True Beauty

"Can't the women in movies and on T.V. still be pretty?" a playwright friend, Don Cummings, mused in his blog.

 

He understood why "women....are upset...about the images that are being fed to them," and admitted, "It's awful ... As far as magazines go, the air brushing and slimming and all that, well that's just hell."

 

"But please," he begged, "leave me my good looking film and television actors. I'm getting old and loose and I like to be reminded of what it once was like. Hot is hot. It keeps us going. Some joy, please."

 

So I thought about this for a while.

 

Now, I am someone who feels strongly that the emphasis on beauty (especially upon women) is damaging to women personally, and to the culture as a whole.

 

And I thought about the breathtakingly beautiful actresses I love to watch, who also deliver strong, committed performances (Charlize Theron, Kiera Knightly), the actresses who aren't conventionally beautiful but whose talent makes their unusual features all the more striking (Meryl Streep, Emily Watson, Helen Mirren). And then, of course, I thought about the actresses who are physically beautiful, and yet whose acting is thin and self-serving to the point of being unwatchable. (Unfortunately, it is the latter who dominate network television, though this is changing in film and premium cable.)

 

And I responded with this (slightly modified) comment to Don's entry:

 

The problem isn't so much not wanting beauty in media, but rather that the definition of "beauty" (certainly where women are concerned) isn't really beauty at all, but conformity to a very narrow set of Barbie-esque physical characteristics that are unhealthy to the point of being grotesque.

 

But women are told that if we don't conform to this standard, we won't be valued – as sexually desirable women, or as people since a host of negative qualities are assigned to larger people (laziness, gluttony)!

 

And men are so conditioned to value the Barbie standard, that they will override their own natural impulse to see beauty in women who don't fit the mold in order to maintain status with their male friends.

 

I have known quite a few men who have rejected women they admitted to being attracted to – physically and intellectually – in favor of a Barbie-esque "beautiful" woman to whom they didn't feel much innate attraction, but whom they believed their friends and family would value more and thereby grant them higher status.

 

In terms of media, the double-standard is evident.

 

You say, "Don't take away the beautiful women." But look at the men. They are all different shapes and sizes, and they all get the girl... who always looks the same: slim, young, even-featured, and usually large-breasted.

 

It is said that Cleopatra was the most beautiful woman in the world, but that was not because her physiognomy was so special, but rather her charisma and intelligence were irresistible.

 

In a meme, Emma Thompson is quoted as advising actresses, in response to demands that they "lose weight", to ask, "Is this important for the character?" And if it isn't then they should ask the casting director to tell them that what they want is a model, not an actress.

 

In the early '90s, balding, aging actors like Patrick Stewart and Anthony Hopkins became sex symbols – based on their power as performers and men. Women found them very beautiful indeed. It's said that Patrick Stewart telephoned a woman suffering from ovarian cancer, and a few minutes of his sonorous voice caused the disease to go into remission.

 

So it's not that anyone wants less beauty in the media; in fact, we want more of it, in all of its stunning, fascinating, riveting, and transformative variety.

 

In over a decade of bellydance – often regarded as a quintessentially sexually beautiful dance form – I have come to understand that beauty comes from feeling and expression, from vitality and confidence, far more than from physiognomy.

 

How tragic and ironic it is that the mutilation of plastic surgery destroys an actor's very ability to express feeling, thought, and intention. By paralyzing their faces to fit some godforsaken prefabricated image, actresses are destroying their very ability to move the audiences they are hoping their stretched faces will attract. They destroy their ability to emote, as well as their ability to respond authentically to the people and circumstances in the drama they seek to convey.

 

Consider this recent comment in a Salon.com article about dehumanization: "If a researcher disables your ability to imitate another’s facial expression, such as by asking you to hold a pen pursed between your lips or by injecting your face with Botox, your ability to understand what another person is feeling drops significantly. Botox dulls your social senses right along with your wrinkles."

 

Beauty is about expression – humanity – and the industry that believes itself most committed to beauty is doing everything it can to destroy it.

 

And as audience members, we are allowing our own unique appreciation of the world around us to be dictated and flattened.

 

What we want is an experience of beauty, where a thing is beautiful to us because it resonates deeply. This kind of beauty is arresting and powerful, sometimes even disturbing, because it tells us something about ourselves – and we don't always want to know about ourselves.

 

The beauty of physiognomy may be pleasing and comforting, and to be sure it has its place in the culture. But it doesn't give us anything new or nourishing or unique, it simply recycles the current images that we are told to value – and if we do as we are told, then we will be valued too ... or so we are led to believe.

 

But if we let ourselves respond naturally to the world around us – regardless of what we are told to believe – to find what is beautiful to us, uniquely, and enjoy that beauty for its own sake rather than as a way to seek acceptance and approval from others ... how vast and beautiful and joyful might our lives become?

 

And how might our appreciative gaze nourish the world itself, in its magnificent variety, into greater and greater beauty?

 

 

 

This blog entry is based on a post in Dark Lady Dances: Carol Tandava's Blog. Read the original here.

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