Friday, April 29, 2011

Beauty Blogosphere 4.29.11

The latest beauty news, from head to toe.

From Head...

Falsies, clearly, are the answer.

Eyelash magic beans recalled: The FDA has issued warnings to three brand owners of eyelash growth products. RapidLash Eyelash Renewal Serum, NeuLash Eyelash Technology, and NeuveauBrow Active Eyebrow Technology were all making claims that went beyond the scope of the Cosmetics Act, promising physiological changes that would classify a product as a drug, not a cosmetic. They also contain unapproved new drugs. A sad, sad day for the sufferers of eyelash hypotrichosis, an ailment pretty much invented by Latisse.

Blushing beauties: A blush indicates that you're trustworthy, indicates research published in Emotion. "Cheeks," my junior high nickname, has been vindicated.

Conditioner, how do I love thee? It's not often that beauty products get their own poem, so Hannah Stephenson's poem "Conditioner" is a particular delight.

...To Toe...
Foot washing: Notorious lady-hater Mel Gibson says he'd give Jodie Foster a pedicure "every day of the week if I could." I sort of like the notion of him playing Mary Magdalene to Jodie-Jesus but this comment still weird me out...

Fish pedicure goes to court: Any day now the Arizona Court of Appeals will rule on the legality of fish pedicures. I don't care what you say, I still want one. 

Random shoe company pair-ups: Which one is weirder: Payless ShoeSource getting into beauty products, or Manolo Blahnik execs getting into designer milk?

Haute Cowture

...And Everything In Between
The perfume you can't smell: As a former Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab addict, I can attest to the transformative power of scent, and this profile of master perfumer Christopher Brosius is a good read. Still, I'll go on record here: If you're trying to make a perfume nobody can smell, you're kind of an asshole.

Nail polish sales expanding: UK nail polish sales have increased at twice the rate of other color cosmetics in the past five years. Increased professional visibility, longer-lasting returns than makeup, and, of course, the classic "little indulgence" in low economic times are all viable theories. Is nail polish a better economic indicator than the "lipstick index"?

Nine weird beauty inventions: Play-Doh perfume, fine. But sleep support for your breasts just seems kooky.

Psychology Today still hates feminism: A ridiculous sexist-apologist Psychology Today story on how people need "to accept the not-so-pretty fact" that some people are better-looking than others. You don't say! ("Here's the TRUTH! Finally!" wrote the friend who initially e-mailed this to me.) Do yourself a favor and don't read that piece without reading Holly's awesome takedown of it.

Standard sizing, please?: Anyone with two X chromosomes knows that clothing sizes are bullshit. So until the fashion industry finally gives up on vanity sizing altogether and comes up with a different system (waist girth? hip girth? even the numbers we have would kind of work if they made any sense), we can all make do with the body-scan technology profiled in this NYTimes article. It's come to a body scan, folks.

The beauty upsell: Great piece at Marie Claire by the always-excellent Virginia Sole-Smith of Beauty Schooled, about how budding aestheticians are groomed in the art of the salon upsell. Click on through and read it: It's rare to see a piece that's remotely critical of the beauty industry in a mainstream women's magazine (beauty ads help keep most mags afloat, even more so than fashion), so this is a win for Marie Claire, its readers, and all beauty consumers.

Korea is the new Delaware: That is, external factors make it a landing spot for people who want cheap, good plastic surgery. Chinese patients make up a third of the Korean plastic surgery market.

Shiseido sales plummet: Down 62% in net profit this quarter, the Japanese company is at least making wise moves, increasing its overseas presence to tap markets that are more stable than the domestic one.

Lauder business strategy: William Lauder, former CEO of Estee Lauder (and grandson of the grande dame herself), talks at Wharton; the edited transcript reveals its dips into masstige while still maintaining authority over customers, and how the company still tries to touch every customer—as Estee did—even if that touch is more technological than it had been previously.

Damn you, Lara Croft!: Study participants endorsed stereotypical gender roles more heavily after watching Angelina Jolie kick butt in Tomb Raider than after watching Kathy Bates kick butt in Primary Colors. So not only is it not enough to be competent and conventionally beautiful, but being both might backfire? Grody gross!

Tina's fail: I love Tina Fey. Love! Do people still say lurve? I lurve her. But she's not above criticism, and sex worker blog Tits and Sass points out that she makes some assumptions about sex workers that aren't kind (and in fact can be nasty; see "stripper bones" reference). 

Men on street harassment: From reading comments, it seems like my conclusion in yesterday's piece about complex reactions to street harassment struck a chord: We're eager to refocus the attention back to the harassers instead of keeping it on ourselves. Luckily, some men feel the same way. Hugo Schwyzer at the Good Men Project and Ben Privot of the Consensual Project give tips on how to responsibly admire a woman without objectifying her. It seems odd that we need guides to these sorts of things, but there you have it.

And, of course, the requisite royal wedding bit: Didn't we fight a war to get away from all this? Still, if you can't resist, here are three feminist-beauty-blog-approved options: 1) A totally non-snarky rundown of why we shouldn't call Kate Middleton a style icon, at Illustrator Claire; 2) What happens when adults fall for princessmania, at Never Say Diet, and 3) Designers at Estee Lauder and Jo Malone are among those who made wedding cakes inspired by today's event

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Feminist Reactions to Street Harassment

American Girl in Italy
, Ruth Orkin, 1951

The construction crew building the school across the street from my old apartment stayed all summer. And though the notion that construction workers spend their days ogling and wolf whistling is overplayed—I barely flinch when walking by a site most of the time—this group lived up to the stereotype. Nothing vulgar, nothing over-the-top, just: One day, a sudden silence when I'd walk by, and out of the corner of my eye I'd see heads turning; the next, a chorus of knowing "Hello there, where you going?" would follow me down the gauntlet. It was tame; still, even though there was only one direct route from my apartment to the subway, on days when I just wasn't up to it, I'd walk around the block in order to avoid them.

