Appearances can lie. Peacocks are nasty, roses -have thorns, and Cindy Crawford could be rotten to the core. I’m not saying she is, mind you; just that it’s possible.
This, the beauty paradox, is one of the central problems of philosophy, provoking deep thinkers from Saint Thomas Aquinas to Castiglione to Freud. Is beauty an absolute or an artifact of culture? Is it good, or is it destructive? Does it confer power or create powerlessness?
In recent years the debate has heated up, fueled by a spate of mostly feminist analyses of female beauty: Susan Brownmiller on Femininity, Susan Faludi’s Backlash and of course Naomi Wolf on The Beauty Myth. These more recent books, directed toward women, carry a single message: that perfect female beauty is a patriarchal con–sexist, ageist, racist, and disempowering. Don’t waste time worrying about how you look, because real beauty comes from within, and each of us is beautiful in his or her own way.
Oh, right. Or, to put it another way’ as if!
There are perfectly understandable standable reasons for wanting to believe Brownmiller et al. For one, beautiful people form a natural elite, elites are undemocratic, and we live a democracy–at least on paper. For another, ranking people on the basis of their looks makes for hurt feelings, as anyone who’s been to high school knows. But the evidence of our eyes remains: some people are drop-dead gorgeous and some people aren’t. Two new books on the subject, Ellen Lambert’s The Face of Love: Feminism and the Beauty Question and Ken Siman’s The Beauty Trip, suggest that instead of denying that difference we should try to figure out what beauty is, why it exerts such fascination, and how to celebrate it.
Ellen Lambert is an American academic–she’s taught literature at Sarah Lawrence, Boston University and now at New York’s fancy Dalton School–and The Face of Love relies on a combination of literary criticism and personal memoir for its insights. Her background makes Lambert’s tolerant views on the subject of beauty all the more remarkable, because American academics are famously frumpy. At international conferences they’re usually the ones whose mid-calf-length skirts have elastic waistbands and whose shoes come from the Walk Shop. (European scholars, on the other hand, seem content to believe that you can be brilliant in Armani.)
Lambert confesses up front that she has a secret vice–paging through the J. Crew catalog–and that at 52 she still cares deeply about her looks, a preoccupation that sometimes made her feel as conspicuous as Dolly Parton a Wittgenstein symposium. In her professional environment, she tells us, the beauty question “hovered like a guilty secret” over many conversations; somehow “Who cuts your hair?” seemed less acceptable question than “Who are you sleeping with?” Once she started noticing the guilt that educated women feel when then they think about their looks, says Lambert, she discovered it everywhere. A self-confessed compulsive reader of fiction, she began to see a similar unease about the beauty question in the work of serious modern writers, too; Doris Lessing’s and Cynthia Ozick’s protagonists hardly ever talk about how they look, much less confess to caring about it.
She finds this absence particularly odd in view of Virginia Woolf’s advice in A Room of One’s Own, a feminist ur-text: Woolf advised aspiring women writers to “say what your beauty means to you or your plainness,” and to “illumine . . . the ever-changing world of gloves and shoes and stuffs.” No respectable writer ever does, though. In fact, the only kind of contemporary novel where a character actually buys panty hose or searches for a decently tailored jacket belongs to the genre known in publishers’ shorthand as the shop ‘n’ fuck, which seems a pity since real women do shop sometimes. In The Face of Love, Lambert suggests that women’s guilt derives in part from how “feminists have oversimplified the beauty question for ourselves and our daughters.” Notable among the feminists she’s talking about are Germaine Greer and Carolyn Heilbrun, who’ve recently been advising women past 40 to embrace crone status, abandoning blusher even when we’re really careful about blending it with our natural skin tones.
To illustrate her point Lambert quotes Heilbrun’s famous remark (in Writing a Woman’s Life) about the courage it takes to “ignore one’s appearance . . . to dissociate personhood from feminine appeal.” This is nonsense says Lambert: “As feminists we can enrich our lives by reclaiming our own beauty.” It takes courage to admit that your looks matter to you, and Lambert believes the reason women resist Heilbrun’s dictum is not because is not because it’s “too difficult or too daunting but, finally, too limiting.”
Lambert attributes contemporary unease about the beauty question to a misunderstanding about what feminist scholars often call the “male gaze.” The current wisdom, most recently aired in Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth (which Lambert finds “wildly exaggerated” and “self-serving”), is that there is essentially only one sort of male gaze, one that seeks to control. Lambert disagrees: she believes that there are two–the controlling gaze and the purely admiring one–and that failing to distinguish between them gets women into big trouble, introducing hostility where it’s not warranted. When the young women Lambert teaches find themselves not just admired but enjoying it, they feel as if they’re traitors to their sex, or at least to their educations.
Lambert’s critique of feminist theory sets up the rest of the book, in which she argues that women novelists of earlier centuries–Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot–understood the male gaze and confronted it. Male writers from Donne to Sir Walter Scott traditionally used what Lambert calls “an inventory of parts” to describe a beautiful woman, first her hair, then her eyes, then her skin–a sort of laundry list t that ignored the possibility a woman might be more than the sum of her physical parts. Not all male writers fell into this trap–Anthony Trollope, for instance, described his women without compartmentalizing or dehumanizing them–but the inventory tradition was strong enough to provoke Lambert’s writer/heroines to buck it.
