Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Leah Smith, Public Policy Ph.D Student, Lubbock, TX

The first time Leah Smith saw a little person, she turned to her mother and said, “So that’s what I’m going to look like when I’m an adult?” Her mother said, “Yeah,” to which Smith replied, “I think that’s okay.” Now vice president of public relations for Little People of America, a support group and information center for people of short stature, Smith works to let others know what she intuited in that moment. (Smith is speaking here on her own behalf, not in her public relations role with LPA.) She’s also working toward her Ph.D. in public policy, with a focus on disability policy, including discrimination and employment policy for people with disabilities. Her first love, however, was fashion design, in which she earned an associate degree. We talked about redefining fashion to include little people, the division between feeling beautiful and receiving romantic attention, and pretending to be Julia Roberts. In her own words:

On Pride
I know that people are looking at me all the time, and you have to find a way to process that somehow. When I was 7, I kind of pretended that I was Julia Roberts. I mean, obviously I don’t do this now, but as a kid I’d read or heard somewhere that every time she would go out, people would stop and stare because she was so pretty. And I was like, “That’s what I face every day, so it must be because I’m pretty.” In my little 7-year-old mind that’s how I processed it. That kind of shaped who I am, and I started dressing to fit the part. I’m not saying I’m any Julia Roberts; it’s just that I wanted to dress in cute or nice-looking clothes, so when people do stare I can be like, Oh, they’re looking because they like my outfit, or they think I’m cute, or whatever. People are going to stare either way, so you’ve got to bring some sort of confidence to it.

Dressing well has been huge in my life. The comments and the stares could have been really easy for me to internalize if I weren’t careful. I feel like my clothes are a way of putting up a shield against that, of saying to the world that the things people might believe about LPs aren't true. That's not who I believe I am—this is who I am. There’s a level of pride in being able to wear a cute outfit, wear my hair cute. It says that I’m proud of this body, and that it’s not something I want to hide or cover up. Because I am proud of my body—I’m not ashamed of it in any way, and I don’t want that to ever be something I portray with how I present myself.

My style is pretty feminine—dresses, cute sandals. There are very few days when I don’t dress up, and people joke that my hair is my biggest priority in my life, which obviously isn’t true, but I do pay a lot of attention to it. I’ve wondered if I would give my appearance as much thought if I were average-sized, or if it’s just a part of who I am. Sometimes I have to remind myself, “Leah, it’s okay if you don’t fix your hair every single day.” I consciously stopped styling my hair on Sundays—I still shower and whatever, but I just don’t fix my hair, to remind myself that I mean more to people than just what I look like. If you’re going to feel beautiful you’ve got to feel beautiful when you’re naked too. It can’t just be all about your clothes or what your hair looks like; it has to start from somewhere else.

On Speed Dating
It can be hard for LP women to navigate male attention. LPA has an annual convention, so you go from having never been hit on by a guy, and then you go to convention and all of a sudden all these guys are thinking you’re really attractive. How do you figure that out? What do you do with that attention once you have it? I almost feel like it’s a bit delayed for us, whereas most people kind of grow up learning those things. As soon as the girls are about 16, suddenly it’s like, “Whoa, these guys think I’m hot—what do I do?” As a part of the leadership at conference, you get to see the ins and outs of what’s going on, and one year there was a guy who was hitting on this girl, and she didn’t really do anything to stop it. He continued and continued, and then all of a sudden she was like, “Wait, I’m not comfortable at all,” and he was like, “Well, you never said no.” She said, “Well, yeah, because I liked it!” Everyone has to learn to deal with those situations, but it happens in a concentrated way at conference. You go from holding hands for the first time to kissing within a week. She had to learn: Okay, I can like this but still have limits here. For me, watching it was like, Oh, man! It was like seeing my own teenhood.

Feeling beautiful and getting male attention were two very separate events for me. Male attention was a once-a-year expedition for me, whereas looking my best was an everyday thing. At convention I’d get dressed up and be thinking about meeting a dude, but that was more of a mind-set shift; I was already dressing in clothes I thought were cute. I started paying attention to my clothes and fixing my hair around seventh grade, so about the same time as most girls, but dating didn’t factor into it like it might have for someone else. Dressing up was just who I was, and it had nothing to do with guys. Maybe if I hadn’t done that and had started being active dating-wise later, the two would have become linked—I don’t know.

There’s this epiphany for some women when they come into LPA, like: “Oh! There’s LP guys who like this body.” There are some women you talk to who have repeatedly been given the message that they are or should be asexual. You hear, “I can’t imagine a guy ever wanting to be with me,” or “I’ve been told my whole life that I’m not what guys want—I don’t have long legs, and an average-size guy would never want to date me.” But then on the flip side of that there are times that LPs have been hypersexualized and some women who take that to its extreme: There are groups of people who have a fetish with little people, specifically LP women. You see some LP women who have internalized this idea and believe that they should take this idea as their role. Sexuality can be very tough for someone who has seen these two extremes. On the one hand, we should be asexual, and on the other hand we are a fetish object. There’s a fine middle line somewhere in there.

On Being Little and Badass
Clothes are such a hard thing for LPs, because so often you have to buy a pair of jeans for $100, and then you have to go get them altered for $150, so that really limits your ability to buy a number of outfits. You’re spending twice as much on one item rather than getting two or three items. I actually do all my own alterations. With achondroplasia, the type of dwarfism I have, our torso is basically the same as an average-size person’s, so I’ll buy clothes that fit my butt and breasts and just alter the arms and legs. For most LPs, I’d say it’s about half and half—some do their own sewing, and the rest get it altered.

I went to fashion design school in Dallas. I really wanted to create a line that allowed LP women to express their inner beauty. At the time a lot of my friends in LPA were dealing with the same thing I was: We were young adults in the world, and asking ourselves what it meant to not be at home anymore, protected by our parents? How do we be adults and be little at the same time? So I started trying to design clothes that expressed the feelings I wanted to express at the time. If I felt badass, I would try to create a badass outfit. Even if nothing about the outfit shouted badass, if I could associate that feeling with the outfit, that’s what mattered—that’s kind of where I was going with my designs.

Going to fashion design school was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I was studying fashion design and trying to redefine fashion at the same time, and it really made some people uncomfortable within the school. I experienced a lot of discrimination there that I’d never experienced before. At the time I thought it was because I was little, but looking back I don’t know if it had anything to do with me being little so much as it was I was questioning the paradigm.

