Thursday, December 12, 2013

In Which I Take An Episode of "South Park" Far Too Seriously

Just a few thoughts about the latest episode of—of all things—South Park. I've always thought the show was cute, but one of the side effects of cohabitation is that I'm now suddenly exposed to a lot of South Park, and I've become a full-on convert of its inspired mix of goofiness and social criticism and blah blah TV critic circa 1999. Anyway, it's always a treat when I see a media outlet besides the usual suspects take on my pet topics, which Trey Parker and Matt Stone did last night.

For those who don't watch the show or didn't see last night's episode: When one of the main characters tells a girl who asks him out that she's fat, the suddenly feminist cheerleading captain, Wendy, sets out to prove a point about unrealistic beauty standards by Photoshopping the girl's picture. But Wendy's plan backfires, as the boy now believes the girl is actually "hot"—and when the girl's manipulated photo goes viral, she's the school catch. Soon the entire cheerleading squad hits the gym—in truth, a computer lab where a trainer yells at them to digitally whittle their bodies faster—leaving Wendy alone and frustrated that her point has been totally missed. Worse, everyone from the school counselor to the nightly news team assumes she's taken up the crusade because she's jealous (or "jelly," in the show's parlance). The show ends with—spoiler alert—Wendy giving up by digitally manipulating her own photo so she looks as "good" as her friends. (There's also a side plot involving Kanye West's slow discovery that Kim Kardashian is the inspiration for The Hobbit. It is South Park, after all.)

In my recollection, this is the only episode this season—and one of the few overall—that has focused on the girls of South Park Elementary, and this is the topic they chose. And it's with a decidedly male perspective; men ages 18-24 are South Park's top viewers, and the prime target audience. Perhaps this was meant to cater to the show's female audience, but I don't think so: I'm guessing this was a (relatively) straightforward Parker-Stone perspective shown, as ever, through the South Park lens. Which means that on some level, the whole unrealistic-beauty thing is of concern to the target South Park audience—witness the last scene of the episode, where Wendy, with a tear in her eye, hits "send" to circulate her edited babe pic to the entire school. It was a quiet, surprisingly sincere ending, one that echoed the ending of last week's trilogy, when the main characters decide to put down their video games and actually play with each other.

What struck me about the episode was how the ability to manipulate one's own image was seen as a psychological gold mine—none of the girls besides Wendy saw it as anything other than a way to attract attention, and maybe as a way to trick themselves into thinking they truly looked as picture-perfect as their, well, pictures. (Now, to be clear, we're talking about a student body that has previously embraced mass murder as a route to scoring XBoxes, as well as defecating out of their mouths, so I'm not trying to say that the show is remotely rooted in realism here, mkay?) The focus of the episode was not so much on the other students' dismissal of Wendy's critique but of their embrace of the ability to edit their own images. It's this that's being mocked, not Wendy—the potential narcissism that accompanies the sudden ability to look as good as your digital skills allow. 

While calling out digital photography as a cesspool of narcissism is hardly new (and let's not forget that narcissism existed before social media), it's rare in the forthrightly feministy circles I tend to run in to see someone blatantly call a preoccupation with one's own image flat-out vain or narcissistic. I'm likelier to frame it in terms of social pressures, a psychic tradeoff for women's growing power in the world à la The Beauty Myth, or self-esteem or whatever. And I'm quick to defend the occasional charge of, say, makeup use as vanity (especially when it comes from men), because it is something usually leveled squarely at women. But, yes, narcissism does play a role, at least potentially—and it's interesting that this is what two male creators talking with a male audience come up with in regards to women/girls manipulating their own photos: the masses discarding the (righteous) political points surrounding the issue. It's interesting because the accusations of self-interest are still done with a relatively sympathetic hand: The girls see the rewards becoming digitally "hot" can bring them, so why wouldn't they go along with the plan? I wonder if Parker and Stone's—AND THEREFORE ALL MEN'S, ha—emotional distance from the question of visual self-representation is what allows them to squarely finger the role of self-absorption in image control. And more than that, I wonder if the reason they're looking at this topic now is because men are becoming evermore enveloped in these questions. (I see the sign on the clubhouse now: Boys allowed!)

Now, I'm hesitant to say that a single episode of a single cartoon indicates any sort of sea change for men's attitudes about beauty standards. But the first scene of the show that followed South Park last night makes me wonder. Comedy duo Key & Peele (another show that's grown on me) are walking in some sort of warehouse that's being redone with paint and plaster and the like, and a blob of paint falls on Key's shirt, right on his pecs. He smears it to the other side of his shirt, then laughs, "It's like I have two paint titties"—and then Peele suddenly can't look Key in the eyes, so transfixed is he by Key's "titties." The gag goes on just long enough, when another blob of paint falls on Peele's shirt too. The duo look up and see a painter above them, leering, "Hey, ladies!" They're literally subject to the male gaze, and they don't like it.

So I don't know, I'm drawing no Big Thoughts here, but it doesn't seem a coincidence that along with the boom in the "grooming" industry for men comes little bundles of criticism on the matter. And the only study I've found so far on the matter actually shows that that men are more likely than women to use an edited photo as their profile pictures on social networking sites. I can't help but wonder: Are men who don't necessarily identify as feminist paying more attention to appearance standards? Will the fallout be a shift in those standards, or just cleverer, deeper encoding of them? Are men likelier than women to call out vanity or narcissism in people's reactions to the beauty imperative?

Thursday, December 5, 2013

A Tentative Exploration of The Female Gaze

The first thing I noticed? The thighs.

Several years ago, I was taking a class where I hit it off with one of my classmates—our first conversation was one of those where you wind up gasp-laughing in a way you normally only do with people who are already your friends (or people who are as drunk as you are). He was new to the city, and while he’d made friends at his job, his wife hadn’t had such luck, and would I like to go out to dinner with them on Thursday?

I would, and I did, and I was rewarded with more of that good cheer; I liked her as much as I liked him. And when she got up at one point to visit the restroom, I found myself doing something I hadn’t done before: I did not look at her thighs. 

To be clear, it wasn’t like I made a point of looking at the thighs of every woman I met. I’m not saying I’m above ever having compared another woman’s figure to mine, but for the most part I think I approach other women as potential allies, not competition or a measuring stick of my own appeal. No, my thigh-checking was more akin to a tic, like compulsively clearing one’s throat, or saying “you know” all the time. I knew I did it, but it was such an automatic act that it wasn’t something I ever thought I could not do. Plus, it’s not like I’d go around staring at other women’s legs or anything. It was always a glimpse, a landing point for my eyes, and I’d look away quickly thereafter. I didn’t think anyone noticed. I mean, I barely noticed, really.

That is, I barely noticed until I noticed that I didn’t do it. It had been a while since I’d met someone new who so easily gave me a sense of mutual recognition—and a couple at that! the holy grail of people my then-boyfriend and I could maybe hang out with together!—and I didn’t want to blow it. When the woman rose from the table, my brain slowed down for just long enough for me to recognize that I was anticipating, as in I was really looking forward tobeing able to look at her thighs. Which meant my brain slowed down long enough for me to stop it. It’s not that I was afraid she or her husband would see my eyes flicker down to her legs (though I do always wonder how perceptive others are about the object of our gaze); it was that I recognized that I really didn’t want to know what her thighs looked like. If I knew what her thighs looked like, I might begin to care—I mean, not really care, not care enough to measure her as a person by it or anything remotely that distasteful. But I’d care in my own, private, ugly little way. I’d know whether her thighs were as large as my own, or larger; I’d know whether they were firm and muscular or soft and fleshy. I’d be able to add it to the enormous resource bank of thigh-images that I’ve catalogued in a dark part of my psyche for as long as I’ve recognized that women were supposed to think thighs were A Problem. And I realized I just really, really didn’t want to add this awesome woman’s thighs to that collection, and that I didn’t want to add any woman’s thighs to my image bank ever again. (Hell, I didn’t want an image bank at all, but you’ve gotta start somewhere, right?)

So I didn’t look at her thighs. Not then, anyway; at some point, months later, I recalled that moment, and realized that at some point since then my mind’s eye had gone ahead and taken a snapshot anyway. But I’d taken in the larger point: My eyes automatically went to women’s thighs, any woman’s thighs, every woman’s thighs, upon first seeing them. And if I could recognize this, maybe I could stop it.

But you’ll notice the first words of this post: Several years ago. I’ve noticed it, but there it is. I don’t think I literally look at the thighs of every woman I pass on the street, but do I find myself still looking at women’s thighs on the street, in the coffeeshop, in the gym? Yeah, I do.

