On beauty


8 February 2007, 12.18 CET

Another Dove ad, focusing on girls’ insecurities about their looks, concludes, “Every girl deserves to feel good about herself and see how beautiful she really is.” Here, Dove is encouraging the myth that physical beauty is a false concept, and, at the same time, falsely equating beauty with goodness and self-worth. If you don’t see perfection in the mirror, it suggests, you’ve been duped by the media and suffer from low self-esteem.

But adult women have a more realistic view. “Only two percent of women describe themselves as beautiful,” trumpets the headline of Dove’s press release. Contrary to what the company wants readers to believe, however, that statistic doesn’t necessarily represent a crisis of confidence; it may simply reflect the power of the word beautiful. Dove’s surveys don’t ask women if they think they’re unattractive or ugly, so it’s hard to differentiate between knowing you have flaws, believing you’re acceptably but unimpressively plain, and feeling worthlessly hideous. In another Dove survey, 88 percent of the American women polled said they’re at least somewhat satisfied with their face, while 76 percent said they’re at least somewhat satisfied with their body. But dissatisfaction is not the same as unhappiness or insecurity.

Like the rest of the genetic lottery, beauty is unfair. Everyone falls short of perfection, but some are luckier than others. Real confidence requires self-knowledge, which includes recognizing one’s shortcomings as well as one’s strengths. At a recent conference on biological manipulations, I heard a philosopher declare during lunch that she’d never have plastic surgery or even dye her hair. But, she confessed, she’d pay just about anything for fifteen more IQ points. This woman is not insecure about her intelligence, which is far above average; she’d just like to be smarter. Asking women to say they’re beautiful is like asking intellectuals to say they’re geniuses. Most know they simply don’t qualify.

—Virginia Postrel, “The Truth About Beauty,” The Atlantic Monthly 299:2, March 207, pp. 125-127.

[via Arts & Letters Daily]