Thursday, May 29, 2014

You're Right, I Didn't Eat That

"The second best thing about fifth grade," writes Alana Massey, "is that nearly without exception, everyone in it is a hybrid monster sitting precariously on the border between childhood and adolescence which results in them doing uncomfortable things like still playing with Barbie but making her have multiple abortions." You see why I'm eager to share her work here, oui? Funny as her blog, Oh It's Just Awful, may be, it's her keen, pensive eye on human behavior that draws readers in. A graduate of New York University and Yale Divinity School, Alana has seen her work published at The Baffler, Religion Dispatches, Nerve, Jezebel, xoJane, Forbes, and more. Follow her on Twitter here.


I’d only dropped a couple of sizes but I was in an entirely new country.

There are a number of euphemisms for female thinness that do not require a man to make the impolite admission of his exclusive attraction to women with very little body fat. Though “active” and “full of energy” make respectable showings, they are a distance second and third from “a woman who takes care of herself.” It seems a benign enough request, but one quickly learns that this man is not especially concerned that she has regularly scheduled self-care sessions like time with friends or spa days with a good book. He isn’t asking that her household finances be in order and that she be self-actualized. He is asking her to be thin. When he says “herself,” he means “her body.” 

I am not especially bothered by men who desire thin women. They are just as susceptible to messages that these are the women that they should find most attractive as women are to messages that they should look like them. The more troubling kind of man has a caveat about a woman’s thinness. She must not be “obsessed” or “overly concerned” with it. Or at least not visibly so. She mustn’t always order salads or freak out when she doesn’t make it to the gym. Watching her eat a cheeseburger—or better yet, a steak—even oddly enthralls him. (I’m sure there’s a Freudian explanation about the appeal of watching big things go into small ones for that but I haven’t found it yet.) An Instagram trend of thin women posing with calorie-dense foods that functions partly to appeal to this desire has even made headlines recently as the “You Did Not Eat That” account has gained popularity. But the impulse to pretend is understandable. For a thin woman to betray the reality of her diet and regimen for staying that way would spoil the fantasy of a woman who is preternaturally inclined to her size rather than personally preoccupied by it. 

Men seeking this woman are not seeking a carefree attitude as much as they are seeking a biological anomaly. For the majority of women, being thin is something with which she must be overly concerned in order to achieve and maintain it. Being effortlessly thin is no more achievable through a charmingly carefree attitude than becoming green-eyed or double-jointed. And while naturally thin women exist, of course, their numbers cannot keep pace with the number of men that desire them. And so we must be overly concerned as quietly as possible. 

At a size 0 and a low BMI, I am frequently told by men, “I can tell you take good care of yourself.” This was not something I heard much for most of my adult-sized life when I was a few sizes larger. I was average and proportional. I worked out regularly and ate reasonably well. But I was never thin. And then in my mid-20s I had the good fortune to react to a breakup not with overeating or bad rebound sex but with exercise. Lots of it. And homemade juice. Lots of that too. Mostly that, really. Bones and sinew emerged. I got a thigh gap, that bizarre and coveted beauty feature defined by absence. The number on the scale dropped, then dropped more.

And though I never had trouble getting a respectable amount of romantic attention, at a size 0 it rushed in at such a volume and with such enthusiasm that it was difficult not to be taken aback. I always thought it was a melodramatic cliché when thin women said that the more they disappeared, the more visible they became, but it was now undeniable. Male acquaintances suddenly wanted to spend more alone time together. Compliments during sexual encounters that were once full of the word “beautiful” became dominated by mesmerized declarations about me being so “little” and “tiny.” Men suddenly felt comfortable telling mean-spirited jokes about overweight women and lamenting how poorly other women took care of themselves. I’d only dropped a couple of sizes but I was in an entirely new country. 

Covert concern about my body is easy to maintain in the dating phase of relationships. Men will touch a particularly small or toned part of me and remark, “Wow, you must work out.” Upon confirmation that I do, the most frequent reply is, “So what do you do, yoga?” It is generally safe to assume that such men have never practiced yoga. Yoga, in the minds of many straight men, is a placeholder for light but effective exercise done primarily by women. It is a sanitary practice, a form of exercise uncontaminated by sweat or gender-neutral footwear. Something that pretty girls do three times a week in flattering pants. But while the benefits of yoga are tremendous, it cannot turn overweight or average bodies into tiny ones. Real yoga—as opposed to cardio routines that borrow heavily from it—cannot create the calorie deficits required to be thin thin. Real thinness requires something much more brutal. 

