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What is beauty? By Chloe Jagger


“In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.”

Sylvia Plath

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here is inevitable vulnerability that comes with age, the penetrating fear of growing old is deeply imbedded into our subconscious, perpetuated and sustained by society’s growing obsession with youth and beauty. Plath’s melancholy and bitter poem “Mirror” exemplifies the feminine problem of ageing and losing one’s identity (Poem of the Week.2009). Her violent metaphor is relatable to the pain, invisibility and subjection that women go through in order to achieve society’s unattainable expectation of beauty and everlasting youth. The exploitation of the unattainable by the beauty industries has left most women over 50 “feeling invisible” and “self conscious”, with three quarters of UK women thinking that the ageing process has been hidden by the beauty industry(Brand Republic, 2007, Online). In this essay I will critique society’s embedded fear of ageing within a Marxist, feminist context; examining the origination of our attitudes towards youth and beauty in relation to philosophical thought and David Buss’s theory on the evolution of aesthetics. Our patriarchal society has lead us to possess an inherent fear of ageing, and it is this theme which inspired our ‘What is beauty’ photo shoot. Allowing us to critique and challenge the taboo of ageism and to create a new, positive perspective of how we look at the natural process of getting old.


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he origination of our negative stereotypes towards ageing and the body and our desire to transcend it’s process is deeply embedded within western philosophy, yet the problem has far deeper roots than that. Alastair Levy, in his article “Putting on a pretty face” summarises the scientist David Buss’s provocative theory that that our ideals of beauty are a core part of human nature with deep evolutionary origins. Thus the pressure on women to be beautiful, is, in a sense not a patriarchal myth but an “essential part of the human condition”(Levy, 2013, p.41). Boiling down to the basics of sex, Levy summarises that men are simply attracted to younger women who look fertile. Philosophy professor Denis Dutton agrees with this theory in his A Darwinian Theory of Beauty (2010), “that the experience of beauty, with its emotional intensity and pleasure, belongs to our evolved human psychology. The experience of beauty is one component in a whole series of Darwinian adaptations” . Whether science or society can be blamed for the ideals of beauty which weigh heavily on women’s shoulders, the idea of man attempting to ‘play God’ to transform and transcend the bodies’s futile limits has been an integral part of cultural thinking for decades. Susan Bordo, in her book “Unbearable Weight”, discusses how our desire to go beyond our bodies limitations has always been included in intellectual thinking. With philosophers such as Descartes, in his theory of Mind Body Dualism, believing that through the right philosophical method, man can transcend the epistemological limitations of the body (Bordo, 1995). What’s more the quest for everlasting youth has been fed women since we were infants, with stereotypes of women in fairy tales influencing our attitudes towards age. Feminist writer Lynne Segal addresses that our fears of ageing are first told to us through childhood plot devices, full of terrifying quintessentially female witchy figures who meet bad ends because they prize beauty and youth above all else (Segal, 2013). Each character is fearful of growing old and gripped by consuming envy of more youthful women; thus we have already begun to develop negative stereotypes about ageing by the time we are infants. These stereotypes manifest themselves into our subconscious until we believe their unconditional acceptance; we grow up believing they are true and live up to them.

Dennis Dutton

“that the experience of beauty, with its emotional intensity and pleasure, belongs to our evolved human psychology. The experience of beauty is one component in a whole series of Darwinian adaptations” .


Context and Contemporary Culture A

s a group we concluded that attempting to understand where our fear of ageing in society originated from and why its presence is so ubiquitous, especially in today’s culture, was to be a vital component of our message which confronts ageism. What’s more, we had to consider how the message of our images would be perceived within the context of contemporary culture, which is made up of socially and technology obsessed millennials. Though our attitudes towards youth and beauty may be of archaic descendance, never has it been manifested so dangerously within society. With celebrities establishing a new norm for women, coupled with our relationship with social media and reality TV, the degree of separation between the woman viewed onscreen and in the mirror has decreased. Making the images we see in the media and on TV seem more realistic and attainable, creating a standard of ageing and beauty which is only achievable through the undergoing of continual cosmetic procedures. Bordo comments that “technologically armed we seem bent on defying ageing, our various biological clocks and even death itself(Bordo, 1995, p.4)”. So desperate has the situation become, we have now normalised cosmetic surgery, with the Guardian reporting that “Americans had nearly 14m cosmetic procedures last year, spending $10.1 billion in the process(The Guardian,2012)”. With Botox being the most profitable cosmetic treatment in the US, where the plastic surgery industry’s female clientele make up a drastic 91% of all cosmetic procedures (American Society of Plastic Surgeons. 2012). Now more than ever are women

“In terms of how we feel physically” more “worse off than our unliberated grandmothers” Naomi Wolf (Wolf, 1991,p.10)


Thw Beauty Myth; A fear of ageing and perpetual consumption

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n addition, to fully understand the psychological background of ageism, we too had to acknowledge modern day consumer culture and the manipulation of problems that the popular media and beauty industries have fabricated for the modern women. Both Bordo and Wolf recognised that within a Marxist feminist context the male gaze holds the monopoly of power. Crafting the mythology of immorality into a modern day scientific fantasy; trapping women into gross consumption of anti-ageing products and surgical enhancements (Bordo, 1995).

