Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Beauty and ads

                The statuesque supermodel  Erin O'Connor as a Modigliani beauty. Photo: Patrick Demarchelier/Harpers Bazaar Feb 2002.  reblogged from lovelyritablog

Beauty. It is something I have been mulling over ever since I went -twice in fact - to see the Defining Beauty exhibition which I discussed in an earlier post. In the intervening period, I travelled to Germany, celebrated another birthday, came back home and got some exciting news -all in good time. Then this morning the excellent post by Rosalind Jana on body image and my Facebook newsfeed with yet another comment by that tiresome woman that is Katie Hopkins on the Protein World ad, which is causing such a furore, acted as a prompt to write my post.

The controversial Protein World ad

Let's start with the ad. I am not bothered by it at all,  it is not worse than many others, it is just a stereotypical ad. The model is a young woman with a beautiful body, artfully made more beautiful by skilled photography, a so called 'beach body', meaning a fit body to exhibit with some pride at the beach, where most of us take our clothes off and often look at each other, judgmentally.  Yes, the ad is there to push products that help you lose weight, to achieve a 'beautiful body'. The petitioners for its removal claim that the ad is insulting to people who are not as fit as the model. So why do we all cry with delight  when we read 'inspirational' stories of people that have dropped several pounds of extra weight through engaging in healthy eating and exercise?  Just this morning I got another one of these stories in my Facebook news feed about a woman my age  who lost weight and got a style makeover and she was praised by a huge number of people, both men and women,  for having done so. Are we not being a tad hypocritical?
We all know that ads tend to present a stereotypical view of the world and one that has little to do with reality. It is good sometimes to step back and not take them seriously, we are giving far too much importance to them. Ads reify people.

The idealised body of a Neolithic goddess, Malta. Photo by me

When I see a beautiful body I am not insulted by it. I admire it. A beautiful body to me goes beyond  a two dimensional representation of it in a photograph, it is a real life body that  breathes, is coordinated, and moves with elegance.  I admire the body of athletes, both men and women, and I know that they treat their bodies as an instrument and tend to it, to get their maximum performance.

Dancers' bodies, Sleektechnique instructors Victoria Marr and Flik Swann, photo courtesy of Sleektechnique

I admire the body of dancers: tall or short, they are coordinated, sleek  and graceful and are able to make beautiful shapes with their bodies. When I look at my own body I am happy with it, it works well, but I always think of ways that can allow me to improve its performance: through the right nutrition, through exercising, through resting. I want my body to be healthy, well coordinated and I want to be able to move in a relaxed and graceful way. In this sense, my body to me is work in progress.

Gallery of the Parthenon, Acropolis Museum, Athens

Philosopher Roger Scruton has discussed beauty and highlighted the fact that the beauty of human beings is first and foremost embodied: 'the distinctive beauty of the human body derives from its nature as an embodiment. Its beauty is not the beauty of proportion. When we find human beauty represented in a statue such as the Apollo Belvedere or the Daphne of Bernini, what is represented is the beauty of a person- flesh animated by the individual soul and expressing individuality in all its parts' (p.62). He then goes on to say that despite the myriad of beauty fashions and diversity of 'embellishment', it is always 'the eyes, mouth and hands' that seem to have a 'universal appeal...for they are the features from which the soul of another shines on us and makes itself known" (p.62).
I am comfortable with this, it resonates with me. So if we take this position, the beautiful bodies we see in ads are soul-less - not the models themselves, but the way they are represented.
And maybe the art of the ancient Greeks still speaks to us - to me anyway -  because in the way they represented beauty, they did not just go by symmetry and proportion, which they invented and perfected, but also succeeded in injecting a sense of embodiment in their representation. It is an art with soul.

(The beautiful image of Erin O'Connor is not an ad, it is from an editorial inspired by the paintings of Amedeo Modigliani. I have always admired the intensity of O'Connor's expression and her great elegance)

Monday, 6 April 2015

Listening to the body

On a Spanish beach. Model: me. Photographer: Martin Robinson

Back from my visit to Defining Beauty, the exhibition about which I have written in a previous post and which I will discuss more fully in a forthcoming post, I chanced online on a series of interviews with Italian born, ballerina ├ętoile Alessandra Ferri. Trained at La Scala and the Royal Ballet School she rose quickly through the ranks and performed in Covent Garden and then went to New York to dance with Baryschnikov. With a small frame, lithe and petite (Wikipedia has her as 178 cm but surely that must be on pointe because she is smaller than Baryschnikov who is only 168 cm), she was perfect for the romantic roles at which she excelled. She was indeed a bright star in the dance firmament. Then at 44 she gave it all up to look after her two daughters and be with her husband, Fabrizio Ferri.
Following her marriage breakdown, Alessandra Ferri has come out of retirement at age 52 and has returned to the stage in Le jeune homme et la mort, the great ballet by Roland Petit. Performed in Florence last month with a last minute change of  male partner, it was received rather well. Ferri is still a wonderful dancer. I have not seen the ballet but have watched online some videos of rehearsal time for another work, Le Parc by Angelin Preljocaj. But it was Ferri's interview that struck a chord with me ( in Italian, but you can see here a beautiful clip of Alessandra Ferri's dancing while Sting plays guitar. There is also this interview for the New York Times).

Coming at the time when  the great Sylvie Guillem has announced her retirement at 50, Ferri's return is  brave, showing once again that older dancers still have a lot of mileage - I am pleased to see, incidentally,  that The Elder's Project, a piece starring a host of 'old hands' of British dance will be performed again at the South Bank later this month. However, what Ferri talked about is not her feeling a lack of physical prowess, or feeling overwhelmed by the reality of an ageing body, on the contrary, but the fact that dance for her now is no longer a career but something she does because she feels passionate about it. Growing older and being away from the gruelling schedule of touring has allowed her to rediscover the immense joy that dancing gave her when she was a child and which sustained her throughout her training. She continues to be a first class performer and like other older dancers she talks about having finally acquired maturity of expression. Thus her role as Death in Petit's ballet (danced below by Zizi Jeanmaire and Rudolf Nureyev in 1966) was very well chosen, according to reviewers.

Moving beyond dance, what Ferri talks about  is very important. If we no longer feel passionate about  what we do,  perhaps it is time to consider having a break. This is true in every creative endeavour. I also applaud the fact that Ferri - inevitably so - is so embodied and when she had to confront the pain of separation, the rejection she felt as a result of her partner leaving her (as she discusses in this interview), she listened to her body and returned to do what she loves best, what gives her body pleasure. What I am trying to say is not that if you are going through a break up you should take up dancing. I am simply saying that listening to your body is what will help you to go through anything. Establish a good relationship with your body, listen to it and love it, and everything else will fall into place. Alessandra Ferri is first and foremost a dancer, so when she stopped and listened to her body she went back to dancing - at her level this meant performing because she had trained to such a high standard. For other women this may be something else, like joining a class to pursue a hobby, not necessarily a dance class. Or spending more time appreciating their body, pampering it with massages and good, nutritious food.
A good relationship with oneself, taking care of one's body is truly the key for smooth relationships with others.