the beauty myth

What did beauty mean to you when you were in your 20s (or teens)?

At this moment I’m still in my 20s so I’ll talk about my teens. As a teenager I wasn’t occupied with beauty or my own looks very much. I was too busy doing other more fun things. 🙂 Still, like most women and most teenagers, I wondered how other people perceived me and if I looked OK to those around me. I would sometimes get (negative) comments from kids on the street that probably affected me. So I wasn’t sure if I was beautiful or if every body part looked “OK” but I tried not to worry about it.

I didn’t want to spend too much time on my looks. I refused to use make-up. I didn’t shave my legs/armpits. I didn’t read fashion magazines and buying clothes meant ultime boredom to me. I thought women who were “natural” (no make-up, surgery, comfy clothes, etc) of any age looked the most beautiful. Skirts could be pretty in my opinion, but most of the time they were not for me. I was very much a tomboy, but also a bit androgynous, both girly and boyish. For example I enjoyed performing ballet wearing tutus, but in real life, trousers, T-shirts, big jumpers, all stars and combat boots suited me better and made me feel better.

What does beauty mean to you now?

I don’t think my view on it has changed a lot. I’m more conscious of the influence of advertisements, the fashion industry and peer pressure now. I enjoy reading and writing about the beauty myth and body acceptance, and I still don’t spend much time on my looks. Comfortable clothes are perfect. I cut my own hair, and I still don’t understand and won’t use make-up in daily life. I rarely wear dresses, and when I do, it almost feels like I’m in drag, so I wear trousers under them. I think I’m more accepting of my own body now, and don’t worry about being too skinny, too pale or whatever. I can see the beauty in myself better and also realise beauty standards are a construction.

If different, why have your ideas about beauty  changed over the years?

I’m probably lucky to have lots of feminist friends who look critically at the beauty industry and have different views on beauty, ageing and women than most mainstream opinions. It helps a lot to have supportive and accepting friends who don’t judge how I look or criticise me if I don’t shave my legs. I’m surrounded mostly by women of my own age but I also sometimes work with older feminists, who are beautiful both inside and outside. They serve as examples and working together and learning across generations is very inspiring.

Nina, 28

Belgium

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Welcome to the dog and pony show

“I’ve worked hard for these wrinkles,” an older friend of mine smiled recently over salmon quesadillas. I was explaining to her why I was here in San Francisco, thousands of miles from home, doing an art project on women, beauty and aging. This project is a strange mutt, a mix of art and sociology. I will interview women 60 and older, recording their recollections of how they viewed  beauty in their 20s, their current ideas and how things have changed over the years.

During the interviews, I will take photos to later translate into oil paintings on boxes. When I show the work, I will run an audio of splices from the interviews. This blog will run alongside the project. Always with my work, I want to invite dialogue. The women will speak of what they knew and what they know now. I will listen, ask questions and write. I invite you to join in the conversation.

This project comes after a long personal diatribe against the beauty industry, modeling, the selling of the sexualized female body. I’ve worked with these themes for years. This project also joins the current (or recent) ranks of celebrating women of all ages…the voluptuous senior models of The Calendar Girls, Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, the recent commercial from Kaiser Permanente, “When I grow up, I want to be an old woman.”

So my celebrations are not alone, nor are my queries. I’ve spent a lot of time with contemporary consumer culture. I know “the look” of what sells – the young, long-legged beauty. And I am curious. The last 100 years have seen the birth and exorbitant growth spurt of the modern advertising industry. Almost every woman alive today in Western culture has been surrounded to some degree by advertising and subsequently, beauty images. I wonder on a deeper level how this has shaped us…how women of different generations are affected similarly or quite differently.

Recently, a friend mused about the ambiguous role and space older people occupy in our culture. If nothing else, this project carves out a little space. A space to listen to memories and ideas. A space to see faces that are not “idealized” or a cookie-cutter sell. These are faces instead that carry the deep beauty of life lived, of wrinkles earned…remnant traces of a thousand smiles, the frown, a glamorous cigarette.

When I Grow Up, I Want to be an Old Woman – Kaiser Permanente ad

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