Wednesday, 19 August 2009

The madness of beauty

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Galvanised by the lovely LibertyLondonGirl, my fellow blogger and constant inspiration, I am going to get angry today about beauty.

Possibly the strangest thing in the contemporary world, apart from people comparing the clever, funny, pragmatic Barack Obama to the sociopathically mad and bad Adolf Hitler, is the current Western idea of beauty. It is: very thin, with stretched smooth skin, with a big head. The lollipop girls, they call those little starlets in Hollywood, who diet so hard that their heads look enormously large compared to their frail bodies. It is also frantically exercised. Madonna now spends six hours a day in the gym (I read it in the paper so it must be true), which means that she can have no time left to read Robert Lowell or make a frittata or gossip on the telephone or do any of the other twenty-seven things that make life worth living.

The strange thing about this accepted template of pulchritude is that you hardly ever see it in real life; it is in every magazine, all over the internets, scattered across the tabloids, so present that you are in danger of thinking that it is normal. I once did see the very thin, muscled, botoxed women in life. I was asked to one of those glamorous places, where the exceptionally rich gather – not just a nice Mercedes and a house and some land rich, but never again flying commercial rich. I was terrified that I would feel like a frumpy old hick, with my size fourteen and my hair dyed from a box in the bathroom and my cussed refusal to have a laser resurfacing peel. I am forty-two and I have had some fun and some late nights and one too many Lucky Strikes, and I have the marks on my face to show it. But when I saw those tiny polished women, with their identical emaciated frames and their stretched foreheads, they looked so sad and discontented and fragile that I wanted to take them home and make them soup. I thought I would feel intimidated by them, or judge them for their vanity and their frippery and their obsession with eternal youth. I just felt acutely sorry for them. They had managed to catch very rich husbands, but I saw no sign that it gave them any joy.

I am not anti-beauty. I am not one of those mythical feminists who are fabled to insist that anyone who plucks their eyebrows or shaves their legs is in hopeless thrall to the patriarchal conspiracy. I exfoliate. I love a good fire-engine-red lipstick. I get a keen pleasure when my eyes fall on a pretty face. When I was younger, I could not wait for the new edition of Vogue. But as a good unreconstructed liberal, I am all for moderation and the middle ground. Extremes alarm me. And it seems now that there is something excessive about the narrow emphasis on physical appearance. Certain newspapers make it their life’s work to mount rabid attacks on famous women for any signs of imperfection. Kate Moss was recently seen with a couple of wrinkles on her forehead and a faint acne scar on her chin. The tabloids went crazy. Otherwise serious columnists felt compelled to rush into print on the matter, as if it were a thing of national importance. A few weeks before, Elle McPherson was photographed with a small stretch of slightly saggy skin on her left leg. There was a frenzy of speculation; the offending area was blown up, with great red lines circling it, so it could be examined in minute detail; doctors were called in to talk about muscle tone and diet and the ageing process. I do not know Kate Moss or Elle McPherson, but they seem like perfectly nice women to me. They have both built successful careers from a standing start. As far as I know, they do not insult old ladies for fun or drown kittens in sacks, but from the media reaction you would think they had been out selling crack in kindergartens.

