Demi Moore, the limits of beauty + why Cleopatra was badass
I was skimming an article that claimed how the newly single Demi Moore has been partying with her daughter’s friends and chasing men half her age when I came across a quote from one of her alleged friends. It was something like:
“She’s going to turn 50 soon and has no idea what her life is supposed to look like.”
In these rapidly changing times, you could wonder if anyone knows what life is supposed to look like. On some level we’re all forced to wing it, creating and recreating ourselves and our ‘brands’ and innovating our way forward (or sideways or backwards before looping round again) into the rest of our lives.
Those who can adapt shall inherit the world.
People like to say that women have too many choices now, and get paralyzed and stressed and miserable in the face of them, and so blame the evils of feminism. I don’t think that’s true. I think women can choose to be traditional (marriage, kids) or trailblazing (anything else, including the attempt to combine marriage and motherhood with a career).
Once you step out of the “traditional” life script, there are no clear models to follow, which is why it’s so easy to think that we’re fucking it up (or fucking up our kids).
You have to see it to be it, but trailblazers can only “see it” in their heads.
You can look to other women as heroes, but every woman is piecing together her own idiosyncratic path that usually has to weave around and through the paths of others (spouses, children, aging parents).
Being a trailblazer is difficult. You’re always rebelling against some aspect of the status quo. You invite all kinds of criticism. You wrestle self-doubt on a regular basis. You have to juggle twenty different balls at the same time and damn, do you get tired. Etcetera. It’s easy to retreat into fantasies of a golden era (such as before feminism) when these problems didn’t exist and everything was rainbows and unicorns and fairy tales ending happily ever after. (Cause that’s what life was like back then. Right?)
Maybe that’s partly why the Hotness Olympics have such a fierce hold on girls and women. When so much about the kind of life that you’re “supposed” to have is unclear, the one thing that is crystal-clear is how much society rewards and valorizes good-looking people.
(So much so that career counselor and noted blogger Penelope Trunk in her Blueprint for a Woman’s Life advises women to get plastic surgery.)
If you make yourself as hot and sexy as possible, if you manage to finally lose those five pounds and go to yoga everyday, if you hold onto your youth long after your actual youth has passed, then you win, right? You get the prince and he loves you forever and everything comes up roses and unicorns and disco balls and cute happy children who always say please and thank you.
I live in Los Angeles, in a social milieu where Botox and plastic surgery are the norm. But when everybody competes according to the same beauty standards, everybody starts to seem, with varying degrees, the same. It’s become very clear to me that the Hotness Olympics are rigged. There are no winners, because even the winners don’t win. In the words of Michelle Pfeiffer, who would know: “Beautiful women get used a lot.” They’re commodities. They’re interchangeable. They have an expiration date.
Which is why the kind of trailblazing I would like to see more of is the rejection of the Hotness Olympics for erotic capital.
EROTIC CAPITAL: The Power of Attraction in the Bedroom and the Boardroom is the title of a book by Catherine Hakim. However you feel about her central message, the book recognizes – in a way that the Hotness Olympics do not – that attraction is multifaceted. Hakim breaks erotic capital down into six components, and physical beauty is only one of them. Even this definition of ‘beauty’ makes allowance for something other than genetics and plastic surgery:
“The French…speak of the belle laide…the ugly woman who becomes attractive through her presentational skills and style. Getting fit, improving posture, wearing flattering colors and shapes, choosing appropriate hairstyles and clothes – such changes can add up to a completely new look.”
The second component is sexual attractiveness, which is separate from beauty:
“….sex appeal can also be about personality and style, femininity or masculinity, a way of being in the world, a characteristic of social interaction. Beauty tends to be static and is easily captured in a photo. Sexual attractiveness is about the way someone moves, talks and behaves…”
The third component is
“definitely social: grace, charm, social skills in interaction, the ability to make people like you…want to know you and, where relevant, desire you…”
The fourth component is
“liveliness, a mixture of physical fitness, social energy and good humor. People who have a lot of life in them can be hugely attractive to others – as illustrated by those who are “the life of the party”…”
The fifth component is
“social presentation: style of dress, face-painting, perfume, jewelry, hairstyles, and the various accessories that people carry or wear to announce their social status and style to the world.”
