To celebrate my 30th birthday, I had thought of re-reading Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, thinking I could possibly appreciate it more now that I was on the cusp of social insignificance. As it turned out, I did not pay a visit to Lily Bart and her society cohorts; however, the day following my birthday, I ended up reading Kyoko Okazaki’s Helter Skelter.
While it certainly did not put me in a cheery mood about growing older, I’m fortunate to have read it when I did.
Helter Skelter follows the turbulent private life of model Liliko, whose physical beauty has been wholly constructed by full-body plastic surgery. Her manager, known as “Mama,” rescued Liliko – originally an overweight girl named Haruko Hirukoma – from a brothel once she saw potential in Haruko’s bone structure. Mama pays for Haruko to have risky surgery, resulting in the beautiful Liliko whose face and body come to grace billboards, magazines, and various advertising all over Japan. Liliko becomes the current beauty standard, and the series constantly makes a point to show the masses’ reaction to Liliko with teenage girls and older women alike admiring her image while speculating on her personal life.
After-effects of the surgery, both physical and psychological, take their toll on Liliko. She often lashes out violently to whoever is available, making her increasingly difficult to be around. In spite of her oft-horrid treatment of others, I couldn’t help but admire her will. Liliko is fully aware of how she is being manipulated, and by whom, but she manages to use this to her advantage as much as she can. It’s a dirty, shameless cycle that Helter Skelter is all-to-eager to display through the character of Liliko. This awareness of how the people around her are using her – coupled with her actions towards those same individuals and herself – is what makes Liliko genuine.
I was completely out of the loop when it came to fashion until I left for university and was immediately immersed in current trends and styles thanks to my savvy first-year roommate. She educated me through In-Style, Vogue, and Glamour. She allowed me to borrow her clothes. She taught me how to correctly apply makeup. She also would wake up every morning at 5:30am to shower, fix her hair, put on her makeup, and transform herself into a woman who looked as if she had walked off of a cover of the same magazines that she used for my fashion education.
Additionally, all that anyone would talk about that first semester was the dreaded “freshman fifteen.” They shared tips and tricks on how to lose weight, how to look skinnier, and how to stave off those extra pounds as if they were preparing to do battle with a visible enemy lying in wait in the stairwell at the end of our dorm hallway. While I had worried about my clothing and appearance as early as junior high school, I hadn’t been exposed to this new culprit of weight prior to university. This constant chatter of weight loss caused me to look at my body through a new lens: I was an average weight for my height, but surely I could benefit from losing a few pounds. I found myself joining in the conversation, and educating myself as much as possible. I constantly monitored my weight, thanks in part to the scale that my roommate owned, and frequently starved myself. When she returned to our room from a full day, bragging how she had only eaten a handful of almonds, I looked at her, starry-eyed, admiring her discipline when I should have been looking out for her safety.
At the same time, I began studying media in my journalism courses. One of the more eye-opening experiences involved reading the liner notes for various advertisements, where directors would make detailed requests for commercial actors and actresses. Everything from height, weight, hair color, eye color, skin tone, ethnicity, was specified. We were also shown various magazine covers, and then shown how the photographs were altered to portray a certain image. While I dove gracelessly into the toxic depths of self-image with my dormmates, I was also learning how I was specifically being manipulated into appreciating or admiring that same image.
“I just want to play with bodies. And have fun wrecking others. How can I help it? Aren’t others making a wreck of me?”
-Liliko, Helter Skelter, page 167
With each turn of the page in Helter Skelter, the more I wished for Liliko to succeed in taking everyone else down with her. I admired Liliko for her attitude towards her own position, and her desire to drag others along as she spirals further into depression and begins to lash out. Her self-awareness and worries of becoming older, along with the astronomical amount of money required to keep her “beauty” and youth intact, haunt her nightly, and were remarkably resonant. Anyone who has struggled with self-image can relate to Liliko’s distress, even if they are not a fashion industry icon. Liliko’s knowledge of how the system works does not directly translate into her ability to overcome it – in fact, for the majority of the series she willingly continues to perpetuate it – and this is what makes her so genuine. She serves as a reminder that learning about how societal standards of beauty are established and reiterated do not always lead to ceasing self-destructive behavior. In fact, in my personal experience, the knowledge led me to long for that image even more.
To this day, I cannot say that looking in the mirror is a pleasant experience, and that same lens that I established in university is often in place. Some days are better than others, but the lingering fear of being judged for my looks, and my lack of beauty, never truly disappears. Helter Skelter, along with Liliko, comes crashing to an end that exemplifies the toxic cycle of Liliko’s relationship with the fashion industry and others’ perception of her. Liliko transcends the icon of her physical body, becoming a legend preserved in a specific time and image. Whether this is a good or bad thing is left for the reader to decide. In spite of hating the people, that “made” Liliko, in the end I cannot help but admire her tenacity.
Helter Skelter is available from Vertical, Inc. I highly recommend picking it up.