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, washingtonpost.com, 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.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Jodie Foster Defends Mel Gibson, and Why I Think That's Okay

Jodie Foster, in her impassioned defense of Mel Gibson's character, unintentionally proves a point about domestic violence awareness: "incredible," "loyal," "loved" people are capable of being abusers.

I am downright bored by depictions of abusers as one of two types: 1) the bad-boy clod who gives "wife-beater" shirts their name (prototype: Stanley Kowalski), or 2) the "surprise!" abuser, who is the golden boy on the outside and a sadistic freakshow the minute the front door closes. And those types exist, sure, but the fact is that abusers are indeed, as they say of serial killers, "just like everyone else." Which is to say: Abusers, "just like everyone else," can be genuinely likable, and not in a false golden-boy way, but in a nice-guy-who-will-help-you-move sort of way. You can't spot them by the color of their eyes; you spot them when they start trying to control your actions, or shame you for yours, or when they push you, or more. There are certain red flags, sure, and I believe that intuition can serve as a strong guide here. But still: seemingly nice guys--vulnerable, witty, intelligent, accomplished, flawed, silly, helpful guys--aren't exempt from being abusers.

It's essential to ending domestic violence that we recognize this. As eye-roll as it sounds to someone who hasn't been there, it can actually be pretty hard to recognize abuse even when it's happening. Typing abusers means that the victims may be more willing to write off episodes of abuse as isolated. (Just as the "type" of victim--passive, weak, uneducated--means that every lengthy discussion I've had with an abuse victim has seen her say, at one point, something like "I couldn't believe that it was really me down on the floor/at the emergency room/actually saying that I'd fallen down the stairs.") Abuse is about the action, not about the entirety of the person, which is why it's impossible to use handy stereotypes for abusers. There is a definite cycle of abuse that's out there, and that template might not vary that much, but that cycle does not define the person; it defines the abuse, and that's what we need to focus on.

So: Mel and Jodie. I'm not thrilled to see anyone defending the character of Mel Gibson, who appears to be a racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semite. But it's noteworthy that she's not proclaiming his innocence or even saying that his character as she knows it means that certainly he is incapable of doing such horrible things. She's not accusing Oksana Grigorieva of lying. She's talking about her friend as she knows him, and is saying that she hopes to stand by him during his "dark moment." (I reckon that the allegations against him compromise more than a moment, but whatever.) And I think that's actually admirable in a way. Abusers don't need complete ostracization in order to change; they need intelligent support from people who are willing to give it. Abusers abuse because, among other reasons, they feel utterly powerless; it's a cheap route to feeling utterly powerful, even if only for a split second. Just as victims need a safe place to go, abusers need a safe--though not oblivious--place to process their actions if they're ever going to be able to heal. Shame is part of the reason abuse is kept secret; the longer that we insist upon letting shame be the only legitimate response to abuse--even as, finally, the shame is being pointed in the better direction (instead of backward at the victim)--the longer we'll keep the abusers, and the abused, in the closet.

Jodie Foster, by all accounts, is a smart lady. I have zero idea what she sees in Mel Gibson, and zero idea of why she's breaking her usual low-key-media mode for this. But it's important to her, clearly, and if Mel Gibson is ever going to get his shit together and stop abusing women, he's going to need the smart, tough love of one smart, tough lady. Jodie, don't let me down.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Makeup Ads and Self-Esteem

The conclusion of a recent study in Journal of Consumer Research—that ads for beauty products make women feel worse about themselves—falls squarely into the category of duh, along with "Clumsy Kids Less Popular" and "Eating Healthfully and Exercising Is Good For You."

What’s interesting to me is not the grand conclusion but the smaller conclusions of each experiment. Participants were shown a variety of images: “beauty-enhancing” products like lipstick and eye shadow, and “problem-solving” products like acne concealer and deodorant. Both types of products were shown both in a neutral image (white background, no type) and embedded in an ad, with all its seductive additional imagery and words.

