Surviving the Beauty Culture, with Autumn Whitefield-Mandrano

June 28, 2016

Autumn Whitefield-Mandrano is the author of the acclaimed new book on feminism and beauty, Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women’s Lives. Her work can be found such outlets as Glamour, Jezebel, Salon, The Guardian, and her own blog, The Beheld: Beauty and What It Means. Her book takes a closer look at why beauty is so coveted in American society and how the pedestal of beauty affects women in particular.

She and host Lindsay Beyerstein delve into perceptions of beauty from both scientific and sociological perspectives. While Autumn’s research supports the notion that many women see beauty as a healthy celebration of individuality, she’s also all too aware of the multi-billion-dollar industry that cynically peddles snake oil and empty promises to women who feel forced to maintain impossible beauty standards.

This is point of inquiry for Tuesday, June 28, 2016. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry, a production at the Center for Inquiry. I’m your host, Lindsay Beyerstein, and my guest today is Autumn Whitefield Medrano, a veteran of the women’s magazine industry blogger at The Beheld and the author of the acclaimed new book Face Value The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women’s Lives. 

A lot of people take it for granted that beauty is something that can be scientifically measured. Is that true? 

Yes, I know it’s a complicated question. I mean, the question of whether another’s a scientific measure of beauty goes back to Aristotle, who was in his investigations of beauty from a philosophic level. And we’re talking beauty like in art, in nature and in humans. He had this very he’s had this idea that there’s a specific proportion, the golden proportion that makes something beautiful or not beautiful. And what we have done since then is try to pin down exactly what makes someone beautiful. And I think that there’s a part of us that really wants sort of a yes no answer to beauty, specifically our own. We want to know we want to know that there’s a hard and fast measure that we can see if we live up to. What I found, though, in talking with people about that, is that they did have that desire. They wanted to know, you know, do I said this? Do I not fit that measure of beauty? But they also really hewed to their own subjective interpretation of beauty. And I thought that was really lovely, actually. And I also found that there really are very few things that you can point to in the human face and body and say, yes, universally we find this to be beautiful. It’s much more complicated than that. 

Evolutionary psychology seems to have kind of taken over the mantle from philosophy in terms of this objective scoring of appearance. What did you find when you reviewed the psych literature on attractiveness? 

Evolutionary psychology likes to posit that what we find beautiful are things that help us reproduce the species. So and in the case of heterosexual attraction, those are things that separate men from women. And you see that, of course, the animal kingdom. You know, peacocks like only the male peacock has those glorious feathers. So that’s the sexual I morphic trait, which is the term that they use to distinguish between the male and female of the species. And so the closest thing that I could find in looking at the scientific aspect of beauty was that there are some things that differentiate men and women, and those things are traits that we do tend to find beautiful. So that’s really where evolutionary psychology comes into it. But I think that strict evolutionary psychologists would have a much stricter definition of beauty than most people actually do, because we think we find people beautiful for all kinds of reasons that may or may not have anything to do with their supposed fertility and ability to reproduce. 

I can hear people at home going, but but but waist hip ratio, no pun intended. It’s always being held up as this the scientific arbiter of attractiveness that transcends time and place and culture and everything. There’s more to that story right there. 

There absolutely is to a degree. Having the basic ratio, meaning like on women having a smaller waist and curvier hips, that is a sexually dimorphic trait. Women do have smaller waist and bigger hips and then do so to a degree. Yeah. That’s something that we tend to find attractive unlet. And and you see that throughout the centuries in art and whatnot. That said, in the 90s and 1993, a researcher did a comprehensive study on Playboy centerfolds and Miss Americas Miss America contestants in which he compared the waist hip ratio and found he claimed to have found the precise scientific measure of the waist hip ratio that humans find beautiful. 

