Wednesday, February 3, 2016

I've Moved!

I've moved! The Beheld is now a part of my more comprehensive site,, which also has information on my book, Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women's Lives.

The URL should direct you to the new site seamlessly. But if you've put the blogspot address into your RSS feed, you should take a second and redirect it to, which is now hosted on Squarespace. All new blog posts will be posted there, though I'll keep this Blogspot site open for archival purposes.

My main reason for switching from Blogspot to Squarespace is the commenting system: The spam filters at Blogspot are terrible, and I hated having to put restrictions on who could and couldn't post comments. Squarespace seems to be better at filtering out spammers, so hopefully you can comment there with ease, and anonymously if you so desire. I also needed to create an author site, so this went hand in hand with that.

Nothing else has changed! I admit I'll miss the clunky aesthetics of this space. It's a reflection of how I see myself as a beauty commenter, in a way—an outsider with the tools to participate, but not the sleek wrapping. I dearly needed an upgrade to my site, so I did one. But that ethos—a little rough around the edges, and utterly sincere—remains.

Men's Fashion, Eugenics, and Cultural Capital

Members of the Men's Dress Reform Party, 1937.

Here’s a party whose caucus I’d love to watch: The Men’s Dress Reform Party. While researching the history of men and makeup, I ran across a mention of this odd-duck British party in the 1930s whose sole purpose was to agitate for loosened clothing restrictions on men. They paraded about in shorts, open-collared shirts, and color-coordinated socks; if a member wore a tie, he might fasten it inches below his Adam’s apple.

The idea was that the dark, heavy clothes men were expected to wear were unhygienic (it was difficult to wash a suit before widely available dry cleaning—indeed, that’s part of why suits are traditionally dark, to mask dirt), and ugly to boot (we’ll get to that). Men’s clothing was a health hazard, they claimed, which fell into line with its parent organization, The New Health Society, a group devoted to educating people about nutrition, “intestinal stasis,” and “helio-hygiene.” (I visualize them as a predecessor to Gwyneth’s Goop team.) So they fought back, urging employers to let workers wear freer dress, organizing ersatz holidays in which men were to wear whatever they pleased, and throwing rallies at which members were instructed to “Come as you are and feel your best,” which for some meant togas, for others singlets and jeans, and for H.G. Wells, meant “ordinary evening dress.”

Western Argus, Kalgoorlie, Australia, July 14, 1931

It seems odd at first that this would be an organized group instead of a looser assemblage, but its goals were political. They’d seen how women had begun to fling off repressive roles, a movement reflected in their clothes; why not do the same for masculinity? J.C. Flügel, an influential psychologist at the time and a proud MDRP member, claimed that the institutionalization of the suit had led to a “a remarkable repression of Narcissism among men,” which he saw as undesirable, as it left all the fun of self-ornamentation to women. Unleashing men’s sartorial fancy, he argued, would loosen their superego, the restrictive, repressive force in the human psyche—which would ultimately lead to greater freedom.

What’s interesting about the MDRP is its split between a vision that even today seems progressive (a lessened emphasis on traditional masculinity) and a cause that seems abhorrent. Part of the MDRP’s cause revolved around eugenics: If the “right” men were to showcase their appearance, they would be more attractive to the “right” women, and more “right” babies (that is, white babies born into the professional class) would be created. Eugenics was widely accepted in mainstream science and medicine then, but even contextualized, it’s clearly troublesome for all sorts of reasons, with fascism topping the list. Yet even within this odious framework, I appreciate their commitment to at least thinking through the evolutionary logistics. Evolution is often cited as a reason women wear makeup: It’s ornamentation that catches the eye of potential mates. It’s a perfectly fine theory until you question why it’s women, and not men, who wear makeup (for the most part), when both sexes have an evolutionary need to attract the other. So the MDRP’s eugenics mission was wrongheaded, but at least it bothered to be consistent with its own internal logic and wasn’t just cherry-picking its theories to justify a sexist vision.

Eugenics is tied to class, not just race, and the MDRP has an interesting fabric here too. The party claimed to be for people of all classes, but the fact was that most of its members were middle- and upper-class, and that they weren’t advocating for more accessible clothes, but more fashionable ones. (In fact, clothes were about to become way more accessible, with the invention of fabrics that invited ready-to-wear clothes—which actually wound up accomplishing the MDRP’s goals, even though they had nothing to do with it.) But the MDRP’s biggest reinforcement of class is something that’s familiar today. The suit that the MDRP was fighting against was the very thing their grandfathers had fought for: a uniform of sorts that would theoretically allow for meritocracy to flourish, since it was more difficult to display wealth through the suit as opposed to the ruffles of the aristocracy. The ruffles were seen as oppressive; eventually, the suit that replaced it became seen as the same.

Today it would look like the MDRP’s vision has won out, at least in America (though remember, the MDRP was British) with leisurewear accepted in plenty of professional workplaces and shorts no longer seen as the province of little boys. But the suit remains, and it remains as a symbol of class. Most of the time I see a man in a suit, he’s either in the upper echelons of certain professional worlds (financiers, government officials), or he’s in a position of servitude (security, hospitality). By agitating for the loss of the suit, the Men’s Dress Reform Party wanted to revert to the days of male self-ornamentation as a display of cultural capital. The suit remains, albeit changed—and changed in a way that has shifted its meaning to be about a display of, not an eradication of, cultural capital. In that way, regardless of the MDRP’s place as a mere footnote in history, they were unexpectedly successful.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Mile-Long Club: The Luxury of Eyelashes

False eyelash patent, 1911.

