Apropos of a new translation of The Second Sex, Stephen Heyman of the Times T Magazine marshals evidence on both sides.
— wore nice slippers and jackets that "would not be out of place in an Anthropologie catalog"
— at 68, still "had creamy skin and bright blue eyes"
— this photo
— "used to tramp through the hills around Marseilles wearing espadrilles and old, tattered clothing"
— also sometimes wore a dumpy overcoat or unfashionable turban
— once described as looking "bleakly emancipated"
Heyman sidesteps the question of whether a male intellectual would be subject to such a hot-or-not assessment by quoting Beauvoir biographer Hazel Rowley: "Of course, there is no nude photo of Sartre. And if there were, he wouldn't have looked very good." But mocking Sartre's appearance, while easy, doesn't really add to the debate over Beauvoir's — the analysis of the female body remains in a different political category than the analysis of the male. It's a category that, as Rowley says, Beauvoir knew well:
She is the woman writer who has written most honestly about the horror of aging and what it means to look into the mirror when you're over 50 and no longer identify with your face. Reading about that is poignant and excruciatingly honest.
Writing on Slate, Katie Roiphe argues that Beauvoir's great strength was actually in de-politicizing this conversation — or rather, in framing it in terms that were human and bodily, not just ideological. She quotes Beauvoir's response to criticisms of her open relationship with Sartre: "I'm sorry to disappoint all the feminists, but you can say that it's too bad so many of them live only in theory instead of in real life." And she winds up her analysis of Beauvoir thus:
Certainly, The Second Sex is interesting from a historical point of view, but much of it is still lively, still apropos: Read her description of schoolgirls and see how much of it applies to our blue-jeaned teenagers slouching over their iPhones, or how much of her writing on love applies to their mothers. One hopes that college students will reach for this new old book instead of the next trendy hackish hardcover masquerading as feminist scholarship, so that we can bring back a little of that brilliant confusion: the naked woman in the bathroom and the serious intellectual.
Beauvoir's writing about sex could be both hot and honest, and it's worthwhile to explore fleshly realities as well as political ideals. And of course, it's not surprising that the Times style magazine would choose to focus on Beauvoir's appearance — or that Roiphe, who has long had a vexed relationship with contemporary feminism, would dismiss much of its scholarship as "hackish." But just as it can be exciting to live in both the body and the mind, it can be freeing to live in just one or the other — and it would be nice if we could evaluate Beauvoir the intellectual without also talking about her naked ass.