"What is really important for a woman, more than being beautiful or intelligent, is to be entertaining." If you’re wondering what great philosopher was responsible for that pearl, it was Zsa Zsa Gabor.
We are (hopefully) taught from a young age that beauty is only skin deep, and that what matters so much more is what you say, what you do, and how you make people feel. But it’s also undeniable, that regardless of how much we reiterate this sentiment, beauty very much matters in one way or another to most of us, and it is inextricably linked with self-esteem and confidence. Luckily we are also taught that this most indeterminate of human perceptions is also in the eye of the beholder (I’m cracking out all the beauty clichés here folks). I like to think that we are finally starting to believe this. Yes, teenagers will always follow the herd to an extent – I grew up in the era of the supermodels, which was not a look that could be easily copied with a bottle of fake tan and a lip pencil. As a pale, buck-toothed, flat-chested, fuzzy-haired teen, conventional beauty felt unattainable to me as I agonized over the ubiquitous images of golden creatures who looked as if they’d been carved out of sunshine and silk. Then Kate Moss came along, slightly bandy-legged, bawdy and small breasted; bags under her eyes at 4am and we had something else to aspire to. It transpired that wasn’t particularly attainable either, but Lord did many of us try with results that are thankfully resigned only to memory and pub-anecdotes rather than smartphones. Here is where I empathise with the teens of today, all of their attempts at self-discovery and self-tanning recorded forever on social media and computer caches.
To dismiss the idea of beauty as vainglorious or unimportant is unhelpful. It won’t go away because someone says so, and nor should it. In many ways, the beauty industry has a lot to answer for, but when you think about it, it’s us who are holding the question cards. For me, a beauty regime is self-care; it’s not for anyone else (bar the poor chap in my local post office who has often seen me looking like a sea monster from a Scooby Doo cartoon at 9am. Sometimes it’s for him). It’s in the same vein as cooking myself a nice meal, or taking half an hour to read a book or go for a walk. That might not be what it means to everyone - to some it is far less important, and to others, beauty has always been their currency and they cling to it for dear life.
We can see the significance of beauty on a macro level with the “lipstick index”, a term coined by Leonard Lauder (erstwhile CEO of Estee Lauder) in the early noughties to describe the increase in sales of lipstick during times of economic hardship. In reality, the concept dates back far longer, make up was often as frequent a surreptitious black market purchase as cigarettes and food in post war times. But Lauder was the first to make the connection between buying smaller luxuries, like lipstick, over larger purchases such as handbags or clothes in times of recession. In more recent times, we’ve seen the phenomenon evolve into the “Nail Art Index”, and we all know women who see that monthly Shellac or manicure as indispensable.
I think it has gone one further, and we’re actually living through the “Eyebrow Index”, but conversely, eyebrows now seem to be directly proportionate to economic growth rather than distress; “Ireland is picking up!” scream the brows of our nation. One of my best friends, recently home for a visit from Hong Kong, said that Dublin felt like it was buzzing and more vibrant that ever. It is indeed I said, and just look at the size of everyone’s eyebrows; there is clearly a Samson-like strength in those little hairs.
During our lives, we will all have beauty indices of our own, and they will change, adapt and modify to our needs and different stages of life. My teenage attempts at drawing on larger lips are thankfully relegated to the past, but I needed another sort of beauty regime altogether after having my first baby, and a basic beauty routine became a small lifeline. Similarly, a friend told me her make up bag was her armour when she was going through treatment for cancer, she still had control over something normal but terribly important. And as we all get older, and learn to love (or at least accept) our lines and battle scares, we will hopefully continue to see the power of our own individual beauty. So by all means, reach for the make up bag, but as a source of confidence, not camouflage.
But when it comes to the economy, trust me on the eyebrows.
Originally published in Image Magazine, April 2017