What is Beauty Anyway?

A speech by D. A. Clarke given at the 1983 Myth California protest

I’m here to say a few things about beauty. One thing I have to say is that talking about beauty leads you to talking about women. At one time the word ‘beauty’ was used to mean ‘women,’ and even today most of us apply the word ‘beautiful’ to women (and scenery) rather than to men.
One thing about beauty is that we tend to think of it as innate-you’re either beautiful or you’re not, you are or aren’t born that way. If this is the case, then what is the possible point of a beauty contest? If beauty is an innate characteristic, how can there be any competition? One solution to this little contradiction is to say that our assumptions about beauty are not true, and it is in fact something you do rather than something you are-then there can be a contest, to see who is best at doing beauty.
Another solution occurs if you remember that there are a lot contests in which innate characteristics are judged: county fairs. Cattle shows. The perfect zucchini or the County’s largest cabbage: a prize sheep, a pedigreed dog. In this instance it is the owner or farmer who is really at issue; it isn’t the sheep who enjoys the ribbon. I believe in a portion of each solution. I think that beauty is something you do. And I think that the women who are parading around in there are being displayed to someone else’s glory and profit. You note their sashes do not say ‘Ms. Jane Doe,” but Miss Fresno, Miss Huntington Beach. They are displayed as exemplary products of the economy of their home towns; the County Fair aspect is a bit close to the surface here. And when the blue ribbon winner is selected, her bright smile and perfect proportions will be used to promote all kinds of products; the successful promotion of these products will serve to put even more money into the pockets of a very few already wealthy men.
These women (and all the rest of us to whatever extent we make the effort) are doing something that they are judged by (and that all the rest of us are judged by) every day. What they are doing is beauty, and it is hard work.
The natural female body, we are told in one breath, is the loveliest thing around (and I did say thing, because that’s the tone in which we are told this); and in the next breath we are ordered to starve ourselves, watch how we dress and mind our manners-because, after all, the natural woman is loud, fat, hairy, smelly and UGLY.
Beauty as we see it enshrined here is an illusion, and it’s a big effort and a big business to keep it up. The shell of the perfect woman is stressful and expensive to maintain; the contest is to see who does it best. And what is this ideal beauty? Well, she’s thin, and she shouldn’t look obviously muscular or strong. Her body’s contours must meet a fairly precise technical specification for softness and curvature, while containing only the minimum amount of fat and flesh necessary. There is a whole industry built on taking the fat and flesh off women’s bones so that men can look at thin women. Some women starve themselves to death, trying to be thin enough.
The ideal beauty is shorter than the man who is looking at her. She should have shiny, glossy hair, and lots of it-but only on her head, of course! Leg hair, underarm hair, any visible hairiness even on the forearms but especially on the face- it all has to go. There is a whole industry built on the removal of the hair that naturally grows on women’s bodies. Millions of women alter their bodies, sometimes painfully, often damaging their skin, so men can look at hairless women-what they puzzlingly continue to call real women.
The perfect beauty is white. The perfect beauty is under 25…30 is the absolute ceiling; and these days the 12-to-18 year old is the true beauty. At any rate, the beauty should be younger than the man who is looking at her. She should have soft skin, without marks of age or character. There is an industry built on the concealment of the real textures of women’s skin.
The perfect beauty has large eyes, large in proportion to her face. She has full red lips, a small delicate nose, a face wide at the temples and narrow at the jaw, a dainty neck. An industry is built on the alteration of women’s faces so they may more closely resemble the faces of children; so they may imitate, by surgery or by skillful application of paints and powders, the facial proportions of the prepubescent child. Women apply carcinogenic substances to their faces, that animals are tortured to produce and test. Some of us spend over two hours daily maintaining our faces. So that men can look at women who look like children rather than mature human beings. Children are surely the most powerless class of people alive in this world; and it disturbs me that women must imitate the look and the manner of those even more powerless than ourselves, to be considered beautiful. And it disturbs me because I know that we are only now measuring the tip of the iceberg of child sexual abuse in this country, and the results are horrifying me. It should be profoundly shocking to us, how many men fell just fine about forcing their sexuality upon their own and other people’s daughters: how many men can see an eight year-old child as a seductive sexual object and a suitable conquest. But how shocked should we be? Look, after all, what the attractive woman is supposed to be: hairless, soft, weak. Timid, eager to please, innocent, frivolous. Powerless. It is an unspoken rule of male supremacy that men are not permitted to be attracted to anyone who is their equal.
The issue in a beauty contest is loyalty. There is competition to see who is most loyal to this imposed definition of womanhood and beauty. The ideal female, who is insecure enough that she has to alter her natural appearance completely before she feels confident about herself. Who is rewarded if she shows the considerable lengths she is prepared to go to, to please men’s aesthetic sense, to mold herself into someone else’s Dream Girl.
The successful contestant is rewarded for her obedience to an ideal; but women who are not beautiful, who are not good at beauty, live daily with the punishments handed out for disobedience. The insults, the yells on the street; the fat jokes; the ugly jokes; the old lady jokes. The loss of a job, the loss of a promotion, the loss of a husband. The gradual erosion of self-worth. The vicious inner voice of implanted self-hatred.
If real beauty is the contrived and artificial image we see before us tonight, then every woman in America must know in her heart that her own real body, her own real and familiar face, her own ordinary hair, her genuine individual scent and the way she looks and moves when she is out of costume and not on display-that all these things are a disappointment and a failure. She must know that only as an illusion is she rewarded, admired, beautiful. That her real self is unacceptable, a flaw. Now that is a hell of a way to feel about your own body.
Beauty is everything no living woman can ever be: a twelve year old with twenty-five year old breasts, the one who never sweats, never wrinkles, is always ready to be displayed and never gets tired of being judged. The Perma-Pressed female, ever ready to please, always smiling, never aging, always innocent and always sexually available.
Beauty is everything real women are instructed to be” insecure, weak, ingratiating, our whole self worth invested in how well we please the eyes of men. Beauty is a smile that endures whether or not we feel like smiling, a youthful appearance that denies any age and wisdom we may have earned, a pretty empty-headedness that banishes the threat that we might think real thoughts and assert real opinions. Beauty is a political idea, It is a set of standards we are told to conform to-even if it takes surgery to do so! It is a set of behaviors to which we are restricted. It defines what is good, useful, acceptable, worthwhile in a woman. What makes a young woman worthy of a scholarship: passivity, obedience, youth, a healthy body and a glossy head of hair. All the virtues of a blue-ribboned Hereford.
We live in a state of white supremacy, and the ideal beauty is white. We live in a state of male supremacy, and the ideal beauty is pleasing, polite, smiling, small, weak: no challenge, really, to anyone’s ego of privileges. We live in a state which condones and encourages the accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of a very few at horrendous cost to every person; the ideal beauty imitates the wealthy. Her hands bear no signs of hard labor, her face no marks of sorrow or anger; her clothes are expensive and her make-up sometimes more; she is well fed and cheerful. It takes money to keep up so poverty and beauty don’t sit well together; some of you may have noticed the unusual number of shiny big cars around this week…And this is what I really have to say to you tonight. Beauty is a political idea. What we see as lovely defines our loyalties. And if we are to challenge the institutions of wealth and poverty; and if we are to confront and overcome the institutions of racism (within and without us); and if we are to end forever, the use of women as slave labor and as livestock: then we are going to have to change, radically, what we ourselves think about beauty, what our whole world thinks about beauty-not just what happens in the building once a year. ©D. A. Clarke