Thursday, December 30, 2010

Beauty Resolutions

When it comes to my appearance, I've had the same loose resolutions every year: drop a bit of weight, and/or accept my appearance as-is. (Contradictions? Moi?) The former is easy enough when you set your mind to it, but the latter isn't; it's vague, with no real actionable steps. It's about how you feel, not about how you act, and if we all had control over our feelings we'd be a nation of robots (and therapists would be out of work).

And really, I've never been able to stick to resolutions. But I do have a handful of goals surrounding looks:

1) Go for a week sometime this year without looking in a mirror (except once in the morning).
2) Approach beauty with a sense of play, not duty: Try fun hairstyles, try the occasional makeup "look" instead of my usual oh-I'm-not-wearing-makeup makeup.
3) Flipside: Go for a week without wearing makeup.

And again, these seem contradictory. But what I've learned so far in talking with different women for this blog (starting in 2011, this blog will have weekly interviews with women from all walks of life, focusing on beauty-related issues) is that beauty doesn't have to be about duty. I've been surprised by the joy that a number of women I've talked with have reported about their beauty routine: Many report it as a sensual experience, a time to devote attention to a sense of fantasy. I've always approached hair and makeup with a sort of "ugh" approach, but still I do it. Ideally my beliefs would be in line with my actions, but the fact is I prefer how I look with makeup, so I'm not going to change that. But I want to try to stop approaching beauty mainly as something bestowed upon us--or not bestowed upon us--by others, whether that be nature or whatever "look" is deigned to be in at any given time.

One woman I interviewed described liking her beauty routine because then it felt like something she could opt in or opt out of, instead of something based solely on genetic accidents, and I rather like that. I've chosen not to opt out, but I'm not satisfied with the ways in which I've opted in, either--largely because I'm not looking at it as an option. Perhaps it's not really an option; I don't know, that's part of what I'm trying to investigate. But it's worth a shot.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Baby's in the Corner

Am I the only one who's sort of sour about Jennifer Grey winning Dancing With the Stars? I mean, I don't know who Kyle is (should I?) and, well, there are other "teen activists" I'd rather see be crowned than Bristol Palin. But I still feel like Ms. Grey betrayed all the goofy-looking girls in the world when she got her nose job, after becoming a national heroine simply for being, as Patrick Swayze put it, "the cool, funky Jewish girl who gets the guy."

I'm aware of the hypocrisy that comes for judging someone on their looks when that's supposedly all I'm against. And Jennifer Grey has a right to do whatever she damn well wants to do with her body and face. That doesn't mean that I wasn't cringing as I watched her paso doble. Her technical proficiency was remarkable, certainly. But the paso doble, as any good teenaged drama geek circa 1992 knows from Strictly Ballroom, is a dance of passion. It's meant to mimic the bullfighter entering the ring; the lead is the matador, the follow, the cape, swirling around the matador in a tight but fluid dare. It's a dance that requires skill, yes, but also: bravado, courage—hell, it requires chutzpah.

And sure, one's bravado, courage, and chutzpah isn't necessarily reflected in one's features. But it speaks volumes to me when I see a face that once had courage—the courage to be a teen dance queen despite nontraditional looks; the bravado to play Baby (Baby! Baby who nobody could put in the corner! Baby who always made the right choice, even when the right choice was the wrong choice! Baby whose courage inspired Johnny Freakin' Castle to be a better man! Baby who carried the watermelon!) ; the chutzpah to live her ethnicity—do her damndest to mimic the intensity that appeared to come so naturally more than 20 years prior. Jennifer Grey's new face, courtesy of a nose job she's publicly regretted, showed little of that character. I take comfort in her public regret, much as I wish I didn't care, much as I wish I could take a more libertarian attitude toward the whole thing. I wish that I could have received her triumph on Dancing With the Stars in the way I received Baby's so long ago—as a woman claiming what she felt was rightfully hers, the perception of others be damned.

I can't, though. I wanted Baby to stand for something I wanted at the age I first met her; I didn't want my proxy to womanhood to have the human foibles I had. As long as I'm stuck with those foibles I want my messengers to be purer than myself. Jennifer, your dance was perfect. Baby, your dance was brilliant.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Ponytail Economics

For all my rhetoric about beauty-as-commodity, it's chilling to see an aspect of beauty literally functioning as a commodity. In poor regions of former Soviet states, many blond women turn to their hair as a resource, according to this Times piece. There's a huge market (the largest being in America, natch) for hair--particularly blond hair, which is abundant in the region.

There's a number of unspoken notions about beauty embedded into the human-hair industry, and indeed into this article. For one, the unquestioned notion that long hair is desirable; it's not even worth getting into why women might pay hundreds of dollars to cement someone else's cellular matter to their head. (Personally, I'd rather wear someone else's underwear than her hair--the latter seems extraordinarily intimate, don't you think?) For another, the assumption that light hair is preferable. This is practical in part--blond hair is more dyeable than dark, which needs to be stripped of pigment and then dyed in order to be a perfect match for a buyer's own hair. But as one of the hair czars interviewed, Aleksei N. Kuznetsov, says, "honey-hued" hair that changes color in the light is the most desirable hair--that has little to do with dyeability and more to do with what blond hair connotes (more fun, gentlemen's preferences, etc.).

