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The Beheld
By Autumn Whitefield-Madrano
Examining questions surrounding personal appearance: What does it mean to be seen? What is the relationship between "beauty labor" and cultural visibility? And why do two lipstick shades combined always look better than one?
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The 5-Minute Facial Workout, and the Placebo Effect

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Like this, but for your face.
 

It would be easy for a critical beauty blogger comme moi to make fun of the book “The 5-Minute Facial Workout: 30 Exercises for a Naturally Beautiful Face.” I mean, the setup is all there, beginning with the title of the first chapter (“Facial Gymnastics: Why?”—my question exactly), through its promises that exercises will “revascularize the dermis” for “significant” results of “a younger and more relaxed face,” all illustrated with photos of a pleasant-looking, vaguely yogic woman doing things like extending her tongue to the corners of her smile, or doing what looks like an exaggerated pout.

But, like I said, that’s easy. I don’t want to take a potshot at the author of “The 5-Minute Facial Workout,” Catherine Pez, who has done a fine job of explaining how, theoretically, these exercises work. (In short, the idea is that by performing a daily ritual of face exercises, you strengthen the muscles of the face, thus ameliorating the saggy effects of maturity and helping to “sculpt” the face and keep it looking as it did before the ravages of time shat upon your visage.) Frankly, given that the entire book is a guide to facial gymnastics, it’s remarkable how non-goofy the exercises actually are. If you’re going to embark on a self-guided natural face-lift, you may as well do it with Pez leading the way and allow the book’s earnest, utterly guileless tone to carry you through. I wish you voluminous cheeks, stimulated neck fibers, fleshier lips, and all of the other things the book promises to deliver your way. Merry pouting.

No, the question here isn’t this actual book, or even the entire genre of face exercises, which includes not only “The 5-Minute Facial Workout” but sisters such as “The Ultimate Guide to the Face Yoga Method,” the “Tal Reinhart Facial Workout,” “Facial Fitness,” and my personal favorite, “Facercise.” The question of face exercise is really the question of what’s at the root of plenty of beauty work: the placebo effect.

Face exercises to prevent signs of aging are the ultimate candidate for the placebo effect: They work as well as you think they work. An aggregate study recently looked at nine individual studies that purported to find evidence that facial gymnastics worked to counteract signs of aging. But the authors of the aggregate study found that the “existing evidence is insufficient to conclude whether facial exercises are effective for reducing signs of aging.” None of the individual studies had a control group, none of them were randomized, three of them were case studies of a single person, and the highest number of participants of any study was 11. (Interestingly, the only studies the researchers could find were in South America, and indeed in Brazil it’s apparently considered a legitimate thing—aesthetic logopedics—stemming from facial exercises’ existing role in speech pathology. Anyway.) All of that may make for shaky research, but here’s the kicker: In all but one study, the participants themselves were involved with ranking results, with some of the studies’ results consisting entirely of merely asking participants if they noticed any changes after doing the exercises for a set length of time. So the people who had chosen to invest regular amounts of time in facial gymnastics were asked not only if said gymnastics made them feel better but if they made them look better. Most people wouldn’t want to believe they’ve wasted their time fluttering their lips at themselves in front of a mirror for nothing, so is it any surprise that all participants said they’d noticed visible changes?

That’s not to say that they didn’t look better, though. And that’s the beauty—or the trouble—of the placebo effect when it comes to our appearance. When you’re talking about a quality as difficult to articulate as loveliness, merely believing that something “works” can be enough to lend you the light that you’re seeking. The practice or product itself becomes beside the point if the effect approximates what you were after in the first place. As beauty editor Ali put it in our interview a ways back, “If you just shelled out $300 for a cream, your brain is in this mode of, This is going to work. You have that optimism that can actually make you radiant. If you’re thinking, Oh, I just got this $5 bojangle cream, I don’t give a shit—then no, it doesn’t work.”

