Beauty is a quality almost as subjective as political preference. It is celebrated by some, criticized by others and judged by many. It also gains considerable coverage in the national press, with columns devoted to quantifying and analyzing what it means.
An opinion is one of the best things to formulate and then own – it belongs exclusively to the individual. No one can take it away or change it, but merely argue an alternative view. However, it sometimes bears remembering that an opinion is just the viewpoint of one, single person. That writer or speaker filters everything according to her or his perception – including the notion of beauty.
Physically speaking, beauty is often linked with a symmetry of features, or a certain ratio between the waist and hips. The word itself is a starting flag, signaling thoughts of models, actors and muses. It suggests not only an appearance unlike the norm, but also some kind of special status.
We increasingly live in a society driven by the visual. Our days are filled with images, whether on the pages of a magazine or through idle clicks across the internet. A select few of these photos may be considered to be pleasing or beautiful as an art form – perhaps a portrait taken by Irving Penn, or a magnificent flight of fancy assembled by Tim Walker. However, the relentless exposure to snaps of other individuals invites us to become judges of appearance, whether we want to or not.
The media, particularly magazines devoted to celebrity gossip feed voraciously on a process of belittling. It's present in the faux-worried headlines about weight loss or subsequent gain; in the red circles high-lighting sweat patches and cellulite; in the picture shows of “fashion do’s and don’ts”. This intends to point up that those with extraordinary looks or a successful career in the public eye are just human, and yet any evidence of their similarities to you or I is something to judge. Their small realities apparently deserve ridicule. Is it a primal, tribal desire to elevate our sense of self at the expense of others? Such media features are the equivalent of a sugar rush following a greasy doughnut – initially satisfying, plugging some hole that isn’t quite a hunger (more a want), but leaving an unpleasant queasiness.
I saw an exhibition of Norman Parkinson’s photos in Bristol recently. If you're in the area then it's well worth setting aside a morning to enjoy the docks with their latticework of cranes, and then soak up the exuberance of Parkinson’s images at the M Shed. While slowly padding from one print to another, I had two separate streams running through my head. The first was just a variation on the theme of “Beautiful! Beautiful! I want to take photos like this! Beautiful! I feel inspired!” The second was an inner commentary not only on the varying ages and sizes of some of the models, but also on their tangible real-ness. They were undoubtedly beautiful, and yet in a more attainable manner. Figures and teeth weren’t always uniform, but to my eye at least, that merely increased the effect of their appearance.
An argument has emerged in recent years – the rallying call for the ‘real woman’. This epitome of what a woman should be is apparently neither too large nor thin, too tall nor small, neither too flat-chested nor well-endowed. In short, this ‘real woman’ is as much of a mythical ideal as a young, super-slender model (the topic of modeling is one I intend to return to in another post). Such a process of valuing one type of look above another is as damaging as unrealistic, photo-shopped advertising. Some women have hips. Others don’t. I have recently made the transition from latter to former. Both hip measurements are as real as each other. To suggest otherwise infers that there is only one perfect way to appear, and if a woman is a natural UK size six, then she is likely to be denigrated by some as a mere figment – perhaps constructed from gossamer and air, tied with string. This approach, in which either Christina Hendricks’ incredible curves are celebrated over Erin O’Conor’s tall grace, or vice versa, reduces both aforementioned women to their dress sizes, rather than celebrating them for their achievements, their skills, and yes, their beauty. Both occupy different ideals of beauty and neither is more valid than the other. Besides, they are both as real as the next woman. The real ‘Real Woman’ is every female, irrespective of shape, size, height, colour or appearance.
Current ideals also suggest that beauty is ephemeral – a fleeting quality to be enjoyed while it lasts. I beg to differ. The fulfilling concept of internal beauty lasts for life, and furthermore, one can look incredible at any age. Admittedly it's not the kind of beauty that yields modeling contracts (unless we’re talking about the amazing Daphne Selfe), but is perhaps better encapsulated in the adjective “extraordinary”. It's the beauty that fascinates a portrait photographer - present in the expressions, in the eyes, in the animation, the dignity and in the lines that fall across the face like shadows of past experiences.
I hope as I age to inhabit my face in all its stages, and never to fall foul of the myth that only youth is beautiful. The human face is extraordinary in all its forms and manifestations, and thus deserves to be celebrated.
This post was inspired by a visit to the Bath Fashion Museum last summer with family friends, where we had the chance to try on corsets and crinolines. The idea of corseting caused me to reflect on the role that fashion plays in deeming what is beautiful and what is not – and how much we have bent to the whims of appearance over the years (and how often those whims change). I could hardly breathe in my corsetry!