by De Clarke
Copyright © De Clarke, 1983.
All Rights Reserved

Beauty & Power

Our ideas of personal beauty are political ideas.

This statement contradicts one of the basic assumptions of the culture we live in. What could be political about beauty, after all? You either "have it" or you don't, right?

We tend to think of beauty as an intrinsic quality, like the color of a flower: something objectively verifiable, as real as shape or texture, and as removed from "the political."

But standards of beauty vary across different cultures and times.

It will be my argument that personal beauty is in fact judged by standards which grow directly out of the social conditions surrounding the people making the judgment. The standard of beauty in any given society will therefore reflect the principles and values of the society. This is the first sense in which beauty is a political idea: Beauty is political because it is invented by society, and society is by definition political.

There is another sense in which beauty is a political idea. This is as a social factor which can affect the material conditions of people's lives. That is to say, there can be material penalties for not being beautiful, and material rewards for being beautiful. Or to put it another way: Those who "have" beauty gain some degree of privilege by it. And those without it suffer some kind of disadvantages.

Thus beauty, like wealth, becomes a method of ranking people, dividing them along lines of power. The material and emotional privileges available to "the beautiful," and even more the oppression felt my the un-beautiful, make of beauty a political idea. It has political consequences.

If we believe that beauty is an objective quality, somehow abstract and removed from the daily politics of people's lives, we immediately run into a problem: The word 'beautiful' is meant to apply only to women. There is something not quite standard about the phrase "a beautiful man." But if beauty is an abstract concept when applied to people--as if applied to rocks or sunsets--we would expect it to be applied as easily to men as to women, as easily to men as to sunsets. Right away we are on to a contradiction. The idea of beauty when applied to people is obviously different from the idea of beauty when applied to things. (Perhaps--there is an alternate explanation for this.)

One thing we know about our culture is that men dominate it. Specifically, white men with money hold almost all the notable positions of power in the country; own most of the property, businesses, media; commit a fair number of crimes without legal punishment; and display other signs of having a great deal of power.

Another thing we know about our culture is that it is based--partly by conscious imitation--on early Western cultures that were patriarchal. Under patriarch, literally, "the fathers rule." Under patriarchy, adult men legally own women and children as chattel property; Western culture has been patriarchal for at least six or seven thousand years.

Patriarchy & The Proprieties

The custom of "dowry" in marriage (gifts given by the groom or his family to the family of the bride) has its origin in these times: it was literally the "bride price" paid to the bride's father for the purchase of the bride. It is a sum of money or goods exchanged between men for the acquisition of a woman. Consider, in this light, the part of the wedding ceremony (Christian tradition) in which the bride's father officially "gives the bride away." The underlying assumption is that she is "his" to "give"--or sell.

In the 1600's, during early colonization of the American continent, it was legal and customary for men in need of money to sell their wives. Brides could also be purchased by "mail order" through the papers. Remember that at this time a man owned his wife for life: There was no such thing as divorce. Runaway wives could be captured and forcibly dragged back to their owners. If a woman killed her husband, in response to his perfectly legal rapes and whippings, it was called legally "God-murder" and she would be hanged for it if they caught her. (Women were almost never hanged for any other crime.)

Our modern history books tend to edit out these facts. We wonder how the Black slave trade ever found acceptance in the "New World"--but the men of the colonizing race were already perfectly accustomed to the process of owning, buying and selling human beings.

Modern rape laws reflect this history. A woman cannot prosecute her rapist: The state must prosecute for her, and she is officially the witness to a crime against the state. The state, in this case, takes the place of the ancient husband or father, who in some legal codes had the right to rape the rapist's wife or daughter in retaliation! The woman, in short, is the property of the state (men) and the crime has been committed by a man against men, not against a woman.

Being property themselves, women in early America could not own property. Neither could they speak in public, take part in government, or vote. (And still are not guaranteed equal rights under the law!) Many learned men strongly criticized the foolish new idea of teaching women to teach or write. It was a popular literary and philosophical position to claim that they had no souls.

This state of affairs derived naturally from centuries of female slavery in Europe; from centuries of patriarchal dominion that began before written history. To make sense of the laws and customs of the time, we need to recall the distasteful fact that the majority of women were legally no more than saleable breeding stock, and were treated as such. The centuries of female enslavement (collectively known to male historians of the West as "the rise of Western Civilization") form the basis and texture of our own culture. Our laws and our aesthetics alike, handed down to us by authoritative men, bear the mark of our history.


Beauty Where Women Are Property

Beauty is an attribute only ascribed to women.

In the light of our history, as I said before, we may well be suspicious of anything that "only applies to women" when it seems that it should apply generally. Where women are property and men are human, it seems to follow fairly logically that only women are judged on the basis of beauty. After all, only men are in the position to do the judging. Beauty is indeed a characteristic of an object that is seen; women, as property, are objects--they have no right to see or to judge--they are judged, ranked, chosen from. Men are human, not objects--they see and judge. They choose.

