This article is Ancient (archive 2011)

Hot or Ho? Sexy Signifiers and the Female Form

Breaking my supposed boycott to the, I refer to an almost interesting article recently up at the Huffington Post. In this article,1 Dr. Vivian Diller (a psychologists) responds to Dr. Robert Tornambe’s call for women to stop comparing themselves to celebrities and recognize the various beauties, be it their noses, their waists, their personalities, that they already exhibit rather than chasing an ineffable ideal. While applauding Dr. Tornambe for encouraging women to find their own beauty rather than achieve someone else’s standard, she takes issue with the word beauty, preferring instead that women worry about their “attractiveness” rather than their “beauty,” which she allows Webster to define as “the quality that arouses interest or pleasure,” and believes is something attainable independent of the standards set by others.

Unfortunately, while both doctors offer excellent advice, in general, to women young and old alike concerned with living up to impossible ideals set by impossibly and, occasionally, artificially ideal idols, they misdiagnose the the disease, which has less to do with ideals or standards of things as abstract as beauty or attractiveness than signifiers of much more identifiable qualities, mainly, sexuality and youth.

Dr. Tornambe is fairly on the mark when he says that “Beauty is the most overused, misunderstood, poorly defined word in the English language,” although I’m not sure why he restricts this to English. Yet, when we discuss the standards of appearance to which individuals, male or female, aspire we rarely discuss anything so austere as “beauty.” Instead, as evidenced by yearly lists in countless magazines, we discuss “hotness” or “sexiness.” One might argue that we use these as timely synonyms for beauty, but, while they may overlap they are not synonymous.

While we have at our disposal any number of trite sayings that can support this argument, the “great beauties” do the best job. As a matter of form, of composition, “great beauties,” that is well-marketed, attractive women, we call “timeless,” and for good reason: they are. We can quibble of fashions and preferences, but, for something “in the eye of the beholder,” we have gotten very good at recognizing beauty, particularly in the human form, despite, rather than because, of these prejudices.

Are they beautiful? Clearly. Are they hot? Absolutely not. Their noses are too big; their waists are too wide; and, good lord, they must be over thirty. I will wager that in thirty years, we will be hard-pressed to find the “great beauties” of this era. Not because we don’t have any but because we are not currently interested in exhibiting them. Instead, we exhibit “hotness” and “sexiness,” which, unlike beauty, is not determined by the pleasing composition of the whole, but is a quantifiable function of the hotness signifiers. The more numerous and the more exaggerated these signifiers, the hotter we judge the subject. At present, our “great beauties,” the women we judge attractive above all others, are grotesque.

Nowhere is this more evident than in contemporary porn, where actresses almost uniformly exhibit many, if not all, of the signifier of hotness (large breasts, narrow waists, high cheekbones, bulging lips, large but narrow eyes), to degrees that only rarely translate to beauty. This works well for the porn industry because, combined with certain class signifiers (gaudy makeup heavily applied, tattoos, and cheap jewelery), these women become particularly objectifiable.

Yet, when we remove the class signifiers, use what we might call the “classy” school of makeup application to the still exaggerated features of the face, and use a little less glitter, we end up with the female actors and performers who consistently rank “hottest”: Angelina Jolie, Megan Fox, Olivia Wilde. We can argue whether or not these women can qualify as “great beauties” whom we will admire for decades to come, and I won’t argue that being grotesque precludes anyone from being beautiful. But, in any discussion of the expectations society puts on women, we need to figure out what, exactly, society expects them to aspire to, the beauty or the features.

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  1. I’m compromising on the boycott by calling Huffington Post’s blogs articles []