What do Sarah Jessica Parker, Amy Winehouse, Sandra Oh, Madonna and Britney Spears have in common? Is it that they are all, in their chosen fields, highly successful women? Guess again. According to a poll published in the men's magazine Maxim last week, together they are the world's five "unsexiest women".
According to the editors at Maxim, Spears scraped in at number five because she carried excess "pudge" following the birth of her two sons. Madonna featured following her "rapid post-nuptial deterioration" and appearances in "pharmacy menopause aisles". Sandra Oh, star of the TV drama Grey's Anatomy, made the list for her "cold" manner and "boyish figure". British singer Amy Winehouse sported "translucent skin" and a "rat's nest mane".
Former Sex and the City star Sarah Jessica Parker must be thrilled to discover that she topped the poll. The magazine editors thought her a clear winner, whose presence in a show with sex in the title was apparently inexplicable given the fact that she has a head like a horse.
So this is how I see it. Giving birth is not sexy. If you used to be sexy, but now carry a bit of healthy post-pregnancy weight, you're also out of favour. If you don't strut around with your breasts on display or are an otherwise prickly character (which means, I think, unwilling to get said breasts out for the boys at Maxim), you're a sure bet for the list. Best of all, if you display the natural signs of ageing or are experiencing natural bodily processes like menopause, then you're fair game.
Perhaps buoyed by the knowledge that celebrity sells, the results of the Maxim poll have done the circuit as a news item — yes, a news item — over the past week. I saw the list on at least one commercial network's nightly news bulletin and it has been news in India, the United States and Britain. It even made its way onto The Age website, which is where I first read about it. All this comes on the back of a recent Esquire poll ranking the sexiest women alive. That too, it seems, was newsworthy.
In calling this kind of vicious, sexist rubbish "news", the poll is given a smidgen of legitimacy. The media implicitly support the notion that it is OK to scrutinise and rank women on the basis of the most superficial and degrading of all criteria — their appearance.
In the past three decades, as women have made advances in public life and steps have been made towards greater equality between the sexes, the scrutiny of women's bodies seems to have gathered pace. Take politics as an example. In Media Tarts, Julia Baird's excellent book examining the media's treatment of Australian female politicians, Baird argues that women in politics are rarely judged on their merits. Media commentators are far more interested in women's hairstyles (Bronwyn Bishop, Julia Gillard), sexual histories (Cheryl Kernot), polka-dot dresses (Joan Kirner), sexiness (Julie Bishop, Natasha Stott Despoja) or unsexiness and weight (Amanda Vanstone) than their policy stances or the contributions they might make to the fabric of our nation.
Indeed, in many respects, women are still seen as less the sum of their parts and more the sum of their "bits".
I can hear the naysayers: if you don't like lists like these, don't read them. And I agree. But even if — like me — you don't actively seek out polls like these, assessments of women permeate every aspect of our culture. Ask any woman and she'll tell you that such images are the reason she spends hours in front of the bathroom mirror, worrying about her every blemish or ripple of cellulite.
Media outlets need to be much more reflective about the role they play in fostering this kind of self-scrutiny among women. They must abandon the practice of uncritically promoting sexist material about women, of the kind we see in the Maxim poll. Because, as a woman, I can only do so much to avoid such harmful nonsense.
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