“I feel obligated to educate anyone that doesn’t wear a uniform about what military service is like,” says Miyoko Hikiji, a nine-year veteran of the U.S. Army whose career began when she joined the Iowa Army National Guard in college, eventually leading her to serve with the 2133rd Transportation Company during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. Her recently published book, All I Could Be: My Story as a Woman Warrior in Iraq (History Publishing Company, 2013), goes a good ways toward that obligation. And when I found out that the soldier-turned-author also began modeling upon retiring from the military, well, how could I not want to interview her? Beauty is hardly the most crucial aspect of a soldier’s life, but it’s an area unique to female soldiers, who make up 15.7% of active Army members—and who, in January, had all military occupational specialties opened to them, including combat units previously closed to women. Hikiji and I talked war paint, maintaining a sense of identity in extraordinary circumstances, and Hello Kitty pajamas. In her own words:
Military rules about appearance are pretty strict. Your hair has to be tied back in a way that doesn’t interfere with your headgear and that is above the collar of your jacket. That pretty much leaves it in a tight little bun at the nape of your neck. Once you get your two-minute shower and get out soaking wet, you just braid it together and it stays that way all day. After a mission or training, most of the women with longer hair wore their hair down, because having it in a bun under a helmet is really uncomfortable. In Iraq I might have had eyeshadow, from training and preparation before we actually got to Iraq. When we’d be in civilian clothes I’d have a little makeup for chilling out. But once I was actually in Iraq, I was more focused on sunscreen, moisturizer, vitamins. I just wanted to be healthy. And I had a stick of concealer. I wore that for some of my scars—there were a lot of sand fleas, and I had bites all over my body.
I couldn’t really approach trying to cover them well and look nice when I was there; I just needed to be clean. When I came home I did microdermabrasion for months to get rid of the scars. And I couldn’t wait to get regular haircuts. I also got my teeth whitened—we took daily medicine to protect against infection and malaria and stuff like that, but it makes your teeth turn yellow.
In Kuwait I think we got a shower once every three days. We took a lot of baby wipe baths. Those lists that say, Send this to the troops—baby wipes are always on there. I did try to get my hair washed as often as I could. A lot of women would put baby powder on their hair and brush it out, to absorb the oil and the dirt. I’d just dump canned water over my head if that was the best I could do. If I was up by the Euphrates I would shave in the river if I had a chance, but that was something you didn’t get to do very often.
On War Paint
The idea of makeup as war paint is interesting. Actual “war paint”—camouflage paint—is like a little eyeshadow pack, so in camouflage class or in the field, you’d have a woodland one that has brown, two shades of green, and a black. You’d put the darkest colors on the highlighted parts of your face so they’re subdued, and then you kind of stripe the rest across your face. It’s extremely thick, almost like clay; you wear it and you sweat in it and it’s just there. It’s kind of miserable! But if you look at yourself in the mirror after doing these exercises with the camouflage paint on, it’s hard to look at yourself the same way. There really is something to putting on the uniform or the camouflage, or just the effect you have when you’re holding a loaded weapon. All that contributes to your behavior. So I definitely feel different when I wake up and put my regular makeup on.
I approach the world differently, and the world treats me differently. What is it that we’re fighting? That’s hard to say. On some levels, I feel like when I wear makeup I’m buying into the whole thing of what a man tells me looks pretty, or that I’m kind of giving up part of my natural self. But then I justify it by saying, Well, it works, or Well, I’m getting paid to do that right now, with modeling. There is a lot of conflict there. It’s sort of a war on self, sort of a war on womanhood.
There was a tactical gear company filming some commercials at Camp Dodge, where I trained. They were going to have the actors go through an obstacle course I’d been through, doing everything at the grounds that I’d been training at for years. At the audition they said, “We’d like for you to have weapons experience, because we’re gonna shoot some blanks out of M-16s.” I thought, There’s no way I’m not gonna get this part. And then I didn’t. They picked people who were bigger, probably a little gruffer. People who looked the stereotype of what you think a soldier looks like.
To be fair, I don’t know all their criteria, so it’s easy for me to say they thought I was too pretty, too feminine. I don’t know that. But I do know that people who were picked for that modeling job didn’t have more experience than I did. Certainly none of them had weapons experience like I did. I think that they just didn’t believe that I fit the bill of looking like a soldier.
My experience in the military couldn’t have been anything but a benefit to anything I did in the future. Whenever I have a modeling job I always show up on time or early. I always have everything I’m supposed to have—not only do I print it out, but I check it just like a battle checklist. I look at every project like a mission. When I get there, I always have enough of whatever is needed to take care of somebody else who’s not prepared, which would be a squad leader’s position. I’m used to all that, and the people I work for are usually kind of surprised. In the middle of a job, if something happens, I’m okay with cleaning it up, whereas maybe other models or actresses might feel like that isn’t what they’re being paid to do, or that it’s a little below them. But you do so many crappy jobs in the military. You burn human poop! You have a bar for what you’re willing to do, and mine is all the way at the bottom. Things just don’t bother me or gross me out.
My great-grandmother was born in Japan, and my grandmother and my father were born and raised in Kauai. Being part Japanese adds another element to modeling, especially in Iowa, where the population for minorities is so low. There’s a Colombian model and a Laotian model here, so it’s kind of a joke among us when the call goes out for these jobs—which minority are they going to pick? And for scenes with couples, there are people they’ll always pair together and people they never will. Last commercial I did, I was paired with a guy who was just Mexican enough. They’ll pair me with a black man, but they don’t pair a black man and a white woman together—I’ve never seen that for a commercial shoot. I’m half Czech also, but they use me for the Asian slot, and then they try to Asian me up. They’ll tell the makeup artist, Can you make her look just a little more Asian? It’s like, I know we’re filling the Asian slot, but we’ve got to make sure it actually looks like she is.
All I Could Be: My Story as a Woman Warrior in Iraq, Miyoko Hikiji, History Publishing Company, 2013; available in Barnes & Noble bookstores and online
One thing I thought was funny was pajamas. All the guys slept in their brown T-shirt or just their boxer shorts, because it’s not like guys wear pajamas; that wouldn’t be acceptable in that world. But all the women had pajamas! And it was always something funny, like Rainbow Brite or Hello Kitty or something. At that point in the night we just wanted to be girls. On active duty, if it was a three-day weekend, you could wear civilian clothes to the final formation before being cut loose for the weekend. The guys looked basically the same—they’d wear jeans and a T-shirt, but they wouldn’t really look different. But if I showed up in a dress, they just couldn’t believe it! Women can have a lot more faces than men can have—men can’t change their appearance the same way women can, especially in a situation where they all have short hair. But a woman really does look a lot different in her civilian clothes, and I was one of only a few women in a unit that had just opened its ranks to women when I first joined in ’95. So the guys kind of looked at me like, Is that really the same person? I think it confronted them a bit about who exactly I was.
There was also a conflict around presenting a different face to myself. When I was wearing a uniform I felt a little tougher, like I was blending in better with the guys. I didn’t really look like them, but at least I looked more like them than when I was wearing civilian clothes. And when I’d be in a situation where I’d look nicer, sometimes I wouldn’t even tell people that I was in the army—sometimes I would, if I was in a mood to challenge stereotypes. But the two identities don’t seem to fit well because of the stereotypes we have—tough people are supposed to look gritty and dirty and cut-up with tattoos. And then people who are attractive—well, that’s not supposed to be tough at all. The movie G.I. Jane was a terrible depiction of that. Even though it tried to be a girl power movie, in order for Demi Moore to be one of the guys, she had to look like a guy. She had to shave her head because that was how she could reach that level.
I think that’s a real issue in the military—and in our society—about beauty and gender stereotypes, that pretty can’t be tough. It became kind of a side mission of mine. Whenever anyone entered the room and said, “Hey guys,” I’d say, “Wait, what about me?” They’d say, “Oh, you know we mean you too.” Well, no, not really, because I’m not a guy. I wanted to point out that I’m doing the same job, but I’m not really one of you. That’s okay, we’re different—as far as the mission is concerned we’re basically equal, but we do do things differently. It’s not a bad thing!
But let’s recognize who is it that the women are, because a lot of times I think we feel women have to be assimilated into manhood as a promotion into soldierhood, because we don’t think about soldiers as being women. We just think about them as being men. In the beginning I was so eager to assimilate and be accepted. I was okay with losing a bit of identity because I was becoming this new and different and better person—I was going to be a soldier and that was more important to me at the time than preserving some sort of identity as a woman. But by the time it got to the end of my military career I looked at things differently. In Iraq, on laundry day there would be clothes hanging out on lines that people would just string up wherever you could find a space, and some women had Victoria’s Secret underwear and lacy bras. At first I thought, What in the world? I don’t need a wedgie in the middle of a mission. But by the end it made sense to me, because we lost everything while we were there.
We lost our privacy; we lost a lot of our dignity. We were asked to do things that people probably shouldn’t be asked to do. So if you can hang onto something that is meaningful to you—whether that represents your femininity or your strength or your individuality, which we lost also—then what difference does it really make? It means something to them. Everybody has to find their thing to help get them through. You know, men don’t have to drop a lot of their stuff when they get deployed, but there’s a lot of pressure on women to change, to fill those soldiers’ shoes. The military uniform takes away women’s body shape; you don’t really have hips anymore, or a bust. It makes you realize how much just being a woman and being seen as a woman, let alone being attractive, plays into your life, because suddenly all that’s kind of gone.
I would give readers a quick 101 on the NSA surveillance scandal before I go on to make my point, but the fact is, I’ve got no facts. I saw the headlines, heard the occasional bits of cocktail party buzz, and saw a flurry of blog posts—which I skimmed at best, or skipped altogether—crop up in my RSS feed. And then, I shrugged.
Apathy doesn’t seem like the greatest reason to tune out of something that, intellectually and politically speaking, enrages me—or at least should enrage me, if rage were a rational response that arose upon provocation of our most deeply held beliefs. But there it is: In a country whose founding principles include freedom of expression, learning that the government is—what, reading our e-mails? listening to our phone conversations?—this citizen’s response is meh.
A woman must continually watch herself. … Whilst she is walking across a room or weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. … Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object—and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.
Here are a few of the things that may result for women from objectification, whether it comes from others or internally as a result of being objectified by others: Depression. Limiting one’s social presence. Temporarily lowered cognitive functioning. (Of course, there are also suggestions that self-objectification may boost some women’s well-being. Another day, another post.) When I look at these effects and compare them with where I’m at intellectually about the NSA privacy invasions—a shrinking of oneself versus righteous outward anger—I’m troubled. Would I feel more righteous anger if I hadn’t learned to absorb, possibly to my personal detriment, the effects of objectification and tacitly accepted surveillance as something that just happens? And more importantly: Has the collective energy of women been siphoned into this realm, leaving us less energy for, as they say, leaning in?
Looking at appearance and infidelity vis-à-vis the Petraeus household made me curious about what role beauty actually does play in betrayal. Most of us know from casual observation that it’s fully possible for a person to cheat with someone who isn’t as physically attractive as that person’s primary partner—but is there any sort of pattern there? Are people likelier to cheat with someone who’s conventionally better-looking than one’s partner?
I was surprised/relieved to find that there weren’t any studies available that delved into that particular question. (Not sure how that would work in a lab setting anyway: “Please send photo of mistress to...”?) But there’s a wealth of research looking at other intersections of appearance and infidelity. Some of the more interesting findings:
1) Women reported feeling more threatened when “the other woman” was particularly attractive—but only in cases of emotional infidelity. In sexual infidelity, the other woman’s appearance had no effect on the wife/girlfriend’s feelings about the betrayal.
I was surprised by the findings of this study at first. On the surface, our culture tends to equate beauty with sex appeal more than it connects beauty and lovability. (The frowsy girl in movies never gets laid, but someone’s gonna see her heart of gold, right?) So wouldn’t a woman feel more threatened by an attractive rival when the betrayal was sexual more than emotional?
But with a closer look, it makes perfect sense. Sexual infidelity can be as meaningless as a drunken, regrettable one-night stand; emotional infidelity implies not a fleeting crush but something with a deeper current that develops over time. In other words: Someone cheating sexually could just want one specific part of a person (ahem)—but someone cheating emotionally is entranced with the entirety of the third party. And in a culture that likes to make-believe that a woman’s value as a person lies in her beauty and feminine charms, it’s logical that a beautiful woman—i.e. a valuable woman—is going to pose a greater threat in situations of emotional infidelity. When your partner becomes emotionally invested in another person, it stings regardless of who that person is. But when it’s someone whose value is evident, the threat is greater because your own value diminishes comparatively. With sexual infidelity, the value of the person isn’t called into question as sharply as it with emotional infidelity, so a beautiful “rival” poses less of a threat.
2) Women are more likely than men to end a marriage after their own infidelity—and the more attractive the woman as compared to her husband, the likelier she is to do so.
To put it plainly, attractive women are likelier than men to use infidelity as an opportunity to “trade up,” in the language of this study. The lesson here seems clear: Beauty increases a woman’s “market value,” while infidelity (including the person’s own infidelity) lessens the value an individual gets from her or his partner. Put the two together and it’s not hard to see how a woman might feel as though the algorithm of the relationship has changed after infidelity, to the point where ending the relationship makes sense in a way that it might not if she weren’t confident of her “market value.” By the way, I’m putting that in quotes because it makes me a little queasy not to.
3) Women were twice as likely as men to endorse “the other person makes me feel attractive” as an acceptable reason for infidelity.
