Objects of Beauty

bookcover

“…the images that are presented in advertising are designed to create an illusion, a fantasy ideal that will keep women continually consuming. The influential power of the diet, fashion, cosmetic and beauty industries and their advertising strategies target this…” (Dalnet IRC, 2002).

“’Beauty’ is not universal or changeless, though the West pretends that all ideals of female beauty stem from one Platonic Ideal Woman”. (“The Beauty Myth” Naomi Wolf)

“My practice is concerned with social and political issues; the visual language I use resides within a traditional aesthetic of truth and beauty.” (Joy Gregory)

Advertising sells us much more than products. It sells us a lifestyle, values, an image, an ideal but what’s more it sells us the idea of ‘normalcy’. And it’s this idea of being ‘normal’, being acceptable and worthy by everything and everyone, which is the urgent issue. What is deemed and portrayed as ‘normal’ within advertising is often inaccurate. And nothing comes more inaccurate than advertisements aimed at and portraying women. Such advertisements are overwhelmed by fantastical ideals, which are in fact utterly unattainable in reality. However, the sheer repetition and vast amount of them, which engulf our day-to-day lives, have created the illusion that these ideals are ‘natural’, ‘normal’ and even more worryingly attainable.

According to Naomi Wolf, in the chapter entitled ‘Culture’ of the ‘The Beauty Myth’, “the advertisers who make women’s mass culture possible depend on making women feel bad enough about their faces and bodies to spend more money on worthless or pain inducing products than they would if they felt innately beautiful” (p.84) the mass media specifically targets women to believe that they can achieve this ‘ideal’ if they buy the products and women being depicted. From a young age we are conditioned to believe we must spend enormous amount of time, energy and most importantly money above to achieve these ‘ideals’.

However, these images are not even real. They have been carefully constructed, edited for hours on end using high-tech wizardry, a manufactured image of youth and beauty. Yet we still continue to compare ourselves to these beautifully airbrushed models and strive to be just like them in the hope that we too can be deemed beautiful. If we don’t meet these standards we are to feel guilty: a failure. “Objects of Beauty” by Joy Gregory explores all of this and more in a truly thought-provoking array of photographs and personal accounts commenting on mainstream femininity and beauty echoing the thoughts set out by writers like Naomi Wolf.

In “The Beauty Myth” by Naomi Wolf she writes, “Images of women in the beauty myth are reductive and stereotyped. At any moment there are a limited number of recognizable “beautiful” faces.” (p.50) the repetition of stereotypical images of women as well as men creates the idea that there are certain behaviours, styles and looks which are acceptable and deemed “beautiful” for the sexes. For Wolf these stereotypes and constructs are all part of “the beauty myth” and these “ideals” are not only fictititious but damaging. Jean Kilbourne in Killing Us Softly 3 states that, “Women are acceptable only if we are young, thin, white, beautiful, carefully groomed and polished and any deviation from that ideal is met with a lot of contempt and hostility” [14.30]. These thoughts are depicted beautifully in “Objects of Beauty” highlighting one woman’s struggle with these “ideals” as a sub-Saharan -black woman, something which is hugely relatable for any female, regardless of race or status.

Women in advertisements, aimed at both men and women audiences, are often portrayed as sexual objects: their bodies’ mere tools for satisfaction, degradation and of course selling products, seen almost exclusively through the male gaze. Women are repeatedly depicted as being overtly sexual, reduced to mere parts as well as submissive, which has become so ‘normal’ even us women are desensitized to the depictions of female sexuality. Some find it empowering, others objectifying. Either way females are predominantly reduced to pieces: breasts, legs, stockings, eye lashes, heels and make-up all parts for exploration, satisfaction and marketing as Gregory explores in the chapter entitled, “Objects of Beauty”.

