Tag Archives: beauty

The Performance of Beauty

Last year at Stroud Theatre Festival I saw a woman perform beauty. It was in the context of a one woman play in which that one woman was playing many different roles. The character she started out with was quite dowdy. I watched her create an impression of beauty and glamour with just a few minor costume tweaks. The rest was all body language and attitude. Part of me remains convinced that it was also witchcraft.

That a person could be captivating, charming and irresistible because they have chosen to present themselves that way, is a thought I have wrangled with rather a lot. Having seen the contrast between the dowdy character and the glamorous one, I have to concede that appearance might be a very small part of what we register as beauty. It also suggests that beauty is not an inherent quality some people have. It’s not something you have to starve yourself for, or buy expensive clothes for. It’s a way of being in the world.

Advertisers invest a lot of time and money in persuading us that we aren’t beautiful unless we have their products. Most of us never get to feel good enough as we are. We don’t imagine that a presentation shift – even If aided by a few modest props – could be the key. I’ve seen it done.

To perform beauty is to deliberately draw attention to yourself, to your body, your face, your presence as a sexual entity, the possibilities of you. We can be persuaded to admire the people who present themselves as worthy of admiration – I’ve seen it done on a few occasions by people who were, to my eye at least, not especially beautiful. But then, what I find beautiful in a person has everything to do with kindness, soulfulness, and the bodily quality I most reliably find beauty in, is the voice.

I’ve never set out to do beauty as a performance. I can’t really imagine doing it. Where I’ve seen people doing it effectively, I’ve often felt uncomfortable with it. I acknowledge that envy is part of that, but I also have a deep unease about using that kind of glamour to entrance people. I’m not at all sure I like how that works or where it goes. I’d like to think that if I believed I could perform beauty in that way, I wouldn’t do it. Mostly it seems to be about getting attention, and I’d rather get attention for making something beautiful – be that my clothing, or my song, my stories or my dance.

I’m increasingly persuaded that beauty is created by what we do and has precious little to do with appearance. Sometimes it means performing in-line with other people’s expectations about beauty, and that tends to be the territory that makes me most uneasy, because currently the performance of beauty is so often about women performing for the male gaze, which is narrow, and restrictive.


Body Shape Stories

I grew up with the story that ‘thin’ was the only acceptable body shape. There could be no beauty without thinness. As I was not thin, I was not attractive and it was unlikely that anyone would love me. I was told explicitly on one occasion (I was probably twelve or thirteen) that no one would ever want me because I was so fat. These stories informed my sense of self, and my sense of who I should be.

I spent my teens failing to be thin. I have the kind of body that gets efficient under pressure, and stores hard in a crisis, and my attempts at dieting looked too much like a crisis to my body. At some points I was down to one meal a day. The story of trying to be thin was more important than any other story. Even though it was never what I truly wanted for myself.

What I really wanted, was to be strong. From late childhood, I rather wanted to be Batman. This body was never going to run fast or climb ropes or leap between buildings, but even so, Batman was a much better story to tell myself. Had I been supported in going with my Batman story, I would have spent my teens trying my hardest to be fit and strong. I would have eaten good food to support my body in being as Batman-like as it could be. I would have been a happier and healthier person.

I’ve spent my whole life fighting against a story that says female beauty is thin, delicate, fragile, down to the bones and looks easy to break. That story has lived in my head, even though it doesn’t match my sense of self. I still want to be Batman. Or Vasquez from Aliens. I want to be strong. And in many ways it is a better investment, for now, and for the long term.

I don’t like it when people read stories into my body about who I am and what I might want to do. I don’t like it when people I don’t know at all want to engage with me on the basis of how my face looks. I don’t find bone thin fragility attractive in other women either, it just worries me. I’m conscious of the way the emaciated ‘beauty’ notion comes to us from the Victorians fetishing women who were dying of tuberculosis. I don’t like the awareness that women who take up less space are preferable in some environments.

The older a person gets, the less scope they have to be ‘pretty’ as society likes to measure it. However, the thin, fragile, delicate older woman is vulnerable in so many ways. I don’t want to age with fragile, brittle grace. I want to be strong. I am not, in my later life, going to get to be Batman, I accept that. But, if I am strong, I will do better. I will be healthier, and happier, and have a body story it is possible to live with, not a body story that would kill me if it got the chance.


