Beauty and Dis/ability

Nguyen mentions in passing that the name “Beauty Without Borders” “deliberately allud[es] to” Doctors Without Borders, the nonprofit that travels to countries in need and provides medical care for those without access. I found that this tied in quite well with our recent discussions of the medicalization of beauty. Even in countries experiencing extreme violence, poverty or suffering, the “absence” of or “inaccessability” of beauty is still seen to be a pressing issue that needs taking care of, perhaps before addressing the other aforementioned problems. In fact, Nguyen asserts that beauty “engender[s] a measure but also a medium of personhood and rights”. In other words, “beauty is a category through which (particularly, especially, feminine) bodies achieve humanness”. Beauty is associated with freedom, civilization, modernity, humanity, and, most importantly, with vitality – with valid vitality.

Conversely, then, we can surmise that ugliness (or what we perceive as ugliness) is associated with inhumanity, savagery, primitiveness, a lack of personhood, and even death or invalid existence. Nguyen cites the burqa as a common example of what “well-intentioned” Westerners see as ugliness, but she uses interesting language: the burqa “hobbles the feminine body”. Hobbling is a deliberate restriction of movement; the burqa is likened to something restrictive and potentially crippling. Wearing the burqa is, therefore, similar to having a medical disability. It prevents the body from being fully “healthy” – a word which is associated here with the “fully liberated” Western idea of beauty.

This further medicalizes beauty in this context, which brings us to an interesting junction: beauty, just like medicine, “becomes a human right through the traditional concept of dignity”. That is, the inhuman, undignified, crippled individual (who has clearly been crippled by The Evil Status Quo in her country/region/faith) has the right to reclaim her humanity through (Western) beautification. Much like the critically ill, these women must cling to their dignity; they must use beauty as medicine to restore their self-esteem – for, as we have already learned, low self-esteem is a critical ailment. To look and/or be Western is to be healthy, to be valid, to be real, and to love yourself. Ugliness and disability are the opposite of prettiness and ability.

Have you ever felt crippled for not subscribing to a Western beauty ideal, or abled by intentionally playing into it?


2 thoughts on “Beauty and Dis/ability

  1. I love that you linked the need and the right to the Western beauty imperative to medicalization of beauty. This frames beauty as not only a right but something that is needed just as much as medicine/healthcare. Existing without beauty, then, is an impairment, a deficit, an absolute shameful danger to the other. Using the word hobbling does speak to the difficulty and perils of trying to move about in a burka and produces a dis/ability. I wonder how an American prime time makeover show would shame a woman out of her burqa?
    Women that are forced to wear it under strict religious/political regimes face harsh consequences if they refuse to wear the burqa. What is outstanding to me is the idea that somehow an imperialist, Neoliberal beauty project can/will empower the women and implicitly relieve them of such social distresses. Neoliberalism at its best, if you look good on the outside and feel good on the inside then the world will be a much better place for you.
    Which brings me to the ignorance embedded in some of the American beauticians at the beauty academy of Kabul. How does entitlement and ignorance serve the purposes of a social reconstructive project for the women in Kabul? For example, the solution for domestic problems: so you have an abusive husband or a disruptive household, practice these breathing patterns and things will be fine. It is amazing the lack of knowledge about the violence the women in Kabul face.
    The practice of screaming, condemning, and shaming (e.g. how dare you leave the house without make up!) is painful to watch. Leaving the house without make-up is a social/personal impairment one that can be viewed as equivalent of not taking a detrimental prescribed medicine before leaving the home. How DARE you?!


  2. You ask the question, “Have you ever felt crippled for not subscribing to a Western beauty ideal, or abled by intentionally playing into it?”.Though I definitely subscribe to the Western beauty ideal (my parents are European, after all), I have had issues with men, specifically WASPs (white anglo-saxon protestants) and their exotization of me – even though I am white. Perhaps because I have darker, Mediterranean features, partners often refer to me as “exotic” and “sexy”. Growing up in New Jersey, there were many Italians and Greeks around. However when I got to college and started to pursue men/relationships more seriously, I realized that I was not seen as “wife material”, “wholesome”, or “the girl next door” only because of my olive skin, nose, and darker eyes. Yes, typically have WASPy partners, its just what im attracted to visually. But they don’t seem to be able to take me as seriously because I’m not the kind of girl they can bring home to mom, apparently. Even though my mom drilled the values of a kind, domesticated woman into me, like she is (and yes, they are definitely ingrained into me even though NYU constantly flips my head around haha), just because of my looks, I am seen as something to be indulged in but not something to stick around for. I have tried to play into certain looks because I like the way I am treated when I wear things like my pearl earrings, delicate watches, and act more ladylike. But maybe if I already had blonde hair and blue eyes (like I have wished for since I was about four), I could wear more edgy things and still be seen as a flaxen-haired, wholesome girl. Instead, I have to intentionally play into a more “traditional” look when I am out with a guy because I don’t want my apparent “exoticism” to make him think that I’m only something to be experienced for one night.


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