On Veterans Day

"Nicky," Here Are the Young Men, Claire Felicie, 2009–2010

When I write here of beauty, most of the time I’m actually writing of convention—of what we as a culture have given our stamp of approval in the realm of beauty. The point isn’t any person’s actual appeal; the point is the standards and parameters we create around beauty.

But the way I experience beauty in my day-to-day life is personal, not sociological. When I register someone as beautiful—that is, when a person shows up on my radar as you should continue to look—it’s because of a quality the person has. A flicker in the eyes, a smirk, the way the person moves. That sounds vague because it is vague, it has to be vague, because if it were charted and fully understood, it might lose its properties of fascination. Beauty’s ineffability is part of what makes it register to us as beauty.

It's that elusive transcendence—which may or may not be beauty—that comes to mind with Claire Felicie’s remarkable photographs of soldiers taken before, during, and after their tours of Afghanistan, titled Here Are the Young Men. If you saw these photographs absent of context, some of them might have that sort of unclassifiable but intriguing quality about them to you; others wouldn’t. But when you learn that these were taken before, during, and after a life-changing experience that most of us will thankfully never know for ourselves, other qualities leap forward. Aversion, deadening, patience, cynicism, hatred, weariness, reluctance: The photos reflect something more complex than a mere loss of innocence. The phrase “the fog of war” refers to the shrouding of facts, evidence, and ability to determine the best course of action that something as extraordinary as war brings. I think of it here because of these men’s faces: You can’t look at them and draw any sort of universal conclusion. Some men look like the grew into themselves during their tour, a sort of adultness settling across their face. Other men, afterward, are unable to look into the camera. There’s no one way to know how war will change any individual, or any nation.

These photos also call into focus the fluctuating gap between what we really see and what we expect to see, both 
overshadowed by our knowledge that predetermination will change what we see. As Heather Murphy writes on Slate’s photo blog, “[T]here is something else in that third picture; a dullness to the eyes, a stiffness to the jaw. Isn’t there? What’s interesting about this project is that you can convince yourself that someone changed dramatically from middle to right, only to compare right to left and talk yourself out of it. It must just be angle or lighting, you say.” Yet Murphy reaches the same conclusion I do: “But even after you’ve concluded that wrinkle isn't really any bigger, it's undeniable that there is a difference. … It's not about the obvious clues like a frown or matted hair, but something far more nuanced.”

This can be applied in a far broader context: How our assumptions regarding people’s experiences color how we visually perceive them. Those broader applications are worth looking at, but today, for once I’m not thinking of how to make these questions bigger. I’m thinking of the soldiers—the veterans—and their before, during, and after. Whatever any of us may think of the war in Afghanistan, these people were there fulfilling their duty—as many of our parents did in Vietnam, our grandparents in WWII, our great-grandparents in the Great War that made the eleventh day of the eleventh month a global call for peace, and a global remembrance of those who served. I don’t want to glorify war or its participants by commenting upon Veterans Day. But an honoring needn’t be one of glorification; it can be an honoring of experience. And today, we honor just that.

Breaking Down Beauty: Physiognomy Revisited

 If you really want the magic decoder ring, scroll to page 61.

Just when you thought you’d read enough from me about physiognomy—the discredited pseudoscience of face-reading to determine character—for one month, here I come, wagging my charts with dimensions of bulbous foreheads and “lipless mouths” that “denote housewifery.” It’s just that in thinking more about the notion of “It” girls as a modern-day version of the science of face-reading, I realized I’d sort of fast-forwarded into that idea without looking at the more direct ways physiognomy is very much alive today.

Its rebirth isn’t called physiognomy, of course; it’s called something like "a universal conception of personality structure," which sounds much less nefarious than a discredited science based on phrases like “I have never yet seen a nose with a broad back, whether arched or rectilinear, that did not appertain to an extraordinary man.” Researchers use facial characteristics to explain things like gaydar, the trustworthiness of baby-faced adults, and women’s supposed preference for manly-men, and even conscientiousness. Even more so than with modeling, modern adaptations of physiognomy are often specifically not about beauty; they’re about classifying features in order to (supposedly) understand more about how we function. Physiognomy has its direct progeny in these areas of study. But the more I think about it, physiognomy is also a grandparent to the extraordinary attention paid to beauty by science researchers.

I’ve questioned the scientific drive behind beauty research before, and I don’t want to be redundant. In a nutshell: There’s an enormous body of research trying to pin down what exactly makes someone beautiful (rather, what makes someone conventionally attractive, I’d argue), and how/why people react to good-looking folks the way we do. I suspect it’s the very mystery of beauty that drives academic research behind beauty. There’s so much literature about how beauty leaves us powerless in its wake; why wouldn’t we want to demystify it in order to lessen its supposed power over us? (The next logical question question is gendered—why do we want so specifically to put a fine point on women’s beauty—but that’s a different post.)

Beauty science is the richest heir to physiognomy. What physiognomy attempted to do was pin down the mysteries of character and behavior, using a highly coded and essentially arbitrary system of classification. What scientists and economists are attempting to do with its glut of studies on beauty is pin down the mystery of fascination, using the highly specialized—and often subjective—tools at their disposal. When attempting to decipher what puzzles us, it’s assuring to turn to something unassailable to provide us with order. We can now look at physiognomy and see it’s ridiculous, but plenty today are happy to give credence to evolutionary psychology as it pertains to beauty without giving it a second thought. We can see the blatant racism, or at least the potential for it, in evolutionary psychology; we may not be as able to see how it enshrines subtler beauty norms, in part because there’s so much mystery, doubt, fear, and wonder about human beauty, particularly our own. (Is it possible to read any study on what determines beauty without attempting, however briefly, to figure out where you’d fall by its measure? I once actually measured the circumference of my wrist because it was supposed to tell me something about my desirability as a mate.)

I’m not trying to say that beauty researchers are as full of hocus-pocus as physiognomists. Where the father of 18th-century physiognomy Johann Kaspar Lavater said ,“Meeting eyebrows, held so beautiful by the Arabs...I can neither believe to be beautiful nor characteristic of such a quality,” the new set of beauty science at least attempts to set objective criteria. (At least, some of the time it does; much of the time it’s just as subjective as a 1794 fortune-teller. The aggregate study from Daniel Hamermesh that got a lot of ink last year examined five studies on beauty; four of them relied upon the beauty assessment of exactly one person.) I’m also not saying there’s nothing to the evolutionary science of beauty. I’m not qualified to make that statement, and it makes sense that the science of beauty, including evolutionary psychology, has a valid place in any thorough discussion of beauty. But what I’ve repeatedly found is that when people rush to bring in scientific “proof” of why we find certain features beautiful, it shuts down the conversation instead of enlivens it. It’s a way of saying, Sorry, babe, there’s nothing you can do about it, whether “it” is the incessant ogling of a woman with the desired waist-hip ratio, or someone feeling excluded from the realm of the beautiful because her features don’t match up quite right.

And that’s just a shame. I don’t think that the people behind these studies mean to shut down discourse about beauty; I think the actual researchers want to do the opposite. The most prominent researcher on the science of beauty, Nancy Etcoff, presents her work as a launching point, making it clear that she just wants the science of beauty to have a place in the conversation; her book, Survival of the Prettiest, is as much a cultural study as it is a scientific one. Actually, Etcoff’s introduction to her book makes it clear that she’s only trying to bring science back to beauty. Science had been concerned with looks at one point, she writes, until such studies became discredited as arbitrary, racist, and generally faulty. The science she was writing of, of course, was physiognomy.

Last week I wrote that it’s useful to look at a now-discredited pseudoscience in order to understand the collective cultural forces that go into taste-making, specifically in the modeling industry. But the consideration of physiognomy has a far more direct application to most of us: If we can give the science of beauty the same skepticism we now give to physiognomy, we may be able to see how little of the story evolutionary psychology really gives us when it comes to looks and attraction. Again, I’m not saying that Etcoff and the like are the equivalent of Lavater, making wild proclamations based solely on their own experience. But physiognomy’s, erm, limitations can illuminate those of the beauty sciences. More important, they can show us that there’s something more at stake than simple research. Lavater wrote Physiognomy in 1775—the early years of the Industrial Revolution, which would change the entire world more rapidly, and more radically, than any developments that came before it. The science of beauty began to see a resurgence in the 1960s, another time of blistering change. So let me ask you: What is going on now that might make scientists and economists put hard numbers on beauty? What sort of threat might a pretty face—or, for that matter, a not-pretty one—pose to social order? Why might we want to boil down beauty to a series of tables and charts, measurements and ratios, and why now? If we understand beauty in a rational way, who benefits—and whose power is curtailed?

Modeling as Modern-Day Physiognomy

From Physiognomy Illustrated; Or, Nature's Revelations of Character, Joseph Simms,
pub. 1889, Crackpot Press

I’ve had my palm read and my astrological chart done, but what I really want to find is a physiognomist. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your purpose, physiognomythe art of decoding character and temperament through the way our facial features are formedhas been discredited, and except for the occasional parlor game piece, it’s not something we readily find anymore (though if you know of a good physiognomist in the New York City area, holler!). Our faces already communicate so much to the world: We share conscious and unconscious expressions, of course, but our faces also telegraph something to the world just by dint of how they’re formed, even thoughsorry, all readers who believe in physiognomythat telegraph is woefully inaccurate. I have a “friendly face,” meaning strangers always ask me for directions; a friend of mine who’s just as friendly as I am rarely gets asked for directions because her neutral facial expression appears, to the unknowing eye, a hint angry.

The features of my own that I suspect make my face appear friendly don’t necessarily correspond with how a physiognomist would classify me (the shape of my eyes indicates “tenderness,” but the placement of my irises reveals that I’m “timid and phlegmatic,” so it’s a draw). But the ease with which strangers approach meand the way I quickly deduce who I should ask for aid or directions when I need themmakes me think that plenty of us make our own amateur conclusions about what faces mean. Still, I’d love to zoom back to the 19th century and have my face read: The amateur scientist in me (okay, the kook in me) wants to “know” what my face means, even though I know full well it's more along the lines of astrology than even something as "scientific" as the Myers-Briggs personality test. (We ever-curious ENFP Geminis are always eager to learn.)

My chances of finding a physiognomist are slim: The art/science of face-reading fell out of favor after the turn of the 20th century, its detractors calling it a pseudoscience akin to palm-reading. Certainly today we wouldn’t take physiognomy seriously, if for no other reason than its outrageous racism: Typically African traits were signs of indolence, diminished intellect, and “sensualism”; American Indian features were compared more to those of animals than of humans; Asian characteristics indicated compliance and asexuality.

