On POTUS's Benign Sexism

I wasn't going to comment on President Obama's "best-looking attorney general" comment directed toward Kamala Harris, figuring that everyone else on the internet would do so (and heaven forbid there be redundancy on the internet!), but at the gym a debate about it came onto the little TV screen and something caught my eye: The defenses of the comment were along the lines of, It was a joke, or it was a compliment, or they've worked together for years, they're friends, for chrissakes, or But Obama is an advocate for women. The specifics varied, but the essence was: Obama is on women's side, particularly this woman's side, so why is anyone up in arms about this?

What that line of questioning ignores is what actually happens in the anatomy of a compliment. It takes for granted that if you're saying something nice, it can't be sexist, or at least not the bad kind of sexism. And while it's true that the speaker of a compliment may have genuinely positive intentions, as we see here, the space between speaker and receiver is far from linear. Because this is what most men—even the genuinely well-meaning ones, the ones who, say, make their first act of presidency a decidedly feminist one—can understand in a scientific context but not in a personal one: The act of observation changes that which is being observed. The minute I know I am being looked at, even in a complimentary way, I change. Perhaps my walk changes; maybe I sway my hips a little more. Perhaps my shoulders hunch, or my gaze becomes averted. Maybe I take it in stride and wonder why, weeks later, I suddenly become flustered and lose my train of thought when talking with the observer. Maybe I feel just the slightest twinge of apprehension every time I talk to the person I know has looked at me, has evaluated me; maybe I don't feel it at all, but rather just experience its effects in dragging my feet in returning a voicemail, or in looking forward to the glint I might notice in the observer's eye when he looks at me, or in noticing the next time he compliments my coworker and wondering whether I should feel relieved that I'm not the specimen of the day—or insulted that this time, it wasn't me.

In other words: I cease being as efficient at whatever the task at hand is. When it's a partner telling us we're the best-looking blogger/cook/shoe saleswoman/attorney general in the country, efficiency isn't the point. When it's a colleague—when it is the President of the United States—it is.

The evaluation itself is besides the point in the ways it might affect me, or any woman—I mean, sure, most of would rather hear that we look smashing than that we look dreadful, of course. But the effect of both comments might wind up being more closely related than the speaker ever intended. Compliments of this sort are called "benign sexism," a term I like in that it shows that even allies can engage in it, but in truth it is anything but benign, even when the effect winds up being satisfactory. It's just that instead of being the stab of hurt that something like, "Hey, fatty" might bring, it's a slower effect, one we might not even notice until it's too late.

"You're Gorgeous": Invited Post

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

The Dating Game: Compliment Week*, Part III

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Values, Stereotypes, and Big Feelings: Compliment Week, Part II

I’d planned on writing about male-to-female compliments, but honestly, the more I read of these compliment studies the more fascinated I become. I’ll get to male-female compliments soon, but for now, a few findings of compliment scholarship:

1) Compliments reveal our values. A successful compliment must be about something that’s recognized by both the complimenter and the complimentee as having value. (That’s not to say that both parties have to personally value the thing being complimented—I’ve been complimented on haircuts I hated—rather that both parties have to recognize that it has value. Otherwise, the compliment isn’t complete.) The consequence here is that compliments can tell us a good deal about what we as a culture actually value. Studies have repeatedly found that the number-one topic of compliments given to American women (from both sexes) is appearance, so—surprise!—it seems we value women for their appearance. (Correspondingly, we value men for their skill.) But here’s the thing: Part of the way we assign value is observing where and how others assign value, which means that sometimes we generalize our values in order to make sure they’re recognized. Compliments are verbal gifts, and who wants to give a gift you’re not sure the recipient will value? So complimenting women on appearance is the spoken equivalent of giving them a nice lotion, a bar of chocolate, a bottle of wine: a gift that is valuable not only for what it actually gives its recipient (soft hands, a satisfied sweet tooth, a hangover), but because we all understand its function as a generic placeholder for sentiment.

2) Compliments based on positive stereotypes don’t feel so great to hear. When people give compliments to a member of a group based on positive stereotypes of that group, the recipient, understandably, is likely to be displeased. As in, if you’re white and start telling a black person how great black people are at sports, you’re not exactly doing anyone any favors. Now, appearance-based compliments aren’t usually directed toward a group; they’re directed toward an individual. Yet I still wonder about the implications of group stereotypes here. If you tell me you like my lipstick, we’re both acknowledging certain assumptions about women as a class: that women should wear lipstick, and that wearing lipstick is something to be rewarded. It’s also assuming that there’s a right way (and therefore a wrong way) to wear it, meaning that it might be possi
ble for me to fail at femininity at a later date.

3) Compliments can make us feel bad. Or...good. Women who lean toward self-objectification do so because they’ve internalized the idea that, as a woman, they are there to be looked at. Is there anything that more clearly ascertains that you’re being looked at than a compliment about how you look? In this study, women who scored high on a test measuring their tendency to self-objectify reported feeling more body shame after receiving an appearance-based compliment. But! In another study, women who had that same personality trait of self-objectification reported an elevated mood after hearing an appearance-based compliment. (In both studies, the compliments were controlled and took place within the bounds of the study; subjects weren’t reporting back on real-life experiences.) With my entirely inadequate scientific background—I fulfilled all my college science requirements with astronomy—I’m going to take a leap and say that these experiences aren’t as contradictory as they seem. While I’m unlikely to brighten my mood when I’m feeling bad about my body, the body shame brought on by self-objectification isn’t quite the same thing, at least not for me. I’m guessing it’s more about the kind of body shame brought on by a hyperawareness of one’s appearance—the same sort of hyperawareness that John Berger was writing of when he wrote in Ways of Seeing: “A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. … And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. … Thus she turns herself into an object—and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.” Truth is, sometimes my mood is elevated when I notice
that I’m being looked at. That doesn’t mean I don’t simultaneously experience the detrimental effects of that self-consciousness.

4) When we don’t say “thank you,” it may be because we care. As sociolinguist Robert Herbert points out, we all know what the “correct” response is to a compliment. Think of the prompt parents give to their children after someone has given them an unexpected treat: “What do you say to the nice lady?” You say thank you, of course. Yet when asked how they felt upon hearing compliments, many participants in one of Herbert’s studies said they they didn’t know what to say. With the exception of women accepting compliments from men, responses along the line of “thank you” only accounted for anywhere from 10 to 29 percent of compliment responses in the study. Why, when saying “thank you” is the known proper response, do we suddenly feel like we don’t know what to say? The answer lies in the true meaning of embarrassment: We feel embarrassed because we care about the relationship we have with the person we feel embarrassed in front of. We may feel embarrassed that we didn’t say something complimentary to them first, or that we’ve done something (or worn something) that separates us from the other person status-wise, or that we’re suddenly acutely aware that the person holds us in some sort of esteem. We know full well that “thank you” would suffice, but i
t can also feel like “thank you” leaves something out.

In fact, sometimes a simple “thank you” does leave something out. When I first shared my experience of floundering in conversation when I tried to start a conversation with a woman by complimenting her shoes and was met with a simple thank you, I was putting the blame for the flatlined conversation on myself. And to be sure, I should work on my opening gambit. But the more I learn about compliments from a sociological standpoint, the more I see that she may have been a little tone-deaf as well. If “comment history”—i.e. conversation—is the most common response in woman-to-woman compliments, it’s clear that most of us understand the offering a compliment symbolizes. We may not be comfortable with it; we may refuse it, or turn it around, or question its sincerity, or permit it to alter how we see ourselves. But we understand its small humility, its request, its vulnerability, its expressed wish to grow closer. Sometimes we might even let the wish come true.

No, *You're* So Pretty: Compliment Week, Part I

In the few days since I published last week’s post about the role of compliments in female friendships, I’ve become painfully aware of how often I give compliments. It’s certainly not something I want to stop doing, but when I found myself fussing over the color of a waitress’s nail polish in the presence of a friend who had just finished telling me what she thought of the piece—rather, when I suddenly felt like my friend had caught me in some weird act of benevolent manipulation—I started to think more about what compliments actually are.

Luckily, I’m hardly the first to that table: There’s plenty of research out there from linguists, sociologists, psychologists, and anthropologists about the fine art of the compliment. Robert Herbert, an American sociolinguist, published a fascinating study about the different ways men and women treat compliments that illuminated some of my experiences around complimenting women around me. Some of the findings:

  • Women give wordier compliments than men: “What a great coat!” vs. “Great coat!”)
  • Women employ more personal terms than men: “I like those earrings” and “You look great in those earrings” versus “Great earrings”
  • Men generally don’t use the “I like/I love” construction when complimenting people of either sex; women use it frequently, most of all with other women 
  • American women are more likely to use “I like/I love” in compliments than British and New Zealand English speakers, and speakers of other languages (it’s rarely found in Asian languages).

I’m intrigued by this, particularly when examining the dual function of using personal terms in compliments. The first thought here is that women are simply speaking in ways we’ve been encouraged to socialize—we’re personal, not political, remember?—and would gravitate toward imbuing compliments with a personal touch that ostensibly aids sincerity and sociability, marking compliments as a more acceptable way of saying Gee, I think you’re swell. But looking at it from another angle, making a compliment personal is also a way of hedging a compliment. “I like that lipstick,” on its face, is about what the speaker likes, not about the lipstick; “Great lipstick” is about the lipstick, plain and simple. It simultaneously takes a risk (“Here is what I like”) and pushes it away (“Remember, this isn’t about you”); it’s assertive, not aggressive. It’s indirect, in other words—a communication mode linguists frequently claim women excel at.

But it’s in studying the reception of compliments that the connection between compliments and intimacy becomes clearest. Compliments given from man to man were accepted 40% of the time; only 22% of compliments given from one woman to another were accepted.

To be clear: Not accepting a compliment doesn’t necessarily mean rejecting it. By “accepting” a compliment in this context, we're talking “Thank you,” or an agreement with the compliment (whether that be a simple “I like it too” or an inflation of it, as in “Yeah, this sweater brings out my eyes, doesn’t it?”). The other forms of compliment response—nonacceptance, nonagreement, or a request for the compliment to be interpreted—can range from returning the compliment (“No, you’re so pretty!”) to scaling it down (“Yeah, well, you should’ve seen how my hair looked yesterday”) to reassigning it (“My hairstylist is a genius”). You can see the numbers here:

With that in mind, it’s easy to see why women might “accept” compliments about half as often as men—we’re taught to be deferential and modest and bashful and all that, right? But looking at this data, it’s clear that women know full well how to accept a compliment: When it was a man, not a woman, giving a compliment, women accepted it 68% of the time. The factor most likely to influence how people respond to a compliment isn’t what sex they are, but what sex the person giving it is. I’ll look more closely at male-female compliments later in the week; for now, what interests me isn’t why we’re likelier to say thank you to a man, but why we say anything but to a woman.

Scanning down the column listing responses to compliments given woman-to-woman, we find part of the answer. One number jumps out: 85 women out of 330 responded to a compliment with a “comment history,” defined in the paper as when the “addressee accepts the complimentary force and offers a relevant comment on the appreciated topic.” That is: A quarter of the time, we respond to a compliment with girl talk.

Janet Holmes, a leading scholar in linguistics and gender who conducted another influential (and gated, grrr) study on the gendering of compliments, puts it this way: Women recognize that compliments “increase or consolidate the solidarity between speaker and addressee.” Men recognize this too; “comment history” was also the number-one response men had when complimented by a woman. Part of this is women being assigned the emotional tasks within conversation: the how-did-that-make-you-feel-type stuff that, as the supposedly nurturing sex, comes “naturally” to us—and that gives men permission to articulate emotions that they might otherwise lack. But it’s not just limited to men: Women of different social statuses were likelier than men of different social statuses to exchange compliments. The solidarity isn’t in class, or if it is, it’s our classification as women that lies beneath what might masquerade as nattering on about perfume.

That solidarity is what makes compliments effective. It’s also what makes them poignant, and, as my friend Sarah put it, at times subversive. But given that appearance-based compliments are the most popular type of compliment shared between women—this is the research talking, not me—we’re tethering that effectiveness, poignancy, and subversion to how we look. I cherish the solidarity that compliments of all sorts can bring—nail polish, shoes, and hairstyles absolutely included. I just want us to remember that what makes us pretty is not what makes us women.

Girl Talk

For my money, the most unrealistic part of Sex and the City was always the friendship. “Friendship porn,” I once heard it described as. People fingered Carrie’s wardrobe as being truly ridiculous, but after years of working in an industry where I’ve seen an adult woman spend a day at the office wearing a dress made entirely out of ribbon, I accepted that part of the show without question. But having a group of friends I have brunch with every weekend? Where would I find that?

So I’m interested to see that part of the critique tsunami surrounding HBO’s Girls has examined the characters’ friendships. It’s brought us everything from a feminist social history of best-friendship to a zoological history of the same. In fact, there’s been a good deal of attention paid to female friendship lately, including with the number of people who linked to this essay, which made the internet rounds when it was first published at The Rumpus. I’m glad to see these conversations happening; it’s a welcome relief from tired tropes of backstabbing women bad-mouthing one another at every opportunity.

My relief is tinged with melancholy, though. I couldn’t bear to read the Rumpus essay more than once because it hit me so hard when I read it the first time. Not because it resonated, but because it didn’t. To be clear: I have many wonderful female friends, some of whom I expect to be close with for the rest of my life. And in sheer numbers, I probably have more female friends than male friends. But in terms of who I treat as confidants, it’s slanted toward men, due to a combination of serial monogamy, the fortune to have remained friendly with a handful of men I used to date, and an incidental number of male friends. Given that I’ve usually worked in female-dominant fields, perhaps this has just been my way of adding some yang to my yin.

