Friday, December 5, 2014

The Beauty Double Standard

"There's only one problem with going to an Ivy League school," a (male) friend of mine once said as we made our way, bleary-eyed, into our college dining hall one post-exam morning. "The women here don't make any effort to look good. See, they're all hanging out in ratty sweats and mangy t-shirts, no makeup, no dresses. Some of them haven't even washed their hair. Girls here care more about their grades than they care about their looks," he concluded, shaking his head in chagrin.

We're all familiar with the gendered double standard about sex. Men who like sex, who engage in it for its own sake rather than in the context of a relationship, who collect sexual partners as if they were baseball cards or comic books—those men are studs, worthy of admiration and awe. Women who like sex, who engage it in outside the context of a romantic relationship, who sleep around—those women are sluts, whores, worth only our most cutting epithets. But reading witty Brit Stella Newman's anti-romance novel, Pear Shaped, brought back memories of that less talked-about, but equally sexist, double standard: the double standard of beauty. No matter how unattractive they may be themselves, most men feel entitled to the admiration of the most beautiful women in the room. Entitled to get the girl they want. And girls should work their hardest to make themselves attractive, because, damn it all, that's why there here: to look good for men.

Snarky Sophie Klein, the first-person narrator of Pear Shaped, experiences this double standard first-hand. When she meets wealthy James in a bar, she's a little surprised when he calls her "skinny." She may be a size 10 (U.S. size 6), but she'd got "tits and an arse," unlike the other girl James was chatting up before talking with her ("one of those girls you can count the vertebrae of through her silk shirt") (Kindle Loc 87). Sophie and James hit it off right away, though, Sophie drawn to his carefree charm, boundless energy, and confident ways. He's far from drop-dead gorgeous, and he's forty-five to Sophie's thirty-three, but he's just Sophie's type: "a big man," "tall and broad, with a stomach he wears well" (301). Before long, Sophie's falling for him, big time.

But James? He's not so sure. Over dinner one night, after the two have been dating (and shagging) for three months, Sophie thinks James might on the verge of proposing. But instead, his declaration turns out to be embarrassingly insulting: "I'm worried.... you're not my normal type.... physically..... I know I'm no Adonis, but..."  "BUT WHAT?" Sophie thinks to herself. "You're rich and male so it doesn't matter?" (1137) But Sophie keeps her outrage inside, not challenging James about the sexism that has him feeling that he's somehow less than a man if he doesn't have a trophy woman on his arm.

Sophie realizes that James' worry doesn't actually have "anything to do with me not being his type. It's either his ego's need for a trophy, or his fear of commitment. Whatever the problem is, I reckon it's about his head, not my body" (Loc 1167). Later, she tells him straight out what she thinks of his worry:

Whatever your 'type' is, that 'type' clearly hasn't been working out for you so well. Some men have a turning point in their lives where they realise what long-term relationships are all about. Love isn't all about crazy hot sex in a glass lift. It's about finding someone you fancy and like and respect and who you can be yourself with. Find that and you're very, very luck. The reason I'm calling you back is because I don't think you're a total idiot; I think you might be smart enough to grow up and realise that.  (1126)

Yet even though she's both furious and crushed by James' unfeeling revelation, Sophie can't stop herself from longing for him, both emotionally and physically, and ends up taking James back, even though he never openly acknowledges the truth of her interpretation of his fears, or even apologizes for his obnoxious comments. He asks her to move in, and even proposes.

James certainly thinks of himself as a nice guy, and thus, of course,
deserving of a trophy girlfriend
But over time, it becomes more and more obvious that James has not grown out of his worry, or at least out of the assumptions of male entitlement that lie behind it:

His thoughts about Sophie's friend, who is suffering from postpartum depression: "He's supposed to be eternally grateful that she's a lard arse? A wife should make an effort for her husband. She should get down the gym, get on the high heels and suspenders, that'll sort out their marriage better than some stupid therapy" (2013)

Sophie's impression of his thoughts when he introduces her to his business associates: "When he says 'this is my girlfriend, Sophie,' the word 'girlfriend' sits heavily on his tongue like an ulcer" (2137)

" 'One of your eyes is bigger than the other,' he says. I have noticed this only recently myself.... It is truly a microscopic difference, but he has spotted it and seen fit to comment on it. Not in a 'your flaws make you unique/beautiful to me' way. Just in a 'you are not perfect' way" (2300).

Sophie watching James fixate on a model: "James is staring at her in a way that I have never, ever seen him look at me. It is the way he sometimes looks when he is driving his car too fast" (2162).

James' only half-way joking comment when Sophie rolls on top of him to admire his good looks: "Get off me, you big lump" (2284).

After a lot of determined avoidance on Sophie's part, and a lot of wiggly, passive-aggressive behavior on James', James finally admits that he just can't overcome his worries. The two part ways, and in the second half of the book, Sophie goes into, and climbs her way back out of, a major emotional trough, chronicled with equal parts humor and pain. Sophie's well aware of what went wrong:

The truth is I am furious: furious that I took him back, furious that I didn't pick him up on all the comments about my weight, furious that I didn't assert myself more, furiuos that I shagged him in the car when he was almost definitely seeing Noushka (the model), furious that I put his value above mine, furious that I believed his version of me.  (3818)

But its not so easy for her feelings to catch up with her brain. Especially because she, like many white middle class women, has been "conditioned to think of anger as ugly, ugly, ugly" (4681).

