Guess what? According to the standard of beauty currently in place in our culture—namely white, young, thin with long, straight hair, I am not beautiful. Can’t happen. As a rounded black woman with curly hair, the best I can hope for is moderately attractive. Which means that according to the latest research and NEWSWEEK’s own polling, I am at a disadvantage in the workplace, which appears to value looks over education (though not over experience and confidence). But I still don’t care about the beauty standard—I don’t even care what it is. I can’t. For me, it is as immutable and unreachable, and thus as meaningless, as the fact that rich people get better lawyers. So what if the standard is getting stricter, more unrealistic, and meaner by the day? The standard will change, and as bell-bottoms gave way to leg warmers, it’ll morph into something else. (Back to foot-binding, perhaps?) And most of us still won’t be beautiful by whatever new criteria Ralph Lauren cooks up. I’ll probably never fit into other groups that society favors, either. I’ll never be a billionaire. And unless I have a sudden and unprecedented set of surgeries, I’ll never be a white man. And yet I somehow managed to graduate from Yale, find a job I sometimes like, and, miracles of miracles, get married and have a kid.
Beauty bias notwithstanding, there are still opportunities for people who aren’t hotties—lots of them. Virtually all the women I know have come to terms with the fact that their self-esteem cannot be tied to Photoshopped 15-year-olds on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar. Never in the history of the world have women had so many amazing opportunities, and it makes not a whit of sense to squander them obsessing over our looks. We do not yet reap rewards equal to those of men. But we can either succeed in the breathtaking arenas that are now open to us—and work to enter more of them—or we can spend our days competing with fashion models and movie stars. In other words, you can be Hillary Clinton or Heidi Montag. It’s your choice.
Despite the $20 billion U.S. beauty industry bearing down on us, and all that media implying that one must look like Gisele to succeed, girls and women are making extraordinary strides and have done so in a remarkably short period of time. The Atlantic just ran a story promising we’d be in charge of the world one day, and the evidence was pretty compelling. We are currently earning the majority of undergraduate (and many graduate) degrees , including medicine and law. We don’t have a lot of CEOs to call our own, but some of ones we have, including Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman, have turned their business prowess into viable political careers. There are a decent number of women in the House and Senate (76 and 17, respectively, though still low compared with our proportion of the population), but there’s no reason that we can’t expect those numbers to grow—especially on the heels of Clinton’s presidential run and the recent successes of women in the GOP. Clearly, eligibility for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue is not required to succeed or even to change the world. And believe it or not, trends in beauty-buying back that up. The market-research firm NDP released a study in April that revealed that teens and women are now using beauty products in significantly fewer quantities, down 6 percent from 2008 to 2009. Karen Grant, a senior global-industry analyst for NPD, told me its research has shown this is not simply recession-related but that some women are actually becoming less emotionally engaged with the beauty market. Most of the world’s women aren’t Vogue-approved hotties, and still so many manage to kick ass in law school or business school or medical school, and not by sitting in a plastic surgeon’s office or the gym all day. Three of the last four secretaries of state have been women—none of whom showed up on the cover of W. Sonia Sotomayor may never win a Miss America pageant, but boohoo, she’s a Supreme Court justice. I’d choose that over a tiara any day.
I’m not saying you have to completely let yourself go. One of the reasons looks, though not necessarily beauty, are so important to hiring managers is because appearance can help you suss out a lot of information, such as the way you conduct yourself professionally. I suspect if Angelina Jolie showed up to an interview at an accounting firm in flip-flops and dirty jeans, she’d have trouble getting hired. So despite our fears, looks in the hiring arena do not always equal perfect bone structure. For millennia, beauty was a woman’s only currency and, even then, the most gorgeous women were property themselves, unable to inherit land or marry of their own accord. But the days of boobs being our only advantage are as close to being over as they ever have been. We just have to believe it. Stop worrying about unfair beauty standards: 63 percent of Americans are overweight or obese—we need to get healthy, not get liposuction. Getting healthy is the reason I’m on a diet—Tyra Banks has nothing to do it. It’s also why I quit smoking. Look around. Most of the world does not look like the Laker Girls or even Coyote Ugly waitresses. And that’s OK with them.
And think about it this way. Capitalism always trumps beauty—because it trumps everything. As we continue to grow in power as workers, spenders, heads of households, and legislators, our economic power will force a change in this so-called beauty bias. But we have to be brave and continue to reject the conclusion that turning ourselves into Scarlett Johansson is the only way to get ahead. Yes, people can be vicious in their categorization of women’s looks. Insult them back or ignore them. It worked for Hillary, Madeleine, Condeleezza, and Sonia. And it looks as though it might just work for Elena Kagan. Worried you’ll get never get married because you’re not a size zero? Please, 86 percent of American women are married at least once by the age of 40, so stop reading all that lonely-girl porn. Worried that you don’t turn heads the way you used to? OK, make a list of everything all that head-turning got you and compare it with what you accomplished when you used your brain instead of a push-up bra. And, I’m sorry, if you are older than 30 and your feelings get hurt by strangers commenting on the thigh sizes of 14-year-olds in a magazine, you need to toughen up. Do something to raise awareness—don’t just go looking for a different shade of lipstick. We aren’t victims. We aren’t objects. And I, for one, am not going to spend my life worrying about when to start Botox treatments. When I’m on my deathbed, I hope to be smiling in satisfaction about all I accomplished, not that I made it to 102 without any cellulite.