Friday, December 30, 2011

Beauty Blogosphere 12.30.11

The Beheld will be returning in the new year. May you release whatever you wish from 2011, and welcome 2012 with open arms. Happy new year!

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

From Head... 
Stunning beauty: In the name of radical transparency, I should let you know that I am not above trying out bee venom face cream.

...To Toe...
What to wear with your pedicure boots? These handmade pedicure socks on Etsy, of course!

...And Everything In Between:
Private factor: Lipstick index = old news. Now it's the lingerie index, kids! I find this interesting because unlike most other economic indicators focusing on women's appearance, which I've shared my thoughts on already, lingerie falls into a separate zone, neither conspicuous consumption nor inconspicuous consumption. It's designed to both be seen and not be seen; nobody knows you wear it except for people who already have a ballpark idea of your financial situation. Not sure what to make of this; you?

MAC at it again: I have my theoretical quibblings with MAC, but the fact that they're doing a line from 90-year-old design icon Iris Apfel shows a dedication to out-of-the-box thinking that continues to impress. MAC may not be nearly as subversive as they seem to think they are, but at least they're doing real things to broaden our notion of beauty as a winner-take-all game.

Nairobi way: Overview of the Kenyan cosmetics market. Its boom has shifted the way women treat makeup, going from makeup as a way of hiding facial blemishes to something more along the lines of showcasing one's features.

Man aisle (maisle?): I've already rolled my eyes at "man aisles" in personal care sections of large retail stores, my thinking being, Oh wow, men get their very own aisle? Way to ghettoize household duties and further gender nongendered products (soap for men!). This article shows me that's not the whole story; in fact, it might be the way the retail world is exploiting the shift toward men doing more household shopping, potentially lessening the burden of women's "second shift."

Perm power: The role of black beauty salons in social activism. Certainly intimacy is fostered in many a stylist's chair, and taking what's chattered about in salons to the next level makes perfect sense.

"Those in the Land bathe in civilian blood to maintain their breathtaking beauty." —Tyra Banks, Modelland

Modelland: Review at Bitch of one of the more bizarre book releases of 2011, Modelland by Tyra Banks, in which all young women vie for selection into a modeling boarding school in order to become a super-race called the Intoxibellas. 

Girl's girl: Is there such a thing as girl pretty versus guy pretty? Sara Zucker examines, using Olivia Wilde and Jennifer Aniston as case studies.

"Girls want superheroes, and boys want superheroes": On the off-chance you haven't seen this viral (viral in the circles I run in, anyway) video of a 4-year-old girl asking why all the girls' toys are pink and the boys' stuff is superheros, you really should.

"There wasn't much left to wear down": A very (very) short story by Brittany Julious that perfectly describes the real problem with street harassment. It's not fear; it's resources.

How should we talk to girls about beauty?: As someone who believes in the import of beauty, self-care, and self-presentation (to wit: this blog), I agree with Hugo Schwyzer that we should be having discussions with girls about things often dismissed as trivial—fashion, beauty—so that if that turns out to be their interest, they won't feel ashamed. And certainly, coming from a household in which these things were not discussed, I can vouch for the confusion that comes when a girl cares about such things but is told they "don't really matter." But missing from his essay here is the importance of following girls' leads. I've already written my thoughts about praising girls for their looks; I've softened a bit since then after hearing from a friend of mine in college who had superb self-esteem without ever being conceited. Her parents told her every day that she was beautiful, and she believed it, and it shows—not just in her beauty, but in her appropriate pride. So I can't condemn praising girls—but I feel like unless we follow their lead on this, we're setting the agenda for them.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Beauty Blogosphere 12.23.11

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

From Head...

For all you who found The Beheld through my no-shampoo experiment: Have you thought about conditioner-only washing? This gorgeous head of hair might convince you to give it a try.

...To Toe...
Father Christmas at your fingertips: Desperately tried to find a Santa pedicure and failed. But how's this?

...And Everything In Between: 
Avon today: A succinct, helpful overview of the situation at Avon with CEO Andrea Jung's departure and what it means for the traditionally woman-friendly company. Also good for kids! Let's play "spot the makeup puns": "By 2005, the firm was looking blemished." I count five. How many do you count?

Where would we be without spandex? (Awesome pic is of episode 2 of
The Weird Girls Project, "Spandex Attack")

Plus, it's an anagram of "expands": An examination of the shifting role of spandex in our culture. Is it the fabric of democracy? (via Decoding Dress, who wisely included a disclaimer that some of the language may be fat-shaming)

Photoshopped: An outline of the baby steps being taken in the ad industry regarding the misuse of photo retouching that misrepresents what a product is supposed to do. I'm still sorting out my feelings on this but I feel like this is a decent overview of the state of the industry.

Scandal in blue: Custom-color-blending cosmetics firm sues two former employees for stealing trade secrets.

Long, hard winter: Procter & Gamble is instituting a hiring freeze. For the rest of 2011. Which, at press time, was five business days.

Mostly off-topic but 'tis the season: This is just about the best last-minute gift guide ever. Recommends buying a Kindle for "your sister's tiara toddler" and preloading it with The Beauty Myth, and the suggestions for the other colorful characters in your life are similarly spot-on (does everyone have a conspiracy theorist in-law?).

Saudi shopping: The trials of being a Saudi cosmetics salesman. "They offer suggestions on what color would suit me best and what product would look more beautiful on me. These sentences are considered harassment in our society,” says a shopper—difficult enough for a sales force to navigate, complicated by Saudi's large expat community, which is used to a more aggressive sales technique.

Past "metrosexual": Interesting that this Times trend piece about men's skincare is being both yawned at and critiqued. ("If beauty companies don’t coddle us with allusions to 'frat culture,' we might just feel, oh, I don’t know, gay or something," writes J. Bryan Lowder in Slate.) Haven't we already run this story?

Beauty queens: Fascinating newsreel featuring Miss Fat and Beautiful, a pageant from 1960s London. We've been working for a long while on size acceptance, it seems; how much longer will it take?

Eat it: Sort of Freaking Out about ingestible "nutricosmetics," which are supposed to be all the rage for 2012. And how does that intersect with confectioner Ladurée releasing a new cosmetics line, hmmm?

You don't say: Rundown of advertisers' slow wake-up: Women over 50! Exist! And they wear makeup! And they have more disposable cash than younger women! 

Smelling over seventy: Fragrance blog Mimi Froufrou on what's behind "grandma smell" (the perfume kind), and then swiftly critiques it too. (Incidentally, I'm not a perfume person for the most part but this blog has continually interesting insights and is worth checking out for a slightly off-the-beaten-path beauty blog.)

Nature's balm: Innovative program from Mary Kay, which has a strong record of helping domestic violence victims: the Nature Explore Classroom Women's Shelter Program, which aims to bring the therapeutic benefits of nature to children who, for safety reasons, must have restricted access to public areas like parks. Normally I get all "this seems like a way of seeming like you're supporting women but you're actually not," but A) Mary Kay has an excellent record on helping domestic violence causes, and B) this seems like the sort of thing that has come out of actual fieldwork and recognition that children who are affected by domestic violence have special concerns.

Pole Dance USA: Could pole dancing become an Olympic sport? (via Tits and Sass)

Defensive tackle: Two women's football players share their thoughts on lingerie football, which I still can't believe actually exists in this dimension. (via Fit and Feminist)

Bra books! Hourglassy reviews two tomes dedicated to our brassieres, and yes, one of them is called Busted.

