Beauty and Power

(I originally posted this on my individual blog, from which I am currently taking a hiatus. I’ve revised it slightly and am reposting it here because I wanted a wider audience for my thoughts. Enjoy!)

There was a post on Feminist Mormon Housewives earlier this year (in response to a post on a conversation in other feminist blogs about women, beauty, compliments, derogatory comments, feminism, and other related matters) that got me thinking about the issues of beauty and power and how they play out in women’s lives, both inside and outside of the church.

On the most basic level is the cultural obsession with women’s appearance and how that is manifested in the beauty industry. While there’s lots to be said (and a lot has been said) on this topic, I am compelled by Naomi Wolf’s argument in The Beauty Myth that the beauty myth regulates women’s behavior rather than their appearance. Jean Kilbourne also makes a similar claim in one of her films on representations of women in the media (I forget which one); she argues that the images of women have grown increasingly powerless (passive, sexualized, and thinner) as women have gained more power in society at large; she argues that the current representations of women in the media are a backlash against women’s growing power in societal institutions.

Related to considerations of power and representations of women in the media is the more specific cases of representations of feminists. I find Amanda of Pandagon’s analysis of these representations to be particularly apt. She writes,

Calling feminists ugly is actually shorthand for a longer thought process that goes something like, “Women’s most important quality is their looks, so good-looking women have everything they could want. The only reason a woman could be dissatisfied is if she isn’t good-looking, and so feminism is the last resort of women in denial that they are failures as women.” That argument falls apart if you show that conventionally attractive women also feel like second class citizens, and that being eligible for being a well-regarded sex object doesn’t mean that you aren’t still being treated just as a sex object.

I think her comments point to a couple of important issues when thinking about representations of feminist women: 1) feminists are very often represented as ugly or unconcerned about their appearance; 2) representing feminists in this way typically operates as a comment on their femininity or status as a “proper” woman.

I’m also interested in how this issue plays itself out in the church: the way in which, as Artemis on Feminist Mormon Housewives points out, women are valued for their beauty and aesthetic value (I would argue here that “femininity” and representations of it in the church are strongly aesthetic in nature). She also points out that women are often consoled when they express frustration about any number of a variety of issues by appeals to their beauty and femininity.

While I’ve outlined a variety of complicated issues above, what seems to be at the heart of them is the relationship of beauty to power, and how women’s power is often tied very closely to their aesthetic value.

For a variety of reasons I consider the argument that women have power in society because of their beauty or appearance, or by extension, their feminine attributes, (which allows them to manipulate men) highly problematic. Quite a few women make claims similar to the following: “I don’t need to be a CEO or run for political office to have power because the men in my life do whatever I want.” The unspoken part of this statement is that these women can get the men to do what they want because they know how to use their looks and behavior to manipulate men’s physical responses. You also see women in the business world exploiting their appearance and sexuality in order to get ahead (various contestants on “The Apprentice” come to mind here). One problem with this is that women who are not considered beautiful by societal standards do not have access to this power. Artemis points to the prevalence of women’s value being closely tied to aesthetics within the church, and observes that women often do not see themselves as being valuable in a variety of ways–women who do not adhere to expectations of femininity within the church can often find themselves not viewed as valuable, and are even often ostracized and judged by others in the community. The second (and bigger, in my opinion) problem is that power through beauty and sexuality leaves women open to being treated as objects and only viewed in terms of their body and appearance.

The issue here is that of women’s power: to what extent is women’s power dependent on their aesthetic value, to what extent is it dependent on other factors, and what’s the relation between the two? I find Lynnette’s comment in response to the original post by Artemis on FMH to be illuminating:

All those talks about how much the church values women and how wonderful we are inevitably beg the question. If I constantly gushed about how incredibly wonderful my friend Jezebel was, emphasizing over and over that I really did like her just as much as my other friends, people would eventually start wondering what was wrong with her. So in a way, I think the syrupy discourse about women is actually a kind of implicit acknowledgment that something is amiss. We don’t have to excessively praise men, because the structures of the church don’t leave them in doubt about their value.

