The Beheld: Basics and Special Projects

Monday, October 31, 2011

My Halloween Martini


If the backlash against sexy Halloween costumes hadn’t already jumped the shark, it officially has now, what with Nicole Richie pleading on her Facebook page, “Girls, can we all pledge that we will not dress slutty for this Halloween? The jig is up.”

My instinct was to applaud her, but then my mini-third-wave-feminist kicked in and was all, “But wearing skimpy clothes on a socially sanctioned day is a step toward women not feeling shame over not being ‘sexy enough!’” And then my mini-third-wave-feminist’s cantankerous riot grrrl buddy chimed in about how relegating women’s reclamation of their sex appeal to one day defeated the pro-"Slut-o-ween" argument, and then they consulted their friend who has an adorable Etsy shop, who said that dressing slutty for Halloween was okay as long as it was done “with creative force,” and then the three of them left to discuss locavores, so I was left alone and not particularly giving a damn.

My solution to the Halloween costume conundrum is to act like a grown-up, meaning I drink dirty martinis while listening to Nina Simone, discussing Kierkegaard, and laughing throatily. That is, I don’t celebrate it in the least. I’ve had an aversion to costuming ever since I quit studying theater in college after realizing that the thought of spending my life with people who were “on” all the time made me queas. If pressed, I can whip up a costume, but in my post-college life I’d rather just skip the holiday altogether.

So in the spirit of not particularly enjoying Halloween, instead of presenting you with my own rhetoric on the wretched holiday, I’ll point you toward thoughts from those who have better things to say on it than I:

  • Bug Girl, an entomologist, openly admits a tinge of envy of women who can be comfortable dressed sexily on Halloween, but the real gem here is her parasitized tobacco hornworm costume.
  • Rachel Rabbit White’s “In Defense of Slut-o-Ween” is the most persuasive argument I’ve seen on the matter.  Runner-up is Jenna Marbles: “There’s a time and a place for it. Probably not that appropriate to wear that to school.... But if you’re out somewhere trying to get fucking hammered, and it’s Halloween? Nothing wrong with being a ho!”

To all of the above I will say that I have blasphemously dressed as the Virgin Mary and have a hard time looking devout Christians in the eye and admitting such; that I have dressed as a go-go girl and felt cold and stupid all night; that I have dressed as “slutty Viagra” and felt like a goddamned queen; and that the most fun I’ve ever had on Halloween was dressing up in my black camping underwear, complete with balaclava and fanny pack, and silently running around with a similarly clad partner and being random ninja/robber creations of our own design. We were kooky and spooky and fun, and though what we did was mundane by the standards of cleverness and obscure at best by the standards of sex appeal, I certainly felt more delightfully mischief-filled than I had on any Halloween prior or since.

Have fun tonight, whether it be from partying like a sexy aviator, gorging yourself on mellowcreme pumpkins, having hallowed communion with all souls, or waiting for November to just begin already, martini in hand.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Beauty Blogosphere: 10.28.11

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

And yet I still can't cover a pockmark I got in 1979.

From Head...
Undercover: I've got to agree with BellaSugar: The best concealer commercial ever, starring Zombie Boy in the only time you'll ever see him not be Zombie Boy. 

...To Toe... 
Fish pedicures ruled safe! Big news this week from the UK's Health Protection Agency: “Provided that good standards of hygiene are followed by salons, members of the public are unlikely to get an infection from a fish spa pedicure," announced Dr. Hilary Kirkbride, consultant epidemiologist at the HPA. She then turned around, looked at the hundreds of small fish nibbling dead skin off the feet of people willing to pay for the privilege, and silently gagged. 

...And Everything In Between:
When in doubt, market out: The newly emerging urban middle class in Asia and Latin America is making L'Oreal want to play catch-up in those regions, as the company expects three-fourths of future growth to come from those markets. What's interesting here is that those markets are more resilient even in economic downturns than American, European, and Australian markets, as evidenced by the hand-wringing in this piece about L'Oreal Down Under. (Between this and the news that 88% of Australian online beauty spending goes overseas, the Aussie market seems rife for some bright entrepreneurs to swoop in, I'm just sayin'...)

Fakeout: L'Oreal has a wildly innovative campaign about "not faking it" linked to their Voluminous False Fiber Lashes Mascara! Gee, can't believe nobody's thought of that before. I can't help but wonder how this ties into the idea that authenticity is "getting old," as per the New York Times.

But you can recycle it, dahling: One of the Estee Lauder VPs on the intersection of luxury beauty goods and the cry for sustainability: "Are luxury consumers ready for a radical swing in the look of their packaging? No, it's an evolution, not a revolution. Luxury consumers don't necessary want the sustainability of the pack branded all over." But, he adds, "Just because sustainability is not branded all over the pack, it doens't mean the consumer is not interested in it, and it doesn't mean it's not part of the brand's message."

Speaking of brand messaging: Estee Lauder discovers the existence of Latinas.

"I want to stay behind the table": A profile of Ariel Sharon's appetite, or rather, his seemingly fraught relationship with food. While I agree with Regan Chastain that you can't tell much about a fat person by looking at them other than the fact that they're fat, as a journalist Matt Rees has spent enough time observing people to be able to tell us something potent about Sharon's inner life when he tells us about watching him devour a plate of cookies during the intifada.

Maybe they can compromise with this Army ponytail holder!

Be all that you can be: The Army is considering some dress code changes, and the thought of banning French manicures and ponytails has been bandied about, reports BellaSugar. Honestly, this sort of makes sense to me, not for reasons having to do with conformity but with practicality. Most French manicures are long, right? When my nails get long I can barely type, let alone do the far more manually dextrous things that soldiers need to do, and ponytails are easily caught in things. I have zero desire to quash feminine expression in the Army but I can't say this targets the ladies unfairly.

And to think I got a C in geometry: Finally! Math has shown us the perfect breast! This is supposed to reduce the number of poorly done breast augmentations, so therefore it falls under public service, right? Right! (via Feminaust)

Occupy Tropes: Having already decided that Hot Chicks of Occupy Wall Street is grody gross-gross, let's look at how it relates to Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Something I initially semi-appreciated about the Hot Chicks of OWS site was that it wasn't just stereotypically "hot" chicks: Diverse in not just race, but in age and "type," I begrudgingly had to admit that if nothing else, it could possiblymaybe reflect a broader portrait of "hotness" than mainstream media would have you believe. I knew it was shaky ground, and The Society Pages outlines why: Fetishizing protesters as Manic Pixie Dream Girls isn't true diversity in the least.

All the pretty ladies: And just in case you're occupying (or walking down the street, or hanging out at a bar, or breathing in the presence of others) and, whaddya know, there's a hot chick there? Read this guide to "Your Role as Observer" when a lady is strutting her stuff. 

I choose my choice!: Two nice pieces on "choice feminism" and "consumer feminism" this week. Laurie Penny at The New Significance writes about how as she advances in her career, she's expected to bring a new level of polish—that is, consumer goods—to her presentation. "As women, everything we wear is a statement, and we have no right to remain sartorially silent. We negotiate a field of signifiers every time we open our wardrobes, or, in my case, every time we rummage through the clothes-pile on the bedroom floor." Coupled with Jess's piece at XOJane—which I'd sort of thought was all about "choice feminism," but I guess that's why they have more than one writer?—do I sense a backlash? "Until the woman who doesn’t want to be seen as sexually available can go out with certainty that she won’t be harassed or ogled, your choice to turn heads and revel in attention is a privileged one."

