Friday, February 25, 2011

The Essence of Beauty Ideals

Victoria Beckham: an emblem of beauty diversity!

In general, I rather like Linda Wells and what she's done with Allure--it's not my favorite magazine but I also think that they give interesting treatment to topics that I'm interested in. That said, I'm not sure what to think of this interview with her about the shifting beauty ideal. It's hard to tell how much is her and how much is the reporter, but there seems to be a self-congratulatory tone here--not exactly self-congratulatory of Allure, but of Americans for having come so far, baby. Call the press: Americans are capable of finding women who aren't blond-haired, blue-eyed, and fair-skinned beautiful! (Is this news to anyone?)

Wells takes the route of acknowledging that a broader range of beauty ideals doesn't mean that we actually find more women beautiful, but rather that people who embody any particular beauty ideal are indeed "younger, thinner, and prettier" than the average woman. By its nature, a beauty ideal is exclusionary. But what gets lost here is that the reason we look at certain people as beauty ideals is that they possess a quality that appears to be both wholly natural yet simultaneously unattainable by the majority of us, no matter what artificial routes we take. She has that star quality that we often translate to mean beautiful; it's that quality that makes her special, not the idea that she's something that the rest of us need to strive for. Hell, if we're going to insist upon looking at any woman first for her appearance, we may as well appreciate those looks in their own merit instead of as a template for the rest of us.

The beauty ideal is not the same thing as the essence of beauty. I'm not even saying this in a you-go-girl way; I'm saying it in a practical way. I don't think for two seconds that the fact that America has apparently opened its mind to different beauty ideals means that we've actually shifted what we think of as beautiful. (I'd argue that most people detect and react to beauty based on their own internal meters, not on something based on what's essentially in fashion, but that's a different post.) I suspect what it's done is simply created more "categories" of women, taking what could ostensibly be a simple appreciation of beauty and forcing it to the top of a pyramid, with, say, Penelope Cruz at the top of one, Christina Hendricks  atop another, and Gwyneth Paltrow reigning over her own raw, vegan perch.

I remember what Rosie Molinary said about Latina stereotypes: That for Latina women there's one sort of representative from each country, so if you're Mexican but don't look like Salma Hayek, it's like you're not the "best" Mexican. (Which is funny, because her father is Lebanese.) I think that's particularly true for women of color, but I think it applies across the board too, which is why we're so fascinated with celebrity lookalikes. Kate Winslet—yes, I'm trotting her out, despite my wish not to Kate-Winslet-as-verb anybody—was such a breath of fresh air for women because she looked a little bit more like the average woman than other celebrities (except, of course, she doesn't; Kate Winslet is as ordinary as I am Portuguese). But it's not like I really felt better about my body once she came on the scene; it was more like, Oh, great, now I need to be a fucking Kate Winslet type? (Honestly, this is part of what irks me about "real women have curves": Besides implying that thin women are impostors, there's also a particular way in which it's acceptable to be curvy. Why else did that false meme about Marilyn Monroe being a size 16 circulate for years? My body will never resemble hers any more than it would resemble Gwyneth Paltrow's.)

I don't have a problem with us as a culture looking toward beautiful women and appreciating them as just that. (I remember once realizing that I'd spent 20 minutes doing nothing other than looking at photographs of Lindsay Lohan.) But I'm wary of saying that we've somehow made progress simply because beauty ideals other than Linda Evangelista exist.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Live Snooki Pouf Demo! At...Stonewall Inn! (Where Else?)

It's not often that queer comedy and beauty blogging intersect. Step 2 of rectifying that will be my upcoming interview with Kelli Dunham—boi comic, ex-nun, and "nerdalicious" author. Step 1 will be attending her Juxtapositions show on Monday, February 28, at the Stonewall Inn. Each month, the Juxtaposition crew (Kelli and cohost Jessica Halem) select a theme and interview people whose passions intersect with the topic. This show's theme is image and appearance, and photographer Syd London and makeup artist/hairstylist Bryn Kelly will be there to chat and do their thing. (In Bryn's case, "their thing" is a live demonstration of the Snooki pouf.)

Anyway: I'm excited to go because the more alternative perspectives on beauty and appearance we have out there, the more fun this sandbox is. If any New Yorkers want to join me, shout out or show up; I'll be the one in lipstick. (I can say that because it's Monday, not Friday, i.e. All Natural Day, as a part of participating in Rosie Molinary's experiment, for which I will fudge the rules and use my dry shampoo. If you haven't washed your hair since September, I think it's allowed.)

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Makeup/No Makeup Challenges! Also: Women of Color and Eating Disorders

A couple of fun beauty challenges other writers are putting out there:

1) Author Rosie Molinary, who was interviewed here a few weeks ago, teaches a class on body image at the University of North Carolina. She issued her class a challenge: Show up to class all-natural this Friday. No makeup, no perfume, no hair products—if it isn't on you naturally, it isn't on you Friday. She's invited her readers to join her. Are you in? (I am. You know there's a way overanalytical post a-comin'.)

2) On the opposite end of the spectrum, the ladies of No More Dirty Looks (a must-read if you're into green beauty) are putting forth a glamourpuss challenge: "We want you to go wild with your clean makeup! ... Maybe it means putting on eyeliner for the first time in your life, or wearing a bright pink lipstick, or doing a face as bananas as the Black Swan’s. All we ask is that you have FUN with the challenge, and take at least one risk." Bonus: Submit your photo and you could win a $100 gift certificate to a natural beauty shop.

Both of these actually relate to two beauty-related resolutions I made at the beginning of the year: Go a week without makeup (I'm not there yet! But a day, I can handle), and have more fun with my appearance. I leapt into the deep end with the latter (lipstick report: still going strong! must return to MAC store to broaden options! and down the rabbit hole she goes...), and honestly when I gave myself that challenge I thought it would be more of a theoretical exercise than an actual prompt to shift my mind-set. I don't know if I underestimated myself or if I underestimated lipstick, but I honestly feel like I've expanded my views on beauty enormously by walking around all vamped out for a day. I leave the house without makeup frequently, but I don't think I've ever gone to work bare-faced, and I'm curious to see how this experiment goes. 

And in keeping with this week's theme: Check out Rosie's post on the invisibility of women of color who have eating disorders. It's not just the average-weight or overweight women I wrote about yesterday who are being shortchanged by our narrow ideas of what eating disorders are; it's any woman who doesn't fit the expectation of an ED sufferer.

