Why I Had My Body Spray-Painted Brown, Plus My Advertorial Policy

It was the spray tan that did me in.

See, the minute you have the word beauty in your blog’s metadata, the Marketing Powers That Be descend upon you with offers of free samples for your review. Lotions, polishes, tonics, scrubs, glosses, serums, creams—if it’s in a bottle and designed to perform miracles, its press release may find its way to my inbox.

The first time I received an offer for some review samples, maybe four months into my blogging venture, my knee-jerk reaction was hell no. Through my years in ladymags, I’d become cynical not only of the “advertorial” function of beauty pages, but of the products themselves. The first few times you see an entire bin filled with fifty-plus types of blush, it’s exciting, but after a bit you begin to realize that it’s all just packaged petroleums and tints and talcs, and that the item you’d been paying $8.99 (or $26, or $56) for is actually just worth pennies, and that for the most part there isn’t really that much difference between the products. (The number-one question beauty editors are asked is, “But what really works?” Yes, there are some that do, but that’s another post.)

So the lure of free products didn’t hold much sway over me; I still have a handful of unopened products from various beauty sales over the years. More important, I prided myself on not falling into the advertorial trap: No, I was not going to give companies free advertising—that is, my time and labor—in exchange for a prettily packaged batch of titanium dioxide. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing that, but A) there are plenty of product review blogs already, and I have nothing to add to the chorus except SEO bumps for the companies; B) that’s not what this blog is about, and in fact when trying to explain what I do here, the first words out of my mouth are usually something like, “It’s a beauty blog, but not, like, lipstick reviews”; and C) after years of working in ladymags, I’ll be damned if my passion project—for which I receive the occasional stipend from my syndication with The New Inquiry but which otherwise isn’t monetized in any way—was under the sway of anything other than my editorial judgment. I decided long ago to not have advertising or sponsors for this reason—even from companies and organizations I think do good work.

Yet the product offers keep coming. Sometimes, in the case of particularly hilarious-sounding products, I’ll fantastize about accepting and then ripping the product to shreds. But honestly, I don’t get my jollies from thinking of clever quips about silly products—and since my reader base is healthy but not enormous, I’m being targeted by a lot of startups and beginner companies, and I have little interest in mocking them. (Plus, I think most companies subscribe to the “no such thing as bad publicity” line of thinking. I mean, have they read a single entry of mine? I’m more likely to write a 2,400-word screed on “the secret language of toner” or some shit than I am to just be like, “Pores smaller!”)

And then came the spray tan.

See, I was a sun-shunner for my entire adult life, until a trip to the tropics in 2009 turned me into a full-fledged worshipper. I discovered that not only was it easy for me to develop a light tan, but that I liked how I looked with a tan; once my natural color faded I spent a small fortune on self-tanning lotion. This year I developed a sensitivity to the formula (it makes me itch most unbecomingly); around the same time, I adopted a semi-nihilist attitude that made me realize I had little interest in living past age 80 or so, and decided to hell with it, I’m going to get as much sun as I can, skin cancer risk be damned. (Lecture me all you want; I’ll readily admit you’re right, and will continue to wear SPF 4 regardless.)

Accordingly, I had a tanned summer—but now that beach time has faded, so has my color, and I’m not quite ready to give it up. I knew about airbrush tanning, but am way too frugal to spend the $60 to $90 it takes to get one—plus, the thought of paying a stranger to essentially spray-paint my body brown seemed...I mean, when you think about it, it’s uncomfortably close to those “believe it or not” historical tidbits, like how Romans were supposedly bulimic with their vomitoriums. (Which, by the way, they weren't.)

So when the invitation to “meet Kelly and get a B. Bronz Sunless Tanning Treatment” showed up in my inbox (something to do with Fashion Week?), I deleted it at first, as I do all such invitations and offers, no matter how much the product promises to “dazzle” my readers. But it stuck in my mind. I found myself getting sort of huffy over my own policies, like, Hey, why shouldn’t I be getting the occasional swag? I work hard! Harder than I did in magazines, when I could buddy up to the beauty editors and waltz out of the closet with a lifetime supply of conditioner! You know who pays this blogger's salary? Me! And I’m cheap! And I abuse my staff! And if I weren’t such a rotten boss I might have gone to the beach even more this summer and might have a deeper tan and I wouldn’t even need this body spray-paint thing in the first place, so take that!

I said yes.

I did my homework beforehand; I knew you were supposed to exfoliate and not use any body products so that the tanning agent would be able to better sink in. I also knew you weren’t supposed to sweat for 8 to 12 hours afterward, which might be fine if one’s body is spray-painted in the Helsinki twilight but is more difficult in the recent spate of 90% humidity we subtropical New Yorkers sweat our way through.

I showed up at the spa that was hosting the event and was ushered into the treatment room, where I did indeed meet Kelly, a polished, gracious woman in flowing jersey who looked far less...fake?...than I’d expected from someone who paints people brown for her trade. Actually, as it turns out, Kelly is both artist and chemist: She created the B. Bronz line, which is available both for professional and home use and, from what I saw on the bottles, comes in fragrances like “Citrus Mojito,” which surely is far more appealing than the lingering scent of yo, you just dyed your body brown that I’m all too familiar with from my usual sunless lotion, which shall remain nameless (see paragraph 5). Kelly has the distinction of having tanned members of the National Bodybuilding Association, the San Francisco 49ers Gold Rush Cheerleaders, and the Oregon Ducks Cheerleaders (my alma mater! also, it is impossible to get a natural tan in Eugene, Oregon), as well as Miss Washington, Miss Oregon, Miss Michigan, and Miss California. If I was going to have someone spray-paint my body, I may as well go to the best.

At her behest, I stepped into what resembled a lightweight tent and undressed while Kelly finished spray-painting another blogger’s body. Upon her return, Kelly directed me into various positions—to the right, to the left, leg extended to spray the inner thigh, arms lifted to get my ribcage—while she answered my handful of measly questions that I’d hoped would mask the fact that I’m not really a “beauty writer” at all but rather a cynic who might refer to airbrush tanning as having your body spray-painted brown. Kelly appeased me there too: When I asked about the function of the bronzer as opposed to the actual tanning agent that would keep me golden for about four days, she candidly replied that the bronzer was in the formula “so that the customer feels like she’s paid for something.” Without the bronzer, clients would leave no darker than when they entered, since the tanning agent takes 8 to 12 hours to fully develop. (There’s also a clear, bronzer-less formula available for clients whose supreme faith in the art of the spray tan means that they don’t need to feel like they stood naked in a tent while a stranger hosed them down with brown dye for no immediate effect.)

I’d been trying to look Kelly in the eye to telegraph how terrifically secure I was standing almost entirely naked in front of a stranger, but at a certain point I looked down at my arm and saw that it was a gorgeous golden hue, more glowing and vibrant than how I look when I’ve actually been sunbathing. “It’s gorgeous!” I exclaimed, and I meant it, and Kelly smiled before she frowned and started dabbing my cleavage with a towel. “You’re sweating a little,” she said, “so this was getting...funky.” I looked down and saw that my chest looked like someone had splattered coffee across it, brown beads dripping between my breasts.

I stood there trying very very hard not to sweat, while my body dried off for a couple of minutes until Kelly gave me her blessing to get dressed. Which was nice, except then I’d have to exit the cool spa and enter the world of 90% humidity, which I feared meant my entire body would soon look the way my cleavage did. In the subway—possibly the most humid place in New York City save the Tenth Street Russian & Turkish Baths—I stood in the darkest place possible while fanning myself with B. Bronz literature and rubbing my face with a tissue in hopes of at least evening out the sweaty brown beads of body dye that were surely forming there. I studiously avoided eye contact once on the train, hoping to avoid the humiliation of others witnessing me turning into a live Jackson Pollock painting—good thing, too, because when I got up I saw that I’d left a trail of brown drops across the back of the seat.

Having lost all dignity, I made a beeline for home and raced to the mirror, where it turned out that it was only my back and chest that had become mottled (and which was easily taken care of by rubbing in the solution). The rest of me, including my face, had a soft tan glow. Throughout the day, the tone became richer and deeper—though when I took a shower after the prescribed length of time and rinsed off the bronzer, I was left with a golden hue closer to what I’d first seen when Kelly sprayed me in the tent. It lasted for about four days; I can still faintly see the “tan” lines from where my underwear was but it’s barely noticeable.

Forgive the sports bra shot; I already had a light tan on my upper body but my stomach hasn't seen the sun since 1979, so here's the color the spray-paint—ahem, airbrush tan—gives unsunned skin.

All this is to say: It was absolutely fine. Given that there is now a seat on the Q train with a spatter of brown liquid gifted from my body to the MTA, I can’t quite fully sign on to the B. Bronz statement—“The B.Bronz Sunless Tanning Treatment is designed to be applied flawlessly in less than two minutes, and there is no mess, residue, or rub-off, which is perfect for Fashion Weeks' high demands”—but that’s my own damn fault for daring to sweat before the 8 hours were up, right? If you’re someone who would spend money on having a stranger spray-paint your body brown, the B. Bronz line is more than adequate; I’ve seen some airbrush jobs look hideous the same day, while this looked nice and natural even at its darkest.

All this, really, is to say: Thank you, B. Bronz, for the free airbrush tan, which was perfectly nice. And thank you, readers, for allowing me a forum where I can write about beauty without feeling like I need to write about airbrush tans, even the perfectly nice ones—because in attempting to write about it today I find that I don’t know how to do so without swallowing my voice. Which is the opposite of the reason I write here. 

Helen Gurley Brown, 1922-2012

Six years ago, I was waiting for an elevator when Helen Gurley Brown walked up next to me. This wasn’t terribly unusual; I worked for an offshoot of Cosmopolitan at the time, and our offices were housed in the same building. What was unusual was that she was alone, and that I was dressed well.

I’d only begun dressing well a few months prior to our elevator run-in; depression had kept me in baggy hoodies and ill-fitting jeans between the ages of 24 and 29. As my 30th birthday neared, I realized I was hitting the age where I just might be putting patterns into place that would stick with me forever. I broke up with my boyfriend, chopped my sloppy bob in favor of a pixie cut, lost 30 pounds—and much to my surprise, found that sometimes I enjoyed being looked at. On this particular morning, I was wearing my favorite of my array of dresses and had matched it with heels that, for me, were wildly impractical. Perhaps most importantly, I’d just had the pleasure of a certain variety of overnight guest, so my bronzer wasn’t the only thing lending me a glow.

Helen Gurley Brown looked at me and gave a dim, polite smile. Then she slowly ran her eyes from my pixie cut to my carefully pushed-up bust line, from the hips swathed just so in my new dress down to my shoes. As her eyes worked their way back up from the heels to my figure to my face, her head began to bob in what slowly turned into a nod, and by the time she looked me in the eye again, the smile had gone from polite to approving. Helen Gurley Brown had given me her approval. At that moment, one of the company higher-ups joined us at the elevator, and she turned to the newcomer, cupped her hair in one frail hand, and actually addressed her as pussycat. Our moment of approval (on her end) and awe (on mine) passed.

I’ve told this anecdote a handful of times, and the reactions come in two forms: a “how cool!” exuberance, or dismay. “Ick,” one friend said: “Why does her approval matter to you?” Beneath the latter reaction is something like this: Helen Gurley Brown made Cosmopolitan into what it is, and what it is isn’t exactly something a smart women’s-studies-set type like me should approve of, so why on earth would the approval of Helen Gurley Brown leave me beaming?

It’s not a bad question. The problems with Cosmopolitan—or rather, with the Cosmo-fication of women’s media, are manifest to the point of trite. I myself have publicly criticized women’s magazines plenty of times; for every time I’ve talked about how important they’ve been to the mainstreaming of feminism (which, in this context, I count as a good thing), I’ve cringed at a story that has passed over my desk (“How to Wash Your Face,” which was—I kid you not—soon followed by “How to Wash Your Hair,” due to its predecessor’s success among readers).

Logically, I should be fingering Helen Gurley Brown as the godmother of face-washing how-tos and insulting sex tips. I can’t do that, though, and not only because of the fondness I felt when she hand-wrote her thoughts on the premiere issue of CosmoGirl—the teen Cosmo spinoff I worked at off and on for years before it folded in 2008—and my boss giddily distributed photocopies to everyone in the office. (All I remember of her comments was that she loved Boy-o-Meter, in which readers would rate teenage boys on their looks.) Nor is it my love of the kitschy tone of Sex and the Single Girl, which I have read from cover to cover, and which always makes me feel like a vixen even if I’m just pawing through it at home in my yoga pants.

Nor—surprisingly—is my admiration of her only born from the contrarian feminist within me who wants to argue for her as a key figure in women’s history, the woman who let us all know that it was okay to like sex and that you didn’t have to be married to want it. But the issue of Helen Gurley Brown and feminism deserves solid mention here: It is easy to forget, when Cosmopolitan is now so easily mocked for its insistence upon doing the most ridiculous boudoir moves possible, that the year she took editorship of the magazine was the same year the Supreme Court struck down laws banning contraceptives for married couples. The Pill had only been available for a few years, meaning that the concept of a woman being able to have sex whenever she wished and maintain control of her reproductive system was similarly young. For Helen Gurley Brown to come out and say what plenty of young women had known for years but had been afraid to voice—that sex was fun, sex was delightful, sex was not to be feared, and sex could happen simply because you, a woman, desired it—was revolutionary. It was revolutionary at the time, and given the fetishization of “purity” and the fact that the only term we have for a man who sleeps around is “male slut,” it remains revolutionary today. Also, let it be known that Helen Gurley Brown identified as a feminist. Plenty of people within the women’s movement disagree with her self-appraisal; as for me, I am happy to count her among my tribe. (Factoid: Chapter 9 of Sex and the Office, “Lunchland III: A Very Special Report,” opens with an anecdote from a “beautiful young executive” named Letty Cottin, who would go on to be Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a founding editor of Ms.)

