Friday, August 31, 2012

Beauty Blogosphere 8.31.12

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


From Head...  
Water wigs: Click through, trust me.

...To Toe... 
Know thine enemy: We can all agree that PUA—that's pickup artist, in case you've had the good fortune to remain unawares until now—tactics are grody gross gross, but reading this sad little forum thread about whether or not to get a pedicure sort of puts it in perspective. PUAs aren't threats in the least! They're just sad, with gnarly feet. 

...And Everything In Between:  
Hellboy: Revlon controlling shareholder Ron Perelman got his way this week when a federal judge dismissed a suit filed by his estranged brother alleging that Perelman improperly used pension proceeds to finance Revlon. Also, disappointingly, Ron Perelman and Ron Perlman are two separate people.

It's P&G time, kids: Procter & Gamble CEO takes a pay cut of 6.1%, leaving him with a Cratchit-esque $15.2 million annual pay. C'mon folks, buy more Pantene! Daddy needs a new pair of shoes! But in sunnier P&G news, two board members were listed in the Forbes 100 list of powerful women. (The company actually has good gender representation on their board, a nice change of pace.)

Catwalked: This list of the world's 20 richest supermodels is interesting enough in an Us Weekly sort of way, but what made me include it here is the smirk of satisfaction that crossed my face when I realized that the vast majority of these women have been public figures for at least 15 years. We may think of modeling as a young woman's game—and, to be clear, it is—but part of the "winner take all" schema of the way modeling works seems to include financial growth with age and planning. 

Woman Up!: The bad news: There's a "Woman Up Pavilion" at the Republican National Convention where women can get their hair done while boys do boy things like talk snips, snails, and gross domestic product. The good news: It's empty. (Thanks to Caitlin for the link.)

Beauty OD: Keep an eye out for Beauty in Coma, a documentary about cosmetics overuse in Iran. It's unclear if the "overuse" refers to physical problems resulting from toxic products or social and psychological repercussions of relying upon makeup, but either way I'm glad to see this addressed outside of the western world.  

Two great bits of street harassment art: Hijabi to the rescue graffiti, and a stereotype-inversion cartoon. (I'm almost afraid to publicly like this cartoon, for fear that a certain strain of dude would then come up with a variation of "nice stitching!" as an alternate pickup line, but whatever, it's funny!)  

Hot new look: A group of scientists have developed flame-proof makeup, designed for firefighters and soldiers at risk for being exposed to explosive blasts, which can emit temperatures as high as 1,1112 degrees Fahrenheit. It incorporates DEET (which is flammable), is waterproof, comes in camouflage colors, and is non-irritating to eyes and mouth, all of which makes it seem like it's ready to hit the consumer market: "Ballistic with new Si-O-Si silicone bonds goes from day to night in a flash!" (Thanks to Rahel for the link.)

Stop the press!: Obama deems women worthy of talking to! The news that the U.S. president agreed to give an interview to Glamour magazine spurred ribs about how he's focusing on trivial concerns. Because you know us girls! We don't care none 'bout politickin' so long as our hair is shiny! (Seriously, when Glamour does these interviews they know better than to ask about boxers vs. briefs. The magazine has been shying away from its once-admirable news content as of late, which is a real pity, but it's good to see that they're staying on-task for the election.) (Thanks to Lindsay for the link.)

Primate primer: If more writing "for men" were like Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men, a newly released collection of essays from former Nerve columnist Michael Thomsen, I daresay I'd be far better able to handle "men's magazines"—and women's magazines too, for that matter, because the two exist in tandem. On being asked by his date to flex: "It's the introduction of someone else's gaze that impulse to commodify yourself, to be desirable, to feel the dislocated pleasure of becoming an object in someone else's eyes. That desire can become quanitified, reduced into a hazy disillation of self-worth. It's a way of putting the burden down for a few moments, to let the weight of your own body be buoyed up by the admiring look of someone down below." Never before has an essay titled "Come on My Face" stirred emotion within me, but then again, finding essays of such candor and nuance is rare. If you enjoy personal essays, this book mustn't be overlooked.

You know, for girls!: Nothing to do with beauty, but judging from the number of people who sent me this link to Amazon reviews of Bic pens "for Her," it fits here anyway. Hilarious! (via everyone)

Photoshopped: Excellent opinion piece that articulates part of why I'm hesitant to jump whole hog onto the bandwagon of anti-retouching activism. Of course I'm not giving the thumbs-up to the massive distortion of bodies that retouching perpetrates, but like the writer of this piece, I can't help but wonder: "In trying to fell only the parts of the tree that we can see, are we falling prey to a clever campaign of distractivism by industry players keen to keep things as they are while appearing to support progressive policies?"

What makes a woman look powerful?: Darlene at Campbell and Kate (a boutique company of button-down shirts designed for large-breasted women) examines visible signals of power and femininity via a look at the Forbes 100 Most Powerful Women list. It's a difficult issue: When showcasing a list of powerful women, what images should you use? It seems that Forbes took a purposefully desexualized angle, which certainly provides a respite from the idea that success isn't a shield against having to look sexy at all times. At the same time, the images chosen make it clear that we still have a hard time pairing conventional femininity with power. For more on this, check out some musings over at Feminist Philosophers about a "pinkified" cartoon of a lady scientist. (And for more on the trendified spate of made-up words with -ify endings, read Nancy Friedman.)

On permanent depilation: It took Kate's assertion to make me realize this, but I, too, want old woman pubic hair.

Mary Kay manipulation: One of the criticisms Virginia Sole-Smith ran into after publishing her excellent exposé in Harper's about Mary Kay profiteering was that she believed women who signed up for the direct sales scheme were, well, stupid. In this op-ed piece, she makes clear not only that that's not the case, but that in order for the program to work as well as it does, Mary Kay needs to speak directly to the needs of its potential workforce, promising flexible hours and maximized profits. In other words: Mary Kay wouldn't work if it counted on suckers; instead, it manipulates legitimate concerns of female workers for its own benefit.

Biden Bergamot Body Butter: Bliss releases a limited-edition election product pair: orange-scented O-bama lotion, and Mint Romney lotion. I've tried to think about why this makes my skin crawl a little and am coming up empty. Could it be the commodification of democracy, the refusal to actually treat politics as something one could have a stake in instead of as an opportunity to earn a little cash, the trickle of dread that creeps down my spine when I think about Romney voters picking up the pair of lotions after a $500 face treatment for a laugh? Or do I just think it's a bad pun?

20 Irrational But Nonetheless Persistent Beauty Fears I’ve Picked Up From My Time as a Female Human Being: "If I forget to wear bronzer, I’ll look like Powder."

You can't see it, but I'm playing footsie with Dr. Nancy Snyderman. 

Mirror mirror: If you missed my appearance on the Today show this week (what, you were sleeping at 8:10 on a Monday?), you can catch it online here. I'm still thinking about some of the dialogue that went on during my five minutes of fame—namely why despite me not saying a word about feeling critical about the way I look, the segment turned into a discussion of our "hate relationship with the mirror" and how to find "self-compassion"—but for now, I'll simply point you to this Jezebel piece about why some might be hesitant about the idea of abstaining from the mirror. I also like this column from Rebecca Kamm at the New Zealand Herald, one of of the few pieces that addresses something within mirror abstinence besides self-esteem.

