In Praise of Unguents

Great word, unguents.

unguents

Peter Thoeny (flickr.com

I have been thinking about how make-up and beauty products are not purely visual – we are not only concerned with how they make us look. Two things reminded me of this: the Mink 3D printer that will apparently print makeup; and my discovery that sweet almond oil is the best body moisturiser ever, and my subsequent disappointment at this discovery.

Disappointment? Yes. It turns out that all my very dry skin needs is a bottle of pure sweet almond oil, something easily affordable from a health food shop. I have been searching for this holy grail for 15 years. Why would I be disappointed?

I enjoyed the search, of course. Because there is nothing like browsing a shelf of lotions and potions, selecting one and then trying it out at home. That first experimental sniff at the product’s perfume, and a little dab on the back of the hand… slathering it on post-shower and enjoying the halo of a brand-new scent… assessing how soft the skin is a few hours later. Now that I have found the perfect moisturiser I will never need to experience all that again. And the almond oil isn’t even scented, goddamn it (I know, that’s a good thing for perfume-wearers. I know).

This tells me something interesting about my engagement with the capitalist monster that is the beauty industry. It is not that we are simply convinced of all the things that are wrong with the way we look, and then sold products that will ‘fix’ these faults. That is part of it, but actually we are not purely visual creatures, and we are not only buying beauty products to feed our obsession with looking better. It is also that we cannot resist the unguents.

Beauty products create a space of sensual luxury in our lives, little moments in which we can forget about the washing machine that’s broken again, and what we can make for dinner when there’s nothing in the fridge. In that moment of trying out a new body butter we are reminded of our bodies, and how to enjoy them. A raspberry scent that takes you back to childhood summers; smoothing cream over your skin to remind yourself of less innocent pleasures – we need that. And my almond oil, although it is nice, works so very well that it sort of becomes functional. Just another essential.

robot woman

PVBroadz (flickr.com)

Which brings me to Grace Choi’s ‘disruptive technology’, the Mink printer, touted as the invention that will challenge the whole beauty industry. Although many are questioning whether it will actually do what it says (see Mali Pennington at Wild Beauty), my first thought was that I wouldn’t want one anyway.

Choi’s argument for the Mink printer is that makeup is all about colour. We buy makeup to get the latest colours, in order to look good and be fashionable. Therefore, if you can print an eyeshadow, blusher or lipstick in any colour using your Mink printer, you will never need – or want – to spend £30 on an eyeshadow again.

I think Choi is missing something. The unguents. When I choose a lipstick, it is not only colour I’m looking for – the lipstick also has to be moisturising, long-lasting and preferably with SPF, and has to feel good on my lips. I enjoy trying out all the different lipsticks at the fragrant, glowing beauty counters, my head clear of other thoughts until I find the lipstick that looks and feels right on me. Unless Choi also offers a wide range of bases – uncoloured lipsticks or eyeshadow blocks in every conceivable formulation – she is not disrupting the beauty industry or replacing what it offers. If her standard eyeshadow powder makes my eyes itch or the colour creases after an hour, then I won’t be interested.

We often forget that beauty is not only visual: something can be beautiful to each of our senses, or (even better) to several at once, and we often forget that makeup and beauty products offer this broader beauty too. At least, we might forget, but our bodies don’t.

Hand me the body butter.


Lexicon of Beauty: the pen is mightier than the mascara

beauty pendant
Pendant by RiverwalkDesigns (www.etsy.com)

 

Etymology always makes me happy. It’s some of the best useless information around, and I’m stocked with trivia about the origins and histories of words. And then sometimes it turns out to be useful after all: here are some delightful facts about the words beauty, pretty, gorgeous and glamour, courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary.

I thought about this while reading the medieval uses of the word beauty, as you do, and I noticed the word burde in this quote from 1375 by William of Palerne:

“A worschipful lady, þat burde was of beuaute briȝtest in erþe.”

(“A worshipful lady, that woman was, in her beauty, brightest on earth”. My translation, i.e. an educated guess)

The word burde for woman caught my eye because in British slang young women are often referred to as birds, although this has reduced in recent years thanks to the latest rise of feminist activity. Could it be that this mildly offensive bit of slang dates back to the Middle Ages? And could this, just maybe, be the origin of the American slang use of chick?

ermine
A hot chick. Lady with an Ermine by Leonardo da Vinci 1489-90 (wikipedia.org)

So then I looked up pretty, and was surprised by the primary definition:

1. a. Originally: cunning, crafty. Subsequently: clever, skilful, able.
b. Cleverly or elegantly made or done; ingenious, artful, well-conceived.

