My daily dawdle along the beach includes random unpleasant encounters with lithe, rippling bodies in ‘licensed’ designer sportswear, an affront to my flaccid muscles, my footy shorts and ragged t-shirt. For many, these days, everything seems to depend on physical beauty, or so they believe. Water-front boot camps promote muscle tone and the body beautiful, and the gym is today’s cathedral, with gym instructors barking shrill orders and promises of tighter butts, washboard bellies, and more defined biceps.
Ads, movie stars, images of the perfect body, all conspire to make us both uncomfortable in our own skin, and aspiring for an ideal that probably doesn’t exist. Some feminists and doctors have suggested that the super-thin models featured in magazines promote eating disorders. The pressure on young women to conform to these imaginary standards is immense.
This relentless drive to perfection even affects skin colour. Japanese women buy skin-whitening creams, while other women are buying browning lotions. In China, a surgeon can lengthen stubby legs by cracking the femur and stretching it. Hair can be straightened, curled, coloured or depilated.
Studies have even found correlations between beauty and better exam marks, higher paid jobs, enduring relationships, success at obtaining home loans and, incredibly, shorter prison sentences. So our prisons should be full of ugly, academically-slow, divorced renters. It seems that we judge each other on the very superficial level of physical appearance.
We can’t air-brush life and make everyone ‘gorgeous’, but there are some promising signs of a feminist fight-back. Suzanne Collins, in The Hunger Games, proclaimed “I am not pretty. I am not beautiful. I am as radiant as the sun.” Magazines are beginning to look for models who look more like your aunty, and in my circle of friends, the success of a post-Christmas diet is indicated by a “space-saver” where once a full-size spare existed around the middle.
Just how did we end up with such impossibly idealised versions of what it means to be beautiful? Or as Woody Allen so cleverly argued against skin-deep beauty, “who wants to have a beautiful pancreas?”
It goes back to the classics. Think of the statues you studied in art classes at school. The ancient Greeks had definite ideas about physical beauty – symmetry, conformity to the norm, proportion, etc – which we have appropriated in a very shallow way. For far more important to the ancients was the idea of the beautiful life, achieved through a balanced mind and body, in harmony, both constantly developing. Greek youth were as likely to be found in the agora, arguing philosophy, as in the gym. Indeed Greek mythology warns us strongly against any preoccupation with our own beauty, which can lead only to the sort of nasty, watery end endured by Narcissus.
And while the Greeks had no exact synonym for “beauty”, they did have a definite concept of “beautiful life”, which went way deeper than musculature. Just as they had seven types of ‘love’ from Eros (erotic love) to Agape (altruistic), Greek ‘beauty’ was nuanced and sophisticated, and involved constant self-questioning and examination.
They were not just preoccupied with appearance and the superficial. Artists depict Socrates as a ‘buff’ man. We need to heed his advice, and remember our complexity, and the need to develop both body and mind. We need boot camps for the mind.