What a fox: When writer Liza Mundy was slathered with blue eyeshadow before her appearance on Fox News, she was taken aback; other news shows had done her makeup, sure, but not like this. And for us, the result is a report on the network's "Fox glam" look, though the entire practice of making over "real women" (not just anchors) gets a nice review here too. (Thanks to Nathan for the link.)

That hoodoo that you do: Fascinating entry at Vintage Powder Room stemming from Lucky face powder, an early midcentury cosmetic designed for women of color. It's not just to blot oil; it was a tool of hoodoo, or conjure, a folk magic practiced in the southeast United States.

"That girl needs to be fucked": Devastating, crucial piece from Evelyn Hampton on language—specifically the language we use to describe women—can leave a psychic stain. "Language has a force. It has the power to change how we behave. How we move and use our bodies. Language has the power to change our bodies. Language is how concepts move and change. Concepts are the screen through which we see and believe. But a lot of the time we make a mistake: we mistake the concepts for reality."

Awesome people hanging out together: I don't normally get too fangirl, even about public figures I adore, but every so often I can't help it, and this is one of those times: John Berger drawing Tilda Swinton.

Manic pixie dream you: Lauren Wilford gives the best take on Manic Pixie Dream Girls that I've read yet, given in the guise of an ersatz review of Zoe Kazan's Ruby Sparks. "It’s easy to take aim at the ways that women are physically objectified in gossip and fashion magazines, in pornography. Idealization is a much sneakier enemy, because it masquerades as something benevolent: see, we’re thinking well of women, we’re raising them up. And the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is sneakier yet, because it hides its idealization in stacks of pretty imperfections. But all of these things serve to define women by ideas and images in the minds of others—in the minds of men, even men who claim to love them—rather than by their own thoughts, feelings, and actions. They reduce. They dehumanize." Rarely have I seen someone look so squarely at the idea of women idealizing their own tropes, something that strikes me as ever more insidious about the MPDG stereotype than the indie-arty dudes lollygagging about. (Bonus points for connecting the phenomenon to mirror abstinence!)

Doing the math: In one of the more ill-conceived portion-control charts I've seen, Lauren Conrad's team suggests using beauty products as a guide to portion control. Your salad should be the size of a shower scrubbie, your pasta should be the size of a compact, and your fruit bowl should be the size of two large magenta vibrating eggs.

Mannequin: I love this story from the mother of Rags Against the Machine blogger Terri, about making her own dress form for her wedding gown in 1953.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Beheld 101

Greetings! If you’re here after seeing me on the Today show (U.S.) or Sunrise (Australia): Thank you for visiting The Beheld! More information about my mirror fasting can be found here; you should also check out Mirror Mirror Off the Wall by Kjerstin Gruys, who went an entire year without looking in the mirror and is currently writing a book about the experience.

The public focus on mirror fasting has zeroed in on how the exercise changes our perspective on appearance. And, of course, that’s part of what my mirror fast did for me. But for me, something that was more important than either trying to feel better about my appearance—or to mute vanity—was to sever the observation loop.

As art critic John Berger wrote in Ways of Seeing, “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object—and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.” I wanted to know what would happen if I stunted my ability to turn myself into “a sight”; if, instead of the chronically heightened awareness of the way I appear, I could tap into … well, I wasn’t entirely sure what I would wind up tapping into. That is why I did the mirror fast. Altering the way I thought about myself was part of it, yes, but all roads here lead to the complexities of self-observation.

While you’re here, please check out some of my other projects and writings from this blog. The Beheld is on Twitter and Facebook, and is also syndicated at The New Inquiry, which hosts a full roster of top-notch bloggers.

Interviews: Long-form interviews from women with unique perspectives on beauty, ranging from cosmetologists and photographers and artists to nuns and bodybuilders and morticians.

Thoughts on a Word: What do we mean when we say a woman is cute as opposed to attractive? Gorgeous instead of a bombshell? Sexy instead of glamorous? By examining etymology, history, and usage, I consider words commonly used to describe women’s appearance.

Beauty Blogosphere: My Friday roundups feature what I consider "beauty news." Instead of focusing on products, I curate links that span the worlds of business, academia, international news, health, women's media, social activism—and, as ever, the blogosphere itself.

Personal essays
     • For Helen Gurley Brown
     • For Elizabeth Taylor
     • For Janis Joplin
     • For Anne Frank

Friday, August 24, 2012

Beauty Blogosphere 8.24.12

Note: My appearance on the Today show has been rescheduled for Monday morning, but since the Today show covers news, that can change at any minute. 

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

Instead of plucking collagen from liposucted thighs, let's take it from the menace of the sea!

From Head...
Fruits of the sea: Newest skin-care source: jellyfish! (Raise your hand if the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word jellyfish is Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself. Anyone?)

...To Toe...
Political pedicure: Okay, I know I swore off "dudes get pedicures too!" for this section, but since the dude in question actually elaborated on his tootsies I think this gets a pass. So: Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, gets pedicures. Ta-da! More important: Cory Booker's people must be pretty phenomenal. How many other mayors of towns under populations of 300,000 would you recognize? Mayor as brand. Mostly because he's cute? 

...And Everything In Between:
To fight that unbeatable foe!: Breathe deeply! Dr. Bronner's lawsuit against a number of competing companies, including Hain Celestials and Kiss My Face, has been dismissed. The everevolving Eternal Company of Dr. Bronner's claimed that the competitors were not living up to the almighty, ever-loving standards of the word organic! But a California district court threw it out, knowing that Absolute teamwork fertilizes God's Earth! ALL-ONE! ALL-ONE! Great love, song speech & Profitsharing. Health is Wealth! 

You wax his back, he'll scratch yours: Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) met with beauty industry insiders last week to talk the Small Business Tax Equalization and Compliance Act, which is of interest to salons since it would give salon owners dollar-for-dollar tax credit on FICA taxes on employee tips.

Lush politics: Lush does it again, backing a truly controversial cause instead of merely hiding behind pink ribbons: It's campaigning on behalf of the Free Papua movement, which doesn't yet have popular support. The movement has been outlawed in Indonesia, which took reign over Papua and West Papua in 1969 after a U.N.-sponsored referendum that was widely suspected of being rigged.

Mini P&G roundup: Is Procter & Gamble too big for its own good? And on the employment front, Procter & Gamble is the 15th-hardest company to interview for.

Masstige reigns: L'Oréal brings its hoity-toity brands Vichy and La Roche-Posay to Walgreens, presumably part of the drugstore chain's mission to become more of a masstige destination, à la its Look boutiques in NYC's Duane Reades.

Industrial beauty: Interesting read on another way the beauty-business boom in China is influencing Chinese female consumers: the quality (and price) increase of beauty salons. Once upon a time, beauty salons were vaguely unseemly, tucked away on side streets, and workers suffered from the assumption that "beauty salons" and their kin, "massage parlors," dealt in trades other than beauty and massages. Fast-forward to a surging middle class and suddenly the salon business is not only legitimate, but growing at a rapid-fire pace.

Cross culture: A peek at a growing Japanese subculture: men dressing like women. Hardly news in the States, but interesting to see emerging in Japan.

