Wednesday, April 25, 2012


People! It has come to my attention that I, like many citizens of the Internet, indeed need to occasionally unplug. I'm going to take a short break from blogging (like, a week), the idea being that a week spent actually reading articles instead of skimming them, having a chance to replenish my well—and, hey, maybe sitting down with a book and finishing it instead of flurrying off to write up a blog post—will do both my well-being and my writing here some good.

But never fear! You want more Beheld, you say? Yes, I can hear the cries from the mountains to the forests to the oceans white with foam—and as it happens, I've got it, unless you're the rare reader who has gone through my entire archives. This blog didn't get much traffic in its early months, so I'll point you to entries you've probably missed because they were published in The Beheld's infancy:

Also, my Marie Claire essay on ED-NOS is currently on stands, as well as online here. I'll be back soon, ready to rock. Until then, Internet, stay safe, and don't do anything I wouldn't do.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Beauty Blogosphere 4.23.12

What's going on in beauty this week, from head to toe and everything in between. (A couple of days late, apologies!)

From Seat Assignment: Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style, Nina Katchadourian

From Head...
Doin' it Flemish style: Artist Nina Katchadourian makes awesome Flemish-school-style portraits using airplane toilet paper, seat covers, and the occasional travel pillow as accessories. (via)

...To Toe...
Playing footsie: The "whoda thunkit?" chatter on men getting pedicures continues, this time inching a hair toward the idea that maybe it just, I dunno, feels nice? I don't like the bumbling tone of this Daily Mail chronicle of a man getting a pedicure (and the headline, "Should you send your other half for a pedicure?" rankles), but at least it's not trying to paint footsie-wootsie care as somehow strictly medically necessary and therefore legitimately dudely.

...And Everything In Between:
Spending state: "Frugality fatigue" has apparently meant a good quarter for high-end brands like Estee Lauder. But wait! Does this mean the lipstick index could at all be a crock of hype? Naaah.

War cry: What a bidding war over Avon could do to the company's future, merged or otherwise. (But word up, Motley Fool: Did you really have to compare Avon's inflated share price to a woman who doesn't look so hot the next morning? What, you're too good for a makeover pun like every other news outlet?)

It's dude perfume week!: New York supreme court judge orders Prince to shell out nearly $4 million to a perfume maker that made a scent that the artist then neglected to promote as promised. And Donald Trump releases his new fragrance, Success, which features a conspicuously low level of Trump branding. "Some people, they see the name on the bottle and are like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to smell like him.’ " You don't say.

Tour de chine: This piece about American luxury outlets catering to Chinese tourists (who spend about $6,000 on each visit to the States, compared with $4,000 for tourists from other nations) is interesting, particularly because it never points out the obvious: About half the brands mentioned are luxury brands specifically for women. On a side note: How much Advanced Night Repair do you think I'd have to spend to get a tour of Estee Lauder's original office? If I have any wealthy Chinese reader-shoppers who want a tagalong on their next visit, holler!

Bazak: Intricate rundown of bridal beauty rituals for traditional Persian weddings. (Thanks to Zoe for the link!)

Mixed choir: If you enjoyed last week's post on race, identity, and being "exotic," you may enjoy Hapa Voice, a site where people with mixed Asian and Pacific Islander descent candidly share their thoughts on being mixed, and how being visually "othered"—or not—impacts their sense of identity. (Thanks to Savages in Memphis for pointing me to it!) I'm also enjoying Sheena Roetman's piece at The Blind Hem about appropriation of indigenous culture—and if you want more of that, there's always the excellent Native Appropriations blog.

From Princesses in a Land of MachosNicola "Ókin" Friol

Two interesting photo series exploring gender: "Princesses in a Land of Machos" by Mexico-based photographer Nicola "Ókin" Friol, focusing on Los Muxes, or gay men in the Oaxacan city of Juchitan, where their presence is considered good luck. Some of the Muxes make a living in appearance-oriented industries, like cosmetology or fashion design, which is often encouraged by families because it makes them good providers. A separate but thematically related project: "True Men," by Brian Shumway, a portrait series of men who are privately (and publicly?) exploring what it means to be a "real" man. (via Mikkipedia)

Weird science: This piece on science reporting has nothing to do with beauty, but I get all jazz-hands about beauty science studies here often enough that it's relevant. Scientific American takes a recent piece by a seasoned NYTimes reporter about the (not necessarily existent) link between exercise and addiction and compares it to the actual study, and lo and behold, science writers aren't scientists and sometimes get it wrong. And if that applies for pieces that aren't sociologically loaded, what could it mean for science reporting about work that might go against the gender bedrock of society as we know it?

I think I have a Maltese balcony: Normally I'm against christening "troublesome" body parts with nicknames (I never thought twice about my upper rear view until I heard the term "back bacon"). But I admit to being downright charmed by Rebekah's recent find of the 1940s-ish version of the pot belly: the "bay window."

Non/toxic: The willy-nilly nature of cosmetics regulation came into sharp relief recently when it turned out that "nontoxic" nail polishes and other products weren't nontoxic in the least. Virginia Sole-Smith takes a critical look at what's going on.

Context collapse: We can't have a discussion of thinspo without looking at the new ways in which the images that make up their core are spread. Stripped of their original context through sites like Pinterest (which has banned pro-eating-disorder communities) and Instagram, pretty much any photo of someone slender can become thinspo, and Rebecca Greenfield at The Atlantic looks at what that means.

Plus, cool accents: Turns out Europeans aren't just terrifically glamorous at all times including REM sleep, they're also more aware of natural and organic beauty products than Americans.

She-bulk: Caitlin on women who resist weightlifting for fears of "bulking up": "Listen, ladies who bulk up—your bodies are telling you something. Your bodies are saying, We want to be strong, we want to be muscular, we want to be ripped! If your body puts on muscle this easily, it’s because your body wants to be muscular. If your body thought muscle was a bad thing, it wouldn’t build it so easily."

What, me hoard?

Hoarders: This article isn't terribly interesting in and of itself, but I'm intrigued by the sentiment actress Kate Walsh expresses about holding onto old makeup (guilty!): "The biggest tip is to throw out your make-up. I think as women even if we don't mean to be hoarders, when you buy make-up it's just so juicy you're like, 'Oh, I'll keep it forever!' and it's like no, no, no, it all has an expiration date on it and you have to be really careful to get rid of it." I'll hold onto anything until it stops working, bacteria be damned, so don't listen to me...but I do think there's something here about hoarding makeup because of its emotional implications. I don't hoard anything else (well, papers stick to me like glue); even if I had the psychological inclination to do so, I live in a restricted New York apartment so it would be difficult to do so. But makeup—yep, I save it all, and the "juiciness" Walsh fingers here is part of why.

It's what outside that counts: How much does cosmetics packaging matter to consumers? Given that so many products are repetitious, I'd say a whole lot.

"You show them by being more than your looks, even if that’s all people comment on": This "Dear Daughter" letter about girls kicking ass has been making the rounds, and it's a great read. What drives this home for me is the heartbreaking exchange described between the letter-writer's preteen daughter and an adult man who tells her she's pretty. She thanks him, and then—oh, just read it.