But one day I'd had enough, and as I walked by and heard the chime of "lookin' good"s, I snapped. "Do you think women like hearing this every day?" I asked. "Do any of you have daughters?" Several of them did, including the foreman. "What would you do if you saw someone talking to your daughter and looking at her the way you do to women?" His face got red; his cheeks puffed out. "I'd teach him a lesson," he said. "I'm somebody's daughter," I replied. A shocked look crossed his face, and another worker said, "My daughter's eight." I told him I was 11 the first time I was hollered at on the street, and by this time a small crowd had gathered and they were nodding and looking at me with respect. They asked my name, I gave it, and from then on every time I walked by the site, a couple of them would say, "Hi, Autumn," and all was well.

At least, that's how it went in my mind. Yesterday I read M. Brenn's questioning, reflective post on a sudden flash of jealousy she felt when she saw a distasteful episode of unwanted attention: "Mostly, I was outraged that he so clearly saw the girls as nothing more than objects," she writes. "But there was also a part of me that was oddly jealous… It's such a hypocritical thing to be outraged by someone's actions, yet be hurt that they weren't toward you." It's a thought-provoking post. (Thanks to Virginia for pointing me toward it.) She solicited readers' experiences, and only when I started to really reflect on the complex reactions that harassment prompts within me did I remember: It wasn't me the construction workers were hollering at when I told them off. It was the woman ahead of me on the street.

Now, these workers had indeed been making me wary for weeks by the time I melted down: Again, nothing lewd, but I'm not so naive as to think that their words to me were strictly neighborly. They were claiming my block—the block I'd called home for years—as their own space. But I dealt with it internally, either by ignoring, or playing neighbor, or taking the long way around. I never confronted them—until the day that another woman was walking maybe 30 feet ahead of me and I heard them get to her first. When they started in on her, I saw her head bow ever so slightly as she shuffled past the site. And in that moment, I snapped. The dialogue I gave above happened as I described it, but it wasn't me they were talking about.

I've told the story a few times—with me as target—as an example of a way to call out street harassers on their actions, because it did have what I consider a happy ending. (Some women may have preferred that they never say hello to her, but that would have made me even more tense; really, all I wanted was to feel at ease in my neighborhood, and for me this did it.) I never consciously rewrote the story in my head to eliminate the actual target of their attention; in fact, telling it in that way was so seamless that I honestly had forgotten it wasn't about me, until I read M. Brenn's post.

I don't know how much of my reaction was about jealousy; I'm loath to admit when that particular emotion strikes me, but I didn't feel that hot flash of jealousy that I'm plenty familiar with. (Though I can't pretend it was simple mama-bear protectiveness on my part either; the truth is probably a little of both, plus a nasty mood and opportunity to at least feel like I was speaking up for someone else instead of myself, which I'm not great at.) But my hunch is that my accidental revision was about embarrassment. I'm pretty sure that instinctively, I feared seeming jealous if I reported that I'd finally told off the workers after seeing someone else get the treatment, not myself—and that if I then tried to make it clear that, Well, no, you see, they'd also done it to me too, it was just this one day, no really!, I'd seem a little thou-doth-protest-too-much. I've often braced myself for walking a stretch of sidewalk that's populated with men I believe will bring me trouble—and heard nothing. And sometimes that feels like a relief or even a victory, but other times I merely feel foolish for having assumed that I would elicit that kind of attention.

I don't want to be harassed—ever. But we're steeped in a culture where objectification is treated as a prize for women, and in New York City, the objectification of street harassment is a fact of day-to-day life. It's a constant reminder that we are being looked at. In a culture that breathes objectification down our necks, being looked at can satisfy an itch that wasn't ours to begin with—even as it annoys us. Objectification is an unnatural state, but even women who fight against objectification—mine, yours, J.Lo's, anyone's—live in a world where it's the norm, and we may sometimes internalize its absence as a remark on our appeal. I think of one of Beauty Redefined's catchphrases: You are capable of so much more than being looked at. It's a powerful, truthful statement, and I believe it.

But fighting that all day, every day, becomes exhausting. We've become programmed to find street objectification the norm, and deprogramming ourselves from that takes constant work. If we had a unilateral way of rejecting street harassment, it might be easier, but it's not a neat trajectory: Sometimes we have interactions with strangers that are pleasant, life-affirming, and joyous, and sometimes those encounters might even make you feel pretty (if objectified). Unlike sexual assault, in which a woman saying no or being unable to consent marks the beginning of the crime zone, the target's feelings are part of what delineates harassment from a simple encounter. I feel harassed when I received unwanted attention on the street (and for the record, most of it is unwanted)—and the person who decides what's unwanted is me. There are plenty of external factors that push an encounter to the harassment end of the spectrum: Is it one man, or a group? Is it daylight, or night? Is he drunk, am I? Does he start to follow me, does he call me a bitch when I don't answer, is there a menace in his voice? Is he saying good morning, or is he commenting on parts of my body? Is he smiling, or is he whispering, or is he making that hideous hissing sound I'd never heard before moving to this city, or does he keep on talking after I've indicated I don't want to engage with him?

But street encounters are complex, and so are our reactions to them. I know I'm not alone in occasionally feeling genuinely pleased at a nice comment from a stranger. Of course this can only happen when the fellow is following common sense; it's daylight, he doesn't linger, he's brief and kind and smiling and not ogling—basically, he's a gentleman about it. Yet at its heart, even an encounter with the hallmarks of pleasance is left up to me to define as an amiable human interaction or as a gnat of a moment I wish hadn't happened. Not that I can—or should—welcome all polite comments on my appearance; it's more that, frankly, my mood has a lot to do with whether I smile back, ignore it, or cast an annoyed look. I try to always to ignore it, but my instincts don't always let me.

Listen: If I could, by decree, rule that nobody would ever comment on a stranger's appearance—both harassment and genuine compliments—I'd do it. Ultimately I want my block to feel like mine, not like I'm on a canvas and the patriarchy holds the paintbrush. But I also feel like with that decree, I'd be losing small, occasional gifts that have entered my life as a result of a stranger saying something nice to me. I have to acknowledge my contradictions as a part of my complex reaction to being looked at.

