The beauty economy
Cary’s classic column from Sunday, Sep 18, 2011
I was a nerdy frog who became a princess. Now I see the power, but also the price, of being beautiful
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?
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.