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.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

70 Years Ago Today




Seventy years ago today, British troops liberated the Nazi concentration camp Bergen-Belsen. In the days and weeks following the liberation, British and American soldiers took to treating and relocating the thousands of desperately ill prisoners. One of those soldiers, Lt. Col. Mervin Willett Gonin, among other recordings of that time, wrote the following in his diary:

It was shortly after the British Red Cross arrived, though it may have no connection, that a very large quantity of lipstick arrived. This was not at all what we men wanted, we were screaming for hundreds and thousands of other things and I don't know who asked for lipstick. I wish so much that I could discover who did it, it was the action of genius, sheer unadulterated brilliance. I believe nothing did more for those internees than the lipstick. Women lay in bed with no sheets and no nightie but with scarlet red lips, you saw them wandering about with nothing but a blanket over their shoulders, but with scarlet red lips. I saw a woman dead on the post mortem table and clutched in her hand was a piece of lipstick. At last someone had done something to make them individuals again, they were someone, no longer merely the number tattooed on the arm. At last they could take an interest in their appearance. That lipstick started to give them back their humanity.

This story has stuck with me since I first read it, even as part of me doubted whether the lieutenant colonel had read the women’s reactions correctly. He was an outsider who, despite having seen firsthand the horrors of Bergen-Belsen, had not experienced them. And, to be blunt, he was a man; what could he truly know about the transformative powers of lipstick?

It wasn’t until I read Linda Grant’s wonderful book The Thoughtful Dresser—which, as it happens, quotes the same passage I’ve quoted here—that I read an account that satisfies those rather academic quibblings. (Eternal thanks to Terri of Rags Against the Machine for pointing me toward Grant’s work.) The story of Catherine Hill, a survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau, is central to Grant’s book, and I don’t want to take away its remarkable narrative arc by saying too much here. What I will say is that at one point in the prison camp, Hill creates an ersatz fascinator out of the hem of her uniform’s dress in order to cover her ears, which were starkly exposed because of her forcibly shaved head. And when an SS officer asked her during roll call what exactly she thought she was doing, her response was simply that she wanted to look pretty. He laughed. But it was the truth: “They could have got rid of me right there and then, but they could not take away my desire to be feminine, and a woman. And my dignity, even in the most degrading situation…”

The entirely human wish to appear pretty is hardly the central meaning of what today symbolizes for Bergen-Belsen’s survivors, liberators, and descendants. And I’m wary of “excusing” my own investment in my beauty work by saying, Well, women in the worst imaginable circumstances still cared, so…. The circumstances are not remotely equatable. Still, the heart of these stories remains true: Vestiges of beauty can be powerful. They can be talismans of routine, of dignity, of what it means to be a woman. Of what it means to be human, and of what happens when the things that make us individuals are erased. And today, in remembering or learning about what happened in those camps (these oral histories are a good start) that’s one of the most important things we can remember.

Monday, April 6, 2015

"Mad Men" Beauty Musings: Envy, Similarity, and "Modesty"



There’s much to say about Mad Men in general, and about last night’s last-season kickoff, and about the relationship between Joan and Peggy, and even about their conversation in the elevator (burn it down, Joan!). But what’s most relevant in this particular wheelhouse is one exchange that comes between Peggy and Joan after a business meeting in which a group of male colleagues make lewd jokes at the expense of Joan, specifically at the expense of her generous bustline: 

Peggy: Should we get lunch?
Joan: I want to burn this place down.
Peggy: I know, they were awful, but at least we got a yes. Would you have rather had a friendly no?
Joan: I don’t expect you to understand.
Peggy: [With demonstrated doubt] Joan, you’ve never experienced that before?
Joan: Have you, Peggy?
Peggy: I don’t know—you can’t have it both ways. You can’t dress the way you do and expect—
Joan: How do I dress?
Peggy: Look, they didn’t take me seriously either.
Joan: So what you’re saying is, I don’t dress the way you do because I don’t look like you. And that’s very, very true.
Peggy: You know what? You’re filthy rich. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.

(That last line, of course, is more cutting than Peggy could know, given how Joan became partner.)

A few things:

1) I don’t like to focus on the jealousy/competition aspect of beauty, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, and we see it here on both sides. The thing is, research shows that we tend to feel competitive with people who are similar to us, not people who are different. It’s fun enough for fans to construct the Mad Men ladies as opposites—are you a Peggy or a Joan? a Betty or a Megan? a riding lawnmower or a rifle?—but they’re not. In particular, Peggy and Joan have far more similarities than differences. They’re both hard workers, they’re both whip-smart, they’re both vulnerable, they both have their secrets, and the personality summation that Peggy’s date delivers to her over dinner could well apply to Joan, if not as consistently: “Johnny said you were the kind of girl who doesn’t put up with things. ... He said you were funny, and that you were fearless.”

There might be some cattiness, pain, or simple retaliation behind Joan’s cutting remark; none of us are above that. But I’d like to think that there’s more to her comment than that: Underneath the snipe is an acknowledgement that part of the difference in the ways they’ve each handled their careers stems from genetic fate (or rather, from the ways women were treated because of their bodies). Joan is saying, If you looked like me you’d dress like me—and if I looked like you I might well have your wardrobe too. She’s taking what Peggy posits as a duality and makes it clear that it’s anything but. And Peggy, in a different way, does the same, by pointing out that the men didn’t take either of them seriously, even though the crude comments at the meeting were aimed almost entirely at Joan. The women are clawing at each other on the surface, but the way in which they do it says that they know full well they’re in the same position.

