Beauty Blogosphere: 7.8.11

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

From Head...
I'll tweeze when I'm dead: Postmortem makeup service allows you to choose your own cosmetics for your final performance. I actually think this is sort of brilliant, and if I'm buried in a casket I'd like some assurance that people's last visions of me won't be with, say, eyeshadow. Not that I'll be buried in a casket, for I plan on being cryogenically frozen.

Ginseng-fed snails on yer face: I suppose once you're slapping snail slime on your face it's all the same, but I'm somehow more bothered by the fact that these snails destined for face creams are fed a diet of red ginseng than the fact that they're being used at all. How did that meeting go? "Gee, Bob, how can we maximize the benefits of putting snail slime on our wives' and daughters' faces?" "Well, Bill, we can feed the snails ginseng first." "Bob, old boy, that's damned brilliant. Golf?"

...To Toe...
Trend investigation: Interesting collection at the NYTimes of mini-essays from a variety of thinkers on why wild nail polish (I prefer mine on my feet, staying classic with the manicure) has strayed from its alternative/punk roots into the mainstream.

...And Everything In Between:
Motivations behind the increase of diversity among models: Surprise—it's money, not a global handshake! Also some fascinating tidbits about global beauty habits, like urban Mexican women mixing crushed birth control pills into their shampoo to combat pollution-related hair loss. 

"You can't learn how to be elegant; you can only learn how to avoid mistakes": Great Q&A with Carine Roitfeld (former French Vogue editrix); she refers to her reign there as a "gilded cage" and has some choice bits on the globalization of fashion. (Thanks to the new spiritual geography blog Deep Map for the heads-up.)

Look chic without dead animal skin!: Makeup artist Eden DiBianco for GirlieGirl Army on a "vegan" version of the snakeskin manicure that is inexplicably popular now.

Is your shampoo making you gain weight?: You'll rarely see me contributing to any OMGZFAT! brouhaha, but the idea of endocrine disruptors in shampoo contributing to weight gain freaks me out for reasons that have nothing to do with my thighs. If a chemical is making me gain weight...what else is it doing?

This is what a feminist looks like?

Man makeup: Feminist-minded piece on men exploring fanciful dress and makeup. The piece's thesis is that it's allowing men to be more playful than in recent history; not sure how that jibes with Hugh Laurie's recent endorsement for L'Oréal, which pretty much relies on his masculinity for its success. Like most aspects of high fashion I don't see men cross-dressing in the mainstream yet, but since men's cosmetics sales are on the uptick it's not like the worlds are entirely separate either.

Shave it for cancer: Ladies, do you feel left out of Movember, the moustache growing month that somehow magically raises funds for kids with cancer? Good news: The Canadian Cancer Society has come up with Julyna, during which we're to groom our pubic hair in interesting shapes to raise money for cervical cancer. Can't I just have a bake sale instead? (I'm with About-Face in thinking this is a terrible idea, but got a kick out of their "example designs" page. The "side part"?)

I bleed red: Always dares to show a red dot in a maxipad ad. Egads! Also in menstrual news, my gym has started giving out coupons for Playtex Sport tampons, which is a good thing, because I didn't realize that I needed a special menstrual product for playing sports. All this time I've been using office-worker tampons! Watch it, Venus, I'm onto your wily ways.

Real women on "real women": Great two-part collection of thoughts from fashion and beauty bloggers (yours truly included) on the term "real woman," put together by the fantastically community-minded Beautifully Invisible. (She's also recently launched Full-Time Ford, a blog devoted to exploring the work of designer Tom Ford. I know exactly zero about Tom Ford but those of you who are fans should check it out!)

The conflicted self in body image blogging: Demoiselle's meta-examination of body image blogging and the traps it can lay for its explorers: "Many of these methods and paths that self-acceptance movements are taking are very exclusive and comparison-based."

"On Makeup": Britt Julious of Britticisms, with quiet devastation, delivers as usual in her personal history of makeup.

 From I Want to Be the One to Walk in the Sun, video, 2006

"You know you're the prettiest girl": Rob Horning at The New Inquiry on the Laurel Nakadate exhibit at P.S. 1: "...we be pushed into acknowledging the place Nakadate seems to want to reach, where the integrity of how you feel about yourself, the possibility of recognizing the sincerity of your own emotions, is sacrificed to the need to be looked at."

Race, class, and street harassment: Excellent post (that I'm late to discover) on the role of class in street harassment. "We're fond of saying that the victim's perception is the key element in determining whether or not a person has been harassed, and while I mostly agree with that sentiment, how does that square with the knowledge that some of our perceptions are a product of the values and norms we subscribe to that are determined by economic class?"