Stop in the name of love: Rosie Molinary nails it again, with her signature way of giving readers concrete tools to funnel into amorphous concepts of self-love. At Voxxi: How to put doable, reasonable limits on appearance obsession.

YouTubed: With all the recent buzz about teenagers using YouTube to ask if they're pretty, I'd sort of forgotten about the positive ways young women use the medium. My aunt sent me a link to this photo of a woman doing a half-face makeover (thanks, Michele!), which led me to this video of a makeup tutorial on covering cystic acne. The transformation is dramatic, yes, but what really stands out to me is the honesty here: Acne can have a severe psychological impact on its sufferers, and she's using this space to both provide solutions to its visibility and to sort of educate people on what acne "really" looks like, hopefully lightening the burden of isolation however subtly. (Late addition: It turns out I'm hardly alone in noting the openness of this vlogger; she was on the Today show talking about isolation from acne: "Makeup is what helped me break out of that sheltered period...Confidence is beauty, essentially. You can't have one without the other. And I think that makeup is that gateway for a woman to feel confident until they overcome whatever insecurities they have so that they can feel beautiful with or without." I think it's more complicated than that, but this is an excellent platform to start from.)

"And so modest!": With the rise of modesty-oriented fashion bloggers, The Blind Hem asks if it's a contradiction in terms. "The blogger is showcasing their sartorial talents in the most prideful, vain way possible—endless pages of photographs of their self, of their body, of their gently smiling face staring off into the horizon in that damned ubiquitous field they all seem to live near. They are displaying their selves in a way that screams 'Look at me! Look at what I am wearing! Look at how amazing I am!' In the case of modest style bloggers, they are also screaming 'Look at how modest I am!' We could (and I do) argue that this negates the idea of being modest." I don't agree with the thesis here—I think that when modesty is constructed as being about women's bodies and their inherent licentiousness, it only makes sense for modesty bloggers to apply "modesty" judiciously—but the contradiction is undeniable. Our culture's definition of "modesty" is tricky indeed (note how it's never applied to men being modest in where their attention goes) and the conversation needs to not be binary; this piece does a great job of looking at the complexities and contradictions of the term.

Bobbed: I love it when I see people making an appearance change that goes against what the magazines say is right for their face shape, as Kourtney does here with the big chop for her hair donation. (Spoiler alert: The jaw-length bob! Looks great! Why any magazine would say otherwise is beyond me.)

Royal vision: Danielle continues her series on fashion queens. Up now: Empress Elisabeth of Austria, Eleanor of Aquitane, and Nefertiti.

Pajama party: Terri of Rags Against the Machine is having a virtual pajama party, and she probably won't even freeze your bra. This is also a good opportunity to point you toward her window shopping project, in which she'll be working her way up the class scale of retail outlets to see how far a dollar really takes you. This month: Kohl's.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Conundrum of Body Hair

1933 ad for underarm-specific razor with curves, which I can't believe isn't a thing now.

It’s skirt season again (my favorite), which means the body-hair feminist conundrum is cropping up again. I shave year-round, and at this point I don’t particularly examine the “why” behind it anymore. But it’s a loaded topic, and for good reason: The traditional feminist arguments in favor of performing beauty work fall flat when applied to depilation. It has little to do with fantasy, play, or self-expression; it’s expensive, occasionally painful, a time-suck, and just sort of a pain in the ass (actually, it’s a pain somewhere else). Sally successfully argues for the role of confidence in deciding to depilate—certainly that’s why I do it, more on that below—but in reading comments it struck me how loaded the whole body hair thing really is. And in some ways the answer is obvious, but I still have to ask: Why?

People have been manipulating their body hair for centuries; an excavation of a Sumerian tomb dating from 3500 BC contained tweezers, and there’s evidence of techniques like sugaring (still used today) and quicklime depilation going back just as far. But pit shaving as we know it came about after a Harper’s Bazaar ad campaign in 1915 started up with ye olde pit shame. The idea was, of course, to sell depilation products, but it was also a way of managing the fact that women were now showing more skin than they ever had. If pits were now shown, pits must now be problematized, and if pit-showing meant that women were beginning to think that maybe they didn’t need to be managed in every facet of their life, well, we’d better come up with a way to make sure they had to manage them pits, eh? (We see something similar now with Dove’s “Your Armpits Are Naaaasty, Girl” ads for their armpit-beautifying deodorant.) Leg shaving followed, after an uncertain era of fluctuating hemlines, and as for pubic hair—well, that’s another post altogether.

So I get that body hair policing is a way of adding onto the list of mandated beauty work, and I get that there are certain connotations of youth—dangerous youth, prepubescent youth—that make depilation particularly troublesome from a feminist perspective. But when you think about it, isn’t the whole thing...weird? I mean, most adults are attracted to other adults, not to children; hair growth should be all rights be a symbol of mature adult womanhood. Body hair should be a sign of sex, or at least sexual readiness, the same way evolutionary psychologists want to trot out our cultural fascination with breasts as being about our animal instincts.

Yet unlike breasts and hips and plumped-out lips and breath voices, body hair remains verboten for women because it breaks the ultimate taboo: gender. In my conversations with various women about what beauty work they conceal from partners, by far the number-one item done behind closed doors only is depilation. We’ll let partners see us in goofy face masks, but to let them see us plucking a stray hair—especially if that hair is in a place other than the legs or pits, like, say, the chest or toes—seems a step too far. It’s like admitting that sometimes hair grows on our toes is just a step too masculine, a threat to the status quo, even if that status quo is within a relationship of equals. Body hair contains a threat, and in fact maybe it’s a combination of its embedded masculinity and its embedded female maturity that makes it such. Body hair is thriving proof that gender isn’t entirely binary (testosterone prompts its growth), and it’s also proof that women’s sexual characteristics aren’t limited to just the curves that make such nice statues.

All this is nice rhetoric, but where does that leave us? Well, in going to the post that prompted this one: It leaves us ambivalent. Like Sally, I feel much better when I’m depilated according to my own standards (which, in my case, are legs, pits, and a very literal bikini line, as in everything that would show in a bikini), but I also see, as Sally puts it, the “baggage and hypocrisy” that surrounds it. And I hear the argument about how nothing will change about beauty standards unless we actively challenge them...and then I think about picking my battles, and how this isn’t a battle I’m willing to spend energy on. In fact, it’s a battle that has actually wound up giving me energy once I’ve withdrawn: When I was struggling with a particularly bad bout of depression, I realized that part of feeling so gross on a day-to-day level was that I hated feeling stubble on my legs from not shaving daily. I could either spend even more energy than I already do trying to deconstruct the relationship between stubble and “gross,” or I could just fucking shave my legs and spend my energy—energy I would not have were I to stay in a depressive mode—thinking about the larger picture. Shaving my legs didn’t cure my depression. But it was one of many small things I did to take care of myself, and the more I take care of myself in the small ways, the better I’m able to take care of myself in the big ways, and the better I’m able to care for those around me and give my best self to the world.

