Saturday, June 6, 2015

Cachez ce sein que je ne saurais voir

It has been too long since I've written on this blog, and the beginning of summer has gotten me thinking about new ways our quest for beauty influences our society. I won't talk about Caitlyn Jenner - although it's an interesting piece of news - but rather about something that has caught my attention in the past few weeks.

I am writing from Vancouver, where I've had the chance of enjoy a few days at the beach. But not any beach. Wreck Beach, UBC's adjoining wild beach. It's an incredible stretch of sand, shaded by untamed yet beautiful greenness and scattered with countless tree logs that make wonderful pillows or seats. Wreck Beach is also a known meeting spot for BC's naturist crowd. Personally, I have no avidity for nudism, but such close interaction with people who feel incredibly relaxed strolling naked on a public beach has opened my eyes to something as basic as nudity.

After all, we are born naked.
As a child, I remember going to museums with my parents and laughing shyly at the Impressionists' numerous nudes (a damsel in a bath, haha). Having been brought up thinking of nudity and my body with modesty, I have no issue taking part in debates concerning topless attitudes, from St Tropez beaches to the Femen protesters - I'll skip the breastfeeding-in-public debate -, nor do I hide under layers of clothes when the sun is shining. But I feel modesty is an inherent part of our society, of culture, and inevitably of how we view beauty. Indeed, when is the issue of beauty more important than when we are completely bare, cloth-less. Especially when the media largely advertises a fit, slender, god-like (etc.) silhouette when it comes to half-nude models in magazine. Our quest for beauty begins when we stand naked in front of the mirror, and this self-consciousness and modesty extends to the streets for many.

There are codes to nudity in society. Not only in Occidental social habits, but, as you all know, in the Oriental culture spectrum as well (and that's no small spectrum - we can't go and say China and Iran's perception of the nude come anywhere close, and these are just two examples). Think fitting rooms vs. what we are willing to show on the beach. We are so little keen on showing skin in the public realm - with the exception of nudist beaches, and maybe skinny dipping - partly because nudity is what gets us the closest to our primary nature, and nature itself. That is, to our animality. While the city limits the possibility of nude exposure, natural settings such as a beach or even a forest, may invoke the opportunity of bareness.

When we speak of nudity in terms of representation, in the arts but also in the media, we speak of the nude, invoking both sensuality and beauty. Society has gotten us dressed in the public sphere and hints of nudity are often synonymous of sexuality. In fact, nudity sits between shame and prowess. Exposing oneself - whether it's by a booty short or by a leaked after-sex-selfie - is both rewarded and scowled at. How dare she exposes her thighs and breasts, yet, how "hot" did she look in that picture. In short, nudity is at the very center of our consideration of beauty. It's beauty ABCs if I may simplify it.

Today, when a star/model decides to present herself/himself in a bare position - often with one arm over breasts and in a position hiding the most provocative details, it's often accompanying a "revealing" article, a touching confession to a gossip-thirsty audience. Nudity seems its most appreciated when it's toughened by the word "nude" and not "naked" - a state reserved for the privacy of your home or for specimens. Where nakedness is perceived as lessening, as baring, the nude representation is often acclaimed as an ode to beauty. Moreover, the nude seems like it is at its most beautiful when it is staged. While the nude as a subject has been an essential part of Occidental art - Greek sculptures, Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon, and so on - photography has also upraised the naked body to both applaud to beauty and to provoke reactions. The oh-so iconic Helmut Newton's Big Nudes series shows how much of a spectacle of beauty a nude woman can be. There also is a very different representation of men and women's nudity in the media - I personally see very little representation of men in magazines. As a woman, I feel the representation of nude women - whether it be in pornography or in fashion magazine - heightens the pressure in our quest for beauty and projects it in our most intimate and vulnerable state : nakedness.

Friday, March 27, 2015

We're wrinkling and it's getting old

Joni Mitchell for Saint Laurent


The word itself would make a room full of flawless young models shiver. Or even a room full of regular men and women for that matter.

