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.

Lisa Ferber, Artist, New York City

{For more long-form interviews from The Beheld, click here.} 

A highly productive bonne vivante, Lisa Ferber has shown her paintings and illustrations at National Arts Club, the Painting Center, and Village West gallery. She's also the creator, writer, and star of the feature film The Sisters Plotz (directed by Lisa Hammer, and starring Eve Plumb, Lisa Ferber and Lisa Hammer), which debuted at New York City's Anthology Film Archives in 2015, and launched as a Top Five Most-Watched video on FunnyorDie.com. Words like whimsy and satire are frequently applied to her work—but it’s her enchantment with beauty, expressed through vibrant color and markings of high glamour, that made me want to interview her. A featured speaker at New York University on independent arts marketing, her keen awareness of image extends beyond canvas and stage to her signature colorful wardrobe and polished presentation. We talked about makeup as a symbol of humility, the glamour of the absurd, and beauty as a marketing tool. In her own words:

Photo: Meryl Tihanyi

Photo: Meryl Tihanyi

On Apologies

There are ways people have to deal with physical beauty that they don’t have to with other assets. Beautiful people are supposed to act as though they don’t know they’re beautiful, even if it’s kind of a fact. Somebody might say, “I’m good at math” and not apologize for it, but for a woman to say, “Yeah, you know, I’m really pretty”—nobody does that. It’s weird that people are modest about being beautiful because it’s sort of an accident. But it can be a way of stepping away from being threatening, since beautiful women are seen as threats. I remember complimenting this woman who was working on a show with my then-boyfriend. I said she was really pretty and she said, “It’s amazing what a good lipstick and a great dress can do.” It made me like her more because I felt she was saying, “I know I’m in a show with your boyfriend, but I am not a threat to you.” I felt she understood that sometimes women can be insecure about having a pretty woman around their guy, and that she could handle that with humility and manners without insulting herself.

Part of it is the social power women wield with beauty. When we say, “Oh, that woman is so beautiful,” we give her power and mystery. Beauty simultaneously gains someone social respect and people’s suspicion. Are there certain types of beauty that don’t incur the wrath of other women? Or certain levels of beauty? If you work with someone who has that California-girl kind of beauty, everyone is going to want to think she’s dumb, because she’s pretty in that certain type of way. Whereas I think women are into someone like Angelina Jolie because she’s freaky-looking but also really beautiful.

I think people believe they’re supposed to apologize for beauty because it’s genetic. Nobody’s allowed to show that they know it, yet most of us are also raised to present ourselves confidently. If you don’t groom yourself and make the effort, it looks as if you don’t care—or even that you’re conceited. I go through phases of not wearing makeup, and someone said to me once, “I noticed you don’t wear any makeup—how come?” I remember thinking, Why do I need to explain this? Is she saying that I don’t have the right to think that I look good without it? Should I wear makeup just to show that I don’t think I’m okay without it?

I think as much as women are raised to believe in ourselves, we’re also taught that a woman who’s prettier or slimmer than the people around her will be hated—think of the whole idea of “You’re so skinny, I hate you!” That mind-set can prevent women from revealing their full bloom. It’s really only been in the past few years that I’ve been able to not just present myself comedically, in terms of the way I look. For many years I felt like my self-presentation had to have something ridiculous about it, sort of kooky—and sure, there’s always going to be an artsiness about my style. But for me to just put on a beautiful dress and feel comfortable looking elegant and serious and poised, and not have to have something ridiculous about it—I had to be ready to say, “I can handle this.”

 

Djuna’s Croissant Had Failed Her  

Djuna’s Croissant Had Failed Her 

On the Glamour and Humor of Her Work

People have always responded to my work as witty, both my writing and my visual art. Only recently have I thought: You know, I really love beauty. I want my visual work to be transportive—to be beautiful as well as witty. Wit has a glamour to it, which I hope comes through in my work. I also think absurdity is glamorous, if you think of glamour as something indulgent and transcendent. Glamour means there’s a sense of mystery that makes you want to get closer, but you suspect that you can’t. So I put my women in makeup and necklaces—I’m not going to draw schlubs! But for somebody who loves beauty so much, I’m not painting a picture of the prettiest girl in the room. People tell me that I create characters, almost like pop art or illustrative art—they’re not supposed to look like people we know. But something can be beautiful even if it’s not realistic. I want that feeling of “Aaah” that comes because something is gorgeous, with beautiful colors.

When I’ve gone through tough times in life, the things that help me survive are beauty and humor, and it bothers me when people try to make them separate. Beauty and humor are both transportive—they’re magical. When I was growing up two of the women I admired were Lucille Ball and Gilda Radner, because they were pretty and funny. And one of my current heroines is Fran Drescher. She created a hilarious show and strutted around that set without apologizing for being beautiful, funny, and powerful. I think that women in comedy often make themselves less pretty because they’re taught they have to choose between pretty and funny. But I don’t want to have to choose one or the other in the way I present myself as a woman, or in my artwork. I want my viewer to enjoy two of my favorite things: beauty and humor.

Lady Ferber Gave Her Sommelier the Afternoon Off  

Lady Ferber Gave Her Sommelier the Afternoon Off 

On the Myth of the Underdog

We give ourselves credit for thinking someone who’s jolie-laide is cool-looking because she’s not conventional. But when you look at these women, it’s not as though they’re ugly—when Anjelica Huston walks into a room, everyone notices her. It’s like sometimes we’re taught to hate conventionally pretty things because we’re more feminist if we think weird-looking people are pretty—but those people are still pretty. I mean, Christie Brinkley is super-duper pretty. She’s the definition of pretty. But it’s not cool to say so because she’s conventional-looking. I love pretty! Pretty is great! I’m kind of on both sides of it. It upsets me that women are taught it’s imperative that they keep themselves looking attractive, but if somebody tells me I’m pretty, I think that’s nice of them. It annoys me when people think you have to choose one side.

Nobody relates to the pretty, popular character in a movie, even people who are pretty and popular. We’re always supposed to relate to the underdog. There’s this movie Boomerang, with Eddie Murphy—Robin Givens is the hot woman, and she’s evil, and Halle Berry is sort of the sporty underdog best friend. Halle Berry is the underdog! You’re supposed to relate to her, even though nobody can relate to Halle Berry! But the movie standards for beauty set us up, and maybe that’s for our ego—we get to feel like the underdog, but then we can think, “Wow, look at that underdog, she’s really beautiful.” And it’s because we’re convinced that we’re never the top thing. Certainly things like beauty contests don’t help. Beauty contests? That’s crazy!

I remember being an editorial assistant, and there was this other girl who worked there. I started to pick up on this vibe that she resented me somehow. I didn’t know if I was imagining things so I talked to a friend who had worked there for a while. He said, “Well, before you came, she was the only attractive young editorial assistant.” I hadn’t taken away anything from her—we were both young, pleasant women, but there’s this idea that there can only be one woman who occupies that space at any given time, and it becomes a part of our mentality. Take the idea of the 50 most beautiful people in the world—why should there be a competition? Men don’t think this way, and women don’t think this way about men. Women might compete for men, but the emphasis is on competing with one other, not on competing for him. 

The Sisters Plotz  premiere, 2015 (photo: Lisa Lambert)

The Sisters Plotz premiere, 2015 (photo: Lisa Lambert)

On Beauty as a Marketing Tool

I think beauty is a fantastic marketing tool. By being beautiful, a person is saying that she has the things associated with beauty: health, wealth, success, all these things that we value. When you hear, “Oh, I ran into so-and-so, and she looked like hell,” boom—she’s leading an unhappy life. But when it’s “...and she looked great”—now, what that could mean is that she’s had a ton of Botox and has a personal trainer and is miserable. A beautiful woman can be miserable like anyone else. But we think she’s doing well.

Whenever we hear about the beautiful but tortured woman, we don’t really believe it, which is why we love it. We still think she’s cool in some way. The Jared Leto character on My So-Called Life was considered a heartthrob because he was beautiful and tortured. If he hadn’t been beautiful but was still tortured, his character would have just been some random guy, but to have a coating of beauty over an implied pain is perceived as intriguing.

As a visual artist, I am constantly expressing myself, so when I leave the house I’m going to be together. I’m going to have my lovely necklace, my lipstick, my pretty dress. There probably are industries where you have to play down any ornamentation in order to market yourself properly—but actually, when I’m presenting myself as a writer I try to be more glamorous. When you’re a writer people assume that you’re smart, and I don’t want to be seen as, Oh, she has brains, so she doesn’t have a body. I’m a body person as well as a mind person. When you’re a visual artist nobody necessarily assumes that you’re smart. So when an artist has something about them as a person that makes people want to keep looking at them, we’re intrigued by that and then want to know the artist’s work—which is part of marketing. Really, beauty is marketing: That’s the whole point, that you see somebody and they’re beautiful and you think, I want to get to know you. People are going to want to talk to a beautiful woman. Women are going to admire her, and men are going to want her, and she just seems happy and healthy and like she’s doing well. That’s what draws people in.

This works in other professions too: When I’m working in any job, I like to be valued as a part of the team, and part of it is showing up well-groomed, in nice colors, and just contributing to the overall atmosphere. I sang in choir when I was in Hebrew school—I wasn’t thinking about how my particular voice sounded, I just wanted to contribute to the beauty of the overall sound. It’s like that with my art, and my style. I want to be a pretty part of the world.

Henry Might Organize His Freezer This Evening  

Henry Might Organize His Freezer This Evening 

For sale inquiries, please contact Lisa Ferber at LadyFerber@gmail.com.

[This interview originally posted in March 2011.]

"Mad Men" Beauty Musings: Envy, Similarity, and "Modesty"



There’s much to say about Mad Men in general, and about last night’s last-season kickoff, and about the relationship between Joan and Peggy, and even about their conversation in the elevator (burn it down, Joan!). But what’s most relevant in this particular wheelhouse is one exchange that comes between Peggy and Joan after a business meeting in which a group of male colleagues make lewd jokes at the expense of Joan, specifically at the expense of her generous bustline: 

Peggy: Should we get lunch?
Joan: I want to burn this place down.
Peggy: I know, they were awful, but at least we got a yes. Would you have rather had a friendly no?
Joan: I don’t expect you to understand.
Peggy: [With demonstrated doubt] Joan, you’ve never experienced that before?
Joan: Have you, Peggy?
Peggy: I don’t know—you can’t have it both ways. You can’t dress the way you do and expect—
Joan: How do I dress?
Peggy: Look, they didn’t take me seriously either.
Joan: So what you’re saying is, I don’t dress the way you do because I don’t look like you. And that’s very, very true.
Peggy: You know what? You’re filthy rich. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.

(That last line, of course, is more cutting than Peggy could know, given how Joan became partner.)

A few things:

1) I don’t like to focus on the jealousy/competition aspect of beauty, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, and we see it here on both sides. The thing is, research shows that we tend to feel competitive with people who are similar to us, not people who are different. It’s fun enough for fans to construct the Mad Men ladies as opposites—are you a Peggy or a Joan? a Betty or a Megan? a riding lawnmower or a rifle?—but they’re not. In particular, Peggy and Joan have far more similarities than differences. They’re both hard workers, they’re both whip-smart, they’re both vulnerable, they both have their secrets, and the personality summation that Peggy’s date delivers to her over dinner could well apply to Joan, if not as consistently: “Johnny said you were the kind of girl who doesn’t put up with things. ... He said you were funny, and that you were fearless.”

There might be some cattiness, pain, or simple retaliation behind Joan’s cutting remark; none of us are above that. But I’d like to think that there’s more to her comment than that: Underneath the snipe is an acknowledgement that part of the difference in the ways they’ve each handled their careers stems from genetic fate (or rather, from the ways women were treated because of their bodies). Joan is saying, If you looked like me you’d dress like me—and if I looked like you I might well have your wardrobe too. She’s taking what Peggy posits as a duality and makes it clear that it’s anything but. And Peggy, in a different way, does the same, by pointing out that the men didn’t take either of them seriously, even though the crude comments at the meeting were aimed almost entirely at Joan. The women are clawing at each other on the surface, but the way in which they do it says that they know full well they’re in the same position.

2) One of my viewing companions last night, a busty lady herself, pointed out that when you’re built like Joan, it can be hard to wear anything that will safely ensure nobody will accuse you of dressing provocatively. Peggy can accuse Joan of dressing sexily even when, as in this scene, she’s wearing a tailored blouse that shows no cleavage because Joan’s build proves how judgmental the idea of “modesty” is. Joan’s body puts her in a position of being accused of immodesty no matter what she wears, so why not wear what she looks good in? Peggy, on the other hand, with her slighter, more “modest” build, is put in the position of keeping the meeting as on track as she can—a task Joan herself is fully capable of but is barred from doing so because of her body. 

It reminded me of Phoebe Maltz Bovy’s assertion in a guest post here that “style and build have a way of getting mixed up, as though a woman chooses to have ‘curves’ on account of preferring to look sexy, or somehow magically scraps them if her preferred look is understated chic.” (To wit: this photo series of Debrahlee Lorenzana—who was fired from Citibank because she dressed too sexily—wearing various office outfits of hers. Like, you know, a turtleneck and slacks.) It’s tempting to say that the moral here is that Joan can’t win. But as Maltz Bovy points out, the construct actually serves as a reminder of just how ridiculous beauty standards are. Burn the place down already, Joan.