It’s only the second definition with which we are now more familiar:

2. a. Of a person, esp. a woman or child: attractive and pleasing in appearance; good-looking, esp. in a delicate or diminutive way.

I also found that the derogatory use of “pretty little” – as in “don’t worry your pretty little head about it” – has been in use since the Middle Ages too:

c. In collocation with little. Freq. depreciative.

1450  (c1410) >Hist. Holy Grail xxvii. 228 (MED), The Ademawnt..hath no More strengthe Aȝens the Eyr..Thanne A lytel praty fownteyne Aȝens Al the grete See.

I think this means, “The adamant has no more strength against the air than a little pretty fountain against all the great sea”. Gotta love that Middle English.

But that’s a digression. The definition of pretty as something artfully made becomes even more interesting when you look up gorgeous:

Etymology: Old French gorgias; elegantly or finely dressed, fashionable, gay. Adorned with rich or brilliant colours; sumptuously gay or splendid; showy, magnificent: of persons (with reference to dress).

So both pretty and gorgeous – two of our most used words to describe an attractive person – originally referred to something artificially, cunningly, elegantly made. Could this be the origin of our centuries-old fear that human beauty is a cunning deception, or is it just a reflection of that fear? The conflict between artificial and natural beauty, wherever you decide to draw the line between them, has been responsible for condemning women as whores and elevating them as deities, and this still happens today. Just as wearing makeup was once the prostitute’s mark, people still say that someone looks slutty if they are wearing too much makeup (which is how much exactly??).

I find it a little disturbing that some of the central issues we have with beauty (especially feminine beauty) are actually inscribed in the very words we use to describe it. There’s no getting away from these tensions. But it is useful to recognise that sexism and misogyny (to name just two problems) are deeply embedded in our language, and if we want to sort them out we will have to go right back to the beginning. See you there.

 


Covering Up to Reveal? Makeup and Your True Self

“I’m inviting you to blend in to stand out.”

Dermablend-2

Cheri Lindsay for Dermablend (www.adweek.com)

This is what Cheri Lindsay says in her testimonial for Dermablend camouflage makeup, whose adverts have been getting a lot of attention for their visually surprising and emotional accounts of using camouflage makeup to cover skin conditions. Lindsay’s statement is obviously a pun, on blending in makeup rather than – or as well as? – blending in socially, but I still take issue with it. **Not with Dermablend or their camouflage makeup, but with the wider idea as it works in cosmetics advertising.** I mean, really: blending in to stand out? And I’m going to get academic on its ass.

medieval

(Pulp Fiction http://www.ugo.com)

The key idea behind this advertising campaign is that of the True Self. Buy this product and reveal your True Self – to yourself and the rest of the world. In Dermablend’s other advert, model Cassandra Bankson, who has acne, says, “I used to use makeup to cover up, and to hide who I was. Now I use it to express myself, and to show the world who I truly am”. I sense a contradiction here: covering up to reveal your True Self?

The same logic as in Lindsay’s statement is at work here – buy this product and find your True Self – or as Michelle M. Lazar puts it, advertisers “link the normative practice of beautification with an emancipated identity” (“The Right to be Beautiful” p.37). Normative = telling us what to do, which the beauty industry certainly does. And cosmetics adverts link this pressure to do beauty work with the idea that the product will set us free from skin imperfections and self-consciousness, to be who we really are: that’s the “emancipated identity”, or the True Self.

The logic of the True Self has been used throughout the growth of consumer culture, since to make people buy something you have to make them feel that they’re “worth it”. Or that they need it. So we have been persuaded that the things we choose to buy define and express who we are: adverts then tap into who we want to be. That’s the logic of capitalism all over: it’s everyone for themselves, and if you can construct the most attractive, skilled and likeable Self then you will be successful.

And we definitely need perfect skin to do that, right?

