Thursday, January 20, 2011

Please visit The Beheld

I've been shifting my (erstwhile and meager) efforts here on Velvet Steamroller into the considerably more laborious (but more rewarding) The Beheld. If you subscribe here—you know, all eight of you!—please subscribe to The Beheld, my blog focusing on women's perspectives on beauty. In addition to the usual bloggy stuff, it will feature weekly interviews with women, many of whom have professions and passions that lend them a unique viewpoint on beauty. I'll occasionally be posting here as a sort of catch-all for stuff that I just want to get out that has naught to do with lipstick, but if you've ever enjoyed my writing, please visit The Beheld.

I found that while I have things I want to say about the world that have nothing to do with beauty, or nothing to do with women and feminism and publishing, that my most personally rewarding and engaging posts (including ones that never made it on here because they seemed to dwell too much on beauty without critiquing it quite enough for me to put it on here) always had to do with beauty and appearance. Even body image and food issues, as deep as they run, haven't held my fascination as much as the way that we choose to present ourselves and the micro-decisions that go into that. Those issues will come up in The Beheld, I imagine, as well as questions of feminism, masculinity, media, and semantics. I just enjoy having the focus that a "beauty blog" (a term I find funny--I'm the last person you'd ever think would be writing such a thing) gives me.

I hope you enjoy it!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Riding the F Train

My first bit of unwanted attention in 2011 came last night—happy new year!—from a stranger on the subway. Transcript as follows: "Hey, fatty. Fat fat. Fat booty, fat pussy, I see your fat underneath your clothes, you're fat, I see it. Fat fat fat fat fat."

There was only one other person in the subway car, and the perpetrator had earlier made a point of yelling across the car that "as long as you're with me, you're 100% safe" (perfectly standard behavior for a man who isn't a threat, right?), so I knew not to escalate the situation. At the next stop, I waited until the train doors were already open before striding toward the door, so that he would be less likely to follow me out. He didn't, and that was that.

Except it wasn't. I had no idea how to internally react, even if externally I handled it just fine. My first words to myself were of self-assurance, even if now I wish I could say they were of something closer to anger. The immediate thought process: 1) This is a crazy source, not a trustworthy one; 2) You were sitting down and wearing baggy clothes so he couldn't tell what you looked like anyway; 3) You are well within recommended height-weight guidelines and are emphatically not fat.

This is all fine and good for not allowing myself to use a stranger's comments as an excuse to spiral into disordered eating ("I need 2,100 calories a day to fulfull my body's energy needs--but the dude on the Q train said I was fat, so no breakfast for me, mkay thanks!"). But the fact that my first thought was not upset but reminding myself that I wasn't fat--as if his assault would have been justified if I were--made me think about the power of that word as an admonishment for existing.

That man wasn't yelling at me because of my weight; he was yelling at me because it was New Year's Day and here he was, drunk or high on the subway, skin weathered by years of hard work, unclean, unshaven, and alone, and here is this woman about his age whose hair is in a French twist and who seems like a nice friendly girl because she hasn't had a day's hard work in her life, look at that fair skin, and is that fucking glitter on her eyelids, and she had damn well better learn her place. And whether he consciously knew it or not, he chose to put me in my place with the #1 word that is anathema to women in our culture: fat.

The F-word is anathema because we let it be anathema. We let that word become the biggest insult a woman can hear--I know plenty of women who might doubt their intellect, but none of them cower from the word dumb as they do from fat, even when the former is a greater fear than the latter.

I'm already conscious of trying not to attach negative judgment to the word--if a woman complains to me of being fat, my response, verbatim, is usually "I'm not going to hear that." It doesn't matter if the speaker is overweight. It's a lose-lose scenario, but part of why it's exactly that is because if I were to say, "Okay, you're fat," I would feel like I were telling someone she was all of the things that our culture mistakenly associates with that word--even though I don't believe those things myself. I'm just as unable to truly divorce the word fat from all of its illegitimate siblings--like lazy, poor, uneducated, damaged, self-hating, unprofessional, not to mention ugly, asexual, and unattractive--as the believers who came up with those associations in the first place.

