Is it this woman’s looks, and not her words, that will leave the deepest impression?

American poet Amanda Gorman received widespread acclaim for her performance during the Presidential Inauguration.

Patrick Semansky

American poet Amanda Gorman received widespread acclaim for her performance during the Presidential Inauguration.

OPINION: When Amanda Gorman took to the stage to recite the poem she wrote for US President Joe Biden’s inauguration, millions around the world heard and responded to the power of her words. We learned that this African American woman was the first US national youth poet laureate to be granted this opportunity. We found out also that her anxiety over a speech impediment meant she rehearsed the poem over and over in order to deliver such a sterling performance on the day.

Her bright yellow attire guaranteed her visibility, her message delivered like youthful rays of sunlight to a country torn and ravaged by the divisiveness of its history.

The 22-year-old has gone on to be offered a contract with international modelling agency, IMG Models.

Getty/Rob Carr

The 22-year-old has gone on to be offered a contract with international modelling agency, IMG Models.

So I felt momentarily thrilled when I heard Gorman had been snapped up, briefly imagining she had attracted literary recognition and was being offered an opportunity to enhance her verbal eloquence further. Silly me. The snapping up came courtesy of a fashion agency. IMG Models, which represents the likes of Kate Moss, confirmed to CNN it had signed the Harvard graduate.

My despair was instantaneous: Is it this woman’s looks, and not her words, that will leave the deepest impression? I should not be surprised. Much as we say, “girls can do anything”, women grow up knowing what they can do pales into insignificance unless they also have the ‘looks’ to go with it.

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On one level, I accept Gorman’s love of fashion means she was likely delighted by the agency’s approach, and I do not begrudge her the success. On another, I feel a deep fear for her. She is entering an industry of harsh and unrelenting standards that, beneath the veneer of glamour, conceals a raft of dangerous risks and realities.

Our fashion and beauty industries convey powerful messages regarding who’s ‘hot’ and who’s not. While it may be a relief knowing cultural practices such as foot-binding and corset-strapping are no longer mandated for those seeking marriage, today’s beauty standards are equally, if more insidiously, oppressive. Make-up is mandatory, with the global beauty industry expected to continue growing exponentially to reach or exceed US$800 billion by the year 2025. The pressure on women to look good has resulted in what sociologist and economist Juliet Shor termed “the Lipstick Effect”, a theory suggesting that even in times of economic hardship women will maintain or increase their expenditure on cosmetics for the emotional lift these convey.

This prompts in turn the question of why women gain an “emotional lift” from covering their natural complexions with tubes and pottles of expensive chemicals or, in this eco-age, more sustainable alternatives.

Gorman speaking onstage during the Prada "Shaping a Sustainable Future Society" conference in New York in 2019.

Jared Siskin

Gorman speaking onstage during the Prada “Shaping a Sustainable Future Society” conference in New York in 2019.

The trend does not only derive from the concerted marketing of cosmetics evident in consumer societies under capitalism. The legendary beauty of Cleopatra inspired Egyptian women to apply such substances as painting their eyelids with malachite and use pounded ants’ eggs to etch around their eyes. They kept their make-up in special boxes they stored under their chairs at parties, a precursor to the more recent ‘powder rooms’ designed for women to retouch their lipstick and make-up.

One outcome arising from women having been trained for centuries to believe they cannot look good, or even acceptable, without make-up is the lack of confidence commonly felt when ‘caught out’ without it. I recall a friend back in the 1980s disclosing the absurdly early hour she would creep in and out of bed to ‘paint her face’ in order to look good when her partner awoke.

This century the pressure has intensified, with cosmetic surgery emerging as one of the fastest-growing industries. Once viewed as necessary only for Hollywood actors and fashion models, today surgical shaping is being sought by increasing numbers of girls and women worldwide, while the

normatively attractive female body is still depicted as one that is thin.

When Naomi Wolf wrote The Beauty Myth in 1991, some hoped it would help pave the way for a new dawn to emerge in which women’s achievements counted for more than their looks, and they would be freed to focus on who they were rather than how they looked. Today, 20 years into the 21st century, we have yet to stand in the light of such freedom.

To quote from Amanda Gorman’s poem: “When the day comes we step out of the shade aflame and unafraid, the new dawn blooms as we free it, for there is always light if only we’re brave enough to see it, if only we’re brave enough to be it.”

  • Dr Jan Jordan is an adjunct professor in criminology at Te Herenga Waka–Victoria University of Wellington.