(This component – otherwise known as personal style – is my favorite. I am fascinated with it.)
And the sixth and last component is
“sexuality itself: sexual competence, energy, erotic imagination, playfulness, and everything else that makes for a sexually satisfying partner.”
All six elements combine into someone’s “erotic capital”: a mix of aesthetic, visual, physical, social and sexual attractiveness to other members of your society in all social contexts. It includes skills that can be learned and aspects of your personality that can be cultivated, like intelligence and joie de vivre. If you lack in certain areas, you can actively develop other areas to compensate.
As Diana Vreeland once put it, “You don’t have to be beautiful to be wildly attractive.”
I am fascinated by the great courtesans and seductresses of history. Ellen T White refers to them as “sirens” who are “irresistible.” Not to everybody, necessarily. Certainly not each person every time. “But a Siren’s batting average is very high.” And in books like Katie Hickman’s COURTESANS or Eleanor Herman’s SEX WITH KINGS or White’s own SIMPLY IRRESISTIBLE, a theme that emerges over and over is that true Sirens set themselves apart and make the world take notice through the force of their personalities. They are defined not by physical beauty – in some cases they were actually rather plain – but by “unshakeable confidence.”
“Be she a kook, character, sexpot, intellectual, muse, mother, or moll, the Siren lives large. Each embraces life in her own way and is determined to live it as thoroughly as possible.”
White also says:
“In fact, let me go out on a limb here: being physically exceptional can sometimes be a deterrent to becoming a world-class Siren…Being beautiful is too easy. Everyone naturally gravitates toward beautiful people; consequently, beautiful people are rarely forced to spend any time or thought on becoming magnetic people or in calculating how to get what they want.”
(This reminds me of an incident at a black-tie fundraiser when an acquaintance of Adrien Grenier told me, rightly or wrongly, that “Adrien has no game.” I retorted, “Adrien Grenier doesn’t need any game.” “So if he ever does,” my friend said, “he’s in trouble.”)
Cleopatra, for example, knew the power of spectacle. She also knew exactly whom she wanted to impress. She smuggled herself into a heavily guarded palace and dazzled the great military strategist Julius Caesar; she sailed up the river Cydnus in a pimped-out barge, dressed as Aphrodite, reclining under a canopy of gold cloth while boys dressed as Cupids cooled her with fans, and dazzled the hedonistic and sensualist Mark Antony.
Cleopatra is not reported to have been particularly beautiful.
She was just badass.
White breaks the “siren” down into five archetypes: the Goddess, the Sex Kitten, the Companion, the Competitor, and the Mother.
(The funny thing was, even skimming the descriptions, I could recognize several of my female friends.)
Instead of traipsing off to the plastic surgeon for a new nose, women should, according to White, recognize which of the archetypes predominantly represents their own personality and play up the strengths and advantages: in other words, to become more of what they already are.
There is so much more to life than being desirable. Then again, we are biologically wired to want the kind of attention that just might deepen into love: so we can band together against the world with all its pitfalls and predators; so we can survive, thrive, and procreate (or not).
“What scares me,” Demi Moore told Harper’s Bazaar magazine, “is that I’m going to ultimately find out at the end of my life that I’m really not loveable, that I’m not worthy of being loved. That there’s something fundamentally wrong with me.”
When she collapsed in a Beverly Hills bungalow, according to People’s assistant managing editor Kate Coyne, she “was so frail and gaunt that some of the paramedics who arrived actually thought that she was a cancer patient who was in the final stages of treatment.”
I saw Demi and Ashton Kutchner at Chateau Marmont once, years ago, and what surprised me was how small she was: this quietly lovely woman with long dark hair who seemed to disappear into Ashton’s larger broader presence.
This is a woman who was the highest paid actress in Hollywood. Married to movie stars. Known for her beauty and fabulous body and seemingly unending youth. If life for women is a beauty race – and so many people will tell you that it is – Demi Moore won, and won big.
How did we get to a place where being intensely desirable went from living large and having game and embracing life with unshakeable confidence, to being mistaken for a cancer patient?
How can we get someplace else?