm than good—living less than happy lives, in spite of their knock-em-dead good looks. Indeed, they all became tragic media figures. A lesser known model, Marla Hanson, was slashed in her face and required 150 stitches for declining to date her landlord. He felt she got what she deserved for rejecting him. Serial killers often kill women who look similar to a woman who spurned them. It seems women, beautiful or otherwise, are obligated to go out with any man whose brain is on primal mode or suffer the dire consequences.
It is also important to note that unattractive men, especially those in power, feel almost obligated to comment on a woman’s appearance every chance they get. I could name a few, but there could be dire consequences for doing so.
Beauty power is fraught with many other land mines. Pediatric endocrinologists don’t help. A 2002 report by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine found that a third of the doctors responding to a survey used high dose estrogens, drugs not approved by the U. S. Food and Drug Administration for this purpose, to suppress young girls’ heights. These hormones can cause “painful menstruation, intra-period bleeding, ovarian cysts, endometriosis, fertility problems, cervical polyps… 4
Once women achieve just that right height, though, they may never know if they are loved for themselves or their proportions. Is she just a trophy? Why do so many middle-aged women get dumped for the younger female secretary? Why do we insist that older women are “old hags” and older men are “distinguished”? Why can unattractive men be news anchors, but their female counterparts tend to be young, thin and smiling?
Of course, there are always women who do not go along with the beauty program. Darlene Jespersen didn’t go along and was fired from Harrah’s Casino in Reno for not wearing makeup and styling her hair. (These rules do not apply to men—they just have to be “neat” and “clean.”)
Being un-attractive can exclude one from modeling and broadcasting industries, not just the gambling industry. Although this is discrimination, few women come forth to say “I am ugly, and I have rights!” At least not yet. Another MeToo Movement? Many ‘60s and ‘70s feminists who didn’t shave their legs and underarms, rebelled against American male beauty standards and were reviled. Some dispute the widely reported story that feminists burned their bras, too. Anyone who has heard males call unattractive women “dogs” or “pigs” can probably hear echoes of the racist Southern whites calling blacks “niggers” with the same unabashed tone.
One could add “dykes” to the list of epithets hurled at un-attractive women. As a social worker in a state hospital in the 1970s, I sat in a treatment team meeting where the staff wanted a lesbian to no longer wear slacks or slick back her hair. If she wanted ward privileges she would have to wear makeup and dress like a woman. (They were surely influenced by the 19th century psychoanalyst, Richard von Kraft-Ebing who felt that homosexuality was a “functional sign of degeneration.”) 5 She never conformed and didn’t get to go the movies or the state fair as a result.
In spite of the negative press, women are rebelling against beauty standards in other ways. In 1985, the average woman’s dress size was eight. The plus-size movement took off in 2001. Overweight women have not only been filling out their waist lines but also the bottom lines for the retail market, accounting for 20 percent of total women’s clothing sales. As demographics change and wealthier women determine sales trends, we may find that those voluptuous movie stars of the past (Mae West, Jane Russell, Marilyn Monroe) will become our true beauty heroines once again.
Big breasts would seem to be the quintessential sign of beauty, and women go to deadly lengths to secure them. I was flabbergasted to hear women in my consciousness raising group talk about the perils of big breasts—backache, getting teased as an adolescent (“It was assumed big breasted girls were whores”) and fungus rashes under the breasts in the summer heat. Several planned on getting their breasts reduced.
For those who don’t mind such inconveniences, breast implants are the answer, but there are other problems. A series of studies done in Finland, America and Sweden have found that women who get breast augmentation are three times more likely to commit suicide than other women. The results are controversial, since it isn’t yet determined if women needing a beauty boost are already depressed, or if the medical complications of implants cause psychological problems. Although silicone implants were banned by the FDA because of leakage and immunological disorders, after a 14-year ban, they were once again put on the market in 2006. Too many women complained, stating that they just feel more “natural.” Girls 18 and younger getting “safer” breast implants jumped from 3,872 in 2002 to 11,326 in 2003, but this procedure is not as popular in the age group currently, according to according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery.
In watching television’s blurring of bare breasts/nipples, one would think they are sin personified. (The media certainly doesn’t blur guns or rape scenes.) To be clear, the function of breasts is to feed babies, not titillate men. It is now known that breast feeding lowers annual U.S. health costs by $3.6 billion, lowers the mother’s risk of breast and ovarian cancer, reduces child obesity and helps academic performance. Someone must be paying attention. In 2013, more than two-thirds of U.S. hospitals helped women start breast-feeding within an hour after birth, a 44% increase from six years earlier. Anyone offended by a mother breast feeding in public should take an anthropology course or get a subscription to National Geographic Magazine. Warning: Breast implants do not provide more nutrition for children and could possibly harm them.
Two different supervisors of mine indicated that men’s obsession with women’s breasts is much more than sex. “The reason men are alcoholics is to substitute the beer bottle for the breast.” “The never-ending tit…that’s what men want.” This could explain men’s ambivalence towards women as explained by these same supervisors: “They need them, but they are afraid that mother will abandon them. So, they fear and hate them at the same time.” They never discussed reasons for women’s alcoholism. Women don’t have to search symbolically far for the breast, so perhaps there are other reasons.
Abused women often complain that their partners typically insult their physical appearance. In fact, although only five percent of newlywed men do so, by the fourth year of marriage, the rate triples. In contrast, women do so much less frequently. “Men may derogate women’s appearance as a means of lowering women’s perception of their own desirability, thereby securing a more favorable power balance within the relationship” notes David M. Buss. 6 This seems to work, since suffering from low self-esteem, they fear losing their partners and never finding new ones.
There may just be hope for our beauty-obsessed culture. ABC’s top-rated 2006 fall season series, Ugly Betty, was about a young woman with braces, bushy eyebrows and almost goofy glasses. The concept might just have worked because the show emphasized such values as self-worth, intelligence and being genuine. However, the show ran for only four seasons.
As women have advanced in many areas of our society in the last 45 years, the continuing (and possibly escalating) emphasis on their beauty can be a way of putting them in their place, ultimately as beauty/sex objects, not as power-brokers competing with men. Sexism, racism, ageism, homophobia…We can add “lookism” to our list of victimizations. As a society, we need to examine our superficialities if we are ever to achieve an egalitarian society. In a follow-up article, I will be discussing how the ugly side of beauty affects males.
Connie Woodring, firstname.lastname@example.org © 2020.
- Herb Goldberg, The New Male-Female Relationship, (New York: New American Library, 1983) p.71
- David M. Buss, The Evolution of Desire—Strategies of Human Mating (New York: Basic Books,2003) p.76
- Cindy and David Struckman-Johnson, PhDs., “Men’s Reactions to Female Sexual Coercion,” Psychiatric Times (March,2001. Vol. XVII, Issue 3) p.4
- Gender Public Advocacy Coalition, “Petite Only Please—Treatment to Prevent Tall Girls Turns Deadly,” May, 2002.
- Francis Mark Mondimore, A Natural History of Homosexuality (Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press,1996) p.36
- Buss, op. cit.p.271