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Beauty Standards as Qualification for Opportunities in Judith Ortiz Cofer’s The Story of My Body and Elna Baker’s The American Life: Tell Me I’m Fat

Beauty Standards Versus Opportunities

The 1950s: a stylized era of beautiful, modern women with the cultural hindrances of the past. The image of a perfect housewife in the 1950s was commonly portrayed as a thin, beautiful, white woman with the sole purpose of serving the husband and the family. Her life was set by the modern American culture to be a trophy (coining the term “trophy wife”) where she would be beautiful without having any goals pertaining other than to the idealized homelife. As time progressed, so did the modern American society. The common housewife of the 1950s are no longer and women were becoming more and more ambitious in their education and their careers, but still with cultural hindrances of the past: beauty standards. This all begs the question: are women hindered in the work force based off of their beauty? Have the ideals of the past carried on from home life to work life? Beauty has always considered as a standard; but for Judith Ortiz Cofer and Elna Baker, their beauty was a qualification for opportunities in their school and their career, respectively.

In her essay “The Story of My Body”, Judith Ortiz Cofer writes about how she felt like the beauty standards, imposed as a Puerto Rican girl and as an American girl, restricted her from gaining opportunities in school. In her Catholic school in New Jersey, teachers would often choose students as leaders based off “presentability”- a sugar coated title for attractive students based off of the American beauty standard: “I came there from Puerto Rico, thinking myself a pretty girl, and found that the hierarchy for popularity was as follows: pretty white girl, pretty Jewish girl, pretty Puerto Rican girl, pretty black girl.” (Cofer, 543) The beauty standard of the American culture have been imposed on women from a young age, especially young women of color. The hierarchy that Cofer mentions is a color spectrum, signifying that girls with lighter skin will be considered to be more beautiful than girls with darker skin. White equates to beauty. Because of this race-based view on beauty, Cofer’s early life was obstructed by focusing on her appearance and whether or not she was offered possibilities based off of her outer beauty.

Men and women subconsciously accept the fabricated norm of human perfection based off of the media’s representation of beauty; Elna Baker in “This American Life: Tell Me I’m Fat” speaks about how her experience in her workplace- behind the scenes of the David Letterman Show- correlates directly with the media’s beauty standard. After she loses a considerable amount of weight, Baker obtains a job with the Letterman Show- a late night talk show in New York, broadcasting to televisions around the country. As part of her job, she finds out that the live studio audience is categorized in three groups: the dots, the generals, and the CBS2s. The beautiful people were placed in the front, when the “fat people, elderly with a visible illness, people who looked like they could be disruptive… and goths,” (Baker) would be placed in the back, far from the camera’s view. Even for two second shots, the Letterman Show is subtly setting the beauty standard to the viewers at home. From behind the scenes, this beauty ideal directly affects Baker; if she did not lose the weight, Baker would not have been offered the job position with the Letterman Show in the first place. A television show promoting the American beauty ideal to the general public would not have employed a woman who does not embody that ideal herself. If Baker was to view the show pre-weight loss, she knows that she would not put her past self in the front rows with the dots or the generals. Baker’s weight loss contributed to her paid position, but also contributed to the Letterman Show perpetuating the American beauty standard of thin beauty.

The beauty standard has withheld women in the classroom like Judith Ortiz Cofer and women in the workplace like Elna Baker. In the New York Times article The Beauty Premium: Why Good Looks Pay, researchers Markus Mobius of Harvard University and Tanya Rosenblat of Wesleyan University conducted a study to find whether or not the beauty premium (the idea that attractive people perform better in every aspect of life) exists. After creating experiments based on intellectual performance, interview performance, and resume background, the researchers “estimated that about 15 percent to 20 percent of the beauty premium is a result of the self-confidence effect, while oral and visual communication each contribute about 40 percent.” (Varian) That self-confidence must have been instilled in them prior to the experiment, correct? That’s where the beauty standard in the classroom comes in. In the Inside Higher Ed article Looks Matter, Rachel A. Gordan, professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago discussed her findings from her national study entitled Physical Attractiveness and the Accumulation of Social and Human Capital in Adolescence and Young Adulthood: Assets and Distractions, saying that “the teachers predict higher levels of intelligence and have higher expectations for the more attractive students.” Teachers from this study and teachers from the New Jersey Catholic school Cofer attended were subject to this, by providing more opportunities and therefore affecting the students’ overall self-confidence. Self-confidence will lead to better interview skills, which will eventually lead to higher paying jobs.

Beauty standards are ingrained into the American culture and seeps through various aspects of the American life. The school system expects higher marks for conventionally attractive students, but they will not give students opportunities for growth and leadership if they do not fit the beauty standard. As students graduate from school into their careers, they are faced with the same problem from all those years: less opportunities for growth and leadership if they are not pretty enough. Women are no longer 1950s pretty little housewives with nothing but idle lives. Women are growing to learn their potential, no matter their skin color or their dress size. But will the American culture catch up and leave the beauty ideals behind?

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