Apparently so. Cassandra Bankson says in her testimonial, “We think that to be successful we have to be a certain way, when in reality, in order to be successful and happy, all we have to do is be ourselves.” But is that the Self who has acne, or the Self who appears not to have acne because she’s wearing a really great foundation? And is that really what defines Bankson’s True Self – her skin?

dermablend-hed-2014

Cassandra Bankson for Dermablend (www.adweek.com)

Don’t get me wrong, I would never take issue with camouflage makeup to cover up skin conditions. I am concerned with the extension of this idea to all skin ‘imperfections’, because Dermablend’s adverts imply that the only way to reveal your True Self is to have unrealistically perfect skin. It makes sense when Cheri Lindsay says that her makeup helps “people to look through the initial shock” of her skin condition “and see who I was as a person”, so that she can go through life being asked about her work or her interests rather than being asked what’s wrong with her face. Absolutely. But does that extend to everyone who has a couple of spots and slightly uneven skin tone (something I suspect was just invented by cosmetics advertisers)? No: in that case it suggests that you aren’t a proper person unless you have PhotoShop-perfect skin. I don’t feel that is helpful to my True Self. Or any of my other Selves, who are feeling a bit inadequate now.

Lazar writes that “the freedom to be beautiful is implicitly set against the ‘tyranny of ugliness’” (p.40) and I think we can all understand how it is possible to feel trapped in an unattractive body. I think the emotional power of Dermablend’s ads draws on this. Cosmetics give us the freedom to change the way we look, to express rebellion or sweetness, softness or power, and this is no bad thing. As Geoffrey Jones says in Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry, “the mass production of beauty has been a force for the democratization of personal aesthetics … it granted to every man and woman new powers of self-reinvention” (p.275). I agree that this is a liberty, and a good one.

It becomes less good, though, when beauty is no longer a choice: Marlis Schweitzer writes that since around 1911, advertisers have “preached that it was not only possible for all women to be beautiful, but it was also every woman’s responsibility to be beautiful” (“The Mad Search for Beauty” p.136). Spreading this attitude is, of course, a very good way of selling cosmetics – creating a need and then supplying the solution, another basic principle of capitalist economics. And it is no coincidence that the rise of this “responsibility to be beautiful” happened at the same time as the rise of consumer culture and also of testimonial advertising, of which the cosmetics industry has always been “one of the most active and innovative exponents” (Schweitzer p.135). Now we’re under the tyranny of beauty.

dominatrix

(Les Dolgatsjov, http://www.viscoimages.com)

What all this means is that Dermablend’s claim to liberate us from unattractive skin in order to reveal our True Selves is not the answer to a natural human problem. It’s the result of a hundred years of capitalism in which beauty has been constructed as the only way for women to become successful and happy, and the idea of a True Self has been created as a way of selling us stuff. What is a True Self anyway?

Or am I taking that too far?

After all, Dermablend’s camouflage makeup is intended for skin conditions like Bankson’s and Lindsay’s, so that they can go about their business without being mocked or stared at, which is great.

But. They’re still “inviting” us to “blend in to stand out”. To be normal, to be indistinguishable from others, so that we can, er, “stand out” in some unspecified way. We’re all under the tyranny of the normal, and are mocked and rejected if we stray too far from the standard. That’s what Dermablend is offering: to make you normal. In this case, to judge by Bankson and Lindsay, ‘normal’ is beautiful, so we seem to have come back round to the same old problem, that women are just not allowed to be anything other than beautiful – and this is one narrow definition of beauty.

My True Self has gone to plan a revolution. She isn’t wearing foundation.

 

References:

Jones, Geoffrey. Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Lazar, Michelle M. “The Right to be Beautiful: Postfeminist Identity and Consumer Beauty Advertising”. In New Femininities: Postfeminism, Neoliberalism and Subjectivity. Rosalind Gill and Christina Scharff, eds. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Schweitzer, Marlis. “‘The Mad Search for Beauty': Actresses, Cosmetics, and the Middle-Class Market”. In Testimonial Advertising in the American Marketplace: Emulation, Identity, Community. Marlis Schweitzer and Marina Moskowitz, eds. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.


Findens’ Byron Beauties: Guest Post at the Modern Records Centre

As I am fortunate enough to work in a library, I get to look at all kinds of strange old books. The Modern Records Centre archive blog have kindly hosted my thoughts on this little beauty…

donna-inez

Donna Inez from Byron’s poem ‘Don Juan’, in Findens’ Byron Beauties

We know that archive materials offer a window to the past, giving us the materials of history free of interpretation: this odd little book takes us away from the academic books and seminars analysing Byron’s radical politics or innovations in poetic form, to show us how some of Byron’s contemporaries actually read his work.