Closet curation: Decoding Dress, as a kickoff to a closet overhaul, looks at the difference between managing one's wardrobe and curating it.

In defense of beauty: An old post from a beauty blogger I just found about the ways in which dismissing beauty as frivolous undermines its real power. "I think there’s a misguided belief that beauty is exclusive and unattainable, and makes people feel that they can’t be a part of it. I don’t believe that this can be true because the idea of beauty is so subjective and multi-dimensional; nobody can tell you what beauty is, only what it means to them."

Monday, December 19, 2011

I'll Be Home for Christmas

Portrait of the Blogger Working as a Mall Christmas Elf, 1994

People! Writing The Beheld has made this year exceptional for me, and anyone reading is a part of that. But much of what inspires my thoughts here in the first place is having grown up in a family that exists at pretty much opposite ends of the spectrum as far as attitudes toward beauty, giving me a consistently varied perspective on how and why any of us choose to present ourselves the way we do. You’ve already met my low-maintenance mother, who told me Cinderella got the prince because she was “so clean,” not because she was beautiful; through her you’ve met my grandmother, who, in her mid-80s, remains an impeccably styled fashion plate with a dazzling lipstick collection (and who took me for my first manicure).

And I am so very fortunate to be able to spend time over the holidays with both of these women—and with my father and brother and both grandfathers and various aunts (who took me to get my ears pierced when I was 10) and uncles. I know myself better than to think that I’ll be able to truly unplug while I’m away (and for the record, “away” means Gun Barrel City, Texas, and no, that is not my private nickname for it but rather the actual legal name of the municipality), but I’m going to take out my cyborg wire that semi-permanently connects my brain to the internet so that I can actually spend time with my family instead of just in the same house with them.

The upshot is: I’ll be doing my Friday roundup (beauty news never sleeps) but won’t be back with regular posts until after Christmas. And I’ve got some fun news to announce soon that will (hopefully!) ensure that content will be stronger and more regular than ever, so please do stay tuned!

May your holidays be full of any or all of the following attributes of your choice: peace, joy, glamour, peppermint bark, togetherness, devotion, cheer, stillness, only the seasonal music you like and none that you don’t—and, as ever, beauty.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Beauty Blogosphere 12.16.11

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


From Head...
Favorite random find of the week: The British Optical Association Museum, which has online exhibitions, including the history of contact lenses. You thought gas-permeables were bad? Apparently early lenses were made from the cut-off bottoms of test tubes.

...To Toe...
Wants and needs: A story about a homeless man who, upon discovering a credit card in the street, made a beeline for a salon to get a pedicure showed up in my various news feeds no less than seven times. (I'm not linking to it because they all name him, and the guy's gone through enough already.) The news, of course, isn't that a person in need found a credit card and used it (he didn't steal it and isn't accused of doing so) but rather than instead of getting what he "needed," he got what he wanted. There's an argument in there about the role that small indulgences can play in giving comfort, but I also find it practical: There are resources for homeless people to get enough food and clothing to be reasonably safe, and some shelters offer showers and other hygiene services, but if you spend a lot of time outside in harsh conditions, your feet are probably in pretty bad shape. This isn't news; it's illumination of what people "need" after all.

...And Everything In Between:
All-American Shame: Estee Lauder agrees to pull ads from "All-American Muslim," a Muslim reality show, at the urging of Christian group Florida Family Association (Muslims, as we all know, do not have families, and certainly not in Florida!). “The show profiles only Muslims that appear to be ordinary folks,” writes the FFA in the letter they sent to advertisers like Lauder. For real? For shame.

Proctor & Guillaume: I've covered the Procter & Gamble/Unilever laundry detergent price-fixing scandal before and was prepared to leave it alone since it's...laundry detergent, but this juicy bit from The Economist is too good: "Each of the companies had a code name: 'Pierre' for P&G, 'Laurence' for Unilever, 'Hugues' for Henkel and 'Christian' for Colgate-Palmolive. The conspirators met in suburban Paris hotels for meetings termed 'store checks.'" Who knew laundry powder could get so cloak-and-dagger?

Avon lady: Avon CEO Andrea Jung stepped down this week (though she'll now be executive chair), unsurprising considering the company's middling results and bribery scandal in its Chinese branch. Corruption aside (!), I'm bummed to see this happen. For an industry that relies almost entirely on women's spending, hardly any top decision-makers are women, and I liked that Avon had kept its woman-friendly ethos all the way to the top. Being an "Avon lady" was a stepping stone for plenty of women throughout American history to recognize their own potential by signing up to do independent sales; I've read stories of it giving women confidence (and funds) to leave violent relationships, giving more heft to its anti-violence program. It's a historically important company for women, and I want to see that continue.

Presumably Somalia was not as troubled 2011 years ago as it is today.

We three kings: Frankincense and myrrh, not just gifts of the Magi but ingredients still used to scent cosmetic products, are largely sourced from war-torn regions, making them both economically and politically important. Frankincense, the third largest export from Somalia, is particularly questionable, as droughts have led producers to engage in unsustainable sourcing.

Caprine beauty: Goat milk is more profitable when used in beauty products than when used as...goat milk. That could possibly be because goat milk tastes like it's milk from a goat, but I'm no expert.

Who needs safe when you've got cheap?: The Personal Care Products Council keeps increasing its lobbying funds, presumably in an effort to quell the Safe Cosmetics Act.

Race and eating disorders: A well-timed reminder in the wake of the Allure body image survey that showed black women have a healthier body image than white women: Black women get eating disorders too, and the longer we confuse body image and eating disorders, the more shame black women will feel for having a disease that implies shame--perhaps even race shame. Adia Color writes at Huffington Post, "I was supposed to be on top of everything--a good example for my school, my family, God, my race... An eating disorder didn't fit into that equation, and the last area--the race one--certainly didn't match up with the eating disorder status quo nor with my preferred narrative."

"Maxi muscles": Courtesy Virginia Sole-Smith, I now know that Glamour magazine has been kind enough to give all of us a choice! We can have "mini muscles" like Gwyneth Paltrow or "maxi muscles" like Gabrielle Reece or Feminist Figure Girl! No, wait, the maxi muscles belong to Cameron Diaz, that she-hulk of a movie star. Sorry, my bad.

Beauty by the book: Rachel Shteir reviews en masse the bevy of beauty books that have come out in the past year or so, elegantly posing questions about what the authors ignore (psychology) and why we're all suddenly turning to economics to break down beauty. (I've always wondered why we want to break down beauty at all.)

The Girl With the Rape Survivor Wardrobe: Fashionista asks if the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo H&M collection minimizes the experience of rape survivors. It's made clear in the books that Lisbeth Salander's sartorial choices are a response to her repeated victimization, making a collection based on her look seem icky. But no more icky than the books, I daresay! (One of the more misogynist things I've read in my life, this from a book that prided itself on not hating women.) Edit: Be sure to read Beth's comment here in the comments section--"So if H&M did a line of clothing based on my style, would they be insensitive to my childhood trauma? I'd be more inclined to think that they were celebrating my artistic response to that trauma." And after reading her argument, I'm inclined to agree.

Brazil: The Atlantic delves into the practice of bikini waxing (specifically the Brazilian), and somewhere in the Naked City, a blogger screams.