Clean and white: A new campaign for Clean and Dry, an "intimate wash" with skin lightening properties, is causing an outcry in its target market of India. I've argued before about the knee-jerk reaction of associating skin lightening creams with racism in nations where most of the population is dark- or tawny-skinned; that is, while race can never be left entirely out of the equation, it seems those creams are more associated with lifestyle and class connotations than internalized racial oppression. But this is different, methinks: Women worldwide are told their labia might not be quite good enough (vaginoplasty, anyone?), yet I can't help but think that the specific use of the tactic of "your labia are too brown" taps into a deep shame regarding one's skin color. 

Eating disorders aren't just a rich white girl thing, you know.

Binge and purrge: The newest population to fall prey to eating disorders, specifically psychogenic abnormal feeding behavior: cats.

Ana mia pia: Interesting study that's made the rounds about a potential upside to pro-eating-disorder sites: They may actually encourage and enable support of wellness, not only destructive behaviors. I'm actually not too surprised to hear this; plenty of the women I know with eating disorders have a pretty intense love/hate relationship with the very idea of the eating disorder. Nobody's suggesting we need more of these blogs, but I'm glad to see researchers looking at this with more complexity than just a blanket admonishment of these sites. 

Potato chip diet: Kristen Stewart is going to develop an eating disorder! Because she's suffering from a very public breakup for which she's being villainized (understandably so, but still) and is subsisting on cigarettes and potato chips! Oh, criminy. Who doesn't eat weird post-breakup? I recall being unable to stomach anything other than buttered toast after finding a then-boyfriend's active profile on (some suspicions, my friends, are founded). So this story is annoying for two reasons: 1) It gives a false impression of what eating disorders actually are (that is, you need to do more than just have a couple of weeks of eating poorly to have one), and 2) it shows that somehow eating disorders are to be expected of young women. Nobody is reporting on Robert Pattinson's eating habits, are they?

"Looking good is often balanced by feeling bad": Jane Hu gives the best piece on the complexities of the Cat Marnell thing (which I say, perhaps in vain, to separate it from Cat Marnell, who is, after all, a person) that I've read yet: "Marnell’s 'unthinkable jouissance' is just that—an explosive pleasure so seemingly destructive that many of us would rather not contemplate it. Her pleasure threatens the logic of reproductive futurism by exposing how meaningless life could get."

What men REALLY think, no really!: Hilarious commentary on one of those "What Dudes Really Think" pieces that basically serves as mental policing of us lady-types. I'd have liked to see Lindy focus more on the media machine that cranks out crap like this and less on the individual men quoted in the piece (who, I'm guessing, were badgered into it by a friend who happened to be an editor for who begged, "Please say something douchey about your girlfriend on the record! Think hard! First name only"). That said, I love the piece, and she also makes a very salient point here, about a man who says that he wishes his girlfriend would actually get a manicure instead of doing her nails herself: "I find it hard to believe that Shaun can even tell the difference between a salon manicure and an at-home manicure, unless his girlfriend has some sort of tremor-inducing palsy, or multitasks by combining nail maintenance with trampoline practice. Which means this whole thing is just about signaling—Shaun wants to be with the kind of woman who gets her nails done at a salon." Yep, yep, and yep.

On the Eurocentric beauty myth: I do my best to not superimpose my own politics onto other women's bodies, but I'm pretty sure I fall short sometimes. So this airing of concerns at Gradient Lair about white folks who shake their heads at black people who appear to be throwing around some internalized oppression is worth remembering. It's all spurred by talk of Gabby Douglas and, yep, her hair: "When Whites shake their fingers at Black people with internalized White supremacy issues, the ones that make them bash Gabby’s hair, yet turn around and deny job applicants with 'ethnic' names, 'ethnic' zip codes, or braids or locks, hair texture and Black culture most certainly intersects with Whiteness."

Eau de classics: This soap company sounds exquisite, taking inspiration from their scents from works of classic music and literature. Roses and cedar (both mentioned in the libretto) in The Magic Flute-inspired soap; olive oil and laurel leaf for Hyperion, set in Greece. Of course, Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab has been doing this for years, but there's always room for more, right?

Sniff: I don't care enough about perfumes to follow all these, but this list of the 17 best perfume blogs from Stylelist seems well-curated (and features the one scent blog I do read regularly, Scented Salamander, a blog that manages to be both conversational and erudite). In particular, I'm enchanted by Yesterday's Perfume, a vintage perfume blog.

The oldest panties in the world: Meet the 600-year-old matching bra-and-underwear set recently discovered in Austria. 

"It's a good thing that beauty is only skin deep, or I'd be rotten to the core." Phyllis Diller, 1917–2012

Two sides, same coin: It's not particularly hard to find beauty tutorials in Helen Gurley Brown's legacy—so I love that style expert Rachel Weingarten writes on not only an unexpected lesson from HGB, but on what she learned about beauty from Phyllis Diller. (It's been a rough couple of weeks for amazing older women, oui?)

What does a runner look like?: Congrats to Caitlin's recent 5K victory for her age group (and third woman overall!). As ever, she puts her thoughts on female athleticism adoitly: "I don’t look like a runner. I look like a basketball player, or maybe a swimmer. I look solid and sturdy and thick. I’m tall—taller than most women and even most men. My stomach isn’t flat. It hasn’t been since…actually, I don’t think it ever has been flat. My thighs are muscular but not lean. ... And yet there I was, the third woman across the finish line. My body was slick with sweat, my face red with exertion, my feet barely touching the ground because I was running so fucking hard. I may not look like a runner, but I am one—a good one, too. And I’m only going to get better."

Dangerous curves ahead: Beauty Redefined, in characteristically sharp fashion, identifies exactly why it's not progress when photo editors airbrush in curves on models instead of taking them out: "Thinness is not the problem here. Hourglass figures or 'curves in all the right places' are not the problem here. The problem here is that the grass is always greener on the other side, and so many industries have capitalized on convincing and re-convincing women (and men) of that lie." Absolutely. The first time I saw an editor mark up a photo with instructions to make the model "less bony," I felt a small sense of victory—until I put together that not only was that a deception to the reader, but a disservice to the model pictured. You see a lot of this in the industry. And just like thin-bashing, it is not okay.

On "old love": I've often wondered—assuming I am lucky enough to not only grow very old, but to grow very old with someone I love—how I'll handle knowing without a doubt that any form of conventional beauty I might have has faded. Normally I assuage my worries with thoughts of how if I'm so lucky to grow old with someone, surely he would see beauty beyond its supposed natural life; this essay reveals that might be true, but also that the admission of beauty's fading needn't be a bad thing: "A secret I have kept until now, however, is my suspicion that sometimes when I look at her today I substitute the image from a photograph taken almost 40 years ago in the garden of a villa on a Greek island, and that when she sees me she performs a similar operation."

Flattered yet?: "Flattering" has some mighty mixed messages therein, and Ragen at Dances With Fat stakes her claim against the word. I use the word judiciously—and I really try not to use it as a synonym for "slimming" when applied to clothes—for many of the reasons Ragen lists here, namely that it encourages the idea that there's one right way to look, and the closer you get to that look, the more "flattering" something is. (What about plain old looking good?) That said, I'm not exactly out to wear clothes that aren't flattering, you know? I'm not so into fashion that I must have the newest [whatever; I don't even know what's trendy right now, polka-dots?] regardless of how it looks on me; I want everything I wear to make me look my best. And yes, that's usually slimmer yet more hourglassy than I actually am. Ambivalent I remain.