Endorse is a strong word here but it’s the word used in the study so I’m borrowing it here; the participants weren’t necessarily saying infidelity was hunky-dory under any circumstance. With that weakened use of endorse in mind, take this in: 20% of men endorsed cheating if the other person made them feel attractive, while 42% of women said the same. In addition, women were 6% likelier to endorse infidelity when the cheating party wasn’t attracted to their spouse. (In fact, the only reason for cheating that men endorsed significantly more than women was “Opportunity presented itself,” with 32% of men signing on.)
Read cynically, this confirms the wretched stereotype of women as hopelessly vain, forever needing to be fawned over and then getting huffy enough to cheat if that fawning stops. But I interpret this rather as a sad comment on what all these studies are driving at: Plenty of women still internalize their value as lying in their looks. Feeling beautiful under someone else’s gaze can be intoxicating—and so validating that it might trump other values one might hold dear. Bathing in that gaze is often construed as such a foundational condition of a relationship that it might be easy for some women to quietly substitute in that feeling for commitment and fidelity. Indeed, so much advice given to women about how to “catch his eye” is geared toward maximizing physical attractiveness that if you squint hard enough, catching his eye can appear to be the grand prize that women are supposed to shoot for—not the relationship itself. Little wonder that under that paradigm, plenty of women might be willing to excuse infidelity with “but he makes me feel beautiful.” Plus, since attractiveness is often seen as the way one “earns” sex (only the beautiful get to do the nasty, you know), it makes sense that having your appearance highly valued by another lays the groundwork for beauty’s payoff.
4) Men married to women they believe to have a high infidelity risk are likelier than other men to use “mate retention tactics” to keep their wives from straying. Women, on the other hand, were no more or less likely to deploy such tactics regardless of whether they thought their husbands might cheat.
You’ve gotta love these “tactics” too: punishing the woman for whatever it is that makes him think she might stray, putting down competitors, submission and debasement, and “concealment of mate,” whatever that means (the study didn’t say). Of course, that’s better than the tactics used by men who perceive their wives to be more attractive than they themselves are: emotional manipulation, derogation, sexual threats, and violence against rivals. And once again, women who perceived their husbands to be more attractive than they themselves are weren’t more likely to use those tactics.
These tidbits are just randomly dispiriting until you look at another finding of the study and see exactly how dispiriting it really is: There was no correlation between how hot a guy thinks his wife is and how likely he thinks she is to cheat on him. Yet a woman’s perceived beauty and her perceived risk of infidelity are not only punished, but are punished in much the same way. (Not all the “mate retention tactics” measured in the survey were negative ones; love and care were considered tactics, for example.) So basically: Women are groomed to maximize their attractiveness, in part because that’s supposed to snag you a higher-quality mate. Yet getting into a relationship with a man who thinks you’re better-looking than he thinks he is carries risk. Talk about feeling cheated, eh?
These findings are hardly conclusive, largely because some of them relied upon hypothetical infidelities, and also because the conclusions drawn from the studies are rather oblique. (Plus, I’m skeptical of beauty studies to begin with.) Intellectually, what I gather from them is what popped up plenty of times above: As long as we see women’s value as lying largely in their appearance, there will be a relationship between beauty and betrayal, even if that relationship isn’t as straightforward as some people would make it seem.
Personally, though, I take something else from this data: Since there’s no pattern here as far as actual behavior, there’s little use fretting about one’s own appearance in conjunction with infidelity. I know that when I’ve been cheated on, my instinct (after seething rage) is to wonder why I alone wasn’t enough for my partner. And, yes, to wonder whether the betrayal happened because I ceased to be attractive in the cheater’s eyes. (I didn’t say it was a healthy instinct, people.) But looking at all these studies, they’re...fuzzy. Weird little conclusions come up, none of which explain the only thing I’ve really cared about when I’ve been betrayed—or, for that matter, when I’ve had the poor judgment to betray a partner myself: Why. The why of betrayal sears and smolders, and at least in my case, it never fully burns out, even years later. I don’t feel anger when I think of my high school boyfriend telling me he kissed his ex during a snowball fight, but the why still flickers, even if the only emotion it provokes in me is nostalgia for the time when that was the most complicated thing I could imagine happening in my intimate life.
These studies don’t provide a why. And as satisfying as it would be to have something concrete we could turn to in times of the heartbreak of betrayal, it’s fitting that no why emerges. Can we ever know why? If “opportunity presented itself” is one of the more popular reasons for cheating, there really isn’t a why. It might be cold comfort to see that beauty isn’t really a part of the why—or it might not be comfort at all, depending upon your relationship with beauty, and with infidelity, for that matter. But only when we learn to take our own perspective on appearance out of the equation can we begin to see “opportunity,” disappointment, and the chaos of love and desire—the unsatisfying but undeniable components that are likely a part of the why—as the real flame-throwers here.
This is part two of a three-part series on appearance and infidelity. Part one is here; look for part three next week.
The sex lives of public figures bore me. Rather, the sex lives of public figures interest me no more than that of, say, my dentist. My view on sex is generally pretty solipsistic: If it’s not me having the sex in question, I don’t particularly care about it, and I don’t understand why anyone besides those directly affected would.
So I didn’t pay much attention to the David Petraeus scandal—at least, not until I read this excellent piece by Meghan Daum that questions the mandate of beauty in high-profile women. The article draws upon Petraeus’s wife, Holly, and the flurry of nasty comments in the “chattersphere” about how one could hardly blame Petraeus for sleeping with his attractive biographer, given that Mrs. Petraeus dared to look like a middle-aged woman who doesn’t pay homage to the beauty industry at every opportunity. "If it's no longer shocking that a powerful man would have an affair with a younger, worshipful woman,” writes Daum, “it is a little shocking that the wife of that powerful man, nerdish as he is, would thwart the beauty industrial complex quite so vigorously.”
Daum’s larger point—that we need to eliminate the double standard dictating that accomplished women like Olympia Snowe, Dianne Feinstein, and Nancy Pelosi must pay attention to conventional beauty standards while their male counterparts can eschew them—is one that needs to be made, repeatedly, until things change. (Remember the hubbub when Hillary Clinton had the audacity to speak at a news conference without makeup?) But what’s interesting to me is something Daum acknowledges in her article: Save for a smattering of comments-section trolls, nobody is publicly suggesting that Holly Petraeus’s low-key, glamour-free looks are to blame for Petraeus’s infidelity. Yet the piece hinged upon that very idea, and the piece gained traction because we all quietly understand the game of pin-the-blame-on-the-gray-haired-woman. Save for an ugly little post from Mediabistro, a bizarro article about how all the women involved in the scandal could use a makeover, and the aforementioned comment-section trolls, the only mention of Holly Petraeus’s looks I could find by poking around online comes from...well, Meghan Daum, and people rightfully echoing her point. Few people are trying to suggest that Holly Petraeus’s gray hair is responsible for her husband’s dick falling into another woman—but we get the idea anyway, even when it’s not spoken aloud.
If we’re collectively too kind to snark at a pained woman who has been publicly humiliated, we’re not above raising our eyebrows when the betrayed wife is conventionally beautiful. “If Tiger Woods could cheat on Swedish model Elin Nordegren, what chance do other women have?” cried the Examiner. “Beauties and the beasts,” blared the New York Post after Tony Parker cheated on Eva Longoria. There’s a certain freedom to say it when a beautiful woman has been betrayed, because we’re ostensibly championing the woman; we’re reassuring her that the dude must be cray-cray to cheat on her, because she’s hot, and it’s too bad that her insurance policy of being good-looking had a loophole for infidelity. A loophole that an estimated 22% of married men have exploited at some point, sure, but never mind the 1-in-4 odds at play, right? Those odds are “supposed” to fall in the favor of the Eva Longorias of the world—at the expense of the Holly Petraeuses—and though both parties gain our sympathy, only one of them garners a head-scratching “huh?”
There are all sorts of problems with that mind-set, starting with the insulting idea that good looks are all that wives can count on to keep their husbands faithful (note that while plenty of pieces on Holly Petraeus highlight her striking accomplishments on behalf of military families, none of them suggest her husbands is nutso for cheating on her because of those accomplishments). But deconstructing the idea doesn’t answer the fundamental question of why we’re so eager to tie appearance to infidelity.
I can’t help but think that maybe we want beauty and cheating to be linked. Because if they’re not, the statistics on infidelity are just too depressing. I remember confiding in a friend after a man I loved cheated on me. She was sympathetic, but a part of her response continues to flit around in my mind years after the fact: That’s just how men are, she said. She wasn’t trying to say it was “natural,” but rather that in her experience, men were simply eager to cheat, so I couldn’t take it personally. Let’s say for a moment that she was right—that men just cheat, end of story. It’s awful to think that a man might cheat on you because someone more attractive came along. But it’s worse to think that he cheated just because. Because then the logical fallout is that since he cheated just because, every man cheats, so you’d better learn to either adopt a laissez-faire attitude about the whole thing or get used to losing your dignity on a regular basis, because this is just how it’s going to be.
Accepting that notion would undermine the entire idea of monogamy, which, in this culture, is how we construe commitment. So we refuse it, and we seek a scapegoat for infidelity—and what better scapegoat than something that has already instilled in plenty of people a sense of insecurity, futility, and self-abasement? Beauty, along with its surrounding pressures and expectations, comes in mighty handy here. It makes me think about how often beauty and appearance are used as a scapegoat for other issues, and indeed how rigid we are with the narrative arc of women’s relationship with our looks (woman feels bad about body, woman works to come to peace with it, all is well—which is a fine tale, except it sets an expectation that women are displeased with their bodies, leaving little room for those who might not fall prey to that narrative).
It’s not often that I’m going to argue in this space that beauty is irrelevant; the entire thesis of this blog is that personal appearance becomes relevant to pretty much everything. And that’s not what I’m arguing, not exactly, not least because none of us have any way of knowing exactly why David Petraeus slept with Paula Broadwell—or why any person, anywhere, has cheated on someone they’re ostensibly committed to. (It’s something you often hear from philanderers themselves: I don’t know why I did it, I don’t know what came over me, The whole thing was stupid.) But I will argue that beauty is more relevant to the discussion of infidelity, and to how we make sense of infidelity, than it ever is to infidelity itself, which is why, as Daum points out, “assiduous gym rats with nary a gray hair get cheated on.”
In fact, there’s further evidence of this in the Petraeus case: Since I only paid cursory attention to the story yet kept seeing photos of Jill Kelley everywhere, I assumed that she was Petraeus’s lover. It actually wasn’t until I started researching this piece that I saw a picture of Broadwell, his actual paramour. As a long-haired Lebanese-American socialite usually photographed in bright, tailored dresses, Kelley has more photogenic glamour than an academic from Bismarck who favors a severe hairstyle. Bluntly put, Kelley looks the part of the stereotypical homewrecker more than Broadwell does—which is, I’m guessing, a large part of why her visage, not Broadwell’s, has become one of the iconic images burned into the public mind in regards to this affair. We want a fall gal, and Kelley makes a good one (especially given that she committed adultery as well, just not with the main figure involved here).
The sooner we stop gaping, wide-eyed, when we see men have affairs behind the backs of their beautiful wives, the sooner we can truly start leaving the low-maintenance betrayed wives like Holly Petraeus alone. And the sooner we can do both of those things, maybe we’ll come just a hair closer to understanding why we place such importance on an institution so many people flout—with lovers beautiful and plain, glamorous and mousy, younger and older. Perhaps with practice we’ll even come a little closer to fixing it.
Finke knew what she was doing; hits for her piece would go up by declaring something so controversial. And she’s already had responses with people ranting about her and posting photos of funny women, talking about what a fool she is. That’s all great and helpful. My response is that I’ve never understood why the funny vs. beautiful dichotomy even exists—and I’m questioning how we created a world in which it does. (Okay, and also that Brooke Shields is hilarious. When I saw her on Friends as the obsessed soap opera fan, I thought, “Yes, Brooke! You went from underwear model to blasé movie actress to Norma Desmond! You will not let people tell you who are!” Only someone who is unwilling to let herself grow would look at Brooke Shields and decide that a woman who used to parade around in her panties for a living can’t decide to start letting her wit do the dazzling…while still looking movie-star perfect.)
Beauty is mesmerizing, transportive; it makes tongues wag and it makes times slow down. Beauty says, “I am here as an object for you to admire,” and while it contains power, it’s a power that turns its owner into an object of projection and fantasy. Comedy is refreshing, jarring, true, smart. Comedy says, “I am powerful, in a way that means I am going to call it like I see it, and sometimes you will feel taken aback.” The ability to deliver a comedic line is a form of confidence that a person has—or doesn’t have. The ability to show up at an event and know that a certain percentage of people will stare at you is a confidence a person has, or doesn’t have. The difference is that beauty, though a quality that dazzles a room, invites people to make up who you are and fill in the blanks; comedy shuts that down. When a beautiful woman demonstrates a sense of humor, it goes one step past showing she’s smart and gets right to, “I’m not just smart, I’m questioning and I’m making observations. I am an active participant, not a shell.”