3) What to say about Joan’s clothes-shopping binge toward the episode’s end? Instead of shrinking herself down after that awful meeting, she goes out and spends loads of money on fabulous new clothes. It’s a consumerist balm to being treated as a product for consumption, and I’d be misled to applaud this particular move as a you-go-girl proof of Joan’s resilience. But it’s interesting that we see Joan assert her buying power while wearing what is undoubtedly a provocative dress—it’s her way of saying that she has no intention of taking Peggy’s tack to the workplace (which, as we’ve seen, would be a loser’s proposition for her anyway). 

But there’s also something sadly hollow about it, magnified by her refusal to admit that she once worked there as a shopgirl. It reminds me of the first time I went shopping as “retail therapy”: I was 19 years old and had somehow landed a part-time concierge gig at a mid-level hotel, working the VIP lounge. A client there had actually pulled a move straight out of a bad movie: He put his hand on mine and gave me his room number, the implication being that I should pay him a visit once my shift ended. Part of me was thrilled by this—this happened to people in bad movies!—but I was also nauseated by it. It was my second job ever besides babysitting, and I was proud of the fact that I’d gotten it, and I knew I’d been assigned the VIP lounge because I had an accommodating nature. But it was also the first time I’d felt the flipside of what others might assume of me because of that accommodating nature—until then it had just earned me accolades as a “good girl.”

Anyway, the next day I felt possessed to buy a dress. It was a specific desire: I wanted to buy not just clothes, but a dress, and I uncharacteristically skipped the sales rack and perused the new offerings with intent. It wasn’t until years later that I identified the impulse: I didn’t just want a dress, I wanted to spend money on myself. I wanted to spend something relatively intangible to get something tangible in return; I wanted proof of my power, and since I’d just felt my meager power slip in a professionalized context, it made sense that I wanted that proof in the form of something that context rewarded me with. 

We know that Joan is a bit of a clothes horse (she did, after all, go to retail when she had to get a new job), which I wasn’t when I wandered into the mall Gap in 1995 the morning after a being the target of a sleazy episode. But just as my desire for a new dress had nothing to do with why I bought it, that’s not why we saw Joan buying up the store: It’s her clutch at power, rendered in a language she can speak without breaking a sweat. We’ve seen Joan work and grow and prosper in a variety of ways, but going back to this lesson—looking your best will get you the best—is always going to be a place of comfort for her. The irony is that it’s a lesson that, for Joan, also leaves scratches long and deep.

One Narrative Fits All: Dove and "Real Beauty"


A few years ago, the Mad Men marketing team came up with the ingenious idea of building a tool that allowed you to create your own personalized Mad Men–style avatar. And once we found out about it, a good friend and I came up with the ingenious idea of making avatars of each other, along with avatars of ourselves, and then comparing the results. 

Here are—re-created from loose memory—the avatars of my friend. On the left, the one she designed of herself. On the right, the one I designed of her.


^^How my friend "drew" herself // How I "drew" my friend ^^

Notice anything different? 

I thought of our avatar exchange when I first heard about the most recent arm of Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign, i.e. the campaign that brought us those billboards several years ago of “real women” modeling for Dove, and that launched the viral “Evolution” video about the process that goes into making media images. This particular project featured women describing themselves to a forensics sketch artist—who was separated from the women by a curtain so he couldn’t see them—and then having near-strangers describe the same woman to the same artist. When the results were compared—ta-da!—the sketches drawn from the strangers’ descriptions were conventionally prettier than the sketches drawn from the women’s descriptions of themselves.

It’s an interesting exercise, one I’d love to try myself—if out of narcissism/curiosity more than, as the Dove tagline would have it, finding out that I Am More Beautiful Than I Think. (Maybe I’ll just sign up for Selfless Portraits instead.) It’s intriguing enough, in fact, to make me overcome my knee-jerk “oh, brother” reaction to the Real Beauty campaign to consider exactly why I find myself disgruntled with a campaign that, on its face, shares many of my own goals as far as getting people to question the meaning of beauty.

Yes, the women in these ads are overwhelmingly conventionally pretty, and trim, and white; no, the ads don’t aim to question the essence of beauty standards so much as expand them to include more women; yes, in the process of examining beauty these ads also limit its definition. But not only have other people critiqued these angles more incisively than I could, the truth is, those aren’t my deepest problems with it. My real problem is this: Just as ads of yore leveraged the attitudes that made women feel bad about their looks in order to sell products, the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty leverages the response to those attitudes in order to sell products. It allows for exactly one way that women can feel about our looks—bad—and creates a template for women’s relationship with their looks that’s just as rigid as the beauty standard it’s challenging.

But hold on, lady—didn’t you know that only 11% of girls around the world feel comfortable using the word beautiful to describe themselves? Isn't that problematic? You can find that statistic right on the Real Beauty Campaign’s website—preceded by a statistic about how 72% of girls "feel tremendous pressure to be beautiful." I look at these numbers and ask myself: How many girls now feel tremendous pressure to use the word beautiful to describe themselves? Another unanswered question stemming from those neat statistics: How many girls and women might not use the word beautiful to describe themselves yet still have a generous interpretation of their looks? How many women, when asked to describe themselves to someone they love or trust as opposed to a total stranger, might dare to use kinder words about their looks? How much our hesitation to claim beautiful for ourselves has to do with either a satisfaction with being pretty, or lovely, or striking—or with not wanting to be seen as suffering from “she thinks she’s all that” syndrome?

With our Mad Men avatars, my friend saw herself as being slimmer than I’d “drawn” her. Now, I don’t want to conflate thinness with beauty, but I knew she was somewhat aesthetically unhappy with her weight at the time we did one another’s avatars—so by the very guideline she was looking toward at the time, she depicted herself as being “more beautiful” than I did. It pains me to say that, because I’ve found her beautiful at every size I’ve seen her inhabit, and I’d be saddened if she thought my avatar of her meant anything less than that (which I don’t think it does). But my point here isn’t which avatar was more accurate—after all, none of the three body choices look particularly like her, or like me, or like anyone except perhaps Christina Hendricks. (The bloody mary, of course, is totally on par.) It’s that in an exchange with someone she intuitively trusted with her mental snapshot of herself, she defaulted not to the more conventionally negative image but to the more conventionally positive image. And like I said, we’re talking here about someone who wasn’t terrifically happy with her body; my friend is psychologically healthy but hardly has bullet-proof bodily self-esteem. Yet her experience of herself as relayed to the “sketch artist” of the app wasn’t one of hesitant self-deprecation—an experience we saw nowhere in the Dove sketch artist video.

The Dove campaign has confounded me from the beginning. I’ve alternately felt annoyed by it, touched by it, in simpatico with it, turned off by it, patronizing toward it, and thankful for it. In other words: It is having exactly the effect it’s supposed to have. And that’s what makes it both an effective campaign and a gold mine/red herring for skeptics like me. Dove’s parent company, Unilever, does not exist to make women feel good about themselves; Unilever exists to sell products. That’s fine, that’s their mission—they’re not a therapy center, they’re not a nonprofit (though they do sponsor nonprofit groups that work specifically for girls’ self-esteem)—and at day’s end, whatever my intellectual quibblings, I’d rather have a company trying to meet its mission in a way that’s socially responsible rather than in a way that grasps for the lowest common denominator. But to forget that their goal is to sell products to you, and that all these campaigns exist to generate buzz—call it “start[ing] a global conversation” if you will, it’s the same thing as "buzz"—in order to make you want to buy those products would be a mistake. Hell, by contributing to this “global conversation” here I’m doing unpaid PR for Dove, regardless of what I’m actually saying about their work. (And for Mad Men too, for that matter.) If that sounds cynical, remember that the entire concept of branded content (i.e. what the Dove campaign is, as opposed to a traditional commercial) exists because consumers got tired of regular advertising. And—hold your breath here, folks—female consumers ages 25 to 34 prefer Dove’s “branded content” approach to a traditional ad by a 7:1 margin

I just can’t help but wonder if part of the reason those consumers prefer this approach is not only their own cynicism, but their own imprinting of the idea that women’s greatest challenge in this world is to love their looks. It can be a challenge, yes, of course it can be—an enormous one, one that, without any path outward, can inhibit any of us to the point where we can’t accept any greater challenges. It’s a terrible feeling, isn’t it? I know it well. For make no mistake through my critique: There’s a part of me that feels fiercely empathetic when I watch the Dove video, and that’s because it’s an ad that gets me where it hurts—for when I’m in that zone, I’m intensely vulnerable. Intense vulnerability is easily recalled in the body; tears sprang to my eyes during the part of the sketch-artist video when the women’s side-by-side portraits were revealed to them. And intense vulnerability that is easily recalled in the body makes for a highly receptive consumer. 

Do I get something out of the Dove campaign? Yes, I do. And Dove will always get more.

On Being a Fat Child

I was a fat kid. I haven’t written about this before, telling myself it’s because this blog is about beauty, and I’m wary of conflating weight and beauty. That’s true, but the real reason I haven’t written about having been a fat kid is that—listen, I know writers are supposed to “show, not tell,” but how can I show you the scar the ever-present question of fatness has etched onto my heart? I can’t, and so I will just say: I haven’t written about being a fat kid until now because it was too painful. Being a fat kid hurt me then. Having been a fat kid hurts me now.

Things I remember about being fat: Not being able to wear jeans (there was no such thing as jeans for fat girls in 1983). Not wanting to participate in any games at the school fair except the cake walk; wanting those cakes so badly that I moved faster than I ever had in my life to repeatedly get the last seat, thus winning five cakes; understanding the implicit humiliation of being the fat kid who wanted five cakes but wanting those cakes more than I wanted my pride; doing my best to be gracious when my parents insisted we give away three of them. Faking sick on the day we were supposed to do height-weight testing, only to find out upon return that it had been postponed a day; jiggling my leg incessantly until I had to step on the scale in hopes of losing “enough” weight by midmorning. Immense disappointment at learning that the three scoops of ice cream I’d piled on my plate at the Bonanza buffet weren’t scoops of ice cream but of butter. Pretending to twist my ankle at age 7 in the 50-yard dash at track and field day to spare myself the embarrassment of being the fat kid who came in last; doing the same at age 8, and 11. Stealing bags of brown sugar from the pantry to eat in my bedroom, alone. Secreting away boxes of cereal, to do the same; denying to my mother that I’d done so, even when it was clear she knew I had.

There is a theme here: absence, and falsity. I couldn’t wear jeans; I didn’t want to play games that wouldn’t get me cake; I faked sick; I pretended to twist my ankle; I denied secret eating. Being a fat child wasn’t so much about the fact of being fat as it was about couldn’t, wouldn’t, shouldn’t. There is a counter-theme too: Love—of food, exquisite food, food, füd, phood, food, the panacea to whatever free-floating stresses there were in my life as an intellectually mature but emotionally not-so-mature 8-year-old girl. I didn’t have a difficult childhood by any means, but it was a childhood; it came with bumps and dents and scratches that I didn’t really know how to handle. Lucky for me, I didn’t have to learn, because I had food right there, every day, making it all okay. It worked—until it didn’t, but that’s not the story I’m trying to tell here. Food felt like it worked, and in a child’s mind, that’s enough.


*     *     *


Things I do not remember about being fat: Being teased. Being bullied. Having my weight remarked upon by strangers; being laughed at or taunted. I remember exactly three instances of shaming from other people about my weight: a neighbor suggesting I not enter her family’s trailer because I was fat and might somehow damage it; my grandmother telling me in the JCPenney’s dressing room that the problem wasn’t that the pants were too small but that I was too big; a third-grade classmate gasping when she saw my three-digit weight listed on my weight-height chart, when most kids weighed in at around 65 pounds. But when I try to fish deeper for the other memories—the memories that are surely there, for what fat child escapes a landslide of teasing from cruel classmates?—I come up empty. I remember being lightly teased for other things—my name, my glasses, my ponytail, my lack of athletic coordination—but my fatness, the singularly most visible thing about me, remained uncommented upon.

When I look at my own experience of being a fat kid, I don’t see a problem with society, or cruel children, or unlimited soda refills. I see a problem with—how do I put this without appearing to be swatting the wrist of my 8-year-old self?—I see a problem with me, and with the way I understood my size. There was very little fat-shaming in my life, but I still felt like being fat was wrong, bad, unfeminine, shameful—all those things fat activists say are erroneously attached to weight. They’re right to say that; those feelings should be separate from weight. Yet they weren’t separate, not for me. I filtered any feeling I had—about my fatness or anything else—through food, and my chronic overeating was what kept me fat. My feelings were my fatness; my fatness, feelings.

I wouldn’t have been better off had I been basically bullied into losing weight, or into feeling worse about being fat. But I would have been better off had I learned ways of coping with stress that didn’t center around food; I’d have been better off had I understood the joy of moving my body. I’d have been better off if clothes shopping weren’t an exercise in futility; I’d have been better off if any of the well-meaning sweatshirts and tees that were given to me as gifts had fit without revealing the immovable fact of my belly. I’d have been better off if I hadn’t had the hurdle of weight to constantly run up against. What I’m saying is: I’d have been better off if I weren’t fat.

