Monday, January 31, 2011

Personal Care Spending, Happiness, and the Young/Single/Fabulous Woman

I'm baffled by the results of this survey on personal-care spending, ranked by city. By "personal care," the study included dollars spent on fitness, cosmetics, toiletries, salon/spa visits, and the like.

The study was aiming to see if there was a correlation between dollars spent on personal care and levels of fitness among its residents. For the top and bottom cities, that was true: Austin spends the most money per person per month on personal care ($143) and is one of the fittest cities in the U.S.; Detroit spends the least ($18) and is also one of the unhealthiest cities. But then, as pointed out by The Hairpin, Portland, OR (always Portland, throwing a kink in the system! viva la revolucion!), is one of the healthiest cities in the U.S. but spends about the national average on personal care items.

Really, they couldn't have come up with colors other than red and blue for this?

How does this relate to beauty and women? A few ways:

1) The study's very premise is that spending on cosmetics and fitness are in the same category. And sure, they both fall under "personal care," but there are about a zillion reasons people work out (mental health benefits, lower cholesterol, stress relief, medically directed weight loss, rehabilitation--plus, sure, "those last five pounds" and the glow that working out gives you) and not that many as to why people wear cosmetics (my dissection of lipstick subtleties aside, but of course). I've always been sort of irked by the connection of beauty and health departments in women's magazines, even though the skin, after all, is an organ. And in this survey, in which both men and women responded, it skews the results: A man or woman buying, say, rock-climbing equipment isn't in the same headspace that a woman buying eyeshadow is.

2) No secret that self-esteem and happiness are complementary, right? Looking at the personal-care spending in the light of the happiest and unhappiest cities in America reveals that the people who are spending more money on personal care are also happier. Not all of the cities in the happiest/unhappiest cities rankings are listed in the personal-care spending chart, but of the top 10 cities that are: The happiest cities spent an average of $86.50 on personal care; the unhappiest, $68.70. And this is where I really wish that there were a demarcation between cosmetics/spas/salons and fitness, because of the antidepressant effect of regular exercise. But I wonder if happier people are also spending more on self-care that might relate to their happiness in less scientific, more aesthetic ways?

3) Four of the top 12 cities for personal-care expenditures are in Texas. Texas women also earn 81.4 cents on the (man's) dollar. I can't find all the data to bear this out, but I wonder if there's an inverse proportional spending on personal care to women's earning power--that in places where women earn considerably less, they need to increase their "net worth" by investing more in their looks. It's possible, but in looking at the cities where young, childless women outearn men, the average spent on personal care is actually slightly higher than the national average ($68.50 for these cities as compared to a national average of $60 on personal care).

Thanks to Beauty Schooled for the initial tipoff!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

My $14 Cheerleader: How I Went From Hating to Loving Lipstick in One Easy Week

When Eden did my makeup, she pointed out that by wearing eye makeup but no lip color, I was actually putting my face a wee bit out of balance. "The face is in thirds--you see up here [eyes and above], this here [the nose area] and down below. If you don't have everything in balance, instead of one feature jumping out it just looks sort of strange." (This explains why I've always found the '60s-style "nude lip" cool but bizarro.) "If you're wearing eye makeup and then put on a little bit of lip color, you balance your face and your eyes actually jump out more."

 Brigitte at left: Sultry as hell. Brigitte at right: Vaguely alien-like, and sultry as hell.

Reluctantly, I saw she was right. I never liked wearing lipstick; my nervous habit is to rub my lips (I tell myself I'm "exfoliating" but let's be real) and I fear that if I wear lip color I'll wind up looking like a 6-year-old in her mother's makeup cabinet. But even with the exaggerated lip that Eden did on me, I saw that they still didn't overshadow my eyes. (The false lashes may have had something to do with that.) And off to MAC it was. As a wearer of lipstick for exactly one week, I'm pleased to report my preliminary findings:

I became less conscious of how I looked. Rather: I became less conscious of whether I looked pretty. I don't wear a lot of makeup, but everything I do wear is designed specifically to hide "flaws": tinted moisturizer evens out my ruddy skin tone, mascara darkens the blonde tips of my lashes, and so on. I don't wear makeup that is designed to look like makeup—that is, nothing that announces itself as being artificial. I'm comfortable that way, but it also means that there's zero sense of play in my makeup routine. It's just hiding all the stuff that I think is wrong with my face--how could that be fun?

But with this pert little brick-red Cupid's-bow announcing my presence, pretty wasn't the question. Instead, there was a sense of self-definition going on: No, I don't just look like a slightly Photoshopped version of how I looked when I woke up this morning; I have unnaturally red lips, and you can't deny it. I'm less aware of whether I look pretty because instead of merely presenting my face—which, really, I have little control over—I'm presenting something closer to a look. Now, red lipstick is certainly a signal of beauty, so in one way it's further putting myself out there to be evaluated. But the juxtaposition of bright red lips with the rest of my relaxed look—loose college-girl hair, jeans, barely-there makeup—makes me feel like the lips are a sort of boundary, defining something about me and how I move in a public sphere. I'm bringing something to the table that's me, certainly...but not quite the me I and I alone wake up with in the morning.

It was boiling in the office on Day 2 of my lipstick experiment, so I was sweating buckets. But when I looked in the restroom mirror instead of seeing all that shine on my forehead, I saw this bright little pucker of a mouth wearing this color that still doesn't look at all natural to me. Instead, it looks: a tad obstinate, insistent, amused, amusing. A colleague entered the restroom as I was washing my hands, and in saying "Hello" to her I saw how the slight exaggeration the color gave my lips seemed to also exaggerate what I was saying, even if only to myself. And it was in seeing my lips in motion that I understood what it was that was intuitively making the lipstick experiment more rewarding than I'd anticipated: My words felt just a little bit brighter, edgier, more present. In seeing my highlighted lips move, I saw the words themselves as being highlighted. I never thought I'd be feeling this way about lipstick, but here it is: I felt like what I was saying had more of a right to be said. The vehicle that carries those words was painted with color, verve, punch: How could their cargo not absorb a bit of that essence?

