Cutting through the obsession with superficial beauty on social media
When it comes to social media, ‘comparison’ is a dirty word. In fact a recent study of 118 young women found that those who liked or commented on images of friends they thought more beautiful than themselves, reported feeling dissatisfied with their own bodies afterward. From communication in natural disasters to keeping up with friends’ baby photos, the benefits of social media are obvious but, the way we create and respond to online identities demands some degree of caution.
Beauty and self-image are strong themes in a production presented by Opera Queensland this April. A Flowering Tree, written in 2006 by renowned American composer John Adams with a libretto by Adams and stage director Peter Sellars, is based on a traditional southern Indian folk story of the same name. It tells of a woman who can magically transform her body into a flowering tree. According to Opera Queensland Artistic Director Patrick Nolan, the opera may offer an insight to how we view ourselves.
“The obsession we have with beauty has taken us away from our capacity to connect with each other for who we are,” Nolan says. “We judge each other on appearances and value the superficial rather than a more complex sense of who we are. In a world obsessed with beauty, A Flowering Tree tells a story about a relationship that survives because the lovers learn to value each other for a connection based in understanding and depth of feeling, rather than appearances.”
Forget blossoming Snapchat filters, Kumudha, the young peasant woman, to be performed by Australian soprano Eva Kong, can turn herself in to a tree with gorgeous flowers. After witnessing the transformation, a Prince is utterly spellbound and asks Kumudha to marry him. They have a magical wedding night and their love deepens until the Prince’s sister, demands Kumudha show what she can do to impress her friends. Kumudha reluctantly agrees to transform into the tree but the sister fails to observe the proper rituals and the magic is distorted, leaving Kumudha disfigured.
“Kumudha’s transformation is not about image and appearance,” Nolan says. “It is about the power of ritual and the need to respect a process to allow transformation to happen. But her sister-in-law is only interested in the transformation as a means to impress her friends. She ignores Kumudha’s request to respect her and the special qualities of her transformation …so it falls apart.”
Humiliated by her new appearance, she runs away from the Prince. The Prince in turn blames himself for his wife’s disappearance and forgoes his wealth to wander the earth looking for her. They are eventually united and their response to each other is telling – and perhaps the opera’s enduring message for our image obsessed times – they perform the ritual to heal Kumudha, knowing she will no longer be the beautiful woman she once was but certain of their deep love for each other.
Article by Bridget Cormack