Friday, March 30, 2012

Beauty Blogosphere 3.30.12

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

(The actual story link below is cool, but if I were styling my hair on acid it would probably look more like this.)

From Head...

This is your hair on drugs: What your hair would look like if you styled it on LSD?

...To Toe...
Printer error:
Shoes from a 3-D printer.

...And Everything In Between:
Eau de bigotry: Perfumer and cosmetics heir Jean-Paul Guerlain was fined around $8,000 for making racist remarks on national television.

General assembly: With 90% of Connecticut salons owned by Koreans or Korean-Americans, the state's recent 6.35% tax on manicures, pedicures, waxing, and facials wound up effectively being a tax on the Korean community—and demonstrators gathered at the capitol to protest. (You can support them if you wish by signing the petition on

The curious case of virtuous makeup: When Sara Buntrock went makeup shopping with her preteen daughters, she was shocked at the suggestive names for makeup shades. Enter What's Your Virtue, a lip gloss collection with shades named for various virtues. Curiosity is a "rich mulberry shimmer," Devotion is a "barely there pink shimmer," and Cynicism is a "vaguely exasperated mocha" that wonders what teenage girl would seek out a shade called Kindness when there's Nars Orgasm to be had. (Actually, I'm wondering what teenage girls pay attention to shade names at all. Do they? Whatever, if it fills up stockings this Christmas, fine.)

Big government: You know it's bad when an industry is practically begging the federal government for regulatory oversight, but when you can put lead in lipstick and it's totally legal, is it any wonder that cosmetics trade associations are doing just that? (And in related Encouraging News That Shouldn't Be Encouraging At All Because It's So Basic, we are not smearing asbestos all over our bodies, the FDA concluded after a year of quiet study.)

Babyface: Your baby is ugly. What to do? Put some cream on it!

Note: This is not a turban. I repeat: This is not a turban. It is, however, an open-source photo of Estee Lauder!

TURBAN ALERT: Estee Lauder's turban is on display at the Bard Graduate Center until April 15, along with other milliner delights like FDR's inaugural top hat and the bunny ears Candace Bergen wore to Truman Capote's Black and White Ball. (Side note: I can't wait until I'm 50 because I'll finally be able to wear a turban. I know I'm no spring chicken, but if someone can pull off a turban at 35, well, it ain't me.)

Tweezing on a jet plane: Speaking of Estee Lauder, the company had a great year in 2011—possibly due to its embrace of travel retail, a growing outlet.

Your fingernails, the tiniest screens of all: An overview of movie tie-in beauty products. I had no idea there was an Eat, Pray, Love lip gloss, which makes more sense to me than Hunger Games nail polish. Hey, I get that business is business, but really, what fan of the book would want to wear "Capitol Colors" when even the sympathetic Capitol characters (Cinna aside) are mostly presented as vapid? Speaking of The Hunger Games, it turns out I had more to say than what I did yesterday, and I said it over at Salon. I make the somewhat counterintuitive argument that maybe critics are right to suggest that Jennifer Lawrence's slender but still curvaceous frame didn't really reflect Katniss's situation—but that the point isn't her body, it's the dearth of meaty roles for young actresses.

Fair and balanced: This story about growing consumer awareness of the fair market price of goods is interesting in its own right, but becomes even more so when reading it with beauty products in mind. So much of what beauty products sell is, well, hope in a jar, and there's no market price for that. We may now be savvy enough to know that a pair of jeans is marked up, but how do we know the same about face powder? The mere act of buying it in a fancier store may be part of the satisfaction we reap from the purchase. (via ShyBiker)

Shrunken heads: After last week's look at the visualization of body image, this seems appropriate: a Swedish neuroscientist who probes our visual and spatial ideas of what our bodies actually are, using illusions and perspective. Under his guidance study participants might feel as if they're growing or shrinking, Alice in Wonderland style, or even swapping bodies with other participants. Think of the amusement park applications! (Thanks to Terri for the link.)

Team teen: Mara at Medicinal Marzipan is rounding up the second annual Teen Week, in which bloggers use their sites to speak out about their experiences with body image, sexuality, and self-esteem during their teen years. A handful of my favorite entries: ways to acknowledge that there's no such thing as "normal", Courtney's musings on what it means to be average-sized, Becky on navigating being a big-breasted teenager, Golda on Health at Every Size, and Margarita's tips list of things she wish she'd known as a teen that puts any ladymag "top 10" to shame.

From here to maturity: And on the adult end of the equation, five bloggers ranging in age from twentysomething to sixtysomething write on what we've learned about beauty. I was honored to be asked to contribute my thoughts about what I know about beauty now that I'm in my thirties—and was delighted to see a familiar face speaking up for women in their twenties, Kate of Eat the Damn Cake.

The antipolitics of hair: Five women who fall on various places on the weave/extension/relaxer map share their experiences, and Brittany Julious chimes in as well: "I don’t like the idea that my hair is political and that my existence is the fodder of others. This is a thing we often do in the black community. We tell each other how to live. We live for the community. Our lives are often about what we should be doing rather than about what we feel and desire as individuals." My knee-jerk instinct is that all women's looks are political, black women's hair is particularly so. But it's not my thoughts that matter here, knowwhatimean?

The "lost art" of not looking good: Nuanced, elliptical essay from Charlotte Raven at The Guardian about the signals of beauty work have shifted since they first became politicized in the 1970s. "The decision not to look nice is even more radical [today] than it was when it was first advocated in the 1970s. Now it signals something different – a resistance to commodification." I don't necessarily agree with her end goal—an eradication of beauty work—but her reasoning goes beyond what we've heard ad nauseam.

Sob story: Girls crying on Tumblr. Interesting demonstration of emotions both authentic and labored. Can we add it to the archive of feminist crying?

Ladyspace: Ann Brenoff on salons as havens of female bonding: "For Your Nails Only was what Facebook can only hope to be."

Child's play: Peggy Orenstein couples the "age compression" of non-play-based preschools with the crop of makeup lines targeting children. Her points are salient but overlook the ways in which makeup play really is play. My fantasy sessions with my grandmother's makeup kit when I was 7 had little to do with wanting to look pretty; they were more along the lines of playing house. That said, I was using distinctly adult makeup--certainly using makeup squarely targeting me would have changed the equation.

Male gaze: Dudes on watching not-dudes: "Why does girl-watching have such a terrible reputation? Maybe because it's an act of rebellion." Hahahahaahahahaaaa! Yes, fight the good fight, my friends! You just go be rebellious against that whole world that says women aren't here as objects of decoration! Listen, sir: Nobody is trying to make you stop looking at your fellow humans, and that includes women. We just don't want you to A) be jackasses about it and leer, B) treat us as though that's our primary responsibility here on planet earth ("Beautiful women are like flowers," which, yes, is an actual line from the piece), or C) assume that just because some women play with the gaze and take pleasure in doing so, that means we want your eyes on us every second ("If they don't receive a certain amount of attention, they wither"). Oi! Jezebel succinctly tears the article apart. (I'll probably have a lot more to say about this later but for now I'm still laughing. Rebel cause!)

365 days: What was it like when Kjerstin Gruys looked in the mirror for the first time in a year? (I love the way the "grand reveal" was done.)

Brastrapping: Hourglassy has adopted the cause of Support 1000, an organization aiming to "deliver dignity" to low-income women via donations of new and lightly used bras. They'll have posts throughout 2012 about Support 1000, and this month's is particularly interesting: The dignity of having a good bra is dependent upon it fitting the way it's supposed to, especially for large-breasted women. If so many women who aren't in need are walking around wearing the wrong bra size, what does that mean for women benefiting from Support 1000? Hourglassy is asking readers to brainstorm how to work fittings into the program—thoughts?

