The hilarious British comedy of the 1990s, Keeping Up Appearances, occasionally resurfaces in re-runs on PBS. I sometimes try to watch it, captivated by the absurd self-delusion of the protagonist, Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced “Bouquet”). But I have never been able to watch an episode from start to finish, because I become too embarrassed and uncomfortable with Hyacinth’s pathetic struggles to seem rather than simply to be.

Women’s lives are so often preoccupied with appearances – with the way we look to others, with the way our faces or bodies or clothing or manners fit with some perceived “ideal.” How does my hair look? Is it a good color and style? How does my house look? Is it clean and neat? How do my children look? Are they well-dressed and well-behaved? How does my garden look? Are the flowers well tended? I have one friend, a very intelligent woman, who has a good deal of sense about most things but who nonetheless takes about an hour every day to “put on her face and do her hair.”

This could be partly an extension of the caring impulse – to care for self, home, and family. But I suspect it’s more disturbed and disturbing than that. It seems to me almost pathological, perhaps an obsessive vanity, the desire to seem perfect in the eyes of others. Even beyond the obsession to “look good,” (but perhaps related to it) is the sexual exhibitionism that has become almost the norm for younger women. Where is that coming from? I’ll delay that question for another day, but check out http://www.missrepresentation.org/

In the social selection process of our culture, women are judged by the way they look, and men are judged by what they accomplish. Even women of great accomplishment, particularly if they are well known, must keep up appearances or else be subjected to derogatory comments by both males and females. Highly accomplished women like Hillary Clinton,  Nancy Pelosi, and Margaret Thatcher strive to have every hair is in place, all facial blemishes covered by make-up, and clothes that are stylish and flattering if they appear before a camera.

Why has striving for the perfect face, the perfect hair, the perfect body become such an obsession with contemporary women? Why was more than ten billion dollars shelled out for cosmetic plastic surgery last year, mostly for women? Yes, that’s billion, as in $10,000,000,000.00, even during a time of recession. Botox and liposuction, eyelid tucks and nose jobs, face lifts and boob lifts, breast implants and hair transplants, tummy tucks and butt tucks; it’s all done to try “looking good.” Could this be a substitute for “being good.”

Contrast this with the appearance of males in high places, of males with power. Think of a Winston Churchill or Warren Buffett or even Newt Gingrich. No one would think to criticize their looks. They are known and remembered for what they have done, not for the way they look.

When women are judged by accomplishments and not appearances, we will have come a long way toward gender equality. Will that ever happen?

On a slightly different note, the insightful internet poster below showed up in my facebook stream today. It seems appropriate for this blog site, on being a woman.