Monday, January 30, 2012

Fictional Beauties: The Heads of Princess Langwidere

A bit of personal trivia: I adore Wizard of Oz. The movie, yes, of course, but specifically the books, all 16 of them, though the only ones I recall in detail are the first four. L. Frank Baum lived for a while in the town I grew up inAberdeen, South Dakotaand was briefly the editor of the local newspaper, where he penned terrifically racist editorials clamoring for the extermination of American Indians. But never mind that right now! He also provided oodles of entertainment for children worldwide! (He was an outspoken advocate of suffragism as well, and in fact when Susan B. Anthony visited Aberdeen she stayed with Baum, and Matilda Gage was his mother-in-law.)

Dorothy fascinated me, of course, with her sage youth quality. At age 4 I would purposefully get lost in K-Mart so that I could then wander to the customer service desk and ask them to announce over the loudspeaker that the mother of Dorothy Whitefield-Madrano should come retrieve her daughter, fully believing that if my name were Dorothy over the K-Mart loudspeaker it would somehow actually become Dorothy. But it’s not Dorothy I’d like to look at today, or Glinda the Good Witch, or the Wicked Witch, or even Ozma, the true ruler of Oz, whom you meet if you stick around the series long enough. They’re all fantastic characters, but as far as beauty goes, there’s one character whose existence cries for a shout-out here.

"By the aid of the mirror she put on her head."

Princess Langwidere, a supporting character in Ozma of Oz, had a collection of 30 heads that she could rotate at will, like the rest of us wore clothes. (Langwidere herself simply wore plain white gowns. The thrill of merely changing one’s clothes was lost on her, as it would be on you if you could change your head.) All of Princess Langwidere's heads were “in great variety, no two formed alike but all being of exceeding loveliness. There were heads with golden hair, brown hair, rich auburn hair and black hair; but none with gray hair. The heads had eyes of blue, of gray, of hazel, of brown and of black; but there were no red eyes among them, and all were bright and handsome. The noses were Grecian, Roman, retroussé and Oriental, representing all types of beauty; and the mouths were of assorted sizes and shapes, displaying pearly teeth when the heads smiled. As for dimples, they appeared in cheeks and chins, wherever they might be most charming, and one or two heads had freckles upon the faces to contrast the better with the brilliancy of their complexions.”

So, hey, even a genocidally inclined gentleman recognizes the whole "all types of beauty" thing, so, um, points there, right? But the first thing we know about Princess Langwidere is that she’s so vain that she refuses to seize power, even though the rest of the royal family has been imprisoned. “At present there are at least ten minutes every day that I must devote to affairs of state, and I would like to be able to spend my whole time in admiring my beautiful heads,” she declares. We’re not meant to like Langwidere; we’re meant to see her as a “horrid creature,” even though she gladly cedes power to people who know what they’re doing instead of trying to manage the land herself. (Contrast this to General Jinjur, the leader of the girl army who overtook Oz in a previous bookshe’s shown as selfish in her ambition, while Langwidere is selfish in her lack of it.)

I liked her anyway, or perhaps I just envied her. Having not just different hairstyles and outfits, but different heads?! It seemed logical somehow, for isn’t that an exaggerated version of what we’re doing sometimes when we play with makeup? Most of the time I’m trying to just be a more polished version of myself, and I think that’s true of most womenbut sometimes I do want to transform, out of sheer curiosity (which some, like Baum, may package as vanity). We dye our hair to see what it’s like to be a redhead; we cut our hair to see what life as a pixie-cut cutie might be like. Princess Langwidere, being fictional, and fictional in a magical land at that, just had advantages the rest of us don’t.

It’s also interesting that Langwidere is drawn as a Gibson girl, the “American girl to all the world,” according to her creator, Charles Gibson. The Oz illustrator was probably just going with the timesthe Gibson girl was immensely popular when the book was written, so drawing an image of a beautiful woman meant to draw a Gibson girl. But the Gibson girl was a Langwidere-ish figure herself: Gibson used many models, creating no single, specific icon but rather a multitude of Gibson girls who were understood to be Gibson girls because they fit specific criteria. They were ladylike, young, and spirited, and of course they had that iconic hairstyle, which Princess Langwidere’s preferred head sports in all illustrations of her. They were specific but interchangeable"logo girls," you might call themmaking them perfect both for advertising purposes and for Baum’s mocking of women’s vanity. Is he saying we’re all Langwideres if we preen in front of the mirror and fall prey to new hairstyles? Is he saying ladies with real powerOzma, for example, or the ever-plucky Dorothyare above such nonsense? 

That's Ozma on the left, Dorothy in the middle, and
Princess Langwidere doing an early 20th-century lady gang signal on the right..

I’m not sure, and I don’t want to read too much into a minor character in a turn-of-the-century children’s book. But I don’t want to dismiss her either. In fictional characterscartoons, icons, heroines, Muppetswe see women who are literally constructions, and when these characters catch on, it's an opportunity to see what constructions of femininity our culture responds to. What can we learn from the Langwideres, Dorothys, and Glindas about our ideas of femininity? What can we glean from the Betty Boops, the Miss Piggys, the Darias about what we see as ideal in any given era? What fictional charactersspecifically characters who haven’t been portrayed by live-action actresses, thus leaving their construction fully in the minds of their creatorshave you been fascinated with over time? Do you base your ideas of a character’s beauty on their actions, their wordsor, to borrow from Jessica Rabbitt, are they just drawn that way?

Friday, January 27, 2012

Beauty Blogosphere 1.27.12

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

From Head...
Also, Gorilla Snot: The five weirdest things we put in our hair. Beer, yeah, yeah, tried it. But Monistat?

Pointy, round, or square?

...To Toe...
En pointe: Danielle at Final Fashion (which you should be reading if you aren't already, both for her insightful, informative prose and her beautiful illustrations) gives a rundown of classic toe shapes throughout history. I prefer almond, myself. (Actually, my favorite is open-toed; I'm in the "my feet need to breathe" camp, which is apparently very divisive?)

...And Everything In Between:
Breast man: Founder of faulty breast implant company PIP is arrested on charges of manslaughter and involuntary injuries. No specific defendant has been named, but as many as 3,000 complaints about him worldwide have been considered. Listen, whatever you may think about either breast implants or the usefulness of feminism looking at cosmetic issues, I think it's safe to say that without feminism this wouldn't be news, or he wouldn't be arrested, or we'd be seeing bias in news reports suggesting that somehow women were asking for it. I haven't seen a peep of that. We've got a ways to go, but this is one example of what the world looks like when we act as if women matter: Women who did something questionable and risky unknowingly entered a situation that was downright negligent, and the bad guy is being punished. It's horrible that women were put at risk because of this, but I'm just hoping justice is served.

Fraught intimacies: The wonderful Minh-Ha T. Pham of Threadbared gives what may as well be a manifesto for many of us feminists who are consciously looking at beauty and fashion. If you're reading this blog, chances are you already recognize that analyzing these issues needn't be mere fluff, but her piece is still a must-read. "If feminists ignore fashion, we are ceding our power to influence it. Fortunately, history has shown that feminists can, instead, harness fashion and use it for our own political purposes."

"Beauty" "pageant": Wince-inducing tale of a Canadian pageant operator who scammed entrants out of good sums of money. "After the Star contacted Cadieux, the glitzy pageant website was stripped to a single page with a statement accusing past winners of slander, defamation and demanding their winnings 'to fulfill their own pursuits, without undertaking philanthropic tasks which they have agreed to do and have wrecked havoc, ensuing in the bankruptcy of Miss Kohinoor International.'" O RLY?

Sichuan skin: Buried in this story about skin-care needs among women in different Asian countries is this tidbit: "Another skin study by L'Oreal on 2,000 Chinese women showed that 36 percent had sensitive skin, while in Sichuan Province, where residents favor spicy food, the figure was as high as 56 percent." Whaa? 

Is Estee Lauder's heir the Rupert Murdoch of Israel?: I don't quite understand the whole story, but last week Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the Israeli government to save Channel 10, one of just two independent TV stations in Israel. Channel 10 is co-owned by Ronald Lauder—heir to Estee, one of the richest men in the world, and someone unafraid to employ every tax evasion law in the books—and after Lauder forced the channel's executives to publicly apologize to a businessman for an unflattering profile, his role there is being looked at askance; he may stop funding the channel. If Netanyahu's efforts fail, Israelis will be deprived of crucial independent media like the Hebrew-language incarnations of Beauty and the Geek, Survivor, and The Real Housewives.

