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Lookism

July 18, 2011

In 1978, Louis Tietje and Steven Cresap created the concept of “Lookism.” The idea was that independent of gender, the way people looked affected the outcomes of their lives. Beauty was not only in the eye of the beholder, it prejudiced the beholder’s attitudes and judgments and stereotyped the meaning of that beauty. A decade or so later, Naomi Wolf, herself not ugly, wrote a wrenching tome despairing the evils of “Lookism,” The Beauty Myth. Easy for her to say…

The fact that pretty people have an advantage over the rest of us is one of those truisms that most people don’t want to acknowledge, because most of us simply don’t have the visual chops to benefit from the benefits of “Lookism.”

Virtually every heterosexual male knows that there is an autonomic biological softening of suspicion and objectivity when a visually appealing woman deals with them. Obviously, those of us who take pride in being in control make an effort to overcome it, but the truth is the initial effect is undeniable and real.

With the Sexual Revolution of the 70s, women have begun to acknowledge that reality as well. Women watching “Sex in the City” revel in the fact that visually appealing males have an enormous advantage over those who were not.

“Lookism” is real. It is also mixed up in the idea that somehow the person who has the aesthetic gravitas to pull off being “beautiful” has achieved something other than a genetic accident and in some incoherent way earned that result.

I’m often bemused when I approach a baby who is, in fact, “beautiful.” In remarking how lovely the child is, the parents say, “thank you.” I did not know that they actually sculpted the facial features of that child. In the same way, fashion models put on exquisite garb that costs tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars and look fabulous. But those same animated mannequins would look great with a burlap bag thrown over their form.

On the flip side, we are hard wired to think that fat people are uglier than thin people and that certain facial characteristics are more appealing than others. But unlike the cultural revolutionaries of 40 years ago, I honestly believe the beauty sieve is more like the appendix – something that has no reason to exist now, can have unavoidable negative consequences, but seldom triumphs over our lives unless we do not objectively deal with it.

When you live your life for the approval of others, you lose a part of yourself to the perception of others. That doesn’t mean it’s okay to gain a hundred pounds as I did over thirty years nor does it mean that the vanity that caused me to lose the hundred pounds was illegitimate.

It is one of the great imponderables to understand why Isabella Rossellini was universally viewed as being visually superior to Golda Meir. Golda was elected president of a country steeped in tradition – previously male dominated. She also had control of a lot of nuclear weapons. Isabella more or less had an acting career and sold overpriced stuff. Life is not fair and the Isabella’s of the world have a power that a truly powerful Golda can’t have without thermonuclear devices.

But there is new realization afloat. The gigantic bulge in the demographic snake known as the “boomer generation” is aging. Aging by definition takes things that were viewed as beautiful for several decades and changes them. “Change is not easy.” I do know several people who actually look better now than they did 30 years ago. But those are a few people out of several thousand.

To be frank, getting older makes people feel like they are visually less appealing whether they are or not. But like Don Quixote, tilting against the windmill of time does not affect the windmill very much. Unfortunately, tilting against aging could mean a great deal of expense, time and surgery. And the results are never good.

You might as well buy fans to blow away rain clouds, lean to one side to alter the earth’s wobble for a longer summer, or go to university to learn how to get your 20/20 vision back. Certain things just don’t happen no matter how much you want them to and aging will happen no matter how much you don’t want it to. And the fact that the world thinks that the way you look is a measure of who you are is really not your problem – it’s the world’s. And truth be told, no matter how you look, you probably see others with a view that is tainted by “Lookism.”

None of us have done anything to have hair fall out of the top of our head and start growing out of our nose. Now that we’ve all stopped smoking and most of us are worried about our weight, none of us are responsible for the fact that our skin wrinkles, sags and begins to look like crepe paper. We are staying out of the sun, we are taking the correct vitamins but we cannot reverse the tide of unrelenting change in each and every one of our bodies’ cell structures degrading over time.

So I have come to believe that I am not aging  – it’s just the unrelenting degradation of the components in every cell of my body. Since it’s happening at the cellular level, angst seems pretty absurd and futile. It is the same outrage felt over the change in a parent that has Alzheimer’s or the tendonitis in my left knee that takes weeks to go away. It is the rage that we all feel when we lose control over anything.

When an airplane’s flight gets cancelled, when a thunderstorm ruins a picnic, when your child doesn’t get into Harvard, all of those things seem undeserved at the time. They tell you in no uncertain terms that no matter how well you prepared or how sincere you were in your motives, no matter how much time, effort and thought you put into an outcome, no outcome is ever guaranteed, because our most essential desirable outcome, to stay alive and be healthy, is not guaranteed.

As my generation grows older, we encounter more and more inexplicable deaths: cancer in people that engaged in no bad behaviors; faultless accidents or simply dropping dead brings home the point that the baseline of all perception – whether it’s the frustration over being denied an outcome or the unmerited pride over appearance – is subject to the sentient platform of existence that can so quickly be lost.

So when you look in the mirror and see that you have changed and have changed in some ways that have left you heartbroken or outraged, realize that at least you are there to look into the mirror. Because, soon enough, every one of us will be looking into a glass, darkly – and none of us really know what we will be seeing.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Cathi permalink
    July 19, 2011 6:59 am

    Great reminder Duo! While the world spins relentlessly below our feet and flies ’round and ’round the sun – all beyond our control, I find a good sense of humor and a nurtured ability to perceive or transcend each moment of our existence to be the keys to coping with the randomness…. 😉

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