The Well-Heeled Life: Shoes, Ability, and Fear [Invited Post]

The work of guest writer Keah Brown first came to my attention with her nuanced critical view of disability and film in Catapult, and my appreciation of her work only deepened with "The Freedom of a Ponytail,"  an essay about the triumph of learning to put her hair in a ponytail one-handed, as necessitated by the cerebral palsy that affects mobility on the right side of her body. In Lenny Letter, she writes: "[My ponytails] are a promise of more to come, a promise to keep working at them until they are the best that they can be. I find myself wondering back to that list of things I can't do and imagining a world in which I can. ... Being able to put my hair up didn't make me instantly love myself or my body, but it helped me see that I could one day." You can follow her on Twitter here, and visit her website here.

 

"And then I watched as their feet grew tired when the night went on and those same heels ended up in their hands or at the tables by their purses." (Photo:  Tangi Bertin ,  Creative Commons license .)

"And then I watched as their feet grew tired when the night went on and those same heels ended up in their hands or at the tables by their purses." (Photo: Tangi Bertin, Creative Commons license.)

One of the first times I ever felt beautiful was at my high school prom. I stood on the venue’s version of a dancefloor and thanked the classmates who passed by me and complimented my dress. My dress, to this day, is one of the prettiest things I have ever worn, a black and pink ball gown with corset ties and enough tulle to make your head spin. I looked like a princess and felt like one too, with the tiara to match. I believed them when they said I was beautiful. I had no reason not to. I knew that the dress fit my body and skin tone well. I felt at my prettiest then, even as I wore silver sparkly flats that I bought from Payless two nights before. I watched my classmates walk and dance in their sky-high heels with ease. And then I watched as their feet grew tired when the night went on and those same heels ended up in their hands or at the tables by their purses.

The trouble with prom is that it’s only one night, and that feeling of being beautiful ended when it did. However, the envy of the girls and their sky-high heels remained. Though I had plenty of reasons to be jealous of the girls themselves, I found myself specifically envious of their ability to walk in heels. High heels are beautiful. I say this as a person who has never been and will never be able to wear them. I don’t have the coordination and the balance to do so. I heard once that we often crave the things we can’t have. We wish for a scenario or a world in which the thing we can’t have, the thing we can’t do, is possible; we crave a bit of magic. I am and was no different. Growing up as a black disabled woman with cerebral palsy, I wished for many things. I wished for a new body entirely, asking only to wake up with the same black skin, same name, and the same family everything else could go. I wished for knees and feet that didn’t ache after walking through malls and on park trails, grocery stores and movie theaters. And around the time of each high school dance I wished for a magic pair of heels that were secretly made just for me to walk in. I wanted them to be a secret because I feared they wouldn’t work if other people knew about them. I’d like to think that they would appear on my doorstep in a black and white box with a note that read “Keah, here is the only beauty secret you need.” I likened them to The Sisterhood of The Traveling Pants books. I was a huge fan at the time and thought that if they were allowed a pair of magic pants I should be allowed one pair of magic heels. The pair of enchanted heels never came for me but I still found myself admiring heels from afar, picking them up in stores and asking my mom and sister if they thought the heels on the shoes were small enough for me to walk in even when we all knew the answer was no.  

There are lots of things I can’t do: cartwheels, backbends and walkovers, fly, wink, or whistle, blow bubbles, crack an egg or the code to the perfect Rubik’s cube, and this is not due to a lack of trying. In fact, I spent many of my adolescent years trying to do cartwheels and backbends at home and after cheer practices with my sister. I spent summers at park programs trying to whistle and blow the biggest bubble while in competition with the other kids. All of this was a result of fearlessness. When you’re younger, fear is a thing you know but not something you practice. Fear is the thing you tuck away in the furthest part of your mind while you do the things you love or dream without abandon. The lack of fear as a young girl is what kept me believing the impossible and continually trying the things that were genuinely impossible. We live in a society that touts the message  “nothing is impossible if you believe hard enough!” but that’s simply untrue and quite frankly, harmful.

People with disabilities are regarded as worthy only when we “achieve” and “defy expectations”; we are led to believe that our worth lies in how closely we can align ourselves to the able-bodied, Eurocentric beauty standards that our society holds so dear. After all, high heels are sexy and fun; they make women irresistible and men drool, if you ask any advertisement, movie, TV show, or image eager to convey desirability. The “irresistible” women in these images are never in flats like I was at prom. They’re in heels as high as possible, walking confidently as the heels click-clack on their feet. They are models on the runways of the biggest fashion companies with heels bedazzled and strappy, a silent promise that a heel is the necessary shoe to complete whatever look graces their bodies. When the models aren’t in heels, their look is just as unattainable. They’re shown in t-shirt-and-jeans-and-I-just-woke-up-like-this beauty that is just as alienating. These women do not wear heels all the time but we are lead to believe that certain looks are incomplete without heels, often overlooking the ableist nature of such a message. The images presented to us are easy to buy into. When you are fed the narrative that almost every single body but yours is desirable, you believe it. So it’s easy to look at the images of those same beautiful women in high heels and back at yourself, and think, Maybe I’ll never be as desirable and sexy like those women. It’s not just that we share no similarities in body type, or often, race. It’s also that I can’t even indulge in the primary simulacrum of their sexiness. I can’t even wear their shoes.

When I was in college, my friends and I would sometimes leave campus and go to our Galleria Mall. I would pick out clothes I was almost always too lazy to try on and wait for my friends while they did the responsible thing and made sure their clothes fit before buying them. They would try on their clothes and we’d collectively agree or veto them, and I’d always wander back by the shoes, picking up and putting down heels that were far too thin and too tall for anyone but an expert to walk in. I would sit with the shoes for a bit while waiting for my friends to change and close my eyes and imagine a world where the shoe was both in my size ten foot and wearable. Under my closed lids my friends would ooh and ahh as the heels sculpted my feet like art before I’d take them off and bring them to the register for purchasing. These dreams would end once my name was called or one of my friends stepped out of the dressing room to ask me how the clothes looked, but I enjoyed each moment anyway.

High heels have always been one of the things I’ve loved but could never have. This realization came to me early. I am very familiar with my body’s limitations and I take great care to wear sneakers with heel and arch support when I am walking anywhere regardless of the distance. I often ask myself: How much of my inability to walk in heels is fear, and how much of it is the result of the body I am housed in? Fear, in a twisted way, brings me comfort. Fear is familiar and digestible in a way that the reality of not being able to wear heels is not. Fear allows me the room to lie to myself and say that fear is the only reason I cannot wear heels. When in reality, that’s not the case.  

The answer doesn’t exactly matter in the grand scheme of things because the fact of the matter is that it’s just not something I’ll ever be able to do, despite the messages that nothing is impossible. However, when I posed the question of the ability to or to not wear heels on Twitter I was surprised by the response. Like many people, my circumstances, failures, and inability to do certain things have always felt like circumstances I’ve always dealt with alone. As ridiculous as it sounds, I’d already convinced myself that I was the only person in the world who could not wear heels and in turn, could not be desired by anyone. I found out a few weeks ago that this was not only ridiculous but untrue. The same balancing issues that I have, other folks with disabilities have as well. The same aching feet and need for stability is theirs as well, and they still found significant others. Despite the lack of heels in their lives they still love, and are loved. The femininity, desirability, and embrace of womanhood that I feared I did not deserve without the ability to adhere to the standards set and reinforced by society, I’ve had all along. On prom night all those years ago, I felt beautiful without question. Now, despite feeling fear, I am ready to walk through life one flat shoe at a time.

"Flowers in the Attic" Is the Best Book Ever* And Here Is Why





Yes, I’m serious. Flowers in the Attic—a.k.a. “The book that made teenage girls look sideways at their brothers and shudder,” as my similarly besotted pal Lindsay put it—wasn’t originally marketed as a young adult book when it was first printed in 1979, but it soon found its niche in the hearts of pubescent girls across the land. (And now it’s popularly acknowledged as a YA book; in fact, my library categorizes it as such.) It hit bestseller lists within two weeks of its publication, and the popularity of that book and the numerous other works by V.C. Andrews** that followed didn’t dwindle for years—in 1990, V.C. Andrews was still the second-most-popular author among teens.

I was one of those teenagers, and maybe you were too. I’d grown up on a steady supply of classics and earnest Newbery award-winning books for children and young adults, so it wasn’t like I was deprived of good literature. But come the sophisticated age of 12, I was ready for something juicier than Tom Sawyer kissing Becky Thatcher, and I moved straight into—spoiler alert, here and throughout—brotherfucking. And, you know, I knew it was trash, but damn if I didn’t stay up nights sixth through ninth grade blazing through the entire Flowers in the Attic Dollanganger series, followed by the Casteel series, followed by the Dawn series, followed by My Sweet Audrina, which I thought was lame*** and then I stopped. But when I heard that Lifetime was premiering a new**** Flowers in the Attic movie this SaturdayI went back for a reread, and thus, my declaration that Flowers in the Attic Is the Best Book Ever.

And here’s why.

1) The incest plot was hot. 
Which is not to say that girls actually want to sleep with their brothers / sisters / uncles / cousins / parents / etc. It’s not even to say that girls fantasize about it in great numbers. But consensual incest caters to the nascent desires of many a pre/teen girl—that is, girls who aren’t yet sexually active, but who are beginning to think in terms of sexuality and have erotic impulses. A 12-year-old who has yet to be kissed might well be simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by the thought of sex—and what would make it a mentally “safe spot” where she could feel aroused and not repulsed? A known, loving, nonthreatening partner. That is...a brother. Not her own brother, of course; I’m guessing most girls would be repulsed by the thought of actually kissing her own brother. But with Flowers in the Attic, the teen reader is aligned with protagonist Cathy by dint of being a girl. She gets to experience the thrill of sex without having to entirely shed any vestiges of “eww boys,” because she knows that “her” brother (that is, Chris, Cathy's brother) is a loving, nurturing person who is, above all, safe. So by “becoming” Cathy, the reader is able to experience sex—which, if memory serves, the average early adolescent sees as a combination of forbidden and arousing—in a way that’s both. 

Consensual incest is actually a recurring theme in Gothic novels (“the perfect linking of the most desirable object with the prohibited object”), and it showed up in the work of one of the most-read feminine***** erotica writers (Anaïs Nin, whose incest erotica was published just two years before Flowers in the Attic). It’s actually a surprise that there aren’t a whole lot more Gothic YA books with brother bangin’. Of course, the whole “brothers are safe” thing is complicated just a bit by the wee matter of consent. Chris and Cathy’s major sexual interlude begins with this:



… “You’re mine, Cathy! Mine! You’ll always be mine! No matter who comes into your future, you’ll always belong to me! I”ll make you mine...tonight...now!”

I didn’t believe it, not Chris!

And I did not fully understand what he had in mind, nor, if I am to give him credit, do I think he really meant what he said, but passion has a way of taking over.

We fell to the floor, both of us. I tried to fight him off. We wrestled, turning over and over, writing, silent a frantic struggle of his strength against mine.

It wasn’t much of a battle.



Two pages later, Chris is quick to offer the world’s most awful/awesome apology (“I didn’t mean to rape you, I swear to God”). But Cathy is just as quick to clarify that he didn’t rape her. “I could have stopped you if I’d really wanted to. All I had to do was bring my knee up hard… It was my fault too.” Yet the pretense that there was force involved may well have helped girls derive pleasure from it—“good girls” don’t actively want to have sex, after all. But if you’re simply overpowered, then you didn’t want it, it just happened. Applied to real life, this is terrible logic (in fact, it’s rapist logic); applied to the fantasy life of girls who have desires but not the know-how to give them form even in her imagination, it makes some sort of sense. Rape fantasies aren’t uncommon for women to have; about 4 in 10 women have them, with a median frequency of once a month. I couldn’t find any numbers about rape fantasies among girls/teens, but my hunch says that the idea of having to have sex whether you want to or not is probably far more appealing to someone who hasn’t yet learned how to express her sexual agency.

The first time I floated this girls-like-incest-fantasies bit out loud, one woman pointed out that for a good number of girls, rape and incest are realities, and that eroticizing them reinforces the idea that there’s something sexy about nonconsensual sex. (Keeping in mind that while consensual incest does happen, many survivors of coercive incest convince themselves their abuse is quasi-consensual, as a survival tactic.) I agree, at least in the sense that popular culture is a part of rape culture, which then colors the idea of what rape is (and—surprise!—usually not in a way that is helpful to its victims). But that’s not what’s going on in Flowers in the Attic. (Later “V.C. Andrews” novels, perhaps, but that’s a different post.) It’s in the realm of fantasy—it’s even constructed as such within the book. As literature professor Cynthia Griffin Wolff writes of earlier Gothic work, part of the hallmarks of Gothic literature is “a set of conventions within which ‘respectable’ feminine sexuality might find expression.” It’s understood by the reader as a way to get to read utter filth with a sort of “free pass” for wanting to do so in the first place. Case in point: When I read it as an adult, I found that I’d erased any rapey overtones from my memory of reading it as a kid. I saw it for what it was, and judging from the way my friends talked about it at the time, they did too. Nobody in their right mind would hand it to a young rape victim as a depiction of her experience—read as such, it’s horrific (“It was my fault too”?). But that’s not how it’s read by its readers, I don’t think. (Of course, when I read this book the first time, I hadn’t experienced a whit of sexual trauma; perhaps if I had, my memory of it would be different. I can only go off my own experience here.) 

Point is: Girls don’t want to be raped, any more than they want to sleep with their brothers. But are there elements of it that appeal to the V.C. Andrews target demographic beyond the mere taboo? Yeah.



2) It lets you hate the mother but still love your own. 
You know those goody-two-shoes YA novels where the protagonist and her mother might fight but deep down there’s a Very Special Connection? V.C. Andrews offers an ear-shattering Screw that and gives the reader every excuse to seriously hate on Cathy's mother, Corinne. SHE KILLED CORY, I mean, come on. Now, my mom and I have always had a pretty good relationship (I mean, I’m choosy about my guest bloggers, and here she is! Twice!). But our mother-daughter relationship took a definite downswing during my prime V.C. Andrews years. A catalogue of my mother’s sins circa 1987-89: She made me wear a hat and scarf in when it was a measly -18 outside (hats are for dorks!), she made me take a study skills course (study skills omg mom!), she enrolled me in a girls’ self-defense seminar against my will (on a Saturday, which is a weekend!), she made me read Charlotte Freakin’ Bronte (life is not school!), she wouldn’t buy me a Guess sweatshirt just because I wanted one (everyone but meee had one!), and she wouldn’t let me see Dirty Dancing (actually, I still think I’m right on this one). 

Anyway. So while I never resorted to any “I hate you!” antics, there was definite tension, and it doesn’t require years of therapy to understand that part of it was my pubescent resistance to becoming anything like my mother—that is, a woman. Eager as I was to grow up, my fantasy of womanhood clashed hard against the reality of womanhood I saw in the form of the actual woman I knew best. In my head, being a woman meant, like, going to balls and wearing updos and going out with a different dashing suitor every night, but then here was this flesh-and-blood woman who was doing things like making taco salad. It wasn’t long before I woke up and started appreciating her and everything she did for our family, but at 12 I was just too self-absorbed.

Enter a mom who went from basically being a Christmas card to locking up her four children in an attic and slowly poisoning them while she...went to balls and wore updos and went out with dashing suitors. Corinne takes every bit of perfectly normal mother-daughter strife and balloons it into grotesquerie. She’s a nightmare in the truest sense—just as you might manifest everyday anxiety into the classic why-am-I-in-my-underwear dream, Corinne’s evil is an enormously exaggerated version of what a lot of girls might feel toward their mothers at that age, shown from the girl’s perspective. That includes love and adoration too—Cathy might need prompting at times, but she’s still willing to melt into Corinne’s arms for quite some time after Corinne locked her away.

As Adrienne Rich writes in Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, mother-hatred is interpreted as “a womanly splitting of the self, in the desire to become individuated and free. The mother stands in for the victim in ourselves, the unfree woman, the martyr.” Gee: split self, desire to become individuated and free, victim, martyr, sounds like a whole lotta 12-year-olds I knew. Cathy’s physical resemblance to Corinne is more than a handy plot point (not to detract from the awesome doppelganger subplot in Petals in the Wind******, but I digress); it’s an extension of this idea that mother is daughter, and daughter mother, as much as she wishes not to be. And it also leads to…




3) It depicts aspects of beauty that we don’t often see. 
Plenty of books explicitly aimed at teens and preteens involve looks, but it tends to be some variation on the protagonist’s dissatisfaction. Maybe she doesn’t think she’s pretty (but some boy just might teach her otherwise!), maybe she’s jealous of her best friend’s looks, maybe she has a movie-moment makeover in which she sees herself as she wishes to be seen. The better of the YA set will deal with these in a more complex manner, but at best there’s ambivalence about whether or not the girl feels attractive.

Not so with Cathy: She’s a babe, and she knows it, and it isn’t because of any makeover. In fact, she has a disdain for artifice—when her brother tells her that if she develops an hourglass figure, she’ll “make a fortune,” she schools him on the dangers of corsetry. She takes sensual pleasure in herself: “[A]lways before I went to sleep, I spread my hair on my pillow so I could...nestle my cheek in the sweet-smelling silkiness of very pampered, well-cared-for, healthy, strong hair.” She waits until she’s alone and “then I stared, preened, and admired” herself in the mirror, for “Certainly I was much prettier than when I came here.” As for body image, when she talks of her dream of becoming a ballerina, she points out that “dancers have to eat and eat or else they’d be just skin and bones, so I’m going to eat a whole gallon of ice cream each day, and one day I’m going to eat nothing but cheese…”—a far cry from the prototypical YA-ballet-eating-disorder storyline. (I mean, eating a gallon of ice cream a day is an eating disorder, but whatever.)

Cathy takes pride in her looks, something that we cheer her on about, especially when she’s punished by the grandmother after she catches Cathy admiring herself naked in the mirror. (Naturally, the punishment befits the crime: She pours tar in Cathy’s long blond hair, forcing her to cut it off.) Pride isn’t the sin here—the sin, as the reader sees it, is all on the grandmother. In what other universe are girls cheered on for their vanity? Not just her pride or resilience with her body image or ability to recite “I’m beautiful just the way I am!” or whatever, but her downright vanity? It’s the cardinal sin of girldom, thinking you’re “all that.” But Cathy does it. The only “mean girl” around to side-eye her is the grandmother (“‘You think you look pretty? You think those new young curves are attractive?’” she hisses at Cathy), and obviously we’re going to be on Cathy’s side here. We freakin’ eat it up.