I wonder about the double bind Latina women are in: Along with the "Latina mystique" that paints Latina women as smoldering sexpots comes an intense scrutiny of Latina women's bodies. And while the "ideal" physique for Latina women might be curvier than for white women, it's also an unrealistic ideal—and I wonder if that sets up Latina women to proudly flaunt their curves (if they have them) as a sort of ethnic signifier. And if that's organic and authentic for the individual, then it may indeed be a source of pride for some women. But it paints a pretty narrow space for Latina women—who are, after all, living in a white-dominant culture in which thinness is still heavily prized—to comfortably inhabit.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Images of Eating Disorders

Notice what's not in the official National Eating Disorders Awareness Week materials:
skinny women staring into mirrors.

I know that yesterday I made a point out of saying that eating disorders are only tangentially related to beauty. But one aspect of EDs that’s more directly related to beauty is the imagery we use to portray them, and what messages those images send. 

The #1 image selected—by amateurs and professionals alike—to illustrate eating disorders is a photo of an extraordinarily thin woman, who may or may not be staring into a mirror and seeing a distorted (larger) version of herself. Runner-up: same woman, but this time standing on a scale. (I’d put together a collage of them but that would defeat the point I'm hopefully about to make. Google-image eating disorder photos if you want to see what I’m talking about.) 

 The images often chosen to represent eating disorders not only leave out a huge chunk of sufferers, they also glamorize the disease, even if the sharp-relief ribcages and clavicles are selected to startle. We’re a society obsessed with the thinness of women and what women are eating (all the better when the two go hand in hand!), so it’s difficult to show the side effects of some EDs without glamorizing them to an extent. This goes double when we're talking runway images (which a lot of them are): If we can count the ribs of a model strutting down the runway, we simultaneously get to gawk at her perceived illness while also seizing permission to take her in as an object. I'm guessing that people putting these images out there in this manner claim that the subjects are so underweight that they cease to be attractive—a hollow defense when we’re talking about images of working fashion models. Anorexic Isabelle Caro’s billboards were indeed shocking (indeed, the pictures in the link may be triggering)—and now, after her death, tragic. But let's not forget: Isabelle Caro was a fashion model, i.e. a member of the profession that defines glamour. We couldn't help but glamorize her sickness even as we mourned it.

But on top of the accidental (I hope) glamourization of EDs, these images reinforce the idea that anorexia and bulimia are the only EDs worth mentioning. In fact, the most common eating disorder diagnosis isn’t anorexia or bulimia or even binge eating disorder, but ED-NOS, or eating disorder otherwise not specified. ED-NOS can encompass everything from someone who appears anorexic but is still getting her periods so doesn't meet all the diagnostic criteria for anorexia, to someone who chews and spits food, to people with selective eating disorder, to overexercisers, to people with unshakable food rituals, to people so obsessed with having a "clean" diet that it controls their lives. Last year the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders finally made binge eating disorder its own category; until then it too was lumped in with ED-NOS.

How this links to imagery: If someone as tragically sick as Isabelle Caro is the main visible face of eating disorders, what does that say to the average-weight or overweight woman who is torturing her body in different, less visible ways? I’ve known women who delayed getting treatment for years because their bodies didn’t match what their image of an ED was. In any addiction, there's always someone sicker than you whom you can use to justify not getting help, but it becomes particularly dangerous in EDs because of the perfectionism that's evident among so many sufferers. A normal-weight woman with ED-NOS can tell herself that eating nothing but raw vegetables for a week is healthy, not a sign of an eating disorder, because she doesn't look like that; a binge eater can rationalize that she just doesn’t have any willpower, because look at "those" people with eating disorders; an anorexic can always find someone “better” at anorexia to prove she’s not that bad off—or that she has farther to go.

And, you know, I get it: I’ve worked in magazines for a decade, and I know that dramatic images summon our attention. To complicate matters, the external symptoms of EDs make for easy pickings of illustration; it’s a helluva lot harder to effectively illustrate perfectionism and alienation from emotions than it is to illustrate someone who’s just lost a bunch of weight. (Google-image other mental illnesses to see what I mean. Did you know that hugging one’s knees in stark lighting is a side effect of depression?)

I’m not sure what the corrective measures might be. I’d love to see more media outlets cover EDs in a comprehensive way. There's some solid treatment of anorexia and bulimia in ladymags, but next to nothing on binge eating or ED-NOS: Sunny Gold’s Glamour coverage of binge eating disorder was literally the first time I’d seen BED discussed anywhere. (Her site and excellent upcoming book chronicle her journey in more depth.) I’d like to see press give as much ink to, say, Monica Seles’s memoir about overcoming BED as it did to Demi Lovato’s recent check-in to an ED clinic. (Demi who? Exactly. But did you even know about Seles’s illness and recovery? Lazy book publicist—or us preferring the glamour of visible self-destruction over a quieter tale of an athlete downing 10,000 calories in a sitting and gaining 37 pounds?)

But (ahem!) to keep this beauty-focused, what I as a beauty blogger want to see is more thought and creativity put into the images we all use to depict eating disorders. I want an end to ED images that have a dual reading as glamorous; I want an end to ED images that invite us to scrutinize patients' bodies; I want a close watch on ED images that perpetuate the idea that people with eating disorders must be thin, or white, or young, or pretty, or women. I want media outlets to choose images that show that people with eating disorders aren’t all thin—and that they do things other than stand on scales and look in mirrors. 

Some of them have a difficult time grocery shopping:

Many of them ascribe inappropriate emotions to food:


Some go through the long, hard process of treatment:

And others, eventually, recover.

But the best idea I’ve heard came when I e-mailed some friends about what images they think would be appropriate to illustrate stories about eating disorders. We hashed out the problems with scales (what number do you show?), food (could that be that a trigger?), bodies (best done verrrry carefully), and of course the mirror shot (invites the viewer to judge, and...yawn, so not original). And then, in response to my question, “What art would you choose to illustrate a piece about women with eating disorders?”, one woman quietly, simply replied, “Art by women with eating disorders.”

So today, I give you just that.

