Friday, October 14, 2011

Vampires and Impossible, Timeless Beauty standards

'IMG_0321' photo (c) 2006, Joy - license:

When vampires first entered folklore they were physically described to look like bloated leeches. When you think about this, it makes perfect sense because their entire diet is based on drinking the blood of others and the creature most associated with that in nature is of course a leech.  Overtime, vampire folklore began to change.  The modern vampire looks nothing like its predecessor. Today, vampires all have hard lean bodies, twinkling eyes (that is when they are not glowering and trying to look dangerous) ridiculous hair (think R. Pratz in Twilight) and are disarmingly gorgeous. This is true of both male and female vampires.  With few exceptions, like vampire Eddie in True Blood and Tony, in Karen Chance’s Cassandra Palmer series, no matter how long they have been alive they are gorgeous. And those vampires that aren’t thin are clearly not intended to be beautiful.

In Twilight, Meyer went to the point of saying that vampirism brought out the most attractive physical aspects of the individual in question.  Even Edward’s smell was designed to attract Bella, though his superior speed and strength made such enhancements unnecessary. In the movie Interview with the Vampire, Claudia’s change occurred on screen, and she went from a dirty waif, to a gorgeous girl with beautiful curly hair. It has been suggested in several vampire novels that for the purposes of creating new vampires, only the most physically appealing are chosen. The problem with this assumption is that beauty standards change over time - so whether vampires are chosen from beautiful people or simply transform to become beautiful, that beauty ideal should become out dated with the passing years.

Even the richest human alive 500 years ago would look nothing like the poorest human today.  Slim vampires make absolutely no sense because the height of beauty is what we would today describe as plus sized.  Women were celebrated for being round and having curves.  This symbolised the wealth to be able to eat full meals. In Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare wrote, “My beauty as the spring doth yearly grow; My flesh is soft and plump, my marrow burning.”  I have read and watched a lot of urban fantasy and I cannot think of a single fat female vampire.  

Like beauty itself, the idea of what is pleasingly plump has changed constantly over time. For both men and women, observes art historian Anne Hollander, rotundity was considered appealing from roughly 1500 to 1900—presumably because girth was equated with health and affluence. Botticelli's exquisite Birth of Venus, painted circa 1480, has a slightly unseemly heft by modern standards, but she's svelte compared with Rubens's Three Graces of a century and a half later, who resemble Roseanne Barr in concert with the voluminous 1980s singing duo Two Tons of Fun.
...Asked whether she was happy, one Connecticut cutie of the late 1800s was quoted as replying, "Oh! Immensely! I have gained 18 pounds in flesh since last April." (link)
It was not until the 1960’s and the commercial success of Twiggy that skinny became the new the thing.  By 1967, Twiggy had modelled in France, Japan, and the U.S., and landed on the covers of Vogue and The Tatler. Her fame had spread worldwide. This of course is specifically because for the first time in history, poor people started getting fat because high fat, high sugar foods were cheap and readily available.  Weight then became a symbol of poverty and today the rich head to their trainers to ensure that they are fit and thin. 
Despite living the life of a warrior, Eric of True Blood is absolutely gorgeous. It would stand to reason that a Viking would have lead a hard life, thus leaving his body with visible evidence of his time, but this is never referenced in any descriptions regarding the popular viking. 

In fact, the number of vampire male warriors in Urban Fantasy is extremely common - True Blood’s Eric is a viking and a warrior. Bill a Confederate soldier  on the US civil war - he was actually changed as he left the battlefield starving and in rags like many Confederate soldiers. Unlike Eric, Bill had to explain to Sookie why he appears to look older than thirty - the age he was when he died. In Being Human, Aidan is a soldier form the American war of independence and when we consider the living conditions, and the fact that medical care was basic to say the least, the fact that he has no physical signs of his former human life is ridiculous to say the least. In The Vampire Diaries Damon was also a soldier in the US civil war. In Chicagoland Vampires Ethan was a Swedish soldier and in Jeaniene Frost’s Night Huntress series Bones, while not a soldier, was a convict labourer deported to Australia

None of these men have scars or missing limbs/ears/eyes - or the marks of privation that often came from being a soldier with camps rife with disease and malnutrition (even as recently as World War 1, a third of combatants died of disease rather than fighting).

Even without warfare, disfiguring diseases and privation were not uncommon -  Vampires from this time would often have far from flawless skin. Both disease and famine, as well as dangerous beauty practices (women were known to use lead based paint to achieve an alabaster appearance however this often lead to skin discoloration), can leave permanent marks and scars which we often do not see in the modern day western world but would not have been uncommon in the eras when these vampires were alive. In most of the genre, vampires heal quickly and are immune to disease, but these vampires were warriors before they were turned (and most of these characters, male and female, were alive in these often difficult times) - but carry none of the marks of their mortal lives.

While we’re talking about physical ideals and history, we have to talk about teeth. Modern dentistry is, well, modern. All these vampires run around with all their teeth - and all those teeth being perfectly straight and white teeth. While the blackened, rotten teeth we all imagine probably didn’t exist except in places and classes that could have easy access to sugar (though even then, access to sugar caused many Tudor monarchs to have terrible problems with their teeth), it remains that, if your vampire beloved was born several centuries ago, that toothpaste advert smile is probably not on the agenda

And, on a more snarky note, we have to talk hair. Yes, hair. On many occasions vampires seem to be frozen at the moment of transition. Their hair and bodies returning to the state they were at the instant of becoming a vampire. Imagine the horror, the utter dire horror, of spending an eternity with a mullet haircut. This is probably why we never see any vampire that was created in the 1970s or 80s - the possibility of those hairstyles being preserved for all time simply caused them to be wiped out by their fellows.

But even aside from dodgy 70s hair or big 60s hair, there’s been a lot of hairstyles over the years - from regency curls, to muttonchops and handlebar moustaches - or tomorrow’s ancient vampires with soul patches or a Bieber cut for that matter - but most vampires seem to be blessed with coiffures that fit the modern ideal.  Many noble women shaved their heads bald in favor of wigs because they found it easier than attempting to bleach their hair blonde or red and, in Elizabethan times, those that did have hair often shaved the front part to make it appear as though they had larger and broader foreheads. The only time we’ve seen anyone concerned with ensuring appropriate eternal hair was in Ann Rice’s Queen of the Damned, when Maharet turned Jesse she prepared her by doing things like cutting her nails and ensuring that her body had the best possible physical presentation before turning her into a  vampire.

All of these vampires present an impossible aura of perfection - that these beautiful beings have to be physically perfect and flawless. And they have to be perfect and flawless no matter where they came from, what their origins or what they endured - they are still physically flawless, without what our modern sensibilities would consider blemishes or a less than ideal beauty.. In Lyndsay Sand's Argeneau series, the vampires are essentially beings from Atlantis that are in many cases hundreds if not thousands of years old and yet they all meet modern day appearance standards and are understood to be physically attractive. 

Not only is this aura of perfection impossible (or, at very least, highly improbably), they present this perfection as timeless. By having a 300, 600, 1,000 year old vampire be perfectly beautiful by today’s beauty standards, we deny beauty standards as a societal construct. We deny how transient, subjective and, yes, faddish and fashionable, beauty standards are. We imply a state where beauty has always had the same form - whether it was 4 years ago or 4,000 years ago. And by doing so, we give these standards and authority and a strength they do not deserve - which only adds to the damage they do.