So physiognomy is dead, as well it should be. Except, well, it’s not. I kept thinking of physiognomy when reading certain parts of Ashley Mears’s sociological study of the modeling industry, Pricing Beauty. At the time I thought I was making the connection because I pictured photographers, stylists, and eventually photo retouchers slicing and dicing models’ bodies in order to create the perfect image, much as one might pluck a set of characteristics from a physiognomic guide to imagine the perfectly tempered, intelligent, generous, and wise person (that is, the person with a rounded forehead, eyelids situated perfectly horizontal above irises, arched brows, and angular chins). Modeling and physiognomy alike depend upon elevating certain characteristics above others. But when I delved into the practice’s most influential tome, Physiognomy by Johann Caspar Lavater (published 1826), I realized the connection was deeper than that. Consider these two passages:

“He only is an accurate physiognomist, and has the true spirit of physiognomy, who possesses sense, feeling, and sympathetic proportion of the congeniality and harmony of nature; and who hath a similar sense and feeling for all emendations and additions of art and constraint.” [Lavater, Chapter IV] 
“When asked how long it takes her to decide on a model in a casting, one major stylist in London summed it up: ‘An instant! You know, you know, you just know!’ Most clients...claimed to know the moment a model walks through the door...Yet despite their professed certitude, they could not articulate what it was that they saw. They said that they may not be able to explain what it is about a model that makes her ‘really good’ or ‘right’; simply, they are able to feel it.” [Mears, Chapter 4]

That is, physiognomy claimed to be a science but still relied on “sense and feeling”; similarly, players in the modeling industry claim to be prizing what’s inherently stunning, beautiful, or intriguing, but they rely upon a gut sense that’s cultivated through careful calibration of taste. Just as physiognomy was a reflection of social and scientific standards at the time instead of an actual science of character, the “It” girl is as much a reflection of tastemakers’ collective sense as she is an owner of her own talent. As Mears puts it, “The very fact that clients cannot articulate the quality of a ‘really good model’ suggests that it lies in their own roles and actions rather than in the masses of looks they see before them.” Physiognomy, with its mix of absurd detail (23 types of foreheads) and general pronouncements (“a lipless mouth...denotes housewifery”) about what features signify, overarticulates its own standards. Modeling, with its buzz about “It” girls and the sense that a good agent “just knows,” underarticulates them. But both overarticulation and underarticulation serve to cloud what lies behind the determination of those standards: a reinforcement of existing power structures.

The tastemakers Mears interviews have a set of guidelines just as strict as the ersatz science of physiognomy. The overwhelming majority of models are tall, slender, young, white or “high-end ethnic,” and symmetrically featured. But a recurring question in Pricing Beauty is what makes one 5’9”, size 2, fair-skinned, hard-working brunette a successful model while another 5’9”, size 2, fair-skinned, hard-working brunettewho, to your eye or mine, is just as likely to succeed as her counterpartexits the industry in debt. The answer lies in a complex web of tastemakers’ reflexive social distinctions; codification and reinforcement of ideas surrounding class, race, and gender; skilled exhibition and concealment of forms of cultural capital; and, above all, the mystification and glamorization of all of the above. Similarly, though proponents of physiognomy purported it to be both an art and science, there’s a near-mystical approach to physiognomy that meant only certain people would be able to divine what various features really meantthe one-on-one tastemakers of the 19th century, those who grasped the “true spirit” of physiognomy. Forget that the “true spirit” of it was largely based on Lavater’s own personal observations: “Eyebones with defined, marking, easily delineated, firm arches, I never saw but in noble and in great men.” In defining the meaning of features so literally and subjectively, Lavater only articulated what tastemakers 200 years later would attribute to vague notions of “It.”

To be clear, as alike as they are, the pseudoscience/pseudoart of physiognomists and modeling tastemakers don’t assess the same thingand neither of them defines beauty per se. While face-reading certainly favored characteristics found attractive at the height of its popularity, the point wasn’t so much to determine beauty as it was to determine character. (Cosmetics mogul Max Factor would make the logical leap between the two by using the sort of highly specific dictates of physiognomy to create the “perfect face” with his creepy-as-hell “Beauty Micrometer,” designed to help makeup artists tell women what features they needed to enhance or detract from to create the perfect face.) For that matter, much of the modeling industry isn’t about beauty, but rather fitting a set of criteria for a specific purposelike keeping the power of fashion in the hands of designers, not consumers, by displaying clothes on whippet-thin bodies that don’t interfere with the garments’ “line.” But both of them rely upon specific notions of what looks denotewhether it be the glamour of high cheekbones or the “fortitude and prudence” of heavy eyebrowsusing codes decided upon by a select group of people. As sociologist Pierre Bourdieu wrote, “Taste classifies.” We understand modeling to be a codified set of tastes, but physiognomy was no different. 

And, you know, so what? Today we laugh at physiognomy and see it as antiquated, quaint, or even dangerous; its transparency is laughable. And certainly we’ve become skeptical of the modeling industry as well, or at least of what it signifies: We critique its narrowness and exclusion, and more recently we’ve begun to pay attention to its questionable labor practices. But just as we can look at physiognomy today and cringe at its racist, classist constructions, we need to keep looking at what drives the defined aesthetic of modeling if we’re able to understand our own relationship with imagery and beauty. I don’t think most women strive to look like models; I think most who are dissatisfied with their appearance just want to look like better versions of themselves. But it’s hardly a controversial point to say that the specific ways in which we want to look “better” are often influenced by the aesthetics of the modeling industry. What I’d have us do is try to be specific where “the modeling industry”that is, tastemakers, not the models themselvesis unable to be articulate. That’s not easy to do, given how easily we stumble over “It” girls without ever being able to define “It”; that’s why we came up with the term “It” girl in the first place. But I’d like to see us consciously keep the drum beat of the social construction of beauty behind us as we straighten our hair and totter in heels: That we are not mimicking the looks of Gisele Bundchen or Karlie Kloss if we attempt to appropriate their looks onto our own bodies. Rather, we’re attempting to channel and redirect what tastemakers tell us they signify: luxury, exclusivity, embodied cultural capital. We’re responding to tastemakers, not ourselves.

Say Cheese: On Smiling, Comfort, and Surrender

In the summer of 1986, a small item ran in the biweekly newspaper of Guymon, Oklahoma, that I am guessing went unremembered by all but one of the town’s 15,000 residents. The item in question was a column about how to look good in photographs, and I will paraphrase the part that stuck with me: If you want your face to look slimmer, tip your chin down when being photographed so that you are looking at the camera from a lowered gaze. And if you want to look seductive, smile faintly, without teeth.

I was both chubby and boy-crazy, giving this advice combination a compelling allure. As a result, nearly every single posed photograph of me between the ages of 9 and 34 shows some variation upon that look. Face slightly tipped down, eyes gazing up, smiling, no teeth.

Wholly Unnatural Photo Face: Exhibit A. 

This gaze works for me as an adult, to a degree, even if I question the "seductive" part of the equation. It certainly didn’t work for me at age 9; I looked as though I were attempting to seduce Pee-Wee Herman. But never mind that: I had a goal (slim, seductive) and a fool-proof way to achieve it (the advice column of my local biweekly newspaper), and it didn’t occur to me to question its efficacy. I practiced the look, goal in mind, and had a blind faith that it would make me appear slim and seductive. I stuck with it for 25 years.

Something else happened over those 25 years: I realized I preferred videos and candid photographs of myself over posed ones. Even if a candid shot caught me unkempt or making a weird face, I was able to laugh it off; I didn’t take it as any sort of statement about how I “actually” looked. But a bad posed photograph seemed an indictment. I resigned myself to not ever having a good posed photograph of myself, and in fact made my preference for candid photographs sort of a semi-feigned quirk about myself, semi-feigned quirks being the saving grace for many an analytical lady.

But early last year, in an online space far less kind than The Beheld, a stranger commented that I looked like I was “sucking on a lemon.” The more I looked at the photograph in question—a photograph I’d selected because I found it to be an artful arranging of my features—the more I realized the commenter was right, if unkind. I couldn’t very well avoid posed photographs all my life, and it was clear my 25-year-old trick wasn’t working for me anymore. I tried a handful of new tips, culled from fashion magazines instead of Dust Bowl newspapers, to become a little more photogenic. I tried gazing at the camera as though it were someone I loved; I tried blinking before the flash went off; I even tried saying prune, advice I picked up from none other than the Olsen twins. None of it worked.

No, but really, I like lemons.

A total stranger could tell my “photo face” wasn’t me, but it took a professional to tell me why. Around the time I started trying to shed my photo face, I interviewed photographer Sophie Elgort. I’d reached out to her for her thoughts on fashion—which were insightful—but it was her thoughts on being photogenic that resonated. “If somebody’s not comfortable—in person or in a photo—it’s pretty obvious,” she told me (while I, of course, was arranging my face so as not to let on that she was talking directly about me). “The difference between somebody who’s photogenic and somebody who’s not is that people who aren’t photogenic are sometimes nervous in front of a camera. They make weird twitches, or they’ll sort of crane their neck or purse their lips or do something that’s obviously not them, because they’re nervous. If you keep shooting, you can get them more into their natural element and you can get a good photo from people who say, ‘Oh, I’m not photogenic.’ You’re not unphotogenic; it’s that you’re usually posing, putting on this ridiculous face that’s not you. How can you expect to look like your best self in a photo if you’re putting on a ridiculous face?”

No wonder I liked candid photographs so much more than posed ones. I was so uncomfortable with how I appeared—face too full, lips too uneven—that I was doing everything I could to control my looks, for we try to control what we find uncomfortable. The result was not only tortured but inaccurate: Like the mirror face, the photo face is an exercise in manipulation, in falsehood. We cannot look like ourselves when we are attempting to manipulate the camera. And, as Sophie says, we cannot look our best when we don’t look like ourselves. In trying to manipulate myself into looking my best, I manipulated my way right out of it.

With every photograph taken of me, I was attempting to control something uncontrollable — my very face. And the thing is, I wasn’t fooling anyone, not even myself. Whenever I’d cringe at a photo, I was cringing not at how I looked, but at my failed manipulation. For the small, constant acts of management were revealing not only a physical truth (that I do have a full face, that my eyes aren’t as Bambi-like as I’d prefer) but a deeper truth that I wanted to keep hidden—that I wasn’t comfortable with how I looked. There was a reason I preferred videos and candid photographs of myself to posed shots—in those images, I’d surrendered control. I wasn’t attempting to slim my face or appear alluring; I wasn’t attempting to do anything other than be myself. And in being my candid, full-cheeked, pointy-toothed self, whatever charm I have was able to shine. As Sophie put it, “There’s no way you can show your charisma if you’re not acting like yourself.”

