Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A List of Beauty Products I Discarded Upon Thoroughly Cleaning My Bathroom This Weekend, Arranged By Category

I’ve Got About Half an Application Left of This And Have Already Moved On To the New Bottle But Hey I Should Keep This One Too Just In Case
• Jergens Natural Glow Daily Moisturizer
• Prescriptives Traceless Skin Responsive Tint (three bottles)
• Up & Up (Target brand!) Facial Scrub
• Maybelline Blush Bronzer 

I Don’t Have a Flat Iron Or Colored Hair But Maybe This Will Come In Handy In An Alternate Universe
• Silk Result Instant Flat Iron Protection Smoother
• Goldwell Color Definition Conditioner

Loved It When I Was 25 And Have Held Onto It For 10 Years In An Effort To Cling To Vestiges of My Girlish Youth Even Though I Know I Am Far Better Off At This Age In Part Because I Can Now Drink Whiskey Without Making a Face, A Feat That Escaped Me 10 Years Ago
• Kake After Shower Gel Hydrator Fortune Kookie
• Nolita Grit Gel (“Beach Hair, City Style”)
• Girl Cosmetics glitter eye pencil
• Mysterious number of Sharpies (trying to be a riot grrrl? I don’t remember)
• Neutrogena Rapid Clear Acne Defense Face Lotion

Super-Duper Insecure About Having Shiny/Red Skin And Will Buy Any Amount of Product Designed To Conceal These Characteristics
• Origins Zero Oil Instant Matte Finish
• Jelly Pong Pont Teint Sublime Complexion Cheater
• Eucerin Redness Relief Tone Perfecting Creme

I Spent a Month Using Wrinkle Cream On Half My Face And Know This Shit Doesn’t Really Do Much But Damn If I Didn’t Feel Like I Was Doing Something “For Me!” When I Plunked Down $25 On Each Of These Bottles
• Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair
• CVS Advanced Deep-Set Wrinkle Therapy
• Olay Regenerist Deep Hydration Regenerating Cream

No Idea What This Is Supposed To Do
• Benefit Powderflage (on the bottle: “Lesson Inside!”)
• Paves Professional Flawless It’s a Wrap Defining Finishing Cream

Know For a Fact This Doesn’t Work But Held Onto Anyway (Reasons Unclear)
• Mudoku Detox Foot Pads (“As Seen on TV!”)
• Target brand razors (rashes! terrible! never use these! kept nine of ‘em for a year)
• Lush Coconut Deodorant Powder
• Paula Dorf Cake Mascara in Raven*

But They Gave It To Me For Free!
• Kiehl’s Deluxe Hand & Body Lotion in Coriander
• J.R. Watkins Hand Soap in Lavender (sample size; when would you ever think to use a sample of hand soap?)

Made Me Look Terrible Every Time I Tried It But Hey Maybe It Was Me Not The Product
• Maybelline Wonder Finish Clean Powder-Finish Foundation
• L’Oreal Touch-On Colour
• Lord & Berry Eyeshadow Supreme in some weird frosted plum shade
• Bain de Terre Scalp Massage Scrub

Packrat, No Real Excuse
• Soap dish with two soap scraps
• Sephora makeup brush, matted from overuse

Smelled Gross But Wished It Didn’t Because It Sounded So Luxurious So I Kept It Anyway And Hoped I’d Change My Mind
• Galenic Elancyl Corps Ultra Hydrating Detoxifying Cream
• Portico Amber and Olivewood Body Mist

*Sub-category, Guilt: Wrested out of boss’s hands at a beauty sale in 1999 and feel guilty to this day because she really wanted it but I became uncharacteristically fixated on it and justified the transaction as payment for making me listen to stories about her pet bird

Monday, November 28, 2011

On Failure and the Contradiction of Beauty

When I was 16, I failed my driver’s license test. The details are fuzzy, but it involved a collision with a curb, and a generous interpretation of LEFT TURN YIELD RIGHT OF WAY TO ONCOMING TRAFFIC. The instructor had me turn back immediately. I didn’t have a chance to parallel park.

I sobbed the entire way home, my mother doing her best to soothe her despondent daughter, who wasn’t having any of it. The minute we got home, I went to my mother’s bathroom cabinet and swallowed two of her antihistamine pills. One was enough to make me fall asleep for hours. Two, then, would do even better. I slept all day, woke up for dinner, took another pill, and slept some more. Failing my driver’s test was, without exaggeration, one of the worst things that had happened to me in my life.

I mention the pills because as childish as taking them was, it seemed like the only way I could handle a truth I discovered for the first time that day: You can be a smart, level-headed, "good" girl, and you can still fail. I possessed the sort of intelligence that meant while my critical thinking was frequently lazy, tests, papers, and good grades came easily, despite conspicuously infrequent study sessions and lackadaisical homework habits. Failure simply wasn’t on the radar. I’d been disappointed, sure—not getting the lead in school plays, my French class partner not asking me to the winter formal—but I hadn’t failed before. But there I was, “did not pass” circled on top of my driver’s license application.

Failure is acutely uncomfortable. It’s something we don’t speak freely about, preferring to move on to how to not fail next time, or perhaps to inspirational quips about how our failures aren’t measures of us as people—which they’re not. We’re so afraid of failure that we turn it into a unique, private sort of shame. Rather, women are so afraid of failure that we turn it into a unique, private sort of shame. Women fear failure more than men, and we take it harder too: There’s a strong correlation between academic failure and depression for young women, but not for young men. That’s not to say that men don’t fear failure—of course they do—but the intensity of that fear, the hold it can have over daily life, seems to have a particularly rattling effect upon women.

The particular intensity of women’s failure makes me wonder about how we absorb our failures of beauty, which by their nature can’t stay private and include the shame of having others know we’ve failed. Is there a failure more immediately public than trying to look beautiful and falling short? This is why we ridicule women who make no bones about the fact that they goddamn well are trying to look beautiful—the “fashion victims” of the world, the plastic surgery cases gone wrong. It’s why the cruelty Todd Solondz inflicts in Welcome to the Dollhouse is in sharpest relief when Dawn Weiner is trying to look pretty, not when she’s her normal dorky self.

It was the effort-filled image on the left, not the ordinary dork one on the right, that was selected for the iconic poster design of Welcome to the Dollhouse.

Our attempts at achieving conventional beauty can actually become conventional beauty—part of why I know I look “right” (if not babelicious) when I do office work is because I’m neatly dressed and wearing “professional” makeup. But we also know that attempts at beauty can be seen as a mark of failure, and that if our sleight-of-hand fails, humiliation waits. Witness the anecdote from Siobhan O’Connor of No More Dirty Looks after she’d issued a “glam makeup” challenge to her readers: “We had people privately e-mailing us and saying, I just can’t do it... I guess the mentality was, Well, if I look bad with no makeup, no big deal. But if you look bad with makeup—it’s like you’ve said to the world, This is the best I can do.” In other words, we were scared to fail.

I’d like to think that the amorphous nature of beauty makes it something impossible to fail at. Logically it should be impossible to fail at something there’s not a clear standard for. We might not look as good as we’d like sometimes, but to call that failure seems inaccurate. When I am feeling good about myself, beauty is not something I can fail at. When I’m feeling less than my fullest self, however, beauty becomes something that not only can be failed, but something I feel I’m destined to fail. In the moments when I’m feeling not “pretty enough” but “never enough,” the efforts of my beauty work seem futile. There is a reason the phrase "lipstick on a pig," which has nothing to do with either lipstick or mammals of any kind, conjures such a potent, damning image.

None of this is to say that women who meet every standard of conventional beauty without particularly trying are exempt from the fear of failure I experience at my lowest. When I think of why I took driver’s exam failure so hard, I now see it wasn’t just because I’d failed, but because I’d mistakenly equated it with other gifts I’d been given. Because I did well in school without ever having to try, I began to believe that my innate, unchangeable intelligence was responsible for every success I had. Like plenty of other bright little kids, at least according to the Harvard Business Review, I'd learned to see making effort as a sign that my intelligence had reached its limit. I understood the mechanics of driving, but unlike writing an English paper, I couldn’t get by on my inherent ability. It takes skill, not talent, to learn to naturally keep one’s eyes scanning front, sides, and back, and to learn how traffic works. It would take practice for me to become a good driver. Practice meant effort, and effort meant failure—which, when you’re a bright kid who’s never failed a test in her life, means doom.