When I first heard about eyelash extensions, I threw it into the bin of Things I Would Never Do, along with Vajazzling and placenta facials. But when it came time to take my author photo—which will probably serve as the definitive photo of me, Internetwise, for quite possibly the rest of my life—laying on my back for an hour and a half to have my eyelashes individually extended seemed utterly reasonable. I wanted to look my best, but still wanted to look like me; emphasizing my eyes without wearing more dramatic makeup than I’d normally wear seemed like a good way to do that. It got me thinking about eyelashes—before getting eyelash extensions, I didn’t understand their importance. I don’t know how many studies I’ve read that say that the number-one must-wear cosmetic women cite as essential is mascara. There was something there, and there has been for centuries.
  1. Latisse isn’t the first eyelash-growth treatment out there. A partial list of treatments used throughout history to amp up eyelash growth: white wine, mint, lavender vinegar, glycerine, “fluid extract of jaborandi” (an herb that is now used to make prescription glaucoma medicine), red vaseline, a mixture of cornflower and chervil, quinine, almond oil, kohl (personally recommended by the prophet Mohammed), Spanish fly, and myrtle extract, most of which may be applied to the lashes with “a tiny camel’s-hair paint-brush.”
  2. Nor are false eyelashes themselves particularly new. In 1911, an Ottawa woman filed the first patent for false eyelashes, which don’t look all that different from any strip of false eyelashes you might buy at a drugstore. (Her invention was cited in a toupee patent 43 years later, as well as numerous fake eyelash patents, so she was onto something.) D.W. Griffith is often credited with creating them in 1916, but while he did order a wigmaker to improvise a set of them while filming Intolerance, he wasn’t the first. Either way, the patent was decidedly less dramatic than the process described in a British newspaper in 1899, in which the eyelid was rubbed with cocaine, then threaded through with the client’s own hair.
  3. People used to clip their eyelashes. The (erroneous) idea is from the same school of thought that sees parents shaving the heads of their daughters in an effort to make the hair grow back thicker and fuller. It doesn’t work that way, but magazines from the 1890s advise that lashes be “clipped with the scissors once in every five or six weeks, which is all the treatment they require to make them long and curved” (Current Literature: A Magazine of Contemporary Record, 1896). Not that people needed the advice, for “every mother knows that she has only to clip her baby’s eyelashes while it sleeps, and continue the process during its childhood, to render them as long and luxuriant as Circassian’s” (Ballou’s Monthly Magazine, 1872). Other sources recommend eyelash trims, but for hygienic reasons; apparently 120 years ago people were getting all sorts of things wrapped up in their eyelashes. (Incidentally, this actually does happen with eyelash extensions. My lashes have been collecting detritus for weeks.)
  4. We’ve been darkening our eyelashes for a while. You already know about ancient Egyptians and kohl, I’m guessing. Women in parts of Asia used elderberry juice to tint their lashes, as well as ashes from cork or incense. In Europe, India ink, gum arabic, and rosewater was recommended for a black hue; light-haired women were steered toward a mixture of red wine, salt, iron sulphate, a mass of oak chemically distorted by a wash, and French brandy. Basically, anything dark would do—frankincense, resin, plain old soot if you were desperate, mixed with something to make it stick. Once petroleum jelly came along, women started using it to give the appearance of thicker, glossier lashes, but the first commercial mascaras didn’t come about until the 1860s, with Maybelline mascara—a mixture of coal and petroleum jelly, and the first mascara in the States—being developed in 1913.
  5. Like every other aspect of beauty, the quest for luxuriant tells a deeper story. Because human history has such a rich history of attempting to lengthen and darken the lashes, it’s tempting to say that eyelashes are one of those things that has been valued for their beauty regardless of time or place. That’s not quite true, though: In medieval and early Renaissance Europe, lashes were considered unimportant, even ugly—they detracted from the forehead, that most beautiful of features (or so said the mores of the time). Women removed their lashes and brows to give the forehead its full due.

    Still, luxe lashes aren’t a new invention of the beauty industry—women and men have indeed been thickening and darkening theirs since antiquity. But one period in particular stands out here. Many of the odd potions I’ve listed above—chervil for growth, red wine for color—were concocted in late 19th century Europe. Two other crazes were sweeping Europe at the same time: Orientalism, and physiognomy. Europeans became fascinated with the East, “othering” Asian society and rendering cultural practices impossibly exotic, the people full of mystery and secrets. The beauty rites of the East (including the “near East,” or the Caucauses, hence the mention of the eyelash trimming of the Carcassians) were a perfect example of this “mystery.” It intersected perfectly with physiognomy, the pseudoscience of reading people’s personalities through their faces. The “best-developed” fringe belonged to “the aesthetic and artistic classes”; long lashes could indicate shyness and timidity, or secretiveness, indicating that “their owner is too shy or too timid to be perfectly frank and outspoken.” Short lashes were for blunt, rude folks. They’re also “effective agents in love-making and coquetry,” which circles back to Orientalism. Women of the East were (and still are) seen as having an exotic sexuality; borrowing their eyelash hygiene was a way women of the West could borrow that appeal.

    Eyelashes were particularly well-suited to physiognomy’s claims. Regardless of whether long lashes actually indicate a demure or coquettish demeanor, the fact is that if someone is peering at you through a thick fringe, you feel a sense of secretiveness: There’s a barrier there, one that separates eyes, those famous truth-tellers, from others who might discern how much truth is actually being told. 

All this is to say: I don’t regret getting eyelash extensions, even as the process of getting them made me feel incredibly high-maintenance. Which is appropriate: They are high-maintenance, quite literally, in that they require maintenance. You can’t use oil-based makeup remover; you can’t let water stream down your face; you can’t sleep on your side (my solution here was to just sleep with my head on the pillow but my face off of it). No rubbing, no tugging, and you have to separate them every day with a mascara-less mascara wand, or else they’ll get all tangled up. (Finding a down feather wound between my false eyelashes from my pillow is probably my lifetime height of Luxury Problems—indeed, perhaps my lifetime height of luxury.)

I can’t say I’ll shell out for them again; I think of myself as far too practical to do so for any reason other than having a public photo taken. But I have an easy justification in case I do decide to re-up: Eyelash extensions, in some ways, are practical. I found myself not “needing” eye makeup on most days, only wearing it to punch things up a bit. Normally I wear eyeliner and mascara every day, largely because it makes me look more like I look in my mind’s eye. But it’s not like my mind’s eye sees myself wearing eyeliner; it sees me with my eyes more emphasized, more prominent in my facial composition than they actually are. Eyelash extensions did that. (It’s also difficult to apply eyeliner when you’re working around these 9-millimeter spider legs.) Even with the maintenance, it actually saved me time in the morning, this “natural” emphasis made possible by a completely fake creation. It didn’t save me money—eyelash extensions run a little more than $100 and last around a month—but for a short-term proposition it was worth it, and if I had more disposable income I might consider getting them more regularly. Barring that, I’ll just rub my eyelids with cocaine, thread a needle with my own hair, and hope for the best.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

On Beauty Tips and Morality

You've undoubtedly heard the Audrey Hepburn mini-essay she composed when asked for her beauty tips. It begins, "For attractive lips, speak words of kindness," and goes on in that vein ("For beautiful hair, let a child run his or her fingers through it once a day"), culminating with "The beauty of a woman grows with the passing years. You can read the whole thing here, along with a right honorable debunking of the idea that Audrey Hepburn penned it. (She didn't, nor did she ever claim to, but she did recite it often; in fact, it was penned by a Borscht Belt comic.)

Certainly the idea that beauty is goodness isn't a new one; for much of history, we've equated beauty with moral goodness, the idea being that what is beautiful is good, and vice versa. But still, I was surprised to run across what basically functions as a precursor to "Hepburn's" quote, in a collection of household recipes and life tips from 1869:

(If that's too small, here's a link to the original.)

The book this is from, fancifully titled "Enquire Within Upon Everything," was a sort of 1860s lifehacking guide, instructing readers on everything from vegetable pickling, making wax leaf impressions, and stain removal to card games and social dance moves (if you want to improve your valse à deux, look no further). It dispenses morsels of moral wisdom throughout, but still this bit on "The Young Lady's Toilette" seems a hair random. In short, it's a more poetic version of the "speak words of kindness" bit. To wit: "Truth—Fine Lip-Salve: Use daily for our lips this precious dye, They'll redden, and breathe sweet melody." This bit of verse is surrounded by recipes that constitute "real" beauty tips—recipes for hair dye and facial milks—making it read, to this modern viewer, a bit flip, like, "Yeah, yeah, be good and all, but then do the real nitty-gritty."

I'm not going to get into the "what is beautiful is good" thing here, at least not right now—philosophers have been trying to determine its truth for centuries and we still flip-flop all over the place on it—but it is interesting to me to have a bit of evidence that we have a long history of trying to inject morality into what's otherwise a pretty straightforward collection of beauty advice. Victorian-era morality reinforced this, of course, but we're still eager to ameliorate the equation of beauty and vanity with that of beauty and goodness. But we're not particularly eager to replace the former equation with the latter. Cynically speaking, there's profit to be made from keeping vanity at the fore; if beauty is only goodness, what happens to Maybelline? 

But less cynically speaking, if we did allow ourselves to believe that what is beautiful is good, we'd be cutting off a source of entertainment—which is what so much of beauty culture is, particularly when its adherents manage to rob it of wrist-smacking. Beauty-as-goodness might seem like it's a relief of the beauty imperative, but what's more wrist-smacking than the idea that you'd be prettier if only you were a better human?

Friday, December 18, 2015

Money I Regret Spending

You can barely see the regrettable highlights in New York State's latest license iteration. But trust me, they're there. (Seriously, my friends always double-take when they see my license and ask if it's really me. It's, like, droid me.)

It wasn't until I read this takedown article about Mast Brothers chocolate—the $10 bars from a duo of bearded chocolatiers that is ubiquitous at the checkouts of hipster food outlets—that I realized that pretty much all of the money I definitively regret spending is money I spent on vanity.

But first: Mast Brothers. I am a chocolate lover—specifically a lover of chocolate, not chocolate flavor, in that chocolate ice cream, candies, cakes, cookies, etc., do little for me, but give me a good chocolate bar and I'll think fondly of you forever and ever. That said, I'm not a snob about it, and as long as a bar is at least of Lindt quality (that is, quality chocolate but not like the top-notch stuff), I'm happy. But every so often I can't help but get a ridiculously expensive bar, which I manage to savor like all the magazines say you should, and I feel like a decadent queen the whole time.

Mast Brothers was one of those bars. The packaging was cool (though not beautiful; distinctly "cool," i.e. hipster chocolate), and I'd heard enough about them to know they had a good reputation. But $10 later I was underwhelmed. Was it decent chocolate? Sure! Was it good? I guess, insofar as it was at least of Lindt quality, but not appreciably better, and I felt swindled. Swindled! I have not made the mistake since. Also, I discovered Milka, which is probably of lesser quality than even Lindt, but—I mentioned I'm not a snob, right?—it's MILK CHOCOLATE, which is the best chocolate.

Anyway. I remember regretting that $10, but since I like to think of myself as a savvy consumer, I like to forget my financial regrets until I'm reminded of them. But when I saw that article, I was like, "I WANT MY TEN DOLLARS BACK, RICK," which made me think about the other times I've instantly, and distinctively, regretted spending money—and found that while I'm certain there are plenty of other purchases I regret making, the only ones that stick in my craw (besides that waste of a cacao bean) were all beauty-related:

  1. Highlights, $200. It was 2002, I was still new to short hair, and I thought I wanted to be "edgy." I initially wanted blue hair, actually, but this was before normal people could really sport blue hair, and every hairdresser I went to was like, Woman, don't dye your hair blue. (I have an exceedingly pedestrian look otherwise, so it indeed would've been a mismatch visually.) I settled on highlights, and I knew enough to go to a good place that I'd been to before for cuts and trusted. The highlights were blonde and it looked like I'd scattered straw over my head. The worst part is that I went to the DMV later that day to have my driver's license picture taken. It is nearly 14 years later and the representative government-issued image of me shows me looking nothing like myself. 
  2. Pedicure, $18. I do like pedicures in general (though I haven't gotten one since the Times exposé about labor abuses came out). But in 2010 or so, I got a pedicure and thought, This time I'm gonna go all the way, "all the way" meaning get the calluses razored off instead of merely sloughed. It took me two weeks to walk without pain, like the little mermaid in Hans Christian Andersen's original tale. Your calluses are there because your feet need them to support the weight of a fully grown adult! Do not get your calluses razored!
  3. Moisturizer for mature skin, $56. I'm 39, and I don't yet need moisturizer for "mature skin." So why I thought I needed it at age 18, I have no earthly idea. I probably read it in a magazine, that this was THE moisturizer to have and that it would change your life, and I was young enough to believe that when a magazine told you something was life-changing, that it really would change your life. I traipsed to Nordstrom, went to either the Elizabeth Arden or Estee Lauder counter—I can't remember which, I just know it was one of those lines that was meant for women three times my age at the time—paid $56 cash (babysitting money) for this moisturizer, and let out the world's biggest harrumphwhen it did not change my life. To date I am vaguely pissed off at the woman at the counter who let me buy it, since I told her it was for myself.
  4. Facial, ungodly amount. I've written about this before, and why I spent an ungodly amount of money on this particular facial. Suffice to say that I am still embarrassed to print the number but will say that it wasn't much less than my plane ticket to the wedding. Across the country. I am not a rich woman. Just, at certain moments in my life, vain.
  5. Stupid Mast Brothers stupid chocolate bar, $10. Seriously, Rick, gimme my $10 back.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

On Pageantry, the Virgin Mary, and the Smart Girl

Our Christmas pageant didn't bother with the stuffed cows, alas.

My parents raised me in the Methodist church, halfheartedly. The “halfhearted” part would come as no surprise to anyone seated within two rows of our family, as they may have noticed my mother substituting female pronouns in hymns, as well as her reputation for, if you placed her in the right company, questioning the existence of a god of any gender. My father was a bit more enthusiastic, going so far as to teach Sunday school, but even at 7 years old I sensed he was coming up with scripture role-plays out of community spirit, not devotion to Our Father And/Or Mother. When I found out as a teenager that my parents chose the church not because they were Methodist per se but because it was the only church in our South Dakota town with a female pastor and they wanted me to see women in leadership roles of any variety, the endeavor made more sense.

Given that the entire point of the Whitefield-Madrano churchgoing project was an experiment in 1980s liberal parenting, not to worship a deity we were all a little “meh” about, it made sense that we embraced the performative aspects of church. Specifically, the Christmas pageant. If you grew up even vaguely Christian, you know the setup: Kids in the church act out the nativity, dressing up in robes stored in the church basement to be rotated among the kids as they aged in and out of the appropriate roles. Three middle-school boys would carry staffs to lend them credence as Wise Men; younger kids might dress as sheep and donkeys. (The rural church a few miles down the road got to have real sheep, but we didn’t have the grazing room.) If there were an appropriately aged infant in the congregation, there might even be a live baby Jesus that year. 

Then, of course, there were Mary and Joseph, the center of the entire scene. I mean, yes, Jesus was the center of the scene, if you want to get nitpicky, but he was usually played by a doll, at least at our church, given that we had around 100 congregants and therefore few opportunities for well-behaved infants to upstage Mary. And that’s exactly how I thought of it—upstaging Mary—because I knew that Mary was the center of it all. That pale, luminous face! Those glossy tendrils of hair! Those rosy lips! That demure gaze! That dainty nose, those petals of eyelashes, that maiden-like blush. Mary was the one you were to be looking at; Mary was the center of attention. Mary was a babe.

She had to be, if you look at the big picture, Christianity-wise. Goodness was beautiful, sin was ugly, and since Mary was the ultimate goodness, she pretty much had to be the ultimate beauty. To paint Mary as anything other than beautiful would be an insult*, not only to the mother of the Messiah but to the strict notions of female sexuality that ruled the church. It’s one thing for Mary to be a virgin because she’s devoted to chastity; it’s quite another for her to be a virgin if it’s just that she couldn’t get laid. The rosy lips, the loose hair, the flushed cheeks: These are signals of sexuality, but not with Mary. She alone gets to be totally beautiful, and totally pure. 

None of this was lost on me as a second-grader, who, fascinated as I was by the cleavage and teased hair I’d see on my parents’ night soaps, found Mary’s virginal prettiness a tad more accessible. My religious skepticism kicked in early, but Mary’s beauty was fact to me, even as I didn’t bother to distinguish between the “real” Mary and depictions of her. I mean, could the covers of all those church bulletins really have gotten it wrong? (It hadn’t yet occurred to me that the skin of the women on those bulletins was suspiciously light for a woman of the Levant; my skepticism, it seemed, only went so far.) Proof of her beauty lay in the pageant itself: All Mary did was sit there, hold a baby, and be looked at. She didn’t even have to speak to command attention.

