Google Robert Hoge. He’s a high-ranking official in the Australian government, an author and a brilliant man with an incredible resume, but the first word Google recommends when you type in his name is “ugly.” Is it not tremendously short-sighted and particularly telling that despite everything he has accomplished, the Premier of Queensland is best known for his arresting appearance? Hasn’t Hoge proved the common sentiment “looks don’t matter”?
Hoge would say “yes” and “no” to these questions, respectively; I tend to agree. Although people shouldn’t discriminate or harass others because of their appearances, to deny that looks matter is similarly impractical. From an evolutionary biology standpoint, human beings have survived to reproduce by relying on visual cues that have kept them out of danger. Have you ever crossed a street to avoid a shady stranger? I assume it was because they appeared potentially threatening and not because you two had a long conversation which ultimately revealed their moral deficiencies.
Of course we have progressed beyond the need to focus our every move on pure survival, but still, how we present ourselves remains relevant. From goths and hipsters to gender expression, entire communities and identities are defined by how they dress. There are even industries dedicated to helping people put their best feet forward from the intimately personal to the corporate—beauty, fashion, image management and public relations. Thus, is it surprising that a 30-something woman wearing athletic gear while running errands is considered a “soccer mom” or that wearing a pointy black hat and cloak on Halloween makes you a witch? People assume status based on outer appearance, and while societies continue to advance, how people look remains an identifier that is simply becoming more nuanced as our communities become more diverse.
Back to Hoge. He writes: “I’m happy to concede the point that some people look more aesthetically pleasing than others. Let’s grant that so we can move to the important point—so what? Some kids are good spellers; some have bad haircuts; some are fast runners; some kids are short; some are awesome at netball. But the kids who are short aren’t only short. And the kids who are great at netball aren’t only just great at netball. No one is only just one thing. It’s the same with appearance.” So, there we have it. It’s not that looks don’t matter, but that they shouldn’t have to matter the most.
This concept is particularly compelling for women. Recently, feminists have countered unreasonable beauty standards with the “body positivity” movement that insists appearance should not matter because “everyone is beautiful.” Saying otherwise is categorized as shaming and can result in a vicious clapback from an overzealous hashtag-tivist. While I understand that attacking someone for their appearance is unacceptable, I struggle with the notion that “everyone is beautiful,” so looks become irrelevant. I cannot imagine telling Robert Hoge to stop feeling self-conscious about being left at the hospital for weeks because his own parents found him unbearable to look at. Hoge himself finds such behavior insulting, as it suggests that because his aesthetic appeal is all that gives him value. It seems to me that the more we say “looks don’t matter,” the more we are unconsciously promoting their importance.
Truth be told, the fixation on building up self-esteem around beauty, instead of other characteristics, is truly telling. Repeatedly saying, “I don’t care what you think I look like,” but then wanting to shut down anyone who criticized your Instagram posts is a sign of something deeper. If you really don’t care, you would not feel the need to defend yourself. Maybe you would want to point out that the commenter was being sexist or racist or homophobic, but you would dismiss the commenter as a troll. There would not be a flood of BuzzFeed articles celebrating women clapping back against people online who criticized their appearance, and a sea of people coming together to form virtual support group that praises the victim’s bravery and eviscerates the attacker’s character. There should be no need for this. Partially because people should be more respectful of others, but, more immediately fixable, because self-worth should not be defined by beauty first and everything else a far second.
It just seems very backwards to me that people who call themselves feminists also insist that all women’s bodies must be beautiful. This mentality perpetuates that age-old, patriarchal concept that the most important aspect of a woman is her body, so for all women to be treated with respect, they must be labeled “beautiful.” Let’s focus on respecting people out of basic human decency, without qualifiers. Saying that “everyone is beautiful” puts physical attractiveness on a pedestal above all other traits, and ignores the importance of intelligence, humor, compassion, curiosity, resilience and every other facet of a person’s individuality. Maybe said “feminists” should stop channeling their sexist adversaries, stop focusing on how the gift is wrapped, and start paying more attention to what’s inside it.
Beauty standards are constantly changing, and some people might never fit what their society has decided is beautiful, but that’s okay. People are not shells, hollow and defined by their outward appearance. People are a combination of many traits that make them unique. It might be a hard lesson, but attaching one’s self-worth to social standards is a dangerous, slippery slope. If feminists want to raise strong women, they shouldn’t be trying to adjust social beauty standards to make young girls feel worthy, but instead teaching said girls that their looks are something, but not everything. Tell them their intelligence matters, their diligence matters, their athleticism matters, their determination matters, their humanity matters, they matter.
Amani Carson is a Trinity senior. Her column, "a commoner's sense," runs on alternate Tuesdays.
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