Jordan Peterson Still Doesn’t Understand the Business of Beauty

You walk into a bakery, and in the front display case you see a piping hot batch of chocolate chip cookies. But just as you whip out your wallet to purchase a few, the shop’s owner emerges from the kitchen with a fresh plate of peanut butter cookies and places it right next to the chocolate chip cookies. So now the two equally impressive plates are sitting side by side, displayed in equally prominent positions, and placed in equally plain view of the growing line of customers at the counter.

What are we to make of the owner’s decision to not only put both batches of cookies in the display case, but to place them right next to each other? Is this some sort of statement on equality? Is the owner trying to subtly suggest that peanut butter cookies are just as tasty as chocolate chip cookies? Is she trying to shame you into liking peanut butter cookies? If you say you prefer the chocolate chip cookies, will she call you a bigot? Will she go on Twitter and start complaining about that horrible customer who came into her bakery today and openly discriminated against the sweet and tasty peanut butter cookies she had spent all morning preparing?

The answer to each and every one of those questions is, of course, no.

The owner isn’t making any statements at all by offering two different types of cookies. She’s just being a smart businessperson. She knows that when it comes to cookies, different people have different preferences. Many people do prefer chocolate chip cookies over peanut butter cookies, but some people actually prefer the latter over the former.

Then there’s the customer who prefers to mix things up. They might come in for the chocolate chip cookies on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, but then opt for the peanut butter cookies on Thursdays and Fridays.

The point is, to broaden her bakery’s appeal and attract as many customers as she can, the baker needs to make sure she has a sufficiently diverse array of cookies to sell. Were she to insist on only offering one specific type of cookie, she would almost certainly alienate countless potential customers who prefer other types of cookies. That’s not good business.

When Sports Illustrated named plus-sized model Yumi Nu one of the four cover models for its annual swimsuit edition, it was following the same logic as our hypothetical baker. In an effort to broaden its appeal and make itself more profitable, the magazine chose to reach out to an underserved market of consumers who just so happen to find women like Nu very attractive.

Unfortunately, Doctor Jordan Peterson was none too happy about that.

In a recent interview with his daughter Mikhaila, Dr. Peterson took some time to elaborate on his opinion that Yumi Nu is not beautiful and didn’t deserve the honor of appearing on SI’s cover. He noted that SI’s swimsuit edition found success by emphasizing a very narrow, very specific conception of the ideal female body. He described that body type as a symmetrical, extremely athletic body that features an appropriate waist to hip ratio and is “shapely in a very particular way.”

Peterson seems to assume that because SI did well for itself by featuring that particular body type on its swimsuit covers for years, it ought to simply stick to that formula in perpetuity. What he doesn’t acknowledge, however, is that by featuring only that idealized body type, SI was limiting its appeal by ignoring consumers who are attracted to other body types. And to be clear, those people do very much exist.

Nevertheless, Peterson doesn’t approve of SI’s decision to chase after those potential customers by featuring Nu on its swimsuit edition cover. He lamented that SI was engaging in a “cheap manipulation of something that had been working very well” for the magazine. He also insisted that it is guilty of exploiting Yumi Nu, arguing that the decision constitutes a “manipulation of that young woman.”

“Now she partakes in that because she participates in it,” he elaborates. “But it’s still — they’re not on her side. They’re exploiting her, as far as I’m concerned, and she may be participating in that exploitation, but they’re still exploiting her. So don’t pull any moral stunts on me because you’re irritated about my opinion about the Sports Illustrated cover when it’s bloody clear to anybody with eyes that that was manipulative in twenty different ways.”

To be fair, on that particular point, Peterson is correct insofar as the exploitative nature of the business is concerned. Publishers have long exploited attractive people for the purpose of selling more magazines — but that’s how the industry has always been. So if Peterson has such a big problem with that, why did he wait until now to voice his objection?

Because, in his view, SI isn’t just guilty of manipulating Yumi Nu or its own audience; it’s also guilty of promoting an unhealthy body type that shouldn’t be promoted. For a multitude of reasons, however, that’s a very tough position for him to defend.

Firstly, the onus is on Peterson to prove that putting plus-sized models like Nu on magazine covers presents a measurable social risk. But as far as I am aware, no such evidence yet exists. I suspect that’s because the vast majority of people understand that it’s objectively healthier to be a normal weight than it is to be overweight, and Yumi Nu’s success as a plus-sized model is unlikely to change their minds about that.

Furthermore, three out of the four cover models SI chose for its swimsuit edition — Kim Kardashian, Ciara, and Maye Musk — are clearly not plus-sized women, which speaks to the fact that SI isn’t trying to promote Nu’s body type as the one and only ideal body type for women. It’s simply acknowledging that some people are attracted to her body type and are seeking to profit from that attraction.

That being said, Peterson is absolutely entitled to find Yumi Nu unattractive. He’s also self-evidently correct that her body type isn’t universally regarded as conventionally beautiful. But that brings us back to the point about preferences. Sports Illustrated isn’t in the business of either redefining or legitimizing traditional standards of beauty. It’s in the business of selling magazines. And if it wants to sell more magazines, it needs to cater to the preferences of the consumers it’s courting. The decision to put Yumi Nu on its cover was a means to that end, an effort to connect with people who do, in fact, find plus-sized women like her very attractive. Peterson doesn’t get this because he sees beauty as something to be measured objectively rather than subjectively — and he’s wrong about that.

Is it true that there’s a greater demand for conventionally attractive models like Kim Kardashian than there is for plus-sized models like Yumi Nu? Yes, of course it’s true! But the widespread demand for conventionally attractive models does not imply an absence of demand for plus-sized models. Just as there are some people who prefer peanut butter cookies to chocolate chip cookies, there are indeed some people who prefer plus-sized models to their skinnier counterparts. And just as there are some people who enjoy both peanut butter cookies and chocolate chip cookies, there are some people who are attracted to both plus-sized body types and conventional body types.

Jordan Peterson should just accept that. He should accept that perceptions of beauty vary from one person to the next, that there is indeed a market for plus-sized body types, and that it only makes sense for magazines like SI to try to establish a relationship with that market.

In other words, he should just let people like what they like and leave it at that.

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D.A. Kirk

D.A. Kirk

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Outer space enthusiast. Japanese history junkie. I write about politics, culture, and mental illness. Disagreement is a precursor to progress.