The only person who spoke in our Christmas pageant, actually, was the angel, who would read aloud from the Bible as nativity players assembled themselves. The role of the angel, therefore, had to go to a child who read well enough and spoke clearly enough to recite the appropriate passages. Which, in our church, was me. Every year, it was me. In 1982 it was me, in 1983 it was me, 1984. We moved to another state for a couple of years, but when we returned in 1987, the white robe was still there waiting for me, its hem still pinned from when I wore it last, now able to be let out. I have no idea who played the angel during my hiatus, because our congregation was short on kids, which is part of why I’d been cast in the role every year to begin with.

It wasn’t hard to figure out the other reason the role always went to me. I was the smart one, so I played the angel, and Lisa K.—the only other girl of pageant-appropriate age at our church—was the pretty one, so she got to be Mary. It wasn’t even a question; nobody ever asked me if I’d like to play Mary. Every year, the blue robe was handed to Lisa, and every year, the white one went to me. Joseph got to rotate; every year one of the four boys at the church would sub in, relieved that year of being one of the Wise Men. But Mary and the angel, we stayed the same.

I was hardly the only girl to absorb the pretty-or-smart dichotomy—for that’s what it was in my mind, a dichotomy. And I was happy to be on the “smart” side of things; even in adolescence, it never occurred to me to dumb myself down for boys. Prettiness seemed like something for other girls, the same way some kids had grandparents who lived in the same town or got to have Froot Loops every morning if they wanted. It simply wasn’t an option for me, and I didn’t particularly mind, telling myself that it was okay, it evened out: Lisa K. got to be Mary—just like Jenny S. got to be the prettiest girl in the class—but I got to be smart. It was an honor I shared with the other “gifted and talented” kid in my grade, a girl I spent many an afternoon in a classroom corner with, picking out words from dictionaries for each other to spell out because we’d exhausted the teachers’ resources. The pretty-or-smart equation stayed even in my head; my “G&T” friend was a perfectly nice-looking girl, but she wore thick glasses, which somehow kept my imagined scales in balance. We weren’t at risk of being the prettiest girls in the class, so good thing we were the smartest.

This equation was never spoken aloud; nobody ever taught it to me, and certainly I knew better than to go around announcing it. Nobody needed to teach it to me. It made perfect sense: No one girl could be too much. To be the smart one, and the pretty one, was too potent for any one person. It was too much power, I suppose, though I wouldn’t have used that word then, as power wasn’t high on my priorities in the second grade. But like many a 7-year-old, I had a keenly tuned sense of justice, and I knew that to be the smart one and the pretty one would violate the fairness that I believed ruled the cosmos. I didn’t believe that being pretty was better than being smart, or vice versa. But I knew they were both qualities that people admired, and keeping in line with my sense of justice, I figured it was pretty much fate as to which one you got.

So I accepted that white robe, year after year, just as I accepted my role as the smart girl. It was my duty: I could read better than Lisa K., and Lisa K. could look more daintily pious than I could, and that was that. With the naive condescension particular to precocious children, I even began to feel sorry for Lisa K. I mean, I’d figured this whole thing out and was more or less cool with it. But Lisa K.! She hadn’t figured it out! She was going to play Mary her whole life and would never know why! Because she wasn't the smart girl! I bore the agony of my knowledge nobly, channeling my dignity into my solemn reading of Luke 2: 1-20. Still, every year in early December I would feel a twinge of hope that maybe this was the year that Lisa K. would get the white robe—I mean, she did know how to read—and I’d get the blue one. And every year, just before the roles would be announced, I’d abandon that hope, and every year, adults would compliment me on what a good reader I was. 

By our last Christmas at that church—our last church Christmas period, as we’d move to Oregon the following year, where my parents would quietly decide to scrap the church thing altogether—I’d aged out of the pageant. I’d been confirmed that spring; I was now an adult member of the congregation, not the mere child I was at 12. Luckily, a new crop of kids was ready to take over. The three boys as the Wise Men, the slightly older kids to be Mary and Joseph. There was even a well-behaved infant who would make a cameo as the Messiah. 

They’d chosen a new angel, and it wasn’t a surprise who. A 7-year-old with strong reading skills, a flair for performance as evidenced during her occasional solo with our meager choir, and a headful of strawberry blond hair was the new angel. I’d felt a kinship with her even before the casting: She was smart, like me, a little quirky, like me. I was ready to retire, and at a sage 13 years old, I felt confident the role was being passed off in a fine manner. For the first time, I watched the pageant from the pews. I watched as the strawberry blond climbed the dais, swimming in my old robe, now rehemmed, and took her place at the pulpit. 

Here, I am tempted to say my reaction was what it might be now, as an adult: that I watched a 7-year-old girl reciting scripture, and saw it for the charming act of religious pageantry it was, not as an enactment of the pretty-versus-smart balance of scales that existed in my head. That watching her, I understood my equation as a tender cruelty to both Lisa K. and myself, one I’d invented as a misguided way of navigating the beauty messages I was aware enough to pick up on but immature enough to handle poorly. I’d like to tell you that I watched a 7-year-old girl tripping on the hem of her angel’s robe, reciting scripture for the congregants to smile over, and saw that her prettiness was beside the point. 

That would be untrue. I was still a child myself, one who had always assumed that her level of emotional maturity matched her level of intellectual maturity, which it didn’t. No: I looked at her, and looked at the girl who was playing Mary, and saw that she—the angel—was the pretty one. The lights fell upon that strawberry blond hair, her fair skin and freckles seeming impossibly adorable, and she read with the kind of expertise that I recognized. Instead of beginning to wonder if the smart-pretty equation was off in my head, I immediately assumed that it wasn’t right, it wasn’t fair, that this girl was the angel and pretty.

It was a sensation I’d have again a few months later, when my G&T dictionary cohort would exchange her thick glasses for contact lenses, revealing her enormous amber eyes—and thus, her babedom—for the world to see; I’d have it again when I started high school and found that the smart-kid program was full of pretty girls—girls who boys liked, girls who hadn’t fallen rank-and-file onto one balance of the scale or the other. Girls who would, eventually, lead me to see that smart vs. pretty was a game none of us actually wanted to play, a game engineered by a sensibility that was assuring a generation of young women that they could become whatever they wanted yet couldn’t let go of the checks and balances that had supported the status quo of femininity for so long. Girls who went on to be pilots, mothers, biologists, dancers. Girls whose own mental arithmetic may have stayed as private as my own, girls who may have decidedly chosen one but simply couldn’t help being the other too, girls whose scales bore different labels than mine but prompted the same shuttering of self. Girls who would have dismissed the notion of any pretty-versus-smart scale out of hand, had I ever shared that corner of my mind with them. Girls I would watch for the four critical years that make up high school. Girls who, maybe, watched me back.

I sat there, watching, jealous of a 7-year-old, and ashamed for that jealousy. I wasn’t above evaluating the looks of a second-grader, but I knew I should be above envying her for them. In time I would learn that pretty and smart played just fine together, finally giving credence to the evidence I saw everywhere around me. But I didn’t know that then. All I could do is listen to her recitation: Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people. She read beautifully.