Lynnette’s comment points to the fact that the power of women’s beauty is often affirmed and reaffirmed because of their lack of power in other arenas.

I think this connects back to some of the original observations I included by other feminists–women’s beauty is overemphasized in order to deny them power in other ways, and it’s often emphasized in ways that takes power from women because of anxieties about women’s growing power. And when women demand that they are powerful (i.e. feminists), they are disempowered by labels of “unattractive” and “ugly” because that is the primary way that society judges women’s value. Women who are trying to find a way to vocalize their desires and intrinsic value outside of traditional roles and representations are often ignored because their vocalizations make them “unattractive.”

I think the issue at stake is more than just convincing people that women are valuable in ways and arenas that don’t touch on their physical appearance. I think we need to deconstruct the ways that women are denied and/or granted power in society because of their “beauty.” We need to examine the ways that women’s appearance directly influences their ability to gain and use power in multiple societal institutions. We need to look at how women who question the status quo are dismissed as “unattractive”, rather than dismissed on the merits of their ideas. We need to critique how beauty and femininity are used as a consolation prize when women don’t have certain kinds of institutional power.

Also, in the church, I want to see us frame women’s power in terms separate from their “beauty” or “femininity.” Whether or not we think women need more institutional power, at the very least, we need to affirm the very real powers that they possess that have nothing to do with their perfectly coifed hair or sweet spirit.


  1. She also points out that women are often consoled when they express frustration about any number of a variety of issues by appeals to their beauty and femininity.

    I’m sad that you’ve had such a frustrating experience with this, Seraphine. But look on the bright side — your hair looks awfully nice today!

    (Kaimi runs away before Seraphine can slug him.)

  2. Great post, Seraphine. A number of your points ring true. For example, the point that “the power of women’s beauty is often affirmed and reaffirmed because of their lack of power in other arenas.” It’s unfortunate but true that women’s power _is_ often tied to their aesthetic appeal. The shallowness and irrelevance of this factor is ignored. (To a much lesser degree the same occurs with men — see, e.g., studies showing that tall men earn more than short men, etc.).

    I think that writers like Jared Diamond would point out that this is a normal sociobiological impulse. Men are attracted to women who are perceived as healthy potential mates (and vice versa). However, that framing also points out the shallowness of the approach. Womens’ beauty (like mens’) is ultimately a physical signal of mate potential. Once framed that way, it should be clear that in a modern, Christian environment, we should not favor the beautiful, and that the tendency to favor physical beauty — a marker of mate potential — is part of the “natural man” that we’re supposed to overcome.

  3. I would be less quick than Kaimi to dismiss sociobiology from the discussion. Mormonism — in contrast to traditional Christianity — teaches us that we are in some sense eternal bodies, and while I think it is a mistake to reduce human interactions to sexual drives, I think that it is also a mistake to to think that human life must be purified of sexuality to be truly just, authentic, spiritual, etc. However, so long as we are willing to grant sexuality a place at the table of a full and legitimate life, we are going to have to have a place for physical attraction and its sources, which are tied in part to beauty. Hence, to put it bluntly, while I think that there is a great deal of truth to the various deconstructions of beauty that are offered here, I think that one of the ways that men and women should relate to one another is as sex objects. The trick is to figure out moral and nondestructive ways of doing so.

  4. Nate, I agree that there is no way to “purify” ourselves from sexuality (and all the resultant consequences such as physical attraction, etc). I think the main problem when thinking about gender and sociobiology is the way in which things are really imbalanced. While Kaimi is right to point out that tall men are more likely to get hired than short men, etc, women really do have a lot more to deal with when it comes to negotiating issues of beauty and power.

    Kaimi, I’m not going to slug you. It wouldn’t be properly feminine. And we all know that I strive my hardest to be properly feminine at all times.

