Thursday, May 31, 2012

You Really Got Me

I have a regular Mad Men date on Wednesday evenings, which is a fantastic way to have good conversation about the show, but a poor way to blog about it since I’m three days later than everyone else. But this week’s episode was so chock-full of material on erotic capital, beauty, and power, that I’m going to jump in anyway. Do I even need to say there are spoilers here? There are spoilers here.

If Mad Men were a less nuanced show that hadn’t worked hard to win viewers’ trust over the years, this week’s episode might have seemed hamfisted. We have Peggy Olson, the show’s stand-in for feminist career gals, leaving Sterling Cooper Draper Price for greener pastures, or at least pastures with more greenbacks; in the same episode, we have Joan agreeing to sleep with a client, at his explicit request, in exchange for a partnership at SCDP. Joining the two is the winning Jaguar campaign tagline, concocted with the idea that the sleek, expensive, finicky sportscar is akin to a mistress: “At last. Something beautiful you can truly own.”

The idea behind erotic capital (at least how it was presented last year with the deliberately provocative book by Catherine Hakim), is that men suffer a sexual deficit because women have lower libidos than they do, so women can leverage their allure with men in order to raise their “value” in all sorts of market, including the workplace. So if you champion erotic capital, you’re really championing the idea that men just can’t help themselves when the right girl is around. She’s the one who’s really in control, can’t you see? And it’s this idea—that in the face of a beautiful woman, men supposedly cede all their power—that’s at the heart of the Jaguar pitch. With women, even if you control the purse strings, they’re really in control. With a Jaguar, finally, you get to own it. Truly. The ad isn’t an endorsement of erotic capital; it’s an admission that nobody comes out ahead under that system, which is why you need actual consumer goods to fill the gap it creates. But by playing it up—this idea that even though mistresses are “impractical” and “temperamental”and maybe even “lemons,” it’s only “natural” to want to to possess them—the presumed male consumer comes out feeling as though he’s won, even though in reality, any way you play it, he’s lost. It’s a beautiful illustration of capitalism and patriarchy—and screenwriting, because Mad Men gets to have it both ways here. You can see the prostituting of Joan as a tsk-tsking endorsement of erotic capital, or you can see it as a tragic critique of the ideas it embodies. You can see Joan as being the “beautiful thing” that is now owned, or you can see her as deploying her erotic capital to secure her financial future with the knowledge that she’s coming out ahead in the long run, or you can see Don’s pitch as an acknowledgment that there’s a certain kind of man who spends his whole life trying to make up for his inability to own the creatures he covets (and which men in that room aren’t that sort of man?)—enter Jaguar, stage left.

Throwing a wrench in this whole thing is Lane Pryce. My primary argument against the idea of erotic capital as just another form of capital has always been that it keeps power in the hands of people who already have it. I’ll be very curious to see if Joan is financially rewarded for following Lane’s advice to ask for a partnership instead of a good deal of cash (a very good deal—more than $355,000 in 2012 dollars). Given that we know and like Lane but also know he’s been more than a little shady, his moment with Joan is meant to be taken as being both in good faith (for Joan’s protection) and selfishly motivated (for his own protection). We’re not yet supposed to know if Joan’s deployment of erotic capital was a smart financial move, which, for the moment, keeps the focus on the other issues surrounding the choice.

And one of the primary issues about Joan’s choice—for the viewer, anyway—is what message we’re supposed to get by comparing Joan to a very expensive car that someone can “truly” own, “at last.” The comparison is blatant, but I don’t think the two are actually being equated: The point here is that nobody can be “truly” owned. That’s why it’s an effective advertising campaign; that’s why it has to be boy-wonder Ginsberg instead of Don Draper who comes up with it. In the first scene of the episode, we see Ginsberg rolling his eyes at the sleazy mistress comparison; he’s on board but thinks it’s hacky. Later we see him express contempt for not only his colleagues (who are salivating over the woman crawling on the table) but for the idea that Megan can interrupt a meeting, coming and going “as she pleases,” which inspires the winning tagline.

We don’t know enough about Ginsberg to really know his machinations. But he’s pointedly ignoring a half-naked, self-exploitative woman when his creative wheels start turning; whatever regard he has for female beauty, it’s not going to be showcased in this situation. The best writer in the room sees Megan and her friend not as beautiful women but as something else: interruptions, distractions, perhaps threats. So I don’t think his eventual pitch is an admission that we all just want to own beauty. We want to capture beauty, sure—an offshoot of our desire to replicate it—but capture is not the same as possession. The desire to own beauty is less about beauty itself and more about fear: fear that if we don’t own something, cage it, it will not only escape, but it will overpower us. That sounds like less a rapturous affair with Beauty itself and more like the kind of misogyny that masquerades as romance. Beauty here is a stand-in for women—all women, not just beautiful ones, or perhaps women who exist under capitalist structures (which today is all of us), of which advertising is the apex. Whatever Ginsberg thinks about women or erotic capital, he knows how to play it to the hilt, making him a sort of surrogate for the actual Mad Men writers here.

I’m also struck by a certain word choice in his winning tagline. What he comes up with: “At last. Something beautiful you can truly own.” And at another key moment, the end of the episode, we see Peggy’s triumphant exit to the opening strains of The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me.” Really, truly: These are words used to strengthen the point, to communicate that no, for real, this time we mean it—we swear. These strengthening words need to be used because the listener has been failed so many times before. You thought you were going to own something beautiful, but you couldn’t; you thought someone had gotten you, but you were wrong. There are two levels of ownership, of “getting” and “owning”: There’s what you think you have, and what you really have, and SCPD (or Ray Davies) is here to tell you which is which. So in actuality, “really” and “truly” here, instead of being speech strengtheners, are speech weakeners. They contain an overassurance, a placation, a soothing of the soul—a technique Joan might have used with a weepy secretary onceuponatime, with just the slightest hint of honey-coated condescension. And I don’t think it’s an accident that these speech weakeners are used here in two key spots, because of what they’re both emphasizing: erotic capital, and erotic dominance. The song in particular has layered meaning: It’s an admission of someone’s power over another, but who exactly are we talking about? Has Peggy “got” Don? Has the ad world “got” Peggy? For a song that’s a paean to the ways women supposedly control men (“You got me so I don’t know what I’m doing”) it’s interesting that it’s used here, with Peggy’s exit, in an episode many would say is about anything but women controlling men. Even Megan, whose balance of control with Don has been a theme this season, is chastised as doing “whatever the hell [she] wants.”

A handful of reviewers have suggested that Peggy is the one who emerges as the only independent woman of this episode, the only who who isn’t “truly” owned by someone else. I disagree wholeheartedly: Yes, Peggy is autonomous in ways that Joan, Megan, and Betty aren’t, but the point of this episode (and in some ways, the entire show) is to show the complexities of autonomy and ownership. Megan can afford career autonomy because Don is paying the bills; Joan, who essentially told Roger to buzz off when he bugs her about helping out with their son, is painted as having made the decision to sell her time only when the price really is right.

The moment when Don kisses Peggy’s hand is a clue that the female roles in Mad Men aren’t so clear-cut as to be Joan = erotic capital, Peggy = feminism, Betty = feminine mystique, and so on. The first time we saw Don’s and Peggy’s hands meet, it was in the very first episode of the show, when Peggy awkwardly places her hand on Don’s, letting him know that she was available to him in any way he wished. Don, of course, refused her advance. As viewers, we quickly forget about Peggy’s confused, fleeting bid for Don’s sexual attention, in part because Peggy and Don themselves appear to forget about it. But it’s there from the very first episode of the show: At one point, Peggy was basically willing to prostitute herself in order to secure power. She would have been paid in sleeping-with-the-secretary currency—a city apartment, or perhaps the home in the country that Joan herself alluded to when she lays out what Peggy could have if she “really” plays her cards right.

So while Peggy is clearly representative of the enormous gender shifts about to happen historically, to pit her in opposition to Joan here is too simple. It’s not a matter of Joan’s personality or character that she agrees to the Jaguar plan. (This would be true even if sex work itself were a matter of “character,” which it isn’t.) It is a matter of age, opportunity, and, as we got reminders of this season, upbringing. Joan’s mother raised her to be admired; Peggy’s mother, as we see through her clenched-jaw protestations about Peggy moving in with Abe, raised her to be valued. It’s ironic that one response to this episode is that Joan, through being admired, winds up being quite literally valued, while Peggy, through the valuation of her work, walks away from Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce with our—and Don’s—admiration.

