The death of South African model and women’s rights advocate Reeva Steenkamp has been shocking in many ways.
There are question marks over how the young woman came to be shot by her boyfriend: was it an act of domestic violence that ended in the most horrific way? Or did Oscar Pistorius - who has spoken about the dangers of living in South Africa - mistake his partner for an intruder and open fire without realising who was walking through the door?
Neither of these explanations - nor the inevitably complex reality of the situation- will lessen the pain that Steenkamp’s loved ones are going through. Nor will the media emphasis on her looks or the fact that she was in a relationship with a world-famous athlete.
Take, for example, this screengrab from Thursday’s Guardian coverage, in which the paper’s Africa correspondent, David Smith, repeats a deeply insensitive comment made by the former Editor of FHM South Africa about Reeva Steenkamp’s weight. (Smith later repeated it during an interview with Sky News):
Now, I don’t know, but is Reeva’s death supposed to be more tragic because she was “gorgeous” (and model-thin) when she died? Or more tragic than the thousands of deaths that occur because of domestic violence or accidents in the home each year?
Every death is tragic because of the gut-wrenching pain the loss of that person causes their loved ones. I’m going to put it out there and speculate that the nature of Steenkamp’s advocacy work meant she might have agreed with me on that.
To grade the importance of any woman’s death by the sum of her beauty and the fame of the man she is involved with at the time, reduces women to the parts that are most valued by patriarchal society: our looks, sex appeal and ability to use them to get that most important of accessories, a man.
It reduces everything else we achieve and strive for throughout our lives to the point of worthlessness, and in doing so sends a very dangerous message to young women, who remain as vulnerable to this kind of pernicious influence as ever.
However indirectly, it says that this young woman’s life, however violently it ended, was worthwhile because she was beautiful. She was beautiful enough to make money from it by modeling and beautiful enough to pull a world-famous athlete.
The fact she was also beautiful enough that some reports haven’t even mentioned her by name, preferring to call her “Oscar Pistorius’ girlfriend, a model” isn’t problematic in this narrative because a woman’s looks are always the most important thing about her.
Of everything that should come to define Reeva Steenkamp in our minds, her stunning looks and early weight loss are the least of it. She graduated with a law degree, was a talented businesswoman and dedicated women’s rights advocate who campaigned loudly and publicly about preventing violence against women and rape.
Reports state that she was ambitious, sunny to work with and had excellent relationships with her friends.
Reeva Steenkamp was not simply the girlfriend of a famous man or a model or another woman who died under horrendous circumstances. She was not someone who looked to fulfil that most of idiotic of rock’n’roll’s commandments to “die young and leave a good-looking corpse.” She was a person, and she deserves more respect.
Follow Alisande on Twitter @AlisandeF.