What makes you beautiful?

I hate having my photo taken. I’m one of those people who either comes up well in a photo or very badly; if I have warning then I’m okay, but if you spring it on me I end up looking like Quasimodo. It’s worse at Christmas; there’s always some party to go to or family coming round, and there’s always someone with a camera lurking around waiting to steal my soul.

A lot of people feel like that with photos, but I probably take it a step further… what’s interesting though is that most people seem to come up better when it’s a spontaneous photo than when they’re posed. Catching someone in a moment just makes them seem more natural and it’s closer to the memory we want to keep.

I’ve been printing some photos for a friend over the last few days and the same thing’s true again. There are over 160 photos and most of them have come out well, but the ones which are stunning were all taken when they didn’t know they were being photographed. There was one photo of a couple of my friends that just jumped out at me; it’d be impossible to make them ugly but it seemed to capture the smile in their eyes, and that’s how I’ve always known them. None of the other photos caught that.

You often hear people say that it’s what’s on the inside that makes someone beautiful. It’s said so often that it’s become a cliché, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. When I think of beauty I don’t usually think of someone’s appearance… well, that’s not quite true. My first instinct is to look at that, if they’re presentable, attractive, but I’m more interested in their personality and who they are. I think someone can be very attractive but not beautiful. Someone who is a racist or have repugnant ideas could be the most fair person in the world but would still be undesirable and ugly in a much worse way.

That’s one reason I don’t like it when people say someone is sexy. Certainly someone can be sexy and it can be a compliment, but I’m not a fan of how it’s overused; sexy, sexed up, I find that’s more about lust and desire than anything empowering. Hearing that governments “sexed up” reports just sets my teeth on edge. I guess I’ve always thought of beauty as what we represent as a whole, while someone’s attractiveness (or sexiness) is more related to their appearance.

Those photos seemed to capture that beauty; more than just the appearance, it caught the light in their eyes, a smile, a laugh… it transcended the rest. Unfortunately it doesn’t work for me, but I think those kind of photos definitely seem to cast most people in a good light.

What all this makes me wonder, though, is how do we define beauty today? Has it changed, the definition evolved? I think the way beauty and sexy are used interchangeably now suggests that it has. One example would be Maxim’s recent list of the world’s 5 unsexiest women; Sarah Jessica Parker came first. I still don’t understand that. Maybe Jessica Alba is the current It Girl, but I don’t find SJP unattractive at all. I think there’s something to be said for having a little elegance and class; calling her horse faced is just cruel.

But that’s part of the culture we live in now. Appearances matter more than ever and our definition of beauty is skin deep. As long as we’re presentable and look a certain way, then someone will like us enough that we’ll feel good about ourselves…

I wonder what you think. How do you define beauty and looks? What makes you beautiful? I’d be interested to find out. 😉

Love and marriage


Cartoon from Make4Fun.com

Just been reading this story out of Germany from a few days ago, where a German politician has proposed limiting marital vows to seven years. Supposedly it’s to make marriage more accommodating and would avoid the seven-year-itch, but as you can imagine it’s garnering all kinds of criticism from conservative and family groups.

At first it struck me as a publicity stunt, but the more I think about it the more it seems like quite a gutsy suggestion. There’s no doubt that the way we look at marriage has changed in recent years; with 34 per cent of marriages in Australia and 50 per cent in the US ending in divorce, fewer people are placing an emphasis on marriage. I wouldn’t say I agree with Gabriele Pauli, but it’s making people think and talk about marriage, and that’s a good thing.

My main problem with the idea is that it could give the impression that commitment is something to be treated lightly; if you think you’re only committing to a person for a given period of time, can you truly invest yourself in that person? And what happens if you agree to a seven year licence and find you don’t want to renew it, but have children in those seven years; you don’t have a messy divorce, but emotionally is it really any different to the scenarios we have now?

I think a lot of the problems we have with commitment stem from this perfect ideal we set for our partners that they can never live up to. You hear this idea of “The One” pop up in movies and TV and real life; a person has to look a certain way, be a certain height. They have to match this idea we have in our heads before we’ll even consider them as a partner. But that doesn’t mean they’re the most compatible person for us; once the early attraction wears off, we find ourselves in a relationship that isn’t sustainable. It’s this idea that we have to be swept off our feet, our heart has to stop and we feel light-headed and in luuurve. Sorry, that’s not love – that’s a myocardial infarction. We’re dooming our relationships to fail before they start.

But I suppose it’s understandable we’d want to be cautious as well; we’ve seen our parents, siblings, friends go through the pain of a separation or a bad break-up; we want to be sure the person meets our standards so we won’t make the same mistakes. And maybe that’s why this idea isn’t such a bad one. It’s not romantic but if two partners know the prospect of a messy divorce doesn’t apply but still have the option of a lifelong partnership, I can see that leading into an increase in marriages and a change in how we look at our prospective partners. It also wouldn’t be replacing traditional marriage as such, just offering another option, so I don’t think it would devalue marriage as much as some are suggesting.

It’s probably ironic that Gabriele Pauli is a two-time divorcee, but you could say that’s given her the inspiration as well. I’m torn on it myself, but I am glad something different is being suggested. I’m part of the generation that’s somewhat jaded with marriage; I’ve only ever considered myself to be in love once and to be honest, I don’t see myself getting married. I don’t define myself by who I’m with; if it happens, great, but I’m not looking for it. And I know there a lot of other people who feel the same way I do. What’s happening is that we’re defining what marriage means in the 21st century, to a generation faced with debt and climate change. I think it’s good that conversation has started.

