Invited Post: Gone Swimmin'—African American Women and Hair

One of the best things about blogging is "meeting" readers via comments, particularly those who can illuminate aspects of beauty that I haven't dealt with firsthand. So when Mary Elizabeth left a lengthy comment on my post about neck hair and joked about how she was now basically guest contributing, I happily took her up on it! Mary is a portrait artist and maybe a little bit of a wannabe [ed. note—or not wannabe!] writer currently residing in Cleveland, Ohio. Check out her art blog at

Olympic bronze medalist Lia Neal might be surprised to learn that African Americans don't swim.

I grew up on an island in Florida but I didn't learn to swim until I was 12. According to USA Swimming this isn't unusual for African Americans. I first learned this tidbit while working as a summer camp counselor; it was part of our training, which also included watching security camera footage of a male African American camper nearly drowning at the bottom of a pool. Yes, for real. The video was intended to drive home the point that we as counselors shouldn't rely on the lifeguards while at the pool, but the other not-so-subtle message was that black children often cannot swim and therefore needed to be watched even closer. This is a great example of just how ingrained the idea that all African Americans don't and/or can't swim is. But why?

If you ask the internet, it will tell you it's African American women who are to blame because we don't want to mess up our hair. Apparently, this is explanation enough since real reasons are almost never given and are oversimplified when they are. I rarely see not living near a body of water cited, for example. For me it was because I never wanted to learn until I made a friend with a backyard pool that had a slide I desperately wanted to use and not drown. I personally know many black women who can swim. Not only that, but I've seen them with my own eyes at public beaches and dripping wet just like everyone else. And yet many other people present at those same public beaches and pools would rather dismiss what they've seen with their own eyes as some sort of anomaly rather than consider what they have come to understand as fact may in actuality be a stereotype.

So why don't some black women want to swim and mess up their hair? I think the answer is more complex than the simple vanity the stereotype implies, and has its roots in slavery. It's obvious that most slaves didn't have time or resources to care for their hair once enslaved, but in their homelands they would have had elaborate hair care rituals. Women (and men) styled their hair in elaborate and time-consuming ways. (In fact, in Africa during and before slavery a person wearing an Afro was uncommon and would have been considered mentally ill and ostracized.) Imagine how awful it must have felt to not be able to care for your hair while remembering the sense of pride you once took in it. As families and tribes were split up and sold, hair care practices were lost and possibly even replaced by the hair care practices of white slaveholders. Needless to say, these practices didn't work for the tightly curly hair that many slaves possessed. To add insult to injury, slaves who worked in their owners’ houses were often required to cover their hair, as it was considered unsightly, while slaves with less curly hair types weren't required to do so—and were often treated better. The divide this created amongst slaves is very likely the root of the modern “good hair” vs. “bad hair” debate. Once freed, many straightened their hair with heat or chemicals—not to look more white (although I am sure there were those who did) but to have one less thing to make them stand out as "other" in a society that just barely accepted them.

Today many African American women opt to keep their hair natural and only straighten their hair temporarily with heat. I don't think I have to explain to anyone reading what a little humidity, let alone a splash from the pool, can do to flatironed hair...and if it takes you 2+ hours to flatiron the curls out of your hair like it does in my case, you're probably not going to go near any water and make all that work for naught. So there's part of the answer, although it's a little simplified in the interest of not boring you to death with the details of curly hair types, heat straightening, and the inherent fragility of curly hair. There are also some who opt to relax their hair, which is a chemical treatment that breaks the disulfide bonds in the hair strand, making it less curly—but it can also make the hair "bone straight" if left to process long enough. Relaxing the hair makes it more susceptible to chlorine and salt water damage just like color treated hair. These two reasons are enough to dispel or at least explain how the stereotype started, but they're just the more obvious ones that I know of. Maybe some African American women just don't have any interest in swimming and their hair provides a convenient excuse...what with a stereotype already in place to support it and all. Seriously, though, these reasons could apply to a woman of any race who avoids swimming. Nowadays it's common for women of all races to use heat and chemicals to straighten (or curl) their hair, so it's pretty ridiculous to pretend it's only one racial group that’s concerned about their hair and what effect swimming might have on style or health.

The Hair Back There

Quelle horreur! (Yes, looking at this photograph I realize my initial reaction was ridic.
It was a bad day, what can I say?)

So updo season—known as "spring" to those of you who don't use their long hair as a built-in neck warmer during the winter—is coming, and in an effort to make sure my hairstyling skills wouldn't be too rusty when it's warm enough to wear my hair up, I had a little practice session the other day. (Side note: This updo tool is fantastic and will down my hair prep time to basically nothing. It pulls your hair really tightly, though, so be warned.) I took out a small mirror to check the back of my handiwork and was greeted by a tidy updo—and a neck that, even though I've looked at the back of my head in an updo a zillion times, suddenly seemed unseemly hairy. Like, not hairy in the way that just means I've got a lot of hair, but hair that goes outside of my hairline in these sparse little patches—long, fine strands of baby hair tufted away at the top of my neck, half-dollar-size patches just below the bottom edge of the skull.

It was horrifying, all of a sudden, made all the more horrifying by the thought that I've been probably walking around with this neck garden for years, walking around with my hair in an updo like I didn't even care that there was a neck garden there, or—possibly worse?—that I knew of my neck garden and was just fine with it. I took to Google, knowing that every beauty magazine and website and blog out there must have covered this—it was just that I'd somehow missed it, despite more than a decade spent reading ladymags for a living—so I'd find what to do to remove/tame/conceal/manage my neck fuzz. Instead, what I found was...a handful of women worried about their own neck fuzz, and legions of other women telling them to quit worrying about it already. A sampling of comments:

  • "I'm sorry your baby hairs bother you, but I'm sure nobody else notices them."
  • "I don't mind them...I think they're cute/pretty."
  • "Much of the sensation we get from being touched is from our little skin hairs being moved, and I don't care to lose any sensation on my neck, if you catch my drift :)"
  • "yeah, it's normal. don't worry and just leave it. you'll look like a freak if you try to mess with it."
  • "How did you even notice it?"
  • "Everyone gets hair on their neck. Don't worry!"

As expected, there were also a handful of people who had concrete advice—electrolysis, spraying them into the updo, waxing, bleach. But the ratio here was remarkable: For every bit of beauty advice, there were five responses along the lines of "don't sweat it." (And it's worth noting that I couldn't find even one ladymag/beauty blog service piece anywhere about how to manage neck hair. All the responses were from online forums of various sorts, beauty-related and general.)

Now, compare that with questions about hair on, let's see, every single other part of a woman's body except the scalp. Most of the comments above apply to other body hair—plenty of hair we depilate isn't visible to most people, hair increases sensation, and most important, we all have it. But if you start in with applying those sentiments to leg or armpit hair, you may as well have a life-size tattoo of Ani DiFranco. None of the comment threads I read were on body-image, body-acceptance, or  feminist forums (and feminist forums might well have depilation threads anyway, since "leg-shaving feminist" isn't the oxymoron some might make it out to be). Yet in these mainstream forums, a gentle acceptance—even a kind-hearted teasing of people who were overly concerned about their own neck hair—reigned supreme.

Naturally, I'm pleased by what I found, both on a technical level (let 'em grow!) and on a political-ish level. But I'm puzzled too. Why do queries about neck hair yield cries of acceptance, while queries about any other form of body hair yields advice, recommendations, tips, tricks, products? When I posed this question to a friend, she pointed out that even though neck hair falls below the full hairline, it's still on our heads, and women's locks are "supposed" to be long and luxurious—and what's more luxurious than abundance? Plus, some women's neck hair (like mine) is softer and downier than the stuff atop the head, lending a fine, wispy appearance—feminine, you might say.

This makes sense to me, but there's more here too. After all, onceuponatime pubic hair was widely considered sexy too—if only because it signaled, um, sex—and the popular idea now is that when it's seen as arousing, it's in a somewhat fetishistic sense. So what made Brazilian waxing—and armpit shaving, and leg shaving, and eyebrow threading, and tweezing everywhere—popular? Porn is often cited, and that is a good deal of it, but what made the Brazilian something that roughly half of women between 18 and 29 engage in? Availability. It wasn't like women were shaving themselves en masse before the Brazilian became available; they got the Brazilian in response to its availability. And there isn't yet a product or service available—available and marketed to women, that is—that does away with neck hair. (Which actually made me think twice about posting this, given that some entrepreneurial mind could stumble across it and come up with The Neckscaper™ but I'll take my chances.) Because our neck hair hasn't yet been capitalized upon and packaged back to us as something to "manage," it remains safe.

But! Complicating matters here is that while I'm grasping at nomenclature for my neck hair, black men and women have already devised one: the kitchen. The term is used specifically for textured hair at the nape of the neck (which is part of my own neck fuzz, but I was more concerned about the sides of my neck). I'm unable to find the origins of the term, but Linda Jones draws an astute connection here between the home kitchen—where many a black youth was once taken for searing hair treatments—and the "kitchen" of the hair. I'm guessing that the labor of straightening kinky hair also played a part in the kitchen's dual meaning, and other theories involve the kitchen being at the back of the house (as with the nape). In any case: The kitchen runs deep, as deep as the legacy and politics of African American hair in general. "If there was ever one part of our African past that resisted assimilation, it was the kitchen," wrote Henry Louis Gates Jr. in his memoir, Colored People. "No matter how hot the iron, no matter how powerful the chemical, no matter how stringent the mashed-potatoes-and-lye formula of a man’s 'process,' neither God nor woman nor Sammy Davis Jr., could straighten the kitchen. The kitchen was permanent, irredeemable, invincible kink. Unassimilably African. No matter what you did, no matter how hard you tried, nothing could de-kink a person’s kitchen.” The kitchen meant resistance. The kitchen saw the options available to make it "tame," and it refused them.

It would be foolish to equate my white-girl hair woes with those of people for whom hair has played an integral role in oppression, liberation, and identity, and I hope that's not what I'm doing. But the fact that all women's bodies—body hair in particular—are policed so heavily, yet neck hair somehow gets a pass, makes me look to my own neck hair as a place of resistance as well, albeit in a different context. (I'm unable to tell if the kitchen gets a similar "pass" among black women who relax their hair; there are a couple of advice pages out there on growing out the kitchen, presumably in order to be able to blend it more easily with the rest of the hair, but I'd love to hear from black readers on this one.) Neck hair was a place of resistance, even psychic survival, for African Americans—something that applies more broadly when you think of the phrase "It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up." This tender little spot can signal arousal, yes. It can also signal danger. Forgive me if this sounds dramatic, but: Perhaps we give neck hair a pass because it helps us survive.

