Looking At Lookism

abercrombieBy Joe Perez

You walk into a crowded bar and a dozen heads turn your way. In an instant, most of the men’s eyes avert. But some eyes continue to watch. They check out your clothes, face, body, and crotch. Looks are everything.

A while later, you are cruising through the bar. You are enchanted by one man’s delicious bedroom eyes and another’s hairy, rippling chest. You make a note of the cuties and hotties that you want to get to know better. Ah, you say, thank heaven for beauty!

Although this experience is a common one for gay men, the desire for beauty is held in suspicion by those who say that admiring beauty is unjust or demeaning and by others who say that it’s antispiritual. What is the truth about beauty?

The American Heritage Dictionary defines lookism as “discrimination or prejudice against people based on their appearance.” Lookism includes thinking less of a person whose appearance is less than ideal, or thinking more of a person because of his good looks.

Or, as the writer Bianca puts it in her “Lesbian Lexicon”: “Lookism: dykes are not supposed to judge potential partners on looks because it is unfair and in poor taste.”

In The Beauty Myth, feminist Naomi Wolf went so far as to claim that the hunger for beauty is a pathological product of mass media and advertising. The pursuit of beauty is a distraction from more worthwhile matters, she says, and nothing is to be considered beautiful unless everything is seen as being equally beautiful in its own way.

Although the egalitarian impulse of beauty’s critics is a fine one, their admonitions against admiring beauty fly in the face of reality. The impulse to treat people differently because of their looks is an essential part of our sexuality and the ways of the world.

Because the battle against lookism is as hopelessly absurd as a battle against human nature itself, lookism has never been taken seriously enough to join other -isms, such as racism and sexism, in the cultural mindset. Asking people not to judge potential partners on looks is like asking them to avoid judging potential meals on how they taste or to avoid judging potential cars based on how they run. It isn’t mean, nasty, or unjust to admire the beauty in some people more than others.

However, it can definitely be wrong to act on that admiration inappropriately.

According to researchers in Texas and Michigan, attractive employees are paid 10 percent more than unattractive employees who have the same level of experience and do the same work. Pulchritude has also been documented as impacting experiences in schools, homes, courtrooms, and encounters with police.

If the issue of lookism is cast as an injustice in society and not as a problem with how people judge potential sexual or romantic partners, then it gains much in credibility. Still, battling lookism poses difficult problems. Do we sue Abercrombie and Fitch for discriminating against unattractive fashion models? How do we deal effectively with a prejudice that most agree is a largely unconscious phenomenon?

Admiring beauty is not only attacked as being politically incorrect, but also as philosophically or spiritually incorrect. Some critics say that it’s wrong to look at a beautiful thing because it turns it into an object to which we feel superior. If the admiration for beauty leads to desire, Christians often attack the impulse as lust. A Buddhist teacher might say that it’s wrong to admire a hot guy because doing so turns us away from the pursuit of enlightenment and represents a form of “clinging” or “attachment.”

There’s some truth to these concerns about beauty, but the truth needs to be carefully separated from the falsehood. I agree with the general idea that there are higher and lower ways of admiring a beautiful thing and that some ways are more superficial than others. It is possible to admire a hot guy based only on his body. It is also possible to admire a hot guy based on his body, heart, mind, and soul. As hot as it can be to admire a great face or toned body, it’s much more satisfying to find beauty that is far beyond skin deep.

However, it’s not always possible to enjoy the ideal. Many human interactions start with the superficial and get more complex from there. The gay community offers many opportunities for admiring superficial levels of beauty: underwear nights at bars, nude beaches, sexually explicit websites, and so forth. These sorts of interactions frequently involve objectifying other persons . . . and turning ourselves into sex objects.

I’m all for enjoying a tanned, gorgeous man in a snug pair of white boxer briefs. As Jerry Seinfeld might have said were he gay, it’s not that there’s anything wrong with that. But when we’re being superficial, let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that we are feeding our soul anything more than eye candy. To truly satisfy our soul’s hunger for beauty, we have to go deeper.

The Christian mystic Simone Weil claimed that finite human beings perceive the infinite Spirit through beauty. She wrote, “The beautiful is the experimental proof that the incarnation is possible.” Every time we respond to beauty in another human being or in the world around us, we are opening ourselves to God. This is why the quest for beauty is so paradoxical. The beauty our soul seeks in a beautiful object cannot be possessed, because it’s the infinitely beautiful Source that is the true object of our desire.

That’s why I disagree with those Buddhists who say that beauty is an “attachment” that turns us away from the true goal of spirituality. Anthony Flanagan, About.com’s guide to Buddhism, says that the Buddha taught that food should be taken only for sustenance and ending discomfort, not for the enjoyment of its taste nor for its contribution to physical beauty and attractiveness. The Buddha also says that his followers should make the effort to ignore attractive things and cultivate attraction for repulsive things in order to attain liberation from impermanence. (Is this a valid path to enlightenment? I don’t know and frankly I don’t want to find out. Whatever else it may be, it’s certainly a surefire recipe for a dull, bland, erotophobic lifestyle that successfully proves the adage, “virtue is its own punishment.”)

Longing for beauty doesn’t take us away from the Infinite but rather toward greater and higher states of being. The desire for beautiful objects can become a distraction from spiritual growth, however, if the lustful appetites are fixated merely on superficial levels of beauty instead of wanting to admire beauty in all its many dimensions. In other words, the problem arises when we are invited to life’s banquet and then starve to death because we only ate the eye candy and not the delicious feast.

That’s the error and truth in lookism, as I see it. Beauty isn’t merely in the eye of the beholder. Beauty is in the eye, heart, mind, soul, and spirit of the beholder. As we grow in the depth of our spirituality, we begin to see beauty where before we saw none.

(Sept. 16, 2004)

Note: This article is reprinted from MyOutSpirit.com.

About Joe Perez

Chief Blogger, Gay Spirituality. Joe Perez is a Seattle-based author, blogger, poet, language creator, and Scholar-in-Residence at the Center for Integral Wisdom. His spiritual memoir Soulfully Gay is published by Integral Books/Shambhala. He is an Honors graduate of Harvard University and has earned a Certificate in Integral Leadership from Pacific Integral. [Full Bio].

  • Matt Leary

    What a BEAUTIFUL insight into this subject. I am weird when it comes to the whole ‘checking out’ thing. I love looking at beautiful men. But beautiful men to me range from those with smooth chiseled abs to those with hairy chubby bellies. When its just about looking at a picture, it’s 100% about looks. However, knowing even a little about a guy changes his attractiveness for me. If a guy I think is gorgeous turns out to be not so nice, his beauty and my desire for him decrease sharply. A guy I didn’t really find attractive before might become irresistible after performing an act of kindness or revealing any trait/attribute I like. My fiance really is the most gorgeous & sexy man in the world to me because I’ve seen so much of the beauty of every other aspect of his being.