Punished for Being Pretty

One of the things I love most about Instagram is not the beautiful images you see of lives well-lived, well-traveled and well-considered, it’s the motivational sayings that proliferate the platform. In fact, my own posts are composed of more phrases than pictures.

Model Naomi Campbell posted one this week that I wish I could share. It’s too long to relay here in its entirety, but this bit struck a chord with me: “You can’t do anything without being labeled … We live in a society where people can’t survive if they’re not judging the next person.”

You may have read about 17-year-old Sabina Altynbekova, the volleyball player from Kazakhstan who’s so pretty her position competing for her country in the Asian Under-19 Volleyball Championship is in jeopardy because of pervasive and insistent media attention about her looks. The girl is beautiful, no doubt about it. But it’s really sad that her desire to play volleyball has been threatened through no fault of her own.

Women and minorities in particular often have to tangle with this issue. People should be able to exist in their natural state and perform without incident. That goes for hair, skin color, body parts, whatever. It’s about respect. At the end of the day, Sabina is a person, a volleyball player and a competitor, not just a face.

Society’s vampiric attraction to youth and beauty and very specific iterations therein is partly responsible for this type of abuse — and I do consider the attention Sabina is facing a form of abuse. She’s openly stated that she just wants to play volleyball, and others’ actions prohibit this — but the workforce has to take responsibility for some of the appearance-related crap women and minorities face in the workplace.

I’ve blogged way too much about hair-related issues, for instance. This hair grows out of my head. I don’t feel there is anything to say about it. But occasionally I have to defend my curls’ right to exist in their natural state.

I often run into stories in the media about some poor woman being persecuted on a job because she’s “too beautiful,” thus a distraction for the horny toads she has the misfortune to work with or for. These stories always seem to end with the woman being fired, and everyone is offended and up in arms about it. But is that a satisfactory resolution?

Should someone’s looks be allowed to be an issue in matters of work performance? No. There are specific instances and industries where looks matter — fashion, for instance, or advertising. But even the aforementioned industries are loosening their grip on unrealistic expectations about “classic” beauty and opening the doors to diversity and acceptance for the mélange of looks that make up our world.

Thinking of Sabina, any woman, minority, or whomever, should be able to exist and work and do their thing without being importuned by this kind of negative attention. Beauty can be appreciated without harm. Diversity executives and other leaders have to make sure managers know this and act accordingly. If someone on a job can’t handle it, that individual needs to be dealt with; the beautiful, sexy or whatever person should not be penalized because of his or her looks.

Sabina is probably too young to appreciate the power she has unwittingly been handed, but I hope she figures it out quickly, takes gross financial advantage and then goes on a global campaign talking about how beauty — almost — ruined my life. All while looking fabulous, of course.