I’ve been thinking about beauty lately. Well, the effect that the use of beauty has on society. I say “the use of beauty” because the media uses it almost exclusively to sell us things. The overriding messages are that—if we are women—personally we don’t have enough beauty (so we NEED makeup or clothes or a haircut or a gym membership) or—if we are men—then we don’t have the right material stuff that attracts other beautiful people to us (so we NEED that new car, house, gold watch or hair plugs). In both cases there are millions of manufacturers and corporations who are more than willing to sell us the things that will solve our little, um, ugliness problem.
Some really interesting questions arise from this thinking;
1. What has the use of beauty done to women in society and what is it continuing to do to them?
2. Does it even makes sense anymore for beauty to be used as any kind of determining factor for making choices these days.
3. Can we actually change who we are, as a society, if beauty shouldn’t be used as a determining factor.
4. If we are able to change, what will the effect be for women?
5. More importantly, if we no longer use beauty as a factor for the basis of purchasing choices, what replaces it?
First, some history…the idea of beauty came into being because nature needed a way, within a species, to tag the bearer of “good” genes (i.e. having genetic variants that promoted a species) so that the opposite sex of the species could pick those tagged individuals out of a crowd or verify that an individual has them. Because animals, including our ancestors, were tremendously wary of getting close to others (to stay as safe as possible), a visual mechanism that could be seen at a safe distance became the operant way that a holder of good genes was identified. None of this was done with any kind of thought process—this picking and choosing of high potential mates was completely instinctual—because our ancestral brains were much too immature and inadequate at the time. Over hundreds of thousands of years, this visual mechanism became inherent in who we are—as it still is in the many millions of current animal species around us—and how we chose with whom we procreated with.
While beauty can be defined as the quality present in a thing or person that gives intense pleasure or deep satisfaction to the mind arising from sensory manifestations (as shape, color, sound, etc.), we also know that beauty is subjective which means that it requires comparison in order for it to be perceived. Simply, if everything is beautiful then nothing is beautiful. We absolutely need something “not beautiful” to contrast with beauty for it to be subjectively perceived that way. Like needing darkness to perceive light, we need ugliness in order to know beauty.
Back to the subject though, answering the first question turns out not to be that difficult. Today, with the filling out of brain capacity, the evolution of our conscious processes—language, both verbal and non-verbal—and our ability to conceptualize ideas, we are no longer slaves to our instinctual urges. Instead, we have built large and complicated social structures in order to better control and direct macro evolutionary forces (think religions and socio-political orders) for the “betterment” of society. While this has been adequate for promoting a semblance of social good over the years it has always been lopsided in its applicability and enforcement such that women and girls are significantly overrepresented as the gender to be controlled (versus the gender in control). Based on the fact that women produce offspring (they are the manufacturers of our species) from a minimal investment from men, the religious view of women as chattel and possessions to be traded, sold, bartered, etc. became the predominant view on the planet.
Fast forward to today where we all know (or should know) that women and men, aside from some physiological differences, are essentially equal if given the same opportunities as well as allowed to mature in similar environments. The idea that women are less than men can only ever be justified within the context of describing musculoskeletal systems and even then those boundaries are shrinking. What beauty also does, as it has for millennia based on the above stated social orders, is act as the de facto standard for the value women contribute to society…above and beyond procreation. However wrong and misogynistic this is in a modern context, it has been the reality for centuries and is what our current media-driven society is still predominantly based on. By focusing on this idea of value (in a purely subjective visual mechanism like beauty), women are devalued in all other aspects and thus we have the situation we have today.
Basically, women got fucked in the whole evolution thing.
That’s a boatload to digest so I’m breaking this up into two parts. The next will focus on the rest of the questions.