I feel pretty

I don’t know about you, but I’m a glass at least completely full kinda gal. My rose-tinted glasses perch pertly on my aquiline nose as I ignore inconvenient truths that don’t sit with my world view. This is particularly true when it comes to my own self-image. As I’ve got older, I’ve become adept at a sort of cat and mouse game with my credulity which allows me to accept the ageing process with, if not unbounded joy — who’d believe that? — with the sort of equanimity you’d expect from a seal lazing on the rocks in the sun. If that sounds like denial, yup, guilty as charged.

Seriously, it’s not like my inner person feels any different. It’s only the wrapper that’s showing signs of dishevelment. On the contrary the — whatever one calls it, inner goddess? — is mostly (I have my share of ‘bad hair’ days like everyone else) in good shape. She’s timeless and I see her as something like a cross between Virginia Woolf and Wonder Woman. A sort of ‘blue stocking’ superhero; clever, gorgeous and most definitely fresh from the fight. I’d say that’s not a bad combo to draw on at times of self-doubt and uncertainty. And she’s a great chick to party with when the good times roll. I admire flamboyance and flair in women. She’s all that … on speed!

Which brings me to my point. Over the last few years, I’ve had on-going conversations with women in my orbit about the whole invisibility thing that many women experience as they age. It saddens me to know that a wide variety of women think this is inevitable and there’s nothing they can do about it. “It is what it is,” they say. “It’s as certain as a cluster of Khardashians appearing the minute a red carpet is rolled out.” For sure there are exceptions — clearly there are an enormous number of middle-aged or older women in the public eye who can’t be said to be invisible. But even the most successful and famous women are likely to be fighting a rear-guard action against the impact and perception of age on their value as people and overall bankability as commercial prospects.

This acceptance of invisibility is something I take strong issue with because I don’t believe it is inevitable. I think it’s a received wisdom that many of us turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. So why do we do this? Given how society rates, or more accurately under-rates women in pretty much every way imaginable and how ‘hot’ we are figures largely in which doors open for us. In this context, as our ‘pulling power’ diminishes with age it becomes progressively harder get over the bar of beauty stereotypes. This is particularly true as great swathes of people … er … men that would be … start to look through us or around us as if we have not further contribution make. It becomes all too easy to pull on the cape of invisibility rather than having to run the gauntlet of society’s preconceptions and stereotypes about middle aged and older women.

I have a wonderful collection of humorous greetings cards I put together in my early thirties. My group of close friends and I were going through that “all men are bastards, who needs one anyway?” disillusioned-with-love phase. Something of a contradiction as the one thing most of us wanted to have in our lives was the extremely illusive Mr. Right. At the time, most of us were divorced or had recently been spat out of a reasonably long-term relationship. We solaced each other by sourcing cards with such pithy philosophical statements as, If they can get one man up on the moon, why can’t they get them all up there? and You’re not alone honey, my shampoo lasts longer than my men. We’d fax them to each other for comfort — this was the era before e-mail forwards were endemic and scanners were still only found in Accident and Emergency Wards.

Recently, I re-discovered this collection whilst looking for something else. Flicking through them, one card jumped out at me as if it had a life of its own: Wrinkled wasn’t one of the things I wanted to be when I grew up. I have to say my brain responded to this statement as if it was a direct quote from Revelations. Of course, back in the day, the discovery of even one facial wrinkle was a drama which made headline events like the deconstruction of the Berlin Wall seem like a Teddy Bears’ Picnic. We were at the peak of our physical beauty, so it was all a bit of an affectation. But there is a real dichotomy in the aging process and an interesting review this week about the movie I Feel Pretty prompted some in depth navel-gazing. I haven’t seen this movie and I probably won’t on the basis of the reviews, but friends who have found it to be just what it says on the tin — a humorous, laugh-out-loud romp. The reviewer looked at it through a darker lens.

The central tenet of the movie is that looks don’t matter, it’s what’s on the inside that counts. No argument from me with that. That it’s lack of confidence that holds women back professionally and personally, not discrimination or how we look. That for today’s thoroughly modern Maleficent it’s all about feeling better, not looking better, although looking better is a likely bi-product. It’s this bit the reviewer was taking exception to and I’d have to agree because it seems as obvious as the balls on a tall dog (if you’ll forgive the crudity) that the pressures on women to appear thinner, younger and firmer have never been higher.

