The beauty game has shifted. That much is clear. A friend and I were sitting about trying to define and track this change of direction, determine how it came about. We’re not sure and we don’t know, but we’re enjoying the fact of it and the world it’s created.
In my youth, and in most of the history of youth (huh?), there was and has been one ideal of beauty. Each generation and gender had its own, one clear image of she-who-is-beautiful, he-who-is-to-be-emulated, a template, a model, who was often, in fact, a model, or a sports figure, against which we could each measure ourselves and develop a long list of ways in which we fell short.
In my day that clear image was Farrah. Farrah Fawcett of the swimsuit issue. Farrah Fawcett of the hair. Jill Munroe of Charlie’s Angels. And yes, of course, a very accomplished actress of stage and screen whose body of work includes important-to-women movies like “The Burning Bed,” but in my day we all worked very hard to iconize the woman for her looks alone.
So we had this template, called Farrah. We placed the template over the image we saw in our full-length mirrors. And then we’d set about trying to fulfill the template using what we each had as material. We tried for the hair, we tried for the body, we tried for the smile, the smile, the smile.
When we couldn’t get there, our hair became over-teased, over-bleached, over-sprayed, over-processed. We might cover our mouths when we smiled if we just couldn’t get the smile right. We dieted and vomited and purged to try to achieve the little curled up body in the famous poster. Some of us dieted to death. Some of us are still killing ourselves with these diets. I’m not talking about today’s teenagers, here. I’m talking about the women who are now in their 40s and 50s and still working against the poster. You know the poster.
But take a look at beauty today. Not in the magazines, but on the streets, in the schools. Perhaps it’s a matter of having hundreds of channels instead of just three. Perhaps all of the messages about the importance of building a child’s self-esteem early and reinforcing it often are getting through to us. Somehow young women have done it. I think they’ve done it. They have managed, as a generation to shatter the single ideal. They have multiplied, expanded, blasted apart the rules for what is attractive.
Hang out in a city center or on a college campus for a day. There appear to be no templates. Clearly young women today are working on their own beauty. That is, though some may still diet dangerously, most seem willing to adorn rather than hide their own shapes, and as a society they are embracing not only new shapes, but many of them. Thin is still in, but so is full. So is generous. Sculpted and ripped have their place, but right alongside soft and squishy. Small breasts are proud. Tan is not nearly as smart as untanned or as beautiful as black, but still accepted. Big hair, tiny hair, and medium hair all work. Glasses rock, clearly. Romantic frills can walk down the same aisle as bondage chain-mail and leather. “No look” is a very clear alternative look.
The more not-like-anyone-else a woman is, the better, obviously. Or so it seems. Oh there are still trends, and ubiquitous fashion. There must be that. But clearly things have loosened up, far more for women then for men, perhaps. Men are still fighting the same few templates they’ve lived with for centuries, the same few the Fab Five could abolish, but seem instead to perpetuate. Each gender is hardest on itself, and no gender more resistant to change then men, hetero-, homo-, and metro-sexuals, inclusive.
My friend, a fellow, finds this all very confusing. In our day it was clear to him who the most desirable women were. There were clear winners: women with the confidence that came from fulfilling the template with the least amount of effort. It was not so much the hair and teeth, but their confidence that gave them their edge.
“If I were a young man today,” he said, “I’d have whiplash.” There are confident women everywhere, and none of them look like the next one. “It’s confusing,” says he. “In a very good way.” Where in one restaurant there might be one clear beauty, today every woman is beautiful. Where at one time a woman who had no hope of achieving the template would give in, give up, fade to wallpaper, now she can present her own beautiful self with great confidence.
This change in young women is already influencing young men. And darned if it isn’t influencing older folks too, as hard as it is for us to give up our old rules. While we may still want what the other one has, we seem to not work quite so hard to change our own thing. We seem to want to find a distinct mojo. If our hair is curly, we push the curl. If it’s straight, we flatten it further, cowlicks are licked higher with hot pink gels. Got a Freda-esque mono-brow? Fill it in and highlight it. If we have ampleness in an area, we are more likely these days to uncover it, slather it in a pearlescent lotion, and turn a spotlight on it. Big personalities go big, introverts can go anywhere they want. We are able these days to say more about what we’re about than perhaps ever before. We can be who we are.
The hard part is knowing just who that is at any given moment. If you’ve spent a lifetime trying to look like somebody else, working to fit in, achieve an ideal, present an image of someone else’s choosing, then having the door flung wide open can be pretty confusing, if not downright terrifying.
Left to your own devices, how would you describe your mojo? Your essence? Your magic? How would you describe and define your particular brand of beauty? What have you got that deserves to be highlighted? What are your favorite features? What is it about you that no one should miss? What should be crystal clear about you from 20 feet away? What first, second, and third impressions do you want to leave with people?
Pull up your body log, journal, a piece of paper, a napkin, and write it down. And this is not an exercise in goal-setting. This isn’t the hair, body, skin, teeth, image you plan some day to have. We’re talking about right now, this moment.
What is it about you that is beautiful?