Arresting images: Not sure what to make of this W fashion shoot from Ai Weiwei, a dissident Chinese artist, that features a model being faux-arrested. I normally get all humorless-lefty when I see fashion shoots co-opting social causes, but Weiwei has been held for his work, so there's a layer there that normally is absent. Hmm.

Kissyface: Capture the imprint of your kiss, then send it to this company and they'll make art out of it. It'll go nicely with the art of your own DNA they can also cook up for you. You always have to be different, don't you?

"Health class taught me how to have an eating disorder": Jessica at XOJane on how eating disorder education can actually trigger ED symptoms. This is a complicated topic—one that isn't fully explored here—but I'm glad to see it broached in this format. I proposed a similar story at a teen magazine years ago and my boss flat-out said, "There is no way in hell we can run that story," the idea being that fighting fire with fire just adds to the inferno. For the record, I don't think ED education causes EDs any more than skinny models do, but I do think that we need to treat "awareness" with caution in neither glamourizing ED symptoms (wow! you can count her ribs, how awful!) nor stopping short in making it clear that EDs are complex, messy, often lifelong, and not a quick fix for generalized teen pain.

Adios Barbie on the LGBT community and eating disorders: Gay and bisexual men are at increased risk for eating disorders, while lesbian and bisexual women suffer at the same rate as hetero women.

Fitspo vs. thinspo: Caitlin at Fit and Feminist on the sometimes-murky line between dedication to fitness and dedication to a disordered relationship with food and the body. "If you are prone to disordered eating, then the world of fitness must seem like a safe harbor, a place to indulge your obsessions without drawing criticism, because after all, you aren’t starving yourself completely and you’re spending a lot of time in the gym.  You’re just being health-conscious!" Cameo at Verging on Serious frequently gets into this too, most recently with her post on superstitions.

Wig out: A particularly delightful offering from Of Another Fashion, which posts vintage photos of fabulously dressed women of color, of Chicago "wig clinic" owner Minerva Turner modeling one of her truly fantastic creations.

Why we're already pretty: It's no secret I adore Already Pretty, and this entry, which sort of serves as a manifesto, explains exactly what it is about Sally's work that makes me take notice. "Whatever work you’ve chosen, whatever opus you’re creating, whatever battle you’re fighting, I want to arm you with confidence in your body and your style. Why? So you can stop worrying about your outward presentation and focus on what’s important."

The crossroads of self-care: Medicinal Marzipan touches on a delicate subject with her typical grace: weight loss in the Health at Every Size and self-acceptance communities. "Here’s the thing: ...I do love myself. It’s just that, for the first time in my life, I am understanding that sometimes loving yourself means wrangling yourself in when you’ve spiraled out of control.... You have to love yourself above everything else. But wanting to lose weight, or the act of weight loss when you’re feeding yourself the foods that make YOU feel good or moving in a way that YOU love, will not make you a body image warrior exile in my book."

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Solace of Convention: Abuse, Beauty, and What Happened When I Left

This isn’t about an abusive relationship. This is about what happened next.

I decided to leave my boyfriend not because he had ever hurt me, but because I was turning 30. I mean, he had hurt me, but by the time I left him, it had been four years since he’d touched me with intent to harm. Our first year together was violent; eventually he was arrested for domestic assault, and he was one of the small percentage of men who go through a batterer intervention program and never harm their partner again. For the years that followed his arrest, I stayed with him because I needed to prove to myself that there was a reason I’d stayed in the first place. The relationship was never a good one, but by its end, it was tolerable. That is why I left.

More directly, I left because one day at age 29 as I was rising from a nap I literally heard a voice in my head say, “If you do not leave now, you will spend the rest of your life like this,” and while I had thought such things plenty of times, I had never heard it, never heard it with such finality and stark potency, and it was too true to be ignored. I spent a few weeks figuring out how I would do it in a way that would cause the least damage, and then I did it, and that is where this story begins.

*   *   *  

A few things happened around the time I decided to leave. First, I lost a lot of weight. Once I’d done that, I bought new clothes, clothes that were different from my normal jeans-and-hoodies gear that I had chosen because I didn’t like to wear anything that was designed to be looked at. I started wearing skirts and cute little dresses with cute little heels. I got a shorter, more daring haircut; with my diminished size I began to look nearly gamine. The increase in exercise made my skin glow. I discovered liquid eyeliner. “When did you become such a babe?” a coworker asked. “You’ve been an undercover hottie all this time,” said another. I would remember this as I’d go to the gym or plop down sums of money on clothes that had seemed unimaginable to me only months before.

You might think, as I did at the time, that my self-guided makeover was about rediscovering my self-worth. It was partly that, yes: When your “emergency contact” is the same person at whose hands you have suffered an emergency, your sense of self-worth isn’t exactly at its healthiest. It wasn’t difficult to see that my physical changes were announcing my renewal to the world.

But it wasn’t just change that drove me, nor even the satisfaction of looking good as I began to create a better life. This era wasn’t the first time that I’d felt pretty or had been called such. It was, however, the first time I felt like I “passed”—passed as someone who was blandly, conventionally, unremarkably pretty; passed as pretty without anyone having to look twice to make sure it was true.

When you’re in an abusive relationship, or at least when you are me in an abusive relationship, you don’t recognize how standard your story is. You think that you’re special. That he’s special, that he needs your help and that’s why you can’t leave; that you’re special for recognizing what a great gift you’ve been given, despite its dubious disguise. I never believed the cliche of “he hits me because he loves me,” but I came close: I stayed because I truly believed I alone was special enough to see through the abuse to see him, and us, for what was really there. It was an isolating belief—another characteristic of abuse, one I didn’t recognize at the time—but moreover, it was a combustible mixture of arrogance and piss-poor self-esteem, and one that made me feel unqualified to ever play the role of Just Another Person.

Upon exiting the relationship I’d finally recognized as anything but special, I wanted nothing more than to be unremarkable. Striving to be conventionally pretty was my way of re-entering the world of, well, convention. It was no accident that the first post-breakup date I accepted was with the most conventional man I’ve ever gone out with: a hockey-loving lawyer with a tribal armband tattoo who used the term “bro” without irony. It wasn’t that I thought his was a world I ultimately wanted to inhabit; it was that I needed to prove that the “special” men weren’t the only ones who would see me and want to see more. So I put on a pretty little dress with pretty little lingerie underneath, and I let him buy me dinner. I showed little of my inner self to him—I wasn’t ready for that, and I knew he wasn’t the one to show myself to anyway. But eagerly, and with every convention a pretty girl might use on a good-looking bro, I showed him the rest.

Beauty can be a tool. It can be a tool we use to tell the world we want to be a part of what’s going on; manipulating our appearance can be a tool we use to trumpet a part of ourselves that might otherwise go unseen. Beauty can be a way of participating.