But still, no, that isn’t what made me smile that day waiting for the elevator, nor is it what brought a heaviness to my heart upon learning that the flame-haired, miniskirted, bejeweled woman I’d admired died yesterday at age 90. In fact, it wasn’t our near-introduction at all, but rather something that sprang from the first time I laid eyes on her, at the Hearst holiday party in 1999. Through the haze brought on by the candy-cane cocktails handed out by the staff of Tavern on the Green, I spotted her: She was jockeying for the shortest skirt in the room, and had topped it off with what resembled a sequined Chanel jacket (perhaps it was a sequined Chanel jacket), that flame-colored hair teased beyond belief. She was dancing and had a small entourage around her. I flew home for Christmas and breathlessly reported to my parents that I’d seen Helen Gurley Brown, and that she was wearing a miniskirt, and wasn’t that awesome?

It was awesome, but not for the reasons I believed at the time. At the time it was more about one of my first run-ins with a celebrity, akin to the time I saw Drew Barrymore at Disneyland. And I am embarrassed to admit this, but: I shared my sighting of her with the faintest hint of ridicule. She was 77 at the time, and I was at an age at which anyone over the age of 35 was more in the realm of parent than peer. To see a 77-year-old woman partying it up in a miniskirt shorter than I’d dare to wear today—it was “cute,” and a little unseemly. I understood that she had to attend the annual company party; I understood that because she was Helen Gurley Freakin’ Brown, she could probably do the electric slide and still earn our collective respect. And I also, erroneously, understood that a woman of her age to be prancing around around in a miniskirt was—well, wasn’t that better left to people who were the age of Cosmo’s readership? Wasn’t it just the tiniest bit sad?

What I did not yet understand was that the things I condescendingly perceived as “cute” were actually evidence that I was witnessing a woman who was unafraid to work it. She knew full well the penalties heaped upon women of a certain age, and she disregarded those penalties with a shrug of her possibly-Chanel-sequined shoulder. She’d published Sex and the Single Girl when she was 40; in it she wrote “If you think only the jeunes filles, the voluptuous or sleek-cat creatures are the sexy ones, you have been living in the rumble seat of an Essex roadster the past twenty-five years.” That is, not only did she write one of the country’s most influential tomes on sexuality at an age many might have considered over the hill for a woman, but if she was speaking literally of those twenty-five years, by age 15 she’d already begun to disregard the notion that one’s sexuality died out past a divinely decreed age. I have no idea whether she decided then and there that she’d never stop being, well, Helen Gurley Freakin’ Brown (or, I suppose, Helen Freakin’ Gurley; the Brown came along in 1959 with her marriage to film producer David Brown) and would wear miniskirts as short as she damn well pleased until she tired of them, or whether it simply became her way of life over time. Really, I have no idea about her private life other than what I’ve read, which is, after all, the result of a cultivated public image.

But what I can deduce is that Helen Gurley Brown had respect for the woman who tries. That may not necessarily sound like something one should respect; when it comes to self-presentation, shouldn’t authenticity trump strain, ease trump effort? Sometimes, sure. But I’m certain I’m not the only woman who would find it less difficult to walk down the street bare-faced in sweatpants than to strut along with a bright red pucker, hair done to the hilt, cleavage pushed to the chin, and clothes that announce to the world, I want to be looked at. To Sex and the Single Girl readers who objected to wearing makeup, she challenged: “Is it possible you’re a little afraid to be on—in the limelight—every single day? If your makeup were always flawless, you’d be making an open bid for attention.” Trying is the hard sell; trying is a dare. Trying is a command to the world: Look at me, for I am worth your attention. Can trying be the opposite, a sad proclamation of one’s low self-esteem, that a woman thinks all she has to offer the world is her looks? Yes, of course. But when I think of the women I know who really work it—the 51-year-old receptionist who helms her desk with a teased updo and smoky eye at 8:30 a.m., the artist who goes shopping in ball gowns to cheer herself up, the woman of a certain age who is so impeccably styled that every time I’ve been in her company I’ve witnessed a total stranger walk up to her and profess admiration—these are not women suffering from a paucity of self-esteem. These are women who are willing to try, and who are willing to tell you what they want you to see. These are the women I was willing to try to emulate when I decided I was ready to discard clothes that hid me in favor of clothes that revealed me; from them, and from Helen Gurley Brown, I learned that overcoming the fear of trying can be tantamount to freedom.

When women try—when women strive—we put ourselves on the line, more so than men because our purpose is still presumed to be you are here to be looked at. I will support the argument that we should change the paradigm; I agree that part of the answer to the scrutiny we find ourselves under, 52 years after the Pill, is to change our culture so that being looked at is no longer seen as womankind’s greatest goal. That argument also does jack squat for women living right now, as the world exists; it casts a sidelong glance at women who seize power through being seen, or who might just sometimes enjoy being looked at, or who take the traditionally passive role of being seen and transform it into an act of agency in public life and private relationships. Helen Gurley Brown intuited this; rather, she experienced it, as a woman who experienced the manifold facets of womanhood in the early 1960s. With Sex and the Single Girl, she argued that the problem wasn’t being simply looked at; it was being looked at and having no say in how you were seen.

One can look at things like her list of what’s sexy and not—a good telephone voice and the ability to sit very still are sexy, girdles and borrowing money most definitely are not—and find a dictator of femininity, one born from that special kind of misogyny individual women occasionally serve to one another. Certainly lesser variations of her are exactly that. Yet in looking at Helen Gurley Brown’s legacy, one could find something else, something benevolent, even sisterly. For when I read her work, when I look at her life, when I recall the look of approval—no, affection—that crossed her face as she issued her silent blessing to a younger version of myself that morning at the elevator, what I find is a gift.

Strike a Pose: Vogue, Eating Disorders, and Desire

Vogue stopped using bird models in 1921.

Several years ago, after a long day at the magazine I was freelancing for at the time, I hailed a cab and cried the whole way home. The chief cause of the crying was the last task I’d had to do at the office before departing for the night: Communicating to the art department that a top editor wanted to digitally slim a celebrity whose former battles with anorexia were well-documented in the press. Transcribing her request onto the circulating page proof, every stroke of every letter felt like it was being scratched upon my skin. I hated that anyone would look at this particular picture of the (trim, lovely, recovered) celebrity and want it trimmer still, I hated that it was part of my job to communicate this request, I hated that the editor was so high up as to make it improper for a lowly freelance copy editor to question her, I hated that the people reading the final product wouldn’t understand all the labor that goes into making beautiful people look beautiful on the page. Most of all, I hated that the celebrity might look at the story, spot the digital manipulation, and yearn for her days of hunger. I hated it.

So you would think that I’d be thrilled about Vogue’s recent announcement that they are no longer going to work with models who appear to have an eating disorder, will encourage designers to consider their practice of unrealistically tailored sample sizes, and will be “ambassadors for the message of healthy body image.” All 19 global editions of the world’s leading fashion magazine signed on to the pledge, this after an international flurry of other body image actions in the world of high fashion: Italy and Spain’s leading fashion coalitions banned models with BMIs deeming them underweight, and in March Israel recently passed a law doing the same. And indeed, I felt a wash of righteous joy when I read about the announcement: I mean, this is Vogue we’re talking here. Vogue! The emblem of why the fashion world is so often hostile to women’s bodies, the embodiment of the severe impact the thin-young-and-beautiful imperative has on women worldwide. Let’s be clear: This is a good thing. But for the reader, it’s not as good as it seems.

The impact here appears to be significant, yes. Its largest actual impact is on the labor force in question: In addition to no longer working with models who “appear to have an eating disorder,” Vogue will not work with models under age 16 (and will ask casting directors to check identification), implement mentoring programs for mature models to give guidance to beginners, and encourage producers to provide privacy and healthy food backstage. Modeling is precarious work, a fact often overshadowed by its glamour in the public eye; for Vogue to publicly acknowledge that its success is partially built upon the backs of young, precarious laborers, often émigrés from developing or unstable nations, does a real service to those workers, and that fact shouldn’t be lost.

It’s the last item on Vogue’s six-point list that nags at me: We will be ambassadors for the message of healthy body image. To herald Vogue as a game-changing ambassador of healthy body image is to forget that fashion photography is specifically designed to elicit a response—yearning—within us, and few things in our culture inspire yearning like thinness. To point out the obvious: Thinness will never disappear from Vogue’s pages, only ill, underage models. Fashion photography is transportive, both real and unreal. The point for the reader has never been to be able to actually imagine ourselves in the photograph. Let the fashion still lifes do that; we can step into that empty dress, slip our arms through that stack of bracelets. The point of fashion photography is to synthesize distance and reality as we recognize it: It has to be close enough to what we recognize as real to trigger our response, but far enough away to make sure that response leaves us wanting, not contented. This is what fashion photography does; this is what makes it compelling. Longing built into its very function.

“The history of photography could be recapitulated as the struggle between two different imperatives,” writes Susan Sontag in On Photography. “[B]eautification, which comes from the fine arts, and truth-telling, which is measured not only by a notion of value-free truth, a legacy from the sciences, but by a moralized ideal of truth-telling, adapted from nineteenth-century literary models and from the (then) new profession of independent journalism.” Fashion magazines epitomize both of these imperatives: Grace Coddington’s magnificent styling certainly falls into the realm of the fine arts, but fashion magazines are always ultimately selling and promoting products that actually exist and are for sale—that is, they have an amoralized ideal of truth-telling. (Not that selling is without morals, but the sort of truth that advertising purports is quite different than the sort of truth we get from photojournalism. A seller’s intent, even if it’s a positive one, doesn’t stem from morality.) Even if few readers of Vogue are actually able to purchase the clothes on its pages, they can buy the fast fashion knockoffs; they can be inspired by the looks on the pages.

And, of course, they can be inspired by—and aspire to—thinness. Thinness became encoded as a part of the creation of desire, for all sorts of reasons that, if you’re reading this, you probably understand. The thinking here is that Vogue’s move to not use models who appear to have eating disorders will help separate that encoding; certainly Vogue will remain a manufacturer of desire, and they have all sorts of talent beyond emaciated models to do so. I’d love to see thinness separated from desire just as much as the next woman. But the Vogue announcement, on balance, is never going to be a part of that, for on the most basic level, simply refusing to work with models who “appear” to have an eating disorder hardly means the thin imperative will vanish from Vogue’s pages. We have encoded acquisitional desire as thinness—you can never be too rich or too thin—and the entire industry is predicated upon acquisitional desire. Yes, yes, magazines should do their part to end the conflation of thinness and desire, and on the most perfunctory level, Vogue has done so. But the work—the real work—must go far deeper.

For as significant as it is that it’s Vogue, with all its class and tastemaking connotations, making this announcement, it’s also a double-edged sword. If the go-to reference for the absurdity of the thin imperative has always been Vogue, and then Vogue says it’s switching up the game, we’ve suddenly lost our reference point. Yet the referent still exists. Models are going to remain far thinner than the average woman, fashion images will continue to do their job of creating longing and desire, and otherwise sensible women will keep doing the master cleanse. All that has changed besides models' labor conditions is that Vogue gets to seem like it's doing the right thing, and those who have been agitating for body positivity get to feel like we've made progress. Vogue is doing nothing truly radical to change the thin imperative, and to pretend otherwise is to silently walk in lockstep with the very system that put us in this situation to begin with.

There are other concerns with the announcement as well. Some argue it doesn’t go far enough, and I’d agree; certainly not everyone who has an eating disorder "appears" to have one, and when you’re talking about a workforce whose livelihood depends upon skilled manipulation of self-presentation, that risk runs even higher. I’m also a hair suspicious of the timing—both as a PR move to smooth over damage done by “the Vogue mom,” whose controversial piece in the April issue detailed putting her 7-year-old on a diet, and as a reaction to where Vogue is positionally. The circulation of American Vogue dipped 1.7% in the first quarter of 2012 (though it did extraordinarily well in 2011, earning the title of Ad Age’s magazine of the year), and the slow decline of its readers’ personal income may be figuring into their outlook. From 2008 to 2011, Americans’ average per capita income grew slightly (with some recession dips); in that same period, the Vogue reader’s median income dropped, from $64,429 in 2008 (which in and of itself was a 2.3% dip from 2007) to $63,094 today. This keeps Vogue readers substantially above the national per capita income, but I can’t help but wonder if this is an acknowledgment of the behind-the-scenes middlebrowing of the title. For all its prestige and class connotations, Vogue hasn’t been as highbrow as we might think; when I worked at a teen magazine a few years ago, I was surprised to find that readers’ parents were slightly better off than Vogue readers. And let’s not overlook that Conde Nast’s truly highfalutin’ title, W—which has a median reader income of $155,215—has made no such announcement. W has the luxury of doing whatever the hell it wants; Vogue needs to stay relevant to people outside the inner circle in order to continue its success. I’d like to think that prestige audiences care about body image diversity as much as the average American woman, but I’d be thinking wrong.

