Friday 16 November 2012

The Beauty Debt


Posted by Galatea

Horrible joke I remember from high school: 

Q: Why do women wear perfume and make-up?
A: Because they stink and they're ugly. 

Why don't men wear perfume and make-up?
A: Because they stink and they're ugly and they don't care. 

I've been noodling around this idea in my head for quite some time now – in fact, this is a version of a post I wrote lo these many years ago, about the time of the Great Fuss Over Susan Boyle Being On National TV in 2009. It’s about a concept that I think I want to call ‘the beauty debt'.

Essentially, what I’m thinking of when I say ‘beauty debt’ is the idea floating around in modern culture that women owe a certain standard of attractiveness to those who 'have' to look at them, and that if a woman's 'natural' beauty is not sufficient (and it very rarely is), she must perform a certain amount of beauty work in order to rectify the problem, to 'pay the debt' as it were. This work might involve shaving, waxing, dyeing, surgery, food restriction, exercise, straightening, lightening, tanning, all according to individual situation, sub/culture, race, class etc. It almost always involves paying money, and quite often involves physical discomfort or pain. I probably don't need to list here what happens if she fails to perform this work or fails to perform it to a sufficient standard, but what's interesting is that often the undercurrent is we don't want to see that!; she's hurting my eyes!, how dare she make us HAVE to see that!

A brief trip to the pits of voles that are Encyclopedia Dramatica or certain parts of Reddit will show you quite a few pages that encapsulate this attitude very effectively. I don’t want to link to many of them, because they’re not nice reading and I could do without the stress, but here’s one with a happy ending: an Ohio State University student photographed fellow student Balpreet Kaur and posted her image online to mock her. Why? Because he didn’t like her decision to leave her facial hair unaltered. Kaur found the post and commented on it... in the most incredibly patient, tolerant and eloquent way. The ‘photographer’ subsequently apologised. Win! (or at least, major amelioration of the lose). 

But how often do versions of this incident happen, on a smaller level, all over the world every day? The idea often seems to be that women who are not 'beautiful' (TwistyFaster uses the term ‘Beauty 2K Compliant’ – I don’t agree with everything she says, but damn do I love that phrase!) are actively hurting those who 'have' to look at them. This often seems to be an issue for the writers of the HAES (Health at Every Size) and fat acceptance blogs that I follow, who spend a lot of their time having to refute the idea that accepting one's body as it is means that one is somehow trying to force others to find it attractive -- which couldn't be further from what HAES is actually about. 

I do think that this attitude -- beauty as essential for participating in the world, lack-of-beauty as an affront to those who must look at you -- is a departure from previous (pre-around-1960) conceptions of beauty as something that a person was simply unlucky or unfortunate if they did not possess. I have to admit that I was troubled by something that fillyjonk (a writer whom I otherwise respect very much) had to say at Shapely Prose at the time the Boyle kerfuffle kicked off: 

My question is, What if there actually isn't, though? Seriously, what if there isn't? In seeing Susan Boyle’s talent, or Balpreet Kaur’s eloquence and patience, as the things that make them worthwhile, the things that 'showed' those mean nasty judges or obnoxious fellow students, do we run the risk of implying that if they didn’t have those qualities, they would have deserved to be treated the way they were? Why do we need to have 'something about us that is utterly remarkable' simply in order to avoid being the target of mockery and harassment?

This shift from polished-appearance being a 'nice to have' to a 'need to have' in order to be listened to/respected/taken seriously interests me quite a lot. Thing is, I think that the surprise evoked by Boyle's singing voice was not connected not only to the obvious idea, picked up by everyone from Perez Hilton to Shapely Prose, that the audience 'were judging people by appearance' and that that's a bad and naughty thing to do. The surprise was also connected to her inability or unwillingness to 'pay the debt', the idea that someone (a female someone) whose hair and eyebrows looked like that must have something wrong with her, must be in some way disconnected from consensus reality, not to realise how she looked and do something about it. The audience was not expecting her to fail because she wasn't pretty, but because she wasn't pretty and hadn’t done anything about it. Similarly, I think, with Kaur – I suspect that people were on some level expecting her to ‘not know what she looked like’: the surprise of learning that she had actively made a decision not to mess with her appearance (and was also, by all accounts, an amazing, intelligent and kind person) was part of what led to the overwhelming popularity of that post.

We do (or at least I, to my equal parts shame and annoyance and utter fascination, do), to some extent, associate either 'paying the debt' or visibly rejecting it (see below re: butch) with being a fully-competent adult female human being. Perhaps 'beauty debt' isn’t even actually the term I'm looking for here, because 'beauty' is not exactly what's being expected - rather, it is a minimum standard of fucking-with-one's-appearance below which one is not considered 'normal', and one's thoughts and opinions will not be taken seriously. 

(I could use the word 'grooming' here, but I think that's problematic, because 'grooming' is also applied to the much less arduous hair-cutting-and-shaving routine expected of most men, and I don't think it's helpful to conflate the two at this point – in the ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ clips, you can see that objectively, Boyle is ‘groomed’ to about the same standard that male judges Simon Cowell and Piers Morgan are: they’re all freshly showered and wearing clean formal clothes, polished shoes and short hair, but only one of them is expected to do more). 

