Samantha Brick and Beauty Determinism
Samantha Brick is what we might call a Beauty Determinist, but she is far from alone. She created a sensation last week by insisting in London’s Daily Mirror that every minor encounter, every passing glance, not to mention catty confrontation, was invariably about the visual impact she has on all and sundry as a beautiful woman. There soon followed a number of spoofs by wily journalists who couldn’t resist letting rip with Brick’s unassailable narcissism, her puffed up self-portraiture, and her self-evident self-delusion. But could it be true that the visual has come to take up so much of the pie-graph of feminine identity? Putting Brick’s personality disorder to one side, the 5000 comments tacked onto her piece and its viral contagion suggest she might have pushed one or two unaccustomed buttons to do with women’s visual status. From her many photos Brick is passably pretty. Combined with height and blondosity, and a certain ratio of hip to breast, this is all it took for her to be, at one time, considered a stunner. But that would still leave her as nothing special for the simple fact is the vast majority of women posses a combination of enough beauty attributes to appear lovely in their youth. For all of us it passes. Clearly the attention Brick once commanded took on a significance soon outlived by her years, but she nevertheless continued to see all through the prism of beauty. This sets her apart in only one sense. Most attractive women are perfectly aware of their visual impact. After all even beautiful women have got eyes and can judge against prevailing standards. They also become expert readers of perceptual relations. For their safety depends on them developing a refined radar because of unrelenting sexual harassment. That’s right. Any hostility directed at beautiful women usually comes from men, a surprising number of whom toggle between the impulses of attraction and assassination. Like Samantha good-looking women know they possess an asset with particular exchange value. Unlike Brick however, as they get on with their lives and see it falling away, achievements outweigh the importance once given to their looks. However it pans out, we all negotiate our status as spectacles. And for all this plenitude of pulchritude women still manage to get on extraordinarily well together. They mostly celebrate each others’ attributes, tut-tut insecurities and see beyond surface affect to the character and spirit that animates their friend’s visage to moments of incandescent gorgeousness. It’s part of how we cherish each other. In that sense Brick described herself as a deeply lonely woman. Whilst some women see-saw between a sense of entitlement and failure in terms of their approximation to beauty ideals, Brick is a remarkably blithe spirit. Somewhere in her psychic attic she’s stashed her own Dorian Grey portrait, disintegrating in the half-light, while she marches out into the full glare, insisting that by putting her best face forward it should be met with universal indulgence. Her feigning of Cinderella-like subjugation by ugly-sister-surround, surely had a tipping point, namely her obliviousness to the ways she clearly alienates others. But Brick exposed not only an unhinged vision of gender relations, but the hypocrisy surrounding feminine beauty. Women make spectacular careers from a self-appraisal of the exchange value of their visual appeal – usually as entertainers, but occasionally as public figures. The critical point is they must never, ever, openly acknowledge that they can see with their own eyes that they are beautiful and knowingly capitalize on its social value. To do so would make them calculating. If they let on they know they hold a certain undefined asset as beautiful women that they can work to their advantage, they would be accused of ‘trading on their looks’. That old adage, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, is in actuality a warning to women. Beauty is visualized externally. It is bestowed from outside. Beauty cannot be self-made. That is why it is ultimately a powerless designation. The irony of this of course is the truckloads of cash a critical mass of women are willing to spend on lotions that, tellingly, make no difference to the ‘evenness of tone’, ‘firmness’, etc, of their fingertips. Each new technology that aids the contrivance of beauty is abhorred, even though we gave up the ethical ghost on self-modification centuries ago. Brick proudly documents the lengths she goes to in order to, paradoxically, piss off all the women in her life. That’s fine. A whole genre of chick lit is devoted to the surreal absurdity and shrieking expense of women’s largely ineffectual efforts to be more beautiful. What doesn’t wash down with the fat-burning capsules, however, is declaring you’ve actually pulled it off. That’s because we know the very premise of beauty depends on a multitude of half-truths and contradictions. Most confronting was Brick’s claim that she determines the reception of her looks. Beauty is something that inheres in her yet that she works up into a declaration to the world. The button she pushed was her contradictory, yet correct, acknowledgement that she has absolutely no control over how she is perceived. She attributed that to women’s innate jealousy. In fact it inheres in the very definition and operation of feminine beauty. Liz Conor is the author of The Spectacular Modern Woman.