“Tea?” I repeat. I hadn’t ordered tea. Was this tea free?
It was, and it wasn’t. Monetarily, I didn’t pay anything for the tea. But why offer tea to a stranger in a half-filled Turkish restaurant?
Perhaps because it was cold. Perhaps because I ate alone. Or perhaps, as I have unexpectedly received free food and drink before, because the older male server thought I was beautiful.
As a societal group without historical access to monetary currency, women have survived for years on this societal “black market”: unofficially, beauty is our currency. For this reason, young women are not raised to pursue education or lucrative careers. Their societal capital is stored in their lips, their hips and their breasts as they compete for the scarcity: a man in good standing.
This is the development of the dowry; of the Western tradition of having a bride’s father pay for the wedding; of “giving one’s daughter away.” Without family name, women have only their faces by which to gain access to money in a patriarchal capitalism. So for seemingly no reason at all, men give women things for free—but is it? How does one weigh the societal pressure for a woman to pay something in return? It is a smile? A “thank you”? Is it more? Is a man being nice to a woman the same as a person being nice to a person, or is it different?
Under current economic conditions, it is difficult as a “wealthy” woman to discern the sincere from the sinister. And this wealth is relative. Ideals of beauty differ amongst individuals, and the waxing and waning male attention causes a woman’s self-worth to fluctuate as stock values do.
Though receiving the perceived “benefits” heedlessly offered by heterosexual men, beautiful women pay a hefty price in a patriarchal society.
She must doubt all that she receives, because it could have little to do with her intelligence, her creativity or her honest intentions and everything to do with her appearance.
She must know how to spend her beauty; there becomes a strategy to her romantic interactions. “You’re too pretty for him” is often heard when interests lie in a man who is perceived as being less attractive—but there are so many beautiful women with intelligent or humorous or kind men. Because though men possess wealth for having insight in a patriarchal society, this is expected of women, so a nice girl is rarely a desirable one.
Her currency tips scales as precious stones and metals do, and warring men abuse her value. As the Gold Coast became Ghana, after being used by the British, her beauty is used until there remains a shell of a person, devoid of trust. It is often impossible to tell who might rob her, and after being violated, she learns to have a hesitant trust of all men. –does this metaphor carry? It feels like it needs more investment otherwise could be read as a throw away comment which it isn’t.
It is easy to forget a beautiful woman is another human being with hopes, fears and frustrations because she is only ever what others see in her, and few look past her skin—including herself.
Worst of all, beauty can impede upon relationships with other women due to jealousy or intimidation. Beautiful women have few genuine relationships with men, and sometimes even less with women.
Women who are impoverished by societal definitions of beauty are constantly reminded of their poverty as attainable beauty dangles in front of them. The beauty industry digs into the goldmine that is low female self-esteem, endlessly reaping profits. Maybe she’s beautiful—but for those women who simply aren’t, there are drugstore elixirs to get rich quick.
Fertility is beauty’s sister in determining feminine worth, and when women begin to lose both, they lose some male counterparts that continually chase younger women. Wisdom is worthless when elderly women mean nothing outside of the families that depend upon them.
A woman is raised to want nothing more than to be beautiful while simultaneously being envied and despised for the affections she does not return. She must be desirable and unattainable; gracious and giving. She must be incongruent. She must be an object upon which men project fantasies, close enough to happen and far enough to know it never will.
This is why men can offer free beverages and pastries to women they will never see again: we are taught to smile at beauty, to praise it, to serve it. But those on the receiving end grow nervous with the barter, as there is never a fixed price. It is startling to receive something free for nothing at all in a world where so many starve at the hand of a revered capitalist god—beautiful women must be blessed in a twisted Calvinist sense.
And when women choose not to pay these small fees—when a woman chooses to reject conventional standards of beauty or fleeting infatuations—she is criticized for being miserly with her wealth or even wasting it all away. “You’re too beautiful to be sad,” say men to women, because beautiful women should lead fulfilled lives.
When a woman cuts her hair, she cuts away at genetic trust fund, a secure deposit in femininity and comfortable beauty. When a woman tattoos or pierces her body, she cuts into the endlessly smooth skin that does not clothe bones or showcase the imagination but serves as a temptation to virility.
A woman’s beauty holds no value independent of a man’s discernment, therefore her wealth—and by extension, her worth as a human being—means nothing without male approval backing her capital like gold reserves. Women seek validation in their existence as perceptive, intelligent beings because we live in a society where men largely care to interact only with their sexuality. For the most part, women pay into a system that never serves them because young girls have the illusion of being wealthy—of being beautiful—one day.
Though to a significantly lower extent, those of us women who seek beauty in other women still inevitably shape our perceptions from a masculine mold, categorizing lesbian and bisexual women as “butch” or “femme.”
Like a livestock market, women in the public sphere are ogled and examined, and the most appealing is lustily picked. Women are prodded to desire blue ribbons rather than kicking down the musty stalls that confine their worth.
A woman’s beauty is owned, but it is never her own. And in this way, beautiful women lend a wealth they can never truly claim—a collective wealth that all desire yet none can access. As no one can achieve the capitalist dream, beauty remains a legend no woman will ever embody.