You Are Not Beautiful: Against the Fascism of Beauty, Fashion, and Looks
Remember Marilyn Manson? The metal group? I consider him and his band the last rock stars. Manson’s reign of terror on MTV and the wider pop culture in the late 1990s and early 2000s was basically the last time a rock group captivated the public imagination before rock’n’roll was finally and irrevocably dethroned and hip hop and R&B tunes took over as the reigning pop music genres dominating the airwaves. Rock had a good run, for about fifty years, since Elvis Presley it had been the most popular genre of music throughout America and indeed the Western world, a symbol of American global cultural dominance. Don’t mistake me, I have no nostalgia for the era. Too many not-so-subtle racists pontificate sorrowfully about how a white-dominated music genre like rock (which was stolen shamelessly from black artists in the first place) was replaced with heavily black- and Latino-dominated music genres like hip hop and R&B.
Anyway, Marilyn Manson was a neat little star. He was an expert in shock rock, using outrageous statements and fashion to terrify conservative America and its delicate little morals. He used cross-dressing, onstage sex acts, horror movie imagery, Satanism, and songs about violence to outrage middle America and keep himself in the headlines. It was, of course, always a marketing scheme, the more the offended religious dweebs protested, the more albums and concert tickets he sold. But he and the band had enough artistic ability and interesting lyrics and musicianship that it didn’t feel cheap or overly insincere.
In 1997, at the Video Music Awards, Marilyn Manson, in a corset, leather underwear, and thigh-high stockings, took the stage in front of a giant American flag that had the fifty stars replaced with the lightning-bolt logo of the British Union of Fascists. Posing as the president standing at a podium, he said, among other remarks: “My fellow Americans, we will no longer be oppressed by the fascism of Christianity! And we will no longer be oppressed by the fascism of beauty!” before he and the band played what I consider to be their single best song, “The Beautiful People” off the album Antichrist Superstar.
“The fascism of beauty” is a great turn of phrase, and I think it’s important. Manson wasn’t the first to come up with such a concept. Psychological researchers have long known of the existence of what they call “lookism,” the tendency nearly all humans display to overvalue people seen as attractive, and devalue people seen as unattractive. It’s pretty insidious. Pretty people are perceived as being more competent, more trustworthy, kinder, and more intelligent than their uglier peers, regardless of their actual personality. The same goes for height and weight. Being taller and being thinner can increase how much money you make, and improve how your boss evaluates your work performance.
The cult of beauty pervades all aspects of our society; it is an authoritarian institution. Like all the most successful authoritarian institutions, it is hardly visible to most, it appears entirely natural while in fact it is mostly artificial and held up by violence, and its subjects enforce it themselves. The cult of beauty is racist, sexist, ableist, homo- and transphobic, and most crucially: capitalist.
The cult of beauty holds that attractiveness is not just a lucky accident of birth, like being smart or physically strong, but is in fact the most important part of your self, and if it does not come naturally, should be extensively (and expensively) cultivated, by any means necessary. In certain extreme cases, a minimum level of physical attractiveness is required for your very humanity to be recognized, for you to be treated as a being worthy of dignity, respect, and freedom.
Although beauty is largely inborn, a lucky accident of birth, this is understood as being no excuse. You have no right to be ugly. If you are ugly, it is your responsibility, through grooming, dress, cosmetics, the maintenance of a certain lifestyle, medical intervention, and in some cases surgery, to try to attain some level of beauty. To refuse provokes severe punishment. Social ostracism from friends and potential lovers is only the beginning. Being ugly can mean not getting a job. Being ugly can mean being seen as a threat. Indeed, some people are so ugly they can lose their freedom. Certain ugly people, especially the homeless, are routinely banished from public space, they are “an eyesore”, and the police evict them constantly from publicly accessible places like parks, sidewalks, and bus stops, for the crime of “loitering”, a crime that only exists for the ugly and unwanted. Failure to groom oneself and maintain an arbitrary standard of personal hygiene often results in the physically and mentally disabled being institutionalized, even if they are otherwise capable of taking care of themselves. Up to the 1970’s, in the US, many cities even had what were called “ugly laws,” in which people who were physically disabled, deformed, or had been maimed in war or industrial accidents were legally banned from public spaces, described as “unsightly and unseemly”. These people, who were often beggars, were a nuisance who needed to be controlled. In many places, up until very recently, failure to conform to gender roles could also result in psychiatric institutionalization or even arrest and imprisonment. Transgender people know this harsh truth better than anyone, their level of acceptance and respect in straight cis society is almost completely dependent on the degree to which they “pass” as a sufficiently beautiful member of their gender. The non-passing trans person is considered terribly ugly, and not passing frequently invites violence. Trans women especially face a nearly unique threat, merely existing in public space often results in savage attacks, even murders, by transphobic men. “Passing” as a “real” (i.e. cisgender) woman is a matter of personal safety. I repeat: one has no right to be ugly.
