Thursday, March 31, 2011

To Shampoo or Not Shampoo?

This is the time of year when I always get itchy to cut my hair: It was April 2001 when I cut off a foot of hair to go short for the first time in my life, then April 2006 when I went pixie for the first time. (My current long hair is actually an accident--when I lost my job in 2008 I decided to remove haircuts from my budget, and two years of updos later I realized I was a bona fide longhair again. But I digress.)

This time around, the question isn't: Should I cut my hair? It's: Should I wash it?

Erm, to clarify, this is meant to illustrate "bedhead." But you can also see how clean/not clean it looks.

I've been evangelical about the no-shampoo thing (for those new to my experiment: I haven't shampooed since September, just rinsing and conditioning my hair once a week and using a hair powder in between), and while I've tried to be honest about the drawbacks, part of evangelism is sort of glossing over the downside. So, to be clear:

1) My hair is incredibly healthy. No split ends, thick, strong, resilient.
2) I have more time in the mornings.
3) I have more volume, and a fetching bedhead look. (Amiright amiright?)
4) My hair holds styling easier (I am still a big fan of the updos)
5) The longer I go, the more normal it looks.
6) Cred.

1) Let's be real: It can get greasy.
2) As shampoo-free Alexandra Spunt writes in No More Dirty Looks: "It's not that it stank.... But it smelled like hair, and I wanted it to smell like girl hair."
3) When I'm self-conscious, it goes onto the list of Things People Might Be Looking At, right below my extraordinarily sharp incisors but before my worry lines.
4) Getting my hair wet now seems like an enormous ordeal. I'm now understanding where the "I'm washing my hair" turn-down line came from.
5) I just don't feel clean.

As Christa d'Souza wrote in W, "I can’t help feeling like a piece of vintage clothing that hasn’t been properly dry-cleaned." It's not that I feel dirty; it's that since September, I haven't felt that super-clean, super-breezy feeling you get when every inch of you has been properly scrubbed and rubbed and cleansed and patted dry. And I miss that feeling, particularly after a great session at the gym where my body feels all stretched and fantastic...and that feelings ends at my scalp.

But, dammit! At this point I've reached the pinnacle of We Great Unwashed: My natural hair oils have coated the entire length of my strands, my hair is in great shape, and it's almost summer (humor me here), which means updos, which will take care of problems 1-4 above (I don't bother to blow-dry my hair when it's going immediately into an updo, so getting it wet isn't a problem). I'm not sure whether to consider my time investment a sunk cost or to charge forward.

Hmm. I ask the Washed and the Unwashed alike: What to do? Giddily shampoo? Try baking soda and apple cider vinegar? Be a hair warrior and stay unwashed? Another option altogether? Be candid now, please. And vote in the poll on the sidebar!

PS: Still haven't washed my face. That, for whatever reason, feels totally fine.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Body Police: How I Unwittingly Escaped the Body Cops

Body 911!

This kerfuffle at This Recording piece about body policing stood out to me, not because it said much new, but because of the response to it. It's one of the "skinny people aren't exempt from nasty comments about their bodies" pieces out there—a point well taken. What doesn't go over well is when the author of the piece claims that "Few nice, everyday folks would approach an overweight stranger and tell them to go on a diet." While most quit-talking-about-our-bodies attention yesterday was directed toward The Sartorialist (where 1,106 people commented on his preference for only mentioning his subjects' body size when they're not bone-thin), there was enough harrumphing from the always-awesome Kate Harding for me to take note.

So we're agreed that we shouldn't be surveilling and policing other people's bodies, right? But that because our culture attaches so much to women's bodies, there's little way to escape it, right?

Yet for years, I did escape it. For a chunk of my twenties, I inhabited a size zone that, on my medium frame, made me look a little more than medium. I was a few pounds overweight by the BMI scale (and yes, I know BMI is faulty, but I have the kind of body that it was designed for--when I'm moderately active and eating my nutritionist-approved meal plan, I'm squarely in the middle of the "healthy" zone) but didn't have trouble finding clothes at mainstream stores that fit me. Basically, I had about the body of the average American woman. And nobody said a word about my body. Ever. Nobody called me curvy, or average, or normal. Or voluptuous, or fat, or stocky, or plump, or soft, or sturdy, or thick, or anything. I wasn't hiding my body: I didn't flaunt my figure, but neither was I dressing in paper bags. When shopping for clothes, I went into a store, found things I liked, tried them on, and bought them or didn't. In "body talk" with friends, nobody commented on my figure. It was a non-issue, I thought.

Around age 30, I lost a lot of weight for a variety of reasons—I stay away from numbers and sizes here, but as a frame of reference, I lost nearly 20% of my body weight. I didn't look emaciated or anything near it—the #1 word people used to describe my body at that time was "healthy." (The writer whose piece prompted this entry was frequently suspected of having an eating disorder; only one person ever inquired about my mental health in that regard.) Healthy, then trim, and slender, and lean. And cute, and little, and, yes, skinny.

That is: In dropping three dress sizes, I also lost my protection against body policing—a protection I didn't realize I'd had.

Sure, some of this came from friends and coworkers, who had a point of comparison and were commenting on my body as "little" compared to what it had been. (And note that I was well within the "healthy" BMI range even at my lowest weight, and looked it.) I didn't mind that—they were trying to be supportive in what our culture frames as some great, noble battle against fat. In fact, with a handful of exceptions, most people were refreshingly sensitive about how to frame their compliments so as not to put me on the spot or imply that I hadn't looked fine before.

What surprised me was the reaction from strangers. Shopkeepers suddenly started guessing my dress size, almost making a game out of it at times. Some criticized my body in ways they hadn't before; my figure was "fantastic...but you've really got to have a flat belly for this dress." People I'd just met made quick assessments of and references to my body in cocktail conversation: "Oh, you wouldn't understand, you're thin," or commenting on my food. People I was meeting for the first time made assumptions about my character: I was "disciplined," or had "willpower," or exercised "control." Most often, I was simply "good." I was "lucky." I rarely got the kind of "I hate you" thing you hear about sometimes—I wonder if it's my friendliness or the fact that I wasn't super-slim that protected me from that particular form of policing—but on occasion, it did float my way.

At my heavier weight, it was understood that even if I wasn't fat, I was at a size where people assumed I probably wanted to lose weight. And because weight is a sensitive issue, this unspoken weight-loss dictum was off-limits for discussion. I'm certain that it would have been different had I been unabashedly fat, as many a tale from fat women illustrates. (Dances With Fat always dissects these in a delightfully tart manner.) But because my body was nearly the exact proportions of the average American woman, it was like I was in a sort of DMZ of body policing: Too small for CDC-approved admonishments about my food intake, too big to make a game out of guessing my dress size, I skated through most of my twenties unaware of how freely people comment on one another's bodies.

Now, there may have been other reasons for the spike in body policing I experienced when I lost weight. Maybe it's because people picked up on the hungry discomfort I felt at my lowest weight and were either trying to reassure me that it was "worth it" or exacerbate it for their own weird-food-issues reasons. Maybe I carried myself differently. Maybe my fleshier body lent me an air of "fuck your fascist body standards" confidence that people didn't want to mess with. Maybe I blocked out negative (or positive) comments I got when heavier. Maybe I clinged to the body policing I received at my lightest, for even when there was an undercutting tone to them, the fact was, I had wanted to lose weight, and such comments were validating. Maybe even now that I've settled into a weight that's between my highest and lowest and that feels natural to me—and now that most of the body policing comments have dwindled—I'm still filtering the comments I received in order to remove whatever body-image issues I have and make them about "culture" and "society" instead of my relationship with my body.

I hesitate to draw grand conclusions from this. First of all, I'm guessing that there are plenty of average-American-woman-bodied women who've heard all too much from others about their figures. Second, I've argued here plenty that if you're a woman, your appearance becomes a comments free-for-all. (And I'm certain that I wasn't actually exempt from body policing at my heavier weight; I was just free from the vocalization of it.) But what I'm gleaning from my experience is that while women's faces and figures are forever targets, we attach highly specific meaning to specific shapes and sizes, and we make assumptions about people's personalities and histories based on this one piece of evidence alone. It's not a spectrum of positive assumptions assigned to thin people and negative assumptions assigned to fat people, nor is there a neat flipside-rhetoric working in which we champion fat people while demonizing the thin. Our attitudes toward the bodies of others are only as complex as our attitudes toward our own.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Thoughts Upon Reading 122 Comments About My Face, Courtesy America Online

"Your story is being considered to be featured on AOL Welcome Screen!" my editor at MyDaily wrote me in regards to the piece I wrote about my makeover. "If it happens, you will get TONS of traffic. Yay! But be ready for crazy comments."

I wouldn't say that the comments were crazy (with the exception of "I would eat her with a spoon"). But when I was notified that it had gone into rotation and saw more than 100 comments within mere hours, I was both thankful to my editor for her prescience (word up, Ellen!) and interested in what this sample of people might illuminate about our culture's attitudes toward beauty. I sometimes fall into the pop-feminist bubble (I remember being shocked when a friend told me he hadn't read much discussion of Natalie Portman's ballerina-fied body in Black Swan, whereas that was pretty much the only thing I read about the film), so I was curious to see what a cross-section of Americans who are Online might have to say about my piece. And, of course, I never found out: They were too busy talking about my face instead.

What I learned from 122 comments about my face:

1) People overwhelmingly preferred the "before" me: “I agree with everyone else the before picture is better than the bombshell photo. ; )”

I prefer the "natural" me too, for that matter—I loved the bombshell look and found it fun, and thought Eden did a fantastic job of creating the look. But I wasn’t doing the makeover to look better; I was doing it to look different, and both my makeover guru and I approached it with that mind-set. And, sure, it's nice to hear that Online Americans don’t think I need a pile of false eyelashes to look nice. (You like me! You really like me!) I admit it's also a relief. (Still, I stand by certain tricks I learned. Eyebrow pencil! Lipstick!)

Aside from that—and aside from the unfortunate difference in lighting between the two photos, which ensured that my “before” has a naturally-lit quality that the “after” couldn’t achieve—I found it interesting that, in fact, only four commenters flat-out said that I looked better afterward. Is it only a straw man who prefers artifice? And was there an element of self-congratulation among some commenters? It’s easy to be drawn to certain signals of beauty: red lipstick, emphasized eyes, long curls. Therefore, it’s easier to reject those signals as false, vain, trying too hard. Yet we all know what those signals mean, so I wonder if some commenters thought that they were seeing beyond the surface by preferring the more low-key look presented in the “before” picture. To reject my utterly normal-looking, friendly-seeming “before” picture would be more akin to rejecting a person, not the symbols presented in the “after”—and while anonymous online commenters aren’t known for their social graces, neither are people usually out to merely be mean. (Of course, plenty of commenters were just that, but they’re easy enough to discount.)

2) The catch-all insult: “got 2 mention nose job.”

A handful of commenters indicated that I needed a nose job. Whaaaa? I have the most average nose in North America. I mean, am I deluding myself here in that there is absolutely nothing remarkable about my nose? (Okay, I do have a bump from a reconstruction after a car wreck when I was 16, but you can only see it from the side.) What this indicates to me is that “you need a nose job” is a grab bag of ways to put a woman in her place. It makes me think of the time a random man on the subway suddenly started yelling at me about how fat I was. It wasn’t that I was fat (I’ve got a medium build), nor was it even that he thought I was fat, I’m guessing—it was that he was putting me in my place for not encouraging his advances. You can’t see my body in the shot that was on the page, and telling a woman she needs a nose job is vaguely the facial equivalent of “fat”: It’s a catch-all way of saying, There is something wrong with you, even if there isn’t. (And not that being fat or having a nose that is the stuff of magnificence is “wrong,” but some people treat it that way.) I’m not everyone’s cup of tea, but neither is there an odd-looking feature about me that’s so outstanding as to become the butt of commenters' jokes. So: nose job it is.

3) Total strangers could tell I'm uncomfortable in front of a camera: “She would be prettier in each picture if she had actually smiled rather than pursed her lips.”

It’s humbling to be called out on your “photo face” by total strangers. (A number of people commented that I looked pinched, uncomfortable, or “like she’s sucking a lemon.”) After interviewing photographer Sophie Elgort, I had to own up to the fact that if I’m trying to “look pretty” in a photograph, it will kill any chance I have of looking pretty. As Sophie said, “How can you expect to look like your best self in a photo if you’re putting on a ridiculous face?” To see that total strangers could pick up on my discomfort was an official notice that I’m not fooling anyone when I pout-smile in front of the camera. Smile and breathe. Smile and breathe.

4) People were quick to point out that, no, I didn't look like a bombshell: “We have very different definitions of 'bombshell'”

Some commenters meant this is a put-down (“More dud than bombshell,” courtesy icebull), but others just seemed mildly perplexed. I realize that a look that’s over-the-top to me is tame by many standards ("I'd like for you to visit Tuscaloosa on a nice fall Saturday—chances are there's more bombshells walking around there than where you're from,” writes DC). Perhaps the word conjures something that I didn’t intend; I forget that not everybody scrutinizes words the way I do. But from my perspective, the whole point of the bombshell is that it’s a creation, not a God-given quality. (Norma Jeane, anyone?) So when commenters wrote along the lines of, "She's just wearing lipstick and eyeliner! Where's the bombshell?" I wondered what they were hoping to see. Did they expect something more over-the-top? A different look entirely? A professional-level photo? Someone who is flat-out more beautiful than I could ever be?

