Once upon a time, long, long ago, a man I worked for said to me, "You're beautiful." Then he quickly added, as if he regretted paying me such an expansive compliment, "in your category."
Had I read the new crop of scholarly books on beauty, I would have considered legal action. Or I would have contemplated a makeover. Either I had been a victim of "lookism"—a form of discrimination as toxic as racism, sexism, or classism—or I needed to spend more time applying mascara.
It says much about the 21st century that these books—aka "beauty studies"—regard beauty less as a noble, an aspirational, or even a sentimental ideal than as either an injustice that can be handled only by the law or something that women must slyly turn to their own advantage. After the waves of 20th-century feminism, we seem to have circled back to the notion that beauty hurts. But what is new about these books is their reliance on social-science methods to expand that point of view: Now beauty is often viewed through economics, particularly, to calculate its harm to anyone—not just women—who is not a perfect 10.
In the law corner is Daniel S. Hamermesh's Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful, which calls people who aren't beautiful "The Ugly" or "Looks-Challenged" and argues that they merit affirmative action. In the exploit-the-marketplace corner is Catherine Hakim's Erotic Capital: The Power of Attraction in the Boardroom and the Bedroom, which defines "erotic capital" as a mysterious force that women possess and men want and contends that women should manipulate it to compensate for being less well compensated than men are for their looks.
To advance their arguments and challenge common wisdom, the books' main weapon is number-crunching. Hamermesh, a professor of economics at the University of Texas at Austin, calls his field "pulchronomics." His method involves asking large groups of people the same questions and averaging their answers, with unsurprisingly average results. In one study Hamermesh cites, people invited to rate the beauty of subjects judge the majority, well, average looking. In another, older people are viewed as less beautiful than younger ones. Hakim, a sociologist and senior research fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies, in London, calls her field "sexonomics." She summarizes others' theories and sometimes draws her own conclusions, which can be trenchant though predictable, as when she rails against the academy for slavish politically correct attitudes about gender and its political correctness in general. But Hakim can also be just plain off-the-wall, as in her one-liner that Canadian women care less about their appearance than American women do.
Also attacking the question of beauty are Deborah L. Rhode, the grand dame of beauty studies and a professor of law at Stanford Law School, in the classic 2010 The Beauty Bias: The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law; Ashley Mears, an assistant professor of sociology at Boston University, in Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model; and Marianne LaFrance, a professor of psychology at Yale University, in Lip Service: Smiles in Life, Death, Trust, Lies, Work, Memory, Sex and Politics.
You will find in this group few great stories, about either how seeing beauty can change someone's life or how it can lure people into giving away their souls. (Hamermesh confesses that, while in high school, he read the line in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus about Helen of Troy's face launching a thousand ships and considered measuring his female classmates' pulchritude in milli-Helens.) No bon mots, not LaRochefoucauld's, "There are few women whose charm survives their beauty"; nor Coco Chanel's quip, "Beauty, what a weapon!"
While reading, I struggled to suppress my impatience with the studies and the statistics. Though possibly great at saving baseball teams or predicting the stock market or presidential candidates, neither adds much to the understanding of beauty—nor challenges preconceived ideas.
Take the way beauty studies defines its subject. Hakim believes that beauty is a performance, but she also cites boilerplate scientific research about it: "For facial beauty, the key factors are conventionality, symmetry, and an even skin tone. For bodies, BMI and the waist-to-hip ratio seem to be the dominant factors." Hamermesh first quotes an online dictionary whose definition uses the unbeautiful word "aggregate," then moves on to a discussion of the relative merits of rating beauty on a 5-to-1 scale versus a 10-to-1 scale, and finally concedes that the statistics confirm that old idea that beauty is in the eye of the beholder: "Individuals do tend to view others' beauty similarly, although not identically." Mears's book does not exactly define the beauty in the fashion industry she analyzes, but does suggest that it is constructed by that industry to appeal to middle-class consumers of midrange clothing. Isn't this romantic?
