Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Sarah, 29, Designer, San Francisco

I met Sarah online, at a feminist discussion board. So even before I’d met her in person, I knew her to be thoughtful, clear-minded, clever, and, well, fun—as fun as a person can be when everything she says is in 12-point Helvetica. When we did finally meet in person, I immediately got the impression that if she liked you, she would not only implicitly be on your side, but would act as though it had always been that way and couldn’t possibly be any other.

Her sense of play extends to her self-presentation and fashion: On any given day, Sarah’s look might conjure Weimar Berlin, prairie dust bowl, or Paris student riots. So evocative of other times and places are her varied looks that you might not immediately notice that her physical attributes would read like a model booker’s dream list—tall, slim frame; blonde hair; lush, even features—and in fact she did model for a short time. She agreed to share her thoughts on opting in and out of beauty, her erstwhile modeling career, and expectations and judgments of beautiful women. In her own words:

On Choice Words
To say someone is beautiful, and to mean it, is a powerful statement. Truth, poetry, nature—these things are beautiful. Beauty is something that touches you on a very basic level. When I think of pretty I think of effort. Pretty is made. For example, if you put on bright red lipstick, pretty is the word you'll get from people. Cute and adorable are my least favorite adjectives. There is something backhanded to them, something a shade belittling. Puppies and babies are cute, possibly shoes—but not women. It's a word people use when they do not particularly value the described as equal to them.

I hate when men use compliments as way of introduction—it makes me flare up with anger. I don’t think it should be acceptable for a stranger to comment on your physicality. It feels like they are bestowing a judgment on you and you are expected to be grateful. I want to say, “So what?” I feel like they are putting me in a tricky position where I am forced to have a reaction—a reaction that will also be judged—to walk between bitch and narcissist and coquette. My reaction is usually a cross between annoyed and skeptical. It should be noted, that I rarely feel this way when it comes from a woman—perhaps because I feel there is a tinge of positive sisterhood spirit in the comment. A well-placed and heartfelt compliment between women can sometimes feel subversive.

On Her Beauty Routine
At this point in my life, I almost feel as though beauty is something I can opt in or out of, and I choose to opt in by engaging in routine. The benefit of this is feeling as though I have control over the face I present; the flip side is that if I leave the house without engaging in the full routine, I feel uncomfortably overexposed or even ugly.

Having a routine is fun about five days of the week. I do take enjoyment from the process and the artistry, but sometimes I feel trapped by it and annoyed with the time investment. It's gotten to the point—and I am completely ashamed of this—that I don't like to leave the house bare-faced. Putting on makeup can be used to enhance beauty, but lately I feel I’m using it more as a disguise. There is a double standard operating here. When I look at other women, I find myself most engaged by natural looking faces and hair—the less makeup the better.

I've heard men comment negatively on women catching their reflection in windows, and that kind of misinterpretation of vanity annoys me. For instance: At minimum, I'm usually wearing foundation, eyeliner, and mascara. Sometimes I wear loud lipstick, blush, eyebrow pencil, and fake lashes—all depending on my mood. Sometimes I tease my hair up into a big ’60s pouf (Bump-Its are for amateurs). None of these things are natural. They are constantly at risk of running, smearing, caking, marking my teeth, being uneven, deflating, etc. And despite these femme trappings, I am not a delicate woman; I sweat, run, push, dance, eat, imbibe, kiss. When I catch my reflection I’m just trying to make sure that everything is still mostly in place. I prefer to avoid the “Did I get it? How about now?” conversation about lipstick on my teeth.

On Modeling
I was 20 years old, claiming to be 18 at the insistence of the photographer who "discovered" me and wanted me to have a longer shelf life. I did it just to see if I could. I suppose I was looking for the usual things—money, validation. I stopped after about six months because I found it tedious. The two words that immediately come to mind are cold and bored because of all the time you spend waiting around on the shoot. I hated the rules and dietary restrictions. Also, I was working in Boston and I quickly came to the opinion that if these photographers/stylists/makeup artists were any good, they'd be in New York. It was frustrating to watch people compose shots or pull outfits and feel like I could do it better. It all came to a head when I had to decide if I wanted to try out a summer in New York, staying at a models' apartment. I realized that it would just be more of the same, so I bailed.

I was also looking for perspective. I didn't trust the image I saw in the mirror and I didn't trust the (nice) things people around me would say, so I was hoping these "professionals" would be able to finally give it to me straight. I've since come to understand that beauty is incredibly subjective, and that there are no “experts.”

