Thursday, February 12, 2009

A touch of class

This study about socioeconomic status and body language doesn't necessarily track to me. The study authors posit that people of higher socioeconomic status are able to be, well, rude when speaking to others -- not maintaining eye contact, grooming themselves during conversation. People of low socioeconomic status, however, are forced to curry favor by actively engaging others in conversation.

It's unclear in the study summaries available (the actual study is for APA members only, unfortunately) whether the participants were paired with people in their own socioeconomic bracket. That's an enormous factor, I'd imagine -- I'm not sure if two high-socioeconomic-class folks in a room together would let down their guard and breathe easy at being among their own (I think of Eddie Murphy in his "White Like Me" sketch on Saturday Night Live), or if perceived competition would force them to up their "I can't hear you nyah nyah nyah" game. Surely the Guggenheims don't all sit around grooming themselves whilst avoiding eye contact and not smiling. (Or maybe they do? I wouldn't know.)

But what I'm really curious about here is A) class guilt, and B) how and when we bury our social cues. Surely I can't be the only middle-class bleeding-heart liberal who probably errs on the side of being patronizingly friendly to those at an obvious disadvantage to me. When I'm talking to someone who is clearly several rungs below me on the socioeconomic ladder, I become acutely aware of my privilege and become more solicitous than I would be of another white thirtysomething lady on the subway -- it's some sort of backward way of showing that we're all in this together, or something. I'm painfully self-aware of this tendency -- it's painful because the fact that I know that I'm doing it means that my kindliness is motivated not by my common bond with all humankind but by a form of patronization -- and I've always chalked it up to white middle-class guilt.

I also wonder how this intersects with the findings of another study: That women are hard to read. Apparently neither men nor women are accurately able to judge the level of interest a woman has in a dating prospect (interested men are supposedly easy to spot -- my hunch is that they're just trained that you've gotta be aggressive to get a date, which may be why some of them seem to think that catcalling might actually be a nice way to meet someone special). Body cues, language cues -- they're all ambiguous with the ladies. I suspect that women learn a dual set of social codes: How to act by your class, and how to act with men. If we're hard to read, maybe it's because our sex overrides other social groups we might be a part of, regardless of whether we realize that's what's going on.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Hairy Times

I hope that this Freakonomics blog entry is the last we'll see of the idea that the length of women's hair is tied to the health of the economy. But since beauty editors are starved for fresh takes on the same old stuff (there are only so many ways to apply lipstick, but editors have evermore pages to produce -- and if those pages can have some grounding in research instead of fashion whims, they'll even get the whiff of legitimate news instead of product shilling), I'm sure some enterprising beauty editor will fashion a short-hair story around the Dow.

The whole concept irks me. First of all, it's based on Japanese research, and superimposing Japanese cultural and beauty norms onto European and American ones doesn't track. We're talking about a nation whose women have the lowest perception of self-beauty in Asian countries -- and a culture in which youth is highly prized as a mark of beauty (scroll down to the "I Think a Woman Can Be Beautiful at Any Age" chart). What signals youth? Long hair. Certainly the U.S. isn't suffering from an abundance of old women who they're they're the shizznit, but Japan has its own rigid set of beauty standards that can't be applied to the west.

Then, this is a mighty convenient way to potentially get women to actually spend more. Short hair requires more maintenance, both in frequency of haircuts and in the number of products the average woman requires to make it look good. Sure, foot-long tresses require greater quantities of, say, shampoo and hairspray -- but they don't use pomade, or waxes, or "hair muds," or any of the number of products that exist for short hair. Short hair may project the image of being carefree, but in my experience it's very easy to make it require as much or more work than long hair. With luxury sectors -- like, say, $150 haircuts -- plummeting, it only makes sense to suddenly hype short hair.

But really, what's upsetting to me about this idea is that it illustrates how women, for all of our mighty advances, are still thought of as chattel. The past American century can be charted by the idealized shape of women's bodies: boyish, bound-breasted women of the 1920s (when the economy was flush and women were doing novel things like voting); ampler bodies in the Great Depression; girdled, heavily maintained hourglasses of the 1950s, when America was collectively holding its breath during the beginning of the Cold War.

One of the greater achievements of third-wave feminism is calling attention to the beauty standard, most tragically reflected in the eating-disorder epidemic. We're still a long ways from the goal (to wit, Jessica Simpson's "weight battle"--good thing we have Pete Wentz to give us voice!), but at least now women by and large know that there's a huge cultural effect on the way we're encouraged to eat, exercise, and shop. So it would be a wee bit suspect if suddenly "curvier" women (like, you know, Jessica Simpson) were suddenly being hailed as recession babes.

Instead, we get to wear the recession on our heads, supposedly. But hair length is intensely personal for many women. In the algorithm of what hair length feels right at any given time, you'll find femininity, maintenance, male attention, weight, breakups (and, for some, Jennifer Aniston). There's no denying economic influence on fashion -- pajama and lingerie sales aren't suffering as much as the rest of the fashion market, because people want to stay at home, either on the couch or in the boudoir -- but for something we wear literally every day whether we like it or not, we're less likely to even unconsciously succumb to the need for variety among visual pleasures (which is the reasoning the cultural economist in the Independent article provides for the supposed trend). We're not stupid, after all -- if the need for variety increases in dark times, we're not going to seek that variety in the form of $45 haircuts every six weeks. If anything, the women I know are finding ways to eke out their styles so they can go to the salon as infrequently as possible. (Me, I'm pulling the French-twist trick, in which I wear my hair up every other day, a style I can't do with short hair. This also means I don't have to wash it on French-twist day, which means decreased shampoo costs! Recessionista, c'est moi!) Note that the term "lipstick index," for the totally bogus idea that women buy more lipstick in poor economies, was termed not by economists but by Leonard Lauder, chair of Estée Lauder.