The idea that a woman can only be funny if she has suffered is an interesting one, for humor can be a sign that someone is able to find happiness at all times, and it is often developed as a survival mechanism for those dealing with hard times. But the implication—and this is not just Finke, it’s the reason she and others have this issue in the first place—is that beautiful people don’t have everyday problems and therefore can only be funny if they’ve suffered the plight of the underdog. What’s particularly disturbing about this implication is that a beautiful, funny person has to keep proving their pain—has to keep apologizing. “I’m still hurting! I’m not just enjoying being funny and beautiful! I hope that makes you feel better about your sucky life and limitations!” Why do we need to know that Tina Fey wasn’t attractive when she was younger? Why did Joan Rivers constantly make fun of her own appearance, then pick relentlessly on gorgeous Liz Taylor when Liz was struggling with her weight, and then resort to frightening plastic surgery? Do we need to see a funny, successful woman apologizing constantly for her wit and success in order to feel that all is right with the world? Must every beautiful funny woman pull out “awkward teenage photos” to prove “but I’m one of you! Really!”
The beautiful vs. funny issue comes down to the recurring problem of women not being allowed to embrace all forms of their power. A beautiful woman, out of politeness, has to pretend she doesn’t notice she is being watched, even though of course she should be aware of it, for reasons ranging from self-protection to understanding why she might receive special treatment, either preferential or jealous. A funny woman proves consistently that she is aware of herself in the world, and is insightful about human behavior and motivation—and when this is combined with prettiness, it leads to a viewer wondering, “Wait, so are you aware that each hair toss drives people wild too? How much of this are you picking up on?”
The division between beauty and humor hasn’t always been as sharp as it is now, and throughout film history there have been women who have shimmied through the cracks. On the late ‘80s/early ‘90s hit Designing Women, a rare woman-focused show where attractive ladies were not trying to cut each other’s throats for men—though they all did date and had some lasting relationships—beauties Dixie Carter and Delta Burke both owned their physical beauty and their comedic strengths. In The House Bunny and Legally Blonde, Anna Faris and Reese Witherspoon, respectively, win our hearts as women who discover that underneath their pretty exteriors they really are smart…and they are hilarious doing so. But the shining era of beautiful, glamorous, hilarious women in film was the 1930s. Myrna Loy, Constance Bennett, Carole Lombard, Jean Harlow, Kay Francis—heck, just watch The Women (the 1939 original, please) and you’ll see why I get so frustrated with how far we’ve regressed from when a film like this allowed each lady to shine.
So what changed? The foundational problem some members of our culture, like Finke, have with funny, pretty women is that they’re just too much of a threat—and in 1939, most women weren’t really seen as threatening in the least. Carole Lombard could be beautiful and hilarious in 1936’s My Man Godfrey because the biggest threat her dizzy socialite character could possibly pose would be selecting the wrong “protégé.” Fifty years later, women had gained in status, income, and independence—so quick, call off the funny ladies! You can see the unimaginative screenwriter’s dilemma: “Wait, she dazzles me and I project my fantasies onto her, but she also sees the world in a way that shows an ability to question everyday behavior and call bulls**t when she sees it. Should I objectify her, or go to her for wisdom? Can’t she make this easier for me?”
I’ve dealt with a rare type of snarky man who can’t laugh at a woman’s joke, and I smell it right off. I see humor as play; I see it as a way to connect, to loosen the atmosphere, and most men respond to this. But there are exceptions. When I was 20, I worked at a food counter in the stock market. All the men were sweet and friendly to me, but there was this one smarmy fellow who would never laugh at my jokes. My delivery is sweet and friendly, and occasionally dry, but I’m never trying to be “one of the guys.” When I delivered the food, I would banter, and the men would banter back, and it was fun. But this one fellow just couldn’t laugh, because I was a cute girl in his age group and therefore my purpose was to be an object he could look at as powerless. He would look at me in the sleaze way, but my jokes were not welcome. One day, I’d had it up to here with him. So when I showed him the day’s menu and he said to me, “Is the fish fresh?” all I could think was, He’s toast. So I put my hand on my hip and said, “Yeah, I shot it this morning.” Dude was so shocked that he burst out laughing, and I walked away thinking, “That’s right. Who’s your daddy now?” But it was only because I was finally saying, “Enough already—you’re going to deal with it,” that I broke him out of his attempt to make me feel that my attempts at showing smarts were unwelcome.
I currently write and star in a web and film series called The Sisters Plotz, featuring Eve Plumb and Lisa Hammer. We style ourselves in a vintage, feminine way with an indulgent dose of camp-glamour. Eve and Lisa are two seriously pretty women. Am I about to tell them to disempower themselves by perhaps wearing less flattering outfits or messing up their hair a little bit because I’m trying to decide if they should be funny or pretty? Maybe we should all make jokes pretending we think we’re fat or we should pick on some part of our face or body, because that will make people love us? Um, no. Right now I want to live the dreams I had when I was growing up. This is the one chance I get to be in the world, and I understand that there will always be acts of cruelty or even just idiocy that I don’t understand. But I want to live in a world where women are allowed to be funny and pretty and smart and free and strong and glamorous all at the same time—or none of these things if they don’t want to be—and I know that there will always be people who just don’t agree that I’m allowed to enjoy this type of privilege. But that’s all right. My red lipstick and I are ready.
Lisa Ferber paints and writes witty character portraits influenced by her fascination with humanity. Her works display an appreciation of the beauty and quirks of human behavior, as well as a compassion for its foibles. Her paintings have shown at National Arts Club, Mayson Gallery and other venues, and sell to private collectors. Her films have screened at the Tribeca Grand and the Bluestocking Film Series, and her film "Whimsellica's Grand Inheritance" won the People's Choice Award at the "It Came From Kuchar" festival. Her plays have been performed at notable theaters such as LaMama, DR2 Lounge/Daryl Roth Theatre, and her play "Bonbons for Breakfast" was a New York magazine "notable production." To learn more about her projects, please visit LisaFerber.com
Luckily, I’m hardly the first to that table: There’s plenty of research out there from linguists, sociologists, psychologists, and anthropologists about the fine art of the compliment. Robert Herbert, an American sociolinguist, published a fascinating study about the different ways men and women treat compliments that illuminated some of my experiences around complimenting women around me. Some of the findings:
- Women give wordier compliments than men: “What a great coat!” vs. “Great coat!”)
- Women employ more personal terms than men: “I like those earrings” and “You look great in those earrings” versus “Great earrings”
- Men generally don’t use the “I like/I love” construction when complimenting people of either sex; women use it frequently, most of all with other women
- American women are more likely to use “I like/I love” in compliments than British and New Zealand English speakers, and speakers of other languages (it’s rarely found in Asian languages).
I’m intrigued by this, particularly when examining the dual function of using personal terms in compliments. The first thought here is that women are simply speaking in ways we’ve been encouraged to socialize—we’re personal, not political, remember?—and would gravitate toward imbuing compliments with a personal touch that ostensibly aids sincerity and sociability, marking compliments as a more acceptable way of saying Gee, I think you’re swell. But looking at it from another angle, making a compliment personal is also a way of hedging a compliment. “I like that lipstick,” on its face, is about what the speaker likes, not about the lipstick; “Great lipstick” is about the lipstick, plain and simple. It simultaneously takes a risk (“Here is what I like”) and pushes it away (“Remember, this isn’t about you”); it’s assertive, not aggressive. It’s indirect, in other words—a communication mode linguists frequently claim women excel at.
But it’s in studying the reception of compliments that the connection between compliments and intimacy becomes clearest. Compliments given from man to man were accepted 40% of the time; only 22% of compliments given from one woman to another were accepted.
To be clear: Not accepting a compliment doesn’t necessarily mean rejecting it. By “accepting” a compliment in this context, we're talking “Thank you,” or an agreement with the compliment (whether that be a simple “I like it too” or an inflation of it, as in “Yeah, this sweater brings out my eyes, doesn’t it?”). The other forms of compliment response—nonacceptance, nonagreement, or a request for the compliment to be interpreted—can range from returning the compliment (“No, you’re so pretty!”) to scaling it down (“Yeah, well, you should’ve seen how my hair looked yesterday”) to reassigning it (“My hairstylist is a genius”). You can see the numbers here:
Language in Society, 1990, pp. 201-224, for 24 hours!
With that in mind, it’s easy to see why women might “accept” compliments about half as often as men—we’re taught to be deferential and modest and bashful and all that, right? But looking at this data, it’s clear that women know full well how to accept a compliment: When it was a man, not a woman, giving a compliment, women accepted it 68% of the time. The factor most likely to influence how people respond to a compliment isn’t what sex they are, but what sex the person giving it is. I’ll look more closely at male-female compliments later in the week; for now, what interests me isn’t why we’re likelier to say thank you to a man, but why we say anything but to a woman.
Scanning down the column listing responses to compliments given woman-to-woman, we find part of the answer. One number jumps out: 85 women out of 330 responded to a compliment with a “comment history,” defined in the paper as when the “addressee accepts the complimentary force and offers a relevant comment on the appreciated topic.” That is: A quarter of the time, we respond to a compliment with girl talk.
Janet Holmes, a leading scholar in linguistics and gender who conducted another influential (and gated, grrr) study on the gendering of compliments, puts it this way: Women recognize that compliments “increase or consolidate the solidarity between speaker and addressee.” Men recognize this too; “comment history” was also the number-one response men had when complimented by a woman. Part of this is women being assigned the emotional tasks within conversation: the how-did-that-make-you-feel-type stuff that, as the supposedly nurturing sex, comes “naturally” to us—and that gives men permission to articulate emotions that they might otherwise lack. But it’s not just limited to men: Women of different social statuses were likelier than men of different social statuses to exchange compliments. The solidarity isn’t in class, or if it is, it’s our classification as women that lies beneath what might masquerade as nattering on about perfume.
That solidarity is what makes compliments effective. It’s also what makes them poignant, and, as my friend Sarah put it, at times subversive. But given that appearance-based compliments are the most popular type of compliment shared between women—this is the research talking, not me—we’re tethering that effectiveness, poignancy, and subversion to how we look. I cherish the solidarity that compliments of all sorts can bring—nail polish, shoes, and hairstyles absolutely included. I just want us to remember that what makes us pretty is not what makes us women.
Howard Stern, radio personality
Charles Barkley, former basketball player and sports analyst
Len Wiseman, director
Shaquille O'Neal, rapper, Shaq Diesel (1993)
Anthony "The Man" Mundine, boxer
People have been manipulating their body hair for centuries; an excavation of a Sumerian tomb dating from 3500 BC contained tweezers, and there’s evidence of techniques like sugaring (still used today) and quicklime depilation going back just as far. But pit shaving as we know it came about after a Harper’s Bazaar ad campaign in 1915 started up with ye olde pit shame. The idea was, of course, to sell depilation products, but it was also a way of managing the fact that women were now showing more skin than they ever had. If pits were now shown, pits must now be problematized, and if pit-showing meant that women were beginning to think that maybe they didn’t need to be managed in every facet of their life, well, we’d better come up with a way to make sure they had to manage them pits, eh? (We see something similar now with Dove’s “Your Armpits Are Naaaasty, Girl” ads for their armpit-beautifying deodorant.) Leg shaving followed, after an uncertain era of fluctuating hemlines, and as for pubic hair—well, that’s another post altogether.
So I get that body hair policing is a way of adding onto the list of mandated beauty work, and I get that there are certain connotations of youth—dangerous youth, prepubescent youth—that make depilation particularly troublesome from a feminist perspective. But when you think about it, isn’t the whole thing...weird? I mean, most adults are attracted to other adults, not to children; hair growth should be all rights be a symbol of mature adult womanhood. Body hair should be a sign of sex, or at least sexual readiness, the same way evolutionary psychologists want to trot out our cultural fascination with breasts as being about our animal instincts.
Yet unlike breasts and hips and plumped-out lips and breath voices, body hair remains verboten for women because it breaks the ultimate taboo: gender. In my conversations with various women about what beauty work they conceal from partners, by far the number-one item done behind closed doors only is depilation. We’ll let partners see us in goofy face masks, but to let them see us plucking a stray hair—especially if that hair is in a place other than the legs or pits, like, say, the chest or toes—seems a step too far. It’s like admitting that sometimes hair grows on our toes is just a step too masculine, a threat to the status quo, even if that status quo is within a relationship of equals. Body hair contains a threat, and in fact maybe it’s a combination of its embedded masculinity and its embedded female maturity that makes it such. Body hair is thriving proof that gender isn’t entirely binary (testosterone prompts its growth), and it’s also proof that women’s sexual characteristics aren’t limited to just the curves that make such nice statues.
All this is nice rhetoric, but where does that leave us? Well, in going to the post that prompted this one: It leaves us ambivalent. Like Sally, I feel much better when I’m depilated according to my own standards (which, in my case, are legs, pits, and a very literal bikini line, as in everything that would show in a bikini), but I also see, as Sally puts it, the “baggage and hypocrisy” that surrounds it. And I hear the argument about how nothing will change about beauty standards unless we actively challenge them...and then I think about picking my battles, and how this isn’t a battle I’m willing to spend energy on. In fact, it’s a battle that has actually wound up giving me energy once I’ve withdrawn: When I was struggling with a particularly bad bout of depression, I realized that part of feeling so gross on a day-to-day level was that I hated feeling stubble on my legs from not shaving daily. I could either spend even more energy than I already do trying to deconstruct the relationship between stubble and “gross,” or I could just fucking shave my legs and spend my energy—energy I would not have were I to stay in a depressive mode—thinking about the larger picture. Shaving my legs didn’t cure my depression. But it was one of many small things I did to take care of myself, and the more I take care of myself in the small ways, the better I’m able to take care of myself in the big ways, and the better I’m able to care for those around me and give my best self to the world.
