Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Invited Post: Gilding the Lily

A theory blog that promises to examine "why it matters so much to be beautiful, and why we have these particular ideas of what beauty is"—well, can you think of any reason not to read it? When I found Carina Hart's wonderful blog, Beautiful in Theory, I was thrilled to find a kindred spirit who loves to marry beauty with unlikely concepts. Whether she's looking at the "Frankenbabe" idea in which women are looked at as parts instead of a whole, examining how individual women have shaped our narratives of beauty with her "Biographies of Sin and Beauty", or considering the noteworthy lack of boobs in Scandinavian noir television, she's consistently seeking out alternate perspectives on beauty, helping each of us continue to form our own theory on beauty. Her work is informed by the research behind her PhD at the University of East Anglia (UK), which she devoted to studying images of beauty in post-1980 fiction. And we're lucky that Beautiful in Theory doesn't stop there. I'm fortunate enough to host a guest post from Carina today.

Why do we consider skin to be the barrier of "permissible" beauty work?

Recently I got into an argument with a male friend who couldn’t see the difference between makeup, clothes, and jewelery when it came to beauty work and feminism. I thought the difference was obvious, but being forced to explain it properly I settled on the argument that it came down to adornment vs alteration. Makeup sits right on your skin and changes the way you look, and it isn’t always easy to see that it’s there. Clothes can alter your shape and general appearance, but they are more separate from you than makeup; jewelery is more separate still, not actually changing the way you look but merely adorning you with sparkles.

At the time I was quite pleased with this argument, but now I wonder. When does adornment become alteration? I’m not sure that the boundary is as clear as I had assumed—after all, do we then have to draw a distinction between BB creams and bright red lipstick, on the grounds that lipstick is obvious and artificial, and therefore falls more into the adornment camp, whereas BB cream is a deceptive alteration of your skin (or at least its appearance)?

I’ve certainly never heard anyone argue that wearing jewelery is part of the patriarchal oppression of women by pressuring them to be beautiful. But it is something that women do, with the purpose of enhancing their beauty. Does that mean a feminist should rethink her earrings, giving them the same weight of consideration many might give makeup?

I think that skin is the key player here. Skin is the barrier between inside and outside, and making changes inside the skin is a more difficult, committed, and often more permanent process than an outside change: say, liposuction vs Spanx. This barrier is also crucial to the way we think about beauty work, so that cosmetic surgery has a much higher moral, emotional, and political charge than a wardrobe makeover. We have this potent desire for self-transformation, but in practice a truly drastic, inside-and-out transformation makes us queasy as well as some combination of impressed, fascinated, and jealous. 

Of course our sense of self is heavily invested in our bodies, and it is intensely disconcerting to adjust our sense of our own identity or someone else’s after a dramatic physical change. We may say that beauty is on the inside, that it’s someone’s personality that makes them who they are, but we find it extremely difficult to separate identities from bodies. I guess that’s why we keep saying those things, because we want them to be more true than they are.

That’s probably also why we are uncomfortable with under-the-skin, invasive changes like surgery, and why we’re likelier to brand it as “bad” beauty work. But diets are equally internal processes, and while we may tsk-tsk diets as a form of policing women’s bodies, we don’t quite put it in the same camp as cosmetic surgery. This is where another binary comes out to play: natural and artificial. This has been around for centuries, and the best example comes from way back in 1734, when Jonathan Swift wrote a delightful poem called “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed.” Starting with the lovely “Corinna, Pride of Drury Lane” retiring to bed, Swift proceeds to deconstruct her beauty both literally and figuratively:

Then, seated on a three-legg'd Chair,
Takes off her artificial Hair:
Now, picking out a Crystal Eye,
She wipes it clean, and lays it by.
Her Eye-Brows from a Mouse's Hyde,
Stuck on with Art on either Side,
Pulls off with Care…

… You get the picture. Swift’s deconstruction is intended to reveal the artifice of feminine beauty, and it achieves its discomfiting effect by messing with that questionable boundary, the skin. Hair, eyes, and brows are features with whose alteration we are familiar—hair coloring, makeup, brow plucking—but Swift takes this a step further and makes them completely artificial. Corinna’s eyebrows, instead of growing out of her skin and then being enhanced, are actually glued-on bits of mouse hide, both separate from and part of her body in a very disturbing way. The skin is an unreliable barrier, and I think we would prefer that it wasn’t.