Makeover (and over and over): Hypnotic video in which a year's worth of makeup is applied to a woman's face. Some Jezebel commenters see this as a critique of the beauty industry; I just thought it was sorta nifty?

Virginia Sole-Smith, Writer, New York

When Virginia Sole-Smith was assigned to write a 200-word piece about whether nail polish was safe for pregnant women, she immediately wondered whether it was safe for salon workers who, pregnant or not, inhale polish fumes all day. It spurred her to investigate further, leading to  an exposé in The Nation about conditions that are tantamount to sweatshop labor. Her desire to help shape our culture’s conversation about beauty didn’t end there: She spent 600 hours learning to excavate pores, apply makeup, and join “the sisterhood of the Brazilian” in hope of finding some answers about the price we pay for pretty. She blogs about “Beauty U” at Beauty Schooled and on body image at iVillage’s Never Say Diet; her work has also appeared in Nylon, Marie Claire, Slate, and dozens of other publications. We talked about the false delineation of feminism and beauty, the “beauty gaps” that drove her to follow the beauty beat, and the intimacies—false and poignantly real—of salon work. In her own words:

 Photo by Jason Falchook

On "Beauty Gaps"

I think of beauty gaps as all the ways the fantasy of the beauty industry doesn’t match the reality. There’s this huge gap between any woman going into a salon for a treatment, and the person working on her. You don't know much about that person—you often don't even know her name. She’s there to focus on you and work on you in really intimate ways. A lot of customers don't make eye contact when you're giving them a Brazilian. It doesn't make you feel great as the worker when you're up to your elbows in this business and dealing with these sort of unsavory things. You're taking that on, and they don't even want to look at you—they just slide you a couple of wadded-up dollars at the end. It's so intimate, but between worker and customer it can be a fake intimacy. There's an especially large gap in New York, where there's a come-and-go immigrant workforce, and there's language gaps and socioeconomic gaps between worker and consumer.

Another beauty gap happens between what the consumer thinks she's going to get out of a treatment and what she actually gets. Think about when you brought in a picture from a magazine and you're like, "I want that haircut." They give you that haircut, and even if you look great, it's never quite that haircut. There’s always a gap between, This is what I'm promised and This is what I actually look like. There's also the environmental gap between the messages of health and wellness the industry is selling while using all these sketchy chemicals, impacting women's health in all these different ways.

Then there is another beauty gap that took me some time to come to terms with. In school I became close to women who love beauty in a different way than I do—they were signing on to do it professionally, and they weren’t always giving it the same scrutiny. If I’d talk about things like why women shave their legs, a lot of them wouldn’t look at that as a topic that begged that question. That was eye-opening to me—these were smart, interesting, funny women who were just really in love with beauty. Once I was out of school and was going back to my regular life, I had a weird transition period and started putting the puzzle pieces together.

I realized this was the key beauty gap: We’re presented with this choice, that you either have to be smart and reject the beauty myth, or buy into the beauty myth and then you’re stupid and a bad feminist. That’s not a real choice and it’s not an easy place to be.

I’ve had a hard time giving myself enough freedom with the beauty side—I was raised more like, What are you going to be when you grow up, what are you going to do to change the world? Your identity is bound up in what you do—which is what we want for women. You certainly don’t want women to feel like their whole identity is how they look. But if you feel like it’s only about how smart you are, it can be hard to embrace the other side. I mean, obviously I’m fascinated enough with beauty to go to school for a whole year! So it was something I felt deeply about and love talking about endlessly, yet I felt the need to sort of act like I didn’t want to buy into that. It was a little vain on my part. The worker-consumer beauty gap was the more obvious gap to me, but this gap is right here in my own brain. I realized that I needed to work on closing it. 

Read the hilarious background on the Glamour Shots-style pic that made it onto Virginia's esthetics license.

On Feminism

Before I went to beauty school, I thought I had rejected a lot of stuff. Like bikini waxes; I’d do the minimal once a year, and otherwise I’d do nothing, which is fairly unusual for women my age. And I thought that showed how evolved I was, how much of a feminist I was. At the same time, I have more clothes than God—seriously, I have a wall of shoes in my house. And it’s unhelpful when women do exactly what I did, drawing these lines: I’ll do X, but I won’t do Y. We need to understand that the distinction is different for every woman based on how old she is, or her socioeconomic class—there are thousands of different factors playing into why you would or would not do any particular beauty work.