Likewise, the effortlessness of the “natural beauty” can be a mixed blessing. Naomi Wolf writes in The Beauty Myth that women who are genetically blessed with good looks often wrestle with the beauty myth more than average-looking women; they come closer to the societal ideal, so the sting of falling short is forever closer. That’s one way in which “natural beauties” and natural (smarties?) are parallel, but it’s not the only way. I remember a friend of mine who was always “the pretty girl” growing up talking of how she’d flare up with anger whenever someone would tell her how beautiful she was. “It’s like being complimented on your shoe size,” she said. “I can’t help how I look.” The idea of your value lying not just in your looks but specifically in something you cannot help can short-circuit a woman. It can keep her from daring to fail. Not necessarily at beauty, but at other things we associate with beautiful women: femininity, docility, power, for starters. Not all these things need to be failed at in order to be reckoned with, but they need to be examined in order to be assimilated or rejected. An inability to fail can turn a woman into a different sort of female eunuch.

Smart kids can be praised for their effort instead of their natural intelligence to help ensure they’ll actually try at difficult tasks, but carrying over that approach to beauty makes little sense: Praising the effort of beauty denigrates the praise itself, because the point of much of our beauty work is to hide the effort. I can’t help but feel the slightest bit dissatisfied when my gentleman friend tells me I “look nice” when I’ve dressed up, because it feels like he’s complimenting my efforts—my curled hair, my well-chosen dress—instead of the way I look. To receive direct praise on those things calls attention to my efforts, leaving me embarrassed for not having been naturally gifted enough in the first place. Yet if all the genetic gifts in the world were mine, I may well suffer a feeling that I have no control over my “giftedness,” and effort might seem even more shameful. It’s one thing for a 16-year-old girl to melodramatically swallow two allergy pills in order to sleep away the shame of failing her driver’s test. It’s quite another for a woman riddled with insecurities to walk through the world with a mantle of that shame every day of her life.

Our accomplishments—jobs, recognition, awards—are things we achieve. Beauty, we’re told, is both an achievement and who we are. It’s both our essence and our goal. We live in this awkward space between the effort of beauty and surrendering to nature’s assignment of it; as long as we treat beauty as both the essence of woman and her fundamental goal, its importance will fester in each of us like mold. The contradiction between achieved beauty and natural beauty sneers at us every time we put on a full face of makeup and still feel lacking, and every time we eschew makeup because it wouldn’t matter anyway. It’s damning to the woman for whom conventional beauty is an “achievement,” and it’s damning to the woman for whom it’s a genetic gift.

Living in contradiction is so uncomfortable that it’s become a logical puzzle for philosophers from Aristotle to Nietzsche; Marx believed the contradictions of capitalism (very rich people living alongside the very poor) would eventually become so unbearable that it would eventually collapse, giving way to a revolution. As much as I’d love to see a sort of psychic revolution come to every woman who has struggled with feeling confined by beauty or her perceived lack of it, I’m not sure what that would look like, much less where to begin.

What I suspect is more likely—and, given how many women actively enjoy aspects of beauty work, more desirable—is something less like a revolution and more like what Hegel termed Aufhebung, or sublation. The idea of sublation, as I understand it, is that two contradictory ideas can be held in tandem, so that each reflects upon the other. That is, the ideas can coexist without necessarily fighting to the death for their survival.

I’m not entirely sure what the sublation of beauty’s contradictions would look like. Perhaps it’s so familiar that I’m unable to recognize it. Perhaps every time I sweep up my hair, put on my lipstick, and waltz out the door feeling unassailably together, I’m participating in the sublation of beauty’s contradictions: maneuvering the artifice of beauty to allow my humble version of “natural beauty” shine, regardless of how well I match the template. The achievement aspect of beauty work can, under the right circumstances, unshackle us from the fear that our natural gifts won’t help us make the cut.

There’s another aspect of Hegel’s sublation that I think applies here, and that gives me greater hope. Part of sublation is comfortably existing in contradiction instead of ironing out all opposition, accepting conflicting concepts as forming a truth more genuine than any party line could allow for. There’s no absolute knowledge, because nothing can be true at all times in all situations. So as painful as the experience of beauty’s contradictions can be, they reveal to us that just as there is no absolute knowledge, there is no absolute beauty. Beauty is not merely in the eye of the beholder, but is subject to changing conditions, to shifting contexts: What is beautiful in one moment may not be beautiful in the next. But our conditions and contexts are ones we can create.

It’s a luxury of beauty, actually—even the most intellectually lacking or gifted students are stuck with whatever conditions the SAT boards create for college entrance exams. We create our own conditions with our beauty work, with the sleight-of-hand that makes up our morning metamorphosis. We create them with cultivating style, a “look,” a routine that allows us to walk through the world feeling our best. Most important, we create conditions of beauty through those around us: through friends, lovers, images. All of these come together to subvert an absolutist idea of beauty, as unlikely as that can seem in moment of despair. And if we create our own conditions, we prevent our own failure.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Beauty Blogosphere 11.25.11

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

From Head...

I get so emotional:
Groundbreaking study reveals that emotion is a primary force behind women's cosmetics purchases. In other news, hunger is a primary force behind the consumption of food, and cold weather is related to purchases of mittens.

...To Toe...
Libertarian pedicures:
Using a $4 pedicure in the pseudo-libertarian Philippines as a hook, a Blogcritics writer asks whether libertarian economies can actually succeed. Certainly beauty services thrive in places with lots of poor people who can pay attention to rich people's toes, so hey, why not?

What a croc: Attention animal rights folks: Why dwell on "turkey genocide day" when you can instead wonder why anyone thought giving a crocodile a pedicure and "bikini wax" was a good idea?

...And Everything In Between:
"Prey on me":
Haunting prose poem on the unreal power of pretty, from Christa Forster: "Look to your left. Look to your right. Now look to your left again, and notice the prettiest girl in the room. / (You’ve been discovered.) / What happened to me happened to her, or will happen to her, and also happened to the other ones around her. The differences emerge in the degree, in the number, in the stars that are shining for us."

Finally can check off my gentleman friend from my gift list.

Drugstore Santa: Mass market brands are ramping up their "gift sets" for holiday shoppers. Because who doesn't want a box of deodorant with matching cologne under the tree?

Beauty labor: Interesting piece on the unsustainability of the beauty industry as a path to a middle-class life for immigrants. The piece focuses on the effect of the nail industry on the Vietnamese-American community--Vietnamese immigrants, who make up 40% of the U.S. nail industry, have such a stronghold on the industry that when the nail industry suffers, so does the entire community--but its lessons apply to a broader swath of immigrants. (Fun fact: The Vietnamese domination of the nail industry began when Tippi Hedren arranged for 20 Vietnamese immigrants to receive training as manicurists after she'd noticed that women in the refugee community she spent time in in the 1970s were extraordinarily good with their hands.)
Farewell, Evelyn: This Economist obituary for Evelyn Lauder, Estee Lauder senior executive and daughter-in-law to Estee herself, who died November 12, is the only one I've read that reads like more than a laundry list of her pink-ribbon accomplishments.

Indexed: Measly attempt to replace the term "lipstick index" with "face and fat index," thus thoroughly missing the point that though the literal veracity of the lipstick index has been disproven (lipstick sales did not increase in this recession), the larger truth of it sticks with us. In tough times, we want the affordable luxuries. What exactly those are might change (right now it's nail polish), but the principle remains.

Startup kiosks: Startup cosmetics companies are flirting with kiosks as a route to establishment instead of actual stores. This piece is about the emergence of cosmetics kiosks in Dubai, but the idea is thriving in Eastern Europe as well.

Less you: Whole-grain Cheerios wins the worst tagline award for their weight-loss-centric marketing push linking consumption of whole grains to successful weight loss: "More grains. Less you."

Kosovar beauty: Stunning wedding makeup from Kosovo, via BellaSugar. 

Social justice, lightness, and origin: I don't think Nahida had body image in mind when writing this beautiful post about the jihad between our own internal lightness and darkness, but in reading this I came a little closer to understanding the duality of shame and pride we feel about our appearance. "But to be worthy of being a human being, of whom the best are said to surpass the status not to become entirely of spirit, or become angelic, or to condemn the human body which God has created for us—but it is to constantly struggle in our duality, as souls borne from the joining of our spirit and body, and give precedence to attributes that are closer to God."

Living outside the beauty myth: Virginia identifies a crucial factor in the idea that black women have a healthier body image than white women: If you're outside of the dominant image of what "beauty" is, you may have more freedom to determine beauty on your own terms. This matches what Rosie Molinary wrote about in Hijas Americanas: When she was researching the book, she expected that the young Latinas she was interviewing would have a more positive self-image because of the growing number of Latina role models in the media compared to when she was young. She found the opposite: "Instead, they talked about how it created a really hard standard for them."

Glamour gals: Interesting interview with Electra Lang designers at Deep Glamour: "For a woman, glamour is a necessity."

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

On Gratitude

Gruesome or awesome? You decide.

When I started reading about the harassment some female bloggers have hurled at them, my first reaction was confusion. I’ve seen trolls be rough on bloggers, but the vitriol people were reporting seemed above and beyond anything I’d seen. Once I remembered that harassment is part of why comments are sometimes screened—and that witnessing unpleasantries is part of why I’m not often found in most sites’ comments sections to begin with—the confusion lifted, and I’m glad that ladybloggers are calling out woman-specific (and feminist-specific) harassment as being exactly that. I also realized that what was really prompting my confusion was my own lack of harassment. I’ve gotten the occasional nasty comment on here, more so when I publish on other sites—but really, the number of mean-spirited comments I’ve gotten is so few as to be insignificant.

This wasn’t what I expected. I never expected to be called a “loud-mouthed booze vacuum” or “victim complex twat” as other ladybloggers have been christened, but I know that some people will see a woman writing about her appearance without shame or apology—especially a woman who is nice-enough-looking but isn’t the prototype of “hot”—and consider it an invitation to let her know she’d damn well better start apologizing, and quick. One of my biggest fears about launching The Beheld was that anonymous readers would be eager to let me know I had no credibility whatsoever in writing about “beauty, and what it means” (which, for those of you who read this in ways other than visiting, is the tagline on my logo).

Going into this project, I understood that in order to effectively talk about personal appearance, I had to make sure I had a reasonably accurate idea of how I appeared to most people. I knew that to write as though I were either a Helen of Troy or a Medusa would be disingenuous, but I also knew that part of what makes appearance a complex subject for women is its secrecy, and that if I feigned modesty, shame, or pride I would be participating in that secrecy. We don’t share our deepest vanities for fear of being judged narcissists; we don’t share our most terrifying moments of doubt because once articulated, those doubts sound as ludicrous as they likely are. And while I haven’t shared either my deepest vanities or my most terrifying doubts on here, I have at times taken what feels like a risk. When I started The Beheld, I feared that saying in a public forum that I think I’m “nice-enough-looking” or “attractive” (do you notice I put these in quote marks? It is still difficult not to) would invite people to say, Actually, you’re not.

And on the rare occasion I’ve gotten rude comments from readers, they are along this line. How could they not be? I write almost exclusively about how women look; the bait is irresistible for anyone remotely inclined to seize upon that as an attack. I expected it when I wrote a piece for a branch of America Online; not only is AOL’s readership far different demographically than other outlets I write for, the topic was my “bombshell makeover,” and plenty of readers were happy to let me know I was “more of a dud than a bombshell.”

I’ve gotten the occasional off-comment on other outlets as well, and every so often someone pops up on The Beheld for a smackdown, but I genuinely can’t remember the last time this happened. So when I was reading the catalogue of nastiness that other ladybloggers had received, amid my horror I tried to consider various reasons why I haven’t received much harassment: Was it that I have a smaller readership than most of the bloggers who have gone public with cataloguing “men call me things”? Do I not serve enough strong opinions for trolls to feast upon? Was it because my topics are softball compared to the more political offerings other feminist bloggers have to offer? Is it because while The Beheld has plenty to offer men, my readership is overwhelmingly female? (It’s worth noting that the most vitriolic and the most complimentary comments on my AOL piece were from men, or at least people with male-sounding handles. I know men don’t have the monopoly on nastiness, but certainly the sexes have been socialized differently as far as combative tendencies.) Criminy, is it because I’m nice?

It may be any of these that prevents any particular harassment-inclined individual from trolling me here; it may be none of them. (Certainly there’s many a nice ladyblogger who hasn’t been spared harassment.) Whatever the case, I’m thankful that dealing with harassment isn’t something that’s taken up much of my mental energy here.

But the biggest factor in me not having to direct my mental energy to warding off harassment isn’t me; it’s you.
Yes, I’m thankful that my readers aren’t jerks who come on here to call me uglyface poopy-pants; indeed, visitors here have repeatedly proven themselves to be intelligent, thoughtful, inquisitive, and, on occasion, side-splittingly funny. But what I’m more thankful for isn’t the absence of harassment, but the presence of vibrant minds.

When I started writing here, my goal was just to be a part of the conversation about beauty. What I didn’t anticipate was how much that conversation would enrich my life. Every time I see a new comment here, every time I receive an e-mail from a reader, every time I see readers having conversations with one another, I am thankful. The affirmation is nice, sure, and it’s an ego boost whenever I see various bloggy metrics increase. But my thankfulness goes beyond that: Every time a reader finds me, it means I find another person who wants to move past the what of beauty to look at the why, a person who wants the conversation to go beyond the beauty myth and look instead at its mythos, a person who suspects that maybe for every shackle placed upon us by a beauty standard, somewhere else on our bodies lies the potential for liberation. And I am grateful for each person who has shown up here and volunteered a little bit of themselves to help us all create a conversation. That means the people who have taken the time to let me know they’re reading—and it also means the people who haven’t, because the whole point is to take these conversations out of the blogosphere and into our lives. If you have ever gotten anything from what I’m doing here and allowed it into your personal conversation—whatever form that takes—I am filled with gratitude for that.

Which is to say, I am filled with gratitude for you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Invited Post from Alexa of Blossoming Badass: My Generation

Alexa and I decided who gets to play Pete Townshend by consensus vote. We are, after all, feminists. 

When I wrote about Generation X and how the grunge ethos gave women my age a bit of a reprieve from an uncompromising beauty standard, I was attempting to compare my experience with that of today's teenagers. But after I wrote the post, I realized something major was missing: a teenager. Enter Alexa, a writer I first noticed when she posted at feminist blog The F Bomb, musing on the word pretty, thus laying an irresistible trail of bread crumbs for me to more of her work. Her blog, Blossoming Badass, is a collection of feminist observations and insights ranging from the sociological to the political to the grammatical to the personal. (And did I mention she has impeccable taste in her reading material?) I wanted to know what she, as a teenager, writer, and feminist, thought about her generation's beauty ethos, especially in comparison with what I observed about mine. I'm honored to have Alexa guest post at The Beheld, and would love to know what you—whether you're a baby boomer, GenXer, GenYer, or something else entirely—think about your own generational response to beauty norms.


I was thrilled when Autumn asked me to write a response to her post on the beauty norms of Gen X teens from someone who’s a teenager today. And as her post begins with Nirvana, so does mine.

My friend Abby and I are on a sports team together, resulting in a minimum of ninety minutes of school bus rides together a day for over two months. This resulted in copious conversation about essentially everything. As we noticed that our conversations became increasingly confessional as it got darker out, they were dubbed Bus Rides of Truth.

One of these bus rides was about different people and time periods we identified with. Abby’s time periods were the ’60s and the ’90s. I too had a penchant for the ’60s, so we spoke yearningly of Woodstock (her) and the 1969 Miss America Pageant (me), of Janis Joplin (her) and Gloria Steinem (me again). But I didn’t really feel anything about the ’90s. What explained her fondness for the decade we were born? I wondered. Her answer was concise: “Kurt Cobain.”

Abby loves ’90s grunge rock, as well as the whole mentality and style Autumn wrote of as “low-key, a tad sloppy, free-flowing.” Some aspects of ’90s style are still present. Flannel shirts, for example, are still very popular in our high school, but don’t have the same carefree connotation; they’re paired with leggings and Ugg boots, and are left wide open with a tight tank top underneath. Yet no matter how much I tried, I couldn’t correlate the trends of my generation’s attitude toward life with our attitudes toward beauty. I solicited friends and asked them for ideas, but it just wasn’t happening. Everyone had something different to say. Then I realized that was exactly the point.

