Lisa Ferber, Artist, New York City

{For more long-form interviews from The Beheld, click here.} 

A highly productive bonne vivante, Lisa Ferber has shown her paintings and illustrations at National Arts Club, the Painting Center, and Village West gallery. She's also the creator, writer, and star of the feature film The Sisters Plotz (directed by Lisa Hammer, and starring Eve Plumb, Lisa Ferber and Lisa Hammer), which debuted at New York City's Anthology Film Archives in 2015, and launched as a Top Five Most-Watched video on FunnyorDie.com. Words like whimsy and satire are frequently applied to her work—but it’s her enchantment with beauty, expressed through vibrant color and markings of high glamour, that made me want to interview her. A featured speaker at New York University on independent arts marketing, her keen awareness of image extends beyond canvas and stage to her signature colorful wardrobe and polished presentation. We talked about makeup as a symbol of humility, the glamour of the absurd, and beauty as a marketing tool. In her own words:

Photo: Meryl Tihanyi

Photo: Meryl Tihanyi

On Apologies

There are ways people have to deal with physical beauty that they don’t have to with other assets. Beautiful people are supposed to act as though they don’t know they’re beautiful, even if it’s kind of a fact. Somebody might say, “I’m good at math” and not apologize for it, but for a woman to say, “Yeah, you know, I’m really pretty”—nobody does that. It’s weird that people are modest about being beautiful because it’s sort of an accident. But it can be a way of stepping away from being threatening, since beautiful women are seen as threats. I remember complimenting this woman who was working on a show with my then-boyfriend. I said she was really pretty and she said, “It’s amazing what a good lipstick and a great dress can do.” It made me like her more because I felt she was saying, “I know I’m in a show with your boyfriend, but I am not a threat to you.” I felt she understood that sometimes women can be insecure about having a pretty woman around their guy, and that she could handle that with humility and manners without insulting herself.

Part of it is the social power women wield with beauty. When we say, “Oh, that woman is so beautiful,” we give her power and mystery. Beauty simultaneously gains someone social respect and people’s suspicion. Are there certain types of beauty that don’t incur the wrath of other women? Or certain levels of beauty? If you work with someone who has that California-girl kind of beauty, everyone is going to want to think she’s dumb, because she’s pretty in that certain type of way. Whereas I think women are into someone like Angelina Jolie because she’s freaky-looking but also really beautiful.

I think people believe they’re supposed to apologize for beauty because it’s genetic. Nobody’s allowed to show that they know it, yet most of us are also raised to present ourselves confidently. If you don’t groom yourself and make the effort, it looks as if you don’t care—or even that you’re conceited. I go through phases of not wearing makeup, and someone said to me once, “I noticed you don’t wear any makeup—how come?” I remember thinking, Why do I need to explain this? Is she saying that I don’t have the right to think that I look good without it? Should I wear makeup just to show that I don’t think I’m okay without it?

I think as much as women are raised to believe in ourselves, we’re also taught that a woman who’s prettier or slimmer than the people around her will be hated—think of the whole idea of “You’re so skinny, I hate you!” That mind-set can prevent women from revealing their full bloom. It’s really only been in the past few years that I’ve been able to not just present myself comedically, in terms of the way I look. For many years I felt like my self-presentation had to have something ridiculous about it, sort of kooky—and sure, there’s always going to be an artsiness about my style. But for me to just put on a beautiful dress and feel comfortable looking elegant and serious and poised, and not have to have something ridiculous about it—I had to be ready to say, “I can handle this.”

 

Djuna’s Croissant Had Failed Her  

Djuna’s Croissant Had Failed Her 

On the Glamour and Humor of Her Work

People have always responded to my work as witty, both my writing and my visual art. Only recently have I thought: You know, I really love beauty. I want my visual work to be transportive—to be beautiful as well as witty. Wit has a glamour to it, which I hope comes through in my work. I also think absurdity is glamorous, if you think of glamour as something indulgent and transcendent. Glamour means there’s a sense of mystery that makes you want to get closer, but you suspect that you can’t. So I put my women in makeup and necklaces—I’m not going to draw schlubs! But for somebody who loves beauty so much, I’m not painting a picture of the prettiest girl in the room. People tell me that I create characters, almost like pop art or illustrative art—they’re not supposed to look like people we know. But something can be beautiful even if it’s not realistic. I want that feeling of “Aaah” that comes because something is gorgeous, with beautiful colors.

When I’ve gone through tough times in life, the things that help me survive are beauty and humor, and it bothers me when people try to make them separate. Beauty and humor are both transportive—they’re magical. When I was growing up two of the women I admired were Lucille Ball and Gilda Radner, because they were pretty and funny. And one of my current heroines is Fran Drescher. She created a hilarious show and strutted around that set without apologizing for being beautiful, funny, and powerful. I think that women in comedy often make themselves less pretty because they’re taught they have to choose between pretty and funny. But I don’t want to have to choose one or the other in the way I present myself as a woman, or in my artwork. I want my viewer to enjoy two of my favorite things: beauty and humor.

Lady Ferber Gave Her Sommelier the Afternoon Off  

Lady Ferber Gave Her Sommelier the Afternoon Off 

On the Myth of the Underdog

We give ourselves credit for thinking someone who’s jolie-laide is cool-looking because she’s not conventional. But when you look at these women, it’s not as though they’re ugly—when Anjelica Huston walks into a room, everyone notices her. It’s like sometimes we’re taught to hate conventionally pretty things because we’re more feminist if we think weird-looking people are pretty—but those people are still pretty. I mean, Christie Brinkley is super-duper pretty. She’s the definition of pretty. But it’s not cool to say so because she’s conventional-looking. I love pretty! Pretty is great! I’m kind of on both sides of it. It upsets me that women are taught it’s imperative that they keep themselves looking attractive, but if somebody tells me I’m pretty, I think that’s nice of them. It annoys me when people think you have to choose one side.

Nobody relates to the pretty, popular character in a movie, even people who are pretty and popular. We’re always supposed to relate to the underdog. There’s this movie Boomerang, with Eddie Murphy—Robin Givens is the hot woman, and she’s evil, and Halle Berry is sort of the sporty underdog best friend. Halle Berry is the underdog! You’re supposed to relate to her, even though nobody can relate to Halle Berry! But the movie standards for beauty set us up, and maybe that’s for our ego—we get to feel like the underdog, but then we can think, “Wow, look at that underdog, she’s really beautiful.” And it’s because we’re convinced that we’re never the top thing. Certainly things like beauty contests don’t help. Beauty contests? That’s crazy!

I remember being an editorial assistant, and there was this other girl who worked there. I started to pick up on this vibe that she resented me somehow. I didn’t know if I was imagining things so I talked to a friend who had worked there for a while. He said, “Well, before you came, she was the only attractive young editorial assistant.” I hadn’t taken away anything from her—we were both young, pleasant women, but there’s this idea that there can only be one woman who occupies that space at any given time, and it becomes a part of our mentality. Take the idea of the 50 most beautiful people in the world—why should there be a competition? Men don’t think this way, and women don’t think this way about men. Women might compete for men, but the emphasis is on competing with one other, not on competing for him. 

The Sisters Plotz  premiere, 2015 (photo: Lisa Lambert)

The Sisters Plotz premiere, 2015 (photo: Lisa Lambert)

On Beauty as a Marketing Tool

I think beauty is a fantastic marketing tool. By being beautiful, a person is saying that she has the things associated with beauty: health, wealth, success, all these things that we value. When you hear, “Oh, I ran into so-and-so, and she looked like hell,” boom—she’s leading an unhappy life. But when it’s “...and she looked great”—now, what that could mean is that she’s had a ton of Botox and has a personal trainer and is miserable. A beautiful woman can be miserable like anyone else. But we think she’s doing well.

Whenever we hear about the beautiful but tortured woman, we don’t really believe it, which is why we love it. We still think she’s cool in some way. The Jared Leto character on My So-Called Life was considered a heartthrob because he was beautiful and tortured. If he hadn’t been beautiful but was still tortured, his character would have just been some random guy, but to have a coating of beauty over an implied pain is perceived as intriguing.

As a visual artist, I am constantly expressing myself, so when I leave the house I’m going to be together. I’m going to have my lovely necklace, my lipstick, my pretty dress. There probably are industries where you have to play down any ornamentation in order to market yourself properly—but actually, when I’m presenting myself as a writer I try to be more glamorous. When you’re a writer people assume that you’re smart, and I don’t want to be seen as, Oh, she has brains, so she doesn’t have a body. I’m a body person as well as a mind person. When you’re a visual artist nobody necessarily assumes that you’re smart. So when an artist has something about them as a person that makes people want to keep looking at them, we’re intrigued by that and then want to know the artist’s work—which is part of marketing. Really, beauty is marketing: That’s the whole point, that you see somebody and they’re beautiful and you think, I want to get to know you. People are going to want to talk to a beautiful woman. Women are going to admire her, and men are going to want her, and she just seems happy and healthy and like she’s doing well. That’s what draws people in.

This works in other professions too: When I’m working in any job, I like to be valued as a part of the team, and part of it is showing up well-groomed, in nice colors, and just contributing to the overall atmosphere. I sang in choir when I was in Hebrew school—I wasn’t thinking about how my particular voice sounded, I just wanted to contribute to the beauty of the overall sound. It’s like that with my art, and my style. I want to be a pretty part of the world.

Henry Might Organize His Freezer This Evening  

Henry Might Organize His Freezer This Evening 

For sale inquiries, please contact Lisa Ferber at LadyFerber@gmail.com.

[This interview originally posted in March 2011.]

Jacqueline Madrano, Retired Homemaker and Volunteer, San Antonio

Jacqueline Madrano has served plenty of roles throughout her 80-plus years: homemaker, civic volunteer, church pianist, occasional secretary, “kitchen musician.” It’s this life experience, combined with her unique historic role as military wife in the post-WWII years—accompanying her husband, Col. Joseph Madrano, throughout his career, she raised three children in U.S. Army bases around the world—that made me want to interview her. 

Rather, those are the reasons I’d want to interview her if I didn’t know her in the capacity I do. But it’s her role as my grandmother—my impeccably put-together grandmother, without whose influence this blog might not exist—that, obviously, has left the deeper imprint upon me. Not only has she led by example through being a fashion plate, she’s also given me morsels of wisdom on fashion, beauty, and self-presentation as long as I can remember.

If you put powder over lipstick and then put on another coat, it’ll last all day, she told me when I was playing at her vanity table at age seven—my first-ever beauty tip, tucked away for years until I’d finally start wearing lipstick for real. Your hair is pretty, but it isn’t your best feature—let’s get you some bangs to show off your eyes, she said when taking me to get my first haircut that went beyond a basic trim. Every woman should have a little mad money, just for you, she said as she paid for that haircut by plucking a $20 bill from a hidden flap in her pocketbook. It wasn’t a beauty tip per se, but it was a signal to me that spending money on your appearance was a manner of self-care, a way to do something “just for you.” My mother—a beauty minimalist and second-wave feminist who sat me down with my first Barbie to show me the ways Barbie’s body and Mommy’s body were different—taught me one way to be a woman. Mimi taught me another.

That powder-over-lipstick trick is a keeper, and so are some of the other things we discussed: comfort versus beauty, vanity versus pride, and why the U.S. government cared what she wore when going bowling. In her own words:

Jacqueline Madrano and her husband, Joseph

On Fads and Comfort

I grew up very poor. I didn’t have a lot of clothes, but what clothes I did have I tried to make not the latest styles, but something that would last. As the years went on, we could afford a little more, but I’d learned what styles look best on me years earlier. So I just stayed with that style instead of whatever came in fads. I don’t care for the fads; I keep my clothes forever. Though I did have nice legs, so when the styles were short I wore them—not as short as a lot of them, some of the styles were just embarrassing! But since I knew what colors looked best on me, when I went to get new clothes, they’d go with what I already had in my closet. That really helped me in our traveling—I can take just one suitcase but have many different outfits.

I’ve had my colors done, but you really learn what works on you mostly by comments. When people would say, Oh, you really look nice today or That’s a good color for you, you pay attention. And you pay attention to what you’re comfortable in—I knew pastel shades worked for me because I was more comfortable in them. You do not have to sacrifice comfort for beauty. You have to know what is comfortable first, but then you can always fix it so it looks pretty too. I’ve heard people that you have to choose one or the other, but I’ve found it easy to do both. But the secret is knowing your style and your colors. And then if a fad works with that, well, that’s fine.

But some fads turn out not to be fads. Have you tried mineral makeup? I love it; that’s what I wear now. So much quicker, so much cleaner. It goes on so easily and you can just brush it off if you don’t get it on right the first time. I think it makes you look more like youAfter 80 years you know who you are. You want to look like who you are. I don’t like to see a mature woman with a lot of makeup on. It makes me think they don’t like this age, that they want to look younger. And it makes them look the other way around.

On Pride

I took a ladies’ night out at a basketball game with our minister’s wife and my friend Carolyn. A handsome man—he wasn’t a young man but he wasn’t an old man either, tall, very handsome—came up to us and he put his arms around us and he says, “Ladies, don’t be frightened, but I just want to tell you that you are the best-looking women at the game tonight.” We weren’t dressed up, but we were neat. He said, “Most of the women here don’t even try to be neat, and to see somebody like you—I just had to tell you.” We felt honored because we were old women! Well, Carolyn’s not as old, but for him to stop and tell us that was really something. Then he just went on his way. He wasn’t trying to flirt or anything; he was just being honest.

But it’s true: People don’t care how they look anymore. It’s fine if you want to do that at home, but I think being neat when you go out shows that you’re proud, that you’re proud of living.

And I think when you don’t make that effort, it means you don’t care. I’ve seen that more and more and it bothers me—people coming to church every Sunday and they’re not neat, their hair isn’t combed. It’s bothersome. I feel like it shows they’ve lost their pride. I look good, and I don’t want people to think I look good just to be looked at, or that I have to be looked at, but if it happens, it happens.

I probably have too much pride. I say that because so many women are happy without things I’m miserable without. I have to have a perm! Usually I’d go to the beauty shop once a week and get my hair fixed, and [my husband] Joe never complained about that. He complained about other things but he never complained about my going to the beauty shop. In fact, he said, Well, how are you going to work this? But when I was busy getting Joe well last year when he was ill, I hated to leave him so I couldn’t drive across town to have my hair fixed once a week. It got really bad. I didn’t let it bother me because I had to do these things, but after he got feeling better that’s the first thing I did, went out to get a perm, got myself looking a little better. It costs money, but I feel like it’s worth it, and Joe does too. It makes me behave better; I’m happier, so I’m not cross. And I don’t feel sorry for myself. But I’ve always been a little vain. Or maybe just proud—I do think of other people, maybe that’s the difference. 

Jacqueline and Col. Madrano, 1973

On Being a Military Wife

I think the military has a lot to do with my pride. When we were stationed overseas the first time, in Japan, not long after the war had ended, and the first time in Germany, there was military policy about how we could dress. If we went bowling, for instance, we could drive there in short short pants—we could get out of the car and bowl and get in the car and go home. But we could not stop on the way and get out of the car—they didn’t want us to be seen like that. The military wanted us to make a good impression on the people there—we wanted to show the Japanese that we were nice people after the war.  And the same in Germany. But the second time we went to Germany it wasn’t like that. We were very fortunate to be in the States when Joe went over to Vietnam, because they didn’t live on a base where people really supported the troops. People would boo the wives. They had nothing to do with it; it was their husbands, but the wives still felt a lot of pain. But because we lived here we didn’t feel that as much. I never had anyone say anything to me. 

Joe was always the commander, and I felt that as his wife if I didn’t keep myself looking nice, how could we set an example? Not that the other girls had to look nice all the time, but I wanted—it’s nice when people care. I maybe felt a little pressure for that, but I enjoyed putting on a good front. I really did. I enjoyed being overseas and meeting people from overseas and seeing their style—it was all just so interesting. 

On How to Get Over Times of Feeling Unappealing

I grew up, that’s all! I’d think to myself, Okay, Jacq, this too shall pass. And it did.

Nicole Kristal, Writer and Bisexual Advocate, Los Angeles

Picking a title to introduce Nicole Kristal was probably the most challenging part of this interview. Screenwriter, sure—her short film, Do You Have a Cat?, has been screened at LGBT festivals internationally. (You can rent it for $2 at BuskFilms.com, and I suggest you do exactly that.) Author, yes—her (hilarious) book, The Bisexual’s Guide to the Universe, cowritten with Mike Szymanski, won a Lambda Literary Award. Songstress, check—her rock-folk CD manages to be warm yet biting, melancholy yet upbeat. Blogger, mais oui—you may have come across her piece "Watching a Friend Die on Facebook," which went viral last year, from her grief blog. And as it happens, her skills extend to my arena too: She edited the first piece I ever wrote about beauty, published in our college magazine. But it’s her expertise in one of her work’s recurring themes—bisexuality—that made me want to interview her here. We talked about what hair length has to do with sexuality, navigating the line between showing interest in women and objectifying them, and why bisexuals are terrible dressers. In her own words:

On Signals

You can't pass someone on the street, look at their clothes and say, "That person's bi.” You can do that sometimes with a gay man or a butch lesbian, though I like to avoid assuming someone's sexuality based on fashion and mannerisms—there are too many exceptions.In the 1920s didn’t men wear a red necktie or something like that to signal that they were gay? It would be great if bisexuals had something like that. But say bisexuals had a uniform and they could just walk around and people would know—that still might not help that much because I wouldn’t know what type of bisexual you were. You might be a disjunctive bisexual woman who sleeps with women but doesn’t fall in love with them. There’s just this extra element of sleuthing for bisexuals to figure out if what you have with someone is viable, and in what way.