I’d also had been better off if the world around me didn’t disperse shame upon overweight people—had my grandmother not told me I was “too big,” had my classmate remained nonchalant whatever the number on my height-weight card, had my neighbor not insinuated I could singlehandedly topple over a trailer designed for far greater stress than a fourth-grader’s frame. The world needs to change in its attitude toward fat people, and that is unquestionable. But it wasn’t only the world around me that inscribed my fatness upon my identity to the point where I still sometimes cannot recognize myself in photos because I’m looking for someone bigger than I actually am.

Yes, I wish the world around me had been different. I wish I’d been different too.


*     *     *


Being a fat kid wasn’t easy. But the reasons being a fat kid wasn’t easy had little to do with what body-positive bloggers such as myself usually cite. I wasn’t teased, I wasn’t bullied, few people ever tried to make me feel like I was lesser-than because my body was more-than. I don’t recall looking at “aspirational” images of thin women and feeling like I didn’t live up to them, though of course it’s impossible to determine how much of those messages seep into our brains. Sociological reasons alone cannot account for the shame I felt about my fatness. The problem went deeper than that. The problem—to a point—was me.

I keep wanting to baldly state some sort of vaguely political point, but then I find myself stymied as to exactly what I want to say. That maybe childhood obesity is something we should be “fighting”? (Yes, but then there are those billboards in Georgia.) That there’s a way to instill good eating and exercise habits in children without shaming them? (Yes, but who on earth is arguing the opposite?) That maybe when we say fighting childhood obesity is about health, it’s not some fat-shaming conspiracy but is truly about children’s emotional, physical, and mental health? (Yes, but that doesn’t mean that concerns about “health” aren’t also a veiled way of talking about children’s looks.) That maybe plenty of fat kids aren’t built that way, aren’t “big-boned,” aren’t victim to some sort of “fat gene” or environmental hazard but instead have bodies that are suffering from too much food and too little exercise? (Yes, but there are children whose set point is higher than what’s recommended, and I don’t want to advocate anything that would see a child beginning a lifelong battle that she’ll never be able to win. Those children—all children—deserve dignity that gets slighted when we stick too heavily to the traditional way of thinking about weight.)

I suppose the closest I could come to having a larger “issues” point here is this: The emphasis on childhood obesity is a convenient scapegoat for the deeply conflicted relationship pretty much our whole society has with food, comfort, bodies, and conformity. And we as a society have a responsibility to not only take a cold, hard look at that relationship for our own benefit, but, yes, “for the children.” We need to help children on a physical, mental, emotional, and sociological level be as healthy as possible. And sometimes being as healthy as possible includes losing weight. I’m not a public health expert, I’m not a psychologist. I don’t know how to help children reconcile the ostensibly dueling messages of You are good just the way you are and You might be better off if you took certain steps that will make you healthier—and, as it happens slimmer. I just know that we need to.

I don’t like feeling like I have to choose a side: That I’m either a body-positive blogger who looks at weight as entirely separate from health when I know from my own experience that it’s not always separate, or I’m one of those body-shaming fat-phobes who thinks it’s fine to put chubby kids on a billboard as a warning and example. I only have my own experiences to go on, and when it comes to something as intensely personal as our bodies, going on personal experience alone can be dangerous. My experiences as a fat child can’t be superimposed onto the life of every fat kid in America, and I might be even more hesitant to quietly suggest that plenty of kids would benefit from losing weight had I been the childhood equivalent of those adult powerhouses who eat healthfully and mindfully, exercise aplenty, and remain fat. But that wasn’t me. Had I eaten the way my parents tried to teach me to eat, and not been so terrified of moving my body, I would have been well within recommended height-weight guidelines. As an adult, that’s where I fall, though my relationship with food is still conflicted enough that I may never know how much I’d weigh if I were able to be an intuitive eater. (Indeed, that’s another reason I haven’t written much on this; it’s hard for me to know how much of my feelings about childhood obesity inhabit the same space as the part of me where disordered eating thrived for years. Can we ever know?)

Nobody should be made to feel bad because of how they look, or because of the size their body takes up in the world. Does that even need to be said here? I’m saying it anyway, for good measure. But not all fat-phobia comes from outer sources. Yes, I’m tired of the idea that weight loss is unequivocally a good thing; I loathe the bumper-sticker wisdom that inside every fat person there’s a thin person waiting to get out. Nobody wins when we assume fat people must be unhappy. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t fat people—including children—whose size does make them unhappy, and who don’t have a vocabulary for articulating that unhappiness without falling down the rabbit hole of self-loathing. Had I such language as a child, I might have found more satisfaction from what came out of my mouth than what went into it.

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.


_________________________________________

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.

My Own Private Beauty Myth

A number of things I once believed to be true about my appearance: I have strong features, I am big-boned, my skin is both very pink and very pale, I am pear-shaped with a small waist, I have oily skin, and I am hirsute.

Here’s the truth, or at least as much of the “truth” as I’m able to come up with today, after 35 years in this skin: My features are neither strong nor delicate, I am medium-framed, I have a yellow tint to my skin and tan easily, I am neither pear-shaped nor hourglassy nor apple-shaped and certainly a small waist isn’t in the equation, I have normal skin, and I’ve got about as much body hair as you’d expect on an Irish-English-Native American woman, which is to say that it’s dark but there’s not tons of it.

“Lots of women have no idea what they look like,” said makeup artist Chrissie Ede
n DiBianco when I interviewed her last year. And looking at this list, it’s clear I’m one of them. Some of these beliefs were rooted in plain old insecurity: When you’re 13 and the thought of anyone knowing you’re actually growing hair in your armpits is mortifying, having any body hair whatsoever may well mean—to your eyes only—that you resemble Chewbacca. Some were miseducation: I got the occasional zit in junior high, like pretty much everyone, so why wouldn’t I use products designed for oily skin since my skin was clearly a grease bomb?

Bu
t what strikes me the most about these personal beauty myths is their compensatory effect. Growing up in South Dakota in the 1980s, the “corn-fed” look was prized: blonde hair, blue eyes, upturned nose, the whole Swedish-Norwegian package. I had none of these, so I drew inspiration from books, where tertiary characters were often described as having dark hair (check), dark eyes (check!), and “strong features.” Now, my features are hardly carved from fine porcelain, but they’re...average. Sorta high cheekbones but not terribly pronounced, utterly nondescript nose and chin, mouth on the small side. There is nothing about my face that would make someone describe it as “strong-featured.” But teenagers are not known for embracing ambiguity: I wasn’t blonde-haired, blue-eyed, and ski-jump-nosed; ergo, I was Maria Callas.

Me, in eighth grade.

This compensation appears in nearly every erroneous belief I’ve had about my body: Growing up heavy-set and then suddenly becoming normal-weight as a teenager meant I had to reshuffle my entire self-image. Naturally I thought I was fat, in that classic teen-girl way, but I could also look in the mirror and see that I wasn’t actually overweight, so somehow I came up with being “big-boned” to make sense of it all, despite coming from a long line of solidly average-framed people. I blush easily, so thinking I had a pink skin tone helped me assimilate that (totally embarrassing!) fact; it wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized my skin actually has a distinctly yellow tint. And as for being pear-shaped—well, I’ve covered the whole body-type nonsense before, and it wasn’t until my early 30s that I realized I was both all and none of the main body types, and that the standard style advice for dressing those figures would never apply to me.

B
ut one aspect of the pear-shaped business illuminates something key here. As a faithful reader of all the “dress your body” magazine features published between 1986-2007, I knew that pear-shaped women were always told to emphasize their small waists. And because I believed myself to be pear-shaped (an idea borne more from embarrassment over the size of my thighs than objective evidence), I must have a small waist, right? Never mind that my jeans rarely gapped in the back, or that dresses didn’t hang loose around the middle, or that my waist measurement wasn’t particularly small. I was pear-shaped, dammit, and you can take my small waist from me when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.

It would be easy for me to laugh at what I once believed to be true about my body, but this small-waist thing doesn’t fit into the narrative of teen-girl embarrassment. This wasn’t a case of putting myself down or not really understanding what my best and not-so-best traits were; this was me inventing a positive trait even where the evidence was flimsy. Even in the places where the myths I’d spun about my looks didn’t match up with the beauty imperative, I found these little nuggets that let me feel okay. If my generous thighs and hips made me a pear, I was going to seize the small waist that went along with it. If my weight was always going to be a sore spot for me, why not deem myself “big-boned”? If I was going to be
pink-skinned, I’d spin it into some sort of English rose look and do my makeup to emphasize my pale pallor.

The point here isn’t so much that I was wrong about those things; it wasn’t until adulthood that I was able to see myself a little more objectively, and I’m hardly unique in that. (Of course, there’s something instructive in how off-base I was: How much better-dressed would I have been if I’d veered away from the pear-shaped advice and worn what actually suited me? How much more radiant would my skin have looked at 14 if I weren’t stripping away its oil?) The point is that even where the conclusions were wrong, there was some sort of survival skill at work—something that allowed me to take my imagined beliefs and fit them into the order of things. Something that, underneath all the self-deprecation and imagined detractions, thought m
aybe I didn’t look so bad after all.

The narrative we spin for girls is that they’re doomed to look in the mirror and not like what they see—that the dogpile of unrealistic images of women’s bodies and idealized femininity hits them so early on that by the time they reach puberty, the best we can do is damage control. We spin it that way for a reason—it’s true too often, and if it was ever true of you, that searing feeling of not measuring up has serious staying power.

There’s an alternat
e narrative too, of girls with resilient self-esteem, the sort of confident young woman we look at and think, She’s gonna be okay. But those two narratives are intertwined: My confidence was shaky in regards to my looks, but there I was, coming up with ways to tell myself that I wasn’t totally outside the realm of conventional prettiness, even if I had to make it up. I didn’t know my physical strengths and flaws until adulthood, but I intuited that if I roamed the world believing only my flaws (or what I perceived to be flaws), I’d be miserable, and I liked myself enough to not want to be miserable. So I picked up the odd shreds of evidence from the very things that pained me—my telltale blush, my ample thighs, my lack of Scandinavian grace—and constructed an effigy of myself. It was strung together with scotch tape and homemade safety pins, yes, but it was there: this emergent girl who had internalized all the media ideals, but who, at her core, was able to fight for herself.

Ideally, of course, that fight wouldn’t have been about inventing ways to fit the beauty standard; it would have been about challenging it by daring to think that I looked just fine even in the myriad ways I didn’t fit the template. I’m not holding up my teen self as some paragon of self-esteem, not by a long shot, and I’m under no illusion that my misconceptions were any sort of resistance to the beauty standard itself. But it was a resistance to feeling as though I needed to change in order to fit them, a corrective perspective from a girl who had internalized all those messages about how her body “should” look but who, at her core, also thought maybe she looked just fine. Acknowledging I looked fine as-is, if only to myself, may have been too radical for me at the time (woe befall the girl who thinks she’s “all that”); this was my in-between. It was a start.

The Conundrum of Body Hair

1933 ad for underarm-specific razor with curves, which I can't believe isn't a thing now.

It’s skirt season again (my favorite), which means the body-hair feminist conundrum is cropping up again. I shave year-round, and at this point I don’t particularly examine the “why” behind it anymore. But it’s a loaded topic, and for good reason: The traditional feminist arguments in favor of performing beauty work fall flat when applied to depilation. It has little to do with fantasy, play, or self-expression; it’s expensive, occasionally painful, a time-suck, and just sort of a pain in the ass (actually, it’s a pain somewhere else). Sally successfully argues for the role of confidence in deciding to depilate—certainly that’s why I do it, more on that below—but in reading comments it struck me how loaded the whole body hair thing really is. And in some ways the answer is obvious, but I still have to ask: Why?

People have been manipulating their body hair for centuries; an excavation of a Sumerian tomb dating from 3500 BC contained tweezers, and there’s evidence of techniques like sugaring (still used today) and quicklime depilation going back just as far. But pit shaving as we know it came about after a Harper’s Bazaar ad campaign in 1915 started up with ye olde pit shame. The idea was, of course, to sell depilation products, but it was also a way of managing the fact that women were now showing more skin than they ever had. If pits were now shown, pits must now be problematized, and if pit-showing meant that women were beginning to think that maybe they didn’t need to be managed in every facet of their life, well, we’d better come up with a way to make sure they had to manage them pits, eh? (We see something similar now with Dove’s “Your Armpits Are Naaaasty, Girl” ads for their armpit-beautifying deodorant.) Leg shaving followed, after an uncertain era of fluctuating hemlines, and as for pubic hair—well, that’s another post altogether.

So I get that body hair policing is a way of adding onto the list of mandated beauty work, and I get that there are certain connotations of youth—dangerous youth, prepubescent youth—that make depilation particularly troublesome from a feminist perspective. But when you think about it, isn’t the whole thing...weird? I mean, most adults are attracted to other adults, not to children; hair growth should be all rights be a symbol of mature adult womanhood. Body hair should be a sign of sex, or at least sexual readiness, the same way evolutionary psychologists want to trot out our cultural fascination with breasts as being about our animal instincts.

