Friday, November 30, 2012

Beauty Blogosphere 11.30.12

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

Photo by Rémi Thériault

From Head...
Whip my head back and forth:
Marie-Camille Lalande at WORN Journal on—well, I'd say "suffering from alopecia," but given the tone of the piece, that would be mighty presumptive of me. "Being a bald woman and embracing it was just another way of flipping a proud middle finger to the rigid constraints of accepted commercial taste."

...To Toe...
Twinkie toes: Amid America's collective freakout over the Hostess situation, let's take a moment to learn how Twinkies got their name.

...And Everything In Between:
Fumble & Bumble: The founder of Bumble & Bumble was arrested for a wee oversight on his 2006 taxes, when he failed to notify the IRS about the $29.6 million he raked in after selling part of his company to Estee Lauder. Oopsie!

Rinse and repeat: In an effort to trim 10% of its non-manufacturing workforce, Proctor & Gamble is slashing its marketing team. Of interest here is the company's strategic shift to develop fewer ads, since the breadth of messages were diluting the brand.

Laws schmaws: Know what's annoying? When a company that supposedly exists to serve women has a crappy record of discriminating against pregnant (or black, or disabled) employees, à la Sisley Cosmetics.

The big O: Could there be an Oprah makeup line?

Like, Detroit?: L'Oréal is buying Urban Decay in an effort to increase its presence on the somewhat higher end of the market, which is ironic given that, as my aunt puts it, "Who would buy it with that kind of a name?"

Garment worker tragedy: It's one thing to read about unsafe working conditions in the abstract; it's quite another to learn that 123 garment workers were killed in Bangladesh, in a fire in a building that had inadequate safety exits. As Bim Adewumni writes at the Guardian, "It's not enough to feel bad (and then promptly forget) about the workers who have died in Bangladesh this week. It seems clear that even as we buy cheap clothes with dubious provenance, from an ethical standpoint, people want to do better. But even if we end up with something as obvious as a FairTrade stamp for fashion, it still comes back to consumers to take a stand and make a decision. Will we?" Will we?

Fairy tales: More troubling news from Bangladesh: Authorities shut down a cosmetics factory that was producing skin-lightening creams containing mercury, a practice that was outlawed in 2006. But on the flipside: TV actresses in India are breaking out of the "fairest of them all" mold, with darker-skinned performers like Mitali Nag bringing in major ratings. To put this in perspective of how big a shift this is, here's a quote from a television writer about seeing a "dusky" actress onscreen: "When I first saw [Rajshree Thakur], I was quite surprised because I had never seen such a dark complexion before, but her features were remarkable and she looked really nice on screen."

Lesson learned: Hong Kong's latest glamourpusses: tutors. "If you want to be a top tutor, it definitely helps if you are young and attractive. Students look at your appearance," says one of the "tutor queens" in this article.

Glasnost: After the Soviet beauty queens came 1989's Russian beauty queens.

Peer review: Expect a wealth of upcoming studies about how much happier people wearing makeup are, thanks to the development of a L'Oréal-backed questionnaire that will scientifically (scientifically!) prove how people feel about their quality of life in conjunction with physical appearance. See, now that peer-reviewed science is involved, I'm fully expecting beauty products to come labeled with a quality of life score on the package. Mascara = 6! Toner = 2!

Face it: A glimpse inside the life of the woman who received the world's first face transplant: "When I look in the mirror, I see a mixture of the two [of us]. The donor is always with me." 

Role models: By now you may have heard about two unconventional fashion models: Casey Legler, a woman who models men's clothes, and Liu Xianping, the 72-year-old man in China who models women's clothes for his granddaughter's online boutique. Worn Through gives the buzz around these two a thoughtful treatment that goes beyond the "whoda thunkit?!" factor.

On "sexual meritocracy": Let's take a look at the hullaballoo surrounding Richard Cohen's Washington Post piece on Skyfall, in which Cohen mourns the loss of Cary Grant-esque debonair sophistication alone as a marker of desirability in men. (Daniel Craig's muscularity in the film serves to telegraph attractiveness, thus diminishing the subtler sex appeal of Bonds of yore, Cohen's thinking goes.) Max Read at Gawker then pointed out not only the sexual double standard at play here (when was the last time you saw a female romantic lead who looked as aged as Cary Grant?) but Cohen's own lasciviousness toward pretty young coworkers, and Alyssa Rosenberg, Jill Filipovich, and Phoebe Maltz Bovy all delightfully dissect Cohen's argument with their own twists on male body image, "nice guy" syndrome, and catering to the female gaze.

Nakedness and the Talmud: If you're interested in the historic roots of head and hair covering, follow along with Maya Resnikoff's exploration of the Talmud and how its language plays out centuries later.

"Why am I called black?": I overuse the word fascinating, okay? But can you trust me when I say that this Into the Gloss interview with Iman really is?

The technical term is adorbs.

Written on your face: You wouldn't think that Andrew McCarthy would prompt a meditation on the gift that naiveté inscribes upon our faces in an irretractable manner, would you? Let Masha Tupitsyn prove you wrong. She's writing here specifically of celebrity, but it's true of many of us, particularly women: "Hollywood pushes for and instigates in its stars and in its screen faces what it does not want to see happen and that it punishes for when it does: the loss of the very thing it wants to capture and capitalize on."

Spanx Watch 2012: Should we be feeling relief that celebrities are being called out for wearing shapewear, or pissed off that they're being mocked for not being more perfect than perfection?

"It was never our intention to cause offence": Australian cosmetics line Illamasqua had an ad featuring a model in blackface. In response to a flurry of criticism, the company released a statement clarifying that the creative director "has emphasised that this campaign is about colour ON the skin, not colour OF the skin." Oh, well, thanks for clearing that one up.

Fat talk: Absorbing study published in November's Social Problems from Kjerstin Gruys about "fat talk" and emotional labor among employees at plus-size stores. (Full PDF here.) Gruys found that thinner employees were privileged with special tasks, and that managers and white customers—but not black or Latina customers—used "fat talk" to draw out responses from employees. 

Tip of the month: Every so often there's a beauty tip that's too good to pass up, even for a decidedly tip-free beauty blog like this one: how to make your own makeup remover wipes. Doubly useful for those among us who use oil on their faces, since the wipes call for coconut oil! (via Gala Darling)

Weighty matters: I participated in a HuffPo Live segment about overweight children, along with other adults who were fat as kids. You can watch it here, and along with that I also recommend reading Ragen Chastain's takeaway from participating in the segment. I wrote the essay that sparked the conversation from a purely personal point of view, and because of the online company I keep, my point of view is pretty heavily informed by fat activism and Health at Every Size. Now, I'm not 100% on-board with all tenets of Health at Every Size, for reasons I'm still learning to articulate, but I think there's a lot of wisdom there. Point is: I tend to forget how controversial—radical, even—the concept of HAES is to most people, and how much of a threat it is to the established way of thinking. Participating in this panel was a fascinating exercise in seeing firsthand exactly how radical HEAS is to a lot of people, and what kind of feelings it can provoke in people. All participants had worthy contributions, and I'd like to see more conversations like this taking place, but they're only going to be productive once people opposed to the idea that fat doesn't have to equal unhealthy get used to that notion. From there, we can begin some real discussion.

