“Beauty terror” is an evocative phrase. Troubling and mysterious, but I think that everyone will immediately have a good idea of what it means. We have probably all felt it.
The idea of beauty terror comes from Susie Orbach’s 2009 book, Bodies, which I have recently been reading and would highly recommend. Orbach is a practising psychoanalyst, and she knows what she is talking about. Her work draws on the real cases of her patients as well as feminist and cultural theory, but it is readable, sensible and kind of rocks.
So what is beauty terror? Is it a terror of beauty itself, beautiful people, or of not being beautiful? I think the last suggestion carries the most weight, but that they are all connected. According to Orbach, beauty terror is created by:
- The 2000-5000 Photoshopped and enhanced images of bodies that we see every week
- The ideal of beauty that these bodies show – a kind of beauty that is becoming ever more narrow, with less room for variation
- The beauty industry which produces these images, and then offers products to ‘fix’ our faulty bodies and solve our insecurities
- The insecurities that they created in the first place, you mean?
- Yes, those ones. What a genius money-spinner.
“Our bodies are and have become a form of work.” Fun! (Orbach, p.16). fashion.telegraph.co.uk
People defend beauty practices (or beauty work, as feminists rightly call it) by saying that we have always used makeup and transformed our bodies. Cleopatra’s eyeliner and the African tribes who stretch their necks with bangles are often given as justification. Orbach has an excellent response to this, which hinges on the fact that those kinds of beauty practices were done for very different reasons:
“What is new today, however, is the way in which bodily transformation is no longer linked to social ritual within the family but is part of the individual’s response to wanting to produce what is an acceptable body.” (p.98)
An elongated neck may be regarded as a feature of attractiveness, but that is strongly bound up with its role as a feature of belonging to that community. As for Cleopatra and pals, apparently kohl eyeliner helps stop you having to squint against the sun.
The bodily transformation we chase today is a feature of a different kind of belonging: the ideal body is presented as the only acceptable body, and anything less is less than human. A fat body is called a whale, a cow, a lump. An animal, an object, a failure. Never a person, just trying to get on with their life.
lolzbook.com. Yeah. Lolz.
So of course we keep going back to the beauty and diet products, and the advice of the beauty magazines, because we keep failing to become acceptable. And of course we fail: the ideal, acceptable human body is not a human body at all, but a digital image, a set of pixels that have been shifted, brightened and deleted by Photoshop whizzes into an eerie shiny symmetry. A symmetry which flesh can only achieve when sliced up and sewn back together. As Orbach says, “the body has become a series of individual images and a labour process in itself” (p.90).
And we sort of know this, we do. “We reject the idea of being under ‘assault’ by the beauty industry as offensive to our intelligence. We believe that we can be critical of the negative practices of this persuasive industry and simply enjoy fashion and beauty, and yet the constant exhortation to change gets under our skin” (Orbach, p.108-9).
Simple resistance is really too much to expect of anyone who has been surrounded by these images, adverts and beauty talk – fat talk, transformation talk, makeup talk – since, well, birth. It’s too much to expect that anyone could ignore the clamour and feel like their body is just a vehicle that they live in, and it doesn’t really matter how it looks. We no longer have that idea of the body made available to us. Instead, that vehicle needs pimpin’.
We can try though. Reading books like Bodies and talking about them is a pretty good start. Adding to our beauty talk some discussion of Photoshop, capitalist profit-making and the problems in the dream we are sold.
Making a noise. Being more than a picture.