While we sipped our drinks and took in the scene, Donn’ique (not her name) pointed out all the good looking people around us. An idle “Where do all these people come from?” turned into a long discussion on the Nature of the Sublime.
Donn’ique wondered: does wealth beget beauty, or does beauty beget wealth? And if beauty is a means to acquiring wealth and attracting other beautiful people, will Darwinian forces kick in? Will the beautiful pair off and create more beautiful people, both in number and degree of beauty? If they lose wealth, will they-- and their--offspring lose their beauty? Or will the beauty ensure that a certain social standard is always met?
She’s very smart, especially with a glass of rye in her hand.
I posited, “Za combinashun o’ bofe.” And then I passed out.
No, seriously. I laid out an intricate thesis with perfect poise and annunciation. A group of miners stopped their conversation to listen to us, and were amazed “when they saw that art and appetite could go hand in hand and knew no bounds; when I lit a long cigar and quaffed a couple of cocktails without flinching, they cheered me until the silver fell in a glittering dust from the roof onto our table below.” At least that’s how I remember it.
Mine thesis: A Pygmalion effect kicks in once one passes a certain level of income and education. Given exposure to high-end fashion, access to the Arts, social grace(s), education, leisure time necessary for exercise, and experience in places like the very bar we were in, one becomes fashionable, poised, confident--and therefore beautiful according to accepted standards. “It’s all in the packaging!” I shouted, hurling my empty glass into a giant fireplace. The miners clapped politely. And then I passed out.
So imagine my surprise on Tuesday when an article in the New York Times inadvertently proved my thesis.
Consider the photo above. On the right, you have an attractive woman, but not so attractive that you’d crane your neck with a double-take. Objectively, she’s inside the top quintile of attractive, but so are lots of people (roughly one-fifth). In the photo on the left, she is, objectively and scientifically speaking, hot. So hot it’s an indisputable fact. I mean, damn. But get this, bro…
It’s the same lady.
The Times article is about a more complex and much more complicated phenomenon, but the disparity between the two photos bears out my own thesis. If you know how you to present yourself, then you will increase your level of attraction accordingly. However, it also points to the fact their are different standards of beauty.
[There are exceptions to this Pygmalion Effect. Selma Hayek, for example, would be in the global elite of Hotness if she perpetually had a mustard-smear on her nose and an onion ring stuck to her cheek.]
The clientele of the refined, uncommonly expensive bar we were in on Friday were not dressed like the lady on the left (i.e., the Hot One). An outfit like that would have raised a few eyebrows, and more than a few sardonic grins. She would have been out of place because, though she looks great, she looks like the wrong style of attractive according to the upper-middle class standard. She’s an Eliza Doolittle who needs more refinement.
The thesis of the study detailed in the Times, as explained by McMaster University's Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt, is that women will react with hostility to other women who “who make sex too readily available [and] compromise the power-holding position of the group, which is why many women are particularly intolerant of women who are, or seem to be, promiscuous.”
Perhaps, but there's also a class system at play that may account for the intolerance. In the photo on the right, the woman is dressed like a member of the upper middle class--the dominant quintile for standards of beauty. She might be dressed a bit light for November in Chicago, and a bit casual for a Friday night, but she would have fit in fine in the bar the other night. Dressed in the other version, she looks like she’s from a different quintile all together. (Warning: I’m not even close to done with the word “Quintile.”) Physically, she’s moved up the scale. But economically?
I can hear it now: boorish writer thinks poor women dress slutty. No, I don’t, and I don’t even think that outfit is “slutty.” It’s “revealing,” but I’m neither idiot nor dickish enough to assume clothes maketh the sexual habit. My point is that the method of amping up ones attraction favored by the Banana Republic quintile differs, greatly, from the Ed Hardy quintile. It’s akin to a man wearing an Under Armour work out shirt or an Affliction T-shirt: there is a way to appear sexually alluring in a $12-a-drink hipster speakeasy, and a wrong way.
The Times describes the experiment thusly: “To see how female students react to a rival, researchers brought pairs of them into a laboratory at McMaster University for what was ostensibly a discussion about female friendships. But the real experiment began when another young woman entered the room asking where to find one of the researchers.” The Plain Jane got straight answers and that was it. The hotty got made fun of almost every time, usually behind her back but occasionally to her face.
McMaster University is variously ranked the fourth or fifth best school in Canada, according to my hasty, peer-reviewed Google search. It is, like the fancy bar I was in on Friday, an environment of subtle competition and rigid social codes, both overt and covert. It is, I’d bet, almost entirely made up with members of the top quintile in education. It is also, I’d also bet, disproportionately composed of members of the top economic quintile. What McMaster University does not have, I’d lastly bet, is many muscle-T’s and plunging necklines in the hallways on your average school day.
So maybe those women in the study are not just sneering at the “promiscuous” woman. They could be sneering at the “poor” person.
But then again, I would say that, wouldn't I? Coming as I do from that quintile.