Saturday, 26 August 2017

What does timeless beauty mean?

The Sleeping Lady of Malta (or Maltese Venus): neolithic beauty

I was recently interviewed for a forthcoming documentary which will be released next year. It explores beauty, looking specifically at how the world of fashion envisions it.  I can't say much more about the film, I am not allowed to.  Several other atypical models, some of whom quite well known, are also giving their views on this matter  and a number of experts  have also been interviewed.
I am really intrigued by this idea of beauty standards, which I began to engage with  when I was in Indonesia researching my  book on global fashion ( to be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2019). I tried to put my ideas  across throughout the interview but when working with pre-set questions it is not always easy to do so. Since the interview, I have been thinking about the whole issue  in some depth, so much so that I felt I should write a blog post about it.
I am a model but also a fashion activist because I want to change perceptions of age and beauty within the industry and among people, among consumers. I would not model otherwise, it would not interest me.

It matters to me, for example,  that my clothes should be ethically sourced. I do not believe in buying garments and throwing them away, perennially caught up in the consumeristic spiral so well highlighted in the film The True Cost. I have been known to rummage in second hand shops before it became a trend, in fact it used to be looked down upon as something for very hard up people and you would not broadcast that your clothes came from Oxfam! Now there are bloggers who discuss pre-loved clothing in a most engaging manner.
 It is also true that I eschew certain brands because I am not sure about the way their clothes are made and by whom, there is exploitation of women and children when brands outsource to Asian countries and I am dead against wearing something made under conditions of modern slavery.
As a fashion activist I do wonder about perceptions of beauty, because fashion has had a major role in defining beauty standards for women and men.  Perception of beauty is changing but there is a tendency to slot people into clearcut categories. For example, older women are also diverse, different from each other,  of different ethnicities, different body shapes, yet they are defined by their age alone, which I think does not quite reflect  reality. Thus older models tend to be Caucasian ladies with grey hair (stereotyped as French chic) and brands believe that by having one of such models in their advertisements they have done their bit towards addressing the diversity issue.  One young white model, one young curvy model either Caucasian or mixed-race, one older looking Caucasian model, possibly with grey hair (unless she is a celebrity), one young Naomi Campbell look alike et le voilĂ ,  diversity of representation is achieved by following this easy formula. Somehow this trivialises the issue.

Beautiful curvy model Mahalia Handley in the Selfridges campaign that shot her to fame

 I also don’t like the fact that whenever someone is featured in a magazine and they are, say, older, or of a non –standard size they are declared to be ‘body –confident’. It’s a subtle way to further normalise the golden standard, through highlighting deviations from it. Would a slim young girl ever be described as 'body-confident'?
So when it comes to defining  beauty as timeless, the timelessness rings true to me in that beauty should not be predicated on age. However, timeless must not be conflated with universal by invoking the notion  of the 'classical' - I shall write about this conflation in another post. 
Beauty is diverse by definition. It is culturally inflected and what may be beautiful here and now may not be beautiful tomorrow and in a different location. It is also true that beauty standards  change, though perhaps not fast enough. Also, beauty is not just a physical attribute, it is combined with other personal qualities, which contribute to make one person beautiful.
Beauty is a subjective, individual notion - we say that it is in the eye of the beholder -  as well as  an objective standard  constantly negotiated. 

The beautiful Erin O'Connor. Beauty comes in many shapes and sizes.  Photo: Kalpesh Lathigra

It has taken many years for people to acknowledge that not having a white skin did not spell out ugliness though there was a time when this was very much the case (and there are still racist people around who will regard non-whiteness as a sign of ugliness). In an earlier post I discussed the obsession we have with height and how this is ultimately a racist notion which has been widely promoted by fashion.   It is therefore most heartening to see some model agencies opening their doors to petite models not just for commercial work but also for fashion and runway.
Hopefully in the years to come the idea of diverse, ageless, beauty, will really take root. I am an optimist and believe it will happen.


Sunday, 13 August 2017

Does height matter?

The height bar from my inversion table - I like hanging upside down like a bat, it is good for the back. 

