beauty & madness

Aesthetics is a tricky thing.

THE NEED TO BE BEAUTIFUL

if you haven’t read the article THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING BEAUTIFUL by Sidney Katz, please do. all of my students in sociology had to read this in relation to our studies on social stratification. i wish i could provide a copy of the article itself, unfortunately, i cannot. you have to get the book edited by James Henslin called DOWN TO EARTH SOCIOLOGY. believe you me, do yourself a favor and get this book. it would be money well-spent.

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people like to believe… pretend… that there is a depth in their soul not immediately discernible to the human eye. we would like to think that we do not judge and should not be judged based on our looks alone. we want others to think that we are NOT superficial, that we ARE the type of people who look beyond the SURFACE of things, that we mock labels and would not be part of the shallow, ignorant majority that makes up society.

going back to the article, if you do get to read it… you will find out that the moment we are born, our looks define how others would see us, how they would act towards us, and, ultimately…  how we would see ourselves. what is called society in us… the “looking-glass”… a “cute, cuddly baby” would be held more often than the gaunt, sickly or less physically appealing counterpart… a lady coming in as “plain jane” would fail on the first interview… and miraculously get the job when she comes back  for the same job interview after a makeover. have you seen THE SWAN? see what lengths people would go through just to have a shot at success (or what defines it)… at work, in life, in their personal relationships…

sometimes we wonder about those “crazy American teenagers” who want to get a nose job at age 16 or 17… and why jenny went from a size 12 to a size 2… ballooned up to a 14 and is now a size zero… nothing, nada. who do you think jenny did it for? why? for herself? for a guy? for her to “fit in”? who’s to know. we’d all like to think she did it for herself. how about Korean celebrities, most of whom are notorious for going under knife to improve their appearance starting with surgery to get that elusive double-eyelid? sigh. is the epicanthic fold a fault now, or simply out of vogue?

and it is not just about the size or the weight… there’s age, hair color/texture/length/style, height, eye color, the plumpness of the lips, the nose ridge, etc., etc. the woman’s breast has to either be augmented or reduced, but definitely has to be lifted, same as the tummy, the face and the chin. everything has to rise upward. the collagen to plump up the lips, BOTOX® to smoothen the wrinkles… and these are among the mildest measures available. some people just drastically want to change their whole face/body.

JUDGING THE COVER

then there are those people who are born with “it”… the x-factor. now i am not saying that all good-looking people are dumb, not at all… but those who are dumb yet breathtakingly beautiful, attractive at the very least…  do seem to get away with it. they seem to have it easy. and sometimes, these beautiful creatures need not lift a finger… nor exert any effort to get things done their way… the commoners :-) simply react to the heavenly creatures life sends their way… unable to avert their gaze, reduced to servants at the sight of such beauty… captivated, hypnotized.

as life would have it, there are people who are pleasant to look at with the good manners to match, just as we know of certain angelic looking creatures masking the vilest of tempers and the greyest of dispositions. one way or another, there are times when a book may be judged by its cover. an impertinent looking person who is by all means rude… a rotund individual who is a bit of a glutton, a gaunt, miserly character who has enriched himself because of avarice.  then there are people we term as downright “ugly” possessing the kindest, most generous and affectionate of hearts. oh well, who are we to judge?

BEAUTY ACROSS TIME & ACROSS CULTURES

it has oft been quoted that “beauty is in the eyes of the beholder”… a statement that holds true as we take a quick tour across the centuries and across different societies asking the same question: what is beautiful?

during the corset’s heyday, women had waistlines as tiny as 18 inches (or less). it is no wonder fainting spells were common among women during that period… dizziness having been attributed as a highly feminine trait. the women spent hours and hours of pushing & squeezing in whatever fat their bodies possessed, binding themselves in the corset with laces and stays usually made of whalebone or metal and yards & yards of ribbons. the corset was actually used by both men and women, but has been more commonly associated with females since it kept the waistline to a minimum while overemphasizing the size of the bust and hips… thus creating the “hour glass figure” and a more desirable posture since  its binding effect would force the wearer’s shoulders back.

