Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Invited Post: "She Has Glasses"

Longtime readers may remember an invited post by Alexa, aka Blossoming Badass, that I ran some time ago as a teen perspective on the beauty mores of her generation. Alexa's writing first spoke to me because—at the risk of sounding like one of the adults in her poem "Lines Converging"—it reminded me of my own at her age. But in watching this particular badass blossom, I see that I was mistaken: Her voice has grown into one that mixes careful observance of self and others with searing moments of intensity—a mix that's quite a feat to pull off (and one I certainly couldn't as a college freshman, which she'll be this fall). I'm so glad to have Alexa back on The Beheld with this piece on navigating comfort, prettiness, and glasses...another feat I haven't yet been able to pull off! You can read more of Alexa's work on her Tumblr.

I was in eighth grade when I realized that only the weird kids still wore glasses.

It hadn’t always been this way. You couldn’t see the board? Or the words in books? You got some glasses! Most kids were reluctant, like me, to actually wear them. The reading-glasses kids were especially wary; I remember a boy named Robbie in my fourth-grade class kept them covertly in his desk except during silent reading time, when he huddled behind his book. I only saw him wearing them one day, when I had to stand behind Robbie’s desk to ask Mr. Fuller if I could use the restroom during silent reading. But still, it was better for girls to wear glasses than boys, anyway, because boys would fall and sometimes break theirs when they played soccer during recess.

I took a similar route, keeping my glasses in their bright-blue case in my cubby, only taking them out when I had to read the spelling list on the board for all of elementary school. In sixth grade, however, I decided I could start fresh and avoid this inconvenience by just wearing them every day. They were wire-framed and purple back then, the frames rounded rectangles, making my round face look even rounder. I would wear them for all of middle school, give or take a few weeks of seventh grade and all special occasions when my mom told me I had to wear contact lenses, which I found extremely uncomfortable.

But by eighth grade, the solid third of my grade who had worn glasses was diminished to a mere few. Girls who had special needs, boys from families we had deemed unusual, kids who still cried too much and wore the clothes their moms picked out for them. I wasn’t being mean, but I knew I wasn’t a Weird Kid. I was different, but I had friends. I was smart, but I wasn’t just a nerd; I understood what was going on with the other kids, what they liked and why they liked it, even if I was more of a spectator than a participant. It’s probably pertinent that seventh-into-eighth grade was the first time I felt fully alienated by my body, but I knew it was going to take more than hair straightening or makeup or contact lenses (the defenses of the other girls) to make me feel any better. That is, glasses removal wasn’t going to do anything drastic.

Eighth grade was when I really started to talk. About things I cared about. My clothing choices were mostly governed by two things, both of which were different from the other girls. My pants were never skin-tight and my skirts and shorts were never ever short, not because my parents were strict (trust me, my mom wished I would dress like the others), but because I thought my thighs were too fat and my hips were too wide already. And secondly, my shirts weren’t too tight either, but they were all covered in quotes and slogans and buttons expressing the things that I suddenly cared about. T-shirts, bought plain at Target and decorated with homemade iron-ons of my favorite quotes from famous women. I didn’t care if I looked pretty, if I wore glasses. I was suddenly really excited, and ready to change things. Lots of famous women in history wore glasses, like Eleanor Roosevelt at the United Nations, and Rachel Carson looking into a microscope. It didn’t matter if I did too.

Ninth grade, meanwhile, was when I became Cute. I looked young for my age. I still didn’t wear makeup, but my pants were slightly more normal-fitting. I had a squeaky little voice that spoke up and said honest true things that the bigger voices didn’t. I was lucky (or so I thought) that people listened, accepting my assertions as Cute instead of dismissing them as Annoying or Obnoxious, as they would have been if I was bigger and stronger about what I was saying. Quite relatedly, in the spring of ninth grade, I got my first pair of Cute glasses. They had plastic frames that looked like wood, and were more rectangular. I felt ok wearing them. Lots of people said they liked them, too. The glasses confirmed the Cute.  

By ninth grade, I was much more torn up about the fact that I wasn’t pretty. It was rather cemented in my mind. In the preceding year, all of my friends had Become Pretty in some way.