There’s also an argument about feminism and body hair that gets lost. It’s actually a non-argument, and it’s this: I’ve never personally known a feminist who has refused to shave her legs or pits because of her politics. I've known plenty of women who don’t do it because they don’t like the act of it, or they have sensitive skin, and I suppose the refusal to participate for those reasons is to some degree political. Point is: There are probably plenty of hairy-legged feminists out there, but in my entire 35 years as a feminist (okay, okay, 34, there was that one year in junior high where I really wanted to fit in), I’ve never met one. (That is, I’ve never known that I’ve known one. And while I could count Rebekah’s Body Hair Laissez-Faire month, I get off on a technicality because it was just a month. It’s not even really a technicality because the point was to examine these issues, not reject them wholesale, so, hey!)

So while body hair has political implications, I suspect that the caricature of the “hairy-legged feminist” is actually more responsible for the intense feelings surrounding body hair than the actual politics of the stuff. (Look at the intense discussion on the three posts Sally has done on the topic for proof of how provocative the topic can be.) I think conversations about body hair are absolutely worth having (in addition to Rebekah's series and Sally's work, I also recently enjoyed this piece on how skipping the pit-shaving actually wasn't an identity act for Kate Conway). I just want to make sure we’re not being “bra-burned” into imbuing it with an importance it might not need to have—and I want to make just as sure that we’re not fooling ourselves into thinking that it’s some sort of post-Beauty Myth “but it’s for me!” act. Yes, it’s for me; my boyfriend couldn’t care less. But I know full well that I wouldn’t have dreamed this up—this irritating, time-consuming, and occasionally bloody act—on my own.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Concealer: Makeup and Addiction

Hope in a jar.

If I use the phrase "addicted to makeup," I'm usually referring to how uncomfortable I feel going out in most social situations without the stuff. The reasons I'm uncomfortable are a post of their own, but they boil down to the same old story: feeling as though what I'm bringing to the table isn't quite good enough; wanting to conceal "flaws." There are plenty of other reasons I wear makeup—and I'm pleased to report those reasons are generally more positive or at least less of a psychological downer—but as far as using the word addicted, that's what I mean. More important, that's how I most often hear it when others use the word.

Reading this interview with Cat Marnell—the beauty editor at xoJane whose extraordinarily candid pieces on her ongoing experirences with drugs are painful, provocative, and radically subjective—prompted me to wonder if there are other forms of makeup addiction. "I'm bad all of the time, and beauty products are fixing me," she told a reporter from New York. "Without beauty products, I would have never gotten through my life. I owe everything to them. They've afforded me unlimited debauchery." The interview took place on the eve of her entering rehab, heavily suggested (mandated?) by her employer; she was apparently high during the interview. "Unlimited debauchery" in that context means something different than it might to a casual user. To be blunt, it means something to be concerned about, not something to slap a extra coat of blush over.

I don't have any personal experience with drug or alcohol addiction, Two-Cocktail Makeovers being about as much of a party gal as I get. But I do know that makeup and other forms of artifice took on added responsibility when I was at my worst with my eating habits, particularly with bingeing: I'd feel so gross the day after a binge that while on one hand I wanted to disappear, I also felt like if I was going to be able to look anyone in the eye, I'd need to look as stellar as I could even if I felt sluggish and uncomfortable because of what I'd done to my body the night before. That's actually why I picked up daily eyeliner in 2009 after years of only wearing it on special occasions; it made my eyes pop, something I'd cling to as proof of normalcy when my eyes sans liner were puffy from poor nutrition.

Now, I still wear makeup almost daily—including that eyeliner that I picked up to help camouflage my problem—and, in fact, I wear more of it than I did during that time. It's not the amount of makeup that's the problem; it was the motivation. I can't say that I'd have sought help any sooner if I didn't have the mask of makeup available to me—but I know that my feelings about makeup shifted when I was at my worst. I went from approaching makeup as something almost businesslike to something desperate. And not to minimize eating disorders in the least, but in my case my problem was neither as physically damaging nor as physically evident as it is for the average drug addict.

I don't want to speculate about Marnell herself, or her experience with addiction. My thoughts here are prompted by the interview with her, but her mental health isn't the point of this post, and I'm not trying to say any of my musings here apply to her. But I'm wondering if experiencing makeup as a much-needed tool to cover one's tracks, even a sort of pass into "unlimited debauchery," is a common experience with drug users. I also wonder if it changes contextually—if women who are into a sort of "glamorous" drug scene (blah blah drugs aren't glamorous, but you know what I mean) would be more prone to treat makeup as a part of the entire experience of drug use than women whose addiction wouldn't resemble a documentary of Studio 54. And what about high-functioning addicts—can cosmetics play a key role for women whose livelihoods depend upon maintaining a drug-free image?

My experience with alcoholics and drug addicts has been limited but painful, and one thing I've taken away from various relationships with addicts is that they are fantastic liars. Makeup itself isn't a lie, but part of its intended function is concealment. In order to get sober, addicts need to stop lying—to others, to themselves. I'm wondering if there are times that makeup actually becomes an integral part of an addict's lie, to the point where an extended sobriety—or permanent abstinence—from it would be beneficial. And at the same time, I'm guessing that if there are female addicts who might take something from "makeup sobriety," there are just as many who would reap the benefits of other intended functions of makeup: self-expression, play, pride. It's hard enough for most of us to know why we wear makeup. I imagine that reentering the world without the numb cushion of using would make it even harder.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Beauty Blogosphere Freaky Friday 4.13.12

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

From Head...
National arch: Benefit, the company that dubbed itself "the brow authority," proclaims April 16-22 National Brow Week, during which all participants are encouraged to grow eyebrows, think about eyebrows, groom eyebrows, promote eyebrows nationwide and globally, encourage safe eyebrow play, host cross-eyebrow communications, heighten eyebrow visibility, facilitate eyebrow sustainability and stewardship, and foster the fundamental rights of all eyebrows.

...To Toe...
Man-icured: Yes, Media, Tim Tebow got a pedicure (as have Charles Barkley, a defensive lineman with the Detroit Lions, the governor of Indiana, and Michael Jackson's doctor). But just in case you thought these dudely-dudes were being (ew!) girly, never fear: These are sports pedicures, and MSNBC is here to assure us there's nothing girly about them.

...And Everything In Between:

Also, it's not common use so I can't put it here but I love this pic of her in her "This is what a feminist looks like" T-shirt, which she sported for both Glamour and Ms.

This is what a feminist looks like: Can we all agree that Ashley Judd is freakin' amazing after reading her forceful rebuttal to "news" outlets that discuss her looks? "That women are joining in the ongoing disassembling of my appearance is salient. Patriarchy is not men. Patriarchy is a system in which both women and men participate. It privileges, inter alia, the interests of boys and men over the bodily integrity, autonomy, and dignity of girls and women. It is subtle, insidious, and never more dangerous than when women passionately deny that they themselves are engaging in it. This abnormal obsession with women’s faces and bodies has become so normal that we (I include myself at times—I absolutely fall for it still) have internalized patriarchy almost seamlessly." Want bonus points? Try reading this as though you're reading a response to the Samantha Brick nonsense, and suddenly the brouhaha goes from being ridiculous to being oppressive.

