Women around the world are sold western ideals of beauty by an industry making billions and causing untold misery
Hannah Betts guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 29 August 2012
This weekend, I am off to interview a young Hollywood starlet. She is pale-skinned, blue-eyed, with golden hair falling lustrously about her shoulders. She resembles nothing less than a modern take on Botticelli’s Venus, short merely of a clamshell. On closer inspection, this goddess is not actually that beautiful – charming certainly, but without the harmonious symmetry of planes and plumpness conventional notions demand. And, yet, she has The Package: the constituents that are perceived to win her leading roles and heartthrob boyfriends, and are a source of emulation for millions – punishingly so for some.
Meanwhile, on the cover of September’s O, or Oprah magazine – Winfrey’s influential “empowerment”-focused organ – our heroine is shown letting her hair down, or rather up and out. For, behold, she is sporting a lavish afro rather than the Wasp blow-dry she usually favours – as advocated by the $9bn black hair industry examined in Chris Rock’s 2009 documentary, Good Hair. Winfrey, at 58, has never looked more beautiful.
Yet, even for a woman who has championed both black and feminist causes – and embodied Toni Morrison characters – this is clearly A Big Deal, requiring editorial explanation. The daytime diva reveals that she likes feeling “unencumbered” with natural hair: “But it’s hard to manage daily … in order for me not to look, as Gayle says, ’like you put your finger in a light socket’.” Gayle is Gayle King, a woman who appears similarly wedded to her straighteners.
One is uncomfortably reminded of postcolonial theorist Frantz Fanon’s arguments in his seminal 1952 study Black Skin, White Masks, where black upward mobility is expressed via stringent, self-policing white imitation. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970) also comes to mind, in which self-loathing Pecola Breedlove prays each night for whiteness. Meanwhile, its narrator, Claudia MacTeer, is presented with a succession of “blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned” baby dolls: “’Here,’ they said, ’this is beautiful, and if you are on this day “worthy” you may have it’.”
I bow to no one in my love of lipstick, powder and paint, and the jubilant creativity in their wielding. Ornamentation rituals are a defining feature of human society: first we get food and fire sorted, then we daub cave walls and ourselves. However, in too many parts of the world “because you’re worth it” translates as Morrison’s “’this is beautiful, and if you are on this day “worthy” you may have it’”.
In India, an estimated 40% of the nation uses face whiteners, since pallor – like straightened black hair in America – is considered both professionally and sexually desirable. This year, its citizens are expected to spend half a billion dollars on such products, up 15% from 2011. Companies such as Unilever, L’Oréal and Garnier are reaping vast profits using Bollywood stars as role models. Yet, where 700 million Indians are living on less than $2 a day, perilous, unbranded chemical options are rife.
In China, similarly racial, indeed racist, reinventions abound, most obviously in the realm of plastic surgery. Chinese surgeons undertake 13% of global procedures, generating some 20,000 complaints about disfigurement a year. Typical interventions include eyelid modification to create an upper-lid crease, rhinoplasty to raise the nose, cheek implants and even sole implants in the feet to make patients taller.
Evidence also issues from traditionally wealthy nations. In Japan, breast enlargements are deployed to create a western “bon-kyu-bon” (“big-small-big”, or hourglass) figure. In New York, where a century ago Jews were having nose jobs and the Irish ear-pinning to assimilate, Asians and Latinos are queuing up at surgeries in immigrant neighbourhoods.
Only in Britain, it seems, do surgeons balk at such metamorphoses. At a meeting last year of the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, preserving ethnicity was a central theme. This was manifested, most minutely, in a cross-racial study of “What makes the perfect belly button?”, concluding that surgeons need to be aware of the nuances of racial preferences for a vertical or round “innie”.
Still, better navel-gazing than eyelid-slicing.
Naomi Wolf’s Beauty Myth of 1991 posited the thesis that the beauty industry promulgates a cultural, economic and ideological scam. However, it is no less than an empire: a form of stealth imperialism in which self-harm is weapon-in-chief. Perhaps, in time, as China and India consolidate their positions as the new global superpowers, the west will learn to crave eastern pulchritude, ridding itself of blondness and blue eyes accordingly.
Last week brought another outing for the theory that Shakespeare’s “Dark Lady” may have been one Lucy Negro, a black Clerkenwell madam. In fact, in the sonnets of 1609, Shakespeare is arguing for colour-blind beauty against the classical and Renaissance norms that our culture has inherited. His mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun, her lips do not resemble coral, her skin is dun, with none of the “roses and lilies” loveliness found in the tradition of emblazoning beauty. She is no goddess. Her feet are firmly planted. She is her own self and beautiful for it. It is a statement that has, alas, lost none of its radicalism.