Beauty in Chains

Once upon a time, I took a train from the relatively richer West of Germany to the relatively poorer East of Germany, and a heavily perfumed passenger sat down next to me. I didn't complain, yet she immediately apologized for the strong scent, explaining that she worked as a sales-clerk in a drugstore. Perhaps the perfume was part of her work attire, just like sales-clerks in boutiques are forced to wear the fashion that they are selling, or she had amassed all the perfumes that customers had been testing in the store, I don't remember. I asked her why she was travelling such a long distance to go to work, and she coolly laid out to me that nobody in her East German hometown could afford the anti-wrinkle facial creams that she sold for several hundred Euros per tiny 50ml-bottle. She also noted that all celebrities would plaster such creams on their faces day and night, which is why they all always looked so fabulous.

Upon returning back to work from my trip, I innocuously passed on this information to my then twenty-something year old work colleague, who cried out: I URGENTLY need that cream! Look at all those wrinkles under my eyes!

Unfortunately, all I could see was the most wrinkle-free skin I've ever seen in my life, not the tiniest crinkle to be found anywhere. I rubbed my eyes, I squinted, I looked again and again, I pulled out my Sherlock-Holmes magnifying glass that I always carry with me for such occasions, but her skin was firm and as smooth as a babies bottom.

For the sake of the sacred workplace small-talk, I nodded seriously and told her, well it's not thaaaat bad, I'm sure you can wait a few dozen years. I think she was pleased at, but you never know, because the unwritten laws of small talk dictate to smile no matter what.

A few days later, Xmas was approaching, our office did a “secret santa”, and I pulled the name of said cream-desiring work colleague. Unfortunately, that was the only piece of information I had about her, so I anxiously checked my bank account in order to estimate how many weeks I would have to cut down on food in order to buy her a 5ml sample of that must-have facial cream. Thankfully I then learned that the value of the secret-santa-present was not allowed to exceed 10EUR, which wouldn't even buy me a drop of that stuff.

 So instead, I went out and purchased her the seminal song by Christina Aguilera: “Beautiful”(2002):

Just as I was scribbling “You ARE beautiful” on a post-it, another colleague entered my office saw the CD and exclaimed: Oh, no, how can you even think of giving that song as a present to anyone – don't you know what that song says? She was so outraged that she didn't even wait for my reply and answered her question herself: The song says that EVERYBODY is beautiful, which is EXACTLY the same thing as to say: NOBODY is beautiful. So by giving our wrinkle-conscious colleague this CD, you are telling her that she is NOT beautiful. After she had stormed out of my office, I rubbed my eyes again and read the 3-word-post-it that I had just written, because it seemed to me that at the very least the content of my note would contradict the claimed content of the lyrics, but I wasn't so sure anymore.

Interestingly, the equation set up by my colleague features twice in Pixar's 2004 movie “The Incredibles” – the first time is a conversation between the Super-Hero-Mom Mrs. Incredible aka Elastigirl and her Super-Hero-Son Dash: 

(In minutes 6.08-6.23 in this clip:)

Dash: But dad always said our powers were nothing to be ashamed of, our powers made us special.

Mrs. Incredible: Everybody's special, Dash.

Dash: Which is another way of saying no one is.

Later on, the evil villain IncrediBoy announced that he plans to make everyone “super”. He concludes: And when everyone's super – no one will be.

Well, I gave the present, and when my colleague opened it up and had to guess from whom it was, she immediately called out “the cream!” and correctly identified the gift-giver.

Even though she genuinely appeared to appreciate the CD as a virtual cream replacement, I pondered about alternative songs that could have maybe avoided the pitfalls of Christina's all-encompassing song, and the only other thing I could come up with was Suede's “The Beautiful Ones”(1996), which connects being beautiful with reckless behaviour and thus kind of makes being beautiful an undesirable state to be in (Just as Thomas More suggests in his 1516 book “Utopia” to use gold for lavatories in order to reduce its desirability for showing-off-purposes).

Yet, also this song does not solve the problem – because by saying: Look, being beautiful is not desirable anyway, aren't you implying “Look, you're not beautiful, but don't bother – you don't want to be either!”

Finally, I could have perhaps also just stuck to one of the endless poetic variations on the eye/heart-controversy. The Lebanese American Poet Kahlil Gibran says, for example: “Beauty is not in the face – Beauty is a light in the heart”  – of course, once again, if I would have said that, I would have run into pitfall of implying that she's right with her wrong assumption that something's wrong with her facial skin.

So, I finally understand why people are willing to sacrifice their beautiful, unique wrinkles – even if they don't have any! – in favour of expensive facial creams that give you a standardized look. In a world governed by uncontroversial small-talk, topics of conversations need to remain at the surface of things in order to ensure that nobody risks anything and that you can instantly fake-smile at any comment. Thus also the accompanying small-talk-assisting products need to remain at the surface – for example at the skin surface. Delving into the deep beauty of the poetry of Christina Aguilera, Suede and Kahlil Gibran is way too risky for small-talk. And yet, doing so not only would reduce world-wide expenditures on anti-wrinkle-facial creams., but it also would make work conversations less boring.

Have a beautiful week,


PS: I feel a bit sorry for Uruguay after their defeat against Germany after a dramatic match last week. However, in the arena of pop music, they clearly are on the winning side: Here's the cleverly composed “Clara” by the band No Te Va Gustar (“You won't like it”):