Friday, April 26, 2013

Beauty Blogosphere 4.26.13

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

From Head...
Hair sculpture: I knew about Hair Wars, but I didn't know how extreme they'd become. Actually, these are so fantastic that they qualify as X-Treme, oui?

...To Toe...
Curbed: The roadside pedicures that appear to be the norm in Lagos, Nigeria.

...And Everything In Between:

Left: Procter & Gamble promotes My Black Is Beautiful.
Right: Procter & Gamble sells skin-whitening cream. Surprise!

Two-faced: Jenna Sauers at Jezebel puts a fine point on the problem with the Procter & Gamble-sponsored documentary My Black Is Beautiful, "a celebration of African American beauty" directed by two rising black directors and featuring interviews with the wonderful Melissa Harris-Perry: It questions the standards placed upon black women, including the idea that lighter skin is preferable, while selling skin-whitening creams. Sorta puts the Dove campaign in perspective, eh?

Missing market: You'd think that halal beauty products would be booming in the Arab Peninsula, wouldn't you? You'd be wrong.

Price support: Japanese cosmetics vendors have refused to lower prices in response to a weak yen, meaning their exports have slowed waaaay down.

Tragedy in Bangladesh: At least 300 people were killed in a collapse of a garment factory in the capital of Bangladesh that contained tenants that supply low-cost clothing to western companies. Not that any of the companies are now willing to admit that: "The website of New Wave claims to supply major Western retailers from the U.S. and Europe. Ethar claims to produce clothes for Walmart, but this has been challenged by the U.S. giant. Other firms have also distanced themselves from the disaster. Only Britain’s Primark freely admitted that it was using a factory in Rana Plaza."

Old school: Love this collection from Procter & Gamble of vintage ads and packaging of some of its iconic products, like Oil of Olay—née Ulay. (And if the P&G folks listen to this analyst and drop their attempts at fragrance and color cosmetics, Oil of Ulay will be all the more important to the beauty behemoth.)

Faking it: The Sydney Morning Herald takes a look at the gray market of counterfeit makeup, prompted by last year's revelation that Australian Target stores had been accidentally selling counterfeit MAC cosmetics (which were sourced from a warehouse in east Texas, of all places).

Spirit of the law: Even when government agencies take action on regulating cosmetics—as was the case in the Philippines with skin-whitening creams containing mercury—there's little to stop retailers from selling them illegally, as this report shows.

F for effort: And from the Department of Egregiously Poor Taste, lower-tier modeling agents have been scouting clients outside of eating disorder clinics.

Tits and class: That "tittooing" story from last week about women tattooing their nipples to look darker struck me as fishy—but what I missed was its reinforcement of classism, which a Liverpool blogger takes to task in The Guardian this week. Much like the ways Jersey Shore uses fashion and beauty cues to signal "working-class Italian American!" as loudly as possible, representing Liverpool as a place where women would line up to tattoo their nipples allows others to point and gawk: "Everything about this so-called craze, including the cute nickname, smacks of media confection." (If, like this American, you don't know much about regional UK stereotypes, this piece is helpful on the Liverpool front.) Thanks to Liverpool reader Kirsty for the link!

B student: I still have no idea what the "BB" in BB creams stands for (worst beauty blogger EVER!); I just know I freakin' love mine. But apparently now we're supposed to get ready for CC and DD creams? I give up.

On humiliation: A truly remarkable protest by Iranian men (though initially started by an Iranian feminist group of women) against the court-ordered punishment of forcing a convict to parade in public wearing women's clothing. Male participants posted photos of themselves in women's clothing to communicate the idea that womanhood is not punishment. The best part? It seems to be having some effect: 17 members of Iran's parliament have signed a letter saying that the sentence is discriminatory toward women.

Burgundy nails: I'm too cheap to shell out for a corking fee so I can sip wine while having my nails done. But some places allow you to BYOB, it seems—in which case, let the party begin! (As long as you're a generous tipper while tipsy, mkay?)

Full bloom: I dislike the term "white trash," but I love the idea of repurposing old bras to be hanging gardens, so shall I link to this bra planter or not? Hmm.

Terrance Gainer, United States Senate Sergeant-at-Arms and hair enemy

Budget cuts: The finest in senatorial hair care (yes, it's taxpayer-funded—though Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer is doing his damndest to change that): "The salon caters to senators, their staffers, and even interns, though outsiders who seek it out are welcome. But there's a scheduling hierarchy: If a senator (or a more powerfulsenator) wants your slot, you could be bumped. Suppose New York's Chuck Schumer, the Senate's third-ranking Democrat, needs a trim at 9:30 a.m. but Wyoming's Mike Enzi, a three-term Republican who occupies no major leadership positions, has reserved the spot. The gentleman from Wyoming will have to yield."

Appy ending: Want your nail polish to perfectly match Mitt Romney's tan? There's an app for that.

Slumber party marketing: Cassie raises a larger question stemming from the now-infamous Dove sketch-artist video: What do we gain from BFF-style marketing? "If companies want to be our friends, then we're going to treat them like our friends when they piss us off—we're going to get angry."

Age lines: I tend to be somewhat optimistic about the visibility of women over 40—I mean, at 36 Anne Bancroft was playing the original MILF (how could a 36-year-old be anything but "older"?!), whereas today's 35-and-overs (Angelina Jolie, Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston, etc.) are simply playing...attractive women. So there has been progress—but as Beauty Redefined shows us by the numbers, there hasn't been enough.

Self-secured: This post from Sally about insecurity and jealousy sprang up right when I was dealing with an acute attack of exactly that, so I'm proof that this post asks you to ask yourself all the right questions.

