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medussa head
figure 1  


dog. (woman) A woman who is deemed to have an unattractive face, usually by a man or men.

The term is invariably insulting and offensive. Geneva Smitherman, in Black Talk, suggests that this is originally a term from African American culture that has now crossed over.reference 1 Whatever the origin, calling someone a dog implicitly says that the woman in question is less than human because she is not “beautiful” of face. “Dogs” may be otherwise physically attractive, even exceptionally so with other supposedly desirable anatomical features such as large breasts, and still be referred to as dogs.

While “dogs,” in this sense, are most frequently described as “ugly,” it is useful to consider the meaning the antithesis of beauty.

What makes this such a loaded area is that appearance is vital to identity in contemporary society. The availability of mirrors, the growing ubiquity of personal pictures, and our capacity and propensity to view our own faces with great intimacy, giving attention to detail, makes these features significant elements in our sense of self. The fashion industry, especially the cosmetic industry, goes to great lengths to undermine women's sense of attractiveness so that they can sell them an array of products and services—up to radical elective surgery—that promise to keep them from being (or at least feeling) like dogs.



1. Smitherman, Geneva. 1994. Black Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner. Boston: Houghton MIfflin, 96.




figure 2  
In the humanities and human sciences, beauty and its binary opposite, ugliness, are concepts that most scholars have been reluctant to take up. It is rocky terrain: hard to quantify and politically fraught, especially when you add gender into the mix, as you must when talking about women as dogs. While it would be silly to deny that humans make judgments about the physical attractiveness of other humans, as evident in popular media, homilies remind us to be cautious. “Beauty is skin deep” or “in the eye of the beholder.” These perspectives are enunciated with more complexity and less transparency in the literature of post-modern and post-colonial studies; there the meanings are more nuanced, but the significance is little different. Basically the contention is that beauty (perhaps even the concept of beauty, much less its attributes) is a socially constructed quality without transcendent significance.

Indeed, some aspects of physical beauty are demonstrably relative to cultural context. The image that popular culture in the U.S. presents as the ideal of feminine beauty would have been considered gaunt and malnourished only a few years ago, when being well fed was a sign of wealth and importance. Among White people, having pale skin was deemed as more attractive a century ago, when the poor were largely field laborers who spent their days in the sun. In the latter part of the 20th century, being tanned came to be considered the more attractive look, as it became associated with leisure and as the poor became pastier from being employed in sunless conditions. Such examples suggest that when it comes to defining who is and who is not a “dog,” cultural norms do come into play. The implication that an ideal of beauty is imposed through the culture of fashion begs for an inquiry into who benefits and what power dynamics are at play.

figure 3  
Cliché as it may be, here we have to delve into the history of the oppression and domination of women. Numerous texts discuss and document the ways in which the dictates of fashion, whether foot binding or high-heels, have served to keep women subordinate and equally exposing the ways in which body idealization serves to dehumanize or denigrate women.reference 2 In his provocative text and television series, Ways of Seeing, John Berger provides a blunt if sweeping analysis of the gender dynamic when he says that “men look at women and women look at themselves being looked at.”reference 3

2. Young, Iris Marion. 1990. Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton , N.J.: Princeton University Press.

3. Berger, John. 1977. Ways of Seeing. London; New York: British Broadcasting Corporation; Penguin Books.
Beauty may be only skin deep; on the other hand, there are those who would just love to construct an empirical argument for an objective standard of facial beauty, usually based on evolutionary pressures. Even if they are reluctant to quantify the notion or suggest universal standards, evolutionary biologists do wish to define at least one aspect of beauty as an identifiable and quantifiable property: symmetry. Put succinctly, if rather opaquely, by M.A. Enquist: “... preferences for symmetry have evolved in animals because the degree of symmetry in signals indicates the signaler's quality.”reference 4 The theory is that symmetry is an indicator of general health and fitness and therefore humans have learned that facial symmetry signifies a good partner for gene dissemination. As Johnston and Franklin put it, “a beautiful female face has features and proportions indicative of high fertility.”reference 5 Therefore, some of these investigators conclude, we seek to enhance our own facial symmetry and seek mates who have it. Thus speak those who favor biological imperative and those who are seeking to identify cause and effect (a position against which Enquist cautions). One of the more interesting threads of this argument is the one that posits that “averageness” is the most attractive.reference 6 All this suggests that a dog is a woman with an asymmetrical face who is implicitly less fertile or likely to produce inferior offspring.