All this is retrofitted reasoning, however. Fat activism was not on my mind in the moment. On top of my self-assurances of being not-fat was a foggy awareness that I was supposed to be having exactly this reaction. I called a friend after I left the subway, and as the words tumbled out of my mouth I found myself becoming more hysterical than I'd initially felt--my voice rose in pitch, the rumblings of indignation changed to a tightly wound self-pity. My friend said, among other things, "That's crazy; you're not fat," and while that was what I wanted to hear, I also felt frustrated that it was what I wanted to hear. It wasn't safe in that moment to say anything back to that man, but I hated that even after he was out of sight, my trembling self-doubt gave him exactly what he wanted.

I was playing the part of the wounded, insecure woman; the supporting role would go to the angry, outraged feminist. But the fact is, both of those were roles; truthfully, I just felt muddled. The word fat is so loaded that I couldn't sort out my authentic reaction to hearing it used as an assault weapon pointed directly at me. Yes, I did immediately reassure myself that I wasn't fat (and I'm not proud of this reaction), but I assure myself of that literally dozens of times a day (which I'm not proud of either). I never really felt angry or outraged or scared; instead, I felt nervous before he said it and numbed thereafter.

What I wish could happen, to me and anyone who hears that word used as a weapon--whether it's as friendly fire from a well-intentioned but misguided family member ("If only you'd lose a few pounds," a mother says), as training tactics ("Melt off that ugly fat! Feel the calorie burn!" yells the Spinning instructor), or as a plain old attack from a sad loner on the subway--is not numbness but neutrality. To react as if one heard not "You're fat" but "Your feet are a size 9! Size 9 size 9 size 9!"--a statement of fact that is either truthful or isn't, and if it isn't can be dismissed with no questions, and if it is true, is a matter between you and your doctor.

I've spent a lot of time trying to recognize that I don't need to artificially manipulate my weight, and I've been somewhat successful at that. And I've spent a lot of time trying to accept my body even in the places where it truly is chubby--recognizing that my little beer belly is the result of a lot of good fun and isn't something I'd trade in for a smaller belt. And I've spent just as much time questioning why it all matters. What I haven't done yet is truly try to not let that word--the fat word--have any sort of stigma within my own mind. And maybe my muddled reaction is testament to being farther along in that than I recognize; I don't know. I want to stop being afraid of not just adipose tissue, but the word itself. Those three little letters carry too much weight.

Cross-posted from The Beheld, a blog with perspectives on beauty.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Ponytail Economics

For all my rhetoric about beauty-as-commodity, it's chilling to see an aspect of beauty literally functioning as a commodity. In poor regions of former Soviet states, many blond women turn to their hair as a resource, according to this Times piece. There's a huge market (the largest being in America, natch) for hair--particularly blond hair, which is abundant in the region.

There's a number of unspoken notions about beauty embedded into the human-hair industry, and indeed into this article. For one, the unquestioned notion that long hair is desirable; it's not even worth getting into why women might pay hundreds of dollars to cement someone else's cellular matter to their head. (Personally, I'd rather wear someone else's underwear than her hair--the latter seems extraordinarily intimate, don't you think?) For another, the assumption that light hair is preferable. This is practical in part--blond hair is more dyeable than dark, which needs to be stripped of pigment and then dyed in order to be a perfect match for a buyer's own hair. But as one of the hair czars interviewed, Aleksei N. Kuznetsov, says, "honey-hued" hair that changes color in the light is the most desirable hair--that has little to do with dyeability and more to do with what blond hair connotes (more fun, gentlemen's preferences, etc.).

"Why does one woman sell her hair to another? The person with money wants to look better than the person without money," says Kuznetsov in the piece. "Better," in addition to being long-locked and perhaps blond, also means being transformed after three hours in a stylist's chair instead of the nearly three years it would take to grow a 16-inch braid. The industry transforms the waiting game of the growing-out process--the sort that non-impoverished but non-wealthy women such as myself bemoan and cover up with barrettes and headbands when deciding to grow out one's hair--into either a long, drawn-out, passive labor (for the seller) or a non-issue altogether (for the buyer).

Go on, tell me that a lopped-off ponytail isn't a little bit creepy.

This hirsuit surrogacy becomes particularly chilling when you look at other ways in which the region's women make a living: It's estimated that 2/3 of the world's victims of sex trafficking are from former Soviet nations. In those cases, it's sex that's actually being bought and sold; in the case of a blond ponytail, only the symbol of sex is being trafficked. It's also fertile ground for young models to be exported to wealthier nations--another case of women's beauty becoming a sort of natural resource.