Inside and outside, natural and artificial: As soon as you examine these concepts closely they start to unravel. What about the fact that much of the food we now eat can hardly be described as natural? What about vitamin pills? Does a facial count as inside or outside? What about diets promising glowing skin as their main benefit, or pills promising healthier hair? Is long-term skin maintenance with SPF and moisturiser natural or artificial? How about piercings and tattoos? Sheesh.

Donna Haraway’s famous “Cyborg Manifesto” (1985) uses the cyborg as an “ironic political myth” to describe the way traditional human boundaries are coming unstuck. Human-animal, human-machine, inside-outside, natural-artificial: It is even more true now than it was in 1985 that we live within very blurred lines. Photoshopped selfies of ourselves in Spanx and full makeup are fast becoming the foundation of our identities, in our virtual-real lives. It’s funny how “natural” used be the ideal image of beauty—though frequently with artificial help, beauty was at least supposed to look spontaneous. Now “natural” can be used as a word of dread, deployed by glossy magazines to describe the nightmare in which someone sees you sans foundation; or it’s a word used to sell BB creams and other faux-natural effects. Artificial is all the rage, in our eyelashes, hair color and extensions, nails and tans.

Does this matter? It certainly did to Jonathan Swift, and it did to Naomi Wolf, who argued in The Beauty Myth how useful the artificial beauty ideal is to patriarchal capitalism. It does cost women a lot of time and money. Haraway’s open-minded discussion of the cyborg is a good counterpoint to the knee-jerk fear surrounding any threat to traditional ideas of what it is to be human, and if a decent SPF face cream and some vitamin pills make me a cyborg then I’m fine with that (yes, there are better reasons to embrace cyborg life, such as prosthetic limbs, but hey). 

And if an acceptance of our “posthuman” cyborg existence (Haraway again) helps us become less squeamish about the unpredictable boundary of our skin, then that is also good. It might mean that we can question the role of surgery, dietary supplements, and makeup in our world in a more clear-minded way, and perhaps make our relationship with beauty less fraught. At the moment I think that we do judge beauty work partly by where it sits on the spectrum between adornment and alteration, and that it is definitely a problem when societal pressure makes people want to change themselves from the inside out. It would take at least another essay to discuss that other unreliable binary, free and unfree choice, to determine the motives for the beauty work that we do (am I really plucking my eyebrows for me? Really?), and all beauty work comes under the shadow of oppression along with its undeniable joys.

But I still think earrings are OK.


Carina Hart is the mind behind Beautiful in Theory.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Nerd Sex Symbol Redux

A few more thoughts on why there isn’t a female “nerd sex symbol” equivalent of Neil deGrasse Tyson, i.e. an average-looking woman who is seen as a sex symbol because of her excellence in an area having nothing to do with looks:

• Maybe we have plenty of average-looking female sex symbols—but they’re just wearing makeup. As Helen points out, it’s far easier for a woman who’s average-looking to transition into good-looking than it is for a man to do the same. Yes, a man can be groomed and styled, and if he’s in the public eye he’s probably experienced enough with concealer and powder, but the average guy just doesn’t have as many options for self-transformation as women do. A good makeup artist can visually whittle your nose, widen your eyes, and lift your cheekbones, and you don’t even need anything beyond basic know-how to redden your lips and emphasize or darken your eyes, two things that are considered attractive in women. Plus, it’s not all that hard for an average-looking woman to code herself as pretty, or to be coded as such by media handlers: Put on a dress and heels, clean up your hair, throw on some makeup, show some cleavage. On women who are downright weird-looking this might backfire, sure, and depending on the field the woman is in, her dolling-up might discredit her or at least raise some eyebrows. (Remember Hillary Clinton’s cleavage?) In short: Maybe there aren’t average-looking female sex symbols because they’ve been styled in such a way that obscures their averageness. Which leads to...

