Many many years ago, I happened to be invited to the home of a huge cosmetic brand owner. We were sitting in his lovely dining room, and as a pleasant conversation flowed, he was asked what his fundamental marketing strategy was. It is very simple, he replied immediately without any hesitation, any product that we sell must convey the notion that the woman is not only purchasing a foundation, a lipstick, a mascara, but she is getting “a whole new you”. Sales would drop drastically, he explained, if women were interested only in the products themselves. They must be persuaded that the use of a new product will create a transformation; their older self, with all its flaws and blemishes, will be gone, and a new, better woman will emerge.
This observation, articulated in a dispassionate and impartial tone, reveals an unbelievably simple truth: women are motivated by a profound need to cease to be who they are and to become someone else. One could described it, in terms of female body image, as a seed of self-hatred; I tend to think of it as self-rejection, or self-negation. The striving to be another person is so powerful that it nourishes huge industries.
Of course, feminine embellishment in itself is not new. It is documented since the dawn of humanity, in all cultures, regardless of their time and place. But the modern age has altered its nature, as it has done with so many of our desires. The hunger to go beyond the limits, to reach a new pinnacle, has been the source not only of endless achievements, but also, unfortunately, of a deformed self-perception. If one is to constantly try and ameliorate oneself, then perhaps his or her self is faulty and poor. This is the psychological mechanism, not the rational analysis, and it is true for both character and appearance. And since women were traditionally more prone to invest in their exterior aspect, they were more affected by the constant drive to both find faults and correct them.
Think, for example, of the Mona Lisa, created in the beginning of the sixteenth century. Let us ignore the many theories of her enigmatic expression and smile, and look at her simply as a woman modeling for an artist. Facing Leonardo Da Vinci, her countenance doesn’t reveal self-criticism but rather self-acceptance; and though she is modeling, her body seems relaxed, at most she is sitting erect. One could hardly imagine her trying to be anyone but herself. Could we imagine a contemporary model sitting like that in front of a camera, self-absorbed, perhaps indifferent to how she would look in the picture? Nowadays models always pose, either in a subtle manner or vulgarly, without concealing the attempt to please the spectator.
The drive to look better, to fix flaws, to cover blemishes — with the profound dissatisfaction associated with it — is overpowering. Somehow, awareness of its destructive nature doesn’t abolish it. To escape it, people sometimes seek refuge in other cultures lacking this constant drive, which is both compelling and oppressive.
Last summer I traveled for the first time to India. I spent the first day in Mumbai, touring the city with a friend. The first hours were overwhelming; a crowd huddling in muddy alleys on its way to a temple, children and elderly exhibiting their deformities as though they were treasures, foulness which is a pillow to rest one’s head on and fall asleep, starved dogs, and high society people dining at the fancy Taj Mahal Hotel. But in spite of the exhausting attempt to absorb it all, I immediately observed how Indian women walk gracefully in their traditional cloths, soft, colorful fabrics wrapped around their torsos, following the contour of the female body without forcing it into rigid forms. Rich or poor, full-figured or thin, young or old, they seemed at peace with themselves, so utterly remote from the Western inclination to constantly compare oneself to others, to try to be “a whole new you”. When I was leaving the Taj Mahal Hotel an elderly woman holding a basket of flowers approached me, her entire body covered yet her round belly bare, and she asked me in a soft voice: “Madam want flower?”