There’s also an argument about feminism and body hair that gets lost. It’s actually a non-argument, and it’s this: I’ve never personally known a feminist who has refused to shave her legs or pits because of her politics. I've known plenty of women who don’t do it because they don’t like the act of it, or they have sensitive skin, and I suppose the refusal to participate for those reasons is to some degree political. Point is: There are probably plenty of hairy-legged feminists out there, but in my entire 35 years as a feminist (okay, okay, 34, there was that one year in junior high where I really wanted to fit in), I’ve never met one. (That is, I’ve never known that I’ve known one. And while I could count Rebekah’s Body Hair Laissez-Faire month, I get off on a technicality because it was just a month. It’s not even really a technicality because the point was to examine these issues, not reject them wholesale, so, hey!)
So while body hair has political implications, I suspect that the caricature of the “hairy-legged feminist” is actually more responsible for the intense feelings surrounding body hair than the actual politics of the stuff. (Look at the intense discussion on the three posts Sally has done on the topic for proof of how provocative the topic can be.) I think conversations about body hair are absolutely worth having (in addition to Rebekah's series and Sally's work, I also recently enjoyed this piece on how skipping the pit-shaving actually wasn't an identity act for Kate Conway). I just want to make sure we’re not being “bra-burned” into imbuing it with an importance it might not need to have—and I want to make just as sure that we’re not fooling ourselves into thinking that it’s some sort of post-Beauty Myth “but it’s for me!” act. Yes, it’s for me; my boyfriend couldn’t care less. But I know full well that I wouldn’t have dreamed this up—this irritating, time-consuming, and occasionally bloody act—on my own.
So, yes, any true primer on beauty for women today must include The Beauty Myth, absolutely. But there are plenty of other books out there that are informing what I’m doing here in trying to work alongside Wolf's book. Here are just five of them.
Facing Beauty, Aileen Ribeiro
Facing Beauty takes the morsels that gave birth to the slim Ways of Seeing and expands them into a gorgeous color volume examining historical views of women as revealed through various art forms. Social mores, morality, artifice, and idealization all make their way to the canvas through how women are depicted, whether it’s the role of “common” sex workers and courtesans as muses or the strategic revealing of bared breasts. Even more engaging than the traditional art history is the treatment of cosmetics history as lived art on its wearers. From the always-beloved paintings of women at their vanities to the decorations on the actual bottles and pots of cosmetic creams, the painted self is worth as much examination as the canvas, and Facing Beauty treats it as such.
I’m forever thankful to Terri of Rags Against the Machine for recommending this book after I wrote about Anne Frank packing curlers. Linda Grant’s book may as well be a manifesto for every woman who has cared about fashion or beauty and felt the sting of dismissal when someone has called those pursuits trivial. They can be treated trivially, of course, but Grant masterfully shows us why we care so much even when we don’t think we should. With Holocaust survivor and fashion buyer Catherine Hill as our default protagonist, the book serves as a sort of psychic history of fashion—why consumerism, specifically fashion consumerism, was tied in with women’s liberation (and not just for women who could afford to buy new clothes), and why even those of us who don’t particularly care about trends wind up buying into them more than we realize. Read this and just try to resist the urge to put on something beautiful. I dare you.
The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir
The ten pages that constitute the twenty-second chapter of this classic are some of the most important pages ever written if you’re interested in the relationship between women and vanity. Titled “The Narcissist,” instead of simply damning women who take pleasure in their own visage, the chapter shines a brutal light on why the mirror can provide such refuge: When one of our primary public roles is being gazed upon, is it any wonder we may wish to look at ourselves to see what all the fuss is about? “All love requires the duality of a subject and an object,” de Beauvoir writes. “The reality of man is in the houses he builds, the forests he clears, the maladies he cures; but woman, not being able to fufill herself through project and objectives, is forced to find her reality in the immanence of her person.” Much has changed since 1949; women—ta-da!—can clear forests and cure maladies. But the vestiges of the prefeminist era remain in vanity, and as much as vain is often used as an insult to women, we must examine it in a feminist context (instead of a moral one) before we can understand our relationship to our self-image.
This sociological study of the emotional labor of flight attendants and bill collectors is a fascinating look into the ways many of us harness our feelings in the course of our jobs. Whether we’re managing our feelings about the chain of hierarchy or channeling our “authentic” personality to help us shine at our work (as with friendly, compliant flight attendants), it’s near-impossible to avoid having our emotions, to some degree, commodified in the workplace. What does this have to do with beauty? It wasn’t until I read Hochschild that I was able to pinpoint my own “emotional beauty labor”: The small and large ways in which I attempt to play the part of a nice-looking woman, in ways that go beyond styling my hair or putting on makeup. It’s these small acts of emotional beauty labor—say, walking the line between the gracious and obsequious in receiving compliments, using femininity to command attention but keep it in the realm of appropriacy--make up a greater drain on our personal resources than just makeup. This book is key to understanding our own emotional labor of all sorts, whether appearance-related or not.
As a feminist who started my career at Ms. and wound my way through Glamour and Playboy before winding up at CosmoGIRL!—the exclamation point was part of the name—finding Jezebel shortly after its 2007 launch was delicious. I enjoyed it as a reader, and I enjoyed it even more as a worker in the industry they frequently critiqued, especially as I learned that some of their writers had been in my position—simultaneously excited and dismayed to be in the “pink ghetto,” eager to up the feminist content in glossy ladymags but frustrated by the conditions that Gloria Steinem labeled a “velvet steamroller.”
So it’s not surprising that I’m more kindly disposed to ladyblogs than n+1’s Molly Fischer appears to be. I was 30 when Jezebel launched, and was still eager for what blogs of any sort provided; Fischer, at 20, had gone through adolescence with public critique a click away. I’ve also contributed to two of the four sites Fischer critiques—Jezebel and The Hairpin—and my work there has brought me a portion of The Beheld’s readership, undoubtedly coloring my attitude toward them. I cannot pretend impartiality.
Given the impossibility of impartiality, I admit to being both excited by and uneasy about the n+1 piece. The whole article is worth a read, but in a nutshell, she looks at the evolution of ladyblogs, sites that give traditional women’s topics signature treatment. (Seventeen assures you that masturbating is totally normal; Rookie tells you how to do it.) The bigger the sites get, the more they adhere to what Fischer frames as a particular form of triteness endemic to ladyblogs, in which Zooey Deschanel is shunned but eco-friendly cat bonnets are squeal-worthy. Drained of the gravitas of other alternative women’s media, like explicitly feminist spaces, the potential for ladyblogs to become a true alternative to women’s glossies becomes watered down; the tool for revolution is rendered in scratch-n-sniff. “The internet, it turned out, was a place to make people like you: the world’s biggest slumber party, and the best place to trade tokens of slumber party intimacy—makeup tips, girl crushes, endless inside jokes,” Fischer writes. “The notion that women might share some fundamental experience and interests, a notion on which women’s websites would seem to depend—'sisterhood,' let’s call it—has curdled into BFF-ship.”
What this argument overlooks is that a slumber party is sisterhood. Junior high slumber parties might have brought anything from makeovers to pained sobs over family dysfunction to raging tear-downs of pervy gym teachers. The adult slumber party touches on these, with our adult wisdom added to the mix. The voices of women online have brought me my birth control (“Ask Me About My Mirena!”), lessened my shame about my belly bulge, shined an uncomfortable light on the way social and personal notions of beauty can collide, and opened my mind to what I, as a biological woman, can learn about my own position in society from trans women. There’s fluff, of course (“Watch Kristen Bell Adorably Lose Her Shit Over a Sloth”), but just as silliness coexists alongside our more meaningful concerns, fluffy pieces can comfortably coexist alongside essays on healing from sexual assault. (In fact, for some of us, the fluff was a way to heal.) The slumber party goes all night, after all.
By talking about issues particular to women and treating them as though they matter, we create sisterhood. Ladyblogs do that in tones earnest, flip, and everywhere in between; the “Women Laughing Alone With Salad” Hairpin post Fischer mentions is downright effervescent, and it went viral because it brilliantly encapsulated the way women are painted into a corner where if we’re happy to be eating, it must be because we’re being guilt-free. The post caught on because we all got it, and because we were all fed up with it too. Women laughing alone with salad was, in its own way, sisterhood, and to dismiss it as mere quirk is to dismiss the day-to-day stuff that makes up the particulars of a woman’s life. Fischer ends her piece with a rallying cry for sites that stem from “the notion that women might share some fundamental experience and interests,” but I’m not convinced that the sites in question aren’t doing exactly that. They’re doing them in a more lightweight fashion than Fischer might desire, but the things that constitute gravitas (formality, for example) are frequently structures that purposefully omit the validity of the personal, that look to an “objective” viewpoint (as if there is any such thing) as the end-all, be-all. That is, they’re structures that dismiss the ways plenty of women have written for centuries. Here it comes, that clichéd rallying cry we feminists say over and over: The personal is political.
So it’s unclear what Fischer wants the reader to do—what, when I worked in women’s glossy magazines, we called “the takeaway.” Are we to eschew The Hairpin in favor of today’s equivalent of The Bimonthly Period, the newsletter of the women’s resource center Fischer’s mother founded during her college years? Sites like Feministing, Pandagon, and Feministe play a crucial role in feminism, and therefore in women’s lives—even for women who have never heard of these sites, as they keep the activist fires burning. They can also occasionally feel alienating. I greatly enjoyed my guest blogging stint at Feministe last summer, but I also walked away from it understanding, for the first time, why some people whose politics roughly parallel mine refuse to call themselves feminists. For every commenter who thoughtfully critiqued my message, there would be one who’d say I was a tool of the patriarchy, and another who’d accuse me of abusing my class privilege. It’s a vibrant, razor-sharp community and I was honored to be a part of it, but my point is, if explicitly feminist blogs are the only acceptable online outlet for feminists to inhabit, we’d get exhausted mighty quick. (Let’s also not forget that the number of people who wouldn’t label the targets of Fischer’s critiques as forthrightly feminist is pretty small. The other day I mentioned to a new friend that a mutual writer acquaintance was a “radical feminist”—as in, menstrual art—and her response was, “Oh, does she write for Jezebel?”)
Fischer hits plenty of nails on the head (you know, my opinions being the bed of nails), especially her questioning of the age-appropriacy of ladyblogs' tone. I enjoy Rookie, helmed by 15-year-old Tavi Gevinson—in fact, I enjoy Rookie so much at age 35 that I began to wonder how many teenagers actually read it. I’ll happily cheer unabashed femininity, but like Fischer I’m wary of mass numbers of adult women inhabiting teen spaces. In fact, many of my feelings on this topic can be neatly summed up by an excellent Julie Klausner piece that—oops!—ran in Jezebel.
Still, despite finding aspects of adult-girl culture downright creepy (Hello Kitty?), I see other aspects as liberating. Where women’s magazines place readers on a trajectory of traditional womanhood—teenager to single woman to mommy to retiree—ladyblogs generally treat their readers as though they’re child-free adult women. Ladyblogs don’t mommy-track their readers—and that’s part of why “lady” makes so much sense in describing them. Classically speaking, ladies were put into a somewhat separate class. Ladies of recent centuries had social status; earlier, they had feudal privileges. The ladyblogs don’t use lady in that sense, but it carries a separatist air: We needn’t be quite as serious as we might when using the broader term women, but we don’t want to be girls. Fischer asserts that “On the ladyblogs, adult womanhood is a source of discomfort, and so when we write posts or comments, we tend to call ourselves ladies.” I’d argue the opposite: On the ladyblogs, adult womanhood is a given, and within our shared womanhood we carve out a comfortable space we can all inhabit. Within ladyblogs, we all become ladies.
The lingo may be why the presumably adult women on the ladyblogs (Rookie excluded, as it is aimed at teenagers) might seem to be clinging to girlhood. Fischer questions both the hallmarks of ladyblog style and the way its commenters pick up on it. In my own writing I rilly rilly try to avoid the clichés of the ladysphere (amirite, ladies?), because I don’t want to rely on those methods to convey my point. But as Emily Gould points out, it’s not like “commenter sycophancy” is particular to the ladyblogs. Still, it’s particularly easy to slip into ladysphere lingo, for the very reasons these clichés evolved in the first place: When skillfully employed, ladymags’ “endemic verbal tics” connote personality. Instead of the self-seriousness of magazines, ladylingo gives a tilt to the voice, one that implies we’re all in it together (which, again, is why it’s contagious). The tics serve as a friendly politesse, a way of conveying that you’re typing with a smile.
In fact, that seems to be Fischer’s larger point, and one I’m ambivalent on: Ladybloggers and their commenters are typing with a smile. “They bake pies with low-hanging fruit: they are helpful, agreeable, relatable, and above all likable,” Fischer writes. “Surely one can’t, and shouldn’t, strive to like and be liked all the time. But how else can one be?” (I couldn’t help but wonder how much time Fischer spent actually wading around in comments sections. The culture of “like” looms large, but ladyblog commenters can get vicious, and they’re certainly not afraid to disagree.) The point is an excellent one, but two key points give me pause. First: What’s so wrong about wanting to be liked? I want to be liked; I want my writing to be liked. When I started The Beheld I repeatedly said that all I wanted was to be a part of the conversation. Some writers become a part of the conversation by being controversial, but that’s not my style. I’m a good girl from birth, and it’s built into me to want to be liked. But being liked isn’t my goal in writing; likability is a tool I use to pave my way toward the larger goal of being a part of the conversation, and occasionally hosting it too. There’s plenty to critique about women having a compulsive need to be liked, and it’s something I’ve wrestled with a good deal on a personal level. But I’m not going to apologize for couching arguments in a softer way than I would if my goal were to win.