My generation has our differences branded as diversity. We pride ourselves on individualism. A recent, excellent New York magazine article, entitled “The Kids Are Actually Sort of Alright,” described the generation of recent college graduates, not much older than me, as “delayed, afraid, immature, independent, fame and glory hungry, (ambitious?), weirdly apathetic when it comes to things outside of the internet,” and even, simply, “self-absorbed delusionals.” Although not flattering, I agree. It’s intrinsically human to want to know that you’re different and you’re special. However, in my generation, it’s more of a need than a desire. This has had awesome benefits for us in terms of clothes and beauty as much as everything else. There are trends, but they’re more liberal, in my experience; there isn’t one blanket trend for the entirety of my generation. (There tends to be in middle school, though not by high schoolbut that’s another story.) In my opinion, the biggest trend in clothes tends to be their tightness. Those oversized blazers of the ’90s are long-forgotten.

However, this more individualized approach to appearances has led to far different problems, demonstrated with the small sample of girls that I asked, “What pressures do you as an individual feel in terms of your appearance? Regarding weight, makeup, skin, clothes, whatever.”

One classmate, noted for her fondness of clothes and fashion, wrote, “okay so here's my HONEST opinion, albeit an unpopular one. Wanting to look good or be something that isin your opinionbetter is a good thing. If a person wants to change by losing weight, or dressing nicely, or whatever, it doesn't have to be because of the pressure of wanting to fit in… I don't know how it is for everyone else, but I don't look good to please other people, I do it for myself.” This confidence is what the Second Wave feminists so wonderously hoped for one day. Yet a friend from camp remarked, “Personally, as terrible as it may sound, I feel pressure in school to look different and controversial…I feel the pressure to not conform, which I suppose is in itself a form of conforming.” This translates straight to my generation as a whole. And then a teammate provided, “I've had friends who don't think I wear enough make-up (I only wear cover-up), friends who don’t like the way I dress, and friends who don’t even like the way I wear my hair. So, in my opinion there is a lot of pressure from both girls AND guys to look a certain way. I've had guys tell me I’m fat, or that my boobs are too big, or that I need to wear sexier clothing. Personally, I don’t care terrribly much, so I just tell them to fuck off, but I've felt the pressure to change myself for better or for worse.”

So as I sit here, listening to the Nirvana MTV Unplugged CD I borrowed from Abby, what conclusion could I draw? These girls had utterly different views on how this generation influenced how they felt about their bodies and fashion. Still, I identified completely with all of them. While the pressure to brand ourselves through our clothes and overall look might be greater than it was for previous generations, that didn’t seem quite satisfactory. And then I realized another reason I’d had difficulty summing up my generation’s attitudes toward beauty: I can’t diagnose a generation still in formation. Maybe that seems like a cop-out, but the 16-year-olds of 1991 weren’t able to identify themselves as disillusioned in the midst of their genesis. Like they were, we’re all still in the throes of it, straightening our hair or deliberately not, wondering whether to button up our flannel shirts.

Yet there’s one thing we’ve got going for us that can only serve us well: All of our sharing of feelings and expounding of individuality has led to a far larger discourse about how we feel about our bodies and deal with appearances when compared with our predecessors. An aspect of Gen X fashion was most definitely a forced not caring, but our culture didn’t yet have a ready vocabulary for Generation X teens to discuss that feigned nonchalance with one another. My generation has the benefit of that vocabulary, and from that spring things like Abby’s and my Bus Rides of Truth. There’s commiseration between girls, both silent and not. We can all see how hard everyone is trying to look like they’re not; it’s a topic that’s spoken about. For now, it’s only being spoken about; for it to actually impact the amount of effort we spend on ourselves, we’ll need to keep the conversation going. If we can make that happen, I think that in twenty years, we might be able to find the positivity in our generation’s mentality as well.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Beauty Blogosphere 11.18.11

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

From Head...
The haircut of the future: QR code haircuts on British football players' heads being used as ad space. Basically, we are all going to be cyborgs.

...To Toe...
Oh, bother. Absolutely nothing of note happened below the ankle this week, and I've already used up the pedicure video game I had stashed away for this emergency. But would you take a moment to help a boot-challenged lass and let me know your boot recommendations? I need a pair that can handle the snow and rain but that won't look ridic. Thoughts?

...And Everything In Between:
Belleza!: "3 mujeres, 2 languages, 1 blog" is the kicker for new culture and beauty blog Spanglish Beauty, co-run by the editor of's Spanish-language beauty channel (and friend of The Beheld), Soe Kabbabe.

Rinse it good: The cleanse/tone/moisturize routine embraced by Americans 40 years ago is so over. Now it takes 14 steps! (Where's a college course in this when you need one?)

Ashtanga Shrugged: Why is it not at all surprising that Lululemon is run by a bunch of Randians? "Our bags are visual reminders for ourselves to live a life we love and conquer the epidemic of mediocrity."

...And to All a Good Night: Ohio man high on bath salts breaks into strangers' home and puts up Christmas decorations. (Since when are bath salts a "designer drug"? I thought designer drugs were for 1980s stockbrokers, not something you could buy at Bath & Body Works.)

Prosumed: The rise of the "pro-sumer"—consumers whose engagement with beauty products makes them want professional-grade wares—is allowing various professional beauty companies to launch lines designed specifically for the educated amateur. The threat of the educated amateur is partially responsible for the clinicizing of beautyspeak, as demonstrated in From the Kitchen to the Parlor, a book about salons catering to African American women. Hairstyling students were encouraged to use vaguely medical-sounding terms to encourage customers to rely on professional care instead of the DIY approach that had become popular in some areas. (Also, clinicizing is not a word, but don't you think it should be?)

This marks the one and only time you will see a LOLcat on this blog. Because you, Reader, are worth it.

"Because you're worth it": L'Oréal's tag line has turned 40, and Jezebel asks if we really need a makeup company to remind us of this anymore. I read this as now being an affirmation of our worthiness, not a decided act to convince us as such. It's still manipulative (as ads are wont to be) but more than anything I think it just paved the way for the "real beauty" ads like the Dove campaign and Bare Escentuals recent one ("pretty is what you are, beauty is what you do with it," whaaaa?!). Now that everything the ladies do is très empowered, I think the slogan is actually more relevant than ever, in marketingland.

Developing news: Procter & Gamble to start manufacturing goods sold in India. Most imported products in India are targeted toward the elite, as cheaply made local products are widely available, so honestly I was surprised to read that this hadn't happened ages ago. In related news, the French beauty industry is targeting emerging markets like India, banking on its reputation as a maker of luxury to drive growth.

Worldly: Last week's Miss World pageant prompts two interesting pieces: Feminist academic Mary Beard thoughtfully examines her own lack of rage about Miss World, and beauty pageants in general. "This isn't, in other words, the licensed child abuse...that we watch on Britain's Got Talent.... A hundred, apparently robust, grown-ups in bikinis don't seem quite as offensive as that." And then Indian writer Kalpana Sharma asks, after an 11-year dry streak of Indian women not being crowned, "Are we not pretty anymore?"

Regulate, mediate: Malaysia may up its regulation of the beauty industry. "We can only regulate doctors who perform beauty procedures under the Medical Act 1971," said health minister Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai. "But if a beautician performs them, the ministry cannot take action against them under this act, as he or she is not a medical doctor, unless there is a complaint." Coupled with Abu Dhabi's public warning about cosmetics ingredients, it seems as though the uptick in awareness of the risks people take for beauty is global, going far beyond our Safe Cosmetics Act here in the States.

Lipstick defense: Young Israel of Hewlett, New York, is hosting a care package sendoff for female Israeli soldiers featuring notes of gratitude handwritten by Girl Scouts—and beauty products. Sweet and all, but this got me wondering about whether femininity is more tolerated in countries where women are conscripted and therefore not seen as anomalies in the military. Is there more room for lipstick in the Israeli Defense Forces than in the U.S. Army?

Gentlemanly preferences: Naturally raven-haired Chandler Levack bleached her hair, qualifying her to definitively answer in this essay: No, blondes do not have more fun.