There's something about the placement of the hair in question—near the head and its tresses but not a part of it, a zone that's both erogenous and instinctual, a part of the body that's incredibly fragile yet is able to handle the stresses we place upon it every day—that makes me wonder if we're somehow protective of this neck fuzz, these kitchens, these wisps or coils or curliques or baby patches or "peas" of hair. I wonder if it's the last holdout of hair that falls outside of our strict rules about where hair should and should not go—a holdout that lets us look at the women around us, and maybe at the back of our own necks with a little hand mirror, and say, Honey, you're fine.

The Conundrum of Body Hair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts on a Word: Nappy

With a tagline like “Not your average beauty blog,” it’s hardly a surprise that I’m a fan of re: thinking beauty. Yassira L. Diggs’s experience as both a makeup artist and writer ensures her work has a candid, sharp, informed insight; in particular, her breadth of work on natural hair has heightened my understanding of the issue. After reading a piece in which she mentioned her thoughts on the word nappy, I asked her if she’d be willing to elaborate on her ideas surrounding this ever-potent word--and much to my delight, she agreed. Besides maintaining re: thinking beauty, Yassira also writes about thrifting at The Thrifted, and you can learn more about her skills as a makeup artist at carbonmade

Nappy is, at the very least, to be handled with caution. It may mean diaper in some parts of the world, but that’s not the case at all, in these our United States of America. Here, nappy is combustible. Not everyone can say it and come away unscathed. Say it to, or even just near, the wrong person and it might just blow up in your face. In 2007, shock jock Don Imus found that out, and reminded us all about it, when he called the Rutgers University women’s basketball team “some nappy-headed hoes.” The firestorm that ensued left him jobless in its wake. At the time, Lanita Jacobs-Huey, an associate professor of anthropology and American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California, expressed a view common among many African-Americans when she said, “When I hear it from someone who doesn’t understand the depth of pain, they just don’t have the right to say it.” See, nappy is a huge snag in the idea that we live in a post-racial society, because in large parts of the African-American community, nappy is a deep, deep wound rooted in slavery and Jim Crow.

To understand the sensitivity that nappy requires, one must understand how the word went from its original meaning to this explosive place. Nappy came from nap, a noun that refers to a fuzzy raised surface on fabric. In the beginning, nappy was a texture, and that was the whole truth. During slavery in the United States, however, nappy became a tool in dismantling self-esteem in the slave population. In a world where the feminine beauty ideal revolved around long straight hair, fine features, and fair skin, slave owners, supported by so-called “scientific” claims, pathologized African people’s dark skin, broad facial features, kinky hair textures—basically, everything about them. In order to oppress people you must believe that they are inferior, somehow less human than you, and you must convince them that their (supposed) inferiority is the truth. The message—that their woolly, nappy hair was proof that they were sub-human—was naturally and tragically internalized by black people during slavery. To understand the button that nappy pushes among many African-Americans today, one must consider the overwhelming force of cultural power, and how unconsciously it is passed down through generations.

Nappy’s trauma still lingers, even now in the midst of what seems like a natural hair renaissance in the African-American community. I still hear fellow African-Americans throw around the term “good hair” to reference, compliment, and/or envy straight or loosely curled hair, as in not nappy. I have an aunt who, during one of those family moments when my choice to wear my hair in long dreadlocks was being questioned, heartily defended me with “Leave her alone, one day she’ll decide to fix her hair!”

Nappy is easily misconstrued. People who don’t understand nappy often think it’s another word for unkempt. Hence, nappy has been accused of having an unprofessional appearance, and deemed inappropriate for many a workplace.

In 1998, all hell broke loose when a New York City parent found copies of pages from the book Nappy Hair, by Carolivia Herron, in her third-grader’s folder. Alarmed by what she saw, and without reading the whole book, she made copies of the pages and passed them out to her community, with a note about the white teacher who was supposedly teaching their black and Hispanic kids racist stereotypes. Parents who didn’t even have children in Ruth Sherman’s class protested and demanded she be fired. At a public meeting they shouted over her, threatened her, and cursed her, rather than let her speak. She had to be escorted out by security. When the dust settled, Sherman, who had been ousted, was offered her position back. The shouting died down. The book had always been a celebration of nappy hair. Nappy is that loaded.

My relationship with nappy is complicated in its own way. While I didn’t grow up hearing or using the word, I can’t say I didn’t know it. It was just not used to demean me. I did, however, grow up around relaxers. I came into the world surrounded by black women who straightened their hair. I idolized my mother and aunts as a child, and joined them in the practice as soon as I could. By the time I was 12, I could do my own touch-ups. Every 6-8 weeks, from childhood to my early twenties, my roots got “relaxed.” Maybe that’s why I busted out laughing when my aunt threw her arm around me and planted a kiss on my cheek after her passionate defense of my dreadlocks: I remember what it was like, before I got curious about my own hair texture and stopped using relaxers, when fixed and relaxed meant the same thing to me. So I know how deeply she meant no harm with her words.

I suppose my semi-neutral background with nappy is why my views on the word continue to be semi-moderate (I think). I am not offended by nappy per se. At the same time, I can’t unknow what a hot potato it is in our society, so it would give me pause if someone addressed me with nappy, in reference to my hair. My reaction would ultimately depend on who was addressing me and my perception of their intent in using the word, because with nappy, context is everything. I can’t foresee it happening, though. I mean after all, nappy is the elephant in our societal room, and we, the ones who circle it, go under it, and make our way around it every day, are well versed at leaving it out of the conversation. It’s so much easier to get through the day that way. We are far from being at a point with nappy where it can slide by whimsically in a sentence, unnoticed.

Most of the time, we tip-toe around nappy, leaving it out of conversations, especially in racially mixed circles. There are those who want to see the word gone from the dictionary. To some people, nappy is the other n-word, the utterance of which is at least cause to feel offended, or even bad about themselves. Others, like natural hair crusader Linda Jones, founder of A Nappy Hair Affair, celebrate nappy. Fighting word or reason to smile, nappy has a long ways to go to find peace among us. It can, however, be an opportunity to communicate, and to learn about each other, and ourselves. That’s my favorite way to think of nappy these days.

In Defense of the Short-Haired Woman

Salon ran a piece on Monday titled “Are short-haired women less attractive?” Let’s look past the headline (couldn’t it have been “Is short hair less attractive on women?”): Mary Elizabeth Williams—an intelligent writer whose work I enjoy, and who I think is a little off the mark here—writes that long hair has a peculiar hold over “nearly every straight man on the planet,” which makes me wonder how many straight men on the planet she talked with for this piece. Because I think she’s right in that a lot of men believe they prefer long hair—and wrong in that when it comes down to it, they don’t actually care all that much.

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.

Beauty Blogosphere 10.21.11

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

From Head...

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

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

...To Toe...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Betty Rubble's makeup kit unearthed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beauty Blogosphere 9.30.11

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

(via Makezine)

From Head...
Totally rhombic: Math haircut!

But what about the log lady?: Portrait of Twin Peaks' Audrey Horne (née Sherilyn Fenn) done in cosmetics for the biweekly "Beauty Myth" feature in Toronto Standard, in which the newspaper commissions artists to do portraits using makeup as the medium.

...To Toe...
The littlest libertarians: The Hartford Courant profiles an unlikely champion to make a case for industry deregulation: fish pedicures.

...And Everything In Between: 
Pacifica discount: If you're still mourning the fact that you didn't win my August self-care giveaway, fret no more! Pacifica—a company I've loved for a while, both for their delightful lotions and transporting candles—is giving readers of The Beheld a special deal: Just use the code pacifica5r9 at checkout on for 10% off any order. And you can get a taste of the other part of the giveaway, Beautiful You by Rosie Molinary, through her meditative blog. 

Pink think: Two interesting bits on the pinkification (word?) of breast cancer this week. First, an interview with "pinkwashing" activist Barbara Brenner, who takes on Avon's breast cancer research and questions not only its efficiency, but its possible hypocrisy. Second: New research indicates that heavily gendered breast cancer awareness ads might not be as effective as gender-neutral ads. When female study volunteers were shown pink-heavy ads with female faces, they rated their own personal risk as lower than volunteers who were shown non-pink ads with no photos of women. Obviously breast cancer is overwhelmingly a female disease, but I'm happy to see people looking at how pink kitsch might backfire. (Unless it means I have to give back my pink Kitchen-Aid "Cook for the Cure" mixer, which is adorbs.)

GenX beauty today: How GenXers are shaping the beauty industry—and indeed, fragmenting traditional markets on several levels. "Like baby boomers, [Allure editor Linda] Wells says, Gen-Xers have grown up not accepting the status quo. That can translate to wearing long hair even past a certain age, eschewing 'mom jeans' and participating in music, sports and other interests once reserved for 'younger women.'" Basically, we are still totally radical.

Digital beauty: L2, a think tank for digital innovation, rated beauty brands on their digital and social media savvy. Unsurprisingly, cool-girl club MAC tops the list—and with three other Estee Lauder brands not far behind, the brand is proving itself to be a digital leader. The report also shows that "digital IQ" correlates to heightened shareholder value.

Root for the little one: Procter & Gamble takes on a small soap company for trademark infringement. Willa, a soap company named for the 8-year-old daughter of an entrepreneur who created the suds after hearing her complaints of the "babyish" soap offerings available, is uncomfortably close to Wella, P&G's hair-care line that has nothing to do with soap, children, or the g.d. American way.

What's the buzz?: The making of a hot new brand in China: Burt's Bees.

Lighter shade of pale: Business-side look at skin-lightening creams, which make up 30% of the skin care market in China.

Ripoff down under: Australian retailers appear to be pocketing makeup profits; Aussie women are paying up to twice what U.S. women are for the same products, a disparity not explained away by duty taxes or currency differences.

Cosmopolitan's role in bulimia treatment: Bio of psychiatrist Chris Fairburn, who "discovered" bulimia after working with a patient who exhibited symptoms of anorexia but was curiously of normal weight. Fascinating bit of ED history: Because bulimics tend to be secretive, Fairburn couldn't find enough patients to allow his research to be comprehensive, so he rallied the editors of Cosmopolitan to write a short article about this "new eating pattern"--and got more than a thousand responses (most of whom thought they alone suffered from bingeing and purging), enough to begin treatment research.

Abercrombied: The "look policy" of Abercrombie & Fitch employees, and what that means for women with textured hair. (Thanks to re: thinking beauty for the link.)

"From where I come from, you holler at a girl": Nice look into what actually happens in the teen groups moderated by Men Can Stop Rape, beginning with a deconstruction of street harassment.