But the larger issue here about likability is this: Maybe if more women writers were published in gender-neutral publications, writing stories that treat “women’s issues” as people issues, we wouldn’t be paranoid about being so fucking likable. This is a much deeper issue than I’m able to address here, and since most of my bylines have been in explicitly female-oriented spaces, I’m not particularly credible on this front. What I’ll say is that I’m not alone in being a female writer who writes about women’s issues who would be happy to publish in more gender-neutral spaces—and that I rarely pitch those spaces because there’s still a little voice inside me telling me that what I write about is just girl stuff. And people, this is what I do, every day: I write about girl stuff, and I treat it with the gravitas it has in my own life. But that voice is still there, and it’s a result of all sorts of things—internalized oppression, the realities of the “pink ghetto” of women’s issues, fear that if I did start writing more for gender-neutral outlets I’d have to face harsher criticisms than I usually do (the only time I’ve been forthrightly called stupid is from self-identified male commenters, and never on ladyblogs). It’s also a result of me specifically wanting to write for women; as they say, I “write what I know,” and what I know is being a woman. And I don’t particularly want it to be any other way; like I said, I’ve written for ladyblogs, and I wouldn’t bristle at The Beheld being categorized as such. Obviously I believe in what ladyblogs do. But I’m a fool if I think there are no other reasons I align myself with them—reasons that have to do with the “belonging” Fischer criticizes in her piece (“[Ladyblogs] tell us less about how to be than about how to belong”). I know I “belong” in ladyblogs, for I am a lady. I’m not so sure where else I belong.
Despite my misgivings, I liked Fischer’s piece. I like the questions it asks, and I just like that it exists. Recent discussions about women writers and where our bylines ought to be need to continue, and they can’t continue in an authentic manner if we’re afraid of critiquing one another. Ladyblogs aren’t above reproach or critique, and given that some of them serve as watchdogs to traditional women’s media, if we become lax in watching the watchdogs we’re perpetuating the problem. I just don’t want the conversation to be a ping-pong of should we or shouldn’t we, of ladyblogs versus the rest of the Internet. I want the sentiment behind Fischer’s piece to be explored so that whatever these spaces look like in five years, they’re serving women’s needs even more.
Perhaps it’s the women’s magazine veteran in me, but I want a “takeaway” from Fischer’s piece, and I want it to be something like this: We’re in an interesting time as far as gender and access to the public, and we’re also at an time when “voice” is a prime asset for online visibility—“voice” being something women writers have traditionally been told they excel at. We’re also living in a time of fragmented, personally curated information streams, one in which a person could read a handful of sites—even ladyblogs, depending on the blog—and have a reasonable handle on what’s going on in the world. So we’re at the era, and if the proliferation of ladyblogs is any indication, we’ve got the talent. Now what are we going to do with it?
On a related note: I’m thrilled to announce that starting February 6, The Beheld will be syndicated at The New Inquiry. I’ll write more in-depth about this tomorrow but given the topic of this post I thought it would be downright dishonest to not share this bit of news, since TNI is a gender-neutral space that looks at my ladybloggin’ background as an asset, not a ghettoizing detraction. But more on that tomorrow!
Unfortunately, as I point out in the review, these theories were in my head, not in Hakim’s book. When I wrote my earlier piece on erotic capital, I hadn’t yet read the book that inspired it; I now wish I’d made my point entirely separate from Erotic Capital, because Erotic Capital is tripe. Like, seriously, tripe, and not just because I disagree with most of its premises; it’s poorly written, repetitive, and defensive, and Hakim seems to have a willful misunderstanding of women's history. (Hakim isn’t the first person to attempt to discredit feminism’s most visible icon by referring to Gloria Steinem as a former Playboy bunny without acknowledging that she worked undercover for Playboy to expose their working conditions. But when it’s used to ask why more feminists haven’t embraced erotic capital—including a former Playboy bunny!—it’s particularly disingenuous.) Which is exactly why, though I’m pleased with the review and would happily write it again, I’m simultaneously chagrined with myself for taking Hakim’s bait. After reading the book, it became clear she wanted exactly the kind of argument I issued. It attacks feminism and uses the word erotic in its title; she meant for it to be a provocative argument, not a serious one. I suppose my mistake was in expecting a better argument. Lesson learned.
The real downside here, though, is that in gnawing away at Erotic Capital, I didn’t get a chance to showcase Pricing Beauty, which is excellent. I was eager to read it because it was an in-depth study of the modeling industry that didn’t immediately dismiss it as harmful to the population at large, which is what most feminist discourse regarding modeling focuses on. Mears doesn’t ignore those claims; instead, she deftly illustrates how the industry embodies the social and cultural constructs the power-holders have decided upon (even when they don’t exactly know that they’re deciding upon anything). That is: The modeling industry isn’t some weird otherworld; the modeling industry just lays bare the conditions many of us operate under every day.
A recurring theme in Pricing Beauty is how an industry can put a price tag on a product whose entire value lies in representation. How can the industry decide one 5’10” lithe, toothy brunette is worth $6,000 a day, while another 5’10” lithe, toothy brunette winds up in debt to her agency? In looking at the tastemakers who control the aesthetics of modeling—photographers, bookers, agents, and most of all clients, the people signing the bills at the end of the day—Mears shows us how even the power-holders make decisions according to what they each think the other wants, leading to an inflation among what each tastemaker anticipates will be the prized “look.” And there are plenty of ways to dissect any particular look and what those in power might gain from prizing that particular look—even when they genuinely don’t realize that they’re suddenly prizing a look that serves their cultural dictates. But we can’t do any of it unless we accept modeling A) as a legitimate industry worth studying, one with its own working conditions and peculiar rules that, along with the glamour, keep its participants hungry for its winner-take-all economic stakes, and B) as an industry that isn’t against the rest of us, but rather an embodiment of the social and cultural concerns that might get us riled up about the modeling industry in the first place.
For a sociological study that could easily have devolved into academic-ese in an effort to be taken seriously, the book is both lucid and economical; it’s a testament to the good faith in which Mears, who was working as a model while doing her research, approaches the industry, looking to be neither critical nor laudatory. Each anecdote surges toward the larger thesis, even the quotes from outliers, making the entire read seamless. I’d read Mears’ work on Jezebel before; I don’t know her background other than what’s in her bio, but the ease with which she writes over there shines through in Pricing Beauty. (Few things will turn me off quicker than writing designed to appear scholarly; this book is one of those studies that shows such style is a compensation for unclear thinking.)
It’s always tempting to treat modeling as either a terrifically glamorous world, or as the opposite—a Valley of the Dolls-type world built for disappointment and tragedy, but only after years spent in blistering high heels. Mears refuses to sensationalize modeling in either direction, acknowledging its perks (you’re a model! who gets to work in Europe sometimes!) and pitfalls (you’re a model! who may well exit the industry in debt to your agency for all the work they’ve poured into your never-launched career!) but always keeping an eye on the larger questions: What do the peculiar economics of the modeling industry say about cultural values, about gender, about privilege? In essence, what does modeling say about us? We know there's a connection; that's part of why there's such an enormous amount of attention paid to the industry, or rather, to models themselves. (Why do any of us know who Claudia Schiffer is?) That's part of why some of us internalize the messages of the modeling industry so readily. We might not need Pricing Beauty to tell us that there's a connection between the cultural production of modeling and the cultural production of ourselves, but we just might need it to help us understand why.
I went to a wedding last weekend, and though it wasn’t a black-tie affair, it was a nighttime event at a beautiful historic estate, so I wanted to go beyond my normal look. I wound up wearing a lovely pink sheath dress, which called for heels higher than I normally wear, which called for wavy bombshell hair, which called for three shades of lip color, winged eyeliner, eyeshadow, and my personal pièce de resistance, the subtlest of false eyelashes applied to the outer corners of my eyes. It is probably the most effort I have put into my appearance for any single event since senior prom.
The wedding was a two-hour drive away, but only a 10-minute drive from the home of my gentleman friend’s father, so instead of driving from New York to Pennsylvania in our finery, we did our wedding prep at his house. As we walked from my boyfriend’s car into his father’s home, a good two hours before we had to leave for the wedding, the imbalance in our raw materials struck me. My materials: a dress; a shoebox containing shoes, high-heel comfort inserts, and two pairs of pantyhose (always have a spare!); shapewear; a curling iron; hairspray; dry shampoo; a hairbrush; makeup kit (foundation, concealer, blush, bronzer, loose and pressed powder, application brushes, eyebrow pencil, eyeshadow, liquid and pencil eyeliner, mascara, false eyelash glue, false eyelashes, toothpicks for eyelash application, eyelash curler, two shades of lip liner, lipstick); an event purse (breath mints, tissues, plus cell phone, wallet, etc.); a wrap; and a bottle of water, because I’d be damned if I went to all this trouble and then couldn’t enjoy the wedding because I was dehydrated.
His materials: a suit.
Now, this was a special occasion for people I’m terrifically fond of, and so I was happy to put special effort into my appearance—truly, I enjoyed the whole process. Weddings are one of the last rites of our culture, so pouring time and energy into our appearance to make sure we’re honoring the occasion seems like the right thing to do. And certainly all one really has to do to honor the occasion is show up nicely dressed and well-groomed; false eyelashes and all that were purely my choice. But the fact remains: I was putting a lot more labor into this event than my boyfriend. I accept that on a day-to-day level I put in more beauty labor, largely by my own choice, than he does, and indeed more than plenty of women. (I am, after all, six minutes above the national average in daily grooming minutes.) Still, that’s more along the lines of having to get up 20 minutes earlier than he does—not nearly an hour and a half of hard-core self-styling labor while he watches hockey.
And so I outsourced it. I couldn’t outsource the actual skilled labor—I suppose I could have had my hair professionally done, but that seemed excessive. But the “emotional beauty labor”—the low-level worrying about “do I look okay?” that underlies any event that requires a lot of smoke and mirrors to be pulled off successfully? The constant mirror checks to make sure that the lipstick isn’t smeared, the dress catching crumbs, the hair out of place? The attention to all the work I’d already done—the application of “skilled labor”—to make sure it stayed done? Yeah, I can outsource that.
“I’m wearing false eyelashes,” I said to my boyfriend, who then dutifully tried very hard not to stare at my lash line for the duration of my speech. “And I haven’t ever put them on by myself, and I’m worried they’re going to fall off and I’ll look like an asshole.” (This was said hurriedly in the moments before the wedding as the bride’s son was preparing to play Lohengrin on his electric guitar, because they’re cool like that.) “So could you keep an eye on them and just gesture to me—” I did a sweeping motion at the corners of my eyes “—if you see stray lashes?” He agreed.
Then I looked down and saw that the hanger strap of the dress was poking out at my collarbone. “And could you keep an eye on this too? This dress doesn’t stay on the hanger without the hanger straps but they keep showing. If you see them loose, just—” [insert dusting motion at shoulders] “—even if it’s from across the room, okay?” He said he would, and then I started in on a brief litany of all that could go wrong—smeared lip liner, teary mascara (it was a wedding! with booze!), pantyhose run, dress wedged at hem of shapewear—and then Lohengrin started, and I stopped, and two people who love one another were wed, and all of that was far more important than anything that could possibly go wrong with my look.
I didn’t think about how I looked for the rest of the evening, and excuse me if this is cynical, but I don’t think it was awe at the sheer force of marital love that was responsible for this. It was because I’d outsourced my worries. Now, I’m fully aware that there was an easier route through all this: Pick a lower-maintenance look. I could have done that, but I didn’t, and I understand that I’m the one who needs to ultimately be responsible for that choice. But dammit, am I crazy for thinking that sometimes it’s just not fair that “looking pretty” requires so much work, and that playing the feminine role requires such a greater amount of effort than the masculine role that it’s not the worst thing in the world to outsource that? We already outsource parts of it: manicures, haircuts, facials. We rely on friends and salespeople to let us know if a hemline is too high or a boot too clunky. Hell, in an ideal world the mere use of beauty products is outsourcing our beauty worries (I know it doesn’t always work that way, but sometimes it does—I don’t worry so much about looking wan if I’m wearing mascara, for example, because I trust that it’s doing its job). Does the possibility stop there?
Within traditional heterosexual relationships, the loose idea is that part of the “payment” of a woman’s beauty labor is in the guy’s wallet: She looks good, he foots the bill for dinner. (I actually think this is more common than the idea of “he foots the bill, she puts out,” but then again I’ve only dated a self-selected group who wouldn’t expect that, so I’m working with a biased sample.) Egalitarian relationships don’t work that way, and I'm in no hurry to re-create that structure in my own relationship, but that doesn’t really help when you’re an egalitarian couple functioning in a non-egalitarian world. My gentleman friend doesn’t expect me to perform femininity any more than I expect him to perform masculinity (though he’s far better at opening jars than I am), but when you’re taking on a shared role as A Couple, our private guidelines suddenly become very public. Nobody would have looked askance had I shown up in a nice pantsuit and my normal makeup, but the fact remains that people in couples have both private and public roles, and that simply being egalitarian doesn't erase the desire to fulfill certain roles. And part of my fear of failure is never wanting to fail in the role of a feminine creature. If I look particularly feminine, there’s a part of me that feels like I’ve succeeded. To be brutally honest, through all my feminism—and all my boyfriend’s feminism too—there’s a part of me that then feels like we’ve succeeded. It felt good to feel unabashedly feminine, and to feel like I wasn’t totally alone in the creation and maintenance of femininity, like it was a shared venture. I’m not sure what to think about the fact that this made me feel good. It seems like it shouldn't, as though I'm making some sort of Faustian deal on our behalf—a deal he didn't exactly agree to. And yet: I was beaming.
