Monday, June 30, 2014

Sorry, Ladies: There Won't Be a World Hair Cup for Women

One of the questions we’ve frequently fielded here at World Hair Cup headquarters is that of women: Will there be a World Hair Cup for the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2015? It would make sense, in some ways. Internationally speaking, women’s soccer still lags behind men’s in popularity and professional participation, but in the United States, that wasn’t true until fairly recently—until the dramatic surge of World Cup interest, I’m guessing that the names Abby Wambach, Hope Solo, Brandi Chastain, and Mia Hamm would’ve rang more bells in your average American household than Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, Mikkel Diskerud, and maybe even Clint Dempsey. And the iconic image of American soccer probably still remains a triumphant, shirtless Chastain kneeling in the throes of victory after winning the 1999 Women’s World Cup in a penalty shootout. Plus, given that the U.S. women’s team is internationally ranked far higher than the men’s team, it’s not unreasonable to think that at least in the States, popular interest in women’s soccer will mushroom now that men’s soccer has given it a nice nudge.

But will there be a women’s World Hair Cup? No. Why? Because the hair of women’s soccer is boring. It’s perfectly lovely; certainly female footballers don’t have bad hair. But a ballot for a women’s World Hair Cup would be little more than row after row of ponytails, with some braids and dreadlocks popping up, but nothing truly remarkable. Compare the actual "Group of Hair Death" ballot with a prospective ballot featuring those countries' female national players:

Why would this be, when, generally speaking, women are given far more leeway than men to visually ornament themselves? Why doesn’t Hope Solo have her jersey number shaved into the back of her head? Why doesn’t Abby Wambach ever fashion her ‘do into a spiky gelled mohawk? Why do so few—if any—African female footballers utilize hair bleach to set themselves apart like their male counterparts? Women’s appearance is more policed than men’s, but when it comes to hair, the range of acceptability is far broader for women than it is for men. Nobody thinks it’s unusual if a brunette lady goes blonde for a while. If it’s a dude, though—well, questions might well be asked about his sexuality. (In fact, questioning mainstream convention is exactly why some men dye their hair, as in the punk community.) Same with hair length: While long hair is still considered the default for women, a woman with short hair doesn’t get ridiculed for it, while a man with waist-length hair may as well change his name to Legolas. Logically, then, we should be seeing more remarkable hair among female soccer players, not less.

But we don’t, and here’s why: If you’re a male athlete, you’ve excelled at a crucial aspect of conventional masculinity. You’re stronger than other men, faster than other men, more coordinated than other men—you’re not the sissy who kept fumbling with the ball when playing catch with your dad. Nobody is going to question your masculinity. And if you’re a professional athlete, people will assume you’ve also nailed the “breadwinner” part of the masculine equation (even if that’s not the case). So you can do things like dye your hair between games, or have hair that trails down your back, or sport a fancifully bleached stripe, or hold back your flowing curls with a headband, and you are still quantifiably a dude

Enter the ladies. Sports aren’t exactly considered unfeminine, at least in the States, in large part thanks to the skyrocketing sports participation of women and girls after passage of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. (Participation still isn’t equal, it’s worth noting.) But if you say the word athlete, most people will conjure up an image of a man. More to the point, there’s still a certain way to be a female athlete—namely, to adhere to codes of conventional femininity. I mean, there’s a reason I know who Anna Kournikova is, despite me not following tennis and her not having won major singles titles. Even if a female athlete manages to become a public figure without exploiting her sexuality—which many of them do—she still has to play by the rules. She has to be tasteful: She makes public appearances with light makeup that implies the healthy, wholesome, freshly scrubbed life she supposedly lives. She has neat hair, not so overly styled as to imply vanity but not so understyled as to appear sloppy. She’s extra good to make up for being competitive, because we all know women aren’t supposed to compete; if they do, they certainly don’t run and sweat and fight and bleed for it. Yet that’s what you do on the pitch—there’s no way around it—and so to compensate, a female soccer player has to demonstrate exactly how much of a “good girl” she is. Even if she hasn’t been acting like one. 

There’s a twist here: sexual orientation. Sportswomen still have to fight the stereotype that they’re lesbians. That’s changing, both for straight athletes and gay ones (as evidenced by out athletes like Brittney Griner and Abby Wambach). But the longtime association of queerdom and sporty ladies means that many straight female athletes report the need to signal their heterosexuality—and what’s one of the easiest ways to do that? Look as conventionally ladylike as possible. Which means: Have longish, pretty, glistening hair. Which means: No World Hair Cup for women. 

A note of irony: I’ve argued that by dint of being an athlete, sportsmen’s masculinity is protected, so they can do nutty stuff to their hair and it’s just, Oh, you boys. But so far, this hasn’t translated into a protected space of sexual orientation. I mean, it’s 2014 and there’s exactly one out player in the NFL, one in the NBA, one in the MLS, and none in the MLB. Many leagues have been taking administrative strides in support of gay athletes, and the shifting cultural landscape means we’ll probably be seeing more out players soon. But gay male players are subject to a stigma their female counterparts aren’t—Griner and Wambach both made news simply by being gay, but neither of them made the splash of Michael Sam’s drafting. 

I’ve written a lot about the narrow spaces women are allowed to inhabit when it comes to their appearance: Be pretty but not threateningly so, care how you look but don’t be high-maintenance, etc. The World Cup—and, of course, the World Hair Cup (vote now! Tomorrow’s the last day to vote in the Round of 16!)—are a handy reminder that the highwire isn’t just for women. With the remarkable hair of the men’s World Cup players, one of the narrow spaces men live in is adeptly maneuvered, with everything from fluffy Afros to beard-mohawk combos to creative razor lines. It’s a construction of masculinity that has given these men a particular permission to sport the styles they do. But permission is something that can be withdrawn at whim. A right is not.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Hello, Round of 16; Farewell, Hair We've Left Behind

After weeks of grueling follicular play, the Group Stage of the World Hair Cup has ended. Now, what you've been waiting for: the results.