Sophie does end up with a different, far better man by book's end. But the climax of the story is less about her new romance, and more about her acceptance, not only of her own strengths, but also of James' limitations:

I know what my life would be like with James. If I stayed slim and well maintained and aloof and played a constant game and kept him on his toes all the time, he'd eat out of my hand, for a while. If I never had a bad day, never showed weakness, never put on weight, never needed reassurance, never gold old, I'd be just fine..... And while I want him to fight for me, and tell me he's realised he's making a mistake, and that he wants me, fat, think or in the middle, the truth is, he really isn't built that way. And for the first time I actually start to feel sorry for him.  (4255; 4274)

I wonder if someone could write a romance with a hero who starts off with the same entitled attitude as James, but who gives it up/moves beyond it? And not because he falls in love (changed by the love of a good woman trope), but because he comes to understand how limiting it is, both for women and for himself?

Illustration credits:
Beauty double standard: Good Men Project
Entitled to a girlfriend: The Lion's Roar

Pear Shaped
Avon, 2012;
ebook by Bookouture, 2014


  1. There is a book that kinda touches on your last question. It's a Harlequin Blaze by Jo Leigh called Ms. Match. The hero begins pursuing the heroine's more traditionally attractive sister, mostly because he's been taught that she is what he deserves for being an attractive, successful, white man. But as he spends more time with the "normal" heroine, he begins to question what his social circle has taught him is supposed to make him happy. It's pretty good. Especially for the length. And the heroine is great. Check it out!

    1. I was just going to say, I would read the hell out of such a book. Will try this one, thanks.

    2. I think I'll read both books! Even reading the analysis made me want to punch James in the head.

    3. I just finished Ms. Match. It's a little hyperbolic around the heroine's family, but very well done otherwise, and a satisfying romance.

  2. Sounds like a really good book -- and an even better challenge. Thanks for the rec!

  3. This sounded interesting until I got to the part where she's a US size 6. WTF? Why is her shape and appearance even a problem for him? Your description doesn't mention her being plain, just not shaped right. I don't know how a size 6 can even be pear-shaped unless she's perfectly flat on top. (Said by someone who's now a size 20 all over but used to be a size 4/6 for tops, size 8 for dresses, size 10 for skirts, and size 12 for pants.)

    I'd be just as much if not more interested in a book where the woman is legitimately overweight and unapologetic about it and/or isn't beautiful or striking to begin with and doesn't go through an "ugly duckling" transformation as I'd be interested in a book where the man learns something about the sexism of his need for his SO's looks to reflect well on him. There's something already unsavory about the male possessiveness and need to know that the female MC is "his" in order to reinforce the monogamous pair bond that seems to be required for a romance to be sufficiently engaging. It comes across as part and parcel of the genre. Romances seem fixated on main characters who are sexy and handsome or beautiful (depending on gender) to begin with, as if no one else is lovable.


    1. Sophie's measurements (she takes out a tape measure and measures herself at one point in the story) are bust 32D, waist 22, hips 40: i.e., a pear shape, not a skinny supermodel shape. Her shape/appearance are a problem for James because he's wealthy, white, and views dating a woman who looks the way his culture tells him is sexy as something that should be his as right. Even though a bit part of him knows this is stupid, that he really enjoys being with Sophie, another part of him can't give up the idea that he needs the status-performing arm candy to prove his own worth, both to himself and to others. Sophie feels sorry for him at book's end, because he can't move beyond the narrow social dictates about acceptable femininity that shape his status-conscious world.

      I agree that romance focuses largely on main characters who are handsome/beautiful, although I'm not sure I'd use the word "fixated"-- I see it as a remnant of the genre's grounding in the earlier "romance" in a Northrop Frye sense: romance as about characters who are larger than life, more than the average person. Would be nice to read about more characters who aren't over-the-top beautiful, though...

    2. That's kind of what I suspected from the title, but sorry, someone with those measurements would never fit into a size 6 anything other than a short blouse or top. Look at any size chart. Bigtime plausibility fail.

      I think "fixated" is just the word because writing about larger than life people is problematic. If romance is all about the ideal, what does that say about us -- that as non-ideal, non-perfect people, we can't expect or don't deserve great love? -- and why we read it -- to comfort us for the fact that we most likely will never experience this and are thus drugging ourselves with beautiful lies? The more I read romance and read about it, the more I feel as though romance, not religion, is the opiate of the people (certain female people, anyway) when it comes to related societal issues. I never thought I'd agree with the law school professor who decried the annual play the drama group put on because it blew off the steam that might lead students to agitate for change, but in this case I guess I do.

      BTW, I attended the Iviest of the Ivy League law schools when it still didn't have equal representation of men and women (though all the others did), yet plain women were few and far between. Many if not most of the women were pretty to stunning. So my experience was not like yours.


  4. It's not a romance but I love the main character in Joanne Fluke's cozy. She's not thin or young or "beautiful" but has this consistent love triangle that runs through the series. It's not everyone's cup of tea but I love that the character is "normal". She goes through cycles of loving herself the way she is and then has some moments where she considers trying to lose weight. For the most part, she knows the men that love her - love her. They accept her just the way she is and help her accept herself in the process. The romance is very subdued since she has two "lovers", she chooses not to engage in a full relationship with either. The great thing is that the men are both so different and good to her. As I said, not everyone loves the romance part of these books but, for me, it's refreshing to see two wonderful men almost fight over her and she could be me.