The Paradox of ‘Pretty’

Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women’s Lives takes aim at a culture that tells women they should be beautiful, and that they should never feel beautiful enough.

Navesh Chitrakar / Reuters

Have you heard of the pencil test? It goes like this: Put a pencil under one of your breasts. If the pencil falls, then good news for you, friend: You are the owner of a pair of perky bosoms. If the writing implement remains aloft, however—prevented by flesh from falling to the floor—then this is evidence of, if you’ll pardon the language, sag. The un-fallen pencil indicates that gravity has won out, yet again, with its victim being not just your chest, but also—this is the real point of the test—your sexual relevance.

It should go without saying that the pencil test is, its vaguely sciency application of gravitational forces notwithstanding, exceedingly stupid. But so desperate are we—“we,” as a cultural collective, and “we,” as women in particular—for signs of our status within the great hierarchy of human hotness that the test has been deployed by women who are otherwise thoughtful, otherwise rational, and otherwise not prone to using office supplies as scientific instruments.

Autumn Whitefield-Madrano is one of those women: She took the test on a lark, having arrived at her 30s, to measure her own bosomic perk. As she writes in her new book Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women’s Lives, amused in retrospect at her folly, “It probably doesn’t take a degree in women’s studies to see the ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ trap at play here. Standing there in my kitchen, I laughed out loud when I realized I’d done the same test 20 years prior”—that time around to determine whether her breasts were developed enough to, yep, hold a pencil in place. “I mean, what’s the sweet spot?” she asks. “To indicate that its subject is properly breasted, should the pencil stay but shake loose after six seconds? Dangle by the eraser? Levitate?

There is no sweet spot; the pencil test is yet one more way that the assorted expectations of our aesthetic existence have exerted themselves on a culture that is at once obsessed with beauty and dismissive of it. It’s been 25 years since the publication of The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf’s scathing—and best-selling—critique of the beauty industry; the intervening decades have seen the rise of, among many other things, Jezebel/the term “unretouched photos”/the term “empowerment”/Amy Schumer/several iterations of the Dove “real beauty” campaign/consumerized feminism. They are also decades, however, that have seen the rise of Sephora and Spanx and the architectural heights of celebrity stilettos.

Wolf’s beauty myth—beauty as a social force that is informed by a collision of capitalistic urges and outdated cultural assumptions—has retained its mythic status: Whoever you are, and however you see yourself as a person and as an object in the world (which is also to say, however you see other people seeing you), its forces will exert themselves on your life. Yet in an age of internet-driven cultural awareness, the myth has given way to something more nebulous and perhaps even more pernicious: a beauty imperative that is not only pervasive, but also, in many ways, fundamentally at odds with itself.

That’s one conclusion, at any rate, that you can take away from Face Value. Beauty, with its hazy, heady mix of aspiration and anxiety, tends to be both excessively documented and poorly understood, in part because of a culture-wide confusion when it comes to beauty’s various, often unspoken, mandates. (The word “beautiful,” Whitefield-Madrano points out, shares a proto-Indo-European root with bene, the Latin for good; we still, on some level, read moral messages into appearances, though we are now generally self-conscious enough to preface any such readings with a palliative “not to be superficial, but …”)

The messy relationship women, in particular, have with beauty derives in part from another paradox: The beauty imperative sees attractiveness on the one hand as a goal to be strived for, but on the other as something that must be strived for silently and with a degree of embarrassment. The current culture demands that women work for compliments when it comes to our appearance, but also that we not, for the most part, accept them—to be obsessed with our looks, but also, per the delicate dance that must be done between “ego” and “egotism,” to hate them. “The assumed marriage of insecurity and beauty,” Whitefield-Madrano puts it, “creates an expectation that we stick to a particular storyline—we can admit we look good only if we’ve already paid our dues of not liking how we look.”

It’s a tangled web: beauty as objective, and genetic, and Darwinian—atoms, arranged just so—but beauty, also, as unpaid labor whose results are intimately connected to social worth, perceived and otherwise. For humans caught in that web, male and especially female, it can be a frustrating, not to mention exhausting, thing to navigate.