Pucker up: Loving the Red Lipstick Challenge at Those Graces, designed to develop the chutzpah one needs to pull off red lipstick: Five out of seven days each week of this month, Courtney is wearing red lipstick, timidity be damned.

'Tis the season: Beauty Redefined gives out a "Holiday Survival Guide" that serves as a counterpoint to all the ladymag guides about choosing apple cider over eggnog or whatnot. Navigating body policing, buying nonsexist gifts for kids, and food moderation—excellent advice all year, but particularly so in the season of seeing family and friends en masse.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Yer Cheatin' Heart: The Relationship Between Beauty and Betrayal

The Fête of the Order of Cuckoldry Before the Throne of Her Majesty, Infidelity, France, c. 1815

Looking at appearance and infidelity vis-à-vis the Petraeus household made me curious about what role beauty actually does play in betrayal. Most of us know from casual observation that it’s fully possible for a person to cheat with someone who isn’t as physically attractive as that person’s primary partner—but is there any sort of pattern there? Are people likelier to cheat with someone who’s conventionally better-looking than one’s partner?

I was surprised/relieved to find that there weren’t any studies available that delved into that particular question. (Not sure how that would work in a lab setting anyway: “Please send photo of mistress to...”?) But there’s a wealth of research looking at other intersections of appearance and infidelity. Some of the more interesting findings:

1) Women reported feeling more threatened when “the other woman” was particularly attractive—but only in cases of emotional infidelity. In sexual infidelity, the other woman’s appearance had no effect on the wife/girlfriend’s feelings about the betrayal.

I was surprised by the findings of this study at first. On the surface, our culture tends to equate beauty with sex appeal more than it connects beauty and lovability. (The frowsy girl in movies never gets laid, but someone’s gonna see her heart of gold, right?) So wouldn’t a woman feel more threatened by an attractive rival when the betrayal was sexual more than emotional?

But with a closer look, it makes perfect sense. Sexual infidelity can be as meaningless as a drunken, regrettable one-night stand; emotional infidelity implies not a fleeting crush but something with a deeper current that develops over time. In other words: Someone cheating sexually could just want one specific part of a person (ahem)—but someone cheating emotionally is entranced with the entirety of the third party. And in a culture that likes to make-believe that a woman’s value as a person lies in her beauty and feminine charms, it’s logical that a beautiful woman—i.e. a valuable woman—is going to pose a greater threat in situations of emotional infidelity. When your partner becomes emotionally invested in another person, it stings regardless of who that person is. But when it’s someone whose value is evident, the threat is greater because your own value diminishes comparatively. With sexual infidelity, the value of the person isn’t called into question as sharply as it with emotional infidelity, so a beautiful “rival” poses less of a threat.

2) Women are more likely than men to end a marriage after their own infidelity—and the more attractive the woman as compared to her husband, the likelier she is to do so.

To put it plainly, attractive women are likelier than men to use infidelity as an opportunity to “trade up,” in the language of this study. The lesson here seems clear: Beauty increases a woman’s “market value,” while infidelity (including the person’s own infidelity) lessens the value an individual gets from her or his partner. Put the two together and it’s not hard to see how a woman might feel as though the algorithm of the relationship has changed after infidelity, to the point where ending the relationship makes sense in a way that it might not if she weren’t confident of her “market value.” By the way, I’m putting that in quotes because it makes me a little queasy not to.

3) Women were twice as likely as men to endorse “the other person makes me feel attractive” as an acceptable reason for infidelity.

Endorse is a strong word here but it’s the word used in the study so I’m borrowing it here; the participants weren’t necessarily saying infidelity was hunky-dory under any circumstance. With that weakened use of endorse in mind, take this in: 20% of men endorsed cheating if the other person made them feel attractive, while 42% of women said the same. In addition, women were 6% likelier to endorse infidelity when the cheating party wasn’t attracted to their spouse. (In fact, the only reason for cheating that men endorsed significantly more than women was “Opportunity presented itself,” with 32% of men signing on.)

Read cynically, this confirms the wretched stereotype of women as hopelessly vain, forever needing to be fawned over and then getting huffy enough to cheat if that fawning stops. But I interpret this rather as a sad comment on what all these studies are driving at: Plenty of women still internalize their value as lying in their looks. Feeling beautiful under someone else’s gaze can be intoxicating—and so validating that it might trump other values one might hold dear. Bathing in that gaze is often construed as such a foundational condition of a relationship that it might be easy for some women to quietly substitute in that feeling for commitment and fidelity. Indeed, so much advice given to women about how to “catch his eye” is geared toward maximizing physical attractiveness that if you squint hard enough, catching his eye can appear to be the grand prize that women are supposed to shoot for—not the relationship itself. Little wonder that under that paradigm, plenty of women might be willing to excuse infidelity with “but he makes me feel beautiful.” Plus, since attractiveness is often seen as the way one “earns” sex (only the beautiful get to do the nasty, you know), it makes sense that having your appearance highly valued by another lays the groundwork for beauty’s payoff.

4) Men married to women they believe to have a high infidelity risk are likelier than other men to use “mate retention tactics” to keep their wives from straying. Women, on the other hand, were no more or less likely to deploy such tactics regardless of whether they thought their husbands might cheat. 

You’ve gotta love these “tactics” too: punishing the woman for whatever it is that makes him think she might stray, putting down competitors, submission and debasement, and “concealment of mate,” whatever that means (the study didn’t say). Of course, that’s better than the tactics used by men who perceive their wives to be more attractive than they themselves are: emotional manipulation, derogation, sexual threats, and violence against rivals. And once again, women who perceived their husbands to be more attractive than they themselves are weren’t more likely to use those tactics.

These tidbits are just randomly dispiriting until you look at another finding of the study and see exactly how dispiriting it really is: There was no correlation between how hot a guy thinks his wife is and how likely he thinks she is to cheat on him. Yet a woman’s perceived beauty and her perceived risk of infidelity are not only punished, but are punished in much the same way. (Not all the “mate retention tactics” measured in the survey were negative ones; love and care were considered tactics, for example.) So basically: Women are groomed to maximize their attractiveness, in part because that’s supposed to snag you a higher-quality mate. Yet getting into a relationship with a man who thinks you’re better-looking than he thinks he is carries risk. Talk about feeling cheated, eh?

*     *     *

These findings are hardly conclusive, largely because some of them relied upon hypothetical infidelities, and also because the conclusions drawn from the studies are rather oblique. (Plus, I’m skeptical of beauty studies to begin with.) Intellectually, what I gather from them is what popped up plenty of times above: As long as we see women’s value as lying largely in their appearance, there will be a relationship between beauty and betrayal, even if that relationship isn’t as straightforward as some people would make it seem.