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Power, Public Life, and The Hunger Games

Panem map by Aim My Arrows High and Bad Guys.

As a feminist blogger who writes about the significance of the ways we present ourselves, I’m required by law to write about The Hunger Games. This, reader, is that post.

To give you an idea of where I’m coming from, I devoured the trilogy in a week, and endured the three days of slow torture between the film’s release and my having a chance to see it. I’m usually the curmudgeonly snob who comes in and says that anything so wildly popular can’t possibly merit the hype. I read, then filleted, a handful of pages from Twilight; I saw part of one of the Harry Potter movies and felt a wave of gratitude for my IUD ensuring I'll never be forced to watch such things against my will. But The Hunger Games had exactly what I wanted, and once I got over myself enough to admit that Suzanne Collins had squarely and accurately targeted me, I gave in wholeheartedly. In a nutshell: Love the books, liked the movie, don’t think the film would have nearly as much value for those who hadn’t read the books. And my thoughts here probably aren’t anything new, which I’m glad for; I’m thrilled that these books have provoked such levels of cultural analysis.

What I have to sa
y boils down to this (and if you’re determined to avoid any and all plot points until you’ve finished the trilogy, stop reading now): The Hunger Games masterfully explores the division between the self and the public self. We see various ways characters cope with this enforced gap—Peeta doesn’t just grin and bear it but thrives, Cinna plays his cards so close to the vest that it takes two books before we learn what he’s really about, and even Cato (in the movie, at least) is shown as finally questioning if he even has a private self, being trained since birth for his death.

But it’s Katniss’s grappling with the ways she’s presented, both by herself and what amounts to her PR team, that’s front and center. She feels like a failure for not being able to adopt a persona as easily as her fellow competitors (which ultimately winds up working in her favor, as blatantly stated in the third book when everyone does a rundown of Katniss’s Greatest Hits). She winces as she’s shoveled into her evening gown, and what in most YA books would be a “makeover moment” becomes a moment of assurance mixed with stunned fear that she’ll still fail to charm. She’s consistently unsure whether she’ll be able to perform desirability well enough to save her life, and it’s a legitimate fear. (From the first scene of both the book and movie, she breaks one of the key rules of femininity by openly disdaining a cat.)

And here’s what I think is so
remarkable about the trilogy: The division between public and private life is framed through a manipulation of Katniss’s femininity, but that femininity is seen as a means to an end. The books aren’t so much a critique of the construction of femininity as a critique of the ways it serves the existing power structures. It’s a Marxist/anarchist feminist critique, and though I consider myself neither a Marxist nor an anarchist, I’ll say this: The more material illuminating that feminism exists not because men want to keep women down but because the status quo has an investment in keeping people divided and with diffuse power so as to keep power concentrated where it already is, the better. Katniss is taught to use her “feminine wiles,” but those wiles are exposed for what they are: favor-currying tools that keep women scrambling over false power while the real power lies elsewhere. The manufactured Katniss-Peeta romance only gets the pair to the point where they have to rely on their actual strengths—ingenuity, solidarity, and rebellion. The currency of compliant femininity, in the end, is worth little.

This excellent post from Subashini gets into this, 
but from a somewhat different angle; in the same way I’m reading Katniss’s false adherence to conventional femininity as being exposed, she’s reading it as a set of rules Katniss is ultimately punished for not adhering to, “precisely because she has demonstrated what is apparently meant to be understood as an unfeminine lack of vulnerability throughout.” She is punished, to a degree, but again what’s striking here is that constructed femininity is seen as but one expression of subservience to power (the almighty Capitol). The female characters throughout are on various places on the spectrum of conventional femininity: Prim shows a quiet propensity for healing, Clove and Glimmer are primed to mercilessly kill, Foxface uses traditional female strengths of cunning and agility to advance in the game. Their adherence to femininity is secondary to their adherence to the existing power structure: Prim is conventionally feminine but has the bad luck to be born in District 12, so she’s in constant danger of starving to death. Meanwhile, Glimmer and Clove, favored competitors who haven’t had a life of hardship, show few signs of conventional femininity except for their names and their willingness to wear girly dresses at their interviews (which all female competitors do). They’re ultimately punished by their deaths, of course, but given that that’s the point of the Games, I can’t read that as being tied into their gender typing. (Book fans: I’m eager to see how Johanna is portrayed in the film adaptations of the second and third books—she’s the one character who seems to actively and willingly use her femininity to get what she wants, though “what she wants” is ultimately exposed to still be at the mercy of another force larger than her.)

Critiquing the power structure behin
d femininity is a clever ploy on Collins’s part, both as a writer and as a businesswoman, for the simple reason that it seamlessly reveals how women’s issues aren’t solely of concern for women. I couldn’t find information on what the gender breakdown of the book’s audience is, but I can only imagine that a greater number of boys read—and just as important for Collins, bought—The Hunger Games than have read any other book featuring a female protagonist in recent years. (As for the film, the New York Times reported that 39% of the film’s audience in the opening weekend was male.) I absolutely don’t want to devalue literature aimed squarely at girls, so I’m not trying to say that The Hunger Games is somehow better because of its appeal to boys. But not only does it do its part to balance the gender history of great YA lit and expose boys to some feminist issues—that prettiness is constructed, and that serving as decoration isn’t natural to girls any more than it is to them—it also casts light upon the ways our assumptions about day-to-day behavior and personality can be shaped to serve a purpose that isn’t our own. 

It's a lesson in how manipulation of our public persona can wind up muddling our true intent, something that "the kids," boys and girls alike, are now forced to be keenly aware of because of their own ability to create public personae. As Rob Horning writes at Marginal Utility: “It’s not clear even to [Katniss] in the end whether her emotional reactions are real or strategic performances.” One of the trickiest parts of examining emotional work is that it can be difficult to know what we’re doing because we’re expected to do it as opposed to because the situation or our temperaments call for a certain action. The allegory of the games as the constant surveillance of social media makes sense, and Collins skillfully uses the romantic story line to illuminate the ways the manipulation of our own emotions can alienate us from them, which has a long history of being gendered but which is also endemic to the self-branding necessary to social media.

As Subashini pointed out, it’s interesting that Peeta is better at not being alienated by his emotions, since it’s women who are often thought to be both more in touch with our feelings and better able to manage them. My hope is that The Hunger Games can create a chink in that idea, exposing the ways in which calculated self-presentation can muddle what is thought to be innate and true. And the more we all recognize the price of those calculations—not just women, but anyone at the mercy of a larger state power or under surveillance, which is to say all of us—the better we may be able to figure out whether we’re actually willing to pay it.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Enduring Popularity of Tans

Around this time each year—usually a hair later, but, hey, climate change!—I enter the same debate with myself: to self-tan or not to self-tan? After years of studiously avoiding the sun, fervently evoking old-timey movie stars with porcelain complexions as my reason for doing so, I spent time in the tropics a few years ago and returned with a deep allover tan that made people around me say, “Wow, you’re tan.” I freakin’ loved it and promptly spent a small fortune on Jergens Natural Glow. It lasted through the summer, but then the following summer I was faced with a conundrum: I’d adored having a natural tan and didn’t mind keeping it up artificially, but healthwise I couldn’t afford to do it again—I tick nearly every box on the list of skin cancer risk factors. (I’d initially done my best to avoid the sun in Vietnam but when that proved impossible, I threw off the towel and sunbathed for all it was worth.) Did I actually want to start from scratch, building up a “tan”—a tan made up of what amounts to skin dye, I might add—for no particular reason? Did I really want to invest the money and time in a fake tan, for a capitulation to vanity?

