Thursday, April 3, 2014

The 5-Minute Facial Workout, and the Placebo Effect

Like this, but for your face.

It would be easy for a critical beauty blogger comme moi to make fun of the book “The 5-Minute Facial Workout: 30 Exercises for a Naturally Beautiful Face.” I mean, the setup is all there, beginning with the title of the first chapter (“Facial Gymnastics: Why?”—my question exactly), through its promises that exercises will “revascularize the dermis” for “significant” results of “a younger and more relaxed face,” all illustrated with photos of a pleasant-looking, vaguely yogic woman doing things like extending her tongue to the corners of her smile, or doing what looks like an exaggerated pout.

But, like I said, that’s easy. I don’t want to take a potshot at the author of “The 5-Minute Facial Workout,” Catherine Pez, who has done a fine job of explaining how, theoretically, these exercises work. (In short, the idea is that by performing a daily ritual of face exercises, you strengthen the muscles of the face, thus ameliorating the saggy effects of maturity and helping to “sculpt” the face and keep it looking as it did before the ravages of time shat upon your visage.) Frankly, given that the entire book is a guide to facial gymnastics, it’s remarkable how non-goofy the exercises actually are. If you’re going to embark on a self-guided natural face-lift, you may as well do it with Pez leading the way and allow the book’s earnest, utterly guileless tone to carry you through. I wish you voluminous cheeks, stimulated neck fibers, fleshier lips, and all of the other things the book promises to deliver your way. Merry pouting.

No, the question here isn’t this actual book, or even the entire genre of face exercises, which includes not only “The 5-Minute Facial Workout” but sisters such as “The Ultimate Guide to the Face Yoga Method,” the “Tal Reinhart Facial Workout,” “Facial Fitness,” and my personal favorite, “Facercise.” The question of face exercise is really the question of what’s at the root of plenty of beauty work: the placebo effect.

Face exercises to prevent signs of aging are the ultimate candidate for the placebo effect: They work as well as you think they work. An aggregate study recently looked at nine individual studies that purported to find evidence that facial gymnastics worked to counteract signs of aging. But the authors of the aggregate study found that the “existing evidence is insufficient to conclude whether facial exercises are effective for reducing signs of aging.” None of the individual studies had a control group, none of them were randomized, three of them were case studies of a single person, and the highest number of participants of any study was 11. (Interestingly, the only studies the researchers could find were in South America, and indeed in Brazil it’s apparently considered a legitimate thing—aesthetic logopedics—stemming from facial exercises’ existing role in speech pathology. Anyway.) All of that may make for shaky research, but here’s the kicker: In all but one study, the participants themselves were involved with ranking results, with some of the studies’ results consisting entirely of merely asking participants if they noticed any changes after doing the exercises for a set length of time. So the people who had chosen to invest regular amounts of time in facial gymnastics were asked not only if said gymnastics made them feel better but if they made them look better. Most people wouldn't want to believe they’ve wasted their time fluttering their lips at themselves in front of a mirror for nothing, so is it any surprise that all participants said they’d noticed visible changes?

That’s not to say that they didn’t look better, though. And that’s the beauty—or the trouble—of the placebo effect when it comes to our appearance. When you’re talking about a quality as difficult to articulate as loveliness, merely believing that something “works” can be enough to lend you the light that you’re seeking. The practice or product itself becomes beside the point if the effect approximates what you were after in the first place. As beauty editor Ali put it in our interview a ways back, “If you just shelled out $300 for a cream, your brain is in this mode of, This is going to work. You have that optimism that can actually make you radiant. If you’re thinking, Oh, I just got this $5 bojangle cream, I don’t give a shit—then no, it doesn’t work.”

A red lipstick either reddens your lips or it doesn’t; you know immediately whether its essential task is fulfilled. But when it comes to products promising something more ethereal—like the “radiance” or “re-energizing” properties avowed by various creams and serums—who’s to say whether it works? Enter facial gymnastics, the promises of which are essentially immeasurable. "Redrawing” the chin? “Modifying” a “sad mouth”? “Strengthening” the “musculature of the eyelids”? Not to mention its vague assurances of improved circulation and cell renewal. Do enough facial contortions with enough devotion, and you just might see your eyelid musculature strengthened, because who even knows what a muscular eyelid looks like?

Of course, there’s a chance that placebo effect aside, these exercises do work. (Remember, the aggregate study said the evidence was inconclusive, not that the practice was ineffective.) For starters, practicing making your face more animated could conceivably lead to your face being more animated in daily life, and people with animated faces are more likely to be perceived as friendly and as leaders, thus making you possibly more attractive. And, of course, our faces do have muscles, and muscles can visibly grow with use, so, hey, why not. “The 5-Minute Facial Workout,” just $14.50, folks! (Of course, I’d argue that if you’re working your face in specific ways with aesthetic results in mind, you might well increase a generally unwanted aesthetic result—wrinkles—but I’m no dermatologist, yo.)

Still, there’s something underneath facial workouts that bothers me: In essence, these are prescribed drills of movements that most of us would perform in the course of a day. We smile, we frown, we press our lips together, we grimace, we tilt our chins upward. We move. But when these movements become formalized, they give birth to a promise: This will do something that living your everyday life won’t. It takes normal human action and shifts it from being something we do to live into something we do to stop the appearance of having lived. When I picture women doing these exercises in front of the mirror, the image that comes to mind isn’t one of relaxed joy or of self-care. In fact, the image is downright grim, though I hope I’m mistaken in this. Do these exercises if you wish, o ye of deflating cheeks; may it give you what you’re looking for, whether it be placebo effect or not. But I urge you to laugh about it too. Consider it a bonus workout.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Thank You for Shopping: Customer Loyalty Programs

Spend $350 at the Red Cross and you get a free pint of O negative!

Yesterday, I was informed that I’d “unlocked” the “VIB Level” of Sephora’s customer reward program. What this means in Sephoraspeak is that by “earning” 350 “points” at the store, I will receive seasonal VIB-only gifts—presumably along the lines of the free lip gloss I received whilst shopping during my birthday month, back when I was merely a Sephora “Beauty Insider”—that I will have advance access to sales, and that I get “dibs” on new products, so that I will be the first lady on the block to have NARS’s newest nail polish in Quivering Otter, or whatever the color of the season is. 

What this means in you-and-me-speak is that I have spent more than $350 at Sephora—not, as the company would put it, “earned” more than 350 “points” at Sephora—since this time last year.

It was a shock to realize that I’d spent $350 at Sephora in the past 12 months, to be sure, but my financial navel-gazing is another post altogether. What “unlocking” this “VIB Level” made me think about was customer reward programs, and what we’re supposed to get out of them. With many customer loyalty programs, you actually save money. You might do this immediately/directly, as in my drugstore’s practice of advertising “specials” that are only “specials” if you are literally a card-carrying member of the drugstore’s loyalty program, or it might be savings down the line, as with frequent-flier miles. But the point is: You save money, as in cash, as in you have a compelling financial interest to use the loyalty program (which, of course, means that to some degree you’re loyal to the vendor, though of course consumers can belong to multiple loyalty programs, making them not loyal at all).

Sephora is a different beast altogether. You don’t save money with Sephora’s loyalty program; it’s more that you get the opportunity to spend more money at Sephora. I mean, sure, getting a free lipstick now and then might count as saving you money, if that shade and opacity of lipstick happens to be the kind of lipstick you’re looking for. Same thing with access to sales on specific products that I’d “unlocked” via spending 350 smackers. But as I hemmed and hawed over my possible “loyalty gifts” at checkout I realized that what I was spending my points on—which, as a reminder, are "points" "earned" because I’ve already blown plenty of cash there—were sample sizes of products I could then buy full-size versions of if I liked them. My options were things like a Sephora kit with a mini bottle of makeup remover, black liquid eyeliner, and a tiny gold shimmer creme liner costing me 500 “points,” or, as a token of appreciation for spending merely 100 dollar/points there, I could have a wee tube of makeup primer or something I think was called “lip sugar”?

