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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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Too Brilliant to Bathe

“The Great Bath in Bath.” By Steve Cadman, via Wikimedia Commons

It is well known to the point of why am I even saying this that men are under less pressure than women are to be beautiful. What is not so often mentioned is the extent to which men are rewarded for not looking beautiful. Not simply for abstaining from whichever “metrosexual” grooming endeavors or definitive challenging of gender norms (i.e. makeup), but actually looking a big ol’ mess.

Which brings us to a phenomenon I’ve discussed on (and off) my blog that I refer to as “too brilliant to bathe.” This is when a man – who may or may not be genetically endowed with square-jawed good looks, but it helps if he’s not – is able to attract accolades and acolytes by being thoroughly unpresentable. One sees this in the more intellectual professions, and among students, but not so much among finance-types. It involves greasy hair, perhaps green teeth. No physical exertion. A man will own just the one shirt, it will be some mix of tucked and untucked. If a button-down, buttons will be missing, or simply missed, askew. There will be ill-fitting pleated khakis. They will be stained.

Oh, and his manners won’t be so hot, either. Nor will he be any good at staying organized, but who cares? A woman – various women – will deal with the practical. Mom or a secretary will keep his papers organized, while female admirers or, if he’s older, Mrs. T-B-T-B will grease the wheels in social situations, and cook and clean, and remind him once a year that it’s time for his bath.

Thus, in exchange for looking his worst, a man will, under certain circumstances, be taken more seriously. It will be assumed that the time and effort he didn’t put into his appearance went to something more noble. Not video games, but Being and Nothingness. (Thus the importance of worn-out slacks, not sweatpants. A subtle distinction.) Maybe he was off finding the route to Mideast peace via comments to Facebook status updates, which didn’t leave him time to address a body-odor situation. Or maybe solving an as-yet-unsolved math problem got in the way of removing the remnants of yesterday’s lunch still crusted onto his blazer. Something really amazing is going on in his mind, and we know this not because of anything he’s produced, but because he looks the part.

There’s no female equivalent to this phenomenon. A woman is taken less seriously if she shows up to present on Kierkegaard looking like a TOWIE cast member. But for a woman, there’s no silver lining to not looking one’s best. Equivalent grooming-laxity in a woman is associated not with brilliance but with either radical feminism (it’s about making a point, not genuine absent-minded indifference) or mental illness. A woman who’s especially lacking in the conventional-good-lookingness department might be imagined to have other qualities that surely compensate (the proverbial great personality), but is not generally assumed to be a genius. Our image of a brilliant woman is that of an incredibly competent one. A Hillary Clinton, a Condoleezza Rice – put-together and efficient-looking. The kind of one-in-a-million abstract-thinking mind, the sort that must almost exist without a body attached, is not one it is popularly imagined a woman could possess.

Too-brilliant-to-bathe is something I generally associate with, well, sexism. Why does a man have the option of letting himself go and then some, only to be praised for this? Why do so many intelligent and very presentable women think so little of themselves as to consider unpresentable men as romantic partners? Why does society persist in believing true brilliance is only found in men?

But too-brilliant-to-bathe isn’t necessarily such a great deal for men, either. Why should men who do make an effort have to deal not only with societal suspicion (rooted in homophobia) but also a sense that they’re somehow less-than intellectually? And isn’t it likely that the cliché of the unwashed genius leads us to ignore a great many men who really are suffering, who don’t have it together socially or professionally, but whom we figure are just fine, because some men (but no women) are just like that?

Every time I delve into questions of male vs. female beauty, the only answer I can come up with is trite but unavoidable all the same: we need to expect more, effort-wise, from men, and less from women than is currently the case. How this is to come about, I have no idea.

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11 Responses to “Too Brilliant to Bathe”

  1. gheri says:

    the social coordinates structuring hygiene and presentation are much more complex than the gender binary. it can mean very different things when a tall white male graduate student wears a suit/tie to seminar or when a black male graduate student does the same.

    the presumption of whiteness cannot be ignored.

