Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Month Without Mirrors Update 5.31: Recognition

I haven’t looked at my reflection for 31 days. No mirrors, no windows, no darkened subway glass. No shadows. The goal, which I went into in greater detail at the project’s beginning, was to loosen the grip that self-consciousness has had on me for much of my life, and to allow that lightened load to grant me better access to a state of flow. Here’s how it turned out.

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You, like me, probably have a mirror face. My mirror face is this:


It’s close to my “photo face,” but it’s a separate beast. My face contorts itself not because it will be recorded for Facebook posterity, but because I desperately need to believe certain things about my appearance. My mirror face is an attempt to correct things about my visage I don’t like: The pout makes my lips fuller. The tipped chin minimizes the broad planes of my face. The widened eyes and softened gaze call attention to my best feature. You may even find me ever so slightly sucking in my cheeks. A friend of mine—whose womanly charm lies in her mix of acerbic wit and casual grace—turns into a bright-eyed, prepubescent pixie when she looks in the mirror. Like me, she has no idea she’s doing it, and when she tries to stop, it only gets worse.

So in my mind, I’m fuller-lipped, slimmer-faced, wider-eyed than any of you would actually find me. And my adjustments are virtually uncontrollable. Which is to say: After 35 years of seeing myself in the mirror, it’s possible I still don’t really know what I look like.

Certainly, I don’t know what my face shape is. When I was 25, I decided to find out once and for all. (Round? Oval? Heart? What kind of haircut could I possibly get?!) I used a classic ladymag tip: I took a tube of lipstick and traced the outline of my face onto the mirror. And then I got angry.

I took the lipstick and scribbled over the circle/oval/whatever (I still don’t know what my face shape is). I covered an entire pane of my mirror, and then another, and then I went to the walls. And then I was out of lipstick so I took another, and another, and another. I coated, smeared, dragged, drew, until I had no more lipstick, no more walls, and no more mirrors.

At the time I thought my rage was a combination of struggling with the beauty myth and generalized “quarterlife crisis” anxiety, which also saw me doing things like hacking off a foot of hair with kitchen shears and trading my magazine career for a $10-an-hour gig as a pastry cook. It was an unhappy, confusing time, and my gonzo paint job gave me some anarchic respite from the pressures of that era.

I’m now wondering if my rage was actually stemming from what, if I were a 19th-century German philosopher, I might christen the master-mirror dialectic. G.W.F. Hegel cooked up what he calls the master-slave dialectic, which states that we’re incapable of self-consciousness without being conscious of others, and that once we become conscious of others we’re alerted to our lack of control over our lives. “A struggle to the death” ensues, in Hegel’s grandiose words, and we either become master (which later finds us needing the slave’s services, ultimately giving them control) or slave, which eventually gives us some control over the “master.” In the 1950s, grad-school rock-star psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan introduced the idea of the “mirror stage,” positing that we have this master-slave dynamic with ourselves via the mirror. Lacan compares it to being permanently trapped in a stadium of onlookers composed solely of ourselves, captivated by our own image.

When I traced my face shape onto my mirror with lipstick, I—presumably the master—was bowing to my slave’s needs. I was reaching toward the looking-glass and willing the world contained therein to reveal great gifts: Tell me my face shape so I may never have an inappropriate haircut again, ye mirror. By using her to guide my actions, I was giving her a measure of control over me. The moment incensed me because of its overt supplication to my built-in alter ego. But it was only one of many acts that ceded control to the mirror.

Ten years later: I went a month without looking in the mirror, initially thinking that my constant self-surveillance constituted self-objectification. Now that I’ve abandoned my mirror for a month, though, I see that my image is far too vital to have been an object. I didn’t objectify myself; rather, I treated my mirror image as a grounding strategy, as a divination tool to tell me how I should respond in any given situation, as a part of myself I can control. I treat her as both slave and master, and as someone both more beautiful and less appealing than myself.
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The mirror is a quest for control. Control over the image we present to the world, sure; control over fitting the beauty standard, to a degree. Mostly, though, surveillance is an effort to carefully control our ideas about ourselves. When I pulled the plug from the mirror image, she exacted revenge by radically shifting some of those ideas. For example, about a week into this experiment, I had a nagging sensation that my head had become very, very pointy, à la Saturday Night Live's Coneheads.

Less absurdist moments simply found me sort of forgetting what I looked like: How wide is my smile? Do I have freckles? That woman on the street with the dark eyes and high cheekbones—do I look like her? Do I even have high cheekbones? And, most important: Am I pretty?

Except, this month, that question wasn’t particularly important. In addition to realizing that I don’t have to strive to look pretty every minute, I thought far less about looks this month than I normally do. I didn’t feel better or worse about my appearance; I rarely felt pretty or unpretty. I just didn’t care as much.