Despite my arguments here, I am pleased that Vogue is making efforts to stay relevant and on-point with a growing national conversation about body image. I’m critiquing, not criticizing, the announcement. It’s at least a gesture in the right direction—and it’s showing that a critical mass of complaints and activism can actually work, which is enormously encouraging for all the body image and media literacy advocates who work tirelessly in the face of some daunting and culturally embedded issues. And, again, the labor impact here is significant. But as far as its larger impact on readers, I’m not ready to cheer. Short of a complete and total ideological overhaul, there is nothing Vogue could do to truly change the story, for it’s a business that revolves around creating and sating acquisitional desire; it’s why Gloria Steinem referred to the relationship between advertising and women’s publications as the “velvet steamroller.” The policy changes won’t hurt women’s body image, I don’t think. Neither will it truly help. As long as Vogue is a part of the machine of desire—and there is no way for it not to be—the narrative will remain the same; imagery, truth, and beautification will continue their morality play; and readers will receive the same message they always have. And a very thin band will silently play on.

Barefaced and Beside the Point: Appearance Anxiety in Eating Disorders

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

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

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

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

Therapists pretty much agree that there are three main causes of eating disorders, and most of us who get them have a combination of the three. One is your genetics. Second is your physiology, like the biology of your actual brain—your personality.... The third thing is environment. Environment is broken into two parts: the environment of your home, what your mom and dad said to you, the behaviors they modeled. The other part of environment is culture. So about one-sixth of eating disorders can be blamed on cultural environment, like the pictures we’re shown.... If we magically were able to suddenly change the images we see in order to be diverse in all ways, gradually that part of the pressure would relieve itself. But it wouldn’t relieve that need of a girl to control her food intake because she can’t control her life.
It’s that last part that continues to get short shrift in popular media treatment of eating disorders. And I get why the media might latch onto images and the thin imperative as the root cause of eating disorders: Media outlets love nothing more than to generically critique themselves (what women’s magazine hasn’t covered the problem of unrealistic body ideals formed by...the media?). Less cynically, poor body image is something most of us have experienced at some point; using this as a hook for readers to empathize with eating disorder patients works beautifully. Plenty of people have dieted to lose weight for aesthetic reasons, and the disordered thought loop that makes a satisfying eating disorder story—I was obsessed with food!—is mimicked in the dieting mind-set. So the average reader may think she’s identifying with the subject, not realizing that what she’s identifying with are the symptoms of an eating disorder: the restriction of food, or the overconsumption of it, the vigilant attention paid. But the eating disorder doesn’t lie within its symptoms. It lies within its causes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts on a Word: Glamour (Part I)

Glamour is an illusion, and an allusion too. Glamour is a performance, a creation, a recipe, but one with give. Glamour is elegance minus restraint, romance plus distance, sparkle sans naivete. Glamour is Grace Kelly, Harlow, Jean (picture of a beauty queen). Glamour is $3.99 on U.S. newsstands, $4.99 Canada. Glamour is artifice. Glamour is red lipstick, Marcel waves, a pause before speaking, and artfully placed yet seemingly casual references to time spent in Capri. Glamour is—let’s face it—a cigarette. Glamour is Jessica Rabbitt, and it’s Miss Piggy too. Glamour is adult. Glamour cannot be purchased, but it can’t be created out of thin air either. Glamour is both postmodern and yesterday. Glamour is an accomplishment. Glamour is magic.

In fact, glamour began quite literally with magic. Growing from the Scottish gramarye around 1720, glamer was a sort of spell that would affect the eyesight of those afflicted, so that objects appear different than they actually are. Sir Walter Scott anglicized the word and brought it into popular use in his poems (“You may bethink you of the spell / Of that sly urchin page / This to his lord did impart / And made him seem, by glamour art / A knight from Hermitage”); not long after his death in 1832 the word began to be used to describe the metaphoric spell we cast upon one another by being particularly beautiful or fascinating. It wasn’t necessarily a compliment (“There was little doubt that he meant to bring his magnetism and his glamour, and all his other diabolical properties, to market here,” from an 1878 novel) but by the 1920s—not coincidentally, the time women started developing the styles that we now recognize as glamorous—the meaning had shed much of its air of suspicion.

Not that we’re wholly unsuspicious of glamour. Female villains in films are often impossibly glamorous, for as fascinated as we are with the artifice of glamour, we’re also a tad wary of it. Glamour keeps its holder at a distance, and it needs that distance in order to work; watch the magician’s hands too closely and you’ll spoil the trick. It’s unkind to glamour to call it strictly a trick, but neither is it inaccurate: On a person, glamour is a series of reference points that form its illusory quality. We perceive red lipstick and hair cascading over one shoulder as glamorous because we understand it’s referencing something we’ve collectively decided is glamorous. The same is true of glamorous looks with less direct artifice—say, a world traveler in a pith helmet and white linen—but in becoming a reference point, anything we code as glamour becomes artifice, even if it’s not about smoke and mirrors. It’s not hard to get glamour “right,” but since glamour is a set of references—a creation instead of a state of being—you do have to get it right in order to be seen as glamorous as opposed to pretty, polished, or chic. We don’t stumble into glamour; we create it, even if we don’t realize that’s what we’re doing. Call glamour a performance if you wish. It’s equally accurate to call it an accomplishment.

In 1939, glamour—rather, Glamour—took on an additional definition. In 1932, publishing company Condé Nast launched a new series of sewing pattern books featuring cheaper garments more readily accessible to the downtrodden seamstresses of the Depression; its more elite Vogue pattern line hadn't been doing well. Seven years later, Condé Nast spun off a magazine from this Hollywood Pattern Book called Glamour of Hollywood, which promised readers the “Hollywood way to fashion, beauty, and charm.” By 1941 it had shed “of Hollywood” and had already toned down its coverage of Hollywood in order to focus on the life of the newfound career girl; by 1949 its subtitle was “For the girl with a job.” That is, Glamour wasn’t about film or Hollywood or unattainable ideals; Glamour was about you. That ethos continues to this day: Glamour might have a $12,000 bracelet on its cover but will have a $19 miniskirt inside, and its editorial tone squarely targets plucky but thoughtful young women who want to “have it all.”

It’s all too fitting that the once-downmarket* sister of Vogue is titled Glamour. To the eyes of a nation emerging from a depression, the concept of glamour might have seemed faraway—but it also seemed accessible in ways that the gilt-edged Vogue wasn’t. The “girl with a job” knew that with the right sleight-of-hand, she could purchase aspects of glamour found on the magazine’s pages, pick up a tip or two about home economy (if one must be bothered with the terribly unglamorous domestic life, why not make it economical?), and find out how to enchant her suitors or husband—and she wouldn’t necessarily need money or social status to do any of those things. She just needed the know-how of glamour. Glamour magazine doesn’t target the highest end of the market, nor does it assume that its readers have the cultural capital of the modern-day gentry (“How to do Anything Better” is one of its more popular features; readers might learn how to make a proper introduction or throw a dinner party). At first glance this might seem counterintuitive to the spirit of its namesake, yet it’s anything but: With these specific moves, Glamour reinforces the notion of glamour as something actionable. In knowing that most of its readers, however stylish, aren’t among the cultural illuminati, Glamour acknowledges that maybe they have need of casting the occasional spell—which, of course, Glamour is happy to supply.

I should say here that I worked for Glamour magazine for several years as a copy editor.** I share that not only to disclose my relationship with the magazine, but also because my specific post there—as a professional grammarian—was tethered to the concept of glamour more than I realized. For gramarye, the root word of glamour, also gave birth to the word grammar. The route is fairly straightforward: Gramarye at one time simply meant learning, including learning of the occult, and it’s this variant that went on to be glamour. Grammar stayed magic-free and pertained to the rules of learning, eventually becoming particular to the rules of language. But the two are linked more than just etymologically: Both grammar and glamour function as a set of rules that help people articulate themselves and allow us to understand one another. I understand you are telling me of the future by the use of words like will and going to; I understand you are telling me about your vision of yourself with red lipstick and a wiggle dress.

Some may argue that the rules and articulations of glamour are confining. They can be, when taken as feminine dictates, but they also make glamour democratic. It’s easy to aim for class or sophistication and miss the mark, for there are so many ways we can make unknowing missteps. But because glamour relies upon references and images, with a bit of thought and creativity almost anyone can conjure its magic—and unlike fashion, glamour doesn’t go in and out of style, so you needn’t reinvest every season. You can be fat and glamorous, bald and glamorous, poor and glamorous, short and glamorous, nerdy and glamorous, a man and glamorous. Perhaps most important, you can be old and glamorous. In fact, age helps. (Children are never glamorous; neither are the naive.) Glamour’s illusion doesn’t make old people look younger; it makes them look exactly their age, without apology. Glamour can channel the things we may attribute to youth—sex appeal, flirtation, vitality—but it also requires things that come more easily with age, like mystery and a past. Think of the trappings of adult femininity little girls reach for in play: not bras and sanitary pads, but high heels and lipstick, those two most glamorous things whose entire point is to create an illusion. A five-year-old knows that with womanhood can come glamour, if she wishes. She also knows it’s not yet hers to assume.

In case it’s not yet clear: I am a champion of glamour. That’s not to say I’m always glamorous; few can be, and certainly I’m not one of them. I like comfort far too much to be consistently glamorous. But I’m firmly in glamour’s thrall. When I am walking down the street (particularly 44th Street, in the general direction of an excellent martini) in something I feel glamorous in—say, a certain navy-blue bias-cut polka-dot dress with a draped neckline, clip-clip heels, a small hat, and the reddest lipstick I own—I feel a variety of confidence that I can’t channel using any other means. It’s not a confidence that’s superior to other forms of assurance, but it’s inherently different. It’s the feeling of prettiness, yes, and femininity and looking appropriate for the occasion. It’s all of those things, but the overriding feeling is this: When I am feeling and looking glamorous, I am slipping into an inchoate yet immensely satisfying spot between the public and private spheres. You see me in my polka-dotted ‘40s-style dress, small hat, and lipstick, and you may think I look glamorous—which is the goal. But here’s the trick of glamour: You see me, and yet you don’t. That is, you see the nods to the past, and you see how they look on my particular form; you see what I bring to the image, or how I create my own. Yet because I’m not necessarily attempting to show you my authentic self—whatever that might be—but rather a highly coded self, I control how much you’re actually witness to.

Now, that’s part of the whole problem we feminists have with the visual construction of femininity: The codes speak for us and we have to fight all that much harder to have our words heard over the din our appearance creates. But within those codes also lies a potential for relief, for our own construction, for play, for casting our own little spells. That’s true of all fashion and beauty, but it’s particularly true of the magic of glamour.

I promise not to play tricks on anyone. But forgive me if, every so often, I might want to use a little magic.

Stay tuned for part II tomorrow, in which an author and renowned national columnist, a multidisciplinary artist and satirist, a four-time novelist with a bent toward otherworldly enchantment, and a publicist who's one of the "cultural gatekeepers in the literary world" share their own thoughts on the concept of glamour.
*Glamour isn’t “downmarket” any longer, I don’t think; it’s more middle-market. Or, as a marketing poster once floating through the halls there read, it’s “masstige.”
**Given the dual etymology, I think it's only fair to declare all Glamour grammarians to be sorceresses.

On Ladyblogging and the Slumber Parties of the Internet

An early editorial meeting at Beheld HQ.

As a feminist who started my career at Ms. and wound my way through Glamour and Playboy before winding up at CosmoGIRL!—the exclamation point was part of the name—finding Jezebel shortly after its 2007 launch was delicious. I enjoyed it as a reader, and I enjoyed it even more as a worker in the industry they frequently critiqued, especially as I learned that some of their writers had been in my position—simultaneously excited and dismayed to be in the “pink ghetto,” eager to up the feminist content in glossy ladymags but frustrated by the conditions that Gloria Steinem labeled a “velvet steamroller.”

So it’s not surprising that I’m more kindly disposed to ladyblogs than n+1’s Molly Fischer appears to be. I was 30 when Jezebel launched, and was still eager for what blogs of any sort provided; Fischer, at 20, had gone through adolescence with public critique a click away. I’ve also contributed to two of the four sites Fischer critiques—Jezebel and The Hairpin—and my work there has brought me a portion of The Beheld’s readership, undoubtedly coloring my attitude toward them. I cannot pretend impartiality.

Given the impossibility of impartiality, I admit to being both excited by and uneasy about the n+1 piece. The whole article is worth a read, but in a nutshell, she looks at the evolution of ladyblogs, sites that give traditional women’s topics signature treatment. (Seventeen assures you that masturbating is totally normal; Rookie tells you how to do it.) The bigger the sites get, the more they adhere to what Fischer frames as a particular form of triteness endemic to ladyblogs, in which Zooey Deschanel is shunned but eco-friendly cat bonnets are squeal-worthy. Drained of the gravitas of other alternative women’s media, like explicitly feminist spaces, the potential for ladyblogs to become a true alternative to women’s glossies becomes watered down; the tool for revolution is rendered in scratch-n-sniff. “The internet, it turned out, was a place to make people like you: the world’s biggest slumber party, and the best place to trade tokens of slumber party intimacy—makeup tips, girl crushes, endless inside jokes,” Fischer writes. “The notion that women might share some fundamental experience and interests, a notion on which women’s websites would seem to depend—'sisterhood,' let’s call it—has curdled into BFF-ship.”

