If Samantha Brick spectacularly misses the point in her article on the downsides to being pretty, the vast majority of her detractors have missed it by an even wider margin in attacking her on the basis of her looks, or even her arrogance. The problem with what Brick’s saying isn’t that she’s not as attractive as she thinks, or that she’s immodest enough to say how attractive she is, it’s that she fails to look beyond personal responses to her attractiveness at the systems behind those responses.
Because the fact is, she’s right about a lot of these downsides. Nothing she says about the way men give her special consideration, or women unfavourable treatment, are hard to believe. Her main mistake is in thinking of these as pros and cons, rather than equally invasive manifestations of a system that is entirely detrimental to her. She interprets as compliments actions that most of us would recognise as harassment. Some of this is about social class: the social sphere she inhabits determines the manner in which men see fit to harass her, so that she is sent complimentary champagne by the pilot of a plane she travels on, while most of us may get offered a drink and hassled for our phone number by some tosser on a train. There is no fundamental difference in these two attempts at flirtation, only in the economic and social status of the men concerned. Whether the profferer of an unsolicited token of appreciation says “Your smile brightened up my day” or “Nice arse”, they’re both assuming that any woman they set eyes on exists for their pleasure and is fair game for a sexual pursuit, and that makes them both entitled pricks.
Brick’s also got a point about the way that women notice beauty in one another and see it as a threat – we’re trained to do this from the earliest age and the message is reinforced with every wedding, real and televised, that we observe, telling us that the happiest day of our lives will be the one day on which no other woman is allowed to outshine us. Competitive beauty is the one sport we’re allowed to excel at. There are rules of fair play, though – chief amongst them that idea that you must never, ever be explicit about who is winning or losing. This is where Brick’s fallen down, as far as most of her critics are concerned. She’s confident in her appearance and happy to acknowledge how attractive men find her, and naturally this is resented by other serious players of the game. You are supposed to be modest, to the point of paranoia. So, for those who play Beauty League seriously, she’s not only a dangerous competitor, she’s a cheat. It’s also hardly surprising that women suspect her of using her looks to her social and professional advantage, given that she’s advocated doing as much in her articles. Perceptions of this behaviour are, again, influenced by her social and economic position. If, instead of commissions from executive producers, she was flirting with the boss to get extra hours at Starbucks, the inevitable gossip amongst her colleagues would be tinged with sympathy as well as resentment, and we’d no doubt consider her to be exploited – flirting to secure work is a pretty desperate and humiliating thing to have to do.
So how do I feel about Samantha Brick? Obviously her opinions are vile and she’s thoroughly obnoxious, but that’s not really the point. While I’m sure she wouldn’t accept my assessment, or indeed give a flying monkey’s what I think of her life, I can’t help but feel sorry for her. Here she is, an apparently intelligent and capable human being, reduced to games of gendered point-scoring that rely on an arbitrary personal quality which she is bound to lose, spending her life flirting her way to financial success. While I’m sure she’s pretty happy with her houses and cars and six-figure salaries, part of her must wonder what she would have been capable of in a world where she had a reasonable chance of being taken seriously for her intellectual qualities. She speaks of looking forward to the wrinkles and greying hair that will lead women to feel less threatened by her, but says nothing of what she hopes to discover about herself when she’s no longer a prime sexual target. I wonder if she’s even considered this.
She also seems oblivious to the irony of yearning for the fading of her beauty a mere hundred words after describing the effort and self-deprivation through which she maintains it: “I don’t drink or smoke, I work out, even when I don’t feel like it, and very rarely succumb to chocolate.” It is tempting to say that she should just allow herself a few pleasures, find her natural weight, give herself a break from the exercise regime, stop bleaching her hair, stop plastering herself with make-up every day. But really, we all know why she can’t allow anything but age to dull her compliance to the beauty regime. While patriarchy will make life difficult in all kinds of subtle ways for women doing too well at the beauty game (and in much less subtle ways for those not doing so well), it comes down like a ton of Daily Mail Lifestyle Journalists on women who refuse to play at all.
Brick is an extreme example of a woman utterly invested in patriarchal beauty compliance, and she is privileged enough by social and economic class to not feel threatened by that position, to in fact view around half of its downsides as luxuries. But I doubt there’s any woman reading this who can honestly say she leaves the house in the morning without making a single concession to societal expectations of beauty, and doesn’t give a fuck what anybody thinks about it. And that’s the real downside – even when we know better than to care, we can’t escape the conditioning and the conditions that force us to care, that will judge us by those standards no matter how much we disdain them. So can we really condemn women who’ve devoted their lives to beauty when they complain that it doesn’t make life perfect? We can only really pity Brick that she ever thought it would, that she’s put so much time and effort into making herself utterly reliant on the men in her social sphere, and thoroughly alienated from the women. Though Brick’s assessment gives only a skewed version of half the story, she is right that there are downsides to being pretty. Though Emilie Autumn puts it much better: