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.]

News Flash: Beauty Consumers Aren't Suckers



The headlines regarding this recent study about claims made in cosmetics ads indicate things like "Most 'scientific' beauty product claims are bogus." As per usual, the headline isn't accurate at all; the study measured whether product claims were seen as accurate, which is an entirely different matter. Luckily, the question of whether customers think products are bogus is arguably more interesting than whether or not they actually are, so let's go from there—

In short, the study found that women think most beauty ads are bullshit. And appropriately so: They found ads that directly claimed superiority over other products to be flat-out false, and ads based on science to be vague or omissive. Interestingly, the ad type that was perceived as being most acceptable was endorsements—which makes sense, as most of us implicitly understand that at the very least, the person making the endorsement is agreeing of her own free will to make it (even if it's a talking-head fee, not the product's efficacy, that prompts the agreement). And cannily executed, an endorsement, particularly a celebrity endorsement, can be effective if the consumer sees a reflection of herself in the spokesperson.

So we're not suckers for iffy advertising; that's great. But if we actively do not believe the advertising, why are we buying the products? Reputation? Curiosity? Joyful participation in consumerism? Hope? The study I'd really like to see is one in which women who actually buy these products (I include myself here) judge the ads. I'm just as skeptical as the women in this study, but my bathroom shelf has plenty of products that make science-ish claims on it. I do my research, sure, and if I don't think I see any change I don't buy a product again. But the trick of the beauty industry lies in that little blip: If I don't think I see any change. Most things that come in a jar are going to have effects so subtle that their effectiveness is largely in terms of perception, not anything measurable. I think the retinoid cream I use helps keep my skin smooth, but do I know?

The science of beauty ads isn't meant to educate consumers on polymers and retinoids. The science only needs to be assuring enough to fill in that gap between thinking and knowing a product is "working," whatever any consumer's definition of "working" might be. Cosmetics' science claims don't hold up independently, and they don't need to. They just need to hold up enough to nudge us right over the border of where hope and possibility meet.

I've talked with plenty of women about why they wear beauty products, specifically makeup and how it plays into women's day-to-day routines, but not so much about why they buy them. Tell me: What goes through your mind when you're deciding whether to purchase a product? Are you evaluating the product's claims, parsing the words on the label? Are you going by what trusted sources have said? Do you go into a purchase with cynicism, or hope, or both?

One Narrative Fits All: Dove and "Real Beauty"


A few years ago, the Mad Men marketing team came up with the ingenious idea of building a tool that allowed you to create your own personalized Mad Men–style avatar. And once we found out about it, a good friend and I came up with the ingenious idea of making avatars of each other, along with avatars of ourselves, and then comparing the results. 

Here are—re-created from loose memory—the avatars of my friend. On the left, the one she designed of herself. On the right, the one I designed of her.


^^How my friend "drew" herself // How I "drew" my friend ^^

Notice anything different? 

I thought of our avatar exchange when I first heard about the most recent arm of Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign, i.e. the campaign that brought us those billboards several years ago of “real women” modeling for Dove, and that launched the viral “Evolution” video about the process that goes into making media images. This particular project featured women describing themselves to a forensics sketch artist—who was separated from the women by a curtain so he couldn’t see them—and then having near-strangers describe the same woman to the same artist. When the results were compared—ta-da!—the sketches drawn from the strangers’ descriptions were conventionally prettier than the sketches drawn from the women’s descriptions of themselves.

It’s an interesting exercise, one I’d love to try myself—if out of narcissism/curiosity more than, as the Dove tagline would have it, finding out that I Am More Beautiful Than I Think. (Maybe I’ll just sign up for Selfless Portraits instead.) It’s intriguing enough, in fact, to make me overcome my knee-jerk “oh, brother” reaction to the Real Beauty campaign to consider exactly why I find myself disgruntled with a campaign that, on its face, shares many of my own goals as far as getting people to question the meaning of beauty.

Yes, the women in these ads are overwhelmingly conventionally pretty, and trim, and white; no, the ads don’t aim to question the essence of beauty standards so much as expand them to include more women; yes, in the process of examining beauty these ads also limit its definition. But not only have other people critiqued these angles more incisively than I could, the truth is, those aren’t my deepest problems with it. My real problem is this: Just as ads of yore leveraged the attitudes that made women feel bad about their looks in order to sell products, the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty leverages the response to those attitudes in order to sell products. It allows for exactly one way that women can feel about our looks—bad—and creates a template for women’s relationship with their looks that’s just as rigid as the beauty standard it’s challenging.

But hold on, lady—didn’t you know that only 11% of girls around the world feel comfortable using the word beautiful to describe themselves? Isn't that problematic? You can find that statistic right on the Real Beauty Campaign’s website—preceded by a statistic about how 72% of girls "feel tremendous pressure to be beautiful." I look at these numbers and ask myself: How many girls now feel tremendous pressure to use the word beautiful to describe themselves? Another unanswered question stemming from those neat statistics: How many girls and women might not use the word beautiful to describe themselves yet still have a generous interpretation of their looks? How many women, when asked to describe themselves to someone they love or trust as opposed to a total stranger, might dare to use kinder words about their looks? How much our hesitation to claim beautiful for ourselves has to do with either a satisfaction with being pretty, or lovely, or striking—or with not wanting to be seen as suffering from “she thinks she’s all that” syndrome?

With our Mad Men avatars, my friend saw herself as being slimmer than I’d “drawn” her. Now, I don’t want to conflate thinness with beauty, but I knew she was somewhat aesthetically unhappy with her weight at the time we did one another’s avatars—so by the very guideline she was looking toward at the time, she depicted herself as being “more beautiful” than I did. It pains me to say that, because I’ve found her beautiful at every size I’ve seen her inhabit, and I’d be saddened if she thought my avatar of her meant anything less than that (which I don’t think it does). But my point here isn’t which avatar was more accurate—after all, none of the three body choices look particularly like her, or like me, or like anyone except perhaps Christina Hendricks. (The bloody mary, of course, is totally on par.) It’s that in an exchange with someone she intuitively trusted with her mental snapshot of herself, she defaulted not to the more conventionally negative image but to the more conventionally positive image. And like I said, we’re talking here about someone who wasn’t terrifically happy with her body; my friend is psychologically healthy but hardly has bullet-proof bodily self-esteem. Yet her experience of herself as relayed to the “sketch artist” of the app wasn’t one of hesitant self-deprecation—an experience we saw nowhere in the Dove sketch artist video.

The Dove campaign has confounded me from the beginning. I’ve alternately felt annoyed by it, touched by it, in simpatico with it, turned off by it, patronizing toward it, and thankful for it. In other words: It is having exactly the effect it’s supposed to have. And that’s what makes it both an effective campaign and a gold mine/red herring for skeptics like me. Dove’s parent company, Unilever, does not exist to make women feel good about themselves; Unilever exists to sell products. That’s fine, that’s their mission—they’re not a therapy center, they’re not a nonprofit (though they do sponsor nonprofit groups that work specifically for girls’ self-esteem)—and at day’s end, whatever my intellectual quibblings, I’d rather have a company trying to meet its mission in a way that’s socially responsible rather than in a way that grasps for the lowest common denominator. But to forget that their goal is to sell products to you, and that all these campaigns exist to generate buzz—call it “start[ing] a global conversation” if you will, it’s the same thing as "buzz"—in order to make you want to buy those products would be a mistake. Hell, by contributing to this “global conversation” here I’m doing unpaid PR for Dove, regardless of what I’m actually saying about their work. (And for Mad Men too, for that matter.) If that sounds cynical, remember that the entire concept of branded content (i.e. what the Dove campaign is, as opposed to a traditional commercial) exists because consumers got tired of regular advertising. And—hold your breath here, folks—female consumers ages 25 to 34 prefer Dove’s “branded content” approach to a traditional ad by a 7:1 margin

I just can’t help but wonder if part of the reason those consumers prefer this approach is not only their own cynicism, but their own imprinting of the idea that women’s greatest challenge in this world is to love their looks. It can be a challenge, yes, of course it can be—an enormous one, one that, without any path outward, can inhibit any of us to the point where we can’t accept any greater challenges. It’s a terrible feeling, isn’t it? I know it well. For make no mistake through my critique: There’s a part of me that feels fiercely empathetic when I watch the Dove video, and that’s because it’s an ad that gets me where it hurts—for when I’m in that zone, I’m intensely vulnerable. Intense vulnerability is easily recalled in the body; tears sprang to my eyes during the part of the sketch-artist video when the women’s side-by-side portraits were revealed to them. And intense vulnerability that is easily recalled in the body makes for a highly receptive consumer. 

Do I get something out of the Dove campaign? Yes, I do. And Dove will always get more.

MAC Office Hours: "Weisure," Beauty Labor, and Order


She's a glamorous go-getter with nothing temp about her! Full-time, overtime—her makeup, like her day, goes on and on. What she loves: the no-fade staying power of these M∙A∙C Pro Longwear formulas—including new M∙A∙C Pro Longwear Blush. 

I don’t mean to pick on MAC—really, I don’t. In fact, if the brand didn’t intrigue me so much I’d ignore it (when have I ever written about, say, Maybelline?). It used Miss Piggy for a model, for chrissakes, and even though I hopped right onto that with looking at the version of “authenticity” MAC peddles, the fact remains that I have to admire how well MAC’s marketing team zeroes in on what skeptics comme moi might sniff out in a brand.

So at first, when I saw this astute Makeup Museum post critiquing MAC’s latest line, titled Office Hours, I glanced at the styling of the ads for the collection and actually had a knee-jerk defense of the brand. Yes, the ads depict a working woman whose office looks like cotton candy, and who appears to do nothing more demanding than file her nails; yes, they’re styled in a retro fashion, hearkening back to the days when the best a woman could hope for was being head of the secretary pool. I saw the spot-on points the Makeup Museum’s Curator was making—but truth be told, I sorta liked the look of the ads. Pretty much the only fashion trend I’ve endorsed since grunge fell out of favor is the Mad Men-inspired 1960s revival (I’m writing this while sporting a checkered pinafore and a bouffant). The show and the styles it brought back have been critiqued as a manifestation of our national longing to return to a “simpler time”—simpler being code for racist, sexist, and psychically stifled—and perhaps in some aspects it is. But as creatures of 2012, we also have the luxury of being able to see the era in perfect hindsight; in loud shift dresses and winged eyeliner we may see not conformity but a generation of women on the precipice of feminism, rebellion bubbling inside them, just waiting for the right moment to burst forth.

Point is: At first I saw the MAC collection as being a reference to where women actually are today, not an idealization of the past. I didn’t even mind the Barbie-fied version of work the ads fed us; I don’t particularly want a “real” work-based makeup collection featuring a shade called Printer Preset Blues, you know? Certainly I wouldn’t want it from MAC, which even more so than other beauty brands is not in the business of reflecting our realities; they’re in the business of creating our fantasies. So, sure, let the vision created with this collection be not an office populated with Flavia coffee machines but a Mad Men-style glam kitsch office where martini hour starts at 3 and Esquivel is piped through the intercom.

That doesn’t answer the fundamental question raised over at Makeup Museum, though, or the question lurking beneath my own assessment of the campaign: Why office work? Why, of all the possible themes for MAC to choose from, choose a place associated with drudgery, in-the-box thinking, and tedium? (Apologies to all who enjoy their office jobs; my freelancer bias is showing, I suppose.)

The campaign is a sort of reverse nod to a trend sociologists have noted in the past several years—a conflation of work and leisure (or “weisure,” if you must) most readily visible in the expectation that because new technologies allow us to be available 24/7, we’ll actually be available 24/7. Theoretically, the upside is a more flexible work culture (I can work poolside on my smartphone!); the downside is an expansion of what can fairly be considered “office hours” (must I work poolside on my smartphone?). Running parallel to the phenomenon of working hours coming to resemble leisure is the phenomenon of leisure time beginning to resemble work. I mean, when else in the history of humankind have 34 million people signed up to spend their leisure time tending imaginary farms? Or eagerly signed up for the privilege of basically creating our own timesheets of time-and-place accountability?

The idea behind things like Farmville and Foursquare is that our leisure time will seem somehow more pleasurable if we view it through the lens of work; they provide us with rules, feedback on our own activities, and clearly defined parameters. There is comfort in regulation. And so it is with MAC’s Office Collection: Beyond the kooky pink kitsch of the ads, there’s definite—and appealing—order. Lip glosses take their place in the office drawer alongside paper clips and staple removers; blush compacts line up next to perfectly sharpened pencils. MAC’s immensely popular Lipglass is shown open but immaculate next to a broken pencil (the writing kind, not the eyelining kind), the idea being that Lipglass is more reliable than good old-fashioned work tools.





It might sound like I’m strictly cynical about MAC’s conflation of work and play, and I am, but no more so than I’m cynical about any campaign. In fact, there’s something refreshing here about MAC openly acknowledging that beauty isn’t always play. Sometimes it’s work, even if you approach it with a MAC-like sensibility of makeup being about “expression” and play, and the idea of linking their products to heavily styled drudgery serves as an inherent acknowledgement of women’s individually performed beauty labor. (It also makes me wonder what our other manifestations of “weisure” might be telling us about how we choose to spend our supposedly free time. If this collection is a nod the labor of beauty, what does Farmville’s existence signify—a longing to get “back to the land” without leaving the comfort of our sofas? Do the constant check-ins of Foursquare signal our active acceptance of surveillance, to the point where we’ll broadcast our own locations to the world at large?)

The collection itself reflects the message of regulation behind the campaign (which, I suppose, is the entire point): The shades are neutral, tasteful, traditional. No matter how over-the-top the styling of the campaign may be, right below the “fun” retro styling beats an orderly, conservative heart. These shades are office-ready. The model’s pompadour, the monochrome palette, the exaggerated 1960s look: MAC gives us a glamorized version of office work here, which we need in order to want to participate. The company is partially relying upon its reputation as an innovator in the field in order to give us a wink and a nod—you know we’re not really saying you should want to be an office drone, right?

Yet without the products themselves having any subversive qualities (pink blush! taupe eyeshadow! oh my!) it becomes clear what the campaign is: the packaging of a rather boring color collection that still lets us get our kooky side on. That is, it’s doing exactly what marketing is supposed to do—highlighting hopes and fantasies we may have hushed over time, but ultimately just feeding us versions of ourselves.

