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BOOK REVIEW: Beauty by Bri Lee

| 25 June 2020 | Reply

BOOK REVIEW: Beauty by Bri Lee

Allen & Unwin
November 2019
Paperback, $19.99
Reviewed by Natalie Salvo

Non-Fiction Books / Literature, Poetry & Plays / Literary Essays

70% Rocking

Where Bri Lee’s debut book, Eggshell Skull, was a behemoth, her follow-up tackles a large topic. In Beauty, she grapples with society’s unrealistic pressures placed on women every day. Lee’s work is a worthy essay on a topic that could fill up several books and still only scratch the surface.

I didn’t realise how bad my disordered eating habits were until I finished the first draft of my memoir and found it pushing itself to the surface of every single chapter. When I was editing that book I tried to remove those segments, out of shame and embarrassment, but ultimately I put them back in, realising how important they were to a story that was so much about deciding my own worth in the world.

A lot of Beauty was written in the aftermath of the publication of Eggshell Skull. Lee is forthright in her admissions that she was unprepared and struggled with success. During that time, she engaged in disordered eating patterns, and had very harsh and critical self-talk. Beauty is about Lee making sense of her struggles through the prism of literature, philosophy and cultural criticism.

Obsession with thinness is an embarrassing admission. As a well-educated young woman who tries to engage in deep thoughts, admitting to caring so deeply about your figure is tantamount to saying you would choose Barbie dolls over chemistry sets all over again. The memoir was set in a time when I was working in a big, important job, surrounded by high achievers. People who habitually ran half marathons on weekends as a ‘hobby’. You were either fit and trim or you just weren’t working hard enough. Your body was how you conveyed wealth and status to your peers, it was a personality trait, a symbol of goodness and values: an ethical idea.

It’s interesting that as the author was engaging in negative self-talk, society was reinforcing her thinness obsession. A fashion magazine wanted a photoshoot with her. This forced Lee to engage in a desperate act to drop down to a “goal” weight and unhealthy BMI (Body Mass Index). She delivered a speech to some teens and they then followed her on Instagram. She feels trapped by the 21st century shackles of having to be constantly photogenic. She also admits that some of this is smoke and mirrors, even if we don’t always realise this:

In the caption underneath my picture listing the designer of the clothes I wore and who had done my hair was the line: ‘Bri wears Modern Muse perfume by Estée Lauder.’ Something inside me – a little illusion I’d been maintaining – split. Nobody had spritzed me with perfume for that shoot. I have never even smelled Modern Muse…What if the image of me had been a full-body shot and I looked as gaunt as my goal, either in real life or through Photoshop? Who might be reading it and feeling bad, not realising the fakery of the whole thing, and my own fraudulent behaviour, walking around talking about women’s issues while perpetuating our most common, mundane undoing?

In writing this 150 page essay, Lee has researched many different works. A lot of her text draws heavily on these other people’s ideas. So rather than sharing her own unique perspectives on some matters, instead she defers to other authority figures:

[Will] Storr’s two stages of considering the ‘self’ [in his book, Selfie] explained why I could have lower weight-related self-esteem than a person with significantly more body fat than me. Not only are we not all inclined towards the ‘perfectionist’ tendencies that inevitably lead to feeling disappointed, but each of us has a different definition of what that ‘perfection’ looks like. Storr went on to explain you can’t just hijack or ‘hack’ your self-esteem.

Lee does not really address her privilege as a cisgender, white, thin, and able-bodied woman. An anthology representing individuals with other experiences would have made for a stronger meditation on the subject. To her credit, Lee attempts to describe some subjects outside the realm of her experience. This includes writing about Nkechi Anele’s hair and a larger woman she sees eating at a restaurant, but we would all gain more from hearing from these ladies themselves.

Beauty is a bold work where Lee discusses some tricky and insidious topics. It should provoke conversations about the unattainable beauty standards that society continues to obsess over. Lee’s work is raw and highly personal – like her debut book – and will likely be relatable to readers, even though it can be narrow in its focus.

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Category: Book Reviews

About the Author ()

Natalie Salvo is a foodie and writer from Sydney. You can find her digging around in second hand book shops or submerged in vinyl crates at good record stores. Her website is at: http://nataliesalvo.wordpress.com

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