Looks are a danger

Jelena, who is one of my bosses at EUDO Citizenship, published a short article for Dangerous Women, part of a project that asks the question What does it mean to be a ‘dangerous woman’? Jelena writes about her experience as a tall and well dressed woman in the academia. The article starts like this:

– Why didn’t we become friends earlier on?

– I was afraid of you.

– Why?

– You are so tall. That is scary. And you are all well-groomed and always have a nice nail polish.

– I am not sure I understand.

– You know, it is not too common for a woman to be that tall. And I am sorry to break this to you, but women who take care of their appearance the way you do are considered shallow in academia.

– Oh, I see.

Recalling this conversation with a now close friend of mine, it came to my mind that the original version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was entitled First Impressions. If I remember correctly, Fitzwilliam Darcy’s first impression of Elizabeth Bennet was that she was ‘tolerable; but not handsome enough […]’. Be it fiction or fact, and as much as we would like it to be otherwise, we are judged by appearances: our height, weight, the way we dress or comb our hair all determine how we will be perceived by others and how we will establish the grounds of our interaction with the outside world.

Obviously, and as it has happened in Austen’s novel (and in my life on various occasions), these initial first impressions can change. That, however, requires social contacts that unfold in a setting where questions of character, intelligence, and mutual understanding prevail over initial perceptions of one’s appearance. With the increasing reliance on digital and social media that advance particular visions of women, establishing such contacts in the personal sphere has become tremendously difficult. Equally, many professional circles have come to embrace a particular vision of a way their female employee should look. At this point, I would dare you to think of a woman who is a lawyer, or a chemist, a politician, a store manager, a CEO of a company, a soldier, or a socialite and not to have at least an idea of their appearance. And here I do not refer only to imagining their ‘uniform’ if they have any, but also to their facial features, body types, hair and makeup. I assume that with a few culture-specific exceptions, we will have thought of quite a few similar traits. Maybe we share some of them.

Maybe we are defined by appearances. 

Our dangerous looks.

I am six feet tall and there’s little I can do about that. I never asked for my height and unlike those unhappy with their breasts, noses, lips, or sex, I cannot change it. Well, at least not without seriously endangering my health. I have read a piece about how between the 1950s and 1990s, tall teenage girls were ‘treated’ with synthetic oestrogen (DES) because their height was seen as ‘abnormal’ and it hardly fit the pattern of what is culturally and socially accepted as ‘femininity’ (Jakobsen 2011). As absurd as it may sound, being tall was considered a medical condition and DES treatments set off both ethical questions – such as the girls’ consent – as well as the medical ones. More recent studies have shown that side effects of DES treatment included irregular period, ovarian cysts, excessive vaginal discharge, galactorrhea (leakage from breasts), blood clots and breast cancer (Rayner, et al. 2010). Paradoxically, the treatment designed to make tall women’s ‘shoe fit’ the societally acceptable pattern of a feminine appearance had adverse effects on women’s primary sexual characteristics.

If you want to read the rest of the article clic here.