The Beauty Myth, Revisited

Gleefully Italian. Please keep your ranking to yourself.

Gleefully Italian. Please keep your ranking to yourself.

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:]. 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:

Gleefully Italian. Please keep your ranking to yourself.

Gleefully Italian. Please keep your ranking to yourself.

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About feministfiguregirl

I am a 51-year-old professor named Lianne McTavish who receives as much satisfaction from working out at the gym as from publishing my academic research. About eight years ago, I decided to combine my two primary identities (scholar/gym rat) to create "Feminist Figure Girl," a fictional character who both analyzes and participates in bodybuilding. I competed in my first figure show in June of 2011, and then wrote a book inspired by the process, published by SUNY Press in February 2015. In this blog I will write about and consider my ongoing research on the body, while regularly making fun of myself. I recommend that you start reading my first post from August 2010 (available on the home page), instead of backwards from the most recent one, in order to get the full FFG effect.

8 thoughts on “The Beauty Myth, Revisited

  1. oh puleeze, you’re so pretty, I think I would have been more provoked bybthis post if you were butt-ugly…see there are advantages to being inesthetically pleasing to the eye. All kidding aside, great post…but I still wishvI could afford breast implants and an eye lift…never thought about having my labia reconstructed though….hmmmm….

  2. I don’t think there can be any doubt that the relationship of “how we look” -> “how we are treated” -> “how we feel about ourselves” is a circular experience. I agree that Hamermesh is trotting down the wrong path with his concept of standardized beauty. Anecdotally, I’ve found I am clearly more attractive to certain ethnicities/cultural groups than others (generally speaking). And even within a fairly homogenous group, there would seem to be a lot of diversity in preference that isn’t widely expressed, possibly because no one wants to seem “weird.”

    Along those lines, I am thinking about #1 breast augmentation. As a “full-figured” woman who developed D-cup breasts at age 12, I can say definitely that my bosoms have never brought me any privilege or advantage in life: quite the opposite. “I agree with your assessment that I am a fundamentally sexual creature designed to please you” is how a woman with large breasts is treated, even when they are natural and not implants, and it’s creepy and traumatic when you’re a Tween and grown men are saying they want to “fuck your titties.” Not sure what my point is about that, just wanted to complain.

    Labial surgery: it’s disappointing to me how pedestrian most cosmetic surgery is. Why don’t people get secret compartments to hide microfilm in, or fabulous changeable skin like cuttlefish? Something actually interesting.

    • Well said Gingerzingi. After reading your comment I immediately recalled the first and last names of two girls in grade six who had large breasts and were endlessly tormented by the boys. It was horrible to watch, sending multiple lessons to the other girls about what they could expect later.

  3. Great blog post about the intricacies of how we are treated based on how we look. Very sad stories from many of our own patients who have been those women dealing with size DD’s since junior high. It is not only emotionally taxing for them to get teased in school for it but to become an adult and have people speaking at their chest rather than looking them square in the eyes. Add on top of that the physical issues related to very large breasts such as neck/back pain and shoulder strain.

    Even though I am obviously a proponent of plastic surgery because of what I do for a living, I am opposed to people getting plastic surgery for all the wrong reasons. Self-confidence and success in life cannot be measure by or based upon how we look physically. Women should be able to look at themselves in the mirror and see beyond their reflection to the qualities they have that make them amazing people from the INSIDE out.

    I also keep a blog that discusses self-image, confidence, and having a healthy view of self on my blog at

    Thanks again for the great post!

  4. I’m going to be a number 3 on your list and – you nailed me…er, it! I would not be above getting a little needle work done. Not a Nicole Kidman level, but a reasonable touch-up. Yes, I am that vain.

  5. Nice post! Very thought provoking (I hope this response makes some semblance of sense!).

    With regards to the following: “Hamermesh’s insistence that what constitutes beauty is agreed upon socially and cross culturally.”

    Like you, I take issue with this finding, although perhaps for different reasons. Western culture has long glorified lean bodies with a low waist-to-hip ratio; the stereotypical and much coveted hourglass shape. However, this is far from a cultural universal. For example, in a study by Anthropologists at Harvard ( Hazda men (part of a hunter-gatherer society) were found to prefer a “more protruding buttocks” than American men (side note: can you imagine pitching this study to your boss?). The conclusion of the study being: “If there is geographic variation in the shape of women’s bodies, there may not be one universally preferred [type of body]”. Clearly, human’s are not “one size fits all”.

    Furthermore, in the past being overweight was seen as desirable in some cultures because it indicated high status and wealth (because if you’re fat that once meant you could afford to eat). Which makes me think your point about certain cosmetic procedures (namely skincare treatments) serving as a proxy indicator for wealth has a lot of merit. Being wrinkle free does not indicate that you have lived a carefree, happy life; it simply shows that you have the time and disposable income to eradicate your wrinkles.

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