Yet unlike breasts and hips and plumped-out lips and breath voices, body hair remains verboten for women because it breaks the ultimate taboo: gender. In my conversations with various women about what beauty work they conceal from partners, by far the number-one item done behind closed doors only is depilation. We’ll let partners see us in goofy face masks, but to let them see us plucking a stray hair—especially if that hair is in a place other than the legs or pits, like, say, the chest or toes—seems a step too far. It’s like admitting that sometimes hair grows on our toes is just a step too masculine, a threat to the status quo, even if that status quo is within a relationship of equals. Body hair contains a threat, and in fact maybe it’s a combination of its embedded masculinity and its embedded female maturity that makes it such. Body hair is thriving proof that gender isn’t entirely binary (testosterone prompts its growth), and it’s also proof that women’s sexual characteristics aren’t limited to just the curves that make such nice statues.

All this is nice rhetoric, but where does that leave us? Well, in going to the post that prompted this one: It leaves us ambivalent. Like Sally, I feel much better when I’m depilated according to my own standards (which, in my case, are legs, pits, and a very literal bikini line, as in everything that would show in a bikini), but I also see, as Sally puts it, the “baggage and hypocrisy” that surrounds it. And I hear the argument about how nothing will change about beauty standards unless we actively challenge them...and then I think about picking my battles, and how this isn’t a battle I’m willing to spend energy on. In fact, it’s a battle that has actually wound up giving me energy once I’ve withdrawn: When I was struggling with a particularly bad bout of depression, I realized that part of feeling so gross on a day-to-day level was that I hated feeling stubble on my legs from not shaving daily. I could either spend even more energy than I already do trying to deconstruct the relationship between stubble and “gross,” or I could just fucking shave my legs and spend my energy—energy I would not have were I to stay in a depressive mode—thinking about the larger picture. Shaving my legs didn’t cure my depression. But it was one of many small things I did to take care of myself, and the more I take care of myself in the small ways, the better I’m able to take care of myself in the big ways, and the better I’m able to care for those around me and give my best self to the world.

There’s also an argument about feminism and body hair that gets lost. It’s actually a non-argument, and it’s this: I’ve never personally known a feminist who has refused to shave her legs or pits because of her politics. I've known plenty of women who don’t do it because they don’t like the act of it, or they have sensitive skin, and I suppose the refusal to participate for those reasons is to some degree political. Point is: There are probably plenty of hairy-legged feminists out there, but in my entire 35 years as a feminist (okay, okay, 34, there was that one year in junior high where I really wanted to fit in), I’ve never met one. (That is, I’ve never known that I’ve known one. And while I could count Rebekah’s Body Hair Laissez-Faire month, I get off on a technicality because it was just a month. It’s not even really a technicality because the point was to examine these issues, not reject them wholesale, so, hey!)

So while body hair has political implications, I suspect that the caricature of the “hairy-legged feminist” is actually more responsible for the intense feelings surrounding body hair than the actual politics of the stuff. (Look at the intense discussion on the three posts Sally has done on the topic for proof of how provocative the topic can be.) I think conversations about body hair are absolutely worth having (in addition to Rebekah's series and Sally's work, I also recently enjoyed this piece on how skipping the pit-shaving actually wasn't an identity act for Kate Conway). I just want to make sure we’re not being “bra-burned” into imbuing it with an importance it might not need to have—and I want to make just as sure that we’re not fooling ourselves into thinking that it’s some sort of post-Beauty Myth “but it’s for me!” act. Yes, it’s for me; my boyfriend couldn’t care less. But I know full well that I wouldn’t have dreamed this up—this irritating, time-consuming, and occasionally bloody act—on my own.

Jennifer’s Body, Redux: The Case of the Incredible Shrinking Actresses


I mentioned this in my roundup last week but it’s pertinent to readers here: I penned a piece at Salon about the casting of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss in The Hunger Games. You can read the whole piece here, but the argument in brief is this: Katniss is a prime role for a young actress, one that we knew would assure whomever was cast in the part instant fame—and Katniss’s thinness is not just a part of the character description in the books, but a part of the plot itself. So when virtually every other role written for 21-year-old women is filled by a rail-thin actress, why would Hollywood choose one of its few performers who doesn’t look underfed to play the part? I don’t think it’s just blind casting; I think it’s a message about the dearth of juicy roles for young actresses.

But one thing kept nagging at me about my own argument: Jennifer Lawrence was fantastic as Katniss. She nailed Katniss’s ferocity, her vulnerability, her dance of a child having become an adult too soon. While I think there was something else going on with the producers, at least subconsciously, it’s also hard to make the argument that it should have gone to [insert name of other talented Serious Young Actress who’s had a chance to show her chops in a well-written, complex role—oh wait, there aren’t many, that was the point of my piece]. So when people counter my argument with, “Well, they just chose the best actress for the part”—and when I don’t have a shred of hard evidence to support otherwise—part of me has to agree.

But I think that’s also a bit of a red herring, and here’s why: Talented actresses are asked all the time to manipulate their bodies in order to fit a role. Beyoncé for Dreamgirls, Charlize Theron for Monster, Rooney Mara for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Renee Zellweger see-sawing between Bridget Jones and the other characters she played in the interim: Actresses don’t just get critical acclaim for physical transformation; they get press, and The Hunger Games team didn't shy away from that. (It’s interesting that men seem to lose weight for roles more than women, but an easy answer to that is that actresses are usually so slender to begin with that there’s little weight loss to be done.) Hell, look at the number of ballet-inspired weight-loss workouts that popped up with Black Swan. Talent alone wasn’t enough for Darren Aronofsky to direct Serious Actress Natalie Portman—who was, of course, already whippet-thin—to not whittle her frame for the film. So I don’t quite buy that the producers would have gone with mere talent as the reason to not instruct Lawrence to lose weight to play a hungry Katniss.

Let me be crystal-clear: I’m in no way suggesting Lawrence should have lost weight for this role, and I’m wary of the practice. (Yes, actors’ bodies are their “instruments” and bodily manipulation is a part of the trade, but do we really need to be encouraging performers—actresses in particular—to be even more focused on their weight? I mean, Mila Kunis, who does not have an eating disorder, started mimicking eating disorder symptoms after Black Swan wrapped. What happens to performers already prone to disordered behavior is upsetting to think about.) My point is that it’s not like losing weight to play a character is somehow verboten in Hollywood, and that for a character who is described as underweight and chronically hungry, it might actually might have made logical sense. So the fact that Lawrence didn’t lose weight to play Katniss makes me think that The Hunger Games team had an investment in keeping Lawrence looking, well, normal. Part of that investment might have been to defuse accusations (perhaps from wary feminist bloggers comme moi) of having taken a proto-feminist character and made her adhere to the beauty standard even more than Lawrence—slender, white, angel-faced Lawrence—already does. But I think the larger investment is what I fingered in the Salon piece: Figuratively speaking, they wanted to add more weight to Katniss. And adding physical weight to the character as written was an easy way to do that.

This might seem like a counterintuitive argument, but when I look at Lawrence’s own account of the intersection between Katniss’s frame and her own, I become more convinced that her body became a portal for all sorts of ideas that weren’t really about Katniss as written by Suzanne Collins. “You can’t diet,” Lawrence told UK Glamour. “Katniss is meant to be a hunter; she’s meant to be scary. Kate Moss running at you with a bow and arrow isn’t scary.” (Actually, that sounds terrifying, but I’ll give her a pass.) Decontextualized it’s sound logic, but within The Hunger Games it’s backward: Katniss, hailing from an impoverished part of the nation, should be feeling afraid of the heavier, stronger female contestants from the better-fed districts. The whole point is that Katniss survives through her agility, skill, and determination, not her muscle power—that despite the odds being never in her favor, she embodies the name of the Hunger Games better than any other contestant in the arena. Yes, Katniss could ostensibly have muscle from her outings in the meadow. But it wasn’t Lawrence’s biceps that made her ferocious in the movie; it was the intensity of her performance.

And again, in an ideal world, that’s how it should be. I’d love to think that Lawrence was cast solely because she gave a better audition for Katniss than any other actress could. But Hollywood rarely does blind casting; certainly it didn’t for The Hunger Games (as evidenced in part by the despicable number of people who were not only surprised that Rue was played by a young black actress but claimed that her race made the character less sympathetic—which, I mean, did they see the same movie I did? Or, for that matter, read the same book, in which Rue was explicitly described as dark-skinned?). They were extraordinarily fidelitous to Collins’s books—even minor characters like Cato were cast pretty much exactly how I’d envisioned them. (Except Woody Harrelson, but whatever.)

So I’m tending to think something is up here. But at the same time, I’m wondering if I’m adding to the problem by hinging an argument upon the body size of an actress—whose job should first and foremost be to act, which Lawrence did splendidly. I stand by my arguments but I’m wondering what you think. Was Jennifer Lawrence’s casting in The Hunger Games simply an instance of talent trumping letter-perfect character description? Was there something else going on? Was it a reconception of Katniss as having a different sort of strength—the “she’s meant to be scary” strength Lawrence references? Is this a step toward blind casting? And, on a slightly different note, are there ways to discuss the bodies of specific individuals without making value judgments that contribute to the larger problem of evaluating women for their bodies?

I Dream of Deenie

I was recently diagnosed with a medical condition. I’ve got a mild case of it, but it brings a few troublesome complications regardless, nothing serious. And as one might well do, the first thing I did when I got home upon receiving my diagnosis was Google it to learn more. The list of symptoms included what took me to treatment in the first place, a good number of troubles I don’t have, and a surprising entry: poor body image. The diagnosis? Scoliosis.

Now, if I’m being officially diagnosed for the first time at age 35, obviously my scoliosis isn’t terribly problematic. I was monitored for it as a child (do they still do those annual scoliois screenings at school? It somehow seems like a remnant of the ’70s, like the Dorothy Hamill haircut) but it was so mild that it barely qualified as scoliosis, and it didn’t warrant treatment—certainly not intervention like surgery or a brace. Basically, my muscles compensate for my wonky spine, running me through varying degrees of pain; I treat it with exercise, occasional ibuprofen, massage, and masturbation. (Deenie in da house!) In other words, it’s not a huge deal, and it’s not something that weighs on my mind a lot.

But there it is, that symptom far down on the list—below the physical pain, below the visual cues—poor body image. There’s a whole body of work devoted to studying the psychosocial effects of scoliosis, particularly in adolescents, but it boils down to this: Something about your body is “wrong,” and chances are it’s not something you ever thought was a problem, and you really can’t do much of anything about it. Wearing a brace may or may not have an impact on patients’ body image, but there’s evidence supporting a correlation between scoliosis and body image, regardless of treatment.

Now, the people being studied aren’t people like me: I’m an adult, for starters, and one with a very mild case of scoliosis. Though I’ve been told repeatedly by chiropractors, tailors, and osteopaths that there’s something irregular about my form, nobody until recently has used the word scoliosis about my body since the sixth grade. Whatever body image problems I have come from the usual suspects—perfectionism, media, growing up girl—not my spinal curvature.

But it’s not hard for me to see how my body image has shifted ever so slightly in the past few weeks. Part of it was the pain that drove me to seek treatment; it’s difficult to feel like your body is something to be proud of when you’re wincing whenever you take off your shirt. But more than that, I’ve learned that—and this is an unkind term—I’m misshapen. I found myself complaining of feeling “broken” and “twisted”—words I’ve never used to describe myself. Whenever I’ve had a problem with my body, there’s been a part of me that has known it’s in my head, because the concerns I had were solely about about how I appeared. If I thought my thighs were unappealing, there was still a part of me that understood that "unappealing" was subject to interpretation. With a twisted spine that was causing me pain—that wasn’t in my head, that was in my bones.

But in a way, whatever feelings I had are beside the point here. My literal body image—that is, the visual projection I have when thinking about my body—had shifted as well. My new mental drawing of myself was small, dropped onto a large white canvas, drawn in a combination of pencil and ink, and, yes, crooked. In my head, I went from looking somewhat like this:

(No, I do not look like Suzuki Beane in my head; she is far cooler than I could ever wish to be. It's just that Louise Fitzhugh is a far better illustrator than I am.)

to looking more like this:


Most of the time when I refer to body image, I’m really referring to negative self-talk. The image part doesn’t come up much, not for me; I’m pretty sure that my actual mental drawing of myself is reasonably spot-on. Even at my lowest, I don’t actually envision myself with elephantine thighs or a ballooning waistline; it’s more that I see roughly the same body in my mind that I saw the day before when everything was fine, but suddenly it’s unacceptable for one reason or another. I can dissect that all I want, but what it comes down to is that the interpretation of the image is what’s poor, not the body image itself.

But with the specific and decidedly dysmorphic shift in body image that accompanied my diagnosis, I’ve become aware that there is a body image living inside my head, one that’s plastic and that can shift according to new information it receives. And I don’t necessarily have any conclusions as to what this might mean, because in my case I don’t think my mental projection is erroneous. (Yes, I recognize that that’s sort of the point—that the very idea of body image means that you don’t think your mental projection of yourself is erroneous. I’ll never know how close my mental image actually is to the real deal. At least not until brain scan image projection is a helluva lot more developed, and when that happens I am using all my brain scan image technology to be able to put my dreams on YouTube.) It was only when there was new information presented—the information about myself as someone with a spinal curvature that causes me some troubles every so often—that a disconnect appeared. (For the record, once I recognized what was going on I felt fine mentally, and physically it’s really not a problem now that I’ve learned some corrective exercises.)

