Beauty on the Outside

Why do people care about looking beautiful?

That’s really at the heart of Ms. Kaw’s essay about plastic surgery to attempt to look more Caucasian and Ms. Mernissi’s comparison of the hajib with the strictures of Western size prejudices.

It’s not just a human question. The same thing happens in the animal kingdom. Huge expenditures of time, resources, and effort go into the effort to present oneself as attractive. There, in the primarily biological world, it is a straightforward matrix. In order to preserve species viability, it’s important for the more superfluous gender to be healthy, free of parasites, and well able to provide for the young. A peacock’s tail, the flashy mating dances of mammals and birds alike – all thesee things are signals of fitness and health.

A common sociobiological explanation for the behaviors noted by Kaw and Mernissi would compare human alterations of appearance to the reproductive signals of a parrot. While equally appealing and repellent in its simplicity, such an explanation is fundamentally flawed on the face of it. Courtship and status displays are used in the animal world as a symbolic proxy for other values – health, caring, fitness. We are not limited to such limited symbolism.

Instead, there are numerous proxies for suitability of a mate, status, and most any ranking measure that can be devised for humans. These symbolic measures are legion; further, each symbol can have multiple meanings. The functions are retained, but the forms are varied. It’s this ambiguity that makes discerning the differences between forms so difficult.

In Ms. Kaw’s essay, she illustrates this ambiguity through the subject’s ambiguity towards the surgery. They will state that they are undergoing surgery to look “their best as women”. However, they clearly ascribe status and personality traits to the same racialized traits they find unattractive. This relationship – with the causational elements reversed from the biological world – is noted explicitly in noting that altering features is seen to alter perception of behavioral characteristics.

The routinization of these standards is through the exclusion of everything outside those standards; even in attempts to be sensitive can still result in the exclusion of types outside of the primary “norm”.

Ms. Mernissi experiences this with the store clerk’s bewilderment, stating that “Deviant sizes…can be bought in special stores”. Aside from the (convenient) narration of social norms by the clerk, there is the genuine shock and horror at the questioning of the status quo.
The status is kept quo (insert Dr. Horrible laugh here!) both by the enumerated media pressures, but also through the medical literature. As Ms. Kaw notes, even articles attempting to be sensitive to racialized bias retain the watermark of prejudice. We also see this in the medical literature that still refuses to acknowledge the possibility of someone being both “clinically overweight” and healthy. The prejudice – both in the literature and among medical workers themselves – is that “obesity” as measured by a height and weight chart must always be correlated with diabetes, coronary artery disease, and arthritis.

Yet, despite the pressure from the media and from our authorities, the strictures are artificial. Ms. Mernissi experiences this with the clerk’s fascination with stores not having clothes sizes. We can experience it any time that we not only negate the dominant paradigm, but assert that a workable alternative is not only viable, but natural.