Personally, though, I take something else from this data: Since there’s no pattern here as far as actual behavior, there’s little use fretting about one’s own appearance in conjunction with infidelity. I know that when I’ve been cheated on, my instinct (after seething rage) is to wonder why I alone wasn’t enough for my partner. And, yes, to wonder whether the betrayal happened because I ceased to be attractive in the cheater’s eyes. (I didn’t say it was a healthy instinct, people.) But looking at all these studies, they’re...fuzzy. Weird little conclusions come up, none of which explain the only thing I’ve really cared about when I’ve been betrayed—or, for that matter, when I’ve had the poor judgment to betray a partner myself: Why. The why of betrayal sears and smolders, and at least in my case, it never fully burns out, even years later. I don’t feel anger when I think of my high school boyfriend telling me he kissed his ex during a snowball fight, but the why still flickers, even if the only emotion it provokes in me is nostalgia for the time when that was the most complicated thing I could imagine happening in my intimate life.

These studies don’t provide a why. And as satisfying as it would be to have something concrete we could turn to in times of the heartbreak of betrayal, it’s fitting that no why emerges. Can we ever know why? If “opportunity presented itself” is one of the more popular reasons for cheating, there really isn’t a why. It might be cold comfort to see that beauty isn’t really a part of the why—or it might not be comfort at all, depending upon your relationship with beauty, and with infidelity, for that matter. But only when we learn to take our own perspective on appearance out of the equation can we begin to see “opportunity,” disappointment, and the chaos of love and desire—the unsatisfying but undeniable components that are likely a part of the why—as the real flame-throwers here.

This is part two of a three-part series on appearance and infidelity. Part one is here; look for part three next week.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Petraeus Affair: Infidelity, Beauty, and Scapegoating

The sex lives of public figures bore me. Rather, the sex lives of public figures interest me no more than that of, say, my dentist. My view on sex is generally pretty solipsistic: If it’s not me having the sex in question, I don’t particularly care about it, and I don’t understand why anyone besides those directly affected would.

So I didn’t pay much attention to the David Petraeus scandal—at least, not until I read this excellent piece by Meghan Daum that questions the mandate of beauty in high-profile women. The article draws upon Petraeus’s wife, Holly, and the flurry of nasty comments in the “chattersphere” about how one could hardly blame Petraeus for sleeping with his attractive biographer, given that Mrs. Petraeus dared to look like a middle-aged woman who doesn’t pay homage to the beauty industry at every opportunity. "If it's no longer shocking that a powerful man would have an affair with a younger, worshipful woman,” writes Daum, “it is a little shocking that the wife of that powerful man, nerdish as he is, would thwart the beauty industrial complex quite so vigorously.”

Daum’s larger point—that we need to eliminate the double standard dictating that accomplished women like Olympia Snowe, Dianne Feinstein, and Nancy Pelosi must pay attention to conventional beauty standards while their male counterparts can eschew them—is one that needs to be made, repeatedly, until things change. (Remember the hubbub when Hillary Clinton had the audacity to speak at a news conference without makeup?) But what’s interesting to me is something Daum acknowledges in her article: Save for a smattering of comments-section trolls, nobody is publicly suggesting that Holly Petraeus’s low-key, glamour-free looks are to blame for Petraeus’s infidelity. Yet the piece hinged upon that very idea, and the piece gained traction because we all quietly understand the game of pin-the-blame-on-the-gray-haired-woman. Save for an ugly little post from Mediabistro, a bizarro article about how all the women involved in the scandal could use a makeover, and the aforementioned comment-section trolls, the only mention of Holly Petraeus’s looks I could find by poking around online comes from...well, Meghan Daum, and people rightfully echoing her point. Few people are trying to suggest that Holly Petraeus’s gray hair is responsible for her husband’s dick falling into another woman—but we get the idea anyway, even when it’s not spoken aloud.

If we’re collectively too kind to snark at a pained woman who has been publicly humiliated, we’re not above raising our eyebrows when the betrayed wife is conventionally beautiful. “If Tiger Woods could cheat on Swedish model Elin Nordegren, what chance do other women have?” cried the Examiner. “Beauties and the beasts,” blared the New York Post after Tony Parker cheated on Eva Longoria. There’s a certain freedom to say it when a beautiful woman has been betrayed, because we’re ostensibly championing the woman; we’re reassuring her that the dude must be cray-cray to cheat on her, because she’s hot, and it’s too bad that her insurance policy of being good-looking had a loophole for infidelity. A loophole that an estimated 22% of married men have exploited at some point, sure, but never mind the 1-in-4 odds at play, right? Those odds are “supposed” to fall in the favor of the Eva Longorias of the world—at the expense of the Holly Petraeuses—and though both parties gain our sympathy, only one of them garners a head-scratching “huh?”

There are all sorts of problems with that mind-set, starting with the insulting idea that good looks are all that wives can count on to keep their husbands faithful (note that while plenty of pieces on Holly Petraeus highlight her striking accomplishments on behalf of military families, none of them suggest her husbands is nutso for cheating on her because of those accomplishments). But deconstructing the idea doesn’t answer the fundamental question of why we’re so eager to tie appearance to infidelity.

I can’t help but think that maybe we want beauty and cheating to be linked. Because if they’re not, the statistics on infidelity are just too depressing. I remember confiding in a friend after a man I loved cheated on me. She was sympathetic, but a part of her response continues to flit around in my mind years after the fact: That’s just how men are, she said. She wasn’t trying to say it was “natural,” but rather that in her experience, men were simply eager to cheat, so I couldn’t take it personally. Let’s say for a moment that she was right—that men just cheat, end of story. It’s awful to think that a man might cheat on you because someone more attractive came along. But it’s worse to think that he cheated just because. Because then the logical fallout is that since he cheated just because, every man cheats, so you’d better learn to either adopt a laissez-faire attitude about the whole thing or get used to losing your dignity on a regular basis, because this is just how it’s going to be.

Accepting that notion would undermine the entire idea of monogamy, which, in this culture, is how we construe commitment. So we refuse it, and we seek a scapegoat for infidelity—and what better scapegoat than something that has already instilled in plenty of people a sense of insecurity, futility, and self-abasement? Beauty, along with its surrounding pressures and expectations, comes in mighty handy here. It makes me think about how often beauty and appearance are used as a scapegoat for other issues, and indeed how rigid we are with the narrative arc of women’s relationship with our looks (woman feels bad about body, woman works to come to peace with it, all is well—which is a fine tale, except it sets an expectation that women are displeased with their bodies, leaving little room for those who might not fall prey to that narrative).