Cannot applaud this enough: "The Talmud tells the religious man, in effect: If you have a problem, you deal with it. It is the male gaze—the way men look at women—that needs to be desexualized, not women in public. The power to make sure men don’t see women as objects of sexual gratification lies within men’s—and only men’s—control." 

Little bit of service for you: People apply more sunscreen (i.e. closer to the correct amount) when using a pump dispenser instead of a squeeze bottle or roll-on. Don't say I never gave you anything.

D-cups are so 2009: Could small breasts make a comeback? asks Slate. Could we stop treating women's bodies like skirt hemlines? asks me.

Six theories on pinkification:
"Pink is both the sign of soft, emotionally intelligent masculinity as much as it is aggressive femininity."

Stiletto boots currently under consideration by the IABA, as is mandated use of Love's Baby Soft.

Right jab: There's been plenty of good ink about the International Amateur Boxing Association suggesting its lady boxers wear skirts, but none has hit the issue as spot-on as Caitlin at Fit and Feminist: "I know that when I’m wearing a skirt, I become more aware of how I sit—if my legs are crossed, and if they aren’t, how far apart they are. It’s almost as if the skirt demands it. ...Athleticism requires the suspension of self-consciousness, requires almost a transcendence that supersedes mere categories of body and mind. Once self-consciousness seeps its way back inside your mind, the beautiful performance you have constructed of sweat and desire and focus comes crashing to the ground." Yes and yes.

Gender performance: Two related, but differing, perspectives on gender and the gaze. Shy Biker (a man experimenting with presenting as a woman) takes Simone de Beauvoir's statement about how "one is not born a woman, one becomes one" and applies it to his own experience of adopting femininity: "I am trying to learn a new language, one forbidden to me from birth." And CN Lester, a trans person, writes of how difficult it is to shake feminine beauty standards even when identifying as a man.

The gay beauty myth: Eager for Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?, a book examining the absorption of corporate values in what was once a thriving gay underground. There's much to say about this topic (is it a tradeoff for mainstream acceptance of gay men?) but of note here is the ways in which plenty of gay men have taken on the beauty myth and made it their own.

Bearded America: Wait, 40% of American men have facial hair? That seems high to me, but I'm not complaining about this. (Scruff fan here.)

Race stripped bare: From Tits and Sass, a review of Unequal Desires, a study of race and stripping. Black dancers are often essentially barred from high-end clubs, ghettoizing them into more heavily policed (and more dangerous) clubs. (Side note: I'm eager to read the book for what the reviewer didn't get into: erotic capital of black strippers. I'm guessing it'll be a different take than Catherine Hakim's, eh?)

How much do you weigh?: When time came for Erin Nieto, author of How Much Do You Weigh?—a photo book of women sharing their weight without shame—to share her own weight, she thought nothing of it. That is, until she stepped on the scale and realized she'd gained a few pounds. Here she writes of what it was like to come to terms with a new number after having made peace with the old one.

The big chop: Two hair-cutting pieces this week! Good illustrates the post-breakup haircut, which they get right until the last panel. I know some women regret cutting off their hair, but who regrets the post-breakup haircut?! And The Hairpin's Lindsay Miller writes about the first time she shaved her head. (Attn: Jaunty Dame.) 

"Obesity has come into its own": "Is it possible that the stout woman, poor dear, has at last become stylish?" asked The Atlantic—in 1919. Original article here; prelude, prompted by that bizarre photo shoot of a plus-size and straight-size model in a nude embrace, here.

Here's the scoop: Meet the "Beauty Spoon," a long, narrow shovel-type instrument designed to help you get every last bit out of the "shoulders" and bottom of containers. I have a tendency to keep around multiple bottles of the same product because one bottle is almost out but oh right now I don't have time to stand there and shake and squeeze so just for now I'll use this new bottle. Because during my free time there is nothing I like to do more than stand around and shake near-empty bottles of face serum. Anyway! The Beauty Spoon.

Elephant lipo: Awesome throw pillow from Dan Golden, designer and friend of The Beheld, as a part of his new housewares collection with CB2 (aka Crate & Barrel) that touches on the absurdity of the beauty myth. An elephant looks in the mirror and voices insecurities about its wrinkles and "too big" trunk, reminding us that some of the things we're insecure about aren't just natural but are in our nature. (I also love his humble pie/arrogant tiramisu platter, but now we're just going off-topic, aren't we?)

Running from objectification: I love it when Beauty Redefined looks at self-objectification, and I doubly love it when they offer concrete ways to ameliorate the tendency to self-objectify. In this case: running.

Blind faith: Congratulations to the team at new, insightful, and dynamic fashion site The Blind Hem on its recent launch! I'm happy to see familiar and trusted names like Elissa from Dress With Courage and Terri from Rags Against the Machine as contributors, and am eager to see where the site goes from here. Fiction, poetry, photography, essays, tutorials—it's all here, with an intelligent, feminist drum beat.

Figure flattery: I can't pull off the doesn't-fit-right look, but Angie at You Look Fab asks if there's something fascinating—and almost subversive—about intentionally ill-fitting clothes.

Like heroin chic, but with anhedonia: I laughed at this XOJane piece on "depression beauty" (because showering every day is for neurotypicals!) but truthfully, it's not really a laughing matter. I have bouts of clinical depression, and honestly? It's one of the reasons I'm sort of glad I got STEALTH SHAMPOOED last year, breaking my no-shampoo streak. Hygiene and mental health are connected, and though not shampooing doesn't have to be unhygienic by any means, when you're already inclined to not do much, it's a slippery slope.

"But the man ate the apple, didn't he?": Nahida takes a folk tale she heard about an exquisitely beautiful woman and uses it as the underpinning for her argument against the cultural suppression of pro-woman Islamic themes—and some mighty Muslim women too.

Illness and body image: Feminist-minded bloggers struggle with body image too, and one of the nice things about writing on these topics is that you get to explore your own relationship with your body in your work. But what happens when your body actively works against you? Virginia Sole-Smith of Beauty Schooled writes honestly, humbly, and eloquently on what it's like to live with chronic medical conditions in which you feel like your body is attempting to stage mutiny. "Proper migraine management centers on being nice to yourself—you have to get plenty of sleep, drink lots of water, be careful around alcohol, and exercise, but not too hard. ... But even when I’m doing everything 'right,' it’s no guarantee that I’ll escape that week’s migraine. ... When you’re sick, 'be nice to your body' takes on a different meaning."

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Privacy Settings of Pajamas

What, your mustard chinoiserie pajamas didn't come with a purple poodle?

I wore pajamas to class my freshman year of college. Well, specifically, I wore my pajama pants one time to one class my freshman year of college. I’d read in some YA book when I was, like, 12 that you could wear pajamas to class in college if you wanted, and in a collegiate fit of I am an adult now—not dissimilar to my collegiate fit of eating ice cream for dinner four days in a row when I realized nobody could tell me not to—I thought, You know, I’m here to learn, and I’ll learn best when I’m comfortable, and this “system” of “pants” is bogus, so I’m just going to show up to astronomy in my flannel bottoms, and so I did.

When I sat down, I could feel the wooden seat against me in a way that felt unexpectedly harsh, and I kept slipping and sliding around the seat, with the flannel providing no traction. More than that, though, I felt exposed. I hadn’t done anything that morning besides brush my teeth, and here I was, in public. Instead of feeling carefree and cozy, I felt trapped—trapped by my private self being on such public display, trapped by my human foibles (sleep-wrinkled pants, night-sweaty hair) being so visible. I wanted the physical and psychic membrane that jeans, a bra, and a sturdier top provided me. I ran home between class sessions and changed into my usual clothes.

So I don’t get the lure of pajamas in public. I know that some people prefer them for specific reasons, like chronic pain conditions, and I’ve got no problem padding about my neighborhood in my yoga pants and “fancy hoodie.” (You know, the one without the coffee stains and frayed cuffs.) But I admit to being quizzical about pajamas apparently becoming de rigueur among teenagers, as reported in the Wall Street Journal.

