Beauty is a dangerous thing to discuss. I’ve had joyfully fierce debates on everything from climate change to corporate tax (I am fun at dinner parties, I swear) – but every conversation I’ve tried to start about beauty has ended awkwardly, abortively, leaving a sour taste in everyone’s mouth. Why?
I’ll start with the admission that rarely fails to alienate: I get told I’m “beautiful” a lot. Context and speaker vary; the expectations on me don’t. I ought to feel flattered, consider myself lucky. Often I’m told I act “unaware” of my beauty (as if it were a unarguable, tangible fact like my eye colour or age): this can be either a compliment or a complaint.
Beauty is privilege, and us liberal types regard a failure to acknowledge privilege with distaste. Reasonable enough, but if we’re too embarrassed or guilty to admit that it isn’t making us happy, we don’t stop to question where we’re conferring value at all. And whether or not wealth trickles down, the value system of the wealthy does – so we not only suffer in self-imposed silence, but blithely export our problems to those less fortunate. Does GDP correlate to wellbeing and contentment? Does a growth-based economy make sense in the long run? No, but the West continues to foist its dysfunctional aims on the rest of the world. In posing as the winners we encourage everyone to lose.
If the lucky women dubbed “beauties” never admit (and when do they?) that the privilege of “good” looks rarely feels all that good, no-one will pause to question the ideals our culture promotes. Twenty-five years ago (twenty-five years ago!), Naomi Wolf wrote in The Beauty Myth: “The pleasure to be had from turning oneself into a living art object , the roaring in the ears and the fine jetspray of regard on the surface of the skin, is some kind of power, when power is in short supply. But it is not much compared to the pleasure […] of the freedom to forget all about it.”
To be bluntly honest, I can count on one hand the times that being called “beautiful” made me feel good. On those occasions, the word had little to do with looks: it was an echo of love or desire or admiration that hit a much deeper nerve. The other times? It’s made me feel scared: the many warnings (unsubstantiated but affecting) that being beautiful made me an obvious target for rape; the times it closely preceded an offer of money (or a blunt demand) for sex. It’s made me feel guilty: for provoking men; for making other women feel insecure; for “wasting” my beauty by failing to emphasise or exploit it. (As if neglecting to flatten one’s belly, be hairless, or wear makeup were as insulting a disregard for one’s privilege as to discard a fridgeful of perfectly edible food.) And it’s made me feel lonely: isolated from other women through their hostility, distanced from men by the blinkers that “beauty” can impose. It’s ironic how invisible beauty can make you feel – at once frighteningly exposed (your face is a provocation) and maddeningly hidden, as if you’re stuck behind a soundproof wall or a one-way mirror.
I want to treat my body the way I’d treat a house that I alone owned and inhabited: acting a total slob, practical and efficient, a glamorous perfectionist, as the mood took me. Instead it can feel more like renting a room in a showhome. It may be your only home, but its raison d’être is not housing you. It exists primarily for the outside world, and secondarily for its inhabitant. Does this sound melodramatic? Try finding a woman with an untroubled relationship to her body and you’ll see I’m in good company.
And those are just the compliments. Then there are the beauticians, hairdressers, dentists, doctors who’ve passed judgement on my appearance – not out of any concern for health or hygiene, but on utterly trivial decisions I’d assumed were no-one’s business but mine. The aunt who gave me a detailed manual on fashion and makeup for a pre-teen birthday, whose advice I followed religiously until I realised it was much more fun to blow my pocket money on Bacardi Breezers than foundation. The grandmother who told me, aged nine, that she’d expected me to be a “plain” girl but I was actually turning out quite pretty. The friend who voiced genuine concern about my decision to stop plucking my eyebrows and bleaching my upper lip, fearing it was an act of subtle self-destruction. The times my mother – the most potent symbol of nourishment and nurture in my life – told me to curb my eating.