2) One of my viewing companions last night, a busty lady herself, pointed out that when you’re built like Joan, it can be hard to wear anything that will safely ensure nobody will accuse you of dressing provocatively. Peggy can accuse Joan of dressing sexily even when, as in this scene, she’s wearing a tailored blouse that shows no cleavage because Joan’s build proves how judgmental the idea of “modesty” is. Joan’s body puts her in a position of being accused of immodesty no matter what she wears, so why not wear what she looks good in? Peggy, on the other hand, with her slighter, more “modest” build, is put in the position of keeping the meeting as on track as she can—a task Joan herself is fully capable of but is barred from doing so because of her body. 

It reminded me of Phoebe Maltz Bovy’s assertion in a guest post here that “style and build have a way of getting mixed up, as though a woman chooses to have ‘curves’ on account of preferring to look sexy, or somehow magically scraps them if her preferred look is understated chic.” (To wit: this photo series of Debrahlee Lorenzana—who was fired from Citibank because she dressed too sexily—wearing various office outfits of hers. Like, you know, a turtleneck and slacks.) It’s tempting to say that the moral here is that Joan can’t win. But as Maltz Bovy points out, the construct actually serves as a reminder of just how ridiculous beauty standards are. Burn the place down already, Joan.

3) What to say about Joan’s clothes-shopping binge toward the episode’s end? Instead of shrinking herself down after that awful meeting, she goes out and spends loads of money on fabulous new clothes. It’s a consumerist balm to being treated as a product for consumption, and I’d be misled to applaud this particular move as a you-go-girl proof of Joan’s resilience. But it’s interesting that we see Joan assert her buying power while wearing what is undoubtedly a provocative dress—it’s her way of saying that she has no intention of taking Peggy’s tack to the workplace (which, as we’ve seen, would be a loser’s proposition for her anyway). 

But there’s also something sadly hollow about it, magnified by her refusal to admit that she once worked there as a shopgirl. It reminds me of the first time I went shopping as “retail therapy”: I was 19 years old and had somehow landed a part-time concierge gig at a mid-level hotel, working the VIP lounge. A client there had actually pulled a move straight out of a bad movie: He put his hand on mine and gave me his room number, the implication being that I should pay him a visit once my shift ended. Part of me was thrilled by this—this happened to people in bad movies!—but I was also nauseated by it. It was my second job ever besides babysitting, and I was proud of the fact that I’d gotten it, and I knew I’d been assigned the VIP lounge because I had an accommodating nature. But it was also the first time I’d felt the flipside of what others might assume of me because of that accommodating nature—until then it had just earned me accolades as a “good girl.”

Anyway, the next day I felt possessed to buy a dress. It was a specific desire: I wanted to buy not just clothes, but a dress, and I uncharacteristically skipped the sales rack and perused the new offerings with intent. It wasn’t until years later that I identified the impulse: I didn’t just want a dress, I wanted to spend money on myself. I wanted to spend something relatively intangible to get something tangible in return; I wanted proof of my power, and since I’d just felt my meager power slip in a professionalized context, it made sense that I wanted that proof in the form of something that context rewarded me with. 

We know that Joan is a bit of a clothes horse (she did, after all, go to retail when she had to get a new job), which I wasn’t when I wandered into the mall Gap in 1995 the morning after a being the target of a sleazy episode. But just as my desire for a new dress had nothing to do with why I bought it, that’s not why we saw Joan buying up the store: It’s her clutch at power, rendered in a language she can speak without breaking a sweat. We’ve seen Joan work and grow and prosper in a variety of ways, but going back to this lesson—looking your best will get you the best—is always going to be a place of comfort for her. The irony is that it’s a lesson that, for Joan, also leaves scratches long and deep.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The "Man's Woman," the "Woman's Woman," and Other Apocryphal Ladies

These women look suspiciously alike, eh?

Some years ago, my then-boyfriend said that Drew Barrymore was the ultimate “woman’s woman.” His reasoning: She stars in romantic comedies (née “chick flicks”), she seems like she might be vaguely feministy/ish (because of Charlie’s Angels, I guess?), she has her own cosmetics line, and her production company is named Flower Films, for crying out loud. Most of all, he claimed, “no men like her.” 

Now, I was willing to buy most of this, even though it was clear that by “no men like her” he simply meant he didn’t like her: A chronicle of one rando dude’s quest to go on a date with Drew Barrymore became a successful documentary, she was perpetually on those “Hottest Celebrities” lists from various men’s websites until she “aged out” by hitting thirtyish. But I understood the larger point. Drew catered to women in her work, and she didn’t seem to need to cater to men. She could be pretty and charming and normal-ish and not particularly worry about being sexy—partly because she is sexy, but mostly because she’d already tried on the vixen persona in her earlier years and found it wanting (Poison Ivy, anyone?). So, sure, she’s a woman’s woman.

I recalled this exchange years later, when talking with a friend about what exactly the term “man’s woman” meant. I defined it as a woman who had an undeniable sex appeal regardless of her physical beauty, but I’d recently heard it defined as a woman who impresses men by eating the whole cheeseburger basket while appearing to stay effortlessly thin (and, presumably, hot). This friend then defined it as someone who seemed likeable enough and attractive enough that pretty much any straight guy on the planet would be happy to take her out, without being intimidated by her. As an example of the prototypical "man's woman" she chose—you guessed it—Drew Barrymore. 

There’s plenty more to be said about Barrymore, but let’s give the poor lass a rest, and instead look at the larger question here: What is a “man’s woman”? What is a “woman’s woman”? We hear these terms being thrown around, and perhaps we’ve used them ourselves, but what do they mean?

I started poking around for the historical uses of these terms, and it turns out I’m hardly the first to seek out their precise definitions. “There are certain questions... [that] reappear at more or less irregular intervals, like comets, to throw the challenging gauntlet at the feet of every thinker not totally devoid of intelligence,” wrote an anonymous editor in an 1891 volume of Current Literature. “Of these queries none are more persistent and aggressive than that which concerns the difference between a ‘man’s woman’ and a ‘woman’s woman,’ and none have, from the woman’s point of view, been more weakly or illogically argued.” Even in those ’90s, the question was a stumper. 