Check her out: And speaking of things that can make one feel insecure: When men make off-the-cuff comments about other women's appearance, how has that affected you? This one hit home for me, not only because of the kind of comments that Kate discusses here (i.e. the "ooh, she's so hot" types or the "her? ick" types), but because of the wonderful occasions where a man reveals that much of what we're led to believe "men really want"...just isn't true.

"I'm going to be a cheerleader": Sexualization of girls is a problem, no doubt. But as Hugo deftly lays out, to assume that any particular girl's interest in the hallmarks of sexualization means she's "at risk" tunes out the fuller internal reasoning that draws girls to those hallmarks.

On strutting your stuff: "To move with purpose is to rebel against the world that manipulates how we exist within it."

Gwynspo: I try not to focus on eating disorders too much in this space, because they are so complex and misunderstood, and I don't want to contribute to one of the #1 misunderstanding about them: That they're about wanting to look good. So Kjerstin Gruys's story about how she used Gwyneth Paltrow as thinspo at the height of her own illness is remarkable, as it illustrates that even though it may look like wanting to be just like Gwyneth spurred her to an eating disorder, it was a symptom of her sickness, not a cause.

Un/reality: We (well, me, given that my feed is full of feministy fashion types and I'm one myself) often hear the idea that fashion needs to be more realistic—and a fashion illustrator who makes her trade in depicting the unreal asks, simply, Why?

Bangin': A comic all about bangs. (via Stuff Mom Never Told You)

Opting in: Mara hits a key point of self-care head-on, by reminding us that self-care is not a punishment—which can be exactly what it feels like when I hear myself say in my head, "But I deserve a night on the couch doing nothing but eating graham crackers and watching Law & Order SVU even though I hate that fucking show..."

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Invited Post: Gone Swimmin'—African American Women and Hair

One of the best things about blogging is "meeting" readers via comments, particularly those who can illuminate aspects of beauty that I haven't dealt with firsthand. So when Mary Elizabeth left a lengthy comment on my post about neck hair and joked about how she was now basically guest contributing, I happily took her up on it! Mary is a portrait artist and maybe a little bit of a wannabe [ed. note—or not wannabe!] writer currently residing in Cleveland, Ohio. Check out her art blog at

Olympic bronze medalist Lia Neal might be surprised to learn that African Americans don't swim.

I grew up on an island in Florida but I didn't learn to swim until I was 12. According to USA Swimming this isn't unusual for African Americans. I first learned this tidbit while working as a summer camp counselor; it was part of our training, which also included watching security camera footage of a male African American camper nearly drowning at the bottom of a pool. Yes, for real. The video was intended to drive home the point that we as counselors shouldn't rely on the lifeguards while at the pool, but the other not-so-subtle message was that black children often cannot swim and therefore needed to be watched even closer. This is a great example of just how ingrained the idea that all African Americans don't and/or can't swim is. But why?

If you ask the internet, it will tell you it's African American women who are to blame because we don't want to mess up our hair. Apparently, this is explanation enough since real reasons are almost never given and are oversimplified when they are. I rarely see not living near a body of water cited, for example. For me it was because I never wanted to learn until I made a friend with a backyard pool that had a slide I desperately wanted to use and not drown. I personally know many black women who can swim. Not only that, but I've seen them with my own eyes at public beaches and dripping wet just like everyone else. And yet many other people present at those same public beaches and pools would rather dismiss what they've seen with their own eyes as some sort of anomaly rather than consider what they have come to understand as fact may in actuality be a stereotype.

So why don't some black women want to swim and mess up their hair? I think the answer is more complex than the simple vanity the stereotype implies, and has its roots in slavery. It's obvious that most slaves didn't have time or resources to care for their hair once enslaved, but in their homelands they would have had elaborate hair care rituals. Women (and men) styled their hair in elaborate and time-consuming ways. (In fact, in Africa during and before slavery a person wearing an Afro was uncommon and would have been considered mentally ill and ostracized.) Imagine how awful it must have felt to not be able to care for your hair while remembering the sense of pride you once took in it. As families and tribes were split up and sold, hair care practices were lost and possibly even replaced by the hair care practices of white slaveholders. Needless to say, these practices didn't work for the tightly curly hair that many slaves possessed. To add insult to injury, slaves who worked in their owners’ houses were often required to cover their hair, as it was considered unsightly, while slaves with less curly hair types weren't required to do so—and were often treated better. The divide this created amongst slaves is very likely the root of the modern “good hair” vs. “bad hair” debate. Once freed, many straightened their hair with heat or chemicals—not to look more white (although I am sure there were those who did) but to have one less thing to make them stand out as "other" in a society that just barely accepted them.

Today many African American women opt to keep their hair natural and only straighten their hair temporarily with heat. I don't think I have to explain to anyone reading what a little humidity, let alone a splash from the pool, can do to flatironed hair...and if it takes you 2+ hours to flatiron the curls out of your hair like it does in my case, you're probably not going to go near any water and make all that work for naught. So there's part of the answer, although it's a little simplified in the interest of not boring you to death with the details of curly hair types, heat straightening, and the inherent fragility of curly hair. There are also some who opt to relax their hair, which is a chemical treatment that breaks the disulfide bonds in the hair strand, making it less curly—but it can also make the hair "bone straight" if left to process long enough. Relaxing the hair makes it more susceptible to chlorine and salt water damage just like color treated hair. These two reasons are enough to dispel or at least explain how the stereotype started, but they're just the more obvious ones that I know of. Maybe some African American women just don't have any interest in swimming and their hair provides a convenient excuse...what with a stereotype already in place to support it and all. Seriously, though, these reasons could apply to a woman of any race who avoids swimming. Nowadays it's common for women of all races to use heat and chemicals to straighten (or curl) their hair, so it's pretty ridiculous to pretend it's only one racial group that’s concerned about their hair and what effect swimming might have on style or health.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Beauty Blogosphere 4.19.13

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

Barbies: They're just like us!

