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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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Requiem for My Potential Hotness [Guest Post]

When I got an email with the subject line “Requiem for My Potential Hotness,” I was intrigued—and was hooked when its writer, Rachel McCarthy James, went on to detail how the false split between intelligence and beauty had led to another false split, this one of her own identity. I’m thrilled to host the results of that exchange here. McCarthy James has written for Broadly, Bitch Media, Lit Hub, and The Billfold, among others. You can follow her on Twitter @rmccarthyjames. 



Since I saw Ariel and her purple bikini in The Little Mermaid at age three, I wanted to be hot. My parents were more interested in the development of my intellect than my looks, but I still nursed the secret desire to be desired, to be the thing that boys started calling Hot, sometime around the third grade. So I began to believe that Smart was on one end, mutually exclusive with Sexy, and I knew that I should choose Smart. I was scared of the baggage of beauty—the new things people would want from me, say to me, assume about me, the specter of Sex that I could not back away from. My body grew out of control, too big, much too big. And I was scared that I wouldn’t live up, that I would try and fail to be sexy. I wasn’t going to be Britney Spears, that much was clear, so best not to try at all. Safer.  So I didn’t learn to do makeup. I didn’t wear my retainer. I wore clothes that looked like what my crush wore, instead of what my crush’s girlfriend wore. I compulsively plucked my eyebrows until they were gone.

But like the slim person who looks back at old photos and thinks, I can’t believe I thought I was fat, I can’t believe I thought I was ugly. I had assumed failure on the scale of Hotness and I wasted so much potential. I assumed hotness was permanently out of my reach, when I could have had all the boyfriends. I have come to understand some things about myself, and one of them is that I am cute with my big frame, like a fuckable Snorlax. One of my friends said, “no one would look at that face and tell you that you’re ugly.”

I’m 30 this month and fat for the last seven years, so probably permanently. I have finally realized that even if I lose 80 pounds (which I won’t), I will never be hot in the way I could have been, in the way I dreamed of when I was a child fantasizing about my adult life. And I’m kind of mad that I was never hot: mad at myself, mad at beauty, and—just a little, in the worst chambers of neurons—mad at women who are hot. I am jealous that other women get to be hot, regardless of age—from Kylie Jenner on up to Jane Fonda, they have beaten me, they have arrived ahead of me, and the part of me that is jealous and nasty and competitive and shallow wants to win, dammit, wants to be the best. But I know it’s wrong. I know it’s wrong not just because misogyny is a false game in which there are no winners, really, but also because they win not because I’m uglier, but because they legitimately work a lot harder than me at being hot, at dieting, at exercise, at makeup, at hair, at clothes. I can’t begrudge someone success based on hard work.

It’s more that I am mad at myself that I didn’t try harder to be conventionally hot when I would have been so. Because of a lot of unfair things—race, class, height, health, shiny hair—my body had many qualities that could have aligned with a certain form of hotness, if I’d pushed the levers a bit more. For a total of maybe 100 non-consecutive hours when I was 20 to 23, I was made up and dressed scantily enough that I probably cleared the bar of Hot. I have pictures. But I found more and more that the effort wasn’t worth the reward, that even at my hottest I would glance across the room and wonder, Is she hotter? I still didn’t win. Also I was drunk most the time. Even though hotness was accessible to me, I found it less than satisfying.

Now, even if I were to weigh less, I will never be able to go back and achieve the Peak Hotness I could have had. I always want to know the truth, and I will never know the truth. Is it that much better to be nigh-objectively attractive? Does everyone treat you better? Do the potential cons—being harassed more, pestered, devalued, assumed to be less smart—outweigh the pros? Would I have been happier? Would I be sadder in the future, to no longer be hot, or is it better to have been hot and lost it than to never have been hot at all? Would I have finally felt like I won? There is surely a difference between being a beautiful person and being a moderately pleasant-looking person. Both get you a certain set of advantages. Are the advantages of being actually hot worth it? I’ll never know.

When I was a little kid, people kept telling me I was going to be a model, because I was tall. When I was a little kid, I kept telling people that I wanted to be the first female Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, because I was smart. I can’t go back to 18, and try harder at hotness or college, and the twelve years that have passed since have knocked me out. Like being an Olympic athlete, being Hot and being a Supreme Court Justice is a road that forks off before the age of 20. Neither of those dreams will be; I am not, by either measure, good enough on those scales.