So here we are, leg-baring season quickly approaching, and I’m in the same spot again. And as I go back and forth with myself about whether I want to appear tanned this year, I'm asking myself a question that, surprisingly, I haven’t wondered before: Why do we want to look tan in the first place?

rt of the answer, as with many things fashionable, is Coco Chanel. Prior to the designer’s rise to prominence, clothes covered so much of women’s form that a body tan was impossible, and a tan on the face and hands signified what it still does in developing nations: that the tanned person is an outdoor laborer, most likely of low social status. Lily-white skin remained a sign of a lady even after industrialization, but legend has it that when Chanel was accidentally sunburned during a trip to the Riviera and developed a tan shortly thereafter, her new hue took fire as a symbol of all she herself embodied: modernism, luxury, and independence. The episode “coincided” with a shift in the medical approach to sunlight, as the medical field went from regarding the sun as dangerous to seeing it as a cure-all within a span of 30 years. In 1905’s The Effects of Tropical Light on White Men, Dr. Chas Edward Woodruff wrote that “The American girl is a bundle of nerves. She is a victim of too much light,” but by WWI “heliotherapy” was readily used to treat wounds, rickets, tuberculosis. Whatever the case, according to Vogue, “The 1929 girl must be tanned,” and so she was.

But here’s the thing that
’s sort of flummoxing: That was 83 years ago. We haven’t let up since. There have been plenty of developments that have kept tanning popular—the bikini in 1946, the foil blanket in the 1950s, a plethora of tanning aides from “gypsy sun tan oil” in the 1930s to the perfunctory Coppertone baby—and there have been fluctuations in the fashionability of suntans. But since their arrival, tans have never truly gone out of fashion. Even through the enormous rise of awareness of the dangers of UV rays, tanning is, if not a cultural imperative, something we don’t necessarily question. We might swat wrists of friends who bake in tanning beds, but we don’t really blink an eye at self-tanning creams even if we don’t use them ourselves (and up to 46% of us do). Plus, judging by the number of people who complimented my tan after my return from Vietnam, it still holds a good amount of cultural cachet. Since 1929 we’ve given up spit curls, drop waists, and breast binding, but we cling to the tan.

We cling to it in part because its significance hasn’t changed all that much, sure; it’s affluence, luxury, and even though we all know better, health. The idea now isn’t so much that we’re acting as if we’ve spent two weeks at Saint-Tropez but rather that we’re not desk-bound. It’s also the perfect accessory: A tan hits the sweet spot between conspicuous and inconspicuous consumption. It visibly shares that you’ve done something we still connect with leisure and affluence, but without the bourgeois connotations of furs, Jaguars, and jewels. Once tan, you cannot help but be tan; it’s literally a part of who you are. It’s the ultimate expression of “Oh, this old thing?” The dearth of tans among hipsters supports this: In a community definitively marked by inconspicuous consumption, the standards for visibility change, stigmatizing any visible consumption, i.e. tans, more than they would be elsewhere. The activities prized by the hipster community—not that such a thing exists, mind you!—with the possible exceptions of fixed-gear bicycling and rabid picnicking, are largely indoor: art, music, Tumblr. The less tan you are, the more easily you can create the appearance of partaking in these activities. Certainly I don’t think hipsters are avoiding the sun to act as if they’re not secretly 
weekend warriors. But taking the step those weekend warriors might—applying self-tanner or bronzer to advertise one’s proclivities to the outdoors—would send the wrong sort of social message at Chloe Sevigny’s tea party.

Beyond the idea of material luxury, a tan represents that we have the luxury to be connected to both nature and culture simultaneously. Tourism boards use tanning in their materials: “The bourgeois on their Mediterranean beaches can entertain the illusion of learning to love their bodies again as they did in childhood,” writes K.K. Sharma in his overview of the history of tourism. A tan is a message, and the message is that its bearer is a child of nature who has returned to one’s filing-cabinet life bearing proof of the nature connection. The idea of tans returning us to a state of nature makes tanning less stigmatized where more tangible icons of luxury might be sneered at. 

But even with all these reasons for tans sticking around for more than 80 years, it’s still counterintuitive. I’m having trouble thinking of anything that we know full well is bad for us but that we do anyway, for vanity—rather, that we encourage the mimicking of. We might go on diets, wear high heels, quaff martinis, puff smoke rings, or any number of other things that have been glamorized that aren’t so hot for your health—but we’re actually doing those things, not pretending to do them. With self-tanner, it’s like we’re all standing around puffing on electronic cigarettes even if we’ve never touched real tobacco. We all know tans don’t actually represent health and that there’s no such thing as a “healthy tan,” but we don’t really believe it. Rather, plenty of us believe it but covet the tan anyway, and turn to products to help us regain what has been taken from us with our banishment from the sun.

And, as with so many thin
gs about the intensely personal choices we make, it just might come down to this: There is an enormous financial amount at stake in keeping us sunny-side up. Sunblock is a good-sized segment of the skin-care industry (it’s projected to hit $5.2 billion globally by 2015), but so are its cousins: sunless tanning products, spray-on tans, and cosmetic bronzers totaling $516 million annually, not to mention the indoor tanning industry and low-dose sunblocks marketed as "tanning creams." I’d initially thought that the cosmetic approaches to tanning were developed as a “healthy” alternative to natural tans and tanning beds, but actually, various lotions and dyes have been around as long as tanning has been fashionable, for the very reason that a suntan is sought after in the first place: Most of us don’t have unlimited time to lounge around Biarritz (or, today, to lay complacently in tanning beds—which ain’t cheap, even if you’re willing to take the health risks). Mantan, a sunless tanning lotion popular in the 1950s, promised dual action with its “moisturizing” action that “lasts for days without touch-ups!”; even in an era when women were being supposedly liberated from housework with the modern kitchen, time was at a premium.

And we can’t look at tann
ing products without at least glancing at their counterparts: lighteners. Skin lightening creams are wildly popular in Asia; the idea isn’t to look white but rather to look sophisticated and wealthy—an elevation from the peasant class that works outside.The politics and implications of skin lightening call for deeper examination than I can give them here; for now I’ll just point out the obvious: Both self-tanners and skin lightening creams are class in a bottle. Asian women using skin lighteners don’t want to look white any more than I want to look Hispanic when I put on self-tanner; we want to look lighter or darker, sure, but both of those are a route to looking what our cultures deem better. Skin lightening creams are making in-roads in the North American market, with claims about “radiance,” “brightening,” and “illuminating—but the truth is, those adjectives are similarly applied in Asia as well (as I found out when I bought a “radiance” face wash in Vietnam that didn’t strip away my tan but made me look chalky immediately after washing). These are the same formulas, mind you, but being packaged to apply to the inner desires of each culture: paleness in Asia, radiance in America, youth and “rejuvenation” in both. As this excellently reported piece on the rise of skin lightening creams in North America shows, "a brightener is whatever we want it to be."

