Thursday, January 31, 2013

Permission to Flirt

Judgments, Rosea Lake

By now, you’ve probably seen art student Rosea Lake’s photo Judgments, which went viral earlier this month. Unlike, say, videos of children on laughing gas, this went viral for a very specific reason: It does what the strongest images do, namely that whole “worth a thousand words” bit. Judgments communicates the constant awareness of, well, judgments that women face every day we leave the house (and probably some when we don’t), and I won’t say much more about the actual image because it speaks well for itself.

That said, I’ve read commentary on the image that has also struck a chord, specifically Lisa Wade’s spot-on post at Sociological Images about how Judgments pinpoints the constantly shifting boundaries of acceptable womanhood, and then relates that to something women are mocked for: all those darn clothes (you know women!). “[W]omen constantly risk getting it wrong, or getting it wrong to someone. … . Indeed, this is why women have so many clothes! We need an all-purpose black skirt that does old fashioned, another one to do proper, and a third to do flirty....” Wade’s main point is an excellent one, as it neatly sums up not only what’s fantastic about the image but why women do generally tend to have more clothes than men.

But my personal conclusion regarding Lake’s piece was actually somewhat different: To me, it illustrates why my own wardrobe is actually fairly limited in range. The first time I saw it, I was struck by how effectively it communicates exactly what it communicates. The second time I saw it, though, I made it personal and mused for a moment about how save one ill-advised maxidress and one black sheath that hits just above the knee, literally every single one of my hemlines is within an inch of “flirty.” This is semi-purposeful: It’s a flattering length on me, and I’m a flattery-over-fashion dresser, so I’ve stuck strictly with what works. And isn’t it a funny coincidence that what happens to flatter my figure just happens to be labeled as “flirty” here, when in fact “flirty” is probably, for the average American urban thirtysomething woman, the most desirable word on this particular chart to be described as? (Depending on your social set you might veer more toward proper or cheeky, and of course I don’t actually know which of these words women in my demographic would be likely to “choose” if asked, but I have a hard time seeing most of my friends wanting to be seen as prudish—or, on the other end, as a slut.)

Of course, it’s not a coincidence, not at all. I may have believed I favored that hem length because it hits me at a spot that shows my legs’ curves (before getting to the part of my thighs that, on a particularly bad day, I might describe as “bulbous”). And that’s part of the reason, sure, but I can’t pretend it’s merely a visual preference of mine. As marked on Judgments, that particular sweet spot—far enough above the knee to be clear that it’s not a knee-length skirt, but low enough to be worn most places besides the Vatican—also marks a sweet spot for women’s comportment. Flirty shows you’re aware of your appeal but not taking advantage of it (mustn’t be cheeky!); flirty grants women the right to exercise what some might call “erotic capital” without being seen as, you know, a whore. Flirty lends its users a mantle of conventional femininity without most of femininity’s punishments; flirty marks a clear space of permission. Curtailed permission, yes, but sometimes a skirt’s gotta do what a skirt’s gotta do, right? So, no, it’s no accident that nearly all my dresses fall to this length. I wear “flirty” skirts in part because I play by the rules. I’ve never been good at operating in spaces where I don’t have permission to be.

Of course, that permission will change: The lines as shown on Judgments indicate not only hemlines and codes women are judged by, but where women are allowed to fall at any particular age. A “provocative” teenager might be slut-shamed, but she isn’t told to keep it to herself; a 58-year-old with the same hemline might well be told just that, if not in as many words. “Proper” isn’t necessarily a sly way of saying “frowsy” when spoken of a middle-aged woman, as it would be for a 22-year-old.

Given how widely this photo made the rounds, it’s clear it struck a nerve, and I’m wondering what that nerve is for other viewers, in relation to their personal lives—and personal wardrobes. Do you take this as commentary on rigid rules for women, or on the constant flux of expectations—or are those just two expressions of the same problem? Do you dress within “permission,” or do you take pleasure in disregarding permission altogether? Or...?

Friday, January 25, 2013

Beauty Blogosphere 1.25.13

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

House of Vestal Virgins, Rome. (The best hairstyles are ones you get to imaginate!)

From Head...
When in Rome:
Video on re-creating the intricate braid style of the Vestal virgins. Awesome. (via Maya Resnikoff)

...To Toe...
Toeing the line:
An undercover cop in Iowa got a pedicure and then busted a salon owner for illegally serving alcohol to clients, and the nation stays safe for another day.

...And Everything In Between:
Going glocal: With the news of Chinese and Korean brands surging forward despite competition from established Western lines, it's easy to forget that smaller economies don't have the marketing power of their Chinese or Korean counterparts. The domestic Vietnamese cosmetics market is ailing, with Western corporations like Unilever buying out local lines and cannibalizing them entirely.

Green machine: What the "greening" of the beauty industry (or at least, of consumer tastes) means for larger, more established brands.

Agency provocateur: Victoria's Secret model Constance Jablonski is being sued by her former management agency for breach of contract; Marilyn Model Management claims that her new agency poached her under dubious circumstances. Agencies actually lose money on a good portion of their models, the idea being that if even one of them scores big—say, becoming a Victoria's Secret model recognizable by name—those multimillion-dollar contracts make up for the paltry (or nonexistent) payment of editorial work. So this isn't just big business for agencies; it's the business.

Le roi de lipstick: Profile of France's young "cosmetics king," Bris Rocher, heir to the Yves Rocher company. (And since when are 34-year-olds "digital natives"? They remember landlines, right?)

On politics: I'm Barack Obama and I approve these bangs.

Israeli gears: Remember when it came out that Yes to Carrots may have been covering their ties to Israel? Turns out they just aren't manufacturing products in Israel any longer.

Where does it begin?: Deeply compelling piece about November's garment factory fire in Bangladesh that led to the deaths of more than 100 workers—from the designer of the cheap garments the factory specialized in. "My point is, this fire was lit by me. I am the one who asked our factories to make a $9 blouse, and, by default, Bangladesh is one of two countries in which clothing can be imported duty free."

Facing up: The nice thing: Vogue Italia featured an Asian model on their cover (a feat that American Vogue has yet to do). The not-nice thing: The editor says that discrimination doesn't exist. Discrimination in fashion? What are you suggesting, my sweets?

Got MILF?: Intelligent debate on the term MILF, of all things (is it just me, or is Canadian radio way better than American radio?). Is it a way of saying "For a mom, you're not bad...for a night" or of acknowledging that a woman can be maternal and sexual at the same time? (A commenter once called me a MILF and I admit I thought it was sort of cool. I liked the nod to the fact that I'm no spring chicken but can still turn a head or two; for whatever reason it seemed more of a compliment than something that didn't acknowledge my age, despite its crassness. But I'm also not actually a mother, so I didn't take it as anything other than a comment on age—and the fact it's only happened once means it's amusing, not annoying. Thoughts?) 

Lifting weight: Should you do anything as a gym-goer when you suspect a fellow trainer has an eating disorder?

