Friday, November 7, 2014

Beautiful Princesses

For all the poets who’ve extolled beauty since the beginning of song and the written thought, beauty is not what keeps the human race alive.

It’s not a new fact, but an interesting one, that quite a few of the hallowed standards of feminine beauty are also indicators of lives of ease.  In Europe, for centuries, “fair” or pale skin was an explicit description equating to prettiness.  Obviously, there’s a powerful racial element here, but the main point of whiteness in a largely white world had to do with reflecting a life lived not working in fields but protected and at leisure relative to the peasantry.

Soft skin, white skin, shining hair, healthy teeth, clear eyes – even youthful looks – these appearances may be cultivated in the life of a noblewoman, as they cannot in lesser social strata.  A peasant girl who starts out plump-armed and pretty deteriorates  more quickly if her life is lived on a farm or in a factory.  But a princess, who may have duties and learning to do, is physically protected from elements and exertion to the effect of preserving these things rather better.

When you read descriptions of princesses and queens, beauty comes up an awful lot.  Most sources have one form of political agenda or other – decrying one woman for being physically lovely but morally bankrupt, or praising to the heavens some saintly paragon.  Wealth, as we can see even today on any television set, predisposes many to fulsome praises of a lady – even if only through her clothes.  Wealth can also purchase some approximation of whatever signifiers appear to represent beauty in a given day – certainly in rich garments, jewels, and hairdressing, but also in cosmetic applications, shaping devices, and profounder bodily modifications, culminating in today’s booming plastic surgery industry worldwide.

Returning to the ethnic aspect –for many in the west, the main exposure too many had to any skin color other than their own was predominantly to those in servile positions, including slaves.  What to us is ugliness in a different sense, was once ugliness in its social-definition-of-beauty sense.  This continues to this day, with women of color suffering discrimination for wearing their natural hair, or religiously observant clothing, and subjected to demonization or sexual exotification simply for being Asian, subcontinental, Pacific Islander, Black, and so on.  Asian women who personify – or “fail” to – the “China doll” standard of allure fight a constant battle just to be seen as human, or professional people, in the face (har) of men and women alike seeking to find in them a mystical kind of beauty that goes beyond their own faces, and sinks into all manner of cultural prejudices, expectations, and lurid fantasies.

“DON’T YOU EXOTICIZE ME!” an early contestant on America’s Next Top Model, YaYa, once famously said.

I never forgot that, because – frankly, I realized I found YaYa quite exotically beautiful.  Like an awful lot of white folks, I had always thought my finding Black beauty so arresting and powerful … as some sort of enlightened attitude.

Take a LOOK at it for a second.  “Oh, look at that beautiful little Black child” – “Oh look at that beautiful Black woman or man” …  It’s all about the eye of the beholder, it’s the racial equivalent of The Male Gaze – in which finding some woman attractive is considered to be the ultimate compliment to her, and still misses completely that she’s a human being and in fact someone’s attraction to her is almost certainly irrelevant to her real, full life in every possible way.

Looking at a strikingly elegant and dazzling Black or Asian or Indian or multi-ethnic woman in admiration of her beauty is not a dynamic about “I find beauty even outside the Cultural(/Corporate) Norm! I’m so open-minded!”, but about failing to SEE humanity because we’re too busy LOOKING at it, staying outside, gazing as if the object gazed upon:  is an OBJECT.

YaYa was right, and it’s the most important thing I ever learned thanks to Tyra Banks, of all people, whose own investment in a career as the object of a gaze is a whole ball of wax we won’t get into.  One wonders about YaYa’s being ON a show dedicated to objectification, particularly as a platform to say, “I am not an object”, and going on to a career in acting, one step to the left of modeling in terms of the gazes of strangers.  But she got a point through my privileged head, and that was what she meant to do.  Success.  Go YaYa!

Anyway, princesses and prettiness.

Perhaps the key element in the fact that beauty is defined by parameters so well connected with a pampered life, is that above all it demonstrates that a girl PROTECTED is somehow the ideal.  Purity, even , is something of an indicator here – virginity.  Girls who are protected are often “jealously” protected.  Preserving not just youth and nice skin, but sexual inexperience, inevitably feeds into this ideal, and becomes one of the most powerful aspects of the theme.  This girl is so protected that her skin is unmarked, she is wealthy enough to enjoy physical luxury and health, her diet is of the best foods, her teeth and bones are preserved, her nails and hair are strong and pretty.  And this girl is so protected she’s not even a woman (you’ll notice my word choice throughout this paragraph).  She is so thoroughly safeguarded she’s untouched – but, even more, she may also have been “protected” from ever even learning anything about sex at all.

