By Indira Das-Gupta
What is the greatest compliment you can give a woman? Is it that she is intelligent? Funny? Strong? Despite the fact it is 2020 and 20 years since Naomi Wolf first published her seminal work The Beauty Myth, the highest accolade you can give a woman still seems to be that she is beautiful. Whether we like it or not, a woman’s looks are always a big part of the equation in any assessment that is made of her, regardless of her other achievements. If anything, matters are worse now than they were in 1990 when Wolf wrote about the insanely unrealistic social standards of physical beauty that lead to a preoccupation with women’s appearance and which prevented them from attaining real equality.
Sadly too many women are still lambasted and lampooned for not being attractive enough, despite being fiercely intelligent and accomplished in their own respected fields. In the UK the renowned historian Mary Beard has found herself the butt of many a “joke” while German Chancellor Angela Merkel is also ribbed because of the way she happens to look.
Yet we know the double standards that dictate that a man’s appearance is often, if not most of the time, considered of no importance. Know many drop-dead gorgeous male politicians or Nobel Prize winners? Me neither, but who cares what they look like because their achievements have made any assessment of their appearance redundant, right? So why aren’t women judged under the same criteria?
Celebrated BBC war correspondent Kate Adie once confessed that she felt ridiculous applying lipstick before filming a broadcast from a war zone, but she knew she would regret it if she didn’t. Who can blame her when the reality is that if she hadn’t taken this step, viewers would inevitably be making tuts of disapproval at home and commenting, “Well, she could’ve made more of an effort.”
Little wonder then that us women feel so much pressure to maintain our appearance. So much time, money, effort and occasionally even physical pain goes into trying to live up to some sort of ideal beauty that quite possibly doesn’t even exist in the real world outside of glossy magazines. OK sure, just one glimpse of any past male Love Island contestants proves that men are increasingly investing more time into their appearance. But the fact that the vast majority of advertising by the multi-billion-pound beauty industry targets women speaks for itself. And how does this advertising work? By making women feel inadequate or that they are too wrinkly/spotty, hairy/fat/plain.
The multi-talented and multi-award-winning musician Alicia Keys is now almost as famous for her decision not to wear make-up. While I salute her for her stance, should this really be such a big deal, such a big deal in fact that it almost overshadows her musical achievements to the extent that she now veers away from the subject in interviews? Women who post selfies where they are either not wearing makeup or are showing visible rolls of fat are routinely described as “brave.”
I don’t know about you but I would probably describe someone like Malala Yousafazi as brave, not someone who has “dared" to be photographed after a big lunch with no Spanx.
I like to look my best when I’m going “out, out”, but sometimes I just really can’t be arsed or I just don’t have the time. Even if I had the time and money to follow a beauty regime deserving of either of the two age-defying Jennifers: Aniston or Lopez, it just seems exhausting. I’d rather put my efforts into other things like, I don’t know, looking after my children and running my business. Speaking of the two Jennifers, what do they get praised for the most - is it their achievements in their respective careers? Nope, it’s the fact that they have managed to age so well and still look hot at 50. Which obviously puts even more pressure on them and other women in their industries to stick to their punishing fitness programmes.
If you happen to be a woman who actually loves to have your hair and nails done every week there’s no judgement here. If you enjoy it, then good on you. The point is it should be an active choice, not something women are made to feel like they need to do. How many women would honestly go and get hot wax poured on to their lady bits if it was culturally more acceptable to have more hair down there? When I think back, I’ve always felt happiest about my appearance when I have been travelling with minimal beauty products or access to grooming or mirrors. During these periods I have just been so busy enjoying life that I wasn’t really thinking about what I looked like.
Like many parents, I tell my daughter how beautiful she is a lot, possibly too much. I don’t often compliment my son’s looks and it’s certainly not because he is less attractive than my daughter, I just tend to praise him for other things. So I am already guilty of perpetuating the status quo. I have been conscious of this dichotomy for some time and so have been trying to redress the balance and try to praise my daughter for other things, such as her creativity and kindness.
When we are constantly bombarded with unrealistic and unattainable images of models on TV, in social media and magazines it’s hard to rise above the pressure to conform in the looks department even if we know it’s all smoke and mirrors. Beautiful people get more likes on Instagram and can build entire careers based purely on their external appearance, so it’s impossible to argue that looks don’t matter in our culture, They do matter, far more than they should. But as Hollywood legend Joan Collins once pointed out:
“Being born beautiful is like being born rich and getting poorer every day.”
So maybe being beautiful isn’t all it’s cracked up to be after all. In fact while women are required to be attractive, if they are “too” attractive they often find it hard to be taken seriously for anything else, because of course you can’t be beautiful and smart, right? Women just can’t win sometimes.
I just hope that movements like “Normalise normal bodies” on Instagram will help change things so that when my daughter is older she will know that she is so much more than what she looks like, just as we all are.
This article was first published by The Just Breathe Project www.justbreatheproject.com @justbreatheproject
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