For naturally average or heavy women, maintaining a thin physique means making a constant and careful calibration of physical activity and consumption. Too much caloric intake that isn’t rigorously accounted for with exercise produces undesirable weight gain. Too large a calorie deficit backfires with a slowed metabolism. Strength training causes more calories to burn while at rest but too much produces a muscled look, literally hard evidence that this is not the thinness of a carefree woman. It is not just a matter of what you eat and burn but also of making sure you’ve planned sufficient time for both, carefully anticipating social engagements, unforeseen late nights at the office, and illness. It is deeply disordered but not quite diseased and because the aesthetic is desirable when it only borders on worrying, it is presumed the result of good care. 

“What do you do?” women will often ask, perhaps in the hope that initiation into the secret society is by invitation from existing members. I have found that three syllables followed by an exclamation point is the most optimal response to deflect attention from the reality of your regimen. Lean protein! Barre method! Kale salads! Neurosis! Even if I were to neutrally report what I must really do, the overt concern would be evident by the sheer number of precautions and actions that must be taken on a daily basis. “Diet and exercise” can be used as deceptive shorthand because it doesn’t actually mean anything at all.

“Can’t you just skip the gym this once?” a man asked as he tugged at my forearm from the bed on a Saturday morning and remarked on the merits of brunch. The night before, he had remarked on the merits of the prominent female clavicle. I smiled and pulled away, saying I signed up for a class that required 90 minutes advanced notice for cancellation. Maybe next weekend? I did not say that I could not because I skipped the gym Thursday to console a friend. I did not say that I had already splurged on grapefruit juice instead of my usual seltzer the night before. I did not say that I would double my cardio all week in anticipation of not being able to ask what my food was cooked in or to have egg whites in front of him at brunch the following week. I wouldn’t want to bore him with the details of scheduled spontaneity.

“Come on, you don’t need to get any skinnier!” another man declared after I declined food during a camping trip where everything seemed to come either on a potato bun or drenched in mayonnaise. I didn’t mention that four days away from the gym was already dangerously close to compromising my progress. I didn’t scream, “Vacation is where skinny goes to die!” or any other troubling quote I had read on the many Tumblr accounts blurring the line between motivation and beratement. He knew that I had not always been this thin yet treated my getting that way as a single event that could not be undone, like getting past the age of 25 or earning a Bachelor’s degree. I wanted to tell him that getting thin was not terribly difficult, but that staying that way is another thing entirely. I wanted to say that as a complex living organism, the human body is on for twenty-four hours a day, ready to betray you at an astonishing speed for minor transgressions if you do not respect its hypersensitivity to what goes in and out of it. But that would sound so obsessed.

As relationships advance, romantic partners become visibly disappointed and even annoyed that maintaining thinness is not a matter of a quick jog and 100 crunches. When he goes to find a refrigerator staple like butter, I can claim I simply ran out the first time but I must eventually admit that I don’t keep it in my home. My getting up to run eight miles the morning after sleeping together is admirable in the beginning but becomes frustrating when it means he almost always wakes up alone. I fool no one when I claim that really, this salad made of translucent iceberg lettuce is my favorite menu option at the diner. Meals are never skipped but they are rarely thoroughly enjoyed either. Despite taking care never to mention the cycle of calculating, scheduling, and calibrating, there is a mountain of damning physical evidence.

The revelations are slow but they come. A calorie tracking mobile app has better real estate on my smartphone than my calendar. The sudden realization that I’ve never been “that hungry” when we go out. The suspicious number of claims I make about simply not liking universally popular foods. I’ll let the cable bill wait but my gym membership is on time, every time. But these symptoms do not aggregate into the appearance of a disease but rather, into a certain temperament. It makes them exclaim, “Relax!” rather than, “Get help.” The level of control the symptoms reveal hovers close to illness but doesn’t cross far enough over the line so as to become sad, merely unattractive. And it is easier to walk away from someone who is unattractive than someone who is sad.

