Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Trust in Me, Baby

Sometimes you've just gotta trust the hand you've got.

Promotional tie-in alert! I’ve got an essay up today on Medium.com’s new mind and body channel. It’s a revisiting of something I wrote years ago, before The Beheld had much of a readership, about my own complicity in what some people might call beauty privilege, but what really amounts to sexism (and not only because I am far too modest to own up to “beauty privilege,” kittens). Specifically: By playing the part of a young-enough, pretty-enough woman and putting up with a certain amount of comments about being that part, I expected a certain amount of privilege. (Not universally; it’s specific to a former landlord whom I let make semi-lewd comments to me in hopes that my apartment would receive prompt attention when need be. Oh, just read the story.)

It’s been interesting to revisit this; the events in the piece happened three years ago, and I wasn’t yet as in the habit of looking at secondary themes when looks-related situations arise. When I look back on this situation now that it’s long over (my current landlord, Tanya, has never eyeballed me once), what stands out to me is my distrust. My distrust in my then-landlord, for starters, which in this case was earned. But really, it’s my distrust in myself that I’m noticing here. Or maybe not myself exactly, but more a lack of trust in the way things should work. When I relayed this story to a friend, she sympathized, but then pointed out that what I thought was a “weak hand” in the power balance between us actually wasn’t. That is: I am a good tenant. I pay rent on time; I’m quiet and courteous; I came to that particular apartment with excellent references; I’m housebroken. My former landlord had been looking for the right tenant for two months—this is unheard of in New York City—before I moved in. For in his own words, “I want someone who will treat the place right,” and his instincts (and my references) told him that I was that person. My hand was strong. And yes, he gave me attitude about making repairs that he wasn’t legally obliged to make, but the point here is that he gave me attitude even though I played the part of flirty, easygoing lady tenant. My real, actual, legal hand here of being a good tenant and knowing that that was valuable to him was just fine. Hell, in the end, he even made the repair I asked for. In fact, there’s a chance I made my hand weaker by playing the part I thought he wanted me to play. Had I approached every encounter with him in a wholly straightforward manner—just business, just the facts, no giggles—he may well have taken my complaint more seriously.

I can’t help but wonder how often I make the same mistake or assumption—that I’d better make the most of my looks, because that’s what’s really going to get me out of a jam when the time comes—out of distrust of my actual hand in life. I mean, yeah, it’s hard not to, when there are messages everywhere telling us that women’s accomplishments aren’t worth a damn unless they look good (and then they probably just slept with someone to go places, right?). But I also know that there are plenty of messages counter to that. Loads. (Including one that’s purposefully counter: Beauty Redefined’s “You Are Capable of Much More Than Being Looked At” sticky notes—promotional tie-in #2!—now available for purchase.) I mean, half the time I’m aware of people denigrating the appearance of women in the public eye, I’m only aware of it because someone has called bullshit on it. And believe you me, I did not grow up believing my looks would get me anything in life. (I remember justifying to myself as early as age 9 that it was okay that I wasn’t pretty, because I was smart, and lordy knows being both was impossible.) So when did I begin to subconsciously rely on my “girlish charm”? I wonder if this phenomenon could only exist in complicity with women’s inordinate distrust in our own appeal that we hear so much about. The flipside of not trusting your own appeal is that you overemphasize its importance. I don’t mean to make myself out to be a total sad sack, but honestly, this is sort of a lose-lose situation.

But back to the idea of not trusting others: When I was 24, I took a trip to Italy with my then-boyfriend. Being in Italy with a male companion was an experience entirely different from being in Italy alone, which I’d done the year before. I hear the culture has radically shifted since then (I haven’t been back since I was 24), but at the time, if you were alone and female, you were bait. This was charming at times (a shopkeeper in Florence ran to the music store next door to find a copy of “Autumn in New York” to put on when I told him where I lived), frightening at others. I remember at one point literally having a trail of three men walking behind me for several blocks, until I ducked into a polizia station, where the officers told me I had no need to worry—“When they stop looking, that’s when you worry”—but schooled me on a few choice phrases anyway. I’d told my boyfriend all about my earlier adventures, and had rather condescendingly pointed out that it was unfortunate that he wouldn’t receive as warm a reception from the Italians.

Which he didn’t. That is: He wasn’t followed down the street, nobody in the grocery line put down money for his goods, no bottles of wine mysteriously appeared at our table. People, men, were polite, but not...gregarious/overbearing. And still: One morning in Palermo, we went to the market, dazed by a rocky night’s sleep on an overnight train, and he stood in front of an olive vendor selling more varieties of olives than either of us knew existed. I’d been doing most of the communicating for us—doing my best with hand gestures, guidebooks, and college French—but I was too tired to figure out how to ask for olives, and I didn’t care for olives anyway, so we just stood there, staring. The man took a piece of paper from behind his cart, whipped it into a cone of sorts, spooned a heap of olives into it, and handed it to my boyfriend, whose eyes lit up like a six-year-old’s at Dairy Queen. When he dug out his wallet to offer some lira to the olive vendor, the man waved him away—prego, prego—with a smile. Waved him away with a smile: him, not me; the young freckled American who clearly wanted olives and would take utter delight in them, not the pretty-enough woman by his side.

I think of that sometimes, when I catch myself consciously thinking that being nominally attractive might curry some sort of favor. I mean, we all know it can, and you don’t need to be a traffic-stopper to reap the sort of benefits I’m talking about here. But when I’ve slipped into that worldview too deeply, I’ve robbed myself of the expectancy of human goodness. It’s a cynical mind-set, one that winds up reinforcing the idea that women are meant to be decorative objects—something I don't believe of any woman, certainly not of myself. Perhaps I developed that cynicism as a defense mechanism against the smatterings of disappointments that can accompany womanhood if you approach it from a certain angle and squint. But fuck it: I know better now than to think my own offerings, and the offerings of others, are most abundant at the surface. 


Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Nicole Kristal, Writer and Bisexual Advocate, Los Angeles

Picking a title to introduce Nicole Kristal was probably the most challenging part of this interview. Screenwriter, sure—her short film, Do You Have a Cat?, has been screened at LGBT festivals internationally. (You can rent it for $2 at BuskFilms.com, and I suggest you do exactly that.) Author, yes—her (hilarious) book, The Bisexual’s Guide to the Universe, cowritten with Mike Szymanski, won a Lambda Literary Award. Songstress, check—her rock-folk CD manages to be warm yet biting, melancholy yet upbeat. Blogger, mais oui—you may have come across her piece "Watching a Friend Die on Facebook," which went viral last year, from her grief blog. And as it happens, her skills extend to my arena too: She edited the first piece I ever wrote about beauty, published in our college magazine. But it’s her expertise in one of her work’s recurring themes—bisexuality—that made me want to interview her here. We talked about what hair length has to do with sexuality, navigating the line between showing interest in women and objectifying them, and why bisexuals are terrible dressers. In her own words:

On Signals
You can't pass someone on the street, look at their clothes and say, "That person's bi.” You can do that sometimes with a gay man or a butch lesbian, though I like to avoid assuming someone's sexuality based on fashion and mannerisms—there are too many exceptions. In the 1920s didn’t men wear a red necktie or something like that to signal that they were gay? It would be great if bisexuals had something like that. But say bisexuals had a uniform and they could just walk around and people would know—that still might not help that much because I wouldn’t know what type of bisexual you were. You might be a disjunctive bisexual woman who sleeps with women but doesn’t fall in love with them. There’s just this extra element of sleuthing for bisexuals to figure out if what you have with someone is viable, and in what way.

But there seems to be a standard uniform for female bisexuals in the media: prominent boots—usually leather—tight skirts, also usually leather, and low-cut, revealing tops. Whether it's Catherine Zeta-Jones in The Haunting or Kalinda Sharma in The Good Wife, they’re effeminate, sexually aggressive and often narcissistic or mysterious—keeping their hearts at a distance and never falling in love. And this seductivity and emotional distance comes across in their clothes. But in real life, we don't wear this uniform. Many of us struggle to reconcile the male and female energies inside us, and it comes out in a sort of mish-mash androgynous look that is not quite effeminate and not quite masculine, which is why I joke that bisexuals can be terrible dressers. This probably doesn’t apply to bisexual women with a preference for men—their style tends to be more characteristically straight—but the bisexuals like me who lean more toward the queer side can sometimes resist fashion trends, to their detriment. 

