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Beauty,Spring 2005
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When Beauty Becomes Ugly

Alice Stead

Understanding the social and political implications of beauty in our society is challenging, because we must address many ethical questions that accompany beauty and our perception of it. When it comes to physical beauty in our society, it is no longer simply an observation of whether someone is beautiful or not, because now the object of observation will have a subjective reaction to our observations. Our observations are in fact harsh criticisms. Men and women put pressures on one another to be the epitome of beautiful. These pressures can present very negative social implications; however they are not entirely harmful. This paper will explore some of the positive and negative effects of having a standard of beauty, as well as to examine some of the underlying origins of these standards.

Personally, I think it is a wonderful thing to be able to identify beauty in a human face and a human figure. And I do believe that models are beautiful, but I also believe that people I interact with every day are beautiful. However, this is coming from somebody who is able to separate myself from the too-perfect models. Some cannot do this, and this is where the danger lies. It is primarily women who are being marginalized by this standard, although some men feel pressure. Women feel the need to choose between brains and beauty. This happens every day in high schools, maybe even colleges. Some girls choose to act ditzy because they believe it will put them into the popular group, which has the connotation of being one of the pretty girls. They do not want to be smarter than the boys because then the boys will feel threatened by their intelligence, and not like them, or so they believe. This is a case unique to women; men can be both popular and intelligent. But why should women have to dumb themselves down to fit in? This is directly caused by the standards set for women. One major institution that contributes to this stereotype is the Miss America Pageant. Christine Koggel talks about the negative effects of having this kind of beauty competition. She states that boys are told they can grow up to become president, and girls are told that they can grow up to be Miss America. (1). Miss America is a beauty competition, not an intelligence competition, and while the producers of the show have strived to portray it as a scholarship program, the women are still judged on their looks. Christine Koggel, in her essay "Concept of Beauty: a Feminist Philosopher Thinks About Paradigms and Consequences," adds that beauty is from a "male perspective and masculine values" (4). And this is probably accurate; to take the example of Miss America again, the judges are primarily men. This is not always the case, but when men are involved, there is a completely different sense of competition among women. In addition to competition, women strive to be thin and have beautiful hair, skin, etc., because the winner of the Miss America contest always has these attributes. The contest feeds women this idea that we should all have these same characteristics.

Literary critic Laura Mulvey takes a very Freudian approach to explain the origin of this standard; she believes that men in fact see women as castrated men, as injured and grotesque (2). Therefore, they have two ways in which to deal with this frightening prospect; one is to see them as the same (as men), and that they are injured because they are being punished, or they can choose to look at women as other and turn some other aspect of their body, i.e. other than her genitalia, into a fetish. She calls this response "fetishistic scopophilia in which the male builds up the physical beauty of the object, transforming it into something satisfying in itself" (Mulvey 438). This is the reason, she argues, we focus on a woman's face; we become obsessed with the parts of the body that we can see as whole and unaltered. She states, "there is an obvious interest in this analysis for feminists, a beauty in its exact rendering of the frustration experienced under phallocentric order" (Mulvey 436). This complements Christine Koggel's theory that "what is called beautiful reflect the male perspective and masculine values" (Koggel 4). Men put these pressures on women to be beautiful because to see the beautiful face as complete and whole makes them forget about what is "missing." Thus, these pressures exerted on women by women originate with men's obsession with the female face, breasts, legs, etc. Although this is a strange theory, and Freudian theory is now often regarded as invalid, it does provide an interesting insight into our obsession with beauty and why we need to create this perfect image of a beautiful woman. It provides a psychoanalytic approach to why we present these standards of beauty, and perhaps the social danger of not having a standard. She would argue that without these standards, men would view women as grotesque and injured, but the standard allows them to see their beauty.

As destructive as our standard can be, it may be a necessary one. There needs to be a norm so that people can fight against it. While it does lead to destructive behavior in some women, it does not mean that we should not have some notion of what is beautiful. If we did not have a standard of beauty, we would not know beauty when we saw it. Furthermore, if we did not have a standard, we would not be able to appreciate how beautiful it is when someone defies those standards. There will always be a standard, and there will always be people who do not fit the standard.

The answer is not to see everyone as equally beautiful. In his short story "Liking What You See: A Documentary," Ted Chiang postulates the notion of being able to turn off our ability to comprehend human beauty. He asks the question should we be able to turn on and off our ability to see human beauty, like one switches on and off a light? Will this provide a healthier solution to the problem? I see nothing wrong with being able to see beauty; the problem lies in the way we process our reaction. At first seems as if this could be the answer to all our problems, that every woman would be better for it, we would lose the ability to have one of our most beautiful experiences. While it is true that something needs to change, it is not our ability to perceive beauty. We derive a tremendous amount of pleasure and happiness, in addition to the pain, from seeing a beautiful man or woman. Rather than seeing a standard of beauty as a means of comparison, let it be a celebration of beauty.

There must be an answer to this problem, and I believe the Amish perception of beauty, or some derivative of it, could potentially be it. When the Amish make quilts, they always leave one flaw because they believe that only Nature, or what God creates, is perfect. Thus, they are able to see beauty in their imperfection; they are willing to accept it. This is their standard. Our standard, however, is to strive for perfection, to attain the unattainable, to be perfect. We want perfect bodies and perfect faces. But what if we could see beauty in the quirks and flaws that we all have? This could alleviate much of the pain that women subject themselves to in striving for ultimate beauty. Our standard of beauty could never be reached, or else it would no longer be a standard. Once that standard is reached, the bar would be raised again. Thus, we need to adapt our perception of beauty to be inclusive, rather than exclusive. Rather than criticizing women for what they do not have, long legs and large breasts, for example, appreciate them for having a beautiful face, including their large noses or beauty body, despite their curvy hips. The goal is to readjust our focus to see the beauty in our imperfect bodies. If women could live by this principal, it could save many women the pain and suffering of having to reach the ultimate.

(1). Koggel, Christine. "Concepts of Beauty: A Feminist Philosopher thinks About Paradigms and Consequences" 23 March 2004

(2). Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Feminisms.

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