Makeup held less appeal. I wore my glasses more. My love affair with lipstick dwindled; I wore my hair in a bun instead of the French twist I usually favor. I presented myself to the world reasonably groomed, sure. But pretty? The physical labor of prettiness took a backseat. I always believed I wore makeup for others—not for their benefit, but as a tool to help me feel more comfortable with them. After all, I don’t wear makeup at home alone, so it must have something to do with other people, right? This month I learned how much my makeup use is for my own pleasure. If I can’t reap the joys of seeing my lips turn a bright, puckery red, I simply don’t want to do it at all. If I’m my own harshest critic, I’m also my own most ardent observer—and fan.

Some readers have picked up on this, commenting how nice it must be to look in the mirror and adore my own image so much that I need to take a month off in order to get around to things other than admiring my own visage. Rest assured, I’m not quite that enthralled with my looks. In fact, in The Second Sex Simone De Beauvoir makes it clear that enchantment with one’s image needn’t solely be a reflection of thinking we’re beautiful:

It is not astonishing if even the less fortunate can sometimes share in the ecstasies of the mirror, for they feel emotion at the mere fact of being a thing of flesh...and since they feel themselves to be individual subjects, they can, with a little self-deception, embue their specific qualities with an individual attractiveness; they will discover in face or body some graceful, odd, or piquant trait. They believe they are beautiful simply because they are women.

Okay, so yay us, right? Down with the tyranny of the beauty standard! Every woman is beautiful, or at least has some part of herself that’s beautiful. You’ve just got to find it, sister, and what better way to do that than the mirror? Rock on with your gorgeous self!

Here’s the problem with that: When we look in the mirror, we rarely see ourselves. We are forever seeing a projection—what we wish to see, what we fear seeing, what we used to see. “The ego [as accessed through the mirror] is a product of misunderstanding, a false recognition,” Lacan writes. (And unless you’re the rare creature who doesn’t have a “mirror face,” how could what we see be anything but a misunderstanding?) I’ve heard some women say mirror abstinence would rob them of a hard-won acceptance of their appearance, and I don't wish to diminish that. It's hard enough to make peace with our bodies without some writer yakking at you about Lacan. But if what the mirror gives us is imagined, I wonder how far its affirmation can take any of us.

Case in point: Try as I did to avoid it, I caught a few glimpses of myself in unanticipated mirrors. And people: I am 35, and I learned that I look it. There is nothing wrong with looking 35, or any age. But, like the majority of women, I believed I looked younger. Mathematically, the majority cannot look younger than our age. We just think we do, because we see our ego, not our selves. When I caught unexpected glimpses of myself, I saw bags under the eyes, flaccid skin. I didn’t feel bad about this per se—35 can look good, yo!—but it revealed how much I’m subtly controlling what I see when I purposefully look in the mirror as opposed to when I stumble upon myself accidentally. I am preparing, however slightly, to see the face I’m presenting. And that face—the imaginary one—looked about 28 years old until now.

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I’ve had a couple of friends tell me they’re surprised, reading my blog, to find I think as intensely as I do about beauty. “You’re not one of those beauty-robot girls,” said one. She’s correct: My physical beauty labor is pretty minimal. My emotional beauty labor is another story.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not thinking every second about positioning myself so that my “good side” is showing, or whatever. By emotional beauty labor—a term borrowed from writer and licensed esthetician Virginia Sole-Smith’s "beauty labor" and sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s "emotional labor"I mean a sort of low-level, frequent, and unconscious acting that might, every so often, land me a plum role as a nice-looking woman. You know how when you’re wearing a nice outfit, you’ll carry yourself differently? You’re aware of being looked at, you’re aware of how your body might appear in this piece of clothing that is signaling a certain occasion. You’re not lying, but you’re acting, in a small, naturalistic way. That’s the sort of labor I’m talking about: When you are conscious of the potential of being looked at, and when your behavior is altered as a result, even if you don’t intend to do so, you—I—are working.

When beginning the mirror fast, I kept turning to de Beauvoir’s 1953 work The Second Sex, particularly the chapter called “The Narcissist.” But throughout the month, another section of the book called to me: “The Independent Woman,” or the woman who creates her own living. That is, most of us today.