Unsurprisingly, seeing the enhancement products in an advertising setting made women feel the worst about themselves, when compared with the same products in a neutral setting, and the problem-solving products in both settings. But in addition to participants reporting thinking worse thoughts about themselves, they were thinking more thoughts about themselves. Their self-consciousness increased when being posed with a product that, ostensibly, was to make them more beautiful. It strengthens my resolve to do my best not to check out my reflection in every shiny surface available. (I got some excellent beauty advice once, which was to look in the mirror as little as possible because then you can think you’re as beautiful as you’d like, even if you see hard evidence otherwise. Oh but to stick to it!)

The study participants’ self-esteem remained the same when shown the problem-solving products, a wild difference from the beauty-enhancing products, whether within the ad setting or in a neutral one. A logical but counterintuitive—counterintuitive to me as a woman, anyway—response to these experiments might be surprise. Wouldn’t a product whose very nature was calling you flawed—zitty, stinky, and flawed—make women feel worse about themselves than a product promising the fantasy playland of glossy lips and tinted eyelids? Can’t makeup be some exquisite place of luxury and pleasure? (Certainly that’s often how it’s sold to its consumers.)

But as the target of these ads, I know right away why the “beauty-enhancing” products made women feel worse. We know full well we’re not the ethereal creatures we see in the advertisements. We know we sweat in an unattractive fashion; we know we get pimples and ingrown hairs, and that our teeth get stained over the years, and that our hair falls out of place. We might get frustrated about it, but we’re also terribly matter-of-fact about it. Problem-solving products don’t promise to turn us into something we’re not; they guide us to a sort of place of neutrality. Give me the right product and I turn into a purer version of myself, a non-acne-scarred woman whose hair doesn’t slip from her ponytail, non-coffee-stained teeth gleaming. It’s corrective measures that feel like beauty work nonetheless but that ultimately are only letting me know that I’m human.

Let forthright beauty enter the picture, though, and things shift: Suddenly, instead of simply looking like a non-zitty version of myself, I might be able to look like Brooke Shields—except I’ll never look like Brooke Shields, of course, even at my non-zittiest and whitest-toothed. The beauty-enhancing products take us from the realm of humanity into some other realm where we’re supposed to transcend ourselves, with our just-bitten lips, just-pinched cheeks, miraculously blue lash lines.

The results—of beauty-enhancing products decreasing women’s self-esteem while problem-solving ones had no effect—stayed true whether or not the ad featured a person. This did surprise me; I’d always championed the Clinique makeup campaigns because they were selling me a product, not the implicit promise of looking like Salma Hayek (a Photoshopped Salma Hayek at that). It’s the lure of glamour and beauty, whether it comes from a stiletto or a glamorous actress, that leaves us feeling deflated. Now I sort of feel duped, like Clinique hired a smart, well-meaning woman to reinvent the beauty ad (Dr. Faye Miller?) for women like me who think we’re too savvy to be taken in by a bevy of starlets peddling their sheen to us. I look at Clinique’s thin sans-serif lettering, which somehow looks elite; its artful styling of products in ads. Their ads are as close as can be to the neutral-background approach used in the study, actually. So maybe they’re lowering my self-esteem less than Maybelline—but I hardly walk away a winner.

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

Monday, October 18, 2010

Assorted Thoughts on Domestic Violence Awareness

I'm way behind on the feminist chatter regarding the "Love the Way You Lie" domestic violence-themed music video starring Megan Fox and Dominic Monaghan, but in part that's because I was approaching it from a critical viewpoint from the beginning. I saw the video and immediately critiqued it for its cowardice (Rihanna, a known victim of violence, sings--but doesn't dare to act in the video, as it would be all too real for the audience), for its stereotypes (ooh, Megan Fox is craaazy in that, man!), for its leading man (Eminem: not exactly known for being a friend to the ladies). It wasn't until I saw this ridiculous anti-DV PSA starring the Cox-Arquette clan (with a special appearance by Kenneth on 30 Rock) that I recognized how complex and potentially effective the Rihanna/Eminem video is. As Kate Dailey points out in Newsweek, "almost no one disagrees with the notion that domestic abuse is 'just wrong.'" (The conceit of the PSA is that married people joking about their furries fetish is "just wrong," as is--yes--domestic violence.)