Blush direct: The direct sales approach seems to thrive in Latin American nations, though the clock may be ticking as citizens of developing economies tend to foster a higher emotional satisfaction from buying from a "real" store. We see this through Tupperware--Tupperware!--and its branching out into cosmetics (illustrated with a bizarre analogy by its CEO: "There used to be a bank robber called Willie Sutton, who when asked why he robbed banks would answer, 'That's where the money is. That's why we did beauty down there"). It's also a reason that Avon is appealing to Coty in the latter company's wooing for acquisition.

The real McCoy: Johnson & Johnson exec Sherilyn McCoy to head Avon, replacing Andrea Jung as CEO.

New face on the block: Dolly Parton starting her own cosmetics line! I'm not even her biggest fan but I respect what she stands for: an unembarrassed, unabashed acceptance of one's desire for taking things over the top. Very curious to see how/if this will manifest itself in a line, or if it'll just be a slap-on branding.

Birched off: Birchbox, the subscription service that sends users a box of curated samples of beauty products once a month, now has a service for men. Men's skin care, yes, but the men's boxes also include "lifestyle" items like watches, which my lifestyle certainly doesn't include, as I go by CMT (Central Menstrual Time). Really, people, "lifestyle" isn't code for "men," nor is "general interest"--not that (industry tangent ahead!) the American Society of Magazine Editors knows that, nominating GQ for excellence in the "General Interest" category while the ladies get their own special ladycategory. This wouldn't irk me so much if onceuponatime ASME hadn't offered excellence awards in categories based on circulation, not theme, meaning that Glamour competed alongside (and beat out at times) other large-circ magazines like Time and National Geographic. But now there are ladyawards and then "General Interest" awards, which is bullshit. /rant  Anyway, dudes! Enjoy Birchbox! (For more on ASME and gender, read Lucy Madison's piece at The Awl.)

"Avonski calling": Why, despite responding well to door-to-door sales, has Avon foundered in Russia?

Say big cheese: "Smile and the world smiles with you" might be true, but that doesn't make it accurate, as per this study about how having high status makes people think others are smiling at them more. How this relates to beauty: When I feel pretty, I tend to think other people are smiling at me more, doing nicer little favors for me, etc. I suppose prettiness is the closest route I have to feeling "high-status": I'm self-employed and don't have a social scene that involves me trying to work my way into some pecking order.

Plastic hassle: Barbie has thrown her hat into the presidential race, in some sort of bizarro Mattel bid for (legitimacy? or just profit?). It's easy to get frowny about this (especially when the press release headline actually reads "Turn the White House Pink," and I'm a pink lady myself), but as Sady Doyle points out, "As far as female presidents go, Barbie is about the most realistic candidate we’ve got."

Leftovers again?: What happens to the lipo after it's been suctioned?

"My beautiful cushy tushy": Naomi Shulman puts her money where her mouth is by sharing how she navigates helping out her daughter's body image by improving her own. "[I]f it’s not enough to stay mum with the self-critique, then I actually have to start to self-praise—and give voice to it regularly in my girls’ presence. Of course, children come equipped with finely tuned lie detectors, so I’m trying to not just mouth the words, but mean them. I tread forth hesitantly. It feels pretty silly—but also a little bit amazing."

Friendly face: The Quaker Oats dude gets a makeover.

Momma don't take my Instagram: This (excellent) essay is about the construction of the aesthetic self through Instagram, social media, and the like, but it's resonant with personal beauty as well in the ways it explores historic notions of "authentic" beauty versus constructed beauty: "What is beautiful to the eye in the ephemeral stream of (mostly) unmediated experience may be different from what is beautiful in its mediated, documented form."

Slimed: Got wrinkles? Put a snail on it! (Yes, I've used this joke before, about frogs and acne. Tell you what: They stop putting critters on our faces, I stop with the rehashed jokes. Deal?)

Bad research of the week: Tulsa is the most beauty-obsessed city in America, says that bastion of controlled research, Foursquare. Listen, I'm a sucker for the whole "people who live in state X are more [insert quality] than people who live in state Y" but really, we can't come up with better methods than Foursquare check-ins? Maybe women in Tulsa are just collectively setting a snare trap for people who use Girls Around Me?

Weightless: Sarah Hepola on how nobody said the word "weight" to her when she lost 40 pounds. It's a variation on what I discovered when I lost a significant amount of weight: That by being in the normal-but-veering-toward-heavy zone, I escaped comments about my figure; when I lost weight, suddenly my body became a free-for-all. (And now that I'm exactly in the middle, nobody says a word again. Hmm.) The point is, women's bodies are open season in a variety of ways, and it's disconcerting to find that out when you've been loosely protected from it.

Hold onto your hats, folks: Research has proven that music videos objectify women. Shocker, I know. But what's interesting here is how different genres of music do it: "While pop videos were more likely to contain sexual objectification related to movement, such as dance and the gaze that is likely to result from dance performance, hip hop/R&B videos were more likely to contain sexual objectification related to styling and dress," says the study's lead author.

Resistance isn't futile: In the first moments of this "Shit Men Say to Men Who Say Shit to Women on the Street" I was all, "As if men would ever say this to other men." But then I watched the whole thing, and recognized that the things I have heard men say or do over the years--"that's embarrassing," "has that ever worked for you?" "You're giving men a bad name"in response to a holler just may be resistance. I don't want men to be my white knight on street harassment, but the fact is, men who are likely to harass women are probably also going to be more likely to hear an admonishment from their bros as what it is. Nice work here.

Attention economy: And for another solid take on street harassment, the Blind Hem looks at how some women might absorb it because we've been taught that attention from men is the only "real" attention out there.

Razor's edge: How do companies shill razor blades seen as durable but not durable enough that you don't need to keep buying blades?

Meet Chandy.

Interior landscape: Long-time readers may remember my interview with artist Annika Connor, whose thoughts on mirrors, self-portraiture, and fascination continue to resonate in what I do here. Something we didn't address directly in the interview was her painting series of "decadent interiors"—which have now been turned into a line of special edition wallpaper and textiles (the gorgeous chandelier wallpaper is my personal favorite).

Brick house: The ever-excellent Sarah Nicole Prickett on the Samantha Brick brouhaha: "Let the delusional older woman think she’s beautiful, christ. It’s not nearly as sad, or as damaging to the sex as a whole, as the other delusional older woman’s idea that she has lost her erotic power (and that 20-year-old girls, who, I’m sorry, barely even know how to fuck, have it all). She would not feel she had lost so much had it not counted for all that, for and against all of us, in our disconcerted female youth." What I love about this response is that it refuses to shame Brick while also refusing to valorize her, instead seeing her piece for what it is: a sort of last refuge of the woman who is confident enough to proclaim her beauty but not confident enough to fully understand the ways the sociological implications of attractiveness are still used as a weapon against women.

Rah rah girls: Why are adult women pretending to be high school cheerleaders? More specifically, what is the lure of the cheerleader all about?

But no rompers, please: How can a grown woman incorporate child-like elements into her wardrobe without looking creepy? One of the few concessions I made to turning 30 was ruling out pigtails (except not really! but I was with my momma, so maybe I reverted to pigtail-age?). Overall I prefer a more mature aesthetic so this wasn't hard for me, but I wouldn't want everyone over 18 to rule out knee socks just because. Sally's guide makes sense to me.

