Friday, June 28, 2019

How 19th century ideas influenced today's attitudes to women’s beauty

In the 19th century, a range of thinkers attempted to pinpoint exactly what it was that made a woman beautiful. Newly popular women’s magazines began to promote ideas about the right behaviours, attitudes, and daily routines required to produce and maintain beauty.

The scientific classification of plants and animals - influenced by Charles Darwin - also shaped thinking about beauty. It was seen to be definable, like a plant type or animal species. Increasingly, sophisticated knowledge of medicine and anatomy and the association of beauty with health also saw physicians weigh into the debate.

A look at three significant books that focused on beauty shows several influential ideas. These include the classification of distinct beauty types, the perception of “natural” beauty as superior to the “artificial”, and the eventual acceptance of beauty as something that each woman should try to cultivate through a daily regimen of self-care.

 Classifying beauty types

‘The three species of beauty as affecting the head and face’ in Alexander Walker’s Beauty;
Illustrated Chiefly by an Analysis and Classification of Beauty in Woman (New York: William H. Colyer).
Alexander Walker, a Scottish physiologist, wrote three books on the subject of “woman”. The first was Beauty; Illustrated Chiefly by an Analysis and Classification of Beauty in Women. Here, Walker focuses on women’s beauty because he suggests it is “best calculated to ensure attention from men”. He assumes that men have the power to choose sexual partners in a way that women do not, therefore men have a crucial responsibility “to ameliorate the species”.

Given that one of its key functions is to signal fertility, a woman’s appearance is therefore not a frivolous topic. It is linked to the development of humanity.

Walker defines three types or “species” of female beauty: locomotive, nutritive, and thinking. These types derive from a knowledge of anatomy and each is related to one of the bodily “systems”.
‘Front view illustrating mental beauty’ in
Alexander Walker’s Beauty

The locomotive or mechanical system is highly developed in women with “precise, striking, and brilliant” bodies. The nutritive or vital system is evident in the “soft and voluptuous”. The thinking or mental system is conducive to a figure “characterised by intellectuality and grace”.

Walker’s ideal is the mental or thinking beauty. She has less pronounced breasts and curves and admirable inner qualities that are evident in her “intensely expressive eye”.

Not coincidentally, he understands intelligence to predominate in men. Walker’s ideal thinking beauty is effectively most like his idea of a man in contrast to the locomotive beauty (connected with the lower classes) and the nutritive beauty (primed to have children).

 ‘Firm and elastic’ breasts

Daniel Garrison Brinton was an army surgeon in the American Civil War. He later became a professor of ethnology and archaeology and edited The Medical and Surgical Reporter. In 1870, he and medical editor George Henry Napheys published Personal Beauty: How to Cultivate and Preserve it in Accordance with the Laws of Health.

The book proposes ideal measurements for areas such as the forehead and the most distinctive features of the female body. Breasts are viewed as essential to beauty and the ideal they describe is youthful, with “firm and elastic” tissue that forms “true hemispheres in shape”.

Very specific distances between nipples, the collar bone, and between the breasts themselves are specified, setting out perfect proportions.

Brinton and Napheys claim that few European and American women meet these requirements, owing to the “artificial life” adopted in both locations. Controversially, they remark that such breasts do not exist in America, apart from in “some vigorous young country girl, who has grown up in ignorance of the arts which thwart nature”. The idea that beauty was more often destroyed by “artificial” beauty methods than improved by it was predominant.

Personal Beauty promotes a device for improving the shape of the breast through suction because it meets the criteria for “natural” improvement. It is described similarly to breast enlargement pumps that are sold today as an alternative to breast augmentation.

Brinton and Napheys’ reference to the potential of such a device to “restore the organs in great measure to their proper shape, size, and function” suggests they are referring to breasts that may have lost their fullness and symmetry after breastfeeding.

It is unclear how such a device would not only improve the shapeliness of breasts, but also render them “better adapted to fulfil their functions”. However, the notion that function, which is reliant on health, is essential to beauty helps to support a medicalised understanding of the topic.

Beauty destroyed

This emphasis on health contributes to a tendency to focus on the ways that women destroy their own beauty through clothing, cosmetics, or certain types of exercise. A specific target in this book is the wearing of garters below the knee, which the authors claim is the reason why a “handsome leg is a rarity, we had almost said an impossibility, among American women”.

Tightly-laced corsets, sucked-upon lips, and white face powders are frowned upon for potential harms to health. Yet, as doctors, Brinton and Napheys embrace early manifestations of cosmetic surgery, such as the removal of skin that might hang over the eyes.

A significant point in guiding the acceptability of cosmetic usage is whether such a practice appears natural and undetectable. Imitation itself is not described as distasteful, if it can be achieved convincingly, but “the failure in the attempt at imitation” does inspire revulsion.