Beauty adds to the market value of the woman. Health and youth are desirable in prospective breeding stock, as are physical normality and a docile and obedient attitude. Women in the Middle Ages, for example, who did not conform to these ideals, could be literally locked up (in convents) for the rest of their lives; they were unsaleable, worse than useless, they were seen as a burden on their families and the world.

Many a contemporary woman has lost a front-desk job, or failed to get one, if she was too old, or too fat, or disabled, or just "funny looking"--she wasn't saleable. It is common knowledge among people who work in restaurants that, in general, only pretty women will work "on the floor," waiting on tables. The old, the fat, the "funny looking," work in the back--and make much less money.
     The purpose of beauty is to please men; the definition of beauty is "what pleases men." The usual end goal is the sale or rental of a woman. "What's she doing that for?" a friend of mine once said, watching an older woman exercise. "She's already married!" Exercise for a woman, was of course only for one purpose: to make oneself attractive to a man, to sell oneself out of one's father's house. And "What the hell would a girl want with all them muscles?" a male coworker demanded once (about a women's self-defense class). No one would want to marry 'em!" If anything impedes the chances of being found attractive enough to marry, women shouldn't do it.

We should consider here, too, that while women are supposed to be beautiful (as we are supposed to be emotional) it is men who are the "great artists," the great poets, the creators of beauty, and the creators of emotion. (Similarly, so many women have to cook to survive--but only men do it for a good living!) Or, as the much-quoted saying goes:

With the line between maleness and femaleness drawn this sharply (man owns, woman is the property; man is artist, woman is art; man is human, woman has no soul) there is a power structure operating (the owner and the owned, the human and the less-than-human). Our current culture is built upon the enslavement of women. Maintenance of the imbalance of power requires maintenance of the myth that men and women are utterly different and opposite, and that men are better. I will argue that our current standards of good looks (handsomeness or beauty) are effective social controls directed at maintaining the power of men and the powerlessness of women.

For one last example of our subconscious knowledge of the true state of affairs: when I was young I was worried that I would have "too much" hair on my upper lip (defined as masculine, therefore "ugly" for women). My mother, to reassure me, did not say "That's fine," or "Who cares," but "Men in France and Germany think that's very attractive, you know." In other words, for it to be OK, men somewhere had to find it attractive. As far as beauty being a patriarchal idea in a patriarchal culture, I rest my case.

What Is Femininity?

All right. Beauty was never defined by women. What a woman is, for that matter, was never defined by women. When women attempt to seize and make truthful the definition of woman, there is widespread and often violent resistance--but that's another story.

Beauty in women is provably equal to femininity. To be un-feminine is almost always the same as to be un-beautiful. The reverse even seems to be true sometimes--women who are not beautiful (attractive to men) are supposed by men and male psychology to be "not quite women." What is feminine, then? Smallness is feminine; cleanness is feminine; a high voice is feminine; helplessness and cowardice, and correspondingly dependency and admiration for others, are feminine. Femininity is learned; girls are "brought up" to be "ladies," or they "run wild" (getting dangerous ideas about self-sufficiency and courage).

Femininity also requires vanity--a preoccupation with one's appearance (an acceptance of the idea that one's worth depends on being attractive). Beauty takes time; it is also learned ("Her First Barbie," says the ad; "Long hair is easy for little hands to style." Along with Suzy Homemaker domestic training for preschoolers goes indoctrination into the necessity of female beauty.)--as well-trained mothers train their daughters in turn to pluck, to shave, to paint, to be judged, never to be satisfied.

An "attractive man" on the other hand is not small, nor does he have a high voice. His is resourceful, modest, and independent (to the point of becoming robotic); he is not afraid to get his hands dirty. He should be embarrassed if caught worrying unduly about his appearance or clothes; it would betray an unmasculine insecurity and vanity. (People may call him a faggot if he dresses too neatly and prettily.) He should appear natural (not made-up); mascara and face powder are definitely damning evidence of unmanliness. He can choose to shave his beard or not, and still be dashing; even a "healthy sweat" is charming in the right masculine context.

An attractive woman, then, is insecure, immature, vain, short, timid (quiet and fearful except when protected by her man), and dependent. She should also be young. An attractive man should be tall, mature, reasonably hairy, self-assured (even aggressive) and outgoing. Is it really coincidence that the man ends up with the powerful, impressive personality--and the woman ends up (by psychiatric standards) close to the borderline of neurotic?

The Commodity Value

Beauty is on the one hand held to be intrinsic, and inseparable characteristic of a person, corresponding directly to goodness and badness of character. But then, we remember that women historically were not credited with characters; the only goodness and badness in women was saleability or nonsaleability, obedience or disobedience: the virtues and faults of livestock.

