The tyranny of image

The tyranny of image

Feminists have for a long time held that women should be judged by their skills. But the society still discriminates in favour of good looks, so how do you ensure your beauty matches your brain?

Women tend to resist the idea that their physical appearance should matter to their professional advancement. When professional women display their beauty, charm or sexuality, they are often disparaged and accused of lacking in intellect.

Well, when Caroline Munga, 34, lost her well-paying job in financial services, she refused to die in agony. She took some crucial steps. And so she exercised, lost weight, and looked 10 years younger. She went to the hairdresser and had her hair cut, coloured and restyled into a shorter, more flattering style that made her look younger and livelier. She shopped, invested in expensive new suits that showed off her new physique and made her look attractive as well as professional. Within no time, she got a new consultancy job where she was paid more than in her previous job.

“I work in the private sector, where appearance counts.  I had to have a makeover to look more presentable. There is this confidence that an attractive woman oozes. You just feel on top of the world and you don’t have to be Naomi Campbell or Beyoncé to feel so,” she says.

Level playing field

According to sociologist Jackline Wamunyu, exploiting aesthetic capital is  indeed an admirable way for women to level the economic playing field. “And why not? Why wouldn’t anyone invest in and deploy an asset that packs intelligence, specialist knowledge and experience?” she poses.

She adds that anyone can be attractive if they just have the right kind of hairstyle, clothes, and present themselves to the best effect.

However, this school of thought doesn’t go well with feminists who claim that relying on beauty and poise to climb the economic ladder is just one misplaced idea modern women are trying to use.

Misplaced idea

“If women enhance and take advantage of their looks because they think they’ll get something else out of it, then that means what we really want is something else. That something else is real power. This would simply mean that women will never have access to power on their own terms, but rather, only at the expense of ones with the ‘real power’,” says  sociologist Ann Kimeitu.

But Wamunyu insists that personal attractiveness pays off in all walks of life, even feminism. She notes there’s no doubt that society acts  in favour of good looks and charm, and maybe discriminates against the “unattractive”. And according to cosmetologist Betty Riungu, attractive people find it easier to make friends, are more likely to marry, are more persuasive in debate, are perceived to be more competent and able, are regarded as more honest and “good” generally, are more influential, and are more successful in affairs and in marriage.

In most cases the private sector employs more attractive people than the public sector. A local bank and a cosmetic firm are well known to employ light skinned and pretty ladies.  “This is partly due to self-selection, given that the private sector rewards good looks and self-presentation skills more than the public sector. Also, most jobs in entertainment, hospitality, sales and marketing are in the private sector, where aesthetic capital has commercial value,” says Wamunyu.

But Kimeitu defies this saying: “The minute the people with the real power decide you’re out, you’re out, and if this looks issue was the whole of your career strategy, there’s little hope of finding a substitute source of leverage. Modern day feminism has robbed women of the choice to deploy aesthetic and erotic capital, it suggests sex appeal being women’s only route to power. But in reality, women’s true liberation relies upon fighting sex appeal, that is, an indirect route to power with no exit strategy at hand,” she says.

She adds that looks may count for something but brains count for more.

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