  5. Seraphine: If you are going to grant physical attraction a legitimate place at the table, then you can’t fully subscribe to the feminist deconstruction of beauty as the subjegation and objectivification of women simpliciter. It may have that function at times, but it also exceeds that. The focus on female (and male) beauty is not simply a means of controlling behavior or ideologically encoding female subordination. It is also a manifestation of the fact that men and women are also sexual beings.

    Again, this doesn’t justify the ways in which the ideal of beauty is put to work. It does suggest, however, that any theory that leaves physical beauty bereft of any meaning beyond the subordination of women has failed to cut experience to the joints.

  6. Nate, I wasn’t trying to reduce “beauty” to “oppression” (though perhaps this is how I’m coming across). I definitely think that issues of physical beauty can’t be reduced to “the opression of women.” I was just trying to make the point that when talking about beauty, it’s really, really difficult for women to get away from the the issues of objectification/lack of power/etc. I think you’d be hard pressed to find a woman talking about her sexuality or physical nature whose opinions on these matters weren’t forcibly shaped by cultural codes that made her feel powerless/powerful/etc. because of her appearance.

    So, while our sexual/physical natures encompass much more than oppression and objectification, those issues inevitably creep up, especially for women.

  7. Nate,

    How _much_ sociobiology do you want to bring to the table? Because that’s a can of worms that leads to all sorts of questions.

    Diamond is pretty clear (and I’m relatively sure he’s the majority view) that men are sociobiologically engineered for a “mixed reproductive strategy.” That is, the optimal reproductive strategy for human males is two-fold: (1) keep one’s own mate pregnant with one’s own offspring, and prevent other males from impregnanting one’s mate (which would lead to resources expended in raising children not biologically related to the male), and (2) seek out opportunity to father children with the mates of other men, forcing them to expend resources in raising one’s own biological children. This is the optimal way to ensure the most possible biologial descendants. And because of this, we’re wired for a few different things. We’re programmed to react witht jealousy when other men approach our mates; we’re programmed to seek out the mates of other men. (This is a very, very simplified version of about pages 50-100 of Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee).

    Similarly, men are programmed to seek mates most likely to be able to bear children. This means the curvy 20-year-old. Easy enough when you’re 20 and your wife is 20. At some point, though, men and women age. And then the interest diverge. Men are still able to father children, and still biologically wired to seek out the best mate, biologically — which is still the curvy 20-year-old.

    Most or all of this, we unambiguously have to discard. We have to discard the sowing-wild-oats programming. We have to discard the look-for-best-biological-mate-even-at-age-60 programming. And we probably should discard the jealous-protector-of-wife, don’t-let-her-talk-to-other-men programming. Right? So how exactly do we keep some part of the sociobiological package?

    It’s relatively easy to ignore the issues while thirtysomething. Our wives are young and attractive and it’s easy to channel biological sex drives into appropriate avenues. But when we’re 70, biology is still going to be telling us to seek out the cute 20-year-old.

    At which point, we’ve got to lie to our biological side. We’ve got to tell ourselves, “my 70-year-old wife is more attractive than that 20-year-old” — biologically, a lie.

  8. Kaimi: I wouldn’t want to suggest that we take biology as normative. On the other hand, there is a difference between suggesting that men are biologically disposed to certain kinds of misbehavior and saying that our understanding of beauty is irreedmably tainted by its association with sex and is best seen as a vehicle of male domination.

  9. I think of it in the same way I think of power- God is powerful, but what we on earth call power is nothing like what God calls power. When we see God’s power we recognize it as power and are in awe of it. But when we try to define power we hopelessly fail and make up something that is far removed from anything God would approve of (war bloodshed, unrighteous dominion etc). I think the same thing is going on with beauty. God is beautiful and when we see Him, we recognize His beauty, but what we on earth call beauty is nothing like what God calls beauty. What we call beauty is highly temporary, hopelessly entangled with immoral behavior, it’s expensive, physically damaging, and often leads to selfishness and vanity.
    Here’s the other parallel with power- we all know that only by not seeking for power do we get to have any in the hereafter. We are encouraged over and over to not seek after power- lest it corrupt us. So I don’t see anything wrong with trying to divorce ourselves from the bastardized version of beauty this world has to offer. I don’t think we loose any of our ability to recognize or excercise wholesome heavenly beauty (sexual or otherwise) by actively eschewing all forms of earthly beauty.