[The independent woman] knows that she is offering herself, she knows that she is a conscious being, a subject; one can hardly...change one’s eyes into sky-blue pools at will; one does not infallibly stop the surge of a body that is straining toward the world and change it into a statue animated by vague tremors. [The independent woman] will try all the more zealously because she fears failure; but her conscious zeal is still an activity... In all this she resembles those actors who fail to feel the emotion that would relax certain muscles and so by an effort of will contract the opposing ones, forcing down their eyes or the corners of their mouth instead of letting them fall. Thus in imitating abandon the independent woman becomes tense. She realizes this, and it irritates her; over her blankly naive face, there suddenly passes a flash of all too sharp intelligence; lips soft with promise suddenly tighten. ...The desire to seduce, lively as it may be, has not penetrated to the marrow of her bones.

Sounds exhausting, right? It is.

Ridding myself of the mirror didn’t cure me of the push-pull of emotional beauty labor. (Not that I would know, because much of this labor is unconscious. Measuring physical beauty labor, like time spent on a manicure or money spent on tanning cream, is simpler.) But the mirror is key to its recognition: What film profiling a female performer neglects the ubiquitous shot of our heroine, in front of a mirror, looking herself squarely in the eye as she prepares to play her part?

Clockwise, from top left: All About Eve, A Star Is Born, Les Enfants du Paradis, Black Swan.

Taking away the mirror took away my mirror face, which is, in essence, privately performed beauty labor. So when I found myself approximating the labors of my mirror face in the presence of others—be still, chin down, be pretty—I was acutely aware of my efforts. Times I recognized I was performing emotional beauty labor: volunteering with an ESL student who has confessed a small crush on me and who looks to me for affirmation of his language skills; having drinks with someone who talked over every word I tried to utter; meeting with an acquaintance who is extraordinarily self-conscious herself and kept adjusting her makeup. In each of those situations, I was “performing”: attempting to grant the other person some comfort, or struggling to maintain some presence when my other forms of power were being ignored. I did this by appearing attentive, widening my eyes, fixing a smile that’s probably close to my ever-false mirror face, cocking my head to make a small show of my quizzical nature. This was all unconscious. The only reason I was able to detect my actions was because I hadn’t had my usual warm-up with myself in the mirror. My privately emotional beauty labor, in other words, is a hamstring stretch that gets me ready for the sprint of uncomfortable interactions in which I feel I must “perform”; without the warm-up, the effort of the race became illustrated in sharp relief.

One of the harshest, and truest, criticisms I’ve received from people who know me well is that I’m not always as emotionally present as I should be. My response is usually that I feel so drained by other people’s needs that I have little energy to expend on being as present as I’d like. What I didn’t realize until I was unburdened from some of my self-imposed (and likely invented) expectations was exactly how much of my energy was going into appearing. Appearing to be interested, appearing to be womanly, appearing to be a professional lady, appearing to be pretty.

No wonder I’m exhausted.

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My goal was to liberate myself from self-surveillance, allowing me to better access a flow state. So, was I able to enter a flow state more freely?

I did not waltz through the month writing Great Literature, or having shamanistic visions, or even organizing my bookcase. What did happen was that I was more in tune with myself. I felt more aware of my needs, and I took steps to allow myself to do what I needed to access flow, even if I didn’t get there often. I’m guessing this would have happened regardless; setting a goal of engaging more fully with the world prompted me to create opportunities for that to happen, mirror aside. I was on alert for blockages to flow, and some of those were mirror-related—like the emotional beauty labor I recognized in uneasy moments, or the phantom “flinches” I had about reprimanding myself for having looked in a mirror when I hadn’t.

A greater victory was my diminished self-consciousness. Yet we need self-consciousness, and its accompanying ability to shift our persona, in order to function in the world. I fall into the trap of thinking that there’s some “authentic self” I have a responsibility to, and that any manipulation of it constitutes a betrayal. But there is no one “authentic self.” It shifts according to time, place, and company; indeed, we all rely on one another’s signals to let us know what to do with this mess of humanity.

When I’m performing emotional beauty work, I’m letting you in on how I’d like to be seen: as a thirtysomething woman who, every so often, might want to be viewed as a pretty lady. If I make total removal of that labor my goal, I sign away certain expectations. Not expectations of human decency; expectations of, say, you understanding via my low-level obsequiousness that I want you to feel valued, or that you’ll treat a transaction with a bit more humor than you might otherwise because clearly I’m here for a good time. Or—why not?—an expectation that, every so often, you’ll hold the door for me. There’s a lady coming through. If I want to experience a certain form of femininity, with all its rituals and fleeting rewards—well, that’s what the persona and its accompanying labors are for. I’m giving you permission to respond to my portrayed self in an appropriate manner. If that sounds presumptuous, take it from sociologist Erving Goffman in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life: “Information about the individual helps define the situation, enabling others to know in advance what he will expect of them and what they may expect of him. Informed in these ways, the others will know how best to act in order to call forth a desired response from him.”