For as show as popular as Mad Men, it’s interesting that there haven’t been tons of memes and quizzes going around along the lines of “Which Mad Men character are you?” (Searching for “Which Sex and the City character are you” brought up ten times the number of Google results, for the record.) But it’s deeply textured episodes like this that show why, despite our collective eagerness to commodify Mad Men with our SCDP avatars and our Banana Republic styles, we haven’t jumped headfirst into saying which characters we identify with most: We are all Peggy. And we are all Joan.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Life at 36: Anne Bancroft, Phylicia Rashad, Reese Witherspoon, and Me


I had a birthday over the weekend, and it’s the first birthday I’ve had where I’ve been remotely tempted to be coy about my age. I’d never understood why anyone, particularly a woman, would lie about their age. I’d heard the classic story about Gloria Steinem quipping to a reporter upon being complimented for looking good for her age, “This is what 40 looks like. We’ve been lying for so long, who would know?” While I loved the story, her reasoning made such innate sense to me that I actually had a hard time grasping its actual importance. Why wouldn’t you claim your age, especially if you’d taken care of your health and pride in your appearance? Why would you say you were younger and risk looking “okay” for, say, 35 but fantastic for 40? It’s not like lying about your age actually makes you younger, after all; it just gives you something else to feel ashamed of.

I’m not ashamed of my age, to be clear; I’m 36 and wouldn’t go back to my twenties if you paid me in rainbows. Still: As of Sunday, I’ve felt the slightest twinge of hesitancy about saying my new age. I’d never lie about it, nor will I avoid the question, but for the first time I’m at the age where I understand the impulse to do so. It’s easy to dismiss such thoughts as vain twaddle at 28. It’s a hair harder as I inch toward 40.

When I turned 30, people around me took delight in saying, “Forty is the new 30,” the idea being that where our parents supposedly had all their shit together by 30, the perpetual adolescence we GenXers had carved out for ourselves meant we had a whole added decade in which to do so. The larger import of this statement is about things beyond the scope of this blog—the ways we’ve reconfigured work, family, geography, careers, the idea of success itself. But there’s something else lurking in the idea of 40 being “the new 30,” and the phrase that keeps coming to mind is, We look younger than our parents.

When I was in college, the hot new face belonged to an actress named Jennifer Aniston, who, at age 25, had found herself with the coveted Rachel haircut and a hit TV show. Thirteen years after my graduation, who do I see on magazine covers? A 43-year-old Jennifer Aniston. And a 39-year-old Gwyneth Paltrow, 36-year-old Kate Winslet, 42-year-old Jennifer Lopez, 42-year-old Tina Fey, and 36-year-old Reese Witherspoon—all of whom were big or rapidly on their way there when they, and I, were in our 20s. Add to that the 38-year-old Elizabeth Banks, 33-year-old Rachel McAdams, 32-year-old Zooey Deschanel, 33-year-old Kate Hudson, 38-year-old Heidi Klum, 37-year-old Christina Hendricks, and 36-year-old Angelina Jolie, and it gets harder and harder to believe that Hollywood truly does fetishize youth as much as we say it does. Yes, there will always be the 18-year-old Dakotas and 22-year-old Kristens, but we’re in an unprecedented age of mature women being construed as alluring in the mainstream press. Julianne Moore is 51. Want to know who else was 51? Rue McClanahan, when The Golden Girls first aired.

Part of this, I’d like to think, is a broadening definition of what beauty and allure actually are, or at least an acknowledgement that women of a certain age have plenty of both, without anyone needing to fetishize the fact that they’re not 22. Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson wasn’t only sexy for an older woman; she was just plain sexy. But there’s something else at play here: People today look younger than people of the same age did a generation ago. Bancroft was 36 when she played Mrs. Robinson; Elizabeth Taylor a mere 34 as the aging Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. There are some technical reasons for this, starting with the greater knowledge base about aging we have available to us today. I may have spent my early years thinking of a tan as being “healthy,” but by the time I was a teenager the anti-sun brigade had thought to add “premature aging” alongside “skin cancer” on the list of reasons not to sunbathe. Same with not smoking, getting my omega-3s, and exercising—I may well have done these things regardless, but vanity is a pretty big motivator.

But the larger reasons are generational. With delayed marriage and childbearing—and, of course, the increased acceptance of saying no to either or both—comes a loosened idea of what adulthood itself really is, and its subdivisions are looser still. Age is just a number, but not because of what that Hallmark adage was designed to signify. It’s “just a number” because our conception of youth and aging is relative. There’s no such age as “old”; we collectively decide what “old” means, and within that we collectively decide upon the million variations of oldness: old enough to know better, too old to dress that way, old ladies. And because it’s relative, it’s always shifting, often without our consent. So the idea of a 40-year-old woman looked like one thing when I was 20, and another thing to me today at 36; what’s more, had I been 36 in 1982, a 40-year-old woman would probably have looked quite different than my conception of a 40-year-old woman today. There is no Platonic Form of a thirtysomething woman; she must be relative and known to us through cues and sensations, not as some pure ideal of Thirtysomething Woman. Her template changes all the time: Not all that long ago, it wouldn’t be terribly unusual for a woman my age to not only be a mother but a grandmother. More recently, Jacqueline Kennedy’s pink suit and “helmet hair,” forever memorialized as the distraught First Lady, belonged to a 34-year-old woman; Meredith Baxter-Birney and Phylicia Rashad were 35 and 36, respectively, when Family Ties and The Cosby Show hit the air. It’s hardly a surprise that when I want to dress conspicuously adultlike, I often find myself reaching for clothes that recall another era, one with lines drawn more strictly for women versus girls—my tailored pink Jackie O-style sheath, my surprisingly demure leopard-print dress with a 1940s cut.

Of course, all those are things I can change—my clothing, my hair. My face, not so much. I’ve done many of the things that one is supposed to do for “anti-aging” (a nonsense term if there ever was one). But so have most other 36-year-olds, so all that my efforts mean is that I look like other middle-class 36-year-old women in The Year Our Lord 2012, instead of looking like I might have as a middle-class 36-year-old in 1971. Collectively, we’ve decided that today’s 36 looks younger than our mothers did when we were in fifth grade, or even our surrogate TV mothers; instead, our 36 looks more like Kate Winslet, even if we don’t. The things keeping us from looking like Kate Winslet are more along the lines of professional beauty treatments (and, um, genes), not some magical anti-aging potion. She looks her age. Most of us do.

All of this should make aging as we know it easier, and I suppose it does; I’m thankful that with some styling I can achieve the womanly look my grandmother had at my age, and thankful that I can shake loose of that consigned womanhood and wear some of the same things I might have in college without being considered inappropriate or, worse, pathetic. But underneath that is a cognitive dissonance with what I know up-close to be true: I am aging. And while the reconfiguration of adulthood has liberated women like me from making semi-permanent life choices too early, it’s also easy to take from that liberation a free-floating fear or denial of aging and what aging actually looks like. There’s far less shame about the number of aging than there used to be—truly, the twinge of hesitancy I feel about saying I’m 36 is just that, a twinge. The greater fear is not saying I’m 36 but acknowledging that I’m 36—which, all told, isn’t seen as young but is hardly seen as old—and therefore have some of the signs of what we associate with actual, undeniable oldness. Battle-won crow’s-feet are one thing. Knee wrinkles are quite another.

Aging “gracefully” is part of it, sure, but I’m less afraid of being seen as clinging to my fading youth than I am of being seen as having lost some sort of essence. I’m less concerned about wrinkles than I am about things I’ve never had to think about before because they came naturally, like “tone” and “texture” and “radiance.” My most pronounced signs of aging haven’t been things that should rob me of that radiance; if anything, with age I have more energy, more vigor than I did when I was 24. I drink less, I sleep more, I exercise, I eat my greens. I’m far more nourished now in every way than I was then. And it shows—by nearly every conventional measure, I look better now than I did then.

