American Culture

The Scrogues' Guide to Women: Pretty, please

By Ann Ivins

“K. S. O’Krien” asks: Why is it that women spend so much time on looks and fashion?

Jesus, “K. S.” You’re lucky you didn’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 (she’s not very good with history) woman’s obsession with looks is primarily due to a cynical conspiracy (capitalism) by men (don’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. “Victim mentality” was not yet in my fledgling vocabulary, and “sloppy research” would have required too much critical thinking to assess, so my reactions swung from a smartass “duh” to an impatient “oh please” and back again.

For example: “Like I don’t know there’s a multi-billion dollar beauty industry aimed directly at my soft underbelly of insecurity? Like I don’t know society tries to impose its patriarchal rules on my sexuality and appearance?” I demanded of my pal Alan as he gave me the latest Cosmo quiz. “This is no Feminine Mystique, I’ll tell you that much… wait a minute, I’m a All-Natural Slut? I could have sworn I was a High-Maintenance Whore. What were the choices for number eight again?”

Or: “I can’t believe a self-described advocate for women considers her own gender nothing more than a bunch of brainless herd beasts,” I groused to my girlfriend Angela as we waited in line one day. “What a twit. Hey, you stay here and I’ll go get us a Snapple – if we lose our place there’s no way we’ll get tote bags. What is it about Clinique Bonus Days that brings out all the crazy bitches?”

I just didn’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 didn’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, “K. S.,” the eminently reasonable Nancy Etcoff came along a few years later to deliver a resounding and well-deserved bitchslap to Ms. Naomi’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 ol’ boy? (click for details)

Male or female, there’s just something about the pretty.

Unfortunately, since the days of Elizabeth I’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 couldn’t get caught working at it, unless it was a homophobe–proof exercise like weight-lifting or… or… I can’t think of anything else. So, “K. S.,” 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, I’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 – man girdles, fake pecs, spray tans, painted abs, Botox providers, even scrotum tightening for that youthful, jaunty swing. Just let me know.

There’s not much I can do about the possible posterior position of your cranium, though.

15 replies »

  1. Ms. Euphrosyne, there’s a Naomi Wolf out here in the lobby and she insists on seeing you.

    [ahem] Glad you mentioned Etcoff. Great analysis, that.

  2. I’m not sure anywhere with an airport is remote enough, E. Outer Mongolia or camping in Siberia might be a better bet. Worse pedicures, though.

  3. As I often say, except for certain occasions when mating is foremost in their minds, women, I believe, dress for other women, not men. In an effort to fit in with the symmetrical and to show they know clothes, hair, and makeup. (Which — note to men — most women don’t actually.)

    I think Euphrosyne has heard me say all this before.

    Men, on the other hand, make a huge mistake by dressing drably. (It’s true: 99 out of a hundred men pay absolutely know attention to what they wear.) Making an effort to dress formally or fashionably impresses women about as much as the ability to do couples dancing.

    That’s no knock on women for being shallow. They just appreciate men when they go the extra mile to show respect for them.

  4. Yep. The people who tend to notice your brand of grooming are the ones who do it themselves – and there’s certainly a competitive aspect as well. And if more men knew the attraction of a nice manicure and a well-fitting suit (or a cashmere sweater), I think the overall relationship between the sexes would improve tenfold. It’s hard to be bitter or hateful when you’re getting some on a regular basis.

    And NOTHING trumps the awesome seductive power of a man who knows how to waltz or two-step or (eep) mambo. Is it getting hot in here? Feeling a little flushed…

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  6. Reading through the comments about men dressing, I have the urge to quote the movie “Clueless”. You know what scene.

  7. You’re right…..people groom to impress those who do the same.

    I dress so badly around the house, that my stuck up neighbors must think I’m the help. My lovely wife used to complain about my living in T-Shirts, shorts, and flip-flops, and that I looked too tropical. However, I never gave a damn about what I wear as long as I can clean up well. My lovely wife, on the other hand, had a beauty and sense of style that was effortless……I really miss that.

    Great Post!


  8. Time spent grooming is time well spent as far as I’m concerned. It is MY time – it’s all about ME. Most of the rest of my day involves other people one way or another. But, for a precious 30 minutes to an hour, while I am getting the old girl put together in the morning, I think only of myself as I assess the damage time has inflicted on the face and body and fight the good fight to maintain what’s left. When I am convinced that I look better, I feel better. Personal grooming and strong coffee is the way I start my day. And, wearing nice clothes and makeup and having one’s hair done is just plain fun. Can’t see much harm in it and I’m certain that, even a man who wonders why a woman spends so much time and thought on looks and fashion, would rather be seen with a well-groomed woman than one who cares nothing about her looks. Article Number 2 gets a thumbs up from this reader.