But there’s another reason my relationships with men move more fluidly. It may sound silly coming from a feminist who writes primarily for female audiences, but I’m talking socially, not intellectually, so here goes: I feel awkward around women. Now, that’s speaking in some pretty general terms—certainly I don’t feel awkward around every woman, or comfortable around every man. It’s more that accurately or not, I have an odd sort of faith that men enjoy being around women because of our womanness, making my sex is a built-in fortification of what I offer socially to men. We as a culture have been pretty successful at spinning stories about Man + Woman=Makes Sense, and the consequence for me has been just the tiniest bit more assurance that a man has reason to want to be in my company, even when attraction doesn’t factor into it. Then it becomes a catch-22: I’m more likely to be relaxed—and therefore more pleasant, charming, and fun to be around—if I trust that whomever I’m talking with genuinely wants to be there. So generally speaking, I probably am better company to men than I am to women, which results in a different sort of friendship.

I’m not proud of this attitude. I don’t like what it implies I think about men, or about myself. But it’s also notable for what it says of my relationships with women. I heard this quote once: “Men kick friendship around like a football, but it doesn’t seem to crack. Women treat it like glass and it goes to pieces.” Treat it like glass I do: afraid to touch it, afraid to give it the sort of handling that burnishes it and makes it uniquely yours. I’ve always hated the trope that women distrust other women, or secretly hate their friends or women in general, and that’s not what I’m saying here. If anything, I’m saying the opposite: I get tongue-tied around remarkable women because I dearly want them to like me, and unlike with men, there’s no culturally assumed “reason” for them to like me. The lack of trust here is in myself, not in other women.

So I feel like I have to work a little harder to get women’s approval. But the specific ways I’ve cultivated to gain approval—laughing a little longer at someone’s jokes, asking lots of questions, letting a gaze linger—sound suspiciously like flirting. Specifically, flirting with men. So when I’m around a woman I want to get to know better, suddenly I’m left not only being a little unsure how to be my best self, but also aware that my default “like me!” antics are conventionally feminine ways of appealing to men—which means plenty of women see right through them because they themselves have deployed the same tricks. At least, at my most vulnerable, self-doubting, and insecure that’s what I fear: that women—particularly the sort of intelligent, critical, soulful women I admire—will see through my laughter and questions and smiles and decide that whatever I bring to the table, it isn’t for them. (Perhaps that’s why I feel drawn to woman-only spaces like ladymags, come to think of it—it forces me to break out of relying upon the ways I’ve learned to communicate with men.)

At some point, though, I learned one thing I can bring to the table with women: girl talk. And yes, I mean highly stereotypical girl talk. I mean: I like your earrings, That’s a great color, Your hair looks fantastic. I used to consciously stay away from beautystuffs as small talk because I wanted to feign nonchalance about such matters; somewhere along the line, though, I recognized how well I myself responded to such conversation starters. My countenance, particularly around women, is pleasant but a little serious, meaning that something frivolous can come out of my mouth and I’m fairly certain it doesn’t make me seem frivolous. It simply lightens me, desirably so.

It’s been several years since I’ve started b
eing more fluent in beautytalk, and between working at image-conscious magazines and running a blog that is specifically designed to examine women’s attitudes and feelings about beauty and being looked at, it’s second nature now. Compliments and questions related to style or appearance easily tumble out of me; if I’m meeting a woman cold, like if I’m at a party where I don’t know anyone, chances are that’s the first thing out of my mouth. I’m always sincere about it—compliments fall flat if they’re a lie—and at this point I wouldn’t even say that this line of conversation is intentional. But I know where it comes from, and I know what I’m hoping to elicit when I do it.

Here is my trouble: I fear that I am forgetting how to connect with women in any other way. I found myself at a dinner party a while ago with a woman whose manner intrigues me; she’s one of those people whose words seem to matter more than other people’s, so wisely does she choose them. I was seated next to her, and my first words to her were something about her shoes (which were gorgeous, so I’m not entirely to blame here). She smiled and said Thank you, as one does, and after we had each nodded acceptance of the compliment and ensuing gratitude, neither of us had anything further to say to one another. Rather, I didn’t know how to get to that further point—at least not without her doing some of the heavy lifting along with me.

I’d expected her to help me out, which isn’t an outrageous expectation on my part; that is, after all, how conversations work. But in expecting her to help me out by saying anything other than the logical, polite response—thank you—I was actually attempting to direct her attitude. Toward herself, toward me, toward womanhood itself. I was expecting her to play along—to tell me, say, some story of where she’d gotten the shoes so I could then riff off a detail of that story, and in the course of that we would have each revealed something personal that could serve as a launching point for the conversation I actually wanted to have with her. I was expecting her to speak some code of womanhood right along with me—a code that as a feminist I know better than to think is actually how women communicate. I lobbed exactly one volley in her direction and expected her to return it.

And when she didn’t, I found that I didn’t have a backup plan. The code I’d been speaking in wasn’t code at all; it had become my native tongue, at least when attempting to make small talk. For it wasn’t just that laconic seatmate and her response that’s troubling me. It’s also the times when it works too well and I find I don’t know how to better anchor the conversation; it’s the times when I see exactly how moored I feel by “girl talk” with women and I wonder how deep my own feminist blood can run if this has become the primary way I know to reach out to other women. My approach has assumed that women in my path are eager to talk about their appearance, and not only that, but that they are eager to talk about their appearance with me because we are both women. Small talk works because we presume all the small talkers share a common condition. While I believe that all women have a unique relationship to presence, style, and visibility, the route I’ve been taking to get to that relationship isn’t helping me establish better friendships with women. And that’s because of another characteristic of getting-to-know-you chatter: Small talk is, by its nature and nomenclature, unimportant. And the very thing I value about beauty talk is what it reveals about us—that is, the stuff that is important. And yes, sometimes beauty talk gets there quickly and directly; that’s exactly why I defend it and work hard in my writing to not have it be written off as cotton candy. Yet in relying so heavily upon beauty talk as a conversation starter, I’ve been failing in my central mission. I know that you can’t just jump into a conversation by asking the really meaty stuff, sure. But if I truly believe in “girl talk” as a portal to that meat, to treat it in practice as fluff is a disservice to my goal.

Perhaps that became clearest to me when I was the recipient, not the instigator, of this sort of exchange. Some time ago, I found myself having a drink with a friend of a friend. The person who introduced us was doing most of the talking, so we were both able to quietly get used to the rhythm of the other before our mutual friend departed and left us on our own. We continued the conversation to its logical point, and it was clear that we each had a good deal to say to one another, but that we were perhaps too much alike in our being better responders than presenters. The conversation was good but not fluent. During one of our fumbling, strained pauses, she looked down and said, “I like your shoes.” The only thing remarkable about these sneakers is how unremarkable they are: Cheap, several years old, a faded olive color, scuffed and beaten, I’d only worn them because the weather was in flux and they were the single “shoulder season” pair I could fine.

I knew enough secondhand about this woman and her somewhat turbulent life to know that I wanted to know more about her. I wanted to talk with her about art and expression, about motherhood and madness. I wanted to know if what she saw every day in her appointment book, her mirror, her life was what she’d envisioned for herself; I wanted to know about disappointment and relief, and where the two might meet. I didn’t ask those questions, of course; you can’t just go in and ask those sorts of things. Sometimes chatter of shoes and mascara is a portal to the questions we really want answers to; sometimes the words that don’t matter are the only way to the words that do. But sometimes those words—where did you get that and I had a pair like that once and what a great color—form a Mobius strip of the words we know don’t matter, with no apparent outlet to what we want to say but don’t know how to articulate. I am trying to step off that neverending loop. But I am not sure how.

I felt that ache, that frustration that comes when I dance around intimacy, a dance only made more frantic when I sense the other person is there with me in our pas de deux. I felt it—I saw it—but I am still unpracticed in saying whatever one would need to say to get to what comes next.

And so I looked at her and said what we both knew you’re supposed to say upon receiving a compliment, the words that, with luck and effort, could lead to chatter of other cross-weather shoes, which could lead to climate, which could lead to where we grew up, which could lead to how we each define the word home. That is, I said Thank you.

What I didn’t say—but what I hope she heard—was I like you too.

Thoughts on a Word: Glamour (Part II)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beauty Blogosphere 12.2.11

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

Indian Woman With Red Bindi, Ginette Fine Art (no word as to whether model was great with child)

From Head...
O Calcutta!:
The Indian Institute of Technology is proposing distribution of nutrient-rich cosmetics to pregnant women in hopes of reducing infant mortality rates. And here I thought bindis just looked cool!

...To Toe...
Because the "lipstick index" still isn't good enough, now we're wearing the economy on our feet. "Examining the trends alongside economic patterns led researchers to theorize that a shakier economic situation correlates with the popularity of similarly shaky high heels." The reporter sort of calls BS, though, thus giving me a girl crush on her. (Which doesn't take away from my girl crush on you, m'dear.)

...And Everything In Between:
They are the 1%: Step-by-step read on how the Lauder family has sheltered hundreds of millions of dollars over the years through skilled use of tax breaks. We're hearing so much about the 1% but it remains a vague idea to the 99% of us; this piece illustrates exactly how the 1% stays the 1%, and shows how it has nothing to do with our favorite bootstraps stories—like, say, a plucky daughter of Hungarian immigrants who cajoled her chemist uncle into helping her make a face cream to sell to her friends and eventually becoming one of the world's most influential cosmetics magnates. Sounds a lot more romantic than short sells on the stock market in order to maintain a neutral position under IRS rules and savings $95 million in capital gains taxes, eh?

I get so emotional: More insight into the emotions-cosmetics link, from a cosmetics marketing report being pimped out to companies. Manalive, I always like to think I'm one step ahead of companies, but that's foolish: "Beauty Attachment shows that for certain consumers, beauty is extremely important and they’d rather skip breakfast than skip their morning routine; while for others, it’s simply a utility that meets a need, like a front door key.... Simply put, some women see the aisles at Sephora and their head spins with anticipation; while others see these same aisles and become incredibly anxious." Girl, they have got your number.

Hungry lies: Lionsgate, the studio putting out Hunger Games, is being sued by a cosmetics company for breach of contract surrounding an exclusive Hunger Games nail polish line.

Not so kawaii: I didn't realize until reading this piece about Shiseido vice president Kimie Iwata that Japanese professionals were even more imbalanced than Americans: Women account for less than 1% of top-level Japanese business executives.

Everyone I Have Ever Bathed With: Unfortunately late on this, but Tracey Emin soap!

Playing dirty: Beauty/body product chain Lush is taking action against a UK politician whose environmental policies have been deemed lacking. In the States it's relatively rare to see a company so specifically target one politician, much less a "softball" company like a cosmetics purveyor. I've got to hand it to Lush—this doesn't really seem like a publicity stunt to me (or is that the point?).

Political wrinkle:
Australian prime minister Julia Gillard under fire for accepting anti-wrinkle creams as gifts, even as she refused other designer wares. (Really, the buried lede here is that the prime minister has a partner, and has never been married. As an American, to me this seems like some future-world sci-fi Ursula Leguin utopia. A woman is leading the country and we all know she has sex without the legal bond of marriage?!)

Reached a compromise: Historic depictions of ugly muscular babies. Vermeyen, Holy Family

Can't decide which is more awesome:
Collection of historic depiction of muscular women, or collection of Ugly babies in Renaissance art. ("I love you both, just in different ways!") (Thanks to Lindsay for the tip) 

Photoshopped: With a new tool that allows us to tell how much a photo has been digitally altered, is it possible that we'll someday have "retouch ratings" like we do movie ratings? "Rated three points for rib removal and jawline trimming."

Framed: Bitch magazine has two particularly interesting "In the Frame" entries this week: A photo of noted photographer Nan Goldin one month after being battered, in which her makeup contradicts the idea of the hidden, cowering victim, and then the art of Ingrid Berthon-Moine, showing women wearing their menstrual blood as lipstick. (And here I thought I was a hippie for trying out beets as lipstick, as per No More Dirty Looks.)

The importance of being intact: Oscar Wilde's restored tomb makes its debut in Paris, covered by a glass partition to protect it from "being eaten away by lipstick," as is tradition.
Paging Don Draper: South African fragrance line Alibi is designed for cheating spouses to wear to literally put suspicious partners off their scent trail. "I Was Working Late" smells of cigarettes, coffee, ink, and wool suits; "We Were Out Sailing" features sea salt and cotton rope. I am not making this up. (But they might be; I can't find anything about the company elsewhere. Hmm.)

Sweet smell of success: The odiferous history of "perfume" versus "cologne" in regards to becoming a comment on a man's sexual orientation, and what the headily scented Liberace had to say about it.

Neat and clean: Half of the men in Britain don't think it's necessary to be clean-shaven to look well-groomed. (I heartily agree, as a fan of a bit of scruff on a feller.)
Inventor Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler
This week in dead movie stars: Why Marilyn Monroe is still a beauty icon, and did you know that Hedwig Eva Marie Kiesler—aka Hedy Lamarr—invented a telecommunications process that's still used today in much of our wireless communication?

Newly inquired: If you enjoy my more academic-ish posts on here, you should definitely check out The New Inquiry. I'm proud to be associated with them, and prouder still of their profile in this week's New York Times! (Quibble: I wouldn't call any of these minds those of "literary cubs"; all parties involved are far too insightful and thought-provoking for that.)

Attention Sassy lovers: Former Sassy editor Jane Larkworthy, now beauty director at W, is featured on Into the Gloss this week. "I do think [beauty products] should be done in an accessible way, though—I don’t ever want beauty to be intimidating."

Hair mayonnaise: Hysterical beauty bit from comic Sue Funke, courtesy Virginia.