Case study: Beth Teitell road-tests that whole "makeup makes you look more competent" study we learned about last month by getting a "natural" makeover and taking it for a spin. (My favorite part: “But don’t I look like the kind of mom who would make delicious food?")

You can thank me when nurdle is on your SAT.

The war of the nurdles: An otherwise boring trademark infringement lawsuit between Colgate and Aquafresh toothpastes is made etymologically fascinating by the fact that it's about the nurdle, the wave-shaped blob of toothpaste both companies use to represent their product.

The evolution of sexy: Well-done slideshow of the things that we widely consider sexy in women, and how they have (or, more likely, haven't) changed over time.

Sexuality and eating disorders: Do lesbians experience eating disorders in ways that differ from straight women? A researcher at the University of the West of England–Bristol is trying to find out.

Anorexia as branding: Courtney elucidates the ridiculousness of Jessica Simpson's statement that "The decision not to make myself anorexic was actually really great for branding."

Men, sports, and EDs: Hats off to Australian rugby player David Pocock, who writes openly about battling an eating disorder in his new autobiography. If there's another male public figure who has spoken about his eating disorder, I don't know of it, but it's a growing problem: Men might be "only" one-third as likely as women to develop anorexia or bulimia, and one-half as likely to develop binge eating disorder, but those numbers aren't exactly encouraging any way you look at them. Certainly men face appearance-related pressures, but given that the dogpile of "perfect" images isn't as intense for men, I feel like the more men talk about their eating disorders, the more we'll all come to understand how complex they really are, and how little they actually have to do with the body.

It's vocabulary week at The Beheld! This is a flipper, or the fake teeth used in child beauty pageants. (Thanks to Virginia Sole-Smith for teaching me the word and indelibly imprinting the horror in my memory.)

"I judged a child beauty pageant": Not sure which part of this account is my favorite, but I think it's between "I did not expect to be faced first and foremost with the specific question of how pretty a child's face is. How pretty is any child's face? In a state of constant flux, the child's face might as well be a blur. And no matter how pretty it is, it will change in a year, six months, two months. How does one even start making that kind of a call?" and his account of the contestant who, for the "celebrity" portion of the pageant, dresses as Sofia Coppola and "dances around with an actual slate to a disco version of 'Hooray for Hollywood,' much as I presume Sofia Coppola does on her days off."

3-D nail art?!: This sounds torturous at first, but Fashionista manages to make it sound almost doable.

"Whoever someone else thinks you are, you don’t have to be": Wonderful essay at Guernica about being raised by a mother who was into EST. Of note to The Beheld readers: What the writer learned about self-presentation and manipulation of perception. As her mother said after the daughter complained she had nothing to wear to sixth grade: “ 'How do you want to look?' I stared back at her. 'What do you want people to think?' 'That I look good?' 'Oh, honey. Decide what you want to look like. Not how.' This, I see now, was a lesson in persona."

Let's talk about sex: The Feminist Fashion Blogger roundup this month is on the theme of sexuality. Ooh la la!

Razed: When I first read Nahida's post about marketing of men's and women's razors, I was all, "But! As anyone who has been paid to read Glamour magazine ad nauseam for years on end knows, there IS a difference between men's and women's razors! The blades are angled in reverse, as men hold the blade downward for their faces but women hold it upward for their legs!" Then I actually bothered to compare my razor with that of my gentleman friend. So! Read Nahida's post.

All made up: I'm not the only one who had a hard time participating in Franca's wonderful no-makeup meme, and Decoding Dress articulates her reasons for not joining in: "And so my program of self-liberation will not include posting a photo of my face without makeup today because to me, makeup represents agency: my freedom and power to choose how I present myself to the world. That power extends beyond myself to others; I can control (at least partially) how I am perceived. I am not a slave to genetics or biology, nor am I consigned to wear my failure to care appropriately for my skin in my youth like a scarlet letter for the rest of my life. I do not have to accept my vulnerabilities. I have the power to subjugate them to my will, to make them disappear. That, to me, is liberation."

"First, it's nothing I'm ashamed of": Kjerstin Gruys interviews her mother-in-law about her multiple cosmetic procedures. We often only hear from people who regret the work they've had done, so this is particularly compelling reading.

Britney's beauty labor: Rachel Hills reminds us that despite the rewards that come with beauty, it still takes a lot of work even for those who have all the "right" ingredients—and the price beautiful women pay when they deviate from the script is dear.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Thoughts on a Word: Ugly

Ugly is a fright. Ugly is unpleasant, ugly makes you want to look away, ugly is what we worry we are but know we aren’t. One can have a case of the uglies, make an ugly face, or feel beaten with the ugly stick. You can be an ugly duckling, an Ugly American, or descend from the Plug Uglies. If you are an ugli fruit, you are currently in season. It may be possible to be good, bad, and ugly, but an ugly woman just might not exist. One might work at the Ugly People Agency, or even Coyote Ugly—but only if you’re not, you know, ugly.

Part of what makes ugly such a potent word lies in its etymology. Stemming from old Norse uggligr, meaning “dreadful” or “fearful,” ugly implies the subject is beyond merely unattractive—she is to be feared. Beyond the plain woman, or the woman who is unremarkable, homely, nondescript, or simply not all that pretty, the ugly woman looks a fright. Given the medieval correlation of physical beauty and moral goodness, it’s no surprise that ugly to describe something unpleasant to look at took root simultaneously with its usage as “morally offensive.” The ugly woman frightens us not only because of her malformed features but because of her amorality. (This concept is illustrated by her repeat appearance in fairy tales—most of which were written in languages other than English and therefore outside of my scope here, though ugly surely is the best translation of the words used to describe the various witches and stepmothers that populated the fairy tales of yore.) Anne Boleyn was described as “ill-shaped and ugly” by an English Roman Catholic activist in an effort to discredit her rule of England, the idea being that anything resulting from the reign of a hideous woman wasn’t fit to stand.

Of course, the connection between ugliness and a lack of virtue isn’t necessarily restricted to the medieval days. The exact corollary may have faded; the association remained. An ugly woman might hide, but she’ll be found: “The Persians make an emblem of [the veil], to signify that many times...under very rich Cloths, hide a very Ugly Woman” (Duke of Holstein, 1669). She might be greedy: “Many an ugly woman has ruined her husband, and starved her trades-people, that she might have a larger drop to her necklace...Is the ugly woman less ugly with her diamonds than without them?” (The Wife and Woman’s Reward, 1835). The ugly woman has no talent: “No truly ugly woman ever yet wrote a truly beautiful poem the length of her little finger” (Noctes Ambrosianae, 1827). And just in case any of us missed the message, Sir Edward Sullivan—the original men’s rights activist—reminds us in his 1894 treatise Woman, the Predominant Partner, that “A woman is not necessarily virtuous because she’s ugly, or necessary reverse because she’s pretty,” though he does concede that “Of course beauty attracts temptation, and ugliness repels it.”

This repelling of temptation presents the flipside of the ugly-as-ambiguously evil trope: Ugliness, under the right circumstances, can be a virtue. “Ugliness is the guardian of women,” reads a Hebrew adage, a compliment to the Spanish saying “The ugliest is the best housewife.” (And even if she’s not the best housewife, never mind that; The Overland Monthly reminded us in 1911 that “A good deal may be forgiven to an ugly woman.”)

But nobody loves an ugly woman like a fellow with the blues: R&B, blues, bop, and soul all have tributes to the ugly woman, praising her as a more competent and trustworthy woman than the pretty darling who’ll run all over town. The most famous example is Jimmy Soul’s 1963 “If You Wanna Be Happy,” but he hardly invented the concept; the song itself was borrowed from calypso musician Roaring Lion’s 1934 ditty “Ugly Woman,” the refrain of which is “So from a logical point of view / Always love a woman uglier than you.” Don Covay tells us to “Get me an ugly woman / Nobody want but me / Get me an ugly woman / Ugly woman twice as sweet.” Indeed, perhaps it was her community’s treatment of the ugly woman that made “the ugliest woman in show business”—as Ma Rainey was referred to—simply respond “Bless you, darling,” when a vaudeville performer called “an ugly woman or a pretty monkey.”

