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2004-06-06 - 3:44 p.m.

The Swan

By Joan Callaway

I’ve not seen the new Fox TV show, The Swan, but I understand it is a beauty pageant for women who have undergone extreme makeovers, including extensive cosmetic surgery, restrictive diets, and what have been described as “brutal work-outs.” I’m practically certain I don’t want to see it.

We have enough advertising, enough movies, and enough commericals that give a subtle, subliminal message that we’re not O.K. This show seems to me to be just one more way to tell our daughters and granddaughters that they are not good enough – that they must fit into an increasingly narrow and, incidentally, ever-changing ideal. What is beautiful? What is ideal?

Leonardo da Vinci, in his wisdom, decided that the perfectly proportioned body vertically should be drawn with the head 1/8 of the body. And further that the body to be ideal would then be divided into fourths. This is the standard by which we judge “ideal” today: the ideal is one-fourth from the top of the head to the apex of the bust, another fourth to the largest part of the hip, another fourth to the knee. When I did my measurements only my knees were in the right place…and they were too chubby!

I was a fashion retailer for over 20 years. I’ve done scores of figure analyses in my day. I never found anyone who fit the above “ideal.” Even the most beautiful of fashion models have some little imperfection that they wish to camouflage or correct. No one is perfect.

Fashions change. Our ideas of beauty change. Fashion is cultural, geographic…constantly evolving and changing seasonally, often because of movies, television, as well as our changing role models. Do you remember Lara in Dr. Zhivago? Grace Kelly? Or how about Annie Hall, Twiggy, Madonna, Jacqueline Kennedy, Lady Di, the out-of-Africa look of Meryl Streep? Lucky you if you had the body that coincided with the fashion of the day, but lo! and behold, the body which was terrific yesterday for one of these looks could very well be passé the next day.

Think of the ages of fashion – the beautiful women portrayed by the great masters throughout the ages: the bustles, which enlarged the hip area, or the corsets, which cinched in the waist and pushed the bosom unnaturally upward to create an hourglass figure – that was considered beautiful. Some women need a little more help than others to achieve the look. Remember the 50’s and the latex panty girdles, which made a woman look as though she had one rounded, firmly packed derrièr? Remember when every teenager wished to look like Twiggy?

While we can send yesterday’s outdated fashions off to Goodwill or to a consignment shop or have a garage sale, or even put them away in a cedar chest, hoping they'’ll come around again, we can’t trade in our bodies each year or have extensive cosmetic surgery, nor should we think we have to. There is no way any one person can conform to the dictate of fashion beauty every year. Physical beauty is a transcient thing -- an illusion, a perception. True beauty comes from within.

There is no illusion, no accessory you can buy that will make you as radiant as feeling good about yourself and what you are doing with your life. It is very difficult to feel good about yourself, however, when every billboard, every magazine cover, every TV screen you see screams subtle messages that you aren’t O. K. There is no illusion, no cosmetic surgery, no accessory that can replace a happy smile! The Swan, the ultimate winner of this new reality show undoubtedly has a happy smile, at least for awhile – but what of the non-winners, I wonder? How do they feel? And what of all the viewers of the show, who now hold themselves up to this unrealistic model? Would there was some way to more often reinforce the idea in all women and girls that true beauty comes from within.

Beauty is all very well at first sight; but who ever looks at it when it has been in the house three days?”

    Man and Superman, Act 4., George Bernard Shaw

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