Fight for the right: This piece at Rookie about cultural stereotyping is worth reading in its own right, but of particular interest to me is the collection of vintage photos of "black and brown and yellow girl gangs in American history" on the second page, all from Of Another Fashion. The photos of beaming, well-dressed Japanese women heading off to internment camps during one of the most shameful episodes of U.S. history raises questions about expectations of femininity, and of fashion's true role in our lives: "Even during internment, these girls were determined to look cute. And though that may sound like the height of triviality, it’s not. As the late, great civil-rights activist Dorothy Height once said, 'Too many people in my generation fought for the right for us to be dressed up and not put down.'"
Honored: I love Sally's concept of "honoring your beauty," and I'll throw in that once I learned that the way to accept a compliment was to look the person in the eye, smile, and say, "Thank you," I felt like I'd learned something small but important. It also made it easier to give a compliment too; I stopped worrying that every compliment I gave was loaded somehow. There's no hidden motive. I really just like your hair.

Push it good: This post from Fit and Feminist on the myth of the noncompetitive female made me (and her, as evidenced by her Mean Girls reference) wonder why we embrace totally contradictory views of women and competition. C'mon, patriarchy: Are we all cooperative sweethearts who aren't so great at team sports because we just want to hold hands and make daisy chains, or are we vindictive bitches who love to tear one another apart? Just tell us already, my best bitches and I are getting tired of this sewing circle-Fight Club jazz.

On Failure and the Contradiction of Beauty

When I was 16, I failed my driver’s license test. The details are fuzzy, but it involved a collision with a curb, and a generous interpretation of LEFT TURN YIELD RIGHT OF WAY TO ONCOMING TRAFFIC. The instructor had me turn back immediately. I didn’t have a chance to parallel park.

I sobbed the entire way home, my mother doing her best to soothe her despondent daughter, who wasn’t having any of it. The minute we got home, I went to my mother’s bathroom cabinet and swallowed two of her antihistamine pills. One was enough to make me fall asleep for hours. Two, then, would do even better. I slept all day, woke up for dinner, took another pill, and slept some more. Failing my driver’s test was, without exaggeration, one of the worst things that had happened to me in my life.

I mention the pills because as childish as taking them was, it seemed like the only way I could handle a truth I discovered for the first time that day: You can be a smart, level-headed, "good" girl, and you can still fail. I possessed the sort of intelligence that meant while my critical thinking was frequently lazy, tests, papers, and good grades came easily, despite conspicuously infrequent study sessions and lackadaisical homework habits. Failure simply wasn’t on the radar. I’d been disappointed, sure—not getting the lead in school plays, my French class partner not asking me to the winter formal—but I hadn’t failed before. But there I was, “did not pass” circled on top of my driver’s license application.

Failure is acutely uncomfortable. It’s something we don’t speak freely about, preferring to move on to how to not fail next time, or perhaps to inspirational quips about how our failures aren’t measures of us as people—which they’re not. We’re so afraid of failure that we turn it into a unique, private sort of shame. Rather, women are so afraid of failure that we turn it into a unique, private sort of shame. Women fear failure more than men, and we take it harder too: There’s a strong correlation between academic failure and depression for young women, but not for young men. That’s not to say that men don’t fear failure—of course they do—but the intensity of that fear, the hold it can have over daily life, seems to have a particularly rattling effect upon women.

The particular intensity of women’s failure makes me wonder about how we absorb our failures of beauty, which by their nature can’t stay private and include the shame of having others know we’ve failed. Is there a failure more immediately public than trying to look beautiful and falling short? This is why we ridicule women who make no bones about the fact that they goddamn well are trying to look beautiful—the “fashion victims” of the world, the plastic surgery cases gone wrong. It’s why the cruelty Todd Solondz inflicts in Welcome to the Dollhouse is in sharpest relief when Dawn Weiner is trying to look pretty, not when she’s her normal dorky self.

It was the effort-filled image on the left, not the ordinary dork one on the right, that was selected for the iconic poster design of Welcome to the Dollhouse.

Our attempts at achieving conventional beauty can actually become conventional beauty—part of why I know I look “right” (if not babelicious) when I do office work is because I’m neatly dressed and wearing “professional” makeup. But we also know that attempts at beauty can be seen as a mark of failure, and that if our sleight-of-hand fails, humiliation waits. Witness the anecdote from Siobhan O’Connor of No More Dirty Looks after she’d issued a “glam makeup” challenge to her readers: “We had people privately e-mailing us and saying, I just can’t do it... I guess the mentality was, Well, if I look bad with no makeup, no big deal. But if you look bad with makeup—it’s like you’ve said to the world, This is the best I can do.” In other words, we were scared to fail.

I’d like to think that the amorphous nature of beauty makes it something impossible to fail at. Logically it should be impossible to fail at something there’s not a clear standard for. We might not look as good as we’d like sometimes, but to call that failure seems inaccurate. When I am feeling good about myself, beauty is not something I can fail at. When I’m feeling less than my fullest self, however, beauty becomes something that not only can be failed, but something I feel I’m destined to fail. In the moments when I’m feeling not “pretty enough” but “never enough,” the efforts of my beauty work seem futile. There is a reason the phrase "lipstick on a pig," which has nothing to do with either lipstick or mammals of any kind, conjures such a potent, damning image.

None of this is to say that women who meet every standard of conventional beauty without particularly trying are exempt from the fear of failure I experience at my lowest. When I think of why I took driver’s exam failure so hard, I now see it wasn’t just because I’d failed, but because I’d mistakenly equated it with other gifts I’d been given. Because I did well in school without ever having to try, I began to believe that my innate, unchangeable intelligence was responsible for every success I had. Like plenty of other bright little kids, at least according to the Harvard Business Review, I'd learned to see making effort as a sign that my intelligence had reached its limit. I understood the mechanics of driving, but unlike writing an English paper, I couldn’t get by on my inherent ability. It takes skill, not talent, to learn to naturally keep one’s eyes scanning front, sides, and back, and to learn how traffic works. It would take practice for me to become a good driver. Practice meant effort, and effort meant failure—which, when you’re a bright kid who’s never failed a test in her life, means doom.

Likewise, the effortlessness of the “natural beauty” can be a mixed blessing. Naomi Wolf writes in The Beauty Myth that women who are genetically blessed with good looks often wrestle with the beauty myth more than average-looking women; they come closer to the societal ideal, so the sting of falling short is forever closer. That’s one way in which “natural beauties” and natural (smarties?) are parallel, but it’s not the only way. I remember a friend of mine who was always “the pretty girl” growing up talking of how she’d flare up with anger whenever someone would tell her how beautiful she was. “It’s like being complimented on your shoe size,” she said. “I can’t help how I look.” The idea of your value lying not just in your looks but specifically in something you cannot help can short-circuit a woman. It can keep her from daring to fail. Not necessarily at beauty, but at other things we associate with beautiful women: femininity, docility, power, for starters. Not all these things need to be failed at in order to be reckoned with, but they need to be examined in order to be assimilated or rejected. An inability to fail can turn a woman into a different sort of female eunuch.

Smart kids can be praised for their effort instead of their natural intelligence to help ensure they’ll actually try at difficult tasks, but carrying over that approach to beauty makes little sense: Praising the effort of beauty denigrates the praise itself, because the point of much of our beauty work is to hide the effort. I can’t help but feel the slightest bit dissatisfied when my gentleman friend tells me I “look nice” when I’ve dressed up, because it feels like he’s complimenting my efforts—my curled hair, my well-chosen dress—instead of the way I look. To receive direct praise on those things calls attention to my efforts, leaving me embarrassed for not having been naturally gifted enough in the first place. Yet if all the genetic gifts in the world were mine, I may well suffer a feeling that I have no control over my “giftedness,” and effort might seem even more shameful. It’s one thing for a 16-year-old girl to melodramatically swallow two allergy pills in order to sleep away the shame of failing her driver’s test. It’s quite another for a woman riddled with insecurities to walk through the world with a mantle of that shame every day of her life.

Our accomplishments—jobs, recognition, awards—are things we achieve. Beauty, we’re told, is both an achievement and who we are. It’s both our essence and our goal. We live in this awkward space between the effort of beauty and surrendering to nature’s assignment of it; as long as we treat beauty as both the essence of woman and her fundamental goal, its importance will fester in each of us like mold. The contradiction between achieved beauty and natural beauty sneers at us every time we put on a full face of makeup and still feel lacking, and every time we eschew makeup because it wouldn’t matter anyway. It’s damning to the woman for whom conventional beauty is an “achievement,” and it’s damning to the woman for whom it’s a genetic gift.

Living in contradiction is so uncomfortable that it’s become a logical puzzle for philosophers from Aristotle to Nietzsche; Marx believed the contradictions of capitalism (very rich people living alongside the very poor) would eventually become so unbearable that it would eventually collapse, giving way to a revolution. As much as I’d love to see a sort of psychic revolution come to every woman who has struggled with feeling confined by beauty or her perceived lack of it, I’m not sure what that would look like, much less where to begin.

What I suspect is more likely—and, given how many women actively enjoy aspects of beauty work, more desirable—is something less like a revolution and more like what Hegel termed Aufhebung, or sublation. The idea of sublation, as I understand it, is that two contradictory ideas can be held in tandem, so that each reflects upon the other. That is, the ideas can coexist without necessarily fighting to the death for their survival.

I’m not entirely sure what the sublation of beauty’s contradictions would look like. Perhaps it’s so familiar that I’m unable to recognize it. Perhaps every time I sweep up my hair, put on my lipstick, and waltz out the door feeling unassailably together, I’m participating in the sublation of beauty’s contradictions: maneuvering the artifice of beauty to allow my humble version of “natural beauty” shine, regardless of how well I match the template. The achievement aspect of beauty work can, under the right circumstances, unshackle us from the fear that our natural gifts won’t help us make the cut.

There’s another aspect of Hegel’s sublation that I think applies here, and that gives me greater hope. Part of sublation is comfortably existing in contradiction instead of ironing out all opposition, accepting conflicting concepts as forming a truth more genuine than any party line could allow for. There’s no absolute knowledge, because nothing can be true at all times in all situations. So as painful as the experience of beauty’s contradictions can be, they reveal to us that just as there is no absolute knowledge, there is no absolute beauty. Beauty is not merely in the eye of the beholder, but is subject to changing conditions, to shifting contexts: What is beautiful in one moment may not be beautiful in the next. But our conditions and contexts are ones we can create.

It’s a luxury of beauty, actually—even the most intellectually lacking or gifted students are stuck with whatever conditions the SAT boards create for college entrance exams. We create our own conditions with our beauty work, with the sleight-of-hand that makes up our morning metamorphosis. We create them with cultivating style, a “look,” a routine that allows us to walk through the world feeling our best. Most important, we create conditions of beauty through those around us: through friends, lovers, images. All of these come together to subvert an absolutist idea of beauty, as unlikely as that can seem in moment of despair. And if we create our own conditions, we prevent our own failure.

Why Hearing "You're Beautiful" Makes Me Freeze


My first kiss was unremarkable except for the fact that it was mine: 4-H camp, nighttime, crickets, slow motion, etc. I’ll remember it forever, of course, but I will also remember what came next. We managed to break from our starry-eyed hold to go back to the main camp for movie night. We rigged up a makeshift blanket-nest, then he then got us some popcorn. Upon his return, I thanked him, and in a dead-earnest manner that can only be successfully performed if you are a mild-mannered, tender-hearted son of a hog farmer—which he was—he looked me in the eye and quietly said, “I’d do anything for you.”

I froze. I recognized the winsome romanticism of it all, of course, and wasn’t untouched by it. But I remember feeling his eyes on me and thinking that now we were something out of a movie: My gallant hero would do “anything” for me (he’d even fetch popcorn!), which made me his heroine, and heroines were there to be looked at, and heroines were pretty, maybe even beautiful, and I froze and thought, He might be thinking I am pretty right now, at this very moment, and I didn’t know what to do.

I was 14, and in the following years I learned how to not freeze in the face of sweet nothings. But that frozen sensation—the sensation of having been caught in the act of playing someone who is there to be looked at—creeps up nearly every time a man I’m dating looks at me and says, You’re beautiful.

Please do not misunderstand me: It’s not that I don’t want to hear those words from a person I’m intimately involved with. In fact, I want to hear it very much; at times, the longing can be exquisite. Yet when I hear you’re beautiful, more often than not I feel as though I need to stop whatever I’m doing in order to continue being beautiful.

If observing ourselves in the mirror makes us aware of the potential of being looked at, hearing you’re beautiful seals the deal: You are being looked at. It’s with approval, to be sure, but that approval can be instantaneously overriden by the consciousness of being observed. In physics, the observer effect states that the very act of observation changes that which is being observed. In romance, I feel that change creep through my body the instant I recognize that I am being observed. Without having actually seen it, I'm guessing it's a variation of my mirror face: My eyes open wider, my smile arranges itself into an invitation, my belly sucks itself in. You are beautiful is my body’s cue to begin the performance of pretty, a role I fill in a last-minute cast shuffle, hoping the performance can be seen before whatever fleeting beauty the graces loaned me is spirited away.

And, of course, the act of observation not only changes that which is being observed; it can also kill it. For I know that while the companions who have uttered this have meant it, I also know they were speaking not of my God-given face—which is pleasant enough but is in no immediate danger of launching a thousand ships—but of whatever quality it was that drew them to me in the first place. I know You’re beautiful has been the way a fellow here and there over the years has let me know that I am beautiful to him—that I am special, that I am being seen under the incandescent glow brought only by infatuation, or, on occasion, love. I know that when spoken between people under that incandescence, You’re beautiful is not so much a comment on anyone’s looks as it is code for: You, at this moment, captivate me. And the minute the performance of beauty rides roughshod over the captivation that prompted those words, beauty dwindles. Depending on the fellow’s aesthetic tastes, he might find me pretty regardless, for prettiness is not as rapid a shape-shifter as beauty. But if a man tells me I am beautiful because I am being myself, and then I stop being myself, I smother my own glow in trying to hold onto it.

