Beauty and Self-Love
This post is going to be about beauty and self-love. Last time I mentioned that I do life modelling as well as take nude photos of myself (as part of my photographic practice). In this article I would like to bring up these two activities of mine again because self-love and nudity are firmly connected. At least for me. When I was a little girl, I (very predictably) liked to play with Barbie dolls. Until one day I looked at them more closely, and then looked at myself more closely, and realised I looked nothing like them. Some of my first teeth were missing, my hair was messy, and I was also too fat, I thought. I was 10 and I looked pretty much like any average kid did; scruffy kid whose appearance reflected spending a plenty of time playing outside. I was nowhere near being fat. Yet, this nagging feeling of wanting to match up to the flawless beauty of my Barbie dolls made me feel unhappy about myself. It made me feel ugly. As a kid I resolved it by torturing my Barbie dolls in a plenty of creative ways, but that’s a different story. When I was a teenager I gave up on looking pretty. I hang out mostly with boys, so I completely avoided those girly chitchats about celebrities, make-up and diets. Instead, I talked to boys about video games and was mostly up for some mischief. I remember I wanted to become a hacker. I felt like I was more one of the boys than girls, I was a tomboy. In a way it kind of helped me stop falling into the trap of insecurity about my own body that a lot of girls struggle with in young teenage years. Also luckily my generation was one of the last who didn’t have Facebook or Instagram in the early teenage years. But eventually the desire to look pretty got me. In my late teens and early twenties I would start using make-up and paint my nails. I wore high heels, but only every now and then because they were too uncomfortable. I wore lovely clothes and finally I felt pretty. I wasn’t obsessed about dieting, I always knew it was bullshit, plus I love food too much to sacrifice it for a slim figure. I exercised instead. Not because I was punishing myself for eating a lot of food, but because I found it fun. Also the gym was a hangout place for me and my male classmates. Yep, I still was a tomboy. Tomboy with painted nails and make-up. Even though I evaded the bullshit about appearance that young girls are being brainwashed by not hanging out with them and not being interested in ‘girly’ stuff, I still couldn’t escape the influence that the culture had on us because boys are shaped by similar stereotypes. By hanging out with boys I learned from overheard conversations how important it is for women to have great tits and ass. That women with revealing clothes are fuckable, but if the clothes are too revealing they are sluts. That fat women should lock themselves up in the basement and come out only at night, so they don’t offend the public. And old women are ugly hags worth nothing because they are too old to be fucked. This was how I bought the bullshit about how women were supposed to look. I felt good about myself then because there was nothing visibly ‘wrong’ with my body. I remember pitying women who were fat, whose boobs didn’t have a nice shape or were too small, or women who were old. I was so thankful I wasn’t one of them. But my body was a ticking bomb that would explode at a slight ‘downgrade’ of my appearance. The self-love I felt wasn’t a healthy one. I was quite upset when I noticed I had cellulite. I would spend a lot of time massaging it with anti-cellulite cream in hopes it could get rid of it. It obviously didn’t as cellulite is nearly as normal part of the female body as vagina. And when I moved to Prague I started eating crappy food and stopped going to the gym because it was suddenly more expensive, I became more chubby and more sensitive about the way my body looked. I lived in Prague, studied and was short on money. So I looked for ways to make a quick income. My shit experience with Student Agency (a bus company) where I worked as a stewardess for several months definitely doesn’t count as neither quick nor income. I needed something else. At that time I was already interested in photography and I wanted to shoot models, but I had no experience. I thought of a genius idea; if I become a model and observe how photographers work, I could copy their behaviour and camera work and apply it into my own workflow when I’m with models. The only thing was that a lot of model offers were nude. I thought, sod it, why not. It paid better than the dressed up shoots and I needed the money. And the experience. I was killing two birds with one stone. I worked with several people. I chose them based on their portfolio. The purpose of that was to see their history of shooting, which would prove that they are not perverts who made up being photographers in order to lure gullible girls into their ‘studio’. Also I was looking for a certain style. I wanted to work with people who are serious about their work and avoid those who clearly became ‘photographers’ to see a vagina and a pair of tits. I would always ask the photographers to send me the photos we took. To my surprise they were really great. What I found astonishing was how it didn’t matter in the photographs that I had cellulite or a bit of belly fat. The photos were beautiful, and I was part of that beauty. Soon I started shooting self-portraits. The more I shot, the more I realised how cool my body actually was. My fat rolls would become a tool for creativity and my cellulite would add the photos more character. I became obsessed with distorting the body by shooting it from low angles or with a wide lens in order to get a creative depiction of the body. I started realising that I really enjoy my imperfections! I was in love with my ‘ugliness’! My body finally and truly became my friend. ‘Beauty’ of the body was no longer important, it was replaced with beauty of creation. Later on I also became a life model. Read one of my previous articles if you would like to know more details on that. Being a life model did the same job as being a nude model in my photography. It helped me connect with my body.