(Click for full size.)

To address the most burning issue: You can vote in the Round of 16 here. But first, a bit of ceremony. Congratulations are in order to all teams that advanced—after we bid a fond farewell to a few MVPs who were left behind:

Guillermo Ochoa, Mexico. Position: Goalkeeper. Hair: Remarkable.

Guillermo Ochoa, your unbelievable saves against Brazil were echoed only by the glory of your hair. Disciplined by the headband, stunningly spontaneous in its tumble of curls, your hair, bobbing in the aftermath of dive after dive, was a lesson in splendor. Your World Cup journey continues; 'tis a pity your World Hair Cup voyage must stop here.

Keisuke Honda, Japan. Position: Forward. Hair: Remarkable.

Keisuke Honda, as with your laser-like accuracy in the 16th minute against Côte d'Ivoire, your spiky blond head raised FIHA's expectations. Alas, as in soccer, hair: Your team's skills aren't yet to your level. Regretfully, we must bid you adieu.

Rodrigo Palacio, Argentina. Position: Forward. Hair: Remarkable Extraordinary.

Rodrigo Palacio, a singular hair talent, you are the Lionel Messi of the Argentine hair team. Nature gave you hair that might not look like that of a hair champion—an unremarkable color, a texture lacking verve—and a similarly gifted player would be forgiven for looking at his hair and calling it quits, opting for a basic crewcut. Not you, Palacio. You have the imagination, the vision, and the strength of character to pave your route to an unmistakable hair win. And just as with Messi, your team will never equal your exquisite aptitude. True, the rattail is one-hit wonder, but has a more remarkable hairstyle been seen on the pitch in 2014? You played for Argentina with vigor, might, and majesty. From the FIHA headquarters, we cry for you.

The true loss here, though—and I am not just saying this because I am American—is the hair talents of Kyle Beckerman. Yes, it's the dreads. Yes, it's the mass of the dreads. But even within the standards of high-mass dreadss, Beckerman remains a remarkable player.

In game play he's fluid:

He enables excellent hair assists:

He's unafraid in the face of fierce competition:

And for ceremonial purposes he does all right too:

Kyle Beckerman: You, sir, are the Ghana of your hair group. Thrust into the Group of Death, you played with the passion and ingenuity you're known for, and were you in another group, we may well have seen the United States advance on your merits alone. But in the Group of Death—Meireles's mohawk with matching beard, Gyan's bleached jersey number at the temple, Pepe's glistening curls—even your magnificent mane wasn't enough to save us. Your team is unworthy of your skills. For chrissakes, the third-most-remarkable hair on your team belongs to Michael Bradley.

Michael Bradley, USA. Position: Midfielder. Hair: None.

Kyle Beckerman, on behalf of all of us here at the Fédération Internationale de Hair Association: We salute you. We salute your hair.

Yet: The game must go on. Congratulations to those who made the Round of 16: Brazil, Cameroon, Netherlands, Child, Côte d'Ivoire, Greece, Italy, Uruguay, France, Ecuador, Iran, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Portugal, Ghana, Algeria, and Belgium. Who from the Group of 16 will advance to the quarterfinals? Vote here!

(Confused about how the bracket system works? Click on the above image for a full-size visual.)

(Confused by why The Beheld is temporarily dominated by soccer hair? More on that soon.)

Monday, June 23, 2014

World Hair Cup 2014 Updates

You've cast your group stage vote in the World Hair Cup, right? If not, do so immediately—the world needs to know which hair will dominate. I've also set up a special URL just for the occasion, so if you tell people about it—or, dare I suggest, set up a betting bracket for your office?—you can just direct them to

So given that 2014 marks the inaugural World Hair Cup, it's understandable that the Fédération Internationale de Hair Association (FIHA) ran into some unexpected issues during group stage. (Hey, it took FIFA a couple of tries to figure out they should hold qualifying rounds to thin out the competition, so forgive us.) Two things FIHA did not consider when compiling the ballots for group stage:

1) Between-game hair changes. Case study: Neymar's hair is definitively remarkable, but he really upped the ante between the June 13 Brazil-Croatia match and the June 17 Brazil-Mexico match with his dye job:

Brazil-Croatia, June 13

Brazil-Mexico, June 17 

Neymar was the most-discussed example of the between-match switcheroo, but he wasn't alone: Honduran defender Brayan Beckeles went sunny-side-up between taking on France and the match with Ecuador:

Honduras-France, June 15

Honduras-Ecuador, June 20

The question for voters in The World Hair Cup then becomes this: Is a between-games hair change remarkable enough to up a team's Hair Power Index (HPI)? After all, Neymar took the time between matches to frost his hair but then couldn't be bothered to score against Mexico, so clearly he thinks it's remarkable. To answer the question, we turn to the WHC bylaws: "Only the hairstyles sported during game play of the FIFA World Cup 2014 may be considered. Players’ hair history may not be considered for the 2014 WHC." Thus, both the "before" hair and the "after" hair may be considered in hair remarkability—yet the change in and of itself does not factor into hair remarkability. Think of it as a zen koan.

It's worth noting that in both the case studies given above, the dye job was inversely correlated with superior game play—Brazil, widely considered the favorite to win the whole shebang, drew with Mexico, while Honduras lost to Ecuador 2-1. We at FIHA are experts on hair remarkability, not soccer mechanics. But still, we're just sayin'.