Anyway, I wonder what you think? Is the idea of lasting love a thing of the past? Leave me a comment and let me know. 😉

Let's talk about sex

I’m not enjoying writing at the moment. I don’t know if I’d call it writer’s block but I can’t work out where to go with Shards at the moment. It’s been a year since I finished the first draft and I’m still doing rewrites. The main stumbling block’s been getting my head around some of the themes, but recently there’s been another problem. The direction of the story has changed a lot and it’s causing a conflict for me with two of the characters.

They were going to be my star-crossed lovers, to borrow Shakespeare’s phrase, but in rewriting it their story has become less of the focus. Now I’m not sure where to go with it. The romance is still there but it’s not as important; I could cut it out, but the story would still lose something. Or I could keep going with it, but I’m worried it might seem exploitative… like the only reason it’s there is to follow formula.

Maybe I’m making too much of it, but I don’t want it to be one of those books where the dynamic just doesn’t feel right… particularly the sex. We’ve all read those books which seem hollow or have sex for sex’s sake; if you’ve read I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe you’ll know what I mean, and I still don’t know what Robert J. Sawyer was trying to do in Humans (a human and a neanderthal, WTF?). Writing sex scenes always makes me uncomfortable but the challenge is finding an aspect in the scene that affects the greater story… without the preceding scenes here, I’m not sure I can.

Anyway, while I’m working that out, it’s brought up an interesting topic. We’re a highly sexualised society, but we still rarely seem at ease with our sexuality. We watch sexy movies, read juicy novels, but do we talk about sex itself? Perhaps amongst our closest friends, but beyond that it’s usually awkward and behind closed doors; likewise we’re still uncomfortable with public displays of affection. It’s strange that sex can be seen as such a commercial entity, yet still remain something of a taboo as well. So when does marketing sex go too far? When does it become gratuitous?

I’m not sure myself. I was trying to think earlier of books/writers I’ve read that have used good sex scenes and I can’t think of many. Maybe Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, Bear’s Darwin’s Radio… Bret Easton Ellis and Neil Gaiman for giving scenes an interesting dynamic. And of course DH Lawrence. But overall I don’t think many writers write sex scenes that well or realistically. Most scenes seem to be either lyrical and wafty or anatomical and overly detailed. I know Laurel K. Hamilton’s are dull and don’t interest me much; in a vampire novel, that’s not a good thing. There’s even an award for it – The Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Award.

A lot of sex scenes seem distant and it’s strange really that they’re presented in such a detached way; sex is such a natural part of our lives, you’d think writers would want to explore it in a more satisfactory and natural way. But maybe a realistic sex scene is almost impossible to write because it’s something words can’t adequately describe; it destroys the illusion, the feeling. A sex scene can be funny, awkward, escapist, but can it be interesting if it’s made to seem too real? Perhaps not; then it just becomes voyeurism.

I’m not sure I’d agree that writers include sex scenes purely for saleability or formula, though; I’m sure some do, but I’d hope that most still consider it a part of the story and the development of the characters. For that matter, I’m yet to see evidence that you need to have sex in a book for it to be marketable; for any books that don’t sell, it probably has more to do with plot and pace than whether or not the characters shagged on page 180.

There’s been a lot of fuss made over David Duchovny’s new series Californication recently and that sort of plays into this as well. Californication is an adult sex comedy, something of a throw-back to the ’70s movies like Shampoo, and it’s been garnering criticism for its content; one columnist went so far as to call network executives pornographers, while some conservative groups are calling for a boycott of sponsors who advertise during episodes. Personally I find the controversy bizarre. Certainly Californication is not to everyone’s taste, but I don’t see what the networks have done wrong; over here it’s on at an adult-only time and each episode has an M/MA rating. It’s not for children and no-one’s suggesting it is; it’s probably not even appropriate for some adults. But we’re a democracy, aren’t we? If you don’t like a show, turn it off – seems like the ultimate form of free choice to me. What I’ve seen of Californication is actually quite interesting; yes, there’s sex and drugs and nudity, but beneath it is a story about a lost man trying to get his family back. The writing’s sharp and at least it’s something other than reality TV for a change.

Californication definitely markets itself on its adult content, but I don’t think it crosses the line in to exploiting it. This website, though, has to cross that line. It’s for a German company that has created a new cosmetic fragrance for men called Vulva Original. It’s marketed as “the erotic, intimate scent of an irresistible woman… a beguiling vaginal scent”. Um, what? This has to be the most bizarre product I have ever heard of. Just who would be interested in a product like that? And for the love of God, why? It would almost be funny if it wasn’t so gross.

But it’s an example of how an entire industry has evolved around our fascination with sex. Some of it is part of a healthy sexual appetite, but then you get something like this or the rise in pornography; you could argue that it doesn’t hurt anyone but look at Maddison Gabriel being named the face of Gold Coast Fashion Week – she’s just twelve. It sexualises her to adults and surely must be going to mess with her head later on. But it creates publicity and so it’s achieved everything the organisers wanted.

And that brings us back to this idea of marketing sex. As a culture we’re fascinated by sex, so it’s inevitable that that fascination would be exploited. The simple truth is sex sells and companies, writers, directors, musicians use it for marketability. The real question is how far is too far? Something like Californication is pushing the boundaries; I think something like Vulva Original has gone way past them.

For writers, though, I think it’s fairly simple: if you aim for the characters and story to change though the scene, you’ve done your job. And I guess that’s what I’m trying to do with Shards… so I’ll probably keep those scenes. Now I’ll just have to go back and finish it! 😉