Top row: Art by Sarah Coggrave. Bottom: Art by Katie Seiz.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Eating Disorders Are Not the End Point of Body Dissatisfaction

I don’t write that much about body image on here, for a variety of reasons. When I started this blog I wanted to talk about female personal beauty and appearance; body image is certainly a part of that, but there is already so much ink on women’s bodies that I didn’t feel like my time was best spent there. Also, because body image issues have high visibility, there’s a broader permission for women to be frank there than there is regarding overall appearance. (When was the last time a conventionally thin woman told you she was having a “fat day”? I’m guessing it was more recently than the last time any woman told you she was having an “ugly day.”) We’re fluent in the accoutrements of beauty—makeup, skin care, hair—but don’t frequently voice their essence, and that’s what I’m trying to do here. Body issues come up but I try not to make it my focus.

But the National Eating Disorders Association has declared it National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, and they’ve asked everyone who cares about eating disorders to do just one thing this week to raise awareness. I’m one of those people, and I have this forum, so I’m doing my part.

Here’s the thing, though: The connection between beauty and eating disorders is much more tenuous than it seems on first glance. I don't think that the end point of body dissatisfaction is an eating disorder; it’s not like she who is most dissatisfied wins the booby prize of an ED. Body dissatisfaction is one of many symptoms of an eating disorder; it is not a cause. Other symptoms of an eating disorder include what we usually think of as the disorder itself: restriction, bingeing, purging, weight loss, weight gain, compulsive exercising, chewing-and-spitting, and so on. 

So if those are the symptoms, what’s the cause? If you’re interested in that, you should be reading the excellent ED Bites; this entry gets to the heart of it. In short: It’s a complex mixture of biology and environment, like pretty much anything when you’re talking mental health. People had eating disorders before our culture’s thin-imperative struck so heavily; yes, they’re more common now, but I think that’s in part because dieting (which certainly is prompted by “thin is in”) can trigger a latent ED. We see—and love!—the neat story arc of a chubby girl who goes on a diet and everyone thinks she’s way purdy now but then it just goes! too! far! And then, of course, she gets help and is redeemed. But it’s not that the diet causes the eating disorder (plenty of people diet, healthily or not so, and don’t develop eating disorders; 8% of “normal dieters” do go on to develop one); it’s that restricting one’s diet can serve as a biological trigger for something that was there to begin with, whether that be further restriction or binge eating or whatever. When you’re not eating enough, or when your body’s resources are going toward digesting a compensatory high-calorie binge, your thinking is cloudy; if you’re biologically predisposed to having an ED, whatever safeguards you might have against it crumble a lot more easily.

Treatment professionals know this, and some laypeople do too; so why does awareness about eating disorders so frequently focus on body image? In part, it’s because everyone can relate to it—even people who are generally satisfied with their bodies have moments in which they bemoan something about it. So the 90ish% of people who don’t have an eating disorder read that compact little trajectory and are better able to sympathize. It turns an eating disorder from something stubborn and frightening and alienating into something that’s understandable; something that, for a healthy woman with body image concerns, has a ring of there-but-the-grace-of-God.

And also, it’s not like body image and eating disorders are unrelated. It would be disingenuous to say that people with eating disorders aren’t preoccupied with their bodies—some more than others, to be sure (there are plenty of ED patients who neither have body dysmorphia nor are fat-phobic, including not just binge eaters but anorexics too). But overall, the body is the focus for many, many women with eating disorders.

But that’s exactly why we need to be wary of making an exclusive link between body image and eating disorders. Because if we focus on the easy arithmetic of negative body image (severity x) = eating disorder, we do exactly what women with eating disorders do. We make the body the issue, when the body’s appearance is not the problem, nor the cause, nor the solution. We need to look at brain chemistry, family history, perfectionism, alienation from emotions, depression, anxiety, temperament, and more, in addition to the thin imperative, fat phobia, and even the mirror. And until we do, we’ll consider those root causes of eating disorders secondary to appearance. Do ED sufferers really need that message reinforced?

Of course I’m all for awareness of body image issues, for reasons that are so obvious that I’m not even going to list them here. I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t, say, be calling out messages that we find harmful, or that body dissatisfaction isn’t really a problem just because it doesn’t lead to eating disorders. It is a problem, and every woman has a right to a positive body image. I’m just wary of taking a mental illness and using it as a means of communicating a message that serves a different end, even if that message is essential to the well-being of all women. 

I especially don’t want to use ED sufferers to legitimize the way we watch like hawks over other women’s bodies, even if our intent is positive. One example of this: Emily Gordon's astute piece (not about eating disorders) about the (unfounded) rumors about Christina Hendricks dieting. “They’re Kate Winsletting her,” she writes of the fetishization of Hendricks’s body, seized upon all too often as a validation of how “real women have curves” (as if curveless women are impostors?); when Kate Winslet finally had enough of everyone gushing over her “real” body, she lost weight and became...unreal? Or something. But the point is, when we set up curvy women as somehow liberated and slim women as lucky, or sick, or beholden to a beauty standard—any of which may or may not be true—we keep the focus right where we don't want it: on their bodies. We stare at women's bodies and imbue them with all sorts of characteristics and qualities that may or may not be pertinent.

That is, we do exactly what women with eating disorders do to themselves. And I’m trying to opt out.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Duh, Lara Logan's Looks Are Irrelevant (Mostly)

I just wanted to call out an aspect of the Egypt rape case (you know, "the" Egypt rape case!) that is pertinent to my topic here: It is surprisingly rare to hear someone say in a public forum that's not explicitly feminist that harassment is about the harasser, not about the harassee. Responsible news outlets might focus on harassment with a sympathetic eye, but it's often left unsaid or unthought that women who are literally covered from head to toe can be victims of harassment just as easily as the woman dolled up in a miniskirt. So, as a white middle-class urban left-winger, I'm proud to point you toward this NPR story that does just that!

There's also lots to be said about the attention given to Lara Logan's looks, but to be honest I've only read criticism of just that, not the attention itself, so I'll just point you toward Jezebel and Mary Elizabeth Williams's take on it.