In the final analysis, what emerges from the parsing of unbeautiful statistics and studies is a Darwinian description of beauty: Beauty rewards the tall, the thin, and the good-looking and penalizes the rest. One of Hamermesh's most striking figures is an actual dollar amount of how much more, on average, beautiful people earn than nonbeautiful ones during the course of their lifetimes—$230,000. Hakim gathers an avalanche of research on the "beauty premium," the amount of money that "attractive" people (she dislikes the word beauty, which she believes is constructed anyway) make above their plain peers, as evidence for one of the main themes of her book, which is that dollar for dollar, men earn more for their looks than women do. She quotes a 1991 survey reportedly showing that attractive men make 14 percent more than their unattractive male colleagues, whereas attractive women earn a mere 3 percent more than theirs. (A recent study featured in The New York Times argues that makeup makes a woman appear more likeable, competent, and trustworthy—or at least makes others like her—although the study was financed by Procter & Gamble.)
Thus Rhode sees beauty as an oppressive, unattainable standard that distracts us from the important issues of the day, as does Mears, who seeks to expose the fashion industry for what she believes is its largely arbitrary and mystifying manner of separating beautiful women from unbeautiful ones. She is the CSI of beauty studies. LaFrance does not mention beauty, except that smiling enhances it, but she, too, emphasizes that a smile is not necessarily benign.
Several arguments flow from this approach to beauty. First, as the copy on the back of the jacket of The Beauty Bias reads, "It hurts not to be beautiful." That is one central tenet of beauty studies. Another is a kind of rage at the unfairness of how beauty gets rewarded—or doesn't. In Pricing Beauty, Mears regards the gorgeous models who walk the runway as victims who sometimes have to return to their hometowns without becoming America's Next Top Model. Naturally, no lustily aspirational "there are no ugly women, only lazy ones" (variously attributed to Helena Rubinstein and Estée Lauder). In Mears's words, that viewpoint is relegated to "part of the perpetual desire-producing machine of capitalism." These aren't books so much as infomercials for victimology.
It follows, next, that today's beauty studies makes its case for the urgency of correcting the inequities of what Mother Nature gave us—through either legal redress or self-help. The underlying argument is that in our winner-takes-all society, forces such as the media and the ever-growing pornography industry have conspired to reward the good-looking more than ever. Pace the recent history of the literary canon as well as university admissions, almost all here, with the exception of Hakim, believe the definition of beauty, too, should be expanded.
I'm all for expanding the idea of beauty, so long as it means that I can read fewer sentences that begin with the words "according to sociological studies" and more Chekhov. For while Freud wrote compellingly of the pleasure people take in looking at beauty, there is no modern writer who untangles its comic and disastrous effects better than the playwright. His Uncle Vanya revolves around the beautiful, idle, unhappy Yelena, who transfixes all the characters, including Vanya, whose dacha she is visiting. At the end of the drama, Sonya, the unattractive daughter of a rich old bore, an academic in fact, who is married to Yelena, longs for a beautiful afterlife. The unbeautiful girl dreams of beauty, while the beautiful girl seems to mourn her inability to feel.
At least LaFrance refreshingly suggests that a smile can transform a less-beautiful person into a beautiful one, which goes some way toward evoking what the critic Denis Donoghue calls beauty's "recalcitrance."
Those qualms aside, does the new beauty studies really add that much to the questions feminist studies has already raised? The idea that standards of beauty harm women dates back to Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women and re-emerged forcefully in the 20th century in the work of the journalist Susan Brownmiller, best known for Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape (Simon and Schuster, 1975), and second-wave feminism. In 1991, Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth: How Images of Women Are Used Against Women (W. Morrow) and Susan Faludi's Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women (Crown) amplified those ideas, advocating, as Wolf wrote, looking back 10 years later, for "a woman's right to choose what she wants to look like and what she wants to be, rather than obeying what market forces and a multibillion-dollar advertising industry dictate." Those polemics described the increasing potency of the Beauty Myth as a backlash against the rise in women's status, engineered by a growing cultural conservatism. Need I add, they condemned plastic surgery.
But then came third-wave feminists, who stressed that beauty ideals need not oppress: You could, if you chose, look like (or be) a beauty queen, a prostitute, or a porn star. In 1997, Jan Breslauer, a former professor of feminist theory at Yale Divinity School, wrote about her breast augmentation for Playboy—albeit to much outrage and ridicule. Meanwhile, historians such as Kathy Peiss produced books like Hope in a Jar: The Making of America's Beauty Culture (Metropolitan Books, 1998), which, though acknowledging that the beauty industry might promote the idea that looks could always be improved upon through its potions and creams, argued that it helped sustain first-generation American female entrepreneurs. When my first book, Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show (Oxford University Press), came out, in 2004, second-wave feminists attacked me for romanticizing strippers' lives; third-wave feminists either blasted me for not celebrating strippers enough—or wanted my blessing for starting their own burlesque troupes, which, nearly all of them claimed, was empowering.