I was intrigued to read about  a young woman who had been dating a guy for a while, had fallen in love with him and then discovered that he had been wearing shoe lifts to make himself taller,  he was in fact slightly shorter than she was, so she ended the relationship,  in disgust at the treachery.
Now think of this : you are a young woman who feels a little self-conscious because your breasts are smallish, so you wear a push up bra to go on a date but then your date finds out you are not really a D cup and never wants to see you again. What's the difference between the two scenarios?
We change everything about our appearance from weight to hair colour, even eye colour (through contact lenses). But height is more difficult to modify.  There are extreme remedies like leg lengthening surgery, which is very expensive and not always successful and which involves having your shin bones being broken and then a long period of recovery follows during which you are most vulnerable. Personally, I would love to be a little taller but would not be willing to have my bones broken, sorry, not even if someone offered me a substantial sum of money to do it.
There are people,  bodybuilders among them, who try to ingest as much Human Growth Hormone as they can get hold of, in the hope to grow taller and build muscles, yet it is not proven that HGH stimulates growth in height after a certain age, usually set at around 25, when all bone growth naturally ends, and  if not taken with medical supervision,  its damaging side effects are considerable.
The desire to be taller, especially among some men, can be quite obsessive and it's all because it seems that taller men are more attractive to women and they are more successful.  There are a few myths here that need exploding, no doubt. Napoleon comes to mind, for one thing, he was short, it seems, but was not out of luck with women nor did he do so badly, he did crown himself emperor after all. Ok he was eventually defeated by Lord Wellington. And, incidentally, Lord Wellington was not all that much taller than Napoleon.
Internet scams about growing taller abound, just do a quick Google search and you will find people asking you to part with considerable money promising you a growth of six inches within two weeks, with dubious methods such as meditation on the pituitary gland and self-hypnosis. Honestly, how gullible can one be!

But I am not writing this post in disapproval of those men who have recourse to lifts to boost their height, no more then I would tut tut a woman using a push up bra. Whatever gives you confidence is OK and wearing shoe lifts (such as the ones in the picture above) is harmless! I guess it might be unusual, but it does not have to be looked down upon and certainly it is not a reason to break up with someone. How shallow is that?
 Height increase is generational, by and large older people tend to be shorter, also because a certain amount of shrinking kicks in after the age of 40, becoming very obvious by age 70. Height is a very relative thing. It seems that at 5'6 Grace Kelly was regarded as tall in the 1950s, so there is some fluidity in this concept of height.
In some occupations there is a minimum height requirement but this is constantly being revised, to make room for  ethnicities whose heights might be different.
Modelling used to be the preserve of the very tall but nowadays petite models are (finally!)  in demand, especially for ecommerce (online), though apparently they are not used enough, as often clothes for petite women are modelled by regular size models (on the tallish side) , see the entries in this forum about QVC regular size  models and how ill fitting their  clothes are for petite women who cannot gauge what they really look like on a petite frame as the models are not petite.
 In any case many top models are, shall we say, vertically challenged yet they have achieved renown, from Kate Moss to Laetitia Casta to Devon Aoki and now Lottie Moss and Lily Rose Depp, as well as a host of other girls. Beauty ideals do change and there is also a realisation that  non-Caucasians are not always very tall, though this does not mean they are unattractive.
Women have always managed to get away with heels to make themselves taller, so why should men not do so if they so wish?  Heels for men are no longer in fashion, hence the shoe lifts.

Me modelling for online boutique Whatalicefound

If we were all the same height, the same weight, the same skin colour, the same hair colour, the same eye colour  it would be an extremely dull world. We would be machines rather than human beings.
What really matters is posture and bearing. Many people make themselves look shorter than they are because they have a bad posture. That can certainly be avoided.  Height is just a physical trait which ought to be regarded neutrally. For now it is not possible to change it drastically without using external aids. This may change at some point but till then lets embrace our individuality, height included and let it not stop us from achieving whatever we wish to achieve. And if we want to wear heels and/or shoe lifts to make ourselves a little taller why should this be an issue?

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Grey hair : what few people will tell you

My hair. Jumper from The Bias Cut  Photo: Katie Frost

I recently came across a couple of magazines with beauty features on how to care for grey/white  hair. I welcome that, (naturally) grey hair is still not quite accepted as a colour, though the 'embrace your grey' movement has come a long way.  So it is heartening to see that discussing grey hair is no longer about how to hide it nor is it confined to publications for seniors, such as Saga magazine.
Grey haired models are more visible - only last week I modelled for a known sports/dance wear company, based in the US but selling globally. For that job having grey hair was not the only requirement; the ability to move was equally important. But the presence of an older model such as myself amongst the much younger fitness models, some of whom former athletes, showed the good will of the company and their effort to be inclusive.  Older women, after all, can be seen in gyms and yoga studios; fitness is encouraged among the not-so-young.  These older women do want to wear nice leggings and flattering tops.
There are now lots of products on the market  for people who want to look after their grey hair. There are also books such as the one  by Jan Rogers, full of good advice and interviews with women that have chosen not to colour their natural grey.

