Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Is beauty really pain?

It’s an idea women have been conditioned with since the time they were little girls: If you want to look beautiful, you will bear the pain.

I remember being a student at the University of Toronto and having to trudge through the cold winter nights for my evening classes. I would be layered up like the abominable snowman’s wife because of the cold. But it was never the idea of beauty that remained at the forefront of my mind; it was practicality and my desire to stay warm.

During those same months I remember watching international students – mostly women – who, in the same frigid temperatures would wear heels that were five inches or higher, stockings and a thin jacket with not much else. They would walk and they would fall. But they would get right back up and continue to walk... and fall. I never understood what went through their minds… until I spent a year in Seoul, Korea.

I spent a lot of time in the city with my eyes glued to the ground. Not because I was shy or because I had a serious case of the ‘I can’t make eye contact with you’ syndrome. It was simply more fascinating watching feet in that country than it was to watch faces. On any given day, regardless of whether was snowing or sunny, you were guaranteed to find a plethora of heels (or keels, as they called them there… ‘killer heels’) hitting the pavement.

Now, for anyone that’s visited Korea, you’ll know that it’s anything but flat. Regardless, women would march up and down roads in shoes designed for European runways, and not the winding, uneven streets of Seoul.

I always argued that heels before breakfast never made sense (unless of course, you still had them on from the night before), so catching on to this fascinating idea of fashion was quite eyeopening.

With this information in hand, I took a chance and quizzed some of my female students on their reasons for donning these beautiful torture devices from sunrise to sunset, with no breaks for sneakers or flats.

“If you didn’t have to wear your uniform, what would you wear?” I asked them.

“Teacher! Skinny jeans, hoodies and keels,” they replied, almost unanimously.

“Why? They're so painful!” I said, face scrunched up for emphasis.

After looking at me with blank expressions, like I was the strange one in the room, one girl simply said, “But it makes women beautiful. And that is a good thing.”

For beauty, they were willing to bear the pain. And while most women pick up on this with time and age, these youngsters we exposed to the cardinal rule of fashion from the time they were tots. The obsession with long legs isn’t simply directed from men to women anymore. Women inflict this upon themselves, even when no one expects them to.

So the next time you ride the subway or find yourself in a public space, drop your gaze to the floor, and have a look at what people are wearing. Practicality overshadows beauty in Canada, so you may not find the keels I saw on a daily basis. But you might better appreciate living in a society where sneakers and flats before sunset are not only accepted, but also encouraged.

Note: originally featured this article on their website.

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