For example, we had to create our own line for our final project and do a whole business plan. I wrote that my goal was having a fashion line that would help LPs feel beautiful in their own bodies. My teacher marked that out and wrote on my project that LPs were not beautiful, that they’re not tall, that they don’t have long legs and this is an impossible thing for you to be trying to pursue or to try to make them feel. I was furious. This was after other things had happened—for example, I’d asked for a stool because some of the tables we worked on were really high. They were like, “Well, I guess we have to offer it, but we can’t promise it will be here every day. It’s not our fault if someone steals it.” I was like, “It’s my stool, I’m here all the time, everyone knows I use it, and I can’t imagine why someone would steal a stool.” And every single day it was gone. The other students were the ones who suggested I have a stool to begin with, and I couldn’t imagine any of them would be that vicious. It was that kind of thing that kept going and going, and that comment on my final project broke the camel’s back, I guess. That’s when I started going into policy and the legal side of it. This is a much bigger problem than what we’re wearing, or even what we can legislate. This is a societal problem, that women who are short-statured aren’t seen as beautiful. That’s what we’re up against. When you’re 22 and you’re out to change the world, nobody tells you the world is not an easy place to change. I mean, I’m still out to change the world. Maybe I’m just a bit more realistic with the ways that’s going to get done.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Body Image Warrior Week: Decoding Dress

Yesterday I wrote about the need to not conflate body image and eating disorders, something that's too easy to do and that doesn't help us get to the root causes of eating disorders. But that doesn't mean that body image isn't also a crucial part of the puzzle. When Sally McGraw of Already Pretty reached out to a group of body image bloggers about the possibility of banding together to do a project under the umbrella of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, I saw that she wasn't positing body image as being the end sum of eating disorders, but rather as something worthy of discussion in its own right. And thus, Body Image Warrior Week was born. Throughout the week I'll publish a handful of pieces written by different members of the inaugural collective—which you can be a part of. Click here to find out more about how to participate.

Today I'm thrilled to host Decoding Dress, who faithful readers will recognize from her many appearances on my weekly roundups. With her consistently keen insight, balance of analytical thought and sly humor, and a gift for sharing her views without ever seeming dogmatic (and some pretty fabulous outfits too), Decoding Dress has become one of my favorite reads. And with this essay, she just might become one of your favorites too.

*   *   *

Next week: Grooming tips from our man in Athens. (Those curls!)

The Ideal Form of Me, or, How Plato Turned Me into a Body Image Blogger

I didn't set out to become a body image blogger. I just wanted to write about clothes.

Well, that's not really sufficiently precise. Lots of people write about clothes. I wanted to write about my own clothes. Of course, lots of people do that too. What I really wanted to do was to write about my relationship with my clothes. Back when I started my blog, Decoding Dress, I couldn't find anyone else who was doing that, which made it seem like the perfect niche for me. And by "niche" I mean "Does anybody other than me actually care about this stuff?"*

It turns out it was the "my relationship with" part that got me into trouble. By inserting myself so intentionally into the mix I pretty much guaranteed body image would become a major theme of my writing, whether I intended it to or not.

To wit: most outfit blogs are, of course, about the outfits (shock-n-awe!). Note, however, that for those of us with the good fortune to have been born into situations of privilege in one of the world's highly developed nations, the clothes we wear are rarely about protection from the elements or adherence to social norms against public nakedness; they are, rather, the real-world projection of our inner sense of self.** (That’s why we compliment a friend’s outfit by telling her, “That’s so you,” or return a piece we’ve tried on to the rack saying, “It’s just not me.”) In other words, our outfits occupy the narrow frontier separating our real, physical selves from our mental images of ourselves. So you can talk about the clothes all you want, but as soon as you bring up why you chose them, what you loved or hated about them or how they made you feel, you're talking about body image.

It took me a while to figure that out though. It wasn’t until I dragged the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (c.428-c.348 BCE) into a post about miniskirts and red lipstick that the extreme to which my entire blogging project was going to revolve around body image started to become clear to me:

The lovers of sights and sounds like beautiful sounds, colors, shapes, and everything fashioned out of them, but their thought is unable to see and embrace the nature of the beautiful itself […] In fact, there are very few people who would be able to reach the beautiful itself and see it by itself. Isn’t that so?
— Plato, The Republic
See what Plato’s doing there? He’s drawing a distinction between the things we perceive as beautiful and beauty as a thing in and of itself. This is his way of introducing what has become known as his Theory of Forms.

This all may sound abstruse or even arcane, but you employ this theory all the time, probably without even being aware of it. How do you know that an apple—this particular apple—is an apple? You know it because you have in your mind the image of an apple—not of a particular apple, in this case, but of a general apple with a set of characteristics common to all apples. Students of platonism have traditionally referred to this general apple as the Ideal Form of an apple (after Plato himself) or as “Appleness.” (Seriously.) Platonism holds that this ideal form of an apple isn't merely an image, but actually exists (though not in any way that can be conventionally perceived by our senses). Every particular instance of an apple, then, is understood as just an approximate expression of its Ideal Form, inherently flawed. The same goes for everything you experience or imagine...including yourself.

And that’s where the problems start.

This framework, which has come to govern so much of how we understand and experience the world, tells me that there must exist an Ideal Form of DeeDee—DeeDeeness, as it were. And what are the characteristics of DeeDeeness? For some weird reason,*** in my mind the Ideal Form of DeeDee isn't characterized by the wrinkles that seem to be multiplying exponentially around the corners of my real mouth. It doesn't include the flab around my midsection or my size 11 feet either. DeeDeeness is hourglass shaped, smooth skinned and wears a size six shoe comfortably.

In other words, with alarming frequency, the characteristics I use to recognize myself aren't necessarily characteristic of the real me. They represent someone that I not, have never been and likely never will be. It’s like trying to recognize myself—judging the validity of my own claim to be DeeDee—based on some other person’s attributes. In doing so I treat an image of some other body as if it were the platonic Ideal Form of my own—only acknowledging myself to the extent that I embody the characteristics of this alien image. Where I do not embody them I consider myself flawed, approximate.

What. The. HELL? Where does this even come from? It's the syllogistic equivalent of judging something to be an apple by the extent to which it is small, round, blue and goes well in pancakes. I’m way too smart to be doing this, way too smart to be doing it to myself.

But I am doing it. After nearly a year of considering these issues critically under the glare of a flaming introspection fetish and far more education than is generally good for me, I’m still doing it.

The dirty little secret of Decoding Dress is that about 90% of the time, the answer to the question upon which I’ve based the whole project, “Why do I wear what I wear?” is simply “So that what I see in the mirror might more closely approximate this Ideal Form of me.” But unless and until I can acknowledge the irrationality of the Ideal Form I’ve chosen and embrace in its stead one that actually has some significant essential connection to who I am, I will never see myself as more than an approximation. I’ll never actually become myself.

And so I think (and write) about my body image, my mental projection of myself, in the hope that someday the image will fall into line with the reality. Perhaps, if I am diligent and do not cease from my self-exploration (as T.S. Elliot might say), then “the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

I wish the same for you.

*Apparently a few people do. The really cool ones.