As such, a wig that meshes with a women’s age and appearance can be acceptable. In contrast, it is “contrary to all good taste” to “give to the top of the head an air of juvenility which is flatly contradicted by all other parts of the person”.

Personal Beauty focuses on preventative measures for retaining beauty and delaying the visible onset of ageing, rather than remedying flaws once they have taken hold. The book ultimately concludes that if all the measures recommended are undertaken, “there will be little need for the purely venal cosmetic arts, such as paint, powder, patches, or rouge”.

Embracing beauty culture

This understanding of cosmetics as pure reflections of vanity and as separate from beauty practices related to health was gradually challenged by women writers towards the end of the 19th century.

Frontispiece, Mrs H.R. Haweis, [1878] 1883.
 The Art of Beauty. London: Chatto & Windus.

Eliza Haweis wrote about the decoration and stylistic adornment of the home and body in British magazines and a series of books, the first of which was The Art of Beauty (1878). Its premise is that personal beauty and adornment of the body is of “the first interest and importance” for women.
Many beauty manuals warned against any significant attempts to alter the face or body beyond basic health and hygiene. Such practices, as academic Sarah Lennox suggests, were seen as “objectionable — as a hiding of inner truth”. Haweis, however, encourages young women to enhance their beauty and older women to continue to use methods that “conceal its fading away”.

The methods that Haweis advocates reproduce prevalent ideas found in women’s magazines and beauty manuals that discouraged any visible sign of artifice and which championed the “natural”. Hygienic and cosmetic intervention are framed as exposing or fostering physical qualities as they ought to be seen, or providing a delicate “veil” for flaws, rather than attempting to entirely transform them.

However, Haweis goes further than many beauty advisors at the time. Unlike many male writers, she is not opposed to cosmetics. She likens their use in “hiding defects of complexion, or touching the face with pink or white” to adding padding to a dress, piercing ears, or undergoing cosmetic dentistry.

Eliza Haweis

Part of the reason Haweis supports cosmetics and other methods of improving the appearance is because she observes that ugly people are treated differently.
Walker sees beauty as a sign of higher intelligence. Many publications at the time presented a similar line of reasoning in suggesting that mean-spirited and nasty individuals would age horribly.

Haweis, however, is unique in her entertainment of the possibility of ugliness negatively influencing character. She proposes that “an immense number of ill-tempered ugly women are ill-tempered because they are ugly”. She acknowledges that ugliness is in fact an “impediment” and a “burden”, which thereby supports her call to all women to work to improve their appearance.

Beauty today

Our understanding of what makes a woman beautiful is influenced by dominant cultural beliefs and hierarchies. Though Walker’s physiological beauty types were replaced by acceptance of the idea that women can retain beauty into older age or remedy unappealing features, many historic precepts about beauty continue to influence modern beauty culture.

Ideas about “natural” beauty as superior to “artificial” beauty are reflected in cosmetic advertisements and plastic surgery procedures, with a “natural” or “undetectable” look to any product, facelift, or implant being the desired outcome for many women.

Most of all, the idea that beauty is of prime importance to girls and women remains predominant, even as the cultural conditions surrounding marriage, employment, and family have substantially transformed since the 19th century.

Haweis’ ideas about the significance of self-care resonate with contemporary feminists who point to women’s pleasure and empowered use of cosmetics.

We have recently seen the emergence of male beauty bloggers and YouTubers. However, the continued sense that beauty is largely women’s preserve and a unique form of power that requires a continual fight to keep shows how an emphasis on women’s physical appearance is still entwined with gender inequality.The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Monday, January 28, 2019

From The Getting of Wisdom to Heartbreak High: Australian school stories on screen

File 20190123 135136 1fnm1pl.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Bruce Beresford's 1977 film, The Getting of Wisdom
Going to school is one of the few life experiences almost everyone shares. From the time children began to be educated in small groups in Britain, there were school stories in popular culture, beginning with what many consider the first novel for children, Sarah Fielding’s The Governess; or, The Little Female Academy (1749).

The emphasis in early school stories was on moral and intellectual learning, which the reader was supposed to absorb. However, as school became a universal experience, stories about school elevated peer acceptance, sporting success, and friendships to the main sources of drama. This has remained true from the crucial cricket match of Tom Brown’s School Days (1857) to the quidditch tournaments of the Harry Potter series.

School stories appeal to children and adolescents because they represent a world comprised largely of other young people, with adult teachers relegated to the periphery. However, they also mark changes in the kinds of ideals and goals we want young people to aspire towards.

Conformity and obedience were measures of a protagonist’s success in early school stories. However, as the genre has evolved in film and television, school stories have celebrated characters who transgress adult expectations, emphasising the importance of individuality.

