While doing research for another post on beauty, I ran across this old review, written by Karen Lehrman, of a book called Survival of the Prettiest by Nancy Ercoff. The cover features a headless female torso wearing a painful-looking corset.
Lehrman points out that Ercoff has won awards for her research on sex differences and the brain. Which doesn’t mean her book isn’t full of shit.
Lehrman on Ercoff: “… it’s not just ax-grinding males who believe that biology continues to play an important role in our lives.” Nope, anti-feminist females can ax-grind as well as any male.
Lehrman and Ercoff claim the fact that beauty has outlasted second-wave feminism means that desiring beauty is somehow “natural”. Claiming oppressive social constructs are “natural” is an old, old trick. Men used to confidently assert that women were naturally inferior to them and so couldn’t be entrusted with anything important, like the right to vote. You can’t argue with nature, amirite?
Lehrman enthuasiastically quotes Ercoff: ”To tell people not to take pleasure in beauty is like telling them to stop enjoying food or sex or novelty or love.'”
It’s a stupid analogy, because food, sex, novelty and love are not brutal hierarchies that keep women in a constant state of fear and self-loathing. Lehrman and Ercoff are trying to sell us the idea that beauty is not only “natural”, but fun and good for us.
” In our culture… not one part of a woman’s body is left untouched or unaltered, no feature or extremity is spared the art or pain of improvement: Hair is dyed, lacquered, straightened, permanented, eyebrows are plucked, pencilled, dyed, eyes are lined, mascara’d, shadowed, lashes are curled or false. From head to toe every feature of a woman’s face, every section of her body is subject to modification and alteration.
I do wonder how women are able to be totally imaginative, creative and create a new future for themselves in their minds, if their bodies are totally tied down and completely constricted. That seems a crucial understanding. Beauty practices aren’t just some kind of interesting optional choice, extra, but they fundamentally construct who a woman is and therefore how she is able to imagine, because they constrict her movements and create the behaviours of her body.” — Sheila Jeffreys
In other words, beauty practices are about female compliance. And compliance “should be full and discernible at a glance.”
Says Lehrman: “One of the book’s main points is that pretending that beauty is a social construct is counterproductive.”
Counterproductive to what? To figuring out what exactly is going on?
Lehrman: “The beauty hierarchy has been even more damaging to our lives precisely because it is so pervasive and deeply rooted, Etcoff argues, and its effects have hardly been limited to women.”
It escapes Lehrman and Ercoff that the reason the beauty hierarchy is so “pervasive and deeply rooted” might be because we’ve been living under a crushing system of male dominance for pretty much most of human history. Nah, it’s because our brains naturally make us crave eyeliner, breast implants and labiaplasty. Newborn babies staring longer at pretty faces proves it, or something.
And dear god, what about the men? Men suffer because women only want tall guys who make good money. It occurs to no one that the reason women might want men with money is because women are paid less than men, suffer sex-based discrimination and harassment in the workplace, and are more likely to end up poor. Aligning with a male who has economic resources is a way to survive, not some kind of proof that women are equally shallow as men. And women prefer taller men because it’s been drilled into us since birth that we should be small and dainty and delicate, and it’s hard to feel that way when you’re looming over your date because he lied about his height on his OKCupid profile.
“…Etcoff must be commended for (one hopes) putting the kibosh at last on the notion that attractiveness is determined by men out to keep women ensconced in a beauty rat race”
In fact that’s exactly what they’re doing. Still. And women like Etcoff and Lehrman are helping them. Why do women do this? Because compliance is a whole lot easier than resistance, and because they’re rewarded with lucrative book deals and columns in the New York Times for persuading other women to comply. Platforms like that are not handed out to women who advocate fighting the system.
At the end of this review, Lehrman moans, ” Yes, ‘being beautiful and being prized for it is not a social evil,’ but how do you convey that to your pimpled, overweight, bespectacled daughter (whose social standing is veering toward zero)? ”
Ms. Lehrman, it’s obvious you’ve sold out and are shilling for the dark side, but I hope your daughter defies you and becomes a feminist, because that’s the only way she’s going to be loved and valued by the only people on earth who don’t believe that a woman’s value depends on her appearance.
There is a reason Lehrman has no answer to the question of what do we do with our ugly daughters. She also can’t answer the question of what do we do with ourselves when we’re past our sell-by date. That is because the prevailing culture that she’s aligned herself with doesn’t have answers. It simply tosses aside the old and the unfuckable. One hopes that when this happens to Lehrman and Etcoff, they will finally realize the truth that they’ve been denying all along: that beauty actually is a rat race engineered by men and it’s a race even the most beautiful women will always lose in the end, so there is no point wasting more time, energy and money on it than necessary to remain employed in a male-dominated culture.