"Why does one woman sell her hair to another? The person with money wants to look better than the person without money," says Kuznetsov in the piece. "Better," in addition to being long-locked and perhaps blond, also means being transformed after three hours in a stylist's chair instead of the nearly three years it would take to grow a 16-inch braid. The industry transforms the waiting game of the growing-out process--the sort that non-impoverished but non-wealthy women such as myself bemoan and cover up with barrettes and headbands when deciding to grow out one's hair--into either a long, drawn-out, passive labor (for the seller) or a non-issue altogether (for the buyer).

Go on, tell me that a lopped-off ponytail isn't a little bit creepy.

This hirsuit surrogacy becomes particularly chilling when you look at other ways in which the region's women make a living: It's estimated that 2/3 of the world's victims of sex trafficking are from former Soviet nations. In those cases, it's sex that's actually being bought and sold; in the case of a blond ponytail, only the symbol of sex is being trafficked. It's also fertile ground for young models to be exported to wealthier nations--another case of women's beauty becoming a sort of natural resource.

And a precious resource at that. Selling one's hair is describe as "a final resource to tap in times of desperation," and once again it's not spelled out why it's a last resort; we're expected to intuitively know, an expectation that is only a responsible assumption if we get that a woman's hair is so deeply personal, so tied to her essence, that to part with it is a newsworthy sacrifice. In fact, some sellers are consciously switching up their style and are just capitalizing on the opportunity, a notion that's squeezed in at the very end of the piece--consciously or not, the writer is urging us to sympathize with the women who sell their hair. The economic desperation is the point of the piece, but it's the understood psychic sacrifice that adds the poignancy here.

I was 8 when I first read Little Women; as every high-spirited girl reader is encouraged to, I adored Jo. That didn't stop me from being furious at her when she sold her hair, "her one beauty," in order to pay for her mother to visit their ill father behind the battle lines of the Civil War. I gave a glance to her nobility, sure, but also privately thought that surely she could have found another way (chop off that little brat Amy's curls, for one). As a third-grader, I understood that Jo was selling more than a part of her body--she was selling her femininity, a choice that made even tomboyish Jo break into quiet tears in the night: "My...My hair!...I just made a little private moan for my one beauty." Louisa May Alcott didn't need to spell out for us why the hair was valued, nor why the choice hurt even a woman as nonchalant toward her appearance as Jo. In the same way, I'm surprised that this story is even considered newsworthy by the Times (though I'm pleased it is); it's just business as usual, right?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Why the Long Face?: Justin Long on Looks-Based Criticism

It's rare that you see men acknowledge their own doubts about their appearance--publicly, at least. If they do, it's often in this sort of self-deprecating yet self-aggrandizing way (I'm picturing Jack Nicholson chomping on a cigar while patting his swollen belly). So I found Justin Long's candid, heartfelt comment (as in log-in-and-register comment) to a critic who panned his looks--instead of merely panning his performance--engaging.

Background: Film writer Michelle Orange penned a review of Going the Distance in which she wrote of Long: "How a milky, affectless mook with half-formed features and a first day of kindergarten haircut might punch several classes above his weight [he plays opposite Drew Barrymore] is a mystery...we are increasingly asked to accept on screen." Then Long, on the Jimmy Fallon show, spoke about how he internalized Orange's words, prompting her thoughtful essay on the nature of critique, which is certainly worth a read. Mr. Long himself commented on the article (scroll down to comments to read).

I didn't know what a mook was either, Justin.

The real story here is the nature of the critic, and Orange's excellent points about "relatability" and how it's become "a cultural phenomenon and evaluative rubric"--a stand-in for, say, quality. But it's also a rare moment in which a man publicly acknowledges that he's not invulnerable in regards to his looks. Long writes: "I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d get to be in one movie, let alone several ... never had any delusions of grandeur. I always wanted to be a theatre actor...always assuming the movie roles were relegated to the good looking people. ... Then I started idolizing guys like Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, Sam Rockwell, Woody Allen, and Philip Seymour Hoffman ... if guys that looked like that could do it, I thought, maybe this milky mook could role the dice."

He continues: "I’m surprised by the amount of stock you seem to invest in my looks. I absolutely agree with you too, I’d be hard-pressed to hold a candle to even a fraction of Drew’s beauty... Is that a message you want to proliferate though? That people of higher aesthetic echelons should stick to their own? Maybe you’re frustrated because it so rarely works the other way – I don’t remember the last time I was asked to accept a female romantic lead who was “punching above her weight class” – though it does happen .... I suppose if it were more commonplace though you, as a woman, wouldn’t be so offended and might have taken it a bit easier in pointing out the disparity of our looks in 'Going the Distance.'"

The turn-the-tables approach here works (often it doesn't, because its users miss that sexism is an institution, not isolated incidents) because we simply don't hear a lot of men discussing their own thoughts and feelings on their personal appearance. Beauty, we think, is the women's realm, and public responses to criticism of women's looks vary from the pile-on ("Worst Swimsuit Bodies!") to the outraged (the collective Internet WTF about Jessica Simpson's supposed weight gain). I've heard women rightfully complain that it's unfair that not-devastatingly-attractive men get to play romantic leads while actresses are held to a different standard; I'd never stopped to think of what it might mean for an aspiring actor to look at a screen and see that he might be able to make it despite being average-looking. I assumed--mistakenly, it seemed--that men just didn't think much about it or took those actors' presence for granted. To hear Long's point of view, though, can be more conscious--more inspirational--and it only strengthens my resolve that the solution to the beauty myth is not to make men our miserable company, but to demolish the myth itself.