Once on a first date, a man remarked on the dishonesty of online dating profile pictures and said, “You know this girl showed up and I thought, ‘What did you do, eat the girl in the pictures?’” He was not the first to make such a remark but I was so ambivalent on the possibility of seeing him again and it wasn’t even a good fat joke that I said, “I don’t like that joke. I used to be fat.” “Fat” was an exaggeration but “fatter” wouldn’t have put me in evident solidarity with this duplicitous overweight woman. Eyes that had been looking at me affectionately all evening became fearful and he asked, “Do you think you’ll ever gain it back?” Flattering as it can be to know that a man has already considered our long future together all the way into “ever,” I was mostly appalled at the transparency of the question. I considered the life expectancy of healthy women and the statistical probability of me having children and nodded my head. “Yeah,” I said, refusing to add, “But not anytime soon, I’m totally and completely obsessed with staying thin now that I know that the world is handed to me on a silver platter.”

It is the moments when they realize that thinness is so impermanent, a constant struggle against a metabolism and genetic composition that you’ve breathed sinister life into that they are disappointed. Realizing that thinness could easily be sabotaged by illness, injury, or age seems a strange revelation to have for people who also occupy human bodies but it seems a revelation nonetheless. So what I’ve been more disturbed to realize is that it is not the habits themselves that are unattractive, but their clear necessity. Watching me order kale all the time isn’t the hard part, it is realizing every time I do that the alternative could be disastrous. And so they seek a more carefree woman who possesses either enviable genetics or professional expertise at disguising her weight-related diligence. Someone who does not force them to confront the reality that her body can and will change.

And so I have become increasingly up-front that for me, it takes an enormous effort to stay small. That it takes up my time and energy and by extension, might end up taking some of theirs as well if we are together. I assure them that I want to stay that way more than I want anything else so not to worry too much about me “letting myself go.” Romantic relationships are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the rewards of thinness. But I let them know that when it comes to me being thin and carefree about it, they can’t have their cake and eat it too. But that they’re more than welcome to mine.


Edit: This is the first in a series on bodies and romantic relationships. For more entries, click here

Friday, May 9, 2014

On Ladymags and Liberty

A tale prompted by the Brooke Burmingham/Shape story, in which the magazine requested that Birmingham cover up her loose-skinned abdomen for a photo accompanying a story on her 170-pound weight loss:

Some years ago, I was freelancing at a women's magazine that did cute little "factoids" about staffers on the magazine's masthead, i.e. the "cast list" of all the editors and designers and other staff members—and, as at this magazine, freelance copy editors. That particular month, the "factoid" was to be "celebrity lookalikes," in which selected people on the masthead would share a celebrity comparison they'd heard about themselves.

I'd heard a smattering of celebrity lookalikes for myself over the years, but one immediately came to mind: Jack Palance. In college, one of my teachers said to me, apropos of nothing, "Something about you reminds me of Jack Palance"—as in then-octogenarian one-armed push-up performer Jack Palance of Shane, Halls of Montezuma, and City Slickers—which was hilarious. I submitted Jack Palance as my celebrity lookalike, partly in hopes that it would serve as an antidote to the string of other staffers who would be pointing out their resemblance to, say, Amanda Peet. (As it were, I underestimated at least one staffer, whose celebrity comparison was E.T.)

A few days later, a pert art assistant swung by my cubicle and asked if she could take a snapshot of me for the masthead. I knew that usually staffers supplied their own photos for such purposes, and asked why I needed my photo taken. She said as she took a couple of snapshots of me, "Oh, if we run it you can use whatever photo you want, but for now the editor just wants to make sure you're pretty enough that we can make a joke about you looking like Jack Palance." Cheese!

Left: Autumn Whitefield-Madrano. Right: Jack Palance.

*     *     *     *     *

My sympathies in the Birmingham/Shape bit instinctively go to Birmingham, for reasons that are too obvious to bother with here, though I will (perhaps tediously) point out the irony of a woman who is being hailed for her successful weight loss being asked to cover up one of the side effects of that very success. Seeing the loose flesh that often accompanies extreme weight loss doesn't neatly fit into the weight-loss-as-achievement narrative that magazines like Shape love to trumpet—in the photo in question, Birmingham is proudly smiling, showing that she doesn't consider her loose skin a detriment to her successful weight loss, but it does fly in the face of the idea that weight loss is some magic key to looking the way you've always dreamed.