From Head...
Life is plastic: The newest celebrity to be spotted without makeup: Barbie. (Thanks to Circe for the link!)

...To Toe...
Sweet feet: Here's your head start for next Valentine's Day: Chocolate high heels. (Thanks for the link, Kari!)

...And Everything In Between:
Let's get regular: With all the talk in various states of deregulating the beauty industry—but with 94% of voters supporting the licensing of beauty professionals (according to an industry poll, but still)—it's worth a moment to look at this state-by-state "heat map" of deregulation threats.

Big business: The growing middle class in developing economies has various implications for beauty companies: Here's a Q&A with the founder of one of Kenya's first domestic cosmetics companies—and a news piece that shows what local business is up against, with L'Oréal buying one of the country's biggest domestic brands (which might actually be a somewhat subversive move, since the former owner is now using the profits from the sale to build a manufacturing plant with an eye on reducing Procter & Gamble's influence in the region). In fact, it seems that L'Oréal is all over this market; see also, bigger sales in China.

Dollars and sense: Dollar stores are setting sights on the beauty industry and are offering more brand-name cosmetics than they used to.

Model behavior: British Vogue has signed onto a 10-point code of conduct for its models. What makes this different from last year's somewhat toothless Vogue resolution about underage models is that it's backed by Equity, the UK's trade union for performers (which allowed models to join in 2009).

Clap if you remember: This paean to Tinkerbell Cosmetics—and yes, I had their peel-off nail polish in 1982—verges on brilliant. Awkward father-daughter moments! Steely mother-daughter femininity battles! Sally Draper!

Granted: With her recent research grant of $10,000, dermatologist Dr. Anna de Benedetto just might determine once and for all what sensitive skin is. Meanwhile, check out this video looking at the science behind product testing. 

When in Rome: Next time you pick up a nasty case of eye chlamydia—one more time for kicks, eye chlamydiamake like ancient Romans and bring out your cosmetics kit.

Trading up: The equivalent to the ladies-draped-on-cars at auto shows? Models (and stilt-walkers!) of various sorts hired to attract eyeballs at beauty trade shows: "I asked one shirtless, buff gentleman if I could snap his picture, and he said, 'Sure, but then you have to talk to my friends over there about a blow…dryer.' He then removed the blow dryer from the waistband of his jeans and pointed it at me like a gun."

Beauty of the future: Meanwhile, if you're more interested in the business of beauty than in its eye-catching representatives, here's a peek into what beauty industry insiders are saying about tech and beauty.

Hairy situation: Prompted by recent reports of Hamas police in Gaza detaining and beating young men with long hair—which goes against the organization's ideals—Worn Through asks, "What is it about hair that seems to disturb ruling powers and that is so emotionally disturbing when it is taken away?"

Color me this: My grandmother took me to "have my colors done" when I was 7, so I particularly loved The Closet Feminist's contemporary insight into the 1980s fad of wearing colors by your "season." (I was deemed a summer, not an autumn, the irony of which kills me to this day.)

All made up: I'll just let Stuff Mom Never Told You speak for itself about this video: "In which Cristen schools Professor Boyfriend on women and the cosmetics industry while he attempts to put on her makeup with FABULOUS results."

Louie Louie: Buried in this (good) article about Louis C.K., of whom I am an enormous fan to the point where I have considered writing him, at age 36, a good old-fashioned fan letter, is possibly the world's most blunt—and definitely the world's most graphic—description of the male gaze.

Mythbusters: I don't necessarily agree with everything on this list from The Sexy Feminist author Jennifer Armstrong on what we can do to take action against the beauty myth (I don't think the goal should necessarily be for every woman to feel beautiful, for example)—but to see so many ways enumerated is downright exciting.

Big week for nipple tattoos: I started getting all huffy about the apparent "nipple tattooing" craze of darkening nipples—not to be confused with the Thom Yorke nipple tattoo—until I read this sentence: "It is rapidly catching up with the latest cosmetic procedure available to women nationwide." Oh! So nobody actually does it. (Speaking of Vajazzling, I just now googled it and went down the internet rabbit-hole, and emerged with a link to the blog Pubic Style, which is—office-workers take note—exactly what it sounds like.)

Modestly yours: A neat decimation of the idea that dressing modestly is a way to ensure that admirers will see the person you "are," as opposed to your body.

Dovecote: Don't miss Kate's take on the Dove sketch-artist ad (along with those from Jazzy Little Drops and Balancing Jane, which I linked to in my own post on the matter). Plus, Adriana Barton at Globe and Mail points to some of Unilever's other campaigns and wonders how sincere Dove's Real Beauty ads can truly be. (Probably as sincere as this hilarious parody ad, sent my way by Lindsay.) Indirectly related, Kate Conway adds to the (growing?) chorus of women wondering whether we might be better off not even trying to be hot every minute of our existence.

Bra bust: Turns out that wearing a bra might actually make you sag more in the long run. Or—maybe not.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

One Narrative Fits All: Dove and "Real Beauty"

A few years ago, the Mad Men marketing team came up with the ingenious idea of building a tool that allowed you to create your own personalized Mad Men–style avatar. And once we found out about it, a good friend and I came up with the ingenious idea of making avatars of each other, along with avatars of ourselves, and then comparing the results. 

Here are—re-created from loose memory—the avatars of my friend. On the left, the one she designed of herself. On the right, the one I designed of her.

^^How my friend "drew" herself // How I "drew" my friend ^^

Notice anything different? 