Of course, it’s hard to “be yourself” on command. And becoming comfortable with oneself is a lifelong process; I wanted to start looking normal in photos now. The solution came when I asked a highly photogenic friend how she did it. She said a few things I’d heard, tried, and discarded, and I started filing away her advice along with other well-meaning words from people to whom certain things come so naturally as to be inexpressible. Then she shrugged. “Or, you know, I heard this once—just give the camera your biggest, toothiest, cheesiest smile, even if you don’t mean it.” I flashed her the cheesy smile she was referring to, thinking she would get that I was poking fun at the idea. She just said, “Yes, like that.”

So I started to smile. Yellowed teeth, uneven lips, wide face be damned, I smile now, in nearly every photograph. I smile big and broad and with teeth. I try to laugh sometimes too, but if nothing genuinely funny comes to mind I skip the laugh and just smile. I don’t tip my head down; I don’t throw my head back; I don’t think about where my head is at all. I just fucking smile.

And as it turns out, there is a reason smiling is the #1 classic photo advice: It works. It works better than tipping your head down and keeping your lips closed; it works better than looking a hair above the photographer to keep the impression of a lofty gaze; it works better than whatever the Olsen twins might tell you.

Thanks to the lovely Paige S. and Beth Mann for the photos;
certainly my smile experiment is helped along by good company

But wait! you say. How is a fake smile any less of a manipulation than tilting your head and lowering your gaze and doing all that jazz you’ve been doing for 25 years that you just told us was some “manipulation of the self”? The answer: It isn’t. But the control of a smile versus other small manipulations takes a different tone. A smile is a signal of openness; it’s an invitation. We smile when we’re nervous or unsure (particularly women), but one reason we reach for a smile in those moments is that it soothes both the person smiling and the person being smiled at. In other words, a smile makes us comfortable. It can be a manipulated comfort, but posing for a photograph is a manipulated situation to begin with. The implied acquiescence of a smile is what can make it troublesome from a feminist perspective (“Hey baby, where’s your smile?”), and it’s also what makes some non-smiling portraits so arresting—it’s a display of resistance. But in the average, run-of-the-mill photo where I just want to look good—or rather, where I just want to look like myself—I’ll call upon the big, fake, cheesy photo smile.

I’m happy to let a photographed smile do its immediate work of making me appear more comfortable with myself. And perhaps seizing the control of a smile is just another roadblock to the goal of actually being comfortable; after all, I’m still not thrilled with my full cheeks and my small, uneven teeth. But here’s the key: The control I’m seizing no longer makes me uncomfortable. Instead of attempting to adjust my face—my face! the face I’ll have all my life!—I’m adjusting the sentiment it wears. I’m controlling my looks by adjusting the emotions I’m telegraphing, not by adjusting my actual features, which I was never able to truly control anyway. Call it something as simple as an attitude adjustment. I suppose, quite literally, that’s exactly what it is.

I try not to overidentify with photographs of myself; I try to see them as the snapshots they are, not as a representation of how I exist in this world. I probably don’t succeed. But if I’m going to fail in that regard, I may as well be overidentifying with someone smiling back at me, someone extending a temporary reprieve from self-consciousness. Someone offering, for a brief yet semi-permanent moment, comfort.

Invited Post: Letting Myself Go

When I read the essay "Chasing Beauty: An Addict's Memoir" by Good Men Project publisher Lisa Hickey, I was riveted. I'd been turning to The Good Men Project for insightful commentary on gender issues aimed at men for a while, but this was different. This was speaking to men, yes, but it was also speaking to me: "[W]hen I’m beautiful—or close to beautiful—it’s all I think about. When I’m beautiful and I’m with you, I’m wondering if the guy across the room thinks I’m beautiful. I think beauty is going to connect us; but I’m not connecting with you, I’m connecting with a beautiful image of myself that I think you might like."

If you followed my month without mirrors project, you know that divorcing myself from my
image of myself was one of the major themes I was working with—so to read someone else share her own thoughts on the matter was a thrill. I reached out to Lisa to thank her for her work, and she responded with what in some ways functions as a sequel to "Chasing Beauty." This time, it's "Letting Myself Go."


It’s five years ago, and I’m walking down the street with Caroline, a work colleague; we just had grabbed a couple of salads at the nearby cafeteria, and she’s asking about my dating life. I murmur what I hope is something non-committal about the non-existence of a "dating life," and she says “Yes, I had a friend who also let herself go and my friend found it really hard…” And that was the last thing I heard. The implication that I had somehow “let myself go” was just too hard to bear. I couldn’t listen to another word she said. It was true I was no longer beautiful. It was true I used to be beautiful. But “letting yourself go” implies that you woke up one day and said, "Aww, screw it, ugly wins" with a shrug of the shoulders. Or perhaps you gradually crossed off this and this and this from your beauty routines. But it didn’t come close to acknowledging that there was still a Herculean effort going on with me vs. the forces of nature, and that the tidal wave of ageing was simply winning out no matter how hard I fought.

*   *   *   *   *

Last night I’m in the car with my two daughters, Shannon, age 16 and Allie, 19. I tell them about Autumn’s experiment with a month without a mirror. They both get all excited about the concept. Allie yells out gleefully, “Shannon could never do that.” At the same moment, Shannon says, “I could never do that.” Shannon is honest and resigned. “I think that makes me narcissistic. But I couldn’t do it. I need to see me to be me.”

I’ve written about my addiction to beauty that I’ve had most of my life, but beauty wasn’t all I was addicted to. It took me an equally Herculean effort to get sober after I became a blackout alcoholic at age 14 and drank every night of my life for the next 30 years. The addictions went hand in hand. I never understood the concept of being comfortable in my own skin. And I couldn’t stand it. So I drank to get rid of me. As a long-term life plan, it wasn’t the wisest of choices.

Caroline’s dig at having "let myself go" came at two years into being sober, when everything was still perilous. There was no escape route. I had to figure it out. I had to get a life I could own and embrace. A life I could own—that was a new concept for me.

About that time, I was realizing something profound about my interactions with other people. I couldn’t recognize faces. I had always known there was a problem, but now it seemed impossible. Everywhere I went—my kid’s hockey games, work functions, meeting someone for coffee—I had no clue who people were. Men, women, children, would come up to me, have a conversation, and I had no idea who I was talking to. I started to panic about going out in public. It was one thing if someone was the same place I had seen them last—office cubicles were a pretty safe bet—but anywhere else I’d have to search for contextual clues to recognize someone—clothing, the room we were in, height, glasses, voice, piercings. Without something specific, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t recognize someone I had met the day before unless they had really specific unique qualities. I was constantly smiling or saying “hi” to people that might be someone I knew, just in case they were. I couldn’t tell a complete stranger from someone I had known for months.

It was maddening, and I found a name for it—prosopagnosia, or face blindness. I never knew why I had it, or what caused it.

Until I read Autumn’s one-month experiment without a mirror, with this paragraph in particular:
When I see my image reflected on a mirror behind a bar I think, Oh good, I look like a woman who is having a good time out with friends. Or I’ll see my reflection in a darkened windowpane, hunched over my computer with a pencil twirled through my upswept hair, and I’ll think, My, don’t I look like a writer? Or I’ll walk to a fancy restaurant and see my high-heeled, pencil-skirted silhouette in the glass of the door and think: I pass as someone who belongs here. You’ll notice what these have in common: My thoughts upon seeing my reflection are both self-centered and distant. I’m seeing myself, but not really—I’m seeing a woman who looks like she’s having a good time, or a writer, or someone who belongs at Balthazar.
And it hit me. My inability to recognize other people’s faces happened because—whenever I met someone—in my mind, I was visualizing my own face, not theirs.

Everything clicked. I had been so worried about how I was being perceived, that it was me I was seeing in every situation, not the other person. No wonder I couldn’t remember them.

This story really, truly does have a happy ending.

I’m still sober, and along with it, all the joy of having a life I’m not constantly trying to run away from. Accepting the fact that beauty cannot, should not, will not be the defining quality of my life forced me to figure out which qualities should be. I learned to talk again by writing. I learned to connect through social media—slowly, learning about people first, caring about them first, letting them care about me long before they even knew what I looked like. I had always wanted to be funny, so I took a humor-writing course, and then a stand-up comedy course, and then an improv class. People laughed. I wrote poetry and did poetry slams. I learned to love public speaking—a feat I never would have thought possible. Public speaking, after all, requires you to actually connect with an audience, not just stand up there and look good. One of the first times I tried, it was a presentation to a room full of 75 people, most of whom I had known in various times in my advertising career. And I started out by saying “I bet most of you are here today because you didn’t actually believe that I could speak in public.” Loudest laughter I had ever heard.

Somewhere along the way someone told me, “If you want self-esteem, the best way isn’t to tell yourself you look good. It’s to go out and do something esteemable.” OH.

Somewhere else I heard, “Love is an action word.” OH. “Feeling” love wasn’t enough to make the other person love me. OH.

A sentence from a book: “Seek to connect, not to impress.” OH. OH.

And, gradually, gradually, gradually, I realized—once I didn’t have to worry about appearing funny but could talk and upon occasion have a funny sentence come out of my mouth; once I didn’t have to worry about appearing intelligent but could just offer insights that combined my knowledge with the other person’s equally important intelligence; once I didn’t worry about appearing loveable, but instead could just act with love to the person I was with—then—then—then—I could actually get into the flow with another person, just as Autumn described it. Not by performing for other people; and certainly not by desperately trying to come up on the spot with an appearance that I hoped would impress them. And once I got in the flow with the other person, even my memories of interactions changed—my memories became about them, not me. And I was able to recognize faces.

I had finally figured out that in order to connect with people—really connect with them—I, did, in fact, have to let myself go.

And that’s something I can live with.


Lisa Hickey is publisher of The Good Men Project, and CEO of Good Men Media, Inc. When she’s not writing about beauty, she’s writing about men. Her post on The Good Men Project that started the connection between Lisa and Autumn is here: "Chasing Beauty: An Addict’s Memoir."

Beauty Blogosphere 9.16.11

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

From Head...
Earth face!: If body typing is appealing on the level of being an ersatz personality test, physiognomy like this new face-reading book being touted in The Daily Mail is even more oddly appealing, even though I think it's utter bullshit. Always fun to play, though!

 ...To Toe... 
If the shoe doesn't fit: Decoding Dress on why capitalism made her hunt for a month for black pumps. With her size 11 fitting, "There aren’t enough women like me to make it commercially worthwhile for manufacturers to cater to us." (Solutions, or at least ways to ameliorate the problem, here.) The shoe size question is interesting to me, as when applied to clothes we can't help but integrate the discussion with body image (as Already Pretty did this week by reminding us that "Clothes should fit you, you needn’t fit them," and as an oldie but goodie at Inkdot does with this post on tailoring). Shoes have less of an impact on our body image than clothes, so looking at the lack of diverse size options in footwear is a nice way to examine the sizing problem from a numbers-based perspective—and, yep, the man ain't giving Decoding Dress a new pair of shoes easily anytime soon. 