But there seems to be a standard uniform for female bisexuals in the media: prominent boots—usually leather—tight skirts, also usually leather, and low-cut, revealing tops. Whether it's Catherine Zeta-Jones in The Haunting or Kalinda Sharma in The Good Wife, they’re effeminate, sexually aggressive and often narcissistic or mysterious—keeping their hearts at a distance and never falling in love. And this seductivity and emotional distance comes across in their clothes. But in real life, we don't wear this uniform.

Many of us struggle to reconcile the male and female energies inside us, and it comes out in a sort of mish-mash androgynous look that is not quite effeminate and not quite masculine, which is why I joke that bisexuals can be terrible dressers. This probably doesn’t apply to bisexual women with a preference for men—their style tends to be more characteristically straight—but the bisexuals like me who lean more toward the queer side can sometimes resist fashion trends, to their detriment. 

For my film, we had an incredibly hard time casting the lead character. None of the actresses seemed bisexual to me—not their style or their manner.We didn't want to fulfill the stereotype but we didn't want to ignore it entirely either. We finally just chose the best actress we could find as the lead and hoped we could style her into a believable bisexual. On her date with a man, we went more girly in a black top with a simple silver necklace; we chose a gold hoodie for when she meets a potential female love interest for the first time. We threw in a black and red checkered scarf for her second encounter with the woman—an item that can read straight or gay. I think some bisexuals do that in real-life—we dress more masculine when attending gay events or going on dates with women, and we femme it up when we go out with our straight friends and guys. Whatever we did worked because people left the film thinking the actress, Samantha Sloyan, was bisexual when in fact she's straight. Then again, most of that can probably be attributed to the fact that Sam’s an amazing actress rather than to her clothes.

On the Male Gaze

I feel like I have to wear just as much makeup going to a lesbian bar than I would going out on a date with a guy. In fact, I might get away with less makeup with the guy, because I’m usually so sure that a guy wants to have sex. I don’t have to work too hard. But with women you can say one wrong thing and they lose interest.

I really think women can look at your shoes and lose interest. I’m serious! I remember reading in Lori Gottlieb’s Marry Him about a study that there are really only a handful of reasons a guy wouldn’t go on a second date with a woman, but there are hundreds of reasons why a woman wouldn’t go on a second date with a guy. That pickiness applies to women dating women too, so that factors into my appearance: I don’t want the way I look to be one of the reasons a woman wouldn’t want to go out with me. So yeah, when I go to a lesbian club I’ll wear my high-heel black leather boots or whatever. 

I don’t think I cater to the male gaze. I almost rebel against doing that, because I don’t think it’s necessary. When you’re bisexual, it can be easier to have a detachment from straight men without doing it as a game. I’ve seen straight women play that game with guys, acting disinterested so he’ll be more interested—bisexual women might be more genuine about that. It’s like, “Yeah, we had sex, that was fun,” and then we’ll go hang out with our lesbian friends, if you’re the kind of bisexual woman who is more on the queer side. It changes the whole paradigm. I can be like, “I’m wearing makeup today, I might not be wearing makeup tomorrow. Deal with it.” You’re not asking permission.

On Hair

The thing with the queer community here in L.A. is that you have to choose a look. You have to be like, I’m butch, or I’m soft butch but am masculine-identified or whatever. And then if you’re femme you really rock the femme look and wear heels or some other sort of really girly shit. I wasn’t really enough of either of those—I wasn’t great at being super-effeminate, and I wasn’t amazing at being a tomboy or butch, so I sort of fell through the cracks. Until I figured that out I wasn’t really having much success meeting women. I remember a bisexual friend telling me that she wasn’t getting women when her hair was long. So she cut off her hair, and it started happening. She said, “If you want to get pussy, cut your hair off.” Because then you don’t just get all the gay women who are comfortable dating someone who looks gay, you also get straight women wanting to experiment, because they want to choose someone who’s “really” gay to do that with. But then, women I know who have gone for the androgynous look have a fuck of a time dating guys, getting guys to not see them as lesbians.

I’m dating this woman who’s got short hair and looks kind of butch, so for the first time I’m sort of like, “Okay, we look gay, and I have to deal with this.” I took her to the same restaurant where I’d been on dates with men and everyone was looking at us—she eventually took her glasses off because she got tired of people looking at her to figure out if she was a girl or a boy. It’s funny, actually: I’d dated this same woman before, years ago, and she had long hair then. And I don’t know if I would have dated her then if she’d had short hair. I was less comfortable with being queer, so I didn’t want to go out in public and be like, “Hi, we’re the gay couple.” I wanted people to think we were best friends. Now I don’t really care. And in a way I like that her hair is short now—she looks so different than she did with long hair. It was the woman with long hair who broke my heart, so it’s almost like she’s someone else now.

On The City of Angels

I think each region has their own thing as far as a queer look. The scene is very effeminate here in L.A.; there are very few women with short hair. There’s such a pressure to be femme that sometimes you’ll even have these butch women who have long hair but are otherwise so masculine. Honestly, I think what happened is that The L Word came out and it influenced the scene. There was this impact of, This is how you should be as a queer woman. Being a lesbian was seen as this hot thing where two effeminate women are together and everyone wants to fuck them. It kind of left butch women in the lurch. I mean, it’s Hollywood, you can be gay, but there’s this pressure to appear fuckable to men even if you’re a lesbian. And if you’re bisexual, you’re supposed to be double fuckable. You’re supposed to be this hypersexualized persona. At the same time, people in San Francisco, where things aren’t as shallow, aren’t necessarily groomed to the level of L.A. people, so L.A. can kind of ruin you for that. Like, pluck those hairs in your ears or whatever! Get your eyebrows done. I found myself getting kind of turned off by stuff like that in a shallow way after I’d lived here for a while.

These two butch women from San Francisco went with me to a gay night at a club here, and there was this game where you’d throw these sandbags trying to knock over Barbies. If you knocked over a certain number of Barbies you’d win a shot. And these two women were like, “This shit would notfly in San Francisco—literally knocking over women? It’s so offensive.” And then they were like, “Let’s do it!” They were excited that they could do this silly game and not be persecuted for it like they would be in San Francisco. Down here in L.A. people aren’t as offended by stuff that actually is offensive, as far as the objectification of women, because there’s such a high premium on being fuckable. I mean,

I’m coming from the ’90s so I’m politically aware of objectification—and it can be hard for me, looking at other women sexually. I’m aware of how it feels to be objectified so I don’t want to do that, but I want to show that I’m still interested in women sexually. But when there’s this group behavior around objectification it’s like that becomes what’s expected.

On Women’s Bodies

My sister always gives me shit for this, but I always end up with big-breasted women. It’s not intentional! I just think there’s something when you have smaller boobs like I do, you like to date women with the opposite of what you have. I’m not really interested in women with the same body type as me—I’m disinterested in skinny women, so I always end up dating women that are kind of voluptuous. They hold you in their arms and they’re soft, and I just prefer that to some skinny chick like me. But my body tends to make that kind of woman insecure. They say stuff like, “Oh, I’m going to start going to the gym more.” I’m like, “Why? I don’t give a shit about that, just be healthy.” I like the way women put on weight. There are some shallow lesbians who would never date a fat woman, and they’re missing out, because there’s so much more to do. There’s so much more to explore.

I watched this friend of mine pick up woman after woman, and I was jealous because I couldn’t. I finally said, “How do you get so many women?” She was like, “I just figure out what they’re most insecure about, and I tell them I love that the most.” I feel like that’s dishonest—but this woman I’m dating now, she’s like, “I’m going to lose some weight,” and I’ve started doing that a little, telling her how much I love her body. And yeah, I think her body’s amazing, but when I tell her, “Your body is amazing, I think about it all the time,” that’s a bullshit line. Sometimes that’s what girls need to hear to feel comfortable, so I finally started saying these things to build a comfort level. I do love her body, I’m not lying, but do I sit around thinking about it every second? No. But it was funny because I said that to her—“I think about your body all the time”—and she goes, “Even when you’re pooping?” We cracked up. I mean, the main thing we have in common is our sense of humor. But that was her kind of calling bullshit on my line too.

Miyoko Hikiji, Soldier, Author, and Model, Iowa

“I feel obligated to educate anyone that doesn’t wear a uniform about what military service is like,” says Miyoko Hikiji, a nine-year veteran of the U.S. Army whose career began when she joined the Iowa Army National Guard in college, eventually leading her to serve with the 2133rd Transportation Company during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. Her recently published book, All I Could Be: My Story as a Woman Warrior in Iraq (History Publishing Company, 2013), goes a good ways toward that obligation. And when I found out that the soldier-turned-author also began modeling upon retiring from the military, well, how could I not want to interview her? Beauty is hardly the most crucial aspect of a soldier’s life, but it’s an area unique to female soldiers, who make up 15.7% of active Army members—and who, in January, had all military occupational specialties opened to them, including combat units previously closed to women. Hikiji and I talked war paint, maintaining a sense of identity in extraordinary circumstances, and Hello Kitty pajamas. In her own words:

On-Duty Beauty

Military rules about appearance are pretty strict. Your hair has to be tied back in a way that doesn’t interfere with your headgear and that is above the collar of your jacket. That pretty much leaves it in a tight little bun at the nape of your neck. Once you get your two-minute shower and get out soaking wet, you just braid it together and it stays that way all day. After a mission or training, most of the women with longer hair wore their hair down, because having it in a bun under a helmet is really uncomfortable. In Iraq I might have had eyeshadow, from training and preparation before we actually got to Iraq. When we’d be in civilian clothes I’d have a little makeup for chilling out. But once I was actually in Iraq, I was more focused on sunscreen, moisturizer, vitamins. I just wanted to be healthy. And I had a stick of concealer. I wore that for some of my scars—there were a lot of sand fleas, and I had bites all over my body.

I couldn’t really approach trying to cover them well and look nice when I was there; I just needed to be clean. When I came home I did microdermabrasion for months to get rid of the scars. And I couldn’t wait to get regular haircuts. I also got my teeth whitened—we took daily medicine to protect against infection and malaria and stuff like that, but it makes your teeth turn yellow. 

In Kuwait I think we got a shower once every three days. We took a lot of baby wipe baths. Those lists that say, Send this to the troops—baby wipes are always on there. I did try to get my hair washed as often as I could. A lot of women would put baby powder on their hair and brush it out, to absorb the oil and the dirt. I’d just dump canned water over my head if that was the best I could do. If I was up by the Euphrates I would shave in the river if I had a chance, but that was something you didn’t get to do very often.

On War Paint

The idea of makeup as war paint is interesting. Actual “war paint”—camouflage paint—is like a little eyeshadow pack, so in camouflage class or in the field, you’d have a woodland one that has brown, two shades of green, and a black. You’d put the darkest colors on the highlighted parts of your face so they’re subdued, and then you kind of stripe the rest across your face. It’s extremely thick, almost like clay; you wear it and you sweat in it and it’s just there. It’s kind of miserable! But if you look at yourself in the mirror after doing these exercises with the camouflage paint on, it’s hard to look at yourself the same way. There really is something to putting on the uniform or the camouflage, or just the effect you have when you’re holding a loaded weapon. All that contributes to your behavior. So I definitely feel different when I wake up and put my regular makeup on.

I approach the world differently, and the world treats me differently. What is it that we’re fighting? That’s hard to say. On some levels, I feel like when I wear makeup I’m buying into the whole thing of what a man tells me looks pretty, or that I’m kind of giving up part of my natural self. But then I justify it by saying, Well, it works, or Well, I’m getting paid to do that right now, with modeling. There is a lot of conflict there. It’s sort of a war on self, sort of a war on womanhood.

On Modeling

There was a tactical gear company filming some commercials at Camp Dodge, where I trained. They were going to have the actors go through an obstacle course I’d been through, doing everything at the grounds that I’d been training at for years. At the audition they said, “We’d like for you to have weapons experience, because we’re gonna shoot some blanks out of M-16s.” I thought, There’s no way I’m not gonna get this part. And then I didn’t. They picked people who were bigger, probably a little gruffer. People who looked the stereotype of what you think a soldier looks like.

To be fair, I don’t know all their criteria, so it’s easy for me to say they thought I was too pretty, too feminine. I don’t know that. But I do know that people who were picked for that modeling job didn’t have more experience than I did. Certainly none of them had weapons experience like I did. I think that they just didn’t believe that I fit the bill of looking like a soldier. 

My experience in the military couldn’t have been anything but a benefit to anything I did in the future. Whenever I have a modeling job I always show up on time or early. I always have everything I’m supposed to have—not only do I print it out, but I check it just like a battle checklist. I look at every project like a mission. When I get there, I always have enough of whatever is needed to take care of somebody else who’s not prepared, which would be a squad leader’s position. I’m used to all that, and the people I work for are usually kind of surprised. In the middle of a job, if something happens, I’m okay with cleaning it up, whereas maybe other models or actresses might feel like that isn’t what they’re being paid to do, or that it’s a little below them. But you do so many crappy jobs in the military. You burn human poop! You have a bar for what you’re willing to do, and mine is all the way at the bottom. Things just don’t bother me or gross me out.

My great-grandmother was born in Japan, and my grandmother and my father were born and raised in Kauai. Being part Japanese adds another element to modeling, especially in Iowa, where the population for minorities is so low. There’s a Colombian model and a Laotian model here, so it’s kind of a joke among us when the call goes out for these jobs—which minority are they going to pick? And for scenes with couples, there are people they’ll always pair together and people they never will. Last commercial I did, I was paired with a guy who was just Mexican enough. They’ll pair me with a black man, but they don’t pair a black man and a white woman together—I’ve never seen that for a commercial shoot. I’m half Czech also, but they use me for the Asian slot, and then they try to Asian me up. They’ll tell the makeup artist, Can you make her look just a little more Asian? It’s like, I know we’re filling the Asian slot, but we’ve got to make sure it actually looks like she is. 

All I Could Be: My Story as a Woman Warrior in Iraq, Miyoko Hikiji, History Publishing Company, 2013; available in Barnes & Noble bookstores and online

On Uniformity

One thing I thought was funny was pajamas. All the guys slept in their brown T-shirt or just their boxer shorts, because it’s not like guys wear pajamas; that wouldn’t be acceptable in that world. But all the women had pajamas! And it was always something funny, like Rainbow Brite or Hello Kitty or something. At that point in the night we just wanted to be girls. On active duty, if it was a three-day weekend, you could wear civilian clothes to the final formation before being cut loose for the weekend. The guys looked basically the same—they’d wear jeans and a T-shirt, but they wouldn’t really look different. But if I showed up in a dress, they just couldn’t believe it! Women can have a lot more faces than men can have—men can’t change their appearance the same way women can, especially in a situation where they all have short hair. But a woman really does look a lot different in her civilian clothes, and I was one of only a few women in a unit that had just opened its ranks to women when I first joined in ’95. So the guys kind of looked at me like, Is that really the same person? I think it confronted them a bit about who exactly I was.

There was also a conflict around presenting a different face to myself. When I was wearing a uniform I felt a little tougher, like I was blending in better with the guys. I didn’t really look like them, but at least I looked more like them than when I was wearing civilian clothes. And when I’d be in a situation where I’d look nicer, sometimes I wouldn’t even tell people that I was in the army—sometimes I would, if I was in a mood to challenge stereotypes. But the two identities don’t seem to fit well because of the stereotypes we have—tough people are supposed to look gritty and dirty and cut-up with tattoos. And then people who are attractive—well, that’s not supposed to be tough at all. The movie G.I. Jane was a terrible depiction of that. Even though it tried to be a girl power movie, in order for Demi Moore to be one of the guys, she had to look like a guy. She had to shave her head because that was how she could reach that level.

I think that’s a real issue in the military—and in our society—about beauty and gender stereotypes, that pretty can’t be tough. It became kind of a side mission of mine. Whenever anyone entered the room and said, “Hey guys,” I’d say, “Wait, what about me?” They’d say, “Oh, you know we mean you too.” Well, no, not really, because I’m not a guy. I wanted to point out that I’m doing the same job, but I’m not really one of you. That’s okay, we’re different—as far as the mission is concerned we’re basically equal, but we do do things differently. It’s not a bad thing!

But let’s recognize who is it that the women are, because a lot of times I think we feel women have to be assimilated into manhood as a promotion into soldierhood, because we don’t think about soldiers as being women. We just think about them as being men. In the beginning I was so eager to assimilate and be accepted. I was okay with losing a bit of identity because I was becoming this new and different and better person—I was going to be a soldier and that was more important to me at the time than preserving some sort of identity as a woman. But by the time it got to the end of my military career I looked at things differently. In Iraq, on laundry day there would be clothes hanging out on lines that people would just string up wherever you could find a space, and some women had Victoria’s Secret underwear and lacy bras. At first I thought, What in the world? I don’t need a wedgie in the middle of a mission. But by the end it made sense to me, because we lost everything while we were there.

