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.]

Nerd Crushed: Where Are the Average-Looking Female "Sex Symbols"?




Around the time I started “casually” walking by the home of a man who gave me my one and only skydiving lesson, I realized one of the factors that makes me find someone attractive: If I watch a man do something he’s good at and loves to do, it's likely I’ll develop a little crush on him. It’s not a sexual crush necessarily, nor is it a crush that I’d actually act on—in fact, much of the time the object of my crushdom is someone I know full well I’d have no interest in otherwise. Most of the time the crush doesn’t persist past the moment (the skydiving instructor was an outlier, because, I mean, the dude jumps out of planes on purpose). My minute-long crushes are usually an acknowledgement that watching someone at their best makes them attractive, regardless of their attractiveness overall.

So of course, midway through watching the premiere of the rebooted Cosmos, I’d developed a crush on its host, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. His barely-contained eagerness to share the secrets of the universe, his slightly jumpy demeanor, the liquid pools of his warm brown eyes—if he hadn’t had me there, he’d have gotten me with his tear-jerker anecdote about being hosted for the day as a 17-year-old kid from the Bronx by his hero, Carl Sagan. 

Now, I may understand the drive behind my own mini-crushes, but I also know that my predilection has led me to some highly unlikely crushes; I had a photo of Tom Brokaw hanging in my locker in seventh grade. But I’m used to those crushes being seen as sort of idiosyncratic—let others have their obvious Clooneys and Pattinsons, I’ll stick with the unexpected, thanks. So when I searched for what other viewers were saying about deGrasse Tyson, I didn’t think I’d find that just as we’re not alone in this universe, I wasn’t alone in my crush. Neil deGrasse Tyson, according to Twitter, is everything from a “science crush” to a “nerd crush” to a “celebrity crush.” He’s “superhot” and “handsome,” making us “hot and bothered,” what with his “sci-sexy” “sexy voice” and general “hotness.” In fact, he was once listed in People’s annual Sexiest Man Alive list as the Sexiest Astrophysicist, is routinely listed as a “nerd sex symbol” in headlines, and has been asked about his sex appeal to the point where he even has the crushworthiest response possible ready at hand: “When you tell people something that's intellectually delectable, they can feel sensually towards it. But I think at the end of the day, the object of their affection is the universe." (Swoon!) Point here is: My NDT crush isn’t idiosyncratic, offbeat, unexpected, or unlikely in the least. The man isn’t just a little crush of mine; he’s a bona fide sex symbol, regardless of whether it’s qualified by the word nerd.

I think it’s splendid that so many people are freely acknowledging what most of us already know from our own experience: Sex appeal isn’t strictly tied to conventional good looks, and average-looking people can become immensely attractive in our eyes if we find their other qualities appealing. I mean, Neil deGrasse Tyson is nice-looking enough, but I doubt he’d be seen as “handsome” or “superhot” were it not for his other gifts. (Sure, there’s an argument there about the dangers of labeling everything appealing as “sexy” and why a good astrophysicist can’t just be a good astrophysicist in peace—but really, it’s the quieter sort of sex appeal that has made us humans keep propagating the species, so I’m all for it.) I mean, who among us hasn’t experienced an unlikely flutter of the heart or loins in watching someone blossom before our eyes in a single moment? A headline proclaiming an utterly normal-looking man as a “sex symbol” of any sort means that we as a culture are eager to see beyond the surface when it comes to human appeal.

But when I tried to think of a woman who is widely seen in the same light, I came up short. Sure, there are plenty of well-known women who are seen as “nerd crushes” because they speak of their nerdy interests (like Mila Kunis) or are involved with nerd culture in the sense that they go to Comic Con. Then there are the women who have been christened as “the thinking man’s sex symbol,” like Tina Fey, Sarah Silverman, Susan Sarandon, and Rachel Weisz, all of whom may be excellent performers and writers, and all of whom are also pretty much exactly the definition of the beauty standard, even if they’re not as cheesecake-perfect as sex symbols who don’t usually garner the prefix of “thinking man’s.” Sarah Palin of all people is actually the closest I can think of, in that she's a well-known woman viewed as attractive in a field where you don't have to be a professional beauty to succeed—but besides the fact that her sex appeal became a tool of ridicule, she was literally a beauty queen, hardly landing her in the same camp as Neil deGrasse Tyson. (Also, she’s Sarah Palin, but whatevs.) Google turns up a few other women labeled “thinking man’s sex symbol” who aren’t entertainers—writer Jhumpa Lahiri, Sheryl Sandberg—which come closer to the spirit of the deGrasse Tyson phenomenon, but they’re acknowledged as sex symbols on a far smaller level. The point: Call her a nerd crush or the thinking man’s sex symbol—if she’s a woman, she’s still got to be pretty damned good-looking to get the title. I mean, when The Wonder Years child star Danica McKellar went on to be an advocate for girls in math, she was doing book promotion in lingerie. 

Just as we’d be unwise to blame individual men for patriarchal beauty standards, we can’t say that the lack of widely acknowledged atypical female sex symbols is a reflection of men’s abilities to see beyond the physical. Men are just as capable as women of finding someone attractive for reasons that have little to do with visual attraction, and I’ve heard plenty of individual men share their crushes on somewhat unlikely targets: soccer player Abby Wambach, economics blogger Megan McArdle, Broad City’s Ilana Glazer, poet Nikki Giovanni, and tennis player Martina Hingis before the makeover. An ex once sheepishly told me he had just a wee little crush on Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher, you know?

Still, collectively we’re slow to recognize the possibility of a female “sex symbol” who doesn’t possess the hallmarks of a traditional sex symbol. And to be clear, on its face this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I mean, the flipside here is that anytime a prominent woman does anything nifty, she’s suddenly a “sex symbol.” Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi: the Hill’s sex symbol! Doesn’t Alice Munro look hot as a Nobel laureate? By no means am I arguing that we should sexualize women’s accomplishments just so we can have a female equivalent of a Neil deGrasse Tyson. But the thing is, we already do sexualize accomplished women, assuming she’s conventionally attractive. What’s missing is room for a wider public acknowledgment of the enormous swath of qualities that make accomplished women attractive. We give it to the gents, and on an individual level we give it to women too. But when it comes to our culture—or hell, just Twitter—christening an utterly average-looking woman a sex symbol of any sort, we shy away from the possibility.

Basically, this is a version of the same old song—I mean, news flash, women are expected to look conventionally pretty. It’s just interesting to me that we as a culture are willing to go to greater lengths to extend the definition of attractive to include skill and charisma when we’re talking about men, but not so willing when we’re talking about women. Or are we? I’m hoping I’ve got a major blind spot here. Are there famous women I’m overlooking who are widely known as “sex symbols” despite not matching the definition of conventional beauty? I’d like to learn that I’m mistaken.

The Petraeus Affair: Infidelity, Beauty, and Scapegoating




The sex lives of public figures bore me. Rather, the sex lives of public figures interest me no more than that of, say, my dentist. My view on sex is generally pretty solipsistic: If it’s not me having the sex in question, I don’t particularly care about it, and I don’t understand why anyone besides those directly affected would.

So I didn’t pay much attention to the David Petraeus scandal—at least, not until I read this excellent piece by Meghan Daum that questions the mandate of beauty in high-profile women. The article draws upon Petraeus’s wife, Holly, and the flurry of nasty comments in the “chattersphere” about how one could hardly blame Petraeus for sleeping with his attractive biographer, given that Mrs. Petraeus dared to look like a middle-aged woman who doesn’t pay homage to the beauty industry at every opportunity. "If it's no longer shocking that a powerful man would have an affair with a younger, worshipful woman,” writes Daum, “it is a little shocking that the wife of that powerful man, nerdish as he is, would thwart the beauty industrial complex quite so vigorously.”

Daum’s larger point—that we need to eliminate the double standard dictating that accomplished women like Olympia Snowe, Dianne Feinstein, and Nancy Pelosi must pay attention to conventional beauty standards while their male counterparts can eschew them—is one that needs to be made, repeatedly, until things change. (Remember the hubbub when Hillary Clinton had the audacity to speak at a news conference without makeup?) But what’s interesting to me is something Daum acknowledges in her article: Save for a smattering of comments-section trolls, nobody is publicly suggesting that Holly Petraeus’s low-key, glamour-free looks are to blame for Petraeus’s infidelity. Yet the piece hinged upon that very idea, and the piece gained traction because we all quietly understand the game of pin-the-blame-on-the-gray-haired-woman. Save for an ugly little post from Mediabistro, a bizarro article about how all the women involved in the scandal could use a makeover, and the aforementioned comment-section trolls, the only mention of Holly Petraeus’s looks I could find by poking around online comes from...well, Meghan Daum, and people rightfully echoing her point. Few people are trying to suggest that Holly Petraeus’s gray hair is responsible for her husband’s dick falling into another woman—but we get the idea anyway, even when it’s not spoken aloud.

If we’re collectively too kind to snark at a pained woman who has been publicly humiliated, we’re not above raising our eyebrows when the betrayed wife is conventionally beautiful. “If Tiger Woods could cheat on Swedish model Elin Nordegren, what chance do other women have?” cried the Examiner. “Beauties and the beasts,” blared the New York Post after Tony Parker cheated on Eva Longoria. There’s a certain freedom to say it when a beautiful woman has been betrayed, because we’re ostensibly championing the woman; we’re reassuring her that the dude must be cray-cray to cheat on her, because she’s hot, and it’s too bad that her insurance policy of being good-looking had a loophole for infidelity. A loophole that an estimated 22% of married men have exploited at some point, sure, but never mind the 1-in-4 odds at play, right? Those odds are “supposed” to fall in the favor of the Eva Longorias of the world—at the expense of the Holly Petraeuses—and though both parties gain our sympathy, only one of them garners a head-scratching “huh?”

There are all sorts of problems with that mind-set, starting with the insulting idea that good looks are all that wives can count on to keep their husbands faithful (note that while plenty of pieces on Holly Petraeus highlight her striking accomplishments on behalf of military families, none of them suggest her husbands is nutso for cheating on her because of those accomplishments). But deconstructing the idea doesn’t answer the fundamental question of why we’re so eager to tie appearance to infidelity.

I can’t help but think that maybe we want beauty and cheating to be linked. Because if they’re not, the statistics on infidelity are just too depressing. I remember confiding in a friend after a man I loved cheated on me. She was sympathetic, but a part of her response continues to flit around in my mind years after the fact: That’s just how men are, she said. She wasn’t trying to say it was “natural,” but rather that in her experience, men were simply eager to cheat, so I couldn’t take it personally. Let’s say for a moment that she was right—that men just cheat, end of story. It’s awful to think that a man might cheat on you because someone more attractive came along. But it’s worse to think that he cheated just because. Because then the logical fallout is that since he cheated just because, every man cheats, so you’d better learn to either adopt a laissez-faire attitude about the whole thing or get used to losing your dignity on a regular basis, because this is just how it’s going to be.

Accepting that notion would undermine the entire idea of monogamy, which, in this culture, is how we construe commitment. So we refuse it, and we seek a scapegoat for infidelity—and what better scapegoat than something that has already instilled in plenty of people a sense of insecurity, futility, and self-abasement? Beauty, along with its surrounding pressures and expectations, comes in mighty handy here. It makes me think about how often beauty and appearance are used as a scapegoat for other issues, and indeed how rigid we are with the narrative arc of women’s relationship with our looks (woman feels bad about body, woman works to come to peace with it, all is well—which is a fine tale, except it sets an expectation that women are displeased with their bodies, leaving little room for those who might not fall prey to that narrative).

