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The beauty trap, continued

  A display in a Victoria’s Secret store in Seattle, Wash.

A display in a Victoria’s Secret store in Seattle, Wash.

In his acclaimed new book “The Evolution of Beauty” (Doubleday, 428 pages, $30), Richard O. Prum theorizes that evolution is not just about what we need but what we want. And that has profound implications for gender issues, including what I describe on this blog as “the beauty trap.”

The hourglass shape and youthful facial features, such as large eyes, of the female and the particular characteristics of male genitalia (boneless phallus, large scrotum, small testes) are beyond what is necessary for reproduction, Prum writes. Rather, he says, these features are what each desires in the other.

But it is not a level playing field:

“…Feminists themselves have often expressed discomfort with standards of beauty, sexual aesthetics and discussions of desire. Beauty has been viewed as a punishing male standard that treats women and girls as sexual objects and persuades women to adopt the same self-destructive standard to judge themselves. Desire has been viewed as another route to finding themselves under the power of men. Yet aesthetic evolutionary theory reminds us that women are not only sexual objects but also sexual subjects with their own desires and the evolved agency to pursue them.”

I couldn’t help but think of this as I shopped the Victoria’s Secret sale on Boxing Day. You don’t have to be a patron to know that the store is filled with images of models in lingerie who’ve got it and aren’t afraid to flaunt it – in sharp contrast to most of the girls and women who wait on the store’s signature long lines. Is this a sign of empowerment – the female sexual autonomy that Prum holds is one of evolution’s greatest trends? Or is it one of enslavement, as many feminists hold? Why shouldn’t you flaunt it if you’ve got it?

Perhaps because the counterbalancing trend that Prum describes is male sexual coercion and violence, honed in male-male competition. Or as my in-law John pointed out at a Boxing Day family gathering, There’s nothing “cute” about skimpily clad women in the workplace, particularly when many of their colleagues come out of the frat-house environment.

I myself think there’s a great need for balance and context here. Just as you wouldn’t wear a ball-gown to the beach, destination weddings excepted, you shouldn’t wear revealing clothes to work or a house of worship. Sexuality needs perhaps more subtle forms of expression (not that subtlety sells).

But sexuality does need expression lest it become exploding repression. We’ve had too many examples in recent decades of preachers and politicians – paging Jimmy Swaggart and Roy More – who’ve exhorted us to take the narrow, bramble path to God while dallying in what we might call lush gardens.

That’s why the arts are so wonderful. They’re able to channel issues of gender, sex, sexuality and eroticism in ways that meld mind, heart, body and soul. Maybe the women on line at Victoria’s Secret are looking for a bit of fantasy in their lives. Or maybe like me they’re wise to the fantasy and just looking for pops of different colors in what lies underneath.

Perhaps we should render unto Victoria’s Secret the things that belong to Victoria’s Secret. And to the office the things that belong to the workplace.

For more on Richard O. Prum’s “The Evolution of Beauty,” visit prumlab.yale.edu and look for my essay on the implications of his work for #MeToo in WAG’s February issue, online Feb. 1 at wagmag.com.