Of course, hotness is still possible, on any scale, after 30, after 40, after whatever. Helen Mirren is a concept that exists. Iman is at present more beautiful than me on my wedding day in any timeline in the multiverse, even the ones where I put in a bunch of effort. And as my editor commented on an early draft: “Most women I know my age—around 40—report their early 30s as being their own Peak Hotness.” If I really wanted to, I could probably become a hottie still, even without losing a bunch of weight. Ashley Graham isn’t much younger or thinner than I am. But it would take a lot more time, money, and effort than if I’d began taking beauty seriously at 12, or 15, or 22. Instead, I’m spending that free time learning French and hoping I pick up some elegance by osmosis. It’s not that being 30 disqualifies me from intense beauty; it’s just that I’m just unlikely to find the motivation to turn this particular car around. I want to get pregnant soon; my figure and my priorities will reshuffle again. I don’t expect being fuckable to suddenly jump several notches in my bucket list, and why would I want it to? It’s a bother, unnecessary because: I like who I am and I like how I look, even—maybe because—my own brand of magnetism doesn’t really register on the scales of the people who define hotness.

But I’m still good enough. I went to a women’s college; I made friends; I found an intellectual voice; I found a lover. None of them required me to be Hot, and eventually it slipped out of my plans and dreams. Hotness is always a short-term goal, and I was more interested in parties, friends, food, writing. At Hollins, I saw that there were many kinds of beauty, and that the girl with the pearls and the perfect face in size 2 jeans wasn’t necessarily more pleasing to look at than the chubby girl with an endlessly fascinating MAC kit with more brilliant shiny tubs of eyeshadow than there are crayons in a box and a way of telling vivid color stories with cardigans, scarves, and accessories. I also learned that people thought I was cool and interesting and smart even when I didn’t shower for six days in a row and wore the same hoodie, pajama pants, and Crocs to class every day for a semester. Suddenly having friends who admired me regardless of my appearance changed my relationship to my appearance for good, and for better. Instead of being just another Rachel who didn’t look like Jennifer Aniston, I leaned into my simple nickname: RMJ. My own invention, undefined by beauty, stipulated by me.

I did not spend my twenties being as breathtakingly beautiful as I perhaps could have, but I also spent them having fun and sex and happiness. If I had spent them being Hot, would I be able to look at myself in the mirror and smile at my wrinkles, or would they only remind me of the decay still to come? I don’t know. I’ll never know that particular truth.



The Well-Heeled Life: Shoes, Ability, and Fear [Guest Post]

Keah Brown’s work first came to my attention with her nuanced critical view of disability and film in Catapult, and my appreciation of her work only deepened with “The Freedom of a Ponytail” , an essay about the triumph of learning to put her hair in a ponytail one-handed, as necessitated by the cerebral palsy that affects mobility on the right side of her body. In Lenny Letter, she writes: “[My ponytails] are a promise of more to come, a promise to keep working at them until they are the best that they can be. I find myself wondering back to that list of things I can’t do and imagining a world in which I can. … Being able to put my hair up didn’t make me instantly love myself or my body, but it helped me see that I could one day.” You can follow her on Twitter here, and visit her website here



“And then I watched as their feet grew tired when the night went on and those same heels ended up in their hands or at the tables by their purses.” (Photo: Tangi Bertin, Creative Commons license.)


One of the first times I ever felt beautiful was at my high school prom. I stood on the venue’s version of a dancefloor and thanked the classmates who passed by me and complimented my dress. My dress, to this day, is one of the prettiest things I have ever worn, a black and pink ball gown with corset ties and enough tulle to make your head spin. I looked like a princess and felt like one too, with the tiara to match. I believed them when they said I was beautiful. I had no reason not to. I knew that the dress fit my body and skin tone well. I felt at my prettiest then, even as I wore silver sparkly flats that I bought from Payless two nights before. I watched my classmates walk and dance in their sky-high heels with ease. And then I watched as their feet grew tired when the night went on and those same heels ended up in their hands or at the tables by their purses.