Certainly I'm not the first to connect articulation with lip color: While pigmenting one's lips has been in fashion for a few millennia now, lipstick—with its swivel-up tube that can fit inside even the smallest handbag, making virtually any woman able to swipe her lips and announce that she's playing ball—only showed up in 1923, just three years after the passage of the 19th Amendment. Women matched their new political mouthpiece with exaggerating their actual mouths—besides the bob, is any motif of the newly liberated Jazz Age woman more significant than lipstick? When a woman is described as lippy or mouthy, it's not exactly a compliment, but it's not exactly an insult either. It's more that she's sassy. A mouthy broad? It's not me—but where can I take lessons?

I'd say I'm conflicted about how lipstick made me feel, but I'm not, not really. In no way do I think that my words are actually more important when I'm wearing lipstick, nor do I take any other woman more or less seriously based on whether or not she's painted her lips that day. But I can't deny how I felt: more confident, more present, more rightful. I feel conflicted about a lot of aspects of traditional feminine trappings: high heels (love 'em! hate 'em!), jewelry (holes in our ears? but I happily wear a pair daily), leg shaving (who has time? me, apparently). And that includes the very idea of makeup--I rarely leave the house without it, and part of me really hates that fact, because I feel like I'm telling myself every morning that I'm not quite good enough as-is. But I feel none of those conflicts with lipstick. Instead, I just enjoy how it feels.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

"Playing Ugly" for Oscar Nods

With Oscar noms coming out, it's time to look at what role beauty plays in which women—rather, which women's roles—are selected for top honors. I find this take at the Allure blog interesting; it asks if in order to be given the legitimacy of an Oscar nod, an actress has to "temper her beauty."

It's a good question and one I'll look at later, but for now I'm interested in the upside-notion presented here: Annette Bening and Michelle Williams are singled out here for their "makeunders." And it's true that neither actress was at her most glamorous in their nominated roles—but does that mean their beauty was being tempered? I see it instead as us as the audience being so used to the glamour element that's the norm in films that when an actress plays a role that isn't a glamourpuss, we  legitimately use the shorthand "playing ugly" to describe what's actually a perfectly normal look, in which one's beauty is either a relative non-factor, or is assessed by different means than we'd assess a traditional starlet role. Michelle Williams has the same face she did in Synecdoche, New York, and though she wasn't singled out for her beauty in that role, neither was anyone commenting on her downplaying her beauty. She was wearing standard leading-lady makeup and hair there; ergo, no comment.

Charlize Theron in Monster certainly "tempered" her appearance, to the point of utter transformation, but that's in a different league. The actresses mentioned here weren't onscreen looking disheveled and unkempt as Theron as Aileen Wuornos did—because their characters lived in secure shelters, not at road stops, and could do the things most women do to look standard: comb their hair, apply moisturizer, etc. They looked like normal people—beautiful normal people, to be sure—but normal people. Maybe normal people's looks are tempered by some definitions, but isn't is that what we're used to seeing is so exaggerated that we notice it when it's not there?

Retail Therapy: My Maiden Voyage to MAC

I literally haven't bought makeup since 1999, until last week. I wear it every day, but one of the perks of working in women's magazines is the phenomenon known as the beauty sale, in which the products companies send to the beauty department for consideration are put in the conference room and sold for a dollar. It's a snarling, savage madhouse of magazine staffers—but one that means that if you work there you can walk away with dozens of products for a sliver of cash. I don't use tons of products but for the past 12 years I've been grabbing every brown eyeliner, black mascara, concealer, and fair-tone powder off the tables. And even though I haven't held a steady job at a ladies' mag for the past two years, my stockpile has held out nicely. (I do buy tinted SPF moisturizer, because I'm picky about that.)

Besides the obvious benefits, this also shapes how you perceive makeup. When a $95 face serum is priced the same as a Wet'n'Wild nail polish that would fetch $2 at Target, your evaluation of a product's worth shifts. You can only base your reaction to a product on how well it works (or how it looks on your shelf), not what investment you put into it in your hopes of achieving greater beauty. I don't care if the name on the package is Chanel or Maybelline; only rarely have I found something that worked so well I'd happily buy it at its retail value.

But last week was a hard week--cramps, back pain, general stress. And after my bombshell makeover I decided I wanted to try wearing lipstick on a daily basis for a while, just to see how I felt in it--but because I never wear lipstick, I don't own any except a singular beauty-sale leftover called Rum Raisin, which makes me resemble a kindly retiree, so off to the MAC store it was.
As a copy editor, I'm more annoyed by the missing period after the "C" than I should be.

What's that? you ask. MAC? I thought you said drugstore stuff was just fine! That's exactly it, though. It didn't cross my mind to go into Duane Reade and pick up some Cover Girl lip liner; I specifically wanted the experience of walking into a nicer store and spending nicer money on a nicer product, even though  the effect on my face would wind up being roughly the same. (By all accounts, though, MAC really is the leader in lip color longevity and rich pigmentation, and they're reasonably priced.) Wearing lipstick was about one thing; buying lipstick was about another.

