Friday, June 29, 2012

Beauty Blogosphere 6.29.12

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

From Head...
"And what did you do with the hair?" "I hid it under the radiator": NPR reporter Jeff Cohen interviews his daughters, ages 5 and 3, totally poker-faced, after the elder decided to give her sister a haircut. Investigative reporting at its adorable finest.

...To Toe...
Godfather: Mumbai gangster arrested for conspiring with the owner of a fish pedicure salon chain to threaten a pedicure franchisee who had filed a complaint against the chain's owner.

...And Everything In Between:

Mr. Universe contestants; note that I have no idea if these particular musclemen
"feel that many times women flirt with men just to tease them or hurt them."

Juicebox: Men obsessed with building muscle are more likely to have sexist attitudes (agreeing with such statements as "I feel that many times women flirt with men just to tease them or hurt them") and to find thin women attractive. (I'm wondering if the reverse is true--if women preoccupied with thinness find muscle men more attractive? I suppose bodybuilding is more of a defined activity and subculture than staying thin, a "hobby" no subgroup of women seems to comfortably escape.)

Girl germs: Sales of men's personal care products are growing (as is male enrollment in beauty schools), but heaven forbid you refer to said products as beauty products or—egads!—makeup. Department stores are beginning to take "grooming" products out of the cosmetics area and placing them in "men's furnishings" area (men need different chairs than women, you know). Also, products are packaged to appeal to men, with designers stuffing shave cream into packaging resembling anything from cigar boxes to liquor bottles, because “Men are just more comfortable in their own environment, away from makeup and pink,” says a merchandising manager at Nordstrom, thus explaining the lack of vagina-shaped products.

Business as usual: Products aimed specifically toward ethnic minorities saw markedly increased sales last year—this after a 13% sales increase in 2010—even though minorities in the U.S. were particularly hard-hit by the recession. Market researchers attribute the increase to a greater awareness of natural products (which applies across the board to beauty products but has the potential to create more niche markets when combined with needs of non-white women), an uptick in the number of men buying products, and better-quality products overall.

Agog: Lady Gaga is attempting to have the trademarking of cosmetics brand Gaga Pure Platinum–which has been around for 12 years—revoked, as it prevents her from licensing products under her moniker. Waaah.

Animal kingdom: India to consider a ban on animal testing for cosmetics, at PETA's behest. Meanwhile, women who grumble at being objectified for the "greater good" are considering a ban on PETA.

Eatin' Wheaties: Not all Olympians are rolling in endorsement dough. Weightlifting champ Sarah Robles, despite being one of the most spectacular athletes out there (she beat out men and women to become the world's weightlifting champ last year), lives on $400 a month. Hmmm. Let's think about why this could be.

Death by bacteria: Sephora is going to be the death of us all.

Women of a certain age: I'm glad to see that this story about the prevalence of eating disorders among women over 50 has gotten some press this week. When I think of how underdiagnosed older women have been over the decades I just feel sad; nobody wins when we cling to the idea of eating disorders as being the land of the upper-middle-class white teenager.

For shame: Ragen at Dances With Fat looks at the difference between thin privilege and shaming thin women within the size acceptance community. 

I believe in the children of the future: Megan Dietz, aka the Sane Person in The Hairpin's new advice column, Ask a Sane Person, on how to be less crazy about your body: "Let me ask you this: 40 years from now, when you and I are rad old ladies cruising around the solar system in extravagant glowy caftans, do you want to hear girls asking Does this jetpack make me look fat?" Me, I'm happy to outsource ways to be less crazy about my body, starting with Megan's new book, aptly titled Be Less Crazy About Your Body, as well as Sally McGraw's new book, Already Pretty: Learning to Love Your Body by Learning to Dress It Well.

Heavyweight: Body Exchange gym in Vancouver, BC, only accepts plus-size women as clientele. Some people think this is discriminatory, and given that gyms are a place that a lot of people feel self-conscious about visiting—not just fat folks—I guess I see that point of view, and certainly the problem is the way our society treats fat people, not that anyone should feel self-conscious in any place of business. But I'm guessing most of the thin people complaining haven't had to endure comments from total strangers about their weight. It's worth noting that Body Exchange is also an adventure travel company for plus-size women; they seem committed to truly encouraging a healthy lifestyle in a variety of ways, free of shame. I applaud that.

Hour by hour: Are hair salons failing black women? I'm white, so my understanding of black hair care has always been secondhand, and most of what I've read and heard from black women paints salons as a sort of ersatz community center—i.e. positive—while considering the political angle of black women's hair where things start to get iffy. But after repeatedly spending nearly full days at the salon, Najah Azia casts doubt on the idea of the salon as a haven for black women: "Visiting the salon should be a pleasant, peaceful experience, not an hours-on-end drudgery ... And yet, this is what millions of black women endure to get our hair professionally done. It is a failure of gigantic proportions. It is a failure that is sad because black women are failing black women."

Fitspo no-go: I love it when good people collaborate! Radio show Southern Fried Fitness talks with writer Virginia Sole-Smith and Lexie and Lindsay Kite, the powerhouse team behind Beauty Redefined, on the problem with "fitspo," or fitness inspiration, which usually just winds up being nyah nyah you're not good enough chatter disguised as pro-fitness talk.

Natural beauty: My favorite tip from this homemade beauty remedy piece, from makeup artist and friend of The Beheld Emily Kate Warren: Use beets as a lip stain. It works! I first tried it after reading about it in No More Dirty Looks, and for a while was carrying around a piece of beet in my purse.