For example, right now I don’t think I would ever get plastic surgery—but I don’t know how I’ll feel in 20 years. These procedures are becoming easier, more affordable, and more commonplace, so we don’t know what “normal” is going to look like. To decide something is evil because it seems extreme to you is doing a disservice to all women. It means we’re at each other’s throats all the time when we could be getting other stuff done. You don’t have to buy into anything you don’t want—you can pick and choose. But we have to respect women who pick and choose differently.

A lot of feminists now in their 50s and 60s have spent all this time fighting for a rejection of the beauty myth to become an accepted position, so they feel let down when feminists our age are like, “Yeah, I’m gonna wear lipstick and dye my hair.” But simply rejecting the beauty myth hasn’t worked. We’ve seen lots of research showing how for all the strides women have made on equal rights issues, women are held back time and time again by appearance-related issues. Some feminists want to focus on issues like equal pay and abortion rights and don’t want to see how discourse on beauty is a part of that same conversation. It has a huge economic impact on us and it bleeds into all of these other things that feminists want to say. We have to stop assuming that the only way to make progress is through a wholesale rejection, and instead start figuring out how women engage with the beauty industry in positive ways. There has to be a way we can do all these things without just buying into unhealthy standards.

On the Intimacy of Beauty Work

When you’re working on a client, it’s your job to deal with the zits, the excess hair, the fat—everything this woman hates about her body, she's handing it off and making it your problem. It isn’t always degrading, but there is a degrading element where you are literally dealing with the body parts people hate the most. If a client says, "Oh my god, my thighs," as the worker you're like, Okay, now I have to work around that. You're trying to make her feel better about all of that, but at the same time in order to make the sale, you have to be like, "We can totally take care of that for you," or "Well, have you tried our cellulite wrap?" It's ridiculous.

At beauty school, there's also an intimacy from the other students. We were perpetuating these intense beauty standards, like, “You should remove that hair, you should do this and that.” It could be anti-woman in that sense, but it was also very bonding. When we would bikini wax each other, it was like a sisterhood—a sisterhood of the Brazilian! You feel this closeness to other women through beauty, and I don’t think that’s fake. I think that’s something some feminists reject. It’s important that this can be seen as an opportunity for female bonding, as a chance for women to relate to one another. I think there are times when the level of connection you can have with other women over beauty work outweighs its negative standards. There’s a way of reclaiming the whole thing.

Beauty can become very competitive, and we’re often trained not to trust pretty women, so any time women actually support one another in beauty work, I think that’s fantastic. Any time you can make it not about competition and instead about a communal experience, that’s a good thing.

On the Business of Beauty Writing

I feel guilty when I’m unhappy with my looks because I feel like I’m letting everybody down. I think I’m supposed to represent feeling good about yourself no matter what. But, I mean, I gained 20 pounds in beauty school. I didn’t want to admit how much it was bothering me—I thought, “that’s the price of reporting,” no big deal. But I was unhappy about it, and I didn’t like that I didn’t like how I looked at that size! Finally my best friend was like, “The whole point of writing about this stuff is to be honest.” It’s not about being the poster child for self-esteem; it’s about sussing out why we feel the way we feel. But there’s definitely a degree of pressure—a lot of the body image community has recovered from or are dealing with eating disorders, and I’m highly aware of not triggering somebody. The last thing you want to do is feed into that machine, so it’s a tricky balance.

I loved women’s magazines in high school and college—I always thought, this is where we as feminists could do so much good work. This is what millions of women read—this is our media. And it should be our media. I always wanted to be in this world. It was eye-opening to realize it was all very well and good to want to create change, but that it’s hard to actually do it.

I wrote a story about labor conditions in nail salons that was originally commissioned by Jane magazine, and they were super-excited about it. I was thrilled because Jane and Sassy were feminist women’s magazines that were supposed to revolutionize everything—I thought it was amazing that I got to do this story for them. They were the ones who sent me to California to do the reporting in nail salons. I wrote it, revised it a thousand times, got it through fact-check, got it through copy edit, got it ready to ship to the printers—and the publisher killed it because of advertising concerns. That was like—okay, if that happened at Jane f*cking magazine, that’s going to happen everywhere. I was devastated. When I got it into The Nation—which was great—everyone was like, “Oh, it’s so much better here than in a women’s magazine.” But though The Nation does amazing things, I would have loved for the story to be in a women’s magazine, because that’s where it needed to be told. Those readers are the women who go to nail salons.