The Alienation of Mary Kay

Karl is wearing TimeWise® Firming Eye Cream, .5 oz., $30, marykay.com or your nearest Mary Kay lady

Near the top of the dry erase board where I keep a running list of fragmented ideas—nose job thing, Miss Piggy, story about yogurt (all in due time, my friends, all in due time!)—there’s long been an item that makes me laugh every time I see it, because of its sheer grandiosity. Is beauty inherently capitalist??? it reads, question marks included. I have no idea where my line of thinking was at the time I scrawled it; certainly now the question doesn’t make much sense, unless one is willing to look at beauty as inherently being a good, which I’m not. The best I can come up with is that I meant is the beauty industry inherently capitalist, which, duh, yes, as are all industries, right?

Reading “The Pink Pyramid” by Virginia Sole-Smith in this month’s Harper’s, however, it seems my overblown, half-baked question has a stark answer. Specifically, I’m wondering if one arm of the beauty industry—Mary Kay and its masquerade of empowerment through direct sales—might not actually be a classic case study of why our economic system works the way it does, exemplifying certain aspects of capitalism, specifically the ways our own labor alienates us from our fuller selves. (The piece isn’t fully available online, but Sole-Smith has written about it at her blog and in these ungated pieces, and the piece is definitely worth picking up a copy of the magazine.) I’d always found Mary Kay old-fashioned and fussy, sure, but I rather liked the idea of women being able to work on their own schedule—the original flextime!—building upon a business founded by a woman, catering to women, being unabashedly feminine and celebrating the small joys of beauty.

The picture Sole-Smith skillfully paints with her investigative reporting dismantles any protofeminist notions: Mary Kay makes its money not so much from the sales parties conducted by its team members (a.k.a. Mary Kay ladies), but rather in roping in more and more people to become team members. For in order to successfully sell Mary Kay, it’s best to have lots of inventory—inventory purchased wholesale by team members from their “sales directors” (i.e. the next rung up on the pyramid), who receive a cut of the inventory sales before any client has actually purchased a thing. (And hey, if need be, Mary Kay saleswomen can just charge their inventory to their Chase Mary Kay Rewards Visa card.) With frequently shifting inventory and the tendency for potential sales party attendees to back out at the last minute (does anybody really enjoy going to those parties?), team members are stuck with thousands of dollars worth of inventory they can’t sell. The higher up the pyramid, the sweeter your deal. But hey—you don’t have to buy inventory in order to be a Mary Kay lady; you can just have your clients place orders and they’ll get their products in a few weeks—so it’s not technically a pyramid scheme. So technically, it’s not illegal.

In other words, it’s genius. Not only are Mary Kay participants basically jumping into a pyramid scheme, which preys upon hope, but the way Mary Kay evades being an actual pyramid scheme is the very thing that made me view the company as charming, even vaguely empowering: sisterhood. If you’ve ever been to a Mary Kay party or its ilk (I haven’t, but an ex-boyfriend’s mother once invited me to a “Passion Party,” and people-pleasing me actually went), you know what I’m talking about: an “it’s just us girls” tone that hits midway between no-nonsense big-sisterly advice and ostensibly pro-woman nudges to buy more products. (“You really are helping a friend and yourself,” says a sales director in the article’s opening scene. “That’s how Mary Kay works.”) If beauty talk serves as a portal for the kinds of conversations we’re actually hungry to have with other women, Mary Kay charges by the word.

That’s insidious enough, particularly because it puts a dollar value on the sort of tentative connections I see women try to make with one another all the time—proof that the catfight imagery that dominates depictions of female friendship is a divide-and-conquer technique that masks the vulnerability that’s so often laid bare in those relationships. But I’m just as intrigued by the way this dependence upon our wish to connect translates into dollars.

I lay zero claim to be a Marx scholar, or even to have seriously read Marx, so excuse me if this is beyond rudimentary. But as I understand it, a principal theme of Marxism is alienation from various aspects of labor—alienation from the product of one’s labor, the act of production, and human potential. This alienation is an inevitable outcome of a stratified class society—a social pyramid, you might say—in which people are only privy to their particular cog in the wheel that makes society go ’round. Lurking throughout the process of alienation is mystification, or the ways the market conceals the hierarchies and class relations that set the stage for alienation.

Mary Kay could hardly be more literal in its manifestation of alienation and marketplace mystification. Team members (the bottom of the pyramid) depend upon sales directors, (the next rung up) to supply their products and help build their clientele; a saleswoman’s interaction with Mary Kay proper seems nil (alienation from production). The company tracks wholesale numbers only—that is, what saleswomen purchase to sell, not what customers actually buy—so while a saleswoman has the illusion of complete control over her own labor, in fact she’s playing a crucial role in marketplace mystification, which serves to keep workers alienated from the true results of their own labor. It’s a strategic refusal on Mary Kay’s part, since it allows for the myth of team members’ potential to become the stuff of legend. The pink Cadillacs are only part of it; the brochure Sole-Smith was given in her first meeting with her sales director cited $17,040 as a reasonable outcome for holding just one skin-care class per week. (In her three years of research, of course, Sole-Smith didn’t find women who made anywhere near that amount.) The workers themselves seem to hesitantly accept the mystification to the point of superstition; legend has it that to have a successful Mary Kay career, you need to have your picture taken while standing in Mary Kay Ash’s heart-shaped bathtub. “I think most people were a little torn about doing this, because the line was so long, and it was all so campy,” said a sales director whose precarious Mary Kay-related finances played a role in her eventual divorce. “But at the same time, there’s this huge tradition that you can only be successful if you take the picture in the tub. So nobody was willing to forgo that step.” That is, the workers were afraid to pay attention to their own instincts that were whispering This is ridiculous, because the promise of earnings loomed so large. The alienation was complete.

When I interviewed Sole-Smith for The Beheld last year, she talked about what she calls “beauty gaps.” The gap between a customer paying $50 for a salon service and the worker receiving a fraction of that to perform outsourced “dirty work” (and, indeed, the overall gap between what women spend on beauty and what women earn when they become beauty workers); the gap between what a buyer is promised with a beauty product and what she actually receives; the gap our culture has created between being the smart girl and the pretty one.

This piece examines another beauty gap: the gap between the true actualization of human potential and the reality of the lives of the story’s subjects. Mary Kay talks a good talk about encouraging its workers to fulfill their greatest potential (“How can I help u achieve your dreams?!” the local sales director texts Sole-Smith at one point). But in truth, what Mary Kay workers hope will be flexibility turns out to be precarity—the very thing that prevents many of us from “fulfilling our dreams” or “reaching for the stars” or any of the bootstraps-happy talk we’re led to believe is the key to success. (Which, as Sole-Smith points out in a companion piece to "The Pink Pyramid," is particularly troublesome when our national conversation about women is still centered around the question of “having it all.”) Most of the women who do wind up making money from selling Mary Kay earn minimum wage. And some who lose money on their first attempt keep coming back, certain it’s not the system that’s at fault but rather their own lack of expertise that’s holding them back.

But hey, even if it’s a pyramid scheme, well, these women are going in with their eyes open, right? This is more about bad business, not about the beauty industry per se, right? Well, not really, and not only because Mary Kay talks a good (and misleading) talk. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Mary Kay is built upon the same idea as the Tupperware party plan—popular in the 1950s, the height of the “feminine mystique” era that put a hard sell on the idea that women should be wholly fulfilled by homemaking and child-reading alone. Today, in a world where the valorization of housewifery has been displaced by a combination of the beauty myth and superwoman, is it any surprise it’s a beauty company that has taken hold? And is it any surprise that in a world where it’s hard enough for regular consumers to manage their own combustible insecurities of appearance and money, some workers within the industry might fall prey to that same toxic combination?

The Sweet Smell of Sexcess

(via)


Nefarious may seem a strong word to apply to cake-scented perfume, but bear with me for a minute, okay? Years ago, I was copy editing at a women’s magazine, and one of the beauty pages was all about food-scented products—lemon cookie body souffles, cotton candy lip gloss, caramel body polish. Something about it just nagged at me, but I couldn’t put my finger on why. The promotion of these products felt somewhere between belittling, infantalizing, and placating—even as I admitted they smelled nice—and though I’d never really thought much about the products on an individual, something about seeing all of them grouped together on the page vaguely unsettled me.

I tried articulating this to a friend, who then got worked up because she was a fan of (the pretty awesome) Lush, which liberally uses food scents in its collection, and before I knew it I was on the other end of the feminist beauty argument than where I’d prefer to be: I was saying there was something politically off-putting about a grown woman smelling like cake, and she was saying that the right to revel shame-free in sensual pleasure was something feminists had fought for, and I think we settled it by meeting midway at peppermint foot scrub, but I don’t really remember.

It stuck with me, though, in part because one of the arguments I’d used fell flat when I gave it more thought: I’d argued that foodie products were pushed as an alternative to actually eating food. And you do see some of that, to be sure, tired blurbs about how slathering on a cupcake body lotion will “satisfy—without the calories!” But it usually seems like such a desperate bid for beauty copy that I have a hard time believing anybody actually uses sweet-smelling body products in an effort to reduce sugar intake. (Besides, logic would dictate that it would do the opposite, right? If I smell cookies, my instinct hardly to sigh, “Ah! Now I don’t have to actually eat cookies!” but rather to optimize cookie-eating opportunities.)

But it wasn’t until I re
ad One-Dimensional Woman by Nina Powers that I realized what it really is about foodie beauty that gets to me. Powers on chocolate:
Chocolate represents that acceptable everyday extravagance that all-too-neatly encapsulates just the right kind of perky passivity that feminized capitalism just loves to reward with a bubble bath and some crumbly cocoa solids. It sticks in the mouth a bit. … I think there’s a very real sense in which women are supposed to say ‘chocolate’ whenever someone asks them what they want. It irresistibly symbolizes any or all of the following: ontological girlishness, a naughty virginity that gets its kicks only from a widely-available mucky cloying substitute, a kind of pecuniary decadence.

Which, comi
ng from a voice as right-on as Nina Powers, makes me want to host some sort of sit-in at Cadbury HQ*, but let’s face it, I’m not an organizer. So take that sentiment and add it to not even actual chocolate but things that just smell like chocolate (or cupcakes, or buttercream, or caramel, or any other boardwalk treat) and that are meant to make you feel and look soft and pretty—harmless, that is—and yeah, these products carry more than a hint of unease. Foodie beauty products are designed serve as a panacea for women today: Yes’m, in the world we’ve created you have fewer management opportunities, the state can hold court in your uterus, there’s no law granting paid maternal leave in the most powerful nation on the planet, and you’re eight times more likely to be killed by your spouse than you would be if you were a man, but don’t worry, ladies, there’s chocolate body wash!

I’v
e no doubt that the minds creating these products are doing so because they seem like they’ll sell, and less importantly, they seem like fun. Hell, they are fun: Sweets are celebratory, and why shouldn’t we remind ourselves of celebration, especially with something as sensual as scent? But the motive needn’t be intentional to be nefarious. Men like food too—remember that study about how the scent of pumpkin pie made them horny?—but it’s not like companies hawk products to men that smell like food that’s been successfully gendered via marketing.** (I mean, certainly there are men out there who dab barbeque sauce behind their ears and fill their sock drawers with sachets of crushed pork rinds, but marketers haven’t caught on. Yet.) Food-product marketing is specific to women (mint, ginger, and citrus scents aside), for we’re the ones still connected with the domestic sphere and all the “simple pleasures” it brings. Men get forests, the oceans, the dirt of the earth itself. We get flowers and a birthday cake.

N
ow, at this point, Dear Reader, I have a confession to make. Actually, I have at least seven confessions to make, starting with: As a teenager, I used vanilla extract as perfume. Which is not to say I haven’t also purchased a bevy of vanilla perfumes over the years—for I have—in addition to gingerbread body scrub, brown sugar lotion, a chocolate body oil that inexplicably made me sleepy, an angel-food-scented bar of glycerin soap with a plastic cutout of a slice of birthday cake floating in the middle, and a “Fortune Kookie” body gel that I finally discarded, at age 33, not because of the scent but because of the accompanying shimmer. So I’m not immune to the charm of smelling like Betty Crocker. I wore these products most frequently as a teenager but carried some to adulthood and why not? They do smell good, after all; that’s the whole point. And they trigger something that on its face seems harmless: Part of their appeal lies in how they transport us back to an age when all we needed to be soothed was a cupcake.

At the same time, they don’t actually transport us to being that age; they transport us to a simulacrum of it. When I was 6, if I wanted to smell like anything it was the Estee Lauder perfume samples my mother got free with purchase. Smelling like fake food was for the only thing more powerless than a 6-year-old girl—Strawberry Shortcake dolls. I loved the scent of those dolls but never wanted to smell like them myself; it wouldn’t have occurred to me. It was only when I was a teenager and began to actually walk the line between girlhood and womanhood that I su
ddenly became obsessed with smelling like a Mrs. Field’s outlet—and sure enough, there’s that “naughty virginity” Powers mentions. I wholly bought into what she outlined: Smelling like cotton candy let me put forth the idea that I was the kind of girl who would enthusiastically dig into a vat of the stuff, i.e. the kind of girl who liked to have a good time, but not that kind of good time, except of course it was that kind of a good time, because the biggest thing that had changed from the 14-year-old me dragging torn-out magazine samples of Red Door across her wrists and the 15-year-old me dabbing vanilla onto my neck was intimate knowledge of what an orgasm was. I liked feeling a little hedonistic, in the most good-girl way possible. Smelling sweet at 15 was lightly naughty without being seamy in the least—if anything, its naughtiness was so covert that I didn’t realize that scenting myself as a Sweet Young Thing had any implications other than, well, sweetness, even though my near-panic whenever I came close to running out of my Body Shop oil should have alerted me that I had more invested in this whole vanilla thing than I could articulate at the time.

Which is not to say that every teenager—or every adult woman—who spritzes on a little angel food perfume is a wanton Lolita, or that even if they are, that we should raise our eyebrows about it. Certainly I was better off expressing my “wantonness” (can you be wanton if you went off to college a virgin?) through vanilla perfume than I would have been by expressing it with anyone resembling Humbert Humbert. And as much as this blog might imply I believe otherwise, sometimes a candy cigar is just a candy cigar. The perfume I wear most frequently now*** is indeed a hint sweet—carnation, rose, bergamot, milk, and honey—and while I’m not so arrogant as to think the 15-year-old me had complex sociological-developmental motivations for wearing vanilla perfume but of course the 35-year-old me just likes what she likes, the fact is, I do wear it because I like it. I don’t want to imply that any of us should stop using lemon cookie body souffle or toss out our Lip Smackers—joy can be hard enough to come by plenty of days, and if it comes in a yummy-smelling jar, well, that’s reliable enough for me not to turn my nose up at, eh? I just wonder how harmless something can actually be when its existence is predicated upon announcing just how harmless it really is.