It’s not often that I’m going to argue in this space that beauty is irrelevant; the entire thesis of this blog is that personal appearance becomes relevant to pretty much everything. And that’s not what I’m arguing, not exactly, not least because none of us have any way of knowing exactly why David Petraeus slept with Paula Broadwell—or why any person, anywhere, has cheated on someone they’re ostensibly committed to. (It’s something you often hear from philanderers themselves: I don’t know why I did it, I don’t know what came over me, The whole thing was stupid.) But I will argue that beauty is more relevant to the discussion of infidelity, and to how we make sense of infidelity, than it ever is to infidelity itself, which is why, as Daum points out, “assiduous gym rats with nary a gray hair get cheated on.”

In fact, there’s further evidence of this in the Petraeus case: Since I only paid cursory attention to the story yet kept seeing photos of Jill Kelley everywhere, I assumed that she was Petraeus’s lover. It actually wasn’t until I started researching this piece that I saw a picture of Broadwell, his actual paramour. As a long-haired Lebanese-American socialite usually photographed in bright, tailored dresses, Kelley has more photogenic glamour than an academic from Bismarck who favors a severe hairstyle. Bluntly put, Kelley looks the part of the stereotypical homewrecker more than Broadwell does—which is, I’m guessing, a large part of why her visage, not Broadwell’s, has become one of the iconic images burned into the public mind in regards to this affair. We want a fall gal, and Kelley makes a good one (especially given that she committed adultery as well, just not with the main figure involved here).

The sooner we stop gaping, wide-eyed, when we see men have affairs behind the backs of their beautiful wives, the sooner we can truly start leaving the low-maintenance betrayed wives like Holly Petraeus alone. And the sooner we can do both of those things, maybe we’ll come just a hair closer to understanding why we place such importance on an institution so many people flout—with lovers beautiful and plain, glamorous and mousy, younger and older. Perhaps with practice we’ll even come a little closer to fixing it.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Beauty Blogosphere 11.16.12

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

From Head...
On pride: Brittany Julious on beginning to lose what others call women's "crowning glory": "I wrote about how my mother began to lose her hair at the same time that I began to lose mine. ... My professor said it was not deep enough, or raw enough, or critical enough. I thought, how can you tell me what is relevant in my life? What is tragedy if not the pursuit of value through vanity?"

 ...To Toe...
Pedi crime: A Wisconsin pedicurist was arrested for disorderly conduct after allegedly slamming a customer's foot into the pedicure bath when she complained about his techniques.

 Zara the Greek

...And Everything In Between:
Opa!: I always assumed clothing chain Zara was named for, um, someone named Zara—but the truth is hilarious.

Regulate, mediate: How Obama's reelection could affect the cosmetics industry. The piece was written on election day so it's a hypothetical of Romney's win as well (psych-out!!!), but in any case looking at larger questions of regulation is helpful here.

Democracy gossip: Leonard Lauder voted and got to bypass Martin Scorsese in line. (Side note: Voting in New York City is fantastic. No Lauder-Scorsese glamour at my polling place but I loved hearing my neighbors' myriad accents—my zip code is one of the most ethnically diverse in the nation—and knowing that whether by birthright or by the long, sidewinding road to citizenship, we'd all come together to exercise our right as Americans. /patrioticsentimentalism) 

Hey baby: Yes, yes, "minorities" (funny word in context) ensured Obama was reelected—but the real news is that the new Gerber baby is Latina.

Objection: Students from the National Law School at India University are filing 10 lawsuits in Bangalore against cosmetics companies with misleading ads. I haven't read anything of false advertising claims being filed anywhere other than western nations, so I'm not sure if this is common or not—but either way it adds some intrigue to the paper chase.

Sub-Saharan beauty: Most of the press on emerging luxury cosmetics markets focuses on Asia and South America, so it's refreshing to read about the long view on Africa—especially given that focus groups show the average Kenyan woman is willing to spend up to 20% of her salary on beauty products.

Index this: More proof that the "lipstick index" just might be consumerist bullshit: Nobody is crying "Chapstick index" when it turns out that the men's grooming sector is recession-proof. Plus, it doesn't appear to apply in China. How could this be? It's an innate part of womanhood for us ladies to want pretty shiny things that attract men to us in times of fiscal downturns, right?!

The sweet scent of regulation: The EU is considering legislation that would require perfumers to identify potential allergens on its label. Perfumers freak out; Scent of Self responds with candor and reason (doubly remarkable because candor alone would have been enough—witness the photos of her perfume-induced allergic rashes).

Oh, snap!: I'm mighty uncomfortable with the idea—blatantly stated in this article—that gay men as a whole objectify women's bodies, as I know plenty of gay men who don't fit this description in the slightest. That said, I've also met plenty of gay men who do: Most recently, a salesman insulted my breasts, and when it was clear I was embarrassed he said, "Oh, don't worry, I'm queer," as if that made his words less hurtful. So I'm glad that someone wrote about this phenomenon intelligently: The conflation of gay (male) culture with fashion (female-ish) culture means that it can be mighty easy for gay men to cross lines of objectification and harassment, mistakenly thinking that because they're not out to harm women, whatever is said or done in the name of fashion or faux "sisterhood" is fine.

Say what you will, but Oedipus was a do-er.

We are family: Men want to marry women who look like their mothers, says a study finding that men are more likely than women to have paired off with someone who resembles the opposite-sex parent. Cue ewwww. 

Body images: Science (science!) has verified what any woman who has spent time in a single-sex spa knows: Exposure to different types of bodies makes you more comfortable with...different types of bodies. Maybe even your own!  

Gee your pits smell terrific: Skin care and deodorant are poised to overtake shaving products in the men's grooming sector for the first time; equal parts shagginess and men giving a damn about their skin are driving this trend.

Beauty capital: Subashini, in her characteristic style, manages to make a set of film reviews about so much more: "Thinking about singleness and marriage, stewing over it, often means that I start thinking about beauty. Because it’s beauty that I’m struggling with at this point in time. ... Romance is a marketplace, and you are one of the many images on sale, and if you’re not the right image you are, essentially, shit."

Put a ring in it: I'm guessing that if you're an academic who reads this blog because it relates to your discipline, you also read Worn Through. (And if not, hop to it, sister.) But just in case: Call for papers (and performances) on feminism and body modification.

Headdesk: I'm shocked—shocked!—that a company as committed to diversity as Victoria's Secret, well known for hiring Latinas such as Alessandra Ambrosio and Gisele Bundchen, and African-American women like Tyra Banks, was so insensitive as to have their models walk down the catwalk in ironic headdresses

Sandy shades: Makeup artist Scott Barnes on why beauty post-natural-disaster needn't be frivolous: "I’d argue that remembering to take care of yourself in the face of tragedy — whether it’s a hurricane or any other personal loss — is extremely important. If you feel great, you automatically convey confidence to the world. It’s one small step toward picking up the pieces and getting back into life again." (Though I vehemently disagree with his pick of eyelash curler as a beauty essential. Does nothing for me.)

