Monday, February 23, 2009

Flawlessness is not beauty

I have a pet hate. Well no, let's face it, I have a whole stock of pet hates - but the advertising industry is a particularly keen one. Their obsession with the idea that "flawlessness" is the only acceptable form of beauty is utterly foul in my view. Take this picture (from here) which shows some famous person or other (no idea who) before and after photoshopping.

Compare and contrastOn the left we have the look and style of mainstream monocultural advertising and on the right we have the model in the studio after lighting, make up, whatever but before the photoshopper has had his wicked way with the image.

Now, I realise that aesthetics are partly a matter of individual taste, but isn't it a bit Stepford Wives-ish to think that people with their idiosyncrasies removed are more 'perfect', are better, that those with them? That, in fact, the more plastic and less human someone appears the closer to the ideal they become?

Take her eyes for example. Pre-shopping she has the kind of eyes that are rather useful for looking at things. Post-shopping she has had two bright buttons sown in their place like some sightless teddy who's sole purpose in life is to be utterly passive, to lie back and dream of electric sheep. Frankly I don't think it's an improvement. Of course it's of a piece with the fact that her rather lovely freckles have been laminated over, rendering her skin the kind of wipe clean surface that would be the pride of any Mr Muscle advert - immaculate and dead.

Certainly for those who internalise these images as the icons of what we should aspire to this must be a real problem. A germ free, clinical production line look is the very opposite of what we are. Just as Pinocchio aspired to be a real boy we have millions of teens yearning to be made of plastic, and it creeps into every corner of society, no mind is wholly immune from its duplicitous effects.

Life is messy and there is beauty within that - not that I'm claiming that my bedroom is the height of aesthetic elegance because of its tip like qualities mind you. It's not simply that imperfections set the heart racing in a way that automatons cannot, it's that the very flawlessness they present is itself a tainted and insidious product of a world view that sees human beings as commodities, production line moulded and shrink wrapped ready for sale.

The advertising lies that the manufactured, defectless image is an improvement on mortal flesh are bastards of their adulterate hearts. Their belief that, as with wealth, our attributes are quantifiable. Just as when you slap a price sticker on any Turner, Picasso or Hirst we cannot help, despite ourselves, to believe their value has been measured and they become real in their price.

It seems to me that there are class elements to the norms of beauty that reflect this commodification. The approved benchmarks of accent, behaviour, dress and race tend towards the upper end of the social ladder, lean towards privilege even when this cuts against our everyday experience. It even extends down to the fact that wealth can buy you looks. In a way money can be the real world version of photoshop, on occasion tragically mimicking the excellent photoshop disasters.

These images are powerful through their repetition, their ubiquity and their disposability. Whilst Andrew Marvell talked of a "vegetable love" that takes its time to grow and mature these images are the industrial effluent that poisons the soil in which that love might grow.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

But then again, I wouldn't want to lose the perverse fun that is flicking through glossy magazines looking for really bad photoshopping. The Bebe ad campaigns never fail to brighten up my day. ( Look at the legs!!)