challenging human beauty…

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20/05/2013 by Sarah Ritchie

Carmen Dell'Orefice. Photo: Zanita Morgan

Carmen Dell’Orefice. Photo: Zanita Morgan.

The New Zealand Herald recently ran a story titled “Older women are challenging text book beauty“. Given that I hold strong opinions about what the world regards as human beauty I read on eagerly.

The article focuses on Carmen Dell’Orefice, an 81 year old American supermodel, and the face of Peter Alexander’s latest sleepwear advertising campaign. There would be few who would dispute that Carmen Dell’Orefice is – indeed – a stunning specimen of human beauty, based on what society currently regards as beautiful. She is slim with gorgeous hair, gorgeous eyes, and amazing cheek bones.

The article read: “In such a youth-obsessed industry as fashion, this age appreciation could be just another marketing gimmick, but it’s a trend that seems to be sticking around.” and “For Alexander, featuring Dell’Orefice in his campaign wasn’t necessarily a statement about age or fashion’s obsession with youth. “I just loved her sense of glamour; that old, Hollywood internal glamour. I wasn’t making a statement that ‘old doesn’t mean useless’ or isn’t beautiful any more. It was really that I thought that she was a beautiful woman, who happened to be 81.

My initial reaction flowed something like: Wow! An 81 year old woman has been chosen to front an ad campaign for a world-famous fashion designer. Wow! Who would have thought it possible? Wow! That’s really inspirational.

Then, I checked myself. I had just fallen into the same trap that probably everyone who read the article also fell into. It was a classic example of how the media (reflecting the sentiment of the time) manipulates how the western world interprets human beauty.

Sure, we all agree that Carmen is stunningly gorgeous, because we are conditioned to regard her appearance (whether she be 18 or 81) as the embodiment of what is acceptable, commercially viable and beautiful.

I am currently reading a book titled “Everyday life in Elizabethan England”, and it reads: “In almost any age, the things that women do to themselves for the sake of what the age regards as beauty make horrifying reading.” (the 16th Century feminine ideal was a face scrubbed with mercury and whitened with white lead).

What was “beautiful” in the 16th Century is different from the 18thC, different from the 19thC and different from the 21stC. Even the desirous Marilyn Monroe figure of the 1950s is not the celebrated body shape today.

Why do we subject ourselves to the Western mindset of human beauty, which makes it so difficult to accept ourselves and others for who they are?

All I know is that God made you, and He does not make mistakes. If God loves you – and thinks you are wonderfully made, just the way you are – then I should love you too, just the way you are.

There’s our challenge. Certainly applaud Carmen Dell’Orefice for still being able to work in the job she loves at 81 years of age. Applaud Peter Alexander for stepping outside the bounds of convention to challenge ageism in advertising. Try to remember that the notion of “beauty” is relative to time, culture and the agenda of the few. Try to see people as God sees them, not as the world sees them, and look – instead – for beauty of the heart shining out from another person’s eyes.


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Sarah Ritchie
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Finalist, Estuary Art Awards 2011
Exhibitor, The Original Art Sale 2011


© Sarah Ritchie 2014

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