Visibility forecast: I've seen the term "Visible Monday" around the style blogosphere, but hadn't really understood what it meant until I read this post by Patti at Not Dead Yet Style, guest posting for Already Pretty. I've heard of the phenomenon of "the invisible woman"—that is, women over a certain age who presumably cease to garner the male gaze, or indeed most gazes—and love Patti's response to it: Every Monday, she and anyone who wants to post style photos of themselves that make them feel visible.

Curve chart: Loving the Corporate Curves Report at Hourglassy, examining ways for full-busted women to navigate work wardrobe concerns and awkward work situations. (Like, erm, the time a videoconferencing camera wound up zooming in on Tina's bust.)

Modestly yours: Nahida examines the contradictions in practice surrounding Qur'an 23:31: "to subdue their gaze, and to be mindful / of their chastity, and not to show off
 / parts of their adornment [in public] beyond
 / what may [decently] be apparent
 / or obvious thereof." Or you could just read it as a post about hair flowers! Your call.

On shopping as war: Christina Kral and Adriana Valdez Young for South/South at The New Inquiry: "Both [war and shopping] can be quite aggressive and at the same time appear to be innocent or absolutely necessary. As we shop or war, we serve a greater other. There are seasons for shopping and seasons for war. Both keep us busy and controlled, it is aBeschäftigung (activity, occupation, service), a Zeitvertreib(pastime, amusement, vocation). What would people do if going to war or to the mall wasn’t an option anymore?"

You really like me!: Is it tooting my own horn if I point readers to someone else tooting my horn? Well, apologies if it is, but the Strong, Sexy & Stylish Short podcast this week made me all glowy, with Sally McGraw and her colleagues giving the public thumbs-up to what I do here. Thank you to the wonderful trio!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Beach Body Bingo (and Me on the Today Show)

Why would I feel beach body anxiety? Hell, Annette Funicello looks thrilled to be at the beach, and she's not even wearing a skydiving harness!

First off, a bit of news: I’m going to be on the Today show tomorrow morning  sometime in the next week [breaking news], talking mirror fasting. I’m pleased that this is beginning to be talked about as something more than just a blogger or two—word up, Kjerstin!—taking some time away from the mirror, and while I’m skeptical that there are enough mirror fasters out there to truly qualify as a “trend,” the idea that this is a part of a zeitgeist of women questioning their relationship to the mirror is exciting.

I was planning on doing the mirror fast again anyway, making it a sort of annual ritual for myself, when the Today show reached out to me after having read about my first go-round. In talking together, we decided it would be fun for me to keep a video diary of this year’s mirror fast, giving periodic updates about my progress and occasionally filming myself doing things that one would normally need a mirror to do. In brainstorming ideas we came up with a handful of ideas—going to the gym, shopping for clothes, getting my hair done, and so on.

When a friend suggested going to the beach, everyone else present nodded vigorously, but at first I wasn’t quite sure what that might have to do with going mirror-free. It’s not like there are mirrors at the beach, right? “It’s the whole ‘bikini season’ thing,” she said. Now, here’s the thing: I have my share of body anxieties, believe you me—but by whatever grace of the fates, “beach body” anxiety isn’t one of them. See, I love the beach. I. Love. The. Beach. Ilovethebeach. I saw a documentary about people with “object sexuality,” which amounts to a romantic desire toward inanimate objects (one woman fell out of love with her archery bow and fell in love with the Eiffel Tower), and—I mean, I’m not actually in love with the beach, but if the beach showed up at my place in a trenchcoat with a boombox, I’d be charmed, okay? And once I’m at the beach, my ability to get worked up about the circumference of my thighs becomes pretty much nil. I’m in the water half the time anyway—my great-grandmother was a mermaid—and the rest of the time I’m too busy sunning, dozing, fanning, or generally lazing about to care.

Sure, I might take care to suck in my belly when I emerge from the surf; yes, I usually give myself a quick once-over in my tankini before heading out the door. But I’m of the belief that American beaches—at least, my favorite beach in the five boroughs, Jacob Riis Park, named for a muckraker who documented the plight of poor, often new, Americans, who came here for a better life—are a sort of haven of democracy that extends to our bodies. There are plenty of beaches in the world (and in this country) where body consciousness rules, but New York City public beaches are not among them. I’m not saying that “beach body” anxiety isn’t a legitimate anxiety to have, just that it isn’t mine. Certainly, judging by the way others started nodding when the idea of going to the beach without having looked in a mirror recently, it’s an anxiety plenty of others share. So, sure, yeah, I’ll go to the beach and film it for my video diary. Maybe I’ll learn something, right?

Still, a couple of weeks after this conversation, it occurred to me: By including my beach trip in my video diary of my month without mirrors, which was going to be broadcast on national television, i.e. roughly four million people, I was also agreeing to appear in my swimsuit—on national television, in front of roughly four million people.

At this point, I feel like I should describe something about this realization felt: like a ton of bricks, perhaps? a punch in the gut? what other clichés can I come up with about how a 36-year-old woman with ample thighs, a round little beer belly, and a lifetime of Growing Up Woman would react upon realizing what she’d signed up for? This was the “swimsuit readiness” test of all time, right? This was my bikini body—okay, my tankini body, whatever—on display not for my fellow beachgoers (who would be, after all, in their own trunks and tankinis and Speedos and triangle tops and having far too good a time at the beach to be thinking about moi) but for people in their living rooms who may or may not have had their coffee yet and who may or may not be sitting there, arms crossed, grumbling Who is this woman, and why does she think we want to see her in her swimsuit? I should be freaking out, right?

Here’s the thing, though: I didn’t actually feel that way.
I report this not in a moment of triumph of overcoming all my self-consciousness, but rather in the way some people report reacting to the death of a loved one: feeling sort of weird about not feeling worse than they actually do. I knew of the feeling that might be expected of a woman nearing 40 with a probably-average set of body woes who just realized four million people may see her in her swimsuit—panic, anxiety, worry, fear. But when I compared it with my actual reaction, which was more in the realm of Oh, whatever, the gap between the two made me wonder why I wasn’t more anxious about it. Let me repeat that, for absurdity’s sake: My reaction to realizing that I’d signed up for four million people to see my bare thighs was nonchalance, and I didn’t understand why it wasn’t anxiety.

Like the five stages of grief—which, as a side note, are nicely debunked in Ruth Davis Konigsberg’s The Truth About Griefthe idea that women are eternally dissatisfied with our bodies has taken deep hold in our culture. That’s not an invention; plenty of women are or have been dissatisfied with our bodies, and I’d wager that the number of women who have never felt bodily dissatisfaction could fit in my bathtub. But it’s also an idea that came to be a truism that’s actually based on something deeply contextual. Looking at the comments on this post at No More Dirty Looks about when we feel most beautiful, it’s clear that as often as plenty of us bemoan the state of our bodies, our skin, our selves, we also know that sometimes we are damned good-looking. Who doesn’t feel radiant after an amazing dance class or yoga session or run in the woods? Who doesn’t feel beautiful curled up in the arms of a lover après amour?