I missed the private joy of observing myself in a certain light. I missed the pleasure of, just before I leave the house, giving myself a final once-over, smile—yes, with my mirror face—and confirming all is well. My flowered dress that makes me feel like a gracious 1950s hostess, my hot pink number with orange piping and oversized collar that makes me feel like a creature from Alice in Wonderland—I took less pleasure than usual in wearing these, because I couldn’t observe myself partaking in the ritual of playing dress-up. I missed witnessing myself slip into a persona. Liberating myself from personae was also a relief—a big one at times. And it’s not like this past month was drudgery; far from it. Still, the sense of play I normally carry with me was muted.

"How nice it would be if we could only get through into Looking-glass House! I'm sure it's got, oh! such beautiful things in it! Let's pretend there's a way of getting through into it somehow. // Oh, what fun it'll be, when they see me through the glass in here, and can't get at me!" —Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll, illustration by John Tenniel

Which brings me back to being master, or slave, to the mirror. Hegel’s theory that we’re forever wresting control from each other—or, in the case of the mirror, our own image—indicates that the way out is for each party to recognize that they need one another, and from there, dissolve their differences. In the case of the mirror, that could be interpreted to mean unification—a genuine recognition of the mirror as solely a handy tool for making sure we don’t have stray ink on our cheek. Not an oracle, not someone with control over us, not something to turn to as an emotional divination rod.

Yet I’m under no illusion that I can somehow unite with my mirror image to become whole. (And—shall I state the obvious?—there’s nobody there to unite with. Coneheads trickery aside, I’m the only one who actually exists. Twist ending!) I’ve tried to rid myself of my mirror face and failed; I understand that I can never be an objective viewer of myself. But I can recognize differences between myself and my image, the first step toward dissolution.

I can recognize that my mirror face is not how I appear to the rest of the world, and honor that perhaps my mild self-delusion is the adult version of the child who wonders what she’ll look like when she grows up—fanciful, woefully inaccurate, but bringing minimal harm as long as its falsity is understood. I can recognize that my beauty labor—emotional and physical—is largely for myself, and evaluate what purpose it’s serving, allowing me to see what I can keep and what I should discard. I can recognize that the mirror allows me access to a part of my femininity that’s tucked away otherwise, and be thankful for that key. And maybe, with practice, I’ll come closer to recognizing myself.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Beauty Blogosphere 5.27.11

The latest beauty news, from head to toe and everything in between.

 Willie Nelson has a venerable place in makeover history.

From Head...
A history of the makeover: Great, entertaining piece at the New Zealand Herald tracing makeovers from ancient China to Willie Nelson ("2011: Willie Nelson cuts his hair off"). 

Too pretty to do math: Oh, Christ. 

Quite an eyeful: Gorgeous eyelid landscapes by artist Katie Alves. 

Bella, bella!: No particular news here; I just want to do a shout-out to Italian photo blog The Feminine Touch, which juxtaposes photos of well-known women (usually, but not always, entertainers) from their height of fame with photos from how they look now. The photos rarely have comment (and when they do, they're in Italian, so...), allowing us to draw our own conclusions—or simply observe—from the way these largely image-conscious women have presented themselves as they age. Totally worth adding to your RSS feed.

To Toe...
The red shoes: Anything that manages to reference both The Wizard of Oz and The Red Shoes (the film AND the fairy tale!) is a must-read: a history of red shoes.

The Red Shoes, 1948, totally creepy and awesome and basically puts Black Swan in a playpen

...And Everything In Between:
The White House on salon worker safety: The White House has launched an initiative to make nail salons just a leetle less toxic. This actually seems pretty exciting: The Environmental Protection Agency has developed a safety workshop series; the Department of Homeland Security (of course) is working on a smartphone that can "sniff" chemical levels in the air and assess worker health; and the Small Business Administration is evaluating how it can incentivize green nail salons. It appears to be spearheaded by Audrey Buehring, senior advisor on intergovermental affairs for the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders—fitting, given that 40% of nail workers in the U.S. are Asian. Of course, the EPA has stepped in on behalf of workers before. The agency's previous interventions have left ample room for improvement: One of its worker safety manuals read, "Nail salon products may contain many potentially harmful chemicals that can be a major cause of...health and environmental concerns." You don't say. The EPA strengthened the wording of their guidelines, but it begs the question: How committed to greening up nail salons can the EPA really be? We'll have to wait and see.

Governing taste: Spot-on breakdown of the incredulity of Arnold Schwarzenegger cheating on Maria Shriver with women who supposedly aren't as attractive as she is. Cheating? Sure! Cheating with a normal-looking woman when he's got Maria Shriver at home? He must be a head case!

 Raw food!