What this argument overlooks is that a slumber party is sisterhood. Junior high slumber parties might have brought anything from makeovers to pained sobs over family dysfunction to raging tear-downs of pervy gym teachers. The adult slumber party touches on these, with our adult wisdom added to the mix. The voices of women online have brought me my birth control (“Ask Me About My Mirena!”), lessened my shame about my belly bulge, shined an uncomfortable light on the way social and personal notions of beauty can collide, and opened my mind to what I, as a biological woman, can learn about my own position in society from trans women. There’s fluff, of course (“Watch Kristen Bell Adorably Lose Her Shit Over a Sloth”), but just as silliness coexists alongside our more meaningful concerns, fluffy pieces can comfortably coexist alongside essays on healing from sexual assault. (In fact, for some of us, the fluff was a way to heal.) The slumber party goes all night, after all.

By talking about issues particular to women and treating them as though they matter, we create sisterhood. Ladyblogs do that in tones earnest, flip, and everywhere in between; the “Women Laughing Alone With Salad” Hairpin post Fischer mentions is downright effervescent, and it went viral because it brilliantly encapsulated the way women are painted into a corner where if we’re happy to be eating, it must be because we’re being guilt-free. The post caught on because we all got it, and because we were all fed up with it too. Women laughing alone with salad was, in its own way, sisterhood, and to dismiss it as mere quirk is to dismiss the day-to-day stuff that makes up the particulars of a woman’s life. Fischer ends her piece with a rallying cry for sites that stem from “the notion that women might share some fundamental experience and interests,” but I’m not convinced that the sites in question aren’t doing exactly that. They’re doing them in a more lightweight fashion than Fischer might desire, but the things that constitute gravitas (formality, for example) are frequently structures that purposefully omit the validity of the personal, that look to an “objective” viewpoint (as if there is any such thing) as the end-all, be-all. That is, they’re structures that dismiss the ways plenty of women have written for centuries. Here it comes, that clichéd rallying cry we feminists say over and over: The personal is political.

So it’s unclear what Fischer wants the reader to do—what, when I worked in women’s glossy magazines, we called “the takeaway.” Are we to eschew The Hairpin in favor of today’s equivalent of The Bimonthly Period, the newsletter of the women’s resource center Fischer’s mother founded during her college years? Sites like Feministing, Pandagon, and Feministe play a crucial role in feminism, and therefore in women’s lives—even for women who have never heard of these sites, as they keep the activist fires burning. They can also occasionally feel alienating. I greatly enjoyed my guest blogging stint at Feministe last summer, but I also walked away from it understanding, for the first time, why some people whose politics roughly parallel mine refuse to call themselves feminists. For every commenter who thoughtfully critiqued my message, there would be one who’d say I was a tool of the patriarchy, and another who’d accuse me of abusing my class privilege. It’s a vibrant, razor-sharp community and I was honored to be a part of it, but my point is, if explicitly feminist blogs are the only acceptable online outlet for feminists to inhabit, we’d get exhausted mighty quick. (Let’s also not forget that the number of people who wouldn’t label the targets of Fischer’s critiques as forthrightly feminist is pretty small. The other day I mentioned to a new friend that a mutual writer acquaintance was a “radical feminist”—as in, menstrual art—and her response was, “Oh, does she write for Jezebel?”)

Fischer hits plenty of nails on the head (you know, my opinions being the bed of nails), especially her questioning of the age-appropriacy of ladyblogs' tone. I enjoy Rookie, helmed by 15-year-old Tavi Gevinson—in fact, I enjoy Rookie so much at age 35 that I began to wonder how many teenagers actually read it. I’ll happily cheer unabashed femininity, but like Fischer I’m wary of mass numbers of adult women inhabiting teen spaces. In fact, many of my feelings on this topic can be neatly summed up by an excellent Julie Klausner piece that—oops!—ran in Jezebel.

Still, despite finding aspects of adult-girl culture downright creepy (Hello Kitty?), I see other aspects as liberating. Where women’s magazines place readers on a trajectory of traditional womanhood—teenager to single woman to mommy to retiree—ladyblogs generally treat their readers as though they’re child-free adult women. Ladyblogs don’t mommy-track their readers—and that’s part of why “lady” makes so much sense in describing them. Classically speaking, ladies were put into a somewhat separate class. Ladies of recent centuries had social status; earlier, they had feudal privileges. The ladyblogs don’t use lady in that sense, but it carries a separatist air: We needn’t be quite as serious as we might when using the broader term women, but we don’t want to be girls. Fischer asserts that “On the ladyblogs, adult womanhood is a source of discomfort, and so when we write posts or comments, we tend to call ourselves ladies.” I’d argue the opposite: On the ladyblogs, adult womanhood is a given, and within our shared womanhood we carve out a comfortable space we can all inhabit. Within ladyblogs, we all become ladies.

The lingo may be why the presumably adult women on the ladyblogs (Rookie excluded, as it is aimed at teenagers) might seem to be clinging to girlhood. Fischer questions both the hallmarks of ladyblog style and the way its commenters pick up on it. In my own writing I rilly rilly try to avoid the clichés of the ladysphere (amirite, ladies?), because I don’t want to rely on those methods to convey my point. But as Emily Gould points out, it’s not like “commenter sycophancy” is particular to the ladyblogs. Still, it’s particularly easy to slip into ladysphere lingo, for the very reasons these clichés evolved in the first place: When skillfully employed, ladymags’ “endemic verbal tics” connote personality. Instead of the self-seriousness of magazines, ladylingo gives a tilt to the voice, one that implies we’re all in it together (which, again, is why it’s contagious). The tics serve as a friendly politesse, a way of conveying that you’re typing with a smile.

In fact, that seems to be Fischer’s larger point, and one I’m ambivalent on: Ladybloggers and their commenters are typing with a smile. “They bake pies with low-hanging fruit: they are helpful, agreeable, relatable, and above all likable,” Fischer writes. “Surely one can’t, and shouldn’t, strive to like and be liked all the time. But how else can one be?” (I couldn’t help but wonder how much time Fischer spent actually wading around in comments sections. The culture of “like” looms large, but ladyblog commenters can get vicious, and they’re certainly not afraid to disagree.) The point is an excellent one, but two key points give me pause. First: What’s so wrong about wanting to be liked? I want to be liked; I want my writing to be liked. When I started The Beheld I repeatedly said that all I wanted was to be a part of the conversation. Some writers become a part of the conversation by being controversial, but that’s not my style. I’m a good girl from birth, and it’s built into me to want to be liked. But being liked isn’t my goal in writing; likability is a tool I use to pave my way toward the larger goal of being a part of the conversation, and occasionally hosting it too. There’s plenty to critique about women having a compulsive need to be liked, and it’s something I’ve wrestled with a good deal on a personal level. But I’m not going to apologize for couching arguments in a softer way than I would if my goal were to win.

But the larger issue here about likability is this: Maybe if more women writers were published in gender-neutral publications, writing stories that treat “women’s issues” as people issues, we wouldn’t be paranoid about being so fucking likable. This is a much deeper issue than I’m able to address here, and since most of my bylines have been in explicitly female-oriented spaces, I’m not particularly credible on this front. What I’ll say is that I’m not alone in being a female writer who writes about women’s issues who would be happy to publish in more gender-neutral spaces—and that I rarely pitch those spaces because there’s still a little voice inside me telling me that what I write about is just girl stuff. And people, this is what I do, every day: I write about girl stuff, and I treat it with the gravitas it has in my own life. But that voice is still there, and it’s a result of all sorts of things—internalized oppression, the realities of the “pink ghetto” of women’s issues, fear that if I did start writing more for gender-neutral outlets I’d have to face harsher criticisms than I usually do (the only time I’ve been forthrightly called stupid is from self-identified male commenters, and never on ladyblogs). It’s also a result of me specifically wanting to write for women; as they say, I “write what I know,” and what I know is being a woman. And I don’t particularly want it to be any other way; like I said, I’ve written for ladyblogs, and I wouldn’t bristle at The Beheld being categorized as such. Obviously I believe in what ladyblogs do. But I’m a fool if I think there are no other reasons I align myself with them—reasons that have to do with the “belonging” Fischer criticizes in her piece (“[Ladyblogs] tell us less about how to be than about how to belong”). I know I “belong” in ladyblogs, for I am a lady. I’m not so sure where else I belong.

Despite my misgivings, I liked Fischer’s piece. I like the questions it asks, and I just like that it exists. Recent discussions about women writers and where our bylines ought to be need to continue, and they can’t continue in an authentic manner if we’re afraid of critiquing one another. Ladyblogs aren’t above reproach or critique, and given that some of them serve as watchdogs to traditional women’s media, if we become lax in watching the watchdogs we’re perpetuating the problem. I just don’t want the conversation to be a ping-pong of should we or shouldn’t we, of ladyblogs versus the rest of the Internet. I want the sentiment behind Fischer’s piece to be explored so that whatever these spaces look like in five years, they’re serving women’s needs even more.

Perhaps it’s the women’s magazine veteran in me, but I want a “takeaway” from Fischer’s piece, and I want it to be something like this: We’re in an interesting time as far as gender and access to the public, and we’re also at an time when “voice” is a prime asset for online visibility—“voice” being something women writers have traditionally been told they excel at. We’re also living in a time of fragmented, personally curated information streams, one in which a person could read a handful of sites—even ladyblogs, depending on the blog—and have a reasonable handle on what’s going on in the world. So we’re at the era, and if the proliferation of ladyblogs is any indication, we’ve got the talent. Now what are we going to do with it?


On a related note: I’m thrilled to announce that starting February 6, The Beheld will be syndicated at The New Inquiry. I’ll write more in-depth about this tomorrow but given the topic of this post I thought it would be downright dishonest to not share this bit of news, since TNI is a gender-neutral space that looks at my ladybloggin’ background as an asset, not a ghettoizing detraction. But more on that tomorrow!

Nutricosmetics, Part I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Trust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photoshop, Values, and the Rabbit Hole

"Feminists do the best Photoshop." —Tina Fey

Reading Rebekah’s “photo philosophy” made me consider my own. For a feminist beauty blog, I’ve barely touched on airbrushing here, and there’s a reason for that: It doesn't really faze me. It’s not that I don’t value what feminist scholars like the wonderful Beauty Redefined have to say about retouching; it’s that when you’re steeped in it all day, as I was when working in ladymags, you begin to see it as relatively benign. I tend to agree with Tina Fey’s assessment in Bossypants: “Photoshop is just like makeup.... If you’re going to expend energy being mad about Photoshop, you’ll also have to be mad about earrings. No one’s ears are that sparkly!... I for one and furious that people are allowed to turn sideways in photographs! I won’t rest until people are only allowed to be photographed facing front under a fluorescent light.”

I see the dangers of taking retouching for granted, but I’m more concerned with the number of images we’re faced with every day than what is done to any particular image. I’m thrilled that people are now educated on the preponderance of retouching, but done well, I don’t see it as particularly different than photographers using good lighting. 

More to the point here: On my own photos, I’m thrilled to have it. I’m glad to darken the eyes a little, take out a hint of shine, fix a blemish here or there. I agree with what Rebekah said in the post that inspired this one: “I want my photos to reflect the history of my life, not the history of how I wish my life had looked.” But I also agree with Fey, who wrote of her cover shoot with Bust: “Feminists do the best Photoshop… They leave in your disgusting knuckles, but they may take out some armpit stubble. Not because they’re denying its existence, but because they understand that it’s okay to make a photo look as if you were caught on your best day in the best light.”

I don’t need every photo to make me look like it’s my best day in the best light (and even if I did, I don’t have the skills do make that happen). But if there’s something I can alter digitally that I’d be able to fix with makeup or a lighting change, I’ll do it. I’ll blot out shine, smooth out lipstick, add a little mascara. I’ll take out acne, but not my (colorless) mole; I’ll play with the color balance to make me look more luminous, but I won’t alter the image to make me look lit like a movie star.

In the name of transparency, I’ll show you what I do:

The photo on the left is the original. The middle one is what I’d do if I were posting it to this blog: I put on a warm color filter and toned down the shine; it took about two minutes. The one on the right is what I’d do if I were supplying my photo to an outlet I thought might have a broad circulationa writer pic in a print magazine, for example. (For that I’d probably try to take out the background too, but my powers are limited.) I refined the color balance, including darkening my neck so that my face doesn’t look quite as peachy. I took out the stray loop of hair and cleaned up the flyaways. I evened out the lipstick and further blotted the shine, though I left some in because I'm usually pretty shiny (you may call it dewy if you wish). I darkened the eye area to make it jump a bit more.

