Beauty and Infidelity, Part III: The Other Woman

"The camera served Tereza as both a mechanical eye through which to observe Tomás's mistress, and a veil by which to conceal her face from her." —The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera (film, 1998)

Several years ago, I found myself overwhelmingly attracted to a colleague, and, despite the existence of his long-term girlfriend, we wound up kissing at a party. Affair is too grand a word for what ensued in the following weeks, nor is it wholly accurate, as he soon told his girlfriend about our liaison. She promptly broke up with him and then called me, wanting to talk. We agreed to meet at an ice cream parlor, of all places.

What struck me upon seeing her sitting at a corner table was her beauty: wide-set eyes, honey-colored curls, creamy complexion. I’d met her once before, so it wasn’t that I was only then seeing what she looked like, but rather that I was seeing her in relation to myself. In my mind there was an algorithm of attraction whose full components were a mystery to me; I just knew that two parts of it were her appeal, and my own. Sitting face-to-face with another part of the messy equation made me question the math I’d come up with: I’d talked myself into believing I’d overestimated her allure the first time we’d met, for if she were really as pretty, charming, and vivacious as I remembered, what was her boyfriend doing kissing me? At the time I was inexperienced enough to believe that the fellow had betrayed her because of some magnetic pull between us, instead of what I now see was the case: He was bored, and I was willing.

“I know it’s weird,” she said, trying to explain why she’d called. “My friends were like, Why do you want to meet up with her? But—” She looked up, her face flushing for the first time since she’d seen me walk through the door. “You understand why I wanted to, don’t you?”

I did. At least I believed—and believe—I did. She had an algorithm to question too. For as I watched her eyes occasionally brim with tears, her head bow and bob with a mixture of sadness and defiant optimism, I began to understand exactly how off my math had been. Despite a bearing I interpreted as confidence, she might have had an algorithm with the naivete of mine: Maybe he went for her because she’s just all that. I saw in front of me someone beautiful, earthy and ethereal in equal measures, capable and grounded, and the thought that she might be questioning her own appeal burned. I wanted her to see herself as I saw her, and it occurred to me that if she was doubting her allure, she might be doing so because I helped her doubt it.

As neutrally as I could, I answered her questions, which began as you’d expect but eventually moved into the territory of a first date. Where are you from, what did you study? Who are you? Easier than you might believe, our conversation began to flow. We both made jokes that probably weren’t very funny, but we were both easy laughs so it didn’t matter. We stayed long after we’d finished our cones, long enough to get sodas because we got so thirsty. At one point she said, “I’m actually having a better time with you than I did on my first date with him.” “Me too,” I replied. It was the truth. We lived in the same neighborhood, so we walked home together. When we parted, we hugged. 

Four days later, I saw her again, as I was walking down the street hand-in-hand with her ex-boyfriend. As we passed her, I could see that her steely expression belied a map of tears. He and I broke up a month later. I heard through friends that he tried to get back together with her, but she refused him, just as she refused me when I tried to contact her a few weeks after our ice-cream outing.

*     *     *

I have been the other woman. I could chalk up my indiscretions of this sort to youthful impudence or an “exploration” of sexual ethics or falling for the same old lines, but the truth is I was just plain selfish. Would it help if I tell you that it is a selfishness I have outgrown? Today fidelity is more appealing to me from every angle than its opposite, or even its shyster cousins—inappropriate emotional investment, Olympian flirting. But that is now, not then, when I’d mentally say I was sorry and mean it, just not enough to stop.

What strikes me now about this weakness is not the way I felt toward the men involved, but toward the women. The spritely live-in girlfriend of a man I longed for and did not resist when he told me he shared my longing; the sloe-eyed designer whose partner told me had lost interest in sex with him years ago (of course!); the husky-voiced business major whose date slipped me a note at a party saying he wished he were there with me instead: These women intrigued me, and not competitively so. It would be easy to chalk this up to my own tendency to cast a golden light of admiration onto women in general. It would also be easy to chalk this up to being the other woman, not the—woman-woman? The girlfriend, the partner. The beloved, supposedly. When I tried to explain my bizarre reverence to a friend, she rolled her eyes. Of course you get to feel that way, she said. You won.

I’m resistant to attribute this sensation to “winning,” though, even under the faulty logic of other-womanness as winning, for it's happened when I’ve been the betrayed one too. I once discovered a stash of messages sent to my then-partner by a woman whose name I didn’t recognize, but who clearly knew who I was. Most of the content was your typical affair nonsense, but this was a woman who was thoughtful about me in the same sincere, curious, and egregiously self-involved manner that I’d had in past liaisons.

She’s prettier than I imagined, one of her messages went. My first thought was to wonder what she’d imagined me to look like, and whether my boyfriend had given her clues: She’s medium build/she’s brunette/she’s gotten thick in the waist. But her note continued: It makes me insecure. The admission had the effect of both a stab and a caress. A stab because as much as I hated the existence of this woman, I hated that she too used other women as mirrors that reflected back her doubts. I’d have preferred that she be superhuman, for then I’d have a receptacle for my vitriol that might have allowed me to stay with my boyfriend, whom I loved. And a caress because reading that she shared my own reaction—insecurity, shaky doubt, a plea for affirmation—did allow me to use her as a mirror, did let me see that whatever the reasons for his betrayal, it wasn’t because I wasn’t enough. If she was made insecure by my looks, and I by hers, that canceled each other out, right?, so the reason for the betrayal logically had to be something else. (Because logic and love go hand-in-hand so often, I know, I know.)

In tales of infidelity, we overlook a central fact: Two people share another. She and I already had two things in common—the man himself, and being the kind of women who would pique his interest. In another time, another place, another life, our begrudging sisterhood could have been sisterwives. We would live together, create a home together, prepare food together. I might braid her hair. And secretly, each of us would worry that the other would forever be more alluring to him, therefore—in my grief-stricken, abjectly depressed reasoning of the time—more alluring to all men, everywhere. How could I not be fascinated by her? I looked her up. She was beautiful.

There’s a particular way that someone you become intimately involved with knows you: They know a side of you that remains hidden to not only the public eye, but most private eyes as well. My best friend may know me better than most of my lovers have, but she’s never felt me grasp for her touch in the middle of the night, or seen me through the shaky moments that come after an act of, quite literally, naked vulnerability. What that means is that there are dozens of women roaming around who know those same things about the men who have entered my heart. Ex-girlfriends, ex-wives, yes, and I’ve been fascinated with them as well. But it is the other woman—the woman who knows not the man at age 19 or 27 or 38 or whatever age he has long passed, but the person he is now, the person who may have had dinner with you mere hours after a kiss good-bye with her—that you are actually sharing a person’s affection and attention with, in real time.

That’s what makes betrayal sear so acutely, of course. It’s also what links the women together.

*     *     *

Beauty cannot exist without fascination. Unless something captivates us enough to hold our interest for more than a fleeting moment, it’s pretty or pleasant or maybe lovely rather than beautiful. It’s why people we love become more beautiful to us the longer we love them; it’s why we find “flaws” beautiful on others. When I love someone, I’m quick to become fascinated by what fascinates them. Soccer, Slovenia, antipsychiatry, Montaigne, urban gardening. The other woman. It’s fascination once removed, but it is fascination nonetheless. I want to keep looking; my attention is held. This is part of what defines beauty. Is it any surprise that when I look at the various women I’ve been triangulated with—some against my will, some against my better judgment—I find beauty at every turn?

When I’ve been cheated on, occasionally friends have taken the tactic of beauty assassination in an attempt to assuage my grief. Girl could use some Clearasil. You’re pearls before swine, she’s pig slop. Or just: What was he thinking? I mean, look at her. I’m quite certain the same has been said of me when I’ve played the other role. You see the problem, don’t you? That using beauty as a lever in infidelity displaces the exquisite pain of betrayal? That Clearasil was a beauty in her way, and that Pig Slop was too, and that this is entirely beside the point? That to lament my own loss of appeal served only to prolong the lamentation of my loss of trust?

I’d like to think that my preternatural, private devotionals to the women I’ve been triangulated with are reciprocal in some way. Not that I want them find me pretty per se; it’s more that I want a sort of confirmation that I’m not the only one attempting to divert the pain of betrayal away from the accomplice and toward the betrayer, whatever side of emotional treason any woman might be on. But just as “girl talk” is a route to female connection only when each party is open to it, I now have to admit how much of my visual admiration of other women is one-sided. How much it’s about wanting them to see me: I wanted to stay in that ice cream parlor with my new boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend because I had nothing to offer her other than myself, and if she stayed there with me despite my rotten actions, it meant she saw something worth sticking around for. Inherent in being the other woman is a deep cynicism of men: You believe they always want something other than conversation, and this belief is played out with clandestine brushes against your knee beneath the dinner table. Women, though—at least women in these triangulated roles—have no such motivation. 

Since beauty functions as a code of connection between women, I turned to it as a sort of pass key to intimacy in times when my faith in the true nature of intimacy was shaken. After being betrayed myself, finding the other woman beautiful was a way of finding (concocting?) a trust that had been taken from me. And after helping someone else betray another woman, finding her beautiful was a misguided way of trying to reconcile the selfishness that landed me there in the first place with the way I wanted to relate to these women. I knew that somewhere inside me was a person with more respect for other women than my actions indicated, but at the time I didn’t have the character to allow that better instinct to thrive. The halo of beauty that I created was a paltry symbol of that instinct. It wasn’t enough.

With age and maturity (and therapy), I’ve learned to avoid situations that might find me turning these mental somersaults. This piece isn't a mea culpa; such opportunities are long gone. Opportunities for refocusing my efforts at emotional intimacy with other women remain, though, and it’s in the name of those opportunities that I’m trying to figure out why I’ve repeatedly returned to a different sort of gaze in the midst of infidelity. Perhaps when I felt so tethered to the male gaze myself, creating a female gaze and projecting it onto women I’d hurt (or been hurt by) was the only way I knew to express a true apology (or forgiveness). But apologies are only good if both parties speak the same language. And I don’t want anyone to be fluent in the tongue I was speaking back then.

Not long ago I discovered that Google logs all your searches, and that you can summon a historic tally of everything you’ve searched for when logged in. It’s been more than a decade since I last saw the woman I shared ice cream with, but in the seven years since I got my Gmail account, I’ve searched her name often enough that it’s the sixth-most-Googled term in my personal history. I have fantasized repeatedly about running into her. Each time, I look her in the eyes and say, I am sorry. Each time, a litany of excuses tumbles out: I was young, I was insecure, I was selfish, I was stupid. And each time, even in my fantasy, she walks away.

This is the last of a three-part series about appearance and infidelity. Part I, on using beauty as a scapegoat in infidelity, is here; part II, examining social science research on looks and betrayal, is here.

On Being a Fat Child

I was a fat kid. I haven’t written about this before, telling myself it’s because this blog is about beauty, and I’m wary of conflating weight and beauty. That’s true, but the real reason I haven’t written about having been a fat kid is that—listen, I know writers are supposed to “show, not tell,” but how can I show you the scar the ever-present question of fatness has etched onto my heart? I can’t, and so I will just say: I haven’t written about being a fat kid until now because it was too painful. Being a fat kid hurt me then. Having been a fat kid hurts me now.

Things I remember about being fat: Not being able to wear jeans (there was no such thing as jeans for fat girls in 1983). Not wanting to participate in any games at the school fair except the cake walk; wanting those cakes so badly that I moved faster than I ever had in my life to repeatedly get the last seat, thus winning five cakes; understanding the implicit humiliation of being the fat kid who wanted five cakes but wanting those cakes more than I wanted my pride; doing my best to be gracious when my parents insisted we give away three of them. Faking sick on the day we were supposed to do height-weight testing, only to find out upon return that it had been postponed a day; jiggling my leg incessantly until I had to step on the scale in hopes of losing “enough” weight by midmorning. Immense disappointment at learning that the three scoops of ice cream I’d piled on my plate at the Bonanza buffet weren’t scoops of ice cream but of butter. Pretending to twist my ankle at age 7 in the 50-yard dash at track and field day to spare myself the embarrassment of being the fat kid who came in last; doing the same at age 8, and 11. Stealing bags of brown sugar from the pantry to eat in my bedroom, alone. Secreting away boxes of cereal, to do the same; denying to my mother that I’d done so, even when it was clear she knew I had.

There is a theme here: absence, and falsity. I couldn’t wear jeans; I didn’t want to play games that wouldn’t get me cake; I faked sick; I pretended to twist my ankle; I denied secret eating. Being a fat child wasn’t so much about the fact of being fat as it was about couldn’t, wouldn’t, shouldn’t. There is a counter-theme too: Love—of food, exquisite food, food, füd, phood, food, the panacea to whatever free-floating stresses there were in my life as an intellectually mature but emotionally not-so-mature 8-year-old girl. I didn’t have a difficult childhood by any means, but it was a childhood; it came with bumps and dents and scratches that I didn’t really know how to handle. Lucky for me, I didn’t have to learn, because I had food right there, every day, making it all okay. It worked—until it didn’t, but that’s not the story I’m trying to tell here. Food felt like it worked, and in a child’s mind, that’s enough.

*     *     *

Things I do not remember about being fat: Being teased. Being bullied. Having my weight remarked upon by strangers; being laughed at or taunted. I remember exactly three instances of shaming from other people about my weight: a neighbor suggesting I not enter her family’s trailer because I was fat and might somehow damage it; my grandmother telling me in the JCPenney’s dressing room that the problem wasn’t that the pants were too small but that I was too big; a third-grade classmate gasping when she saw my three-digit weight listed on my weight-height chart, when most kids weighed in at around 65 pounds. But when I try to fish deeper for the other memories—the memories that are surely there, for what fat child escapes a landslide of teasing from cruel classmates?—I come up empty. I remember being lightly teased for other things—my name, my glasses, my ponytail, my lack of athletic coordination—but my fatness, the singularly most visible thing about me, remained uncommented upon.

When I look at my own experience of being a fat kid, I don’t see a problem with society, or cruel children, or unlimited soda refills. I see a problem with—how do I put this without appearing to be swatting the wrist of my 8-year-old self?—I see a problem with me, and with the way I understood my size. There was very little fat-shaming in my life, but I still felt like being fat was wrong, bad, unfeminine, shameful—all those things fat activists say are erroneously attached to weight. They’re right to say that; those feelings should be separate from weight. Yet they weren’t separate, not for me. I filtered any feeling I had—about my fatness or anything else—through food, and my chronic overeating was what kept me fat. My feelings were my fatness; my fatness, feelings.

I wouldn’t have been better off had I been basically bullied into losing weight, or into feeling worse about being fat. But I would have been better off had I learned ways of coping with stress that didn’t center around food; I’d have been better off had I understood the joy of moving my body. I’d have been better off if clothes shopping weren’t an exercise in futility; I’d have been better off if any of the well-meaning sweatshirts and tees that were given to me as gifts had fit without revealing the immovable fact of my belly. I’d have been better off if I hadn’t had the hurdle of weight to constantly run up against. What I’m saying is: I’d have been better off if I weren’t fat.

I’d also had been better off if the world around me didn’t disperse shame upon overweight people—had my grandmother not told me I was “too big,” had my classmate remained nonchalant whatever the number on my height-weight card, had my neighbor not insinuated I could singlehandedly topple over a trailer designed for far greater stress than a fourth-grader’s frame. The world needs to change in its attitude toward fat people, and that is unquestionable. But it wasn’t only the world around me that inscribed my fatness upon my identity to the point where I still sometimes cannot recognize myself in photos because I’m looking for someone bigger than I actually am.

Yes, I wish the world around me had been different. I wish I’d been different too.

*     *     *

Being a fat kid wasn’t easy. But the reasons being a fat kid wasn’t easy had little to do with what body-positive bloggers such as myself usually cite. I wasn’t teased, I wasn’t bullied, few people ever tried to make me feel like I was lesser-than because my body was more-than. I don’t recall looking at “aspirational” images of thin women and feeling like I didn’t live up to them, though of course it’s impossible to determine how much of those messages seep into our brains. Sociological reasons alone cannot account for the shame I felt about my fatness. The problem went deeper than that. The problem—to a point—was me.

