Image via: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/fd/Angela_Merkel_%282008%29.jpg
We may never know whether or not the shamed Italian ex-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi described German Chancellor Angela Merkel thus, as quizzed, rather combatitively by the the great Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight last week (although, I admit, I viewed it on Gogglebox). But in a sense it doesn’t matter. It’s opened the debate about how women’s looks affect them in the workplace, and for that, it is no bad thing.
There’s a well-stated correlation between attractiveness and success. But it’s occurred to me of late that women who really go places never trade on their looks at all. Oh yes, the Sheryl Sandbergs of this world are impressive by any standard. But certainly the women holding rank with most CEOs today, many of whom make the grade in their late fourties and fifties, (ie. those who blazed a trail before Sandberg and her ilk had made it possible for young women to be contenders for the top spot, helped along by young, innovative, fast growing industries), are, not to put too fine a point on it, somewhat plainer.
(Although personally, I think Merkel is rather beautiful, but sexually attractive? Perhaps no longer.)
A classic example, Margaret Thatcher looked, whilst in power, rather like a over-coiffered version of someone’s ageing mum. She may have been a sex symbol among a certain type of man. But she was no Marilyn Monroe, who was born just a year later. It’s an apt comparison. Simply fucking the President, it seems, will get you nowhere.
Continuing in politics, the wonderful Ann Widdecombe, MP for Maidstone when I was growing up there, became well-loved despite, it must be said, having a rather toad-like – yet still, for that, entirely charming – demeanour. Her anti-looks stance allowed her to rise above the usual snipes aimed at female politicians of a more conventionally attractive persuasion. A more recent parliamentary candidate, Louise Mensch, noted for her looks – and it has to be said – the frivolity of her previous incarnation as the writer of chick lit – bowed out of the political arena amid accusations of cyber bullying, much of entirely sexist. It’s probably not a fair comparison, but it illustrates the point that when it comes to gaining power, particularly in politics, women’s looks are not their best friend. Except, perhaps, by proxy. ie. when women marry into it, which is itself is entirely precarious when their looks begin to fade.
But it is hardly surprising that women trade on what is often, in youth, their most powerful asset. I am a case in point. A stripper, I married, perhaps unwisely, a customer 8 years older than myself. Partly, it has to be said, and few would be this honest, for the financial security he offered me. As it turns out he is also a really nice bloke, if something of a gentle sociopath. But many in my then-situation would not be so lucky. I made the cardinal error of relying on someone else, when I was perfectly capable of relying on myself. In an imperfect society, it is what women are often conditioned, or perhaps only able, to do.
Time has moved on, the financial crisis has been and gone. I am now the same age my husband was when he met me. The tables have turned and I’m now pretty much the main breadwinner. I have gone from being the somewhat decorative wife of a man with more financial power than me to being a genuinely level player. It feels really, really good.
But as a stripper, I knew more than most the market value of my looks and that they were a depreciating asset. If the archetype of female sexual attractiveness dictated by pornography is correct (and as the world of porn is dictated by market forces, it must be) then it is a very fragile sort of woman who is deemed the most sexually alluring. Strippers’ unwieldy plastic heels, like concubine’s bound feet before them, are sexually potent because of their literally unstable posture and subservient symbolism.
The ideal of female beauty is all about being tamed. The effort alone maintaining said ‘beauty’ is limiting enough, what with all the hair removal, and highlights. It can become hard to get anything useful done. Add to that the pain of breast enlargements, lip plumpers, a body not damaged by childbirth. In fact, a body, which is probably 22 at most. The fleeting sexual power beauty offers is all too soon over. In an unfair world, where men have more power, women are slaves to their desires, too soon dispensed with if they are unable to gain power of their own.
I was lucky that I had a back-up plan carved in the days when when beauty was the least of my assets, for when the best of my looks had passed. Many don’t. I was a geeky swot in my early teens and probably considered a bit of a fright: a late bloomer, with braces and an ill advised fringe; acne scrawling a signature of misery across my beleaguered face, and glasses (although I only ever needed them for close work) which I insisted on wearing all the time to avoid the pain of being looked at directly. I cowered in books until I was deemed socially acceptable enough to fraternise with. But when it mattered, I was cultivating the basis of my other, more long lived asset – my education.
My lapdancing days – perhaps in some ways overcompensating for having been considered plain in my youth – paid off – for uni, which I left with a top degree, then later, internships and a foot on the property ladder before I met my husband, which whom I quickly produced two children. I may have learned early on not to rely on my looks for social success, but I fell, career wise, at the first hurdle of being found attractive. It’s taken an effort of will to get my career back on track. Yet by hook or by crook, I have done it.
I think the way I look has helped me on my way but this won’t always be the case. In this new employment, looking glossy and smelling nice might have made for a smoother interview, but knuckling down with greasy hair is what’s going to win me promotions, not turning up late with my nails did. At nearly 34, the time to trade on my looks is over And knowing this is the key to success in later life for women who’s looks can no longer be relied on as a social lubricant – at least, according to the opposite sex. But for a while, being thought attractive can help more than it hinders.
On Facebook, yesterday, after a glass or two of wine, I got drawn into a debate about this, rather hackneyed piece of content from The Onion, which suggests, albeit humorously, that attractive women have a better chance of getting an internship and thus their foot in the door of a company.
