The "Man's Woman," the "Woman's Woman," and Other Apocryphal Ladies

These women look suspiciously alike, eh?

Some years ago, my then-boyfriend said that Drew Barrymore was the ultimate “woman’s woman.” His reasoning: She stars in romantic comedies (née “chick flicks”), she seems like she might be vaguely feministy/ish (because of Charlie’s Angels, I guess?), she has her own cosmetics line, and her production company is named Flower Films, for crying out loud. Most of all, he claimed, “no men like her.” 

Now, I was willing to buy most of this, even though it was clear that by “no men like her” he simply meant he didn’t like her: A chronicle of one rando dude’s quest to go on a date with Drew Barrymore became a successful documentary, she was perpetually on those “Hottest Celebrities” lists from various men’s websites until she “aged out” by hitting thirtyish. But I understood the larger point. Drew catered to women in her work, and she didn’t seem to need to cater to men. She could be pretty and charming and normal-ish and not particularly worry about being sexy—partly because she is sexy, but mostly because she’d already tried on the vixen persona in her earlier years and found it wanting (Poison Ivy, anyone?). So, sure, she’s a woman’s woman.

I recalled this exchange years later, when talking with a friend about what exactly the term “man’s woman” meant. I defined it as a woman who had an undeniable sex appeal regardless of her physical beauty, but I’d recently heard it defined as a woman who impresses men by eating the whole cheeseburger basket while appearing to stay effortlessly thin (and, presumably, hot). This friend then defined it as someone who seemed likeable enough and attractive enough that pretty much any straight guy on the planet would be happy to take her out, without being intimidated by her. As an example of the prototypical "man's woman" she chose—you guessed it—Drew Barrymore. 

There’s plenty more to be said about Barrymore, but let’s give the poor lass a rest, and instead look at the larger question here: What is a “man’s woman”? What is a “woman’s woman”? We hear these terms being thrown around, and perhaps we’ve used them ourselves, but what do they mean?

I started poking around for the historical uses of these terms, and it turns out I’m hardly the first to seek out their precise definitions. “There are certain questions... [that] reappear at more or less irregular intervals, like comets, to throw the challenging gauntlet at the feet of every thinker not totally devoid of intelligence,” wrote an anonymous editor in an 1891 volume of Current Literature. “Of these queries none are more persistent and aggressive than that which concerns the difference between a ‘man’s woman’ and a ‘woman’s woman,’ and none have, from the woman’s point of view, been more weakly or illogically argued.” Even in those ’90s, the question was a stumper. 

According to that editorial—which is a thoroughly fascinating and remarkably relevant read—the “man’s woman” is a naturally charming woman who is “interested intelligently and sincerely in the things dear to the heart of man,” though she mustn’t be too knowledgeable about those things, lest she outshine him. The “woman’s woman” comes in two breeds: the “sympathetic” type, who, with her knowledge of needlework and social niceties, seems a mix of Martha Stewart and Jacqueline Kennedy, and the “strong” type—the “poet, thinker, leader, reformer” that inspires women and girls to go beyond the domestic sphere. Poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning was listed as the classic example in 1891; today it would probably be someone more like Gloria Steinem or, hell, Lady Gaga.

So we’ve got the “man’s woman” and two types of “woman’s woman,” loosely defined as the Cool Girl, the Good Wife, and the Badass. But indeed, like a comet, the question keeps coming back, and over the past 120 years plenty have given it a stab. Over the years, curious readers have learned that the “man’s woman” may be spotted by her candor and fondness for playing rough in friendships—or she may be spotted not because men like her all that much, but because women don’t like her at all. Or maybe you identify her by the way she sits “listlessly” among other women, but when a man comes along, she’s suddenly able to “brighten up and in a moment become brilliant and beautiful.” Maybe you know her because she’s Melanie Griffith, or Debra Winger, or Keith Richards’ girlfriend. Perhaps you recognize her because she quietly marries and doesn’t cause her husband any trouble—or because she’s a wretched wife who makes her husband miserable.

As for the “woman’s woman”? She is docile, inconsequential, perhaps meek—or she’s a bigger threat to the patriarchy than a man’s woman could ever be. She has unique skills in the workplace—hire a “woman’s woman” on your sales team and you have insight into the heart of all women; put her on television and you’ve got yourself a successful talk-show hostess. (Note that this essay, penned in 1971, is about the lack of female hosts on late-night talk shows. Sound familiar?) She is a hero, not a heroine, or maybe she’s just plain gay. Hell, her appeal to other women might lie in the fact that she’s more like a man than a woman. She is Eva Mendes, Kimora Lee Simmons, Pattie Boyd—who, let’s not forget, is primarily famous for marrying famous men. She is Taylor Swift.

Ah, but then! What of the woman who is defined by falling outside these (handily ambiguous) parameters? Eva Peron was neither a man's woman nor a woman's woman; Julie Christie is both; Nicole Kidman is both—well, unless you ask Nicole herself (she thinks she’s a woman’s woman). And wait—if People magazine says that Debra Winger was the man’s woman of the 1970s, then why was the high-profile documentary about the paucity of women’s onscreen roles titled Searching for Debra Winger? Could Winger be both too?

Actually, there’s nothing extraordinary about Winger in this regard, just as there’s nothing extraordinary here about Drew Barrymore, or Nicole Kidman, or Eva Peron, or any of the women who can’t be easily pigeonholed into one category or the other. In truth, neither the “man’s woman” nor the “woman’s woman” exists. But the fact that we keep coming back to these terms despite never quite agreeing on what a “man’s woman” or a “woman’s woman” is reveals that collectively, we want them to exist, or at least we want the types to exist. Not just because we like to talk genderstuffs, but because we like to talk about women: Pit the “man’s woman” against her counterpart—the ladies’ man—and she becomes even more amorphous. We know exactly what a “ladies’ man” or a “man’s man” are, even when the particulars of their guises vary. Maybe it’s harder to pin down women’s women because women are supposedly so, you know, complicated

But we can’t pin down the “woman’s woman” or her sister, because a formal classification of the two would end the conversation—and maybe that’s the top reason that we keep coming back to the question. After all, whenever the moniker is used, it says less about the woman in question, and more about the speaker (and we never tire of saying things about ourselves). And again, this isn’t a new thought: “As a matter of fact, the expressions...will nearly always be found to be based upon the contempt that one sex has for the judgment and powers of discrimination of the other…”—this from another journal printed in the 1890s. For a woman to call another of her kind a “woman’s woman” indicates an elevation of sorts, not only of the woman but of womankind—a “woman’s woman” is the prime example of her species, and what on earth would men know about women anyway?

Maybe we learn the most about the “man’s woman” and the “woman’s woman” when we look at the only thing that each of the varying definitions of the terms has in common: a belief that there’s something men want, and something women want—and ne’er the twain shall meet. It’s uncomfortable from a gender-binary perspective, naturally. But it’s just as uncomfortable from where I’m sitting, as someone who firmly identifies as female and who has plenty of traits associated with femininity. For whenever I’ve tried to puzzle out which camp I might belong in, neither one has felt satisfying. The “man’s woman” and the “woman’s woman” are each reactors, not actors in and of themselves. Each of these women fills the needs of others, even the heroic sort of “woman’s woman” who inspires other women—she’s still cast in the terms of others’ needs, not her own. 

That’s how humanity works—we all react to one another, we’re social creatures—so in some ways it’s not all that problematic. But the fact that we’ve come up with dozens of ways to figure out how women might fill the needs of others by being a “man’s woman” or a “woman’s woman” says that we’re still more willing to cast women in supporting roles, not leads. That’s changing every day, of course. Now let’s let the “man’s woman” and the “woman’s woman” be part of that change by disappearing.

Permission to Flirt

Judgments, Rosea Lake

By now, you’ve probably seen art student Rosea Lake’s photo Judgments, which went viral earlier this month. Unlike, say, videos of children on laughing gas, this went viral for a very specific reason: It does what the strongest images do, namely that whole “worth a thousand words” bit. Judgments communicates the constant awareness of, well, judgments that women face every day we leave the house (and probably some when we don’t), and I won’t say much more about the actual image because it speaks well for itself.

That said, I’ve read commentary on the image that has also struck a chord, specifically Lisa Wade’s spot-on post at Sociological Images about how Judgments pinpoints the constantly shifting boundaries of acceptable womanhood, and then relates that to something women are mocked for: all those darn clothes (you know women!). “[W]omen constantly risk getting it wrong, or getting it wrong to someone. … . Indeed, this is why women have so many clothes! We need an all-purpose black skirt that does old fashioned, another one to do proper, and a third to do flirty....” Wade’s main point is an excellent one, as it neatly sums up not only what’s fantastic about the image but why women do generally tend to have more clothes than men.

But my personal conclusion regarding Lake’s piece was actually somewhat different: To me, it illustrates why my own wardrobe is actually fairly limited in range. The first time I saw it, I was struck by how effectively it communicates exactly what it communicates. The second time I saw it, though, I made it personal and mused for a moment about how save one ill-advised maxidress and one black sheath that hits just above the knee, literally every single one of my hemlines is within an inch of “flirty.” This is semi-purposeful: It’s a flattering length on me, and I’m a flattery-over-fashion dresser, so I’ve stuck strictly with what works. And isn’t it a funny coincidence that what happens to flatter my figure just happens to be labeled as “flirty” here, when in fact “flirty” is probably, for the average American urban thirtysomething woman, the most desirable word on this particular chart to be described as? (Depending on your social set you might veer more toward proper or cheeky, and of course I don’t actually know which of these words women in my demographic would be likely to “choose” if asked, but I have a hard time seeing most of my friends wanting to be seen as prudish—or, on the other end, as a slut.)

Of course, it’s not a coincidence, not at all. I may have believed I favored that hem length because it hits me at a spot that shows my legs’ curves (before getting to the part of my thighs that, on a particularly bad day, I might describe as “bulbous”). And that’s part of the reason, sure, but I can’t pretend it’s merely a visual preference of mine. As marked on Judgments, that particular sweet spot—far enough above the knee to be clear that it’s not a knee-length skirt, but low enough to be worn most places besides the Vatican—also marks a sweet spot for women’s comportment. Flirty shows you’re aware of your appeal but not taking advantage of it (mustn’t be cheeky!); flirty grants women the right to exercise what some might call “erotic capital” without being seen as, you know, a whore. Flirty lends its users a mantle of conventional femininity without most of femininity’s punishments; flirty marks a clear space of permission. Curtailed permission, yes, but sometimes a skirt’s gotta do what a skirt’s gotta do, right? So, no, it’s no accident that nearly all my dresses fall to this length. I wear “flirty” skirts in part because I play by the rules. I’ve never been good at operating in spaces where I don’t have permission to be.

Of course, that permission will change: The lines as shown on Judgments indicate not only hemlines and codes women are judged by, but where women are allowed to fall at any particular age. A “provocative” teenager might be slut-shamed, but she isn’t told to keep it to herself; a 58-year-old with the same hemline might well be told just that, if not in as many words. “Proper” isn’t necessarily a sly way of saying “frowsy” when spoken of a middle-aged woman, as it would be for a 22-year-old.

Given how widely this photo made the rounds, it’s clear it struck a nerve, and I’m wondering what that nerve is for other viewers, in relation to their personal lives—and personal wardrobes. Do you take this as commentary on rigid rules for women, or on the constant flux of expectations—or are those just two expressions of the same problem? Do you dress within “permission,” or do you take pleasure in disregarding permission altogether? Or...?

Thoughts on a Word: Exotic

Exotic is there, not here; them, not us; you, never me. Exotic is warm—hell, exotic is spicy. Exotic is Carmen Miranda, Lola Falana, Lieutenant Uhura. Exotic is Cleopatra, or is it Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra? Exotic is dark and mysterious, but the threat is contained. Exotic is Roxi DLite, Mimi LeMeaux, Jett Adore, and of course Miss Indigo Blue. Exotic is not diffeomorphic to the Euclidean space. Exotic is Early American, Sioux Native, and Ancient Sanskrit. Exotic is Salome and veils one through six. Exotic is one letter away from erotic. Exotic is Josephine Baker. Exotic is a rare fruit, but decidedly never a strange one.

