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Let’s take the morality out of beauty

Rebecca Judd and Roald Dahl’s The Twits might be strange bedfellows, but one response to the hoopla surrounding Judd’s postpartum body selfie reminded me of a line from the book.

The photo, shared on Instagram, shows Judd looking slim and undeniably gorgeous, less than two weeks after delivering twin boys. Aside from all of the comments the picture has attracted, ranging from the fawning to the damning, the response that interested me most involved a mother-to-be asking Judd for tips on how to look so good after giving birth.

Having gestated three babies myself, it strikes me that there is very little Judd could have actively done to have achieved such a state in this time, even if she didn’t have two brand new babies to care for.

The assumption that Judd must have done something to look like that so soon was reminiscent of the words in The Twits,

“If a person has ugly thoughts, it begins to show on the face. And when that person has ugly thoughts every day, every week, every year, the face gets uglier and uglier until you can hardly bear to look at it. A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly.”

In both the question to Judd and the line from the book, beauty is given a moral value, either due to the thoughts or behaviour of an individual, as if beauty is the prize for hard work and dedication. This assumption that people somehow have control over their appearance is an unhelpful one.

While the genetically-blessed Judd might have eaten well and exercised during her pregnancy, it is ludicrous to assume that behaviour and self-control were entirely responsible for the way she appeared afterwards. Most women who are just as careful with what they eat during their pregnancies see something far different when they look in the mirror months or years after giving birth, and genetics and environment undeniably play a huge role in their body’s recovery.

In the same way that it is misleading to attribute Judd’s appearance to her actions, Dahl’s quote from The Twits suggests that people’s thoughts or outlook have some kind of impact on their appearance. This, dangerously, attributes a kind of moral value to looking good. God help the people born with crooked noses and prone to acne.

The same inclination to bestow beauty with a moral value is evident in fairy tales, in which the beautiful, kind, hard working, young woman overcomes the ugly (or at least, less beautiful) step sisters or step mother.

The notion that individuals, and women in particular, are responsible for how they look is reinforced by the beauty industry, with its interests in encouraging us to believe such a myth. Cosmetics companies sell the idea that aging can be remedied by specially formulated creams, which, when used religiously, can clear away wrinkles with the sweep of a carefully manicured figure. Yes, there’s no limit to what is available: there’s “biomolecular” eye cream; “microtechnology bio active” foundation; “pro-collagen” serum; “microsmoothing” face serum; and a “bio-stimulating” night cream with “microlift”. It would be pure laziness not to make use of this science to help us look good.

And so, obediently, we buy these lotions that promise not just a beautiful visage but also a moral stamp of approval. We have tried.

I am not immune from the kind of self flagellation that leads to the purchase of these creams and lotions. I look in the mirror and see lines running across my forehead and wonder when I ever expressed so much surprise. I curse myself for failing to be vigilant enough with sun protection in my 20s, and now I’m paying the price. But then I remember my Nana’s skin, with deep grooves lining her forehead, and consider my pale skin and blue eyes. Clearly, rationally, aging is an inevitability of my genes that no cream will remedy.

It is liberating to believe so, and to realise that striving for a different face, body or skin tone is essentially futile.

In some ways, the #nomakeup movement, in which the genetically gifted ‘bravely’ go without their usual mask of makeup, is a sign that things are improving. But while on many levels this is a positive phenomenon, at its heart is a belief that real beauty is attainable through diet and exercise, as the celebrities claim that it is this that makes their skin glow, removing the need for makeup. However, what is a girl to think, when she goes makeup free, exercises and eats well, but does not have that flawless skin and enviable bone structure displayed by the celebrities whose selfies inspire them?

Most frustrating to me is the #fitspo movement, which glorifies strong bodies, but with a worrying emphasis on tanned, toned stomachs and naturally beautiful faces. Apparently, now, it is not enough to be thin, but a serve of obsessive exercise must be thrown in on the side. And yet, here it is, being marketed as an antidote to the thinness obsession of the past. All you need is to spend every waking hour exercising, and you will have achieved a ‘healthy’ appearance that is a testament to your dedication and moral fibre. The lazy or large need not apply. Weight, in particular, is an incredibly complex issue that has developed a moral element. The obese are judged and labelled, and the belief that effort and willpower are the sole determinants of obesity (the overweight just aren’t trying hard enough!) bestows a moral value on thinness, regardless of the hormones, genetics, psychological and environmental factors that influence an individual’s size and shape. Never are these factors more prevalent than in child-bearing, when bodies perform according to codes laid down long ago, differing from woman to woman.

The problem with the notion that we can, and should, do something about the way we look is as damaging as the refrain trumpeted by motivational speakers that asserts that anyone can succeed at anything if they try hard enough. This dismisses the complex interplay of circumstances that govern our appearance and how we behave, perform in and experience the world.

While Judd is entitled to take pictures of whatever she likes, it is a flawed assumption that her beauty or body shape are attainable, for those who try hard enough. No amount of work or kindness is going to result in that kind of appearance, either pre or post-baby.

Perhaps it is time for women to stop thinking of their bodies and faces as works in progress, which they must mould and mask to be acceptable. After all, despite what Dahl might believe, beauty is not a sign of moral integrity, it is just a genetic fluke.

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