Monday, August 02, 2010

Must all young women be "beautiful"?

The discussion surrounding Chelsea-Clinton-The-Bride reminds me of the one that followed the massive success of "Precious," regarding its star, Gabourey Sidibe. In both cases, a young woman with a whole lot going for her was referred to again and again (and I'm far too tired to round up links, but give it a few hours and maybe...) as "beautiful," always in such a way as to remind readers that this assessment defied expectations. As though it wasn't enough to say that nasty comments about Clinton's/Sidibe's looks are out-of-line, and the only way to counteract the negative was to go leaps and bounds in the other direction. It couldn't just be that Sidibe is an accomplished/promising actress, or that Clinton is an apparently grounded and intelligent product of celebrity politician parents. They have to be "beautiful" physically, as in, not just better-looking than most women, but remarkably so. If what were meant by beautiful is that 'every woman is beautiful' (which should be distinguished from 'women of all races and shapes can be beautiful, something that ought to be obvious but can need pointing out), then fine, We Are All Beautiful. But unless 'inner beauty' is referenced, we have to assume the term means ridiculously-good-looking, someone who even if not famous would turn heads.

I write this as a young woman whose primary strengths are also not looks-related. I'm not judging Clinton or Sidibe or myself as unattractive, but rather as people whose looks are the least remarkable things about us. The mere facts of being young and female should not demand positive assessments of looks from anyone other than (would-be) romantic partners and friends who've accompanied us clothes-shopping. Again, I get that the positive assessments are meant to counteract the inevitable negative ones that all women even slightly in the public eye get from anonymous strangers, but, again, because they come across as forced, they, along with the gratuitous negativity, should go. The better approach would be to only remark on looks when looks are remarkable, not as the default response to femaleness and youth.


Fuzzy Face said...

It's not that every young woman must be beautiful as much as it is the case that every bride is beautiful, almost by definition.

In fact, Jewish tradition declares (see Kesuvos 16b-17a) that every bride is praised as beautiful and charming, because at least in her new husband's eyes, she is.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

But what does Methodist tradition say?

You missed the point of my post - in a word, it's sexist to single out women's looks - but you have a point in terms of this not being Chelsea Clinton generally, but on a specific day. Still, I think it's a given that all people - not just the young or female - want to feel beautiful to romantic partners, on their wedding days and just generally. And I would assume her husband finds her beautiful, assuming all marriages between the famous and the political aren't shams, something I wouldn't bet on but that has nothing to do with Chelsea Clinton in particular.

I don't object (as much) to the comments about how Chelsea Clinton looked beautiful at her wedding as the ones about how she turned out beautiful - a discussion that began before she made her Vera Wang debut. The former is only annoying from the sexism angle (Kesuvos or not, why so little discussion of the groom's hotness quotient?), whereas the latter, which was discussed all over the place, pretends that CC's main selling point is her looks, when she has some other far more salient and relevant things going for her.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Ugh, the end of that comment was a mess. Both are annoying from the sexism angle, but the latter goes further, as though it's not only Chelsea-as-bride who must be beautiful, but also Chelsea-as-a-young-woman.

Fuzzy Face said...

You missed the point of my post - in a word, it's sexist to single out women's looks

Interesting idea. I suppose, if "sexist" means treating men and women as though they are different then, sure, it is sexist to call a bride beautiful and not compliment the groom's looks. I'm just astounded that it would bother you. How many grooms spend a fraction of the time on their wedding attire that brides spend on theirs (not to mention money)? It just seems only fair to compliment her then on the success of her efforts, and in fact the phrasing "turned out beautiful" seems specifically directed to taking note of the work she put into achieving that look.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I've gone on about this in many other posts but am too tired to look but at any rate, I'd like to see a world in which men's looks are more valued and women's less so, making things not only equal, but more of an accurate representation of how men really feel re: women (looks matter, but not as much as men pretend) and how women feel about men (we notice the hottest guy in the room, not the one with the "best sense of humor"). So yes, in the world as it exists, the bride spends ages and the groom just cleans up a bit. But we could start changing things for the better by fussing more about Marc's dashing looks (if we're so inclined) and less about Chelsea's remarkable hair-depoufing abilities.

Enamored of your beauty and charm said...

As someone who earlier commented positively on your appearance, I feel compelled to respond here. I think you are on to something important, and that is the need many feel to remark on female appearance in so many situations where it is not necessary. Perhaps this is some deep problem with human nature, but women should be allowed to have value beyond beauty: intelligence, creativity, integrity, honesty, compassion, uniqueness, etc. Basically, I think our discussion of women lacks what us math nerds call "dimensionality".