If a company is going to supposedly reward me for being loyal to it, what I want them to give me as proof of their loyalty is what they have plenty of—money. I’ve got some thinking and research to do about loyalty programs before I come to any grand conclusions, but my hunch here is that part of why Sephora can get away with a loyalty program that promises specific goods, not money that can be spent anywhere, to its customers is that in some ways it’s truly a unique outlet—there are plenty of beauty stores out there, but few with the ability to try on nearly everything offered for sale from a variety of brands. (Estee Lauder’s technique of touching everyone who came into her stores translated into more sales of Estee Lauder products, but when Sephora associates touch you to guide you to the right blush for you, that touch is translated into sales for Sephora, regardless of the intermediary brand.) In this sense, Sephora doesn’t need to have a rigorous loyalty reward program—they don’t have a competitor that’s truly equal. Sephora doesn’t need to give you a financial discount for your loyalty; what Sephora needs to do (and has done) with its reward program is give consumers the sense that by shopping there, you’re special. You’re a Beauty Insider, or a “VIB” (which, by the way, acronym for…? Very important Beauty? Why, thankyou) if you accrue enough “points”. You get access to a VIB-only section of discussion forums; you get to attend private Sephora events. You get the sense of somehow being a part of something exclusive, even though the only reason you’re invited is because you’ve managed to drop enough cash there over time.

Still, the free-goods approach makes more sense when the goods are something of equal-ish value to all consumers—like, say, frequent flier miles and airline tickets. If I’ve earned enough miles to get a domestic ticket anywhere in the lower 48, well, great, I can go to Kansas or Los Angeles or the Outer Banks or wherever I want to go. But when I earn enough Sephora points, I get to choose between, say, a “Caviar CC Cream” for my hair or a self-tanning gel and maybe a couple of other things, none of which might apply to my desires. This might sound like the ultimate middle-class whine: Oh, after the three hundred and fifty dollars I spent at fucking Sephora I have to choose between hair caviar and a self-tanner, life is hard. But that’s not really my gripe here—sure, I like money back as much as the next person, but after one has “earned” 350 “points” by buying lip liner, one sort of forfeits the right to grumble about money per se. My gripe is the way this particular loyalty program uses its customers’ loyalty to reinforce its own importance and expertise: “Get a taste of some of our most coveted products,” coos the copy above the rewards you can choose from. Our most coveted products, not your most coveted products. That is: You don’t need to get money back from our loyalty program—trust us, the experts, to give you fair value. You’re literally paying to align yourself even more with the company; its loyalty program doesn’t just reward past loyalty, it engenders future loyalty too. I mean, one of the “gifts” you can opt for is the 250-point Sephora phone cover, which allows you to essentially pay Sephora $250 to advertise for it.

I’m wondering about people’s experiences with reward programs in general, whether it be at Sephora, another beauty company, or something like your grocery store. I have what’s probably a disproportionate amount of hatred for them, having grown up with a mother who steadfastly refused to participate in them because, as they tracked your purchases, it was “just too Big Brother.” (Side note: Her anti-surveillance stance dueled for years with her frugality, until she devised a compromise—she would participate in loyalty programs if they offered a steep enough discount, but she would only pay in cash so that the credit card companies couldn’t track those particular purchases. One Big Brother cancels out another, it seems, though even she will admit the logic is dubious at best. Anyway.) What are your experiences with customer loyalty programs? Do the returns seem worth it to you? Do the sorts of goods in question factor into your signing up—like, are luxury goods such as high-end makeup more or less likely to make you participate in a rewards program? And am I the only one who now wants to spend far less at Sephora now that I can so clearly see how much money I’ve been spending there?

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Invited Post: Gilding the Lily

A theory blog that promises to examine "why it matters so much to be beautiful, and why we have these particular ideas of what beauty is"—well, can you think of any reason not to read it? When I found Carina Hart's wonderful blog, Beautiful in Theory, I was thrilled to find a kindred spirit who loves to marry beauty with unlikely concepts. Whether she's looking at the "Frankenbabe" idea in which women are looked at as parts instead of a whole, examining how individual women have shaped our narratives of beauty with her "Biographies of Sin and Beauty", or considering the noteworthy lack of boobs in Scandinavian noir television, she's consistently seeking out alternate perspectives on beauty, helping each of us continue to form our own theory on beauty. Her work is informed by the research behind her PhD at the University of East Anglia (UK), which she devoted to studying images of beauty in post-1980 fiction. And we're lucky that Beautiful in Theory doesn't stop there. I'm fortunate enough to host a guest post from Carina today.

Why do we consider skin to be the barrier of "permissible" beauty work?

Recently I got into an argument with a male friend who couldn’t see the difference between makeup, clothes, and jewelery when it came to beauty work and feminism. I thought the difference was obvious, but being forced to explain it properly I settled on the argument that it came down to adornment vs alteration. Makeup sits right on your skin and changes the way you look, and it isn’t always easy to see that it’s there. Clothes can alter your shape and general appearance, but they are more separate from you than makeup; jewelery is more separate still, not actually changing the way you look but merely adorning you with sparkles.

At the time I was quite pleased with this argument, but now I wonder. When does adornment become alteration? I’m not sure that the boundary is as clear as I had assumed—after all, do we then have to draw a distinction between BB creams and bright red lipstick, on the grounds that lipstick is obvious and artificial, and therefore falls more into the adornment camp, whereas BB cream is a deceptive alteration of your skin (or at least its appearance)?

I’ve certainly never heard anyone argue that wearing jewelery is part of the patriarchal oppression of women by pressuring them to be beautiful. But it is something that women do, with the purpose of enhancing their beauty. Does that mean a feminist should rethink her earrings, giving them the same weight of consideration many might give makeup?

I think that skin is the key player here. Skin is the barrier between inside and outside, and making changes inside the skin is a more difficult, committed, and often more permanent process than an outside change: say, liposuction vs Spanx. This barrier is also crucial to the way we think about beauty work, so that cosmetic surgery has a much higher moral, emotional, and political charge than a wardrobe makeover. We have this potent desire for self-transformation, but in practice a truly drastic, inside-and-out transformation makes us queasy as well as some combination of impressed, fascinated, and jealous. 

Of course our sense of self is heavily invested in our bodies, and it is intensely disconcerting to adjust our sense of our own identity or someone else’s after a dramatic physical change. We may say that beauty is on the inside, that it’s someone’s personality that makes them who they are, but we find it extremely difficult to separate identities from bodies. I guess that’s why we keep saying those things, because we want them to be more true than they are.

That’s probably also why we are uncomfortable with under-the-skin, invasive changes like surgery, and why we’re likelier to brand it as “bad” beauty work. But diets are equally internal processes, and while we may tsk-tsk diets as a form of policing women’s bodies, we don’t quite put it in the same camp as cosmetic surgery. This is where another binary comes out to play: natural and artificial. This has been around for centuries, and the best example comes from way back in 1734, when Jonathan Swift wrote a delightful poem called “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed.” Starting with the lovely “Corinna, Pride of Drury Lane” retiring to bed, Swift proceeds to deconstruct her beauty both literally and figuratively:

Then, seated on a three-legg'd Chair,
Takes off her artificial Hair:
Now, picking out a Crystal Eye,
She wipes it clean, and lays it by.
Her Eye-Brows from a Mouse's Hyde,
Stuck on with Art on either Side,
Pulls off with Care…

… You get the picture. Swift’s deconstruction is intended to reveal the artifice of feminine beauty, and it achieves its discomfiting effect by messing with that questionable boundary, the skin. Hair, eyes, and brows are features with whose alteration we are familiar—hair coloring, makeup, brow plucking—but Swift takes this a step further and makes them completely artificial. Corinna’s eyebrows, instead of growing out of her skin and then being enhanced, are actually glued-on bits of mouse hide, both separate from and part of her body in a very disturbing way. The skin is an unreliable barrier, and I think we would prefer that it wasn’t.

Inside and outside, natural and artificial: As soon as you examine these concepts closely they start to unravel. What about the fact that much of the food we now eat can hardly be described as natural? What about vitamin pills? Does a facial count as inside or outside? What about diets promising glowing skin as their main benefit, or pills promising healthier hair? Is long-term skin maintenance with SPF and moisturiser natural or artificial? How about piercings and tattoos? Sheesh.

Donna Haraway’s famous “Cyborg Manifesto” (1985) uses the cyborg as an “ironic political myth” to describe the way traditional human boundaries are coming unstuck. Human-animal, human-machine, inside-outside, natural-artificial: It is even more true now than it was in 1985 that we live within very blurred lines. Photoshopped selfies of ourselves in Spanx and full makeup are fast becoming the foundation of our identities, in our virtual-real lives. It’s funny how “natural” used be the ideal image of beauty—though frequently with artificial help, beauty was at least supposed to look spontaneous. Now “natural” can be used as a word of dread, deployed by glossy magazines to describe the nightmare in which someone sees you sans foundation; or it’s a word used to sell BB creams and other faux-natural effects. Artificial is all the rage, in our eyelashes, hair color and extensions, nails and tans.

