Thursday, May 17, 2007

Beauty Will Out

Having evidently satisfactorily addressed all the country’s other problems, the Iranian government has turned to cracking down on women in “bad hijab,” women's head coverings that show a little bit too much. That this particular government makes the effort is unsurprising, but it is doomed to failure just the same.

The human drive to beauty is one of our most powerful. We want to look good not just due to social pressure (though that is important) but because it is an innate desire. And “beautiful” need not connote a particular conception of beauty – an Armani suit on a man or stylishly long hair, for example. It simply requires an effort to dress in a way that leaves a favorable impression in one’s own mind on others. From the point of view of the wearer, a ratty pair of jeans or a ripped T-shirt may be beautiful. (I wonder these days whether tattoos can be beautiful under any conception of beauty, but their popularity suggests that evidently they can be.) Even in sartorially totalitarian Iran, the young rebel as best they can – by showing a little more hair, wearing makeup a little more confidently, etc. (Note in the article linked above that men too are subject to Islamic dress restrictions, and they too don’t much like it.)

The effort to throw every Iranian women into a nondescript, non-expressive, color-free, identical garment so as to drive out every hint of sexual excitement in Iranian men is doomed to fail, like Chairman Mao’s drab eponymous suits before it. Not just because Iranian men will invariably find something to look at and admire no matter the dress code, but because Iranian women will inevitably find ways of distinguishing their appearance; this is what humans do.

In her recent book The Substance of Style, Virginia Postrel explains how expanding markets are giving us more opportunity to remake ourselves according to the imperatives of beauty we all have (by wearing a really good-looking suit, for example). Technological improvements in plastic surgery, chemicals applied to the skin to give it a youthful appearance, more interesting clothing and a host of other innovations are giving people more chances to look better, and we are taking them. This is not something to be condemned as artificial, superficial or objectifying, but as value-enhancing like most anything else that satisfies us. Elsewhere Ms Postrel notes that there is a basic constraint all beauty-seekers must cope with, the universal idea of the beautiful body, which is apparently similar in terms of facial features, body shape, etc., across a wide variety of cultures. But the technology allows us to more closely approximate this ideal, even as we can more easily experiment with temporary fashions to further distinguish ourselves, paradoxically, by trying to look like something else. Any ideology that works against this basic instinct – whether it’s the worker’s paradise, militant religion imposed on non-militant people, dreary feminism or anything else – will in the long run be a poor fit for humanity, and will at least for that reason be rejected.


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