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The Beheld
By Autumn Whitefield-Madrano
Examining questions surrounding personal appearance: What does it mean to be seen? What is the relationship between "beauty labor" and cultural visibility? And why do two lipstick shades combined always look better than one?
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The Tightrope Walker


In an interview last week in Rolling Stone magazine, Donald Trump said the following about you. Quote, “Look at that face. Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?” Mr. Trump later said he was talking about your persona, not your appearance. Please feel free to respond what you think about his persona.

You are running for President of the United States; the number of women who have done this on a serious level in the 239-year history of this country can be counted on one hand. You are not qualified—no, really, you aren’t—but you are exactly as qualified as the current front-runner of your party. And you are smarter, and more articulate, and more poised than he is. You have excellent recall, and you are the only candidate in the second national debate who repeatedly, and only, talks about America, not about the circus that your party’s nomination has become.

And then, he asks you that. That question, that odious question, the one you knew he would ask, the one you prepped for, the one you treated nonchalantly in that prep. He asked you the question about what he said. You know it’s not a serious question, that you are thrust into the role of the tightrope walker because P.T. Barnum promised that he had a great one waiting backstage. But you are a serious woman, a serious candidate, and so you answer.

Are you humiliated? Are you humiliated that you are the only candidate to be put in this position—that could are the only candidate who could be put in this position? Are you humiliated that once again, as has happened before at your desk, then at your cubicle, and in rooms where you are interviewed, and in rooms where you eventually interview others, and in careless remarks at meetings, that it comes to this again? To your face, to your sex, to what so many of—please don’t believe it’s all—the men who have faced you in the boardroom have considered, your appeal? Is the teenage girl who looked in the mirror in 1968 and thought what so many teenage girls think about the way they look—is she there tonight, and is she shrinking?

Or are you angry? Are you angry that should you suddenly defeat all the odds and you are facing her next year, that the question of your face will haunt you, haunt you both, that there will be memes of your worst possible facial contortion alongside hers? Are you angry that when you next meet up with women with whom you share a quiet understanding of what it’s like to be at the very, very top of your game, they might want to discuss this? Are you angry that you are dancing backward and in high heels and that it still comes down to how good you look in your ballgown?

Or do you look out, and do you quiet whatever you feel—my amateur guesses, as much as I wish I didn’t instinctively reach for the first of these, are humiliation and anger, for that is what I felt, sitting here tonight, watching you having to answer a ridiculous question based on a ridiculous statement from a ridiculous man—and say to America, I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said?

And once you have said it, and once you have ended the conversation: Ms. Fiorina, please tell me that from even from the couch of someone who disagrees with you on policy, the economy, civil rights, reproductive rights, capital punishment, gun control, health care, and pretty much everything else—you know that tonight, you won.


Sex Appeal, Beauty, and Normalcy: Rachel Hills’ “The Sex Myth”


The first time I had sex, I couldn’t wait to tell the first friend I saw. As it were, the first acquaintance I ran into afterward was my high school social studies teacher—I was in college at the time but he was visiting the campus, and I spent what would’ve been a very pleasant coffee date with him desperately trying to not blurt out, I’m not a virgin anymore, Mr. Tatum. After that excruciating coffee, I saw a friend, grabbed her arm, and said what I’d been dying to say. She was excited for me, and asked all the right questions that allowed me to give all the right answers. As we talked, I became aware of the light behind her head, the atmosphere that suddenly seemed thinner, lighter; I remember seeing the faded blue of her chambray shirt as suddenly, intensely vivid and thinking, Everything looks different now. I had been a virgin, and now I wasn’t, and these eyes were the ones I’d be seeing the world with from now on.

This, as laid out in Rachel Hills’ thoroughly engaging new book, is part of the Sex Myth. We’ve come to think of sex as more than something we do for recreation and procreation; western societies now frame sex as a statement about who we are. You’re not seen as complete unless you’re having sex, and plenty of it, and in just the right ways—for all the sexual permissiveness we’ve come to grant ourselves, there are still just as many ways to get sex wrong. The idea of the Sex Myth serves as a regulation of sorts, shaping not simply what we do in bed but our public and private identities.

A book about sex, particularly one filled with as many “aha!” moments as this one, is going to be enough for plenty to pick it up. If you’re interested in beauty and physical appearance on top of that, The Sex Myth has even greater wealth. Hills skillfully lays out the ways that sex has become entwined with people’s images, including how we use appearance to give a managed vision of sexuality. Not that we’re directly advertising our presumed sexual interests on our bodies (though some do). But as Hills points out, it’s easy to overlook the intersection of sex and identity when we tick all the socially approved boxes. Looking like a sexually desirable woman might be on my agenda at times, but I’d never taken the connection between self-presentation and sex farther than that. That’s an easy place for me to reside in because I’ve got plenty of sexual permission: I’m a heterosexual, partnered, cisgendered white chick who isn’t just monogamous but is serially monogamous, so it’s presumed I have the sexual experience a woman in her 30s “should” have. There’s not a lot of deviance I’m forced to hide, ameliorate, or justify. But of course my sexual self-presentation asserts itself beyond my appeal: I dress in women’s clothes, I have long hair and wear makeup, I reveal enough skin to show that I’m not uncomfortable with the mere idea of sex, but not so much that I push the line of “slut.”

