Beauty: in the eye of the shmeholder. Oh and biology and all that jazz, apparently. (Image via Fan Pop!)
I’ve been reading articles that recreate the ever-popular idea that beauty aesthetics are based on biological imperatives. The premise of this argument is false – beauty, sex, gender and the social consequences of their related biological processes are not pre-determined. This line of thinking lumps the complexity of human experience and sexual expression into a uniform category and it provides the false impression that nothing can be done to change human behaviour. Don’t give into this tripe and don’t panic – sociology can help un-package how and why nonsense about beauty becomes commonplace knowledge. Contrary to what mainstream culture may have us believe, beauty ideals can be challenged and transformed.
As I’ve said elsewhere, Policy Mic is a great website that encourages smart political discussion between young people. This new Policy Mic article makes an earnest attempt to consider whether discrimination based on beauty should be legislated against in America. The author, public policy analyst Olivia Puerta, argues that notions of beauty are based on ‘biology’. Starting off from this flawed premise is unfortunate. This view accepts beauty and discrimination as fundamental characteristics of humanity. This makes it difficult to accept that social norms, legislation and education can make effective changes. Puerta writes:
‘Greta fiercest Gremlin’ don’t need no education, she gots her some erotic capital. (Image via Indestructible on Tumblr)
Catherine Hakim’s latest book, “Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital” argues that women should use their sex appeal to get ahead in life. The book continues to generate press in the UK, USA and in my homeland of Oz, in The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald. The latter impressively alludes to the fact that Hakim’s work distorts French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of cultural capital. CORRECT! (Sociology props to journalist Rachel Hills!) The reality is that Hakim misappropriates the sociological ideas that would otherwise make the concept of erotic capital a useful way of thinking about sexuality. My review of Hakim’s work as well as another study on beauty will show that this type of research simply replicates taken-for-granted ideas about sex and gender. Sociology is useful only when it takes apart everyday ideas to help people better understand the social consequences of behaviour; in this case, sexuality, desire and what is considered ‘attractive’.
Bourdieu argued that economic and life outcomes depend upon intangible social processes, such as cultural knowledge (for example, the type of school someone attends) and social networks (the people we know who might help us to get ahead in life). Sexual capital and erotic capital are concepts that have been used to study the social, symbolic, economic and physical resources that affect the way in which sexual desire is constructed in different societies, and the social hierarchies that affect the sexual power and sexual enjoyment of different groups. This is not the way Hakim applies this concept.