The bluesmen might have been shocked to find that their beloved ugly women didn’t actually exist. “There never was, and it may be safely predicted that there never will be, on earth any such creature as an ugly woman,” wrote Irish journalist Charles J. Dunphie in 1876. “Nobody ever heard of such a phenomenon. To be a woman is to be beautiful.” When we see beauty as being intrinsic to womanhood, an ugly woman is indeed impossible: She “may more properly be called a Third Sex, than a Part of the Fair one” (Philip Stanhope, 1777). A 1904 edition of The Smart Set magazine: “If there were such a thing as an ugly woman—which I don’t believe at all...we’d let them frisk around a bit; but seeing that this is a man’s world, we’ve made it absolutely necessary for a pretty woman to behave herself.” Sammy Davis Jr. may have around when his contemporaries were wailing their “Ugly Woman Blues,” but he himself remained unconvinced of their existence: “Ain’t no such thing,” he said in an Ebony interview in 1980. “A woman may be ugly in our minds, but physically every woman is beautiful to me. And I’m a womanizer, man.”

Luckily, if an ugly woman does exist, it's not that hard for her to change: “There are no ugly women, only lazy ones,” makeup magnate Helena Rubinstein famously quipped. The vaguely protofeminist Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Associations of Zion agreed, concluding an 1889 argument against the restrictiveness of corsets with “An ugly woman is a blot in the face of creation, but no woman need be ugly if she will exercise properly, live intelligently, and dress correctly.” It was a nice turnbout from the sentiment of an earlier era—that ugly women shouldn’t even try. From Atlantic Monthly, 1859: “By flying in the face of fashion, a woman attracts attention to her person, which can be done with impunity only by the beautiful; but do you not see that an ugly woman, by conforming to fashion, obtains no advantage over other women, ugly or beautiful, who also conform to it?”

The word ugly has come up most often in my discussions with women as something they’re not. “I know I’m not ugly,” say some of us before going on to list our flaws, as though frightening small children is the worry we must work the hardest to banish from our psyche. There’s a sting about ugly that makes it difficult to even utter the word about a person: It’s a disqualifier, listing what we or others are not, instead of a description we’re eager to use. “There seems to be a taint of political incorrectness to using the words ‘ugly’ and ‘woman’ together, akin to using a racial or sexual slur,” writes Charlotte M. Wright in her 2006 book Plain and Ugly Janes: The Rise of the Ugly Woman in Contemporary American Fiction. That political incorrectness gave birth to the pool of “yo mama so ugly” jokes that are a staple of the dozens. Indeed, when Jet magazine printed a 1973 roundup of ugly jokes from standup comics—who make their trade in subverting political correctness—all but one used ugly women, not ugly men, as their target. The lone standout who used a man as her target? Moms Mabley, the only comedienne featured in the piece.

As long as ugly is one of the worst things you can say about a woman, we’re hesitant to use it on one another, even when the goal is to cut one another down. If it is used, it’s delivered with deliberate provocation—take celebrity gossip site The Superficial, which uses “Because you’re ugly” as its tagline. The inappropriate power of ugly hasn’t gone unnoticed by blogger Tatiana of Parisian Feline, who writes, “There is power in all things, including ugliness. Many people are terrified of being ugly, but if there’s power in exactly who you are, that includes being ugly too.” In questioning the hesitancy we have to use the word, she implies that we imbue both beauty and ugliness with more power than either might deserve. “Being ugly, and being willing to call myself that, is always tricky business. When you’re conditioned to believe that ugliness is bad and prettiness is good, well, most people will do anything to show you how ‘good’ you really are.” Indeed, ABC network was counting on that impulse when they debuted Ugly Betty in 2006. Betty is written as a smart, likable, sympathetic character: We’re meant to see her "goodness" and root for those who try to convince her that she's not ugly—and we ourselves aren't meant to really see her as ugly. (Surely a task made easier by casting the non-ugly America Ferrera in the titular role, though the character is coded as ugly through the glasses, the braces, and the Guadalajara poncho.)

Like most of the women I’ve talked with, I don’t think of myself as ugly—but that's hardly an act of affirmation, as ugliness isn’t what most of us fear. Ugly is a strong word, closer both in etymology and usage to grotesque than to ho-hum. That power just might make it preferable in certain ways to what we’re more likely to fear: not that we’re ugly, but that we’re not pretty enough. That preference is only theoretical, of course; I’m not about to wish for the face of a gargoyle merely to save myself the woes of my ruddy skin and sagging jawline. But I’m going to pay attention, albeit briefly, to Jean-Paul Sarte: “A truly ugly woman is arresting, discordant in the midst of dull, run-of-the-mill human faces.” For a moment that passage seems to offer solace to the ugly woman—yet even here, she can’t win. Indeed, he’s only paving the way for our modern equivalent of equating appearance with morality: “There is no doubt at all,” Sartre writes, “that she is unhappy.”

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


Women Smiling While Washing Face (idea unabashedly stolen from The Hairpin)

In reading through the varied collection stemming from Franca's no-makeup blog roundup at Oranges & Apples last week, I'm struck by the number of reasons women give for wearing or not wearing makeup. "It's pure laziness, really," writes 40+style, echoed by Literature & Lace's self-characterization as "an inherently lazy soul." Others went from not wearing any to a total about-face: "[At] my wedding…an hour with a makeup artist transformed me from an ordinary, somewhat exhausted-looking twentysomething into a person decided more grown-up and glamorous… I've been wearing makeup ever since," writes Dress With Courage. Some were matter-of-fact: "It's fun, it's decorative, it can emphasize my big hazel eyes and downplay dark shadows below them," says House in the Clouds, who also notes that though she wears makeup every day, she's not embarrassed to be seen without it. "As a fledgling feminist in university, I 'stuck it to the Man' and abandoned makeup for a while. But I made peace with cosmetics when I realized they don't define my beliefs," writes Jean of All Trades. And others seized makeup's transformative possibilities: "My inner drag queen revels in this sort of gender play. What kind of woman am I today? An Old Hollywood starlet with matte red lips? Or how about a badass '90s biker chick with kohl rimmed eyes?" writes makeup blogger PowerFemme. And then there's the hostess with the mostest, Oranges & Apples Franca, who wears "quite a lot of it, almost every day, but I don't get excited about it at all." She juxtaposes makeup as defense with occasionally wanting to use makeup as a tool for fantasy but not quite being able to make it work (represent! except for wearing lipstick I can't seem to get any sort of "look" going either).

I'm also fascinated by the things people believe about the way they look. "I have fairly bad skin," writes one blogger who appears to have a single blemish dropped into her vibrant, honeyed complexion that's usually covered up by the foundation she says her "bad skin" calls for. "Open pores!" writes another with similarly glowing skin. Some were still wearing the same makeup they had as teenagers, illustrating makeup's enduring power as a rite of passage.

As I read through the collection, I asked myself why I hadn't participated—Franca is a blog buddy, the idea excited me, and I'd even had it on my calendar. But it escaped me somehow, and I told myself it was because another topic came up that was semi-timely (I mean, short hair isn't timely, but I wanted to run the piece immediately as it was a response to someone else's work). That's true, but it wasn't until I reread an e-mail I'd gotten recently from a reader that I realized I'd been avoiding the question of no-makeup for a while. "I can't help but feel that your blog focuses a lot on makeup as a means of helping women to attain or enhance beauty," she wrote. It wasn't an accusation, just a gentle questioning of why—in a blog that works to include the way makeup is worn by dead people—I was leaving out the myriad women who don't wear makeup at all, either because they never started or because they used to and gave up.

When I started writing The Beheld, I thought I used makeup to make myself look more acceptable. I didn't take pleasure in it; I didn't do any sort of fanciful "look"; I didn't particularly enjoy the act itself. It was like brushing my teeth, but with the toothpaste of The Man. But the more I've been writing and thinking, the more I see how much of my makeup use really is simply about my own—not pleasure, not quite, but my own readiness for the world.

The fact is, makeup centers me. There's a meditative quality about standing in front of the mirror focusing on each one of your features, watching yourself "come together." The phrase "putting your face on" always struck me as a little grotesque, as though women didn't have faces until they were caked with makeup. But particularly in crowded urban environments like the one I live in, I don't particularly want to go into the world with the face I wake up with. Not because I think it's unfit, but because it's unprepared. I haven't had that meditative moment in front of the mirror. I haven't put on my "public face" if I leave the house without makeup, and there's a vulnerability in showing the world one's private face that has nothing to do with living up to standards of conventional attractiveness and everything to do with carefully selecting who gets to see what.