Photo: Sarah Tucker. Model: me
I have had visible grey hair since the age of 40, just about twenty years now. I had it before then but I carefully camouflaged it by colouring it.  Some silver haired ladies  will tell you about  how they went grey when they were barely out of their childhood and how someone told them  their silver made them akin to magical beings. How lovely! I can assure you, however,  that it never happened to me, no one was ever so full of praise for my grey hair, back then. I spotted my first grey when I was about 24  and no one had anything nice to say about it apart from the very obvious thing that it was all down to my genes. Well, I knew that, and there is neither shame nor pride in that.  It did not cheer me up a bit.  When I decided not to colour my hair  it was for a very practical reason. My hair grows really fast and I was spending huge amounts of money at the hairdresser's to touch up roots on a weekly basis. My hair also did not look very healthy, with all that colouring. My stylist at the time - he later gave up hairdressing and went to live in Brazil with his boyfriend - thought I could try cutting my hair  very short and go 'au naturel' - it's very French,  elegant and chic, he told me. I was persuaded and agreed to try. Within weeks from that  first haircut -  a gorgeous asymmetric one that really framed my face -I sported a nice shade of salt and pepper. The stylist was very gifted at cutting hair, so naturally I continued to visit the salon for my 'regular trim', changing style quite a few times. I ended up spending almost as much as I did before so going grey  never worked as the money saving device it was meant to be, but I liked my new natural colour and the stylish haircut(s).
Anyway, it's been years since I took that life-changing decision. Now, my hair is almost entirely white and it reaches my hips - I gave up cutting it quite a while ago, with the occasional self administered trim, preferring a neo-Rapunzel look.
If you think that grey hair  does not need TLC you are definitely wrong. The major problem is the yellowing due to chemicals, hot irons, pollution, chlorine (if you like swimming) etc. It makes grey/white hair look dirty and truly old. There is nothing that really counters it, no matter how much purple shampoo you use (and you must go easy with that one or your hair will turn purple, as grey hair absorbs colour completely, so rinses and temporary fun colours such as pink are also a big no no, unless you really want your hair to be of a funky colour).

Taking a selfie in Florence. Photo: Emma Innocenti
I have tried everything, my long tresses are very important to me as much of my modelling work is  predicated on this feature. The only thing that removes that unsightly yellow is a paste obtained by mixing  3% 10 volume hydrogen peroxide and bicarbonate of soda. I do this treatment  every three to four weeks and leave the paste on for a good twenty minutes. I do it on clean, wet hair, gently towel dried, after shampooing with Head and Shoulder Classic Clean - it still is the best clarifying shampoo around, it's cheap but as good as the most expensive brands. I then rinse out the hair and might even shampoo it again but this time with a very mild shampoo, like Johnson's Baby shampoo.  Of course after this the hair is incredibly dry.  I used to tackle the dryness by applying tons of conditioner and leaving it on for ages before rinsing and air drying.  Then I discovered Olaplex, so after using the hydrogen and bicarbonate of soda paste and rinsing it thoroughly I use Olaplex 3 for at least an hour, then rinse, shampoo and condition.  The result is soft, manageable hair with all the brassiness removed.  Olaplex is not a nourishing mask, so from time to time you may want to use a hair mask separately.  The great thing about Olaplex is that it eliminates the dryness caused by the peroxide. It is a bit pricey, but worth it.
When I go swimming - which is often -  I never wear a cap because my hair is too long and does not fit into any. I put a little coconut oil or even almond oil on my hair  before going to the pool and after I swim I shampoo and condition.
Not everyone tells you about the best way to eliminate brassiness (the yellowing I have declared war on). In truth I am not so keen on purple shampoo because it does colour the hair. Yet most advice about how to care for grey hair will be about using purple shampoo. Not for me and if at all, very sparingly.
If you have any tip please do share!
(I have not been sponsored by any of the brands I have mentioned)