Hairpin from Objects of Beauty

Hairpin from Objects of Beauty

The images in this chapter encapsulate all the items usually associated with traditional femininity, reinforcing the constructed nature of “ideal” femininity as well as its artificiality. The items are represented as if they were evidence, and we’re invited into this investigation into the inner workings of femininity. The items depicted include: corsets, false eye lashes, lingerie, earrings and so on. It’s harrowing and a very powerful chapter revealing the falseness of femininity and how easy it is to be reduced to mere parts. Each object is photographed on its own and printed as a calotype, a photographic process which was popular in the nineteenth century and which is characterised by subtle tonal differences. These formal qualities give the individual objects an iconic status and ironically, they themselves become beautiful in their still-life guises

Bustier from Objects of Beauty

Bustier from Objects of Beauty

Another thought provoking chapter is entitled “Autoportrait”, which reminds us of the fashions worlds focus on the perfect poreless complexion but’s more the white complexion. Black skin has often been left behind or made to be animalistic within the fashion world which is worrying and destructive. Can “ideal” beauty only be white? Well, of course not but fashions standards seem to be suggesting just that. While the 1970’s saw the rise of several black and Asian models, they were still primarily used for photo shoots with “exotic” themes, chosen by white fashion image-makers for their ability to add an extra frisson to the prevailing ideas of the time. Linda Grant wrote in The Guardian in 1997 that:

“No one is more of a thing than a supermodel, a piece of moving meat to hang clothes on, and none more so than black models. Every few years the business has its fling with ethnicity, scavenging across the globe for what it likes to call inspiration and the rest of us would call plagiarism or even downright theft”

Such criticism exposes the problematic representations in fashion both of models from ethnic minorities and non-western cultures. The history of their representation within white culture is too fraught with racist notions of superiority to allow entirely positive readings to come easily. In fashion there are few well known black models, and those who do succeed are often chosen for their light skins and slim white European features. Naomi Campbell spoke out about this, saying: “There is a prejudice and it’s a problem…I can’t go along anymore with brushing it under the carpet.”

“Autoportrait” features self-portraits of Gregory, honest and matter of fact, unlike any other visual representations of “ideal” femininity. The focus on white skin is a problem in fashion and is deeply concerning, making this series particularly political and subversive. She writes:

“…Autoportrait was my response to the invisibility, beyond the exotic, of black women in British fashion and beauty images. Among all the self-portraits I’ve made, it’s the only series in which the body alone is in its focus. The intention is to conjure up the mood of the catwalk-all fantasy and glamour-a world from which me and my kind had been almost totally excluded. The sub-Saharan black woman of the photographs, with her broad nose, large eyes and lips, is the distant, glamour figure of unattainable beauty” (p.12)

“Ideal” femininity being reduced to mere parts: white skin, slenderness and immaculate make-up reinforced through visual media which engulfs our lives is seriously damaging and concerning. Women are much more than their body parts and sexuality but advertisers make us feel we should conform to these ‘ideals’ and so beauty becomes our main priority. Thus, what is deemed a ‘normal’ feminine identity is one that is comfortably reduced to flesh: an object of desire or as Gregory would say object of beauty. This book encapsulates perfectly the concerns and pressures many women feel to conform to the unrealistic and narrow “ideals” of femininity set out by visual media. Beauty and femininity does not mean white skin, slenderness, lingerie and feminine items, it lies in our differences, as Gregory highlights with dignity and honesty.

References:

Arnold, R (2001) Fashion, Desire and Anxiety. London: I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd. (p.95-97)

Wolf, N (1991) The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women. Vintage.

V&A (3 February 2013) Hairpin Objects of Beauty [online] available from<http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O134453/hairpin-objects-of-beauty-photograph-joy-gregory/&gt; (4th March 2014)

Joy Gregory (N.D) Joy Gregory [online] available from<http://www.joygregory.co.uk/archive/details.php?proj_id=3&gt; (5th May 2014)

AN (2001) Joy Gregory Artist Stories [online] available from<http://www.a-n.co.uk/artists_talking/artists_stories/single/63647&gt; (5th May 2014)

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