Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Models, Eating Disorders, and Labor

Eating Disorder Awareness Week, an annual event from the National Eating Disorders Association, is always a bit of a conundrum for me. I feel passionately about eating disorder awareness, in part because I was a patient myself. But it’s because of my own experience in treatment that I know what I’d pinned my eating disorder on for so long—wanting to be thin—was only a fraction of what landed me there. I don’t write about eating disorders much on The Beheld because I want to keep a narrow focus on appearance, and I worry that by getting into eating disorders, I’m conflating beauty and health. That is, I’m doing exactly what women with eating disorders do to themselves.

Eating disorders are linked to the beauty imperative. But they’re about so much more—control, perfectionism, chaos, suppression, connection, intimacy, yearning, abundance, fear. Not to mention biology, genetics, family environment, and other mental illnesses. But those things often get short shrift in the discussion of eating disorders, in part because while we all share beauty culture (and most women at some point are frustrated by it, to say the least), not all of us share the particular psychological cocktail that makes for an eating disorder. Point is: I’m never quite sure how to handle the question of EDs here.

Luckily, this year NEDA made it easy on me by kicking off the week here in New York last night with a panel discussion about eating disorders and the modeling industry—not the tired skinny-models-cause-eating-disorders line, but the models who suffer from EDs. Cohosted with The Model Alliance, a nonprofit working to improve models’ basic working conditions in what is currently a nearly unregulated industry, panelists included several models (including supermodel Crystal Renn and sociologist Ashley Mears, whose book I reviewed here), a modeling agent, and a doctor specializing in eating disorders. Three things I came away from the evening with:

1) Some conditions of modeling echo conditions that foster eating disorders—well beyond the thin imperative. 

Models are good girls. Not literally, and not always—plenty of “bad girl” vices, specifically upper-type drugs, are everywhere in model-land, and obviously the industry, like any other, can encompass a huge variety of personality types. But modeling requires a good deal of compliance, perhaps the number-one good-girl trait. You’re managed and molded by an agent, selected by a client, styled by a hairstylist and makeup artist, posed by a photographer, tweaked by a computer. You are there to be handled and worked on; models bring skill and charisma, yes, but they’re also often treated as props. Now, patients with EDs aren’t necessarily more compliant than the average person, but there’s often a clash that happens, particularly with teenagers (an age when many patients first experience symptoms): You see the compliance that’s expected of you, but you’re also aware of your own growing agency. One way to make sense of this clash is to internalize it in a way that serves as both rebellion and compliance: an eating disorder.

Crystal Renn struck a particularly poignant note when she talked of how until she was scouted as a teenager in Mississippi, her paragon of beauty was the self-styled goth girls who hung out at the mall. So here we have this seed of rebellion, but instead of channeling it into long black lace gloves and Manic Panic dye, it went into whittling herself down to 95 pounds. In fact, at the panel we saw a clip of the (fantastic) documentary Girl Model in which two Russian teens realize that their contract stipulates that they can be discharged if they gain even a centimeter in their measurements—so they both start gorging themselves on candy to give themselves an out. The more willful of the two wound up exiting the industry entirely thanks to that particular contract clause. But the quieter, dreamier, more passive model gives the industry another whirl.

Perfectionism comes into play here too. One of the first things Renn pointed out about her own history was that she was a perfectionist, a personality trait that’s stamped all over eating disorders. I don’t know enough about the industry to know whether perfectionism is common among models, but in panelist Ashley Mears’s excellent book, Pricing Beauty, she describes how models are pushed by their agencies to not only fit incredibly specific measurements, but to work for “trade” (i.e. clothes or photo prints, not, you know, money) in hopes of landing a big ad campaign that would pay off big-time (for the model and for her agency). What is more perfectionistic than self-sacrifice? And in some cases, the price of not sacrificing oneself is incredibly high: Many models are plucked from nations with developing or unstable economies, meaning that a 14-year-old girl may be supporting her entire family back home with her wages. The price of imperfection can be devastation.

And the price of mere entry into the industry, particularly for girls from unstable economies back home, is anxiety. (Can you imagine the anxiety inherent in knowing that if you fail at your stab at success, your family might not be able to install proper plumbing?) Even for models who don’t have their families’ well-being balanced upon their shoulders, the job itself is anxiety-provoking. As Mears pointed out, the bulk of models’ time is spent going on numerous calls, auditions, and go-sees—the equivalents of a job interview, meaning that models are regularly undergoing eight job interviews a day. And not the kind of job interview I’ve ever gone through: “You never know when you walk in the door if you’re going to be torn apart—or praised,” Mears says. There’s a huge overlap between anxiety and eating disorders, with some estimates at an 80% comorbidity rate. We cannot talk about eating disorders without talking about anxiety. And we can’t talk of models’ realities without talking about the same.

2) Properly framing eating disorders within the modeling industry can help lead to change. 

Remember, this panel was cohosted with NEDA by The Model Alliance—a labor organization. While there was plenty of talk of EDs as a cultural issue, a key point of the evening was that for the workers in question, this is a labor issue. As Sara Ziff, panel moderator and cofounder of The Model Alliance, pointed out, most models begin their careers as children. When we think of child labor, we’re thinking of kids in faraway factories—a tragedy, to be sure, and one that the fashion industry needs to do a better form of addressing. But whether it’s a 12-year-old modeling Justin Bieber T-shirts for a tween catalogue or the same 12-year-old slinking down the runway in heels and exotic makeup—or her 17-year-old colleague—that too is child labor. And given that one of the populations at heightened risk for eating disorders is also a population that gets scouted in suburban malls and the streets of Belarus, we need to consider eating disorders a work hazard.

Affiliated organizations seem to actively work against this particular work hazard sometimes. Take the recent case of the Council of Fashion Designers of America partnering with a juice cleanse company to give models a 50% discount during Fashion Week. Juice cleanses are notorious for providing a nice cover of “health” and “detoxing” for people with eating disorders. Combine that with the faux-Zen glamour of cleanses and the like—a specific type of glamour that the fashion set seems to particularly fall prey to—and you see the problem.

The irony here is that the CFDA undertook the partnership as a part of their health initiative meant to help combat eating disorders within the industry. And taken at face value, I can see why: Fashion Week is incredibly hectic, and being able to sip a nutrient-filled lunch on the go instead of sitting down to eat it sounds like a reasonable solution. And for people without eating disorders, in a pinch it probably is a reasonable solution. But to introduce this as a benefit to a population with a high ED risk is absurd. I can’t help but wonder what would happen in the industry if there were a modeling union that had regulations as strict as the Teamsters—if, say, such partnerships had to be reviewed by a panel of ED experts before coming into play. The U.S. is hardly in its labor-friendliest era, but there’s still an essential respect for what unions signify. And the more the industry is framed as exactly that—an industry, one with workers and labor conditions and hazards and risks and, one day, regulations—instead of as a glamorous world its denizens are lucky to gain entrance to, the better off its laborers will be.

3) Consumers can play a role in change.

Yes, the industry needs to change from within. I particularly liked Renn’s proposal of designers issuing sample sizes in size 8 instead of size 2—it’s easier to take away fabric than it is to add it, so stylists could still use a model who fits a size 2, but there would also be built-in encouragement to use a wider variety of body types. (And if, like me, you share Kjerstin Gruys’s raised eyebrow of the ubiquity of “size 8,” note that Renn specified that size 8 would simply be an industry-friendly entry point into even further diversity.) But there are things we can do as fashion consumers too.

The most straightforward way is “voting with your dollars.” Now, most of us inadvertently boycott couture fashion not because of our politics but because of our pocketbooks—I can't drop $6,000 on a skirt. But Mears talked about what’s known in the business world as “loss leaders,” or the strategy of offering a product that’s not profitable in order to offer a product that is. And loss leaders are huge in the fashion world. You might not be able to afford a Chanel suit, but you can indulge in a wee bottle of Chanel no. 5—and if that’s too rich for your blood, what about Chanel no. 5 soap? It’s not necessarily the fashions that makes these houses their money; it’s the fragrances, the makeup palettes, the keychains, the wallets, the bracelet charms, the sunglasses, the scarves, the smartphone cases. That is, the things people actually buy. And if we stop buying them, they’ll stop being as profitable, and the brands in question will have to look at why. You see a fashion line that is clearly using unhealthy models, or that refuses to open up its notions of beauty, whether in size, race, ethnicity, or age? Boycott. And when you see a line that actively works toward creating a healthier idea of beauty, remember that you don’t necessarily need to spend a fortune to support them.