To be clear, I don’t think adhering to the conventions of beauty is the way most of us become our most beautiful. Our spark and passion will forever trump our perfectly whitened smiles or disciplined waistlines. But for me, beauty became a tool to let myself begin to believe that I was worth being seen. When I was recovering from a life of apprehension—after years of longing for even a single day when the first thought that entered my mind in the morning would have nothing to do with him, after years of exhausting my every resource to try to convince my family and friends and boss and above all myself that I could handle it—the stream of assurance I got from looking pretty in an everyday, pedestrian, stock-photo, conventional sort of way was a lifeline. I let the slow drip of looking unremarkably pretty sustain me while I began the real work of rebuilding. Beauty—or rather, giving myself the tools of banal, run-of-the-mill, utterly ordinary prettiness—allowed me to reconstruct a part of myself that had gone mute for years. And then, I constructed another, and another, and another.

*   *   *

During the time I was dating the bro, I also became involved with a man with whom I formed a poor romantic match but, as it turns out, an excellent friendship. We stayed in touch after we stopped dating, but I hadn’t seen him again until last year, when I happened to be visiting the city he now calls home. I was backpacking, and the clothes I wore reflected that—jeans, layered T-shirts, a grungy hoodie, worn not out of a desire to avoid anyone’s gaze but for comfort and practicality.

I mentioned what a relief it was to not be wearing high heels. He eyed me evenly. “The little dresses you wore when we were seeing each other—they weren’t you,” he said. He sensed my recoil and amended: “You pulled them off, no worries. You looked good. But even though I hadn’t ever seen you wear anything else, I could tell it wasn’ It wasn’t the you I knew.” In part, he was right. The cute little dresses, the high heels, the smart haircut: In embracing that part of myself to the exclusion of all other styles, I was still reacting to a desperately unhappy time of my life. I wore red nail polish because my ex hated it; I wore heels because he liked me so much in sneakers. I wore dresses because, for the first time in years, I truly wanted to be seen. It had been fine for me to embrace a conventionally feminine look to alter my baseline of how I wanted to present myself to the world. And I didn’t need that baseline any longer.

Yet what stands out to me now about that exchange isn’t the message, but his words, It wasn’t the you I knew. Abuse had swallowed me to the point where I could no longer detect my own identity—but he, and other people I was wise enough to trust, could. We form our self-image not only from ourselves, but from those around us. When you are in the fog of abuse, the chaos and torment that occupies the abuser’s inner life becomes your own. When you leave, that fog is replaced with what and who is around you: the man who said It wasn’t the you I knew; the friend who raised her glass “to the beginning of you” when I told her I’d left; the running partner who, years later, would become a partner in other ways as well. Even the tattooed-armband “bro” was an imprint of my desire to be utterly cliché for a while before turning my head toward what might actually make me special. Each gave me what beauty did—a sense of normality. But they also took me beyond the limits of what conventional prettiness could ever do. They reflected back not only what I knew of myself, but what they knew of me. They were my mirror.

I don’t recommend that any of us form our mirror entirely from others; that’s part of what lands some of us in an abusive relationship to begin with. But when you are beginning to rebuild a bombed-out identity, you need something beside you other than just your naked soul. The people around me were part of that. Beauty was another.

The mirror of plebian prettiness is a precarious one. It’s not built for the long haul, and it is easily shattered. There are a million ways my unintentional strategy could have been disastrous. But people who are recovering from difficult situations are often told to draw from their “inner strength”—good advice that forgets that sometimes, every gram of inner strength is going toward just holding yourself together. And with abuse, which is known for its powers of erasing the victim’s identity, the concept of “inner strength” is particularly questionable: You can’t draw from inner strength when you feel like nothing is there. I needed to draw from outer strength; I needed a routine that would help me reconstruct. I eventually got to reconstructing the inside. But I needed the framework first.

Attention to one’s appearance cannot be the end point of becoming our richest selves. But for some—for me—it can be a beginning.


October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and this post is part of the Domestic Violence Awareness Month blog roundup at Anytime Yoga. If you are in an abusive partnership—whether you’re being abused, abusing your partner, or both—tell someone. You can begin by clicking here or calling 800-799-SAFE.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

MAC, Transformation, and The Authenticity Hoax

Like any child of the late '70s might be, I was tickled by MAC’s recent choice of Miss Piggy as spokesmodel for the brand. It was the final step in winning over skeptical little moi, I thought: With a history of choosing unlikely models and collaborators—Johnny Weir, Cindy Sherman, hell, Cyndi Lauper—I’d been gradually warming to MAC despite initially being turned off by its flash. By the time they rolled around to featuring the porcine glamour of Miss Piggy, I was on board. “Its brand managers have a keen appreciation of the fantasy aspect of makeup,” I wrote when the news came out a couple of weeks ago, “and I like that MAC isn’t asking me to buy its product to make me a better version of myself.”

I particularly liked the MAC campaign in opposition to the “better version of myself” ads I was referring to. From Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign in 2004 to Bare Escentuals’ “Pretty is what you are, beauty is what you do with it” commercials, I’ve critiqued these ads as being only a step removed from “Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s Maybelline.”

By associating natural or inner beauty with their products, companies get to have it both ways, selling us potions as well as self-esteem. I saw MAC as presenting a more authentic alternative, one that acknowledged the metamorphic possibilities of makeup and that didn’t try to pretend it was selling us inner beauty. By selling us not our natural (but prettified) selves but our made-over, over-the-top fantasy selves, MAC emphasizes the very fact that it’s selling us transformation. All makeup sells transformation; MAC was just being more honest about it. Therefore I’m being more honest about it when I pay my $14 for its lip pencil, right?

What I didn’t see is that that’s exactly what MAC wanted me to do. I fell for what journalist Andrew Potter dubbed The Authenticity Hoax with his 2010 book of the same name. The idea is that since authenticity is the ultimate sell (who wants to buy something fake?), it makes an easily fetishized buzzword that can transform pretty much anything into profit—and that when we chase authenticity we’re seeking not truth but identity and status. And if that status is something that brings us a sense of being terrifically individual, even iconoclastic? All the better. By selling us transformation into our wildest, most creative, most individualized selves, MAC slips in through the back door to sell us authenticity.

I had been thinking that the role of authenticity in cosmetics marketing was unique because cosmetics are inherently inauthentic: Their entire purpose is to alter us into prettier or more glamorous versions of ourselves. In truth, though, both the “natural beauty” campaigns and the MAC approach are selling beauty authenticity, just different versions of it. Bare Escentuals (and Maybelline, and Revlon, and every other makeup brand that has relied upon the girl-next-door aesthetic) tries to sell us us an authentic version of our best selves; MAC tries to sell us a more authentic version of makeup. In fact, the MAC ethos wouldn’t work unless we were already souring on the peddling of “natural beauty”; as Potter reminds us in The Authenticity Hoax, “the notion of cool only ever made sense as a foil to something else.” We like MAC not only for its products but for its cool.

It’s not that I don’t like what MAC is doing, or that I don’t appreciate the inspired sensibility and tone of irreverence that led it to feature Miss Piggy as their latest model. I like that it openly acknowledges the crucial role gay men have played in the beauty industry. Hell, I like its products. But at its heart, we must remember that MAC is part of a major company, and that major companies are known for their abilities to find what resonates with their consumers, including uppity feminists who think they’re too savvy to buy into ads targeted directly toward them (ahem). MAC pushes the line of supposed subversion because it’s in the company’s interest to do so (and when they realize they’ve gone too far with their subversion, as with last year’s line inspired by Juarez, Mexico, aka “the capital of murdered women,” they scale back—as well they should). It’s not actually goodwill for MAC to acknowledge that drag queens use makeup, and it’s not actually more authentic for MAC to posit itself as the truest route to transformation—or for me to buy their lip liner because I feel like their ethos somehow fits with mine.

