Thursday, September 1, 2011
I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got: Sinéad O'Connor and the Beauty Standard
The first time I saw Sinéad O’Connor, in 1990, I was in awe. I watched her stark video for “Nothing Compares 2 U,” struck by both her voice and her presence. She looked at us unblinkingly from those enormous eyes, her shorn head serving only to emphasize her delicacy, her voice like blown glass daring us to really listen. I loved the song, but more than that, I loved her presence: She seemed steadfast and self-possessed but fragile. Her talent shone, of course. But so did her beauty.
When reader Jeremy tipped me off to recent press about her appearance, I prepared to be dismayed. Over the 22 years since her first album was released, she’s done what plenty of people do: She’s aged (she’s 44), had children (four of them), continued to speak out for causes she believed in (most notably the decades-long concealment of child abuse within the Irish Catholic church), and struggled with mental health issues (she tried to commit suicide at 33), all while continuing to perform and occasionally record. And, like those of us who are not paid to stay ageless, her looks have changed over the years, prompting some media outlets to joke that “Nothing Compares 2 Her New Look.”
I’d say I’m displeased by how she’s been treated in the media, but the fact is the media I consume has been treating her with the care and thought her career deserves. Salon points out that we can’t expect celebrities to remain untouched by time, calling the initial hubbub over her August appearance her “latest shocker”; The Hollywood Reporter asks us to “leave Sinéad alone” and reminds us that she was a singer who rose to fame because of her talent and outspoken views, including a rejection of the beauty mold: “Should a singer who used her window of fame to highlight discomfiting political opinions as well as bringing hauntingly personal songs like ‘Troy’ and ‘Three Babies’ into the musical canon really be judged by the same harsh standards that are common currency for actresses and reality TV stars?” Yes, her appearance prompted some snark—but do we really expect better from TMZ, or even abcnews.com, which was less poking fun at her and more taking the chance to put together a celebrity slideshow they knew would garner page views? Even the reviews that questioned her looks made it clear that her voice was still splendid, and the Telegraph captioned the accompanying photo with “Comfortable in her encroaching middle age,” which, while focusing on her looks, also communicated that her looks weren’t to be trashed, but instead were something that happens to most of us. It almost seemed like a compliment.
So I’m actually pretty pleased overall with the way that the media has been examining O’Connor. But besides the general questions that can be applied to female celebrities pretty much across the board—for starters, why we expect singers to be professional beauties, and why we expect famous people to stay forever preserved in youth and then mock the ones who do stay preserved for not “aging gracefully”—it seems like there’s something else that made us want to take another look at O’Connor, something that makes us rush to defend her, that makes even vicious sources us a bit hesitant to rush in for the kill. (TMZ, hardly known for being gracious toward its subjects, called her “softer” and “matronly” instead of flat-out “fat” as it has for other celebrities, including Janet Jackson and Britney Spears.) And that something else is her long-standing tussle with the beauty standard.
A shaved head on a woman was incredibly transgressive in 1989 (and still is a decided act against the beauty standard), and to see it on a conventionally beautiful woman at first seems to be even more transgressive. But it’s easier for us to embrace a woman rejecting the beauty myth as long as she’s still conventionally beautiful—in part because we still then get to focus on the way she actually looks, not what she is actually saying. O’Connor’s shaved head was a rebellion against the beauty standard—but an iconic one, made so because she met the beauty standard in so many other ways. If she had been more ordinary-looking but still had a shaved head, she may have met with some success because of her talent, but would we have watched—entranced as she looked directly into the camera, telling us that nothing compares to us—if she hadn’t had those enormous eyes, that delicate nose, those beautifully defined lips that stayed beautiful even as they snarled with hurt? (It’s also worth noting that while she did reject the beauty standard, she was far from eschewing it altogether: Like virtually every woman in the public eye, she wore full makeup during her performances—possibly dictated by her publicity team, but still a nod toward understanding that capitalizing on her looks would benefit her.)
Much like how Gloria Steinem was a convenient poster girl for feminism because of her conventional good looks (which brought its own criticisms, but undoubtedly it did something to help make feminism more palatable to the masses), Sinéad O’Connor could speak to the part of us that wanted to shirk the beauty standard but still reap a few of its benefits. Hell, enough with “us”: She spoke to that part of me.
