________________ CM . . . . Volume XII Number 1 . . . .September 2, 2005


In Your Face: The Culture of Beauty and You.

Shari Graydon.
Toronto, ON: Annick Press, 2004.
176 pp., pbk. & cl., $16.95 (pbk.), $24.95 (cl.).
ISBN 1-55037-856-2 (pbk.), ISBN 1-55037-857-0 (cl.).

Subject Headings:
Beauty culture.
Beauty, Personal-Psychological aspects.

Grades 6-12 / Ages 11-17.

Review by Julie Chychota.

**** /4



The French have an old saying: You have to suffer to be beautiful. And anyone who's ever spent 10 hours walking around in four-inch heels or woken up the day after a too-rigorous weight training session would probably agree.

Down through the ages and all around the world, human beings seem to have come up with an unlimited number of ways of inflicting pain on ourselves in pursuit of looking good. Some of these seem so bizarre we can hardly believe anybody would actually engage in them. But other, sometimes equally strange practices are so familiar to us we don't even think about them.

The question is, why?


Essentially, In Your Face: The Culture of Beauty and You endorses the old adage that handsome is as handsome does—but readers won't mind, because it does it oh, so beautifully! In her down-to-earth manner, author Shari Graydon puts on a show-and-tell of beauty past and present. Over the course of eleven chapters, Graydon models healthy skepticism of beauty products and procedures, so that readers, in turn, will begin to exercise their critical thinking skills with respect to the politics of beauty.

     In its overall configuration, In Your Face resembles John Berger's Ways of Seeing, W.J.T. Mitchell's Picture Theory, and Wendy Steiner's Pictures of Romance, academic texts which examine the politics of aesthetics encoded in various images. Like them, In Your Face possesses a cover and inside pages of a finer, smoother texture and of a heavier, more durable weight than those of the ordinary paperback. Like them, In Your Face carries on extended discussions of images and their connotations. Also like the theoretical texts, In Your Face contains photo-quality reproductions aplenty of images representative both of high and low culture: paintings, sculptures, magazine covers, and comic strips. Finishing touches include graphic elements such as patterns of flowers or asterisks, lines of dots like beads that frame photos, a three-tone, ribbon-like margin at the bottom of the pages, and shaded sidebars. Standard front and back matter (table of contents, index, acknowledgments) complete the text. Were the book in color, its design would be far too busy, far too loud; in grayscale, however, it projects dignity and decorum.

     Despite its sophisticated format, the content of In Your Face is readily accessible to popular audiences. In particular, the author uses approaches that will pique teens' interest. For instance, Graydon poses as an older sister, shrewder than her readers, yet still sympathetic to the dilemmas of adolescence. To create that persona, she alternates between writing in the first-person plural and writing in the second person. Additionally, the author's winsome conversational style includes slangy expressions such as "so over" (p. 4), "hotties" (p. 5), and "kick-butt attitude" (p. 14); she candidly mentions "wedgies" (p. 57), "boobs" (p. 61), "crotch padding" (p. 69), and "falsies" (p. 73). Just as her use of slang is delightfully defiant, so, too, is Graydon's deliberate, yet charitable, deconstruction of the "natural beauty" possessed by models and celebrities and touted by the cosmetics industry. Graydon draws on many recent examples and issues, thereby keeping the text relevant. While some advice applies equally to all teenagers, this reviewer expects girls will be likelier than guys to select In Your Face for recreational reading, simply because the majority of the examples pertain to females.

     The juxtaposition of words and image on the cover serves as an initial clue that this book will not accept the status quo at face value. Directly beneath the title, words such as "too tall," "too plain," and "too ethnic" are superimposed onto a model whose face is prominent against a twilight blue background. These qualitative words take on a judgmental cast against the androgynous model with straight black hair and dark, almond-shaped eyes, who is the antithesis to the Western blonde, blue-eyed Caucasian ideal. In fact, Graydon begins her book by examining underlying conventions and perceptions—and misperceptions—perpetuated by cultures ancient as well as modern through myths, legends, fairy tales, movies, and video games.

     In successive chapters, Graydon demonstrates that beauty is a highly subjective concept, one that changes over time and across cultures. However, the author notes that two common denominators influencing people's perception of beauty are youth and health because they ensure the continuation and survival of the species. She asserts that wealth, too, shapes beauty insofar as many people strive to emulate the look of the leisure class. As an example, Graydon observes that, whereas in the past, Caucasians wealthy enough not to have to labor in fields "maintained pale complexions," the same segment of society today privileges deep tans as a sign of "free time" (pp. 49-50).

     Furthermore, the beauty industry is quick to hold out promises of youth, health, and wealth to those individuals insecure about their appearances who then eagerly buy into the fantasies they are sold. Nor is it women only, contrary to popular belief, who experience the pressures of society and the media; men are not immune either, and the double standard is slowly giving way as their consumption of cosmetic products rises. The book links the exaggerated claims of advertisers to an increased dissatisfaction with body image in Western populations, and in turn, an increase in eating disorders and plastic surgery. Graydon cites the sobering statistic that U.S. citizens now spend more money annually on beauty than on education (p. 128). According to this book, it seems North Americans are not consuming beauty so much as being consumed by it. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is likely to follow suit if North American media continues to dominate the globe.

     Still, the purpose of In Your Face is not about whether or not to use beauty products; rather, it is about "putting beauty into perspective" (p. 6) so that readers may make informed decisions. Throughout the book, Graydon makes it plain to readers that she believes beauty exists in the sheer diversity and variation of humankind. She insists that beauty does not merely involve one's superficial, physical appearance, nor can it be reduced to a simple formula. Instead, it is a complex combination of traits, and one's personality, behavior, and attitude enormously influence one's attractiveness to others. Therefore, Graydon encourages adolescents to eschew unrealistic images and self-absorption, and renew their self-esteem. To that end, the author recommends that readers treat others as they would like to be treated (p. 108), and notes that those who "do" are ultimately so busy "being" that they are much better off than those who only "appear."

     Even with the book's broad coverage and virtually flawless make-up, a few tiny imperfections show through. In one instance, the text refers to "Sleeping Beauty's stepmother" when it should read "Snow White's stepmother" (p. 19). Further on, a comma should replace a semicolon (p. 101), and a split infinitive needs fixing (p. 127-128). Nevertheless, these negligible spots do not significantly detract from the book's favorable impression as a whole. At $16.95 Cdn for paperback and $24.95 for hardcover, In Your Face doesn't cost the pretty penny one would expect, either. All in all, this is a book no self-respecting school or public library can afford to be without.

     It is fitting that Graydon, a former president of MediaWatch and a teacher of media literacy at the university level, writes of the culture of beauty. She incorporates just the right balance of the banal and the bizarre to keep readers interested in the topic. For those motivated to conduct further research, a "Notes" section at the back of the book lists bibliographic entries for each chapter. The "Notes" offer up diverse resources ranging from the Journal of Social Psychology to People Magazine.

     While the author arrives at a predictable conclusion, that personality and attitude are of greater value than appearance, she skillfully voids tired clich‚s and takes the reader on an exhilarating ride. Due to the inter-relatedness of beauty issues, it is not a straightforward trip: there is a bit of doubling back and forth. Yet the concerns driving this book have less to do with a reader's arrival at a final destination than they have to do with a reader's cognitive journey.

Highly Recommended.

Julie Chychota has an M.A. in English and works at the University of Manitoba, the University of Winnipeg, and Red River College.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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