Part of the reason domestic violence hasn't just vanished is not that it's invisible, but that it wears a big ooga-booga-scary mask when really abuse is a small series of tears that get bigger and bigger, almost imperceptibly, to both the perpetrator and the victim. And people don't want to admit that those tears go both ways--that two people fighting is still domestic violence, and that a woman can instigate violence, and that one person's violence doesn't excuse another's. I don't know how common actual mutual abuse is--abuse being the systemic breakdown--but mutual violence is common in DV relationships. To see Megan Fox's character spit in her lover's face: It's ugly; it's gross. But you know what? That's one way domestic violence works. The problem with well-meaning ads like the Cox-Arquette PSA or this chilling, albeit confusing, ad from the UK starring Keira Knightley, is the assumption that roles in violence are black-and-white (literally, with this cinematography)--that DV is a woman cowering in the corner while a big bad man kicks her. That happens--horrifically, that happens--but every single woman I know who has been in a violent relationship has reported something much murkier, much more difficult to report and still expect sympathy, something much more difficult to put in an PSA and not have people scratch their heads and wonder whose side they're supposed to be on.

That was sort of my first reaction upon watching the Eminem video, but the more I hear the song the more I think that's actually effective. I can be at the gym and hear Rihanna's pleas to stand there and watch her burn, and I think of the dead-eyed stare she had in the days after her very public attack, and I get chills. I don't like the sort of glamourized prettiness of the video--especially because given that Megan Fox is supposedly the hottest woman in the galaxy, we see the erotic element of the violence as something we're supposed to understand--but I like that it's confusing; I like that it's not cut-and-dried; I like that it's gross.

I wonder about the premise of the Newsweek piece, though--"Can PSAs End Domestic Violence?" the headline reads. Obviously PSAs can't end all social ills; really, all they can do is raise consciousness and possibly garner funds. Anti-violence campaigns are often critiqued for targeting victim instead of the abuser, but I don't know how to raise the consciousness of abusers, given that very few abusers think of what they're doing as abuse--it all makes a sick sort of sense in the moment. This British PSA (courtesy of a related Jezebel thread) is one of the few ads targeted toward abusers that I've seen, and while I can't speak to its actual effectiveness, I think that it gets at the heart of the matter--that abusive relationships are, well, relationships: that the people in them cuddle and hang out and spat, and that the abusers actually aren't irredeemable and that the victims aren't just interchangeable blanks. (Which is possibly what I hate most about the cowering-woman type of awareness ads--no victim of abuse wants to identify with her, so what awareness is raised, really?)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The True Tale of an Unwashed Woman

I’ve stopped washing my hair. And my face, for that matter. The inspiration was an episode of Mad Men in which an unseen character is reputed to not wash her face, but she’s French so it’s obviously good advice. (Thus proving that the national girl-crush on French women went back at least to the ’60s.) It reminded me of something I'd heard once -- that if you entirely stopped washing your hair, after a few greasy weeks a small miracle would occur atop your head; oils from your scalp would work their way down your strands to protect them and lend a glossy sheen, and your hair would then have reverted to its original, intended condition. Or something.

One of my more feline preferences is that I detest showering -- I do it, but it always feels like a chore, and its pain-in-assiness factor is exponentially increased every time I have to wash and dry my hair. Plus, I’m mostly working from home these days, so if my unwashed-face-and-hair plan were to wind up making me resemble a calzone, embarrassment would be minimal. So a month ago, I swore off shampoo and face washes. I use a boar-bristle brush frequently, as it’s supposed to help with the miracle part of this whole no-washing thing, and I’ve also rinsed it twice in water; I splash my face twice a day with lukewarm water.

Surprisingly -- or unsurprisingly, depending on whom you’re asking -- I look fine. My skin looks better, if anything, but really just looks the same; my scalp looks greasy sometimes but it’s nothing a quick brush, hair powder, or updo can’t fix, depending on its severity. The hair itself looks better than ever; it magically places itself exactly as it was cut, with no styling necessary.

The real surprise, though, is how smug I’ve found myself about it. It’s not simply feeling pleased that I’ve freed myself of some beauty labor; it’s that I feel self-satisfied to a degree that surpasses how one should ever feel about one’s hair. I’m enthralled with the idea that by doing absolutely nothing, I manage to bypass all these beauty systems and look exactly the same. Behold the ne’er-washed scalp – quiver at my sebum! I alone see the forest through the trees of toners, moisturizers, cleaners, foams, and conditioners – I alone see the folly of the industry!