Beauty, sexuality, and the good book: Hugo Schwyzer explores the biblical teachings on lust that we conveniently forgot because they just didn't serve the patriarchy enough. "Because we refuse to take seriously men’s ability to not lust in the presence of loveliness, we shame the great many women who—whatever their other fabulous qualities—also want to be affirmed for their beauty. If every man is 'fighting a battle' against lust, and if few men are capable of distinguishing appreciation for beauty from carnal longing, then every woman who dresses to be validated becomes a traitor to the cause of spiritual purity."

Concealer: Venusian Glow asks how much of your beauty routine you reveal to your partner, something I've been giving a good deal of thought to lately. I think it's as telling the stuff I won't let my fellow see me do (say, tweezing) as the things I don't mind if he watches (makeup, hair); it's like it breaks a sort of code or something.

"Wizard of Oudh": Read this account of oudh, the intoxicating perfume used in Qatar, and tell me you don't want to book a ticket to the Arabian peninsula stat. (via Terri)

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Race, Recognition, and Exotica

This is not me. (It is, however, a Caddo headpiece.)

The central idea behind my examination of the word exotic was hardly difficult to pinpoint: Calling a woman exotic is calling her the Other. And putting women into that category—particularly when there’s eau de hypersexualization wafting about with the method—isn’t something nice people do, agreed? Agreed.

So here’s my dirty little secret: Whenever exotic been applied to me, I’ve...sort of liked it. For me, a white woman who has a not-terribly-distant-but-not-terribly-visible non-European background—American Indian, specifically Caddo and Cherokee—being set apart with exotic can feel like a acknowledgement of my heritage. My ethnicity doesn’t jump out at you, and because of my skin color most everyone would call me white, including myself. But it’s evident enough—my cheekbones, my hair, my yellow-tinged skin—that every so often an “exotic” floats my way.

I really don’t want to undermine the reasons that exotic can be insidious, divisive, and even hurtful; I want to see the microaggressions of exotic disappear far more than I ever want it actually applied to me. But the fact is, whenever it happens I smile, if only to myself. I’m sheepish about this reaction, but in some ways it’s actually in line with my thoughts on the Othering of exotic: It’s a way of identifying its subject as different. Brown women don’t have an option in this, and that’s exactly why it’s troublesome. I have the privilege—the white privilege—of being able to revel in the handful of occasions exotic is tossed my way, for the very reason that women who hear it far more frequently may be fed up with it: It calls out my heritage. In my case, it’s a piece of my heritage that often gets swept under the rug; my pale skin means that while I’m occasionally asked what I “am,” it's not immediately evident that my family tree has branches anywhere but Europe. When the topic comes up, there’s often a sort of post-hoc qualification: “I knew you were something,” or “So that’s it!”

In fact, one of the few times I’ve had confirmation someone has seen my ancestry without mentioning it was when I got a makeover from Eden DiBianco, who, when I mentioned it, just nodded and said she’d known at a glance. Now, as a makeup artist she’s an expert in faces so this isn’t too surprising, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that she’s got experience with this herself—her Puerto Rican heritage is often overlooked because of her skin tone. But our similar experiences led her to the opposite conclusion about exotic: “It’s such a cop-out word. People are so disappointed to find out I’m Puerto Rican because I’m not ‘exotic’-looking enough for them to be able to spot me coming. Apologies for just looking like an ethnic white girl, but sheesh, should I have salsa-ed in with a fruit basket on my head? I hate that word. What am I, a bird?”

So I’m certainly not trying to make some sort of case for exotic; for every not-entirely-white woman like me who finds it a fleeting portal to a whitewashed lineage, there are probably dozens who pick up on its microaggressions and swath of sexualization and would prefer not to hear it at all. What I am saying, though, is that my covert eagerness to hear the word reflects both the shame and the pride I have about my ancestry: pride in being a tiny part of a culture that’s small but vibrant, and shame in feeling that whatever my tribal enrollment papers might say, I’m not “really” Indian.

Being any race is tricky, being Indian particularly so. Are you Indian because of your bloodline? Your culture? Visibility? Self-identification? Tribal enrollment? Skin color? Community? I’m one-quarter ethnically Indian, never lived on a reservation, have few Indian friends, usually check “white” on forms but may sometimes check “American Indian” for the hell of it, and can count on two hands the number of people who have asked me flat-out if I’m Native American. Short of going to powwows, owning a collection of Native treasures both handed down and purchased, and having tribal Caddo enrollment, I grew up about as non-Indian as Indians get.

But hey, I went to preschool—preschool!—on the reservation. The fact I feel compelled to share this illuminates the ways I try to “prove” my ethnicity. I want to distance myself from the “pretendians” with the “Cherokee princess” seven generations back (when will those types learn that Cherokees didn’t have princesses?), whose own lost ethnic identity leads them to cling to some sort of one-drop rule—while not being nearly as eager to claim African American blood, incidentally—for there's a part of me that's afraid my own one-quarter rule isn't much different. (Meanwhile, it’s not like I’m making a big effort to learn about my British heritage—which, while more of a hodgepodge than my Caddo heritage, makes up a far larger piece of my genetic pie than my American Indian blood. Being Indian is more “interesting,” it seems, even to me.) So I’ll tote out my “real” claims to my heritage: the preschool! the tribal enrollment! hey, my great-grandparents met at Carlisle Indian School! my father worked for Indian Health Service for 30 years! I write for an Indian magazine! one-quarter quantum blood! except not really because I’m only one-eighth Caddo and one-eighth Eastern Band of Cherokee except maybe not even that because who really knows who my biological great-great-grandfather was? hey, wanna see my shawl?

Underlying the balancing act of recognizing my heritage without staking a claim that simply isn’t mine is the fact that like indigenous people worldwide, American Indians have a long history of oppression. Meanwhile, I’ve never, not once, faced oppression based on my race (unless you count the occasional conversation with Sweat Lodge Dude who wants to quiz me about my spiritual beliefs). It’s hard for me as a mostly-white woman to write about my heritage because I’ve benefited from white privilege my entire life and don’t want to discount the role of oppression in Indian life, but I also don’t want to frame race solely as a story of oppression or need; fact is, plenty of “real” Indians (whatever that is, I suppose I’m thinking of someone more connected with the community than I am) live lives similar to mine. So you could argue that by being vocal about my heritage but not, like, doing rain dances, I’m demonstrating that oppression isn’t the entirety of the American Indian experience. But I never want to forget that in this country today, it's my British lineage, not my Indian blood, that allows me to walk through the world without bearing the burden of an increased risk of rape, suicide, maternal mortality, diabetes, domestic violence, or poverty. I don’t have to think about treaty and land rights, the legacy of compulsory sterilization, or the tribal or urban Indian health care system. I do think about these things, but it’s a conscious learning exercise when I do, not something thrust upon me without me having any say in the matter.

But what this also means is that in many ways I’m framing race as something others see me as, not as something I experience in my own personal manner. And even in that way, I’m not “Indian enough”: I know shamefully little about Caddo or Cherokee history (though I’m learning), and I’ve never spent significant time in Caddo lands. Whatever Indianness I feel beyond the mere fact of my blood is something I’ve largely conjured on my own, either through research or rumination.