There were lots of things you could be, I learned, that were all positive reflections of your face and makeup and clothes and weight and body and personality: You could be pretty. You could be lovely. You could even be hot. None of these words really allowed the presence of glasses on one’s face. (You could be beautiful, too, but that was a special word that wasn’t a reflection of you so much as it was that the person who was saying it liked you. Usually it was a grown-up who could tell that you were sad.)

Yet all around me, friends who were skinny and flat-chested rapidly developed breasts and hips while their stomachs stayed perfectly concave and their legs smooth and strong. Awkward friends with weird hair and funny clothes started to develop a style, to figure out how braiding or straightening or whatever else worked out for them. Braces were removed and somehow that made all the difference. They were suddenly pretty or cute or hot.

I was a different Cute, more bunny-cute than girl-cute. Cute like a fluffy pink tutu, not like a stretchy denim mini-skirt from Forever 21. And if I got too loud, I could tell even that would be taken away from me.

As one of only two freshman along with my friend Meghan in the Drama Club, Cute was the lot I received. (Meghan, even cuter, and spritely-tiny on appearance, but far snarkier once spoken to. She wore glasses and contacts alternately, about half and half, but she was already stunningly delicately pretty, like a ballerina.) They seemed to like me. They said I was Smart and Cute sometimes, two of my favorites. I was small and very naive, and most of them were seniors, with cars and romantic relationships and independence. I was happy to have a home. But I knew I had to be careful. Once I had a label, an identifier, a role, I felt a need to maintain it.

“She has glasses,” you’d have to say describing me to your friend so he could spot me in a crowd. “She’s short with glasses and dark hair...yep, that’s her.” You’d just have to mention the glasses first as they became unusual, identifyingly characteristic. That was the thing that set me apart from my other friends, not being the least-thin, not being Cute, which would soon grow to make me feel too young, too. But glasses? Glasses I could deal with. Glasses were my choice.

They also became my one-more-fortress between myself and the rest of them. By tenth grade, I couldn’t look at my face in the mirror without them, and I didn’t want anyone else to, either. Without them I was exposed. Without them, I had to compete.

That’s what I was scared of, I realize now. If I didn’t have glasses, I would be in the competition with everyone else to be pretty. I hated playing soccer as a kid because it was uninteresting, and because I knew I wasn’t good at it. I felt the same way about Being Pretty. There was the same allure to it—being on the soccer team meant a group of friends (of varying levels of superficialness) and some degree of notice and admiration from others. Being Pretty was the same, but the allure was undeniably heightened. I hated trying to Be Pretty too, then, because I hated losing. Losing was inevitable.

But being Cute was pretty fun. At the end of that year I’d start to wear short skirts, but with sneakers instead instead of flats or sparkly flip-flops or especially tottering on espadrilles. I’d wear my prettiest dresses and my favorite shirts, and never stop wearing my glasses. I got to do Cute my way, instead of theirs; I was out of the competition. I’d start to wear shirts saying things I believed in that weren’t four sizes too big; my way, not theirs. My glasses never ever had a logo on the side like the girls who just wore their glasses when they were tired; mine. I’d start to wear eye makeup under my glasses a year later, completely unprecedented; still mine.

I don’t remember specifically where things changed. Seeds were probably planted by tenth grade when I began to apply the thick and smudged black eyeliner. But in the past year or so, I decided I could be pretty with glasses. It just happened. I wore them to graduation and felt pretty. I wore them all days, to concerts and friend’s parties and calculus class on gloomy rainy mornings, and some of those days were good. The glasses became a part of me, and they became a part that I liked. My dynamic views on my body itself (something I very, very recently realized was mine, and still forget often) were counteracted by my glasses, plastic and glass and not-living and unchanging. Mine. Which I get to put on my face.

I don’t think I’m pretty without glasses, however. By my own opinion, or the competition of the world that I still feel whirling around me. They have become armor, armor that I do not feel comfortable dropping.

*     *     *

I got new glasses last week. I asked my little brother, age fourteen, to help me pick. He’s really good with aesthetics, but he couldn’t decide. So I asked the middle-aged woman, sitting in the waiting room with her eyes dilated and laughing at everything my brother and I said.

“Which do you like best?” I asked.

She looked behind her, surprised. “Are you speaking to me?”

“Yes! You’re totally aware that we can’t decide.”

“I can’t really see... Come closer.” The woman examines me in all three different trial pairs, blinking through the blurry discomfort of her eyes’s dilation.

“Those.” She said definitively when I put on the third pair for a second time. “Definitely those.”

So Those are the ones I’m wearing on my face right now. First I thought they made me look elderly. Then I thought they made me look too young. Now I’m pretty sure they make me look too overtly lesbian, or perhaps too hipster. Yesterday I wore my hair differently and one of my mom’s shirts and I thought I was pretty. And I’ll probably decide something else tomorrow, whether I notice the change occurring or not.

We only have control over such few things, and I might as well use this opportunity to my advantage instead of against it. Use it as an opportunity to like how I feel about myself. Why not?

Regardless, I get to decide.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Coming to My Senses: Excerpt and Giveaway

A memoir about perfume from anyone other than a perfumer seems unlikely—unlikelier still that such a book would raise questions about gender, community, family history, class, and expectation. So it’s fitting that unlikely is one of the keywords here to Alyssa Harad’s memoir, Coming to My Senses: A Story of Perfume, Pleasure, and an Unlikely Bride. There’s much to love about this book—the lyrical words, the sensual descriptions of various perfumes, the ongoing navigation of bridedom—but what I appreciated about it above all was the way it reconciled feminism with what one might label “the feminine arts.” (Though as Alyssa’s story of having a sniff-fest with a transgendered friend of hers shows, fragrance is hardly limited to the feminine.) I felt a pulse of recognition throughout: The tale of learning to ease the imagined divide between the pleasures of perfume (or makeup, or a perfectly crafted shoe) and the idea that as a feminist, one “should” be concerned with serious matters like Injustice and Legislation is one that I’m guessing plenty of readers here will identify with.

When I asked Alyssa about how writing this book engaged her sense of politics, she responded, “Perfume both complicated my politics and reinforced them. For example, it gave me a reason to separate out perfume and makeup and how women use them from the way the beauty industry exploits women's anxieties in order to sell them more products. It was feminism that had taught me to be suspicious of the industry's motives—especially the kind of feminism I had encountered and absorbed in my early twenties—but it was my training as an academic feminist that taught me to look very carefully at anything that is regularly dismissed as frivolous and feminine, because those things are often a source of power for women. And perfume is quite definitely a source of both power and deep pleasure for many women I know including myself. I wrote Coming to My Senses in part because I wanted more women to have that experience—not just with perfume, but with anything in their lives that they're drawn to but might dismiss as frivolous or, if they are certain type of earnest student, ‘problematic.’”

Enjoy the excerpt below that expands on this idea—and leave a comment to be entered to win a signed paperback copy of Coming to My Senses, plus two samples of perfumes that appear in the book. [Edited to add: Giveaway open through 11:59 p.m. ET August 12, 2013.] West Coast readers can catch Alyssa at one of her upcoming events: August 1 in San Francisco, August 3 in Los Angeles, August 7 in Portland, and August 12 in Seattle. (More details here.) Coming to My Senses can be found at independent booksellers (and the behemoths too).

*     *     *

If the center of the Kingdom of Women is a gleaming white-walled city built by movie executives and ad agencies, where supermodels, screen goddesses, and all the perfect girls we knew in high school fill the streets, I live far outside the city limits, beyond the suburbs, a few counties over, in a country village founded by a lesbian feminist collective in the mid-1970s. (Before that, it was a summer retreat for bohemians, and there’s still a strong artsy contingent.) I like it there, away from the glitz and the glare. In our softer, plainer light, it’s easier to see how many ways there are to live as a woman, how many forms and shapes there are of beauty, energy, work, and wisdom. There’s a lot of fresh air, and I’m surrounded by people quietly and not so quietly staking out new territory on the map, so that there are days, sometimes weeks, at a time when the category woman, as an immutable opposite of the category man, doesn’t mean much, and it’s easier to use the word person, which is a word I’ve always liked. It’s a place where small details are important—a new pendant, a line of silver buttons, a charmingly crooked tooth, a pair of particularly fine clear eyes.