...And Everything In Between:
Ask a Dude: Hairpin's Dude answers two questions this week about appearance: How to accept a compliment when you're all hot and heavy with someone, and what to do when you find out your gross boyfriend has been making gross comparisons between your body and another woman's. Gross!

I'll have what he's having: We're more likely to consider someone beautiful if we think our friends think the person is beautiful. Science sez!

Fashion weak: Ashley Mears, sociologist, model, and author of Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model, on modeling as precarious labor, with few rights for the people wearing the clothes that make Fashion Week so damned glamorous.

Southern belles: A look inside the world of Venezuelan beauty pageants, and what it means for all Venezuelan women. (Banks there give loans for plastic surgery with slogans like "Have your plastic on our plastic"?!) Venezuelan models tend to be in high demand in the U.S.--very young women who can earn far more from their families while living abroad than they can from working at home--so I'm wondering about the economic implications of the beauty imperative there.

"If you could change one of your physical characteristics, which one would it be and why?":
This was asked at the Miss Universe pageant, which is, as a reminder, a pageant in which contestants are selected for their physical beauty—but, of course, still need to be prodded to put down their appearance. Aiaiai! (Thanks to Caitlin at Fit and Feminist for the link.)

Vote for "The Illusionists": Filmmaker Elena Rossini (you've met her here before) is up for a nice publicity boost from IndieWire; won't you take a second and vote for "The Illusionists," a promising documentary about the exploitation of women's bodies for profit? UPDATE: "The Illusionists" won! (And had won before I posted this roundup, which I hadn't realized.) Nice work, all!

She's a winner!:
Guinness world record holder for world's longest fingernails tops in with a combined 19.2 feet in length. Vacuuming, of all things, is what she claims is the hardest thing to do. (Clearly she does not wear contact lenses.)

Survivor: Cosmetics salesman is lone survivor of plane crash in Bolivia. No word as to whether skin cream played a role in his survival in the Amazon jungle.

Fly this: I've seen plenty of "travel-friendly" beauty products but had never thought about what it meant for the industry: Sales of products under three ounces have grown 10% a year since liquid restrictions were placed on U.S. flights.

Mirror Abuse Resistance Education: A high school in the UK has not only banned makeup, but has removed mirrors from the bathrooms. I think this is pretty awesome--I hear the idea that makeup allows you to express your individuality, but if the idea is to focus on learning (à la school uniforms), this certainly removes a distraction. Attention, Shelley College students: I had a great month with no mirrors, and Kjerstin Gruys is having a great year without 'em--you'll thrive during your on-school hours if you let yourselves, okay? 

Everybody loves Tavi: Nice piece in Slate about the advantages Tavi Gevinson's Rookie has over traditional teen mags (plus an acknowledgement that feminists in teen magazines aren't unicorns! we exist!). 

Smart eye for the racist guy: Remember that Crystal Renn shoot in which her eyes were taped back but of course the idea wasn't at all to look Asian? Minh-ha T. Pham at Threadbared takes it on: "Renn’s explanation is an example of a post-racial narrative in which race is simultaneously articulated through and disavowed by discourses of class, culture, patriotism, national security, talent, and, in the case of fashion, creative license."

It's called "lift and separate," Captain.

Cartoon boobs: Hourglassy on breasts in comics. Hint for aspiring comics artists: "When fabric is stretched across boobs, no matter how tight the spandex, it does not suction cup itself to each individual breast."

The Evolution of Ape-Face Johnson: Speaking of comics, cartoonist Carolita Johnson has a stunning piece in The Hairpin about her journey from supposedly funny-looking child, to high fashion model, to supposedly funny-looking model.

Army of two:
Fantastic talk between Cristen Conger at Bitch and Hugo Schwyzer on the male beauty myth. "It’s self-centered in terms of meeting your own ideal, becoming the man you want to be. This all started with the Army...when they went with the most brilliant advertising slogan ever: 'Be All You Can Be.' ...They decided to stop selling patriotism because that was old school and start selling personal transformation, and that was absolute genius." (Or take it from the horse's mouth: Men's cosmetics marketers on their thoughts on the difference between marketing to men and women.)

"As much as I love feminism, I don’t believe it’s the only concept you will ever need": Nothing to do with beauty! But everything to do with feminism, and this Sady Doyle piece is one of the best I've read recently.

New No More Dirty Looks challenge: Meditation sort of kills me—it's one of those things I know I would really benefit from, but it feels impossible to do. So I'm eagerly jumping on the next No More Dirty Looks challenge: five minutes of meditation every day for sever consecutive days. (There's a prize too, but what prize could be better than EVERLASTING CONTENTMENT?) Guidelines for the challenge here, plus a nice how-to guide that shows you there's no "trick"; you've just got to do it.

Paging Amelie:
A take on what it's like to be the "manic pixie dream girl" trope that plenty of smart feminists have deconstructed, and that this smart feminist has embodied. (I've played MPDG and have experienced a hint of self-loathing for it over the years, and this helped me ease up on that front.)

Apology not accepted: Virginia of Beauty Schooled guest posting at The Daily Glow about why beauty makes us happy. "I noticed that a lot of women tend to apologize for how happy beauty makes them.... Somehow, we’ve gotten the idea that it’s shallow to get too excited about beauty." But no more!

What do women look at first on a man?: Warning: This is sort of creepy and uncomfortable, but interesting as well—a man strapped tiny cameras to his biceps and crotch, then asked women for directions and let the cameras witness what body parts they looked at first. It's also interesting to see how various women respond to being approached; we only really know our own experiences, so it's a nifty insight into how others handle stranger interactions. (Basically, we're really really nice.)

How to be bold:
Ashe at Dramatic Personae on fashion and self-consciousness—and here I thought I was the only one who owned amazing pieces she never wore because she felt self-conscious in them!

"The point of all this" fitness jazz: A group of bystanders to a car/motorcycle crash lifted the burning car to free the motorcyclist underneath, and (naturally!) it's caught on video. That's not what impressed Caitlin of Fit and Feminist, though: "What struck me was the presence of a young woman in the crowd. She didn’t hang back and watch.... Instead, she jumped right in. I’m not a betting woman, but I’d be willing to wager that woman is physically active... Maybe she plays sports or she does a bootcamp or she takes a Pilates class. I don’t know. All I know is that confidence in her body and her physical abilities is tightly woven into the tapestry of her self-image.... She doesn’t recite it as a mantra in hopes of one day actually believing it."

How Can I Feel More Comfortable Wearing Glasses?

"Guess what I got?" I goaded my boyfriend over the phone. By "boyfriend" I mean that we met at the mall one day, exchanged phone numbers, and decided over the phone to be boyfriend-girlfriend, and I saw him a total of three times in my life before "breaking up." I was, as you may have guessed, 13. "It's something that will make me look better."

"A new dress?" No. "New shoes?" No. "A new Trapper Keeper?"* (A new Trapper Keeper?!)

It was contact lenses, and his guesses were increasingly exasperating, because I took my contact lenses very, very seriously. Getting contact lenses was one of the best things that had happened to me in my 13 years on planet Earth. It also happened to coincide with slimming down a bit, gaining a couple of vertical inches, growing out my perm so it lost a bit of its ziggurat-like quality, and wearing the clothes I'd purchased on a family trip to the east coast, where I went shopping in Boston—at Filene's Basement even (which I'd even read about in teen magazines!)—instead of ShopKo. I was hardly a swan, but my contact lenses were essential to scooping me out of Awkwardland and landing me at least on neutral territory.

I never looked back. I keep a pair of glasses that I wear around the house, but in public, I am glasses-free—always. For a while it was the fear of seeming geeky (again, 13!), and I also connected shedding my glasses with suddenly entering an era in which I was, on occasion, considered pretty. Boys came a-knockin'—not that, Trapper Keeper guy aside, they would have knocked any earlier if I'd had 20/20 vision—and it all sort of got bundled up together. I always hated the boys don't make passes at girls who wear glasses quip (apologies, Dorothy!), and besides, I could witness at school that it wasn't true. Still, the idea stuck. I'm about as likely to wear my glasses to work as I am to come in with a chihuahua.

That would be the end of the story, if it weren't for my increased ocular discomfort. A combination of allergies (dust!), my profession (lots of screen time), and my environment (dirty, sweaty New York) means that about one out of four days, I'm in some pretty severe discomfort. (And let's not forget about how easily my eyes now get bloodshot, detracting from my otherwise glorious visage. Science says!) Going without my contact lenses is not an option (I'm at around 20/400, which Wikipedia tells me is legally blind but which I think just makes me a prime candidate to star in a hilarious rom-com, don't you think?). Which means: I've gotta learn how to wear glasses, preferably soon.

I see women every day who wear glasses and look smashing in them, either because they've chosen frames that mesh perfectly with their face to the point where you don't think of them as being a glasses-wearer but just the owner of a great face—or because they've chosen frames so distinctive that they jump out and become a statement. I don't look at any of my bespectacled friends and think, She'd be so pretty, if only... If anything, the women I know who wear glasses seem to project an air of efficiency and confidence, if only because I'm silently in awe that they feel comfortable doing something that makes me feel so self-conscious.

My level of enthusiasm for my glasses really can't be captured digitally.
Also note the spectacular failure of the fishtail braid. You're not here for my how-to advice, I gather.

One of my close friends, of the distinctive-frames sort, posits that my hesitancy comes from the fact that my glasses are, well, mousy. They're glasses that are trying to pretend like they don't actually exist, like they're just some odd arrangement of my hair that happens to resemble glasses. She's egging me on for spectacle-spectacles, and I want to try it, so I walk into store after store and try on frame after frame, and every time, I look in the mirror and hate what I see. I don't normally hate what I see in the mirror, mind you—it's something about having this thing on my face that catapults me right back to seventh grade, pre-contacts, pre-boys, pre-blossoming.

So, readers, I turn to you. I could really use some perspective on this: As a matter of my health and comfort, I seriously need to find a pair of glasses that I feel somewhat comfortable in. I need some wisdom to help me both find glasses that I like, and then to help me get over my self-consciousness once I'm wearing them. I long for the nonchalance that my glasses-wearing friends seem to possess—and more than that, I long for the comfort of not having my eyes twitch out more days than not.

Do you wear glasses? If so, how did you learn to be comfortable in them—or, if you always felt at ease in them, why do you think that is? Do you have tips on what to look for in a pair?

*This, as history would have it, was prescient. The era of Facebook has shown me that my ersatz boyfriend of 1989 now runs a delightful scrapbooking site with his partner, Donny. No wonder he thought a Trapper Keeper might up my appeal.

