If you have ever experienced a striking sense of visual boredom while looking at popular culture, which seems to embrace a more stringent homogeneity in the human form with every passing year, this week has has provided some blessed, if minor, relief.
The ESPN Body Issue has arrived on stands, and with it, a celebration of strength rather than ornament in the human form. And John Legend released his video for “You & I,” the latest in a long tradition of clips in which artists argue for an expanded standard of beauty. Taken together, the magazine and the short clip suggest a new framework for how we talk about body and beauty images, and what it might actually mean to shake up our sense of what it means to be attractive.
The thing that is striking about Legend’s video is that it suggests that that beauty is not a thing you either are or are not, but a quality that is available to everyone.
Twelve years ago, when Christina Aguilera released her video for “Beautiful,” the message may have been one of self-acceptance, but director Jonas Åkerlund cast actors for the clip who still met fairly conventional standards of physical attractiveness. The video’s brave gay couple and quiet drag queen, the blonde anorexic and black girl struggling with fashion-industry beauty standards, and the mohawked punk on a bus all share sharp cheekbones and dramatic lips. Even a heavier bullied girl and a young boy who hopes to gain musculature are clearly headed for blooming futures.
The clip for “You & I,” by contrast, sets a more genuinely broad standard of loveliness.
The women in the video have vitiligo, Down syndrome and scars from breast cancer surgery. They are very young, with fresh beauty that has nothing to do with sexuality, and much, much older than the 42-year-old cutoff that Esquire suggested for female attractiveness this week. They are beautiful when they get their ears pierced and when they break their noses in a roller derby.
Legend has gotten a great deal of deserved credit for casting Laverne Cox, who yesterday became the first transgender person to receive an Emmy nomination, in the video. But his decision to include comedian Tig Notaro, a lesbian comedian and breast cancer survivor, in the clip is just as worthy of mention.
While Cox has encountered plenty of ugly reactions as she has become increasingly prominent, her beauty is relatively conventional and feminine. Celebrating her ability to achieve that ideal is wonderful, but it does not exactly present a challenge to those ideals. Including Notaro’s sharp smile and more butch presentation in the mix makes “You and I” more genuinely expansive than it might have been otherwise.
A similar expansiveness explains the reaction to the nude picture of Texas Rangers first baseman Prince Fielder that adorns some covers of ESPN’s Body issue.
“This isn’t the tight, sparse body of the romantic leading man, perfectly calibrated to be just lean enough to reveal the twin crevices leading from his hips to inside his perfectly tailored pants,” Leigh Cowart wrote in Deadspin about the furor over the image, which has inspired both hysteria about the state of Fielder’s stomach and sensual admiration. “And yet, Fielder has the audacity to suffer no apparent distress due to his size, and even goes so far as to seem smugly pleased with himself.”
This is what a real blowing up of body standards looks like. It is not a matter of adding one more characteristic to the list of things that it is acceptable to find attractive, one more bra, dress or inseam size, or five more years of age to the range of what is considered beautiful. Rather, a revolution is a person who looks nothing like what you have told yourself you find desirable and who evokes lust or admiration in you anyway.