Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Beauty Myth

I just read an interesting book called “The Beauty Myth” by Naomi Wolf, which is a condemnation of the advertising industry and related industries that perpetuate the mythology of the “perfect woman”. This mythology leads to the idea that if a woman does not match up to some “ideal” she is therefore “imperfect”. Also, this myth legitimizes the behavior of judging women based on their appearance (regardless of the context, e.g., as in her capabilities as a scientist).

It is a natural human tendency to judge people on their looks, but it is taken to the extreme when it comes to females. People (especially men) seem to feel free to comment on a woman’s looks, which is demeaning enough. But when the comments are made about women whose jobs do not depend on their appearance, it suggests some deeper psychological motivation. My observation is that some people, failing to find fault in a woman’s performance, will ultimately attack her based on her appearance (too old, too ugly, too fat)—as if that has any bearing on whether she is doing her job well. I have rarely heard a man criticized in the same way—especially when it comes to job performance.

Wolf hypothesizes that the multi-billion dollar industries dependent upon the myth: cosmetics, dieting, plastic surgery, etc., have exaggerated this treatment of women (and their perceptions of themselves). There has been an explosive expansion of these industries since women gained equal rights and entered the workforce (which Wolf argues is not a coincidence). The myth encourages women to spend their hard-earned dollars trying to achieve an unattainable goal—perfection (or at least their lost, youthful appearance). The promise: buy our product, and you will move closer to the “ideal” (created by the industry).

This all made me wonder about women in science—a field often characterized as being populated by odd, unattractive characters (both male and female). Of course, we know that scientists are no more or less attractive than the larger population, but the popular perception is that the distribution is skewed toward the homely end of the spectrum, especially for female scientists. Might this influence a girl’s choice of science as a career? Are women who choose science as a career more resistant to the “beauty myth” and more likely to disavow the need for cosmetics, diets, plastic surgery, and other means of achieving the physical “ideal” for women promoted by Madison Avenue? Is there a difference between women of my generation (Baby Boomers) and the younger generation of female scientists—who grew up watching CSI and other shows that glamorize science geeks?

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