What Does Beauty Look Like In The Modern Day?

Beauty is ... what? From plus-size to transgender to full-body tattoos, the beauty ideal in the age of the internet seems broader and more accepting of women than ever before. But is it? Greg Dixon wonders.

You might call it a beautiful irony. But in 2015, the beauty event of year happened not on the catwalks of London or Milan nor in parfumeries of Paris but in secret and with a view of the Pacific.

On May 15, Vanity Fair's Annie Leibovitz and her crew from New York arrived at a hill-top address in Malibu, a "beautiful perch" with expansive views of the ocean at the end of a long and winding road.

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The day and the shoot had been weeks and weeks in the planning and preparation, and secrecy was paramount; across a ravine, high on another hill, other photographers, the paparazzi, were waiting and watching.

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Away from their prying eyes - and ours - Leibovitz set up her lights and her cameras and made something like history. In the course of that day at that Malibu hideaway, the famous portrait photographer created images that would introduce Caitlyn Jenner to the world.

It was an event created and celebrated and sold in a very American way.

Jenner was revealed to the world in Vanity Fair, the smug bible for those who think themselves America's cultural elite, but also a magazine so in love with celebrity that it puts one on the cover every month. And this particular cover was introduced to the world with the same precision and planning with which it had been made.

Caitlyn Jenner. Photo / Vanity Fair
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It was unveiled on Twitter by Jenner herself. Then it was all on: the news media reported. Social networks buzzed. The President applauded. Late-night talkshow hosts jokingly approved. And when the roar had reached its crescendo, the magazine went on sale.

The culture's consensus was clear enough, however. Caitlyn Jenner, the emerging gender identity of a former jock and all-American hero called Bruce, was a beauty.

"I can definitely say that she was so beautiful when I met her in person," Gena Rocero, founder of Gender Proud told Vanity Fair, "you could really feel that this person is free. There is a sense of healing to be the person that you are fully, and that's beautiful ..."

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It was also, in its own way, brave and, for the transgender community itself, important. But those thinking that Leibovitz's portraits of the world's most famous transgender woman introduced something new to the world could not be more wrong.

The carefully-crafted beauty of Jenner wasn't radical, it was business as usual. It was beauty as a lovely frock with perfect hair and makeup. It was beauty as the Hollywood ideal of curves and long legs. It was beauty as sex appeal. It was beauty as commodity.

A photo posted by Caitlyn Jenner (@caitlynjenner) on

And it was ever-so-slightly disturbing, says Paula Morris, the novelist and academic who this week spoke at a "Beauty Salon", an event discussing the notion of beauty, organised by the University of Auckland Society.

"There are all sorts of women in the world," she says, "and many of them don't wear make-up, don't wear dresses, are plain - are they not women? And yet there is a sort of performance of womanhood going on in this, when we celebrate successful transgender woman like Caitlyn Jenner. What you are saying is that you need to be perceived as beautiful in the most stereotypical way, in a way that is still really to do with the male gaze. What Caitlyn Jenner has adopted is the idea that Bruce Jenner had as a man about what was beautiful."

SO WHAT, then, is beauty?

If it's more than just pretty frocks and perfect hair and makeup - whether they're worn by Caitlyn Jenner or Kate Moss - what does it look like?

Actually the better question is, what does beauty look like now? As the writer and philosopher Umberto Eco concludes in his introduction to On Beauty, beauty has never been absolute and immutable but takes on new shapes and meanings at different times and in different places. On Beauty explores the history of beauty through art and images from Ancient Greece to the modern media. Flicking through its thousands of years of history only confirms Eco's assertion that, crudely put, tastes change. And New Zealand, in its short history, has been no different.

Kim Kardashian.
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To be considered beautiful in New Zealand right now, says Janetta Mackay, the beauty editor for the New Zealand Herald's Viva, requires what it always has, an outward appeal "made more fetching by a certain insouciance".

Right now this is expressed through a less contrived and more natural look in both hair and makeup, she says, but then the rather less natural Kardashians are many people's idea of glamour and beauty too.

"The Kardashians couldn't be more 'done'. So artifice is alive and well."

How different things were for women when this country was being formed in the 19th century. And in many ways, how much the same. If the Kardashians are mocked today for the trashy values - read morality - they seem to display, along with all that flesh, this is something like an echo of where we have come from, from Victorian times when beauty was very much conflated with morality.

Like at "Home", in mother Britain, outward beauty was an expression of inner goodness in 19th century New Zealand women, says Kirby-Jane Hallum, an academic, author and the organiser of this week's Beauty Salon.

In her book, Aestheticism and the Marriage Market in Victorian Popular Literature: The Art of Female Beauty, she explains how Victorian women were expected to have a softness of figure, angel hair and rosy lips.

"Your main goal in 19th century society," Hallum tells me, "was to pick up a husband, and part of that was beautifying yourself in accordance to the principles of the time. There was not a lot of fat shaming but there was plenty of spinster shaming going on!"