Jealousy, anger, pride, relief, apprehension, hatred, satisfaction, dread, numbness, fear, stress, thrill, shame: These are all legitimate reactions to these sorts of encounters. But notice that these are all reactions. That may be the greatest loss this particular form of objectification signifies for women. It keeps us in a constant state of passivity and self-examination, whether in the end we applaud our own responses or doubt them. And this examination diverts us from the larger point: It's not our response to actions that needs a thorough questioning. It's the actions themselves.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Kelli Dunham, Comic, New York City

“Yeah, I get called for beauty blog interviews all the time,” quips Kelli Dunham, comic, author, queer organizer, and ex-nun. “I’m turning them down now.” But with a CD titled Almost Pretty (watch the hilarious story of the CD's title here), is it any wonder we connected? Cohost of LGBT storytelling series Queer Memoir and round-table comedy-talk show Juxtapositions, Kelli has entertained audiences from the legendary Stonewall Inn to Citibank corporate headquarters, always keeping her vibrant, savvy humor on edge. We talked about the masculine privilege granted to butch women, the time renowned gender theorist Kate Bornstein called her handsome, and where a woman can find a decent barber in this town. In her own words:

On Desirability and Handsomeness
After my mom saw me perform for the first time in a long while, I remember her saying, “So, Kelli, I have a question—” you know that when you preface a question with a question, it’s never good—“in your subculture, are you considered...desirable?” I didn’t know she knew what a subculture was! She was genuinely confused; it was the first time she’d seen me perform in so long. But I think she’d noticed the kind of girlfriends I’d had over the years, and what they look like, and I think it had never occurred to her that how I look actually has some social currency in “my subculture.” So I said, “Yeah, Mom, actually I am considered desirable in my subculture.” And she said, “Oh! Oh. Oh.” People have an assumption that since femininity must be the default of beauty, that to not be what’s considered feminine must be ugly. It becomes the logical conclusion. So when she was presented with new information by seeing me interact with people, perhaps by observing sexual agency—she has eyes, she can observe social patterns—she realized, “Wow, it seems like my daughter is desirable in some way.” She was checking for facts against her assumptions. I think when she heard me say that, yes, I actually am attractive to others of my species, then all the things she’d been observing kind of clicked.

I don’t really identify with the term beauty. But Kate Bornstein was the first person to call me handsomeI had a very short buzz cut at that time—it was seven or eight years ago, she rubbed my head and said “Oh, you’re just such a handsome boi.” And I remember being shocked—in addition to it being Kate Bornstein saying it, it just made me feel like...Wow, I’m handsome. That was very life-affirming, and I think it gave me a level of hope. I had a lot of good experiences growing up focused on what I could do, but as far as, Hmm, I’m really enjoying looking at you—that hadn’t really been the kind of experience I’d had. So I felt like, Okay, if Kate Bornstein finds me handsome, I bet there are other people who do. As it turns out, I am desirable in my subculture.

As I’ve become comfortable in my gender identity, I’ve become okay with the word beauty, but I think it was challenging to me before—in part because it was always used as a measuring stick, as in, “You could be really pretty if you _______.” I was a fat kid, and growing up as a fat kid people would compliment your face, the whole “Oh, you have such a pretty face” thing. But as a fat kid, you definitely don’t want to hear anything about your face, because it’s a backhanded compliment. It’s possible now that there are all sorts of ways that people interact with me because I’ve got these sort of delicate features—I never liked my nose, but my girlfriend says “That’s the kind of nose people pay $10,000 to get”—instead of looking rougher. If I was wearing what I’m wearing now—a sweatshirt that’s seven years old, completely inappropriate shorts, old tennis shoes—but had irregular or asymmetrical features, maybe people would be interacting with me differently. I wouldn’t really know, though—that’s what privilege is, when you have something you don’t recognize.

On Boi Couture
I’d always thought that dress-up clothes were feminine clothes, and therefore uncomfortable and not really me. My mom loved dressing my sister and me in matching outfits, and it was the '70s so there are all these pictures of me in bright pink with a bow and a silk collar. I felt like I was wearing a bear suit or something. When I started realizing that wearing masculine clothes was an option for me, the idea of dressing up became positive. I like nerdy accessories—I have these cheap tennis shoes shoes that have pink laces, and the uppers look like the front of a composition notebook, that speckled black. They’re cute as hell, but because they cost $15 there’s no support at all, so sometimes I just put them in my bag and wear them at an event. My girlfriend makes fun of me, saying they’re my equivalent of spike heels.

When I get dressed up, a tie is one of those things that makes me straighten my shoulders. The first time you put on a tie, it feels amazing. It’s a gender marker that people find very confrontational. There are ties in traditional women’s clothing, but you’re not really trying to wear a tie. I imagine that’s something to do with male privilege, specifically the kind of man who wears a tie. It’s like, “Are you trying to be that kind of person? You couldn’t possibly be that kind of person.” Some masculine women specifically stay away from traditional men’s power wear when they go to job interviews, because they feel it’s too confrontational. But my girlfriend [who presents as feminine] has a power suit that’s just like a dude’s suit! She had a tailor for it, but it’s just a dude’s suit. It works much better for her than it would for me.

I wrote a couple of children’s books, and my publisher assigned me a publicist. She was trying to book me on The Bonnie Hunt Show to talk about kids and their bodies, and everything was going great. The producer loved me and we’re all three on the phone, and they said, “Oh, do you have a video you could send us?” I said, “Absolutely.” The producer hangs up and I’m just talking to the publicist, and I say, “You’ve seen a picture of me, right?” And she says, “No, but I’m Googling right now...oh my!” Needless to say, I didn’t end up on The Bonnie Hunt Show. Anyway, one of the videos that I had was me performing in a tie, and they said, “You have to lose the tie.” I said, “You need to understand, if you want me to wear a dress, I’m going to look more uncomfortable.” Forcing people into a different gender presentation than what they identify with generates awkwardness for all involved. The hilarious thing was that at that point my hair was completely close-cropped, almost shiny on the sides, and I had piercings. But the tie, the tie! She’s wearing a tie!