We lost our privacy; we lost a lot of our dignity. We were asked to do things that people probably shouldn’t be asked to do. So if you can hang onto something that is meaningful to you—whether that represents your femininity or your strength or your individuality, which we lost also—then what difference does it really make? It means something to them. Everybody has to find their thing to help get them through. You know, men don’t have to drop a lot of their stuff when they get deployed, but there’s a lot of pressure on women to change, to fill those soldiers’ shoes. The military uniform takes away women’s body shape; you don’t really have hips anymore, or a bust. It makes you realize how much just being a woman and being seen as a woman, let alone being attractive, plays into your life, because suddenly all that’s kind of gone.

Tizz Wall, Domme, Oakland, California

Interviewing Tizz Wall under her guise as a professional domme was a delight, but she actually has a panoply of guises that would have made for excellent beauty chat. A speaker (she’ll be speaking at the upcoming Catalyst Con on how to ally with sex workers), sex educator (she assisted sexuality author Jamye Waxman with her most recent book), writer (including her Mistress Manners column at Playpen Report), and erstwhile advocate for survivors of domestic violence, Wall’s working lives appear diverse but all surge toward the larger goal of making the world a better place for women of all walks of life. In fact, she’s currently completing her San Francisco Sex Information Sex Education certification. She currently does her domme work independently (though when this interview took place she worked out of a BDSM house). We talked about assimilating to—and literally blinding—the male gaze, the pressures of being a physical worker, and the similarity between BDSM houses and slumber parties. In her own words:


Photo by Lydia Hudgens

On Looking the Part
Some of the women show up for work looking cute, but most of the time everybody shows up in their sweatpants and don’t have makeup on, or they biked there so they’re all sweaty. No one’s showered. They’re in states of comfort, almost like, “Oh, did I manage to put on pants today?” In the morning we have kind of a ritual—there’s opening chores to get things going for the day, and then we’ll sit down at the kitchen table. There are a bunch of mirrors we pull up and put on the table, we’ll have our computers out, listening to music and talking and gabbing about whatever. That’s when we’ll all put on our makeup and do our hair. If we’re struggling and can’t get our hair right it’ll be like, “Can you please do the back?” It’s the female bonding over grooming at its max, I guess. Almost every day that you’re there, it’s part of the process. It’s like having the slumber party makeover every morning. It turns into one of those tip-sharing things that happens at slumber parties: “I got this new concealer, do you want to try it?” or “This color doesn’t work for me but I think it’d look great on you, do you want it?” We’ll do that, cook breakfast, make coffee. You all want to get ready in the morning because you want to have someone available in just a few minutes. If I need to, I can put on full makeup in probably 20 minutes tops, 10 if I’m really hustling. 

I’m very aware of my looks, specifically as a sex worker. Personally, I’ve wondered if I’m attractive enough—I can get very self-conscious. I feel confident in myself, and I did when I first started too, but back then I was like, I’m definitely not the tall, thin, blonde, model-esque type, and obviously you have to be that to be in this line of work, right? So I wasn’t sure I’d get hired. Then, it’s funny—being there, there’s kind of a transformation that happens. So it’s particularly interesting to see the getting-ready process in the morning, because everybody is gorgeous—and the particular house I work in has a wide variety of body types and ethnicities and different types of beauty, it’s really varied—but you see everybody show up in their normal-person outfits, and then you see them do all this and it’s a whole transformation that happens. 

I had no idea what this world was like when I got into it. I remember asking, “How much makeup should I put on?” My boss said, “Whatever is going to make you feel comfortable and make you feel like you’re going to personify this character”—which is an extension of yourself but also still a character. You’re kind of amplifying a certain part of your personality. Whatever will make you feel like that character, that’s how much makeup you need to put on.


On Bodily Labor
A lot of our client base is older straight men, and that means on some level we are catering to the male gaze. We keep that in mind a lot. The people who have tattoos will hide them; I have a septum piercing, and I tuck it in my nose. I have a coworker who has a mohawk, but she has long, pretty hair in the middle; if you’re not paying close attention when she wears it down, it passes for long hair. When I first started, I’d been dyeing my hair blonde. I changed it because when I was at work I couldn’t have big old roots.

You show off your body in a certain way. One of women has lost a ton of weight since she began working, and that has helped her get more work. I know I’ll get more work if I do certain things that are more traditionally feminine. It becomes a business decision. There are definitely sex workers who don’t cater to that. But our particular community, the particular house that I’m in, that’s something the person running it gears toward. That’s what our advertising is geared toward. So that regulates a lot of our choices for our physical presentation.

I’ve actually gained weight since starting this work; when I first started I was doing roller derby, skating 10 to 12 hours week, and I’m not anymore. So now when I’m not getting work, I’ll be like, Oh my god, is this because I’ve gained weight? And I know that’s not it—I mean, I fluctuated just one size, it’s not this massive difference. But this feeling of the possibility that my looks are tied to my income can really hurt my self-esteem. Being financially independent is really important to me. In this work, everybody has slow weeks, and then you’ll get a rush with lots of work; it’s a back-and-forth. But when that happens, I can start to think that I’m actually putting myself at risk by gaining weight. Rationally I know that’s not the case—even if I were a supermodel, there would be an ebb and flow no matter what I do. But when I gain weight it’s more than just, “Oh, I’m having a bad day and feel so ugly and bloated.” Body stuff takes on a different tone. It’s less destructive in my personal relationships and my personal interactions and personal self-esteem, but with this financial angle there’s this feeling of, If I don’t lose this weight, I’m not going to work again. 


On Being Seen—or Not
When I first started I had a lot of self-consciousness about leading a session by myself. I wasn’t yet 100% on my domme persona, so I would use a blindfold. When I was really new I had a three-hour session booked, and I just hadn’t gotten the timing down and I still didn’t really know what I was doing. One of the things we learn to do is negotiate what to say and how to elicit what the clients want to do, and match that up with what our interests are. What I want to do is, you give me your money and leave, because really what I want is to just read my book and still have the money, you know? So it’s not really what you want, but they say that, so you have to be good at asking the right questions and proposing things. So during this three-hour session I kept getting bored and not really knowing what to do and needing time to think, particularly because at that time I was so green—I had no clue what I was doing. I’m very expressive, so if I’m confused or thinking about what I’m going to do next, it’s all over my face. Blindfolding him was great, because then when I was sitting there thinking, What am I going to do next, he’s not really being responsive and I don’t know what to do, I didn’t have to pretend like I wasn’t having those thoughts. Now that I’ve been doing it a while and feel like I’ve hit my stride, that amount of time would be a great session and it would be fun.

Clients will often request that I have them only look at me when I give permission. I mean, that’s very submissive! In a playspace, not making eye contact can represent submission and reverence. It can become about asking for permission, or earning that privilege in some way. If a client is coming to see a domme rather than going to a strip club or going to see an escort, they’re going to a domme for a reason. They’re seeking out that dominance. Saying “Don’t look at me” is a subtle, effective way of establishing dominance, of making it clear that this is my room, this is my space, and you need to respect that.

That applies outside of work in some ways—not to that extreme, of course, but in terms of self-presentation. It makes the argument of how you present yourself in a certain way to control how people look at you in a fair or appropriate way where you have some degree of control over it. Women are so judged by their appearance that making certain choices about how I present myself becomes a way of controlling how people view me.


On Commanding Attention
Being a sex worker has made me recognize power I can have in everyday interactions. Before, I was much more self-conscious about things, even if I was dressed up or whatever. Everybody talks about how confidence is something you can do, but I don’t think I understood that until I started this work. I mean, I’m incredibly clumsy, so I’ve fallen in front of clients. But being a domme is a lot like theater in many ways, where the show just keeps going. You drop something, you trip over your words, you trip over your feet, your garter comes undone—whatever, you play it off. And when you’re a domme, you can play it off like, “That’s not even my fault. Why did you do that?” I’ve had the CD skip and I’ll be like, “Why did you make my CD skip? It wasn’t doing that before you got here.” “I didn’t touch it.” “It’s still your fault!” “I’m sorry.” One of the stories that gets told around the house is that this woman had a client who basically wanted humiliation; he wanted her to punish him. He was very tall, and she was a shorter woman. So the minute they got into the room she said, “How dare you be taller than me?! Get on your knees.”

It’s amazing what can happen once you stop having the expected male-female interaction, since women are so socialized to be nice and really cater to men—even if you’re a staunch feminist, even if you’re really mouthy, like myself, before this job. I still have some of that tendency to apologize profusely if something goes wrong. I’m gonna be like, “I’m so sorry, I messed it up, I’m so sorry.” But I think having this job made me really realize the power I can have over a situation. I mean, personal accountability is important, and you should apologize when you mess up. It’s a matter of not overdoing it, not feeling really bad about it. Something went wrong? It’s fine, we’re moving on. Having that sort of presentation has a lot of power.

Doing the “I’m pretty but I have no brains” thing is not my goal. I don’t present that way, even as a sex worker when I’m trying to appeal to that male attraction, even though the presentation is definitely vampy and really conventionally feminine. And we definitely have clients who come in and think we must be stupid. My goal is that my presentation will command your attention—but now that I’ve got your attention I’m going to use all the other things in my arsenal. My brain, my sense of humor, being okay with myself and with what happens in that situation, communication skills. That definitely crossed over into dating: I’m going to use a certain presentation, and it will command your attention, but the other things are what’s going to hold it together.

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Lexie Kite, Ph.D. Communications Student and Co-Editor of Beauty Redefined, Salt Lake City

The minute I found Beauty Redefined, I knew I’d found a site to take notice of. Giving active points about media literacy, cultural messages aimed toward women, body image, and beauty ideals, every post on Beauty Redefined went beyond merely stating, Hey, folks, there’s a problem here, instead presenting airtight breakdowns of scripts we might take for granted. More important, the site gives active points for readers on how to begin to reject the messages we’re surrounded with. The Beauty Redefined team also gives one-hour visual presentations to arm viewers with tools and countermessages about harmful media ideals, beauty, and health.

When I learned that the incisive, dedicated, laser-sharp minds behind Beauty Redefined were not only two communication Ph.D. candidates at the University of Utah but also identical twins—well, how could I not want to interview them? Today we have Lexie Kite, whose dissertation focuses on women and self-objectification. (Read the interview with Lindsay, the other half of Beauty Redefined, here.) We talked about internalizing the male gaze, twins as mirrors, and prime-time pornography. In her own words:

Photo by

Matt Clayton Photography

On Self-Objectification

When you grow up in a media-oriented world, like we all have, you grow up with the male gaze: the look of the camera, the look of the spectator viewing the object of the gaze on film. It’s the way the camera pans up and down these bodies, the way the dialogue revolves around that woman. It doesn’t happen with men—it happens with women, for the most part. That has become so normalized that the male gaze is now internalized by women. It’s not even something we question. So what’s happened is that now it’s desirable to not only become the object of the gaze—I mean, we’ve been talking forever about this idea of objectification—but also to be the subject too. To be the one who gazes and the one being gazed upon at the same time.

I think it really comes down to the fact that when we see this many images of women’s bodies signifying sex and power, we are cut down to our bodies—and somehow we begin to believe that’s true. Self-objectification is just the natural next step—the most harmful natural next step. When we are consumers of women, we are consumers of ourselves.

One of the areas where I see self-objectification playing out—and one that I think is so frustrating—is Victoria’s Secret. Five billion dollars a year! It’s powerful. I got interested in the industry of Victoria’s Secret because I was a shopper there; the semi-annual sale was very appealing. But then I’d get those catalogues in my mailbox, and I started seeing images that were pretty jarring. Then I caught wind of the fashion show they have twice a year on CBS, so I looked into how many people are viewing this show, how popular and powerful Victoria’s Secret really is. I found one other scholar who has really talked about this, and the stuff she said about Victoria’s Secret in her own historical and critical analysis was that those images were women’s pornography. Images of women, marketed to women, packaged and sold. It comes right into your home. It’s kind of like the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, in that it’s the most popular, credible sports magazine, and then once a year we get this other thing that is packaged in this way and sits on your coffee table. So you think it’s safe, but it might not be as safe as we think. In terms of Victoria’s Secret, I see that playing out, this idea that it’s just lingerie, but you’re really getting something else.

The Victoria’s Secret mission statement has said that these images are about women feeling good about themselves. They are not for men to look at. But if you look at the images, it couldn’t be anything more than what the male gaze is. It’s as graphic as anything you would see in soft-core porn—it’s just women pulling at their underwear or being naked. They can be completely naked some of the time and they are wearing thongs that say “All-Night Show.” But Victoria’s Secret says this is not for men to look at, this is for you to feel good—and we believe that. Maybe we don’t even think of it as a contradiction, like this is for us to feel good about ourselves, but that says self-objectification to me.

To me self-objectification is the idea of taking some beauty thing—let’s say breast implants—and saying, “This isn’t for men—this is for me to feel good about myself.” I see that as the literal embodiment of self-objectification, internalizing that male gaze so much that you can’t even break apart the fact that being gazed upon is your greatest desire.

You’ve internalized that male gaze, so that’s how you feel good about yourself. It’s crazy stuff. 

On Pain

I was very confident in my abilities in high school—I was class president every year, was nominated for homecoming queen, I was always running assemblies. I was confident in what I could do and what I wanted to say. But somehow I lived this contradiction: I could do a lot, but for some reason I thought I couldn’t be everything that I was supposed to be, and couldn’t look good doing it. That was internalizing the male gaze, right there:I learned that it was all about how I looked and not about what I could do. So I was confident in who I was as a person; it really did just come down to the looks thing. All those messages that I heard from the media were telling me that if I wasn’t hot enough, I wasn’t good enough. And if I wasn’t going to get to that place of feeling like I really was good enough, nobody can. It’s unattainable, and I don’t think I really knew that. You’re never going to be pretty enough. You’re never going to be skinny enough. Because the whole point is that these messages are telling you that you need to be someone you’re not. It creates a void. I didn’t even know that I had that void, not until I took a class on media criticism my freshman year of college. We were looking into pop culture and how powerful those industries are and what kind of messages they are putting out. I felt my heart beat more rapidly because I was hearing stuff that resonated with what I’d come to think about myself in really harmful ways. For the first time I started being able to critically think about the messages I’d heard. They didn’t necessarily pertain to my reality—but I wanted them to so badly.

I’m a body image activist and I’m so passionate about this stuff, but it’s because of the pain I’ve felt. I know that pain brings progress.

I can’t do this work without having been privy to intimately knowing the reason it resonates with people. They feel this pain too. I internalized this gaze, and I didn’t know how to articulate that—maybe that’s just because it’s so normal and so lived. It’s how most of us live our lives. But our research has helped me profoundly. I had been walking through life picturing myself from an outsider’s perspective. I’d taken less time to enjoy what was around me, yet it looks like I’m enjoying what’s around me. That division is so harmful. 

On Being a Twin

Most of us view ourselves from an outsider’s gaze. But I don’t even really know how to think about that, because—maybe it’s the same thing as viewing myself from an outsider’s gaze, but in ways I view myself as being like Lindsay. Lindsay and I are especially hyperaware of competition. We’re such similar people—you know, identical DNA, as similar as you get!—and people put us in competition against each other, in conscious and unconscious ways. In terms of our looks—in terms of everything else too—but it definitely made me aware of my own features and my own looks, because I feel like Lindsay is a reflection of me to the world. I know she feels the same. I feel like I want Lindsay to represent me well. Because Lindsay could easily be me to people; we get called by the wrong name still, even in our own program at school. So I want her to be a good reflection of me. And yeah, that part of me is really aware.

Whenever I’d picture my face, I never thought Lindsay and I looked the same. I know the intricacies of my own face and what makes me different from her. Plus, being twins, people point out that stuff like crazy. So Lindsay looks different to me, but I get how people know we’re twins, especially when I see pictures of us. With the body it’s different.

When we look at ourselves in the mirror we’re kind of seeing this two-dimensional image of our bodies; we’ve never getting the full feel. It’s why when you see a video of yourself it can be intriguing—you want to know what you look like from all those angles. So I can see Lindsay’s body—I can see her from every angle and it’s normal. She’s right there in front of me, in every dimension. It’s sort of a mediation of my mirror image and myself, and I can’t get that body perspective any other way.

And then of course we have identical DNA, and people tell us we look so much alike—so even though I think our faces look different, I can internalize her body as my own. Sometimes I’ve pictured my body how Lindsay’s is; my body image becomes what Lindsay looks like. When her body changes, it can actually change my own image of my body, because she looks how I picture myself. And having someone else sort of be your body image can be a struggle.

My perception of my body image doesn’t have to do with size necessarily. Despite compliments I might get from people, it’s really about what I’m saying to myself. Body image is an internal thing. Lindsay has been able to brush off the negative messages better than I have, despite our similar appearances. To hear Lindsay value herself and not engage in fat talk, and just really refuse to be preoccupied with these notions about our bodies—it’s really helped me, just seeing her be positive.

