‘Beauty’ is the beast

Irish soprano Tara Erraught was ‘mauled’ by British critics for her appearance. ‘Lookism’ disrespects us all, says Suzanne Harrington

THE debut of Irish mezzo soprano, Tara Erraught, at Glyndebourne, the Glastonbury of the opera world, was reviewed in several UK newspapers. Critics — that is, men — tore into her, but not for her voice — it is apparently divine — but for her looks. They said she was “unbelievable, unsightly and unappealing” (The Times); “dumpy” (The Independent); “stocky” (The Guardian); “a chubby bundle of puppy fat” (The Financial Times); and had an “intractable physique” (The Daily Telegraph).

“Unappealing”? In what context? Musically, Erraught is incredibly appealing. So did the male critic mean that he didn’t fancy her? Is this his job as a critic, to fancy female opera singers, or deem them fanciable?

The comedian Sarah Millican had a similar experience at the Baftas last year, and wrote about it afterwards. She was nominated for an award, for what she does. She was pleased with her evening at the ceremony until she read what people — many of them women — were saying about her on Twitter. They were talking about Millican’s dress and how Millican looked.

Her response, published in the Radio Times, was defiant and heart-wrenching. “The next day, I was in newspapers, pilloried for what I was wearing,” she wrote.

“I was discussed and pulled apart on the Lorraine show. I’m sorry. I thought I had been invited to such an illustrious event because I am good at my job. Why does it matter so much what I was wearing? Why did no one ask my husband where he got his suit from? I felt wonderful in that dress. And, surely, that’s all that counts. Should I ever be invited to attend the Baftas again, I will wear the same dress, to make the point that it doesn’t matter what I wear; that’s not what I’m being judged on.”

Erraught and Millican have both been on the receiving end of ‘lookism’, the last ‘ism’. We’ve outlawed the rest of the ‘isms’: racism, sexism, ageism. But lookism is discriminating against all kinds of people, all day, every day. It is defined as “prejudice or discrimination based on physical appearance and especially physical appearance believed to fall short of societal notions of beauty.”

The key words are ‘believed’ and ‘notions’. What we ‘believe’ to be beautiful in our culture (skinniness) is ‘believed’ to be ugly in others (where skinny signifies malnutrition). Our ‘notions’ of beauty are ‘fed’ to us from the cosmetic-industrial complex, which, in turn, ‘feeds’ on our conditioned dissatisfaction with our physical selves. It is a gigantic swizz, and we are all part of it.

How you look matters to an extent, because it is the first point of reference of physical and psychological well-being. But lookism is so endemic that the Chinese child who was heard singing at the start of the Beijing Olympics was deemed insufficiently pretty to appear; her voice was mimed by a ‘prettier’ child. Comediennes and opera singers are judged not on what they do, but on how they look. Sportswomen — think tennis players — are pored over, not for their backhand but their backside. For a woman, attractiveness is considered more important than intellect or character.

It’s mystifying that so many women, who bear the brunt of lookism, collude with it. How else do you explain women’s magazines that are about nothing but how women look? ‘Sack-the-stylist’, red-carpet disasters, ‘hot or not’, red-circled cellulite, celebs without make-up — what are we doing, other than perpetrating an ‘ism’ that keeps us anxious, dissatisfied, and shallow? It’s not exclusive to women. The biggest-selling man magazine is Men’s Health, which is as much about your six-pack as your resting heart rate. Within the gay scene, lookism is hugely dominant and highly prescriptive. Hyper-criticism and looks-based value judgements are not just a girl thing — it’s a wider social issue, corrosive and pointless. And it can hit you where it really hurts — in the wallet.

Daniel Hameresh, professor of economics at the University of Texas, calls the economics of lookism ‘pulchrinomics’. In his book, Beauty Pays (Princeton University Press), he shows that people considered attractive earn, on average, $230,000 more in their lifetimes; that students often rate teachers based on their looks; and that politicians get more or less votes depending on their looks. We do it unconsciously, apparently. It transcends culture and class, and is random: Professor Hameresh cites studies in the US, Canada, Germany, Britain, and China, which show the same outcome — people whose looks conform to those societal notions of beauty have an easier, richer life.

This is backed-up in The Beauty Bias: The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law (Oxford University Press), by Stanford University law professor, Deborah Rhode. Our annual global investment in our appearance is $200bn — with women paying the most. Depression, eating disorders, risky procedures, and lack of career and economic opportunities are all linked to lookism, with women judged more exactingly than men. For one third of women, writes Rhode, their appearance is their most important aspect. Crikey. That’s just so depressing, ladies.

“Although discrimination based on appearance is by no means our most serious form of bias, its impact is often far more invidious than we suppose,” writes Rhode. She suggests that the law needs to step up to make lookism the last ‘ism’ by which people can be unequally treated. To the horror of the political right, this type of law is already happening in parts of the US. Because, while we cannot help but be attracted to people we consider more beautiful — this is human nature at its most innate — what we can help is actively discriminating against people based on how they look.

All this requires is a degree of consciousness, and maybe some decent legislation. And a bit of fight back.


-Beauty and The Beast and The Princess and The Frog both rely on female beauty to overcome male hideousness, transforming handsomeness trapped inside ugliness with a female kiss. The message is set — ugly is bad, pretty is good.

-In Cinderella, the Ugly Sisters are ugly on the inside as well as the outside, reinforcing stereotypes that, for females, pretty equals nice and non-pretty equals nasty. A simple, powerful, horrible message for small children.

-The Shrek movies subvert this, by keeping Shrek and Fiona (above) as their true selves — ogres who are good. The message is, therefore, more realistic and attainable to children — that is, be yourself.

-In Nanny McPhee, the Emma Thompson character started out overweight, with warts and bad teeth. As the film’s child characters please her with their good behaviour, she magically morphs towards more conventional looks.

-As for Barbie, let’s not even go there.


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