Sunday, January 21, 2007

"Can't we perceive beauty without comparison?"

asked Sage in the comments to Friday's post.

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.

Patti Smith and her armpitAnd 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.


Anonymous said...

May a mere male, timidly, point out that about the oldest example of BO phobia is evoked by a male poet (Catullus) who some two thousand years ago publicly named and shamed a (male) friend by asking whether he was concealing a goat in his armpits.

History does not relate whether the poor guy remained Catullus's friend after that little incident.

The Goldfish said...


I don't wish to poo-poo (ha) the value of all toiletries and cosmetic products. What I reject is the amount of anxiety we have around these things. Some people sweat more than others, some have more stink-making bacteria than others, so I wouldn't wish for a world without anti-perspirant. But I would wish for a world where people did not feel disgust towards their own bodies. After all, the Catullus' mate probably simply needed to wash on a more regular basis.

Mary said...

Your comments on conformity in Hollywood immediately brought to my mind the "blond Bond" debate - people got quite upset about it as I recall!

I remember in high school there was much ostentatious use of body spray, hairbrushes, makeup etc in the classroom during the registration period. It wasn't about need - you'd put on your makeup half an hour ago when you left your house, it hardly needed refreshing - but about "look at me, here I am, making the effort to look nice, and being all grown up, I'm doing it too, see me apply my lipgloss..."

My own mother never wore makeup, school was where I got the firm idea it was something I was supposed to do. To not do it made one a freak.

Anonymous said...

(whoops - published this comment to the wrong post earlier - silly me - here it is again in the right place!)

I take your point about beauty... 'if one is in the business of selling things, one does what is necessary in order to sell them' but when exactly do you equip us with responsibility as consumers? I would not have thought it is particularly an issue for women at this time over and above other times. When can we be assumed to make intelligent decisions about our purchasing and our ideas of beauty? You have assumed that we (I am a man - if gender specification is important here, I have assumed the pronoun as a descriptor of 'we purchasers' - I buy skin care, I look in the mirror, I observe, more than ever, the eroticised male in popular culture) that 'we' purchase with no control, that we blindly consent to the myth of repair and perfection; this is to assume a consumer without will. To a certain extent these mechanisms are more transparent than they have ever previously been and I think there is a much broader interplay of image and consumption at work here. I would suggest that the consumer is cleverer than ever at steering his or her path, with a certain amount of irony and creativity. Of course we must be cautious, but let's not to oppress ourselves by precipitating the cultural models that we already think are bearing down upon us and end up neurotic when we could have been serene. We only feel demoralised if we accept the model that condemns us, we only only 'deviate' when we hold up this model to begin with. It's not about money, it's about language.

And now that's me bushed.

The Goldfish said...

When can we be assumed to make intelligent decisions about our purchasing and our ideas of beauty? You have assumed that we ... purchase with no control, that we blindly consent to the myth of repair and perfection; this is to assume a consumer without will.

Which would of course be an illogical step, since if we did, it wouldn't occur to us to have this conversation.

First off, I feel I have been misunderstood. I'm not really talking about the cosmetics industry or capitalism in general. Of course people make intelligent consumer decisions. I'm talking about an entirely unintended consequence of an individual being subjected to a great number of similar messages. Women being subjected to far more messages (of this particular nature) than men.

Issues of cultural programming are about influence, not control. It's not about saying that we are automaton and it was them bastards who wrote the software to blame for our faults and our unhappiness. However, I feel it would be equally oversimplistic to say that we are invulnerable to being inadvertantly drawn off course.

I personally feel that in order to maximise our free will - in order to be as radical as you describe - we must first recognise and dispose of those influences which do us no good. This discussion started off about modesty, and about the way that many women - in particular - struggle to find nice things to say about their own bodies. In fact, many women consider their appearance to be an ongoing source of misery and failure. Why would that be?

One could deny the assertion completely or one could agree and put it down to a massive series of coincidences which we can do nothing about except on an individual basis. Otherwise, we must consider the possibility that there are wider cultural influences at work. And then we can go about the process of subversion.

fluttertongue said...

I have the hairiest legs of all people I know. My mother often quips that she gave birth to half a person and half a goat. So for the past however many years I have regularly deforested/conformed. During the summer I went to a barbecue. All the women, except me, were happily wearing skirts with hairy legs. I felt awfully uncool.

In my opinion clothes and toiletries advertising is as bad for mental health as junk food advertising is for physical health. A lot of my feminist friends blame men for making us dress up like dolls. I blame capitalism.

Anonymous said...

A massive rejection of the confines of stereotyping by a society that is blind to real beauty would be a start. I agree. Ditch everything you thought made you happy but didn't, and go after what fulfils, softens your heart and makes you feel good. By the way, and wonderful coincidence given the timing of your post Beauty Offensive launched today. It took me a year to pluck up the courage to start it. Check it out. I hope to be writing in full flow soon.

Anonymous said...

one last splutter...

Then we must stop being vulnerable, stop being drawn off course. Yes, there will always be wider influences at work, but assuming the dominant language is not in essence rotten - it’s the tools of it’s delivery that stink - whilst the popular language of consumption and exchange levers us into ever decreasing circles of doubt, do we not strip it of its phallusy (sic) and claim the language back, arming it with our own signification.

Does the black man not call himself nigga, does the gay man not call himself queer, does the lesbian not call herself dyke, does the sister not call herself bitch, does, the hindu not call himself pakki?

Yes, we maybe blown off course, but do we not grab the wheel and laugh in their faces as the new road that we have gloriously paved with their so-called ideology opens up before us ?

We're all going on a summer holiday...

That's it for me on this one !

belledame222 said...

just on an aesthetic note: i wonder you know if it's worth making a distinction between comparisons and contrasts. as in, it doesn't have to be a competition as such, but we notice this color relieved or complemented by that one, the interplay of curves and lines, of light and shadow...