A red lipstick either reddens your lips or it doesn’t; you know immediately whether its essential task is fulfilled. But when it comes to products promising something more ethereal—like the “radiance” or “re-energizing” properties avowed by various creams and serums—who’s to say whether it works? Enter facial gymnastics, the promises of which are essentially immeasurable. ”Redrawing” the chin? “Modifying” a “sad mouth”? “Strengthening” the “musculature of the eyelids”? Not to mention its vague assurances of improved circulation and cell renewal. Do enough facial contortions with enough devotion, and you just might see your eyelid musculature strengthened, because who even knows what a muscular eyelid looks like?

Of course, there’s a chance that placebo effect aside, these exercises do work. (Remember, the aggregate study said the evidence was inconclusive, not that the practice was ineffective.) For starters, practicing making your face more animated could conceivably lead to your face being more animated in daily life, and people with animated faces are more likely to be perceived as friendly and as leaders, thus making you possibly more attractive. And, of course, our faces do have muscles, and muscles can visibly grow with use, so, hey, why not. “The 5-Minute Facial Workout,” just $14.50, folks! (Of course, I’d argue that if you’re working your face in specific ways with aesthetic results in mind, you might well increase a generally unwanted aesthetic result—wrinkles—but I’m no dermatologist, yo.)

Still, there’s something underneath facial workouts that bothers me: In essence, these are prescribed drills of movements that most of us would perform in the course of a day. We smile, we frown, we press our lips together, we grimace, we tilt our chins upward. We move. But when these movements become formalized, they give birth to a promise: This will do something that living your everyday life won’t. It takes normal human action and shifts it from being something we do to live into something we do to stop the appearance of having livedWhen I picture women doing these exercises in front of the mirror, the image that comes to mind isn’t one of relaxed joy or of self-care. In fact, the image is downright grim, though I hope I’m mistaken in this. Do these exercises if you wish, o ye of deflating cheeks; may it give you what you’re looking for, whether it be placebo effect or not. But I urge you to laugh about it too. Consider it a bonus workout.

Thank You for Shopping: Customer Loyalty Programs

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Spend $350 at the Red Cross and you get a free pint of O negative!

Yesterday, I was informed that I’d “unlocked” the “VIB Level” of Sephora’s customer reward program. What this means in Sephoraspeak is that by “earning” 350 “points” at the store, I will receive seasonal VIB-only gifts—presumably along the lines of the free lip gloss I received whilst shopping during my birthday month, back when I was merely a Sephora “Beauty Insider”—that I will have advance access to sales, and that I get “dibs” on new products, so that I will be the first lady on the block to have NARS’s newest nail polish in Quivering Otter, or whatever the color of the season is.

What this means in you-and-me-speak is that I have spent more than $350 at Sephora—not, as the company would put it, “earned” more than 350 “points” at Sephora—since this time last year.

It was a shock to realize that I’d spent $350 at Sephora in the past 12 months, to be sure, but my financial navel-gazing is another post altogether. What “unlocking” this “VIB Level” made me think about was customer reward programs, and what we’re supposed to get out of them. With many customer loyalty programs, you actually save money. You might do this immediately/directly, as in my drugstore’s practice of advertising “specials” that are only “specials” if you are literally a card-carrying member of the drugstore’s loyalty program, or it might be savings down the line, as with frequent-flier miles. But the point is: You save money, as in cash, as in you have a compelling financial interest to use the loyalty program (which, of course, means that to some degree you’re loyal to the vendor, though of course consumers can belong to multiple loyalty programs, making them not loyal at all).

Sephora is a different beast altogether. You don’t save money with Sephora’s loyalty program; it’s more that you get the opportunity to spend more money at SephoraI mean, sure, getting a free lipstick now and then might count as saving you money, if that shade and opacity of lipstick happens to be the kind of lipstick you’re looking for. Same thing with access to sales on specific products that I’d “unlocked” via spending 350 smackers. But as I hemmed and hawed over my possible “loyalty gifts” at checkout I realized that what I was spending my points on—which, as a reminder, are “points” “earned” because I’ve already blown plenty of cash there—were sample sizes of products I could then buy full-size versions of if I liked them. My options were things like a Sephora kit with a mini bottle of makeup remover, black liquid eyeliner, and a tiny gold shimmer creme liner costing me 500 “points,” or, as a token of appreciation for spending merely 100 dollar/points there, I could have a wee tube of makeup primer or something I think was called “lip sugar”?