Fame game: Lady Gaga is suing Excite Worldwide for branding makeup under the Lady Gaga name. The buried lede: She did the same to a London sweets shop selling breast milk ice cream under the name Baby Gaga.

Hotel humanitarian:
Two of my favorite things, flight attendants and travel shampoo, come together here with Karen Duffy's story on Nancy Rivard, a flight attendant who started Airline Ambassadors after persuading her colleagues to donate their tiny hoarded hotel bottles to refugee camps.


Gaba girl: Thanks to Autodespair for turning me on to Lester Gaba's Cynthia, the first "realistic mannequin," who had her own radio show in the 1930s. It seemed pretty awesome à la Ruby until I actually saw Cynthia, and now it seems more like Real Doll territory, but maybe that's just my damage from this documentary talking.

Mais oui!: French feminists are rallying to get rid of mademoiselle, which denotes one's marital status à la miss. I'm all for this, but the fact is I get a kick out of using miss. I also like and use Ms., but sometimes Miss feels more appropriate because it allows me to simultaneously poke fun at and utilize its old-fashioned gentility for my own purposes. La hypocrite, c'est moi.

X-ray specs:
Which underwire bras work best for airport security? Chime in over at Hourglassy!

Ladies of the press: Anna Kendrick, Seth Rogen, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt briefly chat about the different ways men and women are treated by the press, with Kendrick reporting that she's always asked about her beauty routine. Besides the overarching idea that what a woman looks like is more important than she does, there's another thing at play here: You know all those beauty pages in magazines? Editors are desperate to fill those pages with something other than straight-up shilling, and so there's always a need to get celebrities to say what they like. Anytime a ladymag reporter goes to an event, she's armed with questions about facial care and exercise routines in the hopes that the celeb will throw off a quick answer. (There's an amusing bit in Laurie Sandell's wonderful graphic novel The Impostor's Daughter on this, from when she interviewed Ashley Judd for Glamour. Laurie: "So, what's your biggest beauty secret?" Ashley: "Serenity." Laurie: "OK, um, what's one beauty product you never leave the house without?" Ashley: "My higher power.")

Smells like cream spirits: Pastry chef who has made his name concocting desserts with notes of famous perfumes is reversing the equation. You know, another thing I did in the '90s was just wear vanilla extract behind my ears, but whatevs.

Fashion vs. beauty:
Feminaust—an excellent site geared toward Australian feminists but of great interest to us Yankee feminists too—on delineating fashion from beauty in ways that go beyond neck-down versus neck-up. I don't necessarily agree with the conclusion (I'd put "attraction" closer to the end of the beauty spectrum than the fashion end), but it resonates with me because while I'm somewhat interested in the ways we style ourselves, my true interest lies in what draws us to one another—the "animating spirit" as the writer here puts it.

"A new haircut is a butch accessory." —Kelli Dunham

"Why Is the Fat One Always Angry?": If you're new to The Beheld, you may have missed my interview this spring with boi comic Kelli Dunham, who had some fantastic insight into gender roles, butch privilege, and where to find a barber in this damn town. So check it out, and then if you're in New York join me this Saturday, 10/1, at The Stonewall Inn for her new show, "Why Is the Fat One Always Angry?" She's a great performer, and she's also promising cookies, I'm just sayin'.

Compliments, competition, and public living: From Nahida at The Fatal Feminist: "What do I care to impress strangers on the street, who couldn’t know? Who couldn’t possibly know that sometimes–sometimes–I’m still afraid of the dark?"

What's wrong with ugly?: Parisian Feline on being an "ugly girl": "When you’re conditioned to believe that ugliness is bad and prettiness is good, well, most people will do anything to show you how 'good' you really are. But here’s what I’m here to say: being ugly isn’t a death sentence, it doesn’t say anything about your character (any more than being pretty does) and it’s not mutually exclusive from being awesome." It's a point well-taken—as evidenced by me not being able to bring myself to remove the quotes around ugly girl. It's hard to use that word without judgment, for the very reasons Ms. Feline outlines.

The science of shopping: Elissa from Dress With Courage on shopping studies: "What so many studies on shopping seem to discount or even ignore is the intimacy this activity creates." I don't particularly like shopping, but I can't deny the powers it has to bond people—and much like the bonding of beauty, it's often dismissed, and that's a shame.

There's an app for that: Virginia—who, admittedly, is a body image blogger whose work resonates with me, whose work is sometimes categorized as body image blogging—on the iPhone body-image app: "I'm not sure we need any more websites, blogs, and apps about body image!" Hallelujah, someone said it! I'm grateful for the work that's out there but I worry that the intense focus on body image might drive us away from the point, which is to feel liberated from being preoccupied with our bodies.

Beauty Blogosphere 9.9.11

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

From Head...
No product no problem: Awesome roundup of 130+ women with absolutely no hair products from green beauty site No More Dirty Looks. (Bonus points if you can spot me without cheating! I also see a couple of Beheld readers...)

...To Toe...
Pedi for the cause:
Men in Jonesboro, Arkansas, are getting their toenails painted for ovarian cancer awareness. Okay, now, truly I am glad that these men are making it clear that women's health issues are actually people's health issues, and I should probably just shut up. But doesn't the whole idea here hinge upon ha-ha-women's-concerns-are-so-hilarious? Or am I just looking for a self-righteous feminist reason to not endorse slacktivism?

...And Everything In Between:

And the award for the MOST OBVIOUSLY IRONIC headline of the year goes to: Me, with "I Was Bad at Sex!" in this month's American Glamour (the one with Jennifer Aniston, Demi Moore, and Alicia Keys on the cover). My mini-essay about being a lousy lover is on page 250 (but isn't online), and is waiting for you to peruse whilst on line at the grocery store. (In Glamour's defense, they did run the headline by me. And to my relief, they did not fact-check it.)

Isn't he lovely: Super-excited for the upcoming Cristen Conger eight-part series at Bitch about the male beauty myth!

Crystaleyes: Vogue Japan tapes Crystal Renn's eyes to make her look...Japanese. This seemed both racist and ridiculous before I learned it was Vogue Japan (the stylist who did the taping was Italian), and now it just seems absurd.

Where are all the male Asian models?: Forbes asks. (And we answer, well, they certainly aren't working at Vogue Japan.)

Oshkosh B'Gosh: I'm oddly fascinated by the shoplifting of cosmetics, despite not having done it myself for 20+ years, and this story has the brilliant twist of the culprit being the reigning beauty queen of Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
Uncanny!: A Boston federal judged ruled that The Manly Man Cans, a bundle of men's grooming products, must cease distribution under that name, as it comes too close to a competitor, The Man Can.
Not like teen spirit.

When the judge cries: Prince is to pay nearly $4 million to Revelations Perfume and Cosmetics after he backed out of a deal to promote a perfume in conjunction with his new album.

Mercury poisoning from cosmetics: A good reminder of why the Safe Cosmetics Act is important: 18 people in south Texas have reported elevated mercury levels as a result of a Mexican skin cream. And that's just what's being brought across the border--I shudder to think of the mercury levels in the blood of users whose governments might not be as vigilant.

"Why do you walk like you're all that?": Nahida at The Fatal Feminist has a fantastic essay about slut-shaming, modesty, and the male gaze: "Don't lecture me about modesty when you've clearly lost yours, arrogantly believing you have any right to tell me these things or command me to stop or interpret my behavior..."

News flash: Okay, I am officially over the whole "Did you know women can legally go topless in New York City?" publicity stunts with the arrival of the Outdoor Topless Co-Ed Pulp Fiction Appreciation Society, which in an interview with Jen Doll of the Village Voice claims to want women going topless in public "something of social inconsequence" yet has the tagline "making reading sexy." I mean, seriously, am I missing something here?

Extreme confessions: Interesting read from one of the "extreme plastic surgeons" on Extreme Makeover. Seems that the show was somewhat nonrepresentative of how plastic surgery usually goes. Shocking, I know, I know.

"That's not funny": Speaking up about sexism makes men nicer, according to a recent study. My personal experience correlates with this, and I always thought it was because I'm a bit of a wuss and while I will call out men on their sexist remarks I do so with tons of apologies and nice-making and blushing and stammering. But maybe I'm not giving either myself or the men enough credit?

Self-care Rx: Rosie Molinary's prescription for wellness comes at a handy time for me as I attempt to up my self-care. Being specific and deliberate helps here—and I can attest to the power of actually having a prescriptions. (An old therapist once actually wrote out a prescription for a monthly massage.)

Wearing confidence: Already Pretty on how to broadcast your body confidence. My favorite (and most unexpected) is about giving compliments, which, when spoken from a place of truth, brings rewards to both giver and receiver. (Here, though, I'm reminded of the double-edged sword compliments can become.)

Midge Brasuhn of the Brooklynites

Roller derby and spectacle: Fit and Feminist looks at roller derby—usually played by women in suggestive uniform/costumes who go by oft-racy pseudonyms—as a sport by the way we currently define sports. I'm not the biggest roller derby fan, but after reading this intriguing post I'm ready to declare it not only a sport, but the sport.

Scent strip: Strippers test pheromone perfumes at Tits and Sass to see if they increase their earnings. The grand result: eh. But an amusing "eh"!

There she is, Miss America:
The history of the American beauty pageant. Is it any surprise that one of the first brains behind these events was circus impresario P.T. Barnum?

Un/covered: Photographs of women in public and private life in the Middle East. Most interesting to me are the photos of the fashion designers who are fully covered. It seems like a juxtaposition—and it is, given the flashy designs they're creating—but it makes me wonder about what traits we assign to designers, assuming that their work is an extension of them...and about what traits we assign to women in hijab.

She's my cherry pie?: Jill hits the nail on the head as to why the self-submitted photographs for the plus-size American Apparel modeling contest are disturbing. Intellectually I guess I should be all yay subversion! but my genuine reaction is quite different.

Ode to the Updo

Save for the ironic-T-shirts-and-pigtails era of my early 20s, I have a long, stubborn history of being unimaginative with my hair. If it wasn’t in a ponytail, it was pretty much always loose. I’d try a bun here or there but would usually wind up feeling matronly; I’d play with a side braid and unravel it by midday. In fact, one of the best perks of having short hair was that the option to do anything drastic with it was pretty much nil. (The magazines always say that short-haired women can “mix it up” by slicking their hair straight back with gel, which I have never, ever seen any woman do in real life, with the exception of some dazzling butch fatales...who were, after all, mimicking nattily dressed men. Anyway.)

So when I grew out my hair after several years of sporting short hair, I was pleased to discover the updo. It had eluded me in my younger days of long hair—I could never get the directions right and would always wind up with this weird nest at the back of my head that didn’t resemble anything on the Seventeen prom pages. And even when I did manage to get it right, I didn’t have the courage to wear it out of the house: It seemed conspicuous to me, this mass of pinned-up hair, and since I hadn’t yet discovered the glory of the “messy updo,” I also found it prim.

What I now recognize is that I also saw the updo as too adult.
I’ve seen plenty of young women pull off updos with aplomb, of course; like anything, confidence will make it work. That particular strain of confidence has always eluded me, though. I still don’t have it; instead, I have a little more age, a little more gravitas, that allows me to wear an updo without feeling like I’m putting on a costume.

It started as a practical style: On unbearably hot days, even the dusting of a ponytail on your shoulders can be an annoyance—enter the updo. It masks dirty hair; it was my saving grace during the transition period of my no-shampoo experiment, and even though I’m now shampooing about once a week, it still comes in handy if I don’t have dry shampoo handy and I’m looking greasy.

But soon, I found that wearing the updo made me feel just a little different. I liked that I could control my overall look more easily than when I wear my hair loose; my hair is hardly unruly, but it has that college-girl unstyled feel to it, which is fine when I’m just kicking around in my jeans, and a little more troublesome when I’m working at an office in which I’d like to project an image of efficiency. I work the hell out of those bobby slides, so I don’t fuss over or fidget with my hair when it’s up, whereas normally I’m a fusser and fidgeter, so it’s not just the look of professionalism—having it up allows me to actually be more professional.

Still, those concerns fall toward the practical. In truth, my love of the updo is about intimacy, sexuality, and modesty. The updo is modest, but modest in a way that implies an immediate threat of becoming immodest. At a moment’s notice, the updo—and, presumably, its wearer—might come undone.

The phrase “let your hair down” acknowledges that having one’s hair up means you’re not quite able to have fun, not quite ready to join the party. You’re literally not quite ready to let loose. With an updo, you can join the party the moment you wish, with the flick of a few hairpins—but maybe you just don’t feel like it yet. The party might be private; the tumble of sexuality that “letting your hair down” brings happens only when you wish for it to, not before.

Having your hair touched is always an intimate act, but when your hair is as long as mine, it’s something that just happens in the course of life: a friend will touch it when we’re talking about hair texture, a stranger on the subway might grab it accidentally if it’s draped over the back of their seat. With the updo, the lines of intimacy are starkly drawn: Your hair, and all that loose hair connotes—freedom, sexuality, youth, the sensation of being carefree—is drawn close to you, and becomes yours alone to handle as you please.

None of this is to say that by wearing your hair loose, you invite implications about sex and intimacy, any more than wearing a short skirt means you’re “asking for it.” At the same time, the very reason that older women with long hair and younger women with short hair is still seen as somewhat subversive is that we as a culture couple flowing locks with youth and sexuality; the sexually available woman, whether Botticelli’s Venus or the cover of Maxim, has hair that invites touching, the photo shoot’s wind machine acting as surrogate for the vibrancy we’d surely feel in her presence.

To be sure, even when my hair is at its flowiest it resembles neither Venus’s nor that of the cover of Maxim. It’s limp, a little stringy, and, as my grandmother once kindly told me, “not your best feature.” My hair is hardly a swirling vortex of sexuality. Still, I can’t deny that on days when I wear my hair up, when I let it down at the end of the day, I feel as though I’m signaling—if only to myself—that I’m now beginning the part of the day that is private, speaking intimately only to myself and the person I’m purposefully being intimate with. On days when I go out with my hair loose, I miss having that delineation. I have other signals that I’m home now, in a domestic groove; I take out my contact lenses, kick off my shoes, change out of my street clothes. But those are largely matters of my physical comfort and social appropriacy. Only one of my ritualistic acts carries the implication of intimacy: reaching around my head, unpinning my hair, and letting loose.

Stealth Shampoo!

If you've been following this blog, you know that I haven't shampooed my hair since September 2010. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision that I've happily extended into months of research. I've heard from people who wash their hair with olive oil, goat's milk soap, herbal rinses, and baking soda. I've read of spending every night manually coating your hair strands with your own sebum (I'll say it: Ew! Sebum is great but a gross word!), making your own dry shampoo with kaolin clay, and "hair perfumes." Some of you have joined me, Hair Warriors that you are! Some of you have served as beacons, guiding we newcomers through the dark desert of the unknown. Some of you have been warily admiring. Some of you have been just wary.

Whatever you think of the project, please, let us pause and give my sebum (sorry!) coated strands a warrior's rest. For deep in the annals of Queens, a stealth shampoo has been committed.

As far as luxuries go, the only thing I love more than public baths (um, the Ottoman kind, not a sponge bath at Port Authority) is a sauna. And the only thing I love more than a sauna is beer. And the only thing I love more than beer is a massage.

So basically, I had no choice but to celebrate turning 35 by a visit to Spa Castle, which is, indeed, a castle, one full of public baths, and saunas, and beer, and massages. Immersive water-jet foot baths, gold-plated saunas (and six more sauna huts, including salt, mud, jade, and color therapy lights), Korean-style body scrubs, jet-ball water neck massages, and a wade-up bar: For $45 (with additional fees for the treatments and vittles), you have unlimited daylong access to all of this.

I'd be embarrassed at how awesome this felt on my neck if I hadn't looked at the sixtysomething gentleman
next to me mid-spray and seen the sheer ecstasy—nay, rapture!—crossing his face.

Make no mistake: Spa Castle is not for those whose thrills derive from exclusivity. Families and hordes of naked people (in the locker rooms) surround you. It's more akin to Six Flags than Canyon Ranch. I promise you will emerge relaxed, but that's a testament to the sheer awesomeness of a water-jet massage that you can control and have target your problem areas as long as you wish, not  tranquility. As luxurious as it is to be at a spa in the first place, the utilitarian feel of the place is a reminder that originally, spas were places to restore health, not beauty.

In the case of Spa Castle, which is owned and operated by Korean-Americans, that extends to the basic body scrub. I've never had a body scrub before; this was a birthday treat from my gentleman friend (who spent the duration of my scrub in the men's lounge, un-naked, reading Aldous Huxley, but who wound up loving the water treatments even more than I did). For the uninitiated: A Korean body scrub, or at least this Korean body scrub, consists of lying down on a plastic-covered table while buckets of warm water are dumped on you. A spa worker then scrubs every inch of you—yes, every inch—with exfoliation mitts, puts some cucumbers on your face, lathers you up, and then slathers you with baby oil. And as anyone who is new to scrubs has probably reported: Damn, they take off a lot of skin.

So I'm lying there with cucumbers on my face, trying to ignore that every time I inhale I can feel a small shred of cucumber snake its way my nostril, highly aware of the fact that I am one of six naked, wet women in this room where six other women wearing only bras and underwear—it was too wet for anything else to be practical—are dumping buckets of warm water on us. And I'm lying there mentally composing a post about beauty labor, and ways service workers might subvert the usual power dynamic, and trying to suss out whether there's any links between North Korean politics and the constant reminders that we must all be wearing our uniforms at all times outside of the locker rooms—

—and then, the stealth shampoo.

The smell of synthetic freesia! The bubbles! The feel of hands running over every inch of my scalp! The sudden multihued highlights of my hair that were revealed upon drying! The sensation of the breeze rustling through my scalp!

I lay on the table and let her rub, wash, shampoo it all away. What was I to do? This was a coup de main performed with care, a covert shampoo operation that, once I realized was occurring, I couldn't do anything about. As with all acts of stealth, my best move was to respond with a bit of my own creep intelligence: I'd let the clandestine agent perform her duty, then debrief myself upon its completion.

I've secretly suspected Sting of being a Hair Warrior (to wit: "Would she prefer it if I washed myself more often than I do?", from "She's Too Good for Me"), so it's appropriate that I turn to him now. O Sebum, my patiently corralled secretion of lipids and wax (sorry, I'll stop soon, really): You have served me well. But as the Englishman sang, If you love somebody, set them free.

And so, Dear Reader, I have set my sebum (last time!) free. No, I'm not going back to washing my hair daily, or even weekly. Something I'd forgotten in my eagerness to engage in acts of Extreme Hair Care was that the point was to balance the scalp's oil production to get out of the wash-condition-dry cycle, not necessarily to never shampoo again. (I still hate washing my hair, but refraining entirely does indeed have its drawbacks.) It's been several days since the stealth shampoo, and my hair doesn't feel dirty at all. I imagine it will get greasy over time, and frankly, right now I don't have it in me to go through another transition period. So throughout the summer, I plan on shampooing as needed—actually, I plan on trying alternate washing methods, starting with baking soda and apple cider vinegar, and experimenting with other hair washes too. And when my would-be hair-anniversary comes in September, perhaps I'll give it another whirl. We'll see.

Beauty Blogosphere 5.20.11

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

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

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

Not worth killing for, folks!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mother's Day Guest Post: Deborah Whitefield, Homemaker, Texas

Today I'm turning over The Beheld to Deborah Whitefield, my mother, in honor of Mother's Day. This blog is largely about the personal intersection of beauty and feminism; while my mother made a point of not teaching me much about makeup, hair or fashion (as you'll read below), her feminist teachings were with me literally from birth. (My last name is hyphenated because she didn't change her name upon marrying my father, and while being the only hyphenated kid was a mouthful growing up, it ensured I grew up thinking about gender assumptions and the power of words.) Given that "playing with Mommy's makeup" was strictly limited to mascara and Vaseline, I was curious to learn what she'd have to say about her own attitudes toward beauty. Here, her essay on her own beauty ritual, aging, and on rearing a daughter who was enamoured with playing pretty.


I have lovely red hair. While it was an embarrassment in my youth—along with the accompanying freckles—from age 17 on I reveled in it. Years ago I realized that I am indifferent to beauty, thanks to my cloak of hair. As a teen I used foundation and rouge, eyeshadow, liner, and mascara—mostly because it was popular to look "all eyes," like Twiggy. Over time, as I discarded those items from my face, I felt I still looked the same because I had my hair. And I didn't pay much attention to the hair, just washed and let it dry. The compliments on my hair continued, so I figured it didn't matter how I looked—no matter how much I weighed or what I slathered on my face.

The result is that most of my life, I haven't put much work into the way my face appears to others. I look in the mirror, see no food lodged in my teeth or milk above my lip, and I'm long as I have on my brown-black Maybelline mascara. This has been my sole must-have since the days when mascara came in little red drawers with a compartment for the pigment and one for the brush. The idea was that one moistened the bristles, rubbed it in the mascara, then applied it. Often the user would be without water, so one would do what my mom did—use spit. Today it's a scary thought, given what we know about the susceptibility eyes have for germinating bacteria.

