Miyoko Hikiji, Soldier, Author, and Model, Iowa

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

On-Duty Beauty

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

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

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

On War Paint

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

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

On Modeling

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

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

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

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

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

On Uniformity

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Girl Model

Model scout Ashley photographing Nadya. Girl Model is available on DVD from First Run Features here and premieres on PBS Sunday, March 24 (check local listings here). It is better than Downton Abbey.

My favorite scene in Girl Model, a documentary chronicling the journeys of an inexperienced 13-year-old Siberian model and the adult scout who finds her, resembles the after-school pig-out sessions I’d have every so often with friends whose parents were more lenient about junk food than mine. Two 13-year-old girls scavenge the kitchen—“I have more cookies,” says one, while the other scarfs down a candy bar—nearly frantic, but joyous.

The innocence of that moment belies the truth of the situation: They’re alone, in Tokyo, where they were delivered from their native Russia by a modeling agency hoping one of them might become the next Big Thing. After weeks of going to casting call after casting call and getting no work—despite the agency’s promise of at least two jobs during their stay in Japan—they think to examine their contracts. Lo and behold, if they gain a centimeter in their barely pubescent bust, waist, or hips, their contracts become void. And so the junk food session begins.

Girl Model is good—excellent, actually—but in a way, that’s beside the point, except for how skillfully it makes the point that much of modeling is child labor, pure and simple, through telling the story of Nadya (the Siberian girl) and Ashley (her American scout, a former model herself). Much of the time when we bemoan the youth imperative in the modeling industry, we’re bemoaning it as consumers: Isn’t it a pity that women are pushed to aspire to look like done-up 13-year-old girls from Eastern Europe? And yes, it is, of course it is. But if this documentary looks at those questions, it does so only obliquely; instead, it gives us the industry as experienced by its workers. I’d say “as experienced from the inside,” except that the people who appear to be its biggest decisionmakers—the agents and clients—give only superficial (though at times painfully revealing) time to the camera.

We wade into the billboard’s-eye view slowly: The first problematic twitch comes in the opening scene, an event where hundreds of lithe Siberian teenagers gather in hopes of catching the eye of scouts. Such events when used for casting (as opposed to scouting) are called “cattle calls,” and it’s not hard to see why: The girls are paraded, asked their measurements, and assured that they’ll be put on diets if they’re heavy in the hips, while the powers-that-be mutter about the selection. This is what consumers are likely to think of when imagining the downside of modeling from the inside—and the thin imperative is indeed thriving in the industry, as evidenced by a recent panel on modeling and eating disorders hosted by The Model Alliance. But the alliance is first and foremost a labor organization, with child labor as one of its leading initiatives. And this is where the rest of the film focuses. We see Nadya arrive in Tokyo with nobody to meet her; she eventually has to ask the filmmaker for help in finding the desolate apartment she’s been assigned. (When her roommate Madlen, another Russian girl, arrives, we learn what would have happened to Nadya had she not been accompanied by the documentarian: Madlen spent four hours wandering through the Tokyo subway before somebody was finally able to assist her. And Madlen even has an intermediate grasp of English; Nadya had none at the time of filming.) Chauffeured from casting call to casting call, told to lie about her age, forced to borrow money from her wealthier roommate since she never winds up landing a paid gig, and suffering from severe isolation, Nadya quickly turns from viewing modeling as a glamorous way to see more of the world (and a way to help support her family) and instead sees it as a confusing scheme she can’t make sense of.

Bridging the gap between the models and the consumer (that is, us) is Ashley, who is so alienated from her own conflicted views on the industry that when we see her flat-out lie to a Russian news team about how models “only win” upon embarking on a career in Tokyo, it almost seems like an elaborate joke she's playing. (Both of the girls we meet in the film leave Tokyo in debt to the agency, a common situation with models.) The title of the documentary indicates that Nadya is who we’re really following here, but in some ways she functions more an avatar for all girl models. As revealing as it is to see the bloom of a child in her garden in Russia wash away to red-faced tears in Tokyo, Nadya simply hasn’t been in the industry long enough for us to see its cumulative effects. Her story is riveting, but anyone who knows anything about the modeling industry won’t exactly be surprised when things don’t turn out for her as they might in her wildest dreams (and in her agency’s promises). It’s the scout Ashley who embodies the philosophical realities here, who shows us what it can mean to sign away one’s teenage years in order to make money by being looked at.

Ashley appears to have a delicate but rich interior life, which is a roundabout way of saying she’s a total weirdo. At first, her sheer bizarreness seems a detour from the main plot of the film (“I had three,” she says of the two life-size plastic baby dolls she bought to keep herself company in the enormous house she bought with her modeling earnings, “but I dissected one”), culminating when the film crew comes to her bedside after she has an operation to remove fibroids and cysts filled with blonde hair that she equates to childbirth. But in a way, her dreamy alienation is the plot: She’s so deeply ambivalent about the industry and her role in plucking girls from around the world to enter a precarious industry that she literally lives in a glass house in Connecticut, preventing her from throwing stones too far in any particular direction. “They can see you, but you can’t see them,” she says. She’s talking of living in a glass-enclosed space and how it can get eerie at night, but she’s also talking of the industry that gave her the funds to buy that house in the first place.

It’s tempting to vilify Ashley here: She knows firsthand what it’s like to be alone in a foreign country at a young age, surrounded by people jostling to take advantage of you in myriad ways, yet she makes her living inviting girls to follow her footsteps. To squarely place the blame for the problems we witness on Ashley would be a mistake, though—not because Ashley and the scouting arm of the industry are blameless, but because it’s an answer that's too easy. Girl Model doesn’t assign blame so much as it reveals the constant passing of the buck. Are we indeed to point the finger at Ashley, the model scout, whose ambivalence about the industry runs so deep that when she drops by the girls’ apartment to check in on them, she appears nearly delighted by the room’s shabbiness? Are we to point the finger at the local agent, Tigran, who “cares” so much about his charges’ welfare that he takes the rowdier ones to the morgue to view the bodies of young people who have died from drug overdoses? Are we to point the finger at Messiah, the Japanese agency head who justifies his entire business as a charity of sorts? What about the girls’ parents—Nadya’s father, who stands in the hollow frame of a new house, saying that he’ll be able to finish building it if his daughter makes a little money? Her mother, who enrolled Nadya in the modeling contest in the first place? Are we to blame “culture” for wanting to dress up children as women and then make their image aspirational for all of us? Are we to blame international economics for creating a world in which it seems reasonable to send a 13-year-old to a country where she doesn’t know the alphabet, let alone the language, totally alone, in hopes of making money? Are we to blame Nadya herself for—spoiler alert—leaving and then returning to an industry that left her alone, in tears, in increasing financial debt, on a balcony overlooking a section of Tokyo she’s unable to even identify on a map? 

Perhaps I’m asking questions of blame because I want there to be someone to blame for creating the sentiment of a tweet she recently sent out to her 194 Twitter followers: #beforeidieiwanna be a professional model. I don’t think that someone is Nadya herself, who is now 17—a child, still, in many ways. But I don’t know who that someone is.

Available on DVD from First Run Features; premieres on PBS Sunday, March 24 (check local listings here). 

Edited 3/21 to add: Thanks to Meli to alerting me to The Model Alliance's petition asking New York State to extend to child models the same labor protections enjoyed by other child performers. Learn more and sign here.

Models, Eating Disorders, and Labor

Eating Disorder Awareness Week, an annual event from the National Eating Disorders Association, is always a bit of a conundrum for me. I feel passionately about eating disorder awareness, in part because I was a patient myself. But it’s because of my own experience in treatment that I know what I’d pinned my eating disorder on for so long—wanting to be thin—was only a fraction of what landed me there. I don’t write about eating disorders much on The Beheld because I want to keep a narrow focus on appearance, and I worry that by getting into eating disorders, I’m conflating beauty and health. That is, I’m doing exactly what women with eating disorders do to themselves.

Eating disorders are linked to the beauty imperative. But they’re about so much more—control, perfectionism, chaos, suppression, connection, intimacy, yearning, abundance, fear. Not to mention biology, genetics, family environment, and other mental illnesses. But those things often get short shrift in the discussion of eating disorders, in part because while we all share beauty culture (and most women at some point are frustrated by it, to say the least), not all of us share the particular psychological cocktail that makes for an eating disorder. Point is: I’m never quite sure how to handle the question of EDs here.

Luckily, this year NEDA made it easy on me by kicking off the week here in New York last night with a panel discussion about eating disorders and the modeling industry—not the tired skinny-models-cause-eating-disorders line, but the models who suffer from EDs. Cohosted with The Model Alliance, a nonprofit working to improve models’ basic working conditions in what is currently a nearly unregulated industry, panelists included several models (including supermodel Crystal Renn and sociologist Ashley Mears, whose book I reviewed here), a modeling agent, and a doctor specializing in eating disorders. Three things I came away from the evening with:

1) Some conditions of modeling echo conditions that foster eating disorders—well beyond the thin imperative. 

Models are good girls. Not literally, and not always—plenty of “bad girl” vices, specifically upper-type drugs, are everywhere in model-land, and obviously the industry, like any other, can encompass a huge variety of personality types. But modeling requires a good deal of compliance, perhaps the number-one good-girl trait. You’re managed and molded by an agent, selected by a client, styled by a hairstylist and makeup artist, posed by a photographer, tweaked by a computer. You are there to be handled and worked on; models bring skill and charisma, yes, but they’re also often treated as props. Now, patients with EDs aren’t necessarily more compliant than the average person, but there’s often a clash that happens, particularly with teenagers (an age when many patients first experience symptoms): You see the compliance that’s expected of you, but you’re also aware of your own growing agency. One way to make sense of this clash is to internalize it in a way that serves as both rebellion and compliance: an eating disorder.

Crystal Renn struck a particularly poignant note when she talked of how until she was scouted as a teenager in Mississippi, her paragon of beauty was the self-styled goth girls who hung out at the mall. So here we have this seed of rebellion, but instead of channeling it into long black lace gloves and Manic Panic dye, it went into whittling herself down to 95 pounds. In fact, at the panel we saw a clip of the (fantastic) documentary Girl Model in which two Russian teens realize that their contract stipulates that they can be discharged if they gain even a centimeter in their measurements—so they both start gorging themselves on candy to give themselves an out. The more willful of the two wound up exiting the industry entirely thanks to that particular contract clause. But the quieter, dreamier, more passive model gives the industry another whirl.

Perfectionism comes into play here too. One of the first things Renn pointed out about her own history was that she was a perfectionist, a personality trait that’s stamped all over eating disorders. I don’t know enough about the industry to know whether perfectionism is common among models, but in panelist Ashley Mears’s excellent book, Pricing Beauty, she describes how models are pushed by their agencies to not only fit incredibly specific measurements, but to work for “trade” (i.e. clothes or photo prints, not, you know, money) in hopes of landing a big ad campaign that would pay off big-time (for the model and for her agency). What is more perfectionistic than self-sacrifice? And in some cases, the price of not sacrificing oneself is incredibly high: Many models are plucked from nations with developing or unstable economies, meaning that a 14-year-old girl may be supporting her entire family back home with her wages. The price of imperfection can be devastation.