Never say diet: Virginia Sole-Smith is rocking the foodie beat hardcore this week (well, she does that every week, but this week's Never Say Diet was particularly awesome): On why we don't "deserve" food (isn't just eating and enjoying it enough?), and why we need to approach "perfect" eating (vegetarianism, raw foods, etc.) with caution.

Damned if you do, grand slammed if you don't: Serena Williams was attacked for posting this picture of herself as a part of the World Tennis Association's Strong Is Beautiful campaign. Lisa Wade at Sociological Images deconstructs the problems behind this; Williams was accused of basically inviting stalkers (which she's had problems with) by appearing sexy. 

The bath/body upsell: Awesome "exposé" from a former peddler of such things, with tips on how to leave, for example, Kiehl's with just the damn lip balm and not, say, the coriander bath set even though you don't even USE bath gel but it smelled so nice and it goes with the lotion and "layering" scents is the way to go and sigh.

Sexy girls have it easy?: Rachel Hills looks at a short documentary that follows a woman through town to discover what she can get for free when she's dolled up versus when she's plain-Jane'd down. The film is interesting enough, but Rachel's take more so. 

Team Estee: Estee Lauder continues to kick butt in the stock market, with Avon not far behind. I am pleased to announce that weight loss company Herbalife trails both.

The art of not being threatened: Anika writes—and shows, with glowing, confident photos—on the near-Zen practice of appreciating the beauty of others instead of turning the gaze inward.

Dressing for your shape: You might already know how much I despise "dressing for your figure," particularly when that figure is being referred to as a piece of fruit. But Mrs. Bossa asks us the question about whether we should aim to dress for our body types, with her usual grace and quiet provocation. Her smorgasbord of independent fashion bloggers answering the question is a delight.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Month Without Mirrors 5.26 Update: Clothes Shopping!

Clothes shopping when you've banned yourself from mirrors requires a different sort of trust than the sort you'd normally put in a total stranger. I'm loath to ask sales staff what they think of any particular garment on me—the worst of all possible shopping worlds being when the saleslady bullies me into coming out of the dressing room (I'll come out of the dressing room at will, but trust me, if you push me to model a piece that looks hideous I will only be embarrassed, and you will lose a sale); the mirror is the saving grace. I don't even like to take friends shopping with me for that reason: I don't want to saddle them with the responsibility of telling me what works and what doesn't.

But! In the name of research (of course) I gave blind clothes shopping a whirl recently. I was turned on to a Dutch line, King Louie, which creates feminine, made-to-move clothes appropriate for a city that breathes bicycling. I'm trying to revamp my wardrobe to include dresses that don't require heels or sucking in the beer gut I acquired last year during a three-month stint in Prague, and this seemed like a good opportunity. I generally know what colors and cuts suit me, so I walked into the store confident that maybe I wouldn't even need help—only to find that the cuts of the dresses I found most appealing weren't the type I normally wear (the type I normally wear being the sort that requires...heels and gut-sucking). They didn't have any of my personal no-nos (pleats, for example), but they were out of my safety zone of fitted scoop-neck sheaths. But this raspberry dress with a blousy top and sash looked so...comfortable! No gut-sucking! Flat sandals! Mobility!

I tried it on, then stood in the dressing room unsure of what to do. I could tell that it fit right just by looking down and by how it felt, but as far as how it looked? No idea. Plus, I'm not great with draping and sashes and stuff, but damn if I didn't feel relaxed in this thing. I had to ask the sales staff, and I just sort of crossed my fingers that the famous Dutch nonchalant frankness would mean that the hard sell would lose out over honesty.

In fact, that's just what happened—I hope. I had to ask her what she thought instead of simply wait for her to proffer her opinion. She looked me up and down and said it worked on me, and that it was the dress that every single staffer had purchased. Then she looked at my face and saw what I imagine looked like worry: I was comfortable in the store, but clearly a foreigner, and clearly anxious. "You can always ask what we think," she said, and smiled. "It's what we're here for."

I think of myself as a pretty trusting person, but it hadn't ever occurred to me that, in fact, that is what a salesperson is there for. I mean, of course they're also there to make a sale, and the emotional labor of the salesperson means that they have to flatter and fawn in order to do so. But a good salesperson knows better than to do that falsely.

Um, that's what I'm banking on, anyway.

