Monthly Archives: September 2013

Black as the new black? Revolutionary!

Now this is more like it! At Paris Fashion Week designer Rick Owens actually did something interesting, and replaced the usual skinny white models on his runway with a team of step dancers.


Callie Beusman at Jezebel asks whether this is really a subversion of fashion’s norms, or is just another attempt at garnering publicity with shock tactics. But the fact that casting a whole fashion show with normal-sized black women is actually shocking in itself makes the point about diversity in fashion. It shouldn’t be shocking at all.

I’m all for this – who cares if it’s about publicity? It’s exactly the kind of publicity that is needed to get the question of race and beauty into the spotlight. And the clothes look so much cooler. I could almost be interested in fashion if it carries on this way.

Nice beard, Darwin, but I’m not selecting you

It has come to my attention that this blog is not the first result to come up when you Google ‘beautiful in theory’. While this displeases me, I can accept losing out to a TED talk, and a good one at that, by Denis Dutton:


However, the fact that his talk is on evolutionary theories of beauty is annoying, because this is a subject I go out of my way to avoid.

But if Google insists, I will face it.

I’m not sure why Darwinian theories of beauty wind me up so much. It’s not that I want to cling to some mysterious essence of Beauty that would be destroyed by the admission that beauty is just about big boobs being sexy because they signal fertility. Sure, fine, I can get behind that. It just seems a very partial theory, that doesn’t account for the huge variety of things we find beautiful, the ways in which we experience that beauty, and the social conditioning that influences both of those.

Yes, I am a member of the social conditioning school of thought. I am not denying our DNA, but it is difficult to justify a genetically hardwired preference for detailed ideals of human beauty, which fluctuate over time and place and often include features that clearly do not promote our survival. For instance, pale Victorian beauty or 21st-century tanned beauty: paleness is associated with illness even within the Victorian ideal (you know, sexy tuberculosis), and a tan does not necessarily indicate health. It could indicate a propensity for skin cancer. Both have been linked to status – the privilege of not doing manual labour out in the sun; the money to go on holiday to Tenerife. Both inconclusive, neither related to human evolution (I sincerely hope). It is not, however, difficult to trace the social influences behind such changing ideals of beauty. The intrinsic racism of both white-centred ideals has nothing to do with natural selection.

But Denis Dutton has comebacks for these points. His talk makes clear the role of status in sexual choices, and interestingly this is how he explains the beauty of art from a Darwinian standpoint. That is, a work of art is a “fitness signal” demonstrating the artist’s skill. And skill equals sexiness.


Does that include skill with makeup? And do all our gamut of beauty ideals come down to a combination of status and fertility signals? To an extent I could say yes, the importance of both those factors is clear. This evolution argument offers a reasonable explanation for the origins of beauty’s foundations, and perhaps also the origins of the social conditioning that drives our understanding of beauty today. But the interesting discussion is about that social conditioning, not the cavemen who may have unwittingly started it all.

On a simple level, it works quite well. Prof Dutton entices us in with the pithy statement, “Beauty is nature’s way of acting at a distance.” Beauty arouses and sustains our interest in something that is beneficial to us in a more sophisticated version of beneficial food tasting good. So, when we see a strong, clear-skinned, sexually developed person with good teeth and regular features, we have evolved to find them beautiful because that causes us to pursue them. The infatuation such beauty creates makes us chase after the person with the best, healthiest genes to combine with our own. OK, fine. But boring. And where does that leave Botticelli’s Venus, the fascination and disgust with cosmetic surgery, and the racism surrounding the first Indian-American Miss America?

The reason I shy away from evolutionary theories of beauty is that they seem to reduce some of the best things in life to a single, dull motive. Have sex, stay alive. And when it comes to human beauty, evolution seems inadequate to explain the complexities of the ideas and problems, art and argument, of the last thousand or so years. If all of that was about having sex and staying alive, what’s the point of it all? This blog would be out of business.

Evolution? So yesterday.

Moral Dilemma: Suri’s Burn Book

I’d like to recommend Suri’s Burn Book to anyone who hasn’t yet seen it, but I have a niggling feeling that it might not be totally OK to enjoy this website.


After all, it’s an adult (Allie Hagan) pretending to be Suri Cruise, and in that character passing cutting judgements on the appearances of other celebrity children. Of course, it is a satire that highlights how ridiculous it is to analyse paparazzi photos of famous people, in the hope that we can criticise them till they seem acceptably imperfect.

For instance, ‘Suri’ captions a picture of Sandra Bullock with her adopted son Louis, “On a boat, in Venice, with two Oscar-winning actors, one of whom was George Clooney, and Louis Bullock is still irritated with life. I love him.”

Or, with a photo of Gwen Stefani and Gavin Rossdale with their kids: “It’s Zuma Rossdale’s birthday, and he celebrated in Superman pajamas. On my fifth birthday, I wore Prada and supervised a dignified party game, but I guess to each their own. At least Kingston understands how I feel.”

And then: “Apple Martin is the Tilda Swinton of the celebrity child community. (She’s weird.)”

And it’s very funny. But I’m still not sure it’s OK. And I am not the only one to think this: The Daily Beast and The Washington Post have also posed the question. So I have drawn up a list of pros and cons, and hope that you can help me reach a morally respectable conclusion.


  • It’s useful to have such a satire to remind us not to read the Daily Mail’s Sidebar of Shame.
  • Suri is depicted as being pretty cool in an ironic sort of way.
  • Her criticisms of fellow celebrity children are absurd rather than cruel.
  • Katie Holmes hasn’t sued them yet, so it can’t be that bad.


  • It sort of works as a substitute for the Daily Mail’s Sidebar of Shame.
  • Suri is, in fact, a real person whose identity has been hijacked for comedy purposes.
  • The kids featured on the website are also real people, and don’t really need more scrutiny.
  • We probably shouldn’t encourage the paparazzi to take pictures of said children.
  • Why hasn’t Katie Holmes sued them yet? There’s a published book now and everything.

Suri's Book

Oh dear, this isn’t really the result I was hoping for. But please cast your votes and help me decide!

“Oh my God, my eyebrows need plucking…”

**The Armpit Song** by Siwan Clark is a most welcome antidote to Ms Cyrus and her twerking this week – thanks to Tamsin for the link.


However, I reckon there are more parts to the process of beautifying than Siwan could fit in her song, so I have taken it upon myself to write some extra verses:

Oh my God, I’ve plucked my brows unevenly,
I’ve coloured them back in and now I look like
Cara Delevigne Liam Gallagher;
And Oh my God, my face needs serum and
Essence and primer now there’s
Superprimer too, and I don’t know
What these things are,
But they’re £50 a jar,
And then they’re covered with foundation
And with setting spray and powder to
Make sure you cannot see my face at all…

Oh my God, my face needs contouring,
Which means inventing cheekbones with
Three shades of powder, a
Bronzer and a blusher and
Illuminator too;
And Oh my God, I need five shades
Of eyeshadow, two sets of
Fake lashes and some very scary glue;
And Oh my God, my eye is full of
Liquid eyeliner, it’s really not
A feline flick
at all…

But at least you cannot see my face at all.

And as Siwan says, who is brave enough to take a stand against this on their own? I took a stand against plucking my eyebrows. Just one thing, but it was easier than I expected, so that’s something.

Armpits, though?

Femen and Semen

It is certainly an exciting scoop to discover that the Ukraine-based feminist organisation Femen is run by a man, but that is no excuse for the media (and especially for the Guardian and the Independent) to engage in hysterical sensationalism without actually discussing the implications.


Femen protestors (

Fair enough that the Independent article is primarily just reporting the story, but Bim Adewunmi and Suzanne Moore at the Guardian are in the opinion business, and neither have really sung for their supper this week.

The revelation is made in Kitty Green’s film Ukraine is not a Brothel, which has just been screened at the Venice Film Festival. In this documentary following a year in the life of Femen, Victor Svyatski – previously described by Femen as a ‘consultant’ – is outed as the founder and controller of the organisation, who are known for their topless protests.

Suzanne Moore takes this as a (legitimate) opportunity to discuss the role of men in feminism, saying that of course they should be part of it, but not so much running the show. I am not convinced that this is actually a self-evident truth: sure, it makes no sense to have a man running a feminist group dictator-style, as Svyatski is described, since you can’t really challenge the patriarchy using… patriarchy. But feminism and its proponents need to make clear that we don’t assume all men will attempt to take over feminism if we give them a chance to get involved. We need men to get involved, because we are all part of patriarchal structures and can only change things by working in collaboration. I am a great fan of Moore’s writing, but in this case she seems to miss the point, continuing with a lament that any feminist criticism of men or sexism is shouted down with accusations of man-hating. This is a perfectly good debate, but not the one we need to have about Femen.

Bim Adewunmi, on the other hand, says, well, nothing really.

The discussion we need to have is connected to beauty, and its social and political uses. The Independent quotes Kitty Green as saying of Svyatski:

“It’s his movement and he hand-picked the girls. He hand-picked the prettiest girls because the prettiest girls sell more papers. The prettiest girls get on the front page… that became their image, that became the way they sold the brand.”

This is standard practice for advertising, but for feminism? If this is true, then Femen’s vaunted campaign – for women’s bodies to be their own, not subject to political or religious oppression, not sexually objectified – is null and void. You wouldn’t run a healthy food campaign by bribing people in with chocolate.


And I’m pretty sure the problem here is not that a man founded Femen, but that he seems to run it based on very anti-feminist principles. This would equally be a problem if a woman ran the organisation in that way, though the issue would not be loaded with quite the same issues.

Svyatski himself seems quite keen to display his total lack of understanding regarding feminism, when he says of the Femen activists in Green’s film:

“They don’t have the strength of character. They don’t even have the desire to be strong. Instead, they show submissiveness, spinelessness, lack of punctuality, and many other factors which prevent them from becoming political activists. These are qualities which it was essential to teach them.”

So they, er, need a Man to educate them out of their weak Womanly ways. Would this be so enraging if it had been said by a woman? Imagine if someone formidable like Anna Wintour was pulling the Femen strings and said this: we might call her a dictator but I don’t think it would create a fundamental contradiction at the heart of Femen. It would, however, do so if Ms Wintour was hand-picking pretty girls to strip off for publicity. That would not be OK.

Incidentally, that is exactly what she does at Vogue. That is also exactly what organisations like Femen are supposed to be challenging. Unfortunately that’s a bit long to spell out on my breasts.