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Not Just a Pretty Face

24/05/2013 16:43 BST | Updated 24/07/2013 10:12 BST
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In chess, there is a tactic called 'The Cleavage Attack'. This is where a woman leans in, her breasts pressing towards the table behind her opponent's troops, so disconcerting him that she wins the game. Is this the kind of game we want to play? Is this the kind of recipe for success that we want to write? That is one of the subjects for debate at 'How The Light Gets In', the festival of philosophy and music which runs down by the river at Hay, in parallel with the literary festival. The premise is that we openly discriminate in favour of intelligence. The question is whether this is a mistake: ought we to prize beauty as much as brains? Or, to put it in the terms of Catherine Hakim, one of the panellists, ought we to maximise and reward erotic capital?

Er, no. Putting aside the fact that I'm not even sure that we do discriminate in favour of intelligence (the royal family, anyone?), I'm pretty sure that (where it's capaciously understood and where relevant) we ought to. So, I could not care less whether my dentist is dishy, I just want her to deliver me from this infernal ache. I wouldn't choose an aircraft mechanic on the basis of his biceps, except insofar they help me stay alive. And ideally, call me Tony, but I'd like politicians to be bright. I'm not bothered if they're bald or - horror! - didn't go to Eton. Even (or especially?) a supermodel has to have her wits about her.

It's not simply that it's often efficient to value intelligence, but that it diminishes us when we value and isolate aspects of ourselves that ought not to be relevant in the given context. If I get an academic post because the interview panel fancy me, everybody is demeaned in the exchange. Although the dualist picture of minds separated from bodies has mercifully been effaced, it still makes sense to say that I want to be valued for my mind, that I do not want to be reduced to an object. Or perhaps, to speak more accurately, I want to be valued for my whole self. As soon as others start to carve me into bits - into how I look and how I dress, into tits and arse - I fall apart. Even when we range further, beyond the formal confines of our public lives into our most intimate relationships, it is still my unified self that I want in the room. A self, moreover, whose disparate parts are arguably held together by a unique intelligence - that principle from which each of us as integrated agents emanate.

Which brings me to the most important point: brains and beauty play out radically differently depending on whether you are a man or a woman. A man can have both, Don Draper's undeniable physical virtues running seamlessly into his executive prowess. Whereas Joan walks an impossible tightrope, her ferocious intellect undermined by her bodily splendour with every exquisite step she takes. And this isn't just a postcard from history; even the woman who had reached the highest office in the land was recently leered over at her death, as commentator after commentator lined up to explain, in a way that would be unimaginable about her male counterparts, how Margaret Thatcher had 'used' her femininity to succeed.

It is painful enough for a woman to know how to think about her body. Here's culture, screaming at us on the one hand to be sexy, and on the other not to be sluts. And here's nature, permeating social interaction with both desire and revulsion. Erotic capital thrives well enough on its own - rethreading inequalities between men and women, to say nothing of disability, race and sexuality. The last thing we need is the intellectual establishment telling us that 'beauty', that most euphemistic of concepts, needs an extra shove, threatening to slice us up again, turning us back into objects and our bodies into instruments. My mother fought hard to be more than just a pretty face.

Hannah Dawson will be speaking at this year's HowTheLightGetsIn, the world's largest philosophy and music festival held in association with the Huff Post UK. For more information, see www.howthelightgetsin.org