The Ugly, Unfair Truth About Looking Beautiful By William Leith
Why, after decades of feminism, do we seem to demand that women in the public eye be extraordinarily beautiful but their male counterparts can get away with being ordinary?
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The art critic John Berger famously said that, in our culture, “men act and women appear”. He didn’t mean that women didn’t actually do anything, or that men never looked pretty. His point was that this was how men and women were depicted.
Men were supposed to be effective, and women were supposed to be attractive. He was right. And it was a travesty. But that was in 1972; it was a long time ago.
Or was it? Four decades of feminism later I am reading the comedian Angela Barnes’ blog. “I am ugly, and I am proud,” she writes. She goes on to say: “The fact is I don’t see people in magazines who look like me. I don’t see people like me playing the romantic lead or having a romantic life.”
At the top of the blog is a picture of Barnes. And the thing is, she isn’t ugly. Neither is she beautiful. She’s normal looking. She’s somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, just like lots of women you see every day in real life.
It made me think of this year’s Wimbledon ladies’ final between Sabine Lisicki and Marion Bartoli. When Bartoli won, the BBC commentator John Inverdale infamously said, “Do you think Bartoli’s dad told her when she was little, ‘You’re never going to be a looker, you’re never going to be a Sharapova, so you have to be scrappy and fight’?”
The first thing I thought was: this woman has just won a tennis tournament! And she’s being judged on her looks! And then I thought: but Bartoli is attractive. Sure, she’s not at the very highest point on the scale – she doesn’t look like a top model. But she’s pretty. And, in any case, why should it matter? She’s a top athlete. Surely that’s what counts.
A sports commentator refers to a pretty woman as “not a looker”. A normal-looking woman thinks she’s ugly. Why?
Because, even though the world is full of normal and pretty women, the world we see – the world of television, films, magazines and websites – is full of women who are top-of-the-scale beauties.
And right now, in the second decade of the 21st century, the situation is more extreme than ever. If you’re a woman, a huge proportion of your role models are beautiful. So if you’re normal looking, you feel ugly. And if you’re merely pretty, men feel free to comment on how un-beautiful you are.
As a normal-looking man, I find myself in a completely different position. Being normal makes me feel, well, normal. Absolutely fine. As if the way I look is not an issue. That’s because it’s not an issue.
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