Still, it's not all about men. Justin Long has pretty much made a career out of being a stand-in for the everyday, kinda cute guy, one who might be inclined to buy a Mac. He's no George Clooney, yet when he came on the scene women and girls were swooning (I remember a former tech-trainer colleague who'd use his name for her SEO classes because it gave her an excuse to investigate him on the clock). I don't think women are any less petty than men in regards to looks, but can you imagine the reverse happening? Long himself points out that it "rarely works the other way"--a not-stunningly-beautiful woman being paired with a prototypically handsome man. Part of this is the dearth of the working actresses who could fit the bill; part of it is that women are frequently written so one-dimensionally that it's hard to imagine such small niches being carved ("We need a Mac girl! Quick, slap a pair of glasses on Katie Holmes!"); part of it is that the rough equivalent of the girl-next-door is still inevitably filled by actresses who are also conventional beauties. (There's better ink out there than mine on why leading men can be out of shape, balding, and liver-spotted and still play romantic leads, while the world shuts down when Kathy Bates does a nude scene, though, so I'll leave it be for now.)

It's also interesting to note that while Long left the comment early in the thread's life, none of the comments before it commented on his actual looks--but once he piped up, people started saying, "Oh, and yeah, you're actually pretty attractive, bro." Nobody wants to hurt anyone's feelings, and I think by acknowledging that Orange's comments did actually hurt, people had a knee-jerk reaction to rush to the defense of his looks. Which sort of misses the point, but if it helps people think twice before panning someone's looks simply because he's a man and couldn't possibly care, then grand.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

My Brilliant Career

I was set to enter a modeling contest when I was 13. Seventeen magazine was having a contest in which the grand prize was your very own picture in the magazine--yes, in Seventeen itself--and a meeting and consultation with an agent.

Now, I'd never wanted to be a model, not since the age of 5, in which I got a kick out of "modeling" in front of my mother's Pentax and briefly fell in love with the thought of making kissy-faces at the lens for a living; that dream died out within a week, in favor of becoming Linda Rondstadt. But when I saw the callout in the magazine, I felt alight. I wrote about it in a weekly journaling assignment my English teacher made us do: My friends and I are entering a modeling contest, I wrote. (This wasn't true; I didn't dare mention it to any friends.) Of course I know I won't win or anything, but I think it would be fun!

Here's the thing, though: I honestly thought I would win. I couldn't mention that to my teacher for fear of seeming conceited or delusional, but by mentioning it to her I was sort of doing a combination of ersatz progenitor techniques from The Secret and writing the part of my magical dream model story in which I "didn't ever really think I'd win!" It was, of course, delusional: Records from 1989 reflect a round-faced, snaggletoothed girl with a bad perm; models favored at the time resembled miniature Christie Brinkleys--honey-haired, lithe but toned, poreless creatures that I couldn't have resembled less. I didn't see my own image reflected at me in the pages of Seventeen, and certainly nobody had ever put it in my head that I matched those images.

Exhibit A: Portrait of the Modeling Contestant as a Young Girl.

Still, I was convinced I would win. I would spend hours in the bathroom applying makeup, then squinting at myself in the mirror to see how I looked with it on; without my glasses, though, I couldn't tell. But I would see these hints of beauty, these things that signaled to me that if just the right person saw me in just the right way, I would wind up on the pages of Seventeen. My eyes were large and dark; my lips had a perfect Cupid's-bow; my cheekbones--if I sucked in my cheeks just right--were defined. (At one point I put in a single earring, sucked in those cheeks, and fully believed that I looked like 21 Jump Street-era Johnny Depp.)

I look back at that girl making faces at herself in a bathroom mirror--a girl I now see was indeed pretty in an undercover way, though certainly not a girl who had the hallmarks of becoming a great beauty (which I didn't)--and marvel. We hear a lot about the nosedive that girls' self-esteem takes in the teen years, and certainly I had my fair share of that. But alongside my shaky self-esteem, manifested in a nascent eating disorder and desperation to make boys like her, was this unshakable--even, yes, delusional--belief that I was absolutely something to behold. A friend of mine--who now, as an adult, has a striking resemblance to Julia Roberts--recalls being 13 years old and thinking she was "the hottest thing ever. And, I mean, I was this skinny, gawky kid with braces and glasses and this terrible perm--I look at pictures now and can't believe how awkward my awkward stage was. But I'd pull back my hair in a ponytail and would walk around like I just ruled the place, and I had no idea why boys weren't interested!"

I wonder how often these thoughts can be articulated by girls when they're actually at that age, but I doubt that my friend and I were the only two definitively awkward teenagers to have this secret pride. And the "secret" is just as important as the "pride"; I would just as soon have died rather than tell even my closest friend, "You know, I think if you get past these Coke-bottle glasses and enlarged pores, I'm actually a total babe." It was essential to not ever be perceived as thinking you might be pretty. The psychology of adolescent girls was in its infancy then; we didn't have Reviving Ophelia and Carol Gilligan yet, which means that while we were robbed of those teachings, we were also sort of unaware that something bad was supposed to happen to us at that age. My friend and I weren't talking ourselves up as grade-A beauties to combat our low self-esteem; it was simply what we quietly, privately believed to be true, whatever we displayed to the contrary, however loud our wails of "I'm so gross!" at slumber-party makeovers. It wasn't that I was unaware of the barriers between me and beauty: the unflattering glasses, the pudge, the perm, the mole--I knew these had to be taken care of before the inevitable Seventeen photo shoot, but I had faith that they would be, and I had faith that until then, people would see beyond those glitches in the cosmic order and see my beauty.