These aren’t the stories we hear, though. We hear the opposite—the tales of dismay with ourselves. Even when we hear about women looking at their bodies without disapproval, it’s generally framed as a tale of redemption, of overcoming the poor bodily esteem we’re all expected to have. And in my case, that story had become so entrenched that even when my own experience and reality ran counter to it, there was still a part of me that reacted to the societal narrative above my own. Which, by the way, I did: For a couple of days I actually considered going to a tanning booth in hopes that a deeper color would serve as a quick body makeover—this from someone who can check every box on the high-risk skin-cancer checklist, and who has already had precancerous cells removed. I have never considered indoor tanning before; frankly, I’m just thankful I didn’t go down some weird food restriction rabbit hole, since I know that leads nowhere good. In the end, I didn’t go tanning; in the end, I was indeed filmed in my swimsuit, and in the end, if the Today show team includes that footage in the video segment and four million people see my naked thighs, I am fairly certain the earth will continue to rotate on its axis. My baseline sense of self prevailed here, but still I wonder about why there was a part of me that let the societal narrative run on its ticker tape, nearly superimposing itself over my own authentic reactions.

I’ll be thinking on this, probably for a while. I suspect it has something to do with the ways women are punished for being vain (though it’s not exactly as though we’re rewarded for rejecting vanity either), but I think there’s more there, and I’ll be writing more about that in the future. And maybe my perspective is skewed on this; after all, I spend a good deal of my time in corners of the blogosphere that focus on women’s bodies, so maybe I’m getting a slant here that isn’t actually representative of the archetypal narrative of women’s relationship to their bodies. I’d love to hear what your thoughts are on this: When you read or hear about women’s bodies—from women themselves—is it underscored with an assumption of dissatisfaction? Or is it underscored with neutrality or positivity, or redefined each time depending on the speaker and context? Or...?

In the meantime: I'll update here when I have a firm date for the show. It’ll be my first time on national television and I’d love to go into it knowing that some readers are there with me!

Friday, August 17, 2012

Beauty Blogosphere 8.17.12

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

From Head...
Crop top: Miley Cyrus cut her hair; world freaks out. Luckily, we have Mary Elizabeth Williams (with whom I've previously disagreed about short hair) to lucidly articulate why a crop needn't be a "call for help": "Long hair represents femininity and vulnerability and sex. It’s princesses and mermaids and porn stars. Short hair, on the other hand, says, 'If you think I’m gorgeous, great, but this isn’t about you, pal.'"

...To Toe...
A Tale of Two Walks: I've never been amused by men doing stereotypically feminine things for laffs; it generally strikes me as condescending, not investigative. Yet I'm sort of halfway into this fund-raising/awareness walk for domestic violence called Walk a Mile in Her Shoes, where men walk, yes, a mile in women's high heels. It shifts the onus for intimate partner violence from women onto men (who make up the majority of abusers); obviously I'm all for women helping women, but until anti-violence messages are targeted toward abusers, we're not going to get anywhere, and this seems like a start. But then again, it could do the opposite—paint a traditionally feminine icon as something weak, painful, and in need of assistance. Thoughts?

...And Everything In Between:
Avon calling:
Fascinating study from Baylor University that serves as an interesting complement to the Mary Kay exposé in Harper's by Virginia Sole-Smith. For black women in South Africa, direct sales (specifically, Avon) seems to actually provide some of the benefits that these companies promise—and fail to deliver—their sales representatives in the States, as shown by Sole-Smith's work. One example: In a country where only 38.4% of black women have any bank account at all, whether their own or a joint account with a family member, 92% of Avon representatives had their own bank account. It seems that vague terms of "empowerment" can take a firmer hold in places where women's power is far more tenuous than it is in cultures where most of this blog's readers hail from. Women in the study widely reported increased self-confidence, career skills for future jobs, and financial autonomy. More to the point: The mean income earned from selling Avon was about 900 ZAR (roughly $109 U.S.) a month, which would put an Avon representative in the top half of wage-earning black women in South Africa, and would bring her earnings nearly in line with that of her male counterpart.

I can see through your transparency: Johnson & Johnson is launching a site dedicated to educating consumers on ingredient safety for their products, which seems like a nice enough idea until you read between the lines here. “People already know that our products and ingredients meet or exceed government regulatory standards. They want to know more,” said a Johnson & Johnson representative. Well, yes, we want to know more, given that there are no government regulatory standards for many of the personal care products in question. This seems more along the lines of the Safe Cosmetics Alliance to me—that is, not terribly safe at all.

Something smells suspicious: Two former employees of perfumery Bond No. 9 are filing charges against their former boss, owner Laurice Rahme, for racist bias. Rahme asked employees to use the unsettling code phrase "We need the light bulbs changed" whenever a customer with dark skin—oh, excuse me, whenever a customer who looks "suspect," as claimed by Rahme—walked in. (At least one of the women bringing the suit is dark-skinned and was allegedly not allowed to help white customers.) When the employees complained about the racist practice, they were fired and accused of defrauding the company of $25,000.

Patch it up: Sri Lankan man dies after an allergic reaction to a hair dye. Patch test, people! (Actually, I've never patch tested a beauty product in my life, but after I had an unexpected allergic reaction to a medication this spring that left my body covered in a heat rash and my face and hands terribly swollen—this after a lifetime of no medicinal allergies whatsoever—I'm going to start. You really never know.)

Breaking news: Area Woman Not Harassed Today. "Perhaps more mysteriously, not one male superior she passed silently in the halls grinned at her unnervingly and told her that it 'wouldn't hurt to smile,' the 28-year-old confirmed."

Fashion etiquette: What to wear if you're a lady marrying a lady?

"An individual is not an abstraction": A hyena might look like a very nice hyena but a very ugly dog—a nice analogy from Franklin Veaux on why he's never understood the idea of having a strong preference for certain physical characteristics in partners. (I never have either, besides being a sucker for a tall dude, though I've certainly been attracted to the small-but-mighty type as well.) (via Strong, Sexy & Stylish)

Alpha: Science (you know, Science) is coming one step closer to discovering how all that alpha hydroxy shit we're supposed to put on our faces past age 30 actually works! Like I suspected, it's all about the transient receptor potential vanilloid 3.

Go for the gold: Virginia Sole-Smith on "Olympic Beauty" and body diversity: "[W]hen the Olympics dominates the media, we see a huge range of body types — and we celebrate every one of them for what they can do, and how damn good they look doing it." (Okay, sometimes "we" also razz Olympians for how they look, but let's focus on the positive here.) Body comparisons of any sort usually lead nowhere good for me, so I don't do them, and that's also why I don't share any of my "numbers" on here (weight, clothing sizes, waist measurement, etc. Though I will let you all know that my feet are a perfect size 9). That said: Looking at Olympian bodies, I get the same sensation Virginia describes here. Seeing, say, female swimmers (or female sailors, apparently, according to this "What's Your Olympic Body Type" quiz that matches my frame to a surprising number of Nordic sailing team members) with features similar to mine—broad shoulders, not-whittled waists, and strong legs (ahem, not that my legs are a fraction as strong as Olympians')—when none of those features are particularly valued in our culture...yes, it feels sort of validating.