I didn’t always live so far from the center of the kingdom. I started out more or less where my mother lives now, in the neat, well-kept suburbs just outside the city walls. In the Kingdom of Women (and sometimes in real life, too), the suburbs are all about being what my mother once called, with great approbation, well groomed. You’ve made the most of what you have, as though you were a country whose raw materials have been properly exploited. You’ve done a great job of putting yourself together, as though you were a chair or a car. It’s a learned skill, this self-creation, the territory of endless tips and tricks. Anyone who works hard enough, the theory goes, can be pretty (the corollary being that those who are not pretty do not work hard enough). To be well groomed requires an instinct for limits, boundaries, dividing lines. Money helps. (There’s a lot of shopping.) And free time. But for that mythical creature, the truly well-groomed woman, everything is effortless. The endless small adjustments and daily rituals of maintenance are as natural to her, and as expected, as breathing, walking, or using the telephone—say, to make a hair appointment. She notices her own polish as little as a former ballerina notices her perfect posture. Both are the result of years of practice.

I’m being a little mean. There’s a hissing, a little meow in my voice, that tells you how much that world frightens me, and how much I admire it. How I have to go on escaping it because it is a part of me. Its rules are a test I will go on failing all my life.

Because I was never a rebel, or at least I never meant to be one. (I may have refused to wear Lauren, but I longed for it all the same.) I wish there were a single story I could tell to explain what happened, but there isn’t. It was just a long series of negotiations, a no-I-won’t here and a yes-I-will there. An absurd number of these arguments had something to do with hair—all that cutting, combing, straightening, curling, waxing, shaving, plucking, bleaching, and spraying that was required of me, as though the moment I let my guard down I would become a snarling, thick-pelted animal.

And it’s true, I always had a wild streak, a taste for drama. All through my growing-up years, even when I matched my socks to my turtlenecks and blew my thick, curly hair straight and then set it in hot rollers for good measure, I was always a bit too much. It was as though I were wearing a costume I couldn’t take off. A loud, curvy, dark-eyed girl in a land of cool, slim-hipped blondes, I spent a lot of time onstage, where I made more sense. There, and elsewhere—the lines between life and stage aren’t always clear—I played the roles that were available to me: the tough showgirl, the exotic gypsy, the lusty wench, the Egyptian queen, the madwoman. Even at fifteen, the ingenue was beyond me. By the time I was seventeen I was singing “Big Spender” at the local charity auction, and though I have no memory of doing so, my mother loves to tell the story of how I came down off the stage, microphone in hand, to sit on the seventy-eight-year-old lap of J.R. Simplot, the billionaire potato king. In college, I played prostitutes, unfaithful wives, and, once, a blues singer named Honeypot. It was pure instinct, all of it.

So I went, skating along on this thin ice until the moment in my early twenties when feminism came along and plunged me into the cold, dark waters below. Dripping wet, but wide awake, I looked upon my double life with horror—prim constraint on one hand, a series of self-betraying stereotypes on the other—and in my usual earnest, censorious way, chucked the lot. It never occurred to me that I might be throwing away some things I wanted to keep.

And that’s where I was, more or less, fifteen years later when, having long forgotten most of what I’ve just told you, I sprayed on a bit of Paloma and went home to lie on the bed and ignore my mother’s e-mails about whether the napkins at the wedding reception should be brown or gold.


From Coming to My Senses: A Story of Perfume, Pleasure, and an Unlikely Bride by Alyssa Harad. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Alyssa Harad, 2012.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Beauty Blogosphere 7.12.13

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

From Head...
Crop top: Cristen and Caroline nail it again with their podcast on what short hair symbolizes on women. (Bonus: You'll learn the real story behind Mia Farrow's pixie cut.)

...To Toe...
Toeing the line: Note to those hoping to deploy fraud to avoid paying full price for a pedicure, as was the case with a Connecticut woman this week who stopped the pedicure midway through and insisted on paying only $10: Dash out on the early side. "Police observed the final coat of polish on Parker’s nails and asked her to pay the full $22, which she refused, according to police." She was charged with sixth-degree larceny for theft of services.

...And Everything In Between:

Lady in red: Protests in Turkey and an icon of femininity colliding with tear gas combine to make a "hers" restroom sign in a university town in central Anatolia.

Working women: Along with the increase of women in India entering the paid urban workforce comes a demand for professional wares. Enter Unilever, with its new collection through the Lakme line, called 9 to 5.

Little yellow bottle: Clinique's Dramatically Different Moisturizing Lotion = The New Coke of beauty products?