It's also interesting to read this 2005 New York Times article (yes, I've name-checked both NPR and the Times, in the same story!) in that light. In addition to some bits that now read tragically ironic ("her knack for getting access to dangerous to dangerous places is reminiscent of a young Dan Rather"—well, sort of, except when Dan Rather was attacked nobody talked about his looks or his right to be walking down the street, though the bizarre circumstances may have aided that, and it wasn't in the line of duty), the piece focuses largely on her personal appearance and its possible role in her career. Overall I think it's an engaging piece that at least touches on issues pertinent to women in public roles and how their looks might intersect with their work. We even get to hear from Logan herself (though I wish that the story about her dogging the editor of her local paper at age 12 for a job had appeared above the fact that she was briefly a swimsuit model, but whatevs). Logan's looks here are not the issue—her attack is—but since some people insist on making it a part of the conversation, we may as well have it.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Brief Interruption of Theory, Discourse, and Analysis in Order to Talk Mascara

I’ve always been curious about the job of a beauty editor because it seems like they’re privy to information the rest of us aren’t—I mean, how many of us have the word beauty in our job titles? And, of course, most ladymag readers share that curiosity, hence the whispered, insider-y tone of most beauty pages (and the reaction Ali gets when she divulges her job to a new acquaintance: “First they say, ‘Oh, how fun!’ Then they want me to look at their skin. I’m practically a dermatologist by now”). So even though traditional beauty tips are roughly #84 on my wish list for what this blog might put into the universe, now is as good a time as any to share the most useful and surprising (eyeshadow primer? really?) tidbits from my interview with Ali.

1) What anti-aging cream actually works? “After interviewing hundreds of dermatologists and hearing the same advice every time, yes, I now use a prescription retinoid. It’s called Renova; it’s a creamier version of the drug that’s in Retin-A. You have to ease yourself into it, using a pea-sized amount every third day for a while, because otherwise you’ll get red really quickly and then you’ll stop using it.”

2) Try an acne system, not just an acne product. “I’ve used the same cleanser for two years—Proactiv, I swear to god, that shit works! Doctors can prescribe benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid together, but a single over-the-counter product can’t have both. I think it’s one of those FDA monograph things. So the systems work because they have a benzoyl product and a salicylic product, but you’re using two products so you get them both without having to see a doctor.”

3) Buy the good sunscreen. “People always want to know what you should spend money on. Sunscreen you should spend money on. SPF means nothing because it doesn’t measure the UVA protection. And UVA blockers are really expensive, so cheap sunscreens don’t include them. But nobody wants to buy the good stuff, because it’s expensive! And if you’re wearing it correctly a bottle will last you two days, tops, at the beach. Look at the back, for the drug information—each of those drugs protects you from a different range of UV light for different amounts of time, so you actually want a long list. Neutrogena makes a good one—but it’s still $12.99.”

4) If you care about “clean beauty,” Burt’s Bees is the way to go. “I’ve been to their factory, I’ve interviewed their cosmetics chemist. Their lab isn't even a traditional lab, it's in the middle of the office, because they don't use chemicals so they don't need lab ventilation. They have big bags of sugar and coconut, but they make products that work, and it looks cute and you feel happy buying it. There are other companies that do the same thing but they charge a lot more for it. Burt's Bees is more expensive than some drugstore brands, but there's a reason for it.”

5) How the “natural look” breaks down: “People say to me, ‘You're so pretty, and you're not wearing any makeup.’ I probably have 17 products on right now! I put on SPF 30 sunscreen, every morning—if you interviewed enough dermatologists you'd do that too. Then tinted moisturizer; I'm still looking for the perfect one. If my skin is looking weird I'll use Armani foundation; it’s real sheer and melts in. Then concealer, because everybody needs concealer even if they say they don't; I use Estee Lauder Double Wear, it doesn't crease, and I've tried a ton. Then eyeshadow primer in lieu of eyeshadow, because you know how your eyelids might look bluish and pinkish and weird? This evens it out. The primers I’ve tried aren’t all that different; if it's eyeshadow primer it works. Then I curl my eyelashes. If I do nothing else, I curl my eyelashes—all you have to do is squeeze! No product! Then mascara; I use Blinc, this weird Japanese thing that freaks everybody out because when you wash it off it looks like your lashes are falling out, like little spider legs all over your sink, because it wraps each lash in this mascara tube. Then blush—Julie Hewitt has this rosy cream blush, very sheer—and bronzer on top of that. I still haven’t found the perfect bronzer. On my lips I put on lipstick or lip balm or whatever I'm testing at the time. So if people think I'm pretty without any makeup, I'm like, Shit, you could look like this too! Women think that there are pretty women and not-pretty women. But it's all what you do with what you have.”

6) Primers aren’t necessarily a rip-off. “You don’t have to put makeup over primers. People always freak out over primers because they think it’s priming you for something—like, great, another product I need? But you can use them alone and get good results. It actually does something.”

7) If your favorite item is discontinued, look at partner brands. “All these brands are owned by the same handful of companies, and the same labs do their products. So you liked Prescriptives, which was discontinued? You should look to Bobbi Brown, Estee Lauder, MAC, and Origins—they’re all owned by the same company that did Prescriptives, so they have the same R&D as Prescriptives. If you Google it you can find out who owns what.”

8) Check out return policies. “It’s great being a beauty editor because I get to actually try everything, whereas the woman in the drugstore would have to buy it to try it. It could take years of testing to find out what works for you.” [Drugstore return policies vary: CVS and Rite-Aid seem the most return-friendly for opened cosmetics, followed by Walgreens (in-store credit). For a more thorough (but not user-friendly) rundown of return policies, go here.]  

9) Know where to look in magazines to find what editors actually endorse. “The beauty editors’ picks page is usually mostly truthful. If I work at a magazine and there’s a ‘My Favorite Beauty Products,’ page, I’m not going to pick some product just because they bought a full-page ad. The line credits in the stories, that’s where sometimes you throw the advertisers a bone. There’s still that separation between edit and ads in that sense, but everything else being equal and I just have to mention a shampoo in a hair story, why wouldn’t I put in an advertiser’s? But I’m not going to claim it’s the greatest shampoo ever in the beauty editor’s picks.”

10) My personal vindication: You don’t need to wash your face that often. “You’re stripping it. Just do it at night to take makeup off—if you don’t wear makeup, you can just splash with water.”

11) And you definitely don’t need a toner. “Toners are bullshit.”