2) The bench. Now, the rules of The World Hair Cup clearly state that all team members on the official roster may be considered when determining a team's HPI. But it's near-impossible to truly tell how remarkable a player's hair really is until they've gotten some time in play. For example, when not in motion, David Silva of Spain has fairly unremarkable hair, unless by "remarkability" you mean "resemblance to a Beatles wig":


But put the midfielder on the pitch and his hair becomes remarkable:


So then what do we do about players on the bench? To demonstrate how crucial this question is, let's turn to Argentina. When putting together the voting ballot for the WHC Group Stage, FIHA considered Argentina's hair to be merely average in remarkability.

Argentina, in game play vs. Bosnia-Herzegovina June 15: Average hair remarkability.

But six days later, in the 76th minute of the match against Iran, coach Alejandro Sabella brought on one of the most truly remarkable players in the 2014 World Hair Cup: Rodrigo Palacio.

Rodrigo Palacio: Extraordinary hair remarkability.

Yes, that's a rattail, and yes, rattails are highly fucking remarkable. (Remember, the WHC is based on hair remarkability, not good hair.) Yet the FIHA board member responsible for putting together the ballots was unaware of Palacio's remarkable hair until well after the ballots had been distributed (get your group stage ballot here). Argentina's HPI suffers as a result, and Argentina may well lose out to teams that may ultimately be less deserving. But that's the game, people. Even the beautiful game can get ugly.

The end fallout: Voters may consider the hair on the bench, and bench hair is factored into a team's HPI, but remarkable hair that never gets on the pitch may not be the deciding factor of any vote. Let's use forward Jozy Altidore as a metaphor: The U.S. A. is seen as a threat in large part because of him, but his injury kept him from being a factor in the Portugal game. (This also brings up the question of what to do about hair injuries, which FIHA will consider on a case-by-case basis.)

Reminder: Group Stage voting is open until Thursday, June 26, at which point the top two teams from each group will progress to the Hair Group of 16. Cast your ballot now!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The World Hair Cup: Who Makes the Cut?

Whereas a large portion of the global population is infatuated with soccer, née football—
Whereas a disproportionate number of soccer players have remarkable hair—
Whereas we, the people, care about hair

The World Hair Cup 2014 has arrived. 

And you have a vote.

Vote for the team with the most remarkable hair in each group here. Voting for The World Hair Cup will follow the "real" World Cup system and schedule: Group Stage voting will last through June 26, when the two teams with the highest number of votes from each group will progress to the Round of 16 for another round of voting. From there, the winner of each match will continue to quarterfinals, then semifinals, until—at last!—the winner of The World Hair Cup is crowned July 13. (For a visual of how the bracket system works, go here.

The sole criterion of The World Hair Cup is team members' hair remarkability. The WHC is about neither good hair, nor bad hair. It is about remarkable hair.

As commissioner of the World Hair Cup, I have selected three players from each team as representatives of their team's hair remarkability; photographs of these players are shown on the ballot, but voters are encouraged to conduct their own research. Photographs of all participating nations' team members are available at the FIFA website

And now—now

We begin.

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Scent(s) of a Woman

Most of my explorations here have been on the visual side of beauty: how the way we look and the way we choose to present ourselves shapes—and is shaped by—cultural forces, as well as who we believe ourselves to be. The other senses, I've neglected. Reading the following essay by Mary Mann has made me want to reconsider this accidental stance. Where I decorated my portal to womanhood with makeup, Mann marked hers with fragrance, exercising the most private of senses. Not that the elusive nature of perfume makes it any less quarrelsome from a by-the-book feminist approach, as you'll see. 

Mann's essays and criticism have appeared in The Believer, Salon, The Hairpin, The Rumpus, Bookslut and Ploughshares online, among others. She's associate editor of the forthcoming book Women in Clothes. You can follow her on Tumblr and Twitter.


"Perfume seemed part and parcel of womanhood—its nature, invisible but sweet, sums up the expectations for women’s behavior through most of history—but the existence of cologne and aftershave blur gender lines. It isn’t just women who want to smell good. It’s people."

At noon on a hot August Wednesday, the Sephora on 34th Street is the most soothing store on the block. It’s as packed with lunchtime shoppers and tourists as the nearby Foot Locker and H&M, but the women’s faces in Sephora—and it’s almost uniformly women—have a serene cast that’s rare in Manhattan on a weekday. Fingers trail over tubes of color, eyes close trustingly as a carefully made-up employee bends over a customer’s face with a mascara applicator; toner is stroked over skin and perfume is spritzed on wrists. Feminine murmurs and coos wash through the room. It’s a sensory paradise, everything promising beauty, beauty, beauty.

“Can I help you with something?” the black-clad sales associate asks. He is a man, actually, young and acne-scarred with sculpted hair that gives off a cedar scent.

“Uh, yeah,” I respond, slow on the uptake—I hadn’t expected such slack-lidded serenity in midtown—and momentarily at a loss. But my mission has been long in the making and its purpose comes back to me quickly. His pungent hair is a good reminder.

“Where are your perfumes?”


An Egyptian named Tapputi was the first perfumer, circa 200 BC, and her blend was probably something powerful, as royals used it in lieu of baths. This was how I once thought of perfume: strictly for the wealthy, and outdated to boot—who needs perfume in the era of hot showers and shampoo?

“Who needs it?” was my approach to all the trappings of womanhood: lipstick felt clownish and heels made me wobble so I smiled palely and sped along in flats, cutting my own hair with the help of a YouTube video. Perfume was too fussy to even contemplate. This was all well and good for a few years after college—I had a Kerouac-wannabe boyfriend and a series of outdoor jobs—but by my mid-twenties, in the company of increasingly professional peers and a kinder, more adult, boyfriend, I started to feel…young.