Beauty and pain: Margaret Cho, whose own beauty story has been unique in its own right (and then made doubly so by her creating an entire storytelling act around it), is taking a more nuanced stance on beauty these days. "My mother first informed me of the idea that beauty was pain... I am not a masochist. I don’t want pain. And therefore, beauty and I are incompatible. I no longer believe this to be true. To be beautiful is actually to be aware of yourself as art, and to frame your art in a way that is unique to yourself and easy to yourself and fun to yourself. We are just masterpieces waiting to be framed and mounted and lighted then worshipped. We are worth this, as we are more priceless than anything." There are plenty of pitfalls to be thinking of yourself as a masterpiece waiting to be framed, but I like the general perspective here. (via Gala Darling)

"A troubled form of power": Newly minted lawyer Vina Tran weighs the merits of makeup and erotic capital in the legal profession. I was pleased to see she linked to something I wrote about erotic capital, but given that I've actually now read Erotic Capital and find it a tremendous pile of hogwash, I feel like a mild redaction is in order. (More on that soon, promise.)

Represent: Nahida at The Fatal Feminist has an excellent three-part series on cultural representation of Muslim women, particularly those in the west. It's all worth the time to read, but part II, about visual interpretation of western Muslim women, is outstanding. "One of the beautiful things about hi’ jab is that, at least in the privileged West, it is association by will, an act of choosing one’s community rather than being assigned. I don’t wear the headscarf, but I’m quite possessive of my faith—it’s who I am. But it’s not who I am the same way it is who another Muslim woman is, and it’s incredibly discouraging that such an obvious thing need be said. When you’re in a position of disadvantage, like being a religious minority and a woman of color, the balance between the erasure of your individuality by stereotyping and the show of your solidarity with your sisters is delicate."

Failure and envy: Hearing about what other women consider their failings in any area is illuminating--particularly so with beauty, because we can see the evidence before us. So despite the melancholy I felt upon reading Rachel Hills's thoughts on failing at beauty (as loosely inspired by my post here a couple of weeks ago), it's ultimately a reminder that we always perceive "failure" as something quite different than those around us do. "I felt like I hadn’t tried hard enough," she writes of not feeling beautiful enough on her wedding day, fully knowing that trying to be beautiful and being beautiful are two quite separate things. On a related note, Sally asks us to consider the flip side of envy: That at some point, somebody has envied us. I do find this thought comforting, not so much because it then validates what others may envy me for ("why yes my hair IS that shiny!"), but because it illustrates how much of both failure and envy are about our own battles, our own struggles, not about anyone else's perception of our successes. I tend not to be a jealous person overall--but when I am, I really am. Which means it has nothing to do with the person I'm jealous of--it's entirely about me.

But where's the Ramona Quimby makeover?: I usually zoom by makeup tutorials, and indeed have no intention of actually doing any of these anytime soon, but I am in love with Literature Couture's tutorials on re-creating the look of everyone from Anne Boleyn to Gloria Swanson to Sigrun the Valkryrie. (Now if only I could get Another Zoe Day to spill her Frida Kahlo secrets.) (via Beauty Brains)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

First Dance

Early in the summer of 1987, my next-door neighbors had a garage sale, and among the goods was a square-dance-style turquoise dress with silver rickrack. Those of you who have ever doubted me when I insist I don’t have a natural eye for style will surely become believers when I tell you that I thought it was the most beautiful dress I had ever seen, and that it looked something like the dress on the left—

—except it was double-breasted, and with more silver, more rickrack, buttons, pockets, and a clasp belt, and was worn not by a sylphlike blonde from a vintage pattern illustration but by a pudgy 12-year-old in Aberdeen, South Dakota, whose most adult fashion choice until that point had been to remove the star sticker from her Sally Jessy Raphael glasses. It was a wonderful dress for a hootenanny, and thoroughly inappropriate for any other occasion whatsoever.

My attitude toward my wardrobe was more advanced than my style, and I knew that I might be able to cadge the $10 from my parents to buy it—but that doing so would weaken my hand when it came to buying the Guess sweatshirt I’d been pining for, so I stayed silent. But as with the Alamo, I remembered. I remembered.

Later that summer, I enrolled in a weeklong camp. Going to camp was one of my biggest dreams ever since reading about it in any one of the YA novels that were set on the east coast, where, in YA we-need-a-setting-that-allows-for-personal-growth-and-minimal-adult-oversight-without-parents-appearing-neglectful world, everyone goes to camp. Nobody in South Dakota went to camp (unless it was 4-H camp), but there was a lot of attention being given to the perilous position of “gifted kids” at that time, so they rounded up all the Stanford-Binet changelings in the state whose parents could afford a couple hundred bucks for tuition and threw us onto a college campus for a week. “Camp,” in fact, might be a misnomer, implying that at some point we’d go fly-fishing and make God’s-eyes with yarn and popsicle sticks. Let’s instead call this a conference of seventh-graders who enjoyed logic puzzles, shall we?

I received the agenda for the conference, and somewhere among seminars on Future Problem Solving and South Dakota Literature, I saw the magic words: FRIDAY NIGHT: DANCE. I’d never been to a dance before—this was the summer before I started junior high, so definitively boy-girl entertainment hadn’t yet entered my social calendar. But of course I knew all about them. Pretty in Pink! Sixteen Candles! Footloose! Carrie! More important, I knew what a dance meant. A dance was redemption for the dorky girl; a dance was where she would step foot into the gymnasium and all eyes would be on her. At the dance, the popular boys would realize she’s the one they should be courting, not the rich girls who have as many Guess sweatshirts as they want; the rich girls, of course, would recognize the dorky girl as someone they should be inviting into their select clique (but will the dorky girl have them? the dramatic tension!). Forget that nobody was really dating yet, and forget that while I wasn’t the most popular girl in school, neither was I picked on; forget that there wasn’t yet anything in my life that needed me to redeem it by setting foot into the gymnasium and taking everyone’s breath away. I wanted the dance, I wanted the moment, I wanted the validation. The makeover was an essential part of the dance plot in teen movies—but just as important was the dress. And you’d better believe I knew exactly which dress it would be. Fate had even sealed the deal: The theme of the dance was “Western,” and what could possibly be more western and simultaneously becoming than a double-breasted turquoise square dance dress with silver rickrack? Exactly.

The garage sale had taken place weeks earlier, but I went over to my neighbor’s house to inquire as to the whereabouts of the dress. I was briefly crushed when she told me that the dress was actually her sister’s contribution to the garage sale, and that when it didn’t sell her sister took it back with her, to her home a four-hour drive away in Vermillion, South Dakota. But wait! Vermillion, South Dakota, was the exact site of the conference of seventh-grade logicians! With the inimitable pluck of a 12-year-old girl whose experience with sexual metamorphosis extended no further than a bevy of 1980s prom movies, I asked her if her sister would be so kind as to hand-deliver the dress to the camp so that I could then be suited up for my grand record-scratch of an entrance. And with the bemused affability of a thirtysomething woman being asked to urge her sister to drive across town into a horde of prepubescent Odysseians of the Mind just so a girl could make an entrance, she agreed.

I wasn’t exactly sure how the handoff was going to happen—this was before cell phones and e-mail, so I just had to hope that all communication was a-go and that somehow my neighbor’s sister in Vermillion, South Dakota, would be able to find me on the university campus. On the third day of camp, the camp director was doing “mail call” during breakfast (who sends mail during a weeklong camp?), and then he held up the dress—my dress—and said, “And who does this pretty little number belong to?” Someone—I now presume one of the other teachers—let out a loud wolf whistle, and the entire camp burst into laughter.