The ‘Address’ that prefaces the book, written by the editors W. and E. Finden, explains that the book offers “drawings by the most eminent Artists [which] endeavour to rescue the Muse of Byron from those calumnious delineations which have heretofore deformed her creations.” A charming phrase, but one that might require translation.

What this means is that the Findens are not interested in Byron’s politics or poetic form, but they are interested in the beautiful ladies who populate his work – and they are sure that their audience are interested in them too. They go on to claim that the book’s imagined portraits of Byron’s female characters arise from “extraordinary expense and labour, combined with that discrimination which can alone result from a long and intimate study of the highest principles of art”. Sounds impressive, but what does such intimate study actually give us? It gives us “that which is most difficult of accomplishment – the impersonation of ideal beauty.”

Read the rest here…


Cleopatra was a Redhead: A History of Hair

Thanks to a conversation with fellow blogger Vivienne of Bluestocking Blue (on this post), I have been doing some research. Vivienne asked about the beauty politics of hair: what is it about long hair that makes it central to our ideas of beauty, and what roles do gender and economics play in this? Good question.

Rapunzel

Artwork by Jamie Fales (noosed-kitty.blogspot.co.uk)

To start with, we could ask the Bible. I admit that I’m reluctant to do so, but I Corinthians says this:

“I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of the woman is the man, and the head of Christ is God. 4 Every man praying or prophesying with anything down over his head dishonours his head, 5 but every woman praying or prophesying with her head uncovered dishonours her head – it is the same as if her head were shaven. 6 For if a woman will not be covered, then let her be shorn! But since it is disgraceful for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered. 7 For indeed a man ought not to cover his head, being the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man.”

So there’s that. Interestingly, the Quran does not say that women should cover their heads, only that they should dress modestly (7:26) and covers their chests (24:31). The Muslim veil was adopted from Christianity. In both religions we see the idea that a woman’s hair is her crowning glory, and that it is related to her sexuality and should therefore be covered. It’s astonishing how squeamish we still are – two thousand years later – about female hair, and how it is policed from head to toe.

So hair is related to sex. But what about money?

Vivienne raised the possibility that long hair is prized as beautiful partly because it is a status symbol: long hair is impractical, so having it implies that you are rich enough not to do physical work. Could this also be why is has been gendered feminine, since women have historically been kept in the house?

My first thought is that while there must be truth in this, it’s also true that women have always worked physically – just not all of them. Women of the forgotten working classes worked physically inside the house and outside, and just tied their hair up. It may not have been practical, but long hair was too tightly bound up with the idea of femininity to be given up: cropping a woman’s hair was a used as a punishment (albeit under the veil of practicality) in prisons and asylums, and also charity schools if Charlotte Brontë is to be believed in Jane Eyre.

Long hair was, however, very much a status symbol when it came to the trend for long powdered wigs (a.k.a. the peruke) in the mid-1600s. Wigs had not been fashionable, but at this time a syphilis epidemic swept Europe (those naughty Europeans!) and an awful lot of people were losing their hair to the disease. When the young French King Louis XIV started wearing a wig to cover his thinning hair, shortly followed by his cousin Charles II, King of England, wigs became a bit of a craze. They got bigger and more elaborate, and could cost more than the annual salary of most workers. And this, Vivienne, is where the term ‘bigwig’ came from. But the peruke was killed off along with the aristocrats in the French Revolution of 1789: the final blow in England came when Prime Minister William Pitt introduced a tax on hair powder in 1795. Trés amusant.

louis xiv

Louis XIV (www.newworldencyclopedia.org)

The relation of hair, sex and economics only got more complex as the centuries wore on, and hair colour became far more important than it deserved to be. Victorian novelists such as George Eliot and Charles Dickens used hair to symbolise their characters’ qualities: blonde hair was given to a “sweet, gentle and submissive” woman (Galia Ofek, p.103), while “dark hair signified fallen or dangerous female sexuality”. The golden hair of a virtuous woman is placed centre stage in Christina Rossetti’s 1862 poem ‘Goblin Market’ (read it here), a surreal and sensual fairy tale in which sisters Laura and Lizzie are tempted with fruit by strange “goblin men”. For fruit read sex, obviously (the poem was later published in Playboy, that well-known bastion of poetry). Laura buys some fruit with a lock of her golden hair, but it doesn’t go well – only Lizzie’s strong virginal resistance can save her sister. Both blonde, the sexual and economic power of their golden curls is ambivalent: it can damn them or save them. I’m reminded of Rapunzel.

goblin market

Artwork by Arthur Rackham (rainbowresource.com)

However, in the 1860s sensation fiction – melodramatic, gothic tales of murder and sexual deviance (I know, brilliant. Start with Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White) – challenged this norm by introducing the character of the “fair-haired demon” (Margaret Oliphant, quoted in Ofek p.103). She may look like the sweetest golden-haired angel, but this character is a ruthless manipulator with no morals at all. The public loved her.