The leadup to Cathy and Chris getting all bow-chicka-bow-bow is less about anything that actually happens between them physically, and more about him seeing her (something her mother never does—Cathy totally freaks when Corinne brings her a bunch of “silly, sweet little-girl garments that screamed out she didn’t see,” none of which have room for her new curves). “[Y]ou look so beautiful. It’s like I never saw you before. How did you grow so lovely, when I was here all the time?” Chris says to Cathy upon catching her naked. The only other eyes on her as a woman are her own. Remember that whole “girls mature faster than boys” thing that turned out to be painfully true? Remember that sensation of wishing boys would just see you already? Yeah.

Andrews herself had experience with looks bringing a mixed bag of tricks: After suffering a severe fall as a teenager (which eventually landed her in a wheelchair), doctors didn’t believe that she was in pain, telling her she “looked too good” to be seriously hurt. Says Andrews of that age, “I was very pretty, and some fathers of my little girl friends made advances.” She never spoke publicly of anything abusive that might have happened, but it’s interesting to note that alongside the wording she chooses for Corinne when describing how she fell in love with her husband/half-uncle-half-brother: “I was fourteen years old—and that is an age when a girl just begins to feel her power over men. And I knew I was what most boys and men considered beautiful…” Girls are usually cautioned against playing with this particular kind of fire—as well they should be, given the potential fallout. But denying that there’s a lure to discovering one’s own appeal does girls a disservice, particularly when young women’s bodies are still the universal symbol for sex.


Okay, now that I’ve convinced you that Flowers in the Attic is the best movie ever, you should all watch Saturday’s premiere with me and live-tweet the whole damn thing. That’s my plan, at least, but I am not kidding when I say that if tweeting interferes with the sheer enjoyment of it I will turn off all devices except the television immediately. In any case, I’ll hop on the Lifetime hashtag and go with #badgrandma too. Join in!


_________________________________________

* Okay, seriously, it’s more like, Anna Karenina, Beloved, The Sun Also Rises, and then Flowers in the Attic. Or is it?!?!

** And by “V.C. Andrews” I mean both Flowers in the Attic author Virginia Andrews and ghostwriter Andrew Neiderman, who continued to write books under her name after Virginia’s death. Tracie Egan Morrissey interviewed him for Jezebel here.

*** Duh, of course it was lame. The first two lines of the Wikipedia entry about it: “My Sweet Audrina is a 1982 novel by V. C. Andrews. It was the only standalone novel without incest published during Andrews' lifetime.” Bo-ring!

**** As opposed to the old FITA movie with Victoria Tennant and Kristy Swanson, which was unfaithful to the book in the lamest possible ways (see also ***, above).

***** The literature scholars among you will likely not be surprised to learn this, but I was: There’s actually an entire genre of Gothic literature dubbed “female Gothic,” the hallmarks of which include ambivalent feelings toward female sexuality, and women being literally or symbolically motherless while simultaneously being shaped by patriarchal culture. For more on female Gothic—and for V.C. Andrews in particular—check out V.C. Andrews: A Critical Companion, which A) exists, and B) is now officially replacing Flowers in the Attic as The Best Book Ever. And now I’m absolutely serious—no, really, I am—it’s totally awesome and if you enjoyed this post at all you should at least skim it. Fascinating stuff.

****** Cathy dresses up just as Corinne did for a Christmas party 15 years earlier, then stuns the guests at the very same annual party by making a grand entrance as "Corinne" and revealing that she had kept four children locked away in the attic while she spent her evenings drinking from champagne fountains and slowly poisoning her kids with arsenic doughnuts. Then the mansion burns down, and Corinne winds up in an insane asylum. THE BEST.

I'll Be Watching You: NSA Surveillance and the Male Gaze



I would give readers a quick 101 on the NSA surveillance scandal before I go on to make my point, but the fact is, I’ve got no facts. I saw the headlines, heard the occasional bits of cocktail party buzz, and saw a flurry of blog posts—which I skimmed at best, or skipped altogether—crop up in my RSS feed. And then, I shrugged.

Apathy doesn’t seem like the greatest reason to tune out of something that, intellectually and politically speaking, enrages me—or at least should enrage me, if rage were a rational response that arose upon provocation of our most deeply held beliefs. But there it is: In a country whose founding principles include freedom of expression, learning that the government is—what, reading our e-mails? listening to our phone conversations?—this citizen’s response is meh.

The longer this story has remained in the news, the more bizarre my apathy seemed to me. Until it didn’t. I began to wonder if the reason the NSA activities didn’t upset me more on a visceral level, as opposed to an intellectual one, was that my default assumption of day-to-day experience was that I was being watched. Watched by Big Brother? Not so much. But being watched, observed, surveyed, seen? Yes. Welcome to what it’s like to be a woman, gentlemen.

Consider the headline of this excellent piece by Laurie Penny in New Statesman, spurred by the NSA revelations: If you live in a surveillance state for long enough, you create a censor in your head. It’s an incisive, uncomfortable truth, and it’s made all the more uncomfortable when coupled with one of my favorite passages from John Berger’s Ways of Seeing:

A woman must continually watch herself. … Whilst she is walking across a room or weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. … Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object—and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.

To conflate Penny and Berger: If you spend a lifetime housing your internal surveyor, you might not be terribly surprised when you find that there are external surveyors you hadn’t considered. Not that women walk through our days consciously considering that men might be looking at us. In fact, that’s part of the point: Being seen becomes such a default part of the way you operate that it ceases to be something you need to be actively aware of.

Not that the cold slap of Hey, baby is ever so far away as to keep women truly unaware of the public dynamic surrounding gender. In urban areas (and plenty of non-urban areas too), we deal with street harassment so frequently that it begins to feel difficult to overestimate just how much we’re actually being observed by passersby. The triumphant joke of the tinfoil-hat crowd rings frightfully true in the light of the NSA activities—just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not after you—is yesterday’s news to women. Am I actually being looked at—specifically by men, and specifically as a woman—every time I leave my house? Probably not. But the expectation or possibility of being seen has been there as long as I can remember. And the minute I think I’ve slipped out of the observation zone—by wearing a dowdy outfit that conceals my body, or simply by being in my own world for a moment—there’s a catcall there to remind me that even if I’m not paranoid, that doesn’t mean they’re...not after me (I hope!). But there, watching.

I’m trying to think of how I’d process the news that our “for the people, by the people” government can invade our privacy anytime it damn well pleases, if I hadn’t ever internalized the sensation of being observed. I imagine I’d be more surprised, for starters, but I also wonder if I’m asking the wrong question here. As humans, we love little more than to watch each other in a variety of ways (is TV anything other than controlled people-watching?). Men are observed too—differently than women are, but it’s not like men are entirely unaware that they’re being seen by others. Here I turn to Robin James, Ph.D., associate professor of philosophy at UNC Charlotte: “I’m thinking that (properly masculine, i.e. white, etc.) men experience surveillance in profoundly enabling ways,” she wrote to me when I asked her to expand on a Twitter exchange we had. “[B]eing watched by someone who you know is your equal (that is, you watch them, they watch you in return) is what reaffirms both of your statuses as equals, as subjects, etc. If your gaze isn’t returned in kind, that means you’re not considered an equal, that you’re not seen as a real member of society.”
 
All emphasis there is mine, and for a reason: The point isn’t that women don’t observe men, or that men don’t observe one another, but that the quality of the gaze is different. I don’t walk down the street and feel like I have less cultural weight than my male peers. But when you’re 12—the age I was when I heard my first catcall from an adult man, and my young age here is hardly unusual—you do have less cultural weight, you do have less power. You learn early on to associate being observed for your femininity with powerlessness, and that's not an easy mind-set to shed. (Which is exactly why street harassment has long been an effective tool of oppression, but that’s another story.) Broad strokes here: Men don’t have that experience. Rather, they didn’t until it came out that the National Security Agency—a greater power than virtually every man in the country—could watch you whenever they pleased.

Here are a few of the things that may result for women from objectification, whether it comes from others or internally as a result of being objectified by others: Depression. Limiting one’s social presence. Temporarily lowered cognitive functioning. (Of course, there are also suggestions that self-objectification may boost some women’s well-being. Another day, another post.) When I look at these effects and compare them with where I’m at intellectually about the NSA privacy invasions—a shrinking of oneself versus righteous outward anger—I’m troubled. Would I feel more righteous anger if I hadn’t learned to absorb, possibly to my personal detriment, the effects of objectification and tacitly accepted surveillance as something that just happens? And more importantly: Has the collective energy of women been siphoned into this realm, leaving us less energy for, as they say, leaning in?

I’m not saying that just because women might be used to being watched by men means that we’re inherently blasé about being watched by governmental bodies; in fact, I’m guessing some women are more outraged than they would be if they were male, even if they’re not directly connecting that outrage with womanhood. (Also, I don’t believe the male gaze to be wholly responsible for my indifferent reaction here; it’s just the one that’s relevant.) Let's also not forget that 56% of Americans deem phone surveillance as an acceptable counterterrorism measure. And I’m certainly not saying that we shouldn’t be concerned about the NSA revelations; we should. But not only are women more used to being watched, we also have a worldwide history of dealing with our governments jumping in where they don’t belong. It feels invasive whether that space is our phone line or our uterus. It just might not feel all that surprising.

Invited Post: Work Appropriate

When I first found The Reluctant Femme, I felt like I'd discovered another kid in the sandbox (you think of feminist beauty blogging as a sandbox too, right? Right). Cassie Goodwin consistently brings a mix of social criticism and personal storytelling to her work, tempered with service pieces like her fantastic nail art posts (the glitz! the glitter! the mermaids!) and guides to thrift store shopping. Whether she's examining how brands have the power to create community or the intersections between visibility, cosmetics, and self-harm, Cassie's reflective, inquisitive voice is one I look forward to seeing pop up in my blog feed. She's also written for The Closet Feminist, Lacquerheads of Oz, and The Peach. When I learned that she'd worked in the sex industry in an administrative support role, I immediately wondered whether that leg of her career had affected how she viewed self-presentation—and I was thrilled when she agreed to write about it for The Beheld.


Pair it with pumps and you're brothel-ready.


It's Casual Friday at work today, but the process I go through deciding what to wear is anything but casual. I pick up a skirt, and put it down because it's too short for work. I pick up another and put it down because it's too long, it looks too casual and hippiesque even for Casual Friday. I pick out a shirt, then put it down because it doesn't have any sleeves. Despite it being stinking hot, I'm not sure if a singlet top is acceptable, because I have big tits and fat arms, and a girl got told off at work the other week for her shorts being too short. I put on bright eyeshadow, then smudge half of it off so it's not "too much." I pick up a lipstick, then decide against it because it draws too much attention to my mouth and that might make someone uncomfortable. The whole dance is a complex balancing act between what I want to wear, and what I think I can get away with, taking into account the weather, possible visitors to the office, my body type, and which colleagues are likely to be in. It's exhausting. 

Dressing for work used to be much more fun for me. I spent five years doing reception in the sex industry, at a variety of parlours and agencies and brothels. The rules everywhere I worked were simple—no jeans, no thongs, no boots, at least some makeup, and preferably feminine. That's it. There was no such thing as a shirt too low, even when you have as much cleavage as I do. There was no skirt too short, so long as you were still more covered up than the sex workers—not out of any sense of inappropriateness, but because you never want to take focus off the workers. I never worried about whether bright red lipstick made me “look like a whore” because, well, I was working at a brothel and the sex workers were the rock stars of my world. Open toe shoes, closed toe, no one cared so long as you could run up the stairs to collect towels and round up stray clients. No matter how over-the-top your nail polish, there would always be at least one worker in an outfit with more glitter. I had previously only worked in conventional offices where conventional rules applied, so I embraced my freedom with abandon and enthusiasm.

The attitude of management to how I presented myself was only half of the joyful equation though. It's a fact little known outside the industry that almost without exception, the administration staff in the sex industry are Untouchable. You want to touch some lady flesh, you pay your money and you touch one of the workers. The admin staff are always very firmly off the menu, no matter what. Any reception staff I ever saw deliberately violate this taboo were immediately dismissed. It's just Not Done. This is not to say I was never groped, or leered at, or had clients talk to my cleavage, or had clients offer absurd amounts of money they obviously didn’t have if I was to sleep with them. There was one guy I had to tell three times in ten minutes to put his cock away while I was talking to him. But it was always understood that the clients were only allowed to do any of these things at my discretion. The daily dance, the balancing act in that workplace was How Much Money Does The Client Have Vs How Annoyed Am I. I could kick clients out more or less at my discretion—well, that was what they thought anyway. In reality I would always consult with the workers first, before throwing out potential earnings. But the clients didn't know that, and in their eyes my word was Law.

A lot of women have never been in a position where they have so much direct, immediate power to control their environment, and it's almost impossible to convey the sense of freedom that comes with that power until you have experienced it. What we wear is so closely tied to how we are seen that it is almost impossible to think of another situation where I have felt free to wear anything I want. It’s such a deeply entrenched idea that what we wear influences how we are treated that if we are harassed, in the workplace, in public, what we are wearing or what we did to deserve it is always part of the conversation. Whenever I’ve complained about getting groped in a club, or catcalled on the street, the response is often, “Well, what were you wearing?” I’ve happily never been molested in a workplace, but the women I know who have been have never had their complaints taken seriously. The response is usually once again, “Well, what were you wearing?” or “They’re just being friendly!” While working in the sex industry, I knew that any problems I encountered would never be blamed on what I was wearing. If the clients did push my boundaries, it was always accepted to be their fault, not mine. Always. Can you even imagine a situation like that? A guy tries to put his hand up my skirt and no one says, "Well, look at what you're wearing!" or "Boys will be boys, you know what they’re like". The response was always, "Ugh, what an asshole.” The blame, the entire blame, was always very firmly on the attacker, and never on me, even tangentially.

I have never spent time in a venue where I felt so comfortable on an everyday basis, despite the occasional bursts of violence I encountered. I was part of a little bubble outside of “normal” society, but I have never felt more normal anywhere. In a normal office, in a club, on the street, I am always aware to varying degrees of what my physical presentation is saying to the people around me. If my makeup is too obvious, I wonder if people are looking down on me for it. If my skirt is too short, I'm acutely aware of hundreds of (largely imagined) eyes on my pasty, wobbly thighs. If my shirt is a millimetre too low, I will spend the day constantly adjusting it to try and avoid making other people uncomfortable with my excessive cleavage. If I wear a Rainbow Brite tshirt to work on Casual Friday, I fret that my work and my suggestions won't be taken seriously. There is a constant dialogue in the back of my head analysing the present and potential reactions of people around me to how I'm dressed. In the sex industry, these voices were silenced by the knowledge my word was law, and that all I had to do was make sure the place ran as smoothly as possible to get respect. So long as I made sure there were clean towels, and enough sorbolene cream (there was never enough sorbolene cream), the workers would take me seriously and give me respect. It didn't matter if the clients thought my shirt was childish—they had to take me seriously to get what they had come there for. They could think what they wanted, but they had to show me respect. All I had to do was raise an eyebrow to remind them of that.

After dancing around for way too long this morning, I ended up getting an outfit together for Casual Friday. I eventually decided on a Rainbow Brite t-shirt (fitted, but not too tight), a sensible black skirt (knee length, flatteringly flared), bright but not too glittery nail polish, and colourful but sparingly applied eyeshadow. I’m sitting here fussing with my eyeshadow still, fretting that the colours don’t match as well as I though they did. The CEO is here visiting, so I feel stupid for wearing a cartoon shirt, even though this is usually my favourite feel good item of clothing. I wore a bra which is uncomfortable and pinchy, but which tames my cleavage, and I kind of wish I hadn’t. It’s times like this I miss the freedom, and miss the power of working in the sex industry so much I can taste it. I would swap all the coked up assholes waving broken bottles at me in the world to be able to be feel normal again.


Tizz Wall, Domme, Oakland, California

Interviewing Tizz Wall under her guise as a professional domme was a delight, but she actually has a panoply of guises that would have made for excellent beauty chat. A speaker (she’ll be speaking at the upcoming Catalyst Con on how to ally with sex workers), sex educator (she assisted sexuality author Jamye Waxman with her most recent book), writer (including her Mistress Manners column at Playpen Report), and erstwhile advocate for survivors of domestic violence, Wall’s working lives appear diverse but all surge toward the larger goal of making the world a better place for women of all walks of life. In fact, she’s currently completing her San Francisco Sex Information Sex Education certification. She currently does her domme work independently (though when this interview took place she worked out of a BDSM house). We talked about assimilating to—and literally blinding—the male gaze, the pressures of being a physical worker, and the similarity between BDSM houses and slumber parties. In her own words:


Photo by Lydia Hudgens

On Looking the Part
Some of the women show up for work looking cute, but most of the time everybody shows up in their sweatpants and don’t have makeup on, or they biked there so they’re all sweaty. No one’s showered. They’re in states of comfort, almost like, “Oh, did I manage to put on pants today?” In the morning we have kind of a ritual—there’s opening chores to get things going for the day, and then we’ll sit down at the kitchen table. There are a bunch of mirrors we pull up and put on the table, we’ll have our computers out, listening to music and talking and gabbing about whatever. That’s when we’ll all put on our makeup and do our hair. If we’re struggling and can’t get our hair right it’ll be like, “Can you please do the back?” It’s the female bonding over grooming at its max, I guess. Almost every day that you’re there, it’s part of the process. It’s like having the slumber party makeover every morning. It turns into one of those tip-sharing things that happens at slumber parties: “I got this new concealer, do you want to try it?” or “This color doesn’t work for me but I think it’d look great on you, do you want it?” We’ll do that, cook breakfast, make coffee. You all want to get ready in the morning because you want to have someone available in just a few minutes. If I need to, I can put on full makeup in probably 20 minutes tops, 10 if I’m really hustling. 

I’m very aware of my looks, specifically as a sex worker. Personally, I’ve wondered if I’m attractive enough—I can get very self-conscious. I feel confident in myself, and I did when I first started too, but back then I was like, I’m definitely not the tall, thin, blonde, model-esque type, and obviously you have to be that to be in this line of work, right? So I wasn’t sure I’d get hired. Then, it’s funny—being there, there’s kind of a transformation that happens. So it’s particularly interesting to see the getting-ready process in the morning, because everybody is gorgeous—and the particular house I work in has a wide variety of body types and ethnicities and different types of beauty, it’s really varied—but you see everybody show up in their normal-person outfits, and then you see them do all this and it’s a whole transformation that happens. 

I had no idea what this world was like when I got into it. I remember asking, “How much makeup should I put on?” My boss said, “Whatever is going to make you feel comfortable and make you feel like you’re going to personify this character”—which is an extension of yourself but also still a character. You’re kind of amplifying a certain part of your personality. Whatever will make you feel like that character, that’s how much makeup you need to put on.


