Perhaps you’re a model. Apparently models these days are all about being jolie laide. No, not that kind of laide — although you’d expect they are that too — but ‘jolie laide’, which roughly translates as ugly-pretty. Or, to reluctantly use that hideous word, quirky.
Blank perfection is a bit old — apparently the current trend for models is flawed but interesting, rather than the traditional golden glamazon. Should we, the general female public, be glad? Or do we even care? Is it of any relevance to us whether models look perfect or not?
It depends on how much you engage with any of that stuff — fashion, media, the beauty industry. As a woman, it is in your face from childhood — so disengagement requires conscious reappraisal, and you may be labelled a big hairy feminist for your trouble.
Yet survey after survey suggests that the less you buy into the prescribed beauty ideal, the freer and happier you are as an individual — perhaps one reason for this is because the real quirk about models is that they weigh almost a quarter (23%) less than the average woman, while 20 years ago it was just 8% less. Emulating an underweight minority seems mad, yet here we are, covered in eating disorders and feeding the diet industry.
Being a model not only requires lucky genes, but also an ability to live permanently with hunger. For the rest of us, born not with astonishing beauty but a fondness for chips, this beauty ideal is unrealistic — apart from the genes and the starvation, models’ images are routinely enhanced to the point of unreality.
A recent video clip doing the internet rounds shows how an ordinary looking young woman is transformed in 10 minutes by digital enhancement into a Photoshopped goddess for a fashion shoot; it highlights the chasm between actual reality and what we are shown as real.
You can’t help, therefore, feeling overcome with waves of jaded cynicism at a recent New York Times piece about how currently fashionable models are considered within their industry to be a bit, well, ugly. Far from perfection. Flawed, but fascinating.
Then you look at the models used to illustrate this trend of so-called jolie laide, and you wonder what on earth they are talking about, as photo after photo of goddesses appear before your eyes. Carla Delevingne is jolie laide – because she has eyebrows. So is Sasha Pivovarova — because she was born in 1985, and therefore ancient. They are joined by other exceptionally beautiful women considered jolie laide because of gap teeth, pink hair, or just not being Gisele Bundchen.
Bundchen is a conventional example of beauty that exists within the parameters of that tiny percentage of women whose genetics enable them to be successful models. Last year she earned $42m. The beauty ideal to which Bundchen conforms is narrow, dictated by commercial interests (how much product she can shift by having the right kind of face and body), and is literally measured in centimetres — the distance from eyes to nose, from nose to mouth. It is formulaic beauty by numbers. And apparently we, the ordinaries, are bored with it.
Hence things went a bit quirky during New York Fashion Week, with much being made of the catwalks using an albino model, the heart-stoppingly beautiful Shaun Ross. Yet, when you look at what is considered by the fashion industry to be quirky, in comparison your ordinary self may look like a Picasso at his most cubist. If Carla Delevingne is considered jolie laide, then you or I resemble the Weeping Woman.
You might wonder what on earth the fashion industry is talking about, until you remember the very definition of model — an archetype, an ideal. Not real.
Anyway, ordinary people have always known that perfect beauty is boring. When a face is perfect, it is blank. According to the New York Times, fashion directors, or whoever it is that scouts for models to do fashion shows or beauty contracts, are looking for character, for personality, for distinguishing features amongst the endless perfection. The girls — because models are always called ‘girls’ — that stand out are not the immaculate ones, but the ones with something about them that is memorable.
The much mentioned gap tooth is being touted not as what it really is — a gap between your teeth — but as a valued accessory, a signature, a trademark, a USP. Georgia May Jagger and Lara Stone both have one, as do Lauren Hutton and Alek Wek.
And Wek is considered deeply quirky because as well as the gap tooth thing, she is black, but not sleekly hair-relaxed black like Naomi Campbell, but crop-haired sub-Saharan black. Different from Eurocentric beauty ideals, and therefore quirky.
Europeans have always appreciated quirky beauty far more than their corn-fed American counterparts. We adore Bjork. Tilda Swinton is the poster girl for otherness — pale freakish beauty shining with character and conviction. The distinctive and distinctly odd-faced Benedict Cumberbatch has a keen fanbase. But these two are actors, and actors have always had a lot more leeway when it comes to how they look — once you step outside the ageless size-zero confines of Hollywood, with its relentless unreality and ingrained sexism and ageism, actors are meant to represent the rest of us in human screen stories.
Actors — when they are not Jennifer Aniston or Brad Pitt — are representatives of everyman and everywoman, whereas models are not. The nearest the world of white British supermodels has got to something genuinely non-Bundchen is Lily Cole, with her mesmerising ginger alien features; in America, supermodel quirkiness began and ended with Cindy Crawford’s mole.
And remember, when Dove began those ordinary women adverts, using women of normal sizes and levels of beauty to sell their stuff? It was much lauded as a refreshing breakaway from the commercial representation of female beauty always having to be perfect — but did it actually work? Do women need adverts reassuring us that it is OK not to be perfect? Or is that just a tiny bit patronising?
“Some days I’m not beautiful. Some days I am,” blogs Louise McCudden on feminist website the F-Word, referring to the Dove campaigns. “Some days I’m sexy and run around in lace stockings. Some days I slouch in my jammies and feel too depressed to comb my hair. Some days I feel sexy as hell in pants and a T-shirt, sometimes I feel repulsive, even if I’m being told by everyone around me that I look fabulous. That’s not being a Real Woman, it’s being human.”
And we are all human — so when you read about how men are starting to slowly catch up with women in terms of appearance anxiety, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Perhaps it’s worth remembering that art and beauty should never be perfect — Native American beadwork, Persian rugs, Islamic architecture, and Amish quiltwork all contain deliberate flaws, as representations of humility, of humanity. Only humans strive for unattainable physical perfection — maybe it would be more relaxing to redefine beauty for what it really is — a glow of health, joy, bliss, contentment, engagement, fulfilment. That is real beauty. The rest is just packaging — gap toothed or not.