Tattoo you: At last, an equivalent term to that nasty little term used for lower-back tattoos—exclusively on women, of course: gramp stamp.

Go here to learn more about The Illusionists.

Attention, New Yorkers: The Athena Film Festival (which has some awesome-sounding films about women and leadership) is previewing The Illusionists, which longtime readers will remember from director Elena Rossini's guest post. Get (free) tickets for the February 10 showing here. I've seen the preview, and it's making me super-jazzed for the full documentary: Rossini's interview subjects really get to the heart of beauty culture and advertising, with a keen, penetrative perspective that goes beyond the stuff most readers of this blog would already know and likely agree with.

On subjectivity: Thought-provoking interview with feminist philosopher Ann Cahill. The whole thing is worth a read, but in particular readers here will like chewing on her thoughts on beauty: "[A]spects of common practices of feminine beautification have the potential to enhance women’s subjectivity and flourishing.... these processes provide women with an opportunity to care for each other’s bodies, to share expertise and insight, to honour and pay attention not only to their own embodiment, but to their intercorporeality. ... The problem, as I see it, is that almost all of those aspects of that process that I find to be enhancing of one’s embodied intersubjectivity pretty much disappear once the beautified woman walks onto the public stage. Now her beauty is seen not as the admirable result of some communal aesthetic process, one that requires judgment and creativity and care, but rather as a kind of gendered duty that gains its primary meaning from how it positions her in the heterosexual marketplace." (Thanks to Badaude for the link!)

No more denim leg!: Finally, a cure for the dreaded denim leg. Oh, you know what I mean—how denim notoriously dries out your legs. But luckily the Denim Spa brand came along to offer moisturizing jeans (or, if you prefer, "moist slacks"). At last, chickadees, we may begin to live.

Modest talk: Love this interview with modesty fashion site Mode-sty founder Zahra at Already Pretty: "Instead of feeling like you have to choose to either be stylish or dress modestly, now many women are looking for options where they don’t have to choose."

Beauty queened: Meli at Wild Beauty muses on beauty pageants—particularly intriguing because of her personal history as a feminist raised in the South, a region far friendlier to beauty pageants than Yankees are. Bonus: short Q&A with a real! live! beauty queen!

Blushing brides: It's not wedding season at all! But two nice wedding pieces this week nonetheless. Take it from the recently married Lexie of Beauty Redefined: You don't have to do the whole bride freakout thing pre-wedding. Then read Kate Fridkis on her sudden decision to shoo away her makeup artist at her wedding (warning: may make you tear up, if you are like me and a sucker for a good wedding story): "A perfect bride with a perfect face was nowhere to be seen. Instead, here was a woman who had been a little homeschooled girl running around in the woods pretending to be a warrior princess with a spear she made out of a stick, who had never learned how to be properly sexy or care about cosmetics."

Face slimmer?!: Two intrepid bloggers take Japanese beauty devices to the streets of Nashville (and in true Nashville style, they're serenaded by a guitarist who improvises an ode to Japanese beauty products).

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Grin and Bare 'Em: Bad Teeth

I saw Anchorman for the first time the other night, and after my hysterics re: the jazz flute scene had subsided, I took note of the close-up of Will Ferrell's mouth. Here's a picture: 

So, Will Ferrell doesn't have the greatest teeth. The shot was played in close-up here for comic effect, but those are his real teeth (as opposed to Mike Myers' in Austin Powers), and I immediately harrumphed over the fact that a female performer—even a comic one—could never get away with not "fixing" her teeth and still be successful.

The internet shows me I'm wrong. I mean, look at all the female celebrities out there with "bad teeth." Madonna! Lauren Hutton! Anna Paquin! Jessica Paré! And yet, notice anything here? Despite showing up repeatedly on collections of "celebrities with bad teeth," there's nothing wrong with these women's teeth, except that they have a gap up front*, a far cry from Ferrell's crooked, yellowing bottom choppers. Sure, alongside these gap-toothed women, various slideshows cite Jewel (snaggletooth!) and Kirsten Dunst (baby teeth!), but assuming that the two of them even qualify as having "bad teeth," are there any other female celebrities with significant orthodontic problems? (Amy Winehouse certainly did, but her dental condition was linked to the drug addiction that killed her; sadly, the effect was part of her image.) 

It's hardly a surprise that appearance standards are higher for women in this regard, given that they're higher in pretty much every regard. Will Ferrell, Steve Buscemi, Seal, Morgan Freeman, Ricky Gervais—all successful (though none known for their good looks), all with teeth in worse shape than any of the female celebrities with supposedly "bad teeth" out there. What's more surprising is that anyone in the public eye has the teeth nature gave them. Cosmetic dentistry has skyrocketed in recent years among the hoi polloi, let alone people who make their living in part from their faces. And while the same names crop up over and over again on lists of "bad celebrity teeth," when you look at the list of celebrities who once had "bad teeth" but got them fixed, it's all over the place: Tom Cruise! Miley Cyrus! The Beckhams, David Bowie, Lindsay Lohan, Zac Efron, Michael Douglas, Celine Dion, Chris Rock, Nic Cage. I'd go on, but you get the point. 

But that's Hollywood, where people make their living off their looks, even if those looks fall outside of mainstream attractiveness. For the rest of us, though, changing our "bad teeth" isn't necessarily out of reach—it's expensive, sure, but depending on what you get done, not unthinkably so. And the benefits are plenty: Tooth decay and discoloration are associated with appearing less competent, less intelligent, less well-adjusted, and less satisfied—regardless of gender. (That's not even touching the relationship between dental care and class; just think of how often funky teeth are used for comedic effect to poke fun at "trailer trash" in sketch comedy.) But there's a paradox here: While men have been seeking cosmetic dentistry in greater numbers in the last few years, women still make up the majority of patients, even though the benefit they receive from their newly pearly whites isn't greater than it is for men (though it's impossible to measure the cumulative effect that dental work has on overall appearance, which has greater benefit for women socially). Of course, that's true of dentistry in general: Women are likelier than men to seek preventative dental care, which makes me wonder if the actual "need" (as it were) for cosmetic dentistry is less overall for women, meaning that the playing field is inherently uneven as far as the benefit actually received. That is: If men have worse teeth overall, the expectations might generally be lower for them, meaning that average teeth on men are perceived as being "better" than average teeth on women. (I'm hypothesizing here; couldn't find any numbers.) 

Besides the general ethos skewing toward everyone-should-look-like-Kim-Kardashian-at-all-times, there's another reason for the rise of cosmetic dentistry: patients as consumers. Health care in the States has increasingly been painted as a series of consumer choices, not a utility or basic human need. Even Obamacare, which makes some much-needed changes in our system, relies upon the idea that patients will treat their health insurance as a consumer choice. Couple this view with the fact that cosmetic dentistry really is a consumer good, at least more so than your annual tooth cleaning, and suddenly cosmetic dentistry shifts from being seen as something only the rich do to being seen as something that's on the same scale as checkups, cleanings, or orthodontic care. (If you're like me—that is, lacking dental insurance don't even get me started—that illusion is only magnified because all payments are out-of-pocket.) 

In fact, patient-as-consumer might be another reason that women make up the majority of cosmetic dentistry patients: Women tend to be better informed than men about their health, and when we're talking about procedures that are framed as consumer choices, that effect is exaggerated. Show me the last time Esquire ran a guide to the best ways to whiten your teeth, eh? And the effect is cyclical: Dentists are encouraged to pay attention to their office aesthetics because "[women] notice everything," the idea being that the most closely a cosmetic dentistry outlet models a medi-spa, the more the patient-consumer feels cared for specifically as a consumer.

I'll be honest: Reading up on cosmetic dentistry was a little hard for me. My teeth are perfectly healthy in the sense that I have minimal cavities and erosion, but cosmetically they're not the best—a little crooked, a little crowded, a little (okay, a lot) yellowed. I had retainers twice as a kid, and as a teenager my dentist recommended braces specifically for cosmetic reasons, but of all the battles to fight with my parents, funding prom seemed more worthy. Their discoloration didn't bother me a whit until tooth-whitening became a Thing, and I experimented with various kits that seemed to make a negligible difference on my appearance (and a noticeable effect on my bank balance). I'm a little self-conscious of my bared-teeth smile (though far less now than before I decided to start flashing 'em during photos), and honestly, if my income were double what it is, I'd probably have some sort of work done on them. 

But just as dyed-to-match prom heels seemed a bigger deal than straight teeth to me in 1993, ultimately having perfect teeth isn't worth it to me. I'll never suggest that you should turn to me for tips on "how to love your looks"; it's not what I'm good at, either in embodying that ethos or giving instruction on it. What I will say is this: Viewing cosmetic dentistry as a consumer might ultimately make more people buy in—but it's had the opposite effect on me. I look at my earning power, and I look at my goals, and I just don't see room in there for making my pearls pearlier, you know? Obviously I find space in my budget for other optional expenses—$56 retinol cream? Bring it! And given that I haven't started serious wrinkling yet, but use this stuff daily, I'll be "bringing it" for the rest of my life, adding up to a not-inconsiderable sum that I could probably spend on veneers or whitening. Perhaps it's the effect of knowing that my discoloration only bothers me because "the media" told me it should (seriously, I didn't think twice about it until I'd read, oh, my fifth or so feature on it in ladymags); perhaps it's consumer skepticsm; perhaps it's just good old-fashioned resilience. Whatever it is, I'm taking a cue from Kirsten Dunst and sticking with my "snaggle fangs": "They give me character, and character is sexy." I'll sink my teeth into that.

*And about those gap teeth: I'd always thought they were sexy, and I'd privately credited this to my occasionally offbeat taste (I have a thing for adults with scars from teen acne, for example). But it turns out I'm not progressive here so much as I'm regressive—back to the Middle Ages, when women with gapped teeth were seen as lustful. Given the morals of the time, lustful was hardly synonymous with sexy-as-attractive, but it's on pace with sexy-as…sexual, I suppose. A gap-toothed smile is also considered attractive in some parts of Africa, and in 1987 Les Blank made a short documentary called Gap-Toothed Women, which is about…gap-toothed women. 

Friday, January 18, 2013

Beauty Blogosphere 1.18.13

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

From Head...

Hijab hijinx: Sara Hagi at Worn Fashion Journal on what happens when strangers assume she wears the hijab because she's oppressed, not because she believes her hair and body are her business: "The poor woman was putting herself through mental gymnastics trying to liberate a free woman, while I was just trying to find a polite way to excuse myself from the conversation so I could go home and watch Arrested Development." Love.

...To Toe...
On your heels: No, really, what IS with the shoe thing? Ekaterina Sedia (whose blog you should add immediately to your feed if you like creative fashion analysis) lays it out.

Fishy situation: The owner of an Arizona salon that was ordered by the state's Board of Cosmetology to stop offering fish pedicures is fighting back; the civil trial began Monday.

...And Everything In Between:
Paper chase: A class-action lawsuit has been filed against Estee Lauder, producer of a Clinique line that the plaintiff claims was bolstered by false marketing claims. The reasoning used in the suit here is particularly interesting: It essentially charges that the very basis of much of beauty marketing—like short product cycles and airbrushing—betrays the consumer. I'm used to seeing this in a more political context, so to see it in a legal context shows why everyone—not just feminists—should be approaching beauty with critical skills.

Khroma khaos: Further developments on the Kardashian trademark infringement case (two separate companies have sent cease-and-desist letters to the Kardashians over their Khroma makeup line), with the owner of Kroma cosmetics charging that two years ago, the company was in talks with the Kardashians about licensing the Kroma brand.

Disaster-Upon-Avon: "It would be hard to find another large American company as bad off as Avon Products."

On "thick": For Harriet has a poignant post on black women, beauty, and "butt shots"—sadly prompted by the deaths of women who have died after receiving injections intended to fill out the rear end. (Thanks to Parisian Feline for the link.)

Say cheese: Not sure what to think of this (admittedly amusing) Photoshop slideshow of what celebrities would look like if they were, as Fast Company Design puts it, "ugly regular people." It seems that "ugly" and "regular" are code for "heavy" and "low-income," with classic low-socioeconomic-status indicators (outdated clothes, frizzy hair, loud makeup, tacky backgrounds on professional family-photo shots) galore. But on the flipside, not only is it entertaining, it's illuminating of how, say, Gwyneth Paltrow might actually look if she weren't privy to as many skin-care prorducts and personal training sessions as she can handle. What we conceive of as beauty is inextricably tied to class, and in highlighting class (albeit not in the hardee-har-har way I'm pretty sure this slideshow was intended) in this context, that becomes clear.


The littlest scent: Dolce & Gabbana is launching a baby perfume. Thank heavens someone finally found a way to make newborns smell good!

Brown-eyed girl: People with brown eyes are perceived as being more trustworthy than blue-eyed folk, although surprisingly, it's not the color that causes this perception but the facial features of brown-eyed people that makes them seem this way. (via Shines Like Gold)

Marketing 101: Seventy-five percent of people who have a gene mutation that prevents them from having odiferous underarms use deodorant anyway.

Breaking news: The Onion investigates "appalling conditions" in the Cosmopolitan Male Pleasure Laboratory. The exploited parties claim that the magazine researchers forced them to simulate 50 crazy-hot sex moves, among other indignities. A must-watch. (Thanks to Lindsay for the link.)

Beard burned: Procter & Gamble is blaming the "decline of kissing" (is this related to the totally nonexistent "end of courtship" the Times thinks exists?) on not enough men being smooth-shaven, presumably smooth-shaven using Procter & Gamble-produced razors. Apparently one out of three women has avoided kissing a man because he had facial hair, which I'm fairly sure is Procter-ese for "Didn't wanna kiss him anyway, yo."

