The power of beauty is all about who owns it. Is it the girl or woman herself or is it someone else who sees only the beauty but not the person? That is one of the reasons that displaying pictures and videos on the Internet can be so destructive to females. It is the image and not the person–the girl or woman–that is the object of desire or even obsession.
If however a female realizes that she is beautiful (and here beauty can be defined in a multitude of ways), she can legitimately employ this gift to obtain a desired end, just as men have always used money or brawn to get what they want. Dr. Young-Eisendrath states (and I agree) that the power of beauty may be the only dimension of power that has been available to females throughout history. (Young-Eisendrath, Polly. The female person and how we talk about her. In Psychoanalytic Reflections on a Gender-free Case.Routledge, 2005) Women’s use of that power has earned them the reputation of being selfish tricksters who manipulate men for personal gain. But if we view the power of personal appearance as a dimension that is both unique to females and a counterbalance to the considerable arsenal that is available to males, we can observe it from a more positive perspective.
A woman’s appearance can certainly be used negatively. If she does not meet certain culturally approved standards of beauty, she can be at a disadvantage. She can also be seen as an object, a thingof beauty, in a way that is equally demoralizing. As I have said, that can be particularly true in a medium such as the Internet where we have only a visual image—no person to go with it. But if a girl or woman is in control of her appearance in a way that expresses her being, her person, she indeed possesses an impressive dimension of power in a (still) male-dominated world.
A contradictory article appeared recently entitled “Hike up your skirts.” (Barbara Corcoran. Salon. May 5, 2016) Ms. Corcoran who is 67 years old says that if she is in a business meeting she might hike up her skirt because she “has great legs.” She makes the point that if a woman is beautiful she should let people know. A woman or a man should use every advantage that is available to her or him. I am not sure that I agree with Ms. Corcoran. (I would probably go with something a little more subtle.) But at the same time she is making two very important points: 1) Appearances do matter and 2) If the woman is choosing to display her legs or whatever, she owns that choice and she controls it. That is very different from the situation where a woman’s beauty is exploited and outside of her control.
Does all of this mean that relationships between men and women are only about power? Sadly enough, I believe that it is all too true. It will be so until men and women are treated as equals on every front. At that point we can turn our concerns away from power and toward the more deeply satisfying dimensions of intimacy and love.
Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.