Does this matter? It certainly did to Jonathan Swift, and it did to Naomi Wolf, who argued in The Beauty Myth how useful the artificial beauty ideal is to patriarchal capitalism. It does cost women a lot of time and money. Haraway’s open-minded discussion of the cyborg is a good counterpoint to the knee-jerk fear surrounding any threat to traditional ideas of what it is to be human, and if a decent SPF face cream and some vitamin pills make me a cyborg then I’m fine with that (yes, there are better reasons to embrace cyborg life, such as prosthetic limbs, but hey). 

And if an acceptance of our “posthuman” cyborg existence (Haraway again) helps us become less squeamish about the unpredictable boundary of our skin, then that is also good. It might mean that we can question the role of surgery, dietary supplements, and makeup in our world in a more clear-minded way, and perhaps make our relationship with beauty less fraught. At the moment I think that we do judge beauty work partly by where it sits on the spectrum between adornment and alteration, and that it is definitely a problem when societal pressure makes people want to change themselves from the inside out. It would take at least another essay to discuss that other unreliable binary, free and unfree choice, to determine the motives for the beauty work that we do (am I really plucking my eyebrows for me? Really?), and all beauty work comes under the shadow of oppression along with its undeniable joys.

But I still think earrings are OK.


Carina Hart is the mind behind Beautiful in Theory.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Nerd Sex Symbol Redux

A few more thoughts on why there isn’t a female “nerd sex symbol” equivalent of Neil deGrasse Tyson, i.e. an average-looking woman who is seen as a sex symbol because of her excellence in an area having nothing to do with looks:

• Maybe we have plenty of average-looking female sex symbols—but they’re just wearing makeup. As Helen points out, it’s far easier for a woman who’s average-looking to transition into good-looking than it is for a man to do the same. Yes, a man can be groomed and styled, and if he’s in the public eye he’s probably experienced enough with concealer and powder, but the average guy just doesn’t have as many options for self-transformation as women do. A good makeup artist can visually whittle your nose, widen your eyes, and lift your cheekbones, and you don’t even need anything beyond basic know-how to redden your lips and emphasize or darken your eyes, two things that are considered attractive in women. Plus, it’s not all that hard for an average-looking woman to code herself as pretty, or to be coded as such by media handlers: Put on a dress and heels, clean up your hair, throw on some makeup, show some cleavage. On women who are downright weird-looking this might backfire, sure, and depending on the field the woman is in, her dolling-up might discredit her or at least raise some eyebrows. (Remember Hillary Clinton’s cleavage?) In short: Maybe there aren’t average-looking female sex symbols because they’ve been styled in such a way that obscures their averageness. Which leads to...

• We don’t let famous women be, or stay, average-looking. Child star turned mathematician Danica McKellar was mentioned on Twitter a couple of times as an example of a “nerd crush.” Yet as I noted in my original post, she’s done plenty of promotional work showcasing herself as a traditional sex symbol; her academic accomplishments add to the package as opposed to forming the bulk of it. But when I look a little more closely, I wonder if McKellar is more of an example of our tendency to sexualize any woman who’s remotely attractive under the age of, oh, 50. Obviously McKellar is conventionally good-looking, but she became the crush of every heterosexual 12-year-old boy in America because of her approachable, girl-next-door appeal—an appeal that precludes the sort of beauty that would likely see her cast as the traditional “hot girl,” both then and now. It’s also worth noting that despite her willingness to market herself as sexy, she hasn’t had tons of Hollywood success as an adult, and—ugh, I hate critiquing people’s looks but in order to discuss these issues there’s a certain amount of it that I do, so bear with me—I can’t help but wonder if part of that is because she’s basically a nice-looking, normal-looking woman who doesn’t quite fit the usual starlet mold. In fact, this quality is part of what cements her as a “nerd sex symbol”; as Navneet points out, you have to straddle the line of sexiness and approachability in order to be seen as “one of us” by nerd culture at large. It’s not just McKellar’s math skills; it’s her specific brand of appeal that puts her in the “nerd sex symbol” camp.

McKellar is an example of someone who wears the halo of beauty despite not being quite conventionally beautiful—which has kept her in the public eye, making her an example of someone who has successfully capitalized upon our tendency to sexualize accomplished women. But you hardly need to pose in Maxim to see the phenomenon, or to see individual women’s willingness to play along—Tina Fey’s career skyrocketed after she lost 30 pounds; news commentator Greta van Susteren was hired by Fox as an utterly average-looking woman, but by the time she started she’d gotten some cosmetic surgery. I’m not criticizing Fey or Susteren for that any more than I’m criticizing McKellar for posing in lingerie; it’s a logical response to being a well-known woman. If you know you’re going to be judged for your looks even if they’re beside the point, or if you’re just trying to become well-known in the first place, you might well feel that looking your best might help streamline any distractions from the work you’re trying to share with the world. 

But more importantly, as Rachel puts it, “Our definition of ‘average’ is a lot more forgivable when it comes to men.” It’s precisely because women have more means to leap from “average” to “pretty” that we’re more forgiving of men’s averageness. If he looks utterly pedestrian, that’s just how he looks; if she does, while some of us will champion that, others will think, How hard is it to put on a little lipstick, lady?

• Maybe Neil deGrasse Tyson’s sudden sex symbol status is part of a long tradition of hypersexualizing black men. Now, I’m pretty sure most of us crushing on deGrasse Tyson while learning about the secrets of the universe aren’t sitting there dreaming about some of the more indelicate qualities frequently ascribed to black men. But the fact is, given how far we still have to go before we achieve racial equality, sex appeal is one area where black men are, if not overrepresented, at least more proportionally represented than they are compared to being, say, senators. Part of this is because of the history of black folks in entertainment, since entertainers are in a prime position to be sexualized. But part of the hypersexualization of black men is far darker: Our culture tends to paint black men as sexual aggressors, and we still tend to equate masculinity with sexual aggression. This flies in the face of deGrasse Tyson’s actual affect—engaging but mild, eager yet seemingly just a tad unsure of himself. But perhaps the idea of black men as cocksure imbues his public persona with a sex appeal we might not be quite as willing to give him were he not African American.

• Maybe sex symbols—like news streams, entertainment, and just about anything else in an age when we can curate our information to the nth degree—are becoming more and more diffuse. After my last post, plenty of men and women came up with examples of women who are seen as attractive because of the work they do, from musician Tori Amos to gaming expert Leigh Alexander to Mythbusters’s Kari Byron to YouTube stars. All of these fit the criteria—attractive but not conventionally beautiful, admired for their skill or manner more than their looks. Yet my knee-jerk response was also that they weren’t so widely known, or so widely seen as a sex symbol, that they approached the levels of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s appeal. But now I’m wondering if it’s actually that deGrasse Tyson is a unique case here: He’s the star of a show that is an enormously coordinated effort among the Fox channels; Cosmos premiered on 10 networks. Not many shows receive that kind of roll-out. Part of the “nerd sex symbol” thing is being outside mainstream Hollywood, but most people who achieve fame outside of that framework have a smaller audience than deGrasse Tyson does with Cosmos. Truth is, it’s hard to think of a male equivalent of Neil deGrasse Tyson. I still think we give more leeway to men to be sexy while being average-looking or even odd-looking than we give women. (Exhibit A: Benedict Cumberbatch.) But once you break out of the realm of the widely famous—who are often the widely conventionally attractive, for both sexes—appeal becomes more and more fragmented. It’s interesting that there isn’t a normal-looking woman who isn’t getting headlines as a “nerd sex symbol.” But the collage of women individual straight men have qualified as such points as much to the phenomenon of sub-sub-sub-subcultures as it does to our cultural unwillingness (as opposed to our individual willingness) to deign normal-looking women as sexy.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Nerd Crushed: Where Are the Average-Looking Female "Sex Symbols"?