In other words, I look “normal,” which files me into a bin with plenty of other compliant-looking women. Looking “normal” is certainly no guarantee of actual compliance (thank heavens), but you wouldn’t know that from looking at the pile of knee-length skirts and tasteful kitten heels lying in our wake. Sex, looks, and normalcy: Humans walk a fine line here to avoid falling on the “wrong” side, and women have more experience in navigating that line than men. (There is no male equivalent of “lady on the streets, freak between the sheets.”) We’re educated in how to look good but not like we tried too hard, how to advertise our sex appeal without looking aggressive. In the same way, the Sex Myth has men and women alike attempting to appear a carefully calibrated line of “normal”: sexually deviant enough to be interesting but not so deviant as to actually be labeled perverted, ready and willing at all times but without any whiff of desperation. It’s a variation on the sexual double bind for women that has existed for centuries, with the twist that it does its policing under the guise of liberation. As Hills writes, “sex doesn’t need to be actively suppressed in order to be controlled.”

More than what our looks might articulate about sexuality, our looks articulate the Sex Myth itself. Both sex and appearance become stand-ins for other qualities—competence, likability, interestingness. Appearance becomes the first step: We see beauty as the route to sex appeal, and sex appeal as the route to so many other aspects of life’s bounty. Trouble is, these routes are hardly straightforward. Beautiful people aren’t necessarily having more sex, nor are they necessarily more confident in their appeal. Meanwhile, the actual route to confidence about one’s sex appeal—having positive early sexual experiences—remains unconsidered in the culture at large, almost shooed aside in favor of juicier mental equations about sexual satisfaction. It echoes truths about conventional beauty: We think beautiful people are happier, more successful, richer, better, but that’s not quite what’s going on. Good-looking people do indeed benefit from the “halo effect” of being treated as though they have all these qualities, but it’s not like they’re inherently happier or more successful than the rest of us, and the halo effect itself is limited, particularly for women. (Being too good-looking can actually cost a woman in the workplace, depending on her profession.) We keep making false associations between beauty and a better life because those associations don’t feel false. Appearance is in and on our bodies, lending the fallacies of beauty the impression of visceral truth. That goes double for sex.

Breaking these associations would mean to break the Sex Myth, and for that matter, much of the beauty myth as well. The question is what breaking those associations would look like. Severing the assumption that good sex equals a good life would allow for more pleasure for pleasure’s sake, for starters, in much the same way that understanding that beauty doesn’t bring happiness can draw us toward a play-based approach to adornment. It might allow us more genuine fluidity in our sexual lives—fluidity of orientation, libido, approaches to partnerships on the whole. It could even just help us take the pressure off.

Moreover, it might also keep sex private. The politicization of certain aspects of sex has been beneficial in plenty of ways (think queer visibility and reproductive rights). One area where its benefits are more dubious is its effect on appearance, particularly women’s appearance. Beauty and sex interact in a particularly odd way: We use appearance (something public) as a manifestation of our sexuality (something private). Certainly I don’t want a world where we can’t express our sexuality through the way we look—we’ve been there, and it didn’t work. But for plenty of women, giving off an air of desirability has nothing to do with actual desire, whether feeling it or provoking it—yet embodying desire has become so enmeshed with the idea of “looking good” that they’re practically synonymous. People are making strides to counter this: Witness Man Repeller, the embrace of nail art as potential subversion (as Tracie Egan Morrissey writes, “Men don’t want to fuck you because of the design painted on your nails”), and The Great Maxi Dress Debate of 2015 (the smartest take of which is here).  The woman who takes this approach to self-presentation might be just as much—or just as little—a “freak between the sheets” as her more publicly sexual forerunners. The point is that we won’t know.

Leaving sex in the bedroom when appropriate doesn’t mean being less (or more) sexual, nor does it mean sneering at those who do make it more a part of their public persona. What it might do is help us see it for what it is, instead of what it’s not.


News Flash: Beauty Customers Aren’t Suckers



The headlines regarding this recent study about claims made in cosmetics ads indicate things like “Most ‘scientific’ beauty product claims are bogus.” As per usual, the headline isn’t accurate at all; the study measured whether product claims were seen as accurate, which is an entirely different matter. Luckily, the question of whether customers think products are bogus is arguably more interesting than whether or not they actually are, so let’s go from there—

In short, the study found that women think most beauty ads are bullshit. And appropriately so: They found ads that directly claimed superiority over other products to be flat-out false, and ads based on science to be vague or omissive. Interestingly, the ad type that was perceived as being most acceptable was endorsements—which makes sense, as most of us implicitly understand that at the very least, the person making the endorsement is agreeing of her own free will to make it (even if it’s a talking-head fee, not the product’s efficacy, that prompts the agreement). And cannily executed, an endorsement, particularly a celebrity endorsement, can be effective if the consumer sees a reflection of herself in the spokesperson.

So we’re not suckers for iffy advertising; that’s great. But if we actively do not believe the advertising, why are we buying the products? Reputation? Curiosity? Joyful participation in consumerism? Hope? The study I’d really like to see is one in which women who actually buy these products (I include myself here) judge the ads. I’m just as skeptical as the women in this study, but my bathroom shelf has plenty of products that make science-ish claims on it. I do my research, sure, and if I don’t think I see any change I don’t buy a product again. But the trick of the beauty industry lies in that little blip: If I don’t think I see any change. Most things that come in a jar are going to have effects so subtle that their effectiveness is largely in terms of perception, not anything measurable. I think the retinoid cream I use helps keep my skin smooth, but do I know?

The science of beauty ads isn’t meant to educate consumers on polymers and retinoids. The science only needs to be assuring enough to fill in that gap between thinking and knowing a product is “working,” whatever any consumer’s definition of “working” might be. Cosmetics’ science claims don’t hold up independently, and they don’t need to. They just need to hold up enough to nudge us right over the border of where hope and possibility meet.

I’ve talked with plenty of women about why they wear beauty products, specifically makeup and how it plays into women’s day-to-day routines, but not so much about why they buy them. Tell me: What goes through your mind when you’re deciding whether to purchase a product? Are you evaluating the product’s claims, parsing the words on the label? Are you going by what trusted sources have said? Do you go into a purchase with cynicism, or hope, or both?