Hilary Barry on the politics of beauty and freedom of not giving a damn

About 20 minutes before Hilary Barry decides that buying a $20 face cream is a radical act of feminism, we are going back and forth talking about the politics of beauty. Concepts including ‘patriarchal standards’, ‘feminine ideals’, ‘empowerment’ and ‘complicity’ bounce around like lipsticks at the bottom of a handbag, which we grab at one-by-one, only to discover that none are quite the shade we’re looking for.

It’s a complex topic that as it turns out, can easily overwhelm or dishearten. But not for optimist Barry. “Beauty is so subjective, so I think any discussion around it is fruitful,” she says. “I outright reject the notion that talking about it is silly. It’s not just a silly women’s issue – if it was, it wouldn’t be propping up a multi-billion-dollar industry. In the grand scheme of the world’s economy, in the grand scheme of capitalism, it’s not frivolous. So we do ourselves no favours by devaluing and denigrating women for being engaged in it, or having these conversations.”

At 50, Barry is indisputably one of the most highly regarded newsreaders in New Zealand’s history. A veteran journalist, broadcaster and presenter, she’s spent the past three decades in one newsroom or other, and more than half of that time behind the news desk – her 11 years at the helm of 3 News (later Newshub) being her longest stint in one anchoring role. Currently, she can be found on TVNZ 1’s Seven Sharp, the weeknight current affairs and infotainment show she has co-hosted since 2018.

It’s a role befitting a woman well-versed in the issues of the day, who still holds space for frivolity. “You know what it is?” asks Barry, thoughtfully. “There’s so much, ‘Oh, we shouldn’t be talking about this because there are so many more important issues in the world to discuss.’ Yes, of course there are. But you can talk about lots of things at the same time. One conversation doesn’t preclude the other. If anything, that sentiment in itself is the reductive one – this suggestion that women can’t hold more than one intelligent conversation at once. Beauty is an intelligent conversation, made up of a vast array of topics with endless scope for debate. We’re not sitting here talking about our favourite mascaras – though we could be, and I wouldn’t think you any less intelligent for it.”

Barry, for the record, likes to have fun with beauty. During New Zealand’s first nationwide COVID lockdown in March, with a little more time on her hands and unsupervised by the TVNZ glam squad, it’s what prompted her to instigate ‘formal Fridays’ – her weekly ritual of dressing up to the nines for an otherwise unextraordinary day of working from home, and encouraging her Twitter and Instagram followers to do the same. It started out as a fun distractionfrom the death and economic destruction (“You know, all those important things”) filling our newsand social media feeds day in, day out.

“It was just something playful to have a giggle over; something to do forpure pleasure, and for the pleasure of others,” she explains. “I’m a natural cheerleader, I really do try to spread joy and happiness wherever I go, and here hasn’t been a lot of that this year. It’s been an awful year.

“There’s not a single person who hasn’t been touched negatively by what’s happening in the world right now. So experimenting with make-up at home and going a bit over the top with it was my way of lightening the mood. It was a tool to occupy myself for a few moments a day, and there was humour in it, too. I think that’s a key to having a healthy relationship with beauty – being able to approach it with a sense of humour.”

The gentle approach

It’s a sentiment that recalls the late, great Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the US Supreme Court Justice and feminist. A force of a woman whose diminutive stature belied her ferocious heart and razor-sharp wit, her penchant for accessorising (you could tell she was going to deliver a dissenting opinion by the elaborateness of her collar), will be remembered almost as much as her relentless fight for the rights of women. And that’s not to take anything away from that fight. If anything, it just raises an important question about the weapons we, as women, chose to bring to it.

“The thing that resonated with me about Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” says Barry, “was the gentleness of her approach. When you’re young, and you’re headstrong, as I certainly was growing up, you’ll come across things that don’t seem right, and your solution will be to yell and scream about it. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to really love that quote of hers, ‘Fight for the things you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.’

“Because when it comes to equality, we need to bring everyone to the table, and you exclude others by being aggressive. So that’ll always be my takeaway from RBG – the gentle approach, and finding the humour in a situation. Humour is such a great ploy for highlighting injustices.”

She laughs on cue when I shift the conversation closer to home, to the female politicians throughout New Zealand’s history – from Marilyn Waring and Georgina Beyer, right up to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern– whose contributions to Aotearoa’s political, social and economic landscape have been consistently undermined by unsolicited jabs at the way they look. “Oh, I remember the handwringing that went on when Helen Clark wore trousers to meet the Queen,” she recalls. “It just seemed such an extraordinary thing. She’s the leader of a country, if she wishes to wear trousers, she should bloody wear trousers!”

Barry believes things are “getting better” on that front. “But if you think back to our first female prime ministers – Jenny Shipley and Helen Clark – their appearances were constantly critiqued, and they were put under a kind of scrutiny that none of our male prime ministers have ever had to deal with – nor, I hasten to add, should they have had to deal with, and that’s the point. These people are here to do a job, nothing more, nothing less.

