Body Image, Beachwear, and the Jersey Shore

We, the people, are bikini-ready.

Please believe me when I say that I mean the following without an ounce of snark: After a weekend at the Jersey Shore, I have to wonder if we've overstated the body-image crisis of American women.

For all the “bikini body” chatter thrown at women and the resulting anxiety that (justifiably) gets plenty of ink in the blogosphere, the scene at the Jersey Shore was a sort of naturalistic sphere in which “If you’ve got it, flaunt it” applied to everyone, regardless of their place on the spectrum of conventional beauty. Portly women in bikinis, teenagers with poochy bellies poking out over their bikini bottoms, fat men in Speedos (including one who had the letter “R” shaved into his back hair), discolored stretch marks snaking up people’s thighs, lesser-endowed and more-endowed women wearing the same classic triangle tops (both of which are probably a classic “Don’t” in ladymag parlance). I feel sort of weird putting traditionally negative descriptions of people’s bodies on this blog, but in a way, that’s just the point: These characteristics that we usually see as something to be erased or banished or at the very least covered up were on full display, and the atmosphere of the beach was such that nobody gave a hoot.

Because of the sort of things I write about, I spend a lot of time reading and thinking about body image. And “Hey, the ladies are feeling just fine” isn’t usually the takeaway of what I’m reading. Positive body image is either presented as a tale of triumph, or as an anomaly—and while 40% of women being unhappy with their bodies is discouraging, that means 60% of us are doing okay. I’m deeply grateful for the body-positive work that’s being done (Beauty Redefined comes to mind, but certainly everyone on my blogroll here is body-positive)—and the numbers of women who are dissatisfied with their bodies could be far lower and still warrant grave concern. But the net effect of the focus on negative body image is that I wind up missing tales of people who have average-to-positive body image, and who always have.

It’s not like I actually have any idea what was going on inside my fellow beachgoers’ minds; I don’t want to mistake wearing a bikini while fat (or cellulited, or otherwise in possession of an attribute that would be quietly airbrushed out of a fashion shoot) for having a positive body image. Certainly it’s not like our body image really even has much to do with our actual bodies in the first place. But I’d like to think that the unconcerned air at the shore signals a note of optimism—or, hell, apathy, which might still be an improvement—on body image.

I’d also like to think that while the relaxed vibe of beaches in general have the potential to counteract “bikini body” messages, that there’s something about these beaches in particular that make the case more definitively. There’s an unflagging element of democracy to the Jersey Shore, swaths of which have long been working-class resorts for Philadelphia-area families. While some communities of the Jersey Shore are more moneyed than others, nowhere do you find the exclusivity of, say, the Hamptons, the famed getaway of well-off New Yorkers. The affordability of the area’s attractions—25-cent skee-ball and a visit to Shriver's salt water taffy—means that there’s little interest in making sure that certain special people get to enjoy themselves while preserving barriers to entry for the less special people.

I don’t want to romanticize any socioeconomic class, and to do so would be erroneous anyway. (I’m thinking here of the number of non-white women—and men of all colors—whose eating disorders go undiagnosed because they’re considered white-girl problems.) But while taking in the scene at the Jersey Shore, where people were quite literally letting it all hang out, I did wonder if the democracy of the area as a vacation spot extended to body image as well. Does the idea that everyone has an inviolable right to a little R&R mean that vacationers in populist resorts more intuitively understand that we all have an inviolable right to a beer belly too? 

J.Woww and her juicehead gorillas: emblems of beauty democracy. (Work with me here, people.)

I also couldn’t help but reconsider the somewhat unfortunate totem of the area, the MTV’s Jersey Shore. I’ve only seen the pilot episode, which I found wildly hilarious for five minutes and incredibly disheartening thereafter. Part of my wincing came from the intense energy nearly all cast members devoted to their appearance—from Pauly D’s hair gel haul to J.Woww’s breast implants to the carefully bronzed skin of the entire crew, the artifice that went into their looks was staggering. And, for the record, I’m never going to endorse altering one’s appearance to fit into a preconceived notion of beauty.

But somewhere between hair gel and tanning beds lies an aesthetic that is, perhaps by design, more accessible to the masses than "natural beauty"—if by “natural beauty” one also happens to mean conventional beauty, which, depending on the speaker, is often the case. The Jersey Shore aesthetic takes the idea of “beautiful people”—which, as a term, is a socioeconomic descriptor, not merely a descriptor of people with classic good looks—and makes it something we can all have for $7.99. Much of the criticism of the beauty industry revolves around the ways in which it packages a possibly inherent human desire—to be beautiful—and uses it to prod us into buying products. It’s a valid criticism, of course, but I don’t want to ignore that sometimes these products just serve the purpose of allowing you to possess one aspect of elusive beauty. You can always get a spray tan, or a particular hairstyle, or darken your eyelashes; you can’t purchase your way into high cheekbones or symmetrical features unless you’re a member of a privileged class or are willing to financially prioritize those goods.