Except I’m not alone. When I Googled “not washing hair” and “cleaning hair without water,” I was stunned by the number and intensity of people who’ve dabbled in the realm of the unwashed. There’s a woman who, years after writing an article about the “no-’poo” method, returns to answer questions from commenters. There’s the 213-page discussion on the Long Hair Community forum, which features a litter of vaguely creepy userpics of long-haired women photographed from behind. Their inspiration seems to be Penny Weynberg, who hasn’t washed her hair for 11 years and claims it’s now as “soft as dog fur.” That's not counting the HuffPo blogger, the folks in the Times article, and various British columnists. They take a sort of defiant, proud stance, posing theories about the body’s natural equilibrium and animal fur. They have to say it loudly: They’re not dirty even if they’re unwashed; they’re, in fact, possibly cleaner than you, with your overproduction of scalp oils and chemical conditioners. They have to say it loudly because if they don’t, then they’re just dirty, and nobody will want to sit next to them at lunch, grody grody grosspants.

I’m tempted to become one of the no-’poo evangelists (and indeed simply by writing here, I suppose I am), but it seems a little to me like those slim actresses who jabber on about how it’s totally genetic and they, like, love cheeseburgers and never work out. But I look at the incessant interest these people have in their own lack of shampooing, and I wonder what sort of need it’s fulfilling. For the women on the forums in particular, the amount of discussion surrounding the no-wash method seems to surpass that of conventional hair care. It’s like there’s a certain amount of time and energy that must be devoted to our tresses, and once the actual hair-washing is skipped, the discussion of the absence of hair-washing takes its place. Participants talk of “preening” their strands, break down various scalp-massage methods step-by-step, and test water temperatures for optimizing rinses. They use acronyms particular to the method: SO for sebum-only, WO for water-only, ACV for something I can’t imagine. They assure one another that they’re not “cheating” if they use an herbal rinse on occasion.

There seems to be a sort of disciplinary aspect to these communities, a proud self-flagellation in the face of having found a way around the time normally spent washing and drying one’s hair. Do we really want to be released from the bonds of beauty? I’ve found that while overall I’ve saved time by not shampooing, I’m also peacocking in front of the mirror more. I’ve started carrying my boar-bristle brush in my purse and find myself calculating activities based on its affect on my hair (“I’m working out tonight so it’s a good night for a rinse”), something that I didn’t do before. It actually reminds me of the paleolithic movement. A friend of mine has “gone paleo,” eating raw meat, volunteering to help people move because that’s how cavement stayed in shape or something, going on barefoot runs through Central Park, etc. It’s helped her lose weight, has cleared up her skin, and has rid her of depression—this after years of veganism, so it’s not as if she was walking around in a McDonald’s daze before going paleo. As she spoke, I did indeed see a glow come over her, but I suspect it was less due to raw meat and more because she had discovered a sort of shortcut to the tangible benefits of good health promised by every blaring magazine cover. It’s basically the Atkins diet from what I can tell, but whereas Atkins sounds old-fashioned and dangerous, the caveman diet sounds old-fashioned and totally fucking awesome. There’s something appealing about the idea that by going out on a primordial limb, you can magically wind up ahead of the game and can loll about at the finish line while the vegans, South Beachers, 5-A-Dayers, and master cleanse folks gasp their way to you.

Or, in my case, I can sit atop my shampoo-free perch and watch as other denizens of the beauty game fret about conditioners and gels, knowing all the while that my hair magically creates its own mousse.

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

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Celebrity Lookalikes

At a party I attended several years ago, someone told me I looked like Drew Barrymore. I thanked her. As the night went on and she drank more, she kept telling everyone else how much I looked like Drew Barrymore, and people would look at me, cock their heads, squint, and agree or disagree. The party eventually dwindled down to five people surrounding the kitchen sink, gulping water out of plastic cups, talking about ways in which I looked like Drew Barrymore. I was being studied by these strangers, who were talking about the size of my eyes and the shape of my upper lip, in this sort of detached but warmly appraising way. Is it terrible to say I loved it?