I wrote earlier this week about how part of the joys of some private clothing is the public ideas we attach to them—as with slips, which are somewhat glamorous despite being simple, demure, and inexpensive because of the very idea that we’re not supposed to see them. We see the inverse here: Wearing pajamas in public is taking a symbol of private life into the public sphere. Not actual private life, mind you, but the symbol of it. One teenager interviewed for the WSJ piece has school-only pajama pants (albeit at the insistence of her mother), and the article made it clear that the look, while casual, is still coordinated, with as many fashion rules as ever. Voluminous “banded boyfriend” sweatpants would call for a fitted cami; trim leggings would call for an oversized sweatshirt; all go best with Uggs or slipper-type shoes. "It's a complex system to master," writes Cassie Murdoch at Jezebel, and she's absolutely correct.

It’s hard to imagine the average teenager putting so much care into a wardrobe that’s kept truly private. (Of course, I’m writing this in my “house hoodie,” which was purchased in the year 2000, so perhaps my perspective is skewed.) And that’s what’s going on here: The pajama-pants look as a trend isn’t just about comfort, or even just about bringing our private lives outside. It’s about a careful calibration of public intimacy. It’s about what layers you’re going to show, and when, and to whom. Actually, it’s about Facebook.

The generation that’s donning loungewear in public in large numbers is also the generation that has grown up with different expectations of privacy and public living. They’re fluid in setting groups of friends on Facebook that determine who can see what; they’ve learned the difference between friends and “friends,” liking and “liking.” It only makes sense that a generation versed in managing privacy would gravitate toward clothing that advertises different layers of public and private personae. The default privacy setting might be that of pajama pants worn to class, communicating that, Hey, peeps, this is what I’m really like—I’m in my jammies, does it get any more real than that? But that default setting is carefully managed—wearing the “right” sweatpants with the “right” top to create the desired silhouette, taking care not to accidentally show up for algebra wearing the tattered, yellowed tee you actually slept in. Just as we calculate our online profiles to be just the right mix of casual, hip, and unassumingly nerdy (I once listed a Balkan folk group as one of my favorites on Facebook), the pajamas look is carefully calculated to give the impression of nonchalance despite the work that actually went into creating the look.

The teen years are always a time of experimenting with identity, and our wardrobes are an ongoing experiment in the same, so the social minefield of teenagers’ wardrobes has been filled with trip-wires since the invention of the teenager. In some ways it’s not that different from my junior-high years of the label-conscious '80s, when 12-year-olds on the cusp of developing their own identity were living out their parents’ yuppie dreams by wearing shirts emblazoned with the Guess and Esprit logos. But I’m guessing that hasn’t disappeared; it’s just been subsumed by the announcement of a cultivated identity. (As 16-year-old Alexa reports, some of her peers “feel the pressure not to conform, which I suppose is in itself a form of conforming.”) Teenagers may be liberated from the logo game (though not really, if those Victoria’s Secret sweatpants with PINK stamped across the rear are any indication), but they’re saddled with something bigger: the assumption that they’re happy to display their private lives in the most public of forums.

Part of what makes us us is what we keep to ourselves. Likewise, part of what creates intimacy is sharing private parts of ourselves with others. So when the expectations of what’s public and what’s private shift dramatically, so do our ideas of intimacy and how we can best create it. Today, apparently, sharing passwords is a way teenagers show intimacy among one another. It’s totally unfathomable to me, but it works for them, because their ideas of privacy are already radically different than mine. I wonder, then, what lies beneath the pajamas fad. If teens are creating privacy settings with their wardrobes, that means not that they don’t care about privacy but that they care very much. Much like I’ve taken the public meaning of slips to create a private delight for myself, the pajamas look could be a signal I don’t yet understand—and perhaps teens don’t yet understand it either. My instinct was to cluck at them, get them to see that they’re losing something sacred about themselves if they display their private lives so publicly—and worse yet if they’re not actually showing their private selves but rather a carefully cultivated idea of the private self. But I’m going to hold out hope here, hope that in some ways the inversion of public and private selves could ultimately serve to strengthen notions of what they really and truly want to keep private.

We’ve wrung our hands over what the share-all generation has in store, and in general I’m inclined to think that living so publicly is ultimately harmful. But seeing how some teens have subverted the very tools supposedly creating the problem—for example, deactivating Facebook profiles every time they go offline so that nobody can post on their wall without their immediate knowledge—I think they’re going to be savvier than adults can imagine about how to manage their private lives. I don’t think the slide toward pajama pants is a good thing (I'm with Sally on her "slippery slope" theory), and I’m thankful that I didn’t have to navigate that as a teenager. (I was one of those kids who secretly wished for a uniform so that I wouldn’t have to think about it.) But this generation is spending a lot of energy figuring out public and private personae. So let 'em wear the pajama pants while they’re figuring it out. They’re going to need to be comfortable.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Privately Speaking: My Love of Slips

I'd like to be able to neatly delineate beauty tasks I do because I "have" to from beauty tasks I do simply because they delight me. The obvious way to determine whether any particular bit of beauty work is done because it fulfills societal norms is to look at whether it's done without an audience—that is, at home, alone. Trouble with that, for me, is that there’s very little beauty labor I do unless prodded with the hot fire pokers we call “human contact.” On days when I’m at home alone I’ll stick to the barest rules of hygiene, meaning I brush my teeth and put on deodorant, and most likely I’ll splash my face with water and rub in some coconut oil. No makeup, hair in a bun—not even body lotion, because I only put on body lotion after a shower, and unless I’ve gone to the gym the chances of me showering on a no-human day are slim. I am lazy, folks.

No, my private beauty delights come to me through something I rarely write about and claim not to care much about: clothes. Specifically, slips. Given how little I care for shopping and for amassing a broad wardrobe, it may surprise you to learn that I have no fewer than 30 vintage slips. I never understand it when I read interviews with women who say they have clothes in their closet with tags still on it, but certainly I have slips I’ve never worn. There’s probably four of them that I wear on a heavy rotation—the mocha-colored '70s-style one, the early '60s baby-doll, the white one with the label that reads “Back Magic,” and a robin’s-egg blue one that’s too tight to sleep in comfortably but that peeks out from my favorite shirtdress every so often, and that makes me feel just a little bit like Elizabeth Taylor whenever I wear it.

I’ve loved slips ever since I was a kid, when my mother’s sisters allowed me to plunder through some unwanted clothes. By virtue of living in apartment complexes with swimming pools and wearing eyeliner, my aunts seemed terrifically glamorous to me, so I salivated at the chance to wear their old pieces. There wasn’t much for an eight-year-old to take—I’d aged out of princess dress-up but hadn’t graduated to, say, halter tops—but one item stood out: a short black nylon slip with plain scalloped trim on the bust. I treated it as a dress, and given that I was a rotund little kid it actually fit me reasonably well, despite looking utterly not how it was designed to look. I knew not to wear it out of the house (in fact, I knew not to wear it outside the confines of my bedroom), but I also couldn’t bring myself to treat the slip as straight-up play clothes either. The slip seemed to promise something more—it wasn’t a ridiculous item, it was a sexy item, an adult item, something like what women wore in those old movies, but not so racy as to be embarrassing for anyone involved, including an eight-year-old girl.

Fifteen years later, I moved to New York with a backpack and a cardboard dresser, and that slip was one of the few items that made it across the country with me. Good thing, too. Since I had nowhere to live in New York, I bounced around seedy SROs and sublets for several months. And just in case you ever wind up living in an SRO with an overhead light bulb that won’t turn off and a bathroom you share with a drag queen named Coco, here’s a tip: You want to look as chic as you possibly can whilst creeping from your overlit bedroom to your shared, roach-infested bathroom, because you’ll be damned if Coco’s chihuahua is more glamorous than you. My slip came in handy for these occasions, and in others: Going to the rooftop to escape the oppressive heat of one of my sublets during the hottest summer on record since 1869, serving as a well-isn’t-this-convenient coverup after entertaining in my boudoir, even, on the hottest of summer evenings, serving as a dress—always under a floppy overshirt, mind you!—for late-night ice cream runs.