The aesthetic of Jersey Shore in some ways functions as a democratization of beauty, instead of making it a quality that only the divine, chosen few are able to easily access, or something that more holistically minded folk seek within. I’m not trying to pooh-pooh “beauty from within” or “every woman is beautiful”; certainly those lines of thought are closer to my home base than beauty in a can. But after a weekend slapping around the Jersey Shore wearing my oversized sunglasses and strapless tankini, I felt none of the anxieties of “looking the part,” unlike my experience in more moneyed spots. There may be a coveted aesthetic at the Jersey Shore—one that I do not fit, incidentally—but the idea behind it is that it just might be attainable for everyone. One step left of that, then, is that whatever you bring to the table might not be judged as harshly as trying to fit into an elite aesthetic and failing. A failure to meet a highly artificial aesthetic will largely be perceived as a lack of effort; failure to meet a “beautiful people” standard becomes a combination of not enough resources and not enough genetic luck. There are pitfalls to both, to be sure, and in a bootstrap society like America perhaps the former will forever be judged the greater sin. But there's something fundamentally unjust about the latter, and while beauty and justice are separate beasts, I'd like to see their values comfortably coexist.

Thoughts on a Word: Gorgeous

Gorgeous is beautiful on a mild dose of prescription speed. Gorgeous's eyes are a little wider, the curves a little more pronounced, the skin a little more even, the hair a hint more lustrous. It is more difficult to quibble with gorgeous, with a code still broad enough to let in a variety (though anything but garden-variety) but its fences a bit more structured, perhaps a bit higher. Gorgeous can be cultivated, painted on, but not merely approximated. It's easy enough to approximate pretty, or the bombshell, or hot, but gorgeous? From afar, I wish you luck. 

Gorgeous comes from Middle French gorgias for "elegant or fashionable," which likely sprang from Old French gorge for "bosom or throat," and eventually "something adorning the throat," such as throat armor (gorget) or a neckerchief (gorgias). From gorgias, gorgeous arrived in late 15th-century English to mean "splendid or showy."

And from there, the denotation of gorgeous doesn't change much. (Nor does its usage: Since its inception in the 1600s, gorgeous has been used to describe men, women, clothing, landscapes, interiors—anything, really, though we're somewhat less likely to use it to describe men now that royalty is mostly out of the picture.) Webster's currently lists it as "dressed in splendid or vivid colors: resplendently beautiful," or "characterized by brilliance or magnificence of any kind." It's this resplendence that makes gorgeous a word we use more sparingly than beautiful. We may call a woman beautiful because she fits a mainstream ideal, or because of the way she moves or speaks, or simply because we love her. But if we call her gorgeous, we imply that she has a sort technical beauty—and it is a matter of technicality. We use gorgeous to apply to one’s exterior, not her inner riches; after all, the roots of gorgeous are in showiness, adornment, not transcendence. Gorgeous is less forgiving than beautiful: We speak of someone’s acts making them beautiful; whether we mean this on a physical level varies by person, but we don’t speak of someone becoming gorgeous through their kindness. Many people will argue that everyone has something beautiful about their appearance. Few will make that same argument for gorgeous.

To be gorgeous is to be exaggerated in one’s beauty: not necessarily more beautiful, but more alarming in one’s beauty. Perhaps we should be alarmed by the gorgeous, as they apparently make you drop dead (or are prone to dropping dead themselves? The hazard!). The term drop-dead gorgeous entered our vocabulary in the 1960s, and by the 1970s was firmly established—and not only in reference to women, making appearances in Mademoiselle (1976, in reference to leather accessories) and Women’s Wear Daily (1972, in reference to an Italian designer).

Without knowing exactly who coined the term, it’s difficult to say why gorgeous was anointed with the peril of drop dead instead of that honor going to beautiful. (That measure of the hive mind, Google search results, drums up seven times as many results for “drop dead gorgeous” as “drop dead beautiful.”) I’m guessing it’s related to the excess implied with gorgeous that may or may not be there with mere beauty. After all, though the terms evolved separately, both gorgeous and gorge have the same Old French origins—and that word came from the French use of gorge, meaning throat. Gorgeous’s early roots are from a place of heady indulgence, then. Beauty may mean indulgence; it may also mean restraint, a delicacy, a subtlety. Not so for the lavish ways of the gorgeous: I envision a gorgeous brocade covering a gorgeous table supporting a gorgeous stuffed pheasant in a gorgeous room, with gorgeous, gorgeous revelers ready to gorge themselves—all very French, very excessive, and very much taking delight not in merely being aesthetically pleasing, but in being splashily so. The delight of gorgeous lies in its undeniability.

As a coda here: There's another alarming use of gorgeous. In doing the aforementioned Googling, I was disquieted to see find that the word gorgeous is overrepresented when discussing women of specific nationalities—say, French or Chinese women. We fetishize women around the globe: We don’t want a bevy of beautiful Chinese women; we want the Chinese woman (or French woman, or Venezuelan woman, or whatever). If you’re performing a search for “gorgeous Thai women,” you want something more singular than mere beauty; you want something above and beyond. 

This might be harmless enough or seem like politically correct quibbling, until you give a search a whirl and find that one of the suggested searches for “gorgeous women” is “gorgeous Russian women,” which leads to gorgeous Ukrainian and Baltic women—that is, women whose economic circumstances and perceived gorgeousness in the United States make them prime candidates for self-export. These arrangements aren’t necessarily abusive or coercive, but I wouldn’t wish upon any woman a husband who found her because he was searching for a splendid show.

My First Barbie

A true tale.

