- Note from the Board
Elena Glasberg and Elizabeth Wissinger Beauty is a killer. It hurts. That is the consensus of the authors collected here. It hurts to be beautiful. And it hurts even more not to be beautiful. This conundrum may explain why the conversation around beauty keeps lingering: the more you critique beauty, the more its mask, its allure, becomes real. If beauty is the hazy cultural fantasy that has real consequences, insisting on its materiality and on the materiality of the female body might kill beauty—before it gets you. But do the authors in this issue want to kill beauty, really? No. Because, for them, beauty is a real, and necessary, enemy.
Beauty is a cultural ideal suited for humanities; a measurable (if highly contested) standard in evolutionary science; an ideal enforced in the fashion industries both strictly and playfully. It is a métier of self-fashioning, and a currency in business and social and familial reproduction. Such a pervasive, if unequally valued, topic across the disciplines might have produced a range of critical and intellectual results. Yet, more than in any recent issue of WSQ, the assumptions, concerns, and approaches of these authors cohere and zone in on a very specific target.
Here and now, beauty is the face of white supremacy, so intimately tied to whiteness that, as many of the articles demonstrate, to even counter this ideal and replace it with a specific modifier, such as Black Is Beautiful, seems perversely to strengthen the very exclusions that produced the need for critique. The longing and anger that beauty instigates is palpable and understandable, given the Global North's powerfully relentless racism and sexism, currently voiced in spasmodic outbursts from the highest office of power in the United States. Whether a submissive, sexy, or stilettoed professional gal, the conservative point of view holds women to a standard of [End Page 9] whiteness, traditional femininity, and conscious display. During Donald J. Trump's presidential campaign, his obsession with appearances played out in his derisive comparison of his wife to that of fellow presidential candidate Ted Cruz. Pitting a regular woman against a supermodel in a beauty contest? Of course the model will win. These games are played with full knowledge of the symbols they invoke. Consider how Ivanka's lean lines in her white pantsuit still sting a year after Inauguration Day. Co-opting its historic feminist meaning for her own ends, it was a clear rebuke to Hillary's stodginess, as if to say this is how it's done, ladies.
In this political moment, it goes without saying that beauty is not only raced but also hyperfeminized—think of Melania and Ivanka's fembot proportions sheathed in a granite veneer as the insanely skewed "standard." Most insistently, this collection reflects a beauty conversation within feminism as a women-to-women transmission. Perhaps, given its current and historical connections to femininity, beauty as a topic opens itself up to an anti-woman bias that, it appears, runs through the feminist community as deeply as it does in the greater world. No matter the historical and complexities of populations, beauty disproportionately continues to shape and burden the category and sign of woman.
Is beauty a plot? Is its goal to exclude an enormous outcast group—basically everyone on earth except for normative-bodied, cis, heterosexual, young, thin, healthy, employed women of vaguely European descent—a group that seems to be precisely delineated but really means the white women in our immediate orbits? Many of the essays collected here lean toward assuming beauty as a standard, specifically a white, heterosexist standard deployed (even designed) to promote the power of the few over an ugly, nonwhite, majority world.
These articles document a struggle against this assumed white, hyperfeminine ideal from a range of subject positions. Yet, excoriating beauty paradoxically risks promoting its foundational lie: there just is not enough beauty to go around, that it is a finite resource, an allocation distributed strictly along racial lines from mother to daughter and through advertising and other institutions, even when run by nonwhites. One of the implications of beauty standards, if not beauty itself...