I also did something questionable on the last photo that I wouldn’t have done if this were a “real” situation: I ever so slightly trimmed my jawline on the right side of the picture (left side of my face). I’d like to say I purposefully did this as an illustration of how slippery the slope can be, but to be frank, that slippery slope was accidental. I’m justifying it by saying that my head was tilted so the flesh of my face was arranged a little oddly, but I know that’s a justification. I altered it because I could; I altered it because once I’d done all the other stuffthe stuff that could be fixed by a makeup applicationI wanted to take it a step beyond. I wanted to see the jawline I had 10 pounds ago. I wanted to share that image with myself. And nownot in the name of beauty, but in the name of transparency and perhaps a hint of shameI share it with you.

In the same way a photograph of an event can become a primary memory of the event, photographs can become extensions of our self-image; it’s why we can feel nearly affronted upon seeing a less-than-flattering photo of ourselves. And, for a moment, my self-image felt pretty good when I saw this brighter, more luminous version of myself. But I’m not about to argue that altering images to closer align with an imposed beauty standard should be any sort of stand-in for a healthy self-image. (I've got more thinking to do on this, clearly.) It was alarming to find myself going down the Photoshop rabbit hole: I thought I’d spend five minutes blotting my shine, and twenty minutes later I’d lost 10 pounds and had combed my hair. Perhaps that’s where the problem with Photoshop truly is: Not in the fact that it’s done, but in the fact that it can be difficult to know where the line should be drawn.

Like I said, I wouldn’t have shaved millimeters off my jaw if I were using this photo in another situationif for no other reason because it would be disingenuous for a writer who covers women and imagery to do so. But if a retoucher took my raw photo and did the same, I probably wouldn’t even noticeit's barely perceptible, and more important, the altered photo matches my mental image of how I look at my best. I’d just be chuffed that it turned out so nicely, not knowing that the retoucher took my face into her hands and imposed her own ideas onto it. For that’s what we’re getting with retouching: Not just an unreal image, but craftsmanship, which reflects the aesthetics and values of the craftsman. My values allow for shine blotting and more luminous eyes; they don’t allow for jaw shaving. Someone else’s values might not allow for the eye touchup; another wouldn’t hesitate to do even more. Our cultural values have spoken pretty loudly about not wanting out-of-control airbrushing, but neither do we necessarily want raw images eitherand even if we did, as per basic photographic theory (the photographer "retouches" merely by deciding where to point her camera), we’d be out of luck anyway.

What are your photographic values? Or, as Rebekah put it, what is your photo philosophy? Is it in line with how you’d alter or not alter your photographs? 

Edited to add: There's a poll on the right-hand sidebar of The Beheld. Where do you draw the photo retouching line? Please answer!

Beauty and the Lazy Girl

My favorite beauty tips inevitably involve something that makes the beauty ritual go a little bit faster, or a little bit cheaper: toilet seat covers as facial-oil absorbers; baking soda as a face, body, AND hair scrub; tinted moisturizer, etc. I’d always thought I liked these sorts of tips because they were simple, as the majority of beauty tips out there involve more work than I’m willing to do. (I tried Jane Feltes’  cat-eye tutorial, but after a week of just making my eyes water and, sadly, not resembling Julianne Moore's YouTutelage, I gave up.)

Lo and behold: It turns out I’m not a simple woman, but a lazy girl. Before 2003, the “lazy girl” most often turned up in folklore (where the girl in question would either be redeemed through marriage/motherhood, or would be punished for her lackadaisical ways) or erotic literature (“Kolina is a very lazy girl and needs strict discipline”). Enter Anita Naik, a British writer who, in 2003, released a trio of guides for the lazy girl: The Lazy Girl’s Guide to Good Health, The Lazy Girl’s Guide to Good Sex (?!)—and, of course, the Lazy Girl’s Guide to Beauty. (Thanks to Ms. Naik, lazy girls now also have personalized guides to living green, becoming successful, living the high life on a budget, and having both a party and a blissful pregnancy, preferably not at the same time, because everyone knows it ain't a party til there's mai tais.)

The line wasn’t actually for women who were lazy, of course: It was just a down-to-earth catchphrase that neatly capitalized upon the spate of guides for Idiots and Dummies, seeming downright solicitous compared to those titles. The main effect the series had was that it made the terminology caught on: Everywhere from Cosmo to Seventeen to Refinery 29 to Prevention (which is geared toward women over 35, though lazy women just doesn’t have the same ring, does it?) has run guides for the lazy girl, usually focusing on fitness or beauty.

The term “lazy girl” reveals less about the low-effort shortcuts that are promised and more about what it implies about all the rest of the beauty advice we’re given. While we sometimes use lazy to mean leisurely (a lazy Sunday afternoon), most of the time when we use lazy—especially in work-obsessed America—we’re using it as a slur. When we giddily tout the guide for the lazy girl, it may seem liberating, but in actuality it’s an admonishment: We’ll let you get away with it this time, the lazy girl’s guide tells its readers. But don’t think you can get used to this.

Sometimes the advice really can be applied to the lazy—sleep with your hair in a bun so you wake up with no-labor waves; wear bright colors to distract from your less-made-up face. But much of the time the advice is downright industrious. At best, it’s about skipping beauty labor that, under other conditions, we’re assumed to perform. “I don’t curl my eyelashes,” confesses the Refinery 29 writer; “Use an illuminating cream-colored shadow on your eyelids, inner corner of the eye and under the brow to make your eyes look wide awake," writes Daily Makeover—the presumption being that this is a shortcut from our normal eyeshadow routine. At worst, it’s about encouraging us to buy more products, with an accompanying convoluted justification of how it actually saves us labor: We can spray our feet with callous softening spray for when we give ourselves pedicures; we can buy an ionic hair dryer; we can do at-home highlights (the idea being that we’re “too lazy to hit the salon,” as though laziness is what's preventing most women from getting professional hair color). 

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’ve got nothing against a good beauty tip, and I’ve definitely got nothing against laziness, of which I have a long, mighty history. (ase in point: At age eight I announced to my family that I was dropping the first letter of parenthetical clauses that began with the letter “C” in order to save myself the effort. AND I STAND BY IT.) In fact, the very reason the spate of lazy girl tips jumped out at me is because it's the type of beauty story I'm most likely to read—in theory, it's geared specifically toward women like me, whose beauty routines are performed with a sort of no-nonsense attitude, not a mind-set of fantasy and play, and who thus are probably looking for a break here and there. And I actually appreciate the irreverence of the lazy girl’s guide over the sacrosanct attitude some beauty copy has.

I just don’t like the idea that by being minimal, I’m being lazy, as though not applying eyeshadow is in the same category as playing dumb when it comes time to tally up the restaurant bill (I’ll always pay my share, but please for the love of God don’t make me do the math, too many mai tais!) or calling a coworker to pick up a file instead of delivering it myself. I’m actively choosing “lazy” tips because I’m the opposite of lazy—I’m busy. My beauty labor is indeed labor, and I treat it as such—but the mere act of performing it is a sign I’m not lazy about it at all.

Am I an Apple or a Pear, Part II: You're a Daffodil, Love!

According to the Wikipedia entry on female body shape—because of course “female body shape” has its own Wikipedia entry—I am an apple, as my shoulders are broader than my hips. Of course, according to their definition, I’m also a “rectangle” (my waist is less than 9 inches smaller than my hips), a pear (my hip measurement is bigger than my bust), and perhaps even an hourglass (when terms like “almost” are used, as in “hips and bust are almost the same measurement,” it’s unclear whether we’re talking ½ inch difference or three inches). A list of various other shapes I might be—a spoon, a brick, an A-frame—reads more like a lake house in Wisconsin than a body.

I used to chalk this up to having a sort of weird body shape. Now I realize it’s not because my figure is weird, but because it is utterly unremarkable.

I don’t have the trim waist and ample bosom of an hourglass. I don’t have enough of an imbalance between my upper and lower halves to land me in a pear orchard. My tummy is generous, but “apple” advice is usually for women whose bellies protrude, not someone who’s just thick in the middle. In other words: My figure is far from perfect, but I don’t have any outstanding physical feature that I “need” to dress around on a daily basis. And chances are, if you don’t know your body shape, neither do you.

So I’ll settle this for you, friends: If you can’t tell whether you’re an apple, pear, or an hourglass, you’re none of them.

Not satisfied? You might have more luck with something like Trinny & Susannah’s body shape guide, which has 12 possible forms—but, if you’re like me, you’ll still be left untyped. This isn’t because of your crazy, freakish body type that is unfit to be clothed. It’s because your body is probably a combination of run-of-the-mill (I mean that with love!) without a particular feature that calls for attention, and certain features that you may want to highlight or conceal but that don’t land you in one of the classic types.

None of this is to say that A) any of us need to “fix” anything with our dressing, or that B) women who are easily fruit-typed are contractually obliged to dress for their shape. For more on point A, I’ll again refer you to Mrs. Bossa’s awesome quote roundup on dressing for your figure. For more on point B, I’ll refer you to a gloriously pear-shaped former roommate who looked smashing when she emphasized her delicate upper body and voluptuous lower half in tight jeans and a tiny tank—and who sometimes just wanted to not be the lady with the amazing hips but merely a lady with a lovely and comparatively unremarkable figure, and who would then trot out her tasteful A-line skirts and colorful ruffled tops. Either way is fine, but isn’t it nice to have a choice in the matter?

For all my no-particular-body-shape sisters, I offer the following advice:

1) Quit trying to figure out what shape you have.
Despite how intimately we know our bodies, there’s so much value attached to certain features that it can be difficult to know what your body actually looks like. I was always paranoid about my thighs—indeed, I found my whole body to be too generously sized for my tastes. The result was that until my early 30s, I faithfully followed standard fashion advice for pear shapes and plus-size women, despite being neither particularly pear-ish nor plus-size. I wound up with a closet full of circle and A-line skirts and lots of black. This would be fine if it were my natural taste, but A) I followed this advice for so long that it muted whatever authentic style I might have had, and B) it wasn’t my natural taste. I let my fears about my body, not my actual body’s gifts and flaws, dictate how I dressed. I have since recovered, and do not own a single circle skirt.

As for bucking the black, I offer you...mojitos!

2) Forgive me for stating the obvious, but: Try it on. Not just clothes you think will flatter you, but clothes you think won’t. Hell, try on pieces that are totally outside of your style—I tried on jeggings and a striped batwing top once as a joke to myself (never say I don’t know how to amuse myself) and though I wouldn’t wear that ensemble, I was surprised to find that instead of the blousy top exaggerating the thickness of my waist, it worked with the fitted bottom to make my legs look longer and leaner than they are. The look worked. If I’d stuck strictly to the fashion advice for thick-waisted gals, I’d never have learned that for whatever reason of proportion, the look worked for me even though it went against standard wisdom. (Currently trying to figure out how to rock this without going über-Williamsburg, where I would be immediately spotted as a fraud who has never read David Foster Wallace. Help?)

3) Ask a friend. Not long ago, I shyly asked my glamorously stylish friend Lisa Ferber for some style help. We spent the evening with me trying on dress after dress after dress of hers, and we’d look in the mirror and figure out why each piece either worked or didn’t. As a result, each and every dress I’ve purchased since then has been a total win: I know to look for fitted sleeveless dresses in bright colors or large patterns that stretch over the torso to elongate it, and to not have too much fabric below the waist. It was such a gift for her to give me, and when I thanked her profusely she reminded me that it was a joy for her to be able to guide a friend. (She happens to have an amazing wardrobe, but this could have taken place at Macy’s or wherever, albeit without cocktails. OR MAYBE WITH.) I suggest you choose a trusted friend with whom you don’t have to choose your words gingerly or have any element of rivalry. I think the whole “women secretly hate each other!” thing is bogus and for the movies, but if I hadn’t trusted Lisa as completely as I do, there might have been a little voice that wondered what she really meant when she’d say something didn’t work on my frame. (I know she just meant...it didn’t work on my frame.) 
This lady clearly also got some fabulous style advice. Oil painting, Lisa Ferber, 2011.

4) Look to style experts who don’t hang their hat on “dress your shape.” This is one of many reasons why I love the approach of Sally McGraw of Already Pretty. I purchased her excellent self-guided mini-makeover PDF, and what leaped out to me was that there was next to no “dress to flatter” advice in there. (Body shape only makes an appearance when she suggests getting a professional bra fitting, since “Bodies change, you know”—a flaw in many “dress your body” approaches. Never once, in a dozen years of scrutinizing these pages, have I seen an acknowledgment that you may need to reassess your figure on occasion. I weigh the same as I did in 2003 but my waistline has grown, changing my shape.) She seems to assume that the reader can look in the mirror and figure out if something exaggerates a feature she’d rather not play up—an assumption I think is correct, for even if I’m not style-savvy enough to know why an empire waist looks so bad on me when by all means it “should,” I sure as hell know it does look bad, and I’m not going to fill my closet with them. Image consultant Arash Mazinani is outright anti-body-shape, and his explanation makes sense to me: “I mean, think about the human body and think about all the different shapes and sizes it comes in. Can we really just slot someone into 1 of 12 shapes?” Help is out there! Just listen to the right people.

The Citizen Rosebud said it perfectly on Mrs. Bossa’s roundup: “I like the idea of guidelines...but the mirror and an honest eye works better than any Fashion Bible.” Now, I don’t fear that those of us who don’t neatly fit into any category are walking around in a state of fashion paralysis. Chances are that intuitively, you’ve absorbed the important part of Citizen Rosebud’s words here.