And not in a good way. Not in an “I never get carded” kind of way. What I felt was more akin to middle school angst, when everyone around me got breasts and I remained boyish and boobless. Breasts eventually arrived, but the less innate transition from teen to grown woman was more elusive.

It wasn’t necessarily the lack of lipstick or perfume. Plenty of women seem self-assured without these things. But those women project the sense that they easily could wear them. For them, it’s a choice; for me, it wasn’t even an option. A bright smear of lipstick would have seemed artificial, gauche even. My boyfriend told me not to worry about it—“you’re great as you are”—but that didn’t solve the problem: I was inept at womanhood but it seemed shallow and unfeminist to care, so I didn’t do anything about it. I was paralyzed. Forever young. 

“The problem with a beautiful woman is that she makes everyone around her feel hopelessly masculine,” wrote Lorrie Moore. “You are praying for your breasts to grow, your hair to perk up.” It wasn’t beauty, but others’ easy womanhood—the unthinking swipe of lipstick, the easy gait in heels—that exposed my ungainliness.

It was as if everyone else had been to a womanhood seminar without me.

I wish there was a womanhood seminar, actually. Something mandatory and solemn, a rite of passage that would firmly delineate the line between adolescence and adulthood. But, at least in the U.S. of today, we learn womanhood largely alone, taking cues from generous friends or stylish moms. My mom was a strident feminist who wore shapeless t-shirts from Goodwill and my dad’s deodorant. She’s uncomfortable with her womanly body, but she’s a great mom, and ideally my passage into womanhood wouldn’t be solely based on her tutelage anyway. Becoming part of a group—even one as broad as All Women—should involve a group. Maybe even a clubhouse, a safe space to learn, or admit to needing help. Someplace where I could close my eyes, trustingly, and let another woman tell me what eyeshadow looked good with my skin tone.


Wending his way through the aisles, the Sephora sales associate stops and points to a tube of lipstick in a young woman’s hand. She’s a wispy blonde, pale as milk.

“That one’s gonna be a little too orange,” he tells her. As he scans the shelves, one hand on his chin, it strikes me as appropriate that my guide through the temple of womanhood is male—we’re both outsiders here. The difference is, he really knows what he’s doing. Women trust him. In this female sanctuary, even dudes trump me.

“Try this one, here,” he says decisively, holding out a black tube with a dusky pink sticker on its base. “It’s called Obey, you’ll love it, I swear.”

Obediently, she takes it.

Some lipstick color names in Sephora: Pop Star, Private Jet, Tease, Palm Beach, Paparazzi, Tabloid, Fever, Catfight, Broadest Berry, Pigalle, Schlap, Melondrama.

We soon wash out of the color narrative (the life of Lindsay Lohan as told in lipstick?) and into the perfume section at the back left. Display cases enclose vari-colored cut-glass bottles, most done up with cursive script or bows or atomizers as big and brashly decorative as hood ornaments. These—the Marc Jacobs with the huge plastic daisies or the Versace with its crystal cap like a cartoon engagement ring—are not for me: I already know what I want, the result of months of research. But there’s no harm in smelling a few others.

“Can I try this one here, the Maison Martin?” I ask, pointing at a round bottle with an understated label, the name in typewriter font.

“Good choice,” says the sales associate. “Which one would you like to smell first? We’ve got Beach Walk, Funfair Evenings, Lazy Sunday Mornings…”


Long before I began to learn about it, I was attracted to the idea of perfume. Unlike lipstick, scent changes in contact with each individual, so finding the right one represents a real feat. This might be why people adopt a “signature scent”—it’s so much effort to find one that works with your body. (Michelle Obama apparently smells like cherries. Virginia Woolf is supposed to have smelled like woodsmoke and apples.) And unlike a pair of high heels, perfume doesn’t hobble the newbie (unless scent gives you migraines). Perfume seemed part and parcel of womanhood—its nature, invisible but sweet, sums up the expectations for women’s behavior through most of history—but the existence of cologne and aftershave blur gender lines. It isn’t just women who want to smell good. It’s people.

But while perfume was especially enticing, it was also particularly confusing. Sephora sells nearly 500 perfume varietals, while sites like The Perfumed Court stock thousands, an overwhelming array of choice. Niche stores like New York’s Bond No. 9—with less than fifty scents—weed out the objectively bad ones, celebrity scents made to smell like Jennifer Aniston’s childhood or Jennifer Lopez’s last love affair or largely reviled fragrances like Clinique Aromatics Elixir, described by one reviewer as smelling of “cats, mothballs, and fruitcakes.” But such selective stores tend to be wildly expensive and intimidating for the novitiate. You have to know something about perfume to even know they exist.

Needing a push, I mentioned my interest in perfume to one of my bosses, a stylish but intellectual woman whom I respect. It was awkward to talk about, but when trying new things, in the words of Grace Paley, “it’s as though you have to be artificial at first.”

My boss encouraged me to look into it, supplying links to a few perfume websites. I thanked her but told her I wouldn’t know where to begin: everything had too many reviews, all of which seemed conflicting, most written in a language I didn’t understand. What were top notes? What were bergamot and chypre? How was I supposed to know what constituted a long life, perfume-wise? 

Eventually, that same boss sent me an enormous book called Perfumes: The Guide, by scent experts Luca Turin (also a biophysicist) and Tania Sanchez. Their prose is acerbic and witty and damn good as they tour perfume history and basic terminology, reviewing almost 1,500 scents. A book like this was the ideal solution; allaying my fear that wanting some of the trappings of womanhood (sounding too much, to my nervously feminist ear, like “the trap” of womanhood) was a shallow, regressive goal. I read it on the train—surrounded by the far less pleasant scents of the subway—and felt saved: I was attending a womanhood seminar of one. 