On Barbershops
A new haircut is a butch accessory. I have to go to a barbershop to get my hair cut, and trying to get it short enough is always an ordeal. I usually go for a 1 or a 2 on the clippers, but I used to say I’d like a 0 when I was in suburban areas, because then they’d actually use a 1 or a 2. They’re scared that they’re going to cut off your hair and you’re going to be like, “Ahhh! It’s too short!” They think that a woman wouldn’t really know the barbershop vocabulary, even though I’d memorized it. And actually, you can’t really do that in New York, because in New York they’ll listen to you. When there’s some kind of language barrier, I’ll just go in and say, “Fleet Week.”

Going with another butch to the barbershop is definitely less intimidating than going by yourself. There are certain places where it feels totally cool, and other places where it’s not cool at all, so you have to figure it out. And it’s always a different experience if you pass, if the person thinks you’re a guy or a kid. I look for something that doesn’t say “Barbershop for men” or something like that—some places will actually have that. I don’t know if they could refuse the service, but the person is gonna have a razor in their hand, so it just makes sense to not push too much. If I see both young and old guys in there, that’s a clue, and if I see a mixture of straight and gay guys working there, that’s another. Once I found that I could navigate that stuff myself and develop the skills to judge a barbershop from the outside, and once people could see that I know the vocabulary, that was satisfying. It feels like a rite of passage, and it’s such a simple thing. Your boyfriend probably doesn’t come home and tell you, “Wow, I finally went to the barber, and it was awesome!”

On Butch Privilege
A friend of mine who transitioned said, “Wow, being a fat man is so much easier than being a fat woman.” When I had longer hair, I definitely got more “fat-ass” insults on the street, and since I’ve had a spectrum of body sizes I’ve had an interesting exercise in how people react to body sizes. There are ways in which there’s a protective space formed around masculinity. I can’t even remember the last time someone tried to engage me in diet talk. Like in that split second of someone being, “Hey, let’s talk about Atkins!” they look at me and are like, “Well, maybe she’d rather talk about baseball...” Which is a toss-up. I don’t really like to talk about baseball either. Butch women have some masculine privilege. I mean, we’re also liable to get beat up or knifed on the street, but there is some masculine privilege. Even when people think I’m a 15-year-old boy, there are benefits to that.

With comedy, I might have run into more appearance-related issues if I’d stayed in mainstream comedy. When I get onstage in mainstream clubs, people don’t know what gender I am. I almost always have to address it up-front because otherwise they’ll be like, “Oh, she looks like a 12-year-old boy.” And they laugh throughout the gender stuff, but I think that’s because I’m so deliberately addressing it. If I just got up and said, “Hey, I’m gonna tell some jokes about my cat! Men and women are so different! Say, what’s up with hats?” perhaps there would be more resistance to it. I do think there’s a lot of pressure on female comics to talk in a self-deprecating way about their bodies, but because I look the way I look it’s different for me. I’m addressing it directly, and some people will say, “Oh, that’s a great schtick you have.” I’m thinking, This is a schtick?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Thoughts on a Word: Hot

Hot is tanned, free of body hair, and in a miniskirt. Hot likes to party, and we know better than to take hot too seriously. Hot is younger than most; Google will find 24 million hot women for you, but 31 million hot girls. Hot is purchased, packaged, and with a firm price. Hot is a series of illusions; you may wake up with the mantle of hot, but you weren't born that way. Hot is Miami. Hot is Venice Beach. Hot is JWoww.

I have to fight here to not simply spew against hot. But my distaste for the word shines through: To me, it represents a crude packaging of the spark that might give a person the "heat" from which our use of hot should derive. Hot removes its opposite—cold—leaving us lopsided, with no yin to balance out the yang that hot thrusts upon us. And is it any surprise that yin's energy—if you believe in this hippie eastern chi stuff—is the cool, lunar feminine, whereas yang's dry heat is associated with masculinity?

It's not a stretch to imagine that with the terminology of heat being applied to everything from temperament (1100s), food (1540s), scent (1600s), jazz (1912), and radioactivity (1940s), that hot might have been loosely applied to women throughout the ages. Indeed, hot has applied to our physical passions since the 1590s, and my beloved 1894 Webster's gives "Lustful; lewd" as one of its definitions.

When America was on the brink of the (supposed) sexual revolution, heat cropped up frequently in film titles—but it was still being used to describe a situation, not a woman. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958, though the play was published in 1955), The Long, Hot Summer (1958), and Some Like It Hot (1959) clustered around the precipice of revolution, and it seems unlikely that this was a coincidence (Some Like It Hot's working title was Not Tonight, Josephine). And we weren't quite ready to take the plunge into woman-as-heat: Too Hot to Handle (1960), starring Jayne Mansfield, who had been on loan to a British company when she became too hot to handle in the States, had to be released in the U.S. as Playgirl After Dark. But beginning in the 1960s, we took the plunge to explicitly calling women hot: Hot-Blooded Woman (1965) rode the sexploitation wave, followed by a flurry of ambiguously titled films whose packaging made it clear that hot references the woman, not what's outside. The Hot Box (1972) remains a jewel in the crown of women-in-prison flicks (after—what else?—Caged Heat); Running Hot and Hot Moves (both 1984) maintained the surveillance of hot women.

Then, of course, came Paris Hilton, with her 2005 trademarking (literally) of "That's hot." She wasn't speaking only of women, of course; it seemed to be a catch-all phrase that could apply to anything from shoes to lip balm to the Middle East. Yet her lyrengeal, lackadaisical utterance of "That's hot" clearly contained anything but passion, leaving only Hilton's self-presentation as a branding of hotness. In a sort of airy philosophical way I'd like to declare her turnaround of "That's hot"—shifting the focus from herself to the world around her—as a reclamation of hot. In truth, however, Hilton is far too savvy of a marketer to have chosen that terminology without being keenly aware of its reflexive effect upon her image. Hilton's tanned, dyed, refurbished appearance epitomizes hot and its machinations. By being a distant yet explicitly available persona, she illustrates the trap of hot: It's not that you'll get burned if you come too close; it's that you might see that you're looking at a Yule Log DVD, not a live fire.