There’s nothing wrong with selling products or making money, of course—full disclosure, at various points in my life I have both earned and spent the stuff. But I for one need to check my tendency to not cast scrutiny upon a brand just because I prefer its flavor of false authenticity to that of another. We need to remember that MAC’s fortune is in its appearance of irreverence, not makeup. I disliked the Bare Escentuals campaign because I immediately recognized the ways it was preying upon our yearning to see a broader definition of beauty, and I felt manipulated. I didn’t feel manipulated by the MAC campaign because I deemed it “authentic.” Both companies make things that go on your face to make it look better, but each campaign would have you believe that they’re doing far more—that they’re giving us a long-awaited answer to legitimate complaints about the beauty industry. Bare Escentuals gives us acknowledgment of the other factors that make us beautiful—our activities, our diversity, our personalities. MAC tells us makeup is for fantasy and play, taking pretty much the opposite tactic as Bare Escentuals, but leading to the same place: sales.

MAC’s reputation as an edgy, alternative brand neatly obscures the fact that it is owned by a beauty behemoth. Estee Lauder Companies sold $8.8 billion in 2011 and is one of the biggest prestige personal care companies in the world. MAC began with an alternative vibe—two men named Frank, one an entrepreneur and the other a makeup artist, collaborating on a line designed to pop on-camera and to match a wider variety of skin tones than was available on the market in 1984. Today, though, MAC is not edgy. MAC is as corporate as it gets. Estee Lauder’s individual branding strategy—that is, marketing MAC distinctly separately from, say, Bobbi Brown, which is marketed separately from Clinique, Origins, and Aveda, while all of them belong to the same company—shows that Estee Lauder understands the value of positing MAC as living on the edge even though it’s anything but.

With any beauty product—with any product, period—what we get when we plunk down our money isn’t merely a mixture of petroleum and Red #7. We get whatever set of qualities the company imparts to us simply by bearing its own label. If I wear Chanel lipstick I get a nice shade and the satisfaction of knowing I am treating myself to a luxury good; if I wear Wet ‘n’ Wild I get a similar hue plus the 99-cent smugness of almost believing I’ve gotten essentially the same product for a song. It’s what is known in marketing circles as brand equity, or the value a brand has opposed to the actual product the brand represents. Every time we wink at MAC for being cheeky, irreverent, and driven by fantasy, we increase its brand equity. By buying into our fantasies about ourselves by believing the feedback loop a company sells us, we may increase a brand’s value without spending a dime.

And to be perfectly clear: I just may continue to do exactly that on occasion. Despite the mini-Marxist in me, I blog about beauty and am enthralled with many of its trappings, and sometimes that means being enthralled with colored bits of petroleum I smear on my face. But while I’m smearing, playing, smudging—while I’m transforming—I want to be as clear as I can about understanding what I’m doing.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Daniella Marcantoni, Mortician, Chino Hills, California

“In college I was like, Med school or mortuary school?” says licensed funeral director and embalmer Daniella Marcantoni. With her background as a freelance makeup artist who worked weddings and school dances to pick up cash in high school and college, it’s no wonder she chose the latter. She’s worked in the funeral industry for six years and was recently promoted within Rose Hills, the largest mortuary and cemetery combination in the world, to hospitality service supervisor. In her current role, she oversees the visitation area, and while she appreciates the experience of learning to serve grieving families, her deeper passion remains in working with the deceased. “You’re helping someone who can’t help themselves,” she says. “And embalming is very quiet, and I can be very introverted, so I found embalming therapeutic.” She’s also a spokeswoman with Funeral Divas, a social group for women in the funeral industry. We talked about postmortem makeup techniques, the silent clues we leave behind about our attitude toward cosmetics, and the responsibility the caretakers of the dead take on to make each of us look our best at the very end. In her own words: 

On Postmortem Makeup 
You start decomposing immediately, so the skin on an unembalmed body is very soft. It can be a little difficult to cosmetize. Although embalming is not required by law, the law does allow mortuaries to require embalming for a public visitation, as a health precaution. From a cosmetizing aspect we’d prefer that the person is embalmed because it just looks better. Whenever I’m done embalming I put massage cream on—my personal favorite is this stuff called Kalon, which is like a white massage cream, and I like to mix in a formula called Restoratone. It’s a liquid that kind of looks like pink slime, and you mix it with Kalon to prevent the skin from dehydrating overnight. Some embalming fluids can dry out the tissues, so the Kalon is just another way to keep the appearance as natural as possible. When you take it off the next day, the skin won’t be all dehydrated and hard; it’s kind of natural-looking. 

I don’t like to use a lot of makeup. We have this thing called Glow Tint, which kind of looks like dark orange juice, and it’s a liquidy tint you can brush on the face. I’d always use that as my base. And from there you can use any kind of makeup. Cadaver makeup is very thick; it’s comparable to theater makeup. Some people’s skin can be very ashy, or maybe they have wounds or bruises—obviously the cases that need restorative work are going to require lengthier and more intricate processing to conceal, and that requires thicker makeup. So in those cases cadaver makeup is very effective, but in general I don’t like it. I like to dilute it with either a massage cream or what we call a dry wash, which is like a dry shampoo, and it kind of breaks down the molecules of the makeup and makes it a little bit smoother. So I’d do the Glow Tint first and then put the makeup on. Some embalmers want to use wax all over the mouth, because if the mouth is really dehydrated and you can’t fix it with a humectant or a massage cream, the lip wax helps smooth the pockets that are created when you glue the mouth shut. So in some cases the lip wax is wonderful, but I usually don’t like to use it because it takes away the natural lines of the lips and makes their lips look really smooth. But everyone is different. Embalmers tend to have egos; they all think that their way is the best way.

On “Natural Appearance” 
Rouge, mascara, and lipstick is pretty much my cocktail for every person, unless the family has specific requests. Like, “Well, Grandma wore red lipstick every day and she always wore cat-eye eyeliner,” or “You know, my mother always wore blue eyeshadow.” I love to get requests for families because I want to do what they want. We take as much direction as possible. A lot of times people will bring in pictures, and sometimes they’re pictures from the ’60s and I’m like...Okay, what am I supposed to do? I can only do so much! But sometimes people won’t bring in pictures, so we just sort of go for what, in mortuary school, we called a “natural appearance.” We try not to say the word sleeping, because they’re not sleeping—they’re dead. But you sort of want to make it look like they are sleeping. They’re in eternal rest. 

It can be difficult sometimes. If you have an elderly lady who fell, you have to work very hard at covering the bruises on her face, but maybe Grandma never wore makeup. So it’s kind of a struggle between what the family wants and trying to make the person look good so the family doesn’t freak out when they see them in the casket for the first time. I personally have never had any complaints from families, but I have a lot of experience doing makeup as a freelance artist, and doing weddings gave me an opportunity to work with different ages. So in terms of age, I know the clues that tell me what the person might have done on their own. I mean, I had an older woman come in with short hair and no ear piercings and her nails were short with no polish, and I knew that person probably didn’t wear a lot of makeup. But if I see a woman the same age come in with a perm and ear piercings and acrylic nails, I could tell that she probably wore makeup. 