For my film, we had an incredibly hard time casting the lead character. None of the actresses seemed bisexual to me—not their style or their manner. We didn't want to fulfill the stereotype but we didn't want to ignore it entirely either. We finally just chose the best actress we could find as the lead and hoped we could style her into a believable bisexual. On her date with a man, we went more girly in a black top with a simple silver necklace; we chose a gold hoodie for when she meets a potential female love interest for the first time. We threw in a black and red checkered scarf for her second encounter with the woman—an item that can read straight or gay. I think some bisexuals do that in real-life—we dress more masculine when attending gay events or going on dates with women, and we femme it up when we go out with our straight friends and guys. Whatever we did worked because people left the film thinking the actress, Samantha Sloyan, was bisexual when in fact she's straight. Then again, most of that can probably be attributed to the fact that Sam’s an amazing actress rather than to her clothes.

On the Male Gaze
I feel like I have to wear just as much makeup going to a lesbian bar than I would going out on a date with a guy. In fact, I might get away with less makeup with the guy, because I’m usually so sure that a guy wants to have sex. I don’t have to work too hard. But with women you can say one wrong thing and they lose interest. I really think women can look at your shoes and lose interest. I’m serious! I remember reading in Lori Gottlieb’s Marry Him about a study that there are really only a handful of reasons a guy wouldn’t go on a second date with a woman, but there are hundreds of reasons why a woman wouldn’t go on a second date with a guy. That pickiness applies to women dating women too, so that factors into my appearance: I don’t want the way I look to be one of the reasons a woman wouldn’t want to go out with me. So yeah, when I go to a lesbian club I’ll wear my high-heel black leather boots or whatever. 

I don’t think I cater to the male gaze. I almost rebel against doing that, because I don’t think it’s necessary. When you’re bisexual, it can be easier to have a detachment from straight men without doing it as a game. I’ve seen straight women play that game with guys, acting disinterested so he’ll be more interested—bisexual women might be more genuine about that. It’s like, “Yeah, we had sex, that was fun,” and then we’ll go hang out with our lesbian friends, if you’re the kind of bisexual woman who is more on the queer side. It changes the whole paradigm. I can be like, “I’m wearing makeup today, I might not be wearing makeup tomorrow. Deal with it.” You’re not asking permission.

On Hair
The thing with the queer community here in L.A. is that you have to choose a look. You have to be like, I’m butch, or I’m soft butch but am masculine-identified or whatever. And then if you’re femme you really rock the femme look and wear heels or some other sort of really girly shit. I wasn’t really enough of either of those—I wasn’t great at being super-effeminate, and I wasn’t amazing at being a tomboy or butch, so I sort of fell through the cracks. Until I figured that out I wasn’t really having much success meeting women. I remember a bisexual friend telling me that she wasn’t getting women when her hair was long. So she cut off her hair, and it started happening. She said, “If you want to get pussy, cut your hair off.” Because then you don’t just get all the gay women who are comfortable dating someone who looks gay, you also get straight women wanting to experiment, because they want to choose someone who’s “really” gay to do that with. But then, women I know who have gone for the androgynous look have a fuck of a time dating guys, getting guys to not see them as lesbians.

I’m dating this woman who’s got short hair and looks kind of butch, so for the first time I’m sort of like, “Okay, we look gay, and I have to deal with this.” I took her to the same restaurant where I’d been on dates with men and everyone was looking at us—she eventually took her glasses off because she got tired of people looking at her to figure out if she was a girl or a boy. It’s funny, actually: I’d dated this same woman before, years ago, and she had long hair then. And I don’t know if I would have dated her then if she’d had short hair. I was less comfortable with being queer, so I didn’t want to go out in public and be like, “Hi, we’re the gay couple.” I wanted people to think we were best friends. Now I don’t really care. And in a way I like that her hair is short now—she looks so different than she did with long hair. It was the woman with long hair who broke my heart, so it’s almost like she’s someone else now.

On The City of Angels
I think each region has their own thing as far as a queer look. The scene is very effeminate here in L.A.; there are very few women with short hair. There’s such a pressure to be femme that sometimes you’ll even have these butch women who have long hair but are otherwise so masculine. Honestly, I think what happened is that The L Word came out and it influenced the scene. There was this impact of, This is how you should be as a queer woman. Being a lesbian was seen as this hot thing where two effeminate women are together and everyone wants to fuck them. It kind of left butch women in the lurch. I mean, it’s Hollywood, you can be gay, but there’s this pressure to appear fuckable to men even if you’re a lesbian. And if you’re bisexual, you’re supposed to be double fuckable. You’re supposed to be this hypersexualized persona. At the same time, people in San Francisco, where things aren’t as shallow, aren’t necessarily groomed to the level of L.A. people, so L.A. can kind of ruin you for that. Like, pluck those hairs in your ears or whatever! Get your eyebrows done. I found myself getting kind of turned off by stuff like that in a shallow way after I’d lived here for a while.

