sex

Why we strive to be 'hot' - but don't want to be judged by our looks.

Many years ago, I travelled in a tiny chartered plane through interminable hours of ghastly turbulence, to an inaccessible mountaintop venue whose name I now can’t remember, to receive a journalistic award from The Minister, only to miss my name being called because I was in the toilet doing my hair so I’d look good.

This experience disturbed me not because I was a) vain or b) an idiot (although, sadly, I appear to have been both), but because I realised I was sufficiently invested in my appearance to give it precedence over recognition for my brains. My brains were my friends, my untouchable self; my looks were endowed by the eyes of others, a voracious and fickle fellow-traveller.

Yet I answered to them.

Author, Gael Jennings. Image: supplied.

Why did I do that? I was crushingly aware, as were most women of my generation living through the 1970's, that we had to fight every day to be taken seriously, to be seen as more than our looks and our sex appeal. I had finished a PhD, for heavens sake, in an onerous, punishing discipline that I knew I wouldn’t pursue, just to put a Dr in front of my name and thus, be heard. Yet here I was, playing the 'looks' game.

And there I had been, several years earlier, in the lab, without a bra under my lab coat (or under anything else - it was the ‘70s), or coming in on weekends, fresh from the pool or the beach with the coat slung over my string bikini. Why the mixed messages? Why the double life? Fighting feminist cloaked in sex goddess. Or, rather, young woman enjoying her body and youth.

This conundrum - can we be autonomous, independent, fulfilled and respected human beings as well as indulging our appearance - had a massive, great spotlight shone on it recently when actor Salma Hayek, 48, gladly accepted an (embarrassingly antiquated) Guy’s Choice Decade of Hotness award. Until then, she had steadfastly rejected the label, preferring to be known for her work.

“When you start you’re like, ‘No, I want them to see me for my talent, and know me as an actress," Hayek told People Magazine. " But now I’m like, ‘Bring it on! You really like to be ‘hot’ after you’re 40.”

There was much photographic salivation at her deep cleavage as she accepted the honour, jocular and admiring media coverage at her about-turn, and sly winks that, instead of being obstreperous, she had finally seen the sense in the power of being gorgeous - particularly as she’s on the downhill slope ...

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There was also - and reluctantly on the part of many women, who understand the pressures and want to support other women - the faintest whiff of betrayal that Hayek caved at the very age that male-dominated society deems women to be less valuable. Old(er). Older than young. If a woman is valued for her abilities, not her sexual desirability, why does getting older suddenly make a difference to her? Gratefully grabbing the title of ‘hot’ at 48 has the feel of reinforcing the importance of sexual objectification as our ultimate value.

Despite the many rewards of womanhood, it is hard to be a woman. We know full well that our value through history and across almost all cultures has been as ornaments and possessions; secondary to men and a reflection of their power to pull. We fought and struggled against this diminution and domination. We raised our daughters (and sons) to have women seen and treated as equal, to regard ourselves and themselves as rightful takers of space and of power and privilege.

And yet, the world is still overwhelmingly run by men, for men, and about men, resoundingly proven by academic, economic and social research. And despite the smattering of women of influence in the public domain, there has never been such pressure on us women to be hot and young. Some of the world’s most lucrative markets are weight loss ($600 billion) and youthful beauty ($500 billion). Such lauding for achieving it and such punishment for failing.

Hayek appears to have hedged her bets in a highly public profession. She’s consistently presented as a sex siren all these years (as revealed in any Google images search), even while just as consistently rejecting the description.

It is little wonder that hot women play it. It can be seen as win-win; you can be everything you ever wanted, fulfil all your potential, and as a bonus, get preferential treatment (proved), a couple of decades of fierce attention, first choice of sexual partners, and of course, masses of sex. The downside is that it can become win-lose; your hotness (while gloriously gratifying) can divert you into the vortex of the Male Gaze, cause you to unwittingly and increasingly point your toes along the highway of seeking admiration, and result in a faintly glimpsed shadow over your shoulder of your real self dwindling away on the path you didn’t take.

Those who take the straight road - eschewing the whole looks paradigm - in a public profession do so at their peril. Just ask Chris Bath, Channel 7’s star news anchor: after years of fighting the network about her decision to go with ‘serious’ over ‘hot’, last week announced that, at 48, she’s leaving - without a new job to go to.

Channel 7 anchor, Chris Bath. Image: @chrisbath.

Whichever road you take, you can be sure there’s a speed bump - no, a massive great abyss - waiting for you in, say, your late 40s.

Even if we reject outright the value put on sexual desirability by our society, we don’t live in a world where we wake and make a clear choice to just ignore the sh*t that saturates us every minute, telling us we’re repulsive if we’re not young and hot. It seeps into our very pores and, in the face of the most conscious of decisions, it sneaks up on us. As it did for Salma. And for me, on a mountaintop, missing The Minister.

For more from Gael, try ...

Good news: the children of working mothers do better (especially girls).

‘I worked in a sperm bank. This is how I played God.’

“In that moment, I transformed from mother and ex-wife, to woman again.”