"Your story is being considered to be featured on AOL Welcome Screen!" my editor at MyDaily wrote me in regards to the piece I wrote about my makeover. "If it happens, you will get TONS of traffic. Yay! But be ready for crazy comments."
I wouldn't say that the comments were crazy (with the exception of "I would eat her with a spoon"). But when I was notified that it had gone into rotation and saw more than 100 comments within mere hours, I was both thankful to my editor for her prescience (word up, Ellen!) and interested in what this sample of people might illuminate about our culture's attitudes toward beauty. I sometimes fall into the pop-feminist bubble (I remember being shocked when a friend told me he hadn't read much discussion of Natalie Portman's ballerina-fied body in Black Swan, whereas that was pretty much the only thing I read about the film), so I was curious to see what a cross-section of Americans who are Online might have to say about my piece. And, of course, I never found out: They were too busy talking about my face instead.
What I learned from 122 comments about my face:
1) People overwhelmingly preferred the "before" me: “I agree with everyone else the before picture is better than the bombshell photo. ; )”
I prefer the "natural" me too, for that matter—I loved the bombshell look and found it fun, and thought Eden did a fantastic job of creating the look. But I wasn’t doing the makeover to look better; I was doing it to look different, and both my makeover guru and I approached it with that mind-set. And, sure, it's nice to hear that Online Americans don’t think I need a pile of false eyelashes to look nice. (You like me! You really like me!) I admit it's also a relief. (Still, I stand by certain tricks I learned. Eyebrow pencil! Lipstick!)
Aside from that—and aside from the unfortunate difference in lighting between the two photos, which ensured that my “before” has a naturally-lit quality that the “after” couldn’t achieve—I found it interesting that, in fact, only four commenters flat-out said that I looked better afterward. Is it only a straw man who prefers artifice? And was there an element of self-congratulation among some commenters? It’s easy to be drawn to certain signals of beauty: red lipstick, emphasized eyes, long curls. Therefore, it’s easier to reject those signals as false, vain, trying too hard. Yet we all know what those signals mean, so I wonder if some commenters thought that they were seeing beyond the surface by preferring the more low-key look presented in the “before” picture. To reject my utterly normal-looking, friendly-seeming “before” picture would be more akin to rejecting a person, not the symbols presented in the “after”—and while anonymous online commenters aren’t known for their social graces, neither are people usually out to merely be mean. (Of course, plenty of commenters were just that, but they’re easy enough to discount.)
2) The catch-all insult: “got 2 mention nose job.”
A handful of commenters indicated that I needed a nose job. Whaaaa? I have the most average nose in North America. I mean, am I deluding myself here in that there is absolutely nothing remarkable about my nose? (Okay, I do have a bump from a reconstruction after a car wreck when I was 16, but you can only see it from the side.) What this indicates to me is that “you need a nose job” is a grab bag of ways to put a woman in her place. It makes me think of the time a random man on the subway suddenly started yelling at me about how fat I was. It wasn’t that I was fat (I’ve got a medium build), nor was it even that he thought I was fat, I’m guessing—it was that he was putting me in my place for not encouraging his advances. You can’t see my body in the shot that was on the page, and telling a woman she needs a nose job is vaguely the facial equivalent of “fat”: It’s a catch-all way of saying, There is something wrong with you, even if there isn’t. (And not that being fat or having a nose that is the stuff of magnificence is “wrong,” but some people treat it that way.) I’m not everyone’s cup of tea, but neither is there an odd-looking feature about me that’s so outstanding as to become the butt of commenters' jokes. So: nose job it is.
3) Total strangers could tell I'm uncomfortable in front of a camera: “She would be prettier in each picture if she had actually smiled rather than pursed her lips.”
It’s humbling to be called out on your “photo face” by total strangers. (A number of people commented that I looked pinched, uncomfortable, or “like she’s sucking a lemon.”) After interviewing photographer Sophie Elgort, I had to own up to the fact that if I’m trying to “look pretty” in a photograph, it will kill any chance I have of looking pretty. As Sophie said, “How can you expect to look like your best self in a photo if you’re putting on a ridiculous face?” To see that total strangers could pick up on my discomfort was an official notice that I’m not fooling anyone when I pout-smile in front of the camera. Smile and breathe. Smile and breathe.