What happened over the years wasn't so much that that mind-set changed--my fantasies of modeling for Seventeen are long-gone (I didn't wind up entering after all--as with many flurries of passion at that age, I simply lost interest), but neither do my insecurities stem from thinking I'm uglier than sin. Instead, it's that I became painfully, painfully aware of how I might appear to others. The fear of seeming foolishly self-deluded had its seed in my disclaimer to my teacher--"Of course I know I won't win"--and festered over the years until I had lost my own gauge of how I actually, inherently looked. Even the word choice is key here: They are called looks because someone is looking.

At 13, I dearly cared what boys thought but hadn't yet had my first kiss--besides, at that age, most boys were still preferring video games to our feminine wiles, much to our despair. I hadn't yet been overlooked by my heart's desire in favor of someone prettier; I hadn't yet been rated, out loud or with a silent, appraising eye, as I walked into a room, and I hadn't yet heard other girls being rated in that same way by boys. At that age, girls were being rated, all right, but by one another--hence the need for my own affirmations about my appearance to remain private. And obviously even the youngest of girls are bathed in expectations around her appearance; by the time I was peering at myself in the mirror and misappropriating the beautiful cheekbones of Johnny Depp as my own, I also believed that smart and pretty just might be mutually exclusive; that thin was beautiful and fat was not; that everything would be better if I were blonde; and so on. But the core ability to look at myself and see what I saw instead of what I thought others might see began to erode not long after that.

That erosion can be another entry, though, or a thousand of them. Tonight I just want to quietly salute that naive girl putting up her hair in her basement bathroom. Between the extraordinarily moving It Gets Better project and the well-meaning but vaguely cryptic Twitter tag of #tweetyour16yearoldself, there's been a bit of noise lately about adults taking time to assure teenagers that, no, really, it's cool, and it all seems awful right now but, well, it gets better. We forget that there's an openness to that age as well, a time in which the smooth, polished orb of our inner selves hasn't been as heavily scratched as it might become later.

Now, it did get better and my 13-year-old self really could use a tweet or two from myself ("No, seriously, pay attention during science class because, fuckin' magnets, how do they work?"). But perhaps, on days when I feel as though the mirror can't be trusted, when it reflects not my face but my looks, I'd like a tweet or two from her in return.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Long Hair on Older Women

A lovely essay in the Times about older women having long hair. (Bonus: She mentions the no-'poo technique at the top of the second page!)

It's interesting to think of our older sex symbols (I really, really don't ever want to hear my father say the words "Helen Mirren" again, but of course the woman is incredible) and see that whatever physical attributes they may possess that land them in that category in the popular mind--sultry features, a certain grace, a conspicuous absence of fat accumulation around the middle--long hair isn't among them. The door is the tiniest (tiniest!) bit open for us to think of older women as sexy--I suppose it's the one upside of the whole "cougar" thing--but, despite the very agency that these women have that makes them so appealing, there are certain things that we collectively expect women to give up. We shift our definition of sexy to include a very select handful of women of a certain age, but even there the Iron Maiden prevails; there's not enough space around the head for long braids, or a ponytail--if you want in, shoulder-length is the most you can hope for, even as your above-the-knee skirt reveals a shapely calf and your smile lines belie your temperament.

The long-haired women over 50 I know--my flame-haired mother included, not a gray hair on her head--may have beautiful hair, but there's also an air of rebellion about it. I find that the women who have long hair at that age are also less likely to do the extreme sort of things that less self-assured counterparts might do--plastic surgery, an overuse of makeup, etc. So I don't know if the rebellion is because they're saying to hell with trying to look younger (but look girlish anyway, tresses flowing), or because of the juxtaposition of a slightly weathered face and bouncy hair, or because they're simply doing as they please. But in any case, regardless of the sex appeal of long hair, rebellion can be sexy as hell too. Cougars they might not be, but I salute the long-haired lionesses among us.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Makeup Ads and Self-Esteem

The conclusion of a recent study in Journal of Consumer Research—that ads for beauty products make women feel worse about themselves—falls squarely into the category of duh, along with "Clumsy Kids Less Popular" and "Eating Healthfully and Exercising Is Good For You."

What’s interesting to me is not the grand conclusion but the smaller conclusions of each experiment. Participants were shown a variety of images: “beauty-enhancing” products like lipstick and eye shadow, and “problem-solving” products like acne concealer and deodorant. Both types of products were shown both in a neutral image (white background, no type) and embedded in an ad, with all its seductive additional imagery and words.

Unsurprisingly, seeing the enhancement products in an advertising setting made women feel the worst about themselves, when compared with the same products in a neutral setting, and the problem-solving products in both settings. But in addition to participants reporting thinking worse thoughts about themselves, they were thinking more thoughts about themselves. Their self-consciousness increased when being posed with a product that, ostensibly, was to make them more beautiful. It strengthens my resolve to do my best not to check out my reflection in every shiny surface available. (I got some excellent beauty advice once, which was to look in the mirror as little as possible because then you can think you’re as beautiful as you’d like, even if you see hard evidence otherwise. Oh but to stick to it!)