Now, I've gone my whole life without buying lipstick. In fact, the only time I've procured lipstick (besides the aforementioned Rum Raisin) was when I uncharacteristically swiped a tube from the drugstore at age 15, which I've since learned was sort of a rite of passage for a lot of girls. The sticky-fingered Daphne Merkin, in her essay "The Shoplifter's High," writes:

Ours is a culture in which women, more than men, are dominated by the ruthlessly depersonalizing ethos of materialism... We are, in other words, the face—and clothes—we put on in the morning. ... Seen from this angle, shoplifting can be viewed as a means, however misbegotten, of managing the tension induced by being at the beck and call of the marketplace.... Once money is not the issue, how much is too much to spend on a new lipstick? And behind that valuation lies a more lift-threatening barter: How much am I worth?

Now, I didn't shoplift the MAC pencil, of course (though I don't think it's just the size and portability that makes lipstick a frequent target for shoplifters; I'm certain there's something specific to the purpose of cosmetics that's behind it--if anyone out there is a habitual makeup swiper, pipe up as I'd love to chat!). But what Merkin is saying here applies nonetheless: The actual price paid, the actual 1,415 pennies, wasn't the issue. My budget allows me to drop $14 when I'd like (though not habitually). It's more that by assigning MAC-value to my time, effort, and cash instead of CVS-value, I elevated myself--back pain, landlord tensions, cramps and all--to a higher worth.

I'm not sure where lies the line between treating myself to a small, colorful, pricier-than-it-needs-to-be pleasure to boost my mood, and plain old American retail therapy, foolishly spending on MAC in order to join the legion raspberry-lipped girls who pepper the halls of places I work. I'm pretty sure a $14 lip pencil isn't crossing that line. But I'm still questioning the whole idea, and I continue to be surprised by the pleasure I feel when I find the sleek pencil in my bag and spend a moment giving myself some lip service.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Annika Connor, Painter, New York City

Like fragments of an ongoing daydream, artist Annika Connor’s lush watercolors focus on the feminine aesthetic in beauty—lovers in an embrace, ballerinas in flight, even decadent interiors. Annika’s work also extends outside of the studio; she’s the founder of Active Ideas Productions, which promotes emerging artists through education, publications, and more. The impetus to talk with Annika was, of course, her intriguing work, which frequently captures beautiful women in intimate moments. But I was also particularly eager to learn more about her thoughts on personal beauty and presentation: Even in the fashion capital of the world, she stands out as exceptionally stylish (legendary New York Times style photographer Bill Cunningham agrees; he’s photographed her several times) and effortlessly glamorous without sacrificing any of her natural warmth. In her own words:

On Seeing and Being Seen
I got glasses a couple of years ago for distance, and when I did I was like, “What?! You’re supposed to see all that?” [Laughs] I couldn’t believe that I was supposed to see the branches on trees 50 feet away—that’s nuts! That’s way too much information! When I go to the ballet or the museum I'll put on my glasses; other than that, I don't tend to wear them. I kind of like seeing what's in front of me and letting the rest be a little blurry. So I don't really notice people on the street very much, or notice them noticing me—I get lost in this little bubble. [Laughs] But I don’t take the glasses off in order to not see people; it’s just a byproduct.

 Marilyn Multiplied
I started this around the time I got glasses—Marilyn Multiplied, and it's obviously playing on the Andy Warhol idea. This is from How to Marry a Millionaire, where Marilyn Monroe plays this bumbling sort of fool because she has to wear strong prescription glasses, but she doesn’t want to. She’s this great comic character—she’s doing all these silly things because she can't see what's going on. In this particular scene, she's gone into the bathroom, she's had her glasses on, she's fixed her hair, she's fixed her makeup, she's straightened her dress, and here she's just taken off her glasses and she's putting them back in her handbag. So this painting is depicting the moment when she's decided to literally not see the world in order to be seen by the world as beautiful. She's playing a comic character, but it struck me as poignant that her character was deliberately operating blind in order to be seen.  When I painted her reflections—they're all her, but they could almost be different women too.  Overall the painting is about the various multifaceted sides one has, all the many women that one woman is, depending on the angle or the light or their mood.

Any flat surface functions as something you gaze at—there's an immediate association with the mirror.  So a painting, although it doesn't actually reflect your image, often functions as a mirror, both to the viewer and the artist. As an artist, it's hard to keep yourself out of your paintings. My paintings almost always have a self-portrait element, even if I’m painting a man or a forest, so when I am painting women, it’s natural that I project a bit of myself into them. Of course my mixed emotions and feelings also go in there on some level, but my paintings take a really long time to make, and my emotions change, so it’s not necessarily as direct as: I’m angry, and then the woman looks angry.

La Goulue

On Allure
I titled this painting La Goulue, which was a great restaurant on the Upper East Side but which also translated means “the greedy one.”  I gave her this name because in this painting she’s so greedy for the viewer’s attention. I was inspired by a Stieglitz photo of a woman looking at the viewer, sort of hanging over a sofa wearing a come-hither look that seems to say, “Look at me.”

In my studio, I actually had to hang La Goulue behind my sofa because she was so demanding of your attention that if she was on the other wall it was interfering with the ability to see my other work.  I love that she’s really insisting having on the viewer’s eye on her, but no, I don’t think I need to make sexy paintings in order to get the viewer’s attention.  When I make sexy painting, it is because my work in part deals with depicting romance and daydreams, and sex and allure is a part of that conversation.

I have a lot of notions that are feminine and super-idealistic—some might say idealistic or naive.  However, there's so much in the world that’s unpleasant, unattractive, uninteresting, and aggressive—if I have the opportunity to literally make something that never existed before, like a painting, why shouldn't I create something that's inspiring and uplifting and beautiful, as opposed to something that’s jarring? I definitely feel that by seeing the world as beautiful, I end up painting a world that is somewhat beautiful.

