Friday, June 22, 2012

Gender, Appearance and Inequality: Again, Finally!

Too much of a good thing....
Have you ever had a bit too much of something you loved, and then never wanted to see it again (at least for a while)?  It's the classic ice-cream shop employee's dilemma of never wanting to eat ice cream again for as long as he or she is alive.  Well, folks, that's an apt metaphor for how I've been feeling over the past few weeks about my seminar, "Gender, Appearance, and Inequality."

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.
Today we'll do the same for the Introduction chapter of Harvard psychologist Nancy Etcoff's 2000 book, 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??


  1. I understand how you are feeling..I teach middle school and after grading 3 sections worth of whatever paper or project they have just poured themselves into I want to never look at another one again...and the next term comes around and I do it all over and well it is a blessing and a curse to see improvement and growth of knowledge.

  2. Hm, I have often seen the outward evidence of something I call a beautiful spirit...

    I can also recall liking my third grade teacher because she was stylish and blond and unmarried...

    1. Stylish, blonde and unmarried... sounds very modern!

      I hear you on the "beautiful spirit" part. Some people glow and make it contagious.

  3. The first time I remember being struck by a person's beauty was when my sister, who is 15 years older, was in college and I thought she was the coolest person in the world. She even had braces and I wanted braces because I thought they would make me cool and pretty like her. My sister does not fit the stereotypical image that we might consider beautiful, so I think what impacted me as beautiful had much more to do with something deeper - a personality and relationship.

    Perhaps I haven't read enough about it, but so far, I do not buy into the idea that beauty signifies good reproductive health and therefore an evolutionary advantage. A "beautiful" person does not necessarily mean a healthy person (physically, emotionally, or relationally). A "beautiful" person does not equal the ability to be successful at sex, in relationships, at raising children, at being fertile. I'm curious, has there been a study that shows that people who meet certain "beauty" criteria are in fact more fertile and more likely to have healthy babies? Perhaps the reasoning is that "beautiful" people attract more mates and therefore have more sex and more offspring?

    Furthermore, I think as we grow older, learn about and understand intimacy and relationships, we are drawn most to people who make us feel great when we are with them...and that person becomes physically beautiful to us - perhaps making for a healthier/stable relationship?

    Although I do know that research shows that people tend to mate with people similar on the "attractiveness" scale, I don't think that equals the idea that "pretty" people have an evolutionary advantage.

    It's great to have an opportunity to share my thoughts on this topic as I have been thinking about this idea over the last year or so. Once again, I admit that I have not researched or read much on this, so I'm curious if my thoughts make sense or if I'm missing something.

    1. Melissa,
      Thanks for your comment! To answer one of your questions, YES there is data "out there" that suggests that some qualities we see as beautiful do correlate with reproductive fitness, though the effects are not "extreme". In particular, highly sexually dimorphic features (i.e., those which are the most feminine or the most masculine) tend to have this effect. Thus, women with low waist-hip ratio seem to be slightly more fertile than women with high waist-hip ratio. There has been some similar data on breast size, but it is much less conclusive.

      I agree with you that the same data about mate preferences can be interpreted as being EITHER due to "innate" preferences, or to socially constructed ideals. It's difficult to tease these mechanisms apart, but what we social scientists tend to look for is diversity across time/place/culture, which indicates socially constructed preferences, vs. innate preferences which will be consistent across time/place/culture.

      Body size, for example, is on the "socially constructed" side, as there has been (and still is) HUGE variety in what body sizes are seen as most attractive, across time and cultures. And yet, waist-hip ratio seems more consistent, even across cultures with widely different preferences for fatness vs. thinness!

  4. You may not see this, but maybe someone will. I DO remember a time, as a child, when I was struck by a woman's beauty. I think I was about 8? My parents had sent us to church camp for a week. There was a woman there one day who attended one of the required services we had to do every day. I remember seeing her walking around earlier that day and I think in this day she'd be classified as something past morbidly obese. I still have that picture of my 8 year old perception of her in my head. Looking back she was probably wearing slightly too much makeup, but it wasn't garish as I recall. Her hair was yellow..not blonde, yellow. Her entire outfit was pink (I HATED pink with a fiery passion, but on her...) and I mean like shades of pink from the hat on her head to the shoes on her feet. Light pink, dark pink, you get the idea. Today I can remember seeing her off and on and every time she had this big smile on her face that just seemed to sparkle. Her voice sounded so kind. Her movements were graceful and flowing. These are not ways I would have described her then, but to this day I remember the things that struck me and can define them. During the service I couldn't take my eyes off her and she repeatedly smiled at me very kindly throughout the whole service when she kept looking over at me and I was STILL STARING. lol She was just awe-strikingly beautiful to me. As we got up to sing or something I finally, clutching my skirt in my hands, walked up to her and told her how "pretty" she was. I had this huge vocabulary, but I was so struck, all I could come up with was pretty.

    I think I knew at some level that she was a beautiful PERSON who seemed sure of herself. Her weight didn't even register with 8 year old me.I only make note of it now to differentiate how at 8 years old I wasn't defining people by their size or shape and I really think it's something I've kept up all my life. I used to date this guy, when I first started going after him I thought he was soooo gorgeous. One day I saw him treat someone rather badly and it was like someone ripped some weird glasses off my face. Why did I ever think he was gorgeous? I mean, in 5 seconds he hadn't PHYSICALLY changed, but my perception did and it affected his appearance to me. My grandmother asked me what happened to that "good looking boyfriend of mine" and she had to describe him before I realized she was talking about that ugly guy I used to date. LOL

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