The study participants’ self-esteem remained the same when shown the problem-solving products, a wild difference from the beauty-enhancing products, whether within the ad setting or in a neutral one. A logical but counterintuitive—counterintuitive to me as a woman, anyway—response to these experiments might be surprise. Wouldn’t a product whose very nature was calling you flawed—zittily, stinkily so—make women feel worse about themselves than a product promising the fantasy playland of glossy lips and tinted eyelids? Can’t makeup be some exquisite place of luxury and pleasure? (Certainly that’s often how it’s sold to its consumers.)

But as the target of these ads, I know right away why the “beauty-enhancing” products made women feel worse. We know full well we’re not the ethereal creatures we see in the advertisements. We know we sweat in an unattractive fashion; we know we get pimples and ingrown hairs, and that our teeth get stained over the years, and that our hair falls out of place. We might get frustrated about it, but we’re also terribly matter-of-fact about it. Problem-solving products don’t promise to turn us into something we’re not; they guide us to a sort of place of neutrality. Give me the right product and I turn into a purer version of myself, a non-acne-scarred woman whose hair doesn’t slip from her ponytail, non-coffee-stained teeth gleaming. It’s corrective measures that feel like beauty work nonetheless but that ultimately are only letting me know that I’m human.

Let forthright beauty enter the picture, though, and things shift: Suddenly, instead of simply looking like a non-zitty version of myself, I might be able to look like Brooke Shields—except I’ll never look like Brooke Shields, of course, even at my non-zittiest and whitest-toothed. The beauty-enhancing products take us from the realm of humanity into some other realm where we’re supposed to transcend ourselves, with our just-bitten lips, just-pinched cheeks, miraculously blue lash lines.

The results—of beauty-enhancing products decreasing women’s self-esteem while problem-solving ones had no effect—stayed true whether or not the ad featured a person. This did surprise me; I’d always championed the Clinique makeup campaigns because they were selling me a product, not the implicit promise of looking like Brooke Shields (a Photoshopped Brooke Shields at that). It’s the lure of glamour and beauty, whether it comes from a stiletto or a glamorous actress, that leaves us feeling deflated. Now I sort of feel duped, like Clinique hired a smart, well-meaning woman to reinvent the beauty ad (Dr. Faye Miller?) for women like me who think we’re too savvy to be taken in by a bevy of starlets peddling their sheen to us. I look at Clinique’s thin sans-serif lettering, which somehow looks elite; its artful styling of products in ads. Their ads are as close as can be to the neutral-background approach used in the study, actually. So maybe they’re lowering my self-esteem less than Maybelline—but I hardly walk away a winner.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The True Tale of an Unwashed Woman

I’ve stopped washing my hair. And my face, for that matter. The inspiration was an episode of Mad Men in which an unseen character is reputed to not wash her face, but she’s French so it’s obviously good advice. (Thus proving that the national girl-crush on French women went back at least to the ’60s.) It reminded me of something I'd heard once -- that if you entirely stopped washing your hair, after a few greasy weeks a small miracle would occur atop your head; oils from your scalp would work their way down your strands to protect them and lend a glossy sheen, and your hair would then have reverted to its original, intended condition. Or something.

One of my more feline preferences is that I detest showering -- I do it, but it always feels like a chore, and its pain-in-assiness factor is exponentially increased every time I have to wash and dry my hair. Plus, I’m mostly working from home these days, so if my unwashed-face-and-hair plan were to wind up making me resemble a calzone, embarrassment would be minimal. So a month ago, I swore off shampoo and face washes. I use a boar-bristle brush frequently, as it’s supposed to help with the miracle part of this whole no-washing thing, and I’ve also rinsed it twice in water; I splash my face twice a day with lukewarm water.

Surprisingly -- or unsurprisingly, depending on whom you’re asking -- I look fine. My skin looks better, if anything, but really just looks the same; my scalp looks greasy sometimes but it’s nothing a quick brush, hair powder, or updo can’t fix, depending on its severity. The hair itself looks better than ever; it magically places itself exactly as it was cut, with no styling necessary.

The real surprise, though, is how smug I’ve found myself about it. It’s not simply feeling pleased that I’ve freed myself of some beauty labor; it’s that I feel self-satisfied to a degree that surpasses how one should ever feel about one’s hair. I’m enthralled with the idea that by doing absolutely nothing, I manage to bypass all these beauty systems and look exactly the same. Behold the ne’er-washed scalp – quiver at my sebum! I alone see the forest through the trees of toners, moisturizers, cleaners, foams, and conditioners – I alone see the folly of the industry!

Except I’m not alone. When I Googled “not washing hair” and “cleaning hair without water,” I was stunned by the number and intensity of people who’ve dabbled in the realm of the unwashed. There’s a woman who, years after writing an article about the “no-’poo” method, returns to answer questions from commenters. There’s the 213-page discussion on the Long Hair Community forum, which features a litter of vaguely creepy userpics of long-haired women photographed from behind. Their inspiration seems to be Penny Weynberg, who hasn’t washed her hair for 11 years and claims it’s now as “soft as dog fur.” That's not counting the HuffPo blogger, the folks in the Times article, and various British columnists. They take a sort of defiant, proud stance, posing theories about the body’s natural equilibrium and animal fur. They have to say it loudly: They’re not dirty even if they’re unwashed; they’re, in fact, possibly cleaner than you, with your overproduction of scalp oils and chemical conditioners. They have to say it loudly because if they don’t, then they’re just dirty, and nobody will want to sit next to them at lunch, grody grody grosspants.