It’s not often that I’m going to argue in this space that beauty is irrelevant; the entire thesis of this blog is that personal appearance becomes relevant to pretty much everything. And that’s not what I’m arguing, not exactly, not least because none of us have any way of knowing exactly why David Petraeus slept with Paula Broadwell—or why any person, anywhere, has cheated on someone they’re ostensibly committed to. (It’s something you often hear from philanderers themselves: I don’t know why I did it, I don’t know what came over me, The whole thing was stupid.) But I will argue that beauty is more relevant to the discussion of infidelity, and to how we make sense of infidelity, than it ever is to infidelity itself, which is why, as Daum points out, “assiduous gym rats with nary a gray hair get cheated on.”

In fact, there’s further evidence of this in the Petraeus case: Since I only paid cursory attention to the story yet kept seeing photos of Jill Kelley everywhere, I assumed that she was Petraeus’s lover. It actually wasn’t until I started researching this piece that I saw a picture of Broadwell, his actual paramour. As a long-haired Lebanese-American socialite usually photographed in bright, tailored dresses, Kelley has more photogenic glamour than an academic from Bismarck who favors a severe hairstyle. Bluntly put, Kelley looks the part of the stereotypical homewrecker more than Broadwell does—which is, I’m guessing, a large part of why her visage, not Broadwell’s, has become one of the iconic images burned into the public mind in regards to this affair. We want a fall gal, and Kelley makes a good one (especially given that she committed adultery as well, just not with the main figure involved here).

The sooner we stop gaping, wide-eyed, when we see men have affairs behind the backs of their beautiful wives, the sooner we can truly start leaving the low-maintenance betrayed wives like Holly Petraeus alone. And the sooner we can do both of those things, maybe we’ll come just a hair closer to understanding why we place such importance on an institution so many people flout—with lovers beautiful and plain, glamorous and mousy, younger and older. Perhaps with practice we’ll even come a little closer to fixing it.

Invited Post: Pretty/Funny


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Edith Wharton and Yo Momma

...aaaaand, I'm back, after two weeks of a blogging break. What's happening, internet? 

Edith Wharton, whose looks were the only thing that made her sympathetic,
according to Jonathan Franzen, Great Observer of The Human Condition 

I'll be posting actual content this week, but for today I'm just getting into the swing of things, so here's my warmup: For only two dollars—yes, two American dollars!—a month, you can get a subscription to the digital magazine from The New Inquiry, a journal of thought and criticism where I'm proud to syndicate The Beheld. This month's theme? Beauty. I was enlisted to play the role of co-editor this issue, in part because several of my favorite interviews have been repurposed, and in part because it features my response to Jonathan Franzen's assertion in The New Yorker that Edith Wharton's lack of physical beauty was one of the few things making her sympathetic. 

You'll have to subscribe to read my whole critique of his (baffling) position; unsurprisingly, I think it's shortsighted nonsense. But here's a recurring thought I had when writing it that I didn't put in there because I didn't want to detract from my own argument: Edith Wharton wasn't ugly. I don't usually make proclamations about any individual woman's beauty on here, but what the hell, she's dead. 

Now, I don't know enough about early 20th-century beauty standards to proclaim that with historic authority, but I didn't know what Wharton looked like when I agreed to write the piece, and it was only after I started the draft that I Googled pictures of her. From the way Franzen painted her, you'd think she was a gargoyle; instead, photos show a perfectly normal-looking woman. Too normal-looking to be considered beautiful, to be sure; there's nothing lush or exquisite about her features. Plain is probably the word you might use, but plain in the literal sense, not as a synonym for the butt of yo' momma jokes. But Franzen hinged his argument upon Edith Wharton being sympathetic only because her looks make us see what she was striving for with repeatedly torturing the beautiful characters she invented—and then you look at pictures of her and the argument makes even less sense than it does at first glance. In her day, Wharton's detractors accused her of "defeminizing" herself, and that seems to be true according to her biographers; she doesn't have the soft waves and tinted lips possessed by the women of the era who were considered beautiful. And she didn't age particularly well, but then again, neither did Sarah Bernhardt, widely renowned for her beauty.

The obvious argument that I tried to circumvent in the piece was that female writers will forever be judged on the way we look, something my own experience has backed up when I've published on sites other than those explicitly aimed at a female audience. But when I saw Wharton's utterly normal features, I actually guffawed, because it illuminated another point entirely: It doesn't matter what female writers actually look like, and not just because we're screwed either way (too pretty to be taken seriously/too ugly to hook in the public to read what she's actually written). We've come to the point where we all understand that women's looks must matter to her creative work, so Franzen can assert Wharton's appeal and use that as a baseline for his argument, regardless of the looks in question. It wasn't until my mother, who has read far more Wharton than I have, pointed out that the photos she'd seen didn't show an ugly woman that I thought to look at photos of her; I was prepared to accept the baseline Franzen provided. He never calls her ugly, just points out how un-pretty she was—but in a piece that hinges upon Wharton's looks, I'd argue the implication is there. And yes, yes, looks are subjective and beauty standards change and blah blah blah. But, I mean, look for yourself. Should this woman's looks inspire 2,000 words in The New Yorker? (Should any woman's looks inspire 2,000 words—words not written by a female writer, incidentally, which I suppose isn't a surprise—in The New Yorker?)

I should note that I'm hardly a Wharton scholar. I don't know her self-perception regarding her looks; I don't know if people treated her as though she were grotesque. And obviously portraiture of the era camouflages flaws to the point where if we had access to snapshots of Wharton I might see the validity of Franzen's assertion about her looks. As is, though, it's bollocks. 

*   *   * 

Even in a self-proclaimed "break" I couldn't help but collate links over the past couple of weeks. (One point of the break, after all, was to catch up on my reading.) Speedier and more streamlined than usual because of this roundup's Very Special status; usual link roundups will resume Friday.


The micromarketing of discontinued products.

France has the best hairdressers, and the best beauty workers are in...Britain? Brits are lovely but I suppose I'd never thought of it as a place one would get a luxurious scrub.

Procter & Gamble withdraws support for the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, which supports gun-friendly bills like the one that meant the Trayvon Martin case would have gone quietly buried had the public outcry not been so large. Good for you, P&G.

Have you received a chain e-mail about an Estee Lauder boycott from Muslims, and why that means if you're pro-Israel you should go out and buy more Estee Lauder? Bogus.

Y'all know I'm skeptical of beauty "studies," but this one (courtesy Jessica Stanley) is piquing my interest. Attractive women who attach photos to résumés receive lower callback rates than "plain" women and women with no photo—if the person looking at résumés works for the company the applicant is submitting to work at. Résumés sent to employment agencies, on the other hand, had a far more diminished effect, regardless of attractiveness. And of course the study authors go to female jealousy as the reason, because bitches be cray-cray. I suspect that the motive here is less "jealousy," as the researchers imply, and more something along the line of the "she thinks she's all that syndrome," which is arguably different than jealousy.

Aaaaaand keeping with the beauty research tip, one of my worst fears about beauty science reporting comes true, with the winner of a British "natural beauty" contest being dubbed as having a "nearly perfect face." And you can't argue with it, because it's science, peeps! The width between her eyes is 44% of her entire face, and 46% is PERFECT. It's basically like the discovery of radium, don't you think? Elizabeth Nolan Brown at Blisstree nails another point: "Celebrating 'natural beauty' as the ideal—while it may be based in a desire to reject over-emphasis on cosmetic enhancements—implicitly (and rather unfairly) prizes people who happened to win the luck of the genetic lottery." All this is a good reason to point you toward Maggie Koerth-Baker's rundown of how to read science news, which you should all bookmark as reference the next time you come across some beauty science piece that makes you feel like crap, or that just generally seems suspicious.

Ads (and potentially other content) projected onto bathroom or salon mirrors. Off the top of my head, I can't think of a worse idea, but gimme a minute.

Minute's up. Eyebrow implants!

Beauty shop opens at Cornton Vale women's prison. "Prison officer Carol Maltman had the idea for the shop after asking prisoners what kind of products would make their lives behind bars more bearable. She was hit with a staggering 1444 suggestions – every one of them relating to cosmetics or toiletries."

This piece on how the Roma people have come to be despised and displaced is fascinating, particularly the section on the creation of the sexually free and alluring "beautiful Gypsy": "The 'beautiful Gypsy' alienates through her secretive unattainability even at the most intimate moments and her withdrawal into a concealed, uncivilised order or animalistic sphere."

All-girl prom!

Bin Laden dyed his hair!

Burt Reynolds' 40th anniversary of appearing nude in Cosmo. Am saddened to learn that bearskin rug was intended to be ironic.

Nanoparticles! I don't know what they are exactly, except that they're genetically modified, and the FDA is looking into their use in beauty products. Nanotechnology on your face, yo.

Feminist Philosophers calls bullshit on the "brides are using feeding tubes to lose weight!!!" trend story.

Slate asks if ladymags' insistence on featuring celebrity body woes from women who already fit the beauty ideal is helpful. I waver on this: I think it actually can be a useful stopgap measure, but its effects should be short-term. Seeing someone who looks media-perfect say that they struggle in the same ways I do is a reinforcement that absolutely fucking nobody fits that level of perfection—but as the Slate piece points out, it also provokes the question of, "My god, if she describes herself as hippy, what am I?" 

I've got lots of thinking to do on the New Aesthetic and the male gaze, and I'm going to begin with Madeline Ashby and Rahel Aima.

Hair and makeup to camouflage you from digital surveillance. Effin' brilliant. (Thanks to Danielle for the link.)

What's up with Beyonce's whole earth mother thing? Bim Adewunmi looks at "fake authenticity."

Did the public persona of "Black Dahlia," the victim of a highly sensationalized (and highly gruesome) 1947 murder case, begin before her death? Crime historian Joan Renner—who happens to run a vintage cosmetics blog—thinks so, and it's because of her makeup. (Thanks to Sarah Nicole Prickett for the tipoff.)

She rarely writes about beauty so I never have a chance to include her here, but I've gotta give a random shoutout to ModernSauce, the only design-ish blog I read, which I do because the writing makes me laugh out loud, which is potentially hazardous given that I'm often eating graham crackers when I'm reading, and I live alone, and could choke and die and nobody would find me. But despite the hazards, it's so sly and offhandedly insightful, I read on. I read on.

Rebekah gives what might serve as an epilogue for the body hair discussion that took place here a few weeks ago, showing exactly how complex of an issue it is.

Gala Darling's riveting, exploratory, searingly honest piece on self-harm is a must-read for anyone who knows someone who has self-harming behaviors (like cutting). Without glamourizing self-harm in the least, she shows the ambiguities of what it gives its sufferers: "The majority of women who wrote in were not embarrassed by the remnants from their days of self-harm, but instead saw their scars as an integral part of who they are; part of the journey towards loving themselves entirely. In fact, some women were almost proud of their scars, choosing to view them as proof that they could overcome something horrendous & go on to not only survive, but thrive."

The Blind Hem continues the discussion on modesty fashion blogging, this time from a modesty blogger, penned as a response to their earlier piece on the matter, which took a more skeptical view of modesty blogging claims.

An excellent trio of questions from an excellent trio of bloggers: Does your clothing fight your body? Do you wear more makeup when you're down—or, for that matter, up? And what does it mean to "try too hard"?