Also, according to panelist Chris Gay, president of Marilyn modeling agency, clients do listen to consumer complaints, particularly catalogues and other commercial outlets. Now, I admit to some skepticism on this: Magazines listen to consumer complaints as well, meaning that a magazine I once worked for decided to “take a stand” and use non-straight-size models at least once an issue. That sometimes translated to a size 8 model being used in a throwaway illustrative shot. But even here, I maintain some optimism, for sometimes that policy translated into stunning editorial shoots with plus-size models where their size wasn’t the entire focus of the story.

The point is, even when it’s frustrating and change is slow—no, especially when change is slow—we need to keep speaking up. And not just for the models’ sake, either, as important as that may be. We can speak up for ourselves as consumers. As Mears pointed out, the role that models play in upholding the beauty imperative has been discussed for some time now, but when it comes to solutions everyone wants to pass the buck. Consumers want media outlets to use a wider range of models. Media outlets say they shoot unhealthily thin models because that’s what comes to them. Agencies say they send unhealthily thin models because that’s what the clients want, and because that’s who fits into sample sizes designers provide. Designers say the provide small sample sizes because larger sizes don’t hang right; designers who may genuinely wish for that to change feel caught in a game of follow-the-leader. And then there are retail outlets that say that displaying larger sizes means items don’t sell as well, so we’re back to consumers, who want media outlets to use a wider range of models. If we want things to change, we’ve got to start somewhere—meaning that the buck needs to stop here.

NEDA is hosting a post-event Twitter chat today, February 26, at 2 p.m. EST, with supermodel and host Emme. Follow #NEDAwareness to join.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Girls, Belated

Welcome back!, she said to herself upon logging into her blog's CMS for the first time in two weeks. It was great to take a break, in no small part because I so enjoyed Phoebe's posts (and judging from the activity over here, y'all did too; you can follow her usual blog here, and rest assured that plenty of thought-provoking beauty talk streams through there). But given that there were three major topics of beauty talk going around the blogosphere during my absence, it was agonizing timing on my part, so will you allow me to go over ground that the internet has already moved on from? Merci!

That Girls Episode Where Lena Dunham Hooks Up With Patrick Wilson: I watched the episode, loved it (I laughed! I cried! It was better than Cats!), and when I poked around online to find commentary was shocked to find that much of the discourse surrounding it was about whether it was realistic for someone who looks like Lena Dunham to hook up with someone who looks like Patrick Wilson. People, I see messages about beauty, appearance, and sex appeal everywhere, okay? Everywhere. The impetus for starting this blog was when a friend said to me that I either needed to think about beauty less or write about it more. Yet I didn’t see the Girls episode as being about attraction mismatch at all, or at least almost not at all. Not on its face, and not as its subtext. I mean, I think the Girls team knew exactly what they were doing when they cast someone as good-looking as Patrick Wilson in that role, and public opinion on Dunham’s appeal has hardly been lacking, so yes, that’s one element within the larger scope of what they were aiming for—which was highlighted with Hannah’s line after Wilson’s character calls her beautiful: “That’s not always the feedback I’ve been given.” But I saw this episode as being primarily about the ways in which people connect that don’t always come to light, because they’re hidden—no, I didn’t think his character would enter Hannah’s life as an ongoing love interest. Because he was 18 years older, and in a wildly different income/status bracket, and because they really were just at different places in their lives. But none of that means for one second that their connection wasn’t real, for as long as it lasted. I’ve had connections like that; who hasn’t? Not necessarily in that fashion, or even a similar one, but if you’re young and alone in an urban area—especially if you’re young and alone and someone who craves experiences and “all the feelings,” as Hannah puts it—those experiences aren’t unheard of, and sometimes they involve people who don't seem to "match," in conventional attractiveness or anything else.

The point is: Those situatio
ns are real. For my money, it was by far the most realistic episode yet of the show. So to find that people thought it was so unrealistic as to actually be a dream shocked me. In what universe do people only hook up—or hell, marry—people just as conventionally beautiful as they are? Generally speaking people tend to “match” up with people in their, ugh, bracket (yes, there have been studies), but spending approximately two and a half minutes on the streets of New York makes it clear that that’s not a rule. And what makes people think that the doctor didn’t genuinely find Hannah beautiful? (And why is it not shocking that a woman who looks like Jessa would marry a man who looks like her husband? One of those things is not like the other, folks.) Honestly, the arrogance of this mind-set freaks me out a little. Word up: Your friends are happily fucking people you don’t think are hot, and chances are you’ve happily fucked people your friends don’t think are hot. And at this point I'm likely to start reiterating arguments that have been better made by Emily McCombs, Lili Loofbourow, Rosie Says, Tracie Egan Morrissey, and so on, so I’ll stop.

Why Can’t Women Say They’re Pretty: Upon reading the introspective, varied comments that Kate Fridkis’s thoughtful piece at Daily Life spawned over at Jezebel, I realized that I could very well just have The Beheld’s URL just direct there from now on and call my job here over. There is such an incredible swath of experience that various women (and a few men) are reporting over there, all with their own larger implications. Kate’s piece is absolutely worth a read, as is the actual post at Jezebel, but  like Elisa, I find the richness of women’s experiences reflected in comments especially compelling here.

All I have to add is this: Because of this blog, I’ve talked to a lot of women about their feelings/thoughts on beauty—sometimes formally, as with my interviews, and other times informally, like when I mention what I blog about and suddenly I’m having an intimate conversation with a woman I met five minutes prior (an unexpected delight of this brand of “beauty blogging”). And I can tell you that there is zero correlation between what women believe about their own looks (or at least what they’re willing to share with me) and how closely they match the conventional beauty standard. I’ve heard women I consider stunning say they have to avert their gaze from the mirror sometimes because they can’t stand the way they look; I’ve heard women who have plenty of things our culture considers “flaws” say, “I know I’m beautiful.”

Actually, I’d wager that most women are capable of both ways of thinking about themselves, sometimes simultaneously. I know I certainly am. It’s not just that I sometimes feel good about my looks and sometimes bad, though that too; it’s more that the two mind-sets coexist, maybe in part because of one another. When I have a day/moment/phase when I’m feeling particularly good about the way I look, there’s a part of me that’s aware that I have spent plenty of time not liking how I look, so my moments of pride exist in comparison to those bleaker, plainer times. And when I feel bad about how I look, it’s easy to remember when I felt good about my appearance and wonder what changed. It’s an ongoing form of cognitive dissonance, i.e. the unease that happens when you hold two views simultaneously or have a previously held belief genuinely challenged. I think it’s that dissonance, not actual self-hatred, that the beauty industry is ultimately after with its consumers.

I have no idea how most of us would feel about our appearance if we magically lived in a patriarchy-free land where women’s looks weren’t equated with our value as a human. (If the variety of responses at Jezebel is any indication, there would be a zillion ways “most of us” would feel.) Cognitive dissonance is a part of the human experience so there’s no reason to think that it would be erased if we lived in that world. But I’d bet that dissonance would exist in a less fraught way. How could it not? For if the importance of our looks were to be diminished, so would the importance of our feelings and cognitions about our looks.

News flash, Melissa McCarthy is fat: I have nothing to add here, except to say that unsurprisingly, The Observer showed an utter lack of sensitivity, thought, and class by publishing Rex Reed's review of Identity Thief (which does indeed sound terrible for reasons having nothing to do with McCarthy's size). (I won't link to dreck but on the off-chance you haven't read it, you can read about it here. Suffice to say he had nothing original to say about her performance so settled for calling her "tractor-sized.") But what's more interesting here is comparing Reed's review with that of Ted Scheinman of the Los Angeles Review of Books. Scheinman also considers McCarthy's frame in reviewing her work, and shows how to do so with thought, originality, and actual critique. McCarthy, as a performer, uses her body as her "instrument"; discussing her body as such isn't breaking rules. Scheinman shows us how to do it, while Reed languishes in oldthink.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Princess and the Brain

Totally princessy accessories. By Griffindor, via.