I thought of our avatar exchange when I first heard about the most recent arm of Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign, i.e. the campaign that brought us those billboards several years ago of “real women” modeling for Dove, and that launched the viral “Evolution” video about the process that goes into making media images. This particular project featured women describing themselves to a forensics sketch artist—who was separated from the women by a curtain so he couldn’t see them—and then having near-strangers describe the same woman to the same artist. When the results were compared—ta-da!—the sketches drawn from the strangers’ descriptions were conventionally prettier than the sketches drawn from the women’s descriptions of themselves.

It’s an interesting exercise, one I’d love to try myself—if out of narcissism/curiosity more than, as the Dove tagline would have it, finding out that I Am More Beautiful Than I Think. (Maybe I’ll just sign up for Selfless Portraits instead.) It’s intriguing enough, in fact, to make me overcome my knee-jerk “oh, brother” reaction to the Real Beauty campaign to consider exactly why I find myself disgruntled with a campaign that, on its face, shares many of my own goals as far as getting people to question the meaning of beauty.

Yes, the women in these ads are overwhelmingly conventionally pretty, and trim, and white; no, the ads don’t aim to question the essence of beauty standards so much as expand them to include more women; yes, in the process of examining beauty these ads also limit its definition. But not only have other people critiqued these angles more incisively than I could, the truth is, those aren’t my deepest problems with it. My real problem is this: Just as ads of yore leveraged the attitudes that made women feel bad about their looks in order to sell products, the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty leverages the response to those attitudes in order to sell products. It allows for exactly one way that women can feel about our looks—bad—and creates a template for women’s relationship with their looks that’s just as rigid as the beauty standard it’s challenging.

But hold on, lady—didn’t you know that only 11% of girls around the world feel comfortable using the word beautiful to describe themselves? Isn't that problematic? You can find that statistic right on the Real Beauty Campaign’s website—preceded by a statistic about how 72% of girls "feel tremendous pressure to be beautiful." I look at these numbers and ask myself: How many girls now feel tremendous pressure to use the word beautiful to describe themselves? Another unanswered question stemming from those neat statistics: How many girls and women might not use the word beautiful to describe themselves yet still have a generous interpretation of their looks? How many women, when asked to describe themselves to someone they love or trust as opposed to a total stranger, might dare to use kinder words about their looks? How much our hesitation to claim beautiful for ourselves has to do with either a satisfaction with being pretty, or lovely, or striking—or with not wanting to be seen as suffering from “she thinks she’s all that” syndrome?

With our Mad Men avatars, my friend saw herself as being slimmer than I’d “drawn” her. Now, I don’t want to conflate thinness with beauty, but I knew she was somewhat aesthetically unhappy with her weight at the time we did one another’s avatars—so by the very guideline she was looking toward at the time, she depicted herself as being “more beautiful” than I did. It pains me to say that, because I’ve found her beautiful at every size I’ve seen her inhabit, and I’d be saddened if she thought my avatar of her meant anything less than that (which I don’t think it does). But my point here isn’t which avatar was more accurate—after all, none of the three body choices look particularly like her, or like me, or like anyone except perhaps Christina Hendricks. (The bloody mary, of course, is totally on par.) It’s that in an exchange with someone she intuitively trusted with her mental snapshot of herself, she defaulted not to the more conventionally negative image but to the more conventionally positive image. And like I said, we’re talking here about someone who wasn’t terrifically happy with her body; my friend is psychologically healthy but hardly has bullet-proof bodily self-esteem. Yet her experience of herself as relayed to the “sketch artist” of the app wasn’t one of hesitant self-deprecation—an experience we saw nowhere in the Dove sketch artist video.

The Dove campaign has confounded me from the beginning. I’ve alternately felt annoyed by it, touched by it, in simpatico with it, turned off by it, patronizing toward it, and thankful for it. In other words: It is having exactly the effect it’s supposed to have. And that’s what makes it both an effective campaign and a gold mine/red herring for skeptics like me. Dove’s parent company, Unilever, does not exist to make women feel good about themselves; Unilever exists to sell products. That’s fine, that’s their mission—they’re not a therapy center, they’re not a nonprofit (though they do sponsor nonprofit groups that work specifically for girls’ self-esteem)—and at day’s end, whatever my intellectual quibblings, I’d rather have a company trying to meet its mission in a way that’s socially responsible rather than in a way that grasps for the lowest common denominator. But to forget that their goal is to sell products to you, and that all these campaigns exist to generate buzz—call it “start[ing] a global conversation” if you will, it’s the same thing as "buzz"—in order to make you want to buy those products would be a mistake. Hell, by contributing to this “global conversation” here I’m doing unpaid PR for Dove, regardless of what I’m actually saying about their work. (And for Mad Men too, for that matter.) If that sounds cynical, remember that the entire concept of branded content (i.e. what the Dove campaign is, as opposed to a traditional commercial) exists because consumers got tired of regular advertising. And—hold your breath here, folks—female consumers ages 25 to 34 prefer Dove’s “branded content” approach to a traditional ad by a 7:1 margin

I just can’t help but wonder if part of the reason those consumers prefer this approach is not only their own cynicism, but their own imprinting of the idea that women’s greatest challenge in this world is to love their looks. It can be a challenge, yes, of course it can be—an enormous one, one that, without any path outward, can inhibit any of us to the point where we can’t accept any greater challenges. It’s a terrible feeling, isn’t it? I know it well. For make no mistake through my critique: There’s a part of me that feels fiercely empathetic when I watch the Dove video, and that’s because it’s an ad that gets me where it hurts—for when I’m in that zone, I’m intensely vulnerable. Intense vulnerability is easily recalled in the body; tears sprang to my eyes during the part of the sketch-artist video when the women’s side-by-side portraits were revealed to them. And intense vulnerability that is easily recalled in the body makes for a highly receptive consumer. 