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Ali, Beauty Editor, New York City

In her 10-plus years as a beauty journalist, Ali has worked at some of the biggest ladymags out there—bridal, teen, lifestyle, more—and is now department head at a major publication (trust me, you’ve seen it). But I’ve worked with dozens of beauty editors; what made me track down Ali for an interview was that we’d joked before about “girls like us”: curious, intelligent women who always wanted to dig a little deeper. I assumed that we’d share the same healthy skepticism of the beauty industry, so I found her healthy—but not entirely skeptical—take on the beauty industry compelling and illuminating. In good ol’ service magazine fashion, I’ll be posting her inside-scoop beauty advice later (first up: toner is a scam); here, she talks about raising her eyebrow at the green beauty movement, why we shouldn’t blame the industry for our self-esteem woes, and the survival of the prettiest. In her own words:

On Evolutionary Theory
I think cosmetics make people feel good about themselves, not bad. It's healthy to want to look beautiful. Mental patients don't brush their hair or wash their face; they don't care about what they look like. Evolutionarily, we're meant to peacock around and look good to attract a mate, and these companies assist in that. You could say, Okay, but they're preying on women's insecurities. They are, in a way, but they're also creating an industry that does some beneficial things. I almost think that fashion companies prey on women's insecurities more than the beauty industry. That's an industry making a fortune off women feeling bad about themselves—those Victoria's Secret models? Compared to beauty ads, the ideal they present is even more unattainable. Then again, Victoria’s Secret models do have those beautiful lips and gorgeous hair. I don't know.

In college I did my thesis on the theory that there is a universal standard for beauty, and it was largely influenced by Nancy Etcoff's writings; her book, Survival of the Prettiest, touches upon how it's healthy to want to be pretty. And that, weirdly, the same things people think are pretty in the Unites States are pretty across borders. Lipstick deepens the red color of lips in the same way lips darken during arousal; when you're in love, your pupils dilate, and mascara gives you the same look. It's a part of our process—I don't think it's unnatural. A lot of women take it to this whole other crazy plastic surgery level, but mascara and lipstick? It's just part of being a woman. They used kohl on their eyes in ancient Egypt; we use eyeliner. The same things make women attractive, and there are evolutionary reasons for it.

Nefertiti to Cleopatra: Really, it's just a matter of time before we all look like Liz Taylor, right?

On Feminism and Self-Esteem Crises
I remember a study about aging that we did at a magazine where I used to work. Using objective measures, experts estimate about 10% of the population looks younger than they are. But when we asked people about themselves, 80% of them think they look younger than they are. Eighty percent! And when I worked at a teen magazine we did a survey; one of the questions was whether the girls thought they were above average in appearance. The majority said they were! And that’s the teen years, when there are supposed to be all these problems with self-esteem.

But it’s not going to make news if you say, “Oh, girls are happy with themselves.” What kind of headline is that? And what makes news is what we gather around. But I feel like people sometimes use the big bad beauty companies and their advertisements and quote-unquote unnececessary products as an excuse for why they feel bad. You don’t want to feel bad for no reason; you want to latch onto a reason for these insecurities we all have, so you don’t feel crazy, so you don’t feel like you’re unbalanced or negative. There are people who just don’t feel right inside, and it’s easy for them—and I don’t blame them—to say it’s because, “Oh, I’ve been looking at these attractive women.” But I think you have to abandon those external forces and look inside and be like, "Really, why aren’t I happy?" It’s not because you don’t look like some ad. If we excavated each woman’s insecurities, like they do on a Hoarders episode, there would be deeper things going on.

We’re not meant to sit in front of computers and go to offices; we’re meant to be hunting and gathering, so obviously our brains are misfiring in some ways. I’m sure some feminists would be like, “No, I’m totally normal—it’s society that’s wrong.” But I don’t know. I think some feminists might resist talking about beauty because they think the minute they open that discussion, it belittles their bigger points. But the fact that more feminists aren’t really talking about beauty and our insecurities about how we look in that way is part of why some of these things are still going on. It’s at the heart of what they’re trying to get across.

Some of my friends from college are journalists who really delve into current events and these intellectual topics, but they still e-mail me all, “Where do I get this beauty procedure done?” I’m like, “You see? You still need beauty advice even though you’re these smart feminist girls!” I guess that’s what I struggle with about this industry, personally—I feel like what I’m doing is not nearly as important as what they’re doing, like they’re “real” writers, and I’m a selling machine. But then I try to remind myself that people really like reading this. When a reader writes in about having large pores, she feels a whole lot better after I write to her with some tips or do an article with advice. Still, I don’t feel that intellectual legitimacy. But it’s funny that some people look down upon a journalist like me who’s in women’s service magazines. I may or may not want to know about the third reich of blah blah blah, but they always want to know what lipstick to buy!

On Trendsetting
The source of the best trends, if you really trace it back, it always starts with that person who isn’t necessarily physically attractive but is wearing something all balls-to-the-wall, I’m-awesome, look at me. And if you want what she has, you look at what she’s wearing and you copy it. Sometimes you meet these women and they have this aura about them, like electricity comes out of them. I’ve interviewed plenty of celebrities, and they have that. Like, Megan Fox has that. She’s also beautiful—I can’t even look at her, she’s so pretty—but it’s not just about that. People like her, who are so secure, so comfortable with themselves, they put you in a comfortable place and you feel better just being around them. So you look at someone who has that quality and you’re like, What does she have that I can get? And if it's black nail polish, then at least you can get the black nail polish.

But it isn’t always a person who starts beauty trends. You know how all of a sudden the same color is everywhere, like seafoam green? In Paris there’s this color show where they do textile and color trends. I swear to God, I think it’s one person who decides it all!  All these beauty companies send their product development people to the same forecasting companies and conventions, and then spring rolls around, and Orly, OPI, Revlon, you see their nail polish collections and it’s all seafoam green, coral, yellow, and gray. Same exact colors. I don’t think it works that way for fashion—there really are some artistic innovators in that industry who everyone knocks off, like Miuccia Prada. But these beauty companies aren’t reacting to anything in the zeitgeist—right now they’re developing products for 2013. They’re creating the zeitgeist.

On Green Beauty and Big Business
You could go to the Environmental Working Group and they’ll take any ingredient in a beauty product and tell you it’s going to kill you based on one study done 500 years ago on a rat in China. But I walk around New York every day breathing in carcinogens and eating red meat, and I just think no matter how careful I am about the beauty products I use, there’s no getting around exposure to harmful chemicals. You'd have to live in a bubble to get back to having a clean slate and then use natural products. There are people who have sensitivities to phthalates or parabens, but you could be just as sensitive to an all-natural essential oil. But people are into being green. That’s fine, except when you’re dealing with companies that lie. A lot of the big companies do that, just putting bilberry extract in their products—except it’s way down the ingredients list—and slapping a leaf on the package.