These two butch women from San Francisco went with me to a gay night at a club here, and there was this game where you’d throw these sandbags trying to knock over Barbies. If you knocked over a certain number of Barbies you’d win a shot. And these two women were like, “This shit would not fly in San Francisco—literally knocking over women? It’s so offensive.” And then they were like, “Let’s do it!” They were excited that they could do this silly game and not be persecuted for it like they would be in San Francisco. Down here in L.A. people aren’t as offended by stuff that actually is offensive, as far as the objectification of women, because there’s such a high premium on being fuckable. I mean, I’m coming from the ’90s so I’m politically aware of objectification—and it can be hard for me, looking at other women sexually. I’m aware of how it feels to be objectified so I don’t want to do that, but I want to show that I’m still interested in women sexually. But when there’s this group behavior around objectification it’s like that becomes what’s expected.

On Women’s Bodies
My sister always gives me shit for this, but I always end up with big-breasted women. It’s not intentional! I just think there’s something when you have smaller boobs like I do, you like to date women with the opposite of what you have. I’m not really interested in women with the same body type as me—I’m disinterested in skinny women, so I always end up dating women that are kind of voluptuous. They hold you in their arms and they’re soft, and I just prefer that to some skinny chick like me. But my body tends to make that kind of woman insecure. They say stuff like, “Oh, I’m going to start going to the gym more.” I’m like, “Why? I don’t give a shit about that, just be healthy.” I like the way women put on weight. There are some shallow lesbians who would never date a fat woman, and they’re missing out, because there’s so much more to do. There’s so much more to explore.

I watched this friend of mine pick up woman after woman, and I was jealous because I couldn’t. I finally said, “How do you get so many women?” She was like, “I just figure out what they’re most insecure about, and I tell them I love that the most.” I feel like that’s dishonest—but this woman I’m dating now, she’s like, “I’m going to lose some weight,” and I’ve started doing that a little, telling her how much I love her body. And yeah, I think her body’s amazing, but when I tell her, “Your body is amazing, I think about it all the time,” that’s a bullshit line. Sometimes that’s what girls need to hear to feel comfortable, so I finally started saying these things to build a comfort level. I do love her body, I’m not lying, but do I sit around thinking about it every second? No. But it was funny because I said that to her—“I think about your body all the time”—and she goes, “Even when you’re pooping?” We cracked up. I mean, the main thing we have in common is our sense of humor. But that was her kind of calling bullshit on my line too.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Fairest of Them All: Excerpt and Giveaway

Some might say that novelist Carolyn Turgeon's books tell the hidden side of fairy tales. That's true enough, but I'd put it differently: Her books tell of the ways women relate to one another through beauty. The idea behind Carolyn's latest, The Fairest of Them All, is deceptively simple: What if Rapunzel were Snow White's "evil stepmother"? That is, what if we saw the evolution of how a sympathetic woman renowned for her beauty became so obsessed with another person's loveliness that she'd order her death? It's a variation on a theme Carolyn explored in Mermaid, which spotlights the relationship between the mermaid and the princess of the classic fairy tale: "They're both beautiful, but they are literally different species, and I wanted to explore that complicated relationship." I asked her about the ways the heroines of The Fairest of Them All relate to beauty:

"In fairy tales, women like Rapunzel and Snow White tend to be valued for their beauty above anything else. I mean, they can be stuck in a tower or lying dead in a coffin in the forest and the most eligible bachelors will still fall in love with them instantly, that is how hot they are. I’m not sure that anyone’s falling in love with anyone because of their great hearts or their mutual love of The Smiths, if you know what I mean. In that context, how’s a dazzler like Rapunzel or Snow White—or any other woman who believes that her only value or power comes from her beauty—going to deal with getting older? The evil queen’s obsession with her mirror and hatred of Snow White seem like an understandable reaction to me, when it comes down to it. That kind of privileging of youth and beauty of course creates plenty of anxiety and rivalry among women—though in real life they might not eat each other’s hearts—which I personally try to address and find some way out of in my books.

