Something’s been bothering me recently but I can’t work out how to write a well-crafted piece about it so I’m just going to come straight out and say it: what can we do about this culture we live in that places so much emphasis on what a woman looks like?
Rebecca Adlington’s tears, shed so publically in the Australian jungle, were heartbreaking. I happened to switch ‘I’m a Celebrity…’ on at just the moment that she broke down and talked about the pressure she had faced to ‘look a certain way’. It was astounding to hear her being so vulnerable.
The papers next day were full of columns asking how a woman of her stature, who has achieved so much, could feel so utterly insecure next to another woman, simply because that other woman’s waist, breasts and nose were respectively smaller, bigger and smaller than hers?
And then there’s Nigella: her breathtakingly tragic beauty adorning the front page of every newspaper and magazine as she walked confidently into the courtroom. By the end of that day, I knew that she had taken cocaine, although not regularly. But I had also learnt that she has her hair ‘done’ every week at a top salon; that she wears false eyelashes and (probably) has her eyebrows threaded and tattoed; that she shares a personal trainer with Elle Macpherson and will have had her make-up done before leaving the house that morning by celebrity make-up artist Anthea Clarke. In contrast, no newspaper was interested in what Charles Saatchi looked like when he appeared in court. As the Guardian expressed it well: ‘Nigella Lawson endures trial by media, and her appearance is exhibit A’.
So what do we do? Is there any way of tackling a culture that is more interested in a woman’s physical appearance than anything else, and that then places pressure on women to conform to a stereotype of what that physical appearance should be? Why is it, for example, that almost every woman I know dyes their hair, whereas only one man I know does that?
The honest truth is that, whilst I do have some ideas as to how we might move forward, I’m nervous of making suggestions. Why? Because I’m a hypocrite in this area. I’ve had my own moments of looking at a physically beautiful woman and feeling inferior, and I know I can be a victim of cultural expectation as much as anyone else.
But please let’s have the conversation because it’s such an important one to have. I want my daughters to grow up free from the pressure to look a certain way; free to reach their fullest potential in whatever area of life they choose to walk in, secure in the knowledge that their beauty comes from who they are more than what they look like. Don’t you want that too?