Twenty-eight, looking great: Women feel sexiest at age 28, apparently? I looked pretty schlubby at 28 so I can't really comment on this. (Age 31, however, treated me nicely.) I can't seem to find the original study—which, mind you, was conducted by a marketing firm, so grain of salt and all that—but it goes on to say that women just might actually be happier with their bodies than we usually let on. This definitely jibes with my experience: I've found that the places where women (myself included) seem most free to praise their own bodies are spaces of presumed overcoming of body issues. And hell yeah, those issues are vast, and real, and harmful, no doubt. But our vanities must remain secret, or posited as contrary to the baseline "truth" of us all disliking our forms. Harrumph. (via Ashe)

#nodads: One of the greatest indicators of whether a girl will self-objectify? Whether her mother does the same. This makes sense, and in the best-case scenario some mothers might realize that all the positive words in the world won't matter as much as having a genuinely healthy relationship with her own body and presence when it comes to raising a daughter with a strong self-image. But I'm with About-Face: What about fathers? 

Bare it: Fashion Fair, one of the first makeup lines targeting black women, unveils a mineral foundation line. That's nice and all, but I love what Clutch fingers here: The ad uses a bald model, thus neatly sidestepping the natural vs. relaxed hair debate. Clever, clever!

Who's the most bimajo of them all?: Congratulations (?) to Masako Osako, who recently won a magazine contest in Japan for being the most bimajo out of more than 2,000 applicants who proved to not be quite as bimajo as the reigning bimajo. Bimajo, in case your transliterated Japanese is rusty, translates roughly to "beautiful witch" and denotes "a woman over 35 with a radiance that gives no suggestion of her age."

Turban 101: Eleven years ago, this "turban primer" might have seemed merely interesting to people curious about headgear of different cultures. But after 9/11—and, more recently, after the tragedy in Wisconsin—publishing a guide to distinguish Sikh turbans from Indian turbans from, well, Taliban members (who, it turns out, don't have any particular turban style at all) seems disingenuous at best. At worst, as Angry Asian Man points out, it's more along the lines of WWII-style "How to Spot a Jap" pieces.

Give generously.

"Add some googly eyes, for chrissakes": Until I watched this shocking PSA, I was unaware of the "Swetsy shops" that churn out wall decals, hand-stamped bird stationery, and tam o'shanters—all using the labor of young exploited hipster women. The Manic Pixie Dream Fund: Won't you donate?

Mirror me: I never thought I'd be mentioned in a trend piece (moi?!), but it's about time someone saw a story in the fact that Kjerstin Gruys and I—and others, I've learned—each thought up the idea of "mirror fasting" independent of one another at roughly the same time. Kate Murphy at the New York Times takes a look at what appears to be a mini-trend. 

What's in a name?: Beauty and personal-care product company Pinch Provisions—formerly Ms. and Mrs.—is the hook of this piece on companies renaming themselves. (via Nancy Friedman, who knows a thing or two about naming). 

Pussy play: If you've been following the story of Pussy Riot, the Russian punk group whose anti-Putin sentiments may well land (have landed? the verdict is due today) three members in a Siberian labor camp, read this essay on the performative aspect of the trio's saga. Performative for the women involved, yes, and that's why I'm including it here. But Sarah Nicole Prickett's excellent essay delves into broader questions about performativity: west vs. east, here vs. "there," punk fashion vs. punk ethos.

And what do you do?: The backstory from seven people with nifty-sounding jobs in the beauty industry, including a perfume "nose" and color forecaster. (Here's a non-slideshow version; I feel ethically obligated to link to the place that generated it, but c'mon, Refinery 29! Internet, can we cut the slideshow crap? I thought nobody cared about page views anymore?)

Out of the box: How to use your blow-dryer for auto body work, and seven other non-beauty tips involving beauty products.

Globetrotter: As a total xenophile, I'm loving Venusian Glow's new series on global beauty, in which women from various regions share beauty routines, products, and attitudes. First up: Australia, where apparently having a real tan as opposed to a spray one is actually frowned upon. 

Manicure message: Phoebe nails it (oi!) on the peculiar appeal of nail art: "[T]he more complicated your nails, the more of a statement you're making about your willingness to scrub the kitchen floor, or to bake bread from scratch. It's telling men ... that you take care of yourself, and aren't looking to pick up after them. Which could be why it's so appealing as an antidote to stressful domestic tasks." Strictly speaking, I don't do stressful domestic tasks (I'm willing to live with the dust bunnies, and I treat bread mold sort of like Where's Waldo), but I have noticed that the more demanding my work, the more I long for a manicure. I'm too cheap to get an actual manicure on a regular basis, but I can measure this in temptation points, right?

Child's play: If there's a kid or teen in your life who's passionate about fashion and has expressed interest in it as a career, point them toward Final Fashion for this post by Danielle Meder about ways to nurture/direct that energy.

Size 8s unite: Kjerstin Gruys takes a skeptical yet open look at the recent spate of "size 8 pride" among celebrities like Mindy Kaling and Miranda Lambert: "I think that claiming to be a 'size 8' is intended to give us the impression that the celebrity is not so skinny that we can't relate to her, but also not so fat that we cringe on her behalf, or no longer aspire to be her." (P.S.: Check out the 20/20 segment on Kjerstin's mirror-free year that aired on Wednesday. Just try to watch it and not get a little teary during her first dance at the wedding, mmmkay?)

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Invited Post: The Ripple Effect

Mara Glatzel from Medicinal Marzipan has long been one of my favorite body image bloggers, in part for her worldview and in part for her graceful, inspirational prose. But what strikes me most about Medicinal Marzipan is its honesty: Glatzel shares her vulnerabilities as well as triumphs in the route to wellness (including a recent post that gave me one of my own biggest "aha!" moments in the past several years about my own eating concerns). 

I was pleased to learn that Mara has developed a tool for helping others find their own place on the vulnerability-triumph spectrum, with Body Loving Homework, which she describes as "one part Ebook, one part digital anthology, and one part self-study coaching program—designed to help you find clarity around what you deserve out of your life and your daily experiences." When I sampled a few of the 100 writing prompts in the book, my responses ranged from joy (apparently my answer to "My body remembers" is a hint racy) to discovery (I think of myself as pretty calm, so imagine my surprise when several of my answers to prompts involved the word panic). I asked her to guest post here about incorporating self-acceptance into our daily lives, and the place where self-image and body image intersect. 

If you’re anything like me, you know exactly what it feels like to go through the motions: saying yes, piling on the additional work, doing the emotional housekeeping, working out the logistics, and taking everyone else’s needs into account.

You’re probably really good at it too—a skill cultivated and honed over the course of your life.

I used to think that taking care of others was what I was best at, what I was put on the planet to do.

I used to think that just because I was good at it, I was relegated to going through the motions the rest of my life.

This conveniently fit in with other beliefs that I held about my life—feelings of being unworthy, unlovable, unforgivably damaged—because, through taking really good care, I was able to make myself useful in a way that didn’t require me to necessarily stick my neck out.

I was kind.

I made dinner.

I cleaned up communal physical space.

I put down whatever I was working on, attending instead to the emotional crisis at hand.

I do not intend to set up a paradox here, as in: when I hated myself, I took care of everyone else, and when I learned how to love myself for who I was, I only took care of myself.

For me, it wasn’t one or the other. It was in the appearance of a choice in the matter. It was knowing that I was worth loving not only for my caretaking abilities, but also for the rest of me as well.

When I learned how to love myself, truly love myself, and believe in the fact that I had more to offer the world than laundered socks and mended hearts—I was able to believe, also, that I was more than what I had been permitting myself.

When I was single or momentarily attached, I used to joke that I was a “starter wife”—the kind of girl who picks up broken, sad partners, and uses her love to shine them up like a little penny, gently reinforcing their strengths through the repetition and constancy of my adoration.