I can’t speak for anybody else, but I do kind of pick up on what a person might have been like, what they might have wanted. I’m one of those people who’s overly aware of everything, and I pick up on people’s energies just from walking into the room. Maybe it’s a gift or something, I don’t know. But the biggest thing is that you have to communicate. You have to trust that the funeral arranger will be realistic with the family and not promise them the stars and the moon. The arrangers have never been back there embalming. Some are very realistic and are like, Well, we don’t know exactly what we can do. So every case is completely different—sometimes the person looks amazing and the family gets mad! And sometimes you don’t think the person looks that great and you’re upset because you’ve been working so hard on the person and aren’t happy with it, and the family is like, Oh my God, thank you so much, my mom looks amazing. In some mortuaries you do everything: You’re the arranger with the families, you’re the embalmer, you do the makeup. In those cases you have so much more of an advantage, because you’re connecting with that family and getting information directly from them. And then you can just go straight to the loved one and work your magic. 

The males are usually really easy because they don’t wear makeup. So with males I kind of did the same thing—the Glow Tint—and a lot of times they wouldn’t need makeup. It’s interesting to see racial differences too. In my experience, Asian cases tend to have very smooth, wrinkle-free skin, and their skin tone is beautiful. And I rarely have to put anything on African American skin. There’s a richness there; I don’t know how to explain it. But I usually only need to put massage cream on their face, and the next morning I would take it off and it would just be beautiful. There were only a couple of times that I had to put on makeup, because they had a wound on their face. I think it’s because darker skin doesn’t show the postmortem stain or the gray tone that can happen after embalming, which someone with a lighter complexion would show. 

On Life Outside the Embalming Room 
I’ve always been pretty well-kept—I’m not super high-maintenance, but I’m particular about my appearance. None of my friends would say that I’m sloppy. I heard this quote once: Dress every day like you’re going to run into your worst enemy. You never know who you’re going to run into, so I always make sure I look presentable. I groom myself, I get my eyebrows waxed, and I try to make sure everything’s ironed. I don’t really think my work has changed my views on my appearance. If anything it’s like: If I died today and they picked me up, they’d be like, Man, she didn’t shave her legs! You think of silly things like that. 

I always look at people and am like, I wonder how they’ll embalm. I pay attention to people’s features because when you’re embalming you’re paying constant attention to features. Features don’t necessarily change postmortem, but sometimes if the person passed away in an awkward position, the features can be compromised or not in their natural form, and you’ll have to reset them and make sure everything looks natural. The face is aesthetically the most important part of the body. So being a makeup artist gives me an advantage because I’m used to studying faces. 

On Helping Those Who Can’t Help Themselves
In 2007 I lost my aunt to breast cancer. My aunt and I were extremely close—she’s like my mom. She was the most gorgeous woman ever, and at her funeral I was really disappointed. It looked as though they didn’t put any effort or anything into her makeup. There was no personal innovation or care. And I was like, I know I’m in the right industry now. Because I don’t want someone to sit there and stare at the casket and see the most important person in their life, and see what I’m seeing and feel what I’m feeling right now. When you have a more personal connection to your motivation, it really shows in your work. I’m being fairly compensated, but when I was doing freelance makeup work it was like, Cool, this is great, give me money! I liked educating people with makeup, but I feel like this is doing more. It’s more selfless doing this sort of preparation. A girl going to senior prom can do her own makeup. But a grandma who passed away from cancer who couldn’t help herself for six months—her hair has grown out, her eyebrows are grown out, her moustache is showing. I feel like it’s my responsibility to really make her look her best, so when her family sees her they’ll be like, Oh, I’m so glad my mom doesn’t look like she’s had cancer for the past six months. I think that’s the kind of goal to have.

When you’re doing the preparation—doing the calls, going and seeing where the decedent is at—you see how they’re treated. There are some families who will be with their mother until her dying day, and those bodies tend to be in amazing shape, and it just touches you. And I know families can’t always physically take care of their loved ones, but I’ve seen terrible things from some convalescent homes, seeing how their bodies are when they come here. There’s cysts because they haven’t been washed in months, just getting sponge baths. When you see abuse or neglect, you take even more personal responsibility to really just take care of that person. Because it’s like, Well, no one else cared for them for the past year. They’re going to be in my care for four hoursI might as well do the best that I can with the limits I have and the amount of time that I’ve been given with them. Once they’re dead they can’t do anything. You’re helping someone who can’t help themselves.


For more beauty interviews from The Beheld, click here.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Beauty Blogosphere 10.21.11

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

From Head...

Neck and neck: Flattery "rules" don't usually work for me, but this post on mathematically calculating flattering necklines explains a lot (namely, why I feel best in wide, deep necklines despite not generally showing a lot of skin). (via Already Pretty)

Smile!: Speaking of numbers as guidelines, the layperson can detect dental deviations of less than 3 millimeters, reports the Journal of the American Dental Association. But breathe easy! Says the dentist who alerted me to this, "A lot of people do more than they need to. Perfect Chiclet teeth look a little weird." I always thought that, but he's the one with the degree, so!

...To Toe...

Bootie Pies: "Pedicure-friendly" boots with removable toes. Between these and my new automated twirling spaghetti fork, my life is about to get a whole lot easier.

...And Everything In Between: 
Quiet riot: Are YOU on the lam for your participation in Vancouver during the Stanley Cup riot? Do YOU need a massage? We've got the spa for you! Just go to Vancouver's Eccotique Spa, detail your criminal activities and fingerprint yourself onto their $50 gift card, then turn yourself into the police and return to the spa with proof of arrest for your treatment of choice.

Occupy CoverGirl: Fortune magazine uses Procter & Gamble's fully legal ways of evading taxes (to the tune of billions of dollars) to illustrate the need for corporate reform.

Salon tragedy: Portrait of Salon Meritage, the California hair salon where eight people were killed when the ex-husband of one of the stylists took open gunfire on the floor. Salons are known for hosting a particularly high intimacy among workers, and to a degree between staff and clients, making the violence seem all the more shocking. It's also a hard-line reminder this month, Domestic Violence Awareness Month, that not all partner violence takes place behind closed doors. (Speaking of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Tori at Anytime Yoga is hosting a blog carnival October 29. It's an important topic, so if you're a blogger with something to say, please participate—I will be.)

Willa won: Procter & Gamble settled its suit against startup hair- and skin-care line Willa. P&G had contended that "Willa" was a trademark infringement of their hair line "Wella," thus thoroughly annoying anyone paying attention to trademark law or good old-fashioned common sense. (Their recent Cosmo award for being a woman-friendly company doesn't seem to extend to its litigation targets.)

J&J's big move: The "sleeping giant" of Johnson & Johnson is peering into the higher-end market with its recent acquisition of Korres, a switch from its drugstore stalwarts of Neutrogena, Aveeno, Clean & Clear, and, of course, Johnson's. Considering that the company only got serious about mass facial care in 1991, it's not nutty to think that J&J could expand its offerings in luxury and masstige markets soon.

Uniclever: Unilever is quick to snap up Russian brand Koncern Koliva, noting that Russian beauty product spending is up 10% compared with Unilever's overall growth of 4%-6%.

One can never have too many reminders of our erstwhile presidents in their college years.

Rah rah: Via Sociological Images, a slideshow of how cheerleader uniforms have changed over time. I mean, obvs the bared midriff is because of global warming, but the uniforms have changed in other ways too.

