When I first laid eyes on Samantha Brick’s original I’m Too Pretty confession piece in the Daily Mail last year, I scoffed, rolled them eyes back into my head, and quickly found something else to look at before her outrageously bad writing took up space in my brain that could be salvaged for worthier things. It was SUCH an obvious troll.
What kind of real human uses phrases like “other women hate me for no other reason than my lovely looks” – unless they are taking the absolute mickey? That, or the words were surely (at least in part) ghostwritten by editors of a trashy mag out to score clicks via viral vitriol (and yes, the Daily Mail has a track record for doctoring first person pieces to maximise the feeding frenzy).
In any case, the hate bait worked. Within a day, the piece had ricocheted around cyberspace, gathering over 4,000 bilious comments and innumerable tweets scorning Brick’s smugness and smugly ridiculing her debatable beauty; and, according to The Guardian’s Eva Wiseman last month, spawning a whole new genre of writing aimed at stirring rage in an audience that loves to hate-read.
Wiseman reckons since Brick’s “success”, there’s been what she calls a “First Person Pretty” article published just about every week - and over a year later readers are continuing to gorge themselves on the contents in a blind rage. Brick herself has penned several unapologetic follow-ups, but we’ve also seen confessions from women who claim they’re too pretty to work; that their beauty has made life really, really hard; or on the other side, who confess to being ugly and proud of it (ironically, much of the vitriol maintains the latter author isn’t ugly enough to make this claim).
The writers of these stories often bring up a worthwhile point, but it’s buried deep in the trolling conceit that begs its audience to spit and curse, rather than question and reflect. What should really be an important discussion about the price of feminine beauty is hijacked by sexist media and used as a bloody, divisive weapon against us.
The point - of which we’ve been aware since Naomi Wolf exposed The Beauty Myth in the 90s - is that the value our society places on women’s appearance is a double edged sword that enables women to be easily discredited, patronised and ignored - whether they’re perceived as “pretty” or the polar opposite. As Wolf contended, the more power women have won through feminism, the more insidiously ideals of beauty have stuck to us and held us back.
Of course objectification of men happens too, but rarely with the power to silence and shame that such attacks (and yes, in the wrong context, compliments) can have on women. That’s because we’re brought up to see the man behind the face (see: Beauty and the Beast), but we only see the woman if we her appearance is to our liking (see: Cinderella and Dustin Hoffman). When we draw attention to or make fun of a male politician’s looks, it rarely impacts the public’s attitude towards him like it does for a woman. His appearance is tangential to our perception of him as a whole; hers, all too often, is central.
The physical appearance of women has long been equated with innate personal qualities - but what those qualities actually are depends entirely on what the beholder wants to do with the beauty, plainness or ugliness they see. Beauty can brand a woman sweet or superficial, virgin or whore; plain looks or ugliness can mark a woman as evil or kind, conniving or authentic, intelligent or dull. If a pretty woman is also intelligent, strong or courageous this will almost always be characterised as a surprise and a bonus – she’s not just a pretty face - because usually we assume beauty and brains are genetically exclusive.
The link between appearance and character is only causative in the eye of the beholder. It really shouldn’t need to be said that physical appearance and IQ are not genetically linked, but people routinely forget this.
If you still think women blessed with beauty should just lie back and enjoy the compliments, consider a few examples of the double edged sword in action: Buzzfeed compiled list citing nine things women have been deemed “too pretty” for. Earlier this year, Fairfax’s Geoffrey Barker struck a nerve with his diatribe against ‘TV Babes’ - those young ladies whose breasts are too pert to be taken seriously as journalists.
In countries where sexism needn’t bother parading about, exuberantly disguised in the emperor’s very best new “daggy dad” attire, women can be ousted from their elected seats because of too much sex appeal. At home, women with sex appeal just get to be the silent pawns of a dirty election campaign, instead: even if Fiona Scott wins her seat, does anyone know anything else about her apart from that she’s apparently young, feisty, has sex appeal and (yet) is not “just a pretty face?”
And yet, because feminine beauty is so idolised, so imbued with “value”, when women who possess it (or to think they possess it) have the hide to complain about its trappings, they’re howled down.