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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 Petraeus Affair: Infidelity, Beauty, and Scapegoating


The sex lives of public figures bore me. Rather, the sex lives of public figures interest me no more than that of, say, my dentist. My view on sex is generally pretty solipsistic: If it’s not me having the sex in question, I don’t particularly care about it, and I don’t understand why anyone besides those directly affected would.

So I didn’t pay much attention to the David Petraeus scandal—at least, not until I read this excellent piece by Meghan Daum that questions the mandate of beauty in high-profile women. The article draws upon Petraeus’s wife, Holly, and the flurry of nasty comments in the “chattersphere” about how one could hardly blame Petraeus for sleeping with his attractive biographer, given that Mrs. Petraeus dared to look like a middle-aged woman who doesn’t pay homage to the beauty industry at every opportunity. “If it’s no longer shocking that a powerful man would have an affair with a younger, worshipful woman,” writes Daum, “it is a little shocking that the wife of that powerful man, nerdish as he is, would thwart the beauty industrial complex quite so vigorously.”

Daum’s larger point—that we need to eliminate the double standard dictating that accomplished women like Olympia Snowe, Dianne Feinstein, and Nancy Pelosi must pay attention to conventional beauty standards while their male counterparts can eschew them—is one that needs to be made, repeatedly, until things change. (Remember the hubbub when Hillary Clinton had the audacity to speak at a news conference without makeup?) But what’s interesting to me is something Daum acknowledges in her article: Save for a smattering of comments-section trolls, nobody is publicly suggesting that Holly Petraeus’s low-key, glamour-free looks are to blame for Petraeus’s infidelity. Yet the piece hinged upon that very idea, and the piece gained traction because we all quietly understand the game of pin-the-blame-on-the-gray-haired-woman. Save for an ugly little post from Mediabistro, a bizarro article about how all the women involved in the scandal could use a makeover, and the aforementioned comment-section trolls, the only mention of Holly Petraeus’s looks I could find by poking around online comes from…well, Meghan Daum, and people rightfully echoing her point. Few people are trying to suggest that Holly Petraeus’s gray hair is responsible for her husband’s dick falling into another woman—but we get the idea anyway, even when it’s not spoken aloud.

If we’re collectively too kind to snark at a pained woman who has been publicly humiliated, we’re not above raising our eyebrows when the betrayed wife is conventionally beautiful. “If Tiger Woods could cheat on Swedish model Elin Nordegren, what chance do other women have?” cried the Examiner. “Beauties and the beasts,” blared the New York Post after Tony Parker cheated on Eva Longoria. There’s a certain freedom to say it when a beautiful woman has been betrayed, because we’re ostensibly championing the woman; we’re reassuring her that the dude must be cray-cray to cheat on her, because she’s hot, and it’s too bad that her insurance policy of being good-looking had a loophole for infidelity. A loophole that an estimated 22% of married men have exploited at some point, sure, but never mind the 1-in-4 odds at play, right? Those odds are “supposed” to fall in the favor of the Eva Longorias of the world—at the expense of the Holly Petraeuses—and though both parties gain our sympathy, only one of them garners a head-scratching “huh?”

There are all sorts of problems with that mind-set, starting with the insulting idea that good looks are all that wives can count on to keep their husbands faithful (note that while plenty of pieces on Holly Petraeus highlight her striking accomplishments on behalf of military families, none of them suggest her husbands is nutso for cheating on her because of those accomplishments). But deconstructing the idea doesn’t answer the fundamental question of why we’re so eager to tie appearance to infidelity.

I can’t help but think that maybe we want beauty and cheating to be linked. Because if they’re not, the statistics on infidelity are just too depressing. I remember confiding in a friend after a man I loved cheated on me. She was sympathetic, but a part of her response continues to flit around in my mind years after the fact: That’s just how men are, she said. She wasn’t trying to say it was “natural,” but rather that in her experience, men were simply eager to cheat, so I couldn’t take it personally. Let’s say for a moment that she was right—that men just cheat, end of story. It’s awful to think that a man might cheat on you because someone more attractive came along. But it’s worse to think that he cheated just becauseBecause then the logical fallout is that since he cheated just because, every man cheats, so you’d better learn to either adopt a laissez-faire attitude about the whole thing or get used to losing your dignity on a regular basis, because this is just how it’s going to be.

Accepting that notion would undermine the entire idea of monogamy, which, in this culture, is how we construe commitment. So we refuse it, and we seek a scapegoat for infidelity—and what better scapegoat than something that has already instilled in plenty of people a sense of insecurity, futility, and self-abasement? Beauty, along with its surrounding pressures and expectations, comes in mighty handy here. It makes me think about how often beauty and appearance are used as a scapegoat for other issues, and indeed how rigid we are with the narrative arc of women’s relationship with our looks (woman feels bad about body, woman works to come to peace with it, all is well—which is a fine tale, except it sets an expectation that women are displeased with their bodies, leaving little room for those who might not fall prey to that narrative).

It’s not often that I’m going to argue in this space that beauty is irrelevant; the entire thesis of this blog is that personal appearance becomes relevant to pretty much everything. And that’s not what I’m arguing, not exactly, not least because none of us have any way of knowing exactly why David Petraeus slept with Paula Broadwell—or why any person, anywhere, has cheated on someone they’re ostensibly committed to. (It’s something you often hear from philanderers themselves: I don’t know why I did it, I don’t know what came over me, The whole thing was stupid.) But I will argue that beauty is more relevant to the discussion of infidelity, and to how we make sense of infidelity, than it ever is to infidelity itself, which is why, as Daum points out, “assiduous gym rats with nary a gray hair get cheated on.”