  10. Nate,

    We may agree more than not, here. I think the issue is complicated because there are a number of factors at play.

    First, beauty exists. It clearly does; some people are just better looking than others. There is a big genetic component to it — pretty people have pretty kids. In addition, care spent on clothing, grooming, exercise, posture, and so forth can enhance a person’s natural pulchritude. (And of course there are more potentially problematic ways to do the same, such as through anorexia and breast implants.)

    Second, beauty is at least in part culturally driven. Beautiful means different things to different people, and our ideas of beautiful are driven by messages we receive from culture.

    Third, at least some of the product of those messages can be channeled in constructive ways. To the extent that a woman’s beauty increases our desire for her, we can channel that into appropriate relationships. If a husbband is attracted to his wife (and vice versa), their marriage will be stronger.

    Fourth, at least some of the cultural messages (the same messages that instill our ideas on beauty) carry harmful ideas as well.

    I’m sympathetic to your goal (which is point #3). But any channeling of those messages is going to require some amount of filtering out the harmful ideas (point #4) that come in the same package.

  11. Kaimi: But to acknowledge the reality of #3 is to realize that the various feminist deconstructions offered in the post are insufficient, and if offered without major qualifiers grotesquely so.

  12. Not so, Nate.

    Yes, beauty exists. That said, its existence is not reason to give it the cultural and job significance that we give it.

    I don’t mean to put words in Seraphine’s (cute li’l) mouth, but as I see it her point is that we place too much emphasis on physical beauty, not that the correct amount of attention is zero.

    Physical beauty is obviously relevant for certain situations. If one is a clothing model or a cheerleader or (to some degree) an actress or dancer, beauty is relevant as a job qualification. If one is dating, beauty is a relevant factor (along with whatever else one’s significant other is looking for — intelligence, money, whatever).

    Outside of that sphere, it really shouldn’t matter. But as a practical reality, it does. A good-looking lawyer or accountant or professor or firefighter or ward member gets specific advantages and disadvantages due to her looks. There’s no objective reason for this, and the focus on the professor or lawyer or accoutant because of her looks marginalizes her.

    Physical beauty is as relevant as a good singing voice. A good singing voice is very relevant in certain contexts (performing an opera). But it’s not really relevant in most other contexts. We don’t treat lawyers differently depending on whether they can hit a high C.

    Physical beauty _should_ be the same, but it isn’t. As a society, we do treat pretty lawyers differently than we treat ugly lawyers, and that difference (and its problems in continuing certain attitudes towards women) is the focus of Seraphine’s post.

  13. we need to affirm the very real powers that they possess that have nothing to do with their perfectly coifed hair or sweet spirit.

    Sorry to interupt. I feel like I am someone who is often pulled in by the media’s image of beauty. I often judge myself against this destructive image even though I know its rediculous to do so. But at the same time, when I see a woman who is capable or talented at anything (teaching, sewing, statistics, scrapbooking, articuating a particular point, writing, leading a discussion, singing, caretaking, providing), I want to be like her too, regardless of her looks.(But I must admit that a bit of envy creeps in when the capable women is pretty too.) So where do I fall on the spectrum of affirming women for their real powers versus for their beauty? Because when I see an able woman, especially if her capability is one which goes against the status quo, it tends to be a powerful antedote to my inner battle against the media demon.

  14. If one wants to change the way the world perceives and reacts to beauty, the one true way to do it is to change the culture from one that focuses on the physical aspects of beauty to one that focuses on the spiritual aspects. And those aspects, properly conceived, I submit are worthy of all the glory, laud, and honor they can get.

