What lies beneath

If Sarkozy banned the burqa, he himself would be oppressing the women who wear it. Making something

After reading the latest sunbed scare story in the papers, I did something out of character: I went out and bought a copy of Grazia, its glossy cover resplendent with the pneumatic – and suntanned – Victoria Beckham. I believe a society gets the magazines it deserves, and I wanted to understand what has changed in our perennially complex attitude to appearance.

The obsession with beauty is at least as old as creation; so is the equation of a wholesome outside with a wholesome inside. That’s why Shakespeare has us all believing that Richard III was a hunchback, despite the paucity of evidence, and why the 18th-century philosopher Johann Lavater managed to convince most of western Europe that physiognomy was the key to personality. But these writers were trying to read, or in Shakespeare’s case to malign, the soul: they were using the surface to signify the depths. Grazia, however, signals a new style of beauty obsession: pure form, seemingly without content. Nobody cares about Posh’s soul – nobody believes that she has one. She’s all surface and silicone.

When did our admiration for human beauty and our joy in beautiful objects curdle into an obsession with appearance that seems to leave room for little else? We will risk cancer to look healthier – well, that’s nothing new: Victorian women used acid as a facial peel, and don’t tell me it didn’t occur to at least some of them that this probably wasn’t going to serve them well a few years down the line. In an era when 30 was middle-aged, these women wanted to look youthful. Now we sit inside all day staring at small screens, but we want to look outdoorsy and sun-splashed, and despite the ubiquity of fake tan we are willing to endanger our cells in pursuit of a glossier cover. Appearance has always been a conjuring trick: women wanting to look younger, men wanting to look richer. Now the gender boundaries have blurred, but we’re still all busily using every visual swindle in the repertory to convince each other that we are shiny, flawless – desirable.

Which is fine, except for one thing: there is more to us than meets the eye – yes, even you, Victoria Beckham. Yet that “more” seems to merit less and less attention. The other news story that worried me this past week was Nicolas Sarkozy saying that France should ban the burqa because it is “not a sign of religion, it is a sign of subservience”. Let’s push aside, for a moment, the irony of trying to ban a full-body covering because of what it supposedly displays (subservience), and of the head of a vocally secular republic claiming that this infringement of his people’s rights is not about religion (then what is it about?), not to mention the irony of a Frenchman telling women what to wear. What exactly does he think he is going to achieve? Is Monsieur Sarkozy, denizen of a great culture but also, let us not forget, a man married to a Grazia favourite, really so in thrall to the power of appearance that he believes that if he bans something from sight he will make it go away? Will all these oppressed women (and, if they are not oppressed by men making them cover themselves, they are now oppressed by their president telling them they’re not allowed to) simply shrug off the floor-length cloth and bound joyously towards Topshop?

Martine Aubry, head of France’s Socialist Party, suspects not. “If a law bans the burqa, these women will still have [it] but will remain at home,” she said. “They will no longer be seen.” So, to avoid offending the secular Frenchman’s perception of what should and should not be visible, Sarkozy plans to make a whole segment of the population vanish. They will no longer be seen: they will swap the burqa, sometimes called a mobile prison, for an immobile prison, and if those who exercise power over them there are indeed their jailers, they will have even less chance of parole than they did before. But that’s all right, because Sarkozy won’t have to look at them.

A democracy is very much about visibility: casting a vote is a way of being seen, even if secret ballot means we no longer take that prerogative as literally as we once did. And capitalism runs, at least in part, on conspicuous consumption – although it must be said that when, as at present, that consumption turns out to have been facilitated by money that was as visible as a freshly waxed WAG but wasn’t actually there, we have a hint that something may be wrong.

The credit crunch can be seen as a warning against our love affair with appearances, with things that look beautiful but have nothing inside, like a sun-kissed celeb, a jewelled Damien Hirst skull – or a housing bubble.

We have never had such a pernicious addiction to surface, to glossy appearance and Photoshopped perfection, as we do at the moment. The Victorians have the reputation of being hypocrites: look beneath that acid-fresh surface and you found all kinds of interestingly toxic darkness. Our society, however, appears to aspire to being surface all the way through: even much contemporary art (Hirst, Jeff Koons, Banksy) shies away from interiority. Peel off the suntan and you’ll find nothing at all, neither reason nor imagination nor moral shoots sprouting in the dark. In this, hardline Islamists have western liberals beat: they fear and mistreat what lies beneath the shroud, but at least they admit that it’s there.

Nina Caplan is arts editor of Time Out