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Beauty,Spring 2005 Fourth Web Papers On Serendip

Beauty, Amen.

Brittany Pladek

Beauty is God is Big Brother is Watching YOU

Brittany Pladek
CSEM Paper #4

Beauty, Amen.


My friend Matt puts it bluntly. "I like big, strong men," he says. We're in his room. In one corner stands a cardboard cut-out of Vin Diesel during his wrestling days, all gleaming skin and bulging leather. "Like that." Matt tosses his head over his shoulder, and I wrinkle my nose.

"Ugh. Why?"

He grins. "Because I like muscle!"

Matt also likes older men. He's seventeen, and his current boyfriend---a bodyguard from New York---is twenty-nine. Combine the two traits, and I'd say what Matt actually likes is power. But I don't tell him that. After all, I got up this morning and put in contacts, applied mascara, and daubed blush, and I don't even have a boyfriend.

Matt finishes gelling his hair, then carefully chooses a cyan buttondown that highlights the green flecks in his eyes. When he stands back and asks me, "Well? Do you think he'll like it?" I know exactly who he's talking about. I nod.

I wish I could be so specific.

John Berger was the first to describe what feminist theory has since dubbed the "masculine gaze." 1 Berger posited that women in Western culture have grown so used to being "looked at" by men that they internalize the feeling. "'Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at," Berger explains. And they do it so often and so thoroughly that---even when there are no men present---they're haunted by the scrutiny of masculine eyes. This ever-present observation at least partly explains why I was standing next to Matt wearing makeup, though I had no plans to go anywhere that day where any (heterosexual) male might spot me.

Why makeup, and not my heart on my sleeve? According to Berger, one of the primary features which draws the "masculine gaze" is beauty. Not beauty in the Keats sense, something inner and eternal and ineffable, but beauty in the Kay sense---Mary, that is. Unfortunately for woman, man is not superman. He lacks X-ray vision. (Otherwise my heart on my sleeve might really be decoration enough!) The masculine gaze inspects purely physical appearance---eyes, hair, makeup---then weighs it against the current societal standard. (The latest model: tall, thin, flawless skin). When women internalize this constant surveillance, it roosts in their psyches like some inner, cosmetic Big Brother: he's always watching, so you better look good. And many women obey, even when there are no men around to see them. It doesn't matter. That invisible He is omnipresent, checking out their racks from the backs of their minds.

Meanwhile Matt is buffing his loafers, whistling. His beauty routine is utterly unselfconscious. He doesn't have any feminist hangups.

Point of information: Matt is Wiccan, which is possibly why he doesn't feel so bad about fucking a guy twelve years his senior. Or fucking guys, for that matter. He doesn't have any religious hangups. I, on the other hand, was raised Presbyterian, and cringe even typing the word "fuck." (This is relevant, I promise). Back when I was in Sunday school, my teachers used to corral my classmates and I into circles, then force us to listen to tepid Christian "rock" performed by Pat, our resident rhythm guitarist. I suppose they wanted to inspire us. But the only song that ever inspired me was a Bette Midler tune called "From a Distance." The refrain runs thus:

God is watching us

God is watching us

God is watching us... from a distance.

There, in a nutshell, is the basic Christian mindset. An omnipotent, omnipresent, invisible deity that sees your every move, reads your every thought, and weighs it against an ancient moral standard (with some stretch-room for denominational differences). To paraphrase Bette Midler: God is always watching, so you better be good.

The similarities between the "male gaze's" influence on women and the "God gaze's" influence on Christians are striking; and not, I think, coincidental. After all, God is the ultimate Masculine, the great "He" to which every other "he" defaults. Despite the Church's insistence that the crux of the Trinity never adopts a specific sex, nearly all Christian representations of God are of God the Father. Furthermore, as Carol Gilligan suggests, a key "masculine" attribute is the appearance of power. God is defined by the power He wields; the Lord's prayer concludes, "for Thine is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory---forever." Compared to the Almighty, every human being on earth is "feminine:" the observed, the submissive, the powerless.

Both God and the "male gaze" wield their power shrewdly. Technically, neither have to really wield it at all. They function solely though the belief in their own omnipotence, as experienced by any human in whom that belief resides. And where belief goes, behavior follows. Women, feeling male eyes on their backs, attend to their physical beauty; Christians, feeling God's eyes, attend to their spiritual beauty.

Right, "spiritual beauty." You don't hear it a lot; but isn't that what it is? Again---sadly---we're not exactly talking Keats here. While Christian "spiritual beauty" is generally more benevolent than society's ideals of physical attractiveness (love > a tight ass), it's just as formulaic as Cosmo's "101 Secret Tips for Sexy Skin." Granted, God was a little more gracious than Cosmo. He only published ten tips, and none of them were secret. But God---like the "male gaze"---has a standard. And He's always watching (at least, He's got you convinced He's always watching) to make sure YOU live up to it.

Matt isn't living up to it. I help him button his shirt, then we walk downstairs to my car. He's only seventeen; can't drive yet. I'm giving him a lift to the train station, where he'll hop the 3:30 Amtrack to New York. Pete (that's the bodyguard) pays for his ticket.

Another point of information: Matt was raised Catholic. He converted to Wicca at age fifteen, after deciding that a Mother Goddess might be more understanding of his unrequited passion for Harrison Ford. (Most sects of Wicca worship a female deity: Earth Mother, the Great Goddess, Gaia, etc. It's an ancient, bohemian religion, decentralized, that distributes power equally among all living things.) His family doesn't know, and consequently still brings him to Mass every week, where he fiddles rosaries and concocts acceptable sins for his confessor. Maintaining the facade of Christian spiritual beauty is tough. For example, Matt's sect of Wicca prohibits him from blowing out candles. I don't know what he does on Christmas Eve.