  15. I am a little confused by the idea that the current portrayal of women in the media is a backlash against women’s growing power. Very often women are portrayed as passive, sexualized and thin, but I don’t understand the jump to the the idea that such portrayals are a response to women’s growing power. I think that is connected to the point Nate is making. Society places an undue value on women’s physical attractiveness and even getting the individual parts of society to acknowledge that is a difficult task. Once it is acknowledged, however, we need a better instrument than the blunt tool of “subjugation” to deal with the realities of our sexual selves.

    As she notes, one of Seraphim’s points isn’t that we treat good looking lawyers different than we treat ugly lawyers, but that we treat good looking women lawyers better than we treat ugly women lawyers. The first clause of the previous sentence is a true as the second, but not equally so. We place a larger undue emphasis on women’s beauty than men’s, but that is changing as men too are increasingly being sexualized and valued for their looks. Is that the result of an increase in women’s power? An increase in the power of gay men? The result of being prosperous enough that certain classes have time and money to go to gyms and get facials?

    Feminist critiques often fail because they rely on narratives that are too narrowly concieved. Of Seraphim’s suggestions for critique, I think the best is to “examine the ways that women’s appearance directly influences their ability to gain and use power in multiple societal institutions” because, due to its open-endedness, I believe it is likely to be a more productive source of ideas for how we ought to treat power derived a women’s physical appearance.

  16. Starfoxy, I hadn’t really thought about this parallel. But I definitely think that in the media we get a warped representation of the very real heavenly beauty (which, as Nate observes, is partly physical) given to us by our Heavenly Father. And I think it’s difficult to really understand and access our “heavenly beauty” (for lack of a better term) because we’ve been so socialized by society to see beauty in other ways.

    Kaimi, I think even more than the differences between how we treat pretty vs. ugly lawyers, I’m interested in the ways beauty gets tied to power. And it just ends up creating a big mess. But thanks for your responses!

    Fashypants, thanks for your thoughts. I also love to see strong women succeeding at doing things (and getting recognition for their actions).

  17. I’m pretty sympathetic towards Nate’s comments. I think that we take too superficial an attitude towards our biological imperatives. Either they are completely to be overcome (repressed) or we are hapless victims. Both seem superficial.

    My only concern is when physical appearance is called “superficial” which has always bugged me. Physical attractiveness is no less due to biology than is intelligent. Why one is superficial while the other isn’t tend to largely be due to the biases of the people in question. I honestly don’t think that ultimately it is somehow “better” to be gifted in highly abstract mathematics than say in playing football.

    I think far too many of these discussions tend to privilege almost Platonic ideals above all else. (Shades of the Symposium) Yet we know that the brain is pretty important and further it is no less physical than the particular proportions of our body and skin that we’re largely hard wired to pay attention to.

    I should add that some have suggest that as women gain power they obviously gain more control over who they pick as a mate. (i.e. it isn’t just about providers any more) Thus more focus on men’s appearance. (Which as anyone watching advertising notes is increasing) So this is hardly just a women’s thing. It’s just that in the past perhaps men’s relative power in society meant that their wishes were implemented now. As women become more powerful suddently men as mates have to do more to attract the wanted females.

    Which isn’t to say that the old unholy trilogy of “attractive males” doesn’t still hold. (i.e. musicians, athletes, and rich-boys)

  18. I am a little confused by the idea that the current portrayal of women in the media is a backlash against women’s growing power. Very often women are portrayed as passive, sexualized and thin, but I don’t understand the jump to the the idea that such portrayals are a response to women’s growing power.

    I agree that this is a feminist narrative that is limited in its explanatory power. In regards to this particular narrative: I think what many feminists are disturbed by is how the media representations of women have changed over the past 40-50 years. While there have always been problematic representations of women (i.e. objectification, etc.), the images of women are getting thinner and thinner, etc. And I think feminists are trying to understand how/why a woman like Marilyn Monroe, who was the epitome of beauty 50 years ago, could be considered overweight by today’s standards.

