You’ve either got it or you haven’t says JULIE BURCHILL, so why do so many of us devote ourselves to the futile pursuit of beauty?
By Julie Burchill
Facing facts: Julie never thought her looks were the be-all and end-all, so losing them wasn’t that upsetting to her
A recent book warned parents not to ceaselessly tell their little girls how pretty they are, lest it damage their character.
I don’t really care what people tell children — when you believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, one more fib won’t hurt. But I am infuriated by the growing notion, posited in some touchy-feely quarters, that all women are, or can be, beautiful.
We’re not — any more than all of us are kind, clever, rich or can swim as fast as Rebecca Adlington. Supposedly feministic and empowering in intention, this notion reduces grown women to the status of little girls, who may scweam and scweam until they’re sick if they don’t feel pwetty. Get over it!
I blame Christina Aguilera, who with her bleating hymn to self-deception, Beautiful, convinced a generation of broads that they were ‘Beautiful, in every single way’.
This frankly demented claim was taken to even further levels of delusion in a women’s magazine which recently published a ‘Positive Beauty Manifesto’ — ten rules which actually included flagrantly bogus lies. Here’s a few of them...
‘Beauty is the celebration of what is unique about each one of us.’ (No, beauty is actually a very structured aesthetic ideal, which even six-month-old babies can recognise in photographs.)
‘Beauty should celebrate intelligent, individual and confident role models.’ (No, beauty is its own justification, and intelligent and confident women who are not beautiful are free to celebrate themselves without being given the go-ahead by anyone.)
Lastly: ‘Being bombarded by unattainably perfect beauty ideals can damage confidence.’ (Only if you are unspeakably wet, in which case you won’t be — and don’t deserve to be — confident anyway.)
‘I used to be a looker’: Julie in her 20s
The truth of the matter is, beauty is a specific thing, rare and fleeting. Some of us have it in our teens, 20s and 30s and then lose it; most of us have it not at all. And that’s perfectly OK. But lying to yourself that you have it when you don’t seems to me simple-minded at best and psychotic at worst.
We quite rightly consider people to be insane if they go around declaring that they are Napoleon when they are very clearly not. Is it not a baby-step on the road to such full-blown lunacy for a plain woman to swank about celebrating her alleged beauty when (like me) she surely has a face that only a blind mother could love? I was certainly beautiful when I was 25; now I am 52, I am most certainly not. But as I didn’t think my looks were the be-all and end-all anyway, losing them really wasn’t that upsetting to me.
What I find most upsetting about this new all-consuming beauty culture is that the obsession with good looks, and how you can supposedly attain them, is almost entirely female-driven. It is one group of women constantly setting the bar for other, dumber women to jump over; the silly led by the sinister, as Christopher Hitchens once remarked of the anti-Iraq war marchers.
Except this time the silly are slathered in mud and wrapped up in allegedly beauty-giving bandages to resemble mummies. The spa culture is the foremost marketplace where the twin maladies of modern women — narcissism and self-loathing — meet up and conspire to rob them of their hard-earned cash, all the time pumping out the mantra that every woman is, or can be, beautiful.
A culture which has made women convinced that they can’t get through a stress-filled week without being swathed, soothed and massaged to within an inch of brain-death on a regular basis. But it is a myth that any of these treatments will turn a plain woman into a beautiful one. A beautiful woman is still beautiful if she goes for a week without washing, fries herself in the sun and drinks alcohol by the gallon.
A plain woman is still plain after a week at Champney’s. And to pretend that beauty is in any way attainable to most of us is to perpetuate a cruel lie which can only end in ever greater disappointment. Particularly to an ever greater number of gullible souls who might be better off spending their money nurturing gifts they DO have, be they a talent for book-keeping, an aptitude for speaking foreign languages or simply being good at sex.
Let’s face it, we are not Italy or Sweden; ‘beautiful’ is not the default setting for the British female (or male). And no amount of time and money is going to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse, no matter how many seaweed wraps the poor fool shells out for.
Yet the brutal truth is, men just don’t mind. Most women could get sex any time they wanted, if they wanted, no matter what they look like, which makes the new insistence on the beauty of every single broad on earth somewhat superfluous to requirements. Face it, most men just want a woman to wash, turn up on time in a good mood and get down to it. They don’t need her to be a beauty, and as most of them are far from beautiful themselves, this is very sensible of them.
So why do women not resist the cynical marketing tricks of a beauty industry that wants it both ways — on the one hand, it maintains that every woman is beautiful; then it suggests a number of products that she must buy in order to be, ahem, more beautiful. Worst of all are the adverts that insist that beauty is a natural state of being, when patently the opposite is true for most women. Those appallingly patronising Dove adverts started the trend in 2004 when a gaggle of giggling half-wits in their knickers almost wet themselves with molten glee over how happy they were in their own skin.
Now even such old-school brands as Estee Lauder have got in on the act, recently calling together the world’s beauty press to unveil — gulp! — three models of different ethnic origin to front their new campaign in a bid to prove that natural beauty transcends racial barriers, too. Oh brave new world — at this rate we gals will be given the right to vote next!
But the fact remains that the three models — the French Constance Jablonski, the Chinese Liu Wen and the Puerto Rican Joan Smalls — have far more in common with each other than they do with the average French, Chinese or Puerto Rican woman. That is, they are all beautiful and they were all born that way. And if they were on a desert island with no access to Estee Lauder’s battalion of beauty products, they would still be that way. The rest of us? Average-looking, at best.
It is quite understandable that plain women should look at the lives of these beautiful women and wish that they too had been born that way. Professional beauties, be they actresses, models or the wives of wealthy men, appear to live charmed lives, rewarded for being rather than doing, surrounded by flunkeys who devote their lives to gilding the lily of loveliness at the centre of their world.
Looks obsessed: Audrey Hepburn (pictured here with Gregory Peck in the 1953 film, Roman Holiday) said 'I believe that happy girls are the prettiest girls'
But instead of coveting their looks, we would do well to remember that beauty is a double-edged sword with its own set of problems, from creepy men who want to possess it to the neurotic women who obsessively fear losing it. We are endlessly told, ‘If you look good, you feel good’, but a po-faced parade of tragic/bad-tempered beauties from Marilyn Monroe to Naomi Campbell proves that it ain’t necessarily so.
‘I believe that happy girls are the prettiest girls,’ said adorable Audrey Hepburn — she of the bulimia and cheating husbands. The fact is that the possession of beauty is no automatic guarantor of happiness, any more than intelligence or sporting proficiency. It has been said that beauty is a passport — but it’s not, it’s a visa, and sooner or later it will run out.
Its existence is to be celebrated, but I would say that so is its loss, freeing us to aspire to other goals. One thing that isn’t any help to any woman is pretending we all have it, or could have it if only we tried a little bit harder. We are what we are, and happiness only comes from fully knowing ourselves. That starts with facing up to the woman in the mirror, beautiful or not.