**If that sounded like I was riffing off a Matrix quote, that's because I was.

***I’d love simply to blame this on patriarchal culture, but I’m pretty sure it’s more complex than that.

DeeDee is a yearling fashion and beauty blogger endlessly fascinated by why we wear what we wear. She’s still not sure where all this is headed.
Complete (for now! anyone can participate!) list of Body Image Warrior Week participants:

Already Pretty // Beautiful You // The Beheld // Decoding Dress // Dress with Courage // Eat the Damn Cake // Fit and Feminist // Medicinal Marzipan // Not Dead Yet Style // Rosie Molinary // Virginia Sole-Smith // Weightless

Monday, February 27, 2012

Barefaced and Beside the Point: Appearance Anxiety in Eating Disorders

In preparation for National Eating Disorders Awareness Week—which starts today—the Renfrew Center sent out an interesting press release, one you’d think would be right up my alley. “Barefaced and Beautiful,” a campaign from the Renfrew Center, one of the best-known eating disorder treatment facilities in the United States, is encouraging women to post photos of themselves on various social media without any makeup. The point is to...well, they sort of lost me on that. I think the idea is to display pride in one’s natural, unadorned self, the idea being don't need to...adorn yourself....with an eating disorder?

Yes, I’m being intentionally dense here. Obviously the idea was to touch on the role of appearance dissatisfaction in eating disorders, using something plenty of people wear—makeup—as an entryway to talk about the larger issue. (Certainly it’s more on point than cryptically posting the color of your bra on Facebook for breast cancer awareness.) And for something like a week designed to raise awareness about eating disorders, you need a campaign that's simple, accessible, and attention-grabbing. But not only does it willfully ignore the myriad reasons women wear makeup in favor of a one-dimensional shame-based explanation, it treats bodily dissatisfaction as the cause, not a symptom, of eating disorders. And if we keep the focus of eating disorder conversations on women’s bodies, we’re doing exactly what women with eating disorders do to themselves.

Obviously I think body image is pretty important. Hell, my contribution to National Eating Disorders Awareness week, other than this post, is with a project called Body Image Warrior Week project, which will show up here later this week. But I’m wary of conflating body image and eating disorders, and I don’t think that they’re nearly as connected as they’re made out to be. It’s not like she who has the worst body image develops the worst eating disorder, or that people whose body image is average are immune from eating disorders. (I have yet to meet a woman with an active eating disorder who has a good body image, but then again, I don’t know tons of women with a good body image to begin with.) I’m baffled that Renfrew chose the makeup hook for their NEDA campaign, unless the idea really was just to raise awareness of the existence of eating disorders. (“Anorexic” has been a coverline of enough celebrity magazines that I don’t think we need any more awareness of that elementary sort, but I digress.) Makeup is deeply tied to our ideas of self-presentation, yes. It’s also a way of controlling the way the way you’re seen, and eating disorders are rooted in control. But none of that shows up in the Renfrew campaign; instead, it’s all about appearance dissatisfaction, as though that alone can prompt a disease that ravages one’s life.

Eating disorders are complex beasts, with not-great recovery rates and the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. We don’t entirely know what causes eating disorders, but last year when I interviewed Sunny Sea Gold, author of Food, the Good Girl’s Drug and a recovered binge eater herself, she broke it down nicely:

Therapists pretty much agree that there are three main causes of eating disorders, and most of us who get them have a combination of the three. One is your genetics. Second is your physiology, like the biology of your actual brain—your personality.... The third thing is environment. Environment is broken into two parts: the environment of your home, what your mom and dad said to you, the behaviors they modeled. The other part of environment is culture. So about one-sixth of eating disorders can be blamed on cultural environment, like the pictures we’re shown.... If we magically were able to suddenly change the images we see in order to be diverse in all ways, gradually that part of the pressure would relieve itself. But it wouldn’t relieve that need of a girl to control her food intake because she can’t control her life.
It’s that last part that continues to get short shrift in popular media treatment of eating disorders. And I get why the media might latch onto images and the thin imperative as the root cause of eating disorders: Media outlets love nothing more than to generically critique themselves (what women’s magazine hasn’t covered the problem of unrealistic body ideals formed by...the media?). Less cynically, poor body image is something most of us have experienced at some point; using this as a hook for readers to empathize with eating disorder patients works beautifully. Plenty of people have dieted to lose weight for aesthetic reasons, and the disordered thought loop that makes a satisfying eating disorder story—I was obsessed with food!—is mimicked in the dieting mind-set. So the average reader may think she’s identifying with the subject, not realizing that what she’s identifying with are the symptoms of an eating disorder: the restriction of food, or the overconsumption of it, the vigilant attention paid. But the eating disorder doesn’t lie within its symptoms. It lies within its causes.

Listen, I’m not saying that there’s no connection between appearance and eating disorders. Of course there is. And body image is an essential topic to so many women’s lives today—including women who have never exhibited a single eating disorder symptom in their life. Do I even need to point out the ways in which having poor body image is a drain of resources? Of enormous intellectual and psychic energy? Of time, of money, of already precious resources? Of emotion? Do I need to ask how many times women have asked “Do I look fat in this?” because we lack the words to ask for support and tenderness? As long as we have poor body image, we walk through this world ashamed. Shame isn’t what I want for any person on this planet; it’s not what whoever/whatever created us probably had in mind; it’s not what any of us want for the people we love. Yes, we need body image work, and we’ve needed it for a long time. And a week devoted to eating disorder education is a good time to reinvigorate that conversation.

But eating disorders do not run parallel alongside a track of bodily dissatisfaction, and the more we conflate the two, the less we’re tackling the true complexity of eating disorders, and the less we're looking at the other threads that unite patients more deeply than hating their thighs. We’re not looking at perfectionism, or the twin sisters of compliance and rebellion, and how all of these play out in the lifetime of an eating disorder. We’re not looking at biology, or heredity, or giving proper diligence to plain old depression and anxiety. Hell, we’re not looking at stress. We’re not looking at choice, autonomy, or modernity. We’re not looking at the role of trauma, or sex, or comorbidity with addiction. And it is impossible to treat eating disorders without treating all of these as seriously—no, more seriously than—body image.

It’s one thing for the media to treat body image with greater weight than, say, family dynamics in eating disorders. It’s quite another for a treatment clinic to do the same. The Renfrew Center certainly doesn’t take this approach in treating its patients. When I was treated at Renfrew for my own eating disorder a few years ago, I was repeatedly struck by how little body image came up as a topic, both from the counselors and my fellow patients. That’s not to say it wasn’t important; it was more that we’d all thought about our bodies so fucking much by the time we landed in treatment that we were chomping at the bit to give voice to the things that we truly needed to be able to speak of. I could deconstruct body standards before treatment as fluently as I can now. But before entering Renfrew I had no words to tell you about the factors that took me 25 years deep into an eating disorder before I committed to getting help.

I still don’t have all those words, or at least I don’t have them in the ways I’d need to in order to share them here. That’s part of why I don’t usually write here about my eating disorder. The other parts are that while I’m doing really well, recovery is a long process and I’m not at the end of it, and I can’t get all meta on my recovery by writing about it. (I have a story coming out next month in Marie Claire about my experiences, and while I’m glad I wrote it and my editor was great, it was also emotionally taxing.) I’m sharing it here because it would be disingenuous to write an 1,900-word essay on eating disorders spurred by an action of the place I was treated without disclosing my personal stake in untangling the essence of what eating disorders are all about.

