Samantha Brick + the perils of pretty girl syndrome ( + Ashley Judd bitch-slaps the media)
When I read the “women hate me because I’m beautiful” article by Samantha Brick, I rolled my eyes. I couldn’t help it. Samantha seemed a victim of what I think of as Pretty Girl Syndrome, which involves a confusion of your identity with your appearance. (“People don’t like me/my looks, thus they must be jealous of me/my looks.”)
Samantha is also buying into one of the favorite stories that our culture likes to tell itself about women: that we’re vain frivolous creatures at each others’ throats as we compete for male attention.
Pretty Girl Syndrome happens partly because of the way a girl gets used to seeing herself reflected back by the people around her. If people in general find you attractive, you tend to know, because they tell you (not all of them, but enough to get the point across). What you think of your looks can be beside the point: nobody can be beautiful to anybody all of the time, particularly ourselves to ourselves.
Beauty, including your own, isn’t static. It ranges along an octave or three. You have some great moments helped along by perfect lighting, and then there’s the rest of the time. Beauty is relative: someone who’s grown up stunning in a small, Midwestern town might barely make the grade in New York or LA. (In Los Angeles, people will distinguish between being “hot” and “LA-hot” with the tacit understanding that “LA-hot” is superior.) There’s also a difference between being what Tyra Banks once termed “street-fine” and “model-fine”. Someone who is drop-dead in real life might not transfer well to photographs – which demand a precise and technical kind of beauty — whereas models tend to look better in photographs than in reality (which is why meeting them in person can be kind of fascinating).
In her photographs, as has been widely and enthusiastically noted, Samantha Brick does not appear to be beautiful enough to justify her claims that women dislike her because she is beautiful. This doesn’t mean that, in real life, she isn’t (or wasn’t) exceptionally attractive in her own right.
It just points up how ridiculous her claims are.
Samantha believes that women hate her because this is the lesson she absorbed from a culture that loves to show women fighting, backstabbing and sniping at each other. Saying “she’s just jealous” is an easy fallback position – one which the culture encourages, not to mention sympathetic friends — instead of, say, a hard and brutal look at who you are and how you interact with others. And since nobody – but nobody – is liked by everybody all of the time (except for Oprah), there are enough opportunities over the years to practice the “she’s just jealous” mantra until it’s grooved in your brain.
But if women truly hated beautiful women, then women’s magazines wouldn’t be so populated with them. Beautiful women wouldn’t be used in the advertising – pitched to women — that those magazines depend upon for their existence. At least some beautiful women still manage to make – and keep – close girlfriends, which has a lot more to do with your ability to be interesting, trustworthy and cool to hang out with, than whether or not you look good in leather pants.
Women don’t resent beautiful women so much as the bullshit around beauty: the impossible standards fueled by retouched images of highly styled celebrities and models, the cost and effort of attaining and maintaining. Why does some loser passing you in the street have the power to “decide” if you’re hotornot – or where you rate on the scale from 1 to 10 — as if you’re supposed to care? And if you don’t care about being ‘hot’ in the conventional sense, where are the freaking alternatives? Aren’t there other ways, other options to choose from, when it comes to presenting yourself to the world?
What women want, in the end, isn’t airbrushed perfection. They want to feel comfortable in their skin, and to know that they are loved.
Two things that this culture doesn’t hand out in spades.
To say that you’re goodlooking is to set yourself up for slaughter.
Samantha Brick’s real crime is not, as many would claim, that she’s not as gorgeous in real life as she is in her head. It’s that she had the temerity to admit she’s good-looking at all.
It’s a funny thing. Donald Trump can boast that he’s greater than Jesus and Elvis combined and aside from some eye-rolling and a few snide comments about his hair, we accept the Trumpster as part of the pop cultural landscape. Samantha says, I’m dreamy and blokes fancy me and you would think, from the vitriol this inspired, that she had gone all Hannibal Lector and made a meal out of somebody…with fava beans and a nice Chianti.
