Thursday, April 26, 2018

"I Feel Pretty": Beauty, Confidence, and the Foolish Commentariat

In spite of all the evidence, some people insist on believing that we live in uniquely horrible times. Consider, for example, the cry of outrage that a harmless-sounding Amy Schumer movie called forth from Amanda Hess:
“I Feel Pretty” is based on a pretty little lie: Looks don’t matter. It’s what’s on the inside that counts.

In the film, the down-on-herself Renee (played by Amy Schumer) conks her head in a SoulCycle accident and awakens believing that she has miraculously become supermodel-hot. She revels in it — charging into a bikini contest, snagging a promotion and basking in the affections of a beefy corporate scion — only to discover that her looks never changed a bit. The benefits she thought she accrued through beauty were won instead through her newfound self-confidence.

The movie suggests that the only thing holding back regular-looking women is their belief that looking regular holds them back at all. That attitude puts the onus on individual women to improve their self-esteem instead of criticizing societal beauty standards writ large. The reality is that expectations for female appearances have never been higher. It’s just become taboo to admit that.

This new beauty-standard denialism is all around us. It courses through cosmetics ads, fitness instructor monologues, Instagram captions and, increasingly, pop feminist principles. In the forthcoming book Perfect Me, Heather Widdows, a philosophy professor at the University of Birmingham, England, convincingly argues that the pressures on women to appear thinner, younger and firmer are stronger than ever. Keeping up appearances is no longer simply a superficial pursuit; it’s an ethical one, too. A woman who fails to conform to the ideal is regarded as a failure as a person.
Well, you know, if a philosophy professor says it, in actual book, it must be true.

Argh. I'm not going to tell anybody that looks don't matter; of course they do. And they always have. But the notion that they somehow matter more now than ever before is simply crazy. For starters, women can now get jobs and support themselves, which puts contemporary women under a lot less pressure than in the days when you had to get a man to support you. If somebody told me that looks mattered more in the 1950s than ever before, I might believe that, but now? No.

Plus, there is a lot of evidence that the message of I Feel Pretty is correct. I know women who would score no higher than the 60th percentile on some computerized test of beauty but have made themselves into sex symbols through the sheer force of their personalities. Attitude and clothes can take you a long way. Moving on to more important things, there just isn't much evidence that beautiful people are happier or more successful in love. Ugly people get and stay married at about the same rate as beautiful people. The only strong effect anyone has found is that very handsome men have trouble staying married, a double-edged sword if there ever was one.

I'm not trying to argue that the world is just; after all, confidence is every bit as unevenly distributed as beauty, and it may be just as geneticly determined. But the world is unjust along many axes, and beauty, if you ask me, is so far down the list that nobody ought to be obsessing over it or writing anguished op-eds about happy movies.


JustPeachy said...

There's a reverse side to it, and it's quite nice. I rank low on the pretty scale: my looks peaked at age 9. And it means that whatever I have (job, husband, respect, affection, achievements, etc), I can be 99% sure I didn't get it because of my looks. Never get harassed, either. Perks of being a wallflower :)

Unknown said...

It strikes me as a little unkind to say that nobody out to be writing anguished op-eds about looks or obsessing about the topic. Looks aren't just important sociologically. How we feel about looks--our own looks, others' looks, how we look in comparison to others, etc.--has a profound and intimate psychological importance. Plus there's a lot of deeply annoying pop-psychology out there built on the falsehood that you can make anything happen if you believe in yourself, it's really all up to you, etc., etc. And, somehow, I suspect Hess' op-ed will find a larger and more engrossed readership than a dozen essays on worthier topics.