Friday, December 18, 2015

Money I Regret Spending

You can barely see the regrettable highlights in New York State's latest license iteration. But trust me, they're there. (Seriously, my friends always double-take when they see my license and ask if it's really me. It's, like, droid me.)

It wasn't until I read this takedown article about Mast Brothers chocolate—the $10 bars from a duo of bearded chocolatiers that is ubiquitous at the checkouts of hipster food outlets—that I realized that pretty much all of the money I definitively regret spending is money I spent on vanity.

But first: Mast Brothers. I am a chocolate lover—specifically a lover of chocolate, not chocolate flavor, in that chocolate ice cream, candies, cakes, cookies, etc., do little for me, but give me a good chocolate bar and I'll think fondly of you forever and ever. That said, I'm not a snob about it, and as long as a bar is at least of Lindt quality (that is, quality chocolate but not like the top-notch stuff), I'm happy. But every so often I can't help but get a ridiculously expensive bar, which I manage to savor like all the magazines say you should, and I feel like a decadent queen the whole time.

Mast Brothers was one of those bars. The packaging was cool (though not beautiful; distinctly "cool," i.e. hipster chocolate), and I'd heard enough about them to know they had a good reputation. But $10 later I was underwhelmed. Was it decent chocolate? Sure! Was it good? I guess, insofar as it was at least of Lindt quality, but not appreciably better, and I felt swindled. Swindled! I have not made the mistake since. Also, I discovered Milka, which is probably of lesser quality than even Lindt, but—I mentioned I'm not a snob, right?—it's MILK CHOCOLATE, which is the best chocolate.

Anyway. I remember regretting that $10, but since I like to think of myself as a savvy consumer, I like to forget my financial regrets until I'm reminded of them. But when I saw that article, I was like, "I WANT MY TEN DOLLARS BACK, RICK," which made me think about the other times I've instantly, and distinctively, regretted spending money—and found that while I'm certain there are plenty of other purchases I regret making, the only ones that stick in my craw (besides that waste of a cacao bean) were all beauty-related:

  1. Highlights, $200. It was 2002, I was still new to short hair, and I thought I wanted to be "edgy." I initially wanted blue hair, actually, but this was before normal people could really sport blue hair, and every hairdresser I went to was like, Woman, don't dye your hair blue. (I have an exceedingly pedestrian look otherwise, so it indeed would've been a mismatch visually.) I settled on highlights, and I knew enough to go to a good place that I'd been to before for cuts and trusted. The highlights were blonde and it looked like I'd scattered straw over my head. The worst part is that I went to the DMV later that day to have my driver's license picture taken. It is nearly 14 years later and the representative government-issued image of me shows me looking nothing like myself. 
  2. Pedicure, $18. I do like pedicures in general (though I haven't gotten one since the Times exposé about labor abuses came out). But in 2010 or so, I got a pedicure and thought, This time I'm gonna go all the way, "all the way" meaning get the calluses razored off instead of merely sloughed. It took me two weeks to walk without pain, like the little mermaid in Hans Christian Andersen's original tale. Your calluses are there because your feet need them to support the weight of a fully grown adult! Do not get your calluses razored!
  3. Moisturizer for mature skin, $56. I'm 39, and I don't yet need moisturizer for "mature skin." So why I thought I needed it at age 18, I have no earthly idea. I probably read it in a magazine, that this was THE moisturizer to have and that it would change your life, and I was young enough to believe that when a magazine told you something was life-changing, that it really would change your life. I traipsed to Nordstrom, went to either the Elizabeth Arden or Estee Lauder counter—I can't remember which, I just know it was one of those lines that was meant for women three times my age at the time—paid $56 cash (babysitting money) for this moisturizer, and let out the world's biggest harrumphwhen it did not change my life. To date I am vaguely pissed off at the woman at the counter who let me buy it, since I told her it was for myself.
  4. Facial, ungodly amount. I've written about this before, and why I spent an ungodly amount of money on this particular facial. Suffice to say that I am still embarrassed to print the number but will say that it wasn't much less than my plane ticket to the wedding. Across the country. I am not a rich woman. Just, at certain moments in my life, vain.
  5. Stupid Mast Brothers stupid chocolate bar, $10. Seriously, Rick, gimme my $10 back.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

On Pageantry, the Virgin Mary, and the Smart Girl

Our Christmas pageant didn't bother with the stuffed cows, alas.