I guess what I’m wondering here is A) What the “image” part of “body image” means to you, and B) How your body image is affected by medical conditions that have nothing to do with weight or conventional attractiveness. (You could argue that severe scoliosis affects conventional attractiveness, I suppose—but hell, Marilyn Monroe was rumored to shave half an inch off one high heel of each pair to lend a sway to her step, and I've got that naturally, so I’m at an advantage here, oui?) Do you have an actual visual image in your head of what your body looks like? Is it in a distinct medium—like photography, drawing, animation, video—or is it too indistinct to single that out? Does the image change? Do you think your body image matches up with what’s really there, in a visual sense if not on the level of judgment/perception? Could you draw or otherwise externally project your body image? And have you ever found your body image being formed by things outside the normal trajectory of body talk?

Body Image Warrior Week: Mara Glatzel




As a part of Body Image Warrior Week, a collective of style, beauty, and body image bloggers is sharing content in order to promote various perspectives on body image. 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 mourning the loss of comfort of emotional eating and acknowledging that nobody is going to give you permission to eat--so you've got to give that permission to yourself. She understands that in working one's way to body love, sometimes a prolonged stop in the land of neutrality is required--and with that, I give you:


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Body neutrality: Be your own Switzerland!

It’s like--my body is over there, spilling over into the room around it, and my head is over here, chatting with you and looking pretty. We’re two totally different pieces. Can’t you see? But, I love my body, can’t you tell?

It took me a long time to realize that loving my body meant something quite different than leaving it alone and letting it run the show however it so pleases. That loving the skin that I was in had absolutely nothing to do with “throwing all the rules out the window,” or saying f*&$ you to society and their idealized beauty norms.

It means: You only get one body. One. It is your home, your rock, your ally--and treating it like a dumpster or ignoring it, hoping it will just go away already--is not helpful.

It means: respecting the skin that you’re in.

I get a lot of people writing me emails about loving their bodies, wanting to know please God body love seems so far away when I hate my body so much--to which I reply let’s start with body neutrality.

Yes, body love is the wonderous state where everything is wonderful and you skip around in a field of flowers, blissed out and having nothing but compassionate thoughts about your authentic self. But for many? We just aren’t there yet.

Body neutrality is a state of contentment. It is dead smack between I hate myself with every fiber of my being and I couldn’t possibly love my body any more. It is a white flag thrown into the ring. It is the gauntlet thrown down when you realize that what you’re doing? It just isn’t working for you.

For me, body neutrality means cultivating a short set of guidelines within which I know that I will feel relatively good--and sticking to them, no matter what. These rules include simple things (the kind we all know that we should do, but never get around to) like starting my day with 32 oz. of water pre-coffee, getting at least seven hours of sleep, buying underwear that fits, having sex with moderate regularity, and trying to fill up half my plate with vegetables of some variety.

It’s not really a write home worthy list, but it works. As someone who is recovering from a lifetime of compulsive and emotional eating--these guidelines keep me in a window of containment where I am able to make decisions that aren’t warped by mood swings or panic. They save me from the very dangerous place of: How did it get this bad? I am so terrified and feel so disgusting I don’t know what to do next.

These guidelines put my head back on my shoulders, reconnecting it with my body--after twenty years of stuffing my feelings down with food. It reminds me that my body is here to support me as I move about the world--and that is something that should be celebrated. It reminds me that we are on the same team, and that developing a baseline of self-care means that we both win.

And for someone who is just beginning to delve into the world of self-love--it is a perfect place to begin.


Mara Glatzel is a body image warrior and self-love coach. She spends the majority of her time causing a ruckus on Medicinal Marzipan, where she blogs (almost) daily about correcting your relationship with your body and food, creating relationships that are fulfilling, and manifesting your dream life. Catch up with her body loving updates on Twitter, Facebook, or send her an email. ___________________________________________________________________

Complete (for now! anyone can participate!) list of Body Image Warrior Week participants:

Already Pretty // Beautiful You // The Beheld // Decoding Dress // Dress with Courage // Eat the Damn Cake // Fit and Feminist // Medicinal Marzipan // Not Dead Yet Style // Rosie Molinary // Virginia Sole-Smith // Weightless

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.

Body Image Warrior Week: Decoding Dress




Yesterday I wrote about the need to not conflate body image and eating disorders, something that's too easy to do and that doesn't help us get to the root causes of eating disorders. But that doesn't mean that body image isn't also a crucial part of the puzzle. When Sally McGraw of Already Pretty reached out to a group of body image bloggers about the possibility of banding together to do a project under the umbrella of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, I saw that she wasn't positing body image as being the end sum of eating disorders, but rather as something worthy of discussion in its own right. And thus, Body Image Warrior Week was born. Throughout the week I'll publish a handful of pieces written by different members of the inaugural collective—which you can be a part of. Click here to find out more about how to participate.


Today I'm thrilled to host Decoding Dress, who faithful readers will recognize from her many appearances on my weekly roundups. With her consistently keen insight, balance of analytical thought and sly humor, and a gift for sharing her views without ever seeming dogmatic (and some pretty fabulous outfits too), Decoding Dress has become one of my favorite reads. And with this essay, she just might become one of your favorites too.


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Next week: Grooming tips from our man in Athens. (Those curls!)


The Ideal Form of Me, or, How Plato Turned Me into a Body Image Blogger


I didn't set out to become a body image blogger. I just wanted to write about clothes.

Well, that's not really sufficiently precise. Lots of people write about clothes. I wanted to write about my own clothes. Of course, lots of people do that too. What I really wanted to do was to write about my relationship with my clothes. Back when I started my blog, Decoding Dress, I couldn't find anyone else who was doing that, which made it seem like the perfect niche for me. And by "niche" I mean "Does anybody other than me actually care about this stuff?"*

It turns out it was the "my relationship with" part that got me into trouble. By inserting myself so intentionally into the mix I pretty much guaranteed body image would become a major theme of my writing, whether I intended it to or not.

To wit: most outfit blogs are, of course, about the outfits (shock-n-awe!). Note, however, that for those of us with the good fortune to have been born into situations of privilege in one of the world's highly developed nations, the clothes we wear are rarely about protection from the elements or adherence to social norms against public nakedness; they are, rather, the real-world projection of our inner sense of self.** (That’s why we compliment a friend’s outfit by telling her, “That’s so you,” or return a piece we’ve tried on to the rack saying, “It’s just not me.”) In other words, our outfits occupy the narrow frontier separating our real, physical selves from our mental images of ourselves. So you can talk about the clothes all you want, but as soon as you bring up why you chose them, what you loved or hated about them or how they made you feel, you're talking about body image.

It took me a while to figure that out though. It wasn’t until I dragged the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (c.428-c.348 BCE) into a post about miniskirts and red lipstick that the extreme to which my entire blogging project was going to revolve around body image started to become clear to me:

The lovers of sights and sounds like beautiful sounds, colors, shapes, and everything fashioned out of them, but their thought is unable to see and embrace the nature of the beautiful itself […] In fact, there are very few people who would be able to reach the beautiful itself and see it by itself. Isn’t that so?
— Plato, The Republic
See what Plato’s doing there? He’s drawing a distinction between the things we perceive as beautiful and beauty as a thing in and of itself. This is his way of introducing what has become known as his Theory of Forms.

This all may sound abstruse or even arcane, but you employ this theory all the time, probably without even being aware of it. How do you know that an apple—this particular apple—is an apple? You know it because you have in your mind the image of an apple—not of a particular apple, in this case, but of a general apple with a set of characteristics common to all apples. Students of platonism have traditionally referred to this general apple as the Ideal Form of an apple (after Plato himself) or as “Appleness.” (Seriously.) Platonism holds that this ideal form of an apple isn't merely an image, but actually exists (though not in any way that can be conventionally perceived by our senses). Every particular instance of an apple, then, is understood as just an approximate expression of its Ideal Form, inherently flawed. The same goes for everything you experience or imagine...including yourself.

And that’s where the problems start.

This framework, which has come to govern so much of how we understand and experience the world, tells me that there must exist an Ideal Form of DeeDee—DeeDeeness, as it were. And what are the characteristics of DeeDeeness? For some weird reason,*** in my mind the Ideal Form of DeeDee isn't characterized by the wrinkles that seem to be multiplying exponentially around the corners of my real mouth. It doesn't include the flab around my midsection or my size 11 feet either. DeeDeeness is hourglass shaped, smooth skinned and wears a size six shoe comfortably.

In other words, with alarming frequency, the characteristics I use to recognize myself aren't necessarily characteristic of the real me. They represent someone that I not, have never been and likely never will be. It’s like trying to recognize myself—judging the validity of my own claim to be DeeDee—based on some other person’s attributes. In doing so I treat an image of some other body as if it were the platonic Ideal Form of my own—only acknowledging myself to the extent that I embody the characteristics of this alien image. Where I do not embody them I consider myself flawed, approximate.

What. The. HELL? Where does this even come from? It's the syllogistic equivalent of judging something to be an apple by the extent to which it is small, round, blue and goes well in pancakes. I’m way too smart to be doing this, way too smart to be doing it to myself.

But I am doing it. After nearly a year of considering these issues critically under the glare of a flaming introspection fetish and far more education than is generally good for me, I’m still doing it.

The dirty little secret of Decoding Dress is that about 90% of the time, the answer to the question upon which I’ve based the whole project, “Why do I wear what I wear?” is simply “So that what I see in the mirror might more closely approximate this Ideal Form of me.” But unless and until I can acknowledge the irrationality of the Ideal Form I’ve chosen and embrace in its stead one that actually has some significant essential connection to who I am, I will never see myself as more than an approximation. I’ll never actually become myself.

And so I think (and write) about my body image, my mental projection of myself, in the hope that someday the image will fall into line with the reality. Perhaps, if I am diligent and do not cease from my self-exploration (as T.S. Elliot might say), then “the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

I wish the same for you.

*Apparently a few people do. The really cool ones.

**If that sounded like I was riffing off a Matrix quote, that's because I was.

***I’d love simply to blame this on patriarchal culture, but I’m pretty sure it’s more complex than that.




DeeDee is a yearling fashion and beauty blogger endlessly fascinated by why we wear what we wear. She’s still not sure where all this is headed.
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Complete (for now! anyone can participate!) list of Body Image Warrior Week participants:

Already Pretty // Beautiful You // The Beheld // Decoding Dress // Dress with Courage // Eat the Damn Cake // Fit and Feminist // Medicinal Marzipan // Not Dead Yet Style // Rosie Molinary // Virginia Sole-Smith // Weightless

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.

Beauty Blogosphere: 11.4.11

What's going on in beauty this week, from head to toe and everything in between.

Clockwise from top left: eyeshadow app or police brutality?; the tiny tiny woman who lives inside Beyoncé;
fears of a clown; what did ever happen to Baby Jane?

From Head...
All made up: Meet the man responsible for all those makeover apps. Here's to hoping he wasn't behind the Beyoncé matroyshka effect that serves as the pièce de résistance in writer Lindsay Goldwert's photo collection of makeup apps gone wrong.


...To Toe...
Tootsie: Another reason to show off your pedicure with bare feet: You won't be mistaken for a mama cannibal. (Not that cannibalism would do anyone any good anyway.)


...And Everything In Between:
Land of smiles: Thailand is well-posed in the beauty industry because of its biodiversity and the growth of the call for natural products—it's expecting a 10%-15% increase this year alone. Here's to hoping a beauty boon can help offset some of the damage caused by recent massive flooding.

Avon not calling: Between corruption charges in its Asian arm and tumbling sales, Avon hasn't been doing so hot, and the New York Times questions whether it's time for CEO Andrea Jung to hand over the reins.

Occupy skin cream: A small skin-care line is urging us to "occupy" the beauty industry by supporting small lines started by women "who were fed up with products that didn't work" instead of the Citibanks of the beauty industry like Estee Lauder and Revlon. 

Lipstick philanthropy: The Helena Rubinstein Foundation, after nearly 60 years and $130 million in charitable distribution, is closing its doors.

A peek inside cosmetics law: Apparently product names can takes years to clear, trademark-wise? Wondering how Lancome got the Bureau of Consular Affairs to approve Shimmer Mocha Havana.

Can men handle being ogled? Well, women have been handling it with aplomb for centuries; surely the old boys are up to the challenge?

Apple man: Did Steve Jobs have disordered eating? Certainly his habits point toward yes—an apples-and-carrots diet for weeks on end, for example—but reading about his peculiarities makes me wonder how exactly we defined "disordered eating." Does suffering need to be a component?

"How do you spell 'Ms.'"?: Wonderful oral history of Ms. magazine, collated by the daughter of one of the founders. A personal note: Ms. was the first magazine to issue me a paycheck, making the 23-year-old me just about die when I found myself sitting in a real-life honest-to-God meeting with Gloria Steinem, who is just as awesome as you'd expect her to be. This article, in the same issue of New York, about the feminist blogosphere ain't bad either. Ladybloggers represent!