"They did this to me":
Hair's symbolism, particularly within some religions, makes it an unsurprising—but still shocking—target of attack from a splinter Amish group headed by the unfortunately named Sam Mullet. He's been attacking families in more conventional Amish communities by cutting patches out of men's beards and women's hair.

Hot Chicks of Occupy Wall Street:
Gross. Gross? Gross! GROSS.

Taxed: England considers a "boob tax" on cosmetic surgery procedures, which brings in about £2.3 million annually. Fair method of supporting social programs, or an unfair way of punishing women for getting procedures that may help them level the playing field? (The U.S. rejected the similar "Bo-tax" in 2009.)

The Brazilian way: The Women's Secretariat of Brazil (a Cabinet position, appointed by President Dilma Rousseff) issued a statement against a recent lingerie ad featuring Gisele that suggested using one's erotic capital to manipulate one's husband was a jolly route to take. The complaint is somewhat plebian, but it's taking place at high levels of government, something we simply haven't seen in the U.S. Is this what happens when a country elects a female president? Women's issues get taken seriously? You don't say. (Of course, The Economist reports that women in the UK parliament are also making their thoughts heard about false advertising for beauty products, notably a bust cream claiming to increase a woman’s bra size from 32A/B to "a much fuller and firmer 32C," so it's not just the big cheese that matters.)

Betty Rubble's makeup kit unearthed.

Makeup artist, the world's oldest profession?: Anthropologists find a 100,000-year-old tool kit and workshop for making ochre paint, used as an early body adornment.

Side by side: Personal science blogger Seth Roberts on the newly coined "Willat Effect," in which we experience two or more similar items compared side-by-side as more or less desirable than we would if sampled on their own. I suspect this is the reason for popularity of "before" and "after" shots of beauty treatments. In other words: Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair (somewhat depressingly, the #2 search term that lands people at this blog) basically doesn't work at all, and only appears to when compared with the other side of my face.

What forms our body image?: Turns out it's not your body; it's your beliefs about other people's thoughts on your body, reports Virginia Sole-Smith. That includes bodies in general, so enough with the body-bashing talk, okay? Forget your own body image—you could be hurting your friends' too.

13% of IT professionals gave away their passwords when asked to by a...drawing of a pretty lady? The findings are bizarre but worth reading.

Body and Soul: Interview at Threadbared with Alondra Nelson on the images that came out of the Black Panthers in the 1970s, including their Free Clothing Program that induced "sartorial joy."

Stuck on you: Magnetic nail polish! I'm such a sucker for cool nail art.

Tweezed: XOJane asks if tweezing in public is okay, pinpointing something I hadn't been able to articulate about public grooming: It's interesting to see someone be self-conscious enough to "fix" something about their appearance (stomach hairs, in this case, at the gym) but not self-conscious enough to do it in private.

Beauty contest: If you're near New York, you may want to check out the Beauty Contest exhibit at the Austrian Cultural Forum. Austrian and international artists examine "contemporary global society’s obsession and fascination with physical appearance." I went to a performance art arm of the exhibit, and the following panel discussion, including French choreographer François Chaignaud and author of The Man in the Grey Flannel Skirt, Jon-Jon Goulian, was invigorating.

"This is basically uncharted territory": Style blogger Stacyverb guest posts at Already Pretty on style and disability. "For anyone with a disability who’s interested in experimenting with style, there aren’t exactly any rules or road maps to follow. It’s not like we see models and celebrities in wheelchairs rolling down the runway during fashion week or on the red carpet on Oscar night. This is basically uncharted territory, which means it can be disorienting—but also liberating!"

No-makeup week: Rachel Rabbit White revisits her no-makeup week, an experiment she tried on for size last year. Like much of her work, what's exciting here is the acceptance of ambiguity: "It’s not about taking a week off  because make-up is somehow bad or because not wearing it is better. It’s that by taking a week off, I should be able to understand my relationship to cosmetics more clearly."

I'm a Pepper, you're a Pepper: Caitlin at Fit and Feminist on how even if the Diet Dr. Pepper "It's not for women" ad is satire (I don't think it is), it still gets to have it both ways in wrangling the diet industry into man-size portions. (I also love her post about cheerleading as a sport, and her contribution to Love Your Body Day about the difference between respect and love. Seriously, if you're not already reading Fit and Feminist, you should be.)

Good old-fashioned erotic capital: Rachel Hills, writing on Erotic Capital, raises among her many excellent points one of my biggest annoyances with Catherine Hakim: "Hakim and her colleagues would have us think they’re intellectual renegades... But while the terminology may be new, the principles underlying 'erotic capital' and 'sexual economics' are decidedly old-fashioned."

Sunrise, sunset: Be sure to check out the Feminist Fashion Bloggers roundup of posts on youth and age. Franca writes, "God forbid [professional women] just go for the suit and shirt 'uniform' and actually look old... Professional clothes need to be constantly balanced out by elements that represent youth and health and fun, like accessories and hair and makeup"; Jean writes on bucking trends usually defined by age; and Fish Monkey and Tea and Feathers, like me, write on the happiness of no longer being young.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Do We Have to Make Body Love the Goal?

When the National Organization of Women contacted me about today’s Love Your Body Day blog carnival, my first thought was to feel honored that an esteemed organization that has been a part of my life for literally as long as I can remember—my mother was one of the founders of a local NOW chapter in North Dakota when I was a wee one—had put me on their radar. Of course I’d be happy to participate (and I am).

My second thought was: What? I continue to be surprised whenever someone refers to me as a body image blogger. I’m pleased by it, of course, and it’s certainly not inaccurate; I suppose whenever a feminist writes about beauty, the tyranny of the body beautiful organically comes under critique. And while I do have a body-positive spin in the sense that I don’t think any of us should suffer in the name of our bodies—and I made a conscious decision early on to never bash any bodies on here, including my own—less than 10% of my posts here deal with body image, or even bodies at all.

More to the point of Love Your Body Day: I do not love my body, and I don’t particularly want to, and not once on this blog have I said any of us should.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t love our bodies, or at least sound an alarm when we find ourselves treating our body the way we’d treat something hated. But in my experience, the way to experience a relief from bodily scrutiny isn’t love, but not thinking about it so damn much. We’re at our best when we’re in a state of flow, wholly immersed in whatever we’re doing, whether that be our professional work, creative expression, or merely being fully present in the moment and sharing it with whomever is in our company. We’re at our best when we’re engaged—oftentimes engaged with others. Certainly many women treat their bodies shabbily because they’re focusing their energies on others and neglecting themselves; others, like me, start to treat our bodies shabbily when we become too focused on ourselves, allowing the roar of body dissatisfaction to dim out the world around us. And while conscious body love is a better response to that roar than continuing to punish my body in various ways, when I am focused on body love, my focus is both inward and separate from myself. When I file acts of self-care under that of love, it makes my body feel even more separate from my very self, instead of more unified.

Bumper-sticker wisdom aside, love is not only an action word: It is a feeling. I don’t want to have feelings about my body any more than I want to have feelings about my intellect or my voice; I want it to be one part of the entirety of who I am, not something I have to have all these emotions about. To do that I need to care for my body—and I also need to consciously devote my love to things greater than my body, my self. If I keep my body into the category of Things That Should Be Loved, I’m continuing to sever my self—the self that can love—from my body. As with many people who have struggled with an eating disorder, the disconnect between the self and the body is part of what has allowed me to treat my body poorly at times. The times when I’m truly treating my body right are not times when I’ve decided to love my body for all it’s worth, but times when I’m authentically engaged in the world around me.