Hot should be synonymous with sexy, yet it's not. Sexy should be more blatant, more crude, more vulgar—it mentions s-e-x!—but the plastic quality hot connotes makes sexy seem its authentic, primal alternative. Hot gets to the core of objectification: A woman is not intrinsically hot; instead, the viewer becomes heated upon seeing her and attributes his own reaction to her essence. She becomes hot once seen through his eyes, not before. The yin and yang again: Men and women alike describe women as beautiful. But when we speak of her as hot, we understand that her hotness exists only in the context of being seen by others; it's knowing that she will be viewed that makes her hot. She is not hot at home, by herself, doing laundry or dozing or dancing, even as she might be pretty or beautiful. Nothing can exist in a vacuum: not sound, color, smell, or temperature. In physics and in the public sphere alike, nothing can be hot in a vacuum. It requires energy—yours, the viewer's—in order to exist.

Monday, April 25, 2011

On Redheads, Brunettes, and Blondes

“I asked him what his sexual fantasy was, and he said, ‘Two redheads.’ I’m a brunette.”

Thus goes the promotional anecdote on the back cover of my friend Rob Elder’s latest book, It Was Over When, a fun (and occasionally galling) book composed of the exact moment at which you know a relationship is over. Not when you actually break up, mind you, but the moment at which you know, in your heart, that it’s a no-go. My personal favorite is, “It was over when he asked his cats what I wanted to do that day. In a doggy voice.”

Actually, that’s my second-favorite. My real favorite entry is the “two redheads” one above—and that’s because it was mine.

In the fellow’s defense: A) He was 20 years old (so was I), and neither of us knew how to handle our liquor at that tender age; B) We were playing Truth or Dare (see point A); and C) We were theater majors, which has nothing to do with anything except to justify why it was acceptable to be playing Truth or Dare outside of a prepubescent slumber party.

My ensuing hysterics (see point C above) have been long forgotten, but the essence of it stuck with me. Tactlessness aside, I'm guessing my ex's comments had less to do with wanting to sleep with two women who happened to possess red hair (well, that too), and more to do with wanting to sleep with two redheads. Being a redhead isn’t just about having red hair, just as being a brunette or a blonde is only partly to do with hair color. Being a brunette is about what we imbue a brunette with: She is serious, a girl-next-door type, intelligent, stable. Blondes, as we all know, have more fun. And redheads? Them be craaaazy.

The most egregious example of this stereotyping, of course, is the blonde joke—which, I should add, I’ve most often heard from fair-haired women, possibly in an attempt to beat their detractors to the punch. But even that’s a joke, if a poor one, and the idea is that we’ve moved past this in general: We riff on gentlemen preferring blondes, understanding that its humor is antique. Therein lies the joke, right? But the fact that we still use this terminology at all—and apply it much more frequently to women than we do to men—shows that it hasn't died out entirely. (I'm sure that brunet still shows up on occasion, probably in British Elle as applied to Keanu Reeves and Keanu Reeves only, but let's not pretend that brunet and brunette are equivalent.) In the current Marie Claire, writer Erin Hosier goes so far as to alter her signature hot tamale shade in order to attract a different kind of man—one who’s, say, a doctor who wants to settle down instead of someone who’s into the “alternative lifestyle” she believes her hair currently indicates. She winds up with a happy ending—dating a man who swears he’d like her no matter her hair color—but that’s almost beside the point. We understand what each of the cues means; that's the whole point of the piece.

I do sometimes wonder how my life would be different if I'd inherited my mother's flame-red hair. Would I be seen as wilder, more sensitive, sexier, kookier? And if the recessive blonde gene had struck: Would I be more preferred by gentlemen? Would I have more fun? As it happens, I possess much of what is attributed to brunettes: I'm intelligent, serious, self-sufficient, and stable. A neat coincidence, almost as neat as me fitting the list of my zodiac characteristics to a T—communicative, curious, easily distracted, flexible (some would say "hypocritical," but those people are usually Tauruses). Of course, I also fit Libra (diplomatic!), Virgo (practical!), Cancer (moody!), and Sagittarius (optimistic!). In truth, my personality is probably about as influenced by my hair color as it is by my sun sign (which is to say, not much)—but my self-perception probably has been shaped by what we attribute to both, as much as I don't want to admit it. (I got my hands on the Cosmopolitan Bedside Astrologer at an inappropriately young age and dearly wanted to be as, well, cosmopolitan as that guide said we Geminis are.) 

When I was growing up, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed "all-American girl" look was en vogue, but I never yearned to have that aesthetic, despite buying into the beauty ideal in other ways. Had I actually been blonde in those preteen years, would I have felt more acutely the desire to acquire that prevailing beauty ideal? Blonde was beautiful; I wasn't blonde; ergo, beautiful was farther away from me, so good thing I had all those other smart-girl attributes going for me--you know, the brunette attributes. I don’t think my smart blonde-haired friends were shortchanged in their education, but I’m pretty sure that there’s some sort of relationship between the attributes I pride myself on today and the reinforcement those attributes received because, in some ways, I looked the part.

I started fishing around for the inevitable scientific studies that would “prove” whether there was truth to the stereotypes. But I quickly stopped. I’ve written here before about how I think so many appearance-related studies are suspect, in large part because I wonder about their motivation. Were I to keep looking, I’d be doing exactly what I accuse those scientists of doing: Seeking to quantify our suspicions, even if they’re not necessarily my suspicions, in the name of “science.” I remember reading a study about how people who required glasses really did overall have higher IQs than those who didn’t, and felt a vindictive A-HA! for the hassle my nearsightedness has caused me over the years. Were I to find that brown-haired women were smarter, I risk that same shameful flash of unearned pride, which means I’d be buying into it even as I didn’t want to; were I to find that the stereotype was unfounded, I’d feel embarrassed for having peeked in the first place.