The trouble with prom is that it’s only one night, and that feeling of being beautiful ended when it did. However, the envy of the girls and their sky-high heels remained. Though I had plenty of reasons to be jealous of the girls themselves, I found myself specifically envious of their ability to walk in heels. High heels are beautiful. I say this as a person who has never been and will never be able to wear them. I don’t have the coordination and the balance to do so. I heard once that we often crave the things we can’t have. We wish for a scenario or a world in which the thing we can’t have, the thing we can’t do, is possible; we crave a bit of magic. I am and was no different. Growing up as a black disabled woman with cerebral palsy, I wished for many things. I wished for a new body entirely, asking only to wake up with the same black skin, same name, and the same family everything else could go. I wished for knees and feet that didn’t ache after walking through malls and on park trails, grocery stores and movie theaters. And around the time of each high school dance I wished for a magic pair of heels that were secretly made just for me to walk in. I wanted them to be a secret because I feared they wouldn’t work if other people knew about them. I’d like to think that they would appear on my doorstep in a black and white box with a note that read “Keah, here is the only beauty secret you need.” I likened them to The Sisterhood of The Traveling Pants books. I was a huge fan at the time and thought that if they were allowed a pair of magic pants I should be allowed one pair of magic heels. The pair of enchanted heels never came for me but I still found myself admiring heels from afar, picking them up in stores and asking my mom and sister if they thought the heels on the shoes were small enough for me to walk in even when we all knew the answer was no.

There are lots of things I can’t do: cartwheels, backbends and walkovers, fly, wink, or whistle, blow bubbles, crack an egg or the code to the perfect Rubik’s cube, and this is not due to a lack of trying. In fact, I spent many of my adolescent years trying to do cartwheels and backbends at home and after cheer practices with my sister. I spent summers at park programs trying to whistle and blow the biggest bubble while in competition with the other kids. All of this was a result of fearlessness. When you’re younger, fear is a thing you know but not something you practice. Fear is the thing you tuck away in the furthest part of your mind while you do the things you love or dream without abandon. The lack of fear as a young girl is what kept me believing the impossible and continually trying the things that were genuinely impossible. We live in a society that touts the message “nothing is impossible if you believe hard enough!” but that’s simply untrue and quite frankly, harmful.

People with disabilities are regarded as worthy only when we “achieve” and “defy expectations”; we are led to believe that our worth lies in how closely we can align ourselves to the able-bodied, Eurocentric beauty standards that our society holds so dear. After all, high heels are sexy and fun; they make women irresistible and men drool, if you ask any advertisement, movie, TV show, or image eager to convey desirability. The “irresistible” women in these images are never in flats like I was at prom. They’re in heels as high as possible, walking confidently as the heels click-clack on their feet. They are models on the runways of the biggest fashion companies with heels bedazzled and strappy, a silent promise that a heel is the necessary shoe to complete whatever look graces their bodies. When the models aren’t in heels, their look is just as unattainable. They’re shown in t-shirt-and-jeans-and-I-just-woke-up-like-this beauty that is just as alienating. These women do not wear heels all the time but we are lead to believe that certain looks are incomplete without heels, often overlooking the ableist nature of such a message. The images presented to us are easy to buy into. When you are fed the narrative that almost every single body but yours is desirable, you believe it. So it’s easy to look at the images of those same beautiful women in high heels and back at yourself, and think, Maybe I’ll never be as desirable and sexy like those women. It’s not just that we share no similarities in body type, or often, race. It’s also that I can’t even indulge in the primary simulacrum of their sexiness. I can’t even wear their shoes.

When I was in college, my friends and I would sometimes leave campus and go to our Galleria Mall. I would pick out clothes I was almost always too lazy to try on and wait for my friends while they did the responsible thing and made sure their clothes fit before buying them. They would try on their clothes and we’d collectively agree or veto them, and I’d always wander back by the shoes, picking up and putting down heels that were far too thin and too tall for anyone but an expert to walk in. I would sit with the shoes for a bit while waiting for my friends to change and close my eyes and imagine a world where the shoe was both in my size ten foot and wearable. Under my closed lids my friends would ooh and ahh as the heels sculpted my feet like art before I’d take them off and bring them to the register for purchasing. These dreams would end once my name was called or one of my friends stepped out of the dressing room to ask me how the clothes looked, but I enjoyed each moment anyway.

High heels have always been one of the things I’ve loved but could never have. This realization came to me early. I am very familiar with my body’s limitations and I take great care to wear sneakers with heel and arch support when I am walking anywhere regardless of the distance. I often ask myself: How much of my inability to walk in heels is fear, and how much of it is the result of the body I am housed in? Fear, in a twisted way, brings me comfort. Fear is familiar and digestible in a way that the reality of not being able to wear heels is not. Fear allows me the room to lie to myself and say that fear is the only reason I cannot wear heels. When in reality, that’s not the case.

