Women Can Use 'Weakness' as a Form of Strength

Published: 01st October 2014 12:47 PM  |   Last Updated: 01st October 2014 12:47 PM   |  A+A-

Bossy, aggressive and feisty - I have been called them all. Pretty much any word which is usually applied in a negative sense to women (though positively to men), has been attached to my name.

But I've also been called charming, funny and even delightful - often by the same people. After a spirited onscreen exchange with Godfrey Bloom, the colourful ex-Ukip MEP, in which we clashed about whether women really were "sluts" (as he suggested) for failing to clean behind their fridges, and during which he couldn't help but find me bossy, aggressive and feisty, he thanked me for an enjoyable interview and invited me for a drink.

I bring up this paradox because the designer Stella McCartney has come under fire for daring to say the unsayable: "Strength on its own in a woman is quite aggressive and not terribly attractive all the time," she noted, after her latest collection wafted down the catwalk at Paris Fashion Week.

Her floaty designs for the forthcoming season are "celebrating the softness of a woman" and our "fragility", which McCartney sees as a strength in itself. And, as a woman who isn't afraid of rolling my sleeves up and getting stuff done, I have to agree with her.

It may be an unpopular idea but it's true. Heather Rabbatts, the only woman on the board of the Football Association, once told me that she didn't go to work to be Miss Popularity. But she also sagely advised: "Don't let anyone call you the hard woman, the aggressive woman or the soft woman. Just be yourself." Easier said than done.

Women have to navigate these labels every day. But in doing so we have also learnt how to use them as tools for life. And a big part of our survival kits, whether my fellow women like to admit this or not, is weakness - or at least seeming weak - to get what we want.

Of course, weakness isn't a word any self-respecting woman likes to associate with themselves, so it is now more fashionable to refer to wielding "soft power". Earlier this week, The Telegraph published a list of the 100 most connected women. Dylan Jones, the editor of GQ, one of the publications behind it, observed that women are now using "the careful application of "soft power" rather than the hard sell of 'top-down' influence".

Quite. Think about Victoria Beckham's public speaking debut last week at the United Nations' headquarters. In her new capacity as a UN ambassador on Aids, she said quietly that "for some reason, people will listen to what I have to say, so I'm going to speak on behalf of the incredible women who have HIV and are caring for children".

She didn't slam her fist on the table demanding that the world listened. Instead she gently eased herself into the public consciousness and used her celebrity to try to raise awareness. The result? She was universally praised for her demure plea. But make no mistake: Beckham's "fragility" or "soft power" was carefully orchestrated to ensure she didn't turn anyone off - which speaks directly to McCartney's point.

There are times for slamming the table, and I am sure both Beckham and McCartney are prone to outbursts in their businesses when tough decisions need making. But I don't interpret McCartney's words as several steps backwards for women, as some feminists have. In correctly diagnosing that only women are allowed to be "fragile" (and indeed that such fragility can have "a strength to it"), she is simply showing a bit of leg and teasing us with how things really are.

So instead of telling women to "man up" and maintain fraudulent facades of indomitability, shouldn't we be encouraging men to embrace their own weaknesses a little more?



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