But there it is, looming, unfair: No matter what I do, no matter how impeccable my self-care, there is a quality I had at 24 that I will never have again. I’ll happily take the tradeoff age has offered me—please, don’t miss that point—but it seems like a joke to me somehow. I want the vitality my skin had at 24 not only because it looks “better” but because I feel like it’s rightfully mine. I feel more vital now; I feel more radiant. I hadn’t earned the look of vitality I had when I was 24, and I didn’t realize I hadn’t earned it; it was only when it began to slip away that I recognized that I’d been working on a pay-it-forward system that I hadn’t signed up for and couldn’t reneg on.

Thirty-six years young; today is the first day of the rest of our lives; it’s never too late to learn; you’re only as old as you feel. I will take these cheap sentiments over what people, particularly women, were faced with not so long ago, like marrying by 30 or resigning oneself to lifelong spinsterhood. But an unintended side effect of age positivity is that we’re left with a clashing of ideals: If age is a state of mind, what do I do about the tangible ways in which that “state of mind” is showing up on my body? Without the other markers of adulthood, the ways I mark my age are internal, amorphous; I say I “feel” differently now than I did at 26, and I do, but I’d be hard-pressed to tell you exactly what that difference is. The biggest differences between my life now and my life when I was undisputably young are inarticulate—I still sleep on a futon, I still consider reheating Indian food “cooking,” I’ll still stay for one more drink—but there’s a definitive articulation of aging on my very form. The occasional thread of silver in my otherwise dark hair, the darkness beneath my eyes that never quite goes away, the way a day in the sun now makes me look haggard instead of bursting with California-kissed good health. It’s not that any one of these is so horrible but rather that it runs right up against my idea of myself as someone who’s aging but not, you know, really aging. I’m not afraid of getting older; I’m not afraid of looking my age. But it was a lot easier to say that more loudly before I began to learn that “looking my age” would mean looking older in ways that so far had applied only to other people.

I am thankful beyond words that women before me have lived their lives so vibrantly as to make it clear that life doesn’t end at 30, or 35, or 55, or 75. Without them, the choices I’ve made in my life—to remain single, to freelance, to live alone in an urban space far away from family, to not have children, to be a lousy housekeeper—are largely viewed by those around me, and by myself, as choices, not as some unfortunate set of circumstances that’s befallen me, the poor thing. But within all that positivity, I want to create a sliver of a space for mourning what has slipped away from me with age. Not so I can dwell on it, or long for its return, but so that I can honor this quality I had at a time in my life when I had every right to feel young, vibrant, and carefree but rarely consciously felt any of those things. In truth, what looked carefree at 24 was more often than not merely chaotic. I had no idea that despite that chaos, I carried with me a radiance that was mine simply by dint of being young. There is no way to say this without speaking in a cliche, so forgive me, but: I didn’t know what I had until it was gone. My hope in allowing myself to mourn these small losses is that I’ll create room for the conscious recognition of what I have now, at a perfectly fine 36, that I haven’t yet recognized. What those gifts are, I’m not entirely sure, but I trust in their existence nonetheless. Perhaps the moment I stop doing so is the moment I really will grow old.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Beauty Blogosphere 5.25.12

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

From Head...
Chinese beauty:
This piece on buying habits in China gives beauty products only a passing mention, but it's worth reading if you're interested in international consumerism. Particularly of note here is the Chinese emphasis on conspicuous consumption—goods seen in public are far likelier to be luxury brands than goods consumed privately, which puts beauty products (consumed privately but seen publicly) in a sort of odd zone. The article makes note of how beauty products must help a woman "move forward"; coupled with the Chinese preference for natural-looking beauty products, Chinese women may be in even more of a product paradox than Americans.

Next up: Shampoo and cuticle-cutting video games.

...To Toe...

Pedigame: Team Beheld, I'll be honest and let you know that sometimes it's hard to find pedicure-related news every week to keep up this "from head to toe" business I started lo so many months ago, and now that I've gone and made fun of the faux newsworthiness of men getting pedicures, it'll be even tougher. But my other go-to pedicure news bit is pedicure video games, of which there are many, and this interview at The Mary Sue with the curator of FEMICON, "the feminine computer museum," is juuuust tangentially related enough for me to include it here. Moreover, it's fascinating (this from someone who hasn't played a video game since Super Mario Brothers). "With FEMICOM, I want to provide a historical snapshot, a catalog, that says, 'Here lies the evidence of several decades of video game and software and web media that attempted to inspire and delight.' If we’re confronted with a pile of harmful stereotypes, let’s talk about that. If we’ve been wrong to criticize a game for not being more like Halo, let’s talk about that, too."

...And Everything In Between:
On the stand: The witness list in the trial of Rajat Gupta, former Proctor & Gamble executive who was arrested for insider trading, is basically a cast list of major players in the world's biggest personal-care company. I usually try not to be a bloodhound, but: Let the game begin!

On the money: The friendly folks at NASDAQ break down American beauty companies' positioning in emerging global markets. And in what is surely a first, a business writer focusing on the beauty industry resisted all urges to indulge in bad wordplay ("the stocks got a makeover"! "It's face-forward for Avon"!) in (her?) prose.

Northern light: Are Northern European women more likely to embrace natural and organic cosmetics? All signs point to yes. (Side note: The Swedish city of Malmö has a goal of having only organic food served in its public catering by 2020? As someone who lived in a city that cut out recycling for a while because of budget cuts, my jaw is on the floor.)

Sunny days ahead: The FDA ordered comprehensive new sunscreen regulations last year, but recently gave the industry six more months to implement them—i.e., past the summer, when Americans get the most sun exposure. And manalive, some senators are pissed.

Mad man: Adman David Leddick—who was gay and out during his career, which spanned the same era as Mad Men—shares what it was really like being gay in the industry at the time, and in doing so gives a few colorful anecdotes about major beauty clients. (Among them: "Miss Arden, you are a tyrant.")

Superbeauty: The site of Ray Kurzweil, champion of the singularity, turns its cyborg eye onto enhanced beauty products. I'm more interested in this in a meta sense than for anything the article actually says, because none of what's in this piece is news in the least if you're a reader of women's magazines, but here it's being treated as something with potential instead of something already available. The singularity just may be cosmetized.

Bad girls go everywhere: beauty editor Cat Marnell in a Vice interview on the impossibility of being a beauty-industry bad girl: "Bad girls don't get to splash water on their faces and say 'Almay.'"

Hard as nails: Scratch that. If you're hell-bent on being a beauty bad girl, you can shoplift $12,500 in products. I'm fascinated by this: Most beauty shoplifting of this scale is part of a crime ring, but it seems this woman just really liked nail polish.

Batik!: Refinery 29 has a guide to prints often lumped together as "ethnic" or "tribal," which is wildly encouraging. Most of the time fashion pages think they're being socially responsible if they feature a fair-trade necklace; this takes less of an Othering stance while recognizing that most of their readers probably aren't versed in Chinla vs. Ganado. (I certainly wasn't.)

Butt-shaped beauty products: Is there anything more I can really say about this?

Book, cover, etc.: In reading this piece about the role of awe in cosmetics packaging, I found myself feeling a tad smug, because I, of course, never fall prey to "awe-inspiring" packaging, preferring packaging that's cleaner, more clinical, tidier, minimalist. Which isn't me falling for marketing at all! (Pop quiz: Where do butt-shaped beauty products figure into marketing and awe? Go.)

Beauty products of 1812: "Two ounces of oil of sweet almonds, ditto of spermaceti; melting them in a pipkin over a slow fire." Of note in this piece about 19th-century beauty concoctions is a Canadian company called The Herb Wife, which bases its handmade products on recipes from medieval days. Zounds!

Literary makeovers: Attention New Yorkers: A night of makeovers, courtesy...the New York Public Library. June 22. (And hey, if you're not in New York, just swing by the splendid collection of literature/film character makeovers at Literature Couture. There's a whole series on Norse mythology makeovers!)

