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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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Laurie Penny’s “Unspeakable Things”

the-beheld_laurie-penny-unspeakable-things

There are two reasons it’s taken me longer than it should have to write out my thoughts on Laurie Penny’s newest book, Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies, and Revolution. The first is technical: I’ve been ostriching from pretty much everything for the past couple of months while working on other projects, and am only now coming back to things like blogging and social media and leaving the house.

The second is personal: It made me mad.

At this point, for readers who—we’ve all done it—prefer not to voyage beyond the first two paragraphs of a piece, allow me to assure you that Penny’s book is excellent. But it might make you mad, and not only at the patriarchy. If you’re a good girl, it might make you a little mad at that very fact.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Instead, let’s begin where Penny begins in chapter 1: a treatment ward for women with severe eating disorders. Much of what has been written about feminism and eating disorders frames these diseases inaccurately, linking a girl’s refusal to eat to her wish to be more like the skinny ladies in all the magazines, the takeaway being that an unrealistic beauty standard—which, yes, is a feminist concern—is to blame. As Penny puts it about the cultural puzzlings over eating disorders, “The best answer we seem to have come up with is ‘magazines.’ This says rather more about what society thinks goes on in the minds of teenage girls than it does about the cause of an epidemic…” In fact, when I went through an outpatient treatment program for my own disordered eating, I had a definite idea of the kinds of women I would find there. They would be smart overachievers, sure, but they would be caught in the tragic game of trying to be what our culture expects of women—thin, pretty, docile—and isn’t it a shame that they don’t recognize their own potential? They wouldn’t be feminists, they wouldn’t be rebels, and they sure as hell wouldn’t be politicized. And I sure as hell was proven wrong on my first day there.

I don’t want to glamorize women with eating disorders for their rebellion any more than I want to glamorize them for thinness. But when I read one particular passage from Unspeakable Things, the chill of recognition slithered through me:

“In Italy, there is a tradition called ‘sciopero bianco’—the white strike. In English-speaking countries, it is known as work-to-rule. Workers who are not permitted to strike fight their bosses by doing only what is required of them—to the letter. Nurses refuse to answer phones that ring at 17:01. Transport workers make safety checks so rigid that the trains run hours behind schedule. Eating disorders and other forms of dangerous self-harm are to riots in the streets what a white strike is to a factory occupation: women, precarious workers, young people and others for whom the lassitudes of modern life routinely produce acute distress and for whom the stakes of social non-conformity are high, lash out by doing only what is required of them, to the point of extremity. Work hard, eat less, consume frantically; be thin and perfect and good, conform and comply, push yourself to the point of collapse. … We all followed the rules, sufferers seem to be saying—now look what you made us do.”

Penny understands eating disorders as a form of rebellion because she’s been there, and not because she was quite literally dying to be thin. Her clear-minded thinking that cuts to the quick allowed her to regard her time in treatment as instructive in the politicization that now characterizes much of her work. And it’s important to understand that the rebellion of eating disorders is not in refusing to eat, but in its angry nod to the good girl. You want me to be a good girl? Fine, I’ll be a goddamn perfect girl. Fuck you, I’ll disappear, how’s that? It’s a warped logic, sure, but eating disorders are warped. It’s logic all the same.

 

So at some point around here in my reading I began to get mad. I got mad because I’ve spent years trying to understand my own eatingstuffs and my own warped logic, and had come to categorize my improper behaviors as symptomatic of my chronic good-girl-ism: rule-following to the extreme, but with compliance, not the whiff of rebellion, as the goal. Good-girl-ism had become a part of my own personal mythology to the point where I didn’t question it anymore, which means, of course, that I have an investment in protecting the good girl. For I still think of myself that way—a good girl, despite being 38 years old, which should tell us something about exactly how much power we believe the good girl can ever truly have. I do what is expected of me, and indeed, of women in general. I cooperate, I play nice, I am a member of the getalong gang. And part of this shows up in the dress-up clothes of my own politicization: I couldn’t get on board with the whole “ironic misandry” thing because so much of my energy as a feminist over the years has gone into turning cartwheels for men in an attempt to prove to them that feminism isn’t the big, bad, scary monster their bro-friends might have painted it to be. No, feminism can be friendly! Feminism is concerned about men too! Feminists give better head!