    As for the counter-examples you raise, the growing passivity and thinness of female models is a different situation than the increasing sexualization of men in the media. You’re right to point out that these are complex problems with numerous contributing factors.

  19. I’ve never commented here before, but I thought this was a great topic, so I hope you don’t mind my really long comment. I’ve also heard about the studies which show that beautiful women make significantly more money as lawyers and business women (as are men) than their less aesthetically pleasing counter-parts. I don’t think this is a good thing, but it makes intuitive sense for all the reasons commenters have mentioned above. But I also agree that for women at least, this beauty equals power can be problematic for the reason you stated below-

    “The second (and bigger, in my opinion) problem is that power through beauty and sexuality leaves women open to being treated as objects and only viewed in terms of their body and appearance.”

    When I think of women in politics-a profession where image matters and much power is to be had, a profession which draws a signficant proportion of its practioners from those very professions where it has been demonstrated that beauty icreases the likelihood of success, one would assume that powerful female politicians must, in general, be stunningly beautiful. I’m no political junkie, but if I were forced to quickly name ten female politcians/important government officials they would be: Rose Mofford, Jane Hull, Janet Napolitano (the last three governors of Arizona), Hillary Clinton, Diane Fenstein, Margeret Thatcher, Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice, Janet Reno, and Sandra Day O’Connor. Now I personally think Condoleezza Rice is quite pretty, but most of these talented hard working women aren’t exactly going to be making People’s list of the world’s 100 most beautiful women. So why is that? I think that beauty for women is an advantage in low power situations (we like to buy things from pretty women, and we will listen to that pretty lawyer, and we will hire that pretty intern) but when it comes to real power, female beauty seems to come with some pretty heavy baggage. I often wondered, for all the sexy female interns that are supposedly running around Washington, where are all the sexy female politicians? Shouldn’t they be coming out of that group? Beautiful males do not seem to carry this baggage. For a male politician, sexual appeal is usually considered a positive attribute. Take Arnold Schwarzenegger, an admittedly poor actor who gained fame and millions by exploiting his body for Hollywood, and yet he is now the governor of California. Somehow he convinced California that there is a brain behind that brawn. If Arnold were a female, I suspect he would never have been taken seriously as a candidate for political office. Pamela Anderson for president anyone? Could the public ever get beyond seeing Pamela as anything but a sexual object?
    Women are thus given conflicting messages, you must be beautiful to be considered, but we won’t consider you too seriously because you are beautiful.


  20. The difference is the Pamela Anderson is not at all attractive for other reasons, summarized by the perception of shallowness and immaturity. Better parallels might be Emma Thompson, Patricia Heaton, or Michelle Pfeiffer. No one gets elected governor in their twenties, or if they are perceived never to have left them.

  21. Mark,
    You are right, Pamela Anderson was probably a poor choice, she is not attractive for many reasons. I would never vote for her. I did choose her as an analagy since she was the first actress I could think of whose fame is based mainly on exagerated sexual features that most women don’t have (just as Arnold is an exagerated sexual male-most men don’t look like him-I personally think he is kind of gross in a freakish way, just as my husband doesn’t think Pamela is attractive at all-she looks freakish to him) My point is that Arnold gained fame in Hollywood not because of his acting skills, but rather because of his looks and hyper-masculine personality. Despite his hyper-masculine looks, we forgive Arnold’s groping, past steriod use, bad acting and other poor behavior before we would forgive a woman who showed similar poor behaviour and flaunted her silicon breasts. Pam’s behaviour is admittedly worse than Arnold’s, but the point is, oculd we take a pin-up woman sex idol, and turn her into a politician people would vote for? Although on second thought, I think a lot of it has to do with his wife, which is another take on a women’s power. Personally I’m very guilty of this. If I were shown two pictures, one that looked like Pam, and one that looked like Arnie, both of whom are unrealistic unhealthy sexualized ideals of manhood or womanhood, and not knowing anything about their backgrounds, I would choose Arnold, Pam quite frankly looks like a flake to me. And that is the problem, sexy women look like flakes, while sexy men rarely do.