In a way, though, that’s just the point: Thinking about and exploring my heritage is how I experience being Indian. It is an internal experience for me. And so, yes, whenever that experience is externalized—whenever I am called exotic, which, I should make clear, happens only rarely—it’s a brief moment of recognition. And even though I’m usually only called exotic by men, and usually when the context makes me think I’m being sexualized just the teensiest bit, there’s a part of me that takes pride in it; a part of me that usually lays silent is being seen.

The word can feel like a gift, even if it’s not the gift its giver intended. It can feel like a caress from my great-grandmother or a whisper from my great-grandfather, a founding member of the National Congress of American Indians whose internalized oppression bitterly shines through on the pages of his “humor” book, “Heap Big Laugh.” It can feel like a kiss from my grandfather, whose relationship with his ethnicity is a mystery to me but which I suspect is best expressed by the contents of a glass cage that stayed in his home for years: His father’s regalia stays in a frozen display, the intricate work of beads, feathers, and porcupine quills safely separated from the rest of his life.

That regalia is now in my parents’ home, where it is a point of familial pride and is surrounded by Indian art, including gifts my father was given during his long career with the Indian Health Service: sand paintings, beadwork, quilts. Hell, there’s a pipe, though not a peace pipe. I look at his regalia every time I visit, peering through the glass that still keeps it contained. Honoring those who came before us is a key part of traditional Native culture, and as I look at what my great-grandfather wore, I’ve wondered if he’d think I was a “bad Indian” for knowing so little about Caddo life—or whether he’d consider me Indian at all.

There is a postscript here that makes me wonder. I recently learned that my grandfather’s attempt to donate his father’s regalia to the Caddo Heritage Museum was thwarted: My great-grandfather, a freemason, had Masonic designs woven into the pattern. The regalia, from the museum’s point of view, was next to worthless. All this time, I'd been projecting a sort of ethnic purity onto my grandfather out of a need to heighten my own legitimacy, while in his day, he was shaping what it meant to be Native through his own lens. He was less interested in preserving an idea of the past than in bringing his life—not his “way of life,” but his life—into the present, reinterpreting pride both personal and collective and emerging with a Masonic breastplate made of porcupine quills. Heap big laugh indeed.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Thoughts on a Word: Exotic

Exotic is there, not here; them, not us; you, never me. Exotic is warm—hell, exotic is spicy. Exotic is Carmen Miranda, Lola Falana, Lieutenant Uhura. Exotic is Cleopatra, or is it Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra? Exotic is dark and mysterious, but the threat is contained. Exotic is Roxi DLite, Mimi LeMeaux, Jett Adore, and of course Miss Indigo Blue. Exotic is not diffeomorphic to the Euclidean space. Exotic is Early American, Sioux Native, and Ancient Sanskrit. Exotic is Salome and veils one through six. Exotic is one letter away from erotic. Exotic is Josephine Baker. Exotic is a rare fruit, but decidedly never a strange one.

Exotic, in its most basic form, means to belong from somewhere else, stemming from the Greek exotikos (“from the outside”). Only 30 or so years after its English coinage in the 1590s, it came to mean not literally foreign, but psychologically so: alien, unusual, unfamiliar. It was mostly applied to plants and objects for a couple hundred years, until the rapidity of trade gave common people the ability to look exotic through adornment. In the early 20th century, all one had to do to be exotic was dress the part, whether it’s a gown of rose-colored silk or an astrakhan cap, or simply wearing one’s hair in an unusual manner. One didn’t organically look exotic; one became exotic, either through affect, clothing—or, perhaps, sensualism. Exotic dancing to mean striptease has been used since the 1940s, presumably evolving from the term’s general use to mean any wild dance performed to an unfamiliar beat. Add in fanciful, “Oriental” costumes, and one has exotic dance: Mata Hari’s performances were labeled exotic dancing more than 20 years before it came into common use. Even as late as 1947, Life was duly defining the term: “Exotic dancer in the nightclub trade means a girl who goes through a few motions while wearing as few clothes as the cops will allow in the city where she is working.” But the magazine was prescient in its use, applying it seven years earlier to dancer Carmen d’Antonio, who was half-Italian, half-East Indian.

That usage of exotic was prescient in another way, for somewhere along the line, exotic went from describing a consciously cultivated look to describing something its bearer could hardly strip away: race. Exotic became code for dark-skinned women of various ethnicities: black women (Naomi Campbell, Beverly Peele, Sade), Latina women (Selena), Asian women (Tina Chow, Joan Chen). It’s no coincidence that this move happened in the 1960s and 1970s: The shift of exotic from describing costume to describing skin color and features runs roughly parallel to women’s shifting roles in America. If the beauty myth rose to make sure that newly liberated women didn’t get too much actual power and were left pecking around for crumbs, the use of exotic morphed to make sure that women of color didn’t tap into their share of the crumbs. Just as quickly as women of color began to rise in public visibility and power, they were quickly repackaged as sexualized versions of the real women who lay beneath; the same year Shirley Chisholm began planning her presidential bid, the world met Pam Grier. Between civil rights and feminism, someone had to find a way to neither deny the existence of women of color nor be permissive in their bid for power: enter exotic. In 1950, a white woman could don a turban to become exotic; it was harmlessly dashing, a way to pad one’s cage with ornate silk instead of cotton for the day. But once that cage opened up, we were left with a perfectly good word that could serve as a cursory nod to women of color—hell, it’s a compliment, right?—while simultaneously keeping the cage’s door wide open for any exotic lasses who might want to enter.

It’s not terribly hard to see why exotic is problematic: In the States, white women are still perceived as neutral; dark-skinned women are the Other. For something to be exotic, by definition it must be the Other. So with exotic—which is usually used in an ostensibly positive sense, to describe a woman with striking beauty—we’re also looking sideways at its target, the message bearing the subtext of “You’re not from around here, are you?” And encoded in not being from around here is, Your beauty will never match our values. As LaShaun Williams at MadameNoire puts it about the “otherness” of being exotic: “Other than what? The set of standards that define true beauty. She is somehow beautiful without being ‘beautiful.’”

Yet while exotic neatly performs its function of divide-and-conquer, it’s also used to express anxiety about race and categorization, particularly when applied to mixed-race women. And boy, has it ever been applied to mixed-race women: Raquel Welch (Bolivian and British), Salma Hayek (Lebanese and Spanish), Sade (Nigerian and British), Kimora Lee (Korean, Japanese, and African American), Jessica Alba (Mexican-Canadian-American) and Kim Kardashian (Armenian-American) have all been called out as looking exotic, as have multitudes of self-identified black women with mixed backgrounds whose skin may be dark but whose features look largely European (Tyra Banks, Halle Berry).

