So this post is a few days late. Once you watch this video clip, which you have likely seen before, you will understand why I have been distracted:
‘Quick,’ cries my LSP, ‘it’s the dance scene!’ I rush out of my home office to join him as he rests on the couch, taking a few days off to recuperate from a sudden, explosive illness. Ah Napoleon Dynamite. Is there anything he can’t do? Clearly not. And if I ever see a man dance like that in public, I will drag him outside and make all his dreams come true. Immediately.
This past week my plan had been to transform myself back into a professor, but instead I spent much of it laughing with my partner before taking his temperature, sterilizing the thermometer, baking him some bland biscuits, watching a little Coronation Street, and then an episode of Louie. I think you get the picture. It was actually my ailing man-cakes who suggested the topic of this post, after having listened to an interview on the CBC Radio show Q, while driving home from work in the middle of the afternoon, trying not to shart in his pants. [Aside: Am I impinging on his privacy when I say that this attempt failed? Time to dispose of the evidence in a plastic bag and then hit the shower]. Why does he stay with me? Why? I can only shake my puzzled head in non-comprehension.
Back to the matter at hand, namely Jian Ghomeshi’s interview with economist Daniel Hamermesh about his book, Beauty Pays, which uses quantitative research methods to measure the benefits of being good looking. [To listen to it click here: http://www.cbc.ca/player/Radio/Q/Excerpts/ID/2120330664/?page=26]. Unsurprisingly, Hamermesh confirms that attractive people are more often employed, make more money than butt-uglies, and tend to have handsome and/or pretty, highly educated spouses. Duh. All the same, his suggestion that those considered ugly are discriminated against and thus have a kind of disability is both interesting and novel. Perhaps civil rights style legislation should protect the unbeautiful against social prejudice or provide them with government subsidies? Discuss amongst yourselves.
I was more intrigued by Hamermesh’s insistence that what constitutes beauty is agreed upon socially and cross culturally, which is perhaps another instance of the standardizing effect of western mass media. Related to this point was the author’s assertion that a person really cannot do much to improve his or her looks. In other words, if you are judged a 3.5 out of 5 on the ‘hot or not’ scale, no amount of grooming, weight loss, or style consciousness will improve that ranking. Even plastic surgery does not alter this initial and basic assessment of attractiveness. ’Say what?’ I shouted in shock, alongside those involved in the billion dollar beauty industry. Well, cosmetologists and surgeons are always promoting the idea that facials, cellulite treatments, and eye lifts are a form of self-expression, primarily designed to make the recipient feel better about him-, or more commonly, herself. Are they correct?
Like you—I realize that I am being presumptuous here—I have my doubts about this aspect of Hamermesh’s findings. All the same, I have decided to use a philosophical term to ‘bracket’ my skepticism [Aside: I managed to squeeze in a little reading of Husserl recently. Thanks for being impressed] in order to consider how the possibility that attractiveness is stable offers new ways of thinking about currently popular forms of appearance alteration. Let us begin with the premise that weight loss, breast enlargement, and hair colouring are unrelated to the pursuit of a beauty ideal. What then, do these modifications signify to others? I have a few potentially crazy ideas and invite you to expand on them….
1) breast implants send the following message to a particular audience, namely conventional heterosexual men: ‘Hello. I agree with your assessment that I am a fundamentally sexual creature designed to please you. Here is the concrete evidence, which I will now shove in your face.’
2) visible weight loss conveys this idea to almost everyone: ‘That’s right bitches. I am in control of my life, efficient, disciplined, and less likely to become a drain on the health care system. Take that, unethical, lazy fat people!’
3) skin care treatments that preserve a youthful appearance practically scream: ‘I have disposable income, not to mention enough flexible time to spend lying on a spa bed, either breathing deeply or else trying not to flinch. In contrast, you wrinkly mares have faces like an unmade bed: sloppy, worn, and stained.’
Oh I am kind of enjoying this: Butt implants=’I will do anal.’ Labia reconstruction=’I understand that I am a machine and now invite you to look under the hood to inspect all of my parts, ensuring that they are perfect.’ Teeth whitening=’My mouth is for so much more than eating. Want to discover what else it can do?’ Okay. I’ll stop now.
All joking aside, I believe that cosmetic ‘improvements’ and procedures are directly associated with displays of class status, assertions of character traits, and constructions of sexuality, not simply innocent attempts to improve self-esteem by looking and feeling better. Still, I cannot help but think that looking better, or at least imagining that we look better, might make us happier, which actually does make us more appealing to others. At the risk of sounding immodest, I will use my own recent experiences as an example. For the most part, I would consider myself average looking but this was not the case in Italy, where I recently lived and taught for a month. There I was considered quite good looking, and was repeatedly told so in admiring ways, by men and women alike. Maybe it was the climate or the humidity that had changed my ranking, or perhaps it was an instance of cultural specificity [ie my appearance is more in line with an Italian beauty ideal than a North American one], at odds with Hamermesh’s claims of standardized beauty, but I suspect that it was my almost continual elation. While living in Italy, I was well rested, happy, and fulfilled, a state that I conveyed to others through my embodied physicality. Don’t worry, LSP and concerned readers: nothing further was conveyed in terms of physicality. Check out my chaste foreign demureness for yourself: