Thursday, 23 February 2012

On Beauty

Beauty is a quality almost as subjective as political preference. It is celebrated by some, criticized by others and judged by many. It also gains considerable coverage in the national press, with columns devoted to quantifying and analyzing what it means.
An opinion is one of the best things to formulate and then own – it belongs exclusively to the individual. No one can take it away or change it, but merely argue an alternative view. However, it sometimes bears remembering that an opinion is just the viewpoint of one, single person. That writer or speaker filters everything according to her or his perception – including the notion of beauty.
Physically speaking, beauty is often linked with a symmetry of features, or a certain ratio between the waist and hips. The word itself is a starting flag, signaling thoughts of models, actors and muses. It suggests not only an appearance unlike the norm, but also some kind of special status.

We increasingly live in a society driven by the visual. Our days are filled with images, whether on the pages of a magazine or through idle clicks across the internet. A select few of these photos may be considered to be pleasing or beautiful as an art form – perhaps a portrait taken by Irving Penn, or a magnificent flight of fancy assembled by Tim Walker. However, the relentless exposure to snaps of other individuals invites us to become judges of appearance, whether we want to or not. 

The media, particularly magazines devoted to celebrity gossip feed voraciously on a process of belittling. It's present in the faux-worried headlines about weight loss or subsequent gain; in the red circles high-lighting sweat patches and cellulite; in the picture shows of “fashion do’s and don’ts”. This intends to point up that those with extraordinary looks or a successful career in the public eye are just human, and yet any evidence of their similarities to you or I is something to judge. Their small realities apparently deserve ridicule. Is it a primal, tribal desire to elevate our sense of self at the expense of others? Such media features are the equivalent of a sugar rush following a greasy doughnut – initially satisfying, plugging some hole that isn’t quite a hunger (more a want), but leaving an unpleasant queasiness.

I saw an exhibition of Norman Parkinson’s photos in Bristol recently. If you're in the area then it's well worth setting aside a morning to enjoy the docks with their latticework of cranes, and then soak up the exuberance of Parkinson’s images at the M Shed. While slowly padding from one print to another, I had two separate streams running through my head. The first was just a variation on the theme of “Beautiful! Beautiful! I want to take photos like this! Beautiful! I feel inspired!” The second was an inner commentary not only on the varying ages and sizes of some of the models, but also on their tangible real-ness. They were undoubtedly beautiful, and yet in a more attainable manner. Figures and teeth weren’t always uniform, but to my eye at least, that merely increased the effect of their appearance.

An argument has emerged in recent years – the rallying call for the ‘real woman’. This epitome of what a woman should be is apparently neither too large nor thin, too tall nor small, neither too flat-chested nor well-endowed. In short, this ‘real woman’ is as much of a mythical ideal as a young, super-slender model (the topic of modeling is one I intend to return to in another post). Such a process of valuing one type of look above another is as damaging as unrealistic, photo-shopped advertising. Some women have hips. Others don’t. I have recently made the transition from latter to former. Both hip measurements are as real as each other. To suggest otherwise infers that there is only one perfect way to appear, and if a woman is a natural UK size six, then she is likely to be denigrated by some as a mere figment – perhaps constructed from gossamer and air, tied with string. This approach, in which either Christina Hendricks’ incredible curves are celebrated over Erin O’Conor’s tall grace, or vice versa, reduces both aforementioned women to their dress sizes, rather than celebrating them for their achievements, their skills, and yes, their beauty. Both occupy different ideals of beauty and neither is more valid than the other. Besides, they are both as real as the next woman. The real ‘Real Woman’ is every female, irrespective of shape, size, height, colour or appearance.  

Current ideals also suggest that beauty is ephemeral – a fleeting quality to be enjoyed while it lasts. I beg to differ. The fulfilling concept of internal beauty lasts for life, and furthermore, one can look incredible at any age. Admittedly it's not the kind of beauty that yields modeling contracts (unless we’re talking about the amazing Daphne Selfe), but is perhaps better encapsulated in the adjective “extraordinary”. It's the beauty that fascinates a portrait photographer - present in the expressions, in the eyes, in the animation, the dignity and in the lines that fall across the face like shadows of past experiences.
I hope as I age to inhabit my face in all its stages, and never to fall foul of the myth that only youth is beautiful. The human face is extraordinary in all its forms and manifestations, and thus deserves to be celebrated.