I keep wanting to baldly state some sort of vaguely political point, but then I find myself stymied as to exactly what I want to say. That maybe childhood obesity is something we should be “fighting”? (Yes, but then there are those billboards in Georgia.) That there’s a way to instill good eating and exercise habits in children without shaming them? (Yes, but who on earth is arguing the opposite?) That maybe when we say fighting childhood obesity is about health, it’s not some fat-shaming conspiracy but is truly about children’s emotional, physical, and mental health? (Yes, but that doesn’t mean that concerns about “health” aren’t also a veiled way of talking about children’s looks.) That maybe plenty of fat kids aren’t built that way, aren’t “big-boned,” aren’t victim to some sort of “fat gene” or environmental hazard but instead have bodies that are suffering from too much food and too little exercise? (Yes, but there are children whose set point is higher than what’s recommended, and I don’t want to advocate anything that would see a child beginning a lifelong battle that she’ll never be able to win. Those children—all children—deserve dignity that gets slighted when we stick too heavily to the traditional way of thinking about weight.)

I suppose the closest I could come to having a larger “issues” point here is this: The emphasis on childhood obesity is a convenient scapegoat for the deeply conflicted relationship pretty much our whole society has with food, comfort, bodies, and conformity. And we as a society have a responsibility to not only take a cold, hard look at that relationship for our own benefit, but, yes, “for the children.” We need to help children on a physical, mental, emotional, and sociological level be as healthy as possible. And sometimes being as healthy as possible includes losing weight. I’m not a public health expert, I’m not a psychologist. I don’t know how to help children reconcile the ostensibly dueling messages of You are good just the way you are and You might be better off if you took certain steps that will make you healthier—and, as it happens slimmer. I just know that we need to.

I don’t like feeling like I have to choose a side: That I’m either a body-positive blogger who looks at weight as entirely separate from health when I know from my own experience that it’s not always separate, or I’m one of those body-shaming fat-phobes who thinks it’s fine to put chubby kids on a billboard as a warning and example. I only have my own experiences to go on, and when it comes to something as intensely personal as our bodies, going on personal experience alone can be dangerous. My experiences as a fat child can’t be superimposed onto the life of every fat kid in America, and I might be even more hesitant to quietly suggest that plenty of kids would benefit from losing weight had I been the childhood equivalent of those adult powerhouses who eat healthfully and mindfully, exercise aplenty, and remain fat. But that wasn’t me. Had I eaten the way my parents tried to teach me to eat, and not been so terrified of moving my body, I would have been well within recommended height-weight guidelines. As an adult, that’s where I fall, though my relationship with food is still conflicted enough that I may never know how much I’d weigh if I were able to be an intuitive eater. (Indeed, that’s another reason I haven’t written much on this; it’s hard for me to know how much of my feelings about childhood obesity inhabit the same space as the part of me where disordered eating thrived for years. Can we ever know?)

Nobody should be made to feel bad because of how they look, or because of the size their body takes up in the world. Does that even need to be said here? I’m saying it anyway, for good measure. But not all fat-phobia comes from outer sources. Yes, I’m tired of the idea that weight loss is unequivocally a good thing; I loathe the bumper-sticker wisdom that inside every fat person there’s a thin person waiting to get out. Nobody wins when we assume fat people must be unhappy. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t fat people—including children—whose size does make them unhappy, and who don’t have a vocabulary for articulating that unhappiness without falling down the rabbit hole of self-loathing. Had I such language as a child, I might have found more satisfaction from what came out of my mouth than what went into it.

Girl Talk

For my money, the most unrealistic part of Sex and the City was always the friendship. “Friendship porn,” I once heard it described as. People fingered Carrie’s wardrobe as being truly ridiculous, but after years of working in an industry where I’ve seen an adult woman spend a day at the office wearing a dress made entirely out of ribbon, I accepted that part of the show without question. But having a group of friends I have brunch with every weekend? Where would I find that?

So I’m interested to see that part of the critique tsunami surrounding HBO’s Girls has examined the characters’ friendships. It’s brought us everything from a feminist social history of best-friendship to a zoological history of the same. In fact, there’s been a good deal of attention paid to female friendship lately, including with the number of people who linked to this essay, which made the internet rounds when it was first published at The Rumpus. I’m glad to see these conversations happening; it’s a welcome relief from tired tropes of backstabbing women bad-mouthing one another at every opportunity.

My relief is tinged with melancholy, though. I couldn’t bear to read the Rumpus essay more than once because it hit me so hard when I read it the first time. Not because it resonated, but because it didn’t. To be clear: I have many wonderful female friends, some of whom I expect to be close with for the rest of my life. And in sheer numbers, I probably have more female friends than male friends. But in terms of who I treat as confidants, it’s slanted toward men, due to a combination of serial monogamy, the fortune to have remained friendly with a handful of men I used to date, and an incidental number of male friends. Given that I’ve usually worked in female-dominant fields, perhaps this has just been my way of adding some yang to my yin.

But there’s another reason my relationships with men move more fluidly. It may sound silly coming from a feminist who writes primarily for female audiences, but I’m talking socially, not intellectually, so here goes: I feel awkward around women. Now, that’s speaking in some pretty general terms—certainly I don’t feel awkward around every woman, or comfortable around every man. It’s more that accurately or not, I have an odd sort of faith that men enjoy being around women because of our womanness, making my sex is a built-in fortification of what I offer socially to men. We as a culture have been pretty successful at spinning stories about Man + Woman=Makes Sense, and the consequence for me has been just the tiniest bit more assurance that a man has reason to want to be in my company, even when attraction doesn’t factor into it. Then it becomes a catch-22: I’m more likely to be relaxed—and therefore more pleasant, charming, and fun to be around—if I trust that whomever I’m talking with genuinely wants to be there. So generally speaking, I probably am better company to men than I am to women, which results in a different sort of friendship.

I’m not proud of this attitude. I don’t like what it implies I think about men, or about myself. But it’s also notable for what it says of my relationships with women. I heard this quote once: “Men kick friendship around like a football, but it doesn’t seem to crack. Women treat it like glass and it goes to pieces.” Treat it like glass I do: afraid to touch it, afraid to give it the sort of handling that burnishes it and makes it uniquely yours. I’ve always hated the trope that women distrust other women, or secretly hate their friends or women in general, and that’s not what I’m saying here. If anything, I’m saying the opposite: I get tongue-tied around remarkable women because I dearly want them to like me, and unlike with men, there’s no culturally assumed “reason” for them to like me. The lack of trust here is in myself, not in other women.

So I feel like I have to work a little harder to get women’s approval. But the specific ways I’ve cultivated to gain approval—laughing a little longer at someone’s jokes, asking lots of questions, letting a gaze linger—sound suspiciously like flirting. Specifically, flirting with men. So when I’m around a woman I want to get to know better, suddenly I’m left not only being a little unsure how to be my best self, but also aware that my default “like me!” antics are conventionally feminine ways of appealing to men—which means plenty of women see right through them because they themselves have deployed the same tricks. At least, at my most vulnerable, self-doubting, and insecure that’s what I fear: that women—particularly the sort of intelligent, critical, soulful women I admire—will see through my laughter and questions and smiles and decide that whatever I bring to the table, it isn’t for them. (Perhaps that’s why I feel drawn to woman-only spaces like ladymags, come to think of it—it forces me to break out of relying upon the ways I’ve learned to communicate with men.)

At some point, though, I learned one thing I can bring to the table with women: girl talk. And yes, I mean highly stereotypical girl talk. I mean: I like your earrings, That’s a great color, Your hair looks fantastic. I used to consciously stay away from beautystuffs as small talk because I wanted to feign nonchalance about such matters; somewhere along the line, though, I recognized how well I myself responded to such conversation starters. My countenance, particularly around women, is pleasant but a little serious, meaning that something frivolous can come out of my mouth and I’m fairly certain it doesn’t make me seem frivolous. It simply lightens me, desirably so.

It’s been several years since I’ve started b
eing more fluent in beautytalk, and between working at image-conscious magazines and running a blog that is specifically designed to examine women’s attitudes and feelings about beauty and being looked at, it’s second nature now. Compliments and questions related to style or appearance easily tumble out of me; if I’m meeting a woman cold, like if I’m at a party where I don’t know anyone, chances are that’s the first thing out of my mouth. I’m always sincere about it—compliments fall flat if they’re a lie—and at this point I wouldn’t even say that this line of conversation is intentional. But I know where it comes from, and I know what I’m hoping to elicit when I do it.

Here is my trouble: I fear that I am forgetting how to connect with women in any other way. I found myself at a dinner party a while ago with a woman whose manner intrigues me; she’s one of those people whose words seem to matter more than other people’s, so wisely does she choose them. I was seated next to her, and my first words to her were something about her shoes (which were gorgeous, so I’m not entirely to blame here). She smiled and said Thank you, as one does, and after we had each nodded acceptance of the compliment and ensuing gratitude, neither of us had anything further to say to one another. Rather, I didn’t know how to get to that further point—at least not without her doing some of the heavy lifting along with me.

I’d expected her to help me out, which isn’t an outrageous expectation on my part; that is, after all, how conversations work. But in expecting her to help me out by saying anything other than the logical, polite response—thank you—I was actually attempting to direct her attitude. Toward herself, toward me, toward womanhood itself. I was expecting her to play along—to tell me, say, some story of where she’d gotten the shoes so I could then riff off a detail of that story, and in the course of that we would have each revealed something personal that could serve as a launching point for the conversation I actually wanted to have with her. I was expecting her to speak some code of womanhood right along with me—a code that as a feminist I know better than to think is actually how women communicate. I lobbed exactly one volley in her direction and expected her to return it.

And when she didn’t, I found that I didn’t have a backup plan. The code I’d been speaking in wasn’t code at all; it had become my native tongue, at least when attempting to make small talk. For it wasn’t just that laconic seatmate and her response that’s troubling me. It’s also the times when it works too well and I find I don’t know how to better anchor the conversation; it’s the times when I see exactly how moored I feel by “girl talk” with women and I wonder how deep my own feminist blood can run if this has become the primary way I know to reach out to other women. My approach has assumed that women in my path are eager to talk about their appearance, and not only that, but that they are eager to talk about their appearance with me because we are both women. Small talk works because we presume all the small talkers share a common condition. While I believe that all women have a unique relationship to presence, style, and visibility, the route I’ve been taking to get to that relationship isn’t helping me establish better friendships with women. And that’s because of another characteristic of getting-to-know-you chatter: Small talk is, by its nature and nomenclature, unimportant. And the very thing I value about beauty talk is what it reveals about us—that is, the stuff that is important. And yes, sometimes beauty talk gets there quickly and directly; that’s exactly why I defend it and work hard in my writing to not have it be written off as cotton candy. Yet in relying so heavily upon beauty talk as a conversation starter, I’ve been failing in my central mission. I know that you can’t just jump into a conversation by asking the really meaty stuff, sure. But if I truly believe in “girl talk” as a portal to that meat, to treat it in practice as fluff is a disservice to my goal.

Perhaps that became clearest to me when I was the recipient, not the instigator, of this sort of exchange. Some time ago, I found myself having a drink with a friend of a friend. The person who introduced us was doing most of the talking, so we were both able to quietly get used to the rhythm of the other before our mutual friend departed and left us on our own. We continued the conversation to its logical point, and it was clear that we each had a good deal to say to one another, but that we were perhaps too much alike in our being better responders than presenters. The conversation was good but not fluent. During one of our fumbling, strained pauses, she looked down and said, “I like your shoes.” The only thing remarkable about these sneakers is how unremarkable they are: Cheap, several years old, a faded olive color, scuffed and beaten, I’d only worn them because the weather was in flux and they were the single “shoulder season” pair I could fine.

I knew enough secondhand about this woman and her somewhat turbulent life to know that I wanted to know more about her. I wanted to talk with her about art and expression, about motherhood and madness. I wanted to know if what she saw every day in her appointment book, her mirror, her life was what she’d envisioned for herself; I wanted to know about disappointment and relief, and where the two might meet. I didn’t ask those questions, of course; you can’t just go in and ask those sorts of things. Sometimes chatter of shoes and mascara is a portal to the questions we really want answers to; sometimes the words that don’t matter are the only way to the words that do. But sometimes those words—where did you get that and I had a pair like that once and what a great color—form a Mobius strip of the words we know don’t matter, with no apparent outlet to what we want to say but don’t know how to articulate. I am trying to step off that neverending loop. But I am not sure how.

I felt that ache, that frustration that comes when I dance around intimacy, a dance only made more frantic when I sense the other person is there with me in our pas de deux. I felt it—I saw it—but I am still unpracticed in saying whatever one would need to say to get to what comes next.

And so I looked at her and said what we both knew you’re supposed to say upon receiving a compliment, the words that, with luck and effort, could lead to chatter of other cross-weather shoes, which could lead to climate, which could lead to where we grew up, which could lead to how we each define the word home. That is, I said Thank you.

What I didn’t say—but what I hope she heard—was I like you too.


I first set foot in ladymag land in the fall of 1999, when a teen magazine hired the 23-year-old me as the lone editorial assistant. Since then, I’ve worked in women’s magazines in some capacity—running the gamut from fitness rags to fashion, teen to adult, highbrow to lowbrow, freelance to staff and back to freelance again—for the majority of my 13 years of being in the workforce, which is to say the majority of my adulthood. Which is to say that for the majority of my adult life, I have spent thirty-five to, oh, eighty hours a week working on women’s magazines, or physically surrounded by them, or thinking about them, or reading them. And as a copy editor, which has been my primary professional role for most of those 13 years, when I say “read” I mean I read, very closely, every single word on every single page. There have been repeated 12-hour stretches of my life where—and I am not exaggerating—I have done nothing but eat, drink, pee, and read women’s magazines.

Have I made my point clear? I think I have. I have spent a lot of my life reading women’s magazines. Not as much as some of my colleagues—those who have been on staff instead of having extended freelance stretches like I have, those who work harder and more intently than I have, those who have simply been in the workforce 
longer—but I think it’s fair to say I’m in the top 1% of the population as far as taking in women’s magazines goes.

I still work in them in some ways—pinch-hitting in the copy editing department, penning the occasional piece—and I’m generally happy to do so, because as much as I’m critical of the velvet steamroller of women’s magazines, I’m also supportive of them in many ways. My ambivalence on the world of women’s magazines could fill a blog of its own, but suffice to say: I support what they do, and I want them to do with aplomb, and I also know that until we have a societal sea change, there will always be a stopping point in how far they can go toward truly serving their readers in all aspects of their lives.

Anyway. I’ve broadened my copy editing client base in the past couple of years to include publications outside of women’s magazines. One of those clients was a personal finance magazine, which meant I went from proofing columns about the difference between lip balm, lip stain, and lipstick to proofing columns about fixed annuities, variable annuities, and perpetuities. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I enjoyed it—the 
copy could be as dry as the Mojave—but certainly it was educational, and I came away from it knowing much more about personal finance than I had when I started.

The first week or so that I worked on this material, it only made sense to apply what I was reading to my own finances. I transferred my short-term savings to an account with a higher interest rate; I double-checked my bank fees; I eventually even rebalanced my IRA portfolio. But the fact is, I’m unmarried, child-free, and l
azy; my entire financial empire could fit in a shoebox. There’s only so much I could do to check up on my finances, you know?

Not that that stopped me. I started repeatedly checking the balances of my checking and savings account. Daily. Not because I was going to do anything to them—no transfers, no withdrawals, no deposits—but because I just wanted to make sure that what I thought was there, was there. It wasn’t a conscious decision I made; it just naturally happened that midway through reading an article about saving, I’d have to stop 
reading immediately and look at the number on my savings account to make sure it hadn’t magically changed in the past, oh, 18 hours.

A brief aside about my temperament: I’ve been blessed with a relative lack of anxiety about money. Part of this is sheer privilege—a largely middle-class upbringing and the accompanying assumption that I’d go to college and land in a field that would allow me comfort, if not wealth. My father grooves on finance stuff—indeed, his lifelong career was in the financial end of health-care systems on Indian reservations—so while I’m lazy in handling my finances, I grew up with the idea that dealing with money matters could be a source of satisfaction (which, in me, mostly manifested itself in a love of filling coin rolls. Better ’n’ Quaaludes! So relaxing). When I’ve been under financial duress, I’ve usually had few problems adjusting my budget; while I’m not the best saver on the planet, neither am I the greatest spender. Basically, while I get the occasional jolt of nerves about money like anyone, overall it’s just not on my worry list.