Cross-examined: Two men in Cameroon who were jailed for homosexuality had their convictions overturned by an appeals court, the defense being that since the biggest evidence against them was that they'd both been seen cross-dressing and wearing makeup and not actually having sex with other men, their convictions were faulty. Serious question: Is this progressive in some way? A baby step? A little wormhole that might symbolize a hint of tolerance? (via Shines Like Gold)

Score one for diversity: Lists of "hottest women" or "sexiest men" utterly baffle/upset/annoy me, and this year's GQ list of 100 hottest women has the bonus of race tokenism

Reality check: It was hilarious when The Onion parodied the aspects of fashion worship that defy relevance and reality. It wasn't so hilarious when Vogue used Hurricane Sandy as a fashion shoot. People died, c'mon.

"The color the moon possesses in the thin air of northern winters": The absurd heights (mostly male) magazine writers go to in describing actresses' skin, which, if you are Gretchen Mol, is like a tournament rose dipped in whipped cream. (Also from The Awl, which is after my heart this week apparently, founder Choire Sicha calls bullshit on the way Esquire writes about women.)

Face, fortune, fiction: In sharp contrast with the above items, Joanna Walsh's illustrated essay on five female writers manages to do what is so rarely done well: address women's looks in a way that manages to make it clear that our looks do shape, in part, who we are, without falling into expected clichés on the matter or assuming that women's looks are the most important factor of our lives. 

"I love your hair": Of course you wouldn't ever touch someone's hair without permission, but some people do, and this GIF perfectly showcases a moment that makes it crystal-clear why it's a pretty loaded act for black women.

All I have to say about this awesome piece on the tyranny of "natural beauty" by Aminah Mae Safi is: CO-SIGNED. Just read it.

Nailing it: Brittany Julious makes a radio appearance to talk nail art and black culture.

Insect aside: Since bug sex is so 2009, let's turn our attention to bug fashion.

Grin and bear it: Katrina Onstad writes with elegance on the "smile scanner" technology geared to help service workers better perform emotional labor, and why it matters for women: "Perhaps it’s because I’m a woman, worried that those 'Smile, honey!' guys are going to expect us to carry self-scanning tablets in our purses. Studies show that women, often the bearers of the emotional weight of relationships, smile more than men."

Apples to apples: The history of fruit in makeup ads. Seeing these ads en masse is making me think of the connection between fruit and femininity—I mean, there's a reason gay men used to be called "fruits," and you'd be hard-pressed to find fruit notes in most men's fragrances. And now that's making me wonder what exactly was in the scent that marketed itself as "the world's first cologne exclusively for gay men."

Royal mess: I read Meli's headline—"The First Official Portrait of Kate Middleton Is Just Awful"—before I saw the portrait in question, and was all, "Aw, c'mon, it can't be THAT bad," and then I clicked through my feed to see the picture, and, you know, I'm not afraid to admit when I'm wrong.

Seeing red: Courtney's red lipstick challenge has ended, and what I love the most about her conclusion is that it's about what it inspired (conversations), not what its direct outcome was. Brava!

Beautiful mind: Two fascinating posts that look at appearance and mental health, from different viewpoints. Cassandra Goodwin luminously relates how during times of depression and anxiety, the ritual of makeup came to be a balm of sorts, its centering effect becoming a more important outcome of the process than the actual finished look. And in The Closet Feminist's three-part series looking at the larger meaning assigned to "the quirky girl," we see how the word "quirky" is often code for "crazy," and not in the "wild-and" sort of way. (Parts one and two are worth a read as well.) (On a different note, Cassandra also has a fab four-part series revolving around wearing makeup when you "have" to, like for job interviews, complete with tips and sociological analysis.)

Principessa: The princess question is a tough one for parents—if your daughter is kicking and screaming for princesswear, does denying it to her on feminist grounds do any good? I suspect the answer is a big gray maybe, or perhaps sometimes, and Hugo Schwyzer explores the topic as a parent of a four-year-old girl who—you guessed it—loves the princess thing.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Gamifying Beauty

I love the mod look! The mod look does not love me (at left). But the coral lipstick at right is nice, oui?

A few months ago, I stumbled across a website that promised a “virtual makeover.” You’d upload a photo of yourself, then apply various “looks” with all manner of makeup colors and hairstyles; you could even “borrow” a celebrity’s entire look, pasting her makeup and hair onto your image.

I’d seen similar tools before, of course, but they were always comically bad—more along the lines of my friend Lindsay’s collection of horror-makeover images than anything you’d actually use to evaluate whether you’d look good in, say, coral lipstick. On a whim, though, I decided to give it a try, figuring that the technology must have changed since I’d last given them a whirl.

I was right. Though the results were obviously computerized, the tech had developed so that you could align your face more precisely in the application frame, meaning that lipstick actually landed on your lips instead of where the computer wanted your lips to be. More important, it was actually useful. I was surprised to find that I actually might look good in coral lipstick; I confirmed that, sadly, the mod look makes me look just wrong; I found a half-up, half-down hairstyle that looked great on me, and when I tried it out on terra firma, it was indeed flattering.

The site linked out to other sites that had features besides makeovers—you could digitally slim yourself down, or plump yourself up. You could get a breast lift, breast augmentation, or both, which served as a complement to the rhinoplasty and face-lift features on the makeover site.

Do I even need to tell you what happened? I went down the rabbit hole. Making adjustment after adjustment, I manipulated my face and body—just to see, of course. Learning what I’d look like with Gwen Stefani’s hair (absurd) led to seeing what I’d look like what Penelope Cruz’s hair (not bad), which led to me trying on dozens of brunette celebrity styles to see which might suit me best (Ginnifer Goodwin?). I plumped my body out 20 pounds to see if it would resemble how my body actually looked when I was 20 pounds heavier (it did), then trimmed myself down 10 pounds to see if it echoed my erstwhile 10-pounds-lighter frame (it didn’t, which didn’t stop me from going on to drop another 15 virtual pounds, because, hey, this is just a game, right?). I narrowed my nose, went up three cup sizes, ridded myself of my deep nasolabial folds, and alternated between digitally tanning and digitally “brightening” until I realized I was aiming for pretty much the skin tone I actually have. And then, a good two hours after I’d sat down to try on Gwen Stefani’s hair for a lark, I went to bed.

Now, there’s plenty to say here about the nature of that rabbit hole, and how it relates to self-esteem and dissatisfaction. (Is it any surprise that after inflating my breasts three cup sizes, clicking back to the photo of myself au naturel left me feeling deflated?) But in truth, after spending an evening creating a slimmer, bustier, better-made-up version of myself, the most pervasive feeling I had was not of self-abasement but of extraordinary fatigue. It was like I’d spent 12 hours proofreading a dissertation on, I don’t know, dirt, printed out in 7-point font. I felt the brain-drain not only of sitting in front of the computer for too long, but of doing crap I don’t actually feel like doing. Which is to say: I felt like I’d been working.