Perfume has a long history, but not a very celebrated one. In Perfumes, Tania Sanchez chalks this up to two things: (1) perfume’s literal invisibility (“How could something as shapeless and evanescent as a smell have a history and a culture?”) and (2) its current status as “girl stuff.” Comparatively, the study of wine—which shares a focus on smell and descriptive language—has a well-documented history and broad appeal: People buy wine magazines, go on wine tours, and make movies about wineries. Perfume doesn’t have that kind of cachet. Perhaps that’s because wine gets you drunk.

The first man-made scents were cones of incense worn by ancient Egyptians, followed by essential oils and an herbaceous tonic called “Hungary Water,” but according to Turin the first real perfumes—alcohol-based blends of natural and synthetic fragrances—appeared in 1868, when a guy named William Perkin (who also discovered the chemical dye that produced the color mauve) synthesized a “sweet-nutty, herbaceous, tobacco-like” smell called coumarin. By 1909, synthesized scents were so popular (not to mention profitable) that the perfume counter was front-and-center in the very first Selfridge’s.

Although the many perfume blogs can be overwhelming, Sanchez and Turin explain that the internet has been good for the perfume industry. Online review sites make it harder for perfume companies to monopolize the industry, and more companies means both more innovation and lower prices. It’s democratizing: Just as everyone should be able to wear and eat what they want, everyone should also be able to smell how they want. Perfume sample sites are one of the best examples of this scent egalitarianism.

While Sanchez and Turin provide wonderful descriptions, they’re also adamant about the need to smell before buying. Ideally you’d be able to wear the same scent a few days in a row, see how it changes on your skin, get comfortable in it—like new shoes. Which makes perfume sample websites ideal: They decant a week’s worth of a scent into a vial for about $2 and ship it to your home.

But sample sites tend to provide salesy perfume descriptions, so cross-referencing is key—I made a list of good-sounding scents from Perfumes and repaired to a sample site, The Perfumed Court. I also started a word doc to record my findings, in the hopes that treating it like research would help me ease into my first womanhood experiment.


As I was selecting samples based on Turin and Sanchez’ write-ups, I realized my choices were aspirational—these were perfumes for a much more ladylike, put-together version of myself. Wood and leather scents, which I chose in droves, seemed to belong to someone who goes to the dentist regularly and doesn’t ever fall while trying to balance on the stiletto point of her heels. I added some slightly lighter scents to my cart, just to make sure I wasn't buying for, say, Katharine Hepburn instead of myself, then I made a dentist appointment while I was thinking about it.

This is one of those projects that should be inexpensive but could easily spiral out of control, as internet shopping tends to do. So I set some rules: no samples over $3, and the whole kit and caboodle had to be less than $20. I fiddled with my list, looking back and forth between the book and site, before finally settling on: Bulgari Black, Bulgari Pour Femme, Paloma Picasso, Cartier So Pretty, Missoni, and Guerlain Mitsouko. The total was $17.98. I’d receive them in 3-7 business days. 

When my perfume order arrived, the packaging was as many-layered—and therefore as mysteriously elegant—as a Russian doll. Within a box was a padded envelope, within the padded envelope was a cloth sachet, within the sachet was a heavily taped mass of bubble wrap, and within the bubble wrap were six tiny vials. Because they were all touching they emanated one smell, reminiscent of my godmother's house. My boyfriend smelled it. He kind of wrinkled his nose and shrugged, “It just smells like perfume, in general.”

I placed them on our shared dresser, in our shared studio, and began what I’ve been calling “the trials.”

Day 1: The trials began with Cartier So Pretty. My boyfriend wasn't crazy about it when I put it on first thing in the morning. “You just smell all woman-ey” he said, by which I think he meant old. I told him that it changes over time on the skin and he should hold off on a final verdict until evening. In the meantime, though, I agreed with him. Still, the novelty of wearing a scent was exciting, and I kept bringing my wrists to my nose. I hoped I was wearing it right.

Day 2: Going in order from left to right, I plucked Missoni EDP from the dresser. It smelled like a really old prom corsage, plus something else, maybe dried apricots. Easily deterred (“It’s only day two,” I kept grumbling), I started to feel a little exasperated with myself. Is searching for a good scent a waste of time? Will I finish this experiment by deciding that I should just shower more frequently and buy fancier shampoo? Until then, our dresser smells like a cathedral of womanhood, and I smell like fruit and alcohol.

Oddly, when my boyfriend met me out for dinner, he actually liked the Missoni. Maybe it had faded enough by then. I asked how it smelled and he said “good” and then “it's hard to tell because it's also like you,” but then he said “fruity.”

Day 3: This morning I put on Paloma Picasso and asked my boyfriend to smell it, both in the bottle and on my wrist. “Yesterday's is still the best,” he said. “This one just smells like perfume. Like a perfume store.” And it does—it smells like the idea of perfume.

Day 4: Today I wore Bulgari Pour Femme; it's my boyfriend's favorite so far. He smelled it and said: “That one smells soft. I like it.” We went to a baseball game on Coney Island and a few times during the afternoon and evening he leaned over and smelled it and again said he liked it, unprovoked.

I’m not sure about his presence in this experiment. Recording these trials makes me more aware of the repetition: my boyfriend, my boyfriend, my boyfriend. This is in part because we share such a small space—two people sharing a Manhattan studio is no joke—and we bump up against each other a lot. And sure, I want him to like how I smell. I also think he has good taste. But it seems like relying on his opinion is a flat, boring way to come to a decision about how I'm going to smell all the time. I did like Bulgari Pour Femme, a lot actually, but I think I should try it again on a day when I'm alone just to be sure, so I can get to know it on my own.