Actually, maintaining any "standard" of beauty is tough, even when you're sincere about it. It can even be dangerous. For example, a few years ago, my mother took a trip to visit one of her high school friends, a tall, pretty brunette named Elaine. During her stay, Elaine's youngest girl (four at the time) came up to her, and, poking her breasts, asked with utter sincerity, "What are those?" Turns out that since leaving school, Elaine had developed anorexia. At five foot six, she weighed only a hundred pounds. Her body had devoured its own breasts for nourishment. And anorexia is just one device in a dungeonful of torture devices, some of them just as medieval as the metaphor implies, designed to help women appease the eyes glued to their backs. Some examples in no particular order: back alley liposuction, breast implants, butt implants, hair implants, hair removal, botched nose jobs.

Strict standards of spiritual beauty can be just as harmful. Though history describes numerous self-inflicted methods of soul beautification (one "u" away from beatification!)---hair shirts, flagellation, fasting, surgical celibacy---the maintenance of spiritual beauty is oftentimes more dangerous to others than it is to the self. Not only that, it's usually on a much larger scale. The Crusades. The Inquisition. The Nazis. Bloody Sunday. Certainly holy wars aren't unique to Christian culture, but that doesn't change the fact that every zealot waging a jihad honestly believes (and it's the belief, remember, that's important!) that his participation will give him a one-up with the Almighty.

Sure, you may reply, but zealots and anorexics don't comprise a huge part of the population. There are always nutjobs that take things too far, right?

I'll respond with a different question: How far is "too far?" Pretend, for a moment, that you're a devout Christian woman. Now tell me this. What did you give up for Lent? And how much money did you spend on makeup this month?

More importantly, what are you getting in return? The reward system is the one key difference between "male gaze" and Christian standards of beauty. 2 God outlines His system very explicitly. Obey His Commandments, love thy neighbor (platonically of course), and attend church at least semi-regularly: congratulations! You get to go to heaven! Disobey the Commandments, scorn thy neighbor (unless he's gay or an atheist), and skip church for the bowling alley: ouch, too bad! Hell for you!

The "male gaze" doesn't have a distinct voice. While there's certainly social stigma associated with rejection of societal beauty standards (just log onto, if you forget your mascara in the morning, no huge male hand will descend to smite you into Dis. On the other hand, nothing inherent in your daily beauty routine guarantees a concrete return. Anna Nicole Smith may plug herself with Trimspa specifically to land a rich geriatric, but for most women, the daily impulse to meet beauty ideals exists hazily independent of any physical reward. In a sense, the male gaze is an enormous bluff---but women rarely call it. Why?

I think the answer involves both Anna Nicole Smith and God. (No joke!) The "male gaze" wasn't always so ephemeral, so internalized. In medieval Europe, all women played the Anna Nicole role. Unless blessed with extraordinary power or lineage (like Elizabeth I), medieval women staked their fortunes on snaring rich husbands. Beauty was an effective trap. But once sprung, it became obsolete. Among Christian women---curse that pesky seventh commandment!---it was even a liability. Married women were (and still are, to some extent) expected to beautify more conservatively than their single counterparts.3 When they didn't, it was a shocker; hence the phrase, "But she's a married woman!"

Matt's boarding the train. I see him off at the platform, wondering vaguely if he has a sparkly thong hidden somewhere in his backpack. Since Matt technically doesn't exist in Christian dogma, he could---if he wanted---dress like a fifty-dollar whore until the day he dies. (Not that he would. Matt's too classy for that.) But he could, because technically he can't marry, and therefore technically there's no commandment seven for him to break. That's God's law, but it's state law too.


Fortunately for modern-day women, survival no longer hangs on securing an advantageous marriage. Likewise, participation in a committed relationship doesn't significantly alter our wardrobe (Victoria Secret's "Boyfriend Jeans" are as skin-tight and hip-hugging as their "Very Sexy" models). However, the compulsion to be beautiful remains, ingrained into us as thoroughly as the Ten Commandments are into Christians. He may not be looking to marry you anymore, but Big Brother is still watching. And since we've rejected the medieval idea of wifely homeliness, His surveillance lasts---and lasts---and lasts. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, Amen.

The train hisses into motion. I spot Matt at a nearby window and raise my hand to wave goodbye.

Beauty is a religion. I know it's been said before, jokingly, but I honestly believe it's true. Beauty is a religion, just like Christianity: complete with God, commandments, priests, and zealots. No Mother Goddess, unfortunately. (Though there is Madonna---she's even called "Madonna," isn't that convenient?) I'd argue that it's the most widely-practiced faith in America today.

Point of information: I'm agnostic, which is the technical term for having no idea. I don't go to church regularly. But when I do, I always wear makeup. Isn't that interesting?

Matt palms one hand at me, some Wicca farewell he found in an Astrology book. Then he waves goodbye more conventionally---not with his hand, but with something pink and sparkly.

Oh, God.


1 Berger actually wrote "male," but I substitute "masculine." "Masculine," while not tied expressly to the male sex, collectively describes a number of characteristics which have traditional associations with men. The most important of these is power, because power has played the most instrumental role in establishing the dichotomous, dominant/submissive male-to-female stereotype.

2 I mean in execution, not the ideals themselves. Ideologically, the standards of the "male gaze" and those of the Christian God are near polar opposites. You could write a book on the differences. It's their application that I'm comparing.

3 I refer explicitly to Western European tradition, which informs how both Christianity and the "male gaze" operate in Western society today. Other cultures saw things differently: for example, in Heian period Japan, married upper-class women daily underwent extraordinarily rich and complex beauty routines. Which isn't exactly liberating, of course: the difference is that between a plain cage and a gilded one.


Sources utilized:

Our discussion upstairs last Thursday

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