We don’t talk a lot about our bodies to each other—there isn’t a lot of that “Oh my gosh I feel so gross,” talk, and we don’t even do a lot of building each other up, because we’re such a unit that it feels weird. Like, I would never say, “Linds, you look so good!” I mean, occasionally, but that’s just not my first thing. I’m not going to just go to her and talk about her appearance. I don’t even know how to explain that because I’ve never known it any other way. Twins are weird!

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Lindsay Kite, Ph.D. Communications Student and Co-Editor of Beauty Redefined, Salt Lake City

The minute I found Beauty Redefined, I knew I’d found a site to take notice of. Giving active points about media literacy, cultural messages aimed toward women, body image, and beauty ideals, every post on Beauty Redefined went beyond merely stating, Hey, folks, there’s a problem here, instead presenting airtight breakdowns of scripts we might take for granted. More important, the site gives active points for readers on how to begin to reject the messages we’re surrounded with. The Beauty Redefined team also gives one-hour visual presentations to arm viewers with tools and countermessages about harmful media ideals, beauty, and health. 

When I learned that the incisive, dedicated, laser-sharp minds behind Beauty Redefined were not only two communication Ph.D. candidates at the University of Utah but also identical twins—well, how could I not want to interview them? Today we have Lindsay Kite, whose dissertation focuses on physical health and the ways media distorts our perceptions of what health and fitness entail—and ways to help people of all ages recognize and reject those harmful messages. (Check back tomorrow for an interview with Lexie, the other half of Beauty Redefined.) We talked about the limitations of academia in applied work, laboring to change beauty ideals as God’s work, and the number-one question she’s asked about being a twin. In her own words:

Photo by

Matt Clayton Photography

On Rapid-Heartbeat Moments

My very first semester of college, I was sitting in a journalism and media criticism class. At that time I didn’t really identify as a feminist or care about media messages. My professor criticized gender and violence and how those messages are perpetuated through the media, and how that affects our lives. When my professor was talking about advertising, particularly in women’s magazines, my heart started racing. I just felt it had affected me so much without me realizing it. It was a happy feeling. It wasn’t a feeling of fear or of, Wow, I’ve been so controlled by this. That was part of it, but I think I recognized there were strategies we could use to combat this. There are real solutions. So from there I was very much a feminist. I’d never quite known that; my mom always was but she didn’t know it either. We didn’t really have the name for it. 

I still take in plenty of media, but to be able to recognize why the women in TV shows and movies look the way they do is liberating in itself, because you have a critical view and recognize that it’s not real, that it’s meant to make me feel a particular way and I don’t have to feel that way if I don’t want to. That’s where the rapid-heartbeat moment came from, this feeling of: Yes, this has affected me, but I don’t have to be affected by it anymore. I don’t have to be brainwashed to believe that this is normal and natural and beauty has always looked this way and men would only want women who looked this way. My heart continues to beat rapidly every time I read books like The Beauty Myth and read scholarly articles about media criticism and feminist work that is trying to counteract these ideals. All these things make my heart beat just as fast and make me feel extremely excited about work that’s happening to liberate women from these restrictive cultural ideals. I love it.

On Accentuating the Positive

It’s a lot easier to criticize things than it is to find concrete actions we can take. It’s easier to get research on how women are affected by certain things—and these are sensational topics. The media likes to focus on dangerous things, the scary big shocking things we hear about women and their bodies and self-esteem and all that. But it’s harder to help people than it is to take apart media, or to take apart the way women feel about themselves. That stuff is easy to document. It’s harder to break out a strategy to combat those feelings and document the way women feel afterward.

If people feel bad about themselves, it’s this normative discontent where basically every woman is unhappy with her body and that’s something we all share, so it’s normal and taken for granted. We need to destabilize that. We need to recognize that this feeling isn’t natural. There are ways to do that; Lexie and I created our one-hour visual presentation for our masters project, showing the ridiculousness of beauty ideals and how money is behind all of it. We need to prove the effectiveness of that, but it’s hard. You try to get approval through review boards at colleges and universities, and that’s mandated by the whole academic system. It’s a process that takes time. So I’m working on how to actually measure the effects of our presentation. It’s hard, but it makes me so happy to see how it is used by other people, for them to rethink the way they think about appearance.

On Being a Twin

Our entire lives, people have been trying to find differences to tell us apart by appearance. So we’ve been picked apart our entire lives by strangers—we’ve received some comments that people don’t recognize are totally insulting to one of us. We’ve gotten really ridiculous comments, like, “You’re the twin who does her hair” or “You’re the twin with straight teeth,” things like that. People think they’re complimenting one of us, but really it means the other one doesn’t have that particular positive attribute. Being compared to your twin sister your whole life can make you a competitive person from day one. It’s led both of us to be like, I don’t want to be the one who gets all the comments from strangers. It’s not fun to be the twin who doesn’t do her hair. 

It’s funny how much I get the exact same twin questions over and over again. The number-one question I get is: When one of you goes on a blind date do you switch in the middle of it? All the time people ask that! I swear they got that from some movie, either the Sweet Valley High kids or Mary Kate and Ashley or even Tia and TameraThat’s where people are forming their questions for us, based on media. The whole twin comparison thing has really contributed to our ideas about appearance and its importance, and how free people feel about commenting on other people’s appearance. 

I just noticed this recently: I don’t necessarily have to look in the mirror to see certain things about myself. I’ll see it in Lexie and just assume I look the same way. I’ll see certain characteristics and think, I never noticed that about myself—but I’m not looking at myself, I’m looking at my sister.

Looking at another face that looks so similar to mine can affect how I would be objective about what I look like. Sometimes I see things on Lexie where she has made a complaint about what she looks like, and I recognize that I look the same way or have that same characteristic, and I’m able to stop and think, Well, I don’t feel that way about it, so there’s no reason that she should. We can keep each other in check and not take certain feelings about features or appearance for granted. I find myself getting offended when she says something rude about herself. Like, if she talks about how she feels so fat, I might feel insulted by that, particularly if at the time I know for a fact she weighs less than me. And I should also turn that the other way around: I should feel more of a responsibility to Lexie to not put myself down. Maybe subconsciously I have—I don’t often say very negative things about myself, just because I’ve found that I feel better about myself when I don’t say mean things out loud.

On Keeping the Faith

Lexie and I are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and the church is very against pornography. We view that as something degrading that takes a sacred act between two people who are hopefully in love and hopefully married and causes the people in it to become objectified, dehumanized. So that’s framing our perspective. When we watch TV shows and movies that are just daytime TV—things that are rated PG, PG-13—and we see things that reflect pornography, that’s something that should be eye-catching, but it’s become normal.

We see this normalized pornography all the time, and we’ve become immune to it. We’re numb to seeing women half-naked, or almost completely naked bodies at every turn; it’s not something that’s a big deal. Most of the time the men near the women are fully clothed, and the camera isn’t panning up and down their bodies, zooming in on their parts, and other characters are not necessarily looking at them or commenting on their appearance. If we look at pornography in its strict definition as imagery that is engineered to cause arousal in people, then all of these images of women who are being objectified and stripped for no reason—that’s exactly what they are. We want to help people realize what pornography is—not something that’s acceptable for network TV during the daytime or the Victoria’s Secret runway shows that are a huge moneymaker for a family station like CBS during prime time. It’s not just present on dark corners of the Internet; it’s not something you have to seek out. We have to recognize that in order to escape the harmful consequences it can have on our self-perception and how we view other people. 

My faith has been the driving force behind everything I do related to this work. It’s something that fits in perfectly with my religion. I was actually pretty shocked to figure that out. I thought recognizing gender roles and ways women are held back but men aren’t was going to challenge my faith, but it actually strengthened it. In my religion, we view people as more than just what we are on the surface, more than just bodies. We view people as being able to go on and live forever and have eternal life, not in our own bodies but in a more perfected state. So when we’re so focused in this life on what our bodies look like, that’s actually a huge waste of time and holds people back in every possible way.

Doing service for others is a big part of living a Christ-like life, and when we are so focused on what we look like, that’s actually something pretty selfish—and that’s not helping people who really need help in more ways than we need to fix our hair or do these short-lived things that aren’t really making anyone all that happy. My faith has led me to honestly believe that I can do something to help other women feel better about themselves, so they can then go on and focus on more important things than their looks. If we can get women to accept themselves—and not necessarily just for what life they’re currently living or whatever state they’re in—well, women who feel okay about themselves are much happier and more productive, and they lead more successful lives in any way you want to define it. Beauty obsession stops all of that. 

I believe I’ve been led to this work by God, and as cheesy as that sounds, I really do believe that through his help I’m able to reach other women who are working for liberation from these painful circumstances. Every time I see somebody relay a positive experience of thinking of herself as more than just parts, as a whole person, I get that rapid heartbeat moment. And I think for women who can access that, it’s the happiest form of spiritual experience. As many times as I can help that happen, I will do it.

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Kjerstin Gruys, Ph.D. sociology student, Bay Area

When I initially met Kjerstin Gruys online, my first thought was: There’s another one! Several weeks before I did my own month without mirrors, Kjerstin had launched a project going a full year without them—the same year in which she was getting married, incidentally. (No, she didn’t peek on her wedding day.) A Ph.D. candidate in sociology, Kjerstin has focused much of her academic work on body image and eating disorders. But her years in the fashion industry as a merchandiser for Abercrombie & Fitch, and then GAP Corporate, were hardly an aside: Her dissertation on the shifting standards of clothing sizes merges her passions of body image, cultural body imperatives, and fashion. The best way to get to know Kjerstin’s work is following her blog, Mirror Mirror Off the Wall—and reading her upcoming book chronicling her yearlong adventure, slated to be published by Penguin in 2013. But she also took the time to share some candid thoughts with readers of The Beheld. We talked about the creative self, the role of trust in body image, and what singing alone in the car has to do with mirrors. In her own words: 



On Scales vs. Mirrors
I first really became conscious of body image and women’s issues in late high school to early college. I had anorexia, and in going through the physical and emotional elements of treatment, I had to carve out an understanding of how our culture kind of shaped my experience. Having an eating disorder, you’re always aware of your own body image, but it’s not until you’re recovering that you’re really forced to take a step back and realize that you have to question a lot of assumptions.

In recovery I had to gain weight and I couldn’t get on the scale, couldn’t know the number; if I got on the scale I’d have to check in with my physician or whatever. But I just had to trust the process. I had to trust that I really didn’t feel comfortable with the numbers going up, and I had to trust that the process of recovery was at some point going to get me comfortable with a larger number. In terms of recovery there’s a lot of self-monitoring and constantly asking myself whether my behavior is in line with my values or with my disease. And luckily the past four or five years the values have won out over the obsession.

So when I started this project I had to consciously think: How am I going to do this in a way that I know is healthy? I didn’t want it to make me feel more symptomatic and paranoid, so I actually had to make the decision to get back on the scale more frequently to make sure that my paranoia that I’m constantly gaining weight has a logical answer. I’ve had to get back on the scale, and I felt kind of ambivalent about that. But now I’m very pleased because it’s not worse—it’s better. In one sense the project has made me say, You know what, good enough is good enough. And that is actually a shift of my values. I’m still very perfectionistic at times, so there’s been a step back from perfection, which is great. But there’s also a sense of trying to find something else to quiet my questioning mind that’s scared about not knowing what I look like in the mirror. It’s possible that I still have some dysmorphia about what my body is, and avoiding mirrors sometimes allows my imagination to run wild. And getting back on the scale has helped me not be dysmorphic about that. Getting on the scale most days of the week keeps me more in tune with what’s going on with my body, which is important if you have a history of ignoring your body!


On Vanity and Pride
At some point I looked up the definition of vanity. It isn’t caring what you look like; it’s caring too much about one part of yourself. The definition actually had “too much” in there, which obviously is subjective. An outsider can decide that somebody is vain based on their own ideas, but the person herself might not actually feel that way. There’s no one way to figure out what is too much, although I think that people who are particularly vain are often not very fun to be around—vanity causes one to be very self-absorbed. Not intentionally, but that’s what vanity is. Vanity can be totally destructive to intimate relationships.

I can say without apology that an eating disorder is one of the most vain things you can experience. I’m in no way saying it’s a choice. But an eating disorder totally warps your whole sense of priorities, even in people who hide it very well. I don’t think someone can feel fully recovered if they’re only eating properly. Behaviors can change, but if there’s this thing—like weight or food—that is the most critically important thing for them to monitor in their lives, that’s where vanity comes in.

But vanity itself should be distinguished from pride. Having pride in your appearance is a wonderful thing. I wish all women were “vain” in that sense—in taking pride in their looks and enjoying what they see in the mirror—without that subjective idea of putting your appearance higher on your priority list than spending time with your loved ones or being flexible with your routines, whether that’s eating different foods, or trying a different look with your makeup or whatever. I have friends who won’t go camping because they’ll feel so humiliated wondering what they look like without makeup and mirrors. And I myself have a little mini mirror and cosmetics that I usually take with me camping, so I can try to look like I’m not wearing any makeup when I really am. I guess you could say that my no-mirrors project isn’t an attack on vanity itself. But it’s definitely an attack on mine.

I’m a little worried that I’ll be disappointed in what I see when I look in the mirror again. [Note: March 24 will be Kjerstin’s unveiling—if you’re in the Bay Area, check out the “First Look” party she’s throwing with media literacy group About-Face to celebrate body positivity.] I was like, What if I develop this really positive sense of what I look like, and it’s not actually what I see when in look in the mirror for the first time? So I’m scared about that—that would be a little bit sad and scary to go without for a whole year and finally look in the mirror and be like, Oh, I liked myself better before I was looking in the mirror again. But my hope is that I will kind of be in a good place when that happens and even if I look in the mirror and I’m like, “Eh, it’s not really what I expected or wanted,” I’ll at the very least feel like it isn't the most important thing in my life. That, and I know I’ll be excited to finally experiment with makeup again, and I’ll certainly do some shopping for new clothes. No amount of research or activism will ever dampen my enthusiasm for a shopping trip!


On Existentialism
Sometimes there’s almost a sense of numbness when I’m all by myself, without the mirror. It’s this sense of: Who am I, what am I? What is this experience? I’m thinking, I’m conscious, I can see my hands and feet, I’m typing on the computer, I’m petting the cat—whatever it is. But what am I? I can’t look in the mirror to see what I am. It’s made me realize that I used to use my reflection as a form of companionship and validation. So having moments when I think of these questions have been very bizarre.

One solution for those times (of feeling existential) has been to use something sensory, like scent, to signal one of my five senses to really experience the world instead of just being there. That’s helped me feel a little bit less like somehow I don’t exist. I’ll talk to myself, I’ll sing along with Pandora. I’m someone who doesn’t mind being alone a lot, and I really love driving in the car, listening to music on the radio, and singing at the top of my lungs. And I’m like: Okay, before I started being conscious of not looking in the mirror, being in the car and singing by myself never felt like an existential crisis. So I tried to kind of bring some of those things back, whether it’s feeling my toes on the carpet or smelling perfume or tasting chocolate. It’s like: Okay, I exist. I’m experiencing something sensual and I have an opinion about it. I’m not just a computer giving input and giving output. It’s weird realizing that simply seeing my reflection in the mirror was, in some ways, very grounding.

At one point I had a head cold, and I had no sense of smell. It was depressing. I’d figured out how to put on makeup without looking at myself, but being able to smell the product had actually been pleasurable for me, and not being able to see myself or smell the products left me feeling numb. I get a lot of pleasure about using scented products in the shower; if anything I found that since giving up mirrors I’ve become a bit more snobby about wanting to use more luxurious products, even though I try to avoid spending too much money.


On Trust and Self-Expression
So much of my issues with body image and not being a certain weight or certain size had to do with refusing to believe anyone who loved me when they’d say I was beautiful. I distrusted everyone, and I had my own sense of standards and disappointments for approval. It’s like if someone said, “I think you’re beautiful,” I’d be like, “Well, you’re either lying to me or you have bad taste.” That’s such a selfish side of yourself, and it’s interesting to see how difficult it is to give that up. I think most women struggle with this a bit. We’re supposed to be modest and not boastful, especially about looks—heaven forbid you say that you have a bangin’ bod! Normal women, if you compliment them, it’s like, “Oh, this old thing?” or “Well, maybe I look nice today but I’ve gained weight lately” or stuff like that. But with the mirror project I’ve really had to trust people, and myself. You start realizing that maybe this vision you have in your head about what you “really” look like—this idea of, “Oh, you might love me and think I’m beautiful, but really I’m not”—is faulty. Giving up the mirror is giving up the idea that your own image of yourself is the only image that’s real or even meaningful.

It makes you think about what purpose your appearance really has. If my relationships are healthy and the people around me are treating me well and telling me that I look good enough for them to love me, and respect me, then why is my own critical vision of my appearance so important? I’m still struggling with that question. I do think it’s important to have a sense of self, but I’m starting to see my sense of self as being more about self-expression and creativity and less of a status thing, or about being too much of this or not enough of that. And in a way it’s a little bit constrained right now because of not being able to look in the mirror—I mean, right around the time in my life when I had started to think that my sense of self was an expression of my own creativity and sense of fashion and play, I’m not as able to do these things. But it’s something I’m looking forward to enjoying again when the year is over. It’s such a great thing to miss! It’s totally different from being paranoid that I don’t look good enough; it’s that I miss something expressive and creative, and I know that this is a really great step in the right direction for me.

