‘Beauty’ by Bri Lee

Non-fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 150 pages; 2019.

Earlier this year I read Bri Lee’s memoir Eggshell Skull, which was long- and shortlisted for many literary awards and was named Biography of the Year at the 2019 Australian Book Industry Awards. It is one of the best books I’ve read this year and will undoubtedly make my top 10 when I compile it in a few days’ time.

Beauty is Lee’s latest work of narrative non-fiction. It’s essentially a long-form essay, which was initially written as part of the author’s MPhil in Creative Writing at the University of Queensland, and has since been published by Allen & Unwin in an attractive small-format book with a striking cover image (the painting is by artist Loribelle Spirovski) and French flaps.

It focuses primarily on body image and the ways in which young women are conditioned to think that being thin is the only route to happiness and acceptance. It charts Lee’s own struggles with body dysmorphia and eating disorders (topics she also addressed in Eggshell Skull) and examines how her own obsession with thinness has eaten away (no pun intended) at her self-esteem and self-worth.

These issues may not be new, but Lee’s book is the first I’ve read that focuses on how the obsession with thinness as a beauty ideal has worsened in recent times thanks to the influence of social media. She talks about the need to be “photo-ready” at every minute of the day because camera phones are so prevalent.

Until the proliferation of smartphones around 2010, we would only feel conscious of being observed in scenarios that were laden with photo opportunities, but now, with social media being the omnipresent mass-reaching norm, we self-police in perpetuity.

She goes on to explain why young women now spend extraordinary amounts of money on make-up and take forever to “put their face on” and highlights how this peer pressure can cripple everyday decisions such as what to wear at work and play.

Admittedly, as compelling and as readable as I found this highly personalised essay to be, it did make me feel about 40 million years old. It’s clear from Lee’s experience that Millennials feel enormous pressure to be thin and that they associate this (wrongly) with being successful, beautiful and sexually desirable.

I grew up in the 1980s. Yes, there was pressure to be thin — mainly conveyed via airbrushed magazine covers — but our pop stars weren’t sexualised (Kim Wilde, my hero at the time, was always covered up in a white t-shirt, and Banarama often wore overalls/dungarees as if they’d just done a shift on a building site). Nor were we under the constant surveillance of social media where our peers could judge us instantaneously and so unkindly. We weren’t living under the weight of having everything we did (or said) validated by a “like” or “share” button.

Nowadays (how old does that make me sound, starting a sentence with that word), it seems that young women feel so little in control of any aspect of their life that the only thing they can attempt to wage war on is their weight and the way they look on Instagram. It just makes me feel desperately sad.

Beauty isn’t pitched at women of my age, but I think it is probably required reading for teenage girls if only to make them aware of the social constructs that can make their lives so miserable and competitive and psychologically damaging. Lee’s experience should serve as a warning that appearances are not everything…

This is my 25th book for #AWW2019.

7 thoughts on “‘Beauty’ by Bri Lee

  1. Yes, I’m showing my age too, when I say that I think this is so terribly sad. Feminists of my age always thought that being judged by appearance would soon be a thing of the past, and we never imagined that the ones doing the judging would be other young women.

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    • Yes, the judging element and the self-policing is quite hideous. I worked with many young women under age of 30 in my last job and it was eye-opening to see their obsession with looking perfect all the time. I’d turn up to work in jeans and a shirt, with just a lick of mascara as make-up, and I’m sure they all thought I was in need of saving 🤪

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  2. It’s a great cover, isn’t it. Somehow, third wave feminism – and no doubt its perversion by the advertising industry – resulted in young women being sexualised. My daughters are just a few years younger than you Kim, and my oldest granddaughter is 16, so I have been an almost constant observer of this process. Part of it of course is music industry videos back to a young Kylie, and Madonna’s Like a Virgin, in my mind anyway (not my music!). It’s all very sad and with boys being brought up on a constant diet of porn, has a long way to go.

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  3. Even more disturbing is that this consciousness of image is happening at a frighteningly young age. i keep seeing girls as young as 11 tottering around on high heels (barely able to walk), wearing more make up than I do.

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  4. You feel 40 million years old? I was growing up in the 60’s, and when I was in high school everyone’s ideal was Christie Brinkley or Cindy Crawford. Straight, blonde hair, whereas mine was dark and curly. I have come to adore it, even in its current natural (white) state. Somehow, I have. Turned the conversation to me when I meant to say what a fascinating book. Image, appearance, self-acceptance always intrigue me.

    And now, may I wish you a very Merry Christmas with many blessings in 2020.

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  5. Now that B22 and B19 have finished school and left home, I constantly feel a million years old, regularly reinforced by the young women I work with and the B’s comments about their lives that all sounds so alien and exhausting. Maybe our parents thought the same thing about us as we came of age in the 80’s with Madonna, Kylie, MTV and Rage?

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  6. Pingback: 26 books by women: completing the 2019 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge – Reading Matters

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