Thoughts on a Word: Glamour (Part II)


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

*    *    *   


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *


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

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

*   *   *


 


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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *


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

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

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

For Janis Joplin, On Her Sixty-Ninth Birthday


The first time I heard Janis Joplin, it was by chance. I was at the home of an acquaintance, a bona fide Popular Girl who argued feminist positions along with me in our junior-year literature class, making her my favorite of the in-crowd. I’d been assigned a class project with her, and she had a small group of us over to her home to work on the task. We sat cross-legged on the floor, sipping sodas and plotting our work, when a quiet wail in the background caught my ear. I tuned out the conversation and tuned in to the wail: I couldn’t make out the words, but the sound itself was urgent, pained, and undeniably female. I interrupted the conversation to ask who we were listening to, and the popular girl smiled. “Janis Joplin,” she said. “Isn’t she great?”

I’d heard of Janis Joplin before, but somehow she had slipped through my musical upbringing in favor of The Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, and Bob Dylan. My parents owned Pearl—as I’d learn later that night when I’d ask my parents about Janis with the same sort of feigned-casual tone I might use to inquire about an it’s-no-big-deal-really crush—but she wasn’t a part of the household repertoire. After commandeering Pearl and realizing there had to be even more Janis out there, I went to the public library and found every bit of material on her that I could. I borrowed CDs to make illegal tapes of them; I read biographies; I watched Monterey Pop. I went barefoot for much of my senior year of high school because it seemed like something Janis would have done; I strolled the halls with my long hair, tie-dye T-shirts, long necklaces, and ripped jeans, and imagined myself to be channeling some part of her. Forget that as a classic good girl, any rebellious streak I had was forever turned inward, not outward; forget that I was 17 and had no idea what phrases like a woman left lonely, piece of my heart, and get it while you can could possibly mean (or rather, forget that I’m an adult critiquing my adolescent understanding of her work; at 17 I knew the meaning of those words as well as anyone).

I wouldn’t say I wanted to be Janis, or even that I considered her a role model. I’d quickly learn how she lived, I’d quickly learn how she’d died, and I didn’t want to shape my life in that way. But I admired her. I’d call it a “girl crush” if I didn’t usually apply that term to women who reminded me of a better version of myself, which Janis wasn’t. Janis Joplin was nothing like me. That’s part of why—I’ll use this phrase, and not lightly—I loved her.

It wasn’t until I had read multiple biographies of her that I began to recognize something that felt like a nonsensical gnat at first, but a gnat that appeared in every major work about her: Janis Joplin wasn’t pretty. I mean, yeah yeah, eye of the beholder and inner beauty and all that, but Janis Joplin was not considered to be pretty. She was an outcast growing up, teased for her looks—her acne-plagued skin, her tendency to gain weight—and she never carried the mantle of the pretty girl. Even when she became an icon of the late ‘60s, it wasn’t because she was a beauty. None of that mattered to me, though, because I had no idea she wasn’t supposed to be pretty.

There are plenty of reasons why I didn’t think about Janis Joplin’s beauty. The obvious would be that she was so extraordinarily talented that her voice took a backseat to her looks, or perhaps that her talent made her beautiful to me. Hell, maybe it was because Janis came to me through a Popular Girl, so I conferred the qualities of that girl onto Janis herself. And perhaps all of those are true, but that’s not what was really going on.

It was more this: Famous women are pretty, and Janis Joplin is famous, ergo Janis Joplin is pretty. That was it, that was the logic, and I didn’t question my faulty syllogism. Janis Joplin had to be beautiful, because known women are beautiful. I didn’t need to actually look at her to know it must be true. To be clear, it wasn’t that I had some special ability to see a female performer as beautiful because of her talent alone, or that I thought her looks were unimportant. It was quite the opposite: I thought looks were incredibly important. I was so stuck on connecting beauty with talent and “making it” that I superimposed a physical beauty onto anyone with talent. Rather, I superimposed the concept of a woman’s looks, to the point where the actual physical “truth” of it (if there is ever a “truth” about beauty) became beside the point. I’d like to think that Janis’s looks didn’t cross my mind because my attitude on the matter was so progressive, but in truth it was because my attitude was regressive, or at least adolescent. I prized beauty, so I tethered skill, talent, tenacity, boldness, attitude, charisma—the things I actually loved about Janis—to it.

I don’t remember what I thought the first time I saw a picture of Janis. I do, however, remember looking at pictures of other women from the era and wanting to be like them because they were pretty. Grace Slick’s tilted head and dark eyes on the cover of Surrealistic Pillow, Mary Travers looking pertly fabulous under her boa on Album 1700, even, as a child, the pretty smile of Marlo Thomas on the back of Free to Be You and Me: I loved all of these albums from childhood on, and probably would have even if Grace, Mary, and Marlo were less pretty than they were. But their looks were a part of the fantasy portal they created. Grace and Mary were beautiful women surrounded by men (who I saw as being of lesser talent, whether or not that’s true), and Marlo—well, she was That Girl, right? Was it any wonder a girl who longed to be both pretty and accomplished would look up to these women?

It was probably my experiences with Grace, Mary, and Marlo—and Peggy Lee, and Linda Ronstadt, and Lesley Gore, Julie Andrews, Stevie Nicks, Diana Ross, or any of the other female musicians who populated my childhood—that made me assume, sight unseen, that Janis Joplin must be pretty. Once I started reading biographies of her and saw that writers would occasionally mention that she was hardly Venusian, I dismissed such notions as being beside the point, but I still didn’t question the veracity of their claims. It was only after my fervor had died down a little bit—the poster taken down from my wall, my college boombox finally being relieved of Cheap Thrills—that I studied photographs of her, looking for something other than Janis Joplin, the legend. She made some arresting images, to be sure—sprawled in feathers on a leather settee for Pearl, behatted in furs leaving the Chelsea Hotel. There’s little question that Janis was attractive, in the sense that she attracted you, and for reasons that had nothing to do with her voice. But pretty? No, she wasn’t that.




Still, we loved to look at her. In fact, perhaps we loved to look at her because she wasn’t traditionally beautiful. As rock critic Ellen Willis writes in her 1976 essay on Janis, “Joplin’s metamorphosis from the ugly duckling of Port Arthur to the peacock of Haight-Ashbury meant, among other things, that a woman who was not conventionally pretty, who had acne and an intermittent weight problem and hair that stuck out, could not only invent her own beauty (just as she invented her wonderful sleazofreak costumes) out of sheer energy, soul, sweetness, arrogance, and a sense of humor, but have that beauty appreciated. Not that Janis merely took advantage of changes in our notions of attractiveness; she herself changed them.”

Isn’t it nice to think so? I don’t think it’s true, though, not exactly, or at least I don’t think Janis changed our notions of attractiveness. But I do think that not only is she a prime example of how someone’s raw talent can make a person so appealing as to actually transform one’s looks, she’s also a poster child for the ways beauty serves as a false protector. Janis Joplin, never having been considered pretty, also never had the security of banal prettiness. And as harsh as it probably was to not have that security, it may also have wound up giving her a certain protection against misdirected blame. In “Ball and Chain,” when Janis moans, “I don’t understand how come you’re gone” she has a near-childlike lack of understanding—how come you’re gone? how come? The only thing greater than her gaping incomprehension at why her man would leave a good thing is her pain. But at age 17, I’d have known how come he’d gone: I wasn’t his dream girl after all, I wasn’t pretty enough, I spat when I talked, I’d been too clingy, and my god was I really just fat after all? (I’d have been wrong, of course. We never understand how come they’re gone.) Janis skipped forward through the analysis of the good girl, the pretty-enough girl, the girl who desperately wishes not to repeat her mistakes—the me-girl—landing smack-dab in the searing, fertile garden of pain. We all wind up there eventually. I can’t say she spared herself any grief through her circumnavigation around nice-girl self-blame; Janis didn’t spare herself much of anything. But she grieved the right things. She never had the crutch of prettiness, so she learned to walk without it.

There’s only so far I can romanticize Janis in this respect, of course. She jumped from lover to lover, only rarely feeling satisfied. She sought approval more than her lasting reputation as an iconoclast reveals; one listen to the mediocre Kozmic Blues shows just that. She went to her high school reunion fully expecting the reception she’d longed for 10 years earlier, only to walk away with a tire, an award for having traveled the farthest to attend. (“What am I going to do with a fucking tire?” she reputedly said upon receiving the award.) And, of course, she died in a hotel room, alone, at age 27, of a self-administered heroin overdose. I can’t claim jack shit for Janis’s self-image or appraisal of her own appeal. I can only claim what she taught me.

I’m older now, more mature, and I’d like to think I’m no longer as eager to equate talent and physical beauty. In fact, I’ve come back to that place I was at age 17: Janis Joplin’s looks don’t matter to me, in the sense that they’re unimportant in the larger scope of who she is. I’m glad for that. Janis’s legacy isn’t that of beauty; it’s that of brutal vulnerability, searing talent, and the virtue of being totally unable to be anyone other than oneself. I write here of the importance her looks had for me because this is the place I have to honor her, and here I write of beauty. But when I listen to her—it doesn’t matter what album, it doesn’t matter what song—if I am thinking of beauty at all, I’m thinking of the kind of beauty that transcends. Whimsy, will, and revelation created Janis’s legacy, and they create her beauty too. And today, on what would have been her sixty-ninth birthday, I want to offer her memory a piece of my heart.

I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got: Sinéad O'Connor and the Beauty Standard


The first time I saw Sinéad O’Connor, in 1990, I was in awe. I watched her stark video for “Nothing Compares 2 U,” struck by both her voice and her presence. She looked at us unblinkingly from those enormous eyes, her shorn head serving only to emphasize her delicacy, her voice like blown glass daring us to really listen. I loved the song, but more than that, I loved her presence: She seemed steadfast and self-possessed but fragile. Her talent shone, of course. But so did her beauty.

When reader Jeremy tipped me off to recent press about her appearance, I prepared to be dismayed. Over the 22 years since her first album was released, she’s done what plenty of people do: She’s aged (she’s 44), had children (four of them), continued to speak out for causes she believed in (most notably the decades-long concealment of child abuse within the Irish Catholic church), and struggled with mental health issues (she tried to commit suicide at 33), all while continuing to perform and occasionally record. And, like those of us who are not paid to stay ageless, her looks have changed over the years, prompting some media outlets to joke that “Nothing Compares 2 Her New Look.”



I’d say I’m displeased by how she’s been treated in the media, but the fact is the media I consume has been treating her with the care and thought her career deserves. Salon points out that we can’t expect celebrities to remain untouched by time, calling the initial hubbub over her August appearance her “latest shocker”; The Hollywood Reporter asks us to “leave Sinéad alone” and reminds us that she was a singer who rose to fame because of her talent and outspoken views, including a rejection of the beauty mold: “Should a singer who used her window of fame to highlight discomfiting political opinions as well as bringing hauntingly personal songs like ‘Troy’ and ‘Three Babies’ into the musical canon really be judged by the same harsh standards that are common currency for actresses and reality TV stars?” Yes, her appearance prompted some snark—but do we really expect better from TMZ, or even abcnews.com, which was less poking fun at her and more taking the chance to put together a celebrity slideshow they knew would garner page views? Even the reviews that questioned her looks made it clear that her voice was still splendid, and the Telegraph captioned the accompanying photo with “Comfortable in her encroaching middle age,” which, while focusing on her looks, also communicated that her looks weren’t to be trashed, but instead were something that happens to most of us. It almost seemed like a compliment.