By 2010 the zeitgeist had clearly shifted when The Beauty Bias was published. Rhode was the first to draw national attention to the idea that physically unattractive people should seek legal recourse against lookism. In fact, by the time The Beauty Bias appeared, that was already happening. Lookism, which Rhode contends is tantamount to classism, (as she explains, poor people can't afford nose jobs) was already illegal in one state and six cities or counties.
Rhode details how people—mostly women—have tried to compel employers to compensate them for appearance-based discrimination. In one case she describes female casino workers' successfully suing after management required them to wear short skirts and maintain a certain weight. In another, a 240-pound Jazzercise instructor forced Curves, which had refused to give her a franchise because of her weight, to change its company policy and admit that she was in shape.
Rhode sees those cases as victories, and perhaps they are. But The Beauty Bias is less interesting as a manifesto than as a memoir about an academic's wounds. It begins with a series of anecdotes about how Rhode herself suffered from the Beauty Myth—in one, staff at the American Bar Association staged a fashion intervention when she had to appear on television. The books ends with Rhode castigating young female lawyers for undermining their aspirations to seriousness by wearing unserious, feet-deforming shoes. Maybe Rhode's next book will mandate Birkenstock-wearing all up and down the West Coast.
I empathize with Rhode. But I also found myself wishing she would stop scolding women to choose substance over surface, as if that were the only option. Ultimately, she seems to believe that all women should behave as she does—like a woman with a devoted spouse, lifetime job security at a top research institution, and no sense of humor. Rhode responds to Nora Ephron's hilarious essay about cosmetic surgery, "I Feel Bad About My Neck," by asking, "Why does someone as talented as Nora Ephron fuss about her neck?" That sounds—to any single woman over the age of 40 who has spent a nanosecond in the public eye—ridiculous, at best.
Rhode makes good points that we should fight the impulse to conflate the beautiful and the good, that we should deplore the media's sexualizing tween girls, that the plastic-surgery and weight-loss industries should be better monitored. But it's difficult to cheer for her recommendation that the law should defeat lookism when so many of her particulars suggest someone who does not get off campus much. Yes, as Rhode complains, only one Jew and a scant number of African-Americans have won the Miss America pageant in its long history. Yet look at society: Beyonce Knowles, the Williams sisters, Miss Universe from Angola. Likewise, to Rhode's argument that older women in the media are "grossly underrepresented and rarely unreconstructed," to give just one example: The CBS show The Good Wife features not only Julianna Margulies but also Christine Baranski, as a 50-something lawyer with a stunning wardrobe and on-and-off hot boyfriend. Or: Helen Mirren.
The trickiest category that beauty studies tackles is weight, because it is now a global-health problem as well as—in the minds of most of these scholars, anyway—a feminist issue. There is near-universal consensus that obesity is related to poverty, that the overweight suffer discrimination and social ostracism from an early age, that they make significantly less money than thin people. But after pointing out those cruel facts, beauty-studies scholars withdraw to tired harangues against the fashion and beauty industries for promoting an anorexic ideal. And except for Hakim, to advocate celebrating fat people as a protected group.
And while beauty studies is precise about who is wronged here (women who are too large to fit into the beauty ideal and women who are too small trying to adhere to it), these books are a little vague about the villain. Mears blames the system. Hakim cites, among many villains, the academy—not just for its approach to body size but also for its lopsided approach to studying beauty and erotic capital: "Lesbians and gay men make a disproportionate contribution to public debate on sexuality and the social-science literature on sexual expression," she writes. "This is understandable: They have a particular interest in understanding these issues and the implications of their difference, but the views of the 95 percent heterosexual majority are often drowned out in the process. More important, theories offered to explain social and sexual behavior can be distorted by a disproportionate emphasis on the untypical."
Hakim's refreshing contrarianism, here, as elsewhere, will continue to be ignored, buried as it is in badly written prose, ill-conceived tangents, and a distaste for psychology. The last is particularly relevant. Hakim does not understand that though it is possible, as she claims, that a mother might adore her beautiful child and thus amplify the child's erotic capital, it is equally possible that the mother might resent her beautiful child and thus destroy her.
