SHMULEY BOTEACH: The Tyranny of the Beautiful
Tyranny of the beautiful
The aristocracy of the beautiful is becoming increasingly pronounced in the Western world, with looks and figure trumping talent and effort in the professional marketplace. Even in such serious professions as broadcast journalism, appearance has become more important than substance. Just try to find a new female television anchor who doesn’t look like a Nordic goddess, or, if she has to be a brunette, isn’t glamorous, thin and beautiful. The practice of valuing a woman based on her high cheekbones instead of her intelligence reached its zenith when CNN advertised its new anchor, Paula Zahn, as “just a little bit sexy.”
Why shouldn’t reading the news be like playing sports? Shouldn’t it be the best qualified, not the best looking? But newswomen are not valued primarily for their minds and the intellectual contributions they can make, but rather for the images they project.
When we were kids, our parents told us we were beautiful, even if the world did not agree. Their emotions colored their appraisal. That’s what love is: the inability to be objective about the object of one’s love. To be in love is to be rendered incapable of rendering a rational evaluation. If you love your house, then you prefer it to a palace. If you love yourself, then you would not be dressing up to look like someone else.
But I know very few women today who are in love with themselves and who would not radically reconstruct their faces and bodies with plastic surgery if they had the money. Just tune into the reality hit Extreme Makeover to witness how this kind of transformation has become a fairy tale dream for many American women with faltering self-esteem. Each week, the show focuses on two people who are so distraught with their looks that they undergo radical plastic surgery to look like the Barbie dolls they played with as children.
Once upon a time when a man fell in love with a woman, he was supposed to stop comparing her to all the other women he could potentially date. He was to become subjective in his appraisal of her. Even as they aged – together – and the world saw her wrinkles, he would remain fixated on her sparkling eyes.
But the constant bombardment of beautiful faces, and the portrayal through every conceivable medium of woman as the lewd man’s plaything, have rendered us incapable of being subjective about beauty. We have become experts in the objective standards of attractiveness – those five or six models of beauty that are now the only acceptable types to which all women are meant to conform, and which usually mean a round face, blue eyes, blonde hair and boniness, like a scarecrow that would normally be in a field scaring off buzzards.
FORGET THAT Marilyn Monroe was a size 14, or that the great art masters never painted a single skinny woman. Television and glossy magazines have changed all that. Visual media cater to the eye’s need to reduce everything to a series of lines, and hence, stick figures reign. A hundred years ago, people made love with their hands and “meat was neat.” Today, they make love, much less artfully, with their eyes, and “thin is in.”
Undoubtedly, the beautiful people get ahead faster, and this is a long-standing reality. Beautiful people even have a miraculous ability to part us from our money. In a misogynistic culture where women are trained to disparage themselves and look up to supermodels as examples of women who are really blessed, it becomes a privilege to hand our credit card over to someone we wish we could look like.
Firms like Abercrombie & Fitch, who admit to hiring sales assistants who “look great,” have learned that the beautiful people can motivate “regular” people to try to impress them. We humans like to be charitable and bighearted, but we prefer to show our generosity toward the big-breasted or the long-legged. While normally loath to pick up a hitchhiker, we somehow manage to overcome our caution if a beautiful blonde or a stubble-faced stud sticks out a thumb.
Studies have shown that good-looking men or women who have lost a wallet with their picture inside stand a far greater chance of having it returned to them – even through the mail – than someone ugly. Now there’s altruism for you.
Yes, it is pathetic to think that we would buy a pair of jeans more readily when a bodybuilder with six-pack abs tells us those jeans look great on our flabby love handles. But it works. People love feeling validated by sexy, hot people. They love getting compliments from them. And they love looking like them. And companies like Abercrombie are capitalizing on their customers’ natural desire to put aside reason and believe that an article of clothing will somehow lift them into the ranks of the beautiful people.
ONCE THIS kind of behavior is accepted, it is no surprise to find that any woman who is considered ugly by these strict standards is doomed to an existence of insecurity and misery. She can look forward to a life of dating in which the guy rarely calls back, unless he has just broken up with a girlfriend and wants some uncomplicated sex with a person he considers desperate.
Why do you think so many women go to the gym at night instead of the library? Why do they go jogging instead of to a night class? They realize that the real rewards in society come from looking great rather than knowing a lot.
I recognize that society has always glorified beautiful women and held them out as models to be emulated. But the difference is that in the past beauty was much more holistic. It encompassed not only a woman’s figure but also her feminine demeanor, her heart and mind, her dignity, her poise and her grace. Beauty back then was a total statement of a woman’s presence, whereas today it means her physical appearance exclusively.
Rousseau famously said, “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.” He could scarcely have imagined that one of the tyrannies to which humans would one day be subjected would be the tyranny of the beautiful people.
The writer is a nationally-syndicated radio host in the United States. His upcoming book is Hating Women: America’s Hostile Campaign Against the Fairer Sex.