â€œK. S. Oâ€™Krienâ€ asks: Why is it that women spend so much time on looks and fashion?
Jesus, â€œK. S.â€ Youâ€™re lucky you didnâ€™t ask Naomi Wolf that question. After spiking your testicles right down your throat for, well, having testicles to begin with, she would very likely shove a copy of The Beauty Myth right up your sexist rectum on the assumption that your head is up there somewhere, too. You see, Naomi (Ms. Wolf if she ever happens to read this) wants you to know that the modern (sheâ€™s not very good with history) womanâ€™s obsession with looks is primarily due to a cynical conspiracy (capitalism) by men (donâ€™t tell Helena, Estee or MK) to punish feminists (because no one else was doing it) by setting purely superficial and impossible standards and then brainwashing all us silly gals into going along with the program.
The Beauty Myth burst loudly and messily onto the scene during my own formative years, and as a hip young feminist I read it before the ink was dry. â€œVictim mentalityâ€ was not yet in my fledgling vocabulary, and â€œsloppy researchâ€ would have required too much critical thinking to assess, so my reactions swung from a smartass â€œduhâ€ to an impatient â€œoh pleaseâ€ and back again.
For example: â€œLike I donâ€™t know thereâ€™s a multi-billion dollar beauty industry aimed directly at my soft underbelly of insecurity? Like I donâ€™t know society tries to impose its patriarchal rules on my sexuality and appearance?â€ I demanded of my pal Alan as he gave me the latest Cosmo quiz. â€œThis is no Feminine Mystique, Iâ€™ll tell you that much… wait a minute, Iâ€™m a All-Natural Slut? I could have sworn I was a High-Maintenance Whore. What were the choices for number eight again?â€
Or: â€œI canâ€™t believe a self-described advocate for women considers her own gender nothing more than a bunch of brainless herd beasts,â€ I groused to my girlfriend Angela as we waited in line one day. â€œWhat a twit. Hey, you stay here and Iâ€™ll go get us a Snapple â€“ if we lose our place thereâ€™s no way weâ€™ll get tote bags. What is it about Clinique Bonus Days that brings out all the crazy bitches?â€
I just didnâ€™t buy it, not completely, and while listening to countless advertising flacks whine and squirm as they tried to disavow any responsibility at all for promoting harmful stereotypes was certainly a quick route to nausea, they had a point about personal responsibility and choice. And although I gave up cosmetics for three months just to prove I could, it was a disingenuous gesture at best. I knew perfectly well that anyone whose gaze traveled far enough north of my 23-year-old anti-gravity breasts to notice the lack of makeup probably didnâ€™t want to fuck me anyway, so who cared? My opinions were in flux, but my values were rock-solid.
Fortunately for you and your nads, â€œK. S.,â€ the eminently reasonable Nancy Etcoff came along a few years later to deliver a resounding and well-deserved bitchslap to Ms. Naomiâ€™s shaky thesis. In Survival of the Prettiest (and that title alone was a gleeful red flag to the bulls of second-wave feminism), she drew on an impressive pool of global research and historical analysis to suggest that maybe, just maybe, an attraction to pretty is hard-wired into humans, indicating health, good breeding potential, and general do-ableness for men and women alike. She made an excellent case, too, that variations in essential standards of beauty are really not particularly variable or easily-manipulated, changing significantly in response to biological and evolutionary imperatives rather than the fitful breezes of politics or fashion. Suck on that, Naomi, said Our Ms. Nancy, and think about this:
Why do three-month-old infants from a variety of cultures and races consistently prefer conventionally attractive faces? (Langlois, 1995) Why do young men with symmetrical faces and bodies get more action and get it earlier than their lopsided compatriots? (Thornhill and Gangestad, 1993) What am I doing on the back of this Harley, half-naked and helmetless, behind a beautiful young man too perpetually drunk to maintain a useful erection? (Euphrosyne, 1994) And how the hell else do you explain the success of this vacuous good olâ€™ boy? (click for details)
Male or female, thereâ€™s just something about the pretty.
Unfortunately, since the days of Elizabeth Iâ€™s sexy bejeweled and perfumed suitors (not all of those codpieces were padded, you know) and the glittering peacocks who strutted the courts of the Sun King, men in Western culture have been drabbed down to the point of excruciating dullness. For a couple of centuries now, you guys have still had to be pretty in the right ways; you just couldnâ€™t get caught working at it, unless it was a homophobeâ€“proof exercise like weight-lifting or… or… I canâ€™t think of anything else. So, â€œK. S.,â€ if your wife seems to you to spend an unconscionably long time daubing on the colored mud and strapping the various body parts into more aesthetically-pleasing positions, Iâ€™m willing to bet that you would, too, if you thought you could get away with it.
You can, you know. I have some great links if you need them â€“ man girdles, fake pecs, spray tans, painted abs, Botox providers, even scrotum tightening for that youthful, jaunty swing. Just let me know.
Thereâ€™s not much I can do about the possible posterior position of your cranium, though.