Some of the great, small brands that are green get bought up by the big ones. That doesn’t mean they’re going to change the products and make them shitty—a lot of times it’s better because now you have this huge R&D machine to work with. Clorox bought Burt’s Bees, and when I went to the Burt’s Bees factory and asked about it, they were like, “It’s the greatest thing ever—they let us continue doing what we were doing, but we have an infusion of cash so we can do more.” Not all acquiring companies do that. Some of the big companies treat lipstick the same as diapers; they move their CEOs around and it’s always some dude who has the MBA calling the shots and treating all the products the same. But other companies—Avon, for example—have strong female leaders and I think you can see that in the way they respect their customers.

On “Does It Work?”
There are some companies that can back up their claims, but if you were a regular consumer you'd never know. That’s because if these companies actually made the claims they technically could, their products could be considered a drug. For example, Olay: Their anti-aging creams do reduce wrinkles—better than some prescriptions—but if they claimed it that way on the box the FDA would investigate and they'd have to turn it into a drug, and then they lose money. But companies that can show me in-house studies—independently performed, double-blind—they're legit.

I think what makes it “work,” though, is if it makes you feel better. In a way, who cares if it’s going to make your skin look a certain way? Results are nice, but sometimes it just feels good to put on expensive face cream. If you’re spending $300 on your cream, of course you’re going to think it’s working better than your friend’s $30 cream—even though it might not really be. It’s like the confirmation bias in psychology: If you put money into something, you’re going to see any type of evidence supporting your belief that it’s working. It’s the placebo effect half the time. If you just shelled out $300 for a cream, your brain is in this mode of, This is going to work. You have that optimism that can actually make you radiant. If you’re thinking, Oh, I just got this $5 bojangle cream, I don’t give a shit—then no, it doesn’t work. If you squirt on a cheap, drugstore face lotion and you squeeze on an expensive department store one, you’ll notice a difference. One’s silkier and has a nice fragrance, even if they both do the same things to your skin. You want to believe in the dream.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Male Gaze X ≠ Female Beauty Y

Interesting study (PDF only) on how being objectified affects women's math performance. Female and male participants answered math questions after being given objectifying looks by a faux study partner of the opposite sex. The female participants who'd been gawked at scored more poorly compared with the control group. (Men answered the same in both conditions.) Thoughts:

1) The headline of the PsychCentral article sent to me by an alert friend reads "Are Good Looks Problematic for Women?" But the study literally had nothing to do with whether a woman was good-looking. It was a study about the objectifying male gaze, not a study about women looking so fiiiiiiiiine that the poor fellows couldn't help but stare. You could attempt to argue that conventionally attractive women are logically the object of that gaze more frequently--but A) you'd be wrong; any New York City woman can attest that simply by possessing a vagina and being roughly between the ages of 12 and 85, you become the object of that gaze, and B) that's a leap that wasn't explicitly made in the writeup. It's a case of erroneous reading of the study or erroneous reporting of it, and in either case it not only grossly misrepresents the intent of the study but effectively turns the ideas presented into women's own fault for being so damned good-looking as to affect our math skills. 

Now, plenty of news outlets accurately represented the study: "Ogling by Men Subtracts from Women's Math Scores" (LiveScience); "Women Subject to Objectifying Gazes Show Decreased Math Ability" (Science Daily). But PsychCentral and New Beauty both took this it's-cuz-they're-purty angle. Funnily enough, New Beauty is a plastic surgery magazine—do they want their readers to think they're bad at math? I'm guessing that New Beauty has some weirdo agenda about beauty and ability, but in any case this is a textbook example of reporters needing to check their assumptions. This study has nothing to do with how the women looked and everything to do with how the men were looking.

Yes, it was tempting to dot the "oo"s to look like nipples, but I am a lay-dee.

2) Lowered math skills aside, the study had some other fascinating angles: Objectified women were more likely to interact with their ogling partners, suggesting that there's higher motivation for a woman to engage with someone who is sexualizing her. I don't think this means women secretly want to be objectified (that varies by woman and situation), but rather that we internalize the position of being sexualized as our responsibility. 

And boy, do we ever. There's plenty of feminist rhetoric on girls and women being trained to be polite even in objectifying situations and how some men prey on that--and yes, some do--but there's something else at work here, which The Hairpin (via Beauty Schooled) makes a funny about, and which I will drain the humor from!: 

It's not that pretty girls aren't good at math. Or that pretty girls think they don't have to do math because they're so pretty. Just, when you notice girls are pretty and look at their prettiness, all they can think about is feeling pretty and there's no room in their brains left for math. Or something like that. I can't think straight when you're staring.

And, you know, I am capable of having my cleavage ogled and being competent at my work and patting my head and rubbing my tummy at the same time. But I also know that when I'm aware of being looked at in a sexualized manner, it can feel like the air is being sucked out of me. Whether that means I'm feeling adored by a man I want to adore me, or that I'm freezing because I know the dude halfway down the block is going to give me the treatment, when I'm the object of the gaze it is indeed difficult to stay in a state of flow about things other than my appearance—like, say, math problems. And even as I try to resist it, I find myself engaging in it, even if my engagement is also supposed to be a deflection. I often think that if I just engage more and make it clear that, oh, I have a boyfriend or husband, or just that I'm not looking for a pickup, I'll maintain my nice-girlness but get my point across. So yes, being objectified can make me interact more, much as I wish it didn't.

3) The most surprising part of the study for me was that body awareness and body dissatisfaction wasn't affected by whether a woman was ogled. All women in the study—objectified and the control group—had higher rates of body dissatisfaction during the study than men did, but that was due to their femaleness, not to whether they'd been stared at.

Honestly, I don't know what to make of this. The researchers hypothesized, based on other studies, that body shame would increase with being objectified. So other studies have found that there is a correlation. Now, I try not to get too into any individual study because a lot of it doesn't mean anything; at the same time, I'm writing this post, so clearly I give some credence to it. Personally, my body awareness does increase when I know I'm being sexualized—I may not feel worse or better about my body, but my consciousness of it increases tenfold. Maybe the women in the study were focusing so heavily on their assigned task that between calculating x plus y and interacting with their assigned pair of wandering eyes, they simply forgot to think about their own bodies?

