Because you can't have depths without surfaces.
Linda Grant, thinking about clothes, books and other matters.

Friday, 11 April 2008

The tyranny of beauty

Lunching with Mary Greenwell yesterday I heard that there is no longer any reality in magazines. There are no photographs, apart from paparazzi ones, that are not airbrushed and photoshopped. No-one hasn't had botox, fillers, at the very least. This means that the (apparent) gap between what we look like and that the celebs look like gets wider every day. Born beautiful, they appear not to age.

Here's Lisa Armstrong in the Times yesterday talking about our lookist society:

One only has to see the Daily Mail's “Woman in parka shocker!” caption that accompanied a picture of Tessa Jowell on Monday to see how applying exacting sartorial standards across the board has become a habit. It's one thing to hold Madonna or Kate Moss up to scrutiny, or even to have fun with Carla Bruni, who is playing up to her new role sensationally - as befits a former supermodel. Inevitably, Sarah Brown got swept up in the forensic dissection of the French First Lady's outfits - and (hands up) The Times, along with other papers, ran unfavourable comments on the former's appearance. The entire female flank of the French Cabinet has recently had their wardrobes pored over as if they were auditioning to fill in for Cate Blanchett on the red carpet while she takes a spot of maternity leave.

In fairness, some of them looked as though they were auditioning. What's puzzling is the derisory tone of some of the commentary and the degree to which jibes about a woman's taste in footwear become a form of covert sniping about her character (the derision, by the way, doesn't generally come from fashion writers). Increasingly, looks are used to define women who never set out to compete by those rules.

“The fact that women are seemingly colluding doesn't make it harmless,” argues Sheila Jeffreys, the feminist author of Beauty And Misogyny: Harmful Cultural Practices in the West. “Sitting around bitching about how bad other women look won't ultimately make you feel better. Today's emphasis on looks - and the scorn heaped on anyone who doesn't conform - is incredibly unhealthy because it normalises painful and sometimes dangerous cosmetic procedures, promotes uncomfortable and immobilising clothes, fosters an epidemic of eating disorders and creates a tyranny of youth, under which no one is allowed to age.

“The principles of beauty have always been part of the mating ritual, but they're now routinely practised in the workplace. We're seeing that, even in politics, women are required to look a certain way: high heels, tighter-fitting clothes, lipstick. It's a free world, but in reality there's very little choice involved. There's virtually no challenge to the wall of thin, youthful images. The definition of what's attractive is becoming narrower.”

And while Western women are under pressure to show more and more of their bodies, Muslim women are increasingly veiling themselves. “It's a different manifestation of the same condition. I don't see either as empowering,” says Jeffreys.

Therein lies what seems to be the mother of paradoxes. More than 30 years after bra-burning and lipstick-abstaining, most Western women earn their own money, many work in worlds previously closed to them and a few occupy the top slots. Male babies outnumber females by 104 to 100 - so in theory women have never been more powerful. So why perpetuate, and even inflate, criteria that seem more relevant to women living in a harem?


Anastasia said...

When Angela Merkel became Chancellor of Germany the first thing she did was get a makeover. Merkel was not criticized for her politics but for her hair. Now she wears make-up, gets her hair done by Germanys most famous hairdresser and wears smart suits.
This would have never happened to a man.
Another random thought: It's not only the tyranny of beauty, it's the tyranny of staying young. Forever. The art of ageing gracefully seems to be out of fashion, now that we can Botox our faces into masks, get chin implants, a nose job, facelifts and whatever else.
The desire to stay young forever creates monsters.

mq, cb said...

There's a typo in the title of your post.

Toby Wollin said...

One of my favorite movies is "First Wives Club" and one of my favorite lines from that movie is pronounced by Golde Hawn when she says, "There are only three parts in Hollywood for women: Babe, District Attorney, and Driving Miss Daisy." As someone old enough to have done the "and what type of birth control are you using" dance in job interviews in the 1970s, I can say that the world is far more cruel and exacting than it was 30 years ago - for all of what are seen as "gains", the emphasis on perpetual youth reminds us that as women, our seeming only value and function is in the sexual/fertility sphere. No matter how smart you are..or how skilled you are...your "value" as a person and as a worker rests in how attractive you are - and that is now equated with how youthful you look. This is especially so in large cities - the more competitive the job markets are, the more pressure there is to look youthful(and, as a corrolary, thin). The question for us,though, is whether or not this can be changed? Give up? Do the whole Botox/chinlift/fat transfer thing? I have a very sad memory that the woman who wrote the book, "First Wives' Club" died on the operating table while having cosmetic surgery done on her neck..