Writing in Victorian Sensations: Essays on a Scandalous Genre (2006), Galia Ofek analyses the association of blonde hair with “gold and sexuality” (p.106) further, arguing that it connects to the “Woman Question” which was in constant public discussion at the time. In 1857 two important legal battles were being fought: the Divorce Act was passed, which made divorce quicker and easier; and the Petition for Married Woman’s Property Bill took place. This petition was part of the process by which married women were eventually given the right, quite simply, to own anything. Before that, once a woman married everything she owned became her husband’s property, as did she. Married women had the same legal status as children, criminals and the insane. Once this began to change, women became more threatening to the social status quo as their economic and legal power increased.

Since a woman’s beauty was one of her only marketable assets, her seductive golden hair really could be the gateway to wealth and power, through marriage. And once her legal rights as a married woman allowed her to wield wealth and power herself, it suddenly felt more dangerous for a man to be tempted by that hair.

Then there were the redheads, like Cleopatra. Cleopatra? Yes, according to historian Joann Fletcher in Cleopatra the Great (2011). The evidence is not conclusive, but one particular portrait in the Herculaneum seems to show Cleopatra, identified by her royal diadem, with red hair. There were fair-haired Greeks in her family line, and red hair does show up in that part of the world, so it is possible. Maybe this explains her fiery and seductive disposition – oh wait, another cliché. Aren’t we humans simple-minded?

rita

Rita Hayworth (fansshare.com)

Although the association of blonde hair with virtue, dark hair with vice, and red hair with sex was constantly questioned throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, classic Hollywood was happy to make use of the old images. Mary Pickford and Doris Day were the blonde sweethearts, while Theda Bara and Hedy Lamarr turned things dark and Rita Hayworth tossed her flaming tresses. Then again, Mae West, Jean Harlow and later Marilyn Monroe shook things up as peroxide vamps – and just like the “fair-haired demon” of Victorian sensation fiction, the public liked it.

But Hollywood doesn’t stand still, and hair has a new starring role nowadays, in How to Win an Oscar. Just ask Anne Hathaway, and Natalie Portman (OK, she didn’t win an Oscar for V for Vendetta but it’s much more memorable than her winning role in Black Swan). A woman shaving her head is still seen as an incredible sacrifice of her crowning glory (oh hello, Bible). Hathaway and Portman are celebrated for shaving their heads because they managed the astonishing achievement of still being beautiful even without hair. Non-beautiful lady skinheads do not receive such adulation, unless I am much mistaken.

anne hathaway

(digitalspy.com)

Now, there is something notable about this whole history of hair – which of course is not exhaustive, but these points are the ones my library and internet research led me towards. Where’s the black hair? Sure, we’ve had dark hair and that had a bad enough rep, but we’re still missing a lot. The politics of the afro, hair relaxing and braids are weighty issues that are still in play – stories crop up about kids with cornrows being kicked out of school, and black models told that they won’t get work if they don’t have their hair relaxed. The best thing for me to do is direct you to bell hooks, and her famous 1988 essay “Straightening Our Hair” (scroll down a bit for the essay). There are also responses to hooks from Hannah Pool and Glenor Roberts in The Guardian, just for a start.

We each navigate our own personal hair politics all the time – should I go blonde, dare to get a fringe? – but the politics of hair are interwoven throughout social, sexual and economic history. Hair matters, far more than I’ve been able to describe here. How much do you think it should really matter – and have I missed any important hair stories?


Guest Post at The Beheld

guest-blogging-relationships

(www.searchdecoder.com)

Having followed Autumn Whitefield-Madrano’s blog The Beheld for a long time – and having been inspired by her writing in starting this blog – I’m very excited that she is hosting a guest post from me today. Here’s a taster:

Recently I got into an argument with a male friend who couldn’t see the difference between makeup, clothes, and jewelery when it came to beauty work and feminism. I thought the difference was obvious, but being forced to explain it properly I settled on the argument that it came down to adornment vs alteration. Makeup sits right on your skin and changes the way you look, and it isn’t always easy to see that it’s there. Clothes can alter your shape and general appearance, but they are more separate from you than makeup; jewelery is more separate still, not actually changing the way you look but merely adorning you with sparkles.
At the time I was quite pleased with this argument, but now I wonder. When does adornment become alteration? I’m not sure that the boundary is as clear as I had assumed—after all, do we then have to draw a distinction between BB creams and bright red lipstick, on the grounds that lipstick is obvious and artificial, and therefore falls more into the adornment camp, whereas BB cream is a deceptive alteration of your skin (or at least its appearance)?
I’ve certainly never heard anyone argue that wearing jewelery is part of the patriarchal oppression of women by pressuring them to be beautiful. But it is something that women do, with the purpose of enhancing their beauty. Does that mean a feminist should rethink her earrings, giving them the same weight of consideration many might give makeup?

Read the rest here… and read everything else on The Beheld too!

 


Can You Fake Beauty – just with Body Language?

amy cuddy

(www.blog.ted.com)

An intriguing proposition, no? I have just watched this TED talk by Amy Cuddy, called “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are”, after my excellent friend Elli Harris sent me a link to the Top Ten TED Talks Women Should See (they should). Cuddy isn’t actually talking about beauty but power, and how your body language can make you not just look more powerful, but actually feel more powerful – and as a result, be more powerful. But I kept wondering about the body language of beauty, and whether the same principle might apply.

Cuddy, who is a social scientist, says that humans and animals the world over express power and dominance in the same way: by making themselves big. When we feel powerful we stretch out, take up more space. And when we feel powerless, lacking in confidence, we close up, wrap our arms around our bodies and make ourselves small. Even blind people, who have never learned this by seeing others do it, use the same body language.

I think there is a body language of beauty, and it’s related to that of power. Think of a peacock strutting, and compare with a Victoria’s Secret model. In fact, think of modelling generally: surely the poses and style of walking that models learn are the non-verbal display of beauty? All the people taking duckface selfies are using this language too.

That suggests that you can learn this body language. Cuddy shows that you can learn the body language of power, and by holding a “power pose” for just two minutes (e.g. Wonder Woman hands on hips), your power hormone testosterone levels rise, and stress hormone cortisol levels drop. This means that you actually feel more confident, and are likely to perform better in whatever you are doing. Pretty cool, right?

So maybe we can all learn some non-verbal signs of beauty and, as Cuddy says, “Fake it till you make it” or better still, “Fake it till you become it”. Have you ever known someone who was not, in your eyes, particularly good-looking but carried themselves as if they were, and had admirers all over them? I’ve sought out a few famous examples of this, although I recognise that it’s a subjective view. I certainly don’t mean to be passing judgement on people’s looks here, just observing the body language of famous people who are widely considered to be ‘not conventionally good-looking’.

SARAH-JESSICA-PARKER-VOGUE1

The inimitable SJP (www.theimproper.com)

Jagger

Jagger (www.timesunion.com)

david-bowie-1972-wearing-the-so-called-rabbit-costume

Bowie, of course (www.metro.co.uk)

miss-piggy

Point made. (www.landlordrocknyc.wordpress.com)

I also think that the body language of beauty is one of the ways we learn how to be feminine, but this is where my theory encounters a problem: Cuddy says that women in general use less powerful body language than men, tending to make themselves smaller. If you think about how little girls are taught to keep themselves neat and tidy, legs crossed and arms in, this makes sense. When Cuddy showed images of powerless poses in her talk, I recognised all my usual positions.

So is the body language of beauty one of power or feminine submission? I think it’s both, coexisting in a delicate balance. For instance:

scarlett1

Scarlett doing powerful (www.newsbiscuit.com)

scarlett-johansson

And the opposite – but still beautiful (www.hdwallpaperscool.com)

In the second image, Ms Johansson is clearly making herself smaller, but her facial expression is pretty confident. And that’s just it: beauty’s body language is about the performance of desirability, which for feminine beauty often means a position of weakness performed with confidence. Because submission is feminine, and confidence is sexy, right?

