British celebrity couple David and Victoria Beckham seem to have it all – beauty, money, glamour, a fairy tale romance and the perfect family. Early last month, asked what the ‘secret sauce’ to being married for 20 years is, David said, “(It) is always hard work. Everybody knows that. But you make it work.”
British Media went berserk. Sample some of the headlines: ‘David Beckham shocks fans by branding his marriage to Victoria as difficult’, ‘David has finally admitted that there are troubles in his marriage to Victoria’, ‘David and Victoria Beckham no longer in love’.
“Why do we need the Beckhams to be perfect?” fellow British celebrity and social commentator Russel Brand asked. “Saying marriage is hard work is not shocking because it is really difficult to be married, isn’t it? The fact that this is even a story reveals to us that we have unreal expectations of them because we see them living a heightened version of life; they and their children are really good looking, they are both really successful. We believe them to be kind of unreal. But their social status does not ameliorate the emotional problems of being human.”
Bridget N*, a 29-year-old flight attendant with an international airline would agree. She cuts the image of a trendy woman with a fast lifestyle. “There are many instances where I have shared how stressed I am and the response has been, ‘But you are so pretty and have a good job’. Pretty much, I have been told I should stop complaining because other people have bigger problems. There is no space for someone like me to express their problems because, which problems?”
Too pretty to think?
28-year-old Denise K* says that while she was in high school, there was an informal polling tradition of voting for people according to certain merits. Every year, she was voted as ‘the most beautiful’. Denise’s grandfather is European. Because of this ancestry, her skin is a light caramel tone and she carries a thick mane of curly black hair that she keeps tied up in a severe bun.
“My sisters and I were brought up in Nairobi. We went to public schools and yes, we always stuck out.” she says. “I am actually shy and introverted. When we would go to Kericho where my father comes from, again, we would stick out. Some people would even point. This always made me anxious. Maybe that’s why I don’t let my hair down.” As she has grown older she says she has come to the conclusion that her struggle is not so much with the attention she got, but with being labelled and objectified because of her physical traits.
“People assume I am a rich kid. I am not. Both my parents are retired Kenyan civil servants. The other thing has to do with dating. I get a lot of male attention. But I don’t know if it’s for me or my looks. I’ll give you an example: I went on date with this guy who said, and I mean this, ‘I didn’t expect you to be this intelligent’. He actually got uncomfortable and said that he felt like he had been cat-fished in reverse – in other words he felt that I had misled him! There was no second date!” She laughs.
“Yes! People will want to be with you simply for the hot factor you add to them,” says Bridget the flight attendant. “Or they will assume you are high maintenance. This one man actually said, “You are beautiful but I don’t think I can ‘afford’ you”. What does that even mean?! I need to look a certain way because of my job. My lifestyle is my job! The other one I hear a lot is ‘There is no way you can be single!’ I wonder how many eligible men have been interested but dismissed me on the assumption that I am single or high maintenance.”
On having good character
Reiterating her point about people not expecting her to be intelligent, Denise, who currently works for a venture capital firm in Nairobi, notes that you simply have to observe how people respond to attractive women who are in positions of power, “One can’t be (beautiful), intelligent and understand global politics; that would be too much fortune ending up in one place!” she smirks sarcastically.
She brings up the example of the reaction accorded to Croatia’s president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic during the football World Cup. As the first female and youngest Croatian president, Grabar-Kitarovic has been named as one of Forbes 100 most powerful women in the world. She is also a life-long diplomat, a Harvard graduate, an ex-army commando and from events at the World Cup, a leader of the people, “Yet the thing that brought her to the world’s focus was that she is ‘hot’ and looks good in a bikini,” Denise retorts. “And imagine she is one of the lucky ones because at least with a position like the presidency, people are less likely to assume that she slept her way to the top.”
Bridget admits that being attractive has its perks. “Even as child, I remember just being treated nicely. However, this special treatment can also go to the other extreme where people will respond to you with hostility. They will want to prove to you that you are not special, even when you haven’t claimed you are. It’s a subtle insecurity that drives them to want to compete or sabotage or bring you down.”
While she has no qualms with, for example, men rushing to open doors for her, she says this attention too, can be conflicting. “It’s a catch022 because it is annoying to be hit on all the time, especially when it’s unwelcome. On top of that, men who think they are higher in status feel entitled and when you don’t respond, they become unfriendly or hostile. Then when you react to their hostility, they in turn feel justified to say, ‘See, I told you she is stuck up!’ She stresses the point that, as a whole, beautiful people are not vain and mean people. “Just in the same way that unattractive people are not all good and humble people.”
…but it IS a privilege!
“Are you seriously doing an article on whether it’s hard to be beautiful?!” 34-year-old Judy M* smirks. “Oh please, of course beautiful people have it easier that less attractive people. I know the argument is that beautiful people have struggles that others might overlook. But that’s the thing – people will always fail to see your problems no matter what you look like. Everyone has problems but a gift is a gift, is a gift.” To prove her point, Judy admits that she does not shy away from using her beauty/femininity to sway situations to her favour. “I think we all subconsciously do that, otherwise we wouldn’t be bothering to look our best for meetings and dates.”
She believes it is simplistic to have this discussion on the basis of physical traits. “Beauty is more about how one presents themselves; it’s about being clean, healthy, and so forth. We underestimate how much these things contribute to attractiveness. The beauty is that these things can be bought. Beauty can be bought. That’s why rich people appear attractive. That’s why they hold an upper hand. So yes, beauty, like wealth, is a privilege whichever way you look at it.”
The unattractive side of beauty
Vivian is a sporty woman, an avid tennis player and swimmer. At 39, the single mother of one is fit and curvy and moves with effortless feminine grace. But she says it wasn't always like this.
“When I was in primary and high school, I was overweight and felt awkward. In that long stretch of time before joining university, I started swimming and playing tennis. By the end of my first year in university, I think I had dropped from 80 to 60kg. I was hot!” she laughs, adding that she actually participated and did well in a few beauty contests. “In second year, I was developing a sense of fashion and all of a sudden, boys were interested in me. But here is the funny part: all this attention was confusing and shocking. If you grow up believing you are ugly, you will never quite shake that feeling off, no matter how much others tell you that you are beautiful. I don’t know if you have ever been in a situation where a cute guy smiled at you and you looked behind you to see who he might be smiling at? That was me every day throughout college.”
No matter what favours her ‘hotness’ afforded her, Vivian admits that she was still plagued by the belief that she was unattractive. “Because of this disconnection, my relationships were extremely shallow.” Vivian notes that this is what makes most young, beautiful girls vulnerable. “If you are beautiful but do not have a sense of worth, you leave yourself open for exploitation because you have this insatiable need for validation. That is the ugliest side of beauty.”
Vivian has a 10-year-old daughter she describes as gorgeous. “At 10, I am aware that she knows she is beautiful and it is very important to me that her identity comes from more than just her looks.”
Vivian has since gone through therapy to explore her own issues with body image. “One of my greatest revelations is that if my identity is solely based on my looks, I am going to have a harder time as I grow older. And I think the higher up the beauty scale you are, the lower you fall. This is what I want to protect my daughter from; I want her to take pride in her beauty, but not to make it so much as part of who she is that she in danger of having her identity lost as she ages.”