This post was inspired by a visit to the Bath Fashion Museum last summer with family friends, where we had the chance to try on corsets and crinolines. The idea of corseting caused me to reflect on the role that fashion plays in deeming what is beautiful and what is not – and how much we have bent to the whims of appearance over the years (and how often those whims change). I could hardly breathe in my corsetry!


Michael Tornato said...

I really find everything you said in this post very interesting. It definitely makes me think about some of the norms of society. Thanks for sharing! I really like your blog!

Check out my New York Fashion Week pictures!

AVY said...

Wow, that dress is spectacular. I don't care about what what women SHOULD be, but I know what I find beautiful and not. Just as long as no one tell me what to think.


Ashleigh said...

Good morning Rosalind!
I have been reading your lovely blog for quite some time now and have witnessed the immeasurable improvement in your writing. Not only do you provide great insights into this world we live in (as well as your personal charming rural and city existence), you have also developed a professionalism in your writing more advanced than what is commonly expected in one your age.
Your blog entries are always interesting, gripping and strongly reflect your own voice. I anticipate each one and am delighted to be able to read them!
Best wishes, Ashleigh.
P.S. Tommy Ton featured a stunning photograph of you on, not sure if you were aware.

Closet Fashionista said...

As usual an amazing post that really makes you think. Its funny how our perceptions of beauty change over the years, now that I'm older pay more attention to beauty in personality rather than looks, so is what's inside that counts, like you said :)

Leanna Kay said...

You're right- the media today certainly doesn't help ideas or real beauty improve. It creates the perception that you have to look a special way to be accepted/loved.

I enjoyed reading this post. Nice work.

Odelia Kaly said...

Rosalind, this is an incredibly inspiring post. I always love your honest and raw outspokenness, especially on topics such as self-image and societal beauty standards. I agree completely with what you've written. Your insights never cease to strike a chord within me; your articles always resonate with me. Thank you for being so forthright in your work, it's so refreshing to read real, honest writing as opposed to the fake rubbish all over magazines and the internet.

Odelia Kaly

Clara Turbay said...

your fashion ideas are great!

Hope Adela Pasztor said...

Fantastic words of wisdom. Today's society commonly seeks to put beauty in a box: full lips, angular features, curves, willowy slendernes. So many contrasting and clashing definitions of what is most pleasing to the eye. I believe that beauty is and should be regarded with the same individuality that we give to personalities. Not everyone will like everyone, but everyone possesses pleasant and becoming qualities in their own regard. Thank you for posting this!

Ms Jelena said...

Beautifully written and wonderful photos, too!


The Fancy Teacup said...

You are a truly lady in that dress. The silhouette of that dress is remarkable. x

Willow said...

Love these pictures - those corset dresses are so interesting and quirky, I love it.

This is a perfect definition of beauty, I often find people talking about the "average beauty" or average women, or who real women are...and the the types are endless. It's easy to have insecurities - yet so many of them are things worth embracing.
Beautiful photos as always.

Rosa Fay said...

Oh lord! Haha. That was a great day. Really interesting to feel how much weight the ladies of that time were burdened with. And the stress of beauty!

Pilgrim at Kerjacob said...

What a great post and I so agree with the sentiment.
I am now 66 and sometimes it can be difficult to be almost feel invisible as an older woman but I refuse to accept that older women can't be beautiful, we can.
I do notice the freshness of a young complexion. the beautiful hair and blossoming figure of youth but I celebrate that I did have it all and that the signs of getting older don't reduce me as a person, as a woman, its just how it is. I do wish the media would celebrate it more ......perhaps one day ?!


Katrina said...

When I saw that first photo in my bloglovin` feed I instantly thought of Alice In Wonderland) I guess the quite, beauty is in the eye of the beholder never gets old.

PS - I saw your photo (at least I think it`s you...) and thoughts how different it is from all the others. The rest are about the clothes, accessories and shoes; but you are standing there, in the middle of fashion week, reading a book. Different. Here is the link:


Bethan said...

not only are your photos amazing, your writing really gets me thinking xx

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with everything you said - as the old saying goes 'beauty is in the eye of the beholder' - and it is so true. I have found increasingly there is this 'ideal' that is hanging over all of us, and one which society believes we should strive for. And yet, it is totally unrealistic as everyone is completely different. It is so nice to see someone addressing this point! :)

Flis said...

Beautifully written :) I completely agree about the 'real woman' that magazines go on about so much!

his_girl_friday said...

Love this post.

Stephanie Hoff Clayton said...

i rather like the european philosophy towards beauty, the french philosophy in particular...the way they perceive and celebrate beauty, both internal and external...and that beauty is indeed ageless...
inspiring post, roz.

