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Oprah School In South Africa To Grow Women Leaders, But Does Beauty Equal Success?

Aug 17, 2007
When I was growing up in metropolitan Washington, DC, I never once thought that my appearance would dictate my future as a doctor, lawyer or an Indian chief. In fact, I never thought that being a woman would affect my chances of entering any profession. I was a tomboy busy being a kid and thought the world I lived in would offer me all the options I would want. Not once did I consider I would one day be limited by the fact that I was a girl.

As I grew up I often heard platitudes "Pretty is as pretty does" and "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." But I was a rebel and felt that I did not have to fit into any particular mold to make it in this world. My grandmother, Mamma Nancy (I was little Nancy) knew early on that I would have trouble. My 4'11" grandmother had a reputation for being an outspoken and feisty woman and she commanded respect whenever she entered a room. She went right for the best table, best view and of course the best entree on the menu. I guess the apple does not fall too far from the ol' apple tree.

I decided that she would be my role model and my mentor and since I was named after her, I really had no choice but to emulate her. This drove my mother crazy and I think my grandmother somehow enjoyed the lively exchanges she and mother had regarding my over-the-top rebellious behaviors. I personally enjoyed watching the whole scenario. One day, however, I must have really pushed the envelope.

I left high school thinking I was cool and sophisticated. Going through rush at the University my parents had shipped me to I thought it would be nice to have some new girlfriends so I went to the sorority rush parties. I was a legacy, which means I should have been a shoe-in for a bid to join this really cool group of women. I had a ball and came away thinking I would truly be an immense resource to these young women and they could learn so much from me and I would be a really fun, cool girlfriend. Next day I ran to see my invitation to join this cool group of women. As I scanned the list, my blood ran cold...they didn't want me!

I called my mother and my grandmother and cried while I told them all about it. Mamma Nancy said to me: "I think you have shown your petticoat on this one." That was her way of saying I had stepped over a social boundary and revealed some unacceptable part of myself. My pretty looks apparently were not enough. Little girls learn it different ways. How did you first learn about all the do's and don'ts of being a pretty girl?

Now we read that Oprah Winfrey is opening a school for young girls in South Africa. She reports that the intention and purpose of the school is to groom these young girls to one day be future leaders. Oprah's vision is to offer the education and social training they will need. One particularly controversial piece to this story is that an important part of the girls' training is to increase their self-esteem by teaching them to look attractive and pleasing to the eye. The school includes a large beauty salon in which the girls will learn how to look pretty.

I think this is the part that impacts a feminist such as me. Why must young South African girls learn that beauty and physical attractiveness are important to their hopes of becoming leaders? Granted, studies show that attractive people tend to have greater success than homely ones, so it probably will help ensure their personal success. But what message can we learn from this training that Oprah's school is instilling in young, vulnerable, naive girls? In fact, what are the messages young girls of all cultures are receiving about being accepted and valued in our society? Are we still telling young girls that they must stay young and beautiful to be loved, to be leaders, and to stand out in the crowd?

Is it just me? Personally, I worry about what this implies. I am concerned we are not giving women a positive message about being important and valued in our society. It bothers me that women and their young daughters are still hearing that if they want to be loved or achieve their goals, they must stay young and beautiful.

All my years of research with thousands of women about growing older in a youth-driven society has made me aware that many are worried about what will happen to them when their beauty fades. Should they feel this way? That's not for me to say. My point is, many of them DO feel this way. In my opinion, women still do not have an equal chance at the top of the pile. We still fight for equal pay and still find that many career choices are not as reachable as we once thought. There is a glass ceiling and there is sexual discrimination and there is prejudice against women. There are still countries that euthanize female babies; cultures in which a son is the only true heir. Will learning to fix their hair and makeup help them improve the status of women? Maybe not, but in society today, that's what is expected.

Take a look at the television ads about beating the clock and losing ten years in one week by using the latest magic potion. Men are pounded with the message to use Viagra; women hear a similar message about using Botox. Sure, I think it is great Oprah is opening a school in South Africa for young girls and I think it is great that one day young women will walk out of her school ready to lead their country, and that they will look beautiful, act beautiful and BE beautiful.

In our society, it's crucial for women who hope to be leaders to fit the vision of the beholder. But I also hope that Oprah will also teach them, as Mama Nancy taught me, that "Pretty is as pretty does."
About the Author
Clinical psychologist Nancy D. O'Reilly, PsyD, has worked with women for more than 25 years. She founded the WomenSpeak Project to offer a supportive atmosphere for growing older in our society that does not support aging. Access ongoing research, e-newsletters, a free online consulting service, and resources about Health and Wellness, Relationships, Finances and Aging itself at http://www.WomenSpeak.com.
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