The exchange got me on a no-mirror high, and I purchased not only that dress, but two others (I did take a quick peek at my butt to make sure a knit dress didn't reveal a terrible panty line). At another shop, I purchased a vintage early 20th-century linen nightgown that makes me feel like I'm on Downton Abbey. The nightgown was, well, a nightgown, so sizing wasn't an issue; in fact, I didn't try it on. But I wonder if I'd have purchased it were I not doing the mirror experiment. One thing I've missed during this experiment is the pleasure of briefly feeling like I've stepped into a sort of fantasy life, even when it's really just my own. I wrote in my initial mirror post of catching a glimpse of myself with pencils in my hair and thinking, My, don't I look like a writer?; this experiment was meant, in part, to turn such notions inward. But sometimes it's just fun to feel like I'm inviting another world into my private sphere. I am not pre-WWI nobility, but wearing a loose linen nightgown with delicate stitching on top with my hair loose over my shoulders certainly makes me feel like pre-WWI nobility. My longing for play can take a precarious turn into a sort of semi-permanent acting, in which I'm so aware of appearing that I lose the focus on being. But play needn't be sacrificed for self.

I figured this photo doesn't show anything except my chin that I can't already see,
so even though I'm abstaining from looking at photos of myself, I can look at this. And so can you!

The last time I did a conscious "play" experience with my bombshell makeover, I felt unmoored from the experience. It revealed myths I've told myself over the years, and showed me exactly how much I fear putting myself out there. But there are different sorts of play, some of which are private, others of which are public. Becoming comfortable with private forms of persona might open up the doors for me to feel more fluid—more authentic—in allowing myself the public forms of play. One of my favorite outfits—khaki shirtdress with neckerchief and Mary Jane heels—was dubbed "stewardess chic" by a coworker, a description that fills me with a 1970s glamour glee whenever I think of her term. It's stewardess chic, but it's still me, and I suppose that's the difference. I'd like to learn how to experiment more with that sort of playful attitude toward my appearance in public. This mirror fast is helping me develop the core that I'll need in order to do that without feeling like I'm merely acting, and poorly at that. I'm not there yet. For now, I've just got my nightgown. You may call me Lady Whitefield.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Month Without Mirrors 5.25 Update: You Don't Always Have to Look Pretty

When I was walking around wearing my glasses the other day (in public! gasp!) and not caring a whit about how I looked, I had a thought I'd never had before. It is so elementary that it's embarrassing to let you know that this thought had literally never, ever crossed my mind before, but here goes: You don't always have to be pretty.

Mind you, I don't walk through life always believing that I am pretty. But I do walk through life believing that I should be, always, without exception. I'm not talking well-groomed and hygienic; I'm talking pretty. Every day, to some degree, involves considering how close to my standard of personal prettiness I get. Some days I hit it; others I don't, and on those days I  have to reconcile myself with knowing that I don't look the way I'd like to. I'm thankful that I have the ability to make that reconciliation most of the time, for it's certainly better on the brain than a negative cycle of berating myself. Still, it is effort. It's a state of unease: I am reconciling, not being.

But then, there it was, that little kernel of a thought just popping into my mind: You don't always have to be pretty. On this particular day, I was makeup-free, with my hair tied back into a bun, wearing loose, comfortable clothing. I looked perfectly normal, but I didn't look how I normally do—which is hardly glammed to the max, but I'm nearly always wearing light makeup and contact lenses, and with my hair either down (which gives me a vaguely bohemian look, I fancy) or in an updo (which, the other day, elicited the best compliment ever: "You look so French"). On my glasses day, I imagine I appeared as someone who just didn't give a second thought to how she looked—I was sporting all the signals of, say, the frumpy friend on a sitcom.

Well, here I look more like the unhinged/sweaty sitcom friend, but since I can't view new photos of myself this month and this is one of exactly two glasses photos I have, you'll just have to trust me.

That's just the thing, though: I imagine I appeared in such a way, because without looking in a mirror, I really have no idea. I've seen myself plenty of times without makeup and wearing my glasses, but it's happened so rarely in public that I had no idea of how I looked on that particular day. I could only go on feel. As for that: I felt...comfortable. I felt an ease in my movement, a looseness in my joints. I felt frumpy, yes, and a little clunky, a little adolescent (my recent seventh-grade snapshot on Before You Were Hot can let you know what my adolescence looked like). I was freed from the ever-so-slight but constant irritation my contact lenses bring this time of year due to seasonal allergies. I was freed from wondering if I was observed: I was pretty sure I looked unremarkable, veering on invisible, and instead of feeling slighted, I felt open. I noticed people noticing one another, and in my observations of their sly looks I realized I was removing myself from the equation altogether. People may have looked at me, but since it was harder for me to form any notions of what they were thinking, I felt a distance from social interactions—a freedom from the quiet, constant social game we all play.

The feeling was new (and fleeting, I might add), and for people who struggle to feel visible in this world, the sensation might be unwelcome. But traditionally I haven't feared feeling invisible; I fear being seen in a way I don't wish to be seen. That is: I fear a loss of control over how others see me—a control that none of us has to begin with.