Female novelists invented what Lambert calls “difficult beauty,” giving women readers protagonists they could identify with. Jane Austen, for example, created Elizabeth Bennet and Fanny Price, characters whose romantic appeal lay more in their lively intelligence than in their even features or glossy hair. Charlotte Bronte allowed Jane Eyre to be genuinely plain and to get Mr. Rochester anyway. In novels like these, ordinary-looking but spirited women win trophy husbands through inner sparkle alone; each transforms the gaze of her beloved from controlling to admiring, in the process making him see that there’s more to women than conventional physical beauty.
None of these fictional women or the novelists who created them would ever equate the appeal of wit and spirit with outer gorgeousness. They–and we–understand that over the long haul “difficult beauty” is better than the superficial kind: after all, looks wither over time while character flowers. They were clearheaded enough to see that beauty of face and of soul were two different animals; but Lambert herself suffers a failure of nerve when she confronts the beauty paradox, confusing inner worth and outer beauty.
Her failure is endearing, however, because it occurs when she abandons literary criticism to talk about family. Speaking of her adolescent daughter Ruth, Lambert confesses that she’d like to think of Ruth’s beauty not as a random gift of fortune but as a function of being “so fully and increasingly herself.” Bronte and Eliot and Austen would have known that that was wishful thinking. Love can confer beauty–you may feel beautiful under the marvelous conditions of loving yourself and being loved. And God knows that feeling beautiful is not to be sneezed at–but it’s only a state of mind. Deep down, Lambert knows that. “Beauty’s status,” -she sighs at last, “cannot finally be adjudicated.”
Unless you’re Ken Siman. “Beatiful people exist, they are more beautiful than the rest of us, and they are most beautiful when they are young,” he says. This cheerful disregard for all the red herrings of beauty discourse–inner beauty, the beauty of wrinkles–combined with a deadpan humor and sharp, observant eye completely disarms the reader. Besides, The Beauty Trip is often insightful. As bonuses, the pictures are terrific and the word “disempowering” doesn’t appear once.
Siman’s previous book–the novel Pizza Face, or the Hero of Suburbia–celebrated the triumph over acne and the discovery of love. Siman, a gay man, is more strictly reportorial in The Beauty Trip, the record of a year or so he spent traveling with Dorothy–a lesbian picture editor at Playboy–to various sites where beauty was being admired or merchandised or sought. He and Dorothy visited Vogue photo shoots, amateur fashion shows, and the gym where a female bodybuilder was training. They accompanied two college women who’d posed nude for Playboy on a publicity tour that included magazine signings at a mini-mart and a disastrous appearance on the Montel Williams Show. Along the way Siman consulted a skin specialist to see if he ought to have a third dermabrasion–he settled for a chemical peel–and Dorothy had her hair styled by the guy who keeps Phyllis McGuire of the McGuire sisters in mint condition. A skeptic until then, Dorothy was coneverted. “When we get back to New York,” Siman reports with satisfaction, “she’s getting her lashes dyed.”
They meet some eccentric people on this journey. There’s Sy Sperling, who founded the Hair Club and made a before-and-after TV commercial starring himself; there’s Dr. Feder, the silky Park Avenue surgeon who’ll inject fat anywhere, from cheeks to penises. But perhaps the most eccentric is star maker and beauty arbiter Eileen Ford, whose modeling agency has launched the career of some of the most recognizable faces of the past few decades–Isabella Rossellini, Lauren Hutton, Christy Turlington–and whose portrait is the centerpiece of the book.
Siman wangled an interview with her by saying, “No book about beauty would be complete without you.” She was unimpressed. “What if I die?” she said, adding impatiently that “beauty is a lot more simple than you writers think.” That simplicity, Siman notes, is telegraphed by the message on her answering machine. “Ford holds interviews for young girls five foot nine and over between the ages of 14 and 19,” it says. If you’re young and tall, come on over; otherwise, stay home.
Not that Ford denies the existence of inner beauty: it’s just that, because it can’t be photographed, she has no time for it. Siman says of her admiringly, “To pay an average-looking model would be, in her eyes, rewarding mediocrity.” There’s something bracing about the depth of her commitment to surfaces: Ford “doesn’t fantasize about turning ugly ducklings into swans,” Siman tells us. “Her job is to turn swans into paid swans.”
Siman’s stance is resolutely nonjudgmental: everyone he interviews is seeking beauty, and for him too it’s a sacred quest. “Beauty is too wonderful to be resented or dismissed,” says this passionate pilgrim. “Beauty is not goodness, but a visible purity nonetheless.”
Like all good quest stories, The Beauty Trip ends on a note of resolution. Dorothy comes to terms with her looks, and while beauty still awes her, she no longer envies beautiful people. Siman is somewhat less serene; we leave him pondering the wisdom of Keats’s “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” while making plans to get his teeth whitened, just in case Keats is wrong.
But the final word goes to art director Sam Shahid, interviewed as he looks over shots for the Gianni Versace ad campaign. “Youth and beauty,” he says. “Ain’t nothin’ like it in the world.”
The Face of Love: Feminism the Beauty Question by Ellen Lambert, Farrar Straus Giroux, $24.
The Beauty Trip by Ken Siman, Pocket Books, $14.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Paul Moch.