Michael Buerk (a BBC broadcaster and former newsreader) has made me very cross indeed this week. He has said that television presenters who “got a job mainly because [they] look nice” should not 'cry ageism' and complain when they are sacked to make way for younger replacements. Though he hasn't mentioned the gender of the presenters he's talking about, he has said that some of them have "even" gone to tribunals over the issue, so there's no doubt about it: he's talking about women.
Grey-haired father of two Buerk (68) does not seem to realise the bind that women are in. They will not be employed as presenters or newsreaders unless they do look “nice”. Regardless of whether they have top degrees, speak several languages and have considerable political, editorial and journalistic experience, there will be plenty of people – like Buerk, presumably – who cannot see past the issue of physical appearance. It is then doubly maddeningly infuriating (yes, I am cross – did I mention that?) when those same people repackage their own short-sightedness as a shortcoming of the women themselves, dismissing a highly skilled, talented and experienced female as “just a pretty face”.
I thought of this trap – damned if you’re deemed ‘pretty’, damned if you’re not (and either way it’s the most important thing about you!) – when looking recently at this marvellous 16th-century woodcut of a Venetian woman lightening her hair.
It’s from Cesare Vecellio’s Habiti Antichi et Moderni, which was published in Venice in 1590 (and is now available in a beautiful English edition, translated by Margaret F. Rosenthal and Ann Rosalind Jones, under the title The Clothing of the Renaissance World).
The picture shows a young woman sitting in a rooftop loggia, sunning her hair (but, crucially, not her face) with the help of a straw hat from which the crown has been cut out. The hat has a broad brim, across which the woman’s hair is draped. Vecellio's text tells us that women like this “keep their heads exposed to the sun for days at a time” in order to make their hair turn blonde:
[T]hey sit [outside] when the sun is hottest and wet their hair with a little sponge attached to a wooden handle and soaked in a liquid that they buy or make at home themselves; and over and over again, as they wet their hair, they let it dry in the sun, and in this way they turn their hair blonde so effectively that we think it is natural.
I’m not sure how Michael Buerk would feel about spending his days like this, but I imagine it must have been a tedious and, in the heat, quite possibly fairly uncomfortable way for a young woman to pass her time. Why would she do it?
For a clue, let us turn to Agnolo Firenzuola’s Dialogo delle Bellezze delle Donne (Dialogue On the Beauty of Women), 1548. “The hair… should be fine and fair,” he says, “in the similitude now of gold, now of honey, and now of the bright and shining rays of the sun…”
A bit like this, then. I wonder how many hours in the loggia these streaks took…
Young Woman with a Fan c. 1555
(possibly Titian’s daughter Lavinia)
by Titian, who was Cesare Vecellio’s cousin
[Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In Vecellio’s discussion of hair-lightening, the fact that women are trapped by society’s requirement that they must be beautiful is not acknowledged. Vecellio, it seems, is as blind to this as Michael Buerk. His text accompanying the woodcut instead blames women for their efforts to conform to contemporary ideas of beauty:
[A]ll women desire to increase their natural beauty through art, and the women of Venice are no different in their eagerness to do this. In doing so, however, they harm more than help themselves… [W]hen other people recognize the effort they have put into this, they mistrust even the woman’s natural beauty and judge it as artificial.
It’s a very neat Catch-22 situation. Hair dyeing is associated with vanity and a lack of ‘real’ beauty. (The Roman poet Propertius wrote, “All beauty is best as nature made it… In hell below may many an ill befall that girl who stupidly dyes her hair with a false colour!”) ‘Real’ beauty is natural… but definitions of female beauty are prescriptive and limited. Women cannot escape being judged on their looks, and yet they are criticised for making efforts to conform to the ideal.
At the bottom of this tangled prejudice lies the age-old association of the female with matter and the body, which (despite the idealisation of beauty) has long been considered fundamentally inferior to spirit (associated with the male). Jacqueline Murray, in an article on Firenzuola’s On the Beauty of Women, explains it thus:
Philosophers since the time of Plato associated women with the body and the material world, both inferior to the soul and the spiritual world. Thus women are evaluated as inferior within a framework of body-soul dualism. This is particularly significant when analysing treatises praising women in general and acclaiming women’s physical beauty in particular…
This anti-body prejudice is embedded deep within our culture, and needs examining in itself every bit as urgently as the continuing gender double standard with which it is associated. It makes the fact that beauty is more important for women than it is for men – a fact stated by Baldassare Castiglione in The Book of the Courtier (1528) – doubly unfair. Because it means that not only are women judged on an arbitrary, superficial and (in most cases) irrelevant standard, but also that when they meet that standard, when they are deemed beautiful – as Michael Buerk implied (2014) – it turns out they aren't worth much after all.