So strong is the memory of the sound of glass slippers running down the stairs of the palace! On my sixth birthday, my parents gave me a beautiful pink Cinderella watch. It had to be wound daily, and my father was kind and patient when he taught me how to take care of it. Every night, I would fall asleep with my ear to the watch, its mechanism curiously generating the sound of Cinderella’s glass slippers perpetually running down palace steps.
The Rodgers and Hammerstein version of Cinderella first aired on television in 1965. Lesley Ann Warren was enthralling. I remember really wanting to be her; an ash girl who, with a sparkly dress, glass slippers and the wave of a wand, became an enchanting princess, stunning everyone with her beauty. I didn’t think much about the prince- in fact I remember wishing some other guy had played the part; I just wanted to be that princess.
When I evolved into a teenage woman, I would occasionally buy either Seventeen, Glamour, or Vogue (magazines- for the uninitiated). I bought them for specific reasons; mainly, make-up tips, outfit ideas, and advice on relationships. However, I wasn’t allowed to wear make-up, period; I had little to work with in the garment arena and outfit creativity was akin to circus clownery; and, I was not allowed to go on a date until I was 17. I guess you could say I was planning for my future.
Coming into an awareness of what face and body I presented to the world was frightening and embarrassing. When I realized that outside, unsolicited, assessments were being conducted on my body size and shape, facial configuration, foot size, hair quality, etc., I felt like I was naked in church. I felt ashamed. I heard a woman say once that you don’t really see yourself until you are being seen. Upon the realization that I was being looked at and judged, I began judging myself by dissecting and studying every part of my body. Fashion magazines were an authoritative source on the modern female aesthetic, and I used them to assess what value my parts held in beauty currency.
However, I noticed that any increase in beauty value correlated with an increase in particular types of complications. There were certain things that made me feel disturbed about what I looked like.
A brief list of triggers quickly come to mind:
Pixanne, Bucktooth Rabbit, Milky Way, Four Eyes Train Tracks, No I Don’t Want to Trade Hair, Bad Company Tee, Get in the Car Bitch, Party Fingers and Pink Checks, Come Ride with Me, Open the Door, Dr. Gregory Smith, Carpet and Drapes, Need A Ride?, The Big Boy, Bedroom Eyes, Test Drive, $400 to Party With Us, Severe Forehead, your word Against HIS, Dr. Bandy, Girl Friday, He’s Got a Family, Not You-Her…
Reading like a strange poem, each phrase is a semi-cryptic placeholder for a particularly painful memory that I have- like skewers that remain in my flesh and impinge growth and movement. There are many more, and some things are simply buried and should never be unearthed.
After regurgitating that cocotte de mauvais souvenirs, I feel a swell of anger; not a sigh of relief. Clearly, there were many points in my past where more emphasis was placed on being a pretty girl over being any of the other things that I was. Every adult, without exception, admonished me when I was not being lady-like. Praise came in the same package. The seed of self-monitoring was carefully instilled, nurtured, and reinforced. That Cinderella watch was both a gift and a curse.
I have two questions, really: What makes me yearn to be beautiful? Why is being beautiful so hazardous?
I don’t think it matters why I want to be beautiful. What matters more is the societal response to a woman’s appearance. Another brick for the wall that was well underway, was delivered via somewhat-biased media coverage of one young woman’s tragedy. The media and those following the story, as it went through all its iterations, felt the need to reconcile the senselessness of the crime. We were all looking for Marla’s culpability in her own victimization. Marla Hanson moved from Missouri to New York following a job promotion. She did some part time modeling for extra money and her modeling career took off in the 1980’s. Unfortunately, her beauty garnered the attention of her unsavory landlord, Steve Roth, who made sexual advances which she rebuffed. One night, in June 1986, he called her out of a bar and stood by while two men he had hired, slashed her face repeatedly with a razor blade. The attack left 3 deep wounds that required over 100 stitches and caused permanent scarring. The two attackers ran off while Roth remained and pretended to be her boyfriend for the police report. The trial was horrendous as defense attorneys impugned her character with a ‘disgusting and filthy’ (Marla Hanson, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marla_Hanson, accessed Nov. 30, 2018) line of questioning. The psychological scars of the betrayal of the justice system and the media proved to be much deeper that the ones on her face.
This story has, ever since, haunted me, and has served as a cautionary tale on the perils of being too beautiful, or saying anything when victimized because of it. It is dangerous.