Day 5: I put Bulgari Black on in the morning and let myself smell it for a while before my boyfriend did. This meant I had to go for a walk while he was waking up and getting ready, but that’s something I should probably do anyway—I like the city best in the early morning. I liked Bulgari Black, too, even better than Bulgari Pour Femme. It doesn't smell like flowers or fruit or even very much like perfume. It smells like cologne and like nighttime, so it felt incongruous with the sun and the summer weather but I liked it anyway.

Day 6: Last perfume. Six seemed like a lot when I ordered them but actually “the trials” don’t even last a week. Guerlain Mitsouko is an unfortunate one to end on, smelling like flowers in formaldehyde. Frankenstein flowers. 

Day 7-14: Ever since I finished sampling all the perfumes I've just been using and reusing my little tester tube of Bulgari Black until finally there wasn’t any left. It smells good to me, and I've been getting more comfortable wearing it. I practice by putting it on around the house and now it feels good elsewhere too. It feels like a good secret, like when my boyfriend and I said we loved each other for the first time—I walked around town afterwards looking at strangers and thinking: “These schmoes have no idea this great thing just happened!”


I used to want to ride a motorbike. It looked so cool, but also scary, so I put off learning. Then a few years ago, while living in San Diego, my old boyfriend and I split up, he got the car and moved to Arizona with it, and I had no way to get to work and no money for a car of my own, so I bought a knock-off Vespa. Then I really had to learn. I took a class and practiced around my neighborhood. I ran into a dumpster once and got on the freeway once by accident, but nothing really bad happened, and by the time I left San Diego I was great at riding my fake Vespa and also really loved it. Partly because it had been scary to learn. It represented a triumph.

Once I read an interview with Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. He wrote all the famous surf songs but he never actually learned to surf. In the interview he said he didn't want to learn now because he’s too scared of getting hurt or dying. He's old now.

Perfume is something I hadn’t been trying because I was (a) scared of failing and (b) embarrassed to put energy into learning something so, well, girly. Perfume isn’t physically dangerous, like tearing around on a motorbike or being in the barrel of a wave, but admitting that I wanted to learn about perfume and allowing myself the time to do so was an emotional risk. Being able to say “it’s research” gave me license to try things. 

It’s also helped that this has all occurred during baseball season: the excesses of masculinity balancing those of femininity in the studio I share with my boyfriend—the crack of a bat and a whiff of Bulgari.


Back in Sephora, I smell a few things. Perfumes meant to evoke walking on the beach or strolling through a flower garden, eating candy or being French. 

I spritz on test strips, which both the sales associate and I smell. “Hmm, no, not you, right?” he says, growing more familiar as we sniff together and make the appropriate faces: pursed mouth and wrinkled nose for not so good, raised eyebrows and downturned mouth for surprisingly not bad, gritted teeth and wide eyes for really, really bad. Having smelled as much as my nose can take, I ask the sales associate if they carry Bulgari Black.

“Oh of course,” he says, scanning the shelves until his eyes fall on a bottle the exact shape and color of a hockey puck with a silver lid. He picks it up reverentially and displays it like Vanna White.

“Would you like to smell it?”

“Yes, please.” Though I know what it smells like, it seems rude to tell him that after trying so many scents. 

He sprays. It smells like night and cities and figuring things out.

“How much?” I ask, crossing my fingers. I should have checked the website first.

“One hundred, plus tax.” He says it apologetically. Though I’m wearing heels—another thing I’d taught myself while learning that it was okay to care, and to try, and to not get it right the first time—they are thrifted and scuffed, my bag overstuffed.

“Uh…” What is your womanhood worth? I wonder, and then, in the voice of my mom: If your womanhood has a price, then it’s not yours. And then, also: You’ve worked in retail. Ask the important question. “Do you work on commission?”


“Oh good. I have to think about it. Thank you so much!”

Out of the store and onto the street. Heat. Halal. Tourists. Construction. Ambulances. I’d left the sanctuary.

Like the grown woman I am, I waited patiently. Sure enough, a week later I found Bulgari Black marked down on a perfume website: $35. I bought it, and use it sparingly, like holy water.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Fat and Happy—and Loved

For the second installment of a series on bodies and relationships, I'm pleased to be able to share the work of Emily Timbol, a blogger and author who writes faith, life, and humor essays. Her work can be found on the Huffington PostThe Burnside Writers Collective, xoJane, Red Letter Christians, Christianity Today’s Her.Meneutics, and RELEVANT magazine online. She’s also been a featured guest on Moody Radio’s Up for Debate, the Jesse Lee Peterson radio show, and the Something Beautiful podcast. Her first book, Two Words: Why Hearing “I’m Gay” Changed My Straight, Christian Life is available now on Kindle, and paperback. You can find links to all her published works on her blog and on her Twitter, @EmilyTimbol. She can also be reached by email, at


One of the stupidest quotes I’ve ever heard is, “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.” If you’re someone who buys into the dichotomy of being thin or being well-fed, taste is the last thing you care about. When I was at my thinnest, nothing tasted or felt good. When your body is the enemy, “good” isn’t something you feel.

Now, I’m fat. To Kate Moss, the originator of that quote, I was probably fat at my thinnest too, at 160 pounds, and I’m currently inhuman, at well over 200. To me now, the word fat is simply a descriptor, like blonde or tall, but back at my thinnest it was the worst combination three letters could make. Fat was to blame for my poor self-esteem, my lack of dates, and my typical teenage melancholy that I mistook for depression. It was all fat’s fault.

From the ages of 10-25, a good portion of my brain was devoted, at all times, to thinking about food. It never occurred to me that it was not normal, or healthy, to spend 18 hours a day thinking about peanut M&M’s. Or Cheetos, or that cheeseburger on the menu I wanted to order instead of a salad. If I wasn’t obsessing over food I couldn’t eat, I was obsessively hating myself for having eaten it—usually in a frantic, euphoric nighttime binge that would leave me feeling sick.

