Lately when I’ve turned on the radio I keep hearing a song about a woman who doesn’t know she’s beautiful. It’s hardly the first time, and it’s hardly just pop songs that worship the oblivious beauty. It’s easy to see the appeal, to both men and women. Few women, afterall, see themselves as beautiful; the idea that maybe they could be without realizing it is incredibly enticing and basically harmless.
Looking a little deeper however, and the appeal becomes more complex. Maybe this is just me being cynical, but it seems to me that the appeal of such a woman to a man comes down to power. In our world, physical attractiveness opens doors and counts for a lot. People seen as attractive make more money and are more likely to get what they want, be it a job, a spouse, or a restaurant reservation. Certain physical traits that contribute to a conventionally attractive appearance are seen as indicative of positively valued personality characteristics; for example, slenderness is seen as indicative of self-discipline, generosity, and maturity, and blondness of playfulness, good humor, and spontenaity. Again and again, research has shown that people who are seen as beautiful are assumed to be smarter, more capable, and just better than those who are not.
This power that comes from being physically attractive is known as erotic capital (physical beauty isn’t the only characteristic that confers erotic capital: everything that contributes to a person’s sex appeal and that allows them to leverage it for gains and advantages in other areas is part of it, but physical appearance is obviously a major factor). In many ways, erotic capital functions the same way as any other form, but it is unique in one crucial aspect: it’s highly contagious. When a beautiful woman stands next to a less-than-beautiful man, his metaphoric stock rises. She is assumed to be in high demand, therefore he is assumed to be rich or famous or perhaps exceptionally talented in some socially-valued arena; in other words, to possess a lot of some other form of capitol with which he has bought access to her erotic capital. He can take advantage of that assumption, leveraging his supposed-capital toward a purpose of his choosing. This is the meaning of the phrase “arm candy.”
Whether or not a woman is aware of her beauty has no affect on her value as a status symbol. Her value in this regard rests on the assumptions of people who know little or nothing about her or her companion. Where it does make a difference is in a woman’s wielding of her own erotic capital. A woman who doesn’t know she’s beautiful doesn’t know her own power. She is likely to undervalue herself, and thus her male companion can have the best of both worlds: he doesn’t have to worry about his “arm candy” demanding equality within the relationship, but he can still enjoy her looks and the benefits of her erotic capital.
In other words, I don’t like that song.