Next up, leasing chewing gum: But let's not forget that beauty can go beyond frivolous into the absurd, with what is surely the stupidest beauty idea of the year: nail polish rental. What, you wanna try glitter polish and you're too good to buy Wet 'n' Wild like the rest of us?

Too sexy for this blog: It's interesting to read these two posts on dressing sexy as companions to one another. Daisy at XOJane has a piece about how she doesn't like to dress sexy (or is that "sexy"?), but then lists the ways in which she feels sexy wearing clothes that aren't seen as conventionally sexy, like plaid shirts. In my mind, part of the whole joy of sexiness is that it can take a zillion different forms and really has jack to do with how much skin you're showing. Which is why I love Sally's post on concepts of dressing sexy, which acknowledges the ways intimacy and sheer variety can help us privately decide what's sexy.

Permission: Tori looks at the intersection of permission and social pressures around food, specifically pressure to eat more: "I'm wondering now if this isn’t somehow—secretly, unspoken, unconsciously—predicated on the idea that all the members in a communal eating group have a shared desire to eat all the food."

Accustomed to her face: Meli's series on Makeovers in the Movies is fantastic, and this week she looks at the flick that basically serves as a template for the convention: My Fair Lady.

Monday, November 12, 2012

On Veterans Day

"Nicky," Here Are the Young Men, Claire Felicie, 2009–2010

When I write here of beauty, most of the time I’m actually writing of convention—of what we as a culture have given our stamp of approval in the realm of beauty. The point isn’t any person’s actual appeal; the point is the standards and parameters we create around beauty.

But the way I experience beauty in my day-to-day life is personal, not sociological. When I register someone as beautiful—that is, when a person shows up on my radar as you should continue to look—it’s because of a quality the person has. A flicker in the eyes, a smirk, the way the person moves. That sounds vague because it is vague, it has to be vague, because if it were charted and fully understood, it might lose its properties of fascination. Beauty’s ineffability is part of what makes it register to us as beauty.

It's that elusive transcendence—which may or may not be beauty—that comes to mind with Claire Felicie’s remarkable photographs of soldiers taken before, during, and after their tours of Afghanistan, titled Here Are the Young Men. If you saw these photographs absent of context, some of them might have that sort of unclassifiable but intriguing quality about them to you; others wouldn’t. But when you learn that these were taken before, during, and after a life-changing experience that most of us will thankfully never know for ourselves, other qualities leap forward. Aversion, deadening, patience, cynicism, hatred, weariness, reluctance: The photos reflect something more complex than a mere loss of innocence. The phrase “the fog of war” refers to the shrouding of facts, evidence, and ability to determine the best course of action that something as extraordinary as war brings. I think of it here because of these men’s faces: You can’t look at them and draw any sort of universal conclusion. Some men look like the grew into themselves during their tour, a sort of adultness settling across their face. Other men, afterward, are unable to look into the camera. There’s no one way to know how war will change any individual, or any nation.

These photos also call into focus the fluctuating gap between what we really see and what we expect to see, both 
overshadowed by our knowledge that predetermination will change what we see. As Heather Murphy writes on Slate’s photo blog, “[T]here is something else in that third picture; a dullness to the eyes, a stiffness to the jaw. Isn’t there? What’s interesting about this project is that you can convince yourself that someone changed dramatically from middle to right, only to compare right to left and talk yourself out of it. It must just be angle or lighting, you say.” Yet Murphy reaches the same conclusion I do: “But even after you’ve concluded that wrinkle isn't really any bigger, it's undeniable that there is a difference. … It's not about the obvious clues like a frown or matted hair, but something far more nuanced.”

This can be applied in a far broader context: How our assumptions regarding people’s experiences color how we visually perceive them. Those broader applications are worth looking at, but today, for once I’m not thinking of how to make these questions bigger. I’m thinking of the soldiers—the veterans—and their before, during, and after. Whatever any of us may think of the war in Afghanistan, these people were there fulfilling their duty—as many of our parents did in Vietnam, our grandparents in WWII, our great-grandparents in the Great War that made the eleventh day of the eleventh month a global call for peace, and a global remembrance of those who served. I don’t want to glorify war or its participants by commenting upon Veterans Day. But an honoring needn’t be one of glorification; it can be an honoring of experience. And today, we honor just that.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Beauty Blogosphere 11.9.12

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

 Self-Portrait (Dedicated to Leon Trotsky), Frida Kahlo, 1937
From Head...
Art brow'd: My first thought upon learning of the Art Gallery of Ontario's publicity stunt—the museum circulated fake unibrows, which patrons could wear to receive reduced admission for the institution's Frida Kahlo exhibit—was that it was essentially harmless. Like it or not, Kahlo's unibrow is part of what distinguishes her in the contemporary mind, and if that's a portal to people learning more about her work and the passionate radicalism behind it, so be it. This open letter convinced me otherwise, for people wearing the unibrow "[tell] us that they are wearing the unibrow not in an earnest tribute to the artist and her work, but with a cool and distant irony." (via Feminist Philosophers)

...To Toe...
Tootsies: Hurricane + power loss + communal men's shower at YMCA + transgender blogger + bright red pedicure = delightful story of gratitude from ShyBiker.

Adidas altar: There are greater ideological points made in Pop Feminist's short and elegant treatise on gender and shoe worship, but it may be neatly summed up in her last line, "Never be friends with people, only be friends with shoes."

...And Everything In Between: 
Khromadone: Khroma, the Kardashian sisters' cosmetics line, may soon be facing not one but two trademark infringement lawsuits. First came Chroma, a high-end brand that took pains to distance itself from the "low budget cosmetic products that will be sold in mass retail outlets" from the Kardashians—and now another line, Kroma, is looking into legal action after the Khroma team essentially ignored their cease-and-desist letter.

Osiao growth: Estee Lauder marches forward with its wide-scale promotion of Osiao, the company's newly developed line for Asian consumers. Since 70% of the company's online sales in China are in cities without the brand's physical presence, Lauder is planting the line in stores throughout mid-tier Chinese cities in an effort to keep brand recognition strong. 

Java time: With all the talk about the growth of cosmetics in China, Indonesia—the world's fourth most-populous country—has been overlooked. (Guilty.) But no more!

Baring it: Perhaps taking a cue from Movember, the BBC is asking women to go without makeup for a day to raise money for scholarships via sponsors.

Backlash: UK consumers are backtracking on organic products; a new survey shows that only 38% of those who use organic cosmetics think they're actually healthier, and about 60% find them overpriced.

"No guys, really, it’s just for my skin": It takes a nuanced, clear-eyed woman to be able to talk about the complexities surrounding food without lapsing into everything we've heard a million times, but Edith Zimmerman does it in this Into the Gloss interview about the diet she went on to clear up her skin, and Phoebe Maltz Bovy does it in her take on the interview. For as Maltz Bovy puts it, "Gluten intolerance, vegetarianism, mild food poisoning, stress- or busyness-related under-eating, and, evidently, a diet that's about clearing up acne, none of these need be about weight, but—as Edith Zimmerman certainly conveys, and as a less seemingly self-contradictory post wouldn't have managed—it's never a value-neutral thing when a woman does. This is never not part of the equation, precisely because of the (internalized and usual) societal validation women get for losing weight."