In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf writes about how the beauty industry attempts to package the radiance each individual brings to the world. “The Rites of Beauty offer to sell women back an imitation of the light that is ours already, the central grace we are forbidden to say that we see,” she writes. If radiance can be bought and sold, in a consumer society that sends the message that the “real” radiance is what comes in the package, while the homemade stuff gets moldy. Add to that the reality that the homemade tan—that is, a tan acquired from actually being in the sun—is damaging to your health (and eventually to your vanity through a leathery appearance), and suddenly the stuff in the bottle becomes even more appealing than run-of-the-mill makeup that just promises to make you look “better.” Eyeliner makes you look more awake, but self-tanner (or lightener, depending on the culture) promises to give you back that light that was originally yours, and it does so in a way that lets you play by the rules. Good girls stay out of the sun, but good girls also look like they get plenty of the stuff regardless. The tan in the bottle—that “Radiant,” “Natural Glow,” that “Sublime Bronze,” that holy protection of the “Bronzing Veil”—gives us an out, allows us to have our radiance without the harm the real deal would inflict. The beauty of it for us is that we’ve figured out how to get that “healthy tan” after all. And the beauty of it for the industry is that we’re paying $8.49 for each opportunity to do so.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Beauty Blogosphere 3.23.12

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

From Head...
Un/covered: Spellbinding discussion among three Muslim women who have varying interpretations of what the Koran's dictate of modesty means, from a woman who wears the niqab (face veil) to the hijab (head scarf) to no head covering at all. (via Sally)

"These vagabond shoes..."

...To Toe...
It's sandal weather! I'm probably the least germophobic person on the planet (somebody's got to save all you germ freaks from the superbugs—you're welcome). But after day 1 of sandal weather and coming home with my feet looking like this, I'm about to admit defeat. I was wearing a maxidress, which apparently makes your feet hideously dirty by tracking in every bit of grit on New York sidewalks. Anyone else dealt with this? Thoughts, advice, help?

...And Everything In Between:
"Political hygiene": Russian opposition leaders are calling for a boycott of Proctor & Gamble products. The company advertises with the second most-watched network in Russia, NTV, which has a history of minimizing Putin's detractors, accusing protestors of showing up at rallies for "free cookies" instead of showing up to make a statement about election fraud.

Story hour: Ads have always told us stories, but apparently we're on the cusp of a literal storytelling ad trend (this piece actually cites "Stop Kony" as an example), with Revlon taking the lead in an upcoming storytelling campaign.

Brazilian blowup: The Brazilian blowout company has settled, as Virginia Sole-Smith reports at The Nation Institute. But as she appends at her own blog, this really, really shouldn't be a story anymore.

Nutty trends: Four beauty industry trends worth noting, including beauty kiosks and incubators like Sephora and Duane Reade boutiques. Plus, "Nut Oil Optimism"!

Avon calling: What is the future of the Avon lady? With the availability of online purchasing, the company's iconic sales force is suffering. As the company searches for a CEO to replace Andrea Jung, the question is whether the new chief will hark back to the days of Avon's direct-sales glory or throw it overboard altogether.

Viva Glam: MAC, o MAC! You do things right and I get suspicious, and then you appear to do more things right and I'm left sort of admitting that you're awesome. I knew about MAC's Viva Glam lipstick campaign, which gives 100% of its proceeds to AIDS/HIV work. What I didn't realize was that it also strongarms its retail partners into donating their cut, and that it's specifically ramped up efforts in developing nations, which need funding the most. This video with the senior vice president breaks it down.

Mao, Andy Warhol, screenprint, 1972

Empire: Nars Cosmetics takes a cue from MAC and releases a collection based on an art icon: Andy Warhol. 

Lone gunmen: Aaaaand speaking of art-inspired makeup collections, there's always Estee Lauder's Mad Men collection, which, like, ugh. I'm a huge fan—of the show, not the collection; I'm inclined to agree with The Gloss about the questionable message that packaging an era that wasn't so hot for women into a product designed for men. Anyway, Amanda Marcotte's theory about the lawnmower incident being a metaphor for the Kennedy assassination is put to video here—absolutely worth a viewing, though it might make you jones even more for the show's return on Sunday.

Model citizens: Israel becomes the first country to pass a law regulating the body mass index of models and requiring visible notices of photo retouching when the effect makes the model look thinner. Other countries have passed resolutions about this but no laws as of yet; am eager to see how/if this effects bodily satisfaction of Israeli women and men.

Girly men: Saudi Arabia is suspending visas for foreign salesmen in lingerie shops in order to force businesses to comply with the recent edict that only women could hold these positions.

Hear, hear!: Want to give the FDA a piece of your mind about cosmetics regulation? The government body is having a public meeting May 15 to discuss regulation, particularly international consistency.

Dr. Awkward: Eager to read more from this Alberta researcher who is studying women in changing rooms (locker rooms, dressing rooms, etc.). (via Imp Kerr)

Also, stethoscopes: Wearing a lab coat may increase your attention span. What I take from this is not so much that we should all wear lab coats all the time (though may persuade you otherwise) but rather that the idea of "dress for success" might have more worth than we realize. (via Rebekah)

No 'shopping: The Economist's cultural arm, Intelligent Life (like the mag, but am I the only one who thinks that title is pretentious as hell?), is featuring Cate Blanchett sans Photoshop on its latest cover. (This isn't a first; Marie Claire did the same thing with Jessica Simpson in 2010.) I cynically tend to think that airbrushing is the least of our problems, but seeing Blanchett's face, which is glowing and lovely as-is, makes you wonder why the industry relies on it. Intelligent Life gives their two cents: "Publishers want a recognisable person on the cover, with a real career; but they also want an empty vessel—for clothes and jewellery and make-up, which often seem to be supplied by the advertisers with the most muscle." 
We are all cyborgs: Nokia applies for a patent for magnetic tattoos that would vibrate upon electronic activation. "Examples of... applications may be low battery indication, received message, received call, calendar alert, change of profile, eg based on timing, change of time zone, or any other." Also, as of next week, this blog will appear strictly in binary code 00101110010011110100101100111111

Expression and self-love: The truly fabulous Gala Darling, who gives workshops on radical self-love in five-inch heels, gives a sort of manifesto on personal expression, beauty standards, self-love, and societal expectations—and manages to do so without a whiff of judgment. "Some women say that if we wear lipstick, we’re only doing it because society has told us to. I would argue that the woman who tries to buck society by NOT wearing lipstick is just as influenced! No one exists in a vacuum, & almost all of our decisions are effected by external sources. ...I also don’t believe that policing other womens’ choices moves any of us forward."

Missing the point: Apparently this story about Jennifer Aniston's beauty routine, which I linked to last week, was being taken literally by that rigorous arm of research and reporting known as celebrity journalism. Yo, nobody was claiming that Jennifer Aniston literally spends $8,000 a month on beauty, and the idea that this is something she's supposed to refute is nonsense. The point of the original article was that this is how much her routine would cost in aggregate—many of the items were one-time deals (like the nose job), and let's not forget that as a celebrity, much of this stuff is foisted upon her whether she wants it or not. The point isn't that Jennifer Aniston steals money from starving orphans for her skin cream; it's that the mass of stuff Jennifer Aniston needs in order to look like "Jennifer Aniston" is ridiculous. 

Going nude: As I've written before, I'm sort of ambivalent about what going without makeup means. But I support projects that seek to untangle the essence of makeup by having regular users of the stuff go bare-faced, so I'll be keeping an eye on The Naked Face Project—no makeup, no shaving, no primping, for 60 days.

The medium is the message: From Danielle at Final Fashion, why fashion bloggers are more like designers than critics: "Great bloggers are brilliant at expressing themselves through images and words—just like the most successful designers are. Media is not used to translate reality in an informative way, instead it is used to bring their personality to life in the imaginations of an audience. ... As a blogger myself I find the entire process to be far more intuitive and artistic than it appears—it comes from inside you."