I don’t think this is just about seeming arrogant or conceited. Overall, Samantha doesn’t strike me as a particularly confident woman (I could get all armchair-psychologist on her ass and suggest that the insecurity she senses in other women is her own, projected.)
You could argue that, well, Trump is obnoxious but he can back up his claims, more or less, while Samantha…?
But physical charisma is more complicated than what you might or might not see within the frozen moment of a photograph that might or might not be particularly flattering. Beauty and sex appeal are not synonymous with one another; you can have one without the other. And then there’s the eye-of-the-beholder thing. Nobody is beautiful to everybody; show me a supermodel and I’ll show you a forum in which her face and body are found decidedly lacking.
As in everything else, tastes vary.
One of my closest male friends had a longterm crush on the actress Helen Hunt. Hunt is charming, no question, but not necessarily the obvious choice for a twentysomething male to salivate over. My ex-husband has a taste for tall, thin, expensively attired blondes – but then (to my surprise and delight) developed a mild fascination with Rachael Ray, who is not these things.
Attraction comes in all shapes and sizes. Even when you think you have a ‘type’, someone can come along and surprise you. Sexual appeal is disruptive and subversive: it’s not confined to a particular class or group, it can’t be legislated, it’s not known for a considerate sense of timing, it has no respect for boundaries, it refuses to be as narrowly defined as the culture would have you think. It would have its wanton way with you and push you in any number of unexpected directions. It would hang you on the hook of your own longing.
I once saw an interview with Cher where she remarked that ‘sexy’ is a quality you have – or you don’t. If you have it, you know it. Charisma – that sense of presence that captures attention, intrigues, makes people want to come closer – requires a sense of confidence. A swagger. A coy look and an inviting grin. Sexy is a way of being in your skin: a body language, an attitude. It’s something you can turn up or turn down – or shut off.
There’s a well-known anecdote about Marilyn Monroe, in Norma Jean Baker mode, walking down a crowded street with a reporter. Nobody was paying attention to either of them. She turned to the reporter and said, “Do you want to see her…? Do you want to see Marilyn?” She walked ahead a few steps and her whole demeanor changed. She got into character. People immediately saw her, recognized her, and started flocking around her.
Marilyn was famous for being both sensual and childlike, as if she required the innocence of the latter to temper the carnal knowledge of the former. The idea that sexual appeal can be a conscious, deliberate performance cuts against the idea of the ingénue, who, as Peeta says about Katniss in the movie THE HUNGER GAMES, “has no idea of the effect she has.”
To be worldly, and aware of your seductive power, is to edge into the dangerous territory of the temptress. The femme fatale. The siren. These are characters who use their beauty and sex to exploit men and lure them to their doom, whether it’s Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden or Matty and Ned in the movie BODY HEAT (good movie). Female sexuality and morality have a history of being conflated: purity of body equals purity of mind, and to lose that purity is to risk being referred to quite literally as trash. Abstinence educators inform their students that
Your body is a wrapped lollipop. When you have sex with a man, he unwraps your lollipop and sucks on it.
It may feel great at the time, but, unfortunately, when he’s done with you, all you have left for your next partner is a poorly wrapped, saliva-fouled sucker.
You’re one step away from being a slut, or possibly a slut with ambition (ie: a golddigger). Which means you’re not even a person, just a “poorly wrapped, saliva-fouled sucker’: garbage. Is there any group of people quite so openly despised and dismissed in this culture, as that of the so-called trophy wife? When a woman pairs up with a wealthy man, the default assumption is that it’s a transaction: her beauty for his wealth. Ergo, she’s a whore. If he’s not careful, she’ll take him for everything he’s worth. (The idea that he might be exploiting her somehow rarely comes up, even if he discards her. Boys will be boys.) The cultural belief running underneath this set of assumptions is that sexually confident women must be predatory and dangerous.
