Book Review: Beauty Tips for Girls

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Beauty Tips for Girls, by Margaret Montgomery, is a novel about three women, society’s expectations, loneliness and the challenges which all ages must face when coping with day to day life.

Katy Clemmy is the beautiful and talented teenage daughter of a farmer and an alcoholic mother. To help her through her isolated life she turns to Misty magazine with its fashion and beauty obsessed, bitchy advice columns. She sees herself as overweight and ugly. In the primal battleground of her small town school she suffers the usual verbal attacks from her peers which continuously erode her self esteem.

Katy’s English teacher, Jane, has reached middle age without finding the husband and family she grew up expecting to have. She wonders how her life has turned out this way, blaming her mother for decisions made for her when she was young. When Katy disappears Jane reluctantly becomes involved with the Clemmy family’s problems, seeing in Katy traits which she recognises in herself.

Corinne is Katy’s mother. Pained and unhappy she drowns her feelings in alcohol, seeking oblivion. Corinne narrates her story from the future, her past being a disastrous blur of bad choices, tragedy and destructive behaviour.

As these three women tell their interwoven tales we gain an insight into the inner lives of an angst ridden teenager, an addict and a disillusioned teacher. The author has done a fantastic job of getting inside her character’s heads and showing the reader how each are thinking and feeling. The writing is funny, perceptive, entertaining and considerate.

I absolutely loved the meeting between Jane and the cosmetic surgeon. Their mutual inability to comprehend the other’s point of view was brilliantly portrayed. The book is full of such insights. Each character, major and minor, is presented fully rounded and with all their quirks and preconceptions providing humour in what is a poignant tale.

The inclusion of the articles from Misty magazine, the advertisements and To Do lists, all helped convey how influenced Katy was by these windows into a wider world of skewed priorities. The male teacher’s attitudes added resonance whilst the inclusion of environmentally friendly Dan showed that not all men are so shallow. It was not just the men of course. The cosmetic surgeon’s view of the world was perpetuated by the female clients with whom he spent his working days.

The underlying messages conveyed were all too painfully real but this adds to the power of what remains an entertaining read. Never preachy but truly thought provoking I would recommend this book to everyone who dreams of being more beautiful.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Cargo. 

Beauty

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I have a very beautiful friend. She has it all: small frame; slim, shapely body; fabulous poise and posture; long, straight, jet black hair; smooth skin; good teeth; an open, friendly smile; brown eyes you could drown in. She is married with a kid and a part time job, she and her handsome husband own their own home. She also suffers from severe depression.

People ask her all the time, ‘How can you be depressed when you look so gorgeous, when you have so much?’ Society appears to equate beauty to happiness, with a lack of understanding that more may be required. On the other side of the same coin, when a person has an obvious disfigurement it is assumed that they deserve to be pitied.

When I read of a person suffering facial burn wounds commentators will look on the outcome differently depending on gender and age. If it happens to a young girl it is considered a tragedy that she has ‘lost her looks’. There is little discussion about the potential infections or future pain that a serious burn wound can cause. The discussion centres around the potential for cosmetic surgery, how she will feel when she looks in a mirror, how society will treat her.

None of this is new of course. We notice beauty and are initially drawn to a person based on outward perception, although this view is quickly coloured by actions and conversation. Still though, health appears to be undervalued except by those whose quality of life is adversely affected by a condition. When the illness is unseen there is a tendency to assume that the sufferer could get over it if they really tried.

In recent years there has been more open discussion about mental illness, yet still it is assumed that the young and beautiful have no cause, no right to feel down. Outsiders, sometimes even supposed friends, will look at a person and judge if they have an acceptable reason to feel the way they do. Years of suffering and self hatred are swept aside as well meaning passers by suggest losing weight, getting out more, a change in attitude as a cure. Become a different person and all will be well, just do it.

When the sufferer already looks perfect there is incomprehension that they could want more than they already have, as if beauty were the pinnacle of achievement. Could this be why, as an older woman, I hear certain peers talking with concern about losing their looks?