Glamour

In fairy folklore, glamour is the magic fairies have that make them seem beautiful and alluring. Glamour hides the dirt and squalor, the mean faces, the bones… it struck me that this kind of magic is something some humans also seek.

I’m pro beauty. I think making and seeking beauty is a good use of energy – especially when there are more diverse possibilities around beauty. I like the beauty of twisted trees and older, more lived in human faces. I like the beauty that a warm heart gives a person. I like creative beauty made from innovation and joy in how we present ourselves. I don’t like glamour.

Beauty is always intended to be real. Glamour is intended to persuade. It’s the harnessing of sexual attractiveness to try and hold power over others. It’s a contrivance to sell product – and often in our visual media, it’s been processed beyond anything the human body can achieve. The glamour of glamorous fashion magazines is often about as real and healthy as the fairy glamour of folklore.

In Paganism, it’s the person who is busy selling you their face, and their look rather than their ideas. This of course draws on the norms of mainstream advertising, but it isn’t very ethical. The book and the workshop won’t make you glamorous, but by associating glamour with product you may be tempted to reach after what you can’t have – and here we are back at the goblin market, eyeing up the forbidden fruit.

We’re easily moved by human beauty. We want it, and we want to be it. The less glamorous you feel yourself to be the more vulnerable you may be to the glamour of others. Gods know, I’ve been there. The less experienced you are in your path and craft, the more the persuasive are the people who glamorously look the part. I’ve been there too, hankering after surfaces because I was twenty-something and inexperienced and the glamorous stuff is eyecatching. But like fairy fruit, it won’t nourish you. The glamour you crave remains out of reach, but you keep paying for it, running round after it and feeling inadequate in the face of it… after a while you can tell it was glamour all along because it leaves you threadbare and unhappy, but by then the damage is done.

There is a beauty that comes to people who do the work. I see it in Jane Meredith, in Cat Treadwell, and Rachel Patterson, to name some visible examples. I see it a lot in people in the Pagan community who are living their magic, and who are suffused by it. It’s a softer, subtler thing, permeating through who people are and what they do. I see the other ones as well, and I see the power of their glamour to attract and persuade. If you can, it’s always worth stopping to ask whether they are selling you glamour – the gold coins that will be dead leaves by next morning, or whether there is any substance to what’s being put forward.


Kindness and honesty

This week I read an excellent article by Meg-John Barker, about kindness and honesty – it’s over here https://www.rewriting-the-rules.com/conflict-break-up/kindness-and-honesty-can-we-have-one-without-the-other/ and it has got me thinking about how we frame honesty in the normal scheme of things.

Often honesty is presented as a hard thing – to be brutally honest. Telling it like it is, adds a slapdown into a conversation that implies that how the other person thinks it is, is wrong, rubbish, useless. Hard truth is something we have to take. There’s often something macho and combative about it. I’ve seen the notion that what is being said is the truth used to justify a great deal of innate unkindness. Truth and honesty can be a way of excusing, or justifying verbal aggression, putdowns and meanness.

We also tend to encounter truth in a singular form. I think this has a lot to do with the dominance of monotheistic religions. One God. One truth. One true way. In practice, truth can depend a lot on perspective. People don’t tend to come to conclusions about things for no reason at all, and if you aren’t willing or able to square up to why they hold something as truth, challenging it will only entrench them. We may want plain and simple truth, but often truth turns out to be a messy, multifaceted thing, full of history and perception, and belief even when there seem to be a lot of ‘hard facts’ involved.

Keats took us round the notion that beauty is truth, truth beauty. Beauty is a very subjective idea, more in the eye of the beholder than truth is normally held to be. In terms of applying ideas to life, I’ve found this notion reliably useless. It doesn’t help me do anything, it doesn’t tell me anything. It just sounds good. But what if truth is kindness? Certainly the reversal isn’t true, apparent kindness cannot be counted on to be truth. As the blog I linked to points out, kindness that isn’t true is just setting up some serious unkindness for later on.