When I first discovered Sinéad O’Connor, rejecting the beauty standard hadn’t occurred to me in the slightest. I was deep in the awkward stage, and the beauty standard was something I was eager to jump into headfirst. So when I saw the video for “Nothing Compares 2 U,” in addition to liking its simplicity and the song itself, I danced on the edge of awe and something approximating irritation. Here she was, born with the chiseled features and elfin frame I was lacking, and she was rejecting her rightful status as the pretty girl by shaving her head? Frankly, I was little annoyed, as though by all rights the beauty she was rejecting should somehow be channeled to a certain 13-year-old instead of merely wasted—which is, indeed, how I saw it at the time.
With time and political consciousness, my baffled state morphed into admiration. Actually, it morphed more into just fandom: I no longer looked at her as the extraordinarily pretty woman with the unfortunately shaven head, but rather as a singer-songwriter who had some subtle yet ferocious work out there: I still get chills when I even think of the sweeping violins and shattering vocals on “Feel So Different,” and “I Want Your Hands On Me” is one of the sexist songs in existence, for my money anyway. In short, I started to see her how she probably wished to be seen.
Now, if I’d been 31 instead of 13 when I first heard O’Connor, I might have seen her more in that light to begin with instead of taking the more circuitous route—being in the “awkward stage” can dictate some acrobatic thinking in regards to looks. But I’m also pretty sure that by virtue of being a mainstream entertainer who was bucking the beauty standard, Sinéad O’Connor was initially seen as the beautiful bald chick by a lot of people, not just confused adolescents. Somewhere between the dulling of the novelty factor and the infamous Pope-picture Saturday Night Live appearance, we moved past that, but her looks became an integral part of how she was seen.
And, of course, that hasn’t changed. It hasn’t changed for her detractors, who sneer at her rounded belly and ask what happened to the waif we first eyed more than 20 years ago. But it also hasn’t changed for her supporters, I don’t think. I felt indignant when I first read about the criticisms of her current appearance—forgetting that I was reading those very criticisms in a piece that was saying that the criticisms were inappropriate. My anger stemmed not from what anyone might be saying about a singer-songwriter I like but had largely lost track of, but from reactions to someone I’d held up as a model of how to buck the beauty standard. And the sting was made worse by the fact that I too could look at the recent photos of O’Connor and see not the defiant beauty of 1990 but a normal-looking woman with an unflattering haircut and odd clothes. I’d never criticize her looks (or anyone’s, for that matter), but I saw what her detractors were saying, and it felt frustrating. An icon for rejecting the beauty standard had moved into the arena of having it reject her, insofar as it rejects any of us who don’t fit the mold of being thin and white with doll-like faces.
I had to admit that there was a part of me that continued to get a deep satisfaction from seeing a conventionally beautiful woman buck the beauty standard—as though somehow it means more for Sinéad O’Connor to shave her head than it would if someone with unremarkable bone structure were to do so. There was a part of me that still wanted that sort of trailblazing protection from a standard-bearer: Look, I did it, it’s okay for you to do it too.
And I know better. I know that the beauty standard has little to do with what any individual woman looks like and more to do with how women as a class are seen. I know that while the struggles of a conventionally beautiful woman may on the surface differ from an average-looking woman or a homely one, they’re all masks covering the same core. That doesn’t mean I don’t fall for it. I tend to make minor heroes out of women of all stripes who actively work against the beauty standard—and there’s a part of me that gazes on conventionally beautiful women who do so with the inverse of an old woman’s cluck, “Such a pretty girl, would it kill her to put on some lipstick?” I think, Such a pretty girl, good for her. In other words, I’ll see her first as the pretty woman with the shaved head, and only later will I learn that the girl can sing. I’m holding onto the beauty standard in a different way than the architects of society—but at the end of the day, I’m still putting a prize value on it.
Appearance obviously the first thing we see about people, and I can hardly reproach myself for noticing Sinéad O’Connor’s looks. It would be disingenuous to claim that the goal is to somehow see through someone’s looks, to peer into their soul—which can happen with people we know to varying degrees, but really not with celebrities, with whom we form relationships based largely on static images. But I can wonder what it means for women, and for the power of beauty, when I narrowly manage to skirt falling into the mainstream beauty standard trap we set for women, only to find myself in a more benevolent version of the same contraption.