Fig. 1: Nechanicka, 2020 Fig. 2: Nechanicka, 2020 Fig. 3: Nechanicka, 2021
Self-love and self-worth, especially those related to the body, are not being taught in our society. I’m wondering if I had made these revelations if my practice hadn't revolved around the nude. I had to strip off the clothes and reveal my body to the gaze of the lens, the photographer/myself and the audience, to realise that my body is imperfectly beautiful. Sarah Katherine Lewis had made a similar revelation during her time of being a sex worker. “I’m fully aware of the absurdity of having learned to love my body by working in such a legendarily woman-hating industry. I hate that I had to show my tits in order to learn to love them, that slapping a price tag on my pussy taught me to respect my own physical value… It is hard to hate your own body when it has become your strongest ally in your pursuit of a livable wage.” She goes on saying: “Wouldn’t it be ideal if we learned to love our bodies as children and grew up with unshakable inner confidence impervious to even the canniest advertisers’ lies? What if we didn’t have to whore our bodies to discover their value?” (Lewis, 2008, Sex And Bacon: Why I Love Things That Are Very, Very Bad For Me) Our culture keeps us feeling miserable about our bodies. Women are pressured to strive for an unachievable ideal of beauty: to be slim, with amazing and ideally light skin, perfect hair, smooth body, the right size and shape of boobs, and so on. It makes perfect sense, because if we are happy with our bodies how would the beauty industries sell us any products? “It was not until the start of the 20th century, when mass production coincided with mass exposure to an idealised standard of beauty (through photography, magazines and movies) that the industry first took off. The emerging beauty industries played on the fear of looking ugly and also on the pleasure of looking pretty, convincing women that their imperfections can be fixed by their products.”
(The Economist, 2003, Post of Promise) As John Berger suggests in Ways Of Seeing, the advertisers don’t sell us just products, they sell us an improved version of what we can become if we buy a certain product. But we wouldn’t feel the need to improve ourselves if we are not convinced that we should. That’s what the beauty industries do, they are making sure that the ideal is so unrealistic that it’s impossible to reach it. In fact, the average weight of a fashion model is 30% lower than of an average woman. Thirty years ago it used to be 8% lower. Real women didn’t turn much fatter over the years, the ideal just turned thinner and thinner. Naomi Wolf in The Beauty Myth points out that the other reason to keep women unhappy about themselves is to keep them occupied and in place. Policing women about what they should look like and act like is a sneaky way of having them under control. If you set very strict rules that become normalised by spreading them through mass media or other means in certain cultures (like religion) it is very likely people won’t blink an eye to accept them. It was foot binding in China which was forced upon women because small feet were considered beautiful. It is lip plates for women in certain tribes in Ethiopia and neck rings in some African and Thai tribes. These also revolve around female beauty. Or it is said. However, the truth is that mobility of those women whose feet were bound was limited because the binding caused disfiguring of the feet. Lip plates cause speech and eating difficulties, and neck rings cause weakening the women’s neck muscles, deformation of the bone structure, and blockage of the blood flow. In our culture we have women who suffer from bulimia and anorexia. Diets and plastic surgeries are offered to those who don’t fit into the category of slim with perfect tits. Women are obsessed about their appearance and spend not just a lot of money on beauty products, they also spend a lot of time stressing if they are thin enough and good enough. The point Wolf made is that if you spend most of your time worrying about the chocolate cake you ate and you definitely shouldn’t have, and how to make up for it now, you will be less capable of focusing on other things that are better for you - like hobbies, education, learning new skills, or just simply having fun and enjoying yourself. Lindsay Kite in her TED talk on body positivity mentioned that women who constantly monitor their appearance, perform worse on maths tests, logical reasoning tests, or athletic performance. There is nothing wrong with beauty and wanting to be beautiful, because it’s normal and natural to feel desirable. But beauty standards that normalise very harmful stereotypes about the female body (and the male body) are a dangerous tool of manipulation and oppression. However, it’s so normalised in our society that it’s been rendered invisible. Speaking of the oppression bit - if you don’t believe that controlling women’s appearance and beliefs about womanhood is a way to control women, perhaps I should use an example more obvious to prove the point. Women in the Middle East have to be covered head to toe in order to be seen as respectable. In Saudi Arabia women are not allowed to talk to strange men (because that’s not what respectable women do), however for men it’s legal to have more than one wife. Menstruation is a taboo topic, and women can be shamed for their periods - they are considered dirty. And so on. I believe most western people find these facts appalling and alien, but they are more extreme examples of misogyny that already exists in our culture. Or don’t we call a guy who dates several women a stud, but a woman who dates several men a slut? But back to beauty and profits! What is beauty by the beauty industry standards then? It doesn’t really matter as long as no one can achieve it. A beauty brand that sells tanning products in the west is the same brand that sells whitening products in the east. It doesn’t matter what skin colour you have as long as you are unhappy about it. It doesn’t matter how you look as long as it makes you feel insecure. As long as you keep buying products to ‘fix’ yourself it doesn’t really matter what the current beauty trend is. The beauty industries make money through our dissatisfaction with ourselves and our body image.