Certainly exotic is better than what so many ethnically ambiguous people hear: “What are you?” (As Kerry Ann King, a dance instructor whose ancestral tree ranges from Sicily to Africa to the Jewish diaspora, put it, “I’ve always wanted to say, ‘A Gemini.’”) And if the 2011 Allure beauty survey is to be believed, mixed-race women are now not just exotic but downright beautiful, with 64% of respondents saying that people of mixed backgrounds represent the epitome of beauty. This report would be encouraging if it weren’t for what’s encoded in the photo shoot that followed the survey results: an anemic rainbow of mixed-race women who, save for skin tones and full lips, represent the “new beauty.” Being exotic was never really about being different; it was about being different in the right way. Be the Other, but not too much so, 'kay? It’s a point emphasized in Hijas Americanas, an exploration of Latina women, beauty, and body image, in which author Rosie Molinary writes of a friend who once told her she would be “so exotic-looking” if she just had a different eye color. “I wasn’t exotic enough to be interesting,” Molinary writes. “Just different enough to not be interesting.” In fact, today’s poster child for exotic, Brazilian model Adriana Lima, hits exactly that note: tawny skin, a cascade of shiny dark hair, and sparkling aquamarine eyes.

It’s the designation of Lima—who fits the beauty imperative in every way—as exotic that makes me wonder what exactly we mean with the word, and a prolific listmaker who goes online by Kawaii has wondered the same thing. I’m uncomfortable with most discussions that parse out any individual women’s looks with a fine-tooth comb, but the discussion at her list of celebrities who are “Classic Looking, NOT Exotic” is intriguing at points: It brings to light that the definition of exotic could easily go beyond the Other to include what is perceived as truly rare—and that by the list-maker’s definition, Adriana Lima shouldn’t really cut it. Being Latina doesn’t make Lima exotic, Kawaii argues; she’s a classic beauty by Euro-American standards, but has been (mis)construed as exotic simply because of her ethnicity. “Your coloring doesn’t make you exotic, it makes your coloring exotic,” writes our curator. She asks why white women with unconventional features aren’t usually considered exotic—Lauren Bacall, Taylor Swift—supplying her own answer (race is still the defining factor of the Other) but still pressing for an objective determination of what makes someone exotic.

And in some ways, of course, that’s impossible: We define exoticness based on our own perspective, and there’s really no other way to do it, because the very definition of exotic relies upon being unusual. But when we use exotic, we’re making assumptions based not only on our own “usual” but on the “usual” of those around us. Most of us understand that we’re all going to read beauty differently from one another, leading us to deploy terms like hot or cute. But with exotic, there’s a shared understanding: If I don’t believe that your baseline of what constitutes the exotic will be the same as mine, using the word makes no sense. To use exotic is to assume dominance. Exotic says as much about the speaker as it does the subject. Actually, it says more.

For more Thoughts on a Word, click here.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Beauty Blogosphere 4.6.12

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

From Head...
POTUS style: President Obama on styling Malia's hair. Awwww! (via Yoruba Girl)

...To Toe...
For the record, Team No Socks all the way: You Look Fab asks a surprisingly divisive question: socks or no socks?

...And Everything In Between:
What women want: Interesting interview with Revlon marketing executive. "Scientifically, we know that women want colour that stays, things that are easy to use, products that feel light on their skin, don’t crease. But there are some instances where a woman can’t articulate what she wants." Voila, lip butter.

Makeup opportunists: Coty attempts to buy Avon while the latter company is foundering; Avon says Coty's undervaluing the company; Coty may keep asking for Avon's hand in marriage anyway via a hostile bid. Ah, young love!

Check out the nail polish haul: Beauty products are a frequent target of the individual shoplifter, but the busting of an eight-person shoplifting ring based in Austin showed that collaboration yields the same results. Isn't cooperation nice?

Hairy situation: The latest Turkish shampoo spokesman: Adolf Hitler.

Boycott: A major Norwegian retail chain, VITA, stops carrying Ahava products, joining a Japanese distributor in boycotting the company based in the West Bank settlement/occupation of Mitzpe Shalem.

Corny: Corn cosmetics take first place at the Indiana Soybean Alliance and the Indiana Corn Marketing Council's contest about innovative corn and soybean products.

Unlike: Could Facebook be added to other triggers for eating disorders? The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt in Maryland has research that indicates Facebook increases self-consciousness about weight. Last year, Facebook was "proven" to increase self-esteem, so I conclude that in odd-numbered years it's safe to use Facebook. Science, prove me wrong.


It Person: Combine a look at (pangender?) model Andrej Pejic with criticism from Ashley Mears and it's basically my Christmas.

Barber Barbie: Mattel to make bald Barbie to help children coping with hair loss and alopecia, available only through hospitals. (As if we didn't all take scissors to that girl's head at some point or another.) Technically it's a "friend of Barbie," sort of like friend of Dorothy except for kids with cancer?

"It's like shopping!": Interesting piece at The Blind Hem about fashion blogs and the curation of taste: "So, if fashion blogs create a market-space that does not depend on price, then what is the mechanism of competition?"

Make the punishment suit the crime: What sort of criminal sentence would involve not being allowed to carry scissors? One in which the charge was cutting off strangers' hair.

Hungry eyes: Hamburger eyeshadow.

Women's work: I challenge you to read this Sarah Nicole Prickett piece on appearance and female artists, hinging upon Cindy Sherman, without getting goosebumps. "And so much of what is deemed 'women’s art' is really about “women’s work,” which involves not only the work we do, but the work we do to get the work. ... and power free [men] from the pressure to be attractive. I do not think women ever earn that freedom. Sherman, who wears makeup like a mask, has not earned that freedom, and knows it. We know she knows it. In a recent Economist profile, she was quoted mimicking the voice of the male art collector: 'Is she behind that mask? I only want it if she is in there!'"

Extra extra!: Big week in pageant news! The Miss Universe competition is reversing its earlier decision to exclude a transgender contestant, and the Hooker Beauty Pageant was a success last week in L.A. Trivia time! Which pageant did Dave Navarro judge?

Fairest of them all: Liz Greenwood's review of Mirror Mirror, and why it refashioned Snow White the way it did, will undoubtedly serve as a compelling viewing aid for the film—including the unsettling but accurate allusion to aging actresses as being funneled into the role of the aging Queen, with her perilous vanity that has been somewhat refashioned for the film.

Hungry for more: I disagree with what The Last Psychiatrist is saying here about how feminists have basically been faked out into liking Katniss in The Hunger Games, but it's an interesting viewpoint anyway, and since I've unofficially banned myself from further comment on The Hunger Games I'm just eager to point y'all toward smart commentary elsewhere on it. [Edit 4.10.12: Upon further thought, this piece is utter twaddle.]

Samantha Brick: Exists.

Bad science: Hey, remember that study about how strippers who are ovulating earn higher tips? And how quirky and fun and memorable it was? Yeah, the study involved 18 dancers. Tits and Sass debunks.

Sample sale: Will cosmetic sample subscriptions, à la Birchbox, work for women of color? As Karim Orange points out, dark-skinned women often have a more difficult time finding shades that match, opening up the market for subscription services targeted specifically toward women of color.

She scores: Caitlin Constantine on NCAA basketball star Brittney Griner and the gender police. "Our culture expects women’s--and men’s--bodies to be a certain way. People are very invested in the idea that Men Look Like This and Women Look Like That and Never the Twain Shall Meet. Well, guess what? Nature doesn’t give a fuck about your sexual binary."