And a precious resource at that. Selling one's hair is describe as "a final resource to tap in times of desperation," and once again it's not spelled out why it's a last resort; we're expected to intuitively know, an expectation that is only a responsible assumption if we get that a woman's hair is so deeply personal, so tied to her essence, that to part with it is a newsworthy sacrifice. In fact, some sellers are consciously switching up their style and are just capitalizing on the opportunity, a notion that's squeezed in at the very end of the piece--consciously or not, the writer is urging us to sympathize with the women who sell their hair. The economic desperation is the point of the piece, but it's the understood psychic sacrifice that adds the poignancy here.

I was 8 when I first read Little Women; as every high-spirited girl reader is encouraged to, I adored Jo. That didn't stop me from being furious at her when she sold her hair, "her one beauty," in order to pay for her mother to visit their ill father behind the battle lines of the Civil War. I gave a glance to her nobility, sure, but also privately thought that surely she could have found another way (chop off that little brat Amy's curls, for one). As a third-grader, I understood that Jo was selling more than a part of her body--she was selling her femininity, a choice that made even tomboyish Jo break into quiet tears in the night: "My...My hair!...I just made a little private moan for my one beauty." Louisa May Alcott didn't need to spell out for us why the hair was valued, nor why the choice hurt even a woman as nonchalant toward her appearance as Jo. In the same way, I'm surprised that this story is even considered newsworthy by the Times (though I'm pleased it is); it's just business as usual, right?

Cross-posted from The Beheld, a blog with perspectives on beauty, in development.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Why the Long Face?: Justin Long on Looks-Based Criticism

It's rare that you see men acknowledge their own doubts about their appearance--publicly, at least. If they do, it's often in this sort of self-deprecating yet self-aggrandizing way (I'm picturing Jack Nicholson chomping on a cigar while patting his swollen belly). So I found Justin Long's candid, heartfelt comment (as in log-in-and-register comment) to a critic who panned his looks--instead of merely panning his performance--engaging.

Background: Film writer Michelle Orange penned a review of Going the Distance in which she wrote of Long: "How a milky, affectless mook with half-formed features and a first day of kindergarten haircut might punch several classes above his weight [he plays opposite Drew Barrymore] is a mystery...we are increasingly asked to accept on screen." Then Long, on the Jimmy Fallon show, spoke about how he internalized Orange's words, prompting her thoughtful essay on the nature of critique, which is certainly worth a read. Mr. Long himself commented on the article (scroll down to comments to read).

I didn't know what a mook was either, Justin.

The real story here is the nature of the critic, and Orange's excellent points about "relatability" and how it's become "a cultural phenomenon and evaluative rubric"--a stand-in for, say, quality. But it's also a rare moment in which a man publicly acknowledges that he's not invulnerable in regards to his looks. Long writes: "I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d get to be in one movie, let alone several ... never had any delusions of grandeur. I always wanted to be a theatre actor...always assuming the movie roles were relegated to the good looking people. ... Then I started idolizing guys like Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, Sam Rockwell, Woody Allen, and Philip Seymour Hoffman ... if guys that looked like that could do it, I thought, maybe this milky mook could role the dice."

He continues: "I’m surprised by the amount of stock you seem to invest in my looks. I absolutely agree with you too, I’d be hard-pressed to hold a candle to even a fraction of Drew’s beauty... Is that a message you want to proliferate though? That people of higher aesthetic echelons should stick to their own? Maybe you’re frustrated because it so rarely works the other way – I don’t remember the last time I was asked to accept a female romantic lead who was “punching above her weight class” – though it does happen .... I suppose if it were more commonplace though you, as a woman, wouldn’t be so offended and might have taken it a bit easier in pointing out the disparity of our looks in 'Going the Distance.'"

