or our love-hate relationship with beauty.
so i got an email from an american friend who is studying arabic. and he opened the email with "salaam wa aleikum wa rahmatullah..." which means peace be upon you by the mercy of god.
and he peppered it with other long, ornate and respectful phrases from his arabic lessons. and then he said, oh you muslims like pomp and circumstance.
i emailed back, yes, we do. old cultures like ornament and decoration. just watching marie antoinette and all the intricate details of the french court and the way that love of decorum has trickled down to modern french society.
and that america is such a new culture - one that was built on rejection of the aristocracy and an outlaw foundation - so that we believe in stripping away anything unnecessary. we like it plain and simple.
my mum is always complaining that the world today has become totally pedestrian. she says that all of a sudden her own family members are behaving like the chauffeur's family. everyone wants to be street. she wants to know why everyone wants everything to be exposed and ugly?
and i was explaining that the dominant culture today is the american one. we are the richest, most influential country and culture in the world.
and america is all about honesty. (even if it's just in theory).
so, when you watch american movies, even old ones like "high society" with grace kelly, or newer ones like "titanic" or even kids' movies like "lizzie mcguire," the good guy, the one who gets the girl, is the clean, plainspoken one with the heart of gold.
the guy (or girl) who is a little too sophisticated or cosmopolitan is generally slimy.
look at good old gwb - in this culture, intellect and ornament are suspect.
and, as my mum even says, i like people to give it to me straight. she likes to say, she may not be overly educated, but she's got "street smarts."
follow the trajectory to its logical end, and what is most celebrated is the most ordinary. the quotidienne. thus, street clothes become the inspiration for party dresses. mugs replace silver tea services. someone in a decorating magazine stripped her new townhouse down to its "good bones" so she could live in elegant decay...
in terms of beauty, it means less and less makeup and more and more plastic surgery so that we can truly be "natural" and beautiful...
and of course, we come to the dove "onslaught" conversation.
or, what is wrong with the media that they give us such a nasty portrayal of women and can't just show them as they really are?
back again to the french court. or the arab one. women and men practiced the arts of seduction and beautification using carmine, perfumes and kohl, or rich, complicated pieces of clothing.
everyone worked to show themselves to their best advantages.
as oscar wilde said, "it is only superficial people who think that appearances are unimportant..." as well as decorating your home, decorating yourself was a way of showing respect to others.
then came the puritans. remember the scarlet letter? it was the plain, simple woman and the plain, simple man who built america. the woman who dared experience sensuality was damned from the start.
beauty products went underground. it was in your grandmother's recipe book that you found out how to keep your breath fresh and your upper lip hair-free. men were too busy breaking new ground to have time for frippery and foppery. they might have shaved and splashed their stinging faces with tonic but that was it.
a good woman was one who practiced the domestic arts and stayed away from "artificiality." a "painted woman" was trouble.
despite that, the sales of beauty products were brisk, especially to married women. while the popular belief about makeup was that it was a form of deceit, everyday women still used it secretly to enhance their looks and save their marriages.
most beauty enhancers were subversive. they were sold discreetly or prepared at home with ingredients from the pharmacy and your kitchen. you shared your rituals with your mother, your sisters, your girlfriends.
but, of course, we all know what good business they are. so it wasn't long before beauty products were sold in stores - though most of them, like charles revson's revlon and the california perfume company's avon - started out being sold discreetly and genteely door-to-door.
at first., beauty products began as empowerment - at a time where your face was your fortune and your husband's status was yours - the right products gave you what nature might not have, they gave you control over the impression you made on others.
however, eventually, beauty products took on a utilitarian form. you HAD to wear foundation, concealer, mascara, blush, lipstick, etc. just to hold down a job.
(and the people who sell it had to look beautiful as well, otherwise why would you buy it? more about that later)
obviously, the next step is the backlash. throwing off the oppression of all that artifice.
following the american movement away from ornament. returning to the plain and simple and unadorned.
but here's the sad thing: i watched focus groups of middle-income american women look at pictures of angelina jolie and rosario dawson stripped down to their pores and asked them if that was "true beauty."
some of the women looked crushed, "of course, SHE looks like that when she first wakes up - but what about the rest of us?"
"what about ordinary women? maybe movie stars don't have to try, but the rest of us do."
by throwing off the yoke of make-up, we are reduced to enjoying the gains or losses of our genetic lottery. (or we all get plastic surgery so we can look like "we were born with it" and what happens if you can't afford plastic surgery?)
and as human beings, we are always striving to grow and become something more. i don't wear make-up, but i can empathize with the wish. the desire to be better.
if there is truly a thing called beauty - based on symmetry and a universal appeal to the human eye - then what happens if when you are celebrating the natural and stripped-down, it isn't appealing or beautiful?
or as andie mcdowell cleverly said in an old l'oreal ad, "any old barn looks better with a new coat of paint!"
when i was at college at u.c. santa cruz, girls who wore make-up or ironed their clothes were a laughing stock. all of us WOMEN were too intelligent and comfortable with our own bodies to use deodorant or shave our legs. the oppression went the other way. if you WANTED to primp and lipstick and high heels, you were clearly a bimbo.
again, a judgement.
as we move away from adornment and decoration, how do we decide which side is empowerment?