...and eating it too: Disney to release a beauty product line inspired by their films' greatest villains. Verrrry curious to see how this will play out among the preschool princess set—will they eat up the Evil Queen lip gloss or reject it because it's not pretty pretty princess? The Beheld is currently commissioning first-person essays from 5-year-old girls on the matter, fee to be paid in fairy wings. [Updated 6.29: Mary in comments points out that a Disney villains collections already exists—by MAC, for adults, at a higher price point. "Curious they feel there's a market for similar products among children. Or maaaybe they're just cleverly remaking the MAC line at a more affordable price point (and throwing in some non-beauty products to make it less obvious." Ding ding ding!] 

Unreal: A leading photo retoucher is challenging the very industry that employs him to start publishing one unretouched photo a month.

Meow: I'm a bit of a xenophile, so I tend to be entranced with beauty products from other countries that I'd just roll my eyes at if they were American. In other words, I ate up Fashionista's slideshow of Asian beauty products, but even I'm skeptical of Hello Kitty collagen marshmallows.

A girl thing: In an effort to dispel notions about women in science, the European Commission put out a music video titled "Science: It's a Girl Thing!", featuring sexy women among beakers and molecules (plus some science-of-cosmetics imagery), which understandably pissed off some lady scientists. I agree that the video is silly and not representative of women in science (and, as physiologist Dr. Isis points out, it's mentoring women in science, not putting them in bedazzled lab coats, that actually creates more female scientists), but I also know that the perception of science and math as being defeminized probably does scare off some girls, sadly. A sexed-up video isn't the answer, but adding a little glamour might actually pique some girls' interest? I don't know. 

Dr. Porcine: Speaking of women in science, thanks to Noelle, my ninth-grade science partner—who went on to become an actual scientist—for sending me this link on what happens when urban homesteader meets the mall. Can you tell which side of her face is primed and moisturized with the rabidly overpriced Perricone M.D. line, and which half is primed and moisturized with pork fat?

"Actress must have no mouth": Spellbinding piece on Marilyn Monroe at London Review of Books. (It's funny, I never cared about Monroe until I started reading what smart, thoughtful people had to say about her, most notably Gloria Steinem's biography of her.) "Why should a woman with such sexual advantages want anything else? ... What thwarted dreams were poured into this woman’s body? You don’t have to be a Freudian to know that such idealisation punishes as much as it sets you free." (via Natalie Smith guest blogging for Jessica Stanley.)

Fashion week: Public bathrobes and latex suits get the treatment over at The New Inquiry.

Star spangled: Brittany Julious, lyrical as ever, gives us an essay about sequins (which I love but don't have enough bravado to pull off well) that dovetails nicely with discussions going on here as of late about women using appearance as a bonding mechanism.

Blood red: Why Nahida wears nail polish when she's menstruating.

Curator's corner: I can't believe I haven't linked here before: The Makeup Museum is a great stop for beauty junkies who want something beyond "product porn" in their beauty blogs, featuring vintage cosmetics and cosmetics art, all with an intelligent, quizzical voice.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Values, Stereotypes, and Big Feelings: Compliment Week, Part II

I’d planned on writing about male-to-female compliments, but honestly, the more I read of these compliment studies the more fascinated I become. I’ll get to male-female compliments soon, but for now, a few findings of compliment scholarship:

1) Compliments reveal our values. A successful compliment must be about something that’s recognized by both the complimenter and the complimentee as having value. (That’s not to say that both parties have to personally value the thing being complimented—I’ve been complimented on haircuts I hated—rather that both parties have to recognize that it has value. Otherwise, the compliment isn’t complete.) The consequence here is that compliments can tell us a good deal about what we as a culture actually value. Studies have repeatedly found that the number-one topic of compliments given to American women (from both sexes) is appearance, so—surprise!—it seems we value women for their appearance. (Correspondingly, we value men for their skill.) But here’s the thing: Part of the way we assign value is observing where and how others assign value, which means that sometimes we generalize our values in order to make sure they’re recognized. Compliments are verbal gifts, and who wants to give a gift you’re not sure the recipient will value? So complimenting women on appearance is the spoken equivalent of giving them a nice lotion, a bar of chocolate, a bottle of wine: a gift that is valuable not only for what it actually gives its recipient (soft hands, a satisfied sweet tooth, a hangover), but because we all understand its function as a generic placeholder for sentiment.

2) Compliments based on positive stereotypes don’t feel so great to hear. When people give compliments to a member of a group based on positive stereotypes of that group, the recipient, understandably, is likely to be displeased. As in, if you’re white and start telling a black person how great black people are at sports, you’re not exactly doing anyone any favors. Now, appearance-based compliments aren’t usually directed toward a group; they’re directed toward an individual. Yet I still wonder about the implications of group stereotypes here. If you tell me you like my lipstick, we’re both acknowledging certain assumptions about women as a class: that women should wear lipstick, and that wearing lipstick is something to be rewarded. It’s also assuming that there’s a right way (and therefore a wrong way) to wear it, meaning that it might be possi
ble for me to fail at femininity at a later date.

3) Compliments can make us feel bad. Or...good. Women who lean toward self-objectification do so because they’ve internalized the idea that, as a woman, they are there to be looked at. Is there anything that more clearly ascertains that you’re being looked at than a compliment about how you look? In this study, women who scored high on a test measuring their tendency to self-objectify reported feeling more body shame after receiving an appearance-based compliment. But! In another study, women who had that same personality trait of self-objectification reported an elevated mood after hearing an appearance-based compliment. (In both studies, the compliments were controlled and took place within the bounds of the study; subjects weren’t reporting back on real-life experiences.) With my entirely inadequate scientific background—I fulfilled all my college science requirements with astronomy—I’m going to take a leap and say that these experiences aren’t as contradictory as they seem. While I’m unlikely to brighten my mood when I’m feeling bad about my body, the body shame brought on by self-objectification isn’t quite the same thing, at least not for me. I’m guessing it’s more about the kind of body shame brought on by a hyperawareness of one’s appearance—the same sort of hyperawareness that John Berger was writing of when he wrote in Ways of Seeing: “A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. … And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. … Thus she turns herself into an object—and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.” Truth is, sometimes my mood is elevated when I notice
that I’m being looked at. That doesn’t mean I don’t simultaneously experience the detrimental effects of that self-consciousness.

