Coco’s Blog: Immaculate Complexion

Madonna and Jesus Luz in W Magazine’s editorial Blame it on Rio, photographed by Steven Klein

You’re not getting any younger. It might be important to add that, in fact, you’re only ever going to get older. So if that’s true — and if that’s true for everyone — why is it such a struggle? My sister, ten years my senior, once told me that eventually, everyone has The Year. It’s the year you realize you’re aging; you actually see it in the mirror. For some people it comes earlier, for some later, but it happens. Last year it happened to me.

I’d always been cavalier about aging. It seemed pointless to rail against something inevitable. There was no way to know the evidence of it would throw me the way it did. I’d always loved to see other faces carved with the character of time and experience, but seeing the change in my own was jarring. I didn’t feel any different, my life was as disorganized as ever, my future as uncertain, but suddenly it was as though my corporeal self was pushing on without me. It was the sensation of lost time. My first, absurd reaction was to try and go back.

Don’t believe everything you see. It might be important to add that, in fact, when it comes to fashion images, you should believe even less. Most of us have seen the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty video documenting the evolution of a fashion photo. In the world of Photoshop, age has no dominion. But if we all know this, why is it so easy to believe the lie?

A couple of days ago I was browsing my favourite fashion website, foto_decadent, and found an editorial with Madonna and the lately-famous Jesus Luz. In it she plays the quintessential cougar, perfectly glamorous and impeccably dressed, surrounded by half-or-totally undressed young men vying for her attention. It’s racy and suggestive — but no more or less so than most of what’s out there. She looks perfect. But attached to the bottom of the post was a link to another site with a much more interesting shoot. Madonna un-shopped.

Madonna by Steven Klein for the new Hard Candy album

After seeing the second shoot, the first one started to look ridiculous to me. Madonna is 50. In the retouched photos she looks beautiful but not real and, to be honest, nothing special in terms of fashion imagery. In the untouched ones, she is actually sort of astounding. To think that is what 50 could look like is incredible — and possible. All of these images are meticulously designed visual projections of our desires and ideals. Wouldn’t it make more sense to have a vision of ourselves we could work towards instead of against?

And this is where the discussion began. I sent the links to the WORN girls and asked their opinion.

Why are we so afraid to let beauty be human?

7 thoughts on “Coco’s Blog: Immaculate Complexion

  1. I’ve been working on a project that’s involved talking about style with all types of women — women in their 30s, 40s, 50s who are either involved with fashion, or consider themselves artists (poets, writers, etc.).

    One women in particular commented about how when you age, your style changes. Your skin becomes more paper-y, you have to be ‘strategic’ in what you wear (ie. donning sleeves, etc.). But she didn’t talk about how these constraints were limiting, but rather embraced how it changed/developed her style. She liked how her tastes had become more classic, and she found her self becoming more preoccupied with accessories — Nancy Cunard-like cuffs, heavy African beaded necklaces. She thinks it’s kind of hot if you have grey hair to wear grey. (Warning: I’m para-phrasing a lot of our conversation.)

    Anyways, I don’t know why I brought this up to begin with, but I get excited about these inter-generational dialogues around aging that’s not as superficial as a Vogue Aging Issue. Nonetheless, I find incredibly re-assuring to know that Madonna’s stomach has rolls and her eyes have bags and her skin looks a little peachy-even with the freckles? Not that pale white.

  2. I just find it interesting that my immediate reaction is to enjoy seeing Madonna in little suits and gloves much more that when she’s being “provacative” with Jesus (loved his tatooed name btw). I get that part of the storyline is that she’s toying with her sense of innocence vs. the idealized sexiness of youth (or somethin), but seeing her grownup and fabulous, in a fitted suit is so much cooler to me. –anyway, just mean that I think what Rea said about adapting your style with age is an interesting concept, in that, can one surmise that adapting rather than rejecting your age is always more flattering? And is even asking that question inherently ageist?

    I also noticed that she looks very alert in both sets of photos, and although she is obviously presenting that she comfortable with herself, it made me almost uncomfortable to look at them, because she never seemed wholly relaxed. I wonder what that is about.. could be part of why-we-hide-humanizing-things question, because it takes so much more energy to be defensive? (I’m really not sure though…. ?

