In this week's edition of Newsweek, columnist Dahlia Lithwick discusses the "massive social problem" of "appearance bias." Her column begins:
"If you are anything like me, you left the theater after Sex and the City 2 and thought, there ought to be a law against a looks-based culture in which the only way for 40-year-old actresses to be compensated like 40-year-old actors is to have them look and dress like the teenage daughters of 40-year-old actors. You can't even look at Sarah Jessica Parker without longing to feed her croissants."
Well, I've never longed to feed SJP anything, but I'm on board for the rest of her claim. Ageism is alive and well at the movies. When Catherine Zeta Jones plays the love interest of an almost 70-year-old Sean Connery or Maggie Gyllenhall is paired with an aging Jeff Bridges, no one blinks an eye. But switch it around to an older woman/younger man scenario, and she's disparagingly referred to as a "cougar," and the relationship becomes the stuff of comedy.
But it's not simply ageism. My dissertation dealt with beauty theory, and I find it fascinating. There's no denying that humans (all ages, both genders) are drawn to beauty. I remember watching a segment of some news show in which they'd trained two kindergarten teachers--one very pretty, one not-so-attractive--to teach the same lesson in exactly the same way. After the two teachers taught, the reporter asked the children, "Which teacher is the best teacher?" The answer? You guessed it--the pretty one won out, every time. Psychologist Nancy Etcoff argues that beauty preference is biological--we can't help it. It represents health, the survival of our species,and even the survival of our own genes.
However, feminists like Naomi Wolf argue that it's more than a natural preference for facial symmetry, the proper layout of features, good proportion, and a straight profile. She sees beauty expectations as coercive, sexist power-plays, and historian Arthur Marwick warns that any beauty theory that leaves out the power of sexual desire is incomplete.
In Lithwick's Newsweek article, she talks about a new book by Deborah Rhode, a professor of law at Stanford, called The Beauty Bias, in which she "proposes a legal regime in which discrimination on the basis of looks is as serious as discrimination based on gender or race." Very interesting. But is that even possible? I've already ordered the book, so I'll give you an update on it after it comes in and I've read it. I'm pretty sure it'll move to the top of my to-read list.