Month Without Mirrors Update 5.31: Recognition

I haven’t looked at my reflection for 31 days. No mirrors, no windows, no darkened subway glass. No shadows. The goal, which I went into in greater detail at the project’s beginning, was to loosen the grip that self-consciousness has had on me for much of my life, and to allow that lightened load to grant me better access to a state of flow. Here’s how it turned out.

*     *     *     *     *

You, like me, probably have a mirror face. My mirror face is this:


It’s close to my “photo face,” but it’s a separate beast. My face contorts itself not because it will be recorded for Facebook posterity, but because I desperately need to believe certain things about my appearance. My mirror face is an attempt to correct things about my visage I don’t like: The pout makes my lips fuller. The tipped chin minimizes the broad planes of my face. The widened eyes and softened gaze call attention to my best feature. You may even find me ever so slightly sucking in my cheeks. A friend of mine—whose womanly charm lies in her mix of acerbic wit and casual grace—turns into a bright-eyed, prepubescent pixie when she looks in the mirror. Like me, she has no idea she’s doing it, and when she tries to stop, it only gets worse.

So in my mind, I’m fuller-lipped, slimmer-faced, wider-eyed than any of you would actually find me. And my adjustments are virtually uncontrollable. Which is to say: After 35 years of seeing myself in the mirror, it’s possible I still don’t really know what I look like.

Certainly, I don’t know what my face shape is. When I was 25, I decided to find out once and for all. (Round? Oval? Heart? What kind of haircut could I possibly get?!) I used a classic ladymag tip: I took a tube of lipstick and traced the outline of my face onto the mirror. And then I got angry.

I took the lipstick and scribbled over the circle/oval/whatever (I still don’t know what my face shape is). I covered an entire pane of my mirror, and then another, and then I went to the walls. And then I was out of lipstick so I took another, and another, and another. I coated, smeared, dragged, drew, until I had no more lipstick, no more walls, and no more mirrors.

At the time I thought my rage was a combination of struggling with the beauty myth and generalized “quarterlife crisis” anxiety, which also saw me doing things like hacking off a foot of hair with kitchen shears and trading my magazine career for a $10-an-hour gig as a pastry cook. It was an unhappy, confusing time, and my gonzo paint job gave me some anarchic respite from the pressures of that era.

I’m now wondering if my rage was actually stemming from what, if I were a 19th-century German philosopher, I might christen the master-mirror dialectic. G.W.F. Hegel cooked up what he calls the master-slave dialectic, which states that we’re incapable of self-consciousness without being conscious of others, and that once we become conscious of others we’re alerted to our lack of control over our lives. “A struggle to the death” ensues, in Hegel’s grandiose words, and we either become master (which later finds us needing the slave’s services, ultimately giving them control) or slave, which eventually gives us some control over the “master.” In the 1950s, grad-school rock-star psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan introduced the idea of the “mirror stage,” positing that we have this master-slave dynamic with ourselves via the mirror. Lacan compares it to being permanently trapped in a stadium of onlookers composed solely of ourselves, captivated by our own image.

When I traced my face shape onto my mirror with lipstick, I—presumably the master—was bowing to my slave’s needs. I was reaching toward the looking-glass and willing the world contained therein to reveal great gifts: Tell me my face shape so I may never have an inappropriate haircut again, ye mirror. By using her to guide my actions, I was giving her a measure of control over me. The moment incensed me because of its overt supplication to my built-in alter ego. But it was only one of many acts that ceded control to the mirror.

Ten years later: I went a month without looking in the mirror, initially thinking that my constant self-surveillance constituted self-objectification. Now that I’ve abandoned my mirror for a month, though, I see that my image is far too vital to have been an object. I didn’t objectify myself; rather, I treated my mirror image as a grounding strategy, as a divination tool to tell me how I should respond in any given situation, as a part of myself I can control. I treat her as both slave and master, and as someone both more beautiful and less appealing than myself.
*     *     *     *     *

The mirror is a quest for control. Control over the image we present to the world, sure; control over fitting the beauty standard, to a degree. Mostly, though, surveillance is an effort to carefully control our ideas about ourselves. When I pulled the plug from the mirror image, she exacted revenge by radically shifting some of those ideas. For example, about a week into this experiment, I had a nagging sensation that my head had become very, very pointy, à la Saturday Night Live's Coneheads.

Less absurdist moments simply found me sort of forgetting what I looked like: How wide is my smile? Do I have freckles? That woman on the street with the dark eyes and high cheekbones—do I look like her? Do I even have high cheekbones? And, most important: Am I pretty?

Except, this month, that question wasn’t particularly important. In addition to realizing that I don’t have to strive to look pretty every minute, I thought far less about looks this month than I normally do. I didn’t feel better or worse about my appearance; I rarely felt pretty or unpretty. I just didn’t care as much.

Makeup held less appeal. I wore my glasses more. My love affair with lipstick dwindled; I wore my hair in a bun instead of the French twist I usually favor. I presented myself to the world reasonably groomed, sure. But pretty? The physical labor of prettiness took a backseat. I always believed I wore makeup for others—not for their benefit, but as a tool to help me feel more comfortable with them. After all, I don’t wear makeup at home alone, so it must have something to do with other people, right? This month I learned how much my makeup use is for my own pleasure. If I can’t reap the joys of seeing my lips turn a bright, puckery red, I simply don’t want to do it at all. If I’m my own harshest critic, I’m also my own most ardent observer—and fan.

Some readers have picked up on this, commenting how nice it must be to look in the mirror and adore my own image so much that I need to take a month off in order to get around to things other than admiring my own visage. Rest assured, I’m not quite that enthralled with my looks. In fact, in The Second Sex Simone De Beauvoir makes it clear that enchantment with one’s image needn’t solely be a reflection of thinking we’re beautiful:

It is not astonishing if even the less fortunate can sometimes share in the ecstasies of the mirror, for they feel emotion at the mere fact of being a thing of flesh...and since they feel themselves to be individual subjects, they can, with a little self-deception, embue their specific qualities with an individual attractiveness; they will discover in face or body some graceful, odd, or piquant trait. They believe they are beautiful simply because they are women.

Okay, so yay us, right? Down with the tyranny of the beauty standard! Every woman is beautiful, or at least has some part of herself that’s beautiful. You’ve just got to find it, sister, and what better way to do that than the mirror? Rock on with your gorgeous self!

Here’s the problem with that: When we look in the mirror, we rarely see ourselves. We are forever seeing a projection—what we wish to see, what we fear seeing, what we used to see. “The ego [as accessed through the mirror] is a product of misunderstanding, a false recognition,” Lacan writes. (And unless you’re the rare creature who doesn’t have a “mirror face,” how could what we see be anything but a misunderstanding?) I’ve heard some women say mirror abstinence would rob them of a hard-won acceptance of their appearance, and I don't wish to diminish that. It's hard enough to make peace with our bodies without some writer yakking at you about Lacan. But if what the mirror gives us is imagined, I wonder how far its affirmation can take any of us.

Case in point: Try as I did to avoid it, I caught a few glimpses of myself in unanticipated mirrors. And people: I am 35, and I learned that I look it. There is nothing wrong with looking 35, or any age. But, like the majority of women, I believed I looked younger. Mathematically, the majority cannot look younger than our age. We just think we do, because we see our ego, not our selves. When I caught unexpected glimpses of myself, I saw bags under the eyes, flaccid skin. I didn’t feel bad about this per se—35 can look good, yo!—but it revealed how much I’m subtly controlling what I see when I purposefully look in the mirror as opposed to when I stumble upon myself accidentally. I am preparing, however slightly, to see the face I’m presenting. And that face—the imaginary one—looked about 28 years old until now.

*     *     *     *     *

I’ve had a couple of friends tell me they’re surprised, reading my blog, to find I think as intensely as I do about beauty. “You’re not one of those beauty-robot girls,” said one. She’s correct: My physical beauty labor is pretty minimal. My emotional beauty labor is another story.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not thinking every second about positioning myself so that my “good side” is showing, or whatever. By emotional beauty labor—a term borrowed from writer and licensed esthetician Virginia Sole-Smith’s "beauty labor" and sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s "emotional labor"I mean a sort of low-level, frequent, and unconscious acting that might, every so often, land me a plum role as a nice-looking woman. You know how when you’re wearing a nice outfit, you’ll carry yourself differently? You’re aware of being looked at, you’re aware of how your body might appear in this piece of clothing that is signaling a certain occasion. You’re not lying, but you’re acting, in a small, naturalistic way. That’s the sort of labor I’m talking about: When you are conscious of the potential of being looked at, and when your behavior is altered as a result, even if you don’t intend to do so, you—I—are working.

When beginning the mirror fast, I kept turning to de Beauvoir’s 1953 work The Second Sex, particularly the chapter called “The Narcissist.” But throughout the month, another section of the book called to me: “The Independent Woman,” or the woman who creates her own living. That is, most of us today.

[The independent woman] knows that she is offering herself, she knows that she is a conscious being, a subject; one can hardly...change one’s eyes into sky-blue pools at will; one does not infallibly stop the surge of a body that is straining toward the world and change it into a statue animated by vague tremors. [The independent woman] will try all the more zealously because she fears failure; but her conscious zeal is still an activity... In all this she resembles those actors who fail to feel the emotion that would relax certain muscles and so by an effort of will contract the opposing ones, forcing down their eyes or the corners of their mouth instead of letting them fall. Thus in imitating abandon the independent woman becomes tense. She realizes this, and it irritates her; over her blankly naive face, there suddenly passes a flash of all too sharp intelligence; lips soft with promise suddenly tighten. ...The desire to seduce, lively as it may be, has not penetrated to the marrow of her bones.

Sounds exhausting, right? It is.

Ridding myself of the mirror didn’t cure me of the push-pull of emotional beauty labor. (Not that I would know, because much of this labor is unconscious. Measuring physical beauty labor, like time spent on a manicure or money spent on tanning cream, is simpler.) But the mirror is key to its recognition: What film profiling a female performer neglects the ubiquitous shot of our heroine, in front of a mirror, looking herself squarely in the eye as she prepares to play her part?

Clockwise, from top left: All About Eve, A Star Is Born, Les Enfants du Paradis, Black Swan.