If a woman wanted a husband, she was expected to be beautiful and good. But just beautiful would do, according to poet and writer Theophile Gautier. He summons the 19th century's - or rather 19th century man's - attitudes to feminine beauty in his 1835 novel, Mademoiselle de Maupin, a book in which he famously claimed that "everything useful is ugly".

Gautier writes: "I have never asked anything from women except beauty. I can very well make do without intelligence and soul. A woman with beauty is always intelligent as far as I'm concerned. She has the intelligence to be beautiful and I do not know anything equal to that."

A typical 19th Century woman with a soft figure, angel hair and rosy lips. Photo / Getty Images
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AND NOR

, it seems, did so much of the next century. By the 1920s in New Zealand a woman's beauty, apparently, wasn't just more important than her intelligence or even their soul, it could be, and was quite literally being, measured.

Caroline Daley, another speaker at the Beauty Salon and a history professor, says that from the late 19th century there was a fashion in New Zealand for beauty contests for both men and women. Vaudeville shows featured Most Beautiful Woman and Handsomest Man contests, while - and this may seem unbelievable today - some of the good keen men of late Victorian and Edwardian New Zealand preened and posed in little leopard skin knickers in body contests, some of which were held in art galleries.

They were to be our Adonises. The women were to be the Venus de Milo.

"The first Miss New Zealand contest was held in 1926," Daley says, "and when they advertised for contestants in the newspapers they put in the Venus de Milo's measurements, they put in Miss Australia's measurements and Miss America's measurements. Then there was a column to fill in your own, including height, waist, neck, arm, bust, hips, thighs, calves, ankles and wrists.

"We talk about body shaming today, but they're ignoring the fact that all of these women's measurements were published."

To give these early contests a semblance of seemliness, and to underline perhaps that beauty was supposed to be an artistic and scientific certainty rather than mere abstraction, the judges included medical doctors, artists and, for the checking of such things as elocution, someone from the media.

The Venus de Milo. Photo / Getty Images
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However the winner's prize gave away the real game. The Miss New Zealand crown came not with an educational scholarship or even a trip to the Louvre to view the real Venus de Milo. First prize was a trip to Hollywood and the promise of a role in a movie.

Quaintly, and possibly in a last gasp for Victorian primness, the first Miss New Zealand didn't make it to Hollywood; her mother wouldn't let her go. However, the second went and appeared in several films before returning to New Zealand with little more than a trunk full of frocks.

"The Miss New Zealand contests were like New Zealand Idol now," Daley says. "They would travel the country, literally for months, before the final. And you've got this chance of Hollywood and a new life, a completely different life than the department store where you work.

"But for others the only way to sanction these contests was to see them as 'good for the nation'. It was not about these women being obsessed with cosmetics and fashion. It's all about health and fitness."

New Zealand beauties may have had to have the measurements of the Venus de Milo, but it was actually with Hollywood that New Zealand beauty compared itself, Daley says. However, our beauty contests were made distinctively New Zealand by Maori women.

Maureen Kingi, winner of Miss New Zealand in the 60s. Photo / File
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"We had a Maori Miss New Zealand a lot earlier than you could have a black Miss America. In the 1960s, we've got Maureen Kingi as Miss New Zealand. She is feted and when she goes to America to participate in Miss Universe, she ends up on national TV and she's doing poi dances."

And just as we had been pre-war, from the 60s-on New Zealand was in love with beauty contests (and swimsuit contests held at the seaside in summer). It was only in the late 1980s that their popularity began to wane, partly due the influence of changing attitudes lead by second wave feminism, but also because fashion and fashion body shapes rather than the girl next door became the new ideal, a trend that continues to this day.

By the 1990s Miss New Zealand was calling herself "Miss Anonymous", but just a decade before, in 1981, the final of Miss New Zealand was watched by more people than any of the controversial Springbok rugby matches played here that year and - gasp! - the Royal Wedding. However, the peak was two years later when Lorraine Downes, who would go on to marry not only an All Black but a Black Cap too, was crowned Miss Universe.

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New Zealand beauty had become the new ideal.

RACHEL HUNTER will be 46 this Wednesday. And, by a pleasing coincidence, the third part of her 13-part series, Rachel Hunter's Tour of Beauty, screens on TV One that same night.

Putting aside the shock that the once glowing, bronzed and curly-haired teenager who helped sell Tip-Top trumpets is now in her middle age, it is also a pleasing coincidence that Hunter who, at least for a time in 1990s and 2000s represented the New Zealand beauty ideal abroad, has filmed a series in which she, in her words, embarks "on a journey around the world to discover the secrets of lasting beauty ..."

And in the streets of Paris in the first part and in Korea in the second, she discovered the modern truth about beauty: it's big business.

Controlled by a very small group of huge multi-national companies, the global beauty market had sales of $711 billion last year and is expected to grow to more than $1000 billion by 2020. Skincare products are the largest single segment.

