Monday, April 9, 2012

Samantha Brick Says Women Hate Her Because She's Beautiful--Could She Be Right?

I just saw this post over on Good Enough Mother about British writer Samantha Brick and her article for the Daily Mail about how much her beauty has been a bane to her success. As you might expect, the backlash was fast and furious, with many people taking to the comments to call her conceited, point out that she actually isn't very beautiful, and speculate on her mental stability. She responded to the backlash on a morning show:


Without doubt, there are phrases in her interview and original article that I can definitely see setting people off. 

If you’re a woman reading this, I’d hazard that you’ve already formed your own opinion about me — and it won’t be very flattering. For while many doors have been opened (literally) as a result of my looks, just as many have been metaphorically slammed in my face — and usually by my own sex. 
I’m not smug and I’m no flirt, yet over the years I’ve been dropped by countless friends who felt threatened if I was merely in the presence of their other halves. If their partners dared to actually talk to me, a sudden chill would descend on the room.
I think that what's making people so angry in their response is three-fold: (1) she's going against standards of modesty by being so direct with her belief in her own beauty (2) she's tapping into notions of competition and simultaneously taking a passive-agressive stance that she's already won and (3) she's calling into question the way women treat each other when it comes to perceptions of beauty, and we don't want to have to actually look at that too closely.

I'm not saying that those who are calling this woman conceited, superficial, or even out-of-touch are wrong. It's just that whether or not she's conceited isn't as interesting to me as why the backlash to her has been so overwhelmingly negative.

After all plenty of celebrities--take Keri Hilson's "Pretty Girl Rock" for example--have sent some version of this message and been applauded for it as confident and powerful.


So let's take a closer look at what's operating in Brick's claim that her beauty isolates her from other women. 

Standards of Modesty

Women get conflicting narratives about modesty. We're supposed to be self-confident because we're told time and time again that confidence is a sign of strength. Women who love their bodies and talk about their own beauty are often seen as powerful. 

Consider videos like Destiny's Child's "Bootylicious":


Or just about any ad featuring a model for a beauty product, like these two from Estee Lauder:


The trope of embracing yourself as beautiful is so popular that it can be reclaimed as a way to subvert the traditional standards of beauty, as in this image: 

Source

So why are so many women who embrace themselves as beautiful in these contexts deemed "empowered" while Brick is seen as conceited?

One issue is the way in which Brick defines her sense of beautiful, and I think this is the most telling detail of all. In the article, her evidence that she is beautiful is entirely derived from men. She notes that women don't trust her around their husbands, men have bought train tickets for her, men frequently send her bottles of champagne, refuse her credit card at the bar, open doors for her. In other words, her sense of beauty is entirely wrapped up in being treated as an object to admire by men. 

I'm not even entirely sure that she thinks this is a good thing. In her video response (right around the six minute mark) the hosts of the morning show ask Brick if she "definitely believes" she is "very good looking." She responds, "It's not that I believe it. I believe the perception of me." Once pressed, she does admit that she thinks she's beautiful, but I can't get past that initial reaction because--in the way that beauty is framed in society--isn't that what we tend to go on? "I believe in the perception of me" is another way of saying "I let others define me." 

What happens with Brick's definition of beauty is that it becomes something of a zero-sum game. If she is the most beautiful woman in the room (or the train station, or at the bar), then she has--essentially--"won," even if that definition is entirely determined by external factors that turn her into an object to be gazed upon. And that brings us to the next problem: competition. 

Competition

I wrote about the way that women are trained to see one another as a threat when it comes to competing for men in this series on music videos, but here we see it playing out in real life. Brick sees herself as beautiful because of the attention she gets from men, but she also sees herself as beautiful because of the (negative) attention she gets from women. She thinks that women are reluctant to befriend her. She had a boss who started demeaning her and criticizing her clothing choices when the boss began putting on weight. What I read from this is that Brick is picking up on the competitive nature of beauty and is now---passive aggressively--asserting that, when beauty is the thing at stake, she will win. 

But that's not how women are supposed to act! We're supposed to say that we're beautiful and believe in our own power while simultaneously ripping apart our bodies' imperfections. It's why we need pore minimizers, push-up bras, Spanx, press-on nails, and every other accoutrement that allows us to counter our natural deficiencies. And we're supposed to point out those deficiencies to our selves and--by all means--to one another. 

It's practically a bonding ritual to lament body woes, as this scene from Mean Girls (yeah, I dropped in a Mean Girls reference--what?) dramatizes:



And that brings me to the third and final reason I think people are reacting so negatively to Samantha Brick: the way women are "supposed" to treat each other is atrocious, and we don't want to think about it.

The Limits of Sisterhood

The thing that makes us really mad about Brick is that she's not following the script. In that script, we all want to be beautiful. We understand that beauty is not necessarily in our control (and we even understand that, often, standards of beauty can be a way to take our control by making us objects), but we know that in the end it is empowering to see ourselves as beautiful. We're not intimidated by women who see themselves as beautiful as long as they do it in the right way. They have to allow us to project ourselves into that fantasy as well. "Bootylicious" shows images of all kinds of women seeing themselves as beautiful. All those advertisements tell us that we can have that beauty, too--for a price. This commodified beauty ignores the element of competition, and it's that element that Brick has brought so forcefully to the forefront.  Sometimes, if someone else is getting a drink bought for her, it means you aren't. Sometimes, if someone else is beautiful, it means you're not.

And that means that we are competing. Maybe we're competing against women we'll never actually have to talk to. Maybe we're at the gym and see a stranger in a too-tight shirt on the treadmill and feel a little moment of glee. Or maybe we spend time looking at pictures that "expose" celebrities without make-up in unflattering poses so that we can tell ourselves they're not a threat. Maybe, when our best friend talks about how much she hates her thick thighs, we play our part and immediately lament our flabby stomachs, but inside we're secretly glad that our thighs are thinner than hers. 

It's the same competition that Ashley Judd so masterfully talked about in this Daily Beast post about the judgment over her "puffy" appearance. (Go read the whole thing; she's fantastic). In part, she points to these vicious attacks on her appearance as what they are: signs of an oppressive patriarchal system.
That women are joining in the ongoing disassembling of my appearance is salient. Patriarchy is not men. Patriarchy is a system in which both women and men participate. . . It is subtle, insidious, and never more dangerous than when women passionately deny that they themselves are engaging in it. . .We are unable at times to identify ourselves as our own denigrating abusers, or as abusing other girls and women.
She goes on to point to the ways that this encourages women to tear one another down and how the system that focuses on "beauty" can turn us into objects:
I ask especially how we can leverage strong female-to-female alliances to confront and change that there is no winning here as women. It doesn’t actually matter if we are aging naturally, or resorting to surgical assistance. We experience brutal criticism. The dialogue is constructed so that our bodies are a source of speculation, ridicule, and invalidation, as if they belong to others—and in my case, to the actual public.  
However it is that women compete and tear one another down, the competition is hidden, under the surface, and not to be spoken of. Discussing this competition out loud exposes us all as delicate objects precariously perched upon the label of "beautiful" and shows us just how quickly we could fall, and maybe--at the end of the day--that's why we're so mad at Samantha Brick. 

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Comments are welcome and encouraged. I appreciate debate and have no problem hearing from people who disagree. This is a space where people can question and discuss. That said, I will delete comments that contain name-calling or bigotry. If it would get you kicked out of a dinner party, don't say it here. Use your manners.