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Leah Smith, Public Policy Ph.D Student, Lubbock, TX

The first time Leah Smith saw a little person, she turned to her mother and said, “So that’s what I’m going to look like when I’m an adult?” Her mother said, “Yeah,” to which Smith replied, “I think that’s okay.” Now vice president of public relations for Little People of America, a support group and information center for people of short stature, Smith works to let others know what she intuited in that moment. (Smith is speaking here on her own behalf, not in her public relations role with LPA.) She’s also working toward her Ph.D. in public policy, with a focus on disability policy, including discrimination and employment policy for people with disabilities. Her first love, however, was fashion design, in which she earned an associate degree. We talked about redefining fashion to include little people, the division between feeling beautiful and receiving romantic attention, and pretending to be Julia Roberts. In her own words:


On Pride
I know that people are looking at me all the time, and you have to find a way to process that somehow. When I was 7, I kind of pretended that I was Julia Roberts. I mean, obviously I don’t do this now, but as a kid I’d read or heard somewhere that every time she would go out, people would stop and stare because she was so pretty. And I was like, “That’s what I face every day, so it must be because I’m pretty.” In my little 7-year-old mind that’s how I processed it. That kind of shaped who I am, and I started dressing to fit the part. I’m not saying I’m any Julia Roberts; it’s just that I wanted to dress in cute or nice-looking clothes, so when people do stare I can be like, Oh, they’re looking because they like my outfit, or they think I’m cute, or whatever. People are going to stare either way, so you’ve got to bring some sort of confidence to it.

Dressing well has been huge in my life. The comments and the stares could have been really easy for me to internalize if I weren’t careful. I feel like my clothes are a way of putting up a shield against that, of saying to the world that the things people might believe about LPs aren't true. That's not who I believe I am—this is who I am. There’s a level of pride in being able to wear a cute outfit, wear my hair cute. It says that I’m proud of this body, and that it’s not something I want to hide or cover up. Because I am proud of my body—I’m not ashamed of it in any way, and I don’t want that to ever be something I portray with how I present myself.

My style is pretty feminine—dresses, cute sandals. There are very few days when I don’t dress up, and people joke that my hair is my biggest priority in my life, which obviously isn’t true, but I do pay a lot of attention to it. I’ve wondered if I would give my appearance as much thought if I were average-sized, or if it’s just a part of who I am. Sometimes I have to remind myself, “Leah, it’s okay if you don’t fix your hair every single day.” I consciously stopped styling my hair on Sundays—I still shower and whatever, but I just don’t fix my hair, to remind myself that I mean more to people than just what I look like. If you’re going to feel beautiful you’ve got to feel beautiful when you’re naked too. It can’t just be all about your clothes or what your hair looks like; it has to start from somewhere else.

On Speed Dating
It can be hard for LP women to navigate male attention. LPA has an annual convention, so you go from having never been hit on by a guy, and then you go to convention and all of a sudden all these guys are thinking you’re really attractive. How do you figure that out? What do you do with that attention once you have it? I almost feel like it’s a bit delayed for us, whereas most people kind of grow up learning those things. As soon as the girls are about 16, suddenly it’s like, “Whoa, these guys think I’m hot—what do I do?” As a part of the leadership at conference, you get to see the ins and outs of what’s going on, and one year there was a guy who was hitting on this girl, and she didn’t really do anything to stop it. He continued and continued, and then all of a sudden she was like, “Wait, I’m not comfortable at all,” and he was like, “Well, you never said no.” She said, “Well, yeah, because I liked it!” Everyone has to learn to deal with those situations, but it happens in a concentrated way at conference. You go from holding hands for the first time to kissing within a week. She had to learn: Okay, I can like this but still have limits here. For me, watching it was like, Oh, man! It was like seeing my own teenhood.

Feeling beautiful and getting male attention were two very separate events for me. Male attention was a once-a-year expedition for me, whereas looking my best was an everyday thing. At convention I’d get dressed up and be thinking about meeting a dude, but that was more of a mind-set shift; I was already dressing in clothes I thought were cute. I started paying attention to my clothes and fixing my hair around seventh grade, so about the same time as most girls, but dating didn’t factor into it like it might have for someone else. Dressing up was just who I was, and it had nothing to do with guys. Maybe if I hadn’t done that and had started being active dating-wise later, the two would have become linked—I don’t know.

There’s this epiphany for some women when they come into LPA, like: “Oh! There’s LP guys who like this body.” There are some women you talk to who have repeatedly been given the message that they are or should be asexual. You hear, “I can’t imagine a guy ever wanting to be with me,” or “I’ve been told my whole life that I’m not what guys want—I don’t have long legs, and an average-size guy would never want to date me.” But then on the flip side of that there are times that LPs have been hypersexualized and some women who take that to its extreme: There are groups of people who have a fetish with little people, specifically LP women. You see some LP women who have internalized this idea and believe that they should take this idea as their role. Sexuality can be very tough for someone who has seen these two extremes. On the one hand, we should be asexual, and on the other hand we are a fetish object. There’s a fine middle line somewhere in there.

On Being Little and Badass
Clothes are such a hard thing for LPs, because so often you have to buy a pair of jeans for $100, and then you have to go get them altered for $150, so that really limits your ability to buy a number of outfits. You’re spending twice as much on one item rather than getting two or three items. I actually do all my own alterations. With achondroplasia, the type of dwarfism I have, our torso is basically the same as an average-size person’s, so I’ll buy clothes that fit my butt and breasts and just alter the arms and legs. For most LPs, I’d say it’s about half and half—some do their own sewing, and the rest get it altered.

I went to fashion design school in Dallas. I really wanted to create a line that allowed LP women to express their inner beauty. At the time a lot of my friends in LPA were dealing with the same thing I was: We were young adults in the world, and asking ourselves what it meant to not be at home anymore, protected by our parents? How do we be adults and be little at the same time? So I started trying to design clothes that expressed the feelings I wanted to express at the time. If I felt badass, I would try to create a badass outfit. Even if nothing about the outfit shouted badass, if I could associate that feeling with the outfit, that’s what mattered—that’s kind of where I was going with my designs.

Going to fashion design school was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I was studying fashion design and trying to redefine fashion at the same time, and it really made some people uncomfortable within the school. I experienced a lot of discrimination there that I’d never experienced before. At the time I thought it was because I was little, but looking back I don’t know if it had anything to do with me being little so much as it was I was questioning the paradigm.

For example, we had to create our own line for our final project and do a whole business plan. I wrote that my goal was having a fashion line that would help LPs feel beautiful in their own bodies. My teacher marked that out and wrote on my project that LPs were not beautiful, that they’re not tall, that they don’t have long legs and this is an impossible thing for you to be trying to pursue or to try to make them feel. I was furious. This was after other things had happened—for example, I’d asked for a stool because some of the tables we worked on were really high. They were like, “Well, I guess we have to offer it, but we can’t promise it will be here every day. It’s not our fault if someone steals it.” I was like, “It’s my stool, I’m here all the time, everyone knows I use it, and I can’t imagine why someone would steal a stool.” And every single day it was gone. The other students were the ones who suggested I have a stool to begin with, and I couldn’t imagine any of them would be that vicious. It was that kind of thing that kept going and going, and that comment on my final project broke the camel’s back, I guess. That’s when I started going into policy and the legal side of it. This is a much bigger problem than what we’re wearing, or even what we can legislate. This is a societal problem, that women who are short-statured aren’t seen as beautiful. That’s what we’re up against. When you’re 22 and you’re out to change the world, nobody tells you the world is not an easy place to change. I mean, I’m still out to change the world. Maybe I’m just a bit more realistic with the ways that’s going to get done.

Sister Nancy Ruth, Life-Professed Member of the Order of St. Andrew, Hudson Valley, New York


Paul Hoecker, Nonne im Laubgang von Dachau, 1897

Every time Sister Nancy Ruth turned on the television, a nun would be waiting. “Movies, TV showsjust something about nuns whenever I’d turn on the TV. Every time,” she says. She took it as a calling to become a nun, but her family responsibilities meant she couldn’t live in a convent. “So I prayed about it. I said, ‘God, you know what my situation is. I can’t go into a convent, I can’t be cloistered.’ The very next day, I opened a magazine called the Anglican Digest, and there was an ad for the Order of St. Andrew. He answered my prayer.” She’s been a nun with the Order of St. Andrewwhich allows its brothers and sisters to live independently, hold jobs, and marryfor 17 years, and she became life-professed in 2000. In addition to her responsibilities within the order, she works as a pharmacy technician. We talked about the inherent femininity of a habit, the way our clothes might advertise our values, and where a gal can get a good vodka tonic. In her own words: 


On Femininity
I don’t think being a nun requires you to be unfeminine. I feel very feminine in my habit. I generally don’t dress for anyone but myself, so the idea of going out and trying to impress somebody else through what I wear just isn’t going to happen. Me in a strapless evening gown was never going to happen, whether I was a nun or not. It’s not because I don’t ever feel girly or sexy, but that form of sexiness isn’t going to be who I am.

I’m not sure if I’ve ever consciously tried to feel sexy. I’ve experimented a little bit more now that I’ve lost some weight; I’ve experimented with showing a little skin. Like, I have a dress that shows more cleavage than I’ve ever shown, and it’s a little uncomfortable to wear because it exposes more than I ever have in my entire life. But I found the right undergarment that gives the right kind of support, and I found the right necklace to go with it, one that sort of covers a lot of the area. The outfit isn’t necessarily revealing, but the effect is more intentional than anything I’ve worn before. I’ve survived! People have liked the look.

Makeup depends. Fingernail polish should be clear or very pale when you're in habit. Most of the sisters wear at least foundation. I normally wear eyeshadow, eyeliner, and mascara, but in habit I don’t wear any makeup at all. My eyes are one of my better features, so I like them to stand out. It’s just a way to feel girly, I guess. In the summertime I wear mostly dresses. They’re comfortable and cool without pantyhose, but I also wear them to feel girly. Feeling girly to me might mean a little bit of eye makeup, jewelry, perfume. My hair is short now, but I never had to cut my hair because I was a nun. I was worried about that because I had long hair when I first became a nun, but if you can keep it under the veil you can have your hair long.

Still, I don’t consider myself particularly feminine, at least not that classic Southern belle kind of feminine. I’ve always been very capable and strong, physically too, and I just couldn’t imagine acting like I wasn’t capable for any length of time. But as a nun, the first thing people see is that I am a woman. Having been mistaken for a boy on more than one occasion, it’s sort of nice to be seen as definitively female. Being a nun is a very traditional female role, and it’s an empowering role. People tend to think of nuns as being disempowered, but they’re not, not in my church. About the only thing I can’t do that a priest can is the actual mass, the different unctions, that sort of thing. But I can do sermons, I write homilies. I can counsel if someone asks meit’s not as formal as it would be with a priest, but I don’t feel in any way limited as a nun. Women can be ordained in the Episcopal Church, but I was called to be a nun; I’m not called to be a priest. In college, a professor put the words “I am” on the board and had us finish that sentence three times as a way of defining ourselves. I don’t remember what I put then, but the answer now would be: I am a nun, I am a woman. I am an Anglican would probably be the third one.


On Wearing the Habit
The first time I put on the habit, it was like stepping into my own skin. It was wonderful. The order was probably the very first group I’ve ever felt comfortable with as quickly as I did; within two hours of meeting everybody I felt so comfortable. And it’s still comfortable to be with the order, and to wear the habit. When I put on the habit, it’s like putting on a hug. It almost feels like I’m physically being held by God at those times, more so than when I’m in my street clothes.

I used to joke that I became a nun so I didn’t have to make a choice about what to wear. And there are times when I’d really just rather live in the habit. One of the things I love when we get together as an order is that for four days, that’s all I wear. It’s interesting in those situations because someone will say “sister” and we all turn around! But it’s wonderful because we know each other’s personality more than we know each other’s looks. Depending on when each of us get up in the morning, there are some sisters I’ve never seen out of habit. So you have to look beyond the looks; you have to know the person. It’s a little different with the guysthey’re all wearing habits but they don’t cover their heads, and hair is such a distinctive feature on people. But even with them you get to know the person as opposed to the looks, and it’s a perfect example of how you can be friends with members of the opposite sex, even when you’re both heterosexual. Some of my best friends are brothers.

As a nun I represent my order, and I represent Christ, so there are things I can’t do. Like, I absolutely cannot smoke. It’s not officially written down, but when your mother [in the order] says no smoking… And we can drink, but we cannot get drunk. Our order meets twice a year, and before I moved and was closer to the order I’d fly up. We’d all go to one of the airport bars and you’d see six or seven of us, all nuns and priests, sitting around drinking. That was probably pretty funny to seeus stepping up to the bar and saying, “Can I have a vodka tonic?”

The habit has left me feeling not particularly self-conscious about my body. I’ve never hated my body or anything; I’ve been comfortable with myself for a fairly long time. But I’ve lost 80 pounds since 2009, mostly for health reasons, and it’s a nice feeling to look at old pictures of myself and see the difference. I suppose I feel more positive in that respect. If body image comes into play it’s more that I can say I look good, as opposed to just feeling comfortable. I tend to hide my body a lot, and you could say that maybe being in the habit does that as well, but it’s also like being the only pink bead in a bowl full of black beads. You stand out in a habit. So I don’t really think of it as hiding my body. When I started wearing the habit, I stopped being the fat lady. Instead I became the nun. It frees you up from a lot of society’s expectations; you’re exempt as a nun. You don’t have to be a part of a couple; you don’t have to be that certain societally defined form of sexually attractive. You can be by yourselfyou’re expected to be by yourself, or with a group of nuns. So even though I stand out, I also feel less conspicuous. As a nun it’s not quite as uncomfortable to be alone.


On Modesty
Modesty is a Christian belief, in part because Christianity is about loving God and loving others as you love yourself. Being humble and not putting yourself first is probably the hardest thing a religion asks you to do. But at the same time, you have to value yourself before you can value others. So you dress in a way that shows you value your body, that your body is not out there for someone else to exploit. I see a lot of girls who dress in a way that looks a bit like they’re exploiting themselves. Sex is so much more intimate than whatever you’d wear to a bar. It’s so much more meaningful that I can’t imagine selling it that short, being that blasé about it. Your clothes are an advertisement of yourself: How do you value yourself? Are you modest? Are you for sale? The idea is that if you value yourself as a person, your clothes will reflect that. You’ll make yourself up because you want to feel good about yourself; you won’t wear makeup if you don’t really want to. And you’ll never make yourself up like a fool.

There might be some religious rules about not wearing makeup, keeping your head covered, not wearing jewelrybut that has more to do with showing off and being proud. In my case, I cover my head because it’s part of the habit, sure. But it also takes away from people looking at me as a sexual person. When I’m wearing my habit, I’m advertising that I’m a nunI’m advertising that I’m not really supposed to be seen as a sexual person. I’m supposed to be seen as more of a religious person.

I consider myself married to God. I’m not wearing my wedding ring today; the ring has gotten too big, and my last ring guard fell off this morning and I can’t find it. Nuns in my order can be married, but your very first commitment is to God, before anything else. But I’ve never really thought about dressing for God, because God knows your heart. God knows me naked. He knows me naked physically and emotionally and spiritually. He knows all the dark secrets, even ones that I don’t want to know for myself, and the fact that he still loves me is important. When people say to take pride in yourself, what I take from that is that God created you individually as you are, and you’re a good person, and he loves you as you are. Does that mean you shouldn’t get better? I mean, God loved me when I was 265 pounds, and he doesn’t love me better now that I weigh less. My love for God helped me say, “God made something really good and I’m screwing it up”; I really wasn’t treating my body well. But when you’re talking about appearance, there’s not really any changes I would make for God. I dress in habit, okay. But living as he would want me to liveshowing love to others, being humble, treating others with love and acceptance and patience even when it’s hardI guess that’s how I dress for God.

Thoughts on a Word: Glamour (Part II)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Siobhan O'Connor, Journalist, New York City

Siobhan O’Connor’s journey into natural beauty began with formaldehyde. Whenever she and her best friend from back home in Montreal, Alexandra Spunt, would travel cross-country to see one other, they’d do “girly things”—including a foray into Brazilian blowouts. Their hair looked great for a month, but when O’Connor’s strands started breaking and Spunt’s hair turned into a “French-fried mangled mess,” they did some investigating and learned that they’d gotten a formaldehyde treatment. (Brazilian blowouts are now officially on the OSHA hazard alert list.) Those investigations turned into a book, No More Dirty Looks, and a thriving blog of the same name. Their goal was to break down the lingo of the beauty industry so that readers could understand exactly what they’re getting when they buy products—and to empower them to make safer, greener choices. (They’re why I started using coconut oil as a moisturizer, so I owe all my dewiness to them.) Both the book and blog are a delightful combination of thoughtfulness and sheer fun—as was talking with O’Connor about beauty buzzwords, the transformative possibilities of clean cosmetics, and chasing the beauty dragon. In her own words:



On Seeing Through Transparency
While I was learning about all the chemicals in the products I was using, at a certain point I had to go through my bathroom and throw out all the stuff that didn’t fit in with what I was learning. One of the craziest things I found was this green tea soap, and I looked at the ingredients for the first time—and there was literally no green tea in it! Green tea isn’t even desirable in a cleanser, but I didn’t know that then; I was just thinking it was semi-natural and so it must be desirable. Alexandra and I both had those sort of playful moments that were like, “Wow, get a load of this!” It’s sometimes hilarious—and sometimes a letdown. There’s been more consumer consciousness in the past few years, but then companies do things like make “natural” soaps that aren’t, and that definitely hurts. It creates an accidentally uninformed consumer. You think you’re making at least a semi-informed decision, but you’re not. There was some research last year about the natural beauty market, and the number-one thing they found across the board was massive consumer confusion. People just did not know what was what. That’s why we wrote the book—here are the ingredients, here’s where you’ll find them on the bottle, here are the different names ingredients have.