My parents raised me in the Methodist church, halfheartedly. The “halfhearted” part would come as no surprise to anyone seated within two rows of our family, as they may have noticed my mother substituting female pronouns in hymns, as well as her reputation for, if you placed her in the right company, questioning the existence of a god of any gender. My father was a bit more enthusiastic, going so far as to teach Sunday school, but even at 7 years old I sensed he was coming up with scripture role-plays out of community spirit, not devotion to Our Father And/Or Mother. When I found out as a teenager that my parents chose the church not because they were Methodist per se but because it was the only church in our South Dakota town with a female pastor and they wanted me to see women in leadership roles of any variety, the endeavor made more sense.

Given that the entire point of the Whitefield-Madrano churchgoing project was an experiment in 1980s liberal parenting, not to worship a deity we were all a little “meh” about, it made sense that we embraced the performative aspects of church. Specifically, the Christmas pageant. If you grew up even vaguely Christian, you know the setup: Kids in the church act out the nativity, dressing up in robes stored in the church basement to be rotated among the kids as they aged in and out of the appropriate roles. Three middle-school boys would carry staffs to lend them credence as Wise Men; younger kids might dress as sheep and donkeys. (The rural church a few miles down the road got to have real sheep, but we didn’t have the grazing room.) If there were an appropriately aged infant in the congregation, there might even be a live baby Jesus that year. 

Then, of course, there were Mary and Joseph, the center of the entire scene. I mean, yes, Jesus was the center of the scene, if you want to get nitpicky, but he was usually played by a doll, at least at our church, given that we had around 100 congregants and therefore few opportunities for well-behaved infants to upstage Mary. And that’s exactly how I thought of it—upstaging Mary—because I knew that Mary was the center of it all. That pale, luminous face! Those glossy tendrils of hair! Those rosy lips! That demure gaze! That dainty nose, those petals of eyelashes, that maiden-like blush. Mary was the one you were to be looking at; Mary was the center of attention. Mary was a babe.

She had to be, if you look at the big picture, Christianity-wise. Goodness was beautiful, sin was ugly, and since Mary was the ultimate goodness, she pretty much had to be the ultimate beauty. To paint Mary as anything other than beautiful would be an insult*, not only to the mother of the Messiah but to the strict notions of female sexuality that ruled the church. It’s one thing for Mary to be a virgin because she’s devoted to chastity; it’s quite another for her to be a virgin if it’s just that she couldn’t get laid. The rosy lips, the loose hair, the flushed cheeks: These are signals of sexuality, but not with Mary. She alone gets to be totally beautiful, and totally pure. 

None of this was lost on me as a second-grader, who, fascinated as I was by the cleavage and teased hair I’d see on my parents’ night soaps, found Mary’s virginal prettiness a tad more accessible. My religious skepticism kicked in early, but Mary’s beauty was fact to me, even as I didn’t bother to distinguish between the “real” Mary and depictions of her. I mean, could the covers of all those church bulletins really have gotten it wrong? (It hadn’t yet occurred to me that the skin of the women on those bulletins was suspiciously light for a woman of the Levant; my skepticism, it seemed, only went so far.) Proof of her beauty lay in the pageant itself: All Mary did was sit there, hold a baby, and be looked at. She didn’t even have to speak to command attention.

The only person who spoke in our Christmas pageant, actually, was the angel, who would read aloud from the Bible as nativity players assembled themselves. The role of the angel, therefore, had to go to a child who read well enough and spoke clearly enough to recite the appropriate passages. Which, in our church, was me. Every year, it was me. In 1982 it was me, in 1983 it was me, 1984. We moved to another state for a couple of years, but when we returned in 1987, the white robe was still there waiting for me, its hem still pinned from when I wore it last, now able to be let out. I have no idea who played the angel during my hiatus, because our congregation was short on kids, which is part of why I’d been cast in the role every year to begin with.

It wasn’t hard to figure out the other reason the role always went to me. I was the smart one, so I played the angel, and Lisa K.—the only other girl of pageant-appropriate age at our church—was the pretty one, so she got to be Mary. It wasn’t even a question; nobody ever asked me if I’d like to play Mary. Every year, the blue robe was handed to Lisa, and every year, the white one went to me. Joseph got to rotate; every year one of the four boys at the church would sub in, relieved that year of being one of the Wise Men. But Mary and the angel, we stayed the same.

