Women have always been valued for their beauty. Ever since Helen of Troy our worth has been weighed by the constructions of our faces, the litheness of our bodies and a lack of the perceived perfection of the time meant a woman may never be as valuable as her more pleasantly constructed sister. In some parts of the ancient world being beautiful was akin to goodness and being less than perfect, or the gods forbid, downright plain was a mark of your inherent badness.
How much has that really changed? I was wondering this to myself as I read an article recently which celebrated an American woman being the oldest cheerleader ever. Her body taut as a teenagers, blonde hair and slightly strained smile she stares into the camera with triumph. She is 42 and most definitely the oldest woman ever to be accepted into a cheerleading squad for a national football team. As I read of her joy at having exercised her way to athletic heights and gaining the position after the terrible doubts she felt standing in a line next to girls half her age, I wondered am I the only one who is disturbed by this? Am I the only one who instead of feeling a cheer coming on for her for scaling this bastion of youth feels a sense of disappointment and, yes, just a little bit of anger?
It is not that I denigrate her athletic achievements, or that it is an important achievement for her, but I wonder about this being held up as if is the best, the most important thing she’s ever done. And I worry that she believes it is. Cheerleading is undoubtedly ferociously tough on the women who choose to compete in it. They hone their bodies like gymnasts and to achieve those jaw dropping tosses and tumbles must take long hours of dedication. But still, at the end of it all what are they really considered to be? Outside of their inner circle, are they anything more than pretty girls who tumble and jiggle pom poms as entertainment before what is considered the more important event, the men’s football game? Are they? When they can no longer keep up with the demands of the sport and retire, will they be remembered like the footballers, or simply disappear?
Seeing this celebration of an older woman conquering a young woman’s field, I can’t help thinking, is this all there is for us? Is this what we’ve come to? Can we not age gracefully anymore? Are we still valued more in this society for our beauty, our bodies, than for anything else? If this woman had, instead of turning to cheerleading, gone to university and got a phd, or taken up leading a charity group in the Middle East, would she have received the same glowing coverage, the same gushing praise? Looking at how women are celebrated in the media I’m going to have to say no.
Increasingly women, and now even men, are praised the highest for having a makeover, losing that baby weight or exercising their way to supermodel lean. It is not that our intellectual achievements are ignored but they are rarely given the same wide eyed reception as when we lose ten kilos. No wonder we are becoming more and more obsessed with our appearances when so much of our value to society is tied up in it. And we are doing it to ourselves. Caught in the loop of wanting to fit in, wanting to be valued, we still stare at ourselves in the mirror and turn physical faults into character flaws. We all want to be beautiful because for thousands of years, society has told us we are worth more if we are. So what has changed? Can we change? I want to hope so, but the way we are going now, I just can’t see it.