We also can't forget that ever since codes of women's appearance relaxed to the point where it wasn't unseemly for a woman to go out without a salon-perfect hairdo, there hasn't really been such a thing as "long hair" and "short hair" trends. Sure, sweeping trends like The Rachel dictate a certain length. But Twiggy's uberfeminine pixie is just as emblematic of the late '60s as Catherine Deneuve's flowing tresses in Belle de Jour, or the totally free Mama Cass-style locks. Even in the 1980s, the epitome of big hair, the world's leading style icon was short-haired Princess Di. Once the rule of long hair for girls, short hair for boys had been broken, American women haven't really looked back as a mass trend. To say that short hair is suddenly a trend, especially as a response to the economy, smacks of engineering.

I can't help but feel like the reporting of this trend is simply serving to highlight the notion of women's appearance as being less about our own desires and more about literally being a commodity. (Quick, invest in Frederic Fekkai!) The numbers show that we buy according to climate -- that's the whole idea behind the stimulus package, after all. But it's suspect that women -- we silly, frivolous women who have done things like paint seams on our legs to mimic pantyhose in past times of distress; we vain women who might be laid off but supposedly are jumping at the chance to join the short-hair bandwagon -- are being painted as being the ones to act illogically in these times.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Particularly helpful Webster's definitions

no-see-um \no-'se-em\ n (1842): BITING MIDGE

Monday, February 2, 2009

cupcake parade

Women's magazine office rule: The more body-dysmorphic the reader, the more food there is in the office.

The feminist magazine I worked at [as in, the kind of feminist magazine that interviews bell hooks, not the kind that tells you it's your hard-earned right as a modern woman to buy lipstick (Rosie the Riveter Red, $18,] had no food lying around the office. Somebody baked Mexican wedding cookies and brought them in once, I think. The national women's fitness magazine, however, in one day alone had a 24-count box of chocolates, two plates of cut-up chocolate-coated energy bars, a bowl of tortilla chips, and 12 jumbo cupcakes.

Part of this is simply the swag factor: Magazines get a lot of free crap from companies, both for review/promotional purposes and as gifts from companies. If Mary Kay has an anniversary, it sends out a dozen pink-topped cupcakes to any publication that might feature Mary Kay products -- that sort of thing. It's not like staffers are bringing in batches of homemade cookies; it's built into the whole schema of the industry. Since magazines that have less investment in making women feel bad about themselves -- i.e. magazines that aren't shilling beauty products -- aren't getting that kind of swag, the majority of random food lying around a parallel office simply doesn't exist.

But it goes beyond that. The level of discussion about food goes beyond what I imagine would be present at a food magazine. Not questions of "Ooh, where did this come from?", but terms like good, bad, shouldn't. By sitting near the designated "free table" where cookies and the like are left to be snatched up, you figure out pretty quickly which staff members have food issues. Which staffers walk by and vacuum-suck a cupcake into her long sleeves so as to avoid being caught; which staffers come by repeatedly and stare, walk away, and return; which staffers come by and illustrate infinitesimal sums by halving the same piece of cake over and over again until only an ant's feast remains.

Two hours sitting next to the "free table" would be enough to convince anybody that women's magazine editors are simply not able to do what they do best any better than they already do. Arguably the most positive effect women's magazines have had on their readers is an expanded knowledge of their body functions. Most women I know are reasonably fluent in talking about their hormonal cycles, their reproductive organs, their basic health stats. Women's magazines can claim a good amount of credit for spreading reliable information about contraception, even today -- I didn't find out about Plan B from my gynecologist; I found out about it from Mademoiselle.

When the industry began to be heavily targeted for encouraging unhealthy diet and exercise habits in the name of "dropping 10 pounds -- now!", the glossy pages began to couch food in terms of nutrition, not "diets." No longer was it just calorie counts accompanying recipes; sodium, iron, calcium milligrams popped up too. More than that, however, magazines began to superficially refute the idea of thinness as the ultimate goal by proclaiming that we should all love our bodies. I clipped a Self article from 1990 because it contained a righteous essay about the anger the writer felt about hearing friends talk about their "dream bodies" -- spending energy on pursuing a bodily idea when their own bodies were healthy, adequate, beautiful. But on the reverse side of the page was the "action plan" designed to help me achieve my dream body, supposedly because I "deserved" it.

Even the laziest critical reading of women's magazines shows that this is a refutation in name only -- the images of unrealistically thin models haven't changed, the weight loss emphasis is still a large part of the "nutrition" pages, the fitness pages still frame strength training in terms of sleekness, not strength. But I'd always argued that the health aspect of women's magazines made headway, however small, on redeeming their other sins. The more I think about the way so many of the very women who write these words are treating food -- to my eyes, anyway; they may simply be playing along with the idea that fussing over food is more appropriate than lusting over it -- though, the more I begin to see their honest nutrition info as being empty calories for the mind. The only attention these magazines pay to the emotional aspect of eating is to tell readers not to do it, offering cheap tricks for avoiding it or, more frequently, replacing "bad" foods with "good" foods in emotional eating. (My favorite to this day is a tip I read on Glamour's website about drizzing Diet Cherry Coke over a baked apple -- "Tastes just like apple pie!")

Yet the anxieties that go into producing women's magazines surely drive their staffers to emotionally eat. When you're forced to treat your readers as though they are vehicles for shoes and makeup; when you're airbrushing perfectly lovely women to looker sharper, thinner, because the nefarious "they" will surely demand the image retouched later anyway; when you're forced to paint readers with such a broad stroke that you erase the complexities of the women you know, talk to, live with, love -- a cupcake seems like a good way to make it through the day.