My close friends and my boyfriend see me without makeup, as do my local grocer and the guy selling gyros on the corner. They are a part of my intimate world—not that I'm spilling my life story to the gyro dude, but he's a part of my daily life. He's a part of the environment I call home. Perhaps it's different in cities that live less publicly than we do in, or in metropolitan areas with a more reasonable population density than 56,000 people per square mile. Perhaps I'd feel less of a need to have a strict public/private division if the boundaries of actual home were stronger. But sitting in the chair I write from, I hear everything from my neighbors chattering away in Bengali to teenagers walking home from school shrieking at one another to the occasional thumpa-thump of rigged-up car stereos cruising the block. I don't really notice it anymore; it's a part of my home. It's what you sign up for when you live in New York City, inviting your neighbors into your private space even if you've never actually greeted them at the door. We find our privacy in different ways. Makeup is one of mine.

I've got far more thinking to do on this before I proclaim My Reasons For Wearing Makeup—in a way, untangling that question is part of why I started this blog in the first place. I wish I'd participated in Oranges & Apples blog roundup, but I also now see that maybe I wasn't quite ready to. It's a rich, varied collection of perspectives—won't you check it out?

Monday, November 14, 2011

Beauty Without Borders

When I first read of a bomb on October 26 that injured 12 people at a cosmetics store in Peshawar, Pakistan, I didn’t think much of it. Rather, I thought of it as much as I think of any number of bombings one might read about in a day: Awful, I think to myself, perhaps briefly trying to picture what it is like to be doing your shopping and suddenly hear a bomb nearby. Depending on the severity of the injuries, the number of deaths, the profile of the area—or, more frankly, my mood—I may feel a shot of anything from anger to sadness. It is almost always fleeting.

But several days later, when the bombing came up again at Central Asia Online, that fleeting sadness stayed. Nobody was killed in the explosion, though the shop was destroyed, so at first glance it seemed odd that this bombing was getting attention beyond the perfunctory notice I’d read originally. The piece was the hook for a focus on the resilience of area shoppers and the growth of the Pakistan beauty industry, but what struck me was what never was explicitly written but what was implied with this sentence: “This is the first time that a cosmetics shop has been targeted in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where CD shops have frequently been targeted by militants who consider music to be in opposition to their version of Islam.” In other words, the store was not targeted because it was a store in a busy market. It was targeted because it sold makeup.

There’s much to say about Islam and makeup (Nahida at The Fatal Feminist writes frequently and fluently on the topic), but beyond pointing out that this is the work of extremists who happen to be Muslim, not the dictates of Islam, that’s not really what I’m getting at here. What I am getting at is this: It is very easy for western feminists to pit beauty talk and body politics in opposition to women’s issues that are literally life-and-death. Reproductive rights, sure, but also issues affecting women of the Middle East and Central Asia—girls’ education, extraordinary violence against women, honor killings, divorce and marriage laws that strip women of power, etc. Even once beauty and appearance became legitimized as a feminist issue in the west, it’s still often taken seriously only when coupled with the idea that the beauty myth is designed to replace eroding patriarchal structures so that women will stay in our place. What’s not necessarily taken as seriously is the idea that women who are at risk for the honor killings we rightfully prioritize as more important than our western beauty talk might want to wear eyeshadow too. And if the bombing of October 26 becomes a trend, they could pay with their lives.

To talk of beauty is to talk of women’s lives. Appearance is a brush stroke even in the lives of women whose challenges are greater than I could ever imagine from my middle-class American perch; remember, Anne Frank packed curlers. If we do not pay attention to those brush strokes, at best we may miss out on details that illuminate truths of the lives we believe we’re trying to make better. At worst, we overlook the fact that something as simple as going to a cosmetics shop in a Peshawar bazaar can be dangerous, but that women will do it anyway, because those brush strokes matter.

I’m wary of saying too much here, because I haven’t talked to women living in highly unstable countries about beauty, and I don’t want to either try to speak for them or assume that I know better. Especially because in one of the higher-profile acknowledgments that women in politically shaky environments still care about beauty reflected exactly that. In the 2004 documentary The Beauty Academy of Kabul, we trail the first graduating class of Beauty Without Borders, a now-defunct cosmetology school run by Americans who were training Afghan women to be hairstylists and makeup artists. There’s since been plenty of controversy over the school; one of the instructors, Debbie Rodriguez, published a memoir that other instructors claim misrepresented both the school and her role in it. Far worse was the retaliation that came to some of the students after the book was released; though all names were changed, Rodriguez writes of various acts the local women engaged in, and recounts how she helped a student fake her virginity for her wedding night. At least two of the women were forced to flee the country.

The fallout from the book is tragic, but it doesn’t make me wince like I did when hearing one of the instructors say to the students of their donated beauty toolkits: "Some of you are getting frustrated with your scissors. Frédéric Fekkai actually donated these scissors, and they’re very good scissors. They are much much better than what you’ve been using," as if what makes a pair of shears "good" is who donated it, not how the user experiences it. At another point, we see a fired-up Rodriguez attempt to rally the students—who have just explained that they don’t wear makeup every day because they believe it will ruin their skin—by saying she’s going to take them out of their “rut” because they’re in a “hole.” The translator looks at her with dismay, silently refusing to translate the words, though it was probably too late to not have the message come across clearly: You poor, poor women. Let us, with our Frédéric Fekkai scissors, help you. Only Sheila McGurk, a Virginia-based instructor who gently questions what the students mean when they say they’re “having trouble” with their husbands, seems to grasp that she can’t apply her ideas of western liberation to the women she’s teaching to cut hair, even as she seems humbly unsure of what ideas she can apply. And what she comes up with may be a shade naive, but as someone who has gotten teary in the hairstylist's chair, I know there's truth in it: “You’re not just cutting their hair,” McGurk advises her students of their future clients. “You’re healing them, inside.”

The documentary—which is definitely worth a viewing, and which is streaming on Netflix—is at its best when we get to hear from the students, most of whom already have years of experience under their belt. We meet Hanifa, who operates a salon out of the one room allotted to her family, separating the work space from the living quarters with curtains. In the same breath in which she mentions not being able to wear nail polish under the Taliban, she talks of witnessing the Taliban cut off people’s hands and feet. Fauzia, another hairdresser operating out of her home, was ordered by her husband not to stop styling hair, but to never mention it to him—presumably because the less he knew, the less risk the family shouldered for her illegal work. Nasifa talks of the fear she’d feel whenever a Talib knocked on her door—yet every time she’d open the door, there was an officer requesting services for his wife. Other Taliban wives didn’t have husbands who were so permissive; they’d come in and get their hair done but not their makeup, as makeup left telltale traces more readily than a coif.

The most telling moment involves—what else?—the burqa. As Nasifa tells us of the hair and makeup work she did on clients that had to be covered up, her expression told me more than the subtitles could. She appeared indignant that her handiwork had been deemed illegal for years, remaining unseen; finally, I thought to myself, her work could be seen in public, garnering her client referrals, not to mention the pride of seeing her clients walk out of her home with their heads held high. Her actual concern hadn’t occurred to me, its subtitle coming as a reminder of how easily we can get it wrong: “Our work would be ruined.” It wasn’t the lack of visibility of her work that was troublesome; it was that the quality of it was eroded the minute the fabric of the burqa flattened the hair, smeared the makeup. The pride wasn’t in having the work seen by the public; it was in having it done right.

I hope it goes without saying that I don’t think we should be aiming to up beauty talk within international discourse on women’s health and basic quality of life. American feminists couldn’t really tackle the beauty question until after we’d tackled, oh, voting, and unfair financial and divorce laws, and statutes saying it was okay for a man to rape his wife because, hey, that’s what marriage is. And we still have so far to go, but appearance now has a loud place in the national feminist conversation. I’m thankful for that, and I also recognize that it’s a goddamn luxury. But just because it’s a luxury for us to talk about appearance as a feminist issue doesn’t mean that the topic doesn’t have a valid role in the lives of women whose gender-related challenges are greater than I could imagine—or that it doesn't have a valid role in our work as feminists concerned about international issues. We talk of acid-throwing, bride-burning, honor killings: horrific acts that the international community must prioritize. The woman walking into a market in Peshawar to buy some hair oil is a part of the conversation too.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Beauty Blogsophere 11.11.11*

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

From Head...
Thin Mint lips: Girl Scout Cookie Lip Smackers! But what's with this "Coconut Caramel Stripes" flavor? You already yanked the rug out from under me with that "Samoa" jazz. Caramel Delight 4-eva!

