Why Can’t We Accept Women Who Are Both Strong and Beautiful?

It’s long past time to get over misguided assumptions about looks, ability, and character.

It’s the harassing voicemail at the beginning of the film that I just can’t shake—it’s so creepy. Have you seen Follow Through yet? It’s the new short film from REI and Duct Tape Then Beer about Caroline Gleich, a pro ski mountaineer who uses her social media platform to build her brand and business as an athlete. The film opens with a voicemail left for Caroline by a stalker, criticizing her as an athlete and public figure. That voicemail has echoed in my head for the last 48 hours as I’ve tried to figure out why—why would someone do that? Why do people find so much to criticize about Caroline and other women in similar positions? Why are we still doing this? Much of it seems to come down to this: We cannot, it seems, accept a woman who is badass and also attractive. Women in our culture must choose one or the other.

Director James Cameron made headlines last week with similar rhetoric, criticizing the new Wonder Woman movie—his main point was that being attractive automatically discounts Wonder Woman from doing something groundbreaking. (Side note: The day that a leading male character in a comic book movie is not also cast as a very traditionally attractive man like Hugh Jackman, Chris Hemsworth, and Robert Downey Jr., we might have an actual conversation.)

Yes, one of these stories is real and one is fiction, but they share something important: Both of them are about women chasing their dreams and going where women have not gone before, and both of the starring women get blasted with criticism for the same thing: how they look. Would these same characters be undermined the same way if they were men? What if these same characters were doing exactly what they’re doing but were not traditionally good looking? Would their accomplishments be called into questioned the same way?

Being white, straight, cisgendered, and good-looking obviously comes with its own set of privileges. When it comes to money, acceptance, sponsorship, acting roles, etc., we obviously still have a long way to go before we have an even playing field. (Watch The Mirnavator, if you’d like to see another angle to that subject.) But here’s the thing: None of these stories is the ultimate, perfect example of feminist progress—because they don’t have to be. They are simply stories of women working hard at what they believe in.

Confession: I have been judgmental about female athletes and public figures, too. The more I try to pay attention to my own biases, the more of them I notice. I hear that voice in my head taking note of something another woman wears, being critical. At the very same moment that my heart was leaping at Gal Gadot’s kick-ass fighting moves in Wonder Woman, I was also thinking, “Gee, it would have been cool if they’d cast a Wonder Woman with a bit more more muscle to her—bigger legs, more defined biceps.” I have fallen into the same mental traps that I despise, making judgments about people based on their appearance, how they dress, how much or little skin they decide to show.

Here’s why that’s such a problem: We need EVERY kind of strong woman. We need ALL of their stories.

And those strong women need our support, not our criticism. As if skiing through a no-fall zone that few have ever skied was not enough of a challenge, women like Caroline have the added struggle of doing so with a heap of criticism and bullying thrown on top because she’s a woman, because of how she looks, because she doesn’t fit the mold of what some people think a ski mountaineer should be like.

How a woman looks, how she dresses or portrays herself is only one aspect of her expression of her self. And it’s those people who reduce women down to that one aspect in their minds who are doing the objectifying. The fact that James Cameron only sees an “objectified icon” in Wonder Woman speaks to his own assumption that any woman who happens to be traditionally beautiful or—gasp!—sexy, must only be sexy, and not also potentially interesting, strong, or complicated.

We need to get over our assumptions about strength and beauty and ability. Are we ready to start looking at women for their character, how they approach and overcome challenges, no matter what they look like?


Contributing editor Hilary Oliver lives in Denver and blogs at The Gription.
Showing 6 comments
  • Jay

    Are we ready? Not quite. But getting closer every day! Keep on with the forward progress, women, and F the haters!

  • rcm

    As with most prejudices, the motivation is usually fear – either of damage to one’s ego or one’s (often imagined) place in the world. We (all guys and, I expect at least most women) are the superheroes of our own stories, and the presence of a gorgeous competent woman with serious badass chops (be she very real, totally fiction, or real playing fiction), brings us face-to-face with our delusions of adequacy… It’s, well, uncomfortable, and we’d rather not.

  • Amy Waeschle

    I think this same argument applies to all people. We automatically judge a person on looks first, then talent/ability. Maybe this happens more so with women. I’d even argue that a badass female athlete has to have some kind of sex appeal to make it. Take a look at the average female athlete’s social media feeds, and sexy selfies are the norm. It’s disheartening to say the least. I haven’t seen Wonder Woman, summers are too full of glorious outside time with my family to spend time in a theater. And it’s probably just as well. I read today about Courtney Conlogue posing nude for ESPN and her struggle with body image. I was dumbstruck to hear that she at first was unhappy by the way her body looked with the muscles she had honed for surfing. She talked about overcoming this, but the fact that she doubted her conviction – just because of what she looked like in a bikini – left me feeling sick.

  • Chris

    Strong women are sexy. Confidence is sexy. Caroline Gleich’s achievement of running the gullies is pretty bad ass and she had more “balls” than I do. I’m not that strong of a skier and the fact that she has the skills and attitude to accomplish such a feat with a smile on her face and give the proverbial finger to the asshole who left that message is a testament to her strength.

  • Jim Restin

    As a man who fell in love with a powerful and attractive woman, and have been with her for over 40 years, I find it hard to understand the minimizing and degrading of women of strength, character and beauty. Why are any of us threatened by the ideals that these women display. More power to anyone who can ennoble our species, no matter gender or beauty.

  • John Warner

    I would add: no matter gender, race or appearance.

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