This isn’t where I became embarrassed. No, I loved it. It was mildly embarrassing in the same way you’re embarrassed when someone gives you a lavish compliment: I loved the attention but felt a tad gaudy (never mind that I was picking up a double-breasted turquoise square dancing dress with silver rickrack). The wolf whistle sealed it for me: This dress was smokin’, and I knew it, and now thanks to the loudspeaker delivery, everyone knew it, and as I walked to the small stage where the camp director was to claim the dress, I knew that come FRIDAY NIGHT: DANCE I would own the University of South Dakota campus.

Now, I’m not fast-forwarding past the rest of the camp in order to keep focus on the story. I’m fast-forwarding past it because I have no recollection of it whatsoever, other than a handful of memories involving the single friend I managed to make there (who now lives in Sioux Falls and is evangelical about the gluten-free lifestyle, or so Facebook tells me). I was there for a week, and I do not recall a single class, seminar, or activity we did the entire time, except for a timed writing exercise based on that year’s theme, “South Dakota Pride,” which I scribbled fervently even as I felt vaguely embarrassed that I was supposed to be proud of this state that had exactly zero glamour to it. (We were all from South Dakota, of course, but to remind us of this fact and to make us write about our pride on the matter seemed an act of aggression.) I think I had a good time? I don’t know, honestly.

But I remember the dance. The dress actually fit me reasonably well, and my neighbor’s sister had even thought to include a pair of matching silver sandals so I wasn’t stuck wearing my sneakers. They were too small for me (I wore a size 8 by sixth grade) but I wore them anyway. My now-gluten-free friend had brought eyeshadow, and I’d brought a curling iron and hairspray, so I went over to her dorm room after putting on my dress so we could get ready together. (My own roommate, who was possibly even dorkier than I was and professed to have no interest in boys or dances whatsoever, chose not to attend. This was fine by me because I’d already run out of excuses to not walk with her to the cafeteria and therefore have to eat meals with her, not wanting her dorkiness latch onto my own and create a Velcro-like dork hold. It’s not like Gluten-Free or I were cool, but at least we both knew about boys.) I knew we weren’t supposed to show up exactly on time, because that would be Uncool, so we waited until the dance was barely underway and then made our way to the gymnasium.

The adult counselors had decorated the gym with crepe paper, and they’d turned down the lights, but not too low, because we were 12. None of this mattered, however, because nobody was there. Nearly everybody—boys and girls alike—was in the hallways and rooms surrounding the gymnasium, doing the various planned, adult-supervised activities that each of those spaces held. I couldn’t tell you what any of those activities were (rebus throwdowns?) because I was too busy being horrified. This was a dance! This is where it—it!—was supposed to happen! It’s not like I’d met any boys over the course of the camp I took any particular interest in, but I was at a dance, and there were boys in the vicinity, and I was bewildered that they weren’t suddenly lining up to give all the girls punch from a punch bowl as a prelude to extending their hands as “Is This Love” by Whitesnake played in the background. No—they were doing, I don’t know, word games, and so were the girls, and I’d just had enough. I liked word games just fine. I’d spent my whole life doing word games, and rebuses, and logic puzzles, and making crosswords, and writing scripts—I liked doing those things so much that I’d gone to gifted camp. But this was the night that all those word games and rebuses and logic puzzles were to be transcended. This was the FRIDAY NIGHT: DANCE, and I was in my turquoise dress and borrowed silver sandals. I was ready. And nobody cared.

So I cried. I didn’t cry at the dance; I held it in with as much dignity as I could muster and made a beeline to the bathroom, where I entered a stall, sat on the toilet, and cried. I wasn’t crying because I didn’t feel pretty, not exactly; I was crying because I felt foolish for having thought that a turquoise dress and a curling iron would be enough to make me pretty, and for having such a specific result in mind, one I’d learned in a flash wasn’t going to happen. I cried because I knew I was smart—every girl in that gymnasium knew she was smart, that’s why we were there—but I didn’t know if I would ever be pretty. I cried because I saw that what I’d heard all along—girls mature faster than boys—was true, and that I was going to have to wait before any of them wanted any of us. I cried because someone had whistled when everyone saw my dress, and nobody was going to whistle at me in it. I cried because this was my chance and I didn’t even have the opportunity to blow it. I cried for not having been more kind to my roommate, and I cried for crying about not having been more kind to her because I knew I didn’t deserve my own pity. I cried because I’d believed with all my being that once I put on eyeshadow and a turquoise dress, I’d turn into a heroine of any of the slumber-party movies I’d watched; I cried because that was the night I began to understand that the success of those movies depended upon girls like me thinking maybe that would happen to them. I cried because at that moment, in a gymnasium decorated with crepe paper so that the gifted kids could feel not just smart but glamorous, I began to understand that not everything would come easy to me, and that some forms of failure could be intangible, inexpressible, and nonetheless undeniable. I cried because I wanted to be seen, and because nobody was ready or willing to see me.

Eventually two other campers came into the bathroom and heard my sobs. After I insisted I was f-i-i-i-i-i-ne, they called in one of the adult counselors. I don’t remember what she told me; I just remember that she was blonde and pretty, and that seemed comforting somehow. She walked outside with me while I decided whether I wanted to go back to the dance. I did, so she led me there, but once inside I lost all enthusiasm for it. My friend the gluten-free enthusiast found me and said she wanted to leave. Together, we did. The next day, we all went home.

I’d go to camp again the next year. Not gifted camp, but 4-H camp, where I had a certain amount of social cache because I was secretary of a rather important 4-H club (our “den mother” had been named Dairy Woman of the Year). By then I had contact lenses, reasonable proficiency with eyeliner, and a knack for detecting whether a boy liked me. I got my first kiss at that camp. It was where I got my first inkling that with a bit of skill, a few omissions, and an artfully placed laugh, the girl in the turquoise dress wouldn’t be the first thing everyone saw when they looked at me. It was where I learned that getting what you want—a boy telling you he likes you—could bring worries of its own. It was where I found that the magic happens not at the dance, but outside of it, as you hear people chanting to "Mony Mony" while you look into the eyes of someone who, at that moment, can see only you.

I returned to my room, aloft, and told my roommate in great detail exactly what had happened. And I understood when, in the middle of the night, I heard her muffled tears.

Monday, December 12, 2011

68% of Your Vitamin C, 100% Off-Topic

New rule at The Beheld as of December 2011: Every 230th post or so, I can do something that has absolutely nothing to do with beauty. Whaddya say? Will it sweeten the deal if it's LEAFY GREENS THAT TASTE LIKE A MILKSHAKE?

I first encountered the green smoothie--a fruit-based smoothie that has a good amount of leafy greens thrown in but that somehow manages to taste not like leafy greens but instead LIKE A MILKSHAKE--at a health food store near my old office. I was trying to eat more leafy greens, and since I don't really cook that meant I was eating lots and lots of salads (a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine, without asking what I ate every day, once told me my condition was due to "too many salads and bananas," and advised I cut those out, plus sex, but whatevs). I'd gotten into kale on a theoretical basis (so good for you!) but not on a practical one (takes so long to cook! I mean, it takes like eight minutes, but I am impatient) and was torn between two worlds, so when I saw a smoothie on the menu that involved banana, almond milk, honey, cinnamon, and kale, I got all jazzed up, ordered it, and floated back to the office in an ethereal delight of green vegetables THAT TASTED LIKE A MILKSHAKE.

