The ugly myth

September 20, 2011

What is beauty exactly--and who gets to decide what it is?

DANIEL Hamermesh, the author of a new book, Beauty Pays, wrote an opinion piece in the Sunday New York Times, "Ugly? You May Have a Case," in which he makes an argument for legal protections, including affirmative action, for ugly people. His presumptions are really quite troubling.

He argues that people who are considered unattractive generally earn less money, gain fewer perks and encounter a host of other social and legal hurdles that the aesthetically endowed do not have to deal with. Hamermesh offers some statistics:

[O]ne study showed that an American worker who was among the bottom one-seventh in looks, as assessed by randomly chosen observers, earned 10 to 15 percent less per year than a similar worker whose looks were assessed in the top one-third--a lifetime difference, in a typical case, of about $230,000.

His data and many of our own observations indicate that discrimination on the basis of physical appearance is indisputable, but his logic about why this is so seems deeply flawed. While individuals will have their personal preferences, Hamermesh acknowledges, he goes on to say:

[W]hen it comes to differentiating classes of attractiveness, we all view beauty similarly: someone whom you consider good-looking will be viewed similarly by most others; someone you consider ugly will be viewed as ugly by most others. In one study, more than half of a group of people were assessed identically by each of two observers using a five-point scale; and very few assessments differed by more than one point.

The problem with this line of argument is that Hamermesh never stops to inquire why it is that in contemporary Western society most people share the same preferences. He extrapolates from the fact that most people agree on what constitutes ugly, to conclude there must be some objectively ugly people. But if that were the case, then why have standards of beauty shifted so dramatically over the ages and across cultures?

Hasn't this man ever traipsed through an art museum, gazed at the puffy-faced, mousy-haired Mona Lisa--da Vinci's 16th century cover girl--and thought, no way she's eating crackers in my bed.

FROM SHIFTING notions of desirable body size and shape to drastically different prized facial structures and hues, human societies have adored and shunned a mind-boggling range of appearances. Beauty, in other words, is socially constructed.

To argue that the aesthetic preferences we hold are shaped by the wider organization of our society doesn't mean that there might not be some biological drive at work as well. There is always a dialectical relationship between nature and nurture, though popularized notions of science tend to downplay or disregard this fact. Humans do tend throughout history to seek out mates who appear to be healthy, but one era's "she's gonna make it through winter just fine" is another's candidate for America's Biggest Loser.

Given the range of economic, social and cultural factors that shape our preferences, it seems impossible to ignore the material influences on our aesthetic judgments. Race is probably the most obvious.

The recently retracted Psychology Today article, "Why Are Black Women Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women?" is a perfect example of this. Its author, Satoshi Kanazawa, takes the fact that Black women are perceived as less attractive according to his studies to mean that they are in fact less attractive. The fact that white wealthy people have controlled the cultural norms for hundreds of years never seems to have entered this man's calculations. (And for the record, plenty of us consider Black-skinned, kinky-haired gals to be rather appealing [hi hon!].)

Hamermesh's attempt to wrap up this pseudo-science with a liberal nod to leveling the playing field through legal measures ignores the crux of the discrimination against people who don't conform to contemporary notions of beauty. Classifying people by appearance in order to determine financial compensation for the "ugly" avoids the central problem.

We live under a hideously malformed system so vain about its own presumptions of value and human worth that it putrefies everything it touches. What an objectively ugly social order capitalism sets in motion.

First published at Sherry Talks Back.

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