Until the day that they got so shiny, they wanted to hop into someone else’s pocket.

In these moments, I was left alone, heartbroken, but, when I was truly honest with myself—at least partially to blame. I had avoided infusing myself into these relationships, because I deeply feared that doing so would scare my partner away. I had internalized messages during my youth—messages of being too big, too loud, too passionate. I had been told by my experiences that people stayed around longer if you made your needs as brief and palatable as possible, and then went about your day becoming exactly who they need you to be.

I remember the exact day when I realized that I could, instead, choose to be myself.

I realized that if I was myself, and it didn’t work out, at least I knew ahead of time instead of wishing and praying that my real self wouldn’t pop up unexpectedly and drive someone away.

For me, self-acceptance has been the slow integration of who I was presenting as and who I was inside. It was the process of becoming who I already was. It was putting all of my faith in the idea that if I could permit myself to be myself that I could love that person—even when I was afraid to do so. 

However, as will naturally occur when you begin to change one aspect of your life—suddenly, the impact spread, and I was astounded by how pervasive my self-hatred had become.

I found unexpressed sentiment and choked on words in every facet of my life—work, relationship, family. I found that in fact I really hated where we had chosen to put that new bookshelf or that in my heart, I wished we had painted the bathroom blue instead of red. I was surprised, as these feelings weren’t even large, big scary to divulge feelings—I was saying yes and keeping quiet in all aspects of my life.

And, at first, I thought I was doing all of this out of some sort of damaged self-esteem around my body, but, over time, I realized, it wasn’t my body—it was my most basic sense of worth and deserving. It was who I was, deep inside, that was hurting and needed to be freed.

What I thought was about the size of my hips, was actually about the cultivation and maintenance of healthy boundaries within the context of my relationships.

What I thought was about whether or not someone thought I was attractive, was actually about speaking my needs out loud, in the presence of another.

What I thought was about my body—was about how I was living my life.

The human body is a convenient scapegoat. 

Contentious by nature, degraded by the media, and a highly personal battleground, our bodies carry more than their fair share of the pain, hurt, and rejection that we experience in the world. For example, it was much easier for me to hate my body than realize that I needed to dramatically upgrade my ability to create and maintain healthy boundaries.

In many ways, hating your body is easy. You’ll never be alone. You will always have others to join you in your self-hatred, commiserating over the size of their thighs or how this was the week that they are going on a diet or he didn’t reject me—he rejected my body. As in, things that you can fix or have control over.

When it is about your body, it is a problem that society tells you you can fix—head to the gym, hop on a diet, indulge in some plastic surgery. Even if you wouldn’t resort to some of those options, they are out there, filling up the social consciousness with feelings of safety and well-being. Whether or not you choose to access them—the option is there.

You can change your body. You can make yourself prettier. You can buy new, sexy clothing.

You know how to do that, and on many levels—it feels safe.

What about when it’s not about your body? What about when it is about your basic ability to connect with other human beings, relax into intimacy, or be both yourself and yourself in the context of a couple?

That feels much less safe.

This is the messy zone, the dark closet that we shove all of our odds and ends in, in order to keep the rest of our house tidy and presentable. The answers here are not cut and dry. They do not apply to everyone. You cannot read about them in the self-help section of your favorite magazine.

They come from learning to listen to the voice inside your body, the small part of yourself that lets you know what you’d most like and what your wildest dreams are.

I had been keeping myself small—occupied by the an overflowing to-do list of laundry and groceries, wrapped up in the melodrama of my own creation, and concerned with the well-being of those around me first, and my own needs—last, always.

It wasn’t that learning to love myself dramatically altered who I was. I haven’t stopped taking care, but I am confident now that I am choosing to take care and that the people who I choose to take care of are worthy of my most profound love and consideration.

Learning to love myself has permitted me the ability to realize that I was worthy of anything that I put my mind or heart to. It was the quiet process of choosing, every day, that who I am is important. That my words matter. That my actions are an extension of my heart, and that they should be respected as such.

That I am worthy of my own love and the love of those around me, and not because I’ve cooked them dinner.


Mara Glatzel is a self-love coach + author of Body Loving Homework: Writing Prompts for Cultivating Self-Love. She works with women who are ready to create the lives they want — and deserve. Her blog, Medicinal Marzipan, has inspired thousands of women to heal their relationships with their bodies, and treat themselves with relentless compassion. Catch up with her on Facebook or Twitter, or join her body-loving mailing list for secret swapping and insider news.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Helen Gurley Brown, 1922-2012

Six years ago, I was waiting for an elevator when Helen Gurley Brown walked up next to me. This wasn’t terribly unusual; I worked for an offshoot of Cosmopolitan at the time, and our offices were housed in the same building. What was unusual was that she was alone, and that I was dressed well.

I’d only begun dressing well a few months prior to our elevator run-in; depression had kept me in baggy hoodies and ill-fitting jeans between the ages of 24 and 29. As my 30th birthday neared, I realized I was hitting the age where I just might be putting patterns into place that would stick with me forever. I broke up with my boyfriend, chopped my sloppy bob in favor of a pixie cut, lost 30 pounds—and much to my surprise, found that sometimes I enjoyed being looked at. On this particular morning, I was wearing my favorite of my array of dresses and had matched it with heels that, for me, were wildly impractical. Perhaps most importantly, I’d just had the pleasure of a certain variety of overnight guest, so my bronzer wasn’t the only thing lending me a glow.

Helen Gurley Brown looked at me and gave a dim, polite smile. Then she slowly ran her eyes from my pixie cut to my carefully pushed-up bust line, from the hips swathed just so in my new dress down to my shoes. As her eyes worked their way back up from the heels to my figure to my face, her head began to bob in what slowly turned into a nod, and by the time she looked me in the eye again, the smile had gone from polite to approving. Helen Gurley Brown had given me her approval. At that moment, one of the company higher-ups joined us at the elevator, and she turned to the newcomer, cupped her hair in one frail hand, and actually addressed her as pussycat. Our moment of approval (on her end) and awe (on mine) passed.

I’ve told this anecdote a handful of times, and the reactions come in two forms: a “how cool!” exuberance, or dismay. “Ick,” one friend said: “Why does her approval matter to you?” Beneath the latter reaction is something like this: Helen Gurley Brown made Cosmopolitan into what it is, and what it is isn’t exactly something a smart women’s-studies-set type like me should approve of, so why on earth would the approval of Helen Gurley Brown leave me beaming?

It’s not a bad question. The problems with Cosmopolitan—or rather, with the Cosmo-fication of women’s media, are manifest to the point of trite. I myself have publicly criticized women’s magazines plenty of times; for every time I’ve talked about how important they’ve been to the mainstreaming of feminism (which, in this context, I count as a good thing), I’ve cringed at a story that has passed over my desk (“How to Wash Your Face,” which was—I kid you not—soon followed by “How to Wash Your Hair,” due to its predecessor’s success among readers).

Logically, I should be fingering Helen Gurley Brown as the godmother of face-washing how-tos and insulting sex tips. I can’t do that, though, and not only because of the fondness I felt when she hand-wrote her thoughts on the premiere issue of CosmoGirl—the teen Cosmo spinoff I worked at off and on for years before it folded in 2008—and my boss giddily distributed photocopies to everyone in the office. (All I remember of her comments was that she loved Boy-o-Meter, in which readers would rate teenage boys on their looks.) Nor is it my love of the kitschy tone of Sex and the Single Girl, which I have read from cover to cover, and which always makes me feel like a vixen even if I’m just pawing through it at home in my yoga pants.

