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Ethical conundrum of beauty and gender-norm biases

How deep do biases go?

For some, they are so ingrained in our collective society and culture, we don’t even realize we are falling into behavior patterns that conform to those ‘rules’.

“My wife and I have a photography business. Last weekend was our first family portrait session featuring a 6 year old boy and a 14 year old girl.

As I was doing post work in Lightroom, I found myself automatically touching up the image of the girl – spot removal on several blemishes, softening skin, adding lip gloss.

Then I thought, why am I doing this for just the girl?

Then came the flood of justification. To get the best possible picture. She would want the changes. Her mother would want the changes… But I didn’t ask her or her parents, I just assumed.

The HR professional in me kicked in and I asked myself – Had I just been manipulated by the societal standards/cultural expectations of what a female should look like? And in doing so, am I validating these expectations?”

Wayne, HR leader, gender equity advocate, and photographer told me this story as he grappled with the ethical conundrum he had stumbled into. This was one example of his larger exploration of photography ethics, but it really stuck with me.

“Character” or flaw?

Last year my daughter (then 8 years old) got a cut on her cheek just under her eye. It was no big deal – she was fine. But the cut was deep enough that it required a butterfly bandage (an alternative to stitches). When the bandage was removed, the male doctor told us to use special bandages for six months to avoid scaring.

“If your kid was a boy, I would say let it be, a scar will give him character. But since she’s a girl, you should use these. You don’t want a scar to mess up her prom pictures.”

I was furious at this blatant sexist statement. And yet… we used the special bandages for six months. We were afraid our daughter would become self-conscious if she had a scar on her cheek.

Had I just conformed to and therefore validated the gender norms that I work so hard to dissipate?

The gender norm trap

The societal gender norms that dictate things like what it is to be beautiful, smart, strong, normal, etc., are so heavily ingrained, they have become our ‘Matrix’.

Even if we don’t prescribe to them or want to feed them, what about when we are making choices for others who are trapped within those same social norms?

Should we have let my daughter’s cheek scar because it ‘shouldn’t matter’ when society says it does?

Should Wayne refrain from touching up the girl’s image when society judges flaws on women so harshly?

There is a middle ground – small steps that progress us forward knowing we are still within an existing and deeply ingrained gender construct. Gender equity in the approach.

“Character” and flaws for all

Rather than assume based on gender – ask. Offer the options to everyone and let them make the choice. Whether it’s touching up images, covering up scars, selecting styles, or any other number of daily actions, when the choices is ours, than we get to choose which rules work for us and which do not.

For Wayne, rather than touching up only the girl’s image, he considered the more equitable options. Either he would touch up the boy’s image as well, or he would ask the parents and children what they wanted for both images.

As for my daughter, she likes the small scar that’s just visible below her eye – it gives her ‘character’.



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