So why, why, why are women judged so harshly on their looks, to the exclusion of nearly every other attribute they may have? I've given it a lot of thought, and I really think it comes down to two words:
Or just one word: Sexism.
I found that there is no way to talk about the beauty conundrum without bringing up sexism, the idea that women are intrinsically inferior to men.
Part of what male privilege entails is that a man, any man, can comment on any woman's level of attractiveness, her body, her clothes, her scent, at any time, in any situation, to her, or about her, as if his opinion on it mattered. As if he was the arbiter of women's appearances. It's a man telling a woman to smile. It's a woman breast feeding in public being seeing as doing something sexualized and indecent, and forced to cover up. It's men telling women how thin they should be, what to wear, how to speak, and what is acceptable behavior. It's basically the assumption that the way women present themselves in society at all times is for the pleasure and approval of men.
It's more than that, of course. Way more. I can't even go into it all in this blog post.
When a woman is insulted first and foremost on her appearance, when it is her ideas and actions a man disagrees with, the patriarchy has done its job of keeping women "in their place." It doesn't seem to matter what a woman or girl is saying, boys (and other girls) think they've laid down the ultimate smack-down when they call her fat and/or ugly, because they have struck at the heart of what our male-dominated society says is important for being a woman.
"You may not agree with a woman, but to criticize her appearance - as opposed to her ideas or actions - isn't doing anyone any favors, least of all you. Insulting a woman's looks when they have nothing to do with the issue at hand implies a lack of comprehension on your part, an inability to engage in high-level thinking. You may think she's ugly, but everyone else thinks you're an idiot." - Hilary Clinton
"A woman's beauty is supposed to be her grand project and constant insecurity. We're meant to shellac our lips with five different glosses, but always think we're fat. Beauty is Zeno's paradox. We should endlessly strive for it, but it's not socially acceptable to admit we're there. We can't perceive it in ourselves. It belongs to the guy screaming "nice tits." - Molly Crabapple, "The World of a Professional Naked Girl" (via delacroix)
This is partly what male privilege does. A woman can't "own" her attractiveness; can't be proud of her appearance the same way a guy can (You don't know you're beautiful; that's what makes you beautiful). She is always perceived as dressing up, putting on makeup, losing weight, etc., to compete for male attention. It's unthinkable that a woman might cultivate her appearance simply because it pleases her. And I've heard men make the statement that "women don't dress for men; they dress for other women." While it's true, women will dress themselves nicely even when they are going to be exclusively in the company of other women, and we pay attention to things that most men don't even notice, like plucking eyebrows or cute shoes, it's two-fold: 1) we've been socialized from an early age to care about our appearance as a way to gain esteem, and therefore yes, we value this in each other, and 2) many of us just like pretty things like shoes and dresses and artistic makeup and appreciate seeing them displayed on actual people.
Being attractive also affects men and women differently. For men, it can net them higher pay and a more attractive spouse, but for women, it effects every aspect of her life. Beauty affects women's happiness more than men's, researchers say, and Hamermesh explained why that's so to USA Today:
"For a woman, it just matters to walk down the street being good-looking. It hurts to walk down the street being bad-looking," Hamermesh says. "For a man, beauty's direct relation to happiness is not as great. It will give you a better-looking wife, a higher-earning wife and - most important - extra earnings."
Some have tried to argue that women can "work on their appearance" the same way a man works at an actual job, but that is a false equivalence. From the article:
Hamermesh said to USA Today "I know all the cosmetics folks and clothes folks say they can make you prettier, but the evidence for it just isn't there," he says, citing a 2002 study he conducted that looked at the effect of buying better clothes, hair and cosmetics.
"It doesn't help much. ... Your beauty is determined to a tremendous extent by the shape of your face, by its symmetry and how everything hangs together."