On Self-Presentation
I want to give gifts to my viewer, and I suppose that kind of extends with my love of fashion and how I present myself. If I’ve put myself together in the best possible way that is the most appropriate for the situation, it makes me feel confident. So for example, if I meet with my lawyers, I’ll put on a great suit, I’ll pull my hair back, I’ll look all...Corporate Annika. Doing this sort of attire makes me feel competent and I’ll ask questions about [faux-deep voice] intellectual property law.

Sometimes there's a theatrical element to what I’m wearing, a bit like costuming. Presentation is a big part of pulling together a look. When you put a frame on a painting, it’s the final touch. And a pretty dress without any accessories or makeup—something feels missing. Jewelry, makeup, hair—it's how you frame the figure. It's similar to how you paint a painting.

During the day I don’t wear much makeup, just the basics to make me look like I don't have dark circles under my eyes. But if I’m getting dressed up for an event, I enjoy doing something dramatic. That's one of the best things about being a woman—we can make ourselves look way more beautiful. I sometimes feel bad for men. They don't get to wear cover-up! That must suck! They just have to look how they look.

At the Les Liaisons Dangereuses: The Young Fellows Ball; photo, Yina Lou

As a woman, when you know you're looking good, you feel confident. Your day is better, you accomplish more, you meet more people, because you have that extra edge. Sometimes when I'm feeling blue, I'll put on an outrageous outfit and go to Whole Foods and grocery shop. The great thing about Whole Foods at Columbus Circle is that everybody goes there. You have no idea if somebody's just stopping and getting some food on the way to a dinner party, so I can totally be in a ball gown at Whole Foods if I feel like it!

So when I am sad I'll put on an outrageous hat or I’ll wear a super-colorful outfit, so people will smile at me. And maybe it's a bit because they’re laughing, but in the end when you’re walking down the street and people are smiling at you, you start to feel better, even if you had been sad.

 Left: At the Performa Red Party; House of Diehl created the umbrella bustle on-site; photo, Yina Lou.
Right: At the Veuve Cliquot Polo Classic.

On Actions and Reactions of Others
Obviously I notice when a guy catcalls or something like that—but I learned while living in Barcelona that that is a compliment.  Of course, you can get offended by it from a feminist perspective, but essentially they're paying you a compliment. There's certain ones I don’t like, but for the most part when I'm walking down the street and some guy is like, "Ooh, looking good!” it makes me smile. Maybe I shouldn't, but—I mean, "Ooh, looking good!" [Laughs]

I don't feel I get belittled for being feminine, because I'm embracing it. My hair is blond and I’m wearing a sequined dress—if the first guy I'm speaking with doesn't immediately take me seriously and think I'm, like, this crazy intellect, that's totally okay! When that person eventually hears my ideas, my smarts will show themselves.

Actually, it's sort of good when people underestimate me, because then it's easy to impress them. [Laughs] And they do—I tend to get underestimated. But when they see my work, the painting speaks for itself.

Held back by beauty? Honestly, I don't really see myself as a beautiful woman. I see myself as, you know, moderately attractive. I'm okay, but I’m not any kind of supermodel. So maybe if you're super-super good-looking, you get pigeonholed by that. But I'm not good-looking enough to be held back because of things like that. [Laughs]

On Fascination
Beauty encourages projection because it engages with fascination: Something that's really beautiful fascinates you. You want to keep looking at it, whether that’s sunshine through yellowing leaves in Central Park on a lovely Sunday, or a woman simply strolling by. 

Because beauty is evocative, you relate what you're seeing with what you're remembering. When you’re looking at a beautiful landscape, you're enjoying the transcendental moment, but you’re also remembering, say a hike you took with your mother some other time. So when you're seeing a beautiful painting and it reminds you of an experience you had, or someone you knew. A beautiful woman can remind you of someone you know, or almost someone you can imagine you want to be.

 Midnight Express

But I also think there is a flipside to the beautiful. In order for something to be truly beautiful, there has to be fragility, or perhaps a potential of destruction. Everybody says beauty is fleeting—it this sense that beauty won't last forever which is part of why it its hypnotizing.

I also think people project with beauty because there's a longing that comes with the beautiful—a longing to possess, a longing to be there, a longing to become, depending on what the subject is. That longing can contribute to that darker side of the beautiful.  And that darker side can intoxicate, intrigue, and destroy.

 Rivera Remembered

Monday, January 24, 2011

All Made Up: Thoughts on Being a Bombshell for a Day

At the end of my interview with makeup artist Eden DiBianco, she said, “Tell you what: Why don’t you come over to my place tomorrow and I’ll do you up? It’s one thing to talk about people communicating what they really want to look like, and it’s another to experience it yourself.” In the name of research (not vanity, my kittens, never that!), I accepted her gracious offer. 

Before and after: Dispatch from inside the Pussycat Dollhouse.

Thoughts on being a bombshell for a day:
1) It takes a lot to look this way. 
It took an hour and a half for me to go from Autumn to Bombshell. Eden used no fewer than 12 products on me, probably more. She used some tools I own at home and yielded vastly different results than I do—I haven’t tried applying false lashes for years, because I thought they made me look like a knockoff Kewpie doll, but you really wouldn’t have known from Eden’s application that I was wearing them.  

So the vixen look takes a lot of time, money (I should note that the products were a mix of affordable drugstore stuff and more high-end things—”Whatever works,” Eden shrugged), and skill: None of which I have or am willing to invest. Not to mention that while I didn’t have to touch up the makeup (I got a little shiny but all the color stayed in place for 12 hours), I was also hyperconscious of how I was eating so as to keep on my lip color, of not touching my face, of not wearing a hat in the frigid winter so as not to muss the curls. Looking this way ain’t easy, kids. 

