I was at a weekend retreat recently at one of those gatherings where “saying your truth,” “asking for a hundred percent of what you want,” and “letting go of social taboo” is encouraged. I was shocked therefore to encounter on the very first day in the bathroom a creature so unlike any new-ager that I was astounded. To describe this person as a “Barbie Doll” would have been an understatement. Normally, we use “Barbie Doll” as an expression, more or less to describe the phenomenon of women trying to live up to that anatomically impossible ideal of too-large breasts hung on a body too thin to have any, girlishly slim hips incapable of childbirth, and a bony face covered with “big” hair.
Well, the woman I encountered in the bathroom wasn’t just trying to be a Barbie Doll, she was one. Her thin face puckered down to a narrow chin; her beady blue eyes looked so glassy that you had to stare into them to ascertain that the pupils were moving, and her thin shoulders tapered into breasts so unnaturally puffy that I wanted to touch them just to feel the texture of silicone.
As I arranged my belongings in the locker on that first day, I watched Barbie putting on her make-up. A quick glance at her locker revealed several compacts the sizes of workmen’s lunch pails, brushes large enough to paint houses, and so many jars that I could not figure out where one would apply their contents. She picked up palettes of different shades and colors, applying paint to her face like an impressionist painter. Just as I thought she had finished putting on the black mascara on her eyelashes, she pulled out another jar or box, and, with a brush, proceeded to put another layer of something or the other on top of the previous one, much like one puts two coats of primer followed by two coats of finish on a wall. And it was the same with her cheeks, her forehead, her neck, and her lips.
The effect, after the whole thing was finished, was a cross between a caricature and an art project gone awry. It was then I realized that not only was her face covered in cakes of makeup, but it had also been subjected to some sort of extreme makeover resulting in those pointy cheekbones, wafer-thin lips, and perennially raised eyebrows that gave her the look of being of an uncertain age.
I looked at my own face beside Barbie’s in the mirror, and lo and behold, began to marvel at how very beautiful I looked, with my fresh-out-of-the-gym body, shiny dark hair, and white teeth with a seductive gap in the front. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for this poor woman who so obviously lacked self-esteem as to have subjected herself to such cruelty.
But the shoe apparently was on the other foot. For, when the workshop began, Barbie became a psychological experiment, as if some social scientist had deliberately dropped her in our midst and was recording the results with a hidden camera.
I was shocked to discover that many men in the room were irresistibly drawn to Barbie. It seemed that not only had Barbie bought the Madison Avenue idea of beauty, but so had the men. To them, she represented the sort of creature they often saw on television, but never got close to in real life.
I realized then that a woman’s beauty is made up, not of her physical attributes, but of the aura she exudes. If a woman is powerful, intelligent, and truly confident, like Cleopatra was, this aura consists of something more than Estee Lauder and Lancome. But in today’s post-feminist world, where most women are still desperate for male attention, and where men are blissfully commitment-phobic thanks to the abundance of sex available to them without the shackles of love, morality, marriage, children, or obligation, women are resorting more and more to outer, not inner beauty. You just have to look at reality television, fashion advertisements, and teenage girls in my son’s class, to know that this is absolutely true.
So I watched the men in fascination the whole weekend, as they hovered around Barbie, who seemed to relish their attentions, and pitted one guy against another, making them all jealous. It seemed that she lived only for their attention. The men, on the other hand, were simply acting out their gender, oblivious to nuance or complexity, following their animal-like mating instincts, with only one goal in mind. I watched, not with envy, but with curiosity. I knew of course that the sociological experiment served a convenient purpose for me as well. It allowed me to separate the wheat from the chaff, the intelligent from the great unwashed, the sophisticates from the masses.
What was shocking was that this was all happening at a retreat where spirituality, naked honesty, and natural physicality without the adornment of jewelry were supposed to be part of the rules. I concluded in the end that most of the men at the retreat wouldn’t have known a truly beautiful woman if she had punched them in the face, just as they wouldn’t have known a truly powerful woman if she had happened to be their wife.
And afterwards, I felt sickened and disappointed that we haven’t come very far at all, feminism and new-age goddess worship notwithstanding.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED.