Beauty and the bêtê noire

I COME FROM a long line of beautiful women. This short, simple statement raises immediate questions: why am I so sure? How is this beauty defined? I am sure because I have observed others' responses to my mother, my grandmothers, and my aunts and have been the unwitting apprentice of the great importance and burden of appearing beautiful.

Definitions are often debatable, but if the appreciation of others is proof of beauty, the physical appeal of the women in my family is certain.


MY MOTHER WAS born during the Great Depression in 1934, the only child of a buxom and statuesque beauty named Gladys. Known simply as Glady, she was a working-class woman from Sydney's inner west blessed with a gorgeous face and an hourglass figure. Family members who recall her younger years tell tales of the desperate measures to which men were driven to win her favour before she chose one for a husband. In addition to her lucky genes, Glady was a talented dressmaker with a flair for fashion. As a young woman she went from brunette to redhead before finally morphing into a blonde, her trademark incarnation in which she became positively Monroe-ish. Photographs and family lore testify to the fact that even during the Second World War, when she worked factory jobs and items like stockings were a rare luxury, Glady always dressed up. Hers was not the happiest of marriages and it ended in divorce well before I was born, but she took heart and solace in her beloved and sickly daughter, Dawn.

When my mother spoke of her youth, she described a childhood and adolescence outshone by Glady's awe-inspiring wattage. She claimed she was a plain child and an "almost pretty" teenager. Indeed, in a particular wedding photo, taken when my mother was 20, it is a middle-aged yet utterly luminous Glady who draws the eye. But in an incredible evolution that my father, long divorced from my mother, still recalls with wonder, a new Dawn emerged, quite organically, in her late 20s. Around the time I was born, the puppy-fat face of the woman he married transformed into a visage of delicate loveliness.

My father, who was working as a photographer at the time, took a series of photos of us in the garden. I am a chubby toddler and her slender arms are holding me firmly. I am touching her, kissing her, and gazing at her with what looks like an overwhelming fascination and admiration, as if I understood, even then, the power of feminine beauty. Dawn's eyes are downcast; she is hard to read. There is something in the expression on her face I have returned to again and again over the years. I've long considered that my mother approached the classic narcissist, and that much I could identify in these shots. Freud said that the combination of feminine beauty and narcissism was irresistible to men who, though drawn to such women, would find themselves shut out by a cone of self-obsession and therefore doomed to neglect or rejection. In a similar way I saw in these images that my mother was consumed with herself and could not register me. But beyond this painful realisation I sensed something else, some elusive quality I could never quite name. One day, when I was in my 30s, I had an epiphany. It was not merely narcissism my father had captured in his lens; the photos depict insecure narcissism, the state of one who sees and is absorbed by a pleasing reflection and yet doubts it.

Considering that Dawn spent much of her life feeling plain, it makes sense to me now that in these photos, taken shortly after her "transformation", she is wrestling with a new-found self-image. Her emergent beauty must have been at odds with a deep sense of physical inadequacy. As a young child I was not, of course, consciously aware of that sense of inadequacy. I couldn't perceive that it gnawed at her and drove her. I was aware only that I had a pretty mother, a mother of whom others approved, a mother whose veneer of confidence and sophistication was effective and convincing, a mother whose rituals of beauty mesmerised me as I watched her on so many mornings of my childhood dressing and applying her make-up at the big brown dressing table, a mother whose sense of self and mood altered, intangibly, as she did so.


I CAN'T REMEMBER my mothers first foray into plastic surgery but it must have taken place in the short years between the photos and my parents' divorce when I was six. My father maintains that he disapproved of the "nose job", that he liked her original nose perfectly well and would have refused to pay if she had asked him. She didn't need to: Glady paid for it. They were bound to each other in their pursuit of perfection, as I, too, would become bound.

It wasn't common for a 1960s suburban housewife to surrender a body part to a cosmetic surgeon, so her decision revealed her obsession. Looking at before and after photos and comparing her pre and post cosmetically reconstructed nose, I much prefer the original. The latter, though more "perfect" and conventional, was much less interesting. The original had a beguiling bump in the middle. It had character. It suited her. It was her. And herein lies the paradoxical truth that is unfathomable to body perfectionists: that imperfection can be beautiful, special, admirable, lovable, even preferable. My father recalls, with horror in his voice still, the sight of Dawn propped up in her hospital bed, eyes swollen and bruised, nose smashed and bandaged. It is curious that it is he, not she, who seemed most affected at the time, but hardly surprising that a woman who decided to undergo such a procedure would need to deny and distance herself from the brutality involved.

