Rebecca and Nigella: Where now?

December 8, 2013

body image‘The exquisitely crafted image of a domestic goddess’, said the Daily Mail. ‘Rebecca Adlington in tears after “beauty” debate with Amy Willerton’, said the Mirror.

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?

rebecca-adlington-cryingAnd yet I doubt that there was a woman watching that programme who didn’t understand perfectly the feelings that Rebecca was expressing – I know I did.

Nigella LawsonAnd 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?

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  • Reply Rachel Jeffreys December 8, 2013 at 9:45 pm

    I think it all comes down to a perception of worth. There is a belief that a person’s, and particularly a woman’s, worth can vary depending on how they look. This is especially true for celebrities who, to the general population, are objects for their entertainment. A pretty object is much more preferable to an ugly one unless the ugly object makes up for it in usefulness. As long as society allows people to be objects these sorts of problems will continue. However, if we start considering people as having an intrinsic and unconditional worth these sorts of problems will disappear. It is difficult to change attitudes but they do change. It starts with a few people daring to be different and then more and more people follow.

  • Reply evgoldsmith December 8, 2013 at 10:04 pm

    Desperately sad and true! As a man of my generation and Christian, I look more at facial expressions and at eyes than purely physical features. I often say to Mum how the looks of women on adverts etc doesn’t appeal to me at all! Indeed I often say that I would hate to be married with a woman with such facial expressions! But you are right that this needs to be said more publicly, so well done for this article! Much love, Dad

  • Reply Jenny Cole December 8, 2013 at 10:04 pm

    Hi, Thank you for your post.
    It is true that someone beautiful will attract attention, but I don’t want it to be what defines my daughter as well thought of or as successful. Yes, let’s start that conversation, this needs airing.

  • Reply Sarah Bingham December 8, 2013 at 11:08 pm

    Bang on, Ruth! I am a short, overweight, greying, bespectacled woman, with a very idiosyncratic dress sense (you may remember, we met at Spring Harvest a few times). I have always tried to march to the inner drum of the Spirit, not the external drum of societal expectations. Yet a few weeks ago I was listening to a sermon about Zaccheus and how God, unlike most people, has no ‘bias to the tall’. Reflecting on it later, I realised how, still, I can get defensive around tall people, and give added weight to their contributions, whilst feeling somewhat inferior myself. Yet in every other respect I hardly give a thought to what other people might think about how I look. We all, men and women, need to help develop in our young friends and children, an eye that values any and every one, as unique people made by God ‘just right’ exactly as they are; that values virtue over vanity, goodness over good looks and character over charm.

  • Reply benniblett December 8, 2013 at 11:17 pm

    Great post. It’s so true that if you believe people’s worth comes from being human, then we’re all valuable and can’t lose our value, and if you’re a Christian, you believe that value is infinite. Then that means you don’t have to get your value from your achievements, or other people’s approval of you, or your appearance. Which is just as well in my case.

    But it’s hard to believe it strongly enough to ignore the pull of wanting to be liked, to be respected, to look good. Nothing wrong with any of those, but there’s a lot wrong with basing your identity on them.

    People compete about many things, of course, but I think women compete with each other on appearance a lot more than men do. Just as globalisation means that companies across the planet are all competing for investment with each other wherever they’re based and whatever they do, women with access to the internet, tv or magazines are competing with the professionally glamorous, even if they’re on other continents. It’s not new, but modern communications make it more intense. Plus in places like Britain where faith is declining (mostly, London’s different) that means more of us are insecure.

    I’m not sure what to do about it. I want to encourage each other to remember that we matter because God says so and not live as though life was a race, or a beauty parade, or a queue, or a job interview. It’s not a competition. There’s enough to go round for us all. Mostly I don’t say so though, and settle for trying to avoid talking to my daughter about her appearance much and giving her praise for other things, and looking bored when female colleagues talk about clothes. It’s not going to be enough, is it?

