Why I'm so glad I'm not young and beautiful any more: EVE AHMED on how her good looks have hindered her career
19:44 GMT, 19 September 2012
What would my 22-year-old self think if she could see me in the mirror today I make an effort, but there is no escaping the grey hair, the age spots, and the wrinkles. It would once have pained me to admit this, but I am no longer eye-catching.
Men’s gazes don’t rest upon me any more. To most, I elicit indifference. I’m a mum, a wife and, most of all, I am old.
So would I swap places with the younger me You might think I’d jump at the chance. When I was in my 20s, I lost count of the times I was told: ‘You could have any man you wanted.’
Age before beauty: Eve, now aged 49, says she more confident now she's 'no longer eye-catching'
I was even told — I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at it now — that I was too pretty for my own good.
Beauty can be a curse. It’s only now, coming up to 50, that I realise it, and that I appreciate how free a woman can feel when her beauty fades.
The fact is that loveliness is not the blessing people imagine it to be. It fosters envy, and assumptions that you are vacuous and arrogant. In an interview this summer, the actor Colin Firth — handsome by anyone’s standards — talked of beautiful people being resented, and belittled. ‘If you are beautiful,’ he said, ‘you are assumed to have no substance’.
I say it is worse than that. If people assume you to be a certain type of person, based on your looks, you can end up believing the assumptions yourself — and start to live up to the caricature. I look back on my 20s and shudder at how much I did that. I became a doll-faced airhead — and it was addictive.
Youthful: Eve age 22 when she was constantly told she 'could have any man she wanted'
When did I first realise that others considered me pretty My family had never made a big deal about looks.
My mum was nice-looking, intelligent and ambitious, but shy. It was her children’s achievements she valued, not good looks — which, in her wisdom, she knew to be fleeting and superficial.
'I was once told: “We all fancy you. It's the only reason we offered you the job”
As a result, we were a modest lot. If you were attractive, it would be conceited to draw attention to it. It was thought children would get big-headed if given compliments — so they weren’t told they were beautiful, talented or special.
It was in the mid-Eighties when I was working as a PA in a London advertising agency that I realised the effect my looks had.
My boss’s colleague tried to get me to join his new firm. There would be a fantastic salary, travel, creative work and the lavish social life that was synonymous with advertising in the 1980s. I was sorely tempted. I hadn’t done a degree to end up stuck in front of a typewriter.
Pretty pitfall: Colin Firth once said, 'if you are beautiful, you are assumed to have no substance'
I didn’t take the job, however. I’d always wanted to work at the BBC and an opportunity arose there.
It wasn’t as glamorous a position, but I knew that many of the BBC’s top women had started out in the typing pool. I’d work hard, be spotted, and soon I’d be a TV newsreader. Well, that was the plan.
When I turned down the executive advertising job, though, the man who had been so charming said something shocking.
‘It wouldn’t have worked anyhow,’ he told me. ‘We all fancy you. It’s the only reason we offered you the job. You’d be too much of a distraction.’
I was speechless. Then he came out with the ‘you’re too pretty for your own good’ line.
It got worse. At my leaving party, I expected to be thanked. Instead, my boss presented me with a cartoon he’d drawn of me. I was big-breasted, big-eyed, with big, fluffed-up hair. He’d written a ribald limerick about my boobs. He’d drawn my colleagues — middle-aged men — gawping at me with tongues hanging out.
I was dumbfounded. How nave I’d been. I thought I was a valued colleague, yet they’d seen me as a joke. My best friend suggested they’d meant it as a compliment, but I wasn’t convinced. Something changed in me after that. Without intending to, I started to live up to this caricature.
It’s taken until now for me to have some insight into why.
Beauty is useless without self-confidence. You may be gorgeous but, if you don’t believe in yourself, you’ll get nowhere.
I never thought I was much to look at. When I became aware of this new found attention, I started to need and dislike it in equal measure. And I began acting up to it.
'That's the problem with pretty girls; they don't get anything done'
So the problem followed me. At the BBC, I’d hear women whispering as I entered the newsroom and would sense men’s eyes rake over my body.
I felt neither triumphant nor flattered, just trapped by their expectations. But did I try to challenge them No. Rather than cannily forging alliances and pushing for promotion, I hid inside ultra-feminine clothes.
Every morning, I fretted over my make-up. I spent ages trying on jewellery and stiletto shoes — all for what was turning out to be a dead-end job in a typing pool.
My self-imposed standards were exhausting. My reward Lavish compliments from baggy-eyed journalists, yet none of them asked me out. Either they thought I was out of their league, or that I had nothing between my ears. I suspect the latter. I had become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I am a writer now. I think I could have been then, too, had I just dragged myself away from the mirror for long enough to get on with it.
Novelist Zadie Smith recently confessed that she only ‘knuckled down’ to writing because she was large and thus ‘invisible’.
Cursed by beauty: Eve is happy now her looks and figure are only part of who she is, not her 'sum total'
She was quoted as saying: ‘That’s the problem with pretty girls; they don’t get anything done.’
I was that girl. Every time I put pen to paper, my colleagues would drag me out to discos and bars. To my surprise, I’d become Miss Popular: the good-time, fun-loving party animal who nobody — including me, by now — took seriously. Life was one long session of flirting, drinking, smoking and nightclubs.
It was a vicious circle. I’d begun to depend on the compliments and would doubt myself when they weren’t forthcoming. I suspect many pretty women with fragile egos go through the same thing.
When I eventually plucked up the courage to ask for a screen test, the editor suggested I get a haircut. Newsreaders had to look business-like and my flowing locks did not suggest authority. In a panic, I refused — my long hair was part of my identity. In retrospect, it’s no wonder the powers-that-be didn’t consider me a serious contender. And I have only myself to blame for my career stuttering to a halt.
The irony is that I finally have the self-confidence to be a good presenter — but I’m too old for youth-obsessed TV.
It was only after I married and had my daughters that I stopped caring so much. Children don’t allow a lot of time for fretting over make-up. I concentrated on parenting and before I knew it, I was middle-aged.
Many women find this difficult. I can’t say I embraced it at first. It is hard to lose your looks if you depend on them.
Once drivers would honk their car horns and builders would wolf-whistle, but now it would be nice just to be acknowledged.
But I gradually realised that being old sets you free. Your face and figure become only a part of who you are, not the sum total.
During the last couple of years, I have thrown myself into writing, studying for a Masters degree and shutting myself away in my study.
To write, you need to lead an almost monastic life, and I do. The days of having my head turned by flattery are now long behind me.
Your options narrow as you age, and now I am being forced to utilise the talents I neglected.
Nevertheless, I am not envious of my 22-year-old self. Instead, I feel sorry for her, trapped in a beautiful gilded cage. At this halfway point in my life, I am grateful that the door of that cage is finally open. I have a feeling that the best is yet to come.