If a company is going to supposedly reward me for being loyal to it, what I want them to give me as proof of their loyalty is what they have plenty of—money. I’ve got some thinking and research to do about loyalty programs before I come to any grand conclusions, but my hunch here is that part of why Sephora can get away with a loyalty program that promises specific goods, not money that can be spent anywhere, to its customers is that in some ways it’s truly a unique outlet—there are plenty of beauty stores out there, but few with the ability to try on nearly everything offered for sale from a variety of brands. (Estee Lauder’s technique of touching everyone who came into her stores translated into more sales of Estee Lauder products, but when Sephora associates touch you to guide you to the right blush for you, that touch is translated into sales for Sephora, regardless of the intermediary brand.) In this sense, Sephora doesn’t need to have a rigorous loyalty reward program—they don’t have a competitor that’s truly equal. Sephora doesn’t need to give you a financial discount for your loyalty; what Sephora needs to do (and has done) with its reward program is give consumers the sense that by shopping there, you’re specialYou’re a Beauty Insider, or a “VIB” (which, by the way, acronym for…? Very important Beauty? Why, thankyou) if you accrue enough “points”. You get access to a VIB-only section of Sephora.com discussion forums; you get to attend private Sephora events. You get the sense of somehow being a part of something exclusive, even though the only reason you’re invited is because you’ve managed to drop enough cash there over time.

Still, the free-goods approach makes more sense when the goods are something of equal-ish value to all consumers—like, say, frequent flier miles and airline tickets. If I’ve earned enough miles to get a domestic ticket anywhere in the lower 48, well, great, I can go to Kansas or Los Angeles or the Outer Banks or wherever I want to go. But when I earn enough Sephora points, I get to choose between, say, a “Caviar CC Cream” for my hair or a self-tanning gel and maybe a couple of other things, none of which might apply to my desires. This might sound like the ultimate middle-class whine: Oh, after the three hundred and fifty dollars I spent at fucking Sephora I have to choose between hair caviar and a self-tanner, life is hard. But that’s not really my gripe here—sure, I like money back as much as the next person, but after one has “earned” 350 “points” by buying lip liner, one sort of forfeits the right to grumble about money per se. My gripe is the way this particular loyalty program uses its customers’ loyalty to reinforce its own importance and expertise: “Get a taste of some of our most coveted products,” coos the copy above the rewards you can choose from. Our most coveted products, not your most coveted products. That is: You don’t need to get money back from our loyalty program—trust us, the experts, to give you fair value. You’re literally paying to align yourself even more with the company; its loyalty program doesn’t just reward past loyalty, it engenders future loyalty too. I mean, one of the “gifts” you can opt for is the 250-point Sephora phone cover, which allows you to essentially pay Sephora $250 to advertise for it.

I’m wondering about people’s experiences with reward programs in general, whether it be at Sephora, another beauty company, or something like your grocery store. I have what’s probably a disproportionate amount of hatred for them, having grown up with a mother who steadfastly refused to participate in them because, as they tracked your purchases, it was “just too Big Brother.” (Side note: Her anti-surveillance stance dueled for years with her frugality, until she devised a compromise—she would participate in loyalty programs if they offered a steep enough discount, but she would only pay in cash so that the credit card companies couldn’t track those particular purchases. One Big Brother cancels out another, it seems, though even she will admit the logic is dubious at best. Anyway.) What are your experiences with customer loyalty programs? Do the returns seem worth it to you? Do the sorts of goods in question factor into your signing up—like, are luxury goods such as high-end makeup more or less likely to make you participate in a rewards program? And am I the only one who now wants to spend far less at Sephora now that I can so clearly see how much money I’ve been spending there?

