What is attractive?

Have you ever noticed how models on glossy pages of fashion magazines and clothing catalogs look at you with their mouths open? I’m not talking lips a tiny bit parted, I mean like really open. And it always makes me cringe a little bit because, to be honest, it really doesn’t make them look very intelligent.

I always think why do they do that? I supposed they, the photographer, the ad agency, whoever thinks that it makes them look attractive and sexy. It’s a bit wasted on me, however, because I think intelligence is much more attractive than gaping mouths.

Well of course this is no surprise. Women and girls are more often than not depicted sexually in the media. I read a very insightful book on the subject and it is actually a bit depressing reading. It also a very interesting read and definitely a book I recommend to anyone, but especially to those of you who have daughters: The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Do About It by M. Gigi Durham.

In a nutshell, the book argues that media, television and film not only reflect existing social patterns but also shape culture which makes them very powerful, setting the standard for what women and girls should live up to. But not only does the media depict girls as sexual objects, the sexual ideal for girls is one lacking authority; that is girls are taught to be sexy, and to attract boys, but at the same time to resist boys’ advances rather than express their own desires. I quote, “These powerful narratives … are repeatedly circulated in various ways in our culture, to the point that they seem natural and not constructed by outside forces.”

But what’s scary is that the female and sexual ideal becomes younger and younger. Women are encouraged to wage a life-long battle against hair and strip their bodies of all hair, except what grows on their heads, making them look like prepubescent girls. Which really, if you think about it, is quite disturbing. (See my previous post ‘On ageing’ for more thoughts on the cultural contradictions of women, youth, and ageing.)

I remember reading a feature in a magazine once about a woman who followed her dream and became a professional gardener. She talked about how she was always awkward as a girl and didn’t really have any fashion sense. She was never popular and was uncomfortable at parties and in other social situations. However, after she found her passion – gardening, and apparently especially apples – she was surprised to realize that all of a sudden she was attracting so much male attention at parties when she would, cheeks blazing, launch into an animated conversation about apples. She realized that it didn’t matter that she wasn’t thin, she wasn’t wearing the most fashionable clothes, and that she didn’t have a swanky hairdo. She was attractive because she felt passionate and that made her interesting. It made people – both men and women – want to spend time with her.

Knowing this, it makes me a bit sad to know that so many girls and women worry about trying to live up to one-dimensional social ideals. And I have to say I agree with the gardener. Talking to people who are passionately interested in what they do is usually very engaging. Their energy is contagious and, unlike blank looks and gaping mouths in magazines, that is attractive.

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