Monday, February 18, 2013

Too Brilliant to Bathe

"The Great Bath in Bath." By Steve Cadman, via Wikimedia Commons

It is well known to the point of why am I even saying this that men are under less pressure than women are to be beautiful. What is not so often mentioned is the extent to which men are rewarded for not looking beautiful. Not simply for abstaining from whichever "metrosexual" grooming endeavors or definitive challenging of gender norms (i.e. makeup), but actually looking a big ol' mess.

Which brings us to a phenomenon I've discussed on (and off) my blog that I refer to as "too brilliant to bathe." This is when a man - who may or may not be genetically endowed with square-jawed good looks, but it helps if he's not - is able to attract accolades and acolytes by being thoroughly unpresentable. One sees this in the more intellectual professions, and among students, but not so much among finance-types. It involves greasy hair, perhaps green teeth. No physical exertion. A man will own just the one shirt, it will be some mix of tucked and untucked. If a button-down, buttons will be missing, or simply missed, askew. There will be ill-fitting pleated khakis. They will be stained.

Oh, and his manners won't be so hot, either. Nor will he be any good at staying organized, but who cares? A woman - various women - will deal with the practical. Mom or a secretary will keep his papers organized, while female admirers or, if he's older, Mrs. T-B-T-B will grease the wheels in social situations, and cook and clean, and remind him once a year that it's time for his bath.

Thus, in exchange for looking his worst, a man will, under certain circumstances, be taken more seriously. It will be assumed that the time and effort he didn't put into his appearance went to something more noble. Not video games, but Being and Nothingness. (Thus the importance of worn-out slacks, not sweatpants. A subtle distinction.) Maybe he was off finding the route to Mideast peace via comments to Facebook status updates, which didn't leave him time to address a body-odor situation. Or maybe solving an as-yet-unsolved math problem got in the way of removing the remnants of yesterday's lunch still crusted onto his blazer. Something really amazing is going on in his mind, and we know this not because of anything he's produced, but because he looks the part.

There's no female equivalent to this phenomenon. A woman is taken less seriously if she shows up to present on Kierkegaard looking like a TOWIE cast member. But for a woman, there's no silver lining to not looking one's best. Equivalent grooming-laxity in a woman is associated not with brilliance but with either radical feminism (it's about making a point, not genuine absent-minded indifference) or mental illness. A woman who's especially lacking in the conventional-good-lookingness department might be imagined to have other qualities that surely compensate (the proverbial great personality), but is not generally assumed to be a genius. Our image of a brilliant woman is that of an incredibly competent one. A Hillary Clinton, a Condoleezza Rice - put-together and efficient-looking. The kind of one-in-a-million abstract-thinking mind, the sort that must almost exist without a body attached, is not one it is popularly imagined a woman could possess.

Too-brilliant-to-bathe is something I generally associate with, well, sexism. Why does a man have the option of letting himself go and then some, only to be praised for this? Why do so many intelligent and very presentable women think so little of themselves as to consider unpresentable men as romantic partners? Why does society persist in believing true brilliance is only found in men?

But too-brilliant-to-bathe isn't necessarily such a great deal for men, either. Why should men who do make an effort have to deal not only with societal suspicion (rooted in homophobia) but also a sense that they're somehow less-than intellectually? And isn't it likely that the cliché of the unwashed genius leads us to ignore a great many men who really are suffering, who don't have it together socially or professionally, but whom we figure are just fine, because some men (but no women) are just like that?

Every time I delve into questions of male vs. female beauty, the only answer I can come up with is trite but unavoidable all the same: we need to expect more, effort-wise, from men, and less from women than is currently the case. How this is to come about, I have no idea.

17 comments:

  1. This is a great point. I definitely had a few of these professors in art school!

    This made me think of Tamara Winfrey Harris's post on "white dude super detective" shows like Sherlock, The Mentalist, Monk, Castle, Perception, and I guess House would fit in there too: http://www.racialicious.com/2013/01/22/privilege-and-the-white-dude-super-detective/

    I wonder if the "absent-minded (unbathed) professor" look is really accessible even to men of color; people probably interpret them as somewhere between the nose-in-his-books brilliant guy who forgot to brush his hair, and the radical man who is making a point with non-normative non-anglo-centric grooming habits (i.e., stuck in the '70s).

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    1. This is a good point. I suppose anecdotal evidence makes me think that yes, men of color can be "too brilliant to bathe," but this might be more prevalent among white men. The childhood version of this - the boy whose misbehavior, disorganization, and perhaps general obnoxiousness is interpreted to mean that he's bored in school on account of being too brilliant for fourth grade or whatever, this is, I would guess, something said almost exclusively of middle-class white boys. So I'd say there probably is a racial angle, if not as pronounced as the gender one.

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  2. I'm personally not convinced at how relevant this criticism is. I'm a female physics undergraduate at a liberal arts university, and I've seen both physicists who care very little for their appearance who are viewed as brilliant and physicists who care very much for their appearance who are viewed as brilliant. My impression in our physics department has been that the judgement of brilliant is bestowed upon a physicist independent of his or her's attention to dress or self-care. Lack of interest in dress or self-care might be excused in a great scientist, but does not in itself attract "accolades or acolytes." And I disagree that there is no female equivalent. It's a less visible equivalent, as there are fewer females in the fields often determined to require "brilliance": physics, philosophy, mathematics, theology perhaps. But I've experienced no pressure from my peers or professors in the physics department to present myself in any particular way, and no suggestion that dressing nicer or less nice will influence whether they deem me intelligent.

    Perhaps this is unique to my very liberal school, or my specific physics program, but I think it's important to note that this stereotypical view of "too-brilliant-to-bathe" syndrome is not always a male stereotype, and at least in one community is applied to females as well. And that not bathing is not in any way assumed to indicate brilliance in all of academia, and is more frequently assumed to be independent of intellect.

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    1. This is a case where I'd be delighted to be proven wrong.

      Anyway, I think there are two things going on here. One is that in certain fields, looking put-together isn't important, only doing impressive work. Which is perhaps ideal, and not at all how most work environments operate, making those that do operate this way quite special.

      Another is that in certain fields/milieus, it is actually considered better to look like you've just rolled out of bed. In principle, both of these might operate in a gender-neutral way. In practice, in my experience, the former can, but the latter does not. A theoretically gender-neutral bias against primping is simply going to make a field seem uninviting to women, not because all women enjoy dressing up, but because dressing up is something associated with women, disproportionately found among women, etc. And all of this begins operating well before anyone is at the choosing-a major life stage.

      As for acolytes, this may just not be a thing in physics the way it is in, say, philosophy, or various humanities disciplines where men are scarce but, when present, assumed to be real intellectuals in ways that the female majority are not.

      Finally, I guess I'm a bit confused about part of your argument. You say that TBTB doesn't exist, but also that it doesn't just apply to men. Have you seen this exist for women?

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    2. This is just a nit-pick; no need to reply. I just want to point out that men still dominate philosophy, at least in Anglo-American philosophy departments. The philosophy department at NYU is considered one of the best in the country, for example. http://philosophy.fas.nyu.edu/page/Faculty

      By my count, there are 30 men and 5 women. A different philosophy department may be a little more balanced, but my experience is the field is still dominated by men. It's possible the students are tilting more towards women now, but I've never noticed, if so.

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    3. Shoot, meant to write 25 men and 5 women.

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    4. I may not have needed to, but I'll reply all the same! I did actually know this about philosophy, and thus didn't include it among the disciplines that are mostly female. It's philosophy *and* some disciplines which are mostly female.

      But now that you've brought it up, philosophy's funny in that regard - the last field that's both male-dominated and generally thought impractical. (Not that math is so practical, but there's this sense that someone who's good at math could well apply those skills to something else. With philosophy, less so.

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    5. I think in my department, the first suggestion is true, that appearance truly isn't a determining factor of brilliance, and as you point out, that's ideal. I personally love that I have joined a field where it is purely optional for me to choose to primp or not to primp. Again, perhaps it is a rare experience, but just as many of my male physics major friends enjoy primping, (designer clothes, nice haircuts, etc.) as female physics majors (designer clothes, heels in class, lipstick, etc.). And an equal number of male and female physics majors I know spend very little time on their appearance, walking around barefoot and in holey pajamas with unwashed hair. Admittedly, there are easily 10 guys to every 1 female in the department. But as far as I can tell, diversity in level of presentation exists in both genders without noticeable discrimination. So yes, to the extent that there exists some kind of awareness or acceptance that some people might be TBTB, I have also seen it applied to females. And personally, I'm glad there is acceptance for people who are TBTB, because if those types are not accepted in academia, where would they be?