The answer doesn’t exactly matter in the grand scheme of things because the fact of the matter is that it’s just not something I’ll ever be able to do, despite the messages that nothing is impossible. However, when I posed the question of the ability to or to not wear heels on Twitter I was surprised by the response. Like many people, my circumstances, failures, and inability to do certain things have always felt like circumstances I’ve always dealt with alone. As ridiculous as it sounds, I’d already convinced myself that I was the only person in the world who could not wear heels and in turn, could not be desired by anyone. I found out a few weeks ago that this was not only ridiculous but untrue. The same balancing issues that I have, other folks with disabilities have as well. The same aching feet and need for stability is theirs as well, and they still found significant others. Despite the lack of heels in their lives they still love, and are loved. The femininity, desirability, and embrace of womanhood that I feared I did not deserve without the ability to adhere to the standards set and reinforced by society, I’ve had all along. On prom night all those years ago, I felt beautiful without question. Now, despite feeling fear, I am ready to walk through life one flat shoe at a time.


Gymnastics, Ideal Girls, and the Signal of Makeup


Photo: Agência Brasil Fotografias, via Wikimedia Commons


The Olympics are a helluva lot more thought-provoking in thinkpieceland, and in my corner of the internet, that means looking at gymnastics with a critical eye. There’s been fantastic commentary on gymnastics and femininity from Chloe Angyal, The Cut, and Stuff Mom Never Told You—all of whom take a more comprehensive view than I do here—but I’ve spent too much time watching the Olympics for me to not put my two cents in. (Otherwise I’ll have to admit that I am painfully basic when it comes to the Olympics, developing acute agita over sports I have given zero thought to for four years—steeplechase?!—and to form allegiances to athletes for no reason other than I want to visit their home nations. Dmitriy Balandin’s gold medal in the 200-meter breaststroke saw me leaping to my feet and chanting KAZ-AKH-STAN!!! like a…like a Kazakh. Anyway.)

Angyal has pointed out that the visible girlishness of gymnastics has risen along with its athleticism, its makeup and glitter ticking up in tandem with the musculature of the athletes over the years. Makeup is also a part of what we’ve come to think of as gymnastics behavior. Which is to say, girlish behavior. Hugs all around every time a competitor comes back to the sidelines, high-toned assurances, pats on the back, the occasional squeal, that pitch-perfect confidence mixed with the grateful humility we ask of our Olympians. The drive, focus, and passion to pursue a goal, embodying a form of American girlishness that’s admirable to feminist types such as myself. Add to that the contemporary accoutrements of gymnastics—the Swarovski crystal leotards, the pert ponytails, and, yes, the makeup—and it seems that our quintessential gymnast isn’t just visually encoded as feminine, she’s the ideal American girl. She’s pretty, nice, well-behaved, and disciplined, and she kicks international ass. (It’s worth noting here that gymnastics is one of the few sports where, absent a gender modifier, the athlete is presumed to be female.)

Which brings us to Gabby Douglas. It’s upsetting to read about the hatred directed toward her, which turns nauseating once race is inevitably brought into it. At the same time, I did notice that she didn’t put her hand over her heart during the national anthem; I did notice that she wasn’t visibly rushing to congratulate teammates who had fared better than she in these Olympics. I didn’t draw conclusions about Douglas or her character by it, but I noticed. And the reason I noticed was because she was different than the other competitors. More reserved, less bubbly. More observant, less indulgent. More—forgive me, but this is the word that comes to mind—womanly, less girlish, even as I know plenty of effervescent adult women and have witnessed reserved teen girls aplenty.