And the price of mere entry into the industry, particularly for girls from unstable economies back home, is anxiety. (Can you imagine the anxiety inherent in knowing that if you fail at your stab at success, your family might not be able to install proper plumbing?) Even for models who don’t have their families’ well-being balanced upon their shoulders, the job itself is anxiety-provoking. As Mears pointed out, the bulk of models’ time is spent going on numerous calls, auditions, and go-sees—the equivalents of a job interview, meaning that models are regularly undergoing eight job interviews a day. And not the kind of job interview I’ve ever gone through: “You never know when you walk in the door if you’re going to be torn apart—or praised,” Mears says. There’s a huge overlap between anxiety and eating disorders, with some estimates at an 80% comorbidity rate. We cannot talk about eating disorders without talking about anxiety. And we can’t talk of models’ realities without talking about the same.

2) Properly framing eating disorders within the modeling industry can help lead to change. 

Remember, this panel was cohosted with NEDA by The Model Alliance—a labor organization. While there was plenty of talk of EDs as a cultural issue, a key point of the evening was that for the workers in question, this is a labor issue. As Sara Ziff, panel moderator and cofounder of The Model Alliance, pointed out, most models begin their careers as children. When we think of child labor, we’re thinking of kids in faraway factories—a tragedy, to be sure, and one that the fashion industry needs to do a better form of addressing. But whether it’s a 12-year-old modeling Justin Bieber T-shirts for a tween catalogue or the same 12-year-old slinking down the runway in heels and exotic makeup—or her 17-year-old colleague—that too is child labor. And given that one of the populations at heightened risk for eating disorders is also a population that gets scouted in suburban malls and the streets of Belarus, we need to consider eating disorders a work hazard.

Affiliated organizations seem to actively work against this particular work hazard sometimes. Take the recent case of the Council of Fashion Designers of America partnering with a juice cleanse company to give models a 50% discount during Fashion Week. Juice cleanses are notorious for providing a nice cover of “health” and “detoxing” for people with eating disorders. Combine that with the faux-Zen glamour of cleanses and the like—a specific type of glamour that the fashion set seems to particularly fall prey to—and you see the problem.

The irony here is that the CFDA undertook the partnership as a part of their health initiative meant to help combat eating disorders within the industry. And taken at face value, I can see why: Fashion Week is incredibly hectic, and being able to sip a nutrient-filled lunch on the go instead of sitting down to eat it sounds like a reasonable solution. And for people without eating disorders, in a pinch it probably is a reasonable solution. But to introduce this as a benefit to a population with a high ED risk is absurd. I can’t help but wonder what would happen in the industry if there were a modeling union that had regulations as strict as the Teamsters—if, say, such partnerships had to be reviewed by a panel of ED experts before coming into play. The U.S. is hardly in its labor-friendliest era, but there’s still an essential respect for what unions signify. And the more the industry is framed as exactly that—an industry, one with workers and labor conditions and hazards and risks and, one day, regulations—instead of as a glamorous world its denizens are lucky to gain entrance to, the better off its laborers will be.

3) Consumers can play a role in change.

Yes, the industry needs to change from within. I particularly liked Renn’s proposal of designers issuing sample sizes in size 8 instead of size 2—it’s easier to take away fabric than it is to add it, so stylists could still use a model who fits a size 2, but there would also be built-in encouragement to use a wider variety of body types. (And if, like me, you share Kjerstin Gruys’s raised eyebrow of the ubiquity of “size 8,” note that Renn specified that size 8 would simply be an industry-friendly entry point into even further diversity.) But there are things we can do as fashion consumers too.

The most straightforward way is “voting with your dollars.” Now, most of us inadvertently boycott couture fashion not because of our politics but because of our pocketbooks—I can't drop $6,000 on a skirt. But Mears talked about what’s known in the business world as “loss leaders,” or the strategy of offering a product that’s not profitable in order to offer a product that is. And loss leaders are huge in the fashion world. You might not be able to afford a Chanel suit, but you can indulge in a wee bottle of Chanel no. 5—and if that’s too rich for your blood, what about Chanel no. 5 soap? It’s not necessarily the fashions that makes these houses their money; it’s the fragrances, the makeup palettes, the keychains, the wallets, the bracelet charms, the sunglasses, the scarves, the smartphone cases. That is, the things people actually buy. And if we stop buying them, they’ll stop being as profitable, and the brands in question will have to look at why. You see a fashion line that is clearly using unhealthy models, or that refuses to open up its notions of beauty, whether in size, race, ethnicity, or age? Boycott. And when you see a line that actively works toward creating a healthier idea of beauty, remember that you don’t necessarily need to spend a fortune to support them.

Also, according to panelist Chris Gay, president of Marilyn modeling agency, clients do listen to consumer complaints, particularly catalogues and other commercial outlets. Now, I admit to some skepticism on this: Magazines listen to consumer complaints as well, meaning that a magazine I once worked for decided to “take a stand” and use non-straight-size models at least once an issue. That sometimes translated to a size 8 model being used in a throwaway illustrative shot. But even here, I maintain some optimism, for sometimes that policy translated into stunning editorial shoots with plus-size models where their size wasn’t the entire focus of the story.

The point is, even when it’s frustrating and change is slow—no, especially when change is slow—we need to keep speaking up. And not just for the models’ sake, either, as important as that may be. We can speak up for ourselves as consumers. As Mears pointed out, the role that models play in upholding the beauty imperative has been discussed for some time now, but when it comes to solutions everyone wants to pass the buck. Consumers want media outlets to use a wider range of models. Media outlets say they shoot unhealthily thin models because that’s what comes to them. Agencies say they send unhealthily thin models because that’s what the clients want, and because that’s who fits into sample sizes designers provide. Designers say the provide small sample sizes because larger sizes don’t hang right; designers who may genuinely wish for that to change feel caught in a game of follow-the-leader. And then there are retail outlets that say that displaying larger sizes means items don’t sell as well, so we’re back to consumers, who want media outlets to use a wider range of models. If we want things to change, we’ve got to start somewhere—meaning that the buck needs to stop here.

NEDA is hosting a post-event Twitter chat today, February 26, at 2 p.m. EST, with supermodel and host Emme. Follow #NEDAwareness to join.

Modeling as Modern-Day Physiognomy

From Physiognomy Illustrated; Or, Nature's Revelations of Character, Joseph Simms,
pub. 1889, Crackpot Press

I’ve had my palm read and my astrological chart done, but what I really want to find is a physiognomist. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your purpose, physiognomythe art of decoding character and temperament through the way our facial features are formedhas been discredited, and except for the occasional parlor game piece, it’s not something we readily find anymore (though if you know of a good physiognomist in the New York City area, holler!). Our faces already communicate so much to the world: We share conscious and unconscious expressions, of course, but our faces also telegraph something to the world just by dint of how they’re formed, even thoughsorry, all readers who believe in physiognomythat telegraph is woefully inaccurate. I have a “friendly face,” meaning strangers always ask me for directions; a friend of mine who’s just as friendly as I am rarely gets asked for directions because her neutral facial expression appears, to the unknowing eye, a hint angry.

The features of my own that I suspect make my face appear friendly don’t necessarily correspond with how a physiognomist would classify me (the shape of my eyes indicates “tenderness,” but the placement of my irises reveals that I’m “timid and phlegmatic,” so it’s a draw). But the ease with which strangers approach meand the way I quickly deduce who I should ask for aid or directions when I need themmakes me think that plenty of us make our own amateur conclusions about what faces mean. Still, I’d love to zoom back to the 19th century and have my face read: The amateur scientist in me (okay, the kook in me) wants to “know” what my face means, even though I know full well it's more along the lines of astrology than even something as "scientific" as the Myers-Briggs personality test. (We ever-curious ENFP Geminis are always eager to learn.)

My chances of finding a physiognomist are slim: The art/science of face-reading fell out of favor after the turn of the 20th century, its detractors calling it a pseudoscience akin to palm-reading. Certainly today we wouldn’t take physiognomy seriously, if for no other reason than its outrageous racism: Typically African traits were signs of indolence, diminished intellect, and “sensualism”; American Indian features were compared more to those of animals than of humans; Asian characteristics indicated compliance and asexuality.

So physiognomy is dead, as well it should be. Except, well, it’s not. I kept thinking of physiognomy when reading certain parts of Ashley Mears’s sociological study of the modeling industry, Pricing Beauty. At the time I thought I was making the connection because I pictured photographers, stylists, and eventually photo retouchers slicing and dicing models’ bodies in order to create the perfect image, much as one might pluck a set of characteristics from a physiognomic guide to imagine the perfectly tempered, intelligent, generous, and wise person (that is, the person with a rounded forehead, eyelids situated perfectly horizontal above irises, arched brows, and angular chins). Modeling and physiognomy alike depend upon elevating certain characteristics above others. But when I delved into the practice’s most influential tome, Physiognomy by Johann Caspar Lavater (published 1826), I realized the connection was deeper than that. Consider these two passages:

“He only is an accurate physiognomist, and has the true spirit of physiognomy, who possesses sense, feeling, and sympathetic proportion of the congeniality and harmony of nature; and who hath a similar sense and feeling for all emendations and additions of art and constraint.” [Lavater, Chapter IV] 
“When asked how long it takes her to decide on a model in a casting, one major stylist in London summed it up: ‘An instant! You know, you know, you just know!’ Most clients...claimed to know the moment a model walks through the door...Yet despite their professed certitude, they could not articulate what it was that they saw. They said that they may not be able to explain what it is about a model that makes her ‘really good’ or ‘right’; simply, they are able to feel it.” [Mears, Chapter 4]

That is, physiognomy claimed to be a science but still relied on “sense and feeling”; similarly, players in the modeling industry claim to be prizing what’s inherently stunning, beautiful, or intriguing, but they rely upon a gut sense that’s cultivated through careful calibration of taste. Just as physiognomy was a reflection of social and scientific standards at the time instead of an actual science of character, the “It” girl is as much a reflection of tastemakers’ collective sense as she is an owner of her own talent. As Mears puts it, “The very fact that clients cannot articulate the quality of a ‘really good model’ suggests that it lies in their own roles and actions rather than in the masses of looks they see before them.” Physiognomy, with its mix of absurd detail (23 types of foreheads) and general pronouncements (“a lipless mouth...denotes housewifery”) about what features signify, overarticulates its own standards. Modeling, with its buzz about “It” girls and the sense that a good agent “just knows,” underarticulates them. But both overarticulation and underarticulation serve to cloud what lies behind the determination of those standards: a reinforcement of existing power structures.

The tastemakers Mears interviews have a set of guidelines just as strict as the ersatz science of physiognomy. The overwhelming majority of models are tall, slender, young, white or “high-end ethnic,” and symmetrically featured. But a recurring question in Pricing Beauty is what makes one 5’9”, size 2, fair-skinned, hard-working brunette a successful model while another 5’9”, size 2, fair-skinned, hard-working brunettewho, to your eye or mine, is just as likely to succeed as her counterpartexits the industry in debt. The answer lies in a complex web of tastemakers’ reflexive social distinctions; codification and reinforcement of ideas surrounding class, race, and gender; skilled exhibition and concealment of forms of cultural capital; and, above all, the mystification and glamorization of all of the above. Similarly, though proponents of physiognomy purported it to be both an art and science, there’s a near-mystical approach to physiognomy that meant only certain people would be able to divine what various features really meantthe one-on-one tastemakers of the 19th century, those who grasped the “true spirit” of physiognomy. Forget that the “true spirit” of it was largely based on Lavater’s own personal observations: “Eyebones with defined, marking, easily delineated, firm arches, I never saw but in noble and in great men.” In defining the meaning of features so literally and subjectively, Lavater only articulated what tastemakers 200 years later would attribute to vague notions of “It.”