Yet there I was, 
checking my balances daily, sometimes more than once a day, almost ritualistically. Seeing the number I expected to see soothed me, allowed me to take a deep breath and remind me that the world was in order, or at least my world was in order.

At a certain point I realized that my “sudden” need to check in on my bank balances was directly correlated to the content I was reading all day. Reading about how to improve my financial life did a little to actually make my financial life better, yes. But the number-one thing it did was instill in me an anxiety about my finances—an anxiety that was either latent or nonexistent before. Surrounding myself with personal finance material for eight hours a day for only a few months, off and on, had done something to me. Nobody else was making withdrawals or deposits to my accounts; nobody else was making transfers. I was the only one whose hands touched my money, but somehow that knowledge was no longer enough. My incessant checking of my bank accounts reflected a loss of trust in myself—a trust I didn’t even recognize I had until it was gone.

And once I’d realized where this sudden compulsion came from—and more importantly, once I’d stopped working for that magazine and quickly went back to checking my account balances monthly instead of daily—well, surely you already know what I wondered next: Maybe what you’ve spent the past 13 years reading has done something to you too.

The Two-Cocktail Makeover

The best makeover tool since the three-way mirror. Science says!

Over the years, I’ve had several of what my friend Jessica calls the Two-Cocktail Makeover, perhaps enough to put a good portion of the Mary Kay sales force out of work for a while. But one time in particular stands out: Jessica and I were out at a show, and during intermission I found myself on the bathroom line in front of an extraordinarily drunk bachelorette party. With beer-glazed eyes and slurred speech, the bride-to-be turned to me and said, “You’re pretty!” I smiled and thanked her, and she said it again: “No, really, you’re pretty! And I’m pretty too! I am so, so pretty! My friends are pretty, and you’re pretty, and I’m pretty. Am I pretty? I think I’m pretty.”

This might have been irritating were it not for three things: A) She seemed to take a genuine childlike delight at the discovery of her prettiness, as though she’d just learned we’d all been given free pony rides upon demand for the rest of our lives, B) I’d been downing a steady diet of Hendricks and tonic since sundown, and C) she was, after all, telling me I was "so pretty!" “Yes, you’re pretty, we’re all pretty,” I assured her as I slipped through the door of the bathroom.

As I stood there washing my hands, I started mirror-gazing. Our bachelorette was right: I was pretty! And oh my gosh, she was so pretty too! And Jessica was pretty, and we were pretty together, and we were there being pretty and watching pretty people do pretty things, and I can’t believe how pretty we all were! 

I stood there for a drunken moment wearing the halo of the bachelorette’s eagerly borrowed vanity, water running over my hands, an enormous grin on my face, feeling so pretty!—and then I remembered there was an enormous line of drunk pre-matrimonial revelers waiting for me, and I uttered “Oh shit!” out loud and left the bathroom without drying my hands. I reported the incident to Jessica, who, without blinking, just nodded and said, “The Two-Cocktail Makeover.”

The Two-Cocktail Makeover, as it is probably not terribly difficult to figure out, involves drinking two cocktails, looking in the mirror, and thinking you look fabulous. It’s hardly a thorough treatment plan; it’s best thought of as an occasional supplement to a dutifully existing core of self-care. (As for what defines “occasional,” I’ll leave that to your discretion. Birthdays, holidays, Tuesdays, noon.) It’s a wheatgrass shot for your self-image, not a daily vitamin. But manalive, sometimes wheatgrass shakes the health right into you, doesn’t it? (Am I revealing my hippie roots?)

And now the Two-Cocktail Makeover is science, kids. A research team based in France found that self-rated attractiveness of study participants increased along with alcohol consumption; people rated themselves as being more attractive, bright, original, and funny after downing a few. Rather, people rated themselves more favorably after believing they’d downed a few: Participants who were told they were drinking booze but who were actually given a nonalcoholic beverage gave inflated self-assessments on par with those who actually were tipsy. (PDF here.)

What’s intriguing about this is that it reveals something I was trying to get at when I wrote about entering a modeling contest as a superbly goofy-looking 13-year-old: For all the concerned talk about girls, women, beauty, and self-esteem, there’s a core within us that might just really like the way we look. Alcohol doesn’t make everything better. It merely lowers our inhibitions, blurs our judgment, loosens us up—it's why mean drunks are mean and why fun drunks are fun. And what that says to me is that what we often think of as poor self-image is actually an inhibition from allowing us to reach our natural state—a state in which we think we look pretty damn good after all. 

The trick of the Two-Cocktail Makeover is that it’s a portal to that state, however temporary it may be. It ever-briefly erases the damage we’ve absorbed over the years; it ameliorates, for a moment, the dissatisfactions we’ve heaped onto our self-image because that’s the most convenient place to stash them. While I’ve certainly had moments of looking into the mirror after a tipple and seeing all my flaws exaggerated, for the most part the Two-Cocktail Makeover works: My eyes glow, my pores shrink, my verve is unshakable, and my ability to speak French improves 300%. For a non-problem-drinker like me, alcohol does for my feelings about my looks what it does for all our pedestrian cares: It alleviates them in the moment, dimming the rest of the world for a time in contrast with the mild euphoria of letting it all go. The Two-Cocktail Makeover does what any good makeover should do—it gives us just the self-image tweak we need to go into the world and do the stuff that we actually care about, the stuff that we want to look good for in the first place. The Two-Cocktail Makeover isn’t about being pretty; it’s about being bold.

*     *     *   

Well, that’s what I would think about the formal conclusions of the Two-Cocktail Makeover study, if it had been conducted according to what I think of as basic research guidelines. But it wasn’t: Of 113 participants in the two arms of the study, exactly 7 were women. All seven of those were in the first segment of the study—the part conducted in a bar, where a total of 19 participants rated themselves and were then given a breathalyzer test. No women were in the much larger controlled study in which subjects gave a short presentation (after drinking booze, drinking a nonalcoholic beverage, or drinking a nonalcoholic beverage but being told they were drinking booze) and then rated themselves on how attractive, bright, original, and funny they’d been. 

It’s probably evident to anyone reading this blog that it’s ridiculous to conduct any non-sex-specific study without fully including women. But it’s particularly irksome in this piece of research, because until there’s a parallel or inclusive study we’re leaving out an enormous piece of the puzzle: How women’s inhibitions might play out differently than men’s. My own experience and theory makes me think that it would be much the same, and that perhaps women would be even likelier to rate themselves as being more attractive once given liquid permission to do so. Our culture loves to punish women who think they’re “all that”; to admit anything beyond baseline attractiveness is to invite critique or disdain. I’m dearly curious to know if the fear of punishment for claiming one’s beauty runs so deep that even a few pina coladas couldn’t lift it—or if, as with my bachelorette, that’s just what’s needed to be able to say, “Fuck it, I’m pretty, and isn’t that nice?

I’m not trying to needle researchers about their omission. Part of me is relieved, actually: Not only does this study subvert the idea of women as narcissists by asking men to rate their own attractiveness, but it also has the potential to redirect the conversation about alcohol, judgment, and attractiveness away from women for a change. (Emphasis on “potential”; none of the reports on this study that I read mentioned the lack of women in the sample, so chances are this conversation won’t happen. But I am an optimist!) Heck, it’s nice to have researchers acknowledge that the phrase “beer goggles” isn’t just something obnoxious men mutter about women—that it’s something we all might apply to ourselves. I would like to know why women weren’t included, though. Because given the complex brew of attractiveness, sex, being seen, self-aggrandizing behavior, vanity, insecurity, and gendered expectations of passivity versus activity (and, more insidiously, how this plays out to the point of cliché in instances of sexual assault where alcohol is involved), it seems that there’s some sort of message encoded in choosing to mostly look at how men view their own attractiveness, even if I don’t know exactly what that message is. 

For now, what I know is this: The Two-Cocktail Makeover is a helluva lot kinder to women than “beer goggles.” (It’s kinder to men as well, but a quick Google Image search of “beer goggles” shows it’s not usually women who are eager to use that hateful term.) The former puts the emphasis on self-image; the latter, on the idea that women can fail at being beautiful even if the only thing that changes is the viewer's perception. And perhaps that’s one reason it’s not actually as alluring to researchers to explore women and the Two-Cocktail Makeover: It’s a reminder of women’s agency, of the potency of a woman being able to look in the mirror and take ownership, however temporary, of the light that “beer goggles” might lend through someone else’s eyes. It gives the euphoric glow back to the person who should actually control it; it gives us back what should have been ours all along. And I’ll drink to that.

A Humble Plea

Love on the rocks.

I don’t share much about my romantic life here. This isn't necessarily by design; my gentleman friend doesn’t mind when I write about him, as he trusts I wouldn’t write anything about him that would make him uncomfortable or violate his—our—privacy. It’s more that the issued that would be relevant to write about here as far as our relationship—say, the keen desire to be desired, sometimes specifically for how I look, and how that plays out between two people who give a good deal of thought to authenticity and representation in relationships of all sorts—are things I’m still wrestling with. I frequently figure things out through writing about them, but that can be dangerous in a number of ways when the “thing” in question is another person, one you care about immensely. The end result—at this point, anyway—is that while the role of romance in beauty is hardly verboten from The Beheld, its presence is far less frequent than one might imagine.

So what I’m about to ask is, like, totally unfair. I’m working on a project (related to but separate from this blog) in which I need to hear from a lot of women about looks, appearance, and being seen—specifically, how those things play into dating and relationships. I’ll be making similar pleas in the future but for now I’m looking to talk with women about the role appearance, beauty, and the wish to be seen (or not seen) has played out in their romantic relationships and dating life. I’m not looking for any particular type of woman—in fact, I’m looking for a diverse range of people to talk with. The only requirement is that you consider yourself a woman.

If you’re interested in talking with me about how looks have played into your romantic life, please drop me an e-mail at at gmail dotcom; I’ll send you a few questions and we’ll go from there. Sound good? All responses will be confidential.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For Janis Joplin, On Her Sixty-Ninth Birthday

The first time I heard Janis Joplin, it was by chance. I was at the home of an acquaintance, a bona fide Popular Girl who argued feminist positions along with me in our junior-year literature class, making her my favorite of the in-crowd. I’d been assigned a class project with her, and she had a small group of us over to her home to work on the task. We sat cross-legged on the floor, sipping sodas and plotting our work, when a quiet wail in the background caught my ear. I tuned out the conversation and tuned in to the wail: I couldn’t make out the words, but the sound itself was urgent, pained, and undeniably female. I interrupted the conversation to ask who we were listening to, and the popular girl smiled. “Janis Joplin,” she said. “Isn’t she great?”

I’d heard of Janis Joplin before, but somehow she had slipped through my musical upbringing in favor of The Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, and Bob Dylan. My parents owned Pearl—as I’d learn later that night when I’d ask my parents about Janis with the same sort of feigned-casual tone I might use to inquire about an it’s-no-big-deal-really crush—but she wasn’t a part of the household repertoire. After commandeering Pearl and realizing there had to be even more Janis out there, I went to the public library and found every bit of material on her that I could. I borrowed CDs to make illegal tapes of them; I read biographies; I watched Monterey Pop. I went barefoot for much of my senior year of high school because it seemed like something Janis would have done; I strolled the halls with my long hair, tie-dye T-shirts, long necklaces, and ripped jeans, and imagined myself to be channeling some part of her. Forget that as a classic good girl, any rebellious streak I had was forever turned inward, not outward; forget that I was 17 and had no idea what phrases like a woman left lonely, piece of my heart, and get it while you can could possibly mean (or rather, forget that I’m an adult critiquing my adolescent understanding of her work; at 17 I knew the meaning of those words as well as anyone).

I wouldn’t say I wanted to be Janis, or even that I considered her a role model. I’d quickly learn how she lived, I’d quickly learn how she’d died, and I didn’t want to shape my life in that way. But I admired her. I’d call it a “girl crush” if I didn’t usually apply that term to women who reminded me of a better version of myself, which Janis wasn’t. Janis Joplin was nothing like me. That’s part of why—I’ll use this phrase, and not lightly—I loved her.

It wasn’t until I had read multiple biographies of her that I began to recognize something that felt like a nonsensical gnat at first, but a gnat that appeared in every major work about her: Janis Joplin wasn’t pretty. I mean, yeah yeah, eye of the beholder and inner beauty and all that, but Janis Joplin was not considered to be pretty. She was an outcast growing up, teased for her looks—her acne-plagued skin, her tendency to gain weight—and she never carried the mantle of the pretty girl. Even when she became an icon of the late ‘60s, it wasn’t because she was a beauty. None of that mattered to me, though, because I had no idea she wasn’t supposed to be pretty.

There are plenty of reasons why I didn’t think about Janis Joplin’s beauty. The obvious would be that she was so extraordinarily talented that her voice took a backseat to her looks, or perhaps that her talent made her beautiful to me. Hell, maybe it was because Janis came to me through a Popular Girl, so I conferred the qualities of that girl onto Janis herself. And perhaps all of those are true, but that’s not what was really going on.

It was more this: Famous women are pretty, and Janis Joplin is famous, ergo Janis Joplin is pretty. That was it, that was the logic, and I didn’t question my faulty syllogism. Janis Joplin had to be beautiful, because known women are beautiful. I didn’t need to actually look at her to know it must be true. To be clear, it wasn’t that I had some special ability to see a female performer as beautiful because of her talent alone, or that I thought her looks were unimportant. It was quite the opposite: I thought looks were incredibly important. I was so stuck on connecting beauty with talent and “making it” that I superimposed a physical beauty onto anyone with talent. Rather, I superimposed the concept of a woman’s looks, to the point where the actual physical “truth” of it (if there is ever a “truth” about beauty) became beside the point. I’d like to think that Janis’s looks didn’t cross my mind because my attitude on the matter was so progressive, but in truth it was because my attitude was regressive, or at least adolescent. I prized beauty, so I tethered skill, talent, tenacity, boldness, attitude, charisma—the things I actually loved about Janis—to it.

I don’t remember what I thought the first time I saw a picture of Janis. I do, however, remember looking at pictures of other women from the era and wanting to be like them because they were pretty. Grace Slick’s tilted head and dark eyes on the cover of Surrealistic Pillow, Mary Travers looking pertly fabulous under her boa on Album 1700, even, as a child, the pretty smile of Marlo Thomas on the back of Free to Be You and Me: I loved all of these albums from childhood on, and probably would have even if Grace, Mary, and Marlo were less pretty than they were. But their looks were a part of the fantasy portal they created. Grace and Mary were beautiful women surrounded by men (who I saw as being of lesser talent, whether or not that’s true), and Marlo—well, she was That Girl, right? Was it any wonder a girl who longed to be both pretty and accomplished would look up to these women?

It was probably my experiences with Grace, Mary, and Marlo—and Peggy Lee, and Linda Ronstadt, and Lesley Gore, Julie Andrews, Stevie Nicks, Diana Ross, or any of the other female musicians who populated my childhood—that made me assume, sight unseen, that Janis Joplin must be pretty. Once I started reading biographies of her and saw that writers would occasionally mention that she was hardly Venusian, I dismissed such notions as being beside the point, but I still didn’t question the veracity of their claims. It was only after my fervor had died down a little bit—the poster taken down from my wall, my college boombox finally being relieved of Cheap Thrills—that I studied photographs of her, looking for something other than Janis Joplin, the legend. She made some arresting images, to be sure—sprawled in feathers on a leather settee for Pearl, behatted in furs leaving the Chelsea Hotel. There’s little question that Janis was attractive, in the sense that she attracted you, and for reasons that had nothing to do with her voice. But pretty? No, she wasn’t that.

Still, we loved to look at her. In fact, perhaps we loved to look at her because she wasn’t traditionally beautiful. As rock critic Ellen Willis writes in her 1976 essay on Janis, “Joplin’s metamorphosis from the ugly duckling of Port Arthur to the peacock of Haight-Ashbury meant, among other things, that a woman who was not conventionally pretty, who had acne and an intermittent weight problem and hair that stuck out, could not only invent her own beauty (just as she invented her wonderful sleazofreak costumes) out of sheer energy, soul, sweetness, arrogance, and a sense of humor, but have that beauty appreciated. Not that Janis merely took advantage of changes in our notions of attractiveness; she herself changed them.”