I think there’s a huge problem in how we all talk to each other – especially around politics – that truth justifies unkindness. That to have your honesty taken seriously, you must be brutal and pull no punches. That kindness is inherently a bit suspect, and is probably softening or fudging something rather than dealing with how it really is. The idea of brutal truth supports toxic behaviour. It justifies being abusive to people we think know less than us and have poor reasoning skills rather than feeling obliged to try and help them. Brutal honesty also enables people who want to have their conversations by hurling insults and criticism – and if you challenge it, well, that’s because you’re a snowflake and can’t hear how things really are.

I’m going to look harder for kindness in truth, and be less willing to accept that truth itself is a reason to accept unkindness from those dishing out their certainties.


Beauty and the beholder

Beauty in nature takes so many forms. An old, gnarled tree is beautiful. A barren landscape (if natural) can have its own stark beauty. Meandering rivers are beautiful. Woods and fields, hills, mountains, marshes, dunes – all have their own beauty. Insects, mammals, fish and birds are beautiful. Toadstools are beautiful. We all have our favourites, but no one will troll you on twitter for the size of the hare’s thighs, or the stomach shape of a manatee. Even the least tree-friendly people don’t try to make claims about the trees being ugly.

People are a whole other thing. We look at each other harshly. This is absolutely a white northern hemisphere thing. I expect Australia and New Zealand work the same way. We denigrate people who don’t conform to narrow white standards of beauty. There’s plenty of scope for racism in the mix here. Ageism is absolutely part of it – not looking like an adult is a key part of what we treat as beautiful in women. That’s rather creepy. Men are allowed some signs of maturity, but must maintain youthful standards in teeth and muscles at the very least.

Not only do we judge each other, but we shame each other for not looking like photoshopped magazine articles. I grew up feeling completely unlovable because I was not considered an attractive child. It’s something I carry with me still, and probably always will to some degree. It is a difficult thing to go into the world with a body and face that you do not think other people will be able to put up with. Or that you fear they will reject. I’m aware that I’m passably symmetrical, I have all the usual facial features and body parts in reasonable working order and conventional configuration. I’m aware that my reasons for anxiety are entirely about how I’ve been treated, and that there must be many people who are less conforming than me and have greater reasons for anxiety about how their faces will be judged.

On the flip side, I’ve also had the experience of being told that I am devastatingly sexually attractive. So attractive, that I could hardly expect a man to control his behaviour around me. So attractive that my body could cause him to do things he had no control over. I was told I could hardly blame him for that. While generally feeling unattractive has been a lifelong discomfort, the idea of being so attractive that no one can be held responsible for what they do to me, is terrifying. Even though I know it’s a disgusting, responsibility avoiding lie. These days, I’m married to someone who can express attraction without any need to harm me at all, and it puts the past into perspective. The damage remains.

When it comes to how I see other people, I’m much more interested in the beauty a person creates, than the accident of their appearance. Most of how we look, we have limited control over. I like how kindness looks on a person. I like laughter and warmth, compassion and friendship acting on a body. I like how a person’s eyes look when they love whatever they’re looking at. Bodies expressing themselves joyfully are beautiful. People sharing their creativity, enjoying their clothing, or their own skin, are beautiful. The only qualities I find ugly in a person are meanness and cruelty and things of that ilk.


Beauty is as beauty does

While I can and do appreciate the many forms in which physical human beauty can manifest, I’ve never found it terribly persuasive. A beautiful image has undeniable charm, and I’ll cheerfully look, but I’ve never acted on the power of visual beauty alone. I’m more interested in what a person does, who they are, how they are. The apparently beautiful face looks very different when sneering, or delivering a vicious putdown.

I’ve noticed over and over again how my sense of the beauty of a person comes far more from who they are than any pattern of physical characteristics. Generosity, humour, creativity, passion, honour, courage, integrity, intensity, compassion… these things cause people to be beautiful. If I see greed, cruelty, mean spiritedness, one upmanship, jealousy, and the like, there can be no real beauty in that face. Of course in practise we’re all complex mixes of feelings and we all run a broad spectrum and what matters is where a person spends most of their time.

I fell in love with Tom before I met him. I fell in love with him without hearing his voice, or having any idea what, if anything, the body chemistry would be like. On the day of posting this, we have been married 6 years, and I expect us to be together for life. I fell in love with his ideas, his art, his creativity and the person I came to know through emails. He fell in love with my writing first. I trust this more than I trust the appeal of a face, or a nice bum.

