Welcome back!, she said to herself upon logging into her blog’s CMS for the first time in two weeks. It was great to take a break, in no small part because I so enjoyed Phoebe’s posts (and judging from the activity over here, y’all did too; you can follow her usual blog here, and rest assured that plenty of thought-provoking beauty talk streams through there). But given that there were two major topics of beauty talk going around the blogosphere during my absence, it was agonizing timing on my part, so will you allow me to go over ground that the internet has already moved on from? Merci!
That Girls Episode Where Lena Dunham Hooks Up With Patrick Wilson: I watched the episode, loved it (I laughed! I cried! It was better than Cats!), and when I poked around online to find commentary was shocked to find that much of the discourse surrounding it was about whether it was realistic for someone who looks like Lena Dunham to hook up with someone who looks like Patrick Wilson. People, I see messages about beauty, appearance, and sex appeal everywhere, okay? Everywhere. The impetus for starting this blog was when a friend said to me that I either needed to think about beauty less or write about it more. Yet I didn’t see the Girls episode as being about attraction mismatch at all, or at least almost not at all. Not on its face, and not as its subtext. I mean, I think the Girls team knew exactly what they were doing when they cast someone as good-looking as Patrick Wilson in that role, and public opinion on Dunham’s appeal has hardly been lacking, so yes, that’s one element within the larger scope of what they were aiming for—which was highlighted with Hannah’s line after Wilson’s character calls her beautiful: “That’s not always the feedback I’ve been given.” But I saw this episode as being primarily about the ways in which people connect that don’t always come to light, because they’re hidden—no, I didn’t think his character would enter Hannah’s life as an ongoing love interest. Because he was 18 years older, and in a wildly different income/status bracket, and because they really were just at different places in their lives. But none of that means for one second that their connection wasn’t real, for as long as it lasted. I’ve had connections like that; who hasn’t? Not necessarily in that fashion, or even a similar one, but if you’re young and alone in an urban area—especially if you’re young and alone and someone who craves experiences and “all the feelings,” as Hannah puts it—those experiences aren’t unheard of, and sometimes they involve people who don’t seem to “match,” in conventional attractiveness or anything else.
The point is: Those situations are real. For my money, it was by far the most realistic episode yet of the show. So to find that people thought it was so unrealistic as to actually be a dream shocked me. In what universe do people only hook up—or hell, marry—people just as conventionally beautiful as they are? Generally speaking people tend to “match” up with people in their, ugh, bracket (yes, there have been studies), but spending approximately two and a half minutes on the streets of New York makes it clear that that’s not a rule. And what makes people think that the doctor didn’t genuinely find Hannah beautiful? (And why is it not shocking that a woman who looks like Jessa would marry a man who looks like her husband? One of those things is not like the other, folks.) Honestly, the arrogance of this mind-set freaks me out a little. Word up: Your friends are happily fucking people you don’t think are hot, and chances are you’ve happily fucked people your friends don’t think are hot. And at this point I’m likely to start reiterating arguments that have been better made by Emily McCombs, Lili Loofbourow, Rosie Says, Tracie Egan Morrissey, and so on, so I’ll stop.
Why Can’t Women Say They’re Pretty: Upon reading the introspective, varied comments that Kate Fridkis’s thoughtful piece at Daily Life spawned over at Jezebel, I realized that I could very well just have The Beheld’s URL just direct there from now on and call my job here over. There is such an incredible swath of experience that various women (and a few men) are reporting over there, all with their own larger implications. Kate’s piece is absolutely worth a read, as is the actual post at Jezebel, but like Elisa, I find the richness of women’s experiences reflected in comments especially compelling here.
All I have to add is this: Because of this blog, I’ve talked to a lot of women about their feelings/thoughts on beauty—sometimes formally, as with my interviews, and other times informally, like when I mention what I blog about and suddenly I’m having an intimate conversation with a woman I met five minutes prior (an unexpected delight of this brand of “beauty blogging”). And I can tell you that there is zero correlation between what women believe about their own looks (or at least what they’re willing to share with me) and how closely they match the conventional beauty standard. I’ve heard women I consider stunning say they have to avert their gaze from the mirror sometimes because they can’t stand the way they look; I’ve heard women who have plenty of things our culture considers “flaws” say, “I know I’m beautiful.”
Actually, I’d wager that most women are capable of both ways of thinking about themselves, sometimes simultaneously. I know I certainly am. It’s not just that I sometimes feel good about my looks and sometimes bad, though that too; it’s more that the two mind-sets coexist, maybe in part because of one another. When I have a day/moment/phase when I’m feeling particularly good about the way I look, there’s a part of me that’s aware that I have spent plenty of time not liking how I look, so my moments of pride exist in comparison to those bleaker, plainer times. And when I feel bad about how I look, it’s easy to remember when I felt good about my appearance and wonder what changed. It’s an ongoing form of cognitive dissonance, i.e. the unease that happens when you hold two views simultaneously or have a previously held belief genuinely challenged. I think it’s that dissonance, not actual self-hatred, that the beauty industry is ultimately after with its consumers.
I have no idea how most of us would feel about our appearance if we magically lived in a patriarchy-free land where women’s looks weren’t equated with our value as a human. (If the variety of responses at Jezebel is any indication, there would be a zillion ways “most of us” would feel.) Cognitive dissonance is a part of the human experience so there’s no reason to think that it would be erased if we lived in that world. But I’d bet that dissonance would exist in a less fraught way. How could it not? For if the importance of our looks were to be diminished, so would the importance of our feelings and cognitions about our looks.
News flash, Melissa McCarthy is fat: I have nothing to add here, except to say that unsurprisingly, The Observer showed an utter lack of sensitivity, thought, and class by publishing Rex Reed’s review of Identity Thief (which does indeed sound terrible for reasons having nothing to do with McCarthy’s size). (I won’t link to dreck but on the off-chance you haven’t read it, you can read about it here. Suffice to say he had nothing original to say about her performance so settled for calling her “tractor-sized.”) But what’s more interesting here is comparing Reed’s review with that of Ted Scheinman of the Los Angeles Review of Books. Scheinman also considers McCarthy’s frame in reviewing her work, and shows how to do so with thought, originality, and actual critique. McCarthy, as a performer, uses her body as her “instrument”; discussing her body as such isn’t breaking rules. Scheinman shows us how to do it, while Reed languishes in oldthink.