The turn-the-tables approach here works (often it doesn't, because its users miss that sexism is an institution, not isolated incidents) because we simply don't hear a lot of men discussing their own thoughts and feelings on their personal appearance. Beauty, we think, is the women's realm, and public responses to criticism of women's looks vary from the pile-on ("Worst Swimsuit Bodies!") to the outraged (the collective Internet WTF about Jessica Simpson's supposed weight gain). I've heard women rightfully complain that it's unfair that not-devastatingly-attractive men get to play romantic leads while actresses are held to a different standard; I'd never stopped to think of what it might mean for an aspiring actor to look at a screen and see that he might be able to make it despite being average-looking. I assumed--mistakenly, it seemed--that men just didn't think much about it or took those actors' presence for granted. To hear Long's point of view, though, can be more conscious--more inspirational--and it only strengthens my resolve that the solution to the beauty myth is not to make men our miserable company, but to demolish the myth itself.

Still, it's not all about men. Justin Long has pretty much made a career out of being a stand-in for the everyday, kinda cute guy, one who might be inclined to buy a Mac. He's no George Clooney, yet when he came on the scene women and girls were swooning (I remember a former tech-trainer colleague who'd use his name for her SEO classes because it gave her an excuse to investigate him on the clock). I don't think women are any less petty than men in regards to looks, but can you imagine the reverse happening? Long himself points out that it "rarely works the other way"--a not-stunningly-beautiful woman being paired with a prototypically handsome man. Part of this is the dearth of the working actresses who could fit the bill; part of it is that women are frequently written so one-dimensionally that it's hard to imagine such small niches being carved ("We need a Mac girl! Quick, slap a pair of glasses on Katie Holmes!"); part of it is that the rough equivalent of the girl-next-door is still inevitably filled by actresses who are also conventional beauties. (There's better ink out there than mine on why leading men can be out of shape, balding, and liver-spotted and still play romantic leads, while the world shuts down when Kathy Bates does a nude scene, though, so I'll leave it be for now.)

It's also interesting to note that while Long left the comment early in the thread's life, none of the comments before it commented on his actual looks--but once he piped up, people started saying, "Oh, and yeah, you're actually pretty attractive, bro." Nobody wants to hurt anyone's feelings, and I think by acknowledging that Orange's comments did actually hurt, people had a knee-jerk reaction to rush to the defense of his looks. Which sort of misses the point, but if it helps people think twice before panning someone's looks simply because he's a man and couldn't possibly care, then grand.

Cross-posted from The Beheld, a blog with perspectives on beauty, in development.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

My Brilliant Career (cross-post)

I was set to enter a modeling contest when I was 13. Seventeen magazine was having a contest in which the grand prize was your very own picture in the magazine--yes, in Seventeen itself--and a meeting and consultation with an agent.

Now, I'd never wanted to be a model, not since the age of 5, in which I got a kick out of "modeling" in front of my mother's Pentax and briefly fell in love with the thought of making kissy-faces at the lens for a living; that dream died out within a week, in favor of becoming Linda Rondstadt. But when I saw the callout in the magazine, I felt alight. I wrote about it in a weekly journaling assignment my English teacher made us do: My friends and I are entering a modeling contest, I wrote. (This wasn't true; I didn't dare mention it to any friends.) Of course I know I won't win or anything, but I think it would be fun!

Here's the thing, though: I honestly thought I would win. I couldn't mention that to my teacher for fear of seeming conceited or delusional, but by mentioning it to her I was sort of doing a combination of ersatz progenitor techniques from The Secret and writing the part of my magical dream model story in which I "didn't ever really think I'd win!" It was, of course, delusional: Records from 1989 reflect a round-faced, snaggletoothed girl with a bad perm; models favored at the time resembled miniature Christie Brinkleys--honey-haired, lithe but toned, poreless creatures that I couldn't have resembled less. I didn't see my own image reflected at me in the pages of Seventeen, and certainly nobody had ever put it in my head that I matched those images.

Exhibit A: Portrait of the Modeling Contestant as a Young Girl.

Still, I was convinced I would win. I would spend hours in the bathroom applying makeup, then squinting at myself in the mirror to see how I looked with it on; without my glasses, though, I couldn't tell. But I would see these hints of beauty, these things that signaled to me that if just the right person saw me in just the right way, I would wind up on the pages of Seventeen. My eyes were large and dark; my lips had a perfect Cupid's-bow; my cheekbones--if I sucked in my cheeks just right--were defined. (At one point I put in a single earring, sucked in those cheeks, and fully believed that I looked like 21 Jump Street-era Johnny Depp.)

