Images of beauty bombard us. From the moment we wake up and put on our make-up (as Aretha Franklin so eloquently put it) until we go to bed at night, pictures of painted faces, glossy hair, bodies of all shapes, sizes, colours and ages pop up on Instagram, fill the pages of magazines, beam through our screens, and dress blank spaces in museums and galleries. But how often do we consider beauty from an intellectual point of view? Pull up a chair, make yourself comfortable, and read these excellent books which in different ways, challenge our obsession with physical perfection and pose guilt-free, sometimes complex questions to make us re-evaluate the way we think about beauty.
SHOULD YOU EVER CHANGE THE WAY YOU LOOK TO FIT IN WITH A NEW CULTURE? Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
In Americanah the brilliant Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie looks at beauty through the lens of a Nigerian woman in America. Leaving her home country where racism just isn’t an issue, our heroine Ifemelu suddenly becomes aware of her race and how notions of beauty differ. She starts to dislike her hair and envy that of “the olive-skinned Venezuelan with corkscrew hair that fell to her shoulders, the white girl with waves and waves of russet hair”. Hour-long sessions at hair-braiding salons and the application of countless hair products and straighteners ensue, to the point where “her hairline shifted backwards each day”. Ifemelu’s hair becomes the very symbol of her Africanness, one which she spends hours trying to erase. Clever, funny and sad. All at the same time.
4th Estate, £8.99
WHEN DOES VANITY BECOME NARCISSISM? The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
The ultimate book on the idolisation of youth and beauty, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray deals with the cost of an obsession with aesthetics. The young and beautiful Dorian Gray enters a Faustian pact in which his painted portrait ages rather than himself. A titillating idea, isn’t it? Things don’t turn out quite the way Dorian was expecting but I won’t spoil it by saying how. Wilde wanted to challenge Victorian ideas of moral restraint and the consequences of denying ourselves pleasures in life. Famously, Wilde was a subscriber to the Greek hedonistic ideals of living until his scandalous trial and imprisonment. By far the darkest of Wilde’s writing, but still with his trademark caustic humour.
Wordsworth Editions, £2.50
CAN YOU BE A FEMINIST AND STILL LOVE LIPSTICK? The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women by Naomi Wolf
If you are in an intellectual mood, Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women from 1991 is still a relevant, clever and thought-provoking book. The Beauty Myth is the idea that as women’s power increased so did the social pressure to adhere to unattainable beauty ideals. Wolf argues commercial forces in our society encourage women to be on a continual quest to become slimmer, smoother skinned, better dressed and look younger, through the endless consumption of clothes, make-up and plastic surgery. Guilty as charged? An eye-opening read.
Vintage, £11.99 (or shortened version £4.99)
ARE THE BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE STILL BEAUTIFUL WHEN YOU SCRATCH THE SURFACE? The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst
The shamelessly decadent Thatcher era is the setting for Alan Hollinghurst’s Booker Prize-winning The Line of Beauty. Our gay protagonist Nick Guest moves into the lavish Notting Hill home of his Oxford student friend Toby Feddens. Toby’s father is a wealthy, up-and-coming Tory politician with his eyes on a Cabinet post in Thatcher’s government. Surrounded by beautiful people and things, Nick is swept up in a world of excess and opulence, but underneath the veneer of perfection lurk unfaithfulness, the threat of AIDS and moral rot. A book that perfectly captures the seductive power of beauty and the mood of an era.
WHEN IS MAKE-UP, ART? Validated: The Makeup of Val Garland by Val Garland
There’s nothing conventional about celebrated make-up artist Val Garland or her book Validated: The Makeup of Val Garland. Using faces as canvasses and make-up as paint, Garland bends and twists our notion of beauty in extraordinary ways. What struck me with Garland’s work is the feminine power it conveys. Capturing it all are photographers such as Mario Testino, Nick Knight and Sølve Sundsbø. Garland walks us through her career in stunning images and entertaining text. Don’t expect to emerge from a session with Val with your eyebrows still intact. Anything goes as far as make-up is concerned. Icing sugar? Pencil shaving? Elastic bands? This is what make-up art looks like.
AT WHAT AGE SHOULD YOU NOT WEAR A BIKINI ALL DAY LONG? I Feel Bad About My Neck and Other Thoughts On Being a Woman by Norah Ephron
Finally, don’t miss Nora Ephron’s hilarious and delightful I Feel Bad About My Neck and Other Thoughts On Being a Woman. The American screenwriter (When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle) knew a thing or two about turning tragedy into comedy and in her mid-sixties wrote a blisteringly honest book about ageing. Grey hair, moustaches, turkey necks, divorce, it’s all here. Ephron doesn’t believe in upbeat books about old age. “Why do people write books that say it’s better to be older than to be younger? It’s not better.” Humour, on the other hand, might do the job. I can guarantee you’ll feel better after laughing your way through this book.
Black Swan, £8.99
Julie Hoegh is the founder of the book blog Bookstoker.com which recommends the best literary fiction, classics, non-fiction and children’s books.