Eventually I began to stop ever wearing slips in front of anybody except for roommates (or, ahem, bedmates), and eventually the hand-me-down began to fall apart. During my thankfully brief foray into drunk online shopping (I was ahead of my time), I discovered that slips were frequently sold in lots of 20 or more for insanely cheap prices. I soon had piles of slips lying around, to the point where I made curtains out of them. Peach chiffon baby-doll, severe navy with swiss dots, accordion-pleated bottoms: I had fun with these (especially the baby-doll ones, which I love wearing but which put me in a vaguely petulant mood because they seem like something Betty Draper would wear), but I’d always go back to the standard: the cheap mid-thigh nylon slips with adjustable straps. I’m not alone in my affection for this kind of slip; in 2006, the Times trumpeted the slip’s comeback with the headline “What’s Sexy Now.” Sexy they are, even if they weren’t originally meant to be (though I’d argue that few women wear them anymore for their original purpose—few of my dresses are sheer enough to require them, so if they’re ever worn out of the house it’s because I mean for them to peek out from whatever I’m wearing over it). But the reason for their sexiness is their first juxtaposition: As one of the story's interviewees says, “Slips are totally demure. At a time when nothing is shocking anymore, that's what makes them sexy."

Sexiness per se isn’t what makes me love the slip. Sex usually involves other people, and for me, the slip is private. Yet part of its private meaning stems from its public use: It’s informal, meant to be worn under the finery, but its simple lines and solid colors make it elegant in its simplicity. So when I wear a slip in solitude, I’m not wearing it because it’s comfortable or practical for padding about my apartment; I wear it because it makes me feel elegant yet simple, a little demure, a little sexy. I could get some of the same feelings from a peignoir, but the peignoir is designed to be worn in private. The public utility of the slip is what embues its private use so richly. It’s because the slip straddles the line of public and private that I take such delight in wearing them when nobody can see.

When I wrote last year about my mirror fast, one of the things I wanted to challenge myself on was seeing not myself, but an image of myself: “I’ll see my reflection in a darkened windowpane, hunched over my computer with a pencil twirled through my upswept hair, and I’ll think, My, don’t I look like a writer?” It’s an ongoing project for women, to learn how to see ourselves as people and not images, and it’s a worthy project. But there’s also power in seizing imagery for ourselves—and perhaps it’s a self-serving argument to make here, but there’s potentially even more power in seizing imagery that is solely for our own pleasure, to define ourselves in our private spaces. Women are nearly always in the danger of putting on a performance, something that’s prettily easily critiqued from a feminist perspective. But that critique often leaves out the very real joys of performance—the pleasure of transformation, the relief of slipping into a role. It’s difficult if not impossible to suss out how much “life performance” is actually helpful to us as women, but that task becomes easier when we’re talking about performance in our private spaces.

When I’m lounging about in a slip, I’m attempting to summon up the qualities I attach to slips, like casual glamour, sophistication, maturity. Some of those qualities are usually only detected through the eyes of others—glamour and sophistication in particular—but in summoning the qualities privately, I'm making a wish of possession that perhaps goes deeper than when I simply dress up to be in public. I’m saying to myself: This is who I truly am. Now, the fact that I’m conscious of this suggests that perhaps it’s not truly who I am after all. (Chances are I’m more of a frayed college hoodie. Go Ducks!) But if I can’t privately channel the part of myself that not only wants to wears slips but is comfortable in them for reasons that go beyond the practical, then I’m cutting off one small avenue for any sort of transformation. There’s much to be said for accepting our frayed-college-hoodie selves. There’s also much to be said for allowing ourselves the portal of performance, even if—rather, especially if—that performance is only for ourselves.

Slips are my way of accessing the aspects of the feminine performance that bring me pleasure, or at least of beginning to understand what I might find pleasurable about that performance. What about you? What private beauty or style play do you have in your life? Do you wear makeup when you’re alone? Do you ever dress up by yourself, just for fun? Do you bring public space into your private sphere—or are your delineations of what’s public and private looser than what I’m describing here?

Friday, January 20, 2012

Beauty Blogosphere 1.20.12

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

From Head...

Theodent: the chocoholic equivalent of using bourbon as mouthwash

Theodent and forget it: Startup dental care company Theodent replaces fluoride with chocolate, which apparently has antimicrobial properties? It's currently mint-flavored, but never fear: A chocolate-flavored version is in the works. ("I understand chocolate bacon, Bill, but this is ridiculous!")

...To Toe...
Mukluk: Artist-activist Louie Gong will be collaborating with Manitobah Mukluks to do some designer kicks. Manitobah Mukluks is a Native-themed company actually—yes, it's true!—owned by Native people! I've never worn them myself, but Beyond Buckskin's tipoff is enough for me.

...And Everything In Between:
Blonde battle: Starbucks is taking a firm line: No employee is to make "blonde jokes" in reference to the company's new Blonde Roast coffee. Which, you know, yay and all—no, seriously, I was worried they were going to try some gross blonde-chick marketing thing and it's good to know they're taking a firm line on not exploiting the flaxen-haired just to make a buck. But if they're so concerned about people making blonde jokes why didn't they, I don't know, name the coffee something else? (Edit: K raises some great points in the comments section: "What's more troubling than calling the coffee 'blonde' is the associations they're making with it: 'It is subtle, mellow, lighter-bodied, full of flavor, and delicious.' (from the Starbucks website). The implied message here is that the ideal blonde (coffee or woman), is subtle. She's mellow and easy to deal with, but interesting. She's lighter-bodied... which can be interpreted both as skin colour and as body type." Sing it, sister!)

A wrinkle in the plan: The National Advertising Division is asking Neutrogena to reword its claims about a certain anti-wrinkle cream the company says will reduce wrinkles in under a week. Criminy, they coulda talked to me first.

Iron lady: The makeover of Margaret Thatcher.

Pushing it: Feminist Philosophers looks at "Push Girls," a new reality show featuring, well, hot chicks in wheelchairs. I mean, it's great that the show isn't treating women with disabilities as desexed or unattractive, but when "four gorgeous ladies" is a part of the show's description, I've gotta wonder.

A bit of surgical history: The first breast implant patient in the U.S. didn't really want implants. In 1962, when Timmie Jean Lindsey went to a "charity hospital" to have a tattoo removed, "They asked me if I wanted implants, and I said, 'Well, I don't really know.'" !

Can't figure out whether this is the fashionista's Diet Coke or the romantic's. DECISIONS.

"Fashion can": Which aspect of this marketing scheme is more bad-awesome? The special edition Diet Cokes in "fashion cans" or the tie-in videos with Benefit that "show the rock chick, fashionista and romantic enjoying a Diet Coke while they are shown how to achieve their desired look using products from Benefit Cosmetics"? You decide.

More marketing: The co-opting of "confidence" in this endorsement is sort of hilarious. Proctor & Gamble is sponsoring the U.S. Olympics women's gymnastics team, so it makes sense to pluck Alicia Sacramone, who won a silver in Beijing, as a spokeswoman, but the spin here is downright hilarious. "When I'm competing, confidence is key and nothing boosts me like feeling beautiful inside and out. I turn to P&G beauty brands like COVERGIRL, Olay, Pantene and Secret on a daily basis to give me the confidence to take on anything." Yeah, we've come a long way, baby.

Shrimpface: Shrimp derivative shown to aid skin permeation of green tea catechins. I was just wondering how to get all those green tea catechins to sink in, and damn if I don't have all these shrimp...

On grieving our fantasies: Medicinal Marzipan's haunting post on grieving the loss of our "body fantasy" is a self-acceptance must-read, because behind every woman who's dissatisfied with her looks is a fantasy woman who gives us a lot more than we realize. "We talk about grief in regards to losing those that we love or having to give up possessions or places by necessity of circumstance. Less often, you will hear people talking openly about the grief that they experience at having to give up a notion of themselves that they clung to for dear life."