To be clear, as alike as they are, the pseudoscience/pseudoart of physiognomists and modeling tastemakers don’t assess the same thingand neither of them defines beauty per se. While face-reading certainly favored characteristics found attractive at the height of its popularity, the point wasn’t so much to determine beauty as it was to determine character. (Cosmetics mogul Max Factor would make the logical leap between the two by using the sort of highly specific dictates of physiognomy to create the “perfect face” with his creepy-as-hell “Beauty Micrometer,” designed to help makeup artists tell women what features they needed to enhance or detract from to create the perfect face.) For that matter, much of the modeling industry isn’t about beauty, but rather fitting a set of criteria for a specific purposelike keeping the power of fashion in the hands of designers, not consumers, by displaying clothes on whippet-thin bodies that don’t interfere with the garments’ “line.” But both of them rely upon specific notions of what looks denotewhether it be the glamour of high cheekbones or the “fortitude and prudence” of heavy eyebrowsusing codes decided upon by a select group of people. As sociologist Pierre Bourdieu wrote, “Taste classifies.” We understand modeling to be a codified set of tastes, but physiognomy was no different. 

And, you know, so what? Today we laugh at physiognomy and see it as antiquated, quaint, or even dangerous; its transparency is laughable. And certainly we’ve become skeptical of the modeling industry as well, or at least of what it signifies: We critique its narrowness and exclusion, and more recently we’ve begun to pay attention to its questionable labor practices. But just as we can look at physiognomy today and cringe at its racist, classist constructions, we need to keep looking at what drives the defined aesthetic of modeling if we’re able to understand our own relationship with imagery and beauty. I don’t think most women strive to look like models; I think most who are dissatisfied with their appearance just want to look like better versions of themselves. But it’s hardly a controversial point to say that the specific ways in which we want to look “better” are often influenced by the aesthetics of the modeling industry. What I’d have us do is try to be specific where “the modeling industry”that is, tastemakers, not the models themselvesis unable to be articulate. That’s not easy to do, given how easily we stumble over “It” girls without ever being able to define “It”; that’s why we came up with the term “It” girl in the first place. But I’d like to see us consciously keep the drum beat of the social construction of beauty behind us as we straighten our hair and totter in heels: That we are not mimicking the looks of Gisele Bundchen or Karlie Kloss if we attempt to appropriate their looks onto our own bodies. Rather, we’re attempting to channel and redirect what tastemakers tell us they signify: luxury, exclusivity, embodied cultural capital. We’re responding to tastemakers, not ourselves.

Pricing Beauty (Not That Other Book)

I have a comparative review of Catherine Hakim’s Erotic Capital and Ashley Mears’s Pricing Beauty up at The New Inquiry. (Image possibly unsafe for work; I didn't choose it.) Last time I piped up here about the concept of erotic capital, I was trying to find a way to value it. For there are parts of the theory I find enticing—that if our culture began to value traditionally feminine traits and skills instead of automatically denigrating them, we might begin to see progress in arenas where sexism still thrives. I also liked the idea that erotic capital was embodied by charisma and “people skills,” not merely the “womanly arts” of being seductive and walking successfully in high heels. I’m not exactly a believer in “if you’ve got it, flaunt it,” but I’m a believer in charm, and I was ready to read an argument that valorized it.

Unfortunately, as I point out in the review, these theories were in my head, not in Hakim’s book. When I wrote my earlier piece on erotic capital, I hadn’t yet read the book that inspired it; I now wish I’d made my point entirely separate from Erotic Capital, because Erotic Capital is tripe. Like, seriously, tripe, and not just because I disagree with most of its premises; it’s poorly written, repetitive, and defensive, and Hakim seems to have a willful misunderstanding of women's history. (Hakim isn’t the first person to attempt to discredit feminism’s most visible icon by referring to Gloria Steinem as a former Playboy bunny without acknowledging that she worked undercover for Playboy to expose their working conditions. But when it’s used to ask why more feminists haven’t embraced erotic capital—including a former Playboy bunny!—it’s particularly disingenuous.) Which is exactly why, though I’m pleased with the review and would happily write it again, I’m simultaneously chagrined with myself for taking Hakim’s bait. After reading the book, it became clear she wanted exactly the kind of argument I issued. It attacks feminism and uses the word erotic in its title; she meant for it to be a provocative argument, not a serious one. I suppose my mistake was in expecting a better argument. Lesson learned.

The real downside here, though, is that in gnawing away at Erotic Capital, I didn’t get a chance to showcase Pricing Beauty, which is excellent. I was eager to read it because it was an in-depth study of the modeling industry that didn’t immediately dismiss it as harmful to the population at large, which is what most feminist discourse regarding modeling focuses on. Mears doesn’t ignore those claims; instead, she deftly illustrates how the industry embodies the social and cultural constructs the power-holders have decided upon (even when they don’t exactly know that they’re deciding upon anything). That is: The modeling industry isn’t some weird otherworld; the modeling industry just lays bare the conditions many of us operate under every day.

A recurring theme in Pricing Beauty is how an industry can put a price tag on a product whose entire value lies in representation. How can the industry decide one 5’10” lithe, toothy brunette is worth $6,000 a day, while another 5’10” lithe, toothy brunette winds up in debt to her agency? In looking at the tastemakers who control the aesthetics of modeling—photographers, bookers, agents, and most of all clients, the people signing the bills at the end of the day—Mears shows us how even the power-holders make decisions according to what they each think the other wants, leading to an inflation among what each tastemaker anticipates will be the prized “look.” And there are plenty of ways to dissect any particular look and what those in power might gain from prizing that particular look—even when they genuinely don’t realize that they’re suddenly prizing a look that serves their cultural dictates. But we can’t do any of it unless we accept modeling A) as a legitimate industry worth studying, one with its own working conditions and peculiar rules that, along with the glamour, keep its participants hungry for its winner-take-all economic stakes, and B) as an industry that isn’t against the rest of us, but rather an embodiment of the social and cultural concerns that might get us riled up about the modeling industry in the first place.

For a sociological study that could easily have devolved into academic-ese in an effort to be taken seriously, the book is both lucid and economical; it’s a testament to the good faith in which Mears, who was working as a model while doing her research, approaches the industry, looking to be neither critical nor laudatory. Each anecdote surges toward the larger thesis, even the quotes from outliers, making the entire read seamless. I’d read Mears’ work on Jezebel before; I don’t know her background other than what’s in her bio, but the ease with which she writes over there shines through in Pricing Beauty. (Few things will turn me off quicker than writing designed to appear scholarly; this book is one of those studies that shows such style is a compensation for unclear thinking.)

It’s always tempting to treat modeling as either a terrifically glamorous world, or as the opposite—a Valley of the Dolls-type world built for disappointment and tragedy, but only after years spent in blistering high heels. Mears refuses to sensationalize modeling in either direction, acknowledging its perks (you’re a model! who gets to work in Europe sometimes!) and pitfalls (you’re a model! who may well exit the industry in debt to your agency for all the work they’ve poured into your never-launched career!) but always keeping an eye on the larger questions: What do the peculiar economics of the modeling industry say about cultural values, about gender, about privilege? In essence, what does modeling say about us? We know there's a connection; that's part of why there's such an enormous amount of attention paid to the industry, or rather, to models themselves. (Why do any of us know who Claudia Schiffer is?) That's part of why some of us internalize the messages of the modeling industry so readily. We might not need Pricing Beauty to tell us that there's a connection between the cultural production of modeling and the cultural production of ourselves, but we just might need it to help us understand why.

Diversity Casting and Commercial vs. High-End Markets

Jezebel asked us last week, "What happens when a kid with Down syndrome models for Target?" The answer seems to be, "You get a Target ad with some cute kids." There’s much you could say about the Target ad (which I’m focusing on instead a Nordstrom catalog from last year that features the same model, because it’s more recent): It’s progressive casting, made more so by the companies not calling attention to the casting with some sort of pride campaign. (You could argue that with the advent of media-watchdog bloggers, the company could predict that people would notice without them rolling out the PR machine, but still.) Modeling is about visibility, so to have an under-visible group represented is outstanding—for all the cries about the lack of casting diversity in ethnicity and body size, you only rarely hear about the need for models with varying levels of ability. You could also critique it by pointing out that this is a child model; where are the adult models with Down syndrome? (The only other model I know of with Down syndrome is Taya Kennedy, who is 14 months old, which makes claims about her being an “inspiration” who is “taking the modeling world by storm” a hair overblown, as adorable as she is.)

It’s not hard to like the Target and Nordstrom campaigns, even as they prompt questions about corporate motivation, brand messaging, and tokenism. But what really interests me here is the question posed toward the end of the Jezebel article: Would we see a model with Downs syndrome in a haute couture campaign? Sociologist Ashley Mears’ study of the modeling industry, Pricing Beauty, indicates the answer is a resounding no. And the reasoning lies within the rules of how high fashion embraces unconventional beauty, not the industry’s wholesale rejection of it.

In Pricing Beauty, Mears delves into the reverse economics of modeling: Commercial clients (catalogs, retailers, low-end advertising) pay models well but are low in prestige; editorial clients (high-end magazines, couture campaigns, fashion shows) pay models little or no money but are considered prestigious and can eventually lead to a model getting “the big one”—superstardom, or at least a massive high-end campaign that will bring in the enormous paychecks. Models can cross over from one to the other, but in general there’s a delineation between editorial and commercial models, with commercial models being the conventionally pretty “girl next door” types (think Christie Brinkley) and editorial models being edgier, more unconventional, more provocative (think Agyness Deyn). Given this, at first it would seem that editorial outlets would be a better fit for models outside the mainstream, like models with Down syndrome. But as Mears points out regarding the greater availability of jobs for non-white models in commercial outlets, there’s a counterintuitive force at work with diversity. The commercial markets, which rely upon directly appealing to consumers instead of tastemakers, are carefully calibrated to appeal to the demographics of the people actually buying the goods, making it inherently more diverse. “The catalog market is where fashion embraces ethnic representation,” Mears argues, going against “the popular associations between artists and virtues of liberalism and cosmopolitanism” versus that of “the catalog shoppers of ‘middle America’ [who] are commonly accused of parochialism and intolerance.”

High fashion prides itself on embracing people outside the mainstream: Totally tattooed Zombie Boy, transgender icon Amanda Lepore, and albino Shaun Ross have all modeled haute couture, but the idea behind their campaigns has hardly been to provoke discussion about, say, transgender issues or the (formerly) working-class stigma of tattoos. The idea is that they embody something the brand would like to highlight about their own image—usually something approximating “edge,” a word that came up over and over again in Mears’ interviews with industry insiders. The models’ unusual looks become a marketing tool, not a tool for the company to generate good feelings about tolerance and inclusion. Their looks may be unusual, but they still fit within some fairly comfortable confines: Zombie Boy is white with classic bone structure, Amanda Lepore has an hourglass figure, and both of them are self-made in their exaggeratedly conspicuous qualities.