According to that editorial—which is a thoroughly fascinating and remarkably relevant read—the “man’s woman” is a naturally charming woman who is “interested intelligently and sincerely in the things dear to the heart of man,” though she mustn’t be too knowledgeable about those things, lest she outshine him. The “woman’s woman” comes in two breeds: the “sympathetic” type, who, with her knowledge of needlework and social niceties, seems a mix of Martha Stewart and Jacqueline Kennedy, and the “strong” type—the “poet, thinker, leader, reformer” that inspires women and girls to go beyond the domestic sphere. Poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning was listed as the classic example in 1891; today it would probably be someone more like Gloria Steinem or, hell, Lady Gaga.

So we’ve got the “man’s woman” and two types of “woman’s woman,” loosely defined as the Cool Girl, the Good Wife, and the Badass. But indeed, like a comet, the question keeps coming back, and over the past 120 years plenty have given it a stab. Over the years, curious readers have learned that the “man’s woman” may be spotted by her candor and fondness for playing rough in friendships—or she may be spotted not because men like her all that much, but because women don’t like her at all. Or maybe you identify her by the way she sits “listlessly” among other women, but when a man comes along, she’s suddenly able to “brighten up and in a moment become brilliant and beautiful.” Maybe you know her because she’s Melanie Griffith, or Debra Winger, or Keith Richards’ girlfriend. Perhaps you recognize her because she quietly marries and doesn’t cause her husband any trouble—or because she’s a wretched wife who makes her husband miserable.

As for the “woman’s woman”? She is docile, inconsequential, perhaps meek—or she’s a bigger threat to the patriarchy than a man’s woman could ever be. She has unique skills in the workplace—hire a “woman’s woman” on your sales team and you have insight into the heart of all women; put her on television and you’ve got yourself a successful talk-show hostess. (Note that this essay, penned in 1971, is about the lack of female hosts on late-night talk shows. Sound familiar?) She is a hero, not a heroine, or maybe she’s just plain gay. Hell, her appeal to other women might lie in the fact that she’s more like a man than a woman. She is Eva Mendes, Kimora Lee Simmons, Pattie Boyd—who, let’s not forget, is primarily famous for marrying famous men. She is Taylor Swift.

Ah, but then! What of the woman who is defined by falling outside these (handily ambiguous) parameters? Eva Peron was neither a man's woman nor a woman's woman; Julie Christie is both; Nicole Kidman is both—well, unless you ask Nicole herself (she thinks she’s a woman’s woman). And wait—if People magazine says that Debra Winger was the man’s woman of the 1970s, then why was the high-profile documentary about the paucity of women’s onscreen roles titled Searching for Debra Winger? Could Winger be both too?

Actually, there’s nothing extraordinary about Winger in this regard, just as there’s nothing extraordinary here about Drew Barrymore, or Nicole Kidman, or Eva Peron, or any of the women who can’t be easily pigeonholed into one category or the other. In truth, neither the “man’s woman” nor the “woman’s woman” exists. But the fact that we keep coming back to these terms despite never quite agreeing on what a “man’s woman” or a “woman’s woman” is reveals that collectively, we want them to exist, or at least we want the types to exist. Not just because we like to talk genderstuffs, but because we like to talk about women: Pit the “man’s woman” against her counterpart—the ladies’ man—and she becomes even more amorphous. We know exactly what a “ladies’ man” or a “man’s man” are, even when the particulars of their guises vary. Maybe it’s harder to pin down women’s women because women are supposedly so, you know, complicated

But we can’t pin down the “woman’s woman” or her sister, because a formal classification of the two would end the conversation—and maybe that’s the top reason that we keep coming back to the question. After all, whenever the moniker is used, it says less about the woman in question, and more about the speaker (and we never tire of saying things about ourselves). And again, this isn’t a new thought: “As a matter of fact, the expressions...will nearly always be found to be based upon the contempt that one sex has for the judgment and powers of discrimination of the other…”—this from another journal printed in the 1890s. For a woman to call another of her kind a “woman’s woman” indicates an elevation of sorts, not only of the woman but of womankind—a “woman’s woman” is the prime example of her species, and what on earth would men know about women anyway?

Maybe we learn the most about the “man’s woman” and the “woman’s woman” when we look at the only thing that each of the varying definitions of the terms has in common: a belief that there’s something men want, and something women want—and ne’er the twain shall meet. It’s uncomfortable from a gender-binary perspective, naturally. But it’s just as uncomfortable from where I’m sitting, as someone who firmly identifies as female and who has plenty of traits associated with femininity. For whenever I’ve tried to puzzle out which camp I might belong in, neither one has felt satisfying. The “man’s woman” and the “woman’s woman” are each reactors, not actors in and of themselves. Each of these women fills the needs of others, even the heroic sort of “woman’s woman” who inspires other women—she’s still cast in the terms of others’ needs, not her own. 

That’s how humanity works—we all react to one another, we’re social creatures—so in some ways it’s not all that problematic. But the fact that we’ve come up with dozens of ways to figure out how women might fill the needs of others by being a “man’s woman” or a “woman’s woman” says that we’re still more willing to cast women in supporting roles, not leads. That’s changing every day, of course. Now let’s let the “man’s woman” and the “woman’s woman” be part of that change by disappearing.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Laurie Penny's "Unspeakable Things"



There are two reasons it’s taken me longer than it should have to write out my thoughts on Laurie Penny’s newest book, Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies, and Revolution. The first is technical: I’ve been ostriching from pretty much everything for the past couple of months while working on other projects, and am only now coming back to things like blogging and social media and leaving the house. 

The second is personal: It made me mad.