So I’m actually pretty pleased overall with the way that the media has been examining O’Connor. But besides the general questions that can be applied to female celebrities pretty much across the board—for starters, why we expect singers to be professional beauties, and why we expect famous people to stay forever preserved in youth and then mock the ones who do stay preserved for not “aging gracefully”—it seems like there’s something else that made us want to take another look at O’Connor, something that makes us rush to defend her, that makes even vicious sources us a bit hesitant to rush in for the kill. (TMZ, hardly known for being gracious toward its subjects, called her “softer” and “matronly” instead of flat-out “fat” as it has for other celebrities, including Janet Jackson and Britney Spears.) And that something else is her long-standing tussle with the beauty standard.

A shaved head on a woman was incredibly transgressive in 1989 (and still is a decided act against the beauty standard), and to see it on a conventionally beautiful woman at first seems to be even more transgressive. But it’s easier for us to embrace a woman rejecting the beauty myth as long as she’s still conventionally beautiful—in part because we still then get to focus on the way she actually looks, not what she is actually saying. O’Connor’s shaved head was a rebellion against the beauty standard—but an iconic one, made so because she met the beauty standard in so many other ways. If she had been more ordinary-looking but still had a shaved head, she may have met with some success because of her talent, but would we have watched—entranced as she looked directly into the camera, telling us that nothing compares to us—if she hadn’t had those enormous eyes, that delicate nose, those beautifully defined lips that stayed beautiful even as they snarled with hurt? (It’s also worth noting that while she did reject the beauty standard, she was far from eschewing it altogether: Like virtually every woman in the public eye, she wore full makeup during her performances—possibly dictated by her publicity team, but still a nod toward understanding that capitalizing on her looks would benefit her.)

Much like how Gloria Steinem was a convenient poster girl for feminism because of her conventional good looks (which brought its own criticisms, but undoubtedly it did something to help make feminism more palatable to the masses), Sinéad O’Connor could speak to the part of us that wanted to shirk the beauty standard but still reap a few of its benefits. Hell, enough with “us”: She spoke to that part of me.

When I first discovered Sinéad O’Connor, rejecting the beauty standard hadn’t occurred to me in the slightest. I was deep in the awkward stage, and the beauty standard was something I was eager to jump into headfirst. So when I saw the video for “Nothing Compares 2 U,” in addition to liking its simplicity and the song itself, I danced on the edge of awe and something approximating irritation. Here she was, born with the chiseled features and elfin frame I was lacking, and she was rejecting her rightful status as the pretty girl by shaving her head? Frankly, I was little annoyed, as though by all rights the beauty she was rejecting should somehow be channeled to a certain 13-year-old instead of merely wasted—which is, indeed, how I saw it at the time.

With time and political consciousness, my baffled state morphed into admiration. Actually, it morphed more into just fandom: I no longer looked at her as the extraordinarily pretty woman with the unfortunately shaven head, but rather as a singer-songwriter who had some subtle yet ferocious work out there: I still get chills when I even think of the sweeping violins and shattering vocals on “Feel So Different,” and “I Want Your Hands On Me” is one of the sexist songs in existence, for my money anyway. In short, I started to see her how she probably wished to be seen.

Now, if I’d been 31 instead of 13 when I first heard O’Connor, I might have seen her more in that light to begin with instead of taking the more circuitous route—being in the “awkward stage” can dictate some acrobatic thinking in regards to looks. But I’m also pretty sure that by virtue of being a mainstream entertainer who was bucking the beauty standard, Sinéad O’Connor was initially seen as the beautiful bald chick by a lot of people, not just confused adolescents. Somewhere between the dulling of the novelty factor and the infamous Pope-picture Saturday Night Live appearance, we moved past that, but her looks became an integral part of how she was seen.


And, of course, that hasn’t changed. It hasn’t changed for her detractors, who sneer at her rounded belly and ask what happened to the waif we first eyed more than 20 years ago. But it also hasn’t changed for her supporters, I don’t think. I felt indignant when I first read about the criticisms of her current appearance—forgetting that I was reading those very criticisms in a piece that was saying that the criticisms were inappropriate. My anger stemmed not from what anyone might be saying about a singer-songwriter I like but had largely lost track of, but from reactions to someone I’d held up as a model of how to buck the beauty standard. And the sting was made worse by the fact that I too could look at the recent photos of O’Connor and see not the defiant beauty of 1990 but a normal-looking woman with an unflattering haircut and odd clothes. I’d never criticize her looks (or anyone’s, for that matter), but I saw what her detractors were saying, and it felt frustrating. An icon for rejecting the beauty standard had moved into the arena of having it reject her, insofar as it rejects any of us who don’t fit the mold of being thin and white with doll-like faces.

I had to admit that there was a part of me that continued to get a deep satisfaction from seeing a conventionally beautiful woman buck the beauty standard
—as though somehow it means more for Sinéad O’Connor to shave her head than it would if someone with unremarkable bone structure were to do so. There was a part of me that still wanted that sort of trailblazing protection from a standard-bearer: Look, I did it, it’s okay for you to do it too.

And I know better. I know that the beauty standard has little to do with what any individual woman looks like and more to do with how women as a class are seen. I know that while the struggles of a conventionally beautiful woman may on the surface differ from an average-looking woman or a homely one, they’re all masks covering the same core. That doesn’t mean I don’t fall for it. I tend to make minor heroes out of women of all stripes who actively work against the beauty standard—and there’s a part of me that gazes on conventionally beautiful women who do so with the inverse of an old woman’s cluck, “Such a pretty girl, would it kill her to put on some lipstick?” I think, Such a pretty girl, good for her. In other words, I’ll see her first as the pretty woman with the shaved head, and only later will I learn that the girl can sing. I’m holding onto the beauty standard in a different way than the architects of society—but at the end of the day, I’m still putting a prize value on it.

Appearance obviously the first thing we see about people, and I can hardly reproach myself for noticing Sinéad O’Connor’s looks. It would be disingenuous to claim that the goal is to somehow see through someone’s looks, to peer into their soul—which can happen with people we know to varying degrees, but really not with celebrities, with whom we form relationships based largely on static images. But I can wonder what it means for women, and for the power of beauty, when I narrowly manage to skirt falling into the mainstream beauty standard trap we set for women, only to find myself in a more benevolent version of the same contraption.

Body Image, Beachwear, and the Jersey Shore


We, the people, are bikini-ready.

Please believe me when I say that I mean the following without an ounce of snark: After a weekend at the Jersey Shore, I have to wonder if we've overstated the body-image crisis of American women.

For all the “bikini body” chatter thrown at women and the resulting anxiety that (justifiably) gets plenty of ink in the blogosphere, the scene at the Jersey Shore was a sort of naturalistic sphere in which “If you’ve got it, flaunt it” applied to everyone, regardless of their place on the spectrum of conventional beauty. Portly women in bikinis, teenagers with poochy bellies poking out over their bikini bottoms, fat men in Speedos (including one who had the letter “R” shaved into his back hair), discolored stretch marks snaking up people’s thighs, lesser-endowed and more-endowed women wearing the same classic triangle tops (both of which are probably a classic “Don’t” in ladymag parlance). I feel sort of weird putting traditionally negative descriptions of people’s bodies on this blog, but in a way, that’s just the point: These characteristics that we usually see as something to be erased or banished or at the very least covered up were on full display, and the atmosphere of the beach was such that nobody gave a hoot.

Because of the sort of things I write about, I spend a lot of time reading and thinking about body image. And “Hey, the ladies are feeling just fine” isn’t usually the takeaway of what I’m reading. Positive body image is either presented as a tale of triumph, or as an anomaly—and while 40% of women being unhappy with their bodies is discouraging, that means 60% of us are doing okay. I’m deeply grateful for the body-positive work that’s being done (Beauty Redefined comes to mind, but certainly everyone on my blogroll here is body-positive)—and the numbers of women who are dissatisfied with their bodies could be far lower and still warrant grave concern. But the net effect of the focus on negative body image is that I wind up missing tales of people who have average-to-positive body image, and who always have.

It’s not like I actually have any idea what was going on inside my fellow beachgoers’ minds; I don’t want to mistake wearing a bikini while fat (or cellulited, or otherwise in possession of an attribute that would be quietly airbrushed out of a fashion shoot) for having a positive body image. Certainly it’s not like our body image really even has much to do with our actual bodies in the first place. But I’d like to think that the unconcerned air at the shore signals a note of optimism—or, hell, apathy, which might still be an improvement—on body image.

I’d also like to think that while the relaxed vibe of beaches in general have the potential to counteract “bikini body” messages, that there’s something about these beaches in particular that make the case more definitively. There’s an unflagging element of democracy to the Jersey Shore, swaths of which have long been working-class resorts for Philadelphia-area families. While some communities of the Jersey Shore are more moneyed than others, nowhere do you find the exclusivity of, say, the Hamptons, the famed getaway of well-off New Yorkers. The affordability of the area’s attractions—25-cent skee-ball and a visit to Shriver's salt water taffy—means that there’s little interest in making sure that certain special people get to enjoy themselves while preserving barriers to entry for the less special people.

I don’t want to romanticize any socioeconomic class, and to do so would be erroneous anyway. (I’m thinking here of the number of non-white women—and men of all colors—whose eating disorders go undiagnosed because they’re considered white-girl problems.) But while taking in the scene at the Jersey Shore, where people were quite literally letting it all hang out, I did wonder if the democracy of the area as a vacation spot extended to body image as well. Does the idea that everyone has an inviolable right to a little R&R mean that vacationers in populist resorts more intuitively understand that we all have an inviolable right to a beer belly too? 


J.Woww and her juicehead gorillas: emblems of beauty democracy. (Work with me here, people.)

I also couldn’t help but reconsider the somewhat unfortunate totem of the area, the MTV’s Jersey Shore. I’ve only seen the pilot episode, which I found wildly hilarious for five minutes and incredibly disheartening thereafter. Part of my wincing came from the intense energy nearly all cast members devoted to their appearance—from Pauly D’s hair gel haul to J.Woww’s breast implants to the carefully bronzed skin of the entire crew, the artifice that went into their looks was staggering. And, for the record, I’m never going to endorse altering one’s appearance to fit into a preconceived notion of beauty.
 

But somewhere between hair gel and tanning beds lies an aesthetic that is, perhaps by design, more accessible to the masses than "natural beauty"—if by “natural beauty” one also happens to mean conventional beauty, which, depending on the speaker, is often the case. The Jersey Shore aesthetic takes the idea of “beautiful people”—which, as a term, is a socioeconomic descriptor, not merely a descriptor of people with classic good looks—and makes it something we can all have for $7.99. Much of the criticism of the beauty industry revolves around the ways in which it packages a possibly inherent human desire—to be beautiful—and uses it to prod us into buying products. It’s a valid criticism, of course, but I don’t want to ignore that sometimes these products just serve the purpose of allowing you to possess one aspect of elusive beauty. You can always get a spray tan, or a particular hairstyle, or darken your eyelashes; you can’t purchase your way into high cheekbones or symmetrical features unless you’re a member of a privileged class or are willing to financially prioritize those goods.

The aesthetic of Jersey Shore in some ways functions as a democratization of beauty, instead of making it a quality that only the divine, chosen few are able to easily access, or something that more holistically minded folk seek within. I’m not trying to pooh-pooh “beauty from within” or “every woman is beautiful”; certainly those lines of thought are closer to my home base than beauty in a can. But after a weekend slapping around the Jersey Shore wearing my oversized sunglasses and strapless tankini, I felt none of the anxieties of “looking the part,” unlike my experience in more moneyed spots. There may be a coveted aesthetic at the Jersey Shore—one that I do not fit, incidentally—but the idea behind it is that it just might be attainable for everyone. One step left of that, then, is that whatever you bring to the table might not be judged as harshly as trying to fit into an elite aesthetic and failing. A failure to meet a highly artificial aesthetic will largely be perceived as a lack of effort; failure to meet a “beautiful people” standard becomes a combination of not enough resources and not enough genetic luck. There are pitfalls to both, to be sure, and in a bootstrap society like America perhaps the former will forever be judged the greater sin. But there's something fundamentally unjust about the latter, and while beauty and justice are separate beasts, I'd like to see their values comfortably coexist.