Culture clash: The press has gotten somewhat better about not painting eating disorders as strictly a "white girl problem"—but attention to eating disorders internationally, outside of Europe, has been pretty much nil. (That is, except for the odd report about how the arrival of television in, say, Fiji ushered in the disease—which always went back to being a statement about the west, of course.) So this report about eating disorders in the Middle East, specifically United Arab Emirates, is interesting. As with so many other areas, the relationship between the west and east is both definite and uncertain, with western imagery embracing the thin imperative being tagged as one reason for the disease's rise—but with region-specific media concerns, like the glorification of hunger-strike protesters, adding to the pot. (Thanks to Rahel for the link.)

"Half of myself": About Face gives a rundown on the work of photographer Julia Kozerski, who, through documenting a 160-pound weight loss, shows the untold side of immense physical change. "Interior pain is not eradicated by transforming ourselves physically, and often altering our bodies, even if it is in the name of health, can bring about confusion and questions of identity."

Featuring one of my Simone favorites, "Turning Point"

Little Girl Blue: Zoe Saldana, a light-skinned actress of Puerto Rican and Dominican heritage, will play Nina Simone in an upcoming biopic, and writer Akiba Solomon (among others) questions the appropriateness of this, given the importance the singer placed on her own physicality. "At a time when 'black is beautiful' was a revolutionary concept rather than a marketing campaign, Simone adorned herself with African garb and intricate plaited updos. Sometimes she posed nude. As a songwriter and performer, she created a space for black women to grapple with ideas of beauty, privilege and sexual desirability." Is Saldana's casting an erasure of Simone's blackness? 

Brought to you by: This interview with an herb farmer in Uganda who produces essential oils for the cosmetics industry provides a glimpse into the lives of people who are literally on the ground making the products that boast of being "all natural."

Uniformed: Janelle Monáe has an interesting story as to why she always wears her black-and-white "uniform" of sorts: "When I started my musical career I was a maid, I used to clean houses. My parents—my mother was a proud janitor, my step-father who raised me like his very own worked at the post office and my father was a trash man. They all wore uniforms. And that’s why I stand here today in my black and white and I wear my uniform to honor them." Similarly interesting is how she links this to being a Covergirl model: "I want to be clear young girls, I didn’t have to change who I was to become a Covergirl." Not sure what to make of that—she's honoring her background with her fashion, but it's a highly stylized look that isn't actually, you know, a maid uniform, so didn't she...change who she was? Am I being dense?

"Be a Man": A group of Egyptian men are dealing out vigilante justice to street harassers, spraying them with spray paint to visibly "out" them. It's an interesting tactic, and I like the idea of giving out a sort of retribution that lasts as long as a nasty comment might linger in a woman's ears, but obviously there are potential complications here. I'd be interested to know what women of the region feel about this—any Egyptian readers out there?

Lindsayisms: A surprisingly complex collection of encounters with Lindsay Lohan, culled by Sarah Nicole Prickett, in the latest issue of The New Inquiry. (Which of course you're all subscribed to, right? Right??)

Beauty ≠ health: Why the fresh hell do Groupon's "Here's to Your Health" packages include tanning and laser hair removal but nothing to do with, oh, health? Caitlin Constantine takes a look at the conflation of health and beauty.

Make mine a double: Baze at Beautycism muses on the implication of "makeup bars," where women pay for pro makeup jobs outside of the usual context (weddings, photo sessions, etc.): "Social media outlets like Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr have convinced women that they too are brands—pseudo-celebrities who want to make sure that every photo that hits the internet is in line with their message."

Gag me: Perfumes Without Pity's take on the Eat, Pray, Love scent collection. Bwah! 

Painted ladies: Filmmaker Liz Goldwyn gives a bit of history on extreme 19th-century beauty practices beyond the stuff we already know. Painting on veins with grease pencils to appear more translucently pale?! Also check out Goldwyn's new short, The Painted Lady, "a poetic internal monologue of a young girl as she recalls a passing encounter on the street with a 'painted lady' (a slang term for a 19th century prostitute). She romanticizes an overt sexuality so foreign to her—while imagining her own transformation from adolescence into womanhood." (Thanks to Sarah Nicole Prickett for the link.)

Ditto that: Beth Ditto talks skinny privilege, and how growing up in a fat-phobic world made her resilient and better able "to find ways to become useful to myself." And I'm honored to be featured in the accompanying slideshow of "body image heroes" alongside Lady Gaga, Ashley Judd, Lena Dunham, and Kjerstin Gruys.


Baked beauty: I've already grumbled about food-scented beauty products, but am getting an enormous kick out of the reverse, with Glamour's collection of food shaped like beauty products.

It's got legs: Elizabeth Nolan Brown takes an appropriately tongue-in-cheek look at "the secret to shapely legs." (Turns out being Barbie, a Greek statue, or a lamp is step #1.)

Let's call it a tie: Not sure which bit of auto news is more disturbing: Honda has a new car "just for women!" replete with an A/C system designed to keep skin soft, or Nissan's attempts to create an interior upholstery that feels like human flesh.

Ugliness, flow, and the creative process: Insight-filled interview with Heroines author Kate Zambreno: "To be a woman writer I think you have to partially overcome, or at least wrangle with, the desire to be the object. Zelda [Fitzgerald] came into writing when she got out of the first institution—that picture of her haglike & free in that sailor suit—Cured! she scrawled across the bottom. I like to imagine she’s being cured from being the muse-girl. I think ugliness or enforced isolation in a woman can be perceived of as depression—the antidepressant advertisement, and yet it’s also essential to the creative process, to burrow under, to work not thinking of one’s appearance. Think of Edna Pontellier painting every day drained and yet more alive than ever and not receiving callers in The Awakening. Her doctor and husband chose to pathologize it—only because that behavior was unacceptable. And today we still have behavior that is perceived of as unacceptable, that stands in the way of women being artists, like the fear of ugliness, in so many ways – and the fear of nakedness, which I think is a fear of judgment and reprisal." And this woman writer whispers Yes.

If you see something, say something: Sally on visibility and visionaries: "Part of me rebels against, 'If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.' I mean, there have been so many women throughout time who have plowed forward with ABSOLUTELY NO EXAMPLES AT ALL, and changed the face of history with their visionary bravery. And I struggle with the idea that we, as women, require others to go first before we can follow along... [But] we are communal creatures, and we are influenced by what we see."

Strikeout: Female inmates at a South African prison have threatened to go on strike, stating that the new head warden was taking away, without explanation, privileges such as meals with families, exercise hours—and the right to as many cosmetics as inmates want. Prison spokespeople say nothing has changed since the change in regime.