But the larger reason is that while I’m an advocate for looking at media images critically, and for improving body image in general, I don’t want to do anything to further the problem I’m writing about here. This is a blog about beauty, and while eating disorders have a role in that discussion, that connection is already so firm in the public mind that I feel my role here is to give a little whisper of Wait. I want us to wait before we draw connecting lines too heavily, and instead ask that we look at the connection between eating disorders and appearance as thematic and dynamic, not as an arrow from point A to point B. The connection isn’t that one causes the other; it’s that they’re both partly rooted in expectations of properly gendered behavior. (It’s worth noting here that while plenty of straight men develop eating disorders, gay men are at higher risk.) To untangle the social angle of eating disorders, we need to look beyond the mere existence of the thin imperative and look at what it says about the role of women: that we are to be perfect, controlled, managed, and compliant—themes that come up repeatedly with eating disorder patients, themes that get to the crux of the matter more directly, without taking the meandering detour through our bodies.

Makeup, too, can say a lot about those issues. It’s not the worst motif Renfrew could have chosen for their campaign. Nor is it the best. I’m no PR expert; I have no idea how the clinic could have better channeled their extraordinary work into a simple campaign for the public to engage with. I just know that by the time I was discharged from Renfrew, I’d finally begun to learn that my dissatisfaction with my body wasn’t causing my eating disorder; it was merely a symptom of it, like restricting my food intake or binge eating. I’d begun to take the focus off my body and put it into understanding the roots of my perfectionism, my people-pleasing, my family history, my silent shrieks of rebellion. 

I’d begun to understand that loving my body wasn’t the point. The point wasn’t even to like it. The point was to learn how to eat.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Beauty Blogosphere 2.24.12

Apologies for the late roundup; I was having technical difficulties with Blogger on Friday and then was on vacation with no Internet access. Enjoy!

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

From Head... 
Mad women: Pillbox hats off to The Gloss for not going gaga over the Estee Lauder Mad Men collection. I love the show and am writing this sporting a smock and a beehive, so I'm not opposed to aping the style. But as Jamie Peck points out, "I’m wary of mindless nostalgia for an era that was actually pretty terrible for women in a lot of ways, ways Mad Men examines with unflinching honesty.... I worry some women might be taking the utterly wrong message from the show if thinking about Mad Men gets them in a  happy, makeup-buying mood and not a gutted, 'this shit’s not fair, why won’t they let Joan fulfill her intellectual potential?' mood."

...To Toe... 
Shaq attack: I'm over male celebrities getting pedicures. But I'll always have room for male celebrities giving pedicures, especially when it's Shaq.

...And Everything In Between: 
Hungry eyes: Perhaps capitalizing on the PR boost about the whole Hunger Games nail polish saga, one arm of the movie's publicity is a spoof campaign for men's cosmetics. "Official Eyeliner of the 74th Hunger Games" reads the tagline for a golden eyeliner sported by one of the characters. The "ads" are spooky because of the story of the Hunger Games—but they're also effective in showing how language used in actual ads (geared toward women, not men in a dystopian future) is a little spooky in its own right. "The Secret Weapon Used by Professionals" makes sense in the Hunger Games context, but given that "secret weapon" is used in plenty of beauty marketing copy, it gets downright weird.

Cruelty workaround: Estee Lauder, Avon, and Mary Kay are considered cruelty-free by PETA, after making commitments way in the 1980s to end animal testing. But according to the animal rights organization, Avon and Estee Lauder have quietly complied with Chinese laws that mandate animal testing before products can be sold in China. (Mary Kay has been more proactive in resisting efforts; it's unclear how much they're allowing animal testing.) I'm no fan of animal testing, but I'm really no fan of corporate workarounds.

Organic chic: Bobbi Brown seems like a cool chick and all, but what kills me is the lede of this Times profile of her that posits her as some sort of freewheeling bohemian compared with Estee Lauder. "When I interviewed Estée Lauder in 1985, we lunched on grilled flounder at Le Cirque surrounded by excited socialites. ... She was often at the Reagan White House, tight with Nancy and Ronnie. When I interviewed Bobbi Brown, we ate organic vegetables in her kitchen in Montclair, N.J., while her nephew noodled on a laptop nearby. She wore J. Crew pants, a Uniqlo sweater, sneakers and her hair was in a ponytail." Do they really think their readers don't see that organic vegetables in Montclair are the new flounder at Le Cirque?

The house that beauty built: If you have a spare $3.3 million lying around, you can buy Mary Kay's mansion in Dallas, which hit the market last week.

Show dog: You haven't gotten your canine fix from me this week, have you? Check out Show Dog by Josh Dean, a colleague of mine who (unbeknownst to me until this week) spent two years going behind the scenes of dog shows for the book—which, naturally, is being billed as a literary answer to Best in Show. (Did you know that poodles take a good four to five hours of grooming to get ready for show day? "And you thought women had it bad!")

Museum muse: Anyone near South Bend, Indiana, who enjoys this blog may well enjoy this exhibit: "Gizmos, Corsets & Concoctions: Our Obsession with Health & Beauty." Elixirs, advertisements, and a "permanent wave machine" are on display.

I really, really, really, really, really hope this trend dies, like, now: Teenagers posting YouTube videos of themselves asking commenters whether they're pretty or not. The curation of the self through social media is one thing. Asking others to curate for you is heartbreaking.

Working girl: After Cindy Crawford's 10-year-old kid modeled for Young Versace, Crawford put the kibosh on her daughter's career, saying she was just too young. Which is nice, and almost makes up for the fact that there is a Young Versace.

Paging Downton Abbey fans: Aaron Bady on the masculine crisis and faux aristocracy of Earl of Grantham. "His wife didn’t want a real aristocrat; she wanted a modern simulacrum." And if you wanna know how Lady Grantham might have smelled, check out this Mimi Froufrou post on historical scents of the era—and which perfume the actresses actually wear to get into character.

Modesty: The nonsense surrounding a man who handed a (very reasonably dressed) female college student a note about how her outfit was inciting lust is terrifically upsetting. But I love that it's prompting young Christian women to speak up about the role of women's clothing in desire, as Lauren Nicole does here. "Dear men: If you believe my neckline is causing to stumble, you have bought into the lie that women are the problem, NOT YOUR LUST. Dear women: If you believe you are responsible for your fellow man's sins, you have bought into the lie that YOU are the problem, NOT SIN." (via Hugo)

Video star: Franchesca Ramsey, the mind that brought you Shit White Girls Say to Black Girls, takes us through a new apocryphal tween video game that's scarily on-point.

Lady indexes: Jenna Sauers looks at the myth of the hemline index—the idea that hemlines mimic the economy, rising with good stock prices and falling with bad—using a piece in Business Insider as a hook. The irony here is that Business Insider reran a piece of mine about how the lipstick index has been debunked. They know better!

The history of women and botany: "Women's botanical activity raised concerns because it removed them from the domestic sphere and because it placed women within a heretofore masculine network of plant fanciers."

The scent of money: Lady Gaga working with a Swiss fragrance company to develop a perfume that would make its wearers smell like an "expensive hooker." Because the nose knows? (via Tits and Sass)

Tuning in: Wait, is Saturday Night Live on a funny phase again? On the advice of Gala Darling I dared to click through to this clip and possibly died laughing: "Bein' Quirky With Zooey Deschanel." Between that, the Lana Del Rey "interview," and the Maya Angelou Prank show, things seem to be picking up.

