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The beauty economy

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Cary’s classic column from

I was a nerdy frog who became a princess. Now I see the power, but also the price, of being beautiful


Dear Cary,

I have a problem that I can’t talk to many people about, because it’s about one of the most sensitive areas of life: looks. I am writing to you because you see the deep issues behind things that seem shallow, and that’s exactly what I am looking for perspective on. My “problem” is that with a lot of hard work and insanely careful attention to my diet and appearance, I can look conventionally “hot”: tall, blond, bombshell-hot with an hourglass figure. I’m 26 and just working my first real job out of graduate school in a lucrative and arcane field. And I am rather miserable right now.

I’m going to talk about my body, and I hope this does not come across as shallow. I think about my appearance a lot, but I didn’t like to when I was younger … because I used to be unattractive. I never did my hair or makeup, I dressed in dowdy clothing, and I was 20 pounds overweight — not enough to make me clinically obese but definitely enough to edge me out of the “hot” category. I had truly terrible teeth that braces could not much improve. And I had a very large, crooked nose that was due half to genetics and half to a car accident when I was 16. Three years ago I decided to fix it, and I got a beautiful and subtle nose job. And then I pulled out most of my teeth and got tooth implants (medically recommended for jaw problems, though not strictly necessary), straightened my hair, and became a gym maniac to lose the extra weight. I got help dressing more sexily and gained some much-needed confidence.

At first I enjoyed the new attention from men that I suddenly got. At 23 I was getting flirted with by strangers for the first time, getting asked out on dates, and generally getting access to a realm of existence I thought was closed to me forever. And then (no surprise), I regained the weight because of work stress and feeling like I couldn’t mentally deal with the tedium of counting calories. And lo and behold, the quality and quantity of men hitting on me nose-dived. I felt so depressed and worthless, even though I know it’s wrong to base my self-worth on these things. My emotions won’t seem to listen to my good sense.

I’m on a diet right now, successfully losing that weight, and I’m pissed. I am so pissed that I want to scream at men both when they pay attention to me and when they ignore me! In a way, it felt terrible to get all that positive attention when before I was ignored or taunted for my appearance. I was tortured during my school years, bullied and mocked for my looks every day. Everyone is so shallow … and now I beat myself up for being just as shallow as most people. I feel like I can never go out in public without having to think about my appearance, and maybe this is par for the course for women in this society, but I never got used to it at a young age. I used to dress badly because I had such low self-esteem that I thought no one would look at me anyway.

I have nerdily calculated the amount of time I need to spend counting calories (buying healthy food, cooking it, weighing and measuring and recording it and preparing it ahead of time), going to the gym, and doing hair and makeup every day to look my best, i.e., like someone who gets sexual attention from strangers: three hours a day. Sometimes four. Isn’t that ridiculous? I feel like I’m wasting my life doing these things, yet the payoff is addictive: compliments, numbers, dates (without needing to do online dating, just getting approached in real life).

Most people who are unattractive learn to adapt and deal with life that way, and so do most attractive people. I have had the experience of moving dramatically from one end of the spectrum to the other, and I think I’m still reeling from the transformation. Those makeover shows on TV never show this part. I know I will never get more plastic surgery, and that the things I fixed are considered conservative and reasonable in this society. Yet I feel very ambivalent about it all.

Sadly I don’t think I have body dysmorphia or OCD, because the majority of my female friends and acquaintances seem to devote this amount of head space and effort to their appearance. I don’t know how to reconcile myself to my body, my place in society, my gender, and just let go and connect with people lovingly. I used to deny that looks had a lot of importance, but now I know I was in denial because the truth was too painful. Now that I’m much more attractive I can afford to realize how blatantly pretty people are rewarded and how ugly people are punished in this society. It’s horribly unfair, and I feel guilty and disgusted — but not enough to refrain from wearing a low-cut top and flirting to get a discount on something, which never ever happened to me before my surgery.

Are these stupid ego boosts worth spending four hours of my life per day doing things I don’t want to do? In truth I’m nerdy and introverted and prefer to read rather than go to the gym. But I want a boyfriend and that won’t happen if I stay home and never make an effort with my appearance — can you see the crazy thought cycle here? Worst of all is that now I judge men for having a gut or having bad teeth, and I am more attracted to conventionally good-looking guys, who before would never look twice at me. I feel like your readers are going to kill me for saying these things, but I feel like everyone thinks these things and doesn’t say them.

