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Wednesday, October 12

3 Bellezas or how we mirror our own beauty

My Chinese roommate tells me she has to finish her graduate degree by the end of summer and marry while still in her ''golden years''. I know she is twenty-three but I do not know what time span this specific syntagm refers to. I am told it is her early twenties and that her social clock is ticking. She spends a great deal of time and effort on looking impeccable every single day. Beauty is her main asset and the best way to lure the perfect man into her arms. She puts on make up slowly around the eyes on a satisfied smile. She does not have double eyelids. She is safe from painful, expensive plastic surgery and she won't get blind in old age. She shudders when she is reminded of decrepitude. I follow her tiny, alabaster wrist as she gracefully brushes off invisible layers of sparkling powder. She looks back at me in the tall mirror and a little crease insinuates itself between her almond, contact-lensed eyes. 'You still look good for a white woman your age.' The age factor fails me and with no wise reply on my part, I just smile, check my watch and run for the shuttle.

Once I get on campus, I head straight for the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures. There is a Spanish Film Club Festival running for two months and I am bent on doing whatever it takes to watch the movies. It turns out it only takes an exchange of polite emails with the head of the department, a very responsive person I am bound to meet eventually. She leaves the DVD with the Administrative Assistant, a smiling, dark-faced woman that has a desk full of miniature elephants, all trunks up and facing east for good fortune. I watch the movie in a cubicle on the first floor of the campus library. The air in the little room is stuffed and somehow I get claustrophobic tingles down my spine. It keeps me away though from the rather noisy entrance area. From behind the glass, people seem to come and go with catlike tread.

Today I am watching 3 Bellezas (3 Beauties), a satire on Venezuela's obsession with beauty and pageants and the way they are a symbol of class and social status. I know this is the country of telenovelas, filled with amazing female bodies and passionate love affairs. Back home, all the women in my family would not lift a finger or dream to do anything on the evening their favorite telenovela runs. If you are not part of the intrinsic conversation related to the twisted narrative, you are not allowed to say a word. This is a world for connoisseurs. However, this is hardly some artificial studio-shot modern Cinderella story. It is rather a slap into the heavily cosmeticized face of the international beauty industry that causes pain and self-doubt. 

Imagini pentru 3 bellezas

A former beauty queen, Perla, mother of two girls and a boy, uses her talent as a seamstress and her income to turn her daughters into future beauty pageant stars. Nothing stays in the way of success: the ten-year-olds are given valuable advice on how to throw up after a good meal, wear heels and shake their behinds, allow older men to get their hands on them for the sake of glory and surround themselves only by other useful human beings. In this world, men - the brother Salvador included - are mere accessories, either absent or later on, cold bastards looking for sexual favors. An accident nearly kills the elder daughter and throws the mother on the way of redemption and religious practises. A different god, much greedier than the one of the flesh takes charge of their lives. It is another manipulative, money-oriented petty world where the body as the vessel of the Lord is a source of exploitation. 

The mother has a change of heart and starts dreaming about beauty competitions once again. Her daughter, Carolina, is bound to become Miss Republica. The other daughter, Estefania, and the son are neglected and left to beg for the mother's attention. Love and desire pull Carolina from the anticipated path and one sister replaces the other. In their pursue for fame, sibling rivalry blossoms and reaches unexpected heights. The movie turns into a dark comedy with horror accents that sharpen the satire and cast a gloomy light over an industry thriving on female body exploitation. 

In a broader sense, the mother is a symbol for dictatorship whereas the children stand for the oppressed and manipulated masses. Power over others and the prospect of glory and admiration lead to desperate actions. Behind the mother's desire to control the lives of her children lies a mountain of frustration and unfulfilment. It is a more comical, more flavored, noisier reminder of Pedro Almodovar's The Skin I Live In and the pursuit of eternal beauty. The extent we are willing to go to be able to like our mirrored versions is incredible. The pleasure we take in having endless pairs of eyes swathe our bodies gives the highest boost to our vanity and goose bumps to the skin. It has ceased to be a personal choice, a reflection of low self-esteem only, it is a cultural thing that defines not only beauty but the female body as well. The movie ends in a spectacular manner, reiterating the vicious circle of vanity and obsession where the mother stands dehumanized, a mere tool of fabricating glamorous outfits for the future Miss Republica. Indeed, princes do not exist but they are pale imitations of genderless crippled princesses.

Outside the cinematic frames, in real world Romania, young women spend time, money and energy on a pair of full lips or a busty figure. They waste their time in the tanning salons and at the hairdresser's, constantly looking for ways to embellish, improve and reinvent their bodies and confidence. It is hardly a matter of choice, it is the exposure to the mediatic abuse that keeps distorting the standard of beauty. Raised in a communist time, when television was only two hours in the evening and some extra more at the weekends, having no access to glossy magazines and the industry of stardom, I grew up unaware of such struggle in a time when social connections meant spending time in the library or in the park rather than twitting on the computer. 

On the contrary, my younger Chinese roommate would hardly ever consider taking a photo without an Adobe Photo shop touch. The multitude of her social devices enlarges her human experience to the point of annihilating any shred of self-consciousness. Inside this virtual world of perfect skin and well-shaped eyelids, she stands a mutant version of a prefabricated concept aimed at commercializing human needs. Throughout cultures, the concept of beauty raises questions about personhood, specific conceptions of the body and power, with little focus on its humanistic approach. To me and her, this is but another thing that sets us apart. I am at ease with the way I look and take little interest in the matter, whereas I feel she is using such artifice to get social recognition. I am curious on how she would feel about 3 Bellezas and the characters' extreme pursuit after a beauty ideal. In the movie, the mother's struggle did not point to her desire to be assimilated to a group or get a collective identity. It rather showed her own insecurity and idolatry for the female body in the cultural context of beauty pageants. 

