Beautyism as Ableist Eugenics… and the Mystique of “Choice Feminism” 

Introduction

I recently came across this article on Vice.com asking filmmakers to “stop making hot actors play normal people.” The author indicts filmmakers for casting too few “normal” people. I think that this is a much-needed critique, but it lacks philosophical nuance, which I intend to provide here. My analysis will explore the harms of mainstream beauty culture and the related concept of beautyism (i.e., prejudice in favor of ‘beautiful’ people and against ‘ugly’ people), and then attempt to explain why so few philosophers, even in feminist philosophy where one would expect to find such critiques, seem to care about these harms. I argue that beauty culture is part of a broader eugenics regime that stigmatizes and seeks to eliminate disabilities and disabilized traits (queerness, Blackness, etc.), leading to an increasingly homogenous population of ‘normals.’ I invoke Rosemarie Garland’s concept of the “normate” – “the corporeal incarnation of [Western] culture’s collective, unmarked, normative characteristics” – to illustrate how Blackness, queerness, gender-variance, disability, and ugliness are conflated and co-constructed as impairments to be ‘cured,’ eliminated, and managed under the modern eugenics regime.  Finally, I claim that “choice feminism” – the view that women should “embrace the opportunities they have in life and to see the choices they make as justified and always politically acceptable”– normalizes beautyism by treating body-modification (particularly in service to a normate aesthetic) as a personal choice with no biopolitical ramifications. Choice feminism thus obfuscates the reality of compulsory able-bodied beauty. 

Beautyism as Ableism 

The systematic casting of ‘beautiful’ actors is, I shall argue here, a function of ableism and interrelated oppressions. Our ableist culture is so disgusted and offended by naturally-occurring biological diversity that it shuns & stigmatizes not only disability per se but any phenotypic variation marginally associated with disability – that is, any variation outside the minuscule range of socially-valued phenotypes, i.e., those perceived as ‘normal,’ ‘healthy,’ and ‘beautiful.’ Indeed, these three terms (‘normal,’ ‘healthy,’ ‘beautiful’) are inextricably linked, in the sense that nondisability is constructed as healthy and (hence) beautiful (as well as white and cisheterosexual), whereas disability is positioned as ‘unhealthy,’ ‘ugly,’ and ‘freakish.’ (Such convergences are epitomized in Rosemarie Garland-Thompson’s figure of “the normate,” which embodies “culturally valued traits in the social systems of gender, race, class, sexuality, and ability”). Seen in this light, beauty culture just isableist culture, a eugenics regime that normalizes, rewards, and demands normate conformity, while stigmatizing, punishing, and (to the extent possible) eliminating disability and disability-adjacent (‘ugly’) traits. This is why we see so little representation of disability and ugliness in the ableist context of Hollywood cinema. 

In this connection, crip feminists have pointed out that disability (including ‘disfigurement,’ fatnesschronic pain and fatigue, and Blackness-qua-disablement) is culturally defined as ugly, freakish, profane, and impure, while socially-valued (non-disabilized) traits are perceived as beautiful, pure, clean, and sacred. The able-bodied beauty ideal, then, functions as a disciplinary apparatus (in Foucault’s sense) that mobilizes people into a regime of compulsory able-bodied beauty, partly by stigmatizing and marginalizing disabilized (‘ugly’) traits, and partly by idealizing and rewarding nondisabled (’beautiful’) traits. Beautyism, as such, is a form of ableism, which is, in turn, a central component of the “new eugenics” under technocapitalism.   

This beauty regime has already produced a shockingly homogenous population of like-bodied humans, as more and more people choose to modify their physical appearance with plastic surgeries, injections, cosmetic products, ‘beauty apps,’ and other technologies, in pursuit of a normate appearance. As Jia Tolentino puts it,social media and plastic surgery are fueling the “emergence… of a single, cyborgian face,” which is young, thin, “distinctly white but ambiguously ethnic.” (Vanishingly rare are body-modification techniques used to disable or ‘uglify’ people; indeed, licensed professional routinely refuse people’s requests to be surgically disabled or made uglier, revealing the double standard that mandates ability while pathologizing disability). Such beautification choices, which tend to be seen as personal, are not only ubiquitous but compulsory. By “compulsory” I mean (following Adrien Rich’s definition) that able-body beauty is idealized and enforced by a matrix of eugenics practices and ideologies that exclude, impoverish, oppress, and exploit disabilized (‘ugly’) bodies. The able-bodied matrix is so entrenched, in fact, that most people fail to recognize it as a system of domination. 

