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I Learned the Truth at Seventeen

Marla is a Utah native and a professional writer and editor. She is just weeks away (fingers crossed) from completing a master’s degree in English. She loves running, biking, reading, writing, and lurking on the Segullah blog. She blogs at mindofmarla.blogspot.com.

I went to the Victorian exhibit at the BYU Museum of Art a few weeks ago and couldn’t take my eyes off one of the paintings (click to enlarge):
What you’re seeing is unmarried, dowry-less women being auctioned off to the highest bidders in an ancient Babylonian market. The women have been lined up according to their beauty—the most beautiful woman is standing on the platform; the least beautiful sits on on the far right. According to Herodotus, whose writings on the market inspired the painting, the money earned from the purchases of the beautiful women was used to pay men to take the least beautiful women home. Examining the figures and their interactions in this masterpiece is like watching a movie—from the faces and gestures of the men in the crowd to the reactions of the women at being put in the order they were, there’s a wide variety of attitudes and thought processes happening here. That the painting is the size of an entire wall made it easy to live in the scene for a minute or two, asking myself (as a coincidentally unmarried, dowry-less woman) what it would feel like to be placed somewhere in that line. I saw a little of myself, at one point in my life or another, in each woman.

As I took it all in, I wondered if the artist painted this ancient scene to provide a commentary on his 19th-century day, and if that commentary, now that it’s been over 100 years since Edwin Long made it, is still relevant. My initial reaction was no, it probably isn’t, because hello—it’s 2010: women aren’t sold, auctioned, or ordered by how they look, right?

Right?

And then I thought back to that wonderful period of my life called high school, where everyone was handed a ballot to vote one girl out of all the girls “queen” of homecoming. No criteria were set forth—we all voted on the premise (one we most likely gleaned from TV and movies) that the homecoming queen should be the prettiest and most liked among us. And then we were all asked to crowd in front of a stage and clap while the winner, wearing a ball gown, was crowned.

I also thought of a blog post written by a group of young single LDS men someone showed me that painstakingly details the breakdown of their “Looks Only Scale,” which they use to rank a woman’s attractiveness on a scale from 1 (“seriously deformed”) to 10 (“even Super models, centerfolds, and movie stars on their best days struggle to achieve this rating”). The comments below the post are filled with girls asking to be rated according to the scale—the guys willingly oblige, later posting these girls’ photos and their accompanying scores.

Finally, I thought about how on some collaborative creative projects I’ve worked on, it’s the most attractive women on the team who are plucked out to be models in photoshoots and designs, a fact painfully evident to the women not chosen.

So yeah, I’d say that Babylonian auction block, even though it’s become figurative and not necessarily tied to marriage, is still being used.

And in case you think the auction block of present day is reserved strictly for women, check out ABC’s new show Conveyor Belt of Love, in which five women each chose a partner from among the guys rolling by them on, yes, a conveyor belt.

This isn’t a bitter rant. I realize that sometimes things just are the way they are—we like the people on our movie and television screens and in our magazines and advertisements, not to mention our significant others, to be attractive, and naturally there’s going to be an evaluation and selection process that takes place there. But looks are just part of any package, so when physical appearance becomes the sole factor in determining value, something’s wrong. I’m just asking the same question Edwin Long might have been asking with this work of art: Why is it, after 2,500 years, that we’re still making visits to the Babylonian Marriage Market?

25 thoughts on “I Learned the Truth at Seventeen”

  1. I have no idea, especially as the physical aspect of a person is so temporal and subject to change. But I will say this, every time I see a wedding announcement or attend a reception in which one or both of the partnership is, shall I say, closer to the 1 end of the scale than the 10, it gives me hope. Every time I see a "not perfect" couple together who seem really into each other, it warms my heart.

    As for the people in mags and ads, I often find myself forgetting how fake they are. But yesterday a beautiful friend of mine was wondering who her doppelganger might be and a few of us submitted some suggestions. She replied, "Only with a lot of airbrushing." That stopped me short. I know her IRL. She does not need airbrushing and she's very photogenic, but I'm quite sure the celeb pics we sent to her had been significantly modified. We all buy into the lie.

    Finally the above-mentioned beautiful friend is also married to a wonderful man, they are both beautiful people and that warms my heart too. I guess it doesn't matter what anyone looks like. Wen I see respect, caring and thoughtfulness in any relationship–regardless of the physical appearance of the couple–it gives me hope.

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  2. The equal rights movement in the '70s opened up a lot of education and career opportunities for women. Yet 30 years later, women are judged on appearance more than ever. Clingy fabrics, even for business apparel, make breast enhancement almost mandatory for contemporary American women. Yes, we have more job options, but face and figure play a significant role in career competition as well as in the marriage market.