Quadraboob Study #8: What the Louvre can teach us about body image. Finding well-tailored clothes isn't just a 21st-century problem, it seems!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

On Being a Fat Child

I was a fat kid. I haven’t written about this before, telling myself it’s because this blog is about beauty, and I’m wary of conflating weight and beauty. That’s true, but the real reason I haven’t written about having been a fat kid is that—listen, I know writers are supposed to “show, not tell,” but how can I show you the scar the ever-present question of fatness has etched onto my heart? I can’t, and so I will just say: I haven’t written about being a fat kid until now because it was too painful. Being a fat kid hurt me then. Having been a fat kid hurts me now.

Things I remember about being fat: Not being able to wear jeans (there was no such thing as jeans for fat girls in 1983). Not wanting to participate in any games at the school fair except the cake walk; wanting those cakes so badly that I moved faster than I ever had in my life to repeatedly get the last seat, thus winning five cakes; understanding the implicit humiliation of being the fat kid who wanted five cakes but wanting those cakes more than I wanted my pride; doing my best to be gracious when my parents insisted we give away three of them. Faking sick on the day we were supposed to do height-weight testing, only to find out upon return that it had been postponed a day; jiggling my leg incessantly until I had to step on the scale in hopes of losing “enough” weight by midmorning. Immense disappointment at learning that the three scoops of ice cream I’d piled on my plate at the Bonanza buffet weren’t scoops of ice cream but of butter. Pretending to twist my ankle at age 7 in the 50-yard dash at track and field day to spare myself the embarrassment of being the fat kid who came in last; doing the same at age 8, and 11. Stealing bags of brown sugar from the pantry to eat in my bedroom, alone. Secreting away boxes of cereal, to do the same; denying to my mother that I’d done so, even when it was clear she knew I had.

There is a theme here: absence, and falsity. I couldn’t wear jeans; I didn’t want to play games that wouldn’t get me cake; I faked sick; I pretended to twist my ankle; I denied secret eating. Being a fat child wasn’t so much about the fact of being fat as it was about couldn’t, wouldn’t, shouldn’t. There is a counter-theme too: Love—of food, exquisite food, food, füd, phood, food, the panacea to whatever free-floating stresses there were in my life as an intellectually mature but emotionally not-so-mature 8-year-old girl. I didn’t have a difficult childhood by any means, but it was a childhood; it came with bumps and dents and scratches that I didn’t really know how to handle. Lucky for me, I didn’t have to learn, because I had food right there, every day, making it all okay. It worked—until it didn’t, but that’s not the story I’m trying to tell here. Food felt like it worked, and in a child’s mind, that’s enough.

*     *     *

Things I do not remember about being fat: Being teased. Being bullied. Having my weight remarked upon by strangers; being laughed at or taunted. I remember exactly three instances of shaming from other people about my weight: a neighbor suggesting I not enter her family’s trailer because I was fat and might somehow damage it; my grandmother telling me in the JCPenney’s dressing room that the problem wasn’t that the pants were too small but that I was too big; a third-grade classmate gasping when she saw my three-digit weight listed on my weight-height chart, when most kids weighed in at around 65 pounds. But when I try to fish deeper for the other memories—the memories that are surely there, for what fat child escapes a landslide of teasing from cruel classmates?—I come up empty. I remember being lightly teased for other things—my name, my glasses, my ponytail, my lack of athletic coordination—but my fatness, the singularly most visible thing about me, remained uncommented upon.

When I look at my own experience of being a fat kid, I don’t see a problem with society, or cruel children, or unlimited soda refills. I see a problem with—how do I put this without appearing to be swatting the wrist of my 8-year-old self?—I see a problem with me, and with the way I understood my size. There was very little fat-shaming in my life, but I still felt like being fat was wrong, bad, unfeminine, shameful—all those things fat activists say are erroneously attached to weight. They’re right to say that; those feelings should be separate from weight. Yet they weren’t separate, not for me. I filtered any feeling I had—about my fatness or anything else—through food, and my chronic overeating was what kept me fat. My feelings were my fatness; my fatness, feelings.

I wouldn’t have been better off had I been basically bullied into losing weight, or into feeling worse about being fat. But I would have been better off had I learned ways of coping with stress that didn’t center around food; I’d have been better off had I understood the joy of moving my body. I’d have been better off if clothes shopping weren’t an exercise in futility; I’d have been better off if any of the well-meaning sweatshirts and tees that were given to me as gifts had fit without revealing the immovable fact of my belly. I’d have been better off if I hadn’t had the hurdle of weight to constantly run up against. What I’m saying is: I’d have been better off if I weren’t fat.

I’d also had been better off if the world around me didn’t disperse shame upon overweight people—had my grandmother not told me I was “too big,” had my classmate remained nonchalant whatever the number on my height-weight card, had my neighbor not insinuated I could singlehandedly topple over a trailer designed for far greater stress than a fourth-grader’s frame. The world needs to change in its attitude toward fat people, and that is unquestionable. But it wasn’t only the world around me that inscribed my fatness upon my identity to the point where I still sometimes cannot recognize myself in photos because I’m looking for someone bigger than I actually am.

Yes, I wish the world around me had been different. I wish I’d been different too.

*     *     *

Being a fat kid wasn’t easy. But the reasons being a fat kid wasn’t easy had little to do with what body-positive bloggers such as myself usually cite. I wasn’t teased, I wasn’t bullied, few people ever tried to make me feel like I was lesser-than because my body was more-than. I don’t recall looking at “aspirational” images of thin women and feeling like I didn’t live up to them, though of course it’s impossible to determine how much of those messages seep into our brains. Sociological reasons alone cannot account for the shame I felt about my fatness. The problem went deeper than that. The problem—to a point—was me.

I keep wanting to baldly state some sort of vaguely political point, but then I find myself stymied as to exactly what I want to say. That maybe childhood obesity is something we should be “fighting”? (Yes, but then there are those billboards in Georgia.) That there’s a way to instill good eating and exercise habits in children without shaming them? (Yes, but who on earth is arguing the opposite?) That maybe when we say fighting childhood obesity is about health, it’s not some fat-shaming conspiracy but is truly about children’s emotional, physical, and mental health? (Yes, but that doesn’t mean that concerns about “health” aren’t also a veiled way of talking about children’s looks.) That maybe plenty of fat kids aren’t built that way, aren’t “big-boned,” aren’t victim to some sort of “fat gene” or environmental hazard but instead have bodies that are suffering from too much food and too little exercise? (Yes, but there are children whose set point is higher than what’s recommended, and I don’t want to advocate anything that would see a child beginning a lifelong battle that she’ll never be able to win. Those children—all children—deserve dignity that gets slighted when we stick too heavily to the traditional way of thinking about weight.)