4) When we don’t say “thank you,” it may be because we care. As sociolinguist Robert Herbert points out, we all know what the “correct” response is to a compliment. Think of the prompt parents give to their children after someone has given them an unexpected treat: “What do you say to the nice lady?” You say thank you, of course. Yet when asked how they felt upon hearing compliments, many participants in one of Herbert’s studies said they they didn’t know what to say. With the exception of women accepting compliments from men, responses along the line of “thank you” only accounted for anywhere from 10 to 29 percent of compliment responses in the study. Why, when saying “thank you” is the known proper response, do we suddenly feel like we don’t know what to say? The answer lies in the true meaning of embarrassment: We feel embarrassed because we care about the relationship we have with the person we feel embarrassed in front of. We may feel embarrassed that we didn’t say something complimentary to them first, or that we’ve done something (or worn something) that separates us from the other person status-wise, or that we’re suddenly acutely aware that the person holds us in some sort of esteem. We know full well that “thank you” would suffice, but i
t can also feel like “thank you” leaves something out.

In fact, sometimes a simple “thank you” does leave something out. When I first shared my experience of floundering in conversation when I tried to start a conversation with a woman by complimenting her shoes and was met with a simple thank you, I was putting the blame for the flatlined conversation on myself. And to be sure, I should work on my opening gambit. But the more I learn about compliments from a sociological standpoint, the more I see that she may have been a little tone-deaf as well. If “comment history”—i.e. conversation—is the most common response in woman-to-woman compliments, it’s clear that most of us understand the offering a compliment symbolizes. We may not be comfortable with it; we may refuse it, or turn it around, or question its sincerity, or permit it to alter how we see ourselves. But we understand its small humility, its request, its vulnerability, its expressed wish to grow closer. Sometimes we might even let the wish come true.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

No, *You're* So Pretty: Compliment Week, Part I

In the few days since I published last week’s post about the role of compliments in female friendships, I’ve become painfully aware of how often I give compliments. It’s certainly not something I want to stop doing, but when I found myself fussing over the color of a waitress’s nail polish in the presence of a friend who had just finished telling me what she thought of the piece—rather, when I suddenly felt like my friend had caught me in some weird act of benevolent manipulation—I started to think more about what compliments actually are.

Luckily, I’m hardly the first to that table: There’s plenty of research out there from linguists, sociologists, psychologists, and anthropologists about the fine art of the compliment. Robert Herbert, an American sociolinguist, published a fascinating study about the different ways men and women treat compliments that illuminated some of my experiences around complimenting women around me. Some of the findings:

  • Women give wordier compliments than men: “What a great coat!” vs. “Great coat!”)
  • Women employ more personal terms than men: “I like those earrings” and “You look great in those earrings” versus “Great earrings”
  • Men generally don’t use the “I like/I love” construction when complimenting people of either sex; women use it frequently, most of all with other women 
  • American women are more likely to use “I like/I love” in compliments than British and New Zealand English speakers, and speakers of other languages (it’s rarely found in Asian languages).

I’m intrigued by this, particularly when examining the dual function of using personal terms in compliments. The first thought here is that women are simply speaking in ways we’ve been encouraged to socialize—we’re personal, not political, remember?—and would gravitate toward imbuing compliments with a personal touch that ostensibly aids sincerity and sociability, marking compliments as a more acceptable way of saying Gee, I think you’re swell. But looking at it from another angle, making a compliment personal is also a way of hedging a compliment. “I like that lipstick,” on its face, is about what the speaker likes, not about the lipstick; “Great lipstick” is about the lipstick, plain and simple. It simultaneously takes a risk (“Here is what I like”) and pushes it away (“Remember, this isn’t about you”); it’s assertive, not aggressive. It’s indirect, in other words—a communication mode linguists frequently claim women excel at.

But it’s in studying the reception of compliments that the connection between compliments and intimacy becomes clearest. Compliments given from man to man were accepted 40% of the time; only 22% of compliments given from one woman to another were accepted.

To be clear: Not accepting a compliment doesn’t necessarily mean rejecting it. By “accepting” a compliment in this context, we're talking “Thank you,” or an agreement with the compliment (whether that be a simple “I like it too” or an inflation of it, as in “Yeah, this sweater brings out my eyes, doesn’t it?”). The other forms of compliment response—nonacceptance, nonagreement, or a request for the compliment to be interpreted—can range from returning the compliment (“No, you’re so pretty!”) to scaling it down (“Yeah, well, you should’ve seen how my hair looked yesterday”) to reassigning it (“My hairstylist is a genius”). You can see the numbers here:

With that in mind, it’s easy to see why women might “accept” compliments about half as often as men—we’re taught to be deferential and modest and bashful and all that, right? But looking at this data, it’s clear that women know full well how to accept a compliment: When it was a man, not a woman, giving a compliment, women accepted it 68% of the time. The factor most likely to influence how people respond to a compliment isn’t what sex they are, but what sex the person giving it is. I’ll look more closely at male-female compliments later in the week; for now, what interests me isn’t why we’re likelier to say thank you to a man, but why we say anything but to a woman.

Scanning down the column listing responses to compliments given woman-to-woman, we find part of the answer. One number jumps out: 85 women out of 330 responded to a compliment with a “comment history,” defined in the paper as when the “addressee accepts the complimentary force and offers a relevant comment on the appreciated topic.” That is: A quarter of the time, we respond to a compliment with girl talk.