On Bodily Labor
A lot of our client base is older straight men, and that means on some level we are catering to the male gaze. We keep that in mind a lot. The people who have tattoos will hide them; I have a septum piercing, and I tuck it in my nose. I have a coworker who has a mohawk, but she has long, pretty hair in the middle; if you’re not paying close attention when she wears it down, it passes for long hair. When I first started, I’d been dyeing my hair blonde. I changed it because when I was at work I couldn’t have big old roots.

You show off your body in a certain way. One of women has lost a ton of weight since she began working, and that has helped her get more work. I know I’ll get more work if I do certain things that are more traditionally feminine. It becomes a business decision. There are definitely sex workers who don’t cater to that. But our particular community, the particular house that I’m in, that’s something the person running it gears toward. That’s what our advertising is geared toward. So that regulates a lot of our choices for our physical presentation.

I’ve actually gained weight since starting this work; when I first started I was doing roller derby, skating 10 to 12 hours week, and I’m not anymore. So now when I’m not getting work, I’ll be like, Oh my god, is this because I’ve gained weight? And I know that’s not it—I mean, I fluctuated just one size, it’s not this massive difference. But this feeling of the possibility that my looks are tied to my income can really hurt my self-esteem. Being financially independent is really important to me. In this work, everybody has slow weeks, and then you’ll get a rush with lots of work; it’s a back-and-forth. But when that happens, I can start to think that I’m actually putting myself at risk by gaining weight. Rationally I know that’s not the case—even if I were a supermodel, there would be an ebb and flow no matter what I do. But when I gain weight it’s more than just, “Oh, I’m having a bad day and feel so ugly and bloated.” Body stuff takes on a different tone. It’s less destructive in my personal relationships and my personal interactions and personal self-esteem, but with this financial angle there’s this feeling of, If I don’t lose this weight, I’m not going to work again. 


On Being Seen—or Not
When I first started I had a lot of self-consciousness about leading a session by myself. I wasn’t yet 100% on my domme persona, so I would use a blindfold. When I was really new I had a three-hour session booked, and I just hadn’t gotten the timing down and I still didn’t really know what I was doing. One of the things we learn to do is negotiate what to say and how to elicit what the clients want to do, and match that up with what our interests are. What I want to do is, you give me your money and leave, because really what I want is to just read my book and still have the money, you know? So it’s not really what you want, but they say that, so you have to be good at asking the right questions and proposing things. So during this three-hour session I kept getting bored and not really knowing what to do and needing time to think, particularly because at that time I was so green—I had no clue what I was doing. I’m very expressive, so if I’m confused or thinking about what I’m going to do next, it’s all over my face. Blindfolding him was great, because then when I was sitting there thinking, What am I going to do next, he’s not really being responsive and I don’t know what to do, I didn’t have to pretend like I wasn’t having those thoughts. Now that I’ve been doing it a while and feel like I’ve hit my stride, that amount of time would be a great session and it would be fun.

Clients will often request that I have them only look at me when I give permission. I mean, that’s very submissive! In a playspace, not making eye contact can represent submission and reverence. It can become about asking for permission, or earning that privilege in some way. If a client is coming to see a domme rather than going to a strip club or going to see an escort, they’re going to a domme for a reason. They’re seeking out that dominance. Saying “Don’t look at me” is a subtle, effective way of establishing dominance, of making it clear that this is my room, this is my space, and you need to respect that.

That applies outside of work in some ways—not to that extreme, of course, but in terms of self-presentation. It makes the argument of how you present yourself in a certain way to control how people look at you in a fair or appropriate way where you have some degree of control over it. Women are so judged by their appearance that making certain choices about how I present myself becomes a way of controlling how people view me.


On Commanding Attention
Being a sex worker has made me recognize power I can have in everyday interactions. Before, I was much more self-conscious about things, even if I was dressed up or whatever. Everybody talks about how confidence is something you can do, but I don’t think I understood that until I started this work. I mean, I’m incredibly clumsy, so I’ve fallen in front of clients. But being a domme is a lot like theater in many ways, where the show just keeps going. You drop something, you trip over your words, you trip over your feet, your garter comes undone—whatever, you play it off. And when you’re a domme, you can play it off like, “That’s not even my fault. Why did you do that?” I’ve had the CD skip and I’ll be like, “Why did you make my CD skip? It wasn’t doing that before you got here.” “I didn’t touch it.” “It’s still your fault!” “I’m sorry.” One of the stories that gets told around the house is that this woman had a client who basically wanted humiliation; he wanted her to punish him. He was very tall, and she was a shorter woman. So the minute they got into the room she said, “How dare you be taller than me?! Get on your knees.”

It’s amazing what can happen once you stop having the expected male-female interaction, since women are so socialized to be nice and really cater to men—even if you’re a staunch feminist, even if you’re really mouthy, like myself, before this job. I still have some of that tendency to apologize profusely if something goes wrong. I’m gonna be like, “I’m so sorry, I messed it up, I’m so sorry.” But I think having this job made me really realize the power I can have over a situation. I mean, personal accountability is important, and you should apologize when you mess up. It’s a matter of not overdoing it, not feeling really bad about it. Something went wrong? It’s fine, we’re moving on. Having that sort of presentation has a lot of power.

Doing the “I’m pretty but I have no brains” thing is not my goal. I don’t present that way, even as a sex worker when I’m trying to appeal to that male attraction, even though the presentation is definitely vampy and really conventionally feminine. And we definitely have clients who come in and think we must be stupid. My goal is that my presentation will command your attention—but now that I’ve got your attention I’m going to use all the other things in my arsenal. My brain, my sense of humor, being okay with myself and with what happens in that situation, communication skills. That definitely crossed over into dating: I’m going to use a certain presentation, and it will command your attention, but the other things are what’s going to hold it together.

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Click here for more beauty interviews from The Beheld.


"You're Gorgeous": Invited Post

Claire Napier is a midlands-based, commissionable illustrator and comic artist whom I met through the now-defunct Feminist Fashion Bloggers group. I saw bits of her visual work on her blog, but was largely struck by her thoughtful writing, whether that be things like her musings on conventional femininity, or something out of our shared sphere entirely, like her awesome gift guide for the unemployed. So when she reached out to me about my series on compliments with some ideas about visually expressing her own complex feelings toward unsolicited compliments from men, I jumped at the chance. Enjoy!












Beauty Privilege: Can We Talk?


Illustration by Steph Becker


Just like me—in fact, just like pretty much every woman who has ever written about beauty in a public forum—the coauthors of Beauty Redefined have been critiqued as being both A) too pretty to understand the challenges surrounding looks bias, and B) so unpretty that it's no wonder they're writing about body image and self-esteem issues, the poor jealous things. What's that I hear you saying? Something along the lines of: But those statements are totally contradictory? Why yes, they are. That is, they're contradictory in their sentiment, but they're identical in their value, which is: Whatever this woman—or any woman—is saying about appearance must be evaluated by her own beauty, or lack thereof.

Lindsay and Lexie at Beauty Redefined have some excellent talking points at their post on this matter, and if I could cosign the entry, I would. Their entry also got me thinking about one of the more elusive aspects of beauty privilege and looksism, which is: It’s really difficult to talk about.

I mean, we can talk about beauty privilege—or negative beauty bias—in the abstract, and we can talk about things we witness. But you think it's difficult to prove something like the subtler forms of ageism or racism or sexism? Try just discussing looksism. Not only is looksism even more amorphous than plenty of other "isms," but think of how you sound if you talk about it openly: It can seem hopelessly narcissistic to own up to one's "beauty privilege," and hopelessly affirmation-seeking to talk about suffering at the hands of looksism. Unlike privilege that comes from being white, able-bodied, male, thin—and even, to a lesser degree, being heterosexual or middle class—beauty privilege is something that's both physically evident and seemingly impossible to deconstruct from a personal point of view, which is a key way that privilege (and lack thereof) comes to be understood and taken seriously.

I'm guessing that as a woman who is nominally attractive but in no immediate danger of launching a thousand ships, I've received some benefits from looking the way I do but have been spared both the grander forms of beauty privilege (I'm fairly certain I've never been hired as set decoration) and the major drawbacks of beauty (nobody assumes I’ve coasted by on my looks). But here's the thing: I'll never really know to what degree I've experienced beauty bias, in either direction. Few of us do. It could be that the small perks I've been attributing to being a nice-enough-looking lady—say, getting slipped a free cookie now and then at the deli—are just people being kind, and that they'd do the same if I were homely, or a man. I'm sure that is indeed the case sometimes, but I've been smacked down by my own naivete in this regard enough times to know better than to get all Pollyanna here. (One of the free-cookie men suddenly stopped giving me cookies after I stopped by once with a male friend. It was the illusion of availability that he liked—and once that fell to the wayside, so did my supply of white chocolate-macadamia treats.) We can have our hunches, but for the most part that's all we have.

I think of the "click" moments I've heard time and time again of women discovering, without a doubt, that they were feminists; much of the time it's an instant recognition of and reaction to sexism. I'm left wondering what sort of "click" moment it would take for a woman to discover, without a doubt, that she was receiving or being denied a form of beauty privilege. Receiving privilege is particularly difficult to tease out, in part because privilege functions by being unspoken, and unrecognized. (Sitting at the front of the Montgomery city bus in 1954 wasn't what we'd now term "white privilege"; it was the law. Beauty privilege may be encoded in a handful of circumstances, but for the most part it's not.) And since looks are painted as being an ineffable part of a woman's essence—particularly in the case of women considered conventionally beautiful—it becomes even murkier than other forms of privilege. How can you have a "click" moment about something that's supposedly transcendent?

I don't write a lot about beauty privilege, and this isn't the only reason why (mostly I just feel like there are more interesting things to write about). But yes, it's a reason. Not only is there a fear of being called a narcissist if I write about whatever forms of privilege I might have experienced, there's a fear of being called delusional if any given critic doesn't find me...privilege-worthy, shall we say. Maybe this fear is rooted in my personal reality of being an attractive-enough but not stunning woman. Or maybe it's rooted in the reality of being a woman, period. (And, as it happens, I've been called both a narcissist and delusional just for writing about appearance at all, so there you have it.) As much as women are punished for not measuring up to some amorphous beauty standard, we're punished just as much for thinking we're "all that."

“When we dismiss someone’s words due to our assessment of their appearance, we’re minimizing them to their body,” write Lindsay and Lexie at Beauty Redefined. That’s absolutely true, yes. Yet unlike Beauty Redefined, a good portion of The Beheld is expressly written from a first-person perspective. Much as I’d like my words to speak for themselves, I can’t say it’s necessarily wrong to take the looks of people writing personal essays about appearance into account when reading their work. My experience of beauty is undoubtedly different than, say, Charlize Theron's, just as Charlize Theron's experience is beauty is different than it would be if she wore her Monster look 24/7. Readers who assume after looking at a photo of me that they know something unwritten about my perspective might not be entirely wrong—but as the disparate evaluations of my looks from various commenters has shown, they can't all be "right."

We’re so used to viewing women as objects (I include women in this) that we may forget they are subjects too, particularly when discussing looks. Most of the time we talk about beauty, we understandably talk about it in terms of how we look at people, not about the subjective experience of looking beautiful, or plain/cute/weird/misshapen/hot/ whatever. Certainly we don’t usually talk about it in terms of how we believe we’re seen. And if we want to understand the labyrinth of beauty in a richer manner, that might be the most revealing perspective of all.

Invited Post: Pretty/Funny


Eve Plumb, Lisa Ferber, and Lisa Hammer in The Sisters Plotz and Their Afternoon of Will-Reading and Poetry


When I interviewed artist, writer, and “highly productive bonne vivante” Lisa Ferber last year, she shared how two of her childhood heroines were Lucille Ball and Gilda Radner, because they managed the supposedly impossible feat of being both funny and pretty, and how as an adult she came to admire Fran Drescher for the same reasons. Lisa’s no slouch herself in the humor department—she writes and stars in a hilarious web and film series called The Sisters Plotz, directed by Lisa Hammer; its most recent installment, The Sisters Plotz and Their Afternoon of Will-Reading and Poetry, will air on Manhattan’s MNN Lifestyle Channel October 3 at 2 p.m., and on MNN’s Culture Channel October 7 at 10:30. It will also be live-streamed on MNN.org during those times. (And if you need further incentive to watch, yours truly has a small role in it. I even sing!) So I’m particularly delighted to have her guest post today about critic Nikki Finke’s Emmy live-blogging feat in which she claims that—well, read on.

I snapped today when I read Nikki Finke’s much-talked-about critique of the Emmys, specifically her thoughts on Julie Bowen’s win for Outstanding Actress in a Comedy Series. I’ll put Finke’s entire tirade here to spare you the trouble of clicking through (but if you must, it’s here): “Listen-up, Hollywood: Beautiful actresses are not funny. They don’t know how to do comedy. (As Bowen demonstrated with her acceptance speech that repeated the phrase ‘nipple covers’ 3 dozen times. To zero laughter.) Only women who grew up ugly and stayed ugly, or through plastic surgery became beautiful, can pull off sitcoms or standups. Bowen isn’t a comedienne just like Brooke Shields wasn’t and a zillion more. Because it’s all about emotional pain and humiliation and rising above both by making people laugh with you instead of at you. So stop casting beautiful actresses when you should be giving ugly women a chance. (Tina Fey always points out she looked like a troglodyte when she was younger.) This also applies to handsome men, by the way. Now argue amongst yourselves.”

Finke knew what she was doing; hits for her piece would go up by declaring something so controversial. And she’s already had responses with people ranting about her and posting photos of funny women, talking about what a fool she is. That’s all great and helpful. My response is that I’ve never understood why the funny vs. beautiful dichotomy even exists—and I’m questioning how we created a world in which it does. (Okay, and also that Brooke Shields is hilarious. When I saw her on Friends as the obsessed soap opera fan, I thought, “Yes, Brooke! You went from underwear model to blasé movie actress to Norma Desmond! You will not let people tell you who are!” Only someone who is unwilling to let herself grow would look at Brooke Shields and decide that a woman who used to parade around in her panties for a living can’t decide to start letting her wit do the dazzling…while still looking movie-star perfect.)

Beauty is mesmerizing, transportive; it makes tongues wag and it makes times slow down. Beauty says, “I am here as an object for you to admire,” and while it contains power, it’s a power that turns its owner into an object of projection and fantasy. Comedy is refreshing, jarring, true, smart. Comedy says, “I am powerful, in a way that means I am going to call it like I see it, and sometimes you will feel taken aback.” The ability to deliver a comedic line is a form of confidence that a person has—or doesn’t have. The ability to show up at an event and know that a certain percentage of people will stare at you is a confidence a person has, or doesn’t have. The difference is that beauty, though a quality that dazzles a room, invites people to make up who you are and fill in the blanks; comedy shuts that down. When a beautiful woman demonstrates a sense of humor, it goes one step past showing she’s smart and gets right to, “I’m not just smart, I’m questioning and I’m making observations. I am an active participant, not a shell.”

The idea that a woman can only be funny if she has suffered is an interesting one, for humor can be a sign that someone is able to find happiness at all times, and it is often developed as a survival mechanism for those dealing with hard times. But the implication—and this is not just Finke, it’s the reason she and others have this issue in the first place—is that beautiful people don’t have everyday problems and therefore can only be funny if they’ve suffered the plight of the underdog. What’s particularly disturbing about this implication is that a beautiful, funny person has to keep proving their pain—has to keep apologizing. “I’m still hurting! I’m not just enjoying being funny and beautiful! I hope that makes you feel better about your sucky life and limitations!” Why do we need to know that Tina Fey wasn’t attractive when she was younger? Why did Joan Rivers constantly make fun of her own appearance, then pick relentlessly on gorgeous Liz Taylor when Liz was struggling with her weight, and then resort to frightening plastic surgery? Do we need to see a funny, successful woman apologizing constantly for her wit and success in order to feel that all is right with the world? Must every beautiful funny woman pull out “awkward teenage photos” to prove “but I’m one of you! Really!”

The beautiful vs. funny issue comes down to the recurring problem of women not being allowed to embrace all forms of their power. A beautiful woman, out of politeness, has to pretend she doesn’t notice she is being watched, even though of course she should be aware of it, for reasons ranging from self-protection to understanding why she might receive special treatment, either preferential or jealous. A funny woman proves consistently that she is aware of herself in the world, and is insightful about human behavior and motivation—and when this is combined with prettiness, it leads to a viewer wondering, “Wait, so are you aware that each hair toss drives people wild too? How much of this are you picking up on?”

The division between beauty and humor hasn’t always been as sharp as it is now, and throughout film history there have been women who have shimmied through the cracks. On the late ‘80s/early ‘90s hit Designing Women, a rare woman-focused show where attractive ladies were not trying to cut each other’s throats for men—though they all did date and had some lasting relationships—beauties Dixie Carter and Delta Burke both owned their physical beauty and their comedic strengths. In The House Bunny and Legally Blonde, Anna Faris and Reese Witherspoon, respectively, win our hearts as women who discover that underneath their pretty exteriors they really are smart…and they are hilarious doing so. But the shining era of beautiful, glamorous, hilarious women in film was the 1930s. Myrna Loy, Constance Bennett, Carole Lombard, Jean Harlow, Kay Francis—heck, just watch The Women (the 1939 original, please) and you’ll see why I get so frustrated with how far we’ve regressed from when a film like this allowed each lady to shine.

So what changed? The foundational problem some members of our culture, like Finke, have with funny, pretty women is that they’re just too much of a threat—and in 1939, most women weren’t really seen as threatening in the least. Carole Lombard could be beautiful and hilarious in 1936’s My Man Godfrey because the biggest threat her dizzy socialite character could possibly pose would be selecting the wrong “protégé.” Fifty years later, women had gained in status, income, and independence—so quick, call off the funny ladies! You can see the unimaginative screenwriter’s dilemma: “Wait, she dazzles me and I project my fantasies onto her, but she also sees the world in a way that shows an ability to question everyday behavior and call bulls**t when she sees it. Should I objectify her, or go to her for wisdom? Can’t she make this easier for me?”

I’ve dealt with a rare type of snarky man who can’t laugh at a woman’s joke, and I smell it right off. I see humor as play; I see it as a way to connect, to loosen the atmosphere, and most men respond to this. But there are exceptions. When I was 20, I worked at a food counter in the stock market. All the men were sweet and friendly to me, but there was this one smarmy fellow who would never laugh at my jokes. My delivery is sweet and friendly, and occasionally dry, but I’m never trying to be “one of the guys.” When I delivered the food, I would banter, and the men would banter back, and it was fun. But this one fellow just couldn’t laugh, because I was a cute girl in his age group and therefore my purpose was to be an object he could look at as powerless. He would look at me in the sleaze way, but my jokes were not welcome. One day, I’d had it up to here with him. So when I showed him the day’s menu and he said to me, “Is the fish fresh?” all I could think was, He’s toast. So I put my hand on my hip and said, “Yeah, I shot it this morning.” Dude was so shocked that he burst out laughing, and I walked away thinking, “That’s right. Who’s your daddy now?” But it was only because I was finally saying, “Enough already—you’re going to deal with it,” that I broke him out of his attempt to make me feel that my attempts at showing smarts were unwelcome.

