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.