Or was it that the term is so loaded that it can’t help but disappoint? We’re saturated with images of professional beauties everywhere, and those images are always digitally manipulated. I wonder if some users who saw the “bombshell” promise on their welcome screens, upon scrolling over my “before” picture and then finding a non-airbrushed, non-professional picture of a non-model—that is, an average woman who has been promoted as a “bombshell”—simply felt ripped off.

Listen, I don’t think I’m some exquisite orchid, but I can look in the mirror and see that I’m not “horrifying,” as one commenter wrote. I’m guessing that the people who were eager to put me down were doing so because through the construction of the headline, the “grand reveal” drag-and-scroll rollover of my before and after, and the very idea of the piece, I was claiming “bombshell” status for myself, however temporarily. It was that claim that provoked a response, not how I actually looked. In the days following Elizabeth Taylor’s death, I had a handful of conversations with friends who said something along the lines of “She’s pretty, sure, but why was she known as a great beauty?” None of the people who said this to me are the type to just randomly detract from someone’s looks: They were saying it in response to the sudden hyperconsciousness of a woman who has readily been called the most beautiful woman in the world. Of course they were going to look at that claim critically—and when you're using that rubric, Elizabeth freakin’ Taylor can fall short. Once I asked readers to take me in as a bombshell, how could I stand a chance of escaping the same?

5) Few people read a single word I wrote: “She was so excellent at playing Cleopatra that the world later really thought that Cleopatra was actually white. God Bless and Rest in Peace.”

Which is to say: Few appeared to have read the piece itself. The grand total of people who referenced anything other than my photo? Thirteen. (That’s excluding friends and readers of The Beheld who commented to help promote the piece—thank you!) Of those, maybe five actually addressed the points I was attempting to make. I can’t really get up in arms about this: It is a piece about my appearance, after all; referencing my looks in the comments isn't irrelevant. But nowhere did I say in the piece that I thought I looked better in either photo, and for a piece about getting a makeover, it was as far away from “which is better?” as you could get.

But none of that matters, because nobody was reading. I'm recalling an anecdote I didn't have room for in my interview with artist and writer Lisa Ferber: She was nervous while preparing to share one of her short stories at a reading. "My mother asked me if I was nervous about the piece, and I said, 'No, I'm nervous that I just won't be a good reader.' And she said, 'Lisa, you are a beautiful woman—nobody is going to listen to a word you say anyway.'" We both laughed when she shared the story, but it stuck with me. I’ve seen plenty of women be underestimated because they’re pretty, but I’ve always assumed that because I’m neither glorious nor hideous, it didn’t apply to me.

What I learned with this piece was that being objectified isn’t about whether a woman is pretty. It’s about her being an object—which is mighty hard to escape if you’re a woman, regardless of your appearance. In this case, the subject matter served as an ersatz carte blanche for people to openly discuss my looks, but it’s not hard to think of examples where the subject matter was entirely incongruent with a woman’s looks and people took aim anyway. (The 2008 elections come to mind.) I can’t imagine that people would have read the piece any more closely if I’d been outrageously weird-looking, or that fewer people would have read it if I were more conventionally beautiful. It was that I was a woman, and that I was there.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Beauty Blogsophere 3.25.11

What's going on in beauty this week, from head to toe.

Okay, I think single-use eyeshadow applicators are a bit extreme.
But maybe I'm just jealous of people who know how to use eyeshadow?

Singles: I usually snooze my way through beauty product slide shows (look, it's shampoo! look, it's more shampoo!) but thought that this one was actually useful—a roundup of single-use beauty products. (If I were at all entrepreneurially minded I'd be using these for my product kit, The Shack Pack, which allows ladies who may or may not be sleeping in their own beds every night to have a wallet-sized kit with all things cosmetics. Business majors, take it away.)

Cosmetics cheerleader: Jane Feltes at The Hairpin gives fun beauty advice every week, but what's particularly noteworthy here is her shout-out to women like me, who are self-conscious about makeup but still want to play. "Everything stands out when we’ve never done it before, but trust me, no one else sees it that way. They all think you're 'so put together' today."

Say cheese: Non-promotional pics of the Photoshop camera, from Allure. The more I stare at the "after" photo the weirder it seems. I get that it's nice to not have to put on powder every time you snap a photo (I'm a shiny gal myself) but other than that I truly think that the alterations aren't doing anybody any favors. Her forehead looks strange in the second one, probably because IT'S NOT HER REAL FOREHEAD.

Beauty quotient: Nice piece on HuffPo about inner beauty, and the combination of qualities that make a woman beautiful, and how we're all individuals, and blah blah blah. It would be a helluva lot nicer if it weren't written by a man who's made his living as a plastic surgeon specializing in faces and boobs. Toe
NBA pedicures: Apparently you can get a pedicure at the Lakers game, which seems absurd. If you're paying that much to be in the VIP section, shouldn't you at least be enjoying the game? Or is that why Lakers fans are ranked among the worst in the nation?

...and Everything in Between
Growing up ugly:
Amazing post about what life was like as the resident "ugly girl" in high school. I remember "that girl" in our high school—the one everyone teased, the butt of every joke—and always wondered how it informed her adult life. The common wisdom is either that it seriously messes someone up, or that they go on to be a rock star supermodel and they've shown us! This engaging, thoughtful essay shows what one woman gleaned from having to rely on a different barometer than most of us do.

But just in case that isn't enough: A guide to "surviving the uglies" at Eat the Damn Cake. I usually want to hide in my yoga pants when I'm having an acute case of these, but know I always feel better when I wear something a bit more structured, and to see it and other ideas laid out here was nice. (Though why do people always recommend taking a bubble bath? Where do these people live where a bathtub is comfortable?)

The privilege of pretty: Lovely meditation at Seamstress Stories about how recognizing the privilege of beauty enables one to more easily reject it.

Dove's dirty deeds: From the company that has done some nice work on women and self-esteem, an ad that truly seems to imply that black skin is "before" and white skin is "after." No, I don't think it's a coincidence. As a commenter at Sociological Images says, "These companies have psychologist and sociologists working on these ads that specialize in people’s – and in particular the white upper class women this ad is aimed at – reactions to advertisement. If it were an accident, they would catch it. Period."

