|Too much of a good thing....|
For those of you who have never taught before, the stress and intensity that "Final's Week" has for students is followed by an equally stressful and intense "paper & exam grading week" for teachers. Over the past three weeks, while coaching my students through their final papers, and then grading said papers, I got a little taste of that "Ice-cream AGAIN!?! I'm gonna puke!" kind of feeling. In other words, it has felt physically impossible for me to take one more "bite" of my seminar by blogging about it.
For this, I must apologize. I know that many of you visit this blog for a blend of feminist critique, positive body image news and activities, and personal anecdotes, along with a dose of bemused fashionista ponderings. The pendulum has recently swung too far towards the later, with not enough of the former.
I thank you for your patience. Happily, as of this past Wednesday, I've officially ended my "in person" seminar by submitting final grades, and I finally feel ready to turn back to my "virtual" classroom, here! (As a quick reminder, I've decided that my Fun Fact Fridays will incorporate shortened lessens and discussion questions from my seminar, working in the order of my syllabus, covering 1 reading - or 1 chapter, if it's a longer reading - each FFF.) And so, without further ado:
Last time we explored some questions raised in Chapter 2 of legal scholar Deborah Rhode's 2010 book, The Beauty Bias.
Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty.
I set up my course by offering my students two theoretical perspectives which help explain our culture's fascination with "beauty" - and also why people who have it are treated so differently from people who don't. The first perspective, which is represented in this book, is that of Evolutionary Psychology, which essentially says that what we find beautiful can often be linked to reproductive success. An oft-cited concept from this line of thinking is the idea that many physical features - including facial symmetry, clear skin, and (for women) a low waist-to-hip ratio, are considered attractive across all cultures and also signify good reproductive health. Evolutionary Psychology views cultural ideas about beauty as innate and natural, a view that renders the inequalities resulting from appearance a simple fact of (evolved) life.
In her introductory chapter, Etcoff sets herself apart from many feminist scholars from the get-go, by admitting that our culture may be full of industries that take advantage of our desires for beauty, but that these industries are only building off of our innate drives.
She opens by discussing two comment arguments about the concept of beauty. One suggests that beauty serves no purpose, has no depth, and is defined by (and at the whim of) advertising and marketing. The second perspective suggests that beauty is common sense, and that it gives color and vivacity to our world. Etcoff contends that beauty is a combination of both, but she also distinguishes innate, universal beauty from fashion or accessories, which she sees as the "icing" that decorates that which is beautiful. How do we recognize and define beauty in the first place? Etcoff suggests that we have a "sixth sense" for it, and it is hard to articulate with specific definitions, but easily, and universally, recognized.
Etcoff saves the hard-hitting details of this perspective for later chapters, which is what I will do as well. In the meantime, I can feel you all bracing for a fight (a lot of feminists HATE Ev-Psych because it often reifies stereotypes).
For the record: I don't always love what evolutionary psychologists have to say (especially when their research seems to excuse men for acting like brutish infidelious sugar-daddies or women acting like superficial catty gold-diggers who), but, for the most part, I've always found Ev-Psych to be fascinating and insightful. This book was a game-changer for me when I was in college, which is why I always assign it to my students. I have to remind myself that, just because men and women may have evolved to have slightly different natures, this doesn't mean that we're destined to fulfill the worst stereotypes of our sex. Indeed, rather then rendering us as unchangeable as a leopard's spots, understanding the science behind our innate drives gives us more and better tools to work with in our quests for humanistic improvement!! I ask you to try and embrace this spirit over the next few weeks as we learn more about what Evolutionary Psychologists have to say about beauty and attraction, and decide for ourselves what evidence we find compelling versus not-so-compelling!
I'm excited to engage you all in some of the debates that have "evolved" from this topic. :)
Here's today's discussion question: can you remember a time, early in your life, when you were struck by a "sixth sense" that someone was beautiful? What did it feel like, and what was beautiful about this person? Do you think your perception of this person's beauty was innate, taught, or a combination??