    Maybe the Muslims have a point that it is our women who are in bondage–slaves to the need to exude youth and sex appeal at all cost.

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  3. I was just reading in "People" magazine (I'm not proud) about how Heidi Montag is surprised and hurt that her mother didn't approve of her 10 plastic surgeries. Can't imagine why her mother would be less than thrilled. Said Heidi, "I wanted to be the most beautiful, inside and out. It's part of being a pop star." Interestingly, the name of Heidi's recently released album is "Superficial." Lol.

    I don't want to start a tangent about plastic surgery (although it might get you 100 comments, Marla), but I think the Heidi Montag plastic surgery debacle, though an extreme example, is telling. Like Course Correction said, although we as women have come a long way in the last thirty years, our society's shallow emphasis on outward appearance seems to be stronger than ever.

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  4. Course Correction, you remind me of the model flap about airbrushing that so clearly points out the insanity that our world has become. You can read about it here.

    I’m just a plain jane, and it seems to matter less and less as we progress in our lives. But it felt like the most important part of my identity when I was single, and I remember that pain of being regular. I don’t know if it will ever go away. I don’t see any clear path for it ending. It’s not entirely one gender’s fault, as I think women have, unlike the painting, chosen to debase themselves for attention.

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  5. People like to talk about how its good and natural to be attracted to a potential or current significant other – and I agree. You need that spark, that joy in the others physical self.

    What continually creeps me out is that I think we are stealing that joy from ourselves. There is this one narrow type of body which gets pushed as the ideal, and in so doing we train ourselves to ignore everything else that is also good, or maybe even best for us. We don't look at what is attractive to us, or at who we really want to be. I hate the homogenization and dishonesty about ourselves in it all. And I hate to think about what we're missing out on.

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  6. Ouch! I have to admit that after 58 years I am only now starting to feel comfortable in my skin. Though I have a husband that has told me I am pretty throughout our marriage, I seem to pay more attention to the measuring stick of the world. I have to admit that being in my 50's as liberated me. I feel that I have become prettier on the inside and thus I find I do the best with the outside and I'm okay. Great article. Something that the YW of the church need help with.

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  7. Melissa M, Dr. Paul Farmer and his associates call People Magazine "The Journal of Popular Studies." Don't be ashamed either.
    And yep, that painting will make a feminist out of most people. We have a problem with determining a woman's value by superficial criteria. By "we" I would normally have meant "our society" or "modern culture" but the painting shows well that it's probably ingrained in human nature since it was common not only 100 years ago, but in ancient times.
    Last night I watched on tv a reality show (Documentary of "Popular Studies"?) of little girls competing in glamour pageants. There were a bunch of women in the house, and we watched it in horror, like one would watch a train wreck. We couldn't think of a worse way to train a child.
    I don't have any illusions about fighting it or changing it. Reality will do that for most people in it's own good time. I'm in my 50's now, and youthful attractiveness (sex appeal? hmmm, what label to use…) is not a lasting "quality" that gets better with age.
    But that painting is wonderful! I never imagined that lust could be expressed so individually by different men. I want to see this show, but I have no plans to be in Utah Valley at all. If it's even still up. Interesting that they call it Victorian Art. This is a fine example of academic painting style, which has been undervalued for most of this century due to our culture's love affair with modern art. Now, the lack of respect for salon art is something I could get on a rant about. (wiki/google Art Renewal Center)

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  8. That Babylonian marriage market is quite a concept. I had never heard about it before. Selling the beautiful women and then using the proceeds to pay men to take the less beautiful ones–what a fascinating concept! Reminds me a little bit of levirate marriage, which was similarly an attempt to care for women in an ancient society that lacked a public safety net for unmarried women.

    I saw that conveyor belt show, and it was really interesting to see which men the women picked and why.

    Justine no. 4, I thought of that story you link to recently. There is a new movie coming out starring Jennifer Aniston and that actor that was in 300 (Gerard Butler, I think his name is), where he's a bounty hunter and he has to take her–his ex-girlfriend–in. The poster showed a Jen that looked completely unnaterual; her waist had been airbrushed to ridiculous proportions. I don't think her intestines could actually fit in such a space. I think the actress is beautiful, but not that picture. The airbrush artists seem to have lost perspective in making their subjects so skinny they're not even appealing anymore.

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  9. This Friday our branch is showing Johnny Lingo just in time for Valentine’s weekend.
    Whenever I hear the line, “This could not happen to my Mahana.”
    My heart swells because I am reminded of the admiration of my husband and the love of my Father that I contain.
    But my heart also breaks because not every woman is aware she is deserving of that devotion. I know because I didn’t always think I did.
    When I went through the temple for my endowments, the matron told me that if only the women of the world knew a hint of the teachings of the temple, they would be lined up outside the doors because they would come to understand their true potential and worth.
    And I agree with that, although as a LDS women sometimes I still struggle with my self image, I am able to cope with my cup size because I know there’s a bigger picture.
    On another note, I’ve said it before in many situations to different people and I’ll say it again:
    I feel the most beautiful when I am in the temple, wearing meaningful apparel.