I’d be more embarrassed to put this out there were it not for my hunch—now verified by Science!—that this is so common as to enter the realm of “duh.” recent eye-movement-tracking study shows that women spend more time looking at one another’s bodies than they do looking at their faces. (The same was true of how men look at women, but that’s another story.) To add to it, men and women alike visually process women’s bodies as being parts, but see men’s bodies as being whole. (Thanks to Sally for the link.)

Both of these facts seem to come into play with my thigh gazing, but when I looked at the studies, I was thrown for a moment: The scholars identified themselves as objectification researchers. Which makes sense; after all, when you see a human and focus first and foremost on particular parts of it, you’re, ya know, reducing them to an object, at least in part. But I’d never stopped to think of the ways I’d been participating in objectifying other women, even if my motivation (or what I assume was my motivation) was more tied to my own anxieties than tied to a predatory mind-set. For that’s what I primarily associate with the word objectification—predatory men, or at least men who bathe in the power imbalance that comes when half the world is seen as parts, not people. If I ever thought about women objectifying one another, I thought of it cartoonishly: Women tucking dollar bills into strippers’ g-strings, getting lap dances, raunchily commenting on babes walking by—Female Chauvinist Pigs-type stuff. And that’s part of it, yes.

But this sort of objectification—the kind of objectification I subtly take part in when I gaze out the coffeeshop window and, if I don’t consciously work my way out of it, see a parade of lady-thighs—seems more insidious. Not only because of what it says about how women’s own gaze might be defaulting to what we used to call “the male gaze,” but because of what it says of how we view ourselves. One of the reasons beauty can be so effective as a bonding mechanism between women is that we see ourselves in other women. It’s also my explanation of why so many straight women become aroused by watching women in porn, not just men or male-female couplings: We see the image of sex itself as being inherently tied to our bodies as objects of desire. Desire including our own. (Cue a Google Scholar rabbit hole for search term “self-objectification.”) 

At this point, it’s no mystery why my brain chose to zero in on thighs. Thin Thighs in 30 Days was first published when I was six; not long after that, I heard a television character use the phrase “positively bulbous” used to describe her own thighs, and I instantly knew that’s what my own stubby, childish thighs were—positively bulbous. (The one and only critical comment my mother ever made about my body was about my “Gaskill thighs”—in other words, it was a criticism of her own thighs too.) As Natalia Mehlman Petrzela writes in her fantastic, spot-on take on all that Lululemon jazz, women’s thighs are “one of the most fraught areas on women’s bodies.” And I’m beginning to understand my thigh thing intellectually, though who knows how much good that’ll do me in actually changing the behavior. So my questions are to you: Do you find yourself zeroing in on certain parts of women’s bodies? Do you notice it when you’re doing it? Are you bothered by this, or do you see it as something neutral or positive? And a plea, from me, who really wants to stop this automatic zoom-in on the thighs of the world: Any thoughts on how to put the kibosh on this?

Thursday, November 21, 2013

"Growing Eden": Author Q&A

One of my favorite things about blogging (back when I was doing it regularly—which I'll go back to doing in March once my first draft is finished, I swear!) has been meeting some fantastic bloggers who ceaselessly bring new perspectives to this big loose conversation we're having on beauty, women, feminism, appearance, and the like. Specifically, getting to know one of the brightest body image bloggers out there, Kate Fridkis of Eat the Damn Cake, has been a delight—a delight made all the greater when I learned that she recently published her first book. 

Growing Eden, an interior chronicle of her pregnancy, diverges from body image but is wholly aligned with one of her larger themes: womanhood, and exactly what that means, personally and collectively. Being grateful for all the opportunities we have today that our grandmothers didn't; feeling constrained by the sheer number of opportunities out there. Wanting to be seen, yet feeling relief when her pregnant body—"the promise of motherhood"—temporarily excused her from being seen in a sexual light. Believing in commitment to community, yet not being excluded from little vipers of envy that can accompany being a part of a larger entity. The book is about femininity as much as it is about motherhood or pregnancy—and more important, it's a beautifully written treat. Fridkis has always been one of those writers whose thoughts inspire wanderings of my own, so I was pleased when she agreed to do a Q&A about Growing Eden with me here. For an excerpt, visit Eat the Damn Cake.

Given that you're a body image blogger, it's particularly interesting that you initially seemed to almost not trust your body to do what it did, like, "I can't really be pregnant..."—and then your body really did go and "betray" you with the morning sickness. In what ways do you feel like trust, pregnancy, and body image are interconnected?

My body definitely betrayed me in the beginning of my pregnancy, when I learned that “morning sickness” sometimes means “spending every day on the bathroom floor.” I think my brain thought I was dying. After that, my body shocked me by getting huge. I didn’t feel like myself, I felt like I was trapped inside a pregnant woman’s body. And then, just as that was becoming normal, I had to somehow push this terrifyingly large baby out. I didn’t want to do that. I really didn’t want to. But I had no choice. The whole thing was an exercise in being out of control. And the whole thing was an exercise in what my body is capable of, regardless of how I feel about it. My body turned out to be stronger than I’d ever known. It was a sneaky machine, just following its ancient program. And in the end, I was fine. Everything was fine. My body knew what it was doing, even when what it was doing was extreme or gross or enormous or horribly painful. My body made a perfect baby, even though I only ate Kraft mac and cheese and iron pills for a solid trimester. My body proved itself to me in spectacular ways. It proved how functional as opposed to decorative it really is. Which seems like it should be self-evident, but definitely hasn’t been for me. And all of this was totally normal. My body is just a normal body.

I think there’s a lot of pressure on women to have bodies that are exceptional. That are “better” than normal. That go beyond. Fitter, leaner, boobier, more dramatic, tighter, you know. I’ve definitely wanted to look “better” than normal. Better than myself. But it turned out, with my pregnancy and the birth of my baby, that normal was exactly what I needed to be. It was awesome that I was ordinary. And my ordinary body was awesome.

I think if I have another kid, I’ll go in trusting my body a lot more. I also hope I don’t have to barf as much, because that was really bad and I am still mad at my body for that part. Seriously, some women don’t even get sick. What the hell.

Ambition and reevaluating exactly what it means is one of the main themes of "Growing Eden", and it made me think of the ways that figurative hunger (for accolades, accomplishments, etc.) and literal hunger are often connected—i.e. many women displace larger forms of yearning onto their bodies. Do you feel like your interest in having a "successful" life as you frame it in the book and your interest in body image are related? If so, in what ways?

Sometimes I think that success and thinness are wrapped around each other so tightly that it’s hard, as a woman, to picture one without the other. So that this terrible thing happens: When you’re sure you’re failing or falling behind in your life you might think, “at the very least I should be thinner.” Or when you’re sure you’re getting ahead in your life you might think, “but I should still be thinner, to really make this work.”

For me, food hasn’t always been the enemy of success, but beauty has always been mixed up in my vision of it. When I was a cocky little girl, I assumed I was pretty because I assumed I was smart. Those things went together in my head. I knew beauty was important, especially for girls, so I just figured I had it, since I was confident that I had the important things. Having that assumption interrupted seriously messed with me, and when I felt worst about my appearance I also felt like I was failing as a whole person. It was hard to separate the rest of me from the way I looked. Later, coming out of that (long) phase, I wanted to succeed enormously in my career almost to make up for my appearance. I imagined that at least I would be able to impress people with my shiny, exciting life, even if they might not think I looked good. And of course, I wasn’t thinking any of this very consciously. It was just floating around in the background as I worked frantically through the weekends or looked in the mirror in the morning. Oy vey. How exhausting. That whole dance, back and forth, between beauty and career. What I was really afraid of the whole time was being irrelevant. Of being forgettable and meaningless. Of not being worth noticing for any reason. And it’s interesting, as I’ve learned to slowly, slowly forgive myself for not looking the way I’d like to look, I’ve also become more forgiving towards my career goals. I guess forgiveness is big like that.

Right now, I feel lucky to have the chance to be a writer. Which is not to say that I’m not ambitious. But ambition without appreciation is kind of like body dysmorphia—you never think you’re good enough. Convincing myself that I’m already good enough is probably one of the most critical missions of my life, and it’s interesting that it’s only really started to happen since I’ve been writing about body image in an effort to convince other girls and women that they are already good enough, too.

I loved the bit about how you felt like your pregnancy was a form of armor against sexual attention, and I'm wondering about whether that feeling of feeling somehow shielded against (here it comes) the male gaze has lingered since Eden's birth.

Yay! The male gaze! This feels delightfully classic. But seriously. Yes—it has lingered. Because now I’m a mom, and there’s a baby strapped to my body in a dorky Baby Bjorn carrier, and she’s bobbing around with her silly baby face under a giant fuzzy hat with bear cub ears and she’s drooling everywhere. In other words, my body is hidden under all of that. In other words, I am blatantly unavailable. 