My best friend growing up not only had Barbies; she had a custom-made Barbie house that her handy father built for her. And the car, and Ken, and Strawberry Shortcake too, which made for some weird perspective play as a seven-year-old because she was almost as tall as Barbie, but I digress. And while I knew I would never get a custom-made Barbie house of my own, at the very least I wanted my own property to bring over to Lisa's so that I wasn't forever at her mercy of which Barbie I might get to play with that day.

So I asked for a Barbie, and was denied. So I begged for a Barbie, and was denied. I may have cried, but even at that age such behavior seemed beneath me; I always preferred reasoning over cheap emotional tactics. Proof of this is in my first will, circa 1982, which I slipped under my bedroom door for my parents to find after they had unjustly banished me to my room for the afternoon; then and there I decided to waste away in my room for eternity, in order to show them. I hastily wrote my goodbyes, then thought to retrieve it to crayon in a codicil: "Leave everything to Lisa"—even in despair, I was practical. 

Pragmatism must be an inherited trait, as shown when my parents turned the tables on me—wily, they are!—and said I could have a Barbie, if I paid for it myself. This didn't faze me; I'd never bought anything with my own money before, so all the pennies and nickels I'd picked up off the ground were burning a hole in my piggy bank. There may have even been a stray dollar in there, ferreted away from a clandestine handoff from an aunt or two. The Barbie—branded by Mattel as, fittingly enough, My First Barbie—cost seven dollars. I presented fistfuls of change to my parents, who then—listen up, Generation Y!—took the most convenient route of purchase, which was to place a call to the JCPenney's Catalogue toll-free number and issue the order to a live operator.

Then, we had to wait a few weeks for delivery, during which time my anticipation of the Barbie grew exponentially. I bragged to Lisa about how soon I wouldn't have to play with her Barbies anymore; I'd have my own Barbie and my Barbie could be friends with her Barbies just like we were friends and the whole thing seemed fantastic in a mathematical sort of way.

The JCPenney's Catalogue didn't deliver to your home, mind you (that cost extra, and my funds were depleted); you had to go to the JCPenney's and pick up your package. My mother and I took our tan hatchback through the drive-through service window for expediency, and my mother thrust the package into my lap as quickly as humanly possible, as though it were coated with flesh-eating toxins that only targeted adult skin.

A word about my parents: My feminism was handed down to me the way some families hand down, say, the Baptist faith, and in fact I've been accused of using feminism as my religion. That may be true, and while I like to think I'm an autonomous creature who also happens to be a feminist, the fact is that growing up in a feminist household engrains certain things into your mind. We actually were Methodist in a loose sort of way, and when your mother sings hymns in church with a female-gendered spin—"Praise her! Praise her our heavenly mother!" rang my mother's dischord in our small South Dakota town—it lets you know that this feminist stuff is to be taken seriously. My hyphenated last name is theirs; my strict usage of "letter carrier," "firefighter," and "police officer" is theirs; I still have the "Ankle-Biting Feminist" pin I wore to an ERA protest march in 1980.

So is it any surprise that my parents' wariness of Barbie went beyond the fiscal implications? For those of you who missed my mother's guest post here: Ours was not a household in which beauty per se was elevated. So to have a daughter pleading for Barbie—the embodiment of everything my parents were trying to tell me I didn't need to be—must have been anathema to them. And I don't know what they thought would happen once I'd acquired one, but here's what did:

I stared at the brown-paper-wrapped package on my lap for a moment, and it hit me: All my money, all the times I'd bent over to pick up a penny or tucked away those secret dollars instead of frittering them away at the corner candy store—every cent I'd owned was in that box. And I no longer had the money. True, I hadn't worked for it, but it had been mine, and it wasn't any more. I'd bet it all on Barbie.

This truth seemed unbearable. Not that I no longer wanted the Barbie: I did, and I played with her, and enjoyed our time together until I decapitated her and split her chin in the process, as all little girls do to their Barbies eventually. I just knew, as she sat in my lap, still unwrapped, that I'd never get my money back. I couldn't ever spend that money on anything else—I mean, I hadn't planned on using it to get to Cuba, but now the option was gone. Every option was gone. It was just me and her from now on.

My investment failure increased exponentially when, during the transaction's debriefing, I had to sit through my mother's extraordinarily embarrassing presentation titled Barbie Isn't Like Mommy. "Mommy has hair there, and Barbie doesn't. Mommy's waist doesn't look like that; Mommy's breasts look different [she may have referenced nipples but my memory is fuzzy on this point]; Mommy's feet can be flat and don't have to wear high heels." It was a worthy effort on her part, yet her audience was already dejected, jilted. I was in no mood to listen to prattling about Barbie's lack of pubic hair. I had already internalized how she was just a piece of cheap—or rather, extraordinarily expensive, given my debt-to-income ratio at the time—plastic.

Last month when I spent nearly an entire afternoon fretting about whether I should spend the $80 for one of life's greatest pleasures—a qi gong massage—my gentleman friend pointed out that I rarely spend money on nice things for myself. (Full disclosure: I did recently buy an amazing, outrageously priced pair of sunglasses that I will wear to the grave if I have anything to say about it.) And in general, he's right. My spending money overwhelmingly goes toward eating out and travel, not items, though I don't believe this makes me any less materialistic. And I rarely feel deprived by my spending habits. I don't know how much I learned about Barbie vs. Mommy on that day, or even what I learned about beauty standards. But in the drive home from the JCPenney Catalogue pick-up window, I learned a lot about, as Virginia Sole-Smith terms it, the price I was willing to pay for pretty.

