Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Two-Cocktail Makeover

The best makeover tool since the three-way mirror. Science says!

Over the years, I’ve had several of what my friend Jessica calls the Two-Cocktail Makeover, perhaps enough to put a good portion of the Mary Kay sales force out of work for a while. But one time in particular stands out: Jessica and I were out at a show, and during intermission I found myself on the bathroom line in front of an extraordinarily drunk bachelorette party. With beer-glazed eyes and slurred speech, the bride-to-be turned to me and said, “You’re pretty!” I smiled and thanked her, and she said it again: “No, really, you’re pretty! And I’m pretty too! I am so, so pretty! My friends are pretty, and you’re pretty, and I’m pretty. Am I pretty? I think I’m pretty.”

This might have been irritating were it not for three things: A) She seemed to take a genuine childlike delight at the discovery of her prettiness, as though she’d just learned we’d all been given free pony rides upon demand for the rest of our lives, B) I’d been downing a steady diet of Hendricks and tonic since sundown, and C) she was, after all, telling me I was "so pretty!" “Yes, you’re pretty, we’re all pretty,” I assured her as I slipped through the door of the bathroom.

As I stood there washing my hands, I started mirror-gazing. Our bachelorette was right: I was pretty! And oh my gosh, she was so pretty too! And Jessica was pretty, and we were pretty together, and we were there being pretty and watching pretty people do pretty things, and I can’t believe how pretty we all were! 

I stood there for a drunken moment wearing the halo of the bachelorette’s eagerly borrowed vanity, water running over my hands, an enormous grin on my face, feeling so pretty!—and then I remembered there was an enormous line of drunk pre-matrimonial revelers waiting for me, and I uttered “Oh shit!” out loud and left the bathroom without drying my hands. I reported the incident to Jessica, who, without blinking, just nodded and said, “The Two-Cocktail Makeover.”

The Two-Cocktail Makeover, as it is probably not terribly difficult to figure out, involves drinking two cocktails, looking in the mirror, and thinking you look fabulous. It’s hardly a thorough treatment plan; it’s best thought of as an occasional supplement to a dutifully existing core of self-care. (As for what defines “occasional,” I’ll leave that to your discretion. Birthdays, holidays, Tuesdays, noon.) It’s a wheatgrass shot for your self-image, not a daily vitamin. But manalive, sometimes wheatgrass shakes the health right into you, doesn’t it? (Am I revealing my hippie roots?)

And now the Two-Cocktail Makeover is science, kids. A research team based in France found that self-rated attractiveness of study participants increased along with alcohol consumption; people rated themselves as being more attractive, bright, original, and funny after downing a few. Rather, people rated themselves more favorably after believing they’d downed a few: Participants who were told they were drinking booze but who were actually given a nonalcoholic beverage gave inflated self-assessments on par with those who actually were tipsy. (PDF here.)

What’s intriguing about this is that it reveals something I was trying to get at when I wrote about entering a modeling contest as a superbly goofy-looking 13-year-old: For all the concerned talk about girls, women, beauty, and self-esteem, there’s a core within us that might just really like the way we look. Alcohol doesn’t make everything better. It merely lowers our inhibitions, blurs our judgment, loosens us up—it's why mean drunks are mean and why fun drunks are fun. And what that says to me is that what we often think of as poor self-image is actually an inhibition from allowing us to reach our natural state—a state in which we think we look pretty damn good after all. 

The trick of the Two-Cocktail Makeover is that it’s a portal to that state, however temporary it may be. It ever-briefly erases the damage we’ve absorbed over the years; it ameliorates, for a moment, the dissatisfactions we’ve heaped onto our self-image because that’s the most convenient place to stash them. While I’ve certainly had moments of looking into the mirror after a tipple and seeing all my flaws exaggerated, for the most part the Two-Cocktail Makeover works: My eyes glow, my pores shrink, my verve is unshakable, and my ability to speak French improves 300%. For a non-problem-drinker like me, alcohol does for my feelings about my looks what it does for all our pedestrian cares: It alleviates them in the moment, dimming the rest of the world for a time in contrast with the mild euphoria of letting it all go. The Two-Cocktail Makeover does what any good makeover should do—it gives us just the self-image tweak we need to go into the world and do the stuff that we actually care about, the stuff that we want to look good for in the first place. The Two-Cocktail Makeover isn’t about being pretty; it’s about being bold.


