Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Beauty Program

One of the cruelest moments in Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple appears near the beginning, while Celie’s *father* tries to marry her off. “She ugly,” he warns Mister, his friend. “And another thing. She tell lies.”

Of course both of those statements were lies themselves, but it’s clear that in making them, Celie’s *father* was attempting to exclude her from participating in a Keatsian concept: “Beauty is truth; truth, beauty.”

As a rural, uneducated, poor African American woman, Celie didn’t yet have access to a proper mirror (Shug Avery)—one that would show her that she was indeed beautiful and full of truth.

There’s a new kind of mirror making the rounds, and I’m not sure how truthful it is.

In the Thursday New York Times the lead Style story was about a computer program nicknamed a “beautification engine,” which takes photographs of people’s faces and, using a mathematical formula, makes small adjustments in the people’s features until they are in a more “beautiful” alignment and shape.

I was first struck to note that the only scientist named as one of the developers of this formula is a man.

But then I was also struck by the digital manipulations. The first woman changed from herself, I’d say, into Christina Ricci.

And then Brigitte Bardot was transformed from a lush beauty into a more statue-like beauty. (The article agrees that something intrinsic was lost.)

Certainly there have long been studies about the proportion of beauty. In the nineteenth century books detailing physiognomy were published and taken very seriously. But in this day and age, I’d hope that the definition of beauty would continue to expand, not be reduced to a mathematical formula and a computer Photoshopping of one’s features.

Indeed, I find that the beauties that catch my eye aren’t about “perfect” proportions. Take Christie Brinkley. If you look at her closely, you’ll see that one of her eyes is a bit wild when she breaks out into full smile. And Angelina Jolie’s lips? Out of proportion, of course, but just last week Clint Eastwood told People magazine that she has the most beautiful face in the world. (So it must be true.)

In my Gender Studies class last year we examined images of already attractive people whose faces had been digitally rendered symmetrical and, to a person, they all looked artificial, even alien. Certainly our eyes aren’t trained to accept such symmetry, so there’s a good deal of social conditioning informing our reactions, but again, I’d like to think that beauty is not something that should be contained, in a symmetrical fashion, but something that’s more individual.

(Remember how the actress Jennifer Grey couldn't recognize herself after plastic surgery on her nose?)

If I really look at those Brigitte Bardot photos, I’d say that she’s lost some of her character in the “beautiful” photo, and that just won’t do. Who would Linda Evangelista be without her nose? Christy Turlington without her slightly raised eyebrow? Beatrice Dalle without her everything?

So, mirror, mirror on the wall, is beauty truth, or is beauty a mathematical formula?

**Top image by David Seidner


La Belette Rouge said...

I find this program that can turn people into more symmetrical versing of "perfect beauty" to be maddening. I find the unaltered women so much more beautiful. This whole notion about beauty being about perfection and a symmetry of a platonic mathematic of ideal makes me coo-koo crazy.

You gave so many great examples how perfect imperfect beauties can be. I find it is the specificity of the individual that is beautiful. So, in this imperfect weasel's opinion, beauty is most definitely not a mathematical formula.

Sorry for my rambling rant! :-)

WendyB said...

Funny that you mention Beatrice! I always thought she was so beautiful (before rough living caught up to her).

enc said...

Everything is so homogenized, I can't tell half the models apart now. I feel bad saying that.

Kelly said...

That is just creepy.

Songy said...

I really don't like doctored photos. I know all magazine ads are doctored but not in this way still.

I celebrate real beauty.. with freckles, moles, wrinkles and other imperfection.

Cassoulet Cafe said...

I concur with LBR, it is VERY maddening!
Great post, I'll be back.

Sal said...

What is the purpose of creating software like that? Will plastic surgeons use it to convince people to mortgage their homes to afford a new set of cheekbones? How could something like this do ANYTHING but make people - specifically women - feel even more inadequate about how they look?

Clearly, I am maddened as well.

jenniferz said...

I read this article online today and found, as I usually do with this kind of retouching, that I liked the way the people all looked in real life. These programs only serve to reinforce the truth that it is the quirks and differences in people's looks that are the real beauty. How boring it would be if the world was full of beautiful clones! I did find it funny that James Marsden looked almost identical in both photos; shouldn't he be on the cover of every magazine and starring in every movie if he's so perfect? (Not that I have any complaints about his visage...)