In fact, I sort of was working, even if I tricked myself into thinking I was doing it just for fun. It made me think of gamification, the use of game elements and digital gaming techniques in non-game situations. The idea, in part, is that by lending the benefits of gaming to more tedious tasks (like work), the tedium is lessened because it feels more like play. Perhaps you’ll be more likely to, say, complete online training courses if you earn “points” or “badges” for each segment you finish. It seems silly that something essentially imaginary would motivate people—but one peek at the popularity of programs like Foursquare that allow you to gamify your own life shows that it works. The term more broadly applies to any sort of game thinking that applies to non-game situations—like interactive features (that annoying Microsoft Word pop-up dude) and simulation (think 3-D modeling à la SimCity), though most of the critiques of gamification that I’ve read focus on its reward aspects.

The beauty apps I was mucking around with aren’t exactly examples of gamification, strictly speaking. There’s no points system for coming up with the “best” makeup look, and though sites like the one I used let you share your results on social media, there’s no competitive aspect—just you cycling alongside the beauty machine. (The exception I found was iSurgeon, which allows you to play surgeon on preprogrammed faces and earn points for each “successful enhancement” you make The site also encourages users to “perform plastic surgery on your family and friends right on your i-phone [sic],” but you can’t play a scored game on images you upload yourself.) Still, there are undeniable similarities between beauty apps and gamification: The swiftness with which you can wipe the slate clean, much like the neverending lives of video games; the toolkits you use to update your image, which are reminiscent of the palette of options presented to you in traditional video games when choosing whether your avatar is the spiky-haired kickass blonde or the artillery-laden robot, or whatever. (Can you tell I haven’t played a video game since Super Mario Brothers?) And most of all, it shares the addictive quality that kept me playing just one more game (one more hairstyle, 10 more pounds).

One of the more salient critiques of gamification has it that when employed in labor situations, it robs work of its true value, turning employees into soulless—but entertained!—lab rats. As Rob Horning put it in Jacobin magazine, “[Gamification] cheerfully assumes from the start that most of life’s tasks are inherently not worth doing...and contrives a motivational system that precludes the possibility of working from inspiration in accordance with some intrinsic personal desire, some self-conceived goal.” That is, gamification takes the drudgery out of work (at least, that’s its goal), which in turn makes work not something one does with a larger aim in mind—say, developing new skill sets, or learning how to focus and collaborate—but something one does in a Pavlovian way, hoping for the quick-hit reward of games.

Now, beauty apps aren’t employed in a structured labor situation, and as much rhetoric as I can spew about the beauty imperative, the fact is, for most women wearing makeup is a choice (that is, until you get fired for not wearing it). Certainly the types of beauty labor being mimicked in these games is optional; even if you feel you must wear concealer to leave the house, chances are you don’t need to try on 12 different lipstick shades too. But the very existence of apps designed to let us see the “rewards” of makeovers, or weight loss, or plastic surgery before we make the commitment any of them require indicates that to some degree, beauty is labor, and that we do appreciate incentives (free eyeshadow cybertrials, for example) that help make that labor more productive as well as more fun.

Yet it’s not until we contextualize beauty gamification within the larger frame of leisure games—which, at day’s end, is what makeover apps really are—that its true significance becomes clear. Horning again, this time on the video game Guitar Hero, which lets people pretend to play guitar as opposed to, you know, actually learn how to play guitar: “Novelty trumps sustained focus, whose rewards are not immediately felt and may never come at all. … [O]ur will to dilettantism develops momentum.” By giving pretend shortcuts to a skill that, in the real world, brings benefits that go beyond simply being able to bang out a decent “Leavin’ on a Jet Plane”—the joy of witnessing your own progress, the deeply felt satisfaction of mastery, the mental acuity that comes with learning a new “language”—Guitar Hero lets its players trade the long, slow process of learning a skill that you’re pursuing for the sheer fun of it for the dopamine hit of getting a high score. (Certainly I had more fun the two times I played Guitar Hero than I did the two times I held a guitar and awkwardly plucked out a few errant sounds—but it couldn’t compare to the afternoon I spent teaching myself to play “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on ukelele.)

Enter beauty apps, which mimic acts that fall somewhere between leisure and labor. Now, I'm hardly worried that makeover sites are taking away our collective proficiency at eyeliner application, but the Guitar Hero argument applies anyway: I can spend half an hour in Sephora trying on various eyeshadows and lipsticks, but 30 minutes staring at my visage onscreen never really winds up feeling like leisure. Gamifying beauty combines gamified play’s curtailment of actual playfulness with gamified labor’s trivialization of actual work, forming a neither-nor zone robbed of both the joyful possibilities and the political significance of beauty work. It seeks to place beauty squarely in the “isn’t this fun?!” camp—and yes, it is fun to dabble in dozens of makeup looks without having to wash your face a zillion times, and it’s even fun (or especially fun) when the computerized results are ridiculous. As an activity in and of itself, it might be just fine.

But I wonder about the fallout of this reinforcement of the false notion that beauty work is strictly for play. It takes an act fraught with meaning—personal, cultural, political, gendered, class-oriented, expressive meaning—and turns it into something as consequence-free as Farmville. It renders beauty work as kittens’ play. And if beauty work were more fully recognized as the work it is, this wouldn’t be so bad; after all, Navy SEALs play Black Ops II, and civic engineers play SimCity. But beauty work largely isn’t recognized as work, isn’t recognized as (unpaid and costly) labor. Gamifying it, instead of actually lightening beauty’s labor load, only makes it appear evermore weightless. And unlike with the avatar of myself I created 30 pounds lighter—impossibly long-limbed and slim-hipped instead of the awkward, bony mess I’d likely be were I to actually lose that amount of body mass—weightlessness can’t be our goal.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Beauty Blogosphere 1.11.13

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

From Head...
Brow-raiser: Eyebrow transplants? I know we're not supposed to say this anymore, but...really?

...To Toe...
Foot fault:
Tennis player Victoria Azarenka forced to pull out of the Brisbane International semifinals after a pedicure gone wrong caused an infection, prompting emergency surgery.

...And Everything In Between:

Which is more shocking: The accusation that someone might be poisoning the makeup of a former government official, or that a country ranking well below the U.S. in women's well-being has appointed a female leader before we've managed to elect one? (Nevermind that "abuse of office" charge...)

Shady accusations: The former (and currently imprisoned) Ukrainian prime minister suspects that her cosmetics were poisoned. Experts examined her products and found no traces of poisons, including toxins like mercury and lead. We save lead for our makeup stateside, thankyouverymuch!

Looks like Estee Lauder's Osiao line and deep research pockets geared toward China are paying off, as they were named by a think tank as the strongest digital brand in the country.

Mediate, regulate: Motley Fool, of all places, gives a nice rundown of major retailers' scores from the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, along with a summation of the market effects of consumers' growing awareness of the utter lack of regulation over cosmetics ingredients. (Macy's is apparently the lousiest of the lot; who knew?)

Worldview: Enough about Asia and the Middle East as the boom spots for the beauty industry—now it's Africa, with its "exceptional" rate of consumer growth, according to the CEO of Procter & Gamble.