Is it okay to outsource part of our emotional beauty labor to our intimate partners, or is that asking them to take on an unfair responsibility? What about relationships between women: Should butch women absorb any beauty labor for femme girlfriends? How would this play out within same-sex couples who don’t ascribe to masculine-feminine roles? What about the financial cost of beauty work: Is it ever okay to have someone else subsidize your beauty work? When beauty is expected as a part of our public role, how much of it is really our own responsibility?
O Calcutta!: The Indian Institute of Technology is proposing distribution of nutrient-rich cosmetics to pregnant women in hopes of reducing infant mortality rates. And here I thought bindis just looked cool!
Well-heeled: Because the "lipstick index" still isn't good enough, now we're wearing the economy on our feet. "Examining the trends alongside economic patterns led researchers to theorize that a shakier economic situation correlates with the popularity of similarly shaky high heels." The reporter sort of calls BS, though, thus giving me a girl crush on her. (Which doesn't take away from my girl crush on you, m'dear.)
...And Everything In Between:
They are the 1%: Step-by-step read on how the Lauder family has sheltered hundreds of millions of dollars over the years through skilled use of tax breaks. We're hearing so much about the 1% but it remains a vague idea to the 99% of us; this piece illustrates exactly how the 1% stays the 1%, and shows how it has nothing to do with our favorite bootstraps stories—like, say, a plucky daughter of Hungarian immigrants who cajoled her chemist uncle into helping her make a face cream to sell to her friends and eventually becoming one of the world's most influential cosmetics magnates. Sounds a lot more romantic than short sells on the stock market in order to maintain a neutral position under IRS rules and savings $95 million in capital gains taxes, eh?
I get so emotional: More insight into the emotions-cosmetics link, from a cosmetics marketing report being pimped out to companies. Manalive, I always like to think I'm one step ahead of companies, but that's foolish: "Beauty Attachment shows that for certain consumers, beauty is extremely important and they’d rather skip breakfast than skip their morning routine; while for others, it’s simply a utility that meets a need, like a front door key.... Simply put, some women see the aisles at Sephora and their head spins with anticipation; while others see these same aisles and become incredibly anxious." Girl, they have got your number.
Hungry lies: Lionsgate, the studio putting out Hunger Games, is being sued by a cosmetics company for breach of contract surrounding an exclusive Hunger Games nail polish line.
Not so kawaii: I didn't realize until reading this piece about Shiseido vice president Kimie Iwata that Japanese professionals were even more imbalanced than Americans: Women account for less than 1% of top-level Japanese business executives.
Everyone I Have Ever Bathed With: Unfortunately late on this, but Tracey Emin soap!
Playing dirty: Beauty/body product chain Lush is taking action against a UK politician whose environmental policies have been deemed lacking. In the States it's relatively rare to see a company so specifically target one politician, much less a "softball" company like a cosmetics purveyor. I've got to hand it to Lush—this doesn't really seem like a publicity stunt to me (or is that the point?).
Political wrinkle: Australian prime minister Julia Gillard under fire for accepting anti-wrinkle creams as gifts, even as she refused other designer wares. (Really, the buried lede here is that the prime minister has a partner, and has never been married. As an American, to me this seems like some future-world sci-fi Ursula Leguin utopia. A woman is leading the country and we all know she has sex without the legal bond of marriage?!)
Can't decide which is more awesome: Collection of historic depiction of muscular women, or collection of Ugly babies in Renaissance art. ("I love you both, just in different ways!") (Thanks to Lindsay for the tip)
Photoshopped: With a new tool that allows us to tell how much a photo has been digitally altered, is it possible that we'll someday have "retouch ratings" like we do movie ratings? "Rated three points for rib removal and jawline trimming."
Framed: Bitch magazine has two particularly interesting "In the Frame" entries this week: A photo of noted photographer Nan Goldin one month after being battered, in which her makeup contradicts the idea of the hidden, cowering victim, and then the art of Ingrid Berthon-Moine, showing women wearing their menstrual blood as lipstick. (And here I thought I was a hippie for trying out beets as lipstick, as per No More Dirty Looks.)
The importance of being intact: Oscar Wilde's restored tomb makes its debut in Paris, covered by a glass partition to protect it from "being eaten away by lipstick," as is tradition.
Paging Don Draper: South African fragrance line Alibi is designed for cheating spouses to wear to literally put suspicious partners off their scent trail. "I Was Working Late" smells of cigarettes, coffee, ink, and wool suits; "We Were Out Sailing" features sea salt and cotton rope. I am not making this up. (But they might be; I can't find anything about the company elsewhere. Hmm.)
Sweet smell of success: The odiferous history of "perfume" versus "cologne" in regards to becoming a comment on a man's sexual orientation, and what the headily scented Liberace had to say about it.
Neat and clean: Half of the men in Britain don't think it's necessary to be clean-shaven to look well-groomed. (I heartily agree, as a fan of a bit of scruff on a feller.)
This week in dead movie stars: Why Marilyn Monroe is still a beauty icon, and did you know that Hedwig Eva Marie Kiesler—aka Hedy Lamarr—invented a telecommunications process that's still used today in much of our wireless communication?
Newly inquired: If you enjoy my more academic-ish posts on here, you should definitely check out The New Inquiry. I'm proud to be associated with them, and prouder still of their profile in this week's New York Times! (Quibble: I wouldn't call any of these minds those of "literary cubs"; all parties involved are far too insightful and thought-provoking for that.)
Attention Sassy lovers: Former Sassy editor Jane Larkworthy, now beauty director at W, is featured on Into the Gloss this week. "I do think [beauty products] should be done in an accessible way, though—I don’t ever want beauty to be intimidating."
Hair mayonnaise: Hysterical beauty bit from comic Sue Funke, courtesy Virginia.
Fight for the right: This piece at Rookie about cultural stereotyping is worth reading in its own right, but of particular interest to me is the collection of vintage photos of "black and brown and yellow girl gangs in American history" on the second page, all from Of Another Fashion. The photos of beaming, well-dressed Japanese women heading off to internment camps during one of the most shameful episodes of U.S. history raises questions about expectations of femininity, and of fashion's true role in our lives: "Even during internment, these girls were determined to look cute. And though that may sound like the height of triviality, it’s not. As the late, great civil-rights activist Dorothy Height once said, 'Too many people in my generation fought for the right for us to be dressed up and not put down.'"
Honored: I love Sally's concept of "honoring your beauty," and I'll throw in that once I learned that the way to accept a compliment was to look the person in the eye, smile, and say, "Thank you," I felt like I'd learned something small but important. It also made it easier to give a compliment too; I stopped worrying that every compliment I gave was loaded somehow. There's no hidden motive. I really just like your hair.
Push it good: This post from Fit and Feminist on the myth of the noncompetitive female made me (and her, as evidenced by her Mean Girls reference) wonder why we embrace totally contradictory views of women and competition. C'mon, patriarchy: Are we all cooperative sweethearts who aren't so great at team sports because we just want to hold hands and make daisy chains, or are we vindictive bitches who love to tear one another apart? Just tell us already, my best bitches and I are getting tired of this sewing circle-Fight Club jazz.
I sobbed the entire way home, my mother doing her best to soothe her despondent daughter, who wasn’t having any of it. The minute we got home, I went to my mother’s bathroom cabinet and swallowed two of her antihistamine pills. One was enough to make me fall asleep for hours. Two, then, would do even better. I slept all day, woke up for dinner, took another pill, and slept some more. Failing my driver’s test was, without exaggeration, one of the worst things that had happened to me in my life.
I mention the pills because as childish as taking them was, it seemed like the only way I could handle a truth I discovered for the first time that day: You can be a smart, level-headed, "good" girl, and you can still fail. I possessed the sort of intelligence that meant while my critical thinking was frequently lazy, tests, papers, and good grades came easily, despite conspicuously infrequent study sessions and lackadaisical homework habits. Failure simply wasn’t on the radar. I’d been disappointed, sure—not getting the lead in school plays, my French class partner not asking me to the winter formal—but I hadn’t failed before. But there I was, “did not pass” circled on top of my driver’s license application.
Failure is acutely uncomfortable. It’s something we don’t speak freely about, preferring to move on to how to not fail next time, or perhaps to inspirational quips about how our failures aren’t measures of us as people—which they’re not. We’re so afraid of failure that we turn it into a unique, private sort of shame. Rather, women are so afraid of failure that we turn it into a unique, private sort of shame. Women fear failure more than men, and we take it harder too: There’s a strong correlation between academic failure and depression for young women, but not for young men. That’s not to say that men don’t fear failure—of course they do—but the intensity of that fear, the hold it can have over daily life, seems to have a particularly rattling effect upon women.
The particular intensity of women’s failure makes me wonder about how we absorb our failures of beauty, which by their nature can’t stay private and include the shame of having others know we’ve failed. Is there a failure more immediately public than trying to look beautiful and falling short? This is why we ridicule women who make no bones about the fact that they goddamn well are trying to look beautiful—the “fashion victims” of the world, the plastic surgery cases gone wrong. It’s why the cruelty Todd Solondz inflicts in Welcome to the Dollhouse is in sharpest relief when Dawn Weiner is trying to look pretty, not when she’s her normal dorky self.
Our attempts at achieving conventional beauty can actually become conventional beauty—part of why I know I look “right” (if not babelicious) when I do office work is because I’m neatly dressed and wearing “professional” makeup. But we also know that attempts at beauty can be seen as a mark of failure, and that if our sleight-of-hand fails, humiliation waits. Witness the anecdote from Siobhan O’Connor of No More Dirty Looks after she’d issued a “glam makeup” challenge to her readers: “We had people privately e-mailing us and saying, I just can’t do it... I guess the mentality was, Well, if I look bad with no makeup, no big deal. But if you look bad with makeup—it’s like you’ve said to the world, This is the best I can do.” In other words, we were scared to fail.
I’d like to think that the amorphous nature of beauty makes it something impossible to fail at. Logically it should be impossible to fail at something there’s not a clear standard for. We might not look as good as we’d like sometimes, but to call that failure seems inaccurate. When I am feeling good about myself, beauty is not something I can fail at. When I’m feeling less than my fullest self, however, beauty becomes something that not only can be failed, but something I feel I’m destined to fail. In the moments when I’m feeling not “pretty enough” but “never enough,” the efforts of my beauty work seem futile. There is a reason the phrase "lipstick on a pig," which has nothing to do with either lipstick or mammals of any kind, conjures such a potent, damning image.
None of this is to say that women who meet every standard of conventional beauty without particularly trying are exempt from the fear of failure I experience at my lowest. When I think of why I took driver’s exam failure so hard, I now see it wasn’t just because I’d failed, but because I’d mistakenly equated it with other gifts I’d been given. Because I did well in school without ever having to try, I began to believe that my innate, unchangeable intelligence was responsible for every success I had. Like plenty of other bright little kids, at least according to the Harvard Business Review, I'd learned to see making effort as a sign that my intelligence had reached its limit. I understood the mechanics of driving, but unlike writing an English paper, I couldn’t get by on my inherent ability. It takes skill, not talent, to learn to naturally keep one’s eyes scanning front, sides, and back, and to learn how traffic works. It would take practice for me to become a good driver. Practice meant effort, and effort meant failure—which, when you’re a bright kid who’s never failed a test in her life, means doom.
Likewise, the effortlessness of the “natural beauty” can be a mixed blessing. Naomi Wolf writes in The Beauty Myth that women who are genetically blessed with good looks often wrestle with the beauty myth more than average-looking women; they come closer to the societal ideal, so the sting of falling short is forever closer. That’s one way in which “natural beauties” and natural (smarties?) are parallel, but it’s not the only way. I remember a friend of mine who was always “the pretty girl” growing up talking of how she’d flare up with anger whenever someone would tell her how beautiful she was. “It’s like being complimented on your shoe size,” she said. “I can’t help how I look.” The idea of your value lying not just in your looks but specifically in something you cannot help can short-circuit a woman. It can keep her from daring to fail. Not necessarily at beauty, but at other things we associate with beautiful women: femininity, docility, power, for starters. Not all these things need to be failed at in order to be reckoned with, but they need to be examined in order to be assimilated or rejected. An inability to fail can turn a woman into a different sort of female eunuch.
Smart kids can be praised for their effort instead of their natural intelligence to help ensure they’ll actually try at difficult tasks, but carrying over that approach to beauty makes little sense: Praising the effort of beauty denigrates the praise itself, because the point of much of our beauty work is to hide the effort. I can’t help but feel the slightest bit dissatisfied when my gentleman friend tells me I “look nice” when I’ve dressed up, because it feels like he’s complimenting my efforts—my curled hair, my well-chosen dress—instead of the way I look. To receive direct praise on those things calls attention to my efforts, leaving me embarrassed for not having been naturally gifted enough in the first place. Yet if all the genetic gifts in the world were mine, I may well suffer a feeling that I have no control over my “giftedness,” and effort might seem even more shameful. It’s one thing for a 16-year-old girl to melodramatically swallow two allergy pills in order to sleep away the shame of failing her driver’s test. It’s quite another for a woman riddled with insecurities to walk through the world with a mantle of that shame every day of her life.