The timing and nature of her second procedure strikes me as especially significant. I was 12 and Dawn was 41 when she had breast surgery. My mother was 155 centimetres, a petite woman whose smallish breasts suited her shape and size. She decided, however, to have them enlarged with silicone. At the time, my own breasts had begun developing and I was discovering the currency of femininity. When my mother was having her "breast job", I was learning about the critical relationship between beauty and sexuality. Around this age I began to notice a radical shift. Men and boys stared, women looked at me misty-eyed, friends' mothers said things like, "Aren't you going to have a good body". I was peaking while my mother was in crisis. How intriguing, then, was my mother's breast job, and how affecting her ordeal.

Secrecy surrounded the whole affair. I was instructed to inform anyone inquiring about Dawn's stay in hospital that she was suffering from "women's troubles", a telling phrase that speaks of the double bind of shame often implicated in cosmetic surgery: I am ashamed that this body is not perfect and I am ashamed of being ashamed. I demanded to see the new breasts as soon as she was able to remove the bandaging. The impact of the long row of blood-raw stitches under each big, bold breast was profound. I think I must have experienced that moment with the same incomprehension my father had felt 10 years before. I was curious about them but I didn't like the new breasts and I never got used to them. There was something about the shape, about the way they threw her body out of proportion. I disliked the hardness of them when I held her close. I never accepted them as part of my mother's body.


SOME SAY SOCIETY teches us – conditions us – to appreciate human beauty in keeping with the conventions of culture and the times. Others claim our appreciation of beauty is strictly biological, that it boils down to hard-wired genetic selection, that biology is the key to the relationship between beauty and sexuality. This is a dispute for philosophers and scientists. Few would argue though that society coaches us, particularly women, and increasingly girls, to be beauty-product consumers, to value beauty as a commodity above and beyond all others. There is barely a moment in the day of an urban Western female that advertising, journalism, film, television or pornography does not bombard her with images of the ideal, swamping her with tips on how to achieve it. Behind closed doors another level of learning takes place in the unique microcosm of each family.

My mother and grandmother expressed their admiration for beauty as heartily as others admire a winning sports team. Natural-born beauty was highly prized but they also championed glamour. They both wore make-up religiously, were partial to wigs, and even bought, to my dismay, a fur coat each with the proceeds of Glady's miraculous trifecta win. This layer of artifice offered them protection, provided a shell for their vulnerable beings. My mother had beautiful girlfriends. My uncles two wives were both gorgeous. His second wife thrived in a career as one of Australia's top models in the 1950s. My mother was dazzled by the beauty of her friends and my aunts. It became clear to me some years ago that she considered herself inferior to them in looks and style. The flipside of this appreciation was a sharp critical eye. No body was sacred. Contented evenings spent beside my mother on the sofa (often enough wearing matching mud-packs) were marked by a running commentary on people's appearance. Our favourite targets were famous people and women in beauty pageants. While Miss Brazil or Miss Sweden posed in their bikinis wishing for world peace, my mother and I would nitpick mercilessly: thick ankles, she might say; big teeth, I might add. This attention to detail was, in the end, turned most viciously on ourselves.

When I was about 14 we decided that I had the foreshadowing of a double chin. It sent us into a panic, which spiralled into farce. My mother decided that the best way of reshaping the offending region might be to apply a vibrating device. We researched back massagers but they were not shaped for our purpose. It was my idea I think, for I was neither a sheltered nor a naive child,that your basic, penis-shaped vibrator would fit quite nicely under my chin. And so, while I waited in the car, my mother snuck into a city sex shop and bought her teenaged daughter a shiny gold dildo. Needless to say the chin routine was short-lived and a more traditional application soon followed.

I wonder if cosmetic surgery had been as widely available then, if children and adolescents had been using it as they are now, whether that might have been our solution. Would my mother and grandmother have paid for surgery? I can't know for sure but I suspect that if my distress had been extreme enough, they would have considered it. One study shows that two thirds of American adolescents know someone who has had cosmetic surgery, that one third would choose it for themselves, based on information from peers, teen magazines and television.[i] Children and men are a rapidly growing client base of the industry.


