Pretty things: a woman's beauty is often considered more valuable than her accomplishments in a male-dominated world.

Pretty things: a woman's beauty is often considered more valuable than her accomplishments in a male-dominated world. Photo: Chris Craymer/trunkarchive.com/Snapper Media

British art critic John Berger once famously said that, in our culture, "men act and women appear". He didn't mean that women didn't actually do anything, or that men never looked pretty. His point was that this was how men and women were depicted. Men were supposed to be effective, and women were supposed to be attractive. He was right. And it was a travesty. But that was in 1972; it was a long time ago.

Or was it? Four decades of feminism later,I am reading the British comedian Angela Barnes' blog. "I am ugly, and I am proud," she writes. She goes on to say: "The fact is, I don't see people in magazines who look like me. I don't see people like me playing the romantic lead or having a romantic life." At the top of the blog is a picture of Barnes. And the thing is, she isn't ugly. Neither is she beautiful. She's normal-looking. She's somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, just like lots of women you see every day in real life.

It made me think of last year's Wimbledon ladies' final between Sabine Lisicki and Marion Bartoli. When Bartoli won, the BBC commentator John Inverdale infamously said, "Do you think Bartoli's dad told her when she was little, 'You're never going to be a looker, you're never going to be a Sharapova, so you have to be scrappy and fight'? "

The first thing I thought was, "This woman has just won a tennis tournament and she's being judged on her looks!" And then I thought, "Bartoli is attractive!" Sure, she's not at the very highest point on the scale – she doesn't look like a top model. But she's pretty and, in any case, why should it matter? She's a top athlete. Surely that's what counts.

A sports commentator refers to a pretty woman as "not a looker". A normal-looking woman thinks she's ugly. Why? Because, even though the world is full of normal and pretty women, the world we see – the world of television, films, magazines and websites – is full of women who are top-of-the-scale beauties. And right now, in the second decade of the 21st century, the situation is more extreme than ever.

If you're a woman, a huge proportion of your role models are beautiful. So if you're normal-looking, you feel ugly. And if you're merely pretty, men feel free to comment on how un-beautiful you are.

As a normal-looking man, I find myself in a completely different position. Being normal makes me feel, well, normal. Absolutely fine, as if the way I look is not an issue. That's because it's not an issue. As a normal-looking man, I'm in good company.

Sure, some male actors and celebrities are very good-looking: Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Hugh Jackman. But many of Hollywood's leading men look like the sort of blokes you see every day, in real life: Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey, Bruce Willis, Jack Black, Seth Rogen, Martin Freeman, Tom Hanks, Steve Carell, Jim Carrey, Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn. In fact, you might say that most leading men are normal-looking blokes.

It's true of television, too. Bryan Cranston, who plays the lead in Breaking Bad, he's a normal. James Gandolfini – he was a normal. And chubby, too. Think of sitcoms. The Big Bang Theory features four normal-looking blokes and a stunningly beautiful woman. When I watch the news, on whatever channel, it's presented by the classic duo: an ordinary-looking guy and a gorgeous woman. After that, I watch the weather. Male weather presenters look like standard males. Female weather presenters look like models. Footballers look normal. Footballers' wives and girlfriends look stunning. Morning TV presenters: men look like David Koch; women look like Samantha Armytage.

In a recent interview, Dustin Hoffman, another normal, made a revealing comment. Remember when he dressed up as a woman in Tootsie? "I went home and started crying," he said. Why? "Because I think I am an interesting woman when I look at myself on screen. And I know that if I met myself at a party, I would never talk to that character. Because she doesn't fulfil, physically, the demands that we're brought up to think women have to have in order to ask them out. I have been brainwashed."

The message, to me as a man, is this: it's what you do that's important, not how you look. But how do women feel? I can only imagine. Actually, I had some insight into how women must feel the other day. I went to a beauty trade show. Women, many of whom wanted their faces to be more beautiful than they were, were looking at products and procedures that might help. You could have injections of Botox or fillers; you could have your face heated up; you could have fat from your abdomen injected into your lips.

The "cosmetic interventions" industry is growing fast: in 2005 in the UK it was worth £720 million ($1.3 billion); five years later the figure was £2.3 billion. (Australian statistics are harder to come by compared with the UK and the US, but we spend about $1.1 billion a year on procedures – about 40 per cent more per capita than the US.)

I watched a woman as her lips were injected with Restylane, a dermal filler designed to make faces look fuller, lips more pouty. Her face was being stretched and jabbed, stretched and jabbed. Skin was being hoicked and yanked, and then stuff was pumped into her. It looked like a cooking procedure. It looked like abuse.