*On chocolate, briefly: I do like the stuff, though have never lived for it; I’d rather have lemon, caramel, or coffee-flavored confections most of the time, and I really only like chocolate-chocolate, not chocolate cake or chocolate ice cream or whatever. That hasn’t stopped people around me from assuming I have a great love of chocolate and furnishing it to me as a treat, to the point where I myself forgot that it’s not my favorite sweet and found myself falling into some sort of cocoa zone where a chocolate bar became a reward for a job well done, or for 24 hours fully revolved, whichever came first. It was only upon realizing that the fellow I was dating looked forward to our shared chocolate bars more than I did that I realized I’d talked myself into becoming a chocoholic, and I haven’t looked back since. I maybe buy one Lindt bar every other month?

**There is, of course, the curious case of Axe Dark Temptation, a cocoa-scented body product line for men whose commercials featured women gnawing at men enrobed in chocolate, elevating depravity to an entirely new level.



***Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab's Alice, since you asked.

The Enduring Popularity of Tans



Around this time each year—usually a hair later, but, hey, climate change!—I enter the same debate with myself: to self-tan or not to self-tan? After years of studiously avoiding the sun, fervently evoking old-timey movie stars with porcelain complexions as my reason for doing so, I spent time in the tropics a few years ago and returned with a deep allover tan that made people around me say, “Wow, you’re tan.” I freakin’ loved it and promptly spent a small fortune on Jergens Natural Glow. It lasted through the summer, but then the following summer I was faced with a conundrum: I’d adored having a natural tan and didn’t mind keeping it up artificially, but healthwise I couldn’t afford to do it again—I tick nearly every box on the list of skin cancer risk factors. (I’d initially done my best to avoid the sun in Vietnam but when that proved impossible, I threw off the towel and sunbathed for all it was worth.) Did I actually want to start from scratch, building up a “tan”—a tan made up of what amounts to skin dye, I might add—for no particular reason? Did I really want to invest the money and time in a fake tan, for a capitulation to vanity?

So here we are, leg-baring season quickly approaching, and I’m in the same spot again. And as I go back and forth with myself about whether I want to appear tanned this year, I'm asking myself a question that, surprisingly, I haven’t wondered before: Why do we want to look tan in the first place?

Pa
rt of the answer, as with many things fashionable, is Coco Chanel. Prior to the designer’s rise to prominence, clothes covered so much of women’s form that a body tan was impossible, and a tan on the face and hands signified what it still does in developing nations: that the tanned person is an outdoor laborer, most likely of low social status. Lily-white skin remained a sign of a lady even after industrialization, but legend has it that when Chanel was accidentally sunburned during a trip to the Riviera and developed a tan shortly thereafter, her new hue took fire as a symbol of all she herself embodied: modernism, luxury, and independence. The episode “coincided” with a shift in the medical approach to sunlight, as the medical field went from regarding the sun as dangerous to seeing it as a cure-all within a span of 30 years. In 1905’s The Effects of Tropical Light on White Men, Dr. Chas Edward Woodruff wrote that “The American girl is a bundle of nerves. She is a victim of too much light,” but by WWI “heliotherapy” was readily used to treat wounds, rickets, tuberculosis. Whatever the case, according to Vogue, “The 1929 girl must be tanned,” and so she was.

But here’s the thing that
’s sort of flummoxing: That was 83 years ago. We haven’t let up since. There have been plenty of developments that have kept tanning popular—the bikini in 1946, the foil blanket in the 1950s, a plethora of tanning aides from “gypsy sun tan oil” in the 1930s to the perfunctory Coppertone baby—and there have been fluctuations in the fashionability of suntans. But since their arrival, tans have never truly gone out of fashion. Even through the enormous rise of awareness of the dangers of UV rays, tanning is, if not a cultural imperative, something we don’t necessarily question. We might swat wrists of friends who bake in tanning beds, but we don’t really blink an eye at self-tanning creams even if we don’t use them ourselves (and up to 46% of us do). Plus, judging by the number of people who complimented my tan after my return from Vietnam, it still holds a good amount of cultural cachet. Since 1929 we’ve given up spit curls, drop waists, and breast binding, but we cling to the tan.

We cling to it in part because its significance hasn’t changed all that much, sure; it’s affluence, luxury, and even though we all know better, health. The idea now isn’t so much that we’re acting as if we’ve spent two weeks at Saint-Tropez but rather that we’re not desk-bound. It’s also the perfect accessory: A tan hits the sweet spot between conspicuous and inconspicuous consumption. It visibly shares that you’ve done something we still connect with leisure and affluence, but without the bourgeois connotations of furs, Jaguars, and jewels. Once tan, you cannot help but be tan; it’s literally a part of who you are. It’s the ultimate expression of “Oh, this old thing?” The dearth of tans among hipsters supports this: In a community definitively marked by inconspicuous consumption, the standards for visibility change, stigmatizing any visible consumption, i.e. tans, more than they would be elsewhere. The activities prized by the hipster community—not that such a thing exists, mind you!—with the possible exceptions of fixed-gear bicycling and rabid picnicking, are largely indoor: art, music, Tumblr. The less tan you are, the more easily you can create the appearance of partaking in these activities. Certainly I don’t think hipsters are avoiding the sun to act as if they’re not secretly 
weekend warriors. But taking the step those weekend warriors might—applying self-tanner or bronzer to advertise one’s proclivities to the outdoors—would send the wrong sort of social message at Chloe Sevigny’s tea party.

Beyond the idea of material luxury, a tan represents that we have the luxury to be connected to both nature and culture simultaneously. Tourism boards use tanning in their materials: “The bourgeois on their Mediterranean beaches can entertain the illusion of learning to love their bodies again as they did in childhood,” writes K.K. Sharma in his overview of the history of tourism. A tan is a message, and the message is that its bearer is a child of nature who has returned to one’s filing-cabinet life bearing proof of the nature connection. The idea of tans returning us to a state of nature makes tanning less stigmatized where more tangible icons of luxury might be sneered at. 


But even with all these reasons for tans sticking around for more than 80 years, it’s still counterintuitive. I’m having trouble thinking of anything that we know full well is bad for us but that we do anyway, for vanity—rather, that we encourage the mimicking of. We might go on diets, wear high heels, quaff martinis, puff smoke rings, or any number of other things that have been glamorized that aren’t so hot for your health—but we’re actually doing those things, not pretending to do them. With self-tanner, it’s like we’re all standing around puffing on electronic cigarettes even if we’ve never touched real tobacco. We all know tans don’t actually represent health and that there’s no such thing as a “healthy tan,” but we don’t really believe it. Rather, plenty of us believe it but covet the tan anyway, and turn to products to help us regain what has been taken from us with our banishment from the sun.

And, as with so many thin
gs about the intensely personal choices we make, it just might come down to this: There is an enormous financial amount at stake in keeping us sunny-side up. Sunblock is a good-sized segment of the skin-care industry (it’s projected to hit $5.2 billion globally by 2015), but so are its cousins: sunless tanning products, spray-on tans, and cosmetic bronzers totaling $516 million annually, not to mention the indoor tanning industry and low-dose sunblocks marketed as "tanning creams." I’d initially thought that the cosmetic approaches to tanning were developed as a “healthy” alternative to natural tans and tanning beds, but actually, various lotions and dyes have been around as long as tanning has been fashionable, for the very reason that a suntan is sought after in the first place: Most of us don’t have unlimited time to lounge around Biarritz (or, today, to lay complacently in tanning beds—which ain’t cheap, even if you’re willing to take the health risks). Mantan, a sunless tanning lotion popular in the 1950s, promised dual action with its “moisturizing” action that “lasts for days without touch-ups!”; even in an era when women were being supposedly liberated from housework with the modern kitchen, time was at a premium.



And we can’t look at tann
ing products without at least glancing at their counterparts: lighteners. Skin lightening creams are wildly popular in Asia; the idea isn’t to look white but rather to look sophisticated and wealthy—an elevation from the peasant class that works outside.The politics and implications of skin lightening call for deeper examination than I can give them here; for now I’ll just point out the obvious: Both self-tanners and skin lightening creams are class in a bottle. Asian women using skin lighteners don’t want to look white any more than I want to look Hispanic when I put on self-tanner; we want to look lighter or darker, sure, but both of those are a route to looking what our cultures deem better. Skin lightening creams are making in-roads in the North American market, with claims about “radiance,” “brightening,” and “illuminating—but the truth is, those adjectives are similarly applied in Asia as well (as I found out when I bought a “radiance” face wash in Vietnam that didn’t strip away my tan but made me look chalky immediately after washing). These are the same formulas, mind you, but being packaged to apply to the inner desires of each culture: paleness in Asia, radiance in America, youth and “rejuvenation” in both. As this excellently reported piece on the rise of skin lightening creams in North America shows, "a brightener is whatever we want it to be."

In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf writes about how the beauty industry attempts to package the radiance each individual brings to the world. “The Rites of Beauty offer to sell women back an imitation of the light that is ours already, the central grace we are forbidden to say that we see,” she writes. If radiance can be bought and sold, in a consumer society that sends the message that the “real” radiance is what comes in the package, while the homemade stuff gets moldy. Add to that the reality that the homemade tan—that is, a tan acquired from actually being in the sun—is damaging to your health (and eventually to your vanity through a leathery appearance), and suddenly the stuff in the bottle becomes even more appealing than run-of-the-mill makeup that just promises to make you look “better.” Eyeliner makes you look more awake, but self-tanner (or lightener, depending on the culture) promises to give you back that light that was originally yours, and it does so in a way that lets you play by the rules. Good girls stay out of the sun, but good girls also look like they get plenty of the stuff regardless. The tan in the bottle—that “Radiant,” “Natural Glow,” that “Sublime Bronze,” that holy protection of the “Bronzing Veil”—gives us an out, allows us to have our radiance without the harm the real deal would inflict. The beauty of it for us is that we’ve figured out how to get that “healthy tan” after all. And the beauty of it for the industry is that we’re paying $8.49 for each opportunity to do so.

The Grandiose Vacuity of "Rock the Lips"


Among the handful of press releases and notifications I received about International Women’s Day—which is today, March 8 (set your estro-calendar!)—was an event known as Rock the Lips. The idea is that “Because Women Rock,” women worldwide should wear red lipstick today to turn the world “into a sea of power pouts,” for “if we can get 1 million passionate, dynamic, creative, intelligent, fun women to wear red lipstick March 8th...what else can we do together?” Good question. Judging by the event’s team page on microlending site Kiva.org, “we” can raise $200, the grand total of all donations made in the name of Rock the Lips as of the time I published this.

I probably don’t need to spell out how ludicrous this campaign is. There’s the utter emptiness of it (why exactly are we wearing red lipstick? to raise awareness of...the existence of women? of lipstick? of red?), the insulting idea that lipstick is an icon that women worldwide would be thrilled to embrace as a symbol of liberation, the equation of red lipstick as a de facto symbol of womanhood. I’d call it redwashing if anything were being washed; instead it’s wholly vacuous, without even the pretense of anything progressive or charitable coming out of it, unless the idea is that women using a tool of conventional beauty en masse is a charitable act in itself, a gift to the world at large. (So pretty we are!) As Nancy Friedman, who alerted me to Rock the Lips, says, “I became a feminist and all I got was this lousy red lipstick.”

It’s the brainchild of a leading interactive marketing firm, AKQA, which specializes in digital advertising and has won numerous industry awards. I’m holding out a tiny amount of hope that this is some sort of subversive advertising campaign for a cause/company as yet unidentified, for it’s difficult to imagine an industry leader creating something this birdbrained as its independent outreach to the ladies. But I suspect that hope is optimistic; Rock the Lips appears to think it’s clever or brave for playfully challenging major brands to “rock the lips” along with them. “How about putting a red power pout on the green mermaid?” they ask of Starbucks. To Google, “Let’s see the O’s replaced with lipstick marks.” The idea, perhaps, is that if you get corporations to recognize your stunt (and that’s what this is, a stunt), you gain legitimacy. But legitimacy for what? 

Its vacuity is so grandiose as to teeter on the line of genius: Remember how everyone got all excited about flash mobs, and then they turned out to be a sort of social experiment from a Harper's editor? "Not only was the flash mob a vacuous fad; it was, in its very form (pointless aggregation and then dispersal), intended as a metaphor for the hollow hipster culture that spawned it," wrote Bill Wasik, the flash mob's creator. Is AKQA trying to prank us? Or just discredit participants by revealing them to be woefully out of touch with what women are actually capable of? Or is it really just as nefarious as it seems: A company that exists to market other companies marketing the vaguest and most superficial idea of "girl power" by doing something with absolutely zero social value and attempting to pass it off as...can we even call this slacktivism?

Listen, I often wear red lipstick, and in fact I’ve written about how “In seeing my highlighted lips move, I saw the words themselves as being highlighted.” Swivel lipstick was invented shortly after women in the U.S. gained the right to vote, and the color red has a long association with women’s sexual expression, indubitably tied to larger forms of expression. It’s not that there’s a lack of correlation between verbal articulation and cosmetic articulation. (For more on this correlation, see, oh, everything I’ve ever written. It's not the lipstick here that I find offensive, it's the total lack of substance behind the "action.") But that seems to go unnoticed, or at least unremarked upon, by Rock the Lips. It’s style without substance, rallying without a cause. It’s red without blood.

*   *   *

So Rock the Lips is vacuous and terrible, we agree, right? Yes, we agree, let’s move on and not speak of it again. (Given that their goal was 1 million women, and they only have 4,500 "likes" on Facebook, I'm guessing that AKQA will see it for what it is and quietly close up shop on this initiative.) So what about International Women’s Day? I’m feeling ambivalent about it and am trying to figure out why. Undoubtedly, plenty of good comes out of it. Some assorted examples: Global action group Lane Change has a list of hands-on actions we can take to improve the status of women (mentoring women, reading feminist writers, writing about real-life female heroes), Kiva is pioneering a “free trial” program to encourage new donors to its microfinance program (presumably including the whopping $100 from The Campaign That Shall Not Be Named), and there are literally hundreds of woman-centric global events going on today.

