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On Beauty and the Anatomy Lesson

It has been a long time - a long time - since the PASEF blog has been updated. It is difficult operating PASEF based on volunteer support alone, but the assistance of PASEF volunteers and fans has not gone unnoticed! I personally wish to thank you for all for your support!!

I recently finished reading an incredible book called On Beauty, written by Zadie Smith. There are many facets to the plot of this novel. One particular ingredient, apparent through the title of the novel, is the notion of female beauty. Particularly beauty of the body.

Image courtesy of bibookreview.com

I found myself incredibly struck by the character Kiki and some of her musings in the novel. This first began when Kiki read a quotation from a button that she had - a quotation by Rebecca West that I love and wish to share with others as often as possible: "I myself have never been able to figure out precisely what feminism is. I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute" (195).

Here is another quotation specifically from the book, beginning with a conversation between Kiki and her daughter Zora.
          'You look fine.'

    'Right. I look fine. Except I don't,' said Zora, tugging sadly at her man's nightshirt. This was why Kiki had dreaded having girls: she knew she wouldn't be able to protect them from self-disgust. To that end she had tried banning television in the early years, and never had a lipstick or a woman's magazine crossed the threshold of the Belsey home to Kiki's knowledge, but these and other precautionary measures had made no diffrence. It was in the air, or so it seemed to Kiki, this hatred of women and their bodies - it seeped in with every draught in the house; people brought it home on their shoes, they breathed it in off their newspapers. There was no way to control it. (197-198)

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. The intense feelings regarding women and beauty persist very powerfully throughout the novel. Here is another quote from the perspective of a woman named Claire. This woman is very thin, only orders salad at restaurants, and had an affair with a married man that she didn't even like months before marrying someone that she, herself, loved. Here is her perspective:

    She was a woman still controlled by the traumas of her girlhood. It made more sense to put her three-year old self in the dock. As Dr Byford explained, she was really the victim of a vicious, peculiarly female psychological disorder: she felt one thing and did another. She was a stranger to herself.

    And were they still like that, she wondered - these new girls, this new generation? Did they still feel one thing and do another? Did they still only want to be wanted? Were they still objects of desire instead of - as Howard might put it - desiring subjects? Thinking of the girls sat cross-legged with her in this basement, of Zora in front of her, of the angry girls who shouted their poetry from the stage - no, she could see no serious change. Still starving themselves, still reading women's magazines that explicitly hate women, still cutting themselves with little knives in places they think can't be seen, still faking their orgasms with men they dislike, still lying to everybody about everything. Strangely, Kiki Belsey had always struck Claire as a wonderful anomaly in exactly this sense. (226-227)

Finally, there is another character that appears only briefly but offers another perspective to a scene. This character is named Katie, an intelligent, 16 year-old girl who graduated high school early and is in college studying art history. Katie is analysing a painting, looking for interesting points to comment on in class (and finally have the nerve to do so). Here is a rather long paragraph that I find beautiful and poignant:

    The second picture, on the other hand, makes Katie cry. It is Seated Nude, an etching from 1631. In it a misshapen woman, naked, with tubby little breasts and a hugely distended belly, sits on a rock, eyeing Katie directy. Katie has read some famous commentaries on this etching. Everybody finds it technically good but visually disgusting. Many famous men are repulsed. A simple naked woman is apparently much more nauseating than Samson having his eye put out or Ganymede pissing everywhere. Is she really so grotesque? She was a shock, to Katie, at first - like a starkly lit, unforgiving photograph of oneself. But then Katie began to notice all the exterior, human information, not explicitly in the frame but implied by what we see there. Katie is moved by the crenulated marks of absent stocking on her legs, the muscles in her arms suggestive of manual labour. That loose belly that has known many babies, that still fresh face that has lured men in the past and may yet lure more. Katie - a stringbean, physically - can even see her own body contained in this body, as if Rembrandt were saying to her, and to all women: 'For you are of the earth, as my nude is, and you will come to this point too, and be blessed if you feel as little shame, as much joy, as she!' This is what a woman is: unadorned, after children and work and age, and experience - these are the marks of living. So Katie feels. And all this from cross-hatching (Katie makes her own comics and knows something of cross-hatching); all these intimations of mortality from an inkpot! (251-252)

This novel touched me incredibly. I found it also amusing that the most beautiful character - the one that all the men lust after - is incredibly insecure and uses people to feel better about herself. In so doing, she ruins the lives of several and becomes one of the characters that you hate. Her beauty is truly only skin deep.

Smith, Zadie. On Beauty. New York: Penguin Group, 2005.



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