Janet Holmes, a leading scholar in linguistics and gender who conducted another influential (and gated, grrr) study on the gendering of compliments, puts it this way: Women recognize that compliments “increase or consolidate the solidarity between speaker and addressee.” Men recognize this too; “comment history” was also the number-one response men had when complimented by a woman. Part of this is women being assigned the emotional tasks within conversation: the how-did-that-make-you-feel-type stuff that, as the supposedly nurturing sex, comes “naturally” to us—and that gives men permission to articulate emotions that they might otherwise lack. But it’s not just limited to men: Women of different social statuses were likelier than men of different social statuses to exchange compliments. The solidarity isn’t in class, or if it is, it’s our classification as women that lies beneath what might masquerade as nattering on about perfume.

That solidarity is what makes compliments effective. It’s also what makes them poignant, and, as my friend Sarah put it, at times subversive. But given that appearance-based compliments are the most popular type of compliment shared between women—this is the research talking, not me—we’re tethering that effectiveness, poignancy, and subversion to how we look. I cherish the solidarity that compliments of all sorts can bring—nail polish, shoes, and hairstyles absolutely included. I just want us to remember that what makes us pretty is not what makes us women.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Beauty Blogosphere 6.22.12

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

From Head...
If I only had a heart: Reallllllly hoping the Fifty Shades of Grey makeup line is going to be uber-literal.

...To Toe...
Size me up: People can accurately judge age, gender, income, and attachment anxiety based on shoes alone. And here I thought I had everyone fooled with my sensible beige sandals with contour support and comfort soles, but it turns out they reveal me to be a 36-year-old middle-class lady who falls exactly in the middle of the attachment anxiety spectrum. (Thanks to This Charming Candy for the link. And word up, readers: Such a thing as pistachio-marshmallow lollipops exists in this good world, and This Charming Candy sells 'em.)

Reality bites: Speaking of shoes, how many pairs do you think you own? Now go count them: How many pairs do you actually own? Now go report your numbers to Virginia Postrel, who's conducting an experiment at Deep Glamour. (Me: 12/22. "Oh I hate shopping I'm so spartan I barely own anything and would be happiest in a Zen muumuu la di da.")

...And Everything In Between:
Jury sez: Former Proctor & Gamble executive Rajat Gupta found guilty of insider trading, though one of the two counts in which he was found not guilty was his connection with the personal care company (which, it turns out, also shouldered part of his legal fees). Meanwhile, The Times of India (Gupta was born in India) tells a different story: "Jurors in Tears as They Convict Gupta."

Hit me baby: Bulgarian fashion magazine takes the innuendo of many a fashion photo shoot to its logical extreme and features models made up to look like they've been savagely beaten. The editor says, "Where some see a brutal wound, others see a skilful (sic) work of an artist, or an exquisite face of a beautiful girl." Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't that the problem?

WHY?: This is only indirectly about beauty, but since I rag on advertising on here it's relevant: Hilariously titled simply "Why?", this site is devoted to asking people who work in the ad world why they do what they do. Jess: "She thinks agencies need the confidence to go after work that’s good for their clients and good for the world. Everyone in advertising wants to sleep at night." Sophia: "When her teachers kept telling her her work was too graphic, she decided to become a graphic designer." It's easy for cynics like me to demonize advertising, but it's rare that we have a chance to just hear people's reasons, plainly stated, for pursuing any careerespecially one as uniquely influential as advertising.

Child's play: Sweden considering banning cosmetic surgeons from doing procedures on anyone under 18. Presumably this might also cut down on the chance that a patient under 18 would swallow a scalpel.

Taxed out: Uganda recently approved a 10% tax on cosmetics, and some women are crying foul. The new budget also includes a new maternity hospital—crucial in a country where women are sometimes forced to give birth in hospital hallways for lack of beds—but activist Solome Nakaweesi points out that the gains aren't as great for women as they might seem. "[Men] own most of the construction firms, so they will get money for the roads and bridges. They will not pay graduated tax, school fees or buy food at home. So the man gains. We want our make-up tax-free." She also points out that salons—i.e. woman-owned businesses—may suffer under the tax.

Na zdorov'ya! 

Announcement, announcement!: Finally, it has been decided! The world's best-looking women are in Ukraine. This evidence invalidates previous indications that the world's most beautiful women are in SwedenVenezuelaRussiaBrazilthe United StatesNorwayCyberspace, or Pakistan. It also invalidates earlier findings surrounding the non-Ukrainian Florence Colgate, owner of what was, until this week, thought to be the world's most perfect face; in addition, it may prove potentially libelous for People magazine, which earlier this year proclaimed Beyoncé Knowles, an American R&B singer with no known ties to Ukraine, to be the world's most beautiful person.

Girl's best friend: World's most expensive face cream comes out in September, from Shiseido. Not that it'll make any real difference, unless you're Ukrainian.

V-Day: Thrilled to see that this billboard that basically gave the thumbs-up to street harassment was taken down swiftly, thanks to the decisive efforts of Holly Kearl from Stop Street Harassment. Brava to Ms. Kearl, and also to the marketing director of the mall where the offensive billboard was placed for recognizing the backward message it sent. 

Dangerous beauty: In These Times looks at salon workers' rights, specifically with environmental hazards, which are aplenty. The piece also focuses on WE ACT, an organization focusing on the health hazards of personal care products aimed toward ethnic and racial minorities. (And props for their shout-out to writer and friend of The Beheld Virginia Sole-Smith, who has done excellent investigative work on the beauty industry.)

Crisis line: Hugo Schwyzer on how the "man crisis" makes women's perfectionism worse: "As more women and fewer men choose to be successful according to traditional metrics, that shrinking cadre of still-ambitious straight men can afford to be pickier than ever about the women they pursue. Given that many of those men still see women’s beauty as a yardstick with which to measure their own status, it’s not hard to see how the growing problem of male disengagement correlates with the severe (and growing) problems of female hyper-competitiveness, body dysmorphia, and anxiety."

