beauty, sex + power?




I went to an exhibit called BEAUTY CULTURE and saw a documentary by Lauren Greenfield in which a woman said something like, “People think that we’re living in a beauty culture now…but we have always been living in a beauty culture.”

I like to look at beautiful women. I admit it.

I’m hardly alone in this; BEAUTY CULTURE is the most popular exhibit the Annenberg Space for Photography has ever shown. A slowly shuffling line of attendees snaked past the walls of photographs.

“There aren’t any pictures of men,” I pointed out to my boyfriend. Although the exhibit didn’t claim to be about women specifically, it didn’t even pretend to take an interest in beautiful males.

(And it’s interesting that male supermodels make a fraction of the money and get a fraction of the attention that female supermodels do. This can’t be just a ‘male gaze’ thing; if women wanted to look at pictures of beautiful men the way some of us want to read vampire novels, for example, I have a feeling that chiseled males in various stages of seductive undress would be selling us everything from makeup to furniture to luxury vacations to wine to footwear.)

And it struck me that men aren’t celebrated for their sexual power, because in men, power is sexual. Their sexuality is expressed through what they do and who they are…not just what they look like.


Our fascination with gorgeous women is like our fascination with sex: visceral, primal and unlikely to go away anytime soon. I’m not sure I would even want it to. I kind of agree with a woman in a different documentary (also about female beauty) who cheered, “Let’s hear it for the hot young things! Where would we be without them?”

The problem I have is with the disconnect, the distance that our culture tries to put between the fact of ‘beauty’ — and the woman who has it. What you see in photographs is an attempt to isolate that beauty, to freeze one perfect moment brought about by god knows how many hours of makeup and hair and stylists and lighting and so on and so forth, to turn it into a thing that will never change, age, or evolve in any way.

This is the kind of ‘beauty’ that becomes a caricature of itself. It’s got nowhere to go. It’s a definition of being beautiful that, among other things, is embedded in being young, and not even the greatest of beauties can be young forever.

And when I walk around Beverly Hills, I can see them: women in their fifties or sixties, brittle-thin, hair dyed and shellacked in place, their faces stretched and freeze-dried. I saw one of the most famous women in the world come into my gym every now and again, with that same preserved ‘look’ from so many years ago – except, now, drained of all the movement and sensuality that made her so magnetic in the first place.


There is no real sense of personhood in our definition of beauty. Beauty gets abstracted, presented as a set of standards for us to live up to – and those standards change just often enough to keep us off-balance. It’s kind of like a lover who makes us want him all the more because even when you have him, you don’t really have him (or her).

Beauty is static, inanimate and perfect.

Human beings are none of these things.

To meet those standards – to try to meet those standards – we’re encouraged to turn ourselves into objects, distorted versions of youth where our faces used to be.

What the fuck?

We collude in this, we continue to fuel the beauty industry, because on some level we grow up believing that a very singular and narrow definition of beauty will bring us love, and that female sexuality translates to power in the world.

The problem, of course, is that these things aren’t true.


When I was 19 and living on Nantucket Island for two weeks, I noticed how the people around me – including my boyfriend at the time, including the very lovely middle-aged couple we stayed with – spoke with disdain about pretty, supposedly less-than-bright girls. When I asked my female host about this, she seemed surprised. She had to think for a moment: “I guess it’s because things come easy to them. They don’t really have to work for anything.”

From my vantage point now, that’s an interesting statement to think about. What is it, exactly, that comes so easily to pretty women? Love and money? How many clubgirls, aspiring models and actresses would agree with that? I suspect they’d be more likely to resonate with Michelle Pfeiffer’s statement that Beautiful women get used a lot. If people are only interested in you for your looks, then you’re not a person, you’re a commodity; and you get discarded.


We complain about people who need too much attention, but the truth is that we all require some degree of it: it’s as if some primitive part of the brain equates it with love and survival.

But if the rest of us don’t feel that you’ve properly ‘earned’ it, we resent you for it. And we’re so quick to resent girls and women. We make snide remarks behind their backs (and sometimes to their faces). We massacre them in online forums. This girl was assaulted in a public place – by other girls – for posting provocative, artistic photographs of her exceptionally attractive self online.

And this is the strange thing about female beauty: if, by some freak of genetics, you actually have it, you’re not supposed to admit to knowing you have it (and if this can’t be helped, because denying your beauty would make you seem like an imbecile – like with supermodels — then you need to stress what an ugly duckling you were as a child). You’re not supposed to knowingly use your looks to get attention (like the girl above) —-because then you’re a slut.

You’re also not taken seriously.

There seems to be an unspoken law in this culture that in order to be a powerful woman….you should be asexual. Your own sexuality can undercut you; it can be used against you. Two of the most powerful, brilliant, strategic and political women in history – Cleopatra and Catherine the Great – are remembered, respectively, for being a wanton manipulative seductress, and for having sex with a horse: not because these things are true, but because of the rumors that their enemies carefully and artfully spread about them after they died (it’s hard to defend yourself when you’re dead).

If this is power, it’s a very strange form of it.


I fantasize about a culture that celebrates women not (just) for being exotic objects of beauty, but for being sensual.