And it was like zero point seven zero was it was a ratio. And that would mean like a 28 inch waves and 48 inch up, for example. And this study got reported a lot. You still see it reported misses like, what, 23 years ago saying that, okay, this is what we think is attractive and that’s why we like the hourglass figure. And here’s how you can dress to achieve that. But that study, it turned out, left out a third of the measurements available for the centerfold. And that’s not because the researcher was trying to manipulate the results. He just didn’t have them. But later, researchers got their hands on the numbers and found that once you took all of the measurements into account that it didn’t hold true. They still had, you know, a smaller waist and larger hips, because that is something we find attractive, that they were like, no, it is not this super precise super, you know. I mean, he measured it out to the decimal point and it just wasn’t that simple. And I think the term that they used was an academic urban legend. And that really is what it is. Study after study has shown not that we don’t find a small waist attractive, but that it is not as precise as was initially reported. But you never see those contradictory studies reported because it’s not a glamorous what is the sorry state. 

And it really is bad. I was reminded reading your book as years kind of dissecting these were horrible study after another. What is the state of reporting unattractiveness say about the health or lack thereof of science journalism? 

What I found was that the public is we see it. I’m not a scientist. And so when I have this idea of science as something that’s very black and white, you know, science has shown that fill in the blank. And so when I read something that’s like scientists say, I just sort of automatically trust it. I’m not as skeptical as I would be if it were making like a philosophical claim or a claim about the humanities, something that’s sort of more in our wheelhouse. And most of the population does not scientists. And so even good science reporting gets easily misinterpreted. And also a lot of reporters, frankly, don’t understand science, and especially now that we know a lot of writers are paid by, you know, how many people click on their stories. And so it’s a lot easier and more sensational to come up with a headline that says something about like, here’s the exact proportion that men find attractive and women on their bodies, on their faces. 

People are going to click on that more than a headline that’s like, hey, beauty is really complex and contradictory. You know, that’s not as sensationalistic. And so it’s not as popular. 

Why are we so obsessed with quantifying the beauty of women’s faces? That is a great quantification of beauty in general. 

I think that there is there are these dual impulses that we have. I think that we both want to think that there’s a definite measure of beauty and we also are scared of that. And so there’s a lot of times when I talk with women, like every so often who studies would come off, you know, certain ideas about beauty, like the waist hip ratio or, you know, symmetrical faces or whatever. And people were fairly well versed in the supposed science on this. But then they would be like, but I don’t know, like don’t you think weird looking people are really attractive? It’s like we want we have this desire to pin down beauty and we have a desire to see it through our own eyes more subjectively. And so, of course, we’re going to be fascinated with the science of beauty in part so that we can contradict it with our own experiences. 

Do you think it has something to do with the fact that we can’t talk about beauty honestly in with each other, that it’s considered rude to assess anybody as being ugly, regardless of what they look like? It’s never it’s never a neutral, descriptive term. It’s it’s fighting words that people have some desire to have an objective standard so they can look up things for themselves and see where they rank because they can’t trust the outside world to give them a straight answer. 

I think that’s absolutely true, because you there is this idea that if someone says you’re beautiful, like you might believe it or want to believe it, but you’re always going to like. Really. But I think you’re just saying that. I mean, they feel better and we’re sort of told not to trust our own experiences either, which I think is a deeper misfortune there. And so, yeah, the idea of there being this clinical objective idea of beauty that we can trust. I think that’s very tempting. You know, who could like it the minute I read about anything that supposedly says like this is a marker of beauty, like the first thing I do is see if I need that or not. 

And I think I’m certainly not alone in that. 

Could you talk a bit about your experiences with the notorious pencil test? 

Yes, the pencil test I had read, I think, in a women’s magazine about how if you you should stand up naked and put a pencil underneath your breast. And if it stayed there, then that meant that you were sagging. And so I did. And I was sagging a little. And then I remembered when I was 11 years old, I had done the same thing. But then you wanted the pencil to stay because the test then with that and that’s it. You were womanly enough to need a real bra. 

When I remember that, I laughed because it was ridiculous. 

And it showed the sort of like refuting because if your boobs aren’t perky when you’re eleven. 

