So I think this TED talk by Cameron Russell, fashion model, is probably my favourite TED talk of all time. And that’s saying something, because there are a LOT of awesome TED talks out there.
But I like this one best because it’s concise, honest and true in an important way. And now that I have a daughter (she’s 7 months old. Yes, thanks, since you asked, she’s gorgeous, amazing. Baby McWonderfulness. I could go on at great length… but I won’t.) I plan to watch this with her as soon as she’s old enough to understand it and certainly long before she enters adolescence. Because before she starts to worry about her appearance, I want her to think critically about her appearance. Because judgements about looks are the burden society puts on all women - the beautiful and unbeautiful alike - and it’s far better to face that battle head on and fully armed.
So here’s the thing: as a lot of you may know, I do a lot of work in politics. (You can learn more about that stuff on my other blog.) And for that work, I sometimes go on TV or on the radio, and I occasionally get some attention for stuff I write or say, or do. And sometimes people say ugly things about me on Twitter or in blog comments. Now, when they say “you’re stupid,” or “you’re ignorant,” or “you’re a Socialist” I know how to reply. Respectively, “pretty sure I’m not,” “Maybe I am, show me your facts and I’ll show you mine,” and “Umm… do you know what Socialism actually IS?”
But sometimes, instead of these things people will say, “You’re ugly!” “Or, you’re fat!” And then… a lot of things are going on at once.
First of all, I am aware that this is supposed to be the most crushing thing anyone can say to a woman. That’s why they say it, I’m supposed to crumple into a ball of self loathing. Instead, I always feel a bit like Jennifer Connolly at the end of Labyrinth, musing, “You have no power over me…”
Because it’s as if someone had told Roger Federer that he would never win Wimbledon again because he has a terrible singing voice. I mean, I have no idea if Roger Federer can sing or not. And it’s nice to be able to sing - don’t get me wrong, and if he can’t sing I bet Roger wishes he could, and if I can sing I bet he feels defensive and wants to respond, “Actually I’m a great singer, you should hear how I can rock out!” But however natural it would be, when confronted with this bizarre reasoning, to feel sad that he can’t sing, or indignant because he CAN, the right response is, of course to reply, “but my singing voice has NOTHING TO DO WITH MY TENNIS PLAYING.”
And so when people say I’m ugly in response to a political argument, I do feel a bit sad about it sometimes because nobody is as pretty as they would like to be. And I do feel defensive about it sometimes, because I’m not THAT hideous! But mainly I feel like, “But… But… But… I’m not DOING pretty.”
Don’t get me wrong, being pretty, like being a good singer, is a fun thing. A nice attribute. An admirable talent (yes, it’s a sort of talent - more on this later). But to respond “you’re ugly” to a statement of opinion is to reveal your hidden belief that prettiness is a kind of entry criteria for all of public life. This happens surprisingly often.
For instance, when a renowned and admired historian is called "too ugly for TV" - that’s a way of saying that being a good archaeologist and an interesting presenter is of no use if you haven’t crossed the “pretty enough” threshold.
When a female weightlifter competing in the Olympics is attacked for being unattractive that’s the bluntest way of saying that however objectively true your accomplishments (she can lift very heavy weights) they don’t count if you can’t pass the pretty barrier.
But, you know what? Mary Beard is really fucking knowledgeable. Zoe Smith is really fucking strong. Neither them are DOING pretty. They are DOING sport, or history, or (in my case) politics.
That’s of course totally separate to the question whether they ARE pretty. You can be pretty and smart. Pretty and strong. And plenty of people think Zoe and Mary in fact are pretty. But whether you think that or not is up to you, and it’s fine, but it’s got NOTHING TO DO WITH THEIR ACCOMPLISHMENTS.
Which is not to say that being pretty isn’t also a thing that can be achieved. I know that I could be a lot “prettier” than I am. And for “prettier” read “conventionally attractive according to the currently predominant social paradigm”. I could wear makeup - which typically I don’t do. I could lose weight. If I were willing to give up chocolate croissants and pasta dinners and wine. Which I am not. Because I love them. I could wear more fashionable (read, less comfortable) clothes and high heels that would make my legs look longer while making my feet hurt.
I do not do these things, not because I am self loathing but because I have DECIDED not to invest the time and energy required to be pretty. Just like I have also decided not to learn to knit. Or play the accordion.
But nobody ever says to me, “Shut up about health care reform you non-accordion playing bitch.” Funny, that.
Now, if you have made it this far I would like you to do something for me - and please be honest: in the course of reading it did you glance over at my profile picture and form an opinion about my looks? If so, don’t tell me what that judgement was (PLEASE!) please do drop a simple “yes” or “no” in the comments section, and then have a think about why it would matter to you.
I’ll be honest and I say that if I were reading a similar post, I would have done it and I would have subliminally judged the article differently depending upon whether I snap-judged the woman to be hot (“easy for HER to say”) or not (“sour grapes, much?”).