And also no—because my body looks weirdly the same in clothes as it did before I was pregnant. So when I go out without the baby, suddenly I am transported back in time. And I look around and I think, “No one knows…” They don’t know that I am forever changed. That I am forever someone’s parent now. Instead I just look like some chick waiting for the C train in the same jeans and boots as every other woman.

But also yes—because I feel different, no matter what, about the way I am in my clothes, and about the way I am under people’s eyes. It’s hard to explain. I’m thinking about it and just sitting here trying to put it into words. OK, I’m bad at thinking, I’m just going to write: I am into my own body these days. Because I am so surprised by it. I can’t believe it swelled into such a dramatic new shape and then transformed again, exposing my hips and the curve of my ribcage so that I saw them in a way I hadn’t seen them before. I feel sexy for looking the way I always looked anyway. I feel sexy because I didn’t know what to expect and then I was too distracted to care and now my body fits into real pants again, and that’s exciting. I sort of expect men to look at me and appreciate the way I look, because I am appreciating it. And at the same time, I don’t give a shit what they think, for maybe the first time. So when I’m walking alone (which is still rare) I am just enjoying the freedom, and enjoying my body, and if anyone is gazing, let them gaze. I’m not even looking around. I just want to get on the C train and go.

That’s the best I can explain it.

You have a part in the book about how one of the first thoughts you had after finding out your child was a girl was, "What will she look like?"—a somewhat forbidden thought for we feminists who are supposed to be all about so many other things, larger forms of power and place in the world, etc. What was it like for you to recognize that that was one of your initial impulses, to wonder about her looks specifically as a daughter?

It sucked. I was mad at myself. And I was mad at the world, for being a place that makes beauty so important for girls that I would even have that thought. I was embarrassed, too. I didn’t want to tell anyone (so of course, I eventually wrote about it). It suggested that I had my priorities all wrong. It suggested that I am vain and lame and think appearances are the most important thing. No, no! I wanted to yell at the imaginary people who would lob that criticism at me, if I told them, It’s not like that! I think she should be able to be anything she wants! Feminism! Woman power! She is probably going to be a brilliant mathematician! But I just don’t want her to suffer because of this stupid thing that happens to girls. I don’t want her to waste her time. I don’t want her to get distracted by her surface and lose time that could be devoted to what really matters about her.

Most of all, I wanted to know what my daughter looked like because I had this desperate urge to make sure she didn’t look like me. It wasn’t exactly rational. It was a primal rush of emotion, and in that moment, I wished more than anything that she would be better than me in every way, beginning with her appearance. I didn’t want her to have my struggles. I wanted her struggles to be better, less embarrassing. Less petty-seeming. I wanted her to be less vulnerable.

It’s not true, though. Even if she ends up looking just like me, she will always be herself, and her goals and battles and vulnerabilities and confidences will be different from mine.

And now that I know her, in person—now that she’s real instead of theoretical, it feels different. I’m actually working on a little piece about how proud I sometimes feel of the way I look because of the way she looks like me.

Growing Eden is available at Amazon, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Google Play, and Kobo.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Power of Glamour

At my very first interview for a magazine job, the executive editor of a now-defunct women’s magazine asked what periodicals I read, and I answered with what I thought would be the right smart-girl answer—The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, and a magazine that was little-known at the time, Bitch. “I notice there are no women’s magazines on that list,” she said. (Bitch is indeed a magazine about and largely for women, but it’s hardly on the same shelf as Cosmo.) I stammered out something about choosing a “broader focus” for my reading material, the interviewers smiled politely, and, as you have guessed, I d
id not get the job.

I didn’t tell them the actual reason I didn’t read women’s magazines: They’re bad for you, right? I mean, that’s what I’d learned in women’s studies, and even if you’ve never taken a women’s studies class, you know the gist of the argument here: Women feel worse after just three minutes of looking at ladymags, the size of the average fashion model is size 0 or 2 but the average American woman wears a size 12, etc. (You might ask why I wanted to work at a women’s magazine if I believed all this, and it’s because I was naive enough and arrogant enough to believe that all the industry needed was one solid feminist comme moi and everything would change. Anyway.)

Over the years, my thinking on women’s magazines has become far more nuanced and ambivalent, but a core juxtaposition has remained: If women’s magazines make women feel so bad about themselves, why do we continue to buy them? And glamour is part of the answer. Not glamour as in the magazine title, nor glamour as many of us conceive of it—say, marcel waves, rubies, and sleek gowns on the red carpet—but rather glamour as articulated and explored in Virginia Postrel’s latest, eminently readable book, The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion. Rather than merely musing on glamour, Postrel sets out to define it, and in doing so weaves not only a history of glamour but the parameters that allow the concept to encompass everything from Jean Harlow to wind turbines, Angelina Jolie to train windows, James Bond to candy wrappers. Glamour here is neither an aesthetic nor a convention, but a nonverbal rhetoric that Postrel likens to humor, “a form of communication that elicits a distinctive emotional response.”

Under the definition laid out in The Power of Glamour, in order to be glamorous—as opposed to charismatic, opulent, beautiful, luxurious, sexy, or romantic, all of which are frequently confused with glamour—any given person or thing needs to meet a certain set of criteria. Something glamorous must give form to an otherwise formless longing or desire; it must deploy a degree of mystery, illusion, and grace that vanishes once it shifts from the glamorous to the familiar. But the factor that resonates the most with me as far as the ladymag conundrum is a degree of identification. In order to find something glamorous, we need to see it as representing a world that we identify with—or rather, that we would identify with if only

Postrel cites Star Trek as an example of something glamorous, which might strike many as absurd, given its distinct lack of glamorous tropes. But it was this example that cemented for me the relationship between glamour and the viewer—and if you had memories of your 11-year-old loner brother sitting on the couch in his Star Trek ensign uniform, staying up late to finish his own handwritten Next Generation scripts, you’d understand too. A bit of an outcast at that age but with a longing for community and quiet appreciation of the skills he had to offer the world, my brother couldn’t wholly identify with life aboard the starship Enterprise, but he saw enough of its world in himself—and he saw enough of himself in the values of that world—that it became far more than mere entertainment to him, even if he couldn’t spell out why. Star Trek wasn’t remotely glamorous to me, but it was to him. 

When I think of my brother’s longing today, I’m struck by how much he yearned to truly identify with that world (even though, like all chimera of glamour, it was a world that couldn’t exist). In a certain light, his obsession with Star Trek becomes heartbreaking: a child wanting so badly to live in a world where he’d have a place that he literally wrote it himself when the prewritten fantasy ran out. But I also see it as an indicator of the ways he was thriving. He took up trombone because that’s what Commander Riker played. He learned how to save his child’s income in order to buy entrance to Trekker conventions once my parents became exasperated with the constant ticket requests. He was writing entire hourlong performance scripts—a passion that stuck around long enough for him to host a radio theater show today. You could say Star Trek held up an unattainable ideal that he’d never be able to join—or you could say it spurred him to better himself. Both can be fallouts of glamour.

As a feminist writer who wants women to feel as emotionally whole as possible, I’ve spent my fair share of time fretting over idealized media images of unattainable beauty. But in writing about beauty and in talking to dozens of women about the role looks play in their lives, my mind-set has slowly shifted over the years. I can no longer believe that women are such passive, robotic consumers as to continue to buy women’s magazines if they just make us feel like crap—nor do I naively believe that women bathe in these images because we feel fantastic while doing so. Looking at the question of idealized images through the lens of Postrel’s articulation of glamour, there’s a more satisfying conclusion here: We are drawn to images of idealized beauty not out of self-loathing but out of longing; we are compelled by images not only because we compare ourselves to them but because we identify with them. If we didn’t identify with those images to some degree—even a whisper of one—they would cease to have any resonance with us. Yet if we identified too much, we’d have less to strive for.

Let’s not be confused about what identification means here: Not that we see ourselves as easily stepping into the world of an image, but that we see potential for us to do so. We may perceive glamorous objects as an entrée into that world (hence the desire for that shade of lipstick, that style of ring, that color on the soles of our shoes), but it’s not the object we want so much as the life it promises. Some part of that life rings true to us, if only true with possibilities instead of realities. Some part of it reflects our own vision of ourselves—our better, ideal selves as seen through the looking-glass, sure, but it’s us in that looking-glass either way.

“By tendering the promise of escape and transformation, glamour feeds on both hope and hardship,” writes Postrel. The specific forms of hardship she’s referring to are more concrete than bodily discontent: Women of the 1930s being sentenced to domestic drudgery; gay men of the 1980s at risk of violence, self-harm, and AIDS. But the idea extends to the question of women, images, and self-image. Much criticism has been aimed toward glamour in this regard: By preying upon our vulnerabilities, glamour stirs a want that a handy variety of products and services are ready to fill. (Or attempt to fill; once we’ve inhabited the promise of any specific glamour, an item/person/place ceases to be glamorous per se.) Indeed, glamour is an effective tool in advertising because of its power to exacerbate desire. But a narrow focus on the darker side of that desire does two things. First, it allows us to forget that glamour stokes hope, which in turn can spur positive action: The cinematic glamour of the 1930s allowed housewives to envision a world where they weren’t their own servants; vogue balls of the 1980s allowed gay men a temporary space of transformation and acceptance. Similarly, while I’m not about to argue that a photograph of, say, a 14-year-old runway model is going to spur positive action in most of us, the world we enter when we gaze upon images of idealized beauty is...well, it’s ideal. It’s fantasy—and the more we remember that it’s fantasy, the better off we’ll be. In fact, a study from 2010 shows that viewers of images of idealized beauty report higher self-esteem when they’re prompted to see the images as fantasy, not as a reflection of reality. Still, we respond to fantasy because it reflects something we may genuinely long for in our lives—after all, there are dozens of ways a public image of a woman might register as “ideal,” yet we only respond to those that stir something inside us. Gwyneth Paltrow, Dita Von Teese, and Beyoncé offer entirely different aesthetics, and yet they’re all forms of a certain type of ideal. And depending on which (if any) of these ideals resonates with us—and which we find most glamorous—we may take different routes toward embodying the sort of life we aspire to. Can we take that aspiration too far? Yes, yes, of course, and there’s plenty of excellent work out there chronicling how. But aspiration can inspire movement, and movement can inspire change. 

Second, looking only at the negative consequences of aspiration allows us to erroneously believe that glamour and imagery create want, instead of merely exacerbating it. “[Critics] imagine that if glamour disappeared, so would dissatisfaction—that, for example, women would not long to be young and beautiful if there were no cosmetic ads or movie stars,” writes Postrel. “But glamour only works when it can tap preexisting discontent, giving otherwise inchoate longings an object of focus.” Vogue magazine didn’t manufacture women’s desire to be beautiful. But it gave form to that desire with skilled imagery that allowed the reader to create a story from what was presented on the pages. (A story in which she herself is the protagonist, of course.) 

I don’t mean to say that Vogue—or any other image outlet—should be cast as aspirational in a positive way for women, or that those who feel harmed by idealized imagery should just learn to suck it up like the people who derive joy from those same images. But I am saying that the question of these outlets should be examined through a critical—and feminist—lens, outside of the usual talk of self-esteem and body image and women’s health and all that. A treatise on glamour may appear apolitical, and it can be read that way without sacrificing our understanding, but we can also use it to ask larger questions that then become political. Glamour is not inherently feminine, yet its iconography often features women, harvesting the old cliché of how “men want to be with her, and women want to be her.” If so many images are of women, what does that say about what we as a culture aspire to, or what we as consumers and individuals find to be “preexisting discontent”? When we find ourselves transfixed by an image, a longing, what does that tell us about our own desires?

Indeed, part of the riddle here lies in Vogue itself, ever an icon of glamour. Despite its reputation as highbrow and snooty, Vogue has readers whose median household income is actually lower than that of its Condé Nast sisters Glamour, Self, and Lucky. It’s a comfortable number, to be sure, but it’s interesting that a magazine featuring $280 face cream appeals to the person of more modest means than does a magazine that features $28 pleather skirts. The lofty aspirational quality of Vogue may well be less appealing to those who are slightly closer to living in that world (and, of course, the magazine itself isn’t as exclusive as its reputation—not only does it feature plenty of trends accessible to the hoi polloi, but it can, after all, be purchased by anyone with a spare six dollars). This may be my fantasy, but I’ve come to picture the average Vogue reader as being much like the distant cousin who gave me my first-ever copy of it: a schoolteacher living on a farm in Ohio who simply liked to escape into the elite world of Vogue for one afternoon each month. I imagine the magazine spoke to the part of her that wasn’t a schoolteacher, that didn’t get up at 5 a.m. to tend to sheep, even as she treasured those aspects of her life. I hesitate to say it represented a vision of her life “if only,” for she appeared plenty content. But perhaps it represented a vision of a life she might have wanted had her life been, say, 20 degrees different than it actually was.

It’s also worth noting that Vogue’s editor, Anna Wintour, was recently tapped to revamp some of the company’s other titles. Lucky went under a Wintour-led overhaul, and Glamour is in the midst of the same, with two key image-makers leaving the magazine in recent weeks. Wintour’s talents lie in finding the balance between malcontent and inspiration, identification and aspiration. That is, titles aside, her talents lie in finding none other than glamour.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

"Fractals" by Joanna Walsh: Short Story and Giveaway

When people ask me what I like to read, the first word out of my mouth is usually "nonfiction." My reasoning is simple: I like to read about what I like to write about, namely physical appearance and its intersection in women's lives. And the open-minded part of me cringes to admit this, but: I've tended to believe that fiction isn't the place for this. Sure, the occasional piece might illuminate an aspect of women's stories, but on the whole, I'll stick with my nonfiction shelf—Wolf, Berger, Sontag, Etcoff, Steinem, and so on.

Had Fractals, Joanna Walsh's new collection of short stories from 3:AM Publishing, been published earlier than this October, my answer would have changed earlier as well. I'd mistakenly conflated nonfiction with truth, entirely forgetting that fiction allows us to tell a different sort of truth—particularly about internal experiences. Like how, as with Walsh's characters, we might keep ourselves groomed for an absent beloved we privately know will never arrive, or how we make silent bargains about our looks ("The man with the steak looks at my legs which gives me permission to look at the message he is typing into his mobile phone. I cannot see it as the glass reflects. I feel cheated."). I knew from my first encounter with Walsh's work—an illustrated look at five female authors, and how their self-presentation plays into their reputation—that she was as intrigued by beauty as I was. Fractals expands her thoughts on the matter, with a direct focus on how the rituals of womanhood affect not only how we're seen by the world, but how we see ourselves. Her characters are keenly—sometimes painfully—aware of how they present themselves visually, treating clothing as a talisman, as a reaction to life events, as a confirmation of who they think they want to be.

When I asked the U.K.-based Walsh how she tailors her own choice of clothing to her state of mind, she had this to say: "I haven't, so far, done any sort of public appearance (and I love doing readings) in a skirt or dress. I feel more authoritative in androgynous clothes, which I know is not a very worthy feeling as it's got to be to do with kowtowing to the way I intuit 'feminine' and 'masculine'-looking people are perceived. But there's also an element (another anxiety) of making writing look like 'proper' work—manual work even. I occasionally wear a boiler suit to read, and I always feel very comfortable. I think of the Surrealists in their suits: artists and writers who refused to look 'bohemian', who refused to make the distinction between what they did and less 'artistic' jobs. So when working at home I rarely stay in pyjamas. However I do own, and wear, a variety of pretty dresses..."

Enjoy "Fin de Collection," one of the stories from Fractals, below—and leave a comment on this entry to enter to win a copy of the collection from 3:AM. Winner will be chosen by random number generator; leave a comment by 11:59 p.m. EST November 12 to enter.

*     *     *

A friend told me to buy a red dress in Paris because I am leaving my husband.

The right teller can make any tale, the right dresser can make any dress look good. Listen to me carefully: I am not the right teller.

Even to be static in Saint Germain requires money. The white stone hotels charge so much a night just to stay still, just so as not to loose their moorings and roll down their slips into the Seine. So much is displayed in the windows in Saint Germain: so little bought and sold. No transactions are proposed that are not so weighty for buyer and seller as to be life-changing. But, for those who can afford them, they no longer seem to matter.

The women of the quarter are all over 40. They smell of new shoe leather. I walk the streets with them, licking the windows. Are we only funning that we could be what is on display? It is impossible to see what kind of women could inhabit those dresses but some do, some must. Nobody here is wearing them.

Amongst the women I am arrogant. I retain my figure without formal exercise. I retain my position as a wounded woman like something in stone, infinitely moving and just a little silly. In order to retain my position I must be wounded constantly. This is painful, but it is a position I have become used to.

We turn into Le Bon Marché department store, the women and I, Vogue heavy in our shoulder bags.

There is nothing like Le Bon Marché if you are rich and beautiful. But if you are not rich or beautiful, it doesn’t matter. The store has its own rules. It is divided into departments: fashion, food, home. It is possible to find yourself in the wrong department but nothing bad can happen here and, although you may be able to afford nothing, it costs nothing to look.