Charlotte Shane, Prostitute, East Coast

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

Alone, Toulouse-Lautrec, 1896

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beauty Blogosphere 4.29.11

The latest beauty news, from head to toe.

From Head...

Falsies, clearly, are the answer.

Eyelash magic beans recalled: The FDA has issued warnings to three brand owners of eyelash growth products. RapidLash Eyelash Renewal Serum, NeuLash Eyelash Technology, and NeuveauBrow Active Eyebrow Technology were all making claims that went beyond the scope of the Cosmetics Act, promising physiological changes that would classify a product as a drug, not a cosmetic. They also contain unapproved new drugs. A sad, sad day for the sufferers of eyelash hypotrichosis, an ailment pretty much invented by Latisse.

Blushing beauties: A blush indicates that you're trustworthy, indicates research published in Emotion. "Cheeks," my junior high nickname, has been vindicated.

Conditioner, how do I love thee? It's not often that beauty products get their own poem, so Hannah Stephenson's poem "Conditioner" is a particular delight.

...To Toe...
Foot washing: Notorious lady-hater Mel Gibson says he'd give Jodie Foster a pedicure "every day of the week if I could." I sort of like the notion of him playing Mary Magdalene to Jodie-Jesus but this comment still weird me out...

Fish pedicure goes to court: Any day now the Arizona Court of Appeals will rule on the legality of fish pedicures. I don't care what you say, I still want one. 

Random shoe company pair-ups: Which one is weirder: Payless ShoeSource getting into beauty products, or Manolo Blahnik execs getting into designer milk?

Haute Cowture

...And Everything In Between
The perfume you can't smell: As a former Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab addict, I can attest to the transformative power of scent, and this profile of master perfumer Christopher Brosius is a good read. Still, I'll go on record here: If you're trying to make a perfume nobody can smell, you're kind of an asshole.

Nail polish sales expanding: UK nail polish sales have increased at twice the rate of other color cosmetics in the past five years. Increased professional visibility, longer-lasting returns than makeup, and, of course, the classic "little indulgence" in low economic times are all viable theories. Is nail polish a better economic indicator than the "lipstick index"?

Nine weird beauty inventions: Play-Doh perfume, fine. But sleep support for your breasts just seems kooky.

Psychology Today still hates feminism: A ridiculous sexist-apologist Psychology Today story on how people need "to accept the not-so-pretty fact" that some people are better-looking than others. You don't say! ("Here's the TRUTH! Finally!" wrote the friend who initially e-mailed this to me.) Do yourself a favor and don't read that piece without reading Holly's awesome takedown of it.

Standard sizing, please?: Anyone with two X chromosomes knows that clothing sizes are bullshit. So until the fashion industry finally gives up on vanity sizing altogether and comes up with a different system (waist girth? hip girth? even the numbers we have would kind of work if they made any sense), we can all make do with the body-scan technology profiled in this NYTimes article. It's come to a body scan, folks.

The beauty upsell: Great piece at Marie Claire by the always-excellent Virginia Sole-Smith of Beauty Schooled, about how budding aestheticians are groomed in the art of the salon upsell. Click on through and read it: It's rare to see a piece that's remotely critical of the beauty industry in a mainstream women's magazine (beauty ads help keep most mags afloat, even more so than fashion), so this is a win for Marie Claire, its readers, and all beauty consumers.

Korea is the new Delaware: That is, external factors make it a landing spot for people who want cheap, good plastic surgery. Chinese patients make up a third of the Korean plastic surgery market.

Shiseido sales plummet: Down 62% in net profit this quarter, the Japanese company is at least making wise moves, increasing its overseas presence to tap markets that are more stable than the domestic one.

Lauder business strategy: William Lauder, former CEO of Estee Lauder (and grandson of the grande dame herself), talks at Wharton; the edited transcript reveals its dips into masstige while still maintaining authority over customers, and how the company still tries to touch every customer—as Estee did—even if that touch is more technological than it had been previously.

Damn you, Lara Croft!: Study participants endorsed stereotypical gender roles more heavily after watching Angelina Jolie kick butt in Tomb Raider than after watching Kathy Bates kick butt in Primary Colors. So not only is it not enough to be competent and conventionally beautiful, but being both might backfire? Grody gross!

Tina's fail: I love Tina Fey. Love! Do people still say lurve? I lurve her. But she's not above criticism, and sex worker blog Tits and Sass points out that she makes some assumptions about sex workers that aren't kind (and in fact can be nasty; see "stripper bones" reference). 

Men on street harassment: From reading comments, it seems like my conclusion in yesterday's piece about complex reactions to street harassment struck a chord: We're eager to refocus the attention back to the harassers instead of keeping it on ourselves. Luckily, some men feel the same way. Hugo Schwyzer at the Good Men Project and Ben Privot of the Consensual Project give tips on how to responsibly admire a woman without objectifying her. It seems odd that we need guides to these sorts of things, but there you have it.

And, of course, the requisite royal wedding bit: Didn't we fight a war to get away from all this? Still, if you can't resist, here are three feminist-beauty-blog-approved options: 1) A totally non-snarky rundown of why we shouldn't call Kate Middleton a style icon, at Illustrator Claire; 2) What happens when adults fall for princessmania, at Never Say Diet, and 3) Designers at Estee Lauder and Jo Malone are among those who made wedding cakes inspired by today's event

How to Be a Good Salon Client

A pedicurist sees this all day long—and I guarantee it ain't always this pretty.