Do I get something out of the Dove campaign? Yes, I do. And Dove will always get more.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Beauty Blogosphere 4.12.13

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

From Head...

What did the blonde say in 1775?: Meet Rosalie Duthe, the original "dumb blonde."

...To Toe...
Beware the pedicurist:
After seven weeks of trial, a pedicurist at a salon in Guam was found guilty of criminal sexual conduct after inappropriately touching a client who'd fallen asleep during her pedicure.

...And Everything In Between:

Fruit Dish and Glass, George Braque, 1912—the very first Cubist paper collage ever created.
Leonard A. Lauder collection.

Beauty in art: Leonard Lauder, son of Estee and former CEO of the company that bears his mother's name, pledged 78 works to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The scribblings from folks like Picasso, Léger, Braque, and more constitute one of the most valuable gifts ever made to the Met—and comprise about 13% of Lauder's personal fortune.

Public powwow: Feeling activisty? The FDA is holding a public meeting to give the hoi polloi a chance to have their say about cosmetics regulation (or, as the case may be, the near-total lack thereof).

Sweet charity: You know how when you get department store cosmetics you sometimes get "gift with purchase"? Like, buy face cream and get a little makeup bag filled with lipstick and samples? One company is experimenting with donating to an anti-hunger program with every purchase. Which is nice 'n stuff, but I always fear these sorts of programs do more on the feel-good level than the do-good level, sating the philanthropic itch while not actually filling the need. (Am I just cranky?)

Avon falling: Part of Avon's restructuring plan is job-cutting—and exiting some markets entirely, including Ireland and Vietnam. Financial analysts applaud the move.

Beauty tech: Beauty appliances are booming in Japan, which means someday soon we Americans might have something on the market besides the Clarisonic. And the Epilady.

Buddha Barbie: "[A]fter a islander had the same dream involving a Barbie doll three nights in a row," a shrine in Singapore became home to a Barbie doll, which receives offerings of cosmetics from worshipers.

Pretty politickin': You could be as wonderfully eloquent as Irin Carmon or Naomi Schoenbaum about Obama's "best-looking attorney general in the country" comment—or you could just read up on a recent survey of 1,500 likely voters that "found that no matter what is said about a female political candidate's appearance, it has a negative impact on what potential voters think of her." There's also another question here worth asking: Why, exactly, are we so eager to assign specific meaning to the wardrobe of women in the public eye? I'll be the first to argue that our self-presentation is a series of choices we make about what we want the world to deduce about us. But as Amanda Hess points out, there's no choice a woman can make that says, I want you to deduce nothing. (Thanks to Nicole for the Hess link!)

Young spice: Apparently there's a deficit of "manly"-scent bar soaps out there. Rather, there was a deficit in "manly"-scent bar soaps—Procter & Gamble to the rescue, with Old Spice-marketed soaps with names like Fiji. (Because what's manlier than Fiji?)

Courtesy Kat Haché

On becoming "flawed": "As they prepared to give me my stitches, I talked with my roommate and my aunt, who had just arrived, and the conversation seemed to revolve around how I would learn to accept these flaws and eventually forget about them. How there were people who were once beautiful, but then learned to live with being damaged. I did not want to hear that. I didn’t want to be formerly beautiful. I didn’t want to be damaged." This haunting, graceful piece from Kat Haché covers a lot of relevant ground: being flawed, being whole, being trans, being a woman.

Hen party: If you've got a problem with Sweden's new gender-neutral pronoun, talk to hen.

Elizabeth Wurtzel's tips to looking young: "I wear sunscreen during the day and Retin-A at night. I do what I want. I don't do what other people want me to do. Sometimes I don't do things I want to do because someone else wants me to do them too badly. I am just that way: I cannot be bossed around. I listen carefully when someone is talking to me. I ask for help. I offer to help. I have never been a member of Congress, or any other elected body." (Thanks to Lindsay for the link!)

The good fight: The part that's most exciting about the Fashion Fighting Famine collective isn't the implications of its name, but rather that it's a showcase for emerging Muslim designers and devoted to diversifying beauty standards via their models. (Thanks to Tasbee for the link!) 

Deep pocketbooks: I've mused before about how much younger each generation looks than the one that preceded it (again: Julianne Moore is now the same age Rue McClanahan was when she was cast on The Golden Girls). I'm inclined to call this a good thing, but it also means that women of a certain age are now targeted more heavily as cosmetics consumers: 49% of blush is purchased by women over 50.

Gooped: 'Bout time some straight-up lovers of beauty products engaged in some not-straight-up reviews: Meet the hilarious Facegoop.

Aphrodite's (re)touch: If Venus were birthed today, here's what she'd look like. (Thanks to Nancy for the link!)

Cocooning: Apparently I'm a sucker for the sweet spot where natural beauty tools meet luxury: I am seriously coveting moisturizing, exfoliating silk cocoons.

Badass beard: Filled with admiration for this 49-year-old woman who started sprouting a goatee after the birth of her son. After tweezing and electrolysis proved fruitless, she decided to let it grow. (Meanwhile, I'm still struggling with my neck hair.)

Selfies+: Intriguing concept when framed by the thought of Facebook-as-narcissism: the selfless portrait, in which strangers artistically render your profile picture.

#longform: "The problem is that engaging an audience, no matter the media, has an erotic element. Like anyone who commands attention, a writer controls and manipulates bodies, but as this new form of online writing — so far defined more by its readers than innovations in construction — develops, both sides are still clumsy with the steps."

Low overhead: Fringe benefit of covering your head for modesty or religious reasons: You can get away with lax hair care. 

