Flawless is an illusion

If you are a woman, the scrutiny on our physical appearance is ruthless and relentless.

Has our obsession with wanting to see perfect images of female celebrities become so great that it makes the news?
Has our obsession with wanting to see perfect images of female celebrities become so great that it makes the news?

I was at the bank recently where they had the TV switched on to CNN and to my astonishment one of the headline stories concerned Beyoncé’s non-photoshopped photos which had been leaked to the media. The heading was “Beyoncé photos spark debate”. Has it really come to this? Has our obsession with wanting to see perfect images of female celebrities become so great that it makes the news? I will answer my own question and say, yes.

Wow. Who knew that without the magic of digital enhancement a normal woman’s skin was not perfectly flawless, untouched by blemishes?  It’s even more ironic that one of Beyoncé’s hit songs is called Flawless where she sings with much self-irony that “I woke up like this”. The fact is (as every woman who regularly wears make-up knows only too well) very few of us actually “wake up like this”. “This” is the picture perfect image we all try to present to the world, because if you are a woman, the scrutiny on our physical appearance is ruthless and relentless.

Ah, the miracles which a little eyeliner and mascara can do. Even some of those who bravely tried to post “no make-up selfies” as a statement to raise awareness for breast cancer, could not quite bring themselves to really face a camera completely barefaced, and still snuck in the old trustworthy eyeliner. Not that I’m blaming you ladies; I’m just as vain when it comes to photos because that is what years of conditioning by society and media messages has done to my female psyche.

This conditioning which makes us size up other women in a way which we never do with men

I think it is also this conditioning which makes us size up other women in a way which we never do with men. When it comes to celebrities, of course, our scrutiny and unrealistic expectations are magnified by a million. Something similar to the Beyoncé incident happened a few weeks ago when photos of a drastically differently looking Uma Thurman appeared on my newsfeed. Yes, OK I admit that I, too, remarked about how different she looked (but, in my defense) it was only because it seemed like some kind of plastic surgery gone wrong. Others pointed out that she had merely aged, and what was wrong with that?

The argument which ensued revolved around whether we expect actresses to remain the same, untouched by the process of aging which affects the rest of us mere mortals. My own point was that there is huge pressure on female stars to remain youthful looking, which is why so many are prepared to go under the knife even at the risk of coming out looking like they had had a complete face transplant to alter their identity (Renee Zellwegger is another case in point). The fact that actresses are willing to subject themselves to the inherent risks of cosmetic surgery in an attempt to artificially freeze their looks into eternal youth is a sad indictment on just how cruel society is to these women.

No matter how gifted an actress is at her craft, we cannot get around the blatant truism that fame and stardom favour the young. Whenever I hear any actress of a certain age interviewed, she inevitably, ruefully, remarks that “these days” she is only asked to play the role of the mother. I can imagine that it is a bitter pill for them to swallow to see their male counterparts, no matter how bald, wrinkly and paunchy they have become, continue being cast as the leading man who “gets the girl” until he is in his 70s (Jack Nicholson comes to mind). Meanwhile, Hollywood keeps on churning out nubile, gorgeous young things by the minute who will be cast in the role of the hot, sexy, female lead.

Even on TV shows such as Modern Family, we are supposed to believe that the impossibly gorgeous Colombian bombshell Gloria (Sofia Vargara) is married to the completely unattractive, considerable older, Jay (Ed O’Neill). Off the top of my head, I can think of at least three other sitcoms where this kind of mismatched casting has happened: King of Queens (Carrie with Doug – really?), Friends (Rachel and Ross… oh come on) and According to Jim (Jim and Cheryl, hmm, I don’t think so).

No matter how much we try and convince ourselves otherwise, society is much more unforgiving of women, which is why the beauty industry will never go bust.

In each case the woman is stunning and the man is well, let’s just say, not so stunning. But I cannot think of any example where it was the other way around. In fact, in sitcoms where the woman has not been the typical size O but has been on the heavier side, such as in Roseanne and Mike & Molly, the casting directors made sure that the man was equally hefty and ordinary-looking, rather than casting some hunk. Now why is that? I wonder whether it is because audiences would not have bought the premise precisely because it so rarely happens in real life.  

No matter how much we try and convince ourselves otherwise, society is much more unforgiving of women, which is why the beauty industry will never go bust. As long as we all continue to believe that we have to be “perfect”, we will continue comparing ourselves to the impossible media images of stars and celebrities whose every wrinkle and hint of cellulite has been erased with photoshop.

We need to come to a point when we see Beyoncé’s blemished skin, or an untouched photo of Cindy Crawford stomach full of stretch marks and it fails to make the news. We need to shatter the illusion that these women are goddesses who have escaped the flaws which afflict the rest of us because this illusion has only made us flog ourselves silly in perpetual self-criticism.

I think as women we need to try and be kinder to each other, but that can only begin when we start being kinder and more accepting of ourselves.

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