I think we do perceive beauty without comparison. We do not attempt to compare the beauty of a tropical seashore and the beauty of a mountain range. And we don’t attempt to compare the beauty of Marilyn Monroe and the beauty of Audrey Hepburn. Unfortunately, we are pretty rubbish at perceiving our own beauty without comparison to other women or cultural standards of beauty.
Excuse the gender bias chaps, but this remains primarily an issue for women at this time. Fortunately, you are vindicated; out of all the manifestations of sexism, the baggage we carry surrounding women's appearance has far more do with money than anything else. Not a sinister conspiracy to hold us down, but an unintentional consequence of good old capitalism: if one is in the business of selling things, one does what is necessary in order to sell them.
There are really three branches to this. One is in uniformity. Representing beauty in the same way over and over makes good commercial sense simply because it avoids unnecessary risk. So for example, if you are selling a movie with a heroine in it, it will be far safer if this heroine looks rather like the last heroine who sold the last successful movie. People watched that movie, that look worked. Doesn’t have to be the same lady, but it is significant financial risk to have a woman with a markedly different appearance – for example, a beautiful woman of colour instead of a beautiful white woman. Never in this day and age, of course...
Although few would argue that the only examples of beauty are as restrictive as Hollywood might present, commerical interest doesn't like to test this or indeed any of the flexibility in our aesthetic judgement. It is far easier, far safer to do the thing that worked before.
So you have uniformity, you have this comparison to a very rigid concept of a beautiful person which can be really quite demoralising to those of us who deviate from it, because of ethnicity, age, weight, impairment and so on, let alone the subtleties of skin, hair, muscle and bone-structure. Like I say, any fool ought to be able see beyond this stuff; otherwise very few of us ordinary folk would ever receive any positive comment on our appearance. But, I think something else comes into play when we are asked to look at our own beauty.
Let's say I make and sell Magic Wonder Potion. It is a moisturiser – add moisture to the skin and in the short term, it will appear slightly smoother for a short while (another trick is to immerse your face in ice cold water for half a minute). So anyway, I may legitimately claim it makes your skin look younger.
For younger-looking skin, try Magic Wonder Potion!
I sell a few bottles, but naturally I wish my business to develop to its maximum potential. There are a few things I can do to draw custom from my competition. I can change the directions so that my customers are applying twice a day as opposed to just the once, thus needing to restock more often – I can even develop a night-time formula and sell two bottles to every customer instead of one. But the most obvious, most effective way of increasing my sales is to increase my number of customers. I do this by adjusting my wording…
Suffering from unsightly wrinkles? For beautiful younger-looking skin, try Magic Wonder Potion!
Do you, dear reader, suffer from unsightly wrinkles? Put it another way, have you got any wrinkles? – I have already implied that all wrinkles are unsightly and result in an experience of suffering. Not sure? Okay, well let me show you a picture of a model who might possibly be your age, who is dressed nicely with immaculate make-up, a photograph taken in fantastic flattering light with every flaw subsequently airbrushed out.
Now, how does your mirror image, in the yellow light of your bathroom, compare to that? One or two unsightly wrinkles, aren’t there? Are you suffering? You don’t just need Magic Wonder Potion if you want to look beautiful – you need Magic Wonder Potion before you dare show your hideous face in public!
Advertising for anti-aging skin products has always struck me as particularly blatant bullshit because they have to make their customers feel a little bit ugly the way they are in order to sell a single tub. Unless of course, they’re selling it as a preventative measure to younger adults – and yes, they have done this – in which case they have to install fear of future ugliness.
However, the same mechanism takes place in very much of the marketing for beauty products, toiletries, cosmetic surgeries, diet regimes etc.. The worse you make someone feel about some aspect of their person, the more they are likely to buy your product. And whilst I wouldn't like to believe that it is ever thought about it in these terms, a woman with a rock-bottom self-image and a wad of cash in her purse is an ideal customer.
And this means that we look at and judge ourselves very differently to the way we look at other people. For example, to find actual disgust in Patti Smith's hairy armpit would be quite irrational (not saying you have to find it attractive - that's a matter of taste). I don’t believe there are many people out there who feel that way – it is such a tiny pocket of history during which anyone has even considered removing that hair. However, there are very many women who have been programmed to feel total disgust about their own body hair, as well as their natural fragrance, the texture of their skin etc., without ever looking with so much as distaste at other women.
The messages themself are usually far more subtle than my Magic Wonder Potion campaign, but any woman who watches television, read magazines and go shopping is receiving these derogatory messages all the time. I did a brief recce for some of the concepts cosmetic companies implore me to be concerned about. One has to remember that none of these are medicated products; they do not propose to treat actual skin conditions like dandruff, acne, eczema etc., so all this has to be in the perception of the consumer. We are being asked to identify our own
Heat-traumatised hair / fragile flyaway hair / limp, greasy locks / extremely coarse, extra thick, frizzy, chemically-damaged hair [at that point, I think I'd shave it off]
Unsightly facial hair / unsightly body hair / unsightly nails / unsightly veins / unsightly feet and toenails
Orange peel skin / worn out skin / congested, oily skin / spongy skin
Enlarged pores [pretty gruesome for anyone examining your face under magnifying glass]
Prudish [sic.] lips and unattractive, dry flakes
Tell-tale dark circles / wrinkle furrows / colour imperfections / pesky imperfections [which can be disposed of for just £13.50 for a 6ml tube!]
And I can't help it; I find myself considering each of those concepts and whether they might apply to me. Deodourant is advertised in a different way. They won't spell out that you must use the stuff or stink, but they want you to know that you have something to be very much afraid of. So they offer that added security / extra reassurance / all day protection / 48-hour protection / maximum protection.
On top of these two factors, we also have a third branch, this strange but very powerful idea that it should matter terribly to women, the reasons why we spend so much time, energy and money on our appearance, when it's impact on our health and happiness is relatively very small. But that's another issue for another day and you'll be pleased to know I have now run out of steam.