How do teenagers learn to "need" beauty products? From observation. In our household there were few beauty products, other than that red box, and red lipstick—which, of course, clashed with my hair. We had the cheapest shampoo money could buy and no conditioners. The point is: There wasn't much to learn from my mother.

I learned what not to do from a friend of mine who was cute when natural but was rarely not made up with heavy foundation; watching her beauty routine must have been the most boring thing I did with her. However, I read two teen magazines, Teen and Ingenue, that instructed me on the positives. From those I learned how to get that Twiggy look by lining under my eyes. Both my sister and I pored over those issues looking for tips on how to accentuate the eyes by making our lips and the rest of our face invisible. I recall a visit from an aunt who lived in California; she complimented us and asked how we learned to apply makeup. This was the Ultimate Flattery for two Oklahoma girls! An older woman liked our look—and one from L.A. who must have seen gorgeous eyes everywhere. Our work was finished; we were perfect.

Moisturizers weren't part of my routine until I was in my late 30s. Even then, as now, it was a seasonal thing. Here's what I know: At age 60, I am now the age my grandmother was when I first clearly recall looking at her wrinkles. Those wrinkles stay with me to this day—they looked like tic-tac-toe forms on her cheeks. I used to wish I had the nerve to make little Xs and Os on them as she napped on our sofa. The face powder she used only seemed to exaggerate the lines, making them look cavernous and permanent. I resolved then and there never to use face powder. I couldn't even tell you if they still make the stuff.

I look a darned sight less wrinkled than my grandmother—but she led a hard life. She spent over 50 years planting acres of gardens, canning the family's foods, tending livestock, ironing, cooking with a wood stove, and so on, all of which I have avoided. I've seen how people age and I feel I'm in good stead, so why sweat it? Wrinkles fascinate me, even on myself. Sometimes I think this is one reason the idea of human-concocted beauty holds no charm. If we are lucky, we all end up in the same place.

The upshot is that most of my life I haven't put much thought into the way my face appears to others. When a daughter and active feminism entered my life around the same time, I began to wonder what to teach—what were values, and what were a culture I didn't want her to overengage with? The only thing I recall
consciously stressing was cleanliness. When the Prince fell for Cinderella it was because she was so clean, not because she was beautiful. Yes, I did.

Mother and daughter during Manhattanhenge 2010

By the time Autumn was 3 only the mascara remained, as I came fully into both my feminist thinking and a time crunch. Still, her fascination with beauty can clearly by marked (at least to my way of thinking) with a visit to our house by my husband's sister and mother: Aunt Marsha (an Army captain) and grandmother Mimi (a full-time homemaker and perfectionist). When the lovely Aunt Marsha arrived, eager to bond with her niece, no bars were held. By the time the Make-Up Duo left town Autumn had a box of makeup, a new haircut and her first manicure.

To my eyes, I never interfered with her desire to learn and use beauty products. However, I made sure that I informed her of my opinion that beauty products were a waste of money and time. Together we had a phrase for commercials: "Trick Cameras!" Whenever any ad illustrated astounding "proof" that a product worked, she'd point it out and I'd inform her that it was done with photography tricks. In an age of computers and Star Wars, there was little need for further persuasion.

Beauty. There are so many aspects. I haven't even mentioned health and food; exercise and sunshine; fashion and style. What did I pass on to Autumn? What did my mom pass on to me? I believe Autumn is perfect as she is—all beauty and smiles. My mother told me I was a beauty, just the way I was. Even as she applied lemon juice to my freckles to bleach them. Yes, she did.

Beauty Blogsophere 5.5.11

The latest beauty news, from head to toe. 

Note: This roundup is early this week because tomorrow brings a Very Special Guest Post. Stay tuned!

He didn't get Botox, and look how empathetic!

From Head...
Botox makes you a social dunce: Because Botox hampers your ability to make facial expressions—therefore hampering your ability to naturally mimic someone's expressions, which triggers your ability to read them (we all it, without thinking about it)—it may make you less sympathetic toward others. Egads! (Via No More Dirty Looks.)

Playing pretty in rural India: The relatively low price of color cosmetics (as opposed to skin care) has made color cosmetics popular among low-income rural Indians—which accounts for 70% of the population, after all. Researchers expect color cosmetic sales to soar 19% through the next three years—that's a lot. Let's just hope that the photosensitive chemicals in cosmetics that are causing 80 hospital visits a day in the Chandigarh area aren't a part of this boom. 

Must-see manscaping: No, not that manscaping. Special effects makeup artist William Lemon III designed these incredible landscapes on men's faces. Eerie and gentle and beautiful.

To Toe...
Fish pedicure appeal: An Arizona appeals court rules that a salon owner may challenge the constitutionality of the state's crackdown on fish pedicures. That bodes well for the mayor of Swindon, a town in south England, who's opened up a fish pedicure store, Dr. Spafish, in the town's shopping centre. (See what I did there? Centre?)

Classic Car Collectors Against Domestic Violence?

...And the Business In Between:
Mary Kay and domestic violence awareness: Mary Kay has done excellent work around DV research and awareness, contributing more than $11 million to programs in the past decade and pioneering solid research. So I know that the company's recent stunt of pulling up to the Massachusetts State House in a trademark pink Cadillac to raise awareness is more than just a stunt.

Global beauty options: Americans go nuts for Boots, even though my British sources tell me that it's basically like going nuts for Walgreen's. But if the mere mention of "colour" cosmetics tickles you anyway, note that they have a new U.S. e-commerce site. And if Boots just doesn't cut it, check out Cleopatra's Choice, which allows you to shop skin care products by the region they come from. Regional options are limited but diverse. (I am a total junkie for this kind of stuff. It's from Latvia? It must be good!)

Walgreen's masstige plan: Of course, Walgreen's ain't so bad itself. WWD reports (pay-blocked, unfortunately) that Walgreen's—which acquired New York chain Duane Reade last year—is taking a cue from the "Look Boutique" pioneered by its acquisition, which features masstige products in a vaguely spa-like setting, complete with fragrance counters. Look for Walgreen's to become a bigger player in the drugstore cosmetics market...

...and look out Procter & Gamble's clever new campaign: "Have You Tried This?" is explicitly geared toward getting women to put just one more product in their basket at a drugstore. It's always fun to play with new products, but "trying this" means $7 billion to the company (which makes Cover Girl, Clairol, Pantene, Olay, Vidal Sassoon, and more), so just be aware. Of course, since P&G is also one of only fifteen Fortune 500 companies whose boards had representation from all of the U.S. Census Bureau's major groups, I suppose you could do worse.

Avon scandal: Four executives in its branch in China (which has recently switched exclusively to direct sales) were fired for bribery. Looks like it won't hurt the woman-led company, though: After a middling 2010, Avon's profits more than tripled in the first quarter, in large part due to strong Latin American sales.

Merle Norman gets a makeover: Merle Norman is updating to not seem so "old lady," in the CEO's words. As much as I hate sales pressure, I remember going to Merle Norman with my mother as a teenager when I was breaking out; it was one of the only times she and I bonded over beauty, and the only reason we went there was because it was one of the brands that was around when she was a teen. So I'm rooting for Merle!

Cadbury's new skin line: Chocolate producer Cadbury is partnering with Anatomicals to make body products that will promote their three new bars. Listen: I like chocolate. I like body lotion. Am I the only one who's totally grossed out by the thought of chocolate-scented stuff on my body? Those "chocolate wrap" things at some spas make me shudder...

Me using "Vietnamese sunscreen," which, judging by my shoulders, I should have used earlier.

Sunscreen in developing nations: With the sunscreen market lagging (we rich Americans haven't been taking enough tropical vacations—quick, do your part for the sun care market!), research group Euromonitor is urging sun care manufacturers to target "emerging markets," i.e. poor but developing nations, where sunscreen isn't yet seen as a necessity. This needs to happen for everyone's protection, but I can see potential for this this to go horribly awry in some fashion, à la Nestle and infant formula. Albino advocacy groups in Kenya indicate one small but interesting slice of the issue: Because sunscreen is currently categorized as a beauty product, Kenya won't lift the tax on it, even though albinos need a strong SPF (especially in the Kenyan sun) to be protected. 

New York teen tanners outta luck?: New York legislators are considering a ban on tanning for teens. To be honest, I'd assumed this had already happened. Yikes!

Breaking news! Donald Trump sort of douchey: On the off-chance you haven't read Anna Holmes's Washington Post piece on Donald Trump's sexist antics—many of them relating to commenting on women's looks in inappropriate settings—hop yourself over there straightaway.

Wordy girls: I'm a sucker for analyzing the words we use to describe women. (Copy editing + women's magazines = big surprise.) Luckily, I'm not alone: Sally at Already Pretty looks at what it means to be a lady, and Alexa at the F-Bomb examines fat, slut, and lesbian. (Rather, lesbian-as-putdown, not lesbian-as-lesbian.)

The body of Princess Kate: Virginia Sole-Smith has a wonderful history of reminding us that when we freak out about women's bodies—for good or bad—we're playing into the machine that got us to this frenzy in the first place. Read here why we need to stop freaking out about Kate Middleton's middle.

Deregulating barbershops in Japan: Matt Yglesias comments on the temporary relaxing of regulations for barbers and beauticians in Japan as a response to the trauma over there. He argues that the preexisting loophole that allows beauticians to work outside their salons—say, at weddings—proves that regulation is overall unnecessary, which I disagree with. But the comments on the piece are largely of the "Why does someone as serious and Big Thinky as Matt Yglesias give a shit?" Hmm, maybe he gives a shit because it's a labor concern?

Retouching videos: Both of these are longer than they need to be, but each are worth a quick glance. Anyone interested in this stuff has already seen retouching videos (Dove's "Evolution" being the best and most famous) but what's remarkable here is that you really see the amount of labor that goes into creating an image, as it's basically an ad for Photoshop tutorials. The second is about the ways in which men are trapped by beauty standards. (Via The Beauty Myth 2011.) It doesn't really give new information, but I'm sharing it here because of the reaction I had to it: I felt a hot pang of sympathy for the model here that I haven't when I've seen women being used in this manner. I don't think this means that I'm less sympathetic to women's objectification; I think I'm just so used to seeing women being used in this way, and being a woman myself and bearing all the objectification that brings, that, sadly, it doesn't faze me any longer. Which makes me sad.

Kelli Dunham, Comic, New York City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Redheads, Brunettes, and Blondes

“I asked him what his sexual fantasy was, and he said, ‘Two redheads.’ I’m a brunette.”

