Beauty: That’s Some Complicated Shit

A few days ago, this was leaked into the yaw of the interwebs:

beauty... thats some complicated shit

People are going ape-shit over this image of Cindy Crawford because it’s not airbrushed or digitally altered (like 99.999% of media images of women are). Without them fancy computers smoothing out her cellulite and body lines, evening out her damaged skin, getting rid of age and wear from children, she looks normal… if your definition of normal is a very thin and very muscular White woman wearing black lingerie and some type of jeweled microphone earpiece.

The Saucy Scholar is not so much interested in exposing the practice of airbrushing or raging against media-built images of women (if I was, I would analyze this shit):


so… much… problematic.

Instead, I’m getting into beauty. Specifically, why ladies gotta’ have it, and why its such a fucking insult to say that Crawford—or any woman—is not beautiful. See, the overwhelming majority of interweb comments refer to Crawford in this picture as “simply stunning,” a “beautiful woman,” “honest and gorgeous,” and “looking amazing.”* So nice of them to say, right? Well, only kind of right. Readers, this is where shit gets complicated.

Beauty is a social construct. Obv, we construct it on, over, and into our bodies every day! Makeup, hair stuff, well-fitting garments, trendy glasses—these beauty products take what we got and help it conform to idealized or prized social standards. While looking our “best” might not be looking identical, it generally falls into looking feminine or masculine, fit, trendy, moneyed, and clean.

Not everyone has to do so much body work, because some people just look ideal. In fact, it’s the “ideal” that’s the construct. 60 years ago, beautiful women were curvy. Now, beautiful women are fit. 100 years ago, having pale white skin was a mark of beauty—that is, a mark of class and the leisure and not having to do manual labor. Today, white skin is still ideal, but its tanned white skin—that is, a mark of class and the leisure of being able to lay out on beaches all fucking day. We could look at other times and places and see that what’s considered beautiful is very different from either curvy or fit or white bodies. But the take away is that standards of beauty are socially constructed. And some bodies naturally rise to the top of these social standards. With enough time and money, some bodies can be constructed into them. Some bodies cannot and never will fit.

So it’s these arbitrarily-made-yet-so-fucking-significant beauty standards that every body is measured against. And I’m not saying that Crawford can’t be beautiful, because beauty can be constructed, especially by thin, white, wealthy women with access to airbrushing technology. It’s that Crawford’s unretouched image falls short of the narrow and circumscribed criteria our society deems beautiful.

So dare I say she’s not beautiful in this image? NO, I DARE NOT! To say a woman is not beautiful does not condemn our narrow and circumscribed beauty standards. Rather, saying a woman is not beautiful robs her of dignity, self-worth, and the essence of her very woman-ness. See, in contemporary western society, women are beautiful if they are feminine. If a woman is not beautiful, she is often called ugly, disgusting, fat, mannish, or any number of things that mean not feminine. Femininity is intimately connected to beauty, which is intimately tied to our idea of what a woman is. Therefore, beauty is one of the prime ways women are taught to feel value and worth as women (sexiness is in there too, but just go ahead and read every other one of my posts for that).

Not all women rank high in beauty standards, but all women should have the opportunity to feel value and worth, right? So how have we decided to fix this? Expand beauty standards…which should allow more women to feel beautiful…which should allow more women to feel value and worth! This is exemplified by the Dove Real Beauty campaign:


We’re not cold at all!

But there are two really big issues here:

Issue #1: oh yes, by all means, lets expand beauty standa….woah, not too fucking much there! When we expand beauty standards, its true that we open a door, but it’s a doggie door. Huzzah for Crawford for showing us a real woman has cellulite and wrinkles and damaged skin! Apparently, these real women are also very thin and very White and very fit and very feminine. And hairless. And sexy. And able-bodied. And have straight white teeth and nice hair. And the money to buy beauty products like Dove. When we expand the parameters of beauty, we allow more women to feel beautiful. But not many more.

Issue #2: why do I have to feel beautiful? Lets transpose beauty for skiing. I can’t ski, but the ability to ski is not tied into my value and self-worth. If I can’t ski, I probably have some other quality or skill which society deems just as good. Yet women must feel beautiful to feel they have value and worth. Other qualities such as intelligence are good to feel too, but they can’t replace beauty. In fact, admitting you are not beautiful is the greatest fucking sin because it shows how little you value yourself.

Check out this commercial for the Dove Real Beauty campaign. I guess it’s intended to show women how they judge themselves too harshly against impossible beauty standards. But it really shows how taboo it is for women to feel they are not beautiful. FYI ladies, not only are you being policed for not physically conforming to beauty standards, but also for feeling bad about yourself for not physically conforming to beauty standards. This. Is. Bullshit.

The Saucy Scholar is about to get real here. When I’m alone in my house, I don’t feel beautiful. Because I’m not. I haven’t constructed beauty onto my body yet. Furthermore, I’m not yet being measured by social beauty standards (unless my cat is silently judging me??). But I’m not ugly either. When I’m alone in my house, I’m not part of that beauty/ugly system. The concept of beauty—and feeling beautiful—comes alive via social interactions: others reading and judging you based on beauty criteria, or you thinking of yourself based on those social interactions and social knowledges.

I don’t want to have to feel like I have to feel beautiful. I don’t want to have to be flattered when a man tells me I’m beautiful. I want to be able to tell people that I don’t think I’m beautiful and not have them feel pity for me. I want to say I’m smart instead of beautiful and have that be a worthy trade off. I want to be able to say that Crawford is not beautiful without it being a huge insult to her identity as a woman.


Saucy unconstructed… Saucy constructed

*The interwebs refers to the Twitterverse, and online entertainment news sites such as Yahoo News, Eonline, and Marie Claire.


About Meredith Heller

The Saucy Scholar is Faculty Lecturer of Queer Studies in Women's and Gender Studies at Northern Arizona University. She holds a Ph.D. in Theater Studies and a doctoral emphasis in Feminist Studies from UC Santa Barbara, and specializes in performance and entertainment, gender studies, and queer theory.
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