It’s a habit people get into – they encounter a person and make judgements about how they look. To them it’s as if there’s a universal standard of what a beautiful man or woman looks like.
This judgement not only affects how many critique cisgender people but how they critique those who’ve chosen to present themselves as nonbinary, or those who have realized that to be themselves they must identify as transgender in the variety of ways that people identify with that reality.
Such judgements of who is good looking go beyond just saying that the looks of that person are not my personal idea of beauty by becoming absolute statements that those people ARE not beautiful or pretty or handsome in the way the critic thinks someone should be.
With the coming out of some as transgender, these ideas of “beauty” can also be challenged by new presentations, but they’re ideas that should be challenged anyway because of the usually unhealthy cultural gender roles they represent.
Definitions and their accompanying images of “beauty” are taught to us by the culture around us practically from birth – and those definitions reveal that “beauty” is not merely “in the eye of the beholder,” but actually in the eye of what makes more money for a consumer society.
It’s unlikely, for example, that you’ve heard that millennia old saying: “There’s nothing as beautiful as gray hair and a long beard.”
That’s because it comes from traditional China, not twenty-first century America. And it’s obviously not an expression popular in American pop culture.
In the US, our view of what is beautiful, especially for women, is a twenty-something-year-old or a “young-looking” thirty-something. Imagine those thirty-somethings worried that they don’t look young anymore!
We’re conditioned to be attracted to youthful looks from our first exposure to contemporary culture, and to criticize ourselves as we show the natural results of aging. If we’ve been thoroughly conditioned, we even feel that wrinkles, gray hair, “age spots,” sagging, and drooping are like diseases to fight.
That’s good news for the bottom-line of so many of the distributors of the products and services they want to sell us. Like most views of beauty that have existed in history, definitions of what is attractive are dominated by the economics of their times.
Queen Elizabeth I, tried her best to keep her skin as white as possible. A tan was a symbol of those pitiful working people who were required to labor in the towns and fields, of slaves, and servants, not of those who were upper-class, the lords and ladies.
When a tan came to indicate that people had the money and time to afford to dally at (“to escape to”) the seaside or some other resort, a “healthy,” “brown as a berry” tan became a desired mark of beauty. It was proof to others that you had taken a luxurious vacation at some glamorous and expensive Riviera or south-sea paradise.
Then, with the growing recognition of the consequences of sunning, with skin cancers and sun-damaged skin, a dark tan began to fade out of definitions of beauty. And hundreds of products were marketed to “protect” the skin.
Today, we’re so economically committed to selling and buying anti-aging products and services, that it would be hard to convince us consumers that old age makes one more beautiful. We’ll know when that day finally does arrive when there’s a new skin cream that encourages and increases wrinkles: “Apply this and you’ll look years older.”
No, old age just doesn’t sell. The fact is, we’re all going to show the effects of aging without spending a thing. There’s nothing one has to do but hang around long enough. Much of what we do, buy, breathe, and ingest, probably encourages the signs of age.
So, there’s no money to be made by the cosmetic industry in promoting the beauty of aging. We’re going to get there without the use of creams, nips, tucks, or other chemicals and surgery.
But there’s a lot of money to be made if we’re all convinced that to “look young” is beautiful. Youth is always sellable because it’s guaranteed to be fleeting no matter what we buy.
And most anyone can do youth. All that involves aging requires courage to experience.
It’s unfair that the different way we treat gender allows some leeway for men. Our idea of a “successful man” is a business-type who shows some evidence of age. It’s the mark of a man who has beaten, or at least mastered, the economic system, a man who therefore can protect his women.
That’s different from the idea of a beautiful woman we’re expected to have absorbed. She’s supposed to look as if she were a trophy, a jewel, hanging around to prove a man is successful enough to get one.
She’s not someone who fits the popular stereotype we’re supposed to accept of what a career woman who is independent of men looks like. She must fit the current ideas of feminine beauty.
But men are not immune as they age. There are three ages of men – youth, middle age, and “you look good.” It’s still considered a compliment to tell a man that he doesn’t look his age. And we wouldn’t consider that positively if we knew it meant he looks older than he is.
In the middle of all this pressure of what is supposed to be considered “beautiful,” when we start to break through and are attracted to the look of someone who exhibits the fact that she or he is wise, experienced, and weathered, we’ve gone far in rejecting a dominant idea of beauty that, in reality, represents nothing at all that is important in the world.
We break through it when “beauty” to us really is more than skin deep, when we see the difference between an attractive person and a “pretty” one by the consumer-based cultural standards we’ve absorbed, when we find a person’s attractiveness in the comfort they find in their own looks, in the satisfaction they have in being who they are (cisgender or transgender), in the absence of the need to judge others or to value others who fit any outwardly imposed ideas of beauty, in the fact that they can unapologetically be themselves.
Except for the current consumer-dominated dating game, “beauty” is actually a worthless characteristic anyway. It won’t help discover a cure for diabetes, heart disease, or cancer. It won’t help someone run faster, jump higher, write a great novel, improve the educational system for future generations, make our laws fairer, have compassion for others, or even become a billionaire.
And when looking for someone to share our life, it won’t make someone more compassionate and companionable. For the current popular definition won’t last, so it’s guaranteed not to be what enriches or promotes a long-term, loving relationship.
Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas where he taught for 33 years and was department chair for six years, Robert N. Minor (he/him), M.A., Ph.D is the author of 8 books as well as numerous articles and contributions to edited volumes. He is an historian of religion with specialties in Biblical studies, Asian religions, religion and gender and religion and sexuality. His writing has been published in Whosoever since 2005 and he continues to speak and lead workshops around the country. In 1999 GLAAD awarded him its Leadership Award for Education, in 2012 the University of Kansas named him one of the University’s Men of Merit, in 2015 the American Men’s Studies Association gave him the Lifetime Membership Award, and in 2018 Missouri Jobs with Justice presented him with the Worker’s Rights Board Leadership Award. He resides in Kansas City, Missouri and is founder of The Fairness Project.