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"I think the ideal of beauty that has always stayed the same is your complexion is your base," Hallum says. "When Pears soap employed Lillie Langtry [in the 1890s], the idea was that soap is a cosmetic and hygiene improved the skin, so you needed less makeup. I think we still hold that view now."

"Big Beauty", as Viva's Mackay calls it, is not just shipping creams, anti-ageing potions and perfume. It continues to peddle beauty ideals, just as it did with Langtry more than a century ago. Lauder recently signed up Kardashian sister Kendall Jenner, mindful of her huge social media following, while Yves Saint Laurent Beaute has gone ahead leaps and bounds with feted model Cara Delevingne as its face.

But beyond the famous faces and fashion's fleeting trends, Big Beauty has done something more lasting: it's made Western beauty affordable. "Beauty is the gateway into luxury brands," Mackay says. "A Dior or Chanel lipstick or nail polish costs not much more than a middle-of-the-road brand and it costs way less than a handbag. A lipstick is an affordable luxury."

SPLENDID, SENSUOUS MARRAKECH: WHEN WOMAN AND CITY BECOME ONE #yslsummerlook #yslbeauty #caradelevingne

A photo posted by YSL Beauty (@yslbeauty) on

In the process of making billions by selling to billions, the beauty business has, Hallum believes, "democratised" beauty. Now, she says, almost anyone can afford it. Beauty, arguably, is just a Chanel lipstick away. "But taste changes," Hallum says with a twinkle, "and taste can't necessarily be taught."

HEIDI KLUM is no longer a perfect 10. How do we know this? Because Donald Trump told us so. And in saying so he made Paula Morris angry as hell.

"It's because of Klum's age," she says. "She looks fantastic. She's got so much natural genetic stuff going for her. But that he would say that, [suggests] it's still acceptable to hit out at women because of the way they look ... "

Trump didn't get away with it. Social media reacted, pundits shamed him and 42-year-old Klum eventually defended herself with good grace and humour. But this is what beauty is subject to in the age of the internet, the age of social media, the age of the wannabe presidential candidate as troll. Arguably women have never been more scrutinised and more criticised for the way they look. As Hallum points out, magazines that feature celebrity cellulite sell.

Heidi Klum. Photo / AP
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And it isn't just celebrities. The blurring of the public and the private on social media like Instagram means mere mortals are judged too, like our Prime Minister's pretty son, Max Key, who posts images and video of himself cavorting in very little with his pretty girlfriend, Amelia Finlayson.

In effect, such posts aren't so different from the beauty contests of last century, with the likes of Key and Finlayson's beauty now potentially judged through the entire globe's likes and comments. "It is heavily constructed beauty," Hallum says. "[Finlayson] is beautiful, she is stunning. But you've got the carefully constructed scene and the filters on the photo. So it's all artfully arranged and contrived, I guess." In other words, it's as genuine as a Kardashian selfie.

However, just like affordable cosmetics, the internet may also have had the effect of democratising 21st century Western beauty. The proliferation of images on the internet mean that women can find that their normal is someone else's normal too, Hallum says.

Proving anyone can wear a crop in @additionelle ?????????? #tessholliday #IAMSIZESEXY #FashionDemocracy ?? (??@nickhollidayco)

A photo posted by ?Size Model | Mom | Feminist?? (@tessholliday) on

Which means that from women with full-body tattoos, like Millie Elder-Holmes, to women in the transgender community; from plus-size supermodel Tess Holliday's campaign under the #effyourbeautystandards hashtag to Kylie Jenner's bizarre shotglass lips, the beauty ideal has arguably never been broader.

"I think the internet has made it less isolating [for women] because prior to the digital age you just had the women you'd see around you and in magazines and Hollywood," Hallum says. "I think the internet is driving [the beauty ideal] wider and it is changing the periphery as well because of the different cultures and different ideals [people can view on the web]."

But it may well be that in spite of the internet, in spite men like Trump, in spite of Caitlyn Jenner and in spite of social media, the nature of beauty is, rather ironically, returning - courtesy of celebrity health experts like Gywneth Paltrow and Dr Libby - to the spirit of the 19th century when outer beauty was an expression of an interior goodness.

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A photo posted by King Kylie (@kyliejenner) on

"We have moved on to inner beauty," Hallum believes, "the idea of what you put in your body has become important: 'my body is a temple'. That is something that harks back to the 19th century, because it is women showing an almost spiritual sense of taking control of their body and their health. It's a very kind of elevated way of thinking: 'I only ingest foods that are organic' or 'I only put these things on my face that are natural and not tested on animals'. "It's a conscience thing. We have gone back to a moral idea of beauty."

Gwyneth Paltrow.
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Or as Rachel Hunter put it the other night on telly after she'd met a French woman who'd returned to modelling in her 70s, "Isabelle's beauty lies in her self-acceptance ... it's not just about aesthetics, the outside. It's definitely ... so much deeper ...

"That," Hunter concluded with tears in her eyes, "is probably the most beautiful thing I've seen."

Source : http://www.nzherald.co.nz/lifestyle/news/article.cfm?c_id=6&objectid=11507289

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