But the insidious thing is that it’s becoming taboo to acknowledge this — beauty standard denialism is gaining traction. This is said to be fuelled by cynical corporates re-packaging standard beauty lines as health and wellness products, blatantly ignoring the continued pressure on looks. Fine, if women really are embracing their inner beauty and only starve themselves, work out obsessively and fork out small fortunes on appearance enhancements because it they want to and because it makes them feel a deeper sense of self-worth. Not so fine if they’re being duped. I’d say there’s a fast one being pulled here that we should start wising up. We may live in the ‘post truth’ world, but there are limits!

As BBC film critic, Will Gompertz observed, “The greatest shame is how the movie misses the chance to really skewer the serious issue it attempts to address, namely the debilitating and isolating mental health conditions such as body dysmorphia, low self-esteem, social anxiety, and depression, which are made significantly worse by the relentless objectification of women by the media and business. In fact, bafflingly, the film ends up pandering to exactly the same fascistic thinking that promotes the fallacy only people with a certain body type will be successful and admired.’

I’d say this is particularly true for older women. As things are going, there will come a time when, if we decide to age naturally, we risk being marginalized somewhere in our thirties and be fighting a war of attrition against increasing invisibility from there until we drop. Jobs and potential partners will be the sole preserve of our younger-looking contemporaries. And heaven help the less affluent as they age and can’t afford to join the young-old elite!

Despite the need to suspend disbelief and a serious question mark about its writer’s grasp on reality, I like the premise of I Feel Pretty. I believe strongly that, like Intel, most of the good stuff should be on the inside and that inner beauty, strength and resilience are the bedrock of happy, healthy lives. We most definitely should take care of ourselves because we want to and because it’s good for our health and wellbeing. Wonderful, if this also makes us feel pretty and helps us stay visible as we age … because we really are worth it.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder… get it out with Optrex!

 

My elder sister went to art school. On one of her first visits home, she made us laugh with tales of the spectacular graffiti in the women’s toilettes. The one that has stuck with me through the years was “beauty is in the eye of the beholder, get it out with Optrex”. What a great observation! Still makes me smile. And wouldn’t it be great it were true?

If the imprint of beauty could be removed from the eye of the beholder with the simple application of a drop of Optrex how different the world might be? Imagine if Paris had bathed his eyes after his first sighting of Helen — he might never have abducted her and caused her husband Menelaus to launch the 10-year Trojan War to get her back. In that parallel universe, we might still be able to visit Troy. What about Mark Antony whose torrid liaison with Cleopatra ultimately handed ascendency in Rome post-Caesar to Octavian (or Agustus as he was to become) transitioning Rome from Republic to Empire? If Rome had stayed true to its republican virtues instead of dissolving into the lassitude of the late Empire that had no fight in it left when the Vandals came knocking at its gates. If the empire had not fallen, how different would the course of Western History have been? If an eye-drop could have prevented Henry VIII from falling in love with Anne Boleyn and out of love with the Catholic Church (which actually wouldn’t have existed in the earlier scenario if Rome had not fallen), there might not have been a Reformation and we might all still be living in the dark ages deprived of the flowering of the first Elizabethan era.

Optrex wasn’t introduced to the market until the 1930’s so even if it could wash beauty from the hapless beholder’s eye, it was too late to for Troy and Rome. It’s not all bad though, Henry’s VIII’s obsession with Anne Boleyn helped gave us the double whammy of the Reformation and Elizabeth’s amazing reign. In any case, it’s clear that Optrex actually can’t do any such thing, as people have continued to fall in love with the same frequency and occasionally shocking consequences as they did before it’s introduction in the thirties.

I like the idea of beauty being in the eye of the beholder because it allows for the possibility that every one of us can be beautiful to someone. Other than Helen, I’m not entirely clear that any of those spectacular women I’ve just mentioned would be described as classic beauties in the Venus de Milo tradition. Rather their attractiveness and power seems to have stemmed more from their beguiling personalities bringing together intelligence, vivacity, and elegance as well as alluring physical charms. However it’s defined, when we think about beauty, it’s more likely to be the drop-dead gorgeous variety which makes the hormones race rather than the inner type which has a slower burning fuse. Think about it, there’s Angelina Jolie and there’s Dame Judy Dench. While Dame Judy is undoubtedly a beautiful soul, she’s never been in La Jolie’s league physically. Even in her younger days, Dame Judy’s beauty was, like Intel, largely on the inside. I’m sure their mothers loved them equally (although, reading the gossip mags, that may not actually be true), but only one of them had the world (and for many years the divine Brad Pitt) at her feet because of her Helenesque loveliness. It has to be said that unlike the mythical Menelaus, Brad does not appear to have been so beguiled by Angelina that he set out with a flotilla of 1,000 ships to get her back when they broke up. Of course, the peerless Dame Judy also has long had a proportion of the world at her feet, but the adoration is more based on admiration of her art than her drop-dead gorgeousness. That’s not to say that la belle Jolie can’t act, clearly she can, and well. But that skill often gets lost in the hysteria surrounding her looks, eating habits and choices of mate.

Kids at school know the truth — generally before the 17 years it took Janis Ian to understand “that love was meant for beauty queens and high school girls with clear skinned smiles”. Everyone in the playground knows who the cute, adorable ones are. Unfair though it is, beautiful children who grow into beautiful people get more attention, more opportunities and generally more of everything than others. Sifting through articles on the subject, other than the relative ease of finding top quality mates, it’s evident that BPs experience many other advantages. Attractive students get higher grades. Banks and other institutions loan more readily to the lookers (who apparently are less likely to default). In mock criminal trials physically attractive ‘defendants’ are less likely to be convicted and the ones that are get lighter sentences. The BP brigade earns more than their less attractive peers by as much as 10 percent. All of this is hardly news, more like a statement of the bleeding obvious, but in a world where at least a proportion of it’s global citizens are genuinely seeking social equity, this is just another example of the playing field not being even. There’s even is a word for it — lookism. Who knew?

I remember seeing a programme in the early 2000s presented by John Cleese – The Human Face —  which set out to show that there is a mathematical formula for why someone like Liz Hurley (who was Cleese’s muse through the narrative) is so incredibly gorgeous. They used computer technology to aggregate images of many faces into a composite that was considered to be the distillation of the human face at its most beautiful. As I recall, this mathematical grid arrived at heart-shaped face, which the wide range of beauties they then superimposed on the grid all conformed to including the more famous Liz (Taylor), Marilyn, Greta et al.

Youth and beauty, both male and female, have been potent currency since us humans first walked the planet. However unfair, it’s simply a fact of life. But there is also a downside. BPs have to live with the knowledge that they are often not judged on the terms they wish to be. I knew a woman in London who was a Julie Christie look alike. She was truly ravishing — to the point that when she was talking to you, it was hard not to get mesmerised and lose track of what she was saying. It was almost like being under a spell and you just got lost in the glory of looking at her. She said very few people (men or women) looked below the surface to see who she really was as a person. Our circle expected her to marry some A Lister, financial whizz or other distinguished personage. How superficial of us! Eventually she married a really likeable, but pretty run-of-the-mill dude, because she said he actually saw her as a person, not just a beautiful façade and that was good enough for her. In addition to always being taken at face value, as St. Augustine observed, “beauty is indeed a good gift of God; but that the good may not think it a great good, God dispenses it even to the wicked.” Presumably Moors Murderer Ian Bradley found Myra Hyndley (“the most evil woman in Britain”) drop dead gorgeous in the beginning.

Coming back to the opening, if beauty like that possessed by Helen of Troy, Angelina Jolie or Liz Hurley were the only currency for attraction, our species would have become extinct long-since. Imagine the slaughter in Trojan-type wars fought over the limited pool of available lovelies, leaving the rest of us withering on the vine of solitary childlessness and the species unable to reproduce itself. The upside would be that we would have perished sublimely unaware of ticking of The Doomsday Clock as it endlessly re-calibrates the current and very real threats — WMDs, climate change or Donald Trump — that could conspire to destroy us! Thankfully, beauty really is in the eye of the beholder, allowing even self professed “ugly duckling girls” like Janis Ian to shine for someone and no amount of Optrex will ever make that different.