Gilding the Lily

A theory blog that promises to examine “why it matters so much to be beautiful, and why we have these particular ideas of what beauty is”—well, can you think of any reason not to read it? When I found Carina Hart’s wonderful blog, Beautiful in Theory, I was thrilled to find a kindred spirit who loves to marry beauty with unlikely concepts. Whether she’s looking at the “Frankenbabe” idea in which women are looked at as parts instead of a whole, examining how individual women have shaped our narratives of beauty with her “Biographies of Sin and Beauty”, or considering the noteworthy lack of boobs in Scandinavian noir television, she’s consistently seeking out alternate perspectives on beauty, helping each of us continue to form our own theory on beauty. Her work is informed by the research behind her PhD at the University of East Anglia (UK), which she devoted to studying images of beauty in post-1980 fiction. And we’re lucky that Beautiful in Theory doesn’t stop there. I’m fortunate enough to host a guest post from Carina today.

 

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Why do we consider skin to be the barrier of “permissible” beauty work?

 

 

Recently I got into an argument with a male friend who couldn’t see the difference between makeup, clothes, and jewelery when it came to beauty work and feminism. I thought the difference was obvious, but being forced to explain it properly I settled on the argument that it came down to adornment vs alteration. Makeup sits right on your skin and changes the way you look, and it isn’t always easy to see that it’s there. Clothes can alter your shape and general appearance, but they are more separate from you than makeup; jewelery is more separate still, not actually changing the way you look but merely adorning you with sparkles.

 

At the time I was quite pleased with this argument, but now I wonder. When does adornment become alteration? I’m not sure that the boundary is as clear as I had assumed—after all, do we then have to draw a distinction between BB creams and bright red lipstick, on the grounds that lipstick is obvious and artificial, and therefore falls more into the adornment camp, whereas BB cream is a deceptive alteration of your skin (or at least its appearance)?

 

I’ve certainly never heard anyone argue that wearing jewelery is part of the patriarchal oppression of women by pressuring them to be beautiful. But it is something that women do, with the purpose of enhancing their beauty. Does that mean a feminist should rethink her earrings, giving them the same weight of consideration many might give makeup?

 

I think that skin is the key player here. Skin is the barrier between inside and outside, and making changes inside the skin is a more difficult, committed, and often more permanent process than an outside change: say, liposuction vs Spanx. This barrier is also crucial to the way we think about beauty work, so that cosmetic surgery has a much higher moral, emotional, and political charge than a wardrobe makeover. We have this potent desire for self-transformation, but in practice a truly drastic, inside-and-out transformation makes us queasy as well as some combination of impressed, fascinated, and jealous.

 

Of course our sense of self is heavily invested in our bodies, and it is intensely disconcerting to adjust our sense of our own identity or someone else’s after a dramatic physical change. We may say that beauty is on the inside, that it’s someone’s personality that makes them who they are, but we find it extremely difficult to separate identities from bodies. I guess that’s why we keep saying those things, because we want them to be more true than they are.

 

That’s probably also why we are uncomfortable with under-the-skin, invasive changes like surgery, and why we’re likelier to brand it as “bad” beauty work. But diets are equally internal processes, and while we may tsk-tsk diets as a form of policing women’s bodies, we don’t quite put it in the same camp as cosmetic surgery. This is where another binary comes out to play: natural and artificial. This has been around for centuries, and the best example comes from way back in 1734, when Jonathan Swift wrote a delightful poem called “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed.” Starting with the lovely “Corinna, Pride of Drury Lane” retiring to bed, Swift proceeds to deconstruct her beauty both literally and figuratively:

 

Then, seated on a three-legg’d Chair,

Takes off her artificial Hair:

Now, picking out a Crystal Eye,

She wipes it clean, and lays it by.

Her Eye-Brows from a Mouse’s Hyde,

Stuck on with Art on either Side,

Pulls off with Care…

 

… You get the picture. Swift’s deconstruction is intended to reveal the artifice of feminine beauty, and it achieves its discomfiting effect by messing with that questionable boundary, the skin. Hair, eyes, and brows are features with whose alteration we are familiar—hair coloring, makeup, brow plucking—but Swift takes this a step further and makes them completely artificial. Corinna’s eyebrows, instead of growing out of her skin and then being enhanced, are actually glued-on bits of mouse hide, both separate from and part of her body in a very disturbing way. The skin is an unreliable barrier, and I think we would prefer that it wasn’t.

