If she’d been fat, now, that would have been real news. But there won’t be a fat Rose, writes Victoria White
I would love to be Rose of Tralee! I’d love to wake up this morning like Elysha Brennan on my second day as the crowned Meath Rose!
Every girl wants to be gorgeous, after all. Every girl wants to rise from among her peers as the peerless one. From little girls in gold tiaras to old ladies with no teeth, we all want to be princesses and we all want to be chosen from amongst the princesses.
But it’s not going to happen for me now, is it? The extra three decades are the least of my worries. “De troot” - as most singers of the song put it - is that I was never even a contender for the first heats of the Dublin Rose. I had a problem which should wring the heart of every right-thinking person every bit as much as a struggle with a life-threatening illness. I wasn’t good-looking enough.
I wasn’t a pure dog either. But it isn’t enough that you’re not going bow-wow on the stage of the Dome. You have to be gorgeous and gorgeous means you have to have a very specific list of physical attributes coldly spelled out for me yesterday morning on RTE Radio One as I sat over my morning porridge, my hopes of the Rose crown in ruins.
You have to look like you can breed. That means you need clear skin, clear eyes, good teeth, good hair, oh, and a ratio of about 0.7 between the measurements of your waist and your hips. Peter Prendergast, a cosmetic surgeon who is in the business of making people more gorgeous in his appropriately-named Venus Medical cosmetic surgery clinic on south Dublin, could not have been clearer or more specific about what gorgeous is.
All of the requirements of the Rose of Tralee are about the girls as good breeders. They have to be between the ages of 18 and 28, their peak breeding years. They have to be unmarried and to never have been married. In other words, they can’t be another man’s property, another man’s brood mare. Now, stunningly beautiful Maria Walsh did break with tradition when she announced she was gay, but she was every bit the good breeder all the same and there was no harm in any man having a good old fantasy about her.
If she’d been fat, now, that would have been real news. But there won’t be a fat Rose. There won’t be a buck-toothed Rose. There won’t be a Rose with sticky-out ears. In fact, there won’t be a crowned Rose whose waist and hips are too far off the 0.7 ratio in the measurements of their waist and hips.
“Look at the arse on New York”, one former escort remembers the escort beside him commenting when they first saw the women lined up. Oh, but that’s not “de troot” at all, is it? T’wasn’t her beauty alone that won William Pembroke Mulchinock, or whoever the lover of the Rose of Tralee really was. “Oh no”, he and hundreds and thousands of singers vow after him, “T’was de troot in her eyes there abiding/ That made me love Mary, the Rose of Tralee!”
And so was born the particularly Irish hypocrisy that the competition is not really about the girls’ looks, it’s about their brains. You can ogle the amazingly beautiful Elysha Brennan all you like because - guess what? - she’s studying medicine! This year she was one of the two medics in the line-up of Roses. Indeed, when a woman had an epileptic fit in the Meadowlands Hotel in Tralee last week the cry went up, “Is there a doctor in the house?” and London Rose Aisling Hillary whipped off her sash and went to the woman’s aid.
“That’s the calibre of women this festival attracts and should do in the future”, commented New York Rose, Sophie Colgan.
So now it’s a points race and a beauty contest, all in one? Television gold dust! Could there possibly be a better formula for keeping Irish people enthralled? I imagine future Rose heats in which junior doctors are raced against each other, whipping off their sashes and rushing to ailing patients, all with their hair and make-up intact. The contest plays to our narrow-minded obsession with professional advancement but at the same time we get to look at gorgeous women and pick between them.
The detail of the taking off of the Rose sash is significant. It’s as if the Rose of Tralee is reversible: one side is gorgeous but when she takes off her sash the other side is brainy. I remember the difficulty I had integrating my looks with my brains and aspirations as a young girl, because they were always presented to me as oppositions.
Nothing has changed in the last three decades except that the competition on both fronts has got far more intense.
How girls look is more important than it has ever been and it takes far more work and far more cash. We still rate women’s beauty according to their apparent breeding potential. However, while in the past we rated their family income and their “accomplishments” because they were the additional ingredients desired for a successful marriage, now girls are rated for their earning potential too.
No-body ever writes about this. No-one ever studies it. We are still stuck with the idea that a young woman’s career is in some way antithetical to her marriage prospects. But of course, it isn’t. Young employed men usually require their partners to be employed too, often at a similar level. Some of the women who drop out of their careers when they have kids may have used their careers to further their breeding prospects. They may no longer need to work at the same level when they have their kids under their belts.
The Rose of Tralee is a beauty pageant for professionals because beautiful women with professions are the ones which Irish men want as wives and they are the ones which Irish women want to be. Most women can’t aspire to those heights just as most women can’t aspire to be Rose of Tralee
Elysha Brennan faced the challenge of a cancer diagnosis at 19 and has no doubt worked incredibly hard to get the chance to study to be a doctor. But let’s not pretend that she is a workable role model for most young women. We have crowned her as Rose of Tralee because she is exceptionally beautiful and exceptionally clever.
Our beauty pageant is no different to any other since Hera, Aphrodite and Athena paraded in front of Paris in what can only be described as a state of undress. Except for one thing: our beauty pageant pretends to be something more and so presents our young women with a still less attainable vision of what they should be.
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