Yet I have sympathy for the Shape editors as well. I've never worked at Shape, but I've worked at magazines like it, and while I'm hesitant to apply any one rule to any group of people, I will say that while the women's magazine industry attracts all sorts, one sort in particular they attract is someone who genuinely wants to make women's lives better. The ways different staff members might try to achieve that varies, but ladymags are pretty competitive, and most people don't just "fall into" them; they seek out these jobs, and it's often driven by a passion for women's issues, whether that be fitness or reproductive health or general health or politics or fashion or whatever.

But whatever role little-f or capital-F feminism plays in women's magazines, there's one way in which they will never be feminist, and that is their reliance on advertising. As long as a women's magazine depends upon advertising dollars to support its editorial content, it cannot be feminist. I say "women's magazine" in particular because most magazines rely upon advertising to stay afloat, but most magazines do not have to bend their editorial content in order to grease relationships with those advertisers. For the definitive breakdown of how this happens, read Gloria Steinem's brilliant "Sex, Lies, and Advertising" (PDF here), an essay about the early days of Ms. magazine and trying to get advertising dollars for it. In short: in women's magazines, there's an expectation that advertisers will get preferential treatment in editorial pages. A "beauty editor's secret find" might well be that individual's secret find; just as likely, it's an offering from a company that buys a lot of ad pages in the magazine. In the Ms. essay, Steinem lays out how these expectations were made explicit. I've never been privy to discussions at that level, so I have no idea how explicit those expectations are at ladymags today. What I do know is that most staff members understand that relationship at a level that they no longer think to question it: Of course, if company X needs a product mention on that page, we'll give it to them. Eyes might be rolled, but it stops there, because they—we—understand that that's just how it works.

So what does this have to do with Brooke Birmingham's loose flesh? Everything. If you accept the implicit (or explicit) condition that any part of your content can be dictated by advertisers, you cannot keep the reader's needs as the sole priority of your work. That's not to say that editors don't do excellent work that benefits the reader; they do, all the time. But once advertiser needs encroach upon editorial liberty, your own liberties as an editor feel encroached upon, even if they're not directly touched by advertisers. You begin to make preemptive decisions to avoid trouble, knowing that you have to choose your battles—whether to your top editor, or the editor-in-chief, or to "ad side," the team of people who essentially make sure you have a job. And sometimes those preemptive decisions might be something like looking at a photo of a woman with some not-so-conventionally-pretty fleshy folds around her waist, and quietly determining that that particular battle just isn't worth it. You tell yourself you're doing more of a service to the reader if you show a picture of the ideal—the magical weight loss that doesn't result in immovable "proof" of what you've "overcome"—so that she doesn't get discouraged from making the choices the entire editorial mission of the magazine supports. You make a note to yourself to pitch a story about how to "fix" that loose flesh, because that's what readers want, right? A fix? What you might not make note of is the fundamental connection here: "fixing" readers is what the ad dollars that pay your rent are built upon. Some of your corporate sponsors do it with tenderness (Dove, for example); some do it with savvy (M.A.C.); some might still resort to the old-fashioned don't-hate-me-because-I'm-beautiful technique. But fixing is the name of the game, and it is really, really hard to break out of that narrative as an editor who really is trying to provide a service to the reader. "Service" is framed as solving a problem. And a concrete problem—loose flesh—with a concrete fix (surgery?) is simpler and more readable than an in-depth investigation of the untold side of weight loss.

I'm not exactly defending Shape. It was a lousy, cowardly choice (and, as The Gloss points out, throwing a freelancer under the bus is a lazy way of handling things; I have little doubt that this came from the editors, not the writer), and I'm glad that Birmingham's story is coming to light, because while I'm doubtful that conventional ladymags will ever change in this way because of the framework they're built upon, it's showing that there are plenty of people who don't want a neat "fix"-type story but rather a more complicated journey of weight loss. Shape should do better, but I think I recognize where this came from, and it's not a place of spite; it's a place of status quo.