Compare that with people with Down syndrome: They’re not “self-made” in what sets them apart from the mainstream, prompting all sorts of reactions ranging from protection to pity (though the same could be said of Ross), and more to the point, their physical qualities exclude them from being singled out by the world of high fashion. People with Down syndrome are far shorter than average, with stockier, rounder bodies and shorter limbs—i.e. pretty much the exact opposite of fashion models. In contrast, people with conditions that make them good candidates for modeling—Marfan syndrome, for example, or androgen insensitivity syndrome—are reputedly overrepresented in modeling, though I haven’t found any hard proof of this. As a Jezebel commenter points out, if there were ever to be a woman with Down syndrome who was 5’11”, lanky, and narrow-hipped, the fashion industry would be all over her. I actually don’t think that’s true, but the idea stands: Fashion wants to celebrate outsiders as long as they fit certain criteria.

Case in point: Aimee Mullins, an athlete and fashion model who had both legs amputated below the knee in infancy. Her personal tale is inspiring (thanks to Sally McGraw for pointing me toward The Moth podcast, a storytelling event at which Mullins shares her story), especially in the ways she uses herself as an example for younger amputees who refuse to be limited in what they can do. But let’s not forget that Mullins is trim, conventionally attractive, and, depending upon which prosthetics she’s wearing, can be anywhere from 5’8” to 6’1”. I point this out not to take away from her accomplishments (she was president of the Women’s Sports Foundation and has done wonderful advocacy work, and even beside that, working with high-end designers as a model is an accomplishment) but rather to point out that it’s not just anyone who’s singled out for a pair of handmade Alexander McQueen prosthetic legs. High fashion embraced Mullins for the same reason they embrace anyone: She had “It,” and she fit the predetermined criteria. You can argue that’s progressive (I’d find it pandering to hire a woman to model your brand simply because she wears prosthetics), or you can argue it’s a self-serving way for the fashion industry to get a really eye-catching campaign. Hell, you can argue it’s both. But either way, the “look” comes first, well before the clothes before the model is wearing, and certainly before the model herself.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Target, a mainstream retailer known for aiming toward working- and middle-class consumers with an eye on the “creative class” through its collaborations with high-end designers like Missoni. (It’s also important to note that the influential viewers of Target ads are the people buying the clothes, while the influential viewers of a Vogue fashion spread are other stylemakers. Target has to satisfy you and me; Vogue does not.) Undoubtedly Target knew it would curry favor from a wide swath of its consumers by nonchalantly casting a model with Down syndrome. Progressives would like it, special needs advocates would like it, the “family values” camp would like it. What’s not to like? It’s a cute little blond kid in a leather jacket. And when one-third of a company’s customers have children, it’s a pretty savvy move to translate family values into something appealing to both lefty-progressives and right-wing-anti-choicers (numbers are hard to come by, but in two separate reports 29% of parents who knew their child would be born with Down syndrome chose to terminate the pregnancy, turning visibility of children with Down syndrome into a potentially political statement). Inclusion can safely become a part of Target’s brand. High fashion, on the other hand, has little investment in family values. (Nordstrom is a higher-end retailer, but it’s still distinctly commercial; it ain’t Dolce & Gabbana.)

The more skeptical among us might raise an eyebrow and mutter something about Target employing tokenism. But I don’t really think that’s the case here.
As Mears writes in Pricing Beauty, “[Tokens] do the work of legitimizing exclusion.” That is, nearly every fashion show will use one black model, because, hey, they’re not racist, right? It’s the fashion-world equivalent of “Some of my best friends are black.” But people with disabilities are even more invisible than racial minorities. (Or rather, some racial minorities. You don’t hear a lot of clamoring about the lack of American Indian models.) There’s been some progress made in entertainment—Glee and American Horror Story both use actors with Down syndrome, and though I haven’t watched either show, I’ve heard there’s at least a nominal effort to make their characters more than just Girl With Disability. Overall, though, it’s not like our culture is exactly overflowing with representations of disabled people—so their absence isn’t noticed, unlike the absence of brown-skinned people from all-white casting lineups.

In the end, Target did something good. I’m a firm believer in being diligent about companies’ motivations if we’re to retain our agency over what we buy and why we buy it—see also my hedging on MAC Cosmetics—but that doesn’t mean we should overlook the times companies get things right, especially when they’re not exploiting that as a marketing tool (yet). High fashion might believe it’s progressive, but much of the time it only looks progressive, while the actual inching forward of diverse representations happens at the lower end of the market. I’ve always thought that Will & Grace could be credited with a good deal of the sea change in the attitude toward gays and lesbians in the past 20 years (literally nobody was out in my high school when I graduated in 1994, for example). Here was a gay character being brought into America’s living room and being shown as funny, smart, likable, moral—Gays! They’re Just Like Us! And it’s not like Will & Grace was exactly highbrow TV; its middle-market sensibility was what made it work as a diversity tool. I see the same thing happening with Target, and in fact I wonder if by calling attention to it here I’m doing the opposite of what should be happening when a cute kid with Down syndrome is cast in a mainstream ad. After all, he’s just a cute kid with a floppy haircut in an orange T-shirt—and isn’t that the point?

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 10.14.11

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

From Head...
The new face of MAC: Miss Piggy. You know, I used to be skeptical of MAC because it was trying to seem terrifically edgy while simply being an arm of one of the biggest cosmetics companies in the world. And I maintain that advertising can never be subversive, so I'm not about to do the Internet equivalent of pat MAC on the back. That said, between its makeover campaign in the UK and Miss Piggy, the company has officially won me over. Its brand managers have a keen appreciation of the fantasy aspect of makeup, and even though I wear makeup in a pretty straightforward manner, I like that MAC isn't asking me to buy its product to make a better version of myself.

...To Toe...
As a disliker of most things remake (with the possible exception of the Joe Cocker "With a Little Help From My Friends") I remain appalled by the new Footloose, and DOUBLE APPALLED by Deborah "Traitor" Lippmann's polish collection inspired by the remake. My feet will remain tight.

...And Everything In Between:
Big hair: Hairstylist Bashar Brown opened up a UK salon catering specifically to plus-size clients. The idea makes sense—larger chairs and drapes, for starters—but some salons are just snooty anyway regardless of one's size, and I'd hate to see salons seizing this as an opportunity to further snootify their offerings since "they have their own salons now."

Backpedal: Procter & Gamble assures shareholders it doesn't support political causes—and then reveals its $40,000 donation to conservative causes in Ohio, including support of Senate bill 5, which would restrict collective bargaining power of public employees.

Gross violation: In other assuring Procter & Gamble news, the district attorney in Scranton, Pennsylvania, assures the public that "No Procter & Gamble products were contaminated" in the case of the P&G employee who has been injecting his semen into coworkers' yogurt containers. 

Latin American biodiversity: Colombia's plan to become a major cosmetics player: Bank on its biodiversity, which, in conjunction with the call for natural ingredients, could easily prove a boon to the nation's economy.

What I see in the mirror:
Wonderful series at The Guardian in which well-known people are asked to share what they see when they look in the mirror. (via Already Pretty) For as Elissa at Dress With Courage reminded us this week, "Your body image is how you perceive, think and feel about your body. This may have no bearing at all on your actual appearance." 

Dirty politics: Interesting twist in Massachusetts politics: Senator Scott Brown posed nude in a 1982 Cosmo spread to help pay for law school. When his likely rival, Elizabeth Warren, commented that she "kept her clothes on" to pay for her own degree, Brown later responded to her jab with, "Thank God." I don't care what Warren looks like or how Brown paid for school; what's interesting is that people thought Brown's words were unkind, as though it would be a compliment to say that we should all want to see a politician nude. Can't we just fast-forward to the sexy stuff like S.139, the Equal Access to Tax Planning Act?

Stuck on you: Beauty Redefined is offering their fantastic body image media literacy billboards as sticky notes. "You are capable of much more than being looked at" is a success writ small as well.

Sunspot: Nail polish that changes colors in the sun! I was all over "mood polish" in the '80s so this is catnip to me.

The best dry shampoo: Two of this week's Beheld topics are magically synthesized this week at Persephone magazine, where Tuesday's interviewee Golda Poretsky writes about not washing her hair. (Her secret hair powder trick made me snort out loud, and it's one I guarantee you haven't heard of yet.) 

What a drag: Rachel Rabbit White asks why we don't love drag kings as much as drag queens. I'm not into most drag queens—most of the ones I've seen seem to be co-opting the sucky stuff about femininity and presenting it as sheer fabulousity instead of truly engaging with it or critiquing it. (In fact, the only drag queen I've seen and truly loved is...a woman, the World Famous BOB, who is a self-described "female female impersonator" and manages to be both fabulous and critical of the feminine role.) My quick answer to her provocative question is that we're used to seeing women take on the hallmarks of masculinity but not the other way around; I suspect that if we had a more culturally equal society drag queens would lose much allure as well.

Small pleasures and the new Dr. Pepper slogan: Finally, someone says something intelligent about the "lipstick index" other than note its existence. (Lipstick sales haven't gone up in this recession, leading to patter about a "nail polish index.") Thank you, Molly Lambert.

"Self-consciousness isolates and cancels": Sally works her magic at Already Pretty to weave together a few of my favorite topics: self-consciousness, projection, and the words we speak to one another about our appearance. 

Beauty, Disrupted: Supermodel Carré Otis's memoir is out this week, and though the number of celebrity memoirs I've read I can count on one hand (I was once stranded in a cabin with nothing to read except Shirley Maclaine's Out on a Limb), this seems promising. She touches on something in this interview with ET that you rarely see acknowledged in talk about domestic violence: "I think that that initial meeting [with ex-husband Mickey Rourke, who was arrested in 1994 for spousal abuse] was an immediate familiarity. It was sort of recognition of somebody who I knew there was an incredible charge with, and energy between. So in a way it was that 'dangerous at first sight' ...and now I think, I know better —those are the red flags." Also, it's cowritten with Hugo Schwyzer, who always takes a fresh spin on questions of appearance and gender in his own work.

Daredevils, from left: Annie Edson Taylor, Maria Spelterini, Maud Willard

*I spent most of said week taking in a different sort of beauty—upstate New York and Niagara Falls—so this roundup isn't as complete as usual. In compensation, I offer you an off-topic collection of daredevils: Annie Edson Taylor (the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel), Maria Spelterini (the first woman to cross the Niagara gorge on tightrope, in 1876, shown here wearing peach baskets on her feet during one of her three follow-ups to her first successful crossing), and Maud Willard, a dance hall actress who perished in 1901 while trying to shoot the rapids in a barrel. She was accompanied by her fox terrier, who survived, presumably by shoving his little nose inside the single air hole in the barrel.

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."