 

Inside and outside, natural and artificial: As soon as you examine these concepts closely they start to unravel. What about the fact that much of the food we now eat can hardly be described as natural? What about vitamin pills? Does a facial count as inside or outside? What about diets promising glowing skin as their main benefit, or pills promising healthier hair? Is long-term skin maintenance with SPF and moisturiser natural or artificial? How about piercings and tattoos? Sheesh.

 

Donna Haraway’s famous “Cyborg Manifesto” (1985) uses the cyborg as an “ironic political myth” to describe the way traditional human boundaries are coming unstuck. Human-animal, human-machine, inside-outside, natural-artificial: It is even more true now than it was in 1985 that we live within very blurred lines. Photoshopped selfies of ourselves in Spanx and full makeup are fast becoming the foundation of our identities, in our virtual-real lives. It’s funny how “natural” used be the ideal image of beauty—though frequently with artificial help, beauty was at least supposed to look spontaneous. Now “natural” can be used as a word of dread, deployed by glossy magazines to describe the nightmare in which someone sees you sans foundation; or it’s a word used to sell BB creams and other faux-natural effects. Artificial is all the rage, in our eyelashes, hair color and extensions, nails and tans.

 

Does this matter? It certainly did to Jonathan Swift, and it did to Naomi Wolf, who argued in The Beauty Myth how useful the artificial beauty ideal is to patriarchal capitalism. It does cost women a lot of time and money. Haraway’s open-minded discussion of the cyborg is a good counterpoint to the knee-jerk fear surrounding any threat to traditional ideas of what it is to be human, and if a decent SPF face cream and some vitamin pills make me a cyborg then I’m fine with that (yes, there are better reasons to embrace cyborg life, such as prosthetic limbs, but hey). 

 

And if an acceptance of our “posthuman” cyborg existence (Haraway again) helps us become less squeamish about the unpredictable boundary of our skin, then that is also good. It might mean that we can question the role of surgery, dietary supplements, and makeup in our world in a more clear-minded way, and perhaps make our relationship with beauty less fraught. At the moment I think that we do judge beauty work partly by where it sits on the spectrum between adornment and alteration, and that it is definitely a problem when societal pressure makes people want to change themselves from the inside out. It would take at least another essay to discuss that other unreliable binary, free and unfree choice, to determine the motives for the beauty work that we do (am I really plucking my eyebrows for me? Really?), and all beauty work comes under the shadow of oppression along with its undeniable joys.

 

But I still think earrings are OK.

 

 

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Carina Hart is the mind behind Beautiful in Theory.

Nerd Sex Symbol Redux

A few more thoughts on why there isn’t a female “nerd sex symbol” equivalent of Neil deGrasse Tyson, i.e. an average-looking woman who is seen as a sex symbol because of her excellence in an area having nothing to do with looks:

• Maybe we have plenty of average-looking female sex symbols—but they’re just wearing makeup. As Helen points out, it’s far easier for a woman who’s average-looking to transition into good-looking than it is for a man to do the same. Yes, a man can be groomed and styled, and if he’s in the public eye he’s probably experienced enough with concealer and powder, but the average guy just doesn’t have as many options for self-transformation as women do. A good makeup artist can visually whittle your nose, widen your eyes, and lift your cheekbones, and you don’t even need anything beyond basic know-how to redden your lips and emphasize or darken your eyes, two things that are considered attractive in women. Plus, it’s not all that hard for an average-looking woman to code herself as pretty, or to be coded as such by media handlers: Put on a dress and heels, clean up your hair, throw on some makeup, show some cleavage. On women who are downright weird-looking this might backfire, sure, and depending on the field the woman is in, her dolling-up might discredit her or at least raise some eyebrows. (Remember Hillary Clinton’s cleavage?) In short: Maybe there aren’t average-looking female sex symbols because they’ve been styled in such a way that obscures their averageness. Which leads to…