If that bit of bumper-sticker wisdom is correct and “love is an action word,” that leaves me with little to work on. Care, on the other hand, is also an action word, and one that leaves me with a goal, not an elusive sense that I’ve either succeeded or failed in “love.” Care is a step we can take to make sure that, as Rosie Molinary writes, we are doing “the work we are meant to be doing and [giving] the gifts we are meant to be giving to this world.” At its beginning self-care may even be a way for us to even identify what that work is, something I struggled with for a long time. Care prepares us for our lives’—and our bodies’—greater journeys. My journey does not necessarily exclude loving my body. Neither is body love my goal.

I don’t want to diminish the wonderful work of people who explicitly work to activate body love—women I consider my allies in trying to help all of us not be so damn obsessed with this stuff. Golda Poretsky’s Body Love Wellness, Medicinal Marzipan’s Body Lovin’ Projects—this is good work from smart women, and they’re but two examples of the plethora of body love work out there. Participating in these programs can bring a sense of flow in their own right, and I imagine the power of being wholly engaged with body love is mighty indeed. I know many people have been helped by programs specifically targeted toward body love, and that aid is vital and real—and in many ways, what body love experts are saying isn’t that different from what I’m saying here. As Golda says, “You can’t just arrive at [body] acceptance. If you’re coming from a place of not accepting your body, you first have to swing the pendulum the other way to love.” But the active path to body love isn’t the only path toward a similar end goal, even as it’s alluring when you’re in a place of tumult with your body.

That place of tumult—of war—can be damning, silencing, and most frightening when you don’t even realize how much it can hold you back. I’ve been in that war at times. I know how hard it can be. I know. And looking at body love from afar seems more comfortable than the prickly, unbearable spot of shame that we inhabit when we wage war on our bodies. It is more comfortable. But body love is not the only way to find that space of comfort; love needn’t be the goal you’re working toward. For some of us, striving for body love as our personal pinnacle serves to reinforce the very self-consciousness that prevents us from doing our work in the world. Self-consciousness needn’t be negative in order to be damaging; caring for ourselves can be an act in its own right, not a pit stop on the path toward body love. For if the problem is that we wage war on our bodies, consider that the opposite of war is not love, but peace.

This post is part of the 2011 Love Your Body Day Blog Carnival.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Evolutionary Psychology, Aging, Beauty, and the Baby Dreams

When I was 19, I started having recurring baby dreams. The typical plot was something like this: I’d be at an important event and would look in my purse, finding a thumb-sized baby. I’d close the purse and then feel guilty about doing so, and would open up the purse and I’d realize I’d lost the baby the way you might lose a pack of chewing gum. Sometimes the baby would reemerge at my feet, throwing tiny knives at my ankles, but more often than not I’d just have lost the baby.

It makes sense that my body might have been sending me some primordial signals around that time: At 19, I was at the dawn of my most fertile years, and indeed the dreams continued for a couple of years, dwindling around 21. But let’s also pay attention to the content of those dreams: The tiny babies found their way into my possession through no will of my own, and then they kept getting lost, and occasionally attempted to harm me. Which is to say: My body may have been wanting to play house, but the rest of me in no way wanted a child.

This struggle between biological destiny and human will illustrates one of the greater flaws of evolutionary psychology as applied to beauty. The idea behind the evo-psych line of thinking is that we apply cosmetics to highlight or mimic the traits a woman has at her most fertile: We use skin creams to appear youthful, blush to capture the “rosy glow” of youth, and so on. And as I’ve said before, I don’t entirely discount evolutionary psychology. But it’s only one part of the beauty equation. Human will is a crucial element of what we find attractive; the ability to go beyond the basics of what’s required for our species’ survival is part of what makes us human. (Do we truly think that we as a species can invent karaoke but are limited to having sexual impulses toward people who look like they’re 19?) The reason anyone lusted after Mrs. Robinson wasn’t that she looked 19; it was that she didn’t.

There’s a picture somewhere out there of me at age 20, getting ready to go out with a bunch of friends. One of us was wearing a high-low combination of a sequined dress and flat leather sandals. I was wearing a velour T-shirt, velvet heels, and hot pants over black control top pantyhose, and only in looking at the photo did I realize that the “control top” was below the hem of the shorts. My friend who looked classiest of all of us—truly—was wearing jeans and a bra with an open white button-down tied between her breasts, exposing her midriff. When I looked at the picture only a few years later, I couldn’t believe how ridiculous we looked: We were all reasonably good-looking girls, and we had no clue how to act sexy. Whatever sexiness we had came from being 20 and daring and able to stay up all night with no consequence and just being young and in love with independence, life, ourselves, each other. Our appeal didn’t come from culture or comportment, and it certainly didn’t come from styling.

Today, I’m still not the most cultured creature alive, and the only reason anyone would think I have style is because I’ve learned how to fake it on occasion. But it took me years to learn that: How to figure out not only what pieces emphasized my best features, but what my best features even were. How to maximize my beauty labor to get the most bang for the buck. How to find a balance between Clothes That Are "Flattering" and Clothes That I Can Breathe In; how to detect when a situation is worth your effort, and when it isn’t. Part of this was becoming more skilled in artifice—including the sort of artifice that makes us seem younger, livelier, and, yes, more fertile. (And certainly there are plenty of young women who know how to present themselves well—I don't mean to imply that people under a certain age are bedraggled kittens.) But also allow me to mention the obvious: Like most people, I am more cultured, more informed, less self-absorbed, more seasoned, and a better conversationalist than I was when my fertility was at its peak—and therefore, by evo-psych standards, when I was most attractive. All of these things come together to make me more attractive than I was back then, and today when I see my college friends, I see this truth multiplied. I am more attractive at 35 than I was at 20 not because I’m mimicking youth, but because I’ve grown into myself in a way I couldn’t have in that youth.

I’m not denying that there’s a unique, intangible charm to women—and men—at 20. I see the dewiness, I see the zest, I see the shiny enthusiasm that seems to come naturally, and there’s no doubt it’s attractive. And as I write this, I can feel that my facial skin is no longer as soft as it was 10 years ago. I see stretch marks that weren’t there before, and not long ago I was vexed by a stray hair laying across my forehead that wouldn’t budge—only to find that it was a wrinkle. Cynics might tell me I am writing this post mainly to feel better about myself—and hell, maybe they’re right.

Yet when I look at that photo of myself, beaming but trembling in velvet high heels and a pair of hot pants, I am so relieved not to be her anymore. I wasn’t unhappy at 20, or unattractive. There’s an attractiveness I had then that I’ll never have again. And there’s an attractiveness I have now that I definitely didn’t have then. Evo-psych still has a role here too, I think: Consider the instinctual repulsion we feel when we see an older person who takes drastic measure to look young. I’m not talking skin cream; I’m talking injectables and rearranging—the sort of thing that makes us ridicule older women for trying to look young. From a feminist standpoint, we can say we recoil from that look because women are damned if we do, damned if we don’t. But knowing the shudder I personally feel when I’m on certain stretches of the Upper East Side, I think it’s more because that rejection of the natural order of things—preserving youth at all costs—feels far more unnatural to me than the God-given attractiveness of a woman past her childbearing years who has aged, as they say, gracefully.

