Saturday, November 18, 2006

On beauty. Or something

Have you seen that one-minute video called ‘Evolution’ doing the rounds on the internet from Dove’s ‘Campaign for real beauty’? It shows a plain, slightly pudgy, sandy-haired woman walking up and seating herself in front of the camera and then being transformed, in fast-forward action, by hair, light, make-up and Photoshop artists, into a glamour doll whose finished face is pasted on a huge billboard advertisement.

The overt message, of course, is that it’s all fake—those flawless complexions, ideal proportions and perfect features that terrorise our self-esteem via all visual media, are just so much bumpf. Hurray!

The optional message is that it’s all fake—which means that the rest of us, too, can look like the million bucks it will cost us, for happiness is merely beauty at a price. Hurray!

Women are sending this clip to each other with a kind of avid fascination, but I’m not entirely willing to bet on which message is making the greater impression.

Like many introverts I grew up with my nose in a book, and so entirely missed the process that socialises people to take some care with their appearance. While this saved me much of the heartache and self-doubt—and boyfriends—of average teenhood, it also ensured that the real world came as a rude shock. (It also explained the mysterious maternal wailing that for years attended my every exit from the front door, which I mistook for parental devotion.) I was forced to amend my quite genuine belief that looks don’t matter, to the indignant position that they shouldn’t matter.

To say that, however, is only to cry over spilt milk. It’s too tedious to cite all the studies that show that the earth’s very axis is tilted in favour of better-looking people, who, despite the fact that they are often assumed to have fewer brains, get hired more easily, make more money, wield greater power, live easier lives, and have more fun. It’s a well-known fact that they rule the world just because the natural human affinity for beauty turns other people’s knees to water.

But this species hasn’t been honing its oldest survival skill throughout the interminable millennia for nothing. We are masters of adaptation, an evolutionary tactic scientifically known as ‘If you can’t lick ’em, join ’em’, which comes with the less-quoted but much-implemented corollary rule, ‘If you can’t join ’em, lick ’em’. Ever since the first cavewoman held a bit of shiny stuff against her skin, ever since an Egyptian noblewoman smeared green mineral paste on her eyelids and bathed in ass’s milk, we’ve been using brain to spruce up brawn, raising the beauty stakes ever higher and forcing the less attractive to play ever-more frantic games of catch up.

We are now at a watershed moment in the history of human hotness. Things are evening out. Between makeup, makeovers and surgery, the ugly and/or insecure have never had it so good, which is nice, because their ranks are swelling with every new magazine issue, television show and movie that comes out. Once upon a time it was sulphite of lead for a lick of kohl in the eyes; today it’s liposuction and Botox. Who knows, facial transplant surgery—now used only in the most extreme medical need—may one day become as casual as a haircut. That’s Evolution too.

I haven’t yet worked out how I feel about all this (though officially I’m appalled). We should know better than to fall for it, but frankly, as long as the world continues to reward style over substance, getting the odd lock highlighted or your nose straightened might not be such a bad option to flinging yourself off a bridge.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What I'm alot more curious about is the basis of our aesthetics. Some things are easy to understand (as exemplified by the mythical overseas graduate student who commends a woman on her excellent child-bearing hips). But more often than not, the slightest difference in the angle of a cheek bone can make a person swing from a 5 to a 9 on a scale of 10. Isn't this weird? How exactly are we wired on the beauty definition front?