I currently write and star in a web and film series called The Sisters Plotz, featuring Eve Plumb and Lisa Hammer. We style ourselves in a vintage, feminine way with an indulgent dose of camp-glamour. Eve and Lisa are two seriously pretty women. Am I about to tell them to disempower themselves by perhaps wearing less flattering outfits or messing up their hair a little bit because I’m trying to decide if they should be funny or pretty? Maybe we should all make jokes pretending we think we’re fat or we should pick on some part of our face or body, because that will make people love us? Um, no. Right now I want to live the dreams I had when I was growing up. This is the one chance I get to be in the world, and I understand that there will always be acts of cruelty or even just idiocy that I don’t understand. But I want to live in a world where women are allowed to be funny and pretty and smart and free and strong and glamorous all at the same time—or none of these things if they don’t want to be—and I know that there will always be people who just don’t agree that I’m allowed to enjoy this type of privilege. But that’s all right. My red lipstick and I are ready.


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Lisa Ferber paints and writes witty character portraits influenced by her fascination with humanity. Her works display an appreciation of the beauty and quirks of human behavior, as well as a compassion for its foibles. Her paintings have shown at National Arts Club, Mayson Gallery and other venues, and sell to private collectors. Her films have screened at the Tribeca Grand and the Bluestocking Film Series, and her film "Whimsellica's Grand Inheritance" won the People's Choice Award at the "It Came From Kuchar" festival. Her plays have been performed at notable theaters such as LaMama, DR2 Lounge/Daryl Roth Theatre, and her play "Bonbons for Breakfast" was a New York magazine "notable production." To learn more about her projects, please visit LisaFerber.com

Invited Post: The Ripple Effect

Mara Glatzel from Medicinal Marzipan has long been one of my favorite body image bloggers, in part for her worldview and in part for her graceful, inspirational prose. But what strikes me most about Medicinal Marzipan is its honesty: Glatzel shares her vulnerabilities as well as triumphs in the route to wellness (including a recent post that gave me one of my own biggest "aha!" moments in the past several years about my own eating concerns). 

I was pleased to learn that Mara has developed a tool for helping others find their own place on the vulnerability-triumph spectrum, with Body Loving Homework, which she describes as "one part Ebook, one part digital anthology, and one part self-study coaching program—designed to help you find clarity around what you deserve out of your life and your daily experiences." When I sampled a few of the 100 writing prompts in the book, my responses ranged from joy (apparently my answer to "My body remembers" is a hint racy) to discovery (I think of myself as pretty calm, so imagine my surprise when several of my answers to prompts involved the word panic). I asked her to guest post here about incorporating self-acceptance into our daily lives, and the place where self-image and body image intersect. 





If you’re anything like me, you know exactly what it feels like to go through the motions: saying yes, piling on the additional work, doing the emotional housekeeping, working out the logistics, and taking everyone else’s needs into account.

You’re probably really good at it too—a skill cultivated and honed over the course of your life.

I used to think that taking care of others was what I was best at, what I was put on the planet to do.

I used to think that just because I was good at it, I was relegated to going through the motions the rest of my life.

This conveniently fit in with other beliefs that I held about my life—feelings of being unworthy, unlovable, unforgivably damaged—because, through taking really good care, I was able to make myself useful in a way that didn’t require me to necessarily stick my neck out.

I was kind.

I made dinner.

I cleaned up communal physical space.

I put down whatever I was working on, attending instead to the emotional crisis at hand.

I do not intend to set up a paradox here, as in: when I hated myself, I took care of everyone else, and when I learned how to love myself for who I was, I only took care of myself.

For me, it wasn’t one or the other. It was in the appearance of a choice in the matter. It was knowing that I was worth loving not only for my caretaking abilities, but also for the rest of me as well.

When I learned how to love myself, truly love myself, and believe in the fact that I had more to offer the world than laundered socks and mended hearts—I was able to believe, also, that I was more than what I had been permitting myself.

When I was single or momentarily attached, I used to joke that I was a “starter wife”—the kind of girl who picks up broken, sad partners, and uses her love to shine them up like a little penny, gently reinforcing their strengths through the repetition and constancy of my adoration.

Until the day that they got so shiny, they wanted to hop into someone else’s pocket.

In these moments, I was left alone, heartbroken, but, when I was truly honest with myself—at least partially to blame. I had avoided infusing myself into these relationships, because I deeply feared that doing so would scare my partner away. I had internalized messages during my youth—messages of being too big, too loud, too passionate. I had been told by my experiences that people stayed around longer if you made your needs as brief and palatable as possible, and then went about your day becoming exactly who they need you to be.

I remember the exact day when I realized that I could, instead, choose to be myself.

I realized that if I was myself, and it didn’t work out, at least I knew ahead of time instead of wishing and praying that my real self wouldn’t pop up unexpectedly and drive someone away.

For me, self-acceptance has been the slow integration of who I was presenting as and who I was inside. It was the process of becoming who I already was. It was putting all of my faith in the idea that if I could permit myself to be myself that I could love that person—even when I was afraid to do so. 

However, as will naturally occur when you begin to change one aspect of your life—suddenly, the impact spread, and I was astounded by how pervasive my self-hatred had become.

I found unexpressed sentiment and choked on words in every facet of my life—work, relationship, family. I found that in fact I really hated where we had chosen to put that new bookshelf or that in my heart, I wished we had painted the bathroom blue instead of red. I was surprised, as these feelings weren’t even large, big scary to divulge feelings—I was saying yes and keeping quiet in all aspects of my life.

And, at first, I thought I was doing all of this out of some sort of damaged self-esteem around my body, but, over time, I realized, it wasn’t my body—it was my most basic sense of worth and deserving. It was who I was, deep inside, that was hurting and needed to be freed.

What I thought was about the size of my hips, was actually about the cultivation and maintenance of healthy boundaries within the context of my relationships.

What I thought was about whether or not someone thought I was attractive, was actually about speaking my needs out loud, in the presence of another.

What I thought was about my body—was about how I was living my life.

The human body is a convenient scapegoat. 

Contentious by nature, degraded by the media, and a highly personal battleground, our bodies carry more than their fair share of the pain, hurt, and rejection that we experience in the world. For example, it was much easier for me to hate my body than realize that I needed to dramatically upgrade my ability to create and maintain healthy boundaries.

In many ways, hating your body is easy. You’ll never be alone. You will always have others to join you in your self-hatred, commiserating over the size of their thighs or how this was the week that they are going on a diet or he didn’t reject me—he rejected my body. As in, things that you can fix or have control over.

When it is about your body, it is a problem that society tells you you can fix—head to the gym, hop on a diet, indulge in some plastic surgery. Even if you wouldn’t resort to some of those options, they are out there, filling up the social consciousness with feelings of safety and well-being. Whether or not you choose to access them—the option is there.

You can change your body. You can make yourself prettier. You can buy new, sexy clothing.

You know how to do that, and on many levels—it feels safe.

What about when it’s not about your body? What about when it is about your basic ability to connect with other human beings, relax into intimacy, or be both yourself and yourself in the context of a couple?

That feels much less safe.

This is the messy zone, the dark closet that we shove all of our odds and ends in, in order to keep the rest of our house tidy and presentable. The answers here are not cut and dry. They do not apply to everyone. You cannot read about them in the self-help section of your favorite magazine.

They come from learning to listen to the voice inside your body, the small part of yourself that lets you know what you’d most like and what your wildest dreams are.

I had been keeping myself small—occupied by the an overflowing to-do list of laundry and groceries, wrapped up in the melodrama of my own creation, and concerned with the well-being of those around me first, and my own needs—last, always.

It wasn’t that learning to love myself dramatically altered who I was. I haven’t stopped taking care, but I am confident now that I am choosing to take care and that the people who I choose to take care of are worthy of my most profound love and consideration.

Learning to love myself has permitted me the ability to realize that I was worthy of anything that I put my mind or heart to. It was the quiet process of choosing, every day, that who I am is important. That my words matter. That my actions are an extension of my heart, and that they should be respected as such.

That I am worthy of my own love and the love of those around me, and not because I’ve cooked them dinner.


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Mara Glatzel is a self-love coach + author of Body Loving Homework: Writing Prompts for Cultivating Self-Love. She works with women who are ready to create the lives they want — and deserve. Her blog, Medicinal Marzipan, has inspired thousands of women to heal their relationships with their bodies, and treat themselves with relentless compassion. Catch up with her on Facebook or Twitter, or join her body-loving mailing list for secret swapping and insider news.

Helen Gurley Brown, 1922-2012


Six years ago, I was waiting for an elevator when Helen Gurley Brown walked up next to me. This wasn’t terribly unusual; I worked for an offshoot of Cosmopolitan at the time, and our offices were housed in the same building. What was unusual was that she was alone, and that I was dressed well.

I’d only begun dressing well a few months prior to our elevator run-in; depression had kept me in baggy hoodies and ill-fitting jeans between the ages of 24 and 29. As my 30th birthday neared, I realized I was hitting the age where I just might be putting patterns into place that would stick with me forever. I broke up with my boyfriend, chopped my sloppy bob in favor of a pixie cut, lost 30 pounds—and much to my surprise, found that sometimes I enjoyed being looked at. On this particular morning, I was wearing my favorite of my array of dresses and had matched it with heels that, for me, were wildly impractical. Perhaps most importantly, I’d just had the pleasure of a certain variety of overnight guest, so my bronzer wasn’t the only thing lending me a glow.

Helen Gurley Brown looked at me and gave a dim, polite smile. Then she slowly ran her eyes from my pixie cut to my carefully pushed-up bust line, from the hips swathed just so in my new dress down to my shoes. As her eyes worked their way back up from the heels to my figure to my face, her head began to bob in what slowly turned into a nod, and by the time she looked me in the eye again, the smile had gone from polite to approving. Helen Gurley Brown had given me her approval. At that moment, one of the company higher-ups joined us at the elevator, and she turned to the newcomer, cupped her hair in one frail hand, and actually addressed her as pussycat. Our moment of approval (on her end) and awe (on mine) passed.

I’ve told this anecdote a handful of times, and the reactions come in two forms: a “how cool!” exuberance, or dismay. “Ick,” one friend said: “Why does her approval matter to you?” Beneath the latter reaction is something like this: Helen Gurley Brown made Cosmopolitan into what it is, and what it is isn’t exactly something a smart women’s-studies-set type like me should approve of, so why on earth would the approval of Helen Gurley Brown leave me beaming?

It’s not a bad question. The problems with Cosmopolitan—or rather, with the Cosmo-fication of women’s media, are manifest to the point of trite. I myself have publicly criticized women’s magazines plenty of times; for every time I’ve talked about how important they’ve been to the mainstreaming of feminism (which, in this context, I count as a good thing), I’ve cringed at a story that has passed over my desk (“How to Wash Your Face,” which was—I kid you not—soon followed by “How to Wash Your Hair,” due to its predecessor’s success among readers).

Logically, I should be fingering Helen Gurley Brown as the godmother of face-washing how-tos and insulting sex tips. I can’t do that, though, and not only because of the fondness I felt when she hand-wrote her thoughts on the premiere issue of CosmoGirl—the teen Cosmo spinoff I worked at off and on for years before it folded in 2008—and my boss giddily distributed photocopies to everyone in the office. (All I remember of her comments was that she loved Boy-o-Meter, in which readers would rate teenage boys on their looks.) Nor is it my love of the kitschy tone of Sex and the Single Girl, which I have read from cover to cover, and which always makes me feel like a vixen even if I’m just pawing through it at home in my yoga pants.

Nor—surprisingly—is my admiration of her only born from the contrarian feminist within me who wants to argue for her as a key figure in women’s history, the woman who let us all know that it was okay to like sex and that you didn’t have to be married to want it. But the issue of Helen Gurley Brown and feminism deserves solid mention here: It is easy to forget, when Cosmopolitan is now so easily mocked for its insistence upon doing the most ridiculous boudoir moves possible, that the year she took editorship of the magazine was the same year the Supreme Court struck down laws banning contraceptives for married couples. The Pill had only been available for a few years, meaning that the concept of a woman being able to have sex whenever she wished and maintain control of her reproductive system was similarly young. For Helen Gurley Brown to come out and say what plenty of young women had known for years but had been afraid to voice—that sex was fun, sex was delightful, sex was not to be feared, and sex could happen simply because you, a woman, desired it—was revolutionary. It was revolutionary at the time, and given the fetishization of “purity” and the fact that the only term we have for a man who sleeps around is “male slut,” it remains revolutionary today. Also, let it be known that Helen Gurley Brown identified as a feminist. Plenty of people within the women’s movement disagree with her self-appraisal; as for me, I am happy to count her among my tribe. (Factoid: Chapter 9 of Sex and the Office, “Lunchland III: A Very Special Report,” opens with an anecdote from a “beautiful young executive” named Letty Cottin, who would go on to be Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a founding editor of Ms.)

But still, no, that isn’t what made me smile that day waiting for the elevator, nor is it what brought a heaviness to my heart upon learning that the flame-haired, miniskirted, bejeweled woman I’d admired died yesterday at age 90. In fact, it wasn’t our near-introduction at all, but rather something that sprang from the first time I laid eyes on her, at the Hearst holiday party in 1999. Through the haze brought on by the candy-cane cocktails handed out by the staff of Tavern on the Green, I spotted her: She was jockeying for the shortest skirt in the room, and had topped it off with what resembled a sequined Chanel jacket (perhaps it was a sequined Chanel jacket), that flame-colored hair teased beyond belief. She was dancing and had a small entourage around her. I flew home for Christmas and breathlessly reported to my parents that I’d seen Helen Gurley Brown, and that she was wearing a miniskirt, and wasn’t that awesome?

It was awesome, but not for the reasons I believed at the time. At the time it was more about one of my first run-ins with a celebrity, akin to the time I saw Drew Barrymore at Disneyland. And I am embarrassed to admit this, but: I shared my sighting of her with the faintest hint of ridicule. She was 77 at the time, and I was at an age at which anyone over the age of 35 was more in the realm of parent than peer. To see a 77-year-old woman partying it up in a miniskirt shorter than I’d dare to wear today—it was “cute,” and a little unseemly. I understood that she had to attend the annual company party; I understood that because she was Helen Gurley Freakin’ Brown, she could probably do the electric slide and still earn our collective respect. And I also, erroneously, understood that a woman of her age to be prancing around around in a miniskirt was—well, wasn’t that better left to people who were the age of Cosmo’s readership? Wasn’t it just the tiniest bit sad?

What I did not yet understand was that the things I condescendingly perceived as “cute” were actually evidence that I was witnessing a woman who was unafraid to work it. She knew full well the penalties heaped upon women of a certain age, and she disregarded those penalties with a shrug of her possibly-Chanel-sequined shoulder. She’d published Sex and the Single Girl when she was 40; in it she wrote “If you think only the jeunes filles, the voluptuous or sleek-cat creatures are the sexy ones, you have been living in the rumble seat of an Essex roadster the past twenty-five years.” That is, not only did she write one of the country’s most influential tomes on sexuality at an age many might have considered over the hill for a woman, but if she was speaking literally of those twenty-five years, by age 15 she’d already begun to disregard the notion that one’s sexuality died out past a divinely decreed age. I have no idea whether she decided then and there that she’d never stop being, well, Helen Gurley Freakin’ Brown (or, I suppose, Helen Freakin’ Gurley; the Brown came along in 1959 with her marriage to film producer David Brown) and would wear miniskirts as short as she damn well pleased until she tired of them, or whether it simply became her way of life over time. Really, I have no idea about her private life other than what I’ve read, which is, after all, the result of a cultivated public image.

But what I can deduce is that Helen Gurley Brown had respect for the woman who tries. That may not necessarily sound like something one should respect; when it comes to self-presentation, shouldn’t authenticity trump strain, ease trump effort? Sometimes, sure. But I’m certain I’m not the only woman who would find it less difficult to walk down the street bare-faced in sweatpants than to strut along with a bright red pucker, hair done to the hilt, cleavage pushed to the chin, and clothes that announce to the world, I want to be looked at. To Sex and the Single Girl readers who objected to wearing makeup, she challenged: “Is it possible you’re a little afraid to be on—in the limelight—every single day? If your makeup were always flawless, you’d be making an open bid for attention.” Trying is the hard sell; trying is a dare. Trying is a command to the world: Look at me, for I am worth your attention. Can trying be the opposite, a sad proclamation of one’s low self-esteem, that a woman thinks all she has to offer the world is her looks? Yes, of course. But when I think of the women I know who really work it—the 51-year-old receptionist who helms her desk with a teased updo and smoky eye at 8:30 a.m., the artist who goes shopping in ball gowns to cheer herself up, the woman of a certain age who is so impeccably styled that every time I’ve been in her company I’ve witnessed a total stranger walk up to her and profess admiration—these are not women suffering from a paucity of self-esteem. These are women who are willing to try, and who are willing to tell you what they want you to see. These are the women I was willing to try to emulate when I decided I was ready to discard clothes that hid me in favor of clothes that revealed me; from them, and from Helen Gurley Brown, I learned that overcoming the fear of trying can be tantamount to freedom.

When women try—when women strive—we put ourselves on the line, more so than men because our purpose is still presumed to be you are here to be looked at. I will support the argument that we should change the paradigm; I agree that part of the answer to the scrutiny we find ourselves under, 52 years after the Pill, is to change our culture so that being looked at is no longer seen as womankind’s greatest goal. That argument also does jack squat for women living right now, as the world exists; it casts a sidelong glance at women who seize power through being seen, or who might just sometimes enjoy being looked at, or who take the traditionally passive role of being seen and transform it into an act of agency in public life and private relationships. Helen Gurley Brown intuited this; rather, she experienced it, as a woman who experienced the manifold facets of womanhood in the early 1960s. With Sex and the Single Girl, she argued that the problem wasn’t being simply looked at; it was being looked at and having no say in how you were seen.

One can look at things like her list of what’s sexy and not—a good telephone voice and the ability to sit very still are sexy, girdles and borrowing money most definitely are not—and find a dictator of femininity, one born from that special kind of misogyny individual women occasionally serve to one another. Certainly lesser variations of her are exactly that. Yet in looking at Helen Gurley Brown’s legacy, one could find something else, something benevolent, even sisterly. For when I read her work, when I look at her life, when I recall the look of approval—no, affection—that crossed her face as she issued her silent blessing to a younger version of myself that morning at the elevator, what I find is a gift.