In fact, hardly any of the beauty-studies writers here believe in psychology. That is not surprising, since the way the brain works is both difficult to measure and difficult to explain in the financial terms that many of the writers prefer. Of all the authors discussed here, LaFrance is the only one who even acknowledges that psychology might play a role in the way we regard others.
If you want to understand just how unhelpful their statistics really are, consider Hamermesh on what he says is the only survey measuring whether women can enhance their beauty. Conducted in the mid-1990s in China, he tells us, it looked at how much women spent per month on clothing, cosmetics, hair care, and their looks, as rated by an interviewer: "Comparing the woman who spent the average amount on those items per month, to another who spent nothing, the average woman's spending only raised her looks from 3.31 to 3.36. One might think that these women could do better by spending still more; and it is true that increasing spending to five times the average (over 20 percent of average household income) would raise the rating of the average beauty to 3.56. But the data make it very clear that the extra effort of this spending diminishes the more one has already spent."
Without knowing more about the raters or the cultural context, those stats seem inconclusive at best. Maybe the raters were all men, who, as Hamermesh himself points out, are stingier in their evaluations of beauty than women are. Or maybe the data tell you something about China's anti-Western attitudes in the 1990s. But Hamermesh declines to make sense of the numbers, which say as much about the raters as they do about beauty. Likewise, Mears's attempts to make the numbers support her critique of the fashion industry for its whiteness reveal more about her wish to expose it than anything else. She notes that the percentage of African-American female models at one agency is 10 percent, at another 5 percent. Since African-Americans compose 12 percent of the population, those may not be exemplary records, but neither are they Jim Crow.
I paged through The New York Times' T Magazine, September's Vogue, and a Barneys New York catalog to test Mears's theory, and I found that the majority of the models were, indeed, white. But a good number were Asian, black, and Latina. They were all extremely beautiful, albeit in a fantastical way, a way that I could never achieve.
Looking at the women on those pages, you can see that beauty is not just a racist and classist ideal. It is something to admire, to be seized and elevated by, to long for, envy. However much I sympathize with the aims of beauty studies, I am troubled by LaFrance's approving citation of a study arguing that asking women to smile is "street harassment" and infringes on their rights. "The smiles people want to see from women are for their own benefit, not the benefit of the women," LaFrance explains. Nor can I agree with Hamermesh's assertion: "In many cases our preferences against the ugly are no different from our socially unproductive discrimination against minorities." I don't recall reading about a lynching of an overweight person; nor do I recall reading about a short person being told to get to the back of the bus. I am not saying lookism does not exist or even injure. You only have to read Carson McCullers to know that.
But there are plenty of ugly, rich old people, unsightly boomer megazillionaires, and downright unpleasing-to-the-eye successful TV pundits and Wall Streeters. So lacking beauty does not doom you to foreclosure and the trailer park. Negligence, and resulting compensation for pain, suffering, and lost-job prospects if your face has been disfigured in a car crash, is an entirely different matter.
Whatever their viewpoint, all these books echo second-wave feminism's conviction that beauty is something men do to women. Do scholars really want to devote themselves to reducing beauty to a stick to beat people with? Beauty is anarchic, a force of nature, a gift. Like love, it is mysterious, not least of all because it can change your life. On reality-television shows where contestants were given plastic surgery, they looked extremely happy when they came on set post-op to show their friends and family the New Them. (Surveys back up women's satisfaction after those procedures.)
I count myself as a feminist, not a plastic-surgery junkie. And yet it seems to me that to reduce the pursuit of beauty to something brainwashed or oppressed women try for is as insulting as insisting senselessly that it is empowering. If there is no place for beauty in our culture, I'm not sure I want to live in it.
Rachel Shteir is an associate professor at the Theatre School at DePaul University. She is author, most recently, of The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting (Penguin Press).
Books Discussed in This Essay
The Beauty Bias: The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law, by Deborah L. Rhode (Oxford University Press, 2010)
Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful, by Daniel S. Hamermesh (Princeton University Press, 2011)
Erotic Capital: The Power of Attraction in the Boardroom and the Bedroom, by Catherine Hakim (Basic Books, 2011)
Lip Service: Smiles in Life, Death, Trust, Lies, Work, Memory, Sex, and Politics, by Marianne LaFrance (W.W. Norton, 2011)
Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model, by Ashley Mears (University of California Press, 2011)