Humpty hump: A Dubai company is entering the beauty sector with a product that truly hasn't been seen before in most of the world: camel milk beauty products. And naturally, the company name is Camelicious.

Dress for success: I thought it was a relatively new strain of feminism that saw women championing conventional markers of femininity (dresses, makeup, etc.) as a way of proclaiming feminist identity while holding on to those icons. Turns out it's not new at all: The leading British suffrage organization "used women’s fashionable dress to offer an overtly political argument: women could be both fashionable English women and militant Suffragettes."

AAthletes: "For the modern athlete, the question isn't whether breasts get in the way—it's a question of how to compete around them." (via Caitlin)

Oil me up: Can you use oils as sunscreen? The answer seems to be not really, though Venusian Glow reports positively on using raspberry seed oil, with an SPF of 28 to 50, placing it within the recommended SPF zone. (Other testers, not so much.) What's more probable is that research in this direction will come into play in creating a natural sunscreen, as indicated by research in India. Good thing too, since the glitter sunscreen market has been cornered already. Also relevant: What's the difference between sunscreen and sunblock?

On modesty: I'm intrigued by the idea of this woman's "modesty experiment," in which a feminist with (apparently) no religious beliefs that dictate modesty covered her hair, shunned makeup, and dressed modestly for nearly a year. The concept of modesty is complicated and I'm hoping that the writer, Lauren Shields (who blogs here), untangles much of that complication in her forthcoming book. But as Katie J.M. Baker points out at Jezebel, as it stands now, the experiment feels like it's missing something. The conclusions in the Salon piece are a tad pat, and the blog's emphasis on how glad she is to have ended the experiment seems uneven. Fingers crossed for a more meditative analysis to come; I trust it's there.

"Formulated with...": From a cosmetic chemist blog, a snapshot of "weasel words" the industry uses to imply claims that can't be stated directly. (Also, pssst: If you're into cosmetics science, pre-order The Beauty Brains' newest book, provocatively titled It's OK to Have Lead in Your Lipstick.)

Race daze: One of the things you hear over and over again from athletic women is how focusing on what their bodies can do rather than what their bodies look like is like a (temporary) wormhole out of self-objectification. Fit and Feminist's examination of race photos—the photos of sweaty, determined women who are focusing on exertion and crossing a finish line instead of controlling a goofy facial expression—considers what happens when those two ways of being collide.

Sniffer: The biggest factor men consider when choosing a cologne is, apparently, whether their partner likes it (which makes sense if worn according to a lovely guideline I once read—that the correct amount to wear was just enough so that a person embracing you would catch a whiff, and no one else). Any guesses as to what the biggest factor women consider is?

Make Up—Make Down, Sanja Iveković, 1976

Make Up—Make Down: The private ritual of cosmetics is part of its draw for many women—but that's just it, it's private. In her 1976 video piece Make Up—Make Down, Croatian artist Sanja Iveković lets us become privy to the intimacy of someone else's ritual: the heavy breath, the focus on the decolletage, the ritualistic opening of makeup jars. It's particularly interesting given that Iveković created the piece when Croatia was part of the former Yugoslavia—a time and place that cast makeup under a light of suspicion. (Thanks to Sarah Nicole for the link.)

Sitting pretty: Samvid has a nice mini-roundup of art that asks larger questions about beauty—including the recent "Barbie" designed to mimic the average 19-year-old woman's measurements.

Reproductive rights: "My body my choice" can be extended to pregnant women in dealing with comments from strangers—specifically male strangers, for this guest writer at Feminist Figure Girl.

Just my size: It's interesting to me how many of my female friends (and myself) have no problems saying that they have a definite body type they prefer in male partners—tall, chubby, muscular, skinny, whatever. Honestly, it's the kind of talk that would get me up in arms were a man to say it, which I'll admit is sexist of me; the more I read stories from men with body image concerns, the more it'll sink in that it's the same damn thing, but for now the knee-jerk reaction isn't the same. Perhaps it would be if there were "No Fat Dudes" baby tees? Whatever the case, this piece about being a lady "chubby chaser" is interesting, and makes me wonder about how much stock women place in being comparatively smaller than their partners.

This has potential to be cool: Online video makeup and hair consultations.

This has potential to be terrorizing: cosmetics chain partnering with facial recognition tech firm to detect customers' moods and allow them to send out personalized offers. (Now anti-drone apparel can go masstige!)