At this point, for readers who—we’ve all done it—prefer not to voyage beyond the first two paragraphs of a piece, allow me to assure you that Penny’s book is excellent. But it might make you mad, and not only at the patriarchy. If you’re a good girl, it might make you a little mad at that very fact.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Instead, let’s begin where Penny begins in chapter 1: a treatment ward for women with severe eating disorders. Much of what has been written about feminism and eating disorders frames these diseases inaccurately, linking a girl’s refusal to eat to her wish to be more like the skinny ladies in all the magazines, the takeaway being that an unrealistic beauty standard—which, yes, is a feminist concern—is to blame. As Penny puts it about the cultural puzzlings over eating disorders, “The best answer we seem to have come up with is ‘magazines.’ This says rather more about what society thinks goes on in the minds of teenage girls than it does about the cause of an epidemic…” In fact, when I went through an outpatient treatment program for my own disordered eating, I had a definite idea of the kinds of women I would find there. They would be smart overachievers, sure, but they would be caught in the tragic game of trying to be what our culture expects of women—thin, pretty, docile—and isn’t it a shame that they don’t recognize their own potential? They wouldn’t be feminists, they wouldn’t be rebels, and they sure as hell wouldn’t be politicized. And I sure as hell was proven wrong on my first day there. 

I don’t want to glamorize women with eating disorders for their rebellion any more than I want to glamorize them for thinness. But when I read one particular passage from Unspeakable Things, the chill of recognition slithered through me: 

“In Italy, there is a tradition called ‘sciopero bianco’—the white strike. In English-speaking countries, it is known as work-to-rule. Workers who are not permitted to strike fight their bosses by doing only what is required of them—to the letter. Nurses refuse to answer phones that ring at 17:01. Transport workers make safety checks so rigid that the trains run hours behind schedule. Eating disorders and other forms of dangerous self-harm are to riots in the streets what a white strike is to a factory occupation: women, precarious workers, young people and others for whom the lassitudes of modern life routinely produce acute distress and for whom the stakes of social non-conformity are high, lash out by doing only what is required of them, to the point of extremity. Work hard, eat less, consume frantically; be thin and perfect and good, conform and comply, push yourself to the point of collapse. … We all followed the rules, sufferers seem to be saying—now look what you made us do.”

Penny understands eating disorders as a form of rebellion because she’s been there, and not because she was quite literally dying to be thin. Her clear-minded thinking that cuts to the quick allowed her to regard her time in treatment as instructive in the politicization that now characterizes much of her work. And it’s important to understand that the rebellion of eating disorders is not in refusing to eat, but in its angry nod to the good girl. You want me to be a good girl? Fine, I’ll be a goddamn perfect girl. Fuck you, I’ll disappear, how’s that? It’s a warped logic, sure, but eating disorders are warped. It’s logic all the same.


So at some point around here in my reading I began to get mad. I got mad because I’ve spent years trying to understand my own eatingstuffs and my own warped logic, and had come to categorize my improper behaviors as symptomatic of my chronic good-girl-ism: rule-following to the extreme, but with compliance, not the whiff of rebellion, as the goal. Good-girl-ism had become a part of my own personal mythology to the point where I didn’t question it anymore, which means, of course, that I have an investment in protecting the good girl. For I still think of myself that way—a good girl, despite being 38 years old, which should tell us something about exactly how much power we believe the good girl can ever truly have. I do what is expected of me, and indeed, of women in general. I cooperate, I play nice, I am a member of the getalong gang. And part of this shows up in the dress-up clothes of my own politicization: I couldn’t get on board with the whole “ironic misandry” thing because so much of my energy as a feminist over the years has gone into turning cartwheels for men in an attempt to prove to them that feminism isn’t the big, bad, scary monster their bro-friends might have painted it to be. No, feminism can be friendly! Feminism is concerned about men too! Feminists give better head!

And, you know, all of this is true (ahem). But the ring of recognition I felt upon reading Penny’s idea of eating disorders as a “white strike” against the constraints placed upon women’s social roles was too true to ignore. If a beating heart of anger and rebellion—not, as I’d construed it, good-girl-ism—was underneath my own disordered eating all along, then what did that say for the good-girl ways I’d championed feminism for years?

What Laurie Penny calls for in this book is mutiny. Mutiny against the mythology of “falling apart elegantly,” as we’ve constructed eating disorders to be; mutiny against the careful persona curation of social media, which so many women have mastered because we’re so used to being thought of as commodities. Mutiny for sex workers and men who are tired of the patriarchy too and for women who question the institutionalization of “love,” and all of the other people whom Penny addresses in the bulk of the book—which is about far more than eating disorders and good girls, and functions much as a primer on where feminism could go if we want it to. Mutiny against the idea that for queer youth, “It Gets Better” should be sufficient protection in a world where it should be better now. Mutiny against feminism as a show pony strictly for women who have the time, money, and social platform to be the public face of feminism.

I’m a believer in the idea that it takes all types to create lasting social change. It takes palatable feminism, it takes unpalatable feminism. It takes radical feminism, it takes theft of the master’s tools, it takes the servants living in the master’s house who realize how nice it is once their quarters are dismantled. It takes “bro feminists” and humanists and sassy little girls, and the quiet ones too. It takes mutiny. Reading Unspeakable Things didn’t make me think otherwise, not exactly. What it did do was make me question the connection between “good girl feminism” and “good girl”-ism itself. Specifically, what our love of the good girl means for those moments when feminism becomes hip enough to, say, be a focal point of something like the MTV Video Music Awards. I’ll always be glad to see pretty much anyone call themselves a feminist, and as Penny writes in a section that serves as a treatise on The Slut, I’m wary of drawing distinctions between “good” and “bad” women, feminists included. 