    • Phoebe says:

      The race/racism angle came up in a comment at The Beheld, so I’ll more or less repeat what I said there – my anecdotal evidence would be that TBTB exists for men of color more than it does for women of any race, but that it does exist more for white men, esp. if anything for white boys, in whom sloppiness will more likely be interpreted as ‘bored at school’ than ‘dumb and disruptive.’

  2. sk says:

    I don’t find the lack of hygiene-male-genius argument the case at all. In fact, I think to project such a reductionist claim is almost as superficial as the example provided here, which gives concern to basing intelligence off appearance. And no, I am not a white male graduate student. Rather, I think this article presents us with a normative view in that, in contrast to the article, as a woman, I find it rather vulgar when a male fails to groom himself, or anyone for that matter. I don’t relate a lack of personal hygiene to genius but to personal neglect, either to indifference or possibly mental health issues (but it isn’t an either/or). I also think it’s reductionist and myopic to assume that every woman wants to mother a male slob-genius, and I think such insight perpetuates a false and socially constructed notion of womanhood that believes every woman naturally wants to serve a domestic role in society that props up the dominance of men in society. Shallow, at best.

    • Phoebe says:

      I’ll readily admit that this post was based on my anecdotal observations, and is not incredibly deep. But I’m not sure where I claimed that “every woman wants to mother a male slob-genius.” Some do, whereas I haven’t really seen the reverse.

  3. Anya says:

    Hmm. I have thought about this. I have one self proclaimed academic genius liberal sexist ex that lived in too-big ‘witty’ T-shirts and (good god) cargo pants (ill-fitting, stained) and a current partner who’s into the hardcore scene and I have to say that there are quite a few more greasy, unwashed, men on the other end of the academic spectrum. Maybe they’re too musically gifted to bathe? Real Men ™ apparently have Beards and asymmetrical haircuts or no cuts at all and spend days in the same clothes. The women of the hardcore scene, myself included, generally put quite a bit more effort in. Many of them practice complicated pin-up style hairdos and are actually aestheticians. I would attribute the poor hygiene to touring and being on the road, but the few females I know in bands do seem to be able to put themselves together for shows. Also, the difference at home is only signifiant for some. My partner knows I don’t appreciate the road musk and bathes at home. He even complains of few opportunities to bathe on the road. I’ve hypothesized that there’s a sort of anti-bathing peer pressure he experiences. As an attractive vegetarian, he loses out on Real Man points with some of the other hard core dudes, why push that by letting anyone know he’d like a shower? I think that this unwashed thing is actually pervasive on many levels of SES and enforced by men as a component of homophobia. It seems that past generations when gay men were more closeted didn’t take issue with cleanliness in men because there wasn’t as much of a question about who was or was not gay. Also, it might be a disservice to the unwashed to label their behavior as homophobic. Maybe some of the guys don’t dislike gay men, but happen to be straight and part of being Straight ™, as they see it, is conforming to a certain degree of dishevel. Just like I care wear miniskirts without necessarily being anti-woman.
    Thoughts?

  4. caliente says:

    I don’t understand why your “solution” is to take away the option of being too brillant to bathe from men instead of giving it to women? Why should we care about some bullshit bourgeois manners and primping?

  5. martin says:

    Sorry for my English, it is my 5th language. I once read that while men and women are on average equallly intelligent, the intelligence of men varies more. Ie, there are more stupid men and male genii, while women tend to be to more or less OK, but less often extremely endowed with brains. Based on my observations, this is a fact. And the men who are genii or close to it, they do have their odd habits and dysfunctions. It does not matter whether you like it or not – that’s the way they are built. This is a fact. The society – unlike the author of this article – is well aware of it.

  6. Drewsifer says:

    What the hell are you talking about? You’re quite mad, you know that?

  7. Yes. I feel like this can be extrapolated to behavior — a woman who can’t get her shit together, forgets appointments, can’t remember anniversaries, etc. is regarded as far less competent than a smart man for whom that’s true. He’s just too bright and busy to remember the petty things.

    There’s obviously a lot of weird gender dynamic at play in what smart, achieving men can get away with versus what smart, achieving women need to accomplish to be considered smart and achieving.

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