The Dating Game: Compliment Week*, Part III


Am I the only one who's just ever so slightly creeped out by this song?

I've been putting off writing about male-to-female compliments because, quite honestly, it’s touchy. I crave hearing compliments within my relationships, but I also know that when I’ve gotten them, I still feel dissatisfied. In fact, the compliments given to me by men I’m not dating tend to be the ones that stick. This is somewhat in line with research indicating that women are likelier to respond with a “thank you” to compliments from men than they are to those given by other women. The author of that study speculated that it was because compliments can indicate social status, and since generally speaking men are seen as having more status, women may treat compliments from them as coming from a social superior? Or something. Honestly, I think it’s more that when a guy friend compliments me, what I read into it is that he sees me first and foremost as his friend, but that sometimes I might do something with my appearance that reminds him, Oh yeah, you’re also a nominally attractive woman—and that he’s comfortable enough with our relationship to say something approximating that without it becoming weird. I take it at more face value than I would with a partner, or with a female friend, because I know from my own experience that giving compliments to other women has a different sort of function.

So when it comes to male-to-female compliments, I feel able to hear and accept them from male friends and acquaintances and not get all angsty about it. Not so for men I’m dating. Naturally, my interest was piqued when I came across this study examining the role of compliments in heterosexual relationships. (Unfortunately, the study didn't look at same-sex relationships; I'm very curious about how compliment patterns might differ between female friends and female partners.) The general body of research on this is minimal, but here’s what stood out:

  • Compliments between romantic partners frequently differ from compliments given to friends. The role and intent of compliments are always contextual, and nothing provides a broader context than culture. Intimate relationships are a sort of “microculture” that’s reflected in the form and content of compliments. In Japan, a statement like “Those earrings are pure gold, aren’t they?” would be taken as a compliment (according to compliment scholar Robert Herbert), whereas in the United States it would be more likely to be seen as a question. The form (roundabout) and content (wealth and taste) tell us something about cultural values in Japan. Similarly, in a relationship’s microculture, “There’s nowhere else in the world I’d rather be than in your arms” becomes a compliment despite not resembling one structurally; these emotion-based compliments were the number-one type recalled by participants of both sexes. Whereas compliments among friends are often roundabout ways of expressing “I like you,” in romances there’s freedom to say exactly that, and to still have it experienced as a compliment by the receiver.
  • Women are likelier than men to be aware of the presence—or absence—of compliments. But listen to the flipside: Both sexes equally value the role of compliments in relationships. I’m not entirely sure what to make of this. I’m guessing it has something to do with the traditional role of women as the gatekeepers of emotion, which would lead women to be more sensitive to all sorts of emotional indicators. Alternately, women’s heightened awareness of the role compliments serve with female friends and acquaintances might lead them to a similarly heightened awareness of compliments in their partnerships.
  • The more compliments, the better. The study found a correlation between relationship satisfaction and the number of compliments given and received—and also a correlation between relationship satisfaction and feelings about the number of compliments received. It’s unclear which comes first: Are we happier with compliments because we’re happier with the relationship, or are we happier with our relationships and therefore more likely to give and receive—or at least, remember giving and receiving—compliments? Whatever the case, it seems like it wouldn’t hurt to tell someone you love that, oh I don’t know, the brightness of her cheek would shame the stars as daylight doth a lamp, or whatever floats your boat, really.

*     *     *

So this research is interesting and all, but it doesn’t really get to the heart of why compliments in romances can feel so fraught with tension. These studies look at how the interplay of compliments works within relationships, but in truth, my conflicted reactions to looks-based compliments has little to do with the relationship and more to do with my own insecurities surrounding my appearance. It shouldn’t be that way: By dint of being together, presumably people in relationships find one another attractive. But in my experience—and that of many women I’ve talked with about this—there’s frequently a gnawing sense that maybe that assumed attraction isn’t...enough. Compliments become laden with tension: Does “You look pretty” carry less weight than “You are beautiful”? Does “You are beautiful” become diminished if it follows “Do I look okay”? Does a dropoff in compliments mean that our partners are less attracted to us, or that they’re comfortable enough to express admiration in other ways, or that they don’t want us to think they only find us beautiful when they explicitly say so? Or does an unflagging stream of compliments mean that they’re uttered by rote and don’t “count”?

In truth, only the rare compliment can ever “count,” because the very thing we seek in a compliment—validation—is a host of ambiguities and contradictions. Validation, by definition, relies upon one party affirming something about the other that has not yet been confirmed, and the thing being affirmed must already hold some water. That is, you can’t validate something that neither party really believes is true, or even that only one party believes is true; if you tell me I’m an excellent cook but I believe I’m just doing the bare minimum, I might be pleased by your compliment but I won’t feel validated by it, because there’s no preexisting belief to be affirmed. Similarly, when someone confirms something we already know to be true, validation isn’t in play—I don’t feel validated by being seen as a woman, but a transgendered woman may well feel validated by being called ma’am. With beauty, most of us hover between these poles: We might think under the right light that we might not look half-bad, but we’re not necessarily entirely sure of it. In order for an act to be one of validation as opposed to confirmation or presentation, we need both the possibility of the quality being true and the possibility of it being untrue. In other words, if you’re seeking romantic validation in a compliment, chances are you’re never going to get it.

Not that that stops us—or rather, not that that stops me—from searching for validation in compliments anyway. I’ve dated men all over the compliments scale, from one who actually stopped and sighed while I was brushing my teeth to tell me how beautiful I was, to one who told me early on that he didn’t “do” compliments. Nowhere in there have I ever really found a comfortable place to exist with compliments. With the stingy men I treat each compliment like a rare jewel; with the overkill guys I become exasperated and begin to suspect their words are building a pedestal I don’t want to be on. And with the men who have a moderate, sincere, and appreciative attitude toward compliments, I usually just wind up feeling frozen. I'm not proud of this, and I don't think I've taken out my compliment complex on the men I've been involved with, but I admit it seems like there's no way for a partner to win here.

Yes, yes, it's me, not you, sure. Yet there’s an inherent paradox in compliments that can make them difficult to receive from those we love. The moment a compliment escapes the giver’s lips, a division is created: It’s a reminder that we are being looked at instead of being experienced as a part of a cohesive unit. A looks-based compliment is a reminder of the impossibility of merging with another person—and whether or not merging is actually your goal in a relationship, the whole "the two will become one flesh" bit is pretty much the basis of marriage in the western world.

More importantly, a looks-based compliment can be a reminder of the existence of our own feminine performance—our beauty work, our sleight-of-hand that supports the overall impression of beauty. If the end goal of feminine performance is looking beautiful, sexy, pretty, cute, and then we’re complimented for meeting that goal, it can be hard to shake the feeling that perhaps it’s the performance being complimented, not us. The first response I usually have après-compliment is not to feel pretty but rather to feel as though I need to keep on looking pretty. That is, my knee-jerk reaction is not to experience a compliment as an affirmation of who I am but of what I do. Continuing the performance is the only way to not reveal ourselves to be frauds, even if the fraudulence is benign and socially engineered; we’re not actually beautiful, we just look it right now. By calling attention to the end goal of the performance—a proper signaling of our femininity—compliments pull us out of the assumed nonchalance that makes feminine performance. Even if the goal has been successfully reached, part of the goal of feminine performance is to keep up the illusion that there’s no performance taking place.

No wonder, then, that so many women report ways of defending against compliments: One woman reports scrunching up her face whenever her boyfriend tells her she looks beautiful; another bats her eyelashes “absurdly” when complimented on her eyes; another says she feels “caught” for not being able to follow the compliment script when, in truth, she feels unsure of how to react when a partner says she looks lovely. The gap between the safety of love and the precarity of being seen as an image is a space of uncertainty—and in relationships that already host a good deal of uncertainty, that gap can easily become toxic.

I take heart, though, in one of the findings of the partnership compliment study: The number-one topic of compliments between partners was neither appearance nor skill nor personality, but emotions. Not You look amazing but You make me feel amazing. When I first read that this sort of statement was considered a compliment within the bounds of the study, I hedged—that’s a statement of love, not a compliment, right? But that’s exactly what compliments are: an expression of admiration, appreciation, or plain old liking—and perhaps, with the people we choose to really let in, an expression of love. And it’s not like I—or the women I’ve talked with who wrestle with looks-based compliments from their partners—value our appearance above those expressions of emotion. But framing these statements—which, in good relationships, have flowed easily regardless of the number of You’re so prettys that spill forth—as compliments helps put that urge to hear You’re so pretty in proper perspective.

In fact, it’s exactly that—understanding the true significance of any compliment—that might shoo away that urge for good. According to a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, when people with low self-esteem went beyond merely hearing compliments from partners and instead described the meaning and significance of them, they started to feel better about the compliments, their relationships, and indeed themselves. In fact, once people with low self-esteem did this sort of reframing, they started to behave as people with high self-esteem do.

Now, I’m not sure where I’d fall on the self-esteem scale, but when it comes to my looks, it’s not like I’m always standing on solid ground. I’m hoping that the next time I long to hear a looks-based compliment from a partner, I’ll be able to remember what I’m really looking for: the meaning and significance of things like You’re so pretty, not the words themselves. That is, I’m looking to hear I am attracted to you. I want to be near you. I choose you; you are special to me. And with the right person, the reminders of these facts—for with the right person, they will be facts—should be just that, reminders. You’re so pretty, with luck and patience, can be put aside, where it belongs.


*"Week" is to be taken loosely, mkay? And with that, Compliment Week has finally come to a close. Part I, about the ways women use compliments in relationships with other women, is here; part II, a cursory look at compliment scholarship, is here.  

Recommended Reading

The initial inspiration for The Beheld was, unsurprisingly, The Beauty Myth. But when Rebekkah Dilts of Radar Productions interviewed me recently, I found myself articulating for the first time why I’m eager to look beyond The Beauty Myth. Wolf’s work is incredibly powerful and necessary—we’re hardly free of the “Iron Maiden” of beauty standards, but if it weren’t for The Beauty Myth giving a name and common language to those standards, we’d feel a lot more isolated in our internal struggle regarding our bodies/our selves (and possibly more passively accepting of the rules of beauty too).

But as I said, I’m eager to look beyond this polemic from 20 years ago. I bring up its age not to say it’s no longer relevant but rather to point out that it is relevant, perhaps more than ever—and that we’re still stuck in a lot of the same old ways of thinking. I bring plenty of thought here that sprang from The Beauty Myth, but I’d also like to offer a sort of parallel track alongside Wolf’s sharp cultural critiques: Without merely being dupes of the patriarchy, plenty of women still want to be beautiful (Wolf never says we shouldn’t want that, by the way). Let’s look at what we’re actually doing within the confines of the beauty myth; let’s look at the reasoning we offer ourselves and one another; let’s examine the agency we bring to the vanity table—and, sure, the passive beliefs we’ve absorbed—and go from there.

So, yes, any true primer on beauty for women today must include The Beauty Myth, absolutely. But there are plenty of other books out there that are informing what I’m doing here in trying to work alongside Wolf's book. Here are just five of them.






Ways of Seeing, John Berger
John Berger’s classic text on art and visual culture is a must-read in its entirety. But that goes double for the chapter on representation of women in art, and the ways art mirrors the cultural roles carved out for and inhabited by women. “A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. … And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. … Thus she turns herself into an object—and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.” It was instrumental to my mirror project, and indeed instrumental to the way I think about being a woman in public. How much can equality matter when I am constantly under my own surveillance? 




Facing Beauty, Aileen Ribeiro

Facing Beauty takes the morsels that gave birth to the slim Ways of Seeing and expands them into a gorgeous color volume examining historical views of women as revealed through various art forms. Social mores, morality, artifice, and idealization all make their way to the canvas through how women are depicted, whether it’s the role of “common” sex workers and courtesans as muses or the strategic revealing of bared breasts. Even more engaging than the traditional art history is the treatment of cosmetics history as lived art on its wearers. From the always-beloved paintings of women at their vanities to the decorations on the actual bottles and pots of cosmetic creams, the painted self is worth as much examination as the canvas, and Facing Beauty treats it as such.



The Thoughtful Dresser, Linda Grant
I’m forever thankful to Terri of Rags Against the Machine for recommending this book after I wrote about Anne Frank packing curlers. Linda Grant’s book may as well be a manifesto for every woman who has cared about fashion or beauty and felt the sting of dismissal when someone has called those pursuits trivial. They can be treated trivially, of course, but Grant masterfully shows us why we care so much even when we don’t think we should. With Holocaust survivor and fashion buyer Catherine Hill as our default protagonist, the book serves as a sort of psychic history of fashion—why consumerism, specifically fashion consumerism, was tied in with women’s liberation (and not just for women who could afford to buy new clothes), and why even those of us who don’t particularly care about trends wind up buying into them more than we realize. Read this and just try to resist the urge to put on something beautiful. I dare you.





The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir
The ten pages that constitute the twenty-second chapter of this classic are some of the most important pages ever written if you’re interested in the relationship between women and vanity. Titled “The Narcissist,” instead of simply damning women who take pleasure in their own visage, the chapter shines a brutal light on why the mirror can provide such refuge: When one of our primary public roles is being gazed upon, is it any wonder we may wish to look at ourselves to see what all the fuss is about? “All love requires the duality of a subject and an object,” de Beauvoir writes. “The reality of man is in the houses he builds, the forests he clears, the maladies he cures; but woman, not being able to fufill herself through project and objectives, is forced to find her reality in the immanence of her person.” Much has changed since 1949; women—ta-da!—can clear forests and cure maladies. But the vestiges of the prefeminist era remain in vanity, and as much as vain is often used as an insult to women, we must examine it in a feminist context (instead of a moral one) before we can understand our relationship to our self-image.



The Managed Heart, Arlie Russell Hochschild
This sociological study of the emotional labor of flight attendants and bill collectors is a fascinating look into the ways many of us harness our feelings in the course of our jobs. Whether we’re managing our feelings about the chain of hierarchy or channeling our “authentic” personality to help us shine at our work (as with friendly, compliant flight attendants), it’s near-impossible to avoid having our emotions, to some degree, commodified in the workplace. What does this have to do with beauty? It wasn’t until I read Hochschild that I was able to pinpoint my own “emotional beauty labor”: The small and large ways in which I attempt to play the part of a nice-looking woman, in ways that go beyond styling my hair or putting on makeup. It’s these small acts of emotional beauty labor—say, walking the line between the gracious and obsequious in receiving compliments, using femininity to command attention but keep it in the realm of appropriacy--make up a greater drain on our personal resources than just makeup. This book is key to understanding our own emotional labor of all sorts, whether appearance-related or not.

Leah Smith, Public Policy Ph.D Student, Lubbock, TX

The first time Leah Smith saw a little person, she turned to her mother and said, “So that’s what I’m going to look like when I’m an adult?” Her mother said, “Yeah,” to which Smith replied, “I think that’s okay.” Now vice president of public relations for Little People of America, a support group and information center for people of short stature, Smith works to let others know what she intuited in that moment. (Smith is speaking here on her own behalf, not in her public relations role with LPA.) She’s also working toward her Ph.D. in public policy, with a focus on disability policy, including discrimination and employment policy for people with disabilities. Her first love, however, was fashion design, in which she earned an associate degree. We talked about redefining fashion to include little people, the division between feeling beautiful and receiving romantic attention, and pretending to be Julia Roberts. In her own words:


On Pride
I know that people are looking at me all the time, and you have to find a way to process that somehow. When I was 7, I kind of pretended that I was Julia Roberts. I mean, obviously I don’t do this now, but as a kid I’d read or heard somewhere that every time she would go out, people would stop and stare because she was so pretty. And I was like, “That’s what I face every day, so it must be because I’m pretty.” In my little 7-year-old mind that’s how I processed it. That kind of shaped who I am, and I started dressing to fit the part. I’m not saying I’m any Julia Roberts; it’s just that I wanted to dress in cute or nice-looking clothes, so when people do stare I can be like, Oh, they’re looking because they like my outfit, or they think I’m cute, or whatever. People are going to stare either way, so you’ve got to bring some sort of confidence to it.

Dressing well has been huge in my life. The comments and the stares could have been really easy for me to internalize if I weren’t careful. I feel like my clothes are a way of putting up a shield against that, of saying to the world that the things people might believe about LPs aren't true. That's not who I believe I am—this is who I am. There’s a level of pride in being able to wear a cute outfit, wear my hair cute. It says that I’m proud of this body, and that it’s not something I want to hide or cover up. Because I am proud of my body—I’m not ashamed of it in any way, and I don’t want that to ever be something I portray with how I present myself.

My style is pretty feminine—dresses, cute sandals. There are very few days when I don’t dress up, and people joke that my hair is my biggest priority in my life, which obviously isn’t true, but I do pay a lot of attention to it. I’ve wondered if I would give my appearance as much thought if I were average-sized, or if it’s just a part of who I am. Sometimes I have to remind myself, “Leah, it’s okay if you don’t fix your hair every single day.” I consciously stopped styling my hair on Sundays—I still shower and whatever, but I just don’t fix my hair, to remind myself that I mean more to people than just what I look like. If you’re going to feel beautiful you’ve got to feel beautiful when you’re naked too. It can’t just be all about your clothes or what your hair looks like; it has to start from somewhere else.

On Speed Dating
It can be hard for LP women to navigate male attention. LPA has an annual convention, so you go from having never been hit on by a guy, and then you go to convention and all of a sudden all these guys are thinking you’re really attractive. How do you figure that out? What do you do with that attention once you have it? I almost feel like it’s a bit delayed for us, whereas most people kind of grow up learning those things. As soon as the girls are about 16, suddenly it’s like, “Whoa, these guys think I’m hot—what do I do?” As a part of the leadership at conference, you get to see the ins and outs of what’s going on, and one year there was a guy who was hitting on this girl, and she didn’t really do anything to stop it. He continued and continued, and then all of a sudden she was like, “Wait, I’m not comfortable at all,” and he was like, “Well, you never said no.” She said, “Well, yeah, because I liked it!” Everyone has to learn to deal with those situations, but it happens in a concentrated way at conference. You go from holding hands for the first time to kissing within a week. She had to learn: Okay, I can like this but still have limits here. For me, watching it was like, Oh, man! It was like seeing my own teenhood.

Feeling beautiful and getting male attention were two very separate events for me. Male attention was a once-a-year expedition for me, whereas looking my best was an everyday thing. At convention I’d get dressed up and be thinking about meeting a dude, but that was more of a mind-set shift; I was already dressing in clothes I thought were cute. I started paying attention to my clothes and fixing my hair around seventh grade, so about the same time as most girls, but dating didn’t factor into it like it might have for someone else. Dressing up was just who I was, and it had nothing to do with guys. Maybe if I hadn’t done that and had started being active dating-wise later, the two would have become linked—I don’t know.