Le Bon Marché is always the same and always different, like those postcards where the Eiffel Tower is shown a hundred ways: in the sun, in fog, in sunsets, in snow. It may look different in Spring or Autumn, at Christmas or Easter, but the experience it delivers is always the same.

There are no postcards of the Eiffel Tower in the rain but it does rain in Paris, even in August. And when it rains, you can shelter in Le Bon Marché, running between the two ground-floor sections with one of its large orange paper bags suspended over your head (too short a dash to open an umbrella).

Inside is perpetual summer. Customers complaining of being too hot are forced to take off their coats beneath the stencils of artificial flowers that bloom across midwinter walls. The orange paper carrier bags are not made for real weather, either. Once wet their dye leaks onto hair, coats, and leaves orange stains on pale carpets, clothes, floorboards...

Fin de collection d’éte. In Le Bon Marché it is already Autumn. The new collections are in order. They do not privilege experience. With time they will deteriorate, unbalance, as each key piece sells out, leaving a skeleton leaf of basics, black and grey. One can commit too early of course. A key piece bought nearly in style will merely foreshadow the version available when the style is at its height.

In 35 degree heat, we bury our faces in wool and corduroy. We long for frost, we who have waited so long for summer. To change clothes is to take a plunge, to holiday. Who cares if we cannot afford to leave Paris. In the passerelle, the walkway between the store’s two buildings, a tape-loop breeze, the sound of water, photographs of a beach...

There is something about my face in the mirrors that catch it. Even at a distance it will never be right again, not even to a casual glance. Beauty: it’s the upkeep that costs, that’s what Balzac said, not the initial investment.

Je peux vous aider?

The salesgirl asks the fat woman with angel’s wings tattooed across her back. She mouths, Non, and walks, with her thin companion, into the passarelle, suspended.

The first effect of abroad is strangeness. It makes me strange to myself. I experience a transfer, a transparency. I do not look like these women. I want to project these women’s looks onto mine and with them all the history that has made these women look like themselves and not like me.

From time to time I change my mind and sell my clothes. I sell the striped ones and buy spotted ones. Then I sell the spotted ones and buy plaid. Does it get me any closer? At the checkout, the thin girl in her checked jacket looks more appropriate than me, though her clothes are cheaper. This makes me angry. How did her look slip by me? I was always too young. And now I am too old.

I cannot forgive them. I forgive only the beauties of past eras: the pasty flappers, the pointed New Look-ers. They are no longer beautiful. They cannot harm me now. These two are not even the beautiful people. It’s more that they’re so much less unbeautiful than everyone else. Please remember, we are in Le Bon Marché. Plunge into the metro if you want to encounter the underground of the norm.

Even your other women seemed tame until I saw them through your eyes, until I saw the attention you paid them. I no longer know the value of anything. And if you do not see me, I am nothing. From the outside I look together. I forget that I am really no worse than anyone else. But how can I go on with nobody, with no reflection? And how, and when, and where can I be inflamed by your glance? I can’t be friends with your friends. I can’t go to dinner with you, don’t even want to.

But why does the fat woman always travel with the thin woman? Why the one less beautiful with one more beautiful? Why do there have to two women, one always better than the other?

Je peux vous aider?

Non. There are no red dresses in Le Bon Marché. It isn’t the dress: it’s the woman in the dress. (Chanel. Or Yves Saint Laurent.) Parisiennes wear grey, summer and winter: they provide their own colour. I have learned to imitate them. Elegance is refusal. (Chanel. Or YSL. Or someone.) To leave empty-handed is a triumph.

In any case come December the first wisps of lace and chiffon will appear and with them bottomless skies reflected blue in mirror swimming pools.

To other people, perhaps, I still look fresh: to people who have not yet seen this dress, these shoes, but to myself, to you, I can never re-present the glamour of a first glance.

To appear for the first time is magnificent.


Joanna Walsh is a writer, illustrator, and artist. She draws and writes for The Guardian, The Times, Metro, The Idler, FiveDials, 3:AM,,, and The White Review, amongst others. She has created large-scale artworks for the Tate Modern and The Wellcome Institute and has developed immersive theatre/games events in collaboration with Hide and Seek and Coney Agencies, as well as games she runs herself. You can read her blog at Badaude, and follow her on Twitter here.

Photo: Wayne Thomas

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Hi Honey, I'm Home: Makeup and Cohabitation

I only needed one of these to move my makeup collection, mkay?

So, yes, I moved recently; only days ago. Specifically, I moved not just apartments but living situations—my gentleman friend and I decided to move into a new apartment together. I’ve lived alone for 12 years, so while this was a decidedly positive development, there’s also an element of adjustment going on. I’m not used to having someone else in the space I call my own, except for specific, defined periods of time—dinner, drinks. Even a lazy afternoon is just that, an afternoon, not an indefinite stretch in which ever-elastic time is shared with another. That’s exactly why most of us move in with someone, actually—you want to spend more time with them, or you want your downtime to include more of them, or something like that.

But when we talk about moving in with someone, the words we use imply not time but space. And—news flash, folks—sharing a space with someone have to share. I don’t have a problem with this on a theoretical level, but on a practical level it means recognizing that you can’t just use your space however you see fit; if your intended use of space encroaches upon what a reasonable roommate might call “their” space, you’ve gotta make concessions. And here I am talking about the bathroom.

I recognized early on that I’d have to pare down my beauty products (this after I’d done what I believed to be a “thorough purge” a couple of years ago, ha!); our new bathroom has somewhat less storage space than my old (and crammed) one, and my beauty-product : non-beauty-product ratio is roughly 8:1. As I went through my bathroom, I started asking myself on products I was waffling on, “How would I justify this to my boyfriend?” Not that he’d ask me to justify any of my stuff—it was more of a weeding technique. If I can’t justify any particular beauty product to the person whose space I am about to share, I probably don’t need it at all, right? Despite my best efforts, though, I’m guessing that 90% of the bathroom is full of my crap. His grooming accessories: two bottles of cologne, an electric razor, and a stick of deodorant. (And a shampoo three times as expensive as mine, thankyouverymuch.) Mine? Well, are we counting only the daily-use stuff on the cabinet shelves, or are we counting the “extras” stored beneath the sink, or are we going whole hog and counting things like the velcro curlers and glitter eye pencil I can’t make myself get rid of? 

Still, that’s just the concern of space. Truly, the adjustment that living together takes is indeed about time, or perhaps division of time. I’m used to time being clearly delineated: Time in public means time out of my home, time in private means time in my home. Sure, there are plenty of spaces that straddle the two—going to friends’ homes, for example—but maybe that example just illuminates how skewed my idea of public vs. private has become. Private time for me in the past 12 years has meant not just time out of the public sphere but time away from anyone except myself. Living with someone means an adjustment to that line of thinking.

Enter makeup: For me, one of the primary functions of makeup has been to delineate the public from the private. Virtually every time I leave the house, I’m wearing makeup, and if I’m not, it’s because the space I’m entering is something I consider a mental extension of “home”: the grocery store, for example (it’s just around the corner!), or the gym. And for the most part, that means that I’d be putting on makeup before seeing my boyfriend. I mean, he’s seen me plenty of times without makeup, but the default is certainly mascaraed. Despite the fact that he’s enough of a “home” for me to want to create a literal home with him, being with him still gave me enough of a toehold in the public sphere that I’d want to put on makeup, even if I was just having him over for the evening.

So now that one particular form of public-private life—my intimate life, my partnered life—is more fully anchored in the private sphere, makeup could fall by the wayside, according to the personal logic I believed I’d been applying. And yet there I am, every day before he comes home from work, dabbing it on, prettifying, beautifying, cosmetizing. (It could be more extreme, I suppose: I’ve heard tell of the woman who wakes up before her partner so she can scurry to the bathroom to get made-up.) Me being me, I’m sure I’ve put far too much thought into this, but there it is: I’m not fully comfortable admitting that I make a point to put on makeup before he comes home for the day, and I can’t help but wonder what it means that I’m using makeup in this manner. Is it a form not of delineating public from private but of delineating me from us—a way of making sure I don’t lose myself in the glory of The Couple?

