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Beauty,Spring 2005
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Beauty and Power

Rachel Usala

The political and sociological impacts of sensitivity to aesthetics are often portrayed negatively. Society blames oppressive beauty ideals for anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and personal and career discrimination. Nevertheless, we continue to strive for it because there are individuals that are empowered by "beauty bonuses." Who are they, how do they use beauty to pursue power, and what are the effects of the pursuit of beauty on the beauty seeker and the rest of society?

During the second day of my college seminar class we each brought an object that we considered beautiful. The objects that I found most beautiful, and which I remember now, were the objects that had a story. The idea that beautiful experiences require a story is an important, if not universal, observation. There are beautiful experiences without stories, and overgeneralization is often inaccurate. Even so I think Roald Hoffmann's observation about beauty and power is a useful model: "Beauty is built out of individual pleasure around an object or idea. It may be personal, but gains in strength when it is shared with others (1)."

If stories create beauty and beauty creates emotions that are considered powerful and even manipulative, a good storyteller has the potential to gain political and sociological power. This was even played out in the presentations in my beauty seminar class. Susan Levine, a psychoanalyst, utilized anecdotes about her patients to captivate our attention and persuade us that psychoanalysis is beautiful. Mark Lord, a theater director, chose a presentation formatted as the "story of his life" in order to discuss his own experience of beauty. Two presentations about beauty from two very different disciplinary perspectives contained stories. Is this a reflection that storytelling and beauty are inseparable and that it is natural to discuss beauty in the format of a story? Or did Mr. Lord and Ms. Levine sense that stories would be the most effective and aesthetically pleasing presentation? Both are likely.

The most prominent storytellers in our society are media personalities, and it wouldn't be a stretch to claim that they have an enormous amount of power in our society. The television set in the average American household is on for 6 hours and 47 minutes per day (2).Companies pay billions of dollars each year to advertise in newspapers and on television. If the aesthetic appeal of a good story is what drives Americans to watch TV and sit through commercials, to read newspapers, and to browse the web, beauty is the indirect source of many jobs, of much exchange of money, and of the most direct avenue for discussing political opinions and social ideals and impressing these opinions and ideals on the public.

It has struck me that "beautiful" is a term that people rarely apply to me and that I rarely apply to myself. I don't think it is because I am particularly ugly either. On a day I polish my appearance, acquaintances tell me that I look "cute" or "nice" but rarely "beautiful." "Beautiful" is a term reserved for significant others, family, and maybe two or three close friends. Is this because beauty is so powerful a term that it is inappropriate for everyday conversations? Or is a close relationship really necessary for the "beautiful" experience? Again I think the answer relates to the power of storytelling. Family members have their story about you; you are a part of their everyday life. Significant others believe you are their "happily ever after;" you are their fairy tale. For acquaintances, however, you don't belong to the story really; you drift in and out of their lives. When an acquaintance calls you "nice" or "cute" they are not having a beautiful experience; you've merely broken their everyday routine by assuming a more major role in their play. The pretty characters always get more lines in the performance.

How do politicians and other figures manipulative this tendency to have aesthetic experiences among family and significant others in order to gain power or appeal? They have two options: they can make themselves seem like one of the family or they can portray themselves as the "happily ever after" figure. The power is obtained with help of the media, and we have seen many famous figures pick their character in the play. The politicians often choose the friend or "Uncle Dad" character; they kiss babies, promise tax relief that will affect your household, and try to claim family values. Actors and actresses often choose the "fairy tale" role. They don't have the ability to travel the country and become your "friend" so they choose the other extreme. They keep far away from the general public because they are maintaining the mystique of the "prince charming." The general effect on the public sphere is a web of deception. The politicians, actors, models, etc. become something that they are not in order to achieve the aesthetic appeal of a well told story. Those who lead less public lives sometimes pursue the personas of actors and models and suffer oppression by beauty ideals as a result. Low self-esteem, anorexia, bulimia, and even suicide are the manifestations of some of these oppressions. Those who are more realistically seeking the aesthetic appeal, particularly as it applies to women, invest in make-up and wardrobes.