Around the time I started “casually” walking by the home of a man who gave me my one and only skydiving lesson, I realized one of the factors that makes me find someone attractive: If I watch a man do something he’s good at and loves to do, it's likely I’ll develop a little crush on him. It’s not a sexual crush necessarily, nor is it a crush that I’d actually act on—in fact, much of the time the object of my crushdom is someone I know full well I’d have no interest in otherwise. Most of the time the crush doesn’t persist past the moment (the skydiving instructor was an outlier, because, I mean, the dude jumps out of planes on purpose). My minute-long crushes are usually an acknowledgement that watching someone at their best makes them attractive, regardless of their attractiveness overall.

So of course, midway through watching the premiere of the rebooted Cosmos, I’d developed a crush on its host, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. His barely-contained eagerness to share the secrets of the universe, his slightly jumpy demeanor, the liquid pools of his warm brown eyes—if he hadn’t had me there, he’d have gotten me with his tear-jerker anecdote about being hosted for the day as a 17-year-old kid from the Bronx by his hero, Carl Sagan. 

Now, I may understand the drive behind my own mini-crushes, but I also know that my predilection has led me to some highly unlikely crushes; I had a photo of Tom Brokaw hanging in my locker in seventh grade. But I’m used to those crushes being seen as sort of idiosyncratic—let others have their obvious Clooneys and Pattinsons, I’ll stick with the unexpected, thanks. So when I searched for what other viewers were saying about deGrasse Tyson, I didn’t think I’d find that just as we’re not alone in this universe, I wasn’t alone in my crush. Neil deGrasse Tyson, according to Twitter, is everything from a “science crush” to a “nerd crush” to a “celebrity crush.” He’s “superhot” and “handsome,” making us “hot and bothered,” what with his “sci-sexy” “sexy voice” and general “hotness.” In fact, he was once listed in People’s annual Sexiest Man Alive list as the Sexiest Astrophysicist, is routinely listed as a “nerd sex symbol” in headlines, and has been asked about his sex appeal to the point where he even has the crushworthiest response possible ready at hand: “When you tell people something that's intellectually delectable, they can feel sensually towards it. But I think at the end of the day, the object of their affection is the universe." (Swoon!) Point here is: My NDT crush isn’t idiosyncratic, offbeat, unexpected, or unlikely in the least. The man isn’t just a little crush of mine; he’s a bona fide sex symbol, regardless of whether it’s qualified by the word nerd.

I think it’s splendid that so many people are freely acknowledging what most of us already know from our own experience: Sex appeal isn’t strictly tied to conventional good looks, and average-looking people can become immensely attractive in our eyes if we find their other qualities appealing. I mean, Neil deGrasse Tyson is nice-looking enough, but I doubt he’d be seen as “handsome” or “superhot” were it not for his other gifts. (Sure, there’s an argument there about the dangers of labeling everything appealing as “sexy” and why a good astrophysicist can’t just be a good astrophysicist in peace—but really, it’s the quieter sort of sex appeal that has made us humans keep propagating the species, so I’m all for it.) I mean, who among us hasn’t experienced an unlikely flutter of the heart or loins in watching someone blossom before our eyes in a single moment? A headline proclaiming an utterly normal-looking man as a “sex symbol” of any sort means that we as a culture are eager to see beyond the surface when it comes to human appeal.

But when I tried to think of a woman who is widely seen in the same light, I came up short. Sure, there are plenty of well-known women who are seen as “nerd crushes” because they speak of their nerdy interests (like Mila Kunis) or are involved with nerd culture in the sense that they go to Comic Con. Then there are the women who have been christened as “the thinking man’s sex symbol,” like Tina Fey, Sarah Silverman, Susan Sarandon, and Rachel Weisz, all of whom may be excellent performers and writers, and all of whom are also pretty much exactly the definition of the beauty standard, even if they’re not as cheesecake-perfect as sex symbols who don’t usually garner the prefix of “thinking man’s.” Sarah Palin of all people is actually the closest I can think of, in that she's a well-known woman viewed as attractive in a field where you don't have to be a professional beauty to succeed—but besides the fact that her sex appeal became a tool of ridicule, she was literally a beauty queen, hardly landing her in the same camp as Neil deGrasse Tyson. (Also, she’s Sarah Palin, but whatevs.) Google turns up a few other women labeled “thinking man’s sex symbol” who aren’t entertainers—writer Jhumpa Lahiri, Sheryl Sandberg—which come closer to the spirit of the deGrasse Tyson phenomenon, but they’re acknowledged as sex symbols on a far smaller level. The point: Call her a nerd crush or the thinking man’s sex symbol—if she’s a woman, she’s still got to be pretty damned good-looking to get the title. I mean, when The Wonder Years child star Danica McKellar went on to be an advocate for girls in math, she was doing book promotion in lingerie. 

Just as we’d be unwise to blame individual men for patriarchal beauty standards, we can’t say that the lack of widely acknowledged atypical female sex symbols is a reflection of men’s abilities to see beyond the physical. Men are just as capable as women of finding someone attractive for reasons that have little to do with visual attraction, and I’ve heard plenty of individual men share their crushes on somewhat unlikely targets: soccer player Abby Wambach, economics blogger Megan McArdle, Broad City’s Ilana Glazer, poet Nikki Giovanni, and tennis player Martina Hingis before the makeover. An ex once sheepishly told me he had just a wee little crush on Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher, you know?

Still, collectively we’re slow to recognize the possibility of a female “sex symbol” who doesn’t possess the hallmarks of a traditional sex symbol. And to be clear, on its face this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I mean, the flipside here is that anytime a prominent woman does anything nifty, she’s suddenly a “sex symbol.” Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi: the Hill’s sex symbol! Doesn’t Alice Munro look hot as a Nobel laureate? By no means am I arguing that we should sexualize women’s accomplishments just so we can have a female equivalent of a Neil deGrasse Tyson. But the thing is, we already do sexualize accomplished women, assuming she’s conventionally attractive. What’s missing is room for a wider public acknowledgment of the enormous swath of qualities that make accomplished women attractive. We give it to the gents, and on an individual level we give it to women too. But when it comes to our culture—or hell, just Twitter—christening an utterly average-looking woman a sex symbol of any sort, we shy away from the possibility.

Basically, this is a version of the same old song—I mean, news flash, women are expected to look conventionally pretty. It’s just interesting to me that we as a culture are willing to go to greater lengths to extend the definition of attractive to include skill and charisma when we’re talking about men, but not so willing when we’re talking about women. Or are we? I’m hoping I’ve got a major blind spot here. Are there famous women I’m overlooking who are widely known as “sex symbols” despite not matching the definition of conventional beauty? I’d like to learn that I’m mistaken.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

News Flash! The Risks of Overreporting

Recovering from my hypothetical chemical peel. (Artist rendering.)

So as I mentioned last week, I recently had a medical procedure, uterine fibroid embolization. (I’m fine, just medically oversharing because given how common symptomatic fibroids are, I’m surprised I hadn’t heard of this procedure until I had to have it myself. Happy Fibroid Embolization Awareness Day!) My doctor had told me that I should plan the procedure for a time when I could afford to take two weeks off of work, since recovery varied from person to person and it could take that long before I felt back to 100%. I’m healthy and hardy and all that, so I guessed I’d fall on the earlier end of the spectrum, but still allowed myself two weeks of “freelancer medical leave” (i.e. no work, but no pay) just in case.

But then the thought hit me: Since I’d be in bed for a few days, and not wanting to stray too far from home after that, and wouldn’t be making any social or professional plans for two weeks, why not get a chemical peel too?! I didn’t know much about chemical peels, except that a beauty worker friend of mine said they were possibly the only thing that "really" could reverse skin damage, and that the way its patrons look afterward inspired a horror film on Arrested Development. For a few weeks post-peel, you look like...well, like you’ve just had your top layer of skin removed, which indeed is exactly what's happened. I just knew that I’d noticed more signs of aging, and that I’d started going down the rabbit hole of various creams and serums designed to prevent aging, and that it was a moment of weakness, and I rationalized that if I got a drastic facial treatment I wouldn’t “need” the serums and whatnot, and I could write about it too, and besides, it was a treat! (Because paying someone to pour acid on your face is a treat, of course. That’s another post.) I’d read about people getting small cosmetic procedures done at the same time as small medical procedures, and though it’s not like my radiologist was also going to be my facialist, I thought it was a time-saver, recovery-wise. It was my own way of crossing the line of medical spas and luxury spas—my very own, foolishly planned, DIY, weirdo procedure-recovery plan!