Kate Middleton vs. Hilary Mantel. This is the beauty story of the week, or perhaps of my two-week stint here at The Beheld. But by coming to this story as late as I have, the required reading is now beyond daunting. There are now not only Mantel's own well-regarded books, the speech, and tabloid criticism of the speech, but also the reporting on the kerfuffle, the commentary on it, and finally, the commentary on the commentary. There are simply not enough hours in the day.

So, I have read the speech to the best of the ability a cold-plus-cold-medicine allows, read some of the initial criticisms prior to doing so, read Hadley Freeman because she is my idol, and kind of looked at the Jezebel post. I haven't read all of the thousands if not millions of comments, tweets, etc. about this controversy. Nor had I ever read anything else by Mantel, but I now might just have to.

The general outline of this affair is as follows: an accomplished writer gave a speech, reprinted in a highbrow publication, in which she discussed the royal body - as in, the bodies of kings and queens and such. The speech jumped around from historical figures (Henry VIII and his wives) to modern-day royalty, specifically Princess Diana and Kate-née-Middleton, but most specifically Middleton - the passages about Middleton (or Windsor? "Kate" seems odd, and she's not technically a princess, etc.) were what inspired the aggravation.

Out of context, the quotes seemed to be calling Middleton a pretty, vacuous shell of a woman who may or may not read books, this coming from a woman to whom book-reading is of utmost importance. Calling her too thin, too dull. These are, of course, not kind things to say about any individual, particularly a still-living one, no matter what you think of royalty, or of the life choice that is marrying a prince. Not, of course, that this excuses a critique along the lines of, Mantel herself is just jealous because she isn't a pretty pretty princess (which, well, who is? but who wants to be one?). But who knows what Middleton's like in private. That she doesn't seem incredibly interesting is not so different from saying that one would not want to be friends with an actress on account of a dull character she plays on a sitcom. (Jennifer Aniston, perhaps in real life we'd hit it off.) Aren't these royals figureheads who cost British taxpayers however much? If so, why should we care what they think on serious matters of the day? (Along similar lines, I've never understood why it was supposed to be feminist to argue in favor of a larger policy-making role for First Ladies in the States. For women, oh yes, but for women who happen to be married to a man elected president, no.)

In context, we are to understand that Mantel was actually criticizing the way the media portrays Kate, the demands the media as well as the royal family make on the woman who is to have this role. And oh, did I want to be Team Mantel on this. I too have had stuff I've written for a smallish taken out of context on a far greater scale, and while this is something any of us need a thick skin for what with technology, it's no great joy. And I'm a literature grad student/freelance writer here, and not (cue the West Village townhouse I will never own) a princess. And, on a less personal note, Mantel can write. But... I'm not really team anybody here. If you read the speech as a whole, you see that the insults aren't quite the ones the "Daily Mail" and such imagined, but the whole thing is insulting.

"Princess" is, these days, a derogatory word for a woman. For a American Jewish woman, for sure, what with the acronym, but also for a woman, period. A princess is a woman who is ungrateful to feminist accomplishments that permit her to make her own way in the world, one who instead chooses to live off the men in her life - a father, a husband, or a bunch of rich dates. Or not even chooses - she simply doesn't have it together to do anything else. She has the class privilege to do anything, but lacks the ambition to get further than the nail salon. So a woman who goes and becomes a real princess is a bit baffling, in this day and age.

I'm not sure, though, what's to be gained by pointing at Kate Middleton and asking why she isn't more self-actualizing, more audibly opinionated. Do we need to pretend that feminism means all women are professionally ambitious? Are all men? And are we even sure she's not ambitious? Her husband came with a job, and the job is not to serve her husband but to be a royal. And what an odd job it is. Not fun-rich, which as I imagine it means jetting off to Tokyo whenever, or at the very least being able to order the $300 hiking boots one has had one's eye on. (Reasons #402 and #403 why I am not Duchess of Cambridge.) I really don't think we need to concern ourselves with the possibility that Mantel envies Middleton.

A "princess" in the informal sense may lack agency, but a woman who hangs around and persists and then marries a prince perhaps set out to do so. She was not born a princess, nor do we have any reason to believe she was requested against her will to become one. The ones born into it we may pity, or the ones married into it very young, but Middleton? We don't need to find becoming a princess the noblest (pun intended) of goals, we don't need to say that because she has agency, she's a feminist role model. Gosh no. But we need not pity her, refer to her condescendingly, as if this were some fate forced upon her, as if she were some random woman plucked by the media for overanalysis, whose womb had been somehow unilaterally demanded by the Windsors.

And this, I think, is how we avoid the "fourth wave of feminism" or choice feminism Freeman refers to. The point here isn't to celebrate Middleton's choice, but to respect that she presumably made one.

What got to me about the speech - in context - was the way Mantel discusses Middleton as if she were already a historical figure, not a person who no doubt has the intellect needed to get through Mantel's sentences. Also the way Mantel appears to be insisting that Middleton reveal some quirks, if not some burgeoning feminist qualms about her place in the world. Mantel appears to want Middleton to be miserable, and digs for evidence of this misery, coming up with the recent (and notoriously unflattering) official portrait of the princess, in which, claims Mantel, "her eyes are dead and she wears the strained smile of a woman who really wants to tell the painter to bugger off." I'm not convinced. Middleton could have gone with a private life, and opted for the life she's got. She chose to act in a perma-performance of "princess," artificially grooming herself and monitoring her physique for the role. Or that's just who she is, how could we know. But it doesn't seem necessary to imagine that there's a human-rights lawyer or some such locked inside Kate Middleton, just screaming to get out.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Two Standards of Beauty

Nobody's perfect, not even the perfect. A 1945 "pin-up," via.

We often hear of 'our society's beauty standards,' as if there were these standards that one could point to, consistent across all messaging. When in fact, women are presented with two mutually-exclusive possibilities of what 'beautiful' might consist of:

The first is from high fashion - an industry dead set on presenting exactly one vision of beauty, unattainable except to 0.001% of Estonian 15-year-olds, and even they will probably be asked to "sleekify" their hips in time for fashion week. (Cue the conundrum: is it progressive or the opposite when a slender man models women's clothes? The short answer: both.) The presumption here is that this is a beauty ideal invented by some assembly of women (likely but not necessarily straight) and gay men - perhaps with the help of cold and calculating straight male businessmen who are thinking of what sells clothes, not what they personally would find attractive.

But there's still this semblance of a more open-minded sphere - greater acceptance of androgyny, of straight-up-and-down physiques, of outrageous makeup and of not giving a damn what your boyfriend thinks of your outfit. It's a kind of liberation, if you happen to have a flapper build. And if we're talking fashion-broadly-defined, not just the runway, there's a celebration of eccentricity. It's not just designer denim and sneering at those who are so last season (she types, in her Old Navy lounge-pants).

The second is, of course, the male gaze. Straight men outside the fashion world will tell women not to worry about what that industry says - they like us despite our likely non-waifishness, no, because of this. (Although rest assured, the waifish have their male admirers.) This will be on the one hand appealing - the vast majority of even slender women are robust compared with high-fashion models, and that whole 'breasts and hips are tacky and interrupt the line of the garment' narrative is tiresome. While in certain definitions, what-men-want that basically amounts to runway models with breast implants and more conventionally sexy attire, in another, it's a category that consists of all women, on account of, tastes vary.

On the other, it too is problematic for all the obvious reasons. Who's to say female appearance is all about pleasing men? Most women are straight, however many more are bisexual, so yes, most women are sometimes interested in looking good for a man. But still. Even these women tend not to be into all the dudes, and will often bristle at remarks from men (perfect strangers, internet commenters, men they know and aren't interested in) about what women generally should do with their clothes-and-makeup in order to most do it for them.

These two realms are mistakenly conflated, but they do have a good bit of overlap. Both tend to value youth, slimness, and expensive clothes. But it is outright impossible to be fashion-beautiful and male-gaze-beautiful at the same time. The same woman might manage it - think the crossover Victoria's Secret models - but as a rule, one might well be neither, but one simply cannot be both.

Which means... a bunch of things. For one, it means that style and build have a way of getting mixed up, as though a woman chooses to have 'curves' on account of preferring to look sexy, or somehow magically scraps them if her preferred look is understated chic. But mostly, it means that no woman can lay claim to physical perfection. If she's flawless in one arena, she's somehow lacking in the other.

We can, then, interpret this in two ways. One is the bleak - how unfair, we can never win. The other, the one I prefer, is to say, look, since no woman could ever possibly measure up, this reminds us how ridiculous these standards are in the first place, and how pointless it is to beat one's self up over failing to meet them.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

An assortment

-The NYT Style blog has a post up on "The Naked Face," complete with an embedded video in which a makeup artist gives a model her version of the pseudo-natural, no-makeup makeup, look. Controversy ensues. On the one hand, that a bare-faced look should require $16 toner, $40 day cream, $32 primer, $19 lip balm, and a whole lot of makeup is some mix of pathetic and hilarious. On the other, let she who does not require concealer cast the first what's-the-point-of-foundation stone. (Is too much primping always one product more than we ourselves deem necessary?)

-It's great that the Guardian is taking an interest in the beauty concerns of non-white women. What I fail to see is how there can be an item on hair-care products "for dark skin," especially in a British context, a column promising "the latest beauty trends for black and Asian skin." Hair texture and skin color, not the same! Non-white isn't a monolith, particularly where all-important issues like which conditioner to use are concerned. I'm thinking women of Pakistani and Nigerian origin might have different hair-care requirements. There's a bit more specificity in the article than the headline, although it isn't clear why these various hair textures must be assembled in one column. And, on a personal note, I suppose I'm amused on account of being of an ancestry that makes me paler than pale, yet provides me with definitively 'ethnic' hair.

-Peep-toe booties. Why? Is this about there being something inherently attractive about looking uncomfortable? Or do these footwear items have something else going for them?

Monday, February 18, 2013

Too Brilliant to Bathe

"The Great Bath in Bath." By Steve Cadman, via Wikimedia Commons

It is well known to the point of why am I even saying this that men are under less pressure than women are to be beautiful. What is not so often mentioned is the extent to which men are rewarded for not looking beautiful. Not simply for abstaining from whichever "metrosexual" grooming endeavors or definitive challenging of gender norms (i.e. makeup), but actually looking a big ol' mess.

Which brings us to a phenomenon I've discussed on (and off) my blog that I refer to as "too brilliant to bathe." This is when a man - who may or may not be genetically endowed with square-jawed good looks, but it helps if he's not - is able to attract accolades and acolytes by being thoroughly unpresentable. One sees this in the more intellectual professions, and among students, but not so much among finance-types. It involves greasy hair, perhaps green teeth. No physical exertion. A man will own just the one shirt, it will be some mix of tucked and untucked. If a button-down, buttons will be missing, or simply missed, askew. There will be ill-fitting pleated khakis. They will be stained.

Oh, and his manners won't be so hot, either. Nor will he be any good at staying organized, but who cares? A woman - various women - will deal with the practical. Mom or a secretary will keep his papers organized, while female admirers or, if he's older, Mrs. T-B-T-B will grease the wheels in social situations, and cook and clean, and remind him once a year that it's time for his bath.

Thus, in exchange for looking his worst, a man will, under certain circumstances, be taken more seriously. It will be assumed that the time and effort he didn't put into his appearance went to something more noble. Not video games, but Being and Nothingness. (Thus the importance of worn-out slacks, not sweatpants. A subtle distinction.) Maybe he was off finding the route to Mideast peace via comments to Facebook status updates, which didn't leave him time to address a body-odor situation. Or maybe solving an as-yet-unsolved math problem got in the way of removing the remnants of yesterday's lunch still crusted onto his blazer. Something really amazing is going on in his mind, and we know this not because of anything he's produced, but because he looks the part.

There's no female equivalent to this phenomenon. A woman is taken less seriously if she shows up to present on Kierkegaard looking like a TOWIE cast member. But for a woman, there's no silver lining to not looking one's best. Equivalent grooming-laxity in a woman is associated not with brilliance but with either radical feminism (it's about making a point, not genuine absent-minded indifference) or mental illness. A woman who's especially lacking in the conventional-good-lookingness department might be imagined to have other qualities that surely compensate (the proverbial great personality), but is not generally assumed to be a genius. Our image of a brilliant woman is that of an incredibly competent one. A Hillary Clinton, a Condoleezza Rice - put-together and efficient-looking. The kind of one-in-a-million abstract-thinking mind, the sort that must almost exist without a body attached, is not one it is popularly imagined a woman could possess.

Too-brilliant-to-bathe is something I generally associate with, well, sexism. Why does a man have the option of letting himself go and then some, only to be praised for this? Why do so many intelligent and very presentable women think so little of themselves as to consider unpresentable men as romantic partners? Why does society persist in believing true brilliance is only found in men?

But too-brilliant-to-bathe isn't necessarily such a great deal for men, either. Why should men who do make an effort have to deal not only with societal suspicion (rooted in homophobia) but also a sense that they're somehow less-than intellectually? And isn't it likely that the cliché of the unwashed genius leads us to ignore a great many men who really are suffering, who don't have it together socially or professionally, but whom we figure are just fine, because some men (but no women) are just like that?

Every time I delve into questions of male vs. female beauty, the only answer I can come up with is trite but unavoidable all the same: we need to expect more, effort-wise, from men, and less from women than is currently the case. How this is to come about, I have no idea.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

So French

The eternally moisturized Frenchwoman. (By loki11, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Frenchwoman's beauty routine. (Because there's just the one woman - rich, Parisian, works in fashion - and therefore just the one routine.) This is, as you probably already know, a thing. Beauty writing aimed at American (and British? Australian?) women has a way of breathlessly celebrating that-which-is-French. Any vaguely pharmaceutical-looking bottle bearing a Gallic label must, by definition, contain a serum or cream that will improve your life tremendously.

To be "French" about beauty is to look low-maintenance (i.e. no visible makeup) while spending like Marie Antoinette on skin products at the parapharmacie. But this is not vanity. It's caring for your skin, which is almost like a health concern. Extra Frenchness points if you pore over makeup ingredient labels, but cheerily admit to smoking, drinking, and eating whatever you feel like. (A good percentage of the admittedly addictive "Into The Gloss" profiles more or less amount to, the woman being profiled is French, so French, and this is why we the Anglophone audience should listen to her beauty tips.)

I have something of a love-hate relationship with the looking-French obsession. On the one hand, for entirely subjective reasons, I want to embrace it. I would have a much easier time pulling off all-French than all-American. I far more closely resemble Charlotte Gainsbourg than Reese Witherspoon. I'm small and pale, and if I don't wear eyeliner, I will be asked if I'm feeling OK. I've never gone in for fake tans or tooth-whitening. (The coffee stains, so French!) And my default style, for better or worse, is gamine. I'm in grad school for French, I've lived in Paris, and I have accumulated too many marinières over the years to plausibly deny Francophilia.

On the other, it just gets old. Of all the countries in the world, do we really need to take our beauty advice from the most predictable? Is the French approach to beauty the most beautiful, or is this all circular - we define "beauty" as that-which-is-French, giving those-who-are-French an advantage? Why not Japan, with its miracle hair-care products that I randomly discovered while shopping for groceries at Sunrise Mart? Do the French have an insouciant "je ne sais quoi," or is what we're calling "French" an actually quite rigid approach to self-presentation, one that discourages risk-taking, even among teens? Is it charming that they embrace a gamine physique, or oppressive to women who are built otherwise? Is it all maybe a touch offensive to actual French women, not all of whom spend used-car sums on quasi-medicinal ointments, and not all of whom asked to be put on this pedestal?

