To wrinkle is human; to Bey is divine. More than 200 un-retouched photos of my beloved queen and spiritual guru Beyonce surfaced this week, and they show one of the most beautiful women in the world under harsh lights with imperfectly applied makeup. These were the raw, un-retouched images that formed the basis of a 2013 L’Oreal ad campaign. Some folks online have mocked the singer-writer-producer-model-actress’s appearance because the photos show evidence that (gasp!) she may have some pimples and (the horror!) there are some lines on her face and neck. But we all know people are imperfect, right? One might reasonably ask why Beyonce should be subjected to different standards than the average woman.
When one promotes oneself as the beauty ideal by manipulating one’s image (or by agreeing to allow others to do so), one creates a certain expectation. One also fuels the pretty-lady-industrial complex of which this very publication is a major component. I’m not here to pass judgment on these choices. I love looking at photographs of beautiful people, and some of my favorite photos have most certainly been altered to create an illusion of smoothness or shininess or thinness or curviness.
And no one’s knocking down my door to make me a celebrity spokesmodel for an international ad campaign, but if they were, I’d certainly want any wrinkles ironed out and any unsightly spots removed. Then I’d take the check and laugh my flat, un-bootylicious ass all the way to the bank. I wish I were stronger and tougher and, well, realer than that, but I’m not.
Anyway, there are people in this world who think that the media’s idealized image of womanhood is in fact genuine. Even though the evidence is out there and well-documented, they don’t realize that they’ve probably never seen their favorite supermodel as she appears in real life (unless they’ve seen her in person – and even then, she’s likely had acid peels and plastic surgery and other forms of real-life physical enhancement). They don’t know that special FX houses in Hollywood keep busy digitally airbrushing the faces and bodies of actors and actresses in virtually every major motion picture. They don’t know that the “natural look” rocked by many actresses in seemingly low-key photo shoots is actually usually achieved through a combination of neutral makeup and Photoshop. In other words: unless you know her personally, you have likely never, ever, ever seen Uma Thurman’s “real face,” whatever that means to you (and I submit to you that whatever face she wants to wear is her real face).
Which leads us back to Beyonce, the woman who brought us the song “Pretty Hurts”: “Blonder hair, flat chest/TV says bigger is better/South beach, sugar free/Vogue says/Thinner is better.” At the very least, it seems clear this artist has an understanding of the struggle she and other women undergo – the tug-of-war between authenticity and artifice. Maybe she also understands the sense of betrayal some folks feel when they discover their idealized beauty is really, well, real.
In a sense, we’re all like Pygmalion, the legendary Greek sculptor who fell in love with the statue he carved. The story of Pygmalion formed part of the inspiration for “My Fair Lady,” in which two men make a bet that one can make a real “lady” out of a guttersnipe. Maybe we haven’t directly contributed to the digital manipulation of a famous person’s image. Maybe we haven’t ever expressly requested that such a thing be done. But by criticizing real images of our idols, we lend credence to the idea that they must engage in a kind of masquerade in order to obtain our love, our loyalty, and – perhaps most importantly – our money.
As a woman who wears Spanx and push-up bras, dyes her hair, regularly distributes digitally retouched photos of herself, puts on makeup, and wants to get a breast lift sometime in the next decade, I’m not about to call Beyonce out for doing what Beyonce needs to do to play the role of Beyonce. I do think it’s sad that we ask women (and, to a far lesser extent, men) to look a certain way in order to be worthy of our adulation.
We’re tough on women. And as a woman, when I hear Beyonce sing “Pretty Hurts,” I hear someone who knows first hand that the popular modern concept of beauty is built on lies. You can participate in the bullshit and still know it’s bullshit.
Sara Benincasa is a comedian and the author of Great and Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroom. She tweets @sarajbenincasa and is currently on tour: dates are at SaraBenincasa.com/shows.