Firm investment: What do we really mean when we say something is an "investment piece"? As Sally points out, we wear pajamas every night, but only rarely are they considered an "investment piece": "It seems that the idea of an “investment piece” is linked to visibility and status as well as quality and use."

Long tail: Darlene at Hourglassy offers a bit of hope that the "long tail" of niche markets might trickle down to clothing sizes. As it is now, the customer is bearing the risk inherent of new markets (if large-breasted women are considered a "new market"—I suppose the market is actually large-breasted women who want a proper fit finally). Could that change with time?

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

I Dream of Deenie

I was recently diagnosed with a medical condition. I’ve got a mild case of it, but it brings a few troublesome complications regardless, nothing serious. And as one might well do, the first thing I did when I got home upon receiving my diagnosis was Google it to learn more. The list of symptoms included what took me to treatment in the first place, a good number of troubles I don’t have, and a surprising entry: poor body image. The diagnosis? Scoliosis.

Now, if I’m being officially diagnosed for the first time at age 35, obviously my scoliosis isn’t terribly problematic. I was monitored for it as a child (do they still do those annual scoliois screenings at school? It somehow seems like a remnant of the ’70s, like the Dorothy Hamill haircut) but it was so mild that it barely qualified as scoliosis, and it didn’t warrant treatment—certainly not intervention like surgery or a brace. Basically, my muscles compensate for my wonky spine, running me through varying degrees of pain; I treat it with exercise, occasional ibuprofen, massage, and masturbation. (Deenie in da house!) In other words, it’s not a huge deal, and it’s not something that weighs on my mind a lot.

But there it is, that symptom far down on the list—below the physical pain, below the visual cues—poor body image. There’s a whole body of work devoted to studying the psychosocial effects of scoliosis, particularly in adolescents, but it boils down to this: Something about your body is “wrong,” and chances are it’s not something you ever thought was a problem, and you really can’t do much of anything about it. Wearing a brace may or may not have an impact on patients’ body image, but there’s evidence supporting a correlation between scoliosis and body image, regardless of treatment.

Now, the people being studied aren’t people like me: I’m an adult, for starters, and one with a very mild case of scoliosis. Though I’ve been told repeatedly by chiropractors, tailors, and osteopaths that there’s something irregular about my form, nobody until recently has used the word scoliosis about my body since the sixth grade. Whatever body image problems I have come from the usual suspects—perfectionism, media, growing up girl—not my spinal curvature.

But it’s not hard for me to see how my body image has shifted ever so slightly in the past few weeks. Part of it was the pain that drove me to seek treatment; it’s difficult to feel like your body is something to be proud of when you’re wincing whenever you take off your shirt. But more than that, I’ve learned that—and this is an unkind term—I’m misshapen. I found myself complaining of feeling “broken” and “twisted”—words I’ve never used to describe myself. Whenever I’ve had a problem with my body, there’s been a part of me that has known it’s in my head, because the concerns I had were solely about about how I appeared. If I thought my thighs were unappealing, there was still a part of me that understood that "unappealing" was subject to interpretation. With a twisted spine that was causing me pain—that wasn’t in my head, that was in my bones.

But in a way, whatever feelings I had are beside the point here. My literal body image—that is, the visual projection I have when thinking about my body—had shifted as well. My new mental drawing of myself was small, dropped onto a large white canvas, drawn in a combination of pencil and ink, and, yes, crooked. In my head, I went from looking somewhat like this:

(No, I do not look like Suzuki Beane in my head; she is far cooler than I could ever wish to be. It's just that Louise Fitzhugh is a far better illustrator than I am.)

to looking more like this:

Most of the time when I refer to body image, I’m really referring to negative self-talk. The image part doesn’t come up much, not for me; I’m pretty sure that my actual mental drawing of myself is reasonably spot-on. Even at my lowest, I don’t actually envision myself with elephantine thighs or a ballooning waistline; it’s more that I see roughly the same body in my mind that I saw the day before when everything was fine, but suddenly it’s unacceptable for one reason or another. I can dissect that all I want, but what it comes down to is that the interpretation of the image is what’s poor, not the body image itself.

But with the specific and decidedly dysmorphic shift in body image that accompanied my diagnosis, I’ve become aware that there is a body image living inside my head, one that’s plastic and that can shift according to new information it receives. And I don’t necessarily have any conclusions as to what this might mean, because in my case I don’t think my mental projection is erroneous. (Yes, I recognize that that’s sort of the point—that the very idea of body image means that you don’t think your mental projection of yourself is erroneous. I’ll never know how close my mental image actually is to the real deal. At least not until brain scan image projection is a helluva lot more developed, and when that happens I am using all my brain scan image technology to be able to put my dreams on YouTube.) It was only when there was new information presented—the information about myself as someone with a spinal curvature that causes me some troubles every so often—that a disconnect appeared. (For the record, once I recognized what was going on I felt fine mentally, and physically it’s really not a problem now that I’ve learned some corrective exercises.)

I guess what I’m wondering here is A) What the “image” part of “body image” means to you, and B) How your body image is affected by medical conditions that have nothing to do with weight or conventional attractiveness. (You could argue that severe scoliosis affects conventional attractiveness, I suppose—but hell, Marilyn Monroe was rumored to shave half an inch off one high heel of each pair to lend a sway to her step, and I've got that naturally, so I’m at an advantage here, oui?) Do you have an actual visual image in your head of what your body looks like? Is it in a distinct medium—like photography, drawing, animation, video—or is it too indistinct to single that out? Does the image change? Do you think your body image matches up with what’s really there, in a visual sense if not on the level of judgment/perception? Could you draw or otherwise externally project your body image? And have you ever found your body image being formed by things outside the normal trajectory of body talk?

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Transcendence of the Makeover

Makeovers are such a staple of movies targeted toward teen girls that it’s almost beside the point for me to call out specific examples. (Oh, fine, since you asked for my favorite movie makeover: Fran in Strictly Ballroom. Remember, though, I was a theater geek in high school so I sort of don’t have a choice here.) They’ve gotten sort of a bad rap over time—yeah, they send the message that we’re not really lovable until we fit a certain standard, and they set up the idea that the record-scratch moment has to happen or we’re doing it wrong. And it’s obvious but let’s say it anyway: How many actresses who aren’t conventionally good-looking to begin with are cast in these roles?

But Hollywood keeps on making makeover movies, and girls keep on loving them—and frankly, I keep on loving them too. As Rachel Rabbit White puts it in her roundup of the best makeover moments, “While there’s plenty to tease apart there culturally, it’s hard not to love a good geek to chic makeover montage, especially the rebellious or ill-advised.” (Word up, Prozac Nation!) Part of the fascination is projecting ourselves onto the character: What would we look like with enough attention from a small battery of dedicated team players (with a sassy gay best friend to boot!)? The chance to make ourselves over unapologetically is part of the enduring lore of prom movies too; for adult women, weddings supplant prom as our chance to “play
pretty,” judgment-free.

But our fascination goes deeper than just our own wishes to be made over—after all, we project ourselves onto movie characters all the time, so the makeover is hardly unique in that sense. At first look it seems like we’re collectively into the idea of transformation: changing into a form we’re not. The more I think about it, though, what we’re after is transcendence—going beyond, rising above, triumphing. That’s what is so satisfying about a good makeover movie: not seeing our heroine change into something new, but seeing so
mething revealed through change.