Douglas’s reserve shouldn’t become a point of attack on her in the least; she’s a remarkable athlete, and I’ve seen only graciousness from her off the floor. But her demeanor was that of an outlier from the expected form of femininity in this context. I don’t think Gabby Douglas would be facing this vitriol were she, say, a track and field competitor. It’s the image of the contemporary gymnast that’s at issue here, and to me, that’s where the makeup comes in too. Gymnasts “need” makeup to be in accord not only with femininity and to soften the image of their athleticism, but to be in accord with the image and behavior of a gymnast. That’s where Douglas “fails,” if you want to call it that—the behavior part—and that’s where she’s being punished. Other gymnasts who have “failed” here include McKayla Maroney and Aliya Mustafina. Both of them were roundly whipped on social media, but neither to the degree that Douglas has been, and yep, race is the differentiating factor here. It’s one thing to be called a diva, or to have your “not impressed” face go viral, but their whiteness was a buffer from the vitriol Douglas has received. Race is unquestionably an enormous factor here, and in ways that are intertwined with reserve and expression, as this piece,“Gabby Douglas and the Right to Be Visibly Disappointed,” points out—and also intertwined with appearance and beauty standards, including, of course, black athletes’ hair.

Makeup in the realm of gymnastics doesn’t just “soften” the incredible athletic power of American gymnasts, though. It reinforces their girlish, bubbly image. This piece on gold-medal-winning shot putter Michelle Carter demonstrates that: “For a couple of years, being professional, I kind of questioned myself. Should I wear my false lashes or take the time I want to take so I can feel good when I go out on the field?” the athlete and certified makeup artist said in The New Yorker. “Because nobody else was really doing that. And I thought, No: I’m not going to change what I believe I should look like to fit anybody else’s standards. I believe if you look your best, you’re going to feel your best, you’re going to do your best.”

Michelle Carter. Photo: Erik van Leeuwen, via Wikimedia Commons


If we truly required all our female athletes to use makeup as an apology for their strength, shot putters would “need” that styling even more than gymnasts because of their incredible power and heft. But as Carter says, it was a bold move for her to sport her look—false eyelashes, winged liner—in competition. Makeup becomes political for Carter because it’s showing that female athletes can look ferociously powerful and still wear a fierce lip if they desire, and will be taken seriously either way. Carter’s makeup is a statement not of adherence to femininity but of the diverse ways one can be a woman: A full face of makeup runs counter to our ideas of force and power, like the strength required to hurl a metal ball 20 meters with the force of a cannonball. You’d think that would mean that culturally female shot-put athletes would be required to “compensate” by feminizing themselves with makeup, but that’s not the case. It’s the marriage of an artistic sport and the sex of the competitor that sees makeup be de rigueur in gymnastics yet outlying in shot-put. The expectation of feminine expression is different for each type of sport, and that expression remains even when makeup is taken out of the equation. Douglas’s looks didn’t escape rebuke, of course, but those who vilified her primarily did so because she didn’t behave like the ideal girl.

Olympics aside, the ways we’re seeing gender expectations play out illustrate another problem I keep running into with theorizing makeup. Until we divorce makeup from conventional femininity and the expectations attached to it, we won’t really know what we think about makeup as opposed to what we think about womanhood itself. If men wore lipstick in numbers as great as women, would people who find makeup a waste of time or an exercise in vanity still feel the same way? They might; historically, such men have been seen as foppish, even when they weren’t unusual. But just as likely, we might reevaluate makeup in a different light, seeing it for its possibilities instead of its limitations, or as an expression of character as opposed to an expression of traits associated with one gender. (Or of gender, period, for that matter.)

I think about the extraordinarily careful line these young women have to walk, so publicly, and under such intense pressure. (This goes double for Simone Biles, who has probably learned some sad, quiet lessons from watching how Douglas has been treated for being an outstanding black girl in a historically white sport. Can you imagine the vitriol if Biles, largely acknowledged as the best gymnast who has ever lived, had the gall to not only be the best in the world but to not appear kind and gracious and perfectly girlish at every moment?) I keep watching the faces of each gymnastics team member, waiting for that telltale twitch that reveals the fierce competitive spirit that accompanies being a world champion—I mean, here they are, competing against one another for something they’ve been dreaming about since second grade, and you tell me they’re always full sweetness and support? I still haven’t seen their faces betray them, and I don’t know whether that’s because they’re really good actresses, or because they’ve had to learn to reconcile their genuine wish to support one another with their genuine wish to win, or because they’ve developed the kind of grace that means they don’t even see those desires as being at odds with each other. I suspect it’s probably all of those reasons, and more. It takes a triple-backflip-dismount level of grace to appear as noncompetitive in a competitive environment as remarkably as these athletes do. Their ability to land it every time one of them ousts the other for first place or for a spot in the finals showcases and elevates that new ideal of femininity. Which means that every time one of them falls outside of that ideal, even for a moment, they have even farther to fall.