Wrinkles. The first thought coming through one's mind is probably an honest "ew". They not only indicate that our skin cells are degrading and bowing under the weight of years of pollution, facial expressions and other elements, but they also are the first signs of getting older we notice in the mirror. One day we wake up in the morning and there it is. In the corner of our eye, underlining the smiling expression, sagging our faces, it's starring us in the face : a wrinkle, and often more menacing to surface. When all magazines covers and spreads promote baby skin and firm-faced models, the fashion industry seems to have caught on a new trend to feature older women in fashion campaigns. While young and glowing still seems to be a likely combination in your average Vogue or Elle, you may stumble upon a well-preserved and all the same glowing woman illuminating a fashion spread.

By the time you are fifty today, as a woman, or a man, you still have fireworks up your sleeve, and often wrinkles and white hair are that little thing that is oh-so-not advertised in the beauty world. The 2010s seem to have brought a new take on aging women, with ads featuring older women such as Joni Mitchell for Saint Laurent (as seen above), as well as Jacquie 'Tajah' Murdoch, 82 years old, for Lanvin (as part of a real-people campaign, orchestrated by Lanvin's creative director, Alber Elbaz - who I actually met during the latest Jeanne Lanvin exhibit in Paris), Joan Didion, 80 years old, for Céline, but also random older women for Dolce & Gabbana. Is 2015 the year we are going to consider old beautiful? Not that there isn't a niche discourse around the art of getting old, but the overall language around old age is fairly negative.

Still, thousands of women reach out to Botox and plastic surgery to retrieve a younger face and to get rid of old age signs. An article in The Guardian by Eva Wiseman forecasts that by 2018, the global market for Botox will reach 2.0 billion dollars. In another article, Eva Wiseman speaks of the year-zero face to characterize the ageless face some women decide to order from their plastic surgeon. We've all seen the shiny, taut faces roaming through metropolises around the world, especially near the Louboutin stores, but also at the Oscars, because, hey, if beauty notions have to start anywhere, it's often in Hollywood. Botoxed faces are often paired with overly plumped lips and ridiculously fake tans, but they can also be quite discrete. One subtle needle touch-up here and there. Overall, even if the war against wrinkles and signs of old age is only about throwing anti-aging serums and creams for the average woman, it remains that aging is no party. Saggy skin, spots, wrinkles, greying hair, and the lot make for a lousy equation, but is there any way we can consider old age beautiful? Is there an art of wrinkling? And most importantly, can we age beautifully without doing anything, or is aging necessarily linked with taking the quest for beauty to another level. Here is to hoping that wrinkling will be in style by the time I'm all creased.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Must-Stay-White: Of being fair and the whitening trend in Asia

"How to 45°", an angle on skin-whitening. Photo taken by me in a game arcade in Tokyo.

Western women - ones very conscious of their physical image at least (even if it seems logical that this is what I'll be addressing, given the overall topic of this blog) - go to great lengths to look sun-kissed all year long. Having a healthy glow is associated to being on the tanner side. Looking like you've just come from a vacation is all the rage since the 1930s in France. And the more natural it looks, the better. Tanning, bikinis, rays, solarium, bronzer dust, bronzers, terracotta. The young, the old, looking tan all year equates to healthfulness and is synonymous to an active lifestyle.

This is where Asia struck me. I had evolved in an environment where my grandma, my mother, aunt, sister, friends, and most casually encountered people, all tanned as soon as they could get under the sun. Come summer, we would sit by the pool, facing the sun, reading beauty magazines where all women had golden toned bodies rolling in the sand and displayed the latest trend for tanning oils and bronzing powders. Then came 2008. That year, I moved to Japan, and discovered an entirely new vision of skin color. As I became acquainted with an entirely new and exciting culture, I also came across new products at the drug store and cosmetic shops.

I soon realized that white was beautiful, and the fairer you were, the better. I was first intrigued by ladies wearing long sleeves and strange hats whenever they were out in the sun, rarely showing any skin. And when spring brought warm sun back into my everyday equation, my dear Thai and Japanese friends took out their sunblock and sat in the shade when I lay in the sun. "Let's go to the beach!" I asked, come summer. Staying extremely courteous, they refused every time, and we never went to the beach - I later found out that it was because sitting in the sun was one of those out-of-the-question activities. Had we gone to the beach, I would imagine my Spanish friend and I would have sat like burning toasts on the white sand, and my Asian friends would have enjoyed the cool shade of umbrellas or cover all skin with fabric or UV300 protection sunscreen.