Giving to Japan: My philosophy is that if you care about a cause, you should donate directly to it—time, money, effort—instead of merely engaging in consumer activism. You'll feel better about it, and it's a greater act of generosity, both in direct impact and in feel-good energy. And though some companies have a truly excellent record of philanthropy, it's also an easy out for organizations that don't really give a shit to go on record as having done something. (International Cosmetics & Perfume made the tremendous sacrifice of donating fifty—yes, that's five-zero!—Hanae Mori reusable tote bags, originally intended as an in-store customer appreciation gift, to the American Red Cross to assist Japanese displaced from their homes and belongings.) That said: If you're planning on stocking up on certain products, here is a nice roundup of major companies that are donating some proceeds to aid with recent events in Japan.

The yoga tax: Connecticut legislators are considering dropping the exemption of commercial yoga studios from the state's commercial tax. Health clubs are currently exempt from the tax, but nail salons and pet grooming are being considered for inclusion into the new tax scheme as well. I'm all for yoga—Cat and Cow, yo!—and think it should be treated as a health and wellness area, not beauty. But honestly, a lot of the commercial yoga studios have that sort of icks me out and makes it about "achieving" a certain lifestyle, and is it terrible of me to say that while I want as many people as possible to do yoga, I'm not exactly crying tears for certain Connecticut yogis? Can there be a one-person committee consisting of me that decides which studios are about health and wellness and which are about who has the cutest yoga mat?

Elizabeth Taylor: Amid all the press surrounding her death, a few pieces stand out as far as what's of concern to me as a beauty blogger. ABC News looks at her as a template for celebrity fragrance; Virginia at Never Say Diet examines her as a body image role model; and NYTimes style writer Cathy Horyn investigates the intersection of fashion, era, beauty, and image that Ms. Taylor embodied. Edited to add this nice quote roundup from beauty professionals, including Ted Gibson, Eva Scrivo, and Tabatha Coffey, paying tribute to her.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor, 1932-2011

I'm just as irked as the next feminist when a woman, in her death, is referred to as a great beauty above all else. Please, know that.

But then—then, there's Elizabeth Taylor. Elizabeth Taylor, whose beauty from youth through adulthood was remarkable in the true sense of the word: We cannot help but remark on her beauty, so present, so stunning it was. I recoil when I hear women reduced to their physical parts, and the way that some well-meaning people have tried to fix that is to separate physical beauty from other assets. And it is a separate beast—both in the importance we place upon it and the way in which we treat those who have it—but what we're eager to overlook in our quest to be seen as whole is how possessing great beauty can inform those other assets. 

In the case of Elizabeth Taylor, her beauty informed what made her so compelling. Her beauty wasn't the sum of her gifts, but without those eyes, that complexion, that face, our eyes may not have been as open as they were to take in her gifts. We root for her girlish innocence in National Velvet; we adore her kittenish yet womanly charm in Father of the Bride; we're riveted by her boozy glamour in BUtterfield 8. As artist Lisa Ferber says in my interview with her, "Whenever we hear about the beautiful but tortured woman, we don’t really believe it, which is why we love it." It's a point I agree with. Yet every rule has its exception: Elizabeth Taylor's talent and notorious personal life gave us the voyeuristic pleasure of both. We saw her beauty and took it as fact; we saw her torture and believed that it wasn't contrived for our attentions. In her case, we do believe it. Even in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—a role that people sometimes point to as where the veneer starts to visibly crack, where we see her mortality—her beauty is as much a part of the character of Martha as is her cruel wit and her covert swamp of vulnerability.

What we see in Elizabeth Taylor's face is an enormously complex story of beauty itself, played out over a lifetime. She had a quality that spoke to something I couldn't articulate about being a woman: She seemed too smart to simply let herself be objectified, but appeared to take pleasure in being looked at. I think of the iconic shot of her leaning against the door in a white slip, booze in hand, exposed as being both effortless and sculpted. It wasn't merely that she was "smart AND beautiful!"—many are that. Being smart and beautiful is past the point of being remarkable. It was that part of her intelligence seemed to stem from her interpretation of her beauty. I felt, in fits and glimpses, as though she were speaking for every woman whose complexity and vulnerabilities were as exposed as her slip: She taught us that what made a vulnerability a vulnerability instead of a mere weakness was that it is surrounded by strength. At times I felt as though she were speaking for every woman of that ilk—which is to say, most of us. At the same time, her own life was incredibly—laughably—different than ours. She seemed to be in another stratosphere. It's no surprise that she befriended Michael Jackson, another icon who reflected a deep urge within our culture while simultaneously crafting his own unintelligible freakdom.

Elizabeth Taylor had the gifts, and the opportunity writ large, to communicate the complexities of beauty to us. She took the arc of the tragic beauty and imbued it with a rich, electric vibrancy that defies the eye-rolling cynicism people might want to apply to this counter-tale. She made it impossible for us to ignore her, as a beauty, as an actress, as an icon, as a woman. I will forever be a fan.

Lisa Ferber, Artist, New York City

A highly productive bonne vivante, Lisa Ferber has shown her paintings and illustrations at National Arts Club, Governors Island Art Fair, Manhattan Borough President’s office, and other galleries. Her plays and songs have been performed at La Mama, The Brick, and Theater for the New City, among other locations. Words like whimsy and satire are frequently applied to her work—but it’s her enchantment with beauty, expressed through vibrant color and markings of high glamour, that made me want to interview her. A featured speaker at New York University on independent arts marketing, her keen awareness of image extends beyond canvas and stage to her signature colorful wardrobe and polished presentation. We talked about makeup as a symbol of humility, the glamour of the absurd, and beauty as a marketing tool. In her own words:

Photo: George Maier 

On Apologies
There are ways people have to deal with physical beauty that they don’t have to with other assets. Beautiful people are supposed to act as though they don’t know they’re beautiful, even if it’s kind of a fact. Somebody might say, “I’m good at math” and not apologize for it, but for a woman to say, “Yeah, you know, I’m really pretty”—nobody does that. It’s weird that people are modest about being beautiful because it’s sort of an accident. But it can be a way of stepping away from being threatening, since beautiful women are seen as threats. I remember complimenting this woman who was working on a show with my then-boyfriend. I said she was really pretty and she said, “It’s amazing what a good lipstick and a great dress can do.” It made me like her more because I felt she was saying, “I know I’m in a show with your boyfriend, but I am not a threat to you.” I felt she understood that sometimes women can be insecure about having a pretty woman around their guy, and that she could handle that with humility and manners without insulting herself.

