Beauty Ambivalence

Why Do We Take Sides When It Comes to Women's Looks?

Posted Sep 18, 2013

The recent media buzz about Marissa Mayer's Vogue spread made me think just that. Photos of the Yahoo CEO appeared in the magazine's September issue and were described by some as unsuitable for a woman of her position. Lounging sensually in a fitted, blue dress, Mayer got slammed for playing up her appearance instead of serving as "a realistic role model." My reaction? This was a Vogue spread, not Fortune magazine — let the woman be!

Of course there's the other side of this issue; women targeted for not looking their best. When women place less emphasis on their appearance or put their looks on the back burner (think Hillary Clinton during her most demanding years as Secretary of State), they're accused of letting themselves go. Rush Limbaugh, known to be critical of Clinton's appearance, asked, "Do Americans want to watch a woman get older before their eyes?" when she was running for the presidential nomination. While Limbaugh's views are always controversial, he sadly represents the view of more than just a few Americans.

It's the double bind that Ashley Judd was so vocal about a year ago when she was scrutinized for having a puffy face. "Did she or didn't she?" the public asked, questioning whether Judd had undergone cosmetic surgery. I wrote about the topic, describing her experience as the Beauty Paradox; care about your looks and you're judged as superficial, don't care and you're viewed as neglecting yourself. The last thing we need is other people criticizing how that delicate balance is struck.

Then there's the female dental assistant who was fired by her boss, James Knight, because he found her too attractive. The Iowa Supreme court condoned his action, saying it was not motivated by gender discrimination and he therefore had a right to let her go. Apparently, there was a fragile marriage and a jealous wife behind the whole case, but in the end, it was this this woman's good looks that led to her unemployment.

You may wonder how anyone can be legitimately fired over their appearance. Lookism — whether based on positive or negative reactions towards a person's appearance — is a provocative issue. No doubt this Iowan case will serve as fodder for gender studies, sociology classes and law schools in years to come. Like people's ambivalent reactions to Mayer's Vogue spread, it's further evidence that our feelings about attractiveness are complicated.

Beauty is powerful. Even the words we use to describe it reflect its power — like stunning, knockout and bombshell — all of which connote the violent impact it has on others. We are naturally drawn to beauty, but we also envy and devalue it. Many believe beauty is simply an unfair phenomenon, distributed unevenly in a culture that disproportionately elevates it.

And yes, attractive people have advantages — economically, socially and interpersonally --with science and statistics to prove it. But ask anyone who is naturally endowed with good looks and they'll tell you it's complicated. Remember Cameron Russell's TED talk, "Looks Aren't Everything"? She spoke eloquently as she dismantled the fantasies behind being one of those women who "won the genetic lottery." Her story wasn't very pretty.

It's helpful to remember that our appearance is not simply a physical experience, but a psychological one as well. We all have the capacity for attractiveness. Some of us make the most of our assets, even if we don't possess model-like looks and feel beautiful. Others with perfectly-formed features find it difficult to enjoy them. How we feel about how we look depends more on self-esteem and confidence than anything else, and vice-versa.

Consequently, why don't we let women be free to flaunt their looks (or not) without scrutinizing their every move? And let's stop highlighting this beauty/brains distinction. We've come too far to believe that these assets are mutually exclusive. Instead of devaluing attractive, smart women, I suggest we admire them. From beautiful female CEOs to sexy Midwestern dental assistants, let's remember we are all navigating a cultural beauty paradox. That challenge alone deserves support from all of us.


Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She serves as a media expert on various psychological topics and as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. Her book, "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.


For more information, please visit my website at; and continue the conversation on Twitter @ DrVDiller.