Part of why I don’t engage more beauty services—mani/pedis, facials, etc.—is because I feel acutely aware of the weird power dynamic inherent in many salons. I, a middle-class white woman born in America, am paying a probably not-white person, likely an immigrant, less than I make to do the sort of beauty labor on my body that I’m unwilling to do myself—I’m outsourcing my own grooming, essentially. Most often I just choose to opt out. But in talking with Virginia Sole-Smith of Beauty Schooled and hearing about what it’s like on the other side of the waxing table, I started to see that simply opting out isn’t the only way to handle that dynamic: As a client, I can engage with it responsibly, in ways that go beyond just tipping well and smiling (though do that too). Here, her tips for being a responsible salon client.

1) Tip. Always. “I don’t care if you didn’t like the service—you always have to tip out. The most fundamental injustice in the beauty industry right now is that the salons are all based on a tipping model, which means that workers’ wages are too low. Salons underpay their workers and pass the responsibility for making up the difference over to consumers, so they can advertise lower prices. So think of the listed price of your haircut or bikini wax as a fake price tag and add 20 percent more. That’s pretty much across the board—definitely in discount nail salons. It’s a little less true if you go to a really high-end salon; if a hairstylist works on commission and you’re paying $150 for a cut, the stylist is probably getting 40% of that. So she’s doing fine. But remember that the shampoo girl and her assistant who does your blowout aren’t making that. They’re making, like, $8 an hour. People often tip hairstylists 20% and give the shampoo girl $3; I’d rather give the shampoo girl $10 and scale back a bit on the stylist. Better yet, tip everyone well. I usually tip more than 20%; for a $35 pedicure I’ll tip $10, because I know those workers are often only paid about $50 a day. If you can’t afford to give a tip, you can’t afford to get a pedicure.”

2) Make it mutual. “Make it a point to ask their name. If you make conversation, don’t just go on about what you want—have a conversation with them as you would any other person. I hate when I go to a nail salon and I see women talking on their cell phone while there’s a woman scrubbing her feet. I know you’re there to relax, and that’s fine—you don’t have to talk through the whole thing. If you’re getting a facial, you’re paying to basically take a nap. But recognize that this is a human being who is working on you; don’t pretend she’s a robot, because she’s not. She’s touching you and being physically intimate, so it would be nice to ask how her day is going. Pay it back a little bit. That can be tricky to do, because you’re paying for the service and she has to give that service. But keep the fundamental respect.”

3) Be an advocate. “If you’re going into a place that’s awful with fumes and not enough ventilation, ask for the windows to be opened. You can even encourage salons to give their workers masks and gloves — or if you notice workers wearing protective gear, make a point to tell the owner that you appreciate them making worker safety a priority. The owners aren’t going to do that unless they think that the customer wants it, because they don’t want to lose business. So anytime you say, ‘Wow, these fumes make me sick,’ and talk to a salon manager and say, ‘Hey, can you open more windows or put a fan in here?’—particularly with the really toxic stuff, like the Brazilian blowout and acrylic nails—the manager is at least listening to you. They need to hear that from customers.”

Beauty Blogsophere 4.15.11

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

Princess Arthchild Gourielle-Helena Rubinstein, Salvador Dalí, 1943

From Head...
Helena Rubenstein portraits: The lady sat for Dalí! (She commissioned him to design a compact for her collection as well.) Twenty portraits of her by various artists are on view at Sotheby's.

Mermaid beauty: Mermaid expert extraordinaire Carolyn Turgeon (author of the enchanting novel Mermaid) interviews makeup artist Rona Berg on mer-beauty. And now that your appetite for fishwomen is whetted, check out the second ad on BellaSugar's roundup of most bizarre beauty ads ever made.

A colorful history: Nice writeup of lipstick's history by Sam Correy. Cleopatra also engaged in mermaid beauty, it seems, adding fish scales for shine to her "lipstick" made of beeswax and crushed ants.

Oily skin win: I love a good beauty experiment! BellaSugar again, this time with an intrepid reporter trying the oil-cleaning method--that is, washing your face with oil.

Barbarella beauty: Die-cut false lashes, printed hair extensions, and nail stamps at this vaguely futuristic beauty show.

Blowout blowup: The Department of Labor has issued a hazard alert on Brazilian blowouts—you know, that hair treatment that dumps formaldehyde (which even some morticians won't use anymore) on your head. I'm pleased but baffled as to why this issue, of all issues, is what is making the government sit up and take notice of the complete lack of regulation in beauty treatments. Is it the scary f-word of formaldehyde? What about the lead, the parabens, the sulfates, the tar—not startling enough? Or is it, as indicated by the action being taken by the Department of Labor, not the Food & Drug Administration, because every time a woman gets formaldehyde poured on her head, there's a salon worker who's handling the stuff too? Toe...
Fancy footballer: Between Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, comedian Tommy Davidson, and Josh Freese from last week's roundup, the pedicure is shucking its cloak of femininity. All the more reason for A Certain News Network and other reactionaries to tone down their freakout over this 7-year-old boy's cotton-candy-colored Essie pedicure.

