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Lynne Parker

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Intellect Should Mean More Than Good Looks

Posted: 19/04/2012 01:00

At what point does intellect and gravitas supersede the public preoccupation with looks and age? This is something that women uniquely have to contend with once they achieve high status or a profile in the media. Nobody questions older, fatter, poorly groomed or scruffy men who appear on the television or speak in public. But, intellectual pursuit and professional prowess does not excuse you from the media's obsession with appearance if you are an older woman.

Take the recent tirade that classicist and Cambridge don Mary Beard has had to endure in the run up to the launch of her new television series exploring the life of the Romans. She gets a real drubbing for forgetting to brush her hair or daring to appear without even a slick of lip-gloss! Shocking!

Refreshingly Mary has got better things to do with her time. In a recent Guardian article about what she sees in the mirror she said, "Never mind the masochism of Botox, I can't even imagine dying my hair. It's not just the boring hours it would take. It's that every time you did it, you'd be reminded that you were hiding something. And how do you stop once you've started?"

At the other extreme, the highly regarded French former politician and managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, is constantly subjected to close media scrutiny due to her sense of style rather than her obvious professional abilities!

A whole section of the website ukhairdressers.com is dedicated to her 'various' hairstyles! At least they have repeated her hugely impressive Wikipedia profile alongside the pictures.

Surely we can look past the physical attributes of prominent older women and celebrate their merits beyond their choice of hair colour, cosmetics or fashion label? We don't talk about male politicians or television presenters in terms of their hairstyles, how much weight they've gained or lost, or how the colour of their tie complements their complexion.

It's not surprising that savvy stateswomen like HRH The Queen and Baroness Thatcher have adopted an impervious unchangeable veneer to counteract this - both are defined by their handbags and rigid hairstyles! Both have been portrayed in biopics by famous older actresses who've had to breath fictional life into their private lives to make them accessible for a public audience.

You'd have thought that the comedy world would be one where women would be exempt from close physical scrutiny. Surely all that matters is that you make people laugh? But no, once again female comics are defined by their weight, age, colour, glasses, dress sense and sexuality in a way that men really aren't. Only gay female comics seem to escape the appearance radar because they exude a neutrality that's more difficult to categorise. Yet this conversely provides another pigeon hole by which 'all' women in comedy get labelled as lesbians! Jo Brand is on record as saying that audiences were surprised when she 'came out' as straight and fessed up to a husband and two daughters!

I'm as guilty as the next women, because I have been conditioned to be judgemental about other women based on how they look. I was brought up on a diet of women's magazines and even spent the first part of my career writing for them. 35 years on and I'm shocked at how the images of women are warped by photoshop and how invisible older women are in the media.

First appearances are how we 'sum each other up', it's the virtual prowl to suss out the competition. In the animal kingdom, females are competing with other females for their biological mate - preferably the fittest and most powerful male in the pack. We are inherently competitive because we want to ensure that we produce the healthiest and most attractive progeny. Put into a business context this instinctive behaviour can have explosive connotations, which has created the metaphor of the 'glass ceiling'. It's not men who put it there, but other women keeping their adversaries at a safe distance.

Yet women are at their most successful and powerful in collaboration, with our offspring around us, the cook pot on the fire and the men away at the hunt. Once all the competing is out of the way, we relax, get things done, teach our children, become wiser and learn to love each other.Looks should become less important where wisdom prevails - it does for men.

Although some of us strive to fight off the middle-aged spread, grey hairs and fine lines, it really is what's inside that counts. It is for this reason that we need to look beyond the appearance of our female elders in the public eye. Let us get on with it in all our post-menopausal glory. I'd pitch a twinkly Mary Beard any day against Dr Brian Cox and Christine Lagarde has to be one of the most elegant business leaders in the world right now - and this has absolutely nothing to do with what she looks like.

 

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