For Women, All the World is a Pageant

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The comments on tennis player Marion Bartoli’s appearance illustrate just how much women are still judged on looks instead of accomplishments.

A week ago last Saturday, Marion Bartoli won the women’s singles title at Wimbledon. As is my custom with all tennis players, male or female, I thought she won because of her athleticism, skill and tenacity. Clearly I was naive in my beliefs and did not realize that female players also have to be beautiful in order to ‘deserve’ such an award. My ignorance was quickly corrected when BBC commentator John Inverdale said: “I just wonder if her dad, because he has obviously been the most influential person in her life, did say to her when she was 12, 13, 14 maybe, ‘listen, you are never going to be, you know, a looker.'”

Wow! I had no idea that her appearance was what was most important to her career as a professional tennis player. Silly me! I thought it was her strength, self-discipline, strategic ability and talent but, then again, I am not a highly-paid sports announcer. Inverdale has come under a lot of fire for his remark, so let me clarify what was right about it. Oh, wait, nothing was right about it. It wasn’t funny, it wasn’t helpful, it wasn’t kind and it wasn’t even good commentating. The BBC generously allowed that the remark was “insensitive” and required Inverdale to issue an insincere apology of the “I’m sorry if anyone was offended” variety.

Unfortunately, Inverdale was not the only person commenting on Bartoli’s appearance. There have been so many cruel and sexist tweets that someone set up a Tumblr page detailing many of them. If you read it (and it’s not for the faint of heart), you will be saddened and disgusted by the level of vitriol directed toward a woman who has done nothing but provide a shining example of physical prowess and grace. For example, when asked about Inverdale’s comment, Bartoli replied, “It doesn’t matter, honestly. I am not blonde, yes. That is a fact. Have I dreamt about having a model contract? No. I’m sorry. But have I dreamed about winning Wimbledon? Absolutely, yes. And to share this moment with my dad was absolutely amazing and I am so proud of it. I am sure I will be able to watch the DVD of the match over and over again and look at the picture of me when I am holding it [the trophy] in my arms. That is the most important thing to me and not what I can do outside of the court.”

Bartoli’s reply was wonderful and I, for one, am delighted that she doesn’t want a modeling contract, although I would be supportive of her own line of tennis gear. However, while I’m glad that Bartoli demonstrated the class that Inverdale and all those Twitter idiots didn’t, the whole situation just points out how much women’s app,.earance matters (see “Here’s Looking at You, Kid: The Power in Focusing on Women’s Looks”). Women are expected to look good for men regardless of who they are or what they are doing. For example, a dental assistant in Iowa was fired from her job because her married boss found her sexy and was afraid that they would have an affair. Interested parties might note that the assistant’s dress was not deemed inappropriate (i.e., she was not trying to look sexy) and she never expressed any sexual interest in her boss. He just believed that they would start an affair because he wanted to. His arrogance is breath-taking, and were I a woman in his neck of the woods, I wouldn’t even consider patronizing his practice. After all, he might decide that he would have an affair with me and then where would I be?

Women also are treated differently based on how we look. If Marion Bartoli looked like Maria Sharapova, she probably would not have struggled to get sponsors. You also can bet that the Tumblr page never would have been created, because those same idiots would be satisfied with her success. But some men do get it. In an interview for the American Film Institute, actor Dustin Hoffman talked about his realization about how painful the emphasis on appearance is for women when he discovered that he could not be made into a beautiful woman for his role in the movie Tootsie (which is a great movie, by the way). Hoffman related how he used to allow appearance to dictate whether or not he even talked with a woman but, thanks to his newfound understanding, he realized just how many interesting and fabulous women he missed getting to know as a result of such shallow reasoning. If only more people possessed his insight and compassion!

But until more people follow Dustin Hoffman’s lead, and understand that physical beauty is only skin deep (and let’s be honest, fleeting), girls and women will believe that our lives resemble a beauty pageant and that we must constantly look great in order to be seen as interesting, deserving of success, or just worthy human beings. In other words, it’s not enough for a woman to be a skilled brain surgeon; she must look good while doing it too. Thus, until more people refuse to allow physical beauty to guide their beliefs and behaviors, girls and women will waste a great deal of time trying to look as beautiful as possible. And the psychological implications of such demands are so huge that I will explore them in a future column.

For now, all I can say is that I hope Bartoli enjoys her well-earned Wimbledon title and that karma catches up to Inverdale and his ilk. I have faith that it will. As Hillary Rodham Clinton so aptly noted, “You may not agree with a woman, but to criticize her appearance — as opposed to her ideas or actions — isn’t doing anyone any favors, least of all you. Insulting a woman’s looks when they have nothing to do with the issue at hand implies a lack of comprehension on your part, an inability to engage in high-level thinking. You may think she’s ugly, but everyone else thinks you’re an idiot.” Well said, Hillary. Well said.

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