Deja Pseu said...

toby - yes, I always think of her whenever someone talks about "getting a little work done."

I certain I sound like a broken record sometimes, but Naomi Wolf was right. The trend toward "PBQ" (Professional Beauty Qualification") in non-appearance related jobs is more prevalent than ever.

Diane said...

women are their own worst enemy

Ms Baroque said...

Having said all of which... Sheila Jeffreys has it wrong. You don't have to wear tighht clothes and high heels to work (or wherever). Chic is about something very different from that, and ultimately more empowering.

The tone of this post is strangely at odds with the one where French women were naturally more beautiful because of people's attitudes towards them, and their dressing, etc... but essentially, just as it is sad that some women feel they have to try too hard it is also sad that others feel they oughtn't to care how they look - or feel they would never be up to scratch anyway, so why bother trying. The realyl empowering thing would be to simply attain some level of chic as oneself, to be comfortable in one's own skin and therefore attractive, to dress according with some level of care according to what suits one, and to dispense with the rest.

I think the emphasis on the looks of the French women comes from simple envy: they look as if they have it all. But it's an attitude we're coveting. Some of these women are no more beautiful than anyone else, they're simply well puttogether, they've used their eyes when they got dressed.

It's not ALL French women. I've been to Paris and I've seen women there who look exactly like women here, tired and stressed-out and buying their clothes in Monoprix. But probably none of them would commit the atrocities I saw in the USA last year, notably a woman wearing elasticated navy blue trousers and some sort of T shirt to work, with a huge plaid men's shirt over it in lieu of a jacket! I forget the shoes: they were atrocious. It's smply a case of what you'd be seen dead in.

Anonymous said...

I went through a phase of checking out a few online gossip/tabloid sites. For a laugh and, also, to keep a check on pop sensibility. I eventually realized how nasty, soul-sucking and women-hating those rags are. Bad for my health!

Untouchedup digital photography is brutal.

It's funny how my attitude toward my own look has changed over the years. My teens were all over the map. My 20s were costume and fun (Punk! Post-punk!). My 30s were the most liberated, I think. And, my 40s/early 50s seem to be stuck in a "uniform" mentality. Now post-menopausal, I've recently inched my way back into a more liberated look.

By "liberated", I mean more adventurous without the protection of wearing a "costume".

-- desertwind

Anonymous said...

I hope we are getting ready for a backlash

Anonymous said...

I don't get this French women thing. It only seems to be some women in Paris. Anywhere else people wear awful clothes and don't look anything much. On every High Street in Britain there are women of a certain age who turn heads - other women's heads if not men's. I think British women look great. And now you can go online at Littlewoods and take a quiz about your body shape courtesy of Trinny and Susannah so you don't even need loads of money to look good either. And we've got Gok.
Frankly, I don't know why French women bother. All French men are short and ugly so it's not like they're going to make much of a catch. :) Geri

Anonymous said...

Oh non, not 'The French Woman' thing again! If they aren't under pressure to have an 18 year old face forever, they are to have to body of one. I don't see that the pressure to look young is any worse than the pressure to be thin and stay thin.

Anonymous said...

Therese Rein is a highly intelligent millionaire businesswoman and a sensual-looking lady who likes primary colours. She also happens to be married to the Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd. So why the tabloid need to criticise the dress sense of a woman who looks a/vibrant and b/comfortable in her body?

Badaude said...

"Sans variété, point de beauté"
Voltaire - Extrait d'une Lettre à Thiriot - 6 Décembre 1738

Belle de Ville said...

I do find it the empahisis, specifcally form women, on looks over competence annoying.
Here's one of my posts on the subject.

Belle de Ville said...

Oh and aside from a handful of French actresses and models, I'm not overly impressed with French women. The most beutiful women in Paris are the Russian models not the locals. Anyone who has spent time in La France Profonde will be underwhelmed as well.
You want to see beautiful women, spend some time Malibu, Brentwood, Montecito, Newport Beach, La Jolla, or Beverly Hills.
None of the American women that I know dress in stretch pants and plaid shirts for work...or any other activity.
Australia, Argentina, and Hong Kong are also full of gorgeous and chic women.
Enough with the myth of French Beauty already.

Anonymous said...

Glad I'm not on my own on this one! Can't think who it was who said that French women are the ugliest in the world which is why they have to try harder!