The best editors out there are able to keep their mission as an advocate for their readers as their highest priority. There are plenty of examples out there of magazines and editors that consistently try to tell a different story other than the "let's fix you" angle. But that is not the default, and within the current way that women's magazines are funded, I don't know if it ever will be.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

On Fit, aka Baby Got Back

 Someday, friends. Someday I will be on the cover of Butt.

Allow me to make this clear: I wanted a bigger butt. My mother's clan is a flat-butted folk, as is my father's, so there was never a question of me having anything that might qualify as "booty." This worked fine throughout the '90s, when the collective goal seemed to be to stay as tiny as possible, and throughout the aughts I simply didn't allot much time to considering my rear end. It was functional, not decorative, in my mind, and as long as three-way mirrors revealed nothing unsightly I was prepared to live with the prairie-like Whitefield-Madrano derrière the rest of my days.

I'm still not sure what prompted my recent malcontent with the state of my behind. Some might blame Kim Kardashian; some might blame an ever-shifting lexicon that gave way to words like "bootylicious"; some might, after a bit of cultural archaeology, blame a delayed response to Sir Mix-a-Lot or even Freddie Mercury for making me believe that were I a fat-bottomed girl, I just might make the world go round. Me, I'm just as willing to assign responsibility to my relatively newfound interest in strength training. After seeing how, by simply raising and lowering weights for a certain amount of time, I could make my biceps suddenly, proudly appear after a lifetime of ignoring their clandestine service, I may well have just wanted to develop every muscle in my body to the best of my ability. And can I help it if the gluteus maximus is one of the largest muscles in the human body?

There is much to say about the above possibilities, both about cultural dictation of "in" body parts and about the relationship between strength training and one's vision of the ideal body. That is not what this post is about.

My plan to transform into a baby-got-back type worked, in that my posterior is now, instead of board-flat, curved like the Ohio countryside. Which is to say, still basically flat, but with more curve than you might expect from, say, Nebraska. (Hey, you can't change your genes.) I do notice a difference, but it's more tactile than visual, so you'll just have to trust me when I tell you that my buns are as steel-like as can reasonably be expected of a thirtysomething woman whose livelihood involves sitting in chairs in front of glowing boxes. I can tell a difference in how my butt looks on yoga pants, but the casual observer of my butt (and to my knowledge, there are no studied observers of my butt) probably wouldn't. This was good enough for me.

Speaking of yoga pants, I hadn't left mine in months. At least, I hadn't left the general sartorial realm of yoga pants for months, through book-writing and surgery-recovering (and book-writing-recovery). So when I took my first in-office gig in nearly a year a few weeks ago, I was actually sort of eager to leave stretchy materials for a while and put my closetful of work dresses to use. But to my surprise, some of those dresses didn't fit right anymore. Specifically, the dresses that I'd had tailored to fit my body didn't fit right anymore. They still fit fine in the waist, which is where I tend to store excess body fat, and everywhere else, but sure enough, around the hips—which is to say, around the butt—the fabric clung. Enough so that one dress that used to perfectly skim my body now has to be tugged down, which means it rides up when I walk. It still fits, it just doesn't't fit well.

Anyway. The minute I put on this dress in particular, I knew exactly why it didn't fit perfectly, and Reader, I was proud. All my hip thusts, my single-leg Romanian deadlifts, the act of repeatedly stepping onto and off of a box while clutching iron weights—they had worked, and knowing that my body was stronger because I chose to make it stronger felt fantastic. It felt so fantastic that I even noted it didn't matter if my rear end didn't look any different; this was tangible proof beyond my own tactile assessment that things were getting firmer down there, and that was just as satisfying as becoming as bootylicious as I'd hoped, and recognizing that was even more satisfying. To say that I was pretty self-satisfied might make me a bit smug here, but it's also the truth. I kept the dress on—it fit okay, after all, and it's a lovely blue vintage dress that makes me feel all Mad Menny in the right way, so why not keep on this talisman of my satisfaction?

Here is what happened: Throughout the course of the day, my satisfaction melted. I felt wrong every time I tugged at the dress to bring it down over my hips; I felt wrong every time I caught a glimpse of my body in the mirror and saw the slight strain of the fabric where there had once been a clean line. You might say I felt "fat," but by now I've learned that when I "feel fat" it means I'm feeling something else that's harder to identify, though in this case it wasn't so hard to identify at all. I felt physically uncomfortable in my own skin; I felt cumbersome to my own sense of movement; I felt restrained, pinched, where I'd once felt ease. All because my dress was a little tight around the hips.