War paint: Is there a way to reclaim the ferocity of the "war" part of makeup as "war paint"? The phrase has, to me, always spoken more to the "war" of sexism (in what other war would lipstick be an advantage?)—but I like Meli's line of inquiry here, that perhaps we lost something when we dropped the tribal battle paint. (Bonus points for Vikings mention.)

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Bookin' It

A piece of news that I'm excited about, personally and professionally: I'll be spending the next year writing a book on beauty, to be published by Simon & Schuster in 2015. Writing a book has been a longtime goal of mine, and writing this book—a comprehensive "where are we now?" survey of women (and men!) and beauty culture today, and the ways we use appearance to navigate the world—is a challenge I'm eager to take on.

If you're reading this blog, you have my gratitude. Without the comments, feedback, and idea exchanges that have come my way through The Beheld, I wouldn't have had the faith that there was an audience for a book. Because readers have been so gracious in sharing their own stories with me—in comments, e-mails, and various social media outlets—I've learned so much about one of the major juxtapositions of appearance: Our experience of it is both individual and collective. Thank you, thank you. And speaking of thank-yous: Without my fantastic agent, Brandi Bowles of Foundry Media, this wouldn't have happened. And without my editor-to-be, Molly Lindley, seeing promise in this project, I wouldn't be nearly as excited about it as I am.

What this means for The Beheld: I'm not yet sure. I'll be keeping it going, that much I know, but I'm not sure about frequency or format. Some of the ideas in the book will connect with what I write about here, but most of it will be totally new material, which means that my energy will need to be directed toward book-writing. But I know I'll have plenty to say that won't be book-related, and lucky me, I have a space to say it in! So the next couple of months, you may see me playing around in this space to figure out what works to keep the blog a place of joy for me (and hopefully you too) while making progress on the book.

And soon enough, I'll be using this space to solicit readers' thoughts about specific book-related topics, so stay tuned!

Friday, April 5, 2013

On POTUS's Benign Sexism

I wasn't going to comment on President Obama's "best-looking attorney general" comment directed toward Kamala Harris, figuring that everyone else on the internet would do so (and heaven forbid there be redundancy on the internet!), but at the gym a debate about it came onto the little TV screen and something caught my eye: The defenses of the comment were along the lines of, It was a joke, or it was a compliment, or they've worked together for years, they're friends, for chrissakes, or But Obama is an advocate for women. The specifics varied, but the essence was: Obama is on women's side, particularly this woman's side, so why is anyone up in arms about this?

What that line of questioning ignores is what actually happens in the anatomy of a compliment. It takes for granted that if you're saying something nice, it can't be sexist, or at least not the bad kind of sexism. And while it's true that the speaker of a compliment may have genuinely positive intentions, as we see here, the space between speaker and receiver is far from linear. Because this is what most men—even the genuinely well-meaning ones, the ones who, say, make their first act of presidency a decidedly feminist one—can understand in a scientific context but not in a personal one: The act of observation changes that which is being observed. The minute I know I am being looked at, even in a complimentary way, I change. Perhaps my walk changes; maybe I sway my hips a little more. Perhaps my shoulders hunch, or my gaze becomes averted. Maybe I take it in stride and wonder why, weeks later, I suddenly become flustered and lose my train of thought when talking with the observer. Maybe I feel just the slightest twinge of apprehension every time I talk to the person I know has looked at me, has evaluated me; maybe I don't feel it at all, but rather just experience its effects in dragging my feet in returning a voicemail, or in looking forward to the glint I might notice in the observer's eye when he looks at me, or in noticing the next time he compliments my coworker and wondering whether I should feel relieved that I'm not the specimen of the day—or insulted that this time, it wasn't me.

In other words: I cease being as efficient at whatever the task at hand is. When it's a partner telling us we're the best-looking blogger/cook/shoe saleswoman/attorney general in the country, efficiency isn't the point. When it's a colleague—when it is the President of the United States—it is.

The evaluation itself is besides the point in the ways it might affect me, or any woman—I mean, sure, most of would rather hear that we look smashing than that we look dreadful, of course. But the effect of both comments might wind up being more closely related than the speaker ever intended. Compliments of this sort are called "benign sexism," a term I like in that it shows that even allies can engage in it, but in truth it is anything but benign, even when the effect winds up being satisfactory. It's just that instead of being the stab of hurt that something like, "Hey, fatty" might bring, it's a slower effect, one we might not even notice until it's too late.

Beauty Blogosphere 4.5.13

Since I'm only now beginning to acknowledge the reality that Google Reader is disappearing—it took me six years to deal with Prescriptives discontinuing their concealer pencil, so this is swift for me—I've also taken a good look at my blog feed and have realized it could use a renewal. I love being able to direct you to so many blogs I adore, and I'll keep doing so, but let's reverse the information flow for a bit. What blogs or news sources do you turn to for sharp, insightful takes on beauty, fashion, femininity, feminism, social criticism, or anything else that might be relevant to The Beheld?

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

Spotted on Princess Beatrice.

From Head...
Kale humor:
 Kale fascinator! I don't care if this was an April Fool's joke, I'm in. (Actually, this was a big week for kale, and possibly jokes about kale: The last question on this "do you have orthorexia?" quiz is "Do you enjoy kale?"—because clearly kale cannot be enjoyed unless one has an eating disorder. Atossa floated the idea that it's a joke, which I hope it is, but the rest of the piece is totally straight so I'm not sure. Thoughts?)

...To Toe...
Pedi protection: These look sorta silly, but they could be worse—and for impatient types comme moi, these pedicure protector shells could come in super-handy.

...And Everything In Between:
The house that soap built:
The palatial erstwhile home of James Gamble, creator of Ivory Soap and son of the original Gamble of Procter &, was demolished this week in a suburb of Cincinnati.