Taking away the mirror took away my mirror face, which is, in essence, privately performed beauty labor. So when I found myself approximating the labors of my mirror face in the presence of others—be still, chin down, be pretty—I was acutely aware of my efforts. Times I recognized I was performing emotional beauty labor: volunteering with an ESL student who has confessed a small crush on me and who looks to me for affirmation of his language skills; having drinks with someone who talked over every word I tried to utter; meeting with an acquaintance who is extraordinarily self-conscious herself and kept adjusting her makeup. In each of those situations, I was “performing”: attempting to grant the other person some comfort, or struggling to maintain some presence when my other forms of power were being ignored. I did this by appearing attentive, widening my eyes, fixing a smile that’s probably close to my ever-false mirror face, cocking my head to make a small show of my quizzical nature. This was all unconscious. The only reason I was able to detect my actions was because I hadn’t had my usual warm-up with myself in the mirror. My privately emotional beauty labor, in other words, is a hamstring stretch that gets me ready for the sprint of uncomfortable interactions in which I feel I must “perform”; without the warm-up, the effort of the race became illustrated in sharp relief.

One of the harshest, and truest, criticisms I’ve received from people who know me well is that I’m not always as emotionally present as I should be. My response is usually that I feel so drained by other people’s needs that I have little energy to expend on being as present as I’d like. What I didn’t realize until I was unburdened from some of my self-imposed (and likely invented) expectations was exactly how much of my energy was going into appearing. Appearing to be interested, appearing to be womanly, appearing to be a professional lady, appearing to be pretty.

No wonder I’m exhausted.

*     *     *     *     *

My goal was to liberate myself from self-surveillance, allowing me to better access a flow state. So, was I able to enter a flow state more freely?

I did not waltz through the month writing Great Literature, or having shamanistic visions, or even organizing my bookcase. What did happen was that I was more in tune with myself. I felt more aware of my needs, and I took steps to allow myself to do what I needed to access flow, even if I didn’t get there often. I’m guessing this would have happened regardless; setting a goal of engaging more fully with the world prompted me to create opportunities for that to happen, mirror aside. I was on alert for blockages to flow, and some of those were mirror-related—like the emotional beauty labor I recognized in uneasy moments, or the phantom “flinches” I had about reprimanding myself for having looked in a mirror when I hadn’t.

A greater victory was my diminished self-consciousness. Yet we need self-consciousness, and its accompanying ability to shift our persona, in order to function in the world. I fall into the trap of thinking that there’s some “authentic self” I have a responsibility to, and that any manipulation of it constitutes a betrayal. But there is no one “authentic self.” It shifts according to time, place, and company; indeed, we all rely on one another’s signals to let us know what to do with this mess of humanity.

When I’m performing emotional beauty work, I’m letting you in on how I’d like to be seen: as a thirtysomething woman who, every so often, might want to be viewed as a pretty lady. If I make total removal of that labor my goal, I sign away certain expectations. Not expectations of human decency; expectations of, say, you understanding via my low-level obsequiousness that I want you to feel valued, or that you’ll treat a transaction with a bit more humor than you might otherwise because clearly I’m here for a good time. Or—why not?—an expectation that, every so often, you’ll hold the door for me. There’s a lady coming through. If I want to experience a certain form of femininity, with all its rituals and fleeting rewards—well, that’s what the persona and its accompanying labors are for. I’m giving you permission to respond to my portrayed self in an appropriate manner. If that sounds presumptuous, take it from sociologist Erving Goffman in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life: “Information about the individual helps define the situation, enabling others to know in advance what he will expect of them and what they may expect of him. Informed in these ways, the others will know how best to act in order to call forth a desired response from him.”

I missed the private joy of observing myself in a certain light. I missed the pleasure of, just before I leave the house, giving myself a final once-over, smile—yes, with my mirror face—and confirming all is well. My flowered dress that makes me feel like a gracious 1950s hostess, my hot pink number with orange piping and oversized collar that makes me feel like a creature from Alice in Wonderland—I took less pleasure than usual in wearing these, because I couldn’t observe myself partaking in the ritual of playing dress-up. I missed witnessing myself slip into a persona. Liberating myself from personae was also a relief—a big one at times. And it’s not like this past month was drudgery; far from it. Still, the sense of play I normally carry with me was muted.

"How nice it would be if we could only get through into Looking-glass House! I'm sure it's got, oh! such beautiful things in it! Let's pretend there's a way of getting through into it somehow. // Oh, what fun it'll be, when they see me through the glass in here, and can't get at me!" —Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll, illustration by John Tenniel

Which brings me back to being master, or slave, to the mirror. Hegel’s theory that we’re forever wresting control from each other—or, in the case of the mirror, our own image—indicates that the way out is for each party to recognize that they need one another, and from there, dissolve their differences. In the case of the mirror, that could be interpreted to mean unification—a genuine recognition of the mirror as solely a handy tool for making sure we don’t have stray ink on our cheek. Not an oracle, not someone with control over us, not something to turn to as an emotional divination rod.

Yet I’m under no illusion that I can somehow unite with my mirror image to become whole. (And—shall I state the obvious?—there’s nobody there to unite with. Coneheads trickery aside, I’m the only one who actually exists. Twist ending!) I’ve tried to rid myself of my mirror face and failed; I understand that I can never be an objective viewer of myself. But I can recognize differences between myself and my image, the first step toward dissolution.

I can recognize that my mirror face is not how I appear to the rest of the world, and honor that perhaps my mild self-delusion is the adult version of the child who wonders what she’ll look like when she grows up—fanciful, woefully inaccurate, but bringing minimal harm as long as its falsity is understood. I can recognize that my beauty labor—emotional and physical—is largely for myself, and evaluate what purpose it’s serving, allowing me to see what I can keep and what I should discard. I can recognize that the mirror allows me access to a part of my femininity that’s tucked away otherwise, and be thankful for that key. And maybe, with practice, I’ll come closer to recognizing myself.

Why I'm Not Looking in a Mirror for a Month

As of 12:01 a.m. Sunday, May 1, 2011, I’ve embarked on a monthlong mirror fast. Thirty-one days of no mirrors, store windows, shiny pots, spoons, or the dark glass of the subway.

My personal bathroom mirror is shrouded; my windows will either be open at night or be covered with drawn blinds so that I can’t sneak a peek. At public places and the homes of others, I will avert my eyes where I know there’s a mirror, and will look away as quickly as possible if I run into an unexpected reflection. The only exception to this will be the use of a handheld mirror to apply makeup—I will apply my skin products (serum, tinted moisturizer) without looking, but will use a small mirror for the color products (eyebrow pencil, eyeliner, mascara, and lipstick). I am also allowing a small hand mirror to be used to spot-check for spinach in my teeth. Deal? I’m doing it this way because not wearing makeup for a month is another sort of challenge, and I don’t want this experiment to be about not wearing makeup for a month; I specifically want it to be about the dozens—perhaps hundreds—of times each day that I look in the mirror for no practical reason. 


*    *    *    *    *

Marilyn, Annika Connor

I purposefully say “no practical reason,” because there are plenty of reasons that I look in the mirror as frequently as I do, reasons that go beyond checking for lipstick smears or unreasonable hair. To be clear: I am not bound to my mirror. Some acquaintances reading this may be puzzled as to why I believe a mirror fast will be a challenge for me; I’m not prone to pulling out a hand mirror to check my makeup, and I don’t give off the vibe of someone who can’t be torn away from her own image. I don’t know how often the average woman looks in the mirror; I’m guessing I’m about on par, perhaps shying toward the more frequent end of the scale. So I’m not particularly concerned that the time I spend in front of the mirror is consuming me.

What I am concerned about is the uncomfortable recognition I had when reading John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. He writes:

A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. … And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. … Thus she turns herself into an object—and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.

Reading this was the first time I’d understood that objectification does not mean sexualization. Because I don’t usually present myself in a particularly sexualized manner, I thought I’d done what I could to safeguard against my own objectification. But I haven’t, because in many ways it’s near-impossible: Women are constantly being looked at. Even when we’re not, we’re so hyperaware of the possibility of being looked at that it can rule even our most private lives. Including in front of our mirrors, alone.

Sometimes I look in the mirror and see myself, or whatever I understand myself to be. Other times, I distinctly see an image of myself. When I see my image reflected on a mirror behind a bar I think, Oh good, I look like a woman who is having a good time out with friends. Or I’ll see my reflection in a darkened windowpane, hunched over my computer with a pencil twirled through my upswept hair, and I’ll think, My, don’t I look like a writer? Or I’ll walk to a fancy restaurant and see my high-heeled, pencil-skirted silhouette in the glass of the door and think: I pass as someone who belongs here. You’ll notice what these have in common: My thoughts upon seeing my reflection are both self-centered and distant. I’m seeing myself, but not really—I’m seeing a woman who looks like she’s having a good time, or a writer, or someone who belongs at Balthazar.

I may in truth be any of those, but I am relying upon a false reference point. It’s false because it is, by necessity, distorted—whether it’s distorted by the physics trick that shows us a reverse image of what our onlookers see, or by my own subjective opinion, or by my pucker-lipped “mirror face,” the fact remains the mirror will not only not be able to tell me whether I’m having a good time, it can’t ever really tell me whether I look like I’m having a good time. I know perfectly well what I look like; still, I use the mirror as a divination tool to repeatedly confirm both how I look and how I should feel about it.

One of the symptoms of an eating disorder is what’s known as “body checking”: excessively feeling, measuring, or monitoring aspects of one’s body. The idea isn’t necessarily that an ED patient is checking her or his body and finding it unsuitable (though it can be that); it’s more that the chronic observation signals a preoccupation that bespeaks the larger concern. The act of monitoring becomes one of the touchstones through which an ED patient marks her day. I wouldn’t exactly say I’m “face checking” myself, but most of the time when I’m looking in the mirror, I’m not merely looking for stray eyelashes. I’m looking for confirmation that I look good enough that I needn’t be anxious about my appearance—not at any given moment, but in perpetuity. In other words: I am asking the mirror to free me from being absorbed with my looks. It’s like having an AA meeting at Tequila Willie’s.

Please don’t mistake me: This experiment isn’t about improving my self-esteem, not exactly. I don’t stand in front of the mirror and pick myself apart, nor do I gaze tenderly upon this glorious visage. My response to my appearance fluctuates, as does everyone’s, I assume. Most of the time I like what I see just fine. Still, if one outcome of this project is emerging with a more consistent attitude toward my appearance, well, that’s just dandy.

Yet my core concern here isn’t whether I like or don’t like what I see in the mirror. It’s about the overriding self-consciousness that’s taken up residence in my psyche. Self-consciousness is often taken to mean some combination of shy, uncomfortable, awkward, and not feeling particularly good about one’s self; it can indeed result in that. But there’s another application of heightened self-consciousness, aptly described in a chapter of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex that's titled, of course, “The Narcissist”: 

I recall another young woman I saw one morning in a café powder room; she had a rose in her hand and she seemed a little intoxicated; she put her lips to the mirror as if to drink her reflection, and she murmured with a smile: “Adorable, I find myself adorable!” … “I love myself, I am my God!” said Mme Mejerowsky. To become God is to accomplish the impossible synthesis of the en-soi and the pour-soi [that is, to be at once the changeless Fact, the Essence, and the mutable, questioning Consciousness]... The young girl who in her mirror has seen beauty, desire, love, happiness, in her own features—animated, she believes, with her own consciousness—will try all her life to exhaust the promises of that dazzling revelation.