Part of me wants to fast forward to when I’m old and ugly and happy with life and not thinking about this. There’s a lot more to me, but this is the stuff I never say to anyone so here it is, in all its hideous narcissism. Do you have any beautiful thoughts for me?

Sincerely,

Unhappy Swan

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Dear Unhappy Swan,

You have done nothing wrong.

All you have done is take society’s commandments at face value. It is the height of hypocrisy for anyone in the modern West to pretend that female beauty is not a currency spent like money on the streets, in the banks and in the gambling halls.

What foul, disordered, body-hating culture would on the one hand set such a high price on beauty and on the other hand punish a woman for making herself beautiful?

All you have done is observe the truth and respond rationally.

“I know it’s wrong to base my self-worth on these things,” you say. “My emotions won’t seem to listen to my good sense.”

Of course your emotions won’t listen to your good sense. Why should they? Your good sense derives from the moralistic fiction that underlies our astounding hypocrisy about beauty and sex. Forget these abstract values you mention. Who are these people who seem to think that your efforts to make yourself beautiful and thus raise your value in our culture demean you? Who would not want the rewards of beauty? I see no reason to denigrate the work you have done to make yourself beautiful.

I don’t think this is narcissism. The sensible love of one’s own beauty is not a disorder.

What is ugly is our own hypocrisy.

You’ve had a peek into the privileged world of beauty and it’s been unsettling. Your consciousness has been raised. Naturally, the raising of consciousness brings discomfort. So let’s take it a step further.

If you like to nerdily calculate things, I suggest you calculate not only the cost of your beauty in time but the value of your beauty in dollars.

For you have glimpsed the operations of a system we might call the economy of beauty. Goods and services are exchanged, rewards given and withheld, hierarchies established, challenged, reordered and again established. Countries and companies are run, families are made, jobs are given, wealth and property change hands on the basis of this intoxicating thing of beauty.

But rather than operating openly in a regulated market, this economy operates right in front of us, but we pretend it does not exist. In the modeling world, the beauty economy operates aboveground. But in much of the rest of society, is it like the drug economy. It operates soundlessly in the night; transactions are whispered and preparations are made in secret. Yours is the black-market beauty economy.

It’s like everybody is pretending not to smoke pot.

But back to the nitty-gritty monetary value of your hard-earned beauty. What are you worth by the hour? That might sound like a question one would ask a prostitute, and the idea isn’t far off. But what I mean is, What is your time worth as a trained, educated professional person?

How much of that value is due to your beauty? Do you suppose that a contemptibly ugly person with your same skills would occupy your job? Of course not. The only question is, what percentage did your beauty contribute to your employment. That’s not to denigrate your talents, but to simply make an observation. You have seen how things work from both sides. You know this to be true. You’re doing the only rational thing: You’re responding to the market.

The contradictions you experience are not internal; they aren’t due to some moral flaw within you. They are material. They are external to you. They arise naturally out of how we actually live and feel.

Female beauty is not shallow. But it can be short-lived. So my only advice is to revel in this fragile and miraculous thing because it fades so quickly. Catch it while it’s fresh. Take advantage of it now. Enjoy it. Use its power.

After all, you’ve worked very hard for it.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

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6 thoughts on “The beauty economy”

  1. I think the LW is still wavering between two drastic extremes, and still needs to find that “happy medium”–that place where we accept who we were in the past, acknowledge the work we’ve done to change things, savour and enjoy the new things, etc,, all without feeling as if we have betrayed our old self by doing things differently than we used to. (Like the proverbial student from a modest background who feels he is betraying his entire social class by aspiring to academic achievements.)

    I like Cary’s advice about examining things in terms of their real time and money cost. OK, so you have improved your physical appearance, you dress in nice clothes, you work hard to keep your body at a certain weight and fitness. None of these things are bad in themselves; in fact at their core they should make you feel good. But you have to think about HOW MUCH time and money you are investing in all these things, when there are many other important issues and tasks competing for finite time, money, energy, and attention: friendships, family, community, education, skills, career. Only the right balance of these things will lead to contentment and happiness, and only you can find out what that is.