In women under patriarchy, beauty was character, was worth. Bad character (anger, disobedience) was unwomanly (unfeminine, ugly).

Old women ('old wives') perhaps retained their sense of proportion, in folk wisdoms like "Beauty is only skin deep" and "Handsome is as handsome does." But those words carry less weight that the (enforceable) attitudes of those who have power.

"Put my face on," is slang for "put on my makeup" among a certain generation and class of women. A Playboy cartoon once showed the set of a porn film; the woman in the cartoon is being led to a bed (where a grinning man awaits), while the director yells "MAKEUP!" Her face is a blank pink oval. She has no face.

By being beautiful, women not only increase their market value as commodities. They become consumers of an amazing array of devices and substances to build beauty. Beautiful women are used two ways--to sell themselves and femininity (and masculinity), and to sell all the technology of beauty. Beauty can not only sell women, it can be sold to women--in the form of many millions of dollars' worth of cosmetic chemicals, diet regimens and drugs, and reams of printed instructions.

Defining Beauty

A beautiful woman, by the U.S. Standard of Beauty, should be Caucasian (but able to tan); she should preferably be blonde, and her hair should be long enough to provide a secondary fetish (after her body). She should be under 5'8" but definitely over 5'3", and somewhere between the ages of 16 and 25. She should have no visible hair on her legs or thighs, or under her arms, or on her face (except for eyebrows, but even those may be plucked or waxed away). She should smile a lot. She should not frown, unless in cute exasperation (a la Doris Day); if she cries, she should do it silently and without spoiling her makeup. She should not look noticeably physically strong, though her legs and stomach must be in good muscle tone; she should be slim and long-legged. She should have large eyes, long lashes, abundant and shiny hair (only on her head), red lips, poreless skin, small white teeth, a small Anglo-Saxon nose, small clean ears, and no body odor at all. She should not sweat or exude vaginal secretions of any kind. Her hands should show no evidence of hard manual work.

If she conforms adequately to this list of requirements. she may be called "a doll." She may regard it as a compliment.

The last passage presented a confusing hodge-podge of requirements for beauty, but several main themes stand out.


As I mentioned when discussing character traits of "attractive" men and women, the requirements for female attractiveness repeat the theme of powerlessness and weakness. Bodily, the beautiful woman must imitate the just pre-adolescent child; in thinness, unwrinkledness, and in much more. Her body must lack normal adult body hair, odor, or secretion. The proportions of her face must copy those of the child: large eyes and forehead, all else miniature, lots of hair in proportion to the head. Rosy cheeks, red lips, long lashes, fine-grained childish skin, are all things the maturing human being tends to lose as the facial structure grows and the body is exposed to the elements and to the simple passage of time (hormonal changes, stress, the development of character). Men who continue to look like this after (relatively powerless) boyhood are punished for being 'effeminate'; they do not adequately demonstrate their passage into adulthood (manhood). Maturity in women, however, is not beautiful; they must make every effort to deny its coming, to giggle and simper and pout like children long into middle age, to dye silver hair brown at sixty. Women, quite simply, are not meant to grow up.


A great deal of beauty fetishes and ideas come from the practices of the historical aristocracy in Europe and England. It is fairly well-documented that cosmetic fads tend to filter down from the very rich, until they become mandatory beauty requirements even for the poor. Face-painting is one example; the wearing of stockings is another. The process is generally that (where wealth is power, and where power and wealth are unattainable by most people) the habits of the wealthy are mythologized and glamourized. The rich, by no particular coincidence, tend to be "beautiful" (well-fed, well-washed, well-dressed, and well-groomed); wealth and beauty becomes associated, until signs of wealth are seen as beautiful in themselves (like certain costly fabrics, jewels, and perfumes). In feudal Europe, very white (what we would call 'dead white') skin was very beautiful because it denoted that one did not labor in the fields like the average person; that one belonged to the class of people whose labor was done for them by others.

In our industrial state, the jet set proudly display the all-over deep tans that only they have the leisure and the privacy to acquire.

In either case, what is beautiful is the evidence of class privilege. The time necessary for truly artful application of the arsenal of beauty products requires leisure (though every woman is expected to devote some of her time at least to a token effort). The cost of the products requires that those who want to be beautiful must have money.


America is a land built on white colonial violence, the violence of white men against everyone else. Racism, in a land with this history, will underlie every social institution, saturate the culture. It is no coincidence that the American beauty is blonde--no more than that it is women who are supposed to be beautiful.

Blackness was (and in some sense probably still is: more later) considered of and by itself ugly in the American superculture. It was not long ago that drugstores in Black neighborhoods sold hair-straighteners, skin-lighteners, and so forth--mostly to Black women!--because beauty could only be white.

A number of factors mentioned previously enter into this situation. Certainly the use of Black people as slave labor precluded any association of Blackness with leisure that is a part of beauty. The history of dark/light value judgments dates back at least to the early Indo-European invasions of the ancient world. (The 'Indo-Europeans' are the warlike, patriarchal people we later know as the Greeks, Romans, and Brahman Indians. They were generally taller and lighter-skinned than the indigenous people they met in their invasions, whom they subsequently slaughtered and enslaved. Their earliest writings reflect their belief that tallness, lightness, and maleness were divinely ordained to be better than smallness, darkness, and femaleness: they tended to destroy anyone who believed differently. We are still living with the damage.) The association of darkness and dirtiness, femaleness, animalism, and 'primitiveness' is that ancient. All those qualities are held as bad by patriarchal culture; they were the qualities of the losers and the enslaved--and, in a triumph of circular reasoning, they were good excuses to enslave and kill.

Darkness and ugliness are well established by the time of Shakespeare, when black-haired women were ridiculed in public and "fair" lady meant exactly that. The blackness of the enslaved African people in America was ugly because they were slaves; because blackness was bad; they were said to be "naturally" slaves because they were ugly and black; only bad witches were old and ugly, and God must have disliked them to make them that way . . .

"BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL" was a truly revolutionary slogan.

It's interesting to observe the cooptation of that very radical and courageous thought by the machinery of the American media. Massive pressure from many sides forced the white media to introduce token Third World personnel into visible positions, starting in the middle and late 60's; the fashion and beauty market was not exempt.

But the media managed the change without any real alteration of its established Beauty Standard. Third World women, especially (women always have to be more beautiful) were selected for their closeness to Caucasian features; they had to show just enough 'color' to show their ethnicity, but the general effect was that of white women painted brown (or yellow, or . . .). This is true particularly of romantic figures and fashion models (supposed to be beautiful, therefore must be close to white); clown characters and villains can be as ethnic as they please--the more the better. The most ludicrous example of this was probably Mattel, Inc.'s 'Black Barbie,' a Barbie doll made out of brown plastic (instead of 'flesh'--whose flesh?--color).

This is not history. Only last year a Black newswoman on local TV was threatened with dismissal for wearing her hair in traditional 'cornrow' braids. Apparently that was just a little too ethnic!

There is another item to document in the interaction between racism and beauty, and that is the use of Third World women's bodies in pornography and the fashion industry. (The line between the two is getting thinner all the time.)

Institutionalized racism of the past and present is a favorite theme of modern pornographers. There is a delicate imbalance between the evidence of a Third World woman's race that is "too" evident, that triggers the racist reflex of "nonwhite, therefore ugly," and the evidence that is just sufficient to be "exotic."

I suggest that the appeal of the exotic in female beauty, in fashion and in pornography, has its roots deep in colonial violence against Third World women. When femininity is the same as powerlessness, what could be more feminine that the enslaved and raped daughter of the invaded and pillaged nation? The imagery of rape is doubled: the rapist/invader violates both the woman and the whole people whom he despises. It is fairly common to find photoessays (in fairly mainstream porn) dwelling on the binding, beating, torturing, and raping--by white men--of Black women, Asian women (echoes of the atrocity of Vietnam!), Chicana women, Native American women, and (yes, they don't miss a beat) Jewish women.

The "exotic" Third World woman in porn, like the bizarre "lesbian" scenarios and the child models, appeals precisely because she is powerless. In all three cases, the reader is effectively told, "Here is a body you can do anything to; a thing, someone you know has no power compared to yours."

The propaganda of woman-hatred and of race-hatred mesh neatly on the glossy pages of our brothers' and fathers' favorite porn magazines. The much-mythologized scenario in which a Black man rapes a white woman resounds with the complexities of the two. It is an ideal pornographic fantasy because the woman (as the reader projects his racism onto her) must hate this rape more than any other kind--which makes her, like a lesbian, a better victim. It emphasizes the passivity of their beauty; permits the reader to claim she needs his protection (masculinity proven!) from someone other than himself. It caters to his hostility and fear around the Black man's race, tells him his obsessive sexual cruelty towards Black men is justified (to stop them from raping) and that his obsessive sexual cruelty to women is justified (to enforce his control, to prevent 'unapproved' breeding). And so much more.

We have not really wandered from the theme. The interaction of racism and beauty is woven into our media, from Seventeen magazine to Penthouse. The woman who tries hard to be the DREAM GIRL displays her loyalty to patriarchal images of woman; the woman who lightens her skin and straightens her hair displays her loyalty to the essential racist ethic: white is good, black is bad. The men who own the cosmetics industry make a good deal of money off both of them.

He: Can I come home with you tonight?
She: No, I need my beauty sleep.
He: That's all right, I'm not interested in any part of you that's beautiful.

--Joke from Playboy magazine



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