There’s this epiphany for some women when they come into LPA, like: “Oh! There’s LP guys who like this body.” There are some women you talk to who have repeatedly been given the message that they are or should be asexual. You hear, “I can’t imagine a guy ever wanting to be with me,” or “I’ve been told my whole life that I’m not what guys want—I don’t have long legs, and an average-size guy would never want to date me.” But then on the flip side of that there are times that LPs have been hypersexualized and some women who take that to its extreme: There are groups of people who have a fetish with little people, specifically LP women. You see some LP women who have internalized this idea and believe that they should take this idea as their role. Sexuality can be very tough for someone who has seen these two extremes. On the one hand, we should be asexual, and on the other hand we are a fetish object. There’s a fine middle line somewhere in there.

On Being Little and Badass
Clothes are such a hard thing for LPs, because so often you have to buy a pair of jeans for $100, and then you have to go get them altered for $150, so that really limits your ability to buy a number of outfits. You’re spending twice as much on one item rather than getting two or three items. I actually do all my own alterations. With achondroplasia, the type of dwarfism I have, our torso is basically the same as an average-size person’s, so I’ll buy clothes that fit my butt and breasts and just alter the arms and legs. For most LPs, I’d say it’s about half and half—some do their own sewing, and the rest get it altered.

I went to fashion design school in Dallas. I really wanted to create a line that allowed LP women to express their inner beauty. At the time a lot of my friends in LPA were dealing with the same thing I was: We were young adults in the world, and asking ourselves what it meant to not be at home anymore, protected by our parents? How do we be adults and be little at the same time? So I started trying to design clothes that expressed the feelings I wanted to express at the time. If I felt badass, I would try to create a badass outfit. Even if nothing about the outfit shouted badass, if I could associate that feeling with the outfit, that’s what mattered—that’s kind of where I was going with my designs.

Going to fashion design school was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I was studying fashion design and trying to redefine fashion at the same time, and it really made some people uncomfortable within the school. I experienced a lot of discrimination there that I’d never experienced before. At the time I thought it was because I was little, but looking back I don’t know if it had anything to do with me being little so much as it was I was questioning the paradigm.

For example, we had to create our own line for our final project and do a whole business plan. I wrote that my goal was having a fashion line that would help LPs feel beautiful in their own bodies. My teacher marked that out and wrote on my project that LPs were not beautiful, that they’re not tall, that they don’t have long legs and this is an impossible thing for you to be trying to pursue or to try to make them feel. I was furious. This was after other things had happened—for example, I’d asked for a stool because some of the tables we worked on were really high. They were like, “Well, I guess we have to offer it, but we can’t promise it will be here every day. It’s not our fault if someone steals it.” I was like, “It’s my stool, I’m here all the time, everyone knows I use it, and I can’t imagine why someone would steal a stool.” And every single day it was gone. The other students were the ones who suggested I have a stool to begin with, and I couldn’t imagine any of them would be that vicious. It was that kind of thing that kept going and going, and that comment on my final project broke the camel’s back, I guess. That’s when I started going into policy and the legal side of it. This is a much bigger problem than what we’re wearing, or even what we can legislate. This is a societal problem, that women who are short-statured aren’t seen as beautiful. That’s what we’re up against. When you’re 22 and you’re out to change the world, nobody tells you the world is not an easy place to change. I mean, I’m still out to change the world. Maybe I’m just a bit more realistic with the ways that’s going to get done.

Best in Show: Prize Dogs and the Women Who Love Them


I don’t particularly like dogs, at least not as a species. Some of them are perfectly lovely creatures I’m happy to share space with on an as-needed basis; others are sources of anything ranging from annoyance to terror.

So it wasn’t the dogs that got me into the Westminster Dog Show the other day, not exactly. I was on the treadmill at the gym, which is where I watch things I normally wouldn’t, like the news, or CSI, or the Westminster Dog Show. It was basically the only thing on that had nothing to do with Rick Santorum (shudder!) or sports (men throwing things at other things, why do I care?), so the kennel club it was.

I wound up enjoying it from a sort of removed, absurdist standpoint, made all the easier by the fact that I was watching the toy dog competition. I know next to nothing about dogs, and certainly know even less about toy dogs. (For those of you who are as clueless about dogs as I was a mere eight hours ago: Toy dogs aren’t actually toys, they’re live, just very very small.) Most looked like extravagant motorized dust ruffles to me. But of course, it’s not the dust ruffles that intrigue me; it’s the handlers behind them.

Showing animals is peculiar, sartorially speaking: You have to be dressed spiffily enough to pay proper homage to the event (teenagers showing sows at 4-H shows will put on their best cowboy boots), but comfortably enough to run, jump, chase, and otherwise wrangle potentially unpredictable creatures. You don’t dress to complement yourself; you’re dressing to complement your charge: “I never want to blend in with my dog,” says a handler in this article, which also advises dressing to distract from dogs’ flaws if necessary—the canine equivalent of wearing vertical stripes, I suppose?

In some ways it’s no different than the boardroom, if, in the boardroom, one were expected to frequently bend over and kneel, and to have liver in one’s pocket to keep a senior executive in line. The result is that the conservative look required can easily devolve into frumpiness—a fact not escaped by the Facebook group Dog Show Fashion Police, which has more than 17,000 “likes.” Shoes in particular stood out to me: Not a single woman handler was wearing heels. There may be a regulation about this, actually, in order to protect the flooring (does anyone know?). You mostly only see handlers from the knee down, and it’s rare to see images of women’s legs without them ending in either sky-high stilettos or a perfectly pedicured toe. Nothing like that here—just one pair of legs after another, revealed so matter-of-factly as to make us barely register them as women’s legs, de-eroticized as they were.

Reading the close-captioned narration onscreen cracked me up at first, these traits the announcers were attributing to dogs—docility, hospitality, even luxury-loving, all with a distinct emphasis on their impeccable breeding and their place in the social order of onceuponatime. (They didn’t need to spell out the connection of dog breeding to modern-day class systems; that part was clear.) But as I watched pair after pair of flats-clad human legs scurry alongside these moving dust ruffles, it struck me what a role reversal dogs shows are for female handlers. Here you have women displaying something to be judged on its looks, genetics, and breeding, and it is not her. She holds the dog out as an offering; we look at the floor-length hair of the Pekingese, the bouffant (hairdo?) of the shih tzu, the perfectly manicured puffs of the toy poodle, and we literally judge the animal based solely on how it appears to us. The words used to describe the dogs—affable, trusting, companionable, lively—also happen to read as a checklist of traits for the ideal woman. The dog receives the burden of absorbing the attitudes we normally direct toward women, leaving the handler oddly free to trot alongside her charge. For once, she is neither being judged nor judging. For once, she is an active participant without being looked at, and without the wallflower’s shame; she must be a wallflower in order to let the canine star shine.




I’m afraid this reads a bit like parody, the idea of the Westminster Kennel Club as fertile ground for an act of feminist visibility, and I admit it’s a little ridiculous. (Though if there’s a strain of radical feminist dog handlers out there reading this, please do let me know.) But when the narrators are saying things that we so blatantly reserve for women, how could my thoughts not wander in that direction? At one point an announcer unblinkingly proclaimed about a certain breed, “It’s not just hair and glitz—they’re actually really pretty.” Even dogs are being judged as either glamorous or “natural” beauties; as leaning on the artifice of hair and glitz or being genetically gifted enough to be “really pretty.” And given that women are compared to so many animals anyway—we’re kittenish, or have birdlike appetites; we’re foxy little vixens, unless we’re heifers or, well, dogs—suddenly it doesn’t seem terrifically far-fetched to wonder if there’s a bit of relief in establishing oneself as the mistress of another who is definitively there to be judged. Dogs may be man’s best friend, but perhaps they’re also woman’s best diversion.

Sister Nancy Ruth, Life-Professed Member of the Order of St. Andrew, Hudson Valley, New York


Paul Hoecker, Nonne im Laubgang von Dachau, 1897

Every time Sister Nancy Ruth turned on the television, a nun would be waiting. “Movies, TV showsjust something about nuns whenever I’d turn on the TV. Every time,” she says. She took it as a calling to become a nun, but her family responsibilities meant she couldn’t live in a convent. “So I prayed about it. I said, ‘God, you know what my situation is. I can’t go into a convent, I can’t be cloistered.’ The very next day, I opened a magazine called the Anglican Digest, and there was an ad for the Order of St. Andrew. He answered my prayer.” She’s been a nun with the Order of St. Andrewwhich allows its brothers and sisters to live independently, hold jobs, and marryfor 17 years, and she became life-professed in 2000. In addition to her responsibilities within the order, she works as a pharmacy technician. We talked about the inherent femininity of a habit, the way our clothes might advertise our values, and where a gal can get a good vodka tonic. In her own words: 


On Femininity
I don’t think being a nun requires you to be unfeminine. I feel very feminine in my habit. I generally don’t dress for anyone but myself, so the idea of going out and trying to impress somebody else through what I wear just isn’t going to happen. Me in a strapless evening gown was never going to happen, whether I was a nun or not. It’s not because I don’t ever feel girly or sexy, but that form of sexiness isn’t going to be who I am.

I’m not sure if I’ve ever consciously tried to feel sexy. I’ve experimented a little bit more now that I’ve lost some weight; I’ve experimented with showing a little skin. Like, I have a dress that shows more cleavage than I’ve ever shown, and it’s a little uncomfortable to wear because it exposes more than I ever have in my entire life. But I found the right undergarment that gives the right kind of support, and I found the right necklace to go with it, one that sort of covers a lot of the area. The outfit isn’t necessarily revealing, but the effect is more intentional than anything I’ve worn before. I’ve survived! People have liked the look.

Makeup depends. Fingernail polish should be clear or very pale when you're in habit. Most of the sisters wear at least foundation. I normally wear eyeshadow, eyeliner, and mascara, but in habit I don’t wear any makeup at all. My eyes are one of my better features, so I like them to stand out. It’s just a way to feel girly, I guess. In the summertime I wear mostly dresses. They’re comfortable and cool without pantyhose, but I also wear them to feel girly. Feeling girly to me might mean a little bit of eye makeup, jewelry, perfume. My hair is short now, but I never had to cut my hair because I was a nun. I was worried about that because I had long hair when I first became a nun, but if you can keep it under the veil you can have your hair long.

Still, I don’t consider myself particularly feminine, at least not that classic Southern belle kind of feminine. I’ve always been very capable and strong, physically too, and I just couldn’t imagine acting like I wasn’t capable for any length of time. But as a nun, the first thing people see is that I am a woman. Having been mistaken for a boy on more than one occasion, it’s sort of nice to be seen as definitively female. Being a nun is a very traditional female role, and it’s an empowering role. People tend to think of nuns as being disempowered, but they’re not, not in my church. About the only thing I can’t do that a priest can is the actual mass, the different unctions, that sort of thing. But I can do sermons, I write homilies. I can counsel if someone asks meit’s not as formal as it would be with a priest, but I don’t feel in any way limited as a nun. Women can be ordained in the Episcopal Church, but I was called to be a nun; I’m not called to be a priest. In college, a professor put the words “I am” on the board and had us finish that sentence three times as a way of defining ourselves. I don’t remember what I put then, but the answer now would be: I am a nun, I am a woman. I am an Anglican would probably be the third one.


On Wearing the Habit
The first time I put on the habit, it was like stepping into my own skin. It was wonderful. The order was probably the very first group I’ve ever felt comfortable with as quickly as I did; within two hours of meeting everybody I felt so comfortable. And it’s still comfortable to be with the order, and to wear the habit. When I put on the habit, it’s like putting on a hug. It almost feels like I’m physically being held by God at those times, more so than when I’m in my street clothes.

I used to joke that I became a nun so I didn’t have to make a choice about what to wear. And there are times when I’d really just rather live in the habit. One of the things I love when we get together as an order is that for four days, that’s all I wear. It’s interesting in those situations because someone will say “sister” and we all turn around! But it’s wonderful because we know each other’s personality more than we know each other’s looks. Depending on when each of us get up in the morning, there are some sisters I’ve never seen out of habit. So you have to look beyond the looks; you have to know the person. It’s a little different with the guysthey’re all wearing habits but they don’t cover their heads, and hair is such a distinctive feature on people. But even with them you get to know the person as opposed to the looks, and it’s a perfect example of how you can be friends with members of the opposite sex, even when you’re both heterosexual. Some of my best friends are brothers.

As a nun I represent my order, and I represent Christ, so there are things I can’t do. Like, I absolutely cannot smoke. It’s not officially written down, but when your mother [in the order] says no smoking… And we can drink, but we cannot get drunk. Our order meets twice a year, and before I moved and was closer to the order I’d fly up. We’d all go to one of the airport bars and you’d see six or seven of us, all nuns and priests, sitting around drinking. That was probably pretty funny to seeus stepping up to the bar and saying, “Can I have a vodka tonic?”

The habit has left me feeling not particularly self-conscious about my body. I’ve never hated my body or anything; I’ve been comfortable with myself for a fairly long time. But I’ve lost 80 pounds since 2009, mostly for health reasons, and it’s a nice feeling to look at old pictures of myself and see the difference. I suppose I feel more positive in that respect. If body image comes into play it’s more that I can say I look good, as opposed to just feeling comfortable. I tend to hide my body a lot, and you could say that maybe being in the habit does that as well, but it’s also like being the only pink bead in a bowl full of black beads. You stand out in a habit. So I don’t really think of it as hiding my body. When I started wearing the habit, I stopped being the fat lady. Instead I became the nun. It frees you up from a lot of society’s expectations; you’re exempt as a nun. You don’t have to be a part of a couple; you don’t have to be that certain societally defined form of sexually attractive. You can be by yourselfyou’re expected to be by yourself, or with a group of nuns. So even though I stand out, I also feel less conspicuous. As a nun it’s not quite as uncomfortable to be alone.


On Modesty
Modesty is a Christian belief, in part because Christianity is about loving God and loving others as you love yourself. Being humble and not putting yourself first is probably the hardest thing a religion asks you to do. But at the same time, you have to value yourself before you can value others. So you dress in a way that shows you value your body, that your body is not out there for someone else to exploit. I see a lot of girls who dress in a way that looks a bit like they’re exploiting themselves. Sex is so much more intimate than whatever you’d wear to a bar. It’s so much more meaningful that I can’t imagine selling it that short, being that blasé about it. Your clothes are an advertisement of yourself: How do you value yourself? Are you modest? Are you for sale? The idea is that if you value yourself as a person, your clothes will reflect that. You’ll make yourself up because you want to feel good about yourself; you won’t wear makeup if you don’t really want to. And you’ll never make yourself up like a fool.

There might be some religious rules about not wearing makeup, keeping your head covered, not wearing jewelrybut that has more to do with showing off and being proud. In my case, I cover my head because it’s part of the habit, sure. But it also takes away from people looking at me as a sexual person. When I’m wearing my habit, I’m advertising that I’m a nunI’m advertising that I’m not really supposed to be seen as a sexual person. I’m supposed to be seen as more of a religious person.

I consider myself married to God. I’m not wearing my wedding ring today; the ring has gotten too big, and my last ring guard fell off this morning and I can’t find it. Nuns in my order can be married, but your very first commitment is to God, before anything else. But I’ve never really thought about dressing for God, because God knows your heart. God knows me naked. He knows me naked physically and emotionally and spiritually. He knows all the dark secrets, even ones that I don’t want to know for myself, and the fact that he still loves me is important. When people say to take pride in yourself, what I take from that is that God created you individually as you are, and you’re a good person, and he loves you as you are. Does that mean you shouldn’t get better? I mean, God loved me when I was 265 pounds, and he doesn’t love me better now that I weigh less. My love for God helped me say, “God made something really good and I’m screwing it up”; I really wasn’t treating my body well. But when you’re talking about appearance, there’s not really any changes I would make for God. I dress in habit, okay. But living as he would want me to liveshowing love to others, being humble, treating others with love and acceptance and patience even when it’s hardI guess that’s how I dress for God.

Thoughts on a Word: Glamour (Part II)


I’ve had my chance to expound on glamour (which, of course, I did from my chaise longue with a Manhattan in hand while my protégé took dictation), but the concept of glamour is intriguing enough to warrant a revisiting—not from me, but from four women who each have their own distinct relationship with glamour. I’m delighted that each of them—author Virginia Postrel, publicist Lauren Cerand, artist Lisa Ferber, and novelist Carolyn Turgeon—took the time and effort to share their thoughts on glamour with me. And now, with you.

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Virginia Postrel, author, columnist, and speaker who is currently writing a book about glamour, to be published by The Free Press in early 2013. She explores "the magic of glamour in its many manifestations" at DeepGlamour.net, a group blog.

Like humor, glamour arises from the interaction of an audience and an object. Someone or something is always glamorous to a specific audience. So there has to be something about the glamorous object that triggers and focuses the audience's desires—that makes them project themselves into the glamorous image and feel themselves somehow transformed. But those qualities are different in different contexts, and they may not even be things that are widely recognized as "glamorous."

A good way to understand glamour is to start not with fashion or people but with the glamour of travel. Think of classic travel posters and contemporary resort ads, with their images of exotic locales, peaceful beaches, or seemingly effortless transportation. What makes an image of the New York skyline, a cruise ship against the blue Mediterranean, or Ankgor Wat at dawn so alluring? Why does the sight of a jet rising against a sunset or full moon seem so glamorous?

The glamour of travel lies first in its promise to lift us out of our everyday existence. We project ourselves into this new and special place, imagining that there we will fulfill our unsatisfied longings—whatever they may be. Just getting away doesn’t make travel glamorous, however. Going every year to your family’s cabin on Lake Michigan may be fun, but it’s too familiar for glamour. A glamorous destination is at least a little bit exotic. It shimmers with the possibilities of the unknown. Its mystery not only stokes imagination. It also heightens the good and hides the bad (or the banal, like all the other tourists congregating to snap Angkor Wat at dawn). As the great studio-era photographer George Hurrell put it: “Bring out the best, conceal the worst, and leave something to the imagination.”

The glamour of travel illustrates the three elements found in all forms of glamour: mystery, grace, and the promise of escape and transformation. These elements explain why certain styles or codes seem to spell “glamour.”

Take fashion. If glamour by definition requires elements of mystery and aspiration—escape from the ordinary—then the clothes you wear or see on the street every day are not going to be glamorous. Hence we often associate glamour with the kinds of extraordinary evening wear that few people can afford and even fewer have any occasion to wear. But, depending on the audience, other forms of fashion can be glamorous. Vintage styles that represent some idealized period in the past are an obvious example. So are sneakers associated with great athletes. Even something as mundane as a business suit can be glamorous if it represents a career you aspire to but have not (yet) achieved.