It’s rare that I ever wanted to look like anyone other than myself. Even in times of my life when I was unhappy with my appearance, the changes I wanted to make were tweaks to what I already had, not an essential change in form. In my fantasy-dream-makeover world, I look like myself, except plus or minus a number of things that are too boring to list here (#6: remove the colorless mole half an inch from my left nostril that nobody else has commented on, ever). And while I’m not trying to overestimate the resiliency of the self-esteem of the American woman, in talking with a good number of women about beauty, only rarely have I heard a wish to actually look like someone else. Most of us, most of the time, don’t wish to transform; we wish to transcend.

We wish to transcend the features that we think have held us back. We wish to become better than our troublesome thighs or inconvenient nose; we wish to triumph over what those features have personally meant to us. We wish to outdo ourselves, with what we already have—and if we want to outdo others, chances are we want to outdo them with what we have instead of what we don’t (isn’t that more satisfying?). In some ways it’s the basis of body image and self-esteem work: The entire idea is to go beyond, not to change essential composition. And despite the attention paid to women who do actually transform, much of the time that attention is done with a clucking tone, the undercurrent being: Honey, why don’t you learn to work with what you’ve got? There’s much to be critiqued about that form of judgment, to be sure, but at its heart is a well-meaning but harshly misdirected desire for our Heidi Montags to be more like our Jennifer Anistons. Isn’t the moral of most makeover tales that the makeover only helped its owner articulate what was already there? (Isn’t that why we have the term makeunder?) Transformation is linked to transcendence, yes, but the compositional change required by a transformation seems to me to be a route to the greater goal of transcendence. The focus on the tangible aspects of makeovers—the eyeshadows and push-up bras and blending of lipsticks—is understandable, given that transformation is an easier concept to look in the eye than transcendence. But our fascination with makeovers can’t be about the tools alone. They wouldn’t have such a hold over us if it were just a
bout the outer shift.

It’s fitting that the person who got me thinking about transcendence is the author of several books about what one might call transformation at first glance. When I interviewed my friend Carolyn Turgeon last year, amid a thoroughly appropriate amount of mermaid talk, I also asked her about makeovers. Her second book, Godmother, gave the fairy godmother’s account of the most famous makeover of all time, Cinderella; her third, Mermaid, delved into the oft-literal pain that transformation can bring, with our protagonist (whom you may know under another author as “The Little Mermaid”) bearing the sensation of knives slicing her legs with every step. You can revisit the interview here, but this part in particular stuck with me:

There are definitely makeovers in fairy tales. … I love powerful moments of transformation. I even have a tattoo of Daphne turning into the laurel tree. When people long to be something else, it speaks to this basic human condition of being earth-bound and longing for transcendence. There’s that Platonic sense: You were once whole, and now you are not whole anymore; you long for that wholeness you once had. You fell from the stars and you want to return there. Or just your plain old Catholic thing of wanting to return to God. Whatever name you put on it, there’s this longing to return to some sense of wholeness that you came from and that you’ll go back to someday. So my characters are longing for other worlds, places where they’ll be more complete.

This idea—wanting to be whole again—stayed with me as I read her new novel, The Next Full Moon. It’s a young adult book, carrying on the YA-lit tradition of outer transformation echoing the intense bodily transformation of the early teen years, but the hook here isn’t a makeover per se. Nearing her 13th birthday, our heroine, Ava, begins to sprout feathers, which of course are terrifically mortifying, and the book follows Ava from the feather-freakout stage to, well, transcendence, in every sense of the word. (I don’t want to give away the plot, but Carolyn’s turn of phrase from our interview “You fell from the stars and you want to return there” was a hint of foreshadowing.)

Just as teen makeover movies abound, YA makeover books aren’t exactly new. But what The Next Full Moon does is give us the essence of the makeover without the actual making over. The Grimm Brothers (and their many sources) gave us a handy template with Cinderella: Girl gets makeover, girl gets boy, sisters get eyes pecked out by birds. It was so handy that while plenty of feminist scholars have deconstructed Cinderella, we still keep going over the same old ground without asking for a new makeover tale. Turgeon takes the end goal of transcendence and creates a storyline around it in a way her fairy-tale precedessors never did. Just as Gregory Maguire’s Wicked took the underlying themes of imperialism and cultural autonomy already present in Wizard of Oz, The Next Full Moon takes what’s inherent in plenty of fairy tales—supernatural means of becoming our best selves—and distills it to its essence.

The story is original, but it stems from another set of fairy tales: Swan maiden myths have shown up in various forms throughout world folklore (they’ve earned their own spot on the Aarne-Thompson folk tale classification system), and in fact there’s another contemporary retelling that got some attention last year. The story that became Black Swan was originally set in the theater world but Darren Aronofsky specifically decided to place it in ballet, and I don’t think it’s just the good girl/bad girl theme that made Swan Lake a fitting choice of framework. In the film, Nina isn’t just encouraged to find her internal “black swan”; she’s encouraged to go above and beyond her mere technical talent to truly inhabit the role—to make it, and herself, whole. Both Black Swan and The Next Full Moon marry swan maiden myths to a chrysalis tale, each of our heroines emerging from transcendent experiences with a knowledge they didn’t possess before. They’re both changed by their experiences (as any good makeover should do, natch), but in each case they’re only discovering what is already there. I’d hardly recommend Black Swan as a metaphoric tale for teenagers on the cusp of young adulthood (I think the film works best as a horror flick, actually), but the ease with which The Next Full Moon presents the essence of the makeover without the breathless pandering of shoddier makeover moments makes me wonder why we haven’t seen more inventive YA retellings of transcendence. (The answer, of course, is that Miss Turgeon is a visionary, but that’s beside the point.)

Straight-up makeover tales aren’t going anywhere, nor do they need to. I just want us to keep our eye on the prize here: The goal is not to change, the goal is to reveal. And makeovers don’t actually make us transcend, of course. That’s part of why we both love makeovers and fear them—what if we look in the mirror and we look different but are still the same? A makeover doesn’t make us complete. But given that most of us aren’t secretly swan maidens, fairies, mermaids, or even werewolves, the makeover is the closest thing we’ve got. It’s an immediate, albeit brief, stand-in for the longer, harder work of transcendence, which often requires such unglamorous tasks like study, or meditation, or spiritual communion, or plain old age. And when you’re 13, everything feels so urgent—you’re in a hurry to grow up and transcend this damned acne-ridden, retainer-bound form. Makeovers are a fine shortcut. But we need to remember what they're a shortcut to.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Beauty Blogosphere 3.16.12

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

From Head...
The Blago: What will disgraced former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich do about his hair in prison? "According the Federal Bureau of Prisons commissary list, Blago's choice of hair products will be limited to a choice of shampoo—Pert, Suave, V05 or Head & Shoulders." Also, blow-dryers are banned in the joint because they can be jimmied to do tattoos.

Brazilian payout: Brazilian blowout manufacturer GIB agrees upon a $4.5 million settlement after the public outcry over the discovery of carcinogenic formaldehyde in its formula. (Hats off to No More Dirty Looks for being the first to break this to a lot of people, yours truly included.) Stylists will receive $75 for each bottle of product purchased; clients who assert they've been harmed by the process will receive $35 for each treatment, up to three.

...To Toe...
Ask a Plumber: ...about installing a home pedicure spa. (As a perennial urban renter, this seems outlandish, but then again, so does having a porch.)

...And Everything In Between:
Fight like a girl: Olympic boxer Mary Spencer on her CoverGirl modeling stint: "I think what’s important is that we put on a good performance and break the stereotype that girls can’t fight." Not sure how modeling for CoverGirl is going to help that stereotype; seems more like an attempt to show that one can be "girly" while still being fierce, making me wonder how much pressure individual boxers are under to make their sport more of a spectacle, what with the skirt suggestions last year.