Woolf ’s revolutionary book “The Beauty Myth” was first to acknowledge the inherent paradox of the ever changing beauty standard, in which advertisers, threatened by a second wave of feminism, crafted new campaigns to exploit the feminist rhetoric. Assisted by woman’s magazines, which were themselves economically threatened by a decline in the fashion and cosmetic business, they began marketing to the ‘new women’. Under a new guise of freeing woman, products and beauty campaigns were created to ensure that the new working woman would keep consuming at the levels she had done previously as a ‘housewife’.

For the new liberated woman to be accepted by society she would now have to comply to rigid standards of beauty, slimness and fashion. Thus products were created to emancipate her from shackles of ageing; offering her freedom from wrinkles and condemning her to a new ideology – a fear of ageing and perpetual consumption to stop its effects.(see fig 1,2,3,4) Fig.1. Payot Advertisement (1979) Fig.2. Biotherm Advetisement (1986) Fig.3. Charles Revson Advertisement (1985) Fig.4. Lanolin Advertsisment ( 1964)


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Fig.5. Carnie, A.C. Fray: Coming away at the ends (2010)

F Fig.6. Sterling, L.S. Sans Titre (1978)

isually, the inspiration for our images came from projection artists David Ayers, Andrew Carnie and feminist collage artist Linder Sterling. Andrew Carnie’s “Coming of age: The art and science of ageing” particularly inspired our group with his use of projection art and how using this he challenged negative perceptions around ageing(see fig 5). Generating positive responses from his audience by looking at the process through the eyes of both artists and scientists. As a group we wanted to reflect this positive reinforcement of the ageing process within our own work.

igure 6 is an example of the cut and paste ascetic of Linder Sterling’s 1977 “Sans Titre” artist collage work; which juxtaposes domestic and men’s pornographic images to comment on the patriarchal and cultural expectations of women and the treatment of the female body as a commodity. As a result Linder uses her art to “hyperbolize the ridiculous impossibility of the female ideal”(Huffington Post,2012); in relation to beauty, hyper sexuality and youth. Another artist who also used a ‘cut and paste’ collage asetic is Charlotte Niel, Fig () depicts an image from her ‘Body Options’ project. The project was inspired by the misrepresentations of the feminine ideal which fuel our obsession with perfection and the concept of everlasting youth.

“Starting as early as teens, we are encouraged to indulge ourselves in expensive anti-aging and beauty strategies and reconstructions of who we could be” Charlotte Neil (Charlotte Niel Photography 2013)


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FFig 7. Ageing is Beautiful Own images

Neil, C.N, Body Options (2013) _

omposing images of the average women and cut out’s from adverts which depict the ideal body, Niel comments on the dangerous lengths we go to attain it. The irony of the images is that after asking women what they would change about themselves, the ‘improvement’s made look alien and grotesquely unnatural; presenting the viewer with an ominous statement which questions whether it is wise for us to change nature. Reversing Niel’s composition of placing images of youthful ideals on ‘real’ women, our group decided to project images and wrinkles of old people onto the young model. The young model is literally face to face with what society tells her to fear; loss of her youth and beauty.

Fig 7 shows that our models gaze does not avoid eye contact with the projections, she is not uncomfortable and instead actively embraces the ageing process; choosing not to be submissive, she is not succumbing to patriarchy’s rigid notions of beauty. Both John Berger and Kimberly Oliver critiqued media and advertising industries objectification of women. Oliver critiquing that objectification of women is created by “societies focus on ‘body image’’ whereby the “body is no longer seen as subjectively experienced, but rather as an object (Oliver, Kimberly L. 1999).” Berger agreeing in his book ‘Ways Of Seeing’ that in European art from the Renaissance onwards, men are active whilst women only “appear” simply watching “themselves being looked at (Berger, 2008, p.45)”. Yet in our own images we aimed to defy Berger and Oliver’s view of women as subject matters; the girl subverts the positions of power. She is her own model and viewer, looking at her future and escaping society’s expectations, she is reclaiming her own take on beauty.


Being that our images is aimed at youths, with our message telling them not to perpetuate the taboo of ageing and value the process in terms of wisdom and experience. We decided that our images would be best placed within ID magazine, as the publication is targeted directly at a youthful audience, our subject matter would correspond with the readership. However it can be observed that there is a certain irony with the decision to place our images within a publication that overtly worships youth culture. As seen in fig 8 even the publication name directly targets younger people by referencing the act of youths being asked for i-d. Yet we hope our message which trivialises our futile obsessions with youth and beauty is delivered clearly to an audience who face these pressures more explicitly than ever before.

