Death is beautiful. Don’t think heavy metal and punk rock, silver skulls and chain-link. Don’t think Rise Against and graphic tees. Not goth but Goth-ic. Think the horror contorting the gargoyles of the Basilica of Saint Denis. Think pale skin, red lips — the fragility of passing away, of passing over. Romantic, in the poetic sense. In the tradition of Lord Byron, love and death and how she walked in beauty, like the night.
There is a human fascination with death that verges on awe, admiration even. This fascination has propelled countless legions of creatives into inspiration. Bernini and “The Ecstacy of St Teresa” and how magnificent she was, impaled on the angel’s spear. Byron and Tennyson and how they slept as they lived, dreaming of dying. “The Lady of Shalott” and Ophelia in the water and all those other young women that drowned for love of another.
Aesthetic understanding has always enjoyed extensive interchange between art and fashion. What people find beautiful in art will often find itself imitated on the human person, practiced by each and every one of us. All acolytes fasting for the sake of imagery.
In the Romantic Era, women would powder their faces white, paint their lips red, and painstakingly draw blue-green veins on their chest. Their corsets would turn their lungs into collapsing space. They were imitating, to the best of their ability, those dying of tuberculosis. And hundreds of years later, this same philosophy could be seen in the carefully cultivated appearance of the “heroin chic” models of the ‘90s. Again, the pale skin and red lips, only this time compounded with smoky eyes and a skeletal frame. Mirror images to the countless addicts wasting away from drug abuse, propelling the “I smoke cigarettes for breakfast” look into high fashion.
The question then follows: why are so many people attracted to this image of dying? One answer is morbid fascination of the same kind as taxidermied birds and the Hapsburgs’ cabinet of wonders. Death is the greatest unknown, and there is something masochistic in closely watching what happens to the body when it’s about to end. Not dead so much as dying. The process of decaying, of leaving. There is a careful delicateness that comes with it.
But it can be more than mere curiosity of horrors. In almost all of these examples, from Shakespeare to Kate Moss, there is a gendered aspect. Death is far more appealing on young women. Women are their most beautiful when they are young, and what could be better than catching them at the cusp of dying so tragically early? A butterfly pinned to a wall and kept carefully behind glass. You never have to love them when they are old and frailing.
At the same time, beauty is not always pretty, not always gentle, and the journey to get to the knife-edge of death is paved by a visceral hunger. Another aspect of the fascination with the ailing aesthetic stems from the pain that must come with it. Women, in their actions and their appearance, are regarded as a performance, a piece of art to be appreciated. There is a long tradition here. Never consuming but always consumed.
Anorexia mirabilis died with the feudal kings, but the stark rawness of it bears resemblance to its more modern sister of nervosa. In the Dark Ages, nuns would fast, starve themselves to force their minds into ecstasies, into vivid visions of the archangels. Saint Angela of Foligno would refuse all food except the wafer and wine of communion. At times, she would even eat the scabs of the poor, calling it as “sweet as the Eucharist.” While it can be hard for us to imagine how this could be beautiful nowadays, in the dark centuries of Medieval Europe, the most beautiful thing a woman could be was pious and utterly free of sin, free of gluttony, free of pleasure. All this to say, women of anorexia mirabilis were venerated for their empty stomachs and bleeding hands.
Women are beautiful in their pain, in their tragedy. The nuns and the courtesans and the wafer-thin models knew this intimately. We mold our bones and shape our skin in the relentless chase for that impossible liminality. Living hurts sometimes, and we kill ourselves every day for something, an ideal, a dream, a love. By the hand of God, disease or addiction, our bodies are surrendered in their entirety. Here’s to every male painter that loved Ophelia more for the way she drowned. •
by: Jessie Yin
Photography by: Anna Droddy
Models: Urvi Joshi, Haoqing Geng
HMU by: Julie Garcia
Styling by: Megan Arimanda