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  3. I'm in math (female); I tend to agree that, in general, a person's work speaks loudly in my field. I would say there is a bit of TBTB syndrome, but mostly it's an allowance for eccentricities. So, the guy/girl who wanders in looking like a homeless person is given the chance to show what he/she can do. In math, as in physics, I imagine, it's quickly clear whether someone knows what they are talking about. Well, as long as their field is close to yours...

    I would say that I have seen, in women in mathematics, a certain amount of disdain for women who groom excessively. Elaborate makeup or clothing tends to be frowned upon. Clean, neat, and simple styles are preferred. Your work should speak for you, not your appearance.

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    1. "Your work should speak for you, not your appearance."

      That's true, but what if you're a brilliant mathematician and you enjoy wearing pink lipstick and heels? Why is it possible to overlook a shabby appearance, but not a conventionally girly one?

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  4. I think we need to be careful about criticizing people who don't conform to our ideal of "presentable". It's easy to say that *my* definition of presentable (i.e., the minimum standard of attention to one's appearance that I consider socially acceptable) is *the* definition of presentable, and anyone who doesn't meet that standard (regardless how strict or lax it actually may be) considers him or herself Too Brilliant To Bathe (or whatever pejorative you want to use). I get that you're pointing out that the TBTB is a standard that seems to apply to men but not women, but it seems to me it's the other side of the coin that says women have to pay a lot of attention to their appearance to be valued. It feels like you're devaluing someone because they don't adhere to your standard, when they appear to be perfectly happy with who they are.

    Just my opinion, of course.

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    1. I'll point you to the end of this post, where I suggest that we care less about female appearance and more about male appearance. While beauty is subjective, standards of hygiene/neatness tend to be fairly consistent in a given society, and effort in this area is evidence of goodwill. But my ideal here wouldn't be for the TBTBs to be forced against their will to bathe - if they don't wish to do so, so be it. It's for them not to be celebrated for not bathing. For there not to be this default assumption that a shabby-looking man (and fine, shabby, like everything else int his world, is subjective) is this font of brilliance. It would be an annoying assumption even if it extended to shabby-looking women, but the fact that it does not is what makes it especially so.

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    2. Yes, I understand that you'd like to see society care less about female appearance and more about male appearance, but I think that's the part that makes me uncomfortable. Who decides what level of attention to one's appearance is ideal (at which point we can apparently stop caring about it)? Why can't we stop caring about appearance all together, male or female? I'd be a lot more comfortable with what you're suggesting if it didn't involve a large segment of the population being judged by appearances more than they already are.

      I've spent my life in male-dominated fields of science, and I've never seen a bias toward people with poor personal hygiene. There may be more tolerance of them, but I think that's a far cry from celebrating them.

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    3. I'm not quite sure why this discussion has gone so much in the direction of how it goes in the sciences, because TBTB seems more an issue for philosophers, poets, or rock stars, *maybe* mathematicians, than scientists, who (and I know a great many, male and female alike) tend to bathe as much as everyone else, and are often quite sporty and particularly into wearing rags. What I do think is relevant for the sciences is a different but related issue, namely the stigmatization of a hyper-feminine self-presentation. It may not always exist, but it can, and it doesn't help draw women into the sciences.

      Anyway, as to your point re: appearance, I suppose what bothers me is when men feel entitled to look absolutely any way they please (i.e. a mess, "mess" being subjective, OK, fair enough), and yet expect conventionally nice-looking (pretty and/or well-groomed) women to appreciate them. I explained this better here than I could in a sentence or two in a comment.

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    4. Forgive me, but that makes me wonder how many engineers and chemists you've met :). I suppose we all read things through the filter of our own experience, and most of the poorly groomed men I know are engineers or scientists. I do understand what you're saying about musicians and poets, however. And although I can't speak to whether those ill-groomed artists enjoy more privilege, in that context I do see what you're saying. It seems to me that this is more of a shared romantic ideal of the brilliant, starving artist sitting in a cafe than anything else; but I have little personal experience in the art world so I can't express an opinion about that.

      I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree on this general idea, though. While I agree that as a society we're too quick to judge women by their appearance, I'd rather we work toward a society where both men and women feel entitled to look absolutely any way they please.

      Thanks for a thought-provoking conversation.

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  5. Phoebe: Ah, I see. I did not read the significance of the comma between philosophy and the other humanities disciplines. Mea culpa. I'd be curious to know if there's a difference in male domination between Anglo-American philosophy and Continental philosophy. Are philosophy departments on the Continent still dominated by men?

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