*For more on this, check out Ambiguous Locks: An Iconology of Hair in Medieval Art and Literature, by Roberta Milliken.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Compliments, Catcalls, and Weariness

Still deciding if it's okay to catcall cats.

The first time it happened, I was in Hell’s Kitchen, steeling myself against whatever the man walking toward me was sure to say. If you live in urban areas long enough, and if you’re a woman, you learn the little signals that let you know a dose of street harassment is coming: He’s searching for your gaze and doesn’t avert it if your eyes catch his; he’s either alone or standing in a stationary cluster of other men, none of whom are looking at one another but who are clearly associated. Most of all, he’s got the look, which boils down not to physical clues—he could just as easily be dressed in Silicon Valley chic as in the clichéd construction-worker gear—but an expression (or is it an expression you redraw in your head once he’s passed, once he’s said whatever it is that he’s going to say, once he’s confirmed that yes, he won’t you pass with the dignity of silence?).

This was one of those men, so I held my gaze forward, kept my pace even, did not look down, the things that #YesAllWomen learn to do, the things that most men are surprised to learn their sisters and girlfriends have quietly mastered, the things many women are surprised to learn they’ve mastered. And then, sure enough, it came, in a graveled voice steeped in 1970s New York tough-guy movies: “Nice color.”

It was a nice color, the fuchsia scarf wrapped twice around my neck, particularly set against the all-black of the rest of the outfit. It was a good shade for me, and even if it hadn’t been flattering it was noticeable. That was the idea; that’s why I’d chosen it. I felt vaguely sheepish after his utterance: I’d been bracing myself against another category of comment that tends to come from male strangers, not the sort of thing an officemate or my mother might say offhandedly. How silly of me, I thought, assuming the worst just because he looked a certain way. And then: How arrogant of me. I’d long known that catcalls weren’t compliments, nor did I take them as any assessment of my actual appeal, rather as an assessment of power and claiming of public space. But to steel myself for a catcall and to have it replaced by something cordial provoked not actual arrogance but the foolishness of wondering if one was arrogant after all. 

When I say this was the first time it happened, what I mean is that this was the first time I can recall picking up on the fact that a stranger was going to say something to me, had braced myself for it, and then heard a compliment on my outfit that was downright pleasant. Not a comment on my womanhood (“Come over here, baby”), general appearance (“Hey, beautiful”), or body (“Nice legs”), but words specifically about the outfit, and without using it as an entrée into further conversation, and absent a slithering tone that might imply that while he might be complimenting the outfit he was really saying something about my body. Brotherly, fatherly. Friendly.

The fuchsia-scarf interaction stuck with me, and as I noticed it happening more and more, it recalled how I felt when I first hit the age where men would say things. I remember walking down the main drag of my South Dakota town with three friends; as a car passed us, a young man yelled out, “Hey baby!” It was the first time anyone had acknowledged me as a sexual creature—which I was, as much as any 11-year-old girl stuck in a classroom full of oblivious boys is—and it was a thrill. Once it started happening more frequently, the thrill turned to annoyance, with streaks of anger, fear, and amusement scattered about. Still, my initial reaction to that first catcall was to read it with the naive generosity of a sixth-grader: It was attention, presumably complimentary, and it felt nice. I interpreted the fuchsia-scarf interaction through the more jaded lens of a thirtysomething New Yorker, but that lens was still generous: It was a compliment, not a seedy one, and weren’t the random public interactions one has in this city—not catcalls, but the momentary delight of one stranger conversing with another, then sailing on, never to be seen again—part of why I loved living here? Did I want to live in a world where strangers couldn’t interact with one another without my creepometer going off?

It kept happening, in ways it hadn’t before, at least not regularly. I thought maybe it was me: I was marching toward 40, was this how men treated women stepping out of youth? As “ladies,” not as public objects? That is, I made the classic mistake of thinking that things strange men said to me were about me, not about sex, gender, and power. But it came up in conversation with Katrin—whose footsteps are farther away from 40 than my own—after a stranger gave her the same sort of ostensibly gentlemanly comment. I shared my own experience, and she’d noticed it too: “What, do they think they’re our girlfriends now?” she asked.

I laughed, because it’s funny. But the more I thought about it, the more it irked me. Were men trying to get in on the niche of female solidarity that sees women bursting forth with compliments for one another—were they trying to be our girlfriends? Was this an exhibition of “PC Bro” behavior? For just as that most friendly, least threatening of words—hello—when a compliment is uttered between strangers who have some sort of perceived power imbalance, the message goes beyond the words.

Catcalls are marked by their crassness, either by their blatantly sexual content about women’s bodies, or by the direct implication that the utterance is a mating call (“Hey, baby”). A compliment about one’s outfit, absent sexualization, isn’t necessarily crass; often, it’s kind. But this kind of supposed compliment goes to the heart of the real problem of street harassment: surveillance of women. It performs another neat trick in that if you complain about it, you’re easily accused of overreacting, even from those who would nod at your right to huff and puff about the “Hey, baby” variety of catcaller. It’s more polite than a catcall, but it does much of the same work: It makes sure that women are still evaluated on their appearance, makes sure that women know they’re evaluated on their appearance, and makes sure that it’s men doing the evaluating. It makes sure that we know we’re being watched. Nicely, of course, or at least that’s the line—lady, you can’t tell me you’re seriously threatened by me telling you I like your scarf?

And no, I’m not. Violence, assault, intimidation: Yes, of course those happen to women in public spaces, all the time, every day. Anti-harassment campaigns like Hollaback are correct in focusing their efforts on these aspects of street harassment; they’re a more concrete threat than mere annoyance. But fear of violence is not why I seize up when I sense that the man walking toward me is about to say something. In fact, that seizing isn’t usually about fear at all, but about weariness. Weariness about the fact that even if—let’s hand out the benefit of the doubt here—men who say things to me, and to you, really do just like the color of our scarves, there’s still a presumption that we want to know about it. And I do want to know, sure, and I delight in hearing a compliment from a female stranger on the street, or from a friend of any sex. But the compliment as undercover catcall—even if it is offered in genuine kindness—shows a presumption that men and women share the streets in the same way, when we don’t. A well-meaning man might issue this kind of utterance as a genuine attempt at friendliness (“Do they think they’re our girlfriends?”) but it reveals that he has no idea that I’ve heard those words before, or words like them, and that they’ve been used not as a compliment about my dress but about the flesh that’s underneath and what should be done to it. 

The compliment as undercover catcall makes me think of “PC bro” culture, a phenomenon taken to ludicrous heights on South Park with the advent of “PC Principal.” (And, more seriously, by James Deen.) PC bros—in South Park and in life—are a mix of men genuinely eager to make the world a better place for the oppressed and enforcing “safe” language in their efforts to do so, and men adopting the language they’ve learned due to the heightened visibility of oppressed people in order to further their own agenda. (In one episode, it’s charged that “PC” stands not for “politically correct” but for “pussy crusher.”) I’m genuinely sympathetic to earnest men here—I’ve always believed that feminism makes the world better for everyone, but it’s uncomfortable to be in the position of someone who’s making good-faith efforts to transform patriarchal culture, only to find out that those efforts are missteps. It’s easy to be harrumphy about men whose motives are more obviously suspect. It’s harder to tell the dude who recognizes that catcalling isn’t okay but then keeps its surveillance alive through the compliment that what he’s doing is catcalling’s gentler cousin: different face, one that’s kinder and nonthreatening, but with a shared bloodline nonetheless.