...To Toe...
This little piggy went to fashion week: Fashionista's slideshow of models' feet on the runway is a lightly grody reminder that fashion ain't always glamorous (and that you're not alone in having fit problems).

Pediprank: Indiana governor Mitch Daniels went in for surgery on a torn meniscus and wound up with a pink pedicure. Dr. Kunkel, you old dog you!

...And Everything In Between:
"It's angled, like a diamond baguette": The rise of the $60 lipstick in the midst of a recession. Not sure about the "pragmatic" part of the term "pragmatic luxury," but what do I know? I just drink red wine, smack my lips together, and hope for the best.

Dishy: The flap surrounding the Panera Bread district manager who told the Pittsburgh-area store manager to staff the counter with "pretty young girls" was reported as a racist incident, since the cashier he wanted replaced was an African American man. But as Partial Objects points out, it may have been more motivated by sexism. To that I'd add that it's not just sexism and racism, but the notion of the "pretty young girl" that's at the heart of the matter here.

Give 'em some lip: American Apparel is launching a lip gloss line, with colors that will be "evoking an array of facets of the American Apparel experience." Names include "Legalize L.A.," which references the company's dedication to immigration reform, and "Intimate," an echo of the company's racy advertising aesthetic. Other shades on tap include "Topless," "Pantytime," "In the Red," "Jackoff Frost" and "Sexual Harassment in Violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act Govt. Code 12940(k) Shimmer."

Music makers: Boots cosmetics line 17 commissions up-and-coming musicians to write and perform songs that align with the ethos of 17 products. As in, "You Might Get Stuck on Me" for their magnetic nail polish.

"Let women of sixty use 'beautifiers,' if they think they need them. But you, who are young, pretty, and have a complexion like a rose-leaf—you should avoid such things as you would a pestilence." 

99% marketing: For its 132nd birthday, Ivory soap is unrolling a new ad campaign, which hinges upon it being A) nongendered, and B) soap. Revolución!

Baby fangs: Intellectually I should be against about the practice of yaeba, in which dentists in Japan artificially enlarge their lady patients' incisors to create a childlike appearance. But as someone who is genetically blessed with noticeably sharp and semi-crooked incisors, I'm basically all, I am gonna be huge in Japan.

Vaniqua'd: The active ingredient in Vaniqua—you know, the drug you're supposed to take if you have an unladylike amount of facial hair—is also an effective treatment for African sleeping sickness. Of course, the places where African sleeping sickness strikes can't afford to buy it. But hey, our upper lip is so smooth! (via Fit and Feminist) 

La Giaconda: The Mona Lisa, retouched.

Beauty survey: Allure's massive beauty survey reveals that 93% of American women think the pressure to look young is greater than ever before. Am I a spoilsport by pointing out that every person who answered that question is also older than they ever were before? (Of course, the "hottest age" for women according to men surveyed is now 28, compared with 31 in 1991, so there may be something to it.) Other findings: Black women are three times as likely as white women to self-report as hot, and everyone hates their belly.

Gay old time: Jenelle Hutcherson will be the first openly lesbian contestant of Miss Long Beach—and she's going to wear a royal purple tux for the eveningwear competition. The director of the pageant encouraged her to sign up, and Hutcherson has been vocal about how she's reflecting the long tradition of diversity and acceptance in Long Beach. (Thanks to Caitlin for the tipoff!)

Miss World: In more urgent beauty pageant news, British women protest Miss World, and somehow the reporter neglects to make a crack about bra burning.

The freshman 2.5: Virginia debunks the "freshman 15," and then Jezebel reveals that the whole thing was an invention of Seventeen magazine, along with the notion that every single New Kid on the Block was supposed to be cute.

Ballerina body: Darlene at Hourglassy examines the push-pull between embracing and dressing large breasts (which she does beautifully with her button-front shirts designed for busty women) and her love of ballet. "By the end of the performance I wasn’t paying attention to anything but the movements. There was nothing to distract me from the dancers’ grace and athleticism. Would I have been distracted by large breasts on one of the dancers? Definitely."

(Still taken from SOMArts promotional video)

Subject/object: Prompted by this intriguing Man as Object exhibition in San Francisco, Hugo Schwyzer looks at the possibilities for desiring male imperfection. He's the expert here, both because of his research and his male-ness, but I can't help but wonder how much men have internalized the notion of male perfection. I have zero doubt that the focus on the body beautiful has impacted men, and certainly the tropes of masculinity are a reasonable parallel to the tropes of femininity. But there's always been more room—literal and metaphorical—for men of all varieties to be considered sex symbols. Everyone gawked when Julia Roberts paired up with Lyle Lovett, but even then there was talk of how he had "a certain quality." Save someone like Tilda Swinton—who, while odd-looking, isn't un-pretty either—when have we ever spoken of women in that way?

Am I the only one who thinks gigolo should be pronounced like it's spelled?: Tits and Sass has been looking for voices of male escorts, and lo and behold, Vin Armani to the rescue!

"Did my son inherit my eating disorder?": There's been some talk about how a mother with food issues can transfer that to her daughters—but Pauline wonders if she's passed down her eating disorder to her son. A potent reminder that boys internalize ED factors as well.

What you can't tell by looking: And along those same lines, Tori at Anytime Yoga reminds us shortly and sweetly that eating disorders of all forms come in a variety of sizes. This is enormously important: I'm certain that there are many women with eating disorders who don't recognize it because they don't think they fit the profile.

In/visible: Always glad to see celebrities acknowledge that looking they way they look actually takes work, à la Jessica Biel here: "My signature style is a 'no-make-up make-up' look, which is much harder than people think." Well, probably not most women who do no-makeup makeup, but whatevs.

Touchdown: This BellaSugar slideshow of creative makeup and hairstyle from NFL fans in homage to their favorite teams is a delight. I could care less about football itself (I finally understand "downs," I think) but I think it's awesome that these people are showing that there are plenty of ways to be a football fan, including girly-girl stuff like makeup. (IMHO, football fans could use a PR boost right about now. Seriously, Penn State? Rioting? You do realize your coach failed to protect multiple children from sexual assault, right?)

Face wash 101: Also from BellaSugar: There were college courses on grooming in the 1940s?! 

She walks in beauty like the night: A goth ode to black lipstick, from 

Muppets take Sephora: Afrobella gives a rundown of the spate of Muppet makeup. Turns out Miss Piggy isn't the first Muppet to go glam.

Love handle: The usual story is that we gain weight when we're stressed or unhappy because we're eating junk food to smother our sorrows—but Sally asks about "happy body changes," like when you gain weight within a new relationship.

Locks of love: Courtney at Those Graces on how long hair can be just as self-defining as short.


*Numerology field day! More significantly, Veterans' Day. Please take a moment to thank or at least think of the veterans in your life—you don't have to support the war to support soldiers. It's also a good time to remember that not all veterans who return alive return well: The Huffington Post collection "Beyond the Battlefield" is a reminder of this, particularly the story of Marine widow Karie Fugett, who also writes compellingly at Being the Wife of a Wounded Marine of caring for her husband after his return from Iraq; he later died from a drug overdose.

While most combat roles are still barred to women, there are plenty of female veterans—combat, support, and medical staff alike. Click here to listen to a collection of interviews from female veterans of recent wars, including Staff Sergeant Jamie Rogers, who, in When Janey Comes Marching Home, gives us this reminder of the healing potential of the beauty industry: "I went [to the bazaar near Camp Liberty in Baghdad] often to get my hair cut. They had a barber shop and then they had a beauty salon. It was nice to go in and it was a female atmosphere. It was all girls. You could put your hair down, instead of having it in a bun all the time, get it washed. It was just something to escape for a while, get away from everything. And it was nice to interact, and the girls were always dressed nice and always very complimentary: 'You have such beautiful...' and I don't know if it was BS, but it felt good that day. That was a good escape."