Exotic, in its most basic form, means to belong from somewhere else, stemming from the Greek exotikos (“from the outside”). Only 30 or so years after its English coinage in the 1590s, it came to mean not literally foreign, but psychologically so: alien, unusual, unfamiliar. It was mostly applied to plants and objects for a couple hundred years, until the rapidity of trade gave common people the ability to look exotic through adornment. In the early 20th century, all one had to do to be exotic was dress the part, whether it’s a gown of rose-colored silk or an astrakhan cap, or simply wearing one’s hair in an unusual manner. One didn’t organically look exotic; one became exotic, either through affect, clothing—or, perhaps, sensualism. Exotic dancing to mean striptease has been used since the 1940s, presumably evolving from the term’s general use to mean any wild dance performed to an unfamiliar beat. Add in fanciful, “Oriental” costumes, and one has exotic dance: Mata Hari’s performances were labeled exotic dancing more than 20 years before it came into common use. Even as late as 1947, Life was duly defining the term: “Exotic dancer in the nightclub trade means a girl who goes through a few motions while wearing as few clothes as the cops will allow in the city where she is working.” But the magazine was prescient in its use, applying it seven years earlier to dancer Carmen d’Antonio, who was half-Italian, half-East Indian.

That usage of exotic was prescient in another way, for somewhere along the line, exotic went from describing a consciously cultivated look to describing something its bearer could hardly strip away: race. Exotic became code for dark-skinned women of various ethnicities: black women (Naomi Campbell, Beverly Peele, Sade), Latina women (Selena), Asian women (Tina Chow, Joan Chen). It’s no coincidence that this move happened in the 1960s and 1970s: The shift of exotic from describing costume to describing skin color and features runs roughly parallel to women’s shifting roles in America. If the beauty myth rose to make sure that newly liberated women didn’t get too much actual power and were left pecking around for crumbs, the use of exotic morphed to make sure that women of color didn’t tap into their share of the crumbs. Just as quickly as women of color began to rise in public visibility and power, they were quickly repackaged as sexualized versions of the real women who lay beneath; the same year Shirley Chisholm began planning her presidential bid, the world met Pam Grier. Between civil rights and feminism, someone had to find a way to neither deny the existence of women of color nor be permissive in their bid for power: enter exotic. In 1950, a white woman could don a turban to become exotic; it was harmlessly dashing, a way to pad one’s cage with ornate silk instead of cotton for the day. But once that cage opened up, we were left with a perfectly good word that could serve as a cursory nod to women of color—hell, it’s a compliment, right?—while simultaneously keeping the cage’s door wide open for any exotic lasses who might want to enter.

It’s not terribly hard to see why exotic is problematic: In the States, white women are still perceived as neutral; dark-skinned women are the Other. For something to be exotic, by definition it must be the Other. So with exotic—which is usually used in an ostensibly positive sense, to describe a woman with striking beauty—we’re also looking sideways at its target, the message bearing the subtext of “You’re not from around here, are you?” And encoded in not being from around here is, Your beauty will never match our values. As LaShaun Williams at MadameNoire puts it about the “otherness” of being exotic: “Other than what? The set of standards that define true beauty. She is somehow beautiful without being ‘beautiful.’”

Yet while exotic neatly performs its function of divide-and-conquer, it’s also used to express anxiety about race and categorization, particularly when applied to mixed-race women. And boy, has it ever been applied to mixed-race women: Raquel Welch (Bolivian and British), Salma Hayek (Lebanese and Spanish), Sade (Nigerian and British), Kimora Lee (Korean, Japanese, and African American), Jessica Alba (Mexican-Canadian-American) and Kim Kardashian (Armenian-American) have all been called out as looking exotic, as have multitudes of self-identified black women with mixed backgrounds whose skin may be dark but whose features look largely European (Tyra Banks, Halle Berry).

Certainly exotic is better than what so many ethnically ambiguous people hear: “What are you?” (As Kerry Ann King, a dance instructor whose ancestral tree ranges from Sicily to Africa to the Jewish diaspora, put it, “I’ve always wanted to say, ‘A Gemini.’”) And if the 2011 Allure beauty survey is to be believed, mixed-race women are now not just exotic but downright beautiful, with 64% of respondents saying that people of mixed backgrounds represent the epitome of beauty. This report would be encouraging if it weren’t for what’s encoded in the photo shoot that followed the survey results: an anemic rainbow of mixed-race women who, save for skin tones and full lips, represent the “new beauty.” Being exotic was never really about being different; it was about being different in the right way. Be the Other, but not too much so, 'kay? It’s a point emphasized in Hijas Americanas, an exploration of Latina women, beauty, and body image, in which author Rosie Molinary writes of a friend who once told her she would be “so exotic-looking” if she just had a different eye color. “I wasn’t exotic enough to be interesting,” Molinary writes. “Just different enough to not be interesting.” In fact, today’s poster child for exotic, Brazilian model Adriana Lima, hits exactly that note: tawny skin, a cascade of shiny dark hair, and sparkling aquamarine eyes.

It’s the designation of Lima—who fits the beauty imperative in every way—as exotic that makes me wonder what exactly we mean with the word, and a prolific listmaker who goes online by Kawaii has wondered the same thing. I’m uncomfortable with most discussions that parse out any individual women’s looks with a fine-tooth comb, but the discussion at her list of celebrities who are “Classic Looking, NOT Exotic” is intriguing at points: It brings to light that the definition of exotic could easily go beyond the Other to include what is perceived as truly rare—and that by the list-maker’s definition, Adriana Lima shouldn’t really cut it. Being Latina doesn’t make Lima exotic, Kawaii argues; she’s a classic beauty by Euro-American standards, but has been (mis)construed as exotic simply because of her ethnicity. “Your coloring doesn’t make you exotic, it makes your coloring exotic,” writes our curator. She asks why white women with unconventional features aren’t usually considered exotic—Lauren Bacall, Taylor Swift—supplying her own answer (race is still the defining factor of the Other) but still pressing for an objective determination of what makes someone exotic.

And in some ways, of course, that’s impossible: We define exoticness based on our own perspective, and there’s really no other way to do it, because the very definition of exotic relies upon being unusual. But when we use exotic, we’re making assumptions based not only on our own “usual” but on the “usual” of those around us. Most of us understand that we’re all going to read beauty differently from one another, leading us to deploy terms like hot or cute. But with exotic, there’s a shared understanding: If I don’t believe that your baseline of what constitutes the exotic will be the same as mine, using the word makes no sense. To use exotic is to assume dominance. Exotic says as much about the speaker as it does the subject. Actually, it says more.

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Thoughts on a Word: Nappy

With a tagline like “Not your average beauty blog,” it’s hardly a surprise that I’m a fan of re: thinking beauty. Yassira L. Diggs’s experience as both a makeup artist and writer ensures her work has a candid, sharp, informed insight; in particular, her breadth of work on natural hair has heightened my understanding of the issue. After reading a piece in which she mentioned her thoughts on the word nappy, I asked her if she’d be willing to elaborate on her ideas surrounding this ever-potent word--and much to my delight, she agreed. Besides maintaining re: thinking beauty, Yassira also writes about thrifting at The Thrifted, and you can learn more about her skills as a makeup artist at carbonmade

Nappy is, at the very least, to be handled with caution. It may mean diaper in some parts of the world, but that’s not the case at all, in these our United States of America. Here, nappy is combustible. Not everyone can say it and come away unscathed. Say it to, or even just near, the wrong person and it might just blow up in your face. In 2007, shock jock Don Imus found that out, and reminded us all about it, when he called the Rutgers University women’s basketball team “some nappy-headed hoes.” The firestorm that ensued left him jobless in its wake. At the time, Lanita Jacobs-Huey, an associate professor of anthropology and American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California, expressed a view common among many African-Americans when she said, “When I hear it from someone who doesn’t understand the depth of pain, they just don’t have the right to say it.” See, nappy is a huge snag in the idea that we live in a post-racial society, because in large parts of the African-American community, nappy is a deep, deep wound rooted in slavery and Jim Crow.

To understand the sensitivity that nappy requires, one must understand how the word went from its original meaning to this explosive place. Nappy came from nap, a noun that refers to a fuzzy raised surface on fabric. In the beginning, nappy was a texture, and that was the whole truth. During slavery in the United States, however, nappy became a tool in dismantling self-esteem in the slave population. In a world where the feminine beauty ideal revolved around long straight hair, fine features, and fair skin, slave owners, supported by so-called “scientific” claims, pathologized African people’s dark skin, broad facial features, kinky hair textures—basically, everything about them. In order to oppress people you must believe that they are inferior, somehow less human than you, and you must convince them that their (supposed) inferiority is the truth. The message—that their woolly, nappy hair was proof that they were sub-human—was naturally and tragically internalized by black people during slavery. To understand the button that nappy pushes among many African-Americans today, one must consider the overwhelming force of cultural power, and how unconsciously it is passed down through generations.

Nappy’s trauma still lingers, even now in the midst of what seems like a natural hair renaissance in the African-American community. I still hear fellow African-Americans throw around the term “good hair” to reference, compliment, and/or envy straight or loosely curled hair, as in not nappy. I have an aunt who, during one of those family moments when my choice to wear my hair in long dreadlocks was being questioned, heartily defended me with “Leave her alone, one day she’ll decide to fix her hair!”

Nappy is easily misconstrued. People who don’t understand nappy often think it’s another word for unkempt. Hence, nappy has been accused of having an unprofessional appearance, and deemed inappropriate for many a workplace.

In 1998, all hell broke loose when a New York City parent found copies of pages from the book Nappy Hair, by Carolivia Herron, in her third-grader’s folder. Alarmed by what she saw, and without reading the whole book, she made copies of the pages and passed them out to her community, with a note about the white teacher who was supposedly teaching their black and Hispanic kids racist stereotypes. Parents who didn’t even have children in Ruth Sherman’s class protested and demanded she be fired. At a public meeting they shouted over her, threatened her, and cursed her, rather than let her speak. She had to be escorted out by security. When the dust settled, Sherman, who had been ousted, was offered her position back. The shouting died down. The book had always been a celebration of nappy hair. Nappy is that loaded.

My relationship with nappy is complicated in its own way. While I didn’t grow up hearing or using the word, I can’t say I didn’t know it. It was just not used to demean me. I did, however, grow up around relaxers. I came into the world surrounded by black women who straightened their hair. I idolized my mother and aunts as a child, and joined them in the practice as soon as I could. By the time I was 12, I could do my own touch-ups. Every 6-8 weeks, from childhood to my early twenties, my roots got “relaxed.” Maybe that’s why I busted out laughing when my aunt threw her arm around me and planted a kiss on my cheek after her passionate defense of my dreadlocks: I remember what it was like, before I got curious about my own hair texture and stopped using relaxers, when fixed and relaxed meant the same thing to me. So I know how deeply she meant no harm with her words.

I suppose my semi-neutral background with nappy is why my views on the word continue to be semi-moderate (I think). I am not offended by nappy per se. At the same time, I can’t unknow what a hot potato it is in our society, so it would give me pause if someone addressed me with nappy, in reference to my hair. My reaction would ultimately depend on who was addressing me and my perception of their intent in using the word, because with nappy, context is everything. I can’t foresee it happening, though. I mean after all, nappy is the elephant in our societal room, and we, the ones who circle it, go under it, and make our way around it every day, are well versed at leaving it out of the conversation. It’s so much easier to get through the day that way. We are far from being at a point with nappy where it can slide by whimsically in a sentence, unnoticed.