The you machine: More beauty companies are offering "prescriptions" for makeup and skin care. The purpose here is twofold: First, it takes a consumer experience and makes it feel clinical, giving the customer a feeling that they're on a health endeavor, not merely a makeup spree. But that's been employed for a while by various companies (Clinique, most notably). What's new here is companies aiming to make the experience individual, playing into a larger trend of personal branding and customization. The more we feel like our "authentic self" is being expressed, the more we're likely to buy, buy, buy.

Outrageous: Yes, Virginia, it's totally fucking legal to fire an employee because you find her so attractive you're afraid your penis might slip into her and therefore piss off your wife.

Green machine: Organic and sustainable ingredients have seen a rise in consumer demand in recent years, but the environmental impact of processes used in cosmetics production hasn't seen a lot of ink, which is why this article on biocatalytic processing is worth a once-over.

Body paint: A research team studying funerary samples found in Mexico dating from between 200 and 500 AD has concluded that the Teotihuacan people used cosmetics to honor their luminaries. While cosmetics have long been found in excavations in other parts of the world, it's rare for them to be in tombs in the Americas. This particular finding indicates the existence of trade, since the pigments in the cosmetics contain minerals not found in the region.

Mrs. M. Stevens Wagner, 1907

Tattoo you: Meli Pennington looks at the relationship between tattoos, taboos, and women willing to break the rules—and the unexpected way that plays out even now that tattoos are far more acceptable than they used to be. (Etymology bonus: The word stigma comes from the ancient Greek word for tattoo, stig.)

Creeping: I'm not sure what to think of this "diary of a creep" by noted journalist Rend Smith, who has a number of medical conditions (most notably seborrheic dermatitis, which causes skin to peel) that add up to him looking, as people around him have put it, creepy. "While the word freak heaps sin on its user, the word creep has the advantage of allowing its wielder to blame the victim. ... [B]y labeling the creep a creep, you’re victimizing the creep before the creep can victimize you." There's been a lot of thoughtful ink about the word creep—see here, and here, and here—and it's something I'm hesitant to try to wrap up succinctly. I've seen a man I love feel deeply hurt by being called "creepy," and I've seen it defended by, well, creeps who don't like the fact that women aren't actually obliged to sleep with every man who doesn't, like, spit in their eye. What I do know is that when we're talking about appearance-based labels, we need to listen to the people being discussed, and that's what's happening here.

Point blank: As a rather femmey lady (though I admit to missing the lumberjack shirts of the '90s, those were comfortable), I'm always intrigued by people whose gender display falls outside of convention—particularly when they get right to the heart of the matter, as trans blogger Shybiker does here: "Why do women work so hard at their appearance?"

Rocky Mountain high: Along with legalization of cannabis in the Mile-High State comes a new Colorado-based skin care line containing not hemp seed, as has long been popular, but cannabis seed. As puts it, "Who knew that weed could be good for more than just watching The Wizard of Oz to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon?" (Um.)

Slow violence: We're finally having necessary conversations about our culture of violence. Minh-Ha T. Pham asks us to look at the gendered "slow violence" we do to women with the thin imperative.

If you build it: Karen Gregory turns a critical eye onto the philosophyTM of the "manifestation manifesto" of the new strain of The Secret-type works—including the "rich, happy, hot" worldview of one of Oprah's new favorites.

Bodily harm: Nahida perfectly fingers what my hesitation was about embracing Ukrainian feminist group FEMEN's radically nude protests: "Because while it may be inevitable to coincide sexuality and nudity, what FEMEN has done is conflate sexuality with sexiness."

Whatever happened to: What would you do if your aging mother started wearing Baby Jane-style makeup? Dear Prudence answers. (Confidential to Mom: I've focused on how your lifelong lack of interest served me as a kid, but now I'm seeing how well it might serve me in 20 years.)

On working it: Lily Burana has a glorious Salon essay on the power of "the glitter high": "There is a spirituality to every kind of theater, and what, I ask you, is more theatrical than a woman doing her best to work it?"

The wolf-whistle diet: Need a new weight-loss strategy? Try the hottest trend in sexist occupation of public space: street harassment!

Lip service: How much does the pseudo-debate over makeup use and self-esteem reveal about the cultural jitters we have about women explicitly trying to appeal to men?

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Tizz Wall, Domme, Oakland, California

Interviewing Tizz Wall under her guise as a professional domme was a delight, but she actually has a panoply of guises that would have made for excellent beauty chat. A speaker (she’ll be speaking at the upcoming Catalyst Con on how to ally with sex workers), sex educator (she assisted sexuality author Jamye Waxman with her most recent book), writer (including her Mistress Manners column at Playpen Report), and erstwhile advocate for survivors of domestic violence, Wall’s working lives appear diverse but all surge toward the larger goal of making the world a better place for women of all walks of life. In fact, she’s currently completing her San Francisco Sex Information Sex Education certification. She currently does her domme work independently (though when this interview took place she worked out of a BDSM house). We talked about assimilating to—and literally blinding—the male gaze, the pressures of being a physical worker, and the similarity between BDSM houses and slumber parties. In her own words:

Photo by Lydia Hudgens

On Looking the Part
Some of the women show up for work looking cute, but most of the time everybody shows up in their sweatpants and don’t have makeup on, or they biked there so they’re all sweaty. No one’s showered. They’re in states of comfort, almost like, “Oh, did I manage to put on pants today?” In the morning we have kind of a ritual—there’s opening chores to get things going for the day, and then we’ll sit down at the kitchen table. There are a bunch of mirrors we pull up and put on the table, we’ll have our computers out, listening to music and talking and gabbing about whatever. That’s when we’ll all put on our makeup and do our hair. If we’re struggling and can’t get our hair right it’ll be like, “Can you please do the back?” It’s the female bonding over grooming at its max, I guess. Almost every day that you’re there, it’s part of the process. It’s like having the slumber party makeover every morning. It turns into one of those tip-sharing things that happens at slumber parties: “I got this new concealer, do you want to try it?” or “This color doesn’t work for me but I think it’d look great on you, do you want it?” We’ll do that, cook breakfast, make coffee. You all want to get ready in the morning because you want to have someone available in just a few minutes. If I need to, I can put on full makeup in probably 20 minutes tops, 10 if I’m really hustling. 

I’m very aware of my looks, specifically as a sex worker. Personally, I’ve wondered if I’m attractive enough—I can get very self-conscious. I feel confident in myself, and I did when I first started too, but back then I was like, I’m definitely not the tall, thin, blonde, model-esque type, and obviously you have to be that to be in this line of work, right? So I wasn’t sure I’d get hired. Then, it’s funny—being there, there’s kind of a transformation that happens. So it’s particularly interesting to see the getting-ready process in the morning, because everybody is gorgeous—and the particular house I work in has a wide variety of body types and ethnicities and different types of beauty, it’s really varied—but you see everybody show up in their normal-person outfits, and then you see them do all this and it’s a whole transformation that happens. 