But back to It Was Over When, which, incidentally would be a fun gift for anyone who’s ever broken up with anyone, and I’m only partly saying this because it was written by a friend. (Though it’s certainly easier to find a way to mention this book here than another recent endeavor of Rob's, the sober Last Words of the Executed, given that nobody on death row mentioned lipstick in their final statement.) It Was Over When features an addendum to each tale of love's end; my quote's wrap-up is: "He left me two months later. For a blonde." Which was true. But the real ending here is that he soon met the woman he wound up marrying, a fluttery, pixie-like creature whose charm easily flits from drowsy Southern belle to ethereal hippie, always with grace and delight. She also happens to dye her hair a different color every few months. I know nothing of their marriage, and I don’t want to, for I’m rather fond of the matrimonial vision I have in my head: In it, she challenges him every day by refusing to fit into any checklist of characteristics he entered their union with. Maybe she dyes her hair darker when she’s feeling stable and down-to-earth; maybe she dyes it in order to help her find that gravitas when her self-perceived blonde flutteriness becomes too weightless. Maybe her hair-dye whims are just that—whims, caprice, a head of hot pink—and are made in relative isolation, and she offers the same easy verve she did the day, month, or year before. Maybe she enjoys playing into his checklist; maybe she has a checklist of her own. Or maybe her very presence in his life has helped him crumple up the checklist he held onto when he was 20, and he’s a step closer to not passing on ideas about redheads, brunettes, and blondes to their children. This is what I hope.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Beauty Blogsophere 4.22.11

Before I get into the roundup, I just want to do a little self-promotion: If you're on Facebook and enjoy what you're reading here, please "like" The Beheld if you haven't already. And, of course, there's always Twitter. I'm really trying to make The Beheld grow, and the more ways that people (that's you) can share stuff going on here, all the better to help that happen. Thank you!

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

From Head...
Wake-up (Cocoa) recall: Clairol Natural Instincts is recalling a dozen shades that have mismatched sachets that "may result in unwanted color." You wouldn't want to buy Wake-up Cocoa and wind up with Raspberry Creme, now, would you?

Just in case the revolution is televised: The Middle Eastern hair care market is expected to swell in demand because of the burgeoning youth population—to the point where hair care will outperform all other cosmetics and toiletries. (Skin care takes that honor in the States; see next item.) Want to know more? Hit up next week's International Exhibition for Cosmetics and Beauty Products in sunny Damascus, Syria! Should be relaxing.

So why is skin care so enormous in the States? Nice business-eye view as to why. In a word: growth. Growth of men's markets, of Asian markets, and technology, which means that what seemed revolutionary a decade ago now seems quaint. (Remember ceramides?) Toe...

High heel history: Anthropology in Practice examines the meaning of high heels. It's fashion, not beauty, but it's the fashion thing I struggle with the most so I'm including it here. It is impossible for me to feel dressed up in flats. I'm working to get over this because OUCH but damn do I love the way my spirit feels in heels.

...and Everything in Between:

Avon's calling: Avon became the first major cosmetics player to commit to using sustainable palm oil in its products. Sustainability is a growing (and under-reported) concern in the booming natural cosmetics market--it's great that consumers are more aware of what goes into their cosmetics, but biodiversity and labor concerns can get shoved under the rug, especially when you're dealing with companies whose commitment to green beauty goes little further than throwing in a little aloe and calling it "natural." Let's hope that this pays off for Avon, whose stock has been sagging.

Trouble He-brewing:
An Israeli teen beauty queen is kicked out of public (but religious) school for participating in the beauty pageant. The blogger here questions the failure of the system--not that the young woman was expelled, but that entering the beauty contest was her goal in the first place. 

The "lipstick effect": Time to trot out those econ pieces about "the lipstick effect," in which markets for small luxuries soar during economic downturns. Why this week of all weeks, when this isn't really news, I have no idea. 

"Evocative, but provocative": Fascinating early-'60s fragrance ad, in case your Mad Men jonesing is giving you the shakes.  

Eco-luxe: I'm all for companies making green products seem luxurious to up its social cache. But are $19 eco-friendly gluten-free lipsticks going to do much to massage the prevalent image of "latte liberals"?   

Soap cartels: Procter & Gamble (Clairol, CoverGirl, Fekkai, Olay, Vidal Sassoon, etc.) and Unilever (Dove, Pond's, Vaseline, Tigi) fined for price fixing. The more you read about these companies, the shadier they get, I tell you! P&G gets extra credit for developing small-size "no-frills" products as a part of its Africa strategy. You know, Africa, the world's poorest continent. (Though in all fairness, P&G, along with Johnson & Johnson, did make the National Association of Female Executives' 2011 list of top companies for women.) 

Shiseido goes e-commerce: Japan's Shiseido finally launches online U.S. sales in an effort to keep the brand afloat in light of the Japanese crisis.

Curve ball: Fascinating graph roundup on attitudes toward sex by weird demographic breakdowns (did you know that vegetarians are more inclined to report enjoying giving oral sex than meat-eaters?), but what's relevant here is charts #7 and #8, which chart sex drive and self-confidence by women's self-reported body type. In OK Cupid's words:
"It's particularly interesting to isolate skinny—a deprecating way to say something generally considered positive (being thin)—and curvy—an empowering way to say something generally considered negative (being heavy)."

"Magazine goggles": I love Verging on Serious's phrase for what happens when you start to see yourself through the filter of spending days on vacation reading ladymags. (No comment from me—yet—on what 12 years of working in them does to you...) 

Monopoly money: The brains behind the always excellent Beauty Redefined are based in Salt Lake City, which was named by Forbes as the "Vainest City in the U.S." Lindsay and Lexie dissect this here; the whole thing is worth a read, but of special note is this trivia: The American Medical Association banned advertising for plastic surgery procedures until 1982, when the FTC demanded more competition between providers to decrease costs.