And, you know, all of this is true (ahem). But the ring of recognition I felt upon reading Penny’s idea of eating disorders as a “white strike” against the constraints placed upon women’s social roles was too true to ignore. If a beating heart of anger and rebellion—not, as I’d construed it, good-girl-ism—was underneath my own disordered eating all along, then what did that say for the good-girl ways I’d championed feminism for years?

What Laurie Penny calls for in this book is mutiny. Mutiny against the mythology of “falling apart elegantly,” as we’ve constructed eating disorders to be; mutiny against the careful persona curation of social media, which so many women have mastered because we’re so used to being thought of as commodities. Mutiny for sex workers and men who are tired of the patriarchy too and for women who question the institutionalization of “love,” and all of the other people whom Penny addresses in the bulk of the book—which is about far more than eating disorders and good girls, and functions much as a primer on where feminism could go if we want it to. Mutiny against the idea that for queer youth, “It Gets Better” should be sufficient protection in a world where it should be better now. Mutiny against feminism as a show pony strictly for women who have the time, money, and social platform to be the public face of feminism.

I’m a believer in the idea that it takes all types to create lasting social change. It takes palatable feminism, it takes unpalatable feminism. It takes radical feminism, it takes theft of the master’s tools, it takes the servants living in the master’s house who realize how nice it is once their quarters are dismantled. It takes “bro feminists” and humanists and sassy little girls, and the quiet ones too. It takes mutiny. Reading Unspeakable Things didn’t make me think otherwise, not exactly. What it did do was make me question the connection between “good girl feminism” and “good girl”-ism itself. Specifically, what our love of the good girl means for those moments when feminism becomes hip enough to, say, be a focal point of something like the MTV Video Music Awards. I’ll always be glad to see pretty much anyone call themselves a feminist, and as Penny writes in a section that serves as a treatise on The Slut, I’m wary of drawing distinctions between “good” and “bad” women, feminists included.

But when you immerse yourself in the possibility of mutiny—even if only for as long as it takes you to read Unspeakable Things—it makes you a bit testy at the limits of what face of feminism is likely to be beamed onto the main stage. And it might even make you a little bit testy at the ways you’ve been complicit in those limits, without ever having intended to do so.

Masstige and Bargain Beauty

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The price may be right, but what else drives your beauty buys?

I’ve been thinking about high-end beauty products as inconspicuous consumption, and what that means for displays of wealth among women. In doing so, I ignored the other end of the scale: bargain beauty products. The idea I was exploring a couple of weeks ago was that high-end beauty products signaled an investment in beauty, as opposed to a temporary gussying-up; think top-notch dermatology and expensive retinol creams, the benefits of which only really show up after long-term use (and therefore hundreds—or thousands—of dollars in). But it’s not like buying bargain beauty products means that you don’t regard beauty as an investment. Most obviously, it could be that your budget is limited (which, given the price of even the most basic quality anti-aging cream, is probably the case for most of us).

 

More interesting to talk about, though, is the idea of bargain beauty as a different sort of investment. Consumer research repeatedly shows that bargain shopping—in this case, drugstore or 99-cent-store beauty products instead of Sephora or department stores—actually brings a similar sense of reward as luxury shopping.

 

Perceived value is one of the highest predictors of consumer satisfaction. Think, for example, of a time you’ve paid full price for something only to see it go on sale the next day. Even if you were satisfied at the time of purchase, you might well become retroactively dissatisfied because you felt like you got ripped off. In other words, your perceived value of the item dropped. (It’s actually so harmful to consumer satisfaction that some chain stores will refund customers the difference of a full-price item if it goes on sale within a certain time window of the initial purchase.) When you’re buying a $90 jar of skin cream, it means that you feel that the value of the cream is worth the price tag—maybe it’s actually no better than the $12 cream at the drugstore, but you believe it is, which, in essence, makes it “worth it.” But a similar logic applies to the $12 cream: If you believe it does what you want it to do, the perceived value of the item may be more than the twelve bucks you shelled out for it. You might even take pleasure in believing that you’re able to see through (what you perceive as) gimmickry of high-end products. It’s seemingly the inverse of the pleasure another woman might take in opening up a Chanel compact, seeing those interlocking Cs, and feeling as though she’s made an investment in herself. In truth, though, it’s the same thing: It temporarily heightens the way you feel about yourself.