2) Yet being a bombshell takes nothing at all. 
While the time, effort, and skill that go into creating the look are scarce, the effect is inevitable once you’ve got the basic structure in place. When I look at the photos of myself that my friend Lisa took that night, I see that what makes me look “good” at first glance isn’t the intricacies that also make it a skilled makeup job on Eden’s part, nor is it my God-given features; it’s the signals of beauty that do the trick—and a trick it is.

Bombs away, boys!: My sleight-of-hand.
You see a woman with long wavy hair in a red dress. She is wearing bright lipstick and is in a pose that is intended not for anything practical but only to be observed. These elements are what creates the bombshell, not what I bring to the table. I say this not to put myself down but to highlight the power of the signals, which transcend the individual. As Sarah, my first interviewee, says, “I can dress a certain way, put on makeup, style my hair, and make a stir when I walk into a room. But it feels like a sleight of hand. Where I succeed, the effect is more than the sum of its parts only in other people's heads. The imagination fills in the gaps.”

3) I am incredibly uncomfortable trying to look beautiful. 
A few days before the makeover, I interviewed photographer Sophie Elgort, who said the difference between people who are photogenic and people who aren’t isn’t so much genetic gifts as it is comfort in front of the camera. I recognized myself immediately: As a rule, I look okay-to-great in candid shots, and okay-to-horrendous in posed ones. And it’s because I’m trying so damned hard to look pretty when I know I’m being captured. I pout my lips, suck in my cheeks, freeze my eyes—all this without realizing I’m doing it. It’s reflex. And it’s not just in photos: The minute I recognize that I am supposed to be playing the role of someone beautiful (a slow-mo moment on a date, knowing that I’m being eyed by someone across the room), my face involuntarily contorts into this weird position that isn’t me. The irony, of course, is that it eradicates whatever beauty I might have at any given moment. As Sophie said, “How can you expect to look like your best self if you’re putting on a ridiculous face?”

So then there I was, sporting false lashes, heavy black eyeliner, bright red overdrawn lips, and a cascade of curls. I was telegraphing trying to look beautiful more heavily than I have since senior prom. It was terrifying. My normal look is low-key enough that if somebody happens to single me out as beautiful—well, whoopsie here! My, I wasn’t trying, I was just sitting here picking dandelions and choosing a nonfat latte flavor, and gosh that’s so nice of you! 

When it looks like I’m not trying to be pretty, I can act as though it’s all one big accident somehow, a happy bit of serendip that you, sir, found me attractive in this cosmic wormhole of a moment. But when you’re sending out these blaring signals of beauty—red lips! exaggerated eyes! was that hair in Gilda?—you are blatantly asking for attention, even if only of the visual sort. You are making a request, and that request can be refused. I tend to give a lot of eye contact on the street, but I found it very difficult to look strangers in the eye when I was so dolled up, because I didn’t want to see how they would respond to my implicit question. I didn’t want an enthusiastic, leering “yes,” I didn’t want the contemptuous rejection of a “no,” and I sure as hell didn’t want the “what? who??” of the invisible—even though normally I’ll default to that, my muted self-presentation giving the world permission to overlook me with little protest.

In my day as a bombshell, I gained an admiration for those women who take the hard sell, who dare us all to look at her and find her beautiful, or not, or to think she’s gaudy, or to make assumptions about her self-esteem. I tend to think I’m in control of my appearance by being so low-key—I believe that nobody will look at me and assume anything about me. That’s naive: By appearing to be a blank slate I allow the world to project quite a bit onto me, actually—and nobody’s a blank slate anyway. (The average person would probably guess at first glance I’m middle-class, and a professional in a relaxed job environment, and not a native New Yorker, and that I will happily tell you whether you’re on the right train to get to Times Square, and they’d be right.) 

The siren, the bombshell, the woman with a shade too much lipstick: She is telling you to think she’s a sight, that she is absolutely worth your attention, and that she is doing her damndest to tell you what she wants you to think of her. Perhaps I’m romanticizing, and I’m sure that these lipsticked creatures have reasons as varied as my little-makeup sisters do for our minimalist approach. And regardless, I'm going to stick with my soft-sell approach—less effort, more versatility, more in line with my personality. Still: Being a bombshell takes guts, and right now, tonight, back in my disheveled French twist and barely-there mascara, I salute them all.

Chrissie Eden DiBianco, 29, Makeup Artist and Hairstylist

Chrissie Eden DiBianco specializes in bridal hair and makeup; she also does fashion and editorial work. “I was cleaning out my filing system, and I found an unsent application to the Aveda Institute that I filled out when I was 17,” she says. “I always wanted to do this for a living.” The epitome of the sassy, straight-up New Yorker—she grew up on the Lower East Side as a first-generation American—I asked to interview her not only because of her profession but because of her forthright manner. We talked about looking at your face objectively, having the courage to communicate your fantasy look (indeed, the day after our interview she turned me into a bombshell), and the popularity of airbrush makeup. In her own words:

On Knowing Your Face
I started working in bars and clubs when I was 15, and I met a lot of interesting sculptors, photographers, all kinds of people. Everybody wanted to draw or sculpt me. That’s how I started—I was figure modeling, then tattoo and pinup modeling, and they never had any budget for hair and makeup, so I had to do my own. These artists were like, “Oh, you have such an interesting bone structure, very architectural.” I don’t think this face is interesting at all! It’s the one I wake up with every single morning—who cares? But it taught me to really look at my face and therefore look at other people’s faces—not just in terms of what’s good-looking, but in terms of what’s interesting.

Photo: Don Sun, Moss Photography

You look at faces differently when you’re so close to them. You get people who think they’re plain because they’re doing something blah with their look, but they’re not really looking at themselves. Women are trained to think we spend too much time looking at ourselves, that it makes us vain or stupid. But it teaches you a lot about yourself when you get to know your own face. Women aren’t looking at themselves, not objectively. We spend a lot of times looking at ourselves critically, which isn’t the same thing.

