Beauty and the Beasts 2 – Fairytale Ugly
Going scarcely skin deep any place where women post it is too easy to find women of all ages who are unhappy about their bodies and their appearance, too easy to find women who have been brutally assaulted by assertions that they were ugly and/or fat.
I hate this. I don’t want to be a part of anything which supports this. I want to make quiet war on this – quiet, at least, to begin with.
I want to know what the words pretty, beautiful and attractive really mean, how they have arrived at their meanings, and if they mean today what they should.
According to recent research – I regret I’ve lost the original source – beauty is not in the eye of the beholder. It appears that if you take a photograph of a woman considered beautiful in one particular culture and show it to people in a completely different culture they will still select that photograph when asked to choose those they consider beautiful. Overwhelmingly, those images are of the kind of women who make up the bulk of Western movie stars, which is no encouragement to those who are under or overweight by perceived norms or those whose faces are scarred, distorted or simply variant from them.
The same program showed how photographs of monsters – including Frankenstein’s and I forget which others – could be printed large and placed in a baby’s cot without the baby abreacting to them. This, it was claimed, is as a result of there being a certain balance within the face on the image. Babies see at first imperfectly and what registers initially upon their perception is a kind of shadowy mask to which pretty much all faces conform. This mask, it is argued, is what determines our perception of facial beauty from babyhood onwards.
Facial beauty, it appeared, was not ever in the eyes of the beholder. And facial beauty is only part of the question. Babies don’t know slim mums from big mommas.
The word ‘beauty’ troubles me. It’s a word we can assign to a landscape, to a lamb, to a dog or a squirrel, to a land or seascape, to a voice and music, to a single flower, to a child, to an image of emotion.. None of these, for those of us who are (I would argue) of the majority are things which awaken sexual desire.
So is beauty a non-word? Have we set limits to it that should never have been set, or have we failed to set limits that should be set? If so, why, and how do we get away from it?
There are things which some find sexually attractive which don’t immediately respond to the things that (arguably) most people would consider beautiful or, indeed, sexually inspiring. For me these include the artificially hyper-inflated breasts on women who otherwise fit the perceived ideal of the majority and, equally, hyper-inflated bottoms. Some men – and presumably some women – appear to be drawn to partners who are not so much overweight as severely and clinically obese.
There are extremes, and they work for some. So what is it that determines the majority view of what physical beauty is?
Perhaps one of them is a long, long history of association of physical attractiveness with ‘good’?
Okay. I rather fell in love with an actress, Jenny Agutter, when first I saw her in a movie called “The Railway Children” (1970). It has always alarmed me a little that the the character she portrayed was ‘under age’, though in fact she was around 18/19, a year younger than myself. The body she revealed in “Equus”, a film I never saw, but did see in Roeg’s “Walkabout” was ideal, her face lovely, her voice charming. I was bedazzled from the first and I remain so. But to Jenny Agutter – whom of course I do not know – I attributed the qualities of her characters. I think this is something that we do, and that it always comes as rather a shock if we discover that the actor whose characters we admire turns out to be personally less than admirable.
The ‘good’ girl in The Railway Children and the beautiful innocent in Walkabout was the persona – the very attractive persona – I have carried in my perception of her through all the intervening years. It is much the same persona of her character in the recent ‘Call the Midwife’.
The fact is, of course, that I do not know her. I do not know what her voice is like in conversation. I do not know what the quality of her conversation is, how witty she is, whether she is prejudiced or intolerant. I do not know if her ‘beauty’ is more than skin deep. But there remains for me an association.
Think of all the positive images of females in movies and literature and they are all essentially the same in conforming to certain ideas of ‘beauty’. Look up Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, Polyanna, Juliet in any movie version of Romeo and Juliet, the heroine in Shakespeare in Love, Wonderwoman, for that matter. Anyone a woman might want to identify with, anyone a man might want to desire, is represented in every case according to the same ideal of ‘beauty’.
We’re not just talking images here, though, or at least not in a two-dimensional sense. What is reflected in most of these characterisations is ‘good’, a personality you would choose to be with, a personality you would choose to be.
Beautiful villains are rare and, even when we encounter them, they are not entirely irredeemable – I’m thinking Margaret Lockwood or Faye Dunaway in “The Wicked Lady”, for example – but villains, the people we would not want to identify with or be – are either (in popular perception) fat or ugly.
Cue Billy and Bessie Bunter, any villainess created by Roald Dahl and depicted on screen. The Dursley’s in Harry Potter feature a fat brat of a son and an overweight father, the dumpy Dolores Umbridge and the aunt Marjorie who is inflated to grotesque ‘fatness’ before she floats up into the sky. Witches are a by-word for ugliness. Even the fairy tales of pretty much everyone’s childhood portray the wicked and the stupid as fat, ugly or both.
There are those who would argue that negativity towards people of a particular appearance is ‘natural’. Historically, however, the ideal body shape does not appear to be a constant. Is it possible then, that the hostility towards people of particular appearance is learned, steadily and by an unrealistic negative association?
And if it is learned, shouldn’t we change it?