Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Plasticity of Beauty

I’m obsessed with make-overs.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a person, house, dog, or furniture. I drive my husband insane with hours of watching What Not to Wear, various HGTV shows, and the Style Network.  Real estate godmothers convert humble abodes into the belle of the neighborhood.  Beasts become beauties.  Ugly ottomans are transformed into furniture swans. 

“But they’re all alike,” he says.

Au contraire, mon cher.  These shows take the ordinary in its infinite varieties and make it uniquely extraordinary.  That’s what makes the shows so appealing.  It’s not the beautiful made more beautiful.  It’s the democratization of beauty.  Everyone and anything has the potential to be beautiful, whether you’re an ottoman or human being.

Let me backtrack and clarify:  I’m not talking about the “Extreme” shows.  I don’t like the tear downs and rebuilds of people nor homes, the most horrific examples being a tie between The Swan and the show where brides competed for a multitude of reconstructive surgeries.  It’s not that I’m totally opposed to plastic surgery, but I think it should be reserved for moments when health or function are at risk or when a feature is so malformed that the general population is distracted by the feature.   The current trend of reconstructive surgery/injectables/implants in the pursuit of beauty and youth has resulted in a generic mathematically “pretty” face that isn’t attractive since it’s not individualized.  I can’t tell any Real Housewife apart from another and the only way I can tell one Housewife show from another is by accent.

No, what I like are surface make-overs – hair, make-up, a bit of paint, a change in fabric -  is that they’re temporary, transient, and plastic, in the sense that they’re flexible and subject to change on a whim.  For me, it’s imperative that the base structure remains. 

Eek, that’s an awful chair.

“I’ve painted this chair and changed the fabric on the seat …”

Oh, that’s kind of cute, but the color is off a little …

Being able to change something up to suit your sensibilities is a way of awakening the eye to potential that might’ve been otherwise overlooked.  And then, once a change is made, other features might become more appreciated.

It’s not just with chairs.

I’m not beautiful.

What’s “beautiful?”  Jennifer Aniston?  A burn victim survivor?  A baby?  Generally speaking, so long as everything is where it’s supposed to be (nose roughly in the center of the face, an eye on either side of the nose, mouth below nose), “beautiful” can be emphasized with a bit of  powder, gels, or paints.  Learning to find beauty and how to help others see it is a little more challenging, but available to everyone and everything.

My mother is one of those women who looks completely different when she wears make-up.  She’s also one of those women who is rarely seen without make-up.  She slept in her make-up (and contrary to what the beauty magazines threaten, she has great skin) and she rose and showered before everyone to re-apply her make-up. The first time I saw her bare-faced, I had no idea who she was.  Really.  I must’ve been around four or five years old.  Bewildered by this strange woman with my mother’s voice and body, I followed her into the bathroom and watched her “apply her face.”  Before my very eyes she was transformed from mystery woman to my Max Factor mother.  It was astounding what eye liner and lipstick could do.

I used to sit in my room, repeatedly drawing intentionally “unattractive” people with hair and clothing in pencil.  I’d “make- up” their faces in marker and crayon and restyle their hair.   I didn’t change the face structure.  Even back then, I decided that the structure beneath was fine.  Sometimes, I’d hold up the drawing on the window, retrace the original figure, and come up with a different “beauty treatment.”  I liked knowing there were a variety of looks that could make someone attractive.

I transitioned from painting paper to painting faces.  At first, like most girls, I imitated my mother’s beauty make-up.  But then it dawned on me that I could also transform myself into a cat, a dog, a clown, and even a man.  It was liberating, knowing how easily my outer appearance transformed to fit any inner fancy. Add a little cold cream to clear the palette and I was ready for the next look. I did the same with my room, painting murals on the wall, rearranging furniture, switching up bedclothes.  Some attempts weren’t as successful as others, but they gave a new angle.  Fun. 

Beauty shouldn’t be underestimated.  Feeling beautiful or in control of beauty is a powerful thing.

My sister and I are close in age.  We often experimented on each other with make-up applications and hairstyles.  On one occasion, my younger sister was begging me to do her make-up when I wasn’t in the mood.  To placate her, I consented to do her make-up, if she agreed with the usual terms:  no looking in the mirror until I was done.  She agreed.

I set to work in a flurry.  It was an exceptionally long session.  There wasn’t a corner of her face untouched by my hand and brush.  Finally, I was done.  I handed my sister the mirror.

At first, she seemed confused, not recognizing the face that looked back at her. 

“I hate you!” she said, then burst into tears and went to our mother to register her complaint.

“Look what she did,” my sister wailed.

My mother was usually pretty good at being stern when discipline was involved, but this time she couldn’t help herself.  It’s very hard to take tears seriously from a child who looks like an 80 year old.  My sister cried harder.

We might not be The Fairest,
 but who doesn't want to be at least "fairer?"
 (courtesy of Disney)
Of course, I was punished for taking advantage of my sister’s trust, but my mother is an eldest child as well, familiar with the obligatory mischief done to younger siblings, and there was no bloodshed or bruises.  But looking back, I realize there was some emotional bruising. 

In asking me to do her make-up, my sister wasn’t just asking for my attention.  She came to me because she wanted me to make her feel beautiful, even if it was only blue eye shadow and red lipstick. Making her look like our grandmother made her feel “the uglies” worse.  Even back then, I must have known there was more to her tears than just being a patsy.  I didn’t play make-up jokes on her after that.

I continue to play with make-up and on occasion I still apply it on friends and my sister.  I go to make-up counters to let strangers apply make-up on me. I watch as other people get their faces done.  I re-do furniture, redecorate my house, and take apart and re-purpose old jewelry. 
The general rule for any make-over is to play up the best features of the basic structure. Individuals vary on what they perceive to be the” best” feature.  So, if there are infinite perspectives on what is beautiful about a chair, dog, house, or human, doesn’t it follow that every chair, dog, house, or human is beautiful?  And beautiful in infinite varieties?  I love watching make-over shows, because I love watching people discover that beauty was always there.  They just needed to go through the journey to realize it.

Cue the Ray Stevens.  Sure, he also wrote “The Streak.”  Even comedians have beautiful moments.

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