A man telling women they just need to work out, wear makeup and dress nicer, etc., to get ahead in life (whether it be attracting a mate or earning more money) is especially insulting given that men then turn around and proclaim they want a "natural beauty" who "doesn't need makeup" and deride a woman who "looks fake" with "all that paint on her face."
Everyone likes attractive-looking people to some degree. If our eyes are functional, we rely heavily on visual information to take in the world around us and make judgements about it. And attractiveness, to a certain extent, can be an indicator of health and fitness. Smooth skin, shiny hair, bright eyes, appropriate body weight, etc., are often indicators of whether we eat right, exercise, and get plenty of rest. Proper grooming and good hygiene indicate we take pride in ourselves and do our best to not offend others with an unkempt look or ungodly smells. It's a good indication that we have not gone batshit insane and that we do what's necessary to make ourselves acceptable to be around. Naturally, this varies depending on what social circles you revolve in.
But women don't go around making comments about how appealing a guys' appearance is directly to him, especially when he didn't even ask. Because it's nobody's damn business. In general, women don't end an argument with a guy by calling them fat or ugly (or slutty).
BUT even if they did, I doubt it would have the same impact on men that it does on women because, again, men aren't taught to derive their self-worth from their appearance (or sexual purity - another can of worms I don't have space to go into right now). Men aren't open to input on their appearance because they haven't been socialized to care what others think about it the same way women have.
Men are valued for other qualities in society, and I know those come with their own pressures: being successful in a career, being smart, being physically capable of a multitude of manly tasks, like chopping wood, changing a tire, and throwing a baseball. But the difference is that a man's primary value lies in skills and achievements. He is valued for things that are easily quantifiable, things one can work toward and gradually improve. A man is valued primarily for his merits and personality.
Overweight women don't get paid as much as average-weight women. Meanwhile, overweight men get paid more than average-weight men. Guess who is usually in charge of hiring decisions and pay increases? (Hint: it's typically not women).
"But...but...evolution and natural selection has shaped us over thousands of years so that women's attractiveness and men's ambition and achievement are rewarded!"
Sure, being an ambitious successful man will no doubt increase your chances of finding an appropriate mate, similar to how being a beautiful woman will increase your chances. But being a "successful" man is its own reward, and all that success and money and privilege will grant you a comfortable retirement when you're old. Whereas attractiveness, especially for women, where it is so intertwined with their youth, is a depreciating asset that is eventually lost. It's something every little girl is taught to aspire to, but that is not realistically achievable for the majority of us. At least, not for very long. Furthermore, beauty is often a curse in its own right, as attractive women are a target: sexually for men, and competitively for other women. Yes, the patriarchy has long convinced many women to turn on each other and compete for male attention. If you're of the female persuasion and you've ever hated another person of the female persuasion because you perceived her to be more attractive than you by whatever standard of beauty society has held up at the time, then congratulations, you've bought into the Patriarchy's power plays. I've seen this too often among teenagers and young women, and it saddens me.
Both sexes can be guilty of judging people on appearances, and some people are catty when it comes to someone else's choice of dress or appearance. Hell, some have even made a whole career out of it. But women who diss other women's looks are shooting themselves in the foot. If you play into the paradigm that the patriarchy is enforcing, it doesn't matter if you are the prettiest player on the field; you're still not playing on equal footing. The patriarchy doesn't acknowledge that you are fully human; you have been "othered." You may be a more desirable object, but you're still an object, seen primarily for how sexually desirable you are.
Men need to realize that women are human beings, and everything about their existence is valid and has worth apart from what anyone else thinks about them. They don't need men to validate them by commenting on how fuckable they may be. And women often need to realize this too (especially teenagers and younger women). The patriarchy hurts both sexes, as it wants to fit everyone neatly into its little gendered boxes. Men are held up to idealized standards like breadwinner, toughness, and hiding emotions, while women, in less obvious but more systematic and insidious ways, are still treated as objects, valued for diminishing qualities beyond their control; youth and beauty.