Most of the time, we tip-toe around nappy, leaving it out of conversations, especially in racially mixed circles. There are those who want to see the word gone from the dictionary. To some people, nappy is the other n-word, the utterance of which is at least cause to feel offended, or even bad about themselves. Others, like natural hair crusader Linda Jones, founder of A Nappy Hair Affair, celebrate nappy. Fighting word or reason to smile, nappy has a long ways to go to find peace among us. It can, however, be an opportunity to communicate, and to learn about each other, and ourselves. That’s my favorite way to think of nappy these days.

Thoughts on a Word: Glamour (Part II)

I’ve had my chance to expound on glamour (which, of course, I did from my chaise longue with a Manhattan in hand while my protégé took dictation), but the concept of glamour is intriguing enough to warrant a revisiting—not from me, but from four women who each have their own distinct relationship with glamour. I’m delighted that each of them—author Virginia Postrel, publicist Lauren Cerand, artist Lisa Ferber, and novelist Carolyn Turgeon—took the time and effort to share their thoughts on glamour with me. And now, with you.

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Virginia Postrel, author, columnist, and speaker who is currently writing a book about glamour, to be published by The Free Press in early 2013. She explores "the magic of glamour in its many manifestations" at, a group blog.

Like humor, glamour arises from the interaction of an audience and an object. Someone or something is always glamorous to a specific audience. So there has to be something about the glamorous object that triggers and focuses the audience's desires—that makes them project themselves into the glamorous image and feel themselves somehow transformed. But those qualities are different in different contexts, and they may not even be things that are widely recognized as "glamorous."

A good way to understand glamour is to start not with fashion or people but with the glamour of travel. Think of classic travel posters and contemporary resort ads, with their images of exotic locales, peaceful beaches, or seemingly effortless transportation. What makes an image of the New York skyline, a cruise ship against the blue Mediterranean, or Ankgor Wat at dawn so alluring? Why does the sight of a jet rising against a sunset or full moon seem so glamorous?

The glamour of travel lies first in its promise to lift us out of our everyday existence. We project ourselves into this new and special place, imagining that there we will fulfill our unsatisfied longings—whatever they may be. Just getting away doesn’t make travel glamorous, however. Going every year to your family’s cabin on Lake Michigan may be fun, but it’s too familiar for glamour. A glamorous destination is at least a little bit exotic. It shimmers with the possibilities of the unknown. Its mystery not only stokes imagination. It also heightens the good and hides the bad (or the banal, like all the other tourists congregating to snap Angkor Wat at dawn). As the great studio-era photographer George Hurrell put it: “Bring out the best, conceal the worst, and leave something to the imagination.”

The glamour of travel illustrates the three elements found in all forms of glamour: mystery, grace, and the promise of escape and transformation. These elements explain why certain styles or codes seem to spell “glamour.”

Take fashion. If glamour by definition requires elements of mystery and aspiration—escape from the ordinary—then the clothes you wear or see on the street every day are not going to be glamorous. Hence we often associate glamour with the kinds of extraordinary evening wear that few people can afford and even fewer have any occasion to wear. But, depending on the audience, other forms of fashion can be glamorous. Vintage styles that represent some idealized period in the past are an obvious example. So are sneakers associated with great athletes. Even something as mundane as a business suit can be glamorous if it represents a career you aspire to but have not (yet) achieved.

The "codes of glamour" change with the audience and the times. The iconography of glamour in 1930s Hollywood films—bias-cut satin gowns, "big white sets," lots of glitter and shine—is quite different from Grace Kelly in the New Look, sweater sets, and pearls. Yet we think of both as classically glamorous.

Like humor, glamour sometimes emerges spontaneously and sometimes is actively constructed. Some things tend to stay glamorous, or funny, over time. Others cease to have the right effect. Mink coats used to be a quick way of signaling a kind of glamour. I'd argue that they've been replaced with another cliche: the hot stone massage photos you see everywhere. The massage photos also show indulgent feminine luxury, but they appeal to different longings—not so much for social status as for pampering and relaxation, a private experience rather than a social good. Similarly, I write about how wind turbines have become glamorous symbols of technological optimism, in the same way that rocket ships were in the 1950s and early '60s.

Finally, some things are glamorous without being widely recognized as such. The bridge of the Starship Enterprise is intensely glamorous to a certain audience. It elicits the same kind of projection and longing that other people feel when they think of Paris or haute couture, and it also shares the three essential elements of glamour.

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Lauren Cerand, independent public relations consultant. She shares notes on living at

Glamour is the word, pertaining to me, that I hear most often from other people, and, in truth, the word I think of least on my own (conceptually, I gravitate toward things that are elegant, or correct, or comfortingly archaic, and, most importantly, eschew embellishment of any kind. I'm a minimalist with opulent taste). That makes sense, though, if, to quote Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie, whom I heard read her poem "Glamourie" in Edinburgh years ago, "glamour is a Gaelic word," intended to mean a sort of enchanting trickery, "fairy magic" cast down over the eyes of the unsuspecting (sophistication also had similar implications, of a gloss for the purposes of deceptive artifice, in its early usage, according to Faye Hammill's wonderful cultural study, Sophistication, on University of Liverpool Press). Glamour certainly seems to play out that way, as a quality of perception more than direct experience. I don't think then, that I could regard myself as glamorous. I simply make a living from having a semi-public life and the fact that people admire my personal taste enough to emulate it. While I never stretch the truth, as lying takes too much time and I am always short of it, I am a private person at heart and so I can see the tantalizingly faint trail of breadcrumbs that I leave behind, twinkling in starlight, inspiring one to imagine the cake from which they must have fallen. Perhaps now and then it really was that grand. It could be our secret, but I'd never tell.

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Lisa Ferber, artist, playwright, performer, and bonne vivante. Peruse her works at, and keep an eye out for her upcoming web series, The Sisters Plotz.

The funny thing about glamour is that an exact definition of the word is as elusive as the quality itself. The quality is like a special fairy dust that makes a person sparkle; you can’t put your finger on precisely what it is. I think it has to start from within. When I see today’s teenage starlets trying to pull off 1940s Old Movie Star Glamour, I just think, Um, no, you can’t just do a deep side-part and red lipstick and think now you’re Ava Gardner. But there’s this woman who works the bread counter at Zabar’s who I admire because there she is in her white bread-counter smock, but she’s probably in her 60s and always has a full face of makeup on, and sparkly barrettes in her nicely done hair, and she’s gorgeous and all dressed up to work the bread counter. Whenever I see her I have to repress blurting out, “You are my hero! You look like a movie star!”

It absolutely cannot be purchased, but I do think there is an aspect of formality involved. Glamour always involves looking pulled together. Even if the look is over-the-top, it has to come across as though there was care taken. That's part of the mystique. Glamour implies that everything you meant to do is coming across just as you want it to. It’s hard to be glamorous in a track suit, but if you really want to do it that way, you can go over the top with heels and baubles and make it eccentric, because eccentricity done right can exude glamour. I think the best glamour will teeter on eccentricity, because it’s about going just a little bit too far. All the photos I love from early 20th century photographers like Horst and Irving Penn are about going too far…giant hats, luxurious gowns...clothes that serve no practical purpose, and therein lies their glamour. Because glamour is about transcending the everyday.

When people have called me glamorous, it thrills me, because I have always felt a kinship with those old-school 1930s and 1940s women. People have always told me that I seem like I’m from another time, which I think is funny because it’s not really something I’m trying to do; it’s just how I am. I’ve painted from photos of Carole Lombard, Liz Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Jean Harlow…all of them have that Something, where it would be impossible to imagine them ever looking disheveled or weighed down by life’s woes, though of course we know they were real women with all the problems people have.

Recently I shot the first episode of my new web series, The Sisters Plotz. I wrote it, and it stars TV icons Eve Plumb, Lisa Hammer, and me (Hammer also directs). Eve, Lisa, and I were shooting a street scene in which we are dressed like glamour girls from the 1930s, and everyone we passed on the street would smile at us and tell us how great we looked. And it wasn't just because we looked "good" or were dressed up; it's because glamour, particularly the old-school, dedicated, womanly glamour of the 1930s, has an effect on people. It says just check your troubles at the door and be your glorious self. Glamour is transportive in that sense. I think glamour means a person has a quality of being slightly outside—dare I say above?—the normal realm of boring problems. A few years ago, I was going through a tough time, and my wonderful friend Chris Etcheverry gave me this gorgeous green-tiled art-deco mirror, and he said, “I know things are hard for you right now, and you might not feel your best, so whenever you aren’t feeling so good, I want you to look in this mirror and remind yourself that you are glamorous.” And I knew what he meant is that I have something inside, that glamour is a strength from the inside that allows you to transcend life’s unpleasantries.

Glamour is a quality that makes someone look and seem Famous; it’s intriguing, it is the quality that makes people wonder who you are, and what your secret is. A person finds their own glamour—it’s not about being an 8-year-old wearing expensive clothes, rather it’s about developing yourself so that you’re a person with a Something. I was watching a biography on the fantastic Gertrude Berg, the entertainment pioneer who created The Goldbergs, and her son was saying that she always dressed a certain way and had a quality about her, where people would see her and even if they didn’t know who she was, they could tell she was somebody. That’s glamour.

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Carolyn Turgeon, author of Rain VillageGodmotherMermaid, and The Next Full Moon, coming out in March. She blogs at about all things mermaid.

With glamour, I see images. I see red lipstick, I see arched brows. I see Marlene Dietrich, Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard, Greta Garbo. I see sitting in a satin bed with bonbons. I see glittery, shiny things, I see everything in black-and-white, old-timey, leopard print. Glamour takes what’s beautiful and chic and makes it over-the-top. The first time I went to Dollywood—I love Dolly Parton—I went to the museum, and it’s full of all her crazy rhinestone-crusted paraphernalia. There’s this quote there where she says that she knows people might think she’s ridiculous and laugh at her, but she was this girl from the mountains who grew up running around barefoot, so to her, this is beautiful. The rhinestones and the glitter. She doesn’t care if some people think it’s ridiculous. She’s like a little girl playing dress-up, reveling in the artifice of it. Glamour can be a little like that, a way to add fabulousness and fantasy and a little over-the-top shimmer to your regular life.

Glamorous doesn’t have to be beautiful. In terms of female beauty, you can take a natural-looking girl without makeup on the beach and she might be really beautiful, but not glamorous. Glamour is, by definition, unnatural; it's about adornment and style; it’s about knowingly adorning yourself in a way that hearkens back to certain images that are cool and dreamy, otherworldly. Not everyone can be beautiful, but anyone can be glamorous, because it's something you can actually do. I like that any woman can put on really red lips, get an old travel valise and a little muff, and wear sunglasses on top of her head. (Of course men can do all these things, too, and become, among other things, that most glamorous of creatures, the drag queen.) It doesn’t matter how old she is, what color she is, whether she's rich or poor, big or small. It's the woman standing in shadow in the doorway, Marilyn standing over the subway grate, Garbo emerging from the smoke in Anna Karenina.

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.

Thoughts on a Word: Ugly

Ugly is a fright. Ugly is unpleasant, ugly makes you want to look away, ugly is what we worry we are but know we aren’t. One can have a case of the uglies, make an ugly face, or feel beaten with the ugly stick. You can be an ugly duckling, an Ugly American, or descend from the Plug Uglies. If you are an ugli fruit, you are currently in season. It may be possible to be good, bad, and ugly, but an ugly woman just might not exist. One might work at the Ugly People Agency, or even Coyote Ugly—but only if you’re not, you know, ugly.

Part of what makes ugly such a potent word lies in its etymology. Stemming from old Norse uggligr, meaning “dreadful” or “fearful,” ugly implies the subject is beyond merely unattractive—she is to be feared. Beyond the plain woman, or the woman who is unremarkable, homely, nondescript, or simply not all that pretty, the ugly woman looks a fright. Given the medieval correlation of physical beauty and moral goodness, it’s no surprise that ugly to describe something unpleasant to look at took root simultaneously with its usage as “morally offensive.” The ugly woman frightens us not only because of her malformed features but because of her amorality. (This concept is illustrated by her repeat appearance in fairy tales—most of which were written in languages other than English and therefore outside of my scope here, though ugly surely is the best translation of the words used to describe the various witches and stepmothers that populated the fairy tales of yore.) Anne Boleyn was described as “ill-shaped and ugly” by an English Roman Catholic activist in an effort to discredit her rule of England, the idea being that anything resulting from the reign of a hideous woman wasn’t fit to stand.