Thus goes the promotional anecdote on the back cover of my friend Rob Elder’s latest book, It Was Over When, a fun (and occasionally galling) book composed of the exact moment at which you know a relationship is over. Not when you actually break up, mind you, but the moment at which you know, in your heart, that it’s a no-go. My personal favorite is, “It was over when he asked his cats what I wanted to do that day. In a doggy voice.”

Actually, that’s my second-favorite. My real favorite entry is the “two redheads” one above—and that’s because it was mine.

In the fellow’s defense: A) He was 20 years old (so was I), and neither of us knew how to handle our liquor at that tender age; B) We were playing Truth or Dare (see point A); and C) We were theater majors, which has nothing to do with anything except to justify why it was acceptable to be playing Truth or Dare outside of a prepubescent slumber party.

My ensuing hysterics (see point C above) have been long forgotten, but the essence of it stuck with me. Tactlessness aside, I'm guessing my ex's comments had less to do with wanting to sleep with two women who happened to possess red hair (well, that too), and more to do with wanting to sleep with two redheads. Being a redhead isn’t just about having red hair, just as being a brunette or a blonde is only partly to do with hair color. Being a brunette is about what we imbue a brunette with: She is serious, a girl-next-door type, intelligent, stable. Blondes, as we all know, have more fun. And redheads? Them be craaaazy.

The most egregious example of this stereotyping, of course, is the blonde joke—which, I should add, I’ve most often heard from fair-haired women, possibly in an attempt to beat their detractors to the punch. But even that’s a joke, if a poor one, and the idea is that we’ve moved past this in general: We riff on gentlemen preferring blondes, understanding that its humor is antique. Therein lies the joke, right? But the fact that we still use this terminology at all—and apply it much more frequently to women than we do to men—shows that it hasn't died out entirely. (I'm sure that brunet still shows up on occasion, probably in British Elle as applied to Keanu Reeves and Keanu Reeves only, but let's not pretend that brunet and brunette are equivalent.) In the current Marie Claire, writer Erin Hosier goes so far as to alter her signature hot tamale shade in order to attract a different kind of man—one who’s, say, a doctor who wants to settle down instead of someone who’s into the “alternative lifestyle” she believes her hair currently indicates. She winds up with a happy ending—dating a man who swears he’d like her no matter her hair color—but that’s almost beside the point. We understand what each of the cues means; that's the whole point of the piece.

I do sometimes wonder how my life would be different if I'd inherited my mother's flame-red hair. Would I be seen as wilder, more sensitive, sexier, kookier? And if the recessive blonde gene had struck: Would I be more preferred by gentlemen? Would I have more fun? As it happens, I possess much of what is attributed to brunettes: I'm intelligent, serious, self-sufficient, and stable. A neat coincidence, almost as neat as me fitting the list of my zodiac characteristics to a T—communicative, curious, easily distracted, flexible (some would say "hypocritical," but those people are usually Tauruses). Of course, I also fit Libra (diplomatic!), Virgo (practical!), Cancer (moody!), and Sagittarius (optimistic!). In truth, my personality is probably about as influenced by my hair color as it is by my sun sign (which is to say, not much)—but my self-perception probably has been shaped by what we attribute to both, as much as I don't want to admit it. (I got my hands on the Cosmopolitan Bedside Astrologer at an inappropriately young age and dearly wanted to be as, well, cosmopolitan as that guide said we Geminis are.) 

When I was growing up, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed "all-American girl" look was en vogue, but I never yearned to have that aesthetic, despite buying into the beauty ideal in other ways. Had I actually been blonde in those preteen years, would I have felt more acutely the desire to acquire that prevailing beauty ideal? Blonde was beautiful; I wasn't blonde; ergo, beautiful was farther away from me, so good thing I had all those other smart-girl attributes going for me--you know, the brunette attributes. I don’t think my smart blonde-haired friends were shortchanged in their education, but I’m pretty sure that there’s some sort of relationship between the attributes I pride myself on today and the reinforcement those attributes received because, in some ways, I looked the part.

I started fishing around for the inevitable scientific studies that would “prove” whether there was truth to the stereotypes. But I quickly stopped. I’ve written here before about how I think so many appearance-related studies are suspect, in large part because I wonder about their motivation. Were I to keep looking, I’d be doing exactly what I accuse those scientists of doing: Seeking to quantify our suspicions, even if they’re not necessarily my suspicions, in the name of “science.” I remember reading a study about how people who required glasses really did overall have higher IQs than those who didn’t, and felt a vindictive A-HA! for the hassle my nearsightedness has caused me over the years. Were I to find that brown-haired women were smarter, I risk that same shameful flash of unearned pride, which means I’d be buying into it even as I didn’t want to; were I to find that the stereotype was unfounded, I’d feel embarrassed for having peeked in the first place.

But back to It Was Over When, which, incidentally would be a fun gift for anyone who’s ever broken up with anyone, and I’m only partly saying this because it was written by a friend. (Though it’s certainly easier to find a way to mention this book here than another recent endeavor of Rob's, the sober Last Words of the Executed, given that nobody on death row mentioned lipstick in their final statement.) It Was Over When features an addendum to each tale of love's end; my quote's wrap-up is: "He left me two months later. For a blonde." Which was true. But the real ending here is that he soon met the woman he wound up marrying, a fluttery, pixie-like creature whose charm easily flits from drowsy Southern belle to ethereal hippie, always with grace and delight. She also happens to dye her hair a different color every few months. I know nothing of their marriage, and I don’t want to, for I’m rather fond of the matrimonial vision I have in my head: In it, she challenges him every day by refusing to fit into any checklist of characteristics he entered their union with. Maybe she dyes her hair darker when she’s feeling stable and down-to-earth; maybe she dyes it in order to help her find that gravitas when her self-perceived blonde flutteriness becomes too weightless. Maybe her hair-dye whims are just that—whims, caprice, a head of hot pink—and are made in relative isolation, and she offers the same easy verve she did the day, month, or year before. Maybe she enjoys playing into his checklist; maybe she has a checklist of her own. Or maybe her very presence in his life has helped him crumple up the checklist he held onto when he was 20, and he’s a step closer to not passing on ideas about redheads, brunettes, and blondes to their children. This is what I hope.

Beauty Blogsophere 4.22.11

Before I get into the roundup, I just want to do a little self-promotion: If you're on Facebook and enjoy what you're reading here, please "like" The Beheld if you haven't already. And, of course, there's always Twitter. I'm really trying to make The Beheld grow, and the more ways that people (that's you) can share stuff going on here, all the better to help that happen. Thank you!

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

From Head...
Wake-up (Cocoa) recall: Clairol Natural Instincts is recalling a dozen shades that have mismatched sachets that "may result in unwanted color." You wouldn't want to buy Wake-up Cocoa and wind up with Raspberry Creme, now, would you?

Just in case the revolution is televised: The Middle Eastern hair care market is expected to swell in demand because of the burgeoning youth population—to the point where hair care will outperform all other cosmetics and toiletries. (Skin care takes that honor in the States; see next item.) Want to know more? Hit up next week's International Exhibition for Cosmetics and Beauty Products in sunny Damascus, Syria! Should be relaxing.

So why is skin care so enormous in the States? Nice business-eye view as to why. In a word: growth. Growth of men's markets, of Asian markets, and technology, which means that what seemed revolutionary a decade ago now seems quaint. (Remember ceramides?) Toe...

High heel history: Anthropology in Practice examines the meaning of high heels. It's fashion, not beauty, but it's the fashion thing I struggle with the most so I'm including it here. It is impossible for me to feel dressed up in flats. I'm working to get over this because OUCH but damn do I love the way my spirit feels in heels.

...and Everything in Between:

Avon's calling: Avon became the first major cosmetics player to commit to using sustainable palm oil in its products. Sustainability is a growing (and under-reported) concern in the booming natural cosmetics market--it's great that consumers are more aware of what goes into their cosmetics, but biodiversity and labor concerns can get shoved under the rug, especially when you're dealing with companies whose commitment to green beauty goes little further than throwing in a little aloe and calling it "natural." Let's hope that this pays off for Avon, whose stock has been sagging.

Trouble He-brewing:
An Israeli teen beauty queen is kicked out of public (but religious) school for participating in the beauty pageant. The blogger here questions the failure of the system--not that the young woman was expelled, but that entering the beauty contest was her goal in the first place. 

The "lipstick effect": Time to trot out those econ pieces about "the lipstick effect," in which markets for small luxuries soar during economic downturns. Why this week of all weeks, when this isn't really news, I have no idea. 

"Evocative, but provocative": Fascinating early-'60s fragrance ad, in case your Mad Men jonesing is giving you the shakes.  

Eco-luxe: I'm all for companies making green products seem luxurious to up its social cache. But are $19 eco-friendly gluten-free lipsticks going to do much to massage the prevalent image of "latte liberals"?   

Soap cartels: Procter & Gamble (Clairol, CoverGirl, Fekkai, Olay, Vidal Sassoon, etc.) and Unilever (Dove, Pond's, Vaseline, Tigi) fined for price fixing. The more you read about these companies, the shadier they get, I tell you! P&G gets extra credit for developing small-size "no-frills" products as a part of its Africa strategy. You know, Africa, the world's poorest continent. (Though in all fairness, P&G, along with Johnson & Johnson, did make the National Association of Female Executives' 2011 list of top companies for women.) 

Shiseido goes e-commerce: Japan's Shiseido finally launches online U.S. sales in an effort to keep the brand afloat in light of the Japanese crisis.

Curve ball: Fascinating graph roundup on attitudes toward sex by weird demographic breakdowns (did you know that vegetarians are more inclined to report enjoying giving oral sex than meat-eaters?), but what's relevant here is charts #7 and #8, which chart sex drive and self-confidence by women's self-reported body type. In OK Cupid's words:
"It's particularly interesting to isolate skinny—a deprecating way to say something generally considered positive (being thin)—and curvy—an empowering way to say something generally considered negative (being heavy)."

"Magazine goggles": I love Verging on Serious's phrase for what happens when you start to see yourself through the filter of spending days on vacation reading ladymags. (No comment from me—yet—on what 12 years of working in them does to you...) 

Monopoly money: The brains behind the always excellent Beauty Redefined are based in Salt Lake City, which was named by Forbes as the "Vainest City in the U.S." Lindsay and Lexie dissect this here; the whole thing is worth a read, but of special note is this trivia: The American Medical Association banned advertising for plastic surgery procedures until 1982, when the FTC demanded more competition between providers to decrease costs.

