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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. 

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