Sex or makeup? This study about how women would rather give up sex, chocolate, and coffee than makeup is making the rounds. I don't like the tone that reporting on it has taken, like women are all these cyphers who would do anything--ANYTHING!!!--for our moisturizer. Note that A) the study was commissioned by a cosmetics company, and B) it asked if women would give up those items for a week, not their entire lives (haven't we all gone a week without all three of those? Um, except coffee, criminy that is a toss-up), and C) it's ridiculous in the first place, because they are so not equivalent, right? As my boyfriend said over coffee and chocolate the other day, "It's like asking, Would you rather not eat an apple or have your baby killed?"

Thursday, April 21, 2011

How to Be a Good Salon Client

A pedicurist sees this all day long—and I guarantee it ain't always this pretty.

Part of why I don’t engage more beauty services—mani/pedis, facials, etc.—is because I feel acutely aware of the weird power dynamic inherent in many salons. I, a middle-class white woman born in America, am paying a probably not-white person, likely an immigrant, less than I make to do the sort of beauty labor on my body that I’m unwilling to do myself—I’m outsourcing my own grooming, essentially. Most often I just choose to opt out. But in talking with Virginia Sole-Smith of Beauty Schooled and hearing about what it’s like on the other side of the waxing table, I started to see that simply opting out isn’t the only way to handle that dynamic: As a client, I can engage with it responsibly, in ways that go beyond just tipping well and smiling (though do that too). Here, her tips for being a responsible salon client.

1) Tip. Always. “I don’t care if you didn’t like the service—you always have to tip out. The most fundamental injustice in the beauty industry right now is that the salons are all based on a tipping model, which means that workers’ wages are too low. Salons underpay their workers and pass the responsibility for making up the difference over to consumers, so they can advertise lower prices. So think of the listed price of your haircut or bikini wax as a fake price tag and add 20 percent more. That’s pretty much across the board—definitely in discount nail salons. It’s a little less true if you go to a really high-end salon; if a hairstylist works on commission and you’re paying $150 for a cut, the stylist is probably getting 40% of that. So she’s doing fine. But remember that the shampoo girl and her assistant who does your blowout aren’t making that. They’re making, like, $8 an hour. People often tip hairstylists 20% and give the shampoo girl $3; I’d rather give the shampoo girl $10 and scale back a bit on the stylist. Better yet, tip everyone well. I usually tip more than 20%; for a $35 pedicure I’ll tip $10, because I know those workers are often only paid about $50 a day. If you can’t afford to give a tip, you can’t afford to get a pedicure.”

2) Make it mutual. “Make it a point to ask their name. If you make conversation, don’t just go on about what you want—have a conversation with them as you would any other person. I hate when I go to a nail salon and I see women talking on their cell phone while there’s a woman scrubbing her feet. I know you’re there to relax, and that’s fine—you don’t have to talk through the whole thing. If you’re getting a facial, you’re paying to basically take a nap. But recognize that this is a human being who is working on you; don’t pretend she’s a robot, because she’s not. She’s touching you and being physically intimate, so it would be nice to ask how her day is going. Pay it back a little bit. That can be tricky to do, because you’re paying for the service and she has to give that service. But keep the fundamental respect.”

3) Be an advocate. “If you’re going into a place that’s awful with fumes and not enough ventilation, ask for the windows to be opened. You can even encourage salons to give their workers masks and gloves — or if you notice workers wearing protective gear, make a point to tell the owner that you appreciate them making worker safety a priority. The owners aren’t going to do that unless they think that the customer wants it, because they don’t want to lose business. So anytime you say, ‘Wow, these fumes make me sick,’ and talk to a salon manager and say, ‘Hey, can you open more windows or put a fan in here?’—particularly with the really toxic stuff, like the Brazilian blowout and acrylic nails—the manager is at least listening to you. They need to hear that from customers.”

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Virginia Sole-Smith, Writer, New York

When Virginia Sole-Smith was assigned to write a 200-word piece about whether nail polish was safe for pregnant women, she immediately wondered whether it was safe for salon workers who, pregnant or not, inhale polish fumes all day. It spurred her to investigate further, leading to an exposé in The Nation about conditions that are tantamount to sweatshop labor. Her desire to help shape our culture’s conversation about beauty didn’t end there: She spent 600 hours learning to excavate pores, apply makeup, and join “the sisterhood of the Brazilian” in hope of finding some answers about the price we pay for pretty. She blogs about “Beauty U” at Beauty Schooled and on body image at iVillage’s Never Say Diet; her work has also appeared in Nylon, Marie Claire, Slate, and dozens of other publications. We talked about the false delineation of feminism and beauty, the “beauty gaps” that drove her to follow the beauty beat, and the intimacies—false and poignantly real—of salon work. In her own words:

 Photo by Jason Falchook

On "Beauty Gaps"
I think of beauty gaps as all the ways the fantasy of the beauty industry doesn’t match the reality. There’s this huge gap between any woman going into a salon for a treatment, and the person working on her. You don't know much about that person—you often don't even know her name. She’s there to focus on you and work on you in really intimate ways. A lot of customers don't make eye contact when you're giving them a Brazilian. It doesn't make you feel great as the worker when you're up to your elbows in this business and dealing with these sort of unsavory things. You're taking that on, and they don't even want to look at you—they just slide you a couple of wadded-up dollars at the end. It's so intimate, but between worker and customer it can be a fake intimacy. There's an especially large gap in New York, where there's a come-and-go immigrant workforce, and there's language gaps and socioeconomic gaps between worker and consumer.

Another beauty gap happens between what the consumer thinks she's going to get out of a treatment and what she actually gets. Think about when you brought in a picture from a magazine and you're like, "I want that haircut." They give you that haircut, and even if you look great, it's never quite that haircut. There’s always a gap between, This is what I'm promised and This is what I actually look like. There's also the environmental gap between the messages of health and wellness the industry is selling while using all these sketchy chemicals, impacting women's health in all these different ways.