Part of it is the social power women wield with beauty. When we say, “Oh, that woman is so beautiful,” we give her power and mystery. Beauty simultaneously gains someone social respect and people’s suspicion. Are there certain types of beauty that don’t incur the wrath of other women? Or certain levels of beauty? If you work with someone who has that California-girl kind of beauty, everyone is going to want to think she’s dumb, because she’s pretty in that certain type of way. Whereas I think women are into someone like Angelina Jolie because she’s freaky-looking but also really beautiful.

I think people believe they’re supposed to apologize for beauty because it’s genetic. Nobody’s allowed to show that they know it, yet most of us are also raised to present ourselves confidently. If you don’t groom yourself and make the effort, it looks as if you don’t care—or even that you're conceited. I go through phases of not wearing makeup, and someone said to me once, “I noticed you don’t wear any makeup—how come?” I remember thinking, Is she saying that I don’t have the right to think that I look good without it? Should I wear makeup just to show that I don’t think I’m okay without it?

I think as much as women are raised to believe in ourselves, we’re also taught that a woman who’s prettier or slimmer than the people around her will be hated—think of the whole idea of “You’re so skinny, I hate you!” That mind-set can prevent women from revealing their full bloom. It’s really only been in the past few years that I’ve been able to not just present myself comedically, in terms of the way I look. For many years I felt like my self-presentation had to have something ridiculous about it, sort of kooky—and sure, there’s always going to be an artsiness about my style. But for me to just put on a beautiful dress and feel comfortable looking elegant and serious and poised, and not have to have something ridiculous about it—I had to be ready to say, “I can handle this.”

Alexandra Reconsidered Her Teacup Collection (photo: Stephen Churchill Downes)

On the Glamour and Humor of Her Work
People have always responded to my work as witty, both my writing and my visual art. Only recently have I thought: You know, I really love beauty. I want my visual work to be transportive—to be beautiful as well as witty. Wit has a glamour to it, which I hope comes through in my work. I also think absurdity is glamorous, if you think of glamour as something indulgent and transcendent. Glamour means there’s a sense of mystery that makes you want to get closer, but you suspect that you can’t. So I put my women in makeup and necklaces—I’m not going to draw schlubs! But for somebody who loves beauty so much, I’m not painting a picture of the prettiest girl in the room. People tell me that I create characters, almost like pop art or illustrative art—they’re not supposed to look like people we know. But something can be beautiful even if it’s not realistic. I want that feeling of “Aaah” that comes because something is gorgeous, with beautiful colors.

When I’ve gone through tough times in life, the things that help me survive are beauty and humor, and it bothers me when people try to make them separate. Beauty and humor are both transcendent—they’re magical. When I was growing up two of the women I admired were Lucille Ball and Gilda Radner, because they were pretty and funny. And one of my current heroines is Fran Drescher. She created a hilarious show and strutted around that set without apologizing for being beautiful, funny, and powerful. I think that women in comedy often make themselves less pretty because they’re taught they have to choose between pretty and funny. But I don’t want to have to choose one or the other in the way I present myself as a woman, or in my artwork. I want my viewer to enjoy two of my favorite things: beauty and humor.

On the Myth of the Underdog
We give ourselves credit for thinking someone who’s jolie-laide is cool-looking because she’s not conventional. But when you look at these women, it’s not as though they’re ugly—when Anjelica Huston walks into a room, everyone notices her. It’s like sometimes we’re taught to hate conventionally pretty things because we’re more feminist if we think weird-looking people are pretty—but those people are still pretty. I mean, Christie Brinkley is super-duper pretty. She’s the definition of pretty. But it’s not cool to say so because she’s conventional-looking. I love pretty! Pretty is great! I’m kind of on both sides of it. It upsets me that women are taught it’s imperative that they keep themselves looking attractive, but if somebody tells me I’m pretty, I think that’s nice of them. It annoys me when people think you have to choose one side.

Nobody relates to the pretty, popular character in a movie, even people who are pretty and popular. We’re always supposed to relate to the underdog. There’s this movie Boomerang, with Eddie Murphy—Robin Givens is the hot woman, and she’s evil, and Halle Berry is sort of the sporty underdog best friend. Halle Berry is the underdog! You’re supposed to relate to her, even though nobody can relate to Halle Berry! But the movie standards for beauty set us up, and maybe that’s for our ego—we get to feel like the underdog, but then we can think, “Wow, look at that underdog, she’s really beautiful.” And it’s because we’re convinced that we’re never the top thing. Certainly things like beauty contests don’t help. Beauty contests? That’s crazy!

I remember being an editorial assistant, and there was this other girl who worked there. I started to pick up on this vibe that she resented me somehow. I didn’t know if I was imagining things so I talked to a friend who had worked there for a while. He said, “Well, before you came, she was the only attractive young editorial assistant.”  I hadn’t taken away anything from her—we were both young, pleasant women, but there’s this idea that there can only be one woman who occupies that space at any given time, and it becomes a part of our mentality. Take the idea of the 50 most beautiful people in the world—why should there be a competition? Men don’t think this way, and women don’t think this way about men. Women might compete for men, but the emphasis is on competing with one other, not on competing for him. 

 From left: photo by George Maier; photo by Stephen Churchill Downes

On Beauty as a Marketing Tool
I think beauty is a fantastic marketing tool. By being beautiful, a person is saying that she has the things associated with beauty: health, wealth, success, all these things that we value. When you hear, “Oh, I ran into so-and-so, and she looked like hell,” boom—she’s leading an unhappy life. But when it’s “...and she looked great”—now, what that could mean is that she’s had a ton of Botox and has a personal trainer and is miserable. A beautiful woman can be miserable like anyone else. But we think she’s doing well.

Whenever we hear about the beautiful but tortured woman, we don’t really believe it, which is why we love it. We still think she’s cool in some way. The Jared Leto character on My So-Called Life was considered a heartthrob because he was beautiful and tortured. If he hadn’t been beautiful but was still tortured, his character would have just been some random guy, but to have a coating of beauty over an implied pain is perceived as intriguing.

As a visual artist, I am constantly expressing myself, so when I leave the house I’m going to be together. I’m going to have my lovely necklace, my lipstick, my pretty dress. There probably are industries where you have to play down any ornamentation in order to market yourself properly—but actually, when I’m presenting myself as a writer I try to be more glamorous. When you’re a writer people assume that you’re smart, and I don’t want to be seen as, Oh, she has brains, so she doesn’t have a body. I’m a body person as well as a mind person. When you’re a visual artist nobody necessarily assumes that you’re smart. So when an artist has something about them as a person that makes people want to keep looking at them, we’re intrigued by that and then want to know the artist’s work—which is part of marketing. Really, beauty is marketing: That’s the whole point, that you see somebody and they’re beautiful and you think, I want to get to know you. People are going to want to talk to a beautiful woman. Women are going to admire her, and men are going to want her, and she just seems happy and healthy and like she’s doing well. That’s what draws people in.