  22. I can’t say I am the greatest fan of Arnold S. as a politician, but one shouldn’t punish a person for their looks, except to the degree their character is written on their countenance. All the other stuff – particularly evidence of character – is fair game, and I am afraid Pamela A. fares far worse in the perception of character department than Arnold S.

    Could anyone (male or female) whose perception is equivalent to that of a porn star get elected as governor? I don’t think so – and that is precisely the image that Pamela A. conveys. Her behavior in that department is so scandalous that we would be better off picking the governor by lottery out of the phone book. I don’t think Arnold S. is quite that bad.

  23. Clark, interesting ideas about how the growing power of women might be contributing to the increasing sexualized imagery of men.

    Larrea, I definitely think you’re right to point out that beauty can be a liability for women in high-power positions.

  24. I can’t take credit for those ideas of course. They’ve been discussed a lot in various circles the past 10 years or so.

    Regarding “Ahrnold” while he gets flack for his acting ability the fact is he was skillful in being charismatic and interesting. Plus, at least up until True Lies, he tended to be careful about the roles he took (with a few exceptions he learned from) More significantly he was a very skillful and intelligent businessman. Everyone assumes he made all his money in Hollywood but he actually does a lot of business stuff outside of that. And he was being skillful in career and business long before he became so successful in Hollywood.

    So to me he illustrates one problem. When “attractive” (or at least physically imposing) people are successful there is always that tendency by many to assume they got where they did purely by their looks. It’s not always the case and I think many attractive people end up with inferiority complexes because of that. (i.e. when they are successful they aren’t taken seriously) Of course the really wise people use that to their advantage.

    And that is the problem, sexy women look like flakes, while sexy men rarely do.

    I’m not sure that’s true, although that’s partially due to the changing views of sexiness. It used to be that many of the “sexiest man” winners were typically stereotypical views of powerful men. They were usually in their 40’s if not older. They exuded confidence, power and so forth. (Come on Sean Conner was considered this multiple times through his late 60’s – and Harrison Ford well into his 50’s) The exceptions tended to be later when attractiveness rather than power counted. Think Brad Pitt (who I think is the rule that is the exception to your statement – does anyone think of Brad Pitt or Keneau Reeves as anything but flakes?)

  25. Regarding women in high-power positions, I think it is more accurate to say that sexuality is a liability for women in high-power positions.

  26. This is a subject that I’m very confused about. It seems that when women do the expected thing and try to look attractive, they tend to attract the attention of men who don’t see them as people, but just as attractive objects. That can be quite unpleasant and painful, especially when one is fooled into thinking such attention is about one’s self, instead of one’s looks. Looking attractive tends to distract attention from one’s abilities, as well, so that, despite the phenomenon of pretty lawyers earning more, I’m not sure they are thought to be better lawyers, perhaps quite the opposite.

    Add also add to that the fact that attractive people receive false signals about the true regard in which they are held. I’ve seen a whole office full of men fawn on a beautiful girl to her face, while at the same time dragging her mercilessly through the mud behind her back. I felt so badly for her, since she probably thought they liked her as a person and coworker, and had no idea of the viciousness of the things they said about her when she wasn’t around.

    I can be attractive or not, depending on how much effort I put into it. Most of the time I don’t bother, because it seems to have so many negatives to it. But I suppose I should. I’m really not sure.

  27. This seems to be to be a good application of the dictum “all generalizations are false” (in one way or another).

    Not all men have the same perception of beauty, and I think the biggest difference is the relative weight given to physical and spiritual factors. To a well adjusted man, beauty without character is the cruelest of jokes, where beauty in its proper form is the purest of emblems for divine attributes of the highest magnitude.

    Men are by degrees both fascinated and intimidated by that kind of beauty. The proper response is one of honor. The improper response is one of artificial discrimination.

