Conventional Beauty, and Other Sucker’s Bets

As people who oppose beautyism, I think it is useful to us to separate out two concepts which are usually bundled up into the words “attractiveness” or “beauty”. The first is conventional attractiveness or beauty, defined by the extent to which one possesses the set of qualities portrayed as desirable in our culture and society. The more of these traits one has, the better one fits into the pre-defined (but ever changing) sociocultural mould. This is one idea bound up in the concept of “attractiveness”.

The second is, for me, the more useful meaning of the word beauty. It is the property of being found to be, or experienced as, attractive or beautiful by oneself and/or by others. This consists of yourself or others experiencing positive feelings about your appearance, and I think it could be broadened to encompass other aspects of your person. Despite what most of us think, this concept and the sociocultural checklist concept are not the same things at all. I think the checklist definition should rightly be called “conventionally attractive” and should never be confused with real attractiveness.

Clearly, not everyone is conventionally attractive. Not everyone ticks most or even half of the ticky boxes required. However, it’s no contradiction to say that someone who is not conventionally beautiful is still actually beautiful. Even if you don’t consider yourself beautiful (this can take time if you grow up being told you’re not), the odds are someone else out there does. In fact, the number of people who are not considered attractive by anyone on the planet is vanishingly small and asymptotically approaches zero. If you are not conventionally attractive, then by definition (in the limit) you are unconventionally attractive. Thus, everyone is attractive. QED.

Now maybe more humans are attracted to humans that fall within the bounds of conventional attractiveness. Nobody knows for sure because there’s no control group of people who haven’t been exposed to any beauty ideals at all. But maybe. We unconventionally attractive people might therefore have fewer suitors. But that doesn’t make much of a difference: how many people can you really be romantically involved with at once? Like, 4 or 5 at the absolute maximum, am I right?

So, if you (like me) are not conventionally attractive: congratulations! Being unconventionally attractive can be very liberating! It has pushed me to learn to find myself attractive on my own terms, rather than on my culture’s terms. Some conventionally attractive people have also had this epiphany, of course, but I think it would have taken me longer to learn this if I were conventionally hot. I find it freeing to feel that I am attractive if I decide I am, rather than relying on the extent to which I fit into a sociocultural ideal. This means that no matter if I wake up tomorrow with a blemish or if I put on weight, I’m still mentally considering myself attractive, and that’s really what matters.

Of course, being unconventionally attractive has serious downsides in a culture obsessed with conventional beauty and prone to beautyism. This is especially true for women: we are consistently told by our media and many around us that we are only worthwhile if people (usually cis-het-male people) find us beautiful or want to have sex with us – and that if we fail to tick even one box on the cultural attractiveness list, then nobody wants us.

Obviously this is bullshit, but it’s hard to shake. It’s everywhere, not least because it’s profitable for the cosmetic and fashion and diet industries. And if we move in social circles filled with people who believe this message, the message can become self-fulfilling: the people who do find us attractive will be deterred from voicing their feelings for fear of being judged by their peers. In addition, recent studies show that all genders rate women wearing makeup as consistently more competent and smarter than those not. There is no point denying that people who are not conventionally attractive are discriminated against.

Clearly, conventionally hot people have it easier in the sense that the world will treat them better. The same way white people, male-presenting people, thin people, able-bodied people, cis-gendered people, straight people, neurotypical people, and rich people are treated better. Clearly, it is the unequal treatment that needs to be changed, not the existence of “unattractive”, queer, poor, disabled, non-white, and other “other” people. But as people, and especially as women, we are repeatedly told that we have to be hot to be worth anything.

So, like other marginalised groups, “unattractive” people can too often find themselves in the awful trap of looking around at a world that treats them badly and concluding that this is the treatment they deserve. They may feel that they have to change if they want to be treated better, and if they can’t change, they have to excel at literally everything else to the exclusion of any personal desires or individuality. This isn’t just about unconventional beauty – almost all marginalised groups are sold the idea that conforming to dominant culture will lead to some kind of undefined happiness from which they are currently excluded. Of course it’s a lie. That’s not how oppression works or how happiness works – and on some level we might even suspect we’re taking a sucker’s bet, desperate as we are. Faced with a system that erases us for being different, we want so badly to be accepted that we participate in our own erasure. That’s part of how kyriarchy works.

As a result, it is my experience that the hardest part about being outside of the socially approved mould is not how other people treat me but the way I treat myself - though I want to be clear, this starts off largely as a result of their treatment. The worst part about not living up to that golden ideal is that you believe that the suffering you experience as a human being is caused, or at least exacerbated, by how you look. You begin to believe that if only you were conventionally beautiful, you would not be lonely. You would be affirmed and wanted and validated. You would like yourself. You would feel loved.

The reality is, however, that while you would be treated (perhaps) a little better by strangers, the things that cause us the most pain as human beings would remain unchanged. If you do not like yourself “ugly”, you will not like yourself when you are “attractive” – indeed, you will probably keep moving the goalposts out, demanding more and more conformity to the ideal before you believe you can be happy. If you don’t feel worthy now, it won’t help you achieve lasting self worth if everyone on earth woke up tomorrow in agreement that you were the new social beauty ideal. Yes, it would probably be exciting and fun. But ultimately it’s not something that can radically alter who you are. Who you are is more about you than about other people. The bottom line is that if your life is not fulfilling you now it will not fulfill you when you look like a movie star.

As far as I know, based on my experience, the only way to like yourself is to put in the hard emotional and psychological work of dismantling the cultural and personal psychological bullshit that tells you you’re not worth anything. In my experience, you can get rid of those awful thoughts and feelings – not all the time, but much of the time. And you can go from being absolutely obsessed with attaining conventional attractiveness to being able to build a core of self worth completely free from it, a core that can survive almost anything. (I know. I did it.)

But you don’t do it by being conventionally beautiful. That’s an external quality that changes based on the whims of those around you, and that’s not the horse you want to back. People who buy into the idea that being conventionally hot can protect them from pain, from rejection, from fear and loss are taking a gamble with extremely bad odds. The wealth of human experience strongly suggests that nothing can protect you from that. That is the human condition, and conventional hotness is nothing but one more Faustian bargain.

The Princess Bride, whatever its faults as a movie, got this right: “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.” This doesn’t just apply literally, and in this case, I’m not just talking about the industries that make money from beauty products. I’m talking about a culture that gets you to do things by promising you happiness and self worth. This is really no different – in fact, it might even be more insidious. Don’t let your culture sell you the idea that if you can just conform hard enough, you’ll be happy. Your culture is not just asking for your money when it makes you this offer. It is asking for your life.


3 Comments on Conventional Beauty, and Other Sucker’s Bets

  1. Your Blogger says:

    Clearly, it is the unequal treatment that needs to be changed, not the existence of “unattractive”, queer, poor, disabled, non-white, and other “other” people.

    Well………………………

    • Rachael Rachael says:

      I apologise for my carelessness here. I did not think deeply enough about that sentence when I wrote it. Obviously, I think that reducing global poverty is a hugely important goal (I am, after all, an economist).

      I guess I was trying to talk about the erasure of poor people as people in media and in social narratives about wealth. I do think that the way in which poor people are often made to feel that they should hide their poverty because it’s shameful constitutes a demand for assimilation that is separate to any desire to reduce poverty. That’s when it becomes problematic and awful and that’s what I was trying to object to but I didn’t state it clearly enough. Thanks for pointing it out.

      • Your Blogger says:

        Yep, yep :) that’s all cool. And, you know, that aside, I’d pretty much agree completely if you had have put ‘relative’ in parentheses before the word ‘poor’.


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