Boxing day: Speaking of Ms., they're the ones who bring us this piece about the Amateur International Boxing Association recommending its female competitors wear skirts, to distinguish them from the men. I think this is bollocks (though at least it's not the Lingerie Football League, which Fit and Feminist beams her laser focus at this week), but there's also a part of me that thinks the fact that women aren't otherwise distinguishable from men sort of proves that "not bad for a girl" might be on its way out? High hopes, people, high hopes.


East meets west: The communist-era Prague metro is now a "virtual drugstore."

Prague officially the land of the future: Commuters in Zlata Praha can buy shampoo, razors, and other goods at the "virtual drugstore" in certain metro stations by scanning codes with their smartphones; the wares are then delivered to their door by mail.
 
Skweez me: Karen Duffy reviews shapewear, and isn't afraid to name names. (Spanx may have the highest brand equity, but it's far from the highest quality, it seems.)

Fair fashion: One of the earliest makeup lines for women of color, Fashion Fair, is revamping its image.

Bathroom bounty: British women have £964 million of unused skin care products in their bathrooms. Unsurprisingly, the number of failed products dwindles with age, making me want to act like a 60-year-old and clean my bathroom shelves already.

Equal-opportunity eating disorders: Adios Barbie on the LGBT community and eating disorders: Gay and bisexual men are at increased risk for eating disorders, while lesbian and bisexual women suffer at the same rate as hetero women.

Calling all angels: Beauty Redefined questions Victoria's Secret tagline, "We are redefining what it means to be sought after." I'm not sure which is more upsetting: the possibility that the tagline is wrong because VS is obviously not adding anything new to the conversation, or the possibility that the tagline is right and there's more redefinition to come.

How little is enough? Verging on Serious examines the Minimum Effective Dose—of exercise, of makeup, of blogging, all of which are dear to my heart, and all of which I do just enough of to be able to live my rightfully slothful life.

By the numbers: I'm usually a tad wary of "here's what I weigh" information, though I understand the arguments in favor of transparency, and enjoy My Body Gallery. In any case, the way Already Pretty presents her measurements is done in such a way as to show why the measurements tell us nothing, even when they're all laid out as they are in her post. "This post shows how little you know about someone just by looking at them, and how body stats actually provide scant additional, relevant information.... And even though you’ve now got a whole bunch of details about my body, you still don’t know everything. ... You know the stats, but you don’t know the story." 

About face: The Jaunty Dame follows up her inspirational "photo philosophy" post with photos not just of herself completely bare-faced, but with her Halloween-ish alter ego, reminding us that we all "perform for a live audience nearly every day." Is your costume comfortable?  

Girl army: Virginia questions the underlying message of the potential Army ban on French manicures and ponytails: "So what does it mean when the strongest woman in the US military agrees that displaying overt signs of femininity might impact a female officer's perceived strength as a leader?"

Nose jobbed: Dress With Courage looks at the connection between body dysmorphic disorder and nose jobs. Much of the talk about BDD surrounds the body, but in fact it's a fixation on any part of one's physical presence. Sadly, I'm unsurprised by the findings Elissa expounds upon here—43% of rhinoplasty patients have BDD.

Beauty Blogosphere: 10.28.11

What's going on in beauty this week, from head to toe and everything in between.

And yet I still can't cover a pockmark I got in 1979.

From Head...
Undercover: I've got to agree with BellaSugar: The best concealer commercial ever, starring Zombie Boy in the only time you'll ever see him not be Zombie Boy. 


...To Toe... 
Fish pedicures ruled safe! Big news this week from the UK's Health Protection Agency: “Provided that good standards of hygiene are followed by salons, members of the public are unlikely to get an infection from a fish spa pedicure," announced Dr. Hilary Kirkbride, consultant epidemiologist at the HPA. She then turned around, looked at the hundreds of small fish nibbling dead skin off the feet of people willing to pay for the privilege, and silently gagged. 


...And Everything In Between:
When in doubt, market out: The newly emerging urban middle class in Asia and Latin America is making L'Oreal want to play catch-up in those regions, as the company expects three-fourths of future growth to come from those markets. What's interesting here is that those markets are more resilient even in economic downturns than American, European, and Australian markets, as evidenced by the hand-wringing in this piece about L'Oreal Down Under. (Between this and the news that 88% of Australian online beauty spending goes overseas, the Aussie market seems rife for some bright entrepreneurs to swoop in, I'm just sayin'...)

Fakeout: L'Oreal has a wildly innovative campaign about "not faking it" linked to their Voluminous False Fiber Lashes Mascara! Gee, can't believe nobody's thought of that before. I can't help but wonder how this ties into the idea that authenticity is "getting old," as per the New York Times.

But you can recycle it, dahling: One of the Estee Lauder VPs on the intersection of luxury beauty goods and the cry for sustainability: "Are luxury consumers ready for a radical swing in the look of their packaging? No, it's an evolution, not a revolution. Luxury consumers don't necessary want the sustainability of the pack branded all over." But, he adds, "Just because sustainability is not branded all over the pack, it doens't mean the consumer is not interested in it, and it doesn't mean it's not part of the brand's message."

Speaking of brand messaging: Estee Lauder discovers the existence of Latinas.

"I want to stay behind the table": A profile of Ariel Sharon's appetite, or rather, his seemingly fraught relationship with food. While I agree with Regan Chastain that you can't tell much about a fat person by looking at them other than the fact that they're fat, as a journalist Matt Rees has spent enough time observing people to be able to tell us something potent about Sharon's inner life when he tells us about watching him devour a plate of cookies during the intifada.

Maybe they can compromise with this Army ponytail holder!

Be all that you can be: The Army is considering some dress code changes, and the thought of banning French manicures and ponytails has been bandied about, reports BellaSugar. Honestly, this sort of makes sense to me, not for reasons having to do with conformity but with practicality. Most French manicures are long, right? When my nails get long I can barely type, let alone do the far more manually dextrous things that soldiers need to do, and ponytails are easily caught in things. I have zero desire to quash feminine expression in the Army but I can't say this targets the ladies unfairly.

And to think I got a C in geometry: Finally! Math has shown us the perfect breast! This is supposed to reduce the number of poorly done breast augmentations, so therefore it falls under public service, right? Right! (via Feminaust)

Occupy Tropes: Having already decided that Hot Chicks of Occupy Wall Street is grody gross-gross, let's look at how it relates to Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Something I initially semi-appreciated about the Hot Chicks of OWS site was that it wasn't just stereotypically "hot" chicks: Diverse in not just race, but in age and "type," I begrudgingly had to admit that if nothing else, it could possiblymaybe reflect a broader portrait of "hotness" than mainstream media would have you believe. I knew it was shaky ground, and The Society Pages outlines why: Fetishizing protesters as Manic Pixie Dream Girls isn't true diversity in the least.

All the pretty ladies: And just in case you're occupying (or walking down the street, or hanging out at a bar, or breathing in the presence of others) and, whaddya know, there's a hot chick there? Read this guide to "Your Role as Observer" when a lady is strutting her stuff. 

I choose my choice!: Two nice pieces on "choice feminism" and "consumer feminism" this week. Laurie Penny at The New Significance writes about how as she advances in her career, she's expected to bring a new level of polish—that is, consumer goods—to her presentation. "As women, everything we wear is a statement, and we have no right to remain sartorially silent. We negotiate a field of signifiers every time we open our wardrobes, or, in my case, every time we rummage through the clothes-pile on the bedroom floor." Coupled with Jess's piece at XOJane—which I'd sort of thought was all about "choice feminism," but I guess that's why they have more than one writer?—do I sense a backlash? "Until the woman who doesn’t want to be seen as sexually available can go out with certainty that she won’t be harassed or ogled, your choice to turn heads and revel in attention is a privileged one."

Arresting images: Not sure what to make of this W fashion shoot from Ai Weiwei, a dissident Chinese artist, that features a model being faux-arrested. I normally get all humorless-lefty when I see fashion shoots co-opting social causes, but Weiwei has been held for his work, so there's a layer there that normally is absent. Hmm.

 
Kissyface: Capture the imprint of your kiss, then send it to this company and they'll make art out of it. It'll go nicely with the art of your own DNA they can also cook up for you. You always have to be different, don't you?

"Health class taught me how to have an eating disorder": Jessica at XOJane on how eating disorder education can actually trigger ED symptoms. This is a complicated topic—one that isn't fully explored here—but I'm glad to see it broached in this format. I proposed a similar story at a teen magazine years ago and my boss flat-out said, "There is no way in hell we can run that story," the idea being that fighting fire with fire just adds to the inferno. For the record, I don't think ED education causes EDs any more than skinny models do, but I do think that we need to treat "awareness" with caution in neither glamourizing ED symptoms (wow! you can count her ribs, how awful!) nor stopping short in making it clear that EDs are complex, messy, often lifelong, and not a quick fix for generalized teen pain.

Adios Barbie on the LGBT community and eating disorders: Gay and bisexual men are at increased risk for eating disorders, while lesbian and bisexual women suffer at the same rate as hetero women.

Fitspo vs. thinspo: Caitlin at Fit and Feminist on the sometimes-murky line between dedication to fitness and dedication to a disordered relationship with food and the body. "If you are prone to disordered eating, then the world of fitness must seem like a safe harbor, a place to indulge your obsessions without drawing criticism, because after all, you aren’t starving yourself completely and you’re spending a lot of time in the gym.  You’re just being health-conscious!" Cameo at Verging on Serious frequently gets into this too, most recently with her post on superstitions.

Wig out: A particularly delightful offering from Of Another Fashion, which posts vintage photos of fabulously dressed women of color, of Chicago "wig clinic" owner Minerva Turner modeling one of her truly fantastic creations.

Why we're already pretty: It's no secret I adore Already Pretty, and this entry, which sort of serves as a manifesto, explains exactly what it is about Sally's work that makes me take notice. "Whatever work you’ve chosen, whatever opus you’re creating, whatever battle you’re fighting, I want to arm you with confidence in your body and your style. Why? So you can stop worrying about your outward presentation and focus on what’s important."

The crossroads of self-care: Medicinal Marzipan touches on a delicate subject with her typical grace: weight loss in the Health at Every Size and self-acceptance communities. "Here’s the thing: ...I do love myself. It’s just that, for the first time in my life, I am understanding that sometimes loving yourself means wrangling yourself in when you’ve spiraled out of control.... You have to love yourself above everything else. But wanting to lose weight, or the act of weight loss when you’re feeding yourself the foods that make YOU feel good or moving in a way that YOU love, will not make you a body image warrior exile in my book."

Beauty Blogosphere 10.21.11

What's going on in beauty this week, from head to toe and everything in between.

From Head...

Neck and neck: Flattery "rules" don't usually work for me, but this post on mathematically calculating flattering necklines explains a lot (namely, why I feel best in wide, deep necklines despite not generally showing a lot of skin). (via Already Pretty)

Smile!: Speaking of numbers as guidelines, the layperson can detect dental deviations of less than 3 millimeters, reports the Journal of the American Dental Association. But breathe easy! Says the dentist who alerted me to this, "A lot of people do more than they need to. Perfect Chiclet teeth look a little weird." I always thought that, but he's the one with the degree, so!

...To Toe...


Bootie Pies: "Pedicure-friendly" boots with removable toes. Between these and my new automated twirling spaghetti fork, my life is about to get a whole lot easier.


...And Everything In Between: 
Quiet riot: Are YOU on the lam for your participation in Vancouver during the Stanley Cup riot? Do YOU need a massage? We've got the spa for you! Just go to Vancouver's Eccotique Spa, detail your criminal activities and fingerprint yourself onto their $50 gift card, then turn yourself into the police and return to the spa with proof of arrest for your treatment of choice.

Occupy CoverGirl: Fortune magazine uses Procter & Gamble's fully legal ways of evading taxes (to the tune of billions of dollars) to illustrate the need for corporate reform.

Salon tragedy: Portrait of Salon Meritage, the California hair salon where eight people were killed when the ex-husband of one of the stylists took open gunfire on the floor. Salons are known for hosting a particularly high intimacy among workers, and to a degree between staff and clients, making the violence seem all the more shocking. It's also a hard-line reminder this month, Domestic Violence Awareness Month, that not all partner violence takes place behind closed doors. (Speaking of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Tori at Anytime Yoga is hosting a blog carnival October 29. It's an important topic, so if you're a blogger with something to say, please participate—I will be.)

Willa won: Procter & Gamble settled its suit against startup hair- and skin-care line Willa. P&G had contended that "Willa" was a trademark infringement of their hair line "Wella," thus thoroughly annoying anyone paying attention to trademark law or good old-fashioned common sense. (Their recent Cosmo award for being a woman-friendly company doesn't seem to extend to its litigation targets.)

J&J's big move: The "sleeping giant" of Johnson & Johnson is peering into the higher-end market with its recent acquisition of Korres, a switch from its drugstore stalwarts of Neutrogena, Aveeno, Clean & Clear, and, of course, Johnson's. Considering that the company only got serious about mass facial care in 1991, it's not nutty to think that J&J could expand its offerings in luxury and masstige markets soon.