Now, buying a green smoothie every day would be cost-prohibitive. But it turns out I'm far from alone in coming to rely on these to get in a good amount of vitamins, and the Internet is chock full of recipes on how to make them yourself. Perhaps I am too late for the ball, but I'm going to show up with my recipe anyway.

All you really need is a liquid, some greens, some fruit, and a blender. There are other things you can put in to taste, but those are the basics. Here's my standard recipe, with variations below.

Green Smoothie
  • 1/3 cup coconut water
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 banana, preferably frozen (peel it before you freeze it)
  • 1/3 cup frozen fruit (I love mango, but it's up to you)
  • 1 tablespoon honey OR one pitted date
  • Pinch cinnamon
  • Pinch sea salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 teaspoons fresh grated ginger (I keep peeled ginger in the freezer; easier to grate)
  • 3 cups fresh spinach OR 2 cups shredded kale
  • 3 ice cubes

Directions: Put coconut water, lemon juice, banana, fruit, honey or date, cinnamon, sea salt, vanilla, and ginger in blender. Blend, pulsing as needed to get the chunks of fruit broken up. Puree until mixture is smooth. Put in one cup of spinach, pressing down with a spatula to immerse it as much as possible in the fruit puree. Blend. Repeat process with remaining two cups of spinach. Once all spinach has been mixed in, throw in the ice cubes. Puree for one minute to make it super-smooth LIKE A MILKSHAKE.

There are about a zillion variations, but this is my standard. You can use fruit juice instead of the coconut water; you can use whatever fruit or greens you like; you can throw in herbs for more zing (cilantro is particularly nice, especially with grapefruit juice subbed in for the coconut water). If you're hard-core you can omit the honey or date, but really, why would you? I sometimes throw in a pinch of stevia too, to make it a hair sweeter.

If you find it difficult to use up all your greens before they go bad, you can also do this with frozen spinach--I just throw it in frozen, actually, no defrosting or anything. With that you'll need a lot more liquid and you can omit the ice cubes; it's much thicker this way, LIKE A REALLY THICK MILKSHAKE. Note that it's easier to use the kind of frozen spinach that's loose in the package instead of the kind that's been formed into a solid brick, as that makes it more difficult to get into the blades of the blender.

A note on blenders: This works just fine with a regular blender. I made the one in the picture with my fellow's Cuisinart, but he only has said Cuisinart because I gave him mine after I discovered the Ninja, which might be the world's best blender (besides a VitaMix, which really is the best blender in the world, but which is $600 and frankly not worth it unless someone else is footing the bill, as was the case when I used it back in my restaurant days). It's great because the power unit is separate from the blades, so there's zero risk of accidentally turning it on when you're poking around with a spoon to get the spinach wet enough to get it to puree along with the fruit. The only downside is that you can't just drop in ingredients; you have to lift off the power unit every time you want to access the ingredients, but it's such a good blender that you won't need to do this often (i.e. you won't need to stir it a lot, and in fact if you have a Ninja you can put in all the greens at once instead of doing them in batches).

You can throw in whatever supplements you like--I do put in omega-3 oils sometimes (and, just to make this related to my usual work, I do find it makes my skin all soft and glowy)--but that's up to you. It's nutritious as-is (63% of your daily vitamin A, 68% of your vitamin C, half your B6, etc., using 3 cups spinach) so that's just a bonus. But really, all this is beside the point; I'd drink this even if it didn't have all those vitamins, because it tastes LIKE A MILKSHAKE, and really I just wanted to share my daily treat with you, because sometimes we need a break from sociology, feminism, economics, and business talk (hey, not to brag but I'm sort of thrilled that my post about the lipstick index was republished not only at Jezebel but also at Business Insider, a publication I never thought would see my byline) to talk fake milkshakes.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Beauty Blogosphere 12.9.11

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

Yes, that is Alyson Hannigan. We've all gotta make a living.

From Head...
Sometimes the press release headline speaks for itself: Head & Shoulders Empowers Women to Be a Good Girlfriend. Actually, no, it doesn't speak for itself; let's turn to the press release tag line from dandruff shampoo Head & Shoulders for that: "Good Girlfriend Guide Helps Put an End to Head-Scratching Behavior." GET IT?!

...To Toe...

Tis the season: Did you know there is an entire website devoted to elf shoes? There is. But on it you can click through to instructions on how to fold a dollar bill into an elf shoe. You never know what you'll find if you stick around on the elf shoe site!

...And Everything In Between:

Sweat it: Swallow a pill, sweat out perfume. People, I do not judge. But: ew!

I get so emotional: The Korean National Human Rights Commission's study on "emotional workers" indicates that nearly 33% of cosmetics salespeople suffer from depression, compared with a national average of 24% among professionals. I'm thrilled to see this taken seriously by a nation that recognizes the toll of emotional labor, and it's interesting that cosmetics salespeople were singled out to the point where the union of L'Oreal Korea is planning to request sales workers have guaranteed "paid emotional leave."

"I just think of myself as a girl who works and who likes to go out": You know, last week when my friends at The New Inquiry were mocked by Gawker for their appearance in the New York Times Style section, I was all indignant (even if editor-in-chief Rachel Rosenfelt wasn't), like, Why make fun of people for just doing their thing? And then I read this piece about New York socialites breaking their way into the beauty business. So.

The beauty of Ginger White: Officially could not care less about political sex scandals, but am glad I read Irin Carmon's piece on Herman Cain mistress Ginger White that touches upon the peculiarity of her profession of gym owner/fitness instructor. "She claimed she wanted to start a fitness business because men wouldn’t look at her and she could make other women feel beautiful at the same time. She seemed unsure if she wanted to cast herself as a victim or a gamer of a system in which female beauty is a blessing and a curse. She was probably both."

Wilde thing: One thing I care about even less than political sex scandals is celebrity fluff pieces. That said, I found it interesting that Olivia Wilde fears looking like "a tranny" with her makeup application. It says more about our ideas of transsexuals and gender roles than it does about Ms. Wilde—that as much as transsexuals may try to look feminine, there's a new bar that we have in place to prevent anyone but a select few from getting there. (Note: I've edited this blurb; thank you to the anonymous reader who pointed out that my original language, which implied transsexuals "masquerade," wasn't understanding of transsexualism. I don't always get things right, but I do try.) I also agree with her point about us gravitating toward looks that suit our faces well. There's a reason this full-cheeked, dark-eyed lass likes the 1920s look so much!

The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci, 15th century, tempera and Bath & Body Works Cucumber Bliss on gesso

Passover: Makeup and skin creams are ruining The Last Supper. Judas, it seems, is off the hook.

American beauty: Really wish this HuffPo piece thought to question Estee Lauder's declaration that European women are "more pragmatic" about aging and thus need different skin care items than Americans do. I suppose this theory could be part of the je ne sais quoi of les françaises, but is it really true that American women are just naturally more freaked-out about our crow's feet and that Estee Lauder is just following our lead?

Honor crime: Potential laws in Saudi Arabia would fine and "publicly shame" street harassers. But wait, I thought women were harassed because of our short skirts, yet Saudi women wear hijab! Something must be amiss.

"Get More, Pay Less": The British Advertising Standards Agency has banned a flippant ad for breast augmentation, claiming that it trivializes cosmetic surgery. I don't normally get too up in arms about any one particular ad or image, but when I saw this my mind was sort of blown. Who thought this was okay?

