Beauty and the brain

2014-04-09 10:00

I read a lovely little story the other day about our Public Protector called “Thuli Madonsela’s letter to her 16-year-old self”.

It forms part of a collection of letters compiled in the book From Me to Me: Letters to my 16-and-a-half-year-old Self, edited by Samantha Page, the editor of the Oprah magazine in South Africa.

In it, Madonsela talks about her struggles with beauty as a young girl.

She was socially awkward as a teenager, “plagued by a nagging feeling of being unloved and ugly”, she says.

“Perhaps this comes from being teased about your big head and, more recently, two of your academically inferior classmates have started taunting you, too.

Having two sisters whose beauty is always noticed and praised has not helped either.”

Knowing she was strong academically, Madonsela focused on her studies, which is how she became the success she is today. For her smarts, she was “always praised at home and at school”, she says.

It was interesting to read this story shortly after she’d been called “that woman with the big ugly nose” by ANC affiliates for daring to do her job properly and exposing the excesses of this government.

It’s not the words of the imbeciles I want to focus on, but the tenderness in that letter to an unsure young girl looking for validation.

And the realisation that beauty, a minefield for young girls and women, never seems to stop being a burden, whatever position you hold.

Michelle Obama, who blazed into the White House as a smart, accomplished US First Lady, is these days mostly remembered for her looks and fashion sensibilities.

And sometimes it looks like Hillary Clinton’s sense of style might cost her the presidency.

Last year, when Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, one of the top women in tech, posed sexy and pretty for a Vogue feature, she was lambasted. How dare she be smart and sexy!

And just this week, I read a story about comedic genius Tina Fey and why her playing a frumpy character in 30 Rock is not fair because she can be sexy in real life.

It’s always been an uncomfortable pairing for women – beauty and brains.

Or rather, beauty or brains. Somehow, you have to choose one over the other for society to be at peace. If you are too pretty, you must be stupid.

And if you’re too vocal, you must be ugly.

It’s a hot potato you get handed at puberty and you toss it around your whole life, trying to prove your worth.

As a young girl, I was teased constantly for being bony. Then suddenly as a growing woman, my thin frame became a positive.

None of these attributions of ugly or attractive were my own. At first, I was not good enough, and then one day it all changed.

So to make life easy, I spent my adult years wearing clothes that covered up my body.

Like Madonsela, I realised I could master school and books because success in that area mostly depended on my efforts.

It was in my 30s that I realised that brains and beauty did not have to obliterate the other.

What a freedom that was. I’m now like a woman in reverse puberty, playing with miniskirts and make-up.

Madonsela wrote the letter just before she turned 50, now too mature and confident to have words like ‘you’re ugly’ hurt her.

She has bigger things to worry about, especially when you look at the shots she has to take every day.

I love what she says in the middle of her piece, explaining the reason she’s talking to the teenage girl she used to be: “I’m writing to tell you to relax because you are a perfect expression of God’s magnificence.”

That’s a smart and beautiful thing to say to every young girl or woman.

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