Posts tagged with "beauty myth" - Faerye Net 2008-12-14T00:37:07+00:00 Felicity Shoulders Beauty and erasure 2008-12-14T00:37:07+00:00 2010-08-03T11:30:13+00:00 <p>I recently finished the meaty nonfiction tome <em>The Bounty</em>, by Caroline Alexander. It led me to reflect on youth and responsibility, the totally different worlds that coexist within a given culture and time period, and many other things. One line of thought was inspired by a throw-away line and a series of illustration plates.</p> <blockquote>A surviving, highly stylized portrait shows Nessy [Heywood, sister of a mutinous young gentleman] as the ideal young woman of her time, with large, limpid eyes and a small &#8216;rosebud&#8217; mouth, her slim, pale face framed by a mane of soft curls &#8211; a portrait that does not accord entirely with Peter&#8217;s own fond and forgiving description. His sister&#8217;s features, he allowed, &#8216;were by no means regular&#8217;, although her long-lashed eyes &#8216;redeemed the whole face&#8217;.</blockquote> <p>The portrait, seen <a href="" target="link">here</a>, is reproduced in a plates section further on in the text. It is, in fact, pretty but insipid, a sharp contrast to the <a href="" target="links">portrait of Rear Admiral Sir Thomas Pasley</a> on the facing page. Pasley&#8217;s portrait is more detailed and by a noted portraitist, so perhaps it&#8217;s natural that his face shows hints of cunning and perhaps a twist of humor, where Nessy&#8217;s portrait gives no real insight on her character.</p> <p>But turning the page again, I find character after character. The officers at Peter Heywood&#8217;s court martial appear in different media, by different artists, and most of them are strikingly individual. I could very easily label each with an adjective: self-absorbed, stodgy, idealist, bold; or use each picture as the jumping-off point for a character in a story. I turn the page again, and here are more portraits, few of them detailed oil portraits, but most of them, again, with that indefinable spark that speaks, if not of likeness, then of humanity, perhaps of essence. Take a look at <a href="" target="links">Rear Admiral John Knight</a>, small tho&#8217; he be here, and then look at <a href="" target="link">Nessy again</a>. Isn&#8217;t she amazingly devoid of character?</p> <p>Another woman I find myself unable to envision as real from her portrait is Tahitian noblewoman <a href="" target="links">Poedua</a> (<span class="caps">WARNING</span>: exposed breasts). On the other hand, Elizabeth Bligh, Captain Bligh&#8217;s wife, <a href="" target="links">seemed very real</a> to me. But when I turned the page to her portrait, I felt a sting of embarrassment on her behalf. Despite the intellect I know from the text she possessed, there is something weak, perhaps a desire to please, in her face. She would seem puppyish even without the accompanying dog. And there is something unprepossessing in her mouth and teeth. More than Poedua, she seems naked to me. Naked because she is real, unbeautiful.</p> <p>In our <a href="" target="links">perturbation</a> over <a href="" target="links">before and after airbrushing photos</a>, perhaps we forget this earlier precedent. When likeness was a matter both of the skill and of the tact of the portraitist, these flattering lies were rampant (whither Marie-Antoinette&#8217;s Hapsburg chin, <a href="" target="links">Mme. Vig&eacute;e-Le Brun</a>?). There&#8217;s no reason to suppose that the men&#8217;s portraits are immune &#8211; some of these men may have a more dashing set of the head or stronger set of the jaw than they did in life. But those envied physiognomies of manly <em>virtus</eM> are not so demanding and distorting as the fickle ideal of beauty.</p> <p>I remember arguing once with someone who argued that we shouldn&#8217;t have a Sacagawea coin because we don&#8217;t have any contemporary portrait of her, and can&#8217;t be sure our coin is accurate. I pointed out that before photography, only rich, ruling class/race men (and a few women) could have their likeness preserved for posterity &#8211; insisting on a likeness before a stamp or coin could be produced would mean perpetuating the effacement of poor people and people of color throughout the ages. And now I realize that there is another effacement here, that of personality and individuality (and occasionally ethnicity) in many of the portraits that <em>were</em> painted. Perhaps Marie-Antoinette was mortified to be sketched on her way to the Guillotine by Revolutionnaire Jacques-Louis David. Under the circumstances, more mortified than most celebrities enduring the paparazzi&#8217;s flashes can possibly be. But I feel this picture, <a href="" target="links">stark and incomplete</a> as it is, shows more of Marie-Antoinette&#8217;s personality than the many posed and prettified portraits of her I have seen. Her jaw is set and her back is straight. That seems both real and admirable. To be without the veil of beauty is to be exposed, for good or ill.</p> <p>The beauty ideal isn&#8217;t weakening. Rather than allowing a less restrictive and more attainable range of female appearance to be celebrated, our culture is upping the pressure on men to perfect, pore-minimize, depilate and smooth. When you can open a magazine and find <a href="" target="links">Clive Owen</a> in the uncanny valley almost as easily as Beyonc&eacute;, perhaps it&#8217;s time to celebrate the fragmentary, distorted truth-telling the camera <em>can</em> provide. Perhaps next time we look at a photograph of ourselves, we can look, not for the bulge or the pimple or the wrinkle, but the spark of humanity, the essence that has been preserved and transmitted. Something that says, &#8220;I was there.