Plus, the day’s history is pretty interesting: Proposed by a member of the German Social Democratic Party in 1910, International Women’s Day was meant to highlight women’s contributions to labor, though more general demands were included in its celebration. Union participation heavily factored into early IWDs, highlighted by the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, which occurred just weeks after the inaugural celebration. It’s bigger in other countries than it is in the U.S. (though we here have Women’s History Month) and is even a legal holiday in 27 nations. In some places it’s treated somewhat like Mother’s Day is in the States, with men in Russia rushing out in the morning to buy bouquets for wives, daughters, mothers, and sisters. It seems a shame that labor isn’t so much a focus of IWD any longer—certainly workers’ rights are very much at the heart of women’s rights—but women’s history, arts, literature, and entrepreneurship are celebrated in various activities, and there are indeed plenty of political rallies and feminist actions connected to the day. Still, I find myself hedging.

Part of my hesitation could be boiled down into a little package of "Every day should be International Women's Day!" That’s more than a little pat, I know, but there it is. I write thousands of words every week about women, and so do plenty of other people, not to mention the activists, politicians, caregivers, social workers, creative workers, health-care providers, lobbyists, engineers, educators, parents, and laborers of all stripes who devote their work partially or wholly to the needs of women. Is our work supposed to matter more today than it did yesterday? Are more people going to be paying attention because—hey, didn’t you know, today is women’s day!

Of course, that’s also a limited mind-set. Today isn’t Women’s Day; it’s International Women’s Day. And while I pay attention to international women’s issues, the fact is I’m a product of an arrogant, powerful country that thinks it matters more than other nations. I try not to fall into that mind-set but I admit I have a hard time conceptualizing how international movements and events like this play out in other countries. The United States doesn’t seem to do much for International Women’s Day, and I don’t know how it really plays out elsewhere. I have no idea if it’s treated like Mother’s Day is here in ways that go beyond the bouquets, with that underlying sentiment of “Thanks for doing the majority of household work for the other 364 days of the year, Ma,” or if it’s something that actually helps increase women’s visibility and educates the public about women’s issues. (Not to say Mother’s Day isn’t nice, but the proportion of breakfasts in bed vs. discussions of maternal leave policies is a bit skewed.)

To really suss out my thoughts on International Women’s Day, I’d have to be talking with a lot more residents of countries where it’s celebrated. But when I looked at the list of countries where it’s an official holiday, it only raised my eyebrows higher. The list of countries where it’s an official celebration reads like a list of the world’s worst places for women: Afghanistan, Guinea-Bissau, Tajikstan, Madagascar, and so on. Absent from the list is a single country known for being good to women. The celebrating country that places second-highest on the list of the World Economic Forum’s international rankings of places for women is Moldova—where, in 2008, an estimated 25,000 people were trafficked for forced labor, the majority of them women, many of those forced into sex work against their will. (Trafficking is complicated and not all women are trafficked against their will, but from what I understand Chisinau is an export hub for bait-and-switched forced prostitution.) When Moldova is one of the female-friendliest countries officially recognizing International Women’s Day, well, maybe we need to rethink exactly how effective such a day is.

You might say: That’s exactly the point, we need International Women’s Day in countries like Burkina Faso. But women worldwide don’t need flowers handed to them before breakfast; they need education, justice, basic safety measures. It’s a cliche to say something like “every day should be women’s day” in nations with more parity, but when applied to the actual countries that do set aside one particular day to honor half their population, it goes from being trite to being frightening. Uganda can afford to make it a national holiday because the other 364 days of the year women go back to, say, having no legal protection against marital rape, poor health care to treat fistula, and limited inheritance rights.

Now, I’m the first to admit that my knowledge about international issues is limited, though I know enough to see that in questioning a day that cultures foreign to me have embraced, I’m assuming that my privileged western views are “correct.” I don’t know enough about Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and Africa (where most of the official celebrants are) to be able to say with authority that International Women’s Day isn’t important, or an instrumental part of a larger surge toward improving conditions for women in the countries that are the farthest in inequality. And in researching the international aspect of IWD, indeed what I found was somewhat encouraging: Plenty of countries on this list are taking active measures to improve the status of women. Moldova has taken strict measures against traffickers; Uganda has passed better domestic violence laws. Some of the celebrating countries are faring far better than the United States in ways: Fifteen of the countries celebrating IWD have a higher percentage of women in national parliaments than the United States.

I suppose I find International Women’s Day simply confusing. I don’t want to sit in my western world ivory tower and proclaim the entire affair a pony show, and I also recognize that most people don’t operate in the feminine sphere as heavily as I do and could use a prompt to get them to think about women’s issues. On a certain level, anything that puts women in the public light as something other than sluts, assumed caretakers, bridezillas, or any such tropes, I’m going to support. But I’m just not really sure who it’s for. (Unless, as my friend Mary suggested, it's for women with dual citizenship. Swiss-American ladies, rejoice!) The actions I’ve read about seem positive (with the odious exception of Rocking the Lips), but they also seem like things that people in female-friendly spaces already do, and I don’t know how much the public at large really engages in International Women’s Day. Is that the point here? That we need to keep having these days until we really don’t need them any longer?

I want to like International Women’s Day, I really do. So...convince me. I don’t want to be a curmudgeon, I’m not as knowledgeable about international women’s issues as I should be, and I certainly don’t want to pull some Independent Women’s Forum shit and say that women have made enough gains that we don’t need events like this any longer. Do you celebrate or otherwise mark International Women’s Day? If so, why, and how? (For that matter, did you Rock the Lip?) Do you see it making an impact outside of specifically female spaces? Should that even matter?

Barefaced and Beside the Point: Appearance Anxiety in Eating Disorders




In preparation for National Eating Disorders Awareness Week—which starts today—the Renfrew Center sent out an interesting press release, one you’d think would be right up my alley. “Barefaced and Beautiful,” a campaign from the Renfrew Center, one of the best-known eating disorder treatment facilities in the United States, is encouraging women to post photos of themselves on various social media without any makeup. The point is to...well, they sort of lost me on that. I think the idea is to display pride in one’s natural, unadorned self, the idea being that...you don't need to...adorn yourself....with an eating disorder?

Yes, I’m being intentionally dense here. Obviously the idea was to touch on the role of appearance dissatisfaction in eating disorders, using something plenty of people wear—makeup—as an entryway to talk about the larger issue. (Certainly it’s more on point than cryptically posting the color of your bra on Facebook for breast cancer awareness.) And for something like a week designed to raise awareness about eating disorders, you need a campaign that's simple, accessible, and attention-grabbing. But not only does it willfully ignore the myriad reasons women wear makeup in favor of a one-dimensional shame-based explanation, it treats bodily dissatisfaction as the cause, not a symptom, of eating disorders. And if we keep the focus of eating disorder conversations on women’s bodies, we’re doing exactly what women with eating disorders do to themselves.

Obviously I think body image is pretty important. Hell, my contribution to National Eating Disorders Awareness week, other than this post, is with a project called Body Image Warrior Week project, which will show up here later this week. But I’m wary of conflating body image and eating disorders, and I don’t think that they’re nearly as connected as they’re made out to be. It’s not like she who has the worst body image develops the worst eating disorder, or that people whose body image is average are immune from eating disorders. (I have yet to meet a woman with an active eating disorder who has a good body image, but then again, I don’t know tons of women with a good body image to begin with.) I’m baffled that Renfrew chose the makeup hook for their NEDA campaign, unless the idea really was just to raise awareness of the existence of eating disorders. (“Anorexic” has been a coverline of enough celebrity magazines that I don’t think we need any more awareness of that elementary sort, but I digress.) Makeup is deeply tied to our ideas of self-presentation, yes. It’s also a way of controlling the way the way you’re seen, and eating disorders are rooted in control. But none of that shows up in the Renfrew campaign; instead, it’s all about appearance dissatisfaction, as though that alone can prompt a disease that ravages one’s life.

Eating disorders are complex beasts, with not-great recovery rates and the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. We don’t entirely know what causes eating disorders, but last year when I interviewed Sunny Sea Gold, author of Food, the Good Girl’s Drug and a recovered binge eater herself, she broke it down nicely:

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.... 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.... 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.
It’s that last part that continues to get short shrift in popular media treatment of eating disorders. And I get why the media might latch onto images and the thin imperative as the root cause of eating disorders: Media outlets love nothing more than to generically critique themselves (what women’s magazine hasn’t covered the problem of unrealistic body ideals formed by...the media?). Less cynically, poor body image is something most of us have experienced at some point; using this as a hook for readers to empathize with eating disorder patients works beautifully. Plenty of people have dieted to lose weight for aesthetic reasons, and the disordered thought loop that makes a satisfying eating disorder story—I was obsessed with food!—is mimicked in the dieting mind-set. So the average reader may think she’s identifying with the subject, not realizing that what she’s identifying with are the symptoms of an eating disorder: the restriction of food, or the overconsumption of it, the vigilant attention paid. But the eating disorder doesn’t lie within its symptoms. It lies within its causes.

Listen, I’m not saying that there’s no connection between appearance and eating disorders. Of course there is. And body image is an essential topic to so many women’s lives today—including women who have never exhibited a single eating disorder symptom in their life. Do I even need to point out the ways in which having poor body image is a drain of resources? Of enormous intellectual and psychic energy? Of time, of money, of already precious resources? Of emotion? Do I need to ask how many times women have asked “Do I look fat in this?” because we lack the words to ask for support and tenderness? As long as we have poor body image, we walk through this world ashamed. Shame isn’t what I want for any person on this planet; it’s not what whoever/whatever created us probably had in mind; it’s not what any of us want for the people we love. Yes, we need body image work, and we’ve needed it for a long time. And a week devoted to eating disorder education is a good time to reinvigorate that conversation.

But eating disorders do not run parallel alongside a track of bodily dissatisfaction, and the more we conflate the two, the less we’re tackling the true complexity of eating disorders, and the less we're looking at the other threads that unite patients more deeply than hating their thighs. We’re not looking at perfectionism, or the twin sisters of compliance and rebellion, and how all of these play out in the lifetime of an eating disorder. We’re not looking at biology, or heredity, or giving proper diligence to plain old depression and anxiety. Hell, we’re not looking at stress. We’re not looking at choice, autonomy, or modernity. We’re not looking at the role of trauma, or sex, or comorbidity with addiction. And it is impossible to treat eating disorders without treating all of these as seriously—no, more seriously than—body image.

It’s one thing for the media to treat body image with greater weight than, say, family dynamics in eating disorders. It’s quite another for a treatment clinic to do the same. The Renfrew Center certainly doesn’t take this approach in treating its patients. When I was treated at Renfrew for my own eating disorder a few years ago, I was repeatedly struck by how little body image came up as a topic, both from the counselors and my fellow patients. That’s not to say it wasn’t important; it was more that we’d all thought about our bodies so fucking much by the time we landed in treatment that we were chomping at the bit to give voice to the things that we truly needed to be able to speak of. I could deconstruct body standards before treatment as fluently as I can now. But before entering Renfrew I had no words to tell you about the factors that took me 25 years deep into an eating disorder before I committed to getting help.

I still don’t have all those words, or at least I don’t have them in the ways I’d need to in order to share them here. That’s part of why I don’t usually write here about my eating disorder. The other parts are that while I’m doing really well, recovery is a long process and I’m not at the end of it, and I can’t get all meta on my recovery by writing about it. (I have a story coming out next month in Marie Claire about my experiences, and while I’m glad I wrote it and my editor was great, it was also emotionally taxing.) I’m sharing it here because it would be disingenuous to write an 1,900-word essay on eating disorders spurred by an action of the place I was treated without disclosing my personal stake in untangling the essence of what eating disorders are all about.

But the larger reason is that while I’m an advocate for looking at media images critically, and for improving body image in general, I don’t want to do anything to further the problem I’m writing about here. This is a blog about beauty, and while eating disorders have a role in that discussion, that connection is already so firm in the public mind that I feel my role here is to give a little whisper of Wait. I want us to wait before we draw connecting lines too heavily, and instead ask that we look at the connection between eating disorders and appearance as thematic and dynamic, not as an arrow from point A to point B. The connection isn’t that one causes the other; it’s that they’re both partly rooted in expectations of properly gendered behavior. (It’s worth noting here that while plenty of straight men develop eating disorders, gay men are at higher risk.) To untangle the social angle of eating disorders, we need to look beyond the mere existence of the thin imperative and look at what it says about the role of women: that we are to be perfect, controlled, managed, and compliant—themes that come up repeatedly with eating disorder patients, themes that get to the crux of the matter more directly, without taking the meandering detour through our bodies.

Makeup, too, can say a lot about those issues. It’s not the worst motif Renfrew could have chosen for their campaign. Nor is it the best. I’m no PR expert; I have no idea how the clinic could have better channeled their extraordinary work into a simple campaign for the public to engage with. I just know that by the time I was discharged from Renfrew, I’d finally begun to learn that my dissatisfaction with my body wasn’t causing my eating disorder; it was merely a symptom of it, like restricting my food intake or binge eating. I’d begun to take the focus off my body and put it into understanding the roots of my perfectionism, my people-pleasing, my family history, my silent shrieks of rebellion. 

I’d begun to understand that loving my body wasn’t the point. The point wasn’t even to like it. The point was to learn how to eat.

Fictional Beauties: The Heads of Princess Langwidere



A bit of personal trivia: I adore Wizard of Oz. The movie, yes, of course, but specifically the books, all 16 of them, though the only ones I recall in detail are the first four. L. Frank Baum lived for a while in the town I grew up inAberdeen, South Dakotaand was briefly the editor of the local newspaper, where he penned terrifically racist editorials clamoring for the extermination of American Indians. But never mind that right now! He also provided oodles of entertainment for children worldwide! (He was an outspoken advocate of suffragism as well, and in fact when Susan B. Anthony visited Aberdeen she stayed with Baum, and Matilda Gage was his mother-in-law.)

Dorothy fascinated me, of course, with her sage youth quality. At age 4 I would purposefully get lost in K-Mart so that I could then wander to the customer service desk and ask them to announce over the loudspeaker that the mother of Dorothy Whitefield-Madrano should come retrieve her daughter, fully believing that if my name were Dorothy over the K-Mart loudspeaker it would somehow actually become Dorothy. But it’s not Dorothy I’d like to look at today, or Glinda the Good Witch, or the Wicked Witch, or even Ozma, the true ruler of Oz, whom you meet if you stick around the series long enough. They’re all fantastic characters, but as far as beauty goes, there’s one character whose existence cries for a shout-out here.

"By the aid of the mirror she put on her head."