I suspect that it would be an entire social sciences research project to get to the bottom of this (anyone fancy a collaboration?), but I’m convinced that beauty is in body language as well as body shape. What do you think – does that mean we can learn to feel (and be seen as) beautiful, and is that a good thing?


The Beautiful Author over at FWSA

Zadie Smith

(www.inspirational-black-literature.com)

The kind folk over at the FWSA blog (Feminist and Women’s Studies Association) have published my piece on The Beautiful Author here. Whatever would the publishing industry have done without Zadie Smith?


No Boobs in Scandi Noir

jakob_saga

(www.svtplay.se)

Firstly, if you haven’t watched Swedish/Danish crime drama The Bridge, do it now.

There are many reasons why the trendy Scandi noir genre, and this show in particular, completely justify the hype, but here is one reason I haven’t heard talked about.

No boobs!

This is so subtle that I didn’t properly notice it until series two, and I like to think I have an eagle eye for these things. What it comes down to is the simple but innovative way in which The Bridge has approached its sex scenes. As I said, no boobs!

Saga Noren, a character who makes feminists happy in so many ways, likes to have sex. She says so, very bluntly (her bluntness is a thing). And we see her having sex several times: but, each time, she is wearing a vest or t-shirt. Her partner may be naked, but she isn’t. And it’s not as if the Scandinavians are particularly bothered about nudity – in fact, perhaps it’s their lack of juvenile excitement at the prospect of naked boobs that means they don’t bother with them.

The importance of this lack of boobs really comes into focus when you think about pretty much all other TV: in, say, British and US shows a sex scene is always – always – an opportunity for boobs.

mad men

Mad Men (www.laweekly.com)

dexter

Dexter (www.fanforum.com)

ripper-street-s01e01-hdtv_-x264-river-mp4_001636760

Ripper Street (www.horrorpedia.com)

Game-Thrones

Game of Thrones. So many to choose from… (www.organiconcrete.com)

The only exception I can easily think of is Breaking Bad, and I reckon that’s because Skyler is pregnant for much of it, so her boobs would make people feel uncomfortable.

The images above are the kind of TV we are used to, in which sex scenes are often gratuitous and always an excuse show some boobs: whether the sex is significant to plot or character development tends to be a minor concern. This is not the case in The Bridge, which deliberately avoids the boobs to make sure that Saga’s character development really is what’s important.

And this is the way forward. The Bridge proves that you don’t need sex or boobs to make people tune in: people are raving about the plot, the dialogue, the atmosphere and the amazingness of Saga’s character. The fact that she is actually really hot doesn’t get much attention, because that’s the least interesting aspect of the show. And that’s just it – as soon as women/female characters are given a chance to show how interesting they can be, they step up. Of course they do. It shouldn’t seem so revolutionary to say that boobs are one of the least interesting aspects of women.

Go and watch The Bridge now. If you’ve seen it, then have a go at Googling TV sex scenes and tell me which ones I’ve missed, either with boob or no boob…


The Queen of Sheba’s Hairy Legs

There is a consensus that the Queen of Sheba did exist, but it is some of the myths surrounding her that have really endured. The tale goes that she was a powerful Queen ruling one of the only lands not yet conquered by the great King Solomon. In some versions she hears of his unsurpassed wisdom and goes with gifts and riddles to test him; in others, he hears of her wisdom and demands that she submit to his rule and religion. Either way, in her visit to the King she demonstrates wit and intellect but is bested by Solomon, who easily answers all her riddles, and she submits to him.

The story of the Queen of Sheba has diverged into three primary strands: the Ethiopian, the Judeo-Christian tradition and the Islamic tradition. There is historical evidence to suggest that the Queen of Sheba came from what is now Ethiopia, and her legend has long been a central part of the national identity. The Jewish and Christian tradition arises from the fairly brief account of the meeting of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon in the Bible (1 Kings 10:1-2), and scholars in this tradition hold that the land of Sheba was nation enriched by the incense trade (the Queen gives frankincense and myrrh to Solomon) located in present-day Yemen. However, the Jewish story of the Queen later enriched iteself by adopting parts from the racier Islamic tradition.

It is the Islamic tradition that developed the endlessly intriguing myth of the Queen of Sheba’s hairy legs.