I’d like to start seeing You’re beautiful in terms not of theater but of alchemy, the creation of that golden
Venusian glow that doesn’t exist until two people look at one another and pronounce beauty. And, as it happens, I’m in a relationship that happily draws from the school of alchemy over theater. Perhaps my inability to see You’re beautiful in that light all along was immaturity, or a matter of the fellows’ intonation, or simply not being in the right relationships.

But I suspect my frozen reaction to You’re beautiful wasn’t about the words, or even about the men in question, but about the schismatic approach so many of us—including me—have to beauty. For as much as we wholly believe that beauty is about a spirit, a moment, the shape of a smile, a glint in an eye, a roll of a hip, a flip of one’s hair, a caress, a held gaze, a freedom of movement, a peace with one’s self, we also know that’s not the whole story. We know that on the other side of beauty lies the parts that alternately delight and trouble us: the taming of the hair, the whittling of the waist, the sandblasting of the skin, the pinching of a tweezer, and the constantly shifting ground we all occupy within the realm of this side of the schism. When I hear You’re beautiful, unless I know where the other person stands in the vast space beauty occupies, I can’t know what I'm actually hearing. Freezing at least fixes my own footing in that space.

Freezing, as it happens, is another concern of physics: It is a slowing of particles’ movement. When particles slow, they lose energy. When particles lose energy, they lose heat. Freezing is the opposite of incandescence, and while I know which state I’d choose given the option, I also know which one my body has chosen for me before.

This post is a part of the monthly Feminist Fashion Bloggers collection. This month's prompt: dating and relationships.

Should We Praise Little Girls For Being Pretty?

 My eighth birthday party. I am in the middle. The cake is on the table (my mom let us decorate it ourselves, per my wishes). The frosting is on our faces. Makeovers!

I didn't grow up hearing I was pretty. This was partly by design and partly by accident, or an accident of memory: My parents made a conscious decision to not emphasize the role of appearance in my life, ruling out pretty as a household word. The rest of the world? Well, perhaps I wasn’t a terribly pretty little girl, or perhaps my chubbiness became the overriding factor about my looks, or perhaps I heard it and just don’t remember.

Whatever the case, my childhood means that I’m particularly interested in this Lisa Bloom piece about how to talk to little girls without lapsing into “you’re so pretty!” The gist is that we as adults have a responsibility to girls to encourage other parts of them to shine, and to act as role models for the same, which seems like good common sense to me. Hugo Schwyzer agrees, but notes that by avoiding the subject entirely as Bloom illustrates, we set girls up for thinking that their interest in the subject is shallow, forcing a divide between brains and beauty: “Let’s lose the false choice that says we either validate little girls for their brains or for their beauty," he writes. "We need to be fearless about praising both.”

I agree with most of Bloom’s argument, though would argue that we needn’t steer the conversation away from things like appearance and pink and fashion if they come up of the girl’s own choice. That’s where Schwyzer and I agree; we disagree on one part of his remedy, which is to recommend that in addition to reinforcing the “serious” aspects of our girls, we also compliment their appearance.

We must give our girls tools to navigate a beauty-obsessed world. I don’t think praise on their looks should be one of them. It’s engagement that will help her with that navigation: Listening to her thoughts on the matter, picking up on her cues, asking questions and paying close attention to the answer. Wallpapering her self-esteem with “you’re so pretty”—even alongside “and strong and kind and you sure can draw well!”—doesn’t get at the heart of the issue.

For unlike kindness, you can’t cultivate beauty. (Rather, the things we do in adulthood to cultivate beauty—wearing makeup, dressing well, adopting certain gestures or methods of interaction that signal we wish to be seen under the light of prettiness—we find creepy and inappropriate in a child.) Hearing “you’re so pretty” every day becomes a pronouncement about something she has absolutely zero control over. And being praised on something you have no control over—or think you have no control over—can ultimately lead to a vortex of self-doubt. I’m thinking here of intellectually advanced children who don’t respond well to challenge because they see effort as a sign that they’re not really as intelligent as everyone (including themselves) presumes them to be. It’s not exactly parallel—we hardly want to encourage girls to start putting effort into beauty, though we don’t want them to neglect self-care—but the principle is the same: Being praised for something you can’t help can feel hollow or even confusing.

Certainly, much of the time we’re tempted to tell little girls that they’re pretty, it’s not because of their classic bone structure; it’s because they are making an effort—wearing a pretty dress or ribbons in their hair or doing something else to consciously raise their prettiness profile. And many people will argue that all little girls are pretty—I mean, they’re kids, and kids are cute, right? But surely I wasn’t the only one who understood in second grade that some girls fit the classic definition of pretty more than others.

I wasn’t one of those girls. In another post I’ll probably write up some long drawn-out essay about the trials of being the smart-but-chubby-and-not-pretty girl, but for now I’ll leave it at this: Until adolescence, I was not particularly bothered by not widely being considered pretty. I understood that the prettiest girl in the class—and it was clear to me, at age seven, who the prettiest girl in the class was—was such because she was fine-boned, with honey-blonde hair and blue eyes and a delicacy that chubby, weird girls like me could never attain. I understood that, I got it, and just assumed that prettiness was Jenny S’s destiny, just as mine was as the fast reader, the good speller, the one who always wanted to write on the chalkboard. That was how the world worked at age seven, and I didn’t covet her or anyone else’s beauty then. That would come later.

Here’s how I imagine things would have worked if my parents had made a consistent point of telling me how pretty I was: I would have thought it was nice. I would have pranced around in my blue ruffled Easter dress and thought I was pretty (okay, I did that anyway). I might have been better able to synthesize smart and pretty; I might have been somewhat better prepared for the enormous gap between the feminism of the Whitefield-Madrano household and the attitudes of society at large.

And I would have thought a helluva lot more about prettiness than I did, particularly about my relation to it. I mean, I already spent a decent amount of time thinking about appearance: I wanted to be a model (not because models were pretty, but because they got to make faces in front of the camera); I played with my grandmothers’ and aunts’ makeup kits anytime they’d let me; and, after all, I was secretly deeming Jenny S. the prettiest girl in the class. Despite my parents’ not introducing gendered play into the home (they made me buy my first Barbie with my own money, people), beauty was absolutely on my radar. Beauty was something I was observing as a value, and participating in as an activity. I was not participating in beauty as a value. That was a gift I returned to the universe with adolescence, and it’s a gift I may never get back.

*     *     * 

So what to do? How, without overstating its importance, do we responsibly lead our girls through the landmine of beauty so that they’re not left adrift with no guidance when they begin to enter the realm of performed femininity? How do we affirm our girls and their desire to be pretty without reinforcing the beauty standard—which, I might add, will likely be reinforced at every single turn for the rest of their lives? How do we value everything our girls bring to the table—their joys, their fears, their curiosities, their anxieties, their very selves, many of which might be filtered through prettiness—without either overvaluing beauty or denying its importance?

I’m not sure. I just know that we have a responsibility to them to listen. Rare is the girl who won’t bring her own thoughts on beauty to the table, and when that happens, we can ask questions. We can ask what she means when she says one doll is prettier than the other, or that only the pink pony can fly. We can sense her pride when she’s picked out her favorite dress and find ways to tap into that pride of self-care without lapsing into easy compliments. We can play with makeup along with her if that’s her preference, introducing silliness and fun, to model that beauty can be a place of joy, something she might remember fondly if it ever becomes to seem more like tyranny later on. And we can do all of that without placing the value of pretty upon her.

I should add that my perspective is one of someone who cares deeply about girls in the aggregate, and about a few girls in particular, but who hasn’t raised any myself. I have the luxury of being the family friend who gets to pop into a couple of girls’ lives and leave when time’s up, experiencing the joys of being with children and few of the trials. (Clever trick, eh?) So it’s easy for me to sit here from my child-free perch and proclaim that we should talk to children on their level about beauty, for when I’m with a child in afternoon-long spurts, being with her is the entirety of the activity and I can afford the attention it takes. I’m not trying to put dinner on the table, or working through my own exhaustion, or wiping snot from her nose, or changing her little brother's diaper. Parenting is a different matter, and with no intentions of ever becoming a parent myself, I’m not poised to speculate on how one can help a daughter over her lifetime develop a healthy relationship with appearance. It’s not a job I envy, and there are a zillion ways to do it well—including telling a daughter she’s pretty. Hell, maybe my insistence on this is borne from a buried resentment from not having heard it myself; I’ll never know.

What I do know is that in my limited fashion, I can offer a handful of girls in my life a safe haven from feeling like they are being examined—even positively—in any way. It’s my responsibility to offer them that space. And each parent or aunt or friend or babysitter knows the children in their lives better than some blogger yakking away in her living room; maybe the girl in your life needs to hear that she’s pretty more than she needs to engage in child-appropriate beauty talk. But I’d suggest that with creative effort, we can all offer them safe haven. I’d suggest that we should.

Sunny Sea Gold, Writer, New York City

Writer, editor, and recovered binge eater Sunny Sea Gold shares her personal story with a forthright fearlessness, both on her support site, Healthy Girl, and through her book. Food: The Good Girl’s Drug is a step-by-step guide toward recovery for an eating disorder that has only recently begun to be fully addressed. One of the most outstanding aspects of her book is in its very subtitle: How to Stop Using Food to Control Your Feelings. Her writing spurred me to think more comprehensively about the roots of eating disorders (hint: It ain’t all about the airbrushed models), and if you read her book, it’ll do the same for you. She’s currently a deputy editor at Redbook, and the former health editor at both Seventeen and Glamour. We talked about the media as eating-disorder scapegoat, the role anger can play in recovery, and having “such a pretty face.” In her own words:

Sunny Sea Gold at 29 weeks pregnant with her first child

On the Role of Media in Eating Disorders
Therapists pretty much agree that there are three main causes of eating disorders, and most of us who get them have a combination of the three. One is your genetics. Second is your physiology, like the biology of your actual brain—your personality. Some people are incredibly resilient and slough off difficult messages; other people are not. In my book I call them Velcro; things stick to them. I’m Velcro. The third thing is environment. Environment is broken into two parts: the environment of your home, what your mom and dad said to you, the behaviors they modeled. The other part of environment is culture. So about one-sixth of eating disorders can be blamed on cultural environment, like the pictures we’re shown. That’s what I mean when I say skinny models don’t cause eating disorders. I just think that’s completely oversimplified and kind of ridiculous. If we magically were able to suddenly change the images we see in order to be diverse in all ways, gradually that part of the pressure would relieve itself. But it wouldn’t relieve that need of a girl to control her food intake because she can’t control her life.

I think people focus on the images because they’re an easy scapegoat. It’s something outside of yourself that you can look at and demonize, and get angry about. You can’t get angry about genetics, you can’t get angry about personality. You can get angry at your parents, but after a while you’ll forgive them. But you can forever blame and be angry at the fashion industry and the media. Not that I don’t think people should have some anger—I think the passionate advocates for change in the media have made a difference, and I hope that people still keep talking about it. I do think there’s a lot wrong with the images we see, and I’m hoping in some very small ways to work from the inside to help. But I think it’s largely about having something to be angry with.

It’s also about rebellion. The media is a convenient thing to rebel against. And rebellion, for me, was a very important part of getting better. I wasn’t really angry at the media—I rebelled against the dieting stuff. I was pissed off at diets and diet books and diet pills and diet gurus, and that anger made me strong. I didn’t have full internal strength yet: I hadn’t been through therapy, I hadn’t sort of resolved my issues, and I needed something to kind of pull me upright. The anger of rebellion really helped me do that. After a while, I didn’t really need it anymore. I’m still disappointed and frustrated by the way our society deals with weight. But I could let that intense anger go. Media rage probably helps other people get to that point. 

On “Love Your Body”
Serious body image issues are very, very rarely ever about your actual body. So learning to love it isn’t really what’s going to change anything. What’s actually going is that you have a control issue, a self-esteem issue, depression, anxiety. Just like the fashion industry or magazines are convenient places to place our anger on, our bodies are a very convenient, tangible place to place our angst, our disgust, whatever else. You know how sometimes you’ll leave the house and feel fine? Then something—you don’t even know what it is—happens during the day, and the next time you pass a mirror you feel like you look like gunk. And you are suddenly the ugliest creature on the planet, and so fat. There’s no way your face or body has changed in a matter of hours; something inside of you has changed, and we just place it right on our bodies. The other stuff is too amorphous, and it’s scary and not easily remedied. Our bodies, we’re told, are easily fixed: four weeks of this, five pounds in one week, or whatever.

In a way it’s almost like hope: If only I could get my body to be a certain way, I’ll be happy. When I stopped believing that, I felt lost for a while. Because I thought, Oh great, now I’m stuck with my life. For so long I’d been thinking that when I’d be thin, or when I’d stop binge eating, everything would be fine and I would be perfect. Then my body got to be the right size for me, and I stopped binging, and everything was not perfect. I didn’t have severe depression anymore, I didn’t binge, my body was healthier, and all sorts of things were resolved from there. But I remember feeling slightly depressed—and scared. 

On Presenting a Pleasant-Looking Package
For a while I purposefully left pictures of myself off my website because I didn’t want to crowd my message. I didn’t know what people’s reactions would be; I didn’t know if they would feel that I couldn’t possibly know what I was talking about because I was objectively fairly attractive. So I was like, Okay, let’s just leave that out of the conversation, because it doesn’t matter here. And I don’t think it does.

But I know that looking a certain way has probably helped me get my message across. I know that difficult topics can be easier for society to swallow if they’re delivered in a pleasant-looking package. And, yes, I think I’m pleasing enough—attractive enough to create a positive feeling in someone, but not so attractive as to turn them off, you know? That just happens to be how I came out. I know that there are people in the world who are objectively not attractive, and that’s an experience I don’t understand. I don’t know what the struggle might be for someone who has odd features to navigate a beauty-obsessed society. It’s a place that I’m lacking. Even when I was really heavy, my mom would be like, “Oh, your face is so beautiful”—the classic “such a pretty face.”