I’m tempted to become one of the no-’poo evangelists (and indeed simply by writing here, I suppose I am), but it seems a little to me like those slim actresses who jabber on about how it’s totally genetic and they, like, love cheeseburgers and never work out. But I look at the incessant interest these people have in their own lack of shampooing, and I wonder what sort of need it’s fulfilling. For the women on the forums in particular, the amount of discussion surrounding the no-wash method seems to surpass that of conventional hair care. It’s like there’s a certain amount of time and energy that must be devoted to our tresses, and once the actual hair-washing is skipped, the discussion of the absence of hair-washing takes its place. Participants talk of “preening” their strands, break down various scalp-massage methods step-by-step, and test water temperatures for optimizing rinses. They use acronyms particular to the method: SO for sebum-only, WO for water-only, ACV for something I can’t imagine. They assure one another that they’re not “cheating” if they use an herbal rinse on occasion.

There seems to be a sort of disciplinary aspect to these communities, a proud self-flagellation in the face of having found a way around the time normally spent washing and drying one’s hair. Do we really want to be released from the bonds of beauty? I’ve found that while overall I’ve saved time by not shampooing, I’m also peacocking in front of the mirror more. I’ve started carrying my boar-bristle brush in my purse and find myself calculating activities based on its affect on my hair (“I’m working out tonight so it’s a good night for a rinse”), something that I didn’t do before. It actually reminds me of the paleolithic movement. A friend of mine has “gone paleo,” eating raw meat, volunteering to help people move because that’s how cavement stayed in shape or something, going on barefoot runs through Central Park, etc. It’s helped her lose weight, has cleared up her skin, and has rid her of depression—this after years of veganism, so it’s not as if she was walking around in a McDonald’s daze before going paleo. As she spoke, I did indeed see a glow come over her, but I suspect it was less due to raw meat and more because she had discovered a sort of shortcut to the tangible benefits of good health promised by every blaring magazine cover. It’s basically the Atkins diet from what I can tell, but whereas Atkins sounds old-fashioned and dangerous, the caveman diet sounds old-fashioned and totally fucking awesome. There’s something appealing about the idea that by going out on a primordial limb, you can magically wind up ahead of the game and can loll about at the finish line while the vegans, South Beachers, 5-A-Dayers, and master cleanse folks gasp their way to you.

Or, in my case, I can sit atop my shampoo-free perch and watch as other denizens of the beauty game fret about conditioners and gels, knowing all the while that my hair magically creates its own mousse.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Celebrity Lookalikes

At a party I attended several years ago, someone told me I looked like Drew Barrymore. I thanked her, instinctively, despite it being a mere statement instead of a forthright compliment. As the night went on and she drank more, she kept telling everyone else how much I looked like Drew Barrymore, and people would look at me, cock their heads, squint, and agree or disagree. The party eventually dwindled down to five people surrounding the kitchen sink, gulping water out of plastic cups, talking about ways in which I looked like Drew Barrymore. I was being studied by these strangers, who were talking about the size of my eyes and the shape of my upper lip, in this sort of detached but warmly appraising way. Is it terrible to say I loved it?

Since then I’ve been told I resemble various others, all of whom look so different from one another that the comparisons become void. What I realized somewhere between Jeanne Tripplehorn and Kirsten Dunst was that it didn’t matter who the comparison was; I was being complimented. I took an inordinate pleasure in being told I looked like these women, even if I didn't agree--it meant someone was taking notice of how I looked and drawing an association with someone more familiar, if less intimate, to them. Actresses and the like have been given a sort of official stamp of cultural approval: Nicole Kidman may not be your cup of tea, but she’s certainly someone’s; ergo, to be told you resemble Nicole Kidman is an endorsement of your looks, a way of saying that you’ve been sanctioned as pretty, without the speaker having to risk saying something inappropriate. It can be awkward to tell a woman straight-up that she’s beautiful--if you’re a man, it’s assumed you’re hitting on them (which you might be, but you might not be); if you’re a woman, there’s this unspoken sort of question left hanging in the air (“you’re lovely, now what about me?”), an awkwardness resulting from having testified to someone else’s beauty.

I don’t know how many times I’ve been with a group of people and someone will point out someone else’s resemblance to a celebrity, and suddenly the room is taken over by Julia Roberts and Bridget Fonda look-alikes. To report to others whom you’ve been compared to is a chance to talk about our striking features without appearing as though we’re bragging; hey, I didn’t come up with this comparison myself, you came up with it (or a stranger on the street, or a woman at a party, or a lookalike generator program), so it’s not like I’m saying I’m all that, right? To say forthrightly, I am beautiful is taboo. But remove it a bit—Yes, as a matter of fact, I have been told I resemble Charlize Theron—and you’re just stating a bare fact, reporting an incident, most likely with a mildly self-deprecating eye roll. Best yet, there’s a safety involved: If someone retorts that no, you do not indeed look like Charlize Theron, you’ve risked nothing. You laugh it off, saying you didn’t think so either. You haven’t risked actually saying, You know, lots of people think I’m beautiful; you’ve said something smaller, more innocuous.

It’s notable that this happens to women much more often than it happens to men. Men might be told that they look like a celebrity if they genuinely do (one sharp-featured man I know was eminently thankful when the Pulp Fiction era passed so that he wouldn’t have to hear anymore how much he looked like Quentin Tarantino), but a quick survey of some male friends told me that most of them had been told one or two celebrity look-alikes, if any, and only rarely.