This works in other professions too: When I’m working in any job, I like to be valued as a part of the team, and part of it is showing up well-groomed, in nice colors, and just contributing to the overall atmosphere. I sang in choir when I was in Hebrew school—I wasn’t thinking about how my particular voice sounded, I just wanted to contribute to the beauty of the overall sound. It’s like that with my art, and my style. I want to be a pretty part of the world.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Thoughts on a Word: Attractive

Attractive is the base level. It is a series of facts, opt-ins or opt-outs: attractive is tidy, inoffensive, general. Attractive is a matching purse and a fresh haircut. Attractive is the safe zone, a step away from beautiful or alluring or even pretty; attractive is a way of speaking about one's looks without revealing vanity or arrogance. Attractive is a quiet, inexact mimicry of some of the traditional, lasting hallmarks of beauty—symmetry, proportion—accepting them where we're graced with them, deflecting or accepting or shifting where we're not. You cannot argue with attractive.

"I wouldn't say that, but yes, I'm attractive" or something similar is the #1 answer I've received when asking interviewees if they think they're beautiful. That's not to say there's no overlap between attractive and beautiful, but rather that beauty is about something we can't necessarily control, whereas attractive is more about showing that you're playing ball than it is about any particular effect or feature. "Anybody can make themselves attractive with a little effort," says one of my interviewees. "We all know what makes someone attractive or not attractive, and it's something that all of us can attain," says another. Beauty can range from oligarchy to plutocracy to even anarchy, if we're each our own pilot nations shapeshifting into beautiful depending on our mood, the light, our neighbors, whether we're in love, combustions of time, place, and genetics. Attractive is a democracy.

It's odd, though: attraction, even more than beauty, is subjective. I can't choose who I'm attracted to any more than I can choose whether I like the taste of Vegemite. It's a pull that's undeniable, even when we're talking about a strictly platonic relationship—we've all suffered from a lack of attraction, meeting people we really, truly, genuinely like and have a lot in common with but never really click with, right? And we've all met someone we shouldn't want to be closer with but yearn for anyway, right? We can control how loud we allow attraction to speak, but the fact of it, on some level, is out of our hands.

Yet we choose a word based on this unpredictable, indefinable chemistry—or is it physics?—to serve as our safe word, our base line, our beauty democracy. We choose a word that, at its heart, is about pheromones and sex as a way of discussing a sort of neutered beauty. Or is it that with attractive we're simply saying that, at its base level, an attractive person has the ability to attract, even if it's not the speaker whom s/he is attracting? Is that where the democratic connotation of attractive comes in?

I'm not arguing that we redefine attractive: We need a safe word. We need attractive both for its gracious ability to let us talk about beauty and appearance while managing to deflect inevitable accusations of conceit, and for its potential for magnetism. I simply wish for us to consider its source, consider its democracy, and consider it not as a lesser-than form of beauty but rather a tool we can use to examine something as complex and elusive as beauty, and a tool we can use to excavate what it is we're really after.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Beauty Experiment: Update and Confession to the Scientific Community and the Community at Large

Monitoring the progress of my first official beauty experiment, applying anti-aging cream to half my face. I'll wait until the end of the monthlong experiment before issuing any conclusions, as I wouldn't want to tamper with the results, and refraining from hypothesizing is as close to double-blind as I can get (short of hiring someone to apply cream to my face while I sleep, which seems a tad drastic, especially as this project has had a difficult time finding funding from the scientific community at large). Still, I feel it only fair to alert readers of a potential contaminant in the experiment: The half of my face receiving treatment has started to noticeably flake, in a direct line down my nose, and in order to provide corrective measures I have had to add a moisturizing cream to the regimen.

Let the official experiment log, i.e. this weblog, reflect my personal conflict over adding a factor to the experiment midway through, in what I admit is a rather haphazard fashion. I felt it better to attempt a corrective course so as to not begin the experiment anew (and since in other capacities besides that of chief scientist, I'm a laydee who doesn't want to walk around with half of her nose shedding). My hope that my integrity remains intact in the eye of the public.

Thank you, and good day.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Beauty Blogsophere 3.18.11

What's going on in beauty this week, from head to toe.

From Head...
Hottentot Venus hollaback: Interesting take on toxic cosmetics and why black women are particular targets of "dirty" products--nice historical look.

I got a B- in chemistry but liked this anyway: Science-oriented breakdown of the future of green cosmetics. That's clean/natural cosmetics, not St. Patrick's Day eyeshadow. (Via Safe Cosmetics.)

Eastern bloc beauty: Tidbits on the globalization of beauty: The last state-owned cosmetics company of Bulgaria is being sold (it was privatized in 2002, the last one to do so), and "aspirational shopping" hits another former Iron Curtain area, the Ukraine. I'm particularly amused by the fact that the Ukraine is such a rich source for beauty labor--models--but imports 98% of its beauty products.

Last gasp for communist beauty company Alen Mak (Bulgarian for "Scarlet Poppy"). Toe
Meanwhile, I'm still pissed that I lost on "maverick": "Pedicure" is the winning word in Fort Wayne, Indiana, fifth-grade spelling bee.

Sole mates no more: The end of the scandalous saga of "the Heidi Klum of foot models" and her doorman-turned-husband-turned-filed-for-separation-and-should-I-even-mention-the-contused-testicle?

...and Everything in Between
We're so vain: Virginia at Never Say Diet takes down the whole Facebook-pics-mean-you're-insecure study that's been making the rounds lately. I should note that more than half my photos are photos of me that were uploaded and tagged by one of my most confident friends--who is in fact one of the most confident people I know. So THERE. 

Welcome to her dollhouse: I'm not surprised to read that Eliza Dushku is pretty frank and articulate about body image issues. If any of the other twelve people who watched Dollhouse are reading this, you know what I mean: The show presented the usual Wheedon-voyeurism-feminism conundrums but was an interesting exploration of bodily ownership and personal agency. She's not saying anything you haven't read before, but it's nice to hear anyone in Hollywood speak at length about this--usually there's just a quote sandwiched into a profile for good measure.

Are men to blame for women's body insecurities?: In aggregate the answer is no, and I hope that we're all past that line of thinking. But this piece at Beauty Redefined nicely lays out why and redirects the focus to where it belongs. I still don't think that media is the entire issue here, but certainly it's more of a factor than men sitting back, arms crossed, and judging women's bodies. 