There’s actually some shreds of evidence for that line of thought: Unmarried, cohabitating couples are more likely than married couples to have spaces in the home that are designated “alone” spaces. (Well, they were in 1974, and while cohabitation has drastically changed in social meaning since then, I do hear this concern more from unmarried friends who live with partners as opposed to married couples.) But we live in New York, and while our apartment is comfortable, the idea of “alone spaces” is nearly laughable. We have a room whose main purpose is for me to work in—still, one can technically be out of sight in a New York dwelling, but one can never be out of earshot, even olfactoryshot at times. My makeup collection is a way of carving out a physical space of designated “alone” time, sure, but it may also be a way of drawing a boundary of sorts around a mental space that’s wholly mine. Not for his benefit, but for mine: For as I write this, my boyfriend is at work, and I am without a drop of makeup, without shoes, without contact lenses. No music is playing; no other creature is in this space. When he gets home this evening, I may still be working and writing, but things will look different. I’ll be made up, glasses off, hair brushed; the sounds of his existence will flow through this space. His sounds aren’t distracting per se, but they are not sounds of the solitude I’m used to when I work. I wonder if the makeup serves as an external notification to myself: You are no longer alone. It will take time to learn how to not be alone, after more than a decade of being able to be wholly alone at any moment I choose, simply by going home. And as it has done for me before, makeup may help me through a personal transition.

I wonder how this will change as time goes by and living with someone else becomes my mental default, not a new playdate. And yes, I’m aware that for all my talk of boundaries and solitude, makeup also helps us look better, and I’m talking about my boyfriend, not a roommate—I want to look my best around him. Especially now, I admit—now, before the natural rough edges of cohabitation begin to reveal themselves. I’m not yet annoyed by any of the things that may annoy me a year from now: shoes laying about wherever he feels like taking them off, that sort of thing. And in turn, to my knowledge none of my little things have crept into his brain: inability to get anything totally clean, 12 different kinds of flours in the cupboard (down from 15, so it’s an improvement). He’s under no illusions that I’m perfect in any way, including looks-wise; it’s not like he believes my eyelashes blacken themselves. Maybe that’s exactly why I’m drawn to wearing makeup at home now, in his presence anyway: It’s not an illusion at all, but an expression, an articulation of my desire to start off this whole living-together thing at my personal best. Sometimes my personal best will mean a laser-like attention to other things (most notably work), and in those times makeup may well fall by the wayside. Right now, though, my personal best isn’t so lopsided. She writes, she edits, she exercises, she researches, she reads, she cleans. And right now, she does it looking the way she wants.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Jacqueline Madrano, Retired Homemaker and Volunteer, San Antonio

Jacqueline Madrano has served plenty of roles throughout her 80-plus years: homemaker, civic volunteer, church pianist, occasional secretary, “kitchen musician.” It’s this life experience, combined with her unique historic role as military wife in the post-WWII years—accompanying her husband, Col. Joseph Madrano, throughout his career, she raised three children in U.S. Army bases around the world—that made me want to interview her. 

Rather, those are the reasons I’d want to interview her if I didn’t know her in the capacity I do. But it’s her role as my grandmother—my impeccably put-together grandmother, without whose influence this blog might not exist—that, obviously, has left the deeper imprint upon me. Not only has she led by example through being a fashion plate, she’s also given me morsels of wisdom on fashion, beauty, and self-presentation as long as I can remember. If you put powder over lipstick and then put on another coat, it’ll last all day, she told me when I was playing at her vanity table at age seven—my first-ever beauty tip, tucked away for years until I’d finally start wearing lipstick for real. Your hair is pretty, but it isn’t your best feature—let’s get you some bangs to show off your eyes, she said when taking me to get my first haircut that went beyond a basic trim. Every woman should have a little mad money, just for you, she said as she paid for that haircut by plucking a $20 bill from a hidden flap in her pocketbook. It wasn’t a beauty tip per se, but it was a signal to me that spending money on your appearance was a manner of self-care, a way to do something “just for you.” My mother—a beauty minimalist and second-wave feminist who sat me down with my first Barbie to show me the ways Barbie’s body and Mommy’s body were different—taught me one way to be a woman. Mimi taught me another.

That powder-over-lipstick trick is a keeper, and so are some of the other things we discussed: comfort versus beauty, vanity versus pride, and why the U.S. government cared what she wore when going bowling. In her own words:

Jacqueline Madrano and her husband, Joseph

On Fads and Comfort
I grew up very poor. I didn’t have a lot of clothes, but what clothes I did have I tried to make not the latest styles, but something that would last. As the years went on, we could afford a little more, but I’d learned what styles look best on me years earlier. So I just stayed with that style instead of whatever came in fads. I don’t care for the fads; I keep my clothes forever. Though I did have nice legs, so when the styles were short I wore them—not as short as a lot of them, some of the styles were just embarrassing! But since I knew what colors looked best on me, when I went to get new clothes, they’d go with what I already had in my closet. That really helped me in our traveling—I can take just one suitcase but have many different outfits.

I’ve had my colors done, but you really learn what works on you mostly by comments. When people would say, Oh, you really look nice today or That’s a good color for you, you pay attention. And you pay attention to what you’re comfortable in—I knew pastel shades worked for me because I was more comfortable in them. You do not have to sacrifice comfort for beauty. You have to know what is comfortable first, but then you can always fix it so it looks pretty too. I’ve heard people that you have to choose one or the other, but I’ve found it easy to do both. But the secret is knowing your style and your colors. And then if a fad works with that, well, that’s fine.

But some fads turn out not to be fads. Have you tried mineral makeup? I love it; that’s what I wear now. So much quicker, so much cleaner. It goes on so easily and you can just brush it off if you don’t get it on right the first time. I think it makes you look more like you. After 80 years you know who you are. You want to look like who you are. I don’t like to see a mature woman with a lot of makeup on. It makes me think they don’t like this age, that they want to look younger. And it makes them look the other way around.

On Pride
I took a ladies’ night out at a basketball game with our minister’s wife and my friend Carolyn. A handsome man—he wasn’t a young man but he wasn’t an old man either, tall, very handsome—came up to us and he put his arms around us and he says, “Ladies, don’t be frightened, but I just want to tell you that you are the best-looking women at the game tonight.” We weren’t dressed up, but we were neat. He said, “Most of the women here don’t even try to be neat, and to see somebody like you—I just had to tell you.” We felt honored because we were old women! Well, Carolyn’s not as old, but for him to stop and tell us that was really something. Then he just went on his way. He wasn’t trying to flirt or anything; he was just being honest.

But it’s true: People don’t care how they look anymore. It’s fine if you want to do that at home, but I think being neat when you go out shows that you’re proud, that you’re proud of living. And I think when you don’t make that effort, it means you don’t care. I’ve seen that more and more and it bothers me—people coming to church every Sunday and they’re not neat, their hair isn’t combed. It’s bothersome. I feel like it shows they’ve lost their pride. I look good, and I don’t want people to think I look good just to be looked at, or that I have to be looked at, but if it happens, it happens.

I probably have too much pride. I say that because so many women are happy without things I’m miserable without. I have to have a perm! Usually I’d go to the beauty shop once a week and get my hair fixed, and [my husband] Joe never complained about that. He complained about other things but he never complained about my going to the beauty shop. In fact, he said, Well, how are you going to work this? But when I was busy getting Joe well last year when he was ill, I hated to leave him so I couldn’t drive across town to have my hair fixed once a week. It got really bad. I didn’t let it bother me because I had to do these things, but after he got feeling better that’s the first thing I did, went out to get a perm, got myself looking a little better. It costs money, but I feel like it’s worth it, and Joe does too. It makes me behave better; I’m happier, so I’m not cross. And I don’t feel sorry for myself. But I’ve always been a little vain. Or maybe just proud—I do think of other people, maybe that’s the difference. 

Jacqueline and Col. Madrano, 1973

On Being a Military Wife
I think the military has a lot to do with my pride. When we were stationed overseas the first time, in Japan, not long after the war had ended, and the first time in Germany, there was military policy about how we could dress. If we went bowling, for instance, we could drive there in short short pants—we could get out of the car and bowl and get in the car and go home. But we could not stop on the way and get out of the car—they didn’t want us to be seen like that. The military wanted us to make a good impression on the people there—we wanted to show the Japanese that we were nice people after the war. And the same in Germany. But the second time we went to Germany it wasn’t like that. We were very fortunate to be in the States when Joe went over to Vietnam, because they didn’t live on a base where people really supported the troops. People would boo the wives. They had nothing to do with it; it was their husbands, but the wives still felt a lot of pain. But because we lived here we didn’t feel that as much. I never had anyone say anything to me. 

Joe was always the commander, and I felt that as his wife if I didn’t keep myself looking nice, how could we set an example? Not that the other girls had to look nice all the time, but I wanted—it’s nice when people care. I maybe felt a little pressure for that, but I enjoyed putting on a good front. I really did. I enjoyed being overseas and meeting people from overseas and seeing their style—it was all just so interesting. 

On How to Get Over Times of Feeling Unappealing
I grew up, that’s all! I’d think to myself, Okay, Jacq, this too shall pass. And it did.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Beauty Backfire and the Placebo Effect

That's me on the left.