Real value: This report on a Girl Scouts study about the effect of reality TV on girls does its damndest to not be bleak, but it still is: 38% of girls who watched reality TV were reported that a girl's value lies in her looks, compared with 28% of girls who didn't watch reality TV.

Wearing your heart in your pits: Some personality traits can be somewhat reliably detected through body odor, according to a study in which participants slept in T-shirts that were then evaluated by other participants for extroversion, neuroticism, and dominance. The sniffers predicted each shirt-wearer's personality about as reliably as those who, in another study, evaluated people based on videos of their behaviors. (How will this intersect with the swallowable perfume?!)

Pantone makeup line!: !!!

How young is too young for a bikini wax?: I'd say, oh, eleven. (Thanks to reader Madeline for the tip!)

The Perfect Irish Man: Somehow it's a little easier for me to see the "male beauty myth" more clearly when it's being applied to Irish men, a more homogenous population than we have in the States. Cosmetic procedures have sharply increased among Irishmen, belying their image as rugged fisherman, and a new documentary, The Perfect Irish Man, is set out to explore that.

Fly me: The flight attendant aesthetic is well and alive, as shown by the beauty tips in Runway, Virgin Atlantic's employee guide.

Who's that girl?: Zooey Deschanel as not the new iteration of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but as a "Logo Girl," thoughtfully laid out at The New Inquiry by Sarah Handelman. "Showing a version of Jess that is anything other than awkwardly cute is out of the question. Yet, being anything other-than-cute is exactly what she needs in order to lift off the page."

Wish the illustration had kept the saw on the ground.

Pinup girls: Fascinating side-by-side comparisons of the photos used for cheesecake pinup illustrations, and the illustrations themselves. There's the obvious stuff (even with all that shapewear and already-lovely figures, the actual models aren't as hourglassy as the illos), but what really strikes me is that there's this eagerness in the actual photos that's entirely missing from the final images. The illustrations always look happy, of course, but they don't have much verve.

Supercomputermodel: For the three people on the Internet who haven't heard it yet, H&M is superimposing models' heads onto the same body. What I can't figure out is why anyone is surprised by this. Every image you ever see in an advertisement is basically computer-generated! This is absolutely no different.

Coded: Decoding Dress on the potentially restrictive nature of informal dress codes. I'm absolutely with her: Informal dress codes can provoke a good deal of anxiety, reminding me of how I used to secretly wish my high school had uniforms so I just wouldn't have to ever think about what to wear. Honestly? Still feel that way sometimes.

All the sad ladies: Emily Ansara Baines on sadness, women, and being seen. "We're expected to perform anyway, so why not make a career out of it? We perform by laughing off comments that might be meant kindly but are often chauvinistic. We perform by being good students and trying to make our teachers and parents proud. We perform by doing our best to look a certain way. We are continually performing." She suggests that this performance is a way to manage the sadness that comes with the recognition that it's damn near impossible to be a woman and just be instead of being looked at, which is interesting because I've always thought that the sadness stemmed from the performance. I'm not one who is known for examining my own sadness, though. Perhaps I should start.

Who do we want to look beautiful for?: Kate Fridkis on realizing that the desire to look good wasn't as correlated to male attention as she'd thought: "An interesting thing happened when I got married. I started feeling like I had to be pretty or I might let [my husband] down." This pained me to read, because I recognized it all too well. As upsetting as it is, it was a relief to read another self-identified feminist in an egalitarian relationship express the sentiment.

Belly up: I normally shy away from galleries of "real women's bodies," because frankly I more often walk away from them feeling worse than I did when I went in. But if anything could convince me otherwise, it's reading Caitlin's piece about the xoJane Real Girl Belly Project. My belly is by far my most despised body part, and though I can't say the gallery cured me of that, because real women's bellies are usually hidden (as opposed to our faces, or even the circumference of our hips) it really was illuminative.

Looking forward: I've been musing a lot recently about the phrase "aging gracefully," and wondering what exactly that means. And then Une Femme d'un Certain Age comes up with this: "Are we dressing, wearing our hair, making choices based on who we are and how we live our lives today, and moving into the future?" This was part of what made me hold onto certain beauty products far past their expiration date (chemically and emotionally), and I like the idea of styling myself while moving into the future. The discussion at No More Dirty Looks was helpful too (side note: I love it when I see commenters at The Beheld commenting on other sites! You're all so insightful).

Context is queen: Thoughtful post from Kjerstin Gruys on learning that she's technically "overweight" even though she's in excellent health, and both she and her physician are totally fine with her weight specifically. It's particularly interesting in light of her eating disorder history, as she questions the usefulness of metrics: "Then she asked me, 'How much weight did you lose in your most successful weight-loss attempt?'... There was no space to specify that 'it was due to anorexia and she could have died.' ... This is troubling: the wording of this question frames any weight loss as good, which we know isn't true." Seeing how she's resisting the temptation to use her BMI "diagnosis" as an excuse to dip into old behaviors is inspirational.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

6 Artists Exploring Female Beauty

One of the unexpected upsides of the bind of the beauty myth is that it's spurred plenty of good art. I'm just about the most bourgeois art fan there is ("I like it!" is my special gallery catchphrase) but that doesn't stop me from recognizing the ways in which these photographers, illustrators, and conceptual and performance artists are attempting to wrangle our notions of appearance, both tweaking and clarifying how we view beauty. This is hardly an exhaustive list of artists who play with these ideas, just the ones who have repeatedly come to my attention over time. Enjoy!

Wall of Confidence, Texas Beauty Queen Cream detail, mixed media, Rachel Lee Novnanian

Rachel Lee Novnanian: In “Baby’s Nursery Wallpaper,” a porcelain-white pram is parked in front of a stark wall “papered” with beauty pageant tropics. Another wall, dubbed “Wall of Confidence,” shows row after row of the fictitious Texas Beauty Queen Cream, each tub carrying a message taken from actual advertising slogans. Her installation work provokes viewers, with “Fun House Dressing Room” giving us a deliberately distorted body image alongside prerecorded self-doubting admonishments too many of us know far too well (“You shouldn’t have eaten those Cheetos”). There’s both sadness and anger here, reflecting the artist’s background of having grown up in a family that insisted looks didn’t matter, while the contrary seemed all too true to her as a teen.

Eyelash Extensions, Zed Nelson

Zed Nelson: The Ugandan-British photographer began to notice during his globetrotting that people all across the world were beginning to look suspiciously alike, thanks to the global beauty industry and cross-exportation of appearance standards. “Love Me,” his 2010 exhibition on the pursuit of beauty, took a dual approach: Juxtaposing images of people undergoing various forms of appearance alteration (a 13-year-old in heavy makeup and Playboy bunny ears, a 46-year-old man marked up for a chin lift) with the physical tools of change (rows of breast implants, hair extensions), we see how alienated we’ve become from our own ideas of what beauty might be.

Poses, 2011, Yolanda Dominguez

Yolanda Dominguez: Using “real women” (you know, as opposed to fake ones) to re-create situations and stylings found in high-end fashion magazines, Dominguez reveals the divided between the fantasy of fashion and the realities of how women actually move through the world. A woman stands posed in front of a building as passersby steal furtive glances; a woman in flip-flops lies down next to what seems to be a municipal garden as a sanitation worker approaches her, presumably concerned for her safety. In other performance art events, which she calls “livings,” a well-dressed young woman holds up a cardboard sign begging for Chanel goods, and a bevy of fairy-tale “princesses” sell off their princess accoutrements--mirrors, glass slippers, frogs--to raise funds for a new life. 