  • Reply Joanna December 9, 2013 at 6:41 am

    I decided many moons ago not to dye my hair knowing full well that if I took after my father I would be going grey early and sure enough at the age of 49 I’m totally grey and going slowly white. I was even told a few years ago by a Danish hairdresser that I looked old. My Danish wasn’t good, but I understood that much. I took Proverbs 16:31 as my inspiration

    Grey hair is a crown of splendour;
    it is attained in the way of righteousness.

    So I shall wear my crown with pride, I earned every grey hair 😀 I do stand out though as many people here in Latvia, where I now live, have dyed hair. I think they think of me as very old too, but who cares! I don’t. I do try to dress up a bit for going into town like the Latvians do, it almost seems rude not to, which is a bit different to the mentality in the UK.

    • Reply Júlio Reis December 9, 2013 at 2:53 pm

      Kudos to you. You are showing the Estonians a new, unprecedented (?) way: don’t dye your hair, show your age in your head instead. The way of less fuss, of acceptance of who you are, the way of natural imperfection.

      • Reply Joanna December 9, 2013 at 5:26 pm

        Estonians as well for definite, since I’m backwards and forwards to Estonia on a regular basis with my studies. Thanks Julio

  • Reply Mandy Marshall December 9, 2013 at 7:52 am

    Firstly thanks for sharing & providing space for discussion. There are a number of points/issues to consider here. All of them I am still working on myself.

    1. I’ve spoken at a few women’s meetings looking at our identity. Where does our sense of self come from? Whose voice are we listening to? God thinks we are beautifully made & wonderfully created. Sometimes our actions tell God he made a bit of a mistake when we alter our looks, features etc.

    2. The power if the media is strong. We underestimate the bombardment of subtle & direct messages we get everyday that we imbibe (because we are human & not God!) about what we should look like & who we should be. We don’t get the same back on our value by being human

    3. Life is precious. We all know this. We waste precious moments by worrying & comparing ourselves to others. ‘If only I was 10 pounds lighter, no wrinkles, younger’ etc.

    4. I’m a product of my environment. What I listen to, watch, allow through my filters will rest & fester, esp if I give thought to it rather than booting the unhelpful thoughts into touch.

    5. It’s a personal & structural response required. We need to lobby for realistic media messages & complain when they are unrealistic & idealistic (unpopular root to take). We also need to remind ourselves daily if the truth of who we are – loved, adored, beautifully made.

    6. Laughter is good. Laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. It takes some of the power away. When the media report about eyelashes – laugh at the media

    It’s a journey of reconciliation with yourself & accepting yourself as you are in a flow of media messaging telling you something else. It’s a tough journey with no quick nor easy answers.

    I say this noting I have not made the time to complain nor report the focus of attention on Nigella’s looks rather than Saatchi’s abusive behaviour.

    I hope this comes across in the right way born out of a deep longing for everyone to simply be themselves. To love yourself just the way you are 🙂

    • Reply benniblett December 10, 2013 at 4:30 pm

      Thanks Mandy. So true and so well put.

  • Reply Chistophe December 9, 2013 at 8:05 am

    How about we start changing the culture in such a way that means that men are taught to love and appreciate the women in their lives. In doing so allowing them (the women) to be more secure in who they are.
    Men need to learn to love their wives, partners and daughters in ways that free them from some of the insecurities mentioned above and in doing so liberating them (the women) to carry on their lives with more confidence in who they are without some of the constant worries about image.

    ( I am a Man. Husband of 20 years and Father of two beautiful, intelligent and slightly sassy daughters and one handsome son).

  • Reply ruthvalerio December 9, 2013 at 11:57 am

    Thanks so much for all these comments. I’ve been brewing this for a while, wondering how to express what I’ve been feeling, so it’s been nice to see that it has struck a chord with others too.

  • Reply Joanna December 9, 2013 at 12:47 pm

    Great post, Ruth. One thing I do think churches could do is take a hard look at their publicity materials. When we changed cities I was looking for a new church and was shocked to see how many websites only featured young, conventionally attractive people. I resisted going to my current church for ages because I thought it only really wanted people under 30 to join. Now that I am there I know this is not true at all, but nevertheless the disconnect is still undermining. It says: ‘Although we welcome anyone into our church, when it comes to the face we present to the outside world we think people like you (older, fatter, spottier, whatever) might be off-putting.’ Some of the church websites and publicity materials I have seen are of a fantastically high quality – let’s get these talented publicists and photographers among us to create something beautiful that goes against the current, narrow stereotypes of what an acceptable person looks like.