I LEARNED TO scafricive comfort and practicality at the alter of beauty. I remember getting dressed for a night out with friends in my early teens, squeezing myself into jeans so tight I had to lie on the bed, suck my tiny tummy in, and have my mother slip the end of a wire coat hanger through the zipper and yank with all her might. Dawn did draw the line at times though. I never won the battle for blonde hair. She steadfastly refused to let me fulfil my Marcia Brady look-alike fantasy by peroxiding my dark brown hair, leaving me to identify with Frida instead of the infinitely more popular Agnetha from ABBA. I think she was, in her way, trying to preserve my under-siege innocence – that and she knew it wouldn't suit me.

After I left school, well before my peers earned their fourth-form certificates, I went to Madam Korner's beauty school in Potts Point. Passing the course was a struggle because of my short attention span, a tendency to daydream the collagen cream into the mouths and nostrils of old lady guinea pigs and the fact that I found it numbingly dull. I never worked as a beautician.

Having peaked early, my Lolita-like revelling in the powers of youth and sexual appeal only just outlived the loss of my virginity. During my adolescence two things happened that drastically changed my body and my relationship to it: I quit dancing classes, which I had taken dedicatedly since the age of four, and I left home and embarked on a lifestyle that revolved around eating take-away food. Muscle turned to fat, the hamburgers piled it on. Seemingly overnight I went from exuberant self-assurance and the expectation of growing into the "good body" my friends' mothers anticipated, to podgy and crippled by disgrace. One minute I looked like the successful heir to that long line of beautiful women, the next a failure in the world of womanhood. The extra weight I was carrying hardly constituted gross obesity but it was enough to plunge me into a long, deep depression; a depression that enticed me to eat more and retreat into bouts of isolation. It also resulted in a brand new experience: the hatred of certain body parts.

I fled to London and took up residence in a gloomy Islington bed-sit. I cleaned tables at the National Art Gallery café for minimum wage and struggled to get by, scrimping Tube fares and money for take-away doner kebabs for dinner. But when my grandparents kindly wired hard-earned money to me every fortnight to boost my pathetic income, what did I do? Pay up the rent? Stock up on groceries? Buy a decent winter coat? No. I spent it on a series of snake-oil cellulite treatments at the local beauty salon that involved the application of some unknown substance followed by the rotating pressure of some useless machine, all of which had no impact whatsoever on the size of my despised thighs. I distinctly recall the contempt in which the staff of this salon held me – horribly self-doubting, dressed as I was in second-hand clothes, and rushing to be scammed – and the overwhelming humiliation I felt in their presence.

I would like now to spend five minutes in a room with those women, to ask them how they justified the callous treatment and financial exploitation of a young girl tortured by a daily body-image nightmare. It's hard for me to imagine anyone treating such a girl with anything but tenderness and sympathy, but they were worker bees in the beauty industry, the sprawling, many-armed multinational marketing machine that peddles the illusion of bodily perfection. It was not their job to question or concern themselves with my inner torments. It was their job to deliver the treatment the customer wanted, to diagnose "problem areas", to make money and, where possible, to bring about some improvement. I didn't offer them much opportunity for job satisfaction.


MY WEIGHT GAIN and subsequent withdrawal from the beauty game was difficult for the women in my family, particularly my grandmother. At that time, I completely rejected make-up and shunned conventional fashion. Upon seeing me, Glady would look me up and down quickly and, seeing that I was still fat and unadorned, refrain from comment in the spirit of if-you-can't-say-something-nice-don't-say-anything-at-all. Later, as we watched television, or walked around a shopping mall, her feelings would seep out. "She's got a lovely little figure," she was fond of saying of the trim women we'd see.

I've spent much of my adult life torn between a desire to be beautiful and an intense need to rebel. In the grip of the desire for beauty I've spent an uncalculated fortune on hair products, endured more than my fair share of disastrous perms (attempts to silence my mother's internalised "we don't have good hair" mantra), suffered the requisite fad diets and exhausted myself with brief obsessive exercise jags.

During a particularly anxiety-ridden period in my mid-20s, when I had chewed my nails down to ugly stumps, I decided that something should be done. I visited an eastern suburbs beauty salon for a treatment in which acrylic nails are built onto the original, a worthwhile advance, I assumed, from the tacky business of sticking falsies over the top with glue, which I never considered. I paid my money, sat patiently while the time-consuming nails were applied and walked home feeling very sophisticated with my impressive new talons. An hour later, I sat on the sofa staring in despair at my hands. I loathed the nails even though they looked convincing. I found them grotesque and impractical: I couldn't do a thing around the house, couldn't pick up even the most commonplace object, and worst of all, though I'd been seduced by the suggestion of semi-authenticity, I couldn't shake the feeling that fake is fake. I felt like a total phoney. I spent ages painstakingly removing them, feeling embarrassed and foolish all the while.

