The Human Condition: Do you love me because I'm beautiful?

Or would you love me more if I feigned ignorance of my own attractions? Hettie Judah asks why women's sexual confidence is such a turn-off
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Indy Lifestyle Online
"YOU'RE A dangerous young lady," hissed the photographer. I sat back rather unsteadily on the cocktail table. "You are dangerous because you understand your power over men," he continued with a smirk that stretched the collar of his Paul Smith suit, "just look at the way you dress, for a start." I stared down over a pair of cantilevered breasts billowing out of a cheap little cardigan to a slip of a skirt down a pair of exposed legs to a set of three inch heels. Granted, it was hardly a get-up that shrieked demure, but this was mid-winter, what else should a girl of slender means wear on a night out? "You are knowing, you are attractive, you ensnare men"; the analysis continued.

The was a man not unacquainted with the back seat of a Golf GTi, who had never been known to pass up the opportunity to coerce a pair of shapely legs into his voluptuously upholstered studio. More knowingly attractive girls had primed his lens than the Raymond Revue Bar could employ in a decade. I pointed this out. "But the women I savour have no idea that they are beautiful; they are fresh, innocent, even a little vulnerable, unlike you," he bridled. We argued into the night.

The photographer would not accept that a woman's pose of self deprecating innocence could be far more manipulative than the straight-up sexiness of a good time girl. Publicly considering yourself to be attractive is one of the great forbiddens of our society; far better to couch your beauty in modest protestation than openly admit that you do not actively hate the way you look. Pride in one's own appearance is deemed deeply unattractive and a little threatening. Every model will complain about the size of her ears or her feet, every budding starlet will gush naively that she has no idea quite why it was she who was plucked from the crowd, every celebrity questionnaire will ask "what do you hate most about your own appearance?"; show me one that asks what you most like.

Although no head-turner myself, I am a less than thrilled participant in my contemporaries' in-depth discussions of cellulite, wrinkles and imaginary weight problems. Placed alongside the complaints of the anorexic, the bulimic or the body dysmorphic, this non-stop pose of physical self- hatred seem a little obscene. To an extent, these gripes are the product of the beauty conformist culture dealt out by women's mags, Hollywood movies and the other usual suspects. What these cannot be blamed for is the fact that it is unacceptable for most women to say "I am beautiful", "I think my legs are hot shit" or even "I have very pretty eyes". Try praising yourself out loud and you swing instantly into scarlet woman territory; you are selling yourself. It is no coincidence that the last woman I can remember on the big screen who advertised herself as having the best breasts in the western world ended up getting gang raped shortly afterwards (Last Exit To Brooklyn).

The impossibility of vocalising satisfaction in our physical appearance stems in part from the idea that vanity is sinful. But the modern idea of vanity extends only to pride in, not concern over, our own appearance. To stand for hours in front of a mirror scouring every blackhead, examining every wrinkle, rooting out grey hairs and bemoaning, both in public and in private, one's supposed hideousness is a vanity more profound that five minutes happy preening before a night on the town.

I cannot believe that the photographer's ingenuous beauties were all that they seemed. He may have said they did not know they were good-looking, to me that simply means they would not admit that they were. They must have known as well as I did that to concede physical self-satisfaction would not only have revealed that they had, at least once in their life, gazed into a mirror, but would also have seemed dangerously self aware. The dame who slugs the whisky and holds a level gaze may be fun for a night, but in the final reel it is still the wide eyed country girl who gets to kiss the hero.

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