But if you came here by asking the Internet “am I an apple or a pear?”, here’s where I’m going to point to your ruby slippers and tell you that you had the answer with you all along. Look at yourself honestly in your favorite clothes; look at yourself in the clothes you want to like but never feel quite right in. Try not to approach this with a critical eye; try to approach it with the eye you’d cast toward a person who loves you, and whom you love back. That person won’t give a damn if some pieces make your tummy pooch out a bit—but she’ll sure notice when you show up wearing an outfit that shows you at your best. Put on her glasses, map out what works for you, and trust that. It will help you more than any figure-flattery advice out there.

For part one of the "am I an apple or a pear?" question—and why I think figure flattery can have more in common with personality tests than actual style advice—click here.

Am I An Apple or a Pear, Part I: Body Types as Personality Test

"Well, Doc, I see a moth, my father, and a 22-inch waist." 

As a kid, there was nothing I loved more than taking every personality quiz I could find. I gave myself Rorschach tests (the administrator was possibly biased and definitely untrained), took the Myers-Briggs annually starting at age 8, gobbled up every YM quiz known to girlkind, and drove my parents insane with a book called “1001 Ways to Find Your Personality,” determining my core self based on everything from swimsuit color to favorite art epoch. (I eventually repaid my debt to the teen-mag world by penning this quiz on “What Kind of Feminist Are You?”)

I still like personality tests in the way I like astrology: It’s not so much that I believe being born on May 27 means that I’m adaptable, cerebral, and a bit inconsistent (moi?!); it’s that having a personality imprint in front of me gives me a baseline from which to compare, much the same way I never know where I want to go for dinner but can always pick when given the choice between pizza and Mexican. But when I came across Cult of Personality by Annie Murphy Paul, I paid attention. Her beef with personality tests--especially the sort that are administered by institutions to determine professional “fit”--is that they’re often “invalid, unreliable, and unfair,” more entertainment than science. Her argument is compelling, but since I largely approach them as entertainment already, what I got out of the book was a questioning of my own drive to compulsively categorize myself.

There’s something comforting about being able to locate oneself within a larger pattern. Identity is such an amorphous creature that it’s no wonder we yearn for tools to help us stake our claim: I’m an ENFP, let me do the talking. It’s an anchor, something to hold on to as we navigate our complicated lives--especially in a culture like America’s, whose success is pegged upon a mix of individualism and solidarity. It can give us a sense of revelation to see ourselves presented in a neat little paragraph package, or so says this “charming, ingenuous, risk-taking, sensitive, people-oriented individual with capabilities ranging across a broad spectrum.” (I blush, Myers-Briggs!)

And if that’s all true for personality, imagine what power that has when applied to the vessel that’s such a handy receptacle for our griefs, stresses, anxieties, and pride--the body.

To be clear: I don’t think we seek our personalities through apple/pear/hourglass. I think we look to them to help guide us toward making smart sartorial decisions. But when we heap so many expectations onto our bodies--their size and their shape--is it any wonder that we might be looking to body-type assessments for something a little more critical than whether we should wear pencil skirts?

“Dress for YOUR Figure!” pages are perennially popular in women’s magazines; that’s why so many ladymags feature them. Readers love them; they’re cheap to produce--everyone wins, right? But when I noticed that one of the most popular search terms that lands people at this blog was “am I an apple or a pear,” I started to wonder if everyone was winning. Most of us are amalgams of body types, yet we keep on looking to see if “our” bodies show up. Beyond apple/pear/hourglass, of course, there’s The Body Shape Bible, which features 12 types (none of which are mine, incidentally), The Body Code Quiz (which called me a “Visionary,” along with Twiggy and Gwyneth Paltrow, whose bodies mine resembles only in that we’re all homo sapiens), Joy Wilson’s Shape Guide (which introduces strawberries into the fruit salad of women’s bodies), Shop Your Shape (I’m a spoon!)--and so on and so on. 

What this says to me is that we’re all hungry for validation that our bodies--in all their short-waisted, full-hipped, apple-bellied glory--belong somewhere on the grid of attractive human beings. It speaks to that ever-American desire to be recognized both as an individual (“this advice is specifically tailored to me and my needs”) and as a part of a larger group (“obviously I can’t be alone in my rounded belly if there’s a whole page on how to turn an apple into an hourglass”). And that drive to compulsively categorize myself that I felt at age 8? It shows up in a small twinge of happiness I feel whenever I see hourglass flattery advice that also happens to work on my non-hourglass figure. Maybe I’m not so far from my ideal after all, I’ll vainly hum to myself. And if the odd A-line skirt helps me bridge the gap between my real body and my ideal one--well, if that just means I need to check a different body box than I’d like, so be it.

On its face, it seems to be pro-woman on all fronts--these magazine pages are among the few to acknowledge the existence of women size 10 and up, and there’s often an air of empowerment that accompanies the advice. If I’ll make the argument for Jersey Shore as a beauty democracy, certainly dress-your-body pages can’t be far behind--with just a few words and pictures, ostensibly readers can learn how to mimic an hourglass shape with a series of small tips that maximize our best features and artfully conceal the other bits. (Of course, I usually just wear a sandwich board, so none of this applies to me.) And there’s a lot to be said from a feminist perspective on this--Mrs. Bossa’s insightful series on what it means to “dress your shape” gets into this, particularly with its culmination, a roundup of quotes and photos from other feminist-minded fashion bloggers. “What’s really happening here is about making my beautiful, unique body look like someone else’s...on the other hand, I like this vision [dressing to mimic an hourglass] of my body,” writes Allyson of Decoding Dress.

That mimicry is what it’s about, isn’t it? Doesn’t all the fashion advice in these “dress your figure” bits just try to make us all look like hourglasses? As much as websites and magazines spin it in a go-girl way (“You’re an apple! Play up your fabulous legs!”--huh? But read “apple” advice enough and that’s what you’ll see), at the end of the day we’re trying to locate ourselves on the matrix so that we can stake our claim on land that isn’t really ours. I was doing it at age 8 with the Myers-Briggs, feeling the thrill of seeing “myself” on the written page without really knowing what the grand purpose was. We do it with astrology, draw-a-person tests and related memes, the Keirsey Temperament Sorter, enneagrams, and other forms of modern voodoo. They're all meant to be useful, and, on occasion, entertaining--and we love these tests for reasons far beyond their utility. Am I alone in attaching value beyond the circumference of my hips to these body-type breakdowns?

Tomorrow I’ll take a stab at answering the question that’s brought so many readers here: Are you an apple or a pear? (Hint: You’re neither, but we’ll get to that tomorrow.)

Thoughts on a Portmanteau: Cankles

The earliest mention of cankles in written matter has nothing to do with either calves or ankles. Chosen not for its imagined meaning but for its terrific dissonance, c-a-n-k-l-e was deemed so ludicrous by sci-fi writer Don Webb that he chose it as the premise of “Late Night at Webster’s,” a 1996 postmodern essay envisioning how new words enter the dictionary. “A word was dropped in their midst. It was cankle,” the essay begins, with his imagined characters bantering back and forth, "Canker and ankle. A foot sore." "Canner and baker. A grandmother." "A compound, can and kill." “I move that cankle is a dead metaphor.” "I can't picture Goethe saying cankle." It’s lunacy, and that’s the whole point, for who would ever take cankle seriously?

And yet, as we know, we did take the cankle seriously. So I began to research its early usage outside of postmodern sci-fi essays—and here, Dear Reader, I have a shocking confession: I am the Oedipus of cankles.* I started researching early uses of the word in an effort to point a triumphant finger and say, This is where it began! Behold Pandora's box!—and found that the earliest print usage of cankle as an actual word was in a 2003 issue of Glamour magazine that I’d copyedited. I could have abandoned cankles on a mountaintop, Jocasta-style, but instead I chose sympathy and let it thrive—and here, today, in front of you all, cankles has come back to wed its blogmother.

 The Finding of Oedipus, French School, 17th or 18th century. 
To think I was once as naive of my role in cankles as Oedipus was here of his
filial relation to his bride Jocasta. O innocence!

The copy reads, "It's a genetic fact: Some women have cankles—thick, calflike ankles." I remember feeling uneasy about the word at the time, and also feeling powerless to speak up; supposedly clever wordplay was the premise of the piece, which was a roundup of words Glamour came up with to describe various appearance-related phenomenon, like deep fryer for a woman who overtans. (In truth, I was a young freelance copy editor and there's no way anyone would have taken it out on my say-so, but I prefer to think of myself in a tragic Hellenic fashion here.) 

In any case, I was deeply relieved to learn that cankles had an earlier appearance in a more appropriate setting—2001’s Shallow Hal, uttered by Jason Alexander’s superficial character. So Glamour didn’t coin the term (and I can’t be certain that Glamour marked its print debut, but I’m unable to unearth anything earlier), but the magazine did take cankles from its purposefully loopy origins—as something said by a character whose comedy stems from his inability to see anything but someone’s adherence to a conventional beauty standard—and made it something we’re supposed to be legitimately concerned about. Certainly Glamour helped tip it from the realm of comedy into the mainstream: By 2006, cankles had made it into Men's Health, Women's Health, Newsweek, Skinny Bitch, a small library of novels and un-noteworthy books, and the Weekly World News, which recommended a magic spell to get rid of them (it involves the new moon, African violet, and visualizing your cankles going to a person of your choosing).

Really, though, cankles aren’t the least of it. I’m focusing on cankles because it’s Portmanteau Week here at The Beheld (I encourage everyone to celebrate Portmanteau Week with me; we'll make appletinis!), but my concerns here are broader: love handles, saddlebags, potbellies. Muffin-tops, bat-wings, back bacon, FUPA (which is thankfully little-known outside of people who make a sport out of shaming women’s bodies, so I won’t get into its acronym here). Hell, to keep it on point with portmanteaus, we have ninkles, which barely qualifies as a portmanteau (if we—"we," of course, meaning the British Vogue editor who coined the term and exactly no one else ever—must come up with a word for knee wrinkles, can’t we have it be kninkles?) We keep coming up with these terms to describe parts of women that are perfectly normal parts to have, or that indeed aren’t a part of their bodies at all—even the slenderest of women will have a “muffin-top” if her pants don’t fit right. We name it to shame it.

We’ve gotten quicker to name these wobbly bits, and we’ve gotten meaner too. Love handles, which originated in the late 1960s, is generous to that bit of flesh above the hips—the term implies that maybe we’re to be adored, and then handled, for having it in our possession. We may still wish to exercise them away, but they’re endearing, and its usage implies affection. “His girlfriend grabbed the rolls around his middle and playfully christened them love handles” (Dr. Solomon’s Easy, No-Risk Diet, 1974); “I kissed Alex, putting my arms around the bulges above his waist, the ones my mother always called love handles” (Galaxy magazine, 1975).

So with love handles being too full of, well, love, muffin-top came in as a handy replacement for it, right along the time we started hearing shrieks about the obesity epidemic (and, of course, abdominal obesity, which can “strike” even slim-seeming Americans). Muffin-top is talk-cute, no doubt, but there’s a meanness to it that I don’t sense with love handles. William Safire disambiguates love handles from muffin-top by saying that the muffin top is more circular as opposed to being strictly on the sides, as with the “handles” in love handles. That’s part of it, but it’s not the whole story. Muffin-top is specifically a term about how people look when they’re dressed—its very definition relies upon flesh spilling over a waistband. Love handles is specifically a term about how people might possibly be touched—amorously—when they’re undressed.

“We have terms like sexual harassment and battered women,” wrote Gloria Steinem about the progress of feminism in her 1979 essay “Words and Change. “A few years ago, they were just called life.” The inverse intent holds true too: If naming domestic violence allows us to go about fixing it, what does that do for cankles, which were once just called life? Every time we use a word like cankles to describe bodies—our own or other women’s—we give them more power than they merit. The entire purpose of these supposedly cute words isn’t to nullify women’s shame about our bodies; it’s meant to amplify it.

In some cases, these words are developed to create shame where there wasn’t any, which is another neat trick of these terms—most of the time, we don’t really know if we possess the dreaded words. Do I have saddlebags, or do I just have hips? Do I have bat-wings, or are my upper arms merely fleshy? Do I have back bacon, rolls of porcine flesh spilling out over my bra band—or do I just need a better bra?

The naming problem applies across the board, but the portmanteaus here seem particularly egregious. Portmanteaus fill a need, or describe something that’s already happening. When they’re created not to label an existing phenomenon that begs discourse—say, e-mail—but to create a demand, it’s usually a corporation that’s doing the naming: Verizon, Rolodex, Amtrak, Texaco. But with the ugly little portmanteaus (portmanteaux?) we use to describe body parts, The Man isn’t benefiting. Sure, big business is known for inventing problems so that they could be solved; eyelash hypotrichosis (conveniently solved by Latisse!) is my personal favorite. But other than Gold Gym’s 2009 “Cankle Awareness Month” and a couple of ebooks titled things like "Say Goodbye to Cankles," businesses aren’t benefiting from these specific words of body policing, even as many of them funnel money into the weight-loss industry. So if the corporations aren’t winning with cutesy terms like cankles, who is?