Do I want to live in a world where male and female strangers are barred from speaking to one another because women are tired of it all? Depending on the day, that’s tempting, but ultimately, I don’t; awareness of sexism should expand us, not cloister us. I suppose what I’d want to happen is for men to just know what they’re saying when they say it—or rather, for men to know what women hear when they speak. To know that the two are not the same.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Tightrope Walker

In an interview last week in Rolling Stone magazine, Donald Trump said the following about you. Quote, "Look at that face. Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?" Mr. Trump later said he was talking about your persona, not your appearance. Please feel free to respond what you think about his persona.

You are running for President of the United States; the number of women who have done this on a serious level in the 239-year history of this country can be counted on one hand. You are not qualified—no, really, you aren't—but you are exactly as qualified as the current front-runner of your party. And you are smarter, and more articulate, and more poised than he is. You have excellent recall, and you are the only candidate in the second national debate who repeatedly, and only, talks about America, not about the circus that your party's nomination has become.

And then, he asks you that. That question, that odious question, the one you knew he would ask, the one you prepped for, the one you treated nonchalantly in that prep. He asked you the question about what he said. You know it's not a serious question, that you are thrust into the role of the tightrope walker because P.T. Barnum promised that he had a great one waiting backstage. But you are a serious woman, a serious candidate, and so you answer.

Are you humiliated? Are you humiliated that you are the only candidate to be put in this position—that could are the only candidate who could be put in this position? Are you humiliated that once again, as has happened before at your desk, then at your cubicle, and in rooms where you are interviewed, and in rooms where you eventually interview others, and in careless remarks at meetings, that it comes to this again? To your face, to your sex, to what so many of—please don't believe it's all—the men who have faced you in the boardroom have considered, your appeal? Is the teenage girl who looked in the mirror in 1968 and thought what so many teenage girls think about the way they look—is she there tonight, and is she shrinking?

Or are you angry? Are you angry that should you suddenly defeat all the odds and you are facing her next year, that the question of your face will haunt you, haunt you both, that there will be memes of your worst possible facial contortion alongside hers? Are you angry that when you next meet up with women with whom you share a quiet understanding of what it's like to be at the very, very top of your game, they might want to discuss this? Are you angry that you are dancing backward and in high heels and that it still comes down to how good you look in your ballgown?

Or do you look out, and do you quiet whatever you feel—my amateur guesses, as much as I wish I didn't instinctively reach for the first of these, are humiliation and anger, for that is what I felt, sitting here tonight, watching you having to answer a ridiculous question based on a ridiculous statement from a ridiculous man—and say to America, I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said?

And once you have said it, and once you have ended the conversation: Ms. Fiorina, please tell me that from even from the couch of someone who disagrees with you on policy, the economy, civil rights, reproductive rights, capital punishment, gun control, health care, and pretty much everything else—you know that tonight, you won.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Sex Appeal, Beauty, and Normalcy: "The Sex Myth" by Rachel Hills

The first time I had sex, I couldn’t wait to tell the first friend I saw. As it were, the first acquaintance I ran into afterward was my high school social studies teacher—I was in college at the time but he was visiting the campus, and I spent what would’ve been a very pleasant coffee date with him desperately trying to not blurt out, I’m not a virgin anymore, Mr. Tatum. After that excruciating coffee, I saw a friend, grabbed her arm, and said what I’d been dying to say. She was excited for me, and asked all the right questions that allowed me to give all the right answers. As we talked, I became aware of the light behind her head, the atmosphere that suddenly seemed thinner, lighter; I remember seeing the faded blue of her chambray shirt as suddenly, intensely vivid and thinking, Everything looks different now. I had been a virgin, and now I wasn’t, and these eyes were the ones I’d be seeing the world with from now on.

This, as laid out in Rachel Hills’ thoroughly engaging new book, is part of the Sex Myth. We’ve come to think of sex as more than something we do for recreation and procreation; western societies now frame sex as a statement about who we are. You’re not seen as complete unless you’re having sex, and plenty of it, and in just the right ways—for all the sexual permissiveness we’ve come to grant ourselves, there are still just as many ways to get sex wrong. The idea of the Sex Myth serves as a regulation of sorts, shaping not simply what we do in bed but our public and private identities.

A book about sex, particularly one filled with as many “aha!” moments as this one, is going to be enough for plenty to pick it up. If you’re interested in beauty and physical appearance on top of that, The Sex Myth has even greater wealth. Hills skillfully lays out the ways that sex has become entwined with people’s images, including how we use appearance to give a managed vision of sexuality. Not that we’re directly advertising our presumed sexual interests on our bodies (though some do). But as Hills points out, it’s easy to overlook the intersection of sex and identity when we tick all the socially approved boxes. Looking like a sexually desirable woman might be on my agenda at times, but I’d never taken the connection between self-presentation and sex farther than that. That’s an easy place for me to reside in because I’ve got plenty of sexual permission: I’m a heterosexual, partnered, cisgendered white chick who isn’t just monogamous but is serially monogamous, so it’s presumed I have the sexual experience a woman in her 30s “should” have. There’s not a lot of deviance I’m forced to hide, ameliorate, or justify. But of course my sexual self-presentation asserts itself beyond my appeal: I dress in women’s clothes, I have long hair and wear makeup, I reveal enough skin to show that I’m not uncomfortable with the mere idea of sex, but not so much that I push the line of “slut.”

In other words, I look “normal,” which files me into a bin with plenty of other compliant-looking women. Looking “normal” is certainly no guarantee of actual compliance (thank heavens), but you wouldn’t know that from looking at the pile of knee-length skirts and tasteful kitten heels lying in our wake. Sex, looks, and normalcy: Humans walk a fine line here to avoid falling on the “wrong” side, and women have more experience in navigating that line than men. (There is no male equivalent of “lady on the streets, freak between the sheets.”) We’re educated in how to look good but not like we tried too hard, how to advertise our sex appeal without looking aggressive. In the same way, the Sex Myth has men and women alike attempting to appear a carefully calibrated line of “normal”: sexually deviant enough to be interesting but not so deviant as to actually be labeled perverted, ready and willing at all times but without any whiff of desperation. It’s a variation on the sexual double bind for women that has existed for centuries, with the twist that it does its policing under the guise of liberation. As Hills writes, “sex doesn’t need to be actively suppressed in order to be controlled.”

More than what our looks might articulate about sexuality, our looks articulate the Sex Myth itself. Both sex and appearance become stand-ins for other qualities—competence, likability, interestingness. Appearance becomes the first step: We see beauty as the route to sex appeal, and sex appeal as the route to so many other aspects of life’s bounty. Trouble is, these routes are hardly straightforward. Beautiful people aren’t necessarily having more sex, nor are they necessarily more confident in their appeal. Meanwhile, the actual route to confidence about one’s sex appeal—having positive early sexual experiences—remains unconsidered in the culture at large, almost shooed aside in favor of juicier mental equations about sexual satisfaction. It echoes truths about conventional beauty: We think beautiful people are happier, more successful, richer, better, but that’s not quite what’s going on. Good-looking people do indeed benefit from the “halo effect” of being treated as though they have all these qualities, but it’s not like they’re inherently happier or more successful than the rest of us, and the halo effect itself is limited, particularly for women. (Being too good-looking can actually cost a woman in the workplace, depending on her profession.) We keep making false associations between beauty and a better life because those associations don’t feel false. Appearance is in and on our bodies, lending the fallacies of beauty the impression of visceral truth. That goes double for sex.