Exactly. Exactly. You know, it is so ridiculous and it shows the folly of the whole idea of science. 

And, you know, the pencil test is not scientific, but it is that quantified measure of beauty that I was really eager to buy into when I was eleven. And when I was, you know, 34 was still trying to meet. 

How did you end up having a career as a feminist in women’s glossy magazines? 

You know, it was a conscious decision. I had always been a feminist and I moved to New York to intern at News magazine, which was like in the feminist magazine. And I had a wonderful experience there. And I also I thought, well, you know, I want to. I’m going to spread the good word. I want to take this message out to women’s magazines. And so I got my first official job with that Cosmo Girl magazine. The teen magazine. And once I got there, I was all armed and ready to, you know, turn this industry on its head and be the feminist that changes everything. And when I got there and that other farmers, I found a lot of feminists, the industry is definitely problematic from a feminist standpoint. 

That said, I think the deeper problems in the industry are not because they’re not staffed with feminists. There are a lot of pro women feminist thinkers who unabashedly claim that label. And you say that a lot in the pages of women’s magazines. But of course, you know, the industry itself, like it’s always there’s inherent problems there. There’s I mean, it’s funded by advertising and advertising to a degree. And a lot of ways there’s going to be problematic from a feminist perspective. So the industry, I can’t ever say is feminist, but it’s not I would say most women on the editorial side of magazines are feminists. 

Did you ever see anything that shocked you in terms of how the sausage is actually made? 

I was shocked at how huge the beauty industry was at every women’s magazines there. There’s a room literally stuffed full of beauty products, thousands of beauty products, maybe tens of thousands. And that is not an exaggeration. And I had no idea how enormous the industry was. And I had no idea. I hadn’t really ever thought about the role that women’s magazines played in that. 

I thought about it from, like, the more academic perspective, like, oh, of course. Well, that’s their job. But when you see it actually happening, when you see the editor’s walking around with, you know, 20 stripes of eyeshadow on their forearm to test how long they stay there. I mean, did you really see you like, wow, this is you take this seriously. And it’s pretty. You know, it’s here. It’s a huge industry. 

I was shocked at the statistic in your book that 265 billion dollars is spent every year on women’s beauty products alone. 

Yeah, globally. Yeah. It’s it’s huge. 

And do you have any sense of how that how that plays out in terms of. Well, given that women already earn less than men? Is that a tax just to be presentable in public? That’s in some ways holding women back. 

There absolutely is a beauty tax that is problematic and that we need to look at, because I think the problem with duty spending comes when it’s an obligation. And there are I mean, there have been cases of people, women being fired because they didn’t wear makeup from their jobs. And that’s so shocking to hear like. That’s absolutely problematic. That said, I think a lot of the beauty industry is women partaking of it because they enjoy it. They might enjoy it on the level of, you know, a hobbyist or a collector. I mean, I know people who always shout to buy, you know, the new collection from Mac because they like it almost from a you know, a hobbyist perspective, methodic, personal expression and cultivation kind of perspective. Yeah. And I ride alongside sort of obligatory aspect of duty work. And, you know, a lot of that, the number you know, the 265 billion globally, like much of that is not just, you know, your four dollar lipsticks. That’s that’s also cosmetic surgery. That’s I mean, that’s you know, actually I don’t know of that exact number and encompasses cosmetic surgery. But, you know, that encompasses the three hundred dollar face creams, which frankly, nobody needs like that. And I’m not. But if that’s if a woman has enough disposable income to spend and try all those when you worked at the magazine, some of them. Yeah. Yeah. And I can say that I it’s such a crapshoot as far as you know, you do get what you pay for sometimes, but not necessarily. A lot of it is sort of a snake oil. There’s no question about that. That said, there are certain things that I would spend a reasonable amount of money on. I would never spend three hundred dollars on a face cream personally, that the face cream I use is fifty dollars. 