One of the problems with bodies is that they change. We tend to get older, we wrinkle, sag, blemish, illness and accident can change us dramatically. I’d rather wake up next to a person who is full of love, kindness and a desire to co-operate than the most perfectly toned abdomen in the world, if it’s attached to someone unkind. I’d rather the face into which time has carved laughter lines, or marked with grief, than a face augmented to show nothing at all.

If I love who someone is, and how they are, and what they do, then I will love the physical form they take. I will love the details of them – warts and all, in delight and acceptance. Equally, if I find someone unpleasant, no amount of the visual aspect will impact on me at all.


Questions of beauty

At the moment, I’m reading Jane Meredith’s ‘Aphrodite’s Magic’ which is raising a lot of questions for me about how we think about beauty. I’m reminded of things Penny Billington said at Druid Camp this year about how we view trees compared to how we view people. It’s much easier to see the beauty in a tree, and to accept the bumps, twists, eccentricities, damage and so forth as part of what makes the tree itself, not things that detract from beauty. When it comes to judging humans, we’re a lot more critical.

I recognise this is a whole subject area that makes me very uneasy. I can talk about beauty in regards to anything that isn’t a human person. Once we get round to the subject of people I feel tense. I’m more willing to think about how we craft beauty, through clothes choices, decoration, movement, or how the grace in a soul can shape a face. The accident of our genetic makeup and the degree to which it conforms to a narrow bandwidth of culturally defined norms, is something I don’t get excited about. I’ve never been that excited about the kind of youth-beauty, shiny, unmarked and fresh out of its clingfilm wrap, that seems to dominate at the moment. I like people who (with all due reference to Stranger in a Strange Land) have their own face.

Of course even so, as a teen and a young woman, I wanted to be beautiful and agonised over the fact that I wasn’t. Always too plump, fighting a losing battle against a pale skin dark body hair combination, broad shouldered. Even so, I chose muscle bulk (for drumming, and later for Viking re-enactment) over seeking waifdom, repeatedly. I chose not to invest vast amounts of time in nails, hair, makeup, accessories. I didn’t have the patience for it. I also felt that trying to hide my rather plain face under a lot of makeup in order to feign a beauty I didn’t possess, was a bit pointless. Largely persuaded by the need to fit in with mainstream beauty norms even though I’m not at all attracted to those same norms in other people, I never considered that I might be ok on my own terms.

I’m going to make a conscious effort to think about beauty. Not magazine beauty. Not movie beauty. The people around me, with no reference to age, gender, race, body shape or personal style. The idea that people could be looked at like trees, in appreciation not criticism. The idea, tentatively, that it might be possible to consider life as beautiful, just for being, and to remove all the weight of judgemental baggage from the experience of being in the world.


Sufficient

It is one of the best feelings I know of: The feeling of sufficiency, and a sense that the sufficiency will last. For many of us westerners, there is an excess of the material such that we cannot recognise abundance, much less enjoy it. At the same time our emotional, spiritual and intellectual lives can be desperately impoverished – often because we’re expending so much effort on earning the money to buy the things, that living comes a poor second. In all non-material ways, we tend towards insufficiency.

To know that you have enough brings peace and contentment. Recognition of material sufficiency is liberating. Why suffer anxiety over social status, the perceptions of others, ‘keeping up’ and all that other nonsense designed to keep us consuming, when you can have the peace of ‘enough’?

Enough good food and clean water. Enough warmth and shelter. Enough useful clothing. Enough rest, peace and safety. Those are the basics of sufficiency. Only when we recognise them can we hope to also recognise how unacceptable it is that so many people in our wealthy world lack for these things. They should be available to all. We should be ashamed to wallow in excess.

Recognising material sufficiency makes it easier to see what is good. A wide screen television is not happiness, nor is a new car. You might do things with them that make you happy sometimes, but the object is not happiness. The experience of beauty is a far more reliable form of happiness, but we are destroying the beauties of the natural world to make the objects that are not embodiments of joy. Companionship is happiness, but the work patterns that pay for the objects make us ever more socially isolated. We stay at home with the screen that is not beauty, is not companionship and is not happiness, but does a poor imitation of all three.

Objects are not happiness, and so in our object filled lives we are not happy, but we’ve been taught to deal with that by getting ever more objects. This is a game that no one gets to win.


Three kinds of beauty

There are, I think three forms of beauty. Not all are equally available to all people at all times. All are equally valid, and valuable, and some are prone to abuse and exploitation…

The beauty of body: This can come from having good genes, being fit, healthy and is most readily available to the young. It tends to be associated with breeding potential, but that’s not the only thing at stake here. At any age, health and fitness to whatever degree you can manage them confer some degree of physical beauty. Almost anyone can seek the beauty of graceful movement as well. These things are most attainable for the young.

It is worth noting that a huge industry exists around dieting and fitness, which focuses our collective attention on certain forms of physical beauty at the expense of others. There is also a huge industry around ‘beauty products’ basically mimicking or replacing the appearance of good health – sleek hair, good skin etc. We are encouraged to replace the actual beauties of healthy existence with the bottled illusion of it, and to consider the illusion more important than the actuality.

Body adornment and modification creates beauty through skill and artistry. This can be manifested through how we dress, what we do with our hair, tattoos, jewellery and other forms of decoration. This is beauty based on taste, skill and creativity, it is a beauty that is born of the mind and is available to anyone at any life stage who wishes to hone their abilities. Adornment can be highly expressive, and may be more representative of the inner person than the genetically sourced biology we happen to stand up in.

Again, there is a huge industry around this kind of beauty, in which your creativity is replaced with fashion, designer goods, and other people’s ideas. We are encouraged to think that what we buy is better, aesthetically, than what we might put together for ourselves. We are given very narrow options in terms of what, at any point in time, is deemed beautiful.

Finally, there is beauty of soul. This is the beauty that comes to a person who has lived richly and well, has made peace with themselves. It is the beauty of a face that has smiled a lot and eyes that have love in them. Anyone can achieve this over time if they live in ways that take them towards warmth, compassion and joy. It is more available to people in their later years than to the very young. There is no industry offering to replace this for you, and as a consequence it is the form of beauty our culture has least interest in and tends not even to mention.

The beauty that is your own, coming from who you are and how you live is worth celebrating. I am convinced that the ‘beauty’ we feel pressured into buying in shapes we are told are the only acceptable ones, is not worth having at all. It is simply a way of making us cough up money. Cultural definitions of beauty are dreadful. That the beautiful bodies of powerful female athletes get their muscles photo-shopped out by the media says it all really. The bodies of women who have born children. The scarred bodies, the ones that were never perfectly symmetrical, the faces that are striking rather than pretty all have a value, all deserve to be celebrated in their own right.

Each of us should have the right to explore beauty on our own terms, or not bother with it at all if it does not offer us something we want. The pressure to be all the same, all ‘beautiful’ in the sense of skinny, youthful appearance with narrow wardrobe options… means that no one gets to shine. If we didn’t all have to try and live up to these impossible demands, maybe those of us who have honed and capable bodies would be more fairly celebrated. Maybe those who are truly creative in the beauty of their adornment would be allowed to stand out. Maybe we would start to see the beauty of age and wisdom. We don’t all have to be Disney Princesses, and there would be more room for true beauty in the world if we were able to work with what we have rather than trying to fit those restrictive models.


Seasonal soundscapes

One of the things I find hard about the winter is that, needing to have the windows shut most of the time, I can’t hear much of what’s outside. I suspect that for any of our ancestors not living in a castle, this was less of an issue. Single glazing is much more permeable for sound. Modern building is far more deliberately soundproofed than ever before. In part this is because we create such noisy environments. We need to shut out the sounds of our traffic and shut in the private noise of our entertainment.

One of my delights in moving into the warmer part of the year, is having the windows open. We’re lucky in that we have a lot of owls, and could hear their piercing cries even with everything shut. Now however, I go to sleep listening to the murmur of gently flowing water. Apparently this closeness to running water is something I’d craved my whole life without really knowing it! I wake up to the dawn chorus. Actually, I wake before the dawn, as the first birds do. The singing starts well before it gets light.

This is a daily reminder of the glorious beauties of nature, and the wonder of human ignorance. We do not really know why birds sing at dawn. Some birds also sing at dusk – blackbirds sing the sun down as well as up, and the owls all have a good sing when they’re getting started of an evening. We don’t know why. Maybe it’s about territory. Maybe some other kind of information is being shared. Perhaps it is a warm up in a more literal sense.

My personal suspicion, is that they sing because they can.