  3. As a 48 year old woman artist (jewelry design) I was interested to see this topic.

    Over the years, I’ve watched my body and my face change. There has been good and bad in this. On the plus side, my hair (which I wear long) turned a beautiful silvery-gray about 6 years ago. I get all kinds of positive comments on it. This never really happened when my hair was just dark brown. Most of the comments come from women around my own age, all of whom seem to color their hair. One woman even admired my “courage” to keep it natural. It is a sad comment on our culture to think that it requires courage to be youself.

    The main downside to my age related changes is that there are lots of cute little fashions that just don’t look right on me anymore. The spirit is willing, but… I have found that,like the woman Rea interviewed, accessories have become more and more important to my style.

    But, hey ladies, have fun with fashion and style, and ALWAYS have the courage to be yourself no matter when you fall on the age spectrum.

  4. You know, this reminds me of how I felt when Madonna first appeared with major plastic surgery, about a year or so ago. I’m sure she’d had stuff done before then, but it was when she appeared with the cheek filler/implants and her face looked noticeably different — you know, sort of lion-like and even Jocelyn Wildenstein-esque. I remember my immediate gut reaction to seeing her was disappointment. It was like, if Madonna of all people can’t figure out how to challenge people’s attitudes toward female aging in the mainstream, then who will? (I guess that depends on one’s perception of Madonna, but I always had some degree of respect for her and felt that, despite her pretentiousness or salaciousness, she understood how she was manipulating images much more clearly than most pop culture figures. Also, I love Truth or Dare!) I dig these photosets and the way she continues to play with sexual authority and dominance and I think her maturing age adds a nice extra layer to those themes of authority, but I still can’t help feeling sort of the same way as Gwen — why can’t we just see her being human? I do sincerely prefer the un-shopped pictures, and I think she could be totally powerful in her public aging (and let’s face it, even without the surgery and photoshop, she’s not exactly a representative of “natural” aging anyway). I guess it’s a lot of pressure to put on one person, but I think that somehow I’d always just assumed that she would be in-your-face and unapologetic about aging and sexuality; I think on some level I actually was looking forward to what she’d do. So to have her take the same obvious route as so many others was a disappointment. I know that many academics would likely find a totally different angle to take on her surgery, and they’d be right to point to the double-bind for women in western culture, but honestly, for me it just feels like some sort of contrition and that bums me out.

  5. I was reading this article (–nearly-killed-says-Ashley-Pearson.html ) a few days ago. This reporter worked with Madonna’s trainer for five weeks and found it totally unbearable. As I was reading it, I kept hoping that she would address how crazy it is to put yourself through so much effort and exhaustion all for the sake of a body that then gets photoshopped anyway. Instead she concludes that we should have more respect for Madonna because she works incredibly hard for her body. While that’s true (the amount of exercise she does is pretty admirable), I have a really hard time with the idea that our bodies (and aging) are things we are supposed to have to fight, or hide.

    Madonna does look amazing. A lot of that clearly comes from serious hard work – but she wouldn’t be any less amazing if she didn’t have abs of steel. But, because I have no idea what it’s like to be fifty, I know that’s a lot easier for me to say than it would be for me to experience.

  6. Well Coco, I had to give it a few days before I could comment on this as I must admit—had I not seen the leaked raw photos of Madonna I would have received my issue of W and thought, “Oh, another nice Steven Klein spread of Madonna being her usual self with her boy toy minions.” However, since seeing the raw photos of Madonna, I couldn’t help but compare this shoot to the Chuck Close photos of Brad Pitt for W’s February 2009 issue. Close was quoted as saying, “You can’t be the fair-haired young boy forever.” Apparently, the same is not true for the fair-haired girl.

    I don’t know whether Madonna or Klein wanted the intense airbrushed look for the spread, but she looks beautiful to me either way. The public has been unduly critical of her in this respect; I don’t think the average person realizes just how much ‘shopping goes on in the industry. Even your Vicky’s Secret catalog has been immaculately retouched so there is nary a thigh dimple to be seen. I must admit, I probably would have studied the photos more intently if they had been less processed, but I know W has been criticized in the past for “harsh” looking photos of women of a certain age.

    As far as Madonna’s choice to try and preserve her youth, I wouldn’t begin to judge another woman who is determined to take aging on face first. Now in my 40’s, I have definitely felt the pressure to ‘maintain what I have’ and am beginning to understand the meaning of the concept, “I feel bad about my neck,” in a way that I couldn’t have imagined ten years ago.

    I would have liked to see Madonna and Klein push the boundaries a bit more given that Madonna is not a model, she’s a cultural icon. We’ve come to expect reinvention from Madonna and this was definitely a rehash of old and in my opinion, tired, concepts.

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