Of course, the connection between ugliness and a lack of virtue isn’t necessarily restricted to the medieval days. The exact corollary may have faded; the association remained. An ugly woman might hide, but she’ll be found: “The Persians make an emblem of [the veil], to signify that many times...under very rich Cloths, hide a very Ugly Woman” (Duke of Holstein, 1669). She might be greedy: “Many an ugly woman has ruined her husband, and starved her trades-people, that she might have a larger drop to her necklace...Is the ugly woman less ugly with her diamonds than without them?” (The Wife and Woman’s Reward, 1835). The ugly woman has no talent: “No truly ugly woman ever yet wrote a truly beautiful poem the length of her little finger” (Noctes Ambrosianae, 1827). And just in case any of us missed the message, Sir Edward Sullivan—the original men’s rights activist—reminds us in his 1894 treatise Woman, the Predominant Partner, that “A woman is not necessarily virtuous because she’s ugly, or necessary reverse because she’s pretty,” though he does concede that “Of course beauty attracts temptation, and ugliness repels it.”

This repelling of temptation presents the flipside of the ugly-as-ambiguously evil trope: Ugliness, under the right circumstances, can be a virtue. “Ugliness is the guardian of women,” reads a Hebrew adage, a compliment to the Spanish saying “The ugliest is the best housewife.” (And even if she’s not the best housewife, never mind that; The Overland Monthly reminded us in 1911 that “A good deal may be forgiven to an ugly woman.”)

But nobody loves an ugly woman like a fellow with the blues: R&B, blues, bop, and soul all have tributes to the ugly woman, praising her as a more competent and trustworthy woman than the pretty darling who’ll run all over town. The most famous example is Jimmy Soul’s 1963 “If You Wanna Be Happy,” but he hardly invented the concept; the song itself was borrowed from calypso musician Roaring Lion’s 1934 ditty “Ugly Woman,” the refrain of which is “So from a logical point of view / Always love a woman uglier than you.” Don Covay tells us to “Get me an ugly woman / Nobody want but me / Get me an ugly woman / Ugly woman twice as sweet.” Indeed, perhaps it was her community’s treatment of the ugly woman that made “the ugliest woman in show business”—as Ma Rainey was referred to—simply respond “Bless you, darling,” when a vaudeville performer called “an ugly woman or a pretty monkey.”

The bluesmen might have been shocked to find that their beloved ugly women didn’t actually exist. “There never was, and it may be safely predicted that there never will be, on earth any such creature as an ugly woman,” wrote Irish journalist Charles J. Dunphie in 1876. “Nobody ever heard of such a phenomenon. To be a woman is to be beautiful.” When we see beauty as being intrinsic to womanhood, an ugly woman is indeed impossible: She “may more properly be called a Third Sex, than a Part of the Fair one” (Philip Stanhope, 1777). A 1904 edition of The Smart Set magazine: “If there were such a thing as an ugly woman—which I don’t believe at all...we’d let them frisk around a bit; but seeing that this is a man’s world, we’ve made it absolutely necessary for a pretty woman to behave herself.” Sammy Davis Jr. may have around when his contemporaries were wailing their “Ugly Woman Blues,” but he himself remained unconvinced of their existence: “Ain’t no such thing,” he said in an Ebony interview in 1980. “A woman may be ugly in our minds, but physically every woman is beautiful to me. And I’m a womanizer, man.”

Luckily, if an ugly woman does exist, it's not that hard for her to change: “There are no ugly women, only lazy ones,” makeup magnate Helena Rubinstein famously quipped. The vaguely protofeminist Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Associations of Zion agreed, concluding an 1889 argument against the restrictiveness of corsets with “An ugly woman is a blot in the face of creation, but no woman need be ugly if she will exercise properly, live intelligently, and dress correctly.” It was a nice turnbout from the sentiment of an earlier era—that ugly women shouldn’t even try. From Atlantic Monthly, 1859: “By flying in the face of fashion, a woman attracts attention to her person, which can be done with impunity only by the beautiful; but do you not see that an ugly woman, by conforming to fashion, obtains no advantage over other women, ugly or beautiful, who also conform to it?”

The word ugly has come up most often in my discussions with women as something they’re not. “I know I’m not ugly,” say some of us before going on to list our flaws, as though frightening small children is the worry we must work the hardest to banish from our psyche. There’s a sting about ugly that makes it difficult to even utter the word about a person: It’s a disqualifier, listing what we or others are not, instead of a description we’re eager to use. “There seems to be a taint of political incorrectness to using the words ‘ugly’ and ‘woman’ together, akin to using a racial or sexual slur,” writes Charlotte M. Wright in her 2006 book Plain and Ugly Janes: The Rise of the Ugly Woman in Contemporary American Fiction. That political incorrectness gave birth to the pool of “yo mama so ugly” jokes that are a staple of the dozens. Indeed, when Jet magazine printed a 1973 roundup of ugly jokes from standup comics—who make their trade in subverting political correctness—all but one used ugly women, not ugly men, as their target. The lone standout who used a man as her target? Moms Mabley, the only comedienne featured in the piece.

As long as ugly is one of the worst things you can say about a woman, we’re hesitant to use it on one another, even when the goal is to cut one another down. If it is used, it’s delivered with deliberate provocation—take celebrity gossip site The Superficial, which uses “Because you’re ugly” as its tagline. The inappropriate power of ugly hasn’t gone unnoticed by blogger Tatiana of Parisian Feline, who writes, “There is power in all things, including ugliness. Many people are terrified of being ugly, but if there’s power in exactly who you are, that includes being ugly too.” In questioning the hesitancy we have to use the word, she implies that we imbue both beauty and ugliness with more power than either might deserve. “Being ugly, and being willing to call myself that, is always tricky business. When you’re conditioned to believe that ugliness is bad and prettiness is good, well, most people will do anything to show you how ‘good’ you really are.” Indeed, ABC network was counting on that impulse when they debuted Ugly Betty in 2006. Betty is written as a smart, likable, sympathetic character: We’re meant to see her "goodness" and root for those who try to convince her that she's not ugly—and we ourselves aren't meant to really see her as ugly. (Surely a task made easier by casting the non-ugly America Ferrera in the titular role, though the character is coded as ugly through the glasses, the braces, and the Guadalajara poncho.)

Like most of the women I’ve talked with, I don’t think of myself as ugly—but that's hardly an act of affirmation, as ugliness isn’t what most of us fear. Ugly is a strong word, closer both in etymology and usage to grotesque than to ho-hum. That power just might make it preferable in certain ways to what we’re more likely to fear: not that we’re ugly, but that we’re not pretty enough. That preference is only theoretical, of course; I’m not about to wish for the face of a gargoyle merely to save myself the woes of my ruddy skin and sagging jawline. But I’m going to pay attention, albeit briefly, to Jean-Paul Sarte: “A truly ugly woman is arresting, discordant in the midst of dull, run-of-the-mill human faces.” For a moment that passage seems to offer solace to the ugly woman—yet even here, she can’t win. Indeed, he’s only paving the way for our modern equivalent of equating appearance with morality: “There is no doubt at all,” Sartre writes, “that she is unhappy.”

Thoughts on a Word: Handsome

Handsome is a man, a woman, but rarely a child. Handsome is a Hemingway heroine, “built with curves like the hull of a racing yacht.” Handsome is Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and every member of the Handsome Men’s Club. Handsome can be equine, old girl, full of vim and vigor. Handsome is well-constructed, sturdy, but not without refinement. Handsome can be gray-haired and possibly carrying a cane. Handsome is the default for a man, but particular for a woman. Handsome, coming from a misinformed speaker, can be an insult. Handsome is a craft.

Handsome, etymologically speaking, is easy on the eyes. It originated from the old English hand and some, meaning "easy to handle," morphing into “of fair size” by the 1570s and making a quick transition into “good-looking” only a few years later. Until the 20th century, men and women were both described as handsome—good-looking, attractive—with regularity, with little difference in meaning. Rather, little general difference in meaning: As with so many words we use to describe women, as early as 1783 writers were eager to parse out what exactly makes a woman handsome. “By a handsome woman, we understand one that is tall, graceful, and well-shaped, with a regular disposition of features; by a pretty, we mean one that is delicately made, and whole features are so formed as to please; by a beautiful, a union of both,” writes John Trusler in 1783's The Distinction Between Words Esteemed Synonymous in the English Language. “A beautiful woman is an object of curiosity; a handsome woman, of admiration; and a pretty one, of love.”

Trusler may have been prescient here, for the case of pretty vs. handsome pops up again in 1813, with Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. At the grand ball, after Mr. Darcy protests to his confidant Mr. Bingley that there aren’t any good-looking women to dance with, we have the following exchange:

The one who is deemed merely “pretty” is, of course, Elizabeth Bennet, whom we’ve already learned is “not half so handsome” as her sister Jane. Elizabeth gets the guy in the end—but only after it’s been made clear that prettiness plays second banana to handsomeness in looks while ultimately reigning victorious in love. “Austen portrays the ‘handsome’ rival [as opposed to] her own ‘pretty’ heroine—as the old woman of parts, seen now as all too predictable,” writes Ellen Zetzel Lambert in The Face of Love: Feminism and the Beauty Question. “However virtuous...Austen’s ‘handsome’ woman is always condemned to play the other woman, the ‘pretty’ woman’s foil. Often an older sister or an older-sister surrogate, hers is the beauty that can be appraised by the judging man.” Today we champion the idea that Austen meant for us to root for the plain girl over the beautiful one, but in fact, on paper, we’re rooting for the pretty one.

Of course, Austen’s use of handsome wasn’t necessarily shared by all. Not twenty years after Pride and Prejudice’s publication, The New York Mirror proclaimed in 1832 that “A handsome woman is handsome only in one way; a pretty one is pretty as a thousand.” The two ideas aren’t necessarily at odds, but throughout the book we see Jane as having an uncommon physical beauty, while Elizabeth's beauty is revealed through her quick, intelligent eyes and graceful manner—hardly the cookie-cutter gal that the Mirror gives us.

In mid-century, the question of age and the handsome woman was introduced. The handsome woman had previously not been grossly restricted by age—our heroine’s mother in Pride and Prejudice is described as being “as handsome as any of” her teenaged daughters. (On the flipside, in a 1919 congressional investigation of Emma Goldman’s role in “Bolshevik Propaganda,” the answer to “Is she a handsome woman?” is “No, she is not... She was a rather good-looking woman when she was young.” At 50, Goldman was too old to be handsome.) Age still isn’t necessarily a defining factor of the handsome woman, but it’s a consideration—and not in the way it was for Goldman. Handsome is a decent indication that the woman being spoken of isn’t necessarily graced by the bloom of youth. Life magazine, 1951, on Mary McCarthy: “She is a handsome woman of 51.” New York, 1968, on La MaMa founder Ellen Stewart: “She is an exceptionally handsome woman in her forties.” Edward Albee describes the titular role of his 1980 The Lady From Dubuque as being a “handsome woman”; 64-year-old Irene Worth originated the role. Theologian Harvey Cox put a fine point on the difference between the beautiful woman and the handsome one in The Seduction of the Spirit, 1985, when describing his grandmother, “A large, handsome woman reputed to have been a famous beauty in her youth.”

For a possible reason as to the gradual link between handsomeness and age, we’ll turn to Urban Dictionary, often a source of foul terror but on occasion spot-on: “Handsome woman: A woman with the kind of refined beauty and attractiveness that requires poise, dignity, and strength of mind and character, things that often come with age.” Dignity comes up again in the classic definition of handsome women in the Oxford English Dictionary: “Striking and imposing in good looks rather than conventionally pretty.”

