A few weeks back, Rebecca Adlington, a prominent swimmer and UK olympic medal holder, broke into tears on the topic of body image. The result: a surprised outcry regarding the body image problems of successful women. Why do women, so blatantly at the top of their game and beautiful, nevertheless feel bad about their bodies? There is the additional bafflement why, in professions where their extraordinary skill lies in something other than looks, a successful women nevertheless defines herself first and foremost over their looks. I was surprised too – not by the fact that successful women define themselves over their looks, and feel/ know others do; but by the revelation that it surprises anyone.
It reminded me of an article I read in a German newspaper or magazine, possibly the Spiegel or Die Zeit, ages ago. This article was primarily about the German universities inability to even meet the 5% goal in appointing women to higher positions. One of the reasons for the preference of men over women in appointments given was the recurring comment that, regarding female applicants, a comments are often on the lines of: “But how will she look in the faculty photograph?”. The German’s are more image conscious than the Brits, without a doubt, but there is a universal truth in this: a successful man can be ugly, a successful women cannot. I am not arguing that life is not easier for both genders if you are pretty – but it is doubly so for women.
Now, this should mean any successful woman should rest easy that she is beautiful, otherwise she would not be successful. Setting aside what that means for women and society as a whole – not even that works. The recent Dove advert (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9i2FtenUzqQ) showing how women’s self view is always negatively slanted shows that. Not only do we know at all times we need to be pretty to be successful – we also know we are never pretty enough.
For years, the suggestion has been made, pushed all over the western world, to remove retouched photographs of women from the advertisements, to ban scantily clad ones from large billboards in order to give young women a better self-perception, a more realistic one. It is supposed to make sure we do not have an exaggerated ideal of what a perfect women should be, do not strive for something we cannot reach anyway. I think the suggestion is an insult – an insult to women everywhere!
I don’t need to bash another woman to feel well. I don’t need to hide her beauty simply so that I feel better – for that matter, it is not her beauty which makes me feel bad or ugly. Years ago, I chose to develop myself, my skills, my personality along lines other than physical beauty. Yes, that is where my strengths lie, and as a result I put the time in effort into developing my brain, my analytical abilities, my knowledge. Do I think we all have the potential for conventional beauty? Yes, I do – possibly not at the level of a supermodel, but at a level where we turn heads on the street and impress with out looks. Beauty is not effortless, not only genetics – definitely not the beauty of a billboard. Beauty is a lot of hard work, many hours spent in the gym, a lot of money and time dedicated to hair, and skin, and clothes. It is time in which to learn how to move beautifully, and elegantly, how to dress perfectly. It sounds like a lot of fun, but in the end it is as much work as dedicating yourself to other professions.
I can recognise the hard work, appreciate it, admire it – just as I would a successful barrister or professor. I don’t need to bash the woman who choses to make beauty her career. What I need is a society which recognises her hard work – and mine. A society which stops seeing beauty as some genetic lottery, and therefore easy and unattainable, but recognises it as a choice. And I need a society which begins to recognise the women who chose to develop skills other than beauty as equally worthy.
I don’t need to hide women’s beauty – I want a rethink of the cinderella stories where the smart girl only becomes happy after developing her beauty (Iceprincess, She is all that, Two weeks notice, …). I want a recognition that a woman choosing a career independent of beauty is successful – as much as a woman who choses a career in beauty is. All of us make choices and sacrifices for what we want to do with our lives, the only problem is that a woman is not allowed to chose anything BUT beauty. She has to be beautiful and on the side she is allowed to develop another profession, almost like a hobby. I would rather we would stop seeing beauty as a genetic accident and more as the hard work and effort it is. It is a profession and every woman has the right to chose – just as much as she has the right not to do so.