I was hardly the only girl to absorb the pretty-or-smart dichotomy—for that’s what it was in my mind, a dichotomy. And I was happy to be on the “smart” side of things; even in adolescence, it never occurred to me to dumb myself down for boys. Prettiness seemed like something for other girls, the same way some kids had grandparents who lived in the same town or got to have Froot Loops every morning if they wanted. It simply wasn’t an option for me, and I didn’t particularly mind, telling myself that it was okay, it evened out: Lisa K. got to be Mary—just like Jenny S. got to be the prettiest girl in the class—but I got to be smart. It was an honor I shared with the other “gifted and talented” kid in my grade, a girl I spent many an afternoon in a classroom corner with, picking out words from dictionaries for each other to spell out because we’d exhausted the teachers’ resources. The pretty-or-smart equation stayed even in my head; my “G&T” friend was a perfectly nice-looking girl, but she wore thick glasses, which somehow kept my imagined scales in balance. We weren’t at risk of being the prettiest girls in the class, so good thing we were the smartest.

This equation was never spoken aloud; nobody ever taught it to me, and certainly I knew better than to go around announcing it. Nobody needed to teach it to me. It made perfect sense: No one girl could be too much. To be the smart one, and the pretty one, was too potent for any one person. It was too much power, I suppose, though I wouldn’t have used that word then, as power wasn’t high on my priorities in the second grade. But like many a 7-year-old, I had a keenly tuned sense of justice, and I knew that to be the smart one and the pretty one would violate the fairness that I believed ruled the cosmos. I didn’t believe that being pretty was better than being smart, or vice versa. But I knew they were both qualities that people admired, and keeping in line with my sense of justice, I figured it was pretty much fate as to which one you got.

So I accepted that white robe, year after year, just as I accepted my role as the smart girl. It was my duty: I could read better than Lisa K., and Lisa K. could look more daintily pious than I could, and that was that. With the naive condescension particular to precocious children, I even began to feel sorry for Lisa K. I mean, I’d figured this whole thing out and was more or less cool with it. But Lisa K.! She hadn’t figured it out! She was going to play Mary her whole life and would never know why! Because she wasn't the smart girl! I bore the agony of my knowledge nobly, channeling my dignity into my solemn reading of Luke 2: 1-20. Still, every year in early December I would feel a twinge of hope that maybe this was the year that Lisa K. would get the white robe—I mean, she did know how to read—and I’d get the blue one. And every year, just before the roles would be announced, I’d abandon that hope, and every year, adults would compliment me on what a good reader I was. 

By our last Christmas at that church—our last church Christmas period, as we’d move to Oregon the following year, where my parents would quietly decide to scrap the church thing altogether—I’d aged out of the pageant. I’d been confirmed that spring; I was now an adult member of the congregation, not the mere child I was at 12. Luckily, a new crop of kids was ready to take over. The three boys as the Wise Men, the slightly older kids to be Mary and Joseph. There was even a well-behaved infant who would make a cameo as the Messiah. 

They’d chosen a new angel, and it wasn’t a surprise who. A 7-year-old with strong reading skills, a flair for performance as evidenced during her occasional solo with our meager choir, and a headful of strawberry blond hair was the new angel. I’d felt a kinship with her even before the casting: She was smart, like me, a little quirky, like me. I was ready to retire, and at a sage 13 years old, I felt confident the role was being passed off in a fine manner. For the first time, I watched the pageant from the pews. I watched as the strawberry blond climbed the dais, swimming in my old robe, now rehemmed, and took her place at the pulpit. 

Here, I am tempted to say my reaction was what it might be now, as an adult: that I watched a 7-year-old girl reciting scripture, and saw it for the charming act of religious pageantry it was, not as an enactment of the pretty-versus-smart balance of scales that existed in my head. That watching her, I understood my equation as a tender cruelty to both Lisa K. and myself, one I’d invented as a misguided way of navigating the beauty messages I was aware enough to pick up on but immature enough to handle poorly. I’d like to tell you that I watched a 7-year-old girl tripping on the hem of her angel’s robe, reciting scripture for the congregants to smile over, and saw that her prettiness was beside the point. 

That would be untrue. I was still a child myself, one who had always assumed that her level of emotional maturity matched her level of intellectual maturity, which it didn’t. No: I looked at her, and looked at the girl who was playing Mary, and saw that she—the angel—was the pretty one. The lights fell upon that strawberry blond hair, her fair skin and freckles seeming impossibly adorable, and she read with the kind of expertise that I recognized. Instead of beginning to wonder if the smart-pretty equation was off in my head, I immediately assumed that it wasn’t right, it wasn’t fair, that this girl was the angel and pretty.