As a philosophy student, my need to question and challenge the desire to be beautiful launched a lengthy survey of feminist discourse about objectification, the "male gaze" and the relegation of women to the realm of the body and the sphere of the private. There's an unpleasant irony in the beauty industry involving women exploiting other women, children and animals – all of whom are the oppressed possessions of men. Child labour and sweatshops staffed by Third World women produce a percentage of the fashion Western women buy, and a gruesome reality hides behind the glossy hype promoting "scientific" anti-wrinkle creams. Despite growing numbers of women choosing cruelty-free cosmetics, many still don't and millions of animals continue to suffer and die in experiments. Each batch of botox has to be tested, in some countries by the barbaric LD50 method, which involves poisoning animals with a substance until half of them have died, thereby establishing the lethal dose. In these ways, we Western women, who fought so hard for our own gains, collude in the exploitation of others.

Post-Freudian psychoanalytic theory, in particular Julia Kristeva's,[ii] whose labyrinthine take on beauty and artifice as the sublimation of loss to mask a state of mourning, made absolute sense to me. Kristeva describes artifice as allegory, saying: "Like feminine finery concealing stubborn depressions, beauty emerges as the admirable face of loss, transforming it in order to make it live."

For author Georges Bataille,[iii] beauty is fused to eroticism, itself a death-denying and defying transgression. Beauty denies our animal aspect – until sex comes along to reveal it. The more polished and preened, the further removed from the animal we are, the more thrilling, and erotic, that revelation.

Mining these theories was an invaluable education but it failed to purge the bête noire of beauty, so I found myself hashing it out with a therapist. She took the view that my multi-faceted obsessiveness and boundless insecurity stemmed from a vortex of shame, fear and heartache born of past emotional abandonment. There was a void, she said, where a solid sense of self ought to be, and I filled it with a need for perfection and attention, and medicated it, in part, with approval from others. Unmedicated, I went into withdrawal and felt the presence of the underlying "dis-ease". The solution was straightforward but far from easy: stop the band-aid behaviours and, with help, allow buried feelings to be felt and healed. The process took its course and, with the passage of time and potential for maturation, it brought some relief.


NOT ALL MY experiences with cosmetic surgery are horror stories. I suffered a vicious bout of chicken pox in my early 30s, which left visible pockmarks on my face. I underwent laser treatment (I didn't know then about the poor piglets on which this procedure is tested) to reduce the scarring and it seemed to help. It goes without saying that there is great value in reconstructive surgeries and their ability to improve the looks and lives of those with abnormalities or disfigurement. But some who are not disadvantaged in this way imagine themselves so. Medical literature is rife with studies on the psychological make-up, motivations, adjustments and needs of people who present for cosmetic surgery. Among these the letters BDD frequently pop up. Body Dysmorphic Disorder is characterised as an obsessive preoccupation with an imagined, or grossly exaggerated, defect in appearance. When my husband and I were courting – falling in love being an event that usually triggers the onset of BDD-like symptoms in me – I had another round of laser surgery on hereditary spider veins on my cheeks (I still didn't know about the piglets). It didn't make much difference but my husband says he has to look hard to spot them anyhow.

Many women report life-changing inner and outer transformations as a result of the cosmetic industry, saying they feel empowered and renewed. A friend of mine who underwent breast augmentation surgery is overjoyed; having been as flat-chested as a boy, she now feels more confident and feminine. Many do it for pragmatic reasons, such as extending the life of a career in a youth-obsessed industry. What's the difference at root, they ask, between the cosmetic procedures of Western women and tribal and sub-cultural body modifications? The lip-disk Mursi women of Southern Ethiopia endure the slitting of their lower lips, the removal of their bottom teeth and the insertion of large ceramic discs around which the loosened flesh is pulled. When the discs are not in place the women drool saliva profusely when they try to speak. It seems there has always been a human urge toward bodily revision. I don't begrudge people who seek out cosmetic procedures that I'm unwilling to undergo. I can see the value of an extended career or increased confidence. Still, I remain uneasy about it all on the whole, and not entirely sure of where I draw the line myself.

Over the years I've softened toward the body parts I railed against so passionately in my youth. Even though new technologies are being developed that make cosmetic "work" less daunting and more tempting, I have no plans to employ them. Despite having long lost the teenage weight, my thighs remain dimpled with an obstinate cellulite that only the most vigorous and unsustainable program of aerobic activity or lack of food has ever reduced. I have no doubt that as a teenager I would have signed up for liposuction, had it been on the menu and within my means, but I don't consider it an option now even though I still feel self-conscious about my thighs in certain situations.