There was a New Yorker cartoon—normally I hate those, but I thought this one was awesome: I can see through your transparency. Transparency became an industry buzzword, and it’s bullshit. A lot of the big companies are “transparent”—they give you the ingredients, but it’s not really any clearer, or it’s incomplete. Companies that are radically transparent, though, will always answer e-mails from people who have questions about the ingredients. They’ll use organic, high-grade ingredients, which is why the products are more expensive. And, you know, those products can be more expensive. That’s part of why we do our Friday Deals; it’s a way of giving people things that we think are awesome in a way that’s more affordable and more comparable to what you’d buy at a drugstore, or at least Sephora. But not everything is priced prohibitively in the first place: If you use coconut oil from the grocery store, that costs seven dollars and it lasts for months, and it’s incredibly skin-compatible and moisturizing. If you leave your hair alone, maybe you don’t need shampoo or conditioner. With the exception of a few fancy eye creams, which companies send to me, I buy the products that I use, and I don’t like to spend a lot of money. But you need to figure out what works for you. I have it down to four products that I consider necessities, and the rest are fun incidentals. Using fewer things is better; you can then buy the high-quality stuff and use less of it. Like if you use a concentrated serum, you’re using a drop on your pinkie for your entire face. It lasts. People often spend more in total on less expensive products. I think Alexandra did the math at some point: She’d been using a fistful of regular conditioner every single day, and then she’d feel like it wasn’t working, so she’d cast off a half-used bottle and get something else. When you use something that actually works for you, you don’t need to do that.



On Challenge
There’s definitely a political element to natural beauty: I think it’s wrong that the government is structured so that it can’t actually safeguard consumers from the beauty industry. That makes me angry, so there’s some fire there. But beyond that: Going natural made me realize I was chasing certain beauty ideas in this unconscious way. There’s this cycle of using products that don’t work and then buying more products to try, and then those don’t work so you try others that don’t work. There’s this idea that you can buy beauty in a bottle, and that that’s what has the power. Alexandra calls it “chasing the beauty dragon,” and I just love that phrase. And as it turns out, not chasing the dragon feels really good. Things that feel good become sort of self-perpetuating as habits, so if something feels good you want to do it again. That’s how it is with not chasing the beauty dragon: It feels really good, so you want to keep doing it. A few times a year I start to wonder, Am I missing out on something by giving up all of that? But then I remember how I was before and I remember, no, it’s fine—it’s great.

I used to wake up every day and touch my face to see if something had happened overnight. First thing in the morning—that was literally the first thing I did every day. My skin has done a 180 since I went natural—it’s crazy. So obviously that was great, but it went beyond that. Something inside both of us transformed over the course of writing and constantly thinking about beauty and our relationship to it—every woman’s relationship to it. We’ve seen a lot of people fight their natural look. And it’s cheesy to say, but you know what it’s like when you see a really healthy woman, regardless of the shape of her nose or her body, and you’re like, whoa. There’s health and joy, smiles and truth—it’s one of the most beautiful things in the world. Natural beauty can go beyond products; it’s about stripping all that other stuff away and just taking joy in the natural curl of your hair or the natural glow of your skin. It’s about not hiding.

We love doing challenges—someone I work with was like, “In your head, is life like summer camp?” and I’m like, You know, kind of. Challenges are fun. We did a no-makeup challenge, where readers sent in pictures of themselves without makeup. Then we did a glamour challenge, where we asked readers to do the most glamorous look they could do, preferably with natural products, and send us their photos. And it’s funny—going glam was really hard for people. If you do your makeup in a dramatic way it’s like you’re saying to the world: I want to rock this look right now, and a lot a people aren’t comfortable doing that. We had people privately e-mailing us and saying, I just can’t do it. It was interesting that doing no makeup was easier for people. I guess the mentality was, Well, if I look bad with no makeup, no big deal. But if you look bad with makeup—it’s like you’ve said to the world, This is the best I can do, and then if it doesn’t work out you feel foolish. People can be shy about the sense of showiness and playfulness that accompanies glamour. The challenge turned out fun—some people went really wild. But I was shocked at how hard it was for some people.


On Resistance to Natural Beauty
A girlfriend of mine is thinking about opening up a natural beauty store, and she was like, “It just feels so superficial.” I flashed back: Up until two months before the book came out, I would avoid talking about it because I thought that people would think I was fluffy or wouldn’t take me seriously. Isn’t that weird? Alexandra had the same thing, like, “Oh, people are going to think this is silly, we’re just girls talking about makeup.” I remember having a conversation with the guy I was with at the time, and he was like, “You need to own this.” And I was like, “Oh!” Somehow hearing it from a dude made me think about it differently.

It’s funny—I feel like guys are easier to win over with this stuff than women sometimes. Men and women are both like, “Whoa, that’s crazy!”—but then women are the ones using the products. There can be a feeling of embarrassment. My friends will say, “Siobhan, I use...” and it’s some toxic product, and I’m like, “I’m not gonna judge you. I’m really not.” It’s like there’s some shame around beauty. Sometimes we feel a certain shame in using products that we know aren’t the best for us—it’s like the guy you shouldn’t have kissed two years ago. You know you shouldn’t be doing it, but you’re doing it anyway. But we’re all about being aware of what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it. Stripping away the physical toxins can sometimes show us the reasons we really want to wear makeup. Because toxins or not, for women there’s often a certain amount of: I need this. But you don’t. You really don’t. That feeling of need keeps you from having fun with your makeup. I love makeup so much more now than I used to, because before there was no sense of joy in doing it. It would be like, Oh, I can’t do this to my face, or for Alexandra, I’d never do that to my curls. Now it’s like: Oh my God, this is so much fun! From the beginning Alexandra and I wanted what we were doing to be fun and friendly. We both feel this joyfulness about it, and I think we pride ourselves on bringing that to what we’re doing.

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Daniella Marcantoni, Mortician, Chino Hills, California

“In college I was like, Med school or mortuary school?” says licensed funeral director and embalmer Daniella Marcantoni. With her background as a freelance makeup artist who worked weddings and school dances to pick up cash in high school and college, it’s no wonder she chose the latter. She’s worked in the funeral industry for six years and was recently promoted within Rose Hills, the largest mortuary and cemetery combination in the world, to hospitality service supervisor. In her current role, she oversees the visitation area, and while she appreciates the experience of learning to serve grieving families, her deeper passion remains in working with the deceased. “You’re helping someone who can’t help themselves,” she says. “And embalming is very quiet, and I can be very introverted, so I found embalming therapeutic.” She’s also a spokeswoman with Funeral Divas, a social group for women in the funeral industry. We talked about postmortem makeup techniques, the silent clues we leave behind about our attitude toward cosmetics, and the responsibility the caretakers of the dead take on to make each of us look our best at the very end. In her own words: 

On Postmortem Makeup

You start decomposing immediately, so the skin on an unembalmed body is very soft. It can be a little difficult to cosmetize. Although embalming is not required by law, the law does allow mortuaries to require embalming for a public visitation, as a health precaution. From a cosmetizing aspect we’d prefer that the person is embalmed because it just looks better.

Whenever I’m done embalming I put massage cream on—my personal favorite is this stuff called Kalon, which is like a white massage cream, and I like to mix in a formula called Restoratone. It’s a liquid that kind of looks like pink slime, and you mix it with Kalon to prevent the skin from dehydrating overnight. Some embalming fluids can dry out the tissues, so the Kalon is just another way to keep the appearance as natural as possible. When you take it off the next day, the skin won’t be all dehydrated and hard; it’s kind of natural-looking. 

I don’t like to use a lot of makeup. We have this thing called Glow Tint, which kind of looks like dark orange juice, and it’s a liquidy tint you can brush on the face. I’d always use that as my base. And from there you can use any kind of makeup. Cadaver makeup is very thick; it’s comparable to theater makeup. Some people’s skin can be very ashy, or maybe they have wounds or bruises—obviously the cases that need restorative work are going to require lengthier and more intricate processing to conceal, and that requires thicker makeup. So in those cases cadaver makeup is very effective, but in general I don’t like it. I like to dilute it with either a massage cream or what we call a dry wash, which is like a dry shampoo, and it kind of breaks down the molecules of the makeup and makes it a little bit smoother. So I’d do the Glow Tint first and then put the makeup on. Some embalmers want to use wax all over the mouth, because if the mouth is really dehydrated and you can’t fix it with a humectant or a massage cream, the lip wax helps smooth the pockets that are created when you glue the mouth shut. So in some cases the lip wax is wonderful, but I usually don’t like to use it because it takes away the natural lines of the lips and makes their lips look really smooth. But everyone is different. Embalmers tend to have egos; they all think that their way is the best way.

On “Natural Appearance” 

Rouge, mascara, and lipstick is pretty much my cocktail for every person, unless the family has specific requests. Like, “Well, Grandma wore red lipstick every day and she always wore cat-eye eyeliner,” or “You know, my mother always wore blue eyeshadow.” I love to get requests for families because I want to do what they want. We take as much direction as possible. A lot of times people will bring in pictures, and sometimes they’re pictures from the ’60s and I’m like...Okay, what am I supposed to do? I can only do so much! But sometimes people won’t bring in pictures, so we just sort of go for what, in mortuary school, we called a “natural appearance.” We try not to say the word sleeping, because they’re not sleeping—they’re dead. But you sort of want to make it look like they are sleeping. They’re in eternal rest. 

It can be difficult sometimes. If you have an elderly lady who fell, you have to work very hard at covering the bruises on her face, but maybe Grandma never wore makeup. So it’s kind of a struggle between what the family wants and trying to make the person look good so the family doesn’t freak out when they see them in the casket for the first time. I personally have never had any complaints from families, but I have a lot of experience doing makeup as a freelance artist, and doing weddings gave me an opportunity to work with different ages. So in terms of age, I know the clues that tell me what the person might have done on their own. I mean, I had an older woman come in with short hair and no ear piercings and her nails were short with no polish, and I knew that person probably didn’t wear a lot of makeup. But if I see a woman the same age come in with a perm and ear piercings and acrylic nails, I could tell that she probably wore makeup. 

I can’t speak for anybody else, but I do kind of pick up on what a person might have been like, what they might have wanted. I’m one of those people who’s overly aware of everything, and I pick up on people’s energies just from walking into the room. Maybe it’s a gift or something, I don’t know. But the biggest thing is that you have to communicate. You have to trust that the funeral arranger will be realistic with the family and not promise them the stars and the moon. The arrangers have never been back there embalming. Some are very realistic and are like, Well, we don’t know exactly what we can do.So every case is completely different—sometimes the person looks amazing and the family gets mad! And sometimes you don’t think the person looks that great and you’re upset because you’ve been working so hard on the person and aren’t happy with it, and the family is like, Oh my God, thank you so much, my mom looks amazing.

In some mortuaries you do everything: You’re the arranger with the families, you’re the embalmer, you do the makeup. In those cases you have so much more of an advantage, because you’re connecting with that family and getting information directly from them. And then you can just go straight to the loved one and work your magic. 

The males are usually really easy because they don’t wear makeup. So with males I kind of did the same thing—the Glow Tint—and a lot of times they wouldn’t need makeup. It’s interesting to see racial differences too. In my experience, Asian cases tend to have very smooth, wrinkle-free skin, and their skin tone is beautiful. And I rarely have to put anything on African American skin. There’s a richness there; I don’t know how to explain it. But I usually only need to put massage cream on their face, and the next morning I would take it off and it would just be beautiful. There were only a couple of times that I had to put on makeup, because they had a wound on their face. I think it’s because darker skin doesn’t show the postmortem stain or the gray tone that can happen after embalming, which someone with a lighter complexion would show. 

On Life Outside the Embalming Room

I’ve always been pretty well-kept—I’m not super high-maintenance, but I’m particular about my appearance. None of my friends would say that I’m sloppy. I heard this quote once: Dress every day like you’re going to run into your worst enemy. You never know who you’re going to run into, so I always make sure I look presentable. I groom myself, I get my eyebrows waxed, and I try to make sure everything’s ironed. I don’t really think my work has changed my views on my appearance. If anything it’s like: If I died today and they picked me up, they’d be like, Man, she didn’t shave her legs! You think of silly things like that. 

I always look at people and am like, I wonder how they’ll embalm. I pay attention to people’s features because when you’re embalming you’re paying constant attention to features. Features don’t necessarily change postmortem, but sometimes if the person passed away in an awkward position, the features can be compromised or not in their natural form, and you’ll have to reset them and make sure everything looks natural. The face is aesthetically the most important part of the body. So being a makeup artist gives me an advantage because I’m used to studying faces. 

On Helping Those Who Can’t Help Themselves

In 2007 I lost my aunt to breast cancer. My aunt and I were extremely close—she’s like my mom. She was the most gorgeous woman ever, and at her funeral I was really disappointed. It looked as though they didn’t put any effort or anything into her makeup. There was no personal innovation or care. And I was like, I know I’m in the right industry now. Because I don’t want someone to sit there and stare at the casket and see the most important person in their life, and see what I’m seeing and feel what I’m feeling right now.

When you have a more personal connection to your motivation, it really shows in your work. I’m being fairly compensated, but when I was doing freelance makeup work it was like, Cool, this is great, give me money! I liked educating people with makeup, but I feel like this is doing more. It’s more selfless doing this sort of preparation. A girl going to senior prom can do her own makeup. But a grandma who passed away from cancer who couldn’t help herself for six months—her hair has grown out, her eyebrows are grown out, her moustache is showing. I feel like it’s my responsibility to really make her look her best, so when her family sees her they’ll be like, Oh, I’m so glad my mom doesn’t look like she’s had cancer for the past six months. I think that’s the kind of goal to have.

When you’re doing the preparation—doing the calls, going and seeing where the decedent is at—you see how they’re treated. There are some families who will be with their mother until her dying day, and those bodies tend to be in amazing shape, and it just touches you. And I know families can’t always physically take care of their loved ones, but I’ve seen terrible things from some convalescent homes, seeing how their bodies are when they come here. There’s cysts because they haven’t been washed in months, just getting sponge baths. When you see abuse or neglect, you take even more personal responsibility to really just take care of that person. Because it’s like, Well, no one else cared for them for the past year. They’re going to be in my care for four hoursI might as well do the best that I can with the limits I have and the amount of time that I’ve been given with themOnce they’re dead they can’t do anything. You’re helping someone who can’t help themselves.

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Golda Poretsky, Wellness Counselor, New York City

For Golda Poretsky, body acceptance isn’t quite enough. “I named my business Body Love Wellness because for me body acceptance was the key for everything else to fall into place—but you can’t just arrive at acceptance. If you’re coming from a place of not accepting your body, you first have to swing the pendulum the other way to love.” Drawing on the “diets don’t work” principles of Health at Every Size, her background in nutrition and holistic health, and her skilled combination of enthusiasm, warmth, and frankness, she counsels group and private clients who want to exit the dieting cycle. Her book, Stop Dieting Now: 25 Reasons To Stop, 25 Ways To Heal, was published in paperback and Kindle, and she lectures and gives workshops around the country, including teleclasses. We talked about the willingness to fail, being revolutionary, and how a question about cough drops got her wheels turning. In her own words:


On Trust 
I was literally on diets from the age of 4 on. I was either on a diet or off a diet, and if I was off I felt like I should be on. In 2005 I did Weight Watchers and I lost 40-something pounds, and I thought life was great. I still hadn’t met my goal, but I was feeling really good—and then the weight started coming back on, and I was still doing the program. I was all, “What’s the deal?” People turn that around onto you and make it like you’re doing something wrong. I literally had this Weight Watchers check-in where we sat down and they were like, “Well, you must be eating a lot of cough drops.” No, I’m doing everything I’m supposed to be doing. So I started to research it a little bit, and I started to think about it, and I realized it wasn’t just me. I found Kate Harding’s blog, which is sort of what everybody finds when they first come around to this, and I was like, “Oh! I don’t have to be in this constant paradigm of worrying about my weight, struggling with food all the time.” I started seeing research saying that losing weight and gaining it all back was the norm. But it's still hard to let go of that desire to lose weight, and there’s always that one person you know who keeps up their weight loss for years, and you think, Well, they must have it right. 