When she got up, she was shaky. She had the bearing of someone who had been in an accident. Before and after the procedure, she was normal-looking. That's one thing about cosmetic interventions, says Daniel Hamermesh, a University of Texas professor who is an expert on the economics of beauty. They might help, but don't expect miracles. "Changes are likely to be small," he says.

But women increasingly crave beauty – and for good reason. In a world that tells pretty women they are ordinary, and ordinary-looking women they are ugly, increasingly radical "solutions" seem normal. In a 2013 review, the UK Department of Health reported that, until recently, people were discreet about cosmetic procedures; now they were "celebrated".

These days beauty is not a bonus – it's essential. So women, in their tens of thousands, feel a new acceptance of the pain, the microdermabrasion, the chemical peels, the intense pulsed light. They try not to think of procedures going wrong, leading to more procedures. They observe their faces with a new expertise, noting the downward slide of the malar fat pads, the atrophy of collagen. They save money. They book appointments. People yank and jab their skin. Afterwards they still look un-beautiful.

Feminists such as Naomi Wolf tell us they know what's going on. Just at the point when women were becoming more liberated – the moment when they began to act, as well as appear – the patriarchy hit back. In The Beauty Myth, she makes a good case. The more power women have, she says, the more pressure there is on them to be beautiful. And passive. "Women," she wrote, "are mere 'beauties' in men's culture so that culture can be kept male ... A beautiful heroine is a contradiction in terms, since heroism is about individuality, interesting and ever changing, while 'beauty' is generic, boring and inert."

In the past two decades, scientists – mostly male – have stepped into the debate. They tell us the pressure on women to be beautiful is not a patriarchal backlash, because it has been there forever. It's the same all over the world, whether you're from a poor or a rich country. It's the same in cities as it is in tribal societies. That, they say, is because it's an essential part of the human condition.

In The Evolution of Desire, David Buss, a professor of psychology, says that it all comes down to the basics of sex. Men are attracted to women who look fertile. Women are attracted to men who will make good providers. That's why men want their female partners to be a bit younger than they are. It's also why women are attracted to older men – men with a proven track record.

Throughout history, in other words, women are desirable when they look healthy and unblemished. Symmetrical features are a sign of health; a narrow waist and wide hips are a sign of fertility. Women like symmetrical features, too. But they don't mind wrinkles or grey hair. I've never heard any woman say anything negative about George Clooney's hair. I can't imagine John Inverdale ever saying Andy Murray is a normal-looking bloke. And if, like David Buss, I'd interviewed 10,000 people in 37 different cultures and found that, worldwide, women want men to look like strong providers, grizzled or not, I'd tell you this was not surprising.

I recently read a debate about online porn that asked: why are female porn stars much better looking than male? Why is porn all about normal-looking blokes having sex with beautiful women? It's because the consumers of porn are, by and large, normal-looking blokes. In other words, that's where the money is – the normal-looking blokes want to identify with the male actors, which would be more difficult if the male actors were as beautiful as the women. It's brute economics.

Forty-two years on from Berger's words, for the most part men still act, women still appear. And the distinctions are becoming sharper. When, in the last century, the ideal of male agency and female beauty was challenged by feminism, it fought back.

Naomi Wolf was right. Since then, in an increasingly mediated, monetised society, the old ideal has hardened and intensified. Sponsorship and advertising endorse conservative values. The internet has brought us porn on demand, which focuses the male gaze. And porn is a hub that radiates out – towards fashion, music, films and novels.

As Ariel Levy pointed out in her book Female Chauvinist Pigs, women seem to want to become pornographic versions of themselves, mainly because it works. It places them in the dominant culture. They felt they couldn't beat men, so they decided to join them. Some wore T-shirts with the slogan "Porn star". As Levy says, "Only 30 years ago, our mothers were 'burning their bras' and picketing Playboy, and suddenly we were getting implants and getting the bunny logo as supposed symbols of our liberation."

British sociologist Catherine Hakim might agree. In her book Honey Money, she points out that, just as men in patriarchal societies have always tried to control the way women dress, so have some feminists. "Why not champion femininity rather than abolish it? Why does no one encourage women to exploit men whenever they can?" she writes.

The other day, a man said to me, "Women have money and independence these days. They don't want to be judged on how they look, so why don't they turn their backs on this va-va-voom dressing, all the make-up and high heels?" The answer is, I don't know. I'm a man. I don't live in a world of being judged on my looks, or a world in which to look normal is to look ugly, or in which I can increase my power by how I dress. What's complicated for women is simple for men.

Just think of John Malkovich, another normal-looking leading man. When he was asked what he most disliked about his appearance, he said, "I don't think about it. I'm a geezer. Who cares?"

 

Stella Magazine, The Sunday Telegraph (UK). Additional reporting by Sam Elliott.