Mass hysteria: Not exactly beauty-related, but this outbreak of what appears to be "conversion disorder"—aka mass hysteria—of 12 girls in upstate New York makes me wonder about eating disorder as a social contagion. Conversion disorder seems to be a way that the body and mind funnel stress, resulting in anything from tics to verbal confusion to temporary blindness, and the fact that there's an actual outbreak of it despite no known environmental factors makes it clear that it's also a social disease. (Not that kind of social disease.) Eating disorders are partly biological in origin, but there's also enormous cultural factors at play here. Is this odd spate of twitchy girls a microcosm of how some eating disorders develop? (via Jessica Stanley)

The trans beauty myth: Fantastic post from Jane Fae, who prompts us to think about the beauty myth and trans women. "Some women really aren’t too fussed over looks: would never contemplate a boob job or, the latest fad, a labioplasty. Others would because they can.... Ironic, therefore, if trans women now find themselves suffering from the same pressure. When, as in some widely-reported recent cases, hormones leave you underdeveloped, breast-wise, is your despair genuinely your own? Or is it increasingly something imposed on you by a society that, as it begins to accept that transition and transgender are not mere eccentricity, but utterly bound up with individual identity, now begins to impose on trans women the same pressures it has been imposing on every woman that ever was?"

What's your makeup: Beyoncé's spot for L'Oréal caught the attention of Indian Country Today; the ads claim that L'Oréal is particularly well-suited for the "mosaic of all faces before" hers. There's hardly ever a public mention of Native women's makeup woes, so it's nice on that front, and it's also interesting from the perspective of self-branding. Is Beyoncé marketing her mixed-race background?

The living years: Love this photo project of different women, ages 1-101. (via Ruby Bastille)

"Can Dr. VaJayJay help it if this is what women ask for?"

Dr. VaJayJay, M.D.: Am I the only one who's thinking of Alec Baldwin's Jack Donaghy in this spoof video with "Dr. VaJayJay," whose goal is to "Privatize Tho$e Private$" with labial cosmetic surgery? Vaginoplasty has its place, in particular for trans women (I'm pretty sure this falls outside the realm of what Jane is talking about), but this video is spot-on in connecting it to the way we medicalize what doesn't need medicalizing, and how pornography has changed what's normal—something Beauty Redefined does great work on dissecting. (Thanks to reader Rebecca from the New View Campaign for the link!)

Classical jazz: Une Femme d'un Certain Age asks what makes a classic, classic. "What we (I?) often think of as 'classic' seems to work best on the more ectomorphic among us. Am I trying to work 'classic' too literally for my body type? (Is there such a thing as Voluptuous Classic?)"

Private pantser: Pajama pants are eroding the moral fiber of society. I'm actually anti-pajama-pants-in-public, though I understand that some people with chronic pain conditions may need the comfort they offer. Not because it's a moral issue, but because I feel like it's contributing to a dangerous erosion of the public vs. private self. Facebook is bad enough, now girls need to showcase their private wardrobe too?

Alpha Girl:
Comics aren't usually my thing, but the premise of Alpha Girl is interesting: A cosmetics company develops a pheromone-based scent that turns women into "crazed man-eaters." Seems a tad too close to comfort to Anarchy, the new women's fragrance from Axe, which fragrance blog Mimi FrouFrou appraises this week from a marketing standpoint.

But nothing about "bicycle face"?: Gala Darling on "bicycle style": Helmet-hair, skirts and modesty, and keeping warm whilst staying stylin'. I tend to choose one or the other—chic or practical—but I applaud those who can try to do both!

"Punish whoever brought these mirrors!": I love Kjerstin Gruys's "Fun Fact Fridays" about mirrors, and this one is my favorite yet: Jewish couples in antiquity would use mirrors specifically to increase their levels of arousal.

Beauty, violence, and sensationalism: Elizabeth Greenwood for The Atlantic lays out two films that succeeds in depicting violence against attractive women without making it somehow seem alluring—and one that fails miserably. 

"Only people over 70 are fooled by Photoshop": I loved Bossypants so much that I didn't think to be critical of Tina Fey's bit on Photoshop, but Virginia Sole-Smith's second look at Fey's take on the matter makes me want to reread and reevaluate. 

"They must reap what they sow": Margaret Cho on the fury that escapes when her looks are attacked. "When someone says something negative about my face or body I will always and forever just completely lose my shit, because I have so much hatred in me, a violence that lies just beneath the surface of my delightfully illustrated skin. ... I’d like to say things that would haunt them for the rest of their days, because their hideous words stay with me eternally. Their insipid spouts of 'no fat chicks' are branded onto my soul, so they must reap what they sow." I'm generally of the "turn the other cheek" variety, but I understand the impulse, yes, I do.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

For Janis Joplin, On Her Sixty-Ninth Birthday

The first time I heard Janis Joplin, it was by chance. I was at the home of an acquaintance, a bona fide Popular Girl who argued feminist positions along with me in our junior-year literature class, making her my favorite of the in-crowd. I’d been assigned a class project with her, and she had a small group of us over to her home to work on the task. We sat cross-legged on the floor, sipping sodas and plotting our work, when a quiet wail in the background caught my ear. I tuned out the conversation and tuned in to the wail: I couldn’t make out the words, but the sound itself was urgent, pained, and undeniably female. I interrupted the conversation to ask who we were listening to, and the popular girl smiled. “Janis Joplin,” she said. “Isn’t she great?”

I’d heard of Janis Joplin before, but somehow she had slipped through my musical upbringing in favor of The Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, and Bob Dylan. My parents owned Pearl—as I’d learn later that night when I’d ask my parents about Janis with the same sort of feigned-casual tone I might use to inquire about an it’s-no-big-deal-really crush—but she wasn’t a part of the household repertoire. After commandeering Pearl and realizing there had to be even more Janis out there, I went to the public library and found every bit of material on her that I could. I borrowed CDs to make illegal tapes of them; I read biographies; I watched Monterey Pop. I went barefoot for much of my senior year of high school because it seemed like something Janis would have done; I strolled the halls with my long hair, tie-dye T-shirts, long necklaces, and ripped jeans, and imagined myself to be channeling some part of her. Forget that as a classic good girl, any rebellious streak I had was forever turned inward, not outward; forget that I was 17 and had no idea what phrases like a woman left lonely, piece of my heart, and get it while you can could possibly mean (or rather, forget that I’m an adult critiquing my adolescent understanding of her work; at 17 I knew the meaning of those words as well as anyone).

I wouldn’t say I wanted to be Janis, or even that I considered her a role model. I’d quickly learn how she lived, I’d quickly learn how she’d died, and I didn’t want to shape my life in that way. But I admired her. I’d call it a “girl crush” if I didn’t usually apply that term to women who reminded me of a better version of myself, which Janis wasn’t. Janis Joplin was nothing like me. That’s part of why—I’ll use this phrase, and not lightly—I loved her.

It wasn’t until I had read multiple biographies of her that I began to recognize something that felt like a nonsensical gnat at first, but a gnat that appeared in every major work about her: Janis Joplin wasn’t pretty. I mean, yeah yeah, eye of the beholder and inner beauty and all that, but Janis Joplin was not considered to be pretty. She was an outcast growing up, teased for her looks—her acne-plagued skin, her tendency to gain weight—and she never carried the mantle of the pretty girl. Even when she became an icon of the late ‘60s, it wasn’t because she was a beauty. None of that mattered to me, though, because I had no idea she wasn’t supposed to be pretty.

There are plenty of reasons why I didn’t think about Janis Joplin’s beauty. The obvious would be that she was so extraordinarily talented that her voice took a backseat to her looks, or perhaps that her talent made her beautiful to me. Hell, maybe it was because Janis came to me through a Popular Girl, so I conferred the qualities of that girl onto Janis herself. And perhaps all of those are true, but that’s not what was really going on.

It was more this: Famous women are pretty, and Janis Joplin is famous, ergo Janis Joplin is pretty. That was it, that was the logic, and I didn’t question my faulty syllogism. Janis Joplin had to be beautiful, because known women are beautiful. I didn’t need to actually look at her to know it must be true. To be clear, it wasn’t that I had some special ability to see a female performer as beautiful because of her talent alone, or that I thought her looks were unimportant. It was quite the opposite: I thought looks were incredibly important. I was so stuck on connecting beauty with talent and “making it” that I superimposed a physical beauty onto anyone with talent. Rather, I superimposed the concept of a woman’s looks, to the point where the actual physical “truth” of it (if there is ever a “truth” about beauty) became beside the point. I’d like to think that Janis’s looks didn’t cross my mind because my attitude on the matter was so progressive, but in truth it was because my attitude was regressive, or at least adolescent. I prized beauty, so I tethered skill, talent, tenacity, boldness, attitude, charisma—the things I actually loved about Janis—to it.