I had no idea what this world was like when I got into it. I remember asking, “How much makeup should I put on?” My boss said, “Whatever is going to make you feel comfortable and make you feel like you’re going to personify this character”—which is an extension of yourself but also still a character. You’re kind of amplifying a certain part of your personality. Whatever will make you feel like that character, that’s how much makeup you need to put on.

On Bodily Labor
A lot of our client base is older straight men, and that means on some level we are catering to the male gaze. We keep that in mind a lot. The people who have tattoos will hide them; I have a septum piercing, and I tuck it in my nose. I have a coworker who has a mohawk, but she has long, pretty hair in the middle; if you’re not paying close attention when she wears it down, it passes for long hair. When I first started, I’d been dyeing my hair blonde. I changed it because when I was at work I couldn’t have big old roots.

You show off your body in a certain way. One of women has lost a ton of weight since she began working, and that has helped her get more work. I know I’ll get more work if I do certain things that are more traditionally feminine. It becomes a business decision. There are definitely sex workers who don’t cater to that. But our particular community, the particular house that I’m in, that’s something the person running it gears toward. That’s what our advertising is geared toward. So that regulates a lot of our choices for our physical presentation.

I’ve actually gained weight since starting this work; when I first started I was doing roller derby, skating 10 to 12 hours week, and I’m not anymore. So now when I’m not getting work, I’ll be like, Oh my god, is this because I’ve gained weight? And I know that’s not it—I mean, I fluctuated just one size, it’s not this massive difference. But this feeling of the possibility that my looks are tied to my income can really hurt my self-esteem. Being financially independent is really important to me. In this work, everybody has slow weeks, and then you’ll get a rush with lots of work; it’s a back-and-forth. But when that happens, I can start to think that I’m actually putting myself at risk by gaining weight. Rationally I know that’s not the case—even if I were a supermodel, there would be an ebb and flow no matter what I do. But when I gain weight it’s more than just, “Oh, I’m having a bad day and feel so ugly and bloated.” Body stuff takes on a different tone. It’s less destructive in my personal relationships and my personal interactions and personal self-esteem, but with this financial angle there’s this feeling of, If I don’t lose this weight, I’m not going to work again. 

On Being Seen—or Not
When I first started I had a lot of self-consciousness about leading a session by myself. I wasn’t yet 100% on my domme persona, so I would use a blindfold. When I was really new I had a three-hour session booked, and I just hadn’t gotten the timing down and I still didn’t really know what I was doing. One of the things we learn to do is negotiate what to say and how to elicit what the clients want to do, and match that up with what our interests are. What I want to do is, you give me your money and leave, because really what I want is to just read my book and still have the money, you know? So it’s not really what you want, but they say that, so you have to be good at asking the right questions and proposing things. So during this three-hour session I kept getting bored and not really knowing what to do and needing time to think, particularly because at that time I was so green—I had no clue what I was doing. I’m very expressive, so if I’m confused or thinking about what I’m going to do next, it’s all over my face. Blindfolding him was great, because then when I was sitting there thinking, What am I going to do next, he’s not really being responsive and I don’t know what to do, I didn’t have to pretend like I wasn’t having those thoughts. Now that I’ve been doing it a while and feel like I’ve hit my stride, that amount of time would be a great session and it would be fun.

Clients will often request that I have them only look at me when I give permission. I mean, that’s very submissive! In a playspace, not making eye contact can represent submission and reverence. It can become about asking for permission, or earning that privilege in some way. If a client is coming to see a domme rather than going to a strip club or going to see an escort, they’re going to a domme for a reason. They’re seeking out that dominance. Saying “Don’t look at me” is a subtle, effective way of establishing dominance, of making it clear that this is my room, this is my space, and you need to respect that.

That applies outside of work in some ways—not to that extreme, of course, but in terms of self-presentation. It makes the argument of how you present yourself in a certain way to control how people look at you in a fair or appropriate way where you have some degree of control over it. Women are so judged by their appearance that making certain choices about how I present myself becomes a way of controlling how people view me.

On Commanding Attention
Being a sex worker has made me recognize power I can have in everyday interactions. Before, I was much more self-conscious about things, even if I was dressed up or whatever. Everybody talks about how confidence is something you can do, but I don’t think I understood that until I started this work. I mean, I’m incredibly clumsy, so I’ve fallen in front of clients. But being a domme is a lot like theater in many ways, where the show just keeps going. You drop something, you trip over your words, you trip over your feet, your garter comes undone—whatever, you play it off. And when you’re a domme, you can play it off like, “That’s not even my fault. Why did you do that?” I’ve had the CD skip and I’ll be like, “Why did you make my CD skip? It wasn’t doing that before you got here.” “I didn’t touch it.” “It’s still your fault!” “I’m sorry.” One of the stories that gets told around the house is that this woman had a client who basically wanted humiliation; he wanted her to punish him. He was very tall, and she was a shorter woman. So the minute they got into the room she said, “How dare you be taller than me?! Get on your knees.”

It’s amazing what can happen once you stop having the expected male-female interaction, since women are so socialized to be nice and really cater to men—even if you’re a staunch feminist, even if you’re really mouthy, like myself, before this job. I still have some of that tendency to apologize profusely if something goes wrong. I’m gonna be like, “I’m so sorry, I messed it up, I’m so sorry.” But I think having this job made me really realize the power I can have over a situation. I mean, personal accountability is important, and you should apologize when you mess up. It’s a matter of not overdoing it, not feeling really bad about it. Something went wrong? It’s fine, we’re moving on. Having that sort of presentation has a lot of power.

Doing the “I’m pretty but I have no brains” thing is not my goal. I don’t present that way, even as a sex worker when I’m trying to appeal to that male attraction, even though the presentation is definitely vampy and really conventionally feminine. And we definitely have clients who come in and think we must be stupid. My goal is that my presentation will command your attention—but now that I’ve got your attention I’m going to use all the other things in my arsenal. My brain, my sense of humor, being okay with myself and with what happens in that situation, communication skills. That definitely crossed over into dating: I’m going to use a certain presentation, and it will command your attention, but the other things are what’s going to hold it together.

Click here for more beauty interviews from The Beheld.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Review: The Beauty Experiment

Does a dog have Buddha nature?

The Zen koan—a paradoxical statement or dialogue used as a meditative tool by Zen practitioners—has a number of aims, if one is allowed to “aim” in Zen, which one probably isn’t. (I wouldn’t know; I used to say I was “agnostic” until I realized I was really just apathetic. But permit me to like the idea of Zen Buddhism, okay?) One aim of these riddle-like phrases is exhausting the intellect, for how can one respond analytically to the question of whether a dog has Buddha-nature, especially if the proper answer is understood to always be no? Another aim is to relax the will, allowing the mind to operate on an intuitive level.

But it’s one of the koan’s tertiary goals that interests me the most: dissolving the duality of subject and object. In fact, that’s sort of the idea behind what’s probably the most famous koan, even if most people who know it (myself included, until last week) don’t know what a koan is: Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand? The sound of one hand clapping is the subject and object being unified, and unified in such a way that it’s not simply a twofer but something else entirely, something outside of the construct of subject and object (and, I suppose, outside the construct of sound). In seeking insight through the koan, the practitioner, instead of seeking an answer separate from oneself, is the koan. The subject and the object are the same.