Beauty Blogosphere 9.16.11

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

From Head...
Earth face!: If body typing is appealing on the level of being an ersatz personality test, physiognomy like this new face-reading book being touted in The Daily Mail is even more oddly appealing, even though I think it's utter bullshit. Always fun to play, though!

 ...To Toe... 
If the shoe doesn't fit: Decoding Dress on why capitalism made her hunt for a month for black pumps. With her size 11 fitting, "There aren’t enough women like me to make it commercially worthwhile for manufacturers to cater to us." (Solutions, or at least ways to ameliorate the problem, here.) The shoe size question is interesting to me, as when applied to clothes we can't help but integrate the discussion with body image (as Already Pretty did this week by reminding us that "Clothes should fit you, you needn’t fit them," and as an oldie but goodie at Inkdot does with this post on tailoring). Shoes have less of an impact on our body image than clothes, so looking at the lack of diverse size options in footwear is a nice way to examine the sizing problem from a numbers-based perspective—and, yep, the man ain't giving Decoding Dress a new pair of shoes easily anytime soon. 

...And Everything In Between:
Ask a Dude: Hairpin's Dude answers two questions this week about appearance: How to accept a compliment when you're all hot and heavy with someone, and what to do when you find out your gross boyfriend has been making gross comparisons between your body and another woman's. Gross!

I'll have what he's having: We're more likely to consider someone beautiful if we think our friends think the person is beautiful. Science sez!

Fashion weak: Ashley Mears, sociologist, model, and author of Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model, on modeling as precarious labor, with few rights for the people wearing the clothes that make Fashion Week so damned glamorous.

Southern belles: A look inside the world of Venezuelan beauty pageants, and what it means for all Venezuelan women. (Banks there give loans for plastic surgery with slogans like "Have your plastic on our plastic"?!) Venezuelan models tend to be in high demand in the U.S.--very young women who can earn far more from their families while living abroad than they can from working at home--so I'm wondering about the economic implications of the beauty imperative there.

"If you could change one of your physical characteristics, which one would it be and why?":
This was asked at the Miss Universe pageant, which is, as a reminder, a pageant in which contestants are selected for their physical beauty—but, of course, still need to be prodded to put down their appearance. Aiaiai! (Thanks to Caitlin at Fit and Feminist for the link.)

Vote for "The Illusionists": Filmmaker Elena Rossini (you've met her here before) is up for a nice publicity boost from IndieWire; won't you take a second and vote for "The Illusionists," a promising documentary about the exploitation of women's bodies for profit? UPDATE: "The Illusionists" won! (And had won before I posted this roundup, which I hadn't realized.) Nice work, all!

She's a winner!:
Guinness world record holder for world's longest fingernails tops in with a combined 19.2 feet in length. Vacuuming, of all things, is what she claims is the hardest thing to do. (Clearly she does not wear contact lenses.)

Survivor: Cosmetics salesman is lone survivor of plane crash in Bolivia. No word as to whether skin cream played a role in his survival in the Amazon jungle.

Fly this: I've seen plenty of "travel-friendly" beauty products but had never thought about what it meant for the industry: Sales of products under three ounces have grown 10% a year since liquid restrictions were placed on U.S. flights.

Mirror Abuse Resistance Education: A high school in the UK has not only banned makeup, but has removed mirrors from the bathrooms. I think this is pretty awesome--I hear the idea that makeup allows you to express your individuality, but if the idea is to focus on learning (à la school uniforms), this certainly removes a distraction. Attention, Shelley College students: I had a great month with no mirrors, and Kjerstin Gruys is having a great year without 'em--you'll thrive during your on-school hours if you let yourselves, okay? 

Everybody loves Tavi: Nice piece in Slate about the advantages Tavi Gevinson's Rookie has over traditional teen mags (plus an acknowledgement that feminists in teen magazines aren't unicorns! we exist!). 

Smart eye for the racist guy: Remember that Crystal Renn shoot in which her eyes were taped back but of course the idea wasn't at all to look Asian? Minh-ha T. Pham at Threadbared takes it on: "Renn’s explanation is an example of a post-racial narrative in which race is simultaneously articulated through and disavowed by discourses of class, culture, patriotism, national security, talent, and, in the case of fashion, creative license."

It's called "lift and separate," Captain.

Cartoon boobs: Hourglassy on breasts in comics. Hint for aspiring comics artists: "When fabric is stretched across boobs, no matter how tight the spandex, it does not suction cup itself to each individual breast."

The Evolution of Ape-Face Johnson: Speaking of comics, cartoonist Carolita Johnson has a stunning piece in The Hairpin about her journey from supposedly funny-looking child, to high fashion model, to supposedly funny-looking model.

Army of two:
Fantastic talk between Cristen Conger at Bitch and Hugo Schwyzer on the male beauty myth. "It’s self-centered in terms of meeting your own ideal, becoming the man you want to be. This all started with the Army...when they went with the most brilliant advertising slogan ever: 'Be All You Can Be.' ...They decided to stop selling patriotism because that was old school and start selling personal transformation, and that was absolute genius." (Or take it from the horse's mouth: Men's cosmetics marketers on their thoughts on the difference between marketing to men and women.)

"As much as I love feminism, I don’t believe it’s the only concept you will ever need": Nothing to do with beauty! But everything to do with feminism, and this Sady Doyle piece is one of the best I've read recently.

New No More Dirty Looks challenge: Meditation sort of kills me—it's one of those things I know I would really benefit from, but it feels impossible to do. So I'm eagerly jumping on the next No More Dirty Looks challenge: five minutes of meditation every day for sever consecutive days. (There's a prize too, but what prize could be better than EVERLASTING CONTENTMENT?) Guidelines for the challenge here, plus a nice how-to guide that shows you there's no "trick"; you've just got to do it.

Paging Amelie:
A take on what it's like to be the "manic pixie dream girl" trope that plenty of smart feminists have deconstructed, and that this smart feminist has embodied. (I've played MPDG and have experienced a hint of self-loathing for it over the years, and this helped me ease up on that front.)

Apology not accepted: Virginia of Beauty Schooled guest posting at The Daily Glow about why beauty makes us happy. "I noticed that a lot of women tend to apologize for how happy beauty makes them.... Somehow, we’ve gotten the idea that it’s shallow to get too excited about beauty." But no more!

What do women look at first on a man?: Warning: This is sort of creepy and uncomfortable, but interesting as well—a man strapped tiny cameras to his biceps and crotch, then asked women for directions and let the cameras witness what body parts they looked at first. It's also interesting to see how various women respond to being approached; we only really know our own experiences, so it's a nifty insight into how others handle stranger interactions. (Basically, we're really really nice.)

How to be bold:
Ashe at Dramatic Personae on fashion and self-consciousness—and here I thought I was the only one who owned amazing pieces she never wore because she felt self-conscious in them!

"The point of all this" fitness jazz: A group of bystanders to a car/motorcycle crash lifted the burning car to free the motorcyclist underneath, and (naturally!) it's caught on video. That's not what impressed Caitlin of Fit and Feminist, though: "What struck me was the presence of a young woman in the crowd. She didn’t hang back and watch.... Instead, she jumped right in. I’m not a betting woman, but I’d be willing to wager that woman is physically active... Maybe she plays sports or she does a bootcamp or she takes a Pilates class. I don’t know. All I know is that confidence in her body and her physical abilities is tightly woven into the tapestry of her self-image.... She doesn’t recite it as a mantra in hopes of one day actually believing it."

Beauty Blogosphere: 7.8.11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is what a feminist looks like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beauty Blogsophere 6.10.11

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

From Head...
The definitive guide to not washing your hair: Fonda LaShay of Mint & Chili has been with me from nearly the beginning of this hair experiment. Now that I've been STEALTH SHAMPOOED, Fonda's locks are, to me, a reminder of What Once Was. To you, it can just be pretty hair! For a complete guide to not washing your hair, check out her post here.  

Despite what you may read below, Neil Patrick Harris is not Korean. I repeat: not Korean.

Beyond guyliner: Interesting quote roundup in Malaysian Today about men's makeup. "In Korea for example, I think it's almost a norm there to wear eyeliner and foundation and not get judged." Who knew?

Totally made-up disease strikes everyone's girl crush: Poor Christina Hendricks! She has eyelash hypotrichonosis and needs Latisse (which pretty much invented eyelash hypotrichonosis). And as it happens, they needed a spokeswoman! At least she's frank about the hazards of constantly wearing false lashes.

The meeting of Dirck Hals and John Fluevog.

To Toe...
Men in high-heeled shoes in art: Hey, guess what! It's men in high-heeled shoes in art!

...And Everything in Between:
Bottoms up!: Drinking collagen? Is this a thing in the States too? "When the cap is unscrewed, a slight whiff of animal fat serves as a reminder of the drink’s high collagen content."

Call the press—photo airbrushed!: At first I rolled my eyes at news that a model sued Estee Lauder for using her in an anti-aging ad (she's 35). But once I read that the photo was snapped during a test shot for a different product, my sympathy increased. Still, what's bothersome here is that Estee Lauder digitally aged her photo instead of finding a model who could have actually used the product. What, there are no working models over 45? (Shit, are there?)

Makeup on fire!: Fire destroys "substantial portion" of Revlon's Venezuelan facilities. Nobody was at the plant at the time, luckily.

Agreeability and assessment of attraction: Fascinating study of whether people can detect when others are attracted to them. For once I'm on board with an experiment that examines attraction, as it doesn't rely on some random assessor's evaluation of someone else's beauty, but rather people's own perceptions of what others think. Turns out that in women, agreeability is linked to how well we're able to gauge people's attraction to us. For men, it's promiscuity. (Personal aside: I'm a highly agreeable woman and I think I'm generally pretty good at telling when someone's attracted to me, with the glaring exception of...promiscuous men. Seriously, they're the ones I can't read. So!)

Smell like your dad!

Que de que?: Listen, I was as guilty as the next erstwhile foodie of hopping on the bacon bandwagon. I'll even begrudgingly get behind bacon perfume. I draw the line at eau de pork BBQ, however. Introducing: Que. 

What's the point of pretty?: Interesting post at Yes and Yes about extraordinarily attractive women. "How would you feel if the only thing people ever praised you for was something you had no control over?" (Via Rachel Hills)

Possible (but unlikely) merge: Rumors of Proctor & Gamble buying Unilever?

"What I See": I'm always fascinated to read business analysis of ad campaigns, and this breakdown of Procter & Gamble's "What I See"/"Proud Sponsor of Mom" campaign is no exception. Instead of focusing on individual products (CoverGirl, Olay, Clairol, Pantene, etc.) this series aims to associate the corporate brand with Good Things like supporting parents of special needs children. I'm all for hearing authentic voices, but when you see the strategy behind letting "real" moms--of "real" children!--speak, its appeal significant diminishes and begins to seem creepy. Replace special-needs kids with body-image concerns and right there you have my unease about Dove's erstwhile body image campaign.

Self-consciousness and judgment:
Great, critical post from Decoding Dress on the "society-wide beauty pageant" we're shoved into sometimes, and why feeling ungenerous toward ourselves can prompt us to feel that way toward others.