I look back at that girl making faces at herself in a bathroom mirror--a girl I now see was indeed pretty in an undercover way, though certainly not a girl who had the hallmarks of becoming a great beauty--and marvel. We hear a lot about the nosedive that girls' self-esteem takes in the teen years, and certainly I had my fair share of that. But alongside my shaky self-esteem, manifested in a nascent eating disorder and desperation to make boys like her, was this unshakable--even, yes, delusional--belief that I was absolutely something to behold. A friend of mine--who now, as an adult, has a striking resemblance to Julia Roberts--recalls being 13 years old and thinking she was "the hottest thing ever. And, I mean, I was this skinny, gawky kid with braces and glasses and this terrible perm--I look at pictures now and can't believe how awkward my awkward stage was. But I'd pull back my hair in a ponytail and would walk around like I just ruled the place, and I had no idea why boys weren't interested!"

I wonder how often these thoughts can be articulated by girls when they're actually at that age, but I doubt that my friend and I were the only two definitively awkward teenagers to have this secret pride. And the "secret" is just as important as the "pride"; I would just as soon have died rather than tell even my closest friend, "You know, I think if you get past these Coke-bottle glasses and enlarged pores, I'm actually a total babe." It was essential to not ever be perceived as thinking you might be pretty. The psychology of adolescent girls was in its infancy then; we didn't have Reviving Ophelia and Carol Gilligan yet, which means that while we were robbed of those teachings, we were also sort of unaware that something bad was supposed to happen to us at that age. My friend and I weren't talking ourselves up as grade-A beauties to combat our low self-esteem; it was simply what we quietly, privately believed to be true, whatever we displayed to the contrary, however loud our wails of "I'm so gross!" at slumber-party makeovers. It wasn't that I was unaware of the barriers between me and beauty: the unflattering glasses, the pudge, the perm, the mole--I knew these had to be taken care of before the inevitable Seventeen photo shoot, but I had faith that they would be, and I had faith that until then, people would see beyond those glitches in the cosmic order and see my beauty.

What happened over the years wasn't so much that that mind-set changed--my fantasies of modeling for Seventeen are long-gone (I didn't wind up entering after all--as with many flurries of passion at that age, I simply lost interest), but neither do my insecurities stem from thinking I'm uglier than sin. Instead, it's that I became painfully, painfully aware of how I might appear to others. The fear of seeming foolishly self-deluded had its seed in my disclaimer to my teacher--"Of course I know I won't win"--and festered over the years until I had lost my own gauge of how I actually, inherently looked. Even the word choice is key here: They are called looks because someone is looking.

At 13, I dearly cared what boys thought but hadn't yet had my first kiss--besides, at that age, most boys were still preferring video games to our feminine wiles, much to our despair. I hadn't yet been overlooked by my heart's desire in favor of someone prettier; I hadn't yet been rated, out loud or with a silent, appraising eye, as I walked into a room, and I hadn't yet heard other girls being rated in that same way by boys. At that age, girls were being rated, all right, but by one another--hence the need for my own affirmations about my appearance to remain private. And obviously even the youngest of girls are bathed in expectations around her appearance; by the time I was peering at myself in the mirror and misappropriating the beautiful cheekbones of Johnny Depp as my own, I also believed that smart and pretty just might be mutually exclusive; that thin was beautiful and fat was not; that everything would be better if I were blonde; and so on. But the core ability to look at myself and see what I saw instead of what I thought others might see began to erode not long after that.

That erosion can be another entry, though, or a thousand of them. Tonight I just want to quietly salute that naive girl putting up her hair in her basement bathroom. Between the extraordinarily moving It Gets Better project and the well-meaning but vaguely cryptic Twitter tag of #tweetyour16yearoldself, there's been a bit of noise lately about adults taking time to assure teenagers that, no, really, it's cool, and it all seems awful right now but, well, it gets better. We forget that there's an openness to that age as well, a time in which the smooth, polished orb of our inner selves hasn't been as heavily scratched as it might become later.

Now, it did get better and my 13-year-old self really could use a tweet or two from myself ("No, seriously, pay attention during science class because, fuckin' magnets, how do they work?"). But perhaps, on days when I feel as though the mirror can't be trusted, when it reflects not my face but my looks, I'd like a tweet or two from her in return.