The black beauty standard: Tami Winfrey Harris skewers the whole "black ladies loooove their bodies!" thing. I see why the story is perpetrated, particularly by white members of the media: When, as a teenager, I first heard the whole "black girls like their bodies more than white girls" thing, it acted to soothe my privileged white guilt, like, "Oh, okay, so black women on average make less money than white women and are more likely to be victims of violent crime, but hey, they like their bodies, so at least there's that." That is: It told me more about my own relationship with my own body, and about my level of privilege, than it did about the experience of black women. It was shortsighted of me (to say the least), and really I wish I'd had these counterpoints available to me then.

On authenticity: Terri, one of the most thoughtful fashion bloggers out there, asks if it's possible to be authentic in the world of social media and self-branding.

"Our bodies are integral to our selves": Sally's gentle yet forceful litany of why body image matters made me catch my breath: "Because we are told that a certain weight, a certain set of proportions, a certain body type or shape will unlock happiness, and that we should do everything in our power to achieve those things." Even with the work I do here, I still fall into that trap of thinking my body can unlock happiness—if I can comfortably wear a dress I purchased 10 pounds ago, if my thighs become diminished like they were when I did little other than obsess about my food intake. I know better, but I don't always know better, and this post is a much-needed reminder.

Rule-breaking: Angie's characteristic way of striking the sweet spot between style guidelines and body positivity shines through in her musings on going beyond body type dressing.

Beauty U: Kjerstin Gruys shares her syllabus and gives a mini intro to her "Gender, Appearance, and Inequality" seminar, which is sort of making me edu-drool with discussion topics like beauty bias in romantic relationships, employment, and medicine.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Sweet Smell of Sexcess


Nefarious may seem a strong word to apply to cake-scented perfume, but bear with me for a minute, okay? Years ago, I was copy editing at a women’s magazine, and one of the beauty pages was all about food-scented products—lemon cookie body souffles, cotton candy lip gloss, caramel body polish. Something about it just nagged at me, but I couldn’t put my finger on why. The promotion of these products felt somewhere between belittling, infantalizing, and placating—even as I admitted they smelled nice—and though I’d never really thought much about the products on an individual, something about seeing all of them grouped together on the page vaguely unsettled me.

I tried articulating this to a friend, who then got worked up because she was a fan of (the pretty awesome) Lush, which liberally uses food scents in its collection, and before I knew it I was on the other end of the feminist beauty argument than where I’d prefer to be: I was saying there was something politically off-putting about a grown woman smelling like cake, and she was saying that the right to revel shame-free in sensual pleasure was something feminists had fought for, and I think we settled it by meeting midway at peppermint foot scrub, but I don’t really remember.

It stuck with me, though, in part because one of the arguments I’d used fell flat when I gave it more thought: I’d argued that foodie products were pushed as an alternative to actually eating food. And you do see some of that, to be sure, tired blurbs about how slathering on a cupcake body lotion will “satisfy—without the calories!” But it usually seems like such a desperate bid for beauty copy that I have a hard time believing anybody actually uses sweet-smelling body products in an effort to reduce sugar intake. (Besides, logic would dictate that it would do the opposite, right? If I smell cookies, my instinct hardly to sigh, “Ah! Now I don’t have to actually eat cookies!” but rather to optimize cookie-eating opportunities.)

But it wasn’t until I re
ad One-Dimensional Woman by Nina Powers that I realized what it really is about foodie beauty that gets to me. Powers on chocolate:
Chocolate represents that acceptable everyday extravagance that all-too-neatly encapsulates just the right kind of perky passivity that feminized capitalism just loves to reward with a bubble bath and some crumbly cocoa solids. It sticks in the mouth a bit. … I think there’s a very real sense in which women are supposed to say ‘chocolate’ whenever someone asks them what they want. It irresistibly symbolizes any or all of the following: ontological girlishness, a naughty virginity that gets its kicks only from a widely-available mucky cloying substitute, a kind of pecuniary decadence.

Which, comi
ng from a voice as right-on as Nina Powers, makes me want to host some sort of sit-in at Cadbury HQ*, but let’s face it, I’m not an organizer. So take that sentiment and add it to not even actual chocolate but things that just smell like chocolate (or cupcakes, or buttercream, or caramel, or any other boardwalk treat) and that are meant to make you feel and look soft and pretty—harmless, that is—and yeah, these products carry more than a hint of unease. Foodie beauty products are designed serve as a panacea for women today: Yes’m, in the world we’ve created you have fewer management opportunities, the state can hold court in your uterus, there’s no law granting paid maternal leave in the most powerful nation on the planet, and you’re eight times more likely to be killed by your spouse than you would be if you were a man, but don’t worry, ladies, there’s chocolate body wash!

e no doubt that the minds creating these products are doing so because they seem like they’ll sell, and less importantly, they seem like fun. Hell, they are fun: Sweets are celebratory, and why shouldn’t we remind ourselves of celebration, especially with something as sensual as scent? But the motive needn’t be intentional to be nefarious. Men like food too—remember that study about how the scent of pumpkin pie made them horny?—but it’s not like companies hawk products to men that smell like food that’s been successfully gendered via marketing.** (I mean, certainly there are men out there who dab barbeque sauce behind their ears and fill their sock drawers with sachets of crushed pork rinds, but marketers haven’t caught on. Yet.) Food-product marketing is specific to women (mint, ginger, and citrus scents aside), for we’re the ones still connected with the domestic sphere and all the “simple pleasures” it brings. Men get forests, the oceans, the dirt of the earth itself. We get flowers and a birthday cake.

ow, at this point, Dear Reader, I have a confession to make. Actually, I have at least seven confessions to make, starting with: As a teenager, I used vanilla extract as perfume. Which is not to say I haven’t also purchased a bevy of vanilla perfumes over the years—for I have—in addition to gingerbread body scrub, brown sugar lotion, a chocolate body oil that inexplicably made me sleepy, an angel-food-scented bar of glycerin soap with a plastic cutout of a slice of birthday cake floating in the middle, and a “Fortune Kookie” body gel that I finally discarded, at age 33, not because of the scent but because of the accompanying shimmer. So I’m not immune to the charm of smelling like Betty Crocker. I wore these products most frequently as a teenager but carried some to adulthood and why not? They do smell good, after all; that’s the whole point. And they trigger something that on its face seems harmless: Part of their appeal lies in how they transport us back to an age when all we needed to be soothed was a cupcake.

At the same time, they don’t actually transport us to being that age; they transport us to a simulacrum of it. When I was 6, if I wanted to smell like anything it was the Estee Lauder perfume samples my mother got free with purchase. Smelling like fake food was for the only thing more powerless than a 6-year-old girl—Strawberry Shortcake dolls. I loved the scent of those dolls but never wanted to smell like them myself; it wouldn’t have occurred to me. It was only when I was a teenager and began to actually walk the line between girlhood and womanhood that I su
ddenly became obsessed with smelling like a Mrs. Field’s outlet—and sure enough, there’s that “naughty virginity” Powers mentions. I wholly bought into what she outlined: Smelling like cotton candy let me put forth the idea that I was the kind of girl who would enthusiastically dig into a vat of the stuff, i.e. the kind of girl who liked to have a good time, but not that kind of good time, except of course it was that kind of a good time, because the biggest thing that had changed from the 14-year-old me dragging torn-out magazine samples of Red Door across her wrists and the 15-year-old me dabbing vanilla onto my neck was intimate knowledge of what an orgasm was. I liked feeling a little hedonistic, in the most good-girl way possible. Smelling sweet at 15 was lightly naughty without being seamy in the least—if anything, its naughtiness was so covert that I didn’t realize that scenting myself as a Sweet Young Thing had any implications other than, well, sweetness, even though my near-panic whenever I came close to running out of my Body Shop oil should have alerted me that I had more invested in this whole vanilla thing than I could articulate at the time.