And is the whole thing not a little bit racist? Can a woman of color - heck, can a woman of Scandinavian origin - look "French"? What about the many Parisiennes who are themselves not of French ethnic origin? Sure, anyone can wear a scarf, and anyone can overspend on anti-aging cream, but consider the craze for French-girl hair. A commenter at my blog, Fourtinefork, alerted me to Vogue's instructions on achieving this look. If one is going to be French, one must use low-end shampoo and no conditioner; let the result air-dry without brushing it first; and if, in the course of washing your hair infrequently, things get too greasy, you're permitted dry shampoo. If you have a hair texture that requires the addition of oils, as opposed to a daily battle against greasiness, this "French" thing isn't going to happen.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

"Real beauty comes from within"

But is it natural? (By ookikioo, via Wikimedia Commons)

Do you know what's in your lipstick? You do realize that you eat your lipstick? And of course any product rubbed into the skin, that's basically eating, no, injecting whichever horribleness into your system. Should anything ever go wrong with your health, or that of your children, or that of your theoretical children or theoretical great-great-grandchildren, you can never know for sure that your vanity was not the reason. When, in the year 3013, one of your progeny is born with an extra arm in place of a leg, the science of the day will be able to trace this back to your use of a tinted moisturizer you didn't even have the decency to purchase at Whole Foods.

But in all seriousness, there is, in principle, nothing wrong with discussing the possible toxicity of cosmetics, or the impact on whichever innocent rodents, creatures whose own mating rituals perfectly well proceed without the benefit of a smokey eye. Indeed, I'd prefer it if when I put on eyeliner, I can rest assured that some knowledgeable entity has checked that the stuff won't permanently seal my eyes shut. If an ingredient is actually poisonous, I'd like to know that, or better yet, to have this not in cosmetics to begin with. I don't find it patronizing that experts look into this, and if anything I'd like it if there were more thorough, but ethical, investigations.

The problem, then, isn't that the safety of cosmetics is up for discussion. It's the conversations that flow from the initial, reasonable one: Once we establish that there is or might be more biphelsnelsanphalatarsenicdehyde in cosmetics than we'd thought, some geniuses (and this is where "patronizing" enters into it) will inevitably point out that cosmetics are not essential to our sustenance or hygiene. That they could, in principle, be scrapped altogether. And yet women go on wearing them. What are women thinking?

Consider this response to Mark Bittman's post on the topic:
Cosmetic beauty is skin deep. True beauty needs no cosmetics, perfumes, lotions, potions, or oceans of chemicals to apply to our various body parts.
The commenter goes on to protest the ubiquity of cosmetic surgery in the entertainment industry. Then his or her (although I'm going to guess his) true colors show:
If a woman looks stunningly beautiful, is attracted to a handsome man, she will seduce him. In the a.m., after sex the nite before, makeup gone, he looks over at her and sees an ordinary-looking women snoring next to him. Manufactured beauty is only skin deep. Real beauty come from within. There is a difference, but women have sold themselves on turning that truth inside out. And we're still buying it. No wonder the divorce rate is so high.
What begins as a conversation about genuine problems with cosmetics neatly segues into one about women who have the nerve to fool innocent men into thinking they (the women, that is) are more beautiful than they are. The language of inner beauty - a term that's meant to describe character - gets used to discuss the kind of physical beauty that can't be bought.

In other words, that whole, 'Ladies, you don't need makeup to be beautiful' line of thought is actually men's way of saying that they will have none of our trickery. It's like when men say they'd prefer a woman who eats cheeseburgers than one who sticks with salad... but only if the woman in question is effortlessly thin. The answer for men with this gripe isn't for cosmetics to be made out of innocuous materials. It's for women to lay themselves bear, allowing whichever pseudo-evolutionary-psychology choice-process to take place unimpeded.

'Natural beauty' is anything but the liberation it sounds like, as an increasing number of women, myself included, have picked up on. But the specific angle of this I'd like to emphasize in this post is the way that the question of safety of cosmetics is so often used as a proxy for not quite so well-meaning concerns.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

"Never could I tell him it was him."

Rufus being Rufus. By atp tyreseus [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Rufus Wainwright’s song, “The Art Teacher,” which I had the great joy of hearing live last week, contains one of the most interesting depictions of female heterosexuality around. The song is told from the perspective of a woman reflecting back on her youth. She remembers going to a museum with her art class. “He asked us what our favorite work of art was. And never could I tell him it was him. Oh I wish I could tell him, oh I wish I could have told him.” But she can’t, she couldn't. “He was not that much older than I was,” but she was “in uniform,” meaning he was probably too old all the same.

When we meet her again, we learn that she is now married to “an executive company head,” and owns a piece of the art by this teacher's preferred artist. “And here I am, in this uniform-ish pants-suit sort of thing, thinking of the art teacher. I was just a girl then. And never have I loved since then. No, never have I loved any other man.”

It is something of a cliché that gay men – when they’ve finished telling straight men how to dress – offer up advice, or a shoulder to cry on, to straight women. A potentially offensive cliché, if the implication is that gay men exist only relative to women, as accessories, with no life of their own. And so we might be reluctant to read “The Art Teacher” as having anything to do with heterosexuals. (The 'this is not about you' argument.) There is also a long tradition of gay men creating or acting in love stories between straight couples, channeling their own relationships into ones acceptable for mainstream audiences.

But I don’t think we’re compelled to use that interpretation here – Wainwright has been out since the days when I was just a girl, in uniform, and has written plenty of songs about men who love men. If he’d wanted to write about a man reflecting on a boyhood crush on a dude, he’d have done so. I take “The Art Teacher” as a song that really is about the woes of straight women, ones gay men would be less likely to experience, and the apparent backstory to the song would support the hypothesis I came to before Googling it.

"The Art Teacher" is a song about male beauty as experienced by a woman, young and then not so young. And it points to a really basic but rarely-discussed truth about female sexuality: Girls are allowed to care what men look like, to appreciate beauty in a man, whereas women are not. To be a woman is to care about a man’s status, and to play along with the script that says that men, and men alone, are visual creatures. A script that requires a woman to say of the man she’s marrying that she was not attracted to him initially (but oh, how he was to her), but he pursued, and eventually her sensible desire to start a family caused her to consent. The message the song conveys is that women do appreciate male beauty. That this is not something women conveniently grow out of. But that women somehow can't demand this in a partner as an adult.

I identify as a feminist for all the usual reasons – women should be able to succeed professionally, to control their own fertility, etc. – but also for this somewhat obscure one: women should (and can!) feel entitled to selecting a partner they find physically attractive. "Entitled," though, what a word, so let me explain.

While we chastise straight men who insist they'd only be satisfied with swimsuit models, we tend to accept that a man will not enter into a romantic relationship with a woman he's not attracted to physically. This is in part because of our understanding that it is physically impossible for a man to consummate a relationship with a woman who doesn't to it for him. (One need only point to the children born of marriages in which it later turns out the husband/father is gay to realize why this is ridiculous, but anyway.)

But it's also entitlement. A straight man, if he's going to be with someone at all, deserves to be with a woman he enjoys looking at. As for women? It's not phrased as, women don't deserve men they find good-looking. It's more phrased as, female sexuality doesn't work like that. It's about getting to know a guy, and struggling to overcome whichever natural revulsion to intimacy. (See the "Seinfeld" where Elaine, a woman who sleeps with a healthy number of men, states that the male body is repulsive, and that the woman who appreciate it are perverse.)