Misinformed: Well-meaning but misguided coroner blames thin models in the tragic death of a 14-year-old girl with bulimia who killed herself after being taunted by classmates for her weight. "The one class of person not here who I feel directly responsible for what happened is the fashion industry. I know this from my own experience, that the problems of eating disorders amongst young people, particularly girls, did not exist before the 1970s," he said. Not only is this inaccurate (there were plenty of eating disorders before the 1970s, albeit in far smaller numbers) but it ignores so much—eating disorder comorbidity with depression, for example, in addition to biological and environmental factors in eating disorders beyond media ideals. The thin imperative is a part of eating disorders, yes. But it's dangerous to simplify an enormously complex disease as being about one thing.

Cat's cradle: Jessica Wakeman puts the Cat Marnell "situation" (she was let go from her position as beauty editor at kindly, firmly, in perspective.

Backstroke: Twitter trolls have made so many nasty comments about the appearance of British swimmer Rebecca Adlington that the Olympian has had to take a break from the social media site. Michael Phelps has faced much the same abuse—oh wait no he hasn't nevermind.

Geekery 101: I've seen snippets of some not-great news about sexism in geek culture lately, but since I fall more on the dork end of the spectrum than the geek end (and haven't played a video game since Super Mario Brothers), I didn't have proper context. Luckily, Amanda Marcotte, who has a toe in geekdom but not much more, broke it down here: the trouble with objectifying women in geek lore.

I'll be watching you: Zara explains the Color Forecast tool, which digitally analyzes which colors people in fashion-forward cities (Paris, Milan, and...Antwerp) are wearing in real time. As Zara points out, it's nice to see Big Brother being used in a way that isn't individually invasive, but at the end of the day I'm still pretty freaked out by surveillance being driven by the consumer end. Do we really want this? (Also, Zara's blog, Almost Zara, is well worth subscribing to if you're interested in technology and its application to beauty and style. The tagline is "Technology, beauty, and the bizarre," if that's any indication of what you're in for. She leans far more toward digital positivity than I do—despite blogging and tweeting, I tend to be sort of cynical about the lifestyle implications of technology—but that's part of why I like her stuff.)

Heavy metal: 2012 cosmetic packaging trends include metallics, eco-conscious packaging, and "interactivity"—which, I mean, isn't makeup already interactive enough? (Toldja I was a digital skeptic.)

Purr: "The World's First Hello Kitty Beauty Spa Opens in Dubai." Dear lord, there will be more of them?

Homespun: Usually DIY beauty products refers to the mayonnaise-on-hair variety. (Which, by the way, I tried at age 13, and it took dishwashing liquid to get it out of my hair. Why has anyone ever recommended this?) But this high-tech emulsifying kit takes it up a notch, and I'm left wondering if this could be a new craft for lunching ladies. (Certainly at $250 it couldn't be a hobby for the lunchless variety comme moi.)

Fat day: Great piece aimed at the "thin friend" on how to navigate body talk—including when to eschew it altogether—with heavier folks. (via Ashe)

Glow girl: Okay, we all know normally I'm all harrumph about "beauty from the inside out." That said, eating more fruits and vegetables is a good idea in generally, and per No More Dirty Looks it turns out it actually makes you look...tan. (Evidence here.)

Model statement: Actress and Revlon model Emma Stone says she agreed to become a Revlon model to show young girls you don't have to look like a model in order to model. Um.

People of the cloth: Thought-provoking discussion of the role of dress in religion that manages to go beyond modesty (though that's covered as well). Part three is what grabbed me most, with its focus on whether skin was a form of dress, but all three parts are worth reading, and part one features a list of delightful resources like "Quaker Bonnets and the Erotic Feminine in American Popular Culture." (Thanks to Public Historian for the link!)

Photogenic: Shy Biker meditates on distortion and photographs, a subject dear to my heart. As pointed out in the post, there's the kind of distortion where people photograph unrealistically well, and the kind of distortion where people photograph poorly. My two cents: 1) There's also a distortion where you think you look better in photographs when you do something that misrepresents how you actually look (something I finally broke at age 35), and 2) I heard a perfectly logical breakdown once of how it was actually impossible to look better in an untouched photograph than you do in real life, something about how that kind of distortion wasn't a distortion at all but rather a revelation? I don't remember. But I like it!

Control patrol: Two nice posts on bodies and control this week. Sally writes a sort of Serenity Prayer version of body acceptance, about having the strength to accept the things we cannot change and the courage to change the things we can—within the loving boundaries of self-acceptance. Meanwhile, Darlene at Hourglassy reminds us in the context of an inappropriate comment that while we can't control people's reactions to our bodies, we can control how we react to their reactionand, of course, our attitude toward our own form.

And this week's Girls link is....: Virginia Sole-Smith, on Lena Dunham's body and what it's like to see so much of it: "We’re presented with Lena Dunham’s body, almost entirely without explanation or apology, and then we move on to this smart, funny show that’s about so much more than what her character, Hannah Horvath, looks like." You know, I got so wrapped up in the other questions surrounding the show that by the time I actually saw it, I barely noticed that Hannah's figure isn't Hollywood-standard perfect. And as Virginia's post reminds us, that's exactly how it should be.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Girl Talk

For my money, the most unrealistic part of Sex and the City was always the friendship. “Friendship porn,” I once heard it described as. People fingered Carrie’s wardrobe as being truly ridiculous, but after years of working in an industry where I’ve seen an adult woman spend a day at the office wearing a dress made entirely out of ribbon, I accepted that part of the show without question. But having a group of friends I have brunch with every weekend? Where would I find that?

So I’m interested to see that part of the critique tsunami surrounding HBO’s Girls has examined the characters’ friendships. It’s brought us everything from a feminist social history of best-friendship to a zoological history of the same. In fact, there’s been a good deal of attention paid to female friendship lately, including with the number of people who linked to this essay, which made the internet rounds when it was first published at The Rumpus. I’m glad to see these conversations happening; it’s a welcome relief from tired tropes of backstabbing women bad-mouthing one another at every opportunity.

