Has It Come to This: Smart Isn’t Sexy Enough?

In 1976, with a certain trepidation, I went to Iran as part of a female American delegation invited to participate in a women’s film festival. There was the feeling in some quarters that Americans shouldn’t lend their “prestige” to the Shah’s dubious campaign to impress the West with the social and cultural advances of his regime-one that, for all its abuses, now looks like a golden age of progress compared to the more repressive theocracy of today. At several sites, we were obliged to don chadors in deference to religious decorum, and I have a picture of three of us huddled together like the witches in Macbeth . Yet even as I felt the absurdity of the situation, I could see the appeal of the cover-up. Think of the economies on clothes, makeup and hair color, the relief of simply going into hiding.

Oddly-or perhaps not so oddly-Andrew Solomon found a similar reaction when he visited Afghanistan and, as he reported in a recent talk sponsored by the New York Society Library, discovered many of the women still wearing burqas. When he asked them why, one woman said she didn’t want to have to face the number of choices and the expense, while another said, poignantly, “I’ve been invisible for so long, it’s too stressful to suddenly be looked at.”

Who among us doesn’t feel a twinge of recognition at that sentiment, or a sneaking sympathy when the Islamists denounce the decadent images and sexual exhibitionism of our media? There has to be some middle ground between burqas on one hand and see-through blouses, microskirts and Madonna on the other, between total repression and look-at-me narcissism. But where is it?

In our praiseworthy effort to liberate the women of Afghanistan, we act as if the burqa can be cast off in an instant conversion and selfhood and agency embraced, like a prisoner throwing off his chains. But even an ex-con has trouble adapting to freedom, and the burqa is more than a temporary figure of dress: It’s interwoven into the fabric of society and the female self that emerges within it, an article of clothing that is both symbol and essence.

Nor is the concept as alien to us as we’d like to think. In the Times Sunday wedding listings, some brides announce they will continue to use their names professionally, but many others do not. One group is saying, “Hey, I’m my own person-I’m out there, ready to take on the risks and rewards that putting oneself forward in a male-dominated society involves,” while other women prefer merging into the safer realm of coupledom, taking the veil of privacy or anonymity that a husband’s name provides.

To look or be looked at, that is the question vexing women from the time they’re born. Can we do both? Only with difficulty. From the anxiety about how we look (no recent phenomenon, but more high-stakes than ever in a youth-oriented, media-obsessed society) comes the fierce and time-consuming, if often pleasurable, quest for all the appurtenances of beauty, from clothes to cosmetic surgery-all of which militate against the unself-consciousness project of looking out at the world and at one’s own place in it.

Some women are born knowing how to integrate their outer and inner selves; others grow early into their bodies, more not till they’re in their 40’s or 50’s, and there are those that never do. Judi Dench, great actress and wise woman as well as enormously attractive, insisted in an interview that she is still too insecure to look in a mirror, preferring to preserve an inner image of a tall, willowy blonde.

I thought I’d reached some sort of truce between body and self until, four years after “terminating” analysis, I recently went back for a refresher course. In the 1980’s, it was moving to the couch that spooked me: I was traumatized at first by the loss of control and visual contact, by not having him there to smile, however occasionally, and reflect me back to myself. But when I returned, instead of sitting up in the approved therapy mold, I scurried to the couch. I found I didn’t want to be looked at, scrutinized, found wanting.

I never believed we could simply blame men for holding us hostage to a “beauty myth.” When I’ve appeared on television, people-plenty of them women-comment on how I look, not what I say, and I’m guilty of similarly judging (or complementing) other women. We listen to men for substance, but examine each other for surface flaws, and television has upped the ante with its Dorian Gray image of a bland and unaging female ideal, endlessly replicated modular faces that could have been created by digital technology. It’s not just the interchangeable cookie-cutter blondes the news shows promote; it’s the women on the grittier and more intelligent dramatic series who’ve suddenly gone under the blade-if not the literal surgeon’s blade, then the executioner’s guillotine of a culture that says, “Be young or die.” Is it my imagination, or did the wonderful Allison Janney as C.J. Cregg, The West Wing ‘s grace-under-fire press secretary, undergo a makeover-not a “structural” transformation into unrecognizability like Greta Van Susteren, but a glamour enhancement? This year, she no longer looked frazzled, overworked, like one of us-a serious professional who wasn’t getting enough sleep, possibly because she was a little scared (like most women in a high-profile job). Instead, she looked chic, her hair highlighted just so, with that perfect curtain swing that only a professional blow dry can provide. Having adored her character, I suddenly felt repelled-well, that may be too strong a word, but I was at least alienated. This was not the woman with whom I’d felt a powerful kinship, but someone who’d gone over to the other side, who’d just come down to us from Planet Glam.

Novelists like Trollope, Henry James and G.K. Chesterton loved to make sport of the bright and shiny American Beauty, and preferred heroines whose looks took longer to appreciate. Hypatia Potter in Chesterton’s The Scandal of Father Brown was “one of those people to whom the word ‘radiant’ really does apply definitely and derivatively. That is, she allowed what the papers called her Personality to go out from her in rays. She would have been equally beautiful, and to some tastes more attractive, if she had been self-contained; but she had always been taught to believe that self-containment was only selfishness. She would have said that she had lost Self in Service; it would perhaps be truer to say that she had asserted Self in Service.”

Today Hypatia would be “serving” the public as a television star, ready for her close-up at all times, in contrast to the inner-directed heroines (are there any left?), the ones who wear an invisible veil and lift it only with discretion.