“It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.” Nobody can sum up a woman’s allure like Raymond Chandler can, and, boy, do we all know what he is talking about. Womanliness – that which has caused kingdoms to change hands, tragedies to unfold and fortunes to be won and lost – is a potent force. From Cleopatra to Princess Diana, Helen of Troy to the Duchess of Windsor, many have cast a spell over their societies and changed the course of history simply by being aware of the hypnotic power of woman.
A woman who knows her power has in her hands the key to her own happiness and success. All of us find out that we have it at different points in our lives. I will never forget the knockout moment when I realised I could get the broodingly handsome boy I was crazy about off his motorbike and up the stairs to my bedroom simply by walking towards him. The potency of being female ran amok through my late teens and early twenties, and then, regrettably for me, slumped into a coma while I brought up my children. But I like to think it’s still there somewhere, and there are days when the dress works, the hair swings and a builder wolf-whistles from nearby scaffolding. Call me unemancipated, but I love it. It is no accident that many women, post divorce, hire a personal trainer, have a haircut and suddenly access their hitherto suppressed sexuality. We are physical beings, though it is sometimes hard to remember this as we rush through life, and there is nothing wrong with enjoying the fact. And enjoying men enjoying it. Think of Brigitte Bardot dancing barefoot on the table in And God Created Woman.
Modern life makes little time for women to experience a goddess-like flowering. True, that moment of flowering can happen too early in life, but there is no such thing as it being too late for a woman to come into her own.
A month ago, my mother, 67, got married. At the end of the service, the vicar said to the new husband, “You may kiss the bride.” I couldn’t look – it was my mother, after all – but the congregation held their collective breath and watched the swooning smooch between my children’s granny and her beloved.
“It went on for hours,” said my 17-year-old son in disgust afterwards. “Too long. They should get a room,” agreed his brother. Everyone at the wedding was struck by the fizzing sexual energy between the happy couple. “I have never seen her so happy,” said the best woman, who has known my mother for 30 years. “Her body language has changed, and she looks as though she is really enjoying her power.”
About time too. My mother may not look like she did when she was 22 and my father fell in love with her; but now, unlike then, she knows who she is and the potency of her female allure is high voltage.
Photographs of her as a 22-year-old, however, show a different story. Unarguably beautiful, she gazes sadly, longingly, out of the pictures. She seems separate from her own beauty, unaware of her power. In itself that is charming, but she looks as though she is waiting.
It’s not just my mother who has caused me to think on this: my daughter is now 11. To me, she is still a little girl, but to others, she is becoming something else. “She’s got what you need to be a model”; “Your daughter is going to go far, isn’t she?”; “She is stunning. Watch out for her” – these comments have all been made to me in the past few months. She has long legs and is graceful, but she is 11, with a ponytail and freckles.
I want to protect my daughter from the force of her femininity for a while longer. Now more than ever, our culture is sexualised to a point where the magic magnetism of woman’s sexual power and man’s response to it can be seen more as a crude tug-of-war than a subtle dance. For a woman, there is a danger in using sexuality to get something she wants, and the danger is that she becomes an object both in her own mind and that of the person she is dealing with. Sexual potency is an incredible force, but it can be lethal when it becomes a currency – modelling being a prime example of this.
It is not difficult to have discussions about this with my daughter. Like most girls of her generation, she is interested in the culture she sees in Teen Vogue and on television. We have talked about the fact that a lot of models are young and often work far away from home, and how something that looks glamorous in a magazine is actually the result of hours of hard work in a studio. We talk about boys and what she can say to deflect their interest if she wants to. In this delicate arena, we have agreed that being friendly and kind is important, and so is sticking to your guns. Of course, she is young and is happy to talk about these theories with me now. When they become realities, it may be different, but she is informed and she is communicative, and that counts for a lot.
In all probability, I am being naive, and she has got there way ahead of me, as most children seem to have these days. I recently asked my eight-year-old goddaughter what she would like to be when she grows up. “A Sugababe,” she answered, without a pause. What happened to being a ballerina or a nurse? Little girls want to be models and celebrities now, and reality television trumpets the makeover and the skimpy dress as the keys to a life full of glamour and admiration.
So, where does the line between exploitation and empowerment lie? After all, the day Elizabeth Hurley, in a slashed and safety-pinned sex-bomb dress, stepped from a quiet career as Hugh Grant’s pretty girlfriend into front-page fodder was triumphant. She has certainly not been a victim of her beauty – instead, she has used it to drive her career. And we cannot forget that Princess Diana changed herself from a pretty sloane mouse into a glorious, swanlike woman and had the world falling at her feet.
When it works, the magic is like nothing else. More recently, the newspapers have charted the courtship between the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and the beautiful model Carla Bruni. She was irresistible to him, and their marriage created a powerful new couple, greater, perhaps, than the sum of its parts. I wonder if Sarkozy knows this Raymond Chandler line? “She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket.” If he doesn’t, he surely knows the feeling. Is there a man alive who doesn’t?
By Raffaella Barker