• We don’t let famous women be, or stay, average-looking. Child star turned mathematician Danica McKellar was mentioned on Twitter a couple of times as an example of a “nerd crush.” Yet as I noted in my original post, she’s done plenty of promotional work showcasing herself as a traditional sex symbol; her academic accomplishments add to the package as opposed to forming the bulk of it. But when I look a little more closely, I wonder if McKellar is more of an example of our tendency to sexualize any woman who’s remotely attractive under the age of, oh, 50. Obviously McKellar is conventionally good-looking, but she became the crush of every heterosexual 12-year-old boy in America because of her approachable, girl-next-door appeal—an appeal that precludes the sort of beauty that would likely see her cast as the traditional “hot girl,” both then and now. It’s also worth noting that despite her willingness to market herself as sexy, she hasn’t had tons of Hollywood success as an adult, and—ugh, I hate critiquing people’s looks but in order to discuss these issues there’s a certain amount of it that I do, so bear with me—I can’t help but wonder if part of that is because she’s basically a nice-looking, normal-looking woman who doesn’t quite fit the usual starlet mold. In fact, this quality is part of what cements her as a “nerd sex symbol”; as Navneet points out, you have to straddle the line of sexiness and approachability in order to be seen as “one of us” by nerd culture at large. It’s not just McKellar’s math skills; it’s her specific brand of appeal that puts her in the “nerd sex symbol” camp.

McKellar is an example of someone who wears the halo of beauty despite not being quite conventionally beautiful—which has kept her in the public eye, making her an example of someone who has successfully capitalized upon our tendency to sexualize accomplished women. But you hardly need to pose in Maxim to see the phenomenon, or to see individual women’s willingness to play along—Tina Fey’s career skyrocketed after she lost 30 pounds; news commentator Greta van Susteren was hired by Fox as an utterly average-looking woman, but by the time she started she’d gotten some cosmetic surgery. I’m not criticizing Fey or Susteren for that any more than I’m criticizing McKellar for posing in lingerie; it’s a logical response to being a well-known woman. If you know you’re going to be judged for your looks even if they’re beside the point, or if you’re just trying to become well-known in the first place, you might well feel that looking your best might help streamline any distractions from the work you’re trying to share with the world. 

But more importantly, as Rachel puts it, “Our definition of ‘average’ is a lot more forgivable when it comes to men.” It’s precisely because women have more means to leap from “average” to “pretty” that we’re more forgiving of men’s averageness. If he looks utterly pedestrian, that’s just how he looks; if she does, while some of us will champion that, others will think, How hard is it to put on a little lipstick, lady?

• Maybe Neil deGrasse Tyson’s sudden sex symbol status is part of a long tradition of hypersexualizing black men. Now, I’m pretty sure most of us crushing on deGrasse Tyson while learning about the secrets of the universe aren’t sitting there dreaming about some of the more indelicate qualities frequently ascribed to black men. But the fact is, given how far we still have to go before we achieve racial equality, sex appeal is one area where black men are, if not overrepresented, at least more proportionally represented than they are compared to being, say, senators. Part of this is because of the history of black folks in entertainment, since entertainers are in a prime position to be sexualized. But part of the hypersexualization of black men is far darker: Our culture tends to paint black men as sexual aggressors, and we still tend to equate masculinity with sexual aggression. This flies in the face of deGrasse Tyson’s actual affect—engaging but mild, eager yet seemingly just a tad unsure of himself. But perhaps the idea of black men as cocksure imbues his public persona with a sex appeal we might not be quite as willing to give him were he not African American.