It’s this—striking, imposing—that explains why we still use handsome for men as a general synonym for good-looking, while we reserve it for a particular type of good-looking woman, even if we can’t quite agree on what type that might be. With the exception of cherub-faced cutie-pies, good-looking men of many stripes are routinely referred to as handsome: classically good-looking George Clooney, of course, but also fine-featured Ryan Gosling, bushy-browed Clive Owen, chiseled Brad Pitt, manly-man Javier Bardem, smoldering Taye Diggs, or Johnny Depp, who was once described by a fellow I knew as "required by law to be considered good-looking by everyone who has ever lived." For good-looking women, handsome is a descriptor; for good-looking men, it’s the descriptor.

The traditional rules of masculinity dictate that we’ll take our men striking and imposing as a default, just as we’ll take our ladies demure. We also describe men as beautiful, hot, cute, and good-looking, just as we do with women, but beneath most of these (with the possible exception of cute) lies an assumption of the strength and fine construction that’s already built into the default definition of handsome. The rough equivalent of a default compliment for women—beautiful—can imply a sort of divine harmony, a grace that must be inspired, not constructed. We want our men built, our women magic. The craft of handsomeness keeps it available to any woman or a man given a good set of genes. But it's only women whom society requires to go above and beyond fine construction into the realm of beauty.

I’ve grown to rather like handsome, though I didn’t always; I used to see it as lacking a feminine delicacy I wanted to be seen as possessing. Certainly I’m not alone: “A handsome woman. Did he honestly think that was flattering?” writes a character in Stephanie Grace Whitson’s Sixteen Brides, and hive-mind sites like Urban Dictionary and Yahoo Answers are rife with confusion on the matter. “Not conventionally pretty,” says one commenter; “May be either slightly attractive or slightly unattractive, but not to be mistaken with ugly,” says another. The less kind interpretations of handsome might still accurately apply, but over time I’ve begun to think of handsome as implying a sort of health and vigor I’d rather possess than delicacy. Handsome garners an admiration that needn’t be about lust or attraction, more about general appreciation. I might be warming to it in part because of age: At 35, while I’d like to think the bloom isn’t entirely off the rose, handsomeness is something that, with luck, I can look forward to for decades to come. Because of its breadth of connotations, it’s a term we can use to pique interest—in fact, at its best, the handsome woman may have an allure that the beautiful one might not. “She is gloved to ravish. Her toilet is of an exquisite simplicity. She has the vivacity, the fashions of an artist,” writes Mary Elizabeth Braddon in her 1875 novel Hostages to Fortune. “Permit, monsieur, it is not so easy to describe a handsome woman. That does not describe itself.”


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Thoughts on a Word: Cute

Cute is for sunny blondes, shiny brunettes, pert redheads, and anyone under the age of 10. Cute is for girls, boys, shoes, and guysbut when was the last time you heard the term “cute woman”? Cute is for kittens and puppies, wobbling toddlers, and bunnies with pancakes atop the head. Cute doesn’t have to be pretty, beautiful, or lovely, and cute just might not be sexy at all. Cute can overload. Cute can be for the mumbling teenage boy about the girl he’s pining for; cute can be uttered about a friend’s boyfriend without seeming improper. Cute can dismiss, make irrelevant, declaw. Cute is upbeat; cute minimizes the speaker’s risk. Cute hedges your bets.

Cute began as a shortened form of acute, meaning a sharp, quick intelligence or cleverness. In the 1830s, it became slang for pretty in the American Southspecifically a diminutive prettiness, retaining the piquant playfulness implied in the word’s original meaning. As late as the 1890s cute still meant clever in the north, as well as the British Isles, where it became slang for pretty only in the mid-20th century. But cute worked its way north quickly enough for The Nation to decry its overuse in 1909: “The reviewer will also ever pray in the interest of the English language...that the word ‘cute’ be banished from the pages of serious literature,” and Emily Post followed suit in 1927, calling cute “provincial.”

The Great Depression brought a backlash against not the slang of cute, but the concept itself. “In this changing world, the ‘sweet girl’ and the ‘cute girl’ belong to the past,” read ads for a 1935 mail-order “charm test” from actress turned charm expert Margery Wilson. It wasn’t just a sales pitch: Leading ladies like Jean Harlow, Barbara Stanwyck, and Bette Davis were bringing an adult sensibility to the screen that 1920s cutie-pies like Clara Bow and Lillian Gish couldn’t. The “cute girl” wasn’t necessarily going to help out the economy either; as with today’s recession, men’s jobs in the Depression were hit disproportionately, leading more families to depend upon women’s wages than ever before. “The women know that life must go on and that the needs of life must be met,” said Eleanor Roosevelt in her 1933 book, It’s Up to the Women. “It is their courage and determination which, time and again, have pulled us through worse crises than the present one.” Cuteness wasn’t an asset; the steely strength of Harlow-style glamour was to pull the nation through. 

With economic recovery returned a longing for the cute girl: In 1944, the same year that U.S. unemployment hit its lowest-ever mark of 1.2%, scripts for radio show Meet Corliss Archer saw quips like “Trade you all the Lamours and Lamarrs in the world...for a cute girl who can wear gingham and isn’t afraid to giggle. Glamour’s too rich for my blood.” The 1950s embraced cute, bringing ever-more appendages to the word: A woman might be a “cute thing,” “a cute trick,” “a cute dish,” “a cute number,” “a cute little piece,” “a cute chick,” “a cute doll,” or “a cute little bug” (of course, the latter is Robert Heinlein describing a parasitic invader from outer space, but he’d also called said bug a brunette, so I think it’s fair use here). By the 1960s, cute was in opposition not just to glamour but to sex itself. “The ‘cute girl’ is viewed as the friendly, ‘all-American girl’... She is vivacious, attractive, and, above all, not overly interested in the leverage one can obtain over boys through the judicious allocation of her affections” (American Journal of Sociology, 1967). Or, more bluntly: “Both our male and female informants define a ‘cute’ girl as a person who exudes a certain kind of sexual attractiveness but who does not demonstrate her sexual superiority in intercourse” (Studies in Adolescence, 1969).

The desexualization of cute makes it particularly useful in certain instances. It’s one of the few terms of appearance we freely apply to both sexes. We also use it for children, animals, and the elderlythe latter of whom are undoubtedly not thrilled to be in the company of the former two. In fact, many a cute person well within the childbearing years may be vexed by cute. “I have remained cute for far too long, and that is not bragging,” writes wide-eyed, freckled Heidi Schatz. “By golly, I will try on lingerie until I no longer laugh when I see myself in the mirror.” The teenage male protagonist of Judy Blume's best-known book for boys, Then Again, Maybe I Won’t, weighs in after his objet du désir calls him cute: “Why do girls always say cute? That’s such a dumb word. It makes me think of rabbits.” In fact, when used by girls about boys, it’s that very harmlessness that makes it an appealing word, for the same reason the wholly unthreatening Justin Bieber went platinum. What 12-year-old girl wants the Handsome Young Men’s Association when you can have the Cute Guy Club?

Why yes, that is Sugar Ray.

The diminutive application of cute can make it a weapon: A person labeled as cute may be seen as unserious or childlike, in addition to desexualized. But that’s also what makes it safe. Cute as a weaker term for attractive allows for some reserve: A noncommittal teenage boy might say it about a girl without appearing foolish; adults might use it as a disclaimer (“He’s cute, but...”). Because cute isn’t a threat, we can sprinkle it liberally throughout our conversations without seeming to make a pronounced statement. Cute shoes, cute dress, we tell strangers. Cute haircut, we may say to friends, regardless of how flattering the trim actually is. We can use cute for ourselves without seeming arrogant. I’ve heard friends say “I look cute” about themselves far more freely than they’d use pretty or beautiful, and even though cute isn’t a word I often hear from others about myself (is it the alto voice?), saying I’m cute feels like far less of a risk than saying I’m pretty. It’s a softened form of acknowledging general attractivenessours or someone else’swithout making judgments about God-given features. 

Cute, I suspect, is a word whose likability decreases in direct proportion to how often you’ve heard it applied to yourselfthe liveliness connoted by cute may be refreshing to the speaker, and tired old news to the wide-eyed, apple-cheeked lass who’s heard it for the twelfth time that day. On the rare occasion I’m called cute, it pleases me in the way that being called charming does: I take it as a statement of the moment, that for whatever reason the other person sees me as cute because I’m doing something uncharacteristically naive. I don’t internalize it as an indicator of my womanhood or sex appeala luxury I’ve been given because, as I lack the stereotypical hallmarks of “cute,” I’ve never had it used to undermine me. Yet I remember my petite redheaded pixie-faced college roommate publicly cursing cute, and as her cheeks got rosier and her pitch got higher in complaint I caught myself (to my shame) replaying that ever-undermining phrase in my mind: Gee, you’re cute when you’re mad. A blue-eyed, curly-haired friend of mine makes a point of showing cleavage as a rebellion against the years she was swaddled in 1970s high-necked doll-style clothes that emphasized her childhood cuteness, and there’s even an entire Facebook group devoted to those who Hate Being Called Cute. But the most poetic rebellion against cute comes from turn-of-the-century scribe Wesley Stretch, who duly synthesized the complaints about the desexualization of cute:

Cute, right?


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Thoughts on a Word: Provocative

Provocative, from provoke, definition i: To call forth, to summon, to incite to action. Definition ii: To incite to anger.

Provocative has been used to mean sexually exciting since the 17th century, though until the 20th century it needed to be contextualized to be understood as sexual passion rather than just passion of any sort. Music was “provocative to lust” (1676); practices of the Roman Empire showed “intemperance provocative to brutal lust” in 1776, and a 1718 translation of Plutarch tells us that "salt, by its heat, is provocative and apt to raise lust." Provocative was—and still sometimes is—divorced from sex, instead meaning simply summoning a challenge to the viewer/listener without inciting “brutal lust.” Indeed, in this context it might even be assigned to men (“Man is active and provocative; woman passive and submissive,” from The Passions in Their Relations to Health and Disease, 1876) or marginalized groups (“They provocatively dressed in finery and paraded the streets during Holy Week,” from The Jews of Germany, 1936; “The [Gay Pride] parade was a group of provocatively dressed gays...” from The New Yorker, 1987). Even when used to describe women, until midcentury provocative was used equally to describe sexual and intellectual incitement. From 1903’s Pigs in Clover: “If she for ever hit the tin tacks of fact with the light hammer of feminine argument, she would never build a platform...he told her. But she would only write as the mood seized her, and the little provocative woman laughed at his arguments.”

Of course, the word was also applied to sex workers—and women who were deemed to dress like them (or rather, like stereotypes of sex workers). Whether the writer was Flaubert in the 19th century, the American Journal of Pschotherapy in 1948, or early feminist thinker Catherine Gasquoine Hartley pondering “Women’s Wild Oats” in 1920, the provocative woman was understood to know exactly what it was she was provoking. Entertainers, too, were deemed provocative. So in a way it’s both unsurprising and unfortunate that we chose the word provocative in the 1970s to talk about what victims of sexual assault were wearing—we applied the same word to women who provoked with purpose to women who likely didn’t mean to provoke at all. SlutWalks may be new, but the discourse around “provocatively dressed” women is nearly 40 years old, and from the 1970s on the word provocative has been frequently coupled with discussions of sexual assault victims. In 1975 the Journal of Applied Social Psychology examined public reactions to rape sentencing depending on whether the victim was “provocatively dressed,” the same year a House of Lords debate focused on how rapists’ “defence is inevitably one of consent, it being said...she was probably provocatively dressed.” Crime fiction started detailing “young...provocatively dressed” women (The Police Journal, 1980); law journals alerted attorneys of judges who insinuated victims “invite[d] attack by wearing provocative clothing and hitchhiking” (American Bar Association Journal, 1977).