Apologies for the spotty appearances as of late. I have a feeling that I’ll be beginning many a blog post with variations on that line until my book deadline this spring. In this case, however, there have been two factors that have complicated my blogging schedule even more than authorship: 1) I’m moving (apartments, not cities or even neighborhoods), and 2) a recent vacation spurred by the destination wedding of a dear friend (and faithful reader! Mazel tov, C!).

It’s item #2 that was on my mind beautywise much of last week (I’ll get around to the moving-and-beauty post soon enough, and yes, there’s much to say there). Not only was it a wedding and therefore already an occasion that calls for looking one’s best, it was also a wedding at which A) my boyfriend, the bride’s brother, was one of the groomsmen, so B) I’d therefore be meeting other members of my boyfriend’s family for the first time—plus, C) he’d be looking damn good and I wanted to “match," and D) a handful of college friends I hadn’t seen in years would be in attendance. So yeah, I wanted to amplify the effort I’d normally put into my appearance for any wedding.

(At this point I could loftily say something about how weddings are one of the last cultural rites we formally observe in American society, and how therefore a certain degree of effort isn’t just self-enhancing but actually serves as a sign of respect to the happy couple—indeed, a sign of respect to the tradition of marriage itself. And I’d be accurate in pointing this out, both generally and as far as how I treated the occasion, but I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention that until the week before the wedding I’d mistakenly believed that The College Ex I Shed A Small River of Tears Over would be in attendance, and while that was literally half a lifetime ago, does it ever hurt to look your most smoldering in such a situation? No, it does not. As you were.)

Of course, even at my most high-maintenance I’m not that high-maintenance (though nobody ever thinks they’re high-maintenance, right?), so my extra effort basically meant that I was more careful than usual about what I ate beforehand so I wasn’t bloated, got a new dress for the occasion, and allotted plenty of time to make a nice updo. But I also engaged in two bits of beauty service I don’t normally do: I got a facial, and a gel manicure. And boy, did they backfire.

I mean, maybe backfire isn’t exactly the right word: My skin did indeed look particularly good two days after the facial as promised, and the gel manicure stayed neat and shiny longer than the manicurist had told me it would. Nor is it that I was expecting miracles; I knew that though my skin might look better than usual once it had healed from the extractions, no facial would turn me into Helen of Troy. But as for the facial, not only did I look hideous for 48 hours afterward—though this was to be expected, as whenever someone takes a lancet to your pores to get out all the goop there is to get, you’re going to look like hell for a bit—but I quickly broke out with an enormous zit right on my nose. True, I didn’t make it any better by fiddling with it to the point where it basically turned into an open wound. (The bride herself came to my rescue with a great beauty tip: Once it gets to that point, you should actually treat it like an open wound and use Neosporin on it. Worked like a charm!) And as far as the gel manicure, the nail polish bonded to the nail so thoroughly that when it caught a snag, the upper quarter-inch of the entire nail ripped. It didn’t tear off completely, thankfully—that is, thankfully for my “ick” threshold, not simply for vanity, as I wound up accessorizing my manicure with a waterproof Band-Aid—but it was troublesome for days, and it was nearly a week before the nail had grown out enough where I could safely clip it. (It still looks bad, but at least I’m not making myself shudder anymore.)

It all worked out fine in the end, in the sense that by the time the wedding rolled around I was able to cover the scar on my nose, and my torn fingernail failed to halt any of the festivities. (Not to mention the far more important sense of it working out fine: I was there to support the happy couple, so minor points aside, as long as I didn’t show up wearing a T-shirt with “ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE” scribbled across it, the way I looked at their wedding didn’t really matter.) But the fact that I’d considered both of these beauty services special treats—and the ways in which they each led to appearance kerfuffles that I wouldn’t have had had I not “treated” myself to them—made me wonder what was actually in it for me. 

I’m embarrassed to admit how much the facial and its associated services (microdermabrasion, take-home glycolic acid treatment, tips for the facialist and her assistant) cost, but suffice to say it was about as much as the plane ticket to the actual wedding. (I figured if I was going to get a facial for the first time in a decade, I may as well go to the best—for research purposes only—so I went all fancy-lady and went to somewhere I read about in fancy-lady mag W when I freelanced there for a minute and a half a few years ago.) This is hardly a claim that I was somehow ripped off, though; nobody needs a facial, or a gel manicure. When it comes to extravagant services like a facial, it’s the ultimate placebo effect: You only get out of it what you think you’ll get out of it. Yeah, my skin looked great after it healed, but I expected it to look great; it’s wholly possible that the facial itself had nada to do with it, my hopes alone providing whatever glow I believe I saw.

But the placebo line of thinking makes me wonder whether there’s a part of me that was looking for some sort of backfiring, even punishment, for having been so extravagant in the first place. I mean, I don’t think I subconsciously made myself get a pimple or rip my fingernail. (Wouldn’t that be a great beauty article, though? “Think yourself into a breakout? Now think your way out!”) It’s just that as much as I argue for beauty work as a stand-in for so many other things—self-care, articulation of emotions and desires, creation of a public persona—there’s forever a part of me that feels a good deal of guilt about doing much appearance-wise beyond a basic clean-and-moisturize routine. There’s child starvation and obstetric fistula and Roe v. Wade is basically null in much of the United States and domestic violence and Syria and people rolling around limblessly on skateboards in Vietnam because of Agent Orange and I’m getting a fucking facial? Bitch, please. I’m descended from Puritans—many of us are in this country, if not literally—and though the strict moralism of that time has faded, its framework has proven sturdy enough to survive. Perhaps our collective fascination with and disdain of shamelessly vain people—the socialites who get those fancy-lady facials all the time and think nothing of it, the Kardashians of the world—is less about the vain part of the equation and more about the shameless part of it. Maybe I could only let myself indulge so heartily in the first place if I made some sort of connection—valid or not—between my indulgences and the fable-like postscripts I’ve attached to each.

In the end, I wound up laughing about the whole thing, and it is sort of funny in a moral-of-the-story kind of way: I’ve been skipping my monthly massages since May in order to pay for this one stupid facial, telling myself that I could exchange one form of self-care for another, when I full well knew better. A massage is truly therapeutic; a facial...well, I mean, I’ve had one before, and while it was nice, I also knew the its benefits wouldn’t equal what I receive from a massage. And as for the gel manicure, I’m still paying the price in the form of ridiculously dried-out nails from the acetone removal. (Why are gel manicures popular? They lead to ruin, I tell you! Ruin!) I don’t have any grand pronouncement here, other than to admit that I fell into the consumerist trap of believing that if I just spent the right amount of money and did the right amount of research and took the right amount of effort, something I don’t actually believe is worth the time/money/effort would somehow become worth the time/money/effort. I’d forgotten that the placebo effect only works if you believe it will. A sugar pill won’t get rid of your toothache if you know it’s a Tic-Tac all along.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

You're Not Pretty Enough: Excerpt and Giveaway

The thing about You're Not Pretty Enough, storyteller Jennifer Tress's alternately hilarious and searing memoir, is that it's not really about being pretty. In fact, save for the argument with her then-husband that the book's title comes from—uttered unbelievably (except totally believably) in the midst of discussions about his inattentiveness and infidelity—prettiness doesn't make much of a star turn at all. Yet that's exactly why I found it valuable, because the thing about not feeling pretty enough is's not really about being pretty either. It's about being enough

When Tress launched her website, she'd titled it You're Not Pretty Enough because of that stinging exchange with her then-husband. She soon noticed that search terms that landed people at her site were those of people looking for comfort in the midst of feeling...well, not pretty enough. And so in addition to compiling her personal tales, which showcase the best of what storytelling has to offer, she conceived a mission: Get women talking in a more thoughtful manner about appearance. (Lo and behold, that's exactly the mission I've got here! You see why I'm pleased to feature Tress.) I asked her to expand more on the "enough" part of "you're not pretty enough," and this is what she had to say:

"'Enough' is such a weird qualifier, isn’t it? But it’s one that we use a lot when describing our dissatisfaction with ourselves or with others. Whether it be good enough, smart enough, or pretty enough—it’s all about feeling 'enough.' That we’re whole, we’re valuable. It reminds me of that old skit from Saturday Night Live with (now Senator!) Al Franken as Stuart Smalley: I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it…people like me!