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  10. Fascinating painting and great topic, Marla. I can't help but feel a morbid curiosity to see this blog post you speak of. Do you have the link?

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  11. I think it's interesting to note that the "uglier" girls are the more ethnic looking. It's amazing how beauty has been such a valued commodity in every age and civilization.

    I'm just glad that as I get older the prettier people from my teenage years have age catching up with them. I feel like I'm finally hitting my stride, physically. I may have been plain, zitty and awkward as a teenager, but now I look pretty good compared with everyone else. Suh-weet!

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  12. I'm wondering why the three women almost at the far right of the line are smiling? Like the whole process is something ridiculous and they know the pretty girls will have the worst of things when the sale is over? Those smiling three look like survivors. They know life isn't fair but they know how to live in spite of it. Do the pretty ones know how to cook? to clean? to care for children? Will the men who buy them find them worth the price they paid in 5 years, 10 years, 20 years? Or will the men keep buying the next new woman that comes along?
    I'm glad I'm not up on that pedestal

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  13. I liked reading about this. I feel it all the time in my life. Yep, I was born completely ordinary. I happened to marry an extraordinarily handsome man with gorgeous sisters. Some of their experiences crack me up…and I admit, have made me a little jealous.

    I'm glad you're talking about it here. 🙂

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  14. I was just thinking today during church that I can't wait to see my spirit, because I'm sure she is absolutely beautiful.

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  15. All in the women in the painting look so beautiful to me. I don't believe anyone is born ordinary–in appearance or talents. When we begin to see the true beauty in ourselves and others, we will experience more peace and contentment.

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  16. My husband said he "didn't want to be married to [me] anymore", and moved in with someone younger, thinner and more acceptable-norm pretty than I am. A big lesson I learnt from that is pretty on the outside can hide a whole lot of ugly. And beauty on the inside shines to the outside.

    Oddly, I almost instantaneously distrust traditionally beautiful people, and have since my teens. I guess I won't be at the Babylonian Marriage Market any time soon!

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  17. I spoke briefly to our singles ward last Sunday, and this is one of the issues that came to my mind. I wasn't sure how to present the concept tactfully, so I wrote the following poem:

    How to Date Your Spiritual Mate
    ©2010 Susan Noyes Anderson

    I hope you’ll listen to my take
    on how to find a mate.
    My vision is unique and wise.
    My counsel is first-rate.

    I know what works and what does not.
    I know what’s tried and true.
    (And if you don’t believe me, look
    at who I’m married to!)

    And so, with that strong evidence
    of my own expertise,
    I’ll tell you how to find a mate
    that’s guaranteed to please.

    But first, I think that I’ll begin
    with this: What NOT to do.
    Or maybe I should say what not
    to pay attention to.

    Some people look with worldly eyes
    to find their perfect match.
    Not good! This method just might make
    you miss out on a catch!

    The worldly eye’s a stink-eye;
    it’s obsessed with imperfections.
    From head to toe and back, it scouts out
    reasons for rejections.

    That dude’s not hot enough for you…
    That chick’s too short, too tall.
    That guy’s too round, too dark, too pale,
    too big, too bald, too small.

    That girl’s too freckle-faced, too white,
    too tan, too thin, too plump.
    And what’s that on her face…a mole?!
    Does her nose have…a bump?!

    His jaw’s too strong; his jaw’s too weak;
    his chin could use a cleft.
    And look at her…I think her right eye’s
    bigger than her left!

    His mouth’s too wide; his lips get chapped;
    his cheeks are way too red.
    I couldn’t date him. Look, a vein
    sticks out in his forehead!

    Is that a beauty mark or zit?
    Hey, this could be genetic!
    Why couldn’t she have dimples?
    Is her hair kinda…frenetic?

    I kid you not! That worldly eye
    is way too harsh. It’s true!
    If you could turn it on yourself,
    that eye would rule out YOU!!

    So think about consulting with
    your spirit eyes instead.
    Look for your spirit mate when you’re
    deciding who to wed.

    You’ll recognize this spirit mate,
    but not by how he looks.
    You likely won’t hear magic bells
    or swoon, like story books.

    You may not turn first hot, then cold,
    then lose your power to speak.
    You may not even float on clouds,
    faint dead away, or shriek.

    What you will do is find a friend,
    who finds a friend in you.
    You’ll talk a lot and share a lot.
    You’ll like his point of view.