But when you immerse yourself in the possibility of mutiny—even if only for as long as it takes you to read Unspeakable Things—it makes you a bit testy at the limits of what face of feminism is likely to be beamed onto the main stage. And it might even make you a little bit testy at the ways you’ve been complicit in those limits, without ever having intended to do so.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Because You're Worth It: Masstige and Bargain Beauty



The price may be right, but what else drives your beauty buys?


I’ve been thinking about high-end beauty products as inconspicuous consumption, and what that means for displays of wealth among women. In doing so, I ignored the other end of the scale: bargain beauty products. The idea I was exploring a couple of weeks ago was that high-end beauty products signaled an investment in beauty, as opposed to a temporary gussying-up; think top-notch dermatology and expensive retinol creams, the benefits of which only really show up after long-term use (and therefore hundreds—or thousands—of dollars in). But it’s not like buying bargain beauty products means that you don’t regard beauty as an investment. Most obviously, it could be that your budget is limited (which, given the price of even the most basic quality anti-aging cream, is probably the case for most of us).

More interesting to talk about, though, is the idea of bargain beauty as a different sort of investment. Consumer research repeatedly shows that bargain shopping—in this case, drugstore or 99-cent-store beauty products instead of Sephora or department stores—actually brings a similar sense of reward as luxury shopping. 

Perceived value is one of the highest predictors of consumer satisfaction. Think, for example, of a time you’ve paid full price for something only to see it go on sale the next day. Even if you were satisfied at the time of purchase, you might well become retroactively dissatisfied because you felt like you got ripped off. In other words, your perceived value of the item dropped. (It’s actually so harmful to consumer satisfaction that some chain stores will refund customers the difference of a full-price item if it goes on sale within a certain time window of the initial purchase.) When you’re buying a $90 jar of skin cream, it means that you feel that the value of the cream is worth the price tag—maybe it’s actually no better than the $12 cream at the drugstore, but you believe it is, which, in essence, makes it “worth it.” But a similar logic applies to the $12 cream: If you believe it does what you want it to do, the perceived value of the item may be more than the twelve bucks you shelled out for it. You might even take pleasure in believing that you’re able to see through (what you perceive as) gimmickry of high-end products. It’s seemingly the inverse of the pleasure another woman might take in opening up a Chanel compact, seeing those interlocking Cs, and feeling as though she’s made an investment in herself. In truth, though, it’s the same thing: It temporarily heightens the way you feel about yourself.

[Tangent that has little to do with beauty but everything to do with women: This heightened self-concept is theorized to be behind what drives bargain shoppers, specifically the “coupon queens” along the lines of the people in the TV show Extreme Couponing. At least one consumer researcher links the sense of competence one can derive from bargain shopping to feeling a lack of competence in more traditional ways, like the workplace. Hence “coupon moms”: Full-time homemakers don’t get annual reviews (at least, I hope not), but if you can point to the savings you’ve made by clipping coupons, I imagine that would bring a direct, empirical sense of competence that’s somewhat different from the other forms of competence homemakers display. My mother’s couponing drove me nuts as a teenager, but I get it now, and not only because I recognize it as a branch of home economics. Anyway.]

In fact, the temporary self-esteem boost one gets from bargain shopping becomes exaggerated when the shopper is able to attribute the bargain to her own skills—for example, proffering a coupon, or bargaining for a lower price, as opposed to simply purchasing a low-cost item. Another way a shopper might attribute a bargain to her own skills is recognizing a good deal when she sees it. Enter “masstige” products, i.e. products meant to be seen as prestige products that are sold at price points affordable to the masses. For New Yorkers, masstige is most evident in the aisles of Duane Reade drugstores, which in the past few years has revamped its beauty section to look more like something you’d see at Sak’s Fifth Avenue—softer lighting, island displays, skin care consultants. Along with that comes products that are more expensive than usual drugstore fare but still less than what you’d pay were you actually at Sak’s. (I’m a fan of a retinol cream I buy at Duane Reade that features sleek packaging and sounds all fancy but is just a brand of L’Oréal. A brand that costs three times as much as products labeled “L’Oréal,” mais oui.)

Indeed, masstige beauty is growing, with CVS entering the market, and with other major drugstore chains already in it. It’s gotten to the point where premium beauty brands are seeing masstige as a threat that supposedly confuses consumers into thinking they’re getting a higher-quality product than they actually are. Which brings us back to square one: The more that high-end beauty brands try to set themselves apart by seeming exclusive and catering to a consumer who sees purchasing that brand as evidence of her good taste, the more that reinforces the appeal of masstige products to a somewhat different consumer, who sees purchasing a masstige brand as evidence of her good sense. The masstige consumer might look at the prestige buyer and think, What a fool; the prestige buyer might look at the masstige buyer and think, Poor thing, or simply assume that the masstige route is a financial choice, ignoring or oblivious to its nonfinancial rewards.


It’s gotten me thinking about what drives my own beauty purchases. My bathroom cabinet has everything from $2 Wet ‘n’ Wild eyeliner to masstige products like my retinol cream to items on the lower end of the prestige market. (I try not to pimp out brands here but honestly, Smashbox’s BB cream is friggin’ fantastic, and who am I to keep it secret?) And sure enough, I receive a different sense of satisfaction when I buy items at different points on the spectrum: I feel savvy when I buy a cheap product that does what I want it to do; I feel like I’m making an investment in self-care when I shell out for my retinol; I feel like a clever beauty researcher when I buy my BB cream, knowing that I’ve tried less expensive brands and that the high-ish price actually buys quality in this case. What nonfinancial rewards are most likely to drive your own beauty purchases? Feeling like you’re getting a deal for less than someone else might pay for a similar result? Feeling like you’re making an investment in your appearance? Feeling like you’re treating yourself? Or do you skip most products altogether because none of those rewards are appealing to you?

Friday, August 1, 2014

Beauty and (In)conspicuous Consumption


It wasn't just her last name that marked Gloria Vanderbilt as one of those Vanderbilts.