Color me curious: Clinique has hired a social media marketing firm. "This is news?" part of me asks, but it could signal a potential shift in color trends: Right now makeup color trends are decided basically by the annual color show in Paris (as my beauty editor interviewee puts it, "I swear to God, I think it’s one person who decides it all"). So if these firms are good at their jobs, we could be seeing more grassroots color trends, going by, I dunno, Tumblr theme colors?

Printmakers: Where do "tribal" prints really come from? (via Final Fashion)

St. Makeup: Cosmetics line founder gives "makeovers" to abandoned religious statues in shuttered churches.

I only have eyes for you: Thoroughly freaked out by "eye-gazing parties," a speed dating arrangement where instead of chatting, you stare into people's eyes. There's no doubt in my mind that eye-gazing prompts a certain level of bonding, but who wants to be bonded to a total stranger? The power of the gaze is strong—particularly for women, I think—and I can't help but wonder what sort of weird dynamic this sets up. (via Will)

Man mascara: I'd wondered why so many stories about men's cosmetics were coming out of Korea, and now I know why: Korea accounts for 40 percent of the world's high-end male cosmetics market.

Chess code: New dress regulations in the European Chess Union, dictating skirt lengths and cleavage. Click-through bonus: amazing headwear, halfway down. (via Feminist Philosophers)

Russia's 2012 Eurovision winners.

Babushki: You wouldn't know it from looking at the U.S. media, but there are female entertainers over the age of 70 who aren't Betty White. Meet Buranovskiye Babushki, six grandmothers who constitute Russia's Eurovision entry, with dance tune "Party For Everybody." This is the group's second attempt at representing Russia in the annual competition; their 2010 third-place song was "Dlinnaja-Dlinnaja Beresta I Kak Sdelat Iz Nee Aison," which, in case you don't read Udmurt, translates to "Very Long Birch Bark and How to Turn It Into a Turban." (Which, let's face it, I'd love to know.)

What women want: Boomer women say that skin protection and looking healthy trump looking younger and pretty—but skin care ads still go for image-related messages. The survey authors seem to be saying this means that the skin care market for women over 50 should shift their messaging, but it's not exactly like that market is lackluster. I'm guessing it's more that women over 50 miss the effortless look of health that came 30 years prior. (I say this as a 35-year-old woman who doesn't want to look any age I'm not, but who realized six months after her 30th birthday that the "tired" look that had befallen me wasn't exhaustion but age.)

What happened when Sally Adee was hooked up to electrodes: "I felt clear-headed and like myself, just sharper. Calmer. Without fear and without doubt. ... I can’t tell you how stunning it was to suddenly understand just how much of a drag that inner cacophony is on my ability to navigate life and basic tasks. ... Who was I apart from the angry little bitter gnomes that populate my mind and drive me to failure because I’m too scared to try? And where did those voices come from? Some of them are personal history, like the caustically dismissive 7th grade science teacher who advised me to become a waitress. Some of them are societal, like the hateful ladymag voices that bully me every time I look in a mirror. Invisible narrative informs all my waking decisions in ways I can’t even keep track of."

Fitness at every size: Congratulations to Ragen Chastain of Dances With Fat and Jeanette DePatie of The Fat Chick for the successful launch of Fit Fatties Forum, a discussion board stemming from a Health at Every Size perspective, which—I mean, the last time I went to a fitness class the instructor kept yelling about how many calories we were burning and how "those of you who are happy with the way you look can keep it at the level you're at now. The rest of you BETTER STEP IT UP," which I think was supposed to be...motivating? In any case, being able to discuss fitness without the assumption of weight loss as a goal sounds fantastic, and here's the place to do it.

Makeup, the Musical: War Paint, Lindy Woodhead's chronicle of the rivalry between Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, has been optioned as a Broadway musical. Ten bucks says one of the songs is called "I Blush to Admit."

Also, wearing green on Thursdays: About-Face asks why it's remotely okay to sexualize M&Ms. The Beheld asks if this is what 12-year-olds across the globe were anticipating with the claim of green M&Ms making you horny.

xoWTF?: In my rush to defend ladyblogs, I specifically left out mention of xoJane, which has some good content, and which also horrifies me on a weekly basis. Dude, when you have a piece from someone with a history of an eating disorder being all, "You know, juice fasts are sort of great!", you are no longer being honest or subversive; you are the problem. (I'd link but don't want to traffic-feed what the team there knows full well is a problem that needs addressing. Jane Pratt has played her last Jane Pratt card, and I am no longer interested.) Anyway! Maura goes beyond the fairly obvious points I'm making here to get to the crux of the problem.

"Cute shoes": What's the difference between fashion taste and sartorial judgment?

Video star:
Just because one YouTube "am I pretty or ugly?" video turned out to be a hoax/art project doesn't mean all of them are, and an expert in this piece on the trend asks whether posting these videos is a modern form of self-mutilation. Virginia questions that, however: "Almost every teenage girl, for as long as we’ve had teenage girls, has asked “am I pretty or ugly?” And honestly, I don't know where I stand. Obviously these are horrifying, but they're just a more visible form of a very old problem. But...manalive, they really are visible. I want to trust that 13-year-olds will develop the skills to navigate these questions, but I literally cannot imagine the impact of having people tell me that I was ugly at that age. It just seems to be opening the door so much wider into the symbiotic relationship between bullies and the bullied. I have no idea if this means more girls with shaky self-esteem can get the...what would you call it, negative affirmation?...they're craving, but it certainly makes it easier.

Tenure track shoes: Hilary Levey Friedman on leaving academia—and frumpy shoes, as advised by her colleagues for interview suitability—behind. "I wanted to wear fabulous high-heel shoes all the time, especially after wearing those boring flat, black boots to the interview, having two professors comment on them, and still not getting the job."

"I think I'm beautiful": The number-one link people have sent to me is Lisa Bloom's article on not praising little girls for their looks. It's a good piece, but overlooks probably the #1 thing any of us can do to help girls navigate their way through a beauty-obsessed world: being comfortable with yourself. Amanda's approach gets to the root of it: "I've started telling my girls that I think I'm beautiful."

"Doing it wrong": From Korean American Annie Koh: "I’m not troubled by doing femininity wrong in America. There’s more variety for one (indie vs. glam, San Francisco pigtails vs. Los Angeles coif). ... But I take it personally in Korea."

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Kjerstin Gruys, Ph.D. sociology student, Bay Area

When I initially met Kjerstin Gruys online, my first thought was: There’s another one! Several weeks before I did my own month without mirrors, Kjerstin had launched a project going a full year without them—the same year in which she was getting married, incidentally. (No, she didn’t peek on her wedding day.) A Ph.D. candidate in sociology, Kjerstin has focused much of her academic work on body image and eating disorders. But her years in the fashion industry as a merchandiser for Abercrombie & Fitch, and then GAP Corporate, were hardly an aside: Her dissertation on the shifting standards of clothing sizes merges her passions of body image, cultural body imperatives, and fashion. The best way to get to know Kjerstin’s work is following her blog, Mirror Mirror Off the Wall—and reading her upcoming book chronicling her yearlong adventure, slated to be published by Penguin in 2013. But she also took the time to share some candid thoughts with readers of The Beheld. We talked about the creative self, the role of trust in body image, and what singing alone in the car has to do with mirrors. In her own words: 

On Scales vs. Mirrors
I first really became conscious of body image and women’s issues in late high school to early college. I had anorexia, and in going through the physical and emotional elements of treatment, I had to carve out an understanding of how our culture kind of shaped my experience. Having an eating disorder, you’re always aware of your own body image, but it’s not until you’re recovering that you’re really forced to take a step back and realize that you have to question a lot of assumptions.

