Sunday, December 04, 2005

Aiming low

What do women want? Not much, if Age columnist Julia Baird is anything to go by.

In her latest column, Gender back on the agenda (3/12/2005, not online), Julia ponders the Maureen Dowd controversy. Maureen Dowd is a pretty, but single and middle-aged, American columnist, who has complained that men won’t go out with intelligent women like herself because the male ego is too fragile.

She’s wrong. It’s actually normal for university educated men to seek partners of a similar background. But most men won’t be attracted to women who aren’t feminine, friendly and family-oriented. And that’s why men, quite understandably, run for the hills when they meet women like Maureen Dowd. Who would want to spend a lifetime with a woman who takes men to be the enemy, who is conflicted about her own womanhood and who is unlikely to commit herself in any significant way to marriage or motherhood?

But back to Julia Baird. She accepts the alternatives posed by Maureen Dowd: that women are either going to aim for intelligence or physical attractiveness, and that the trend is for women to accept the “sex object” option. Julia Baird is aghast that women should be “intent on being sex objects again” and that they would turn to plastic surgery in a narcissistic effort to achieve self-esteem.

What then does Julia Baird call for? How does she want a woman’s life to be? In her own words,

Our fears, anxieties and identities continue to be carved into our faces and our bodies, with “self-esteem” increasingly defined by our curves and the agelessness of our skins, instead of access to education, well-paying jobs, health and respect from our partners. We are extraordinarily compliant about a culture that values booty over brains.

I must admit I was disappointed with Julia Baird when I read this. Is the modern Western girl really so shallow? The problem is not her rejection of the body perfect ideal. It’s that there is so much missing in her description of what might fulfil a woman’s life.

Look at what she thinks a woman needs: education, a well-paying job, health and respect from a partner. Access to education women already have. Across the western world, women are forming the majority of university undergraduates. It’s the same with access to jobs. An increasing number of young doctors and lawyers are female. Health is certainly important, but women continue to do better than men on this front too, outliving men on average by several years. And respect from partners? Is this all that Julia Baird would wish for from a man?

If these things were enough to truly satisfy a woman, then women would have satisfaction and self-esteem in abundance.

But she leaves out too much. What about love? Doesn’t a woman need, as a girl, the love of her mother and father? Doesn’t she naturally seek romantic love as a teenage girl and marital love as a grown woman? Don’t most women want the experience of a maternal love for their own children?

And what about the life of the spirit? Hasn’t Julia Baird ever felt a responsiveness to nature? Has she appreciated the arts, or felt a love of country? A pride in the accomplishments of her own family?

And what of her own womanhood? Hasn’t she experienced her own identity as a woman, including a sense of female physicality, of female sexuality, of female emotions, and of the feminine virtues?

What Julia Baird proposes for women is drab. It reads like a political agenda: be a good feminist girl and get a career and a respectful partner. It has little to say to the real, personal, inner life of a woman.

It is as fake as the plastic, paid for beauty which Julia Baird in her column criticises as a “madness we both perpetuate and consent to”.


  1. I would like to disagree with Julia Baird in regards to the contemporary Western girl’s views on their body. You ask whether they are “really so shallow?” From my experience no matter how confident a girl is in her body (or appearance as a whole) it is the pressure from those around her – especially the men in her life- that impact her decision to undergo plastic surgery.

    I am a 23-year-old woman, slender and tall, with an immature but delicate face. I am in proportion, yet the fact that I have A-cup breasts has led me to be ridiculed by the men around me. In fact, on occasion they have asked me why I haven’t had breast implants. The fact that men are so brazen these days to assert such a question is abhorrent. At what point in society did women become a sex object, only for the pleasure of men, to the point where we would augment our perfectly functioning bodies for the selfish and shallow pleasure of men.

    What scares me the most; these comments came from men who are now too dating small breasted women. I wonder what pressure is being bestowed on them. I am lucky that my partner would never pressure me to get surgery; but if he mentioned it, the effects of that pressure would be immense. I feel for the women that are manipulated into undergoing surgery to please these perverted men; the scaring, pain, financial costs, the risk of dislodgement, the risk of rupturing and the risk of losing the function to breastfeed. These effects are never considered by the men, in their search for the ultimate satisfaction.

    But what about those women facing this pressure who do not succumb, will the torment of being called ‘flat as a surfboard’ or ‘unfeminine’ affect them, I say yes. No matter how secure you are within yourself, constant torment will always be detrimental.

    No women should be seen as a sex object, an aesthetical piece of art that can be moulded, manipulated and beaten by anyone to create the masterpiece.

    1. Anon, this is where it would be useful if the sexes could really know how the other sex experiences things.

      A woman doesn't have to be physically perfect to make a man very happy. What the average, well-adjusted man wants is a woman he finds physically attractive and who loves him as a man. Luckily for women, there are lots of things that men find physically attractive about women. A woman can become very physically attractive to a man in the way she dresses, the way she walks and talks, in the (relative) delicacy of her limbs, in her hair, her smile, her eyes, her hands and so on.

      Men do not experience their love for women's bodies as a "selfish and shallow pleasure". For us it's a deeply rewarding aspect of life. I do agree though that for a man to make the kind of comments you describe is both brazen and shallow.

    2. I think the difference in the way men experience women from your definition compared to mine is a mixture of age and perspective. There are many men who are still yet to mature from their teenage years of high hormones and initial sexual experiences- and they are the ones who are most likely to make comments about women as sexual objects. These men (and once again I am speaking from experience) are not tolerant of tranditional views, they are openly hateful to religion and crude about their rights to be liberal and seek pleasure.

      Men such as yourself, who are willing to freely love women, I agree are well-adjusted men. You have allowed yourself to settle down and enter into a pure love. It is men like you, that should be seen as the example for the younger immature men - but unfortunately my generation seems to degrade those before it.

      The issue as I see it is, these immature men, who are so shallow, have unfortunately been the product of sexualisation. They view copious amounts of pornography, start having sex young, they are from broken homes and have not learnt to love a woman correctly- or at all. These men, find pleasure in women, but they see too little of them. They don't see beyond the naked bodies (often augmented and airbrushed) sprawled across countless one-night-stands, or appearing all over the internet, TV and magazines- These men forget that these bodies are women, women who should be loved and seen as a thing of beauty - not a sexual object.

      You are right when you say 'Men do not experience their love for women's bodies as a "selfish and shallow pleasure" because unfortunately these boys, who objectify women are yet to mature into men.

      - Also I would like to apologise to the well-adjusted men who I may have offended with my oiginal post. The comments were directed to those who are brazen, shallow and selfish (not men in general). There are many men, like yourself who view women correctly - unfortunately in my generation it seems to be out numbered by those who do not.