Friday, November 04, 2005

Why do we love to hate beautiful women?

First off, an open-ended question - why do we both exalt beauty and despise it at the same time? This is something I've wondered for a long time, but was reminded of when recently reading a biography of Rita Hayworth which reminded me of Hedy Lamarr. It got me thinking about our cult of beauty and the dark flip side that goes with it.

Let me narrow it down a bit though, because I'm already having trouble with rambling here. Why doesn't our society allow women to be intelligent, accomplished and beautiful? Or rather, since there have certainly been many women who have been all three, why does our society discourage women from being all three at the same time?

I'm actually most interested in why it is that women are particularly bad about this. There's often talk about men having all the control and setting unrealistic expectations for women, wanting to keep them in the kitchen, and so on, but I believe that it's other women who most actively fetter ambitious women, particularly if they are attractive and intelligent as well as ambitious.

I used to work in an office where there was a girl who was very attractive. Okay, she was beautiful. There was no arguing it either; she was beautiful. She was also young, wore mini-skirts and happened to be very intelligent. The first two things were held against her and the last was seldom acknowledged. Even now, I suspect that two of my friends from that office will be reading this over the weekend and smirking a bit. They know who I'm talking about and will likely relate my line of questioning to the line of the afore mentioned mini-skirts.

Anyway, what always struck me was that the people who had the most derogatory comments were always women. You didn't have to listen hard to hear the unspoken, 'I can't wait until you get married and have kids, we'll see how perky you are then...' in every exchange.

I can't count how many times I heard how slutty those mini-skirts were. Of course, they weren't called slutty, they were called inappropriate. (Inappropriate for your fat ass, was my usual unspoken thought.) But never once did any of those women take the 19-year-old girl at her first 'grown up' job aside and tell her this directly. It was just easier to be snide in the break room I guess.

Oddly, the people who had no problem acknowledging that she could be smart and beautiful were the men who worked in the same department as her and another girl - who also happened to be smart and beautiful - who spent most of her time in the same office area.

The story isn't a sad one though. She figured that she was being mocked and the length of her skirts increased and eventually turned into slacks, she mostly just ignored the other women, did her work and finished the college education that she was paying for herself, and is now the controller of the U.S. office of a German solar energy company. She's 25 years old.

So, why is it that we continue to believe that a woman can't be beautiful, smart and completely competent all at the same time when, clearly, they can be?

10 comments:

The Zombieslayer said...

Anyway, what always struck me was that the people who had the most derogatory comments were always women.

I know I'll get in trouble for saying this, but from experience, the biggest misogynists I've known besides stupid wife beaters were women. It's really sad. I wish women wouldn't be so cruel to other women.

My wife currently has two real close female friends. But I've seen first hand some women completely hate her because she's pulled herself up by her bootstraps and now is well off, but they say some real unkind things about her which I won't mention, which really isn't fair. It's much easier to be a "successful" man than a successful woman.

tshsmom said...

I think women have more self-esteem issues. Nasty women with poor self-esteem like to bash other women to make themselves feel superior.

Shawn said...

The thing I notice though is that it's not always nasty women who do the bashing...often it's otherwise nice women. But, you're right that it probably boils down to self-esteem issues.

Miranda said...

Women see flaws in attractive women that aren't there, particularly when the men they are interested in are interested in those women.

Men fail to see the flaws that attractive women have - until
they've dated those women and
broken up with them, or have
become frustrated at not getting
what they want from them.

It is a very interesting thing.

Shawn said...

Hmmm... Good points. You're right on both counts, M. I know the first example has been a clue about somebody's feelings in the past. And I know I've been totally guilty of the second on more than one occasion.

Sassy said...

Women who are beautiful, intellegent, sucessful, sexually assertive....these women often given terrible labels by other women. Its wrong. Women whould uplift and support one another. I think its a competition thing. Men compete in their vocations...women compete on a whole nutha' level.

nabbalicious said...

I'll admit to having been one of those women in the past, and while I do have my catty lapses, I've worked really hard to move on from that.

There's always someone better than you, and there's someone you're always better than, and tearing other people down does nothing to help anyone's case and it only makes you look terrible.

I found that accepting that gave me a better attitude!

Shawn said...

Sassy - Aint that the truth? I just wonder why it's like that.

Nabbalicious - I think we've all been guilty of it at some point. It's sad that there are so many 'grown up' women who never grow past it. It takes a conscious effort for most people to become accepting of others, it would be nice if more people made that effort.

sarah said...

I think Sassy's right in that women and men are just competitive in different ways (but competition among men isn't called "cattiness"--it usually takes other forms, such as having the better car, or whatnot). I also think our whole culture enforces the dichotomy between beautiful women and smart women--just look at our advertisements and what's on television. The biggest root of the problem, I think, is that much more stock is placed in beauty than anything else for women. And, for that reason, women often feel inferior if they don't feel beautiful--how many girls did you know in high school who pretended to not be as smart as they were because they wanted to be known for their looks and didn't want to step on anyone's toes? It's easy to be jealous of someone who is both pretty and smart because it seems unfair, and because it seems as those who are pretty get taken more seriously. But most women's perceptions of themselves are very skewed, and there's no reason for the jealousy to begin with--a lot of attractive women don't appear attractive simply because they carry themselves with no confidence. They believe they're ugly and that belief makes them vulnerable. Men don't have that kind of pressure when it comes to physical appearance, and if women weren't under this pressure, there wouldn't be room for cattiness. I really do hate it when women are catty because I think we've been through enough shit and have a duty to support one another. But supporting one another also means letting go of our individual insecurities and that's a lot easier said than done. This is why good people still exhibit meanness, however wrong it is.

Shawn said...

sarah - I think you hit a lot of nails on the head. It's just sad that insecurities are what motivate most of us...men and women.