Beauty, Biology and Discrimination

Several recent articles 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. Sociology can help unpackage how and why so-called “common sense” ideas about beauty become established as commonplace knowledge. Contrary to what mainstream culture may have us believe, beauty ideals can be challenged and transformed. Beauty-based discrimination is not natural nor is it unavoidable.

We need to theorise the meaning of beauty in our lives so that we can educate for critical consciousness. - bell hooks
We need to theorise the meaning of beauty in our lives so that we can educate for critical consciousness. – bell hooks

Beauty and Biology

A 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:

unlike prejudices that are taught, lookism has roots in our biology. Without any prompting from ads or magazine covers, babies are most drawn to attractive faces. Popular culture then shapes and magnifies that natural preference, to, in these days of photoshop, unattainable ideals. [My emphasis.]

A recent review of three academic books in The Economist makes a similar argument – that beauty prejudices are ‘natural’ and essentially unavoidable. The article discusses Daniel Hamermesh’s Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People are More Successful,Deborah Rhode’s The Beauty Bias: The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law, and Catherine Hakim’s Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital. The article argues that:

Beauty is naturally rewarded in jobs where physical attractiveness would seem to matter, such as prostitution, entertainment, customer service and so on. But it also yields rewards in unexpected fields. [My emphasis.]

These ‘unexpected fields’ are, supposedly: sport; professional women in ‘high-flying jobs’; and ‘unattractive’ women whose marriage partners earn less because of the wife’s looks. The Economist argues:

All three authors are in or fast approaching their 60s. They are contemporaries of the generation of feminists who waged war against the beauty culture, leaving unshaved legs and allegedly burned bras in their wake. But life has moved on. Sexualised images are everywhere, and the world that has emerged is one in which no one can afford to pretend beauty does not matter. Men too, having lost their monopoly of well-paid jobs, are investing in their erotic capital to enhance their appeal to mates and employers. They are marching off to gyms and discovering face cream in record numbers. Perhaps this explains Mona Lisa’s bemused smile. She knew what was coming.

So, to recap: feminism is part of antiquity, but beauty ideals and ‘sexualised images’ are here to stay.

Erotic Capital

I recently criticised Hakim’s notion of erotic capital on the basis of its weak theoretical and empirical arguments. Taking a swipe at Hakim for being out of touch because of her age, as this Economist article has done, is part and parcel of beauty discrimination. It is rather ironical, because:

  1. Hakim’s book actually criticises radical feminism; and
  2. Hakim argues that beauty ideals are powerful, biologically determined and fixed. She advocates that women learn to maximise their life chances by using their beauty to get whatever they want, rather than fighting against beauty and sex standards.
A woman from the Mentawai People in Sumatra, who sharpen their teeth and tattoo their faces as part of their beauty rituals. (Via Gender Bender.)

The problematic basis of the Policy Mic article, The Economist review and Hakim’s book is that their collective discourse simply reproduces everyday assumptions about beauty, without acknowledging their Western, middle class, heterosexist basis. Arguments that beauty has some essential, innate, biological basis fail to tease apart how and why different beauty standards become established and taken for granted in different societies. Beauty ideals have changed across history in ‘Western’ nations, let alone in other societies.

Notions of what is considered ‘beautiful’ change over time and they vary within cultures and sub-groups. In May, Sociological Images showed that scientific studies claiming to ‘objectively’ measure the fundamental and ‘natural’ aspects of universal beauty ideals are, in fact, culturally biased and methodologically flawed. Yes, gender hierarchies exist in different societies. Some forms of masculinity and femininity are positioned as being superior to others – but gender, sex and beauty-based inequalities do not work in the same way across human history. (See Raewyn Connell, bell hooks, and Naomi Wolf for examples.) Race, class, sexuality and notions of what constitutes a ‘healthy body’ simultaneously act to constrain and challenge mainstream depictions of beauty. Marginalised and minority groups who are ‘othered’ or excluded from beauty conventions develop competing discourses about how beauty should be read and understood. (See Robyn Ryle’s new book Questioning Gender for an accessible discussion of empirical data from the USA.)

Social Construction of Beauty

Beauty ideals and their consequences are not immutable, natural or unavoidable. They are socially constructed. This means that what people take to be normal and fixed facts about the world are actually determined by social norms, culture and social interaction. Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann have established this theory, showing how individuals’ knowledge and perception about social reality are shaped by their social position within a given society, otherwise known as their social status. While there are positive and negative social outcomes that flow on from beauty hierarchies, these are not the logical result of natural selection and biological drive. Renditions of beauty found in art and pop culture reflect the way in which broader narratives about beauty are socially constructed. As bell hooks has argued in her book, Art on My Mind: Visual Politics:

We need to theorise the meaning of beauty in our lives so that we can educate for critical consciousness, talking through the issues: how we acquire and spend money, how we feel about beauty, what the place of beauty is in our lives when we lack material privilege and even basic resources for living, the meaning and significance of luxury, and the politics of envy.

Learn More

Below, you can watch bell hooks talk about how to critically read gender, class and race in popular culture (warning: video contains graphic images of sex and violence).

In this video, Naomi Wolf describes how the ‘beauty myth’ works, in an interactive way.

If you’d like to learn more about the social construction of reality, check out this introductory video by Gwen Sharp and Lisa Wade from Sociological Images.

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3 thoughts on “Beauty, Biology and Discrimination

  1. Saying there’s a biological basis for consensus about the relative attractiveness of faces of both sexes is NOT saying that there is not cultural overlay or learning as well. Lifting the essential proportions out of the cultural/learned context, as certain physical anthropologists have done (Jones and Hill, 1993), is like lifting the essential biochemical components of foods out of the cultural/learned context of cuisine. This is how we get to know what is fundamental to our function, both in diet and beauty. Sociology and biology can and should work together.

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    1. Thanks very much for your views, I Elia, and my apologies for taking so long to respond. I’ve been neglecting this blog the past few days! Thank you also for the Jones and Hill reference, I’ve chased it down and I’ve started to have a read. I do not disagree that sociologists should work with biologists – I worked in an interdisciplinary team for almost six years that included a biologist, so I’m all for collaboration. The point I make is that studies that try to objectively measure universal biological standards for beauty are problematic. I argued that notions of beauty are socially constructed and context-dependent (they change according to culture, time and place), so I do not find it useful to state that there is a fixed biological basis for beauty – and discrimination based upon ideals of beauty. Sociologists have been calling critical attention to the way that beauty judgements are often ethnocentric. For example, James Martin looked at this in the mid-1960s, as have the other sources I’ve cited in my blog. Even studies that attempt to study ‘cross cultural convergence’ of physical attractiveness note the cultural and contextual variability. This suggests that universal notions of beauty are not fixed in biology. For example, Steven Gangestad and Glenn Scheyd have undertaken a substantial review of the evolutionary psychology and evolutionary anthropology literature and they arrive at this conclusion.

      Thanks for reading and for the new resource! I’m clearly not a fan of sociobiology but I’m always happy to revisit these themes.

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