That lack of trust in their own experience is the attitude a lot of people have when they first come to Health at Every Size. They think, “Okay, size acceptance makes sense, but it’s not for me.” They try to resolve new information that way, by dismissing it for themselves. Because it’s not a comfortable place to say, “I know 99% of people see things one way. I see things differently.” It’s hard to live in the world that way because we still have these internalized worries about how people are literally being cast out for being different. I see it with clients, I saw it with myself, and we have to say, “Okay, you know, it’s not easy. Certain people are not going to agree with you, certain people are not going to support you—but you’re a revolutionary.” It’s more internal than anything else. The idea of being revolutionary is one of the ways I support myself when I feel overwhelmed. It helps me remember that it’s not easy, and that change takes time.

I always remind people that they need support, and that it’s not this thing that happens overnight. I’ll hear people say, “I tried body acceptance for a week and I didn’t get it, I couldn’t do it.” It takes time. It takes trust in yourself. It takes the willingness to fail and keep going. You might feel great about yourself for two weeks and then suddenly you’re walking down the street and you catch a glimpse of yourself in a window, and you think, Wow, I thought I looked better than that. But if you’ve been thinking about self-acceptance, you begin to have the tools to take that moment as just information. You can say, “Okay, I didn’t like my reflection. So maybe I just have some work to do on seeing myself in the mirror. And what else was going on with me that day—was it a bad day anyway? What was my internal dialogue like?” It’s taking negative experiences as information rather than proof that you're bad or wrong or ugly or whatever. It’s trusting that if you keep doing this, it will work—which it will. Not liking what you see in the mirror one day isn’t proof that you’re not doing body love right. It’s information that indicates, Okay, this is something I can work on. I think very often we see our quote-unquote “failings” as proof of something not working, as proof that we’re damaged, rather than part of the journey. Things are rarely that linear.

On the (Non)-Intersection of Dieting and Confidence 
I remember starting Weight Watchers with a friend of mine. In a couple of weeks we’d both lost about eight pounds, and I remember her saying, “I know I lost weight, but I feel less attractive.” I was like, Me too! People say this stuff to you once they start noticing, like, “You look really great.” And then you’re like, How did I look before? I didn’t think I looked that bad. There are studies about how dieting lowers your self-esteem: There’s this feeling, like you get on the scale and you’ve lost weight, and the sun is shining and the birds are singing—there’s just this feeling. And then you get on the scale again and you’re up a couple of pounds and the world falls apart. Everything becomes tied to your weight. And when you’re able to separate feeling good from weight, you get to feel consistently good about yourself—which is actually more attractive to other people.

There are always people you know who are just really attractive--you’re drawn to them, and they’re just really sexy people. But they’re just people! People tend to think that that quality is just this innate thing, and maybe it is, partially. But I also think it’s about that person having a clear concept of what’s attractive about themselves. They know they’re worthy. The internal is much more external than we realize. So if you’re okay with yourself no matter what size you’re at, it goes from, “Oh, I feel thin, so I can go out with my friends and have a good time” to you just feeling whatever you feel. You can go out and have a good time, you can meet people and believe that you’re as attractive and beautiful and sexual as someone who is thinner than you. We hear a lot of times, “It’s not about how you look; it’s about how you feel.” Well, yeah! But it’s very hard for people to just make that happen. It’s a big mind-set shift.

I’ve worked with a lot of people to try to make that mental shift happen. But it’s not just a mental shift; it’s also physical. I have this thing called the body-love shower. And all it is, is that literally, in the shower, you really concentrate on how good it feels to touch your body—how good it feels to touch your shoulder, your chest, your butt. You do everything in a way that feels good for you. You really enjoy the sensation of touching, and if you do this every morning for a week, you will feel differently about your body. You will. And suddenly it’s not about how you look. It’s about what your body is capable of sensually, how your body is capable of giving and receiving pleasure. And that is much bigger than what magazines tell you.

On Living From the Neck Up 
A lot of times we’re taught to live from the neck up. That’s another issue I hear a lot from people, because they don’t accept their bodies and they don’t even want to think about their bodies. There’s a disconnect, and that disconnect allows you to act a certain way toward your body. If you’re not part of your body then you can starve it or binge or whatever, because it’s not you. It’s like it’s this part of you that isn’t acting the way it’s supposed to, and you kind of whip it into shape or whatever, but it’s not you. So when you eventually start to connect the two and you’re like, “This is my body. How do I want to be treating it? Do I want to be intentionally hurting it? It is me.”

Living from the neck up makes it difficult to really look at the whole of yourself. When I was in law school, I went through this period where I couldn’t look in a mirror, and I’ve talked with other women who sort of have this too. I literally would look just for second, really quickly, with the light off. I wouldn’t really look. It’s creepy! And I was also much thinner then, I was younger. I was really struggling. What helped me is affirmations. I started to actually say affirmations in the mirror. It sounds really corny, but they sort of saved me. At first I couldn’t do it without crying, but there was a part of me that was like, Do this. It changed my relationship with the mirror. Now I actually do a lot of mirror work with my clients, especially if they’re fixated on one part of their body being not okay. I have them find five things they like about that part of the body and say them aloud. That can be hard, to say things you love about your body when you don’t necessarily believe it yet, but I really think you can’t just try to accept yourself, you have to try to truly love yourself. Most people think acceptance is the first step, but I think if you're trying for acceptance, you'll land somewhere between acceptance and dissatisfaction. You have to go all the way to love and then maybe you’ll settle into acceptance, or maybe you'll really go for broke and experience true love for your body.

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Feeling invigorated by Golda's words? Body Love Wellness is offering a deal to readers of The Beheld: The first five people to sign up here will receive a free Body Love Breakthrough session, which will help you develop essential tools for wellness and self-acceptance. Fantastique!

Sherry Mills, Artist, New York City

Artist Sherry Mills wants you to know that beauty is closer than you think. Creating large-scale abstract works from her close-up photographs of unlikely beauty—the peeling paste of abandoned posters, rusted oil drums, tarred rooftops—she prompts the viewer to take an alternate perspective on the city landscape. The perspective is flipped again with another branch of her work, box art: whimsical yet concentrated dollhouse-style miniatures evoking a vibrant Joseph Cornell. Her work has shown at the Manhattan Borough President’s Office, on billboards as a part of Clear Channel Outdoor’s Local Spirit campaign, and Galapagos Art Space, and her solo show featuring her commissioned box art opens June 30 at the Rogue Gallery. You can read her blog here. We talked about walking the line between hiding and self-expression, being a woman in the art world, and ways to cry over spilled milk. In her own words:


On Beauty Being Closer Than You Think
I remember being on the subway after 9/11, and the tone was severe depression and fear. And suddenly this popped through: We have this common ground in the very streets of New York. We share this ground; we have these beautiful, normally overlooked abstract images on our streets, in this shared public space. I was so excited to be thinking in those terms, of this common ground. In a way it’s kind of like beauty being in the eye of the beholder, but it’s really more that we’re surrounded by beauty if you’re looking for it. A colleague of mine then said, “Beauty is closer than you think,” and I was like—that’s it! The idea is that perspective is everything. You can find magnificence in the simplest arrangement. Beauty is constantly available to us—the experience of beauty can always be there, because it’s just a matter of our perception.

At the same time, I feel guided to work where there’s grit or grim things that typically wouldn’t be considered beautiful. If you look at this bowl of pomegranates, it’s a still life you can imagine someone painting; it’s a little bit easier. But then—you know how sometimes you see straws on the sidewalk, where there’s a milkshake splatter? Of course you think, Eww, that’s gross, someone should clean that up. But you can also see it as a cylinder of green with this spray of white, and it becomes this beautiful arrangement. The composition sets you free, not the content. It might be more difficult to drive some sense of beauty toward that kind of thing, but that’s what I like to photograph. I have a great appreciation of classical beauty—it definitely guides us to find beauty in other territories. And that’s the beauty we need to find: Most of us are living with those other territories much more than we live with those classical forms of beauty. If you evaluate beauty differently, that way of seeing becomes more of a habit.

Green Straw

It can be the same way with people. I don’t really see the physical element of people as much as I see a compatibility, some kind of ability to connect with the world. People’s physicality is always changing for me—you know when you’re in love, that person looks different to you? You find that appreciation and the composition seems like it actually changes. Of course, when you apply it to people, the flip side is how are they looking at you, and that gets more challenging.

There’s also this odd perspective when we look at ourselves. There’s this funny thing with our bodies where we really only see it from this one close-up perspective, when we’re just looking down at our bodies so everything is out of proportion to how we actually appear. Even if we look in the mirror, we can’t really be sure of what we’re seeing. I’ll look at my body sometimes and not know how to look at it. Like, am I overweight? Am I not? Am I small? Am I average? I really don’t know.

On Hiding and Self-Expression
In seasons that require a coat, I feel more comfortable. It’s almost like I don’t want to be seen—I guess I’m like a bear! I feel kind of private. I want to be able to go out into the world and not really attract much attention. But then people say that’s a contradiction because of the clothes that I wear—tons of layers, lots of color, a lot of patterns worn together, flowing things. It does attract attention. It’s something that’s always going on in me: I don’t want a lot of attention, but I do want to express myself. So when the weather calls for a long coat, everything can go under cover. I can be totally self-expressive yet covered, and no one really knows what’s going on under there until I choose to show it to someone. It’s a private, sort of self-protective thing. I don’t want a lot of energy heading my way necessarily. Also, a coat contains me: I wear a lot of flowy weird things, and in the wind it’s annoying, so I like to be able to pull it in. I don’t want to be mentally distracted by my clothes. When I’m out in the world I want to be able to be open and present with things and people and landscapes. It’s the same reason I can’t wear heels: I can’t be present when I’m constantly focused on my physical self.

In some ways, getting myself dressed every day has been a way of keeping a muscle going, with collage and my art. If nothing else, I’ll get myself dressed so at least there is a practice with the relationship of pattern and texture and form. Some photographers take one picture a day no matter what, or a painter will at least touch the brush to the canvas every day, so getting dressed has been a way of keeping my eye going. When I’m making a collage and choosing certain things to go with other things, I might see this green fabric with this weird red-pink thing that wouldn’t normally go together. But there’s a sense in me that it does go, even if the next person might look at the combination and say it doesn’t. When something gets a little too perfect, I try to disturb it a bit. I like to challenge what it means for something to “go together.” After a while it’s become very simple—people sometimes say, “Oh, it must have taken you forever to get dressed.” I dress like this every day! It takes me just a few minutes. It’s my style. 

 

It’s a similar thing with my glasses. I got this pair of glasses for traveling during college—I’d worn contacts through high school—and I loved not having to worry about getting stuff in my eyes. They were a bold statement for me then, and getting these particular frames set an evolution of some kind for me and my style. I’ve tried many times to get rid of them. I felt like I needed to purge them, like I needed a free face, that I wanted my face to be forward to the world and not these distinctive glasses. I’m hiding behind these. I’ve gone out to try to find new frames, and at one point I did get these really crazy red frames with rhinestones. But I went back to my old black ones. Essentially it was like trading my face. These have been my face for so long, I could never feel comfortable with another pair. It’s got an emotional tie, like I’d be letting go of my image entirely. I don’t want to let them go.

On Feminine Branding in the Art World
I don’t necessarily think of myself as being in the art world; I’m finding my own way to navigate things, which I think everyone is doing now because a lot of the traditional systems aren’t working. But it does still feel a little bit like a man’s world. I don’t feel like a victim, but I do want to be taken seriously, and sometimes that doesn’t happen. I was happy to hear that people didn’t just see my box work as fluffy and whimsical without depth—I get concerned that I come off that way in every way, because I’m a playful person. I think people might see me as light, playful, emotional, non-intellectual—kind of dancing around but not focused enough. All these things are probably true in a way, but they’re also things that are associated with being a woman. It’s easy to get scattered with doing too many projects in order to sort of prove my seriousness.

Bear Face

It seems like women have a lot of hats going all the time. My partner is this competent, amazing, very focused man who I learn from and appreciate so much, and it’s almost like I want that, but I operate from a different place. It’s a different way of maneuvering in life. I think when I started dressing in my current style, I was looking to express something about myself—something more solid, even though the look I have might be seen as crazy sometimes! But I learned to be comfortable enough to break the rules and be okay with funny stares. It was like a strengthening technique, consciously or unconsciously. It was difficult to present myself like that with consistency in public, yet I felt it was true to myself. Over time it became easier, and the idea of self-expression stopped being so much of an effort—I was just being me, coming out of myself.

So now I have this look and people will say that they’re inspired by it, and I realize that in some ways, my brand is my presentation. It becomes important. It’s one of the elements of presenting myself—my photography, the video, a documentary, my blog, and the outfits. It’s kind of like giving a snippet of what my work is about. It’s all about alternate perspectives.

Martina Molin, Painter, London

Swedish painter Martina Molin focuses her work on femininity, simultaneously expressing an aspiration toward beauty itself and the desire for a more profound sentiment and existential value. Her subjects—usually women appearing to consciously straddle the divide of solitude and being gazed upon—reflect and filter the inner experience of being seen. She studied fine art in Stockholm before moving to London (where she currently resides) in 2001 to study painting and drawing, receiving her master’s in drawing from Camberwell College of Art in 2008. During her visit to New York for a private exhibition, we talked about the experience of becoming an image, the importance of portraying feminine presence and absence, the Swedish beauty aesthetic, and Falcon Crest. In her own words:

On Beauty and Secrets 
I’m trying to capture what I’m absorbed by, which is in part this kind of beauty ideal, but really it’s a blend of different scenarios and impressions. A lot of it’s coming from family, history, things you see when you’re little—for me it was this admiration of my mother and her twin sister, being a child seeing this grown-up world.

I had access to French Vogue as a child, and just looking at that and seeing my mother and aunt go out to a party was this kind of magic, forbidden world. It was these glamorous, beautiful women—their scent, their experience. It was their sophistication and beauty, with strong charisma, that inspired me. They were like real-life fairy tale princesses.

There’s a secret power or knowledge of your own femininity and sex appeal for women, and I think that’s quite obvious for a child to see, because you look at the other children and none of you have that—and it’s good that way. But I couldn’t help being intrigued by the charms of their appearance. I see women almost doing magic with their looks, with makeup and how they present themselves. And thus I developed an interest in beauty, as a child.

The Awakening of Love

In The Awakening of Love, the girl is nude, but there is a sense of innocence about her. I like to portray the awareness of being seen, and the value of being seen as beautiful. She’s on display but she’s aware of her own worth. It’s about her inner experience and wish to be desired.

Happy Birthday Girls

To me, the mirroring element in Happy Birthday Girls is a reflection of the thrilling sensation of getting older. To be at ease with your own reflection is to realize the potential of each age and not get stuck in what was. They’re celebrating a birthday, but it’s with a certain melancholy as they gaze at the birthday cake, which has been left looking more like a fence. On the one hand it’s a celebration of being alive, about looking forward—yet another part of youth is in the past, so in a way it must be a bittersweet practice of letting go.

Sometimes I like to include in my paintings a feeling of absence, the lack of emotion that you can experience. There are times in life when things go too fast. When you don’t fully realize a moment, it leaves a sense of emptiness, a void. For a while I was almost erasing my paintings from the paintings. There was so much white space, because I felt isolated, living in a different country. It’s important to me to portray absence and presence of femininity. When painting in the studio the artist gets a distance from the self. It is this which is so important, so the art can have its own voice.

Spanish Skies

Though my work is not a direct form of self-portraiture, I am subconsciously included. In my painting there’s is an element of self I cannot erase. Perhaps a moderate degree of reflection is necessary to give an honest approach to a narrative. However, I am most interested in the possibility of a multiple persona, absorbing inspiration from fiction, film, photography, and history. People often comment that some of the women in my paintings look like me, and I can see how a part of me shines through. However, artists can be a little overly critical; for me it can be a bit destructive, to be overfocusing on myself.

On the Swedish Beauty Aesthetic 
I first moved to England when I was 20. I was thrilled to be going someplace new, but concerned I would be perceived as the Swedish-girl stereotype, this happy blond girl there on holiday. To avoid this I initially dyed my hair brown, but it turned kind of gray and it didn’t suit me at all, so I went back to being blond and I just carried on.

As a Swedish woman, sometimes I feel that I get put in a category. While this can be frustrating, this stereotype can also offer quite a nice escape. If I already have others’ ideas projected onto me, then I can relax and be. I can feel quite safe in my little illusion, knowing privately that I am confident and know that I am more than preconceived perceptions.

On Swedish Equality 
We’ve come quite far in Sweden, with equal opportunities for men and women. An interesting spin off of this is that men there have gotten more into their own appearance. Maybe Sweden's equality has allowed men to look into traditionally feminine areas, such as makeup and other parts of the beauty industry. But regardless of how equal society becomes, men and women will strive to have a certain appearances. That is universal and is not going to change. What has become more equal now is the sense that men and women both want to be beautiful. This is not particular to a place or country, just the human desire to be desired.

Perhaps the pressure to be “perfect” is more strong still in some parts of America than in Sweden, where the approach to appearance is a bit more relaxed. I grew up watching Dallas and Falcon Crest. It was magic to me. I remember being mesmerized by the perfectly groomed women—the power they projected onto the viewer was impressive! I’ve always been fascinated by constructed or artificial beauty. In Europe that’s more of a Mediterranean thing; the women in that region dress up more and they’re impeccably groomed. We don’t have that as much in Sweden. You’d feel a little bit overdressed if you wore a dress when you go out; it’s quite casual.