Since then I’ve been told I resemble various others, all of whom look so different from one another that the comparisons are void. What I realized somewhere between Catherine Zeta Jones and Jeanne Tripplehorn was that it didn’t matter who the comparison was; I was being complimented. I took an inordinate pleasure in being told I looked like these women, even if I didn't agree--it meant someone was taking notice of how I looked and drawing an association with someone more familiar, if less intimate, to them. Actresses and the like have been given a sort of official stamp of cultural approval: Nicole Kidman may not be your cup of tea, but she’s certainly someone’s; ergo, to be told you resemble Nicole Kidman is an endorsement of your looks, a way of saying that you’ve been sanctioned as pretty, without the speaker having to risk saying something inappropriate. It can be awkward to tell a woman straight-up that she’s beautiful--if you’re a man, it’s assumed you’re hitting on them (which you might be, but you might not be); if you’re a woman, there’s this unspoken sort of question left hanging in the air (“you’re lovely, now what about me?”), an awkwardness resulting from having testified to someone else’s beauty.

I don’t know how many times I’ve been with a group of people and someone will point out someone else’s resemblance to a celebrity, and suddenly the room is taken over by Julia Roberts and Bridget Fonda look-alikes. To report to others whom you’ve been compared to is a chance to talk about our striking features without appearing as though we’re bragging; hey, I didn’t come up with this comparison myself, you came up with it (or a stranger on the street, or a woman at a party, or a lookalike generator program), so it’s not like I’m saying I’m all that, right? To say forthrightly, I am beautiful is taboo. But remove it a bit—Yes, as a matter of fact, I have been told I resemble Charlize Theron—and you’re just stating a bare fact, reporting an incident, most likely with a mildly self-deprecating eye roll. Best yet, there’s a safety involved: If someone retorts that no, you do not indeed look like Charlize Theron, you’ve risked nothing. You laugh it off, saying you didn’t think so either. You haven’t risked actually saying, You know, lots of people think I’m beautiful; you’ve said something smaller, more innocuous.

It’s notable that this happens to women much more often than it happens to men. Men might be told that they look like a celebrity if they genuinely do (one sharp-featured man I know was eminently thankful when the Pulp Fiction era passed so that he wouldn’t have to hear anymore how much he looked like Quentin Tarantino), but a quick survey of some male friends told me that most of them had been told one or two celebrity look-alikes, if any, and only rarely.

The biggest, and most obvious reason, for this is that we’re all simply more used to assessing women’s looks. But another reason comes to mind, one involving a man: Several years ago, I was walking with a white man in a predominantly black neighborhood. We passed a black man a bit older than us who turned to my companion and said, “Hey, it’s Ben Affleck!” We didn’t get that he was talking to us and kept walking. He shouted it louder this time: “Hey, Ben Affleck! Check it out! It’s Ben Affleck!” he called out to nobody in particular. Now, my companion looked like Ben Affleck only in the most cursory sense: a lean-jawed white man with dark hair. He didn’t look like Ben Affleck; he looked like a generic white guy who was momentarily in this fellow’s consciousness, a stand-in for every lean-jawed white man with dark hair on the planet. In other words, he was a type.

I don’t actually look much like Drew Barrymore, but I do give off a candid warmth. I’ve heard Jeanne Tripplehorn--rather, “the other chick from Basic Instinct”--twice now from strangers while wearing a red trench coat; it’s not my face, it’s the femme fatale signifier. A cynical, wisecracking, bespectacled friend of mine used to be told she looked like Daria, as in Daria the cartoon character. It’s not about what we actually look like; it’s about what we stand for, what vibe we put out into the world--or rather, what vibe is received from the viewer. There was an edge to the stranger’s voice as he walked alongside us, urging other passersby to come check out “Ben Affleck.” In a country as racially divided as America, it’s not hard to imagine that my companion became, for a moment, the embodiment of the establishment that kept this neighborhood in poverty; by singling out the only white man on the street as being one of the most successful people in Hollywood, a division between the haves and the have-nots was clearly drawn.

