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.

I blame Coco Chanel!

Clearly I don’t blame La Chanel for everything! She probably can’t be held responsible for Altzheimers … or global warming … or weapons of mass destruction … or reality TV … or Weinstein, Trump et al … or … etc.

In fact, in many ways Coco Chanel was entirely admirable. She had a phenomenal impact on womens’ lives leading their liberation from the constraints of the ‘corsette sillouhette’ to a more sporty casual look that became the standard of feminine style. There was the classic Chanel suit, the ‘go anywhere’ little black dress. Oh yes, and bellbottom trousers, bobbed hair, turtleneck sweaters, trench coats … the list goes on. She also made costume jewellery fashionable.

At its peak, the Chanel couture empire employed 3,500. Coco Chanel is the only fashion designer listed on Time Magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century and her achievements have provided inspiration for aspiring career women and female entrepreneurs over the decades. However, there is no getting away from the fact that the ultra-chic and oh-so-famous Chanel must take the blame for some things. To be clear, I’m not talking all that stuff about her being a collaborator and shagging important Germans during WWII, which somewhat un-gilds this otherwise fragrant lily’s legacy. Rather, I’m talking the fact that she has been attributed with making the sun tan fashionable.

With New Zealand heading into summer and the winter outer layers of camouflage clothing being peeled away like so many onion rings, the inconvenient and inescapable truth rears its ugly head; you really are what you eat and drink. After a winter of over-indulgence, I’m contemplating the somewhat depressing and inevitable results and the looming horror of skimpy summer clothes. Clearly, it’s time to reach for the self-tanner and attempt to conceal some of the evidence. But why do I think that being tanned will be an improvement? Fashion that’s why, and it’s all Chanel’s fault!

Chanel regularly vacationed with all the beautiful people in St. Tropez, Cap d’Antibes, Monte Carlo and the other sun-laden playgrounds of the rich and famous that make up the French Riviera. The legend has it that during one of these celeb hangouts on a cruise to Cannes 1923 she unintentionally got sunburnt. Hard to imagine this ultra sophisticated woman all lobster red and peeling, but that’s the story. By the time she got back to Paris, this unwanted blight had turned into what we now know as a tan. This happened at a time when Parisians had also fallen in love with legendary singer Josephine Baker, described at the time as being “caramel-skinned”. The combined social currency of both women sparked a trend; tans became cool and synonymous with health, wealth and luxury in western society.

Cashing in on this new trend, Jean Patou lunched the first sun tan oil “Huile de Chaldee” in 1927 and started a whole new industry of tan-related products. These were designed to help the tidal wave of people who wanted to look as if they were in with the in crowd but didn’t have the in crowd’s available leisure time or money to achieve the desired bronzing. This new trend was a stampede away from the previous peaches and cream beauty standard for caucasian society women who wouldn’t even consider going outside without a parasol — their privideged whiter shade of pale differentiated them as ‘quality’ from the laboring classes with their telltale ruddy complexions from too much time spent outdoors. Many of them even lived in far-flung outposts of empire where they had to contend with the blazing sunshine of tropical climates. For these women, preserving their complexions was a Herculean task, which they stuck to with the tenacity of my late and much beloved Springer Spaniel Oscar on the scent of a possum.

Of course, once the tan became fashionable, there was no going back. Beach clothes shrank in size —disappeared altogether on some beaches — and tanning became a leisure time activity in its own right. The obsession with being tanned led to sun beds, self-tanners, spray on and brush on tanning lotions. Thankfully the ones available now are a vast improvement on the eyesore tangerine tones first on offer and generally associated with those 70s and 80s-spawned medallion men with curly perms. And Trump of course, the leader time forgot, who seems to be stuck in an 80s time warp on just about every count.

But it all still comes back to fashion and perception. Fashion dictates, so shall it be. There was a reason for all those open-shirted men exposing their hairy chests. Fashion! So what, you may well ask? Well, the trouble with fashion is that it’s so easy to become a slave to it. The whole self-image thing for people with less than sculpted bodies springs to mind. The tyrany of the itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny-polka-dot-bikini is one thing. Without putting too fine a point on it, a tan just seems to improve any pale skinned body no matter how fat, thin, wrinkly, wobbly or droopy it might be. But people can also become fashion victims. In the context of tanning, there’s the accelerated ageing effects of too much intense sunlight. It is likely that wrinkled wasn’t something most of us aspired to be when we grew up and over-exposure to UV rays is a sure-fired way of ending up with a face that looks like a relief map of the planet.

