perception makes beauty

Heidi has a great post on her blog about the pressures on women to be stick insects, which she feels more strongly because she resides in L.A.

I think most woman suffer from a touch of body dysmorphic disorder, due to the pressures exerted upon us on a daily basis from advertising, television and movies. I know that I felt it strongly as a teenager, but less so as I got older and more secure in my identity. That doesn’t mean that I don’t feel inadequate at times, but I keep it in check. I probably stress more about my writing these days.

Commercials generate need for a product, and the simplest way to do that is to generate a perceived lack or inadequacy in the target market. Personally, I think that the pressure to be the perfect sex kitten, who is also a career woman, and (usually) a capable mother is stronger now than it has ever been before.

No wonder eating disorders are on the rise around the world. It used to be that these were problems that mostly women faced, but now men are succumbing to the pressure and are punishing their bodies for not replicating the plastic model image perpetuated on magazines and television shows.

Recently I’ve noticed that I am disinclined to consider the twig-like woman, or her sculpted male consort attractive. There is something increasingly artificial and samey about them. If you ever watch any of the extreme makeover, or plastic surgery, shows you’ll notice that the people being stamped out at the end of the production line start to look alike.

I’m not the type of person who watches soaps, anyway, but I can’t sit down and view a show like The OC for instance. (It’s the kind of programme that Jack on Will and Grace once said : “Has twenty-year olds playing teenagers and thirty-year olds playing their parents.”) The people turn me off. The masses of straight blond hair, capped teeth, and skinny bodies do not appear natural. I find it very hard to feel or identify with these people. Perhaps this is a reverse prejudice on my part!

I noticed that when I’m watching an American TV show now that I tend to gravitate towards the characters with atypical or unusual features. They stand out because so many around them are like clones from planet Samesville. As much as I like the writing on Desperate Housewives, for instance, the parade of tanned, starved flesh is occasionally too much to bear. Nip/Tuck is a TV series that interrogates society’s attitudes towards beauty, while at the same time it upholds the status quo. It’s a well-written series, but this paradox at its heart bothers me.

Women that attract my eye are Emily Deschanel or Michaela Conlin in Bones, Lisa Sheridan in Invasion, Sandra Oh in Grey’s Anatomy or Carla Gugino in Threshold (they are beautiful women, but not in a Stepford way). In fact, the cast of Threshold is packed with interesting characters, in all shapes and sizes. Likewise, the main players in Boston Legal, such as James Spader, William Shatner and Candice Bergman, are also older, which is downright refreshing, and the show is still funny.

As I remarked recently, both Kung Fu Hustle and Maléfique were chock-full of actors who looked like normal people, and they all played their parts with enthusiasm and panache. It is usually the Indie film market in the USA that showcases the talents of people who are termed “character actors” (a ridiculous term since every actor plays a character): like Angela Bettis, Paul Giamatti, or Jon Heder. It’s always more acceptable for men to have a more unusual look than women.

We’ve seen so many examples of beautiful actors dressed up to look plain or ugly in a film. It’s almost as if they have to strip off their good looks before they can be taken seriously as actors, but the catch is that they have to be pretty to get the work in the first place.

The obvious example of strange opinions on beauty is the 1996 comedy, The Truth About Cats and Dogs. It’s a fun movie, if you can get beyond the fact that Janeane Garofalo is far more alluring in the film than Uma Thurman (and I realise that this is a subjective judgement). It’s hard to imagine why the love interest, Ben Chaplin, fancies Uma over Janeane. I know lots of men who have told me that Janeane was the more interesting, and attractive, of the two. Of course, Ben gets beyond his prejudice of plain women, won over by Janeane’s better personality, but why is it so hard to imagine that he wouldn’t have seen that in the first place? Of course, there wouldn’t have been much of a movie without that issue…

I think the life of an actor today has to be very tough. It’s hard being a writer, and having your work criticised or rejected, but at least you can generate distance between your words and your person. Actors, on the other hand, have to deal with criticism that is leveled at their body. They can be rejected on the most superficial of reasons, without any recognition of their craft. It’s got to be almost impossible to withstand such a barrage and retain a healthy and secure sense of identity.

Life is about variety. I’d like to see more of it on TV and at the movies.