Ever since Ancient Greek artist Zeuxis constructed an image of Helen of Troy by combining the features of five models to make an impossibly perfect whole, depictions of beauty have relied on deception. This primitive form of Photoshopping was merely the beginning – 25 centuries later, our culture has become fixated with an ideal of physical faultlessness so detached from reality that reality itself has begun to look peculiar.
Popular perceptions of facial beauty – smooth brows, nipped noses and pert pouts – are paraded as a celebrity norm and realised in everyday life. If airbrushing is the theory, then ‘cut and paste’ cosmetic and surgical solutions are the practice. A cookie-cutter ideal of beauty has been literally achieved with a scalpel.
In transforming themselves into living dolls, women are veering towards the Stepford Wife mould. Surgery may iron out wrinkles, but removes much in the way of expression – crucial for basic human interaction. A friend renounced Botox after her baby stopped smiling at her and mirrored, instead, her mother’s startled gaze. ‘The mentality that encourages women to emulate perfection is about the safety of belonging,’ explains Dr Cecilia d’Felice, clinical psychologist and author of Dare To Be You. ‘This isn’t a problem per se, but it becomes a problem when it’s unacceptable to look a certain way – like yourself, for example.’
One of the more pervasive aspects of this beauty vogue is the way in which replication blurs racial difference. Thus, we have an aesthetic melting pot in which women as ethnically heterogeneous as Beyoncé, Shakira and Jennifer Aniston meet in a middle ground of golden-hued hair and skin.
Yet something is afoot, and it feels like a small, not-so-perfectly formed revolution. The populist view of attractiveness is evolving, and a less idealised, ever more intriguing image emerging. To this end, Scottish brand Pringle has adopted the atypically alluring Tilda Swinton, 49, as its poster woman, and forty-something anarchistic style maven Daphne Guinness is championing make-up line Nars. Meanwhile, the high street is hyping unconventional role models, from the uncompromisingly blancmangey Beth Ditto to veteran beauty Yasmin Le Bon.
Forward-thinking cosmetics brands have boosted this slow-burning shift. Bobbi Brown launched her Pretty Powerful campaign, a celebration of the diverse looks of real women. A survey by the company found 84 per cent of British women do not aspire to look like anyone else, half wanting to look like an improved version of themselves rather than a celebrity. Brown approves: ‘I tell women to be who they are. This means everything from learning to love your lines to appreciating your unique features. We should start using the phrase “living” instead of “ageing”. Lines are proof we’ve lived. We get them when we laugh, when we express ourselves.’
Rebecca Morrice Williams, founder of cosmetics brand Becca, feels equally passionately. Other than correcting red eye, her advertising avoids retouching. ‘Many mainstream brands show perfected, mannequin-like skin,’ she says. ‘I often pick models with freckles to show how beautiful the natural texture of skin is. Our images are aspirational but, above all, believable. One of my next campaign
models is an Aboriginal girl with unconventional features who is absolutely arresting.’
Feminism has also played its part. Psychotherapist Susie Orbach, author of Fat Is A Feminist Issue and Bodies, agrees there has been a change in perception. ‘We love glamour but we hate the lack of variety, and so there is a wish for glamorised “real women”.’ Thanks to the lasting impression made by the Dove Campaign For Real Beauty, we are also more clued up on the tricks of
the trade. The majority of us realise that even models don’t wake up looking like models.
I run into plastic surgeon Nick Percival at the launch of Olay’s Regenerist 3 Point Super Serum, an unguent that promises improvement rather than transformation. Increasingly, Percival’s clients are more wary of looking ‘done’ than old, bringing in celebrity images as a means of emphasising what they don’t want to look like.
‘What they want is to look like better versions of themselves,’ confirms Percival. ‘Twenty years ago, you went to a surgeon and he told you what he would do. These days, patients feel more empowered to research their own choices. There has been a growing appreciation that the old one-size-fits-all form of surgery didn’t make people look young, it made them look odd. People lost a lot of expression and character.’
So maybe it isn’t women’s faces that need to change as much as society’s mindset – a complex process upon which we are only just embarking.