Of course, since I don’t actually have a striking resemblance to any celebrity in particular*, it’s easier for me to pick up on the meta-message being sent by these comparisons. I wonder what it’s like to actually resemble someone--my best friend from high school actually is a dead ringer for Nicole Kidman, and has been compared to her ever since Days of Thunder, even winning a local lookalike contest as an adult. We’re not in touch anymore, but I wonder: Does she take this in and feel good (“Hey, I’m constantly compared with a woman who’s been on People’s Most Beautiful list eight times!”) or resentful (“Can anyone ever just tell me I look good and be done with it, without this Australian chick coming into the picture?”)? Does it ever backfire--does she wonder on off-days if there’s a constant …except not as pretty lurking in the air, given the much-recorded beauty of her famous counterpart? Or is her self-image intact enough to simply take it for what it is: a statement of fact, a reportage from others—you have red hair, you have fine features, you are tall and slender—and not much else?

*Except for Laura Kightlinger, whose brief reign on taxi-topper ads for The Minor Accomplishments of Jackie Woodman assured that for a period of four months I was told biweekly, by strangers, that I resembled “that comedian who’s on the taxis,” only to have disappeared from the public eye, ending my single bona fide celebrity resemblance.

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

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Welcome to the Dollhouse: Men and Cosmetics

I don't know what the answer to healing the relationship so many women have with beauty is, but I've long maintained that the answer decidedly is not to invite men into the pool along with us. So I read today's New York Times story about men's cosmetics with interest. What jumped out, though, was this quote from the founder of a men's personal care line:

“Women use cosmetic products to beautify, but men have a totally different approach and totally different goals,” said Mr. Hewryk, who holds degrees in applied chemistry and biology. “Men use cosmetic products in order to cover up or correct imperfections, not to enhance beauty.”

One glance at the makeup counter shows that women's products "enhance beauty" in a dizzying number of ways, including everything from peacock jewel-tone eye shades to Day-Glo nail polishes--that is, colors not found in nature, much less on even the most beautiful of human bodies. But to so firmly divide the covering or correcting of imperfections with the enhancement of beauty seemed odd. I feel this immense pressure to not only be beautiful but to appear as though it's utterly effortless, as though I just happen to have skin that's entirely unmarked by adolescence or hormones. "Maybe she's born with it, maybe it's Maybelline"--the company's winking ad let us know that if we used their products, the world would assume the latter while they played knowing big sister behind the scenes.

I've always sort of envied women whose use of makeup is obvious--green eyeliner, turquoise shadows. Some might see them as kowtowing to the beauty imperative; I do see that, but depending on its wearer I also see a sort of fantasy space, a sort of storybook land in which we have jade eyelids instead of pearlized fairy wings. It's saying: I am unnatural; I am parading; I am painting myself; I am artist and subject at once. It's taking

But I don't think that Hewryk is restricting his comments to outlandish, playful colors when he refers to women using cosmetics to "enhance" their beauty. I think he is referring to things like mascara that makes our eyelashes appear dark to their tips, lipstick that makes our lips appear just-bitten, blush that makes us look like we've just been engaging in some particularly blush-worthy activity. These things indeed enhance our beauty. And yet, when I read Hewryk's words, I immediately thought of my pale-tipped lashes, my deadened cheeks, and thought of those as imperfections to be corrected, not beauty that merely needs to be enhanced. This is the effect of the beauty imperative: normal becomes imperfect, not a baseline. One of the prime tools of any woman's makeup box is called, after all, concealer.

"Enhancing beauty" sounds much more fun than "correcting imperfections," doesn't it? I wonder how many women think of their daily routines as enhancing their beauty versus correcting their imperfections. Hewryk's statement is more affirming than what I'd think of as the standard makeup-hawker's line, and what much feminist theory has us believe of advertising: If our beauty is lacking, and if our beauty is essential, then makeup will always, always sell. It's nearly optimistic in a way, but at its core the idea still makes me sad. In Elizabethan England, women of a certain class wore facepaint made of egg whites; the idea was to create a glazed, porcelain look--an obviously false, even inhuman, ideal. Men wore cosmetics in that era as well, but they were seen as vaguely immoral because of the deception involved: If you look at a woman with a shellacked face you know that she was not, indeed, born with it (maybe it's Maybelline?). If you look at a man who appears to be brimming with vim and vigor, however, you might well feel tricked if you found out he got it from a jar. I don’t wish for men to jump into the beauty myth along with women; I’d prefer that they instead cast about life preservers to help those of us who are mired in it get out. But if they must join, I’m just saddened by the idea that because of the restrictions of manhood, they would still be unable to seize the sort of cultural permission that women have to actually enhance our natural beauty, instead of being limited to correcting “imperfections.”

