Feminine Beauty and its Mystifications
There few things over which confusions reigns so manifestly yet mutely as feminine beauty. In the pie graph of women’s identity, feminine beauty has, since the industrialisation of photography, fanned out to a disproportionate wedge. There is nowhere we can go in public space without encountering it. It is not only a central cultural trope but the very rationale for billion dollar industries not to mention myriad personal regimes in the maintenance of the self. Being such a large-scale enterprise feminine beauty is enmeshed in some of the principle operations of power. It is racist and commodified, sexualised and ageist. It affords some women opportunities of unimaginable consequence, presence and even influence. For some women it is the basis of the rags-to-riches narrative that underpins nearly all fairytales and continues to play out in so many make-over versions from the Devil Wears Prada to Extreme Makeover. For all these reasons it is deeply suspect to women who aren’t extended its dividends, and in a few rare cases to women who are. Its meanings are entrenched, extending back to the goddesses of ancient civilizations and biblical evocations. Beautiful naked women are draped and poised throughout all art traditions. They are still there to behold and behold them we do, with reverence and marvel, for they convey some of the most poignant and dearly-held meanings in any cultural tradition, of transcendence and desire, of love and even deification. You’d think by now, with all that gaping, we’d know what to make of it. The truth is we’re more perplexed by feminine beauty than ever before. Historically, the public appetite for feminine beauty may have played a role in the paradigm-shifting entrance of women into public space. In fact beauty granted some women a permit to be seen publicly and veiled the majority in domestic oblivion. Remarkably in our present mediascape those restrictions persist in some realms. Not in any that involve women in consumption, notably. The woman shopper was one of the first to strike out over the private threshold in that great step for womankind, forging an enduring presence in the metropolis. Making money - that was a harder realm to enter, and it is still delimited to certain women, preferably without children, for instance, and prostitutes, while tolerated, should keep themselves under wraps. These may seem like archaic, lapsed beliefs but they still bubble to the surface in the froth surrounding feminine beauty. Because of its outstanding success as a presence in nearly all markets beautiful women have an assured place in public space. They’ve secretly been assigned a role that most aren’t even aware of. They’re supposed to allure, fascinate, solicit the gaze and draw it to themselves. At street level, if they act like they’re indifferent or adverse to being ogled they come up against unrelenting hostility – otherwise known as sexual harassment. There is still a limit to the number of permits granted to women in public space. Unless you’ve been given one, making a spectacle of yourself is very much frowned upon. Knowingly using feminine beauty to politically strategise, for instance, is suspect, unless you’ve already been granted such a permit, as had Rachel Griffiths, as an actress, before she protested topless at the opening of Crown Casino in Melbourne in 1997. Being calculating or even self-knowing about feminine beauty is considered a blatant contravention of the conditions of any permit – just ask Samantha Brick. Gold Diggers and Media Tarts knowingly deploy their ‘wiles’ – such a descriptively gendered word - for personal gain. The irony here is that beautiful women are granted access to a level of visibility and adulation that we once reserved for royalty. The catch is they must never EVER give even the slightest hint that they are aware of the bounty of their genetic windfall. The last thing a beautiful woman should ever do is admit she has eyes of her own. She may also have arrived at this understanding about herself having been told so, unrelentingly, everywhere she went. Should her beauty have brought her fame it is extremely ungracious to say out loud that anything other than talent got her there. Yet we know as well as she does that without sublime looks her talent would rarely have been enough. The truth about beauty - which we can reasonably define as youthful clarity and symmetry of features - in its present incarnation is that it is rarely put to good use. As long as it outweighs all the other wedges in that piegraph of feminine identity by which women are valued it is manifestly unbalanced, sometimes even undemocratic. While it endures for only one-quarter of a woman’s lifespan it is for the most unattainable, even for the most beautiful women for most of their lives. And yet, that all said, feminine beauty is utterly engrossing. As long and hard as I’ve thought and written about it, I still cannot look away. A beautiful face, especially when as finely wrought as a woman’s, is something we all love. We always have and we always will. Unless we were very unlucky the first thing we focused on was the smiling face of a young woman. That is how our mothers bestowed love and life on us, and we’ve never got over it. I suspect if we honestly allowed ourselves that regard, while being vigilant about the conditions and entitlements it is embroiled in, we could liberate feminine beauty from its morass of mystifications. If we all calmed down about it, and it ceased to be the first thing about women, we might start seeing beauty in a lot more faces, forms and applications, and even put it to good use. There are many examples, but three recent inspiring models (in the better sense) are the Weld Angel, by forest protestor Allana Beltram of 2007, Cate Blanchett’s role in the Say Yes campaign on climate change in 2011, and Angelina Jolie’s recent advocacy for refugees and breast cancer. Liz Conor is an academic in the National Centre for Australian Studies, the author of The Spectacular Modern Woman and co-convenor of ClimActs.