Princess Langwidere, a supporting character in Ozma of Oz, had a collection of 30 heads that she could rotate at will, like the rest of us wore clothes. (Langwidere herself simply wore plain white gowns. The thrill of merely changing one’s clothes was lost on her, as it would be on you if you could change your head.) All of Princess Langwidere's heads were “in great variety, no two formed alike but all being of exceeding loveliness. There were heads with golden hair, brown hair, rich auburn hair and black hair; but none with gray hair. The heads had eyes of blue, of gray, of hazel, of brown and of black; but there were no red eyes among them, and all were bright and handsome. The noses were Grecian, Roman, retroussé and Oriental, representing all types of beauty; and the mouths were of assorted sizes and shapes, displaying pearly teeth when the heads smiled. As for dimples, they appeared in cheeks and chins, wherever they might be most charming, and one or two heads had freckles upon the faces to contrast the better with the brilliancy of their complexions.”

So, hey, even a genocidally inclined gentleman recognizes the whole "all types of beauty" thing, so, um, points there, right? But the first thing we know about Princess Langwidere is that she’s so vain that she refuses to seize power, even though the rest of the royal family has been imprisoned. “At present there are at least ten minutes every day that I must devote to affairs of state, and I would like to be able to spend my whole time in admiring my beautiful heads,” she declares. We’re not meant to like Langwidere; we’re meant to see her as a “horrid creature,” even though she gladly cedes power to people who know what they’re doing instead of trying to manage the land herself. (Contrast this to General Jinjur, the leader of the girl army who overtook Oz in a previous bookshe’s shown as selfish in her ambition, while Langwidere is selfish in her lack of it.)

I liked her anyway, or perhaps I just envied her. Having not just different hairstyles and outfits, but different heads?! It seemed logical somehow, for isn’t that an exaggerated version of what we’re doing sometimes when we play with makeup? Most of the time I’m trying to just be a more polished version of myself, and I think that’s true of most womenbut sometimes I do want to transform, out of sheer curiosity (which some, like Baum, may package as vanity). We dye our hair to see what it’s like to be a redhead; we cut our hair to see what life as a pixie-cut cutie might be like. Princess Langwidere, being fictional, and fictional in a magical land at that, just had advantages the rest of us don’t.

It’s also interesting that Langwidere is drawn as a Gibson girl, the “American girl to all the world,” according to her creator, Charles Gibson. The Oz illustrator was probably just going with the timesthe Gibson girl was immensely popular when the book was written, so drawing an image of a beautiful woman meant to draw a Gibson girl. But the Gibson girl was a Langwidere-ish figure herself: Gibson used many models, creating no single, specific icon but rather a multitude of Gibson girls who were understood to be Gibson girls because they fit specific criteria. They were ladylike, young, and spirited, and of course they had that iconic hairstyle, which Princess Langwidere’s preferred head sports in all illustrations of her. They were specific but interchangeable"logo girls," you might call themmaking them perfect both for advertising purposes and for Baum’s mocking of women’s vanity. Is he saying we’re all Langwideres if we preen in front of the mirror and fall prey to new hairstyles? Is he saying ladies with real powerOzma, for example, or the ever-plucky Dorothyare above such nonsense? 

That's Ozma on the left, Dorothy in the middle, and
Princess Langwidere doing an early 20th-century lady gang signal on the right..

I’m not sure, and I don’t want to read too much into a minor character in a turn-of-the-century children’s book. But I don’t want to dismiss her either. In fictional characterscartoons, icons, heroines, Muppetswe see women who are literally constructions, and when these characters catch on, it's an opportunity to see what constructions of femininity our culture responds to. What can we learn from the Langwideres, Dorothys, and Glindas about our ideas of femininity? What can we glean from the Betty Boops, the Miss Piggys, the Darias about what we see as ideal in any given era? What fictional charactersspecifically characters who haven’t been portrayed by live-action actresses, thus leaving their construction fully in the minds of their creatorshave you been fascinated with over time? Do you base your ideas of a character’s beauty on their actions, their wordsor, to borrow from Jessica Rabbitt, are they just drawn that way?

Nutricosmetics, Part I




Tastes like berries! May or may not do jack shit for your skin, but efficacy is hardly the point.

I was 15 the first time I tried what’s now known as nutricosmetics. I read in some magazine that it was prenatal vitamins, not being great with child, that gave pregnant women their famous “glow,” and that the glow was easily obtained by taking prenatal supplements. I bought a bottle, and despite taking the pills faithfully, my hair didn’t suddenly start growing in glossy and lustrous, my nails didn’t sprout more quickly, and while I probably was aglow, what 15-year-old girl in reasonably good health isn’t? Just about the only change I noticed was the classic B-vitamin effect (i.e. neon pee).

I could tell the vitamins hadn’t really done much, so I didn’t buy them again--until college, and then again in my early 20s. It’s the same reason I sometimes buy boxes of “Skin Detox” from Yogi Tea, and used to apply a vitamin C cream under my eyes until I finally admitted it really wasn’t doing anything: I wanted them to work. And hey, if the whole idea is that it’s hope in a jar anyway, then maybe my wanting them to work would be enough. It’s like my beauty editor pal said: “It’s like the confirmation bias in psychology… If you just shelled out $300 for a cream, your brain is in this mode of, This is going to work. You have that optimism that can actually make you radiant.” I can get all huffy about some anti-aging snake oils, but vitamins and teas? Yeah, I’ll play.

For once, I was ahead of the curve. Once relegated to “the dusty aisles of health food stores” (the kind that smelled like carob nut clusters, not the kind that smelled like, say, lemongrass-freesia candles and California Baby Wash), nutricosmetics, or nutriceuticals, are expected to grow 6% a year to reach $8.5 billion by 2015, the New York Times reports. Nutricosmetics are foods, drinks, or supplements meant to enhance beauty, usually the skin. (Some consider skin creams containing nutrients purported to aid beauty, like vitamin C cream, to be a nutricosmetic; others loosely apply it to novelty cosmetics meant to be eaten with no ill effects, like a godawful brown sugar-honey lip scrub I got at a beauty sale. I’m using it here to mean ingestibles meant to enhance beauty.) You can find Borba “Skin Balance Waters” in delis; dermatologist Dr. Perricone peddles his “Skin Clear” supplements at Sephora; Balance’s Nimble bar, designed “specifically for women” (because our skin is different?), was at the checkout the last time I went to Duane Reade.

I’m curious about nutricosmetics, and suspicious of them too. In the coming days I’ll be talking more about my larger hesitations about them, but for now I’d just like to look at how we created a market for them, and why it happened now instead of during the 1970s vitamin boom. Nutricosmetics have been around in other countries for a while now; the Times article touches upon their role in China, where supplemention has long been a part of regular health care. (And the first time I saw a drink purported to aid with beauty, it was in the Czech Republic. The drink was sugary, which seemed to defeat the purpose, but perhaps it was easier for me to dismiss its claims because I couldn’t make out much of the labeling on the bottle. Funnily enough, “Beauty Water” was in English.) I think there’s a market for them now because of the ways we segment information, particularly health information, and particularly health information for women.

Pretty much any women’s magazine will repeatedly and explicitly state that simply eating right and exercising is good for you and that the particulars of it are up to you, and they’re absolutely correct. But that larger message gets lost in the drive for microinformation that fills every inch of space in ladymags: runners at the bottom of the page about what this vitamin can do, starbusts of information on health pages about the benefits of everything from beet juice to gingko biloba. Microinformation has gotten more plentiful due to the web (duh) but also publishing advances that make it easier to make information more graphic--easier to digest, but also with less room for exploring complexities.

Here’s how microinformation gets onto the page: Let’s say a journal publishes a piece about the effect of lutein on skin elasticity. An editor would find the study and pitch it to her boss to be included in an upcoming issue as one of the short information busts (like those one-sentence “didja know?!” brightly colored circles you see all over ladymags). They decide to run it, and the magazine’s research team verifies the information for factual accuracy, usually just reading the study but possibly talking to the people who conducted the study. It’s factually correct, and the information burst runs as, say, “Lutein increases skin elasticity! Be sure to eat your turnip greens.” It’s correct--lutein does increase skin elasticity, and turnip greens contain a lot of lutein--so the magazine has done its job.

It’s not really that simple, though. Consumer magazines are meticulous about fact-checking, and most fact-checkers I know are good at their work and care about making sure they don’t let bad facts slip through. So it’s not that anyone’s negligent; it’s more that fact-checking too often serves the purpose of making sure things aren’t wrong, not making sure they’re right. A study might say that lutein is good for skin elasticity but also note that most adults get plenty of lutein with relatively little effort through their diet, or note that the study was done on people who were lutein-deficient and that the effects don’t increase once you’ve met the relatively low recommended daily allowance. Or maybe it increased skin elasticity by 2%, or maybe the study involved 12 people, all of whom were white women over 50. Or maybe the study was just a bad study, in a way that wouldn’t be clear to a diligent but overworked fact-checker with an English degree, not a medical one. Or, more likely, the fact-checker points out all of the above, but there’s only room for 15 words in 18-point font with the wraparound on the graphic element, and art can’t give us more room on the page, and you’re running at deadline and the information isn’t wrong, it’s just not as holistically accurate as it could be, so let’s just take one for lutein, okay? What’s the harm?

And there isn’t any major harm, of course. But our hoarding of nutrition microinformation takes away from the larger point, which is that if you have a balanced diet you won’t have to be chowing down turnip greens because you’ll organically be getting your RDA of lutein, and you won’t have to worry about what nutrients will make your skin elastic because you’re getting what your body needs just by being sensible. More to the point here, it creates a market for things like the Nimble bar, because oh hey it’s got lutein and didn’t I read somewhere that would make my skin more elastic?

The more we segment information, the more we segment ourselves and our buying choices. Now, I don’t think nutricosmetics are abhorrent (probably the worst thing about the Nimble bar is that it tastes like chalk). But when I stop and think about how we’ve dug our own hole here through our constant intake of microinformation, I get uneasy. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that nutricosmetics have only really caught fire in the States in the past couple of years, despite Americans’ love affair with pills, which is nearly matched by our love affair with easily digested health informationCouple our love of health information with the quest for beauty, and you’ve got a market waiting to happen. There is no new way to become more beautiful; it’s all variations of the stuff that’s been around forever, e.g. painting your face, getting a little exercise, styling your hair, and trying to make the most of what you have. Creating niches of service-oriented information can be helpful, but it also leads the march toward creating niche markets. Lutein, iron, and beta carotene aren’t new; they’re just being packaged as new and branded with a hyperinformed consumer in mind. Without niche information as provided in mainstream women’s media, the Nimble bar wouldn’t exist.

“Slow living” might be a fad, but we’re still American, forever looking for shortcuts to something that takes real time, real effort, or real skill. Nutricosmetics don’t give us anything we don’t get in a well-balanced diet, and that’s one reason to question the sudden market for them--but it’s not the most important one. Tomorrow I’ll be looking at some of the larger ideas behind nutricosmetics, as well as nutrition-based beauty regimes that might fall into the “slow living” category. In the meantime, tell me: Have you bought nutricosmetics? Do you take any supplements with your looks in mind? I’ve already copped to my “Skin Detox” tea, and I’ll also admit that a major motivation for taking my omega-3 oil and eating lots of salmon is because I notice a difference in my skin when I’m diligent about it. What about you?

Beauty Blogosphere 12.2.11

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


Indian Woman With Red Bindi, Ginette Fine Art (no word as to whether model was great with child)


From Head...
O Calcutta!:
The Indian Institute of Technology is proposing distribution of nutrient-rich cosmetics to pregnant women in hopes of reducing infant mortality rates. And here I thought bindis just looked cool!

...To Toe...
Well-heeled:
Because the "lipstick index" still isn't good enough, now we're wearing the economy on our feet. "Examining the trends alongside economic patterns led researchers to theorize that a shakier economic situation correlates with the popularity of similarly shaky high heels." The reporter sort of calls BS, though, thus giving me a girl crush on her. (Which doesn't take away from my girl crush on you, m'dear.)

...And Everything In Between:
They are the 1%: Step-by-step read on how the Lauder family has sheltered hundreds of millions of dollars over the years through skilled use of tax breaks. We're hearing so much about the 1% but it remains a vague idea to the 99% of us; this piece illustrates exactly how the 1% stays the 1%, and shows how it has nothing to do with our favorite bootstraps stories—like, say, a plucky daughter of Hungarian immigrants who cajoled her chemist uncle into helping her make a face cream to sell to her friends and eventually becoming one of the world's most influential cosmetics magnates. Sounds a lot more romantic than short sells on the stock market in order to maintain a neutral position under IRS rules and savings $95 million in capital gains taxes, eh?

I get so emotional: More insight into the emotions-cosmetics link, from a cosmetics marketing report being pimped out to companies. Manalive, I always like to think I'm one step ahead of companies, but that's foolish: "Beauty Attachment shows that for certain consumers, beauty is extremely important and they’d rather skip breakfast than skip their morning routine; while for others, it’s simply a utility that meets a need, like a front door key.... Simply put, some women see the aisles at Sephora and their head spins with anticipation; while others see these same aisles and become incredibly anxious." Girl, they have got your number.

Hungry lies: Lionsgate, the studio putting out Hunger Games, is being sued by a cosmetics company for breach of contract surrounding an exclusive Hunger Games nail polish line.

Not so kawaii: I didn't realize until reading this piece about Shiseido vice president Kimie Iwata that Japanese professionals were even more imbalanced than Americans: Women account for less than 1% of top-level Japanese business executives.

Everyone I Have Ever Bathed With: Unfortunately late on this, but Tracey Emin soap!

Playing dirty: Beauty/body product chain Lush is taking action against a UK politician whose environmental policies have been deemed lacking. In the States it's relatively rare to see a company so specifically target one politician, much less a "softball" company like a cosmetics purveyor. I've got to hand it to Lush—this doesn't really seem like a publicity stunt to me (or is that the point?).

Political wrinkle:
Australian prime minister Julia Gillard under fire for accepting anti-wrinkle creams as gifts, even as she refused other designer wares. (Really, the buried lede here is that the prime minister has a partner, and has never been married. As an American, to me this seems like some future-world sci-fi Ursula Leguin utopia. A woman is leading the country and we all know she has sex without the legal bond of marriage?!)

Reached a compromise: Historic depictions of ugly muscular babies. Vermeyen, Holy Family


Can't decide which is more awesome:
Collection of historic depiction of muscular women, or collection of Ugly babies in Renaissance art. ("I love you both, just in different ways!") (Thanks to Lindsay for the tip) 

Photoshopped: With a new tool that allows us to tell how much a photo has been digitally altered, is it possible that we'll someday have "retouch ratings" like we do movie ratings? "Rated three points for rib removal and jawline trimming."