...and Everything In Between
Johnson & Jobbery: The maker of Neutrogena and Clean & Clear, Johnson & Johnson, was fined for paying kickbacks for contracts under a UN relief program in Iraq. We're talking drug corruption, not an acne scrub scandal, but still, yikes. 

Criminal beauty: Between the teenager being fined $1 million for setting fire to hairspray at an Illinois Walmart, and a curious vandalism of a Florida anti-choice display involving boxes of unopened Mary Kay products, beauty products are playing accessory to crime this week.
Fair Pay Day: Virginia at Beauty Schooled examines the gender gap in beauty work, in honor of Fair Pay Day (April 12). It's particularly interesting in light of's report on the fastest-growing industries for startups, which highlighted beauty salons and barber shops.

In the red: Also as a part of Fair Pay Day, Mrs. Bossa nicely runs down the symbolism of the color red in connection to women's labor--paid, unpaid, and paid-in-kind.

Sears & Your Bucks: Sears is ramping up its cosmetics department, in most cases creating a department where there was none. Why should you care? Because Sears is seriously struggling (when was the last time you went to one?), and we as women are a part of its revitalization plan. It's an illustration of our market power, and it's easy to forget that we really do have that market power when we think of the beauty industry as something that merely exploits women's insecurities. It does, to be sure--underarm beautification, anyone?--but let's not forget that the market is a two-way street, and that businesses rely on our dollars to do their work. (Another reminder: Spa-going ladies basically own Groupon.)

Plus-size yoga: The new, cleverly named Buddha Body Yoga studio caters to a heavy-set clientele. I'm all for an environment that allows all participants to honor their bodies...but isn't that what yoga is all about in the first place? Yay for Buddha Body, but boo on the "yoga lifestyle" that has created the need for it in the first place. We've lost the plot, folks, when yoga has become so much about cute Lululemon pants and adorable printed mats, and less about its focus as a mind-body practice that would naturally lend itself to a heavy person wishing to find peace, just like all yogis.

Frankenbarbie: College student creates life-size, correctly proportioned, utterly grotesque Barbie. (Thanks to sustainability blogger Fonda LaShay for the link, even if it'll give me nightmares.)

Beauty in one's Seoul: Japan has long been the Asian leader in the cosmetics market, but Korea is joining the game full-force. With the events in Japan leading to concerns about contamination of Japan-produced cosmetics (which the Japan Cosmetic Industry Association refutes), could Korea make giant leaps in the next year?

Six beauty procedures that qualify as torture: Interesting stuff at Cracked (face slimmers?), but there was a tone here that I found disturbing--there was zero examination or sympathy of why people might choose to do these torturous procedures. An Asian woman doesn't spend two hours a day gluing her eyelids to create a fold because she's vain or has nothing she'd rather be doing; she does it because of the class connotations (including increased job opportunities) it can confer upon her.

Cosmetic genital mutilation? Ghanaian human rights activist Nana Oye Lithur draws a connection between western cosmetic surgery on one's genitals and female genital mutilation. I don't equate the two—but FGM is an abstract reality for me, not a daily reality of my countrywomen, which isn't the case for Ms. Lithur.

The three graces of Hearst? Mediabistro points out WWD's somewhat sexist treatment of three powerful fashion EICs under one roof at Hearst, once the Elle acquisition goes through. How belittling is it to assume that there can only be one top dog at Hearst simply because there are three (very different) women's fashion mags? Nobody's doing a cutesy Condé Nast chart of Daniel Peres of Details versus GQ's Jim Nelson.

Beauty Blogosphere 4.8.11

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

From Head...
The littlest fringe of all: Baby wig! You can call them "baby bangs" all you want, but we know what's really going on.

British ad-retouching guidelines: The regulating bodies of British advertising issued a specific set of guidelines aimed at reducing false claims made through imagery. Not okay: Using lash inserts in a photo shoot for eye makeup, retouching photos to add hair shine for a hair-shine-product ad. Okay: Airbrushing out blemishes, using makeup. Frankly, I'm less concerned about ads than I am about the airbrush imperatives for us non-professionals, like this school portrait agency that airbrushed pics without consulting students.

Are more professional women going sans makeup? This Financial Times piece claims so, though whether Cherie Blair being photographed on occasion without makeup hardly seems like a trend piece. Plus, as the article itself points out, "no-makeup makeup" is often a get-out-of-double-bind-free card for professional women—maybe Blair was wearing tasteful moisturizer?

Find your favorite discontinued products: Nice MyDaily piece on how to track down, say, THE WORLD'S MOST MAGICAL CONCEALER THAT PRESCRIPTIVES STOPPED MAKING BEFORE THE ENTIRE LINE SHUT DOWN COMPLETELY EXCEPT FOR A CRUDDY WEBSITE THAT DOESN'T HAVE THE ONE AND ONLY PERFECT CONCEALER IN EXISTENCE, but enough about me. I would add in a tip that my beauty editor pal passed on to me: Find out what the parent company is and look at other items in their product family—chances are they used the same chemist in all lines and the colors and some formulas will match somewhere, assuming you were using a product from a major line. (Via Beauty Schooled.)

Pixie cut: Every D&D lady's dream: surgically altered elf ears. I wonder if they ever rumble with custom-filed fang peeps? Toe...
Sweet file of mine: Help launch Devo/Gun 'n' Roses/Weezer/Paramore drummer Josh Freese's solo project by contributing $7,500 to it, and he'll get a pedicure with you.