Breaking these associations would mean to break the Sex Myth, and for that matter, much of the beauty myth as well. The question is what breaking those associations would look like. Severing the assumption that good sex equals a good life would allow for more pleasure for pleasure’s sake, for starters, in much the same way that understanding that beauty doesn’t bring happiness can draw us toward a play-based approach to adornment. It might allow us more genuine fluidity in our sexual lives—fluidity of orientation, libido, approaches to partnerships on the whole. It could even just help us take the pressure off.

Moreover, it might also keep sex private. The politicization of certain aspects of sex has been beneficial in plenty of ways (think queer visibility and reproductive rights). One area where its benefits are more dubious is its effect on appearance, particularly women’s appearance. Beauty and sex interact in a particularly odd way: We use appearance (something public) as a manifestation of our sexuality (something private). Certainly I don’t want a world where we can’t express our sexuality through the way we look—we’ve been there, and it didn’t work. But for plenty of women, giving off an air of desirability has nothing to do with actual desire, whether feeling it or provoking it—yet embodying desire has become so enmeshed with the idea of “looking good” that they're practically synonymous. People are making strides to counter this: Witness Man Repeller, the embrace of nail art as potential subversion (as Tracie Egan Morrissey writes, “Men don’t want to fuck you because of the design painted on your nails”), and The Great Maxi Dress Debate of 2015 (the smartest take of which is here). The woman who takes this approach to self-presentation might be just as much—or just as little—a “freak between the sheets” as her more publicly sexual forerunners. The point is that we won’t know.

Leaving sex in the bedroom when appropriate doesn’t mean being less (or more) sexual, nor does it mean sneering at those who do make it more a part of their public persona. What it might do is help us see it for what it is, instead of what it’s not.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

News Flash: Beauty Consumers Aren't Suckers

The headlines regarding this recent study about claims made in cosmetics ads indicate things like "Most 'scientific' beauty product claims are bogus." As per usual, the headline isn't accurate at all; the study measured whether product claims were seen as accurate, which is an entirely different matter. Luckily, the question of whether customers think products are bogus is arguably more interesting than whether or not they actually are, so let's go from there—

In short, the study found that women think most beauty ads are bullshit. And appropriately so: They found ads that directly claimed superiority over other products to be flat-out false, and ads based on science to be vague or omissive. Interestingly, the ad type that was perceived as being most acceptable was endorsements—which makes sense, as most of us implicitly understand that at the very least, the person making the endorsement is agreeing of her own free will to make it (even if it's a talking-head fee, not the product's efficacy, that prompts the agreement). And cannily executed, an endorsement, particularly a celebrity endorsement, can be effective if the consumer sees a reflection of herself in the spokesperson.

So we're not suckers for iffy advertising; that's great. But if we actively do not believe the advertising, why are we buying the products? Reputation? Curiosity? Joyful participation in consumerism? Hope? The study I'd really like to see is one in which women who actually buy these products (I include myself here) judge the ads. I'm just as skeptical as the women in this study, but my bathroom shelf has plenty of products that make science-ish claims on it. I do my research, sure, and if I don't think I see any change I don't buy a product again. But the trick of the beauty industry lies in that little blip: If I don't think I see any change. Most things that come in a jar are going to have effects so subtle that their effectiveness is largely in terms of perception, not anything measurable. I think the retinoid cream I use helps keep my skin smooth, but do I know?

The science of beauty ads isn't meant to educate consumers on polymers and retinoids. The science only needs to be assuring enough to fill in that gap between thinking and knowing a product is "working," whatever any consumer's definition of "working" might be. Cosmetics' science claims don't hold up independently, and they don't need to. They just need to hold up enough to nudge us right over the border of where hope and possibility meet.

I've talked with plenty of women about why they wear beauty products, specifically makeup and how it plays into women's day-to-day routines, but not so much about why they buy them. Tell me: What goes through your mind when you're deciding whether to purchase a product? Are you evaluating the product's claims, parsing the words on the label? Are you going by what trusted sources have said? Do you go into a purchase with cynicism, or hope, or both?

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Watching Women Want

I’ve been watching a lot of the Women’s World Cup, with a fervor that surprises even me. I’m an unlikely soccer fan to begin with; sports, personally speaking, have traditionally been something to be avoided and/or feared. But after I shocked myself last summer by watching literally every single World Cup match—including dual-screening it for games that overlapped—I surrendered in full to the beautiful game. 

Women’s soccer, though? I didn’t follow it. I supported it politically, of course, but it was rare to find a women’s game on TV. I muddled through a couple of U.S. Women’s National Team matches, but I didn’t know the players, which detracted from its appeal. Knowing that the Fox networks were going to broadcast all the games of the Women’s World Cup, I decided to give it a go, since the tournament would give me plenty of opportunities to become familiar with the players. I’d hoped to be as entertained as I was with the men’s version last year, and I have been. What I didn’t expect to be was moved.

The playing is excellent, of course; it’s the best female soccer players in the world, after all. But what moves me is not a beautiful pass, or a bad refereeing call, or even the players’ backstories. What moves me is the players’ faces, and watching women want. It’s not hard to find images of women in the public act of doing beyond what’s been allotted by tired stereotypes. We see women legislating, creating, speaking, protesting—images that weren’t available just a couple of generations ago. But we still don’t often see women in the act of wanting. And we need to see this, because when you’re in the act of wanting something badly enough, there isn’t room for self-consciousness. How you look, your stance, your hair, your makeup, whether you appear pretty, your sex appeal: all of these things that coalesce in my brain, and maybe yours, to form a hum so low and so constant that I take it as a state of being—and when you want, they disappear. When you want, the want goes to the fore. The you can take a backseat.

What do you look like when you want? In my case, I can’t really say. There are plenty of things in this world that I want, but most of my deepest desires make wanting a state, not an act: I want to do meaningful work, I want to be happy, I want to give and receive love. The closest I know to the act of wanting in the ways female athletes want is perhaps the state of flow. In those rare moments of flow, self-consciousness falls away. It’s a gift when it happens. But I’ve never had occasion to test how far the flow state really goes as far as lifting my own awareness of how I appear. Even when my entire being is focused on a desire, I’m probably not at risk of truly breaking any sort of code of feminine regulation. I don’t really know what I look like when I’m writing but I imagine the weirdest thing my face does is frown a lot. I probably look weirder in the context of sexual desire, but the contortions particular to the “O” face get a pass of sorts. 

When I watch the athletes of this World Cup, I see an entirely different way that desire becomes focused. Specifically, I see desire become externalized. Elite athletes have spent their entire lives articulating themselves through moving their bodies. To watch them want something is an exercise in watching desire become a visual, physical force. 

Christine Sinclair.

Hope Solo.

Celia Sasic.

Lisa De Vanna.

Lady Andrade.

These women are not thinking about how they look, how their faces are posed, how their bodies might be viewed. The face becomes a way of communicating to teammates; the body, as they have trained it to become through thousands of hours of practice, a vehicle for winning. Certainly there are plenty of times in every woman’s life when how she looks isn’t at the fore of her mind, but it’s rare to have proof—visual, unrefutable proof—that at that moment, she is absolutely not thinking about how she looks. To watch female athletes is to watch women not give a shit when they look ugly. A lifelong soccer fan recently told me he feels guilty sometimes watching women’s sports because he catches himself being enthralled by their beauty, not just their skill. I told him to keep watching. Because as much as we’ve turned female athletes into spectacles of beauty and sexuality, the more that we watch women want in this particular way, the more we’ll get used to seeing women—beautiful women, odd-looking women, and perfectly pedestrian-looking women, and cute women and sexy women and butch women and girly-girl women—look not-pretty, even ugly sometimes, without apology. Whatever any particular athlete might have cared about before the game (don’t tell me some of those players aren’t wearing eyelash extensions) doesn’t matter. In the moment, she does not give a shit. There is a power in that—a power that I find, without exaggeration, transcendental.