Beauty Blogsophere 6.17.11

The latest beauty news, from head to toe and everything in between.

From Head...
Behind Bare Minerals: Nice profile of mineral-makeup guru Leslie Blodgett. I'd argue that the piece overstates the revolution of mineral makeup (is it really that different than regular makeup? Or am I wearing it wrong?), and the comparisons to Estee Lauder are a little baffling, but it's an interesting read nonetheless.

 Sic McGruff on pedicure bandits!


...To Toe...
Nailed!: What's up with all the pedicure fraud lately? Between the Muncie, Indiana, pedicure bandit and the Great Park Slope Nail Salon Freakout, pedicurists are getting shafted. For shame!

Foot fault: The pedicure that nearly killed Serena Williams.

...And Everything In Between:
Men and beauty purchases: That ever-reliable source of meticulous research, MyVoucherCodes.co.uk, released a study about how grooming products are the #1 item purchased by men online, beating out tech. Forgive me for being a tad skeptical of the research methods here, but clearly something is going on here. Are men buying more body products online because they're embarrassed to be buying bath gel in person?

Beauty sales rising:
Mass products fared somewhat better than prestige cosmetics in Q1, though prestige skin care easily beat gains from mass products. Let's call a victory for those pricey cosmeceuticals, shall we? 

Poker/Face: Estee Lauder facility on Long Island may become casino operated by Shinnecock Nation. 

Lush wants everyone to kiss and makeup.

Lush "Kiss and Tell" event in support of same-sex marriage rights: I am thrilled to see a cosmetics company taking action on an issue that's actually controversial. Once upon a time, breast cancer research was controversial. It's still important, but I tend to view corporations whose "women's issues" begin and end with pink ribboning with skepticism. Like WOW you're really taking a stand, aren't you?! So if you're near a Lush store on June 18, join the protest! Head on over with your partner at 11:38 a.m. local time (U.S.A. and Canada only)—1138 being symbolic of the number of marriage rights that are denied to same-sex couples under current law—and smooch!
 

Social media marketing: How ladybloggers yakking about Secret Clinical Strength proved a success for Procter & Gamble. Yikes!   

Beauty and the veil: Student project from a media literacy class at the American University of Beirut about veiled women and beauty. Things get interesting around 2:40, when we start to hear from Lebanese men and veiled Lebanese women about the signals the veil sends in regards to beauty and desire. Actually, the whole thing is interesting—I've heard so many stories of "...and in the Middle East CURVY women are considered BEAUTIFUL!" that I sometimes fall into the trap of "Orientalizing" body image and beauty concerns. This was a good reminder that not only are American beauty standards being heavily exported, but that each culture will interpret these standards in their own way.

Tila Tequila and root causes of eating disorders: Tila Tequila is (sort of) shedding light on an essential aspect of eating disorders that's often overlooked, especially when discussing their prevalence among professional beauties. "I put pressure on myself to constantly eat, but once I put pressure on myself, that's when eating is no longer a ‘natural’ thing to do for me and ironically becomes the opposite," she said in Radar Online. It gets to the idea of EDs being about control, not thinness, which is essential to an understanding of the disease.


Udderly gorgeous! Moo-tiful! Alert Hugh Heifer! (It's been a long week, okay?)

Cattle contest is so pageant: I'm not particularly into the whole Sexual Politics of Meat angle, though I think it's an interesting-enough discussion. That said, this piece at Der Spiegel about a dairy show, which the magazine terms a beauty pageant for cows, gave me the heebie-jeebies. (THAT said, a personal bit of trivia is that as a young 4-Her I had a flair for beef cattle judging, and I can tell you from personal experience that there is absolutely no wink wink nudge nudge about judging cattle. It is as earnest an activity as you will ever find.) 

Barbie-blaming: The F-Word takes on Greenpeace's campaign against Barbie as responsible for deforestation because of her packaging. "Were Greenpeace to roll out a complementary campaign featuring Action Man or GI Joe being court-martialled for his rampages through the rainforest...it would be an even-handed address....No such campaign exists."

Nail salon history: The contemporary history of the nail salon is the history of the Vietnam war, as shown in this article that traces the growth of Vietnamese-owned nail salons from mass emigration in the 1970s to today. New York might not be representative, but at the salons in my neighborhood, workers tend to be either Asian (usually Chinese or Korean) or Latin American. Given the slowing of Vietnamese immigration and the increase in Latin American immigration, I wouldn't be surprised to see more Latina-owned salons within the decade.

Chewable toothpaste: Effin' brilliant workaround for liquids restrictions on flights.

Shopping style: Sally at Already Pretty asks if you're a lone shopper or a pack shopper. I'm interested in how one's preference might translate to attitudes toward appearance—I always shop alone, and besides just being a solitary sort of person in general, I've wondered before if my need to shop alone has to do with my self-consciousness. It's one thing to be self-conscious, quite another to have someone witness it so up-close. shopping with others but it's because I feel so self-conscious about someone knowing I'm looking at myself.

Facebook fast:
Courtney at Those Graces quit Facebook when she saw her self-perception changing—check out her self-portraits (none of which look phony to me, but which don't) to see what she means. "Instead of being me, I became the image of who I thought I was." Social media can indeed function as a mirror, in other words.

Feminist fashion bloggers on women in the media: Awesome collection of posts on women in the media, all from members of Feminist Fashion Bloggers (and beauty bloggers too!). Historical media criticism, a no-no to ecofeminist representations, tired old tropes, "Hollywood ugly", representations of feminism in the media, depictions of indigenous women (which, as a part Caddo woman who looks white and therefore doesn't get the tiptoe-around I might if looked more Indian, particularly resonated with me). 

Duff!: Remember Duff? She's also a writer, and she now has a column in the New York Daily News—fashion, beauty, and, yes, "aging gracefully," but her spin aims to be fresh, funny, and inclusive. This is a woman who has been included on People's Worst Dressed list, so it'd better be.

10 Pieces of Mirror Media

When I initially embarked on my mirror fast, I hadn't really given thought to the ways that media has treated mirrors. Throughout the month, though, friends kept referring me to songs, films, and stories that explore mirrors. Here they are, along with others that I either love or that this month has shed new light on:

 
Anna Massey learns the creepmaster's secrets. Peeping Tom, 1960.

1) Peeping Tom, 1960: There's a reason slumber-party favorite "Bloody Mary" persisted from my mother's generation to mine: Mirrors can be creepy! And films don't hesitate to take advantage: Candyman, Poltergeist, Black Swan, The Shining, and, of course, Mirrors, all feature mirrors as either a central plot point or motif. Even some of the best moments in my beloved Twin Peaks involve mirrors. But Peeping Tom takes the cake. Michael Powell's story of a young man/serial killer whose life is ruled by surveillance features a terrifying mirrored climax. Overall it's more of a comment on the role of documentation (we learn along the way that our villain is the way he is because his father constantly filmed him growing up—now seen as not intrusive, but expected), but mirrors wind up being an essential part of his hijinx.

2) "Mirrors," Carol Shields: A short story about a couple who spends every summer without a mirror. We see how over the lifetime of  a marriage, this gesture's significance shifts, from accidental to a meditative delight to a clever cover-up for shame, to, of course, the way we function as mirrors for one another. " 'You remind me of someone,' she said the first time they met. He knew she meant that he reminded her of herself." (Thanks to Terri at Rags Against the Machine for the tipoff!)

No message could have been any clearer.

3) "Man in the Mirror," Michael Jackson. Bear with me here, people! Cheesy, simplistic, overwrought, sure. But it's a perfect example of the ways in which the mirror deludes us. Were the singer any other pop star, it wouldn't haunt me so. With this singer with this history, though, the lyrics become poignant, painful. The man in the mirror is supposed to reflect back a potentially better self. But it's impossible for me not to think of the allegations of pedophilia against Jackson when hearing: "I see the kids in the street / With not enough to eat / Who am I, to be blind / Pretending not to see their needs." I have no doubt in my mind that whatever Michael Jackson did to children, he did not because he was a monster but because he was so damaged as to see himself a child as well—a rich, famous, otherworldly child who on some level probably believed the bizarre Neverland he set up was, indeed, fulfilling children's needs. The mirror didn't reflect back what the rest of us saw. And it was a tragedy for everyone.

4) Mirror Mirror Off the Wall: So how awesome was it when, two days into my mirror fast, I hear from Kjerstin Gruys, a sociology Ph.D. candidate at UCLA who is abstaining from mirrors for a year? She taught herself to apply makeup without a mirror; she's not looking at photos of herself—oh, and she's getting married in October. With her thoughtful mix of personal stories, sociology background, and wholeheartedly lady-positive approach (she's also a volunteer with the amazing About-Face), Mirror Mirror Off the Wall is an engaging, amusing, sincere blog, and I look forward to continuing to read about Kjerstin's insights.

5) Radiolab's "Mirror Mirror": Entertaining look at the science behind reflection, from the molecular level to the arena of psychology (including a story of a man who claims changing his hair part to match his mirror self wound up changing his life). (Thanks to Andréa at Remembering Self for sending this my way!)

6) "Funny Is Never Forever," Richard Melo: This short story is actually one of many connected super-short stories collected at fiction-social-networking site Red Lemonade; it's about an American nursing hospital in Haiti in the 1950s. It's the second story here that particularly interests me, the intimacy of having both a personal double and a mirror double; Melo's work consistently has a tender, gentle pulse (as evidenced by his novel Jokerman 8), and this collection is no different.

"I am silver and exact": Sylvia Plath

7) "Mirror," Sylvia Plath: Says the mirror-narrator of Plath's poem, "In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman / Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish." The divided self shows up repeatedly in her work; even her thesis at Smith was titled "The Magic Mirror: A Study of the Double in Two of Dostoevsky's Novels." One of her last poems, "Contusion," even ends with the double's retreat after its initial rush: "The heart shuts / The sea slides back / The mirrors are sheeted."

8) Mirror Mirror: a History of the Human Love Affair With Reflection, by Mark Pendergrast: From the Venetian mirror-makers who enjoyed cultural prestige but who were kept prisoner on Murano island, to divination using mirrors, to the 1928 sample room at Macy's that featured entirely mirrored surfaces and led to a near-frenzy, this complete history of mirrors is interesting on a technical level, though I longed to know more about who was doing all that looking during the eras he describes at length.

9) "Snow White", the Brothers Grimm, translated by D.L. Ashliman: From the poisoned comb to the too-tight corset that the evil queen uses in her homicide attempts, this story is an incredible comment on the trappings of femininity. (I'd forgotten that the original ending has the queen dancing herself to death in heated iron shoes. Yowza!) But it's the mirror that began it all: The queen was fine and dandy being superlatively gorgeous until the mirror told her that someone out there (a seven-year-old!) could do her a thousand times better. It makes a fine ending for Anne Sexton's retelling as well: "Meanwhile Snow White held court / rolling her china-blue doll eyes open and shut / and sometimes referring to her mirror / as women do."

Nico and Lou Reed are cool. Cool! So cool. 