Uniclever: Unilever is quick to snap up Russian brand Koncern Koliva, noting that Russian beauty product spending is up 10% compared with Unilever's overall growth of 4%-6%.

One can never have too many reminders of our erstwhile presidents in their college years.

Rah rah: Via Sociological Images, a slideshow of how cheerleader uniforms have changed over time. I mean, obvs the bared midriff is because of global warming, but the uniforms have changed in other ways too.

"They did this to me":
Hair's symbolism, particularly within some religions, makes it an unsurprising—but still shocking—target of attack from a splinter Amish group headed by the unfortunately named Sam Mullet. He's been attacking families in more conventional Amish communities by cutting patches out of men's beards and women's hair.

Hot Chicks of Occupy Wall Street:
Gross. Gross? Gross! GROSS.

Taxed: England considers a "boob tax" on cosmetic surgery procedures, which brings in about £2.3 million annually. Fair method of supporting social programs, or an unfair way of punishing women for getting procedures that may help them level the playing field? (The U.S. rejected the similar "Bo-tax" in 2009.)

The Brazilian way: The Women's Secretariat of Brazil (a Cabinet position, appointed by President Dilma Rousseff) issued a statement against a recent lingerie ad featuring Gisele that suggested using one's erotic capital to manipulate one's husband was a jolly route to take. The complaint is somewhat plebian, but it's taking place at high levels of government, something we simply haven't seen in the U.S. Is this what happens when a country elects a female president? Women's issues get taken seriously? You don't say. (Of course, The Economist reports that women in the UK parliament are also making their thoughts heard about false advertising for beauty products, notably a bust cream claiming to increase a woman’s bra size from 32A/B to "a much fuller and firmer 32C," so it's not just the big cheese that matters.)


Betty Rubble's makeup kit unearthed.

Makeup artist, the world's oldest profession?: Anthropologists find a 100,000-year-old tool kit and workshop for making ochre paint, used as an early body adornment.

Side by side: Personal science blogger Seth Roberts on the newly coined "Willat Effect," in which we experience two or more similar items compared side-by-side as more or less desirable than we would if sampled on their own. I suspect this is the reason for popularity of "before" and "after" shots of beauty treatments. In other words: Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair (somewhat depressingly, the #2 search term that lands people at this blog) basically doesn't work at all, and only appears to when compared with the other side of my face.

What forms our body image?: Turns out it's not your body; it's your beliefs about other people's thoughts on your body, reports Virginia Sole-Smith. That includes bodies in general, so enough with the body-bashing talk, okay? Forget your own body image—you could be hurting your friends' too.

H0tTie:
13% of IT professionals gave away their passwords when asked to by a...drawing of a pretty lady? The findings are bizarre but worth reading.

Body and Soul: Interview at Threadbared with Alondra Nelson on the images that came out of the Black Panthers in the 1970s, including their Free Clothing Program that induced "sartorial joy."

Stuck on you: Magnetic nail polish! I'm such a sucker for cool nail art.

Tweezed: XOJane asks if tweezing in public is okay, pinpointing something I hadn't been able to articulate about public grooming: It's interesting to see someone be self-conscious enough to "fix" something about their appearance (stomach hairs, in this case, at the gym) but not self-conscious enough to do it in private.


Beauty contest: If you're near New York, you may want to check out the Beauty Contest exhibit at the Austrian Cultural Forum. Austrian and international artists examine "contemporary global society’s obsession and fascination with physical appearance." I went to a performance art arm of the exhibit, and the following panel discussion, including French choreographer François Chaignaud and author of The Man in the Grey Flannel Skirt, Jon-Jon Goulian, was invigorating.

"This is basically uncharted territory": Style blogger Stacyverb guest posts at Already Pretty on style and disability. "For anyone with a disability who’s interested in experimenting with style, there aren’t exactly any rules or road maps to follow. It’s not like we see models and celebrities in wheelchairs rolling down the runway during fashion week or on the red carpet on Oscar night. This is basically uncharted territory, which means it can be disorienting—but also liberating!"

No-makeup week: Rachel Rabbit White revisits her no-makeup week, an experiment she tried on for size last year. Like much of her work, what's exciting here is the acceptance of ambiguity: "It’s not about taking a week off  because make-up is somehow bad or because not wearing it is better. It’s that by taking a week off, I should be able to understand my relationship to cosmetics more clearly."

I'm a Pepper, you're a Pepper: Caitlin at Fit and Feminist on how even if the Diet Dr. Pepper "It's not for women" ad is satire (I don't think it is), it still gets to have it both ways in wrangling the diet industry into man-size portions. (I also love her post about cheerleading as a sport, and her contribution to Love Your Body Day about the difference between respect and love. Seriously, if you're not already reading Fit and Feminist, you should be.)

Good old-fashioned erotic capital: Rachel Hills, writing on Erotic Capital, raises among her many excellent points one of my biggest annoyances with Catherine Hakim: "Hakim and her colleagues would have us think they’re intellectual renegades... But while the terminology may be new, the principles underlying 'erotic capital' and 'sexual economics' are decidedly old-fashioned."

Sunrise, sunset: Be sure to check out the Feminist Fashion Bloggers roundup of posts on youth and age. Franca writes, "God forbid [professional women] just go for the suit and shirt 'uniform' and actually look old... Professional clothes need to be constantly balanced out by elements that represent youth and health and fun, like accessories and hair and makeup"; Jean writes on bucking trends usually defined by age; and Fish Monkey and Tea and Feathers, like me, write on the happiness of no longer being young.

Do We Have to Make Body Love the Goal?


When the National Organization of Women contacted me about today’s Love Your Body Day blog carnival, my first thought was to feel honored that an esteemed organization that has been a part of my life for literally as long as I can remember—my mother was one of the founders of a local NOW chapter in North Dakota when I was a wee one—had put me on their radar. Of course I’d be happy to participate (and I am).

My second thought was: What? I continue to be surprised whenever someone refers to me as a body image blogger. I’m pleased by it, of course, and it’s certainly not inaccurate; I suppose whenever a feminist writes about beauty, the tyranny of the body beautiful organically comes under critique. And while I do have a body-positive spin in the sense that I don’t think any of us should suffer in the name of our bodies—and I made a conscious decision early on to never bash any bodies on here, including my own—less than 10% of my posts here deal with body image, or even bodies at all.

More to the point of Love Your Body Day: I do not love my body, and I don’t particularly want to, and not once on this blog have I said any of us should.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t love our bodies, or at least sound an alarm when we find ourselves treating our body the way we’d treat something hated. But in my experience, the way to experience a relief from bodily scrutiny isn’t love, but not thinking about it so damn much. We’re at our best when we’re in a state of flow, wholly immersed in whatever we’re doing, whether that be our professional work, creative expression, or merely being fully present in the moment and sharing it with whomever is in our company. We’re at our best when we’re engaged—oftentimes engaged with others. Certainly many women treat their bodies shabbily because they’re focusing their energies on others and neglecting themselves; others, like me, start to treat our bodies shabbily when we become too focused on ourselves, allowing the roar of body dissatisfaction to dim out the world around us. And while conscious body love is a better response to that roar than continuing to punish my body in various ways, when I am focused on body love, my focus is both inward and separate from myself. When I file acts of self-care under that of love, it makes my body feel even more separate from my very self, instead of more unified.

Bumper-sticker wisdom aside, love is not only an action word: It is a feeling. I don’t want to have feelings about my body any more than I want to have feelings about my intellect or my voice; I want it to be one part of the entirety of who I am, not something I have to have all these emotions about. To do that I need to care for my body—and I also need to consciously devote my love to things greater than my body, my self. If I keep my body into the category of Things That Should Be Loved, I’m continuing to sever my self—the self that can love—from my body. As with many people who have struggled with an eating disorder, the disconnect between the self and the body is part of what has allowed me to treat my body poorly at times. The times when I’m truly treating my body right are not times when I’ve decided to love my body for all it’s worth, but times when I’m authentically engaged in the world around me.

If that bit of bumper-sticker wisdom is correct and “love is an action word,” that leaves me with little to work on. Care, on the other hand, is also an action word, and one that leaves me with a goal, not an elusive sense that I’ve either succeeded or failed in “love.” Care is a step we can take to make sure that, as Rosie Molinary writes, we are doing “the work we are meant to be doing and [giving] the gifts we are meant to be giving to this world.” At its beginning self-care may even be a way for us to even identify what that work is, something I struggled with for a long time. Care prepares us for our lives’—and our bodies’—greater journeys. My journey does not necessarily exclude loving my body. Neither is body love my goal.

I don’t want to diminish the wonderful work of people who explicitly work to activate body love—women I consider my allies in trying to help all of us not be so damn obsessed with this stuff. Golda Poretsky’s Body Love Wellness, Medicinal Marzipan’s Body Lovin’ Projects—this is good work from smart women, and they’re but two examples of the plethora of body love work out there. Participating in these programs can bring a sense of flow in their own right, and I imagine the power of being wholly engaged with body love is mighty indeed. I know many people have been helped by programs specifically targeted toward body love, and that aid is vital and real—and in many ways, what body love experts are saying isn’t that different from what I’m saying here. As Golda says, “You can’t just arrive at [body] acceptance. If you’re coming from a place of not accepting your body, you first have to swing the pendulum the other way to love.” But the active path to body love isn’t the only path toward a similar end goal, even as it’s alluring when you’re in a place of tumult with your body.

That place of tumult—of war—can be damning, silencing, and most frightening when you don’t even realize how much it can hold you back. I’ve been in that war at times. I know how hard it can be. I know. And looking at body love from afar seems more comfortable than the prickly, unbearable spot of shame that we inhabit when we wage war on our bodies. It is more comfortable. But body love is not the only way to find that space of comfort; love needn’t be the goal you’re working toward. For some of us, striving for body love as our personal pinnacle serves to reinforce the very self-consciousness that prevents us from doing our work in the world. Self-consciousness needn’t be negative in order to be damaging; caring for ourselves can be an act in its own right, not a pit stop on the path toward body love. For if the problem is that we wage war on our bodies, consider that the opposite of war is not love, but peace.

This post is part of the 2011 Love Your Body Day Blog Carnival.

An Open Letter to an Unhappy Swan, and to All the Pretty Girls Who Get Pissed Off Sometimes About Being Pretty

"He thought how he had been driven about and mocked and despised; and now he heard them all saying that he was the most beautiful of all beautiful birds. And the lilacs bent their branches straight down into the water before him, and the sun shone warm and mild. Then his wings rustled, he lifted his slender neck, and cried from the depths of his heart—'I never dreamed of so much happiness when I was the Ugly Duckling.'" —The Ugly Duckling, Hans Christen Andersen (photo via)


Salon.com advice columnist Cary Tennis responds this week to "Unhappy Swan," a twentysomething woman who modeled herself from dowdy teen to “hot” young lady, and who is now pissed about the labor she puts into her appearance and the attention she garners as a result of fitting the mold of conventional beauty. His advice: “Enjoy it.” I have a few other words for her.

Dear Unhappy Swan,

The world has no shortage of advice for pretty young women, but not much of it is rooted in an understanding of the conflict you’re experiencing. I can’t claim to understand exactly where you’re coming from, but I think I come closer than Mr. Tennis, who nicely pinpoints the roots of your concern but then sweeps it all away with the glib idea that since “female beauty...is short-lived” you may as well “enjoy it” since one day you’ll miss it—even though in your letter you actually express a desire to fast-forward through your life to the time when you’re “old and ugly and happy with life and not thinking about this.” Instead, I'd like to ask you to look at the "rewards" you describe as "addictive."

What sort of rewards are they? There are ways in which beauty is an advantage, but there are only four rewards you enumerate: compliments, numbers, dates, and discounts. And while all of those things are nice enough (particularly dates, which we'll get to), ask yourself: How much do these rewards really, truly matter to you? How much does it matter to get yet another phone number you know you're never going to use? How much does a compliment matter when it's not from someone you admire? How nice is a compliment to hear when its takeaway might be: Now you have to keep on being beautiful? How many discounts (or free drinks, or free meals, or quickened entry to clubs) are worth the self-respect that you, by your own account, are seeing slip through your fingers? (And might I remind you, those discounts can be taken away at whim.)

Dating, while I'd hesitate to call it a reward, is different from discounts and random phone numbers, so let's look at that separately. You say that when you gained some weight, the "quality and quantity of men" asking you out nose-dived. Have you considered that it was your self-identified work stress and the exhaustion from the "tedium of counting calories" that made you your lesser self, bringing lesser men to you? Have you considered that when one feels "depressed and worthless" as you did during this time, one isn't able to be one's shiniest self—which means that men of the caliber you're after will indeed overlook you? Have you considered that it was your fear of being your 16-year-old self, not the few extra pounds, that telegraphed to others that you were willing to settle for less?

As for the men themselves: What do you mean when you say that the quality and quantity of men plummeted when you gained a little weight? You may well have been attracting men who prey upon women's insecurities, which is obviously a quality dive. But I suspect you were referring to other factors: men with less money, maybe? Or less prestigious career paths? Less good-looking? Less social prominence?