  • Reply lizacooke December 9, 2013 at 3:25 pm

    Wow, thank you Ruth- I read this post early today before going off to the field. As I was travelling in the car with David and a Kenyan, male friend, I discussed the topic with them.
    Sadly our friend confirmed that although the criteria for assessing beauty might be different,it is indeed the same here in Kenya: women are judged by their appearance. We spent some time talking about this and why it is so and the bottom line appeared to be competition- women want to be beautiful to win the men and men want beautiful women to enhance their status.
    I honestly don’t know what the answer is apart from enough people opting out of the competition and thus gradually breaking its grip on us all.
    As to things like aging (and boy am I aging, 60 is now in sight!) the line I’ve always taken is that my primary aim is to care for my body (that might mean make-up and a trip to the hairdresser as well as good food and fresh air!) and keep myself healthy and be an older version of my younger self not trying to still look like I did at 20. But that means that my confidence has to come from the inner journey and not just the outer influences.I also think personality plays a part in all of this: being attractive is more important to some people (both male and female) than others so the challenge has to be about being the most whole versions of ourselves that we can and recognising how best to support one another along this rocky road!

    PS And can I just say that I am now seriuosly reconsidering the minimal amounts of makeup that I use after another hot, sweaty day in the field resulting in black smudges under my eyes. Not the best look when one is engaging in debate with politicians….hey ho!

  • Reply n December 9, 2013 at 7:56 pm

    What to say … I have serious issues with the way I look. I try not to broadcast them so my kids don’t know. I feel scared that they’ll grow up that way too. I feel fat and horrible but sometimes catch myself in the mirror and briefly realise I am not (I’m a size 10/12). I don’t diet and we have no scales. Society comments all the time on women’s looks and increasingly on everyone’s looks. No matter how hard I try I find it hard to not feel hurt. I hate that society is so shallow as to value me by my looks first of all but I can’t break away from that. I just pray my kids will be happier with their bodies but when I hear what’s said to them at school about their looks I worry. Comments about looks seem to be a way of taking girls’ power and confidence away from them.

  • Reply Kay December 9, 2013 at 8:17 pm

    Wonderfully written blog Ruth – thank you.
    As you know, I’m going with the flow on my grey hair and I really like it.
    Another facet to this is using a wheel chair or crutches etc. When I speak at conferences from my wheelchair it appears I am not taken seriously. When I stand to speak….. I seem to get a better listening.
    I’m also told that I’m either “Too pretty to be in that wheelchair” or that I “don’t look disabled enough to use that chair” (this usually prompts the response from me “what do you want me to do? Dribble?”)
    Two weeks ago I was told that people like me shouldn’t be let out. My crime? Due to Christmas displays in a shop, some one had to walk round me to get to a till…. Would that have been said to me if I’d been on my feet and looking ‘normal’? I doubt it.
    Keep making us think Ruth :o)

    • Reply Júlio Reis December 10, 2013 at 11:51 am

      ’Too pretty to be in a wheelchair‘? Should not be ‘let out’?! :O Well, it’s sheer bravery to come out of the house when there’s people willing to say things like that to you. (I’d feel like crawling into a hole.) So, be brave!

  • Reply ruthvalerio December 10, 2013 at 10:46 am

    gosh, again, I’m so humbled by all these comments – they’ve made me smile and feel so sad too. What an uphill struggle we face in our different cultures. Let’s all find our own ways to face them bravely.

  • Reply Suki December 29, 2013 at 9:38 am

    But about Nigella’s appearance – she plays it up for the publicity and money it brings. That she dyes her hair, has tattooed on eyebrows, a personal make-up artist and trainer, a stylist, gets her hair done every week at a top salon, and has had tons of air brushing and photo-shopping done to all her carefully released publicity photos, shows she’s very, very carefully manipulating her image.
    Look at the ‘burning martyr’ face she wears on the walk to court…

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