I'll confess: I'm taking the January cover story of Pittsburgh magazine -- which supposedly identifies the city's "25 Most Beautiful People" -- personally.
It's not because I'm not on the list, or because exploiting the human physique is City Paper's niche, especially in our last dozen pages. (What's next? A feature in Whirl magazine about "fully functional" transvestite massage?) It's not even because this whole "list" is just a cheap excuse to get hot people in the magazine's pages.
No, what bugs me most is that the magazine pretends to have nobler aspirations than that.
"What makes a person beautiful?" asks a press release announcing the new issue. Publisher/editor Betsy Benson asserts her staff has "been mulling over that question for months now" which has "made our editorial meetings more philosophical."
No doubt staffers dutifully read Plato and Kant before assembling the whopping 22-page spread of hometown hotties -- almost all of whom get a full-page, full-color photograph each, accompanied by breathless text about how they're good people too. So what profound insights about beauty has the magazine discovered?
For starters, models are better-looking than the rest of us. Five winners are professional models; a handful of others are TV personalities or stage performers. The under-40 set dominates the list, because as everyone knows, old people are ugly.
I've got nothing against the winners: I know a couple of them personally, and I respect a number of them professionally. But here's a hint to the beautiful people from the rest of us: If you're getting attention just for being pretty, that's fine. But don't tell us looks don't matter.
Throughout the magazine spread, the beautiful people tell us beauty is only skin deep. (I think Plato said that.) "A woman can radiate beauty no matter what she looks like," one winner asserts. Another maintains, "[T]rue beauty is having a life filled with good friends, loving family and interesting experiences." Amber Brkich, whose contribution to society is appearing on Survivor and then wearing lingerie for a men's magazine, says she feels beautiful when she's told that she reminds someone of their "mom or sister."
Actually, I suspect that Amber is a celebrity precisely because she doesn't remind us of our mothers. But like the magazine's philosophical vaporings, these earnest clichés about "inner beauty" serve a purpose. It's the same purpose as Playboy articles about stereo equipment or corruption in Peru: allowing people to feel sophisticated while ogling boobies.
The magazine did include a few "â€˜normal' people" (their phrase) in its spread -- a husewife, for example. Anyone can appear on the cover of Pittsburgh magazine, it seems, as long as they are very, very attractive. How democratic.
Unfortunately, that egalitarianism cuts both ways: If you aren't hot, even a lifetime of accomplishment may not help. The January issue also includes the "Pittsburghers of the Year" -- another arbitrary contest, but one whose winners are selected because their deeds "embodied excellence," as the magazine puts it. Yet this year's honorees, who include two Nobel Prize-winners and an Olympic Gold medalist, are crammed together on a single page. No full-page photos for them. Embodying excellence is fine, but having an excellent body is better.
Then again, the list of "25 most beautiful Pittsburghers" really isn't about beauty at all. It's about narcissism, especially amongst an elite handful of Pittsburgh's "young people," and about how local media outlets pander to them. (Rose Lotenero isn't just on the cover because she's smokin' hot, the magazine notes, but because she's a "great example of...a generation of talented young people in this region.")
Pittsburgh magazine isn't the only one pandering. Whirl magazine, the Post-Gazette's "Seen" column, the Pittsburgh Urban Magnet Project...they're really about the same thing: mostly affluent people shouting "Look at me!" Usually, these efforts clothe themselves in some greater mission: The events documented in "Seen" or Whirl usually benefit a charity, and PUMP professes to be all about political empowerment. But in the photographed smiles and the evening gowns, one senses that self-display is often the main agenda.
Strangely enough, the older we "young people" get, the more we start acting like we're in high school. Even the Nobel Prize-winners never really get out of Math Club; sooner or later, it's all about the jocks and the prom queens. A few of us journalists, meanwhile, are still writing for the yearbook.