&#8221;</p> The Beauty Myth Kills 2007-10-04T21:17:16+00:00 2008-05-30T13:44:06+00:00 <p>I heard <a href="" target="links">this segment</a> on &#8220;Fresh Air&#8221; today. It&#8217;s about how cancer-fighting efforts tend to focus on detection and treatment rather than figuring out what environmental factors cause cancer. I&#8217;ve heard whispers about this before, especially about breast cancer and the way money pours into big companies that make cancer-fighting drugs and also make things like pesticides and fertilizers. But the first thing this doctor discusses on the show is a terribly specific, horrifying thing.</P> <p>Apparently, in the US, black women under 40 get breast cancer massively more often than white women under 40, despite the fact that if you line up known risk factors and demographic data, young black women should get breast cancer <em>less</em>. Dr. Davis hypothesizes that one environmental factor is beauty products. Many black women in America go into chemical-filled beauty salons often, from a young age, and undergo regular harsh treatments for &#8216;relaxing&#8217;, &#8216;straightening&#8217;, et c. According to Dr. Davis, the US government doesn&#8217;t strictly oversee the contents of toiletries well&#8230;and of course, as she indicates time and again, we don&#8217;t <em>know</em> what chemicals to ban, even if we were overseeing things carefully.</p> <p>I&#8217;ve read about the pressure &mdash; some of it economic, not &#8220;merely&#8221; social and aesthetic &mdash; on African-American women about their hair. (If you&#8217;re curious, <a href="" target="links">this post</a> is a good intro, and links to many more in-depth blog posts.) This pressure is not &#8216;mere&#8217; in any way, and extends far beyond hair. (If you click on one link in this blog post, please click on this one: <a href="" target="links"><em>A Girl Like Me</em></a>, a 7-minute film by Kiri Davis. It is amazing &mdash; there&#8217;s a part that makes me cry, but also some intelligent young women being devastatingly articulate.) But if Dr. Davis is right and the effect of &#8216;beauty&#8217; products is sufficient to skew cancer statistics in this way&#8230;then America&#8217;s beauty culture is killing more people than we thought. More than just people with eating disorders or teens with suicidal self-hatred. The world tells huge numbers of women their natural hair is so hideous it has to be transmogrified, tortured, tamed &mdash; and it sells them poison to do it with? How ugly can you get?</p> Sex and the Skinny 2005-10-03T14:43:23+00:00 2010-02-01T15:49:43+00:00 <p>I think everyone who doesn&#8217;t live in a painstakingly created 24-hour reality channel has probably noticed that women in Hollywood are skinny. Sammichless Star Syndrome, I like to call it. Those who are stars get skinnier; those who are rising become skinny. I doubt I even need to name examples.</p> <p>There are many, many explanations for this. Probably the best is simply that fashion designers prefer to design clothing for skinny, skinny bodies. The fabric drapes better, and the body is a better stage for the clothes to do their own thing upon. That affects both models (and therefore the standards of beauty) and Hollywood stars, since they want to wear haute couture on the red carpet. You can&#8217;t get most couture in sizes above a 6, according to at least one disgruntled Victoria&#8217;s Secret model.</p> <p>This obsession with thinness, everyone knows, is bad. It&#8217;s not healthy for most bodies to be that skinny, the unrealistic ideal contributes to the rampant bad self-esteem suffered by American teenagers, and its attendant demons anorexia and bulemia. But what&#8217;s interesting is that the skinny ideal doesn&#8217;t seem to have affected men that much. </p><p>Sure, many guys think individual stars (such as Cameron Diaz) are hot, but psychological studies show again and again that as a group, men find a curvy figure more attractive than a very thin one. Given that the majority of women are heterosexual (or, an even bigger majority, hetero or bi), you&#8217;d think that the male response would have a bigger influence on standards of beauty than that. So here we have one of three things: the best counterevidence for the claim that women only care about their appearance to catch men; evidence that gay male fashion designers* are plotting the downfall of female sexiness**; or a mystery.</p> <p>So I came up with another theory. America has a very strange attitude towards sex. We all know it. Any nudity is sexual; sexual content in movies is controlled more than gore; so forth and so on. High fashion, both for the red carpet and the screen, tends to be low-cut, tight-fitted; it exposes the body. It suddenly occurred to me the other day that perhaps skinniness is the celebrity ideal partially <em>because</em> a more buxom figure is more primally attractive. We clothe celebrities in skin-tight pleather, expose huge swaths of their flesh; maybe in our weird Puritan-subconscious way, we don&#8217;t want them to be viscerally sexually attractive. We want to be able to see them as idols without being embarrassed by the prurience of desire. We want them to have gorgeous faces and alien, otherworldly bodies. We want them to be cyphers for beauty rather than objects of lust.</p> <p>Or I could be crazy. It&#8217;s been known to happen.</p> <p>*Not all fashion designers are gay men. However, I have been known to read <em>Vogue</em>, and I have been shocked to discover that a <span class="caps">LOT</span> of them are.</p> <p>**This is a joke.</p>