Family values: An Avon lady won a suit against the company after her manager told her, "If you wish to have a family life, this is not the job for you"—meaning that she was expected to put in 60 hours a week instead of the 40 she'd been doing when she was promoted to area manager. I've championed Avon and other woman-helmed cosmetics companies before for being family-friendly, so this is particularly aggravating. 

When plaintiffs cry: Prince (as in the artist formerly known as The Artist Formerly Known as Prince) has settled a lawsuit with a company that claimed he reneged on their fragrance licensing deal.

Qu'est-ce que c'est?: Add this to the list of ways America's national girl-crush on France manifests itself: L'Oréal is attributing its recent growth to its "Made in France" line.

"Never fool with bacon": Most were amused by Procter & Gamble's April Fool's joke campaign for bacon-flavored Scope. Here are 10 people who weren't. 

Heads-up to all my Greek neo-Nazi followers: Your leader is urging you to boycott Estee Lauder products after the chairman of the board, Ronald Lauder, stated that Greece should ban Golden Dawn, the fast-growing neo-Nazi political party that enjoys a public support rating of 11.5%. If flying the flag of fascism is more important to you than buying as much M.A.C. lip liner as you damn well please—well, I can't stop you, but one of us will have nicely lined lips, and it ain't you, so just think about that, mmmkay?

Sixty-nine percent of Vikings report that ale wenches influence how they style their body hair.

Hair/style: The buried lede on this piece about how the men's personal care sector is recruiting women as spokespeople, presumably because men pretty themselves up to impress women: The new term for manscaping is body hair styling. Styling! I'm picturing love beads and beard braids à la Vikings.

Who took my body wash?: You know how men's grooming products are now suddenly huge? Turns out that what's actually new here is men buying products for men instead of just borrowing from the ladies.

On your toes: Abu Dhabi woman files complaint against a beauty salon she claims burned her toe during a pedicure. "The complainant, who is in her 20s and wears an abaya, says she shows very little of her body in public and should at least be able to show her toes. 'I want to show my toes in public and cannot ... my big toe is still red after all these months.'"

In my skin: Those of you who are in New York should check out the current show at Garis and Hahn gallery on the Lower East Side. "Borderline" is a collection featuring "an intimate examination of skin in different manifestations." Those of you who aren't in New York can read about a beauty editor's take on the show at Beautycism.

Big girl pants: Shock! Awe! Female superheroes in pants!

"This was about me being me": Britt Julious has an excellent piece on what's seen by some (including her) as an overpoliticization of black women's hair—a politicization that forgets that at the root of said politics lies the matter of personal agency. (Her follow-up is worth a read too.)

Geek alert: Get the look: Game of Thrones. (via Venusian Glow)

Gone blue: Begins as a nail polish review of a shade called BSOD—Blue Screen of Death—and ends as a mini-history of computer color graphics cards.

What a waste: This 8-foot-high sculpture made of lipstick tubes raised the Makeup Museum curator's critical eyebrow (and my own too): It's meant to raise consumer awareness of environmental waste. Yay for thinking about the impact of our purchases and all that, but choosing something as gendered as lipstick to use to illustrate the point seems...well, a little lady-blamey, oui? (Although I'd happily jump on a campaign to ban civilian Hummers, and that's pretty damn gendered too, but the environmental impact is also roughly eight gazillion times greater, so.)

Mirror challenge!: I know plenty of you reading this are bloggers, so here's your call to arms: If Kjerstin Gruys went a year without mirrors (and yours truly went a month, twice at that!), surely you can go a day without 'em and write about your experiences, right? More details here.

"Pics or it didn't happen": The rise of the "ugly selfie"—and how it's not necessarily as courageous as it might seem to post them. "More confronting than the intentionally 'ugly' selfie is the unintentionally ugly candid. If I take a picture of myself poking my tongue out, scrunching up my face, or pulling my neck in to create a double chin, it does little to threaten my sense of self or attractiveness. In some respects, it is even less threatening than a conventionally attractive 'selfie,' in which I am declaring, without explicitly saying so, that this is a photo in which I think I look good. .. But in a photo that is taken unawares, in which I am staring blankly at my computer, or standing at an unflattering angle, or just caught making a less-than-flattering expression, there is the suggestion that perhaps that is what I 'really' look like."

Speaking of selfies: Mr. Teacup muses on why we decry the narcissism of self-portraits without dropping the beauty standard that plays into that narcissism in the first place (and in doing so, brings readers to a CBC debate on the topic—which is all well and good and features Sarah Nicole Prickett, who consistently has interesting things to say, but given that so much of the criticism about selfies is directed toward women, I can't help but wonder why she was the only female guest panelist. Picky, I know, but that's me).

Speaking of selfies again: Blisstree's Carrie Murphy has a crankily hilarious post about the tin-ear pitches she gets from plastic surgery PR folks. (One of which involved tips from a plastic surgeon on how to look better in selfies. Presumably at least one of the tips is, Get plastic surgery?)

One less worry: Taking "empowering" beyond a buzzword about beauty and fashion, here's Sally: "We live in a world that frequently evaluates women based on our looks and, if those looks are found to be somehow lacking, dismisses us. ... To help women have one less thing to worry about as they chase their dreams, rise to power, or express their creativity is to help them tap a vast reservoir of potential."

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Wearing Stigma

Yes, there's actually a board game called Fashion Rules.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this Sociological Images post on managing stigma in the weeks since I first read it. I was struck by an anecdote it relates from journalist Brent Staples, a 6’2” black man, on why he started whistling classical tunes when walking down the street at night: “Virtually everybody seems to sense that a mugger wouldn’t be warbling bright, sunny selections from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.” It provoked an instant sympathy—I sometimes find myself whistling without realizing I’ve started doing so, a habit I picked up from my father (who, like me, looks white), and the thought of using it as a tool of “I’m OK, you’re OK” sent a small stab through me.

