Tuesday, July 26, 2022

The Problem With Being Hot

 From Kat Rosenfield, at UnHerd, "Should everyone be beautiful?":

The late Rush Limbaugh once said that feminism was created to “allow ugly women access to society” — a comment all the crueller because it was true. A central tenet of feminism is that a woman’s social value should be predicated on her humanity, not her beauty. The only legitimate response to being called ugly, then, is surely a shrug: yes, and? So what? But Limbaugh’s comments were met with outrage, for the most obvious, human reason: even feminists want to be beautiful.

These competing forces — a resentment of punishing beauty standards on one hand, and on the other the yearning to be beautiful oneself, with all the privileges that entails — have long been a source of tension, one that the movement keeps trying to resolve by treating beauty not as an objective quality, but a resource to which all women are entitled. Hence the endless campaigns telling women that they’re beautiful no matter what they look like, that they deserve to feel beautiful, that beauty is something every woman possesses in her own way.

The latest iteration of this phenomenon is a howler of a trend piece, which was published at the weekend by the New York Times — and subsequently went off-the-charts viral. “A social media movement inspired by the rapper Megan Thee Stallion strikes back at the gatekeepers of beauty,” announces the subhead. This movement sees being “hot” not as the condition of being physically attractive or sexually desirable, but as a state of mind, a vibe. Gone are the days when being hot required that another person bestow the label upon you. If you identify as hot, then you are.

The NYT piece goes on to enumerate all the ways in which young women “are expanding the definition of hotness, taking it beyond its former association with old notions of attractiveness”. You can be hot by doing things like eating spaghetti, cleaning grout, graduating from law school, and taking walks. In fact, the hotness of a given endeavour seems defined less by the activity itself than by the fact that the woman doing it is a) conventionally attractive, and b) under the age of 30. (Meet the new hotness, same as the old one.)

There is nothing original here. It is a truth universally acknowledged that young people like to mess around with language, walling themselves off with vernacular from the generations that came before them. Before the vibe shift there were trends, or the zeitgeist; before the hot girl there was the cool girl; the feminists of the Seventies trashed their sisters while their granddaughters cancel each other.

But the idea that hotness could have nothing whatsoever to do with beauty, or the male gaze, or even the most nebulous idea of being hot to another person… well, this is also not new. We — that is, women — have tried this before.

It’s 1945 in the fictional village of Bedford Falls, New York: a young woman named Violet Beck responds to a compliment on her dress with a scoff, “What? This old thing?”

It’s 2017: Karlie Kloss is just having a casual cup of tea in her bathrobe, not trying to look nice or anything.

It’s 2022: a TikTok influencer named Mia Lind is taking a “hot girl walk”, the tenets of which are self-affirmation, self-reflection, and goal-oriented thinking. (“You may not”, Lind says, “think of boys or boy drama”, a great new riff on that old gag where you tell someone not to think of an elephant. Of course I’m thinking about boy drama now.) The hot girl walk is a four-mile exercise in cultivating confidence. It has nothing to do with looking good, as you can tell by the photos Lind posts of herself on her walks, in which she looks absolutely hideous.

Here, oddly enough, both contemporary feminism and the patriarchy seem to be in agreement: the opposite of “hot” is trying too hard. A truly beautiful woman is not like other girls. She’s effortless, unassuming, even unaware of how alluring she is — because she’s either too modest to acknowledge it, or too liberated to care...