So, you know, take what you will from the most the most outrageous example of pseudoscience or snake world that you encountered in all your years that, you know, in the beauty trenches. 

That’s a great question. You know, it’s it’s funny because that answer changes along with my sort of exposure to the beauty world. And I think that’s pretty typical. Like, I remember meeting my first six months at a women’s magazine. I saw brow gel that you’re supposed to use to sweep over your eyebrows to keep all the little hair is in place. And I laughed and laughed a laugh at that. That’s so silly, so ridiculous. And I don’t use that now, but I do use a little comb to get my all my ibro hair is going in the same direction. 

So, you know, I’m I’m logical. You’re not pseudoscientific at all. The making of actual mechanism of action is completely clear. 


But that said, I’m trying to think of. I remember I got recently a friend of mine gave me this for the she works at a beauty magazine, so she got it for free. It was a 98 dollar ice cream. And I put it on and I use it for a month. Goes on a good ninety eight dollars. It’s got to work. Even though I knew better and nothing happened. Nothing worked. And I looked at the ingredients and I was like, there’s not a single active ingredient in this. What? Why? But here I was still thinking. Oh, it had. Great packaging. Ninety eight dollars. So it’s going to work. Yeah, you have to be really sort of informed, which is part of what women’s magazines do. They inform readers about ingredients. 

In many ways. Your book is a rejoinder to the famous 1998 classic The Beauty Myth. Can you talk a bit about what the thesis of that book was and what you reposted? 

That book was a wonderful breakdown, an examination of the ways that there was an increasing pressure on women to meet a certain beauty standard that was growing in accordance with their power in the world. It was almost like and there wasn’t like some, you know, committee on high decreeing this. But the more that women were getting positions in the political world, global leadership positions, it was like, oh, well, let’s give them something else to keep them busy. And, you know, the beauty industry has been around for a long time. But after this, it was like a backlash to the more free falling 70s. What that book did. And Naomi Wolf, the writer never claimed this. But what what it did was it set up beauty and feminism as being in opposition to each other, that if you are a feminist, you couldn’t partake in Judy’s culture. And what I found at that absolutely was not true that a lot of feminists enjoyed the culture, they enjoyed partaking in it. They saw it as problematic in many ways, of course, but that they weren’t at odds with each other, but that there was this idea floating around out there that was not perpetuated by Naomi Wolf or even necessarily by feminists. But I think by anti-Semitism, think of the cliche of that, you know, angry, harried legged feminists. I mean, a lot of feminists I know say their legs, that that idea that feminists were ugly was really powerful because nobody wants to be seen as ugly. And so, you know, we sort of worked against that. It’s it’s a it’s still a deeply relevant book. But I found that a lot of feminists had a richer relationship with beauty than they had been willing to admit before. 

What kinds of roles did you see beauty culture playing in the lives of the feminists that you interviewed? 

A lot. And some of them. And I would say that this is the most sort of psychologically resilient. Is that sort of a form of self-expression? You know, like making little curly cues around their eyes with eyeliner or doing nail art. That’s wild and fantastic. That can be a mark of individualism, a work of play and just sort of saying, hey, I’m going to have some fun with this tool that we’ve been given or rather that we purchased. I also see a certain level of there was a level of capitulation that I definitely feel. I don’t I do enjoy my beauty ritual. That said, if I know I have something important that I need to show up for, even if I’m in a hurry that morning, I’m going to put on my foundation because it’s an insult, my skin. So there is a level of obligation that a lot of feminists, they still did the beauty work, but they have a lot more complicated feelings about it. And it’s not either or like, you know. 

And that’s certainly how I feel, because there’s this whole level of fun, creative, expressive stuff. And then there’s all these other things that, you know, aren’t beautiful in art primary, just kind of about looking conventional that are never expected for men like men can have blotchy skin. And it’s OK. They don’t have to spend extra time and money putting on a foundation that doesn’t make him look good. But to prevent but make looking bad the way women do. 