    You’ve also stumbled upon one of the great mysteries of beauty: we all know it exists (in myriad forms), and we all know how rare and fleeting it can be. It dazzles the eye, excites the imagination, and brings tremendous power and privilege. But, as you have found out, beauty can also be deceptive–it can mask true ugliness and evil, and it can provoke envy, jealously, greed, fickleness, etc., in others.

    I think in time, you will start to find ways to accept your new self, and integrate your new sense of poise, polish, and dress sense with your inner values and heart’s desires. You not only know how “expensive” physical beauty can be, you also know that much of what we see as physical beauty is artificial, illusionary, and ultimately easily lost.

    As long as you remember that the most important things in life are kindness, compassion, honesty, integrity, and respect for yourself and others, then your true “inner” mind and your new “outer” appearance can be in synch and you can start to move through life with confidence, and find the happiness and contentment you seek.

  2. The problems with being with a man who is only attracted to you when you are at your “best” (i.e., thinnest, it sounds like) are multiple:
    1. You will always feel like you have to STAY at your best to keep him. You will always be aware on some level that some day you will be unable to stay there anymore (age simply does not allow it forever) and you will be terrified about losing him due to natural processes.
    2. You probably will not feel like you can be yourself in front of him in other ways. Can you fart in front of him? Pick your nose? Express an opinion that contradicts one he has expressed?
    3. If he is the type only to be attracted to you when you are at your thinnest, then he might not be the best match for you in his personality, his beliefs, etc. He might also be hiding his imperfections. And that is a drag as well.
    4. Feeling like you have to hit some level of perfection or best-ness to get a man suggests that you are paying more attention to what they want than to what you want in a partner. It should be the other way around. You are the buyer, not the seller, in this marketplace.

    It sounds like you want to let go of the chase for perfection. If you gained 10 or 20 pounds, you could see who you find then, or who finds you. This was the only thing that worked for me, and I’m so grateful every day for the man I ended up with. He’s not perfect, but he’s perfect for me. And that is what you deserve too, not just a hot guy, where you will basically be settling for all the ways in which he isn’t right for you just because he’s hot.

  3. Oh honey I _was_you. Gain 20 to 30 pounds and the men faded back, lose it and they crawled out of the woodwork I’m 60 now and it turns out all that matters is what _you_ want. Get some good therapy it will do wonders to help you sort out what you really want. and then you can see the world more clearly from exactly the way you want to live your life

  4. I agree, that there’s nothing wrong with enjoying what she’s worked for… but I think part of her complaint is that she doesn’t always feel like working for it. She’s worked hard for beauty on the outside, I’d suggest that she also spend some time working on the inside.

    She’s found herself judging other people – which may be realistic in our culture, but it is as shallow as she worries it is. Beauty is a commodity – but it is not representative of the person inside. It seems like she’s feeling obsessed by the need to be pretty and I don’t think she’s enjoying it.

    For the amount of time she’s spending doing it, I’d say she either needs to find a way to enjoy the effort (as well as the product) or work a little harder on being less obsessed. It’s pretty easy to switch your focus and energy to other things in life. I wonder at the quality of men who approach her, simply because she looks good. It might be a relief not to have to go to dating sites, but if she were to work instead of making her life into what she wants it to be – to work on her dreams that are beyond the surface of looks – to find a way to make a difference in this world that matters to her soul – the right person will come along regardless of what she looks like.

    Yes, beauty has its advantages, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with enjoying it. I just don’t think she’s enjoying it enough to make it the focus of her life, as she has been doing.

    1. I agree with this reply. The obsessiveness is arising from the lack of balance between the inner and outer worlds. On the one hand, the LW is obviously a smart, ambitious person with substance, and this is where she finds her true self. Her attention however is being directed entirely to the development and maintenance of her outer aspect (which I think is understandable, given that this is where she lacked her whole life until now). Both are noble pursuits, but once you hit a certain point of physical beauty, there are only marginal gains from additional improvements. Trying to pursue those additional improvements is simply a huge drain of energy without much in return — no wonder she’s so tired.

      LW, I suggest you incrementally try to go back to being your “nerdy” self. It’s all about going back and forth. Once you find yourself slipping physically, you just need to go back and tweak whatever is necessary, and then swing back again to your internal enrichment. Trust me, I’m just like you, and after a while you find the balance.

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