Is Beauty A Worthy Goal?

Last week I wrote about 14-year-old Nadia Ilse, who had gotten plastic surgery to stop kids from bullying her. Her ears were pinned back and her nose and chin shortened.

Over at The Nation Jessica Valenti wondered whether beauty is a worthy goal in the first place. At best, beauty is a short-term solution. And not much of a solution at that, if the sole focus is a one-dimensionality that keeps us shallow.

Plus, Valenti says,

We create a trap where anything that makes a girl feel better about her appearance, no matter how harmful, is a reasonable solution. (How many times has plastic surgery been preceded by an “I’m doing it for me!” explanation?)

Throughout history women have been convinced they must have various physical characteristics or accessories that harm their health: tiny waists, small feet, high heels, girdles, corsets, boob jobs…

All at the expense of extreme discomfort, scrunched vital organs, pulmonary disease, varicose veins, a lack of vital nutrients, crippled feet and knees, deadened erotic sensation, a block to cancer detection, death…

It’s all made worse by calling variation from beauty norms a “deformity” – just to make a buck. Doctors have told some of my students that they needed corrective surgery for their breasts. And that’s how Nadia’s doctor described her “need” for an operation:

She wasn’t picked to have her surgery because she was bullied. She was picked because of her deformities.

No wonder Valenti groaned,

This is our culture now: teen girls thinking that the slightest perceived imperfection—any deviation from what they see in magazines—is tantamount to deformity and in need of surgical correction.

… We should tell girls the truth: “Beautiful” is bullshit, a standard created to make women into good consumers, too busy wallowing in self-loathing to notice that we’re second class citizens.

And in fact, being called ugly can be useful. Jessica was teased before she grew into her face, as she put it. But,

In a lot of ways I’m glad I was considered unattractive as a kid—there is an upside to ugly. I developed a sharp sense of humor, a defense against the taunts. I thought more deeply about how good and bad people can be. I started writing. I found feminism.

Some who commented on my first Nadia post had similar experiences:

I was teased relentlessly when I was her age for my big ears, flat chest, and the amount of body hair that I had. Today I am grateful for a mother who didn’t care that I was being bullied for such superficial things and did not allow me to make permanent changes to my body to escape bullying. Eventually I grew into my body and in the meantime, while it was painful, I found people who didn’t give a shit about those things, and now most days I feel completely comfortable in my body and my own unique beauty.

Some come to understand that the tauting isn’t about them but about the taunter.

I suffered bullying when I was a kid, and I discovered that people who do this kind of thing usually are trying to move attention from them; they usually have self-esteem problems.

Instead of agreeing that beauty is worth having, Valenti suggests we should be warning that a culture that demands as much is toxic.

Or, as another commenter suggested, maybe we can expand our notions:

I used to have a pretty narrow definition of beauty until at age 15 I started drawing the faces of the people I saw around me, often on the city bus on the way home from school. That is when I began to see a new world of beauty everywhere I looked.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on August 15, 2012, in body image, feminism, gender, psychology, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Hi it’s me, I am also visiting this web site on a regular
    basis, this web page is truly fastidious and the viewers are actually sharing good thoughts.

  2. I really love the last comment about expanding our definition of beauty. It is a good reminder that if we stop worrying about what we see in the mirror and look around we’ll see beautiful people who defy the “beauty standard.” Someday we may even come to accept that we are one of them.

  3. Awoke this morning to the news that Gabby Douglas has a new hairstyle. Considering the flak she received a couple of weeks back for her hair being “unkempt” when she was sweating and grunting her way to 2 gold medals, are we surprised? (Actually I am, but that’s beside the point.) The real point is that yet another one bites the beauty dust and that is just so wrong. Here is a young woman, an athlete who has worked tirelessly for years on her craft and has taken her country not once, but twice, to Olympic glory (not to mention all the other medals she has won along the way) and yet all some people can do is criticize her hair. So, her new hairstyle? Sad to say it has been chemically straightened (or flat ironed) into an approximation of the “best” kind of hair to have: long and silky. The societal need for women and girls to conform to a beauty norm seems to supersede anything and everything in its insane drive toward what? What is so important that women need to abandon their true selves and submit to procedures rivaled only in the dungeons of medieval Europe? (I’m referencing your article now, not Gabby’s hair. Although I have heard horror stories about skin burned from the irons and complete hair loss from the chemicals.)

    I thought we were in the age of enlightenment. It seems to me that instead we’re in some bizarre backlash; the more women achieve and accomplish the more they are pushed to change who they are. Gabby’s comments after the big brouhaha led me to believe she was happy with her hair and herself and wasn’t going to knuckle under to the opinions of strangers. Sorry to see that is not the case.

    This week my neighbor took her 7 year old daughter to get her hair straightened for the first time. I advocated for keeping the little girl’s hair natural, but mom says the hair is too hard to handle. So how about cornrows or locks or little twisties? Later that day I saw the little girl grinning from ear to ear as people told her how pretty she was. And so it begins…

    PS- Great post. I love this part: “We should tell girls the truth: ‘Beautiful’ is bullshit, a standard created to make women into good consumers, too busy wallowing in self-loathing to notice that we’re second class citizens.”
    I guess that answers my question.

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