You see the joke here: I felt uncomfortable in my skin because of something I'd consciously done to make myself feel better in my skin. There was a disconnect—I'd worked to develop muscle, but when my muscle did what muscle does and created space for itself, one of the consequences was a sense of wrongness for having that space taken up. It didn't matter that I'd worked for it, or that I'd achieved my goal in some sense, or that my initial reaction to noticing that my dress didn't fit well was pride. The result—discomfort—overrode all of that.

My point here is startlingly simple: Wear clothes that fit, for chrissakes. My cognitive dissonance between my hours at the gym and the sensation of feeling "fat" was dismantled easily enough, with no lasting effects. (It was solved easily enough too, by putting my tailored dresses away for a bit.) Still, it was startling to find how instinctively I linked physical discomfort—even if it stemmed from something I'd specifically wanted—to the particular sort of wrongness I usually associate with more conventional body-image issues. Knowing the cause didn't matter; the result was that same topsy-turvy sense of self-image that so easily gets funneled onto my body, even my looks in general.

Our bodies make for convenient scapegoats for unrelated anxieties, and part of why it's hard to separate actual body image from all the stuff we heap onto body image is sheer habit—once you've learned to displace dissatisfaction in such a catch-all way that's societally expected of women, it's difficult to break that connection. And in a way, that's what was going on here—habit. I wasn't in the least bit dissatisfied with the state of my rear end, but I'm so used to linking physical discomfort to "body image" as it's most often discussed on body image blogs and the like that it was instinct to connect an unpleasant physical sensation with an unpleasant mental sensation.

I'm used to framing the "wear comfortable clothes" thing in either a purely physical way (if I wear clothing that's more comfortable, I'll be...more comfortable) or in a feminist way (if I put myself into physical pain to fit a certain standard, to a certain degree I'm giving in to "the man"). This made me frame it in a more holistic way: If I'm physically uncomfortable, I'm going to be mentally uncomfortable. That might be displaced onto appearance-esteem stuff; it might not. Either way, I'm back to stretchy fabrics, all the better to be bootylicious, my dear.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Beauty Work and Intrinsic Motivation

Motivational poster, 1937, Works Progress Administration

A friend of mine who's having trouble sticking to her exercise plan asked me what gets me to the gym. The answer, truly, is habit: Unless I'm specifically taking some time off or there's some sort of concrete scheduling problem, strength training is just a part of my routine. That's not particularly helpful advice to someone who's trying to make exercise a habit, though, so I tried to remember what got me to the point of workouts being habit. A common—and useful—bit of advice in this arena is to not focus so much on the weight loss bit, even if you are interested in reducing your body fat, because it's self-punishing. Instead, you're supposed to think about those other rewards of exercise: reduced stress and better mental health, improved functional strength, heightened flexibility, etc. It's often broken down as internal motivation vs. external motivation—that is, what your goals are "for you" versus what other people/society at large tell you your goals should be.

That's all nice and good, and I agree with it to an extent, but A) it's not like we can separate the two so neatly; motivations from society at large fuel our own motivations, after all, B) in order to be functioning members of society, we need to at least consider the collective ethos of said society, if only to then discard it out of hand, and C) sometimes external motivation—the "bad" motivation—can be a lot more effective than internal motivation. Most of the time I'm more driven to get to the gym by the knowledge that it will help with stress reduction, but does the thought of having a more curvaceous rear end (and therefore a "better" one) sometimes get me to do that third set of hip thrusts? Yes, yes, it does, and I'm fine with that. And certainly in other areas of my life, I lean toward people-pleasing, and the fear of disappointing someone has fueled many a project on my end—but of course, I glean my own rewards from it too. So it's reflexive.

