On beauty and love, in the wake of Liz Taylor’s passing


Elizabeth Taylor has passed away.

In addition to a famous and much-celebrated movie star, she was an HIV/AIDS activist and ally to the LGBT community who helped a lot of poor people of color.

Having been born in the ’80’s, I didn’t live through the period that most would call “the height of her career”, so although I was sad to hear of her death, as I would be to hear of the death of any beloved public figure, I didn’t really think too much of it beyond that.

However, I haven’t been able to help but notice that since her passing two days ago, many have been inspired to write long and detailed descriptions of her beauty, both real and perceived. And this I find the discussions around this really fascinating, as someone who lives in a world where beauty norms are still eternally present, but perhaps they’ve shifted a bit.

I find myself wondering: What did it mean for Elizabeth Taylor to be known as the most beautiful woman in the world? How did it feel to grow old in the public eye, having had that title so pretty much clinched for years and years?

In particular, I was struck by one quote that appeared in the New York Times obituary. In response to claims that Liz Taylor, his then-wife, was the most beautiful woman in the world, Richard Burton had something to say:

One prominent and perhaps surprising dissenter about her looks was Richard Burton, who was twice her husband. The notion of his wife as “the most beautiful woman in the world is absolute nonsense,” he said. “She has wonderful eyes,” he added, “but she has a double chin and an overdeveloped chest, and she’s rather short in the leg.”

[Emphasis mine.]

And this really struck me for some reason. How unsurprised I was to hear that a famous movie star married one of the few people who would confidently point to her physical flaws. It seems like even for the woman who by most accounts fulfills and surpasses the most rigid standards of beauty, it is not enough.

Brooklyn, NY

Lori Adelman is Executive Director of Partnerships at Feministing, where she enjoys creating and curating content on gender, race, class, technology, and the media. Lori is also an advocacy and communications professional specializing in sexual and reproductive rights and health, and currently works in the Global Division of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. A graduate of Harvard University, she lives in Brooklyn.

Lori Adelman is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Partnerships.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/litendeavors/ Jenny O.

    I, too, am fascinated by the beauty aspect. She was virtually ignored for twenty years, when she wasn’t being written about in a snider manner of her many marriages, addictions, scandals, etc.

    Now she’s dead and all we talk about is the height of her beauty.

    I wrote an article on Technorati about how she should be remembered for her work, and highlighted some of her most famous and critically acclaimed roles.

    On my blogl I talked about how we tend to ignore the people who are sick and dying and included and excerpt of Robert Frost’s “Home Burial.”

    Taylor was an icon. A legend. But she was also just human.

    I was thinking about what Burton had to say about her. Yes, he pointed out her perceived physical flaws, but it wasn’t just the outside of Elizabeth that was beautiful; she was also incredibly compelling. She had this energy that could not be contained, and you could see it bursting forth in every role she played.

    Just my two bits. Thanks for the article.

  • http://cabaretic.blogspot.com nazza

    Burton might well be talking about himself. His alcoholism, chain smoking, and unhealthy living destroyed his body.

    I’m not sure when that interview was conducted, but the Burton/Taylor union was a love/hate affair. There’s a certain tragedy involved in any relationship full of equal parts affection as insults.

  • http://feministing.com/members/violaclef/ Kimberly

    Has anyone else noticed how every article about Elizabeth Taylor’s death is accompanied by a photo of her from the 40s and 50s? I have yet to see a current photo of Taylor in all the reporting on her death. It seems that even if you were once the most beautiful woman in the world, once you “get old,” you become invisible just like the rest of us…

  • http://feministing.com/members/affekatze/ HolyMoly

    Although I don’t condone picking apart women like Mr. Burton did, that comment can also be analyzed as: “Hey, Elizabeth Taylor is a human…just like everyone else.” Elevating a woman to such a high standard takes away her flaws and … well…humanity. Although Richard Burton probably did not mean it like that, I am sure many found it reassuring that the world’s most beautiful woman was still, well, human.

  • http://feministing.com/members/toongrrl/ Jessica “Jess” Victoria Carillo

    Here’s my bit: she had the most beautiful eyes. I’ve always felt that a smile and a pair of eyes have always been the most beautiful feature of anybody, it’s the entrance to the soul. Roald Dahl once wrote in a book that no matter how you’ve looked, if you had a good heart and lovely personality and thought good thoughts, that your inner beauty radiates out of you and makes you beautiful. Also yes I wonder why just pictures of her youth, my Grandma is two years older and is very beautiful!!!!!!!!! http://www.latinoreview.com/images/stories/ElizabethTaylor6.jpg