Nerds, jocks and popular kids

North American film and television from the 1980s embraced stories about high school in particular, with earnest considerations of the dilemmas faced by teenagers forced into almost familial relationships with each other.

John Hughes’s The Breakfast Club (1985) was among the first films to treat the experience of high school with seriousness and empathy. In what became a template for the genre, it explores the unique forms of social stratification found in schools between the popular kids, the nerds, the jocks, and outcasts who sprinkle dandruff on their artworks.

Canadian series Degrassi Junior High
Canadian series Degrassi Junior High (1987-89) and Degrassi High (1989-1991) were pioneering in their focus on teenagers and willingness to confront mature topics including drug use, teen pregnancy, racism, and sexuality. The ultimate dark and vindictive side of school friendships were most memorably fictionalised in 1988’s Heathers, which darkly satirised teen suicide. Reflecting a significant transformation in real-world schools, the recent television reboot of Heathers had its premiere delayed for almost a year because of the Parkland, Florida school shooting.

Some of the longest-running American TV series set in schools in the 1990s nevertheless idealised beautiful, popular, and often wealthy students. Both the Saturday-morning comedy Saved by the Bell (1989-1993) and the prime-time drama Beverly Hills, 90210 (1990-2000) were largely told from the perspective of fashionably dressed and perfectly coiffed characters at the zenith of the social hierarchy.

Outsiders and underdogs

Australian school stories have differed from their British and American counterparts from the outset. Henry Handel Richardson’s classic novel The Getting of Wisdom (1910), which was adapted into a film in 1977, is the story of poor country girl, Laura Tweedle Rambotham, who is sent to an exclusive Melbourne boarding school.

While the usual arc of the school story was to teach the outsider appropriate lessons about how to conform and contribute to school spirit and sporting success, Laura lies in an ill-fated attempt to be liked, cheats to pass her final exams, and finishes school without having found peer acceptance. It is her very inability to change herself to fit stifling gender and class expectations that has made her an enduring and beloved character for the past century.

Read more: The case for Henry Handel Richardson’s The Getting of Wisdom

Such irreverence toward authority figures is a frequent attribute of Australian stories about school. In its early years, teen soap Home and Away (1988-present) built many dramas around conflict with high-school principal Donald Fisher, who the students privately referred to as “Flathead”.

With conscious efforts to present a grittier and more realistic depiction of school life, Heartbreak High (1994-1999) not only included a cast that aimed to represent Australia’s increasingly multicultural society but depicted teachers as less authoritarian, and heavily invested in their student’s welfare.

In a reworking of the opposition between student and teacher, it has become common for Australian stories about school life to retain a focus on the underdog but to draw out its comedic potential. Hating Alison Ashley (2005), based on the novel by Robin Klein, cast pop darling Delta Goodrem as the beautiful, superficially perfect student, but presents the story from the perspective of friendless hypochondriac Erica Yurken.

Rather than a disciplinarian setting in which the teachers and principal have ultimate control, Barringa East high school exhibits a loss of adult order, with graffiti and rubbish covering the campus.

The film opens with the explanation that three teachers have retired due to the trauma of teaching at the school, with two institutionalised and one escaping to join the Hare Krishnas. While the overall culture of underachieving students allows Erica to shine academically, she does not feel comfortable in herself until she makes an unlikely friend in her imagined rival, Alison. A happy ending for Erica is found not in changing herself and achieving popularity, but in finding a supportive friend to join her outside the mainstream.

The trailer for 2005 film Hating Alison Ashley.

Chris Lilley’s Summer Heights High (2007) at once adopted the perspective of an underdog in the form of Jonah Takalua (a Tongan character controversially played by Lilley), and a queen bee in the form of Ja’mie King, a private school girl “slumming” at a state school.

Rather than glamorising the wealthy, image-obsessed Ja’mie, the series positions viewers to laugh at the shallowness of her manipulations to gain the approval of teachers and the few students she deems worthy of her attention. While many of the teachers at the school do care for student welfare, the infamous Mr G is the ultimate demonstration of the way teachers and authority figures are often depicted as flawed and ineffectual.

Chris Lilley as Ja'mie

Across time, Australian stories about school have more in common with the narratives of outsiders like Napoleon Dynamite than those of inspirational teachers as in Dead Poets Society or the beautiful students of Riverdale.

Attributes such as wealth, attractiveness, and family connections and status often distinguish the protagonists of American and British stories. Similarly, working hard and behaving correctly often brings success and popularity to these characters.

In contrast, Australian stories about school days are more likely to question structures of authority and social status. And anyone who wants to suck up to the popular kids or teachers can just, in the words of the students of Heartbreak High, “Rack off!”The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.