"I think part of what makes Snow White so lovable and so marriageable is that she’s not only stunning but totally humble; there she is hanging out with birds and squirrels, oblivious to the fact that she’s so hot that men are falling all over themselves to get with her. Armed with youth, good genes, and a fairy gift or two, she can afford to be. The evil queen doesn’t really have that luxury, not anymore. There she is, off to the side, still beautiful but no longer getting any of that attention that’s now being lavished on Snow White. We like women who are beautiful but don’t know they are; we like those ladies in the Dove ads who are stunned and delighted to discover that they’re lovely. I think part of what makes the queen so evil is that she’s not being bashful or humble about the fact that she’s beautiful. She’s fully aware of her beauty and the power it once gave her but isn’t really giving her anymore. And she’s pissed! She knows full well what youth and beauty will bring Snow White: marriage, love, the potential for riding off into a happily ever after…until she gets that first gray hair, anyway."

Enjoy the excerpt below that expands on this idea—and leave a comment to be entered to win a signed paperback copy of The Fairest of Them All. The novel is written for adults but also has great young adult crossover appeal. Giveaway open through 11:59 p.m. ET August 19, 2013. And hey, New York readers: Join me tonight at 6 p.m. at the Tribeca Barnes & Noble to hear Carolyn read from the book! More events nationwide listed here.

*     *     *

I was the girl with the long long hair, trapped in the tower. You have no doubt heard of me. As a young woman I was very famous for those tresses, even though I lived in the middle of the woods and had never even been to court, not for a feast or a wedding or a matter of law.

My hair was like threads of gold flowing down my back and past the floor. If I didn’t tie it up, it would sweep across the stone and collect dust like a broom. I could lean out my tower window and it would fall out like an avalanche, gleaming like the sun hitting the water. It was as bright as sunflowers or daisies, softer than fur, stronger than an iron chain.

Every night I took horsetail and aloe from the garden, spoke words over them, and boiled them and mashed them into a thin pulp, which I then combed through my locks to make them strong and healthy and almost impossible to break. I would sing, and inhale the rich scent, to make the work go faster. To this day I love that feeling, of fingers running through my hair, the weight of it as it falls on my back.

Poets and troubadours sang of my beauty then.

It was sorcery, that hair. Sometimes now I wonder if things would have been different, had I been plain.

It is a hard thing, not being that girl any longer. Even as I sit here, I cannot help but turn toward the mirror and ask the question I have asked a thousand times before:

“Who is the fairest of them all?”

The mirror shifts. The glass moves back and forth, like water. And then my image disappears, until a voice, like a memory, or something from my bones and skin, gives me the same answer it always does now:

She is.
I turn back to the parchment in front of me and try to ignore the ache inside. The apple waits on the table next to me, gleaming with poison. All that’s left to do is write it down, everything that happened, so that there will still be some record in this world.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Beauty Blogosphere Hiatus

Regular readers may have noticed that I haven't done my links roundup for a couple of weeks. I'd intended to just take a brief break, but when I started putting together this week's collection, I realized exactly why I wanted a break: Reading all that can be exhausting! And right now I'm trying to focus my reading energies on larger pieces, i.e. books, to give myself a solid background to draw from in writing my own book. (Plus, I'm still figuring out how to write a book and blog at the same time without growing roots at my computer.)

So the Beauty Blogosphere is on hiatus for a bit longer. It will return—I love finding and curating these links, and it's a fun departure from the other kind of posts I have on here—but not for a couple of months. In the meantime, if you're seriously jonesing for some beauty news, here are a few options:

Follow me on Twitter! I still find plenty of articles and tweet them out there.

• Subscribe to any of these beauty-related blogs, all of which have great roundups:
   —Wild Beauty (Beauty Bytes, most Fridays)
   —Makeup Museum (Curator's Corner, most Saturdays)
   —Already Pretty (Lovely Links, Fridays)
• And if you read Beauty Blogosphere more for its non-beauty aspects, either its style or its politics or other influences, you might enjoy these:
   —Shines Like Gold (Triple Decker Weekly, weekends, eclectic right-brain awesomeness)
   —Fritinancy (Linkfest, monthly, word- and naming-oriented)
   —Becky's Kaleidoscope (Link Love, often daily, eclectic)
   —Aaron Bady (Sunday Reading, Sundays, eclectic)  
   —Tits and Sass (The Week in Links, Fridays, sex work)
   —Jessica Stanley (Read. Look. Think., Fridays, eclectic)

Other suggestions welcome in comments!