From The Classroom To The Courtroom, Beauty Is In The Eye Of The Beholder. And The Beholder Is Always A Man

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After a woman was fired for being “too attractive,” Soraya Chemaly discusses how women are lifelong subjects of the male gaze.

Last week, in a terrific-though-clumsily-titled article in the New York Times, “Fired For Being Beautiful,” Michael Kimmel wrote about the Iowa Supreme Court’s confirmation of its findings that employers can fire a person for the way they look. They concluded that an employee “may be lawfully terminated simply because the boss views the employee as an irresistible attraction.”

The case at hand involved a dentist who fired a female dental assistant, at the behest of his wife, because they felt that their marriage would be threatened by her presence in his office. She was too attractive. Now, this has nothing to do with how the woman or others before and after her, look. Just on how attractive the man found her. A commenter on Kimmel’s piece wrote:

“This situation is all too familiar. I work in military aviation, and when an attractive, unmarried (she was engaged) female pilot was assigned to our squadron, the department heads spoke with the skipper and had her re-assigned. They said she would be a distraction to the entire air wing while we were on deployment, and that male crewmembers would be frequenting the ready room to spend time with her. Essentially, they said her presence would undercut good order and discipline in our unit. She is a great pilot and a consummate professional, and is now married to a wonderful man. Fortunately for her, she ended up in a squadron that recognized her ability as a pilot, and was not intimidated by her good looks.”

This is familiar. Marissa, the woman in Iowa, should talk to Debrahlee Lorenzana, likewise fired (by Citibank) for being too luscious. She was attractive, wore professional clothing, and was fired because some men found her sexy. Lauren Odes was told to “wear a bathrobe” over her clothing before she was fired for being “too hot.”

I’ve had conversations with men in which they openly—and with no sense that this is a problem—admit to not hiring able, talented women because they might find them “tempting.” Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And that idea—of who the beholder is—starts when kids are very young. 

Several months ago, I included a description of this case in a 13-page email to my children’s school after an unfortunate incident in which a grade of girls was castigated publicly for “distracting boys” because of the ways in which they wore their uniforms. I asked, among other things: “Who gets to be distracted? And, whose distraction is central? What is a girl supposed to think in the morning when she wakes up and tries to decide what to wear to school? They aren’t idiots. The logical conclusion of the ‘distracting’ issue is, ‘Will I turn someone on if I wear this?’ Now, who is doing the sexualizing?” 

As 13-year-olds, my daughters, and very few of their girlfriends at this stage, would ever have thought these things without the help of their school, its double standards, and good girl/bad girl Madonna/whore norms. I resented the introduction of these ideas just at a time during which as parents we are trying hard to resist the unstoppable tide of the sexualization of girls. I later had occasion to ask, “Do you know what is distracting? Trying not to be distracting. This framing of the problem is marginalizing, sexist, and heteronormative.” The school might be considering ways to accelerate my children’s academic career.  

The only people these policies worry about distracting are gender-stereotyped, heterosexual boys who, if they have any sense, should be and are insulted by the underlying assumption that they are little better than rutting stags who can’t control themselves and apparently grow up to be dentists who cannot control themselves and judges who don’t expect them to. I didn’t say that last bit to the school. I just included a description of dentists and judges in Iowa as a living example of what the efflorescence of their discriminatory practice looked like in the law. At our school, the friends of my daughters who are boys (the school did not address the boys on the subject of the very sexual objectification that they’d just perpetuated) were angry and upset to be portrayed in this way, as they had a right to be. 

Attraction happens and is distracting. So what? People can and do control themselves every day. Sometimes, they get angry—but they don’t generally act on that anger in a professional setting. Sometimes, they are moved to sadness, and yet, refrain from crying hysterically. Hourglass figures actually “affect men’s brains” the same way drugs and alcohol do. Therefore, in schools across the nation and in Iowa, only boyish girls should work with male superiors. Men also find fertile gals more attractive. Maybe we should only work for part of the month, or only when we are prepubescent and post-menopausal? Also, work can be stressful and when it is, men are more attracted to rounded, Rubenesque-looking women, so I suggest that in Iowa, employers stagger female employees by body type to match stress-provoking work cycles.