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Well, that’s what I would think about the formal conclusions of the Two-Cocktail Makeover study, if it had been conducted according to what I think of as basic research guidelines. But it wasn’t: Of 113 participants in the two arms of the study, exactly 7 were women. All seven of those were in the first segment of the study—the part conducted in a bar, where a total of 19 participants rated themselves and were then given a breathalyzer test. No women were in the much larger controlled study in which subjects gave a short presentation (after drinking booze, drinking a nonalcoholic beverage, or drinking a nonalcoholic beverage but being told they were drinking booze) and then rated themselves on how attractive, bright, original, and funny they’d been. 

It’s probably evident to anyone reading this blog that it’s ridiculous to conduct any non-sex-specific study without fully including women. But it’s particularly irksome in this piece of research, because until there’s a parallel or inclusive study we’re leaving out an enormous piece of the puzzle: How women’s inhibitions might play out differently than men’s. My own experience and theory makes me think that it would be much the same, and that perhaps women would be even likelier to rate themselves as being more attractive once given liquid permission to do so. Our culture loves to punish women who think they’re “all that”; to admit anything beyond baseline attractiveness is to invite critique or disdain. I’m dearly curious to know if the fear of punishment for claiming one’s beauty runs so deep that even a few pina coladas couldn’t lift it—or if, as with my bachelorette, that’s just what’s needed to be able to say, “Fuck it, I’m pretty, and isn’t that nice?

I’m not trying to needle researchers about their omission. Part of me is relieved, actually: Not only does this study subvert the idea of women as narcissists by asking men to rate their own attractiveness, but it also has the potential to redirect the conversation about alcohol, judgment, and attractiveness away from women for a change. (Emphasis on “potential”; none of the reports on this study that I read mentioned the lack of women in the sample, so chances are this conversation won’t happen. But I am an optimist!) Heck, it’s nice to have researchers acknowledge that the phrase “beer goggles” isn’t just something obnoxious men mutter about women—that it’s something we all might apply to ourselves. I would like to know why women weren’t included, though. Because given the complex brew of attractiveness, sex, being seen, self-aggrandizing behavior, vanity, insecurity, and gendered expectations of passivity versus activity (and, more insidiously, how this plays out to the point of cliché in instances of sexual assault where alcohol is involved), it seems that there’s some sort of message encoded in choosing to mostly look at how men view their own attractiveness, even if I don’t know exactly what that message is. 

For now, what I know is this: The Two-Cocktail Makeover is a helluva lot kinder to women than “beer goggles.” (It’s kinder to men as well, but a quick Google Image search of “beer goggles” shows it’s not usually women who are eager to use that hateful term.) The former puts the emphasis on self-image; the latter, on the idea that women can fail at being beautiful even if the only thing that changes is the viewer's perception. And perhaps that’s one reason it’s not actually as alluring to researchers to explore women and the Two-Cocktail Makeover: It’s a reminder of women’s agency, of the potency of a woman being able to look in the mirror and take ownership, however temporary, of the light that “beer goggles” might lend through someone else’s eyes. It gives the euphoric glow back to the person who should actually control it; it gives us back what should have been ours all along. And I’ll drink to that.

14 comments:

  1. I find this all fascinating, largely because I had *no idea* alcohol had that effect on some women (or men). I am not a big drinker, and in real life I struggle with feeling attractive and yet perversely, do little to nothing to "enhance" my attractiveness and generally walk around feeling pretty good about myself (because I guess inherently I do think I am pretty attractive just as I am, and I am *insulted* when some manipulated bullshit ideal is presented as preferable to me). It's hard to explain.

    But anyway, when I have a couple of drinks, I feel like the *ugliest woman on the planet*. Every time. I can start the night thinking "I'm looking rather pretty if I do say so myself" and two drinks later, staring at myself in the bathroom mirror, I am revolted. I always assumed this was a reflection of fact- that alcohol in fact dehydrates us and makes our faces look less attractive. For the record, I tend to think everyone else looks bad drunk too!

    Readers, am I alone in having an opposite reaction here?

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    1. Penny, that's so interesting! My experience is more along the lines of what I expressed here so I don't have any thoughts here, but I'm intrigued. It seems like perhaps the depressive aspect of alcohol is having a more pronounced effect on you than it might with me (I'm a happy drunk; I usually feel lower the next day, though)--that it induces you to mimic depression, when everything (including yourself and others) looks less good than they do in reality. Which would probably induce people to drink less if that effect more more pronounced overall!

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  2. This is a very thought-provoking post! I don't drink a lot but I am a bit of a social drinker. I have noticed this phenomenon in myself - if I have a few drinks I feel very attractive. I beam at myself in the mirror. There is a limit though - too many drinks and I become bumbling. My eyes lose their spark and I feel diminished. It's all about moderation.

    It had not occured to me that the buzzed admiration might be how I truly feel about myself - I love that idea! Certainly something to ponder.