Summer reads!:
Christ, why do magazines always call out "summer reads"? Are we not allowed to read at other times of the year? Or is it that our sun-fried brains can only handle intel lite during the warmer seasons? ANYWAY: Four new beauty books, two of which interest me: "Spa Wars," which claims to be "The Ugly Truth About the Beauty Industry," and "Can You Get Hooked on Lip Balm?" by the brains behind The Beauty Brains, a fun, informative cosmetics science site you should be reading if you're not already.

Beauty Blogosphere 5.16.11

The Beheld, like all blogs hosted on Blogger, has been experiencing technical issues—recent posts have disappeared; I'm still hoping/waiting to get them back. In the meantime, please enjoy my usual Friday roundup on this Monday.

And let's kick things off by agreeing to refer to Crystal Renn as a model, not a plus-size model, shall we? Daily News style writer Lindsay Goldwert lays out the history in this piece chronicling Renn's explosive rise as a "plus-size" model: "It's undeniable. The smaller she gets, the more famous she gets. But she can't get too bony—or else she'll lose her former plus-size allure, which made her a star in the first place. So why not put the whole plus-size argument to rest?" If we're ever going to have true body diversity we need to stop thinking women come in two sizes, plus or "straight," as it's called in the modeling world. Hell, even pantyhose comes in three sizes!

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

From Head...
Locks of lit-love: Snippets of hair from esteemed writers, via The Hairpin, which is absolutely correct when they note that Walt Whitman could've used a deep conditioner.

The day Selma Hayek became a plush toy: "Better still, Hayek circled the table so that each editor could touch her skin." WOW am I glad I'm not a celebrity hawking my own makeup line. (Though all of you are welcome to touch my hair if you wish.)

No more dirty hair: Alexandra Spunt of No More Dirty Looks, one of my shampoo-free compatriots, washed her hair. Egads! Amusing writeup here

To Toe...
Cyber pedicure: Now you (well, your six-year-old niece) can put on a pretend pedicure. Okay, I admit I don't get the point of ANY video games, unless it's Tetris on your cell phone for the occasional subway diversion, ahem. But what is the reward of a pedicure that lives in the cloud, not your feet? I mean, I get that girls are supposedly more into elliptical games like The Sims instead of the shoot-kill-race games, but this is just odd.

...And Everything in Between
Stop saying skinnyfat: I've always hated this term but could never quite identify why. Luckily, I didn't have to, because Ragan Chastain did it for us all!

Food as rebellion: Tori at Anytime Yoga puts a fine point on something I've experienced: Knowing that there's a certain cultural power in eating "bad foods" and claiming that power because WE ARE BODY-LOVING FEMINISTS DAMMIT, but internalizing shame about it regardless.

On beauty and acceptance: Interesting post at The Blog of Disquiet on the uses of beauty and the ways we choose to include or exclude the world by the choices we make surrounding beauty and appearance.

"I remember sexy": Brittany Julious at This Recording on sexiness and bodily agency--it's also a nice complement to all the "slut" talk happening around Slutwalk

On makeup as a green light: This writer is upset because a man smiled at her when she looked "like crap," and though unless the piece is satire (please?) it's basically a screed of misanthropy, I'm interested in some of her reasoning. "A woman might spend hours, nay, days during any given week with straightening irons, makeup.... For women such as myself, this process is how we prepare, how we ready ourselves to be acknowledged." A slightly maddening take on the way we believe we can control our image--and the dissonance that happens when we find we can't.

More maddening material from excellent sources: This SNL clip on "Tina Fey honoring women writers" was cut from the last time she hosted--and thankfully. It's supposed to be a comment on prizing women's looks about their talents--looking at great female writers and giving crass voiceovr commentary on their looks--but it just comes off as mean. It's "funny" to refer to Liz Lemon as unattractive, because Tina Fey is obviously pretty. The joke falls flat when you're making jokes about talented female writers like Eudora Welty...who look like Eudora Welty.

Beauty inflation: A professor of "Economics of Sex and Love" argues that because we can select the best pics of ourselves to put on online dating sites, that this creates "beauty inflation" in which we price ourselves out of the dating market. Besides the sort of gross leanings here, I call invalid on this theory because most people I know who do online dating put up representatively pretty pictures of themselves, not necessarily the "best" pictures, for fear of letting someone down. No word on whether overuse of "[insert clever headline here]" leads to irony inflation.

The house that beauty built: Johnson & Johnson (Neutrogena, Clean & Clear) heiress buys one of the most expensive townhouses in Manhattan. Its previous owner? Beauty.com founder Roger Barnett.
30 for 30: Fashion blogger Megan at Another Zoe Day's "30 Days to 30" is chronicling the 30 days leading up to her 30th birthday on May 30. Lots of us have turned 30—but she's doing it only weeks after uprooting her cozy expat life in Berlin (with a job, boyfriend, apartment, and routine) and moving to Brooklyn (apartment-less, job-less, boyfriend-less, and craving a greater sense of center as she embarks upon this next decade). It's a neat spin on the "Turn Your Life Around in 30 Days!" type of stories you see in the ladymags, and I'm looking forward to reading more.

Drugstore markup: Drugstores need to mark up their goods; that's how they turn a profit, and I'd rather have a markup on lipstick than on cold medicine. But it also seems like they're literally banking on their ladycustomers being willing to pay whatever they price their goods at, doesn't it?

Splitting hairs: Luckily, the U.S. Justice Department intervenes from time to time to make sure we're not paying more than is strictly necessary, as happened when Unilever (Dove, Suave, Tigi, Pond's, etc.) acquired Alberto VO5. Without antitrust law coming into play, Unilever would have had undue control over bargain shampoo, meaning they could have made them not quite as bargain. Thanks, U.S. Attorney General!

Latina cosmetics leader dies: Mirta de Perales, one of the first Hispanic women to find success in the U.S. cosmetics market, died last week at age 88. Exiled in 1962 from Cuba, where she was wealthy and well-known as a salon owner, with $5 in her purse when she was afraid her business would be seized from her (which is exactly what happened), she started from scratch in Miami as a beautician, eventually becoming a major player in the Puerto Rican and U.S. Latina beauty market.

Beauty Blogsophere 3.18.11

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

From Head...
Hottentot Venus hollaback: Interesting take on toxic cosmetics and why black women are particular targets of "dirty" products--nice historical look.

I got a B- in chemistry but liked this anyway: Science-oriented breakdown of the future of green cosmetics. That's clean/natural cosmetics, not St. Patrick's Day eyeshadow. (Via Safe Cosmetics.)

Eastern bloc beauty: Tidbits on the globalization of beauty: The last state-owned cosmetics company of Bulgaria is being sold (it was privatized in 2002, the last one to do so), and "aspirational shopping" hits another former Iron Curtain area, the Ukraine. I'm particularly amused by the fact that the Ukraine is such a rich source for beauty labor--models--but imports 98% of its beauty products.

Last gasp for communist beauty company Alen Mak (Bulgarian for "Scarlet Poppy").

...to Toe
Meanwhile, I'm still pissed that I lost on "maverick": "Pedicure" is the winning word in Fort Wayne, Indiana, fifth-grade spelling bee.

Sole mates no more: The end of the scandalous saga of "the Heidi Klum of foot models" and her doorman-turned-husband-turned-filed-for-separation-and-should-I-even-mention-the-contused-testicle?

...and Everything in Between
We're so vain: Virginia at Never Say Diet takes down the whole Facebook-pics-mean-you're-insecure study that's been making the rounds lately. I should note that more than half my photos are photos of me that were uploaded and tagged by one of my most confident friends--who is in fact one of the most confident people I know. So THERE. 

Welcome to her dollhouse: I'm not surprised to read that Eliza Dushku is pretty frank and articulate about body image issues. If any of the other twelve people who watched Dollhouse are reading this, you know what I mean: The show presented the usual Wheedon-voyeurism-feminism conundrums but was an interesting exploration of bodily ownership and personal agency. She's not saying anything you haven't read before, but it's nice to hear anyone in Hollywood speak at length about this--usually there's just a quote sandwiched into a profile for good measure.

Are men to blame for women's body insecurities?: In aggregate the answer is no, and I hope that we're all past that line of thinking. But this piece at Beauty Redefined nicely lays out why and redirects the focus to where it belongs. I still don't think that media is the entire issue here, but certainly it's more of a factor than men sitting back, arms crossed, and judging women's bodies. 

Fashionable feminists: Fantastic, thought-provoking answers from feminist fashion bloggers in answer to the question "How do you express feminism in the way you dress?" (Mrs. Bossa's post is excellent, and scroll down for a list of bloggers who answered this, myself included.) A lot of talk about labor--labor of the wearer and, of course, of the people who make the clothes we wear--and the gaze, objectification, aesthetics, celebration, and just love of fashion, always written with an intelligent, feminist eye.  

Reverse engineering: You know, for all the talk about Photoshopping, we don't frequently hear from the people who are Photoshopped. So while the original poster at Good makes some nice points about the use of photo retouching when representing "real" people--in this case the first female engineer to grace the cover of Wired--what's truly thought-provoking here is the engineer's response. "If I'm happy with this and I say it's looks like me isn't that GOOD :)" The real problem here, it seems, is that it's two thousand frickin' eleven and Wired is just now getting around to putting a woman engineer on the cover. (Also, while I think she looks great, and I also love Rosie the Riveter, can we think of something else that represents capable women? And no, Wonder Woman doesn't count. Are there really so few icons that we must resort to Rosie again and again and again?)

Race, Eating Disorders, and Body Ideals

It was between this and vuvuzelas to find South Africa images that didn't
add to the black-woman objectification pile-on. So!
Black South African models are slimmer than their white counterparts—a significant reversal from the U.S., where black models are heavier than white ones.

The initial research prompt was not about models, though, but about eating disorders. Remember when we all thought that eating disorders were only a white-girl thing? The study doesn't address eating disorders in South Africa, but other reports say that EDs among black South African women are on the rise. This echoes recent findings that Latina teens have a higher rate of bulimia than other teen groups in the U.S., as Latina American teens and South African women are groups in the midst of a historic shift in their respective countries.

It's a step in the right direction that women of color, both in the States and abroad, are finally being recognized as equal-opportunity sufferers of eating disorders; being seen as exempt from EDs may prevent sufferers from seeking care, and can also prevent doctors from asking the right sort of questions that would lead to a proper diagnosis and treatment.

But it's somewhat disheartening to see the science community so eager to boil down the increase in EDs among women of color to shifting body ideals. That's a part of it, sure—Latina media stars aren't as thin as white starlets, but they're still thinner than the average woman, and even at their curviest they represent an impossible ideal. (News flash: Not all Cuban women roll out of bed looking like Eva Mendes.) But let's look at other pressures that are particular to nonwhite women and girls in South Africa and the U.S.: striking a balance between assimilating to be accepted by the larger world and maintaining a distinct cultural identity; absorbing the hopes and dreams that were denied to their mothers by apartheid or economics; a greater likelihood of facing discrimination, both overt and covert; and, in the case of Latina teens, a greater likelihood of being an undocumented resident and knowing that your parents—or you—could be exported to a homeland, perhaps one you have no memory of. "That's a very real anxiety that not many kids have to deal with," said Rosie Molinary, author of Hijas Americanas: Beauty, Body Image, and Growing Up Latina, when I talked with her for our interview. "They came here at 2 years old, and somebody might be like, 'Send them back to El Salvador,' and it's like, 'Great, well, I don't know Spanish.' "

The point is: It's not that suddenly women of color are now all up in arms about becoming really skinny; it's that they are facing a bundle of unprecedented anxieties, and it's seeking a measure of control and relief that's largely the root of eating disorders for all women. The pressure to be thin might pull the trigger, but if we rely solely on that measure we're going to continue having blinders on as to who is really at risk.