So women, particularly young women, find themselves in a tricky position in a hypersexualized, Girls Gone Wild culture that teaches them to lead with their sexuality — only to turn around and condemn them for it. The compromise seems to be that you can be sexy and goodlooking if you don’t really know that you’re sexy and goodlooking; if it’s a “who, me?” kind of accident, and you talk about how ugly you were as a child and/or how much you hate your thighs. What results is a failure to own your sexuality, to see it as an aspect of your identity that you can play up or play down as the situation warrants. You can’t control what you don’t admit to having in the first place.
In her book POWERING UP, Anne Doyle remarks on how women of the Millennial generation continue to shock their female elders by their failure to “dress for success”:
If I’ve heard that complaint once, I’ve heard it at least 100 times from mystified professional women who are astonished at the inappropriate ways legions of young women are dressing for work…[Young women] with leadership ambitions are underestimating the confusing signals they are sending, particularly to men, when they wear sexy clothing at work. [Older women] in particular, who struggled so mightily to emerge from the confining box that measured women first on their “physical assets”, are watching in stunned amazed at the way young women are boldly playing – some would say misplaying – the sex card….Women who aspire to leadership must be highly conscious about not sending mixed signals with their clothing.
If you don’t own your sexuality, the question becomes: who does? And to what end?
In a recent article in The Daily Beast, actress Ashley Judd writes:
The Conversation about women’s bodies exists largely outside of us, while it is also directed at (and marketed to) us, and used to define and control us. The Conversation about women happens everywhere, publicly and privately. We are described and detailed, our faces and bodies analyzed and picked apart, our worth ascertained and ascribed based on the reduction of personhood to simple physical objectification. Our voices, our personhood, our potential, and our accomplishments are regularly minimized and muted.
She uses herself as an example:
When I have gained weight, going from my usual size two/four to a six/eight after a lazy six months of not exercising, and that weight gain shows in my face and arms, I am a “cow” and a “pig” and I “better watch out” because my husband “is looking for his second wife.” (Did you catch how this one engenders competition and fear between women? How it also suggests that my husband values me based only on my physical appearance? Classic sexism. We won’t even address how extraordinary it is that a size eight would be heckled as “fat.”)
But her conversation about The Conversation can just as easily apply these days to Kelly Clarkson or Jessica Simpson. The message being sent to these women is very clear. You don’t get to decide what looks good or feels good when it comes to your appearance. We do. Beauty isn’t something you generate within you; beauty has nothing to do with who you are as a person; your potential and accomplishments mean nothing. We dictate the standards. We give you beauty, and we can take it away.
Any attitude that openly conflicts with this – like, say, a profound sense of confidence in your own appeal, the declaration that “I am attractive whether or not you actually think so” – has to be shot down: not just to put the woman in her place, to “control and define” her, but as an example and a warning to others.
In her article, Ashley Judd is sharply aware of the fact that it’s often women doing this to other women:
Patriarchy is not men. Patriarchy is a system in which both women and men participate. It privileges, inter alia, the interests of boys and men over the bodily integrity, autonomy, and dignity of girls and women. It is subtle, insidious, and never more dangerous than when women passionately deny that they themselves are engaging in it. This abnormal obsession with women’s faces and bodies has become so normal that we (I include myself at times—I absolutely fall for it still) have internalized patriarchy almost seamlessly. We are unable at times to identify ourselves as our own denigrating abusers, or as abusing other girls and women.
Whenever a woman participates in this Conversation that denigrates someone like Ashley Judd or Jessica Simpson – or, for that matter, Samantha Brick – she is only strengthening the patriarchal frame that sets the terms for this dialogue and controls it. It doesn’t just frame the way women are discussed, but the way they are thought about and perceived, and the criteria by which all girls and women get judged. Are you hotornot. What are you on a scale of 1 to 10. You’re old, you’re a pig, watch out or you won’t keep your husband.
I, for one, would like to change the conversation.
Raise your hand or honk your horn if you agree.