Cross-posted from The Beheld, a blog with perspectives on beauty, in development.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Fat-Hating and Eating Disorders

Somehow I was not one of the tens of thousands of people who have reacted to Maura Kelly's anti-fat-person blog entry on Marie Claire. The magazine has received 28,000 e-mails about the piece; the initial post itself has garnered 3,000 comments. It's in the Daily News, HuffPo,, etc.

Basically, she wrote a hateful post about how it's "aesthetically displeasing to watch a very, very fat person simply walk across a room"--yes, that is a direct quote--and how even though she has a few friends who could be called plump, she would be "grossed out if I had to watch [fat people] doing anything." It's not hard to see why the fatosphere freaked out. There was even a protest staged in front of the offices on Friday, in which fat people were supposed to gather and make out, or something. (The post was prompted by Maura's editor asking about her reactions to Mike and Molly, a CBS show about two obese people in love. It's ridiculous that this idea in and of itself is a premise, incidentally.)

What's striking me is her apology, made after the post proved explosive. Here's where I should say that I've worked with Maura and have never found her to be anything less than honest, kind, and sincere. (I've also written for Marie Claire and haven't found their party line to be any more anti-fat than any women's magazine, though I wasn't writing about body issues.) When I read the apology, I could hear the words coming out of her mouth; they were in line with the person I know.

The post itself was anything but. I kept reading, waiting for a disclaimer better than "some of my best friends are fat!" and never got one; I kept waiting for the big reveal to this obviously farcical post (right? right???) and was left hanging. But as her apology makes clear, this woman has been in the grip of an eating disorder. It's behind her now--that is, she is no longer engaging in eating-disordered behavior--but manalive, do those mind-sets ever stick.

I'm sympathetic to how this grossly myopic view of fat people might be a symptom of an eating disorder. I don't want to believe that Maura's actual feelings are anywhere near as hateful as her words. So then I asked myself: Do I, deep down--as someone who's had an eating disorder--have the same reaction to seeing morbidly obese people? The answer was a swift, decisive no. I felt relieved to answer this honestly--rather, to come to that answer honestly--and vaguely righteous, suspicious that maybe Maura's post wasn't about her eating disorder at all but about something closer to bigotry.

But then I remember my mother and the mustard cape.

There was no plus-size store within driving distance of the South Dakota town where I grew up, so when I was a kid the only time my morbidly obese mother purchased clothes was during our annual summer visits to my grandparents in Dallas. These visits were as shrouded in mystery as her annual visit to the gynecologist: I knew it was something adult women did, specifically something my mother did, and it had something to do with something I wanted no part of. I pictured these stores--we didn't have words like "plus-size" back then; my father referred to it as the "big woman" store, and my mother didn't refer to it at all--as somehow dark, dank, with lighting that was harsh and low at the same time. I pictured eerily large dressing rooms with mean, ugly mirrors; I pictured elephantine, kindly saleswomen who were all very careful not to mention the fact that this was a "big woman" store. I pictured women filing out of there not delighted with their purchases, nor even relieved at having gotten it done, but furtive, ashamed. I absorbed so much shame from the very idea of the store that the thought of going there with her seemed like a punishment devised especially for me, designed to make me see my fate as a woman.

We eventually moved to an actual city, one with "big woman" stores of its own. My mother's shopping trips went from an annual basis to an as-needed one. It became a bit of a treat, actually--the best store (possibly only, even in the early '90s) was at a mall an hour's drive away; every so often after school she'd pick me up and announce we were going to that mall. I would go into Claire's and pick out cheap earrings, and would meet her back at the store. The first time she suggested this I felt squeamish, literally sick to my stomach at the thought of going into that store with her; she may as well have suggested we go to a sex-toy shop as a mother-daughter team. But it made the most sense, and I acquiesced; imagine my surprise when I saw that the store was just like any other, just with added digits on the clothing tags. If anything, they were preferable to the cheap, gaudy places that catered to teenagers like me. I read the simple, sunny decor and the saleswomen's perky attitudes as disguising shame. Perhaps it was simply maturity.

On one of her trips--one without me--she purchased a mustard-yellow cape. Why, I have no idea. She wasn't a dramatic dresser--the flashiest she gets even now is a red blouse instead of a black or forest green one--nor did she and my father go out to the sort of places where a cape would be appropriate. I suspect she just saw it and was in a good mood; the saleswoman probably told her it looked good on her. I can hear it now: Most people can't wear that color--but you! with that red hair! those hazel eyes! you owe it to yourself!