• Maybe sex symbols—like news streams, entertainment, and just about anything else in an age when we can curate our information to the nth degree—are becoming more and more diffuse. After my last post, plenty of men and women came up with examples of women who are seen as attractive because of the work they do, from musician Tori Amos to gaming expert Leigh Alexander to Mythbusters’s Kari Byron to YouTube stars. All of these fit the criteria—attractive but not conventionally beautiful, admired for their skill or manner more than their looks. Yet my knee-jerk response was also that they weren’t so widely known, or so widely seen as a sex symbol, that they approached the levels of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s appeal. But now I’m wondering if it’s actually that deGrasse Tyson is a unique case here: He’s the star of a show that is an enormously coordinated effort among the Fox channels; Cosmos premiered on 10 networks. Not many shows receive that kind of roll-out. Part of the “nerd sex symbol” thing is being outside mainstream Hollywood, but most people who achieve fame outside of that framework have a smaller audience than deGrasse Tyson does with Cosmos. Truth is, it’s hard to think of a male equivalent of Neil deGrasse Tyson. I still think we give more leeway to men to be sexy while being average-looking or even odd-looking than we give women. (Exhibit A: Benedict Cumberbatch.) But once you break out of the realm of the widely famous—who are often the widely conventionally attractive, for both sexes—appeal becomes more and more fragmented. It’s interesting that there isn’t a normal-looking woman who isn’t getting headlines as a “nerd sex symbol.” But the collage of women individual straight men have qualified as such points as much to the phenomenon of sub-sub-sub-subcultures as it does to our cultural unwillingness (as opposed to our individual willingness) to deign normal-looking women as sexy.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Nerd Crushed: Where Are the Average-Looking Female "Sex Symbols"?

Around the time I started “casually” walking by the home of a man who gave me my one and only skydiving lesson, I realized one of the factors that makes me find someone attractive: If I watch a man do something he’s good at and loves to do, it's likely I’ll develop a little crush on him. It’s not a sexual crush necessarily, nor is it a crush that I’d actually act on—in fact, much of the time the object of my crushdom is someone I know full well I’d have no interest in otherwise. Most of the time the crush doesn’t persist past the moment (the skydiving instructor was an outlier, because, I mean, the dude jumps out of planes on purpose). My minute-long crushes are usually an acknowledgement that watching someone at their best makes them attractive, regardless of their attractiveness overall.

So of course, midway through watching the premiere of the rebooted Cosmos, I’d developed a crush on its host, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. His barely-contained eagerness to share the secrets of the universe, his slightly jumpy demeanor, the liquid pools of his warm brown eyes—if he hadn’t had me there, he’d have gotten me with his tear-jerker anecdote about being hosted for the day as a 17-year-old kid from the Bronx by his hero, Carl Sagan. 

Now, I may understand the drive behind my own mini-crushes, but I also know that my predilection has led me to some highly unlikely crushes; I had a photo of Tom Brokaw hanging in my locker in seventh grade. But I’m used to those crushes being seen as sort of idiosyncratic—let others have their obvious Clooneys and Pattinsons, I’ll stick with the unexpected, thanks. So when I searched for what other viewers were saying about deGrasse Tyson, I didn’t think I’d find that just as we’re not alone in this universe, I wasn’t alone in my crush. Neil deGrasse Tyson, according to Twitter, is everything from a “science crush” to a “nerd crush” to a “celebrity crush.” He’s “superhot” and “handsome,” making us “hot and bothered,” what with his “sci-sexy” “sexy voice” and general “hotness.” In fact, he was once listed in People’s annual Sexiest Man Alive list as the Sexiest Astrophysicist, is routinely listed as a “nerd sex symbol” in headlines, and has been asked about his sex appeal to the point where he even has the crushworthiest response possible ready at hand: “When you tell people something that's intellectually delectable, they can feel sensually towards it. But I think at the end of the day, the object of their affection is the universe." (Swoon!) Point here is: My NDT crush isn’t idiosyncratic, offbeat, unexpected, or unlikely in the least. The man isn’t just a little crush of mine; he’s a bona fide sex symbol, regardless of whether it’s qualified by the word nerd.

I think it’s splendid that so many people are freely acknowledging what most of us already know from our own experience: Sex appeal isn’t strictly tied to conventional good looks, and average-looking people can become immensely attractive in our eyes if we find their other qualities appealing. I mean, Neil deGrasse Tyson is nice-looking enough, but I doubt he’d be seen as “handsome” or “superhot” were it not for his other gifts. (Sure, there’s an argument there about the dangers of labeling everything appealing as “sexy” and why a good astrophysicist can’t just be a good astrophysicist in peace—but really, it’s the quieter sort of sex appeal that has made us humans keep propagating the species, so I’m all for it.) I mean, who among us hasn’t experienced an unlikely flutter of the heart or loins in watching someone blossom before our eyes in a single moment? A headline proclaiming an utterly normal-looking man as a “sex symbol” of any sort means that we as a culture are eager to see beyond the surface when it comes to human appeal.

