Making capital out of sex appeal
You notice the hair first - a look-at-me-now shade of foxy red. Then, the expertly applied make-up and the stylish, headmistress-type clothes. And, hold on, does that wonderfully smooth forehead owe more than a little to Botox?
Catherine Hakim pauses before confessing that, without the odd jab, her husband reckons she looks grumpy. So, "just a little here", she says, pointing to her brow. "Just a drop and problem solved."
Which may seem an odd thing to be discussing with a senior research fellow in sociology at the London School of Economics, but Hakim has put the female art of looking appetising firmly onto the academic agenda. In a controversial new paper for a sociological journal, she suggests we may all be missing a trick by not recognising the power of "erotic capital".
She defines its key elements as "sex appeal, charm and social skills, physical fitness and liveliness, sexual competence and skills in self-presentation". Men and women with erotic capital can expect to earn 10 to 15 times more than those without, she claims.
In more down-to-earth terms, what she's talking about is anything from an ability to flirt subtly with the boss to the commercial exploitation of a large pair of breasts. Certainly, we all recognise erotic capital when we encounter it, which may explain why so many of us are hammering away in the gym or spending increasing amounts on surgery.
If her emphasis appears to be on women, it's because "women have more erotic capital than men in most societies because they work harder at personal presentation and the performance of gender and sexuality". However, she thinks men may be catching up fast by means of male-suitable moisturisers and Botox jabs, because they can no longer rely on the size of their bank balance to attract the right women.
So, how much erotic capital does its inventor think she possesses?
"Average," she says, clearly startled to be asked. Over the next hour, I notice that she punctuates many of her pronouncements with delicious little explosions of laughter, swaying sinuously backwards and forwards when she finds anything particularly funny. I find myself thinking of a line in her report: "Beauty tends to be static. Sexual attractiveness is about the way someone moves, talks and behaves." She also singles out the attractiveness of good humour.
Can the 50-something Hakim be consciously applying the lessons of her research or has she always behaved in this fashion?
Not that anyone could blame her for trying to improve her capital, erotic or otherwise. Almost every time she pokes her well-groomed head above a parapet, someone takes a pot shot. In the past, at least one critic dismissed her theories as statements of the obvious and she has upset others by getting acres of coverage for her claims that most women don't want to work, that they are not the domestic slaves they are often painted as being and that increased maternity benefits are bad for women and business.
Nor is she a popular figure among the sisterhood who believe that a woman should be valued for her brains and her work rather than her beauty and sexuality. Nonsense, Hakim snorts, why not both?
She would claim to be a feminist herself, she says. "I started out as an extreme feminist. I thought marriage was wicked from the age of 11 or 12. I was really hardline." She is married now, but all she will say about that is: "I changed my perspective when I realised feminism hasn't done women favours in particular areas." Such as? She explains patiently: "All intelligent, educated women are feminists, but radical feminism rejects sex and sensuality. There is no difference between the way patriarchy and feminism regard women who make the most of themselves when they aren't the most intelligent thing in the world.
"Not everyone can have a high IQ, so what is wrong with making what they can of the skills and talents they have? I don't look down on Victoria Beckham. If you don't want to pay attention to them, then don't, pass on and read your Proust instead. The whole culture makes women who capitalise on their erotic capital feel less valued."
So, who is rich in erotic capital? She reckons the Obamas have it, the singer, Beyonce, and the model, Kate Moss. Age is no precluder, either: singers Tina Turner and Madonna and actors Catherine Deneuve and Pierce Brosnan, also have it.
Hakim thinks women with erotic capital should be envied for having it as part of their armoury, rather than dismissed as bimbos.
She believes just half of erotic capital is innate and the rest can be acquired. The French have always understood this, with their tradition of the jolie laide - the plain woman who makes the most of herself.
The good news is that erotic capital often has little to do with classical beauty. Yes, sex appeal and reasonable good looks are usually a component. But so are grace, the way you dress, making people like you, even your perfume. Even sex appeal can be learnt, Hakim claims, citing the French novelist, Simone de Beauvoir, who pointed out that sexuality was largely a performance. "Sex appeal and female beauty, in particular," says Hakim, "are a creation, a work of art, which can be achieved through training."
Nor, in Hakim's world, is there anything wrong with being a gold-digger. "We live in a sexualised age: that's the trend. Let's just relax ... There's not much point in swimming against the tide," she says.
I leave our lunch feeling baffled. I like her, and her views have an awful, yet compelling pragmatism. But, is she really as radical - or relaxed -as she claims?
Later, I e-mail her for a couple of personal details. An old newspaper cutting says she left the Middle East aged 16 and went to Britain to boarding school.
Hakim calls my editor. She doesn't want any personal details in this article. Her work is what matters, nothing else. Not her age, her background, her family. Nor, presumably, her "sex appeal, charm and social skills, physical fitness, liveliness and skills in self-presentation". It's the theory that matters, not the personality.
Now she tells us.