Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Superimposed Image

I’m feeling drawn towards slightly superficial topics tonight. For someone who strives to be highly cerebral and to actually eschew superficiality, I have a strange fascination with fashion and beauty. I can justify some of that as philosophically grounded, because I think aesthetics is a truly intriguing subject on inquiry. But part of it has to do with the fact that I met a girl some years ago who was highly interested in fashion, mostly as an extension of her interest in art, and she single-handedly robbed me of much of my derision. Now it’s just another part of culture that I take pleasure in analyzing and picking apart.

Currently, I have a friend who likes to shop perhaps a bit too much. So when she is exploring everything that’s new at Bath and Body Works, or selecting new nail polish, or in line beside a magazine rack, I often amuse myself by scrutinizing the promotional advertisements and cover models, investigating the way they are being presented, and what it can tell us about the industry and ourselves.

When I was out with her several weeks ago, I noticed something on the covers of several women’s interest magazines. Now, every time I am out at a store with her, I look for instances of the same trend, and direct her attention to it with a gesture and a single word: “pointy.”

Everywhere I’ve looked recently, it’s seemed to me that the modeling industry has decided that sharp angles in a woman’s face are the newest thing. Models for ad campaigns set to open the Spring seasons seemed almost universally to be defined by extremely pointed chins, with almost triangular jaw lines, often accompanied by very deep, very straight dimples, a pointed nose, eyes that narrow tremendously toward the corners, and sharply angled eyebrows.

Now that we are moving well into Springtime, I don’t see the same trend as frequently as I did last month, but it is still prominent, and in fact, the cover of the latest issue of InStyle seemed to be the most aggressively obvious example of it. It features Tina Fey, looking decidedly not like Tina Fey.

The photograph makes it seem to me that every conceivable attempt was made to make her features look uncharacteristically angular, to the extent that they’ve practically molded her head into a new shape. In a more natural setting, Tina Fey doesn’t have that kind of elongated facial structure and pointed chin. Her face usually strikes me as actually being quite round. And on top of it all, as if to leave no doubt that linear construction is the standard here, they have her holding onto a pole of some kind that is angled so that it forms a right triangle with the margin.

Who decided that this is the way women have to look this season? That curiosity is why I consider this an interesting topic. When I observe these trends and find them to be absolutely ubiquitous, it seems to me that there must be a rather small set of people at the head of the major modeling agencies, who set a standard and stick to it. I know that that’s essentially the way the industry works – an agent’s job is to decide who is beautiful from week to week. Presumably, such a person would be good at their job if they were capable of accurately predicting what characteristics will meet with popular acceptance in the near future.

But is that what’s going on here? Admittedly, I have been somewhat disconnected from popular culture, but still it bears pointing out that as a man, I didn’t sign on for this. I don’t find the images I’ve been seeing lately appealing at all. Am I just out of the ordinary, or is the entire construction of social standards of beauty done at the whim of a particular person, along with a few more in a position to follow the arcane judgment?

Getting back to the idea of aesthetics, it seems to me that if there is no objective standard for aesthetic appeal, then beauty just defers to consensus and societal agreement. Now, it’s still quite interesting to consider what the mechanism is for reaching that consensus. But it’s much less interesting if aesthetics defers still further to the simple decree of people in positions of prominence. I’m not sure which is the dynamic that’s really at hand these days, but I do feel as though someone is trying to manipulate us to buy into something that we’ve never had a chance to agree on. And now as those might-be manipulators look to the Summer season, the trends I’ve been observing are starting to be phased out, and it seems like the adjustments to popular standards are happening too fast for us to have even considered them long enough to accept or reject the last aesthetic ideal.

What do you think? Who’s calling the shots when it comes to standards of beauty and image? Is it the consumer or the manufacturer? And if it’s the latter, is there a breaking point we should be looking forward to? Is there any chance of taking popular ownership of the ideals we manufacture, and would there be any benefit in doing so? Or is the concept behind a modeling industry just something superficial, no matter how it’s approached?

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