Now, unless my impression of myself is gravely mistaken, I’m not one to run out and try something just because the beautiful people are doing so. Nor am I slavish to new beauty treatments (except BB creams, which I love and will happily wax on about to you, were I a different sort of beauty blogger). No, my reason for suddenly wanting to do a treatment because it seemed situationally appropriate was both more opportunistic and more doltish than that: I knew it was something I could do, and in fact was something people do do, and since for the first time I’d be in a situation where I could do it myself, I just...sort of wanted to do it.

I didn’t do it, to be clear, after floating the idea by a friend who looked at me with a knitted brow and said, Why?, and when I found myself having to say out loud Because I won’t be doing much else for a couple of weeks and no other reason whatsoever, she kindly suggested I find another way to spend my money—even a pricey facial would do me more good, she pointed out, since I don’t have the sort of skin damage that would truly benefit from a chemical peel. (And it’s a good thing I didn’t, since my recovery from the embolization turned out to be just about a week long, hardly the amount of time I’d need to nicely recover from a chemical peel.)

My own simple-minded thinking is the root culprit here. But allow me to finger another cause: hype. I’d only considered the possibility of overlapping a hard-core beauty treatment with a soft-core medical one because I’d heard about people doing similar things—the postpartum abdominoplasty known as a “mommy tuck” comes to mind. It seems that now most doctors won’t do the “mommy tuck” until six months postpartum, but I remember seeing some trash “news”-type program years ago about the “trend” of getting a C-section and a tummy tuck done during the same hospital stay. Here’s the thing: I’m guessing that virtually every single woman, and every single doctor, who was willing to do such a thing, was featured on that news program. That is: It’s something that has been done, and is such an ill-advised thing for someone to do—yet is also something that nicely ties into tsk-tsking fears about “what society has become” or whatever—that it becomes magnified and overreported. Like Vajazzling.

But: We love stories about Vajazzling! We love stories about people who get cosmetic surgery to look like celebrities or anime characters. We love stories about mothers who are so addicted to tanning beds that she was charged with child endangerment for bringing her daughter into the tanning bed with her. We love stories about bagel head and vampire facials. Hell, we love stories we’ve definitively disproven, like the whole Cher-had-a-rib-removed-so-her-waist-was-smaller thing. People, we love stories about anal bleaching. 

There are two prime dangers here to hyping up beauty treatments beyond what they actually warrant, which at first seem diametrically opposed. The first problem: As with my opportunistic chemical peel, overreporting on drastic or silly things people do in the name of beauty can amp up the risk of otherwise sensible people considering actually doing such things. Because while some stories are indeed truly outliers (“tanning mom”), others, while not truly fads, are done in numbers great enough to be able to actually become trends if enough people believe it’s the thing to do. I mean, Vajazzle isn’t a Saturday Night Live sketch; it’s a company

The second danger is more problematic: It allows us to put distance between our own beauty work and beauty work that “crosses the line.” Bagel head is crazy; a little Juvederm isn’t so bad. Anal bleaching is ridiculous; a bikini wax is just upkeep. When we nibble on stories about extreme beauty treatments, or just dumb ones, we’re doing so in part out of discomfort with our own choices—and we wind up reinforcing the idea that ultimately, beauty work is a fool’s errand. I mean, not for me, but for her. As Virginia Sole-Smith put it in her post on “baby Botox,” “By focusing only on these extreme, headline-grabbing stories, we get to outsource the issue and blame the victims.” 

So yeah, like I said, these two problems seem opposed to one another. But I think they’re actually synthesized. Anytime we read about something extreme, most of us take one tiny step toward normalizing it. And once you take a tiny step toward normalizing something, it’s easier for it to take hold in your mind. For example: I'd never thought twice about the color of my teeth until I started reading about celebrities doing whitening treatments—and I never thought I’d do anything about it until I learned that normal people, as in not some lady in a magazine but good friends of mine who shared my general values, did something about it. (I stopped; I’m too cheap to do the real thing, and those gel trays are repulsive.) When we overreport—or overread reports—of beauty work that crosses the line, we nudge ourselves just a little bit closer to that line, until we have to come up with something even more extreme to serve as that line we daren’t cross. And so on, and so on, until we all have bleached assholes.

Speaking of which, if I am just a babe in the woods and this is something a good number of actual, normal, tax-paying, upstanding citizens do—please, I beg you, allow me this one stroke of blissful ignorance. Thank you, friend. Thank you.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

When Blogger Comes Marching Home

So! It seems my plan to "blog lite" while I finished the first draft of my book fell by the wayside the closer the deadline got. Perhaps some blogger-writers are able to blog as a way to relax after putting in their time writing in other forms, but that is not me. Cyberapologies all around; will you still have me?

In any case, I've finished the first draft of my book, and spending several months focused on essentially one task—which is a luxury I've never had before—has brought up a handful of thoughts related to what I write about here. And so, allow me to ease my way back into blogging with a smattering of thoughts, if you will? (As for returning to blogging, I am—I promise—but I need a short break from computers altogether, say, a week. I just didn't want to go for too long without updating!)

• For better or worse, I started wearing makeup to write. Not as a rule; it happened more by accident, as I put on makeup to go out for a coffee-shop writing session and then changed my mind at the last minute and stayed home. I found that then, when I'd get up for bathroom breaks, when I'd look at myself in the mirror I felt myself, or like the image of myself I have in my mind. I felt less distracted by noticing little things that I usually "fix" with  makeup, like being pale-cheeked or having a constellation of acne scars. It wasn't like previously, I'd look in the mirror in the middle of a writing jag and then fixate on my image, but really, when I'm in the headspace to write, it's so easy for me to get off-track that I figured anything I could do to minimize distractions would be a good thing. I tried it again the next day and found that I focused a little better, that I felt more "on." 

I've argued before that makeup functions as a sort of signal of public life—zones outside of the private sphere require a different protocol than private spaces, and makeup can be one of the ways we delineate the two. I'm wondering if the end goal of the writing I was doing—a book, which will have a somewhat different audience than my blog, and which feels like a more public and permanent collection of What I Think About Beauty than my blog, which gives me plenty of room to change my mind—meant that I benefited from being in a more "public" space via makeup than I would from blogging? 

• My biggest motivation to not restrict my caloric intake is keeping a clear mind.  Moving in with my boyfriend has been great, but it's also eliminated the 20-minute walk between our former domiciles, and our mutual fondness for sweets has meant there's more candy lying around than I'd ever have living on my own. Take all that and the fact that I've spent the past couple of months basically doing nothing but sitting in a chair and writing, and it's inevitable that I'd gain a couple of pounds. I'd resigned myself to this and knew that writing a good book was more important than a number on a scale, so I'd promised myself that I wouldn't freak out if that happened. I also knew that if I gained more than "a couple of pounds" while writing this book it would be bad for me—it could trigger my history of disordered eating, it could make me have to spend money on new clothes, and it could affect my level of comfort in my own body. I'm not talking being artifically slim; I've found my "happy weight," and when I began writing the book, I was at it. (Speaking of "happy weight," I found an interesting calculator that asks a handful of questions and then crunches out a number. It's hardly super-scientific, but it's the first weight calculator I've seen that takes family history and lifestyle beyond exercise into account. As always, grain of salt.)

Point is, I knew that my meals were generally healthful and a good size, so when I started working on this book full-time I decided I'd keep my snacking in check and see how it went. And what I found was that if I didn't have a snack in the morning—which is my prime time for thinking and writing—I could neither think nor write. Thinking as hard as I can makes me seriously hungry—not mind-hunger, but actual stomach-rumbling, limbs-shaking hunger-hunger. (Which makes me wonder exactly what kind of "thinking" I've been doing for the 37 years up until this point if I'm only now discovering this, but that's another post.) Normally I wouldn't be hungry until around 1 p.m., but I found myself lightheaded if I didn't have a snack at 11, after writing for just a couple of hours. I tried drinking more coffee, I tried taking brisk walks, but they didn't help: I was genuinely, physically hungry, my brain wanted more glucose to do its thing, and there was no way around it. I knew that my biggest priority was to write the best book I could, while staying sane. Restricting calories would mean I wouldn't be doing either. And so, I didn't.