The biggest beauty push now is towards youth. Everything must be ‘anti-ageing’. Rush rush rush to stem the evil tide of time; defy nature at every turn; erase those crow’s feet or any chance at happiness will be ruined. God forbid that you may look as if you have lived a little; any sign that you may have once smiled or frowned must be wiped clean. At first, you can do this with a good cream and drinking your eight glasses of water a day. But there comes a stage where, if you are serious about having a blank face, only serious intervention will do it. So there is the Botox, and the restylane (‘banish those give away lines’ says the website; give away of what? I think – being human?); there are the chemical peels, the fillers, the lasers, or the whole hog – have your face sliced off with a scalpel, pulled tight, and stitched back into place. The absolute irony of all this is that, in almost all cases, the treatments do not so much make the women look younger, even should you decide this is a resolution devoutly to be wished, it just makes them look as if they have had work. When I am not thinking about the human condition and the roiling subject of geo-politics, I like to watch crappy commercial American television shows. One of my favourites is Alias, where Jennifer Garner gets to save the world whilst wearing a serious of fabulous outfits. In one series, they had Faye Dunaway as the guest star. I had not seen her on screen for a while, and I was absolutely mesmerised by her appearance. I remember her in The Thomas Crown Affair; I knew she must now be in her sixties; but there was not a mark on her face. I shuffled right up to the screen like a six year old, looking for clues. There was nothing: no wrinkles, no laugh lines, just a smooth expanse of white face. And yet, she still looked her age. Was it her neck, I thought, or the backs of her hands that gave her away? No, nothing there. In the end, I realised that it is the very quality of the skin that changes with age; there is a sort of thinness to it as the collagen goes, a delicate fragility, an intimation of mortality. No matter how much you get it stretched and pumped and resurfaced, that quality cannot be hidden. People don’t think that you look thirty when you are fifty, they just wonder which surgeon you are using.

At the end of all this, what I really wonder is: what is the point? Why are so many perfectly intelligent, discerning women being convinced that beauty is the great goal? The beauty bombardment is so constant that even I, determined feminist that I am, have occasional moments when I wonder what it would be like to look like Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. But say one of these wonder creams or science fiction treatments or magic pills actually worked. Say that you too could look like Julie Christie if you really tried hard enough. Then what? What does beauty actually get you? It will get you the smiles of strangers; it will get you the benefit of the doubt; it will get you tables in overcrowded restaurants. You may take some pleasure in knowing you add to the general aesthetic. But beauty has its dark side. It can get you commodified – you are A Beauty, and that’s it. Soulless men will try and make you their trophy wife. Other women may warily keep their distance, afraid that the blinding light of your perfect looks will cast them forever into the shade. In the end, it seems to me that the only real goal in life is to love well and be loved in return. Beauty does not get you that. Great beauties get left and heartbroken and disappointed, just like everyone else. Their dogs die, they go broke, they are not immune from disease. Their friendships are not more profound, their lives do not magically become a festival of laughter and good times.

Whenever I am casting about for meaning and perspective and the truth of things, I imagine what happens when we die. I think of the moment when the mourners come. At your funeral, I guarantee that no one is going to cry because they will miss your sculpted cheekbones. They will weep because no one ever again will make them laugh quite like you did. They will miss your quirky conversation, your fascination with obscure subjects, your sudden moments of kindness, your ability to listen, your special trick with chicken soup. At the wake, they will not discuss your peaks of perfection. They will talk of what you might have thought of as your flaws – it will be your little freaks, your curious idiosyncrasies, your moments of screw-up that will make them laugh. Balzac said that we love people because of their flaws, not in spite of them, and he was right. It is your failings that make you human, and being human is what makes you loved. That is true beauty, and you cannot get it from a knife or a jar.


  1. Hear, Hear!

    "Then what?" is so right. Poor old Madonna would be so much happier if she read Lowell, over a bowl of soup made by you.

    It is madness.

    But then we don't learn to shed our egos until it is too late.

    Another excellent post. Thank you.

    -- Miss W x

  2. There's a very peculiar anxiety about this 'one size fits all' notion of beauty that's being peddled by women in the public eye. I find I want to run up to them and clonk them on the head with a copy of Naomi Wolf's Beauty Myth, for all the good it might do me.
    I had a little light experiment with botox for a while. I liked it. But after a while, I started to think a little more about why it was that i considered botox necessary - what was i trying to hide? Who was I hiding from? What was I afraid of? I thought about the kinds of things you've written about so beautifully in this post. And I gave it up. No one noticed.