But when I tried to think of a woman who is widely seen in the same light, I came up short. Sure, there are plenty of well-known women who are seen as “nerd crushes” because they speak of their nerdy interests (like Mila Kunis) or are involved with nerd culture in the sense that they go to Comic Con. Then there are the women who have been christened as “the thinking man’s sex symbol,” like Tina Fey, Sarah Silverman, Susan Sarandon, and Rachel Weisz, all of whom may be excellent performers and writers, and all of whom are also pretty much exactly the definition of the beauty standard, even if they’re not as cheesecake-perfect as sex symbols who don’t usually garner the prefix of “thinking man’s.” Sarah Palin of all people is actually the closest I can think of, in that she's a well-known woman viewed as attractive in a field where you don't have to be a professional beauty to succeed—but besides the fact that her sex appeal became a tool of ridicule, she was literally a beauty queen, hardly landing her in the same camp as Neil deGrasse Tyson. (Also, she’s Sarah Palin, but whatevs.) Google turns up a few other women labeled “thinking man’s sex symbol” who aren’t entertainers—writer Jhumpa Lahiri, Sheryl Sandberg—which come closer to the spirit of the deGrasse Tyson phenomenon, but they’re acknowledged as sex symbols on a far smaller level. The point: Call her a nerd crush or the thinking man’s sex symbol—if she’s a woman, she’s still got to be pretty damned good-looking to get the title. I mean, when The Wonder Years child star Danica McKellar went on to be an advocate for girls in math, she was doing book promotion in lingerie. 

Just as we’d be unwise to blame individual men for patriarchal beauty standards, we can’t say that the lack of widely acknowledged atypical female sex symbols is a reflection of men’s abilities to see beyond the physical. Men are just as capable as women of finding someone attractive for reasons that have little to do with visual attraction, and I’ve heard plenty of individual men share their crushes on somewhat unlikely targets: soccer player Abby Wambach, economics blogger Megan McArdle, Broad City’s Ilana Glazer, poet Nikki Giovanni, and tennis player Martina Hingis before the makeover. An ex once sheepishly told me he had just a wee little crush on Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher, you know?

Still, collectively we’re slow to recognize the possibility of a female “sex symbol” who doesn’t possess the hallmarks of a traditional sex symbol. And to be clear, on its face this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I mean, the flipside here is that anytime a prominent woman does anything nifty, she’s suddenly a “sex symbol.” Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi: the Hill’s sex symbol! Doesn’t Alice Munro look hot as a Nobel laureate? By no means am I arguing that we should sexualize women’s accomplishments just so we can have a female equivalent of a Neil deGrasse Tyson. But the thing is, we already do sexualize accomplished women, assuming she’s conventionally attractive. What’s missing is room for a wider public acknowledgment of the enormous swath of qualities that make accomplished women attractive. We give it to the gents, and on an individual level we give it to women too. But when it comes to our culture—or hell, just Twitter—christening an utterly average-looking woman a sex symbol of any sort, we shy away from the possibility.

Basically, this is a version of the same old song—I mean, news flash, women are expected to look conventionally pretty. It’s just interesting to me that we as a culture are willing to go to greater lengths to extend the definition of attractive to include skill and charisma when we’re talking about men, but not so willing when we’re talking about women. Or are we? I’m hoping I’ve got a major blind spot here. Are there famous women I’m overlooking who are widely known as “sex symbols” despite not matching the definition of conventional beauty? I’d like to learn that I’m mistaken.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

News Flash! The Risks of Overreporting

Recovering from my hypothetical chemical peel. (Artist rendering.)