Lady Problems, mechanical pencil on vellum, Alexandra Dal

Alexandra Dal: Emerging comic artist Alexandra Dal got more than she bargained for when her illustration of the makeup riddle went viral. “I just wanted to make a silly, observational comic that would make some women say, ‘Yup, I’ve experienced this,’” she writes on her Tumblr. “It sparked a slew of commentary about whether or not women 'should' wear makeup.... I’m totally baffled by the hate mail and negative comments I received accusing me of being misogynistic and sending the message that women aren’t beautiful without makeup. (Seriously, did they actually read it?)” Her other work includes a dead-on comic of Black Women In Advertising (There Can Only Be One)--and I’m eagerly waiting for more!

Recovery, Esther Sabetpour

Esther Sabetpour: The British photographer had always explored notions of identity through self-portraiture, so when she had an accident that required large skin grafts, marking much of her body with scars, she just continued as she had been. We’re used to seeing the bodies of attractive young women presented as blank slates upon which we project our cultural idea of, well, attractive young women’s bodies; with the scar tissue mottling much of her flesh, the portrait of Sabetpour reclined on her bed goes beyond sensual into startling, without feeling exploitative.

 Nobantu Mabusela, 76, Khayelitsha Township, Cape Town

Sarah Hughes: Playing with personae by purposefully shifting her public identity and capturing that of others, Hughes takes a hard look at the meaning behind sartorial choices women make. In portrait series “Safe & Sexy,” she documents women across the world wearing an outfit they’ve selected as “safe,” and one they’ve deemed “sexy,” highlighting both the range of what any individual might consider alluring and the ways in which women mentally divide the two groups. The project stemmed from performance art piece “Do You Have the Time?” in which Hughes dressed up as various “types” of women (businesswoman, slut, jogger) and asked strangers for the time, noting the difference in reactions to the very same person asking the very same question.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Is It Appropriate to Outsource Emotional Beauty Labor?

I went to a wedding last weekend, and though it wasn’t a black-tie affair, it was a nighttime event at a beautiful historic estate, so I wanted to go beyond my normal look. I wound up wearing a lovely pink sheath dress, which called for heels higher than I normally wear, which called for wavy bombshell hair, which called for three shades of lip color, winged eyeliner, eyeshadow, and my personal pièce de resistance, the subtlest of false eyelashes applied to the outer corners of my eyes. It is probably the most effort I have put into my appearance for any single event since senior prom.

The wedding was a two-hour drive away, but only a 10-minute drive from the home of my gentleman friend’s father, so instead of driving from New York to Pennsylvania in our finery, we did our wedding prep at his house. As we walked from my boyfriend’s car into his father’s home, a good two hours before we had to leave for the wedding, the imbalance in our raw materials struck me. My materials: a dress; a shoebox containing shoes, high-heel comfort inserts, and two pairs of pantyhose (always have a spare!); shapewear; a curling iron; hairspray; dry shampoo; a hairbrush; makeup kit (foundation, concealer, blush, bronzer, loose and pressed powder, application brushes, eyebrow pencil, eyeshadow, liquid and pencil eyeliner, mascara, false eyelash glue, false eyelashes, toothpicks for eyelash application, eyelash curler, two shades of lip liner, lipstick); an event purse (breath mints, tissues, plus cell phone, wallet, etc.); a wrap; and a bottle of water, because I’d be damned if I went to all this trouble and then couldn’t enjoy the wedding because I was dehydrated.

His materials: a suit.

Now, this was a special occasion for people I’m terrifically fond of, and so I was happy to put special effort into my appearance—truly, I enjoyed the whole process. Weddings are one of the last rites of our culture, so pouring time and energy into our appearance to make sure we’re honoring the occasion seems like the right thing to do. And certainly all one really has to do to honor the occasion is show up nicely dressed and well-groomed; false eyelashes and all that were purely my choice. But the fact remains: I was putting a lot more labor into this event than my boyfriend. I accept that on a day-to-day level I put in more beauty labor, largely by my own choice, than he does, and indeed more than plenty of women. (I am, after all, six minutes above the national average in daily grooming minutes.) Still, that’s more along the lines of having to get up 20 minutes earlier than he does—not nearly an hour and a half of hard-core self-styling labor while he watches hockey.

And so I outsourced it. I couldn’t outsource the actual skilled labor—I suppose I could have had my hair professionally done, but that seemed excessive. But the “emotional beauty labor”—the low-level worrying about “do I look okay?” that underlies any event that requires a lot of smoke and mirrors to be pulled off successfully? The constant mirror checks to make sure that the lipstick isn’t smeared, the dress catching crumbs, the hair out of place? The attention to all the work I’d already done—the application of “skilled labor”—to make sure it stayed done? Yeah, I can outsource that.

“I’m wearing false eyelashes,” I said to my boyfriend, who then dutifully tried very hard not to stare at my lash line for the duration of my speech. “And I haven’t ever put them on by myself, and I’m worried they’re going to fall off and I’ll look like an asshole.” (This was said hurriedly in the moments before the wedding as the bride’s son was preparing to play Lohengrin on his electric guitar, because they’re cool like that.) “So could you keep an eye on them and just gesture to me—” I did a sweeping motion at the corners of my eyes “—if you see stray lashes?” He agreed.

Then I looked down and saw that the hanger strap of the dress was poking out at my collarbone. “And could you keep an eye on this too? This dress doesn’t stay on the hanger without the hanger straps but they keep showing. If you see them loose, just—” [insert dusting motion at shoulders] “—even if it’s from across the room, okay?” He said he would, and then I started in on a brief litany of all that could go wrong—smeared lip liner, teary mascara (it was a wedding! with booze!), pantyhose run, dress wedged at hem of shapewear—and then Lohengrin started, and I stopped, and two people who love one another were wed, and all of that was far more important than anything that could possibly go wrong with my look.

I didn’t think about how I looked for the rest of the evening, and excuse me if this is cynical, but I don’t think it was awe at the sheer force of marital love that was responsible for this. It was because I’d outsourced my worries. Now, I’m fully aware that there was an easier route through all this: Pick a lower-maintenance look. I could have done that, but I didn’t, and I understand that I’m the one who needs to ultimately be responsible for that choice. But dammit, am I crazy for thinking that sometimes it’s just not fair that “looking pretty” requires so much work, and that playing the feminine role requires such a greater amount of effort than the masculine role that it’s not the worst thing in the world to outsource that? We already outsource parts of it: manicures, haircuts, facials. We rely on friends and salespeople to let us know if a hemline is too high or a boot too clunky. Hell, in an ideal world the mere use of beauty products is outsourcing our beauty worries (I know it doesn’t always work that way, but sometimes it does—I don’t worry so much about looking wan if I’m wearing mascara, for example, because I trust that it’s doing its job). Does the possibility stop there?

