A lady friend of mine who is turning forty expressed to me her horrors over growing old and gradually losing her beauty.
Her statements surprised me because this woman is the last person one would expect to reveal such insecurities. She is smart, attractive, independent, has a successful career and strongly supports women's rights movements.
But she is gravely concerned about her looks.
Indeed, she has already taken certain steps to halt the aging process – she fanatically watches her diet (vitamin C is crucial for good skin), drinks alcohol in moderation, quit smoking years ago, regularly exercises and recently bought contact lenses to heighten her baby-blues.
These are all reasonable measures, of course, however, now she is considering more drastic steps in the future to maintain her youthful pulchritude.
For example, she said she will start dying her natural reddish-brown hair to eliminate grey hairs; she is considering some type of laser surgery to prevent (or remove) those pesky wrinkles; and she is particularly alarmed about developing bags under her eyes (not sure how they can be 'de-bagged'),
I pointed out her hypocrisy in obsessing over her looks while she has always espoused the belief that people should be judged on their deeds and character, rather than their appearance. She responded that there's “nothing wrong with wanting to look good.”
Thus chastened, I can only surmise that the women's movement – which over the past four decades or so has pushed tens of millions women into jobs and careers, as well placing a handful of females into positions of real power in media, politics and corporations – has run out of steam and failed to remove the oppressive burdens and expectations that women have labored under for centuries.
Women are still judged and evaluated primarily on their looks.
I remember in the 1990s, when Hilary Clinton was the First Lady – some people, including the media, commented on how “ugly” and “unfeminine” she was. Usually, these were right-wing Republicans who detested her husband and his policies, but not exclusively so. Some of my friends even suggested that Bill Clinton was a serial adulterer because his wife was so ‘homely.’
Hilary must have taken these insults to heart because in the intervening years she has clearly improved her wardrobe, found a good hair-dresser and make-up artist, and most definitely underwent some minor plastic surgery. She has done all this despite the fact that she is one of the most powerful women in the world, and perhaps the most accomplished female U.S. politician in history.
Consider the case of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is arguably the most powerful on the planet -- she has been derided in the media for her 'dowdy' and 'unfeminine' appearance. Also, Oprah Winfrey, the ‘queen’ of American media and as powerful as any politician or corporate executive, has been subject to decades of criticisms over her weight, her 'homeliness' (as well as racial slurs).
During the recent London Olympics, gymnast Gabby Douglas was severely criticized for her unkempt, kinky hair (which had absolutely nothing to do with her athletic skills and performance).
All the aforementioned women were evaluated on their physical appearance.
On the other hand, good-looking women in the public eye have been lauded for their beauty. Sarah Palin's fiercest detractors will concede (perhaps reluctantly) that she is an extremely beautiful and desirable woman. Jackie Kennedy was endlessly praised for her charm, grace, manners and, of course, exquisite beauty.
So, where do we stand? Are women to be judged on their intelligence and their abilities? Or their figure and their looks?
I'm not sure that U.S. society has made all that much progress since the women's liberation movement erupted in the 1960s.
Of course, this discussion is not restricted to women – millions of men have also succumbed to vanity by coloring their hair dark (Ronald Reagan), getting their teeth capped, their noses 'fixed' and graced their sparse heads with toupees, hair transplants and hair weaves.
Everyone wants to 'look pretty' (regardless of race, ethnicity or even social class).
As sensual and visual creatures, we humans are obsessed with physical appearance – and nothing will ever change this cold, hard fact.