  3. Miss W - Thank you so much for yr kind words. I do long to have poor Madonna with her tragic arms round for soup and some poetry inspired by the wild seas off Nantucket. You are so right about the ego. I have to keep mine in check like a naughty dog. (DOWN boy.)

    Mrs T - Yes, YES, the one size fits all baffles me. Is there a committee somewhere? I still can't work out how we came to this. Love the no one noticing the Botox story. My theory on Botox is that it is fatal because the first few times it can work quite well; but then it is never enough, and people want more and more, and suddenly they look like crazy surprised women all the time. Hurrah for you and your refusal to bow to the whims of fashion.

  4. 'People don’t think that you look thirty when you are fifty, they just wonder which surgeon you are using.' I couldn’t agree more.

    There's a theory that through history when food is plentiful, women want to be thin, and when it's scarce they want to look plump. In our society you're considered poor and uneducated if you're over size12/14. If you are thin with a wrinkly face and obviously well off, people wonder why you haven't bothered to do something about it. You are then considered lazy. How many women young and old are mutilating them selves under peer pressure?

    This is not just an issue for the beauty and fashion industry. It's a social problem that we must all tackle.

    Oh dear, this was supposed to be a short supportive comment. Great post.

    Helena Halme xx

  5. I saw Faye Dunaway on telly recently and felt the same way - another giveaway is the over-whitened teeth. They just look WRONG. I cannot afford anything like botox anyway so cosmetic stuff isn't even an option for me. But I don't think I'd bother even if I could afford it - simply because once you start, you just can't stop.

    Also, I feel quite strongly that every dog has its day. I was young once, but I'm not anymore. So bloody what? Of course it's absolutely awful for women who are in the public eye. I read a profile of the wonderful Daniella Nardini recently. She said that she was very glad that she'd had her 15 minutes with This Life as Anna (WHAT a brilliant character) in the 1990s, before the explosion of celebrity websites and magazines out there destroying famous people the minute they step outside without slap. I used to have gofugyourself on my blogroll but I suddenly couldn't stand it anymore, so much of it is just so cruel, so I took it down.

    The thing is, youth is an indefinable quality, a bloom. Once it's gone it's gone, there's nothing you can do about it. You can't put back a petal when it falls from a flower, as South Pacific puts it.

  6. I most definitely agree. I was somehow born feeling really good about myself, which has seen me through ups and downs in weight and lovelife disasters, but like everyone I sometimes get those days where I think like I look like crap. I remind myself that there are about 1 million individual things about me and the physical similarity between me and Cheryl Cole (about 4%, mainly in the kidney area as I assume we both have excellent function) is only one of them.

    x S

  7. "What does beauty actually get you?"

    Well, I'd say its usefulness lies in escaping from aggression.

    This would explain why we still pursue it, regardless of our ideology.

  8. What a wonderful post. At 48 with many friends a lot younger than me I feel exactly the same age as them until I catch sight of myself and realise I am not. So have dabbled with Botox and have to say love it not for the expressionless look as I hate that, but just for the frown lines, that make you look angry. I think the trick is to do just a little. I had a more frozen look once and my husband hated it . He said that I smiled like a rat and that he actually likes my face as it is.
    I think Madonna looks amazing but sad . I dont think she ever has any fun. There must be a happy medium and I am sure it would help if the media didnt highlight every imperfection on these women.

  9. Laughter is the best facelift.

    Many women don't realise that true beauty - the kind that endures - is really an inside job. So they spend all their time and money seeking it outside themselves, and they need other people's approval to convince them that they're beautiful. That's both mad and sad, and whatever beauty they do attain is often a fleeting and superficial one.

    I'm having more fun being 49 than I had 2 decades ago, and I was quite the party animal then. I'm definitely with you on the bright red lipstick front.

    Your blog is pretty damned wonderful. Thank you.

  10. This post is fantastic, and it's just what I needed to hear right now. Your writing is wonderful. Thanks.

  11. I just stumbled across this post and loved and agreed with every word.


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