Isn’t it nice to think so? I don’t think it’s true, though, not exactly, or at least I don’t think Janis changed our notions of attractiveness. But I do think that not only is she a prime example of how someone’s raw talent can make a person so appealing as to actually transform one’s looks, she’s also a poster child for the ways beauty serves as a false protector. Janis Joplin, never having been considered pretty, also never had the security of banal prettiness. And as harsh as it probably was to not have that security, it may also have wound up giving her a certain protection against misdirected blame. In “Ball and Chain,” when Janis moans, “I don’t understand how come you’re gone” she has a near-childlike lack of understanding—how come you’re gone? how come? The only thing greater than her gaping incomprehension at why her man would leave a good thing is her pain. But at age 17, I’d have known how come he’d gone: I wasn’t his dream girl after all, I wasn’t pretty enough, I spat when I talked, I’d been too clingy, and my god was I really just fat after all? (I’d have been wrong, of course. We never understand how come they’re gone.) Janis skipped forward through the analysis of the good girl, the pretty-enough girl, the girl who desperately wishes not to repeat her mistakes—the me-girl—landing smack-dab in the searing, fertile garden of pain. We all wind up there eventually. I can’t say she spared herself any grief through her circumnavigation around nice-girl self-blame; Janis didn’t spare herself much of anything. But she grieved the right things. She never had the crutch of prettiness, so she learned to walk without it.

There’s only so far I can romanticize Janis in this respect, of course. She jumped from lover to lover, only rarely feeling satisfied. She sought approval more than her lasting reputation as an iconoclast reveals; one listen to the mediocre Kozmic Blues shows just that. She went to her high school reunion fully expecting the reception she’d longed for 10 years earlier, only to walk away with a tire, an award for having traveled the farthest to attend. (“What am I going to do with a fucking tire?” she reputedly said upon receiving the award.) And, of course, she died in a hotel room, alone, at age 27, of a self-administered heroin overdose. I can’t claim jack shit for Janis’s self-image or appraisal of her own appeal. I can only claim what she taught me.

I’m older now, more mature, and I’d like to think I’m no longer as eager to equate talent and physical beauty. In fact, I’ve come back to that place I was at age 17: Janis Joplin’s looks don’t matter to me, in the sense that they’re unimportant in the larger scope of who she is. I’m glad for that. Janis’s legacy isn’t that of beauty; it’s that of brutal vulnerability, searing talent, and the virtue of being totally unable to be anyone other than oneself. I write here of the importance her looks had for me because this is the place I have to honor her, and here I write of beauty. But when I listen to her—it doesn’t matter what album, it doesn’t matter what song—if I am thinking of beauty at all, I’m thinking of the kind of beauty that transcends. Whimsy, will, and revelation created Janis’s legacy, and they create her beauty too. And today, on what would have been her sixty-ninth birthday, I want to offer her memory a piece of my heart.

First Dance

Early in the summer of 1987, my next-door neighbors had a garage sale, and among the goods was a square-dance-style turquoise dress with silver rickrack. Those of you who have ever doubted me when I insist I don’t have a natural eye for style will surely become believers when I tell you that I thought it was the most beautiful dress I had ever seen, and that it looked something like the dress on the left—

—except it was double-breasted, and with more silver, more rickrack, buttons, pockets, and a clasp belt, and was worn not by a sylphlike blonde from a vintage pattern illustration but by a pudgy 12-year-old in Aberdeen, South Dakota, whose most adult fashion choice until that point had been to remove the star sticker from her Sally Jessy Raphael glasses. It was a wonderful dress for a hootenanny, and thoroughly inappropriate for any other occasion whatsoever.

My attitude toward my wardrobe was more advanced than my style, and I knew that I might be able to cadge the $10 from my parents to buy it—but that doing so would weaken my hand when it came to buying the Guess sweatshirt I’d been pining for, so I stayed silent. But as with the Alamo, I remembered. I remembered.

Later that summer, I enrolled in a weeklong camp. Going to camp was one of my biggest dreams ever since reading about it in any one of the YA novels that were set on the east coast, where, in YA we-need-a-setting-that-allows-for-personal-growth-and-minimal-adult-oversight-without-parents-appearing-neglectful world, everyone goes to camp. Nobody in South Dakota went to camp (unless it was 4-H camp), but there was a lot of attention being given to the perilous position of “gifted kids” at that time, so they rounded up all the Stanford-Binet changelings in the state whose parents could afford a couple hundred bucks for tuition and threw us onto a college campus for a week. “Camp,” in fact, might be a misnomer, implying that at some point we’d go fly-fishing and make God’s-eyes with yarn and popsicle sticks. Let’s instead call this a conference of seventh-graders who enjoyed logic puzzles, shall we?

I received the agenda for the conference, and somewhere among seminars on Future Problem Solving and South Dakota Literature, I saw the magic words: FRIDAY NIGHT: DANCE. I’d never been to a dance before—this was the summer before I started junior high, so definitively boy-girl entertainment hadn’t yet entered my social calendar. But of course I knew all about them. Pretty in Pink! Sixteen Candles! Footloose! Carrie! More important, I knew what a dance meant. A dance was redemption for the dorky girl; a dance was where she would step foot into the gymnasium and all eyes would be on her. At the dance, the popular boys would realize she’s the one they should be courting, not the rich girls who have as many Guess sweatshirts as they want; the rich girls, of course, would recognize the dorky girl as someone they should be inviting into their select clique (but will the dorky girl have them? the dramatic tension!). Forget that nobody was really dating yet, and forget that while I wasn’t the most popular girl in school, neither was I picked on; forget that there wasn’t yet anything in my life that needed me to redeem it by setting foot into the gymnasium and taking everyone’s breath away. I wanted the dance, I wanted the moment, I wanted the validation. The makeover was an essential part of the dance plot in teen movies—but just as important was the dress. And you’d better believe I knew exactly which dress it would be. Fate had even sealed the deal: The theme of the dance was “Western,” and what could possibly be more western and simultaneously becoming than a double-breasted turquoise square dance dress with silver rickrack? Exactly.

The garage sale had taken place weeks earlier, but I went over to my neighbor’s house to inquire as to the whereabouts of the dress. I was briefly crushed when she told me that the dress was actually her sister’s contribution to the garage sale, and that when it didn’t sell her sister took it back with her, to her home a four-hour drive away in Vermillion, South Dakota. But wait! Vermillion, South Dakota, was the exact site of the conference of seventh-grade logicians! With the inimitable pluck of a 12-year-old girl whose experience with sexual metamorphosis extended no further than a bevy of 1980s prom movies, I asked her if her sister would be so kind as to hand-deliver the dress to the camp so that I could then be suited up for my grand record-scratch of an entrance. And with the bemused affability of a thirtysomething woman being asked to urge her sister to drive across town into a horde of prepubescent Odysseians of the Mind just so a girl could make an entrance, she agreed.

I wasn’t exactly sure how the handoff was going to happen—this was before cell phones and e-mail, so I just had to hope that all communication was a-go and that somehow my neighbor’s sister in Vermillion, South Dakota, would be able to find me on the university campus. On the third day of camp, the camp director was doing “mail call” during breakfast (who sends mail during a weeklong camp?), and then he held up the dress—my dress—and said, “And who does this pretty little number belong to?” Someone—I now presume one of the other teachers—let out a loud wolf whistle, and the entire camp burst into laughter.

This isn’t where I became embarrassed. No, I loved it. It was mildly embarrassing in the same way you’re embarrassed when someone gives you a lavish compliment: I loved the attention but felt a tad gaudy (never mind that I was picking up a double-breasted turquoise square dancing dress with silver rickrack). The wolf whistle sealed it for me: This dress was smokin’, and I knew it, and now thanks to the loudspeaker delivery, everyone knew it, and as I walked to the small stage where the camp director was to claim the dress, I knew that come FRIDAY NIGHT: DANCE I would own the University of South Dakota campus.

Now, I’m not fast-forwarding past the rest of the camp in order to keep focus on the story. I’m fast-forwarding past it because I have no recollection of it whatsoever, other than a handful of memories involving the single friend I managed to make there (who now lives in Sioux Falls and is evangelical about the gluten-free lifestyle, or so Facebook tells me). I was there for a week, and I do not recall a single class, seminar, or activity we did the entire time, except for a timed writing exercise based on that year’s theme, “South Dakota Pride,” which I scribbled fervently even as I felt vaguely embarrassed that I was supposed to be proud of this state that had exactly zero glamour to it. (We were all from South Dakota, of course, but to remind us of this fact and to make us write about our pride on the matter seemed an act of aggression.) I think I had a good time? I don’t know, honestly.

But I remember the dance. The dress actually fit me reasonably well, and my neighbor’s sister had even thought to include a pair of matching silver sandals so I wasn’t stuck wearing my sneakers. They were too small for me (I wore a size 8 by sixth grade) but I wore them anyway. My now-gluten-free friend had brought eyeshadow, and I’d brought a curling iron and hairspray, so I went over to her dorm room after putting on my dress so we could get ready together. (My own roommate, who was possibly even dorkier than I was and professed to have no interest in boys or dances whatsoever, chose not to attend. This was fine by me because I’d already run out of excuses to not walk with her to the cafeteria and therefore have to eat meals with her, not wanting her dorkiness latch onto my own and create a Velcro-like dork hold. It’s not like Gluten-Free or I were cool, but at least we both knew about boys.) I knew we weren’t supposed to show up exactly on time, because that would be Uncool, so we waited until the dance was barely underway and then made our way to the gymnasium.

The adult counselors had decorated the gym with crepe paper, and they’d turned down the lights, but not too low, because we were 12. None of this mattered, however, because nobody was there. Nearly everybody—boys and girls alike—was in the hallways and rooms surrounding the gymnasium, doing the various planned, adult-supervised activities that each of those spaces held. I couldn’t tell you what any of those activities were (rebus throwdowns?) because I was too busy being horrified. This was a dance! This is where it—it!—was supposed to happen! It’s not like I’d met any boys over the course of the camp I took any particular interest in, but I was at a dance, and there were boys in the vicinity, and I was bewildered that they weren’t suddenly lining up to give all the girls punch from a punch bowl as a prelude to extending their hands as “Is This Love” by Whitesnake played in the background. No—they were doing, I don’t know, word games, and so were the girls, and I’d just had enough. I liked word games just fine. I’d spent my whole life doing word games, and rebuses, and logic puzzles, and making crosswords, and writing scripts—I liked doing those things so much that I’d gone to gifted camp. But this was the night that all those word games and rebuses and logic puzzles were to be transcended. This was the FRIDAY NIGHT: DANCE, and I was in my turquoise dress and borrowed silver sandals. I was ready. And nobody cared.

So I cried. I didn’t cry at the dance; I held it in with as much dignity as I could muster and made a beeline to the bathroom, where I entered a stall, sat on the toilet, and cried. I wasn’t crying because I didn’t feel pretty, not exactly; I was crying because I felt foolish for having thought that a turquoise dress and a curling iron would be enough to make me pretty, and for having such a specific result in mind, one I’d learned in a flash wasn’t going to happen. I cried because I knew I was smart—every girl in that gymnasium knew she was smart, that’s why we were there—but I didn’t know if I would ever be pretty. I cried because I saw that what I’d heard all along—girls mature faster than boys—was true, and that I was going to have to wait before any of them wanted any of us. I cried because someone had whistled when everyone saw my dress, and nobody was going to whistle at me in it. I cried because this was my chance and I didn’t even have the opportunity to blow it. I cried for not having been more kind to my roommate, and I cried for crying about not having been more kind to her because I knew I didn’t deserve my own pity. I cried because I’d believed with all my being that once I put on eyeshadow and a turquoise dress, I’d turn into a heroine of any of the slumber-party movies I’d watched; I cried because that was the night I began to understand that the success of those movies depended upon girls like me thinking maybe that would happen to them. I cried because at that moment, in a gymnasium decorated with crepe paper so that the gifted kids could feel not just smart but glamorous, I began to understand that not everything would come easy to me, and that some forms of failure could be intangible, inexpressible, and nonetheless undeniable. I cried because I wanted to be seen, and because nobody was ready or willing to see me.

Eventually two other campers came into the bathroom and heard my sobs. After I insisted I was f-i-i-i-i-i-ne, they called in one of the adult counselors. I don’t remember what she told me; I just remember that she was blonde and pretty, and that seemed comforting somehow. She walked outside with me while I decided whether I wanted to go back to the dance. I did, so she led me there, but once inside I lost all enthusiasm for it. My friend the gluten-free enthusiast found me and said she wanted to leave. Together, we did. The next day, we all went home.

I’d go to camp again the next year. Not gifted camp, but 4-H camp, where I had a certain amount of social cache because I was secretary of a rather important 4-H club (our “den mother” had been named Dairy Woman of the Year). By then I had contact lenses, reasonable proficiency with eyeliner, and a knack for detecting whether a boy liked me. I got my first kiss at that camp. It was where I got my first inkling that with a bit of skill, a few omissions, and an artfully placed laugh, the girl in the turquoise dress wouldn’t be the first thing everyone saw when they looked at me. It was where I learned that getting what you want—a boy telling you he likes you—could bring worries of its own. It was where I found that the magic happens not at the dance, but outside of it, as you hear people chanting to "Mony Mony" while you look into the eyes of someone who, at that moment, can see only you.

I returned to my room, aloft, and told my roommate in great detail exactly what had happened. And I understood when, in the middle of the night, I heard her muffled tears.

On Failure and the Contradiction of Beauty

When I was 16, I failed my driver’s license test. The details are fuzzy, but it involved a collision with a curb, and a generous interpretation of LEFT TURN YIELD RIGHT OF WAY TO ONCOMING TRAFFIC. The instructor had me turn back immediately. I didn’t have a chance to parallel park.

I sobbed the entire way home, my mother doing her best to soothe her despondent daughter, who wasn’t having any of it. The minute we got home, I went to my mother’s bathroom cabinet and swallowed two of her antihistamine pills. One was enough to make me fall asleep for hours. Two, then, would do even better. I slept all day, woke up for dinner, took another pill, and slept some more. Failing my driver’s test was, without exaggeration, one of the worst things that had happened to me in my life.

I mention the pills because as childish as taking them was, it seemed like the only way I could handle a truth I discovered for the first time that day: You can be a smart, level-headed, "good" girl, and you can still fail. I possessed the sort of intelligence that meant while my critical thinking was frequently lazy, tests, papers, and good grades came easily, despite conspicuously infrequent study sessions and lackadaisical homework habits. Failure simply wasn’t on the radar. I’d been disappointed, sure—not getting the lead in school plays, my French class partner not asking me to the winter formal—but I hadn’t failed before. But there I was, “did not pass” circled on top of my driver’s license application.

Failure is acutely uncomfortable. It’s something we don’t speak freely about, preferring to move on to how to not fail next time, or perhaps to inspirational quips about how our failures aren’t measures of us as people—which they’re not. We’re so afraid of failure that we turn it into a unique, private sort of shame. Rather, women are so afraid of failure that we turn it into a unique, private sort of shame. Women fear failure more than men, and we take it harder too: There’s a strong correlation between academic failure and depression for young women, but not for young men. That’s not to say that men don’t fear failure—of course they do—but the intensity of that fear, the hold it can have over daily life, seems to have a particularly rattling effect upon women.

The particular intensity of women’s failure makes me wonder about how we absorb our failures of beauty, which by their nature can’t stay private and include the shame of having others know we’ve failed. Is there a failure more immediately public than trying to look beautiful and falling short? This is why we ridicule women who make no bones about the fact that they goddamn well are trying to look beautiful—the “fashion victims” of the world, the plastic surgery cases gone wrong. It’s why the cruelty Todd Solondz inflicts in Welcome to the Dollhouse is in sharpest relief when Dawn Weiner is trying to look pretty, not when she’s her normal dorky self.

It was the effort-filled image on the left, not the ordinary dork one on the right, that was selected for the iconic poster design of Welcome to the Dollhouse.

Our attempts at achieving conventional beauty can actually become conventional beauty—part of why I know I look “right” (if not babelicious) when I do office work is because I’m neatly dressed and wearing “professional” makeup. But we also know that attempts at beauty can be seen as a mark of failure, and that if our sleight-of-hand fails, humiliation waits. Witness the anecdote from Siobhan O’Connor of No More Dirty Looks after she’d issued a “glam makeup” challenge to her readers: “We had people privately e-mailing us and saying, I just can’t do it... I guess the mentality was, Well, if I look bad with no makeup, no big deal. But if you look bad with makeup—it’s like you’ve said to the world, This is the best I can do.” In other words, we were scared to fail.