If my brain then was a pie chart (pie being a food I couldn’t eat) it would look like this: 

The “Other” section represents the things that made me who I was, “on the inside.” Things like books, humor, politics, friends, and a passion for social justice. None of which mattered as much as food—or guys. It was them, really, who fueled so much of my youthful self-hatred. Always loving to hang out with me, always complaining about their girlfriends to me, sometimes even trying to sleep with me, but never, ever wanting to date me. This was never their fault, or my fault for liking them. It was fat’s fault. If I just could get the fat to go away, then these jackasses would magically like me back. That maybe guys didn’t like me because I didn’t like me, not because I wore a size 18, never crossed my mind.

“Emily, men are visual,” a close family member said to me. “That’s how they’re attracted, and I worry that if you never lose weight you won’t find a husband.” This was told to me more than once.

My best friend at the time once replied, after I revealed the name of the guy I had a crush on, “No, guys like that don’t go for girls as big as you.” She said it as matter-of-factly as if I had asked if there was food in my teeth.

It was settled. I had to lose weight in order for guys to like me. Not once did it occur to me that my body, as it was, any guy could like.

After my fourth week of The Master Cleanse, the last and craziest attempt I’d ever made to lose weight, I finally gave up. While gagging on the mere suggestion of drinking one more sip of maple syrup and cayenne, I thought, Why the hell am I doing this? Maybe it was the hunger (or cayenne poisoning), but all of a sudden it seemed like there was no reason to keep trying to force my body to be something it wasn’t. 

Being thin wasn’t worth it. Having all of my thoughts consumed with food, exercise, and what I looked like suddenly seemed pointless. I wasn’t the kind of woman whose looks were her most important feature. I didn’t value attractiveness more than intelligence or wit. I wasn’t unhealthy in the slightest, according to my doctor. And damnit, I loved food. 

The shift of priorities was surprisingly easy. It was as if I suddenly realized that the game I was trying so hard to compete in—the one where your social and romantic value is based on your looks—wasn’t mandatory; I could walk away from it at any time. I realized something else too: When you spend your entire youth and adolescence benched from the game because you're too fat to play, you see that the sidelines aren’t such a bad thing.

On the sidelines is where my personality flourished. Where my love of words grew, where I learned to make people laugh, and where I found some of the friends I hold dearest—friends who didn’t care that I was fat. The sidelines were where I learned to like who I was, something that wouldn’t have been possible if I’d stayed so focused on what I looked like.

I thought that leaving the game and giving up my near-lifelong quest to be thin meant making a choice between being attractive and hungry, or fat and happy. It wasn't so much that I chose to be fat; it was that I chose to be happy. I knew the work it took to be thin(ner). I spent years counting every calorie, writing down everything I ate, trying every new diet, and doing the math to make sure that nothing put between my lips was left unpunished. But choosing fat and happy wasn’t a choice made out of laziness; rather, it was a choice made because I was tired of hating my body—something I did no matter what the number on the scale said. What never once crossed my mind was that I could be fat, happy, and attractive. Like many people, I thought fat was always ugly, especially to men. I cared less about men, though, once I stopped hating myself. A great side-effect of learning to love myself was feeling less of a need for another person’s approval.

This didn’t make me any less shocked when a man I found attractive asked me out, a month after I gave up. I was skeptical of him at first. Tempted to write him off as a “chubby chaser” or some freak who found fat chicks amusing. An attractive man wanting to date me didn’t fit anywhere into my understanding of the rules.

It was after a couple dates with him—when my walls were still up, but I was feeling tempted to let them down—that I decided to go searching for his flaws. I started the place everyone does: Facebook. What I was most afraid of were the pictures of his exes. Not because I was threatened by them, but because I was afraid to be like them. A “them” I feared would look as hideous as I had previously felt. But as I clicked on their pictures, I was shocked to see that though they were all around my size, they were…pretty. The first woman I figured was an anomaly, or just took flattering pictures, but the second woman was equally attractive. Seeing them in succession made me realize that men exist whose type is “fat and pretty.” Those two things together was not something I’d believed in before. It’s not that I’d never seen a pretty, fat woman, it’s that I’d never thought one could be just pretty, not pretty*—the asterisk standing for, “if you weren't so fat.”

I started to look around me, and for the first time, instead of hyper-focusing on body parts I thought were attractive—flat stomachs, thin thighs, solitary chins—I saw whole women. Women who, at a size 12, or 18, or 10, were happy, loved, and content with their lives. These were not women who had “let themselves go”—they were women who chose to embrace their bodies at whatever size they were, instead of fighting to make them smaller. I wanted to be one of these women. I was one, as it turned out. 

Allowing myself to accept that women could be attractive and fat allowed me to trust my (now-husband) when he complimented me. There’s nothing wrong with him either, and he’s not alone—there are men out there who find women of all sizes attractive and desirable. Attractiveness is subjective, not something you can point to on a chart. To claim that “all” men only find one type of body appealing is both myopic and offensive. Men, and women, are allowed to deviate from the standards of beauty society says is best. They’re allowed to be attracted to women who look like me.

Still, my fear was that if I allowed myself to eat what I wanted, I’d not just be fat, but gain hundreds of pounds. I was scared that if free to eat anything, I’d eat everything. Get so big that my husband would be equal parts turned off, and concerned about me. But this didn’t happen. My weight has been steadier in the five years since I stopped dieting than it was during the 15 years prior. That’s because when food stopped being “good” or “bad” and became simply food, it lost its power to control me. There’s no need to obsess over peanut M&M’s all day when you can eat them whenever you want. And being able to have them, made me want them less. 