Framed: Bitch magazine has two particularly interesting "In the Frame" entries this week: A photo of noted photographer Nan Goldin one month after being battered, in which her makeup contradicts the idea of the hidden, cowering victim, and then the art of Ingrid Berthon-Moine, showing women wearing their menstrual blood as lipstick. (And here I thought I was a hippie for trying out beets as lipstick, as per No More Dirty Looks.)

The importance of being intact: Oscar Wilde's restored tomb makes its debut in Paris, covered by a glass partition to protect it from "being eaten away by lipstick," as is tradition.
 
Paging Don Draper: South African fragrance line Alibi is designed for cheating spouses to wear to literally put suspicious partners off their scent trail. "I Was Working Late" smells of cigarettes, coffee, ink, and wool suits; "We Were Out Sailing" features sea salt and cotton rope. I am not making this up. (But they might be; I can't find anything about the company elsewhere. Hmm.)

Sweet smell of success: The odiferous history of "perfume" versus "cologne" in regards to becoming a comment on a man's sexual orientation, and what the headily scented Liberace had to say about it.

Neat and clean: Half of the men in Britain don't think it's necessary to be clean-shaven to look well-groomed. (I heartily agree, as a fan of a bit of scruff on a feller.)
 
Inventor Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler
 
This week in dead movie stars: Why Marilyn Monroe is still a beauty icon, and did you know that Hedwig Eva Marie Kiesler—aka Hedy Lamarr—invented a telecommunications process that's still used today in much of our wireless communication?

Newly inquired: If you enjoy my more academic-ish posts on here, you should definitely check out The New Inquiry. I'm proud to be associated with them, and prouder still of their profile in this week's New York Times! (Quibble: I wouldn't call any of these minds those of "literary cubs"; all parties involved are far too insightful and thought-provoking for that.)

Attention Sassy lovers: Former Sassy editor Jane Larkworthy, now beauty director at W, is featured on Into the Gloss this week. "I do think [beauty products] should be done in an accessible way, though—I don’t ever want beauty to be intimidating."

Hair mayonnaise: Hysterical beauty bit from comic Sue Funke, courtesy Virginia.

Fight for the right: This piece at Rookie about cultural stereotyping is worth reading in its own right, but of particular interest to me is the collection of vintage photos of "black and brown and yellow girl gangs in American history" on the second page, all from Of Another Fashion. The photos of beaming, well-dressed Japanese women heading off to internment camps during one of the most shameful episodes of U.S. history raises questions about expectations of femininity, and of fashion's true role in our lives: "Even during internment, these girls were determined to look cute. And though that may sound like the height of triviality, it’s not. As the late, great civil-rights activist Dorothy Height once said, 'Too many people in my generation fought for the right for us to be dressed up and not put down.'"
 
Honored: I love Sally's concept of "honoring your beauty," and I'll throw in that once I learned that the way to accept a compliment was to look the person in the eye, smile, and say, "Thank you," I felt like I'd learned something small but important. It also made it easier to give a compliment too; I stopped worrying that every compliment I gave was loaded somehow. There's no hidden motive. I really just like your hair.

Push it good: This post from Fit and Feminist on the myth of the noncompetitive female made me (and her, as evidenced by her Mean Girls reference) wonder why we embrace totally contradictory views of women and competition. C'mon, patriarchy: Are we all cooperative sweethearts who aren't so great at team sports because we just want to hold hands and make daisy chains, or are we vindictive bitches who love to tear one another apart? Just tell us already, my best bitches and I are getting tired of this sewing circle-Fight Club jazz.

On Trust


I cleaned out my bathroom cabinets last weekend, prompting yesterday’s post with the absurd list of products I’ve been hanging onto even though I haven’t touched them in months—or years. (Okay, a decade in some cases. Did I ever look good in glitter eye pencil?) The impetus came from this study claiming that women wasted £964 million on products they never used, and I immediately recognized myself among the one in seven who had products up to three years old. But it wasn’t the money angle that interested me so much as the reasoning for hanging onto them in the first place. I moved apartments last year and got rid of loads of products—yet these products, soap scraps and all, managed to survive. These, my friends, were the survivors.

There’s the expected reasons, of course, namely buying into promises I don’t actually believe, and allowing my insecurities to get the better of me. But given basic principles of marketing, that's hardly a surprise. What surprised me more was to learn how little I trust myself. There were a good number of products I held onto despite not particularly liking them, because I kept thinking some version of It’s not you, it’s me. I didn’t like the smell of the body mist, and I didn’t like how it made my skin feel, but I held onto it because it sounded so luxurious and I really thought maybe I just didn’t “get” it, that it was an acquired taste like whiskey. The L’Oréal Touch-On Color didn’t do anything for me—you literally could not tell that it was on my skin—but I kept thinking that surely I would learn how to use it correctly someday, even though it lived in a makeup pouch at the bottom of my cabinet. I kept waiting to feel “detoxified” with the Galenic Elancyl Corps Ultra Hydrating Detoxifying Cream, to no avail, and it took me a couple of weeks of regularly shaving my legs with the horrible Target razors before I finally admitted it was the razors, not some new flaw in the way I was shaving—even though my first thought when I noticed my leg rash was that I’d tried a new razor.

And listen, people, I’m pretty careful about this stuff—I really don’t buy tons of products, and I don’t usually fall for gimmicks (as the “anonymous” commenter pointed out in comments yesterday, the detox foot pads were a stocking stuffer, and I am an ingrate of a daughter SORRY MOM). And still: The doubt, even when it’s not experienced as insecurity per se, can win so easily. It reminds me of the time a story crossed my desk at a women’s magazine, with the headline “How to Wash Your Face,” and the story was about...how to wash your face. As in, “then splash with warm water.” The beauty editor was horrified that she had to write this piece of junk, but there it was: We were telling readers that they needed our guidance to learn how to wash their face. I laughed when I learned that colleges used to have entire class sessions devoted to face-washing within a credited course on grooming—but that’s just a formalized version of the lack of trust I had in not tossing the body mist the minute I realized the smell grossed me out.

We’re not exactly encouraged to trust ourselves when it comes to evaluating any product, and the premise of beauty products means that our trust as consumers is doubly negated: Because we have such a hard time truly seeing ourselves, it can be near-impossible to tell if a product really “works.” (Arguably this is less true with color cosmetics; as beauty editor Ali once told me, "It's easy to tell if mascara works; are your lashes darker? Yes? It works.” But some of the products I held onto were colors I knew didn’t do me any favors, and yet I still told myself they’d come in handy—as if makeup that doesn’t make me look good could ever come in handy.) The whole idea of the placebo effect is that you have such faith in the product that it will spur the desired outcome even if it it has no actual effect—perhaps even if you know it has no actual effect. Remember, I did a month-long experiment designed to test if wrinkle creams “really” worked, and concluded they sort of did, barely, a little; a skin specialist told me it was causing irritation and suggested I stop using the cream. But not only did I keep on using it, I bought two additional brands with a similar formula. I absolutely knew better than to spend my money on them, and bought them anyway—not because of the minimal effect they’d been proven to have on my fine lines. I bought them because I thought, Maybe this one will do the trick.

Trust as described by sociologists can involve what’s known as “expert systems,” or technological or professional systems that organize specific areas that experts are best posed to establish. “Abstract systems” are, well, abstract—we have faith in the system itself, even when we ourselves don’t exactly have access to the workings of the system. For that access we depend on certain experts who can interpret expert abstract systems to let us know what’s what: A good auto mechanic can let us know what’s wrong with our car even if we went into the shop not knowing what a carburetor does. We don’t need to know the abstract system of the engine; we can just trust the translator.

When we’re talking about products designed to make us prettier, we still rely on translators: magazine beauty editors, salespeople, even makeup artists who can tell us what shade works best on us even if they don’t tell us exactly why, knowing that our knowledge of color wheels is pretty minimal and that’s why we’re wearing the “wrong” lipstick in the first place. But at a certain point, we abandon the translation and simply have faith in the abstract system. This is necessary when we're talking about expert systems like, say, mammograph, as Norwegian public health expert Marit Solbjor found in her study of the development of women's trust in effective mammography processes. "Trust in abstract systems takes shape as faceless obligation when knowledge of that system is unknown by lay participants yet faith in the knowledge system is maintained,” she writes in Researching Trust and Health. It applies to face cream as well: I'm giving faceless obligation to the knowledge system, continuing to give it my faith even when I don't exactly know how it works. And this isn’t some personal failing; it’s how systems work: “The modern human being lives with the duality where...we respect and trust systems, and...we feel a certain skepticism,” writes Lars Bo Kaspersen in his introduction to the work of sociologist Anthony Giddens. “We seldom give up the entire system, but instead choose a new system representative.” That new “system representative,” as it turns out, was CVS Advanced Deep-Set Wrinkle Therapy. Even that “How to Wash Your Face” piece was a ladymag attempt at becoming a layperson in an instance when none was needed. If you make yourself an expert convincingly enough, people will eventually outsource their trust to you.

I’m not entirely sure how to shift the balance of trust to make the expert system a little less powerful. The sociological idea is that in modern societies, we come to trust abstract systems more because our personal trust systems—our families, our communities, our intimates—are more and more dispersed, more and more fragmented. It makes sense, then, that part of the solution would lay in changing that balance rather than trying to force myself to become my own “expert”—which I’ve tried, and which one can’t do merely by deciding to do so. I’m not sure if the route to not buying more face cream is to join a bowling league/sewing circle/call my grandparents, but perhaps it’s the route to try.

What do you think? Have you had trouble trusting your authentic reactions to beauty products? What do you do to maintain your level of trust in the people you want to trust instead of outsourcing trust to “expert systems”?


*Had to verify w/cool friend that Pitchfork Media was cool.

Beauty Blogsophere 11.11.11*

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


From Head...
Thin Mint lips: Girl Scout Cookie Lip Smackers! But what's with this "Coconut Caramel Stripes" flavor? You already yanked the rug out from under me with that "Samoa" jazz. Caramel Delight 4-eva!

...To Toe...
This little piggy went to fashion week: Fashionista's slideshow of models' feet on the runway is a lightly grody reminder that fashion ain't always glamorous (and that you're not alone in having fit problems).

Pediprank: Indiana governor Mitch Daniels went in for surgery on a torn meniscus and wound up with a pink pedicure. Dr. Kunkel, you old dog you!


...And Everything In Between:
"It's angled, like a diamond baguette": The rise of the $60 lipstick in the midst of a recession. Not sure about the "pragmatic" part of the term "pragmatic luxury," but what do I know? I just drink red wine, smack my lips together, and hope for the best.

Dishy: The flap surrounding the Panera Bread district manager who told the Pittsburgh-area store manager to staff the counter with "pretty young girls" was reported as a racist incident, since the cashier he wanted replaced was an African American man. But as Partial Objects points out, it may have been more motivated by sexism. To that I'd add that it's not just sexism and racism, but the notion of the "pretty young girl" that's at the heart of the matter here.

Give 'em some lip: American Apparel is launching a lip gloss line, with colors that will be "evoking an array of facets of the American Apparel experience." Names include "Legalize L.A.," which references the company's dedication to immigration reform, and "Intimate," an echo of the company's racy advertising aesthetic. Other shades on tap include "Topless," "Pantytime," "In the Red," "Jackoff Frost" and "Sexual Harassment in Violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act Govt. Code 12940(k) Shimmer."

Music makers: Boots cosmetics line 17 commissions up-and-coming musicians to write and perform songs that align with the ethos of 17 products. As in, "You Might Get Stuck on Me" for their magnetic nail polish.

"Let women of sixty use 'beautifiers,' if they think they need them. But you, who are young, pretty, and have a complexion like a rose-leaf—you should avoid such things as you would a pestilence." 

99% marketing: For its 132nd birthday, Ivory soap is unrolling a new ad campaign, which hinges upon it being A) nongendered, and B) soap. Revolución!

Baby fangs: Intellectually I should be against about the practice of yaeba, in which dentists in Japan artificially enlarge their lady patients' incisors to create a childlike appearance. But as someone who is genetically blessed with noticeably sharp and semi-crooked incisors, I'm basically all, I am gonna be huge in Japan.

Vaniqua'd: The active ingredient in Vaniqua—you know, the drug you're supposed to take if you have an unladylike amount of facial hair—is also an effective treatment for African sleeping sickness. Of course, the places where African sleeping sickness strikes can't afford to buy it. But hey, our upper lip is so smooth! (via Fit and Feminist) 

La Giaconda: The Mona Lisa, retouched.

Beauty survey: Allure's massive beauty survey reveals that 93% of American women think the pressure to look young is greater than ever before. Am I a spoilsport by pointing out that every person who answered that question is also older than they ever were before? (Of course, the "hottest age" for women according to men surveyed is now 28, compared with 31 in 1991, so there may be something to it.) Other findings: Black women are three times as likely as white women to self-report as hot, and everyone hates their belly.

Gay old time: Jenelle Hutcherson will be the first openly lesbian contestant of Miss Long Beach—and she's going to wear a royal purple tux for the eveningwear competition. The director of the pageant encouraged her to sign up, and Hutcherson has been vocal about how she's reflecting the long tradition of diversity and acceptance in Long Beach. (Thanks to Caitlin for the tipoff!)

Miss World: In more urgent beauty pageant news, British women protest Miss World, and somehow the reporter neglects to make a crack about bra burning.

The freshman 2.5: Virginia debunks the "freshman 15," and then Jezebel reveals that the whole thing was an invention of Seventeen magazine, along with the notion that every single New Kid on the Block was supposed to be cute.

Ballerina body: Darlene at Hourglassy examines the push-pull between embracing and dressing large breasts (which she does beautifully with her button-front shirts designed for busty women) and her love of ballet. "By the end of the performance I wasn’t paying attention to anything but the movements. There was nothing to distract me from the dancers’ grace and athleticism. Would I have been distracted by large breasts on one of the dancers? Definitely."