I don’t remember what I thought the first time I saw a picture of Janis. I do, however, remember looking at pictures of other women from the era and wanting to be like them because they were pretty. Grace Slick’s tilted head and dark eyes on the cover of Surrealistic Pillow, Mary Travers looking pertly fabulous under her boa on Album 1700, even, as a child, the pretty smile of Marlo Thomas on the back of Free to Be You and Me: I loved all of these albums from childhood on, and probably would have even if Grace, Mary, and Marlo were less pretty than they were. But their looks were a part of the fantasy portal they created. Grace and Mary were beautiful women surrounded by men (who I saw as being of lesser talent, whether or not that’s true), and Marlo—well, she was That Girl, right? Was it any wonder a girl who longed to be both pretty and accomplished would look up to these women?

It was probably my experiences with Grace, Mary, and Marlo—and Peggy Lee, and Linda Ronstadt, and Lesley Gore, Julie Andrews, Stevie Nicks, Diana Ross, or any of the other female musicians who populated my childhood—that made me assume, sight unseen, that Janis Joplin must be pretty. Once I started reading biographies of her and saw that writers would occasionally mention that she was hardly Venusian, I dismissed such notions as being beside the point, but I still didn’t question the veracity of their claims. It was only after my fervor had died down a little bit—the poster taken down from my wall, my college boombox finally being relieved of Cheap Thrills—that I studied photographs of her, looking for something other than Janis Joplin, the legend. She made some arresting images, to be sure—sprawled in feathers on a leather settee for Pearl, behatted in furs leaving the Chelsea Hotel. There’s little question that Janis was attractive, in the sense that she attracted you, and for reasons that had nothing to do with her voice. But pretty? No, she wasn’t that.

Still, we loved to look at her. In fact, perhaps we loved to look at her because she wasn’t traditionally beautiful. As rock critic Ellen Willis writes in her 1976 essay on Janis, “Joplin’s metamorphosis from the ugly duckling of Port Arthur to the peacock of Haight-Ashbury meant, among other things, that a woman who was not conventionally pretty, who had acne and an intermittent weight problem and hair that stuck out, could not only invent her own beauty (just as she invented her wonderful sleazofreak costumes) out of sheer energy, soul, sweetness, arrogance, and a sense of humor, but have that beauty appreciated. Not that Janis merely took advantage of changes in our notions of attractiveness; she herself changed them.”

Isn’t it nice to think so? I don’t think it’s true, though, not exactly, or at least I don’t think Janis changed our notions of attractiveness. But I do think that not only is she a prime example of how someone’s raw talent can make a person so appealing as to actually transform one’s looks, she’s also a poster child for the ways beauty serves as a false protector. Janis Joplin, never having been considered pretty, also never had the security of banal prettiness. And as harsh as it probably was to not have that security, it may also have wound up giving her a certain protection against misdirected blame. In “Ball and Chain,” when Janis moans, “I don’t understand how come you’re gone” she has a near-childlike lack of understanding—how come you’re gone? how come? The only thing greater than her gaping incomprehension at why her man would leave a good thing is her pain. But at age 17, I’d have known how come he’d gone: I wasn’t his dream girl after all, I wasn’t pretty enough, I spat when I talked, I’d been too clingy, and my god was I really just fat after all? (I’d have been wrong, of course. We never understand how come they’re gone.) Janis skipped forward through the analysis of the good girl, the pretty-enough girl, the girl who desperately wishes not to repeat her mistakes—the me-girl—landing smack-dab in the searing, fertile garden of pain. We all wind up there eventually. I can’t say she spared herself any grief through her circumnavigation around nice-girl self-blame; Janis didn’t spare herself much of anything. But she grieved the right things. She never had the crutch of prettiness, so she learned to walk without it.

There’s only so far I can romanticize Janis in this respect, of course. She jumped from lover to lover, only rarely feeling satisfied. She sought approval more than her lasting reputation as an iconoclast reveals; one listen to the mediocre Kozmic Blues shows just that. She went to her high school reunion fully expecting the reception she’d longed for 10 years earlier, only to walk away with a tire, an award for having traveled the farthest to attend. (“What am I going to do with a fucking tire?” she reputedly said upon receiving the award.) And, of course, she died in a hotel room, alone, at age 27, of a self-administered heroin overdose. I can’t claim jack shit for Janis’s self-image or appraisal of her own appeal. I can only claim what she taught me.

I’m older now, more mature, and I’d like to think I’m no longer as eager to equate talent and physical beauty. In fact, I’ve come back to that place I was at age 17: Janis Joplin’s looks don’t matter to me, in the sense that they’re unimportant in the larger scope of who she is. I’m glad for that. Janis’s legacy isn’t that of beauty; it’s that of brutal vulnerability, searing talent, and the virtue of being totally unable to be anyone other than oneself. I write here of the importance her looks had for me because this is the place I have to honor her, and here I write of beauty. But when I listen to her—it doesn’t matter what album, it doesn’t matter what song—if I am thinking of beauty at all, I’m thinking of the kind of beauty that transcends. Whimsy, will, and revelation created Janis’s legacy, and they create her beauty too. And today, on what would have been her sixty-ninth birthday, I want to offer her memory a piece of my heart.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Pricing Beauty (Not That Other Book)

I have a comparative review of Catherine Hakim’s Erotic Capital and Ashley Mears’s Pricing Beauty up at The New Inquiry. (Image possibly unsafe for work; I didn't choose it.) Last time I piped up here about the concept of erotic capital, I was trying to find a way to value it. For there are parts of the theory I find enticing—that if our culture began to value traditionally feminine traits and skills instead of automatically denigrating them, we might begin to see progress in arenas where sexism still thrives. I also liked the idea that erotic capital was embodied by charisma and “people skills,” not merely the “womanly arts” of being seductive and walking successfully in high heels. I’m not exactly a believer in “if you’ve got it, flaunt it,” but I’m a believer in charm, and I was ready to read an argument that valorized it.

Unfortunately, as I point out in the review, these theories were in my head, not in Hakim’s book. When I wrote my earlier piece on erotic capital, I hadn’t yet read the book that inspired it; I now wish I’d made my point entirely separate from Erotic Capital, because Erotic Capital is tripe. Like, seriously, tripe, and not just because I disagree with most of its premises; it’s poorly written, repetitive, and defensive, and Hakim seems to have a willful misunderstanding of women's history. (Hakim isn’t the first person to attempt to discredit feminism’s most visible icon by referring to Gloria Steinem as a former Playboy bunny without acknowledging that she worked undercover for Playboy to expose their working conditions. But when it’s used to ask why more feminists haven’t embraced erotic capital—including a former Playboy bunny!—it’s particularly disingenuous.) Which is exactly why, though I’m pleased with the review and would happily write it again, I’m simultaneously chagrined with myself for taking Hakim’s bait. After reading the book, it became clear she wanted exactly the kind of argument I issued. It attacks feminism and uses the word erotic in its title; she meant for it to be a provocative argument, not a serious one. I suppose my mistake was in expecting a better argument. Lesson learned.

The real downside here, though, is that in gnawing away at Erotic Capital, I didn’t get a chance to showcase Pricing Beauty, which is excellent. I was eager to read it because it was an in-depth study of the modeling industry that didn’t immediately dismiss it as harmful to the population at large, which is what most feminist discourse regarding modeling focuses on. Mears doesn’t ignore those claims; instead, she deftly illustrates how the industry embodies the social and cultural constructs the power-holders have decided upon (even when they don’t exactly know that they’re deciding upon anything). That is: The modeling industry isn’t some weird otherworld; the modeling industry just lays bare the conditions many of us operate under every day.

A recurring theme in Pricing Beauty is how an industry can put a price tag on a product whose entire value lies in representation. How can the industry decide one 5’10” lithe, toothy brunette is worth $6,000 a day, while another 5’10” lithe, toothy brunette winds up in debt to her agency? In looking at the tastemakers who control the aesthetics of modeling—photographers, bookers, agents, and most of all clients, the people signing the bills at the end of the day—Mears shows us how even the power-holders make decisions according to what they each think the other wants, leading to an inflation among what each tastemaker anticipates will be the prized “look.” And there are plenty of ways to dissect any particular look and what those in power might gain from prizing that particular look—even when they genuinely don’t realize that they’re suddenly prizing a look that serves their cultural dictates. But we can’t do any of it unless we accept modeling A) as a legitimate industry worth studying, one with its own working conditions and peculiar rules that, along with the glamour, keep its participants hungry for its winner-take-all economic stakes, and B) as an industry that isn’t against the rest of us, but rather an embodiment of the social and cultural concerns that might get us riled up about the modeling industry in the first place.