4) People were quick to point out that, no, I didn't look like a bombshell: “We have very different definitions of 'bombshell'”
Some commenters meant this is a put-down (“More dud than bombshell,” courtesy icebull), but others just seemed mildly perplexed. I realize that a look that’s over-the-top to me is tame by many standards ("I'd like for you to visit Tuscaloosa on a nice fall Saturday—chances are there's more bombshells walking around there than where you're from,” writes DC). Perhaps the word conjures something that I didn’t intend; I forget that not everybody scrutinizes words the way I do. But from my perspective, the whole point of the bombshell is that it’s a creation, not a God-given quality. (Norma Jeane, anyone?) So when commenters wrote along the lines of, "She's just wearing lipstick and eyeliner! Where's the bombshell?" I wondered what they were hoping to see. Did they expect something more over-the-top? A different look entirely? A professional-level photo? Someone who is flat-out more beautiful than I could ever be?
Or was it that the term is so loaded that it can’t help but disappoint? We’re saturated with images of professional beauties everywhere, and those images are always digitally manipulated. I wonder if some users who saw the “bombshell” promise on their welcome screens, upon scrolling over my “before” picture and then finding a non-airbrushed, non-professional picture of a non-model—that is, an average woman who has been promoted as a “bombshell”—simply felt ripped off.
Listen, I don’t think I’m some exquisite orchid, but I can look in the mirror and see that I’m not “horrifying,” as one commenter wrote. I’m guessing that the people who were eager to put me down were doing so because through the construction of the headline, the “grand reveal” drag-and-scroll rollover of my before and after, and the very idea of the piece, I was claiming “bombshell” status for myself, however temporarily. It was that claim that provoked a response, not how I actually looked. In the days following Elizabeth Taylor’s death, I had a handful of conversations with friends who said something along the lines of “She’s pretty, sure, but why was she known as a great beauty?” None of the people who said this to me are the type to just randomly detract from someone’s looks: They were saying it in response to the sudden hyperconsciousness of a woman who has readily been called the most beautiful woman in the world. Of course they were going to look at that claim critically—and when you're using that rubric, Elizabeth freakin’ Taylor can fall short. Once I asked readers to take me in as a bombshell, how could I stand a chance of escaping the same?
5) Few people read a single word I wrote: “She was so excellent at playing Cleopatra that the world later really thought that Cleopatra was actually white. God Bless and Rest in Peace.”
Which is to say: Few appeared to have read the piece itself. The grand total of people who referenced anything other than my photo? Thirteen. (That’s excluding friends and readers of The Beheld who commented to help promote the piece—thank you!) Of those, maybe five actually addressed the points I was attempting to make. I can’t really get up in arms about this: It is a piece about my appearance, after all; referencing my looks in the comments isn't irrelevant. But nowhere did I say in the piece that I thought I looked better in either photo, and for a piece about getting a makeover, it was as far away from “which is better?” as you could get.
But none of that matters, because nobody was reading. I'm recalling an anecdote I didn't have room for in my interview with artist and writer Lisa Ferber: She was nervous while preparing to share one of her short stories at a reading. "My mother asked me if I was nervous about the piece, and I said, 'No, I'm nervous that I just won't be a good reader.' And she said, 'Lisa, you are a beautiful woman—nobody is going to listen to a word you say anyway.'" We both laughed when she shared the story, but it stuck with me. I’ve seen plenty of women be underestimated because they’re pretty, but I’ve always assumed that because I’m neither glorious nor hideous, it didn’t apply to me.
What I learned with this piece was that being objectified isn’t about whether a woman is pretty. It’s about her being an object—which is mighty hard to escape if you’re a woman, regardless of your appearance. In this case, the subject matter served as an ersatz carte blanche for people to openly discuss my looks, but it’s not hard to think of examples where the subject matter was entirely incongruent with a woman’s looks and people took aim anyway. (The 2008 elections come to mind.) I can’t imagine that people would have read the piece any more closely if I’d been outrageously weird-looking, or that fewer people would have read it if I were more conventionally beautiful. It was that I was a woman, and that I was there.