Obviously, we reach a point where the ideals of beauty not only contradict the biological basis of attraction – sex – but where beauty is meant actually to be a denier, even as it’s supposed to also be an inducement, of sexuality, of sexual allure.

And so, in the finest Not all men tradition, we have a world populated by people who no longer even can subscribe to “beauty” – and this is where things get truly interesting.  We rebel.

It is not possible, either in the binary of heteronormative humanity, or in all our glorious permutations between, for “all men” (or all women, or all hooloovoos) to conform their actual, real attractions to what we’re told is “beauty.”  Probably never has been – so feminine beauty, and masculine charm for that matter, are not necessarily linked to *attraction*.  Plenty of men find strength irresistible, and there are those amongst us (I’ve known a few) who are carried away by scars, or features which might stack up as weak against the going standard of a time.  Me, I’ve got a thing for a crooked tooth or two (blame David Bowie, whom I’ve never forgiven for getting braces several years ago).  My brother loves the look of women with natural grey or white hair.  Once I have “enough” white in my hair – and it won’t be long – I’m hoping to emulate a kind of Erica Orloff style.  Tell me that isn’t beauty surpassing the “standard” …. 

So, it’s a funny thing.  Feminine beauty has been systematically removed from what biologically “does it” for us, is and has long been another thing – and not just in American or Western culture, either.  Almost universally, feminine beauty is a signifier of a different kind, that speaks to very literal *value* in a market distinct from sexual attraction, yet inextricably linked to procration, over millennia and across cultures.

And, really, left entirely to the hormones, what human body wouldn’t prefer to just get what they physically desire – without having to worry about money and eternity and politics and family and warfare and religion, and all those things we have attached to marital alliances throughout history?  Henry VIII is the most famous example, perhaps, of the contradiction between honest urges and subjective consequences we’ve adopted as “necessities” …

Which leaves us with the problem and the ideal.  Princesses being a major commodity – they had to be beautiful, to be desirable in a way ultimately practical, but which we felt an emotional need to tie to the spiritual and artistic.

Most of the “ugly” people in the world have managed to pair off in their lifetimes, even if not in a standard lifelong monogamous bond (though, perhaps predominantly, in that form after all).  Certainly, sex has never been limited only to the rich and rarefied flowers, protected from human experience and retarded in physical deterioration as much as possible.  Indeed, over the past century or so, a mythology has built up around The Pretty Girl who can’t get a date, or a mate.  Wide swaths of the television and movie industries are dedicated to telling this story over and over again, and lucrative game shows reality shows make millions in reinforcing, without ever actually exploring, the perplexion of the telegenic girl who can’t get a man – or who can, but only for the span of such time as it takes for her to lose a competition and/or to whore her life out to participate in it.

Over time – even over my lifetime – feminine beauty has become a stranger and stranger phenomenon; always building on the same ideals we set up generations and centuries ago, yet ever more distended and rarefied.  Just as fashion has nothing to do with attraction and sex, really beauty doesn’t anymore either.  The pneumatic ideals set forth by designers, surgeons, and advertisers are ever more removed from human impulses, subverted and appropriated by concerns less and less human, and less and less individual.

If Anne of Cleves’ first job was to marry and enchant a king, now the princess’ job is to persuade the masses she embodies, and lives, in fairy tales that never existed in reality, and she’s now tasked to realize.  Ever-more preposterous bodily features and architecture and clothing and (ugly) jewelry are deployed to represent fantasies further and further removed from personal appeal and ever more heavily invested in making somebody a buck or million.  To age is unthinkable, to do so naturally an outrage.  Fiber-intensive extruded “food” products exhort us to obsess over our excretions in order to attain thigh gaps and acceptable waistlines.  “Luxury” brands emblazon their logos on remarkably shoddy, ethically dubious products so that discount stores can pretend to be secret distribution streams for items theoretically exclusive to the elite and wealthy.

Even in an economy enduring one of the longest and most profound depressions in history, the beauty industry booms – as it always has.  Some say this is because women feel the one thing they can indulge in bad times is a foolishly expensive lipstick, which makes them feel good.  Others point to the investment value of primping, as a poor girl looking a certain way might parlay appearance into a lucrative alliance, or professional livelihood.  Watch a single episode of The Bachelor and see if one or the other of the feminine competitors doesn’t mention “fairy tale” or “princess” at least two or three times in a single episode.  (Apart from “this journey”, “connection” and the personal pronoun, these two are the most frequently used language in any example I’ve ever seen of ANY such show.)

Do you conform to what industry calls “beauty” right now … ?  Do you want to?  Can you imagine bedding anyone who does?

Where and how does “beauty” (by standardized terms) live in your life, day to day?

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