It’s perhaps our first untroubled word for human beauty, free of the whiff of sexism that clings to many others. It doesn’t denote marriageability (like “nubile”) or beauty born of fragility (“comely”). Unlike its close relations “fair,” “perfect” and “immaculate,” it carries no overt religious connotations. And unlike “beautiful” itself, with its associations of perishability and status, “flawless” feels vigorous. It’s a word for integrity and excellence of execution. Over the years, this publication has reserved it for Babe Ruth’s swing, Sarah Bernhardt’s turn in “Cléopâtre” and a few especially strong competitors at the Westminster Dog Show.
Something interesting happens when a word that suggests action is applied to beauty: It recasts beauty as something that can be done, pulled off — not just possessed. On Instagram, Tumblr and Twitter, when “flawless” is used as praise, it implies a friendly interest in workmanship — in a brow arched just so, in contouring cream ingeniously applied, in effort and experimentation as much as the final effect. True, “flawless” has its own conventions and idiosyncrasies: It usually refers to a certain kind of regal woman — think Beyoncé, Rihanna, Michelle Obama — with a sculpted look that feels achieved (also, possibly, complicated and expensive to maintain). But its abiding spirit is generous and even vaguely campy; it honors the artifice in all beauty and is skeptical of anything wanly “natural” or “authentic” that conceals the trouble it took. Its ethos could be Simone de Beauvoir’s observation that “one is not born but rather becomes a woman.”
Parul Sehgal, “Bow Down”, The New York Times Magazine (29 March 2015), 16.