• We don’t let famous women be, or stay, average-looking. Child star turned mathematician Danica McKellar was mentioned on Twitter a couple of times as an example of a “nerd crush.” Yet as I noted in my original post, she’s done plenty of promotional work showcasing herself as a traditional sex symbol; her academic accomplishments add to the package as opposed to forming the bulk of it. But when I look a little more closely, I wonder if McKellar is more of an example of our tendency to sexualize any woman who’s remotely attractive under the age of, oh, 50. Obviously McKellar is conventionally good-looking, but she became the crush of every heterosexual 12-year-old boy in America because of her approachable, girl-next-door appeal—an appeal that precludes the sort of beauty that would likely see her cast as the traditional “hot girl,” both then and now. It’s also worth noting that despite her willingness to market herself as sexy, she hasn’t had tons of Hollywood success as an adult, and—ugh, I hate critiquing people’s looks but in order to discuss these issues there’s a certain amount of it that I do, so bear with me—I can’t help but wonder if part of that is because she’s basically a nice-looking, normal-looking woman who doesn’t quite fit the usual starlet mold. In fact, this quality is part of what cements her as a “nerd sex symbol”; as Navneet points out, you have to straddle the line of sexiness and approachability in order to be seen as “one of us” by nerd culture at large. It’s not just McKellar’s math skills; it’s her specific brand of appeal that puts her in the “nerd sex symbol” camp.

McKellar is an example of someone who wears the halo of beauty despite not being quite conventionally beautiful—which has kept her in the public eye, making her an example of someone who has successfully capitalized upon our tendency to sexualize accomplished women. But you hardly need to pose in Maxim to see the phenomenon, or to see individual women’s willingness to play along—Tina Fey’s career skyrocketed after she lost 30 pounds; news commentator Greta van Susteren was hired by Fox as an utterly average-looking woman, but by the time she started she’d gotten some cosmetic surgery. I’m not criticizing Fey or Susteren for that any more than I’m criticizing McKellar for posing in lingerie; it’s a logical response to being a well-known woman. If you know you’re going to be judged for your looks even if they’re beside the point, or if you’re just trying to become well-known in the first place, you might well feel that looking your best might help streamline any distractions from the work you’re trying to share with the world.

But more importantly, as Rachel puts it, “Our definition of ‘average’ is a lot more forgivable when it comes to men.” It’s precisely because women have more means to leap from “average” to “pretty” that we’re more forgiving of men’s averageness. If he looks utterly pedestrian, that’s just how he looks; if she does, while some of us will champion that, others will think, How hard is it to put on a little lipstick, lady?

• Maybe Neil deGrasse Tyson’s sudden sex symbol status is part of a long tradition of hypersexualizing black men. Now, I’m pretty sure most of us crushing on deGrasse Tyson while learning about the secrets of the universe aren’t sitting there dreaming about some of the more indelicate qualities frequently ascribed to black men. But the fact is, given how far we still have to go before we achieve racial equality, sex appeal is one area where black men are, if not overrepresented, at least more proportionally represented than they are compared to being, say, senators. Part of this is because of the history of black folks in entertainment, since entertainers are in a prime position to be sexualized. But part of the hypersexualization of black men is far darker: Our culture tends to paint black men as sexual aggressors, and we still tend to equate masculinity with sexual aggression. This flies in the face of deGrasse Tyson’s actual affect—engaging but mild, eager yet seemingly just a tad unsure of himself. But perhaps the idea of black men as cocksure imbues his public persona with a sex appeal we might not be quite as willing to give him were he not African American.