10) "I'll Be Your Mirror," The Velvet Underground: Early in my mirror fast I had dinner with my friend Lindsay, who covers the beauty beat at The Daily News, bringing things like makeup ad falsities to New Yorkers. She told me that she'd be my mirror, "as Nico sang," and because both Lindsay and The Velvet Underground are extraordinarily cool and I want to be extraordinarily cool too, I pretended that I knew the reference. Luckily, I didn't have to pretend for long, because on the morning of my birthday I awoke to "I'll Be Your Mirror" waiting for me in my inbox from another friend. Aww, you guys! "When you think the night has seen your mind / That inside you're twisted and unkind / Let me stand to show that you are blind / ... 'Cause I see you." Short, plaintive, and, of course, extraordinarily cool.

Beauty Blogosphere 5.27.11

The latest beauty news, from head to toe and everything in between.

 Willie Nelson has a venerable place in makeover history.


From Head...
A history of the makeover: Great, entertaining piece at the New Zealand Herald tracing makeovers from ancient China to Willie Nelson ("2011: Willie Nelson cuts his hair off"). 

Too pretty to do math: Oh, Christ. 

Quite an eyeful: Gorgeous eyelid landscapes by artist Katie Alves. 

Bella, bella!: No particular news here; I just want to do a shout-out to Italian photo blog The Feminine Touch, which juxtaposes photos of well-known women (usually, but not always, entertainers) from their height of fame with photos from how they look now. The photos rarely have comment (and when they do, they're in Italian, so...), allowing us to draw our own conclusions—or simply observe—from the way these largely image-conscious women have presented themselves as they age. Totally worth adding to your RSS feed.


To Toe...
The red shoes: Anything that manages to reference both The Wizard of Oz and The Red Shoes (the film AND the fairy tale!) is a must-read: a history of red shoes.

The Red Shoes, 1948, totally creepy and awesome and basically puts Black Swan in a playpen

...And Everything In Between:
The White House on salon worker safety: The White House has launched an initiative to make nail salons just a leetle less toxic. This actually seems pretty exciting: The Environmental Protection Agency has developed a safety workshop series; the Department of Homeland Security (of course) is working on a smartphone that can "sniff" chemical levels in the air and assess worker health; and the Small Business Administration is evaluating how it can incentivize green nail salons. It appears to be spearheaded by Audrey Buehring, senior advisor on intergovermental affairs for the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders—fitting, given that 40% of nail workers in the U.S. are Asian. Of course, the EPA has stepped in on behalf of workers before. The agency's previous interventions have left ample room for improvement: One of its worker safety manuals read, "Nail salon products may contain many potentially harmful chemicals that can be a major cause of...health and environmental concerns." You don't say. The EPA strengthened the wording of their guidelines, but it begs the question: How committed to greening up nail salons can the EPA really be? We'll have to wait and see.

Governing taste: Spot-on breakdown of the incredulity of Arnold Schwarzenegger cheating on Maria Shriver with women who supposedly aren't as attractive as she is. Cheating? Sure! Cheating with a normal-looking woman when he's got Maria Shriver at home? He must be a head case!

 Raw food!


Never say diet: Virginia Sole-Smith is rocking the foodie beat hardcore this week (well, she does that every week, but this week's Never Say Diet was particularly awesome): On why we don't "deserve" food (isn't just eating and enjoying it enough?), and why we need to approach "perfect" eating (vegetarianism, raw foods, etc.) with caution.

Damned if you do, grand slammed if you don't: Serena Williams was attacked for posting this picture of herself as a part of the World Tennis Association's Strong Is Beautiful campaign. Lisa Wade at Sociological Images deconstructs the problems behind this; Williams was accused of basically inviting stalkers (which she's had problems with) by appearing sexy. 

The bath/body upsell: Awesome "exposé" from a former peddler of such things, with tips on how to leave, for example, Kiehl's with just the damn lip balm and not, say, the coriander bath set even though you don't even USE bath gel but it smelled so nice and it goes with the lotion and "layering" scents is the way to go and sigh.

Sexy girls have it easy?: Rachel Hills looks at a short documentary that follows a woman through town to discover what she can get for free when she's dolled up versus when she's plain-Jane'd down. The film is interesting enough, but Rachel's take more so. 

Team Estee: Estee Lauder continues to kick butt in the stock market, with Avon not far behind. I am pleased to announce that weight loss company Herbalife trails both.

The art of not being threatened: Anika writes—and shows, with glowing, confident photos—on the near-Zen practice of appreciating the beauty of others instead of turning the gaze inward.

Dressing for your shape: You might already know how much I despise "dressing for your figure," particularly when that figure is being referred to as a piece of fruit. But Mrs. Bossa asks us the question about whether we should aim to dress for our body types, with her usual grace and quiet provocation. Her smorgasbord of independent fashion bloggers answering the question is a delight.

Beauty Blogosphere 5.20.11

The latest beauty news, from head to toe and everything in between.

From Head... 
Who's buying color cosmetics? The buried lede on this piece about makeup purchases is that women ages 35 to 44 buy more color cosmetics than other groups. Still, the only product you see specifically targeted to that group is skin care, usually anti-aging skin care. 

Women, fear, and makeup: Courtney at Those Graces (a most excellent feminist beauty blog) has a knack for seamlessly integrating her love of the pretty with her love of the fuller self—and in this illustrative post on how you can subvert cosmetic companies' goals for you and your money, she shows how you can take private joy in the face of the beauty industry.

Not worth killing for, folks!

Lock 'em up: One of the hazards of the human hair industry is that it's a prime target for thievery. It's such a bizarre industry to begin with that this made me giggle when I saw that it was a new theft trend, but a beauty supply store owner was killed over $10,000 worth of dead skin cells, which is no trivial matter.


...To Toe...
Just in case leg makeup isn't enough for you: I try and try to remember what the ever-wise Virginia Sole-Smith says on beauty work: "You don’t have to buy into anything you don’t want—you can pick and choose. But we have to respect women who pick and choose differently." It changed my attitude toward plastic surgery and I no longer make assumptions about women who make that choice. But. Mud masks for your legs? WhohastheTIME, people? (Maybe if "Uh-Oh!" weren't in the headline I'd feel better.)  

Yes, it is a terrible idea, but that's not the point I'm making here.

...And Everything in Between: 
Jane, where's the sass? Listen, I think it's great when women can be frank about their beauty concerns. I also think it's great that Jane Pratt has a new project at XOJane.com. But there is ZERO self-examination in her heralding note of why an erroneous comment about how old she looks left her "shaking and crying," which is troubling. Teen girls don't always know that we all have appearance anxiety, so they need to hear it. XOJane's audience is presumably older and presumably past the shock of knowing that other women may be troubled by looking older and probably wants a little more introspection/insight as to why an overheard comment might send one into paroxysms. C'mon, Jane! We know you can do better!
   
The Benefit twins: Interesting profile on the twin sisters behind Benefit Cosmetics. Apparently they developed BeneTint for a stripper who wanted something to make her nipples appear pinker. 

If a tree falls in the forest but it can't look into the mirror...: My west coast no-mirror compatriot Kjerstin's blog is always a great read, and I particularly enjoyed this take on the existential issues that not seeing your own reflection brings. I'm sure I'll be referencing it later as well, but you should read it now!

The ghosts at Estee Lauder:
Not the grande dame's ghost, but rather the cemetery that the company agreed to care for when it acquired its operations base on Long Island. A bit of local cemetery lore.

 
Hey there, dollface! Apparently Revlon made (or at least lent its name to) dolls in the 1950s: "So beautiful her name just had to be Revlon." And...they're back! 

Beauty culture exhibit: So jealous of L.A. folk who get to go to this "Beauty Culture" exhibition. (via Beauty Schooled, another East Coaster who is going waah about its distance from us...)

Yet another reason to love Amy Poehler: Her "retouch" markings on this photo of herself for New York magazine.

Thoughts on a Word: Hot


Hot is tanned, free of body hair, and in a miniskirt. Hot likes to party, and we know better than to take hot too seriously. Hot is younger than most; Google will find 24 million hot women for you, but 31 million hot girls. Hot is purchased, packaged, and with a firm price. Hot is a series of illusions; you may wake up with the mantle of hot, but you weren't born that way. Hot is Miami. Hot is Venice Beach. Hot is JWoww.

I have to fight here to not simply spew against hot. But my distaste for the word shines through: To me, it represents a crude packaging of the spark that might give a person the "heat" from which our use of hot should derive. Hot removes its opposite—cold—leaving us lopsided, with no yin to balance out the yang that hot thrusts upon us. And is it any surprise that yin's energy—if you believe in this hippie eastern chi stuff—is the cool, lunar feminine, whereas yang's dry heat is associated with masculinity?

It's not a stretch to imagine that with the terminology of heat being applied to everything from temperament (1100s), food (1540s), scent (1600s), jazz (1912), and radioactivity (1940s), that hot might have been loosely applied to women throughout the ages. Indeed, hot has applied to our physical passions since the 1590s, and my beloved 1894 Webster's gives "Lustful; lewd" as one of its definitions.

When America was on the brink of the (supposed) sexual revolution, heat cropped up frequently in film titles—but it was still being used to describe a situation, not a woman. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958, though the play was published in 1955), The Long, Hot Summer (1958), and Some Like It Hot (1959) clustered around the precipice of revolution, and it seems unlikely that this was a coincidence (Some Like It Hot's working title was Not Tonight, Josephine). And we weren't quite ready to take the plunge into woman-as-heat: Too Hot to Handle (1960), starring Jayne Mansfield, who had been on loan to a British company when she became too hot to handle in the States, had to be released in the U.S. as Playgirl After Dark. But beginning in the 1960s, we took the plunge to explicitly calling women hot: Hot-Blooded Woman (1965) rode the sexploitation wave, followed by a flurry of ambiguously titled films whose packaging made it clear that hot references the woman, not what's outside. The Hot Box (1972) remains a jewel in the crown of women-in-prison flicks (after—what else?—Caged Heat); Running Hot and Hot Moves (both 1984) maintained the surveillance of hot women.



Then, of course, came Paris Hilton, with her 2005 trademarking (literally) of "That's hot." She wasn't speaking only of women, of course; it seemed to be a catch-all phrase that could apply to anything from shoes to lip balm to the Middle East. Yet her lyrengeal, lackadaisical utterance of "That's hot" clearly contained anything but passion, leaving only Hilton's self-presentation as a branding of hotness. In a sort of airy philosophical way I'd like to declare her turnaround of "That's hot"—shifting the focus from herself to the world around her—as a reclamation of hot. In truth, however, Hilton is far too savvy of a marketer to have chosen that terminology without being keenly aware of its reflexive effect upon her image. Hilton's tanned, dyed, refurbished appearance epitomizes hot and its machinations. By being a distant yet explicitly available persona, she illustrates the trap of hot: It's not that you'll get burned if you come too close; it's that you might see that you're looking at a Yule Log DVD, not a live fire.

Hot should be synonymous with sexy, yet it's not. Sexy should be more blatant, more crude, more vulgar—it mentions s-e-x!—but the plastic quality hot connotes makes sexy seem its authentic, primal alternative. Hot gets to the core of objectification: A woman is not intrinsically hot; instead, the viewer becomes heated upon seeing her and attributes his own reaction to her essence. She becomes hot once seen through his eyes, not before. The yin and yang again: Men and women alike describe women as beautiful. But when we speak of her as hot, we understand that her hotness exists only in the context of being seen by others; it's knowing that she will be viewed that makes her hot. She is not hot at home, by herself, doing laundry or dozing or dancing, even as she might be pretty or beautiful. Nothing can exist in a vacuum: not sound, color, smell, or temperature. In physics and in the public sphere alike, nothing can be hot in a vacuum. It requires energy—yours, the viewer's—in order to exist.