Which is not to say that every teenager—or every adult woman—who spritzes on a little angel food perfume is a wanton Lolita, or that even if they are, that we should raise our eyebrows about it. Certainly I was better off expressing my “wantonness” (can you be wanton if you went off to college a virgin?) through vanilla perfume than I would have been by expressing it with anyone resembling Humbert Humbert. And as much as this blog might imply I believe otherwise, sometimes a candy cigar is just a candy cigar. The perfume I wear most frequently now*** is indeed a hint sweet—carnation, rose, bergamot, milk, and honey—and while I’m not so arrogant as to think the 15-year-old me had complex sociological-developmental motivations for wearing vanilla perfume but of course the 35-year-old me just likes what she likes, the fact is, I do wear it because I like it. I don’t want to imply that any of us should stop using lemon cookie body souffle or toss out our Lip Smackers—joy can be hard enough to come by plenty of days, and if it comes in a yummy-smelling jar, well, that’s reliable enough for me not to turn my nose up at, eh? I just wonder how harmless something can actually be when its existence is predicated upon announcing just how harmless it really is.

*On chocolate, briefly: I do like the stuff, though have never lived for it; I’d rather have lemon, caramel, or coffee-flavored confections most of the time, and I really only like chocolate-chocolate, not chocolate cake or chocolate ice cream or whatever. That hasn’t stopped people around me from assuming I have a great love of chocolate and furnishing it to me as a treat, to the point where I myself forgot that it’s not my favorite sweet and found myself falling into some sort of cocoa zone where a chocolate bar became a reward for a job well done, or for 24 hours fully revolved, whichever came first. It was only upon realizing that the fellow I was dating looked forward to our shared chocolate bars more than I did that I realized I’d talked myself into becoming a chocoholic, and I haven’t looked back since. I maybe buy one Lindt bar every other month?

**There is, of course, the curious case of Axe Dark Temptation, a cocoa-scented body product line for men whose commercials featured women gnawing at men enrobed in chocolate, elevating depravity to an entirely new level.

***Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab's Alice, since you asked.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Beauty Blogosphere 5.18.12

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

From Head...
Seeing red: Red lipstick increases waitresses' tips? Headlines say yes (of course! anything to add to the idea that there's a right way to be a lay-dee), but a closer look at the study shows that the research was conducted in a region where voluntary tipping is unusual, as a service charge is added to bills. So men (not women) were indeed likelier to tip waitresses in red lipstick, but we're talking about throwing in some extra change, not 30% of the bill. I'd be curious to know how this research would go in areas where there's no service charge. 

...To Toe...
Pedicure subcommittee: Senator Kay Hagan (D-NC) introduces a bill to temporarily suspend the duty on pedicure (and manicure) sets. I'll admit this isn't exactly what I had in mind in thinking that more women in legislative seats would equal better rights for women, but hey! Duty-free...pedicure sets. Vive le 99%?

Taboo you: What do you do if you're an immigrant whose situation makes salon work the best job option for you—but you come from a culture that considers touching other people's feet a demeaning taboo? 

...And Everything In Between:
Red soled: Christian Louboutin to launch line of beauty products. Actually, he's not launching it; a company called Batallure that specializes in creating brands for prestige clients is doing it. And I'm not saying anything about Louboutin, but I will gently point out that an anagram for Batallure is "a label rut."

Playing hard to get: Avon is Lady Mary Crawley to Coty's Matthew Crawley, as the suitor withdrew a $10.7 billion bid for an Avon takeover. Now if Coty starts courting Wet 'n' Wild and then Wet 'n' Wild dies of the Spanish flu, I'll call setup.

Human resource: Estee Lauder is developing training modules to source talent knowledgeable in the Asian market, which is projected to be a major competitor to the behemoth company because of the region's advances in skin care.

The kids are all right: Teens and tweens are back to buying beauty products full-throttle, in post-recession numbers. WHEW.

Strike a pose: With the recent, tragic death of transgender performer Lorena Xtravaganza, now's a good time to revisit the importance of Paris Is Burning, (on Hulu!), a fascinating documentary about "ball culture," a community of black, Latino, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people who have "vogue balls" basically dedicated to fabulosity and "realness."

Double bind: Ability to dress modestly: good. Ability to self-express: good. But is haute hijab fashion winding up backfiring on modern Muslim women?

Ladyblades: Hanna Brooks Olsen at Blisstree (which, btw, continues to impress me more and more each day) raises an eyebrow at gendered pricing, specifically razors and deodorant. (True story: I once worked for a magazine that claimed men's and women's razors were different because the razor blades were turned in opposite directions—women's optimized for leg-shaving and being held with the handle above the blade, men's optimized for face-shaving and being held with blade above handle. I bought it and didn't question it for years, until I thought to compare the blades and saw—oops!—it was bullshit.)

Stress cases: Transgender young adults may have a higher eating disorder rate than the general population. And Australian aboriginal people may have a higher rate of binge eating disorder than non-aboriginal Australians, which echoes what I reported on last year about indigenous women in North America. All this is adding up to, Gee, maybe marginalized people are likelier to deal with stress through manipulating their food intake? The media is getting better about not painting EDs as a rich white girl thing, but we can continue to do better.

What you've been waiting for: Finally. Finally! Finally someone has invented a machine that emits perfume whenever someone mentions you on the Internet. (via Mimi FrouFrou)

Sweet smell of success: What makes some celebrities "credible" in hawking fragrances, while others launch perfumes that go nowhere? (Also: Jennifer Aniston had a perfume?) My favorite part in here is an expert talking about how a celebrity needs to "look like" they'd wear a fragrance. How does that work, exactly?

The nose knows: Josephine Catapano, the noted perfumer who designed the legendary Youth Dew, died May 14 at age 93. Youth Dew was one of Estee Lauder's breakthrough products, transforming the company from a growing but modest brand into a landmark beauty stalwart.

Fitspo throwdown: Lexie and Lindsay of Beauty Redefined take the idea of "fitspo" (fitness inspiration) and crush it like a beetle. I mean, if you hate beetles. In any case! It's awesome.

If a size falls in the forest: More on the Vogue no-models-who-have-eating-disorders business, this time from someone who would really know: Tyra Banks. "[I]f I was just starting to model at age 17 in 2012, I could not have had the career that I did. I would’ve been considered too heavy. In my time, the average model’s size was a four or six. Today you are expected to be a size zero. When I started out, I didn’t know such a size even existed."

Hot hands: A glimpse into how cosmetics shoplifting rings work.

In the parlor: Robin Boylorn on "beauty parlor politics": "'At the shop' we were sisters, even when we were strangers, because being without a done ‘do was like being naked in public. But between our sing alongs and gossip, no one noticed. The salon was a meeting place, the great equalizer—like church, but without the judgment." (via Mara)

Triangulation: Can one shop subversively, calling attention to labor issues while perusing the racks of fast fashion? Terri dons a homemade T-shirt bearing questions about labor and fast fashion—"In your factory, are the windows barred? In your factory, are the elevators locked?"

Wise words: How to come up with a body image mantra, for the mantra-skeptics out there. (Hint: Keep it simple, or else.)

On perspective: I'm excited for Ashe's new interview series on body image and style. I read a good number of excellent body image blogs, but there's something about a Q&A that's particularly revealing, and with a topic like body image, perspective really is everything.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

"She Was 25 and Curvaceous": The Death of Lorena Xtravaganza

I am stinkin' mad, which is why I'm double posting today. I just found out about the death of Lorena Xtravaganza, a performer with the drag family House of Xtravagazna. (Coincidentally, I just watched the "ball culture" documentary Paris Is Burning for the first time this weekend, and the House of Xtravaganza is heavily featured in it.) Lorena, who was killed in a fire in Brooklyn that was deemed "suspicious" by investigators, was transgender. More to the point of this post, I just found out about the way the New York Times covered her death.

The first sentence of the story reads as follows: "She was 25 and curvaceous, and she often drew admiring glances in the gritty Brooklyn neighborhood where she was known to invite men for visits to her apartment, her neighbors and the authorities said." That is, the very first line of the article shows that we're supposed to think of Lorena not just as a dead person, nor even as a dead transgender woman, but as a beautiful woman. The "catch" here is that you're supposed to read in a few paragraphs before you get to the "gotcha!" bit: She was once a he! So it's okay that we point out that she was "25 and curvaceous"; it's okay to literally put her looks before her life. She succeeded so well at womanhood that she "drew admiring glances." Hell, she was a better woman than most of us who were born that way—she had ribs removed for a smaller waist! She was "gorgeous"—you know, "for a man"—with that flowing hair and hourglass figure. 