Our accomplishments—jobs, recognition, awards—are things we achieve. Beauty, we’re told, is both an achievement and who we are. It’s both our essence and our goal. We live in this awkward space between the effort of beauty and surrendering to nature’s assignment of it; as long as we treat beauty as both the essence of woman and her fundamental goal, its importance will fester in each of us like mold. The contradiction between achieved beauty and natural beauty sneers at us every time we put on a full face of makeup and still feel lacking, and every time we eschew makeup because it wouldn’t matter anyway. It’s damning to the woman for whom conventional beauty is an “achievement,” and it’s damning to the woman for whom it’s a genetic gift.
Living in contradiction is so uncomfortable that it’s become a logical puzzle for philosophers from Aristotle to Nietzsche; Marx believed the contradictions of capitalism (very rich people living alongside the very poor) would eventually become so unbearable that it would eventually collapse, giving way to a revolution. As much as I’d love to see a sort of psychic revolution come to every woman who has struggled with feeling confined by beauty or her perceived lack of it, I’m not sure what that would look like, much less where to begin.
What I suspect is more likely—and, given how many women actively enjoy aspects of beauty work, more desirable—is something less like a revolution and more like what Hegel termed Aufhebung, or sublation. The idea of sublation, as I understand it, is that two contradictory ideas can be held in tandem, so that each reflects upon the other. That is, the ideas can coexist without necessarily fighting to the death for their survival.
I’m not entirely sure what the sublation of beauty’s contradictions would look like. Perhaps it’s so familiar that I’m unable to recognize it. Perhaps every time I sweep up my hair, put on my lipstick, and waltz out the door feeling unassailably together, I’m participating in the sublation of beauty’s contradictions: maneuvering the artifice of beauty to allow my humble version of “natural beauty” shine, regardless of how well I match the template. The achievement aspect of beauty work can, under the right circumstances, unshackle us from the fear that our natural gifts won’t help us make the cut.
There’s another aspect of Hegel’s sublation that I think applies here, and that gives me greater hope. Part of sublation is comfortably existing in contradiction instead of ironing out all opposition, accepting conflicting concepts as forming a truth more genuine than any party line could allow for. There’s no absolute knowledge, because nothing can be true at all times in all situations. So as painful as the experience of beauty’s contradictions can be, they reveal to us that just as there is no absolute knowledge, there is no absolute beauty. Beauty is not merely in the eye of the beholder, but is subject to changing conditions, to shifting contexts: What is beautiful in one moment may not be beautiful in the next. But our conditions and contexts are ones we can create.
It’s a luxury of beauty, actually—even the most intellectually lacking or gifted students are stuck with whatever conditions the SAT boards create for college entrance exams. We create our own conditions with our beauty work, with the sleight-of-hand that makes up our morning metamorphosis. We create them with cultivating style, a “look,” a routine that allows us to walk through the world feeling our best. Most important, we create conditions of beauty through those around us: through friends, lovers, images. All of these come together to subvert an absolutist idea of beauty, as unlikely as that can seem in moment of despair. And if we create our own conditions, we prevent our own failure.
When I was 24, after having forever had hair that ranged from long to superlong, I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirrored window while on a jog. I saw this floppy ponytail swinging behind my head and all of a sudden was disgusted. There was all this dead matter on top of my head, and it was there because I thought I needed it to look pretty, and I sprinted home, grabbed a pair of fish-scaling scissors, and cut off my ponytail while standing over my kitchen sink.
I wanted to know what it was like to not have my hair to fall back on. For no matter how unattractive I felt on any given day, I always had this cloak of hair to protect me: I might be ruddy-skinned and have uneven teeth, but you couldn’t challenge the fact that I was, quite definitively, a girl. The month before I chopped my hair saw me writing on my body with Sharpies, riot grrrl-style; I was going through a sort of “quarterlife crisis” and was ready to challenge the notion of what it meant to be a girl—and what it meant to be pretty, or not-pretty, as the case may be.
I wasn’t able to articulate all of this while I was hacking off my hair, though. I only began to understand my intent when I looked in the mirror and saw that I actually looked better with short hair, and for a brief moment actually felt disappointed. My hair had more volume, since it wasn’t weighed down by length, drawing attention toward my eyes. It elongated my neck, highlighted my collarbone. It was playful—far more appropriate for a 24-year-old than the heavy curtain I’d lived with until then. I loved it.
Here’s the thing: I wasn’t alone. Yes, my girlfriends cooed, and my gay guy friends were a-flutter. But straight men loved it too. Some told me specifically that they preferred short hair on women. Some just said I looked great. A couple stopped me on the street; she wanted to know where I’d gotten it done so she could ask for the same style, and her male companion stood beside her, beaming. I was told it was sexy, daring, becoming, pretty, flattering, sophisticated, flirty. The number-one compliment I’d received from straight men on my long hair? “Wow, your hair is long.”
To be sure, not all of the straight men in my life were fans—I heard “You look great, but I miss the long hair” more than once from my dude friends. But for every one of those, I’d hear, “I normally don’t like short hair on chicks—but it really works on you.” I report this not to point out my uncannily bewitching allure (by all means, bring it up in comments), but to point out what I think they were really saying: I’ve grown up surrounded by images that equate long hair with sexiness, but damn if there isn't a part of me that knows what I really like.
If men prefer long hair, it’s often because it’s hard not to prefer what we’ve been told is attractive, much the same way I think I prefer tall men but have gone out with enough short ones to know that when it comes down to it, I don’t actually care. Unless we consciously recognize that we have a preference that deviates from the standard—hairy men, say, or gap-toothed women—we’re likely to go with the flow. I’m sure there are plenty of straight men who truly, inherently prefer long hair on women. But in my experience, the bulk of straight men who default to liking long hair on women just like women.
The success of long hair as a signal of attractiveness is perhaps the best example of a culturally imposed beauty norm there is. (You may argue it’s the thin imperative, but as many a fat activist has pointed out, that’s pretty recent. The Three Graces had ample bottoms. They did not have pixie cuts.) And yes, I know, I know—hair is a symbol of virility, and long hair is proof of a woman’s fertility once we shed the furry coat of our hirsute ancestors, and the religious and cultural mores surrounding women’s hair go back centuries. I’m not saying the whole thing is a conspiracy of The Man; I’m saying that when Williams reports as proof of long hair’s sex appeal that you don’t see short-haired chicks on the cover of Maxim, maybe that says more about Maxim than it says about men. And let’s not ignore the men who, despite the Maxim maxim, heartily prefer short hair. Michelle Williams’s pixie cut may have been inspired by, as she says, “the one straight man who has ever liked short hair,” but the number of dudely commenters on the Salon piece proves that Heath Ledger was not alone. “Short hair is very very sexy.” “Better to see a beautiful neck.” “I’ve always had a thing for short-haired women”—I didn’t have to look hard to sift out comments from men who specifically identified as straight who love short hair. They are legion.
Still, I’m not disputing that long hair has an allure. In fact, I must believe it does: My hair now nearly reaches my waist. It was an accident at first; I lost my job in the 2008 crash, and slowing down the haircuts was an easy way to save money. I wore my hair in an updo through the following spring and summer, and by the end of 2009, I was back in the land of the long-haired. I decided to keep it long until the following spring (I like the neck-blanket it provides in winter)...and that spring passed, and then another. The truth was, I liked having long hair again. I like being able to play with it; I like curling it on occasion. I like the feeling of brushing it, I like feeling it spill onto my shoulders when I take it down. I do wear it up most of the time, but I like the way wearing my hair loose delineates private life from public life: Since my hair is down at home and up in public, as a general rule, the only people whose mental image of me has long, flowing hair are me and my boyfriend.
And until today, I thought my boyfriend secretly preferred my hair long. I say “secretly” because his answer for the past three and half years whenever I ask him if he likes an outfit, a hairdo, or a lipstick shade, has been, “I like what you feel best in” (which can be maddening when I want to look nice specifically for him, but that’s another post). He’s not into traditional gender roles in the least; I only believed he preferred my hair long because he’d started stroking it whenever we’d watch movies at home. He's always refused to state a preference, but when I played the blogger trump card of “but it’s for a post!”, he acquiesced: “If I had to choose, I actually prefer short hair. It seems more like a choice, like the woman is more self-determined or something, since long hair is supposedly the default.” For the past couple of years, I’ve been telling myself that one reason not to cut it was because I thought he liked it. I’d assigned him the default in an effort to reconcile my own shifting attitude toward the length of my hair—and I’d assigned it inaccurately.
I’m not about to run out and cut it just because I finally know what he’d prefer—but that’s beside the point. Williams certainly wasn’t implying that women shouldn’t sport short hair simply because men might not like it; in fact, she concluded by saying that idea is “ludicrous,” and also pointed out that being comfortable enough with oneself to buck convention is an allure in its own right. That’s where she hits the nail on the head. Short hair, even when worn by the most prim among us, is a decision. It’s a decision to get more regular haircuts than are necessary with long hair; it’s a decision to commit to a more limited style. And I’ll argue that for many short-haired women, it’s also on some level a decision to challenge traditional femininity. Certainly not every woman with short hair possesses the confidence Williams alludes to, nor does every woman with flowing tresses lack it. But if you’re willing to shrug off one simple way that you can supposedly up your conventional attractiveness, I’d say that speaks to a certain “it” factor. Women who have always had long hair may find that through other ways. But women who have gone pixie know that there is, quite literally, a shortcut to the destination.
On Seeing Through Transparency
While I was learning about all the chemicals in the products I was using, at a certain point I had to go through my bathroom and throw out all the stuff that didn’t fit in with what I was learning. One of the craziest things I found was this green tea soap, and I looked at the ingredients for the first time—and there was literally no green tea in it! Green tea isn’t even desirable in a cleanser, but I didn’t know that then; I was just thinking it was semi-natural and so it must be desirable. Alexandra and I both had those sort of playful moments that were like, “Wow, get a load of this!” It’s sometimes hilarious—and sometimes a letdown. There’s been more consumer consciousness in the past few years, but then companies do things like make “natural” soaps that aren’t, and that definitely hurts. It creates an accidentally uninformed consumer. You think you’re making at least a semi-informed decision, but you’re not. There was some research last year about the natural beauty market, and the number-one thing they found across the board was massive consumer confusion. People just did not know what was what. That’s why we wrote the book—here are the ingredients, here’s where you’ll find them on the bottle, here are the different names ingredients have.
There was a New Yorker cartoon—normally I hate those, but I thought this one was awesome: I can see through your transparency. Transparency became an industry buzzword, and it’s bullshit. A lot of the big companies are “transparent”—they give you the ingredients, but it’s not really any clearer, or it’s incomplete. Companies that are radically transparent, though, will always answer e-mails from people who have questions about the ingredients. They’ll use organic, high-grade ingredients, which is why the products are more expensive. And, you know, those products can be more expensive. That’s part of why we do our Friday Deals; it’s a way of giving people things that we think are awesome in a way that’s more affordable and more comparable to what you’d buy at a drugstore, or at least Sephora. But not everything is priced prohibitively in the first place: If you use coconut oil from the grocery store, that costs seven dollars and it lasts for months, and it’s incredibly skin-compatible and moisturizing. If you leave your hair alone, maybe you don’t need shampoo or conditioner. With the exception of a few fancy eye creams, which companies send to me, I buy the products that I use, and I don’t like to spend a lot of money. But you need to figure out what works for you. I have it down to four products that I consider necessities, and the rest are fun incidentals. Using fewer things is better; you can then buy the high-quality stuff and use less of it. Like if you use a concentrated serum, you’re using a drop on your pinkie for your entire face. It lasts. People often spend more in total on less expensive products. I think Alexandra did the math at some point: She’d been using a fistful of regular conditioner every single day, and then she’d feel like it wasn’t working, so she’d cast off a half-used bottle and get something else. When you use something that actually works for you, you don’t need to do that.
There’s definitely a political element to natural beauty: I think it’s wrong that the government is structured so that it can’t actually safeguard consumers from the beauty industry. That makes me angry, so there’s some fire there. But beyond that: Going natural made me realize I was chasing certain beauty ideas in this unconscious way. There’s this cycle of using products that don’t work and then buying more products to try, and then those don’t work so you try others that don’t work. There’s this idea that you can buy beauty in a bottle, and that that’s what has the power. Alexandra calls it “chasing the beauty dragon,” and I just love that phrase. And as it turns out, not chasing the dragon feels really good. Things that feel good become sort of self-perpetuating as habits, so if something feels good you want to do it again. That’s how it is with not chasing the beauty dragon: It feels really good, so you want to keep doing it. A few times a year I start to wonder, Am I missing out on something by giving up all of that? But then I remember how I was before and I remember, no, it’s fine—it’s great.
I used to wake up every day and touch my face to see if something had happened overnight. First thing in the morning—that was literally the first thing I did every day. My skin has done a 180 since I went natural—it’s crazy. So obviously that was great, but it went beyond that. Something inside both of us transformed over the course of writing and constantly thinking about beauty and our relationship to it—every woman’s relationship to it. We’ve seen a lot of people fight their natural look. And it’s cheesy to say, but you know what it’s like when you see a really healthy woman, regardless of the shape of her nose or her body, and you’re like, whoa. There’s health and joy, smiles and truth—it’s one of the most beautiful things in the world. Natural beauty can go beyond products; it’s about stripping all that other stuff away and just taking joy in the natural curl of your hair or the natural glow of your skin. It’s about not hiding.
