Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair
We see and judge women based on the perspective of super rich white men who also tend to own the beauty competitions and the cosmetic companies.
If Donald Trump met me, he would probably say I was ugly. He wouldn’t see the degrees, published books and articles, or the gentle being that I am, and instead he’d see measurements. That doesn’t bother me at all, because Trump and people in similar positions of power are not qualified to even talk about beauty.
For two decades, Trump owned the Miss Universe beauty pageant. Contestants confirmed that he would enter Miss Teen USA changing rooms while women and girls were undressing. He even bragged about it on television, stating“ I’m allowed to go in because I’m the owner of the pageant. And therefore I’m inspecting it… Is everyone OK? You know, they’re standing there with no clothes. And you see these incredible-looking women. And so I sort of get away with things like that.” One former competitor described in her memoir how Trump would line the women up and inspect them “closer than any general ever inspected a platoon”.
Trump applies this entitled-to-judge mentality in his business and political life, regularly describing women in terms of their appearance. “Look at that face!” he said of Carly Fiorina, one of his Republican primary opponents. He has even ordered that waitresses at one of his golf clubs be fired after he didn’t deem them attractive enough.
This virulent approach to beauty is the one that dominates our everyday mentality. It’s the people with enormous economic and political power who get to define what beauty is – through the media, through advertising, through product production – even though most of those people are men. The four biggest cosmetic companies globally are all headed by white men; L’Oréal by Jean-Paul Agon, Unilever by Alan Jope, Estée Lauder by Fabrizio Freda, and Proctor and Gamble by David S. Taylor. The global weight loss industry is expected to reach US$278.95 billion by 2023, the global cosmetic products market was valued at around US$532 billion in 2017 and the value of the global apparel retail market was US$1,414.1 billion in 2017. These industries even reach children – indirectly through adults with influence in their lives, and directly through child weight loss camps, child beauty pageants (common in the Americas but less so in other regions) and through toys, and shows like Toddlers in Tiaras.
Women in particular end up seeing themselves through the eyes of the Trumps who run these industries. Just as working class people often see themselves through the eyes of the rich and take on their goals and their measures of “success,” and invaded countries often evaluate their economies based on the metrics of the colonizers, women often look at themselves through the eyes of men. Would a man approve of this? In a world run by narcissistic bullies, we end up judging ourselves by their stunted, soulless standards.
“A woman has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another,” John Berger wrote in Ways of Seeing.
The World’s Trumps are Unqualified to Judge Beauty
Seeing ourselves through the eyes of men is not comparable, however, to students seeing their work through the eyes of their teachers, because the Trumps are not qualified to judge beauty. They are experienced in pollution, destruction, excessive and drunken production of junk the world doesn’t need, and in an objectified version of life and other humans, but not in beauty.
It’s no surprise that some of the things Trump considers “beautiful” include sleeping gas, the wall, confederate statues, military weapons, barbed wire, coal, and White House phones. From that alone we can tell his opinions about beauty are unreliable. But consider the lives of the super rich and powerful. They spend their time in gluttonous indulgence, adding marble sinks to their bathrooms just because of the price tag, speculating on housing, categorically avoiding life and people in places like public transport, paying other people to do the gardening, housework, and fix things. And while underpaid laborers do life for them, they play with their money and dodge taxes, measure their value by the amount of precious metals brutally extracted from the earth that they display on their person and in their bleak mansions. Their suits are boring and they hog the views of lakes and beaches while their industries simultaneously contaminate them. They attend self-congratulatory charity events which are cliché fests designed to cover up their crimes and give their contamination and exploitation a satiny sparkle. They never get vaguely close to beauty because they stifle any humanity they had for profits.
The super rich are always trying to do things they aren’t qualified for, such as being the president of a huge country despite no political experience or awareness of basic geography, let alone geopolitics or international trade contracts. It’s the epitome of privilege; undeserved respect and power accompanied by unearned arrogance and a belief that by just being a rich white man you are qualified.
Why can some workers be fired or lose their shifts after being a few minutes late, but the US president holds on to his position, despite his chronic lying, incompetence, sexual harassment, and corruption? Because, in this current political and economic system, ability does not matter. Wealthy CEOs determine economic policy – what will be produced, destroyed, and marketed. White men are the ones running politics, being published, getting the bylines, and being interviewed as experts – not because they are more capable writers and political actors, but because they have more power. Those climbing career ladders and believing they are getting to the top exclusively because of ability and hard work are deluding themselves. The world is run by incompetent people who get away with huge human rights and environmental violations, and these are the people setting the ideological parameters to our self esteem.
The Beauty the Trumps are Missing Out On
Beauty is complex and it can’t be reduced to some boring standards about height or shape, or racist standards about skin color and hair. Beauty is the satisfaction of hard earned change, the radiance of a person who has won a battle, and the gentle empathy of a person who thinks of others despite their own pain.
While the Trumps are getting drunk on their investment and bank digits, they aren’t able to appreciate a barrio dance night where neighbors salsa on unpaved roads. They aren’t able to value a woman with strength in her voice who says the things that are hard to say, because courage eludes them. They respect status rather reveling in the glorious surprises that arise from chatting to strangers on the bus, the soft delight of smearing an old wall with intense turquoise paint, the intricate work and colors that are woven into Mexican handicrafts, the deepening complexity of minds as we age in the real world, the cushiony comfort of trusting someone, the light freedom felt when overcoming trauma, or the long lasting hunger when fighting for justice.
So it is up to us to come up with alternative narratives about beauty – both for ourselves, and for the children in our lives. These narratives can help shift the focus back on to humanity and human variety and away from consumerism worship and rape culture. I wrote The Beauty Rules of Flowertown for small girls, because beauty is our story to tell, and because girls, people of color, people of diverse sexuality and genders, poor people, and others deserve a dignified health esteem a lot more than Trump does.
Tamara Pearson is a long time journalist based in Latin America, and author of The Butterfly Prison. Her writings can be found at her blog.