Sensuality, to me, is about who you are as a person, how you move and laugh and talk and think and style yourself and relate to other people. It’s the fullness of your life. It’s your charisma and your character.

Prettiness fades, but sensuality evolves.

Sensuality is living and organic; it’s not a thing, but an energy.

Sensuality can’t be disconnected from a woman’s personhood the way beauty can, because sensuality is expressed through her personhood. Which is why, ultimately, sensuality fascinates in a way that beauty does not. The greatest courtesans in history weren’t necessarily beautiful, or even young – but they knew how to evoke the senses, how to provoke and dazzle and charm. They did it, of course, to survive; they had to capture, and hold, the imagination of their patrons.

What if we simply did that for ourselves?

What if, instead of being hot, we encouraged girls to be fascinating?

What if we gave girls attention and recognition simply for being their own lovely, creative, complicated selves? What if we celebrated them for doing well in school, for chasing and achieving professional success, financial independence? What if girls looked out at the culture and saw women celebrated not just as models and actresses and the reality TV stars that we love to hate, but teachers and nurses and doctors and engineers and investment bankers and mothers (including single mothers) and artists and orchestra conductors and politicians and venture capitalists and entrepreneurs? What if we expected and demanded of them to develop their minds and talents along with their wardrobes?

What if we didn’t punish them for seeking attention, but offered them lots of legitimate, constructive ways to do so?

We give all of this lip service, of course.

But what if we actually meant it?

Dec 2, 2011

10 comments · Add Yours

A woman who is pretty will not be considered intelligent, but an intelligent woman, by and by, will be considered pretty by some. Beauty is interesting on a personal level. It is affected by our perception and knowledge of the other’s behaviour and personality. Someone may pass you up in a glance, but if you are intelligent and capture people’s attention through what you do and what you say, then they may eventually see you as more attractive than they thought you before.

So I’d rather not leave beauty (aka ability to command attention) to chance, I prefer to cultivate it. You’re right, a fascinating woman > a beautiful woman.


Is striving to be sensual or fascinating that different from striving to be prettier? It seems like you’re still advocating striving for attention. Why celebrate doing well in school? Isn’t that just encouraging students to conform to still another arbitrary construct that divides the world into haves and have-nots?

Rather than striving for new distractions, we need to learn how to rest in awareness of the world as it is. Attention is our only true resource. We can learn to rest in attention to our own needs, and in the needs of others. Applying attention to anything, anything at all, shows the world in its full complexity and beauty — the beauty that is intrinsic to all existence, not the tickling of a passing stimulus.


@cl I”m not advocating ‘striving for attention’; attention is a basic human need, and ‘striving for it’ happens regardless; my point is that our attention goes to what we value, girls see this, and attempt to ‘be’ that. So if we shifted our collective attention to noticing and recognizing different things about them — things that encouraged girls to develop aspects of their lives that involve competence, mastery, social connection, and make them feel like they have control over their lives — all things that, as positive psychologists will tell you, are necessary for a sense of well-being and happiness — then maybe girls will feel more valued for who they are as opposed to what they look like or should look like. Sensuality, fascination — these are intrinsic qualities a girl can cultivate through cultivating her sense of identity, her relationship with her body, herself, her interests and passions, and the world. A hell of a lot different than ‘being pretty’. And I said ‘celebrate doing well in school’ specifically because it’s the highest-achieving girls who, as a group, get the *least* amount of attention in schools. So — if attention goes to what we value — and since what we put our attention on, grows — what kind of message does that send to girls about what we think of them as intellectual, rather than physical, beings?


@Aurooba Ahmed Hi Aurooba! Thank you for your comment — reminds me of an observation my therapist once made, about how “you can be a pretty woman or a smart woman, this culture has a problem allowing you to be both”. And I agree — fascination is beautiful. :)


Interesting thoughts. There is something about a woman’s spirit that can transcend age. Some of the truly more beautiful women I know are not young, but older, joy-filled, and young at heart.


I agree with your definition of sensuality. The women who embrace themselves are most attractive/interesting/beautiful to me. I glance at celeb stuff from time to time and the women who are all trying to look like each other I can never keep straight or bother with. It’s the ones who play up what made them beautiful/get noticed in the first place that I’ll remember the names of.


I REALLY enjoyed your analysis here. If you felt the exhibition was thought provoking, then you’d probably love WAYS OF SEEING, a classic (book is based on the BBC’s 1972 documentary series) by John Berger. It really opened my eyes to western cultural aesthetics, and how it has forever influenced art and our concept of beauty.


I love your emphasis on the fascinating power of a vivacious, dynamic personality. This is much deeper beauty, and so much more fulfilling in our experience as humans. I agree wholeheartedly with this quote from your post:

Beauty is static, inanimate and perfect.

Human beings are none of these things.

Thank you for taking such a strong stance for real, beautiful women. :)


Wonderful thoughts on the subject!

Things that are beautifulsexypowerful to me: Charisma, self-confidence, and living life with supreme mojo.


beauty + sex + love = female power

brains/brawn + status + ‘live’ (money or other assets) = male power

“And it struck me that men aren’t celebrated for their sexual power, because in men, power is sexual. Their sexuality is expressed through what they do and who they are…not just what they look like.” REALLY? How many hot women TRULY enjoy sex with a guy like say Bill Gates?


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