1921-betty-blythe-as-the-queen-of-sheba-in-the-retronaut-1363306888_b

Betty Blythe as the Queen of Sheba, 1921
(http://www.pictify.com)

In 1993 this image was reworked in a short story by Marina Warner (in The Mermaids in the Basement), and it continues to be a provocative metaphor for the deceptive and dangerous nature of beauty (and often by extension women).

In the Qur’an the Queen’s legs do appear, but we only hear that on entering Solomon’s palace she sees that the floor appears to be a a long glistening pool of water. She hitches up her skirts to wade through, finding to her surprise that it is merely polished glass. As Barbara Freyer Stowasser points out, merely having shown her legs is enough for the Queen to exclaim, “I have committed an outrage against myself. Now I submit [in Islam] together with Solomon to God” (64, passage from the Qur’an, Sura 27:43).

In later Islamic versions of the story the glass floor is specifically intended to trick the Queen into showing her legs, so that Solomon can ascertain the truth of the rumours that the beautiful Queen of Sheba hides the hairy legs of a devil under her sumptuous skirts. In the Targum Sheni Solomon exclaims on seeing the Queen’s legs:

“You are a beautiful woman but hairiness is for men”
(in Lassner 16-17).

In Jacob Lassner’s analysis it is the Queen of Sheba’s political power that makes her dangerous enough to Solomon for him to find it necessary to subdue her. However, it is significant that the perversity of this power – wielded by a woman – is symbolised by the Queen’s hairy legs, by a blot on her beauty. Clearly, if she is so powerful than she cannot really be a woman.

Beauty, therefore, is a manifestation of weakness and of femininity, two attributes which are irrevocably connected; in the Jewish Stories of Ben Sira, Solomon is able to sexually possess the Queen once her hairy legs have been made smooth, in an echo of Samson and Delilah – a story which offers a clear example of hair as a signifier for masculine strength, inappropriate for a woman. However, beauty tends to be described as a power, and the Queen’s seductive power is one of the factors that make her so dangerous. But it is perhaps a secondary power, ineffable in contrast to the actual physical strength of men, and once a woman’s beauty is sexually possessed it loses its influence and its threat.

The revealing of the Queen’s hairy legs at the moment when she is fooled by the glass floor also connects her hairiness – the imperfection of her beauty – to the fallibility of her wisdom. Both her vaunted beauty and intellect are undermined in a single motion, suggesting a link between the two which is not often proposed. In this case Lassner’s emphasis on power as the Queen’s central attribute enables the interpretation that:

the Queen’s beauty and wisdom are, in this story, ciphers for her political power, which is really the only thing under discussion.

She presents a threat to the all-powerful Solomon, by ruling the last kingdom not under his dominion – that she is a woman adds to the insult. Her unrivalled beauty and intelligence express the superlative power which is so alarming to Solomon, but the metaphorical conflation of these three, beauty/wisdom/power, means that if one of these is undermined then the whole edifice will collapse. All of the riddles she poses to Solomon, which test his ability to see through disguised appearances, are analogies of the larger deception which she embodies. The sight of her hairy legs destroys the illusion of her perfect beauty, which has been metaphorically bound up with her unsurpassed wisdom – also compromised by her own deception by the glass floor – and her daunting political power which is predicated on these attributes falls in tatters at Solomon’s feet.

The implication of this argument is that beauty is only powerful in a metaphorical sense.

So it has no direct influence of its own but represents, and functions in collusion with, financial, social or political power. This may offer an explanation to the question agonised over by philosophers of aesthetics, as to the ineffability and mystery of beauty – provoking such powerful feeling and yet so impossible to comprehend as an actual thing, so difficult to categorise or explain. If beauty is encountered in connection to various forms of power, as a visual manifestation of them and a way of aestheticising their workings – in the process assimilating the trappings of power to itself – does that mean that our analysis of beauty must always study it in context, taking into account the various factors that give it its power, and in relation to which beauty finds temporary form and significance? I think the idea that beauty is always affixed to other attributes is both enticing (as a way to study beauty beyond the philosophical abstract) and requiring further interrogation, but to always analyse beauty in its specific context seems like a very sensible thing to do. After all, it is clear that the Queen of Sheba’s hairy legs are more than just an advertisement for Venus razors.

Sources:
Lassner, Jacob. Demonizing the Queen of Sheba: Boundaries of Gender and Culture in Postbiblical Judaism and Medieval Islam. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1993.
Stowasser, Barbara Freyer. Women in the Qur’an, Traditions, and Interpretation. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.


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