My relief is tinged with melancholy, though. I couldn’t bear to read the Rumpus essay more than once because it hit me so hard when I read it the first time. Not because it resonated, but because it didn’t. To be clear: I have many wonderful female friends, some of whom I expect to be close with for the rest of my life. And in sheer numbers, I probably have more female friends than male friends. But in terms of who I treat as confidants, it’s slanted toward men, due to a combination of serial monogamy, the fortune to have remained friendly with a handful of men I used to date, and an incidental number of male friends. Given that I’ve usually worked in female-dominant fields, perhaps this has just been my way of adding some yang to my yin.

But there’s another reason my relationships with men move more fluidly. It may sound silly coming from a feminist who writes primarily for female audiences, but I’m talking socially, not intellectually, so here goes: I feel awkward around women. Now, that’s speaking in some pretty general terms—certainly I don’t feel awkward around every woman, or comfortable around every man. It’s more that accurately or not, I have an odd sort of faith that men enjoy being around women because of our womanness, making my sex is a built-in fortification of what I offer socially to men. We as a culture have been pretty successful at spinning stories about Man + Woman=Makes Sense, and the consequence for me has been just the tiniest bit more assurance that a man has reason to want to be in my company, even when attraction doesn’t factor into it. Then it becomes a catch-22: I’m more likely to be relaxed—and therefore more pleasant, charming, and fun to be around—if I trust that whomever I’m talking with genuinely wants to be there. So generally speaking, I probably am better company to men than I am to women, which results in a different sort of friendship.

I’m not proud of this attitude. I don’t like what it implies I think about men, or about myself. But it’s also notable for what it says of my relationships with women. I heard this quote once: “Men kick friendship around like a football, but it doesn’t seem to crack. Women treat it like glass and it goes to pieces.” Treat it like glass I do: afraid to touch it, afraid to give it the sort of handling that burnishes it and makes it uniquely yours. I’ve always hated the trope that women distrust other women, or secretly hate their friends or women in general, and that’s not what I’m saying here. If anything, I’m saying the opposite: I get tongue-tied around remarkable women because I dearly want them to like me, and unlike with men, there’s no culturally assumed “reason” for them to like me. The lack of trust here is in myself, not in other women.

So I feel like I have to work a little harder to get women’s approval. But the specific ways I’ve cultivated to gain approval—laughing a little longer at someone’s jokes, asking lots of questions, letting a gaze linger—sound suspiciously like flirting. Specifically, flirting with men. So when I’m around a woman I want to get to know better, suddenly I’m left not only being a little unsure how to be my best self, but also aware that my default “like me!” antics are conventionally feminine ways of appealing to men—which means plenty of women see right through them because they themselves have deployed the same tricks. At least, at my most vulnerable, self-doubting, and insecure that’s what I fear: that women—particularly the sort of intelligent, critical, soulful women I admire—will see through my laughter and questions and smiles and decide that whatever I bring to the table, it isn’t for them. (Perhaps that’s why I feel drawn to woman-only spaces like ladymags, come to think of it—it forces me to break out of relying upon the ways I’ve learned to communicate with men.)

At some point, though, I learned one thing I can bring to the table with women: girl talk. And yes, I mean highly stereotypical girl talk. I mean: I like your earrings, That’s a great color, Your hair looks fantastic. I used to consciously stay away from beautystuffs as small talk because I wanted to feign nonchalance about such matters; somewhere along the line, though, I recognized how well I myself responded to such conversation starters. My countenance, particularly around women, is pleasant but a little serious, meaning that something frivolous can come out of my mouth and I’m fairly certain it doesn’t make me seem frivolous. It simply lightens me, desirably so.

It’s been several years since I’ve started b
eing more fluent in beautytalk, and between working at image-conscious magazines and running a blog that is specifically designed to examine women’s attitudes and feelings about beauty and being looked at, it’s second nature now. Compliments and questions related to style or appearance easily tumble out of me; if I’m meeting a woman cold, like if I’m at a party where I don’t know anyone, chances are that’s the first thing out of my mouth. I’m always sincere about it—compliments fall flat if they’re a lie—and at this point I wouldn’t even say that this line of conversation is intentional. But I know where it comes from, and I know what I’m hoping to elicit when I do it.

Here is my trouble: I fear that I am forgetting how to connect with women in any other way. I found myself at a dinner party a while ago with a woman whose manner intrigues me; she’s one of those people whose words seem to matter more than other people’s, so wisely does she choose them. I was seated next to her, and my first words to her were something about her shoes (which were gorgeous, so I’m not entirely to blame here). She smiled and said Thank you, as one does, and after we had each nodded acceptance of the compliment and ensuing gratitude, neither of us had anything further to say to one another. Rather, I didn’t know how to get to that further point—at least not without her doing some of the heavy lifting along with me.

I’d expected her to help me out, which isn’t an outrageous expectation on my part; that is, after all, how conversations work. But in expecting her to help me out by saying anything other than the logical, polite response—thank you—I was actually attempting to direct her attitude. Toward herself, toward me, toward womanhood itself. I was expecting her to play along—to tell me, say, some story of where she’d gotten the shoes so I could then riff off a detail of that story, and in the course of that we would have each revealed something personal that could serve as a launching point for the conversation I actually wanted to have with her. I was expecting her to speak some code of womanhood right along with me—a code that as a feminist I know better than to think is actually how women communicate. I lobbed exactly one volley in her direction and expected her to return it.