I've been enjoying participating in this month's structured conversation on visual persuasion and the state at Cato Unbound. Virginia Postrel (whom regular readers will recall authored the excellent The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion, which I reviewed here) wrote the lead essay, in which she argues for the use of glamour, iconography, and visual appeals in politics; Grant McCracken, Martin Gurri, and I were invited to write responses from there. Much of the discussion is relevant to readers here, particularly McCracken's musings on sprezzatura and Postrel's thoughts on the true danger of glamour—and, hopefully, my own thoughts on what the faces of our politicians say about the nature of beauty, the glamour of the therapeutic narrative, and why we appreciate glamour in politics but eschew luxury.

This last essay brought up inconspicuous consumption—an inversion of Thorstein Veblen's theory of conspicuous consumption that shows how the truly wealthy will invest in less-visible goods (such as travel and education) and that it's actually people with less net worth who spend more on visible goods like expensive cars, jewelry, and clothing. It made me wonder about the money people spend on beauty, and whether beauty goods are examples of inconspicuous consumption, or examples of the opposite. After all, our faces and bodies are the most visible things we own—but most run-of-the-mill beauty products are meant to be inconspicuous, and few advertise themselves as markers of wealth once on the wearer. Sure, a Chanel lipstick says its owner is able to spend $35 on a tube of wax, but freshly applied it's not going to look much different than the $7 tube from the drugstore.

The more I think about it, the more I wonder whether beauty work is coded similarly to other forms of inconspicuous consumption. Education is a prime example of inconspicuous consumption—higher education costs money, and while financial aid makes it possible for plenty of bright, poor high school seniors to go to Ivy League schools, you're also unlikely to run across a whole lot of Rockefellers at the local community college. And going to the sort of schools where you do find Rockefellers gives you a level of cultural capital you're going to have a harder time finding in other ways—you pick up on certain language patterns, cultural references, experiences, and fashions that mark you as having access to a certain social class, regardless of what your paycheck says. Prestigious education is a long-term investment, in other words, and we understand such forms of investment as being correlated with wealth, even more so than we correlate it with being merely rich. (As Chris Rock puts it on wealthy vs. rich: "Here's the difference: Shaq is rich. The white man who signs his checks is wealthy.")

I don't want to lapse into stereotypes about Upper East Side housewives with their plastic surgery and expensive hairdos. But the fact is, there is a marked difference in the faces of women walking down East 86th Street in Manhattan and 86th Street in Queens, you know? Wealth enables you not to buy expensive foundation, but to buy the kind of skin creams, personalized skin care and access to the world's best dermatologists, and long-term know-how that enables a wealthy older woman to have the sort of look that marks her as a wealthy older woman. That is: Wealth enables you to treat beauty as a long-term investment. You see something similar with hair care—maintaining the kind of cut and color that you see among the wealthy takes time and money, both of which are in shorter supply among working-class folks. A working-class woman might well have a fantastic haircut and do a nice job with hair color from a box, but keeping it up week after week is going to be a lot harder for her than it is for her wealthier counterpart.

Any reader of ladymags has seen enough of those "$10 face vs. $100 face: Can you tell the difference?" features to know that it's easy enough to replicate the look of pricey makeup. But makeup isn't an investment in a person's looks; it's short-term, washed off at the end of the day. Skin care, body care, hair care—just the repetition of the word care here shows that these forms of beauty work require something more than just slapping down some money at the Clé de Peau counter. (I mean, that terminology is deliberate, framing beauty work as "care" instead of as, well, work, but go with me here.) The word care reflects the investment factor—and sure enough, it's those forms of investment that mark the most visible differences between your average rich lady and your average not-rich one.

But that's just it: These beauty investments are visible; they're just not obvious. (And, of course, there are plenty of older women who never use an expensive skin cream in their life and have gorgeous skin, and vice versa.) Having good skin at age 60 due to expensive maintenance is hardly the same thing as driving around in a Rolls-Royce, but it is something we can look at and say, Oh, well, that makes sense, she's wealthy—especially when paired with other bodily markers of wealth like well-tailored clothes, certain kinds of shoes, etc. So we're back to the initial question: Are beauty products a form of conspicuous consumption, or of inconspicuous consumption? I'm leaning toward the latter but would love to hear arguments for the former. Thoughts?

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Ladyfans: A Fairy Tale of the World Cup

A few quick thoughts on this story, of how Belgian soccer fan Axelle Despiegelaere, who attended the Belgium-Russia World Cup game, is now modeling for L'Oréal after being singled out in photos of the match:




You'll notice her unofficial fan page, created not long after the June 22 match, has more than 230,000 "likes," which I know can happen in a matter of hours but which is remarkable nonetheless. It's being spun as a fairy tale of sorts, along the lines of how film star Lana Turner was discovered at a Los Angeles drugstore. But I have to wonder how much this fairy tale is really a benefit to Despiegelaere, versus how much it's a benefit to L'Oréal. By seizing upon something that has much of the world in a frenzy for a full month*, the company A) gets exposure without having to actually sponsor anything in the World Cup, B) gets to seem particularly savvy, and C) plants itself inside the fantasy of many a pretty young woman of being "discovered" simply by being herself. It gives us a backstory, and should the Belgian's contract land her in a major campaign, it lets viewers associate a neat story with their product (and if any particular viewer doesn't know the backstory, no worries; it's still a beautiful young woman). It's brilliant.