I don’t resent any of these women: their words hurt, but the message did not originate with them. Female beauty is not subjective. It is not the reflection of love from the beholder’s eye. It does not take many forms. The beauty myth that Wolf dissects “tells a story: The quality called “beauty” objectively and universally exists.” And as beauty is privilege, every person who has implied there’s something wrong with how I look had my best interests at heart.
But what’s so great about our cultural beauty ideal, anyway? The qualities it lauds as “feminine” have little to do with femaleness. Let’s be honest – to be female is to be fat, to be hairy, to have a body that morphs drastically with puberty, pregnancy, childbirth, and menopause. But we treat images of female pubic hair as obscene, exclude breastfeeding women from public space, profess repulsion to uncovered fat flesh. Our culture shrinks back from representations of femaleness while fetishising a so-called “femininity” that is increasingly manufactured and fantastical. If it takes photoshop to create a beautiful photograph of a woman, and surgery to create a beautiful female body, beauty is no longer a quality to be admired but something to artfully construct. It is not something we see, but something we do.
If we interpret beauty symbolically, what does the West want from its women? Health, supposedly. But what’s so healthy about smoking to stay skinny? Or stopping eating altogether? Youth is venerated too. But this deserves to be questioned: who benefits from making sexual immaturity sexy? Isn’t devaluing age akin to devaluing life? And let’s not even touch that most controversial can of worms: race and beauty.
Beyond these broad symbols, there seem to be subtler and more insidious messages embedded in our beauty ideal about what our society wants from women. We applaud a female figure that’s slim, but not too muscly: could it be that we don’t want women to take up too much space, use up too many resources, or get too powerful? We romanticise faces that are symmetrical, delicate, balanced: are we afraid of women who demand too much attention, act unpredictably, stand out?
Perhaps this interpretation is paranoid; it’s certainly hard to evidence. But whatever the subconscious rationale behind our beauty ideal, it’s undeniably narrow – and, crucially, impersonal. We’re either beautiful or not: the core value judgement is not up for debate. I distinctly remember the moment the penny dropped for me, in my mid-teens. Until that point, everyone I loved was gorgeous to me, stunning, beautiful. It dawned on me that they, in official terms, were not. Features I found attractively striking – pointed noses, broad shoulders, moles, wild hair, plumpness – were really flaws or deviations. Worst of all, it became clear that to express an “unconventional” aesthetic preference without sounding like a liar was virtually impossible. It’s tricky, in our culture, to tell a “fat” woman she’s gorgeous without being heard as condescending; difficult to call someone with sharp facial features cute without it coming off as veiled mockery. But that doesn’t mean those aren’t genuinely your perceptions. It’s an ingenious catch-22: our cultural beauty ideal has managed to dictate the terms of every conversation we have about beauty. It’s become almost impossible to believe beauty could be conceived of differently, appreciated in other forms. What a sad loss for individual expressivity in a culture that claims to value freedom of thought and expression so very highly.
But if beauty is symbolic, can’t we shake off the flattened, impersonal symbolism of a whole society’s notion of beauty and start to replace it with unique, idiosyncratic symbols that are our very own? Could we reconnect our most personal feelings, of familial love and platonic affection and sexual desire, with our perception of beauty, instead of letting a cultural ideal dictate how we see the people we love? What if, instead of believing it’s necessary to be beautiful in order to be admired, we believed that regard is what endows people with beauty? That his large nose is beautiful because it belongs to him, instead of imagining that he would be beautiful with a smaller one. That her belly is sexy by virtue of being uniquely hers, rather than encouraging her to embark on a diet in order to become sexy. That our friends, family, lovers simply see in our faces and figures a reflection of the love and admiration they feel for us, instead of a set of flaws that they should encourage us to correct.
We can’t control how other people look at us, and we can’t choose who we find beautiful. But we can refuse to shut up about the gorgeousness of our unusual-faced friends, the sexiness of our weird-looking lovers, the beauty of our ageing parents and grandparents. We can refuse to shut up about the unacknowledged burden of being called “beautiful” in a society with a damaged and damaging relationship to beauty. And maybe our refusal to shut up will bring some beauty back to that much-abused word.