So as I mentioned last week, I recently had a medical procedure, uterine fibroid embolization. (I’m fine, just medically oversharing because given how common symptomatic fibroids are, I’m surprised I hadn’t heard of this procedure until I had to have it myself. Happy Fibroid Embolization Awareness Day!) My doctor had told me that I should plan the procedure for a time when I could afford to take two weeks off of work, since recovery varied from person to person and it could take that long before I felt back to 100%. I’m healthy and hardy and all that, so I guessed I’d fall on the earlier end of the spectrum, but still allowed myself two weeks of “freelancer medical leave” (i.e. no work, but no pay) just in case.

But then the thought hit me: Since I’d be in bed for a few days, and not wanting to stray too far from home after that, and wouldn’t be making any social or professional plans for two weeks, why not get a chemical peel too?! I didn’t know much about chemical peels, except that a beauty worker friend of mine said they were possibly the only thing that "really" could reverse skin damage, and that the way its patrons look afterward inspired a horror film on Arrested Development. For a few weeks post-peel, you look like...well, like you’ve just had your top layer of skin removed, which indeed is exactly what's happened. I just knew that I’d noticed more signs of aging, and that I’d started going down the rabbit hole of various creams and serums designed to prevent aging, and that it was a moment of weakness, and I rationalized that if I got a drastic facial treatment I wouldn’t “need” the serums and whatnot, and I could write about it too, and besides, it was a treat! (Because paying someone to pour acid on your face is a treat, of course. That’s another post.) I’d read about people getting small cosmetic procedures done at the same time as small medical procedures, and though it’s not like my radiologist was also going to be my facialist, I thought it was a time-saver, recovery-wise. It was my own way of crossing the line of medical spas and luxury spas—my very own, foolishly planned, DIY, weirdo procedure-recovery plan!

Now, unless my impression of myself is gravely mistaken, I’m not one to run out and try something just because the beautiful people are doing so. Nor am I slavish to new beauty treatments (except BB creams, which I love and will happily wax on about to you, were I a different sort of beauty blogger). No, my reason for suddenly wanting to do a treatment because it seemed situationally appropriate was both more opportunistic and more doltish than that: I knew it was something I could do, and in fact was something people do do, and since for the first time I’d be in a situation where I could do it myself, I just...sort of wanted to do it.

I didn’t do it, to be clear, after floating the idea by a friend who looked at me with a knitted brow and said, Why?, and when I found myself having to say out loud Because I won’t be doing much else for a couple of weeks and no other reason whatsoever, she kindly suggested I find another way to spend my money—even a pricey facial would do me more good, she pointed out, since I don’t have the sort of skin damage that would truly benefit from a chemical peel. (And it’s a good thing I didn’t, since my recovery from the embolization turned out to be just about a week long, hardly the amount of time I’d need to nicely recover from a chemical peel.)

My own simple-minded thinking is the root culprit here. But allow me to finger another cause: hype. I’d only considered the possibility of overlapping a hard-core beauty treatment with a soft-core medical one because I’d heard about people doing similar things—the postpartum abdominoplasty known as a “mommy tuck” comes to mind. It seems that now most doctors won’t do the “mommy tuck” until six months postpartum, but I remember seeing some trash “news”-type program years ago about the “trend” of getting a C-section and a tummy tuck done during the same hospital stay. Here’s the thing: I’m guessing that virtually every single woman, and every single doctor, who was willing to do such a thing, was featured on that news program. That is: It’s something that has been done, and is such an ill-advised thing for someone to do—yet is also something that nicely ties into tsk-tsking fears about “what society has become” or whatever—that it becomes magnified and overreported. Like Vajazzling.

But: We love stories about Vajazzling! We love stories about people who get cosmetic surgery to look like celebrities or anime characters. We love stories about mothers who are so addicted to tanning beds that she was charged with child endangerment for bringing her daughter into the tanning bed with her. We love stories about bagel head and vampire facials. Hell, we love stories we’ve definitively disproven, like the whole Cher-had-a-rib-removed-so-her-waist-was-smaller thing. People, we love stories about anal bleaching. 