My clients usually have an idea of what they want to look like, but when people think about the idealized version of themselves, they still don’t actually see themselves. It’s still somebody else they want to look like. You can’t get up in the morning and say, “Maybe today I’ll look like Penelope Cruz.” You can put a stunning face of makeup on someone and if they look in the mirror and it’s not what they thought it would be—if they still don’t feel that “wow,” that connection, that awe at discovering themselves—it doesn’t really matter. I’m the expert in the sense that I have the technical skill to do the manual work, but you’re the only expert on your own face. And at the end of the day, you get one face for life.

On Comfort Zones
I had one bride who’s a lawyer; she spends all her time working or with her daughter. She said to me, “I’m really nervous about this. My time goes to my work and my daughter—I don’t really wear makeup. It’s not me.” I said, “If it’s not you, why are you wearing it on your wedding day?” She said, “Well, I have to.” I said, “It’s your wedding—you don’t have to do anything. If you want to get married, all you have to do is show up. So don’t come in here feeling judged and saying you don’t know what you want to look like. You know what you want to look like! Don’t be afraid to tell me.” So we did the trial, something very basic because I didn’t want to scare her. Bridal makeup can be scary for someone who doesn’t wear a lot of makeup; it looks soft and natural in pictures, but you have to put on a lot of friggin’ makeup to get it that way! A lot. I get a lot of, “Do I need this much blush? My eyes look so dark!” People are afraid of looking overdone and trashy, or like they’re trying too hard—everyone wants to look effortless.

So this lawyer was a little resistant at first, but she loved it. She went to pick up her dress later and still had her makeup on—and she didn’t like the dress anymore. She had bought the simpler of two dresses, and when she tried it on with the makeup she said that she felt like she was hiding in her dress. So she switched it out, got the more elaborate dress. That was, like, the crowning achievement of my career! She sent me a picture and said, “I want you to know that you changed this for me. I hadn’t felt like I was allowed to wear makeup.”

I did that low-key look for her trial, but on the day of the wedding I said, “Okay, you got the fancier dress—we’re going to kick it up a notch.” She was ready for it then. And now she does her hair a bit funkier, she wears a little more makeup. She got that confidence from being told that she could do whatever she wanted and that she had to feel good about whatever choice she made. It’s like being a shrink, it really is. And it’s the only non-medical profession where you’re licensed to touch the public.

On Flawlessness
Celebs get airbrush makeup, and now it’s available on the general market, so a lot of brides want it. And it looks flawless, but you know what else looks flawless? A more enhanced version of you, one that isn’t being plastered onto your real face. You know those cheap airbrush T-shirts on Coney Island? That’s going on your face. You can’t adjust it once it’s dry, and because it’s not blendable you get these flat faces sometimes. Skin is a combination of tones, especially African-American skin—it’s not just brown, it’s yellow and red and sometimes a warm orangey-tan color, and you can’t get that depth with airbrush. Airbrush is a good option for some people, but it’s not the best option for everyone. And if it’s not right for everybody, why do it at all?

I’m resistant to airbrush makeup because my perspective on beauty is so much more about revealing than about concealing. I just got married myself. I get that you want to be beautiful—you’re in these photos you’ll have forever and you’re paying a lot of money for them. But at the same time, you can’t erase your entire face and start from scratch. So I ask clients a lot of leading questions, like, “What do you worry will be the worst thing about your face on your wedding day?” People tell me right off the bat; they start touching their face. They become very frank, saying stuff you generally wouldn’t say to someone, even if you talk about your insecurities with your friends. There’s a balance between planning how we’ll work with that—how we can minimize whatever it is—and getting them to figure out what it is that’s really bothering them so much. Because no matter what you do with your hair and makeup—you can look amazing, and you might even look like a different person if you do enough—if you’re looking for those flaws, you’ll find them.

On Playing Ball
There’s a balancing act between doing things on your terms and being comfortable with what you do on society’s terms. You’re going to feel that pressure—especially as a woman—to appear sympathetic. People will give you attention, and they’ll sympathize with you more if you look like this pretty, sweet thing. I walk into my butcher and the little old Italian butchers fall all over me. Who doesn’t love a pretty, well-put-together girl? So, yeah, I’m putting on my face before I leave the house.

On the job, you can say ideologically, “It shouldn’t matter what I look like; I’m good at what I do.” But people make value judgments based on your appearance—not just your face and how you dress, but the way you shake hands, how you make eye contact. Beauty is a part of that overall picture. I mean, I hate business attire, can’t stand it—what is that, a twinset? But when I was in that world, I played ball.

At the same time, when I was working in corporate America, I sat in a cubicle all day. If I left for lunch it was miraculous. But I suffer from migraines, so sometimes I’d just put on my shades and go to work—and when I showed up to work with no makeup on, people thought there was something seriously wrong. Because you’re stepping outside that protocol where everybody else is playing ball. I play ball in certain ways because it does help me along, but when I feel like hell—when I’m brushing my teeth in the dark because of my migraine—you’d better believe I don’t care if someone notices I’m not wearing blush! You can use beauty to your advantage but you don’t have to define yourself by the standards you adhere to in order to play ball—it’s about more than just looking the right way for other people; it’s about taking care of yourself and maximizing your potential for impact so that you’re happy.

