Beauty is the Beast

For the past couple of days, I’ve been dissecting/overanalyzing/pondering Kris’ performance/post “The Bald and the Beautiful.” What an inspirational and powerful piece! Like many great art pieces with a message, it made me think (and want to think) about key issues affecting our lives, bodies, sanity, society, etc. Most of all, it made me ask – what is beauty? Why are we obsessed with it? And most of all, why does the idea of beauty make so many of us feel so ugly?

As anyone with an Art History background can tell you, beauty “trends” have come and gone. The plump Rubenesque women are, for example, a far cry from the heroin chic waifs of the 90s. Yet, there is a “beauty standard” that transcends both time and culture, and most of all, there is (and always has been) pressure for girls to meet those standards. The only thing that has changed is the pervasiveness of the media and its reach. While two hundred years ago, the close knit community, including family, were the ones pressuring young girls to appropriate those standards, today the media hurls unrealistic standards at us as if taunting us with a better life. If you looked like me, they seem to say, you would have everything you ever dreamed of– but Kris is right, beauty is not happiness; being comfortable with who you are is. After all, what is beauty but a fleeting idea no one can ever achieve without a deep understanding of themselves.


And I think that is why chopping off your hair is so liberating. Long hair for a woman is one of those beauty standards that have transcended both time and culture. Cutting it off and basically saying “I don’t need this to be myself” entails a certain level of confidence that exhumes beauty. I’ve noticed that most men, especially the macho type, are threatened by that level of confidence. It’s not a question of “you don’t have hair anymore, you’re no longer attractive to me,” but more along the lines of “you’re not out there to please anyone but yourself, I won’t be able to control you, I’m out.” The reaction I’ve gotten from many men ever since I cut my hair has been along those lines; there is always a palpable, uncomfortable feeling, as if they now know something about me they didn’t before. In part, that is why most women (and gay men), I think, can appreciate short hair on other women – there is a sense of camaraderie, of wanting, yearning for that liberation themselves.

The topic of identity and the media is something that is close to me and has had a tremendous impact on my life and my identity. If any of you read about my antics as a five year old performing a Yoko Ono stunt sporting a yellow leotard and shaved head, you can get a glimpse into my life long obsession to tear away those beauty standards imposed on us by a patriarchal society. Yet, I fell into the trap as well – I had my foray into modeling and combatted an eating disorder as a teenager. If anything, it just made me stronger, made me realize that beauty that can be bought, sculpted, molded, airbrushed, is not beauty at all. Beauty must be earned; beauty is what we feel when we are finally at peace with the cards we have been dealt.

Author: Kathleen Cool
I am a graduate student studying how people experience informal education, particularly art, in virtual worlds such as Second Life. My background is in both Art History and Computer Science. Please feel free to email me or IM me in SL (Kathleen Koolhoven) if you have any questions regarding my current research or want to participate in my study.

6 thoughts on “Beauty is the Beast

  1. Wonderful article!!! I am actually putting together a post about my experience after a week and a half with no hair. It is along the lines of the power of beauty and will go hand in hand with your post here. I I have been struggling, overwelmed by the experience. What does beauty mean? Am I beatiful? Do I feel beautiful? What does it mean to feel beautiful? I honestly don’t know. I realized the performance while public, was much more personal than I expected and I am still figuring out why. Thank you so much for helping continue this dialogue!!

    1. Thank YOU, Kris!!!!! I can’t wait to read your next post on this topic. Consider me glued to the computer 🙂 Keep up the excellent work!!!

  2. As always, Kat, you take on such challenging subjects. You’ve opened many questions, but I don’t they begin with the quesiton, what is beauty?

    I accept that beauty trends come and go, but isn’t there something about true beauty that transcends trends? The standards may vary from culture to culture, race to race, but when you see a “truly” beautiful girl or woman, you know it. Isn’t there a perfect beauty that transcend any current beauty trend? For example, unblemished skin, symentrical facial features, healthy hair, graceful movements, gentle nature, body shape that highlights differences between men and women, things like that.

    Most woman aren’t born with perfect beauty, but I believe all woman have many qualities of beauty. Our drive to be beautiful seem to be part of our nature, the way society, and men in particular, judge us is a very complicated subject. Perhaps society can be changed somewhat, but the only sure way to adapt is to accept ourselves for who we are. It’s probably a lifelong quest for every woman, accepting ourselves for who we are, even if we have to rebel to do it.

    These are just thoughts that came tumbling out of my mind… seriously.

    1. As Yordie suggests there’s tons of research on this topic: symmetry is “good” asymmetry is not, etc. There’s association with wealth and privilege, the Rubenesque figure was attractive because it meant you could afford the food. There’s also the “show off” strategy, that I’ve got so much I can flaunt it. That could be money. It could also be when the playground bully comes along, the slow kids have to start running right away, but the kids who possess a lot of speed can hang out and taunt. Interestingly there’s a strategy that if I can convince you I’m faster than you then you won’t even chase me and it turns out that showing off can “cost less” than actually running. haha, all over the map, but anyway, lots of research.

      As Kathleen’s observed, we have a zillion dollar industry selling us ideals and norms. The crazy thing is, we’re wired for sex, we already care a lot about that, it’s on the short list of things our genes want from us. So when media spends a fortune to sell us beauty, they’re taking a super potent reinforcer and selling us hard, that which we already wanted.

      So yes, it’s a big focus.

      And then there’s judging a book by it’s cover…

      I’ve never understood why peeps try to use a virtual world like Second Life for RL dating – that just seemed unusual to me when you have OK Cupid,, and on and on… instead of hanging out with a “cartoon,” figuring out if you’re even on the same continent, and then trying to turn an MMO into an F2F, why not just use a site for actual dating?

      Interestingly, someone gave me their theory on this recently. On a dating site you get instantly judged by your age, appearance, height, weight, income, etc… and you may not even get to interact with the peeps you’d really be interested in… so… so this person offered… peeps use a Virtual World to get to know the person first… and then worry about the package… to read the book… before you look at the cover…

  3. I just got an email about a new website “Queenli”

    Apparently it’s Pinterest for Blogs… of course PInterest is already for blogs… but anyway…

    Perhaps they’ll expand in the future, but ATM everything fits in 1 of 5 categories:
    Fashion, Decoration, Cooking, Beauty, Wedding

    being cynical isn’t all that useful so I’ll try not to go on about this, but what was interesting in my 10-second tour, was that these posts reinforce what you’ve described, but they don’t come directly from “THEM,” the media and marketers of the world, they come from “US” — in a sense it’s like the new media version of reality TV, we’ve absorbed the message and can now recapitulate it. The perhaps cynical view on their 5 categories might be

    Fashion – how to spend money and look “beautiful”
    Decoration – how to have a house that says you’re successful and beautiful
    Cooking – how to eat Instagram worthy food
    Beauty – nuff said
    Wedding – how to prove that you are successful and happy

  4. I agree with you that our current standard of beauty is tied to patriarchy. But I think it’s probably more impacted by commercialism which profits from the incessant messaging to women (and girls) that they don’t look good enough unless they conform to the unattainable airbrushed ideal.

    It’s hard to separate the media poisoning from our innate genetically-induced sense of beauty that it exploits. For example symmetry, the golden triangle and and personality traits that subconsciously portent that another party would be a good biological mating choice.

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