But the thing is, women care. This doesn't mean demanding abs, nor becoming repulsed when the aging process does its usual number on one's partner of however many decades. It just means that initially, women, like men, want there to be some physical connection, some reason that this person, of all the people on the planet, is to be more than just a friend. Women should feel entitled to this bare minimum, and yet don't. And yet kind of do. But feel guilty. Leading some to write letters to advice-columnists, such as:

To Emily Yoffe:
I am married to a kind, generous, attractive, wonderful man. The problem? I am not attracted to him. Actually, I am sometimes turned-off by him. I have battled these feelings since before we even got married. I think I married him because he is such a wonderful person, and I thought I would be blowing it if I passed on the opportunity to spend my life with someone who treats me so well. [....]
To Dan Savage:
I am a 25-year-old bi woman in a monogamous relationship with a straight man. We have been living together for about a year, and I suspect he is ready to pop the question any day now. I couldn't be more excited about spending the rest of my life with him. We are emotionally and financially compatible. We want the same things out of life, and he treats me better than anyone I've been with before.
The problem is that I am not physically attracted to him. He is physically a bear—overweight, hairy, and masculine. My physical preference is for twinks—skinny, tall, and hairless boys. When I crawl into bed with him, Dan, I don't really want to jump his bones. I want to snuggle up under a blanket and snooze.
Both of these letters go on, with further explanation as to why this particular case is incredibly unique, as they all are. But the essential in both is that the letter-writer does not believe herself entitled to anything more than being treated well. Note that in both cases, the woman is not upset that the man has changed physically - there had been a lack of physical attraction from the get-go. Note, too, that the second letter-writer articulates very clearly what it is she prefers, and it sounds kind of... attainable.

If these letters had come from men, one angle that might have come up, either in the letters or the responses, is that it's unfair to your partner to be with them if you don't find them attractive. We assume that a woman's vanity would be just crushed if she learned that a man was with her despite her appearance. But are men so different? "Seinfeld" - the Proust of my generation - says no: when Elaine tells George that a woman he's dating doesn't care about looks, as if this is a good thing for him, George takes this as a negative comment about his looks (which, well, it is) and is less than pleased. So I suppose if women truly cannot demand partners they are attracted to for selfish reasons, they could consider doing so for the sake of the dudes they're with.

Monday, February 11, 2013

"How many avocadoes is too many avocadoes a week?"

By Hariadhi, via Wikimedia Commons

A certain long-limbed, cleanse-inclined Ms. Paltrow has, with the help of her anti-flab guru Tracy Anderson, offered the general, "GOOP"-reading public helpful advice (via) for cultivating an eating disorder, or at least a time-consuming eating-related neurosis. Gwynnieness (to be distinguished from the more plebeian skinniness) involves replacing food with powder (advises Anderson: "Powders are a great way to add protein to your diet without all the potentially harmful effects of some protein sources.") and cultivating "feminine muscles," which is not what it sounds like.

To be fair, all of the advice in the post makes sense if you are, in fact, Gwyneth Paltrow. If your immense fame and fortune rest largely on your physical appearance, if you are of the caste that paparazzi photograph from the back and in unflattering light, then yes, you have a good reason to care what every square inch of your body looks like. There's nothing irrational or disordered about Paltrow micromanaging her physique. A (charmingly misspelled) question such as this one Paltrow asks Anderson, "How many avocadoes is too many avocadoes a week?," is perfectly sensible if you happen to be a movie star not as young as you once were, and unsure at which exact avocado threshold your metabolism will full-on collapse, turning you into some Gwyneth-like woman, but of a different size.

Ordinary women, however, just might be wasting their time and energy. I'm not sure what the real-world benefit is meant to be to having ever-so-slightly smaller muscles than the ones developed from running. (This is kind of French, though - the idea that women who work out look too muscular - but they, yes, I of course speak for all the French, despite not being French, advise leisure and small portions of excellent food, not special workouts designed to cultivate rock-hard yet slender thighs.) But no one's looking so closely. In professional and social settings, people tend to meet one another fully-clothed. And when it comes to more intimate situations, grown men tend to have seen other grown women undressed before. If straight men were really as revolted by cellulite as the Anti-Cellulite Industry would have us believe, they'd all have to fight over the three women who don't have it, or switch sexual orientation.

But if neo-aerobics do it for you, by all means. It's really the diet advice I find unsettling. Escapist fluff aimed at women - some of my favorite sources of procrastination - somehow always must include tips on how to not eat anything, ever. The tips are not aimed primarily at women who would receive either health or societal benefits from losing weight. They're directed at women who in no way "need" to lose weight (quotes because whether anyone does is another story). While this might lead us to think, first-world problems, thin-privilege, etc., this is significant because it points to a more general expectation that a woman's physical appearance be a continual work-in-progress.

What Would a Busy Blogger Do?

The time has come, the blogger said, to talk of many things—actually, just one, which is a need for a bit of time off. Specifically, time off without feeling like The Beheld has gone black while I'm off jet-setting, rosebud-gathering, or—as is the case here—working on another project (beauty-related, yay!). And so I'm handing over the keys for the next two weeks to one of my favorite bloggers—and favorite critical thinkers on beauty.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy is a doctoral candidate at New York University, writing on Jews and intermarriage in 19th-century France. But unsurprisingly, what drew me to her was her musings on beauty tucked into her blog, What Would Phoebe Do. (Which is not to say that strains of these interests don't occasionally converge, though I doubt the term "Jew-fro" has much application to intermarriage in 19th-century France—please correct me if I'm wrong.) Whether she's writing about nail art and class or what it means to "look your age", weighing in on that NYTimes makeup and self-esteem debate or "Nice Guy" syndrome, collecting her thoughts on everything there is to say about makeup (everything!) or just giving a dispatch on luminizer, Phoebe consistently makes me think—and rethink—about the issues I hold dear. And she'll do the same for you. 

In addition to her academic work and What Would Phoebe Do, she's also a freelance writer, most recently for The Sexes, a blog at The Atlantic. And, for the next two weeks, she'll be blogging here in my stead. I'm looking forward to reading The Beheld for the next couple of weeks as a reader, and I'll see you all soon.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Beauty Blogosphere 2.8.13

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

Also instantly makes your hair look amazing. Like, really fucking amazing, don'tyouthink?

From Head...
Blow dry: Admittedly, I've never tried to smuggle 24 pounds of liquid cocaine into Logan International, but I'm still surprised that pouring it into hair product bottles would be described by the feds as "creative." Like, wouldn't that be the first thing anyone would try? (Have I missed my calling as a drug mule?)

...To Toe...
Sole sisters: Word aficionados will delight in learning about the turn-of-(last)-century shoe brand Sorosis, whose name may have stemmed from sisterhood, or pineapples, take your pick.

...And Everything In Between:
Whiter shade of pale:
A reminder from the Philippines that even when a nation manages to implement cosmetics regulation, that doesn't mean retailers stick to the rules. (The culprit here is skin whitening creams, of course, which made another international appearance this week with the report that prescription dermatitis creams—which have a lightening effect—are being sold on the Ugandan black market to consumers with no prescription, and little to no guidance on usage.)

All ages!: Once again, e.l.f. is hosting an open-call modeling contest themed "Beauty at All Ages," in which hopefuls can enter in one of four age categories: teens, 20s, 30s, and 40s+. Ahem.

In your face: Interesting debate about the Pretty Girls Making Ugly Faces subreddit at Feminist Philosophers. My first reaction here is that by showing how the same woman can both "play pretty" and "play ugly," the meme reveals not only how much of beauty is a performance, as Feminist Philosophers points out, but how much it's about being caught at any one particular moment. I mean, obviously the women in these photos are specifically making grotesque faces. (And commenters rightly point out that there are plenty of women whose faces naturally have some of these features without "playing ugly," though I think to read this through that lens is sort of willfully misconstruing what's being toyed with.) But I know one of my bigger beauty insecurities is that someone who had previously thought I was attractive would see me at a certain moment—eyes half-open, double chinned because of an angle, ruddy-skinned, slack-jawed—and see that no, they'd been wrong all along, I'm actually monstrous. This meme sort of blows that up—it's really about revealing what you might call the elasticity of beauty.

What men really want: How on earth can you brand a beauty product to men?! Just remember this: "Research has shown that men will stick with a product if it is effective," unlike creatures comme moi, who is still wondering why this huckleberry jam has done jack shit for my bikini line. 