I’d like to think that the amorphous nature of beauty makes it something impossible to fail at. Logically it should be impossible to fail at something there’s not a clear standard for. We might not look as good as we’d like sometimes, but to call that failure seems inaccurate. When I am feeling good about myself, beauty is not something I can fail at. When I’m feeling less than my fullest self, however, beauty becomes something that not only can be failed, but something I feel I’m destined to fail. In the moments when I’m feeling not “pretty enough” but “never enough,” the efforts of my beauty work seem futile. There is a reason the phrase "lipstick on a pig," which has nothing to do with either lipstick or mammals of any kind, conjures such a potent, damning image.

None of this is to say that women who meet every standard of conventional beauty without particularly trying are exempt from the fear of failure I experience at my lowest. When I think of why I took driver’s exam failure so hard, I now see it wasn’t just because I’d failed, but because I’d mistakenly equated it with other gifts I’d been given. Because I did well in school without ever having to try, I began to believe that my innate, unchangeable intelligence was responsible for every success I had. Like plenty of other bright little kids, at least according to the Harvard Business Review, I'd learned to see making effort as a sign that my intelligence had reached its limit. I understood the mechanics of driving, but unlike writing an English paper, I couldn’t get by on my inherent ability. It takes skill, not talent, to learn to naturally keep one’s eyes scanning front, sides, and back, and to learn how traffic works. It would take practice for me to become a good driver. Practice meant effort, and effort meant failure—which, when you’re a bright kid who’s never failed a test in her life, means doom.

Likewise, the effortlessness of the “natural beauty” can be a mixed blessing. Naomi Wolf writes in The Beauty Myth that women who are genetically blessed with good looks often wrestle with the beauty myth more than average-looking women; they come closer to the societal ideal, so the sting of falling short is forever closer. That’s one way in which “natural beauties” and natural (smarties?) are parallel, but it’s not the only way. I remember a friend of mine who was always “the pretty girl” growing up talking of how she’d flare up with anger whenever someone would tell her how beautiful she was. “It’s like being complimented on your shoe size,” she said. “I can’t help how I look.” The idea of your value lying not just in your looks but specifically in something you cannot help can short-circuit a woman. It can keep her from daring to fail. Not necessarily at beauty, but at other things we associate with beautiful women: femininity, docility, power, for starters. Not all these things need to be failed at in order to be reckoned with, but they need to be examined in order to be assimilated or rejected. An inability to fail can turn a woman into a different sort of female eunuch.

Smart kids can be praised for their effort instead of their natural intelligence to help ensure they’ll actually try at difficult tasks, but carrying over that approach to beauty makes little sense: Praising the effort of beauty denigrates the praise itself, because the point of much of our beauty work is to hide the effort. I can’t help but feel the slightest bit dissatisfied when my gentleman friend tells me I “look nice” when I’ve dressed up, because it feels like he’s complimenting my efforts—my curled hair, my well-chosen dress—instead of the way I look. To receive direct praise on those things calls attention to my efforts, leaving me embarrassed for not having been naturally gifted enough in the first place. Yet if all the genetic gifts in the world were mine, I may well suffer a feeling that I have no control over my “giftedness,” and effort might seem even more shameful. It’s one thing for a 16-year-old girl to melodramatically swallow two allergy pills in order to sleep away the shame of failing her driver’s test. It’s quite another for a woman riddled with insecurities to walk through the world with a mantle of that shame every day of her life.

Our accomplishments—jobs, recognition, awards—are things we achieve. Beauty, we’re told, is both an achievement and who we are. It’s both our essence and our goal. We live in this awkward space between the effort of beauty and surrendering to nature’s assignment of it; as long as we treat beauty as both the essence of woman and her fundamental goal, its importance will fester in each of us like mold. The contradiction between achieved beauty and natural beauty sneers at us every time we put on a full face of makeup and still feel lacking, and every time we eschew makeup because it wouldn’t matter anyway. It’s damning to the woman for whom conventional beauty is an “achievement,” and it’s damning to the woman for whom it’s a genetic gift.

Living in contradiction is so uncomfortable that it’s become a logical puzzle for philosophers from Aristotle to Nietzsche; Marx believed the contradictions of capitalism (very rich people living alongside the very poor) would eventually become so unbearable that it would eventually collapse, giving way to a revolution. As much as I’d love to see a sort of psychic revolution come to every woman who has struggled with feeling confined by beauty or her perceived lack of it, I’m not sure what that would look like, much less where to begin.

What I suspect is more likely—and, given how many women actively enjoy aspects of beauty work, more desirable—is something less like a revolution and more like what Hegel termed Aufhebung, or sublation. The idea of sublation, as I understand it, is that two contradictory ideas can be held in tandem, so that each reflects upon the other. That is, the ideas can coexist without necessarily fighting to the death for their survival.

I’m not entirely sure what the sublation of beauty’s contradictions would look like. Perhaps it’s so familiar that I’m unable to recognize it. Perhaps every time I sweep up my hair, put on my lipstick, and waltz out the door feeling unassailably together, I’m participating in the sublation of beauty’s contradictions: maneuvering the artifice of beauty to allow my humble version of “natural beauty” shine, regardless of how well I match the template. The achievement aspect of beauty work can, under the right circumstances, unshackle us from the fear that our natural gifts won’t help us make the cut.

There’s another aspect of Hegel’s sublation that I think applies here, and that gives me greater hope. Part of sublation is comfortably existing in contradiction instead of ironing out all opposition, accepting conflicting concepts as forming a truth more genuine than any party line could allow for. There’s no absolute knowledge, because nothing can be true at all times in all situations. So as painful as the experience of beauty’s contradictions can be, they reveal to us that just as there is no absolute knowledge, there is no absolute beauty. Beauty is not merely in the eye of the beholder, but is subject to changing conditions, to shifting contexts: What is beautiful in one moment may not be beautiful in the next. But our conditions and contexts are ones we can create.

It’s a luxury of beauty, actually—even the most intellectually lacking or gifted students are stuck with whatever conditions the SAT boards create for college entrance exams. We create our own conditions with our beauty work, with the sleight-of-hand that makes up our morning metamorphosis. We create them with cultivating style, a “look,” a routine that allows us to walk through the world feeling our best. Most important, we create conditions of beauty through those around us: through friends, lovers, images. All of these come together to subvert an absolutist idea of beauty, as unlikely as that can seem in moment of despair. And if we create our own conditions, we prevent our own failure.

The Solace of Convention: Abuse, Beauty, and What Happened When I Left

This isn’t about an abusive relationship. This is about what happened next.

I decided to leave my boyfriend not because he had ever hurt me, but because I was turning 30. I mean, he had hurt me, but by the time I left him, it had been four years since he’d touched me with intent to harm. Our first year together was violent; eventually he was arrested for domestic assault, and he was one of the small percentage of men who go through a batterer intervention program and never harm their partner again. For the years that followed his arrest, I stayed with him because I needed to prove to myself that there was a reason I’d stayed in the first place. The relationship was never a good one, but by its end, it was tolerable. That is why I left.

More directly, I left because one day at age 29 as I was rising from a nap I literally heard a voice in my head say, “If you do not leave now, you will spend the rest of your life like this,” and while I had thought such things plenty of times, I had never heard it, never heard it with such finality and stark potency, and it was too true to be ignored. I spent a few weeks figuring out how I would do it in a way that would cause the least damage, and then I did it, and that is where this story begins.

*   *   *  

A few things happened around the time I decided to leave. First, I lost a lot of weight. Once I’d done that, I bought new clothes, clothes that were different from my normal jeans-and-hoodies gear that I had chosen because I didn’t like to wear anything that was designed to be looked at. I started wearing skirts and cute little dresses with cute little heels. I got a shorter, more daring haircut; with my diminished size I began to look nearly gamine. The increase in exercise made my skin glow. I discovered liquid eyeliner. “When did you become such a babe?” a coworker asked. “You’ve been an undercover hottie all this time,” said another. I would remember this as I’d go to the gym or plop down sums of money on clothes that had seemed unimaginable to me only months before.

You might think, as I did at the time, that my self-guided makeover was about rediscovering my self-worth. It was partly that, yes: When your “emergency contact” is the same person at whose hands you have suffered an emergency, your sense of self-worth isn’t exactly at its healthiest. It wasn’t difficult to see that my physical changes were announcing my renewal to the world.

But it wasn’t just change that drove me, nor even the satisfaction of looking good as I began to create a better life. This era wasn’t the first time that I’d felt pretty or had been called such. It was, however, the first time I felt like I “passed”—passed as someone who was blandly, conventionally, unremarkably pretty; passed as pretty without anyone having to look twice to make sure it was true.

When you’re in an abusive relationship, or at least when you are me in an abusive relationship, you don’t recognize how standard your story is. You think that you’re special. That he’s special, that he needs your help and that’s why you can’t leave; that you’re special for recognizing what a great gift you’ve been given, despite its dubious disguise. I never believed the cliche of “he hits me because he loves me,” but I came close: I stayed because I truly believed I alone was special enough to see through the abuse to see him, and us, for what was really there. It was an isolating belief—another characteristic of abuse, one I didn’t recognize at the time—but moreover, it was a combustible mixture of arrogance and piss-poor self-esteem, and one that made me feel unqualified to ever play the role of Just Another Person.

Upon exiting the relationship I’d finally recognized as anything but special, I wanted nothing more than to be unremarkable. Striving to be conventionally pretty was my way of re-entering the world of, well, convention. It was no accident that the first post-breakup date I accepted was with the most conventional man I’ve ever gone out with: a hockey-loving lawyer with a tribal armband tattoo who used the term “bro” without irony. It wasn’t that I thought his was a world I ultimately wanted to inhabit; it was that I needed to prove that the “special” men weren’t the only ones who would see me and want to see more. So I put on a pretty little dress with pretty little lingerie underneath, and I let him buy me dinner. I showed little of my inner self to him—I wasn’t ready for that, and I knew he wasn’t the one to show myself to anyway. But eagerly, and with every convention a pretty girl might use on a good-looking bro, I showed him the rest.

Beauty can be a tool. It can be a tool we use to tell the world we want to be a part of what’s going on; manipulating our appearance can be a tool we use to trumpet a part of ourselves that might otherwise go unseen. Beauty can be a way of participating.

To be clear, I don’t think adhering to the conventions of beauty is the way most of us become our most beautiful. Our spark and passion will forever trump our perfectly whitened smiles or disciplined waistlines. But for me, beauty became a tool to let myself begin to believe that I was worth being seen. When I was recovering from a life of apprehension—after years of longing for even a single day when the first thought that entered my mind in the morning would have nothing to do with him, after years of exhausting my every resource to try to convince my family and friends and boss and above all myself that I could handle it—the stream of assurance I got from looking pretty in an everyday, pedestrian, stock-photo, conventional sort of way was a lifeline. I let the slow drip of looking unremarkably pretty sustain me while I began the real work of rebuilding. Beauty—or rather, giving myself the tools of banal, run-of-the-mill, utterly ordinary prettiness—allowed me to reconstruct a part of myself that had gone mute for years. And then, I constructed another, and another, and another.

*   *   *

During the time I was dating the bro, I also became involved with a man with whom I formed a poor romantic match but, as it turns out, an excellent friendship. We stayed in touch after we stopped dating, but I hadn’t seen him again until last year, when I happened to be visiting the city he now calls home. I was backpacking, and the clothes I wore reflected that—jeans, layered T-shirts, a grungy hoodie, worn not out of a desire to avoid anyone’s gaze but for comfort and practicality.

I mentioned what a relief it was to not be wearing high heels. He eyed me evenly. “The little dresses you wore when we were seeing each other—they weren’t you,” he said. He sensed my recoil and amended: “You pulled them off, no worries. You looked good. But even though I hadn’t ever seen you wear anything else, I could tell it wasn’ It wasn’t the you I knew.” In part, he was right. The cute little dresses, the high heels, the smart haircut: In embracing that part of myself to the exclusion of all other styles, I was still reacting to a desperately unhappy time of my life. I wore red nail polish because my ex hated it; I wore heels because he liked me so much in sneakers. I wore dresses because, for the first time in years, I truly wanted to be seen. It had been fine for me to embrace a conventionally feminine look to alter my baseline of how I wanted to present myself to the world. And I didn’t need that baseline any longer.

Yet what stands out to me now about that exchange isn’t the message, but his words, It wasn’t the you I knew. Abuse had swallowed me to the point where I could no longer detect my own identity—but he, and other people I was wise enough to trust, could. We form our self-image not only from ourselves, but from those around us. When you are in the fog of abuse, the chaos and torment that occupies the abuser’s inner life becomes your own. When you leave, that fog is replaced with what and who is around you: the man who said It wasn’t the you I knew; the friend who raised her glass “to the beginning of you” when I told her I’d left; the running partner who, years later, would become a partner in other ways as well. Even the tattooed-armband “bro” was an imprint of my desire to be utterly cliché for a while before turning my head toward what might actually make me special. Each gave me what beauty did—a sense of normality. But they also took me beyond the limits of what conventional prettiness could ever do. They reflected back not only what I knew of myself, but what they knew of me. They were my mirror.

I don’t recommend that any of us form our mirror entirely from others; that’s part of what lands some of us in an abusive relationship to begin with. But when you are beginning to rebuild a bombed-out identity, you need something beside you other than just your naked soul. The people around me were part of that. Beauty was another.

The mirror of plebian prettiness is a precarious one. It’s not built for the long haul, and it is easily shattered. There are a million ways my unintentional strategy could have been disastrous. But people who are recovering from difficult situations are often told to draw from their “inner strength”—good advice that forgets that sometimes, every gram of inner strength is going toward just holding yourself together. And with abuse, which is known for its powers of erasing the victim’s identity, the concept of “inner strength” is particularly questionable: You can’t draw from inner strength when you feel like nothing is there. I needed to draw from outer strength; I needed a routine that would help me reconstruct. I eventually got to reconstructing the inside. But I needed the framework first.

Attention to one’s appearance cannot be the end point of becoming our richest selves. But for some—for me—it can be a beginning.


October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and this post is part of the Domestic Violence Awareness Month blog roundup at Anytime Yoga. If you are in an abusive partnership—whether you’re being abused, abusing your partner, or both—tell someone. You can begin by clicking here or calling 800-799-SAFE.

Invited Post: Letting Myself Go

When I read the essay "Chasing Beauty: An Addict's Memoir" by Good Men Project publisher Lisa Hickey, I was riveted. I'd been turning to The Good Men Project for insightful commentary on gender issues aimed at men for a while, but this was different. This was speaking to men, yes, but it was also speaking to me: "[W]hen I’m beautiful—or close to beautiful—it’s all I think about. 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."

If you followed my month without mirrors project, you know that divorcing myself from my
image of myself was one of the major themes I was working with—so to read someone else share her own thoughts on the matter was a thrill. I reached out to Lisa to thank her for her work, and she responded with what in some ways functions as a sequel to "Chasing Beauty." This time, it's "Letting Myself Go."


It’s five years ago, and I’m walking down the street with Caroline, a work colleague; we just had grabbed a couple of salads at the nearby cafeteria, and she’s asking about my dating life. I murmur what I hope is something non-committal about the non-existence of a "dating life," and she says “Yes, I had a friend who also let herself go and my friend found it really hard…” And that was the last thing I heard. The implication that I had somehow “let myself go” was just too hard to bear. I couldn’t listen to another word she said. It was true I was no longer beautiful. It was true I used to be beautiful. But “letting yourself go” implies that you woke up one day and said, "Aww, screw it, ugly wins" with a shrug of the shoulders. Or perhaps you gradually crossed off this and this and this from your beauty routines. But it didn’t come close to acknowledging that there was still a Herculean effort going on with me vs. the forces of nature, and that the tidal wave of ageing was simply winning out no matter how hard I fought.

*   *   *   *   *

Last night I’m in the car with my two daughters, Shannon, age 16 and Allie, 19. I tell them about Autumn’s experiment with a month without a mirror. They both get all excited about the concept. Allie yells out gleefully, “Shannon could never do that.” At the same moment, Shannon says, “I could never do that.” Shannon is honest and resigned. “I think that makes me narcissistic. But I couldn’t do it. I need to see me to be me.”

