Beauty & Women of Substance

    Julia’s Hair, Hillary’s Glasses & Gina’s Extra Pounds

The topic of societal pressures on women to look a certain way is not exactly unexamined. But although feminists began writing about this decades ago, and I blogged about it myself five years ago, it doesn’t seem to me that much progress has been made. Take some recent issues that have arisen in the media. Our prime minister, Julia Gillard’s personal appearance, her hair in particular, has been the consistent focus of public comment and attempts at humour. A “news” story recently reported that – horror! – Hillary Clinton had appeared in public without makeup and wearing her glasses. How dare she! How can we take the woman seriously now? Finally, a panel program has today been criticized for harshly deriding the appearance of the ‘richest woman in the world’, Gina Rinehart, but they were hardly alone. Ever since Gina was announced the richest woman in the world about a week ago, her appearance has been under constant scrutiny with people saying if they were that rich they would hire a personal trainer, etc. Does anyone care about her obscene wealth and whether she makes any attempt to use it as a force for good in the world? Why are we talking about the woman’s weight? Observations like these are just never made about men with similar public profiles (let alone it being the focus of numerous news stories and public comment), but it’s all too often the first and the dominant topic of discussion with respect to women.

    Inner Beauty, Substance & The Prettiest Girl in the Room

This worrying attitude towards female public figures is of course mirrored in the lives and experience of all women. We are judged on our appearance in a way that men generally are not, except perhaps in certain, limited circles. This, sadly, is constantly reinforced in multifarious ways by the media and it’s impact on women is reflected in the many touching comments other women have made to me over the years betraying their insecurities about their appearance and whether they are attractive to potential or current partners. Very rarely, by comparison, do women confide of feeling badly about themselves because they aren’t clever enough, funny enough, good conversationalists or good at their jobs. The vast majority of women’s insecurities are of the ‘I’m not pretty enough’ variety: ‘I need to lose weight’, ‘My skin’s bad – I need a facial/more makeup’, ‘I need to work out for a flatter stomach/tighter bum/toned legs’, ‘I need to spend my entire fortnight’s salary on a pair of boots I can hardly walk in because they make me look hotter’, ‘I had a baby and need a tummy tuck’, etc. And by the way, I’m not at all judging women for feeling these insecurities; the pressures on us are enormous and these attitudes have become so endemic that women ourselves are among the worst perpetrators of them.

It isn’t just the media that reinforces these attitudes either. At social gatherings, men will very often gravitate around the young, single and most attractive women (and act like idiots to get their attention), sometimes apparently forgetting all about their partners, who might cheerfully chat to the other women, but sad sideways glances betray that inside they feel hurt, and probably worse about themselves. It has happened to me and I have watched it happen to others on many occasions. (Thankfully, my OH doesn’t do this to me!) A single incident like this can trigger a diet, a clothes shopping spree or a radical new do to try and recapture the lost attention of one’s distracted partner. Much less often does it inspire a new course of study, a trip abroad, perfecting a new skill or working harder for a pay rise or promotion (something men will often focus on if their self-esteem takes a beating).

A long time ago when I was young and silly, I met a lovely, highly intelligent woman who I assessed early in our acquaintance as ‘not very attractive’. I wondered why she didn’t lose some weight, do something with her hair, wear some makeup, etc. (Yes, we women are equally to blame in judging others on their appearance.) One day, however, she was discussing something she was passionate about and was joking and laughing – her face was lit up with humour, kindness and intelligence and she was beautiful. Not just in that moment, but – for me – from then on. Unfortunately, this ‘inner beauty’ idea is one that society pays little more than lip service to. In fact, the assumption seems to work the other way – that the most attractive woman will also be the most interesting to talk to, the best company, etc.

    Motherhood, Appearance & Self-Esteem

I recently had a baby and I don’t know if this is a common experience or not, but since giving birth I have never felt less beautiful, or so unattractive. I have come to the conclusion that this must be largely due to society’s widespread assumption that women become less attractive once they have children (unless they are a freak like Miranda Kerr, or rich, live in Hollywood and have good surgeons). I say this because, objectively, I’ve actually been pretty lucky – I think a naked photo taken now, compared with one taken pre-pregnancy would be almost indistinguishable (sorry if tmi, it’s just to make the point). But this does not seem to alter the fact that I feel vastly different about myself. And this, even though I see other mothers as beautiful, stretch marks, c-section scars, flabby tummies and all, because I do think these are badges of honor in much the same way as a battle scar.

Of course there are other factors at work in how I feel about myself. First, I don’t yet feel quite myself – not as strong or fit – and tired a lot of the time. Though I’ve healed well, the memory of feeling like a wreck right after childbirth is still with me (although, importantly, I also felt triumphant). A tiny baby is so exquisitely beautiful and perfect that they do make one feel, by comparison, one’s own age and imperfection. Finally, my self-confidence has fallen in a bit of a hole; I seem suddenly (it began during pregnancy and has peaked post-childbrith) to have become the least interesting person to talk to in the room, except to those who are also Mums or themselves having babies. Perhaps people mistakenly believe that I only want to talk about babies (I’m dying to talk about other things!) or they are put off by the baby distracting me mid-sentence, or they think that my brain has turned to mush from hormones or the pressures of labour. Who knows … Strange and confusing how such a momentous and life changing event that calls upon and develops multiple character traits, such as courage, strength, patience, care & compassion, should somehow make me less interesting company. Of course this has dented my self-confidence too and, for women conditioned according to our societal norms, self-esteem and how we feel about our physical appearance and our attractiveness to others are more intimately connected than they should be. Just as criticism of our appearance can enormously (and disproportionately) dent our self-esteem, low self-esteem can also be manifested in a feeling of being unattractive or even, in some cases, obsessing over perceived physical flaws.

    Living a Full, Interesting & Dignified Life

All that being said, I do think that there’s a certain extent to which our self respect is appropriately reflected in the care we take in our health and appearance. I’m interested in fashion and get pleasure out of selecting outfits for various occasions and doing my face and hair. I’m not anti any of these things, but feel that they should be taken much more lightly when compared with the more important facets of a woman. Not only does our society’s focus on women’s appearance (together with idealizing youth) make it difficult to grow old gracefully, it’s also been taken to such an extreme that it now undermines women’s ability to live a full and interesting life with dignity, including being wives, professionals, intellectuals, mothers and having wide and varied experiences, some of which might involve physical risk, etc. Those life experiences are not only what makes life worth living, but also what makes someone truly interesting and deeply beautiful; those are the things that make one a woman of substance. I’m a lover of beauty wherever I find it, but when it comes to human beings, and women in particular, we certainly need to greatly revise our more superficial assumptions and expectations. For real this time.