"The Heavy": I find the case of "the Vogue mom" who put her 7-year-old daughter on a diet and then had a story in Vogue (and now a book deal) about the whole ordeal—including accounts of denying her dinner—just too depressing to get into. But Virginia Sole-Smith and Beauty Redefined are stronger than I and have some great stuff to say. Virginia reminds us that our obsession with weight is what allowed this story to be a story, and Beauty Redefined shows alternate approaches one can take with childhood health.

Plague nails: Passover manicure, featuring locusts, pestilence, rivers of blood, and more!

Shaved: In my corner of the blogosphere there's frequently talk about rebelling against the beauty standard, something we beauty-conscious feminists tend to get all laudatory about. But as this writer points out, appearing to rebel against the beauty standard isn't necesarily what it seems. "If you were to see me now, I look like any other woman. I have long hair, I wear make up, get manicures and love shopping. But that shaved headed girl is always inside, looking out, knowing that our identity is just a haircut away from being taken away." (via Gala Darling)

We wear short shorts: Elissa at Dress With Courage on shorts and sagging knees. "As women, our bodies seem defined by change."

Getting over it: Kate looks at what's behind the phrase "get over it," specifically how it applies to body image: “'Get over it' is a cruel phrase. It means, 'Not only do I not care about how you feel, if you were smarter, you wouldn’t care either.' 'Just get over it' places all of the responsibility on the person being told, and establishes the teller as the authority. It liberates the teller from any obligation to listen."

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Jennifer’s Body, Redux: The Case of the Incredible Shrinking Actresses

I mentioned this in my roundup last week but it’s pertinent to readers here: I penned a piece at Salon about the casting of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss in The Hunger Games. You can read the whole piece here, but the argument in brief is this: Katniss is a prime role for a young actress, one that we knew would assure whomever was cast in the part instant fame—and Katniss’s thinness is not just a part of the character description in the books, but a part of the plot itself. So when virtually every other role written for 21-year-old women is filled by a rail-thin actress, why would Hollywood choose one of its few performers who doesn’t look underfed to play the part? I don’t think it’s just blind casting; I think it’s a message about the dearth of juicy roles for young actresses.

But one thing kept nagging at me about my own argument: Jennifer Lawrence was fantastic as Katniss. She nailed Katniss’s ferocity, her vulnerability, her dance of a child having become an adult too soon. While I think there was something else going on with the producers, at least subconsciously, it’s also hard to make the argument that it should have gone to [insert name of other talented Serious Young Actress who’s had a chance to show her chops in a well-written, complex role—oh wait, there aren’t many, that was the point of my piece]. So when people counter my argument with, “Well, they just chose the best actress for the part”—and when I don’t have a shred of hard evidence to support otherwise—part of me has to agree.

But I think that’s also a bit of a red herring, and here’s why: Talented actresses are asked all the time to manipulate their bodies in order to fit a role. Beyoncé for Dreamgirls, Charlize Theron for Monster, Rooney Mara for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Renee Zellweger see-sawing between Bridget Jones and the other characters she played in the interim: Actresses don’t just get critical acclaim for physical transformation; they get press, and The Hunger Games team didn't shy away from that. (It’s interesting that men seem to lose weight for roles more than women, but an easy answer to that is that actresses are usually so slender to begin with that there’s little weight loss to be done.) Hell, look at the number of ballet-inspired weight-loss workouts that popped up with Black Swan. Talent alone wasn’t enough for Darren Aronofsky to direct Serious Actress Natalie Portman—who was, of course, already whippet-thin—to not whittle her frame for the film. So I don’t quite buy that the producers would have gone with mere talent as the reason to not instruct Lawrence to lose weight to play a hungry Katniss.

Let me be crystal-clear: I’m in no way suggesting Lawrence should have lost weight for this role, and I’m wary of the practice. (Yes, actors’ bodies are their “instruments” and bodily manipulation is a part of the trade, but do we really need to be encouraging performers—actresses in particular—to be even more focused on their weight? I mean, Mila Kunis, who does not have an eating disorder, started mimicking eating disorder symptoms after Black Swan wrapped. What happens to performers already prone to disordered behavior is upsetting to think about.) My point is that it’s not like losing weight to play a character is somehow verboten in Hollywood, and that for a character who is described as underweight and chronically hungry, it might actually might have made logical sense. So the fact that Lawrence didn’t lose weight to play Katniss makes me think that The Hunger Games team had an investment in keeping Lawrence looking, well, normal. Part of that investment might have been to defuse accusations (perhaps from wary feminist bloggers comme moi) of having taken a proto-feminist character and made her adhere to the beauty standard even more than Lawrence—slender, white, angel-faced Lawrence—already does. But I think the larger investment is what I fingered in the Salon piece: Figuratively speaking, they wanted to add more weight to Katniss. And adding physical weight to the character as written was an easy way to do that.

This might seem like a counterintuitive argument, but when I look at Lawrence’s own account of the intersection between Katniss’s frame and her own, I become more convinced that her body became a portal for all sorts of ideas that weren’t really about Katniss as written by Suzanne Collins. “You can’t diet,” Lawrence told UK Glamour. “Katniss is meant to be a hunter; she’s meant to be scary. Kate Moss running at you with a bow and arrow isn’t scary.” (Actually, that sounds terrifying, but I’ll give her a pass.) Decontextualized it’s sound logic, but within The Hunger Games it’s backward: Katniss, hailing from an impoverished part of the nation, should be feeling afraid of the heavier, stronger female contestants from the better-fed districts. The whole point is that Katniss survives through her agility, skill, and determination, not her muscle power—that despite the odds being never in her favor, she embodies the name of the Hunger Games better than any other contestant in the arena. Yes, Katniss could ostensibly have muscle from her outings in the meadow. But it wasn’t Lawrence’s biceps that made her ferocious in the movie; it was the intensity of her performance.

And again, in an ideal world, that’s how it should be. I’d love to think that Lawrence was cast solely because she gave a better audition for Katniss than any other actress could. But Hollywood rarely does blind casting; certainly it didn’t for The Hunger Games (as evidenced in part by the despicable number of people who were not only surprised that Rue was played by a young black actress but claimed that her race made the character less sympathetic—which, I mean, did they see the same movie I did? Or, for that matter, read the same book, in which Rue was explicitly described as dark-skinned?). They were extraordinarily fidelitous to Collins’s books—even minor characters like Cato were cast pretty much exactly how I’d envisioned them. (Except Woody Harrelson, but whatever.)

So I’m tending to think something is up here. But at the same time, I’m wondering if I’m adding to the problem by hinging an argument upon the body size of an actress—whose job should first and foremost be to act, which Lawrence did splendidly. I stand by my arguments but I’m wondering what you think. Was Jennifer Lawrence’s casting in The Hunger Games simply an instance of talent trumping letter-perfect character description? Was there something else going on? Was it a reconception of Katniss as having a different sort of strength—the “she’s meant to be scary” strength Lawrence references? Is this a step toward blind casting? And, on a slightly different note, are there ways to discuss the bodies of specific individuals without making value judgments that contribute to the larger problem of evaluating women for their bodies?