But sympathy wasn’t necessarily the idea Lisa Wade was pursuing here; instead, she was writing of how stigma management calls attention to the ways that race, class, and gender are, among other things, performances: “In order to tell stories about ourselves, we strategically combine these things with the meaning we carry on our bodies.” And what sort of body is more loaded with meaning than that of a young woman? It’s impossible to think of the performance of femininity without considering the ways that the performance is an exercise in stigma management. And it's impossible to think of the ways women manage the stigma of their bodies without looking at fashion and beauty.

You’ll rarely see the word stigma in a fashion magazine, to be sure (though it could be a great brand name—“introducing Stigma by John Varvatos”), but so many fashion “rules” are simply sets of guidelines to managing the connotations of womanhood. The shorter the skirt, the lower the heel. The smokier the eyes, the more neutral the mouth. The tighter the pants, the more billowy the shirt. The more colorful the top, the plainer the bottom; the bigger the earrings, the smaller the necklace; the bolder the nail polish, the shorter the nail. I’ve seen all of these “rules” written out in fashion magazines and the like (which isn’t to say that there aren’t plenty of contradictory “rules” or guidelines on how to best break those rules, but these are generally considered to be within “good taste” instead of being fashion-forward), and what stands out isn't so much the rules themselves as the fact that they're presented without explanation. You're supposed to know inherently why you wouldn't pair a short skirt with high heels, a loud lipstick with a dark eye.

Now, some of these rules make a certain amount of visual sense: If you’re trying to showcase a gorgeous pair of earrings, wearing a bunch of other jewelry will just compete for attention. But other rules make visual sense only because we’ve adopted a collective eye that codes it as “right”—anything else betrays our sense of propriety. A micromini with four-inch heels? Coded as tramp. It doesn’t matter if the visual goal is to lengthen your legs, or if the woman next to you garnering not a single sneer is wearing a skirt just as short with a pair of low-heeled boots. You’ve failed to manage the stigma of womanhood correctly. You haven't made the right choices, the right tradeoff. You haven't found that ever-present marker of "good taste": balance. And while there are all sorts of stigma attached to womanhood, none is so heavily managed and manipulated and contradictory and constantly on the edge of imbalance as sexuality.

Complicating sexual stigma is something that’s closer to the permanence of race or ethnicity than these other fashion dilemmas are. (After all, fashion is a choice. You might be subtly punished for opting out of it altogether—or loudly punished for opting in but doing it wrong—but at least there’s a degree of control there.) If your body type is coded in a particular way, you’ve got a whole other set of stigma to deal with*. As Phoebe Maltz Bovy pointed out during her guest stint here, “[S]tyle 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.” A woman with small breasts and narrow hips has more freedom to wear low-cut tops in professional situations without raising eyebrows, because there’s less stigma to manage. A woman in an F-cup bra with hourglass curves? Not so much. Witness the case of Debralee Lorenzana, the Citibank employee who was fired for distracting the male employees with her wardrobe—which, on a woman without Lorenzana’s figure, would be utterly unremarkable, and, more to the point, unquestionably work-appropriate. Her failure, as it were, lay not in her clothes but in not “properly” managing the stigma that her figure brought. (And when it came out that she’d had plastic surgery, including breast implants, internet commenters around the world engaged in a collective forehead slap.)

Certainly there are women who consciously break away from the fashion "rules" of stigma management, even if they don't think of it in those terms. I've always had an admiration for those women—whether they're opting out of the performance altogether by not engaging in beauty work, or whether they're turning their persona into a performance art piece of sorts by going over-the-top with femininity. (That is: I sometimes wish I had the guts to be what you might call tacky.) But I'm not one of those women; I do play by the rules. If a skirt fails the "fingertip rule," I pair it strictly with flats—and in fact, the number of those skirts in my wardrobe dropped considerably after I turned 30, not through any conscious decision but through the sort of subtle shift in my own guidelines that makes up the bulk of stigma policing. I know myself well enough to know that I'm not about to start challenging the stigma of femininity by breaking the rules. But I can't help but wonder what would happen if we started thinking of fashion "rules" as neither arbitrary guidelines dreamt up by ladymag editors nor as a way to bring aesthetic harmony to our appearance, but rather as a set of social dictates that carve out a space of "acceptable" womanhood for us. My first thought is that if we started looking at fashion rules in that way, we might be able to better call attention to the stigma of inhabiting a female body between the ages of 12 and 50, and eventually demolish that stigma. But then I wonder if there's a sort of comfortable safety within those rules—if, in fact, the women who go over-the-top are doing so exactly because it's a flouting of the rules, and if self-expression might ebb in importance if we didn't have boundaries to constantly push up against. What would we lose by dropping the fashion guidelines that police the stigma of womanhood? And what would we gain?

* In looking at my blog feed the other day, I noticed that I read a surprisingly large number of blogs written for busty women, given that I’m not one myself. But in this light, it makes sense: Many women with large breasts—particularly those who don’t wish to “minimize” their chests—have had to deal with a level of sexualization that my B-cup sisters and I don’t, or at least not in that particular way. So it only makes sense that bloggers who have had to think about their self-presentation in this way might have a good deal of sociological insight that comes out through their writing—which is exactly what I turn to blogs like Hourglassy and Braless in Brasil for, despite the fashions therein not being right for my frame. Consider this my official cry for small-breasted bloggers to take up the cause! C’mon, ladies, I want your insight and your tips on how to find a wrap dress that doesn’t make me feel like a 9-year-old!