Then there is another beauty gap that took me some time to come to terms with. In school I became close to women who love beauty in a different way than I do—they were signing on to do it professionally, and they weren’t always giving it the same scrutiny. If I’d talk about things like why women shave their legs, a lot of them wouldn’t look at that as a topic that begged that question. That was eye-opening to me—these were smart, interesting, funny women who were just really in love with beauty. Once I was out of school and was going back to my regular life, I had a weird transition period and started putting the puzzle pieces together. I realized this was the key beauty gap: We’re presented with this choice, that you either have to be smart and reject the beauty myth, or buy into the beauty myth and then you’re stupid and a bad feminist. That’s not a real choice and it’s not an easy place to be. I’ve had a hard time giving myself enough freedom with the beauty side—I was raised more like, What are you going to be when you grow up, what are you going to do to change the world? Your identity is bound up in what you do—which is what we want for women. You certainly don’t want women to feel like their whole identity is how they look. But if you feel like it’s only about how smart you are, it can be hard to embrace the other side. I mean, obviously I’m fascinated enough with beauty to go to school for a whole year! So it was something I felt deeply about and love talking about endlessly, yet I felt the need to sort of act like I didn’t want to buy into that. It was a little vain on my part. The worker-consumer beauty gap was the more obvious gap to me, but this gap is right here in my own brain. I realized that I needed to work on closing it. 

Read the hilarious background on the Glamour Shots-style pic that made it onto Virginia's esthetics license.

On Feminism
Before I went to beauty school, I thought I had rejected a lot of stuff. Like bikini waxes; I’d do the minimal once a year, and otherwise I’d do nothing, which is fairly unusual for women my age. And I thought that showed how evolved I was, how much of a feminist I was. At the same time, I have more clothes than God—seriously, I have a wall of shoes in my house. And it’s unhelpful when women do exactly what I did, drawing these lines: I’ll do X, but I won’t do Y. We need to understand that the distinction is different for every woman based on how old she is, or her socioeconomic class—there are thousands of different factors playing into why you would or would not do any particular beauty work. For example, right now I don’t think I would ever get plastic surgery—but I don’t know how I’ll feel in 20 years. These procedures are becoming easier, more affordable, and more commonplace, so we don’t know what “normal” is going to look like. To decide something is evil because it seems extreme to you is doing a disservice to all women. It means we’re at each other’s throats all the time when we could be getting other stuff done. You don’t have to buy into anything you don’t want—you can pick and choose. But we have to respect women who pick and choose differently.

A lot of feminists now in their 50s and 60s have spent all this time fighting for a rejection of the beauty myth to become an accepted position, so they feel let down when feminists our age are like, “Yeah, I’m gonna wear lipstick and dye my hair.” But simply rejecting the beauty myth hasn’t worked. We’ve seen lots of research showing how for all the strides women have made on equal rights issues, women are held back time and time again by appearance-related issues. Some feminists want to focus on issues like equal pay and abortion rights and don’t want to see how discourse on beauty is a part of that same conversation. It has a huge economic impact on us and it bleeds into all of these other things that feminists want to say. We have to stop assuming that the only way to make progress is through a wholesale rejection, and instead start figuring out how women engage with the beauty industry in positive ways. There has to be a way we can do all these things without just buying into unhealthy standards.

On the Intimacy of Beauty Work
When you’re working on a client, it’s your job to deal with the zits, the excess hair, the fat—everything this woman hates about her body, she's handing it off and making it your problem. It isn’t always degrading, but there is a degrading element where you are literally dealing with the body parts people hate the most. If a client says, "Oh my god, my thighs," as the worker you're like, Okay, now I have to work around that. You're trying to make her feel better about all of that, but at the same time in order to make the sale, you have to be like, "We can totally take care of that for you," or "Well, have you tried our cellulite wrap?" It's ridiculous.

At beauty school, there's also an intimacy from the other students. We were perpetuating these intense beauty standards, like, “You should remove that hair, you should do this and that.” It could be anti-woman in that sense, but it was also very bonding. When we would bikini wax each other, it was like a sisterhood—a sisterhood of the Brazilian! You feel this closeness to other women through beauty, and I don’t think that’s fake. I think that’s something some feminists reject. It’s important that this can be seen as an opportunity for female bonding, as a chance for women to relate to one another. I think there are times when the level of connection you can have with other women over beauty work outweighs its negative standards. There’s a way of reclaiming the whole thing. Beauty can become very competitive, and we’re often trained not to trust pretty women, so any time women actually support one another in beauty work, I think that’s fantastic. Any time you can make it not about competition and instead about a communal experience, that’s a good thing.

On the Business of Beauty Writing
I feel guilty when I’m unhappy with my looks because I feel like I’m letting everybody down. I think I’m supposed to represent feeling good about yourself no matter what. But, I mean, I gained 20 pounds in beauty school. I didn’t want to admit how much it was bothering me—I thought, “that’s the price of reporting,” no big deal. But I was unhappy about it, and I didn’t like that I didn’t like how I looked at that size! Finally my best friend was like, “The whole point of writing about this stuff is to be honest.” It’s not about being the poster child for self-esteem; it’s about sussing out why we feel the way we feel. But there’s definitely a degree of pressure—a lot of the body image community has recovered from or are dealing with eating disorders, and I’m highly aware of not triggering somebody. The last thing you want to do is feed into that machine, so it’s a tricky balance.

I loved women’s magazines in high school and college—I always thought, this is where we as feminists could do so much good work. This is what millions of women read—this is our media. And it should be our media. I always wanted to be in this world. It was eye-opening to realize it was all very well and good to want to create change, but that it’s hard to actually do it. I wrote a story about labor conditions in nail salons that was originally commissioned by Jane magazine, and they were super-excited about it. I was thrilled because Jane and Sassy were feminist women’s magazines that were supposed to revolutionize everything—I thought it was amazing that I got to do this story for them. They were the ones who sent me to California to do the reporting in nail salons. I wrote it, revised it a thousand times, got it through fact-check, got it through copy edit, got it ready to ship to the printers—and the publisher killed it because of advertising concerns. That was like—okay, if that happened at Jane f*cking magazine, that’s going to happen everywhere. I was devastated. When I got it into The Nation—which was great—everyone was like, “Oh, it’s so much better here than in a women’s magazine.” But though The Nation does amazing things, I would have loved for the story to be in a women’s magazine, because that’s where it needed to be told. Those readers are the women who go to nail salons.