To me, physical appearance is culturally minimized though I am aware of the current trends in beauty standards in my own society. Such intense preoccupation is substituted for other more or less personal meanings. What I find fascinating about my Chinese roommate is not her seeking after a degree meant to define her social status and reflect on her marriage pursuance; it is this interplay of technology and appearance and the conviction that modernization can also alter her body to perfection. 

Back to the apartment, I find her standing in a perfect piano-playing pose, nibbling on a perfect bowl of immaculate rice. Her thin fingers carefully play the chopsticks with the same deftness she sweeps primer on her delicate jawline. She turns around and smiles a twenty-three year old smile that mirrors back on her innocent freshness. I feel a sudden urge to smudge her finished make-up and at the same time, give her a close embrace. Instead, I am left to wonder about the choices behind my pursuing this graduate degree and how beauty was never one of them. On second thought, I am after a certain kind of beauty that lies under the skin of fleeting human encounters. 

Thursday, August 18

The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan or my kind of gal

Marina Keegan had just graduated from Yale when she was killed in a car accident. She was 22. Her collection of nine stories and nine essays became an instant success. It had to do with her being young, pretty, maybe having an introduction to the book written by her professor. It had to do with the reading world being sad that such a sensitive, profound, promising writer ceased to exist before having a chance to grow into a mature tamer of words. Tragedies of this kind strike the world in any field, age range and family. Why should this particular book be any different?

It is the message, the honesty, the language and the fabric of her writing that get stuck with the reader. It is probably a youth manifesto for all the 22 year olds feeling at a loss and at the same time, on top of the world -such an intoxicating contradictory feeling replenishing the hearts and minds of young men and women and other readers emerging in her writing. Still, the loneliness of nights spent in front of computers, roaming streets or staying awake, tired and lost, might ring a bell to many others past their college years. After all, we do live in an age of misanthropy, estrangement, isolation, constantly trying to redefine and challenge stereotypes and gender patterns, in an attempt to reconcile with ourselves and the outer world. 

We do not have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that's what I want in life. 

It is touching how such a young person could be pointing to the meaningful questions and striving to find balance in her existence. In her writing, she did it by depicting and analyzing the small things, the insignificant details and the way she made sense of the world. The big questions and the right answers were sieved through the mind, sensitivity and courage of Marina. I found especially interesting the way she talked about all these Yale graduates full of ideals and big dreams that ended up chasing big checks on Wall Street. Where do we lose our innocence and how do we preserve our inner passions? It is saddening to have such a young woman point to the harsh truths we seek to elude daily. How do we juggle with the priorities, the responsibilities, the love and the reason and still find kindness, first, towards ourselves and then, to those around us? 

I am always moved by such kindness. Especially the reflexive, genuine tender-heartedness of strangers- a mere display of the desire of human connection that goes beyond race, religion, gender, and ethnicity. For Marina, we are all an abundance of people, all in this together. Too short and never too late are another important aspects of her writing. Life comes out as too short to waste energies and wither over trivial matters and it is never too late to make amends and start fresh. Such over used, langue du bois that pushes us farther from the essentials and such an easy way to discard people and chances. Still, inherent to human nature and to the vulnerability we choose to cover from intrusive eyes and minds. 

It is quite hard not to lose the sense of possibility. Most of the times, it just lies there buried under piles of comfort and adjustable pieces of truth we tell ourselves. We stand prisoners to our anatomy and biased views, trapped inside glass houses. We fear the thickness of the walls when in fact, our chains are gossamer and our eyes are blinded by too much light. Outer light when in fact, we need to tunnel out our inside sparkle. 

Tuesday, July 26

Stranger things binging and chocolate revival

When in-between worlds and milestones, binging on Netflix goodies and rediscovering chocolate is way too good to be true. And yet, I have proudly done it: watched the first season of Stranger Things and ate Romanian pecan and ginger chocolate. 

The series is a mixture of fond 1980s film and book memories, a dazzling cocktail of Spielberg, Stephen King, and Carpenter, back when we shared low expectations and tons of enthusiasm. It is indeed a kind of nostalgia approach meant to manipulate and conquer, yet it stands the kind of guilty pleasure you indulge into without any shred of remorse. It is appealing and challenging, a display of good acting, unexpected talent and excellent storyline. Without spoiling much of its ambiguous, yet twisty plot, I'll tell you it feels great to be surprised every now and then by some sci-fi and horror series.

The chocolate is a discovery of mine while taking the less trodden paths in a beloved city, searching for good coffee and getting in exchange great flavors. The bar is called PaulaAna, pecan nuts and ginger with a shred of bourbon vanilla and 34% cacao. In case you have not tried pecan nuts, you have missed on some balanced kind of nut that goes perfectly with candied ginger. They fill the bar in generous chunks and again, seem to get vanish in no time, lingering against the roof of your mouth and at the back of your mind. It brought back to mind old chocolate days and I shuddered at the thought of such addiction mercilessly replaced by coffee drinking. But I choose to believe chocolate is like old love, out of sight, forgotten to taste buds, yet hardly unremembered. Until new love settles in, right?

The lovely book of choice, meant to balance things and harden the spirit, is The Lonely City by Olivia Laing, a journey into the great minds of artists who have come to terms with their estrangement from the world or chosen to filter it through their own sensitivity. We stand alone, occasionally colliding with ourselves and the ones around, the perfect gregarious recluses we afford to embrace.