Fairy-tale princesses and Olympic fakes

Cinderella was a money-grabbing trollop who used her looks to weasel her way up the social ladder. Or she was just a lucky kid who got the ”hot” genes, the kind that sculpted a face which would catch the eye of the most powerful guy in the room. Either way, her glorious visage got her a seat in the royal throne room.

But the insinuation throughout the fairy tale is that the petite-footed, flaxen-haired, cinder-streaked bombshell was as flawless in moral fibre as she was of feature; that she was virtuous and pure and thus worthy of being fairyland’s first lady. Her gnarled, stout, ugly sisters were the exact opposite, the embodiment of everything that is mean, wretched and evil. They were as dreadful in character as they were in countenance.

Strange, to appropriate the Leo Tolstoy quote, this lingering illusion that beauty is akin to goodness. More surprising still that it should come through in the Chinese politburo’s reasoning for why part of the Olympic opening ceremony was faked earlier this month.

You’ve probably been following the unsightly blemish on the otherwise glowing veneer of this extravaganza: performed for 91 000 people in the Bird’s Nest stadium and the rest of the viewing world, the neatly choreographed spectacle needed the voice of an angel to deliver Ode to the Motherland. But it needed a face to match the voice.

Seven-year-old Yang Peiyi, the diminutive songbird who got the gig, didn’t quite fit the politburo’s idea of classic childhood beauty. Her voice stayed, but the rest of her was replaced on stage by nine-year-old Lin Miaoke — a pretty little thing with perfect teeth, a chiselled chin — who mimed her way blemish-free through the song.

”The child on camera had to be flawless in looks, in her feelings and in her expression,” event music designer Chen Qigang told the press when the fakery was uncovered.

Huh? Not only were Peiyi’s crooked teeth and podgy face not cute enough to be the cover girl for China, but somehow reflected an inner turmoil too? And, by extension, Miaoke’s sculpted loveliness was the epitome of tranquillity in the soul? What utter codswallop.

Evolutionary psychologists have pieced together a theory about why beautiful people seem to have it easy. Not only do good-looking faces trigger the reward centre in the brain of the viewer, according to the journal Annual Review of Psychology, but they bring about bonding in same-sex relationships and trigger sexual behaviour. Most bizarre of all, though, is that the owners of these faces draw ”positive personality attributes” as a result, literally reinforcing the stereotype that ”what is beautiful is good”.

Someone who has this kind of face might elicit more positive responses from the world in general, while an uglier person may not. And I suspect both pick up on these subtle cues and respond accordingly.

Years ago I pointed out to a handful of men who were drooling over a Cher music video that not much of what they were seeing was real. Impressive though she may look at 62, her body has been nipped, tucked, sucked and ironed out. Her skin has been edited with make-up and stage lighting, her public image deliberately crafted.

”Ah, that’s just sour grapes,” one of the chaps barked back meanly.

True, I don’t have the face of a mermaid and my waistline is more like that of Cinderella’s chunky sisters. But to say that a critique of the status quo is sour grapes merely dismisses the intellectual and emotional processes that a woman might go through to understand how she fits into the world around her — particularly when so much of that visual world is informed by manipulation in magazine design studios and Hollywood trickery.

What makes a woman attractive is how feminine her face looks — and that’s probably linked to fertility. When a woman has high oestrogen/androgen ratios, says Australian psychology professor Gill Rhodes in the above article, her body is more fertile. Her face is also more feminine, with fuller lips and smaller jaw.

Fortunately, though, this doesn’t have to define a woman for her entire life. As her fertile years wane, her feminine features weaken (I’m quoting Rhodes here, so don’t shoot me down). And it’s round about then that she’ll be judged less on her looks and more on her other attributes — her brain, wit, talents. Stephanie Vermeulen, author of Stitched-up: Who Fashions Women’s Lives?, pegs the age at about 35.

Good news for me — no more sour grapes. But not for Yang Peiyi, who still has nearly three decades of having to view the world from behind her ordinary, chubby face. But maybe, in that time, she’ll just work harder at reaching the high notes. Meanwhile Lin Miaoke will always be known as the kid who faked it.

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Leonie Joubert
Leonie Joubert works from Cape Town. Science writer: political-economy of climate change, the hunger-obesity poverty-paradox in cities, mental health Leonie Joubert has over 1355 followers on Twitter.

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