    So if a woman leverages her physical attractiveness in a way not coherent with divinity, it strikes a good man as the purest of perversions. Where if she uses it in favor of all that is right and good, it is almost as the voice of God himself.

  28. Mark- How can a woman ‘use’ her physical beauty in favor of all that is right and good. The only possible way I can think to ‘use’ my (theoretical) beauty is to make it so that people like looking at me, and while they’re looking at me use that time to say something meaningful. This of course is tricky because if the woman looks too good, then she distracts from her own message. All the other ways I know of to use beauty are morally bankrupt.

  29. I agree with Starfoxy. Mark’s argument is completely irrelevant in a society were women do have a measure of power. The only way I see a women leveraging her physical attractiveness in a way to promote all that is right and good is through manipulation. For example, Esther uses her beauty to become Queen to Ahasuerus, but only gains any measure of power through manipulation.

  30. Tatiana pointed to the aspect of beauty that I personally find the most difficult: the sheer amount of time it takes. Beauty is, to a very significant extent, neverending labor. Although I like to feel that I look presentable, I don’t find styling my hair or putting on makeup intrinsically rewarding, and I find it frustrating that my husband can get away with so much less in the personal grooming department than I can. For example, he can pop out out of the shower, brush his teeth, throw on his clothes, and be ready to go. Even if I eschew lengthy beauty rituals (and I can’t remember the last time I did anything complicated with my hair, anything requiring a curling iron, for example, but it’s been years), I still have to at least dry my hair, or wait for it to dry (or attempt to dry it by hanging my head halfway out the window while driving to my destination–not recommended).

    Since my late teens I’ve occasionally had an overpowering fantasy of living alone in the woods where my appearance would effectively not exist, since I would see no one. It sounds immensely liberating. My mother once told me what a relief she found it to turn forty and not have to try to be beautiful anymore.

    Mark, forgive my cynicism on this point, but I really doubt that when men look at beautiful women–even beautiful women trying to influence them for good–that the voice of God is what’s running through their heads.

  31. Eve,

    That is why dressing modestly is important. If one wants to be objectified in the most perverse way imaginable, a woman (or a man for that matter) should just dress any way he or she feels like. If he or she want to be respected, he or she should show a measure of decorum. And I certainly do not mean middle of the roadism, either, but the highest appropriate standards of contemporary decorum available.


    One should not use beauty or appearance as the primary agent to accomplish anything. But the appearance of attention to a proper, civilized standard of it certainly helps one to be taken seriously, where the appearance of attention to a improper, degrading standard of it helps one get ignored, down-played, and neglected.


    I think you are projecting a one dimensional conception of beauty here, where I can guarantee that any real man has at least a two dimensional conception – physical attractiveness and spiritual attractiveness being the primary axis of concern. If a woman wants to get a real man (other than perhaps her husband) to do anything of good report, she should emphasize the latter and down play the former. I confess to regularly and purposely ignoring seriously immodestly dressed women out of sheer embarassment. And I certainly am likely to think less of any man dressed without any perceptible sense of common decency as well.

  32. Eve,

    I agree with you about the “neverending labor” people put into looking beautiful. Not that I’ve ever worked very hard at it (in high school the only make-up I owned was some I bought for a play I was in), but I have to say it’s one of the few really great things about being a SAHM. My two little boys could care less if my hair is dry, or if I stay in my pajamas all day (which I generally do).

  33. Mark, no one is arguing that women shouldn’t dress modestly. But the issues I outlined in my post are still an issue for modestly dressed women. And I admit I share Eve’s cynicism–I doubt that when men are attracted by modestly dressed beautiful women that it’s the voice of God that’s running through their heads (as Eve so aptly put it).

    Tatiana, thanks for pointing out the bind that women making themselves attractive fall into. I usually do make the effort (I’m not a SAHM, and I love fashion), but I’m glad I don’t have to negotiate these issues in a high-powered work field.


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