Bodily integrity: I can't think of a lovelier idea for helping sex workers connect with each other—and with their own bodies—than the community-organized day of spa and wellness treatments called "Whores' Bath."

Stripped: Theoretically I like the concept of nudity-as-liberation, but outside of the occasional nudist colony treatise (ugh) most of what you see on the matter focuses on the "is striptease/burlesque feminist?" question (to which I'd say, whatever). But! Gala Darling's report of a confidence class in which every participant shimmied naked down a runway is revelatory.

"I don't see my body as a canvas": I'm still pondering all the fantastic responses I got when I asked readers about why they wore makeup—and one particularly insightful response comes from Tatiana at her own blog.

Color me Edith: The Downton Abbey makeup line now exists, and now we can all try to have Lady Mary's skin and totally fail.

Ugly I: Several searing insights in this piece on the possibility of reclaiming "ugly"—made all the sharper when she points out to the reader that people's instincts are to discount the mere possibility that the writer might be ugly...which is exactly what I did when I saw her picture. Why does ugly seem so untouchable, as though it's the worst possible thing someone could be? (Still, I'm not as sure as the writer is here about the relationship between beauty and, say, humor: She wonders if she'd still be a stand-up comic were she conventionally beautiful, whereas I've heard plenty of other women in comedy wonder if the best way to get booked is to be hot.") (Thanks to Joy for the link!)

Ugly II: There are some wince-worthy parts of this essay on "ugly privilege" (since when is it only beautiful women who are sexually assaulted?), but it's an interesting illustration of the dynamics that come into play in female friendships where beauty is concerned. It's deeply uncomfortable stuff to talk about, particularly for feminists (okay, particularly for this feminist), so props for touching on a difficult topic, even if misguided. (Thanks to Rachel for the link!)

On "inner beauty": "The problem with the 'beauty is an attitude' logic is that it places all the blame and responsibility on women." Sing it, sister. The smartest critique of this line of thinking that I've ever read.

Anon was a woman: Why aren't models usually credited by name in fashion magazines? On illustrative shots it's one thing, but a fashion shoot is demanding of all laborers involved, and while it's routine to credit hairstylists, manicurists, etc., you rarely see the models acknowledged. Emily at The Closet Feminist raises the question and makes some excellent points. (Side note: In all my years copy editing magazines, mostly fashion-oriented, my only client that regularly credited models by name was a men's magazine.)

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Go, Tootsie, Go

I've been half-in and half-out of the blogosphere for a couple of weeks, so when my blogger buddy Tatiana tweeted this video of Dustin Hoffman talking about Tootsie to me, I didn't realize exactly how viral it had gone. It was only today when I looked at Facebook for the first time in days that I realized it had been shared at least a dozen times by my friends—and not just my usual circle of feministy-bloggy suspects but by high school friends, coworkers from random jobs years ago, etc.

On the off-chance that you've missed the video, here's the gist: Hoffman talks about the impetus for creating Tootsie, and how when he first saw himself on test footage made over like a woman, he was pleased, but then asked his makeup artists to make him not just a woman, but a beautiful woman:

I thought, I should be beautiful—if I was going to be a woman, I would want to be as beautiful as possible. And they said to me, That's as good as it gets. ... I went home and started crying, talking to my wife, and I said... "I think I'm an interesting woman when I look at myself onscreen, and I know that if I met myself at a party, I would never talk to her, that character, because she doesn't fulfill physically demands that we're brought up to think that women have to have in order for us to ask them out." She says, "What are you saying?" [Hoffman tears up.] And I said, "There's too many interesting women I have not had the experience to know in this life because I have been brainwashed." And— [Hoffman catches his breath] That was never a comedy for me.

It's moving, it's unexpected, it reveals a glimpse of genuine emotion from a beloved entertainer. It's not hard to see why it caught on; my own knee-jerk reaction was to tweet it out. But when I started to look through my blog feed for the past few days and saw that I was on the tail end of many, many shares, I had to wonder exactly why it caught on so much.