As we move closer to a Gattaca-type dystopia in which biological diversity – particularly deviations from the normate ideal – is ‘cured,’ eliminated, and managed, and in which ‘unenhanced’ others are cast off as biologically-impure refuse – we must ask ourselves if beautification technologies are not being used to resurrect the ghost of Nazi eugenics in the machine of technocapitalism. How different is modern-day beautyism from Nazi racial politics, really? While the ableist beauty regime is not overtly violent, its effects – the pathologization and elimination of culturally-disvalued traits – is eerily similar to the ‘final solution’ of the Nazis. 

Yet technocapitalism has the advantage of being able to disguise eugenics as a series of personal choices, adopted by autonomous and informed democratic citizens. Such ‘voluntary choices’ are, however, rooted in a system of compulsory able-bodied beauty, which requires normate status as a condition of “gaining resources [and] social capital,” in Garland-Thompson’s words. “Nearly everyone wants to be normal,” says Michael Warner; “And who can blame them, if the alternative is being abnormal, or deviant, or not being one of the rest of us? Put in those terms, there doesn’t seem to be a choice at all. Especially in America where [being] normal probably outranks all other social aspirations.” Robert McRuer elaborates, “Compulsion is here produced and covered over, with the appearance of choice…, mystifying a system in which there actually is no choice.”McRuer is alluding to the compulsoriness of not only able-bodiedness but also heterosexuality and other ‘ideals’ that intersect in the figure of the normate. These ideals are cultural mandates to which one must consent if one wishes to fit in. The neoliberal illusion of choice serves to mystify the reality of beautyism as a system of oppression, as well as the intersection of beautyism with racism, ageism, and other prejudices.

This is not to say that we cannot resist beautyism. We can, but at a cost. I myself am resisting able-bodied eugenics with this post, and will suffer the inevitable backlash that disabled people have come to expect. This includes being called names and denied opportunities and social standing. It is, in one sense, easier to resist ableism if one is disabled, given one’s situated knowledge, political interests, and how little one may have to lose as an already severely-oppressed person. But everyone has an obligation to promote disability justice, not just (openly) disabled folks. Disability justice is a constant struggle and a shared responsibility.   

Disability as Ugliness, Blackness, Queerness

In line with Nazi eugenics, the regime of compulsory able-bodiedness encompasses not only disability in the most paradigmatic sense (e.g., Deafness), but also any disabilized trait, ranging from ‘ugliness’ to Blackness to queerness to gender-nonconformity, and so on. Each of these constructions is policed, punished, and positioned as a form of disablement.  

Ugliness is perhaps the most obviously disabilized variation, as can be seen in the conspicuous absence of disability in ‘beauty spaces’ (like beauty pageants and fashion shows), and the conspicuous presence of disability in ‘ugly spaces’ (like 19th-century freakshows and modern-day portrayals of villains in cinema). In this connection, Garland-Thompson explains how freakshows circa 1860-1920 displayed disabled and ‘deviant’ bodies under the banner of ‘armless wonders,’ ‘Siamese twins,’ ‘fat men,’ ‘bearded women’ and ‘spotted boys’ (with vitiligo). In this way, disability, Blackness, and gender-queerness were merged in the composite figure of ‘the freak,’ which was presented as an ugly and unholy yet fascinating spectacle. Meanwhile, beauty pageants displayed unambiguously nondisabled, white, feminine bodies. As a result of these associations, queerness, Blackness, and other ‘freakish’ constructions became, as McRuer puts it, “understood or positioned in contemporary culture as always a bit disabled.” These constructions have, by the same token, also come to be understood and positioned as ugly. While ‘freakshows’ may be a thing of the past, the associations that they solidified – between disability, Blackness, gender-queerness, and ugliness – are very much alive and well. 

Race is perhaps less conspicuously, but equally forcefully, disabilized. As Sabrina Springs explains in “Fear of the Black Body,” Blackness was constructed across the 18th-19th Centuries in opposition to whiteness, as not only uncivilized (‘savage’), but also fat, ugly, unhealthy, and mentally disabled (‘stupid,’ ‘lazy’). 19th-century authors wrote of “Black savages” as “stout,” “corpulent” and “excessively fleshy.” They particularly focused on Black women as putative exemplars of fatness, laziness, and poor hygiene – figures to be adjured by ‘civilized white ladies.’ This ideology had a dual function; its purpose was, first of all, to subjugate and stigmatize Black women (imagined as fat, disabled, and ugly); and second, to mobilize white women to fear and avoid fatness (through dieting, drugs, or any means necessary), based on an internalized schema of fatness as a marker of Blackness and disability. (Of course, dieting generally did not work, except in the sense of exacerbating racial antipathy). This fear of the Disabilized-Black-Fat body sustained the edifice of white supremacy by configuring (or dis-figuring) Blackness as a sign of fatness and disability, and therefore as something ugly, profane, and impure, to be managed and eliminated, in part by body-shaming and beautification rituals.