Beauty is a subjective term, and I can argue that the current standard permeating political, business, and everyday culture is not beautiful. Who would call a businesswoman with carefully manicured nails, well-done hair, rouged lips, elegant dress-suit, and high heels beautiful? Isn't her appearance more accurately called "professional?" It seems that the "professional appearance" is the pursued norm rather than a standard of beauty. Why? Without the storyteller, that is the media, a simpler, more classical standard that is superimposed on the average person appears flaky and unprofessional. There is a double standard. Those that have access to the media utilize it to develop a story and a character, which allows them to pursue the classical beauty as another dimension of their personality. Those that do not have the media and its storytelling influence or some other power foundation cannot pursue beauty without being accused of shallowness; they must rather pursue professionalism. The average person does not have the media-constructed multi-faceted public personality. What is seen is skin deep, and a person who is trying to make their way in the world wants to present their priorities. The businessperson chooses professionalism over beauty because they want their appearance to reflect their value for their jobs. Aesthetic appeal is the luxurious commodity of secondary importance. The politician is in the middle of the spectrum. They have the advantage of a public face, but their priorities are different from that of the actor and model. They want their priority for intellect and their work to be reflected in their appearance; they, like the businessperson, sacrifice "beauty" for "professionalism."

Tragically, this has resulted in a masculine undertone in the political and worker world. The feminine touch has all but disappeared. Professionals, those seeking power in politics and elsewhere, are trying to communicate their value for their work over their idealized beauty by accepting the standardized worker image: the bread-winning male. A recent study came out from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis that concluded beautiful people get as much as 5% higher pay per year than the average-looking person, but it is hard to interpret this data. What is the Federal Reserve Bank's standard of beauty? Is it the "professional" look or "classical" attractiveness? I think the data would be much more informative if it were interpreted separately for men and women. Men have already established their personas in the political and economic sphere as the lawmakers and breadwinners; history has been their storyteller. In contrast, women don't have the advantage of a background story constructed by history. They have yet to establish or prove in a historical context that their priorities are their jobs, politics, or power because their stereotypical priorities are homemaking and children. If the female worker or politician pursues the classical beauty instead of the professional appearance, it is assumed, because there is no stereotype to argue otherwise, that the woman is living the less serious role of a part-time worker, full-time mother and homemaker. This does not mean a woman denies her femininity completely nor fails to polishes her appearance with make-up, diets, and suits: that would be unprofessional. The irony is that men are free to pursue classical beauty ideals and achieve the "beauty bonus" for their efforts because they don't have to prove their sex is economically and politically capable. Women, however, have to work harder for the "beauty premium" because society has two standards for them which are in many ways conflicted. Women are supposed to be beautiful but productive she-males.

We have seen this reflected in the women who assume power. Hillary Clinton and Madeline Albright have both been accused of masculine personas. Queen Elizabeth I is probably the best example of this assumed masculinity; she assumed masculine characteristics openly in her portraits, manner, and language. In a speech at Tilbury to the English military before the invasion of the Spanish Armada she describes herself: "I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England, too (3)." Even the changing wardrobe of American culture reflects the shifted ideal of presentation that highly educated and powerful women pursue. Women wear pants, sport short haircuts, and don more masculine coats. If you walk into clothing store, the men's and women's clothing is often identical.

The empowerment of the press, utilization of the storytelling power of the media by actors, models, and politicians to assume "Happily Ever After" and "Uncle Dad" personas, elevation of professionalism over beauty, and the increasing presence of masculinity in female aesthetic standards are arguably ugly consequences of sensitivity to beauty in society. The press's overwhelming presence in households, particularly their influence over children, is alarming. The assuming of roles by public figures is superficial and likely deceptive. The sense of loss of beauty in the economic and public sphere is painful. The permeation of male professionalism is breaking down the classical female beauty ideal and replacing it with a maybe more oppressive, maybe more progressive, and maybe more ugly standard.


1. Hoffmann, Roald. "Thoughts on Aesthetics and Visualization in Chemistry." Preface.
Issue of Aesthetics and Visualization. Hyle.

2. The Source for Teaching Science.

3. Women's Rights Speeches.

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