Friday, September 14, 2012

Judging Women by their Looks is Limiting

Quick: what’s the first thing you think when you see a man in a business suit walking downtown? ‘What’s he do for a living?’ ‘Where’s he going?’ ‘Is he capable?’ Now, what’s the first thing you think if it’s a woman? If you’re like most people, and I unfortunately count myself among them sometimes, the initial thought tends to be centered on her looks.
In general, if you believe that to compliment a woman on her beauty is, well, a compliment, you’d probably be right. But what happens if that’s the first thing you always consider when you see a woman? Such a characterization is limiting. I can’t tell you how many times when conducting business I’ve stood before a female (doctor, police officer, politician, etc.) and my initial thought was of how she looks. It’s not just business situations either. For instance, I’ve done it regarding female athletes where performance should be the only thing that matters. Yet time and again it wasn’t. World’s fastest woman? ‘Check out that body.’ Gold medal in gymnastics? ‘She’d look better if she wore her hair different.’ Lot’s of wrong thinking going on.
When I was younger, it never crossed my mind that I was reducing fully formed human beings to a single characteristic – perhaps the least important quality, in terms of whatever interaction I was engaged in. Some say that’s just the way it is; men are wired like that. It’s nature’s way of ensuring continuation of the species. On some level that’s true. But it’s also letting a lot of men off the hook around what I’ve come to understand is some real pigeon-holing stuff.
Single-minded males aren’t the only ones to perpetrate the ‘beauty-first’ mantra. I’ve observed this one-dimensional projection amongst women too. More than once I’ve overheard comments about how well or poorly another woman looks or is ‘put together’.
While it may indeed be supportive to remark favorably about a woman’s appearance, to her face or otherwise, I dare say it also can be depreciating. In some cases, although unintentional, it borders on disrespect. I’m not even referring to cat-calls by men or catty comments by women. I contend that to consistently place a woman’s appearance as her first and single most important attribute is to denigrate all the other positive aspects she brings to the table. Her skills, strength, knowledge, compassion, humor, endurance, athleticism are all devalued.
It’s natural for sighted people to use our visual senses as part of an initial observation of a woman (or man for that matter). But I wonder if, over time, that regard translates into diminished judgments and leads to unfair determinations about a woman’s character, intelligence or capacity to contribute?
To a significant degree, media is to blame for this limiting assessment of females in our culture. How women are portrayed and defined (stereotypically relying on their looks to achieve success) has conditioned us all to elevate beauty in a way that lowers expectations for women. And in the end, unless you’re in a swimsuit pageant or some other looks-based vocation, physical appearance shouldn’t really matter all that much.
Last month, Woman’s Equality Day marched quietly across most of our calendars. In 1971, the U.S. Congress designated August 26 as the date to commemorate the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, granting all women in America the right to vote. Ancient history? Perhaps to some. To most of us, that date should remind us holidays and laws don’t create true equality; people’s thoughts and actions do.

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