And when she didn’t, I found that I didn’t have a backup plan. The code I’d been speaking in wasn’t code at all; it had become my native tongue, at least when attempting to make small talk. For it wasn’t just that laconic seatmate and her response that’s troubling me. It’s also the times when it works too well and I find I don’t know how to better anchor the conversation; it’s the times when I see exactly how moored I feel by “girl talk” with women and I wonder how deep my own feminist blood can run if this has become the primary way I know to reach out to other women. My approach has assumed that women in my path are eager to talk about their appearance, and not only that, but that they are eager to talk about their appearance with me because we are both women. Small talk works because we presume all the small talkers share a common condition. While I believe that all women have a unique relationship to presence, style, and visibility, the route I’ve been taking to get to that relationship isn’t helping me establish better friendships with women. And that’s because of another characteristic of getting-to-know-you chatter: Small talk is, by its nature and nomenclature, unimportant. And the very thing I value about beauty talk is what it reveals about us—that is, the stuff that is important. And yes, sometimes beauty talk gets there quickly and directly; that’s exactly why I defend it and work hard in my writing to not have it be written off as cotton candy. Yet in relying so heavily upon beauty talk as a conversation starter, I’ve been failing in my central mission. I know that you can’t just jump into a conversation by asking the really meaty stuff, sure. But if I truly believe in “girl talk” as a portal to that meat, to treat it in practice as fluff is a disservice to my goal.

Perhaps that became clearest to me when I was the recipient, not the instigator, of this sort of exchange. Some time ago, I found myself having a drink with a friend of a friend. The person who introduced us was doing most of the talking, so we were both able to quietly get used to the rhythm of the other before our mutual friend departed and left us on our own. We continued the conversation to its logical point, and it was clear that we each had a good deal to say to one another, but that we were perhaps too much alike in our being better responders than presenters. The conversation was good but not fluent. During one of our fumbling, strained pauses, she looked down and said, “I like your shoes.” The only thing remarkable about these sneakers is how unremarkable they are: Cheap, several years old, a faded olive color, scuffed and beaten, I’d only worn them because the weather was in flux and they were the single “shoulder season” pair I could fine.

I knew enough secondhand about this woman and her somewhat turbulent life to know that I wanted to know more about her. I wanted to talk with her about art and expression, about motherhood and madness. I wanted to know if what she saw every day in her appointment book, her mirror, her life was what she’d envisioned for herself; I wanted to know about disappointment and relief, and where the two might meet. I didn’t ask those questions, of course; you can’t just go in and ask those sorts of things. Sometimes chatter of shoes and mascara is a portal to the questions we really want answers to; sometimes the words that don’t matter are the only way to the words that do. But sometimes those words—where did you get that and I had a pair like that once and what a great color—form a Mobius strip of the words we know don’t matter, with no apparent outlet to what we want to say but don’t know how to articulate. I am trying to step off that neverending loop. But I am not sure how.

I felt that ache, that frustration that comes when I dance around intimacy, a dance only made more frantic when I sense the other person is there with me in our pas de deux. I felt it—I saw it—but I am still unpracticed in saying whatever one would need to say to get to what comes next.

And so I looked at her and said what we both knew you’re supposed to say upon receiving a compliment, the words that, with luck and effort, could lead to chatter of other cross-weather shoes, which could lead to climate, which could lead to where we grew up, which could lead to how we each define the word home. That is, I said Thank you.

What I didn’t say—but what I hope she heard—was I like you too.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Beauty Blogosphere 6.15.12

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

From Head...
Naked hair:
No More Dirty Looks is doing their annual summer hair challenge, which amounts to nothing more than sending in a picture of what you look like without any hair styling whatsoever. I hardly think of myself as a blow-dry addict but realized upon doing this challenge last year that it really had been a loooong time since I'd gone au naturel. Participate! There's a prize!

...To Toe...
Toeing the line: Ohio man downs 12 drinks, then walks into a nail salon carrying duffel bag full of cash and demands to receive a pedicure—first from salon workers, then from patrons.

Well-heeled: The NBA is now licensing stripper heels. As Tits and Sass points out, "These are perfect for dancers, but for female sports fans? Jerseys that fit would be a nice gesture, too..." For real. The one basketball jersey I own (Kenyon Martin + Autumn Whitefield-Madrano 4-eva!) is a kids' size, and people, I am not kid-sized.

...And Everything In Between:
Skin-So-Obama: Personal care spending (including beauty products) is back to its pre-recession levels. On the face of it, folks, it seems we've recovered, at least in hairspray dollars. But not so great on the employment front. Enter President Obama's initiative on increasing biobased production—including within the skin care industry—which could lead to preferred federal procurement of...moisturizer.

Kimpact: The Kardashian sisters launch a beauty line, its holiday collection will be called Kardazzle, and thus it was ever so.

Smells like teen spirit: Stalwart Elizabeth Arden buys licensing rights to Justin Bieber and Nicki Minaj fragrances, thus confirming my suspicion that Justin Bieber himself is not actually spending his evenings mixing ambergris and deer musk in his laboratory. (Why didn't he go with MTV?)

On the offensive: How Korean beauty lines are skillfully taking advantage of the sagging sales of imported cosmetics brands.

Brazil's next top model: Gisele partners with Brazilian organization Central Única das Favelas—or Central Union of Slums—for a modeling contest focused on the pool of talent in impoverished Brazilian neighborhoods. Certainly the goal is to "boost slum dwellers' self-esteem," as officially stated, oui? Not to mine communities in need for tall, pretty teenagers? My suspicions aside, this could be interesting: Most slum-dwellers in Brazil are of mixed race, so this could potentially increase visibility of dark-skinned women in a country with high racial tensions.

On buying in: This gossip bit from Star is less interesting for its content (Mila Kunis doesn't find herself sexy—hold the press!) and more interesting for the choice of words Kunis uses: "I've never bought into my own beauty myth." I'm sort of over celebrities 'fessing up their body woes, but embedded in Kunis's dismissal is a sort of capitulation to the double bind she's in: She's a young actress who is known for her looks, and she knows she's known for her looks, but she also understands how much of the starlet appeal is something constructed—that is, something that has little to do with what she actually brings to the table. 