There are many older people who look fabulous, but even highlighting this is to give credence to the idea that beauty is so important. At what cost has this look been achieved, how does the person feel, what else have they achieved? When we read of mental health issues amongst the rich and famous does it help us to empathise if we can see something about them that we consider could be improved?

Nobody chooses to suffer a mental illness, and there is no treatment that can yet cure it. The best that can be hoped for is a strategy for management, improvement to allow for survival.

There is no doubt that achieving a healthy weight can improve physical health and thereby quality of life. An attractive haircut or a flattering outfit can give a temporary lift. What an ill person needs though is not a demand to change, but support and acceptance for where they are now, however they happen to look. Well people would benefit from that too.

 

 

 

 

Life choices

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A few random thoughts for a Thursday, for no reason other than this is what I woke up thinking this morning.

1) If people could choose their shape without having to concern themselves about diet and exercise, what shape would most choose? What would be desirable if it could be achieved without effort?

I am wondering how much the beauty industry relies on those who are slim feeling superior. I know that perceived beauty does not equate to self confidence, but I do think that those who manage to stay slim feel that they have succeeded where the more rotund have failed. If all could choose their shape, then would most women choose to be the extremely slim shape that is currently sold as desirable? Would most men choose the supposedly attractive muscular torso? We can choose the clothes that we wear, and use this to conform to societal expectations or not. We use dress to express our individuality, or to fit in with the expected codes and fashions. If we could easily choose our body shape it would be interesting to see what choices were made. Things that do not cost, be it time, effort or money, are rarely as highly valued.

2) If people could choose, once only, to stop their body looking older, then at what age would they choose to stop? Given that they would continue to age inside, would an outward display of youth be desirable?

I doubt that many would choose to look five or ten or even fifteen years old for the rest of their lives. What about twenty though, or thirty? Would most truly wish to remain looking young?

I am well into middle age and have found a certain freedom in my changing looks that I had not expected. I have attained a sort of invisibility, no longer seen as desirable by the opposite sex or in competition with my own. I have had my career and I have had my kids. The pressure to succeed has been lifted and I am left with only myself and my loved ones to please. I am of little interest to the rest.

I am no longer bothered by sexist fools who think they flatter me by cat calling or attempting to chat me up. I feel safe when I go out alone, there but overlooked. It is empowering, exciting and a little daunting to have no expectations to meet. This is not to say that I am always comfortable in my own skin. When I am out with my children I dread running into their friends in case the way I look embarrasses them. On my own, however, I can relax. I merge with the background; there but of no particular interest to anyone.

There is still plenty that I wish to achieve in this life but I am now doing it solely for me. It seems that growing older suits me; stopping the clock on my looks would have lost me not just this freedom, but a valuable life lesson. Time travel can be as interesting and educational as exploring new places and cultures.

If all could look young there would be issues with couplings. We respond to looks in choosing a mate. Ageing is there for a reason; without it I believe some would feel deceived.

3) When you think of success, what level of success do you dream of?

I like the idea of being the author of a traditionally published book. As I have yet to write anything that could be submitted for publication this is unlikely to happen. If I did though, I wonder if I would really want success. Of course, I love the idea of being widely read, assuming readers liked my writing that is. I have a pipe dream of seeing my book in a bookshop. Financial independence would be pleasing but to achieve that level of success, which is rare even amongst published authors, there is a cost that I know I would struggle with.

I would dread having to stand up in front of people to promote my book, to give talks or appear in the media. I feel no great need to impress the world, what I would like is to impress my little family. I suspect that they are the least likely to admire anything I could produce. Even if I achieved the perceived success of a best selling author my husband would probably criticise the quality and worth of my writing.

Given the number of people who queue up to audition for televised talent shows there are plenty of people out there who seek even momentary fame. Given the efforts that sports men and women put into improving their rankings there are plenty who crave short term success. Would all of these people be willing to suffer the costs though, the life not lived due to the pressure, intrusion and demands of fame?

I think that I would be happier with a small and quiet success, whatever that word actually means.