Sophie Elgort, New York City, Photographer

Sophie Elgort’s client list reads like a New York City fashion girl’s dream: Bloomingdale’s, Theory/Helmut Lang, Alice + Olivia, Women’s Wear Daily—and the list goes on. Her backstage and front-of-house work for lead designers at New York Fashion Week has helped her develop her personal style, which matches her low-key but composed voice. We chatted about what makes someone photogenic, the importance of letting the individual shine through, and why you’ll probably be wearing sparkly nail polish soon enough. In her own words:

On Being Photogenic
If somebody’s not comfortable—in person or in a photo—it’s pretty obvious. It’s a little awkward, and the feeling that’s going to come off in the photo is that this person is not comfortable with themselves, and I don’t think that’s ever an attractive quality.

Certain people are obviously more photogenic than others, and that helps me get a nice photo faster. I’ll be able to get 10 great shots of her in 10 minutes, whereas somebody else I might only be able to get one great shot in an hour. But the difference between somebody who’s photogenic and somebody who’s not is that people who aren’t photogenic are sometimes nervous in front of a camera. They make weird twitches, or they’ll sort of crane their neck or purse their lips or do something that’s obviously not them, because they’re nervous. A lot of times I’ll see photos and think, “Why is that person doing that? In person she never does that!” If you keep shooting, you can get them more into their natural element and you can get a good photo from people who say, “Oh, I’m not photogenic.” You’re not unphotogenic; it’s that you’re usually posing, putting on this ridiculous face that’s not you. How can you expect to look like your best self in a photo if you’re putting on a ridiculous face?

Certain people are always changing their expression, or they gesticulate a lot, and those people are hard to get a good photo of sometimes. But that doesn’t mean that not in a photo, they’re not stunning—they can be extremely charismatic and beautiful. That’s why I think video is interesting; it’s sort of like a photo but it has more movement to it, so you have more of a chance to see more sides of a person. I definitely think charisma can show in a photograph as well. But in a video, you wouldn’t have somebody just sitting there posed, and I think it should be the same thing for a photo. And there’s no way you can show your charisma if you’re not acting like yourself.

For vintage, custom, and DIY boutique ALIOMI.

This is a stylist and a friend of mine—she’s not a model. And this is what I mean in terms of capturing someone in the moment, actually showing their personality. Her boyfriend has asked me for that photo of her; he’s like, “I love this photo of her, she looks amazing.” And that’s because her personality is shining through; she wasn’t posed, she wasn’t pretending to laugh.

On Self-Portraiture
I started doing self-portraits recently—it’s an interesting project, and I think it would benefit a lot of people to do try it, if they have a camera with a self-timer. Because then they can start to realize what they’re not comfortable with when looking at the camera. Like, what am I doing that looks weird to me? What are my insecurities that are coming through in that photograph?

The first batch that I did, I was like, I look self-conscious in all of these photos. I was doing all these things that weren’t myself; I was putting my body in these weird positions. I was like, What? These are so not me! So I redid them—I went back in front of the camera, found an angle that made me look the best. I grew up in front of the camera—my dad’s a photographer—so I never thought twice about being in photos until I tried taking them of myself. It was just the tripod and camera aimed at me, but nobody was behind the camera so nobody was talking to me. I was really awkward because I was waiting for the timer to go off! It’s like if you’re in a room with someone and you’re sitting there and they’re staring at you and not talking, you’re going to fidget and look ridiculous. So my self-portraits came out awkward in the beginning because there’s no one on the other end to naturalize the process. I tried to do silly poses—I couldn’t just do natural, beautiful photographs straight-on without making funny faces, because I felt comfortable doing that even though I was by myself in my apartment. 

On Being Put-Together

If you can figure out your own unique style and how to put yourself together accordingly, it doesn’t matter how conventionally beautiful you are. I spent six months in Argentina, and before I went everyone told me, “The women in Argentina are so beautiful—they’re so gorgeous, they’re more gorgeous than any women anywhere.” And I went and was like...welllll, they’re really pretty, but just as pretty as a lot of other people. Then some of my guy friends who’d been saying this came to meet me at the end of my time there. I said, “I don’t really see that they’re that much more beautiful than other women of the world—what do you mean?” And they’d point out individual women, and I realized it was because they were totally put-together, flawlessly, each in her own way. Somebody who was very natural would have just black jeans, boots, t-shirt, perfectly straight hair, and a manicure. Somebody who was very done-up would have this dress and heels and styled hair—there wasn’t anybody who looked like she didn’t have her own sense of style. Each woman looked how she wanted to look. So my guy friends were all, “Most beautiful women in the world!” and I’m just like, “They just take a little extra time putting themselves together.” Or maybe they don’t take a little extra time but they know what they like and what they want to look like, so it’s easy for them.

On Reality and Lack Thereof
I was shot years ago for Glamour, a mother-daughter story. We had amazing hair and makeup people—they brought in the best. They put fake eyelashes on me, but it looked really beautiful and natural—it wasn’t supposed to be overdone. It was funny, the time they spent actually prepping me to look natural.
I went out that night after the shoot and left the makeup on and hair as it had been done, and a friend of mine saw me and was like, “Oh my God, I’ve never seen you look so amazing.” I was sort of like, “Yay!” But in my head I was like, It’s because I was shot for Glamour and they did me up—of course I look better than ever! I had the best professionals in the world doing me up! People see this “norm” of models in magazines, and they’re like, “Wow, that model’s so beautiful.” And yes, she is. But you also have to realize that not only is it her job to be beautiful and perfect and amazing in photos, but that’s not what she’d look like if she were photographed before she was done up. It was interesting to have it done myself—there’s no way I could look like that all the time. Who has the time?

Backstage at the New York Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2011 Alexander Berardi show.