For a sociological study that could easily have devolved into academic-ese in an effort to be taken seriously, the book is both lucid and economical; it’s a testament to the good faith in which Mears, who was working as a model while doing her research, approaches the industry, looking to be neither critical nor laudatory. Each anecdote surges toward the larger thesis, even the quotes from outliers, making the entire read seamless. I’d read Mears’ work on Jezebel before; I don’t know her background other than what’s in her bio, but the ease with which she writes over there shines through in Pricing Beauty. (Few things will turn me off quicker than writing designed to appear scholarly; this book is one of those studies that shows such style is a compensation for unclear thinking.)

It’s always tempting to treat modeling as either a terrifically glamorous world, or as the opposite—a Valley of the Dolls-type world built for disappointment and tragedy, but only after years spent in blistering high heels. Mears refuses to sensationalize modeling in either direction, acknowledging its perks (you’re a model! who gets to work in Europe sometimes!) and pitfalls (you’re a model! who may well exit the industry in debt to your agency for all the work they’ve poured into your never-launched career!) but always keeping an eye on the larger questions: What do the peculiar economics of the modeling industry say about cultural values, about gender, about privilege? In essence, what does modeling say about us? We know there's a connection; that's part of why there's such an enormous amount of attention paid to the industry, or rather, to models themselves. (Why do any of us know who Claudia Schiffer is?) That's part of why some of us internalize the messages of the modeling industry so readily. We might not need Pricing Beauty to tell us that there's a connection between the cultural production of modeling and the cultural production of ourselves, but we just might need it to help us understand why.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Say Cheese: On Smiling, Comfort, and Surrender

In the summer of 1986, a small item ran in the biweekly newspaper of Guymon, Oklahoma, that I am guessing went unremembered by all but one of the town’s 15,000 residents. The item in question was a column about how to look good in photographs, and I will paraphrase the part that stuck with me: If you want your face to look slimmer, tip your chin down when being photographed so that you are looking at the camera from a lowered gaze. And if you want to look seductive, smile faintly, without teeth.

I was both chubby and boy-crazy, giving this advice combination a compelling allure. As a result, nearly every single posed photograph of me between the ages of 9 and 34 shows some variation upon that look. Face slightly tipped down, eyes gazing up, smiling, no teeth.

Wholly Unnatural Photo Face: Exhibit A. 

This gaze works for me as an adult, to a degree, even if I question the "seductive" part of the equation. It certainly didn’t work for me at age 9; I looked as though I were attempting to seduce Pee-Wee Herman. But never mind that: I had a goal (slim, seductive) and a fool-proof way to achieve it (the advice column of my local biweekly newspaper), and it didn’t occur to me to question its efficacy. I practiced the look, goal in mind, and had a blind faith that it would make me appear slim and seductive. I stuck with it for 25 years.

Something else happened over those 25 years: I realized I preferred videos and candid photographs of myself over posed ones. Even if a candid shot caught me unkempt or making a weird face, I was able to laugh it off; I didn’t take it as any sort of statement about how I “actually” looked. But a bad posed photograph seemed an indictment. I resigned myself to not ever having a good posed photograph of myself, and in fact made my preference for candid photographs sort of a semi-feigned quirk about myself, semi-feigned quirks being the saving grace for many an analytical lady.

But early last year, in an online space far less kind than The Beheld, a stranger commented that I looked like I was “sucking on a lemon.” The more I looked at the photograph in question—a photograph I’d selected because I found it to be an artful arranging of my features—the more I realized the commenter was right, if unkind. I couldn’t very well avoid posed photographs all my life, and it was clear my 25-year-old trick wasn’t working for me anymore. I tried a handful of new tips, culled from fashion magazines instead of Dust Bowl newspapers, to become a little more photogenic. I tried gazing at the camera as though it were someone I loved; I tried blinking before the flash went off; I even tried saying prune, advice I picked up from none other than the Olsen twins. None of it worked.

No, but really, I like lemons.

A total stranger could tell my “photo face” wasn’t me, but it took a professional to tell me why. Around the time I started trying to shed my photo face, I interviewed photographer Sophie Elgort. I’d reached out to her for her thoughts on fashion—which were insightful—but it was her thoughts on being photogenic that resonated. “If somebody’s not comfortable—in person or in a photo—it’s pretty obvious,” she told me (while I, of course, was arranging my face so as not to let on that she was talking directly about me). “The difference between somebody who’s photogenic and somebody who’s not is that people who aren’t photogenic are sometimes nervous in front of a camera. They make weird twitches, or they’ll sort of crane their neck or purse their lips or do something that’s obviously not them, because they’re nervous. If you keep shooting, you can get them more into their natural element and you can get a good photo from people who say, ‘Oh, I’m not photogenic.’ You’re not unphotogenic; it’s that you’re usually posing, putting on this ridiculous face that’s not you. How can you expect to look like your best self in a photo if you’re putting on a ridiculous face?”

No wonder I liked candid photographs so much more than posed ones. I was so uncomfortable with how I appeared—face too full, lips too uneven—that I was doing everything I could to control my looks, for we try to control what we find uncomfortable. The result was not only tortured but inaccurate: Like the mirror face, the photo face is an exercise in manipulation, in falsehood. We cannot look like ourselves when we are attempting to manipulate the camera. And, as Sophie says, we cannot look our best when we don’t look like ourselves. In trying to manipulate myself into looking my best, I manipulated my way right out of it.

With every photograph taken of me, I was attempting to control something uncontrollable — my very face. And the thing is, I wasn’t fooling anyone, not even myself. Whenever I’d cringe at a photo, I was cringing not at how I looked, but at my failed manipulation. For the small, constant acts of management were revealing not only a physical truth (that I do have a full face, that my eyes aren’t as Bambi-like as I’d prefer) but a deeper truth that I wanted to keep hidden—that I wasn’t comfortable with how I looked. There was a reason I preferred videos and candid photographs of myself to posed shots—in those images, I’d surrendered control. I wasn’t attempting to slim my face or appear alluring; I wasn’t attempting to do anything other than be myself. And in being my candid, full-cheeked, pointy-toothed self, whatever charm I have was able to shine. As Sophie put it, “There’s no way you can show your charisma if you’re not acting like yourself.”

Of course, it’s hard to “be yourself” on command. And becoming comfortable with oneself is a lifelong process; I wanted to start looking normal in photos now. The solution came when I asked a highly photogenic friend how she did it. She said a few things I’d heard, tried, and discarded, and I started filing away her advice along with other well-meaning words from people to whom certain things come so naturally as to be inexpressible. Then she shrugged. “Or, you know, I heard this once—just give the camera your biggest, toothiest, cheesiest smile, even if you don’t mean it.” I flashed her the cheesy smile she was referring to, thinking she would get that I was poking fun at the idea. She just said, “Yes, like that.”

So I started to smile. Yellowed teeth, uneven lips, wide face be damned, I smile now, in nearly every photograph. I smile big and broad and with teeth. I try to laugh sometimes too, but if nothing genuinely funny comes to mind I skip the laugh and just smile. I don’t tip my head down; I don’t throw my head back; I don’t think about where my head is at all. I just fucking smile.

And as it turns out, there is a reason smiling is the #1 classic photo advice: It works. It works better than tipping your head down and keeping your lips closed; it works better than looking a hair above the photographer to keep the impression of a lofty gaze; it works better than whatever the Olsen twins might tell you.