*Actually, if we're going to get all word-nerd here, Oedipus is the Oedipus of cankles. The poor babe was bound at the ankles by his father so that he couldn't crawl, then abandoned on a mountaintop so that he wouldn't survive in order to fulfill the Oracle's prophecy of marrying his mother and killing his father. Oedipus was rescued by his adoptive parents, who named him for his swollen feet and ankles: Oedema is the ancient Greek word for swelling. (It's where edema comes from, incidentally.)

Five Beauty Sale Finds For Which I'd Gladly Shell Out Retail Price

I rarely write about products on here, in part because so many other people do it so well, and with more genuine enthusiasm than I have even at my most enthused. But after last week's post on ladymag beauty sales, I took a look at my collection and realize there are some damn good products I never would have tried had I not gotten them for a dollar—and that I'd be willing to (or already have) purchase at retail value. So in the name of beauty sisterhood, I present: beauty sale finds worth their actual price.

1) MAC Mineralize Skinfinish Natural in Sun Power: Um, so I didn't realize until I read the product description that this isn't necessarily a bronzer. That's how I use it, though. I like that it's a hard powder, not a loose one that gets everywhere, and that it's not particularly shimmery. Honestly, bronzers are really all about whatever tone happens to work with your skin, so maybe I just lucked out here. But in any case, it's palm-sized so it feels more luxurious than some brands. Because big = luxury, because I am American.

2) Hard Candy Sheer Envy Primer: When I interviewed a beauty editor, she told me that one of her must-haves was primer. I've always been skeptical about primers, as it seems exactly like the kind of thing cosmetics companies would create just to make you buy more stuff. But! Primers are awesome! This one creates a nice base, giving the illusion of a smoother skin texture, and even though it's not billed as a mattifier, I notice I don't get shiny as quickly as I normally do when I put this on. It takes 15 seconds and the face-feel is nice and smooth, and even though I hate that this product uses "envy" in its title, I do love wearing it.

Um, this image has nothing to do with body cream! But the scent of the body cream I got is discontinued, so instead of picturing a product I don't actually own I'm turning you on to Tatterhood, a collection of traditional fairy tales by The Feminist Press featuring strong female protagonists. Awesome gift for a young reader. And thus, I have ameliorated the utter lack of intellectual heft in this post.

3) C.O. Bigelow Body Cream: One of the downsides of the beauty sale is that your risk of finding a product you love and then having it discontinued is higher, because the companies are throwing everything at you, and so few products wind up sticking around in the long run. So my preferred fragrance, Ginger Mentha, is sadly discontinued (though they have other Ginger Mentha products). But what I really love about this moisturizer is its perfect mix of creaminess without greasiness; it's light enough in summer but strong enough for winter, and basically I am in love.

4) Jergens Natural Glow Revitalizing Daily Moisturizer: In theory, I think it's a terrible idea to dye your skin orange. In practice, though! I love looking tan! I'm too lazy to use this all the time, but when I do use it, it gives a natural, gradual glow that doesn't make you look orange and that won't make you regret using it if you miss a spot. The smell isn't quite up to par yet but it's miles better than that tanning stuff we used in the '80s. All the magazines say this is the best gradual self-tanner, and though I haven't tried others, I can't see what would make one better than this.

5) Lush Coconut Deodorant Powder: Truthfully, I don't use this often, because my morning routine always involves me putting on deodorant after I've gotten dressed, and since this is a powder it would get everywhere. But every so often I remember its existence and put it on before I get dressed (in something light-colored, mind you), and it's fantastic. It's surprisingly effective for a powder, feels nice to put on, and smells like coconut, which, combined with the Jergens Natural Glow, will have to suffice until I can spend six months on a beach in Thailand.

The Ladymag Beauty Sale (and What I've Learned From Them)

This post is a part of this month's Feminist Fashion Bloggers prompt: women in media. You can read a roundup of all FFB prompt posts here.

Imagine every single beauty product you have ever heard of being crammed into one room, and you have something resembling the women's magazine beauty closet. And when I say "every single beauty product you have ever heard of," I want you to really picture every permutation of every product possible. Lipsticks, lip pencils, lip stains, lip glosses. Fake nails, fake hair, fake eyelashes, fake tans. Body moisturizers, body butters, body creams, body oils, body lathers, body lotions, body powders, body bars. Eyelash curlers, skin supplements, bust enhancers, electronic ab exercisers, "face yoga" contraptions, pubic hair dye, coconut-scented underarm powders, brow waxing templates, nail polish that changes color with your mood—you get the point. I'm not talking a narrow selection here, people. I am talking buckets—literally, buckets—full of lipstick, bins of nail polish, drawers full of powder compacts.

"What about the seventh generation? Where are you taking them? What will they have?"
They will have my nail polish collection.

Companies send magazines these products in hopes of making it into the pages, which sometimes happens and sometimes doesn't. (Beauty editor Ali gets into this in our interview, and if you're interested in the goings-on of beauty departments, add Free Gift With Purchase by Lucky beauty editor Jean Godfrey-June to your must-read list. Incidentally, she estimates she receives 50-200 products every single day, which is par for the course.) For every product you see featured in a magazine, there are hundreds that don't make it. But unlike couture fashions, which are usually returned after photo shoots, all the beauty goodies wind up in the beauty closet.

So the closet gets full, and the beauty team needs to make room for more products to come in, so maybe once a quarter they'll have a beauty sale. The bins and buckets come out, and staffers have at it. Whether it's a $2 Wet 'n' Wild lipstick or a $98 face serum, it's $1 now. (Proceeds go to charity, often a women's shelter, I'm glad to report.) If it's a big enough sale, you may well see a line of women snaking through the office, bags and single dollar bills clutched in hand, ready for the fray. And a fray it can be.


At this point, you may be wondering what a ladymag beauty sale has to do with feminism, even as its link to women in media is obvious, since everyone there is, indeed, a woman in the media. Here's what:

Despite the easy targets that ladymags sometimes make for feminists, the brains behind them are usually those of intelligent, perceptive women, many of whom identify as feminists, or at least notafeministbuts. Trust me, these are women who care about improving women's lives, even if the product isn't always what I'd like it to be. And, of course, these are also women who care about beauty. So when you put together dozens of these minds in a room with hundreds of beauty products that are essentially free for the taking, you wind up with a hothouse of beauty messages. You hear hope ("will this work?"), and joy ("Tahitian vanilla bean body lotion! OMG!"), and camaraderie ("Ooh, I'm glad you got that face scrub")—and, of course, anxiety.

It's this anxiety that has become the caricature of women's magazines. Were a beauty sale ever depicted in a Hollywood movie, it would culminate in a catfight over a bottle of mousse with which Amy Adams and Drew Barrymore set one another's hair on fire. (Laffs!) Of the beauty sale in Confessions of a Beauty Addict, beauty editor turned novelist Nadine Haobsh writes: "...otherwise warm-hearted, generous women...behaving like spoiled, me-me-me! toddlers. The conference room is crowded with assistants and editors, all frantically pawing through the products on the tables....One woman...snatches a lipstick.... 'That's mine!' she exclaims nastily. 'I just put it down for a second. I'm buying it.'"

"If someone's in the hospital or a nursing home, load up on the cheap beauty products. While it's fine to give the patient something, that's not the point. ... Put them all in a big bag, and hand them over for the patient to distribute to his or her caregivers. Not only will the patient receive markedly more receptive care, but he or she will get that not-insignificant zing of power that comes (I'm speaking from experience here) from being the distributor." —Jean Godfrey-June, Free Gift With Purchase, the best of the ladymag tell-alls, fiction or otherwise

Don't get me wrong: There is tension at these sales, and it is a madhouse, and people do get inordinately out of control on occasion. (Records circa 2001 may reflect a hapless copy editor who cadged her boss into handing over some cake mascara and still feels guilty every time she uses it, which is never. It's cake mascara and therefore too amazing to be used.) But the ensuing beauty talk reveals quieter, less stereotyped stories of the women in this world; the conversations that take place after a beauty sale, as everyone walks around and checks out each other's finds, teach me more about my colleagues than you'd initially think. I remember my abrasive manager walking out with more than 75 products, then seeing her pore over her goods at her desk. "I grew up poor," she said to me, nearly apologetically. "When my mom saw something on sale, we always had to get it, because we didn't know if we'd be able to afford it any other time. I'll never use sandalwood body spray, but it was a dollar." I remember overhearing a woman from the ad sales department—that is, a woman whose job it is to appeal to beauty and fashion companies and show them how our readers want to spend their money on products—holding a bottle of vitamin C cellulite cream at arm's-length. "Does anyone know if this works?" she said in this flat, cynical tone that belied the daily grind of mustering up enthusiasm about an industry that, like me, she's probably conflicted over. I remember a woman I'd never seen in a drop of makeup carting out a showgirl's dressing room of eyeshadow. "I should just get shampoos, I know, since I never use any of this stuff," she said to me—again, apologetically. "But it's just so fun to think about using them, isn't it?"

Beauty sales exemplify the push-pull of ladymags that has long fascinated me—and that has continued to pull me back into the industry during times when I wanted to push away. I used to consider the fashion and beauty talk in women's magazines the "hook" that would lure readers in so we could give them the good-for-you features—you know, the vitamin-rich pieces about women in Afghanistan or reproductive rights. Those pieces are essential, to be sure. But through dallying over bins of lipstick with my coworkers—and through witnessing my own impulse to grab as much as I can and then horde it—I began to become more comfortable with my own relationship with beauty. The beauty sale was a baby step toward seeing beauty products not as weapons of concealment but as potential tools of communication: of myself to the world, of colleague to colleague.  

As beauty editor Ali said, "It's funny that some people look down upon a journalist like me who's in women's service magazines. I may or may not want to know about the third reich of blah blah blah, but they always want to know what lipstick to buy!" If beauty talk sometimes serves as the lingua franca of women, then women's magazines function as its motherland. There's genuine communication happening there, even in what seems to be the most frivolous of settings. You just have to listen.

Sunny Sea Gold, Writer, New York City

Writer, editor, and recovered binge eater Sunny Sea Gold shares her personal story with a forthright fearlessness, both on her support site, Healthy Girl, and through her book. Food: The Good Girl’s Drug is a step-by-step guide toward recovery for an eating disorder that has only recently begun to be fully addressed. One of the most outstanding aspects of her book is in its very subtitle: How to Stop Using Food to Control Your Feelings. Her writing spurred me to think more comprehensively about the roots of eating disorders (hint: It ain’t all about the airbrushed models), and if you read her book, it’ll do the same for you. She’s currently a deputy editor at Redbook, and the former health editor at both Seventeen and Glamour. We talked about the media as eating-disorder scapegoat, the role anger can play in recovery, and having “such a pretty face.” In her own words:

Sunny Sea Gold at 29 weeks pregnant with her first child

On the Role of Media in Eating Disorders
Therapists pretty much agree that there are three main causes of eating disorders, and most of us who get them have a combination of the three. One is your genetics. Second is your physiology, like the biology of your actual brain—your personality. Some people are incredibly resilient and slough off difficult messages; other people are not. In my book I call them Velcro; things stick to them. I’m Velcro. The third thing is environment. Environment is broken into two parts: the environment of your home, what your mom and dad said to you, the behaviors they modeled. The other part of environment is culture. So about one-sixth of eating disorders can be blamed on cultural environment, like the pictures we’re shown. That’s what I mean when I say skinny models don’t cause eating disorders. I just think that’s completely oversimplified and kind of ridiculous. If we magically were able to suddenly change the images we see in order to be diverse in all ways, gradually that part of the pressure would relieve itself. But it wouldn’t relieve that need of a girl to control her food intake because she can’t control her life.

I think people focus on the images because they’re an easy scapegoat. It’s something outside of yourself that you can look at and demonize, and get angry about. You can’t get angry about genetics, you can’t get angry about personality. You can get angry at your parents, but after a while you’ll forgive them. But you can forever blame and be angry at the fashion industry and the media. Not that I don’t think people should have some anger—I think the passionate advocates for change in the media have made a difference, and I hope that people still keep talking about it. I do think there’s a lot wrong with the images we see, and I’m hoping in some very small ways to work from the inside to help. But I think it’s largely about having something to be angry with.

It’s also about rebellion. The media is a convenient thing to rebel against. And rebellion, for me, was a very important part of getting better. I wasn’t really angry at the media—I rebelled against the dieting stuff. I was pissed off at diets and diet books and diet pills and diet gurus, and that anger made me strong. I didn’t have full internal strength yet: I hadn’t been through therapy, I hadn’t sort of resolved my issues, and I needed something to kind of pull me upright. The anger of rebellion really helped me do that. After a while, I didn’t really need it anymore. I’m still disappointed and frustrated by the way our society deals with weight. But I could let that intense anger go. Media rage probably helps other people get to that point. 

On “Love Your Body”
Serious body image issues are very, very rarely ever about your actual body. So learning to love it isn’t really what’s going to change anything. What’s actually going is that you have a control issue, a self-esteem issue, depression, anxiety. Just like the fashion industry or magazines are convenient places to place our anger on, our bodies are a very convenient, tangible place to place our angst, our disgust, whatever else. You know how sometimes you’ll leave the house and feel fine? Then something—you don’t even know what it is—happens during the day, and the next time you pass a mirror you feel like you look like gunk. And you are suddenly the ugliest creature on the planet, and so fat. There’s no way your face or body has changed in a matter of hours; something inside of you has changed, and we just place it right on our bodies. The other stuff is too amorphous, and it’s scary and not easily remedied. Our bodies, we’re told, are easily fixed: four weeks of this, five pounds in one week, or whatever.