So we went from talking about individuals as provocative, to classes of people being provocative, to one particular profession as being provocative, to provocative dress being an invitation. Which brings us back to the Latin roots of provocative: pro (“forth”) + voke (from vocare, or “call”; vocare is also the root for voice). To provoke is to call forth, to summon, to incite. To dress in a provocative manner is, linguistically speaking, to ask for it.

Before the Internet collectively asks me to surrender my feminist card, I’d like to take a detour to seventh-grade grammar and discuss transitive versus intransitive verbs. Intransitive verbs are verbs that do not require an object: I sleep, you run, he/she/it dies. They stand on their own. Transitive verbs, however, require an object—that is, they need to transmit their action to something else before they can reach their intended meaning. I do not simply spend; I spend money. I spend money, you give a speech, he/she/it breaks a glass. Provoke is a transitive verb. If I am to provoke, in accordance to the rules of grammar, I need to provoke you. I need your reaction in order to meet the definition of provocative.

It may seem a mere point of grammar, but its implications go beyond the textbook. When we call a woman’s clothing provocative, we mistakenly assign her the responsibility—and to be sure, there is a responsibility that comes along with wearing clothes designed to showcase your sexuality. (That responsibility ends well before the point of sexual assault, which is the assaulter’s responsibility, but I’m sure nobody reading this thinks otherwise. Right? Right.) But the very word provocative assigns its power back to the viewer. Provocative needs an object to survive in grammar—and on the street, that object is the viewer. Nobody can be provocative alone.

And when we look at the ways we use provocative, it seems women intuitively understand exactly that. Other people describe us as provocative; only rarely do we use it to describe ourselves. We say what we’re wearing, we allude to hemlines and cleavage, we may refer to an outfit as sexy. Provocative? We don’t necessarily want to involve the object that particular transitive verb requires, so most of the time we just avoid it altogether. I challenge you to find a single instance of a woman describing her clothing as provocative without linking it to sexual assault or harassment, a deconstruction of sexual assault, or the odd piece of erotica. (I was able to find a grand total of one online, buried deep in the comments section of sex and gender writer Rachel Rabbit White’s blog, in reference to how the commenter wore a push-up bra for a night out.) It’s not a word women use to describe ourselves, even in cases when we are indeed hoping to provoke a particular person; in fact, it’s a word often chosen specifically to describe how a woman was not dressed. It’s a word the object of the sentence—the viewer—uses to describe their own reaction. It’s not a word we, the subjects, use at all.


Thanks to Decoding Dress for the word prompt! For more Thoughts on a Word, please click here.

On Athletic Bodies

I never dreamed I'd have an athletic body. I was a gym-class-fearing child, to the point where I would purposefully fall down stairs in the days leading up to the dreaded gymnastics unit; breaking an ankle seemed better than having to attempt to do a cartwheel in front of my classmates. I saw nothing wrong with sitting down on the playing field during T-ball games (to this day my parents swear I asked to join the team, and I can only assume that I was being ironic at an extraordinarily tender age); my favorite day of tennis lessons was our end-of-summer party because I got to stay on the sidelines and eat the racket-shaped cookies my mother had made for the occasion. Running The Mile—which I saw in my head like this:

—felt like torture, and I had to do it every year from grades 6-9, and I played sick every year until I realized I’d just have to do it on a day when the rest of the class was playing touch football or something and therefore able to watch me run The Mile, which was even worse.

I thought that way all my life—a singular aqua aerobics class my final semester of college notwithstanding, in order to "round out my course load"—until 2002. I'd broken up with a boyfriend, and it was one of those breakups that makes you wonder if you will ever be okay again, where being alone feels excruciating because you’ve cried all you can and you don’t know what else to do. Being on the subway felt okay for some reason, and since I wasn’t so despondent as to just ride the rails all day with no purpose, I took the opportunity to travel to gyms in the farthest reaches of all five boroughs to take advantage of their guest passes. (Plus, then I’d get really fit and toned and lithe and show him!)

The first time I entered a gym, it was in the Bronx, which I’d specifically chosen because I didn't know anyone who lived in the Bronx, so nobody I knew could possibly witness my fumbling around with the machines. I sat down at every machine in the place and read the directions so that the next time I went to a gym that would presumably not be in the Bronx, I wouldn’t look like a total fool. I stayed there for four hours.

Guest pass after guest pass, I worked my way through the city, and after a couple of months I realized that it was helping in ways beyond dealing with the breakup. My mood was improved, for one. My body, which hadn’t felt particularly out of shape before, began to feel...better. Like things were just working right. I was gaining confidence by knowing how to use the machines and free weights, and to my surprise I was finding that I was quickly able to up how much weight I was lifting—and, in fact, that I was lifting more weight than most of the other women on the floor.

And then there were the muscles. I had enough fat on me that it wasn’t visible for a while, but I could feel my arms getting more and more solid every week. Shaving my legs suddenly invited hazard because there was now a sharp little tennis ball where a soft calf had previously been. I distinctly remember looking at myself in the mirror while washing my hands and freaking out because there were these things moving in my chest, these ripply creepy-crawly things underneath my skin—and realizing that was my upper pectoral muscles, which I’d never actually seen before. I mean, I was no Colette Nelson, and you probably wouldn’t even have looked at me and called me “buff.” But I was distinctly more muscular than I’d ever been, and I’d even say I looked more muscular than the average woman of my age.

It turns out that my body actually is rather athletic. I still can’t catch, throw, or hit a flying object (gym-class phobia sets in even if a coworker tosses me a pen), and I would hesitate to say that I’m even in particularly good shape. But I’m reasonably fit; I can run a few miles without stopping; I lift weights. I even did some somersaults a few years ago when I went through a krav maga phase. Compared to the kid hurling herself down the stairs in 1983, I’m Mary Lou Fucking Retton. And when this fact hits me—when I am energized instead of exhausted after a run, or when a fellow gymgoer asks me to spot him, or when my doctor tells me that my heart rate is in the zone of conditioned athletes—I feel the type of gratitude and relief you can only feel when you realize that something negative about yourself that you’d accepted as truth is, in fact, not.

So the first time I saw “athletic body” in the “dress your figure” pages of a women’s magazine, I got excited. Finally, someone was acknowledging that not all women who work out are doing so to lose weight—and, hey, maybe I’d finally, once and for all, learn what kind of figure I actually had. But when the advice focused on “creating curves,” I was confused: I'm not particularly busty, but lacking curves has never been my problem. In fact, since muscles generally are not shaped like squares but instead are gently sloping, I probably have more curves than I did before I started lifting weights.

All the arguments I've made before about "dressing for your figure" apply to "athletic." For starters, it’s meaningless: Some magazines use it to mean “broad-shouldered and thick-waisted,” others use it to mean “big thighs, little hips,” others use it to mean “naturally slender and small-breasted.” The one thing they always say is to “create curves”—something I don’t think, say, Jennie Finch or Gabrielle Reece ever worried about. (Webster’s does lists mesomorphic as one of the definitions of athletic, and while I’m appropriately skeptical of constitutional psychology, the ectomorph/mesomorph/endomorph typing comes in handy when discussing basic body types. But that’s not usually what’s being discussed on these pages, and within those classic types there’s enough cosmetic variation that it doesn’t really belong on a “dress your body”-type of page anyway.)

But the “athletic body” deserves a bit of special treatment. For unlike being an apple or an hourglass or whatever, being athletic is something you choose. You might not be able to choose how your activities shape your body, but you choose to be athletic. And while I understand that you might not always want to be showcasing your body, I also don’t know of any female athletes—professional or just gymgoing ladies—who seem to try to conceal what their activities have brought them. You don’t see swimmer Natalie Coughlin covering up her developed shoulders as Rent the Runway would say she should (“detract from wider-built shoulders” with a one-shouldered dress, they advise); you don’t see Lisa Leslie trying to cover her rippling muscles when she’s on the red carpet.

From Athlete by Howard Schatz and Beverly Ornstein

More important, though, the idea of the “athletic body” ignores the enormous range of sports and the athletes who play them. Different sports work better with different bodies, as beautifully photographed by Howard Schatz in Athlete, a collaboration with Beverly Ornstein that depicts the enormous range in athletes’ bodies, from high jumper Amy Acuff to gymnast Olga Karmansky to weightlifter Cheryl Haworth. And even if we make room for the prototypical body of each sport, as Ragen at Dances With Fat—whose blog roots are in showing the world that a 284-pound dancer is, in fact, a dancer (she's won three National Dance Championships)—asked us last week, “When did being an athlete become more about how a body looks and less about what it can do?”

And, at its heart, that’s what ails me about the “athletic” body type as shown in women’s magazines. I don’t lay claims to be an athlete. But learning that I could develop muscle and look “athletic” was enormously empowering to me. I have worked hard to be able to do 40 push-ups (okay, I haven’t done 40 push-ups for a while, but I could at one point, I swear!), and the muscles that come with it are emblematic of that growth. Yeah, yeah, I struggle with body image like everyone—but my “athletic” build isn’t among those struggles. (In fact, when I look at my hard-won muscles and have a negative thought about them, that’s evidence that something else is going on that I need to examine.) My body does not do anything extraordinary; in fact, it just does what it’s supposed to do. But my athletic body is a triumph over so many painful memories: defiantly munching cookies during my final tennis lesson because I was afraid I’d look foolish on the court, pretending to twist my ankle during the 50-yard dash on field day so I didn’t have to suffer the indignity of coming in last, teachers asking if I was okay when my face would still be beet-red 30 minutes after gym class.

Listen, I can’t say I “love my body,” all right? But I love what athleticism has brought to me, and I treasure the ways it’s visible on my body. My athletic body doesn’t need anyone’s fashion advice. It doesn’t need anyone’s categorization. It does not need to be dressed around, typed, or even acknowledged. It just needs to move.

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.

Thoughts on a Word, and More, at Feministe

I've got content lined up for the rest of the week, but I'll be honest: Guest-posting at Feministe has been great, and it's taken a lot of my word-energy, so for today I'm going to just direct you over there for posts that may interest readers of The Beheld.

Last week, I looked at the politics of "hello", which has long vexed me as to its appropriate place on the street harassment spectrum. For sometimes, it's just a hello—and other times, it's an encroachment of public space, directed at me solely because I'm a woman.

As many women in urban spaces well know, hello isn’t always as friendly as it seems. ... I’m talking about the hello that has an undertone of You, Woman, owe me, Man, your attention—an undertone that’s usually so subtle as to be difficult to define, leaving me wondering if I’m just being a misanthropic New Yorker who can’t play well with others. I’m talking about the hello that slides up and down the scale, the echo of a wolf whistle, its tone indicating what its denotation cannot. I’m talking about the hello that happens just as I pass a man on the street, the hello that is not a greeting but a whisper, the hello that puts me in a position of reaction—to turn my head in good faith to acknowledge the existence of a fellow human…or to hurry past, knowing full well that there’s a good chance it’s not my human existence, but my female existence, that’s being acknowledged.

And today—less on-point with The Beheld but still perhaps of interest to my fellow wordy girls—I look at the evolution of female and why it makes my skin crawl when used as a noun...and whether it's worth reclaiming.

Common wisdom and cultural and etymological research shows that the prevalent objection to female as a noun is because it’s a term used to generically describe the egg-producing party of any species, not just our giganto-cranium intelligent species that includes, you know, women. Hell, it’s used to describe plants. ... But in poking into the etymology of female, I was surprised to find that female is not derived from male. Female originally sprang from the Latin femella and later the Old French femelle; contrast that with masculus from the same period, and it’s clear that unlike woman (which was indeed a compound), female has its own birth. The word only began to seem a counterpart to male in 1375, when the spelling was altered to seem a better rhyme for male.

I also posted on domestic violence, which, of course, has nothing to do with beauty but has everything to do with women. So!

Thoughts on a Portmanteau: Manorexia, Drunkorexia, and Liarexia

Webster's, 1894: Anorexy: Want of appetite, without a loathing of food

As Portmanteau Week here at The Beheld* concludes, I’d like to turn away from cankles and mandals—I know, how could anyone turn away from mandals?—to something with a tad more gravity: manorexia, drunkorexia, and liarexia.