We love doing challenges—someone I work with was like, “In your head, is life like summer camp?” and I’m like, You know, kind of. Challenges are fun. We did a no-makeup challenge, where readers sent in pictures of themselves without makeup. Then we did a glamour challenge, where we asked readers to do the most glamorous look they could do, preferably with natural products, and send us their photos. And it’s funny—going glam was really hard for people. If you do your makeup in a dramatic way it’s like you’re saying to the world: I want to rock this look right now, and a lot a people aren’t comfortable doing that. We had people privately e-mailing us and saying, I just can’t do it. It was interesting that doing no makeup was easier for people. I guess the mentality was, Well, if I look bad with no makeup, no big deal. But if you look bad with makeup—it’s like you’ve said to the world, This is the best I can do, and then if it doesn’t work out you feel foolish. People can be shy about the sense of showiness and playfulness that accompanies glamour. The challenge turned out fun—some people went really wild. But I was shocked at how hard it was for some people.
On Resistance to Natural Beauty
A girlfriend of mine is thinking about opening up a natural beauty store, and she was like, “It just feels so superficial.” I flashed back: Up until two months before the book came out, I would avoid talking about it because I thought that people would think I was fluffy or wouldn’t take me seriously. Isn’t that weird? Alexandra had the same thing, like, “Oh, people are going to think this is silly, we’re just girls talking about makeup.” I remember having a conversation with the guy I was with at the time, and he was like, “You need to own this.” And I was like, “Oh!” Somehow hearing it from a dude made me think about it differently.
It’s funny—I feel like guys are easier to win over with this stuff than women sometimes. Men and women are both like, “Whoa, that’s crazy!”—but then women are the ones using the products. There can be a feeling of embarrassment. My friends will say, “Siobhan, I use...” and it’s some toxic product, and I’m like, “I’m not gonna judge you. I’m really not.” It’s like there’s some shame around beauty. Sometimes we feel a certain shame in using products that we know aren’t the best for us—it’s like the guy you shouldn’t have kissed two years ago. You know you shouldn’t be doing it, but you’re doing it anyway. But we’re all about being aware of what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it. Stripping away the physical toxins can sometimes show us the reasons we really want to wear makeup. Because toxins or not, for women there’s often a certain amount of: I need this. But you don’t. You really don’t. That feeling of need keeps you from having fun with your makeup. I love makeup so much more now than I used to, because before there was no sense of joy in doing it. It would be like, Oh, I can’t do this to my face, or for Alexandra, I’d never do that to my curls. Now it’s like: Oh my God, this is so much fun! From the beginning Alexandra and I wanted what we were doing to be fun and friendly. We both feel this joyfulness about it, and I think we pride ourselves on bringing that to what we’re doing.
For more beauty interviews from The Beheld, click here.
The new face of MAC: Miss Piggy. You know, I used to be skeptical of MAC because it was trying to seem terrifically edgy while simply being an arm of one of the biggest cosmetics companies in the world. And I maintain that advertising can never be subversive, so I'm not about to do the Internet equivalent of pat MAC on the back. That said, between its makeover campaign in the UK and Miss Piggy, the company has officially won me over. Its brand managers have a keen appreciation of the fantasy aspect of makeup, and even though I wear makeup in a pretty straightforward manner, I like that MAC isn't asking me to buy its product to make a better version of myself.
Footloser: As a disliker of most things remake (with the possible exception of the Joe Cocker "With a Little Help From My Friends") I remain appalled by the new Footloose, and DOUBLE APPALLED by Deborah "Traitor" Lippmann's polish collection inspired by the remake. My feet will remain tight.
...And Everything In Between:
Big hair: Hairstylist Bashar Brown opened up a UK salon catering specifically to plus-size clients. The idea makes sense—larger chairs and drapes, for starters—but some salons are just snooty anyway regardless of one's size, and I'd hate to see salons seizing this as an opportunity to further snootify their offerings since "they have their own salons now."
Backpedal: Procter & Gamble assures shareholders it doesn't support political causes—and then reveals its $40,000 donation to conservative causes in Ohio, including support of Senate bill 5, which would restrict collective bargaining power of public employees.
Gross violation: In other assuring Procter & Gamble news, the district attorney in Scranton, Pennsylvania, assures the public that "No Procter & Gamble products were contaminated" in the case of the P&G employee who has been injecting his semen into coworkers' yogurt containers.
Latin American biodiversity: Colombia's plan to become a major cosmetics player: Bank on its biodiversity, which, in conjunction with the call for natural ingredients, could easily prove a boon to the nation's economy.
What I see in the mirror: Wonderful series at The Guardian in which well-known people are asked to share what they see when they look in the mirror. (via Already Pretty) For as Elissa at Dress With Courage reminded us this week, "Your body image is how you perceive, think and feel about your body. This may have no bearing at all on your actual appearance."
Dirty politics: Interesting twist in Massachusetts politics: Senator Scott Brown posed nude in a 1982 Cosmo spread to help pay for law school. When his likely rival, Elizabeth Warren, commented that she "kept her clothes on" to pay for her own degree, Brown later responded to her jab with, "Thank God." I don't care what Warren looks like or how Brown paid for school; what's interesting is that people thought Brown's words were unkind, as though it would be a compliment to say that we should all want to see a politician nude. Can't we just fast-forward to the sexy stuff like S.139, the Equal Access to Tax Planning Act?
Stuck on you: Beauty Redefined is offering their fantastic body image media literacy billboards as sticky notes. "You are capable of much more than being looked at" is a success writ small as well.
Sunspot: Nail polish that changes colors in the sun! I was all over "mood polish" in the '80s so this is catnip to me.
The best dry shampoo: Two of this week's Beheld topics are magically synthesized this week at Persephone magazine, where Tuesday's interviewee Golda Poretsky writes about not washing her hair. (Her secret hair powder trick made me snort out loud, and it's one I guarantee you haven't heard of yet.)
What a drag: Rachel Rabbit White asks why we don't love drag kings as much as drag queens. I'm not into most drag queens—most of the ones I've seen seem to be co-opting the sucky stuff about femininity and presenting it as sheer fabulousity instead of truly engaging with it or critiquing it. (In fact, the only drag queen I've seen and truly loved is...a woman, the World Famous BOB, who is a self-described "female female impersonator" and manages to be both fabulous and critical of the feminine role.) My quick answer to her provocative question is that we're used to seeing women take on the hallmarks of masculinity but not the other way around; I suspect that if we had a more culturally equal society drag queens would lose much allure as well.
Small pleasures and the new Dr. Pepper slogan: Finally, someone says something intelligent about the "lipstick index" other than note its existence. (Lipstick sales haven't gone up in this recession, leading to patter about a "nail polish index.") Thank you, Molly Lambert.
"Self-consciousness isolates and cancels": Sally works her magic at Already Pretty to weave together a few of my favorite topics: self-consciousness, projection, and the words we speak to one another about our appearance.
Beauty, Disrupted: Supermodel Carré Otis's memoir is out this week, and though the number of celebrity memoirs I've read I can count on one hand (I was once stranded in a cabin with nothing to read except Shirley Maclaine's Out on a Limb), this seems promising. She touches on something in this interview with ET that you rarely see acknowledged in talk about domestic violence: "I think that that initial meeting [with ex-husband Mickey Rourke, who was arrested in 1994 for spousal abuse] was an immediate familiarity. It was sort of recognition of somebody who I knew there was an incredible charge with, and energy between. So in a way it was that 'dangerous at first sight' ...and now I think, I know better —those are the red flags." Also, it's cowritten with Hugo Schwyzer, who always takes a fresh spin on questions of appearance and gender in his own work.
(Let's just say "erotic capital" was a difficult concept to illustrate.)
Last year, I did what every good soul-searcher does and whisked myself off to Prague for three months in order to become certified to teach English to speakers of other languages. (Most good soul-searchers did this in 1994 or so, but I like to take a retro approach to bohemian life events. Maybe I'll make it to Burning Man when I'm 47.)
The certificate I was aiming for, the CELTA, is widely regarded as the gold standard in the ESOL world, short of getting an actual degree. The principle of CELTA is basically this: If you teach students English, they won't learn it; if they teach themselves, they will. Nothing but English is spoken in a CELTA classroom, regardless of level (I speak about three words of Czech, all of which involve beer, but had no trouble teaching beginners). There's lots of group work, eliciting answers, student participation, and peer teaching. It's a fairly new method of teaching language, and it's not how I was taught French in school, but mon français est terrible, so there you go. It seems to work, that's all I know.
Things we were told as teachers: We were there not to teach, but to help students learn. We were told to use students' lives in the classrooms, since relevance is key to memory. We were told to coax answers from students, not give them; we were told not necessarily to correct, but to ask other students what they thought of any given answer, either correct or incorrect. We were told to learn to distribute classroom attention evenly; we were told to be considerate of students' emotional needs. And, of course, we were told to be ourselves.
I excelled at teaching English. Students liked me and repeatedly sought me out during breaks and after class. I got high marks from my instructors, and despite being one of the only students in the class with no prior teaching experience, I got the highest grade possible. This isn't because I'm some ESOL savant or unusually talented. It was because it happened to use all the skills that I've unintentionally cultivated over the years: listening, indirect communication, helping others see their own knowledge, making people feel valued. Teaching per se didn't come naturally to me, but the ideal CELTA teacher personality did, and that helped me get through where my skills were lacking.
In other words, it seems to pretty much be a feminist "duh" that she's talking smack in a lot of ways. But like Rachel Hills, who posed a series of excellent questions about Hakim's thesis yesterday, I'm not willing to dismiss the argument wholesale, despite how troubling it is on some levels.
When I was in front of the classroom, only rarely did I feel students' attention drifting. (This was made far easier by the fact that I was teaching adults, who tend to be more highly motivated than children or teens in the classroom.) I had a "teaching hat," there's no doubt—but that persona made use of something authentic within myself, and that something happened to coincide nicely with the ESOL system I was learning. And though of course I would never exploit my sex appeal to get students' attention (for example, I made a point of wearing very conservative clothes when teaching, not that a Prague winter allowed for much else), I'm pretty sure that some of that came into play too. Not because I was tossing bedroom eyes at any of my students, but because my own low-key brand of sex appeal lies in my warmth, empathy, and ability to help people feel special. (Or at least this is what my sources say.) Acting sexy is a role you can play; having sex appeal is something that's a part of you and that is often recognized even by people who aren't sexually attracted to you. I'm pretty sure my "sex appeal" as I'm describing it here wasn't perceived by most of my students as "sexy lady teacher," but more as "teacher we like because she listens pretty intently to us and seems to enjoy the sparkle that can sometimes happen in a classroom of adults who are all here to learn together."
Now, you could say that this isn't "erotic capital" at all, but that it's just being a good, relatable teacher, and you'd be partly right. But given that it's only pretty recently that listening instead of speaking was considered good teaching in the ESOL classroom, it's also clear that our ideas of "good teaching"—or good managing, or sales, or pretty much any job a person could have—is fluid and can indeed shift based on what an occupation's standard bearers decide to make it. And it just so happens that ESOL is valuing traditionally feminine traits, and it just so happens that erotic capital is something that is often pegged to women, and it just so happens that it's something we probably do like to dismiss, because feminists don't want to promote the idea that women "get by on their looks" just as men don't want to admit that they do the same. (Hakim takes great care to point out that erotic capital is exploited more by men than by women.)
There's a thesis within Hakim's work that's actually pretty feminist, which Hills puts like this: "[Hakim] also argues that women, on average, possess more erotic capital than do men...because women are the ones who can birth babies and because women tend to put more effort into their appearance than men do. But because we live in a patriarchal society, we're taught that these attributes have no value." It's a cultural feminist argument, and it's not necessarily what either Hakim or Hills is positing, but I think it's worth looking at when talking about erotic capital.
I think the power of beauty is righteously critiqued, and I think that's a good thing. But I think it's a good thing not because we should act as though beauty doesn't have any power, but because we need to swing the pendulum in the other direction before we come to a place that makes real sense. I don't usually go around talking too loudly about how personal beauty should be valued on a cultural level, because we get that message about a zillion times a day in negative ways. But I'll say this: The power of beauty has been discredited over time in part because it's been a power largely seen as being wielded by women. And because it was a power seen as belonging to a disempowered class, it became rigidly institutionalized to the point where we collectively forgot that the whole of our "erotic capital" encompasses far more than the ways any of us fit, or don't fit, the iron maiden of beauty. If we expand the power of beauty to include erotic capital, which includes but is not limited to beauty, we're not just talking about the power to make a guy do nice things for you because you're so durned pretty. We're talking about the power of holding people's attention; the power of placing yourself in the realm of nature, a more powerful force than words or reason; the power of mesmerizing, lulling, soothing. Sometimes, even, the power of teaching. And yes, those are traits associated with femininity, and yes, I think women have the power to soothe men and women alike with feminine beauty, and yes, I think that can be a force for good in the world.
Hills asks some excellent questions about the intersection of erotic capital and the beauty myth. And her first question, about whether the problem is in valuing beauty or in us being socialized to believe that we're never beautiful enough, rings particularly true to me—but with a feminist interpretation of Hakim's work, it needn't. Because beauty is arguably the least important part of erotic capital; it's just the part that has plenty of products to supposedly help us get there, and it's the part that women are tracked to focus on, and it's the part that probably causes us the most grief.
I haven't read Hakim's book yet (though I intend to), and I don't want to start saying that her work is feminist without having a more thorough look at it. (I'm certain I'll have more to say on the subject later.) But I will say that even though my own experience with beauty is certainly fraught, I'm eager to see a world in which "beauty positivity" is valued—and valued appropriately, neither held up as the golden means, nor dismissed as unworthy of our efforts.