Like washing one's face, this is common sense to plenty of people. But it wasn't common sense to me, or to many people who have a history of disordered eating. I try not to get too into ED stuff on here because I'm wary of strengthening its connection to "beauty" in anyone's mind, including my own, but this was a serious "aha!" moment for me, so I'm sharing it: I knew that when I was seriously restricting calories, I was fatigued and lightheaded all the time, but that was because I was drastically undereating. I hadn't considered its corollary: If you're genuinely hungry, even if it's been just a couple of hours since you ate a full meal, not snacking is undereating. Simple to so many people, an "aha!" to another many altogether.

And two thoughts not related to book-writing, except that the latter explains why it will take me just a bit longer to get back to full speed here:

• Sometime beauty products can help even us skeptics. Or: You should really wash your face. This may seem to be basic truth to many! Not to me. When I stopped shampooing my hair for a spell a couple of years ago, I also stopped using any sort of cleanser on my face—I'd just rinse my face with water, morning and night, and then put on whatever treatments or makeup I wanted. I exfoliated a couple of times a week with baking soda, that was all. But on a whim I bought an exfoliating cleanser to see if it had any benefits not offered by baking soda, and sure enough, my skin started looking...cleaner, I guess? Which is what you'd expect with a cleanser. But also brighter, tighter-pored, a little more even, so while I don't use it every day, I use it probably 4-5 times a week. In typical contrarian fashion I'd decided that most basic products like face wash were basically hogwash and a waste of money. A sense of skepticism is a good thing when it comes to beauty, I think, but one can take it too far. So: Wash your damn face.

• My doctor told me not to wear makeup. Well, sort of. Tomorrow I'm having a minimally invasive medical procedure. (I'm fine, it's just uterine fibroids, which 20-30% of women have, but most of the time they're not symptomatic; mine are. And so, embolization.) I'll be under local anesthetic but also sedated. And as a part of prepping me for the procedure, the medical team advised the general—no eating or drinking after midnight, have someone to escort me home—but also the unexpected: no makeup! Apparently when you're under sedation, the medical team monitors your pallor as one sign of your overall well-being. If there's a problem with the anesthesia, your skin color is one of many signs that alerts the team that there's something amiss. Alas, I have nothing sociologically interesting to say about this, other than that I think it's a sign of progress that anesthesiologists recognize that women are half their patients and are expanding their pre-testing procedures accordingly. It wasn't so long ago that women weren't used equally in clinical trials for fear of fertility side effects. I don't know how much that extended to things like patient prep for anesthesia, but I thought it was interesting. 

Monday, January 20, 2014

A Compleat To-Do List for the 34-to-56-Year-Old American Woman, as Determined by Ad Placement on Lifetime Television's Premiere of "Flowers in the Attic"

  • Fix yellow, crooked, softening teeth (Invisalign, ACT mouthwash, Colgate Optic White)
  • Cover gray hair (Nice & Easy, Clairol Age Defy)
  • Find appropriate food for pet with food sensitivities (Fresh Pet, Blue Basics)
  • Find a date (Christian Mingle)
  • Lubricate (Osphema; see above)
  • Cheer on patricide (Lizzie Borden movie with Christina Ricci)
  • Find insurance, preferably from talking and/or oversized baby (State Farm, Nationwide)
  • Make homemade bread but not really (Fleischmann's Simply Homemade Bread Mix)
  • Take on vaginal fungus and win (Monistat)
  • Root for the underdog ("Gimme Shelter" with Vanessa Hudgens as "a revelation"; see also Gabby Douglas Lifetime movie)
  • Go to the Bahamas (Atlantis resort)
  • Get a damn coat (Burlington)
  • Eat fried chicken and/or creatively packaged tuna (KFC, Sunkist Tuna Creations)
  • Be appropriately compensated for injury sustained in truck accident (Cellino & Barnes, 800-888-888,
  • Call Cellino & Barnes on new phone (T-Mobile)
  • Get rid of this damn migraine/remind self of anti-aging possibilities (Botox)
  • "Do" taxes (H&R Block)
  • Become pain-free (Xeljanz, Cortizone, Move Free, ThermaCare, Advil, Rolaids, Robitussin, both of the ’Quils, Selsun Blue, Chapstick, Airborne, Gold Bond)
  • Menstruate (Always Infinity Flex Foam)
  • Purchase sturdier shoes (Skechers Slip-Resistant Shoes)
  • Consume anything at Dunkin’ Donuts except donuts (DD iced tea, coffee, breakfast sandwich)
  • No, wait, have breakfast sandwich at home (Jimmy Dean)
  • Switch to bank that cares about my ideas (Santander)
  • Watch more Lifetime Television, preferably using Time Warner (too many to list)
  • Learn; drink more water (Capella University, Pur water filtration)
  • Take out the trash (Hefty Ultimate)
  • Buy batteries for vibrator (Energizer; implied)
  • Meryl! ("August: Osage County")

Thursday, January 16, 2014

"Flowers in the Attic" Is the Best Book Ever* And Here Is Why

Yes, I’m serious. Flowers in the Attic—a.k.a. “The book that made teenage girls look sideways at their brothers and shudder,” as my similarly besotted pal Lindsay put it—wasn’t originally marketed as a young adult book when it was first printed in 1979, but it soon found its niche in the hearts of pubescent girls across the land. (And now it’s popularly acknowledged as a YA book; in fact, my library categorizes it as such.) It hit bestseller lists within two weeks of its publication, and the popularity of that book and the numerous other works by V.C. Andrews** that followed didn’t dwindle for years—in 1990, V.C. Andrews was still the second-most-popular author among teens.

I was one of those teenagers, and maybe you were too. I’d grown up on a steady supply of classics and earnest Newbery award-winning books for children and young adults, so it wasn’t like I was deprived of good literature. But come the sophisticated age of 12, I was ready for something juicier than Tom Sawyer kissing Becky Thatcher, and I moved straight into—spoiler alert, here and throughout—brotherfucking. And, you know, I knew it was trash, but damn if I didn’t stay up nights sixth through ninth grade blazing through the entire Flowers in the Attic Dollanganger series, followed by the Casteel series, followed by the Dawn series, followed by My Sweet Audrina, which I thought was lame*** and then I stopped. But when I heard that Lifetime was premiering a new**** Flowers in the Attic movie this SaturdayI went back for a reread, and thus, my declaration that Flowers in the Attic Is the Best Book Ever.

And here’s why.

1) The incest plot was hot. 
Which is not to say that girls actually want to sleep with their brothers / sisters / uncles / cousins / parents / etc. It’s not even to say that girls fantasize about it in great numbers. But consensual incest caters to the nascent desires of many a pre/teen girl—that is, girls who aren’t yet sexually active, but who are beginning to think in terms of sexuality and have erotic impulses. A 12-year-old who has yet to be kissed might well be simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by the thought of sex—and what would make it a mentally “safe spot” where she could feel aroused and not repulsed? A known, loving, nonthreatening partner. That is...a brother. Not her own brother, of course; I’m guessing most girls would be repulsed by the thought of actually kissing her own brother. But with Flowers in the Attic, the teen reader is aligned with protagonist Cathy by dint of being a girl. She gets to experience the thrill of sex without having to entirely shed any vestiges of “eww boys,” because she knows that “her” brother (that is, Chris, Cathy's brother) is a loving, nurturing person who is, above all, safe. So by “becoming” Cathy, the reader is able to experience sex—which, if memory serves, the average early adolescent sees as a combination of forbidden and arousing—in a way that’s both. 

Consensual incest is actually a recurring theme in Gothic novels (“the perfect linking of the most desirable object with the prohibited object”), and it showed up in the work of one of the most-read feminine***** erotica writers (Anaïs Nin, whose incest erotica was published just two years before Flowers in the Attic). It’s actually a surprise that there aren’t a whole lot more Gothic YA books with brother bangin’. Of course, the whole “brothers are safe” thing is complicated just a bit by the wee matter of consent. Chris and Cathy’s major sexual interlude begins with this:

… “You’re mine, Cathy! Mine! You’ll always be mine! No matter who comes into your future, you’ll always belong to me! I”ll make you!”

I didn’t believe it, not Chris!

And I did not fully understand what he had in mind, nor, if I am to give him credit, do I think he really meant what he said, but passion has a way of taking over.

We fell to the floor, both of us. I tried to fight him off. We wrestled, turning over and over, writing, silent a frantic struggle of his strength against mine.

It wasn’t much of a battle.