I think of Stephen Colbert’s “I don’t see color; people tell me I’m white.” I don’t really focus on looks, but I think they have some sort of visceral, primordial effect on humans, and you can get your message out if you wrap it in an attractive package. Even Naomi Wolf says that, saying that there’s a reason she does her hair and puts on lipstick, so people will put her on TV and share her message. When I did finally put a video of myself on the website, some of the girls who had been reading were like, “You look like this? I had no idea—I pictured you in a completely different way.” I don’t know how they had pictured me, but they were reacting to the way I looked.

On Legacies
One of the things—you know, that one-sixth of the things that caused me to binge eat—was the messages I got in my family environment. I don’t blame my mother because she didn’t know any better, but she grew up thinking you had to be pretty to be loved. Not just pretty, but the prettiest. And she was. Her mother was very beautiful too, and my mother’s grandmother actually measured my mom’s features when she was a kid—you know those old-fashioned 1950s devices? She measured my mom’s features to see how far apart everything was, and declared that she had a perfect face. That’s what was going to get her love and acceptance. She was never encouraged to develop any of her other skills—her painting, her interior design, her writing, none of that. It was just being beautiful and modeling bikinis, which she did for a while.

So when I came around, I was born into this family where attractiveness was incredibly important. My mother thought I was cute as a kid, so I didn’t get that kind of thing like, “Oh, you’re not cute enough.” What I did get was constant affirmation that it was super-important, and that I’d better stay that way. She would make a point about comparing other girls in the class to me: Well, you know, you’re the prettiest one in your class, or Well, she’s as pretty as you are. There’s no point to that! It does absolutely nothing, except to make you crazy, and it did. Luckily, whatever it was about my personality—that anger, that rebellion—came up eventually and I rejected it. One of the ways that I did that was becoming overweight. In order for me to say, No, I totally disagree with your values and I’m not going to go along with it, I was like, I’m just gonna get fat and then see what you think. I feel like that anger helped me reject those values.

Now my mom has learned so much, and she’s careful about what she says to her grandchildren. But to some degree those forces are always there. Just today—this literally happened two hours ago—a woman left a comment for me on my website, and she was saying that she’d gone to high school with my mom and her sisters, “and they were all so pretty.” I mean, she’s a nice lady and she was just reaching out, and that’s fine. But it made me laugh, and it was an example of how my mom’s not alone with her intense feelings about beauty. I’m very appreciative that when I describe someone to other people, I’m not describing how pretty they are. I understand that beauty is valued in this society, and it’s pleasant to look at beautiful people. And of course I care about making myself look presentable; it’s fun to get dressed up sometimes. But beauty is not a value. It’s not something I care about intensely. And I’m so grateful for that.

Thoughts on a Word: Vainglorious

Sarah Frye Valencius creates clothes that serve as a uniform for the creative mind: “I want to design unfussy, non-body-conscious clothing for women who care about fashion but can’t afford to be distracted by it all day,” she says. Minimizing fuss and maximizing concentration, her work incorporates features like playful pocket and closures, always with an eye toward clean, elegant lines. (You can follow one strain of her style inspiration at French Spy Movie.) Given that one of the goals of my mirror fast is increasing opportunities for reaching a flow state, is it any wonder I’m eager for her work to hit New York? Her ready-to-wear line will debut this fall—but it’s the name of her just-launched custom clothing website, Vainglorious, that prompted me to ask her to do a guest word post.

It’s rare you happen upon the word vainglorious anymore. A tantalizing word, even if its meaning isn’t readily apparent.  There is something in all those vowels, the exotic v, the sexy s, the righteous glory tucked in the middle, that elicits an emotional understanding. The first time I read the word vainglorious  I was compelled to say it aloud. I wanted to feel all those shapes in my mouth—archaic, ornamental, indulgent.

Vainglory is derived from the medieval Latin words vāna (empty) and glōria (boasting).The entry for vainglory in my dusty, trusty, 1936 Webster’s Unabridged reads as follows:
noun. glory, pride or boastfulness that is vain; vanity that is excited by one’s own performances; empty pride; undue elation of mind
Originally, vainglory was part of the Eight Deadly Sins (which were, by the way, gluttony, lust, avarice, sadness, anger, acedia, vainglory, and pride) but Pope Gregory the Great found the list a bit redundant, and in the 6th century vainglory got folded into pride. This same pope also shook up the sins’ traditional order of severity, naming the new pride-combo-sin as offense numero uno, for being the greatest crime against love.

So if vainglory is such a dangerous thing, what happened to it? Why isn’t vainglory a word hissed in girls’ locker rooms, or thrown at crowing politicians? It’s as though getting bumped off The Deadlies was the equivalent of becoming a Hollywood has-been, and vainglory went the way of avarice and acedia—so last century.

But that little Latin vāna soldiered on, becoming vain and finding favor with English speakers via Old French.  It maintained its meaning of “empty” until the late 13th century, when it started also being used to describe “conceit”. Did the ostentatious finery of the Baroque period prompt this expansion of vain’s applicability? I wouldn’t be surprised.

The use of vain to describe self-obsession has had impressive staying power over the past 700 years, and it maintains the stigma of sin, even if unofficially. Vain characters rarely go unpunished in western tradition. It’s the driving motivation behind many a storybook villain, most blatantly the Wicked Queen in Snow White.  It was also Madame Bovery’s vanity that had her questing for the fine clothing and jewelry which would be her downfall. My favorite childhood film, Death Becomes Her, features Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn’s comic efforts to stay young and beautiful that leave them literately shattered by movie’s end.

Perhaps the most memorable appearance of vanity in the past fifty years is Carly Simon’s infectious tune “You’re So Vain”, a '70s slander song whose subject's identity has been much speculated on over the years. Simon’s refusal to name names may speak to the staying power of vanity as a slur. It also made it a hit. Pop music has been singing about “you” since its inception, a neat trick that offers the listener a choice of identifying as the singer or the song’s subject. When the Beatles howl “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” you could just as easily imagine singing the lines to your crush, as you could John Lennon singing directly to you, wanting to hold your hand. That’s part of the appeal and discomfort of “You’re So Vain”—if you don’t have a narcissistic someone in mind as you sing along with the radio, it starts to feel like she might be singing about you. An ingenious lyrical maneuver on Simon’s part—she bends the accusation back on itself, trapping you with the line: You probably think this song is about you, don’t you? (Don’t you?)

Maybe Pope Gregory was onto something when he said vainglory and pride were the deadliest of sins. A vain woman is easily more scorned than a lusty Lothario, an angry bus driver, or a slothy college student. It just rubs us the wrong way. When we tease apart those twin sins of pride and vanity, pride is obviously the more forgivable (the proud papa, proud employee, or proud fiancé). The vain are rarely humored like the proud are.

I’d go as far to say that we have a fear of vanity. What else could send our words stumbling when we receive a compliment on our appearance after we put so much effort into it? One of the first feminine acts we teach our girls is how to demure...right after we’ve instructed them on the value of being beautiful. Why are we guarding ourselves so closely against vanity accusations? I think there’s guilt that lies deep in our puritanical bones, for all the hours we spend primping and all the dollars we lay down at the cosmetics counter. We feel guilt for wanting to be beautiful, trying to be beautiful, and the audacity for thinking our efforts might work.

The mind is a clever thing and has no trouble justifying our labors of beauty as “fixing imperfections” rather than conceiving of them as acts of vanity. The latter is a sin but the former is expected of us. It’s perfect pro-American-consumer-Calvinistic behavior—fed by advertisers, reinforced by magazines, handed down from mother to daughter, and passed around like a gossipy note from girl to girl. The scorn of vanity and the contempt of ugliness form a double-edged sword that cuts us however it falls. 

All Is Vanity, C. Allan Gilbert, 1892

It’s fascinating that we live in a culture that expects us to worship the mirror, but not (god forbid) what it reflects. We line up like doomed queens and await the mirror’s judgement. But we aren’t asking “Who’s the fairest?” We are asking “What’s wrong with me?”  And the mirror answers so readily: dark circles, fine lines, large pores, furry brows, zits, yellow teeth, thin lashes, sagging jowls. We know what to look for and we know the correcting products available.  It’s not considered vanity to work on these crimes against beauty; self-hate is your saving grace. But if you dare admire what you see, you are surely damned as Dorian Grey. The only vanity allowed is the table and mirror you sit at. 
Walk the walk, don’t talk the talk. Put on heels, swing your hips, and pucker those lips. Celebrities, the current standard of beauty, are well trained in this dance. When stopped on the red carpet they know exactly how to slide out of questions about their beauty. Just once I want Angelina Jolie to say: “Yeah, I am beautiful and it’s fucking awesome.” And then I want Brad Pitt to say: “Damn straight.” Wouldn’t that be refreshing? I think that’s why I find characters like Amanda from Ugly Betty or Santana from Glee so delicious. I can’t get enough of them. It’s not just their vanity I love, it’s their vainglory.

Of course vainglory extends beyond proclaiming one’s hotness. Its boasting and folly applies to all types of inflated ego and self-promotion or, really, any pursuit of grandeur. Considering we are neck deep in the Internet Age—masters of Facebook, Twitter, Tumblrs, blogs, and experts in self-branding—I think we are ripe for a return of vainglorious to our lexicon.  I also think it’s time we stop beating ourselves up in front of the mirror. If you are going to spend so much time and money on beauty, you might as well take a little pride in it.

And so we are at the beginning again. I saw that beautiful word, vainglorious, boastfully bursting off the page. And I thought: Yes. Perfect. Glorious. This will be the name of my fashion endeavors. Even though my dresses were conceived in the most humble manner, my effort and doubts puncturing the fabric with every stitch, I am proud of the finished product. I’m getting better with each thing I make and I am going for it—going for the glory. And when a woman puts on one of my designs, I hope she is too.

Thoughts on a Word: Pretty

When I first met Mary Duffy, our conversations quickly turned to stuff that could keep me going for hours: What does it mean to be beautiful, or to witness beauty? What does it mean to be a "pretty girl"? Is there such a thing as objective beauty, or does the idea of such a thing remove the essence that makes something beautiful? Many of the ideas from those conversations have found their way onto this blog—and now you get to hear from her, in today's guest post. Mary Duffy lives, bikes, and writes in Philadelphia, and you can follow her on Twitter @maryfduffy.

The first time I think hard about the word pretty, is a few years ago, when my all-girl old-time band, Gerle Haggard, is working on an Elliott Smith song I picked for us to cover. Something about Smith's song, “Twilight,” has a hint of the southern old-time lyrics I love, and I know it's going to sound great. As we work out the arrangement I sing the first chorus: “She's a pretty thing, she knows everything, but I'm already somebody's baby.” It's that very lyric, “she's a pretty thing,” that has been hinting at the plainspokenness I think translates “Twilight” from indie folk to the old-time genre. “Pretty” in song lyrics may be a feature of my thinking on the subject, whether it's Roy Orbison singing “Pretty Woman” or Sondheim's “Pretty Women” in Sweeney Todd.

What is pretty? Pretty is superficial. Pretty is a judgment we can make in one second. “Yeah, she's pretty” is the tightfisted compliment women dole out when they envy somebody's appearance but can't admit it. Women? Me. It's the compliment I will grudgingly give out when someone asks me what I think of an attractive woman we know. Pretty is not a compliment, it's a concession: She is pretty. 

Pretty was something I envied. I envied women I thought to be easily, instantly attractive, women whose features require no hard work. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but Pretty is easy on the eyes. And despite the titles of the songs, I think of the word pretty, and I hear “girl,” like those psychiatric association tests. “Pretty?” “Girl.” Pretty girls were pretty, and my definition has a hard time escaping the tautology. Pretty: a state of being I could never attain, not being pretty myself. Pretty girls had a kind of surface of perfection that made them impervious to the slings and arrows of adolescence, was how it seemed. Pretty is a word for girls, rather than women.

Who is pretty? And what was a pretty girl in my girlhood? I have in mind an amalgam of many girls in middle and high school. I have an amalgam in mind because I realize the Pretty Girl looked like all the other pretty girls, precisely because she was pretty. 
She had lank, honey-blond hair. She wore makeup, and silver spoon rings, preppy clothes. She didn't have those little red dry-skin pimples on her legs, her legs which were not pale, either, but all a very nice even tan. I could never understand how generations of people with ostensibly Northern European ancestry—with last names like Murphy, Bauer, Andersen—managed to breed this crop of girls who could tan so well. I eventually figured out what a tanning bed and bronzer was. Likewise, I couldn't understand why they all had this very odd sort of honey-blond brownish hair, until I figured out that not only women who wanted to cover up gray bought hair dye. 
Somewhere in that time period a woman complimented my complexion, and I haven't forgotten it to this day. Which means that prettiness occupied a very big place in my young mind, at least for a while, at least until my slightly older but still young self got preoccupied with whether I was “hot,” or “sexy.” But where does that leave me with pretty, now that I'm not really a girl, and have maybe finally forgiven all the pretty ones for being “pretty.”

Just a couple of weeks after we met, a friend played a different Elliott Smith song for me, “Pretty (Ugly Before).” It's a love song, of course, and in sharing our musical tastes with each other, he played this one for me. The chorus of it goes, “I feel pretty, pretty enough for you / I felt so ugly before, I didn't know what to do.” Shakespeare it's not, but it's as true as pop songs get. Until I heard that, pretty was the purview of some very ordinary teenage queen bees whose names I barely remember today. For Smith, pretty and ugly could be feelings, not congenital conditions. I felt ugly before, too. And how can I forget West Side Story? Sondheim again: I Feel Pretty.