4. Enquist, Magnus, and Anthony Arak. 1994. Symmetry, Beauty and Evolution. Nature 372 (6502):169-172.

5. Johnston, Victor S, and Melissa Franklin. 1993. Is Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder? Ethology and Sociobiology 14 (3):183-199.

6. Johnston, Victor S. 2000. Female Facial Beauty: The Fertility Hypothesis. Pragmatics and Cognition 8 (1):107-122.
Stephen Marquard's 'Universal Beauty Mask' mathematically created from the Golden Ratio.
figure 4  
While the existence of beauty—whether socially constructed or innate—seems obvious, the quantification of the experience of and judgments about beauty is likely to remain elusive. Numerous studies purport to prove that symmetry and the golden mean describe the “universally beautiful face.”reference 7 Equally numerous are those that find the research protocols or the interpretation of results of such studies flawed.reference 8 Then there are the studies that prove that there are no universal proportions or criteria.reference 9

First, remember that in contemporary U.S. society, there is a lot of money being made by those who can appear to offer definitive answers on this subject. Most of the studies cited here are in turn cited extensively in the literature of the fields of plastic surgery and orthodontics. The categorization of a woman as a not fully human by calling her a dog is probably less significant than the implied threat that any woman's identity is at risk if she is judged a dog. She must protect herself by investing time, energy, and financial resources into avoiding this loss of status, even to the extent of undergoing surgery to achieve the features that conform to the ideal.

There is a lesson to be learned for humans by looking at dog breeding.  Unintended problems have emerged for dogs when humans have bred them for certain “desirable” facial features. Some dogs have trouble breathing.  Those dogs, which cannot use the range of facial expressions such as nose wrinkling, fang baring, ear pricking, and hackle-raising, are often at a social disadvantage with other canids.reference 10 Being unable to make these gestures, which even the dog itself recognizes as an assertion of authority, means that it is likely to be at the bottom of the heap. As more and more women have botox injected into their faces, they may be not only lowering their capacity to express emotion,reference 11 but also reinforcing an impression of subordinate status. So what's new, you might say.

7. Green, C D. 1995. All That Glitters: A Review of Psychological Research on the Aesthetics of the Golden Section. Perception 24 (8):937-68.

8. Ibid.

9. Swaddle, J P, and I C Cuthill. 1995. Asymmetry and Human Facial Attractiveness: Symmetry May Not Always Be Beautiful. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London . Biological sciences 261 (1360):111-6 and Zaidel, Dahlia W, Audrey C Chen, and Craig German. 1995. She Is Not a Beauty Even When She Smiles: Possible Evolutionary Basis for a Relationship between Facial Attractiveness and Hemispheric Specialization. Neuropsychologia 33 (5):649-655.

10. Budiansky, Stephen. 2001. The Truth About Dogs. New York : Penguin Books, 64-65.

11. Friedman, Richard A. 2002. A Peril of the Veil of Botox. New York Times, Aug 6, 5.

About the illustrations: Figure 1: Perhaps all this is about the need to neutralize the power of female attraction. The potency of this is embodied in Medusa, the Gorgon, who was so terrifying to look upon that to do so resulted in being turned to stone. Of course, terror might be as much the result of beauty as of ugliness.

Figure 2 is your cliched “BEFORE” image. Note the similarity to a mug shot. © 2008 Jupiterimages Corporation.

Figure 3 is Venus with a Mirror by Titian done in 1553-5. Venus is the ancient Roman goddess of love and beauty. The fact that these two attributes are combined reinforces the Western tradition of beauty as the object of love.

Figure 4. Stephen Marquardt, a plastic surgeon, claims to have discovered a “Universal Beauty Mask” mathematically created from the Golden Ratio.reference 12 It does not appear, however, that Dr. Marquardt has submitted his research on this subject for peer review.

12. Jones, Rafe. 2001. Doctor May Have Beauty's Number. Discovery Communications Inc. Accessed Sep 5 2001 from http:// tlc. humanface/ articles/ mask.html. More information available at:
see also: Dogs as Self and Other
bitch; dog (male)
Last updated: October 9, 2009
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