Thanks to the lovely Paige S. and Beth Mann for the photos;
certainly my smile experiment is helped along by good company

But wait! you say. How is a fake smile any less of a manipulation than tilting your head and lowering your gaze and doing all that jazz you’ve been doing for 25 years that you just told us was some “manipulation of the self”? The answer: It isn’t. But the control of a smile versus other small manipulations takes a different tone. A smile is a signal of openness; it’s an invitation. We smile when we’re nervous or unsure (particularly women), but one reason we reach for a smile in those moments is that it soothes both the person smiling and the person being smiled at. In other words, a smile makes us comfortable. It can be a manipulated comfort, but posing for a photograph is a manipulated situation to begin with. The implied acquiescence of a smile is what can make it troublesome from a feminist perspective (“Hey baby, where’s your smile?”), and it’s also what makes some non-smiling portraits so arresting—it’s a display of resistance. But in the average, run-of-the-mill photo where I just want to look good—or rather, where I just want to look like myself—I’ll call upon the big, fake, cheesy photo smile.

I’m happy to let a photographed smile do its immediate work of making me appear more comfortable with myself. And perhaps seizing the control of a smile is just another roadblock to the goal of actually being comfortable; after all, I’m still not thrilled with my full cheeks and my small, uneven teeth. But here’s the key: The control I’m seizing no longer makes me uncomfortable. Instead of attempting to adjust my face—my face! the face I’ll have all my life!—I’m adjusting the sentiment it wears. I’m controlling my looks by adjusting the emotions I’m telegraphing, not by adjusting my actual features, which I was never able to truly control anyway. Call it something as simple as an attitude adjustment. I suppose, quite literally, that’s exactly what it is.

I try not to overidentify with photographs of myself; I try to see them as the snapshots they are, not as a representation of how I exist in this world. I probably don’t succeed. But if I’m going to fail in that regard, I may as well be overidentifying with someone smiling back at me, someone extending a temporary reprieve from self-consciousness. Someone offering, for a brief yet semi-permanent moment, comfort.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Beauty Blogosphere 1.13.12

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

From Head...
New year's resolution: Could you go a year without buying new makeup? (Actually, I have so much stockpiled I could, easily, even if it means some weird blush colors down the line. I will be mascaraed until the apocalypse, rest assured.) 

...To Toe...
MAC the knife: Illinois high school sophomore suspended for bringing (what he claims is) a pedicure tool to school. Sorry, buddy, looks like a knife to me.

...And Everything In Between:

Why yes, Unilever, every anarchist I've known smells like "sparkling fruity notes with
soft florals at the heart and a light finish of sandalwood, amber, and vanilla"!

The sweet smell of anarchy: Natasha Lennard in Salon looks at the selling of Anarchy. You know, Anarchy, the body spray for women!

Leave it to the ladies: Which cosmetics company posted a whopping 15% increase in sales for 2011? Mary Kay. It even makes up their godawful week—an employee embezzling tens of thousands of dollars, and a thief breaking into a representative's home to loot $2,000 worth of products.

Do brands matter?: According to a new report, 66% of women are brand-aware when they shop for beauty products. I can't decide if the other 34% of us aren't brand-aware or just don't know that we're brand-aware. I mean, it's not like it's a small market—how do you know where to begin unless you're beginning with a product you've heard of?

Bad news boobs: French breast implant manufacturer PIP has been using industrial-grade silicone, not medical-grade silicone, in its products.  

Grinding: Slightly off-topic but I do think it's relevant: Max Fox's piece in The New Inquiry about the implications of cruising app Grindr on the gay community. Raising questions about visibility, activism, affective labor, and the way that technology automates desire and the gaze, this piece is relevant. "Grindr, which relieves you of most of the affective labor of cruising, with its risks and inefficiencies—mastering the elaborate signals, locating potential recipients but not eyeing the wrong guy, walking a body vulnerable to attack or arrest on the street—makes sense only once the old world that labor produced no longer exists. This is well within the familiar neoliberal practice of revolutionizing production processes by externalizing risk onto more precarious workers elsewhere."

Writer, editor, and founder of literary journal TriQuarterly Charles Newman.
Possibly too good-looking for his own good, per Boyers.

"Life is worth living only in the contemplation of beauty": Intriguing, poetic essay from Robert Boyers about the physical beauty of writer Charles Newman, and how that intersected with the morality of Newman and those who surrounded him. "He was not, to be sure, what typically passes for a beautiful character, not if that epithet is intended to identify an exalted moral stature. At times I felt that Charlie’s beauty got in the way of any reasonable estimation I might make of him as a person, and I wondered—only a little—at my own ability to be moved, consoled, by a beauty that could seem, at such moments, mainly skin-deep."

Blast from the past: Why did it take a "retro beauty" slideshow for me to realize that Salon Selectives was a relic of the '90s?

Web of beauty: I'm loving Beautiful in Theory's "Web of Beauty," which ties together philosophy, cosmetics, media, myth, and gender to look at how we construct and appreciate beauty. Eager to read more from Carina, who is writing her dissertation on images of beauty in post-1980s fiction, which I certainly hope includes Sweet Valley High.

"Is that a weave?": Great piece at Clutch for people who question the humor of "Shit White Girls Say to Black Girls." "When a college friend told me that I was 'cute for a black girl,' her statement had weight. It was spoken to a black woman on a campus with a 2 percent black population, in a state where black people were equally scarce, in a country where race bias is still pervasive. She was speaking in a culture where her own white features were prized and considered beautiful and mine were not.... She was speaking in a town where there was not one salon that did African American hair and no drug store that carried beauty products geared toward black women. Had I offered that she was 'cute for a white girl,' it would have been plenty offensive, but would have different context and far less weight. She had racial privilege; I did not." 

"Look at Me": Writer and former party model Amy Rose on the glamour and exploitation of the socialite modeling scene. "I came to suspect that while [the photographer] really did have a way of making women feel special and beautiful, he probably recognized my social discomfort the first night he met me and seized on it. He would often tell me how 'weird' I was before immediately switching gears and saying that I was gorgeous, toying with my insecurity before making me feel valuable again with the click of his camera. It worked." This piece exemplifies what I love so much about Rookie: It points out pitfalls many a girl has fallen into, without ever shaming them or implying that there's some moral plane they should instead be aiming for. Self-respect is at the core of what they do, and it shows. (Thanks to Emily Keeler at the excellent Bookside Table for the link.)

"It's you, perfected": Have you tried the lastest beauty product? It's Fotoshop, by Adobé, and this cosmetics ad spoof by filmmaker Jesse Rosten nails it. Who said feminist work couldn't be funny?
Gravitas: Tempted to see Gravity (I'm meh on Sandra Bullock but am a sucker for George Clooney*) if for no other reason than nobody is wearing makeup on the set. Seems like a bad idea, given that film does weird things to people's skin tones and features, but we'll see.

Girlcycle: A list of Don'ts for women on bicycles, circa 1895. "Don't cultivate a bicycle face." Is this like mirror face?

Class, aging, and dollar stores: Terri at Rags Against the Machine uses Susan Sontag's essay on aging as a springboard for her own examination of aging and class, prompting her yearlong experiment in retail shopping at various points of price and class connotations. (She's known for her thrifting, so this is a departure.) Eager to see where this goes!

Perfect: In recovery from an eating disorder, even supportive comments can be derailing, and Elissa at Dress With Courage paints a picture of how hearing "It's your perfect weight" two years into recovery can still bring confusion.

Confess: Sally opens up the fashion confessional. Mine: I will wear the same bra for days on end. I call it loyalty.

Real bodies: Miriam takes a critical look at the oft-dispensed advice for poor body image about "just look at the real bodies around you." Sometimes it work—and sometimes that's the last thing you want to do. (And off-topic but definitely worth reading, she also nails it about why "Shit Girls Say" makes me uneasy. Why does everyone like this so much?)

How much do we want body diversity?: The Black Girl's Guide to Weight Loss asks a question that makes me, for one, feel a bit like a hypocrite: We say we want body diversity, but are we supporting places that actually show body diversity? It's not like I'm rushing out to get Brigitte (a German magazine that doesn't use professional models) air-delivered to my door. I've never been a body snarker (which is really more what this piece is about) but I'd like to put my money where my mouth is. Suggestions? (Thanks to Parisian Feline for the link.)

*Yeah, yeah, the George Clooney hype is overblown. Except it's totally not. Exhibit A) He looks like George Clooney. Exhibit B) This telling anecdote (bottom of the page) from Roseanne Barr's amazing piece in New York mag. Read it and then just try to tell me you don't get the George Clooney thing. I dare you.