These spinoffs of anorexia seem, at first (and second) look to undermine the severity of these conditions. Anorexia indicates that the sufferer needs treatment; manorexia implies that the sufferer is an outlier, not quite an anorexic (even though that’s exactly what he is), more of an anomaly than a person who might be welcomed into a treatment community. Drunkorexia conjures up not anorexia with alcoholism comorbidity (or alcoholism with disordered eating comorbidity) but a gaggle of sorority girls who skip dinner so they can hit up the beer bong and still fit into their Sevens. As for liarexia, the word didn’t appear to exist until this very month, with the Daily Mail piece about women who eat heartily in public but who restrict in private. The condition, of course, has been around for ages—it falls under the umbrella of ED-NOS, or eating disorder not otherwise specified, which actually has a higher mortality rate than both anorexia and bulimia.

Overall, I’m inclined to agree with Stephanie Marcus at The Huffington Post, who writes that “labeling the behavior ‘liarexia’ distracts from its seriousness,” which I feel goes for all of the above terms. But here’s where I’m going to trot out my beloved Gloria Steinem quote again: Because of feminism, “We have terms like sexual harassment and battered women. A few years ago, they were just called life.” The emergence of manorexia shows that people are beginning to understand that men can be afflicted with eating disorders—something that wasn’t true outside of the medical community (and often within it) less than a decade ago. Drunkorexia might get the mental wheels turning in some women who have been doing it for so long that they don’t realize it might actually be a problem, not just a Saturday night. As for liarexia, it highlights the larger problem behind the condition: We’re so on guard about women’s food intake—and we attach so much emotional and moral value to what we eat—that eating a cheeseburger becomes a signal that all is well on the food front, even when it’s not. See also: DIPE, or Documented Instances of Public Eating—which, incidentally, the Daily Mail piece addressed.

In fact, the Daily Mail piece that raised my ire is actually a pretty solid piece that raises awareness that one doesn’t have to have a full-fledged eating disorder in order to have a problem. I’m constantly reading up on this stuff, so I’m always glad to see a public take on eating disorders that goes beyond the classic poor-little-rich-girl tale (thankfully, there are more complex depictions of EDs out there now, but that’s a fairly recent development). But most people learn about eating disorders primarily through mainstream outlets, and by relying on cutesy terms, those outlets are failing the public. The Columbia Journalism Review opined that this New York Times piece about anorexia offshoots was frivolous, even as the writer stressed that addictions and eating disorders are troubling. “But worth nearly 1,400 words in the Sunday Times (the Style section, but still)—and deserving of the implicit validation that comes from reference as a ‘phenomenon’? Doubtful.” Yet I’m doubtful that the CJR would have taken issue with the topic if actual medical terms—say, anorexia with alcholism comorbidity, or ED-NOS—were used instead of the word drunkorexia. In pointing fingers at the Times for its reportage, the CJR dismissed a legitimate concern as a “trend piece.” But with a word like drunkorexia, can you blame them?

Anorexia spinoffs are the inverse of cankles: Where cankles invents a trivial problem to shame us, drunkorexia/manorexia/liarexia labels an existing legitimate problem and then inadvertently trivializes it. And I am fairly sure it’s inadvertent: Neither the Daily Mail liarexia piece nor the New York Times drunkorexia piece glosses over the issues at stake. (I’m picky about the way this stuff is reported and certainly see gaps in the presentation of the information, but overall I found it reasonably responsible.) What I’d like to see from here is a proper naming of what’s going on. If coining one corner of ED-NOS as liarexia helps alert some of its sufferers that what they’re doing is not normal behavior, then I don’t want to get rid of liarexia. Admitting to yourself that you have an eating disorder—especially when it’s not one that leaves you thin enough to warrant concern from others, or that doesn’t have easily diagnosable behaviors like purging—can be a long, self-searching process. My optimistic hope is that the minimizing of ED-NOS through terms like liarexia and drunkorexia may, on occasion, worm their way into sufferers’ minds in a way that a clinical term might not. (Manorexia is more problematic: Men with eating disorders already suffer a double shame, both the shame of having an ED in the first place and then the shame of not being taken as seriously as a woman with the same symptoms might. Male anorectics are already sidelined and belittled enough—but I suppose that there may be anorexic men who find solace in the term, as it indicates that other men suffer in the same way.)

I just want these terms to be portals to real discussion that could lead to real treatment for the people who need it, instead of allowing them to reside in the mental space created by the trivialization of their problem. I’m guessing that for every woman for whom hearing drunkorexia sounds an alarm, there’s another woman who uses it to laugh off her symptoms, popping martini olives—you know, dinner—into her mouth as she jokes about being drunkorexic. If we’re going to use these words as ways to develop a more comprehensive understanding of eating disorders, we need to do so with care.

*    *    *    *    *

Language evolves with the people: Copyediting is my bread and butter, but nonetheless I wholeheartedly subscribe to a descriptive approach to words and grammar. (Don’t tell my clients!) You’ll never find me hand-wringing over the inclusion of LOL, OMG, or IMHO in Oxford; these are terms we use to help us communicate, and if we’re going to communicate effectively we need to make good use of all the tools at our disposal, IMHO. This includes portmanteaux—even the ones I’ve examined with skepticism this week.

But I’d suggest that we should proceed with caution when coining new words. There’s no evidence that language changes more quickly than it did before the Internet; what the Internet has done is give rise to the ability to create mini-phenomenon. When I was researching terms for Portmanteau Week, it stood out to me how the words were clustered. Cankles hit its peak in 2009 (it had gone mainstream well before then, but 2009 provided the most buzz); drunkorexia was big in 2008; liarexia has more than 14,000 Google hits, and I’ve yet to find one of those results published before July of this year. (Mandals, ever the outlier, stands alone, popping up with seasonal regularity.)

What this indicates to me is that we’re eager to examine what may (manorexia) or may not (cankles) be a genuine cultural shift, and that we’re getting better than ever at coining catchy words to describe them. I’d like to see us be careful to not chase clever terminology at the expense of the actual meaning of the words. Trend-ifying portmanteaux may hopefully (hopefully!) work well when we're talking about things like cankles (if we can agree that 2006-2009 was the era of the cankle and be done with it, I'll be thrilled). But it doesn't work out so nicely when we're talking about legitimate concerns that need legitimate examination. We can't allow for the issues behind those talk-cute terms to be swept under the rug once their press cycle has expired.
If coining manorexia leads more sick men to seek treatment for anorexia, fantastic—but we need to keep discussing these issues in order to avoid turning them into the trend that their catchy portmanteaux labels indicate they are. Let’s not forget that the Times drunkorexia piece appeared in the Fashion & Style section (as do most things affecting the ladies, but that’s a different post). Human suffering is not a trend, and giving it the trend treatment makes that easy to forget.


*Note that I must qualify Portmanteau Week with “at The Beheld,” because otherwise I’d run the risk of confusing readers who surely participated in 1995’s “Fun People” Portmanteau Week. Everything I do, I do it for you. Also, please allow the record to reflect that as analytical as I got here, I recognize that the concept of Portmanteau Week is utterly ridiculous. Or—and with this I shall allow Portmanteau Week to close with love—ridonkulous.

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.)

Thoughts on a Portmanteau: Mandals

Speaking of portmanteaus, would this T-shirt qualify as anti-mandal slacktivism?
(For the record, I am all about sandals for all, Jesus-style.

"Didn't the Greeks invent sandals?" asked a sandal-wearing male colleague the other day. (Actually, it turns out Oregonians did, thus setting the stage for the state's eventual reputation as hosting a bunch of Birkenstock-wearing, craft-brewing lovefreaks. Which, if my days at University of Oregon are any indication, we are.) His question was in context of mandals, hardly a newfangled fashionisto invention—indeed, they are merely sandals, which, at their base definition, are unisex. "Why do we insist on calling them mandals?" he asked.

Why do we, even if we generally sputter it out with a laugh, always using it self-consciously, making fun of the term even as we use it? It got me thinking about the uses of portmanteaus (a word formed by combining two other words, like brunch) in general, and how they're often invented to describe a new phenomenon that needs naming (like e-mail, motel, newscaster, or, hell, Tanzania) or something that somebody with an agenda names in its infancy in hopes of creating a demand. Whether it's a product (turducken) or a movement (blaxploitation), these words might not be coined cynically (there is nothing cynical about turducken), but when the term precedes its visibility in the culture, it begs investigation. I’ll be doing a mini-series this week on portmanteaus as they apply to gender and the body, beginning with exactly where my beach-oriented brain is at today: mandals.

In the case of mandals—and murses, and manpris (which, in all fairness, I've never heard anyone say out loud)—we seem to have cutesy portmanteaus that serve to trivialize aspects of men's lives that might bring them closer to the traditionally feminine realm. It's worth noting that early uses of mandals, notably in Carson Kressly's Off the Cuff, refer to a specific type of thick-soled sandal that Kressly refers to as "way too lesbian hootenanny" and that the authors of Is Your Straight Man Gay Enough? (!) call "rough and tumble sandal imitations." Presumably in its origins there was still a little wiggle room for a dignified sandal, a structured, manly, Italian-style slip-on that would allow American men to walk through heated summers with a little breeze between the toes. (In fact, early excavations of mandal find it necessarily paired with the admonition about not wearing them with socks, which, frankly is just good common sense.)

Now, however, that distinction has been lost—it's every mandal for itself, whether it be sleek and leather or rubber and chunky. My question is: Who benefits from mandal, murse, and the like? (I am tempted to include jorts, which, judging from the subjects of, are strictly worn by men, but the word itself remains gender-free, the hir and ze of the jeans shorts world.) Companies aren't using the term murse or mandal to sell, well, murses and mandals; they're using the perfectly good preexisting terms such as bag, satchel, messenger bag, etc. (Which, for the record, are all words women use as well for what we carry as well. I carry a midsize leather bag with internal pockets and mid-length shoulder straps designed to be worn on the shoulder, so it's distinctly a purse, not, say, a tote bag, messenger bag, satchel, or backpack—all of which might be called a murse if it were carried by a man.) In fact, if you Google murse or mandals, you'll find not links to actual bags and shoes, but criticism or praise of the items. "The Horror of Mandals," writes the Phoenix New Times. "There needs to be sand beneath your feet, or your name needs to be Matthew McConaughey,” says a source in The Daily Beast's mandals piece. On the flipside, Internet celebrity William Sledd proclaims, "I love my murse!" Of course, Sledd is best known for his "Ask a Gay Man" YouTube series, thus lobbing man-bags right into the arena of sexual identity—not because he's gay, but because he's saying this very pointedly in the persona of a gay man. (And thus we come full circle back to Carson Kressly, whose Queer Eye for the Straight Guy now seems downright quaint.)

So the companies aren't directly benefiting. You could argue that the terminology exists because of a demand for men's sandals and bags (I can't find numbers on whether sales of these items have increased in recent years), and that might be true, whether it's consumer- or company-driven—but I can't imagine that belittling terminology would actually help sales. At the same time, you don't hear the people wearing murses and mandals using the terms with a straight face—in fact, nobody says it with a straight face. These terms exist to make it clear that we as a culture are willing to cut men a little bit of slack about borrowing from the feminine sphere, but not without hazing them first. We'll allow men to wear shoes that offer a bit of relief in sweltering weather; we'll allow men to carry a bag so that they're not jamming everything into their pockets—but we'll be sure to tease them, rough them up a little, let them know that their comfort comes with a price.

In short, nobody benefits with these terms of mild derision—not men, who might wish to wear sandals but know they'll have to brace themselves for some light-hearted teasing, and certainly not women, for it's our fashions that are being suddenly framed as frivolous and shame-worthy instead of practical. (I never thought twice about sandals being gendered until I heard of mandals—I'm of the "my feet need to breathe!" camp, which I know is a deeply polarizing issue, but anyway.) Surely the world has greater linguistic problems than mandals, but I think it's a term worth looking at if we're trying to work our way toward gender equality.