...and Everything in Between
Baaaaad news for Australian cosmetics? With the outsourcing of sheep's wool (75% of the country's haul is now being sent to China for processing) comes the outsourcing of the wool's grease, or lanolin, a major player in many cosmetics. "For me, lanolin is the hero of a product," says the inventor of LanoLips balm. (I tried to figure out how to make the "o" in hero a heart but couldn't figure it out.)

Ocean State blues: Rhode Island is considering a 6% tax on beauty services. Combine this with the "tan tax" that's a part of the health care reform bill and it's getting mighty pricey out there...

Brunch beauty: The perfect skin care treatment to go with the new bacon perfume from Farginnay? Maple syrup.

On forgiveness: Health blogger Cameo Morningstar offers up solid tips on breaking the eat-repent-repeat cycle of overeating—as she points out, flexibility is key. Maybe a body-loving yoga class is the remedy...or maybe a quiet day of reflection. Either way, check out her concrete tips.

The dropping of Kirstie Alley: Ragen Chastain at Dances With Fat takes down the "fat lady falling!" snickers surrounding Kirstie Alley's Dancing With the Stars routine. An excellent illumination of the codes we attach to different body sizes.

Pretty pretty Poland: Brief but interesting profile of a Polish chemist who clandestinely started her cosmetics company in the Communist era. At article's end, she notes that there's still a lingering bias against Polish products, despite the country's legacy of major beauty names (Helena Rubenstein, Max Factor).

Ooh la la! Former L'Oréal head facing accusations of creating a cosmetics "gray market" for nations in post-Communist flux. Again.

And you thought the Brazilian blowout was bad: BellaSugar's roundup of 10 worst beauty products ever, including Aqua Tofana, an arsenic face powder for wannabe-widows who received special instructions from its creator on how best to use it. (Some might call the chewing gum bobby pin they featured the next day the 11th worst beauty product, but I find it charming. For someone else.)

Personal Care Spending May Help Well-Being—But Not in Every Way

Does well-being correlate to spending on personal care? When I saw the well-being index compiled by the NYTimes* I cross-checked** it with the personal care spending data that was released in January. Note that “personal care” encompassed everything from makeup and skin care to gym memberships, which isn’t ideal (yes, gym memberships are “personal care,” but I think they’re a good deal different than an eyeshadow spree) but it’ll have to do. What I found was that spending more on personal care didn't significantly correlate to happiness, stress levels, or depression—but did significantly correlate to obesity.

1) The five cities that spent the most on personal care ranked 6.8% higher on overall well-being than the five cities that spent the least. Unsurprising: Money buys some aspects of well-being (say, access to health care) in addition to lipstick and gym memberships, so we need to figure out if it's about money overall, or just money spent on personal care. So:

2) Of the top 5 and bottom 5 cities in personal care spending, income correlations held true, meaning that cities that spent more on personal care made more money per capita. The top 5 cities had an average income of $61,838; bottom 5 raked in $53,260. But if you remove the top and bottom city—well-heeled Arlington, VA ($90,662) and down-at-the-heels Detroit ($33,035), each of which were way off the mean—the cities spending less on personal care actually come out $1,340 ahead in average income but remain lower on the well-being index. So there’s something else going on there besides disposable income one can drop on chemical peels. What else goes into well-being?

3) The Times evaluated 20 factors of overall well-being. These ranged from internal factors like happiness and job satisfaction, to external factors like access to health insurance and nighttime safety, to clear economic indicators like adequate food and shelter. Of the factors, I hypothesized that a handful of them might account for the difference in well-being between the cities that shelled out for personal care and those that didn't: stress, happiness, depression, obesity, exercise, and fruit and vegetable intake.

Overall, the cities that spent more on personal care also fared slightly better on those well-being indicators—but only slightly, nowhere near enough to account for the 6.8 percentage-point spread between the two groups. In fact, the only appearance-related well-being factor that was significantly different between the cities that spent the most and the cities that spent the least on personal care was obesity. Stress had a 0.6% difference; depression a 2.7%. But there was a 7.7% spread on obesity between the two groups of cities.

But—Health at Any Size advocates, listen up!—the exercise rates and fruit/vegetable intake weren’t that different between cities that spent a lot on personal care and those that didn't, with only a 2.6% and 2.2% spread, respectively. So people in regions that spend more money on things like exercise equipment don't actually exercise that much more (or eat many more fruits and veggies), but they still weigh less. (And then there's Austin, whose residents spend nearly five times more on personal care than the average of the bottom five cities, but exercise only 1.16% more. Without having a breakdown of how the personal care dollars are spent, it's impossible to know whether people in the high-personal-care spending cities are buying more big-ticket items like treadmills, or if they're getting massages or expensive hair treatments or if they all use Crème de la Mer or what. Personally, I like to believe that Austinites buy NordicTracks to hang their acoustic guitars on.)

In addition: External factors that appear to have nothing to do with personal care spending—nighttime safety, for example—seem to account for more of a difference in well-being among all communities, but are disproportionately weighted in the cities that ranked high and low in the personal care spending. This indicates to me that a greater amount of personal care spending might ameliorate internal factors that contribute to well-being—stress, depression, happiness—but doesn't do squat for the kind of things that can't be fixed by taking care of your body and appearance. Like, how safe you feel walking outside at night, or whether you can see a doctor when you need to.