But the full definition of internal motivation contains a particularly intriguing leg—intrinsic motivation, a term that's often (and somewhat erroneously, to my thinking) used interchangeably to mean any internal motivation. As I understand it, though, intrinsic motivation is fairly simple: motivation to pursue an activity for the joy of the activity itself. The motivation comes from not any promise of something good happening, nor of avoiding the occurrence of something bad, and not even just from some deep personal wellspring of happy consequences to come, but from the immediate pleasures the activity brings. It's easy to see how this applies to exercise, even if its most-repeated mantra doesn't mention motivation directly: Find something you love to do, and keep doing it. For me, that was strength training; for some, it's yoga; for others it's fencing, or martial arts, or spin class, or running. Whatever it is: The reward doesn't come from the doing; the reward is the doing.

Naturally, as I do with most things, I began to wonder how this applied to beauty work. I've done a good amount of research on the internal vs. external motivators for wearing makeup—like, how it can embue its wearers with a sense of confidence, vs. how women wearing light makeup are perceived as more competent. There's a lot to look at there, but in thinking about intrinsic motivation—the reward that comes simply from performing the act in question, as opposed to simply our internal reasons for doing something—I'm questioning how much I actually like the act of putting on makeup. I've long held that many of us wear makeup for reasons that go beyond glib you-go-girl talk of "I do it for me" or mere conformity to societal expectations. Personally, my internal motivations for wearing it include its meditative-like ritual, its aid in presenting the public vs. the private self, and, sure, a sense that I look more like how I'm "supposed" to (which shouldn't be confused with kowtowing to some sort of beauty standard, though of course the two aren't entirely separate).

But intrinsically speaking, do I get some reward for my beauty work? I'm not sure. There are parts of my beauty/grooming routine that I actively dislike—I dread shaving my legs, for example, but do it nearly every day because I like the feeling of having smooth legs. Same for washing my hair, which I do maybe twice a week. (O for the days of no shampoo!) The face stuff isn't so bad, but I can't say I derive pleasure from the act of putting on makeup, any more than I derive pleasure from brushing my teeth. If the "Find something you love to do, and keep doing it" maxim applied to beauty work, I'd be one of those Grace Coddington-like souls who wears no makeup whatsoever except bright red lipstick. (I love applying lipstick—so sensual!—but don't like how it feels afterward and nearly always wind up biting it off anyway.)

The idea of intrinsic motivation is that because you find the act in question pleasurable, and pursuit of pleasure is one of our chief drives, things that have that sort of motivation are the things you're likeliest to stick with. But here I am, rarely going a day in the past 20-odd years without applying makeup, even though I don't necessarily derive joy from standing in front of the mirror for six minutes and doing my thing. So I'm wondering if beauty work is an exception here, or if I am, or if I'm being too strict with looking at what "pleasure" constitutes in the context of intrinsic motivation. I mean, I get pleasure out of seeing my face perk up a bit with each step of my makeup process, and I take pleasure in knowing that I look the way I want to look, as opposed to the sleepy-eyed, pale-cheeked version of myself I usually wake up with. Is that enough "pleasure" to qualify as enjoying the act of doing something so much that you'd do it without its other rewards? I really don't know.

I think of women who report approaching their face as a piece of living art—playing with color theory, sculptural lines, or just plain old wacked-out looks. (These women, I presume, constitute the entirety of the market for pink mascara.) Same with women who consistently style their hair differently; I remember listening with awe as a chameleon-like acquaintance explained, after I semi-complimented her new ink-black hair by saying, "Wow! New look!" that she knew it wasn't a flattering color for her, but that she'd always wanted to go jet black, and that hair-dyeing had become something of a leisure pursuit for her, so why not? She'd be donning a flattering, "safe" honey-blonde look in a few weeks anyway, most likely. That seems like a clear-cut example of performing beauty work for its intrinsic motivation—and it's something I really can't imagine doing for myself. (I mean, if I really hated putting on makeup, I wouldn't do it, but it's not hatred—more of a meh.) But what other forms besides artistry and play might intrinsic motivation take in the context of beauty work? Does the meditative, ritualistic aspect "count"? What about the act of transforming from a private figure to a public one (at least for those of us who don't usually wear makeup at home alone)—is that considered a pleasure to be had in and of itself, or is it by definition driven by the public end of that equation?

I asked readers before why they do, or don't, wear makeup. Now I'm asking a more point-blank question: How much pleasure do you take in wearing makeup or styling your hair? And how much pleasure do you take in not?