Out of the box: Can we get all meme-deconstruct here? I'm getting a kick out of the "What People Think I Do" meme. The beauty blogger and fashion writer speak to me, since I'm really neither but am sort of both. In particular, the fashion writer meme shows that we believe ourselves to have a certain amount of Vreeland-esque gravitas, which belies the notion of the fashion writer as, well, Cher from Clueless. It's a sliver of insight into the world actually inhabited by women concerned with fashion and femininity. (Although based on my own experience, certainly the head-on-desk is indeed the most realistic image of all.)

Expiration date: What happens to models when they "age out"? This article looks at how successful models have to work from the near-beginning of their careers to ensure they'll have careers after age 22. Telling quote: "You’d be stupid not to think you have a shelf life,” says Iman, 56, who now runs a $25 million cosmetics company. “I knew I had to become a brand. And that brand was me.”

Miss Navajo Nation: A peek into pageantry that has nothing to do with swimsuit competitions: Miss Navajo Nation. It's interesting to see what's valued in this pageant—Navajo language, traditional skills (contestants must butcher sheep)—alongside beauty, not in an either/or construct.

On elegance: Lauren Cerand, who careful readers will remember from her musings on "glamour" a few weeks ago, writes a splendid essay on elegance. It touches upon class, of course, but Cerand makes the case that elegance is more about sadness, boundary-setting, privacy, and perhaps men who don't wear their own tuxedos.

Blogger space: If you didn't get enough of little old moi from the two interviews I did last week, check out my contribution to "Blogger Space," a rotating feature from writer Pauline Gaines that asks bloggers to share pictures and reflections of their writing space. I get all evangelical (sort of) about my standing desk.

Under pressure: The responses to Sally's question of "Do you feel increased pressure to look chic?" are fascinating.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Thoughts on a Word: Nappy

With a tagline like “Not your average beauty blog,” it’s hardly a surprise that I’m a fan of re: thinking beauty. Yassira L. Diggs’s experience as both a makeup artist and writer ensures her work has a candid, sharp, informed insight; in particular, her breadth of work on natural hair has heightened my understanding of the issue. After reading a piece in which she mentioned her thoughts on the word nappy, I asked her if she’d be willing to elaborate on her ideas surrounding this ever-potent word--and much to my delight, she agreed. Besides maintaining re: thinking beauty, Yassira also writes about thrifting at The Thrifted, and you can learn more about her skills as a makeup artist at carbonmade

Nappy is, at the very least, to be handled with caution. It may mean diaper in some parts of the world, but that’s not the case at all, in these our United States of America. Here, nappy is combustible. Not everyone can say it and come away unscathed. Say it to, or even just near, the wrong person and it might just blow up in your face. In 2007, shock jock Don Imus found that out, and reminded us all about it, when he called the Rutgers University women’s basketball team “some nappy-headed hoes.” The firestorm that ensued left him jobless in its wake. At the time, Lanita Jacobs-Huey, an associate professor of anthropology and American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California, expressed a view common among many African-Americans when she said, “When I hear it from someone who doesn’t understand the depth of pain, they just don’t have the right to say it.” See, nappy is a huge snag in the idea that we live in a post-racial society, because in large parts of the African-American community, nappy is a deep, deep wound rooted in slavery and Jim Crow.

To understand the sensitivity that nappy requires, one must understand how the word went from its original meaning to this explosive place. Nappy came from nap, a noun that refers to a fuzzy raised surface on fabric. In the beginning, nappy was a texture, and that was the whole truth. During slavery in the United States, however, nappy became a tool in dismantling self-esteem in the slave population. In a world where the feminine beauty ideal revolved around long straight hair, fine features, and fair skin, slave owners, supported by so-called “scientific” claims, pathologized African people’s dark skin, broad facial features, kinky hair textures—basically, everything about them. In order to oppress people you must believe that they are inferior, somehow less human than you, and you must convince them that their (supposed) inferiority is the truth. The message—that their woolly, nappy hair was proof that they were sub-human—was naturally and tragically internalized by black people during slavery. To understand the button that nappy pushes among many African-Americans today, one must consider the overwhelming force of cultural power, and how unconsciously it is passed down through generations.

Nappy’s trauma still lingers, even now in the midst of what seems like a natural hair renaissance in the African-American community. I still hear fellow African-Americans throw around the term “good hair” to reference, compliment, and/or envy straight or loosely curled hair, as in not nappy. I have an aunt who, during one of those family moments when my choice to wear my hair in long dreadlocks was being questioned, heartily defended me with “Leave her alone, one day she’ll decide to fix her hair!”

Nappy is easily misconstrued. People who don’t understand nappy often think it’s another word for unkempt. Hence, nappy has been accused of having an unprofessional appearance, and deemed inappropriate for many a workplace.

In 1998, all hell broke loose when a New York City parent found copies of pages from the book Nappy Hair, by Carolivia Herron, in her third-grader’s folder. Alarmed by what she saw, and without reading the whole book, she made copies of the pages and passed them out to her community, with a note about the white teacher who was supposedly teaching their black and Hispanic kids racist stereotypes. Parents who didn’t even have children in Ruth Sherman’s class protested and demanded she be fired. At a public meeting they shouted over her, threatened her, and cursed her, rather than let her speak. She had to be escorted out by security. When the dust settled, Sherman, who had been ousted, was offered her position back. The shouting died down. The book had always been a celebration of nappy hair. Nappy is that loaded.

My relationship with nappy is complicated in its own way. While I didn’t grow up hearing or using the word, I can’t say I didn’t know it. It was just not used to demean me. I did, however, grow up around relaxers. I came into the world surrounded by black women who straightened their hair. I idolized my mother and aunts as a child, and joined them in the practice as soon as I could. By the time I was 12, I could do my own touch-ups. Every 6-8 weeks, from childhood to my early twenties, my roots got “relaxed.” Maybe that’s why I busted out laughing when my aunt threw her arm around me and planted a kiss on my cheek after her passionate defense of my dreadlocks: I remember what it was like, before I got curious about my own hair texture and stopped using relaxers, when fixed and relaxed meant the same thing to me. So I know how deeply she meant no harm with her words.

I suppose my semi-neutral background with nappy is why my views on the word continue to be semi-moderate (I think). I am not offended by nappy per se. At the same time, I can’t unknow what a hot potato it is in our society, so it would give me pause if someone addressed me with nappy, in reference to my hair. My reaction would ultimately depend on who was addressing me and my perception of their intent in using the word, because with nappy, context is everything. I can’t foresee it happening, though. I mean after all, nappy is the elephant in our societal room, and we, the ones who circle it, go under it, and make our way around it every day, are well versed at leaving it out of the conversation. It’s so much easier to get through the day that way. We are far from being at a point with nappy where it can slide by whimsically in a sentence, unnoticed.