If that's the case, I find that encouraging. Ideally, someone objectifying you should make you think about that person and what sort of interaction you'd like to have (or not have) with that person, not about your body and what signals you fear/hope it might send by its mere existence.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Heather, Blogger, Denver

When I first stumbled upon Faces of Beauty, I was mesmerized. I’m a chronic voyeur, preferring to (discreetly, but of course!) watch people on the subway rather than Sudoku, so any collection of faces is basically catnip to me. But what makes this different than a mere photo gallery is what each photo subject says about herself: Woman after woman proclaiming not only that she is beautiful, but why she’s beautiful. We see Clare honor her father’s rosy cheeks and her mother’s undereye circles; we see Katie define her beauty in verbs only; we see Alexia simply state, “I am beautiful because I say I am.”

Heather Disarro is the woman who gives Clare, Katie, Alexia, and dozens more beautiful women their voice on Faces of Beauty. After 14 years of struggling with disordered eating, Heather was able to see through the truth she’d been denying herself: Beautiful as-is, she’d been robbing herself for those years of the chance to spread her message of beauty. “We’re never promised tomorrow, and I’m not wasting one more second of this precious life...letting someone the defining factor of whether or not I’m beautiful!” she writes. Heather wrote to me about her reasons for starting the blog, the role her religion has played in her path to self-acceptance, and why the “elevator meeting” might be triggering a spate of unhealthy behaviors. In her own words:  

On Blogging Beauty
The goal of Faces of Beauty is to bring about a revolution in the way we see ourselves. There are so many women who think they need to be a certain size, wear certain clothes, wear makeup, and conform to a certain look to be beautiful, when in fact the entire reason they are beautiful in the first place is due to their specific, unique, individual beauty. I think that even though we all feel that we should strive for a certain kind of beauty, we are still hesitant to claim it. Faces of Beauty asks you to shout out loud that you are beautiful!

More than anything it's been really cool for me to see what people love about themselves.  I think we focus so much on what we LOOK like on the outside and never really take the time to see what's beautiful on the inside. As Sophia Loren once said, "Beauty is how you feel on the inside and it reflects in your eyes. It is not something physical." I've seen that quote reflected in the things that women have said about themselves on the blog more than anything else, and it's been the biggest blessing!

On Faith
As a Christian I fully admit that I am sinful; my sin and my “god” for the longest time was trying to look a certain way, appear a certain way, be a certain way. But the fact that Christ died for my sins and I’ve been set free from a life of slavery to that sin is huge. I am free, I am loved, and I am beautiful because I am born anew in Christ, and not because of anything that I have done. I would say that it plays a very large part in me learning to love myself and in my becoming the woman I am today.

Psalm 45:1 reads: “The king is enthralled with your beauty; honor him, for he is your lord.” More than anything this passage is a reminder to me that my allegiance is to God, and nothing else...not myself, not my husband, not my looks. I'm to honor God above all else! If beauty is the one thing you worry about it and it's an all-consuming thing, that's not healthy. I would call that a sin, as I would anything that is an all-consuming issue.

I don't think we should judge anyone as we're called to love all people. I am a sinner, we are all sinners, and whether it's vanity, eating issues, adultery, pornography,'s all the same in God's eyes. As for how to find the middle ground, I think the biggest thing for me was learning over time that I don't need to wear makeup or a certain pant size to be beautiful. Honestly there were a lot of stops along the way, but it was really a factor of time and love from others that made me realize how beautiful I am...and I don't have to try.

On “Getting the Look You Want”
I think that we’ve become a culture where the “elevator meeting”—what can you find out about someone in the time it takes to ride an elevator—has become the norm, and therefore physical appearance plays a large role in that. We also are completely surrounded by media that portrays women in a very unrealistic way, but since there’s no equally matched authority saying that we’re beautiful as we are, we tend to accept what’s immediately in front of us. Being “beautiful” feels accessible all the time, and if you don’t like your look? Just save enough money and have surgery. It’s much more acceptable to do that now, and just the other day I heard an ad for Sounds like an environmental organization—but it’s a plastic surgeon’s office advising people to “come in and get the look you want.”

When I started reading Teen and Seventeen magazines I was probably around 13-14 years old.  If I were looking back on me now, I was at a fairly awkward point then, sporting braces and frizzy hair and trying to keep up with the latest fashion trends. At the time I didn’t realize that I had a longer torso, closer-set hips, and broad, athletic shoulders. I saw that my body looked different, and attempted to act accordingly. The thing is that I was adorable just like that, and I hope that my daughters (if I have any) are able to see the beauty in their awkwardness!

On Makeup
I wake up every morning and wash my face. I apply mascara when I’m going to work or church, and otherwise tend to go without. I brush my teeth, apply moisturizer, and curl my eyelashes.  That’s about it! When I was younger I tried doing the full beauty routine with concealer, powder, blush, and the full gamut in eye makeup, but when I entered college and was working out regularly I just decided it would be easier to stick with mascara—waterproof so it didn't run when I was running—and that habit has just stuck with me. It's not that I think makeup is bad; I think it's the attitude that it's worn with. I don't mind playing with it from time to time, but I know in my heart that I don't NEED it to be beautiful.

On Her Blog’s Tagline: “Do You Believe That You Are Truly Beautiful?”
YES! :)

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

One Small Face of Beauty

I'm the face of the day over at, a site that features (mostly) self-portraits of women in no or little makeup along with a writeup of why they're beautiful. Check it out! (It's much classier than my most recent use of my self-portrait, on top of the fruit. I can't believe nobody called me out on that ridiculousness.)

Stay tuned for my interview with the founder, Heather Disarro, coming up!

Apple Shape, Pear Shape, Bull Shape

I am not a pear. Nor am I an apple, or an hourglass. I’m not a pencil, or a triangle, or a bell, or a rectangle.

But how does she dress herself in the morning? you gasp. My god, how does she know whether to wear skirts at or above the knee? frills at the bust or at the hem? can she “get away with” a wrap dress? a cinch waist? BOOT-LEG OR FLARE?