Letting go of the imaginary control the mirror gives forces me to not only replace that control with trust—in myself and in the world around me—it forces me to lift the controls I believed I have over my physical allure. I thought I always had to look pretty because I thought it was something that was within my control, when it isn't. Yes, I take various measures to meet a certain standard of attractiveness. But I can't do a damn thing to ensure that you think I'm pretty; none of us can, really. Clean, groomed, and reasonable, yes. Beyond that? It's up to you, not me.

I've learned that lesson, somewhat harshly on occasion, in the course of publishing beauty pieces elsewhere. Previously, I've attributed people's occasionally negative comments about my looks as being a reaction not to my relatively inoffensive face, but to the audacity of a woman talking about how she looks without apologizing for her myriad flaws. Truthfully, though, that's only part of it. The other part is that some people are just going to think I'm un-pretty, and that is completely beyond my control. When I relinquished that imaginary control by giving up the mirror, I also slowly began to relinquish what I had come to believe was my responsibility as a woman to be pretty at all times. I can't control it to begin with, so saddling myself with that responsibility is like studying for the craps table. You can learn how to maneuver the odds, but at its heart, it's a game of luck.

The second of two glasses photos in my possession. (Here, I am sporting my
outrageously terrible attempt at a fishtail braid, hence the expression of forlorn defeat.)

Make no mistake: I'm not saying I don't want to look pretty. I do. But in that sliver of a moment when I heard my head whisper You don't always have to be pretty, I saw a momentary respite from the self-imposed duty that doesn't cease. I saw a way that maybe I can treat the performance of femininity as a mantle I can ease into when I wish, and shrug off when I desire, turning my small, constant efforts into a tool box instead of a rote daily checklist that keeps me occasionally pleased, occasionally disappointed, and never satisfied. I saw that just as much as none of us ever have to choose between smart and pretty, that there can be power in opting out from pretty at will, just as there can be a power in opting into it at times.

I saw that glimmer of possibility, felt it slither through my brain. And just as quickly as it came, it left again.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Thoughts on a Word: Vainglorious

Sarah Frye Valencius creates clothes that serve as a uniform for the creative mind: “I want to design unfussy, non-body-conscious clothing for women who care about fashion but can’t afford to be distracted by it all day,” she says. Minimizing fuss and maximizing concentration, her work incorporates features like playful pocket and closures, always with an eye toward clean, elegant lines. (You can follow one strain of her style inspiration at French Spy Movie.) Given that one of the goals of my mirror fast is increasing opportunities for reaching a flow state, is it any wonder I’m eager for her work to hit New York? Her ready-to-wear line will debut this fall—but it’s the name of her just-launched custom clothing website, Vainglorious, that prompted me to ask her to do a guest word post.

It’s rare you happen upon the word vainglorious anymore. A tantalizing word, even if its meaning isn’t readily apparent.  There is something in all those vowels, the exotic v, the sexy s, the righteous glory tucked in the middle, that elicits an emotional understanding. The first time I read the word vainglorious  I was compelled to say it aloud. I wanted to feel all those shapes in my mouth—archaic, ornamental, indulgent.

Vainglory is derived from the medieval Latin words vāna (empty) and glōria (boasting).The entry for vainglory in my dusty, trusty, 1936 Webster’s Unabridged reads as follows:
noun. glory, pride or boastfulness that is vain; vanity that is excited by one’s own performances; empty pride; undue elation of mind
Originally, vainglory was part of the Eight Deadly Sins (which were, by the way, gluttony, lust, avarice, sadness, anger, acedia, vainglory, and pride) but Pope Gregory the Great found the list a bit redundant, and in the 6th century vainglory got folded into pride. This same pope also shook up the sins’ traditional order of severity, naming the new pride-combo-sin as offense numero uno, for being the greatest crime against love.

So if vainglory is such a dangerous thing, what happened to it? Why isn’t vainglory a word hissed in girls’ locker rooms, or thrown at crowing politicians? It’s as though getting bumped off The Deadlies was the equivalent of becoming a Hollywood has-been, and vainglory went the way of avarice and acedia—so last century.

But that little Latin vāna soldiered on, becoming vain and finding favor with English speakers via Old French.  It maintained its meaning of “empty” until the late 13th century, when it started also being used to describe “conceit”. Did the ostentatious finery of the Baroque period prompt this expansion of vain’s applicability? I wouldn’t be surprised.

