The Blog

Beautiful? Damned?

So a well-known Sunday Colour Supplement has issued some good advice, this weekend, on how normal women can emulate 'expensive' beauty using products and procedures in their price-range.

So a well-known Sunday Colour Supplement has issued some good advice, this weekend, on how normal women can emulate 'expensive' beauty using products and procedures in their price-range.

It has made my weekend to discover that I can look better if I simply sleep more. Sleep, after all, is free, while premium night creams can cost over £100 for a bijou pot. 'If you're rich, you can afford to sleep,' the article proclaims - and there's the rub. What if you have lots to do and don't have 'staff' to attend to your affairs? What if you have work next day, stopping you winding down, or waking you daily, just before the dawn chorus? To get the expensive look on a budget, the article continues, we plebs should exercise. A sneakily undermining voice whispers between the lines that doing your best not to fall off the treadmill, or having a go at that latest exercise DVD while you try not to trip over the coffee table in your front room, somehow probably doesn't quite detox the complexion just as effectively as working out with a premium personal trainer. It's just a hunch.

Meanwhile, the latest American reality TV show, I Wanna Marry Harry, pits a dozen girls against one another in a series of fake dates and challenges to win the affections of... no, not of Prince Harry. Don't be so preposterous. To win the affections of an actor called Matthew Hicks, who looks a bit like Prince Harry. In a sort of farcical sub-Pygmalion conclusion, the winning would-be bride will have the chance to decide whether she'll date Hicks for real, even though he (a) isn't actually Prince Harry and (b) is, nevertheless, still ginger. Back in London, the tabloids are celebrating the perennial festivities of the real Prince Harry's love life: headlines like The Prince and the Showgirl belie the fact that his latest 'ex' is actually terribly posh, and just happens to have a degree in Modern Dance. 'What great ones do the less will prattle of', as Shakespeare puts it in Twelfth Night.

We love telling one another how we could do better. We appraise each other critically, commenting on a biscuit eaten here, too many pounds lost there, or sizing up each other's choice of outfit, holiday destination, light reading or television viewing. We all like to think we're somehow better than somebody else: the playground gangs of cool kids and teacher's pets translates itself into adult life, and nobody's any good unless they can be seen to be looking down on someone else.

But sometimes this patronizing commentary gets serious. The constant chorus of criticism becomes wearing, and sometimes those making it have power which makes it dangerous. A private school Headmaster was quoted recently as saying that state schools produce 'amoral' students, because in non-fee-paying schools, teachers are so busy trying to cover academic courses that they don't teach their plebeian charges right from wrong. As results days loom, the unfortunate, 'amoral' state sector can look forward to being told, scoffingly, that of course it doesn't manage to produce such splendid results as the private sector. It seems to echo Algernon in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest:

'Really, if the lower orders don't set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them?',

only without the irony. Perhaps those who set themselves up as being better are desperately trying to prove their superiority, just as those implementing the £600m scheme to provide free school meals for all children aged 4-7 have been learning that, delicious as the irony is, there really is 'no such thing as a free lunch' when it comes to trying to provide it.

Sometimes the advice gets downright dangerous. Sometimes the people who look down from their self-defined high ground make major decisions, and - quis custodiet custodios ipsos - nobody seems to check how sound these decisions are. They've informed us that they're better than the rest of us: who are we to judge? And thus it is that people who will never spend a day in a classroom make huge decisions, which will change everything for the pupils and teachers who will spend a lifetime there. Nobody would disagree with initiatives to make education better, and standards higher. But who would agree with school systems and syllabus decisions, aiming to enthuse and challenge many thousands of teenagers, based largely on the preferences of a few men who know better, without consulting those who'll do the work?

I'll never be beautiful. I'll never be posh. I don't have the time or the serenity for as much sleep as I need, and I don't claim to be any more morally perfect than anybody else. But it's not just sleep-deprivation which is making me really, really tired of how those who starve themselves of oxygen on the moral high ground, where they claim to live, are making unquestioned judgements, changing everything for everyone. And I don't think there's a free lunch or a quick cosmetic fix which could ever make that seem beautiful or right.