The "codes of glamour" change with the audience and the times. The iconography of glamour in 1930s Hollywood films—bias-cut satin gowns, "big white sets," lots of glitter and shine—is quite different from Grace Kelly in the New Look, sweater sets, and pearls. Yet we think of both as classically glamorous.

Like humor, glamour sometimes emerges spontaneously and sometimes is actively constructed. Some things tend to stay glamorous, or funny, over time. Others cease to have the right effect. Mink coats used to be a quick way of signaling a kind of glamour. I'd argue that they've been replaced with another cliche: the hot stone massage photos you see everywhere. The massage photos also show indulgent feminine luxury, but they appeal to different longings—not so much for social status as for pampering and relaxation, a private experience rather than a social good. Similarly, I write about how wind turbines have become glamorous symbols of technological optimism, in the same way that rocket ships were in the 1950s and early '60s.

Finally, some things are glamorous without being widely recognized as such. The bridge of the Starship Enterprise is intensely glamorous to a certain audience. It elicits the same kind of projection and longing that other people feel when they think of Paris or haute couture, and it also shares the three essential elements of glamour.

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Lauren Cerand, independent public relations consultant. She shares notes on living at LuxLotus.com.

Glamour is the word, pertaining to me, that I hear most often from other people, and, in truth, the word I think of least on my own (conceptually, I gravitate toward things that are elegant, or correct, or comfortingly archaic, and, most importantly, eschew embellishment of any kind. I'm a minimalist with opulent taste). That makes sense, though, if, to quote Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie, whom I heard read her poem "Glamourie" in Edinburgh years ago, "glamour is a Gaelic word," intended to mean a sort of enchanting trickery, "fairy magic" cast down over the eyes of the unsuspecting (sophistication also had similar implications, of a gloss for the purposes of deceptive artifice, in its early usage, according to Faye Hammill's wonderful cultural study, Sophistication, on University of Liverpool Press). Glamour certainly seems to play out that way, as a quality of perception more than direct experience. I don't think then, that I could regard myself as glamorous. I simply make a living from having a semi-public life and the fact that people admire my personal taste enough to emulate it. While I never stretch the truth, as lying takes too much time and I am always short of it, I am a private person at heart and so I can see the tantalizingly faint trail of breadcrumbs that I leave behind, twinkling in starlight, inspiring one to imagine the cake from which they must have fallen. Perhaps now and then it really was that grand. It could be our secret, but I'd never tell.

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Lisa Ferber, artist, playwright, performer, and bonne vivante. Peruse her works at LisaFerber.com, and keep an eye out for her upcoming web series, The Sisters Plotz.

The funny thing about glamour is that an exact definition of the word is as elusive as the quality itself. The quality is like a special fairy dust that makes a person sparkle; you can’t put your finger on precisely what it is. I think it has to start from within. When I see today’s teenage starlets trying to pull off 1940s Old Movie Star Glamour, I just think, Um, no, you can’t just do a deep side-part and red lipstick and think now you’re Ava Gardner. But there’s this woman who works the bread counter at Zabar’s who I admire because there she is in her white bread-counter smock, but she’s probably in her 60s and always has a full face of makeup on, and sparkly barrettes in her nicely done hair, and she’s gorgeous and all dressed up to work the bread counter. Whenever I see her I have to repress blurting out, “You are my hero! You look like a movie star!”

It absolutely cannot be purchased, but I do think there is an aspect of formality involved. Glamour always involves looking pulled together. Even if the look is over-the-top, it has to come across as though there was care taken. That's part of the mystique. Glamour implies that everything you meant to do is coming across just as you want it to. It’s hard to be glamorous in a track suit, but if you really want to do it that way, you can go over the top with heels and baubles and make it eccentric, because eccentricity done right can exude glamour. I think the best glamour will teeter on eccentricity, because it’s about going just a little bit too far. All the photos I love from early 20th century photographers like Horst and Irving Penn are about going too far…giant hats, luxurious gowns...clothes that serve no practical purpose, and therein lies their glamour. Because glamour is about transcending the everyday.

When people have called me glamorous, it thrills me, because I have always felt a kinship with those old-school 1930s and 1940s women. People have always told me that I seem like I’m from another time, which I think is funny because it’s not really something I’m trying to do; it’s just how I am. I’ve painted from photos of Carole Lombard, Liz Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Jean Harlow…all of them have that Something, where it would be impossible to imagine them ever looking disheveled or weighed down by life’s woes, though of course we know they were real women with all the problems people have.

Recently I shot the first episode of my new web series, The Sisters Plotz. I wrote it, and it stars TV icons Eve Plumb, Lisa Hammer, and me (Hammer also directs). Eve, Lisa, and I were shooting a street scene in which we are dressed like glamour girls from the 1930s, and everyone we passed on the street would smile at us and tell us how great we looked. And it wasn't just because we looked "good" or were dressed up; it's because glamour, particularly the old-school, dedicated, womanly glamour of the 1930s, has an effect on people. It says just check your troubles at the door and be your glorious self. Glamour is transportive in that sense. I think glamour means a person has a quality of being slightly outside—dare I say above?—the normal realm of boring problems. A few years ago, I was going through a tough time, and my wonderful friend Chris Etcheverry gave me this gorgeous green-tiled art-deco mirror, and he said, “I know things are hard for you right now, and you might not feel your best, so whenever you aren’t feeling so good, I want you to look in this mirror and remind yourself that you are glamorous.” And I knew what he meant is that I have something inside, that glamour is a strength from the inside that allows you to transcend life’s unpleasantries.

Glamour is a quality that makes someone look and seem Famous; it’s intriguing, it is the quality that makes people wonder who you are, and what your secret is. A person finds their own glamour—it’s not about being an 8-year-old wearing expensive clothes, rather it’s about developing yourself so that you’re a person with a Something. I was watching a biography on the fantastic Gertrude Berg, the entertainment pioneer who created The Goldbergs, and her son was saying that she always dressed a certain way and had a quality about her, where people would see her and even if they didn’t know who she was, they could tell she was somebody. That’s glamour.

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Carolyn Turgeon, author of Rain VillageGodmotherMermaid, and The Next Full Moon, coming out in March. She blogs at IAmaMermaid.com about all things mermaid.

With glamour, I see images. I see red lipstick, I see arched brows. I see Marlene Dietrich, Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard, Greta Garbo. I see sitting in a satin bed with bonbons. I see glittery, shiny things, I see everything in black-and-white, old-timey, leopard print. Glamour takes what’s beautiful and chic and makes it over-the-top. The first time I went to Dollywood—I love Dolly Parton—I went to the museum, and it’s full of all her crazy rhinestone-crusted paraphernalia. There’s this quote there where she says that she knows people might think she’s ridiculous and laugh at her, but she was this girl from the mountains who grew up running around barefoot, so to her, this is beautiful. The rhinestones and the glitter. She doesn’t care if some people think it’s ridiculous. She’s like a little girl playing dress-up, reveling in the artifice of it. Glamour can be a little like that, a way to add fabulousness and fantasy and a little over-the-top shimmer to your regular life.

Glamorous doesn’t have to be beautiful. In terms of female beauty, you can take a natural-looking girl without makeup on the beach and she might be really beautiful, but not glamorous. Glamour is, by definition, unnatural; it's about adornment and style; it’s about knowingly adorning yourself in a way that hearkens back to certain images that are cool and dreamy, otherworldly. Not everyone can be beautiful, but anyone can be glamorous, because it's something you can actually do. I like that any woman can put on really red lips, get an old travel valise and a little muff, and wear sunglasses on top of her head. (Of course men can do all these things, too, and become, among other things, that most glamorous of creatures, the drag queen.) It doesn’t matter how old she is, what color she is, whether she's rich or poor, big or small. It's the woman standing in shadow in the doorway, Marilyn standing over the subway grate, Garbo emerging from the smoke in Anna Karenina.

The Privacy Settings of Pajamas

What, your mustard chinoiserie pajamas didn't come with a purple poodle?

I wore pajamas to class my freshman year of college. Well, specifically, I wore my pajama pants one time to one class my freshman year of college. I’d read in some YA book when I was, like, 12 that you could wear pajamas to class in college if you wanted, and in a collegiate fit of I am an adult now—not dissimilar to my collegiate fit of eating ice cream for dinner four days in a row when I realized nobody could tell me not to—I thought, You know, I’m here to learn, and I’ll learn best when I’m comfortable, and this “system” of “pants” is bogus, so I’m just going to show up to astronomy in my flannel bottoms, and so I did.

When I sat down, I could feel the wooden seat against me in a way that felt unexpectedly harsh, and I kept slipping and sliding around the seat, with the flannel providing no traction. More than that, though, I felt exposed. I hadn’t done anything that morning besides brush my teeth, and here I was, in public. Instead of feeling carefree and cozy, I felt trapped—trapped by my private self being on such public display, trapped by my human foibles (sleep-wrinkled pants, night-sweaty hair) being so visible. I wanted the physical and psychic membrane that jeans, a bra, and a sturdier top provided me. I ran home between class sessions and changed into my usual clothes.

So I don’t get the lure of pajamas in public. I know that some people prefer them for specific reasons, like chronic pain conditions, and I’ve got no problem padding about my neighborhood in my yoga pants and “fancy hoodie.” (You know, the one without the coffee stains and frayed cuffs.) But I admit to being quizzical about pajamas apparently becoming de rigueur among teenagers, as reported in the Wall Street Journal.

I wrote earlier this week about how part of the joys of some private clothing is the public ideas we attach to them—as with slips, which are somewhat glamorous despite being simple, demure, and inexpensive because of the very idea that we’re not supposed to see them. We see the inverse here: Wearing pajamas in public is taking a symbol of private life into the public sphere. Not actual private life, mind you, but the symbol of it. One teenager interviewed for the WSJ piece has school-only pajama pants (albeit at the insistence of her mother), and the article made it clear that the look, while casual, is still coordinated, with as many fashion rules as ever. Voluminous “banded boyfriend” sweatpants would call for a fitted cami; trim leggings would call for an oversized sweatshirt; all go best with Uggs or slipper-type shoes. "It's a complex system to master," writes Cassie Murdoch at Jezebel, and she's absolutely correct.

It’s hard to imagine the average teenager putting so much care into a wardrobe that’s kept truly private. (Of course, I’m writing this in my “house hoodie,” which was purchased in the year 2000, so perhaps my perspective is skewed.) And that’s what’s going on here: The pajama-pants look as a trend isn’t just about comfort, or even just about bringing our private lives outside. It’s about a careful calibration of public intimacy. It’s about what layers you’re going to show, and when, and to whom. Actually, it’s about Facebook.

The generation that’s donning loungewear in public in large numbers is also the generation that has grown up with different expectations of privacy and public living. They’re fluid in setting groups of friends on Facebook that determine who can see what; they’ve learned the difference between friends and “friends,” liking and “liking.” It only makes sense that a generation versed in managing privacy would gravitate toward clothing that advertises different layers of public and private personae. The default privacy setting might be that of pajama pants worn to class, communicating that, Hey, peeps, this is what I’m really like—I’m in my jammies, does it get any more real than that? But that default setting is carefully managed—wearing the “right” sweatpants with the “right” top to create the desired silhouette, taking care not to accidentally show up for algebra wearing the tattered, yellowed tee you actually slept in. Just as we calculate our online profiles to be just the right mix of casual, hip, and unassumingly nerdy (I once listed a Balkan folk group as one of my favorites on Facebook), the pajamas look is carefully calculated to give the impression of nonchalance despite the work that actually went into creating the look.

The teen years are always a time of experimenting with identity, and our wardrobes are an ongoing experiment in the same, so the social minefield of teenagers’ wardrobes has been filled with trip-wires since the invention of the teenager. In some ways it’s not that different from my junior-high years of the label-conscious '80s, when 12-year-olds on the cusp of developing their own identity were living out their parents’ yuppie dreams by wearing shirts emblazoned with the Guess and Esprit logos. But I’m guessing that hasn’t disappeared; it’s just been subsumed by the announcement of a cultivated identity. (As 16-year-old Alexa reports, some of her peers “feel the pressure not to conform, which I suppose is in itself a form of conforming.”) Teenagers may be liberated from the logo game (though not really, if those Victoria’s Secret sweatpants with PINK stamped across the rear are any indication), but they’re saddled with something bigger: the assumption that they’re happy to display their private lives in the most public of forums.

Part of what makes us us is what we keep to ourselves. Likewise, part of what creates intimacy is sharing private parts of ourselves with others. So when the expectations of what’s public and what’s private shift dramatically, so do our ideas of intimacy and how we can best create it. Today, apparently, sharing passwords is a way teenagers show intimacy among one another. It’s totally unfathomable to me, but it works for them, because their ideas of privacy are already radically different than mine. I wonder, then, what lies beneath the pajamas fad. If teens are creating privacy settings with their wardrobes, that means not that they don’t care about privacy but that they care very much. Much like I’ve taken the public meaning of slips to create a private delight for myself, the pajamas look could be a signal I don’t yet understand—and perhaps teens don’t yet understand it either. My instinct was to cluck at them, get them to see that they’re losing something sacred about themselves if they display their private lives so publicly—and worse yet if they’re not actually showing their private selves but rather a carefully cultivated idea of the private self. But I’m going to hold out hope here, hope that in some ways the inversion of public and private selves could ultimately serve to strengthen notions of what they really and truly want to keep private.

We’ve wrung our hands over what the share-all generation has in store, and in general I’m inclined to think that living so publicly is ultimately harmful. But seeing how some teens have subverted the very tools supposedly creating the problem—for example, deactivating Facebook profiles every time they go offline so that nobody can post on their wall without their immediate knowledge—I think they’re going to be savvier than adults can imagine about how to manage their private lives. I don’t think the slide toward pajama pants is a good thing (I'm with Sally on her "slippery slope" theory), and I’m thankful that I didn’t have to navigate that as a teenager. (I was one of those kids who secretly wished for a uniform so that I wouldn’t have to think about it.) But this generation is spending a lot of energy figuring out public and private personae. So let 'em wear the pajama pants while they’re figuring it out. They’re going to need to be comfortable.

Diversity Casting and Commercial vs. High-End Markets


Jezebel asked us last week, "What happens when a kid with Down syndrome models for Target?" The answer seems to be, "You get a Target ad with some cute kids." There’s much you could say about the Target ad (which I’m focusing on instead a Nordstrom catalog from last year that features the same model, because it’s more recent): It’s progressive casting, made more so by the companies not calling attention to the casting with some sort of pride campaign. (You could argue that with the advent of media-watchdog bloggers, the company could predict that people would notice without them rolling out the PR machine, but still.) Modeling is about visibility, so to have an under-visible group represented is outstanding—for all the cries about the lack of casting diversity in ethnicity and body size, you only rarely hear about the need for models with varying levels of ability. You could also critique it by pointing out that this is a child model; where are the adult models with Down syndrome? (The only other model I know of with Down syndrome is Taya Kennedy, who is 14 months old, which makes claims about her being an “inspiration” who is “taking the modeling world by storm” a hair overblown, as adorable as she is.)

It’s not hard to like the Target and Nordstrom campaigns, even as they prompt questions about corporate motivation, brand messaging, and tokenism. But what really interests me here is the question posed toward the end of the Jezebel article: Would we see a model with Downs syndrome in a haute couture campaign? Sociologist Ashley Mears’ study of the modeling industry, Pricing Beauty, indicates the answer is a resounding no. And the reasoning lies within the rules of how high fashion embraces unconventional beauty, not the industry’s wholesale rejection of it.

In Pricing Beauty, Mears delves into the reverse economics of modeling: Commercial clients (catalogs, retailers, low-end advertising) pay models well but are low in prestige; editorial clients (high-end magazines, couture campaigns, fashion shows) pay models little or no money but are considered prestigious and can eventually lead to a model getting “the big one”—superstardom, or at least a massive high-end campaign that will bring in the enormous paychecks. Models can cross over from one to the other, but in general there’s a delineation between editorial and commercial models, with commercial models being the conventionally pretty “girl next door” types (think Christie Brinkley) and editorial models being edgier, more unconventional, more provocative (think Agyness Deyn). Given this, at first it would seem that editorial outlets would be a better fit for models outside the mainstream, like models with Down syndrome. But as Mears points out regarding the greater availability of jobs for non-white models in commercial outlets, there’s a counterintuitive force at work with diversity. The commercial markets, which rely upon directly appealing to consumers instead of tastemakers, are carefully calibrated to appeal to the demographics of the people actually buying the goods, making it inherently more diverse. “The catalog market is where fashion embraces ethnic representation,” Mears argues, going against “the popular associations between artists and virtues of liberalism and cosmopolitanism” versus that of “the catalog shoppers of ‘middle America’ [who] are commonly accused of parochialism and intolerance.”

High fashion prides itself on embracing people outside the mainstream: Totally tattooed Zombie Boy, transgender icon Amanda Lepore, and albino Shaun Ross have all modeled haute couture, but the idea behind their campaigns has hardly been to provoke discussion about, say, transgender issues or the (formerly) working-class stigma of tattoos. The idea is that they embody something the brand would like to highlight about their own image—usually something approximating “edge,” a word that came up over and over again in Mears’ interviews with industry insiders. The models’ unusual looks become a marketing tool, not a tool for the company to generate good feelings about tolerance and inclusion. Their looks may be unusual, but they still fit within some fairly comfortable confines: Zombie Boy is white with classic bone structure, Amanda Lepore has an hourglass figure, and both of them are self-made in their exaggeratedly conspicuous qualities.

Compare that with people with Down syndrome: They’re not “self-made” in what sets them apart from the mainstream, prompting all sorts of reactions ranging from protection to pity (though the same could be said of Ross), and more to the point, their physical qualities exclude them from being singled out by the world of high fashion. People with Down syndrome are far shorter than average, with stockier, rounder bodies and shorter limbs—i.e. pretty much the exact opposite of fashion models. In contrast, people with conditions that make them good candidates for modeling—Marfan syndrome, for example, or androgen insensitivity syndrome—are reputedly overrepresented in modeling, though I haven’t found any hard proof of this. As a Jezebel commenter points out, if there were ever to be a woman with Down syndrome who was 5’11”, lanky, and narrow-hipped, the fashion industry would be all over her. I actually don’t think that’s true, but the idea stands: Fashion wants to celebrate outsiders as long as they fit certain criteria.