(Still taken from SOMArts promotional video)

Subject/object: Prompted by this intriguing Man as Object exhibition in San Francisco, Hugo Schwyzer looks at the possibilities for desiring male imperfection. He's the expert here, both because of his research and his male-ness, but I can't help but wonder how much men have internalized the notion of male perfection. I have zero doubt that the focus on the body beautiful has impacted men, and certainly the tropes of masculinity are a reasonable parallel to the tropes of femininity. But there's always been more room—literal and metaphorical—for men of all varieties to be considered sex symbols. Everyone gawked when Julia Roberts paired up with Lyle Lovett, but even then there was talk of how he had "a certain quality." Save someone like Tilda Swinton—who, while odd-looking, isn't un-pretty either—when have we ever spoken of women in that way?

Am I the only one who thinks gigolo should be pronounced like it's spelled?: Tits and Sass has been looking for voices of male escorts, and lo and behold, Vin Armani to the rescue!

"Did my son inherit my eating disorder?": There's been some talk about how a mother with food issues can transfer that to her daughters—but Pauline wonders if she's passed down her eating disorder to her son. A potent reminder that boys internalize ED factors as well.

What you can't tell by looking: And along those same lines, Tori at Anytime Yoga reminds us shortly and sweetly that eating disorders of all forms come in a variety of sizes. This is enormously important: I'm certain that there are many women with eating disorders who don't recognize it because they don't think they fit the profile.

In/visible: Always glad to see celebrities acknowledge that looking they way they look actually takes work, à la Jessica Biel here: "My signature style is a 'no-make-up make-up' look, which is much harder than people think." Well, probably not most women who do no-makeup makeup, but whatevs.

Touchdown: This BellaSugar slideshow of creative makeup and hairstyle from NFL fans in homage to their favorite teams is a delight. I could care less about football itself (I finally understand "downs," I think) but I think it's awesome that these people are showing that there are plenty of ways to be a football fan, including girly-girl stuff like makeup. (IMHO, football fans could use a PR boost right about now. Seriously, Penn State? Rioting? You do realize your coach failed to protect multiple children from sexual assault, right?)

Face wash 101: Also from BellaSugar: There were college courses on grooming in the 1940s?! 

She walks in beauty like the night: A goth ode to black lipstick, from XOJane.com. 

Muppets take Sephora: Afrobella gives a rundown of the spate of Muppet makeup. Turns out Miss Piggy isn't the first Muppet to go glam.

Love handle: The usual story is that we gain weight when we're stressed or unhappy because we're eating junk food to smother our sorrows—but Sally asks about "happy body changes," like when you gain weight within a new relationship.

Locks of love: Courtney at Those Graces on how long hair can be just as self-defining as short.

_____________________________________

*Numerology field day! More significantly, Veterans' Day. Please take a moment to thank or at least think of the veterans in your life—you don't have to support the war to support soldiers. It's also a good time to remember that not all veterans who return alive return well: The Huffington Post collection "Beyond the Battlefield" is a reminder of this, particularly the story of Marine widow Karie Fugett, who also writes compellingly at Being the Wife of a Wounded Marine of caring for her husband after his return from Iraq; he later died from a drug overdose.

While most combat roles are still barred to women, there are plenty of female veterans—combat, support, and medical staff alike. Click here to listen to a collection of interviews from female veterans of recent wars, including Staff Sergeant Jamie Rogers, who, in When Janey Comes Marching Home, gives us this reminder of the healing potential of the beauty industry: "I went [to the bazaar near Camp Liberty in Baghdad] often to get my hair cut. They had a barber shop and then they had a beauty salon. It was nice to go in and it was a female atmosphere. It was all girls. You could put your hair down, instead of having it in a bun all the time, get it washed. It was just something to escape for a while, get away from everything. And it was nice to interact, and the girls were always dressed nice and always very complimentary: 'You have such beautiful...' and I don't know if it was BS, but it felt good that day. That was a good escape."

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.

___________________________________________

For more beauty interviews from The Beheld, click here.

Beauty Blogosphere: 10.28.11

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

And yet I still can't cover a pockmark I got in 1979.

From Head...
Undercover: I've got to agree with BellaSugar: The best concealer commercial ever, starring Zombie Boy in the only time you'll ever see him not be Zombie Boy. 


...To Toe... 
Fish pedicures ruled safe! Big news this week from the UK's Health Protection Agency: “Provided that good standards of hygiene are followed by salons, members of the public are unlikely to get an infection from a fish spa pedicure," announced Dr. Hilary Kirkbride, consultant epidemiologist at the HPA. She then turned around, looked at the hundreds of small fish nibbling dead skin off the feet of people willing to pay for the privilege, and silently gagged. 


...And Everything In Between:
When in doubt, market out: The newly emerging urban middle class in Asia and Latin America is making L'Oreal want to play catch-up in those regions, as the company expects three-fourths of future growth to come from those markets. What's interesting here is that those markets are more resilient even in economic downturns than American, European, and Australian markets, as evidenced by the hand-wringing in this piece about L'Oreal Down Under. (Between this and the news that 88% of Australian online beauty spending goes overseas, the Aussie market seems rife for some bright entrepreneurs to swoop in, I'm just sayin'...)

Fakeout: L'Oreal has a wildly innovative campaign about "not faking it" linked to their Voluminous False Fiber Lashes Mascara! Gee, can't believe nobody's thought of that before. I can't help but wonder how this ties into the idea that authenticity is "getting old," as per the New York Times.

But you can recycle it, dahling: One of the Estee Lauder VPs on the intersection of luxury beauty goods and the cry for sustainability: "Are luxury consumers ready for a radical swing in the look of their packaging? No, it's an evolution, not a revolution. Luxury consumers don't necessary want the sustainability of the pack branded all over." But, he adds, "Just because sustainability is not branded all over the pack, it doens't mean the consumer is not interested in it, and it doesn't mean it's not part of the brand's message."

Speaking of brand messaging: Estee Lauder discovers the existence of Latinas.

"I want to stay behind the table": A profile of Ariel Sharon's appetite, or rather, his seemingly fraught relationship with food. While I agree with Regan Chastain that you can't tell much about a fat person by looking at them other than the fact that they're fat, as a journalist Matt Rees has spent enough time observing people to be able to tell us something potent about Sharon's inner life when he tells us about watching him devour a plate of cookies during the intifada.

Maybe they can compromise with this Army ponytail holder!

Be all that you can be: The Army is considering some dress code changes, and the thought of banning French manicures and ponytails has been bandied about, reports BellaSugar. Honestly, this sort of makes sense to me, not for reasons having to do with conformity but with practicality. Most French manicures are long, right? When my nails get long I can barely type, let alone do the far more manually dextrous things that soldiers need to do, and ponytails are easily caught in things. I have zero desire to quash feminine expression in the Army but I can't say this targets the ladies unfairly.

And to think I got a C in geometry: Finally! Math has shown us the perfect breast! This is supposed to reduce the number of poorly done breast augmentations, so therefore it falls under public service, right? Right! (via Feminaust)

Occupy Tropes: Having already decided that Hot Chicks of Occupy Wall Street is grody gross-gross, let's look at how it relates to Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Something I initially semi-appreciated about the Hot Chicks of OWS site was that it wasn't just stereotypically "hot" chicks: Diverse in not just race, but in age and "type," I begrudgingly had to admit that if nothing else, it could possiblymaybe reflect a broader portrait of "hotness" than mainstream media would have you believe. I knew it was shaky ground, and The Society Pages outlines why: Fetishizing protesters as Manic Pixie Dream Girls isn't true diversity in the least.

All the pretty ladies: And just in case you're occupying (or walking down the street, or hanging out at a bar, or breathing in the presence of others) and, whaddya know, there's a hot chick there? Read this guide to "Your Role as Observer" when a lady is strutting her stuff. 

I choose my choice!: Two nice pieces on "choice feminism" and "consumer feminism" this week. Laurie Penny at The New Significance writes about how as she advances in her career, she's expected to bring a new level of polish—that is, consumer goods—to her presentation. "As women, everything we wear is a statement, and we have no right to remain sartorially silent. We negotiate a field of signifiers every time we open our wardrobes, or, in my case, every time we rummage through the clothes-pile on the bedroom floor." Coupled with Jess's piece at XOJane—which I'd sort of thought was all about "choice feminism," but I guess that's why they have more than one writer?—do I sense a backlash? "Until the woman who doesn’t want to be seen as sexually available can go out with certainty that she won’t be harassed or ogled, your choice to turn heads and revel in attention is a privileged one."

Arresting images: Not sure what to make of this W fashion shoot from Ai Weiwei, a dissident Chinese artist, that features a model being faux-arrested. I normally get all humorless-lefty when I see fashion shoots co-opting social causes, but Weiwei has been held for his work, so there's a layer there that normally is absent. Hmm.

 
Kissyface: Capture the imprint of your kiss, then send it to this company and they'll make art out of it. It'll go nicely with the art of your own DNA they can also cook up for you. You always have to be different, don't you?

"Health class taught me how to have an eating disorder": Jessica at XOJane on how eating disorder education can actually trigger ED symptoms. This is a complicated topic—one that isn't fully explored here—but I'm glad to see it broached in this format. I proposed a similar story at a teen magazine years ago and my boss flat-out said, "There is no way in hell we can run that story," the idea being that fighting fire with fire just adds to the inferno. For the record, I don't think ED education causes EDs any more than skinny models do, but I do think that we need to treat "awareness" with caution in neither glamourizing ED symptoms (wow! you can count her ribs, how awful!) nor stopping short in making it clear that EDs are complex, messy, often lifelong, and not a quick fix for generalized teen pain.

Adios Barbie on the LGBT community and eating disorders: Gay and bisexual men are at increased risk for eating disorders, while lesbian and bisexual women suffer at the same rate as hetero women.

Fitspo vs. thinspo: Caitlin at Fit and Feminist on the sometimes-murky line between dedication to fitness and dedication to a disordered relationship with food and the body. "If you are prone to disordered eating, then the world of fitness must seem like a safe harbor, a place to indulge your obsessions without drawing criticism, because after all, you aren’t starving yourself completely and you’re spending a lot of time in the gym.  You’re just being health-conscious!" Cameo at Verging on Serious frequently gets into this too, most recently with her post on superstitions.

Wig out: A particularly delightful offering from Of Another Fashion, which posts vintage photos of fabulously dressed women of color, of Chicago "wig clinic" owner Minerva Turner modeling one of her truly fantastic creations.

Why we're already pretty: It's no secret I adore Already Pretty, and this entry, which sort of serves as a manifesto, explains exactly what it is about Sally's work that makes me take notice. "Whatever work you’ve chosen, whatever opus you’re creating, whatever battle you’re fighting, I want to arm you with confidence in your body and your style. Why? So you can stop worrying about your outward presentation and focus on what’s important."

The crossroads of self-care: Medicinal Marzipan touches on a delicate subject with her typical grace: weight loss in the Health at Every Size and self-acceptance communities. "Here’s the thing: ...I do love myself. It’s just that, for the first time in my life, I am understanding that sometimes loving yourself means wrangling yourself in when you’ve spiraled out of control.... You have to love yourself above everything else. But wanting to lose weight, or the act of weight loss when you’re feeding yourself the foods that make YOU feel good or moving in a way that YOU love, will not make you a body image warrior exile in my book."

MAC, Transformation, and The Authenticity Hoax


Like any child of the late '70s might be, I was tickled by MAC’s recent choice of Miss Piggy as spokesmodel for the brand. It was the final step in winning over skeptical little moi, I thought: With a history of choosing unlikely models and collaborators—Johnny Weir, Cindy Sherman, hell, Cyndi Lauper—I’d been gradually warming to MAC despite initially being turned off by its flash. By the time they rolled around to featuring the porcine glamour of Miss Piggy, I was on board. “Its brand managers have a keen appreciation of the fantasy aspect of makeup,” I wrote when the news came out a couple of weeks ago, “and I like that MAC isn’t asking me to buy its product to make me a better version of myself.”

I particularly liked the MAC campaign in opposition to the “better version of myself” ads I was referring to. From Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign in 2004 to Bare Escentuals’ “Pretty is what you are, beauty is what you do with it” commercials, I’ve critiqued these ads as being only a step removed from “Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s Maybelline.”


By associating natural or inner beauty with their products, companies get to have it both ways, selling us potions as well as self-esteem. I saw MAC as presenting a more authentic alternative, one that acknowledged the metamorphic possibilities of makeup and that didn’t try to pretend it was selling us inner beauty. By selling us not our natural (but prettified) selves but our made-over, over-the-top fantasy selves, MAC emphasizes the very fact that it’s selling us transformation. All makeup sells transformation; MAC was just being more honest about it. Therefore I’m being more honest about it when I pay my $14 for its lip pencil, right?

What I didn’t see is that that’s exactly what MAC wanted me to do. I fell for what journalist Andrew Potter dubbed The Authenticity Hoax with his 2010 book of the same name. The idea is that since authenticity is the ultimate sell (who wants to buy something fake?), it makes an easily fetishized buzzword that can transform pretty much anything into profit—and that when we chase authenticity we’re seeking not truth but identity and status. And if that status is something that brings us a sense of being terrifically individual, even iconoclastic? All the better. By selling us transformation into our wildest, most creative, most individualized selves, MAC slips in through the back door to sell us authenticity.

I had been thinking that the role of authenticity in cosmetics marketing was unique because cosmetics are inherently inauthentic: Their entire purpose is to alter us into prettier or more glamorous versions of ourselves. In truth, though, both the “natural beauty” campaigns and the MAC approach are selling beauty authenticity, just different versions of it. Bare Escentuals (and Maybelline, and Revlon, and every other makeup brand that has relied upon the girl-next-door aesthetic) tries to sell us us an authentic version of our best selves; MAC tries to sell us a more authentic version of makeup. In fact, the MAC ethos wouldn’t work unless we were already souring on the peddling of “natural beauty”; as Potter reminds us in The Authenticity Hoax, “the notion of cool only ever made sense as a foil to something else.” We like MAC not only for its products but for its cool.

It’s not that I don’t like what MAC is doing, or that I don’t appreciate the inspired sensibility and tone of irreverence that led it to feature Miss Piggy as their latest model. I like that it openly acknowledges the crucial role gay men have played in the beauty industry. Hell, I like its products. But at its heart, we must remember that MAC is part of a major company, and that major companies are known for their abilities to find what resonates with their consumers, including uppity feminists who think they’re too savvy to buy into ads targeted directly toward them (ahem). MAC pushes the line of supposed subversion because it’s in the company’s interest to do so (and when they realize they’ve gone too far with their subversion, as with last year’s line inspired by Juarez, Mexico, aka “the capital of murdered women,” they scale back—as well they should). It’s not actually goodwill for MAC to acknowledge that drag queens use makeup, and it’s not actually more authentic for MAC to posit itself as the truest route to transformation—or for me to buy their lip liner because I feel like their ethos somehow fits with mine.