Most of the time, we tip-toe around nappy, leaving it out of conversations, especially in racially mixed circles. There are those who want to see the word gone from the dictionary. To some people, nappy is the other n-word, the utterance of which is at least cause to feel offended, or even bad about themselves. Others, like natural hair crusader Linda Jones, founder of A Nappy Hair Affair, celebrate nappy. Fighting word or reason to smile, nappy has a long ways to go to find peace among us. It can, however, be an opportunity to communicate, and to learn about each other, and ourselves. That’s my favorite way to think of nappy these days.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Best in Show: Prize Dogs and the Women Who Love Them

I don’t particularly like dogs, at least not as a species. Some of them are perfectly lovely creatures I’m happy to share space with on an as-needed basis; others are sources of anything ranging from annoyance to terror.

So it wasn’t the dogs that got me into the Westminster Dog Show the other day, not exactly. I was on the treadmill at the gym, which is where I watch things I normally wouldn’t, like the news, or CSI, or the Westminster Dog Show. It was basically the only thing on that had nothing to do with Rick Santorum (shudder!) or sports (men throwing things at other things, why do I care?), so the kennel club it was.

I wound up enjoying it from a sort of removed, absurdist standpoint, made all the easier by the fact that I was watching the toy dog competition. I know next to nothing about dogs, and certainly know even less about toy dogs. (For those of you who are as clueless about dogs as I was a mere eight hours ago: Toy dogs aren’t actually toys, they’re live, just very very small.) Most looked like extravagant motorized dust ruffles to me. But of course, it’s not the dust ruffles that intrigue me; it’s the handlers behind them.

Showing animals is peculiar, sartorially speaking: You have to be dressed spiffily enough to pay proper homage to the event (teenagers showing sows at 4-H shows will put on their best cowboy boots), but comfortably enough to run, jump, chase, and otherwise wrangle potentially unpredictable creatures. You don’t dress to complement yourself; you’re dressing to complement your charge: “I never want to blend in with my dog,” says a handler in this article, which also advises dressing to distract from dogs’ flaws if necessary—the canine equivalent of wearing vertical stripes, I suppose?

In some ways it’s no different than the boardroom, if, in the boardroom, one were expected to frequently bend over and kneel, and to have liver in one’s pocket to keep a senior executive in line. The result is that the conservative look required can easily devolve into frumpiness—a fact not escaped by the Facebook group Dog Show Fashion Police, which has more than 17,000 “likes.” Shoes in particular stood out to me: Not a single woman handler was wearing heels. There may be a regulation about this, actually, in order to protect the flooring (does anyone know?). You mostly only see handlers from the knee down, and it’s rare to see images of women’s legs without them ending in either sky-high stilettos or a perfectly pedicured toe. Nothing like that here—just one pair of legs after another, revealed so matter-of-factly as to make us barely register them as women’s legs, de-eroticized as they were.

Reading the close-captioned narration onscreen cracked me up at first, these traits the announcers were attributing to dogs—docility, hospitality, even luxury-loving, all with a distinct emphasis on their impeccable breeding and their place in the social order of onceuponatime. (They didn’t need to spell out the connection of dog breeding to modern-day class systems; that part was clear.) But as I watched pair after pair of flats-clad human legs scurry alongside these moving dust ruffles, it struck me what a role reversal dogs shows are for female handlers. Here you have women displaying something to be judged on its looks, genetics, and breeding, and it is not her. She holds the dog out as an offering; we look at the floor-length hair of the Pekingese, the bouffant (hairdo?) of the shih tzu, the perfectly manicured puffs of the toy poodle, and we literally judge the animal based solely on how it appears to us. The words used to describe the dogs—affable, trusting, companionable, lively—also happen to read as a checklist of traits for the ideal woman. The dog receives the burden of absorbing the attitudes we normally direct toward women, leaving the handler oddly free to trot alongside her charge. For once, she is neither being judged nor judging. For once, she is an active participant without being looked at, and without the wallflower’s shame; she must be a wallflower in order to let the canine star shine.

I’m afraid this reads a bit like parody, the idea of the Westminster Kennel Club as fertile ground for an act of feminist visibility, and I admit it’s a little ridiculous. (Though if there’s a strain of radical feminist dog handlers out there reading this, please do let me know.) But when the narrators are saying things that we so blatantly reserve for women, how could my thoughts not wander in that direction? At one point an announcer unblinkingly proclaimed about a certain breed, “It’s not just hair and glitz—they’re actually really pretty.” Even dogs are being judged as either glamorous or “natural” beauties; as leaning on the artifice of hair and glitz or being genetically gifted enough to be “really pretty.” And given that women are compared to so many animals anyway—we’re kittenish, or have birdlike appetites; we’re foxy little vixens, unless we’re heifers or, well, dogs—suddenly it doesn’t seem terrifically far-fetched to wonder if there’s a bit of relief in establishing oneself as the mistress of another who is definitively there to be judged. Dogs may be man’s best friend, but perhaps they’re also woman’s best diversion.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Beauty Blogosphere 2.17.12

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

From Head...

Headucation: African-American hair salons have a long history of being hotbeds of activism. That thrives today, but the Beauty Is It salon in Staten Island is making it official with a news exhibit called "Black Women in American Culture and History"—including, of course, a nod to Madame CJ Walker.

...To Toe...
The pedicure of the future: When the Burgundy Girls dreamed up this galactic nail treatment they were picturing it for manicures, but I'm more apt to go wild on my toes than my hands. Am I alone on this? Either way, this look is glittery gorgeousness.

...And Everything In Between:

Girltanked: Know some young female innovators? (Of course you do.) Girltank, a new think tank of young female social entrepreneurs across the globe, wants to know about them. There are so many young women doing incredible things worldwide; Girltank aims to help them connect with one another and give them access to opportunities and resources that help shape communities and conversations across the world. This might not seem to have much to do with beauty, but it does: The public perception of young women is that they're there to be looked at, or that they need "our help." Girltank aims to change that perception by showing young women as change-makers and contributors to society. If you know of any women who fit the bill, visit Girltank's Facebook page and let them know! (There are raffle prizes too, as added incentive, including a $100 package from Lush.)

Corrupt much?: The beauty biz leads in consumer complaints in Singapore, beating out even the sleaze-ridden timeshare industry.

If you've got a problem, yo I'll solve it: I will forever get a thrill out of reading marketing analysis, as it reveals exactly how campaigns are designed to work on us. This one comes from market analysis firm NPD in regards to men's skin care: "There is a feeling that facial skin care products are not needed unless you have a specific skin problem... For men to use a product, he first must be aware that there is an underlying need that requires addressing," says industry analyst Karen Grant. That is, tell him what's wrong with him, then fix him. Sound familiar?

Sample sale: Birchbox-like cosmetics sampling services are catching on in Korea—because the sale of samples was banned last year.

Swift justice: Twenty-five years after being arrested for selling cosmetics fakes, a New Delhi man has finally been sentenced to a year of community service.

