Beyonce, Ed Sheeran & how men and women are expected to look

Beyonce, Ed Sheeran & the absurd chasm between how men and women are expected to look

The image of two of the world’s biggest pop stars – Beyonce and Ed Sheeran – standing side by side performing in South Africa over the weekend has captured an absurd chasm that still exists between men and women.

Ed was attired in jeans, trainers and a t-shirt. If a brush had been in the vicinity of his hair it certainly wasn’t obvious. He may well have rolled straight from his bed or the sofa.

Beyonce wore an elaborate fuchsia gown, complete with a train and dramatic ruffles that revealed her legs and cleavage. Her hair and make-up were both, as ever, works of art. If she had spent less than two hours getting ready it would be surprising.

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Neither Beyonce or Sheeran strayed from their usual look but the contrast between the pair was comical. As The Guardian’s Hadley Freeman wrote: “While most of us accept to the point of no longer even noticing the absurd differences between what men and women have to do to look acceptable, the disparity here was so ludicrous that it verged on satire.”

The word that some may want to scream in response to the suggestion that this image portrays sexist double standards is CHOICE!

The artists are simply choosing their preferred uniforms: Ed rocks the casual look while Queen Bey is famous for bringing big glamour to every stage she has ever rocked. But the question Hadley Freeman poses – the dilemma that needs scrutinising – is this:

“When the rules for what constitutes acceptable beauty are so fixed, and the pressure to look good is so overwhelming, where does choice end and obligation begin?”

Earlier this week I was sitting in a café working when three women in their early 40s, at my best guess, sat down at the table beside me. They were all wearing activewear and from what I deduced they had actually been active in their expensive lycra: they had just completed a walk.

They were petite, healthy looking women and upon taking their seats, before coffee was even ordered, the three of them began exchanging war stories. Not of disastrous life events or problems with their children or their marriages or their parents or their careers. Their war stories were focused on their own bodies.

They each spoke at length about their current weight and their ideal weight. All of them wanted to shed at least 3 kilograms before Christmas. All of them weighed less than 60 kilograms and I know this because I heard them say it.

My heart sank and not because I felt superior to their musings. I sat there sad because their conversation was so familiar. Their conversation was not an aberration: it is a dialogue that virtually every woman I know has regularly, either out aloud with friends or in her own mind.

I sat there disheartened that even for healthy women in their 40s their bodies remain an enemy of sorts. That the pull of the idea that our lives would somehow be better or fixed if we weighed a certain number – or looked a certain way – was still so strong.

I tried to put it to the side of my mind but 20 minutes later, in the course of our work related correspondent, I added to a post script to a message I sent Angela Priestley.

“I have just sat beside a group of women exchanging their body weights and goals and I am now feeling like I need to lose three kilos likes they all want to. It is RIDICULOUS but I am now feeling awful. WHY???”

She got it. Of course she got it. What woman wouldn’t?

It was illogical but the idea of our bodies being a major metric of our success and happiness is prolific. Hearing these women obsess over their bodies made me obsess about mine.

I put a message out on social media asking why healthy women obsess about bodies and many of the responses were the same.  Social conditioning.

As women we have spent our lives being fed the idea that our appearance is paramount. That our hair, our skin, our weight, our limbs, our make-up, our clothes, our eyebrows are each fundamental indicators of our worth.

The fact that along the way we might even derive enjoyment and pride from caring about these things, by choosing a dress or getting our hair done or buying new make up, makes it almost impossible to tell where choice ends and obligation begins.

It isn’t true to say boys and men avoid any pressure related to their physical appearance but nor is it true to say the demands placed on men are the same as those expected of women.

The image of Beyonce and Ed Sheeran visually depicts this better than words can. They are both at the top of their games, both possess an abundance of talent, but how they look is light years apart.

It is fair to say that Ed would probably enjoy the same level of fame whether he stuck to his jeans and trainers or swapped them out for suits and sleek stylised menswear.  Can the same be said for Beyonce?

Would she be the star she is if she wore the same jeans, trainers and t-shirts to every performance? Honestly? It’s hard to say.

It’s no wonder why women angst about their appearance. I just wish we could all make it stop.

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