I suppose the closest I could come to having a larger “issues” point here is this: The emphasis on childhood obesity is a convenient scapegoat for the deeply conflicted relationship pretty much our whole society has with food, comfort, bodies, and conformity. And we as a society have a responsibility to not only take a cold, hard look at that relationship for our own benefit, but, yes, “for the children.” We need to help children on a physical, mental, emotional, and sociological level be as healthy as possible. And sometimes being as healthy as possible includes losing weight. I’m not a public health expert, I’m not a psychologist. I don’t know how to help children reconcile the ostensibly dueling messages of You are good just the way you are and You might be better off if you took certain steps that will make you healthier—and, as it happens slimmer. I just know that we need to.

I don’t like feeling like I have to choose a side: That I’m either a body-positive blogger who looks at weight as entirely separate from health when I know from my own experience that it’s not always separate, or I’m one of those body-shaming fat-phobes who thinks it’s fine to put chubby kids on a billboard as a warning and example. I only have my own experiences to go on, and when it comes to something as intensely personal as our bodies, going on personal experience alone can be dangerous. My experiences as a fat child can’t be superimposed onto the life of every fat kid in America, and I might be even more hesitant to quietly suggest that plenty of kids would benefit from losing weight had I been the childhood equivalent of those adult powerhouses who eat healthfully and mindfully, exercise aplenty, and remain fat. But that wasn’t me. Had I eaten the way my parents tried to teach me to eat, and not been so terrified of moving my body, I would have been well within recommended height-weight guidelines. As an adult, that’s where I fall, though my relationship with food is still conflicted enough that I may never know how much I’d weigh if I were able to be an intuitive eater. (Indeed, that’s another reason I haven’t written much on this; it’s hard for me to know how much of my feelings about childhood obesity inhabit the same space as the part of me where disordered eating thrived for years. Can we ever know?)

Nobody should be made to feel bad because of how they look, or because of the size their body takes up in the world. Does that even need to be said here? I’m saying it anyway, for good measure. But not all fat-phobia comes from outer sources. Yes, I’m tired of the idea that weight loss is unequivocally a good thing; I loathe the bumper-sticker wisdom that inside every fat person there’s a thin person waiting to get out. Nobody wins when we assume fat people must be unhappy. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t fat people—including children—whose size does make them unhappy, and who don’t have a vocabulary for articulating that unhappiness without falling down the rabbit hole of self-loathing. Had I such language as a child, I might have found more satisfaction from what came out of my mouth than what went into it.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012


The "fugly feminist" trope didn't begin in the '70s, folks. Anti-suffrage postcard, early 20th century (more).

It wasn't that long ago that women didn't have the right to vote. If you're American, get out there today—if not for yourself and your country, then for our foremothers (some of whom have fascinating oral histories here).

Friday, November 2, 2012

On Hurricanes and Beauty

This week has been unusual, to put it mildly. Thank you to readers who inquired about my safety and well-being. I'm fine. My city is not, but New Yorkers are a resilient bunch, and the same goes for our neighbors in New Jersey, Connecticut, and other affected areas.

The beauty community was not untouched. Lauren "Lola" Abraham, 23, was one of the 40 residents of New York City who perished as a result of the storm. A makeup artist who was simultaneously enrolled in beauty school and higher education to eventually become a social studies teacher, Abraham was described by friends as "a beautiful girl, very carefree," according to the New York Times. May she, and all those who fell victim to the storm, rest in peace.

Of course, beauty is a business as well—a big one, and one that, like so many industries, has its epicenter in New York. With an estimated 70 percent of the American beauty and personal care industry located within a 200-mile radius of the city, cosmetics companies large and small will undoubtedly be affected. In fact, one beauty giant has already been affected, though in a different way than one might imagine: Jane Lauder, granddaughter of Estee and a board member of the company, owned a beachside cottage that has been destroyed by the storm. Yet she's only one of the more high-profile people in the industry who have been affected, and one with ample resources. I don't have statistics, of course, but I'm guessing that the majority of beauty workers who have been impacted by Sandy are more like the hairstylist whose sudden three-hour commute illustrates the up-and-at-'em attitude New Yorkers have about getting back to the swing of things. (Note also the tidbit in the piece about nail salons giving mani-pedis in parts of the city that have lost power—you can take away our power but you can't take away our polish!) In any case, the Professional Beauty Association has a relief fund for beauty professionals who have been affected by natural disasters.You can contribute to the fund—or apply for relief.

On the lighter side—sort of—leave it to the inimitable Gala Darling to write something both poignant and wry about Sandy's aftermath, jumping from images of sodden mattresses on the street to muse on "hurricane glamour." (I'll add to the list: As one of the many who defiantly drank their way through the storm, my conviction that red wine makes for a fantastic lip stain is only strengthened.)

*  *  *

There was plenty else that happened this week in beauty. The Kardashian girls might be sued by makeup company Chroma for naming their own line Khroma; Drew Barrymore may add makeup mogul to her list of business pursuits. Yet even typing out those names feels—not quite right. I'm all for humor alleviating the intensity of natural disasters; I don't think throwing out all the things that may seem trivial in times of duress is any way to help ourselves get back to normal.

Not that I find beauty trivial. I don't, and if I did I wouldn't be writing this blog. It's not in the realm of loss of life, no, but if we start thinking that way exclusively, we lose sight of the ways the seemingly trivial and the seemingly important intersect. And we begin to point fingers in an effort to seem more legitimate than those silly people who care about silly things. We're seeing this with post-Sandy talk, actually, with the controversy over this set of Sandy "glamour shots" from Brazilian model and actress Nana Gouvêa. Disaster trumps glamour, right? So exploiting disaster for glamour, is wrong, correct? Yes, it is. But as M. Monalisa Gharavi points out on Twitter, the eye-rolling being done over this (the photos have officially "gone viral," as per HuffPo) doesn't show nearly as much white when "shock contrast" shows up in other areas, such as when the fashion industry exploits the global south in their own imagery. Imagery that is considered legitimate and not mock-worthy, I might add. But "If one lone, expatriate non-American model embrace the calamity trope (without the dark natives, and likely without profit) so help her God."

I don't want to make the mistake of trying to hierarchically organize what's Important versus what's Not Important, nor do I want to forget that beauty itself can play a vital role in preserving the idea of normalcy. That's part of why many of us wear it in the first place: It gives us a routine, it gives us a sense of control. And in a time when it's clear that no matter how hard we plan, there's only so much we can really control, the concept of beauty work, no matter how illusory it might be, becomes particularly potent. So yes, regardless of the chaos going on downtown and in the region as a whole—the elderly and disabled people trapped in high rises, the gas shortages, the neighborhoods completely ravaged, and, of course, the still-rising number of people who have died as a result of Hurricane Sandy, not only in the U.S. but in the Caribbean and Canada as well—beauty still matters.

I believe in the importance of beauty. But this week, its urgency feels far lesser. The news I usually spotlight here can wait. And so, it will.