Bottom Line:
Unless you’re really rich or really poor, there doesn’t seem to be a great correlation between how much you make and how much you’re willing to spend on personal care. And the numbers bear out that spending more might make you a little happier (or maybe you’re happier because you’re going to the gym or playing with lipstick), but doesn't, in aggregate, do squat for the factors that have a greater impact on your overall well-being. 

The biggest difference in well-being that I measured in the cities spending the most and least in personal care was access to health insurance. I liken this to the research that indicates that money can make you happier—up to $75,000, that is. It seems that personal care can help equalize some of the factors that contribute to well-being, but not the ones that require real, actualized change. Your stress levels, your happiness, how much you exercise—these, to a certain degree, you can control, and things like fitness equipment and the occasional blowout can contribute. But sculpted abs or a Brazilian can't compensate for lack of access to health care, or feeling unsafe in your community is at night. Those, it seems, require action in the public sphere.

*I'll trust their data, just not their bullshit excuse for casually mentioning the appearance of a rape victim. The Public Editor has a more comprehensive take, thankfully. Jezebel dissects the events nicely,
as does Poynter.

**Methodology, if you can call frantically tabulating numbers on my calculator app while sipping office Flavia “methodology”: The Times’ well-being index is charted by congressional district, so I looked at the congressional districts that represent the cities of the top 5 communities and bottom 5 communities for personal care spending. Where the cities span multiple districts I averaged the districts. Per capita income for the districts found here.

Retail Therapy: My Maiden Voyage to MAC

I literally haven't bought makeup since 1999, until last week. I wear it every day, but one of the perks of working in women's magazines is the phenomenon known as the beauty sale, in which the products companies send to the beauty department for consideration are put in the conference room and sold for a dollar. It's a snarling, savage madhouse of magazine staffers—but one that means that if you work there you can walk away with dozens of products for a sliver of cash. I don't use tons of products but for the past 12 years I've been grabbing every brown eyeliner, black mascara, concealer, and fair-tone powder off the tables. And even though I haven't held a steady job at a ladies' mag for the past two years, my stockpile has held out nicely. (I do buy tinted SPF moisturizer, because I'm picky about that.)

Besides the obvious benefits, this also shapes how you perceive makeup. When a $95 face serum is priced the same as a Wet'n'Wild nail polish that would fetch $2 at Target, your evaluation of a product's worth shifts. You can only base your reaction to a product on how well it works (or how it looks on your shelf), not what investment you put into it in your hopes of achieving greater beauty. I don't care if the name on the package is Chanel or Maybelline; only rarely have I found something that worked so well I'd happily buy it at its retail value.

But last week was a hard week--cramps, back pain, general stress. And after my bombshell makeover I decided I wanted to try wearing lipstick on a daily basis for a while, just to see how I felt in it--but because I never wear lipstick, I don't own any except a singular beauty-sale leftover called Rum Raisin, which makes me resemble a kindly retiree, so off to the MAC store it was.
As a copy editor, I'm more annoyed by the missing period after the "C" than I should be.

What's that? you ask. MAC? I thought you said drugstore stuff was just fine! That's exactly it, though. It didn't cross my mind to go into Duane Reade and pick up some Cover Girl lip liner; I specifically wanted the experience of walking into a nicer store and spending nicer money on a nicer product, even though  the effect on my face would wind up being roughly the same. (By all accounts, though, MAC really is the leader in lip color longevity and rich pigmentation, and they're reasonably priced.) Wearing lipstick was about one thing; buying lipstick was about another.

Now, I've gone my whole life without buying lipstick. In fact, the only time I've procured lipstick (besides the aforementioned Rum Raisin) was when I uncharacteristically swiped a tube from the drugstore at age 15, which I've since learned was sort of a rite of passage for a lot of girls. The sticky-fingered Daphne Merkin, in her essay "The Shoplifter's High," writes:

Ours is a culture in which women, more than men, are dominated by the ruthlessly depersonalizing ethos of materialism... We are, in other words, the face—and clothes—we put on in the morning. ... Seen from this angle, shoplifting can be viewed as a means, however misbegotten, of managing the tension induced by being at the beck and call of the marketplace.... Once money is not the issue, how much is too much to spend on a new lipstick? And behind that valuation lies a more lift-threatening barter: How much am I worth?

Now, I didn't shoplift the MAC pencil, of course (though I don't think it's just the size and portability that makes lipstick a frequent target for shoplifters; I'm certain there's something specific to the purpose of cosmetics that's behind it--if anyone out there is a habitual makeup swiper, pipe up as I'd love to chat!). But what Merkin is saying here applies nonetheless: The actual price paid, the actual 1,415 pennies, wasn't the issue. My budget allows me to drop $14 when I'd like (though not habitually). It's more that by assigning MAC-value to my time, effort, and cash instead of CVS-value, I elevated myself--back pain, landlord tensions, cramps and all--to a higher worth.

I'm not sure where lies the line between treating myself to a small, colorful, pricier-than-it-needs-to-be pleasure to boost my mood, and plain old American retail therapy, foolishly spending on MAC in order to join the legion raspberry-lipped girls who pepper the halls of places I work. I'm pretty sure a $14 lip pencil isn't crossing that line. But I'm still questioning the whole idea, and I continue to be surprised by the pleasure I feel when I find the sleek pencil in my bag and spend a moment giving myself some lip service.