In a way it’s almost like hope: If only I could get my body to be a certain way, I’ll be happy. When I stopped believing that, I felt lost for a while. Because I thought, Oh great, now I’m stuck with my life. For so long I’d been thinking that when I’d be thin, or when I’d stop binge eating, everything would be fine and I would be perfect. Then my body got to be the right size for me, and I stopped binging, and everything was not perfect. I didn’t have severe depression anymore, I didn’t binge, my body was healthier, and all sorts of things were resolved from there. But I remember feeling slightly depressed—and scared. 

On Presenting a Pleasant-Looking Package
For a while I purposefully left pictures of myself off my website because I didn’t want to crowd my message. I didn’t know what people’s reactions would be; I didn’t know if they would feel that I couldn’t possibly know what I was talking about because I was objectively fairly attractive. So I was like, Okay, let’s just leave that out of the conversation, because it doesn’t matter here. And I don’t think it does.

But I know that looking a certain way has probably helped me get my message across. I know that difficult topics can be easier for society to swallow if they’re delivered in a pleasant-looking package. And, yes, I think I’m pleasing enough—attractive enough to create a positive feeling in someone, but not so attractive as to turn them off, you know? That just happens to be how I came out. I know that there are people in the world who are objectively not attractive, and that’s an experience I don’t understand. I don’t know what the struggle might be for someone who has odd features to navigate a beauty-obsessed society. It’s a place that I’m lacking. Even when I was really heavy, my mom would be like, “Oh, your face is so beautiful”—the classic “such a pretty face.”

I think of Stephen Colbert’s “I don’t see color; people tell me I’m white.” I don’t really focus on looks, but I think they have some sort of visceral, primordial effect on humans, and you can get your message out if you wrap it in an attractive package. Even Naomi Wolf says that, saying that there’s a reason she does her hair and puts on lipstick, so people will put her on TV and share her message. When I did finally put a video of myself on the website, some of the girls who had been reading were like, “You look like this? I had no idea—I pictured you in a completely different way.” I don’t know how they had pictured me, but they were reacting to the way I looked.

On Legacies
One of the things—you know, that one-sixth of the things that caused me to binge eat—was the messages I got in my family environment. I don’t blame my mother because she didn’t know any better, but she grew up thinking you had to be pretty to be loved. Not just pretty, but the prettiest. And she was. Her mother was very beautiful too, and my mother’s grandmother actually measured my mom’s features when she was a kid—you know those old-fashioned 1950s devices? She measured my mom’s features to see how far apart everything was, and declared that she had a perfect face. That’s what was going to get her love and acceptance. She was never encouraged to develop any of her other skills—her painting, her interior design, her writing, none of that. It was just being beautiful and modeling bikinis, which she did for a while.

So when I came around, I was born into this family where attractiveness was incredibly important. My mother thought I was cute as a kid, so I didn’t get that kind of thing like, “Oh, you’re not cute enough.” What I did get was constant affirmation that it was super-important, and that I’d better stay that way. She would make a point about comparing other girls in the class to me: Well, you know, you’re the prettiest one in your class, or Well, she’s as pretty as you are. There’s no point to that! It does absolutely nothing, except to make you crazy, and it did. Luckily, whatever it was about my personality—that anger, that rebellion—came up eventually and I rejected it. One of the ways that I did that was becoming overweight. In order for me to say, No, I totally disagree with your values and I’m not going to go along with it, I was like, I’m just gonna get fat and then see what you think. I feel like that anger helped me reject those values.

Now my mom has learned so much, and she’s careful about what she says to her grandchildren. But to some degree those forces are always there. Just today—this literally happened two hours ago—a woman left a comment for me on my website, and she was saying that she’d gone to high school with my mom and her sisters, “and they were all so pretty.” I mean, she’s a nice lady and she was just reaching out, and that’s fine. But it made me laugh, and it was an example of how my mom’s not alone with her intense feelings about beauty. I’m very appreciative that when I describe someone to other people, I’m not describing how pretty they are. I understand that beauty is valued in this society, and it’s pleasant to look at beautiful people. And of course I care about making myself look presentable; it’s fun to get dressed up sometimes. But beauty is not a value. It’s not something I care about intensely. And I’m so grateful for that.

Beauty Blogosphere 5.20.11

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

From Head... 
Who's buying color cosmetics? The buried lede on this piece about makeup purchases is that women ages 35 to 44 buy more color cosmetics than other groups. Still, the only product you see specifically targeted to that group is skin care, usually anti-aging skin care. 

Women, fear, and makeup: Courtney at Those Graces (a most excellent feminist beauty blog) has a knack for seamlessly integrating her love of the pretty with her love of the fuller self—and in this illustrative post on how you can subvert cosmetic companies' goals for you and your money, she shows how you can take private joy in the face of the beauty industry.

Not worth killing for, folks!

Lock 'em up: One of the hazards of the human hair industry is that it's a prime target for thievery. It's such a bizarre industry to begin with that this made me giggle when I saw that it was a new theft trend, but a beauty supply store owner was killed over $10,000 worth of dead skin cells, which is no trivial matter.

...To Toe...
Just in case leg makeup isn't enough for you: I try and try to remember what the ever-wise Virginia Sole-Smith says on beauty work: "You don’t have to buy into anything you don’t want—you can pick and choose. But we have to respect women who pick and choose differently." It changed my attitude toward plastic surgery and I no longer make assumptions about women who make that choice. But. Mud masks for your legs? WhohastheTIME, people? (Maybe if "Uh-Oh!" weren't in the headline I'd feel better.)  

Yes, it is a terrible idea, but that's not the point I'm making here.

...And Everything in Between: 
Jane, where's the sass? Listen, I think it's great when women can be frank about their beauty concerns. I also think it's great that Jane Pratt has a new project at XOJane.com. But there is ZERO self-examination in her heralding note of why an erroneous comment about how old she looks left her "shaking and crying," which is troubling. Teen girls don't always know that we all have appearance anxiety, so they need to hear it. XOJane's audience is presumably older and presumably past the shock of knowing that other women may be troubled by looking older and probably wants a little more introspection/insight as to why an overheard comment might send one into paroxysms. C'mon, Jane! We know you can do better!
The Benefit twins: Interesting profile on the twin sisters behind Benefit Cosmetics. Apparently they developed BeneTint for a stripper who wanted something to make her nipples appear pinker. 

If a tree falls in the forest but it can't look into the mirror...: My west coast no-mirror compatriot Kjerstin's blog is always a great read, and I particularly enjoyed this take on the existential issues that not seeing your own reflection brings. I'm sure I'll be referencing it later as well, but you should read it now!

The ghosts at Estee Lauder:
Not the grande dame's ghost, but rather the cemetery that the company agreed to care for when it acquired its operations base on Long Island. A bit of local cemetery lore.

Hey there, dollface! Apparently Revlon made (or at least lent its name to) dolls in the 1950s: "So beautiful her name just had to be Revlon." And...they're back! 

Beauty culture exhibit: So jealous of L.A. folk who get to go to this "Beauty Culture" exhibition. (via Beauty Schooled, another East Coaster who is going waah about its distance from us...)

Yet another reason to love Amy Poehler: Her "retouch" markings on this photo of herself for New York magazine.

Virginia Sole-Smith, Writer, New York

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

 Photo by Jason Falchook

On "Beauty Gaps"

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Feminism

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

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

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

On the Intimacy of Beauty Work

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

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

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

On the Business of Beauty Writing

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

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

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

Beauty Blogsophere 4.15.11

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

Princess Arthchild Gourielle-Helena Rubinstein, Salvador Dalí, 1943

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

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

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

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

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

Blowout blowup: The Department of Labor has issued a hazard alert on Brazilian blowouts—you know, that hair treatment that dumps formaldehyde (which even some morticians won't use anymore) on your head. I'm pleased but baffled as to why this issue, of all issues, is what is making the government sit up and take notice of the complete lack of regulation in beauty treatments. Is it the scary f-word of formaldehyde? What about the lead, the parabens, the sulfates, the tar—not startling enough? Or is it, as indicated by the action being taken by the Department of Labor, not the Food & Drug Administration, because every time a woman gets formaldehyde poured on her head, there's a salon worker who's handling the stuff too?

...to Toe...
Fancy footballer: Between Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, comedian Tommy Davidson, and Josh Freese from last week's roundup, the pedicure is shucking its cloak of femininity. All the more reason for A Certain News Network and other reactionaries to tone down their freakout over this 7-year-old boy's cotton-candy-colored Essie pedicure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Al-Qaeda's (Supposed) Ladymag, and How It Connects With American Women's Magazines

The cover of Al-Shamikha, the "Jihad Cosmo." Love the color scheme, fresh for spring! 

Those crazy extremists! News outlets are reporting on Al-Shamikha magazine, or the “Jihad Cosmo,” supposedly a women’s rag backed by Al-Qaeda. (It came to me, though, via an e-mail from my aunt, subject line "Muslim Bombshells.") Of course, the reports call out the nuttier side of it: advice for marrying a mujahideen, wearing the full-face niqab to protect skin from sun damage, and a feature on martyrs’ wives.

It’s news because a women’s magazine seems like such an unlikely place to spread a wider, uglier agenda. But pointing and gawking belittles the ways in which women’s magazines have long been an effective awareness tool for those who know how to use them. Al-Shamikha seems off mainly because the end goal is so distasteful to us, not because its means are so wild.

In the States this is most clearly illustrated by coverage of women’s health issues, which is arguably the #1 service that women’s magazines perform for their readers. Ladymags tend to be vocal about advocating reproductive rights, at a time when those rights are in peril. Women’s magazines are hardly working on behalf of lefty legislators—but certainly legislators who battle for reproductive rights have an enormous ally in women’s magazines, an ally that is schooled in personalizing issues that can get lost in a sea of rhetoric and misleading information.

It’s not just women’s health, though. The magazines most frequently thought of as the smart-girl women’s mags have earned their cred in other ways: hate crimes (here in the form of honor killing), unionizing (“A Girl’s Guide to Unions” in May 1967 Cosmo is sandwiched between “Why German Men Are Insane About American Girls” and “How to Behave on a Boat”*), sex trafficking, cults that target young women, and undocumented immigrants. There aren’t political machinations here, but there are plenty of people in the industry eager to advance women’s political agendas.

It’s overall good news that magazines treat women’s lives more comprehensively than just fashion and beauty. That said, when the information gap is being filled with information that seems exotically abhorrent—as is the case with “Jihad Cosmo”—it calls into sharp relief how weird it is that we want to lump beauty tips in the same outlet as news coverage. The juxtaposition of beauty tips with extremist advice makes us double-take because it seems downright bizarre, but it’s only bizarre because we can’t imagine any women’s magazine telling us to marry a suicide bomber. We can, however, imagine a magazine asking us to take action that fits more into our paradigm. The propaganda tool just takes the model of women’s magazines—a model we all accept—to its logical, and extreme, conclusion.

The shock! horror! mockery! knee-jerk reaction about the “Jihad Cosmo” points toward a combination of xenophobia and righteous anger toward Al Qaeda, using what is a legitimate tool as bait and turning it into something ludicrous. The Daily Mail singles out bits about the niqab without acknowledging the complex history of the veil, and points out how the magazine directs women to not go out except when necessary. But I remember reading ladymag advice about using Twitter as a safety tool—I could tweet wherever I was going so that when I was inevitably abducted, my followers would know where to start looking for my body, or something like that. It’s not the same thing—but suggesting that women basically install auto-tracking devices isn't actually that far from “Don’t leave the house.” And while it seems extreme to suggest that veiling one’s face is an effective tool against sun damage, is it any weirder than suggesting that dieters pour Diet Coke and Splenda over a cored apple to make “apple pie”? (Yes, that was a real tip.)

Other stories in Al-Shamikha have more direct counterparts in American women’s media: Al-Shamika and Allure both caution against “toweling too forcibly”; Al-Qaeda martyr widows and Operation Iraqi Freedom war widows are each given treatment, the latter in Glamour. As for staying home to avoid sun damage, Fitness tells us to stay out of the sun—after an expensive, painful chemical peel, which, depending on your perspective and pain tolerance, is nearly as drastic in its own way. (Actually, this has me thinking about some sort of cross-cultural beauty tips exchange. I’m picturing editors at Allure donning niqabs.)  

All this is complicated, of course, by the strong possibility that the magazine is a fake. Which I didn’t mention earlier because I wanted you to read the whole piece. (Sorry! But now you know how to make Diet Coke apple pie!) Actually, whether it’s fake is irrelevant, because our reactions to it are what’s of interest to me, not whether there’s a group of extremist women making honey facials while plotting how to snag the cutest mujahideen around. Rather, that’s very much of interest to me—but without being there with them, without listening to their words and witnessing their attitudes, I really can’t comment there. And maybe that’s the real moral here: While there are plenty of Islamic feminists, the extremist agenda that’s (maybe) creating this propaganda prefers its women silent. If it’s a hoax, its grand reveal won’t be able to come from them.

*”The saltier and goofier your clothes, the better. The thing to avoid is any material printed with anchors (you’re trying too hard) or brass buttons (they might scratch the teak on the boat).” Noted.