Two pages later, Chris is quick to offer the world’s most awful/awesome apology (“I didn’t mean to rape you, I swear to God”). But Cathy is just as quick to clarify that he didn’t rape her. “I could have stopped you if I’d really wanted to. All I had to do was bring my knee up hard… It was my fault too.” Yet the pretense that there was force involved may well have helped girls derive pleasure from it—“good girls” don’t actively want to have sex, after all. But if you’re simply overpowered, then you didn’t want it, it just happened. Applied to real life, this is terrible logic (in fact, it’s rapist logic); applied to the fantasy life of girls who have desires but not the know-how to give them form even in her imagination, it makes some sort of sense. Rape fantasies aren’t uncommon for women to have; about 4 in 10 women have them, with a median frequency of once a month. I couldn’t find any numbers about rape fantasies among girls/teens, but my hunch says that the idea of having to have sex whether you want to or not is probably far more appealing to someone who hasn’t yet learned how to express her sexual agency.

The first time I floated this girls-like-incest-fantasies bit out loud, one woman pointed out that for a good number of girls, rape and incest are realities, and that eroticizing them reinforces the idea that there’s something sexy about nonconsensual sex. (Keeping in mind that while consensual incest does happen, many survivors of coercive incest convince themselves their abuse is quasi-consensual, as a survival tactic.) I agree, at least in the sense that popular culture is a part of rape culture, which then colors the idea of what rape is (and—surprise!—usually not in a way that is helpful to its victims). But that’s not what’s going on in Flowers in the Attic. (Later “V.C. Andrews” novels, perhaps, but that’s a different post.) It’s in the realm of fantasy—it’s even constructed as such within the book. As literature professor Cynthia Griffin Wolff writes of earlier Gothic work, part of the hallmarks of Gothic literature is “a set of conventions within which ‘respectable’ feminine sexuality might find expression.” It’s understood by the reader as a way to get to read utter filth with a sort of “free pass” for wanting to do so in the first place. Case in point: When I read it as an adult, I found that I’d erased any rapey overtones from my memory of reading it as a kid. I saw it for what it was, and judging from the way my friends talked about it at the time, they did too. Nobody in their right mind would hand it to a young rape victim as a depiction of her experience—read as such, it’s horrific (“It was my fault too”?). But that’s not how it’s read by its readers, I don’t think. (Of course, when I read this book the first time, I hadn’t experienced a whit of sexual trauma; perhaps if I had, my memory of it would be different. I can only go off my own experience here.) 

Point is: Girls don’t want to be raped, any more than they want to sleep with their brothers. But are there elements of it that appeal to the V.C. Andrews target demographic beyond the mere taboo? Yeah.

2) It lets you hate the mother but still love your own. 
You know those goody-two-shoes YA novels where the protagonist and her mother might fight but deep down there’s a Very Special Connection? V.C. Andrews offers an ear-shattering Screw that and gives the reader every excuse to seriously hate on Cathy's mother, Corinne. SHE KILLED CORY, I mean, come on. Now, my mom and I have always had a pretty good relationship (I mean, I’m choosy about my guest bloggers, and here she is! Twice!). But our mother-daughter relationship took a definite downswing during my prime V.C. Andrews years. A catalogue of my mother’s sins circa 1987-89: She made me wear a hat and scarf in when it was a measly -18 outside (hats are for dorks!), she made me take a study skills course (study skills omg mom!), she enrolled me in a girls’ self-defense seminar against my will (on a Saturday, which is a weekend!), she made me read Charlotte Freakin’ Bronte (life is not school!), she wouldn’t buy me a Guess sweatshirt just because I wanted one (everyone but meee had one!), and she wouldn’t let me see Dirty Dancing (actually, I still think I’m right on this one). 

Anyway. So while I never resorted to any “I hate you!” antics, there was definite tension, and it doesn’t require years of therapy to understand that part of it was my pubescent resistance to becoming anything like my mother—that is, a woman. Eager as I was to grow up, my fantasy of womanhood clashed hard against the reality of womanhood I saw in the form of the actual woman I knew best. In my head, being a woman meant, like, going to balls and wearing updos and going out with a different dashing suitor every night, but then here was this flesh-and-blood woman who was doing things like making taco salad. It wasn’t long before I woke up and started appreciating her and everything she did for our family, but at 12 I was just too self-absorbed.

Enter a mom who went from basically being a Christmas card to locking up her four children in an attic and slowly poisoning them while she...went to balls and wore updos and went out with dashing suitors. Corinne takes every bit of perfectly normal mother-daughter strife and balloons it into grotesquerie. She’s a nightmare in the truest sense—just as you might manifest everyday anxiety into the classic why-am-I-in-my-underwear dream, Corinne’s evil is an enormously exaggerated version of what a lot of girls might feel toward their mothers at that age, shown from the girl’s perspective. That includes love and adoration too—Cathy might need prompting at times, but she’s still willing to melt into Corinne’s arms for quite some time after Corinne locked her away.

As Adrienne Rich writes in Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, mother-hatred is interpreted as “a womanly splitting of the self, in the desire to become individuated and free. The mother stands in for the victim in ourselves, the unfree woman, the martyr.” Gee: split self, desire to become individuated and free, victim, martyr, sounds like a whole lotta 12-year-olds I knew. Cathy’s physical resemblance to Corinne is more than a handy plot point (not to detract from the awesome doppelganger subplot in Petals in the Wind******, but I digress); it’s an extension of this idea that mother is daughter, and daughter mother, as much as she wishes not to be. And it also leads to…

3) It depicts aspects of beauty that we don’t often see. 
Plenty of books explicitly aimed at teens and preteens involve looks, but it tends to be some variation on the protagonist’s dissatisfaction. Maybe she doesn’t think she’s pretty (but some boy just might teach her otherwise!), maybe she’s jealous of her best friend’s looks, maybe she has a movie-moment makeover in which she sees herself as she wishes to be seen. The better of the YA set will deal with these in a more complex manner, but at best there’s ambivalence about whether or not the girl feels attractive.

Not so with Cathy: She’s a babe, and she knows it, and it isn’t because of any makeover. In fact, she has a disdain for artifice—when her brother tells her that if she develops an hourglass figure, she’ll “make a fortune,” she schools him on the dangers of corsetry. She takes sensual pleasure in herself: “[A]lways before I went to sleep, I spread my hair on my pillow so I could...nestle my cheek in the sweet-smelling silkiness of very pampered, well-cared-for, healthy, strong hair.” She waits until she’s alone and “then I stared, preened, and admired” herself in the mirror, for “Certainly I was much prettier than when I came here.” As for body image, when she talks of her dream of becoming a ballerina, she points out that “dancers have to eat and eat or else they’d be just skin and bones, so I’m going to eat a whole gallon of ice cream each day, and one day I’m going to eat nothing but cheese…”—a far cry from the prototypical YA-ballet-eating-disorder storyline. (I mean, eating a gallon of ice cream a day is an eating disorder, but whatever.)

Cathy takes pride in her looks, something that we cheer her on about, especially when she’s punished by the grandmother after she catches Cathy admiring herself naked in the mirror. (Naturally, the punishment befits the crime: She pours tar in Cathy’s long blond hair, forcing her to cut it off.) Pride isn’t the sin here—the sin, as the reader sees it, is all on the grandmother. In what other universe are girls cheered on for their vanity? Not just her pride or resilience with her body image or ability to recite “I’m beautiful just the way I am!” or whatever, but her downright vanity? It’s the cardinal sin of girldom, thinking you’re “all that.” But Cathy does it. The only “mean girl” around to side-eye her is the grandmother (“‘You think you look pretty? You think those new young curves are attractive?’” she hisses at Cathy), and obviously we’re going to be on Cathy’s side here. We freakin’ eat it up.

The leadup to Cathy and Chris getting all bow-chicka-bow-bow is less about anything that actually happens between them physically, and more about him seeing her (something her mother never does—Cathy totally freaks when Corinne brings her a bunch of “silly, sweet little-girl garments that screamed out she didn’t see,” none of which have room for her new curves). “[Y]ou look so beautiful. It’s like I never saw you before. How did you grow so lovely, when I was here all the time?” Chris says to Cathy upon catching her naked. The only other eyes on her as a woman are her own. Remember that whole “girls mature faster than boys” thing that turned out to be painfully true? Remember that sensation of wishing boys would just see you already? Yeah.