LGBT activists can dissect the Times coverage better than I can, and in a fuller scope. But my focus here is women and appearance, and that means that in addition to the "othering" of trans people, I see this as an endorsement of the beauty standard. The Times would not have given two shits if Lorena were less successful in the feminine performance; if she looked like a dude in a dress, how would the story have been written? Would the story have been written? (It may well have been, even if the story were about a biological woman; it is a death by fire, possibly arson, which is news-friendly.) If the nation's most venerable newspaper can get away with describing a dead person in these terms in the very first line of the piece, that means it really only stopped describing all women in those terms because they "had" to, in order to shut up those mouthy feminists. The journalistic "twist" of incorporating Lorena's beauty into the piece "works" because the reader isn't initially picturing a trans woman, but a biological one. It also works because it gives us exactly what we want: the dead, beautiful woman, her hourglass figure forever taken from our gaze.

Listen, I get that Lorena being trans is part of what makes this a story, and as a writer there's only so uppity I can get about that. I get that her being different provides a "hook" in that, sadly, people die all the time in pretty terrible ways, and New York is a big city, and she was well-known in a community whose existence is predicated upon being transgender. It's not like she was a transgender dentist; by dint of being a performer she was putting herself into a position to have her sexual identity be part of what she was known for. (I'm absolutely not saying she "asked for it," by the way; just saying that her being transgender is germane to her public persona.)

So yes, I think that her being transgender has a place in this story. And since I'm pointing out the things the Times did right with this piece, I'll point out that the reporters used female pronouns throughout and managed to have a non-sensationalistic headline. For that matter, the Times could have ignored her death because she was transgender and few would be the wiser; Lorena could have been just another dead (possibly murdered) trans person and, hey, who cares, right? That would be worse. But being grateful for scraps isn't enough, not when a dead woman's beauty—whatever her origin or background—is the news, not her death. It's something that the New York Post—which is usually far more sensationalistic than the Times—picked up on. In their coverage, they did indeed mention that Lorena was a transgender performer, which was, after all, part of how she made her living. But not a word was written about her looks. The Times should have learned from its coverage last year of the gang rape of an 11-year-old by a total of 18 men, which mentioned the victim's fashion and makeup choices. But they didn't.

One of the biggest things I've learned since starting The Beheld is that the experiences of all oppressed people—trans people, gay people, people of color—are interconnected. I knew this intellectually before starting this blog, but now I know it on a deeper level. As a woman, I'm judged in part by how well I "pass"—pass as an attractive woman who knows how to send the right signals, pass as a woman who wants to be taken seriously yet still seen as desirable. Lorena Xtravaganza was also judged on how well she "passed." And as this piece shows, even if you pass with flying colors, you can still be punished in the end.

If you want to raise your voice against this kind of coverage, you can tweet @NYTimes and @NYTMetro, or write to them here

My Own Private Beauty Myth

A number of things I once believed to be true about my appearance: I have strong features, I am big-boned, my skin is both very pink and very pale, I am pear-shaped with a small waist, I have oily skin, and I am hirsute.

Here’s the truth, or at least as much of the “truth” as I’m able to come up with today, after 35 years in this skin: My features are neither strong nor delicate, I am medium-framed, I have a yellow tint to my skin and tan easily, I am neither pear-shaped nor hourglassy nor apple-shaped and certainly a small waist isn’t in the equation, I have normal skin, and I’ve got about as much body hair as you’d expect on an Irish-English-Native American woman, which is to say that it’s dark but there’s not tons of it.

“Lots of women have no idea what they look like,” said makeup artist Chrissie Ede
n DiBianco when I interviewed her last year. And looking at this list, it’s clear I’m one of them. Some of these beliefs were rooted in plain old insecurity: When you’re 13 and the thought of anyone knowing you’re actually growing hair in your armpits is mortifying, having any body hair whatsoever may well mean—to your eyes only—that you resemble Chewbacca. Some were miseducation: I got the occasional zit in junior high, like pretty much everyone, so why wouldn’t I use products designed for oily skin since my skin was clearly a grease bomb?

t what strikes me the most about these personal beauty myths is their compensatory effect. Growing up in South Dakota in the 1980s, the “corn-fed” look was prized: blonde hair, blue eyes, upturned nose, the whole Swedish-Norwegian package. I had none of these, so I drew inspiration from books, where tertiary characters were often described as having dark hair (check), dark eyes (check!), and “strong features.” Now, my features are hardly carved from fine porcelain, but they’re...average. Sorta high cheekbones but not terribly pronounced, utterly nondescript nose and chin, mouth on the small side. There is nothing about my face that would make someone describe it as “strong-featured.” But teenagers are not known for embracing ambiguity: I wasn’t blonde-haired, blue-eyed, and ski-jump-nosed; ergo, I was Maria Callas.

Me, in eighth grade.

This compensation appears in nearly every erroneous belief I’ve had about my body: Growing up heavy-set and then suddenly becoming normal-weight as a teenager meant I had to reshuffle my entire self-image. Naturally I thought I was fat, in that classic teen-girl way, but I could also look in the mirror and see that I wasn’t actually overweight, so somehow I came up with being “big-boned” to make sense of it all, despite coming from a long line of solidly average-framed people. I blush easily, so thinking I had a pink skin tone helped me assimilate that (totally embarrassing!) fact; it wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized my skin actually has a distinctly yellow tint. And as for being pear-shaped—well, I’ve covered the whole body-type nonsense before, and it wasn’t until my early 30s that I realized I was both all and none of the main body types, and that the standard style advice for dressing those figures would never apply to me.

ut one aspect of the pear-shaped business illuminates something key here. As a faithful reader of all the “dress your body” magazine features published between 1986-2007, I knew that pear-shaped women were always told to emphasize their small waists. And because I believed myself to be pear-shaped (an idea borne more from embarrassment over the size of my thighs than objective evidence), I must have a small waist, right? Never mind that my jeans rarely gapped in the back, or that dresses didn’t hang loose around the middle, or that my waist measurement wasn’t particularly small. I was pear-shaped, dammit, and you can take my small waist from me when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.

It would be easy for me to laugh at what I once believed to be true about my body, but this small-waist thing doesn’t fit into the narrative of teen-girl embarrassment. This wasn’t a case of putting myself down or not really understanding what my best and not-so-best traits were; this was me inventing a positive trait even where the evidence was flimsy. Even in the places where the myths I’d spun about my looks didn’t match up with the beauty imperative, I found these little nuggets that let me feel okay. If my generous thighs and hips made me a pear, I was going to seize the small waist that went along with it. If my weight was always going to be a sore spot for me, why not deem myself “big-boned”? If I was going to be
pink-skinned, I’d spin it into some sort of English rose look and do my makeup to emphasize my pale pallor.

The point here isn’t so much that I was wrong about those things; it wasn’t until adulthood that I was able to see myself a little more objectively, and I’m hardly unique in that. (Of course, there’s something instructive in how off-base I was: How much better-dressed would I have been if I’d veered away from the pear-shaped advice and worn what actually suited me? How much more radiant would my skin have looked at 14 if I weren’t stripping away its oil?) The point is that even where the conclusions were wrong, there was some sort of survival skill at work—something that allowed me to take my imagined beliefs and fit them into the order of things. Something that, underneath all the self-deprecation and imagined detractions, thought m
aybe I didn’t look so bad after all.

The narrative we spin for girls is that they’re doomed to look in the mirror and not like what they see—that the dogpile of unrealistic images of women’s bodies and idealized femininity hits them so early on that by the time they reach puberty, the best we can do is damage control. We spin it that way for a reason—it’s true too often, and if it was ever true of you, that searing feeling of not measuring up has serious staying power.

There’s an alternat
e narrative too, of girls with resilient self-esteem, the sort of confident young woman we look at and think, She’s gonna be okay. But those two narratives are intertwined: My confidence was shaky in regards to my looks, but there I was, coming up with ways to tell myself that I wasn’t totally outside the realm of conventional prettiness, even if I had to make it up. I didn’t know my physical strengths and flaws until adulthood, but I intuited that if I roamed the world believing only my flaws (or what I perceived to be flaws), I’d be miserable, and I liked myself enough to not want to be miserable. So I picked up the odd shreds of evidence from the very things that pained me—my telltale blush, my ample thighs, my lack of Scandinavian grace—and constructed an effigy of myself. It was strung together with scotch tape and homemade safety pins, yes, but it was there: this emergent girl who had internalized all the media ideals, but who, at her core, was able to fight for herself.