Part of why we like this is that Hoffman articulates something about seeing himself as a woman that would take actual women a boatload of chutzpah to say: "I was shocked that I wasn't more attractive. ... Because I thought, I should be beautiful." Hoffman sees beauty as a part of the birthright of womanhood. And why wouldn't he? Why wouldn't we? We see him have the experience that for many women runs the course of a lifetime: recognition that beauty is not a meritocracy. It comes as something of a shock to those of us raised in America, the country that so loves its bootstraps myths and the notion that if you work hard enough at anything, you can achieve it. That neatly ignores entrenched systems like racism and classism—but hey, if we're talking beauty here, the realm of women, shouldn't that logically mean that the system is already gamed in our favor? But we know it's not: We can work as hard as we can at being beautiful and it can still elude us. Most of us can become attractive enough—including Hoffman, whose allure as Dorothy prompts a marriage proposal from Charles Durning's character. But that feeling that we should be beautiful—not out of some sense of womanly duty, or media pressure or any of that crap, but out of the fact of being a woman—well, that's hard to shed.

As the headline on Upworthy indicates, the video's popularity could well be because it's a man "Explaining Something That Every Woman Sadly Already Experienced." Yet when I look at exactly who is sharing it, it's nearly all women, and isn't the point here that women already understand the ways that our looks subtly open or close opportunities? The novelty factor comes into play, sure—it's one thing to muse about this amongst women, but for a man to have the opportunity to genuinely empathize with the emotions surrounding beauty is rare. (Men obviously deal with this too, but it's rare for any man to feel looks bias as a woman, much less toward oneself.)

Still, we don't need Hoffman to tell us this; we know it already, or at least that's the idea. But do we actually know? Part of the trouble with examining looksism is that we never quite know when we're being overlooked (or favored) because of our appearance, except in cases where it's explicit. In fact, it's sometimes easier to default to believing that a personal interaction hasn't gone smoothly because someone doesn't find us appealing; our bodies are convenient scapegoats for other stresses. What's intriguing about this video is that Hoffman, for the first time, has the experience of the split self: He is observing himself as both subject and object, as an actualized creature and as something to be gazed upon. When you're mired in your own split gaze from day one, the division between surveyor and surveyed isn't quite so sharp. What we learn here is not exactly an iteration of something we already know; all we really learn is that onceuponatime, Dustin Hoffman didn't like to talk to plain chicks, and that he learns about his own brainwashing. In truth, he doesn't learn a thing about women.

I'm not saying this as a dismissal of either Hoffman or of Adam Mordecai, the Upworthy writer who was key in making this go viral, but it's interesting that Mordecai coaches the video in terms of what women experience. I'm thrilled that both of these men are putting these sentiments out there, particularly since, by looking at Mordecai's Upworthy posts, this isn't a one-off nod to "women's issues" for him. But watching it as a woman who, like most women, has experienced a mix of dismissals and favors—overt and covert, recognized and silent—because of her looks, this video is more valuable as one perspective on the male gaze from men than as a comment on my lived experience.

And in fact, that's probably why it went viral—not because it's from a man, but because it's a clear, succinct, moving example of the ways that we're, to use Hoffman's word, "brainwashed." In many ways it's no different than anything that goes viral, even as I'd like it to herald some sort of progress in this arena. In fact, the video has what marketing expert Jonah Berger has identified as the six factors that make us want to share something: emotional resonance (he cries! we cry!), observability (it's a video, with someone familiar to us, and he cries!), usefulness (reinforces an aspect of our practical lived experience), storytelling (Hoffman, a master performer, is literally telling a story), triggers (our looks come into play every day), and social currency (believe me, everybody has something to say about looks and bias, so yes, it's popular).

I'm curious: Did you watch the video before reading this post? What was your reaction? Why do you think it caught on?

Monday, July 1, 2013

Vote for Me, S'il Vous Plaît?

I'm pretty much thrilled to have been nominated for the Marie Claire Most Wanted Beauty Blogger award. It's particularly thrilling that it's Marie Claire that took notice, since they have a long record of publishing excellent women's journalism of the sort that makes me proud to have worked in women's magazines.

The Beheld is up against some seriously big names in beauty blogging, like BellaSugar, YouBeauty, Into the Gloss, and The Beauty Brains—and is the only blog run independently (that is, it's just me here, folks, no creative director or whatnot). I'd be honored if you'd take a minute to vote for The Beheld (or whomever, I'll never know!). And if you'd like you can also enter to win a gift bag chock-full of goodies, so hey, incentive!