Andrews herself had experience with looks bringing a mixed bag of tricks: After suffering a severe fall as a teenager (which eventually landed her in a wheelchair), doctors didn’t believe that she was in pain, telling her she “looked too good” to be seriously hurt. Says Andrews of that age, “I was very pretty, and some fathers of my little girl friends made advances.” She never spoke publicly of anything abusive that might have happened, but it’s interesting to note that alongside the wording she chooses for Corinne when describing how she fell in love with her husband/half-uncle-half-brother: “I was fourteen years old—and that is an age when a girl just begins to feel her power over men. And I knew I was what most boys and men considered beautiful…” Girls are usually cautioned against playing with this particular kind of fire—as well they should be, given the potential fallout. But denying that there’s a lure to discovering one’s own appeal does girls a disservice, particularly when young women’s bodies are still the universal symbol for sex.

Okay, now that I’ve convinced you that Flowers in the Attic is the best movie ever, you should all watch Saturday’s premiere with me and live-tweet the whole damn thing. That’s my plan, at least, but I am not kidding when I say that if tweeting interferes with the sheer enjoyment of it I will turn off all devices except the television immediately. In any case, I’ll hop on the Lifetime hashtag and go with #badgrandma too. Join in!


* Okay, seriously, it’s more like, Anna Karenina, Beloved, The Sun Also Rises, and then Flowers in the Attic. Or is it?!?!

** And by “V.C. Andrews” I mean both Flowers in the Attic author Virginia Andrews and ghostwriter Andrew Neiderman, who continued to write books under her name after Virginia’s death. Tracie Egan Morrissey interviewed him for Jezebel here.

*** Duh, of course it was lame. The first two lines of the Wikipedia entry about it: “My Sweet Audrina is a 1982 novel by V. C. Andrews. It was the only standalone novel without incest published during Andrews' lifetime.” Bo-ring!

**** As opposed to the old FITA movie with Victoria Tennant and Kristy Swanson, which was unfaithful to the book in the lamest possible ways (see also ***, above).

***** The literature scholars among you will likely not be surprised to learn this, but I was: There’s actually an entire genre of Gothic literature dubbed “female Gothic,” the hallmarks of which include ambivalent feelings toward female sexuality, and women being literally or symbolically motherless while simultaneously being shaped by patriarchal culture. For more on female Gothic—and for V.C. Andrews in particular—check out V.C. Andrews: A Critical Companion, which A) exists, and B) is now officially replacing Flowers in the Attic as The Best Book Ever. And now I’m absolutely serious—no, really, I am—it’s totally awesome and if you enjoyed this post at all you should at least skim it. Fascinating stuff.

****** Cathy dresses up just as Corinne did for a Christmas party 15 years earlier, then stuns the guests at the very same annual party by making a grand entrance as "Corinne" and revealing that she had kept four children locked away in the attic while she spent her evenings drinking from champagne fountains and slowly poisoning her kids with arsenic doughnuts. Then the mansion burns down, and Corinne winds up in an insane asylum. THE BEST.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

In Which I Take An Episode of "South Park" Far Too Seriously

Just a few thoughts about the latest episode of—of all things—South Park. I've always thought the show was cute, but one of the side effects of cohabitation is that I'm now suddenly exposed to a lot of South Park, and I've become a full-on convert of its inspired mix of goofiness and social criticism and blah blah TV critic circa 1999. Anyway, it's always a treat when I see a media outlet besides the usual suspects take on my pet topics, which Trey Parker and Matt Stone did last night.

For those who don't watch the show or didn't see last night's episode: When one of the main characters tells a girl who asks him out that she's fat, the suddenly feminist cheerleading captain, Wendy, sets out to prove a point about unrealistic beauty standards by Photoshopping the girl's picture. But Wendy's plan backfires, as the boy now believes the girl is actually "hot"—and when the girl's manipulated photo goes viral, she's the school catch. Soon the entire cheerleading squad hits the gym—in truth, a computer lab where a trainer yells at them to digitally whittle their bodies faster—leaving Wendy alone and frustrated that her point has been totally missed. Worse, everyone from the school counselor to the nightly news team assumes she's taken up the crusade because she's jealous (or "jelly," in the show's parlance). The show ends with—spoiler alert—Wendy giving up by digitally manipulating her own photo so she looks as "good" as her friends. (There's also a side plot involving Kanye West's slow discovery that Kim Kardashian is the inspiration for The Hobbit. It is South Park, after all.)

In my recollection, this is the only episode this season—and one of the few overall—that has focused on the girls of South Park Elementary, and this is the topic they chose. And it's with a decidedly male perspective; men ages 18-24 are South Park's top viewers, and the prime target audience. Perhaps this was meant to cater to the show's female audience, but I don't think so: I'm guessing this was a (relatively) straightforward Parker-Stone perspective shown, as ever, through the South Park lens. Which means that on some level, the whole unrealistic-beauty thing is of concern to the target South Park audience—witness the last scene of the episode, where Wendy, with a tear in her eye, hits "send" to circulate her edited babe pic to the entire school. It was a quiet, surprisingly sincere ending, one that echoed the ending of last week's trilogy, when the main characters decide to put down their video games and actually play with each other.

What struck me about the episode was how the ability to manipulate one's own image was seen as a psychological gold mine—none of the girls besides Wendy saw it as anything other than a way to attract attention, and maybe as a way to trick themselves into thinking they truly looked as picture-perfect as their, well, pictures. (Now, to be clear, we're talking about a student body that has previously embraced mass murder as a route to scoring XBoxes, as well as defecating out of their mouths, so I'm not trying to say that the show is remotely rooted in realism here, mkay?) The focus of the episode was not so much on the other students' dismissal of Wendy's critique but of their embrace of the ability to edit their own images. It's this that's being mocked, not Wendy—the potential narcissism that accompanies the sudden ability to look as good as your digital skills allow. 

While calling out digital photography as a cesspool of narcissism is hardly new (and let's not forget that narcissism existed before social media), it's rare in the forthrightly feministy circles I tend to run in to see someone blatantly call a preoccupation with one's own image flat-out vain or narcissistic. I'm likelier to frame it in terms of social pressures, a psychic tradeoff for women's growing power in the world à la The Beauty Myth, or self-esteem or whatever. And I'm quick to defend the occasional charge of, say, makeup use as vanity (especially when it comes from men), because it is something usually leveled squarely at women. But, yes, narcissism does play a role, at least potentially—and it's interesting that this is what two male creators talking with a male audience come up with in regards to women/girls manipulating their own photos: the masses discarding the (righteous) political points surrounding the issue. It's interesting because the accusations of self-interest are still done with a relatively sympathetic hand: The girls see the rewards becoming digitally "hot" can bring them, so why wouldn't they go along with the plan? I wonder if Parker and Stone's—AND THEREFORE ALL MEN'S, ha—emotional distance from the question of visual self-representation is what allows them to squarely finger the role of self-absorption in image control. And more than that, I wonder if the reason they're looking at this topic now is because men are becoming evermore enveloped in these questions. (I see the sign on the clubhouse now: Boys allowed!)

Now, I'm hesitant to say that a single episode of a single cartoon indicates any sort of sea change for men's attitudes about beauty standards. But the first scene of the show that followed South Park last night makes me wonder. Comedy duo Key & Peele (another show that's grown on me) are walking in some sort of warehouse that's being redone with paint and plaster and the like, and a blob of paint falls on Key's shirt, right on his pecs. He smears it to the other side of his shirt, then laughs, "It's like I have two paint titties"—and then Peele suddenly can't look Key in the eyes, so transfixed is he by Key's "titties." The gag goes on just long enough, when another blob of paint falls on Peele's shirt too. The duo look up and see a painter above them, leering, "Hey, ladies!" They're literally subject to the male gaze, and they don't like it.

So I don't know, I'm drawing no Big Thoughts here, but it doesn't seem a coincidence that along with the boom in the "grooming" industry for men comes little bundles of criticism on the matter. And the only study I've found so far on the matter actually shows that that men are more likely than women to use an edited photo as their profile pictures on social networking sites. I can't help but wonder: Are men who don't necessarily identify as feminist paying more attention to appearance standards? Will the fallout be a shift in those standards, or just cleverer, deeper encoding of them? Are men likelier than women to call out vanity or narcissism in people's reactions to the beauty imperative?