When I read that passage from The Second Sex, a trickle of dread ran through me—I felt like I’d been caught, as though Simone de Beauvoir had peered into my brain at my vainest and most delusional and written it down for posterity. But the real concern I have about self-consciousness—both the drunken-mirror-kissing kind and the painfully awkward kind—is that it is impossible to be in a state of flow when you are your own #1 concern.  

In a flow state, a person is so actively engaged with a task that there is simply no room for awareness of one’s self. That’s not because you’re outside of yourself as you might be when, say, watching an engrossing action film; rather, it’s because you are so wholly present in the moment that you and the moment merge so as to engulf your consciousness. Forgive the New Agey woo-woo, but: In a state of flow, there is no self-consciousness, only consciousness.

Mirror Me, Annika Connor

Times I have experienced a flow state: hiking the White Mountains, writing this blog, attending a figure drawing class, creating a magnificent dessert, moonlight swimming in the Gulf of Thailand. Times I have not experienced a flow state: necking with a man who murmured that my body was “amazing,” buying a great pair of jeans, seeing a candid photo of myself and thinking I looked quite pretty, being told by an appealing man that he’d been “spending the whole night trying to not stare at your beauty.” I felt good about my appearance in each of those latter moments, and I’m not diminishing the importance of being able to recognize one’s own beauty. But those moments had no transcendence. I emerged from each of those windows of time feeling beautiful, but the moments were myopic in their focus on my appearance.

When I look at the flow moments, though, beauty takes on a different tint. It’s not that beauty becomes secondary or unimportant; it’s more that I’m fulfulling the false craving I have for feeling beautiful with something more substantial. You can get vitamin C from a pill—hell, you can get it through enough Skittles—but there’s nothing like getting it from a perfectly ripe orange. In both cases, you get the vitamin C, but with the whole food you get things like fiber, folate, and potassium. It’s the same with flow states versus moments of appreciating my looks, or having them appreciated: With both, I still wind up pleased with my appearance. But one is the orange, and the other is a grab bag of candy.

There’s nothing wrong with looking in the mirror. There’s nothing wrong with sometimes looking to your reflection—even when it is impossibly subjective, and backward at that—for a breath of fortitude, centeredness, and assurance. I just want to see what life is like when I’m not using that image as my anchor; I want to see how it affects the way I move through the world, the way I regard myself and others. I want to know what it’s like to sever a primary tie to one of my greatest personal flaws—extraordinary self-consciousness—and I want to discover what will fill the space that the mirror has occupied until now.

I want to eat the orange. 

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?

Does Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Work? Depends on What "Work" Means

Ready for the grand reveal? Actually, according to my poll results, 56% of you don’t need it at all: The right side of my face received the anti-aging treatment. Twenty-nine percent of you couldn’t tell, and only 15% of you guessed incorrectly. And according to the results of my Visia face scan—kindly performed by Sabina Kozak, the spa director at Sensitive Touch, a medical spa in NYC—my wrinkles really have decreased on the right side of my face:

The Visia scan also told me I was in the 47th wrinkle percentile for 34-year-old women.
Does Kaplan have a course for improving this?

So obvs we should all be swarming the drugstore in search of Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair, right? Not exactly. The other measures from my Visia face scan (thanks to The Beauty Brains for the tipoff about the Visia imaging system, which aids in analyzing your skin's condition) suggested that I had poorer texture on the treated side of my face—hardly a surprise, given the flakiness and peeling I had about two weeks in. So you’re making a devil’s deal—reduced wrinkles for heightened sensitivity—and you might not ever know whether it’s worth it (unless, of course, you conduct a Highly Scientific Experiment like a certain intrepid beauty blogger).

But fine, whatever, some of us will put bat blood on our face if it’ll just slow down the cruelle hands of time, right? So look at my photo again:

Let’s be honest: The difference is minuscule. It’s not something you’d notice were you not looking for it—or, for 29% of you, that you'd notice even if you were (not to mention the 15% who thought I'd treated the other side of my face). In fact, I found it impossible to properly document, because the only way I myself noticed was when I would smile wildly at myself four inches away from the mirror. Then I could tell a legitimate difference in the depth of wrinkles under my eyes and the number of fine lines splayed out on either side of my nose. But unless I spend my life grinning fanatically to increase my wrinkles so that onloookers can tell how decreased they've actually become, no really, it's a moot point. (I might begin to garner a reputation as extraordinarily cheerful and/or as a maniac, which would either shave a few years off or add them on, depending.)

But here’s the thing: Undoubtedly, the cream “worked.” It’s justified in its claims of "fading the look of stubborn...deep wrinkles." (Though its other claims, of “brightening skin tone” and “improving texture” were unproven--do you see any difference in tone? I don’t, and neither did Kozak at Sensitive Touch. In fact, in just looking at close-up photos of my face, she guessed I’d been treating the left side of my face, because of its smoother texture—and this is a person who improves people's skin for a living.) But I recall a back-and-forth I once overheard between two coworkers of mine, in surveying the skin care basket at a beauty sale: “Oh, vitamin C cream, that sounds nice,” one said. The other replied, “Yeah, but does it work?” She said it with a cynical, resigned tone, and years later I keep hearing her voice when I’m contemplating some new skin potion. With, say, mascara, it’s easy to tell if it “works”: Are your lashes darker than they were before? Yes? It's working. Logically the same would apply to skin care: My fine lines were indeed diminished, however slightly, so unequivocally we can say it works, right?

But if the phrase “hope in a jar” is any indication, I’m not alone in illogically wanting a product to “work” in ways it simply can’t. It wasn't so much that I wanted my wrinkles diminished; I wanted the radiance I had in college, when all I had to do was roll out of bed to have the glow that now only comes with a good night’s rest, healthy diet, and exercise. At 34, I’m only beginning to enter the anti-aging sector of the beauty market, and I’m learning what a rabbit hole it could easily become. Because if this cream is the best over-the-counter cream there is, and it "works" but doesn’t work-work, the next step is to see a dermatologist for the prescription-strength version. That cream will work but probably not work-work; then Botox cometh. And then a chemical peel, and then laser resurfacing, and then what’s left but going under an actual knife in order to find what will really, finally, truly work-work?

I wonder if part of the disappointment of the anti-aging market is that it's a misnomer. It doesn't anti-age you; it ages you smarter, that's all. The right side of my face does not currently look younger than my left side; it just looks maybe a little less stressed out or better-rested, like one half of me was doing face yoga while my vampiric, type-A, humorless, haggard side, who is also probably a heavy smoker and named Charlene, was paying visit to the taxman.

I had another realization through this experiment, one that has less to do with how the cream made me look and more with how we look at one another. People had a much higher rate of guessing erroneously when in person as compared with people who voted online and could scrutinize the “data” without feeling uncomfortable. (Workplace tip: Kneeling in front of your coworkers’ desks and asking them to play Fountain of Youth with you is super-awkward, but you become BFFs real quick!) Not only that, but the people who knew me best—close friends, longtime coworkers, even my boyfriend—were the most likely to choose wrong.

Looking at pictures of my squinty eyes on a screen, you can parse out that maybe the fine lines on the right side are a bit finer. But when looking at me—a live, breathing person, one emanating energy and eagerness and friendliness and curiosity and maybe a little bit of awkward nerves—I think people weren’t able to be as objective. Not that my aura is so dazzling (I do eventually tire of the applause, you know), but rather that my humanness—just like theirs—was so present as to overshadow any individual facet of me.

Which is to say: Nobody wants to look that closely. The only times I’m scrutinizing someone’s face is when I'm intrigued by the person, so anything I find is going to be a treasure, or a clue to their inner lives. In the past week I’ve discovered a glimmer of silver eyeshadow on a low-key colleague I always thought eschewed makeup, a scatter of well-concealed pimples on a friend who’s desperately unhappy at her job, and an old-fashioned beauty mark on one of the most casually glamorous women I know. I’m paying attention to their faces and finding these things, assets and drawbacks alike, because the people captivate me. If I’m lucky enough to captivate someone else to the point where they’re mapping my face, I have to trust that they will see my lines as what they are—evidence of nearly 35 years on this planet. Whether a person thinks I look "aged" or haggard versus well-lived and vibrant will depend upon what they think of my presence, not the lines around my eyes.

So, will I keep using this cream? Well, I probably won’t buy it (I got this bottle for free, a perk of working in ladymags)--but I’ll finish the bottle. And in all honesty, the next time I go to my dermatologist for a cancer check
(which you should do, pronto—I did on a whim and it turns out I had precancerous cells, so get your butt in there, missy), I can't promise I won't ask for a Retin-A prescription. Yes, much of what I've written here has refuted the net effectiveness of age creams. Yes, I still want in. 

Even after knowing that people can only tell the difference when pressed, even knowing that I can only tell the difference when exaggerating my wrinkles, even having loosely proved that my human presence is an effective mask for any “fine lines” I might have: The option is there, every night, available. Were I to opt out entirely, I feel like I’d be giving up on the part of me that wants to establish myself as radiant and vibrant. I do the things that actually keep me as radiant as I can be: I eat my veggies, I do my yoga. But those take time, and dedication. And I am, after all, only American: There is a part of my brain resistant to all sense, and that part tells me that maybe a 60-second fix really will help. For 60 seconds every night, I can dab a bit of lotion onto my fingers and pretend like I have a quick pass to "aging gracefully"; for those 60 seconds each night, I have a quiet, divine ritual that reminds me I have a long life ahead, and that this small talisman might help me through it. For 60 seconds each night, there’s a part of me that believes I have access to the sort of older woman I look at and hope to become—and for the tentative now, the only barrier to entry is the occasional twenty-dollar bill, spent on a wishful act of magic, a moment of alchemy, a silent prayer that I have some dominion in the woman I will be in ten years, in twenty, in forty. 

Hope in a jar.

Please Vote: Which Half of My Face Looks Younger

I'm in the last leg of my anti-aging face cream experiment: Now, gentle reader, it is in your hands. (For those of you just now joining the beauty lab: I've been using an anti-wrinkle face cream on one half of my face for the past month.) Please vote in my poll (upper right-hand corner of the blog) on which—if either—half of my face looks younger! (You can click on the image to make it larger, either for educating yourself re: the poll or to use as wallpaper on your desktop.)

I have my own ideas about which half of my face benefited from this experiment (and so does the skin care expert I visited) but in scientia veritas, so forgive me for not letting you know which half is which until next week.