Fashionable feminists: Fantastic, thought-provoking answers from feminist fashion bloggers in answer to the question "How do you express feminism in the way you dress?" (Mrs. Bossa's post is excellent, and scroll down for a list of bloggers who answered this, myself included.) A lot of talk about labor--labor of the wearer and, of course, of the people who make the clothes we wear--and the gaze, objectification, aesthetics, celebration, and just love of fashion, always written with an intelligent, feminist eye.  

Reverse engineering: You know, for all the talk about Photoshopping, we don't frequently hear from the people who are Photoshopped. So while the original poster at Good makes some nice points about the use of photo retouching when representing "real" people--in this case the first female engineer to grace the cover of Wired--what's truly thought-provoking here is the engineer's response. "If I'm happy with this and I say it's looks like me isn't that GOOD :)" The real problem here, it seems, is that it's two thousand frickin' eleven and Wired is just now getting around to putting a woman engineer on the cover. (Also, while I think she looks great, and I also love Rosie the Riveter, can we think of something else that represents capable women? And no, Wonder Woman doesn't count. Are there really so few icons that we must resort to Rosie again and again and again?)

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Race, Eating Disorders, and Body Ideals

It was between this and vuvuzelas to find South Africa images that didn't
add to the black-woman objectification pile-on. So!
Black South African models are slimmer than their white counterparts—a significant reversal from the U.S., where black models are heavier than white ones.

The initial research prompt was not about models, though, but about eating disorders. Remember when we all thought that eating disorders were only a white-girl thing? The study doesn't address eating disorders in South Africa, but other reports say that EDs among black South African women are on the rise. This echoes recent findings that Latina teens have a higher rate of bulimia than other teen groups in the U.S., as Latina American teens and South African women are groups in the midst of a historic shift in their respective countries.

It's a step in the right direction that women of color, both in the States and abroad, are finally being recognized as equal-opportunity sufferers of eating disorders; being seen as exempt from EDs may prevent sufferers from seeking care, and can also prevent doctors from asking the right sort of questions that would lead to a proper diagnosis and treatment.

But it's somewhat disheartening to see the science community so eager to boil down the increase in EDs among women of color to shifting body ideals. That's a part of it, sure—Latina media stars aren't as thin as white starlets, but they're still thinner than the average woman, and even at their curviest they represent an impossible ideal. (News flash: Not all Cuban women roll out of bed looking like Eva Mendes.) But let's look at other pressures that are particular to nonwhite women and girls in South Africa and the U.S.: striking a balance between assimilating to be accepted by the larger world and maintaining a distinct cultural identity; absorbing the hopes and dreams that were denied to their mothers by apartheid or economics; a greater likelihood of facing discrimination, both overt and covert; and, in the case of Latina teens, a greater likelihood of being an undocumented resident and knowing that your parents—or you—could be exported to a homeland, perhaps one you have no memory of. "That's a very real anxiety that not many kids have to deal with," said Rosie Molinary, author of Hijas Americanas: Beauty, Body Image, and Growing Up Latina, when I talked with her for our interview. "They came here at 2 years old, and somebody might be like, 'Send them back to El Salvador,' and it's like, 'Great, well, I don't know Spanish.' "

The point is: It's not that suddenly women of color are now all up in arms about becoming really skinny; it's that they are facing a bundle of unprecedented anxieties, and it's seeking a measure of control and relief that's largely the root of eating disorders for all women. The pressure to be thin might pull the trigger, but if we rely solely on that measure we're going to continue having blinders on as to who is really at risk.

Which brings us back to the thinness of black South African models. Model Carol Makhathini reports that the dichotomy exists because black models are automatically assumed to be larger than white models, increasing the thin imperative. It makes sense on one level, but certainly black women are assumed to be larger than white women in the States, and it doesn't play out that way in thinness-obsessed America. Another possibility is that South African women are playing out history on their very bodies. Apartheid ended in 1993, but given the preponderance of racism in the U.S. nearly 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, it's not surprising that racial tensions and other forms of racial inequality run high in South Africa. Combine that with it being the world's leader in raping women, and suddenly black South African women's bodies can be seen not as their own, but as symbols—symbols of legacies of the past, hopes for the future, of a race-gender war that will take generations to resolve. It's unclear whether black South African models suffer from eating disorders in greater numbers than their white colleagues--but research indicates that black South African women display greater eating disorder pathology than other ethnic groups, and at comparable rates to white women. But eating disordered or not, black models' bodies hold more potential for projection in a nation where race is so distinctly loaded. It's no wonder that their bodies are more molded, more sculpted--and are literally less--than those of their white peers.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

How I Express Feminism in the Way I Dress (or Not)

 It looks like Santa's sleigh!

It's Fashionable Feminist Day in this lil corner of the blogsophere. And I don't consider myself a fashion blogger (I still can't say "I write a beauty blog" with a straight face), but there's certainly overlap. I've always enjoyed playing with makeup more than I have shopping for clothes, and in fact the latter usually feels like going to the dentist. As great as it feels to occasionally put together a bang-up outfit, the fact is most of the time my mind just doesn't work that way. I try to wear what looks good on me and what I can put on without thinking about it too much, and leave it at that.

But the minds behind Fashionable Feminist Day asked this question: How do you express your feminism in the way you dress? And my answer surprised me.

Fact is, I don't. In fact, sometimes I dress in ways that go against my feminism. I think we're all past the point where we can say that the answer to "Can feminists wear high heels?" is a loud, heel-stomping "Yes." Because, duh, it's fine for feminists to want to look hot, because we're embracing our sexuality, and if that means wearing stilettos that means wearing stilettos and YOU GO GIRL, you ROCK ON WITH YOUR BAD SELF.

And, okay, I'm fine with that--but if we end the conversation there, we're robbing ourselves. Of course there's nothing wrong with feminists wanting to look pretty! Most feminists I know are! But I can't escape the fact that when I don a pair of high heels, I am prioritizing the line of my leg over comfort, mobility, and health. (I have lower-back issues, so this is a health issue for me.) Still, I wear them, and like them, and like the way I look in them, and indeed like the way I feel in them—more put-together, more sophisticated, more polished. Just like the makeover that won't die, wearing heels expresses a part of me that often goes silent. I like hearing the click of my heels on the pavement; it makes me feel like I'm a part of what makes this city so special--more so than when I'm, say, sitting at home in my yoga pants despite having done no actual yoga today (does doing the neti pot count?). But that professional feeling--that slick, city-girl feeling--is about my abilities and work history, not my shoes, right? Or at least it should be, because isn't that the entire goddamn point of this feminist thing?