Sex or makeup? This study about how women would rather give up sex, chocolate, and coffee than makeup is making the rounds. I don't like the tone that reporting on it has taken, like women are all these cyphers who would do anything--ANYTHING!!!--for our moisturizer. Note that A) the study was commissioned by a cosmetics company, and B) it asked if women would give up those items for a week, not their entire lives (haven't we all gone a week without all three of those? Um, except coffee, criminy that is a toss-up), and C) it's ridiculous in the first place, because they are so not equivalent, right? As my boyfriend said over coffee and chocolate the other day, "It's like asking, Would you rather not eat an apple or have your baby killed?"

Diane DaCosta, Celebrity Stylist, New York City

Diane DaCosta—celebrity hair stylist, textured hair guru, product developer, and author—was styling her clients naturally years before naturally textured hair became as popular as it is now. Her book, Textured Tresses: The Ultimate Guide to Maintaining and Styling Natural Hair, educates African American women and other women with textured hair on how to maintain and care for their hair, and shows that glamour need not be synonymous with relaxed hair. Instead, she works with clients' texture to achieve a variety of looks, preserving the health of their hair and paving the way for a natural hair explosion along the way. Her latest project, Beauty Girl Talk for Teens, aims to educate young women on self-esteem, self-awareness, and proper hair care that will ensure they have hair for years to come (traction alopecia is one of the fallouts of relying exclusively on weaves). We talked about the evolution of African American hair, the role of spirituality in hair care, and why weaves aren't necessarily to be avoided—even in primarily natural care. In her own words:

On the Legacy of African American Hair

African American hair has been an evolution in America. We go through these cycles: In the '50s, we had natural hair, but we would press it and create Marcel waves. In the '60s and '70s it was the big Afros and cornrows; in the '80s we put relaxers in. We were graduating from college, getting jobs in corporate America—as African Americans and as women. In the '80s we were assimilating, and by the '90s we had arrived in corporate America. So now we want our identity back, but how can we do it?

As far as hair is concerned, first it was with braids, but very conservative braids. As time went on, after a couple of years we started bringing back our own natural hair in different styles. It's just sort of the evolution of a people identifying themselves and wanting to wear their own hair—and a little rebellion.

We're more accepted and equal in the workforce now, and the look has to reflect progress all across the board. All things start at the ground, so while you might not see a look in corporate America right away, you'll see it in the streets of Harlem. And in middle America they're still going through their revelation: twisting, coiling, braiding, locking. But here in New York, we're over it! We're the fashion capital of the world, and we've already moved onto the next level.

Now the big thing is that you can wear your own hair naturally curly and wavy with some product or texturized. Entertainers wore their hair big and curly since forever, but they wore weaves. Now you can actually get your own hair to look like the entertainers', but you can also wear weaves. Weaves are accepted all over now—and girls are wearing weaves that are curly instead of just straight and long.

On the Conflict of "Natural"

Twenty years ago I would have had a different perception, but now I think African American women are loving and accepting their hair more and more. They're accepting it in its natural state and letting it grow out healthier, and then doing whatever they want to do to it. But there's still an emotional association with self-worth.  Now you have women who are fine with their natural texture—we've established that the natural hair movement is here to stay, and we've accepted the array of styles you can do with natural, textured hair—but it's the length that messes with women's minds.

Why not just accept, "Okay, my hair is natural, or relaxed, or whatever—but I want long hair, so I can put a hair piece in it"? There's this conflict: I want to be natural, and I want long hair, but I don't want an extension.

It can be a personal, emotional conflict within you. Not all weaves are bangs or side swept—there are weaves and extensions that mimic natural hairstyles, like braided extensions or textured weaves. There doesn't seem to be as much internal conflict among women about that—maybe because it's a quote-unquote "natural" style, an African style. I mean, it's still not completely your real hair. But it's a conflict that runs deep.

On Healthy Hair (and Fabulous Wigs)

If you're doing weaves over and over again because you don't have the texture you want, you might end up destroying your hair and your follicles. That has always been a challenge with African American women who don't accept their own texture. There's this mind-set of: I want that kind of hair, so I'll have it—I'm going to weave it, I'm going to do this, I'm going to do that. And yes, you can do all of those things, but you have to make sure that it's healthy for your hair and scalp first.

Once you accept and love whatever you have, you can get whatever look you want. Clients come to me after they've been doing weaves for years and years, and by that point I'm seeing something ridiculous. A lot of balding. Like, "Your stylist didn't tell you that you have traction alopecia? Your hair is falling out!" But sometimes stylists figure, the client is wearing a weave—who's going to see it? But eventually you'll have no hair and the client will start thinning and perhaps balding.

Wigs were never meant to cover up baldness. Wigs were always for accentuating. From way back in the '50s and '60s, my grandmother wore wigs. Not because she didn't have hair, but because she wanted to be more fabulous. Now people are wearing wigs because there are so many great wigs. But some who abuse weaving might end up needing them.

On Transformation

I was raised Catholic, which never resonated with me. And when I do something, I do it full force. So when I tried to find my own spirit, I had a spiritual transformation, and I went for it all. I started meditating. I became a vegetarian. I cut off all my hair, and wanted to start locking it. Natural hair wasn't a bad thing for me—my parents are Jamaican, and growing up I had an example of what natural hair would look like in my family. So I knew it wasn't something to be ashamed of—but still, in my family, straight and long was preferred. When I had my transformation and cut off my hair, my parents thought that wasn't right. My family said, “She's going crazy!” But I was really coming into my own creative being. I went through it and found myself, and came out of it a great thing.

After that, everything for me had to be as holistic as it could be. After learning about my diet and what I had to eat and just being all natural, I never put a relaxer in my hair again.

I didn't even lock at first; I wore my hair in a natural short cut. Then when I got into the hair industry and started going to hair shows, I wanted to try different things—at that time the Halle Berry haircut was out, so I restyled my hair. And that was cute for a while, but it wasn't really going with my philosophy. I was still a cosmetologist: I believed in using relaxers for those who want it, but from then on I never relaxed the hair bone-straight, which was what everyone else was doing. I developed my own technique of texturizing and softening the hair. There is still always a wave pattern in the hair once the hair is softened.

If you want your hair 100% straight with a relaxer system, then you go to somebody else. You don't come to me. This is where client education comes in: After the relaxer or texturizing application—the additional heat actually makes the hair straight. So if you over-process the hair or relax your hair at 100% straight, and then you roller-set it or blow-dry it, now it's at 110%, 125%. Now you're over the limit; you're breaking your hair. I tell my clients, "So you want me to damage your hair, right? But guess what—I'm not doing it."

And my clients really listen to me because I educate them about their hair. I believe God blessed me from the beginning, because once I went to Turning Heads [a leading natural Harlem salon], I was featured in the magazines and styling celebrities. It was my destiny that when people came to me they listened to what I was saying. God put me in a position to be an influencer through media, and that's what people listen to.

On Mainstream Companies

The hair product industry is booming, especially for natural hair—it's a valuable means of revenue, especially in a recession. Once you learn how to style with products, you can do it yourself. Every mainstream company has a curly product line or some kind of natural hair care line.

I've been doing this for 22 years, and I see that texturizing natural hair is huge now and finally recognized as an alternative to relaxing the hair straight.

I was just looking through one of my general market trade magazines, and I saw this DVD set actually named "Artificial Texture"—all these white girls with blonde hair are in it with curly and wavy hair textures, and the DVD is teaching stylists how to create curls and waves. So now it's called "artificial texture"! I think it's a great thing that they're teaching texture to stylists who don't have textured hair and don’t know how to work with textured hair.

A lot of women of color don't know they can use certain product lines on their hair texture. If there's a multicultural line, sometimes they don't say it’s for use by African Americans or women of color; they call it something else. For example, I worked on a product line that was specifically designed for people of color with textured hair. I tested and helped develop the product line for curly hair, but they only have a Spanish girl on their packaging, not any brown girl at all.

Phyto, on the other hand, has a line for people of color, and they use people of color in their advertising.

They don't say it's for people of color, though—they say it's for frizzy, curly, and relaxed hair. Which is the better way to do it, when the product is specifically for women who have textured hair?

To Shampoo or Not Shampoo?

This is the time of year when I always get itchy to cut my hair: It was April 2001 when I cut off a foot of hair to go short for the first time in my life, then April 2006 when I went pixie for the first time. (My current long hair is actually an accident--when I lost my job in 2008 I decided to remove haircuts from my budget, and two years of updos later I realized I was a bona fide longhair again. But I digress.)

This time around, the question isn't: Should I cut my hair? It's: Should I wash it?

Erm, to clarify, this is meant to illustrate "bedhead." But you can also see how clean/not clean it looks.

I've been evangelical about the no-shampoo thing (for those new to my experiment: I haven't shampooed since September, just rinsing and conditioning my hair once a week and using a hair powder in between), and while I've tried to be honest about the drawbacks, part of evangelism is sort of glossing over the downside. So, to be clear:

1) My hair is incredibly healthy. No split ends, thick, strong, resilient.
2) I have more time in the mornings.
3) I have more volume, and a fetching bedhead look. (Amiright amiright?)
4) My hair holds styling easier (I am still a big fan of the updos)
5) The longer I go, the more normal it looks.
6) Cred.

1) Let's be real: It can get greasy.
2) As shampoo-free Alexandra Spunt writes in No More Dirty Looks: "It's not that it stank.... But it smelled like hair, and I wanted it to smell like girl hair."
3) When I'm self-conscious, it goes onto the list of Things People Might Be Looking At, right below my extraordinarily sharp incisors but before my worry lines.
4) Getting my hair wet now seems like an enormous ordeal. I'm now understanding where the "I'm washing my hair" turn-down line came from.
5) I just don't feel clean.

As Christa d'Souza wrote in W, "I can’t help feeling like a piece of vintage clothing that hasn’t been properly dry-cleaned." It's not that I feel dirty; it's that since September, I haven't felt that super-clean, super-breezy feeling you get when every inch of you has been properly scrubbed and rubbed and cleansed and patted dry. And I miss that feeling, particularly after a great session at the gym where my body feels all stretched and fantastic...and that feelings ends at my scalp.

But, dammit! At this point I've reached the pinnacle of We Great Unwashed: My natural hair oils have coated the entire length of my strands, my hair is in great shape, and it's almost summer (humor me here), which means updos, which will take care of problems 1-4 above (I don't bother to blow-dry my hair when it's going immediately into an updo, so getting it wet isn't a problem). I'm not sure whether to consider my time investment a sunk cost or to charge forward.

Hmm. I ask the Washed and the Unwashed alike: What to do? Giddily shampoo? Try baking soda and apple cider vinegar? Be a hair warrior and stay unwashed? Another option altogether? Be candid now, please. And vote in the poll on the sidebar!

PS: Still haven't washed my face. That, for whatever reason, feels totally fine.