Logo for Benefit's Mascarathon, which raises funds for survivors of domestic violence.
Seriously, people, am I reading too much into the sunglasses thing here? 

Run for the money: I keep on almost liking Benefit because it seems like their heart is in the right place, but they're always just a hair off. Like, it's great to raise funds for supporting survivors of domestic violence! But why must it be called a Mascarathon? And oh dear lord, is the woman in the event's icon wearing sunglasses because it's a charity run for victims of partner violence, and we all know those women have black eyes all the time? Please tell me I'm reading too much into this?

Ladymag diet: Caitlin on going a year without women's magazines: "I know that there are people out there for whom the imagery in women’s magazines does not affect them. They can look at the photos and recognize how unnatural they are.... I wish I had the ability to do that. The truth is, I don’t. I can tell myself over and over again that the photos were airbrushed like crazy, and it doesn’t do a single thing to quiet the voice in the back of my mind that wants to know why I can’t have skin like that, why my abs can’t be cut like that. But here’s the thing—that’s exactly what these magazines were designed to do." (Alternate idea to cutting out the women's magazines: Instead of reading Cosmo, read Pervocracy's monthly Cosmocking.)

"How would you live your life...if your story mattered?": On the (sort of) flipside, Margaret Wheeler Johnson makes a case for ladycontent—she's speaking specifically of the women's section of Huffington Post (which she edits, and which recently celebrated its year anniversary) but her arguments apply to women's magazines as well. 

The white beauty myth: Interview with makeup artist James Vincent, whose background in gender and race studies informs his work: "We have to step outside of our comfort zones; you've got to be a makeup artist who shows diversity in your portfolio. ... I think that makeup artists have got to step up and work with whatever face is in front of them—I have no tolerance for people that say 'I can't match this skin tone' or 'I'm not comfortable working on that skin tone.' It's a lazy way of looking at makeup and we, as makeup artists, are responsible for opening people's eyes and changing all of that."

Weaving history: This sounds fascinating: a "Human-Textile Wellness Initiative" on June 23 in New York, co-sponsored by the wonderful style blog Of Another Fashion, in which participants bring a family photos and a textile connected to the photo, ready to transform.

"Increasingly Threatening Taglines for Beauty Products": From McSweeney's: "Maybe she’s born with it. Or maybe she killed her sister for it. Either way, she’s really beautiful." (via Gala Darling)

Whiff of history: The secret scented history of royal anointing oils, timely with the Diamond Jubilee and all. While you're visiting the Scented Salamander, check out their list of suggested fragrances for film noir viewing. (Sadly, Poison does not make the list.)

Too sexy for this ad: Fifty-one percent of contemporary ads for beauty products include "sexiness," up from 23 percent in 1983. This would make a lot more sense if women—you know, the people buying most beauty products—responded positively to sex in advertising, which maybe we don't.

"Our discomfort with beauty comes down to unease with judgment itself": Lovely, lyrical meditation on the philosophy of beauty, as pegged to Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima in this literary essay at Full Stop.

I'm secretly hoping the movie version comes next.

Book club, anyone?: A huge congratulations to Sally of Already Pretty, whose book, Already Pretty: Learning to Love Your Body by Learning to Dress It Well, will be available for purchase June 22. Nobody nails the sweet spot of body positivity and dress-to-impress like Sally, and this book (like her blog) serves as an antidote to cookie-cutter figure-flattery advice. It's easy for "dress your figure"-type advice to get me all grumpy—so often it's just coded body-shaming (anything but a slim-but-not-too-busty hourglass? Fix it here!) or simply irrelevant to my body, and, I imagine, plenty of other women's bodies too. But Sally consistently offers relevant, practical tips that actually apply in a real way, and she never strays from the blog's core philosophy: "Whatever work you’ve chosen, whatever opus you’re creating, whatever battle you’re fighting, I want to arm you with confidence in your body and your style. Why? So you can stop worrying about your outward presentation and focus on what’s important.Pre-order her book here!

Snowed over: See now, I'd been trying to get myself psyched up for Snow White and the Huntsman, since I thought I had a duty to see it because it's all beauty and aging and women and desire and blah blah blah, but between reviews from Subashini ("LET’S ALL NOT SHOW UP AT THE CINEMA") and the Ms. blog ("There were a few good points.... Kristen Stewart has perfect eyebrows") I think I've been excused. (Also, am I alone in wishing Jon Huntsman had done better in the Republican primaries? Think of the interdisciplinary headlines this great nation could have!)

Kids!: Phoebe crushes the "oh no girls are getting bikini waxes" so-called trend story, elegantly pointing out how these pieces make us feel righteous without actually saying anything of note. "If we're thinking about 11-year-olds and their beautification requests in terms of preserving innocence, we're thinking about it wrong. By the time a girl demands the means/permission to address hairy legs or frizz, that particular innocence—which, again, we need to remember is something entirely different from sexual/romantic innocence—is long since kaput."

Occupy couture: How does fashion intersect with the Occupy movement? As political blogger Maryam Monalisa Gharavi points out, "Fashion is endowed with the potential to inform a political reality—whether the point it makes is illustrative, illuminating, or impinging is a separate question—because fashion comes from people."

Fifty shades: Dress With Courage's Elissa asks how much of a "choice" dyeing gray hair really is when, as she points out, "Of the 93 women who serve in Congress, only five of them have allowed any grey hair coloring to show through." 

All made up: I write a lot on here about makeup, but I don't write much about not wearing it. For that, check out Claire's list of reasons why she doesn't bother with the stuff. #9: "Fear of becoming lessgood 'without my face on.'"