Case in point: Aimee Mullins, an athlete and fashion model who had both legs amputated below the knee in infancy. Her personal tale is inspiring (thanks to Sally McGraw for pointing me toward The Moth podcast, a storytelling event at which Mullins shares her story), especially in the ways she uses herself as an example for younger amputees who refuse to be limited in what they can do. But let’s not forget that Mullins is trim, conventionally attractive, and, depending upon which prosthetics she’s wearing, can be anywhere from 5’8” to 6’1”. I point this out not to take away from her accomplishments (she was president of the Women’s Sports Foundation and has done wonderful advocacy work, and even beside that, working with high-end designers as a model is an accomplishment) but rather to point out that it’s not just anyone who’s singled out for a pair of handmade Alexander McQueen prosthetic legs. High fashion embraced Mullins for the same reason they embrace anyone: She had “It,” and she fit the predetermined criteria. You can argue that’s progressive (I’d find it pandering to hire a woman to model your brand simply because she wears prosthetics), or you can argue it’s a self-serving way for the fashion industry to get a really eye-catching campaign. Hell, you can argue it’s both. But either way, the “look” comes first, well before the clothes before the model is wearing, and certainly before the model herself.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Target, a mainstream retailer known for aiming toward working- and middle-class consumers with an eye on the “creative class” through its collaborations with high-end designers like Missoni. (It’s also important to note that the influential viewers of Target ads are the people buying the clothes, while the influential viewers of a Vogue fashion spread are other stylemakers. Target has to satisfy you and me; Vogue does not.) Undoubtedly Target knew it would curry favor from a wide swath of its consumers by nonchalantly casting a model with Down syndrome. Progressives would like it, special needs advocates would like it, the “family values” camp would like it. What’s not to like? It’s a cute little blond kid in a leather jacket. And when one-third of a company’s customers have children, it’s a pretty savvy move to translate family values into something appealing to both lefty-progressives and right-wing-anti-choicers (numbers are hard to come by, but in two separate reports 29% of parents who knew their child would be born with Down syndrome chose to terminate the pregnancy, turning visibility of children with Down syndrome into a potentially political statement). Inclusion can safely become a part of Target’s brand. High fashion, on the other hand, has little investment in family values. (Nordstrom is a higher-end retailer, but it’s still distinctly commercial; it ain’t Dolce & Gabbana.)

The more skeptical among us might raise an eyebrow and mutter something about Target employing tokenism. But I don’t really think that’s the case here.
As Mears writes in Pricing Beauty, “[Tokens] do the work of legitimizing exclusion.” That is, nearly every fashion show will use one black model, because, hey, they’re not racist, right? It’s the fashion-world equivalent of “Some of my best friends are black.” But people with disabilities are even more invisible than racial minorities. (Or rather, some racial minorities. You don’t hear a lot of clamoring about the lack of American Indian models.) There’s been some progress made in entertainment—Glee and American Horror Story both use actors with Down syndrome, and though I haven’t watched either show, I’ve heard there’s at least a nominal effort to make their characters more than just Girl With Disability. Overall, though, it’s not like our culture is exactly overflowing with representations of disabled people—so their absence isn’t noticed, unlike the absence of brown-skinned people from all-white casting lineups.

In the end, Target did something good. I’m a firm believer in being diligent about companies’ motivations if we’re to retain our agency over what we buy and why we buy it—see also my hedging on MAC Cosmetics—but that doesn’t mean we should overlook the times companies get things right, especially when they’re not exploiting that as a marketing tool (yet). High fashion might believe it’s progressive, but much of the time it only looks progressive, while the actual inching forward of diverse representations happens at the lower end of the market. I’ve always thought that Will & Grace could be credited with a good deal of the sea change in the attitude toward gays and lesbians in the past 20 years (literally nobody was out in my high school when I graduated in 1994, for example). Here was a gay character being brought into America’s living room and being shown as funny, smart, likable, moral—Gays! They’re Just Like Us! And it’s not like Will & Grace was exactly highbrow TV; its middle-market sensibility was what made it work as a diversity tool. I see the same thing happening with Target, and in fact I wonder if by calling attention to it here I’m doing the opposite of what should be happening when a cute kid with Down syndrome is cast in a mainstream ad. After all, he’s just a cute kid with a floppy haircut in an orange T-shirt—and isn’t that the point?

First Dance

Early in the summer of 1987, my next-door neighbors had a garage sale, and among the goods was a square-dance-style turquoise dress with silver rickrack. Those of you who have ever doubted me when I insist I don’t have a natural eye for style will surely become believers when I tell you that I thought it was the most beautiful dress I had ever seen, and that it looked something like the dress on the left—


—except it was double-breasted, and with more silver, more rickrack, buttons, pockets, and a clasp belt, and was worn not by a sylphlike blonde from a vintage pattern illustration but by a pudgy 12-year-old in Aberdeen, South Dakota, whose most adult fashion choice until that point had been to remove the star sticker from her Sally Jessy Raphael glasses. It was a wonderful dress for a hootenanny, and thoroughly inappropriate for any other occasion whatsoever.

My attitude toward my wardrobe was more advanced than my style, and I knew that I might be able to cadge the $10 from my parents to buy it—but that doing so would weaken my hand when it came to buying the Guess sweatshirt I’d been pining for, so I stayed silent. But as with the Alamo, I remembered. I remembered.

Later that summer, I enrolled in a weeklong camp. Going to camp was one of my biggest dreams ever since reading about it in any one of the YA novels that were set on the east coast, where, in YA we-need-a-setting-that-allows-for-personal-growth-and-minimal-adult-oversight-without-parents-appearing-neglectful world, everyone goes to camp. Nobody in South Dakota went to camp (unless it was 4-H camp), but there was a lot of attention being given to the perilous position of “gifted kids” at that time, so they rounded up all the Stanford-Binet changelings in the state whose parents could afford a couple hundred bucks for tuition and threw us onto a college campus for a week. “Camp,” in fact, might be a misnomer, implying that at some point we’d go fly-fishing and make God’s-eyes with yarn and popsicle sticks. Let’s instead call this a conference of seventh-graders who enjoyed logic puzzles, shall we?

I received the agenda for the conference, and somewhere among seminars on Future Problem Solving and South Dakota Literature, I saw the magic words: FRIDAY NIGHT: DANCE. I’d never been to a dance before—this was the summer before I started junior high, so definitively boy-girl entertainment hadn’t yet entered my social calendar. But of course I knew all about them. Pretty in Pink! Sixteen Candles! Footloose! Carrie! More important, I knew what a dance meant. A dance was redemption for the dorky girl; a dance was where she would step foot into the gymnasium and all eyes would be on her. At the dance, the popular boys would realize she’s the one they should be courting, not the rich girls who have as many Guess sweatshirts as they want; the rich girls, of course, would recognize the dorky girl as someone they should be inviting into their select clique (but will the dorky girl have them? the dramatic tension!). Forget that nobody was really dating yet, and forget that while I wasn’t the most popular girl in school, neither was I picked on; forget that there wasn’t yet anything in my life that needed me to redeem it by setting foot into the gymnasium and taking everyone’s breath away. I wanted the dance, I wanted the moment, I wanted the validation. The makeover was an essential part of the dance plot in teen movies—but just as important was the dress. And you’d better believe I knew exactly which dress it would be. Fate had even sealed the deal: The theme of the dance was “Western,” and what could possibly be more western and simultaneously becoming than a double-breasted turquoise square dance dress with silver rickrack? Exactly.

The garage sale had taken place weeks earlier, but I went over to my neighbor’s house to inquire as to the whereabouts of the dress. I was briefly crushed when she told me that the dress was actually her sister’s contribution to the garage sale, and that when it didn’t sell her sister took it back with her, to her home a four-hour drive away in Vermillion, South Dakota. But wait! Vermillion, South Dakota, was the exact site of the conference of seventh-grade logicians! With the inimitable pluck of a 12-year-old girl whose experience with sexual metamorphosis extended no further than a bevy of 1980s prom movies, I asked her if her sister would be so kind as to hand-deliver the dress to the camp so that I could then be suited up for my grand record-scratch of an entrance. And with the bemused affability of a thirtysomething woman being asked to urge her sister to drive across town into a horde of prepubescent Odysseians of the Mind just so a girl could make an entrance, she agreed.

I wasn’t exactly sure how the handoff was going to happen—this was before cell phones and e-mail, so I just had to hope that all communication was a-go and that somehow my neighbor’s sister in Vermillion, South Dakota, would be able to find me on the university campus. On the third day of camp, the camp director was doing “mail call” during breakfast (who sends mail during a weeklong camp?), and then he held up the dress—my dress—and said, “And who does this pretty little number belong to?” Someone—I now presume one of the other teachers—let out a loud wolf whistle, and the entire camp burst into laughter.

This isn’t where I became embarrassed. No, I loved it. It was mildly embarrassing in the same way you’re embarrassed when someone gives you a lavish compliment: I loved the attention but felt a tad gaudy (never mind that I was picking up a double-breasted turquoise square dancing dress with silver rickrack). The wolf whistle sealed it for me: This dress was smokin’, and I knew it, and now thanks to the loudspeaker delivery, everyone knew it, and as I walked to the small stage where the camp director was to claim the dress, I knew that come FRIDAY NIGHT: DANCE I would own the University of South Dakota campus.

Now, I’m not fast-forwarding past the rest of the camp in order to keep focus on the story. I’m fast-forwarding past it because I have no recollection of it whatsoever, other than a handful of memories involving the single friend I managed to make there (who now lives in Sioux Falls and is evangelical about the gluten-free lifestyle, or so Facebook tells me). I was there for a week, and I do not recall a single class, seminar, or activity we did the entire time, except for a timed writing exercise based on that year’s theme, “South Dakota Pride,” which I scribbled fervently even as I felt vaguely embarrassed that I was supposed to be proud of this state that had exactly zero glamour to it. (We were all from South Dakota, of course, but to remind us of this fact and to make us write about our pride on the matter seemed an act of aggression.) I think I had a good time? I don’t know, honestly.

But I remember the dance. The dress actually fit me reasonably well, and my neighbor’s sister had even thought to include a pair of matching silver sandals so I wasn’t stuck wearing my sneakers. They were too small for me (I wore a size 8 by sixth grade) but I wore them anyway. My now-gluten-free friend had brought eyeshadow, and I’d brought a curling iron and hairspray, so I went over to her dorm room after putting on my dress so we could get ready together. (My own roommate, who was possibly even dorkier than I was and professed to have no interest in boys or dances whatsoever, chose not to attend. This was fine by me because I’d already run out of excuses to not walk with her to the cafeteria and therefore have to eat meals with her, not wanting her dorkiness latch onto my own and create a Velcro-like dork hold. It’s not like Gluten-Free or I were cool, but at least we both knew about boys.) I knew we weren’t supposed to show up exactly on time, because that would be Uncool, so we waited until the dance was barely underway and then made our way to the gymnasium.

The adult counselors had decorated the gym with crepe paper, and they’d turned down the lights, but not too low, because we were 12. None of this mattered, however, because nobody was there. Nearly everybody—boys and girls alike—was in the hallways and rooms surrounding the gymnasium, doing the various planned, adult-supervised activities that each of those spaces held. I couldn’t tell you what any of those activities were (rebus throwdowns?) because I was too busy being horrified. This was a dance! This is where it—it!—was supposed to happen! It’s not like I’d met any boys over the course of the camp I took any particular interest in, but I was at a dance, and there were boys in the vicinity, and I was bewildered that they weren’t suddenly lining up to give all the girls punch from a punch bowl as a prelude to extending their hands as “Is This Love” by Whitesnake played in the background. No—they were doing, I don’t know, word games, and so were the girls, and I’d just had enough. I liked word games just fine. I’d spent my whole life doing word games, and rebuses, and logic puzzles, and making crosswords, and writing scripts—I liked doing those things so much that I’d gone to gifted camp. But this was the night that all those word games and rebuses and logic puzzles were to be transcended. This was the FRIDAY NIGHT: DANCE, and I was in my turquoise dress and borrowed silver sandals. I was ready. And nobody cared.

So I cried. I didn’t cry at the dance; I held it in with as much dignity as I could muster and made a beeline to the bathroom, where I entered a stall, sat on the toilet, and cried. I wasn’t crying because I didn’t feel pretty, not exactly; I was crying because I felt foolish for having thought that a turquoise dress and a curling iron would be enough to make me pretty, and for having such a specific result in mind, one I’d learned in a flash wasn’t going to happen. I cried because I knew I was smart—every girl in that gymnasium knew she was smart, that’s why we were there—but I didn’t know if I would ever be pretty. I cried because I saw that what I’d heard all along—girls mature faster than boys—was true, and that I was going to have to wait before any of them wanted any of us. I cried because someone had whistled when everyone saw my dress, and nobody was going to whistle at me in it. I cried because this was my chance and I didn’t even have the opportunity to blow it. I cried for not having been more kind to my roommate, and I cried for crying about not having been more kind to her because I knew I didn’t deserve my own pity. I cried because I’d believed with all my being that once I put on eyeshadow and a turquoise dress, I’d turn into a heroine of any of the slumber-party movies I’d watched; I cried because that was the night I began to understand that the success of those movies depended upon girls like me thinking maybe that would happen to them. I cried because at that moment, in a gymnasium decorated with crepe paper so that the gifted kids could feel not just smart but glamorous, I began to understand that not everything would come easy to me, and that some forms of failure could be intangible, inexpressible, and nonetheless undeniable. I cried because I wanted to be seen, and because nobody was ready or willing to see me.

Eventually two other campers came into the bathroom and heard my sobs. After I insisted I was f-i-i-i-i-i-ne, they called in one of the adult counselors. I don’t remember what she told me; I just remember that she was blonde and pretty, and that seemed comforting somehow. She walked outside with me while I decided whether I wanted to go back to the dance. I did, so she led me there, but once inside I lost all enthusiasm for it. My friend the gluten-free enthusiast found me and said she wanted to leave. Together, we did. The next day, we all went home.

I’d go to camp again the next year. Not gifted camp, but 4-H camp, where I had a certain amount of social cache because I was secretary of a rather important 4-H club (our “den mother” had been named Dairy Woman of the Year). By then I had contact lenses, reasonable proficiency with eyeliner, and a knack for detecting whether a boy liked me. I got my first kiss at that camp. It was where I got my first inkling that with a bit of skill, a few omissions, and an artfully placed laugh, the girl in the turquoise dress wouldn’t be the first thing everyone saw when they looked at me. It was where I learned that getting what you want—a boy telling you he likes you—could bring worries of its own. It was where I found that the magic happens not at the dance, but outside of it, as you hear people chanting to "Mony Mony" while you look into the eyes of someone who, at that moment, can see only you.

I returned to my room, aloft, and told my roommate in great detail exactly what had happened. And I understood when, in the middle of the night, I heard her muffled tears.

6 Artists Exploring Female Beauty

One of the unexpected upsides of the bind of the beauty myth is that it's spurred plenty of good art. I'm just about the most bourgeois art fan there is ("I like it!" is my special gallery catchphrase) but that doesn't stop me from recognizing the ways in which these photographers, illustrators, and conceptual and performance artists are attempting to wrangle our notions of appearance, both tweaking and clarifying how we view beauty. This is hardly an exhaustive list of artists who play with these ideas, just the ones who have repeatedly come to my attention over time. Enjoy!


Wall of Confidence, Texas Beauty Queen Cream detail, mixed media, Rachel Lee Novnanian

Rachel Lee Novnanian: In “Baby’s Nursery Wallpaper,” a porcelain-white pram is parked in front of a stark wall “papered” with beauty pageant tropics. Another wall, dubbed “Wall of Confidence,” shows row after row of the fictitious Texas Beauty Queen Cream, each tub carrying a message taken from actual advertising slogans. Her installation work provokes viewers, with “Fun House Dressing Room” giving us a deliberately distorted body image alongside prerecorded self-doubting admonishments too many of us know far too well (“You shouldn’t have eaten those Cheetos”). There’s both sadness and anger here, reflecting the artist’s background of having grown up in a family that insisted looks didn’t matter, while the contrary seemed all too true to her as a teen.


Eyelash Extensions, Zed Nelson

Zed Nelson: The Ugandan-British photographer began to notice during his globetrotting that people all across the world were beginning to look suspiciously alike, thanks to the global beauty industry and cross-exportation of appearance standards. “Love Me,” his 2010 exhibition on the pursuit of beauty, took a dual approach: Juxtaposing images of people undergoing various forms of appearance alteration (a 13-year-old in heavy makeup and Playboy bunny ears, a 46-year-old man marked up for a chin lift) with the physical tools of change (rows of breast implants, hair extensions), we see how alienated we’ve become from our own ideas of what beauty might be.


Poses, 2011, Yolanda Dominguez

Yolanda Dominguez: Using “real women” (you know, as opposed to fake ones) to re-create situations and stylings found in high-end fashion magazines, Dominguez reveals the divided between the fantasy of fashion and the realities of how women actually move through the world. A woman stands posed in front of a building as passersby steal furtive glances; a woman in flip-flops lies down next to what seems to be a municipal garden as a sanitation worker approaches her, presumably concerned for her safety. In other performance art events, which she calls “livings,” a well-dressed young woman holds up a cardboard sign begging for Chanel goods, and a bevy of fairy-tale “princesses” sell off their princess accoutrements--mirrors, glass slippers, frogs--to raise funds for a new life. 


Lady Problems, mechanical pencil on vellum, Alexandra Dal

Alexandra Dal: Emerging comic artist Alexandra Dal got more than she bargained for when her illustration of the makeup riddle went viral. “I just wanted to make a silly, observational comic that would make some women say, ‘Yup, I’ve experienced this,’” she writes on her Tumblr. “It sparked a slew of commentary about whether or not women 'should' wear makeup.... I’m totally baffled by the hate mail and negative comments I received accusing me of being misogynistic and sending the message that women aren’t beautiful without makeup. (Seriously, did they actually read it?)” Her other work includes a dead-on comic of Black Women In Advertising (There Can Only Be One)--and I’m eagerly waiting for more!


Recovery, Esther Sabetpour

Esther Sabetpour: The British photographer had always explored notions of identity through self-portraiture, so when she had an accident that required large skin grafts, marking much of her body with scars, she just continued as she had been. We’re used to seeing the bodies of attractive young women presented as blank slates upon which we project our cultural idea of, well, attractive young women’s bodies; with the scar tissue mottling much of her flesh, the portrait of Sabetpour reclined on her bed goes beyond sensual into startling, without feeling exploitative.


 Nobantu Mabusela, 76, Khayelitsha Township, Cape Town

Sarah Hughes: Playing with personae by purposefully shifting her public identity and capturing that of others, Hughes takes a hard look at the meaning behind sartorial choices women make. In portrait series “Safe & Sexy,” she documents women across the world wearing an outfit they’ve selected as “safe,” and one they’ve deemed “sexy,” highlighting both the range of what any individual might consider alluring and the ways in which women mentally divide the two groups. The project stemmed from performance art piece “Do You Have the Time?” in which Hughes dressed up as various “types” of women (businesswoman, slut, jogger) and asked strangers for the time, noting the difference in reactions to the very same person asking the very same question.