It was a sensation I’d have again a few months later, when my G&T dictionary cohort would exchange her thick glasses for contact lenses, revealing her enormous amber eyes—and thus, her babedom—for the world to see; I’d have it again when I started high school and found that the smart-kid program was full of pretty girls—girls who boys liked, girls who hadn’t fallen rank-and-file onto one balance of the scale or the other. Girls who would, eventually, lead me to see that smart vs. pretty was a game none of us actually wanted to play, a game engineered by a sensibility that was assuring a generation of young women that they could become whatever they wanted yet couldn’t let go of the checks and balances that had supported the status quo of femininity for so long. Girls who went on to be pilots, mothers, biologists, dancers. Girls whose own mental arithmetic may have stayed as private as my own, girls who may have decidedly chosen one but simply couldn’t help being the other too, girls whose scales bore different labels than mine but prompted the same shuttering of self. Girls who would have dismissed the notion of any pretty-versus-smart scale out of hand, had I ever shared that corner of my mind with them. Girls I would watch for the four critical years that make up high school. Girls who, maybe, watched me back.

I sat there, watching, jealous of a 7-year-old, and ashamed for that jealousy. I wasn’t above evaluating the looks of a second-grader, but I knew I should be above envying her for them. In time I would learn that pretty and smart played just fine together, finally giving credence to the evidence I saw everywhere around me. But I didn’t know that then. All I could do is listen to her recitation: Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people. She read beautifully.

*For more on this, check out Ambiguous Locks: An Iconology of Hair in Medieval Art and Literature, by Roberta Milliken.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Compliments, Catcalls, and Weariness

Still deciding if it's okay to catcall cats.

The first time it happened, I was in Hell’s Kitchen, steeling myself against whatever the man walking toward me was sure to say. If you live in urban areas long enough, and if you’re a woman, you learn the little signals that let you know a dose of street harassment is coming: He’s searching for your gaze and doesn’t avert it if your eyes catch his; he’s either alone or standing in a stationary cluster of other men, none of whom are looking at one another but who are clearly associated. Most of all, he’s got the look, which boils down not to physical clues—he could just as easily be dressed in Silicon Valley chic as in the clichéd construction-worker gear—but an expression (or is it an expression you redraw in your head once he’s passed, once he’s said whatever it is that he’s going to say, once he’s confirmed that yes, he won’t you pass with the dignity of silence?).

This was one of those men, so I held my gaze forward, kept my pace even, did not look down, the things that #YesAllWomen learn to do, the things that most men are surprised to learn their sisters and girlfriends have quietly mastered, the things many women are surprised to learn they’ve mastered. And then, sure enough, it came, in a graveled voice steeped in 1970s New York tough-guy movies: “Nice color.”

It was a nice color, the fuchsia scarf wrapped twice around my neck, particularly set against the all-black of the rest of the outfit. It was a good shade for me, and even if it hadn’t been flattering it was noticeable. That was the idea; that’s why I’d chosen it. I felt vaguely sheepish after his utterance: I’d been bracing myself against another category of comment that tends to come from male strangers, not the sort of thing an officemate or my mother might say offhandedly. How silly of me, I thought, assuming the worst just because he looked a certain way. And then: How arrogant of me. I’d long known that catcalls weren’t compliments, nor did I take them as any assessment of my actual appeal, rather as an assessment of power and claiming of public space. But to steel myself for a catcall and to have it replaced by something cordial provoked not actual arrogance but the foolishness of wondering if one was arrogant after all. 

When I say this was the first time it happened, what I mean is that this was the first time I can recall picking up on the fact that a stranger was going to say something to me, had braced myself for it, and then heard a compliment on my outfit that was downright pleasant. Not a comment on my womanhood (“Come over here, baby”), general appearance (“Hey, beautiful”), or body (“Nice legs”), but words specifically about the outfit, and without using it as an entrée into further conversation, and absent a slithering tone that might imply that while he might be complimenting the outfit he was really saying something about my body. Brotherly, fatherly. Friendly.

The fuchsia-scarf interaction stuck with me, and as I noticed it happening more and more, it recalled how I felt when I first hit the age where men would say things. I remember walking down the main drag of my South Dakota town with three friends; as a car passed us, a young man yelled out, “Hey baby!” It was the first time anyone had acknowledged me as a sexual creature—which I was, as much as any 11-year-old girl stuck in a classroom full of oblivious boys is—and it was a thrill. Once it started happening more frequently, the thrill turned to annoyance, with streaks of anger, fear, and amusement scattered about. Still, my initial reaction to that first catcall was to read it with the naive generosity of a sixth-grader: It was attention, presumably complimentary, and it felt nice. I interpreted the fuchsia-scarf interaction through the more jaded lens of a thirtysomething New Yorker, but that lens was still generous: It was a compliment, not a seedy one, and weren’t the random public interactions one has in this city—not catcalls, but the momentary delight of one stranger conversing with another, then sailing on, never to be seen again—part of why I loved living here? Did I want to live in a world where strangers couldn’t interact with one another without my creepometer going off?

