Impossible Beauty: Screwtape’s Cover Girl Message for the World

I’m sure these people exist somewhere in the world. But I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have body image issues. Certainly I don’t know any women who don’t admit to feeling inferior in the shadow of Cover Girl images. Men perhaps don’t talk about it as much, but I suspect everyone feels it to some degree. Man cannot live by tools alone, after all.

The “Real Beauty” campaign by Dove over the last decade has drawn out a conversation that people have been having for a long time. Videos like these are everywhere, including a more recent one on body photoshopping on Upworthy. But this is the one that caught me at first:

I’m sure we have all kinds of reasons to be cynical about this campaign. It is a bit rich coming from the sister company of Axe body spray, after all. But I think the point is well taken. It is one thing to live in a world where the elite are regarded so highly. It is another thing to live in a world where these elite fill our peripheral vision and screen time, lining every shelf at the grocery store and lulling the every moment of our attention into a standard of beauty that a very few can reach.

But that’s not it, is it? It isn’t just that Glamour Girl standards of beauty are elite. They are impossible standards, aren’t they?

We have the temptation to blame the media. And certainly contemporary media is uniquely capable of of resetting the standard for normal. The temptation would be to forget what drives the media: consumer demand. We know that these images are not real–or even possible. And yet we continue to support them.

Rihanna Cover GirlThe Cover Girl phenomena taps us into a deeper current. Check out this quote from The Screwtape Letters in 1941:

In a rough and ready way, of course, this question is decided for us by spirits far deeper down in the Lowerarchy than you and I. It is the business of these great masters to produce in every age a general misdirection of what may be called sexual “taste”. This they do by working through the small circle of popular artists, dressmakers, actresses and advertisers who determine the fashionable type….

Thus we have now for many centuries…. As regards the male taste we have varied a good deal. At one time we have directed it to the statuesque and aristocratic type of beauty, mixing men’s vanity with their desires and encouraging the race to breed chiefly from the most arrogant and prodigal women. At another, we have selected an exaggeratedly feminine type, faint and languishing, so that folly and cowardice, and all the general falseness and littleness of mind which go with them, shall be at a premium.

At present we are on the opposite tack. The age of jazz has succeeded the age of the waltz, and we now teach men to like women whose bodies are scarcely distinguishable from those of boys. Since this is a kind of beauty even more transitory than most, we thus aggravate the female’s chronic horror of growing old (with many excellent results) and render her less willing and less able to bear children. And that is not all. We have engineered a great increase in the licence which society allows to the representation of the apparent nude (not the real nude) in art, and its exhibition on the stage or the bathing beach.

screwatape sigThings have changed. We are past the age of jazz, I think. And the boyish figure will come and go in fashion. But some things never change.

It is all a fake, of course; the figures in the popular art are falsely drawn; the real women in bathing suits or tights are actually pinched in and propped up to make them appear firmer and more slender and more boyish than nature allows a full-grown woman to be…. As a result we are more and more directing the desires of men to something which does not exist—making the rôle of the eye in sexuality more and more important and at the same time making its demands more and more impossible. What follows you can easily forecast! (C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, Letter XX.)

The Screwtape Letters, written more than 70 years ago, is surprisingly relevant on this point. “It is all a fake, of course; the figures … are falsely drawn.” The technology has changed, but the sentiment that draws us into Cover Girl anti-spirituality never does. Some say it is the demands of advertising that makes “its demands more and more impossible.” It is probably true, however, that it goes much deeper into the human story.

Perhaps one day we will move past these deceptions. In the mean time we are treated to 31 impossible beauties as we buy milk and eggs.


About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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14 Responses to Impossible Beauty: Screwtape’s Cover Girl Message for the World

  1. Yup! My grandma has commented on how, growing up on a homestead in the early 1900s, she never really thought about whether or not she was good-looking. That would be hard to achieve today.


  2. jubilare says:

    I’ve been pretty content with myself for most of my life, but the result of that is not trying hard to look like the “beauty” in the magazines, and the result of that is to be apparently invisible. I confess, I have some bitterness in my heart because of that, though I am trying to let God bleed that out of me.
    We really do a number on each other with our expectations of appearance, and all the “beauty is only skin deep” rhetoric has an empty sound to it, though it is true. Beauty may only be skin-deep and fleeting, but it still effects how one is treated… and it seems being the standard of “beautiful” can sometimes be a far more horrible fate than being “ordinary,” or even “ugly”.
    The artist in me, and the part of me that appreciates beautiful things, is quite glad to see beauty celebrated, even if it is imaginary beauty. If only we could divorce the exploration and celebration of beauty from our expectations of each other. Therein lies at least part of the problem, I think.


    • Wow, you capture the tensions so very well!
      I love beauty and see it. I like the unusual and the plain and the intriguing…. But I still categorize beauty differently.


      • jubilare says:

        Aw, thanks! I like that you point out that this problem is not simply a modern one. It’s pretty obvious that we are meant to see and appreciate beauty. Like with most things we are meant to appreciate, though, we get muddled up in how that appreciation manifests and how it makes us behave. I wish I could say I’d gotten past the muddle, but the truth is that I am as far from it as most people. I know better, but knowing and doing are never quite the same thing, are they.


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  4. I am “blown away” by the relevance of this passage of the Screwtape Letters to our modern society. I have teen daughters now and so am sharply aware of the pitfalls into which they may stumble, not enjoying (or seeing) their youthful beauty, missing out on the unique and intense joy of growing into womanhood. Thank you for this post.


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