I’ve written about my addiction to beauty that I’ve had most of my life, but beauty wasn’t all I was addicted to. It took me an equally Herculean effort to get sober after I became a blackout alcoholic at age 14 and drank every night of my life for the next 30 years. The addictions went hand in hand. I never understood the concept of being comfortable in my own skin. And I couldn’t stand it. So I drank to get rid of me. As a long-term life plan, it wasn’t the wisest of choices.

Caroline’s dig at having "let myself go" came at two years into being sober, when everything was still perilous. There was no escape route. I had to figure it out. I had to get a life I could own and embrace. A life I could own—that was a new concept for me.

About that time, I was realizing something profound about my interactions with other people. I couldn’t recognize faces. I had always known there was a problem, but now it seemed impossible. Everywhere I went—my kid’s hockey games, work functions, meeting someone for coffee—I had no clue who people were. Men, women, children, would come up to me, have a conversation, and I had no idea who I was talking to. I started to panic about going out in public. It was one thing if someone was the same place I had seen them last—office cubicles were a pretty safe bet—but anywhere else I’d have to search for contextual clues to recognize someone—clothing, the room we were in, height, glasses, voice, piercings. Without something specific, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t recognize someone I had met the day before unless they had really specific unique qualities. I was constantly smiling or saying “hi” to people that might be someone I knew, just in case they were. I couldn’t tell a complete stranger from someone I had known for months.

It was maddening, and I found a name for it—prosopagnosia, or face blindness. I never knew why I had it, or what caused it.

Until I read Autumn’s one-month experiment without a mirror, with this paragraph in particular:
When I see my image reflected on a mirror behind a bar I think, Oh good, I look like a woman who is having a good time out with friends. Or I’ll see my reflection in a darkened windowpane, hunched over my computer with a pencil twirled through my upswept hair, and I’ll think, My, don’t I look like a writer? Or I’ll walk to a fancy restaurant and see my high-heeled, pencil-skirted silhouette in the glass of the door and think: I pass as someone who belongs here. You’ll notice what these have in common: My thoughts upon seeing my reflection are both self-centered and distant. I’m seeing myself, but not really—I’m seeing a woman who looks like she’s having a good time, or a writer, or someone who belongs at Balthazar.
And it hit me. My inability to recognize other people’s faces happened because—whenever I met someone—in my mind, I was visualizing my own face, not theirs.

Everything clicked. I had been so worried about how I was being perceived, that it was me I was seeing in every situation, not the other person. No wonder I couldn’t remember them.

This story really, truly does have a happy ending.

I’m still sober, and along with it, all the joy of having a life I’m not constantly trying to run away from. Accepting the fact that beauty cannot, should not, will not be the defining quality of my life forced me to figure out which qualities should be. I learned to talk again by writing. I learned to connect through social media—slowly, learning about people first, caring about them first, letting them care about me long before they even knew what I looked like. I had always wanted to be funny, so I took a humor-writing course, and then a stand-up comedy course, and then an improv class. People laughed. I wrote poetry and did poetry slams. I learned to love public speaking—a feat I never would have thought possible. Public speaking, after all, requires you to actually connect with an audience, not just stand up there and look good. One of the first times I tried, it was a presentation to a room full of 75 people, most of whom I had known in various times in my advertising career. And I started out by saying “I bet most of you are here today because you didn’t actually believe that I could speak in public.” Loudest laughter I had ever heard.

Somewhere along the way someone told me, “If you want self-esteem, the best way isn’t to tell yourself you look good. It’s to go out and do something esteemable.” OH.

Somewhere else I heard, “Love is an action word.” OH. “Feeling” love wasn’t enough to make the other person love me. OH.

A sentence from a book: “Seek to connect, not to impress.” OH. OH.

And, gradually, gradually, gradually, I realized—once I didn’t have to worry about appearing funny but could talk and upon occasion have a funny sentence come out of my mouth; once I didn’t have to worry about appearing intelligent but could just offer insights that combined my knowledge with the other person’s equally important intelligence; once I didn’t worry about appearing loveable, but instead could just act with love to the person I was with—then—then—then—I could actually get into the flow with another person, just as Autumn described it. Not by performing for other people; and certainly not by desperately trying to come up on the spot with an appearance that I hoped would impress them. And once I got in the flow with the other person, even my memories of interactions changed—my memories became about them, not me. And I was able to recognize faces.

I had finally figured out that in order to connect with people—really connect with them—I, did, in fact, have to let myself go.

And that’s something I can live with.


Lisa Hickey is publisher of The Good Men Project, and CEO of Good Men Media, Inc. When she’s not writing about beauty, she’s writing about men. Her post on The Good Men Project that started the connection between Lisa and Autumn is here: "Chasing Beauty: An Addict’s Memoir."

Should We Praise Little Girls For Being Pretty?

 My eighth birthday party. I am in the middle. The cake is on the table (my mom let us decorate it ourselves, per my wishes). The frosting is on our faces. Makeovers!

I didn't grow up hearing I was pretty. This was partly by design and partly by accident, or an accident of memory: My parents made a conscious decision to not emphasize the role of appearance in my life, ruling out pretty as a household word. The rest of the world? Well, perhaps I wasn’t a terribly pretty little girl, or perhaps my chubbiness became the overriding factor about my looks, or perhaps I heard it and just don’t remember.

Whatever the case, my childhood means that I’m particularly interested in this Lisa Bloom piece about how to talk to little girls without lapsing into “you’re so pretty!” The gist is that we as adults have a responsibility to girls to encourage other parts of them to shine, and to act as role models for the same, which seems like good common sense to me. Hugo Schwyzer agrees, but notes that by avoiding the subject entirely as Bloom illustrates, we set girls up for thinking that their interest in the subject is shallow, forcing a divide between brains and beauty: “Let’s lose the false choice that says we either validate little girls for their brains or for their beauty," he writes. "We need to be fearless about praising both.”

I agree with most of Bloom’s argument, though would argue that we needn’t steer the conversation away from things like appearance and pink and fashion if they come up of the girl’s own choice. That’s where Schwyzer and I agree; we disagree on one part of his remedy, which is to recommend that in addition to reinforcing the “serious” aspects of our girls, we also compliment their appearance.

We must give our girls tools to navigate a beauty-obsessed world. I don’t think praise on their looks should be one of them. It’s engagement that will help her with that navigation: Listening to her thoughts on the matter, picking up on her cues, asking questions and paying close attention to the answer. Wallpapering her self-esteem with “you’re so pretty”—even alongside “and strong and kind and you sure can draw well!”—doesn’t get at the heart of the issue.

For unlike kindness, you can’t cultivate beauty. (Rather, the things we do in adulthood to cultivate beauty—wearing makeup, dressing well, adopting certain gestures or methods of interaction that signal we wish to be seen under the light of prettiness—we find creepy and inappropriate in a child.) Hearing “you’re so pretty” every day becomes a pronouncement about something she has absolutely zero control over. And being praised on something you have no control over—or think you have no control over—can ultimately lead to a vortex of self-doubt. I’m thinking here of intellectually advanced children who don’t respond well to challenge because they see effort as a sign that they’re not really as intelligent as everyone (including themselves) presumes them to be. It’s not exactly parallel—we hardly want to encourage girls to start putting effort into beauty, though we don’t want them to neglect self-care—but the principle is the same: Being praised for something you can’t help can feel hollow or even confusing.

Certainly, much of the time we’re tempted to tell little girls that they’re pretty, it’s not because of their classic bone structure; it’s because they are making an effort—wearing a pretty dress or ribbons in their hair or doing something else to consciously raise their prettiness profile. And many people will argue that all little girls are pretty—I mean, they’re kids, and kids are cute, right? But surely I wasn’t the only one who understood in second grade that some girls fit the classic definition of pretty more than others.

I wasn’t one of those girls. In another post I’ll probably write up some long drawn-out essay about the trials of being the smart-but-chubby-and-not-pretty girl, but for now I’ll leave it at this: Until adolescence, I was not particularly bothered by not widely being considered pretty. I understood that the prettiest girl in the class—and it was clear to me, at age seven, who the prettiest girl in the class was—was such because she was fine-boned, with honey-blonde hair and blue eyes and a delicacy that chubby, weird girls like me could never attain. I understood that, I got it, and just assumed that prettiness was Jenny S’s destiny, just as mine was as the fast reader, the good speller, the one who always wanted to write on the chalkboard. That was how the world worked at age seven, and I didn’t covet her or anyone else’s beauty then. That would come later.

Here’s how I imagine things would have worked if my parents had made a consistent point of telling me how pretty I was: I would have thought it was nice. I would have pranced around in my blue ruffled Easter dress and thought I was pretty (okay, I did that anyway). I might have been better able to synthesize smart and pretty; I might have been somewhat better prepared for the enormous gap between the feminism of the Whitefield-Madrano household and the attitudes of society at large.

And I would have thought a helluva lot more about prettiness than I did, particularly about my relation to it. I mean, I already spent a decent amount of time thinking about appearance: I wanted to be a model (not because models were pretty, but because they got to make faces in front of the camera); I played with my grandmothers’ and aunts’ makeup kits anytime they’d let me; and, after all, I was secretly deeming Jenny S. the prettiest girl in the class. Despite my parents’ not introducing gendered play into the home (they made me buy my first Barbie with my own money, people), beauty was absolutely on my radar. Beauty was something I was observing as a value, and participating in as an activity. I was not participating in beauty as a value. That was a gift I returned to the universe with adolescence, and it’s a gift I may never get back.

*     *     * 

So what to do? How, without overstating its importance, do we responsibly lead our girls through the landmine of beauty so that they’re not left adrift with no guidance when they begin to enter the realm of performed femininity? How do we affirm our girls and their desire to be pretty without reinforcing the beauty standard—which, I might add, will likely be reinforced at every single turn for the rest of their lives? How do we value everything our girls bring to the table—their joys, their fears, their curiosities, their anxieties, their very selves, many of which might be filtered through prettiness—without either overvaluing beauty or denying its importance?

I’m not sure. I just know that we have a responsibility to them to listen. Rare is the girl who won’t bring her own thoughts on beauty to the table, and when that happens, we can ask questions. We can ask what she means when she says one doll is prettier than the other, or that only the pink pony can fly. We can sense her pride when she’s picked out her favorite dress and find ways to tap into that pride of self-care without lapsing into easy compliments. We can play with makeup along with her if that’s her preference, introducing silliness and fun, to model that beauty can be a place of joy, something she might remember fondly if it ever becomes to seem more like tyranny later on. And we can do all of that without placing the value of pretty upon her.

I should add that my perspective is one of someone who cares deeply about girls in the aggregate, and about a few girls in particular, but who hasn’t raised any myself. I have the luxury of being the family friend who gets to pop into a couple of girls’ lives and leave when time’s up, experiencing the joys of being with children and few of the trials. (Clever trick, eh?) So it’s easy for me to sit here from my child-free perch and proclaim that we should talk to children on their level about beauty, for when I’m with a child in afternoon-long spurts, being with her is the entirety of the activity and I can afford the attention it takes. I’m not trying to put dinner on the table, or working through my own exhaustion, or wiping snot from her nose, or changing her little brother's diaper. Parenting is a different matter, and with no intentions of ever becoming a parent myself, I’m not poised to speculate on how one can help a daughter over her lifetime develop a healthy relationship with appearance. It’s not a job I envy, and there are a zillion ways to do it well—including telling a daughter she’s pretty. Hell, maybe my insistence on this is borne from a buried resentment from not having heard it myself; I’ll never know.

What I do know is that in my limited fashion, I can offer a handful of girls in my life a safe haven from feeling like they are being examined—even positively—in any way. It’s my responsibility to offer them that space. And each parent or aunt or friend or babysitter knows the children in their lives better than some blogger yakking away in her living room; maybe the girl in your life needs to hear that she’s pretty more than she needs to engage in child-appropriate beauty talk. But I’d suggest that with creative effort, we can all offer them safe haven. I’d suggest that we should.

Thoughts on a Word: Graceful

Much like the practice of yoga itself, the blog Anytime Yoga is focused yet expansive, grounded yet flowing. Whether Tori is writing on not using food choices as a moral compass, victim-blaming, the folly of schoolteacher-as-hero, or, of course, yoga, she's sure to do it in an astute, nuanced fashion. I was delighted when she agreed to guest post here, doubly so when she proposed writing on a word that, especially given its classic meaning, we give far too narrow a treatment. Here, her thoughts on graceful:

I'm sitting with my fingertips on my shoulders, arms out like chicken wings, legs tucked neatly to one side. My pink tights and ballet shoes collect dirt from the tile floor. The point of the exercise is to rise from this position to standing without touching our hands down. I'm seven years old and receiving formal, explicit instruction in what it means to be graceful.

The first thing I notice is how it throws off my balance, requiring more strength from my legs and stability from my belly. I didn't expect it to be so much work. Second, I observe that—our attempts at elegance notwithstanding—we look like a bunch of gangly baby giraffes trying to learn the chicken dance. I wonder if everyone puts this much effort in trying to appear graceful.


The word graceful first appeared in the English language in the mid-15th century. Initially, it simply meant "pleasing" but within a few decades had already shifted to "showing elegance, beauty, and smoothness of form or movement." Its origin is the word grace, which worked its way from the 12th century Anglo-French meaning "divine mercy, favor, virtue" and from the Latin gratia ("favor, charm") and gratus ("pleasing, grateful"). So while some part of grace and graceful were always about being pleasing, the direct association with beauty is something that evolved along the way—more slowly for grace, rather quickly for graceful.

With its current ties to beauty, my conceptualization of graceful includes the baggage packed in with narrow beauty standards. Graceful is long, lean, poised, balanced, flexible. Graceful is smooth arcs and flowing fabrics, curving but not too curvy. When graceful tries new forms or movements with her body, that body falls into place effortlessly, no work required. Graceful is every image I've ever seen in Yoga Journal, online or in print.

For a long time, I wanted to be that depiction of graceful, without recognizing that my desire was at best unrealistic and at worst potentially injurious.


This is not my pose, I think to myself as my teacher instructs us up into king dancer. It's a standing balance combined with a backbend, and—for it to be physically therapeutic for me—I've got to have just one or the other. In time, I'll learn to play with it as a mental exercise, but I'm not there yet. Right now, all I can call to mind is that in pictures—and as my instructor demonstrates—it's such a refined, graceful pose. I don't think of all the times yogis must fall here, because the times that are publicly recorded are those when they don't.

I wait for the teacher to offer the wall as a prop. Good instructors know about modifications, right? They understand what it's like to be a nervous student who also happens to be elegance challenged?

I want that wall. I want to be told—implicitly if not outright—that it's okay not to be perfectly poised and solid in my movements, that it's okay to value function over beauty of form. She doesn't offer, and no other students in the class turn toward the wall, either. Surely, confidently, every single person enters king dancer unsupported in the center of the room.

So I try it too. I'm uncomfortable, but this is the standard for virtue and acceptance, at least as I perceive it. Surprisingly, I do not have too much of a problem with the balance part, at least compared to what I was expecting. I weeble and wobble but don't fall down. However, in my struggle to stay upright—to keep whatever tenuous grasp on grace that I can still claim—I forget to support my back extension with my abs. When I weeble too far away from my balance point, it's only the muscles of my low back—instead of including my front and oblique abdominals—that pull me back in line. And there's nothing to keep my lumbar vertebrae from grating against one another.

I am graceful; I am beautiful; I hurt for weeks.


Perhaps, yes, there is something perversely appealing in learning such a fitting life lesson from such a flowing, arcing pose. But perhaps somewhere over the years I've become cognizant of performing grace, just as one might perform gender or perform beauty. That is, of actively working and rehearsing toward a graceful appearance—and being continually aware that there are people (not all people everywhere, but there are people) who are aware that graceful is a standard and who are judging me—maliciously or not, consciously or not—against it.

My mind plays with what might happen if the primary meaning of graceful were still "pleasing." I can't picture what it would mean everywhere, but I think in part, it's why I've taken a small retreat from practicing asana in public, though my current yoga studio is much more accommodating than the one in this anecdote. But no matter how many times I take a less elegant variation, fall out of a balance pose, or even get to standing by touching my hands down to the ground—it's pleasing and graceful and beautiful and freeing to move like I'm the only one watching.

Month Without Mirrors Update 5.31: Recognition

I haven’t looked at my reflection for 31 days. No mirrors, no windows, no darkened subway glass. No shadows. The goal, which I went into in greater detail at the project’s beginning, was to loosen the grip that self-consciousness has had on me for much of my life, and to allow that lightened load to grant me better access to a state of flow. Here’s how it turned out.

