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.