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The Truth About Beauty | Amy Alkon

The Truth About Beauty
My piece in the December issue of Psychology Today debunking myths we cling to about beauty is now online, and it seems I’m enraging more than a few readers with my departures from the feminist talking points. Here’s an excerpt:

There are certain practical realities of existence that most of us accept. If you want to catch a bear, you don’t load the trap with a copy of Catch-22–not unless you rub it with a considerable quantity of raw hamburger. If you want to snag a fish, you can’t just slap the water with your hand and yell, “Jump on my hook, already!” Yet, if you’re a woman who wants to land a man, there’s this notion that you should be able to go around looking like Ernest Borgnine: If you’re “beautiful on the inside,” that’s all that should count. Right. And I should have a flying car and a mansion in Bel Air with servants and a moat.

Welcome to Uglytopia–the world reimagined as a place where it’s the content of a woman’s character, not her pushup bra, that puts her on the cover of Maxim. It just doesn’t seem fair to us that some people come into life with certain advantages–whether it’s a movie star chin or a multimillion-dollar shipbuilding inheritance. Maybe we need affirmative action for ugly people; make George Clooney rotate in some homely women between all his gorgeous girlfriends. While we wish things were different, we’d best accept the ugly reality: No man will turn his head to ogle a woman because she looks like the type to buy a turkey sandwich for a homeless man or read to the blind.

There is a vast body of evidence indicating that men and women are biologically and psychologically different, and that what heterosexual men and women want in partners directly corresponds to these differences. The features men evolved to go for in women–youth, clear skin, a symmetrical face and body, feminine facial features, an hourglass figure–are those indicating that a woman would be a healthy, fertile candidate to pass on a man’s genes.

These preferences span borders, cultures, and generations, meaning yes, there really are universal standards of beauty. And while Western women do struggle to be slim, the truth is, women in all cultures eat (or don’t) to appeal to “the male gaze.” The body size that’s idealized in a particular culture appears to correspond to the availability of food. In cultures like ours, where you can’t go five miles without passing a 7-Eleven and food is sold by the pallet-load at warehouse grocery stores, thin women are in. In cultures where food is scarce (like in Sahara-adjacent hoods), blubber is beautiful, and women appeal to men by stuffing themselves until they’re slim like Jabba the Hut.

Men’s looks matter to heterosexual women only somewhat. Most women prefer men who are taller than they are, with symmetrical features (a sign that a potential partner is healthy and parasite-free). But, women across cultures are intent on finding male partners with high status, power, and access to resources–which means a really short guy can add maybe a foot to his height with a private jet. And, just like women who aren’t very attractive, men who make very little money or are chronically out of work tend to have a really hard time finding partners. There is some male grumbling about this. Yet, while feminist journalists deforest North America publishing articles urging women to bow out of the beauty arms race and “Learn to love that woman in the mirror!”, nobody gets into the ridiculous position of advising men to “Learn to love that unemployed guy sprawled on the couch!”

Now, before you brand me a traitor to my gender, let me say that I’m all for women having the vote, and I think a woman with a mustache should make the same money as a man with a mustache. But you don’t help that woman by advising her, “No need to wax that lip fringe or work off that beer belly!” (Because the road to female empowerment is…looking just like a hairy old man?)

(By the way, I didn’t write the subhead that’s above the piece at the magazine, just the piece itself.)