Friday, August 16, 2013

Baiting the Past

People are quite taken with the idea that The Past is home not only to ghastly tales of What We Do for Beauty (or fashion – though it’s often the same thing), but that ONLY in the past was there ever any danger in what we do for beauty or fashion.  Much as we like to gawk backward at (GASP!) ancient medicine as being brutal and wrongheaded (see also ...), there’s long been a fascination with just how far the darn stupid people of The Past would go with corsetry, chemicals, or self-mutilation for fashion and/or beauty.

The truth, as it is wont to be, is far more complex – and we shall get to the facts of our modern-time bigotry as well.  The article no longer appears to be available, which is a shame, but Madame Isis did a great article some time back investigating just how poisonous the cosmetics of the 18th century actually was.  Her findings, though further investigation may be worthwhile, do go a long way at least to nullifying perhaps the favorite modern scapegoat trotted out to exemplify The Stupid, Stupid Past – “they wore LEAD MAKEUP” ...  It’s a shame this post is gone, it was meticulous and sourced, and even without that, it was good reading.  So here is another of her well-compiled pieces (also sourced), guesting at American Duchess this time, and at least touching on the same theme.

As for the contemporary bigotry in sneering and peering at the past, perhaps those holding these prejudices feel they're safe, knowing that bigotry against other cultures' practices and simple, generalized racism are less socially acceptable or normal than once they were.  I'd argue that, when it comes to bigotry, there's no such thing as no harm/no foul, and the preening superiority we like to feel over centuries (and even just decades) past breeds dangerous ignorance.

I would not ask hagiography as an alternative - that way madness lies.  When we went in for fake and faint praise racially speaking, we came up with the Noble Savage and "boy can't those black folk dance" - which, as a means of reparation for centuries of slavery, I think we can all agree is embarrassing reparation.

One of the remarkable features of jeering at The Stupid, Stupid Past, particularly in this context, is the apparent absence of awareness that we do idiotic things to our bodies now.  I don't mean just faraway foreign folk we can judge bitterly for things like female genital mutilation or one-child rules, but the glaringly plain practices of the society we all live in in the mainstream, pop-culturally inclined Western world.  I also don't just mean the scary ubiquity of laws against bodily autonomy, but ("obviously!" thinks every reader by this point) the equally terrifying acceptance of fake lips, fat sucking, perpetual masks of standardized makeup, and standards of beauty not just unrealistic and irritatingly expensive ... or cheap.

As a feminist, duh, I find the now-canonized Unrealistic Standard of Beauty justifiably bothersome, but as a woman of age and prodigious style, it gets to me even beyond the standard-issue (... see what I did there ... ?) feminist outrage.  Frankly, even as it's unrealistic, the current pop-culturally mainstreamed standard of beauty is INCREDIBLY BORING.  Women are expected not only to maintain an unremitting mask of acceptable makeup, clothing, jewelry, and shoes, but to keep it up all the time - and keep it prescriptively, and bizarrely, narrow.

For my money, as joy is made the deeper by knowing sorrow and as glorious days are the more dazzling for the occasional rainy days ... style and beauty are nothing but enhanced by actually being special.  Because I know what it is to maintain very different standards for Saturday afternoon grub work, a day at the office, and a Saturday night out dancing, the heightened primping of Saturday night out means more.

Not for one second.

All this said, though - that primping I go in for is a subscription to the clearly artificial standards of our time.  Here is the thing:  it's all artificial.  The minute a man *or* a woman stops using mud as sunblock and begins using it as paint - the minute we find a pretty shell and put it around our necks - the minute even a talisman of power is fashioned into an artifact we keep on our bodies visibly - we've crossed from the natural state of our person into some form of alteration.  And anything visible, even if it isn't "meant" to be cosmetic, is a part of the visual story we tell of ourselves, the signals we send to strangers and friends alike, is in one way or another a statement about what we believe to be beautiful.

Not all "beauty" is a matter of sexual attraction.

But all personal adornment - ALL of it - is about beauty by one definition, one expectation, or another.

Find the beauty.  And find fascination in the myriad ways we seek it, express it, and memorialize it.

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