Pretty is a pedestrian kind of beauty, one I can't understand having ever wanted to attain, or couldn't, until I looked up the definition. Flowers are pretty, girls are pretty, and sometimes we speak of something being a pretty story, a pretty picture. Wrapping this piece up, I finally look at what the dictionary says about pretty, and it makes me wished I had looked up the definition back when I wanted the boys to think I was pretty: (adj) Attractive in a delicate way without being truly beautiful or handsome (n) An attractive thing, typically a pleasing but unnecessary accessory. It's easy to be pretty and it's easy to like pretty things, and it's natural to want to be liked by everyone, easily. But I wish someone had reminded me that it also meant “without being truly beautiful or handsome.”

Feminist Reactions to Street Harassment

American Girl in Italy
, Ruth Orkin, 1951

The construction crew building the school across the street from my old apartment stayed all summer. And though the notion that construction workers spend their days ogling and wolf whistling is overplayed—I barely flinch when walking by a site most of the time—this group lived up to the stereotype. Nothing vulgar, nothing over-the-top, just: One day, a sudden silence when I'd walk by, and out of the corner of my eye I'd see heads turning; the next, a chorus of knowing "Hello there, where you going?" would follow me down the gauntlet. It was tame; still, even though there was only one direct route from my apartment to the subway, on days when I just wasn't up to it, I'd walk around the block in order to avoid them.

But one day I'd had enough, and as I walked by and heard the chime of "lookin' good"s, I snapped. "Do you think women like hearing this every day?" I asked. "Do any of you have daughters?" Several of them did, including the foreman. "What would you do if you saw someone talking to your daughter and looking at her the way you do to women?" His face got red; his cheeks puffed out. "I'd teach him a lesson," he said. "I'm somebody's daughter," I replied. A shocked look crossed his face, and another worker said, "My daughter's eight." I told him I was 11 the first time I was hollered at on the street, and by this time a small crowd had gathered and they were nodding and looking at me with respect. They asked my name, I gave it, and from then on every time I walked by the site, a couple of them would say, "Hi, Autumn," and all was well.

At least, that's how it went in my mind. Yesterday I read M. Brenn's questioning, reflective post on a sudden flash of jealousy she felt when she saw a distasteful episode of unwanted attention: "Mostly, I was outraged that he so clearly saw the girls as nothing more than objects," she writes. "But there was also a part of me that was oddly jealous… It's such a hypocritical thing to be outraged by someone's actions, yet be hurt that they weren't toward you." It's a thought-provoking post. (Thanks to Virginia for pointing me toward it.) She solicited readers' experiences, and only when I started to really reflect on the complex reactions that harassment prompts within me did I remember: It wasn't me the construction workers were hollering at when I told them off. It was the woman ahead of me on the street.

Now, these workers had indeed been making me wary for weeks by the time I melted down: Again, nothing lewd, but I'm not so naive as to think that their words to me were strictly neighborly. They were claiming my block—the block I'd called home for years—as their own space. But I dealt with it internally, either by ignoring, or playing neighbor, or taking the long way around. I never confronted them—until the day that another woman was walking maybe 30 feet ahead of me and I heard them get to her first. When they started in on her, I saw her head bow ever so slightly as she shuffled past the site. And in that moment, I snapped. The dialogue I gave above happened as I described it, but it wasn't me they were talking about.

I've told the story a few times—with me as target—as an example of a way to call out street harassers on their actions, because it did have what I consider a happy ending. (Some women may have preferred that they never say hello to her, but that would have made me even more tense; really, all I wanted was to feel at ease in my neighborhood, and for me this did it.) I never consciously rewrote the story in my head to eliminate the actual target of their attention; in fact, telling it in that way was so seamless that I honestly had forgotten it wasn't about me, until I read M. Brenn's post.

I don't know how much of my reaction was about jealousy; I'm loath to admit when that particular emotion strikes me, but I didn't feel that hot flash of jealousy that I'm plenty familiar with. (Though I can't pretend it was simple mama-bear protectiveness on my part either; the truth is probably a little of both, plus a nasty mood and opportunity to at least feel like I was speaking up for someone else instead of myself, which I'm not great at.) But my hunch is that my accidental revision was about embarrassment. I'm pretty sure that instinctively, I feared seeming jealous if I reported that I'd finally told off the workers after seeing someone else get the treatment, not myself—and that if I then tried to make it clear that, Well, no, you see, they'd also done it to me too, it was just this one day, no really!, I'd seem a little thou-doth-protest-too-much. I've often braced myself for walking a stretch of sidewalk that's populated with men I believe will bring me trouble—and heard nothing. And sometimes that feels like a relief or even a victory, but other times I merely feel foolish for having assumed that I would elicit that kind of attention.

I don't want to be harassed—ever. But we're steeped in a culture where objectification is treated as a prize for women, and in New York City, the objectification of street harassment is a fact of day-to-day life. It's a constant reminder that we are being looked at. In a culture that breathes objectification down our necks, being looked at can satisfy an itch that wasn't ours to begin with—even as it annoys us. Objectification is an unnatural state, but even women who fight against objectification—mine, yours, J.Lo's, anyone's—live in a world where it's the norm, and we may sometimes internalize its absence as a remark on our appeal. I think of one of Beauty Redefined's catchphrases: You are capable of so much more than being looked at. It's a powerful, truthful statement, and I believe it.

But fighting that all day, every day, becomes exhausting. We've become programmed to find street objectification the norm, and deprogramming ourselves from that takes constant work. If we had a unilateral way of rejecting street harassment, it might be easier, but it's not a neat trajectory: Sometimes we have interactions with strangers that are pleasant, life-affirming, and joyous, and sometimes those encounters might even make you feel pretty (if objectified). Unlike sexual assault, in which a woman saying no or being unable to consent marks the beginning of the crime zone, the target's feelings are part of what delineates harassment from a simple encounter. I feel harassed when I received unwanted attention on the street (and for the record, most of it is unwanted)—and the person who decides what's unwanted is me. There are plenty of external factors that push an encounter to the harassment end of the spectrum: Is it one man, or a group? Is it daylight, or night? Is he drunk, am I? Does he start to follow me, does he call me a bitch when I don't answer, is there a menace in his voice? Is he saying good morning, or is he commenting on parts of my body? Is he smiling, or is he whispering, or is he making that hideous hissing sound I'd never heard before moving to this city, or does he keep on talking after I've indicated I don't want to engage with him?

But street encounters are complex, and so are our reactions to them. I know I'm not alone in occasionally feeling genuinely pleased at a nice comment from a stranger. Of course this can only happen when the fellow is following common sense; it's daylight, he doesn't linger, he's brief and kind and smiling and not ogling—basically, he's a gentleman about it. Yet at its heart, even an encounter with the hallmarks of pleasance is left up to me to define as an amiable human interaction or as a gnat of a moment I wish hadn't happened. Not that I can—or should—welcome all polite comments on my appearance; it's more that, frankly, my mood has a lot to do with whether I smile back, ignore it, or cast an annoyed look. I try to always to ignore it, but my instincts don't always let me.

Listen: If I could, by decree, rule that nobody would ever comment on a stranger's appearance—both harassment and genuine compliments—I'd do it. Ultimately I want my block to feel like mine, not like I'm on a canvas and the patriarchy holds the paintbrush. But I also feel like with that decree, I'd be losing small, occasional gifts that have entered my life as a result of a stranger saying something nice to me. I have to acknowledge my contradictions as a part of my complex reaction to being looked at.

Jealousy, anger, pride, relief, apprehension, hatred, satisfaction, dread, numbness, fear, stress, thrill, shame: These are all legitimate reactions to these sorts of encounters. But notice that these are all reactions. That may be the greatest loss this particular form of objectification signifies for women. It keeps us in a constant state of passivity and self-examination, whether in the end we applaud our own responses or doubt them. And this examination diverts us from the larger point: It's not our response to actions that needs a thorough questioning. It's the actions themselves.

Kelli Dunham, Comic, New York City

“Yeah, I get called for beauty blog interviews all the time,” quips Kelli Dunham, comic, author, queer organizer, and ex-nun. “I’m turning them down now.” But with a CD titled Almost Pretty (watch the hilarious story of the CD's title here), is it any wonder we connected? Cohost of LGBT storytelling series Queer Memoir and round-table comedy-talk show Juxtapositions, Kelli has entertained audiences from the legendary Stonewall Inn to Citibank corporate headquarters, always keeping her vibrant, savvy humor on edge. We talked about the masculine privilege granted to butch women, the time renowned gender theorist Kate Bornstein called her handsome, and where a woman can find a decent barber in this town. In her own words:

On Desirability and Handsomeness
After my mom saw me perform for the first time in a long while, I remember her saying, “So, Kelli, I have a question—” you know that when you preface a question with a question, it’s never good—“in your subculture, are you considered...desirable?” I didn’t know she knew what a subculture was! She was genuinely confused; it was the first time she’d seen me perform in so long. But I think she’d noticed the kind of girlfriends I’d had over the years, and what they look like, and I think it had never occurred to her that how I look actually has some social currency in “my subculture.” So I said, “Yeah, Mom, actually I am considered desirable in my subculture.” And she said, “Oh! Oh. Oh.” People have an assumption that since femininity must be the default of beauty, that to not be what’s considered feminine must be ugly. It becomes the logical conclusion. So when she was presented with new information by seeing me interact with people, perhaps by observing sexual agency—she has eyes, she can observe social patterns—she realized, “Wow, it seems like my daughter is desirable in some way.” She was checking for facts against her assumptions. I think when she heard me say that, yes, I actually am attractive to others of my species, then all the things she’d been observing kind of clicked.

I don’t really identify with the term beauty. But Kate Bornstein was the first person to call me handsomeI had a very short buzz cut at that time—it was seven or eight years ago, she rubbed my head and said “Oh, you’re just such a handsome boi.” And I remember being shocked—in addition to it being Kate Bornstein saying it, it just made me feel like...Wow, I’m handsome. That was very life-affirming, and I think it gave me a level of hope. I had a lot of good experiences growing up focused on what I could do, but as far as, Hmm, I’m really enjoying looking at you—that hadn’t really been the kind of experience I’d had. So I felt like, Okay, if Kate Bornstein finds me handsome, I bet there are other people who do. As it turns out, I am desirable in my subculture.

As I’ve become comfortable in my gender identity, I’ve become okay with the word beauty, but I think it was challenging to me before—in part because it was always used as a measuring stick, as in, “You could be really pretty if you _______.” I was a fat kid, and growing up as a fat kid people would compliment your face, the whole “Oh, you have such a pretty face” thing. But as a fat kid, you definitely don’t want to hear anything about your face, because it’s a backhanded compliment. It’s possible now that there are all sorts of ways that people interact with me because I’ve got these sort of delicate features—I never liked my nose, but my girlfriend says “That’s the kind of nose people pay $10,000 to get”—instead of looking rougher. If I was wearing what I’m wearing now—a sweatshirt that’s seven years old, completely inappropriate shorts, old tennis shoes—but had irregular or asymmetrical features, maybe people would be interacting with me differently. I wouldn’t really know, though—that’s what privilege is, when you have something you don’t recognize.

On Boi Couture
I’d always thought that dress-up clothes were feminine clothes, and therefore uncomfortable and not really me. My mom loved dressing my sister and me in matching outfits, and it was the '70s so there are all these pictures of me in bright pink with a bow and a silk collar. I felt like I was wearing a bear suit or something. When I started realizing that wearing masculine clothes was an option for me, the idea of dressing up became positive. I like nerdy accessories—I have these cheap tennis shoes shoes that have pink laces, and the uppers look like the front of a composition notebook, that speckled black. They’re cute as hell, but because they cost $15 there’s no support at all, so sometimes I just put them in my bag and wear them at an event. My girlfriend makes fun of me, saying they’re my equivalent of spike heels.

When I get dressed up, a tie is one of those things that makes me straighten my shoulders. The first time you put on a tie, it feels amazing. It’s a gender marker that people find very confrontational. There are ties in traditional women’s clothing, but you’re not really trying to wear a tie. I imagine that’s something to do with male privilege, specifically the kind of man who wears a tie. It’s like, “Are you trying to be that kind of person? You couldn’t possibly be that kind of person.” Some masculine women specifically stay away from traditional men’s power wear when they go to job interviews, because they feel it’s too confrontational. But my girlfriend [who presents as feminine] has a power suit that’s just like a dude’s suit! She had a tailor for it, but it’s just a dude’s suit. It works much better for her than it would for me.

I wrote a couple of children’s books, and my publisher assigned me a publicist. She was trying to book me on The Bonnie Hunt Show to talk about kids and their bodies, and everything was going great. The producer loved me and we’re all three on the phone, and they said, “Oh, do you have a video you could send us?” I said, “Absolutely.” The producer hangs up and I’m just talking to the publicist, and I say, “You’ve seen a picture of me, right?” And she says, “No, but I’m Googling right now...oh my!” Needless to say, I didn’t end up on The Bonnie Hunt Show. Anyway, one of the videos that I had was me performing in a tie, and they said, “You have to lose the tie.” I said, “You need to understand, if you want me to wear a dress, I’m going to look more uncomfortable.” Forcing people into a different gender presentation than what they identify with generates awkwardness for all involved. The hilarious thing was that at that point my hair was completely close-cropped, almost shiny on the sides, and I had piercings. But the tie, the tie! She’s wearing a tie!

On Barbershops
A new haircut is a butch accessory. I have to go to a barbershop to get my hair cut, and trying to get it short enough is always an ordeal. I usually go for a 1 or a 2 on the clippers, but I used to say I’d like a 0 when I was in suburban areas, because then they’d actually use a 1 or a 2. They’re scared that they’re going to cut off your hair and you’re going to be like, “Ahhh! It’s too short!” They think that a woman wouldn’t really know the barbershop vocabulary, even though I’d memorized it. And actually, you can’t really do that in New York, because in New York they’ll listen to you. When there’s some kind of language barrier, I’ll just go in and say, “Fleet Week.”