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You, like me, probably have a mirror face. My mirror face is this:


It’s close to my “photo face,” but it’s a separate beast. My face contorts itself not because it will be recorded for Facebook posterity, but because I desperately need to believe certain things about my appearance. My mirror face is an attempt to correct things about my visage I don’t like: The pout makes my lips fuller. The tipped chin minimizes the broad planes of my face. The widened eyes and softened gaze call attention to my best feature. You may even find me ever so slightly sucking in my cheeks. A friend of mine—whose womanly charm lies in her mix of acerbic wit and casual grace—turns into a bright-eyed, prepubescent pixie when she looks in the mirror. Like me, she has no idea she’s doing it, and when she tries to stop, it only gets worse.

So in my mind, I’m fuller-lipped, slimmer-faced, wider-eyed than any of you would actually find me. And my adjustments are virtually uncontrollable. Which is to say: After 35 years of seeing myself in the mirror, it’s possible I still don’t really know what I look like.

Certainly, I don’t know what my face shape is. When I was 25, I decided to find out once and for all. (Round? Oval? Heart? What kind of haircut could I possibly get?!) I used a classic ladymag tip: I took a tube of lipstick and traced the outline of my face onto the mirror. And then I got angry.

I took the lipstick and scribbled over the circle/oval/whatever (I still don’t know what my face shape is). I covered an entire pane of my mirror, and then another, and then I went to the walls. And then I was out of lipstick so I took another, and another, and another. I coated, smeared, dragged, drew, until I had no more lipstick, no more walls, and no more mirrors.

At the time I thought my rage was a combination of struggling with the beauty myth and generalized “quarterlife crisis” anxiety, which also saw me doing things like hacking off a foot of hair with kitchen shears and trading my magazine career for a $10-an-hour gig as a pastry cook. It was an unhappy, confusing time, and my gonzo paint job gave me some anarchic respite from the pressures of that era.

I’m now wondering if my rage was actually stemming from what, if I were a 19th-century German philosopher, I might christen the master-mirror dialectic. G.W.F. Hegel cooked up what he calls the master-slave dialectic, which states that we’re incapable of self-consciousness without being conscious of others, and that once we become conscious of others we’re alerted to our lack of control over our lives. “A struggle to the death” ensues, in Hegel’s grandiose words, and we either become master (which later finds us needing the slave’s services, ultimately giving them control) or slave, which eventually gives us some control over the “master.” In the 1950s, grad-school rock-star psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan introduced the idea of the “mirror stage,” positing that we have this master-slave dynamic with ourselves via the mirror. Lacan compares it to being permanently trapped in a stadium of onlookers composed solely of ourselves, captivated by our own image.

When I traced my face shape onto my mirror with lipstick, I—presumably the master—was bowing to my slave’s needs. I was reaching toward the looking-glass and willing the world contained therein to reveal great gifts: Tell me my face shape so I may never have an inappropriate haircut again, ye mirror. By using her to guide my actions, I was giving her a measure of control over me. The moment incensed me because of its overt supplication to my built-in alter ego. But it was only one of many acts that ceded control to the mirror.

Ten years later: I went a month without looking in the mirror, initially thinking that my constant self-surveillance constituted self-objectification. Now that I’ve abandoned my mirror for a month, though, I see that my image is far too vital to have been an object. I didn’t objectify myself; rather, I treated my mirror image as a grounding strategy, as a divination tool to tell me how I should respond in any given situation, as a part of myself I can control. I treat her as both slave and master, and as someone both more beautiful and less appealing than myself.
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The mirror is a quest for control. Control over the image we present to the world, sure; control over fitting the beauty standard, to a degree. Mostly, though, surveillance is an effort to carefully control our ideas about ourselves. When I pulled the plug from the mirror image, she exacted revenge by radically shifting some of those ideas. For example, about a week into this experiment, I had a nagging sensation that my head had become very, very pointy, à la Saturday Night Live's Coneheads.

Less absurdist moments simply found me sort of forgetting what I looked like: How wide is my smile? Do I have freckles? That woman on the street with the dark eyes and high cheekbones—do I look like her? Do I even have high cheekbones? And, most important: Am I pretty?

Except, this month, that question wasn’t particularly important. In addition to realizing that I don’t have to strive to look pretty every minute, I thought far less about looks this month than I normally do. I didn’t feel better or worse about my appearance; I rarely felt pretty or unpretty. I just didn’t care as much.

Makeup held less appeal. I wore my glasses more. My love affair with lipstick dwindled; I wore my hair in a bun instead of the French twist I usually favor. I presented myself to the world reasonably groomed, sure. But pretty? The physical labor of prettiness took a backseat. I always believed I wore makeup for others—not for their benefit, but as a tool to help me feel more comfortable with them. After all, I don’t wear makeup at home alone, so it must have something to do with other people, right? This month I learned how much my makeup use is for my own pleasure. If I can’t reap the joys of seeing my lips turn a bright, puckery red, I simply don’t want to do it at all. If I’m my own harshest critic, I’m also my own most ardent observer—and fan.

Some readers have picked up on this, commenting how nice it must be to look in the mirror and adore my own image so much that I need to take a month off in order to get around to things other than admiring my own visage. Rest assured, I’m not quite that enthralled with my looks. In fact, in The Second Sex Simone De Beauvoir makes it clear that enchantment with one’s image needn’t solely be a reflection of thinking we’re beautiful:

It is not astonishing if even the less fortunate can sometimes share in the ecstasies of the mirror, for they feel emotion at the mere fact of being a thing of flesh...and since they feel themselves to be individual subjects, they can, with a little self-deception, embue their specific qualities with an individual attractiveness; they will discover in face or body some graceful, odd, or piquant trait. They believe they are beautiful simply because they are women.

Okay, so yay us, right? Down with the tyranny of the beauty standard! Every woman is beautiful, or at least has some part of herself that’s beautiful. You’ve just got to find it, sister, and what better way to do that than the mirror? Rock on with your gorgeous self!

Here’s the problem with that: When we look in the mirror, we rarely see ourselves. We are forever seeing a projection—what we wish to see, what we fear seeing, what we used to see. “The ego [as accessed through the mirror] is a product of misunderstanding, a false recognition,” Lacan writes. (And unless you’re the rare creature who doesn’t have a “mirror face,” how could what we see be anything but a misunderstanding?) I’ve heard some women say mirror abstinence would rob them of a hard-won acceptance of their appearance, and I don't wish to diminish that. It's hard enough to make peace with our bodies without some writer yakking at you about Lacan. But if what the mirror gives us is imagined, I wonder how far its affirmation can take any of us.

Case in point: Try as I did to avoid it, I caught a few glimpses of myself in unanticipated mirrors. And people: I am 35, and I learned that I look it. There is nothing wrong with looking 35, or any age. But, like the majority of women, I believed I looked younger. Mathematically, the majority cannot look younger than our age. We just think we do, because we see our ego, not our selves. When I caught unexpected glimpses of myself, I saw bags under the eyes, flaccid skin. I didn’t feel bad about this per se—35 can look good, yo!—but it revealed how much I’m subtly controlling what I see when I purposefully look in the mirror as opposed to when I stumble upon myself accidentally. I am preparing, however slightly, to see the face I’m presenting. And that face—the imaginary one—looked about 28 years old until now.

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I’ve had a couple of friends tell me they’re surprised, reading my blog, to find I think as intensely as I do about beauty. “You’re not one of those beauty-robot girls,” said one. She’s correct: My physical beauty labor is pretty minimal. My emotional beauty labor is another story.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not thinking every second about positioning myself so that my “good side” is showing, or whatever. By emotional beauty labor—a term borrowed from writer and licensed esthetician Virginia Sole-Smith’s "beauty labor" and sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s "emotional labor"I mean a sort of low-level, frequent, and unconscious acting that might, every so often, land me a plum role as a nice-looking woman. You know how when you’re wearing a nice outfit, you’ll carry yourself differently? You’re aware of being looked at, you’re aware of how your body might appear in this piece of clothing that is signaling a certain occasion. You’re not lying, but you’re acting, in a small, naturalistic way. That’s the sort of labor I’m talking about: When you are conscious of the potential of being looked at, and when your behavior is altered as a result, even if you don’t intend to do so, you—I—are working.

When beginning the mirror fast, I kept turning to de Beauvoir’s 1953 work The Second Sex, particularly the chapter called “The Narcissist.” But throughout the month, another section of the book called to me: “The Independent Woman,” or the woman who creates her own living. That is, most of us today.

[The independent woman] knows that she is offering herself, she knows that she is a conscious being, a subject; one can hardly...change one’s eyes into sky-blue pools at will; one does not infallibly stop the surge of a body that is straining toward the world and change it into a statue animated by vague tremors. [The independent woman] will try all the more zealously because she fears failure; but her conscious zeal is still an activity... In all this she resembles those actors who fail to feel the emotion that would relax certain muscles and so by an effort of will contract the opposing ones, forcing down their eyes or the corners of their mouth instead of letting them fall. Thus in imitating abandon the independent woman becomes tense. She realizes this, and it irritates her; over her blankly naive face, there suddenly passes a flash of all too sharp intelligence; lips soft with promise suddenly tighten. ...The desire to seduce, lively as it may be, has not penetrated to the marrow of her bones.

Sounds exhausting, right? It is.

Ridding myself of the mirror didn’t cure me of the push-pull of emotional beauty labor. (Not that I would know, because much of this labor is unconscious. Measuring physical beauty labor, like time spent on a manicure or money spent on tanning cream, is simpler.) But the mirror is key to its recognition: What film profiling a female performer neglects the ubiquitous shot of our heroine, in front of a mirror, looking herself squarely in the eye as she prepares to play her part?

Clockwise, from top left: All About Eve, A Star Is Born, Les Enfants du Paradis, Black Swan.

Taking away the mirror took away my mirror face, which is, in essence, privately performed beauty labor. So when I found myself approximating the labors of my mirror face in the presence of others—be still, chin down, be pretty—I was acutely aware of my efforts. Times I recognized I was performing emotional beauty labor: volunteering with an ESL student who has confessed a small crush on me and who looks to me for affirmation of his language skills; having drinks with someone who talked over every word I tried to utter; meeting with an acquaintance who is extraordinarily self-conscious herself and kept adjusting her makeup. In each of those situations, I was “performing”: attempting to grant the other person some comfort, or struggling to maintain some presence when my other forms of power were being ignored. I did this by appearing attentive, widening my eyes, fixing a smile that’s probably close to my ever-false mirror face, cocking my head to make a small show of my quizzical nature. This was all unconscious. The only reason I was able to detect my actions was because I hadn’t had my usual warm-up with myself in the mirror. My privately emotional beauty labor, in other words, is a hamstring stretch that gets me ready for the sprint of uncomfortable interactions in which I feel I must “perform”; without the warm-up, the effort of the race became illustrated in sharp relief.

One of the harshest, and truest, criticisms I’ve received from people who know me well is that I’m not always as emotionally present as I should be. My response is usually that I feel so drained by other people’s needs that I have little energy to expend on being as present as I’d like. What I didn’t realize until I was unburdened from some of my self-imposed (and likely invented) expectations was exactly how much of my energy was going into appearing. Appearing to be interested, appearing to be womanly, appearing to be a professional lady, appearing to be pretty.

No wonder I’m exhausted.

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My goal was to liberate myself from self-surveillance, allowing me to better access a flow state. So, was I able to enter a flow state more freely?

I did not waltz through the month writing Great Literature, or having shamanistic visions, or even organizing my bookcase. What did happen was that I was more in tune with myself. I felt more aware of my needs, and I took steps to allow myself to do what I needed to access flow, even if I didn’t get there often. I’m guessing this would have happened regardless; setting a goal of engaging more fully with the world prompted me to create opportunities for that to happen, mirror aside. I was on alert for blockages to flow, and some of those were mirror-related—like the emotional beauty labor I recognized in uneasy moments, or the phantom “flinches” I had about reprimanding myself for having looked in a mirror when I hadn’t.

A greater victory was my diminished self-consciousness. Yet we need self-consciousness, and its accompanying ability to shift our persona, in order to function in the world. I fall into the trap of thinking that there’s some “authentic self” I have a responsibility to, and that any manipulation of it constitutes a betrayal. But there is no one “authentic self.” It shifts according to time, place, and company; indeed, we all rely on one another’s signals to let us know what to do with this mess of humanity.

When I’m performing emotional beauty work, I’m letting you in on how I’d like to be seen: as a thirtysomething woman who, every so often, might want to be viewed as a pretty lady. If I make total removal of that labor my goal, I sign away certain expectations. Not expectations of human decency; expectations of, say, you understanding via my low-level obsequiousness that I want you to feel valued, or that you’ll treat a transaction with a bit more humor than you might otherwise because clearly I’m here for a good time. Or—why not?—an expectation that, every so often, you’ll hold the door for me. There’s a lady coming through. If I want to experience a certain form of femininity, with all its rituals and fleeting rewards—well, that’s what the persona and its accompanying labors are for. I’m giving you permission to respond to my portrayed self in an appropriate manner. If that sounds presumptuous, take it from sociologist Erving Goffman in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life: “Information about the individual helps define the situation, enabling others to know in advance what he will expect of them and what they may expect of him. Informed in these ways, the others will know how best to act in order to call forth a desired response from him.”

I missed the private joy of observing myself in a certain light. I missed the pleasure of, just before I leave the house, giving myself a final once-over, smile—yes, with my mirror face—and confirming all is well. My flowered dress that makes me feel like a gracious 1950s hostess, my hot pink number with orange piping and oversized collar that makes me feel like a creature from Alice in Wonderland—I took less pleasure than usual in wearing these, because I couldn’t observe myself partaking in the ritual of playing dress-up. I missed witnessing myself slip into a persona. Liberating myself from personae was also a relief—a big one at times. And it’s not like this past month was drudgery; far from it. Still, the sense of play I normally carry with me was muted.

"How nice it would be if we could only get through into Looking-glass House! I'm sure it's got, oh! such beautiful things in it! Let's pretend there's a way of getting through into it somehow. // Oh, what fun it'll be, when they see me through the glass in here, and can't get at me!" —Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll, illustration by John Tenniel

Which brings me back to being master, or slave, to the mirror. Hegel’s theory that we’re forever wresting control from each other—or, in the case of the mirror, our own image—indicates that the way out is for each party to recognize that they need one another, and from there, dissolve their differences. In the case of the mirror, that could be interpreted to mean unification—a genuine recognition of the mirror as solely a handy tool for making sure we don’t have stray ink on our cheek. Not an oracle, not someone with control over us, not something to turn to as an emotional divination rod.

Yet I’m under no illusion that I can somehow unite with my mirror image to become whole. (And—shall I state the obvious?—there’s nobody there to unite with. Coneheads trickery aside, I’m the only one who actually exists. Twist ending!) I’ve tried to rid myself of my mirror face and failed; I understand that I can never be an objective viewer of myself. But I can recognize differences between myself and my image, the first step toward dissolution.

I can recognize that my mirror face is not how I appear to the rest of the world, and honor that perhaps my mild self-delusion is the adult version of the child who wonders what she’ll look like when she grows up—fanciful, woefully inaccurate, but bringing minimal harm as long as its falsity is understood. I can recognize that my beauty labor—emotional and physical—is largely for myself, and evaluate what purpose it’s serving, allowing me to see what I can keep and what I should discard. I can recognize that the mirror allows me access to a part of my femininity that’s tucked away otherwise, and be thankful for that key. And maybe, with practice, I’ll come closer to recognizing myself.

Month Without Mirrors 5.11 Update: Using Mirrors and Strangers as Emotional Divinity Rods

Three days into my mirror fast, I had an appointment at which I wanted to look nice. I put on my favorite dress, applied makeup with my little hand mirror, and marched to the subway. I had no idea whether my face possessed the bright-eyed sparkle that makes me feel pretty when I see it in the mirror, or whether it was one of those days when my skin looked haggard, exposed, tired. I knew I looked presentable, but that was all I could be reasonably certain of.

On the subway, I busied myself with reading, a handy activity especially now that adjusting my hair in the window glass is verboten. At one point, though, I looked up and saw the man sitting across from me looking squarely at my face. I held his gaze for a moment, then looked away.

In other words, I had a thoroughly unremarkable silent exchange with a stranger. Happens a dozen times a day in this city.