Thoughts on a Word: Bombshell


A bombshell can devastate you, literally taking away your life in the blink of a (possibly mascaraed) eye. A bombshell is manufactured, created, manmade: It cannot, by definition, be natural; it cannot exist without there being a greater purpose behind its existence. A bombshell surrounds the nucleus of a bomb, which holds the potential for the real damage. A bombshell, once the bomb has gone off, shatters easily; a bombshell becomes shrapnel, beside the point, irrelevant. A bombshell obscures what lays inside: If you peer inside the bombshell, you may see a Little Boy, or a Fat Man—or a dud entirely.

We first used "bombshell" to describe not a thing but a woman in the 1930s. Its use increased in the midst of early WWII jitters; American Thesaurus of Slang first recorded it in 1942. We wanted to maintain America's status as the premier manufacturer of the bombshell so much that we merged our two bombshells, painting the word Gilda (after Rita Hayworth's 1946 bombshell role) on the first nuclear bomb to be tested after WWII. Then, of course, came Marilyn Monroe, who holds the title of America's Preeminent Bombshell in perpetuity. 

The bombshell is most useful as a vessel for our collective anxieties, and the bigger our anxieties of literal explosions become, the emptier the lady bombshell must be. Who, after all, was taken more seriously: Jean Harlow, the original bombshell, whose 1933 Bombshell came out before the idea of the atomic bomb had even been patented—or Marilyn Monroe, whose infamous rendition of "Happy Birthday" to JFK was sung the same year as the Cuban Missile Crisis?

A bombshell encases the true threat: the bomb itself. When we label a woman a bombshell, it's unclear if we're trying to say that she might explode any minute, or if that she's merely a package for what could turn out to be a dud. Are we imbuing her with ersatz power by making her an explosive vagina dentata, or are we implying that once you take the smallest of hammers to its fragile shell, the bombshell will fall apart? "In the end, the bombshell is the one who remained the fool," writes Stephanie Smith in Household Words: Bloomers, Sucker, Bombshell, Scab, Nigger, Cyber. "The bombshell may be as volatile as 'the bouquet of a fireworks display'…but she's also just a joke. We all know that a bombshell is just a 'fat cheesy slut' [as Monica Lewinsky was described, along with bombshell] because that's just plain old common sense." And the bombshell herself may be fully aware of this perceived emptiness. Of a nightmare she had while studying with Lee Strasberg, Marilyn Monroe wrote, "Strasberg to cut me open…to bring myself back to life…and there is absolutely nothing there…the patient existing of complete emptiness." The bleached hair, the painted-on beauty mark, the rhinoplasty, the unnatural posture and voice: We all take bombshell and artifice to go hand-in-hand, but when we patent something as a prototype, as we did with Marilyn-as-bombshell, we ensure that we cannot see it as anything more complex, or more potent. When I engaged in my bombshell experiment, I wanted to believe that the bombshell was an object manufactured from an alloy of lipstick, false eyelashes, and a cascade of curls—and that beneath that shell lay something bubbling and explosive. Something nuclear. Had I thought more seriously about the term bombshell before deciding to use that as a public hook for my little experiment, I may not have used the term at all: Not only did it turn out to set readers up for an image of perfection instead of an image consisting of distinct signals, I now understand that the term is definitively no longer seen as a shell for anything explosive, but as a shell for absolutely nothing.

That is, if we even know what the term is supposed to mean anymore. Generation X- and Y-ers never seriously feared bombs. Our anxieties are more disparate: We may fear shell-less bombs, sure—dirty bombs, airplane bombs; that is, bombs without any one distinct form—but we also fear climate change, and unemployment, and overpopulation, and running out of Social Security, and Facebook, and BPAs, and fertility, and why are the bees dying? We have no one collective vessel any longer. We fear—and now, tragically, we witness—nuclear meltdowns, not nuclear bombs.

The bombshell, then, is a relic. More than ever, she is a caricature, usually hearkening back to old Hollywood—but without one collective fear-vessel, even our definition of the woman-as-bombshell morphs. She may, according to Google Images, now be rockabilly, or tattooed, or a Victoria's Secret model. She may be a bodybuilder, or a pornographic actress, or literally a cartoon. She can be anything, really, as long as it's clear that she's trying. We have lost the bomb, so we've lost the unilateral bombshell. Do we wish to resurrect her?

Beauty Blogsophere 3.25.11

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


Okay, I think single-use eyeshadow applicators are a bit extreme.
But maybe I'm just jealous of people who know how to use eyeshadow?

Singles: I usually snooze my way through beauty product slide shows (look, it's shampoo! look, it's more shampoo!) but thought that this one was actually useful—a roundup of single-use beauty products. (If I were at all entrepreneurially minded I'd be using these for my product kit, The Shack Pack, which allows ladies who may or may not be sleeping in their own beds every night to have a wallet-sized kit with all things cosmetics. Business majors, take it away.)

Cosmetics cheerleader: Jane Feltes at The Hairpin gives fun beauty advice every week, but what's particularly noteworthy here is her shout-out to women like me, who are self-conscious about makeup but still want to play. "Everything stands out when we’ve never done it before, but trust me, no one else sees it that way. They all think you're 'so put together' today."

Say cheese: Non-promotional pics of the Photoshop camera, from Allure. The more I stare at the "after" photo the weirder it seems. I get that it's nice to not have to put on powder every time you snap a photo (I'm a shiny gal myself) but other than that I truly think that the alterations aren't doing anybody any favors. Her forehead looks strange in the second one, probably because IT'S NOT HER REAL FOREHEAD.

Beauty quotient: Nice piece on HuffPo about inner beauty, and the combination of qualities that make a woman beautiful, and how we're all individuals, and blah blah blah. It would be a helluva lot nicer if it weren't written by a man who's made his living as a plastic surgeon specializing in faces and boobs.


...to Toe
NBA pedicures: Apparently you can get a pedicure at the Lakers game, which seems absurd. If you're paying that much to be in the VIP section, shouldn't you at least be enjoying the game? Or is that why Lakers fans are ranked among the worst in the nation?


...and Everything in Between
Growing up ugly:
Amazing post about what life was like as the resident "ugly girl" in high school. I remember "that girl" in our high school—the one everyone teased, the butt of every joke—and always wondered how it informed her adult life. The common wisdom is either that it seriously messes someone up, or that they go on to be a rock star supermodel and they've shown us! This engaging, thoughtful essay shows what one woman gleaned from having to rely on a different barometer than most of us do.

But just in case that isn't enough: A guide to "surviving the uglies" at Eat the Damn Cake. I usually want to hide in my yoga pants when I'm having an acute case of these, but know I always feel better when I wear something a bit more structured, and to see it and other ideas laid out here was nice. (Though why do people always recommend taking a bubble bath? Where do these people live where a bathtub is comfortable?)

The privilege of pretty: Lovely meditation at Seamstress Stories about how recognizing the privilege of beauty enables one to more easily reject it.

Dove's dirty deeds: From the company that has done some nice work on women and self-esteem, an ad that truly seems to imply that black skin is "before" and white skin is "after." No, I don't think it's a coincidence. As a commenter at Sociological Images says, "These companies have psychologist and sociologists working on these ads that specialize in people’s – and in particular the white upper class women this ad is aimed at – reactions to advertisement. If it were an accident, they would catch it. Period."

Giving to Japan: My philosophy is that if you care about a cause, you should donate directly to it—time, money, effort—instead of merely engaging in consumer activism. You'll feel better about it, and it's a greater act of generosity, both in direct impact and in feel-good energy. And though some companies have a truly excellent record of philanthropy, it's also an easy out for organizations that don't really give a shit to go on record as having done something. (International Cosmetics & Perfume made the tremendous sacrifice of donating fifty—yes, that's five-zero!—Hanae Mori reusable tote bags, originally intended as an in-store customer appreciation gift, to the American Red Cross to assist Japanese displaced from their homes and belongings.) That said: If you're planning on stocking up on certain products, here is a nice roundup of major companies that are donating some proceeds to aid with recent events in Japan.

The yoga tax: Connecticut legislators are considering dropping the exemption of commercial yoga studios from the state's commercial tax. Health clubs are currently exempt from the tax, but nail salons and pet grooming are being considered for inclusion into the new tax scheme as well. I'm all for yoga—Cat and Cow, yo!—and think it should be treated as a health and wellness area, not beauty. But honestly, a lot of the commercial yoga studios have that...yoga...thing that sort of icks me out and makes it about "achieving" a certain lifestyle, and is it terrible of me to say that while I want as many people as possible to do yoga, I'm not exactly crying tears for certain Connecticut yogis? Can there be a one-person committee consisting of me that decides which studios are about health and wellness and which are about who has the cutest yoga mat?

Elizabeth Taylor: Amid all the press surrounding her death, a few pieces stand out as far as what's of concern to me as a beauty blogger. ABC News looks at her as a template for celebrity fragrance; Virginia at Never Say Diet examines her as a body image role model; and NYTimes style writer Cathy Horyn investigates the intersection of fashion, era, beauty, and image that Ms. Taylor embodied. Edited to add this nice quote roundup from beauty professionals, including Ted Gibson, Eva Scrivo, and Tabatha Coffey, paying tribute to her.

Elizabeth Taylor, 1932-2011

I'm just as irked as the next feminist when a woman, in her death, is referred to as a great beauty above all else. Please, know that.

But then—then, there's Elizabeth Taylor. Elizabeth Taylor, whose beauty from youth through adulthood was remarkable in the true sense of the word: We cannot help but remark on her beauty, so present, so stunning it was. I recoil when I hear women reduced to their physical parts, and the way that some well-meaning people have tried to fix that is to separate physical beauty from other assets. And it is a separate beast—both in the importance we place upon it and the way in which we treat those who have it—but what we're eager to overlook in our quest to be seen as whole is how possessing great beauty can inform those other assets. 

In the case of Elizabeth Taylor, her beauty informed what made her so compelling. Her beauty wasn't the sum of her gifts, but without those eyes, that complexion, that face, our eyes may not have been as open as they were to take in her gifts. We root for her girlish innocence in National Velvet; we adore her kittenish yet womanly charm in Father of the Bride; we're riveted by her boozy glamour in BUtterfield 8. As artist Lisa Ferber says in my interview with her, "Whenever we hear about the beautiful but tortured woman, we don’t really believe it, which is why we love it." It's a point I agree with. Yet every rule has its exception: Elizabeth Taylor's talent and notorious personal life gave us the voyeuristic pleasure of both. We saw her beauty and took it as fact; we saw her torture and believed that it wasn't contrived for our attentions. In her case, we do believe it. Even in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—a role that people sometimes point to as where the veneer starts to visibly crack, where we see her mortality—her beauty is as much a part of the character of Martha as is her cruel wit and her covert swamp of vulnerability.

What we see in Elizabeth Taylor's face is an enormously complex story of beauty itself, played out over a lifetime. She had a quality that spoke to something I couldn't articulate about being a woman: She seemed too smart to simply let herself be objectified, but appeared to take pleasure in being looked at. I think of the iconic shot of her leaning against the door in a white slip, booze in hand, exposed as being both effortless and sculpted. It wasn't merely that she was "smart AND beautiful!"—many are that. Being smart and beautiful is past the point of being remarkable. It was that part of her intelligence seemed to stem from her interpretation of her beauty. I felt, in fits and glimpses, as though she were speaking for every woman whose complexity and vulnerabilities were as exposed as her slip: She taught us that what made a vulnerability a vulnerability instead of a mere weakness was that it is surrounded by strength. At times I felt as though she were speaking for every woman of that ilk—which is to say, most of us. At the same time, her own life was incredibly—laughably—different than ours. She seemed to be in another stratosphere. It's no surprise that she befriended Michael Jackson, another icon who reflected a deep urge within our culture while simultaneously crafting his own unintelligible freakdom.