Going with another butch to the barbershop is definitely less intimidating than going by yourself. There are certain places where it feels totally cool, and other places where it’s not cool at all, so you have to figure it out. And it’s always a different experience if you pass, if the person thinks you’re a guy or a kid. I look for something that doesn’t say “Barbershop for men” or something like that—some places will actually have that. I don’t know if they could refuse the service, but the person is gonna have a razor in their hand, so it just makes sense to not push too much. If I see both young and old guys in there, that’s a clue, and if I see a mixture of straight and gay guys working there, that’s another. Once I found that I could navigate that stuff myself and develop the skills to judge a barbershop from the outside, and once people could see that I know the vocabulary, that was satisfying. It feels like a rite of passage, and it’s such a simple thing. Your boyfriend probably doesn’t come home and tell you, “Wow, I finally went to the barber, and it was awesome!”

On Butch Privilege
A friend of mine who transitioned said, “Wow, being a fat man is so much easier than being a fat woman.” When I had longer hair, I definitely got more “fat-ass” insults on the street, and since I’ve had a spectrum of body sizes I’ve had an interesting exercise in how people react to body sizes. There are ways in which there’s a protective space formed around masculinity. I can’t even remember the last time someone tried to engage me in diet talk. Like in that split second of someone being, “Hey, let’s talk about Atkins!” they look at me and are like, “Well, maybe she’d rather talk about baseball...” Which is a toss-up. I don’t really like to talk about baseball either. Butch women have some masculine privilege. I mean, we’re also liable to get beat up or knifed on the street, but there is some masculine privilege. Even when people think I’m a 15-year-old boy, there are benefits to that.

With comedy, I might have run into more appearance-related issues if I’d stayed in mainstream comedy. When I get onstage in mainstream clubs, people don’t know what gender I am. I almost always have to address it up-front because otherwise they’ll be like, “Oh, she looks like a 12-year-old boy.” And they laugh throughout the gender stuff, but I think that’s because I’m so deliberately addressing it. If I just got up and said, “Hey, I’m gonna tell some jokes about my cat! Men and women are so different! Say, what’s up with hats?” perhaps there would be more resistance to it. I do think there’s a lot of pressure on female comics to talk in a self-deprecating way about their bodies, but because I look the way I look it’s different for me. I’m addressing it directly, and some people will say, “Oh, that’s a great schtick you have.” I’m thinking, This is a schtick?

Thoughts on a Word: Lovely

Lovely is mild yet vibrant; a melody, not a symphony. Lovely has grace but not quite elegance; elegance distances us from the subject, loveliness draws us in. Lovely is enjoyable. Lovely is pleasant. Lovely is nice. Lovely is a pretty face with an unmistakably chipped tooth. Lovely would not exist without love.

I've been described as lovely, and chances are you have too. Because unlike beautiful, pretty, cute, striking, and so on, lovely is safe: It is clearly an endorsement, but whether it’s an endorsement of the person’s spirit or their appearance is left up in the air. Even as we champion “inner beauty,” we need the inner to distinguish it from that other kind of beauty—the kind that when spoken of as beauty alone, with no qualifying words, we understand to be external.

Stevie Wonder sang of his daughter in “Isn’t She Lovely”; we describe infants as beautiful all the time, but as an overt love song to a child, lovely becomes a word that both cannot be argued with (some babies are weird-looking, after all) and one that removes any possible inappropriacy. It’s a compliment, but a desexualized one; years ago, I was walking down the street when a man started walking alongside me serenading me with this song. This would be an unremarkable, if over-the-top, street encounter were it not for the fact that I was holding hands with my then-boyfriend: My troubadour was looking for an unassailable compliment (and a tip), one that would allow him to admire a woman without bringing out any possessive tendencies in her companion. Lovely was no accident there. Nor is it happenstance that Sarah Jessica Parker’s fragrance bears that name. She’s an actress known for her verve, charm, and talent, not necessarily her beauty; lovely stakes her claim—and the claim of anyone hoping to share her essence—in the territory of the perhaps-pretty yet certainly-appealing.

Its very versatility lends itself to overapplication, even sarcasm. I might say a lunch date has been lovely when I’ve had a truly delightful time with my dining partner; I might say the same if I felt slightly uncomfortable—headachy, not feeling social, stressed, whatever—but want to use a not-untruthful word to describe the time I spent with someone I enjoy enough to schedule a lunch with. Oxford English Dictionary notes this comparatively weakened use of lovely going back as far as 1614, and also notes its use as an intensifier: "Feel my Johnson's Baby Powder—isn't it lovely and downy and soft?" says a 1937 ad in American Home. The baby powder isn't lovely, of course; it needs the support of the other, more exact adjectives, before lovely has any actual meaning. 

Lovely can temper one's sentiment, making it clear that there’s something that’s held back—lovely carries no exuberance, even as delight may spark its use. Of lovely, Merriam-Webster goes on record with “Lovely is close to beautiful but applies to a narrower range of emotional excitation”; thus beauty trumps even love in its abilities to arouse. With its tempered usage, lovely to mean lowly becomes a particularly Anglo-Saxon-inspired form of sarcasm: It would be too easy to turn around a stronger adjective to mean its opposite. But the very restraint of lovely lends itself to a contained sarcasm. “A dispute arose between these two lovelies [street-sweepers] as to who was entitled to the gutter” appeared in a Pennsylvania newspaper in 1876; more than a century later, young British artist Stephen Johnson, who specializes in “designing items of no physical use-value,” created his “Now Isn’t That Lovely” series of junk-store kitsch.  

Yet the literal root of lovely is, after all, love. When used at its most straightforward, there’s an implied emotional connection to lovely that may or may not be there with beautiful or pretty. Beauty provokes emotion, to be sure, but emotion provokes lovely even in beauty’s absence: Are you able to look into the eyes of an un-pretty person you’re fond of and not see some small loveliness? To call someone lovely is to utter a wish for mutuality: If I find you lovely, there's a subdued, miniature ball of love somewhere in there. And what fun is it to play ball alone?

Body Police: How I Unwittingly Escaped the Body Cops

Body 911!

This kerfuffle at This Recording piece about body policing stood out to me, not because it said much new, but because of the response to it. It's one of the "skinny people aren't exempt from nasty comments about their bodies" pieces out there—a point well taken. What doesn't go over well is when the author of the piece claims that "Few nice, everyday folks would approach an overweight stranger and tell them to go on a diet." While most quit-talking-about-our-bodies attention yesterday was directed toward The Sartorialist (where 1,106 people commented on his preference for only mentioning his subjects' body size when they're not bone-thin), there was enough harrumphing from the always-awesome Kate Harding for me to take note.

So we're agreed that we shouldn't be surveilling and policing other people's bodies, right? But that because our culture attaches so much to women's bodies, there's little way to escape it, right?

Yet for years, I did escape it. For a chunk of my twenties, I inhabited a size zone that, on my medium frame, made me look a little more than medium. I was a few pounds overweight by the BMI scale (and yes, I know BMI is faulty, but I have the kind of body that it was designed for--when I'm moderately active and eating my nutritionist-approved meal plan, I'm squarely in the middle of the "healthy" zone) but didn't have trouble finding clothes at mainstream stores that fit me. Basically, I had about the body of the average American woman. And nobody said a word about my body. Ever. Nobody called me curvy, or average, or normal. Or voluptuous, or fat, or stocky, or plump, or soft, or sturdy, or thick, or anything. I wasn't hiding my body: I didn't flaunt my figure, but neither was I dressing in paper bags. When shopping for clothes, I went into a store, found things I liked, tried them on, and bought them or didn't. In "body talk" with friends, nobody commented on my figure. It was a non-issue, I thought.

Around age 30, I lost a lot of weight for a variety of reasons—I stay away from numbers and sizes here, but as a frame of reference, I lost nearly 20% of my body weight. I didn't look emaciated or anything near it—the #1 word people used to describe my body at that time was "healthy." (The writer whose piece prompted this entry was frequently suspected of having an eating disorder; only one person ever inquired about my mental health in that regard.) Healthy, then trim, and slender, and lean. And cute, and little, and, yes, skinny.

That is: In dropping three dress sizes, I also lost my protection against body policing—a protection I didn't realize I'd had.

Sure, some of this came from friends and coworkers, who had a point of comparison and were commenting on my body as "little" compared to what it had been. (And note that I was well within the "healthy" BMI range even at my lowest weight, and looked it.) I didn't mind that—they were trying to be supportive in what our culture frames as some great, noble battle against fat. In fact, with a handful of exceptions, most people were refreshingly sensitive about how to frame their compliments so as not to put me on the spot or imply that I hadn't looked fine before.

What surprised me was the reaction from strangers. Shopkeepers suddenly started guessing my dress size, almost making a game out of it at times. Some criticized my body in ways they hadn't before; my figure was "fantastic...but you've really got to have a flat belly for this dress." People I'd just met made quick assessments of and references to my body in cocktail conversation: "Oh, you wouldn't understand, you're thin," or commenting on my food. People I was meeting for the first time made assumptions about my character: I was "disciplined," or had "willpower," or exercised "control." Most often, I was simply "good." I was "lucky." I rarely got the kind of "I hate you" thing you hear about sometimes—I wonder if it's my friendliness or the fact that I wasn't super-slim that protected me from that particular form of policing—but on occasion, it did float my way.

At my heavier weight, it was understood that even if I wasn't fat, I was at a size where people assumed I probably wanted to lose weight. And because weight is a sensitive issue, this unspoken weight-loss dictum was off-limits for discussion. I'm certain that it would have been different had I been unabashedly fat, as many a tale from fat women illustrates. (Dances With Fat always dissects these in a delightfully tart manner.) But because my body was nearly the exact proportions of the average American woman, it was like I was in a sort of DMZ of body policing: Too small for CDC-approved admonishments about my food intake, too big to make a game out of guessing my dress size, I skated through most of my twenties unaware of how freely people comment on one another's bodies.

Now, there may have been other reasons for the spike in body policing I experienced when I lost weight. Maybe it's because people picked up on the hungry discomfort I felt at my lowest weight and were either trying to reassure me that it was "worth it" or exacerbate it for their own weird-food-issues reasons. Maybe I carried myself differently. Maybe my fleshier body lent me an air of "fuck your fascist body standards" confidence that people didn't want to mess with. Maybe I blocked out negative (or positive) comments I got when heavier. Maybe I clinged to the body policing I received at my lightest, for even when there was an undercutting tone to them, the fact was, I had wanted to lose weight, and such comments were validating. Maybe even now that I've settled into a weight that's between my highest and lowest and that feels natural to me—and now that most of the body policing comments have dwindled—I'm still filtering the comments I received in order to remove whatever body-image issues I have and make them about "culture" and "society" instead of my relationship with my body.

I hesitate to draw grand conclusions from this. First of all, I'm guessing that there are plenty of average-American-woman-bodied women who've heard all too much from others about their figures. Second, I've argued here plenty that if you're a woman, your appearance becomes a comments free-for-all. (And I'm certain that I wasn't actually exempt from body policing at my heavier weight; I was just free from the vocalization of it.) But what I'm gleaning from my experience is that while women's faces and figures are forever targets, we attach highly specific meaning to specific shapes and sizes, and we make assumptions about people's personalities and histories based on this one piece of evidence alone. It's not a spectrum of positive assumptions assigned to thin people and negative assumptions assigned to fat people, nor is there a neat flipside-rhetoric working in which we champion fat people while demonizing the thin. Our attitudes toward the bodies of others are only as complex as our attitudes toward our own.

Thoughts Upon Reading 122 Comments About My Face, Courtesy America Online

"Your story is being considered to be featured on AOL Welcome Screen!" my editor at MyDaily wrote me in regards to the piece I wrote about my makeover. "If it happens, you will get TONS of traffic. Yay! But be ready for crazy comments."

I wouldn't say that the comments were crazy (with the exception of "I would eat her with a spoon"). But when I was notified that it had gone into rotation and saw more than 100 comments within mere hours, I was both thankful to my editor for her prescience (word up, Ellen!) and interested in what this sample of people might illuminate about our culture's attitudes toward beauty. I sometimes fall into the pop-feminist bubble (I remember being shocked when a friend told me he hadn't read much discussion of Natalie Portman's ballerina-fied body in Black Swan, whereas that was pretty much the only thing I read about the film), so I was curious to see what a cross-section of Americans who are Online might have to say about my piece. And, of course, I never found out: They were too busy talking about my face instead.

What I learned from 122 comments about my face:

1) People overwhelmingly preferred the "before" me: “I agree with everyone else the before picture is better than the bombshell photo. ; )”

I prefer the "natural" me too, for that matter—I loved the bombshell look and found it fun, and thought Eden did a fantastic job of creating the look. But I wasn’t doing the makeover to look better; I was doing it to look different, and both my makeover guru and I approached it with that mind-set. And, sure, it's nice to hear that Online Americans don’t think I need a pile of false eyelashes to look nice. (You like me! You really like me!) I admit it's also a relief. (Still, I stand by certain tricks I learned. Eyebrow pencil! Lipstick!)

Aside from that—and aside from the unfortunate difference in lighting between the two photos, which ensured that my “before” has a naturally-lit quality that the “after” couldn’t achieve—I found it interesting that, in fact, only four commenters flat-out said that I looked better afterward. Is it only a straw man who prefers artifice? And was there an element of self-congratulation among some commenters? It’s easy to be drawn to certain signals of beauty: red lipstick, emphasized eyes, long curls. Therefore, it’s easier to reject those signals as false, vain, trying too hard. Yet we all know what those signals mean, so I wonder if some commenters thought that they were seeing beyond the surface by preferring the more low-key look presented in the “before” picture. To reject my utterly normal-looking, friendly-seeming “before” picture would be more akin to rejecting a person, not the symbols presented in the “after”—and while anonymous online commenters aren’t known for their social graces, neither are people usually out to merely be mean. (Of course, plenty of commenters were just that, but they’re easy enough to discount.)

2) The catch-all insult: “got 2 mention nose job.”