• Maybe sex symbols—like news streams, entertainment, and just about anything else in an age when we can curate our information to the nth degree—are becoming more and more diffuse. After my last post, plenty of men and women came up with examples of women who are seen as attractive because of the work they do, from musician Tori Amos to gaming expert Leigh Alexander to Mythbusters‘s Kari Byron to YouTube stars. All of these fit the criteria—attractive but not conventionally beautiful, admired for their skill or manner more than their looks. Yet my knee-jerk response was also that they weren’t so widely known, or so widely seen as a sex symbol, that they approached the levels of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s appeal. But now I’m wondering if it’s actually that deGrasse Tyson is a unique case here: He’s the star of a show that is an enormously coordinated effort among the Fox channels; Cosmos premiered on 10 networks. Not many shows receive that kind of roll-out. Part of the “nerd sex symbol” thing is being outside mainstream Hollywood, but most people who achieve fame outside of that framework have a smaller audience than deGrasse Tyson does with Cosmos. Truth is, it’s hard to think of a male equivalent of Neil deGrasse Tyson. I still think we give more leeway to men to be sexy while being average-looking or even odd-looking than we give women. (Exhibit A: Benedict Cumberbatch.) But once you break out of the realm of the widely famous—who are often the widely conventionally attractive, for both sexes—appeal becomes more and more fragmented. It’s interesting that there isn’t a normal-looking woman who isn’t getting headlines as a “nerd sex symbol.” But the collage of women individual straight men have qualified as such points as much to the phenomenon of sub-sub-sub-subcultures as it does to our cultural unwillingness (as opposed to our individual willingness) to deign normal-looking women as sexy.

Nerd Crushed: Where Are the Average-Looking Female “Sex Symbols”?

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Around the time I started “casually” walking by the home of a man who gave me my one and only skydiving lesson, I realized one of the factors that makes me find someone attractive: If I watch a man do something he’s good at and loves to do, it’s likely I’ll develop a little crush on him. It’s not a sexual crush necessarily, nor is it a crush that I’d actually act on—in fact, much of the time the object of my crushdom is someone I know full well I’d have no interest in otherwise. Most of the time the crush doesn’t persist past the moment (the skydiving instructor was an outlier, because, I mean, the dude jumps out of planes on purpose). My minute-long crushes are usually an acknowledgement that watching someone at their best makes them attractive, regardless of their attractiveness overall.

So of course, midway through watching the premiere of the rebooted CosmosI’d developed a crush on its host, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. His barely-contained eagerness to share the secrets of the universe, his slightly jumpy demeanor, the liquid pools of his warm brown eyes—if he hadn’t had me there, he’d have gotten me with his tear-jerker anecdote about being hosted for the day as a 17-year-old kid from the Bronx by his hero, Carl Sagan.

Now, I may understand the drive behind my own mini-crushes, but I also know that my predilection has led me to some highly unlikely crushes; I had a photo of Tom Brokaw hanging in my locker in seventh grade. But I’m used to those crushes being seen as sort of idiosyncratic—let others have their obvious Clooneys and Pattinsons, I’ll stick with the unexpected, thanks. So when I searched for what other viewers were saying about deGrasse Tyson, I didn’t think I’d find that just as we’re not alone in this universe, I wasn’t alone in my crush. Neil deGrasse Tyson, according to Twitter, is everything from a “science crush” to a “nerd crush” to a “celebrity crush.” He’s “superhot” and “handsome,” making us “hot and bothered,” what with his “sci-sexy” “sexy voice” and general “hotness.” In fact, he was once listed in People’s annual Sexiest Man Alive list as the Sexiest Astrophysicist, is routinely listed as a “nerd sex symbol” in headlines, and has been asked about his sex appeal to the point where he even has the crushworthiest response possible ready at hand: “When you tell people something that’s intellectually delectable, they can feel sensually towards it. But I think at the end of the day, the object of their affection is the universe.” (Swoon!) Point here is: My NDT crush isn’t idiosyncratic, offbeat, unexpected, or unlikely in the least. The man isn’t just a little crush of mine; he’s a bona fide sex symbol, regardless of whether it’s qualified by the word nerd.