There are two prime dangers here to hyping up beauty treatments beyond what they actually warrant, which at first seem diametrically opposed. The first problem: As with my opportunistic chemical peel, overreporting on drastic or silly things people do in the name of beauty can amp up the risk of otherwise sensible people considering actually doing such things. Because while some stories are indeed truly outliers (“tanning mom”), others, while not truly fads, are done in numbers great enough to be able to actually become trends if enough people believe it’s the thing to do. I mean, Vajazzle isn’t a Saturday Night Live sketch; it’s a company

The second danger is more problematic: It allows us to put distance between our own beauty work and beauty work that “crosses the line.” Bagel head is crazy; a little Juvederm isn’t so bad. Anal bleaching is ridiculous; a bikini wax is just upkeep. When we nibble on stories about extreme beauty treatments, or just dumb ones, we’re doing so in part out of discomfort with our own choices—and we wind up reinforcing the idea that ultimately, beauty work is a fool’s errand. I mean, not for me, but for her. As Virginia Sole-Smith put it in her post on “baby Botox,” “By focusing only on these extreme, headline-grabbing stories, we get to outsource the issue and blame the victims.” 

So yeah, like I said, these two problems seem opposed to one another. But I think they’re actually synthesized. Anytime we read about something extreme, most of us take one tiny step toward normalizing it. And once you take a tiny step toward normalizing something, it’s easier for it to take hold in your mind. For example: I'd never thought twice about the color of my teeth until I started reading about celebrities doing whitening treatments—and I never thought I’d do anything about it until I learned that normal people, as in not some lady in a magazine but good friends of mine who shared my general values, did something about it. (I stopped; I’m too cheap to do the real thing, and those gel trays are repulsive.) When we overreport—or overread reports—of beauty work that crosses the line, we nudge ourselves just a little bit closer to that line, until we have to come up with something even more extreme to serve as that line we daren’t cross. And so on, and so on, until we all have bleached assholes.

Speaking of which, if I am just a babe in the woods and this is something a good number of actual, normal, tax-paying, upstanding citizens do—please, I beg you, allow me this one stroke of blissful ignorance. Thank you, friend. Thank you.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

When Blogger Comes Marching Home

So! It seems my plan to "blog lite" while I finished the first draft of my book fell by the wayside the closer the deadline got. Perhaps some blogger-writers are able to blog as a way to relax after putting in their time writing in other forms, but that is not me. Cyberapologies all around; will you still have me?

In any case, I've finished the first draft of my book, and spending several months focused on essentially one task—which is a luxury I've never had before—has brought up a handful of thoughts related to what I write about here. And so, allow me to ease my way back into blogging with a smattering of thoughts, if you will? (As for returning to blogging, I am—I promise—but I need a short break from computers altogether, say, a week. I just didn't want to go for too long without updating!)

• For better or worse, I started wearing makeup to write. Not as a rule; it happened more by accident, as I put on makeup to go out for a coffee-shop writing session and then changed my mind at the last minute and stayed home. I found that then, when I'd get up for bathroom breaks, when I'd look at myself in the mirror I felt more...like myself, or like the image of myself I have in my mind. I felt less distracted by noticing little things that I usually "fix" with  makeup, like being pale-cheeked or having a constellation of acne scars. It wasn't like previously, I'd look in the mirror in the middle of a writing jag and then fixate on my image, but really, when I'm in the headspace to write, it's so easy for me to get off-track that I figured anything I could do to minimize distractions would be a good thing. I tried it again the next day and found that I focused a little better, that I felt more "on." 

I've argued before that makeup functions as a sort of signal of public life—zones outside of the private sphere require a different protocol than private spaces, and makeup can be one of the ways we delineate the two. I'm wondering if the end goal of the writing I was doing—a book, which will have a somewhat different audience than my blog, and which feels like a more public and permanent collection of What I Think About Beauty than my blog, which gives me plenty of room to change my mind—meant that I benefited from being in a more "public" space via makeup than I would from blogging? 