On scruples: The Beauty Brains makes an appearance with Amanda Marcotte at Slate, talking about the science behind the (ripoff?) that is Proactiv. In addition to what the Brains say here, something my beauty editor interviewee pointed out was that kits that are sold as acne "systems" are often sold that way because you can't get the ingredients in one product. To have both salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide (both effective acne fighters, though for different causes and stages in life, from what I understand) in a product is highly irritating, so you can only get products containing both ingredients by prescription. But! If you sell a benzoyl peroxide product alongside a salicylic acid product and package it as a kit, you're in the clear. (And in fact using both products may be fine, depending on your skin—but it could also be way too harsh.)

Great of a passing: Stuart Freeborn, the makeup artist responsible for Yoda, has died at age 98. While the Star Wars enterprise is his most famous work (he was also responsible for Chewbacca and Jabba the Hutt), his Hollywood legacy had long been established by the time he came on board there—he transformed Peter Sellers into multiple characters for Dr. Strangelove, and worked with Kubrick on other projects, including 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Moves like Jagger: Quantifying the attractiveness of hip-wriggling. (Word to the ladies: Your "hip-knee phase angle" will bring the boys to the yard.)

Sixth sense: If you don't really know what you look like because you're blind, how do you "see" yourself in your dreams?

Makeup bag: If you live in the San Francisco area and "like" Make Up For Ever on Facebook, you can reserve a live makeup tutorial with their artists—using products you already have. (Normally The Beheld doesn't include flat-out promos in roundups, but if this actually is as described I think it's cool. Obviously the idea is that you'll think kindly of Make Up For Ever afterward and spend your cash there, but still.)

On recovery: Margaret Wheeler Johnson, who writes of her eating disorder recovery with a courage one rarely sees on the subject, has an essay up at HuffPo on getting rid of her "thin clothes." At least, that's the topic, but the real story is about allowing her identity to grow beyond that of a person with an illness—one that's pathologized in tragic tones that can make it all the more alluring to someone already prone to the disease.

Virtual funds: I 100% Do Not Get This, but apparently if you play interactive video games you can set up a webcam so people can watch you play? And while most people who do this are men, there's a number of women who stream themselves—and who have set up a donation account so viewers can contribute to the cause, whatever that cause may be. The women in this article seem to have a keen understanding of the risks (and not-dramatic payoff) of doing this, but at the root...I don't get it. Any girl gamers want to explain this to a non-gamer (unless you count playing Tetris on my phone, which was purchased in 2007)?

Also, Butt Taco: Slideshow of the most cringe-worthy makeup color names. Camel Toe?

Flex: Feminist Figure Girl lives up to her name by documenting the beauty labor that goes into bodybuilding competition—something that's expected of male bodybuilders as well, but not nearly to this extent.

Big gulp: You know why I don't drink Diet Coke? The packaging just ain't femme enough for me. Marc Jacobs to the rescue! (Thanks to Lindsay for the link.)

Vinegar Valentines: Happy Valentine's Day, dickweed!

Fan(g)irls: Not only are snaggletooth dental implants en vogue in Japan, but there's an entire pop band based on the look?! (A dentist specializing in the procedure plays Maurice Starr, natch.) Also from Cristen Conger: More than a year ago I mentioned her then-upcoming series at Bitch on the male beauty industry—or grooming industry, if you will—and you can read the whole series here.

And they all look like torture devices: The eyelash curlers that Could Have Been, courtesy Wild Beauty.

Fresh fruit: As much as I like to have my figure flattered (why, thank you!), it took me thirtysomething years to figure out how to do so, because I'm neither apple nor pear nor hourglass. Had I read Sally McGraw's book Already Pretty, I might've saved myself from all that head-to-toe black. Excerpt on how to really flatter your figure here.

Hijab hurrah: I have some mixed feelings on this astute post about World Hijab Day from a Muslim woman who wears hijab. To don hijab as a non-Muslim woman is meaningless if you don't actually talk to real! live! Muslim women (both hijabis and non) about their own practices, and to claim that wearing hijab for a day somehow gives you an understanding of the experience of Muslim women is disingenuous, to say the least. That said, the practice can be worthy in its own right—as it is for Muslim women. We live in a culture that's pretty confused about women's bodies, surveillance, "responsibility," the gaze, and sexuality. Wearing hijab can lend a person insight about her own experience of those concerns, in a way that has little to do with religion or Muslim life. Like mirror fasting, or not wearing makeup for a year, or not shopping for clothes for a year, or whatever, the idea shouldn't be to come down with full force on one "side" or the other, but rather to allow experimentation to illuminate our experiences with being seen in a way that we couldn't if we simply kept doing the same old routine. (via The Closet Feminist)

Public hair: Using "intimate cleanser" as a shampoo? Why not! (Or why, I suppose, but if you have it lying around...)

Girl's best friend: I could give exactly two figs about diamonds, yet this list of diamond factoids from Closet Feminist had me at "mean reds."

Tet a tet: Happy Lunar New Year! It's the Year of the Snake, and the Makeup Museum has some slithery photos from the MAC collection designed to celebrate (market) it.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Impermanence of Beauty: The Buried Lede

The last time I ran a recipe on here, it was a wholly off-topic indulgence of mine (I love me some green smoothie). But this time, it is by request, since apparently mention of my "slammin'" vegan chocolate-hazelnut pie in my post about the impermanence of beauty got some readers' mouths watering. So it's not even off-topic! (It's also not even really a pie, but since the mousse part has a consistency that's more like a traditional peanut butter pie than a cake-cake, I call it a pie.) 

This isn't a difficult recipe, but it does require handling a couple of ingredients that people who aren't accustomed to vegan baking techniques probably haven't used much. Agar is an algae extract used as a vegan substitution for gelatin. Like gelatin, it needs to "bloom" in water; unlike gelatin, it needs to be heated while blooming. You can find agar at a health food store, but if your town has an Asian grocery, go there as it is literally ten times cheaper and is the exact same product. (The recipe calls for flakes, but you can also use powder; if you use agar powder use 1 1/2 teaspoons.)

Clockwise from top left: Expensive agar; inexpensive agar;
starch made from arrows; can (safely?!?) be eaten by spoonful.

On its own, agar creates a Jello-like consistency, but adding in a slurry of water and starch (preferably arrowroot, though cornstarch works just as well, it's just more processed and the final product isn't quite as lustrous) transforms a dessert into something closer to a custard or mousse, which is what you're after here.

Look for praline paste in gourmet or natural food stores. If you can't find it, try hazelnut butter (which is actually harder to find in my experience, but worth a shot). If you can't find that, you can try making your own praline paste. I've never attempted this but I see no reason it wouldn't work, though the final product won't be as silky as it would be with purchased praline paste (same thing with hazelnut butter).

Slammin' Vegan Chocolate-Hazelnut Pie,
Which Is Really More of a Cake But Whatever

Adapted from Myra Kornfeld's The Voluptuous Vegan (a fantastic vegan cookbook, endorsed by me, who isn't even a vegetarian)


Bottom layer:
1/2 cup pastry flour
1/2 cup plus 2 T white flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 T instant espresso powder
3 T cocoa powder
1/2 cup canola oil
1/2 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup unflavored soy milk
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 T praline paste or hazelnut butter
1/2 tsp salt

Mousse topping:
1 cup water
2 T agar flakes (or 1 1/2 tsp agar powder)
1 1/2 pounds firm silken tofu (make sure to get silken tofu, not regular)
1/4 cup canola oil
3/4 cup maple syrup (1 cup if using hazelnut butter)
1/4 tsp salt
1 T vanilla extract
1/2 cup praline paste or hazelnut butter (if using hazelnut butter, use 1 cup maple syrup)
4 tsp arrowroot powder (or cornstarch)
1/2 unflavored soy milk

To make bottom layer:
• Preheat oven to 350F. Oil a 9-inch springform pan; set aside. In a medium bowl, whisk together flours, baking powder, brown sugar, espresso powder, and cocoa powder.
• In another bowl, combine canola oil, maple syrup, soy milk, vanilla, praline paste, and salt. Whisk until well-combined. Pour the liquid ingredients into dry ingredients, whisking together just until dry ingredients are completely moistened.
• Pour batter into the oiled pan, spreading evenly across bottom. Place on center rack in oven and bake 20 minutes, or until the cake has begun to pull away from the sides and a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean.

