We recently came across a really fabulous post on the blog, Beauty and the Breast. The post “Coffee, no sugar, no (s)cream” is one woman’s sexual harassment experience in a Starbucks followed by her analysis of our social concepts of looks and beauty.
When I walked into Starbucks yesterday, a group of men at a nearby table kept staring at me until I wondered what was on my shirt. Finally, one of them looked me right in the eye and mouthed three words I couldn’t make out. “What?” I replied, determined to get to the bottom of this mystery. “It’s your fault”, he repeated. “Walking around with those legs.”
I was stunned; partly because I’d never been sexually harassed at Starbucks and partly because I didn’t know it was a crime to appear in public with my legs uncovered. (I assure you, it was a standard knee length dress not that it’s okay to harass anyone because of what they’re wearing.) So, I did the only thing I could that would not cause a scene and call more attention to myself – since my legs were apparently singing a song by themselves. I stood by the door and waited for my co-workers to finish ordering their coffees and then walked out with them and thanked them for suggesting the trip to Starbucks since it had sparked an idea for a blog: the costs and benefits of beauty to a woman in modern society.
Looks can get you in the door at a job. According to a 2008 study, interviewers are often unconsciously influenced by the attractiveness of new hires and this can influence the outcomes of pay negotiations. Check out this study which examines the “halo effect” at http://www.sciencedaily.com. Conversely, younger women, especially those who are more attractive or shapely are often encouraged to wear clothes that play down their looks and/or sex appeal so that they are not perceived as unprofessional.
It is universally accepted that no matter how charming an unattractive woman is, her more attractive counterpart will usually find herself with more opportunities for dates and ostensibly, for love and sex. On the other hand, encounters based on a woman’s appearance are often highly sexually charged, disrespectful, and possibly dangerous. The phenomenon of street harassment (which I thought was more prevalent on the streets of poorer cities than inside of Starbucks) has actually claimed women’s lives and shouldn’t be brushed off as merely a rude come-on.
There are other advantages and disadvantages to being perceived as attractive. Women have to spend a lot of time, money, and energy working on their hair and make-up and shopping. This is not to mention the expense of any medical procedures or surgeries – like breast implants – they may resort to in order to alter their appearance. Although these expenses are expected and even demanded, they are also looked down on and people think you are frivolous when you invest in them. I understand this resistance to consumerism and commercialization of women’s bodies, but I can’t help but think that the labeling of fashion and beauty as frivolous is another way to devalue women’s culture. It keeps us continually spinning around while we try to find that perfect balance of being beautiful, making it look effortless, and living the rest of our lives.
So the man at Starbucks got me thinking about how my looks operate in everyday life. While he just saw a pair of curvy legs, and according to experts like sociobiologist Nancy Etcoff, made the leap to fertility and sex, I thought about how many more people had smiled at me that day pleased with my dress. I don’t think they were all looking at my legs. They were noticing that I was happy and smiling, which I can’t help but be when my hair is fairly neat, and I am wearing my yellow spring coat with a pair of heels.
It’s a tradeoff. While beauty is certainly self-expression and a personal art more than anything, it is also a kind of kowtowing to societal mandates. Women who aren’t slaves to their beauty regimen are generally either regarded as having given up or being exempt from the rule that says we have to worry about our looks – e.g. older women, disabled women. (These women are not typically considered sexual or on the market.) But there is a third route where women acknowledge that their looks matter, not so much for the purposes of attracting many potential mates – you just need one good one – but simply because people of any sex feel good when their outsides match their insides. People should feel that their ideas of what is beautiful are reflected in the way that they look. I have a friend who calls people who show no ingenuity in their style “mannequin dressers”, because it looks like they got their fashion tips from a store display. While I don’t dye my hair blond or wear a weave or diet, as the standardized ideas of beauty say I should, I invest in my beauty as heavily as most other women. I just do it my own way. Beauty is not entirely a social construct, as some would have us believe. It’s an actual quality that even children recognize – babies have been shown to gaze at the faces of more attractive people for longer. Who doesn’t get joy out of beauty? In the end, I had to conclude that beauty (and the pursuit of it) is a lot like the sugary coffee I condemn others for buying at Starbucks. A luxury that few can afford because of the expense to pocketbook and peace of mind, but one that most people enjoy nonetheless. They think they need it because it feels so good. (link)