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    1. Oh, definitely there's a limit--it's usually a good indication of my self-determined cutoff point. I don't even have any remembrance of what I think I look like when I overindulge; it's more that the shine is gone (as it is from my social conduct as well)...

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  3. I promise. I am not a lush (I just play one on television).

    Great post, Autumn.

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  4. I definitely get the two-cocktail makeover! Actually, the first time I EVER looked in the mirror and truly thought, "Wow, I am beautiful" happened on one of those nights (it shines clearly in my memory).
    It doesn't happen every time I have a few drinks, but I love it when it does, as the self-confidence I get stays with me long after the alcohol is gone.
    @Penny, I agree that *drunk* people usually aren't that attractive, but I do love how my friends look after they've had a one or two drinks and are relaxed and smiling (and probably feeling pretty good about themselves!)

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    1. Anne, I love that the moment stood out to you in your mind. And good point about how the self-confidence can stay with you--whenever I have one of those nights where I have a few drinks and it loosens me up in the right way, it's a sort of infusion of good feeling and yep, that sticks with me, and who doesn't both look and feel more attractive in that state?

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  5. It's been a while since I've had a two-cocktail makeover, though I'm pretty certain my husband wishes I would join him in imbibing more often. I'll have to see what I think next time...but largely I find HIS makeover to be inflated enough that I'm not inclined to join him.

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    1. HA! Yes, the Two-Cocktail Makeover is best done in tandem, for when one party gets one and the other sees...well, a dizzy two-cocktail drinker--yep, "inflated" is apt.

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  6. I loved reading this post!
    What resonated for me was not so much the beauty message as the larger idea of feeling good in our natural state. ("And what that says to me is that what we often think of as poor self-image is actually an inhibition from allowing us to reach our natural state—a state in which we think we look pretty damn good after all").
    I’ve been at a low point recently, bothered a lot by things that make me feel bad about myself. It’s been a pretty intense period of poor self-concept. Recently I’ve also started meditating (I guess you’re not the only hippie here, Autumn) and I’ve started to notice that after breathing and just paying attention to where my body is during meditation I feel really good about myself. Those good feelings feel like the more “natural” or “real” me, but also like a space I feel inhibited from occupying a lot of the time. I guess the added benefit of having a sober portal to that natural state is that the world around me isn’t dimmed, but my attitude is shifted, and (hopefully) that means it’s easier to hold on to that shift while dealing with the bright lights of every day.
    P.S. I liked what you had to say about the study's design flaws, too.

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    1. Anonymous, meditation is certainly the more constructive route (though not as much "fun" per se...) to that state of inner grace. Because certainly, paying attention to our natural states--the breathing, the closeness to the self--is going to last longer than the shortcut of the Two-Cocktail Makeover. In both, you get to, as you put it, go to a space that we often feel inhibited from--but with meditation, the feeling is probably more apt to be the base of a construction that we can live in more easily. In any case, (And I'm glad you've been taking steps to feeling better, you hippie.)

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  7. So, I know I am late to the reply party, but I only stumbled upon your blog this week, so please forgive me.

    I almost think it is good that the initial study was practically devoid of women. It might set a baseline free of comment about "women's vanity" or narcissism this way, and allow this to be an insight into our culture rather than an insight into gender. While I personally think that the female specific experience might be more illuminating, I hope an initial study that is predominately male might deter critics from marginalizing the knowledge gained from further, more specific studies.

    That said, I identify with both sides of this coin. If I am in a difficult place and wracked with self-doubt, looking in the mirror while drunk only confirms my worst fears. I find myself unusually critical of my appearance at times when I feel I have failed elsewhere, and two (or four) cocktails allows me to admit that I view myself, including my physical appearance, as less desirable for failing to meet my own expectations.

    On the other hand, when I am content or happy, the two cocktail makeover is a wonder. I feel able to accept that, while I will never be tall or blonde or "classically beautiful," I am pretty and that others find me so. I would be interested to see the intersection of this study and the study on woman-woman compliments. Personally, I feel best able to take compliments only when I am convinced that the other person is not trying to advance an interest (be it girltalk or flirtation or self-reassurance). The two cocktail makeover is an arena in which to accept being told that I am pretty, not only from others, but from myself.

    Anyway, those are my musings.

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    1. Glad you found this! Welcome. And YES, I too would love to see an intersection of this study with woman-woman compliments. I imagine the liquid release from anxiety would allow us to channel compliments to other women without worrying about how they'll be taken...but maybe it would just allow us to better fast-forward into saying something that better gets to the heart of what we're actually trying to express to another woman when we give the thumbs-up to her dress or whatever.

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