A handful of commenters indicated that I needed a nose job. Whaaaa? I have the most average nose in North America. I mean, am I deluding myself here in that there is absolutely nothing remarkable about my nose? (Okay, I do have a bump from a reconstruction after a car wreck when I was 16, but you can only see it from the side.) What this indicates to me is that “you need a nose job” is a grab bag of ways to put a woman in her place. It makes me think of the time a random man on the subway suddenly started yelling at me about how fat I was. It wasn’t that I was fat (I’ve got a medium build), nor was it even that he thought I was fat, I’m guessing—it was that he was putting me in my place for not encouraging his advances. You can’t see my body in the shot that was on the page, and telling a woman she needs a nose job is vaguely the facial equivalent of “fat”: It’s a catch-all way of saying, There is something wrong with you, even if there isn’t. (And not that being fat or having a nose that is the stuff of magnificence is “wrong,” but some people treat it that way.) I’m not everyone’s cup of tea, but neither is there an odd-looking feature about me that’s so outstanding as to become the butt of commenters' jokes. So: nose job it is.

3) Total strangers could tell I'm uncomfortable in front of a camera: “She would be prettier in each picture if she had actually smiled rather than pursed her lips.”

It’s humbling to be called out on your “photo face” by total strangers. (A number of people commented that I looked pinched, uncomfortable, or “like she’s sucking a lemon.”) After interviewing photographer Sophie Elgort, I had to own up to the fact that if I’m trying to “look pretty” in a photograph, it will kill any chance I have of looking pretty. As Sophie said, “How can you expect to look like your best self in a photo if you’re putting on a ridiculous face?” To see that total strangers could pick up on my discomfort was an official notice that I’m not fooling anyone when I pout-smile in front of the camera. Smile and breathe. Smile and breathe.

4) People were quick to point out that, no, I didn't look like a bombshell: “We have very different definitions of 'bombshell'”

Some commenters meant this is a put-down (“More dud than bombshell,” courtesy icebull), but others just seemed mildly perplexed. I realize that a look that’s over-the-top to me is tame by many standards ("I'd like for you to visit Tuscaloosa on a nice fall Saturday—chances are there's more bombshells walking around there than where you're from,” writes DC). Perhaps the word conjures something that I didn’t intend; I forget that not everybody scrutinizes words the way I do. But from my perspective, the whole point of the bombshell is that it’s a creation, not a God-given quality. (Norma Jeane, anyone?) So when commenters wrote along the lines of, "She's just wearing lipstick and eyeliner! Where's the bombshell?" I wondered what they were hoping to see. Did they expect something more over-the-top? A different look entirely? A professional-level photo? Someone who is flat-out more beautiful than I could ever be?

Or was it that the term is so loaded that it can’t help but disappoint? We’re saturated with images of professional beauties everywhere, and those images are always digitally manipulated. I wonder if some users who saw the “bombshell” promise on their welcome screens, upon scrolling over my “before” picture and then finding a non-airbrushed, non-professional picture of a non-model—that is, an average woman who has been promoted as a “bombshell”—simply felt ripped off.

Listen, I don’t think I’m some exquisite orchid, but I can look in the mirror and see that I’m not “horrifying,” as one commenter wrote. I’m guessing that the people who were eager to put me down were doing so because through the construction of the headline, the “grand reveal” drag-and-scroll rollover of my before and after, and the very idea of the piece, I was claiming “bombshell” status for myself, however temporarily. It was that claim that provoked a response, not how I actually looked. In the days following Elizabeth Taylor’s death, I had a handful of conversations with friends who said something along the lines of “She’s pretty, sure, but why was she known as a great beauty?” None of the people who said this to me are the type to just randomly detract from someone’s looks: They were saying it in response to the sudden hyperconsciousness of a woman who has readily been called the most beautiful woman in the world. Of course they were going to look at that claim critically—and when you're using that rubric, Elizabeth freakin’ Taylor can fall short. Once I asked readers to take me in as a bombshell, how could I stand a chance of escaping the same?

5) Few people read a single word I wrote: “She was so excellent at playing Cleopatra that the world later really thought that Cleopatra was actually white. God Bless and Rest in Peace.”

Which is to say: Few appeared to have read the piece itself. The grand total of people who referenced anything other than my photo? Thirteen. (That’s excluding friends and readers of The Beheld who commented to help promote the piece—thank you!) Of those, maybe five actually addressed the points I was attempting to make. I can’t really get up in arms about this: It is a piece about my appearance, after all; referencing my looks in the comments isn't irrelevant. But nowhere did I say in the piece that I thought I looked better in either photo, and for a piece about getting a makeover, it was as far away from “which is better?” as you could get.

But none of that matters, because nobody was reading. I'm recalling an anecdote I didn't have room for in my interview with artist and writer Lisa Ferber: She was nervous while preparing to share one of her short stories at a reading. "My mother asked me if I was nervous about the piece, and I said, 'No, I'm nervous that I just won't be a good reader.' And she said, 'Lisa, you are a beautiful woman—nobody is going to listen to a word you say anyway.'" We both laughed when she shared the story, but it stuck with me. I’ve seen plenty of women be underestimated because they’re pretty, but I’ve always assumed that because I’m neither glorious nor hideous, it didn’t apply to me.

What I learned with this piece was that being objectified isn’t about whether a woman is pretty. It’s about her being an object—which is mighty hard to escape if you’re a woman, regardless of your appearance. In this case, the subject matter served as an ersatz carte blanche for people to openly discuss my looks, but it’s not hard to think of examples where the subject matter was entirely incongruent with a woman’s looks and people took aim anyway. (The 2008 elections come to mind.) I can’t imagine that people would have read the piece any more closely if I’d been outrageously weird-looking, or that fewer people would have read it if I were more conventionally beautiful. It was that I was a woman, and that I was there.

Annika Connor, Painter, New York City

Like fragments of an ongoing daydream, artist Annika Connor’s lush watercolors focus on the feminine aesthetic in beauty—lovers in an embrace, ballerinas in flight, even decadent interiors. Annika’s work also extends outside of the studio; she’s the founder of Active Ideas Productions, which promotes emerging artists through education, publications, and more. The impetus to talk with Annika was, of course, her intriguing work, which frequently captures beautiful women in intimate moments. But I was also particularly eager to learn more about her thoughts on personal beauty and presentation: Even in the fashion capital of the world, she stands out as exceptionally stylish (legendary New York Times style photographer Bill Cunningham agrees; he’s photographed her several times) and effortlessly glamorous without sacrificing any of her natural warmth. In her own words:

On Seeing and Being Seen
I got glasses a couple of years ago for distance, and when I did I was like, “What?! You’re supposed to see all that?” [Laughs] I couldn’t believe that I was supposed to see the branches on trees 50 feet away—that’s nuts! That’s way too much information! When I go to the ballet or the museum I'll put on my glasses; other than that, I don't tend to wear them. I kind of like seeing what's in front of me and letting the rest be a little blurry. So I don't really notice people on the street very much, or notice them noticing me—I get lost in this little bubble. [Laughs] But I don’t take the glasses off in order to not see people; it’s just a byproduct.

 Marilyn Multiplied
I started this around the time I got glasses—Marilyn Multiplied, and it's obviously playing on the Andy Warhol idea. This is from How to Marry a Millionaire, where Marilyn Monroe plays this bumbling sort of fool because she has to wear strong prescription glasses, but she doesn’t want to. She’s this great comic character—she’s doing all these silly things because she can't see what's going on. In this particular scene, she's gone into the bathroom, she's had her glasses on, she's fixed her hair, she's fixed her makeup, she's straightened her dress, and here she's just taken off her glasses and she's putting them back in her handbag. So this painting is depicting the moment when she's decided to literally not see the world in order to be seen by the world as beautiful. She's playing a comic character, but it struck me as poignant that her character was deliberately operating blind in order to be seen.  When I painted her reflections—they're all her, but they could almost be different women too.  Overall the painting is about the various multifaceted sides one has, all the many women that one woman is, depending on the angle or the light or their mood.

Any flat surface functions as something you gaze at—there's an immediate association with the mirror.  So a painting, although it doesn't actually reflect your image, often functions as a mirror, both to the viewer and the artist. As an artist, it's hard to keep yourself out of your paintings. My paintings almost always have a self-portrait element, even if I’m painting a man or a forest, so when I am painting women, it’s natural that I project a bit of myself into them. Of course my mixed emotions and feelings also go in there on some level, but my paintings take a really long time to make, and my emotions change, so it’s not necessarily as direct as: I’m angry, and then the woman looks angry.

La Goulue

On Allure
I titled this painting La Goulue, which was a great restaurant on the Upper East Side but which also translated means “the greedy one.”  I gave her this name because in this painting she’s so greedy for the viewer’s attention. I was inspired by a Stieglitz photo of a woman looking at the viewer, sort of hanging over a sofa wearing a come-hither look that seems to say, “Look at me.”

In my studio, I actually had to hang La Goulue behind my sofa because she was so demanding of your attention that if she was on the other wall it was interfering with the ability to see my other work.  I love that she’s really insisting having on the viewer’s eye on her, but no, I don’t think I need to make sexy paintings in order to get the viewer’s attention.  When I make sexy painting, it is because my work in part deals with depicting romance and daydreams, and sex and allure is a part of that conversation.

I have a lot of notions that are feminine and super-idealistic—some might say idealistic or naive.  However, there's so much in the world that’s unpleasant, unattractive, uninteresting, and aggressive—if I have the opportunity to literally make something that never existed before, like a painting, why shouldn't I create something that's inspiring and uplifting and beautiful, as opposed to something that’s jarring? I definitely feel that by seeing the world as beautiful, I end up painting a world that is somewhat beautiful.

On Self-Presentation
I want to give gifts to my viewer, and I suppose that kind of extends with my love of fashion and how I present myself. If I’ve put myself together in the best possible way that is the most appropriate for the situation, it makes me feel confident. So for example, if I meet with my lawyers, I’ll put on a great suit, I’ll pull my hair back, I’ll look all...Corporate Annika. Doing this sort of attire makes me feel competent and I’ll ask questions about [faux-deep voice] intellectual property law.

Sometimes there's a theatrical element to what I’m wearing, a bit like costuming. Presentation is a big part of pulling together a look. When you put a frame on a painting, it’s the final touch. And a pretty dress without any accessories or makeup—something feels missing. Jewelry, makeup, hair—it's how you frame the figure. It's similar to how you paint a painting.

During the day I don’t wear much makeup, just the basics to make me look like I don't have dark circles under my eyes. But if I’m getting dressed up for an event, I enjoy doing something dramatic. That's one of the best things about being a woman—we can make ourselves look way more beautiful. I sometimes feel bad for men. They don't get to wear cover-up! That must suck! They just have to look how they look.

At the Les Liaisons Dangereuses: The Young Fellows Ball; photo, Yina Lou

As a woman, when you know you're looking good, you feel confident. Your day is better, you accomplish more, you meet more people, because you have that extra edge. Sometimes when I'm feeling blue, I'll put on an outrageous outfit and go to Whole Foods and grocery shop. The great thing about Whole Foods at Columbus Circle is that everybody goes there. You have no idea if somebody's just stopping and getting some food on the way to a dinner party, so I can totally be in a ball gown at Whole Foods if I feel like it!

So when I am sad I'll put on an outrageous hat or I’ll wear a super-colorful outfit, so people will smile at me. And maybe it's a bit because they’re laughing, but in the end when you’re walking down the street and people are smiling at you, you start to feel better, even if you had been sad.

 Left: At the Performa Red Party; House of Diehl created the umbrella bustle on-site; photo, Yina Lou.
Right: At the Veuve Cliquot Polo Classic.

On Actions and Reactions of Others
Obviously I notice when a guy catcalls or something like that—but I learned while living in Barcelona that that is a compliment.  Of course, you can get offended by it from a feminist perspective, but essentially they're paying you a compliment. There's certain ones I don’t like, but for the most part when I'm walking down the street and some guy is like, "Ooh, looking good!” it makes me smile. Maybe I shouldn't, but—I mean, "Ooh, looking good!" [Laughs]

I don't feel I get belittled for being feminine, because I'm embracing it. My hair is blond and I’m wearing a sequined dress—if the first guy I'm speaking with doesn't immediately take me seriously and think I'm, like, this crazy intellect, that's totally okay! When that person eventually hears my ideas, my smarts will show themselves.

Actually, it's sort of good when people underestimate me, because then it's easy to impress them. [Laughs] And they do—I tend to get underestimated. But when they see my work, the painting speaks for itself.

Held back by beauty? Honestly, I don't really see myself as a beautiful woman. I see myself as, you know, moderately attractive. I'm okay, but I’m not any kind of supermodel. So maybe if you're super-super good-looking, you get pigeonholed by that. But I'm not good-looking enough to be held back because of things like that. [Laughs]

On Fascination
Beauty encourages projection because it engages with fascination: Something that's really beautiful fascinates you. You want to keep looking at it, whether that’s sunshine through yellowing leaves in Central Park on a lovely Sunday, or a woman simply strolling by. 

Because beauty is evocative, you relate what you're seeing with what you're remembering. When you’re looking at a beautiful landscape, you're enjoying the transcendental moment, but you’re also remembering, say a hike you took with your mother some other time. So when you're seeing a beautiful painting and it reminds you of an experience you had, or someone you knew. A beautiful woman can remind you of someone you know, or almost someone you can imagine you want to be.

 Midnight Express

But I also think there is a flipside to the beautiful. In order for something to be truly beautiful, there has to be fragility, or perhaps a potential of destruction. Everybody says beauty is fleeting—it this sense that beauty won't last forever which is part of why it its hypnotizing.

I also think people project with beauty because there's a longing that comes with the beautiful—a longing to possess, a longing to be there, a longing to become, depending on what the subject is. That longing can contribute to that darker side of the beautiful.  And that darker side can intoxicate, intrigue, and destroy.

 Rivera Remembered