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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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