Friday, December 12, 2008


Young women today know that talent matters, but that they will go farther if they have the looks to go with them.

Last night, among an audience of high-achieving teenage girls, I found myself a little in awe. How come no one has spots any more? Why are they better groomed, dressed and poised than I am even now? What's with this Identikit babe- licious hair: long, artfully dishevelled, flicked with the imperiousness of a Louis XV courtesan.

These are children raised in an age of supermaterialism. They know their precise market worth, are savvily aware of their assets and oversee them like hedge fund managers. I can imagine many such girls in a few years time entering beauty competitions such as Miss University London - this week picketed by student feminists - using it to extract a gorgeous ballgown from dad, pouting and preening, partying through defeat, then proceding with the business of conquering the world.

As the economy slip-slides towards the 1970s, how appropriate to revive that lava lamp of the sex wars: are beauty contests misogynist? Especially as it is exactly 40 years since “women's libbers” descended on Atlantic City for what they called the “degrading mindless-boob-girlie symbol”, the Miss America pageant, where they filled a brazier with bras, false eyelashes, tweezers, back issues of glossy magazines and suchlike “freedom trash”.

The protesters outside this week's contest echoed the old plea that women be judged for their brains, not their beauty. But what has happened in the past four decades is that women are now measured by both. A woman can be a presidential hopeful, Home Secretary, a classical violinist, the driest of academics, yet she will be judged most harshly upon her appearance and must take care not to neglect her mindless-boob-girlie side.

Today's young women work to that understanding: they aspire to a seat on the board and to look great in a basque. Thanks to decades of hairy-legged protest, no professional field is closed to them. Their grades and talent matter, but they know, all else being equal, they'll go farther faster by looking hot.

So schools now pander to this, having their prettier pupils parade in fashion shows. With a trend for cheerleaders, proms and balls, British education seems to be moving ever closer to the US model of teendom as an explicit contest of beauty and popularity.

So it was heartening that young women students - rather just than the usual Sixties suspects - spoke out against beauty contests. For a decade now, feminism has fallen oddly silent, few voices raised against the pornification of popular culture that has rebranded clip joints as entertainment, pole-dancing as “empowering” and Carnage freshers' balls, in which women are expected to dress as “dirty porn stars”, as innocent fun. Little surprise that for their efforts the protesters were dubbed rabid, jealous and - what else? - ugly.

The American columnist Maureen Dowd noted that women have latterly abandoned feminism for narcissism. As London's neo-libbers may find out, it is wearisome to be forever angry. It takes courage and cussedness not to care that the world thinks you a dog. Easier, more fun to lighten up, go shopping, hang out at the spa and get laid for once.

Moreover, it is no longer just girls who are beseiged by beauty's demands. Listening to the young EastEnders buck Joe Swash on I'm a Celebrity... remark that his backside was his best feature, I wondered when we started grading the male form on its constituent parts. Women have long been a sum of their legs, tits and ass. Now men must have butts, abs, pecs and - as the Strictly Come Dancing rugby player Austin Healey dubs his Popeye biceps - “guns”. The modern male body beautiful is not natural but wholly contrived. Look at the sex gods of the Seventies - Richard Gere in American Gigolo, John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever - and their once lusted-after torsos seem soft and slack where now we expect hardbodied and buff.

There has never been a crueller age in which to be ugly. Once plain Jane looks were a misfortune, now they are a sign of negligence. Go to the gym, see Gok, read Grazia, get a surgeon to sort out that schnozz. No excuses suffice any more. Your Heat-reading contemporaries will look on you with pity and disgust, mentally ringing “circles of shame” around your unwaxed pits and dimpled thighs.

I'm not worrying too hard about the Miss University London contestants dipping a pedicured toe into beauty's shallower end. (Better that show than one I saw advertised in a London nightclub: Miss Real Breasts.) The finalists will go on, in a few years, to be the hottie in accounts, the babe at the Bradford branch. Their worst misfortune will be to start taking their looks too seriously, drift into reality TV or acquire an eating disorder. They are buttressed by education and privilege. Their beauty is only a first-class upgrade: not their ticket to ride.

Unlike the wan girls who hang outside model agencies, the plastic-chested glamour wannabes, the boy-pleasing desperates who send snaps of their breasts to be graded by Nuts magazine or the contestants in the savage professional beauty circuit. The Miss World and Universe contests are regarded as kitsch-fests in the West. Our beauty icons drifted from amateur to professional, from nervous provincial girls in C&A swimwear to supermodels and, latterly, Hollywood stars. Beauty queens were good girls: rigid rules punished promiscuity, pregnancy, even marriage. Maybe we like our chicks a bit dirtier these days.

Today the big beauty titles are fought over by nations with little but pride and pretty girls. The winners come mainly from South America and the former Eastern bloc. The present Miss Universe, Dayana Mendoza, raised in a two-room house in Caracas, was spotted, at the age of 13, at a bus stop. Venezuela has churned out more champs than any other nation, because it has a plastic surgeon on its national team unscrupulous enough to give breast implants to still-growing 17-year-olds. “This isn't a nature contest,” said the country's beauty queen-maker Osmel Sousa. “It's a beauty contest.” Quite.

When the backs of women's magazines are crammed with plastic surgery adverts, how can we tell our daughters that looks don't matter, that character will out. Especially when we defy the notion that beauty is fleeting, when we strive to cling to good looks unto the grave.

So this is the post-feminist age - equal face lifts for all in a mindless-boob-girlie world :)

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