And far from being a wasteful but ultimately harmless pursuit, beauty and fashion are often actually downright dangerous, and hazardous to our health. In many times and places it has gone as far as to demand permanent mutilation of the body, and not mere superficial mutilation like skin piercing, circumcision, and tattooing, but practices as destructive and disabling as foot-binding, breast-ironing, waist-training, and the most horrific of all, female genital mutilation. Hairspray contains noxious fumes that pollute the atmosphere. Tanning leads to skin cancer. Many animals are killed for their fur and their skin, and most cosmetics are tested on critters who must be tortured to ensure the products are “safe” for human use. Elephants will soon be wiped out due to poaching, their tusks highly prized as the source of ivory for jewelry. Billion-dollar industries are built on selling dubiously safe and dubiously effective weight loss supplements and treatments for acne. Anorexia, a psychiatric disorder based on an extreme obsession with thinness to the point of self-starvation, and which is highly correlated with exposure to advertising and television, is more likely to cause death than any other mental illness. But health, animals, and Mother Earth all must be sacrificed on the altar of beauty.
The cult of beauty is an oppressive institution that, in my view, like religion, capitalism, and the nation-state, should not be reformed but abolished. It cannot be wielded for progressive or egalitarian purposes, though there are many who would try. There are many who wish to expand “beauty standards” to include marginalized groups, such as people of color who lack the stereotypical white physical features that the Eurocentric cult of beauty deems the most valuable. Rather than attacking the advertising, fashion, and cosmetic industries that sell this harmful ideology, they would rather seek to be included in it, to expand the number of people who can be seen as beautiful. There is a fat acceptance movement that aims to reduce what they consider to be the arbitrary notion that thinness is beautiful and fatness is ugly. Social media sites like Tumblr and Instagram are chock full of professional photo-shoots of beautiful “alternative” models who are amputees, in wheelchairs, or bald-headed cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. There is even a movement to create “feminist” pornography that features actors and actresses who transgress gender norms, or are physically disabled, or fat, or hairy.
All of these miss the point. The cult of beauty is largely capable of recuperating all of these efforts. But it would be no less oppressive. Though it often serves this purpose, the cult of beauty is about far more than privileging men, white people, cisgender people, thin people, and able-bodied people. Even if such biases were torn down, it would still serve the purpose of social control, of demanding certain behaviors from people on threat of severe punishment. The cult of beauty is nothing if not arbitrary. They can sell you anything and everything. They can sell you one quality today and its opposite tomorrow. The entire beauty-advertising-industrial complex, which encompasses clothing, cosmetics, grooming, and more is built on a model of attacking your self-esteem and self-worth, in order to sell you trillions of dollars of commodities that you never wanted in the first place. Far from undermining this profitable bonanza, the progressive efforts to expand the cult of beauty offer growth and increased market share to these industries. More customers to be targeted, more advertisements to be broadcast, more stuff to be sold. And as with much of capitalism, we are not the masters of our possessions, but instead our possessions become the masters of us. Many feminists have remarked before about how the beauty industry has created generations of women neurotically obsessed with their waistlines and the state of their clothes and hair. And more and more these days, men are being victimized and indoctrinated just as intensely by the cult of beauty. Such people are too busy with minutiae to care about fighting for change in the world. The cult of beauty encourages the narcissistic impulse.
The only solution is to wage war on this institution. To reject beauty altogether, and accept and embrace ugliness. This war is half personal and psychological and half external and offensive. We must change our minds and our habits, but we must also attack the edifices of our oppression. It means challenging lookism in our own minds, interrogating whether our opinions of people are truly based on honest evaluation of their character, of the qualities about people that actually matter, like whether they are kind, trustworthy, funny, or interesting, and not whether we think they’re pretty. It means reducing our consumption and indulgence in vapid consumer culture, buying clothes because they’re comfortable and affordable, not because they are fashionable, wearing them even after they’re ripped or stained because those things don’t actually make clothes unusable. It means attacking, ruthlessly, the all-pervasive propaganda of the cult of beauty: advertising. Deface billboards with graffiti, smash the display cases of bus station ads, set fire to and blow up the trendy clothing stores and cosmetics kiosks. We don’t need them and we don’t want them! Embrace the ugly, shun the beautiful. Adorn your body in new and interesting ways, or don’t adorn it at all and practice nudism instead. Don’t be attractive, be frightening. Don’t stand out, be plain. Use clothing as a tool. Cover your face to elude identification by cops and surveillance cameras. Or conversely, use outrageous public nudity to attract attention for demonstrations and protests. And most of all, ignore beauty, devalue beauty. Don’t accept the comforting lie that “everyone is beautiful.” We’re not! You’re not! Our bodies are just decaying organic matter. Rotting meat. Compost. Shit. We’re flawed, we’re weak, we’re stupid, we’re ugly and God damn proud of it. Value your fellow human being for the things about them that truly matter, not their disgusting flesh prison. Value them for them, and not for what they can offer you or offer society. Resist the corporate onslaught on your self-esteem and your sanity. They need you but you don’t need them.
The chorus to Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People” is worth remembering:
Hey, you, what do you see?
Something beautiful or something free?
You have to pick one, you can only be one or the other. Will you be beautiful, or will you be free?