If you type ‘beautiful women’ into a Google image search, it’s likely that the results will feature a myriad of young, slim, white women with a golden tan, narrow straight nose, soft pouty lips and long wavy hair. This is our society’s ideal woman. Her face covers every magazine, advertisement and social media campaign. She is the epitome of beauty that we strive to emulate and the standard by which we judge others. Every year, we spend billions on dieting, gym memberships, cosmetics, anti-ageing products and even plastic surgery, in the hopes of becoming more like this ‘perfect woman.’
But why do these standards exist and why do we aspire to them?
It’s our nature as human beings to ascribe positively to beauty. We find joy in the artistry of the natural world, from the soft amber glow of early sunlight to the fiery ruby and tangerine streaks as the sun sets at the close of the day. How we build and decorate our spaces and bodies are a reflection of the significance of aesthetics. To be surrounded by beautiful things contributes to more than just our happiness, it produces life satisfaction. While our appreciation of beauty is largely positive, the Western image of feminine beauty is narrow, reducing women to a singular idea of what it means to be attractive. This belief is so pervasive that it is internalised as the definitive marker by which we all compare.
In the workplace, this beauty bias is in effect for both men and women. Researchers in the UK and the US conducted quantitative studies evaluating how individuals classify attractiveness by asking them to assess photographs of strangers and rate them on an ‘attractiveness scale.’ They used this data in longitudinal studies with different groups of participants who were asked to make assumptions about the personality traits, profession and pay rate of the individuals in the photographs. They found that people perceived to be better looking were assumed to possess more socially desirable personality traits, obtain more prestigious job roles and receive a higher salary than those who were labelled as less physically attractive. Additional research compared the impact of the beauty ideal on men and women in the workplace.
It showed that women are judged more harshly, with unattractive women being less likely to obtain employment than unattractive men.
The effect of physical attractiveness in the workplace further perpetuates gender stereotyping and inequality. When we attribute a woman’s value based on her appearance, it suggests that looks are more important than other factors. This further maintains our society’s obsession with physical attractiveness. The value of feminine beauty is steeped in inequalities that premises on youth and privileges whiteness. From this perspective, the pursuit of ‘looking good’ is not equally available for all women. This idea is so damaging that we are forced to struggle with reconciling our own appearance with what we are told to believe is beautiful.
In Naomi Wolf’s groundbreaking book, The Beauty Myth, she explains our society’s obsession with beauty is a form of oppressing women:
“We are in the midst of a violent backlash against feminism that uses images of female beauty as a political weapon against women’s advancement: the beauty myth [...] As women released themselves from the feminine mystique of domesticity, the beauty myth took over its work of social control”
Wolf argues that our culture’s feminine beauty ideals are about institutional power and poisons our freedom by instilling feelings of self-hatred and a terror of gaining weight and/or ageing. The ideal female archetype breeds competition among women, positioning young women against old, slim women against fat and furthers racial inequality.
In the fashion industry, where the pressure to ascribe to the aspirational aesthetic is heightened, women whose facial features, body type and ethnicity do not conform may be overlooked, or relegated to non-visible and lower status positions. This is problematic as the assessment of women based on appearance is not related to their ability to do their job. Furthermore, the challenging nature of working in the fashion industry— producing new collections every two to three months, the pressure to come up with new and innovative ideas, working long hours, and then having to look good while doing it — results in heightened states of stress. Interviews with women who work in fashion illustrated the impact of this double emphasis on appearance and performance. They reported reduced productivity in their day-to-day roles, increases in absenteeism due to stress-related illness and a poor outlook on the permanence of their positions.
In order to disenfranchise the beauty ideal, I believe that we need to expand the spectrum of what it means to be beautiful, while also putting less emphasis on physical beauty as a determination of our worth. But in reality, where do we even begin in making these changes?
What do you think? Is the significance we place on physical beauty hindering the progress of women in society and the workplace? If so, what are some practical ways we can de-emphasise the focus on appearance?