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in olden France, especially during the reign of Louis XIV well until Louis XVI, both men and women used cosmetics, high heeled shoes, wore beauty marks (shaped like stars or hearts) and clothes/accessories with ribbons, silk and lace. people glided like ballerinas and rules of proper behavior and decorum were strictly followed by ladies and gentlemen of the court. men “beautified” themselves as much as the women did, wearing powdered wigs, stockings and plenty of ruffles.

the painful ancient foot binding practice in China has always been a source of fascination for social scientists and for those who consider it a cultural curiosity. one explanation given for this tradition which began among the wealthiest of the upper class is that tiny feet (which usually did not allow the owner to walk unaided) were considered a mark of social standing and great wealth. poor womenfolk had to help out in the fields and undertake all kinds of manual labor, hence, may not have done this so for practical reasons.

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the upper class, on the other hand, saw the process of keeping the feet of their daughters tiny as a symbol of the lack of need for their girls to labor since they have been born into lives of privilege. their “golden lilies” were bound and this binding procedure involved breaking the arch of the foot, making them basically club-footed. it is said that the gentle swaying movement (called the Lotus Gait) brought about by the imbalanced footing attracted men sexually. in the novel THE GOOD EARTH, nobody wanted to marry O-lan because of her big “man feet”… apparently, the foot binding practice later permeated even the lower echelons of society. this practice was later banned and outlawed with the advent of communism.

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using neck rings, on the other hand, is a practice most often associated with some African and Asian societies. among the Kayan tribe in the area bordering Myanmar and Thailand, the women begin to wear neck rings during childhood. as the girl grows older, additional brass rings are placed around her neck to elongate it — a symbol of beauty in their culture. the coils of brass push down the clavicle (collarbone) and the ribs causing some degree of trauma on the neck blood vessels and leading to the atrophy of the neck muscles that have become too dependent on the support of the brass rings.

in the Philippines, women who are described as “balbon” have very fine hair on their skin and are considered attractive by most, if not all. in other places such as the US and Middle East, women take great pains in keeping themselves relatively hairless, save for the scalp area. women undergo painful waxing procedures to keep up with this standard of beauty. the hot wax product that has to be sloshed onto the area and the sudden tearing off of hair from areas of tender  flesh will make even the boldest man recoil and scream in agony… but a lot of women go through this process almost as if it were an essential part of the mating ritual.

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in Asia, some naturally tan women rub on whitening soap, whitening lotion and consume tablets of glutathione and vitamin C just to have fairer complexions. others take it to the extreme and go through bleaching procedures that render them immobile for hours, and a few get some physical evidence of their folly when they get scarred by the chemicals used. and mind you, a lot of “beauty” bleaching products contain carcinogenic ingredients. some Caucasian women, on the other hand, go to tanning salons or actually expose themselves to the sun to bronze their skin running the risk of getting skin cancer or melanoma.

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there are a million other ways of illustrating how different people define beauty in whatever way they can, and try to live up to the standards they set… even at the expense of their health and well-being.

JUDGING DAILY

every single day we find ourselves in different places and sizing up people (usually with them not knowing) even if it is just for amusement. we make judgments, form opinions… even come up with scenarios/stories whose sole basis (most of the time) is the appearance of the object of our scrutiny.

we are not always wrong… there are women who dress up in leather, lace, fishnet stockings and sequins who do turn out to be prostitutes… and there are men whose getup makes them seem like the gigolos they truly are. there are those women whose sole fashion style seems to belong to the 50s… dress dowdily or primly and you won’t find it a surprise that such women really are conservative. but where do you think that fantasy involving a prim & proper miss turning into a sexy vixen come from? hahaha…

it IS funny… but such fantasies and others like it stem from the recognition that sometimes… there really IS something beyond the façade of beauty or ugliness… and there are some things not seen with the naked eye… we accept that we can make errors of judgment, but the beauty… oh the beauty… we are all slaves to it one way or another.

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as for the babies… the babies… it doesn’t matter if your son or daughter inherited too much of the angular features of his/her side of the family… or the beaky (or broad, flat) nose… or the squinty eyes… or whatever feature(s)  you think will make others see your child as less than cute, handsome or pretty…  we should… must try to give them a good head start in life, even when faced with the insurmountable criteria of beauty and odds built by the society we are born into.

and for us, now,  who claim to be non-slaves to social and cultural conformity (yeah, right)… why do we dye our hair? pluck our eyebrows? shave our beards? secretly purchase those growth tablets being advertised on the Home TV Shopping channel? is it for our personal comfort? our health? or is it because we feel that doing this will make us look and feel better?

only you and i know the true answer.

tall/short, fair/dark, au naturel/hairless, blond/brunette, fat or thin…?

i don’t really care. but  pleeease… don’t make me shave my legs. :-) :-) :-)

© Lovely Claire Dangalan, 2010