Lydia said...

"Both hip measurements are as real as each other." So true. There is so much focus on body image and self-acceptance, that sometimes people eschew thin women's struggles with beauty in favor of heavier women, whose beauty issues somehow seem more "valid." I too have been on both sides of the spectrum-- I wore a size zero until I was in my early twenties, and now at 30 have gradually reached around an American size 12. My feelings about myself and beauty were/are no more valid at either size.

Zorian said...

Norman Parkinson, was shooting on a beach in Africa. He looked down the beach and he saw an extraordinary girl walking down the beach. He started to shoot this beauty. She was 16-17 or something like that but she was extraordinary. Later, he found out that she was an African Tribal Princess.
What did Norman see on the beach?
That undefinable quality that is called, Magic.
Who, was the girl?

GreenCoffeePot said...

You've hit the nail on the head there! I also find the idea of 'real women' slightly strange, as though people of a certain size are not in fact women at all. Beautiful writing as always xx

Polka Princess said...

Corsets were tortuous devices that the women accepted & tolerated under the mere excuse of fashion & style. When they started to know better, they revolted. In a much similar manner, the fashion industry has created an image in front of all women worldwide as to what is deemed to be ideal as far as beauty is concerned. Us, fashion bloggers of all shapes & sizes from all over the world know better. Hence, we express ourselves. Hence, we revolt.

ZoƩ said...

This is a beautiful post and wonderfully written... I love that beauty is such a point of dispute, whether it is everlasting or caught in less than a minute, a moment - an instant.
Anyway, this is very stylish and a great post. :)

100%soie said...

oh my god, I just love these outfits !!!! you like a woman on the last centuries, and the dresses are gorgeous !! beautiful !!!

The Bookish Fashionista said...

Hi Rosalind,

I think it is interesting to consider beauty in the bigger picture: I definitely agree with you on the fact that beauty is very subjective - after all everybody has his own taste and preferences. However, if we look at it from a more removed perspective, it also becomes apparent that while beauty may mean something else to everybody, there are also some features that seem to be very much determined by our cultural background.

For example, western society embraces tanned faces: If you're pale, people might ask if you're sick. In Asia, though, it's exactly the the other way around. Women try their hardest to stay as pale as possible, because it's considered chic.
Those notions of beauty are further supported by the cosmetics industry: There are tons of tanning products in drugstores in Europe, but the same companies also produce whitening products - just for a different market. And that is just one example.

Seeing how our idea of beauty has evolved from the last centuries to what it is today and how differently it has in all parts of the world, suggests that beauty is subjective - but maybe it is subjective to a certain culture rather than to a certain person. But in our global world those notions may grow together, who knows?

However, I do believe that our society is somewhat obsessed with looks as you have eloquently shown. I think it is said that we often have to feel inadequate, because we don't fit a certain norm that basically no one fits anyway. Human life is so varied and that should be celebrated.

Thank you for this post, it was very much inspiring!


The Foolish Aesthete said...

Those corsets are straight out of a costume designer's surreal dream. The black circlets on the skirts are mesmerizing! Which reminds me, my husband, who's been going through the garage packing for our move to the new house in a few weeks, asked me if he should toss my hoop skirt he discovered. After seeing yours, I definitely need to make sure they are safe from the garbage bin.

As for beauty, I am reminded of Richard Avedon. He was famed for his magazine photography of glamorous models, but what really interested him was the beauty of real people. His portrait photography is fascinating! I even recall his portrait (if you could call it that) of Nureyev's feet. They were so real, one could say they were ugly. But he conveyed all the hard work that goes into the beauty of dance through that single extremity.

Last note since you mentioned Bristol. Is that where you live? I was an international grad student at the U of Bristol and have fond memories of it. xxx

Lela said...

Holy smokes, I love you. This post.

(I'd love if you checked out my fashion blog/shoe blog/etc!)

SoapyMermaid said...

I love the aesthetics and the depth or your posts. your blog is really inspiring. :)

Soccer Mom Style said...

no wonder ladies used to faint a lot ;) So glad we're living in times we do.

How is school?

Anonymous said...

Dear Roz,

You are featured in Tommy Ton's slideshow on! You are wearing a cropped fur jacket and orange trousers. You look beautiful!



What a great post.

x Haunted

sacramento said...

I couldn´t agree more with you,dear Rosalid:
The fulfilling concept of internal beauty lasts for life, and furthermore, one can look incredible at any age.AMEN!!!
I am keeping this thought as a present from you.
You are unique beyond words, my dear friend.

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