Fig. 4: Warner's bra ad, 1967 Fig. 5: Protein World ad, 2015
The trend, which is ubiquitously presented in advertisements, magazines, films, etc, is very skinny, long-legged, with big tits (that are definitely not hers) and no body hair, who is ideally caucasian. If she doesn’t have the ‘privilege’ to be caucasian, her features will at least be similar to the caucasian features, and her skin tone would be lighter. If the skin is not lighter naturally, it would be lightened by retouching.
Fig. 6: Beyone's skin lightened in Photoshop for Loreal ad It seems that by the advertisers standards there is only one universal way all women should look. Regular people who are surrounded by these stereotypes look at the models in adverts and magazines and compare the models with themselves. What happens is that they can’t identify with them, because they don’t recognise their own bodies in the ads. They begin to feel disconnected and unhappy. The viewers presume that the way the models look is the right way of looking, and therefore they need to do their best to match up with them. Obviously this doesn’t happen on a conscious level, this is strategically ingrained in us since early age. They condition us to believe that our looks is what is most important about us and mainly they teach us that we can buy the right look if we buy the right product.
We can do as much exercise as we like, but we can’t change our body type. We can put as much make-up on to hide wrinkles, but we can’t stop ageing. We can use toning creams, but we can’t change our skin colour. So why don’t we just accept ourselves the way we are? Gail Dines pointed out in The Illusionists documentary that: “If tomorrow women all over the world look in the mirror and like what is reflected back at them, then we would have to reshape capitalism as we know it. Because many industries survive on the fact that women are incredibly self-loathing - which of course didn’t come from nowhere. It came from the media, which is tied to many of these industries. “If you take away the self-loathing women have then you will see industries all over the globe go bankrupt. So what I think women really need to understand is that they are being exploited, manipulated and seduced into hating themselves as a way to generate astronomical profits that keep a very few very wealthy.” (Dines, The Illusionists, 45:27) We begin to see more curvy and dark skinned models in ads. However, I don’t think the beauty companies choose these models in order to represent women of all shapes and colours. Again, they are only profit driven. The companies don’t really care about making women feel happier about their bodies. They use a bigger variety of models only because it’s been addressed and is now more talked about. They just play on the card of appearing progressive and trying to appeal to those who want that progress. But it’s just another way of making money. It’s definitely better that they make money by representing real women than fake, unrealistic ideals. However, this is not the progress our society needs because it doesn’t fix the problem. In her TED talk on body positivity, Lindsey Kite explained what exactly is wrong with this representation which sends a message that all women are beautiful. She mentioned that when women are portrayed beautiful with all their flaws, it still focuses on the importance of how they look. They are still being defined by their bodies. “The positive body image isn't believing your body looks good. It's knowing your body is good regardless of how it looks.” (Lindsey Kite, Body Positivity or Body Obsession?, 3:09) What is the opposite of beauty by society's standards? The two main ones that are also surrounded by double standards are being fat and being old. Especially for women. Fat men get body shamed too, however the fat male body is not as stigmatised as the fat female body. And in terms of ageing, have you ever heard that wrinkles look good on men? This is something we never ever say about old women. Being old is like a dead end for women, because there is no way out of it. If you are fat, you can perhaps lose weight, but there is nothing you can do about being old. It’s the unavoidable and ultimate nightmare of what a woman becomes in the finale of her beauty path.
Fig. 7: Brad Pitt and Linda Evangelista What is the real beauty then? We perceive beauty as something purely visual. In the world of commerce everything which revolves around beauty that is associated with people’s qualities, can be enjoyed by only one of our senses - the vision. If that was true, in the real world it would mean that blind people are completely robbed away from the pleasure of enjoying beautiful things in life, or even feeling beautiful. We really need to question what beauty means and redefine it. I absolutely love 100 Years, Age of Beauty by Arianne Clément. In this documentary project Clément photographed women who are over hundred years old. She was interested in what efforts these women put (or don’t) into looking good. Through the portraits Clément questioned society’s obsession with beauty and youth, as well as she gave voices to women whose beauty is rarely acknowledged.
