Beauty: Part One — Botox and the Pretty Filter

I’ve been watching a lot of movies from the 80’s recently. Jennifer Grey. Sean Young. Anjelica Huston. Ali Magraw. Meryl Streep. Great performances, incredible stage presences, legendary films. Watching, though, I can’t help but wonder if any of them would get a role in a Hollywood film in 2016.

Today, Hollywood’s leading ladies look like they could be sisters. Jennifer Lawrence, Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, Blake Lively, Emma Stone, Chloe Moretz, Margot Robbie, Angelina Jolie. Feature by feature, they all look strangely similar. Pouty lips, check. Cheekbones, check. Little nose, check. Defined brows, check. There aren’t a great deal of top actresses in Hollywood these days with thin lips or a big schnoz. They are all either naturally “blessed” or they have had such eye-wateringly expensive work done that you barely noticed the transformation. And trust me, there has been a transformation.

And it’s not just Hollywood. The new bastions of celebrity, Instagram and Snapchat, are much the same. All the major female Instagram celebrities (Kendall, Kylie, Gigi, Bella, Kim, Taylor, Miley, Selena, Ariana, Katy) are sporting the same lip injections, the same ski-jump noses, the same perfectly groomed eyebrows, and the same nippers-and-tuckers that magically give you cheekbones where you didn’t previously have any.

Are we all starting to look like the same person?

If you’re black, Asian, or anything outside of “white”, you can bet your top eyelid that the same rules apply to you. The whole ‘ethnically ambiguous’ vibe of a South American supermodel means than you can’t just be your own ethnicity anymore, apparently you have to look like mommy had an affair with the milkman to get anybody’s dick hard these days. Korea is fast becoming the cosmetic surgery capital of the world, with women having “double eyelid” surgery and rhinoplasty, all in an effort to look more Western.

With the close up, high definition video cameras used in films, or the five megapixel, optically stabilised image that you can take with your latest model iPhone, true beauty is giving way for something else. Has being photogenic become more important than the real thing? Is the expectation that if you are able to fix an “imperfect” facial feature to make yourself look better in a picture, then you should? If Tinder, Bumble, Grindr and Blendr are anything to go by, we are critically aware of the benefits of a really good picture. If you’re a hundred likes deep, no-one ever says “She’s not as pretty in real life”. Because that’s the tradeoff. No-one that has had a lot of work done looks great in real life. Their faces look bulbous and strangely deanimated (and no-one can convince me otherwise).

Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to look your best. You absolutely should. I think that clean hair, clear skin and a healthy waistline are great things, even if they are things you can only enjoy every so often. It’s perfectly natural to want to primp and preen; even animals do it. It’s primal, a sign of health and wellbeing. I’m also not against women who get the occasional filler or Botox injection, because no-one should have to single-handedly fly the flag against the pressures of society. The thrill of a freshly ironed shirt, or soft, fragrant hair, or a lick of bright red lipstick can’t be ignored…those things make you feel good for a reason! But when applying makeup turns into forty-five minutes in front of the bathroom mirror, scrutinising every angle and bemoaning every pore, you’re playing a dangerous game of self-criticism that I promise you will never win.

Like most women, I have grappled with my appearance for years. When I was a young athlete, my female coach was obsessed by beautiful girls. Her favourite gymnasts went on to be models; tall, lithe, gorgeous faces and cascading hair. At the age of 45, she too was an Eastern-European knockout, with huge, liquid blue eyes, the frame of a 20 year old and cheekbones that could cut glass. And a drinking problem. I so desperately wanted her approval before I realised I would never have it. She would say to me; “Penny, you are too ugly to be an individual gymnast. Be realistic and join a group”. Another time it was “Some people have an aristocratic face, everyone else has the face of a peasant.” And when I was about 15, whilst doing my makeup, she explained that it was difficult to make my eyes look pretty, even with eyeshadow, because they were round and “Nobody wants round eyes, round eyes are ugly”. I could go on and on. Add those comments to a sport where you spend a hell of a lot of time in a leotard: cue unhealthy obsession with being beautiful. I think about it a lot, I worry about it a lot, and it often used to make me so unhappy that I didn’t want to leave the house. Nowadays, and with the benefit of being in my 30’s, I’ve had a few realisations that have seriously changed the way I see beauty. I want to share those with the world (or at least the people on my Facebook) in the hope that maybe I’ll prevent someone else from feeling the same level of obsession.

One of them is that you can have more than one “imperfect” feature and still be beautiful. I am not interested in the new beauty standard; I believe there is more than one type of beautiful woman. I was in a meeting at one of the Big Four banks a few weeks ago and met a woman that didn’t have pretty eyes, or a small nose. She had thin lips and an almost greasy ponytail. But she did have bright, clear skin, a healthy figure, and when she spoke about the project we were about to start working on, her eyes lit up and her hands started moving around frenetically as she explained that young people don’t know that they need to save more money. Et voila, she was beautiful. Her passion and health and vibrancy made her into someone that you leaned in and listened to. She wasn’t wearing makeup. She wasn’t wildly intelligent. I can’t imagine she is particularly photogenic. But she made such an impact in that meeting of fifteen people with her positivity and enthusiasm that she made me reconsider my own beliefs about beauty.

The second realisation? Anyone that tells you they are just getting that boob job “for me” is full of shit. If you were stuck on a desert island, alone, for the rest of your life, would you get that boob job? Would you go under a general anaesthetic and have your flesh cut open and plastic implants jammed in there, having to recover for weeks with the help of painkillers? Of course you wouldn’t. If you’ve ever spent any time as a patient in hospital, you’ll know that it’s a pretty horrible place to be. I have been playing out the pros and cons of “having things fixed” for fifteen years. Recently, I’ve started calling this a waste of spirit. I’d rather use my spirit-juices to do something that enriches myself or other people on a fundamental level, not to have my face sliced, diced and dismantled to make it more appealing to others.

The thing is, some people are beautiful despite a set of strange features, and some people are beautiful because of their strange features. Like Anjelica Huston, or Meryl Streep. Sometimes beauty doesn’t translate to a photograph, you have to be there to witness it. There is beauty in gestures, mannerisms, light, charisma, elegance. Beauty is life, but life isn’t beauty. I feel pretty sad when I think of all the hours I misspent worrying about my many-times-broken nose, my round eyes or my less-than-symmetrical features. I’d rather die knowing that I enjoyed every last spring roll than having a lower BMI than a prima ballerina. After a lifetime of self-loathing, I have a feeling this is going to be an ongoing battle, but at least I’m going into the next few years fully loaded.