The biggest, and most obvious reason, for this is that we’re all simply more used to assessing women’s looks. But another reason comes to mind, one involving a man: Several years ago, I was walking with a white man in a predominantly black neighborhood. We passed a black man a bit older than us who turned to my companion and said, “Hey, it’s Ben Affleck!” We didn’t get that he was talking to us and kept walking. He shouted it louder this time: “Hey, Ben Affleck! Check it out! It’s Ben Affleck!” he called out to nobody in particular. Now, my companion looked like Ben Affleck only in the most cursory sense: a lean-jawed white man with dark hair. He didn’t look like Ben Affleck; he looked like a generic white guy who was momentarily in this fellow’s consciousness, a stand-in for every lean-jawed white man with dark hair on the planet. In other words, he was a type.

I don’t actually look much like Drew Barrymore, but I do give off a candid warmth. I’ve heard Jeanne Tripplehorn--rather, “the other chick from Basic Instinct”--twice now from strangers while wearing a red trench coat; it’s not my face, it’s the femme fatale signifier. A cynical, wisecracking, bespectacled friend of mine used to be told she looked like Daria, as in Daria the cartoon character. It’s not about what we actually look like; it’s about what we stand for, what vibe we put out into the world--or rather, what vibe is received from the viewer. There was an edge to the stranger’s voice as he walked alongside us, urging other passersby to come check out “Ben Affleck.” In a country as racially divided as America, it’s not hard to imagine that my companion became, for a moment, the embodiment of the establishment that kept this neighborhood in poverty; by singling out the only white man on the street as being one of the most successful people in Hollywood, a division between the haves and the have-nots was clearly drawn.

Of course, since I don’t actually have a striking resemblance to any celebrity in particular*, it’s easier for me to pick up on the meta-message being sent by these comparisons. I wonder what it’s like to actually resemble someone--my best friend from high school actually is a dead ringer for Nicole Kidman, and has been compared to her ever since Days of Thunder, even winning a local lookalike contest as an adult. We’re not in touch anymore, but I wonder: Does she take this in and feel good (“Hey, I’m constantly compared with a woman who’s been on People’s Most Beautiful list eight times!”) or resentful (“Can anyone ever just tell me I look good and be done with it, without this Australian chick coming into the picture?”)? Does it ever backfire--does she wonder on off-days if there’s a constant …except not as pretty lurking in the air, given the much-recorded beauty of her famous counterpart? Or is her self-image intact enough to simply take it for what it is: a statement of fact, a reportage from others—you have red hair, you have fine features, you are tall and slender—and not much else?

*Except for Laura Kightlinger, whose brief reign on taxi-topper ads for The Minor Accomplishments of Jackie Woodman assured that for a period of four months I was told biweekly, by strangers, that I resembled “that comedian who’s on the taxis,” only to have disappeared from the public eye, ending my single bona fide celebrity resemblance.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Welcome to the Dollhouse: Men and Cosmetics

I don't know what the answer to healing the relationship so many women have with beauty is, but I've long maintained that the answer decidedly is not to invite men into the pool along with us. So I read today's New York Times story about men's cosmetics with interest. What jumped out, though, was this quote from the founder of a men's personal care line:

“Women use cosmetic products to beautify, but men have a totally different approach and totally different goals,” said Mr. Hewryk, who holds degrees in applied chemistry and biology. “Men use cosmetic products in order to cover up or correct imperfections, not to enhance beauty.”

One glance at the makeup counter shows that women's products "enhance beauty" in a dizzying number of ways, including everything from peacock jewel-tone eye shades to Day-Glo nail polishes--that is, colors not found in nature, much less on even the most beautiful of human bodies. But to so firmly divide the covering or correcting of imperfections with the enhancement of beauty seemed odd. I feel this immense pressure to not only be beautiful but to appear as though it's utterly effortless, as though I just happen to have skin that's entirely unmarked by adolescence or hormones. "Maybe she's born with it, maybe it's Maybelline"--the company's winking ad let us know that if we used their products, the world would assume the latter while they played knowing big sister behind the scenes.

I've always sort of envied women whose use of makeup is obvious--green eyeliner, turquoise shadows. Some might see them as kowtowing to the beauty imperative; I do see that, but depending on its wearer I also see a sort of fantasy space, a sort of storybook land in which we have jade eyelids instead of pearlized fairy wings. It's saying: I am unnatural; I am parading; I am painting myself; I am artist and subject at once. It's taking

But I don't think that Hewryk is restricting his comments to outlandish, playful colors when he refers to women using cosmetics to "enhance" their beauty. I think he is referring to things like mascara that makes our eyelashes appear dark to their tips, lipstick that makes our lips appear just-bitten, blush that makes us look like we've just been engaging in some particularly blush-worthy activity. These things indeed enhance our beauty. And yet, when I read Hewryk's words, I immediately thought of my pale-tipped lashes, my deadened cheeks, and thought of those as imperfections to be corrected, not beauty that merely needs to be enhanced. This is the effect of the beauty imperative: normal becomes imperfect, not a baseline. One of the prime tools of any woman's makeup box is called, after all, concealer.