In such an environment, the most important products weren't tanning oil or bronzer, but rather whitening creams and serums and concentrates and sunblock. When all sunblock-ing failed, spots and a too-tan-skin called for tougher measures, commercialized by local and worldwide cosmetic companies: whitening. I remember working for a luxury cosmetic brand and helping my colleagues thinking of the right vocabulary around a whitening product concept development. I quickly became fascinated about the phenomenon. Imagine, when one's beauty criteria is at the extreme of another's.

For those of you out there who do not know about whitening, it's half revolutionary half insane for the skin. Whitening products contain ingredients that, in contact with the skin on a daily basis, not only protect the skin from sun exposure, but also visibly lighten one's skin tone. In fact, some women end up looking extremely unnatural looking after a few months of such a regimen, because whitening products influences natural pigmentation (including spots, freckles, and the lot). Whitening products include face-targeted products but also eye products to reduce dark pigmentation around the eyes. To those wanting to become fairer than fair, whitening is golden.

This inclination for white skin is deeply rooted in Asian culture. In fact, fair skin is traditionally associated with wealth and higher social status. Indeed, historically, higher class women did not have to work in fields and get exposed to harsh sun rays daily, and dark skin was linked to peasants' skin. Today, Asian women received intense social pressure to "get white". It actually makes it insanely difficult to find whitening-free products in Asia. Nearly all products contain some kind of lightening chemicals, even regular facial moisturizers and body lotions. All of the cosmetics industry targeted at Asian women usually enables then to achieve a socially constructed notion of beauty: the must-be-white, must-stay-white notion of beauty. This makes for an incredibly evolved skin-whitening science and industry. Beyond creams, there are even more intruding skin-whitening procedures, such as ingestible pills and injections, even intravenous treatments.

Encouraging color-conscious generations of women is a point widely criticized by those who stand against or nuance skin-lightening cosmetics industry. Indeed, this multi-billion industry is the target of multiple critics. The success of such products sheds light on a wider phenomenon: the racialized body modification trend, in which individuals undergo surgeries such as double eyelid procedures, alongside eyelid tape, as well as face reshaping. Farther than just becoming whiter, fairer, it seems that some Asian women (and they're not the only ones, may I add) are ready to go through great lengths to change the way they look and appeal to demanding social notions of beauty. Beauty, for these women, does not seem to be all about "looking white".

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Beauty Chronicle #3

"(Very) fake-looking tans"

Brought to you weekly, a to-the-point drawn reflexion on beauty as a general concept.

I've always been extremely intrigued by overuse of bronzer, terracotta or dark foundation. In fact, I have always paralleled this practice with putting on a mask, especially on women who apply too much face makeup. And often, it seems these women also neglect to cover their necks and ears, making the mask effect even more obvious. An unfortunate habit.

Monday, March 2, 2015

More than touch-ups

Are we reduced to smoothed contours?
Photo appropriated and edited by yours truly

I realize this post may echo the one I wrote about imperfections, but I just stumbled upon an article about journalist Esther Honig's photoshopped autoportrait - that I had read a little while back - and I couldn't resist adding an opinion out there, in the ocean of opinions-about-photoshopping. Oh the Photoshop debate. Should we, shouldn't we, is it an inherent bad thing to touch up a reddish face or a lousy tan, even a crooked nose. It seems this debate is never ending. Hey I remember being little and chatting (in a very little-me manner of course) with my graphic designer uncle, and never once wondering about or debating the idea that a lady on a magazine looking thinner, tanner, firmer, would be worse than a better looking BMW on a cover.

In the flow of recent articles about photoshopping, you find the one about Lena Dunham's Vogue cover (such familiarity with Lena Dunham, I realize. You may think she's the only person I know of, but be assured of the contrary. Get worried when I start speaking about her as "Lena"), but there is always a fuss about any overly photoshopped model or celebrity. Cars and fruit as well. It even feels as though the #nofilter trend has taken this touching up concept to a new level. What is it with us and having to display only smooth, perfect surfaces? Yet, one could also ask, what is with us and a little touch-up here and there so that last night's hangover doesn't show on the photos. Both arguments make sense for different reasons, and for this reason the Photoshop debate will surely last. Nevertheless, whether we are more seduced by one argument than the other, it poses interesting questions about the human quest for beauty, especially in the digital era. And especially since the image we display of ourselves, of our beauty, is now grounded not only in real life but in the virtual sphere as well. Facebook, Instagram, but also avatars on any website. It seems we only want to display the best of ourselves, with no facial screw-ups. Sometimes it makes sense in terms of marketing (we haven't yet reached an era where imperfect things sell), but doesn't it pose multiple questions, namely in terms of cultural differences in terms of the perception of beauty.