The images you see in an editorial are supposed to be unrealistic. By the time you see the model on the page, she’s become a work of art, she’s unreal—people have worked on her as a surface. It’s like a painting. If you look at pictures of actresses who are on a lot of the covers and in the stories—not all actresses are tall, or model-skinny, or whatever. But I think it’s a response to criticisms about unrealistic images, because while they’re not normal people, they’re not working as a model. If you went to a black tie dinner and had the glamour hair and makeup, you’re also going to look amazing that night. But it’s a little different between actresses and models—actresses have to look like that all the time, they have to uphold their image. Whereas models, they don’t have to look like that when they’re not modeling. A model can be off-duty—they’re obviously still beautiful, but they’re not going to look like they do in front of a camera—they'll probably have their own sense of style and will be way less done up. Whereas I feel like with actresses, they’re so often done up even in their everyday life. And when I see normal people who say, “I need to be a size 0,” I’m like, “Really? Who’s paying you the money to be a size 0?”  

On Working With Models
I feel very short, and I’m not short—I’m 5’6”! And I also start to think of myself as plain. Someone who’s assisting me might take a backstage shot, and I’m like, “Don’t photograph me!” You start to feel a sort of warped perception, that the models are the ones who are supposed to be beautiful, and I’m just behind the scenes. You start to feel like a non-entity, like, I don’t exist as a woman right now. But then you go back to your normal life and go out at night with your girlfriends and you’re like, “Oh, we all look so pretty!”—someone will take a photo of you, and those are the photos that go on Facebook, and you’re a normal person again. Whereas at a shoot you’re more worried about how the model looks, like—You drank last night, I can tell, you’re all puffy.

I would probably doubt myself more in a regular situation than on a photo shoot, around normal people. Not that I usually do—I don’t have a complex about that. But if you’re out at a restaurant and you see this stunning “normal” girl who’s 5’4” and really well-dressed, you’re like, Oh my God, she looks amazing! I’ve gotta step it up! She’s, like, a banker—she’s not being paid to look great, but she looks great. Then I just have to think about what I’m insecure about: Do I want to make a change? A lot of time for me it’ll be a weight thing—if I’m upset with my body image I want to figure out what I would rather have my body image be, and then maybe I’ll go to the gym or make a conscious effort to eat healthier for a few weeks. I think of it pretty practically rather than getting upset about it; I’ll think of a reasonable plan. Faces are things you can’t really change. And faces look different, so you’re not going to be like, “Oh, that girl’s face is so much prettier than my face.” Because it doesn’t make sense. You could be like, “Oh, she has such nice lips,” but if those lips were on my face I’d look really weird!
On Trends
Sometimes I’ll wear something and my friends will be like [wince] “Ew!” I’m like, “Trust me, they were just on all the runways—you'll probably like them in six months once all the new collections and trends hit the stores!" I’ll see them months later and they’ll be wearing that—I’ll point it out and they’ll say, “No, I never said that!” They actually have forgotten. Sparkly nail polish is coming back; for a while it was all matte. I said to my friend the other day, “You’re going to like it in a few months.” She said, “I hate it! And I don’t look at fashion like that.” I’m like, “Look, you do.” You might not think that you do, but even if you don’t read fashion magazines, you see it in Us magazine or on the street, and sooner or later you’re going to think, “Oh, she looks so pretty—what nail polish is she wearing?” Fashion has that underlying trend-setting tone that’s almost subconscious. It’s like the first time you hear a song, maybe you don’t love it. But then you hear it again and again and soon you’re like, “Wow, I love this song!” People don’t realize that that’s somehow how they’re forming their perception of beauty—but we are.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Anne Hathaway: "I'm Not Very Pretty"

Anne Hathaway thinks she has weird features. And, you know, she’s kind of right. Not that I’m critiquing her looks, but she has large eyes with wide brows and generous lips. Without putting her features on a grid or something I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing she falls pretty high on the features-to-face-space ratio.

But what I take from this is not that Anne Hathaway is a googly-eyed freak any more than that she’s a doe-eyed beauty. It’s a case of two things: 1) Someone not valuing in themselves what other people single them out for, and 2) the beauty standards for actresses being different than the rest of the population.

The latter gets attention on an evaluative scale: Oh, these professional beauties, we see them everywhere and it’s hard to live up to it. (Well, sure, but there are lots of actresses who are actually not so much beautiful as they are symmetrical and slender, which, when toyed with by a small army of makeup artists and hairstylists, is handily transformed into what we think of as beauty. My interview with Sarah gets into this, in the last section.) But on a different level: Large features invoke a child-like vibe, and on an adult woman that can communicate a lot of what we associate with femininity. As an audience, we simply see Anne Hathaway’s face and maybe feel protective, or sympathetic, more so than we might with performers with subtler features. Is it any surprise that the fine-featured January Jones was cast as a largely unsympathetic character on Mad Men? We’re supposed to find her beautiful but aren’t necessarily supposed to like her.

In a world of shifting astrology, it's good to know that face reading remains reliable.

I don’t believe in physiognomy (though I’ve been unsuccessfully trying to find a practicing phrenologist, out of sheer curiosity) but we are prone to associating certain physical traits with certain personality traits, or at least recognizing that to some degree you’re “supposed” to. (When was the last time you read  a book and the protagonist instead of the villain was described as thin-lipped?) And casting agents are fantastic at this. Certainly delicate-featured actresses aren’t left scaring up work, but a good look at Hollywood will show a lot of people who might look a bit weird on the street because of their face-to-feature proportion. (This is in addition to the lollipop-head phenomenon, which somehow made news in 2005 with the likes of Lindsay Lohan and Nicole Richie. Their exaggerated thinness was what was “newsworthy” at the time but performers frequently have somewhat large heads—they telegraph better both onstage and on film.)

But Hathaway follows up her statement about her “weird features” with this: “I’m not very pretty.” And this is such a weird paradox. The very thing that makes her watchable, the very thing that announces her beauty to her audience, is what she winds up being self-conscious of. Is that true for all of us?