In recovery I had to gain weight and I couldn’t get on the scale, couldn’t know the number; if I got on the scale I’d have to check in with my physician or whatever. But I just had to trust the process. I had to trust that I really didn’t feel comfortable with the numbers going up, and I had to trust that the process of recovery was at some point going to get me comfortable with a larger number. In terms of recovery there’s a lot of self-monitoring and constantly asking myself whether my behavior is in line with my values or with my disease. And luckily the past four or five years the values have won out over the obsession.

So when I started this project I had to consciously think: How am I going to do this in a way that I know is healthy? I didn’t want it to make me feel more symptomatic and paranoid, so I actually had to make the decision to get back on the scale more frequently to make sure that my paranoia that I’m constantly gaining weight has a logical answer. I’ve had to get back on the scale, and I felt kind of ambivalent about that. But now I’m very pleased because it’s not worse—it’s better. In one sense the project has made me say, You know what, good enough is good enough. And that is actually a shift of my values. I’m still very perfectionistic at times, so there’s been a step back from perfection, which is great. But there’s also a sense of trying to find something else to quiet my questioning mind that’s scared about not knowing what I look like in the mirror. It’s possible that I still have some dysmorphia about what my body is, and avoiding mirrors sometimes allows my imagination to run wild. And getting back on the scale has helped me not be dysmorphic about that. Getting on the scale most days of the week keeps me more in tune with what’s going on with my body, which is important if you have a history of ignoring your body!

On Vanity and Pride
At some point I looked up the definition of vanity. It isn’t caring what you look like; it’s caring too much about one part of yourself. The definition actually had “too much” in there, which obviously is subjective. An outsider can decide that somebody is vain based on their own ideas, but the person herself might not actually feel that way. There’s no one way to figure out what is too much, although I think that people who are particularly vain are often not very fun to be around—vanity causes one to be very self-absorbed. Not intentionally, but that’s what vanity is. Vanity can be totally destructive to intimate relationships.

I can say without apology that an eating disorder is one of the most vain things you can experience. I’m in no way saying it’s a choice. But an eating disorder totally warps your whole sense of priorities, even in people who hide it very well. I don’t think someone can feel fully recovered if they’re only eating properly. Behaviors can change, but if there’s this thing—like weight or food—that is the most critically important thing for them to monitor in their lives, that’s where vanity comes in.

But vanity itself should be distinguished from pride. Having pride in your appearance is a wonderful thing. I wish all women were “vain” in that sense—in taking pride in their looks and enjoying what they see in the mirror—without that subjective idea of putting your appearance higher on your priority list than spending time with your loved ones or being flexible with your routines, whether that’s eating different foods, or trying a different look with your makeup or whatever. I have friends who won’t go camping because they’ll feel so humiliated wondering what they look like without makeup and mirrors. And I myself have a little mini mirror and cosmetics that I usually take with me camping, so I can try to look like I’m not wearing any makeup when I really am. I guess you could say that my no-mirrors project isn’t an attack on vanity itself. But it’s definitely an attack on mine.

I’m a little worried that I’ll be disappointed in what I see when I look in the mirror again. [Note: March 24 will be Kjerstin’s unveiling—if you’re in the Bay Area, check out the “First Look” party she’s throwing with media literacy group About-Face to celebrate body positivity.] I was like, What if I develop this really positive sense of what I look like, and it’s not actually what I see when in look in the mirror for the first time? So I’m scared about that—that would be a little bit sad and scary to go without for a whole year and finally look in the mirror and be like, Oh, I liked myself better before I was looking in the mirror again. But my hope is that I will kind of be in a good place when that happens and even if I look in the mirror and I’m like, “Eh, it’s not really what I expected or wanted,” I’ll at the very least feel like it isn't the most important thing in my life. That, and I know I’ll be excited to finally experiment with makeup again, and I’ll certainly do some shopping for new clothes. No amount of research or activism will ever dampen my enthusiasm for a shopping trip!

On Existentialism
Sometimes there’s almost a sense of numbness when I’m all by myself, without the mirror. It’s this sense of: Who am I, what am I? What is this experience? I’m thinking, I’m conscious, I can see my hands and feet, I’m typing on the computer, I’m petting the cat—whatever it is. But what am I? I can’t look in the mirror to see what I am. It’s made me realize that I used to use my reflection as a form of companionship and validation. So having moments when I think of these questions have been very bizarre.

One solution for those times (of feeling existential) has been to use something sensory, like scent, to signal one of my five senses to really experience the world instead of just being there. That’s helped me feel a little bit less like somehow I don’t exist. I’ll talk to myself, I’ll sing along with Pandora. I’m someone who doesn’t mind being alone a lot, and I really love driving in the car, listening to music on the radio, and singing at the top of my lungs. And I’m like: Okay, before I started being conscious of not looking in the mirror, being in the car and singing by myself never felt like an existential crisis. So I tried to kind of bring some of those things back, whether it’s feeling my toes on the carpet or smelling perfume or tasting chocolate. It’s like: Okay, I exist. I’m experiencing something sensual and I have an opinion about it. I’m not just a computer giving input and giving output. It’s weird realizing that simply seeing my reflection in the mirror was, in some ways, very grounding.

At one point I had a head cold, and I had no sense of smell. It was depressing. I’d figured out how to put on makeup without looking at myself, but being able to smell the product had actually been pleasurable for me, and not being able to see myself or smell the products left me feeling numb. I get a lot of pleasure about using scented products in the shower; if anything I found that since giving up mirrors I’ve become a bit more snobby about wanting to use more luxurious products, even though I try to avoid spending too much money.

On Trust and Self-Expression
So much of my issues with body image and not being a certain weight or certain size had to do with refusing to believe anyone who loved me when they’d say I was beautiful. I distrusted everyone, and I had my own sense of standards and disappointments for approval. It’s like if someone said, “I think you’re beautiful,” I’d be like, “Well, you’re either lying to me or you have bad taste.” That’s such a selfish side of yourself, and it’s interesting to see how difficult it is to give that up. I think most women struggle with this a bit. We’re supposed to be modest and not boastful, especially about looks—heaven forbid you say that you have a bangin’ bod! Normal women, if you compliment them, it’s like, “Oh, this old thing?” or “Well, maybe I look nice today but I’ve gained weight lately” or stuff like that. But with the mirror project I’ve really had to trust people, and myself. You start realizing that maybe this vision you have in your head about what you “really” look like—this idea of, “Oh, you might love me and think I’m beautiful, but really I’m not”—is faulty. Giving up the mirror is giving up the idea that your own image of yourself is the only image that’s real or even meaningful.

It makes you think about what purpose your appearance really has. If my relationships are healthy and the people around me are treating me well and telling me that I look good enough for them to love me, and respect me, then why is my own critical vision of my appearance so important? I’m still struggling with that question. I do think it’s important to have a sense of self, but I’m starting to see my sense of self as being more about self-expression and creativity and less of a status thing, or about being too much of this or not enough of that. And in a way it’s a little bit constrained right now because of not being able to look in the mirror—I mean, right around the time in my life when I had started to think that my sense of self was an expression of my own creativity and sense of fashion and play, I’m not as able to do these things. But it’s something I’m looking forward to enjoying again when the year is over. It’s such a great thing to miss! It’s totally different from being paranoid that I don’t look good enough; it’s that I miss something expressive and creative, and I know that this is a really great step in the right direction for me.

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