This is why I'm hesitant to say that the widening field of men's cosmetics signifies any sort of progress in loosening gender roles, even as some spot-on feminist thinkers stake their claim otherwise. It's lovely to think that the boom in men's skin care means that we're slowly working our way toward allowing men access to the same realm of fantasy and play that we grant to women through fashion and beauty. But I simply don't see that as being the case: If we as a culture can't allow men to wear shoes that expose their toes without giving them some special word that keeps them in the corner, are we really going to be able to give them shame-free access to eyeliner—excuse me, guyliner—anytime soon?

Beauty Blogsophere 7.15.11

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

No animals were harmed in the making of this vixen:
Makeup artist Eden DiBianco (above) is giving away a cruelty-free makeover.

From Head...
It's easy being green: The lovely, talented, and insightful makeup artist Eden DiBianco (you can read our interview here—it remains one of my personal favorites) is giving away a cruelty-free makeover (New York area only). To enter, hop over to green beauty site GirlieGirl Army and comment with when you feel the most beautiful and why you or someone close to you deserves this makeover. While you're at it, read the whole post, of Eden's top 10 favorite cruelty-free products.

...To Toe... 
Yes, but how much should I tip?: Announcing the first-ever cute animal video on The Beheld! Monkey gives himself pedicure with self-made pedicure kit. I mean really.

...And Everything In Between:
Male makeup marketing: Let's put aside the clear agenda of this study about masculinity and beauty products (which was conducted by FaceLube, a men's skin care company that "uses no common beauty terms with female characteristics...FaceLube® is catered to the preferences of masculine men" OKAY BUDDY WE GOT IT YOUR PENIS IS ENORMOUS). It actually reveals something that goes to the heart of the question about whether the increase in men's skin care represents a loosening of gender roles (which I don't think it does in the grand scheme of things, but I'm open to arguments to the contrary). My hunch is that more American men would respond to a masculinization of beauty products than a metrosexual marketing. Lucky for me, I have the vigorous research of FaceLube® by my side. 

Rebel rebel: Saudi men may blame high divorce rates on women spending more time on cosmetics than the marital arts. The study was of 50 men, so hardly representative, but it's an interesting point, especially given that a new Saudi labor law mandates that cosmetics stores can only be staffed by women. Are cosmetics a refuge for women in an notoriously un-woman-friendly culture?

L'Oréal vs. eBay: The European Court of Justice ruled that online sellers like eBay must take measures to prevent the sale of counterfeit trademarked products. (Good timing for L'Oréal, whose sales are sluggish in North America and Eastern Europe.)

Body bloggin': One of my favorite bloggers, Virginia Sole-Smith, delves into the question of body-positive blogs. She focuses more on the issue of measurements and numbers than images—something I don't do myself but that I think can be helpful when done right (as she herself did on Beauty Schooled by asking people to post their weight as one of many facts about themselves)—but it's a question worth engaging in on all levels.

Liar liar: I'm a little late on this, but Stephanie Marcus's HuffPo piece on "liar-exia" raises the excellent point that using cutesy terminology like that sweeps a very real eating disorder (ED-NOS, or at least one of its many incarnations) under the rug. The symptoms of "liar-exia"—making a point of eating bountifully in public and restricting in private—mustn't be trivialized, not because it'll kill its sufferers (it probably won't, though ED-NOS sufferers actually have a higher mortality rate than anorexics and bulimics), but because it speaks to the double bind that women who are supposed to somehow "know better" are thrust into. Eating disorder advocates have done a good job of raising awareness of EDs; now we've got to dispel the many myths surrounding them.

Beauty and the brain: Fascinating study published in PLos ONE about how we process beauty. Regions of our brain light up when we experience beauty regardless of its form, pointing toward a scientific way to say that the beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The study authors also note "there must be an intimate link in the cortical processing that is linked to value, desire and beauty." I don't argue otherwise, and certainly not in this context, because it invites the question of how we turn the inherent value of beauty into monetary value if we experience beauty in the brain. That is: If we can tune into a way to manipulate mass ideas of beauty, can we create profit? Shall we ask the Magic 8-Ball?

Pink isn't just for girls: It's for "the girls" too! Full pinkwashing disclosure: I own a pink-ribbon KitchenAid, and it is the cutest thing in existence, rivaling the pedicure monkey.

Pinkwashing: This fantastic paper (full download here; Science Daily writeup here) by Amy Lubitow of Portland State University and Mia Davis of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics gets at the heart of one angle of my unease with the pink-ribboning of corporate America. Companies often "pinkwash," or pull out the pink breast cancer flag to prove that they're woman-friendly—including companies that use chemicals that have been linked to cancer. There's a lot here and it's pretty layperson-friendly. It concludes, "We would like to suggest that a critical stance on pinkwashing is the first step in addressing ongoing racial disparities in relation to breast cancer and is a necessary element in the effort [to] reduce cancer incidence and mortality rates."

Beauty "breaking points": A reminder from Allure that one way spa workers claim power is to shame their clients about their bodies. This is a part of the "upsell" that Virginia wrote about in Marie Claire, and I'm sympathetic to the financial need for the worker to do exactly what she did, even as it makes me cringe. But manalive I was hoping for some commentary from Allure on this, not a cave-in! (Not that waxing your lip is a cave-in, but doing so because you've been shamed into it? Oi!) There are some positive quotes here too, though, so not a total wash.

A "ho" is for gardening: Not exactly beauty-related, but y'all know I'm a sucker for word usage, so this piece at Good on terminology for sex workers caught my eye. Tits and Sass then asks the question: Gee, why don't you ask a sex worker what she'd like to be called? (The Good piece was talking specifically about prostitutes, and I think that having specific terminology is helpful in discussing any line of work—what I do as a writer is quite different from what I do as a copy editor—but it doesn't erase the larger question.)

Sing it, sister: Tavi on beauty privilege: "But even if I have my own reasons for [wearing makeup and contact lenses instead of glasses], I still can't help but feel a little uneasy about playing their game."  (Via Rachel Hills)

Feminist Fashion Bloggers roundup: Great collection of posts on feminism, fashion, and social class. Kate Middleton's perceived class status and how it relates to her as a fashion icon; two takes on the shifting role of class in DIY fashion; the relationship between downscale and upscale fashions, from the mirror-free Kjerstin Gruys, whose pre-academic professional background was fashion; feminism and intellectual property in fashion; the ethics of thrifting; counterfeit fashion; and honoring Betty Ford.

Necessity, luxury, and class: Krystal at PowerFemme (also a part of the FFB roundup; there are other beauty bloggers on FFB but Krystal was the only one who participated in this roundup) on the role of privilege in the beauty industry: "We often recognize that those who have extra money to hop on a plane to Europe, eat at fancy restaurants, and get weekly massages as socially and economically privileged. Yet, we sometimes forget about how privilege impacts our relationship to beauty because our purchases in the beauty industry are often framed as pure necessities, not luxuries." She makes an excellent point about how the concentration of industry power means that those companies have an overwhelming amount of cultural power, because they're dictating the bulk of the images.

Thoughts on a Word: Gorgeous

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts on a Word: Fair

Fair meant beautiful before it meant light-complected, not the other way around. Fair derives from Old English faeger (beautiful, lovely, pleasant), which came from the Germanic and Norse fagar and fagr for beautiful. Until the 1550s, fair was used to describe a beautiful or attractive person with no regard to the color spectrum, and indeed with not much regard to sex. "The men of this province are of a fair and comely personage, but somewhat pale," wrote the narrator of The Travels of Sir John Mandeville (circa 1357-1371).

This changed with the Elizabethan era, and with that great language alchemist, Shakespeare. The bulk of his sonnets were addressed to whom his scholars call the "Fair Youth"—and his uses of fair in these sonnets sticks with the original meaning. But the youth in question is described as having a "gold complexion"—after all, we're comparing him to a summer's day—and during this time the meaning of fair broadened to include skin tone. Just in time, too; with the arrival of Africans in England in 1551, Britons suddenly needed a term to distinguish their pale-skinned beauties from the new arrivals. (Certainly it's no coincidence that this era saw an uptick with the usage of fair to mean "morally good." That usage dates back to the 12th century, but the late 16th century introduced the phrases fair play and fair and square, setting the race status quo early on. It worked on the other side too: The 1580s saw the first use of black to mean "dark purposes," alongside its prexisting adjective use to describe dark-skinned people.)

This is also the same period during which the term "the fair sex" originated as a designation for women of a certain class. Erasmus in 1533 queried "the Artifices us'd by such of the Fair Sex as aim more at the Purses than at the Hearts of their Admirers," already using the term ironically even though it had only just then been introduced. And even jumping the pond, fair soon became a catch-all reference to American women—well, the white ones, at least—as beautiful, light-skinned, and morally virtuous. "Strategic deployment and ordinary usage of the term 'fair sex' produced white women as a special category: a racialized sex group that lost consciousness of itself as bounded by race and class, retaining the memory of its identity as one based on gender alone," write Pauline E. Schloesser in The Fair Sex: White Women and Racial Patriarchy in the Early American Republic. "Once the discourse was deployed, one understood universals like 'females,' 'ladies,' and 'the sex' to mean white and middle-class without having to make these specific references." Fair, in America, became a way of determining how western European one was. An 1850 genealogical compendium from Harvard delineated pale skin from fair skin, the former indicating an Eastern European heritage instead of the British-Germanic pink undertones of fair skin. Fair skin was also thin and soft, as opposed to the thick, hard, dry—that is, working-class—complexion of pale-skinned folk.

But all this is in the past, right? The olden days? Have you ever heard someone describe a woman as fair without referring to her complexion? Even in today's most popular use of fair outside of skin tone, My Fair Lady, we understand the term to be quaint, archaic, charming, much like the class system it mocks. (Plus, it's unlikely that Lerner and Loewe would have come across this title organically; My Fair Lady took its title from Pygmalion: Fair Eliza, one of the considered subtitles for the 1912 play that inspired the latter production. And even that was borrowed from Robert Burns's 1791 poem "Thou Fair Eliza.")

It's not in the past, though. I'd argue fair-as-beautiful continues to be relevant, even as that direct use of fair has ceased. (It's worth noting that the first-listed definition in Merriam-Webster is still "pleasing to the eye or mind," however.) Its history is encoded in its complexion reference: Fair is a less racially charged way of saying white. I've argued before that the skin-whitening creams found throughout Asia reflect a desire for class status, not whiteness per se; just as having a tan in America signifies you have the time and resources to take long beach vacations from our indoor jobs, having pale skin in Asia signifies that you've risen above menial outdoor labor. But the use of that particular word—fair—crops up time and time again with these products. Fair and White, Fair and Lovely, Fair and Flawless, Fair Lady (one of the few products recalled) are but a few of the products that use the word. So even without evoking Caucasian skin, fair conjures a particular kind of woman: not only one who is whiter-skinned than most Asians, but one who is delicate, refined, and working indoors (or not at all). Fair is aspirational.

There's another archaic use of fair that I'm seeing cropping up more and more. While most of Shakespeare's sonnets were written for the Fair Youth, a handful were penned for the Dark Lady. These were passionate, sexual sonnets, in contrast to the tenderness of the poems for the Fair Youth. We've continued this dichotomy, hypersexualizing today's "dark ladies" even if American beauty standards are finally becoming more inclusive (well, somewhat). We've got the spicy Latina; sultry, exotic women of the Middle East (surely they belly dance!); sexy squaws; and, of course, the ubiquitous bootylicious black women that populate hip-hop videos. It's not an issue of dark-skinned women being seen as less beautiful; it's an issue of them being seen as beautiful in a particular way. A way, not incidentally, that precludes them from being a part of "the fair sex," which preserves the term's original connotations of class and delicacy. Dare I go for the obvious here? It's not fair.