Straw feminist: I've been reading the Tumblr Pop Feminist Perblog for a while, and this screed shows why. I don't agree with every word she's saying here but she succinctly breaks down the dangers of posing the performance of traditional femininity as subversive for its own sake, and also lays out a point that's frighteningly easy to overlook in appearance-related discussions of feminism: "Show me a feminist who is saying we can't be feminine. Seriously, show me a feminist who is saying we can't be feminine. 

Meow: Intellectually, I buy the argument that Hello Kitty might contain hidden forms of cuteness-as-power in a postindustrial society. Practically, I can't stand the little bitch. Either way, this piece is interesting. "The gift under capitalism is the moment that circulation is affected by the introduction of an irreducible social aspect. As the gift of cuteness, then, Hello Kitty becomes a sort of value-analog that works by exempting itself from circuits of valorization."

Бунт Grrl: If you doubt the potential for the forcefulness of feminine motifs, check out Pussy Riot, a Russian feminist punk band protesting the current political climate under Putin. These summer-dress-clad performers are downright fierce, and the potency of their message has more weight than all too many punk bands in the U.S.

Stolen pink: I've been turned off "breast cancer kitsch" for a while, but if I hadn't been, the lede of this Anna Holmes piece in Washington Post would seal the deal. Apparently the pink ribbon was a grassroots effort from a survivor; when Self magazine and Estee Lauder asked if they could co-opt it in their campaign, she turned them down, fearing commercialization of her ordeal. But the show must go on: They tweaked the color, put pink on parade, and now we can all buy pink products (with nary an assurance a dime goes toward cancer research).

Economic models: The Economist covers the trend within the modeling industry of hiring "more aspirational young women" rather than the "very young, impressionable models" that have overwhelmingly composed the modeling workforce—think students and do-gooders. I think Sally Davies is onto something when she casually posits (and by "casually" I mean "on Twitter," where she called my attention to the piece) that "Maybe beauty's social premium has gone up everywhere, so industry trades prestige for pay and also creates more internal hierarchy."

Muslim makeup: Halal cosmetics and toiletries make up 9% of the global halal market, and demand may be growing. Halal cosmetics are basically vegan cosmetics with certification, so I'm surprised we don't see more "certified halal" branding. Oh wait, never mind. 

Prioritizing biology: The writer of this Slate piece is talking about Cynthia Nixon's statement that, for her, being gay was a choice—and that that shouldn't matter. But the larger point ties into the idea I was getting into earlier this week: Why do we prioritize biology over all else? In the gay rights movement certainly it was helpful at one point to frame sexual orientation biologically; it helped plenty of people understand that it was no more a choice than heterosexuality is for the majority of the population. But just as biology isn't what makes sexual orientation a perfectly fine way to live, neither do biological tendencies to prefer symmetrical faces or whatever mean we shouldn't question social construction of beauty. (Thanks to Rachel for the link.)

Default browser: Baby boomers buy more cosmetics online than other age groups, which makes total sense to me. I wouldn't buy makeup online unless I knew it was exactly what I wanted: exact shade, exact consistency, exact size, etc. And I'm guessing by the time I'm 50, I'll have damn well figured that out.

 What would the Venus of Urbino look like with a tummy tuck? Find out here.

Photoshopesque: We've heard ad nauseam about how classic paintings depicted fuller-figured women than what we tend to favor now—but this collection shows us, by retouching everything from Botticelli to Velazquez. Yikes! (Thanks to Meaghan for pointing me toward it.)

The loss of addiction: Medicinal Marzipan on the feeling of loss that comes with healing from emotional eating: "I miss the quick-fix, the bowl of beans and rice, the easy remedy that I could provide myself with the contents of my cupboards. Yes, I always knew this fix was fickle and short-lived, but in that moment, cheese solved most problems." It's a painful part of recovery, that sense of loss, but it's important to talk about.

What does "flattering" really mean?: "To me, flattering is another form of size policing and body fascism." I don't entirely agree with this piece at Persephone—I use the word flattering to mean I look how I want to look, and sometimes that absolutely includes concealing certain parts and highlighting others, which, you know, conforms to beauty standards. But the article is thought-provoking, and I know that I make a point to never use "flattering" as code for "It makes you look thinner" when talking to someone else. (So why use it for myself? Hmm.)

Books abound!: Congratulations to Elissa at Dress With Courage for her soon-to-be-published Thrifting 101, and to Kjerstin Gruys, who just signed with Penguin to publish a book about her year without mirrors. Excellent, excellent! 

More of me: Don't believe a word you read about me in Us magazine, the damned vultures. Instead, read these two interviews with me from two excellent organizations: Ma'yan, a research and education nonprofit examining identity issues facing Jewish girls, and Radar Productions, a literary nonprofit founded by Michelle Tea focused on giving voice to LGBTQ experiences. I don't blog much about blogging, because I gather that's not what you're here for, but if you're curious to know more about my thinking on what goes on The Beheld you may find them interesting.

Podcasting: Sally McGraw for Strong, Sexy & Stylish leads a discussion on the connection between looking great and feeling confident. She's pretty much the master of demonstrating why looking your best is a beginning, not an ending, to being your best self, so tune in, eh?

Comfort and style: Decoding Dress continues her series on discomfort and fashion by engaging with readers' comments to surge toward a thesis of fashion and comfort as social control. (Have I mentioned lately how much I think you all should be reading her?)

Have you ever seen a dermatologist?: Courtney at Those Graces asks why we're more willing to cover up our skin than to fix it. Yes, "fix" is a loaded term, but the point is that plenty of women spend money on concealers and foundations instead of going to a dermatologist, when really, if you have a genuine skin problem, that's where you should be going. Is it the paperwork? The hassle? The fact that it's less fun to visit a doctor than play at Sephora?

Like, layperson linguistics, totally: How does your voice influence the ways people think of you? A Valley girl thoughtfully shares her story.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Sister Nancy Ruth, Life-Professed Member of the Order of St. Andrew, Hudson Valley, New York

Paul Hoecker, Nonne im Laubgang von Dachau, 1897

Every time Sister Nancy Ruth turned on the television, a nun would be waiting. “Movies, TV showsjust something about nuns whenever I’d turn on the TV. Every time,” she says. She took it as a calling to become a nun, but her family responsibilities meant she couldn’t live in a convent. “So I prayed about it. I said, ‘God, you know what my situation is. I can’t go into a convent, I can’t be cloistered.’ The very next day, I opened a magazine called the Anglican Digest, and there was an ad for the Order of St. Andrew. He answered my prayer.” She’s been a nun with the Order of St. Andrewwhich allows its brothers and sisters to live independently, hold jobs, and marryfor 17 years, and she became life-professed in 2000. In addition to her responsibilities within the order, she works as a pharmacy technician. We talked about the inherent femininity of a habit, the way our clothes might advertise our values, and where a gal can get a good vodka tonic. In her own words: 

On Femininity
I don’t think being a nun requires you to be unfeminine. I feel very feminine in my habit. I generally don’t dress for anyone but myself, so the idea of going out and trying to impress somebody else through what I wear just isn’t going to happen. Me in a strapless evening gown was never going to happen, whether I was a nun or not. It’s not because I don’t ever feel girly or sexy, but that form of sexiness isn’t going to be who I am.

