The Truth About Beauty
It would be so nice if inner beauty triumphed over outer appearance. But men are designed to care about packaging. It's time to accept the not-so-pretty facts about looks.
By Amy Alkon published November 1, 2010 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
Welcome to Uglytopia—the world reimagined as a place where it's the content of a woman's character, not her pushup bra, that puts her on the cover of Maxim. It just doesn't seem fair to us that some people come into life with certain advantages—whether it's a movie star chin or a multimillion-dollar shipbuilding inheritance. Maybe we need affirmative action for ugly people; make George Clooney rotate in some homely women between all his gorgeous girlfriends. While we wish things were different, we'd best accept the ugly reality: No man will turn his head to ogle a woman because she looks like the type to buy a turkey sandwich for a homeless man or read to the blind.
There is a vast body of evidence indicating that men and women are biologically and psychologically different, and that what heterosexual men and women want in partners directly corresponds to these differences. The features men evolved to go for in women—youth, clear skin, a symmetrical face and body, feminine facial features, an hourglass figure—are those indicating that a woman would be a healthy, fertile candidate to pass on a man's genes.
These preferences span borders, cultures, and generations, meaning yes, there really are universal standards of beauty. And while Western women do struggle to be slim, the truth is, women in all cultures eat (or don't) to appeal to "the male gaze." The body size that's idealized in a particular culture appears to correspond to the availability of food. In cultures like ours, where you can't go five miles without passing a 7-Eleven and food is sold by the pallet-load at warehouse grocery stores, thin women are in. In cultures where food is scarce (like in Sahara-adjacent hoods), blubber is beautiful, and women appeal to men by stuffing themselves until they're slim like Jabba the Hut.
Men's looks matter to heterosexual women only somewhat. Most women prefer men who are taller than they are, with symmetrical features (a sign that a potential partner is healthy and parasite-free). But, women across cultures are intent on finding male partners with high status, power, and access to resources—which means a really short guy can add maybe a foot to his height with a private jet. And, just like women who aren't very attractive, men who make very little money or are chronically out of work tend to have a really hard time finding partners. There is some male grumbling about this. Yet, while feminist journalists deforest North America publishing articles urging women to bow out of the beauty arms race and "Learn to love that woman in the mirror!", nobody gets into the ridiculous position of advising men to "Learn to love that unemployed guy sprawled on the couch!"
Now, before you brand me a traitor to my gender, let me say that I'm all for women having the vote, and I think a woman with a mustache should make the same money as a man with a mustache. But you don't help that woman by advising her, "No need to wax that lip fringe or work off that beer belly!" (Because the road to female empowerment is...looking just like a hairy old man?)
It turns out that the real beauty myth is the damaging one Wolf and other feminists are perpetuating—the absurd notion that it serves women to thumb their noses at standards of beauty. Of course, looks aren't all that matter (as I'm lectured by female readers of my newspaper column when I point out that male lust seems to have a weight limit). But looks matter a great deal. The more attractive the woman is, the wider her pool of romantic partners and range of opportunities in her work and day-to-day life. We all know this, and numerous studies confirm it—it's just heresy to say so.
We consider it admirable when people strive to better themselves intellectually; we don't say, "Hey, you weren't born a genius, so why ever bother reading a book?" Why should we treat physical appearance any differently? For example, research shows that men prefer women with full lips, smaller chins, and large eyes—indicators of higher levels of estrogen. Some lucky women have big eyes; others just seem to, thanks to the clever application of eyeshadow. As the classic commercial says, "Maybe she's born with it. Maybe it's Maybelline." (If it increases her options, who cares which it is?)
Unfortunately, because Americans are so conflicted and dishonest about the power of beauty, we approach it like novices. At one end of the spectrum are the "Love me as I am!" types, like the woman who asked me why she was having such a terrible time meeting men...while dressed in a way that advertised not "I want a boyfriend" but "I'm just the girl to clean out your sewer line!" At the other extreme are women who go around resembling porn-ready painted dolls. Note to the menopausal painted doll: Troweled on makeup doesn't make you look younger; it makes you look like an aging drag queen.
Likewise, being 50 and trying to look 25 through plastic surgery usually succeeds in making a woman look 45 and fembot-scary—an object of pity instead of an object of desire. Plastic surgery you can easily spot is usually a sign—either of really bad work or of somebody who's gone way over the top with it, probably because she's trying to fill some void in her life with silicone, Juvederm, and implanted butt cutlets. There are women who just want to fix that one nagging imperfection. For others, plastic surgery is like potato chips, as in, "Betcha can't eat just one." A woman comes in for a lunchtime lip job—an injection of Restylane or another plumping filler—and ends up getting both sets of lips done. Yes, I'm talking about labioplasty. (Are your vagina lips pouty?)
Once women start seeing wrinkles and crow's feet, the desperation to look like they were born yesterday often makes them act like it, too. Women want to believe there's such a thing as "hope in a jar"—and there is: hope from the CEO selling the jars that you and millions of others will buy him a new yacht and a chateau in the south of France. There actually is hope to be found in a plastic bottle—of sunblock, the kind that protects against both UVA and UVB rays (the skin-aging ones). But the Beauty Brains, a group of blogging cosmetic scientists, write, "The sad truth is that creams that claim to be anti-aging are not much more effective than standard moisturizing lotions."
French women, too, buy into the idea that there's some fountain of youth at the Clarins counter. But, perhaps because feminism never seeped into mainstream culture in France like it did here, they generally have a healthier and more realistic relationship with beauty, accepting it as the conduit to love, sex, relationships, and increased opportunities. They take pleasure in cultivating their appearance, and in accentuating their physical differences from men. They don't give up on looking after their looks as they age, nor do they tart themselves up like sexy schoolgirls at 50. They simply take pride in their appearance and try to look like sensual, older women.
To understand what it takes to be beautiful, we need to be very clear about what being beautiful means—being sexually appealing to men. And then, instead of snarling that male sexuality is evil, we need to accept that it's just different—far more visually-driven than female sexuality. To focus our efforts, we can turn to an increasing number of studies by evolutionary psychologists on what most men seem to want. For example, the University of Texas' Devendra Singh discovered that men, across cultures, are drawn to a woman with an hourglass figure. Men like to see a wom an's waist—even on the larger ladies—so burn those muumuus, which only reveal your girlish figure in a Category 5 hurricane, and if you don't have much of a waist, do your best to give yourself one with the cut of your clothes or a belt.
Like French women, we, too, need to understand that a healthy approach to beauty is neither pretending it's unnecessary or unimportant nor making it important beyond all else. By being honest about it, we help women make informed decisions about how much effort to put into their appearance—or accept the opportunity costs of going ungroomed. The truth is, like knowledge, beauty is power. So, ladies, read lots of books, develop your mind and your character, exercise the rights the heroes of the women's movement fought for us to have, and strive to become somebody who makes a difference in the world. And, pssst...while you're doing all of that, don't forget to wear lipgloss.