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October 19, 2003

The Politics of Beauty

The well-known bias favoring the taller and more attractive amongst us has been once again reinforced by two studies. A University of Florida study found that "tall people beat short people on job evaluations and even fare better on seemingly objective measures, like sales performance." Tall people earn higher salaries as well. A University of Texas study found that "attractive professors consistently outscore their less comely colleagues by a significant margin on student evaluations of teaching. The findings, they say, raise serious questions about the use of student evaluations as a valid measure of teaching quality." Professor of astronomy and astrophysics Rocky Kolb said that professors and students certainly are not exempt from biases favoring attractive people. He said that "teaching, like acting, is much like performance art." A friend of mine who also read the article wondered if the cultural background and facial attractiveness does not also affect manner and speaking ability; i.e. qualities common in better teachers. Like it or not, looks definitely play a part.

I feel that the road runs both ways. I am certain that professors give attractive students higher grades than they give less attractive students. At the very least, they are friendlier and more open to more attractive students. I've spent more than my share of time in a classroom, and I know that this is the case. I've not only seen this bias in action myself, I have benefited from it. I am what the article referred to as a "Betty," a slang term for an attractive women that comes from the movie "Clueless." I've noticed that my good looks have opened quite a few doors for me over the years, and I have taken advantage of that awareness. It has also given me more than my share of grief, such as incidents of sexual harassment and false assumptions that I have slept my way around. I've learned to squash both as soon as they start up.

The article about attractive professors mentioned Dr. Judith Waters, a psychology professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University who studies the relationship of physical beauty to aging, income, and work. She is quoted in a 1992 article in Harper's Bazaar about the politics of make-up. This passage caught my eye. It highlights the assumptions about attractiveness that plague us all, and often affect events in our lives.

But wearing makeup is not just about attracting a mate; it's the political implications of the ritual that need serious consideration. So integrated is the wearing of makeup within our social system that it invites value judgments based solely on the way a woman is (or isn't) made up. In the workplace, failing to wear what is considered the "right" makeup can have serious ramifications. Take the case of Teresa Fischette, a Continental Airlines flight attendant who was recently fired for refusing to wear makeup on the job. Although the case never went to court, the Massachusetts branch of the American Civil Liberties Union came out in her support. But this case is only the tip of the iceberg. One law school graduate describes how his top law firm interviewed for support staff and paralegals by determining whether they passed the so-called ha-ha test. "That quite literally means that if their appearance made you laugh when they came through the door, then they wouldn't get the job," says the graduate. And did makeup figure into this? "Yes, definitely."

"You have to look right for the job. If you look frivolous at a bank, then customers will think you'll be frivolous with their money; but if you're in advertising, then you have to look fashionable," says Judith Waters, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Wearing makeup and looking put-together can also indicate respect for your future employer or for the person with whom you are meeting. "When I interview someone and she looks nicely made up, I'm flattered and influenced by the fact that she took the time," says Evelyn Lauder, senior corporate vice president of Estee Lauder Companies.

In related news, British actress Dame Helen Mirren has admitted that she has been a victim of date rape on several occasions. Understandably, she said that "it was all very terribly upsetting and disturbing." The rapes had occured when she was between 16 and 25 years of age. Her statements were quite powerful. She said that " I just felt men didn't like me for me. I was being pursued by them for sex and absolutely nothing else. I felt most men despised me as a person. ... It was like I was a piece of meat. In the end I actually realized that guys really were capable of this." Before anyone accuse Mirren of being a man-hater, she has been involved with the same man for the past 19 years. She married him in 1997. She has shared her life with his two sons. She's very close to and has learned a great deal from her nephew, Simon, her daughter's adult son.

Some of what Mirren said rang true for me. She noted the difference in attitudes towards women between older men and younger men like her stepsons who grew up with feminism. She also said this: "I've never liked that whole male world of dirty jokes, football banter or even going to pubs; I find it really scary and very hard to deal with. I feel I can hold my own with men -- professionally -- my whole career has been spent on the set with mostly males, but socially I'd much prefer to be with single women friends." I don't talk about my personal life much on my blog. That said, I understand her wariness of pubs. My ex, most of his family, and my father are alcoholics. Some of my mothers' and fathers' relatives are also alcoholics. I went to pubs with my ex before and during the time we were married because I wanted to be with him and fit in, but I see now what an unhealthy choice that was. I don't want to spend my time hanging out in pubs with a bunch of drunks. I'm glad I no longer live that life. I, like Mirren, have worked as a technician in stage, television, concerts, and film. Most of my work colleagues were men, and I got along with them exceptionally well. While I have had both male and female friends over the years with whom I spend my time, I prefer the company of my family in my home.

I found reporter Angela Hagan's attitude throughout the article irritating. Hagan described Mirren, who has received critical acclaim for movies such as "Gosford Park" and the television series "Prime Suspect," as "bitter." She was described as having a "steely resentment" in her voice. Hagan judged Mirren for having appeared nude on screen. It sounded to me like the same judgment of rape victims who are sexually active -- the attitude is that she has nothing to complain about because she clearly has sex. Mirren has posed nude. At 58, she still makes it on the list of Britian's top 30 sexiest women. What does any of that have to do with the date rapes she had gone through? Hagan wrote that "it's hard to imagine this hugely acclaimed stage and screen Dame could ever be the victim of such a brutal crime." Why the fuck not? Why assume that rape victims are cowering, fragile people who do not have sex, are not sexy, have never accomplished great things in their lives, or that a rape victim who has experienced what Mirren has gone through must hate men or has "learned to live with her bitterness"? Give me a fucking break. I'm tired of this attitude that women, especially attractive women, who have been raped or have experienced other forms of sexual assault and harassment must have in some way encouraged the attacker. This amounts to yet again blaming the woman for her own assault.

Mirren said that rape is "a non-talked-about subject. ... I mean, it's really not talked about enough. Maybe more women should." I agree with her. However, with the blaming attitude of reporters like Hagan, it's no wonder women don't talk more about it.

Posted on October 19, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink


From the article: "Somehow, she has turned it all to her advantage and made a great living, indeed, a great life, out of it all." Being raped is just fine in the end, especially if you're beautiful.

The author does seem awfully obsessed with her nude scenes, and when posed directly next to the admissions of having been date raped, seems as though the author of the article is trying to blame her for being sexually objectified.

Posted by: ms lauren at Oct 20, 2003 2:13:25 AM

Lauren, Dame Diana Rigg just won a libel suit against two newspapers that referred to her as an "embittered woman" who "held
British men in low regard". I'll have more on that story in a bit.

Notice that word again, bitter? Plus both British actresses maligned by that word are both Dames. Strong women who won't toe the line are called "bitter." Well, Rigg fought back and won.

Posted by: Trish Wilson at Oct 22, 2003 6:25:31 AM