I think it’s splendid that so many people are freely acknowledging what most of us already know from our own experience: Sex appeal isn’t strictly tied to conventional good looks, and average-looking people can become immensely attractive in our eyes if we find their other qualities appealing. I mean, Neil deGrasse Tyson is nice-looking enough, but I doubt he’d be seen as “handsome” or “superhot” were it not for his other gifts. (Sure, there’s an argument there about the dangers of labeling everything appealing as “sexy” and why a good astrophysicist can’t just be a good astrophysicist in peace—but really, it’s the quieter sort of sex appeal that has made us humans keep propagating the species, so I’m all for it.) I mean, who among us hasn’t experienced an unlikely flutter of the heart or loins in watching someone blossom before our eyes in a single moment? A headline proclaiming an utterly normal-looking man as a “sex symbol” of any sort means that we as a culture are eager to see beyond the surface when it comes to human appeal.

But when I tried to think of a woman who is widely seen in the same light, I came up short. Sure, there are plenty of well-known women who are seen as “nerd crushes” because they speak of their nerdy interests (like Mila Kunis) or are involved with nerd culture in the sense that they go to Comic Con. Then there are the women who have been christened as “the thinking man’s sex symbol,” like Tina Fey, Sarah Silverman, Susan Sarandon, and Rachel Weisz, all of whom may be excellent performers and writers, and all of whom are also pretty much exactly the definition of the beauty standard, even if they’re not as cheesecake-perfect as sex symbols who don’t usually garner the prefix of “thinking man’s.” Sarah Palin of all people is actually the closest I can think of, in that she’s a well-known woman viewed as attractive in a field where you don’t have to be a professional beauty to succeed—but besides the fact that her sex appeal became a tool of ridicule, she was literally a beauty queen, hardly landing her in the same camp as Neil deGrasse Tyson. (Also, she’s Sarah Palin, but whatevs.) Google turns up a few other women labeled “thinking man’s sex symbol” who aren’t entertainers—writer Jhumpa Lahiri, Sheryl Sandberg—which come closer to the spirit of the deGrasse Tyson phenomenon, but they’re acknowledged as sex symbols on a far smaller level. The point: Call her a nerd crush or the thinking man’s sex symbol—if she’s a woman, she’s still got to be pretty damned good-looking to get the title. I mean, when The Wonder Years child star Danica McKellar went on to be an advocate for girls in math, she was doing book promotion in lingerie.

Just as we’d be unwise to blame individual men for patriarchal beauty standards, we can’t say that the lack of widely acknowledged atypical female sex symbols is a reflection of men’s abilities to see beyond the physical. Men are just as capable as women of finding someone attractive for reasons that have little to do with visual attraction, and I’ve heard plenty of individual men share their crushes on somewhat unlikely targets: soccer player Abby Wambach, economics blogger Megan McArdle, Broad City’s Ilana Glazer, poet Nikki Giovanni, and tennis player Martina Hingis before the makeover. An ex once sheepishly told me he had just a wee little crush on Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher, you know?

Still, collectively we’re slow to recognize the possibility of a female “sex symbol” who doesn’t possess the hallmarks of a traditional sex symbol. And to be clear, on its face this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I mean, the flipside here is that anytime a prominent woman does anything nifty, she’s suddenly a “sex symbol.” Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi: the Hill’s sex symbol! Doesn’t Alice Munro look hot as a Nobel laureate? By no means am I arguing that we should sexualize women’s accomplishments just so we can have a female equivalent of a Neil deGrasse Tyson. But the thing is, we already do sexualize accomplished women, assuming she’s conventionally attractiveWhat’s missing is room for a wider public acknowledgment of the enormous swath of qualities that make accomplished women attractive. We give it to the gents, and on an individual level we give it to women too. But when it comes to our culture—or hell, just Twitter—christening an utterly average-looking woman a sex symbol of any sort, we shy away from the possibility.

Basically, this is a version of the same old song—I mean, news flash, women are expected to look conventionally pretty. It’s just interesting to me that we as a culture are willing to go to greater lengths to extend the definition of attractive to include skill and charisma when we’re talking about men, but not so willing when we’re talking about women. Or are we? I’m hoping I’ve got a major blind spot here. Are there famous women I’m overlooking who are widely known as “sex symbols” despite not matching the definition of conventional beauty? I’d like to learn that I’m mistaken.