• My biggest motivation to not restrict my caloric intake is keeping a clear mind.  Moving in with my boyfriend has been great, but it's also eliminated the 20-minute walk between our former domiciles, and our mutual fondness for sweets has meant there's more candy lying around than I'd ever have living on my own. Take all that and the fact that I've spent the past couple of months basically doing nothing but sitting in a chair and writing, and it's inevitable that I'd gain a couple of pounds. I'd resigned myself to this and knew that writing a good book was more important than a number on a scale, so I'd promised myself that I wouldn't freak out if that happened. I also knew that if I gained more than "a couple of pounds" while writing this book it would be bad for me—it could trigger my history of disordered eating, it could make me have to spend money on new clothes, and it could affect my level of comfort in my own body. I'm not talking being artifically slim; I've found my "happy weight," and when I began writing the book, I was at it. (Speaking of "happy weight," I found an interesting calculator that asks a handful of questions and then crunches out a number. It's hardly super-scientific, but it's the first weight calculator I've seen that takes family history and lifestyle beyond exercise into account. As always, grain of salt.)

Point is, I knew that my meals were generally healthful and a good size, so when I started working on this book full-time I decided I'd keep my snacking in check and see how it went. And what I found was that if I didn't have a snack in the morning—which is my prime time for thinking and writing—I could neither think nor write. Thinking as hard as I can makes me seriously hungry—not mind-hunger, but actual stomach-rumbling, limbs-shaking hunger-hunger. (Which makes me wonder exactly what kind of "thinking" I've been doing for the 37 years up until this point if I'm only now discovering this, but that's another post.) Normally I wouldn't be hungry until around 1 p.m., but I found myself lightheaded if I didn't have a snack at 11, after writing for just a couple of hours. I tried drinking more coffee, I tried taking brisk walks, but they didn't help: I was genuinely, physically hungry, my brain wanted more glucose to do its thing, and there was no way around it. I knew that my biggest priority was to write the best book I could, while staying sane. Restricting calories would mean I wouldn't be doing either. And so, I didn't.

Like washing one's face, this is common sense to plenty of people. But it wasn't common sense to me, or to many people who have a history of disordered eating. I try not to get too into ED stuff on here because I'm wary of strengthening its connection to "beauty" in anyone's mind, including my own, but this was a serious "aha!" moment for me, so I'm sharing it: I knew that when I was seriously restricting calories, I was fatigued and lightheaded all the time, but that was because I was drastically undereating. I hadn't considered its corollary: If you're genuinely hungry, even if it's been just a couple of hours since you ate a full meal, not snacking is undereating. Simple to so many people, an "aha!" to another many altogether.

And two thoughts not related to book-writing, except that the latter explains why it will take me just a bit longer to get back to full speed here:

• Sometime beauty products can help even us skeptics. Or: You should really wash your face. This may seem to be basic truth to many! Not to me. When I stopped shampooing my hair for a spell a couple of years ago, I also stopped using any sort of cleanser on my face—I'd just rinse my face with water, morning and night, and then put on whatever treatments or makeup I wanted. I exfoliated a couple of times a week with baking soda, that was all. But on a whim I bought an exfoliating cleanser to see if it had any benefits not offered by baking soda, and sure enough, my skin started looking...cleaner, I guess? Which is what you'd expect with a cleanser. But also brighter, tighter-pored, a little more even, so while I don't use it every day, I use it probably 4-5 times a week. In typical contrarian fashion I'd decided that most basic products like face wash were basically hogwash and a waste of money. A sense of skepticism is a good thing when it comes to beauty, I think, but one can take it too far. So: Wash your damn face.

• My doctor told me not to wear makeup. Well, sort of. Tomorrow I'm having a minimally invasive medical procedure. (I'm fine, it's just uterine fibroids, which 20-30% of women have, but most of the time they're not symptomatic; mine are. And so, embolization.) I'll be under local anesthetic but also sedated. And as a part of prepping me for the procedure, the medical team advised the general—no eating or drinking after midnight, have someone to escort me home—but also the unexpected: no makeup! Apparently when you're under sedation, the medical team monitors your pallor as one sign of your overall well-being. If there's a problem with the anesthesia, your skin color is one of many signs that alerts the team that there's something amiss. Alas, I have nothing sociologically interesting to say about this, other than that I think it's a sign of progress that anesthesiologists recognize that women are half their patients and are expanding their pre-testing procedures accordingly. It wasn't so long ago that women weren't used equally in clinical trials for fear of fertility side effects. I don't know how much that extended to things like patient prep for anesthesia, but I thought it was interesting.