Thursday, November 5, 2009

Mirror, Mirror

[Here Audrey continues her consideration of the "beauty" industry. Enjoy]

Everyone knows the story of the wicked queen whose looking glass turns against her. In “Snow White,” the older woman and fair young maiden face off in a high-stakes beauty contest to win the title, “fairest of us all.” Our sympathies lie with the innocent victim—she can’t help being beautiful, after all, (and she doesn’t seem to even own a mirror!)—but it’s the quee
n who engages our deepest fears.

In cultures that revere youthful beauty, aging is a one-way street to female obsolescence. Girls may see themselves in Snow White, oppressed by their evil (step) mothers, but women of a certain age understand why the queen’s daily mirror-gazing could drive her crazy. She appears to have all of the power, with her henchmen and magic tricks, but her naive adversary, even laid out dead in the glass coffin, gets all the attention.

Snow White, like most heroines in 18th and 19th century literature, is forever young. Ages 17 to
25 are the golden years. After that, the bloom fades, the roses wither.

Long before the cosmetics industry coined the word “anti-aging” as a way to sell illusions of a fountain of youth, numerous recipes and treatments promised to make the signs of aging--gray hair, wrinkles, and sagging skin—go away. Maybe because such recipes seek to turn back time and reverse the order of nature, their directions often sound like witchcraft. Consider the ritual described in "A Secret to take away Wrinkles":

Heat an Iron Shovel red hot, throw theron some Powder of Myrrh, receive the smoke on your face, covering the head with a napkin to collect the smoke, and prevent its being dissipated. Repeat this operation three times, then heat the Shovel again, and when fiery hot spirt [i.e., spit] on it a mouthful of White Wine. Receive the vapour of the Wine also on your face, and repeat it three times. Continue this proceeding every night and morning as long as you find occasion. Toilet of Flora

The idea that the person who tries this procedure might cease to “find occasion” for eliminating
wrinkles is provocative but unexplored! Would the wrinkles stay gone, one wonders, or would the woman simply decide that she no longer wanted to go through with all this?

“Wrinkles…What an ugly word!” exclaims the author of an 1889 English book entitled Beauty and How to Keep It, “And to think that they must come, sooner or later; but let us try to make it as late as possible. The least vain, the most reasonable of women, cannot but be unhappy when she sees the first wrinkle on her face.” This self-described “professional beauty,” offers a recipe for “wrinkle lotion” that consists of tannin, rose water, and glycerin: "This should be painted on with a fine camels' hair brush; the result is wonderful. If constantly used, wrinkles must disappear.” In spite of the certainty of this assertion, she goes on to recommend an additional way to eliminate the dreaded marks of age: “Another plan is to massé the skin with the fingers; this can be one several times during the day, and will tend to cause absorption of superfluous fat, and improve the tone of the muscles.”

Jane Austen’s vain Sir Walter Elliot not only approves of make-up, he thinks it should be
required for women of a certain age. Commenting on family friend Lady Russell, “Morning visits are never fair by women at her time of life, who make themselves up so little. If she would only wear rouge, she would not be afraid of being seen…”

18th century poet Anne Finch presents a candid snapshot of a woman at her mirror, stoically considering the loss of her youth. Clarinda asks of beauty, “What have you ever done for me?” As the poem makes clear it’s at best a passive virtue and at worst an unreliable and transient base of power. Clarinda stands up to those who would define her by this one quality, and in so doing, she sets an inspirational example for other women—and men (in our increasingly looks-obsessed world)--to follow.

“Clarinda’s Indifference at Parting with her Beauty”

Now, age come on, and all the dismal traine
That fright the vitious, and afllicte the vaine.
Departing beauty, now Clarinda spies
Pale in her cheeks, and dying in her eyes;
That youthful air, that wanders ore the face,
That undescrib’d, and unresisted grace,
Those morning beams, that strongly warm and shine,
Which men that feel and see, can ne’re define,
Now, on the wings of restlesse time, were fled,
And ev’ning shades, begin to rise, and spread,
When thus resolved, and ready soon to part,
Slighting the short reprieves of proffer’d art
She spake—
And what, vain beauty, didst thou ‘ere atchieve,
When at thy height, that I thy fall shou’d greive,
When, didst thou e’re successfully persue?
When, did’st thou e’re th’ appointed foe pursue?
‘Tis vain of numbers, or of strength to boast,
In an undisciplined, unguided Host,
And love, that did thy mighty hopes deride,
Wou’d pay no sacrafice, but to thy pride.
When, did’st thou e’re a pleasing rule obtain,
A glorious Empire’s but a glorious pain,
Thou, art indeed, but vanity’s cheife sourse,
But foyle to witt, to want of witt a curse,
For often, by thy gaudy sign’s descry’d
A fool, which unobserved, had been untry’d,
And when thou doest such empty things adorn,
‘Tis but to make them more the publick scorn.
I know thee well, but weak thy reign wou’d be
Did n’one adore, or prize thee more then me.
I see indeed, thy certain ruine neer,
But can’t affoard one parting sigh, or tear,
Nor rail at Time, nor quarrel with my glass,
But unconcern’d can lett thy glories passé.

essay by Audrey Bilger © 2007-2009

Pix from top
Illustration from an 1852 Icelandic edition of Snow White
1877 Etching by Hermann Eichens with the pungent title: "Serai-je assez belle ?" ("Will I be pretty enough?")
An 1886 "Beauty Box"
1625 painting titled
Die eitle Alte, by Bernardo Strozzi - sorry, I can't find a translation for the title.

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  1. Hi, Robert.
    All the post was very well written. The mirrors are the judge of our age or if I can say it with a more poetic way, the moments or the memories of time. And time is the friene or the enemy of us and this depends from which side you can choose to see your life.
    For the women its more important. This is the reason for some beautiful pieces of art, movies, painting, poems, fairytales.

  2. If you drink enough of the white wine, you'll forget about those wrinkles!

    Fun post, Audrey! Thanks.

  3. Die eitle Alte translates to The Vain Old Woman or, more colorfully, The Vain Wrinkly One auf Englisch.

  4. Hi Don Michael & Kat & Anonymous

    Don Michael: Thanks for those kind words; glad you enjoyed the post.

    Kat: As I said on FB, you can't argue that point!

    Anonymous: Thanks!

  5. A Hymn in Praise Of The Burqa?

  6. Most enjoyable and most enlightening. Thanks.

  7. Tellllll me about it.

    Fun post!!

  8. Hi Tony, Alan & Willow

    Tony: I can't speak for Audrey, but my guess is "no" on that!

    Alan & Willow: Glad you liked it!

  9. As a woman d'une certaine age, I got a kick out of the remedies! I think I'll join Kat!

  10. Hi Karen: That sounds like a good idea!


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