Today, corporations continue to advertise ‘beauty products’ that promise thinness, fitness, light skin, and other technologies designed to eliminate disablized/racialized traits. Selling the normate to people is still big business, earning U.S. cosmetics companies $48 billion per year.

Choice Feminism as a Smokescreen for Ableism 

The role of ugliness as a disciplinary apparatus in service to eugenics is largely overlooked and obscured in feminist theory due to the dominance of ‘choice feminism,’ which treats women’s choices as inherently justified and acceptable. This neoliberal ideology ignores and erases the role of intersectionality and biopower in the construction of femininity as a complex and variable construct, in which many ‘femininities’ intersect. In particular, choice feminism denies the central premise of this post, viz., that privileged (nondisabled, white, wealthy) women are incentivized and even compelled to aspire to normate status by biopolitical forces, including fear of disabilized bodies. More precisely, white femininity is structured, informed, and performedthrough fear of Blackness, disablement, and ‘ugliness.’ This fear takes the form of ‘beautification’ choices that affirm and enforce the value of the (white, nondisabled) normate, as well as more antagonistic behaviors such as body-shaming and avoiding non-normate others.  

Because choice feminism – popularized by privileged white women – has spawned an uncritical acceptance of women’s choices (no matter how racist, ableist, or classist they may be), and a corresponding aversion to criticizing women’s choices, there is a dearth of literature on the intersections between ableism, racism, classism, and other axes of oppression that benefit privileged women at the expense of the most marginalized. Hence, few mainstream feminists situate ‘beauty’ in the matrix of eugenics practices that normalize, reward, and require a normate body. This glaring omission has allowed corporations to market the normate ideal to the masses with very little push-back. Feminists need to link these practices to eugenics and technocapitalism if they want to resist the loss of biodiversity in human bodies and digital representations of the human form. This resistance is especially urgent given the rapid development of genetic engineering technologies, which could allow scientists to edit disability out of existence in a few generations. Without opposition, we will see less and less biodiversity in the human population, and more and more fear, avoidance, and prejudice against disabled and disabilized bodies. This includes my own body as a queer, gender-variant, disabled person. 

Solutions to Beautyism?

It is difficult to know how to address beutyism, especially given that it has been so thoroughly integrated into technocapitalist systems, policies, and platforms (e.g., social media). But philosophers have barely begun to identify the problem, let alone solve it. The inherently ableist (body-shaming) nature of capitalism – which is a system of interlocking oppressions that concentrates wealth and power amongst an elite few – must be addressed before we can effectively resist compulsory beautification and its role in sustaining modern-day eugenics. 

Technocapitalism idealizes and markets a subset of nondisbabled, ‘healthy,’ and ‘pure’ bodily variations to a docile audience that has already been socialized into wanting and fetishizing ‘normalcy.’ By the same token, technocapitalism colonizes, queers, and disabilizes ‘deviant’ bodies by positioning them as ‘bad,’ ‘pathological,’ and ‘ugly,’ provoking anxieties around disablement and disabilization. These anxieties need to be critically examined and actively resisted. Yet philosophers have so far shown very little interest in debunking hegemonic beauty standards. Even feminist philosophers, who are critical of patriarchal beauty norms, have largely ignored the roots of beautyism in colonial, heteronormative, capitalist eugenics. One of the solutions to this lacuna is to ‘crip’ philosophy by bringing a critical-disability perspective to bear on the beauty industry and its history and present context of eugenics. Another, related solution is to focus on the intersections between interlocking oppressions ranging from patriarchy to colonialism to ableism, which intermingle in the figure of the normate. These intersections result in marginalized groups being marked and marginalized as disabled and (thus) ugly. A more historical/genealogical as well as intersectional lens will illuminate the connections between sexism, racism, and ableism, as well as the role of technocapitalist eugenics in manufacturing consent and conformity to a dwindling range of ‘acceptable’ bodies. 

About Mich Ciurria

Mich Ciurrial (She/they) is a disabled queer philosopher who works on intersectionality, feminist philosophy, critical disability theory, and justice studies.

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