The use of vain to describe self-obsession has had impressive staying power over the past 700 years, and it maintains the stigma of sin, even if unofficially. Vain characters rarely go unpunished in western tradition. It’s the driving motivation behind many a storybook villain, most blatantly the Wicked Queen in Snow White.  It was also Madame Bovery’s vanity that had her questing for the fine clothing and jewelry which would be her downfall. My favorite childhood film, Death Becomes Her, features Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn’s comic efforts to stay young and beautiful that leave them literately shattered by movie’s end.

Perhaps the most memorable appearance of vanity in the past fifty years is Carly Simon’s infectious tune “You’re So Vain”, a '70s slander song whose subject's identity has been much speculated on over the years. Simon’s refusal to name names may speak to the staying power of vanity as a slur. It also made it a hit. Pop music has been singing about “you” since its inception, a neat trick that offers the listener a choice of identifying as the singer or the song’s subject. When the Beatles howl “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” you could just as easily imagine singing the lines to your crush, as you could John Lennon singing directly to you, wanting to hold your hand. That’s part of the appeal and discomfort of “You’re So Vain”—if you don’t have a narcissistic someone in mind as you sing along with the radio, it starts to feel like she might be singing about you. An ingenious lyrical maneuver on Simon’s part—she bends the accusation back on itself, trapping you with the line: You probably think this song is about you, don’t you? (Don’t you?)

Maybe Pope Gregory was onto something when he said vainglory and pride were the deadliest of sins. A vain woman is easily more scorned than a lusty Lothario, an angry bus driver, or a slothy college student. It just rubs us the wrong way. When we tease apart those twin sins of pride and vanity, pride is obviously the more forgivable (the proud papa, proud employee, or proud fiancé). The vain are rarely humored like the proud are.

I’d go as far to say that we have a fear of vanity. What else could send our words stumbling when we receive a compliment on our appearance after we put so much effort into it? One of the first feminine acts we teach our girls is how to demure...right after we’ve instructed them on the value of being beautiful. Why are we guarding ourselves so closely against vanity accusations? I think there’s guilt that lies deep in our puritanical bones, for all the hours we spend primping and all the dollars we lay down at the cosmetics counter. We feel guilt for wanting to be beautiful, trying to be beautiful, and the audacity for thinking our efforts might work.

The mind is a clever thing and has no trouble justifying our labors of beauty as “fixing imperfections” rather than conceiving of them as acts of vanity. The latter is a sin but the former is expected of us. It’s perfect pro-American-consumer-Calvinistic behavior—fed by advertisers, reinforced by magazines, handed down from mother to daughter, and passed around like a gossipy note from girl to girl. The scorn of vanity and the contempt of ugliness form a double-edged sword that cuts us however it falls. 

All Is Vanity, C. Allan Gilbert, 1892

It’s fascinating that we live in a culture that expects us to worship the mirror, but not (god forbid) what it reflects. We line up like doomed queens and await the mirror’s judgement. But we aren’t asking “Who’s the fairest?” We are asking “What’s wrong with me?”  And the mirror answers so readily: dark circles, fine lines, large pores, furry brows, zits, yellow teeth, thin lashes, sagging jowls. We know what to look for and we know the correcting products available.  It’s not considered vanity to work on these crimes against beauty; self-hate is your saving grace. But if you dare admire what you see, you are surely damned as Dorian Grey. The only vanity allowed is the table and mirror you sit at. 
Walk the walk, don’t talk the talk. Put on heels, swing your hips, and pucker those lips. Celebrities, the current standard of beauty, are well trained in this dance. When stopped on the red carpet they know exactly how to slide out of questions about their beauty. Just once I want Angelina Jolie to say: “Yeah, I am beautiful and it’s fucking awesome.” And then I want Brad Pitt to say: “Damn straight.” Wouldn’t that be refreshing? I think that’s why I find characters like Amanda from Ugly Betty or Santana from Glee so delicious. I can’t get enough of them. It’s not just their vanity I love, it’s their vainglory.

Of course vainglory extends beyond proclaiming one’s hotness. Its boasting and folly applies to all types of inflated ego and self-promotion or, really, any pursuit of grandeur. Considering we are neck deep in the Internet Age—masters of Facebook, Twitter, Tumblrs, blogs, and experts in self-branding—I think we are ripe for a return of vainglorious to our lexicon.  I also think it’s time we stop beating ourselves up in front of the mirror. If you are going to spend so much time and money on beauty, you might as well take a little pride in it.

And so we are at the beginning again. I saw that beautiful word, vainglorious, boastfully bursting off the page. And I thought: Yes. Perfect. Glorious. This will be the name of my fashion endeavors. Even though my dresses were conceived in the most humble manner, my effort and doubts puncturing the fabric with every stitch, I am proud of the finished product. I’m getting better with each thing I make and I am going for it—going for the glory. And when a woman puts on one of my designs, I hope she is too.