Mani Mania

I swore off manicures when I was in pastry school--it was forbidden in classes, but one girl wore it anyway, and I remember seeing the smallest bit of bright pink polish flake into our brioche dough. I became disgusted at that moment by the thought of having semi-permanent varnish put upon one's body--on your hands! your hands touch things! things people might eat!--and didn't look back.

But in the past few weeks, three separate people have offhandedly (heh) mentioned to me that they love getting manicures--that they feel it gives one that extra little polish (okay, I'll stop). I quit the professional kitchen life several years ago, and my home cooking consists of little more than defrosting precooked chicken strips, so after person #3 today mentioned manicures, I went in for one.

 Snap decision: today's $8 manicure.

It's not hard to see why manicures top many women's lists of beauty musts. It's frivolous, meaning it's for pleasure only; it's affordable (or at least it is for women who live in cities with plentiful "pink collar" immigrant labor, at a rock bottom of $7 a pop); it creates at least half an hour of forced lassitude, time in which you can literally do nothing--not even read, unless you've brought along a servant to turn the pages of Us magazine for you--other than sit there and let yourself be treated. Part of the New York manicure ritual (which has been the same at literally every salon I've visited, which has been a good handful despite my seven-year hiatus from fingernail polish) is the miniature back rub, which comes, unasked for and free of charge, from the manicurist. (Virginia Postrel argues here that the economy can't afford to scoff at nail salons. That was in 1997, and time has proved her right: Spa visits went up in 2008 and 2009, presumably the $12 pedicure kind, not the $200 massage kind.)

And sure enough, it felt good tonight to go in and let myself be treated--and, of course, my bitten nails look much better than they do when left solely under my guardianship. Still, I feel weird about the whole thing. When I put on my coat, an aesthetician came around to help me button it lest it mess up my nails; it was a practical move on her part, ensuring that the just-performed labor wouldn't be for naught, but still--I felt in that moment like she was my servant, not someone I had merely paid to do a service. (Is there a difference, though?) This was compounded by the race/class intersection at the salon: Like 80% of all New York-area nail salon owners, she was Korean. The steady flow of Chinese labor has actually diminished that percentage, just as it has in California, where 75% of all nail salons are Vietnamese-owned. Asian women are often depicted as being passive, and a demure sensibility is indeed considered a feminine asset in many Asian cultures. As I sat there while this woman bent in front of me to button my coat--after, of course, washing my fingertips, rubbing my arms and back, clipping off the dead skin around my fingernails, and then carefully painting ten tiny canvases--I couldn't help but feel a bit like one of those creepy dudes who frequents Asian dating sites.

Now, if I withdrew from any fiscal interactions involving a race/class disparity in New York, I'd pretty much do nothing but sit in my apartment eating dirt. This is a city of immigrants, particularly brown immigrants, many of whom are on the first step of the great American journey. Indian men drive me home late at night, Mexican men deliver my dinner, Chinese women wash my clothes, Arab men sell me sodas and bubble gum. And I'm paying for those services, and presumably that price has been set by the market and is remotely fair, so I just sort of have to guess that it's all okay after all.

What makes manicures different; why am I more uneasy with that exchange than I am with others? Part of it is the unseen damage done to the workers: In a 2004 survey of salon employees in New York, 37% report eye irritation, 66% report neck and back discomfort, and 18% report asthma (compared with the 6% general rate in America). I left the salon three hours ago and I can still smell the solvent on my fingertips, even though I've washed my hands--and that was one half-hour visit, not 10-hour days, six days a week. [Edited 4.19.2011: Virginia Sole-Smith's investigative feature at The Nation gets more into the labor conditions in nail salons; I wish I'd known about it when writing this originally!]

But I think the real reason I'm uneasy with bargain-basement salons is not because of labor issues, as left-wing-righteous as I occasionally fancy myself. (And it's not like my friends who love manicures are gleefully exploiting cheap labor. Certainly I'm not condemning salons nor their clients--among whom I count myself--even if some of the labor practices that have garnered protest from the workers, detailed in this Times piece, makes me cringe. Let's all just be sure to tip well.) The real reason is that I still see beauty as being frivolous--and despite what I wrote above about frivolity equaling pleasure, the fact is that I feel guilt over taking those indulgences for myself, even when I know I needn't. I'm slowly coming to realize that what I thought was resistance to beauty culture is actually a deep negative engagement with it--sort of always wanting to explore its lands more but being afraid to, for fear of seeming too frivolous, too girly, too weak, even though I don't look at women who more comfortably inhabit Beautyland in that way (unless they prove themselves through their actions to be so). I'd like to try to engage with beauty culture in a more positive way, on my own terms, without always looking over my shoulder for its folly.