In fact, there’s further evidence of this in the Petraeus case: Since I only paid cursory attention to the story yet kept seeing photos of Jill Kelley everywhere, I assumed that she was Petraeus’s lover. It actually wasn’t until I started researching this piece that I saw a picture of Broadwell, his actual paramour. As a long-haired Lebanese-American socialite usually photographed in bright, tailored dresses, Kelley has more photogenic glamour than an academic from Bismarck who favors a severe hairstyle. Bluntly put, Kelley looks the part of the stereotypical homewrecker more than Broadwell does—which is, I’m guessing, a large part of why her visage, not Broadwell’s, has become one of the iconic images burned into the public mind in regards to this affair. We want a fall gal, and Kelley makes a good one (especially given that she committed adultery as well, just not with the main figure involved here).

The sooner we stop gaping, wide-eyed, when we see men have affairs behind the backs of their beautiful wives, the sooner we can truly start leaving the low-maintenance betrayed wives like Holly Petraeus alone. And the sooner we can do both of those things, maybe we’ll come just a hair closer to understanding why we place such importance on an institution so many people flout—with lovers beautiful and plain, glamorous and mousy, younger and older. Perhaps with practice we’ll even come a little closer to fixing it.

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8 Responses to “The Petraeus Affair: Infidelity, Beauty, and Scapegoating”

  1. Tejas says:

    Nowhere in this article is mentioned the fact that Paula Broadwell was cheating too. That has been almost ignored by both the conventional and subversive media. She is 40ish and has two kids, and a husband, who is standing by her. Where are the articles on that? (Hillary was bombarded with articles about whether she would stand by her man, in a similar situation).

    In fact, in this instance, unless it was completely mutual attraction, it was most likely Paula who seduced David Petraeus and David just fell with it because, after all, human beings are weak, of either sex, to do something so natural and fun as sexual intercourse.

    Now personally I don’t really believe in cheating (that’s like saying that one mate “owns” the other) nor do I have much respect for marriage, depending on the partnership. And despite the polls, in terms of actual behavior, women and men probably “cheat” the same amount. They are always looking for that extra (for the man) or that upgrade (for the woman). They just tend to look for different things–man for a fit body and nice waist-hip ratio, woman for a man with power and money. That is all biologically determined.

    In fact, this is just another boring conventional story about yet another powerful man sleeping with a younger, more attractive, seductive woman who wants to say she slept with a powerful man. Nothing new in that (except this woman was much older than typical). Hefner has three or four girlfriends at one time I believe, all in their early 20s.

    The very fact that anybody cares just demonstrates how the puritanical streak in America has only increased over the last forty years as we have become “liberated” (not really–more socially liberal in attitude, more behaviorally regimented).

    Most media plays towards the salacious gossip devoured by women, because they are now the primary consumers, and even men have become brainwashed into their aesthetic. Other than Maxim and GQ, almost all the mags besides hardcore porn are targeted toward women, and feature woman showing off their beauty. Women judge each other’s beauty, makeup, and dress very harshly every day, much more than men, who usually hardly notice such particulars. I find women themselves advance the very petty superficialities that they verbally abhor, and are most likely Holly’s biggest critics (what is she wearing? What did she do with her hair?) if she has any.

    So if this is something that must be addressed (that is “if”) then women must address it. Men are too busy watching football.

  2. Infidelity is wrong, but you have to ask yourself, was Petraeus and Holly having marital sex? If the answer is no, then that can drive a man into another woman’s arms. Men also need to feel adored. Have you adored your guy lately? Remember that flirty feeling that made you interested in him in the first place? Whether you do that with make-up, a new outfit or that come hither look in your eye… it’s important to keep the spark alive. Is it easy in the busy lives we all lead, no… but highly recommended.

  3. Anonymous says:

    When my husband’s boss had an affair, his wife was better looking than the other woman, which gave me the conclusion that if he’s going to have an affair, he’s just going to. Marriage is about trust.

  4. Shybiker says:

    Good analysis with some interesting ideas. People always want to jump to the easy explanation they expect (like blaming infidelity on the lack of beauty of the cheated spouse) but reality isn’t so simple. Analogous to how rape isn’t about sex, infidelity isn’t about female beauty.

  5. Perfectly put. It would be easier if we could just pin the blame on one party being unattractive, but as we’ve seen time and time again, that isn’t what’s going on here. (And funny how you never hear men’s appearance being blamed or wondered about when women are the ones cheating…)

  6. If the studies I’ve since found about infidelity are correct, you’re exactly right. “Opportunity presented itself” was one of the highest-rated reasons men gave for semi-excusing infidelity.

  7. People absolutely have the need–and right–to feel adored and desired, and it can drive someone of either sex into infidelity. But what’s at blame there isn’t the spouse; it’s a lack of communication. Absolutely important to keep the spark going! But once that fades, something else–from both parties–needs to take its place.

  8. I’m guessing that nobody (myself included) is writing about Broadwell’s infidelity because she’s not a public figure, or at least she wasn’t until this case. But the leading general of the most powerful nation in the world? Pretty public. Like you I’m of the mind it doesn’t matter (totally a holdover from the Puritan days), but at least there’s some sort of ostensible reason that people would care about Petraeus, since he’s also supposed to be serving as an example to the entire U.S. Army–that’s literally a part of what he signed on for.

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