Review: “Beauty and the Beast”, first episode

Beauty and the Beast (subtitled “The Ugly Face of Prejudice”) is a series on Channel 4 about our attitudes towards those with facial disfigurements, and seems to be based on getting people with beauty obsessions to meet with those with disfigurements. The first episode sees Leo, who was badly burned in a fire when he was 14 (he is now 59) and has obvious scars on his face, although it is of a fairly normal shape, meet Yasmin, a “beauty addict” who is determined to get plastic surgery as she is unhappy with the way her body looks. There has, of course, been some controversy about the title; it seems fairly obvious that the “beast” bit obviously refers to the disfigured person, even if they use the excuse that it refers to the beauty industry. C4’s disability director wrote this piece on the Guardian’s website last year, when news about the upcoming series began to surface with the expected criticisms.

As I said, I’m not convinced by the excuses. Channel 4 has a long recent history of commissioning sensationalist freak-shows such as Big Brother, and regardless of the content, the title seems to have been chosen to attract controversy. I wonder how many of the disfigured people knew what the programme was going to be called before they agreed to take part. Anyway, the first episode saw Yasmin try to convince Leo, who has very strong views against what he regards as frivolous cosmetic surgery by people who do not need it that she has good reasons for wanting to change her body.

Her beauty régime takes two hours each day, or forty days a year, which includes hair extensions, masses of make-up, a fake tan, and ends with spraying hairspray on her face (which she admits has the disadvantage of sometimes going in her mouth and not tasting very nice), to keep her make-up in place. Leo also has to put some sort of ointment on his own face, but this is obviously to do with his scarring. Yasmin is actually not bad-looking, albeit a little bit chubby, but some amount of talking reveals that most of her body image problems are to do with her breasts, which are substantial and have led to her suffering sexual harassment from men since her teens. By the end of it, she seems to have decided againt most of the cosmetic surgery she wanted at the beginning, other than the breast reduction surgery.

Something the programme did not really acknowledge, though, was that Yasmin’s beauty régime was only a slightly more extreme version of what a lot of women do in the morning anyway. Although some men do wear some make-up, and those who go on TV for a living often do, the vast majority wear none at all, and men’s grooming takes a good deal less time and money than most women’s. My complexion as seen on the street is the same as it is when I get out of bed in the morning (obviously my hair is a bit tidier), but that’s just not true of many women (particularly white women; I can’t talk about others). Some women talk of “putting on a face” when they apply their make-up, because it makes them look quite different to how they really look.

The programme treated Yasmin’s make-up rituals as an aspect of her particular body-image problems, and made a big deal of getting her to appear in front of Leo without her make-up, but many women would not appear in front of anyone they didn’t know well without it, and I expect this included the women that were involved in making the programme. I kept saying to the TV, “she’s a woman, of course she wears make-up”. This oversight aside, it was quite a well-made programme and showed the two of them coming to a kind of medium; he softened his harsh views on cosmetic surgery, while she realised she didn’t need so much of it, and they didn’t have any huge rows on screen. It was a more pleasant watch than the very ugly title might have suggested.

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