"Enhancing beauty" sounds much more fun than "correcting imperfections," doesn't it? I wonder how many women think of their daily routines as enhancing their beauty versus correcting their imperfections. Hewryk's statement is more affirming than what I'd think of as the standard makeup-hawker's line, and what much feminist theory has us believe of advertising: If our beauty is lacking, and if our beauty is essential, then makeup will always, always sell. It's nearly optimistic in a way, but at its core the idea still makes me sad. In Elizabethan England, women of a certain class wore facepaint made of egg whites; the idea was to create a glazed, porcelain look--an obviously false, even inhuman, ideal. Men wore cosmetics in that era as well, but they were seen as vaguely immoral because of the deception involved: If you look at a woman with a shellacked face you know that she was not, indeed, born with it (maybe it's Maybelline?). If you look at a man who appears to be brimming with vim and vigor, however, you might well feel tricked if you found out he got it from a jar. I don’t wish for men to jump into the beauty myth along with women; I’d prefer that they instead cast about life preservers to help those of us who are mired in it get out. But if they must join, I’m just saddened by the idea that because of the restrictions of manhood, they would still be unable to seize the sort of cultural permission that women have to actually enhance our natural beauty, instead of being limited to correcting “imperfections.”

Monday, August 23, 2010

Notes From the Teen Magazine: Cattle Calls

When I worked at a teen magazine, I sat across from the bookings editor, meaning the person who picks the models to be in the magazine. I've met bookings editors ranging from le cool to le crazy; we got lucky in that ours was a vibrant, hilarious, down-to-earth woman who suffers no delusions about what her job is: to evaluate young women on their beauty. She would talk to them to make sure they're not just a pretty face, yes, but a pretty face is what we were after.

The unending parade of beauties--the gawky Eastern European Svetlanas crouching in the elevator putting on eyeshadow furtively; the Florida types who, I shit you not, are never able to follow the path of signs we've laid out that clearly say MODELS: THIS WAY TO THE BOOKINGS EDITOR; the delicate-boned Asian girls, always here for beauty shots, never fashion; the surfer boys with their highlighted hair and blue, blue eyes against their tanned skin--is crushing and breathlessly hopeful enough to make me glad that no matter what internal temper tantrums I may throw about my own beauty myths, I was not given a face and body that makes others assume I am only good to be looked at.

The cattle calls are the worst. Every so often I step out of the elevator and am faced with a dozen identical people: one day they will be casting a net for razor-cheekboned, long-haired blondes; the next it will be pale-skinned, near-Gothic beauties. I've heard that actors are faced with this all the time during callbacks--they're after a type, you are a type, everyone else in the final running is your type too. I remember going to a party once at which somehow nearly everyone there was a semi-curvy moon-faced brunette with pale skin and dark eyes, wearing jeans and a tank top--I felt instantly comfortable but also a little weirded out, like I was in some sort of Being John Malkvitch scenario, surrounded by images of myself. To have that be your profession seems unbearable: I am like you, but I need to be better than you to fatten my portfolio. I admit I get a sick little pleasure out of the occasional cattle call for guys--who am I to complain about finding myself in the middle of a swarm of incredibly good-looking men?

They're all looking at you, too. Models are paid to be looked at. Their sense of gaze is different than those of us who are not stared at all day by a team of people examining you for stray hairs, shiny cheeks, smeared lips. The boys, the girls, they stare at you when exit the elevator, when you're walking down the catwalk-halls. I am not particularly insecure about what they see when they look at me, but I do wonder what they see. Are they seeing stray hairs, shiny cheeks, smeared lips? Are they evaluating my symmetry? Are they looking for themselves?

The Beheld

My best friend's bookshelf holds three copies of The Beauty Myth. "Three feminists under 40 in the same apartment?" she said when I asked why. "Please."

There are gender-related issues that are ultimately more important to western women's lives in their ability to devastate. Access to birth control; domestic violence; inequality in the workplace; child care; the mommy track. When you open the doors to the rest of the world, the problems compound: no access to education; acceptance of sexual violence; lack of control over one's reproduction and body.

But no gender-based issue touches more women daily than beauty.

The Beauty Myth taught me why beauty should matter to feminists; it armed me with useful rhetoric and allowed me to make the crucial the-personal-is-political connection that I hadn't gotten with other feminist issues. I was 15 when I first read Naomi Wolf's book: Reproductive-rights concerns seemed light-years away, I had been told by everyone around me that I could do anything (even be President!). Reading stories about how women couldn't get credit cards in their own name--I believed it, of course, but I didn't know it. But reading The Beauty Myth, I began to understand why beauty seemed so incredibly important to me, beyond simply wanting to look pretty. It gave voice to why I shrank under the threat of male appraisal, why I was willing to spend my hard-earned baby-sitting dollars on creams making a rainbow of promises, the panic I felt when I'd see a less-than-flattering photograph of myself. It legitimized the swamp of emotions I felt in regards to beauty every day of my life.

I want this blog to be about beauty--beauty in all its forms, but focusing on the personal beauty of women. Experiences of beauty, perceptions of beauty, theories on beauty. I wish for it to allow for the complexities inherent to the topic, and wish for the voices of people who think about and work with beauty to be heard.

While men's relationship to beauty is similarly complex, I wish to focus on women. We are the ones whose relationship to beauty cannot be ignored. We are the ones who cannot pretend that it does not matter. We are the ones who are categorized, daily, as beautiful, or not-beautiful, or beautiful-in-a-weird-way. We are the beheld.