In the meantime: You came down in favor of me shampooing my hair, but it was neck-and-neck, with only a two-vote difference between the yesses and the nos. (The lone "Thought it looked like hell all along, really" vote I am discarding, as it is unclear if the person thinks I should wash it or merely dislikes my hair wholesale.) I'm hanging on a bit longer as a Hair Warrior—I'm self-employed so "Hair Warrior" is as close as I'm going to get to a job promotion—but the siren song of shampoo is calling.

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.

Elizabeth Taylor, 1932-2011

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

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

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

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

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

Beauty Experiment: Update and Confession to the Scientific Community and the Community at Large

Monitoring the progress of my first official beauty experiment, applying anti-aging cream to half my face. I'll wait until the end of the monthlong experiment before issuing any conclusions, as I wouldn't want to tamper with the results, and refraining from hypothesizing is as close to double-blind as I can get (short of hiring someone to apply cream to my face while I sleep, which seems a tad drastic, especially as this project has had a difficult time finding funding from the scientific community at large). Still, I feel it only fair to alert readers of a potential contaminant in the experiment: The half of my face receiving treatment has started to noticeably flake, in a direct line down my nose, and in order to provide corrective measures I have had to add a moisturizing cream to the regimen.

Let the official experiment log, i.e. this weblog, reflect my personal conflict over adding a factor to the experiment midway through, in what I admit is a rather haphazard fashion. I felt it better to attempt a corrective course so as to not begin the experiment anew (and since in other capacities besides that of chief scientist, I'm a laydee who doesn't want to walk around with half of her nose shedding). My hope that my integrity remains intact in the eye of the public.

Thank you, and good day.

Do Other People Determine What We Find Attractive?

A recent study suggests that people could be likely to adjust how attractive they find a face based on how attractive other people say that face is. There have been studies before saying that people will adjust their reporting of attractiveness based on the opinions of others—which held true here—but this study has the added gee-whiz factor of measuring reward centers of the brain, which correlated with the self-reported shift in attraction.

But the study needs a closer look—any study does, especially one that might seem to confirm insecurities, particularly women's insecurities. (Am I alone in the insecurity bit? I quote from a fellow I was unfortunate enough to go out with: "The rest of the world doesn't know what it's missing by overlooking you. You're beautiful!" Is it just me?)

1) Not only was the grand total of study participants exactly 14 people, all 14 of those people were men, and all of them were between the ages of 18 and 26.
What would the study have found if it had tested women as well? Certainly I don't think women are more immune to society's sway than men—and contrary to what some women (and men) have told me, neither do I believe that women have a broader spectrum of what they find attractive, nor that we're better able to find a man's "inner beauty" than they are ours.

What I do think is true is that women's looks are often spoken of in terms of currency, as though every woman begins with value X and that certain features incrementally add to that value. Now, this study wasn't about those features; it was about what others supposedly thought. I'm pretty sure that even people (men and women alike) who don't view women in terms of market value have been pretty well trained to think that there's a currency attached to women's appearance, like it or not—and currency is worthless unless we know that others around us assign it value. As a culture, we're more easily able to separate a man's value from his appearance; had women been asked to rate men, would we be so eager to change our number based on what others think?

2) The experiment measured neural pathways connected to financial rewards, not pathways connected to sensual pleasure. This experiment doesn't measure response to beauty at all; it measures calculated value.
(The researchers made this clear in their writings, but as so frequently happens, the journalists who wrote up the story morphed it.) And the study sample—men between the ages of 18 and 26—isn't exactly a population known for shying away from financial risk, you know? We don't know if the participants intrinsically changed their mind about whether a particular face was more or less beautiful; we only know that the perceived value increased or decreased according to other people's input.

3) Hot-or-not studies are sort of gross, right?
We can all agree on this? I mean, in college I did all sorts of shit for money in the psych lab, but I'm really icked out by the thought of being paid to sit there and rate faces on a 1-7 scale. But damn if people don't love to read about them! It validates our more shameful moments of being judgmental, and simultaneously serves to keep us wondering where we'd fall in the mix.

4) Attractiveness is not the same as beauty.
Of all the maxims about beauty, the only one I fully believe to be true is that beauty is in the eye of the beholder—that is, we really can't help what we find beautiful. The crowd might nudge us one way or another, but…if you're not a Gisele kinda lady, you're not a Gisele kinda lady, knowwhatimean? And this study, at first glance, flies in the face of that.

But attractiveness is something that is a little more generic, a little more across the board—and a little more easily agreed upon. Of the women I've talked with, many of them have said, unprompted, that pretty much anyone can be attractive with the right sort of effort; beauty, on the other hand, is a more elusive quality, one that might be easily mimicked but not easily faked. We find what is rare, beautiful; we find what we can agree upon, attractive. That's not to say we're all attracted to the same things (we'll save evolutionary theory for another post!); in general, there are certain things we all find attractive, but what we find beautiful tends to be more individual, in my definition of it. It's less easily packaged; it's even less easily rated, and it's not something that we could change even if we wanted to.

Do Anti-Aging Creams Work? A Potentially Weird-Looking Experiment

Please allow me to present my first official beauty experiment! Each week or month (depending on the challenge) I'll be doing a different beauty experiment. These will range from the external and product-oriented (finally, an excuse to, say, wear turquoise eyeliner!) to the internal and self-oriented (going for a week without looking in a mirror) to everything in between. If there's anything to report during the experiment, I'll keep you updated; if it's more about the end result, I'll just post the results at the experiment's end.

First up: I'm going to start using anti-aging cream...on half my face.

Which half of my face will be the lucky recipient of anti-aging cream?
Will the other half be sent home with a dinette set?

We've heard ad nauseam that anti-agers don't really work. In fact, it's hard to think of another product category that's such an object of skepticism but still manages to make incredible sales—with mascara your lashes are either darker or they're not, but with anti-aging creams, who's to say whether you actually look younger? Still, even skeptics say that retinols might do something—prescription-strength retinols in particular, but even over-the-counter stuff has a decent reputation among dermatologists. Beauty editor Ali has faith in retinols, but I thought that her explanation of why expensive skin creams might "work" better applied to anti-aging: "If you just shelled out $300 for a cream, your brain is in this mode of, This is going to work. You have that optimism that can actually make you radiant."

Now, companies have access to all sorts of weird measuring tools that can actually measure whether or not their snake oils reduce wrinkles. But I don't give a shit if my wrinkles are reduced 50%; what I do give a shit about is if I look better, you know? Fifty percent might mean jack squat on my face. What I want to know is: Does this retinol actually have an effect on my appearance? The optimism won't really come into play, and I'll be posting pictures after the fact so you can guess which half me looks 34 and which half of me looks 34 with reduced wrinkles.

Caveats: I have "fine lines," not wrinkles—I am, after all, only 34 and have been pretty careful about not over-sunning myself. Plus, my parents have fewer wrinkles than most people their age, so I'm pretty well set up. Still: I see the lines that weren't there before, and while I'm not freaked out about them I also know that the worry lines that have popped up in the last year or so make me look, well, worried. Not older, but worried—and nobody looks their best when they appear stressed out. (What's that you say? Try stress reduction instead of anti-wrinkle cream? Yeah, sister, it's on my to-do list.)

The product I'm using is Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Moisturizer, which promises "Noticeable results in just one week!" I'm going to be generous with them and give them a whole month to turn one half of my face into a glowing, porcelain version of its current state. It's on.

Are Conservatives Better-Looking Than Liberals?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Essence of Beauty Ideals

Victoria Beckham: an emblem of beauty diversity!

In general, I rather like Linda Wells and what she's done with Allure--it's not my favorite magazine but I also think that they give interesting treatment to topics that I'm interested in. That said, I'm not sure what to think of this interview with her about the shifting beauty ideal. It's hard to tell how much is her and how much is the reporter, but there seems to be a self-congratulatory tone here--not exactly self-congratulatory of Allure, but of Americans for having come so far, baby. Call the press: Americans are capable of finding women who aren't blond-haired, blue-eyed, and fair-skinned beautiful! (Is this news to anyone?)

Wells takes the route of acknowledging that a broader range of beauty ideals doesn't mean that we actually find more women beautiful, but rather that people who embody any particular beauty ideal are indeed "younger, thinner, and prettier" than the average woman. By its nature, a beauty ideal is exclusionary. But what gets lost here is that the reason we look at certain people as beauty ideals is that they possess a quality that appears to be both wholly natural yet simultaneously unattainable by the majority of us, no matter what artificial routes we take. She has that star quality that we often translate to mean beautiful; it's that quality that makes her special, not the idea that she's something that the rest of us need to strive for. Hell, if we're going to insist upon looking at any woman first for her appearance, we may as well appreciate those looks in their own merit instead of as a template for the rest of us.

The beauty ideal is not the same thing as the essence of beauty. I'm not even saying this in a you-go-girl way; I'm saying it in a practical way. I don't think for two seconds that the fact that America has apparently opened its mind to different beauty ideals means that we've actually shifted what we think of as beautiful. (I'd argue that most people detect and react to beauty based on their own internal meters, not on something based on what's essentially in fashion, but that's a different post.) I suspect what it's done is simply created more "categories" of women, taking what could ostensibly be a simple appreciation of beauty and forcing it to the top of a pyramid, with, say, Penelope Cruz at the top of one, Christina Hendricks  atop another, and Gwyneth Paltrow reigning over her own raw, vegan perch.

I remember what Rosie Molinary said about Latina stereotypes: That for Latina women there's one sort of representative from each country, so if you're Mexican but don't look like Salma Hayek, it's like you're not the "best" Mexican. (Which is funny, because her father is Lebanese.) I think that's particularly true for women of color, but I think it applies across the board too, which is why we're so fascinated with celebrity lookalikes. Kate Winslet—yes, I'm trotting her out, despite my wish not to Kate-Winslet-as-verb anybody—was such a breath of fresh air for women because she looked a little bit more like the average woman than other celebrities (except, of course, she doesn't; Kate Winslet is as ordinary as I am Portuguese). But it's not like I really felt better about my body once she came on the scene; it was more like, Oh, great, now I need to be a fucking Kate Winslet type? (Honestly, this is part of what irks me about "real women have curves": Besides implying that thin women are impostors, there's also a particular way in which it's acceptable to be curvy. Why else did that false meme about Marilyn Monroe being a size 16 circulate for years? My body will never resemble hers any more than it would resemble Gwyneth Paltrow's.)

I don't have a problem with us as a culture looking toward beautiful women and appreciating them as just that. (I remember once realizing that I'd spent 20 minutes doing nothing other than looking at photographs of Lindsay Lohan.) But I'm wary of saying that we've somehow made progress simply because beauty ideals other than Linda Evangelista exist.