Which brings us back to the thinness of black South African models. Model Carol Makhathini reports that the dichotomy exists because black models are automatically assumed to be larger than white models, increasing the thin imperative. It makes sense on one level, but certainly black women are assumed to be larger than white women in the States, and it doesn't play out that way in thinness-obsessed America. Another possibility is that South African women are playing out history on their very bodies. Apartheid ended in 1993, but given the preponderance of racism in the U.S. nearly 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, it's not surprising that racial tensions and other forms of racial inequality run high in South Africa. Combine that with it being the world's leader in raping women, and suddenly black South African women's bodies can be seen not as their own, but as symbols—symbols of legacies of the past, hopes for the future, of a race-gender war that will take generations to resolve. It's unclear whether black South African models suffer from eating disorders in greater numbers than their white colleagues--but research indicates that black South African women display greater eating disorder pathology than other ethnic groups, and at comparable rates to white women. But eating disordered or not, black models' bodies hold more potential for projection in a nation where race is so distinctly loaded. It's no wonder that their bodies are more molded, more sculpted--and are literally less--than those of their white peers.

Beauty Blogsophere

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

From Head...
Photoshop yourself...with makeup: I'm behind on this, but when I read about Make Up For Ever's ads with no airbrushing, I got excited. Then I saw that the ads were to promote their HD line of makeup, the idea being that you're basically airbrushed the minute you start wearing the stuff. Nevermind! (Also note the awesome oh-hi-armpit poses and fish-lip faces that nobody, ever, has looked like except when taking their own snapshot, probably after a couple of G&Ts, or am I alone here?)

"I feel like a queen": I'm just a hair skeptical of the Dove campaign, but still took delight in reading about their newest model: a 99-year-old Israeli great-grandmother.

Avon calling: In other senior beauty news: 82-year-old Texan man is recognized as Avon's oldest male rep.

Science sez: On the clean beauty front, a group of influential scientists have officially put forward a call for greater regulation in chemical testing. You know, chemicals like the stuff that goes on your lips, your skin, your eyelashes, your hair. (Thanks to No More Dirty Looks for the tipoff—and in general for their keen attention to this stuff.)

...to Toe 
Snakeskin pedicure?!?! I thought we were supposed to be getting away from scaly feet?

Is it worth the vegan beauty brigade's trouble? Girlie Girl Army, take it from here.

One false step: When I first saw this bit on toenail extensions, my eyes rolled back into my brains. But then with the pictures (not for the foot squeamish) and accompanying text that makes it clear this is sort of reconstructive surgery lite, it made me feel warm and fuzzy about the thought of fake toenails. (I'm of the "my feet need to breathe" camp, not the "feet are disgusting and should be covered at times" camp, and if I lost a toenail it would really bum me out aesthetically.)

...and the Things in Between 
"Skin balls" (ewww!): This happens to me all the time! Why some body butters "roll off" your skin.

My favorite coverline ever was "Erotic Sex!": Dense but worthy scholarly writeup on Cosmopolitan magazine. It's not that it tells you anything that the irregular reader of Cosmo doesn't know on some level, but it does a nice job of breaking down the data and examining the male gaze aspect of a magazine geared toward women.

Do we want models to look like us?: Glamour called out research that indicates that women say they're more likely to buy goods when the model looks like them. It sounds encouraging, but note that the scholar behind the research is also the CEO of an inclusive modeling agency (plus-size, older, even disabled). I'm eager to see what he does next, since he seems like he understands both the pull for non-alienating models and "aspirational" images. I'm just hesitant to hail this as a sea change quite yet.

Dads in the house: Nice essay on helping your daughter navigate making her way through the beauty myth. Step one: Don't ogle women in front of her, duuuuh.

The Good Girl's Drug: If there's a young woman in your life struggling with food issues, particularly binge eating, please go and buy a copy of this book now. Food: The Good Girl's Drug by Sunny Gold is a fantastic mix of personal story, hands-on advice, cheerleader, and sage. Binge eating can be overcome, and this book shows you how. 

I think I'm a Duchamp: Seems I'm not the only one who hates having her body referred to as a piece of fruit: An Australian underwear line is trying to rebrand women's body types to recall great artists—Rubens, Da Vinci, etc. A mild improvement, I suppose (less judgmental, to be sure), but the fact that the word "rebranding" was the most appropriate word I could find here says something.

Qu'est-ce qu'il y a? We American ladies are still after the Frenchwomen's je ne sais quoi? Apparently we're even taking product design cues from them. The airless pump? The mass brands designed to look like high-end, thus creating my mock-favorite word of the week, masstige? That was them.

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The Essence of Beauty Ideals

Victoria Beckham: an emblem of beauty diversity!

In general, I rather like Linda Wells and what she's done with Allure--it's not my favorite magazine but I also think that they give interesting treatment to topics that I'm interested in. That said, I'm not sure what to think of this interview with her about the shifting beauty ideal. It's hard to tell how much is her and how much is the reporter, but there seems to be a self-congratulatory tone here--not exactly self-congratulatory of Allure, but of Americans for having come so far, baby. Call the press: Americans are capable of finding women who aren't blond-haired, blue-eyed, and fair-skinned beautiful! (Is this news to anyone?)

Wells takes the route of acknowledging that a broader range of beauty ideals doesn't mean that we actually find more women beautiful, but rather that people who embody any particular beauty ideal are indeed "younger, thinner, and prettier" than the average woman. By its nature, a beauty ideal is exclusionary. But what gets lost here is that the reason we look at certain people as beauty ideals is that they possess a quality that appears to be both wholly natural yet simultaneously unattainable by the majority of us, no matter what artificial routes we take. She has that star quality that we often translate to mean beautiful; it's that quality that makes her special, not the idea that she's something that the rest of us need to strive for. Hell, if we're going to insist upon looking at any woman first for her appearance, we may as well appreciate those looks in their own merit instead of as a template for the rest of us.

The beauty ideal is not the same thing as the essence of beauty. I'm not even saying this in a you-go-girl way; I'm saying it in a practical way. I don't think for two seconds that the fact that America has apparently opened its mind to different beauty ideals means that we've actually shifted what we think of as beautiful. (I'd argue that most people detect and react to beauty based on their own internal meters, not on something based on what's essentially in fashion, but that's a different post.) I suspect what it's done is simply created more "categories" of women, taking what could ostensibly be a simple appreciation of beauty and forcing it to the top of a pyramid, with, say, Penelope Cruz at the top of one, Christina Hendricks  atop another, and Gwyneth Paltrow reigning over her own raw, vegan perch.

I remember what Rosie Molinary said about Latina stereotypes: That for Latina women there's one sort of representative from each country, so if you're Mexican but don't look like Salma Hayek, it's like you're not the "best" Mexican. (Which is funny, because her father is Lebanese.) I think that's particularly true for women of color, but I think it applies across the board too, which is why we're so fascinated with celebrity lookalikes. Kate Winslet—yes, I'm trotting her out, despite my wish not to Kate-Winslet-as-verb anybody—was such a breath of fresh air for women because she looked a little bit more like the average woman than other celebrities (except, of course, she doesn't; Kate Winslet is as ordinary as I am Portuguese). But it's not like I really felt better about my body once she came on the scene; it was more like, Oh, great, now I need to be a fucking Kate Winslet type? (Honestly, this is part of what irks me about "real women have curves": Besides implying that thin women are impostors, there's also a particular way in which it's acceptable to be curvy. Why else did that false meme about Marilyn Monroe being a size 16 circulate for years? My body will never resemble hers any more than it would resemble Gwyneth Paltrow's.)

I don't have a problem with us as a culture looking toward beautiful women and appreciating them as just that. (I remember once realizing that I'd spent 20 minutes doing nothing other than looking at photographs of Lindsay Lohan.) But I'm wary of saying that we've somehow made progress simply because beauty ideals other than Linda Evangelista exist.

Images of Eating Disorders

Notice what's not in the official National Eating Disorders Awareness Week materials:
skinny women staring into mirrors.

I know that yesterday I made a point out of saying that eating disorders are only tangentially related to beauty. But one aspect of EDs that’s more directly related to beauty is the imagery we use to portray them, and what messages those images send. 

The #1 image selected—by amateurs and professionals alike—to illustrate eating disorders is a photo of an extraordinarily thin woman, who may or may not be staring into a mirror and seeing a distorted (larger) version of herself. Runner-up: same woman, but this time standing on a scale. (I’d put together a collage of them but that would defeat the point I'm hopefully about to make. Google-image eating disorder photos if you want to see what I’m talking about.) 

 The images often chosen to represent eating disorders not only leave out a huge chunk of sufferers, they also glamorize the disease, even if the sharp-relief ribcages and clavicles are selected to startle. We’re a society obsessed with the thinness of women and what women are eating (all the better when the two go hand in hand!), so it’s difficult to show the side effects of some EDs without glamorizing them to an extent. This goes double when we're talking runway images (which a lot of them are): If we can count the ribs of a model strutting down the runway, we simultaneously get to gawk at her perceived illness while also seizing permission to take her in as an object. I'm guessing that people putting these images out there in this manner claim that the subjects are so underweight that they cease to be attractive—a hollow defense when we’re talking about images of working fashion models. Anorexic Isabelle Caro’s billboards were indeed shocking (indeed, the pictures in the link may be triggering)—and now, after her death, tragic. But let's not forget: Isabelle Caro was a fashion model, i.e. a member of the profession that defines glamour. We couldn't help but glamorize her sickness even as we mourned it.

But on top of the accidental (I hope) glamourization of EDs, these images reinforce the idea that anorexia and bulimia are the only EDs worth mentioning. In fact, the most common eating disorder diagnosis isn’t anorexia or bulimia or even binge eating disorder, but ED-NOS, or eating disorder otherwise not specified. ED-NOS can encompass everything from someone who appears anorexic but is still getting her periods so doesn't meet all the diagnostic criteria for anorexia, to someone who chews and spits food, to people with selective eating disorder, to overexercisers, to people with unshakable food rituals, to people so obsessed with having a "clean" diet that it controls their lives. Last year the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders finally made binge eating disorder its own category; until then it too was lumped in with ED-NOS.

How this links to imagery: If someone as tragically sick as Isabelle Caro is the main visible face of eating disorders, what does that say to the average-weight or overweight woman who is torturing her body in different, less visible ways? I’ve known women who delayed getting treatment for years because their bodies didn’t match what their image of an ED was. In any addiction, there's always someone sicker than you whom you can use to justify not getting help, but it becomes particularly dangerous in EDs because of the perfectionism that's evident among so many sufferers. A normal-weight woman with ED-NOS can tell herself that eating nothing but raw vegetables for a week is healthy, not a sign of an eating disorder, because she doesn't look like that; a binge eater can rationalize that she just doesn’t have any willpower, because look at "those" people with eating disorders; an anorexic can always find someone “better” at anorexia to prove she’s not that bad off—or that she has farther to go.