The story is actually just a commodified extension of the way games are broadcast. Sports games are televised with plenty of crowd shots interspersed, in the hopes of transporting the home viewer into the stadium; the painted faces of hopeful or disappointed fans are a stand-in for ourselves. By plucking a lovely young creature out of those fan shots, that sense of proxy is doubled, except now there's the commodification of fandom involved. And let's not forget that it's commodification of female fandom, and that a solid third of the fan shots used in game broadcasts feature stunningly beautiful female fans (made all the easier by not only the internationalism of the tournament but by its location in Brazil, which exports many a young woman who suits the current tastes of the American modeling market). Turning women into one of the benefits of sports played by men has a long history, whether we're talking cheerleaders or the publicity given to WAGs. This World Cup has seen the connection cemented with two Kia commercials that show Adriana Lima and other Brazilian beauties seductively telling gaga male American football fans that their football—that is, what Americans know as soccer—is superior. The commercials annoy me for any number of reasons, primarily that I doubt men watch any particular sport on the basis of how pretty its female fans are (and that it ignores how many women across the world love the sport), but it's not like the agency that created the ads dreamed up "sex sells" all on its own.

But Despiegelaere's story isn't being marketed to men; it's a product and story squarely aimed at women. This fairy tale—normal girl is spotted and becomes internationally famous—is one that fits particularly nicely with the reality-show ethos that we find ourselves surrounded with: Anyone can become famous if you land yourself in the right kind of outlet. Frankly, I'm wondering why we don't see this narrative exploited more often by beauty lines. Who doesn't love a local girl made good, even if "local" is Belgium or Brazil? When it's a tale like this—of someone landing something generally seen as out of the reach of normal people, despite being a normal person herself—everyone becomes local.



*Myself included, as evidenced by The World Hair Cup. It's in the final round at last—vote now! Finalists are Côte d'Ivoire, Portugal, Chile, and Ghana. That's some remarkable hair.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Party’s Girls and Party Girls: Negotiating Feminine Beauty in the Soviet Union

I'm pleased to welcome back Alana Massey as a guest blogger—and with this inquiry into how Soviet life shapes the reputation of Eastern European women today, you'll be even more pleased. A graduate of New York University and Yale Divinity School, Alana has seen her work published at The Baffler, Religion Dispatches, Nerve, Jezebel, xoJane, Forbes, and more. You can follow her via her blog, Oh It's Just Awfuland Twitter.
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Next to the Vanguard Theatre in the West Village, there is an unremarkable-looking salon that appears to be a single room devoted to manicures and pedicures to passersby who have never had a service at Spa Jolie. But ascend the narrow staircase to the second floor and the salon is revealed as a labyrinth of rooms and corridors for every imaginable beauty service performed by a staff primarily composed of Eastern European women. While many workers I’ve encountered in the cosmetic service industry are in a constant state of doublespeak over how pretty I am but how desperately I need a particular beauty treatment, I’m always pleasantly surprised when Spa Jolie staff upsell with no-nonsense pitches like, “Do it. It will make you look better,” or, “It will make your boyfriend very happy.” 

A combination of my first name, my bone structure, and my chosen neighborhoods has meant that I’ve been mistaken for Russian since my teens. When I’ve replied to Russian inquiries in English, I’ve received responses ranging from a curse on my parents for not teaching me the language of the Motherland to the shocked declaration, “But…but you’re so beautiful!” And while I half jokingly plan for the latter comment to have a spot in the highlight reel I’ll watch on my deathbed, it is undeniable that features particular to Eastern European women are especially valuable in the post-Soviet era in beauty and fashion. 

In a beauty culture that simultaneously celebrates the exotic but still defaults to white superiority, women with Slavic features have become a middle ground on which the industry relies to relay their messages about beauty ideals. By the mid-1990s, as young people from the former Soviet Union emigrated westward, the Crawfords were quickly replaced by Kurkovas on runways, with their razor cheekbones and the permanent pout of downward-slanting lips. But even outside of the fashion and beauty industries where only the tall and worryingly thin have a fighting chance, stereotypes abounded about hyper-feminine, appearance-obsessed Eastern European women. And statistics on per capita spending on cosmetics in Russia support these tropes. 

This would be unremarkable were it not for the persistent claims, both internally and externally, that Soviet ideology deemphasized the importance of gender-specific appearance in favor of a model where a person’s value corresponded to their contributions to socialist and communist ideals. While part of the phenomenon can be attributed to the introduction of consumer goods to post-Soviet markets, it’s more than a capitalist inevitability that post-Soviet women—who lived in an era supposedly free of rigid beliefs about gender—came to be seen as the epitome of ultra-femininity. 

Dr. Yulia Gradskova, a researcher at the University of Stockholm specializing in Soviet gender history, challenges the myth that Soviet women had neither obligation nor inclination to engage in beauty routines because Soviet ideology was focused on non-gendered qualities. Instead, she posits that the simultaneous demands of Soviet values of culture, good taste, and hygiene that were meant to deemphasize the individual’s gender still reinforced the need for beauty practices whose end result was still a consumer-oriented, western standard of feminine beauty. Gradskova writes:

While peripheral areas struggled to introduce ‘cultured appearance’ to everyday practices, central publications on beauty and appearance focused increasingly on developing aesthetic notions of ‘good taste’. Thus, aesthetic, rather than overtly political, arguments were employed to explain the importance of ‘avoiding luxury’ and ‘loud’ styles as part of a discourse on ‘good taste’. 

In other words, look precisely cultured enough to embody our ideal but don’t look too ideal doing it. Subtlety, ladies. Subtlety. Yet in the absence of consumer products that made this standard attainable, daily beauty practices became expensive and often dangerous. Gradskova continues, “Throughout this era women had to cope with an ‘economy of shortage’ and ‘making themselves beautiful’ demanded a complex combination of scarce state resources and various forms of quasi-private entrepreneurship.” Many reported great strain on time and finances to secure clothing that was considered attractive but not so appealing as to draw sexual attention. Expectations of aesthetic appeal were essentially an unfunded mandate to the Soviet woman, meaning that many relied heavily on the black market for fashion and cosmetics to complement their home rituals. 