For about a year now, I’ve had a question written on the whiteboard where I keep random thoughts, blog-post ideas, notes to myself, the occasional phone number. The question is, What would have gotten me into gym class as a kid? My childhood was the perfect storm for hating physical activity: I was bookish, I was fat, and I didn’t like to do things I wasn’t immediately good at. There’s another factor that I now see loomed large in my rejection of any physical activity I wasn’t pretty much forced to do: I was desperately afraid of looking stupid. When I studied theater in college, that was the note teachers and directors repeatedly gave me—you’re afraid of looking stupid—and they were right. Save the occasional bully, nobody was telling me I looked stupid, nor was I looking at other kids on the kickball field and thinking they looked stupid when they were trying their best. What killed any curiosity I might have had about how my body moved was my own self-consciousness.

As an adult, I’m not an athlete per se—I play one annual round of beach kadema each year and that’s it—but I shock myself with my interest in fitness that goes beyond its aesthetic rewards. I strength-train, and I train hard, and I love it, and every so often it hits me that the kid who used to play sick on track and field day now picks up heavy things of her own volition. At least a few times a month, I find myself giving a silent, spontaneous thanks that something shifted enough within me to start treating my body as a physical tool instead of just an inconvenient container for my head. What that shift tells me, though, is that there might have been something that could have flipped on that switch earlier in my life.

That something, I suspect, could have been the face of Abby Wambach, or Christine Sinclair, or Wendie Renard, or any of the women whose faces have moved me in the past few weeks. I’ve long known the basic facts about girls and sports: Girls who play sports have higher self-esteem, more resiliency, more leadership abilities, none of which should be surprising (it’s not hard to see how focusing on what your body can do instead of what it looks like would be A Good Thing). I’ve also long known of the power of role models: I grew up with the gift of parents who told me I could become anything I wanted to become (a pilot! a painter! a scientist! the president!), and they did their best to point out public role models for me. Until this World Cup, though, I never thought to put them together: that having role models who spoke to my extraordinary self-consciousness could have helped me reap the benefits of sports as a girl. 

The chances of me having gone on to become an actual athlete were always slim; that’s not how I’m wired, and nothing would have changed that. And team sports in particular would never have been my bag, I don’t think. But I wish I’d had some sort of template that could have earlier taught me the joys of inhabiting my body. I wish I’d seen more women be so focused on physical exertion that it silenced whatever hum of self-consciousness they might have had. I wish I’d had more visible proof that there were so many women out there who had the ability to not care how they looked, again and again and again, every training and scrimmage and game. I wish I’d seen more women want. 

I’m in awe of the athleticism on display in the Women’s World Cup. I watch the matches for the skill, the strategy, the stories. I watch it because, against all logical parts of my personal history, I somehow have come to understand why we call soccer the beautiful game. But the part I will remember is watching women want.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Beauty Didn't Birth the Beast

Sally Draper, preachin' truth.

I swear I will one day blog about something other than Mad Men. But until that time comes! This episode was interesting in that two separate characters referred to Don's good looks as a liability. One of the creatives at the agency says to him in anger after Don suggests he might want to work on some character-building, "You don't have any character, you're just handsome—stop kidding yourself." And then toward the episode's end, his daughter says that both he and first-wife Betty are exactly alike, in that "anyone pays attention to either of you—and they always do—you just ooze everywhere." (Two of Sally's friends, totally separate from one another, had each attempted some amateur seduction on both of Sally's parents in this episode, so this wasn't out of nowhere.)

The first one was interesting, but mostly just in the context of Mad Men: Don has plenty of character, but we know that indeed a chunk of it has been formed around his incredible looks. The second reference is what's really juicy here. In fiction, if someone's good looks are referred to as a liability, it's usually used to mean a fairly limited set of options. Maybe the character hasn't had to develop other facets of herself because she's relied on her beauty. (Which—I mean, has anyone ever met someone like that, for real? In my experience dullness and beauty have exactly zero correlation, let alone causation; the dullards I know are plain and pretty in equal amounts.) Maybe a character been taught her looks are her greatest asset so she's used them to manipulate others, or his handsomeness has pushed him toward con artistry. If it's a feminist-minded creator maybe we've seen how beautiful women aren't taken seriously (i.e. the genesis of many a Joan plot line in this very series). Or maybe women don't trust her, or men don't trust him, or whatever. (Of course, the #1 way we see a character's looks work against her is that Her Beauty Drives Men to Madness, but that's such an ugggh cliché I'm not even counting it here.)

But here you have a character's attractiveness being referenced not as a liability in and of itself, but as an amplification of an already-existing tendency: the inability to turn away sexual attention. Don and Betty are two people who are starved for attention, and that would be true even if they weren't played by actors as good-looking as Jon Hamm and January Jones. But their beauty allows the quality Sally refers to as "ooze" to be read by others as charm or graciousness, or as a stream of reciprocal attention. And in turn, both of these characters have learned to trust that that's how their highly sensitive attention-radars will be seen. The fact that their looks garner each of them a generous amount of attention becomes almost secondary; it just lets them get away with absorbing the gaze of others in a way that doesn't seem desperate.*

I've interviewed lots of people, mostly women, in-depth about their relationship with their looks, and when I first started doing formal interviews I was initially surprised that I wasn't finding any sort of parallel between a woman's experiences or attitude and how conventionally attractive she was. Asking a professional beauty about her experiences as a model is one thing, but asking her about how her looks had shaped, say, her love life was a different story. I never thought that meant a person's looks were irrelevant to how she viewed the world, but I sort of chalked it up to beauty not being as important as other factors in shaping one's worldview, or chirpily shook it off as "Well, everyone's different!" But I think Sally's quip crystallizes an important factor: A person's looks can shape already existing tendencies. It does not create them. Nor does it shape tendencies in the same way for everyone. But I like the idea of looks functioning as a filter—as one of many filters—that determine how we walk through the world. There are so many oppositional ideas about how beauty affects people out there: You've got men who are genuinely surprised when they meet a woman who manages to be both beautiful and brilliant, you've got people who assume beautiful people have it easy because "everything is handed to them," you've got people shaking their heads about how hard gorgeous women have it because other women supposedly hate them so much. If we come to see appearance as one of many forces that distinctly shape our lives, we might have a more genuine understanding of how the lives of extraordinarily beautiful people are affected by their looks—and of how the rest of us have our lives affected by the same.

*Asterisked because this will mean absolutely nothing to people who don't watch the show: Rather, Don's and Betty's ways don't seem desperate until it's seen by someone who knows better, which in this case is Sally. Or the viewer, who is supposed to be thoroughly horrified when Betty gives 18-year-old Glen the eye. When the two of them had a creepy encounter years before, we were supposed to read it as a sign of Betty's yearning to connect with someone—anyone—even if it's a prepubescent boy down the block who has an enormous crush on her. Now that Glen's gone and grown up, that same need of hers goes from being pathetic-as-in-pathos to being pathetic as in...pathetic. 

Okay, you got me, I just wanted to find a way to work in GLEN.