 

 

The pursuit of beauty

I have been following a number of discussions on the various social media to which I subscribe about the latest Dove advertisement. It has got me thinking about society’s attitude to beauty. There are the obvious stereotypes of the women who seem to spend their lives trying to maintain a youthful visage at whatever cost. There are also those who enjoy looking their best but do it for themselves rather than in an attempt to become what they perceive to be pleasing to others. Can wishing to be outwardly beautiful make one less admirable to others?

I have a lovely friend who works on a beauty counter for an expensive, French cosmetics company. I was once out with her and a group of mutual friends who were discussing skin moisturisers. She was shocked that one of the group did not moisturise her face every day (I kept very quiet during the discussion). This was, apparently, very important if premature ageing was to be avoided. I was intrigued. Surely we all age at the same rate? I was under the impression that skin condition depended more on what we consumed and how well we slept than on what we slathered over our epidermis. I concede that my friend does look younger than me but then she is younger than me by quite a few years. This is as it should be.

Another friend told me that she no longer enjoyed going shopping with her teenage daughter as it made her feel old. Whereas my friend would struggle to find a single item of clothing that made her feel good, her daughter could throw on any old thing and look fabulous. This time it was my turn to be shocked. I find exactly the same thing with my teenage daughter but derive great pleasure from this. I love having such a beautiful, intelligent and sassy daughter. I only wish that she could see herself through my eyes and realise her worth. Teenagers can be so hard on themselves in so many ways.

A little over a year ago I managed to lose a significant amount of weight and was delighted with the way that this made me both look and feel. I no longer felt the need to dress to hide the lumps and bumps and had so much more energy. I also discovered that being thinner did not make me beautiful; it just made it easier for me to buy clothes that I liked. I felt better about myself being normal sized rather than overweight, but I was still me and that was okay. The extra energy was a bigger bonus than the smaller size.

I am very lazy when it comes to outward appearance. My good looking friends tend to be well groomed, well dressed and carefully presented. I spend far too much of my time in trackies and t shirts with my hair tied up and out of the way. Make up is a rarity and, I admit it, although I swim in that skin drying, chlorinated water several times a week, I moisturise only when I remember. I have a very bad memory and should probably look twice my actual age. Perhaps I do, but I have more important things to concern myself with.

It is not that I do not care at all about how I look but more that it is not high up on my list of priorities. I worry more about what people think of what I say or do, of how I am perceived as a person, than about how I am viewed as an object. I would prefer to be commended on my erudite remarks than on my choice of costume and how it hangs on my body. Sadly, I have yet to enjoy any such acclaim.

How we present ourselves to the world can matter in certain situations; first impressions made at a job interview make preparing for an occasion such as this a nerve wracking experience; it would be impolite to go to an upmarket wedding dressed in beachwear. However, a great many companies make a great deal of money by feeding insecurities and emphasising the importance of always being perfectly presented. Those who believe this message then struggle to achieve an often unobtainable goal, condemning themselves to a life of unfulfilled longing for an ideal that should be of no significant consequence. Those who are beautiful people within will shine through the masses of marketers mannequins whatever they look like outwardly.

I am reluctant to condemn those who strive to change the way they look. I who strive to improve my knowledge and understanding am also trying to change myself; in trying to authenticate my thinking by discussing my views with others I am looking for validation; is this so very different to looking for admiration of bodily presentation?

There are many good people in the world who are not deep thinkers; indeed some of the most questioning people that I know are also amongst the most selfish. Striving to attain a look that is considered beautiful does not make one an airhead any more than a great knowledge of books and current affairs makes one sensible.

We may reprehend the companies who encourage a popular view of beauty being a path to wealth, happiness and fulfilment, but I will not reprehend the individuals who choose to strive for a particular look for their own satisfaction. We may admonish those who try to force others to follow their line of thinking, but not those who argue a cause with cogency and compassion.

Let us accept the differences in priority that exist and strive for self improvement without condemnation. My lack of care in my appearance is nothing to be proud of because it betrays laziness. That is as much a character trait to be suppressed as any attempts at aesthetic improvement made purely to conform to another’s ideal.

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