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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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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.

“Mad Men” Beauty Musings

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There’s much to say about Mad Men in general, and about last night’s last-season kickoff, and about the relationship between Joan and Peggy, and even about their conversation in the elevator (burn it down, Joan!). But what’s most relevant in this particular wheelhouse is one exchange that comes between Peggy and Joan after a business meeting in which a group of male colleagues make lewd jokes at the expense of Joan, specifically at the expense of her generous bustline:

Peggy: Should we get lunch?
Joan: I want to burn this place down.
Peggy: I know, they were awful, but at least we got a yes. Would you have rather had a friendly no?
Joan: I don’t expect you to understand.
Peggy: [With demonstrated doubt] Joan, you’ve never experienced that before?
Joan: Have you, Peggy?
Peggy: I don’t know—you can’t have it both ways. You can’t dress the way you do and expect—
Joan: How do I dress?
Peggy: Look, they didn’t take me seriously either.
Joan: So what you’re saying is, I don’t dress the way you do because I don’t look like you. And that’s very, very true.
Peggy: You know what? You’re filthy rich. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.

(That last line, of course, is more cutting than Peggy could know, given how Joan became partner.)


A few things:



1) I don’t like to focus on the jealousy/competition aspect of beauty, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, and we see it here on both sides. The thing is, research shows that we tend to feel competitive with people who are similar to us, not people who are different. It’s fun enough for fans to construct the Mad Men ladies as opposites—are you a Peggy or a Joan? a Betty or a Megan? a riding lawnmower or a rifle?—but they’re not. In particular, Peggy and Joan have far more similarities than differences. They’re both hard workers, they’re both whip-smart, they’re both vulnerable, they both have their secrets, and the personality summation that Peggy’s date delivers to her over dinner could well apply to Joan, if not as consistently: “Johnny said you were the kind of girl who doesn’t put up with things. … He said you were funny, and that you were fearless.”

There might be some cattiness, pain, or simple retaliation behind Joan’s cutting remark; none of us are above that. But I’d like to think that there’s more to her comment than that: Underneath the snipe is an acknowledgement that part of the difference in the ways they’ve each handled their careers stems from genetic fate (or rather, from the ways women were treated because of their bodies). Joan is saying, If you looked like me you’d dress like me—and if I looked like you I might well have your wardrobe too. She’s taking what Peggy posits as a duality and makes it clear that it’s anything but. And Peggy, in a different way, does the same, by pointing out that the men didn’t take either of them seriously, even though the crude comments at the meeting were aimed almost entirely at Joan. The women are clawing at each other on the surface, but the way in which they do it says that they know full well they’re in the same position.


2) One of my viewing companions last night, a busty lady herself, pointed out that when you’re built like Joan, it can be hard to wear anything that will safely ensure nobody will accuse you of dressing provocatively. Peggy can accuse Joan of dressing sexily even when, as in this scene, she’s wearing a tailored blouse that shows no cleavage because Joan’s build proves how judgmental the idea of “modesty” is. Joan’s body puts her in a position of being accused of immodesty no matter what she wears, so why not wear what she looks good in? Peggy, on the other hand, with her slighter, more “modest” build, is put in the position of keeping the meeting as on track as she can—a task Joan herself is fully capable of but is barred from doing so because of her body.

It reminded me of Phoebe Maltz Bovy’s assertion in a guest post here that “style and build have a way of getting mixed up, as though a woman chooses to have ‘curves’ on account of preferring to look sexy, or somehow magically scraps them if her preferred look is understated chic.” (To wit: this photo series of Debrahlee Lorenzana—who was fired from Citibank because she dressed too sexily—wearing various office outfits of hers. Like, you know, a turtleneck and slacks.) It’s tempting to say that the moral here is that Joan can’t win. But as Maltz Bovy points out, the construct actually serves as a reminder of just how ridiculous beauty standards are. Burn the place down already, Joan.


3) What to say about Joan’s clothes-shopping binge toward the episode’s end? Instead of shrinking herself down after that awful meeting, she goes out and spends loads of money on fabulous new clothes. It’s a consumerist balm to being treated as a product for consumption, and I’d be misled to applaud this particular move as a you-go-girl proof of Joan’s resilience. But it’s interesting that we see Joan assert her buying power while wearing what is undoubtedly a provocative dress—it’s her way of saying that she has no intention of taking Peggy’s tack to the workplace (which, as we’ve seen, would be a loser’s proposition for her anyway).


But there’s also something sadly hollow about it, magnified by her refusal to admit that she once worked there as a shopgirl. It reminds me of the first time I went shopping as “retail therapy”: I was 19 years old and had somehow landed a part-time concierge gig at a mid-level hotel, working the VIP lounge. A client there had actually pulled a move straight out of a bad movie: He put his hand on mine and gave me his room number, the implication being that I should pay him a visit once my shift ended. Part of me was thrilled by this—this happened to people in bad movies!—but I was also nauseated by it. It was my second job ever besides babysitting, and I was proud of the fact that I’d gotten it, and I knew I’d been assigned the VIP lounge because I had an accommodating nature. But it was also the first time I’d felt the flipside of what others might assume of me because of that accommodating nature—until then it had just earned me accolades as a “good girl.”


Anyway, the next day I felt possessed to buy a dress. It was a specific desire: I wanted to buy not just clothes, but a dress, and I uncharacteristically skipped the sales rack and perused the new offerings with intent. It wasn’t until years later that I identified the impulse: I didn’t just want a dress, I wanted to spend money on myself. I wanted to spend something relatively intangible to get something tangible in return; I wanted proof of my power, and since I’d just felt my meager power slip in a professionalized context, it made sense that I wanted that proof in the form of something that context rewarded me with.

We know that Joan is a bit of a clothes horse (she did, after all, go to retail when she had to get a new job), which I wasn’t when I wandered into the mall Gap in 1995 the morning after a being the target of a sleazy episode. But just as my desire for a new dress had nothing to do with why I bought it, that’s not why we saw Joan buying up the store: It’s her clutch at power, rendered in a language she can speak without breaking a sweat. We’ve seen Joan work and grow and prosper in a variety of ways, but going back to this lesson—looking your best will get you the best—is always going to be a place of comfort for her. The irony is that it’s a lesson that, for Joan, also leaves scratches long and deep.

The “Man’s Woman,” the “Woman’s Woman,” and Other Apocryphal Creatures

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These women look suspiciously alike, eh?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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