Kerry Ann King, Dance Instructor, New York City

By the end of my first dance class with Kerry Ann King, I was hooked. Hooked on Nia—a movement practice integrating dance, martial arts, and healing methods—and hooked on Kerry Ann’s particular style of it. The theory of Nia is that it uses movements that work with the body’s natural mechanics to create a mind-body connection; in my Nia class, full of fit, active women, classes resemble anything from a rave to an exuberant ritual, made all the more exuberant by Kerry Ann’s creative leadership. Example: For a Halloween class, the cardiovascular push was to the decidedly non-aerobic Exorcist theme, in which we pretended to be scurrying up the stairs to heal a head-on-backward Linda Blair. It was silly, sure, but that was part of the point: Nia has no room for the lack of presence self-consciousness invites. I was eager to talk with Kerry Ann about the connection between beauty and a state of flow, beauty and the Oedipal complex, ethnic identity and presenting one’s self authentically, and on whether self-acceptance can go too far. In her own words:

On the Body of a Dancer
I was always a good dancer, but not built for ballet, aesthetically or physically. I’m not naturally turned out, I don’t have a natural arch in my foot--I spent hours as a child with my mother trying to make arches in my feet. And then I got big boobs! When I was 14 I was taking classes with the Joffrey Ballet School and I was getting a lot of attention from my teachers, but I wasn’t being cast. I decided to ask why because I wanted to know what my future was. My teacher said if I wanted to be a ballerina, I would have to have breast reduction surgery, and I’d have to lose another 10 pounds. I was heartbroken, but I was not going to do that. I was not going to alter my body, even though I loved ballet so much. That was a turning point for me in terms of thinking about beauty. As disappointed as I was that I didn’t meet the aesthetic, I wasn’t going to completely succumb to what was being asked of me. Some of that resistance is just genetic: My mom was an active feminist, my great-grandfather—you know the movie Matewan? He was one of those striking coal miners. I see it in my kids now too.

I went to my first Nia class about six months after my twins were born.  I was weak and out of shape, and to be frank, it sounded like it would be easy.  But when we started moving what hooked me was that I got the joy I’d always in had dancing--without feeling like I didn’t “look right.”  That’s one of the benefits of Nia. You’re supposed to do the technique correctly, but there’s a baseline acknowledgement that our bodies behave differently. Nia allows everyone to have an experience of just doing it.

On Babies and the Body
I know women whose experience of pregnancy and mothering is that they feel their body somehow gets ruined by it. It feels like there’s this desire to not change: “I’m not going to let my body change, I’m not going to let my life change. I’m not gonna let this in.” It’s a way of keeping at bay all the anxiety about the body that comes with having another person inside you. Because it’s freaky! There’s someone inside you! But for me, embracing it made it all easier and left me in a better position on the back end. After I got through the ten years when I was either pregnant or nursing all the time—someone was always using my body for something they needed—I came out stronger, happier, and actually feeling more attractive.  

My boys love me in a different way than my girls do. There were a few things about which Freud was correct, and the Oedipal crisis is one of them! They tell me I’m pretty, and they really, truly believe it. I have a lot of loose skin on my belly, and people say to me, “Oh, your abs are so tight, why don’t you get that skin taken away?” I think about it and then I’m like, Am I still me if I do that? And then my sons look at my belly and say, “We love your belly, Mommy! Your wrinkles make a heart!” And, you know, they do! Sons can be very powerful tools for making a woman feel beautiful.

On Observing Beauty in Action
I think for a lot of women, beauty is a tool. We want to attract a mate by being beautiful, or we want to make other women feel a certain way about us—like us, envy us. We’re frequently using it to get something in the world. When you’re constantly in that mind-set, you’re constantly thinking about what someone else is seeing when they look at you. You’re putting yourself in someone else’s mind instead of being in your own: “Does he think I look hot? Does she like my jacket?” Asking what everyone else is thinking is the quintessence of not being in the moment. Whereas when you settle in and feel physically satisfied yourself, instead of thinking, “Is he going to ask for my number?” you become that girl who’s thinking, “Do I like him?” People who are in themselves and in the moment are more attractive. They get more positive attention.

Part of being able to be more in the moment, for me, was age. I wasn’t always comfortable in my body. But now I know its flaws, and I know its advantages, and I’m more willing to take it as it comes. And it’s very powerful for me to spend my time looking at women in my classes, seeing them express themselves and look beautiful. It helps me form my sense of myself and the way I do my work. I teach in Chinatown, and there will be certain Nia movements that are also in tai chi, and lot of my students in that class have been studying tai chi for years at the senior center. I remember giving them an instruction and mentioning something about making your hands into butterflies, and they all did this certain move at the same time. They were beautiful—incredibly so. Also, being around women who are older has shown me that older women can still be sexy. They totally get into all the shimmying! We become attached to the idea that we’re only going to be sexual and beautiful when we’re young, and that adds a veneer of desperation to the idea of staying young, of not getting wrinkles. So for me to see all these women when they’re older, and they’re beautiful and sexy, has been an important learning experience.

On The Power of Being Critical
Sometimes we’re too quick to want to entirely kill off any bit of negative self-image. Every so often I’ll feel guilty about something I’ve done as a mother, that I haven’t lived up to my own standards. But that’s what keeps me trying, that feeling that I’ve failed at something. If you’ve failed, you’re kind of supposed to feel like you’ve failed! We have to learn the difference between knowing you could have done better, and berating yourself about it and feeling ashamed. I went to a Nia workshop and they were photographing everyone. I hadn’t waxed my eyebrows in weeks, and I was wearing a cotton shirt that was dark but not dark enough, so you could see how much I was sweating. They’re nice photos of me, but, you know, I could have looked a little nicer! There’s a difference between being like, “I look so ugly in these pictures!” and saying to myself, “Okay, next time I go to this workshop I’ll know they take pictures so I can wax my brows and wear something more appropriate to being photographed.”

If someone’s unsophisticated and uneducated, we don’t say to them, “Oh, you shouldn’t worry about it! Don’t read! Just sit there all day and watch Real Housewives of Darien Connecticut!” But with physical beauty we have this idea that everyone should just accept everything. It’s not that I don’t want people to accept themselves. I just feel like we’ve gone through all of these cycles with beauty and weight and everything: “You have to be thin. Wait, no, everybody’s anorexic, we have to teach people to accept themselves. But now everybody’s obese, we have to get them to be thinner! My body’s ugly! I weigh 400 pounds and it doesn’t matter! Nothing’s okay! Anything’s okay! Nothing’s okay! Anything’s okay!” I would love it if we could get to a point where we accept who we are and try to be our best selves at the same time.

On Truth and Ethnicity
Beauty and truth are linked for me. There’s this Dave Chappelle skit where he’s brought this girl home and she’s like, “Oh, give me a second while I take off my false eyelashes,” and he’s all, “Baby, you don’t need all that!” So then she’s all, “Let me take out my contacts,” and then her wig, and by the end of the skit she has one arm, one leg, and a glass eye. I kind of feel that way about altering myself to be more attractive. For me, if it lacks truth, it can’t be beautiful. I rarely wear makeup, I don’t spend a lot of time on my hair.

I feel comfortable referring to myself as beautiful. I also know that I don’t fit most people’s vision of conventional beauty. I’m not white-girl pretty. I think my race is part of why I am the way I am about being natural. My hair is a political statement: I’m not going to straighten my hair, because my hair is the thing about me that looks the most black, and I have no interest in pretending that I’m not black. Of course, because I’m so racially ambiguous, when people look at me they don’t necessarily see that. I have a friend who used to tease that I’m like a racial projective test—people see what they want to see. “Oh, I know you’re Jewish!” “You’re Egyptian, aren’t you?” My favorite one is, “What ARE you?” I’ve always wanted to say, “A Gemini,” but I can never do it. But I think that’s one of the reasons why being as natural as possible is, to me, an act of pride and self-love.

No Shampoo Goes Upscale

 The Unwashed took a vote; she's our new representative.

We, the Unwashed, have gone haute: W magazine has a piece about not washing one's hair; the writer went six weeks* without shampoo and chronicled her results—it's a well-written piece worth checking out. I'd also like to confess that I have been skirting the issue that the writer ends on: Yes, your hair can smell a little funky after a week of not rinsing it. But in my case it really does take a week, and so I just rinse it. I've entrusted my boyfriend with the task of gently breaking it to me if I ever really need to just wash up already (all of you are far too genteel to use the word scalpy** when referring to my essence, I know).

As for my update: My hair looks better than ever, especially once I decided to really rock the bedhead look and tease it a bit, with some Bumble & Bumble hair powder in for good measure. It doesn't feel as silky with the texturizing powder in, but it makes me feel just un peu de rock star, so I'll keep it. I also took a big leap and got my first haircut since quitting the shampoo. I'd rinsed my hair the night before so I wasn't presenting the stylist with a week's worth of grease and hair powder buildup, and I just asked them to only wet my hair instead of shampoo it. Nobody thought twice about it. And stylists usually comment on how healthy my hair is (I don't color it, that's pretty much my secret), but this time engendered raves.

I'm only now realizing that as fascinated as people are with the whole no-shampoo thing, nobody could seem to care less about the fact that my face has gone unwashed for the same amount of time. I don't know why that is—back when I was using soap/shampoo, I was much more likely to skip a day of shampooing than I would be of face wash. Maybe it's because plenty of men don't use soap on their faces, so it doesn't seem as out-there? Or because people have all sorts of ways we wash our faces—bar soap, liquid soap, creams, foams, even oils and grit powders—so it doesn't seem as drastic? Or maybe because you can look at my face and immediately tell there is absolutely nothing different about it, whereas hair requires a bit more investigation—an investigation that's potentially intimate for both parties? (Only one friend has admitted to covertly sniffing my hair while hugging me.)

In any case, now that W is catching on I feel, for the first time ever, like a trendsetter. Be on the lookout for other Autumn Whitefield-Madrano maverick moves: Quit shopping and wear the same five thrifted cashmere sweaters in Monday-to-Friday rotation until they die a proud, pilled death! Master the art of subway-sleeping so that you can get away with a smaller purse because there's no book in it! Transform your nervous habits to your beauty advantage—have you ever seen a pair of lips more exfoliated than mine? All you have to do is rub, dahling!

Thanks to No More Dirty Looks for the tipoff!

*The word wimp seems unkind, but I'm coming up on six months here, people.
**You wouldn't notice this unless you were, say, a month into not washing your hair while reading it, but The Corrections contains the phrase "scalpy smell" no less than three times. (I skimmed over all the Lithuania stuff so it could be even more.) Perhaps Jonathan Franzen is a secret devotee?