It is the subject of the second episode of the well-written, haunting new art historical series, “Civilizations,” now airing on PBS; the new Amy Schumer film “I Feel Pretty”; the May-June issue of The Gay & Lesbian Review; Heather Widdows’ forthcoming book “Perfect Me”; and a current show at The Met Breuer.
We’re talking, of course, about the body – the filter through which, “Civilizations” says, we see everything – including the body itself.
It’s seemingly always under siege, particularly the female body, as Amanda Hess writes recent New York Times think piece. The standards for female beauty – now linked to wellness and, perhaps, goodness (when were they not?) – have never been more tyrannical, Hess observes. It’s just no longer considered proper to admit this.
“The amount of brainpower I spend thinking about how I look is a monumental waste,” she concludes. “I like to think of myself as a pretty smart person, but the truth is that I can’t seem to think my way out of this.”
That’s because humanity has long since reversed the roles of the animal kingdom – where the male is the more beautiful, the showier of the two traditional genders. Once men traded power for beauty, they foisted the beauty standard on women as a way to control them. But women – who have been forced by their position to spend more time thinking about men than men do about women – proved cleverer than men thought. They turned the beauty trap around, exchanging it for power, status and, naturally, money. Now they don’t need to be beautiful to be successful in worldly terms. But nurture is so hard-wired into nature that we can’t seem to escape the standards of the past.
Even men are still caught in the snare set by their animal brothers long ago. In the thought-provoking documentary “Dancer” – about the ballet star Sergei Polunin, whom I’m writing about for June WAG – he talks about the body as a prison. His own is stunning – it’s fair to say females from 2 to 82 line up at his appearances for selfies with him – but it is also strategically marked by tattoos that he must cover for performances, including three red lines over his left breast that look like he was clawed by an animal. “I thought you were done being cruel to yourself,” his mother tellingly remarks in the documentary.
I’m not going to comment on the merits of tattoos, which have a long history of ritualistic embellishment. But it’s interesting that one of Polunin’s heroes is Marlon Brando, who played so many roles in which he was beaten up that it became a Hollywood joke – Marlon the martyr. It’s almost as if men have had to punish themselves for being beautiful, for possessing a quality that has become the province of women.
“Thanks” in part to President Donald J. Trumpet, male beauty is now back on the front burner. Has any man, any president, ever been more of an equal-opportunity lookist – touching handsome, comparatively slight French President Emmanuel Macron; noting that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is a nice-looking kid; hiring unqualified people who are blandly attractive (Hope Hicks, Rob Porter); promoting those who look good in a uniform and flatter Donnie Two Scoops’ physique (hapless Dr. Ronny Jackson)? Talk about your denial.
It’s not just about looking good and being thin. Recently, an American soldier maimed in the Afghan War underwent the first total penile transplant – which he wouldn’t have needed if old guys didn’t think with their private parts (as in mine’s bigger than yours, my bombs are better, my flag is greater), sending young men off to die needlessly. The soldier wanted to be whole again. I don’t blame him or anyone who seeks reconstruction due to trauma or cancer, for instance.
But I wonder about those who seek extreme measures for cosmetic effect. The other day I saw a woman whose facelift was so badly done that she could hardly open her mouth. Her skin was leathery; the makeup covering it, pronounced and awful. You could see a surgical scar on her forehead. Meanwhile, her hands (sporting de rigueur flashing diamonds and lavender-gel nails) looked old. So, whom was she kidding? Perhaps only herself.
Me, I’m a proponent of integrating your looks into every aspect of your being. That way, they are a reflection of you and not any societal standard.
I’m also a believer in If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.