Exactly. Exactly. And I mean, the clearest example of that that you see is, you know, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. I remember when she was secretary of state, she dared to not wear makeup to the press conference and she was raked over the coals for it. And NBC viewed Bernie. Bernie Sanders showing up. And, you know, he looks how he looks and he doesn’t. 

He only started coming his hair regularly after he raised 62 million dollars. 

Exactly. Exactly. Can you imagine if Clinton did the same thing? Can you imagine? 

No. Do you feel like there’s there’s room to envision an alternate role for beauty culture within feminism that grapples with some of the more problematic aspects of it? 

I think we won’t ever really know how much beauty, culture, what it really means to humans until we sort of separate it from sexism. 

And I say that because men have, you know, grooming the grooming industry. But by and large, men are not wearing makeup on their faces. And and so we send we tend to sort of say, well, of course, you know, wear moisturizer like, fine, put that on your skin, that makeup. That’s a little frivolous because if something women do and like a lot of things that women tend to do more than men, it’s easy to dismiss and write off and say we don’t ever really know until we see men wearing more makeup. And who knows that that’s really going to happen. 

So it’s kind of a chicken and egg thing. Exactly. Exactly. You mention in the book that the men fell away from things like high heels and makeup only in about the last 200 years. In our culture, what happened to produce that shift? 

What happened? The biggest thing that happened and I’m not a historian, so I may be glossing over a lot of things here, but my understanding of it. I’m talking in Europe here is that Europe and North America. There is what we call the great masculine renunciation where men. There was an idea that they wanted to be more democratic. Almost in their appearance. And so they started wearing. Well, what could all men wear? They don’t wear the suit. And that way, you know, an up and comer, you know, a striver can just get himself a suit. And he looks the same as, you know, some of his the equivalent of an aristocrat. And what I did was it displaced beauty work on two women, onto their wives, onto their daughters. And so you see women’s costuming getting a lot more elaborate, a lot more ornate. You know, you see these old portraits and you see the men and the curly powdered wigs and all of a sudden you saw women curling their actual hair. Women were doing that before as well. But you see an uptick in that. Once men sort of made themselves plainer. 

It’s fascinating. This was a deliberate social decision to actually to give men in uniform because we talk about men. This de facto uniform like it just happened. 

Yeah, exactly. There’s I mean, there’s there’s always a political drive behind. And I shouldn’t say with a lot of times there’s a political drive between major shifts in appearance that we see. I mean, you know, my mom couldn’t wear pants to school, but she would be punished for it when she was a child. And, you know, 25 years later, like, no one thought twice about Girl Grand Council School, of course, because feminism happens. 

Women have complicated relationships to their own, to their own looks. What did you find in your interviews as you as you plumb the depths of that, the way that women feel about how they assess themselves? 

I found a lot of contradictions. 

I found a lot of hesitancy to what I found was that women were much more well versed and talking about not only how they didn’t like how they looked, but how they were expected to not like how they look. Then sort of taking pride in how they looked. But that was there once I learned the right questions to ask. Like, I remember talking with one woman who said, oh, I would never describe myself as beautiful. And then I thought, then I answer, you know, later in the interview. Well, tell me about the first time you really thought about how you looked. And she told me about dressing up as Olivia Newton John, and she was a child. And I didn’t want her to say, this is like I just felt beautiful. And here is someone who’s just minutes before him and say, I wouldn’t ever call myself beautiful. So it was like being well brought to them. And there’s a punishment for saying, yeah, is a good word of it. We don’t give women that permission in our culture. And so there were a lot of us are we have the words to express what we don’t like about ourselves because we’re committed and expected to talk about ourselves in those ways. But talking about what we do, like, that’s a lot harder cause we’re really afraid of seeming vain or self-absorbed because those are qualities that are really punished in women and men, but much more so for women. 

