For the past few weeks, there have been articles about how what a woman wears can wow men, woo men or weaken men; their behaviour, both verbal and physical, determined apparently, by an image; an appearance, a visage. Too often re the articles, the perception is negative; manifesting as bullying, sexual harassment and in extremis, rape and murder. First, there was the report of a male surgeon who commented that his sexual harassment of a female junior trainee was instigated by ‘what she was wearing’; then, there was an interview with one of the rapists and murderers in India of the young female student on the bus in 2012 for a BBC documentary that commented she ‘was asking for it because of what she was wearing’. Then there was the admission by Abbott’s Minister Assisting for Women about women being judged harsher than men on their physical appearance. Also, a 60-year-old male friend of mine told me when we were discussing these comments that he believed women wearing high heels, high boots and bright, red lipstick, seemed to be announcing they were sexy but he castigated these women because dare he say anything to them approvingly, they would then condemn him for acknowledging that awareness. What he was raising, do these women expect? How should a man react? I’ve been reflecting on all these comments since I read them; nothing really new of course, but to realise that a surgeon can allude to the same superficiality albeit a sexy one at that, as a convicted rapist/murderer is on some levels, indeed alarming, even frightening in its social implications.
On one level, I’m lost for words; I’ve written so much how my own appearance elicited so many different responses during my life from both men AND women, that I can easily despair over the reality that we are so subject to the superficial; and I have no real solution, even a suggestion, about how to not just deal with it all, but how we can get beyond it. Appearance seems to bedevil us all, male and female, from such a young age that I am left wondering whether we’re all just incredibly vain, self-centred individuals who cannot see, appreciate or be interested in others except as determined by appearance. And that for me is about image; how we present ourselves on the surface, a body masquerade that masks, or can mask, who we really are behind it.
Then, just last weekend, there was a double-page spread in a quality Melbourne newspaper about how people, men and women both, will try almost anything in pursuit of beauty, irrespective of how daft or costly it is. Why, at least, asked the journalist? Why indeed, I ponder, when it seems that one young man’s effort to be and remain youthful and consequently beautiful, is due to a ritual that involves sheep placenta, which he gets plastered over his face at a swank dermatology clinic in LA costing $1250 each time. This practice it seems dates back to the 1st century AD when Roman naturalist Pliny The Younger was advising the application of cow placenta as a way of curing facial spots. The article detailed that apparently, beauty regimes will result in a global outlay of $US 121 billion on skincare products. My mother, who didn’t have much spare money to indulge on expensive skincare products, used to use Ponds Cream on her face as a daily ritual, and for years, she always seemed to glow with good health, her skin pale, freckle free and never suntanned. In my late twenties, I once paid out $65 for an expensive French moisturiser in London and suffice to say it really did seem to make my skin glow, too. The company ceased manufacturing that particular cream, and with no money left to try others, I just resorted to Ponds cream, too. For the last few decades, I have just used a cheap moisturiser, and with wrinkles and freckles and some red spots (No, I wouldn’t laser them even if I had the money which I don’t) I use the cream because I have dry skin and the cream actually makes my skin feel looser and less taut. It’s the feeling that counts for me, and damn the looks. I’m not trying to hide my age and I welcome summer and lying in the sun for a light, brown glow so I don’t have to swaddle my face in make-up. I am pale in winter, and have asked myself time and time again why I bother with make-up at all. Suffice to say it just makes me feel good, too, though I use it sparingly and lightly. Skincare costs are just for starters, as there’s ‘cosmetic’ surgery of all types and varieties as well as clothes and apparel and a myriad of health regimes designed to boost our appearance. And today, another newspaper (the most widely-read in Australia), included a full-page tabloid advertisement to ‘drop 2 dress sizes instantly’ without dieting, exercise or cosmetic surgery by wearing a “Body Slimming Vest” which is a modern version of the tight-laced corset worn centuries ago by women. It’s just that there are vests for men, too. The ad promises that “you too can look sleeker, trimmer, younger and more vibrant. You’ll actually enjoy looking in the mirror – again, and again and again. And no one will know you have it on…..” Disturbing? Amusing? Or just plain tragic – cost just $69.95! I used to believe when I was younger that I at times, was somewhat obsessed by my appearance; and as I peruse the papers, magazines and watch TV it seems my interest pales into insignificance for what is now thrust into our faces almost on a daily basis; albeit in different contexts and for different reasons.
The beauty article suggested that much of our attention to our appearance is about mating; and Professor Robert Brooks, director of the Evolution and Ecology Research Centre at UniNSW, suggests that beauty treatments can have a placebo effect…”attractiveness is about confidence….” Moreover, it seems that so much of what people are spending squillions on have been around for centuries including whiter skin; with global sales of creams for this projected to rise to US $19 billion by 2018. And some of the beauty regimens involve chemicals that are risky and dangerous. ‘The things we prefer in our appearance can be very hard to develop, so people are prepared to take risks to try and achieve them,’ Brooks adds. One female blogger on natural skincare regimes, said that ‘many women use beauty products because they feel they need external validation. But really, they need to validate themselves first. They shouldn’t need the validation of others to feel beautiful, but the beauty industry preys on women’s insecurities and self-esteem.’ The article concludes with no definitive answers, asking us as individuals to make up our own mind, and I for one, can only reiterate what I’ve written before; that too many people live on the outside, seeking reassurance and gaining confidence from their superficial appearance, Sadly, it’s also what so many people DO relate to, too; re the surgeon and the rapist, to begin with.
It certainly depresses me that our world as we experience it seems so obsessed with the outside; yet, our physical appearance and that of others does impact on who we are attracted to; not just sexually, but on many other intangible and unconscious levels. I’m always looking at people, their bodies, clothes and their demeanour, oft wondering whether what I perceive on the outside is at all a valid indication of what’s on the inside as I know what people have said about me when I’ve changed my appearance on the outside. And does money and what you can afford even come into it? Is it about being and feeling healthy, energised and vitalised, irrespective of what you’re wearing wherever. And do looking good and feeling good feed into one another for ourselves no matter how others perceive us? Can we really ever validate ourselves as if we’re isolated and alienated from others? Can we ever escape and should we, do we want to, escape from the rituals and regimes involved in feeling good about ourselves? You can answer these questions for yourself, too. I think I’ve exhausted my thoughts about 0appearance. Well, at least for a few months anyway.