I’m not sure if I’ve ever consciously tried to feel sexy. I’ve experimented a little bit more now that I’ve lost some weight; I’ve experimented with showing a little skin. Like, I have a dress that shows more cleavage than I’ve ever shown, and it’s a little uncomfortable to wear because it exposes more than I ever have in my entire life. But I found the right undergarment that gives the right kind of support, and I found the right necklace to go with it, one that sort of covers a lot of the area. The outfit isn’t necessarily revealing, but the effect is more intentional than anything I’ve worn before. I’ve survived! People have liked the look.

Makeup depends. Fingernail polish should be clear or very pale when you're in habit. Most of the sisters wear at least foundation. I normally wear eyeshadow, eyeliner, and mascara, but in habit I don’t wear any makeup at all. My eyes are one of my better features, so I like them to stand out. It’s just a way to feel girly, I guess. In the summertime I wear mostly dresses. They’re comfortable and cool without pantyhose, but I also wear them to feel girly. Feeling girly to me might mean a little bit of eye makeup, jewelry, perfume. My hair is short now, but I never had to cut my hair because I was a nun. I was worried about that because I had long hair when I first became a nun, but if you can keep it under the veil you can have your hair long.

Still, I don’t consider myself particularly feminine, at least not that classic Southern belle kind of feminine. I’ve always been very capable and strong, physically too, and I just couldn’t imagine acting like I wasn’t capable for any length of time. But as a nun, the first thing people see is that I am a woman. Having been mistaken for a boy on more than one occasion, it’s sort of nice to be seen as definitively female. Being a nun is a very traditional female role, and it’s an empowering role. People tend to think of nuns as being disempowered, but they’re not, not in my church. About the only thing I can’t do that a priest can is the actual mass, the different unctions, that sort of thing. But I can do sermons, I write homilies. I can counsel if someone asks meit’s not as formal as it would be with a priest, but I don’t feel in any way limited as a nun. Women can be ordained in the Episcopal Church, but I was called to be a nun; I’m not called to be a priest. In college, a professor put the words “I am” on the board and had us finish that sentence three times as a way of defining ourselves. I don’t remember what I put then, but the answer now would be: I am a nun, I am a woman. I am an Anglican would probably be the third one.

On Wearing the Habit
The first time I put on the habit, it was like stepping into my own skin. It was wonderful. The order was probably the very first group I’ve ever felt comfortable with as quickly as I did; within two hours of meeting everybody I felt so comfortable. And it’s still comfortable to be with the order, and to wear the habit. When I put on the habit, it’s like putting on a hug. It almost feels like I’m physically being held by God at those times, more so than when I’m in my street clothes.

I used to joke that I became a nun so I didn’t have to make a choice about what to wear. And there are times when I’d really just rather live in the habit. One of the things I love when we get together as an order is that for four days, that’s all I wear. It’s interesting in those situations because someone will say “sister” and we all turn around! But it’s wonderful because we know each other’s personality more than we know each other’s looks. Depending on when each of us get up in the morning, there are some sisters I’ve never seen out of habit. So you have to look beyond the looks; you have to know the person. It’s a little different with the guysthey’re all wearing habits but they don’t cover their heads, and hair is such a distinctive feature on people. But even with them you get to know the person as opposed to the looks, and it’s a perfect example of how you can be friends with members of the opposite sex, even when you’re both heterosexual. Some of my best friends are brothers.

As a nun I represent my order, and I represent Christ, so there are things I can’t do. Like, I absolutely cannot smoke. It’s not officially written down, but when your mother [in the order] says no smoking… And we can drink, but we cannot get drunk. Our order meets twice a year, and before I moved and was closer to the order I’d fly up. We’d all go to one of the airport bars and you’d see six or seven of us, all nuns and priests, sitting around drinking. That was probably pretty funny to seeus stepping up to the bar and saying, “Can I have a vodka tonic?”

The habit has left me feeling not particularly self-conscious about my body. I’ve never hated my body or anything; I’ve been comfortable with myself for a fairly long time. But I’ve lost 80 pounds since 2009, mostly for health reasons, and it’s a nice feeling to look at old pictures of myself and see the difference. I suppose I feel more positive in that respect. If body image comes into play it’s more that I can say I look good, as opposed to just feeling comfortable. I tend to hide my body a lot, and you could say that maybe being in the habit does that as well, but it’s also like being the only pink bead in a bowl full of black beads. You stand out in a habit. So I don’t really think of it as hiding my body. When I started wearing the habit, I stopped being the fat lady. Instead I became the nun. It frees you up from a lot of society’s expectations; you’re exempt as a nun. You don’t have to be a part of a couple; you don’t have to be that certain societally defined form of sexually attractive. You can be by yourselfyou’re expected to be by yourself, or with a group of nuns. So even though I stand out, I also feel less conspicuous. As a nun it’s not quite as uncomfortable to be alone.

On Modesty
Modesty is a Christian belief, in part because Christianity is about loving God and loving others as you love yourself. Being humble and not putting yourself first is probably the hardest thing a religion asks you to do. But at the same time, you have to value yourself before you can value others. So you dress in a way that shows you value your body, that your body is not out there for someone else to exploit. I see a lot of girls who dress in a way that looks a bit like they’re exploiting themselves. Sex is so much more intimate than whatever you’d wear to a bar. It’s so much more meaningful that I can’t imagine selling it that short, being that blasé about it. Your clothes are an advertisement of yourself: How do you value yourself? Are you modest? Are you for sale? The idea is that if you value yourself as a person, your clothes will reflect that. You’ll make yourself up because you want to feel good about yourself; you won’t wear makeup if you don’t really want to. And you’ll never make yourself up like a fool.

There might be some religious rules about not wearing makeup, keeping your head covered, not wearing jewelrybut that has more to do with showing off and being proud. In my case, I cover my head because it’s part of the habit, sure. But it also takes away from people looking at me as a sexual person. When I’m wearing my habit, I’m advertising that I’m a nunI’m advertising that I’m not really supposed to be seen as a sexual person. I’m supposed to be seen as more of a religious person.

I consider myself married to God. I’m not wearing my wedding ring today; the ring has gotten too big, and my last ring guard fell off this morning and I can’t find it. Nuns in my order can be married, but your very first commitment is to God, before anything else. But I’ve never really thought about dressing for God, because God knows your heart. God knows me naked. He knows me naked physically and emotionally and spiritually. He knows all the dark secrets, even ones that I don’t want to know for myself, and the fact that he still loves me is important. When people say to take pride in yourself, what I take from that is that God created you individually as you are, and you’re a good person, and he loves you as you are. Does that mean you shouldn’t get better? I mean, God loved me when I was 265 pounds, and he doesn’t love me better now that I weigh less. My love for God helped me say, “God made something really good and I’m screwing it up”; I really wasn’t treating my body well. But when you’re talking about appearance, there’s not really any changes I would make for God. I dress in habit, okay. But living as he would want me to liveshowing love to others, being humble, treating others with love and acceptance and patience even when it’s hardI guess that’s how I dress for God.