The author has an academic background in women’s studies and a professional one in editing women’s magazines; she has, for the past several years, been combining both areas of expertise in her blog The Beheld, which explores the beauty imperative as both a lived reality and a sociological phenomenon. (Tagline: “beauty, and what it means.”) Face Value is the outgrowth of that project, and its purpose is to tease out the nuances and contradictions inherent in the beauty imperative so that our conversations about its impact can be better informed—and thus more productive. “Beauty invites gaps in our thinking,” Whitefield-Madrano writes. She wants her book to help “to close these gaps by challenging our assumptions, looking at beauty not only in terms of gender, power, and low self-esteem but sisterhood, ideology, and identity.”

The topics at hand (ideally, of course, a well-moisturized one) will feel familiar to anyone who is already conversant with the ideas Wolf tackled in 1991: the media’s effect on women’s self-image; scientists’ Sisyphean attempts to quantify physical attractiveness; corporations’ vested interest in the propagation of feminine insecurity. Where Whitefield-Madrano distinguishes herself, though, is in her partially subjective approach to those topics—an approach informed not just by her own life (the pencil test!), but also by those of the women, and to a lesser extent the men, she interviews. She starts with herself as a test case for the contradictions she is illuminating: She is both a feminist and a nearly lifelong lover of makeup. She is self-confident and, at times, unsure of herself. She loves what beauty represents; she also hates it. Understanding those contradictions within her own experience, Whitefield-Madrano examines the scientific literature, and finds similar contradictions and nuances played out at the level of the culture.

The result of all this: Wherever there is a conventional, easy conclusion or stereotype about beauty’s role in human lives (“women wear makeup because they’re insecure,” “the media make women feel bad about themselves,” etc.), she injects doubt, and detail, and nuance. Images of models with glossy hair and taut skin and thigh gaps may make women dissatisfied with what they see in the mirror; those images, just as readily, can serve as aspirational fantasies that have no bearing, and occasionally even a positive one, on women’s self-esteem. Beauty may cause jealousy between women; just as often, though, the shared recognition of its expectations and requirements can bond women together. Makeup, far from being smearable evidence of feminine insecurity, is used by many women as a tool of self-expression. (“Cosmetics” derives from the Greek kosmos, which means both “adornment” and also, more interestingly, “order.”)

When a culture is so tangled up in its own contradictory anxieties, teasing out the nuances is precisely the kind of effort—and Face Value is precisely the kind of book—that can be beneficial: We need to understand the paradoxes we have internalized if we are to have any hope of unknotting them. And Whitefield-Madrano is an expert guide in all that, writing with a cheerful, blog-inflected tone (one of Face Value’s chapters is called “Hotties, Foxes, and Cankles”) and yet citing the studies and the people you’d expect: Simone de Beauvoir, Sigmund Freud, Erving Goffman, Aristotle. (She doesn’t mention Foucault, but his theories about the power structures that shape human lives whisper, insistently, from the periphery.)

Where Face Value is slightly less rigorous, though, is in the particularities of beauty mandates as they are experienced by minority women. Whitefield-Madrano, at the outset, promises that she will try to be as diverse and inclusive as possible in her selections of the people she interviews and highlights. She does indeed address the particular frustrations of normative beauty standards as experienced by queer women, the ways that bonding and competing over beauty affect them. But while she notes that “certainly women of color navigate a different set of challenges in regard to beauty than white women do,” the nuance and detail that otherwise inform the book are less evident when it comes to those challenges.

Despite that shortcoming, though, Face Value is an immensely valuable work, one that seamlessly—and impressively—combines the tropes of the academic lit review and the memoir and the work of cultural criticism into an engaging, and timely, follow-up to The Beauty Myth and the other similar books that have come before. “Starting a conversation” is traditionally a very dull purpose for a book; in this case, though, Whitefield-Madrano makes a convincing case for the urgency of the conversation she hopes to have. We live in a confessional culture, provoked by social media and the internet and the warmth of the human impulse to share and admit and commiserate. And yet beauty—the thing that affects us all, for better or for worse—remains largely outside of the realm of rigorous discussion. That is in large part because its imperatives are judged to be too silly to be discussed in polite company—and, at the same time, too profoundly significant.