It kept happening, in ways it hadn’t before, at least not regularly. I thought maybe it was me: I was marching toward 40, was this how men treated women stepping out of youth? As “ladies,” not as public objects? That is, I made the classic mistake of thinking that things strange men said to me were about me, not about sex, gender, and power. But it came up in conversation with Katrin—whose footsteps are farther away from 40 than my own—after a stranger gave her the same sort of ostensibly gentlemanly comment. I shared my own experience, and she’d noticed it too: “What, do they think they’re our girlfriends now?” she asked.

I laughed, because it’s funny. But the more I thought about it, the more it irked me. Were men trying to get in on the niche of female solidarity that sees women bursting forth with compliments for one another—were they trying to be our girlfriends? Was this an exhibition of “PC Bro” behavior? For just as that most friendly, least threatening of words—hello—when a compliment is uttered between strangers who have some sort of perceived power imbalance, the message goes beyond the words.

Catcalls are marked by their crassness, either by their blatantly sexual content about women’s bodies, or by the direct implication that the utterance is a mating call (“Hey, baby”). A compliment about one’s outfit, absent sexualization, isn’t necessarily crass; often, it’s kind. But this kind of supposed compliment goes to the heart of the real problem of street harassment: surveillance of women. It performs another neat trick in that if you complain about it, you’re easily accused of overreacting, even from those who would nod at your right to huff and puff about the “Hey, baby” variety of catcaller. It’s more polite than a catcall, but it does much of the same work: It makes sure that women are still evaluated on their appearance, makes sure that women know they’re evaluated on their appearance, and makes sure that it’s men doing the evaluating. It makes sure that we know we’re being watched. Nicely, of course, or at least that’s the line—lady, you can’t tell me you’re seriously threatened by me telling you I like your scarf?

And no, I’m not. Violence, assault, intimidation: Yes, of course those happen to women in public spaces, all the time, every day. Anti-harassment campaigns like Hollaback are correct in focusing their efforts on these aspects of street harassment; they’re a more concrete threat than mere annoyance. But fear of violence is not why I seize up when I sense that the man walking toward me is about to say something. In fact, that seizing isn’t usually about fear at all, but about weariness. Weariness about the fact that even if—let’s hand out the benefit of the doubt here—men who say things to me, and to you, really do just like the color of our scarves, there’s still a presumption that we want to know about it. And I do want to know, sure, and I delight in hearing a compliment from a female stranger on the street, or from a friend of any sex. But the compliment as undercover catcall—even if it is offered in genuine kindness—shows a presumption that men and women share the streets in the same way, when we don’t. A well-meaning man might issue this kind of utterance as a genuine attempt at friendliness (“Do they think they’re our girlfriends?”) but it reveals that he has no idea that I’ve heard those words before, or words like them, and that they’ve been used not as a compliment about my dress but about the flesh that’s underneath and what should be done to it. 

The compliment as undercover catcall makes me think of “PC bro” culture, a phenomenon taken to ludicrous heights on South Park with the advent of “PC Principal.” (And, more seriously, by James Deen.) PC bros—in South Park and in life—are a mix of men genuinely eager to make the world a better place for the oppressed and enforcing “safe” language in their efforts to do so, and men adopting the language they’ve learned due to the heightened visibility of oppressed people in order to further their own agenda. (In one episode, it’s charged that “PC” stands not for “politically correct” but for “pussy crusher.”) I’m genuinely sympathetic to earnest men here—I’ve always believed that feminism makes the world better for everyone, but it’s uncomfortable to be in the position of someone who’s making good-faith efforts to transform patriarchal culture, only to find out that those efforts are missteps. It’s easy to be harrumphy about men whose motives are more obviously suspect. It’s harder to tell the dude who recognizes that catcalling isn’t okay but then keeps its surveillance alive through the compliment that what he’s doing is catcalling’s gentler cousin: different face, one that’s kinder and nonthreatening, but with a shared bloodline nonetheless.

Do I want to live in a world where male and female strangers are barred from speaking to one another because women are tired of it all? Depending on the day, that’s tempting, but ultimately, I don’t; awareness of sexism should expand us, not cloister us. I suppose what I’d want to happen is for men to just know what they’re saying when they say it—or rather, for men to know what women hear when they speak. To know that the two are not the same.