All women are unacceptable, but some women are more unacceptable than others
Samara Ginsberg // 13 November 2007
Further to Jess and Laura’s posts, I felt that I had to leap onto the What Not To Wear bandwagon.
Makeover shows such as What Not To Wear give women who don’t necessarily feel good about their appearance tips on how to make the most of their looks. Nobody would object, for example, to a programme helping shy people with their social skills. Although I haven’t seen the programme in a while, as far as I remember, Trinny and Susannah never actually told anyone to change the way they looked. In fact, I do remember a wonderful scene from the special show they did preparing Jo Brand for a red carpet appearance, in which Susannah was on the phone to yet another designer who refused to lend a dress to anyone above a size 12, hanging up with a waspish, “I’ll tell Jo you said that and I’m sure she’ll remember you the next time she’s writing some new material.” Right on, sister!
Just because the importance of women’s appearance is completely blown out of all proportion to an unbelievably unfair degree, doesn’t mean that our appearance shouldn’t matter at all. It’s still one of our attributes, and quite an important one as it’s the first impression a person gives to the world. If appearances didn’t matter, we wouldn’t dress smartly for work for example. And what’s wrong with advice on how to make the most of our looks, particularly when that advice consists of suggesting new trousers rather than liposuction?
It does bug me though. I always feel like screaming whenever I open a women’s magazine to be confronted with a series of tips on how to “dress to flatter your figure”, with an underlying assumption that all women with that particular figure like and dislike the same things about their appearance, or else have a duty to conceal the same “flaws”. Dress like we tell you, girls, and you can join our army of patriarchy-approved, 5ft6, size 10, 34C identikit model chicks, and nobody will ever know your dirty secret – that you’re actually PEAR SHAPED!
As Laura said, women in their natural state are regarded as unacceptable. But I would add the unpalatable truth that some women are more “unacceptable” than others. And if just one attribute – physical appearance – is granted so much more importance than anything else, it becomes very easy to categorise women into a pecking order of status. Not exactly great for anyone’s self-esteem.
It’s very difficult for women not to be preoccupied with their appearance considering the sense of entitlement and non-entitlement that we are encouraged to equate with it. Whilst it might not seem a “women-friendly” thing to point out, I think everybody has observed the phenomenon of the snooty bitch who seems to think that she has the right to stomp on you in stilettos in H&M on a Saturday afternoon because she looks like a model and you don’t. There is an extraordinary culture of acceptance towards young, thin, attractive women being evil harpies. At the opposite end of the spectrum, an unattractive woman is expected to have rock-bottom self-esteem.
I think that this appearance-based pecking order begins in childhood. Pretty little girls are spoiled and adored by everybody, whereas ugly ones have a very hard time, even from adults who ought to know better. I know – I was ugly as a child, and never questioned for a moment that pretty girls had the right to be more popular and to have their bitchy behaviour condoned. And I desperately wanted to be one of them. Believe it or not, I actually used to stand in front of the mirror, practising bitch stares with that slouching, hands-on-hips, contemptuous demeanour, but it just never looked right on an awkward-looking girl with bad hair and unfashionable clothes. I knew even at the age of ten that what I needed in order not to be pushed around at school was a makeover. Appalling, but it’s what I thought at the time, and I think that there was some truth in it.
This is why we feel we need Trinny and Susannah in the first place, because our self-esteem is supposed to be so irrevocably tied up in what we see in the mirror. The idea of a woman not thinking she’s a ravishing goddess and yet being fine with herself in general is regarded as completely unfathomable. There are so many campaigns designed to improve women’s or girls’ self-esteem by focusing entirely on looks (yes Dove and The Body Shop I am looking at you, although I suppose concentrating on anything else won’t help you to sell any body lotion), partly because looks are what we are constantly judged as being lacking in, but mostly because looks are the main attribute that we are expected to value in ourselves.
Of course Laura is right that we shouldn’t be so mercilessly judged on our appearance in the first place, especially to the detriment of all of our other qualities. Makeovers are a “band aid” cure for a much deeper problem, but band aids have their place. The way I see it, it would be lovely if we weren’t made to feel like second class citizens for not having the perfect waist:hip ratio, but until that happens, bring on Trinny and Susannah.