And the thing is, it did look good on her. I can see that now. At the time, though, all I remember was my mother showing off her purchase, twirling around the living room in a cape, and being horribly, horribly embarrassed. Embarrassed for her, that she was taking delight in an outlandish garment when she hadn't earned the right to do so by being thin. Embarrassed for myself, for being her daughter. Embarrassed that capes meant for big women even existed; embarrassed that there were fat women walking around out there right at this very minute wearing mustard capes and thinking they looked fabulous.

It became crucial to not allow my mother to wear her mustard yellow cape. Words I used include ridiculous, weird, how could you, terrible. Words I did not use include fat, fear, and I. I was 15. It was the same year I stopped eating breakfast, and lunch. Yes, fat people made me very, very uncomfortable.

I wish I could tell you that my mother heard her petulant 15-year-old daughter protesting her fashion choices and catalogued it along with her other sins, sins like making me use coupons if I went into the grocery store for her and calling parents of friends just to make sure that yes, a responsible adult would be there for the Friday night sleepover. Instead, she took off the cape, put it in its bag, and stuffed it into her closet, where it stayed until they moved out of the house.

I tried once, post-college, to try to get her to wear it. By then I could see my mother for who she was: a flame-haired, hazel-eyed woman with just the slightest hint of Texas twang whose charm lay partially in the fact that she didn't know she had any. I knew by then that the mustard cape would bring out that flame, highlight that hazel, and maybe send her a quiet alert about her own charisma. I took it out of its bag and brought it out casually. "You really should wear this, Mom," I said. "I know I made a big deal out of it when you got it, but" [it's not about fat, it's not about weight, it's not about you] "I was a teenager and anything out of the usual was mortifying. But try it on--I know it'll look great."

She laughed. "I don't know what I was thinking when I got that thing," she said. "Who am I to try to wear a cape?"

Maura, Maura, how could you not have seen? How could you not have known your own history so? How could you have looked at your own reaction--and for the record, while I find your reaction sad and even abhorrent, it's also an authentic reaction and I'm not going to ask you to deny that--and stopped at its face value? How could you not have put it together that a revulsion of fat people might not be about fat people at all, but about your own relationship with your body? You're a smart writer and a smarter lady, and this wasn't your best. It wasn't even your worst. It was your sickest. I have no idea where you're at in your recovery, only that you write about your eating disorder history as being in the past. And the eating may be, but the disorder lingers.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Long Hair on Older Women

A lovely essay in the Times about older women having long hair. (Bonus: She mentions the no-'poo technique at the top of the second page!)

It's interesting to think of our older sex symbols (I really, really don't ever want to hear my father say the words "Helen Mirren" again, but of course the woman is incredible) and see that whatever physical attributes they may possess that land them in that category in the popular mind--sultry features, a certain grace, a conspicuous absence of fat accumulation around the middle--long hair isn't among them. The door is the tiniest (tiniest!) bit open for us to think of older women as sexy--I suppose it's the one upside of the whole "cougar" thing--but, despite the very agency that these women have that makes them so appealing, there are certain things that we collectively expect women to give up. We shift our definition of sexy to include a very select handful of women of a certain age, but even there the Iron Maiden prevails; there's not enough space around the head for long braids, or a ponytail--if you want in, shoulder-length is the most you can hope for, even as your above-the-knee skirt reveals a shapely calf and your smile lines belie your temperament.

The long-haired women over 50 I know--my flame-haired mother included, not a gray hair on her head--may have beautiful hair, but there's also an air of rebellion about it. I find that the women who have long hair at that age are also less likely to do the extreme sort of things that less self-assured counterparts might do--plastic surgery, an overuse of makeup, etc. So I don't know if the rebellion is because they're saying to hell with trying to look younger (but look girlish anyway, tresses flowing), or because of the juxtaposition of a slightly weathered face and bouncy hair, or because they're simply doing as they please. But in any case, regardless of the sex appeal of long hair, rebellion can be sexy as hell too. Cougars they might not be, but I salute the long-haired lionesses among us.

Cross-posted from The Beheld, a blog with perspectives on beauty, in development.