Women's magazines assume that after decades of fruitspeak, every American woman knows by right where her botanical destiny lies; just in case there’s the odd raised-by-wolves type who needs to figure out her best dress shape, of course, there’s often a brief guide: You are to look in the mirror and assess which fruit your silhouette most accurately resembles. Oh, the terms might vary: You’re not a pear, you’re a spoon! You’re not a banana or boy-shaped—nay, you are a ruler! (Actually, in magazines’ defense not many of them try to get away with “banana” any longer, perhaps recognizing that few of their readers were long, curveless creatures whose hips perpetually jutted to the left.) Hourglass, of course, never changes; despite the thin-imperative, all of the corrective clothing picks in the “dress your shape” magazine columns are designed to basically make us mimic the hourglass shape if we don’t have it naturally. (Not to be left out of the not-quite-good-enough game, of course, “hourglass” women are sometimes recast as “busty,” in which case the page focuses on “minimizing” and controlling the mighty mammaries.)

If looking in the mirror doesn’t help you? You could try asking strangers on the Internet (Google “am i a pear or an apple” for further assistance); you could consult Wikipedia. I once actually started plugging things like my wrist circumference into an online form to determine once and for all what fucking fruit I am, but stopped when I realized I was crazy-making, and now I can’t find it, but it exists. In general, waist-hip ratio is generally agreed upon as the determining factor of pear versus apple. This might work fine and dandy for the bitsy newsy health tip about how apples are all going to die of something tomorrow, if they haven't already. (Can we make apples and pears Health at Any Size’s next battle? I can't believe that every apple out there is going to get diabetes.) But in any case, it does squat for the woman who’s deemed a pear by the measuring tape, but in fact just has a curvy booty as opposed to wide hips.

Am I alone in never, ever having fit a single one of these categories? My hips aren’t quite wide enough for me to be a pear, I’m a little too curvy to be a banana, my waistline doesn’t qualify me as an apple, and I’m not busty enough to be an hourglass. More to the point, am I alone in having this sort of magnetic attraction-repulsion to the idea that there’s this set of guidelines that determines our “type,” like a personality flow chart for your figure? It’s this weird little corner of magazines that feels specifically tailored for you—I mean, look, there are FOUR DIFFERENT “REAL WOMEN” on this page, and one of them is probably even not-white (it's a favorite place for ladymags to cram in some "diversity"), so clearly She is We, and We are She, and this magazine and I are totally vibing—but that actually has nada to do with how you might look in puffed-sleeve blouses (pears), flared jeans (apples, I think?), or high necklines (bananas!).

 Late-night Photoshoppin': Don't tell me I don't know how to party.

It’s a categorization that shows us, more blatantly than other tools in women’s magazines, to view our bodies as problem zones. The savvier fashion writers  tell you to play up your good parts instead of  trying to hide the bad, but in some ways that echoes the notion of telling a heavy-set woman “Oh, but you’ve got such a pretty face” as a supposed compliment—as though now she must do something to “match” her “good points.”

Now, listen, I’ve got nothing against dressing to flatter your figure. I do it every day (please leave polite, anonymous comments if I am grossly mistaken). Scoop necklines, boot-cut jeans, stretchy pencil skirts, and faux-wrap dresses line my closet, because they’re what make me look the best. They visually create a nicer picture than, say, empire dresses and flare-legged jeans would on me. (Did the Powers That Be just want to temper my bohemian bent by forcing me into J.Crew?) And I’m guessing that for many women who don’t trust their visual sense or their instincts, or who just want some guidelines, that those pages are truly helpful. They're sure as shit popular, a perennial high scorer in magazine metrics.

But you know what? I am about the least fashion-conscious person out there, and I figured this stuff out. (Of course, that could be part of why; when you only care about what looks flattering instead of staying on-trend, it’s easier to find what works for you. Some call my wardrobe boring; I vote “classic.”) It’s not because I pay attention to the magazines that I figured out what worked on me: It’s because I look in the mirror. I made a vow several years ago—around the same that I began to suspect that this whole apple-pear thing was largely bullshit designed to appear "helpful" but wasn't really—that I wasn’t going to buy any clothing that didn’t give me an immediate “yes.” Voilà, a wardrobe was born: Within a year of this decision, my closet was filled with pretty much nothing but the items above. My fashion guidelines don’t flatter a single piece of fruit, but they flatter me just fine.

This isn’t to say that I didn’t pay attention to the magazines, though. Did I ever. From my first issue of Seventeen until I figured out a few years ago that I was neither apple nor pear nor hourglass but a cornucopia, I memorized every pear-shaped and plus-sized trick in the book, despite not being either of those. Like so many issues surrounding body image, what I actually looked like wasn’t what the issue. My light case of body dysmorphia (just a cough, really) dictated that I fixated on the size of my thighs, which are certainly ample but A) aren’t hips, and B) aren’t broad enough to make me resemble a classic d’Anjou. But the closest thing I could seize upon to fix this perceived flaw was the pear. And, of course, I cleverly deduced that in order to look smaller (which, at certain points in my life, took on a vastly inappropriate importance), one should read the “plus” section. I spent years never even trying on pencil skirts, because they only worked for hourglass figures and I was a pear, right?, instead “preferring” A-line skirts that never felt quite right.

I didn’t really realize how much my old perceived flaws had dictated the way I dressed, though, until I saw a hint of it elsewhere. I'm reading the blog of my friend Andréa, who’s doing the 30 for 30 challenge, in which you pick 30 items from your closet and wear only those; she’s using it as a way of challenging herself to wear things that are out of her comfort zone. She casually mentioned that one of her combinations was a personal challenge because it emphasized her “boy shape,” and it threw me for a loop to see someone who is most definitely shaped like a woman (what else could we be shaped like? oh, yes, fruit and spoons) describe herself that way—especially because she looked fantastic in the item in question, a studded belt. 

Andréa’s studded belt, my years with no pencil skirts, a vintage color-block dress I bought but never wore because the saleslady told me as she handed it over that “only an hourglass can get away with this” (encouragement or admonishment? it didn’t matter; I disqualified myself from being its wearer and gave it away): What are we missing out on because of our ingrained notions of what actually suits us? Add to this a tidbit that Beauty Schooled recently posted on Facebook about how nobody actually has a waist—it’s a tailoring term, not an anatomical one—and all of a sudden it’s beginning to look like we’ve been wearing the emperor’s clothes for a while now.