Why do you think there’s so much more of a taboo for somebody to describe themselves as beautiful as opposed to intelligent or fit or successful? I mean, those are all things it was just arguably self-congratulatory to say those things about yourself. But it seems like, you know, especially if someone has some basis in reality for saying it or consensus that they’re not punished to the same extent that someone who’s good looking, who acknowledges that, hey, I look good. 

You know, that’s a great question. I don’t know that I have a firm answer to that. What I would say is that we still face such a disproportionate power on beauty. We assign it a lot of power. We imbue it with this almost magical quality. And when it isn’t, it is something that, you know, some people have more of. Naturally, a lot of us figure out how to sort of create it for ourselves. You know, using the tools at our disposal. I think that we still somewhere in our minds think that beautiful people are superior in some way. And so to say, unintelligent. OK, great. Well, that’s that’s nice. But to say I’m beautiful almost implies I’m better, even though it’s none of us really think that beautiful people are better than the rest of us, that we still assign it that quality. And I also think that we don’t want any one woman to have too much. And so to say I’m intelligent and beautiful like me, you imagine someone saying you can say about someone else, but they claim that for yourself. It’s like you’re permitted to only only admit so much that you have that you’ve been given so much by the powers that be. 

Do you think that the magical thinking around beauty contributes to the toll that it takes on people who are not conventionally attractive? That if you assign magical goodness to beauty, what does that say about people who are ugly? 

I do find that it contributes to that. What I would say is that a lot of people who either might not be conventionally attractive or who don’t think of themselves that way think, well, then I’d better develop these other qualities. I better become better, read a better, become more intelligent and better be really funny. And it’s like people construe those qualities as being qualities that a runner up to beauty when that’s not at all how how they re how it really is like being funny is a gift in and of itself. B we talk of it sometimes like it’s like a consolation prize or something. 

What do you think is next in terms of feminism and beauty? Do you think that there’s there’s a new paradigm emerging as women become more comfortable with beauty culture? 

I think we might be on the brink of that. I think it’s too early to say. When I was writing the book, I was focusing mostly on women in their late 20s or early 40s. And so I interviewed a lot of women who would call themselves millennials, but I didn’t really talk to them. I didn’t interview them from that perspective. And since I wrote the book, I’ve seen a lot of qualities in millennial beauty that have really intrigued me because there’s been a. Lot more of the fantasy and play that I encourage in the book. I’m sure you’ve seen I live in New York City and here anyway, way there’s this trend of young women stripping their hair of its color and dying at these fantastic colors, you know, shimmery on grays and. Yeah. Yeah. And I just think that’s so playful and so wonderful and nail art that like that’s emerge. It’s a huge thing of, you know, people doing is fun designs and on their fingertips and so incredibly elaborate stuff sometimes to him. 

I think that our society downplays the amount of skill and creativity that goes into anything once it’s labeled beauty as opposed to art or something. Exactly. 

Exactly. And, you know, it’s funny that the term nail art has become an actual term, but we don’t really think of it as art, even though it is. Like, I I’ve only had it done a couple of times. Beach time. And wasn’t the technician paint on this intricate design on my nail. 

Wow. Like you’d see that in a museum if you know the imagery. Sure. Yeah. 

So I do see it changing. I do see it becoming more of a place of play. But that said, it’s always gonna be riding up alongside sexism and stereotypes about women. 

Do you see a danger in efforts to educate women about image in media and so on, that they might be actually contributing to the insecurities that they’re trying to diffuse? 

I think that there’s always those who think they’re always going to ride alongside each other. And that’s something that I struggle with as someone who writes about this, is that I champion beauty rituals, as you know, as a rich place that women can really use for centering themselves or, you know, expressing themselves. But I also know that it’s never as simple as that. It always, you know, butts, what’s up against the idea that, no, I have to do this, I have to look a certain way? I don’t know what the resolution is there. I mean, my hope honestly with this book is that it gets people talking about these issues more and maybe someone else will come up with a solution if there is one to be had. 

Autumn Notes all the time we have. Thank you so much for coming on the program. Thank you so much. 

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The NationMs. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (, a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.