I didn't feel beautiful when I was modeling. I felt my strength as a model was my height—I’m six feet tall—and when I was working I only saw my body as a tool. Nothing could have been less sexy or glamorous. I would work really hard on a shoot and get so excited to see the photos, only to be disappointed. It was still me. Me with makeup, in a dress, limbs in impossible positions—but still me. There wasn't transformation. I was left feeling the exact same way, because I was the exact same person.

I find it disheartening that the public seems to view modeling as an ideal way to make money. I say this because when I tell strangers that I have no interest in modeling, they act like I am putting something to wasteas though if you meet certain physical qualifications, you would be a fool not to cash in on them. Do we have to sell everything?

On Having Blonde Hair vs. Being “The Blonde”
The people I found beautiful [as an adolescent] did not look like me. Specifically, they were darker, more severe. My own face, in contrast, I found boring. When friends or boys found me attractive, I chalked it up to a difference of opinion. By my own assessment, there was nothing overtly wrong with me, but there was nothing really great either. I felt like I defaulted into a certain beauty ideal, but in my heart I believed that I didn't particularly excel at that either. Yes, I was: tall, thin, fair, with long blonde hair, and blue eyes. But these are just words. They sound good, but they hold no intrinsic value. Blonde is not more beautiful than brunette. Tall is not more beautiful than short. But these words represent certain touchstones of beauty and we are taught that they have value. It’s a checklist and if you check off enough of them people will grant you a certain beauty status. It was always hard to take stock in the attention I got for the way I looked. I never bought into Barbie. Those blonde amazons of my childhood—Christie Brinkley, Elle McPherson, Claudia Schiffer—held no interest for me.

The disconnect between what I think is attractive, and what I’ve gotten attention for, can be hard to reconcile. It’s like being good at soccer when all you want in the world is to be a ballerina. I know that I can use my looks to seduce—I don't mean that exclusively in a sexual way. 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.

It’s hard to untangle the subject of beauty from perception and expectation. In regards to perception, there are: the ways we perceive ourselves, the way we perceive others, and the question of how we are perceived by others. Which perception holds the most value for you and influences the choices you make? For me it breaks down like this: When I look into the mirror, I find my own reflection boring. When I think of beautiful woman—I’ll use a celebrity, since they exist in our shared consciousness—I think of Anna Karina. If I believe the compliments that people give me, then I can conclude that some people think I am beautiful. When I wake up in the morning, I'm faced with bridging those gaps—between how I think I look, how I wish I looked, and how other people perceive me to look. I’m never going to be Anna Karina, but I do have the option to play into other people’s perception of beauty. But, to be complicit in perpetuating something that feels like a lie, and somehow expect to come out of it with healthy self-esteem is asking your brain to execute some fairly complicated gymnastics.

Expectation is another beast. Let me use this example: Think of all the gossip websites and magazines that turn a buck on publishing unflattering, candid photos of celebrities. The beauty of celebrities is at least as much artifice as genetics, and though I think most of us realize this, we take pleasure in these revelations—these failures to meet expectation.  This perception (there’s that word again!) of expectation has affected my daily routine. I don't feel comfortable leaving the house without makeup anymore. I hate this. I don't hate putting on makeup; I hate the shackles of the need. I know I can hold my own on non-physical attributes: I am smart, curious, and can make people laugh. Surely, if you just met me, and I had made no physical effort, you wouldn't think badly of me. The need lies somewhere in this murky business of expectation.

There’s a 1962 television interview Anna Karina that’s been on my mind. In it, the reporter starts needling Karina about the way she looks. It’s hard not to feel sorry for her as she squirms under the camera’s relentless stare. You can tell she desperately wishes the interviewer would just move on to a new topic. For me, it illustrates this twisted desire to get beautiful women to just admit they know they are beautiful. But I don't imagine anyone being able to have such a simple and absolutist view of something so subjective and in constant flux, complicated by expectation and endlessly confounded by perception.


  1. This is a really interesting article. As a model and actress in NYC, it was refreshing to hear her thoughts on beauty and people's perceptions. I am the exact opposite of this woman, dark hair, dark eyes, larger features, not as tall and not as thin. I admit I have better luck as an actress, but it tears my head apart when people ask if I model too, or when photographers want to shoot me, because for one thing I'm commercial looking and not high fashion, and to me that's boring. I'd give anything to be tall, skinny, blonde, blue eyed, the kind of girl who turns heads when she walks in. Funny how this woman deems herself as boring...boring is usually what can be made into anything. But when you have odd features or more ethnic, and are not boring, you feel ugly. I'd give anything to be generic, to have small features, to appeal to everyone and not just one audience...

  2. Anonymous, I'm glad you liked the interview! This is one of my favorites and it's great to know that Sarah's message resonates. I think part of what you're both saying is that "boring" is just as subjective as beauty.

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