Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The pursuit of beauty

A few of us mums have been discussing makeup and a certain "miracle" cream. Even though we are strong, independent women, we are helplessly drawn to the allure of some magic potion that might make us look a few years younger. Remember the mad rush for a certain Boots serum a couple of years ago after it was reported in a BBC programme? Even after other reports proved that it's just hype, the ingredients are no different from those in some other brands. Such is the power of the press (and the desperation of women!) But for this reason, the so-called miracle cream that we were discussing shall remain nameless, disclosed only to a select few, hehe.

I will confess now that I am a closet makeup addict. I love to experiment - glitter eyeliner, crimson lipstick, turquoise eyeshadow - it's all so whimsical and fun! (and so contrary to my usual understated preferences). And it's washable afterall, so no need to angst over a temporary change. But there aren't many opportunities to experiment, afterall you can't go for meetings looking like a teenager wannabe, so I usually just end up putting on my "safe" face - the one that I know makes me look awake without being overdone.

Beauty is not as shallow an issue as it may seem. It does require some thought, especially as mothers because the way we view ourselves physically has a huge bearing on the way our kids (especially our daughters) view themselves. To overstate the importance of beauty can be detrimental to our kids' physical self-esteem. But to say beauty it not important at all is just being hypocritical.

I've had this debate on beauty before. In fact, I wrote an article for the Singapore Council of Women's Organisations (SCWO)'s 25th Anniversary coffee table book back in 2005. Since this topic came up, I guess it's timely to reproduce the article here. I'm curious to know your views, so fire away!

The Pursuit of Beauty – Emancipation or Entrapment?

Helena Rubinstein once declared: “There is no such thing as an ugly woman. Only a lazy one.” It is as if by virtue of being female, it is our duty to be beautiful. This concept is rooted in the age-old belief that a woman’s power lies in her appearance. Throughout history, odes have been dedicated to women who have conquered men with their beauty, from Yang Guifei to Helen of Troy.

With the rise in women’s independence, we have seemingly risen above this antiquated notion. We know now that we want to look good for ourselves, not just for others, and certainly not in order to attract a mate and protector. We have been emancipated in our pursuit of beauty.

Or have we, really?

UK Fashion editor, Lowri Turner once said: “The truth is, most women dress for themselves some of the time, for men at other times and attempt a sort of compromise for the rest. If we dressed only for ourselves, we’d all wear leggings and baggy jumpers all the time.”

Beauty as a concept is almost always tied to others’ perception. While beauty and fashion magazines no longer explicitly tell us how to dress in order to snare a man, they still dispense truckloads of advice telling us how to project a desired image, whether “sexy” or “sophisticated” or “natural” (the last ironically requiring the most effort!)

To add to the confusion, the beauty industry is a fickle one, and trends move faster than the stock market. Right now, waif is out, curves are back. Neutral is passé, glamour is in. Faux bronze is the new tan. Pink is the new red. Wait, by the time you read this, melon would be the new pink.

So where lies this elusive line between emancipation and entrapment in the pursuit of beauty?

I pride myself on being a new age feminist, comfortable in my own skin. However, I am far from immune to the lure of beauty promises. Despite being fully aware of the industry’s gimmicks and high profit margins, I find myself succumbing frequently to the newest range of lipsticks. I know I am paying $29.95 for two inches of red dye, yet that little gold tube buys me a little spring in my step for a day or two.

That does not mean I am a slave to beauty. While I hope the new lipstick will step up the glamour quotient for a night out, I do not expect it to miraculously turn me into a Julianne Moore. That new face cream may erase a few wrinkles, but it will not erase the fear of ageing. Each purchase is a trifle to be enjoyed for the moment, nothing more.

And that’s where the insidiousness of the whole issue lies.

As much as the beauty trade empowers women to look good for themselves, the same industry thrives on the insinuation that left on our own, women are not beautiful, not perfect, not ideal enough. Priscilla Presley purportedly went to bed with her makeup on so that her husband would only see her at her best. A beautiful woman draped on the arm of a man is still perceived as a status symbol, an accessory. Scores of dutiful wives worry that once their beauty fades, they will be cast off in favour of pretty young things half their age.

There is a whole multi-million dollar industry waiting to cash in on these insecurities. For every advertisement offering women choices in fashion and beauty, there seem to be three which exclaim: ‘Get bigger breasts and a happier husband!” As quickly as women are gaining economic independence, enterprises have sprung up to exploit this new spending power.

Beyond cosmetics, there is plastic surgery. I am as much in favour of women holding the keys to their own enhancement as the next woman, and I see nothing intrinsically wrong with plastic surgery. It is the way in which plastic surgery is viewed which disturbs me. Plastic surgery used to be a phrase whispered behind closed doors, implying shame and a Machiavellian audacity in trying to manufacture beauty which was not your birthright. But these days, plastic surgery has become a buzzword.

I have a macabre fascination with the reality programme, Extreme Makeover, where each week, candidates are whisked off for a buffet of face lifts, liposuction, implants and laser treatments. My discomfort lies in the fact that many of the candidates are there not simply to change parts of themselves that they don’t like. Many of them appear to have defined themselves and their entire lives based on their physical appearance. They seem to believe that they can physically carve away their past by being stitched, lifted and tightened into a new life, a new self.

Yet, each of these candidates claims they have not abandoned their old selves, merely embraced new improved versions. My concern for this and future generations of women is that the “extreme” nature of plastic surgery has been reduced to a decision as casual as changing one’s hair colour. I realise there are no easy solutions, but in an age where everything has become disposable, I say: let’s not dispose of ourselves so readily.

And that’s where I think the line between emancipation and entrapment lies – whether the pursuit of beauty aims to reflect one’s self-worth or in fact, to acquire some. It’s a thin line but it makes all the difference.

In the movie Shrek, after receiving love’s first kiss to break her enchantment, the princess finds herself still an ogre. She says in puzzlement: “I don’t understand, I’m supposed to be beautiful.” And the pot-bellied, disarmingly lovable Shrek affirms: “But you ARE beautiful.” In a world of synthetic beauty, perhaps what we need are more reminders that there is real beauty everywhere - we just have to look for it ourselves and on our own terms.

- reproduced from "Her Story", Tisa Ng ed., SCWO, 2005.


eunice said...

Have to admit, I love buying all the face/skin crap in the hope that it'll banish wrinkles, spots etc. Score one for cosmetics marketing and advertising.

monlim said...

Eunice: that makes the 2 of us!

Albert said...

Hi Monica,

I understand your decision. It is great to get your email. Please don't keep this matter in your mind. I really love to read your articles. I think that you are only one to talk about GEP topic at blog in Singapore. It is quite poor that nobody likes to discuss it. I know the education is very important to us and this country. We all expect that our children may be educated with great program and achieve success in future.So why no to discuss about education issue. I really like to share some experience at children education. My wife and I read a lot of books about this topic because we expect our daughter can give a great performance at her school early. We did it, now also. I believe that parents are able to train their children to become talents if they may do have enough to efforts. I never found how smart my daughter is before she went to school. She is quite normal and quite poor at math. I know some kids may understand multiplication even if they are just 5 years old. But my daughter cannot understand it until she is 7 years old, and just knew simple multiplication. I trust that kids may become smart if they may let their fingers become ingenious. The Chinese word is xinlingshouqiao (ingenuity). So we love my daughter to play puzzle , lego, and paper folding. She is always top one at paper folding at school. Her classmates like to let her fold paper when they get some nice one from books. She is quite good to understand the pictures and realize them. She also enjoys to knit a sweater. It is fun to see children grow up.
I really like to write some comments at your blog and share them with others. Thanks.

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