By Mich Ciurria
I recently came across this article on Vice.com asking filmmakers to “stop making hot actors play normal people.” I think that this is a real problem but not for the reasons most people assume. Instead, I think that mainstream beauty culture – which encompasses Hollywood cinema – is structured by beautyism, by which I mean a prejudice in favor of “beautiful” bodies and against “ugly” bodies. And beautyism overlaps with racism, heteronormativity, and, above all, ableism.
More specifically, beautyism is part of a eugenics culture that favors white, gender-conforming, nondisabled bodies, the kinds of bodies preferred by eugenicists throughout history. Indeed, disability is partly defined as white and gender-conforming.
Yet few people seem to notice this, even in feminist spaces where one would expect to find such critiques. I believe that this is largely because of the prevalence of “choice feminism,” an ideology that treats women’s choices as “[inherently] justified and always politically acceptable.” In other words, choice feminism holds that we should not critique women’s choices, no matter how problematic they may be.
Here, I want to debunk choice feminism and argue that beautyism promotes a eugenics society. I will do this in two parts. In the first part, I will explain why I think that beautyism is a component part of eugenics. This argument is supported by critical disability feminism. In the second part, I will unpack why choice feminism not only ignores these critiques, but actively silences them by presenting women’s choices as private matters that are beyond reproach.
Beautyism as ableist eugenics
First, let me explain why I think that beautyism is a form of ableism. Beautyism is exemplified in Hollywood’s preference for “beautiful” actors, as well as ordinary people’s attempts to live up to Hollywood’s standard of beauty. Beautism, as such, is an institutionalized preference for “beautiful bodies.” This preference picks out and favors certain traits over others. Which traits?
Above all, beautyism selects for able-bodiedness. It favors bodies that are “normal” and “healthy,” bodies with two arms, two legs, a symmetrical face, an athletic build, and other marker of able-bodiedness. In contrast, disabled bodies are seen as abnormal, freakish, and (hence) ugly.
Asymmetrical bodies, paralyzed bodies, amputated bodies – in general, disabled bodies – are “ugly” because they are not “normal” or “healthy,” much less ideal. But normalcy and health are social constructs, not natural or “prediscursive” states of affairs (to use Foucault’s term). A “normal” body is thought of as a nondisabled body only because of contingent historical and political circumstances that conflate “normal” and “able.”
These associations can and should be resisted. But to change them, we need to understand their origins in industrial capitalism, and their ongoing role in hierarchies of power and domination.
Disability historians have shown how disability came to be seen as ugly, freakish, and profane in the wake of the industrial revolution. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson traces the social construction of disability as deviancy by contrasting freak shows against beauty pageants circa 1860-1920.
Freak shows displayed disabled bodies under the guise of “armless wonders,” “Siamese twins,” “fat men,” “bearded women,” “spotted boys” (with vitiligo), and so on. In contrast, beauty pageants showcased white, thin, gender-conforming women. These two spectacles helped to solidify the notion of disability as ugly and freakish on the one hand, and able-bodiedness as beautiful and normal on the other hand. These opposing contexts also illuminate the associations between disability, blackness, queerness, and gender-variance, as opposed to able-bodiedness, whiteness, straightness, and gender-conformity.
Historically, disvalued traits of all kinds were treated as disabling conditions, and were in fact disabling in the sense that having these traits would often result in socioeconomic exclusions that could both cause disablement (due to injury and neglect) and position one as disabled (marginalized, poor).
Sarah F. Rose corroborates this analysis by tracing the source of disability circa 1840-1930 to the exclusion of non-standard bodies from the economy in the wake of the industrial revolution. Newly mechanized industries demanded bodies that could keep pace with the new machinery. Hence, non-interchangeable bodies were, for the first time, seen and treated as disabled (i.e., disposable). At this time, Black, feminine, and gender-nonconforming bodies were disproportionally disabled because they were relegated to the most disabling industries (e.g., mining, handling toxic chemicals), which solidified associations between Blackness, femininity, and disablement.
These groups were then forced onto welfare and private aid, which didn’t cover cost the cost of living. Meanwhile, white union workers were protected from disabling jobs by labor laws and collective bargaining, which ensured better working conditions, and entrenched the relation between able-bodiedness and white masculinity. In this way, disability was raced and gendered as a result of capitalist labor relations and social policies.
Sabrina Springs adds a further layer of analysis to this critique by explaining how diet culture, and beauty culture in general, emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries in response to white people’s fear of the Black body. She describes how Blackness was constructed in opposition to the ideal of Whiteness, as uncivilized, fat, unhealthy, and ugly. 19th-Century scholars wrote of “Black savages” as “stout,” “corpulent” and “excessively fleshy.” They particularly targeted Black women as exemplars of fatness, laziness, and poor hygiene – figures to be adjured by “civilized white ladies.” This racial ideology mobilized white women to invest in diet and beauty products in an effort to avoid traits associated with Blackness, particularly fatness and disability. This ideology also reinforced the notion of disability as a feature of fat, Black bodies.
These three analyses converge in conceptualizing ugliness as a social construct with roots in eugenics, a system of oppression that conflates Blackness, queerness, and disability, and punishes disability as such. While these critiques are historical in nature, they are just as relevant today as they were 200 years ago. We still live in a compulsory beauty regime that seeks to eliminate disability in all its forms. Today, people invest more than ever in diet and beauty routines that promise thinness, pale skin, a youthful appearance, and other markers of able-bodiedness. The beauty industry is a multi-billion-dollar racket that continues to capitalize on our fear of the disabled-Black-fat-ugly body, leading to an ever-shrinking range of acceptable bodies.
As Jia Tolentino puts it, social media is fueling the “emergence… of a single, cyborgian face,” one that is young, thin, and “distinctly white but ambiguously ethnic.” The more we invest in the beauty industry, the faster we approach a Gattaca-type society in which biological diversity is reviled and reduced. Note that in Gattaca, everyone is miserable – not only the genetically-unmodified “invalids,” but also the gene-edited “valids,” who feel that they can never live up to their genetic destinies or meet each other’s expectations. How much longer until scientists start using gene-editing technologies to create “beautiful” designer babies? This is the “brave new world” that Aldous Huxley warned us about, and it is already well underway with the current use of fillers, injections, surgeries, and other technologies used to erase disability. Gene-editing tools will allow parents to ensure their children’s genetic sameness at birth.
We need to intervene now if we want to prevent a slippery slope into an even more dystopian future. Scientific advances are already allowing people to use more invasive techniques to eliminate markers of disability and achieve a more homogeneous (boring and elitist) society. If we want to avoid Huxley’s prediction, we need to recognize beautyism as a produce of racial-patriarchal-capitalist eugenics, a system that abjures disability and demands bodily conformity.
Mich Ciurria is a queer, disabled philosopher who teaches at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Her/their research interests include moral psychology, Marxist feminism, and critical disability theory. She/they is the author of An Intersectional Feminist Theory of Moral Responsibility (Routledge) and a regular contributor to the blog BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.