“Every era has its own concept of charm,” reads the first sentence of Helen Valentine and Alice Thompson’s Better than Beauty. So where should we look to find the epitome of charm today? The Jerry Springer Show? MTV’s The Hills? Surely some hint of it must be seen on VH1’s Charm School 3 with Ricki Lake, right?
When I initially picked up this “Guide to Charm,” originally published in 1938, I wondered what relevance remained for a book that guides its readers on skincare for a generation raised on Retin-A and Proactiv. But for all we know and all we’ve learned in the past seventy years, we haven’t exactly perfected the art of charm. In fact, many argue that the art is depleted entirely (underwear-less starlets, anyone?).
The reactions to the advice dished out in Better than Beauty range from “I wish,” to “You’ve got to be kidding me.” For instance, “I wish I had the time and memory to push back my cuticles each time I wash my hands,” and “You’ve got to be kidding me that people need to be told they should wear antiperspirant.” The book is broken into two parts – what one should do with herself, and how one should act when in the company of others. The first section explores basic upkeep and personal hygiene – how often to brush your hair, how much you should weigh, how to plan a suitable wardrobe for your figure and your budget. While it’s all generally good advice, it is more often than not antiquated. I’m much more likely to hit the gym, than perform the exercises illustrated in this book. And no matter how much I practice lowering myself gracefully into my chair while in public, at the end of the day, I’m still going to plop down on my couch in sweatpants.
The book’s second section, while still providing a dose of “Duh” advice, thoughtfully reminds its modern readers of easily forgotten manners. Perhaps, we shouldn’t be overly generous with our “Thank Yous” for fear that its genuine meaning get lost. And I can think of about a million people I’ve encountered on public transportation who could use a friendly reminder of how to talk on the phone. Throughout, our authors are careful not to criticize and maintain an evenhanded and good humored tone about what they are dishing out. They emphasis the importance of learning to accept yourself as you really are, advising, “Never be afraid of doing the wrong thing.” The only bad manners are those in which one intends harm, and in this world of constant speculation, where tweets go up faster than a weave in flames, we too often worry to excess how we come across.
So, while parts of the guide might be out of date, (too few women work for money to know how to manage it), some things never change (if you talk too loud, people will shut their ears off to you). Likely, no matter your experience or disposition, you’ll take away some gem of advice or a friendly reminder. It may also be the perfect gift for the young girl in your life who you fear might one day end up on For the Love of Ray J 9.
Have you read Better than Beauty? What do you think?