And this is exactly what Esther Honig is attempting to highlight in her experience. Indeed, she asked about 40 graphic designers in 25 different countries to photoshop a portrait of her, giving one direction "Make me beautiful". The results are drastically different whether the autoportrait came back from Morocco or Germany, the US or Greece. And they show that the criteria of beauty of one country are sometimes unexpected. Indeed, from her portraits, the nationality of graphic designers is hardly identifiable. Even worse, her home country, the US, seems to have taken extreme measures and changed the shape of her face, but also her hair, leading up to an unrecognizable version of Honig. All in all, an interesting exercise to analyze the multiplicity of ways one can interpret beauty. And therefore the multiplicity of ways we can pursue our individual beauty. One thing remains, it does seem we all have a taste for smooth contours and pure-looking skin - thus often driving us back to our best friend Photoshop, and its touch-ups.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Complimenting imperfections

Outlines of Lena Dunham in the series "Girls" (by me)

Beauty has evolved throughout the years. Hollywood beauty years ago did not resemble what it has become today, just as we do not identify with the Versailles Court's beauty criteria. Indeed, the quest for beauty took an entirely other form. Think of the mouches nobles applied to their face because it complemented their look. Think of corsets that made women have tiny waists, even they had to stop breathing throughout the day. Now issues are not about asphyxiating yourself to look beautiful, or powdering yourself with white, but about anorexia, lack of self-confidence, and other cases of beauty mischiefs.

Thankfully, this era's quest for beauty seems to take a new turn with newly emerged codes and acceptance of the body as it is. Would "As you are" be the new beautiful, at last? While there are still numerous cases of women changing their body to attain an ideal (dictated by Elle or Vogue, but they're not alone, or the show business), there is a growing realization that what may be beautiful is the body left untouched, the natural traits of a person, as polarized from beauty ideals as they may be. There is a new place for curvy, round, for gapped teeth, broad shoulders, small breasts, short legs, for thick eyebrows and long teeth, pale skin, dark skin, crooked smiles and unstoppable freckles, for red, and blue, for uncontrolled blushing and morning eye bags. Sure, it may not be easy at all ages, or in all places. But I feel there is a growing awareness that there are all kinds of beauties, and therefore a multitude of ways to attain this or that physical appearance.

It's a fascinating era, allowing new possibilities for the human body, but more importantly for accepting it the way it was brought onto this Earth. It feels like we can breathe better, up is up and down is down, and being ourselves is more and more embraced. The trends of "stars without makeup" articles or "curvy models" starring in campaigns show more openness about the ideals of beauty. There is also more and more speaking out against photoshopping photos, from various sources such as supermodel Gisele Bundchen, using her powerful status to defend that women should stay "real and raw" when represented. Plus, it seems that imperfections - or at least as they were called out by the beauty industry - are becoming a trend of their own, with models such as Winnie Harlow, Georgia May Jagger or Lindsey Wixson. Embracing your imperfections seems to be all the rage.

This is also why I chose Lena Dunham as a representation for this article. Apart from magazines, TV series are great influencers in our perception of beauty. Therefore, it plays an immense role in the way the quest for beauty evolves. I've come to love the series Girls, in which Lena Dunham stars as the main character, Hannah. This is another representation of the liberalization of the body. Lena does not hesitate to show her body, as different as it is from the mainstream ideals of beauty. In doing so, I believe it is creating a real tank for future changes in the way we pursue beauty and in the way we see ourselves. This is also what the website Herself is trying to achieve, by displaying nude photos of absolutely raw and real women. And this should be the future of beauty: being able to see and appreciate it in everyone, in all its forms.

On that note, feel free to visit The Atlas of Beauty for 27 beautiful portraits of women around the world, and Herself, which attempts to give a new image of women's bodies

And wander off to this song: