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

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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

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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?

Watching Women Want

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To watch elite female athletes is to watch women not give a shit when they look ugly

I’ve been watching a lot of the Women’s World Cup, with a fervor that surprises even me. I’m an unlikely soccer fan to begin with; sports, personally speaking, have traditionally been something to be avoided and/or feared. But after I shocked myself last summer by watching literally every single World Cup match—including dual-screening it for games that overlapped—I surrendered in full to the beautiful game.

Women’s soccer, though? I didn’t follow it. I supported it politically, of course, but it was rare to find a women’s game on TV. I muddled through a couple of U.S. Women’s National Team matches, but I didn’t know the players, which detracted from its appeal. Knowing that the Fox networks were going to broadcast all the games of the Women’s World Cup, I decided to give it a go, since the tournament would give me plenty of opportunities to become familiar with the players. I’d hoped to be as entertained as I was with the men’s version last year, and I have been. What I didn’t expect to be was moved.

The playing is excellent, of course; it’s the best female soccer players in the world, after all. But what moves me is not a beautiful pass, or a bad refereeing call, or even the players’ backstories. What moves me is the players’ faces, and watching women want. It’s not hard to find images of women in the public act of doing beyond what’s been allotted by tired stereotypes. We see women legislating, creating, speaking, protesting—images that weren’t available just a couple of generations ago. But we still don’t often see women in the act of wanting. And we need to see this, because when you’re in the act of wanting something badly enough, there isn’t room for self-consciousness. How you look, your stance, your hair, your makeup, whether you appear pretty, your sex appeal: all of these things that coalesce in my brain, and maybe yours, to form a hum so low and so constant that I take it as a state of being—and when you want, they disappear. When you want, the want goes to the fore. The you can take a backseat.

What do you look like when you want? In my case, I can’t really say. There are plenty of things in this world that I want, but most of my deepest desires make wanting a state, not an act: I want to do meaningful work, I want to be happy, I want to give and receive love. The closest I know to the act of wanting in the ways female athletes want is perhaps the state of flow. In those rare moments of flow, self-consciousness falls away. It’s a gift when it happens. But I’ve never had occasion to test how far the flow state really goes as far as lifting my own awareness of how I appear. Even when my entire being is focused on a desire, I’m probably not at risk of truly breaking any sort of code of feminine regulation. I don’t really know what I look like when I’m writing but I imagine the weirdest thing my face does is frown a lot. I probably look weirder in the context of sexual desire, but the contortions particular to the “O” face get a pass of sorts.

When I watch the athletes of this World Cup, I see an entirely different way that desire becomes focused. Specifically, I see desire become externalized. Elite athletes have spent their entire lives articulating themselves through moving their bodies. To watch them want something is an exercise in watching desire become a visual, physical force.

 

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Christine Sinclair.

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Hope Solo.

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Célia Sasic.

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Lisa De Vanna.

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Lady Andrade.

These women are not thinking about how they look, how their faces are posed, how their bodies might be viewed. The face becomes a way of communicating to teammates; the body, as they have trained it to become through thousands of hours of practice, a vehicle for winning. Certainly there are plenty of times in every woman’s life when how she looks isn’t at the fore of her mind, but it’s rare to have proof—visual, unrefutable proof—that at that moment, she is absolutely not thinking about how she looks. To watch female athletes is to watch women not give a shit when they look ugly. A lifelong soccer fan recently told me he feels guilty sometimes watching women’s sports because he catches himself being enthralled by their beauty, not just their skill. I told him to keep watching. Because as much as we’ve turned female athletes into spectacles of beauty and sexuality, the more that we watch women want in this particular way, the more we’ll get used to seeing women—beautiful women, odd-looking women, and perfectly pedestrian-looking women, and cute women and sexy women and butch women and girly-girl women—look not-pretty, even ugly sometimes, without apology. Whatever any particular athlete might have cared about before the game (don’t tell me some of those players aren’t wearing eyelash extensions) doesn’t matter. In the moment, she does not give a shit. There is a power in that—a power that I find, without exaggeration, transcendental.

For about a year now, I’ve had a question written on the whiteboard where I keep random thoughts, blog-post ideas, notes to myself, the occasional phone number. The question is, What would have gotten me into gym class as a kid? My childhood was the perfect storm for hating physical activity: I was bookish, I was fat, and I didn’t like to do things I wasn’t immediately good at. There’s another factor that I now see loomed large in my rejection of any physical activity I wasn’t pretty much forced to do: I was desperately afraid of looking stupid. When I studied theater in college, that was the note teachers and directors repeatedly gave me—you’re afraid of looking stupid—and they were right. Save the occasional bully, nobody was telling me I looked stupid, nor was I looking at other kids on the kickball field and thinking they looked stupid when they were trying their best. What killed any curiosity I might have had about how my body moved was my own self-consciousness.

As an adult, I’m not an athlete per se—I play one annual round of beach kadema each year and that’s it—but I shock myself with my interest in fitness that goes beyond its aesthetic rewards. I strength-train, and I train hard, and I love it, and every so often it hits me that the kid who used to play sick on track and field day now picks up heavy things of her own volition. At least a few times a month, I find myself giving a silent, spontaneous thanks that something shifted enough within me to start treating my body as a physical tool instead of just an inconvenient container for my head. What that shift tells me, though, is that there might have been something that could have flipped on that switch earlier in my life.

That something, I suspect, could have been the face of Abby Wambach, or Christine Sinclair, or Wendie Renard, or any of the women whose faces have moved me in the past few weeks. I’ve long known the basic facts about girls and sports: Girls who play sports have higher self-esteem, more resiliency, more leadership abilities, none of which should be surprising (it’s not hard to see how focusing on what your body can do instead of what it looks like would be A Good Thing). I’ve also long known of the power of role models: I grew up with the gift of parents who told me I could become anything I wanted to become (a pilot! a painter! a scientist! the president!), and they did their best to point out public role models for me. Until this World Cup, though, I never thought to put them together: that having role models who spoke to my extraordinary self-consciousness could have helped me reap the benefits of sports as a girl.

The chances of me having gone on to become an actual athlete were always slim; that’s not how I’m wired, and nothing would have changed that. And team sports in particular would never have been my bag, I don’t think. But I wish I’d had some sort of template that could have earlier taught me the joys of inhabiting my body. I wish I’d seen more women be so focused on physical exertion that it silenced whatever hum of self-consciousness they might have had. I wish I’d had more visible proof that there were so many women out there who had the ability to not care how they looked, again and again and again, every training and scrimmage and game. I wish I’d seen more women want.

I’m in awe of the athleticism on display in the Women’s World Cup. I watch the matches for the skill, the strategy, the stories. I watch it because, against all logical parts of my personal history, I somehow have come to understand why we call soccer the beautiful game. But the part I will remember is watching women want.

Beauty Didn’t Birth the Beast

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Sally Draper, preachin’ truth.


 I swear I will one day blog about something other than Mad Men. But until that time comes! This episode was interesting in that two separate characters referred to Don’s good looks as a liability. One of the creatives at the agency says to him in anger after Don suggests he might want to work on some character-building, “You don’t have any character, you’re just handsome—stop kidding yourself.” And then toward the episode’s end, his daughter says that both he and first-wife Betty are exactly alike, in that “anyone pays attention to either of you—and they always do—you just ooze everywhere.” (Two of Sally’s friends, totally separate from one another, had each attempted some amateur seduction on both of Sally’s parents in this episode, so this wasn’t out of nowhere.)

The first one was interesting, but mostly just in the context of Mad Men: Don has plenty of character, but we know that indeed a chunk of it has been formed around his incredible looks. The second reference is what’s really juicy here. In fiction, if someone’s good looks are referred to as a liability, it’s usually used to mean a fairly limited set of options. Maybe the character hasn’t had to develop other facets of herself because she’s relied on her beauty. (Which—I mean, has anyone ever met someone like that, for real? In my experience dullness and beauty have exactly zero correlation, let alone causation; the dullards I know are plain and pretty in equal amounts.) Maybe a character been taught her looks are her greatest asset so she’s used them to manipulate others, or his handsomeness has pushed him toward con artistry. If it’s a feminist-minded creator maybe we’ve seen how beautiful women aren’t taken seriously (i.e. the genesis of many a Joan plot line in this very series). Or maybe women don’t trust her, or men don’t trust him, or whatever. (Of course, the #1 way we see a character’s looks work against her is that Her Beauty Drives Men to Madness, but that’s such an ugggh cliché I’m not even counting it here.)

But here you have a character’s attractiveness being referenced not as a liability in and of itself, but as an amplification of an already-existing tendency: the inability to turn away sexual attention. Don and Betty are two people who are starved for attention, and that would be true even if they weren’t played by actors as good-looking as Jon Hamm and January Jones. But their beauty allows the quality Sally refers to as “ooze” to be read by others as charm or graciousness, or as a stream of reciprocal attention. And in turn, both of these characters have learned to trust that that’s how their highly sensitive attention-radars will be seen. The fact that their looks garner each of them a generous amount of attention becomes almost secondary; it just lets them get away with absorbing the gaze of others in a way that doesn’t seem desperate.

I’ve interviewed lots of people, mostly women, in-depth about their relationship with their looks, and when I first started doing formal interviews I was initially surprised that I wasn’t finding any sort of parallel between a woman’s experiences or attitude and how conventionally attractive she was. Asking a professional beauty about her experiences as a model is one thing, but asking her about how her looks had shaped, say, her love life was a different story. I never thought that meant a person’s looks were irrelevant to how she viewed the world, but I sort of chalked it up to beauty not being as important as other factors in shaping one’s worldview, or chirpily shook it off as “Well, everyone’s different!” But I think Sally’s quip crystallizes an important factor: A person’s looks can shape already existing tendencies. It does not create them. Nor does it shape tendencies in the same way for everyone. But I like the idea of looks functioning as a filter—as one of many filters—that determine how we walk through the world. There are so many oppositional ideas about how beauty affects people out there: You’ve got men who are genuinely surprised when they meet a woman who manages to be both beautiful and brilliant, you’ve got people who assume beautiful people have it easy because “everything is handed to them,” you’ve got people shaking their heads about how hard gorgeous women have it because other women supposedly hate them so much. If we come to see appearance as one of many forces that distinctly shape our lives, we might have a more genuine understanding of how the lives of extraordinarily beautiful people are affected by their looks—and of how the rest of us have our lives affected by the same. 

70 Years Ago Today

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Women and children in one of the huts at Bergen-Belsen, postliberation, April 1945.

Seventy years ago today, British troops liberated the Nazi concentration camp Bergen-Belsen. In the days and weeks following the liberation, British and American soldiers took to treating and relocating the thousands of desperately ill prisoners. One of those soldiers, Lt. Col. Mervin Willett Gonin, among other recordings of that time, wrote the following in his diary:

 

It was shortly after the British Red Cross arrived, though it may have no connection, that a very large quantity of lipstick arrived. This was not at all what we men wanted, we were screaming for hundreds and thousands of other things and I don’t know who asked for lipstick. I wish so much that I could discover who did it, it was the action of genius, sheer unadulterated brilliance. I believe nothing did more for those internees than the lipstick. Women lay in bed with no sheets and no nightie but with scarlet red lips, you saw them wandering about with nothing but a blanket over their shoulders, but with scarlet red lips. I saw a woman dead on the post mortem table and clutched in her hand was a piece of lipstick. At last someone had done something to make them individuals again, they were someone, no longer merely the number tattooed on the arm. At last they could take an interest in their appearance. That lipstick started to give them back their humanity.

 

This story has stuck with me since I first read it, even as part of me doubted whether the lieutenant colonel had read the women’s reactions correctly. He was an outsider who, despite having seen firsthand the horrors of Bergen-Belsen, had not experienced them. And, to be blunt, he was a man; what could he truly know about the transformative powers of lipstick?

 

It wasn’t until I read Linda Grant’s wonderful book The Thoughtful Dresser—which, as it happens, quotes the same passage I’ve quoted here—that I read an account that satisfies those rather academic quibblings. (Eternal thanks to Terri of Rags Against the Machine for pointing me toward Grant’s work.) The story of Catherine Hill, a survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau, is central to Grant’s book, and I don’t want to take away its remarkable narrative arc by saying too much here. What I will say is that at one point in the prison camp, Hill creates an ersatz fascinator out of the hem of her uniform’s dress in order to cover her ears, which were starkly exposed because of her forcibly shaved head. And when an SS officer asked her during roll call what exactly she thought she was doing, her response was simply that she wanted to look pretty. He laughed. But it was the truth: “They could have got rid of me right there and then, but they could not take away my desire to be feminine, and a woman. And my dignity, even in the most degrading situation…”

 

The entirely human wish to appear pretty is hardly the central meaning of what today symbolizes for Bergen-Belsen’s survivors, liberators, and descendants. And I’m wary of “excusing” my own investment in my beauty work by saying, Well, women in the worst imaginable circumstances still cared, so…. The circumstances are not remotely equatable. Still, the heart of these stories remains true: Vestiges of beauty can be powerful. They can be talismans of routine, of dignity, of what it means to be a woman. Of what it means to be human, and of what happens when the things that make us individuals are erased. And today, in remembering or learning about what happened in those camps, that’s one of the most important things we can remember.