Vanity is a wonderful diffuser of logic. I’m thinking the received wisdom of ages — you have to suffer to be beautiful. But risking death in beauty’s name takes this concept to a ludicrous extreme. For sure, this is all slightly tongue in cheek, but the risk of melanoma most definitely isn’t a joke.To be fair to Chanel, in common with many other fun things that have been rumbled over the last few decades like smoking, drinking and sugar, back in her heyday, getting a tan wasn’t ‘scientifically proven’ to be bad for you. She wasn’t burdened with the knowledge of the co-relation between sun and skin cancer. Nor did she live in the Southern Hemisphere under a hole in the ozone layer where burn times in high summer can be as little as 12 minutes and the prospect of melanoma is an everyday concern. For sure, this is all slightly tongue in cheek, but the risk of melanoma most definitely isn’t a joke.

In any case, and somewhat paradoxically, sunshine in the right quantities is very good for us. It’s one of the main sources of vitamin D and the feel-good factor of summer and sunshine is hard to underestimate. It’s even — allegedly — an effective aphrodisiac. But the best thing is that sunshine is an equal opportunities commodity. You don’t need to be wealthy, educated to within an inch of your life or live anywhere special to enjoy it — although some places have a lot more than others. It’s an option for old and young, fat and thin, socialist and capitalist, man and woman (on either of their separate planets) and people from any ethnicity or minority group — why else would there be Birquinis? Such irony in the French response to those!

The tan retains its allure but nowadays conditions apply. Parents slip, slap and slop sun block on their kids and bundle them up in rash suits to keep them safe from the sun, whilst still benefitting from it. All cosmetic ranges have products with built in UV protection. The basting sun oils are still there, but 30+ sun blocks dominate the sun cream categories and there are great cosmetic products that can achieve a ‘natural glow’ as if from the sun.

I still love sunshine. In fact, as soon as I’m done with this blog post, I’m heading out into it. But times change. In my tan-obsessed youth in London, we actually swopped tactics about how to get and stay tanned. These generally included a cheap, early summer ‘bucket shop’ holiday with a drift of friends at one of a number of Mediterranean resorts to get the all important foundation tan that would set us up for the summer. A week of serious sloth, spot-welded to our sun loungers, basting ourselves and turning on our bodily axes like so many roasting chooks, then falling into the water when the heat and boredom got the better of us. OK I exaggerate, but I’m sure you get the picture. After that, through the summer we would continue to chase opportunities for ‘topping up’. Topping up consisted of ‘pegging out’ as we used to call it, on our roof decks or in back gardens slathered in frying oil on any sunny day that happened to coincide with a day off work or hitting the park nearest to work at lunchtime and shedding as many clothes as the standards of decency in the 80s allowed.

This was at a time when it was still considered a bit ‘not done’ for female professionals to go bare-legged to work, even in extreme heat of the summer. My peers and I were in the vanguard of the change, with hard won acceptance based on baring legs that were bronzed (naturally or artificially) rather than the sort of blue white so beloved of washing powder manufacturers. The getting of a tan at times seemed like an obsession and certainly an intricate part of our then beauty regimes. Not being tanned in summer was as unthinkable as …er … that we’ll all wake up and find that Brexit was just a dream.

These days, my sun worshipping is more muted and often limited to a long walk in a wildlife sanctuary where the dappled sunlight filters through the beautiful native bush and makes exotic patterns on the pathways. I still get the benefits from the all-imporant vitamin C without the risks. In any case, in this part of the world, it’s hard not to get tanned simply by spending any time outside. That’s good because I will always prefer the suntanned look to the alternative. The preconditioning runs deep. But while I am clearly a still a bit of a slave to fashion, I certainly don’t intend to be a victim to in. Pity I didn’t have so much common sense earlier. Might have had a few less wrinkles!