Elizabeth Taylor had the gifts, and the opportunity writ large, to communicate the complexities of beauty to us. She took the arc of the tragic beauty and imbued it with a rich, electric vibrancy that defies the eye-rolling cynicism people might want to apply to this counter-tale. She made it impossible for us to ignore her, as a beauty, as an actress, as an icon, as a woman. I will forever be a fan.

Beauty Blogsophere 3.18.11

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


From Head...
Hottentot Venus hollaback: Interesting take on toxic cosmetics and why black women are particular targets of "dirty" products--nice historical look.

I got a B- in chemistry but liked this anyway: Science-oriented breakdown of the future of green cosmetics. That's clean/natural cosmetics, not St. Patrick's Day eyeshadow. (Via Safe Cosmetics.)

Eastern bloc beauty: Tidbits on the globalization of beauty: The last state-owned cosmetics company of Bulgaria is being sold (it was privatized in 2002, the last one to do so), and "aspirational shopping" hits another former Iron Curtain area, the Ukraine. I'm particularly amused by the fact that the Ukraine is such a rich source for beauty labor--models--but imports 98% of its beauty products.

Last gasp for communist beauty company Alen Mak (Bulgarian for "Scarlet Poppy").


...to Toe
Meanwhile, I'm still pissed that I lost on "maverick": "Pedicure" is the winning word in Fort Wayne, Indiana, fifth-grade spelling bee.

Sole mates no more: The end of the scandalous saga of "the Heidi Klum of foot models" and her doorman-turned-husband-turned-filed-for-separation-and-should-I-even-mention-the-contused-testicle?


...and Everything in Between
We're so vain: Virginia at Never Say Diet takes down the whole Facebook-pics-mean-you're-insecure study that's been making the rounds lately. I should note that more than half my photos are photos of me that were uploaded and tagged by one of my most confident friends--who is in fact one of the most confident people I know. So THERE. 

Welcome to her dollhouse: I'm not surprised to read that Eliza Dushku is pretty frank and articulate about body image issues. If any of the other twelve people who watched Dollhouse are reading this, you know what I mean: The show presented the usual Wheedon-voyeurism-feminism conundrums but was an interesting exploration of bodily ownership and personal agency. She's not saying anything you haven't read before, but it's nice to hear anyone in Hollywood speak at length about this--usually there's just a quote sandwiched into a profile for good measure.

Are men to blame for women's body insecurities?: In aggregate the answer is no, and I hope that we're all past that line of thinking. But this piece at Beauty Redefined nicely lays out why and redirects the focus to where it belongs. I still don't think that media is the entire issue here, but certainly it's more of a factor than men sitting back, arms crossed, and judging women's bodies. 

Fashionable feminists: Fantastic, thought-provoking answers from feminist fashion bloggers in answer to the question "How do you express feminism in the way you dress?" (Mrs. Bossa's post is excellent, and scroll down for a list of bloggers who answered this, myself included.) A lot of talk about labor--labor of the wearer and, of course, of the people who make the clothes we wear--and the gaze, objectification, aesthetics, celebration, and just love of fashion, always written with an intelligent, feminist eye.  

Reverse engineering: You know, for all the talk about Photoshopping, we don't frequently hear from the people who are Photoshopped. So while the original poster at Good makes some nice points about the use of photo retouching when representing "real" people--in this case the first female engineer to grace the cover of Wired--what's truly thought-provoking here is the engineer's response. "If I'm happy with this and I say it's looks like me isn't that GOOD :)" The real problem here, it seems, is that it's two thousand frickin' eleven and Wired is just now getting around to putting a woman engineer on the cover. (Also, while I think she looks great, and I also love Rosie the Riveter, can we think of something else that represents capable women? And no, Wonder Woman doesn't count. Are there really so few icons that we must resort to Rosie again and again and again?)

Beauty Blogosphere

What's going on in beauty in this week, from head to toe. And ending with some older-gentleman NSFW material! (Fear not, it has nothing to do with Donald Rumsfeld.)

From Head...
Say "Airbrush!": Panasonic has a new camera that Photoshops you without Photoshop. I get toning down shine and even putting on blush, but there's a function that can make your eyes appear larger in proportion to your face. Call it the anime function. (From Jezebel.)

Me as captured by the Lumex FX77 camera. (Or me as anime character, by Svetlana Chmakova, who manga'd the CosmoGirl staff back in the day.)

Say "Glamazon!": The ladies at No More Dirty Looks are hosting another beauty challenge—all you have to do is put on some fabulous makeup (preferably with natural beauty products), snap a picture of yourself, and send it to them. The idea is to examine the spectrum of beauty (they'd earlier hosted a no-makeup challenge) and to showcase that clean beauty is just as glam as the toxic stuff. You could win a $100 gift certificate to Spirit Beauty Lounge, too.

Whitewashed beauty counter: It's hardly news that makeup companies are a source of dissatisfaction for women of color, but to see it laid out graphically at Those Three Graces shows how difficult it really can be.   

Smart girls: Nice insight on the differences between high-achieving girls and boys: Girls are less likely than boys to persevere through mentally challenging tasks, and in fact the higher the IQ, the less likely the girl was to stick with it. Heidi Grant Halvorson speculates that girls are likelier to view their talents as something innate, not something that can be developed. I wonder how that intersects with beauty? On one hand, your face is your face; on another, there are all sorts of enhancing measures we can and do take.


...to Toe:
Fish pedicures are under investigation. Which is sort of a shame, because it's the extent of what I know about the offerings of Malaysia (that's where they originated as far as I can tell), and it got me set to go visit. Is it an animal rights issue? Exploited labor?


...and the Things In Between: 
Never Say Diet! Virginia of Beauty Schooled is now the iVillage body image expert, which means that her smart, sane, and critical (but still fun!) eye on beauty is officially expanding. Check out her Never Say Diet posts there!

It's still OK to talk "Black Swan," right?: Claire Mysko's interesting take on how people reacted differently to Natalie Portman's and Christian Bale's weight loss for recent roles. (Neither of which could compare to Bale's frame in The Machinist. Yikes!)

Feeling worthy after ED recovery: I know Eating Disorders Awareness Week is over, but I found this essay on what you really give up when you recover fascinating. Sometimes it's difficult for ED patients to acknowledge what their illness gave them--the things that were cleverly disguised as benefits--and this is a frank take on it. (From a raw foodist, at that! My knee-jerk reaction is that raw foodism is a quick veil for an ED, but Gena seems to have a genuinely healthy philosophy on it.) Thanks to Cameo at Verging on Serious for the tipoff!


Bonus: Men!
Rouge rogues: What's up with men stealing cosmetics? Lipstick is sort of the teenage-rite-of-passage shoplifting for women who might be prone to such behavior (ahem) but some of these are pretty big hauls. I don't condone thievery, petty or otherwise, but it's interesting how there's sort of a perverse inequality here: I couldn't find any police reports of women stealing more than a pocketful of cosmetics, presumably for personal use, but some of these dudes were clearly taking large amounts for illegal resale--sort of the difference between having money and being wealthy, but in the criminal element. Where my big-haul ladies at? (Um, stay where you're at, please.)
 
Male skin care is a booming business in China. The most frequently cited reason for delving into the skin care world is job-related, but the male-female ratio is so skewed in China that I wonder if being forced to compete so heavily with other men might be a factor too? 

In defense of body hair: Kate at Eat the Damn Cake implores us to leave hairy men alone. For all the scrutiny of women's bodies, overall people feel much more free to comment negatively on men's bodies--especially when they're furry. And why do our tastes in body hair change so frequently? What happened to the Burt Reynolds love?

Are Conservatives Better-Looking Than Liberals?

 Donald Rumsfeld totally knew how to party in the Ford years!

Finally, my secret, shameful crush on Donald Rumsfeld* is explained! A Scandinavian study reports that right-leaning political candidates were judged as better-looking than their lefty counterparts. Photos of small-time Finnish council candidates--1,357 of them--were rated on a 1-5 scale by Brits and Americans (who, presumably, don’t keep tabs on names and faces of small-time Finnish council candidates, thus removing political bias from the study participants). 

Handsome little Rumsy aside, this makes no sense to me. I want to believe that our looks don’t actually have an influence on our values, but this flies in the face of that. Thoughts on why: 

1) Ca$h. In the U.S., even though overall the average Democrat is wealthier than the average Republican, the income spread is greater with conservatives--the richer you are the more likely you are to vote Republican. It follows, then, that if you’ve got loads of cash to drop on hallmarks of beauty that can be purchased--plastic surgery, dermatology care, access to ample leisure time, expensive grooming and upkeep (highlights?)--maybe you’re Republican. 

But Finland is unlike us in that regard. (And others, unless there’s an American heavy metal Lutheran mass I don’t know about.) The small size of the country dictates that political parties are forced to work together more than ours, and its enforced proportional representation means that it’s not a country nearly as divided as we are. I couldn’t find numbers on which party members were wealthier--but overall Finland’s income disparity is far lower than ours. Still, the moolah theory could hold true in the States, though, I maintain. (That is, if the same results would apply to American politicians, which they might not. Also, nearly 40% of Finland's MPs are women--rock on with your Finnish selves!--which might alter the results from being about appearance to being more specifically about female beauty.)

2) Even though the National Coalition Party--most conservative Finnish party--is probably laughably liberal by American standards, the bootstraps ethos holds strong, with individual responsibility topping the list of party values. Given that people perceived as attractive make more money, suffer less discrimination, and smell of daffodils--all without any effort on their part--I do wonder if some people born “attractive” (symmetrical features, clear skin, meeting height-weight expectations) might not recognize that not everything that comes their way is because of their hard work.  

This hasn’t been my personal experience with conventionally attractive women--my Helen of Troy gal pals are generally aware of the perks that come with beauty and have a conflicted relationship with those perks (and in fact know that oftentimes they aren’t perks at all). That said, the very definition of privilege is not knowing you have it. So I could see how for some people who might have had crueler lessons earlier in life that might have taught them that hard work and a good mind aren’t all that matter in this world--but didn’t get those lessons because of their appearance--you really might not be able to understand why some people actually do need welfare and other protections that liberal governments favor.

3) One of the study researchers, Niclas Berggren, posits this: “One explanation is that people who are seen or consider themselves to be beautiful tend to be more anti-egalitarian and hence more attracted to right-wing politics.” I wonder about this. My knee-jerk reaction is that while our own appearance shapes how we view the world, that it wouldn’t have such a unified effect as to make our genetic champions actually think that they were deserving of more worldly goods because of their beauty. That goes double for women--there’s such a hefty price tag attached to anything regarding our appearance that I just don’t buy that women would actually make such a simple equation. Maybe I’m being too generous, though, or maybe I’m only paying attention to the stories of individuals whose values go against the expected.

What do you think? Are conventionally attractive people unaware of their privilege, potentially leading them to a more conservative mind-set? Or are they so hyperaware of that privilege that they extend it beyond beauty and into a political realm that favors the haves over the have-nots?

*Not Donald Rumsfeld, the former Secretary of Defense, mind you--but Donald Rumsfeld, the man. If you just sort of close off your mind for a second, he's weirdly cute, admit it.