Monday, June 9, 2008

The tyranny of beauty

About ten years ago, I was at a tattoo convention and a photographer from Britain wanted to take my picture. I had a flaming migraine headache and was horribly cranky, so I said "No." He persisted until I gave in.

He took me to a room where he had all his equipment and a big Jackson Pollack looking backdrop. That room was cold. I presume he hadn't put the heat on for some reason or other, which was absurd, given that it was February in Maine. Perhaps he wanted his subjects to be uncomfortable, perhaps he liked it that way or perhaps the equipment needed to be cold, like big computers, but nonetheless, it was too cold for my comfort and didn't do much to brighten my already miserable spirits.

I tried to bail. It was just a photograph. What was the big deal? We could do it the next day, right? Oh no! He loved that I was miserable. "Give me some attitude, love!" he yelled out in his British accent. I kept protesting, and wonder right this minute why I didn't just walk out the door, for he didn't lock me in. He just kept yelling "Give me some attitude!"

He took some pictures. I left, and went to my room, where I suffered some more abuse from the fellow whom I was sharing it with. He was fed up with this older woman's migraine and pathetic demeanor. "You're always feeling sick", he said to me. It was true. I had a headache a good amount of the time. I should have shared a room with a less robust person, but I hadn't thought it through.

Some months later, I got a call from my father in New York City, saying he had a tattoo magazine in his hand, and it had my photograph in it. My first reaction was "Oh god. He's seen me wearing latex." But that was not the problem. It was this: "You never could smile for the camera!" I explained that I was cold and miserable that day, and that I believed the photographer wanted to goad me into looking mean (which I do believe was true) and that, come to think of it, does anyone smile in tattoo magazines? Well, yes, they do, but it's usually the salacious smile of a scantily clad woman.

Dad, the reason I never smiled for your camera is this: You told me that I was overweight and unattractive. Why would I even want my picture taken under those circumstances? You didn't take family photos, like other fathers. There wasn't a book we'd put the photos in, to look back on and remember the good times. You were an art photographer and I was the unhappy not-good-enough subject. So, no, I was not smiling, and besides, I looked less attractive when I smiled. How did I know this? You told me.

I don't have photographs of my life. For years I thought I didn't "need" them, whatever that meant, because I didn't have children. I'd say "the memories in my head are good enough for me." I really believed this, even though it really was a lie I was trying to believe.

What I did believe is that I truly was too ugly to be in a photograph and if someone did take one of me, it was hard to see anything except what I thought was my ugliness. Yes, I've been overweight or I've been caught making a ridiculous face (and it is true that when I smile broadly my entire face distorts, but really, it's fantastic to be able to smile with such freedom, isn't it?)

The botoxed women we see more and more of each day can't show their feelings with their faces. Botox not only deadens your nerves but it deadens your freedom of expression. I am enraged when I see their ads that proclaim "I'm doing it for me!" Really? You've got to be kidding me! Who in their right mind would inject botulism into their face to diminish the signs of age and keep yourself from being able to show your feelings authentically?

Well, a lot of people would. The plastic surgeons are having a field day.

Someone once pointed out to me that my objections to plastic surgery were hypocritical because I had tattoos. I gave this some thought and decided there was some truth to this. I was changing the way my body looked and doing so permanently. How is that different than getting plastic surgery?

Well, I guess I just got shamed into thinking I was wrong, for I now disown giving in to this way of thinking. I don't blame anyone, say, for getting plastic surgery to correct something truly troubling. But for anything else, it is giving in to the tyranny of the beauty standard. We are not supposed to age, to sag, to look different. We are supposed to be symmetrical. We are supposed to not look too "ethnic".

There was an episode of "Extreme Makeover" in which they took a young girl, who really did have a bad tooth problem and did what they said, gave her an extreme makeover. She did need to have her teeth fixed. When they were done with that, they should have let her go, but they did not. She had her breasts augmented, her nose shortened and a few other things I can not remember. Before this, she looked like Meryl Streep's sister. Isn't that good enough?

No, she had to look like "every woman". What individuality she had was gone. And the worst thing about it was this: her family was delighted! They cried and hugged and celebrated. Finally, their daughter looked normal, like anyone, like a Christie Brinkley!

What is wrong with these people? Why didn't they just fix their daughter's teeth in the first place? They were not poor. Judging from their reactions to her extreme makeover, they were obviously ashamed of their "ugly" daughter. She had been brainwashed, or if I was going to put a finer point on it, emotionally abused. She believed that she could not work with the public in any way, and would never realize any of her aspirations, simply because she was ugly.

The people who needed a make over were her parents. They needed a make over of their values.

My father needed this, too.

Let me tell you one more story: I sat down one afternoon with a manager at my bank. She was a very large woman. On her desk was a picture of herself in a fancy dress, with a huge smile upon her face. There was no one else in the photograph. I presume it was a picture from an event that brought her good memories, but the single thing that affected me was this: She didn't mind looking at a photograph of herself, even though she was at least one hundred pounds overweight. No, it's not healthy to be obese, but it's not a reason to hate yourself or deny yourself or others the pleasure of memorializing good memories with photographs.

The tyranny of the beauty standard is getting worse every year, or maybe I'm noticing it more. After all, I am now middle aged, and I do think about plastic surgery (though I can't afford it). It bothers me that I do. I should be proud of the lines that grace my face. They are emblems of my life experience. But no, I should and you should look perpetually young, lineless, expressionless and as unreal as a mannequin.

It is time for another reassessment of what we've come to. On January 24, 1964, The Twilight Zone aired an episode entitled "Number Twelve Looks Just Like You". Here's the opening narration: "Given the chance, what young girl wouldn't happily exchange a plain face for a lovely one? What girl could refuse the opportunity to be beautiful? For want of a better estimate, let's call it the year 2000. At any rate, imagine a time in the future when science has developed a means of giving everyone the face and body he dreams of. It may not happen tomorrow—but it happens now in the Twilight Zone."

And it is happening now, in 2008.

Photo note: A still from "Number Twelve Looks Just Like You".

1 comment:

Websafe said...

That Twilight Zone episode always fascinated me. It was the implied need for conformity of thought as well as appearance which was so chilling, and the pressure applied from all sides till she gave in. The story also clearly implied that something precious was then lost.