Ideally, of course, that fight wouldn’t have been about inventing ways to fit the beauty standard; it would have been about challenging it by daring to think that I looked just fine even in the myriad ways I didn’t fit the template. I’m not holding up my teen self as some paragon of self-esteem, not by a long shot, and I’m under no illusion that my misconceptions were any sort of resistance to the beauty standard itself. But it was a resistance to feeling as though I needed to change in order to fit them, a corrective perspective from a girl who had internalized all those messages about how her body “should” look but who, at her core, also thought maybe she looked just fine. Acknowledging I looked fine as-is, if only to myself, may have been too radical for me at the time (woe befall the girl who thinks she’s “all that”); this was my in-between. It was a start.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Beauty Blogosphere 5.11.12

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

Vidal Sassoon, 1928–2012

From Head...
"If you don't look good, we don't look good": Legendary hairstylist Vidal Sassoon died on Wednesday of natural causes. Famous for pioneering the "wash and wear" look of the London mod scene, Sassoon's style allowed women to look fashionable but not spend as much time on their hair as the hot-rollers-and-hairspray look of years past. By using his keen eye and industry clout to quietly emphasize that hair needn't detract from women's lives—and by developing a line of low-cost hair care products—Sassoon, in his way, played a role in helping women navigate shifting social roles of the '60s and '70s. (Also, the best haircut of my life was given to me by a student at the Vidal Sassoon school in London, so there's a personal debt here too.) In honoring him, Bim Adewunmi discusses the politics of hair—contextualized not only by Sassoon's death but by his life, which was explicitly political—at The Guardian.

...To Toe...
Spring in your step:
It's stinky shoe season!

...And Everything In Between:
Top 10 global beauty brands, ranked by "projected revenues, customer loyalty and willingness to pay a price premium, royalty rates and current market value." The biggest surprise for me: Bioré at #9?

Margaritaville*: Now Warren Buffet's getting in on Coty's bid to buy Avon.

Say goodbye to Cincinnati: The head of Procter & Gamble's beauty business is retiring, and the whole operation is packing up and hiking over to Singapore. I mean, they're not actually hiking! They will probably fly, or take a boat. In any case, they will be leaving Cincinnati.

Celtic pride: A thoughtful three-part investigation into what the secularization of Ireland has meant for Irish girls and women. I sometimes make the American mistake of thinking of the British Isles as one unit, not recognizing that the history of Irish-English relations—particularly in regards to religion—means that the morality play that is women's bodies may well have a different tenor when applied to Irish women.

"Lots of water": Zimbabwean beauty queen Vanessa Sibanda is denying reports that she uses skin lightening cream, claiming that foreign travel that took her out of the sun—and, of course, healthy eating and "lots of water"—have made her more pale. I have no idea what the truth is, but the debate reminds me of starlets who claim they don't diet; they just have a "really fast metabolism," which then becomes such an embedded truth of Hollywood that it's seen as subversive when a performer acknowledges that you're "hungry all the time."

"Models vs. Militants": Fascinating juxtaposition of India's beauty pageants with radical Hindu camps where girls are armed in case of "enemy" attack ("enemies" being people from other religions) and encouraged to marry as teens. It's particularly interesting if you've been following discourse on modesty fashion blogging in the west, highlighting that it's a privilege to be able to think of modesty as a choice.

1932 Carnival Queen, Her Majesty Queen Emma

Carnivale: An early version of Filipino beauty pageants: Carnival Queens.

Past the headband: The question of Hillary Clinton's fashion and beauty choices has been hashed over since I was in high school (and chickadees, that's been a while), and by all rights I should well be exhausted by it by now. But now that she's supposedly in the twilight years of her political career, can we glean something from her little-makeup-loose-hair appearance last week? Suzi Parker frames the question in a way that manages not to piss me off. (Thanks to Caitlin for the link.)

Comedienne: Anna Breslaw on female comics: "The only funny women who are free to cross over to mainstream audiences are the ones who are free from the beauty hang-ups that limit their jokes to female audiences." 

Pore-zapping ray gun, for real: On a different sort of female comics, the first "beauty-inspired" comic book hero will come to life soon, courtesy a diabolical collaboration between Marvel and Benefit Cosmetics. She's called SpyGal, she's "wise-cracking, pore-zapping," and her superpower is copywriting shit even the crankiest beauty bloggers couldn't possibly make up. 

Topsy turban: How the 1920s turban trend began. Surprise! Cultural appropriation.

Old Ironsides: Oliver Cromwell would give your Lush collection a run for the money, a recent chemical test of some of his belongings indicates. But today it's actually Scottish men who are making up the UK's biggest increase in men's salon services. In the name o' the wee man, what's going on up north?

"Man boobs": Performance artist Matt Cornell has a riveting piece about growing up with "man boobs": "The only breasts The Huffington Post approves of are those of thin, white female celebrities."

Lost: Ragen Chastain raises a reasonable question on something inherently unreasonable: Why the fresh hell is Michelle Obama appearing on The Biggest Loser, which does things like put participants n 1,000-calorie-a-day diets, dehydrated them to the point of urinating blood, and having them work out eight hours a day? 

Native couture: Beyond Buckskin gives a much-needed antidote to all that Urban Outfitters Navajo nonsense with her striking new boutique, which showcases the work of Native designers. (I wear next to no jewelry and own exactly two pairs of earrings, but I still couldn't resist this gorgeous pair.) There's some recognizably traditional stuff in there, but what's most exciting here is seeing the ways that Native designers are showing that Indians are living, breathing people with fashion-forward vision, not stuck in the past with a tear trailing down one cheek. (Speaking of successful blending of Native traditions with modenity, Adrienne at Native Appropriations points us toward this new Nelly video that features hoop dancing. For more on the background of hoop dancing, go here.)

Cutie pie: At 40-plus, Barbara Greenberg is damn well tired of being called "cute."

"What's your poison?": Imp Kerr's experimental style both intrigues and lingers, and this entry touching on the gaze, sex work, and feminine performance is a good place to start.

Double dog dare: Australian artist taking legal action against Madonna for using a logo on her Truth or Dare perfume that looks suspiciously like his trademarked signature emblem. (via MimiFroufrou)

Ruff!: Oh dear lord, I haven't heard of this whole young-women-turning-themselves-into-dolls-and-puppies thing, but once you have, you can't go back. Truly am feeling a little ambivalent about posting this link because it's so upsetting, but maybe someone will have a take on this that isn't just depressing? Maybe? As The Gloss put it, no matter how many times some woman tries to do this, it still freaks us out.

Tattoo you: Speaking of being freaked out, permanent makeup usually does that for me, but I hadn't considered its therapeutic benefits for people with a cleft palate

Collision course: Lisa Hickey doesn't purport to have answers, but she's asking the difficult questions. How can we responsibly talk about sensitive topics—race and female beauty among them—in ways that honor their import while still asking the genuine questions we might have, some of which might verge on insensitive?

Erotique: Very excited to see where Ms. Behaved's series on the female gaze goes.

Toeing the line: I am a sucker for junior high slumber party stories, which means I am a sucker for Kate's toe hair story, and the fact that there's an instructive moment in there on how we learn bodily shame is almost beside the point.

Bikini babe: If you're a regular reader here, you're already probably pretty skeptical of the idea of "bikini season," but Caitlin lays out the problems with it so dead-on and succinctly that it's making me even madder. (I'm not a bikini wearer anymore, mostly because, yep, I don't like how I look in them. That said, I felt so bottoms-tuggy, breast-adjusty, and generally self-conscious when I did wear bikinis that the loss isn't great, and it also led me to discover the tankini, i.e. the best swimsuit.)

*I know, wrong Buffet, but I learned of their existence at the same point in my childhood and I still get them confused.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Strike a Pose: Vogue, Eating Disorders, and Desire

Vogue stopped using bird models in 1921.