I ask these questions because while I can’t claim that my experience is the same as yours, it’s similar in some ways. Unlike you, save for a particularly awkward year of junior high, I was never really an ugly duckling—and I was never really a swan. But there was a time in my life when lost a lot of weight to the point where I was finally bona fide thin, and I suddenly started buying more revealing clothes, and getting better haircuts, and wearing high heels. I was as conventionally attractive as I was ever going to be. Now, in my case, that wasn’t ever going to be “hot,” and undoubtedly the challenges that someone resembling a Maxim cover girl faces are different than the challenges I faced when DWT (Dating While Thin). Still, people noticed, and yes, I got hit on a little more, and yes, the type of men hitting on me changed.

Until I started DWT, I had a penchant for slightly nerdy, unathletic types—think chess team, not football team. Luckily, they had a thing for me right back. But DWT brought a new sort of man to the fore: the slickster. I started being asked out by more aggro types corporate business dudes who called their friends "bro" without irony. They were covertly nerdy (most people are), but they were also the type of man upon whom a certain strain of society often confers the title of Winner.

I don't want to paint every man I went out with during DWT with the same brush. Some of them were pretty great guys, others weren't. But what I found—repeatedly—was that the men I suspected wouldn't have looked twice at me when I was 30 pounds heavier weren't winners at all. One of them referred to his best friend's girlfriend as "thunder thighs." One of them stopped midsentence on our first date to let his eyes—obviously and visibly—trail up and down the body of a beautiful woman walking across the restaurant. One of them told another woman, while I was standing right next to him, that she was "the most beautiful girl in the room." Another kept hinting he'd like for me to ask along a particularly gorgeous friend of mine the next time we were to hang out; another, in a particularly telling exchange, told me he thought I was too thin, because if I put on some weight my breasts might be bigger.

Do you see a pattern here? No man I'd ever gone out with while 30 pounds heavier had made comments about my looks, or other women’s, that coldly to me before. I hadn't always picked gems before—I'd been with some fantastic men, and a couple of louses, and that's pretty much how the story goes for a lot of women. But the type of louse I'd chosen before wasn't the type of louse who overtly evaluated women on their looks. By pursuing a low-maintenance, attractive-enough-but-not-a-total-bombshell type like me, they'd already demonstrated that while they might value looks, they were going strictly by their own barometer. But shed 30 pounds and put on a lower neckline, and men whose values diverted from what I was used to were suddenly paying attention.

Now, this isn't strictly because I was DWT. It's not like conventionally attractive women are doomed to attract douchebags, or that average-looking women wind up with all the keepers. Nor is it that all “bro” dudes make these sort of evaluations of women, though I’d argue that men who gravitate toward status-conscious professions are more likely to choose mates whose appearance also brings them status. Had highly aggressive, highly looks-conscious men been after me all my life, I'd have developed a different sort of screening process rather than the one I'd developed for my own purposes. (For example, I'd long learned to put the kibosh on men who exploited my accommodating nature, because that was the sort I tended to attract—I'm guessing I would have added "appears to be seeking a status symbol" to my no-go list had this been a problem for me before.) And my own fluctuating self-esteem was part of the problem here—frankly, the first time one of these "winner" guys asked me out, I said yes only because I was so flattered to be asked. But I couldn't ignore the evidence: Coming closer to the beauty standard meant that I attracted a greater number of people who placed higher importance on that standard. In my case, that wasn't the kind of man I wanted to date. And while you express some conflict about this, I don't think that's the kind of man you want to date either.

For your sake, I hope that your experience was different than mine. I hope that when you say the "quality" of men was higher when you were thinner, you meant it in every way: That they were kinder, more engaging, more fun than the men you'd known before. But a hunch tells me that this isn't true. My hunch tells me that you're young, and that your confidence wasn't great to begin with, and that like I was at one point, you're just flattered to be asked out by a "winner," and that you're fucking terrified that if you ease up on yourself even a little, you'll be 16 again with a big nose and dowdy clothes.

You're, what, 24? 25? You're not long out of college, which means that you're not long into the world in which dating is what people do rather than just hooking up at house parties. Do you know that people will ask you out next week? They will. Do you know that people will ask you out next month, next year, when you're 35, when you're 45? They will. They will ask you out when you're unavailable, when you've gained a little weight, when you've lost a little weight, when you have a horrible breakout, when you're at the bookstore in a long skirt and a baggy sweater, when you're at a bar in a miniskirt and halter top. You will get dates. You will get plenty of dates. This I promise you.

Listen: If you take care of your body—if you feed it nutritiously (trust me, you don't need to be weighing and measuring your food anymore; you could mete out healthy portions in your sleep by now) and give it the exercise it craves, pay attention to what kind of clothes you feel best in, and develop a hair and makeup routine that highlights, not conceals, your natural looks, you're going to look just fine. More than fine, from what it sounds like. You don't need to eschew all of the grooming habits you've cultivated in an effort to be "hot," but you can evaluate what's really working for you and what's a ritual you cling to based on fear. You went through years when you were unattractive (or just felt it—I'm gathering that like many a 16-year-old you weren't nearly as hideous to others as you found yourself), then you went through a phase when you worked your tail off to be "hot," and then a phase when you felt the "hotness" slip away. You've been through some pretty drastic shifts, and all that is going to educate you for what comes next.

And what that will be, I don't know exactly, but I have an idea. It doesn't go away totally—hell, I’m 35 and writing this blog in order to work through my own thoughts and feelings on appearance, you know? Speaking of age, I think Cary Tennis’s advice is right to a degree: You’re already looking forward to old age so you can be relieved of this attention, so hell yes, “enjoy it” now, for that’s a far better alternative than living the next 40 years of your life in misery. But I don’t think you will live in misery. Most women I know have grown happier as they’ve gotten older, in part because we naturally come to a more nuanced understanding of these things. Everything in your letter indicates that you are becoming one of those women—that the anger and confusion you’re experiencing is part of that road. I suppose maybe my advice is indeed to “enjoy it”: the cognitive dissonance, the confusion, the occasional discount (why not?), the path. It is leading somewhere good. I wish you luck.

All my best,

Autumn

On Athletic Bodies

I never dreamed I'd have an athletic body. I was a gym-class-fearing child, to the point where I would purposefully fall down stairs in the days leading up to the dreaded gymnastics unit; breaking an ankle seemed better than having to attempt to do a cartwheel in front of my classmates. I saw nothing wrong with sitting down on the playing field during T-ball games (to this day my parents swear I asked to join the team, and I can only assume that I was being ironic at an extraordinarily tender age); my favorite day of tennis lessons was our end-of-summer party because I got to stay on the sidelines and eat the racket-shaped cookies my mother had made for the occasion. Running The Mile—which I saw in my head like this:


—felt like torture, and I had to do it every year from grades 6-9, and I played sick every year until I realized I’d just have to do it on a day when the rest of the class was playing touch football or something and therefore able to watch me run The Mile, which was even worse.

I thought that way all my life—a singular aqua aerobics class my final semester of college notwithstanding, in order to "round out my course load"—until 2002. I'd broken up with a boyfriend, and it was one of those breakups that makes you wonder if you will ever be okay again, where being alone feels excruciating because you’ve cried all you can and you don’t know what else to do. Being on the subway felt okay for some reason, and since I wasn’t so despondent as to just ride the rails all day with no purpose, I took the opportunity to travel to gyms in the farthest reaches of all five boroughs to take advantage of their guest passes. (Plus, then I’d get really fit and toned and lithe and show him!)

The first time I entered a gym, it was in the Bronx, which I’d specifically chosen because I didn't know anyone who lived in the Bronx, so nobody I knew could possibly witness my fumbling around with the machines. I sat down at every machine in the place and read the directions so that the next time I went to a gym that would presumably not be in the Bronx, I wouldn’t look like a total fool. I stayed there for four hours.

Guest pass after guest pass, I worked my way through the city, and after a couple of months I realized that it was helping in ways beyond dealing with the breakup. My mood was improved, for one. My body, which hadn’t felt particularly out of shape before, began to feel...better. Like things were just working right. I was gaining confidence by knowing how to use the machines and free weights, and to my surprise I was finding that I was quickly able to up how much weight I was lifting—and, in fact, that I was lifting more weight than most of the other women on the floor.

And then there were the muscles. I had enough fat on me that it wasn’t visible for a while, but I could feel my arms getting more and more solid every week. Shaving my legs suddenly invited hazard because there was now a sharp little tennis ball where a soft calf had previously been. I distinctly remember looking at myself in the mirror while washing my hands and freaking out because there were these things moving in my chest, these ripply creepy-crawly things underneath my skin—and realizing that was my upper pectoral muscles, which I’d never actually seen before. I mean, I was no Colette Nelson, and you probably wouldn’t even have looked at me and called me “buff.” But I was distinctly more muscular than I’d ever been, and I’d even say I looked more muscular than the average woman of my age.

It turns out that my body actually is rather athletic. I still can’t catch, throw, or hit a flying object (gym-class phobia sets in even if a coworker tosses me a pen), and I would hesitate to say that I’m even in particularly good shape. But I’m reasonably fit; I can run a few miles without stopping; I lift weights. I even did some somersaults a few years ago when I went through a krav maga phase. Compared to the kid hurling herself down the stairs in 1983, I’m Mary Lou Fucking Retton. And when this fact hits me—when I am energized instead of exhausted after a run, or when a fellow gymgoer asks me to spot him, or when my doctor tells me that my heart rate is in the zone of conditioned athletes—I feel the type of gratitude and relief you can only feel when you realize that something negative about yourself that you’d accepted as truth is, in fact, not.

So the first time I saw “athletic body” in the “dress your figure” pages of a women’s magazine, I got excited. Finally, someone was acknowledging that not all women who work out are doing so to lose weight—and, hey, maybe I’d finally, once and for all, learn what kind of figure I actually had. But when the advice focused on “creating curves,” I was confused: I'm not particularly busty, but lacking curves has never been my problem. In fact, since muscles generally are not shaped like squares but instead are gently sloping, I probably have more curves than I did before I started lifting weights.

All the arguments I've made before about "dressing for your figure" apply to "athletic." For starters, it’s meaningless: Some magazines use it to mean “broad-shouldered and thick-waisted,” others use it to mean “big thighs, little hips,” others use it to mean “naturally slender and small-breasted.” The one thing they always say is to “create curves”—something I don’t think, say, Jennie Finch or Gabrielle Reece ever worried about. (Webster’s does lists mesomorphic as one of the definitions of athletic, and while I’m appropriately skeptical of constitutional psychology, the ectomorph/mesomorph/endomorph typing comes in handy when discussing basic body types. But that’s not usually what’s being discussed on these pages, and within those classic types there’s enough cosmetic variation that it doesn’t really belong on a “dress your body”-type of page anyway.)

But the “athletic body” deserves a bit of special treatment. For unlike being an apple or an hourglass or whatever, being athletic is something you choose. You might not be able to choose how your activities shape your body, but you choose to be athletic. And while I understand that you might not always want to be showcasing your body, I also don’t know of any female athletes—professional or just gymgoing ladies—who seem to try to conceal what their activities have brought them. You don’t see swimmer Natalie Coughlin covering up her developed shoulders as Rent the Runway would say she should (“detract from wider-built shoulders” with a one-shouldered dress, they advise); you don’t see Lisa Leslie trying to cover her rippling muscles when she’s on the red carpet.

From Athlete by Howard Schatz and Beverly Ornstein

More important, though, the idea of the “athletic body” ignores the enormous range of sports and the athletes who play them. Different sports work better with different bodies, as beautifully photographed by Howard Schatz in Athlete, a collaboration with Beverly Ornstein that depicts the enormous range in athletes’ bodies, from high jumper Amy Acuff to gymnast Olga Karmansky to weightlifter Cheryl Haworth. And even if we make room for the prototypical body of each sport, as Ragen at Dances With Fat—whose blog roots are in showing the world that a 284-pound dancer is, in fact, a dancer (she's won three National Dance Championships)—asked us last week, “When did being an athlete become more about how a body looks and less about what it can do?”

And, at its heart, that’s what ails me about the “athletic” body type as shown in women’s magazines. I don’t lay claims to be an athlete. But learning that I could develop muscle and look “athletic” was enormously empowering to me. I have worked hard to be able to do 40 push-ups (okay, I haven’t done 40 push-ups for a while, but I could at one point, I swear!), and the muscles that come with it are emblematic of that growth. Yeah, yeah, I struggle with body image like everyone—but my “athletic” build isn’t among those struggles. (In fact, when I look at my hard-won muscles and have a negative thought about them, that’s evidence that something else is going on that I need to examine.) My body does not do anything extraordinary; in fact, it just does what it’s supposed to do. But my athletic body is a triumph over so many painful memories: defiantly munching cookies during my final tennis lesson because I was afraid I’d look foolish on the court, pretending to twist my ankle during the 50-yard dash on field day so I didn’t have to suffer the indignity of coming in last, teachers asking if I was okay when my face would still be beet-red 30 minutes after gym class.

Listen, I can’t say I “love my body,” all right? But I love what athleticism has brought to me, and I treasure the ways it’s visible on my body. My athletic body doesn’t need anyone’s fashion advice. It doesn’t need anyone’s categorization. It does not need to be dressed around, typed, or even acknowledged. It just needs to move.