Moreover, if Boyle had presented with the exact same hair and eyebrows but with clothing markers that I could read as deliberately butch, I would have registered her appearance as a deliberate refusal to 'pay the debt', rather than a failure to do so, and would have processed it differently as a result. I'm not sure what this means in terms of the patriarchy, or how an observer who isn't part of the LGBTQ+ world processes the difference between 'failure' and 'refusal'.  Then, as a fellow Lasher pointed out to me, there's also the question of being perceived to be 'overpaying' the debt, and whether that elicits the same kind of ridicule. 

Obviously, there has ALWAYS been some advantage to being found attractive by others. However, historically the advent of the 'beauty debt' as something that is required to be paid in order to be treated with respect seems to roughly map alongside both:

 A) the increasing visualisation of Western culture due to both massive increases in print media and the advent of electronic media, and 

B) the post-suffrage increase in participation of women in prestigious elements of public life*. 

* I'm putting the caveat about 'prestigious' in there to remind us that some working-class and enslaved women were *always* part of public life/working outside the home, just not in a prestigious/well-rewarded way.

Let's assume that A) does indeed play a part in it (and that aspect of it, I’ll happily admit, does apply to men in public life too: witness theories about the extent to which Kennedy’s victory in the 1960 election was due to his management of visual media). However, I'd also like to think about the extent to which B) might be tied into both endemic sexism, and to the idea that post-suffrage, and again post second-wave feminism, it has become less easy and legitimate to simply claim that women are mentally or morally inferior -- but it has remained as easy, and in fact perhaps easier than previously, to dismiss women for being unattractive. This is, of course, before we even go into the ever-popular tactic of simply making a blanket declaration that any woman who doesn't agree with you is officially Ugly: see this awesome post by David Futrelle on the historical representation of suffragettes as either evilly seductive or laughably unattractive). 

The tl;dr version: 

It is a truth reasonably commonly acknowledged that in most parts of the Western world, one can no longer credibly restrict women from having power in the public sphere on the grounds that they are intellectually/physically inferior or on the grounds that their position causes unacceptable sexual temptation to men, both of which theories feminists have fought long and bloody hard to disprove. However, as these concepts lose credibility, the concept of the 'beauty debt' increasingly provides a way of automatically cutting some women out from public life (or seriously impairing their ability to take part in same), and placing a heavy burden of time and expense on those who are able to make themselves 'acceptable' through effort and spending. It's particularly interesting in that it places the payment of the debt in the eye of the beholder, who really never has to admit to being wrong -- it's hard to keep arguing that women are incapable of learning Greek and Latin when one of them keeps insisting on translating Aristophanes in front of you, but you can insist that she's fuuuuuuugly and you don't want to seeeeeeee that (or, perhaps better, make gently patronising remarks about the unattractiveness of female academics; Philip Pullman I am looking at you) almost indefinitely. And, although I don’t want to presume to talk about experiences that aren’t mine, I’m going to go out on a limb and say I'm willing to bet that the burden is that much heavier again for women who aren’t white, and for women who are trans*...

So. This may not be a particularly original line of thought, but I do think it's worth considering the extent to which beauty work is now actually perceived as a debt, something which a presumed-female person owes to others before she can prove herself 'worthy' of fully participating in society (or of not being photographed and mocked in the cafeteria line), and which provides others with the right to laugh/snark/whathaveyou if it is not satisfactorily fulfilled. Women stink, and we're ugly, and if we don't care we must be made to do so, because otherwise... otherwise who knows what we might think we're allowed to do next?


  1. Really interesting post, and definately a concept I'm going to start using in discussion (probably whilst linking to this useful blog post).

    With regards to overpaying the debt, it's definately something I've found to be the case - the whole notion of 'too much' makeup, or 'too short' a skirt. It seems to recieve a simiar response - though rather than a 'she's not trying' it's a 'ugh, she's trying to hard'. For instance, my style of makeup is very big, over-the-top and focused around the eyes, and it's often compared to 'drag makeup' when someone intends to insult it - suggesting it's not 'feminine' in the way that they want it to be. So yeah, not only is there a beauty 'debt', it's a debt you have to pay back in a particular manner...

  2. "[We] associate either 'paying the debt' or visibly rejecting it with being a fully-competent adult female human being."

    Oh, so much this. And some types of body make it harder - or even impossible - to meet one's "obligations". Trans* and disabled people can probably talk about this more eloquently that I can, but my own personal experience comes from fatness.

    If I go out in a t-shirt & sweatpants, I'm pitiable; I'm assumed to not care about my appearance at all, which by beauty-debt extension means that I am not a "fully competent adult human being". I deserve hate because I'm barely a person.

    If I go out in a tiny dress & heels, I'm pitiable; like Jenni says, I'm trying too hard; I've made an effort, so I obviously do care about my appearance, but I've "failed" - I deserve hate because I fancy myself too much, because I think I can be attractive, when as a fat woman I obviously cannot.

    If I go out as a punky, dykey butch, I fail as well; but I fail on what are clearly *my own terms*. I don't look like someone who's tried-and-failed to meet her "beauty debt"; I may deserve hate because I dare to reject the beauty debt, but at least I'm not pitiable.

    Hence the hair, and the piercings, and *so much about me*...