by Stephanie M. Crumpton
Special to YWCA USA
What is the cost of beauty? I’m not sure that there’s an actual dollar amount, but what I am certain of is that women are paying for it with their careers, health and sanity when they don’t measure up to the narrow standards of our image-obsessed culture.
Follow me on this one…
- Time Magazine reports that on the average, women who are “very skinny” make $22,000 more than their “average weight” female counterparts.
- In South Florida, a local newspaper reports that several area OB-GYN doctors are refusing to accept overweight women who are otherwise healthy as their patients.
- Meanwhile, Deborah Rhode writes in her book, Beauty Bias: Appearance Discrimination in Law and Life (Oxford University Press), that “young women would rather be hit by a truck than be fat.”
I’d like to dismiss the debate over the importance of appearances, but $22,000 is a lot of money to lose out on because someone (else) would like to see you smaller. And, not having access to health care isn’t something to just shrug off. Now that last one… all I can do is shake my head.
This situation is totally unjust, yet it manages to make sense against the backdrop of physical attractiveness as the factor that creates access to opportunities, relationships and resources for some, while barring the same for others. The issue is the social value placed on body type and shape, hair length and texture, eye and skin color and the consequences for your health and finances of not measuring up to prevailing standards of beauty (tall, thin, white with perfect hair – whatever that is?).
So, what do we do with this? How do we challenge appearance discrimination and recover ourselves from the grip it has on our culture that impacts our bottom lines, health and sanity.
Rhode starts by first clarifying appearance discrimination as a cultural problem that requires systemic transformation. The first step in this cultural transformation is to shift society’s attention away from how we look to focus on how we feel – our overall health.
Part of this involves casting a critical eye on the national politics and environmental factors that impact our ability to nurture healthy bodies, attain jobs and provide for ourselves. Rhode points to the circumstance of low income women of color as a population that often experiences appearance discrimination which impacts their ability to earn a living. Rhode ties the health/weight/finance challenges they experience to the national agricultural policies that impact their environments.
Rhode says, “we ought to be revisiting agricultural policy because we have now a strategy nationally that focuses on overproducing cheap foods – which turns out to be very expensive from a health standpoint. Especially for low income women of color, who often live in what are called, ‘nutritional deserts’ in which there aren’t a lot of healthy eating options and good recreational facilities. We ought to be really focused on improving the options.”
Appearance discrimination, then, is a part of a structural problem that requires cultural change.
We must begin to hold our policy makers accountable for policies that set certain bodies up for health, while disadvantaging others through policies that create conditions for poor self care and discrimination.
A next step has to do with the personal commitments we must all consider making if we truly want to change our culture and eradicate discrimination based on appearance.
Susan L. Taylor, former editor-in-chief of Essence Magazine, reminded us on YWCA’s “Beauty and the Beholder” webcast that the wider cultural transformation we seek begins with women reclaiming our individual power of self-definition.
Taylor says, “We have to really begin to try to redefine what is beautiful. Beautiful is what is healthy and strong and doing something in the world…contributing to the world. We redefine that by creating our own soundtracks and speaking to our children differently… We train ourselves and our children how to see beauty…”
Taylor started by challenging herself first. “I challenged myself to see the beauty in every face because I see everyday what it does to women to not feel beautiful. How it damps our growth and our potential. We don’t lift our eyes and walk proudly into the world… It’s really self correction.”
Taylor invites us to remember that we do not have to accept appearance discrimination as an inevitable reality that unfairly impacts us financially, physically, emotionally and spiritually.
When we redefine ourselves as beautiful on our own terms we change how we walk in the world. We assume an upright posture that grounds our steps towards personal and systemic transformation. It is here that we find the power to define beauty in ways that reflect mutual appreciation rather than the aesthetic elitism that characterizes appearance discrimination.
This is no small thing, and we’ll do a better job if we share the strategies we use daily to nurture beauty from the inside out and act to make systemic changes. Drop us a line to share with us about how you’re doing it, one change at a time.
Stephanie M. Crumpton is a writer, consultant and researcher. Her work with non-profit and state agencies has focused on transformation in the lives of marginalized communities, women’s issues, mental health, and spirituality. She is currently researching women’s self recovery from intimate violence for her doctoral dissertation. Follow her online at www.stephaniemcrumpton.blogspot.com
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