The relationship between subject and object lies at the core of our relationship with beauty. The most obvious example is that women play dress-up to turn ourselves into objects under a system where men are the subjects. But in the new-ish strain of thinking about beauty, women have reconfigured beauty work not as a way to keep themselves objectified but as a liberation or expression of the “true self.” It’s a neater, more progressive response to objectification on the behalf of men, yet using “but I do it for me!” as the end to the conversation would be a mistake. For then, the relationship merely shifts from making oneself into an object for others to making oneself an object for ourselves. When I take satisfaction in how I look, I am still observing myself as an object. Even if there’s nobody else in the room, even if I’m not imagining myself being observed, I am still being observed. I might be both subject and object, but they remain separate roles, even if the actor—me—is one creature.

Unification, then, seems a worthy goal, Zen-wise. Not in the sense of embodying both subject and object, but rather dropping the division between the two in order to shift the act of observation into the act of existing. It’s a goal I’ve stalked for some time; in fact, it was the driving force behind my “mirror fast,” this idea of severing the loop of self-monitoring, self-objectification, self-observation, self self self, in favor of something that’s paradoxically more organic and more elusive. Have I achieved it? Does a dog have Buddha nature?

Though it turns out I’d heard a handful of Zen koans before—the one-hand-clapping bit; if you see the Buddha, kill the Buddha—it wasn’t until I read Phoebe Baker Hyde’s The Beauty Experiment: How I Skipped Lipstick, Ditched Fashion, Faced the World Without Concealer, and Learned to Love the Real Me that I learned what they actually were. Baker Hyde’s use of the koan shows up about two-thirds of the way through the book, when she begins to question the very meaning of beauty and its role in her personal narrative—but for me it was the climax, and in a way it’s a metaphor for the paradox the entire book presents. The story of her year spent performing next to no “beauty work”—makeup, hairstyling, mani-pedis, most depilation, clothes shopping—in order to find out what would happen if she stopped playing the beauty game altogether, the book is a good deal less tidy than the subtitle implies, and that’s a good thing. (In fact, when I first read the title I was expecting something a whole lot more clichéd. It’s nice to be wrong.)

With each of the book’s paradoxes, Baker Hyde’s storytelling bests itself, giving the reader more than what its framework initially seems to allow. The subtitle is the first paradox—“learning to love the real me” isn’t exactly what Baker Hyde experiences, though she does emerge from her yearlong experiment better off. Another is the way the author frames her format in the introduction: With each chapter split into before-and-after “snapshots” of her life during the experiment, then a fast-forward to four years after its conclusion (during which we see not a tranquil Baker Hyde merrily rolling along, but rather a woman continuing to evolve), she writes that the book is essentially a tale of two women. Yet the book’s nuanced approach reveals the opposite. By gradually learning to suspend judgment of herself as “lesser” before or during the experiment and “greater” after, we see that that the elliptical possibilities of being one person are broader than any quick-and-dirty psychic makeover could hope for.

There’s plenty of reasons to recommend this book: Baker Hyde’s skilled storytelling, the glimpses into her relationship with her husband and the culture surrounding her (she did the experiment while living in Hong Kong, which serves the focus here nicely instead of being a distraction), the—as ladymag editors would put it—“relatability” of the narrator, the interjected sociological bits derived from a survey she conducted on beauty and self-image. As with the subtitle, even the elements I was initially dubious of eventually proved their worth: One intended arm of the experiment was to funnel money that would have been spent on appearance into philanthropy, something that could have easily turned into a tsk-tsking of beauty-as-selfishness. Instead of implicitly scolding her readers (who are presumably not beauty-fasting), though, Baker Hyde tells us how this part of the project continually eludes her; she neglects to write down expenses she would have incurred were it not for the experiment, and she also “forgets” to tell her husband about her philanthropic goal. Looking at beauty work through her lens of her nearly forgotten do-gooding, we see how just as some reasoning for beauty work we don’t actually want to perform wears thin, some reasoning for liberating ourselves from beauty work might verge on justification. (She does wind up making a philanthropic donation by book’s end, of course.)

But the biggest reason to recommend The Beauty Experiment is, to bring it back to the koan, its Zen-like quality. Not so much that the author or reader reaches a place of Zen bliss, but rather that the nature of challenging beauty in our culture leads one not to a black-and-white resolution, but to a place of conscious awakening. For the sake of sales and marketability, the book is necessarily packaged using the go-girl tone of the subtitle. But it quickly becomes clear that Baker Hyde wasn’t seeking tidy, snipped-off conclusions—or rather, if she was seeking them, she didn’t find them, much to the reader’s benefit. Where I expected an arc of insecurity to security, there was a cyclical tale of relationship dynamics, liberations coexisting with expectations, mixed responses from friends, and cultural pressures. Where I anticipated serenity at experiment’s end, I instead found reverse culture shock—which then makes the actual moments of serenity, like her first post-experiment outing with friends, all the more important. (Full disclosure: I might also have been particularly tickled that during her own brief “mirror fast” in the midst of her larger experiment, she fingers the exact same John Berger passage I did in my prelude to my own mirror abstinence, and also dips into its connection to the flow state. Like minds, it seems, enjoy playing guinea pig on ourselves.)

Just as beauty doesn’t offer us easy solutions, the approaches to beauty that initially seem to be neat wind up being anything but. Twenty years after The Beauty Myth, women (and marketers) are more schooled in the political framing of beauty work, yet that knowledge often shows up in conversations as the platitude “I do it for me.” An early pseudofeminist argument I used to make about makeup-as-play fell flat when I realized very little of my beauty work had anything to do with imagination; at the same time, I began to see that my shame about literally applying concealer to the parts of myself I was uncomfortable with needn’t be shameful at all. There are no easy answers for our most important questions about beauty and femininity, and where I once found that frustrating, I now find it freeing—for if answers or solutions don’t come easy, maybe searching for them in vain isn’t the path to be on after all.

The recent New York Times “debate” on makeup and self-esteem—which, incidentally, Baker Hyde participated in—frustrated many of us who write about beauty. The elegant voicing of those frustrations, from Autostraddle to Jezebel to Wild Beauty, are proof positive of my only real beef with the Times package: The relationship between makeup and self-esteem is too complex to be boiled down to an either-or query. The dialogue requires nuance, a suspension of judgment, and a stethoscope held tightly to the pulsing truths we announce every time we walk out the front door. My wish to participate in that sort of conversation is why I write about beauty; if you’re reading this, it’s at least part of why you read about beauty. I wouldn’t presume to know why any writers choose beauty (or anything else) as their topic, so I won’t try to say that Baker Hyde’s devotion to the complexity of the beauty conversation is why she penned The Beauty Experiment. What I can say is that the riddle of beauty is rarely as well-articulated as it is here.