And, you know, I get it: I’ve worked in magazines for a decade, and I know that dramatic images summon our attention. To complicate matters, the external symptoms of EDs make for easy pickings of illustration; it’s a helluva lot harder to effectively illustrate perfectionism and alienation from emotions than it is to illustrate someone who’s just lost a bunch of weight. (Google-image other mental illnesses to see what I mean. Did you know that hugging one’s knees in stark lighting is a side effect of depression?)

I’m not sure what the corrective measures might be. I’d love to see more media outlets cover EDs in a comprehensive way. There's some solid treatment of anorexia and bulimia in ladymags, but next to nothing on binge eating or ED-NOS: Sunny Gold’s Glamour coverage of binge eating disorder was literally the first time I’d seen BED discussed anywhere. (Her site and excellent upcoming book chronicle her journey in more depth.) I’d like to see press give as much ink to, say, Monica Seles’s memoir about overcoming BED as it did to Demi Lovato’s recent check-in to an ED clinic. (Demi who? Exactly. But did you even know about Seles’s illness and recovery? Lazy book publicist—or us preferring the glamour of visible self-destruction over a quieter tale of an athlete downing 10,000 calories in a sitting and gaining 37 pounds?)

But (ahem!) to keep this beauty-focused, what I as a beauty blogger want to see is more thought and creativity put into the images we all use to depict eating disorders. I want an end to ED images that have a dual reading as glamorous; I want an end to ED images that invite us to scrutinize patients' bodies; I want a close watch on ED images that perpetuate the idea that people with eating disorders must be thin, or white, or young, or pretty, or women. I want media outlets to choose images that show that people with eating disorders aren’t all thin—and that they do things other than stand on scales and look in mirrors. 

Some of them have a difficult time grocery shopping:

Many of them ascribe inappropriate emotions to food:


Some go through the long, hard process of treatment:

And others, eventually, recover.

But the best idea I’ve heard came when I e-mailed some friends about what images they think would be appropriate to illustrate stories about eating disorders. We hashed out the problems with scales (what number do you show?), food (could that be that a trigger?), bodies (best done verrrry carefully), and of course the mirror shot (invites the viewer to judge, and...yawn, so not original). And then, in response to my question, “What art would you choose to illustrate a piece about women with eating disorders?”, one woman quietly, simply replied, “Art by women with eating disorders.”

So today, I give you just that.

Top row: Art by Sarah Coggrave. Bottom: Art by Katie Seiz.

Ali, Beauty Editor, New York City

In her 10-plus years as a beauty journalist, Ali has worked at some of the biggest ladymags out there—bridal, teen, lifestyle, more—and is now department head at a major publication (trust me, you’ve seen it). But I’ve worked with dozens of beauty editors; what made me track down Ali for an interview was that we’d joked before about “girls like us”: curious, intelligent women who always wanted to dig a little deeper. I assumed that we’d share the same healthy skepticism of the beauty industry, so I found her healthy—but not entirely skeptical—take on the beauty industry compelling and illuminating. In good ol’ service magazine fashion, I’ll be posting her inside-scoop beauty advice later (first up: toner is a scam); here, she talks about raising her eyebrow at the green beauty movement, why we shouldn’t blame the industry for our self-esteem woes, and the survival of the prettiest. In her own words:

On Evolutionary Theory
I think cosmetics make people feel good about themselves, not bad. It's healthy to want to look beautiful. Mental patients don't brush their hair or wash their face; they don't care about what they look like. Evolutionarily, we're meant to peacock around and look good to attract a mate, and these companies assist in that. You could say, Okay, but they're preying on women's insecurities. They are, in a way, but they're also creating an industry that does some beneficial things. I almost think that fashion companies prey on women's insecurities more than the beauty industry. That's an industry making a fortune off women feeling bad about themselves—those Victoria's Secret models? Compared to beauty ads, the ideal they present is even more unattainable. Then again, Victoria’s Secret models do have those beautiful lips and gorgeous hair. I don't know.

In college I did my thesis on the theory that there is a universal standard for beauty, and it was largely influenced by Nancy Etcoff's writings; her book, Survival of the Prettiest, touches upon how it's healthy to want to be pretty. And that, weirdly, the same things people think are pretty in the Unites States are pretty across borders. Lipstick deepens the red color of lips in the same way lips darken during arousal; when you're in love, your pupils dilate, and mascara gives you the same look. It's a part of our process—I don't think it's unnatural. A lot of women take it to this whole other crazy plastic surgery level, but mascara and lipstick? It's just part of being a woman. They used kohl on their eyes in ancient Egypt; we use eyeliner. The same things make women attractive, and there are evolutionary reasons for it.

Nefertiti to Cleopatra: Really, it's just a matter of time before we all look like Liz Taylor, right?

On Feminism and Self-Esteem Crises
I remember a study about aging that we did at a magazine where I used to work. Using objective measures, experts estimate about 10% of the population looks younger than they are. But when we asked people about themselves, 80% of them think they look younger than they are. Eighty percent! And when I worked at a teen magazine we did a survey; one of the questions was whether the girls thought they were above average in appearance. The majority said they were! And that’s the teen years, when there are supposed to be all these problems with self-esteem.

But it’s not going to make news if you say, “Oh, girls are happy with themselves.” What kind of headline is that? And what makes news is what we gather around. But I feel like people sometimes use the big bad beauty companies and their advertisements and quote-unquote unnececessary products as an excuse for why they feel bad. You don’t want to feel bad for no reason; you want to latch onto a reason for these insecurities we all have, so you don’t feel crazy, so you don’t feel like you’re unbalanced or negative. There are people who just don’t feel right inside, and it’s easy for them—and I don’t blame them—to say it’s because, “Oh, I’ve been looking at these attractive women.” But I think you have to abandon those external forces and look inside and be like, "Really, why aren’t I happy?" It’s not because you don’t look like some ad. If we excavated each woman’s insecurities, like they do on a Hoarders episode, there would be deeper things going on.

We’re not meant to sit in front of computers and go to offices; we’re meant to be hunting and gathering, so obviously our brains are misfiring in some ways. I’m sure some feminists would be like, “No, I’m totally normal—it’s society that’s wrong.” But I don’t know. I think some feminists might resist talking about beauty because they think the minute they open that discussion, it belittles their bigger points. But the fact that more feminists aren’t really talking about beauty and our insecurities about how we look in that way is part of why some of these things are still going on. It’s at the heart of what they’re trying to get across.

Some of my friends from college are journalists who really delve into current events and these intellectual topics, but they still e-mail me all, “Where do I get this beauty procedure done?” I’m like, “You see? You still need beauty advice even though you’re these smart feminist girls!” I guess that’s what I struggle with about this industry, personally—I feel like what I’m doing is not nearly as important as what they’re doing, like they’re “real” writers, and I’m a selling machine. But then I try to remind myself that people really like reading this. When a reader writes in about having large pores, she feels a whole lot better after I write to her with some tips or do an article with advice. Still, I don’t feel that intellectual legitimacy. But it’s funny that some people look down upon a journalist like me who’s in women’s service magazines. I may or may not want to know about the third reich of blah blah blah, but they always want to know what lipstick to buy!

On Trendsetting
The source of the best trends, if you really trace it back, it always starts with that person who isn’t necessarily physically attractive but is wearing something all balls-to-the-wall, I’m-awesome, look at me. And if you want what she has, you look at what she’s wearing and you copy it. Sometimes you meet these women and they have this aura about them, like electricity comes out of them. I’ve interviewed plenty of celebrities, and they have that. Like, Megan Fox has that. She’s also beautiful—I can’t even look at her, she’s so pretty—but it’s not just about that. People like her, who are so secure, so comfortable with themselves, they put you in a comfortable place and you feel better just being around them. So you look at someone who has that quality and you’re like, What does she have that I can get? And if it's black nail polish, then at least you can get the black nail polish.

But it isn’t always a person who starts beauty trends. You know how all of a sudden the same color is everywhere, like seafoam green? In Paris there’s this color show where they do textile and color trends. I swear to God, I think it’s one person who decides it all!  All these beauty companies send their product development people to the same forecasting companies and conventions, and then spring rolls around, and Orly, OPI, Revlon, you see their nail polish collections and it’s all seafoam green, coral, yellow, and gray. Same exact colors. I don’t think it works that way for fashion—there really are some artistic innovators in that industry who everyone knocks off, like Miuccia Prada. But these beauty companies aren’t reacting to anything in the zeitgeist—right now they’re developing products for 2013. They’re creating the zeitgeist.

On Green Beauty and Big Business
You could go to the Environmental Working Group and they’ll take any ingredient in a beauty product and tell you it’s going to kill you based on one study done 500 years ago on a rat in China. But I walk around New York every day breathing in carcinogens and eating red meat, and I just think no matter how careful I am about the beauty products I use, there’s no getting around exposure to harmful chemicals. You'd have to live in a bubble to get back to having a clean slate and then use natural products. There are people who have sensitivities to phthalates or parabens, but you could be just as sensitive to an all-natural essential oil. But people are into being green. That’s fine, except when you’re dealing with companies that lie. A lot of the big companies do that, just putting bilberry extract in their products—except it’s way down the ingredients list—and slapping a leaf on the package.

Some of the great, small brands that are green get bought up by the big ones. That doesn’t mean they’re going to change the products and make them shitty—a lot of times it’s better because now you have this huge R&D machine to work with. Clorox bought Burt’s Bees, and when I went to the Burt’s Bees factory and asked about it, they were like, “It’s the greatest thing ever—they let us continue doing what we were doing, but we have an infusion of cash so we can do more.” Not all acquiring companies do that. Some of the big companies treat lipstick the same as diapers; they move their CEOs around and it’s always some dude who has the MBA calling the shots and treating all the products the same. But other companies—Avon, for example—have strong female leaders and I think you can see that in the way they respect their customers.

On “Does It Work?”
There are some companies that can back up their claims, but if you were a regular consumer you'd never know. That’s because if these companies actually made the claims they technically could, their products could be considered a drug. For example, Olay: Their anti-aging creams do reduce wrinkles—better than some prescriptions—but if they claimed it that way on the box the FDA would investigate and they'd have to turn it into a drug, and then they lose money. But companies that can show me in-house studies—independently performed, double-blind—they're legit.

I think what makes it “work,” though, is if it makes you feel better. In a way, who cares if it’s going to make your skin look a certain way? Results are nice, but sometimes it just feels good to put on expensive face cream. If you’re spending $300 on your cream, of course you’re going to think it’s working better than your friend’s $30 cream—even though it might not really be. It’s like the confirmation bias in psychology: If you put money into something, you’re going to see any type of evidence supporting your belief that it’s working. It’s the placebo effect half the time. 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. If you’re thinking, Oh, I just got this $5 bojangle cream, I don’t give a shit—then no, it doesn’t work. If you squirt on a cheap, drugstore face lotion and you squeeze on an expensive department store one, you’ll notice a difference. One’s silkier and has a nice fragrance, even if they both do the same things to your skin. You want to believe in the dream.