A few months ago my husband and I were discussing the old "onceover", that is the up and down glance that men often give women and that, strangely, women often give other women.*
Our people-watching discussion concluded that women are more interested in how other women appear than in how men appear. By appraising their female counterparts, we concluded that there was an internal comparison taking place. I’ve spent a lot of time since then wondering why women would be more interested in their competition rather than their potential mate.
It seems to be similar to the reasons why there are so many glossy lifestyle, gossip and fashion magazines available. Is there an almost voyeuristic thrill in finding one's place in whatever pecking order is deemed important within any clan? Those glamour pages reveal to women how they rank against their heroes and heroines. They provide a gold standard of sun kissed skin, a cordon bleu of epicureal appreciation, an “Oscar” worth of public acclaim.
Not that celebrities are secure on their pedestal, either. No sooner will someone climb that pecking order than be admonished for a lack of generosity or intelligence, or even worse, displaying visible cellulite.
It’s understandable that these comparisons will drip off the glossies and feed into daily life and I’m interested in how this is manifested. I believe that we tend to see our sins in others. That is, the philanderer will be a jealous spouse, assuming others to be as unfaithful as s/he or that the intensely private person may relish an extended facebook skulk. I think this also rings true of these competitive voyeurs. They may feel competent to judge at least one element of physicality or presentation against the pack, for example the ubiquitous thigh gap or a particular shoe choice. This would be especially so if they feel they are close to the pinnacle of achievement for these things. A kind of "My hair is great, how's hers?" measurement scale. This becomes self perpetuating, fed by the media and a merciless, self flagellating public.
Men have long been encouraged to display and even peacock their competitive sides. Fame is showered on successful sportsmen and the boardroom has long been filled with gents who would go that little bit further to sit at the big table. Women have historically internalised these ambitions and, although gender equality is catching up, it’s dragging that ugly intra-female struggle with it.
Having said this, it’s not my business to choose in which arenas it should be acceptable to compete. Mary Beard can hardly be supposed to be offended at comments about her “witchy hair”. I’m sure she’d be far more affected by derision of her historical knowledge. Similarly, David Gandy is unlikely to cry if his mathematical skills are questioned. It’s not how he makes his money, after all. The old phrase “Everybody is a genius but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” seems apt here. Surely the body beautiful are welcome to compete without my sneering. Comparing the model against model is a fair fight, after all.
Even so, I’d like to ban the women to women onceover. I’m guilty of doing this myself and I’m not proud of it. I’m not coming from a female solidarity perspective, per se. I’d just like all people to have a wider range of interests and reasons to interact and I’d like those reasons to be unhampered by stereotypes and supposed media norms. But if we eschew all efforts at physical presentation, will that then make us truly free? On a sliding scale of full make up, heels and coiffure to tea stained jogging pants and a scrunchie how can we honestly know when we’re dressing for ourselves? If I enjoy wearing a pretty dress at a wedding am I letting the feminist side down? Victoria Coren-Mitchell said something to the effect that gender equality would only be reached when all women wore knee length pinafores. I think that should be the centre line and we can work outwards from there.
Regardless of gender and however you choose to present yourself, give your wardrobe a onceover and love the items you chose for you. Most of all, avoid the temptation to "onceover" your compadres. You’re better than that.
Enjoy Good Health!
* I‘m not trying to be cisgender about this so please accept I'm drawing on generalised stereotypes and add your personal gender identifiers.