There’s nothing wrong with selling products or making money, of course—full disclosure, at various points in my life I have both earned and spent the stuff. But I for one need to check my tendency to not cast scrutiny upon a brand just because I prefer its flavor of false authenticity to that of another. We need to remember that MAC’s fortune is in its appearance of irreverence, not makeup. I disliked the Bare Escentuals campaign because I immediately recognized the ways it was preying upon our yearning to see a broader definition of beauty, and I felt manipulated. I didn’t feel manipulated by the MAC campaign because I deemed it “authentic.” Both companies make things that go on your face to make it look better, but each campaign would have you believe that they’re doing far more—that they’re giving us a long-awaited answer to legitimate complaints about the beauty industry. Bare Escentuals gives us acknowledgment of the other factors that make us beautiful—our activities, our diversity, our personalities. MAC tells us makeup is for fantasy and play, taking pretty much the opposite tactic as Bare Escentuals, but leading to the same place: sales.

MAC’s reputation as an edgy, alternative brand neatly obscures the fact that it is owned by a beauty behemoth. Estee Lauder Companies sold $8.8 billion in 2011 and is one of the biggest prestige personal care companies in the world. MAC began with an alternative vibe—two men named Frank, one an entrepreneur and the other a makeup artist, collaborating on a line designed to pop on-camera and to match a wider variety of skin tones than was available on the market in 1984. Today, though, MAC is not edgy. MAC is as corporate as it gets. Estee Lauder’s individual branding strategy—that is, marketing MAC distinctly separately from, say, Bobbi Brown, which is marketed separately from Clinique, Origins, and Aveda, while all of them belong to the same company—shows that Estee Lauder understands the value of positing MAC as living on the edge even though it’s anything but.

With any beauty product—with any product, period—what we get when we plunk down our money isn’t merely a mixture of petroleum and Red #7. We get whatever set of qualities the company imparts to us simply by bearing its own label. If I wear Chanel lipstick I get a nice shade and the satisfaction of knowing I am treating myself to a luxury good; if I wear Wet ‘n’ Wild I get a similar hue plus the 99-cent smugness of almost believing I’ve gotten essentially the same product for a song. It’s what is known in marketing circles as brand equity, or the value a brand has opposed to the actual product the brand represents. Every time we wink at MAC for being cheeky, irreverent, and driven by fantasy, we increase its brand equity. By buying into our fantasies about ourselves by believing the feedback loop a company sells us, we may increase a brand’s value without spending a dime.

And to be perfectly clear: I just may continue to do exactly that on occasion. Despite the mini-Marxist in me, I blog about beauty and am enthralled with many of its trappings, and sometimes that means being enthralled with colored bits of petroleum I smear on my face. But while I’m smearing, playing, smudging—while I’m transforming—I want to be as clear as I can about understanding what I’m doing.

Beauty Blogosphere 10.21.11

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

From Head...

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

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

...To Toe...


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Betty Rubble's makeup kit unearthed.

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

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

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

H0tTie:
13% of IT professionals gave away their passwords when asked to by a...drawing of a pretty lady? The findings are bizarre but worth reading.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Should We Reward Companies for Acknowledging There's More to Beauty Than a Pretty Face?


It’s been a guest post bonanza for me lately, and with two of my favorite blogs at that! On Friday I wrote about beauty and visibility at Already Pretty, and Saturday saw me at Sociological Images, sharing my thoughts about the Bare Escentuals ad campaign and its exploitation of models’ inner lives.

My thoughts on that aspect of the campaign are laid out over there, but the campaign intrigues me on other levels as well. For those who haven’t seen the ads: Bare Escentuals claims to have found “the world’s most beautiful women...without ever seeing their faces.” At the model casting call, applicants filled out questionnaires about themselves, and Bare Escentuals chose its models based on their answers and ensuing interviews. The company executives never saw the models until after they’d been selected.

Now, on its face it seems like a pretty great idea—even a feminist one, the idea being that it’s inner beauty that counts, or something. Jezebel did a nice job of looking at how the campaign appears to give Bare Escentuals some cred for being daring—but since the questionnaires were distributed at a casting call consisting of models and actresses (i.e. professional beauties), not, say, the DMV, the risk was minimal. (The legitimate risk that was identified by one of the executives—"What if all five of them were blonde, blue-eyed, and 30?"—turns out to be a boon for the campaign, and indeed my favorite aspect of the ads is that it shows that blind casting will naturally result in a more diverse pool.)

The campaign’s taglines intrigue me as well. They sound really nice, especially when accompanied by the smiling faces of the models in their (supposedly) everyday lives:
  • “Pretty attracts us. Beauty changes us.”
  • “Pretty can turn heads. Beauty can change the whole world.”
  • “Pretty is what you are. Beauty is what you do with it.”
  • “Pretty is an act. Beauty is a force.”
Now, we all know I’m a sucker for examining the words we use to describe women’s appearances. But on top of being semantically questionable (pretty is what you are, but beauty is what you do with it? whaaa?), the delineation seems odd when it’s being used to sell things we put on our face to make us look prettier. Bare Escentuals doesn’t sell slots in the Peace Corps, so what exactly is creating “change” here? By connecting itself with progressive dialogue on beauty, the company assures us that it understands our concern about wanting our rich inner lives to be seen as beautiful, and gets us to connect their products with our noble ideas on “change” and “force.”

Does it seem like I’m being uncharacteristically nitpicky? There’s a reason: Women have long been raising legitimate questions about the beauty industry, and while it’s nice to see a cosmetics company attempt to answer those questions, I also know that’s exactly what they’re banking on. Whenever a company identifies concerns of their target audience and attempts to ameliorate them through advertising, not through product change, we need to look even more critically at the message and its package. (And for the record, I don’t think Bare Escentuals should change its products—it’s a cosmetics company and it needn't be anything other than that.) By co-opting the messages many women have been saying—beauty comes from within, beauty is more than a pretty face—the company gets to look like it’s really listening, but it’s merely a variation on the same old theme. All advertising is. Advertising is never subversive.

I don’t think that the Bare Escentuals campaign is, like, offensive; I think it’s advertising. But in comparison to another recent campaign, its patronizing tactics come into sharp relief. MAC Cosmetics in the UK reached out to its avid fan base with its “online casting call for six models with style, heart, and soul to be the faces of MAC’s fall colour collection.” The six chosen models are diverse in age, race, and sex—and they look utterly fantastic. The end result showcases the products beautifully—they’re glamorous, transporting, and made all the more so by the audience knowing the makeover backstory.

Now, MAC’s whole thing is over-the-top transformation, as opposed to Bare Escentuals, a natural mineral makeup company specializing in, well, bare essentials (that smell good? I dunno, the name’s a mystery). MAC is able to highlight the actual products in ways that Bare Escentuals can’t, but to me that makes it all the more appealing. Ironically, through the glammed-up makeovers, we get to see more of the products and more of the people wearing them, allowing the campaign to succeed on two separate levels. I feel like “buying into” the MAC campaign is buying into the products. With Bare Escentuals, we’re asked to buy into abstract concepts of beauty that, if you’re concerned with such things, you’ve probably already confirmed on your own.

Beauty Blogosphere 9.23.11

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

Bedtime makeup is for those afraid to be a total glamourpuss like Miss Golightly.

From Head...
Sleeping beauty: Is this a Thing? Has this been around for a while? Makeup for when you're sleeping? I mean, I admit this would be sort of awesome for early sleepover phases of a relationship (ooh la la!) but, I dunno, those early phases are sort of a handy test, too, you know? Like, if I can't let him see me without makeup, why am I letting him see me without clothes?

Big gulp: The world's first antiwrinkle pill! I'm going to swallow it on half my body for a month and then post pictures.


...To Toe...
Playing footsie: South Africa communications minister files an expense report including $1,300 in pedicures and manicures.


...And Everything In Between:
DIY divas: The new group of YouTube makeup gurus are teens showing other teens how to make their own cosmetics. This is totally brilliant—who didn't love all those DIY recipes in Seventeen? It seems like these girls are sharing information in a particularly inventive way and calling attention to the overpricing of makeup, which, now that they can order ingredients like mica and magnesium stearite directly from sites like DIY Cosmetics, they know the actual value of.

Mutant beauty: New beauty line FCX-DNA is incredible if for no reason other than its level of scienctific BS. They'll test your DNA to "detect mutations in certain genes which affect skin aging" and then recommend appropriate products, which have been "developed [using] a process to extract the essence from organically grown fruits and vegetables without harming its texture or genetics." Other awesome words in the press release include: nutrient metabolism, dermagenomics, micronized. CAN'T WAIT!


Nails painted like antidepressants: No comment!

Avon calling:
A Q&A for investors interested in Avon after the corruption charges filed earlier this year.

Mary Kay China sales to overtake U.S. sales by next year:
Mary Kay is investing $25 million in a distribution center in China, which makes total sense given that because of its sales method the company doesn't need to rely on shopping spaces like malls.

Beyond Marie Curie: The copy here reads suspiciously cheerleader-like, but the point is well-taken: More than 50% of L'Oréal's cosmetic scientists are women, and the company encourages cross-disciplinary women in science too with five $100,000 grants each year to women scientists.

Good news for consumers down under: Cosmetics laws in Australia are becoming streamlined to be more consumer-friendly.

Dead Sea: Flagship Ahava store shuttering in London due to anti-Israel protests.

Halal cosmetics: How to market halal cosmetics? Well, given that 23% of the world population is Muslim, there's a head start already—but this piece points out that halal cosmetics certification also qualifies a product as strictly vegan. Cross-marketing opportunities!

Fly me: With all the press surrounding Pan Am (which I don't plan on watching but am terribly curious to find out if any of the lessons from Arlie Russell Hochschild's study on flight attendants and emotional labor, The Managed Heart, are portrayed), this British Airways ad is particularly interesting. As Deep Glamour notes, it's impossible to pretend that flying as a passenger—or even as a flight attendant—is glamorous, given how un-glamorous flights are now. But by relying on the masculine glamour of old-time aviators, the message still gets across.

The state of supermodels: Great piece at Grantland (a new discovery for me, which is why I missed this piece when it was published in August) on the intersection of the self as brand, the valorization of vanity, and why that means we've likely met the last great American supermodel, Ms. Cindy Crawford.

Beauty from within: Balance is coming out with a nutrition bar that has beauty benefits. The 120-calorie Nimble bar will feature antioxidants, beta carotene, lutein, and tiny elves that massage your face from the inside.

Hand me the man-shampoo, Billy!

No girls allowed!: Proctor & Gamble is working with CVS to create a "Guy Aisle" so men don't have to "weed through the pink razors, floral body wash, and hundreds of shampoo formulations" when buying their grooming products, because unlike us dizzy girls who just love to titter over all the AMAZING FLORAL BODY WASHES in the drugstore, "Men are buyers, not shoppers," said Michael Norton, director, external relations, male grooming at Gillette. No news yet as to whether the boys-only aisle will be located in a secret tree club house at which one has to know the super-secret password ("boobies").

Beauty scandal!: A former Miss Utah was sued by a beauty product company that claimed she stole and then resold their goods; she's countersuing, saying that she was given the goods by the company under the auspices of a charitable donation, and then decided to sell the products and donate the proceeds to the same charity. It's small-time and confusing, and the moral of the story is, don't be Miss Utah.

"A very public table": Interesting article at Psychology Today about the inherent risk—and inherent solutions—of eating disorders among orthodox Jewish women.

"I LOVE MY BOOBIES": Leah at Hourglassy takes a moment of Jessica Simpson appreciation, and I'll sign onto that. (I don't care for her music, but enjoyed "The Price of Beauty," and I think she does a nice job of talking about body image stuff with an inquisitive, open manner and not seeming pat.) "So a celebrity who publicly says she loves her body, especially one who regularly receives public criticism, is a major win in my book."

Inked: A tattooed academic—whose work focuses on the normalization of tattoos and its effect on what was once a distinct subculture—on what might signal a shift in the way tattooed women are viewed. And, surprise surprise: The more accepted tattoos are, the closer its wearers are expected to be to the beauty norm: "Yes, tattoo magazines feature a lot of tattooed women, but which tattooed women?" (via Feminaust)



Model me, model you: MAC's new UK campaign makes over non-models who just love makeup, and for once I've got jack to say about such campaigns! The pictures look great.

Inner love: There's a lot of body acceptance in the blogs I read, which, obviously, is fantastic. But there's an irony there: One of the mantras of loving your body is focusing on the inside--which can be hard to do when you're experiencing doubts about your worth in other areas. Sally at Already Pretty borrows here from body love principles and applies them (and some others) to dealing with a sense of inadequacy in the realm of achievement. (I particularly liked this because the transition from school to job was hard for me, since I was so used to getting regular and positive feedback and suddenly was just expected to, you know, do my job.)
Edited to add: On the off-chance you read me and haven't yet discovered Already Pretty, today's your day to hop over and check it out, as I'm guest posting there today. Topic: Beauty and visibility: "Every choice we make about beauty is a choice about being seen. And the more time we spend focusing on the minutiae of beauty, the less time we spend focused on one possible outcome of beauty work—heightened cultural visibility."

What can a year bring?: Elissa at Dress With Courage asks: What sacrifices have you made for beauty? I've got a rather dark take on the study about how 16% of British women would trade a year of their life for the perfect body—I'm sort of like, if it means it would put an end to all my body struggles, then sure, sign me up! What's a year? But Elissa has an answer ready for cynics like me: "[A year can bring] the possibility of greatness that we all look forward to, the idea that things will probably get better, that we can grow and change into the people we dream of being."

Mirror U: Kjerstin Gruys of Mirror Mirror Off the Wall weighs in on the mirror-free high school in the U.K.: "Some people have suggested that this ban prevents creative expression. I call bullshit."

Chasing beauty: Lisa Hickey's stellar piece about being addicted to beauty is a must-read, even as it's painful: "When I’m beautiful and I’m with you, I’m wondering if the guy across the room thinks I’m beautiful. I think beauty is going to connect us; but I’m not connecting with you, I’m connecting with a beautiful image of myself that I think you might like."

Go fetch: Why do we use the word fetching both as a compliment and a command?

Attack of the 50-foot blogger: Caitlin at Fit and Feminist on the power and politics of women's height: "Height, like physical strength, is one of those things we don’t really care much for in women because we say it upsets the 'natural order of things,' which is that men are the Protectors and women the Protected."