Within traditional heterosexual relationships, the loose idea is that part of the “payment” of a woman’s beauty labor is in the guy’s wallet: She looks good, he foots the bill for dinner. (I actually think this is more common than the idea of “he foots the bill, she puts out,” but then again I’ve only dated a self-selected group who wouldn’t expect that, so I’m working with a biased sample.) Egalitarian relationships don’t work that way, and I'm in no hurry to re-create that structure in my own relationship, but that doesn’t really help when you’re an egalitarian couple functioning in a non-egalitarian world. My gentleman friend doesn’t expect me to perform femininity any more than I expect him to perform masculinity (though he’s far better at opening jars than I am), but when you’re taking on a shared role as A Couple, our private guidelines suddenly become very public. Nobody would have looked askance had I shown up in a nice pantsuit and my normal makeup, but the fact remains that people in couples have both private and public roles, and that simply being egalitarian doesn't erase the desire to fulfill certain roles. And part of my fear of failure is never wanting to fail in the role of a feminine creature. If I look particularly feminine, there’s a part of me that feels like I’ve succeeded. To be brutally honest, through all my feminism—and all my boyfriend’s feminism too—there’s a part of me that then feels like we’ve succeeded. It felt good to feel unabashedly feminine, and to feel like I wasn’t totally alone in the creation and maintenance of femininity, like it was a shared venture. I’m not sure what to think about the fact that this made me feel good. It seems like it shouldn't, as though I'm making some sort of Faustian deal on our behalf—a deal he didn't exactly agree to. And yet: I was beaming.

Is it okay to outsource part of our emotional beauty labor to our intimate partners, or is that asking them to take on an unfair responsibility? What about relationships between women: Should butch women absorb any beauty labor for femme girlfriends? How would this play out within same-sex couples who don’t ascribe to masculine-feminine roles? What about the financial cost of beauty work: Is it ever okay to have someone else subsidize your beauty work? When beauty is expected as a part of our public role, how much of it is really our own responsibility?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Why Do We Love the Lipstick Index So Much?

When I first heard of the lipstick indexa term coined by Estee Lauder chairman Leonard Lauder to illustrate how purchases of small luxuries (lipstick) rise in recessions, serving as compensation for consumers suddenly unable to buy larger luxuries (mink?)I was all giddy that women’s purchasing power had earned its very own economic metric, because really, how often does lipstick make it onto the pages of The Economist?

So I was just the tiniest bit disappointed when I learned this year that the lipstick index isn’t necessarily true. Lauder coined the term in 2001 in response to the much smaller recession of that era; lipstick sales rose 11% during that economic dip. In the most recent recession, the corollary didn’t hold true, and lipstick sales didn’t increase. Bummer. But wait! Nail polish sales increased! And so did manicures! And DIY diet plans! It’s the face and fat index, folks!

For a while I kept eating this up (the lipstick index in its various permutations has shown up on my links roundup at least six times), but after a while I started to get inexplicably annoyed. At first I thought it was because the repeated “whoda thunkit?!” tone began to feel belittling, like, Aw, so cute, she's got a coincident countercyclic economic indicator in her Hello Kitty makeup bag! And that was part of it, but if I got annoyed every time I saw women’s actions belittled in the press, I’ frequently annoyed. By the time I clicked on a link from a personal finance site that promised to fill me in on how high heels might be correlated with economic instability, I was downright exasperated. But when I read the piece, I saw I wasn’t alone, as per the raised eyebrow from the writer of the piece: “Has anyone noticed that all of these ‘indicators’ are the most stereotypically frivolous, feminine things to be found?”

Yes, I had noticed, and unfortunately that’s exactly why I hadn’t paid heed to my irritation earlier. I’d wanted the lipstick index to hold true because I liked the idea that something purchased near-exclusively by women had enough power to make Big Economists sit up and take notice. I liked the idea that by just doing our thingby buying lipstick when it seemed time to do so, or by getting a manicure because it felt right now (certainly I get more manicures than I did five years ago)we’re participating in, no, we’re creating, an economic phenomenon that mirrors the psyche of the American consumer. I remember learning about how the film industry was one of the few that thrived during the Depression, so eager to leave behind their woes was the American public (specifically women, as “weepies” were reliably cranked out during this era), and I sort of liked the idea of taking part in a modern-day version of the same thing, playing my little part in the great American saga. And things like the lipstick index are appealing for those of us who aren't particularly schooled in economics. It's handy to have the complexity of the economy handed to us in a digestible form: the burger index! the underwear index! It makes us feel like our little habits might add up to something bigger. I particularly wanted my lipstickmy silly, frivolous little lipstickto mean something “real.”

What I hadn’t seen was that the continued emphasis on the lipstick indexor the manicure index, or the hemline theoryactually made women’s purchasing power seem more trivial, not less. The more we examine what women buy, the more we’re keeping them in their place. On one level, we’re keeping them in their place as consumers, not producers, as Gaby Hinsliff points out in her excellent piece at The New Statesman. “[T]he dangerous thing about [the emphasis on the lipstick index] is that it can obscure women's role in creating rather than frittering wealth,” writes Hinsliff. “What you don't hear so often is how western economic growth has been boosted by the shift of women, and especially mothers, into work since the 1970s. By 2009, the American economy was up to 25 per cent bigger than it would have been had millions more women not chosen over the previous four decades to work.... That kind of growth isn't just down to women having more money to buy shoes.” Given that traditionally male industries were particularly hard-hit in the 2008 crash, leading to plenty of ink about how women were basically taking over the world, it’s clear that the emphasis on women’s spending, not women’s production, is simply another iteration of the beauty myth. As long as women’s most important role in the economy is buying lipstick, the status quo is preserved.

There’s more here than just (“just”!) the story of sidelining women’s productive work in order to focus on their consumption. After all, you don’t hear a lot about how women buy more cars than men, certainly a larger contributor to the economy than $7.99 Lip Smother in Raspberry Sneeze. It’s the particular form of women’s consumption that’s earning our wallets their place in the spotlight. We mock conspicuous consumptionspending money on things that are specifically meant to display one’s wealth, not to serve a utilitarian purposeas being tacky or bourgeois, and is there anything more conspicuously consumptive than what you’re wearing on your body? When, in the 19th century, it became uncouth for men to ostentatiously dress themselves in finery, women took on the responsibility for displaying household wealth: With a decent eye you can tell when a man is wearing an expensive suit as opposed to a cheap one, but you can tell at a glance when a woman is telegraphing her wealth on her body. Makeup is somewhat different herethe ultimate goal is always to look as though you’re not wearing much of the stuffbut the principle holds true. A well-made-up woman, regardless of the price of the products she’s wearing, comes across as having more social status than a soap-and-water girl.

When we focus on the lipstick index, we focus on a particularly feminine form of conspicuous consumption. When the stakes are economic recovery, the lipstick index becomes a “gee whiz!” footnote in The Financial Times, but that’s only a flipside to the way we shame women’s spending on frivolities when the stakes aren’t quite as high. Google “overspending” and see how many images of women laden with pastel-colored shopping bags pop up, as opposed to, say, men in Ferraris. (It’s also worth noting that in the images where men are shown with armloads of packages, they’re gifts, as opposed to simply bags full of goodies for themselves, as is presumed with the images featuring women.)

 Fun with stock photography!

Conspicuous consumptionwhich is difficult to differentiate from “women’s consumption,” given that so many lady-specific goods are about visibilityis easily mocked when times are good, but it’s a savior when times are bad. And you’d better believe that once we’re totally out of this recession, the treatment of women’s spending will go the way of their jobs once Johnny came marching home after WWII. Women may have kept the nation running when the men were at war, but when the situation returns to status quo, the status quo will be protected.

I’ll still pay attention to the lipstick index and all its variants. (Like Learnvest writer Libby Kane, I’m fully expecting the next economic indicator to be the Eyelash Curler Index.) But I can’t see it as an actual economic indicator any longer. It’s a gender index, not an economic one, and the sooner economics writers begin to see it as exactly that, the sooner we can return to an actual examination of women and the economy.