Louis Stettner, Subway Series, 1946

Here's what made this different for me: I found myself utterly clueless as to what he was thinking, and therefore how to feel about it. Was he checking me out with approval, or was he thinking I looked jowly? Did he find my lipstick too bright, or believe I resembled an old friend of his, or decide that I'd be prettier if I wore my hair down—or were his eyes simply roaming the car and settling on me for a moment? Did I need to avoid his eyes for the rest of the ride; should I offer a friendly smile?

Had I looked in the mirror earlier that day and formed a self-assessment of how I looked, I'd have chosen one of these options without even considering the others. I'd have done it so quickly I wouldn't have realized there were other reasons someone's eyes might have landed on mine. When I stripped away the mirror, though, I had to see that I'm rarely reacting to other people's actual appraisal of me. I'm not even reacting to my interpretation of their appraisal. I'm reacting to my appraisal of myself, using perfect strangers as my proxy.

If I look in the mirror and assess that I'm particularly fetching one day and I later see a stranger looking at me, I assume he's looking at me with approval. If I'm having a "bad face day" and I see someone looking at me, I feel defensive, like, Why are you looking at me? Essentially, my perception of what strangers see becomes a barometer—not of how I actually look, which doesn't change significantly from day to day, but how I feel I look. In other words, I'm farming out responsibility for how I feel to total strangers, when in truth it's been decided before I've even left the house.

I wouldn't have ever thought I did that, but my unmoored reaction on the subway (and other times this week) showed me that I've been assigning a lot to these small, otherwise meaningless interactions. Not feeling like I had an accurate reading of whether that fellow was looking at me with approval, disdain, lust, curiosity, attraction, or repulsion left me feeling adrift. I had no anchor to hold onto, no private feeling of, "Well, I do look nice today" or "I wish he would stop staring at the enormous pimple on my chin." Without having any idea what he might be seeing, I had no idea how I should feel about him looking at me.

No wonder I have complex reactions to street encounters.

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Reclining Bacchante, Trutat, 1824–1848

You may at this point be wondering if I am truly so narcissistic as to believe that any stranger who looks at me not only has thoughts about me, but has extensive reactions to my appearance. No, I'm not that narcissistic, I hope; I know full well that chances are they are thinking about fantasy baseball, or whether Boston Rob will win Survivor, or what's for dinner. I'm also not so delusional as to think that under normal circumstances I can accurately detect what, if anything, strangers are thinking about the way I look. In fact, that's the whole point: Even when I make a snap decision about what a stranger's glance—or lingering stare—might mean, in truth I have no idea. My interpretation is what matters here, not their actual thoughts (or, more likely, their lack thereof).

Some might say that this signals a healthy internal barometer—that instead of relying upon reactions of others to feel beautiful, I rely upon my own assessment. That might hold weight if my self-assessment didn't fluctuate so wildly from day to day—which it does, far out of proportion from the minute ways in which my actual appearance varies. Hell, it might hold weight if that self-assessment were tied to how I actually look instead of some other combination of factors. One of the biggest surprises I had upon losing nearly 20% of my body weight several years ago was that my number of "fat days" didn't significantly change. A little bit, yes—but I wouldn't even say that they went down 20% along with my body mass. A common refrain among body-image and eating disorder experts is "fat is not a feeling"; nothing drove this home for me more than looking in the mirror, seeing that I didn't have any weight to comfortably lose, and still having a "fat day." No, fat isn't a feeling. It just plays one in your mind.

What I see in the mirror serves as either a confirmation or refutation of how I'm feeling. If I'm feeling pretty, with rare exception I'm going to look in the mirror and see a matching image. If I'm feeling lousy, I might look in the mirror and see only flaws, or I'll exhale a tiny sigh of relief that at least nothing on my face has rearranged itself without my consent. But it doesn't actually reassure me; it can't, because the feelings I'm looking to soothe or affirm aren't on my face or body to begin with.

I'm using the mirror as a divining rod of my emotional and mental state. To be sure, not every encounter on the subway requires use of a more reliable instrument; in fact, most don't. Certainly this one didn't. But until I develop a better tool than the mirror to deduce how I'm feeling—and, when necessary, how to act upon it—I'll feel adrift when I needn't. What will happen when the waters are rockier?

Mother's Day Guest Post: Deborah Whitefield, Homemaker, Texas

Today I'm turning over The Beheld to Deborah Whitefield, my mother, in honor of Mother's Day. This blog is largely about the personal intersection of beauty and feminism; while my mother made a point of not teaching me much about makeup, hair or fashion (as you'll read below), her feminist teachings were with me literally from birth. (My last name is hyphenated because she didn't change her name upon marrying my father, and while being the only hyphenated kid was a mouthful growing up, it ensured I grew up thinking about gender assumptions and the power of words.) Given that "playing with Mommy's makeup" was strictly limited to mascara and Vaseline, I was curious to learn what she'd have to say about her own attitudes toward beauty. Here, her essay on her own beauty ritual, aging, and on rearing a daughter who was enamoured with playing pretty.


I have lovely red hair. While it was an embarrassment in my youth—along with the accompanying freckles—from age 17 on I reveled in it. Years ago I realized that I am indifferent to beauty, thanks to my cloak of hair. As a teen I used foundation and rouge, eyeshadow, liner, and mascara—mostly because it was popular to look "all eyes," like Twiggy. Over time, as I discarded those items from my face, I felt I still looked the same because I had my hair. And I didn't pay much attention to the hair, just washed and let it dry. The compliments on my hair continued, so I figured it didn't matter how I looked—no matter how much I weighed or what I slathered on my face.

The result is that most of my life, I haven't put much work into the way my face appears to others. I look in the mirror, see no food lodged in my teeth or milk above my lip, and I'm long as I have on my brown-black Maybelline mascara. This has been my sole must-have since the days when mascara came in little red drawers with a compartment for the pigment and one for the brush. The idea was that one moistened the bristles, rubbed it in the mascara, then applied it. Often the user would be without water, so one would do what my mom did—use spit. Today it's a scary thought, given what we know about the susceptibility eyes have for germinating bacteria.

How do teenagers learn to "need" beauty products? From observation. In our household there were few beauty products, other than that red box, and red lipstick—which, of course, clashed with my hair. We had the cheapest shampoo money could buy and no conditioners. The point is: There wasn't much to learn from my mother.

I learned what not to do from a friend of mine who was cute when natural but was rarely not made up with heavy foundation; watching her beauty routine must have been the most boring thing I did with her. However, I read two teen magazines, Teen and Ingenue, that instructed me on the positives. From those I learned how to get that Twiggy look by lining under my eyes. Both my sister and I pored over those issues looking for tips on how to accentuate the eyes by making our lips and the rest of our face invisible. I recall a visit from an aunt who lived in California; she complimented us and asked how we learned to apply makeup. This was the Ultimate Flattery for two Oklahoma girls! An older woman liked our look—and one from L.A. who must have seen gorgeous eyes everywhere. Our work was finished; we were perfect.

Moisturizers weren't part of my routine until I was in my late 30s. Even then, as now, it was a seasonal thing. Here's what I know: At age 60, I am now the age my grandmother was when I first clearly recall looking at her wrinkles. Those wrinkles stay with me to this day—they looked like tic-tac-toe forms on her cheeks. I used to wish I had the nerve to make little Xs and Os on them as she napped on our sofa. The face powder she used only seemed to exaggerate the lines, making them look cavernous and permanent. I resolved then and there never to use face powder. I couldn't even tell you if they still make the stuff.

I look a darned sight less wrinkled than my grandmother—but she led a hard life. She spent over 50 years planting acres of gardens, canning the family's foods, tending livestock, ironing, cooking with a wood stove, and so on, all of which I have avoided. I've seen how people age and I feel I'm in good stead, so why sweat it? Wrinkles fascinate me, even on myself. Sometimes I think this is one reason the idea of human-concocted beauty holds no charm. If we are lucky, we all end up in the same place.

The upshot is that most of my life I haven't put much thought into the way my face appears to others. When a daughter and active feminism entered my life around the same time, I began to wonder what to teach—what were values, and what were a culture I didn't want her to overengage with? The only thing I recall
consciously stressing was cleanliness. When the Prince fell for Cinderella it was because she was so clean, not because she was beautiful. Yes, I did.

Mother and daughter during Manhattanhenge 2010

By the time Autumn was 3 only the mascara remained, as I came fully into both my feminist thinking and a time crunch. Still, her fascination with beauty can clearly by marked (at least to my way of thinking) with a visit to our house by my husband's sister and mother: Aunt Marsha (an Army captain) and grandmother Mimi (a full-time homemaker and perfectionist). When the lovely Aunt Marsha arrived, eager to bond with her niece, no bars were held. By the time the Make-Up Duo left town Autumn had a box of makeup, a new haircut and her first manicure.

To my eyes, I never interfered with her desire to learn and use beauty products. However, I made sure that I informed her of my opinion that beauty products were a waste of money and time. Together we had a phrase for commercials: "Trick Cameras!" Whenever any ad illustrated astounding "proof" that a product worked, she'd point it out and I'd inform her that it was done with photography tricks. In an age of computers and Star Wars, there was little need for further persuasion.

Beauty. There are so many aspects. I haven't even mentioned health and food; exercise and sunshine; fashion and style. What did I pass on to Autumn? What did my mom pass on to me? I believe Autumn is perfect as she is—all beauty and smiles. My mother told me I was a beauty, just the way I was. Even as she applied lemon juice to my freckles to bleach them. Yes, she did.

Carolyn Turgeon, Novelist, Pennsylvania

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Unreal Power of Pretty

Disclaimer: My landlord is not John Belushi. I repeat: My landlord is not John Belushi.

"The apartment is yours," says the man who would become my landlord. "On one condition—that you call me before you go sunbathing in your bikini so I can come over and watch."

He's got mottled skin and moves in this way that makes it clear that he's in an old man's pain, but he's got boyish features and occasionally wears overalls, giving him this bizarro-world Peter Pan schtick. His tired Queens accent makes everything he says sound like it’s a low-effort put-on, like he’s playing a bit part as a jokester in a film he doesn’t particularly want to be in.

But he's willing to rent me a junior one-bedroom with hardwood floors, butter-yellow walls, ample sunlight, and a backyard—a New York backyard, consisting of 90 square feet of concrete and a view of my neighbors’ garbage, but a backyard nonetheless. So when he raises his eyebrows and makes this stupid joke about seeing me in a bikini, I wave it away with a sort of laugh. Everything he says is a put-on, right?

In the weeks that follow, his comments keep coming, and I keep laughing them off like I believe I should. My legs, my hair, how stunning I look when awoken at 8 a.m. for temperature control checks. He frequently mentions how harmless he is, a comment I think is designed to put me at ease. It doesn’t work, but then, he makes me feel merely uncomfortable, not unsafe. Harmless? Yes. I believe he is that.

I think that we’re in on some kind of joke together, even if it’s a joke that I didn’t script and don’t really find funny. He’s twice my age, married, and harmless, after all; I’m the thirtysomething lady tenant who wears sleeveless minidresses with my sunglasses up flipped atop my disheveled updo. We’re in a middling 1940s screwball comedy, and he’s supposed to come around with his toolbelt every so often to help out his lady tenant, and then he’s supposed to say something about how fetching I look and wiggle his eyebrows, and I’m supposed to lightly swat him on the arm and say “Oh, Mister Smith!” And then he’s supposed to prune my hedges, or paint the stoop, and tra-la-la, plot resumes.

So I tell him that my back porch light went out—the first time I’d asked for anything—and instead of setting up a time for him to fix it, I hear how he isn’t legally required to have a light back there, he just has it there as a courtesy, but it’s too much goddamned trouble anymore, and I don’t have a right to it anyway, so thanks for calling but no.

And I am furious. Furious beyond reason. I’ve had bad landlords before—I once stepped over a bowl of water on my bathroom floor for two months because of a leak one refused to fix—and have handled it appropriately. Not now; my ire is matched only by my blood pressure as I look up housing codes, vent to anyone who would listen (any many who would have preferred not to), even as I just stay at home and think about it. I feel a swell of tension begin in my solar plexus and creep up my chest, my neck, my face, until I’m talking out loud to myself like a madwoman, red-faced, cursing at a man who isn’t there. My heart rate rises, and at one point I come dangerously close to throwing something across the room because I want the satisfaction of hearing something in that apartment break. In other words, I am being terrifically unreasonable over something that, while inconvenient, really doesn’t matter. (Tiki torches turned out to be the solution. The highly glamorous solution.)

It’s only several days after his refusal that I realize why I’m so unreasonably, and uncharacteristically, pissed off. I’d believed that we’d entered an unspoken bargain together, and that he’d broken it. My end of the bargain was that I’d shut up and smile while he lasciviously commented on my appearance, and his end of the bargain was that he would fix my fucking porch light. And I’d held up my end of the deal perfectly. I’d played my part, my oh-gosh-Mister-Smith lady tenant part, with a pert flair, only to find out that the script was rewritten halfway through.

There was, of course, no such deal, no such script. In his mind he could say whatever he pleased to me, a particular privilege given to him by being a man from a certain generation who probably felt that as long as it was clear he didn’t really mean anything and that he was being what he might have considered complimentary, it was all fun and games. And there are all sorts of reasons why he’s in error there, but that’s not what was making me flush through my throat.

What was making me so angry was my complicity in—nay, my invention of—this bargain. I’ve never consciously exploited being a young-enough, attractive-enough woman for personal gain. But that’s just it: I’ve never consciously done it. How many times have I told myself that I’m just being friendly—and meant it! I am a friendly person!—quietly knowing that on the back end there’s a small reward that I might not get if I weren’t a young-enough, attractive-enough woman? That I’ll get drinks a little quicker if I go to the bar myself rather than send my boyfriend; that the guy who makes my salad every day doesn’t charge me for all my toppings? I really do think it’s because I’ve got an open expression and a quick smile, an easy laugh. It might be. Or is it that I'm sailing through life expecting that if I play a certain part—the part assigned to pretty-enough women, which really just means any woman willing to play the role—that people will give me that drink quicker, or give me a discount, or fix my back porch light?

Some women blithely say that we shouldn't give up any of our power, even if that power is merely a genetic accident or a bit of trick grooming, and in certain moments I'm inclined to agree. But that only works when both parties play by the script: The power of pretty only works when the person with the real power gives it to you willingly. And other people's power can be taken away on a whim. On their whim.

So I showed up with my ace in the hole, the few things I had that he didn’t: youth, femininity, charm. I played my hand—the only hand I believed I had, besides simply being a good tenant who pays rent on time and possesses neither a mouthy pit bull nor a nagging meth habit—and then felt cheated when he trumped my best hand with his real power over me. He didn't want to fix my porch light, and he doesn't have to. My polite, eyes-averted giggles, my ingratiating tolerance of his speculation about my nightwear—no matter, those. My hand had been worthless all along.

I can't blame him, not entirely. Much feminist discourse on this sort of thing tends to point toward the one making the comments as being at fault. Which he is. But the fact is, I was complicit in all of it, because I was expecting perks for playing my part. I didn't have to laugh when he said that allowing him to watch me sunbathe was part of my monthly dues. It was a joke, of course, but it wasn't funny; it was gross, and to laugh showed that I thought it was the other way around. He’s my landlord, not my boss; all I would have risked by letting him he know he was being a dirty old man—or just not played along, even as I didn't invite his attentions—was some uncomfortable moments here and there. Yes, he should know that he’s wrong. But he'd know for sure if I told him.

A week or two go by after he tells me he won't fix my porch light. He calls to say he's coming by to do something in the backyard. I come home and see a bit of pruning done, and a new, fully functioning porch light.

"I know you didn't have to do that," I say to him. "But I appreciate that you did."

"No problem," he says, and continues working. I let him be. He knocks on my back door when he's finished, to let me know he's leaving. I open the screen door to see him off. He takes a step away, then stops, turns around, and looks at me. "By the way, you look sexy as hell in those pants."

"Scram!" I say, and close the screen door. I say it with my voice lilting, my pitch raised, the corners of my mouth upturned. I have no excuse other than habit. I watch him scurry off, exaggerating the hunch of his shoulders in mock defense. We're back to our parts, in a way. But he doesn't know that my choice of word is a beginning for myself, a way of finding language I can use with humor and grace but still keep my dignity in a script that I have an equal hand in writing. It's not perfect. It's just a start.