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

The best makeover tool since the three-way mirror. Science says!

Over the years, I’ve had several of what my friend Jessica calls the Two-Cocktail Makeover, perhaps enough to put a good portion of the Mary Kay sales force out of work for a while. But one time in particular stands out: Jessica and I were out at a show, and during intermission I found myself on the bathroom line in front of an extraordinarily drunk bachelorette party. With beer-glazed eyes and slurred speech, the bride-to-be turned to me and said, “You’re pretty!” I smiled and thanked her, and she said it again: “No, really, you’re pretty! And I’m pretty too! I am so, so pretty! My friends are pretty, and you’re pretty, and I’m pretty. Am I pretty? I think I’m pretty.”

This might have been irritating were it not for three things: A) She seemed to take a genuine childlike delight at the discovery of her prettiness, as though she’d just learned we’d all been given free pony rides upon demand for the rest of our lives, B) I’d been downing a steady diet of Hendricks and tonic since sundown, and C) she was, after all, telling me I was “so pretty!” “Yes, you’re pretty, we’re all pretty,” I assured her as I slipped through the door of the bathroom.

As I stood there washing my hands, I started mirror-gazing. Our bachelorette was right: I was pretty! And oh my gosh, she was so pretty too! And Jessica was pretty, and we were pretty together, and we were there being pretty and watching pretty people do pretty things, and I can’t believe how pretty we all were!

I stood there for a drunken moment wearing the halo of the bachelorette’s eagerly borrowed vanity, water running over my hands, an enormous grin on my face, feeling so pretty!—and then I remembered there was an enormous line of drunk pre-matrimonial revelers waiting for me, and I uttered “Oh shit!” out loud and left the bathroom without drying my hands. I reported the incident to Jessica, who, without blinking, just nodded and said, “The Two-Cocktail Makeover.”

The Two-Cocktail Makeover, as it is probably not terribly difficult to figure out, involves drinking two cocktails, looking in the mirror, and thinking you look fabulous. It’s hardly a thorough treatment plan; it’s best thought of as an occasional supplement to a dutifully existing core of self-care. (As for what defines “occasional,” I’ll leave that to your discretion. Birthdays, holidays, Tuesdays, noon.) It’s a wheatgrass shot for your self-image, not a daily vitamin. But manalive, sometimes wheatgrass shakes the health right into you, doesn’t it? (Am I revealing my hippie roots?)

And now the Two-Cocktail Makeover is science, kids. A research team based in France found that self-rated attractiveness of study participants increased along with alcohol consumption; people rated themselves as being more attractive, bright, original, and funny after downing a few. Rather, people rated themselves more favorably after believing they’d downed a few: Participants who were told they were drinking booze but who were actually given a nonalcoholic beverage gave inflated self-assessments on par with those who actually were tipsy. (PDF here.)

What’s intriguing about this is that it reveals something I was trying to get at when I wrote about entering a modeling contest as a superbly goofy-looking 13-year-old: For all the concerned talk about girls, women, beauty, and self-esteem, there’s a core within us that might just really like the way we look. Alcohol doesn’t make everything better. It merely lowers our inhibitions, blurs our judgment, loosens us up—it’s why mean drunks are mean and why fun drunks are fun. And what that says to me is that what we often think of as poor self-image is actually an inhibition from allowing us to reach our natural state—a state in which we think we look pretty damn good after all.

The trick of the Two-Cocktail Makeover is that it’s a portal to that state, however temporary it may be. It ever-briefly erases the damage we’ve absorbed over the years; it ameliorates, for a moment, the dissatisfactions we’ve heaped onto our self-image because that’s the most convenient place to stash them. While I’ve certainly had moments of looking into the mirror after a tipple and seeing all my flaws exaggerated, for the most part the Two-Cocktail Makeover works: My eyes glow, my pores shrink, my verve is unshakable, and my ability to speak French improves 300%. For a non-problem-drinker like me, alcohol does for my feelings about my looks what it does for all our pedestrian cares: It alleviates them in the moment, dimming the rest of the world for a time in contrast with the mild euphoria of letting it all go. The Two-Cocktail Makeover does what any good makeover should do—it gives us just the self-image tweak we need to go into the world and do the stuff that we actually care about, the stuff that we want to look good for in the first place. The Two-Cocktail Makeover isn’t about being pretty; it’s about being bold.

*     *     *   

Well, that’s what I would think about the formal conclusions of the Two-Cocktail Makeover study, if it had been conducted according to what I think of as basic research guidelines. But it wasn’t: Of 113 participants in the two arms of the study, exactly 7 were women. All seven of those were in the first segment of the study—the part conducted in a bar, where a total of 19 participants rated themselves and were then given a breathalyzer test. No women were in the much larger controlled study in which subjects gave a short presentation (after drinking booze, drinking a nonalcoholic beverage, or drinking a nonalcoholic beverage but being told they were drinking booze) and then rated themselves on how attractive, bright, original, and funny they’d been.

It’s probably evident to anyone reading this blog that it’s ridiculous to conduct any non-sex-specific study without fully including women. But it’s particularly irksome in this piece of research, because until there’s a parallel or inclusive study we’re leaving out an enormous piece of the puzzle: How women’s inhibitions might play out differently than men’s. My own experience and theory makes me think that it would be much the same, and that perhaps women would be even likelier to rate themselves as being more attractive once given liquid permission to do so. Our culture loves to punish women who think they’re “all that”; to admit anything beyond baseline attractiveness is to invite critique or disdain. I’m dearly curious to know if the fear of punishment for claiming one’s beauty runs so deep that even a few pina coladas couldn’t lift it—or if, as with my bachelorette, that’s just what’s needed to be able to say, “Fuck it, I’m pretty, and isn’t that nice?

I’m not trying to needle researchers about their omission. Part of me is relieved, actually: Not only does this study subvert the idea of women as narcissists by asking men to rate their own attractiveness, but it also has the potential to redirect the conversation about alcohol, judgment, and attractiveness away from women for a change. (Emphasis on “potential”; none of the reports on this study that I read mentioned the lack of women in the sample, so chances are this conversation won’t happen. But I am an optimist!) Heck, it’s nice to have researchers acknowledge that the phrase “beer goggles” isn’t just something obnoxious men mutter about women—that it’s something we all might apply to ourselves. I would like to know why women weren’t included, though. Because given the complex brew of attractiveness, sex, being seen, self-aggrandizing behavior, vanity, insecurity, and gendered expectations of passivity versus activity (and, more insidiously, how this plays out to the point of cliché in instances of sexual assault where alcohol is involved), it seems that there’s some sort of message encoded in choosing to mostly look at how men view their own attractiveness, even if I don’t know exactly what that message is.

For now, what I know is this: The Two-Cocktail Makeover is a helluva lot kinder to women than “beer goggles.” (It’s kinder to men as well, but a quick Google Image search of “beer goggles” shows it’s not usually women who are eager to use that hateful term.) The former puts the emphasis on self-image; the latter, on the idea that women can fail at being beautiful even if the only thing that changes is the viewer’s perception. And perhaps that’s one reason it’s not actually as alluring to researchers to explore women and the Two-Cocktail Makeover: It’s a reminder of women’s agency, of the potency of a woman being able to look in the mirror and take ownership, however temporary, of the light that “beer goggles” might lend through someone else’s eyes. It gives the euphoric glow back to the person who should actually control it; it gives us back what should have been ours all along. And I’ll drink to that.
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