My father tells me I have my Aunt Mamie's nose. Aunt Mamie was the less attractive sister of my strikingly handsome paternal grandmother. I've never been crazy about my nose but I have accepted that it's my nose, for better and worse. I no longer spend unhappy hours meditating on every flaw, though I occasionally slip back into dark thoughts of old. People speak of self-acceptance as if it's an absolute that one either possesses or doesn't, as if it's an art that one can master. I view it as a continuum, a sliding scale. When I think about the countless hours of my young life lost to perfectionist misery I regard that self-obsession as a brutal taskmaster that kept me from too much. It kept me from making love with abandon. It kept me from wearing what I liked. It kept me from going swimming in summer. I wonder what I might have done with that time, what I might have achieved, had I not been so oppressed by the weight of beauty's demands.

I've learned a little, too, about the warm comfort of allowing oneself to be loved and appreciated, imperfections and all. I remember sitting on my bed covered in unsightly chicken pox, wretched and horror-struck by my scab-ridden face, while my then partner gently applied calamine lotion to each and every scab to help the itch. It seemed to me the most intimate moment I had ever shared with a man, and I was so overwhelmed by it that I cried, not tears of distress, but of sorrow for having not allowed myself to be loved like that more, and joy that I finally could. My husband and I have a little joke. Will you love me when I have sagging jowls? I ask. Will you love me when I have turkey neck? He asks back. We don't have to answer. They are rhetorical questions that speak of our intention to grow old together and our hope of accepting with grace all that that experience brings.

Am I saying then, that I reject out of hand the "freshening up" loophole, the enhancement (as opposed to alteration) concession? Having recently turned 40, might I not consider having my skin buffed or my wrinkles plumped? As the years progress and smarter, simpler cosmetic technologies become available, might I not indulge? After all, what's the difference between having my brows waxed and shaped at a salon, which I do without thinking twice about it, and having a peel? Just as there is a continuum of self-acceptance, there's a continuum of artifice and we find ourselves, more and more, having to define our position on that continuum.


GLADY IS NOW a frail 90, having survived breast cancer and a mastectomy. She has lost her daughter and, more recently, her husband of 48 years. She is confined to a two-room public-housing flat on the outskirts of Sydney, from which she refuses to move, and she lives, these days, for her two cats. Glady was good-looking even as an older woman, not above flirting with my bewildered boyfriends, nor outdoing me in heel height or neckline. She never surrendered to comfort over glamour; refusing to cut her hair short, wear sneakers, T-shirts or sportswear. At times she frets about her appearance. Every day she prepares her face and hair. She keeps her floral make-up bag within easy reach beside the armchair in which she can almost always be found.

As my mother grew older and more reflective she regretted the surgeries, particularly the breast job. She became convinced that the implants contributed to her ill health and joined the class-action suit against Dow Corning. As she had had the surgery in the 1970s, it was impossible for her to prepare a comprehensive claim, but she lodged with what she had, and after she died in 1997, I took over as executor of her estate. In the end, after it dragged on for years, the women won the case and I received a payout of a few hundred dollars from the multi-million-dollar settlement. But there was more to my mother's regret. She expressed remorse about the wounded sense of self that drove her to surgery and felt ashamed at her own vanity and willingness to be influenced by her then boyfriend's encouragement. And so, in the end, my mother's breasts became a site of realisation and, finally, truth. In an understated way her change of heart vindicated my resistance and acted as a final release from the burden of my long apprenticeship.

During the time in which we both wrestled with our demons, I felt sadness every time we embraced and I felt the two hard, alien implants. I felt sadness that they had brought her pain and shame instead of satisfaction, but mostly I felt sad that she never really knew how beautiful she was. My only hope is that in those years of soul searching, she came to understand how much more she was worth than beauty alone.

[i] Pearl A, Weston J, "Attitudes of Adolescents About Cosmetic Surgery" (Annual Plastic Surgery [2003 June; 50(6):628-30]), abstract in NCBI PubMed: National Library of Medicine, URL:

[ii] Kristeva, Julia Kristeva, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia. Translated by Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.

[iii] Bataille, Georges, Erotism: Death and Sensuality. Translated by Mary Dalwood. London: Marion Boyers Publishers Ltd, 1987.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review