In my experience, I would venture it may well be true. I certainly felt the way I looked helped me into my first job. Pointy of chin, with eyes like a marmoset, I’m not conventionally beautiful, by any means. But with a young looking baby face and the right tools, I can make a good enough approximation of it – even if I do say so myself. Curvy and fair, with longish legs in a shortish dress with a hefty but subtle coating of makeup, I can make the grade as ‘fit’ in a certain types of man’s book.But only if I feel like it. These days, I pass most of my time unnoticed in leggings. I get more done that way. Looks, I believe, are as destructive as they can be constructive.
The study I provided at the beginning of this piece about the correlation between beauty and success also found a link between being thought attractive and negative performance evaluation. This has certainly been my experience too.
The beholder with the power in this particular employment ,where I walked in as an intern was, naturally enough, a man, and after offering me a fairly spurious role, for which I was entirely overqualified, he continued to make slightly sexist remarks at me for at least the first half of my employment, to the discomfort, and slightly ruffled feathers of all. When it became apparent that I was not the young grad he took me for in my interview – I was in fact, a mother of two, trying, desperately, to break back into the workforce – and that I wouldn’t stand for much nonsense, didn’t always go down well with the powers that be, who wanted me, in effect, to be young, naive, powerless.
Women with a modicum of power within the organisation, (many of them who likely traded on their looks too in the past) did their best to undermine me, and I was subjected to disciplinary procedures for relatively trivial misdemeanours, before being ousted just shy of two years, having make the schoolgirl error of sleeping with the wrong person. Except I wasn’t a schoolgirl. I was a 30-something mother of two who should have, but didn’t, know better.
But when I was a school girl, when perhaps it matters most what others think of you, I felt considered largely “unfuckable” by many of my peers. So again, I was probably compensating for something. We all do. For all we must accept that women, like men, have sex for any number of reasons, I certainly bore the brunt of that poor decision. So much, my own fault, you might think. It didn’t matter that I was good at my job. I had made my bed, so to speak. It’s a mistake I won’t be making twice.
Being pretty may, therefore, help women up the ladder to success. But only to a rather low rung. And it may actually harm their career once they’ve got their foot in the door. Attractive women have always threatened the status quo. In an unequal society where men hold more power, it is all too easy for men to leave their wives and children for a younger, more attractive model. Like any women who has used her looks as collateral in the past, I know they can threatening. But only, it seems, to those who have also used their looks to get ahead, as I previously mentioned on this blog about women undermining women in the workplace.
It’s natural for women (particularly in a competitive workplace scenario) to feel threatened by a woman with a higher sexual market value – I hate to use these terms, beloved of men on Tinder and the likes of “prostitute-comparison site” Punter.net, but these things exist.However, it’s generally women who have throw a lot of their eggs, so to speak, in the ‘looks’ basket, who feel most threatened. Women who bank on their looks for success, particularly, success by proxy, or marrying someone richer and more powerful, are playing a very dangerous game, one I know all too well.
The Mary Beards (a TV historian of considerable import, described once by that pinnacle of public school macho idiocy, AA Gill as “too ugly for TV”) and Angela Merkels of this world, having never banked on their looks, have long since dispensed with the notion of using their faces and bodies for anything other than talking considerable sense and getting things done. They learn, early on, to throw off any criticism levelled at their looks, particularly, these days, where it is freely and liberally expressed, rather cruelly, online. They get their kicks from intimidating others with the force of their wit, not the size of their tits. Good for them. Other women may not so blessed – or at least, don’t need to use their wits until their looks begin to fail them, when it might just be too late.
So if you’re a women who really wants to get ahead, using your looks to your advantage is a short term strategy that will very likely backfire. Even men, as poor, ageing pretty-boy actor Rob Lowe can testify are not immune from feeling discriminated against for their good looks. It’s not fair, but beauty or sexual attractiveness seem to be considered so distracting to being a serious person, I’m finally happy to give it all up a bit, even though I do, on occasions, still like to feel glam. But ultimately, power is more important than sex appeal, as Berlusconi himself would doubtless agree.
Consider this: had Angela Merkel, known in her home state as “mutti” or ‘mummy,’ been flattered by the lascivious attentions of Berlusconi, who said, in same the Paxman interview, he wanted to be remembered as the father of his country, but is rather more infamous for alleged and deeply inappropriate liaisons with underage prostitutes, then the whole of Europe, if not the world, could have been de-stabilised.
Perhaps it is better for everyone that he, and perhaps many men, regard Merkel as ‘unfuckable,’ so she can get on with the rather more esteemed and dignified work of sorting out the rest of Europe’s troubles; many, perhaps caused by incautious men on the spend, trying very hard to impress young, “fuckable” women.
The problem with being pretty is that you are more likely to be flattered into submission by men in power, who subsequently have you at their mercy. Which is never a good position to be in.
But you don’t get more powerful than Merkel. I’ll hazard a guess that Berlusconi probably doesn’t like that very much, which like all threatened people, makes him resort to playground bully boy tactics of seeking to undermine women by criticism their looks. I doubt she is insecure enough to be bothered.