Fig.8. Sundsbo, S.S, i- D Cover ‘Youthful’ Cover (2012)

Our overall editorial illustrates different projection images mapped onto the models body; to create visuals which successfully contrast youth and stereotypical images of the aged. As a group there were many problems we faced in attempting to achieve the right lighting which would enable the projections to show up clearly on the model’s body. However on our third attempt, when we choose to take the photographs ourselves in a dark room, we succeeded in creating highly pigmented results. Overall the photo shoot was successful and we hope it ultimately alters people’s perceptions by delivering clearly a message of contentment with ourselves and confidence in the ageing process.


List of references

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American Society of Plastic Surgeons. 2012. 2012 Plastic Surgery Statistics Report. [ONLINE] Available at: http:// www.plasticsurgery.org/Documents/news-resources/ statistics/2012-Plastic-Surgery-Statistics/demographictrends-quick-facts.pdf. [Accessed 23 November 13].

Berger, J B, 2008. Ways of seeing . 2nd ed. p.45: Penguin Classics

Bordo, S B, 1995. Unbearable Weight . 2nd ed. p.4: University of California Press.

4 5 6

Brand Republic . 2007. Beauty has no age-limit in Dove skincare TV ad. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.brandrepublic.com/news/630600/. [Accessed 17 November 13].

Charlotte Niel Photography . 2013. Body Options . [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.cnielphotography.com/ Portfolio.cfm?nK=12459. [Accessed 23 November 13].

Huffington Post. 2012. Linder Sterling’s Feminist Punk Collages Tear Up 30 Years Of Bad Advertising . [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost. com/2012/12/17/linder-sterling-feminist-punk-collage-photography-musee-dart-moderne_n_2317757. html. [Accessed 23 November 13].

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Levy, A L , 2013. Putting on a pretty face. The Sunday Telegraph; Stella Magazine, 15 September. 39.

Poem of the week/Sylvia Plath. 2009. Mirror. [ONLINE] Available at: http://poem-of-the-week.blogspot. co.uk/2009/04/mirror-by-sylvia-plath.html. [Accessed 17 November 13].

Segal , L S, 2013. Out of time: The pleasure and Perils of ageing . 1st ed. p.34: Verso Books.

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Ted Talk. (2010). Denis Dutton: A Darwinian theory of beauty. [Online Video]. 01 February. Available from: http://www.ted.com/talks/denis_dutton_a_darwinian_theory_of_beauty.html. [Accessed: 23 November 2013].

The Guardian . 2012. US plastic surgery statistics: chins, buttocks and breasts up, ears down. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/ news/datablog/2011/jul/22/plastic-surgery-medicine. [Accessed 23 November 13].

Wolf, N W, 1991. The Beauty Myth . 1st ed. p.10: Vintage publishing .


Bibliography

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Huffington Post. 2012. Linder Sterling’s Feminist Punk Collages Tear Up 30 Years Of Bad Advertising . [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/17/ linder-sterling-feminist-punk-collage-photography-museedart-moderne_n_2317757.html. [Accessed 23 November 13].

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Levy, A L , 2013. Putting on a pretty face. The Sunday Telegraph; Stella Magazine, 15 September. 39.

Poem of the week/Sylvia Plath. 2009. Mirror. [ONLINE] Available at: http://poem-of-theweek.blogspot.co.uk/2009/04/mirror-by-sylviaplath.html. [Accessed 17 November 13].

Segal , L S, 2013. Out of time: The pleasure and Perils of ageing . 1st ed. p.34: Verso Books.

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Ted Talk. (2010). Denis Dutton: A Darwinian theory of beauty. [Online Video]. 01 February. Available from: http://www.ted.com/ talks/denis_dutton_a_darwinian_theory_of_beauty. html. [Accessed: 23 November 2013].

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The Washington Post . 2011. A wrinkle in time: Twenty years after ‘The Beauty Myth,’ Naomi Wolf addresses The Aging Myth. [ONLINE] Available at: http:// articles.washingtonpost.com/2011-0527/lifestyle/35232547_1_cosmetic-surgery-women-breast-surgery. [Accessed 23 November 13].

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List of Illustrations

The Guardian/The Invisible Woman. 2013. To age is to fail: the media’s message to older women. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.theguardian. com/commentisfree/2013/aug/21/ older-women-media-message-age-fail. [Accessed 23 November 13].


Charlotte Neil , (2013), Body Options [ONLINE]. Available at: http:// www.cnielphotography.com/Portfolio.cfm?nK=12459 [Accessed 28 November 13].

Andrew Carnie , (2010), Fray: Coming away at the ends [ONLINE]. Available at: http://www.tram.ndo.co.uk/Fray%202010.htm [Accessed 27 November 13].

Sølve Sundsbø, (2012), Youthful [ONLINE]. Available at: http://models.com/work/i-d-magazine-i-d-pre-fall-2012-covers/111424 [Accessed 01 December 13].

Linder Sterling , (1978), Sans Titre [ONLINE]. Available at: http://artwednesday.com/2013/03/21/linder-sterling-femmeobjet-womanobject/ [Accessed 26 November

Ageing Is Beautiful (2013), Own Image


Contentment with ourselves and confidence in the ageing process.

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