Fig. 8: 100 Years, Age of Beauty, Arianne Clément Fig. 9: 100 Years, Age of Beauty, Arianne Clément Fig. 10: 100 Years, Age of Beauty, Arianne Clément Some old women’s responses are pearls of wisdom. “Rather than maintaining physical beauty, which is vain, I advise young women to cultivate the beauty that surrounds them. You can tend a garden, draw, play music, etc. It’s important to be kind, independent and constantly educate yourself.” (100 Years, Age of Beauty, Madeleine Beaugrand Champagneage, 102 years old) “My father was a painter and craftsman and he shared his love of art with me. I believe that everything that is artistic is beautiful: theatre, picture frames, poems, paintings, flowers, songs. In a person, it’s the character, the silhouette, the smile and the eyes that count. That said, my biggest regret is not getting an education. Doors open for you when you’re educated. Otherwise you feel shame. Regardless of the situation, I would advise young women to educate themselves.” (100 Years, Age of Beauty, Marie-Berthe Paquette, 102 years old) I had fallen into the trap of the beauty standards because I was scared of ageing. When I looked at myself in the mirror I scrutinised my face to see if I could spot any wrinkles. I looked at old photos of me and I noticed that my face had changed. It wasn’t as youthful as it had been 8 years ago. But so what?! We are supposed to change, we are supposed to get old and die, so get fucking used to it and you will spare yourself of life in misery. Youth and beauty are fleeting things, so if you dedicate your life to them, you will be left with nothing when they are gone. And that’s sad. I figured out I can’t keep fighting like Quasimodo against the windmill. I cannot stop time, but I can make the most of my time at any age. I will get old and wrinkly eventually, but it doesn’t mean I can't surround myself with beautiful things or be beautiful in my own way. I want to be happy with who I am, not for the way I look, but for the way I spent my life, and how much happiness I brought into my and other people’s lives. In the end, it’s the qualities of a good human being that will define us beautiful. Our values as a good human being is not determined by our bodies. In her TED talk on body positivity, Lindsey Kite said: “Body is an instrument not an ornament.” There is so much more for a woman to be than just be young and beautiful. As I mentioned before, it’s natural to feel desirable as long as it’s not all that you desire in life. I shaved half of my hair, then I let it grow back, so I could dye it pink. I mostly wear comfortable clothes bought in flea markets. I shave my legs only when I want to and can be bothered. I can’t be arsed with make-up, but sometimes I paint my toenails. Once I realised that the only person who should be concerned with my appearance is myself, fashion, shaving and other maintenance things stopped being such chores. I enjoy looking good, but it’s different to look good for your own pleasure and look good for somebody else's. The latter will never make you truly content. In my spare time I like to read, learn piano or craft things, and of course do photography. Skills and knowledge are things no one can take away from you. Once you learn them, they stick with you for life. Speaking of photography, I look forward to shooting nude self-portraits as I age. It will be a great way to capture a journey of the body. Body that is mine and that I love. References: Sarah Katherine Lewis, 2008, Sex And Bacon: Why I Love Things That Are Very, Very Bad For Me John Berger, 1972, Ways of Seeing The Economist, 2003, Post of Promise https://www.economist.com/special-report/2003/05/22/pots-of-promise Naomi Wolf, 1990,The Beauty Myth Lindsey Kite, Body Positivity or Body Obsession? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uDowwh0EU4w Gail Dines, in Illusionists: https://thoughtmaybe.com/the-illusionists/?fbclid=IwAR1E3w5NC4rhi4LYS30TChSndYZFf-yFDNwMDurKEolwp_dH1VPfngHdpDs Arianne Clément, 100 Years, Age of Beauty https://en.arianneclement.com/100-years-old-age-of-beauty Figures: Fig. 1-3: Nechanicka, 2020-2021 Fig. 4: http://abouticles.com/offensive-body-shaming-ads/2/ Fig. 5: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/jun/13/sadiq-khan-moves-to-ban-body-shaming-ads-from-london-transport Fig. 6: https://aspoonfulofsuga.wordpress.com/2013/02/11/mrmarys-black-history-month-game-pick-the-correct-picture-of-beyonce/
Fig. 7: https://cz.pinterest.com/pin/44824958763237286/
Fig. 8-10: https://en.arianneclement.com/100-years-old-age-of-beauty