There is a raging war on women. Clicking through links from one video clip to another, I managed to deviate from motivational women speakers on beauty to ‘Gavin McInnes: Feminism Makes Women Ugly’. (Gavin McInnes: Feminism Makes Women Ugly, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qPXmMNru44Q, Accessed Nov. 30, 2018) McInnes, wearing a ridiculous swami costume and mimicking a middle eastern accent, carps about all the beautiful women and attractive black guys whose existence creates feelings of inferiority, bitterness, and animosity. He offers his solution: make them ugly by zapping them with a magic spell that he calls ‘Feminism’. He then proceeds to amaze us with his before and after (feminism) pictures; flicking through them with each stab of his wand. The legion of misogynists is growing with every hashtag-me-too and any feminist outburst. Misogyny is a deep cultural issue. It’s so pervasive that even women unwittingly and routinely join in on women-bashing.
I concern myself with the part that women’s magazines play. This form of media is not as innocuous as I once believed. For one thing, most beauty advice generates a sudden awareness of new problems that are conveniently resolved by products that the magazines’ advertisers offer. Articles about fashion intimidate readers to empty their bank accounts and charge up their credit cards to keep their closets fresh and relevant. Advice on relationship issues instill new anxieties and feelings of inferiority; thus chaining the reader to subscribership. But the worst assault of all is the visual pummeling of tall flawless, thin, but endowed, women. What they wear or what they use is what we want to buy. It harkens back to my magical childhood vision of transformation: I could be Cinderella with a sparkly gown, glass slippers and a fairy godmother wand blast. And if that weren’t destructive enough, men’s magazines feature the same women, but with little to no clothes on. Men use these images to police our appearance, keeping us feeling ashamed and insignificant. Sports Illustrated maintains a website devoted to all past swimsuit models (SI Swimsuit Models, https://www.si.com/swimsuit/models, Accessed Nov. 30, 2018) and most are featured in the women’s fashion magazines I read, as well.
Psychologically researched and designed, these fashion magazines end up going home with me when I am feeling the lowest. Beautiful, shiny, fashion magazines offer me an escape through the fantasy of future appearance, figure, and lifestyle possibilities. It’s a serenely beautiful and comforting experience until the next mirror slams me into reality. Ouch. Only men think that women stare at mirrors in vanity. Women know that mirrors are harsh critics and those who employ them often are self-flagellating masochists.
A mistake that I make when viewing the paper parade of ‘I’ll-never-be’s, is giving away my power to a bound stack, of mass-produced, printed, clay-coated, paper just because it made a brief (in relation to its existence) visit on the way to its forever home: the landfill. I don’t totally consider it a waste if I reframe my purchase and perusal as creative research or inspiration. The distorted photographs I have made, that became the source material for a small series of unusual paintings, was one endeavor that came forth from my engagement with fashion magazines. Further exploration involved wrinkling and photographing pages torn from these magazines. This is my current practice. I have experimented with various mediums, substrates and sizes to arrive at my current body of work. The oversized oil paintings on (temporarily) unstretched primed linen are loosely painted; and these layered, wrinkled, pages flow across the surface like silk designer scarves. I allowed portions of high end designer logos to come forth as a reiteration of the image’s reference material. The large watercolors are more intimate expressions of a single page, featuring models and the objects they embellish. The faces and bodies are disfigured by the folds to diminish the psychological pain their manufactured beauty and flawlessness triggers. I am enamored of the basic elements of color and design and I choose which pages to crumple; what gets revealed or hidden. I put the power of beauty in my hands.
The wrinkles hold significance for me because they disrupt flawlessness and disfigure youthfulness. Wrinkles are unavoidable and unfixable. These magazines are insidiously critical of aging women, regardless of their ‘aging gracefully’ propaganda speckling each issue. Insecurities are generated merely to increase sales for advertisers of creams, serums, make-up, and procedures; both invasive and non-invasive. None of it rewinds the years. Why are we valued the least when we have the most wisdom and life experience? Wrinkles should be celebrated, not erased. The double standard is glaringly emphasized with the notion that men become distinguished as they age while women become crones.
The preoccupation with appearance and hyper-awareness of flaws is a manufactured and perpetuated condition that generates a deficit from our finite amount of personal resources. It is a snipe hunt and we are sent off in the opposite direction of personal success and away from the bigger arena where the men play. I derive great pleasure wrinkling these beautifully destructive messages and painting them as large as I can afford.