While many of their beauty concoctions like raw yogurt and strawberry face creams would find a home on Pinterest today, others were considerably more brutal. A friend’s mother who grew up in the 1960s in what is now Ukraine reported burning off leg hairs one at a time with matchsticks in the absence of razors. Another woman with whom I discussed her beauty routine recalled applying oil mixed with ashes as eyeliner using a crudely sharpened wooden stick. Despite the frequently bitter cold, many women recounted eschewing unflatteringly thick tights for bare legs with a line drawn down the length of the leg to give the appearance of stockings—a practice also common in the United States in times of material shortages, though it was considerably less hazardous in Kansas than in Siberia. Gradskova’s subjects used burning hot tongs, corks, and pencils to curl and add volume to their hair. 

But the physical danger of such practices was also painfully complemented by the social and political danger of appearing too feminized, and therefore sexualized, for Soviet standards. (Not that this double bind was limited to life behind the Iron Curtain, as we still see today.) In a discussion of Soviet beauty, Anne Marie Skvarek writes about the pitfalls of being overly involved in one’s appearance: “A woman who spent time doing such things was deemed to be selfish, shallow, and therefore not putting the good of the collective above her personal desires.” The demands for ultra-specific beauty and hygiene standards even necessitated the creation of a state-owned and operated cosmetics company, the Tezhe trust. Marketing materials for Tezhe used feminine models in makeup and expensive fashions, but showed them being examples of productive labor. The “third shift” of beauty work reinforced a woman’s model citizenship, but only if it was done just-so. Soviet women sat permanently on an uncertain line between embodying Soviet state ideals and being active agents against those ideals through overtly sexual manifestations of femininity. A color-enhanced cheek was forever a brush stroke away from turning one of the Party’s good girls into a frivolous party girl. One had to always be just attractive enough for state purposes but never for one’s own personal purposes of attracting mates or simply feeling beautiful for its own sake. The option of confronting state messages that dubiously linked things like tastefully made-up faces to good hygiene was undoubtedly out of the question. 

Later decades in the Soviet era saw considerable relaxation in both the messages about gender expectations and around the flow of consumer goods during Perestroika, but messages about beauty were still cloaked in socialist-speak until the very end. The first Soviet beauty pageant was held in 1988, and while the women almost all appear in sexy apparel and heavy makeup, the event’s organizers insisted, “Our event is not commercial. It has an important, socially challenging objective—to rescue women from urbanization, abandonment in the society and to raise the women value in the Soviet society.” Rescue by way of spandex leotard was just the last incarnation of the similar Soviet messages from the 1930s that connected culture and hygiene to waist-to-hip ratios. 

It was not until the end of the Soviet Union that more overt expressions of femininity for the sake of sexual attractiveness reemerged. When they did, it was not as much a sexual revolution as a sexual revelation about the long-standing but suppressed desire to be sexually appealing. As cosmetics flooded the market, many post-Soviet women began immediately overcompensating for both product scarcity and for repressed sexual expression. Cosmopolitan launched a Russian edition in May of 1994 to extraordinary financial returns for its publisher as post-Soviet women flocked to its pages for beauty and sex tips. To some, Cosmo represents everything wrong with modern feminine ideals in the U.S., but for the post-Soviet woman it served as a manual for physical self-expression that had been aggressively policed by market and policies for the preceding decades. The following year, the magazine reported on a survey of 1700 Russian women that revealed that they valued their partner’s orgasm over all other sexual experiences. Today, Russian women reportedly spend as much as 60% of their frequently modest incomes on beauty. Gender studies scholar Elena Zdravomyslova writes that Russian advertisements and entertainment continue to be guilty of "‘aggressively sexualizing’ the common idea of women's roles” in a society currently soaked in overt sexism. It is this aggressive sexualization that has made Eastern European beauty both a source of mystery and of appeal to beauty consumers the world over. 

During a Brazilian bikini wax at Spa Jolie, I asked my regular esthetician about the DIY nightmares I’d learned about and asked if she had practiced any of them. She laughed and said, “We did all sorts of stupid shit like that.” I joined her in laughter and agreement at how ridiculous it was, somehow missing the irony of identifying such practices as drastic while she slathered hot wax on the most sensitive region of my body primarily for the benefit of a man whose feelings for me were lukewarm. I would later pay a premium for another employee to take a razor blade to the bottom of my feet so that no one in particular could feel the softness of the soles. 

In a later moment of more thoughtful reflection, I considered whether the brutality to which women subject themselves for the sake of beauty is a universal experience in a world governed by the male gaze, and if the fixation of Soviet and post-Soviet women on beauty was simply another variation of women accommodating male desire. Brutal instruments like hot wax and razor blades when used in the presence of cosmetology certificates and scented candles are, after all, still brutal instruments. But because the western beauty ideals that necessitate such instruments have persisted more or less uninterrupted, these regimens serve the fairly one-dimensional purpose of enhancing sexual visibility and viability. But to interrupt that purpose as Soviet norms did gave its reintroduction social and political dimensions that often go overlooked when there are easy jokes about superficial Russian women so readily available. 

In the case of post-Soviet women, the commitment to hyper-feminine beauty functions simultaneously as rebellion against the paternalism of the Communist state and as a surrender to the patriarchal insistence on almost caricatured femininity. Her exaggerated beauty is both a move to reestablish her sexual self while also working to limit her to her actual sexual agency. Just as the Soviet woman’s beauty sat at the intersection of party ideals and sex appeal, the post-Soviet woman’s beauty represents liberation from one set of ideals only to become beholden to another set. Western fetishization of her beauty—my own included—sees a smoldering, almost aggressive expression of feminine sexuality. The reality is a much more complex web of historical and contemporary social expectations of what purpose a woman serves and how she ought to look serving it. And serving it for everyone but herself.