I didn’t lose any weight when I stopped obsessing over food. That didn’t matter. What was worth so much more than being able to fit into a smaller size was being able to go an entire day without the constant soundtrack of calories reverberating through my head. I was free to enjoy myself while cooking dinner, or going out to eat with my husband. It was just the two of us—not dieting meant there was no third entity present in our relationship, encroaching on my attention and time, demanding to be acknowledged. Being able to exist as a person who cared more about who I was, than what I looked like, allowed me to find love. Both with my husband, and myself.

I might not ever have a body that most people find attractive, but I have something more important—happiness. Happiness with myself, and with the man who loves me. All of me.


Monday, June 2, 2014

Comfortably Worn: Review of "The Worn Archive"

There are plenty of aspects of women's magazines that may be cause for earnest concern. The most visible of these is, of course, the whole skinny models/airbrushing thing. By "visible" I mean exactly that: It's a phenomenon observed with the eyes, making its supposed fallout—dissatisfaction with one's own non-professional, non-retouched appearance—seem somehow more important, more visceral, than whatever our more intellectual quibblings might bring to the fore.

But for my $4.99, the larger problem is one of tidiness. Something you hear time and time again in the office of a ladymag is the need for a "takeaway": What do we want the reader to take away from this piece? What value do we want her to derive from it? It's good editorship to keep the question of reader value foremost among one's concerns when developing any part of a magazine, of course, but what the term "takeaway" too often means is this: What hopelessly simple, tidy, boiled-down bit of wisdom/advice/how-to/glimmer of worldview can we offer readers? I'd like to think that's changing, and certainly some magazines are more guilty of this than others, but as I've written before, many of the problems of women's magazines are inherent in their structure, supported as it is by mainstream advertising. My wish for women's magazines has always been to find one that presents a mix of genuinely helpful service, thoughtful explorations of "women's" issues—including fashion and beauty—that goes beyond a feminism 101 take, and that has a sense of humor. Throw in some gorgeous photographs—preferably those that address the first problem outlined above, that of impossibly thin models—and lady, I'm there.

Enter Worn. The 10-year-old Canadian periodical refers to itself as a fashion journal—which, in its scope and depth, is accurate—but I prefer to think of it as the fashion magazine so many of us have longed for. A signature mix of practical information, fashion histories (the evolution of stewardess uniforms, the Frederick of Frederick's of Hollywood, Victorian—and contemporary—hair art), personal essays, and stunningly imaginative pictorials, Worn reads like a dinner party where the guests are smart but not smarmy and the food leaves you feeling truly sated. 

Which is to say, you should be subscribing. But for those who prefer to receive their reading in bulk, Worn has produced its first collection, The Worn Archive, anthologizing its first fourteen issues. True to its ethos that our wrappings can transform us into something simultaneously recognizable and utterly unique, the book, edited by Worn founder Serah-Marie McMahon, is more than a bound chronicle of those issues: Divided into thematic sections ("Fashion Is Personal," "Fashion Is Design," "Fashion Is Fun"), even the pieces regular Worn readers may have seen before take on a new meaning in the anthology. In "Fashion Is Object," for example, Worn walks us through that quintessential fashion object—the shoe, specifically the prototypical 1940s pump as well as the vast shoe archive of a collector—alongside a fashion history of the safety pin and an essay from a textile conservator. "Fashion Is Identity" sees a primer on various hijab styles and a story on how the pink-is-for-girls thing came about riding alongside a history of how gay men used fashion to signal one another. (On the 1970s "clone" look of gay men adopting conventionally masculine dress: "By dressing like 'real men,' clones had discovered that masculinity was a performance with costumes no less contrived than the fairy's tailored suits or the radical drag queen's gowns"—can you imagine this being written in a conventional ladymag?)

Not that, despite this critical complexity, the collection is short on reader service. You'll learn how to fashion a clothes line, make four classic tie knots, and whether you should dry-clean that vintage find, mostly bundled under the "Fashion Is Practical" section. Even there, tucked in amid service, creative intelligence abounds, particularly with a piece on what our culture lost when most of us stopped learning how to sew. Neither is the magazine short on sheer beauty—the photo shoots (which appear to feature what has come be termed as "real women," as opposed to professional models; I even caught some quiet leg hair, shown not as a gender-rad fuck-you but as a part of what composes a woman's body...which I suppose is a gender-rad fuck-you, in a way) are exquisite, and the articles are elegantly presented, with custom illustrations and photography, allowing the reader to consistently remember that fashion is a lived experience using all the senses, not only the intellect.

But back to the question of the "takeaway." It's a useful editorial idea—after all, you want your readers to take something away from your publication—but where so many mainstream magazines have gotten it wrong by thinking that the "takeaway" means something bite-sized and neat with no loose ends, The Worn Archive (available here, under editrix name Serah-Marie McMahon) gets it right, reveling in those loose ends, trusting its readers enough to take the information presented to them and come up with their own takeaways. Nearly every piece in the collection does this beautifully, but the one that particularly stands out is a riveting story about the "Beauty Is Duty" campaign, in which the British government worked with women's magazine editors to urge women nationwide to keep up their looks during WWII. It would be easy to either critique this as a low point of objectification of women, or to cheerlead it for its kitsch factor alone (after all, the piece is illustrated with a shampoo ad of a woman in curls juxtaposed with that same woman in a helmet, with the headline "Hair Beauty—Is a Duty, Too!"). Instead, Worn examines the phenomenon with its characteristic thoughtfulness, acknowledging the very real sense of stability that beauty routines can give us in the midst of national chaos while keeping in mind the consumerist, gender-bound ethos at the base of the campaign. It's stories like this where The Worn Archive shines the brightest—a feat that wouldn't be possible if the journal ever dared to underestimate its readers. Thankfully, it never does.