To make mousse topping:
• Pour water into a small saucepan and scatter agar flakes across the top, distributing evenly. Allow flakes to soften for 10 minutes.
• Meanwhile, in a food processor, combine tofu, canola oil, maple syrup, salt, and vanilla; process until smooth.
• Heat agar-water mixture until liquid comes to a boil, then lower the heat and gently simmer for 10-15 minutes, or until agar is completely dissolved.
• In a small bowl, mix arrowroot with soy milk to create a slurry. Stir the slurry into the hot agar-water mixture and cook, stirring constantly, until the liquid just starts to bubble. (If using cornstarch, let it bubble a minute, while stirring.)
• Pour the agar-arrowroot mixture into the food processor; process until everything is thoroughly combined. Pour into springform pan over bottom layer.
• Place the dessert in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour to completely set and cool. Run a knife around the edge of the pan. Release dessert from the springform rim and serve.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Impermanence of Beauty Work

ZEN. (via)

I used to be a pastry chef. It didn’t last—doing what you love for money ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, folks!—but it was an intensely gratifying experience. My very first gig was at a vegan restaurant more than an hour by subway away from my apartment, but I thought nothing of hopping on the train after my magazine job finished for the day, arriving at the restaurant, baking until near-dawn, getting an hour of sleep on the ride home, showering, and going back to my magazine job. I did this two or three times a week for months, and despite my cross-eyed fatigue, I loved the process. I loved—and still love—watching the magic of chemistry and labor. Chemistry: the rising of cake, the shortening of crusts; labor, measuring, the mixing, the juggling of pans, the exquisite feeling of slicing a pear just so and swirling the slices atop a tart. People always said to me, “Oh, I couldn’t be a pastry chef—I’d gain so much weight”; the truth is, professionals rarely eat what they create. That’s not where the pleasure is, even for a sweets lover like me. The joy lies in the creation.

So when my mother asked me if it bothered me that the tangible results of my hard work lasted for mere seconds before disappearing down a stranger’s gullet, I didn’t have a ready response. It had never once occurred to me to wish that my creations lasted longer than they did. Once she asked the question, though, I realized that the ephemeral quality of dessert was part of what I enjoyed about it. I liked that the results of my labor were to be enjoyed briefly and intensely, never to be had again. I mean, I had my menu usuals (my vegan hazelnut-chocolate pie is, in the words of the cafe’s dreadlocked proprietress, “slammin’”) and my results were generally consistent. But that slice would never be enjoyed by that customer in exactly the same way again. Different time of day, different dining partner, different mood, different desired emotional state resulting from the utterance Yes, I’ll look at the dessert menu: All these play into our enjoyment of food, particularly food we eat not for nutrition or satiety but for desire. I liked giving that to diners, strangers I’d never meet or even see, for the most part. It was theater.

I’d never considered the ephemeral quality of beauty work either, until it came up in a book I’m reading called Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping. The author studies consumer behavior in the minutiae, working with teams that silently survey shoppers in retail settings. According to the book, when men grocery shop for produce, they tend to pick up the first, say, head of lettuce their hand lands on, and drop it in their cart. Women, however, are more likely to pick up the head of lettuce, examine it for suitability, checking out several different heads before deciding upon one. I recognized myself in this (why pay for a subpar avocado when there could be a perfect avocado next to it?!), but I really recognized myself in the author’s explanation: “Women...have traditionally understood the importance of the impermanent world—cooking a meal, decorating a cake, fixing hair and makeup.” Stereotypical, yes. But will you really be that surprised when I tell you that of the 16 students in my class at pastry school, 15 were women?

The author’s word choice struck me: impermanent, which I unintentionally tweaked in my mind to impermanence. When I thought to Google it, I wasn’t terribly surprised to find that beyond its meaning of, well, not-permanent, impermanence is a also term of Buddhist teachings. Now, my understanding of Buddhism doesn’t go much farther than “pop Buddhism,” as in I read one of the Dalai Lama's books once. So my base of knowledge is thin at best, but from what I understand, impermanence is one of the three conditions of life that every living creature shares (the other two are death and taxes). That is: One of the only things that is certain in this life is change.

Most of the time when we talk about beauty’s relation to impermanence, we’re talking of age and the supposed decay of physical appeal that it brings. And, yes, there’s plenty to say about that, but I’m thinking less of the change we endure by the year and more the change we endure—or create—by the minute. Beautywise, there’s special-event impermanence: weddings, proms, the spate of Great Gatsby parties that are sure to hit soon. There’s beauty-phase impermanence, like going Cleopatra with the kohl for six months, or my misguided pigtail era of 2002. There’s trying-it-on impermanence—nail decals, say, or hair chalk.

And then there’s the kind of impermanence that’s reflected in our daily beauty labor. Any sort of beauty labor that we do, we’re doing it for effect, whether that effect is polish, sophistication, glamour, not looking like we were up too late the night before, or simply presenting an oh-so-slightly exaggerated version of what we look like “naturally.” We wake up, create that effect, go about our business, fall asleep—and do it all again the next day.

And while I may resent some of the political implications of beauty labor, and sometimes get cranky because of the time it can take for me to pull myself together (we’re talking about 10 minutes here once I’m showered, though my entire grooming procedure takes 55 minutes), what I don’t mind is its impermanence. In fact, as with pastry, that might be part of what I appreciate about it. Repeated mechanical labor can have a stultifying effect, but under the right conditions, it can also bring about a state of presence. It’s not quite flow, because I think of that as being more about being engaged in the activity itself. While I might be thinking a little bit about, say, whether I want to wear lipstick that day or if I should use liquid or pencil eyeliner, most of the time the actions of beauty work become automatic: I reach for the same tools kept in the same place, I use the same spot on my hand to blend foundation, I apply my dry shampoo in the same spots—all of which frees up my mind to passively think about what lies ahead. I’m mentally steeling myself for a draining day at the office, or leaning into a day spent doing only exactly what I want to do, whatever that might be, or I’m calming nerves over an upcoming meeting. Or maybe I’m just thinking about a joke from the night before, or why Full House lasted as long as it did. The point is, I’m both engaged and separate; going through motions but allowing for mental drift. It’s both tuned in and checked out, a state of centering myself. It’s—I mean, forgive me, true practitioners of Zen, but isn’t that sort of meditation lite?

In fact, that’s exactly what I was after when I decided to give the professional kitchen life a whirl. Yes, I enjoyed the act of baking (and its varieties of caramel-drizzled outcomes), but the real reason I didn’t mind regularly going 36 hours without real sleep was because of the pseudo-meditative state baking induced. With three different desserts in the oven and two more on the stove, you’ve got to be on your game, but in an entirely different way than I had to be on my game while copy editing. It was a matter of constant, evenly paced motion; of wiping down the same counter a dozen times in one night; of the rhythm of rolling out a crust.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both beauty labor and baking—neither of which require a good deal of heightened cerebral awareness, and both of which can induce a state of reflection—are both activities of impermanence. The very fact that it’s a repeated motion whose results will not last demands a different sort of focus and attention than activities with lingering results. The impermanence of beauty work nudges us to be in the moment, in a way that’s both active (you’re doing an activity) and passive (your mind is freed while your hands are occupied); by rote (I can do it without looking in the mirror if needed) yet with an element of joy.

Beauty labor can be a distraction from our larger goals—the time, the money, and most of all, the voice in the back of the head that keeps telling you to check your lipstick, check your hair, check your face. Yet as with so many aspects of beauty work, there’s a flipside there too, one that serves as a gentler reason for putting in the effort that beauty work requires. Putting my efforts into something impermanent (relatively speaking) has its rewards too, but those rewards will forever differ from the rewards of impermanence. And I'm still wondering if the author of the shopping book was right in parts—whether women might have more of a proclivity for the impermanent. Could it be a fear of the permanent, a lack of belief in one’s might and weight? Or is it a tacit acceptance of constant change—even a nod to the myriad roles women are expected to play, sometimes on a daily basis?