When I turned 30, I wrote a letter to a friend of mine who was in her late 40s. I told her of my excitement for the upcoming decade: I’d left a bad relationship, was excelling at my job, had a tight circle of friends, and looked better than I ever had. I was more verbose than that, but the point was, Man, my thirties are going to be the best. Which made her response, presented here in its entirety, all the more delicious: “Happy birthday! Thirties are good...forties are even better. You’ll see.”


This post is a part of the monthly Feminist Fashion Bloggers roundup. This month’s prompt: youth and aging. To read other FFB posts on the prompt, click here.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Thoughts on a Word: Cute

Cute is for sunny blondes, shiny brunettes, pert redheads, and anyone under the age of 10. Cute is for girls, boys, shoes, and guysbut when was the last time you heard the term “cute woman”? Cute is for kittens and puppies, wobbling toddlers, and bunnies with pancakes atop the head. Cute doesn’t have to be pretty, beautiful, or lovely, and cute just might not be sexy at all. Cute can overload. Cute can be for the mumbling teenage boy about the girl he’s pining for; cute can be uttered about a friend’s boyfriend without seeming improper. Cute can dismiss, make irrelevant, declaw. Cute is upbeat; cute minimizes the speaker’s risk. Cute hedges your bets.

Cute began as a shortened form of acute, meaning a sharp, quick intelligence or cleverness. In the 1830s, it became slang for pretty in the American Southspecifically a diminutive prettiness, retaining the piquant playfulness implied in the word’s original meaning. As late as the 1890s cute still meant clever in the north, as well as the British Isles, where it became slang for pretty only in the mid-20th century. But cute worked its way north quickly enough for The Nation to decry its overuse in 1909: “The reviewer will also ever pray in the interest of the English language...that the word ‘cute’ be banished from the pages of serious literature,” and Emily Post followed suit in 1927, calling cute “provincial.”

The Great Depression brought a backlash against not the slang of cute, but the concept itself. “In this changing world, the ‘sweet girl’ and the ‘cute girl’ belong to the past,” read ads for a 1935 mail-order “charm test” from actress turned charm expert Margery Wilson. It wasn’t just a sales pitch: Leading ladies like Jean Harlow, Barbara Stanwyck, and Bette Davis were bringing an adult sensibility to the screen that 1920s cutie-pies like Clara Bow and Lillian Gish couldn’t. The “cute girl” wasn’t necessarily going to help out the economy either; as with today’s recession, men’s jobs in the Depression were hit disproportionately, leading more families to depend upon women’s wages than ever before. “The women know that life must go on and that the needs of life must be met,” said Eleanor Roosevelt in her 1933 book, It’s Up to the Women. “It is their courage and determination which, time and again, have pulled us through worse crises than the present one.” Cuteness wasn’t an asset; the steely strength of Harlow-style glamour was to pull the nation through. 

With economic recovery returned a longing for the cute girl: In 1944, the same year that U.S. unemployment hit its lowest-ever mark of 1.2%, scripts for radio show Meet Corliss Archer saw quips like “Trade you all the Lamours and Lamarrs in the world...for a cute girl who can wear gingham and isn’t afraid to giggle. Glamour’s too rich for my blood.” The 1950s embraced cute, bringing ever-more appendages to the word: A woman might be a “cute thing,” “a cute trick,” “a cute dish,” “a cute number,” “a cute little piece,” “a cute chick,” “a cute doll,” or “a cute little bug” (of course, the latter is Robert Heinlein describing a parasitic invader from outer space, but he’d also called said bug a brunette, so I think it’s fair use here). By the 1960s, cute was in opposition not just to glamour but to sex itself. “The ‘cute girl’ is viewed as the friendly, ‘all-American girl’... She is vivacious, attractive, and, above all, not overly interested in the leverage one can obtain over boys through the judicious allocation of her affections” (American Journal of Sociology, 1967). Or, more bluntly: “Both our male and female informants define a ‘cute’ girl as a person who exudes a certain kind of sexual attractiveness but who does not demonstrate her sexual superiority in intercourse” (Studies in Adolescence, 1969).

The desexualization of cute makes it particularly useful in certain instances. It’s one of the few terms of appearance we freely apply to both sexes. We also use it for children, animals, and the elderlythe latter of whom are undoubtedly not thrilled to be in the company of the former two. In fact, many a cute person well within the childbearing years may be vexed by cute. “I have remained cute for far too long, and that is not bragging,” writes wide-eyed, freckled Heidi Schatz. “By golly, I will try on lingerie until I no longer laugh when I see myself in the mirror.” The teenage male protagonist of Judy Blume's best-known book for boys, Then Again, Maybe I Won’t, weighs in after his objet du désir calls him cute: “Why do girls always say cute? That’s such a dumb word. It makes me think of rabbits.” In fact, when used by girls about boys, it’s that very harmlessness that makes it an appealing word, for the same reason the wholly unthreatening Justin Bieber went platinum. What 12-year-old girl wants the Handsome Young Men’s Association when you can have the Cute Guy Club?

Why yes, that is Sugar Ray.

The diminutive application of cute can make it a weapon: A person labeled as cute may be seen as unserious or childlike, in addition to desexualized. But that’s also what makes it safe. Cute as a weaker term for attractive allows for some reserve: A noncommittal teenage boy might say it about a girl without appearing foolish; adults might use it as a disclaimer (“He’s cute, but...”). Because cute isn’t a threat, we can sprinkle it liberally throughout our conversations without seeming to make a pronounced statement. Cute shoes, cute dress, we tell strangers. Cute haircut, we may say to friends, regardless of how flattering the trim actually is. We can use cute for ourselves without seeming arrogant. I’ve heard friends say “I look cute” about themselves far more freely than they’d use pretty or beautiful, and even though cute isn’t a word I often hear from others about myself (is it the alto voice?), saying I’m cute feels like far less of a risk than saying I’m pretty. It’s a softened form of acknowledging general attractivenessours or someone else’swithout making judgments about God-given features. 

Cute, I suspect, is a word whose likability decreases in direct proportion to how often you’ve heard it applied to yourselfthe liveliness connoted by cute may be refreshing to the speaker, and tired old news to the wide-eyed, apple-cheeked lass who’s heard it for the twelfth time that day. On the rare occasion I’m called cute, it pleases me in the way that being called charming does: I take it as a statement of the moment, that for whatever reason the other person sees me as cute because I’m doing something uncharacteristically naive. I don’t internalize it as an indicator of my womanhood or sex appeala luxury I’ve been given because, as I lack the stereotypical hallmarks of “cute,” I’ve never had it used to undermine me. Yet I remember my petite redheaded pixie-faced college roommate publicly cursing cute, and as her cheeks got rosier and her pitch got higher in complaint I caught myself (to my shame) replaying that ever-undermining phrase in my mind: Gee, you’re cute when you’re mad. A blue-eyed, curly-haired friend of mine makes a point of showing cleavage as a rebellion against the years she was swaddled in 1970s high-necked doll-style clothes that emphasized her childhood cuteness, and there’s even an entire Facebook group devoted to those who Hate Being Called Cute. But the most poetic rebellion against cute comes from turn-of-the-century scribe Wesley Stretch, who duly synthesized the complaints about the desexualization of cute:

Cute, right?


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