I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel conflicted about the way I sometimes present myself. The minute I prioritize my looks over my own personal comfort, I am doing something that goes to the core of what I believe--about myself, about gender roles and expectations. It's not enough for me to say that it's fine to be "feminine AND a feminist" as if that's a surprise to anyone. Sure, some still equate feminism with hairy-legged man-haters, but the company I keep has progressed beyond that point. It's not enough to just say "Oh, it's my choice so it's fine": It is my choice, yes, but wearing shoes that can't carry me comfortably for eight hours isn't a choice I'd make if wearing high heels didn't connote something about myself as a woman that I wish to project. I don't damn any woman for how she presents herself--I don't think--but I do know that as full of bravado I might feel leaving the house in a cute pair of heels, by day's end I'm wondering if it's worth it.

So, what can I do as a feminist to reconcile my self-presentation with my politics? I can ask questions. I can explore the reasons why we wear what we wear; why we present ourselves the way we do. I can listen to the smart, sharp feminists who don't feel this conflict, either because they've fully embraced the contradictions or because they've made choices that are more aligned with their politics. I can listen to non-feminists too, and learn from them: Not every woman who shuns makeup and dresses solely to please herself identifies as a feminist, and they have lessons to teach me. And every woman I know, feminist or not, has given thought to the face she presents to the world. Whether she critiques it, engages with it, challenges it, or jumps in wholesale, it's not a blind choice, and there's an intention behind it. Looking at those intentions is at the heart of what I'm trying to do here at The Beheld.

I don't expect to come to any grand conclusions or even to change my actions--I like wearing high heels, I like having that extra little oomph. But without examining it, or by blithely stating that it's my choice and I'm a feminist and so therefore it's a feminist choice, I stop short of the place I'd like to wind up.

Al-Qaeda's (Supposed) Ladymag, and How It Connects With American Women's Magazines

The cover of Al-Shamikha, the "Jihad Cosmo." Love the color scheme, fresh for spring! 

Those crazy extremists! News outlets are reporting on Al-Shamikha magazine, or the “Jihad Cosmo,” supposedly a women’s rag backed by Al-Qaeda. (It came to me, though, via an e-mail from my aunt, subject line "Muslim Bombshells.") Of course, the reports call out the nuttier side of it: advice for marrying a mujahideen, wearing the full-face niqab to protect skin from sun damage, and a feature on martyrs’ wives.

It’s news because a women’s magazine seems like such an unlikely place to spread a wider, uglier agenda. But pointing and gawking belittles the ways in which women’s magazines have long been an effective awareness tool for those who know how to use them. Al-Shamikha seems off mainly because the end goal is so distasteful to us, not because its means are so wild.

In the States this is most clearly illustrated by coverage of women’s health issues, which is arguably the #1 service that women’s magazines perform for their readers. Ladymags tend to be vocal about advocating reproductive rights, at a time when those rights are in peril. Women’s magazines are hardly working on behalf of lefty legislators—but certainly legislators who battle for reproductive rights have an enormous ally in women’s magazines, an ally that is schooled in personalizing issues that can get lost in a sea of rhetoric and misleading information.

It’s not just women’s health, though. The magazines most frequently thought of as the smart-girl women’s mags have earned their cred in other ways: hate crimes (here in the form of honor killing), unionizing (“A Girl’s Guide to Unions” in May 1967 Cosmo is sandwiched between “Why German Men Are Insane About American Girls” and “How to Behave on a Boat”*), sex trafficking, cults that target young women, and undocumented immigrants. There aren’t political machinations here, but there are plenty of people in the industry eager to advance women’s political agendas.

It’s overall good news that magazines treat women’s lives more comprehensively than just fashion and beauty. That said, when the information gap is being filled with information that seems exotically abhorrent—as is the case with “Jihad Cosmo”—it calls into sharp relief how weird it is that we want to lump beauty tips in the same outlet as news coverage. The juxtaposition of beauty tips with extremist advice makes us double-take because it seems downright bizarre, but it’s only bizarre because we can’t imagine any women’s magazine telling us to marry a suicide bomber. We can, however, imagine a magazine asking us to take action that fits more into our paradigm. The propaganda tool just takes the model of women’s magazines—a model we all accept—to its logical, and extreme, conclusion.

The shock! horror! mockery! knee-jerk reaction about the “Jihad Cosmo” points toward a combination of xenophobia and righteous anger toward Al Qaeda, using what is a legitimate tool as bait and turning it into something ludicrous. The Daily Mail singles out bits about the niqab without acknowledging the complex history of the veil, and points out how the magazine directs women to not go out except when necessary. But I remember reading ladymag advice about using Twitter as a safety tool—I could tweet wherever I was going so that when I was inevitably abducted, my followers would know where to start looking for my body, or something like that. It’s not the same thing—but suggesting that women basically install auto-tracking devices isn't actually that far from “Don’t leave the house.” And while it seems extreme to suggest that veiling one’s face is an effective tool against sun damage, is it any weirder than suggesting that dieters pour Diet Coke and Splenda over a cored apple to make “apple pie”? (Yes, that was a real tip.)

Other stories in Al-Shamikha have more direct counterparts in American women’s media: Al-Shamika and Allure both caution against “toweling too forcibly”; Al-Qaeda martyr widows and Operation Iraqi Freedom war widows are each given treatment, the latter in Glamour. As for staying home to avoid sun damage, Fitness tells us to stay out of the sun—after an expensive, painful chemical peel, which, depending on your perspective and pain tolerance, is nearly as drastic in its own way. (Actually, this has me thinking about some sort of cross-cultural beauty tips exchange. I’m picturing editors at Allure donning niqabs.)  

All this is complicated, of course, by the strong possibility that the magazine is a fake. Which I didn’t mention earlier because I wanted you to read the whole piece. (Sorry! But now you know how to make Diet Coke apple pie!) Actually, whether it’s fake is irrelevant, because our reactions to it are what’s of interest to me, not whether there’s a group of extremist women making honey facials while plotting how to snag the cutest mujahideen around. Rather, that’s very much of interest to me—but without being there with them, without listening to their words and witnessing their attitudes, I really can’t comment there. And maybe that’s the real moral here: While there are plenty of Islamic feminists, the extremist agenda that’s (maybe) creating this propaganda prefers its women silent. If it’s a hoax, its grand reveal won’t be able to come from them.

*”The saltier and goofier your clothes, the better. The thing to avoid is any material printed with anchors (you’re trying too hard) or brass buttons (they might scratch the teak on the boat).” Noted.