The Measure of a Woman

One of the first Facebook posts I came across this morning was a shared post from THEGUARDIAN.COM regarding Colleen McCullough’s obituary in The Australian. Not surprisingly, there was an uproar over the obituary’s opening lines: “Colleen McCullough, Australia’s bestselling author, was a charmer. Plain of feature, and certainly overweight, she was nevertheless a woman of wit and warmth.” Also not surprisingly, many of my friends and acquaintances were appalled by the obit writer’s distasteful words, and they did not hesitate to share their opinions.

I, too, was struck by the churlishness (I could have used another word, but I thought it best to keep it clean) of those opening lines, but always trying to look on the bright side (Pollyanna, eat your heart out), I commented that maybe it was an attempt to say, “Oh, look, she didn’t fit into society’s ideal of a beautiful woman, but she overcame that and became successful anyway.” Having always felt much the same about my own appearance I wanted to view that comment in a positive sense, that one’s physical appearance doesn’t matter and doesn’t make or break your success, unless of course you’re an aspiring supermodel.

But the more I thought about it, the more it irked me. I read through the rest of the obituary, as well as some other articles on McCullough, and I was quite impressed with her many achievements. This woman was an accomplished scientist who specialized in fields that many people probably can’t even pronounce. She set up and ran the neurophysiology department at a Sydney hospital and then came to the United States to run a research lab at Yale University’s medical school and also taught neuroanatomy, neurophysiology, and neurological electronics. Yet the opening lines of her obituary say she was homely and fat?

The last time I looked, we were in the year 2015. One would think we’d be past the whole rating-women-on-their-appearance gig, but apparently not. I guess it doesn’t matter what a woman achieves in life; if she doesn’t measure up in the looks department all those achievements just go to the bottom of her obituary, secondary only to her physical shortcomings. How ironic that two of the songs I heard on the radio on the way to the grocery store this morning were Megan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” and Colbie Caillat’s “Try,” both of which kick the shins of society’s emphasis on physical perfection.

As I kicked this around in my head, you know what I realized? I realized that I’m still stuck in that rut as well. I hear the truth in those lyrics, hear the outcry over the focus on women’s appearances,  and then turn around and berate myself for the way I look and try to figure out how to “fix” myself.

I published my own first novel last summer, so I’m in the midst of marketing myself and my book. Of course, I want to get some professional author photos taken so I have them available for press releases or book signings. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with putting a professional foot forward. What hit me smack in the face after the whole Colleen McCullough obituary fiasco this morning is the fact that I have been putting off getting those photos done because my hair is all wrong (I need an up-to-date, age-appropriate hairstyle and color), my face is all wrong (maybe my stylist is right and I really need to wax those eyebrows and learn how to do my makeup), my clothes are all wrong (jeans and sweatshirts are okay for being a SAHM, but are all wrong for a woman author), and I should really lose some weight (the camera puts on 10 pounds, you know).

I thought about how ridiculous it sounded that part of me wants to get a complete makeover before I put my face on the back of a book cover, like I want to change my entire appearance to be more appealing to my readers. Really? I asked myself what I look for when I pull a book off the shelf at the library—do I go right to the author photo and put the book back on the shelf if she isn’t attractive enough or doesn’t fit my idea of what an author should look like? Um, of course not. I’m interested in the story that author has to tell, whether or not she has crafted a plot that I can get into or characters I can relate to. I couldn’t care less if she’s overweight, underweight, drop-dead gorgeous, or plain as a slice of dry toast, and I’m certain that other readers feel the same way. So why am I stressing myself over this?

And of course, let’s not disregard the elephant in the room: Would I still struggle with these issues if I were a man instead of a woman? If I were a man, would I have the same concerns—no, fears—that my readers would look upon me with disdain if I weren’t fashionably dressed, or if I had wrinkles or frizzy hair, or less-than-perfect teeth. Perhaps there are some men who would have these concerns, and perhaps there are those who would judge a male author for those same reasons, but I have the feeling that the burden of beauty and perfection still rests upon women more so than on men.

And whether your name is Colleen McCullough or Leta P. Hawk, whether you’re a novelist or a neurophysiologist, that is just a sad, sad commentary on our society.