Nor—surprisingly—is my admiration of her only born from the contrarian feminist within me who wants to argue for her as a key figure in women’s history, the woman who let us all know that it was okay to like sex and that you didn’t have to be married to want it. But the issue of Helen Gurley Brown and feminism deserves solid mention here: It is easy to forget, when Cosmopolitan is now so easily mocked for its insistence upon doing the most ridiculous boudoir moves possible, that the year she took editorship of the magazine was the same year the Supreme Court struck down laws banning contraceptives for married couples. The Pill had only been available for a few years, meaning that the concept of a woman being able to have sex whenever she wished and maintain control of her reproductive system was similarly young. For Helen Gurley Brown to come out and say what plenty of young women had known for years but had been afraid to voice—that sex was fun, sex was delightful, sex was not to be feared, and sex could happen simply because you, a woman, desired it—was revolutionary. It was revolutionary at the time, and given the fetishization of “purity” and the fact that the only term we have for a man who sleeps around is “male slut,” it remains revolutionary today. Also, let it be known that Helen Gurley Brown identified as a feminist. Plenty of people within the women’s movement disagree with her self-appraisal; as for me, I am happy to count her among my tribe. (Factoid: Chapter 9 of Sex and the Office, “Lunchland III: A Very Special Report,” opens with an anecdote from a “beautiful young executive” named Letty Cottin, who would go on to be Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a founding editor of Ms.)

But still, no, that isn’t what made me smile that day waiting for the elevator, nor is it what brought a heaviness to my heart upon learning that the flame-haired, miniskirted, bejeweled woman I’d admired died yesterday at age 90. In fact, it wasn’t our near-introduction at all, but rather something that sprang from the first time I laid eyes on her, at the Hearst holiday party in 1999. Through the haze brought on by the candy-cane cocktails handed out by the staff of Tavern on the Green, I spotted her: She was jockeying for the shortest skirt in the room, and had topped it off with what resembled a sequined Chanel jacket (perhaps it was a sequined Chanel jacket), that flame-colored hair teased beyond belief. She was dancing and had a small entourage around her. I flew home for Christmas and breathlessly reported to my parents that I’d seen Helen Gurley Brown, and that she was wearing a miniskirt, and wasn’t that awesome?

It was awesome, but not for the reasons I believed at the time. At the time it was more about one of my first run-ins with a celebrity, akin to the time I saw Drew Barrymore at Disneyland. And I am embarrassed to admit this, but: I shared my sighting of her with the faintest hint of ridicule. She was 77 at the time, and I was at an age at which anyone over the age of 35 was more in the realm of parent than peer. To see a 77-year-old woman partying it up in a miniskirt shorter than I’d dare to wear today—it was “cute,” and a little unseemly. I understood that she had to attend the annual company party; I understood that because she was Helen Gurley Freakin’ Brown, she could probably do the electric slide and still earn our collective respect. And I also, erroneously, understood that a woman of her age to be prancing around around in a miniskirt was—well, wasn’t that better left to people who were the age of Cosmo’s readership? Wasn’t it just the tiniest bit sad?

What I did not yet understand was that the things I condescendingly perceived as “cute” were actually evidence that I was witnessing a woman who was unafraid to work it. She knew full well the penalties heaped upon women of a certain age, and she disregarded those penalties with a shrug of her possibly-Chanel-sequined shoulder. She’d published Sex and the Single Girl when she was 40; in it she wrote “If you think only the jeunes filles, the voluptuous or sleek-cat creatures are the sexy ones, you have been living in the rumble seat of an Essex roadster the past twenty-five years.” That is, not only did she write one of the country’s most influential tomes on sexuality at an age many might have considered over the hill for a woman, but if she was speaking literally of those twenty-five years, by age 15 she’d already begun to disregard the notion that one’s sexuality died out past a divinely decreed age. I have no idea whether she decided then and there that she’d never stop being, well, Helen Gurley Freakin’ Brown (or, I suppose, Helen Freakin’ Gurley; the Brown came along in 1959 with her marriage to film producer David Brown) and would wear miniskirts as short as she damn well pleased until she tired of them, or whether it simply became her way of life over time. Really, I have no idea about her private life other than what I’ve read, which is, after all, the result of a cultivated public image.

But what I can deduce is that Helen Gurley Brown had respect for the woman who tries. That may not necessarily sound like something one should respect; when it comes to self-presentation, shouldn’t authenticity trump strain, ease trump effort? Sometimes, sure. But I’m certain I’m not the only woman who would find it less difficult to walk down the street bare-faced in sweatpants than to strut along with a bright red pucker, hair done to the hilt, cleavage pushed to the chin, and clothes that announce to the world, I want to be looked at. To Sex and the Single Girl readers who objected to wearing makeup, she challenged: “Is it possible you’re a little afraid to be on—in the limelight—every single day? If your makeup were always flawless, you’d be making an open bid for attention.” Trying is the hard sell; trying is a dare. Trying is a command to the world: Look at me, for I am worth your attention. Can trying be the opposite, a sad proclamation of one’s low self-esteem, that a woman thinks all she has to offer the world is her looks? Yes, of course. But when I think of the women I know who really work it—the 51-year-old receptionist who helms her desk with a teased updo and smoky eye at 8:30 a.m., the artist who goes shopping in ball gowns to cheer herself up, the woman of a certain age who is so impeccably styled that every time I’ve been in her company I’ve witnessed a total stranger walk up to her and profess admiration—these are not women suffering from a paucity of self-esteem. These are women who are willing to try, and who are willing to tell you what they want you to see. These are the women I was willing to try to emulate when I decided I was ready to discard clothes that hid me in favor of clothes that revealed me; from them, and from Helen Gurley Brown, I learned that overcoming the fear of trying can be tantamount to freedom.

When women try—when women strive—we put ourselves on the line, more so than men because our purpose is still presumed to be you are here to be looked at. I will support the argument that we should change the paradigm; I agree that part of the answer to the scrutiny we find ourselves under, 52 years after the Pill, is to change our culture so that being looked at is no longer seen as womankind’s greatest goal. That argument also does jack squat for women living right now, as the world exists; it casts a sidelong glance at women who seize power through being seen, or who might just sometimes enjoy being looked at, or who take the traditionally passive role of being seen and transform it into an act of agency in public life and private relationships. Helen Gurley Brown intuited this; rather, she experienced it, as a woman who experienced the manifold facets of womanhood in the early 1960s. With Sex and the Single Girl, she argued that the problem wasn’t being simply looked at; it was being looked at and having no say in how you were seen.

One can look at things like her list of what’s sexy and not—a good telephone voice and the ability to sit very still are sexy, girdles and borrowing money most definitely are not—and find a dictator of femininity, one born from that special kind of misogyny individual women occasionally serve to one another. Certainly lesser variations of her are exactly that. Yet in looking at Helen Gurley Brown’s legacy, one could find something else, something benevolent, even sisterly. For when I read her work, when I look at her life, when I recall the look of approval—no, affection—that crossed her face as she issued her silent blessing to a younger version of myself that morning at the elevator, what I find is a gift.