Sweden has a natural beauty ideal. With plastic surgery there is the ideal of eternal youth that you can achieve if you can afford it. But a majority of Swedes embrace aging and beauty—they keep it healthy, exercise a bit, take long walks. Sweden is an earth-bound society. Maybe the belief that a natural beauty is preferable over a more artificial aesthetic might just be in keeping with Scandinavian minimalism—who knows?

Ideally, in a modern society we should be allowed to embrace our femininity and our masculinity with playfulness—whatever makes one comfortable in their body shouldn’t collide with their equal value as an individual or professional.

Sunny Sea Gold, Writer, New York City

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


Sunny Sea Gold at 29 weeks pregnant with her first child

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

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

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




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

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



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

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

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




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

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

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

Charlotte Shane, Prostitute, East Coast

Now in her late twenties, Charlotte Shane has been a sex worker for nearly a decade; she started out in the web cam world, then moved on to fetish and escort work through an agency. She currently works as an independent prostitute with a roster of regular clients. Her compulsively readable blog, Nightmare Brunette, came to my attention after she penned a fantastic piece in Salon. “We’re taught from an early age to keep an eternally vigilant (and critical) eye on our appearance, and it takes a strong, studied will to refuse to pose the questions many of us have had running in our head since puberty,” she writes. “There’s something almost merciful about finally having the clarity of a number, and once you’re an escort, you’ve quite literally put a price on your sexual powers.” She also contributes to sex worker blog Tits and Sass. We talked about what her clients see when they look at her, the similarity between prostitution and the military, and why it might not matter what she looks like. In her own words:

Alone, Toulouse-Lautrec, 1896

On Looking Closely
The way someone usually becomes dear to you is not because of how they look, and that’s true for me and my clients as well. It could be I’m just lucky, but my clients love imperfections—they pore over them. I have a huge scar, and they’re always like, “Oh, I love your scar.” They’ll kiss it. They love it because it’s human. I’m sure there are men who hire escorts and they just want the most attractive thing they can find. They want things, and a person is a thing for them, and they want the thing to be announcing its attractiveness. But I don’t think most men want that. You know those articles that are always so hysterical about men watching porn who don’t want real women now? Do you know any men like that? The men I’ve spent time with usually genuinely love women. There are some neurotic guys with strict preferences, or they’re afraid or women or whatever. But usually they seem really delighted to be around a female. They like the way bodies naturally arrange themselves, and they like finding out about how our bodies are different from one another. But the idea that a man is going to get between your legs and see your labia and be like, Eww, I’m outta here—who does that? Why would you ever want that person around you? I’m sure that if I had particularly large labia that I’d have men poring over that.

There are certain signifiers that people look at, and they won’t look too closely beyond that. That’s one of the sad things, actually, that people don’t look very closely at other people. But if you’re in a situation like I often am, where I’m the only person they’re looking at—just by virtue of asking for money in that situation, you’re kind of asserting your appeal. Sometimes that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: Most of these men are not coming in thinking, I can’t believe I spent so much, she’s obviously not worth that, I’m going to be disappointed. They’re excited; they’re happy to be there and they respond positively. Part of that is the context: If I were wearing dirty jeans and had a messy ponytail, those guys are not going to be walking by me on the street going, Oooh!

Kelly was my stage name when I was working on web cam, and when I’d see myself on camera and I’d be like, Kelly looks really hot! She was another person. I’d have massive amounts of makeup on, because under the lights and on a camera, you have to wear a lot. And I’d be wearing a wig—not a particularly nice wig, either. But I thought she was a total babe. My most astonishing moment was going to the bathroom in the middle of the night and taking off the wig. I looked like a transvestite: melted amounts of massive makeup, my hair all flattened out because of this wig. That was instructive in terms of understanding that whatever the dominant aesthetic is at the time, you can approximate that. Lots of people are going to respond positively, whether or not it’s a look being performed by someone I would say is actually beautiful or actually sexy.

On How She Looks
When I was thinking about this interview, I wanted to say that how I look is irrelevant. But obviously that’s not true. If I were considered conventionally ugly that would not be irrelevant. It’s more like there’s a base level of attractiveness, and if you satisfy that, what you bring beyond that becomes irrelevant. I don’t think what I bring to the table on a date is my looks; I don’t think that’s what I’m there for. Maybe if I were better-looking, I would be there for that. I’m attractive enough for my looks not to be a disappointment, but I don’t think that anyone would see me for how I looked alone and want to pay me just for that.

I’ve only had one client who regarded me in that way, when I was working at an agency about five years ago. He and I just didn’t get along. It wasn’t that he was mean or that I was rude—it’s just that sometimes you connect with somebody, and sometimes you can’t. The third time I saw him, he told me something like, Well, the only reason I’m here is because of how you look. He didn’t put it in a cruel way; it was like he knew we weren’t connecting on a deeper level, but he liked the way I looked anyway. It made me like him more, because it was clarifying, and in some ways it let me off the hook, because I wasn’t doing a very good job with him—I wasn’t my shiniest or brightest. And that idea of being liked solely for the way you look can be true for anyone. One of my friends—who has been doing this much longer than I have—is a firm believer that no matter who you are, what you look like, and what your asking price is, there’s somebody in the world who will pay it. There’s somebody who will find you irresistible. Which I think is absolutely true.

This will sound terrible, but sometimes when I’ve met other women who do this work I’m surprised that they’re not better-looking. That sounds like this really terrible judgmental thing—but really it’s that in my mind, everyone who would do this is basically a supermodel, and that I’m a visitor to this world. I always feel like a woman who’s in this line of work is not me: I have stretch marks, I have scars, I could rattle off all the things that are wrong with my face. But when I meet other women who do this type of work I’m always anticipating to be blown out of the water, even though that’s not really what this work is about.

The weird thing about this work is that you start to think that every single male is attracted to you. Which is not a good way to operate in the world. I take male attention for granted, when a lot of times it might not be there. But I’m not that type of woman who thrives on keeping that kind of attention. I think for a lot of women it’s unwelcome, but for some it’s a part of how they navigate their life. It’s how they relate to and play with or use public space. I’m not like that. But I was in the airport yesterday, and I was thinking, “Oh, everyone’s looking at me,” because that’s how I feel after meeting a date. It’s sort of in a cocky way; it’s not in an ashamed way. Then when I would break my avoiding-eye-contact stare and start to look at other people, I’d see, “Oh, he’s not looking at me,” or maybe I’d see he was looking if I wasn’t looking too closely at him. And that’s a weird attitude! That’s not how I am all the time. But when I first started interacting in person, I did feel very powerful. It was this knowingness I had, this new boldness that might attract attention.

On Quantifying Appeal
In our culture, the majority of messages directed at women or created using women say: You’re valuable for how you look. So of course you want to feel like you have value in the world. I think it’s natural for most women to say, “I want to know how much I’m worth in this world”—and that means, “I want to know how much my looks are worth.” There aren’t as many messages that are like, “We need you right now to be curing our diseases and protecting our environment. We need you for defense.” I think a lot of men join the military not just for money for college but because they feel like they need to contribute something, and that’s where they’ve been told their value might be. So for women, we’re told we contribute by being attractive. How attractive am I? Am I attractive enough? Should I be more? Could I be more? There’s a desire to quantify your appeal.

I don’t like to talk too much about money because I worry about glamorizing this work—but I charge a lot. It’s ridiculous, given that I’m just basically a normal person.  The pricing isn’t particularly logical, and it’s certainly not like I did a rigorous calculation of my value. I mean, I’ve made a list of where I think I’m strong and where I think I’m weak, in terms of giving somebody what they want. Even then looks aren’t a part of it—I mean, I might say, “I’m too careless with my makeup,” but usually it’s more like, “I’m not as punctual as I want to be.” But I always charged more than the average—not a whole lot more, just a little. You can tell from your volume of business if you’re undercharging; some women don’t mind undercharging because they always want to be busy and have a lot of options, but if I find myself really busy I’m like, “I’m undercharging.” That’s why I kept jacking up the price—and curiosity, too. Like, would somebody actually pay this for me? Seeing what you can get away with, I think that’s really what it is.

Carolyn Turgeon, Novelist, Pennsylvania

Beauty is integral to novelist Carolyn Turgeon’s work: Mermaid, her most recent book, spotlights the relationship between the mermaid and the princess of the classic fairy tale. “You have these two beautiful protagonists who are competing for the love of the prince, but who are longing for what the other one represents,” she says. “They’re both beautiful, but they are literally different species, and I wanted to explore that complicated relationship.” Her second book, Godmother, features an old woman who had once been the fairy godmother to you-know-who. “She wasn’t just a beautiful woman; she was a beautiful fairy. And then she broke a taboo and ends up being banished to earth and having a human body and growing old. She’s grieving her loss of beauty through the whole story.” And the heroine of her first book, Rain Village, feels freakishly small—which turns out to be an asset when she discovers her skill as a trapeze artist. 

She also writes “a delicate, ladylike blog for mermaids and the humans who love them,” I Am A Mermaid, where she’s interviewed the likes of Tim Gunn, Alice Hoffman, and Rona Berg about mermaids. We talked about the role of beauty in classic fairy tales, the challenges of being an early bloomer, and the impossibility of an ugly mermaid. In her own words:
 

On Fairy Tales
Beauty is a central theme in fairy tales, especially your big classic ones. Physical beauty is correlated to how good and pure you are. Underneath all that dirt, Cinderella is beautiful, whereas her evil stepsisters are ugly and have big feet that can’t fit into those glass slippers. That’s why it’s tragic when you have a monster with a good heart, because nobody recognizes their goodness—but usually, it turns out that deep down the beast is actually a handsome prince. So if someone can recognize their goodness, they can turn back into what they really are—which is someone beautiful.

You’ve always got women who are hating other women for being beautiful. The evil stepsisters hate Cinderella because of her looks; in Snow White, everything revolves around the evil queen’s mirror telling her that this girl is more beautiful than she is, and for that she’s going to kill her and eat her heart. Sleeping Beauty too. They all center around women’s jealousy, and what lengths you’ll go to in order to stamp out beauty in other women or gain that beauty for yourself by eating her heart. You have women hating other women, and hurting themselves too—the evil stepsisters cut off their heels and toes to fit into shoes that are too small. These stories are really powerful—the classic tales, and then the Disney movies. They become a part of how you see the world when you’re a little kid. It can drive girls to all sorts of craziness. So taking these stories and somehow twisting that up a bit can be powerful.

There are definitely makeovers in fairy tales. You have that awesome Cinderella makeover, and in The Little Mermaid you get the makeover where she becomes human—she’s still beautiful, but in a whole new way. I loved describing the moment of a mermaid transforming into a human girl. It’s beautiful, but it’s painful; her skin crackles, her tail splits in half. I love powerful moments of transformation. I even have a tattoo of Daphne turning into the laurel tree. When people long to be something else, it speaks to this basic human condition of being earth-bound and longing for transcendence. There’s that Platonic sense: You were once whole, and now you are not whole anymore; you long for that wholeness you once had. You fell from the stars and you want to return there. Or just your plain old Catholic thing of wanting to return to God. Whatever name you put on it, there’s this longing to return to some sense of wholeness that you came from and that you’ll go back to someday. So my characters are longing for other worlds, places where they’ll be more complete. When Tessa flies through the air on the trapeze in Rain Village, she’s her most beautiful self that she couldn’t have been otherwise.


On Mermaid Beauty
There’s no such thing as an unattractive mermaid. What a ridiculous question! But you have manatees who have been called mermaids of the sea, because many sailors have mistaken manatees for mermaids—Christopher Columbus, for example. If you look at a manatee, they’re ungainly and ugly, in a semi-cute way, I guess, but nothing like a mermaid. Then you have P.T. Barnum, who tricked people into coming to see the “Feejee Mermaid,” and that’s an ugly-ass little thing! He had to sew a bunch of things together—a monkey and a fish, I think—and it would be really hard to make that beautiful. I don’t know why people weren’t like, “That’s not a mermaid, that’s ugly! It’s dead and weird and shriveled!”

Some people do like monstrous mermaids, but I like them to be pretty. My fairies were really pretty too. For human eyes to see something that’s magical and from another world, it would have to be stunning, even if in its own world it’s not. If you saw an angel, it would have to be beautiful; how could you register it as anything but beautiful? It’s from heaven. Whereas maybe in heaven that angel isn’t anything to look at!

I had an interview with an Icelandic artist who was talking about how beautiful and sexy mermaids were, but she was saying it was kind of weird: They’re half-fish, and they’re fish where it matters! They’re this weird combination of blatantly sexual—bared breasts, long hair—but at the same time, they have no genitals. They’re totally inaccessible. And they represent a world that’s unknown to us, a world that’s beautiful and terrifying at the same time. They see parts of the world that we can’t see; they live in the bottom of the ocean, and we don’t know what’s down there. So they represent birth and death and the unconscious—they’re mysterious and scary, but beautiful too.

That can translate to a certain type of beautiful woman. You’ve got Greta Garbo, who’s so distant and inaccessible and unobtainable; that’s a certain type of beautiful woman. It’s totally different from that naturally beautiful beach girl without makeup. And mermaids have that Greta Garbo kind of beauty. You can’t have her—or if you do, she might kill you.

On Glamour
Glamorous doesn’t have to be beautiful. Glamour is about adornment and style; it’s about knowingly adorning yourself in a way that hearkens back to certain images. I see Marlene Dietrich, Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard, Greta Garbo. I see sitting in a satin bed with bonbons. I see glittery, shiny things, everything in black-and-white. Taking what’s beautiful and chic and making it over-the-top. The first time I went to Dollywood—I love Dolly Parton—I went to the museum, and it’s full of all her crazy over-the-top rhinestoney shimmery stuff. I remember reading this quote of hers there, and it was something about how she knows people might think she’s ridiculous and laugh at her, but she was this girl from the mountains who grew up running around barefoot, so to her, this was beautiful. I think going over-the-top is a way of adding fabulousness to your everyday life. 

 Ms. Turgeon at possibly the most glamorous place on earth, Dollywood.

Glamour is something you can actually do. I mean, maybe some people are just naturally glamorous, but it seems to be something that by definition is unnatural. It’s a certain style, a certain kind of makeup, a certain kind of thing you do to yourself. It’s referencing something that’s cool and dreamy and otherworldly. I like that any woman can put on really red lips, get an old travel valise and a little muff, and wear sunglasses on top of her head. It doesn’t matter how old you are, or how big or small you are, what color you are.

On Being Young, Gifted, and Stacked 
My first book, Rain Village, had a narrator who saw herself as freakish and weird. And then she meets this librarian, this beautiful, sexy, ex-circus-star who takes Tessa under her wing—and the librarian sees Tessa as beautiful. I wanted to raise the possibility that she has a beauty that only special people are able to see.

I wasn’t like Tessa, but I did feel freakish and weird. I developed really early, and I was tall; as an 11-year-old I was 5’7” and wore C cup bras and would have grown men hitting on me. I found it extremely shameful and horrible; I wish there had been someone around who would have helped me feel more comfortable and empowered. Any sense I had of being beautiful as a girl was always associated with shame and discomfort. I was shy and dreamy and bookish, yet I was tall and built and pretty, and I got a certain kind of attention that I didn’t know how to navigate. I remember being in high school and walking downtown with friends, and everything would be normal but I’d be cringing because I’d expect something to happen. We lived in a college town and there always seemed to be drunk frat boys around who at any given moment could yell something like “look at those tits!” and I’d feel singled out, reduced down, ashamed. I’m sorry that I couldn’t have been like, Oh, I’m dreamy and bookish and hot, too. I only read it as a negative thing; it was never something to be proud of.

I always wanted to write, and the idea that you could be writerly was at odds with looking a certain way. I wish that had not been the case. I wish I’d felt comfortable and realized there was a power there I could enjoy and even revel in, as opposed to just feeling really embarrassed by it. That’s something I actually like about Suicide Girls—I’m not saying they’re 1000% positive, but when they started it was like, Okay, here’s a bunch of punk girls who appear completely empowered by their own beauty and sexuality, and they’re proud to be smart and strong too. That was part of their thing. I’m not so sure they stayed in that same spirit, but when I first saw it I wished that had been around when I was younger. Not that I would have wanted to be one of them, but there might have at least been a context to be like, “I’m this empowered smart girl with a body.” When people are yelling about your “tits,” it doesn’t make you feel very smart. I kind of resent that I felt that way for so long.

I think I developed a certain detachment from my physical self. At a young age my identity seemed so separate from my physical being that I just became more detached from my body than your average person, I think, or maybe that’s a myth of my own making. I’m pretty comfortable now, or maybe too old to care, but it’s not totally resolved. I’d like to be more attached, to feel like your physical self is part of the essence of who you are—to feel like a more embodied, whole person, and then be comfortable with that physical self no matter what shape it is. I probably work this stuff out a bit writing about mermaids and fairies and tiny trapeze girls, I should probably take up yoga instead!