Everyone has the capacity for being distracted, for finding others blindingly beautiful, and entrancingly sexually appealing. When I was a teenager, there was a boy who distracted me silly. I was in school with him for four years and dated him the entire time. It was outrageously fun. I was able to contain myself in class even when he shed his bulky winter sweaters and wore shorts in the Spring and showed a bit of leg. A man, during that period of my life, recognized me by declaring, “Oh, you’re that hottie from the park,” so I imagine that this boy in school might have been, daily, distracted by me, too. And YET! We spoke in full sentences. Asked questions in class. Got “A’s” in history. Strange. Strange. Strange. All this attraction and self-control. 

The Iowa judges insisted that the woman could be fired “not because of her gender but because she was a threat to the marriage of Dr. Knight.” (Honestly, this is almost worse, but, whatever.) The episode and the normative reasoning behind the judgment aren’t isolated. This happens every day. Here are some typical examples.

Girl Kicked Off Of Her Team For Distracting Boys (school thought she’d cause boys to have “impure thoughts” and “urges.”)

School Bans Tight Pants Because They Distract Boys

Judge Agrees Strapless Dresses Distract Boys

Boys’ Brains So Addled That They Will Be Unable To Concentrate In Science Class

Most Popular Girls Penalized For Their Photos Being Forwarded Most In Sexts

Girl Expelled From Catholic School In Sexting Incident

And, the consequences of this widespread belief that boys and men are constantly addled to the point of harm, is, of course, to punish girls and women, like the ones above. It’s easy to do when the habit starts so early.

Now, once in a blue moon, you run across a story like this one: Recently, a wry, sultry, doe-eyed guy was extradited from Saudi Arabia. His crime? Being too handsome. Saudi authorities thought he’d corrupt Saudi women and so made him leave their kingdom. Really. Not joking here. Other than this story, and after searching online, I couldn’t come up with anything related to men’s attractiveness being a cause for moral panic and legal intervention. When have you heard someone talk about what is distracting to girls or LGTBQ kids at school or to women who work? I’m a woman, who was a girl. Who has employed people, including men. How does this translate in the workplace? Or for girls who play sports with boys? Or go to school with them? Or for kids who are attracted to people of the same sex?

Well, for one thing, men who want to work in a place with a female supervisor should eat oily foods or make themselves up to give the appearance of acne or unhealthy skin, because women find healthy skin attractive. If they work in Iowa and don’t want to risk being fired, they might consider taking amphetamines because women “prefer chill guys.” But, not chill and brooding. That would be distracting because women like stern-faced manly-men. Once you understand the double standards inherent in the norms underlying everything from school uniforms to Iowa’s Supreme Court ruling, the idiocy is endless.

What I said to my kids’ school and what Michael Kimmel said last week are the same thing: Girls and women are subjected for life to the male gaze and its effects. As Kimmel said, “men’s estimation of beauty is the defining feature of the category.” Boys and men. From luscious Lolitas to MILFS and now, apparently, marriage-wrecking hygienists. Frankly, it’s exhausting and depressing. 

As far as kids are concerned, there is a vast difference between teaching children how to dress appropriately with an understanding of context and teaching them patriarchal, sexist, faux-morality double-standards blather based on destructive gender stereotypes that lead to Iowa’s decision and discrimination in the workplace. If you doubt that this is true and that it is discriminatory, I leave you—in the spirit of snark infused with exasperation—with this explanatory montage from Hollywood because there are no words left.

Soraya L. Chemaly writes about gender, feminism and culture for several online media including Role/Reboot, The Huffington Post, Fem2.0, RHReality Check, BitchFlicks, and Alternet among others. She is particularly interested in how systems of bias and oppression are transmitted to children through entertainment, media and religious cultures. She holds a History degree from Georgetown University, where she founded that schools first feminist undergraduate journal, studied post-grad at Radcliffe College.

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