Several years ago, after a long day at the magazine I was freelancing for at the time, I hailed a cab and cried the whole way home. The chief cause of the crying was the last task I’d had to do at the office before departing for the night: Communicating to the art department that a top editor wanted to digitally slim a celebrity whose former battles with anorexia were well-documented in the press. Transcribing her request onto the circulating page proof, every stroke of every letter felt like it was being scratched upon my skin. I hated that anyone would look at this particular picture of the (trim, lovely, recovered) celebrity and want it trimmer still, I hated that it was part of my job to communicate this request, I hated that the editor was so high up as to make it improper for a lowly freelance copy editor to question her, I hated that the people reading the final product wouldn’t understand all the labor that goes into making beautiful people look beautiful on the page. Most of all, I hated that the celebrity might look at the story, spot the digital manipulation, and yearn for her days of hunger. I hated it.

So you would think that I’d be thrilled about Vogue’s recent announcement that they are no longer going to work with models who appear to have an eating disorder, will encourage designers to consider their practice of unrealistically tailored sample sizes, and will be “ambassadors for the message of healthy body image.” All 19 global editions of the world’s leading fashion magazine signed on to the pledge, this after an international flurry of other body image actions in the world of high fashion: Italy and Spain’s leading fashion coalitions banned models with BMIs deeming them underweight, and in March Israel recently passed a law doing the same. And indeed, I felt a wash of righteous joy when I read about the announcement: I mean, this is Vogue we’re talking here. Vogue! The emblem of why the fashion world is so often hostile to women’s bodies, the embodiment of the severe impact the thin-young-and-beautiful imperative has on women worldwide. Let’s be clear: This is a good thing. But for the reader, it’s not as good as it seems.

The impact here appears to be significant, yes. Its largest actual impact is on the labor force in question: In addition to no longer working with models who “appear to have an eating disorder,” Vogue will not work with models under age 16 (and will ask casting directors to check identification), implement mentoring programs for mature models to give guidance to beginners, and encourage producers to provide privacy and healthy food backstage. Modeling is precarious work, a fact often overshadowed by its glamour in the public eye; for Vogue to publicly acknowledge that its success is partially built upon the backs of young, precarious laborers, often émigrés from developing or unstable nations, does a real service to those workers, and that fact shouldn’t be lost.

It’s the last item on Vogue’s six-point list that nags at me: We will be ambassadors for the message of healthy body image. To herald Vogue as a game-changing ambassador of healthy body image is to forget that fashion photography is specifically designed to elicit a response—yearning—within us, and few things in our culture inspire yearning like thinness. To point out the obvious: Thinness will never disappear from Vogue’s pages, only ill, underage models. Fashion photography is transportive, both real and unreal. The point for the reader has never been to be able to actually imagine ourselves in the photograph. Let the fashion still lifes do that; we can step into that empty dress, slip our arms through that stack of bracelets. The point of fashion photography is to synthesize distance and reality as we recognize it: It has to be close enough to what we recognize as real to trigger our response, but far enough away to make sure that response leaves us wanting, not contented. This is what fashion photography does; this is what makes it compelling. Longing built into its very function.

“The history of photography could be recapitulated as the struggle between two different imperatives,” writes Susan Sontag in On Photography. “[B]eautification, which comes from the fine arts, and truth-telling, which is measured not only by a notion of value-free truth, a legacy from the sciences, but by a moralized ideal of truth-telling, adapted from nineteenth-century literary models and from the (then) new profession of independent journalism.” Fashion magazines epitomize both of these imperatives: Grace Coddington’s magnificent styling certainly falls into the realm of the fine arts, but fashion magazines are always ultimately selling and promoting products that actually exist and are for sale—that is, they have an amoralized ideal of truth-telling. (Not that selling is without morals, but the sort of truth that advertising purports is quite different than the sort of truth we get from photojournalism. A seller’s intent, even if it’s a positive one, doesn’t stem from morality.) Even if few readers of Vogue are actually able to purchase the clothes on its pages, they can buy the fast fashion knockoffs; they can be inspired by the looks on the pages.

And, of course, they can be inspired by—and aspire to—thinness. Thinness became encoded as a part of the creation of desire, for all sorts of reasons that, if you’re reading this, you probably understand. The thinking here is that Vogue’s move to not use models who appear to have eating disorders will help separate that encoding; certainly Vogue will remain a manufacturer of desire, and they have all sorts of talent beyond emaciated models to do so. I’d love to see thinness separated from desire just as much as the next woman. But the Vogue announcement, on balance, is never going to be a part of that, for on the most basic level, simply refusing to work with models who “appear” to have an eating disorder hardly means the thin imperative will vanish from Vogue’s pages. We have encoded acquisitional desire as thinness—you can never be too rich or too thin—and the entire industry is predicated upon acquisitional desire. Yes, yes, magazines should do their part to end the conflation of thinness and desire, and on the most perfunctory level, Vogue has done so. But the work—the real work—must go far deeper.

For as significant as it is that it’s Vogue, with all its class and tastemaking connotations, making this announcement, it’s also a double-edged sword. If the go-to reference for the absurdity of the thin imperative has always been Vogue, and then Vogue says it’s switching up the game, we’ve suddenly lost our reference point. Yet the referent still exists. Models are going to remain far thinner than the average woman, fashion images will continue to do their job of creating longing and desire, and otherwise sensible women will keep doing the master cleanse. All that has changed besides models' labor conditions is that Vogue gets to seem like it's doing the right thing, and those who have been agitating for body positivity get to feel like we've made progress. Vogue is doing nothing truly radical to change the thin imperative, and to pretend otherwise is to silently walk in lockstep with the very system that put us in this situation to begin with.

There are other concerns with the announcement as well. Some argue it doesn’t go far enough, and I’d agree; certainly not everyone who has an eating disorder "appears" to have one, and when you’re talking about a workforce whose livelihood depends upon skilled manipulation of self-presentation, that risk runs even higher. I’m also a hair suspicious of the timing—both as a PR move to smooth over damage done by “the Vogue mom,” whose controversial piece in the April issue detailed putting her 7-year-old on a diet, and as a reaction to where Vogue is positionally. The circulation of American Vogue dipped 1.7% in the first quarter of 2012 (though it did extraordinarily well in 2011, earning the title of Ad Age’s magazine of the year), and the slow decline of its readers’ personal income may be figuring into their outlook. From 2008 to 2011, Americans’ average per capita income grew slightly (with some recession dips); in that same period, the Vogue reader’s median income dropped, from $64,429 in 2008 (which in and of itself was a 2.3% dip from 2007) to $63,094 today. This keeps Vogue readers substantially above the national per capita income, but I can’t help but wonder if this is an acknowledgment of the behind-the-scenes middlebrowing of the title. For all its prestige and class connotations, Vogue hasn’t been as highbrow as we might think; when I worked at a teen magazine a few years ago, I was surprised to find that readers’ parents were slightly better off than Vogue readers. And let’s not overlook that Conde Nast’s truly highfalutin’ title, W—which has a median reader income of $155,215—has made no such announcement. W has the luxury of doing whatever the hell it wants; Vogue needs to stay relevant to people outside the inner circle in order to continue its success. I’d like to think that prestige audiences care about body image diversity as much as the average American woman, but I’d be thinking wrong.

Despite my arguments here, I am pleased that Vogue is making efforts to stay relevant and on-point with a growing national conversation about body image. I’m critiquing, not criticizing, the announcement. It’s at least a gesture in the right direction—and it’s showing that a critical mass of complaints and activism can actually work, which is enormously encouraging for all the body image and media literacy advocates who work tirelessly in the face of some daunting and culturally embedded issues. And, again, the labor impact here is significant. But as far as its larger impact on readers, I’m not ready to cheer. Short of a complete and total ideological overhaul, there is nothing Vogue could do to truly change the story, for it’s a business that revolves around creating and sating acquisitional desire; it’s why Gloria Steinem referred to the relationship between advertising and women’s publications as the “velvet steamroller.” The policy changes won’t hurt women’s body image, I don’t think. Neither will it truly help. As long as Vogue is a part of the machine of desire—and there is no way for it not to be—the narrative will remain the same; imagery, truth, and beautification will continue their morality play; and readers will receive the same message they always have. And a very thin band will silently play on.