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On 'The Beauty Myth'
Men grow cold
As girls grow old
And we all lose our charms in the end
In this abyss, darkness, death-unfolding, holding close to blood, bone, stone, I seek to ascertain the impossible. A demonic proposition, I enter the scene a silken girling, wet-slicked and heavy. O, babe how I bid thee to bite. When I contemplate girldom in all its fiction and fallacies, I feel trapped, ill-fated: caught in the confines of a life that I did not choose, a spell not once of mine own making. Heart hard, lost, listless, I dream of the day I am free from the chains of a body to which I do not belong.
There is a girl on a glossy magazine, brite-shining: she does not look like me, and I do not look like her.
Marilyn Monroe as Lorelai Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) dir. Howard Hawks.
Brain rotting, blood-stopping, porcelain, copper, stone, from a burgeoning girl to this body I deign today, I forever recall a reluctancy to play sugar, spice and all things nice.
I do recall, babe, moons ago, an inkling of something not-quite-right in mine mind and body upon reading Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, a seminal text within the queer theory canon, by noted American writer, philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler. Butler outlines the concept of ‘gender as performance’, and the nuanced ways in which said performance differs on the basis of race, class and sexuality. In many ways, I wish to return to that gilded cage before I did unearth those pages, before that can of worms spilled out onto the dirt.
It was not until reading Butler’s words I had realised, reader, that the rotten-apple-core of mine identity was indeed desirability.
This systematic conditioning I had first awakened from, once brite, flagrant, glaring, became internalised and embodied. No, no longer jarring futility, but normalised expectation. The way that we receive these messages of how to be hot, wet, sexy have now become maladjusted - pink-ribbon-wrapped in tawdry epithets of self love, care and empowerment.
Year upon year, dear reader, I feel that I have waxed and waned toward Feminist praxis and felt much reluctance to claim as mine identity. What once felt like a sharp stab to the heart, shock-horror, true pain upon reading A Vindication of the Rights of Women and Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, slowly began to dissipate within the era of ‘pink pussy’ hats and white-choice-feminist politics, for all its exclusion and transphobic rhetoric.
Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) dir. Robert Aldrich.
As I now inch ever closer to thirty turns around the sun - somehow, God - I stew and sulk, hot-bothered, salty, for I feel no longer a brite young thing.
I contemplate, with steady urgency, The Beauty Myth, a compelling theory by an unfortunate author which examines the relationship between women’s beauty and liberation, and images of beauty which ‘have come to weigh upon us’. Within the text, Wolf dutifully articulates that ‘many women sense that women’s collective progress has stalled; compared with the heady momentum of earlier days, there is a dispiriting climate of confusion, division, cynicism, and above all, exhaustion.’
I have somehow deluded myself into thinking, falsified and fleeting: if my lips are this red, if my hair is this blonde, if my nails are this long, I, too, will be enlightened. In truth, such social power is futile. A depreciating currency to expire when no longer deemed fuckable. The capitalist rhetoric - buy more, be more - does not in any true sense seek to empower, but to disempower, disengage and distract. Wolf writes that ‘…the modern arsenal of the myth is a dissemination of millions of images of the current ideal; although this barrage is generally seen as a collective sexual fantasy, there is in fact little that is sexual about it.’
Beauty, or rather the industry of beauty is, in essence, ‘summoned out of political fear on the part of male-dominated institutions threatened by women’s freedom.’ In all its shrouds of silk, the ‘Beauty Myth’ remains a sinister distraction, inclined to create division and hostility within the girl psyche ‘us[ing] images of female beauty as a political weapon against women’s advancement.’
Goldie Hawn in Death Becomes Her (1992) dir. Robert Zemeckis.
I now recognise beauty - blood, spit, bile - as structural inequality. An insecure currency, an ephemeral commodity traded in exchange for social capital: fame, money, power, however wholly or in proximity to. Liberation, it seems, is dead, and empowerment is now only a product to be consumed: our bodies, the real estate to feast upon.
As a girling, I became bewitched by this myth, and still now find myself struggling to escape its bloody grasp. Wolf posits the question within these here opening lines ‘Do women feel free?’ I, for one, do not. The fatal crux of this underlife, which Wolf posits: ‘…poison[s] our freedom’, is that beauty capital forever remains a finite resource. We witness women long to escape this here ‘terror of aging’, signalling status through cosmetic enhancement: the body as eternal renovation, a project to forever be ongoing. An ungodly quest for perfection-to-death, at any cost.
For all the ephemeral flaws and contradictions of the ‘Beauty Myth’, I cannot cease giving into the babydoll of it all. Lightening strikes and I, too, feel fearful. Who am I, if not that Hawksian woman?