Opinion The beauty trap

Why is it still so hard to talk about female beauty without defaulting to patriarchal stereotypes, asks Catharine Lumby.

Catharine lumby1

Catharine Lumby

OPINION: The outrage over Samantha Brick's column points to a deeper problem.

In an opinion piece published in the Daily Mail last week, British woman Samantha Brick told the world how awful it was to be an attractive woman. She wrote: ''I'm tall, slim, blonde and, so I'm often told, a good-looking woman. I know how lucky I am. But there are downsides to being pretty - the main one being that other women hate me for no other reason than my lovely looks.''

Her article is accompanied by a toe-curling photo of her smiling stiffly at the camera while an exercise machine lurks in the background. In another, her French husband, whose praises are loudly sung in her column, is apparently shielding her from unseen amorous onlookers.

It's shamefully easy to lampoon a moderately pretty blonde woman who bursts into print claiming her life has been blighted by the jealousy of other females.

And, of course, that's precisely what thousands of women have been doing on Twitter and Facebook.

''WHERE ON EARTH IS SHE LOOKING? I want her mirror,'' is typical. But so are comments suggesting women who admit they care about appearances are shallow traitors to the feminist cause.

And therein lies the cunning trap laid by those sages at the Daily Mail. Publish a piece claiming women are always at each others' throats and they will be at each others' throats in the comments section. (Sound of cash register: stage left.)

Beauty is an open wound in feminism. It's up there with pornography and the hot-blooded enjoyment of heterosexuality. We all know that beauty is pleasurable, however diverse its forms. We know that sexual desire doesn't always follow the rules. We know that some of us like to look - indeed, some of us can't help it.

So where's the feminist language that lets us speak about these things in a kind and honest manner?

Why is it still so hard to talk about female beauty without defaulting to patriarchal stereotypes that simultaneously praise feminine allure and denounce its bearer as shallow, vain and vapid?

The Western history of art is a textbook on female beauty - its charms and its supposed evils. Female nudes are often posed staring into a mirror or averting their eyes to demonstrate their self-absorption. The bonus is that the viewer is allowed to check them out without meeting their gaze.

The implicit contract - as Marxist art critic John Berger famously wrote - is that men look at women and women watch themselves being looked at. Men act, women appear.

It's a view that is still recited in feminist debates. I've sat on panels at writers' festivals and taken questions from astonishingly gorgeous young women in hipster jeans who are furious that men look at them as objects of sexual desire and nothing more.

If looks still determine our destiny as women, then I'm on their side.

But we do not need to jettison our appreciation of beauty to accept that women can be attractive, but also smart, determined, funny and generous. Can we entertain a world in which women can be sexy and beautiful - in their own minds and the minds of other men and women - as well as being everything else they are?

Why do the two domains, mind and body, cancel each other?

Feminism has taught us that the mind and the body should not be seen as separate. Men claimed the life of the mind for so long - and the privileges of public life that went with it. Abortion, rape, domestic violence, shame for having sex outside wedlock - they were all written on the female body and left for women to shoulder in the domestic sphere.

When we separate the mind and the body and see the former as more valuable, we forget where we came from. Bodies matter, pleasure matters, beauty matters.

Beauty, of course, is always apprehended. Like sexual desire, it doesn't bend itself to visual rules. Some beautiful women were born with a natural talent for it. Our Governor-General, Quentin Bryce; Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story; Charlotte Rampling naked on a table in Helmut Newton's portrait; Germaine Greer with legs going on forever promoting The Female Eunuch in 1970.

Some of us acquire beauty through living, enjoying ourselves and settling into our skins.

The art critic Robert Hughes told me that when he first set eyes on Eva Cox, one of Australia's iconic feminists, he found her so sexy it was hard to breathe. Eva was part of a bohemian set in the 1960s.

''It was her black stockings,'' Hughes said. ''And the fact that she knew who she was.''

Beauty matters but it should not matter for women in the way it once did. Appreciating or feeling beautiful is part of being human. Being reduced to simply being beautiful in the eyes of another is a kind of slavery.

The good news is that ideals of feminine beauty are broader than they once were, but there is still a long way to go before we leave behind conformist ideas about body shape, facial proportions and hairstyles.

I was sitting at lunch with my three closest girlfriends recently. I've known one since kindergarten and the others since early high school. We sat there laughing and I looked around and was struck by how beautiful they are.

The idea that women routinely compete over their attractiveness to men is rubbish.

Even in our teenage years, at our most insecure, my friends and I formed a bond against the wall of male attention or inattention. We knew there was more to life.

Professor Catharine Lumby is the director of UNSW's Journalism and Media Research Centre.

This opinion piece first appeared in The Sunday Age.