 

In fact, the temporary self-esteem boost one gets from bargain shopping becomes exaggerated when the shopper is able to attribute the bargain to her own skills—for example, proffering a coupon, or bargaining for a lower price, as opposed to simply purchasing a low-cost item. Another way a shopper might attribute a bargain to her own skills is recognizing a good deal when she sees it. Enter “masstige” products, i.e. products meant to be seen as prestige products that are sold at price points affordable to the masses. For New Yorkers, masstige is most evident in the aisles of Duane Reade drugstores, which in the past few years has revamped its beauty section to look more like something you’d see at Sak’s Fifth Avenue—softer lighting, island displays, skin care consultants. Along with that comes products that are more expensive than usual drugstore fare but still less than what you’d pay were you actually at Sak’s. (I’m a fan of a retinol cream I buy at Duane Reade that features sleek packaging and sounds all fancy but is just a brand of L’Oréal. A brand that costs three times as much as products labeled “L’Oréal,” mais oui.)

 

Indeed, masstige beauty is growing, with CVS entering the market, and with other major drugstore chains already in it. It’s gotten to the point where premium beauty brands are seeing masstige as a threat that supposedly confuses consumers into thinking they’re getting a higher-quality product than they actually are. Which brings us back to square one: The more that high-end beauty brands try to set themselves apart by seeming exclusive and catering to a consumer who sees purchasing that brand as evidence of her good taste, the more that reinforces the appeal of masstige products to a somewhat different consumer, who sees purchasing a masstige brand as evidence of her good sense. The masstige consumer might look at the prestige buyer and think, What a fool; the prestige buyer might look at the masstige buyer and think, Poor thing, or simply assume that the masstige route is a financial choice, ignoring or oblivious to its nonfinancial rewards.

It’s gotten me thinking about what drives my own beauty purchases. My bathroom cabinet has everything from $2 Wet ‘n’ Wild eyeliner to masstige products like my retinol cream to items on the lower end of the prestige market. (I try not to pimp out brands here but honestly, Smashbox’s BB cream is friggin’ fantastic, and who am I to keep it secret?) And sure enough, I receive a different sense of satisfaction when I buy items at different points on the spectrum: I feel savvy when I buy a cheap product that does what I want it to do; I feel like I’m making an investment in self-care when I shell out for my retinol; I feel like a clever beauty researcher when I buy my BB cream, knowing that I’ve tried less expensive brands and that the high-ish price actually buys quality in this case. What nonfinancial rewards are most likely to drive your own beauty purchases? Feeling like you’re getting a deal for less than someone else might pay for a similar result? Feeling like you’re making an investment in your appearance? Feeling like you’re treating yourself? Or do you skip most products altogether because none of those rewards are appealing to you?

 

Beauty and (In)Conspicuous Consumption

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It wasn’t just her last name that marked Gloria Vanderbilt as one of those Vanderbilts.

I’ve been enjoying participating in this month’s structured conversation on visual persuasion and the state at Cato Unbound. Virginia Postrel (whom regular readers will recall authored the excellent The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion, which I reviewed here) wrote the lead essay, in which she argues for the use of glamour, iconography, and visual appeals in politics; Grant McCracken, Martin Gurri, and I were invited to write responses from there. Much of the discussion is relevant to readers here, particularly McCracken’s musings on sprezzatura and Postrel’s thoughts on the true danger of glamour—and, hopefully, my own thoughts on what the faces of our politicians say about the nature of beauty, the glamour of the therapeutic narrative, and why we appreciate glamour in politics but eschew luxury.

 

This last essay brought up inconspicuous consumption—an inversion of Thorstein Veblen’s theory of conspicuous consumption that shows how the truly wealthy will invest in less-visible goods (such as travel and education) and that it’s actually people with less net worth who spend more on visible goods like expensive cars, jewelry, and clothing. It made me wonder about the money people spend on beauty, and whether beauty goods are examples of inconspicuous consumption, or examples of the opposite. After all, our faces and bodies are the most visible things we own—but most run-of-the-mill beauty products are meant to be inconspicuous, and few advertise themselves as markers of wealth once on the wearer. Sure, a Chanel lipstick says its owner is able to spend $35 on a tube of wax, but freshly applied it’s not going to look much different than the $7 tube from the drugstore.

 

The more I think about it, the more I wonder whether beauty work is coded similarly to other forms of inconspicuous consumption. Education is a prime example of inconspicuous consumption—higher education costs money, and while financial aid makes it possible for plenty of bright, poor high school seniors to go to Ivy League schools, you’re also unlikely to run across a whole lot of Rockefellers at the local community college. And going to the sort of schools where you do find Rockefellers gives you a level of cultural capital you’re going to have a harder time finding in other ways—you pick up on certain language patterns, cultural references, experiences, and fashions that mark you as having access to a certain social class, regardless of what your paycheck says. Prestigious education is a long-term investment, in other words, and we understand such forms of investment as being correlated with wealth, even more so than we correlate it with being merely rich. (As Chris Rock puts it on wealthy vs. rich: “Here’s the difference: Shaq is rich. The white man who signs his checks is wealthy.”)

 

I don’t want to lapse into stereotypes about Upper East Side housewives with their plastic surgery and expensive hairdos. But the fact is, there is a marked difference in the faces of women walking down East 86th Street in Manhattan and 86th Street in Queens, you know? Wealth enables you not to buy expensive foundation, but to buy the kind of skin creams, personalized skin care and access to the world’s best dermatologists, and long-term know-how that enables a wealthy older woman to have the sort of look that marks her as a wealthy older woman. That is: Wealth enables you to treat beauty as a long-term investment. You see something similar with hair care—maintaining the kind of cut and color that you see among the wealthy takes time and money, both of which are in shorter supply among working-class folks. A working-class woman might well have a fantastic haircut and do a nice job with hair color from a box, but keeping it up week after week is going to be a lot harder for her than it is for her wealthier counterpart.

 

Any reader of ladymags has seen enough of those “$10 face vs. $100 face: Can you tell the difference?” features to know that it’s easy enough to replicate the look of pricey makeup. But makeup isn’t an investment in a person’s looks; it’s short-term, washed off at the end of the day. Skin care, body care, hair care—just the repetition of the word care here shows that these forms of beauty work require something more than just slapping down some money at the Clé de Peau counter. (I mean, that terminology is deliberate, framing beauty work as “care” instead of as, well, work, but go with me here.) The word care reflects the investment factor—and sure enough, it’s those forms of investment that mark the most visible differences between your average rich lady and your average not-rich one.

 

But that’s just it: These beauty investments are visible; they’re just not obvious. (And, of course, there are plenty of older women who never use an expensive skin cream in their life and have gorgeous skin, and vice versa.) Having good skin at age 60 due to expensive maintenance is hardly the same thing as driving around in a Rolls-Royce, but it is something we can look at and say, Oh, well, that makes sense, she’s wealthy—especially when paired with other bodily markers of wealth like well-tailored clothes, certain kinds of shoes, etc. So we’re back to the initial question: Are beauty products a form of conspicuous consumption, or of inconspicuous consumption? I’m leaning toward the latter but would love to hear arguments for the former. Thoughts?

Ladyfans: A Fairy Tale of the World Cup

A few quick thoughts on this story, of how Belgian soccer fan Axelle Despiegelaere, who attended the Belgium-Russia World Cup game, is now modeling for L’Oréal after being singled out in photos of the match:

the-beheld_world cup l'oreal fan model

 

You’ll notice her unofficial fan page, created not long after the June 22 match, has more than 230,000 “likes,” which I know can happen in a matter of hours but which is remarkable nonetheless. It’s being spun as a fairy tale of sorts, along the lines of how film star Lana Turner was discovered at a Los Angeles drugstore. But I have to wonder how much this fairy tale is really a benefit to Despiegelaere, versus how much it’s a benefit to L’Oréal. By seizing upon something that has much of the world in a frenzy* for a full month, the company A) gets exposure without having to actually sponsor anything in the World Cup, B) gets to seem particularly savvy, and C) plants itself inside the fantasy of many a pretty young woman of being “discovered” simply by being herself. It gives us a backstory, and should the Belgian’s contract land her in a major campaign, it lets viewers associate a neat story with their product (and if any particular viewer doesn’t know the backstory, no worries; it’s still a beautiful young woman). It’s brilliant.

The story is actually just a commodified extension of the way games are broadcast. Sports games are televised with plenty of crowd shots interspersed, in the hopes of transporting the home viewer into the stadium; the painted faces of hopeful or disappointed fans are a stand-in for ourselves. By plucking a lovely young creature out of those fan shots, that sense of proxy is doubled, except now there’s the commodification of fandom involved. And let’s not forget that it’s commodification of female fandom, and that a solid third of the fan shots used in game broadcasts feature stunningly beautiful female fans (made all the easier by not only the internationalism of the tournament but by its location in Brazil, which exports many a young woman who suits the current tastes of the American modeling market). Turning women into one of the benefits of sports played by men has a long history, whether we’re talking cheerleaders or the publicity given to WAGs. This World Cup has seen the connection cemented with two Kia commercials that show Adriana Lima and other Brazilian beauties seductively telling gaga male American football fans that their football—that is, what Americans know as soccer—is superior. The commercials annoy me for any number of reasons, primarily that I doubt men watch any particular sport on the basis of how pretty its female fans are (and that it ignores how many women across the world love the sport), but it’s not like the agency that created the ads dreamed up “sex sells” all on its own.

But Despiegelaere’s story isn’t being marketed to men; it’s a product and story squarely aimed at women. This fairy tale—normal girl is spotted and becomes internationally famous—is one that fits particularly nicely with the reality-show ethos that we find ourselves surrounded with: Anyone can become famous if you land yourself in the right kind of outlet. Frankly, I’m wondering why we don’t see this narrative exploited more often by beauty lines. Who doesn’t love a local girl made good, even if “local” is Belgium or Brazil? When it’s a tale like this—of someone landing something generally seen as out of the reach of normal people, despite being a normal person herself—everyone becomes local.

 

The Party’s Girls and Party Girls: Negotiating Beauty in the Soviet Union

I’m pleased to welcome back Alana Massey as a guest blogger—and with this inquiry into how Soviet life shapes the reputation of Eastern European women today, you’ll be even more pleased. A graduate of New York University and Yale Divinity School, Alana has seen her work published at The Baffler, Religion Dispatches, Nerve, Jezebel, xoJane, Forbes, and more. You can follow her via her blog, Oh It’s Just Awfuland Twitter.

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The first Soviet beauty pageant.

 

 

Next to the Vanguard Theatre in the West Village, there is an unremarkable-looking salon that appears to be a single room devoted to manicures and pedicures to passersby who have never had a service at Spa Jolie. But ascend the narrow staircase to the second floor and the salon is revealed as a labyrinth of rooms and corridors for every imaginable beauty service performed by a staff primarily composed of Eastern European women. While many workers I’ve encountered in the cosmetic service industry are in a constant state of doublespeak over how pretty I am but how desperately I need a particular beauty treatment, I’m always pleasantly surprised when Spa Jolie staff upsell with no-nonsense pitches like, “Do it. It will make you look better,” or, “It will make your boyfriend very happy.”

A combination of my first name, my bone structure, and my chosen neighborhoods has meant that I’ve been mistaken for Russian since my teens. When I’ve replied to Russian inquiries in English, I’ve received responses ranging from a curse on my parents for not teaching me the language of the Motherland to the shocked declaration, “But…but you’re so beautiful!” And while I half jokingly plan for the latter comment to have a spot in the highlight reel I’ll watch on my deathbed, it is undeniable that features particular to Eastern European women are especially valuable in the post-Soviet era in beauty and fashion.

In a beauty culture that simultaneously celebrates the exotic but still defaults to white superiority, women with Slavic features have become a middle ground on which the industry relies to relay their messages about beauty ideals. By the mid-1990s, as young people from the former Soviet Union emigrated westward, the Crawfords were quickly replaced by Kurkovas on runways, with their razor cheekbones and the permanent pout of downward-slanting lips. But even outside of the fashion and beauty industries where only the tall and worryingly thin have a fighting chance, stereotypes abounded about hyper-feminine, appearance-obsessed Eastern European women. And statistics on per capita spending on cosmetics in Russia support these tropes.

This would be unremarkable were it not for the persistent claims, both internally and externally, that Soviet ideology deemphasized the importance of gender-specific appearance in favor of a model where a person’s value corresponded to their contributions to socialist and communist ideals. While part of the phenomenon can be attributed to the introduction of consumer goods to post-Soviet markets, it’s more than a capitalist inevitability that post-Soviet women—who lived in an era supposedly free of rigid beliefs about gender—came to be seen as the epitome of ultra-femininity.

Dr. Yulia Gradskova, a researcher at the University of Stockholm specializing in Soviet gender history, challenges the myth that Soviet women had neither obligation nor inclination to engage in beauty routines because Soviet ideology was focused on non-gendered qualities. Instead, she posits that the simultaneous demands of Soviet values of culture, good taste, and hygiene that were meant to deemphasize the individual’s gender still reinforced the need for beauty practices whose end result was still a consumer-oriented, western standard of feminine beauty. Gradskova writes:

While peripheral areas struggled to introduce ‘cultured appearance’ to everyday practices, central publications on beauty and appearance focused increasingly on developing aesthetic notions of ‘good taste’. Thus, aesthetic, rather than overtly political, arguments were employed to explain the importance of ‘avoiding luxury’ and ‘loud’ styles as part of a discourse on ‘good taste’.

In other words, look precisely cultured enough to embody our ideal but don’t look too ideal doing it. Subtlety, ladies. Subtlety. Yet in the absence of consumer products that made this standard attainable, daily beauty practices became expensive and often dangerous. Gradskova continues, “Throughout this era women had to cope with an ‘economy of shortage’ and ‘making themselves beautiful’ demanded a complex combination of scarce state resources and various forms of quasi-private entrepreneurship.” Many reported great strain on time and finances to secure clothing that was considered attractive but not so appealing as to draw sexual attention. Expectations of aesthetic appeal were essentially an unfunded mandate to the Soviet woman, meaning that many relied heavily on the black market for fashion and cosmetics to complement their home rituals.

While many of their beauty concoctions like raw yogurt and strawberry face creams would find a home on Pinterest today, others were considerably more brutal. A friend’s mother who grew up in the 1960s in what is now Ukraine reported burning off leg hairs one at a time with matchsticks in the absence of razors. Another woman with whom I discussed her beauty routine recalled applying oil mixed with ashes as eyeliner using a crudely sharpened wooden stick. Despite the frequently bitter cold, many women recounted eschewing unflatteringly thick tights for bare legs with a line drawn down the length of the leg to give the appearance of stockings—a practice also common in the United States in times of material shortages, though it was considerably less hazardous in Kansas than in Siberia. Gradskova’s subjects used burning hot tongs, corks, and pencils to curl and add volume to their hair.

But the physical danger of such practices was also painfully complemented by the social and political danger of appearing too feminized, and therefore sexualized, for Soviet standards. (Not that this double bind was limited to life behind the Iron Curtain, as we still see today.) In a discussion of Soviet beauty, Anne Marie Skvarek writes about the pitfalls of being overly involved in one’s appearance: “A woman who spent time doing such things was deemed to be selfish, shallow, and therefore not putting the good of the collective above her personal desires.” The demands for ultra-specific beauty and hygiene standards even necessitated the creation of a state-owned and operated cosmetics company, the Tezhe trust. Marketing materials for Tezhe used feminine models in makeup and expensive fashions, but showed them being examples of productive labor. The “third shift” of beauty work reinforced a woman’s model citizenship, but only if it was done just-so. Soviet women sat permanently on an uncertain line between embodying Soviet state ideals and being active agents against those ideals through overtly sexual manifestations of femininity. A color-enhanced cheek was forever a brush stroke away from turning one of the Party’s good girls into a frivolous party girl. One had to always be just attractive enough for state purposes but never for one’s own personal purposes of attracting mates or simply feeling beautiful for its own sake. The option of confronting state messages that dubiously linked things like tastefully made-up faces to good hygiene was undoubtedly out of the question.

Later decades in the Soviet era saw considerable relaxation in both the messages about gender expectations and around the flow of consumer goods during Perestroika, but messages about beauty were still cloaked in socialist-speak until the very end. The first Soviet beauty pageant was held in 1988, and while the women almost all appear in sexy apparel and heavy makeup, the event’s organizers insisted, “Our event is not commercial. It has an important, socially challenging objective—to rescue women from urbanization, abandonment in the society and to raise the women value in the Soviet society.” Rescue by way of spandex leotard was just the last incarnation of the similar Soviet messages from the 1930s that connected culture and hygiene to waist-to-hip ratios.

It was not until the end of the Soviet Union that more overt expressions of femininity for the sake of sexual attractiveness reemerged. When they did, it was not as much a sexual revolution as a sexual revelation about the long-standing but suppressed desire to be sexually appealing. As cosmetics flooded the market, many post-Soviet women began immediately overcompensating for both product scarcity and for repressed sexual expression. Cosmopolitan launched a Russian edition in May of 1994 to extraordinary financial returns for its publisher as post-Soviet women flocked to its pages for beauty and sex tips. To some, Cosmo represents everything wrong with modern feminine ideals in the U.S., but for the post-Soviet woman it served as a manual for physical self-expression that had been aggressively policed by market and policies for the preceding decades. The following year, the magazine reported on a survey of 1700 Russian women that revealed that they valued their partner’s orgasm over all other sexual experiences. Today, Russian women reportedly spend as much as 60% of their frequently modest incomes on beauty. Gender studies scholar Elena Zdravomyslova writes that Russian advertisements and entertainment continue to be guilty of “‘aggressively sexualizing’ the common idea of women’s roles” in a society currently soaked in overt sexism. It is this aggressive sexualization that has made Eastern European beauty both a source of mystery and of appeal to beauty consumers the world over.

During a Brazilian bikini wax at Spa Jolie, I asked my regular esthetician about the DIY nightmares I’d learned about and asked if she had practiced any of them. She laughed and said, “We did all sorts of stupid shit like that.” I joined her in laughter and agreement at how ridiculous it was, somehow missing the irony of identifying such practices as drastic while she slathered hot wax on the most sensitive region of my body primarily for the benefit of a man whose feelings for me were lukewarm. I would later pay a premium for another employee to take a razor blade to the bottom of my feet so that no one in particular could feel the softness of the soles.

In a later moment of more thoughtful reflection, I considered whether the brutality to which women subject themselves for the sake of beauty is a universal experience in a world governed by the male gaze, and if the fixation of Soviet and post-Soviet women on beauty was simply another variation of women accommodating male desire. Brutal instruments like hot wax and razor blades when used in the presence of cosmetology certificates and scented candles are, after all, still brutal instruments. But because the western beauty ideals that necessitate such instruments have persisted more or less uninterrupted, these regimens serve the fairly one-dimensional purpose of enhancing sexual visibility and viability. But to interrupt that purpose as Soviet norms did gave its reintroduction social and political dimensions that often go overlooked when there are easy jokes about superficial Russian women so readily available.

In the case of post-Soviet women, the commitment to hyper-feminine beauty functions simultaneously as rebellion against the paternalism of the Communist state and as a surrender to the patriarchal insistence on almost caricatured femininity. Her exaggerated beauty is both a move to reestablish her sexual self while also working to limit her to her actual sexual agency. Just as the Soviet woman’s beauty sat at the intersection of party ideals and sex appeal, the post-Soviet woman’s beauty represents liberation from one set of ideals only to become beholden to another set. Western fetishization of her beauty—my own included—sees a smoldering, almost aggressive expression of feminine sexuality. The reality is a much more complex web of historical and contemporary social expectations of what purpose a woman serves and how she ought to look serving it. And serving it for everyone but herself.