    Your goals will be as similar
    as the beliefs you hold.
    With her, you’ll neither be too shy
    nor need to be too bold.

    You’ll feel at home in your own skin,
    not one-down or one-up.
    You’ll want to make him happy, and
    he’ll want to fill your cup.

    You’ll find yourself more generous,
    less governed by your pride.
    You’ll listen more, feel more respect,
    and lose your selfish side.

    You’ll notice that, together, you
    are better than apart.
    You’ll trust each other with your dreams
    and later, with your heart.

    Don’t give that heart away too soon;
    trust ought to take some time.
    You need to see how this gal works.
    Do mountains make her climb?…

    Or sit down and give up, or
    run away, or lean on you?
    You’ll make sure she’s committed
    to her faith and to you, too.

    (Not the band, the person, meaning
    You, too, not U2.)
    The thing is, just be sure she’ll hang.
    Make sure he’s tried and true.

    You’ll find in him a listener
    who cares just how you feel.
    You’ll watch him serving others, and
    you’ll know his love is real.

    You’ll make sure that your backgrounds gel
    on things that really count.
    Like how to raise a family…
    How to use your bank account.

    You’ll understand each other, and
    accept the things you see.
    You won’t expect her to be more
    than you’re willing to be.

    And yet you’ll want to be your best…
    Hey, why not start that now?
    What better way could you prepare
    to take a solemn vow?

    The person you attract is bound
    to be a lot like you.
    So strive to be more faithful, kind,
    wise, fun, and healthy, too!

    Sure, make yourself desirable
    in every way you can;
    it's only going to help you find
    that woman or that man.

    But seek your spirit mate; don’t
    trophy date, because the prize
    is someone you can only see
    through your spiritual eyes.

    Good looks are fun, but fleeting…
    like tinsel on a tree.
    But goodness lasts forever.
    Choose well, for eternity.

    Thankfully, it went over well. I even stuck it on my blog, hoping my son will read it!

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  18. Thanks for posting this! I loved that they included this piece in that exhibit because of the conversation it generates, and it's nice to see that conversation continuing even now that the exhibit is over.

    It's things like these that make me so grateful for the gospel. I've found that as I have gotten closer to my Heavenly Father, He has taught me who I really am. And some days I still struggle with the voices of the world criticizing me, but it is then that the sweet voice of the Spirit whispers, "God is pleased with who you are, so nothing else matters."

    I guess it just goes to show that the world hasn't changed that much, and the love of Jesus Christ is really the only power that can help us overcome the adversary's unceasing attacks. Thank goodness for the gospel in our lives!

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  19. JenSwen: The blog I referenced is mormonbachelorpad.blogspot.com. You can find a link to their "Looks Only Scale" on the left panel. I only wonder, Is that blog for real?

    Moniker Challenged: The exhibit left BYU last October.

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  20. Sorry to get too off topic. But, I browsed around for a few minutes, and that website (mormonbachelorpad) is seriously disturbing. The sick and sad thing is that those men honestly believe they represent most other single-LDS men. It is sad to think that they think every other man in their demographic is as shallow and masochistic. Feel sorry for their girlfriends.

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  21. It may be "the truth", but it only is if you believe it. I know women in their teens, twenties, all the way up to their middle agedness who, for whatever reason, have been able to ignore the popular meat-market culture, feel fine about their non-prom-queen selves, and avoid falling into all the second-guessing, second-class citizen traps. They think the mormonbachelorpad guys are looneys and ignore the fashion magazines and are fine with their shape and the color of their hair (though none of them like their zits). They don't mind at all that they are not the ones in the photo shoots, though they do appreciate the work that goes into the good looks of those who are.

    To those women, the "truth" may be going on all around them but they are not buying it. They know otherwise.

    How to we help the women who don't know what these wise women know? What are the factors that we can control in our own lives so that we are also free to not buy this "truth"?

    The "Babylonian marriage market" causes way too much needless angst, bitterness and rage among too many women. That market continue in some aspects of our society, in spite of our best efforts to eradicate it. So the question I would pose is not, how do you change it, but how do you facilitate complete disregard for it among the women and men you love?

    It can be done. Let's get specific.

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  22. Indeed the Babylonian seller block is going on today, although we're more subtle. I survived the singles wards, and after 12 years, I finally learned what "FP" stood for. My guy friend was dating a beautiful young girl and admitted to me that he was shallow and worried about her "FP" because her mother and older sister were heavy. "What's FP?" I asked. "Fat Potential." Excuse me!? He was reluctant to progress the relationship b/c her family had heavy tendencies. It was alarming to hear that acronymn from other guys after that. It broke my heart to think that some men look only at surface beauty and can't appreciate deeper levels of beauty from the Lord's standards.

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