Based on the work I’ve done through the You're Not Pretty Enough website, I’ve found that not feeling 'pretty enough' is often the entrée into self-esteem issues because it’s the easiest/laziest way we assess ourselves and others (which is reinforced by media and other cultural standards that we compare ourselves to). On the positive side, I also believe that beauty matters very little to most people, and to some, beauty doesn’t matter one bit. The key is for beauty to matter very little to ourselves. I want to share with you a message someone posted on the Facebook page that demonstrates this point. She says:

One statement you said has changed me. You said, "...It's the easiest and laziest way we assess ourselves." I had never thought about it this way before. I got up every morning to scrutinize my physical self. My state of mind would depend on how good I felt I looked. I'd obsess about it all day. And ultimately felt I didn't measure up, therefore I was unlovable. I was getting sick of myself. I started to walk by the mirror without looking. Then I watched the ABC story online. [Jennifer appeared on Good Morning America to talk about the "not enough" syndrome.] Never for a minute had I stopped to think to assess the things that make me, me. It does take time and effort to assess myself for other qualities and to become a better person. It's so simple. I wasn't ready, I guess. Or I was just being lazy. The next day after this mind-blowing revelation, I looked in the mirror. I saw me and I actually loved what I saw. I had been faking it for so long. I was brought to tears. Yesterday, the quality I reminded myself of is that I'm kind. Today, it's that I'm smart. In time and with some effort, from now on I will always love what I see in the mirror. 

Coming back to my own experience, I don’t think my ex was saying I wasn’t pretty, he was saying I wasn’t pretty enough. And the problem with that is I took that word 'enough' and ran with it: enough for who? For him? For society? It was the first time I really considered whether I was pretty “enough” and luckily—by simply focusing on things I like (reading, connecting with people who cared about me, doing a good job at the things I invested my time in like work, etc.)—I was able come out the other side and know: I’m more than enough.

Below is an excerpt from You're Not Pretty Enough (also available on Kindle and other outlets), and Tress is offering a signed copy to two readers. To enter, answer the same question I asked Jennifer in the comments by September 25 at 11:59 p.m.  EST, and we'll select two winners: What does the phrase "not pretty enough"—as opposed to "not pretty"—mean to you?

*     *     *     *     *

The background: When I was 16, I fell head over heels in love with Jon Bon Jovi based on seeing the “Shot Through The Heart” video. I didn’t know who this guy was, but I needed to find him and meet him because I was sure once we were face to face he’d feel the same way about me. As luck would have it, a huge radio station out of Cleveland, Ohio moved its broadcast operations to my small hometown and on a dare I went there one night to meet the DJ on hand and plant some serious seeds to get me closer to Jon. It worked. One day the DJ contacted me and offered to take me to the concert in a limo (with some contest winners) to meet the band back stage. I had 8 weeks to prepare…

Operation “Make Jon fall in love with me” included the following steps:
  • Lose seven pounds to get to 125
  • Find the perfect outfit
  • Identify all the different scenarios that could occur
  • Determine and practice a response to all scenarios identified
Step one would be easy: skip the cafeteria pizza and do some of my mom’s Jane Fonda tapes. Step two required an inventory of my closet. Nothing outfit-wise struck me as just right, but I did have a white leather jacket that fit me perfectly and a pair of low, but sexy white pumps. I just needed a dress. A trip to the mall would fix that, and I found a light pink sleeveless number that went down to my knees and hugged my curves. Done.

For the last two steps, I would need to imagine all the possible ways Jon would act. For instance, if he was cocky, I imagined myself saying, “Think of all the fans who support you. You would be nothing without us. NOTHING!”  I couldn’t really imagine him being anything but lovely, but one had to prepare. I practiced my responses in the mirror until I felt I was ready.

And then the day came.

I got dressed, teased my long, permed, and frosted hair to the sky, and stepped out to enter the limo as an eighties goddess. The contest winners were two female friends in their twenties who were as psyched as I was, and we were accompanied by Cat and another DJ, Rick Michaels. The mood was giddy as we jammed out to music on the thirty-minute ride to the Richfield Coliseum on a warm May day.

Several groupies were gathered around the area where the band buses and VIP guests pulled up. Suddenly, everyone in the limo took notice that from the waist up I looked exactly like Jon, especially with hair, leather jacket, and shades. Cat suggested that I pop out of the moon roof and give the groupies a show.

“You think it’ll work?”

“Try it.”  The girls in the limo egged me on.

“OK…”  I jumped up on the seat so that my top half was showing and raised my hand with my three middle fingers folded down and waved my pinky and thumb in the classic “Rock on!” sign. The groupies went crazy. When the limo parked and I got out—obviously no longer a man, they started shouting, “FUCK YOU!”  

Heh, I thought. I’m about to meet my soul mate, so fuck YOU!

We made our way through the melee near backstage—sound guys and wires were crisscrossing us—until we arrived in a large holding room with about fifty other radio station representatives and various guests. I could hardly deal. My skin was crackling with excitement, and I sat with my hands underneath my thighs to keep from biting my nails. 

We waited. For over an hour, we waited. I barely spoke to anyone because I was there for me, and I wanted to be inside my head preparing.

Cat, noticing my tension, said, “You know, I don’t want you to be disappointed if it’s just Tico who comes out.”  Now, I loved Bon Jovi for the sum of its parts, and one of those parts was the drummer, Tico Torres. But I had not come this far to just see TICO. No fucking way. As this thought bounced around my head, I became more anxious. But then I looked down the long hallway that led to the holding room, and there was Jon walking toward us. I grabbed my camera.

It sounds cliché, but it really felt like everyone disappeared, and it was just me and him, separated only by a hundred yards. No one had noticed him yet, and I watched him walk toward the room, as if in slow motion, dressed in tight leather pants and a cut-off shirt. He was smaller than I expected—maybe five-eight and thin—and he looked tired. I could feel tears well up, and I pinched myself on the thigh to get it together. 

When he entered the room, several handlers marshaled him over to us. Apparently, as the concert sponsors, our group got first dibs. Cat and the others stood up, but I remained seated, frozen, and he stopped right at the base of my chair, shaking their hands, looking down at me, and smiling. He started to tell a funny story that I can no longer remember, and I sat there, mute. All that practice down the drain! Cat, noticing my catatonic state, decided he should step in.

“This is my friend Jen.”

“Hey, Jen,” he said, smiling warmly and extending his hand to the one that was holding the camera. Instead of simply moving the camera from one hand to the other, I dropped it and shook his outstretched hand with my mouth wide open. I didn’t even say hi. He looked at me with an expression that read Am I crazy or does she look like me? and then one of the handlers told us it was time for Jon to move to the other groups, but not before pictures were taken.

“Anyone want me to take a photo with their camera?” asked the female handler, and I momentarily regained my consciousness to hand her mine.

We stood up in a group—the concert winners to his right and me to his left—and I felt him put his arm around my shoulder. I managed to wrap my arm around his waist and willed my molecules to remember his shape so I could replay it later.

The handler took some photos with other peoples’ cameras, and when she got to mine, she said “Honey, it’s not working.”


“Your camera. It’s not working.”

“No, did, um, did you try…”

“Honey, I can’t make it work, sorry,” and then she gave it back and began to corral Jon to move to the next group. I looked at him, trying to think of something brilliant to say to make him stop and realize I was not just his female, mute doppelganger.

Who is who?

“Don’t worry,” he said over his shoulder as he walked away. “The station can get you a picture.”  And then he winked at me and walked on. I sat down on the chair again and watched the other groups as they showed off their gregariousness. Stupid talkers! Stupid me! 

Cat patted me on the shoulder in a way that said, “Buck up, kid,” and joined the other DJs. I slumped. When Jon made his way out, that was our cue to leave. Cat escorted me to the place I needed to go to get to my seat, and I turned to hug him. We stayed in touch for about a year, and even though I never got that photo, I’ll always think fondly of him.

When I got to my seat, the opening band was playing—I can’t remember if it was Cinderella or Tesla—and my mom and Margie were there. My mom’s face lit up immediately and then toned down slightly when she saw my face.

“How was it?”

“It’s over. I met him and he didn’t fall in love me!” I howled.

“Oh, honey. Why don’t you just…you know…try and enjoy the show?”

I sat in my seat, disgusted with myself, and cried and cried and cried. I didn’t cry at school, but I cried at home. After a couple weeks, I had to move on.

*   *   *

In the early 2000s, some friends convinced me to go to a Bon Jovi concert for nostalgia’s sake. I demurred at first, but they told me to get over myself and come with them. Just before the band came on at the sold out area, I wondered, What am I doing here? I still like him. He seems like he’s a serious man. He does a lot for charity and is married with kids to his high school sweetheart. He’s hardly ever in the tabloids and has been able to maintain popularity and relevance over the span of nearly thirty years. In fact, I admire him. But really, What am I doing here?

And then the lights went down, a guitar started playing, and he walked out on stage flashing a perfect smile on that beautiful mug.

And I was sixteen again.