A sense of duty

One can see how the point hits close to home for Barry, who gets a lot of flak for what she wears on TV. It’s a topic that’s been covered at length in news items and magazine features – oftentimes funny, sometimes more serious, but always with the same underlying message that she doesn’t give a hoot what Barb or Sandy or Phyllis thinks of her bare arms or her cellulite or one inch of cleavage. The mere suggestion of a breast, says Barry, is not anything to write home about (or write to TVNZ about, as it were).

Most commonly, these complaints go straight in the bin. Every so often, she’ll read a complaint, laugh about it, spare a quick thought for the person whose day involved writing an aggrieved email to someone on the telly they’ll likely never meet, and then put it in the bin.

Very occasionally, she will bite back in the form of a reply, or an on-air acknowledgment of some sort. It’s never personal. What triggers this response, each and every time, is the knowledge that what’s been said to her – be it sexist or misogynistic or just generally vile – is being said to other women every day, and her sense of duty to those women to use her platform to call it out.

“They don’t get to share that experience with a wide group of people, so I do it for them. I highlight these comments and attitudes that women have to deal with so that we can come together as a society and say, ‘that’s unacceptable’.” It’s another reason why conversations like these are important, she says.

“The optimist in me hopes that every time we talk about issues around beauty and femininity, there are women out there reading or listening who will feel more empowered to be themselves, and not like they have to conform to some ideal standard of beauty. Or,” she says, in a nod to the ‘body positivity’ movement, and the idea of its being paradoxically damaging to women’s self-esteem, “to this new pressure of having to love yourself excessively.”

Having battled all the insecurities you’d expect of someone who has spent their entire adult life in the public eye, Barry says she is now “pretty ambivalent” about the way she looks. “I don’t stand in front of the mirror and think, ‘Phwoar, Hilary, check you out!’ But nor do I stand there and berate my reflection.”

She adds that when it comes to subverting mainstream beauty standards or even just being comfortable with the relationship she has with the beauty industry, personal autonomy is right there next to humour in her weaponry. “It’s about being aware of all the messages we are bombarded with, and where the line is for you in terms of what you’re willing to accept or deflect. For me, it’s a $200 moisturiser. I know for my skin’s health, and to stop it getting dry in winter, I need to keep it really hydrated. But I also know that I can do that for 20 bucks.”

Wrinkles are beautiful

Whatever another woman wants to do or spend, however, is her own business, according to Barry. “If you feel the most beautiful version of yourself with natural hair and frown lines, stick with that. If it’s with a bit of Botox, do that.” Barry has never had – and is adamant that she will never have – Botox. “But I would never in a million years judge another woman for it. That’s just my preference.

“I have a huge issue with the concept of ‘anti-ageing’. Wrinkles are beautiful. There’s something so beautiful about the translucency of an older woman’s skin. It’s the most beautiful thing in the world to me, because we are lucky to get to an age where it shows on our faces. So lucky. If this year has taught us anything, it’s that.

“So all these anti-ageing products– and I’m sent all of them, every day, into the studio by brands telling me to try them and witness their ‘perfecting’ power – it does rankle me. I’m not perfect, inside or out. A moisturiser isn’t going to get me any closer. Nor would I want it to.”

She’ll make a small concession for foundation. “Oh, you know what it’s like,” she laughs. “It’s the middle of winter, so you chuck on a layer of foundation or a bit of concealer, and it just makes you feel healthier. Of course, the feminist in me is like, ‘Why do I feel this way? If I were a true feminist, wouldn’t I feel empowered to go out, or to sit in front of the camera with a totally bare face? Wouldn’t I feel 100 per cent secure in myself just the way I am? Why do I feel so much better when I wear make-up?’ It can make your head hurt.

“And that’s where I come back to it being a choice. The idea that I’m not being told what to do, I’m not allowing my insecurities to be preyed on. If I want to spend an extortionate amount of money on a beauty product or service, then that’s my choice. I get my hair done regularly, for example. Believe it or not, at 50, this colour is fake! But it’s my decision to spend that money, I genuinely don’t feel pressured by anyone else, least of all the patriarchy.”

Actually, says Barry – married to Auckland school teacher Michael Barry, and mother to Finn, 20, and Ned, 18 –in her experience, and in her experience of raising sons, men are the least of women’s worries. “We give men far too much credit!” she laughs. “It’s not men pointing out our crow’s feet or our regrowth or whether our top lip is looking a bit thin. They don’t notice that stuff. It’s the women in our peer groups. It’s hard to admit, but women are the drivers of most of those insecurities.

“It’s become so normalised to improve and enhance and perfect ourselves, and we need to be more aware of that, and question more why we feel like we need to buy something, or tweak something, and who we’re doing it for. That, I think, is where the conversation needs to head next.”

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