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

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Freedom '90

George Michael is everywhere. In the cafe at my school, in the grocery store, in the pivnice I go to after classes to drink cheap pilsner and eat pickled cheese. "Freedom '90" in particular, a song I enjoy, but not as much as "Faith" or even "Father Figure."

I wrote it off as "one of those things," the aftermath of jokes about "being big in Europe"; the inexplicability of why some acts take off in foreign lands. Jerry Lewis in France, David Hasselhoff in Germany, The Eagles in Vietnam. George Michael in the Czech Republic, why not?

It's funny what stands out in a culture that's foreign to us. For me, in Prague, it is things like: the number of people who get on escalators and just stand there. The crazy burgundy hair color on what appears to be one of every five women over 40. The oddity of how in a country known for its beer, you're lucky if a place offers more than three varieties, draught or not. The funky eyewear. I absorb it, and then eventually, through conversation and reading and deduction, the cultural reasons behinds these little "huh" moments become clear.

In the Czech Republic, those reasons often circle directly back to the communist era. The escalators: Time is much less useful as a commodity when your activities are restricted or you're literally forced to do a job that has nothing to do with your interests; why not stand on the escalator, and why give up space to those uppity types who are in a hurry? The hair color: The chemical industry would go through times in which they wouldn't have the supplies to make any kind of hair dye other than--you guessed it--burgundy. The fashion stuck. The choice of beer? Fairly obvious. (The funky eyewear remains a mystery. I chalk it up to that European je ne sais quoi.)

I've never known anything but utter democracy, so I'm fascinated by these stories. The details of day-to-day life in the Bolshevik era rivet me. All a Czech person has to do is say the word communist and I'm a puppy-dog at their feet, waiting for morsels of life under that exotic era, that time when our schooltechers told Americans that "people 'over there' have to wait in line eight hours just to get a loaf of bread." I can't get enough of hearing the places my teachers' visions intersect with reality and the places in which they wildly diverge. "The old women at the grocery stores will look at you like you're a low-life if you tell them you didn't bring your own bag. In the communist days there weren't bags; why should there be bags now, they think," my landlady tells me. A classmate on the blander parts of the Czech diet (i.e. knedlicky): "Under communism, food was just something you ate to get by. You didn't want to be seen taking pleasure in it--that was decadent. That would get you noticed."

I'm a good listener; I'm not the sort who will top your tale with one of my own, eager to make the conversation all about me. But in my head, eventually that's exactly what it becomes: I immediately contrast these exotically grim experiences with my innocence of democracy. I picture my classmate growing up eating stale bread dumplings in shades of gray, while I remember slumber parties at which we'd sort M&Ms by color before funneling them into our mouths by the handful; I imagine how his bread dumplings affect him to this day, and how my overfed rainbow youth affects me still. I like to think that I'm respectful of people's experiences, but in my reverence of What It Must Have Been Like, and trying in my paltry way to compare and contrast my own experiences with those of whose culture I've only skimmed--well, I know I can't deeply research every culture on the planet, but let's face it, I'm sort of playing cultural hopscotch here.

I went to the Popmuseum, which is dedicated to Czech rock and pop music. "We made the best guitars," the long-haired, aging rocker dude manning the place said to me. "George Harrison's first guitar was Czech." He fires up his computer and finds a photo of the Beatle playing a Futurama. "The Bolsheviks think rock was shit, though." He grins. He's showing me around the exhibit--a punk-rock-style collection of photocopied images and cut-and-pasted captions of the rock music of 1990. Every Western musician wanted to hit up the newly freed countries. In 1990, Prague saw: Paul Simon, the Rolling Stones, Frank Zappa, Frank Black, Joan Baez, Michael Stipe, Iggy Pop. More; I can't remember them all.

The exhibit was well-done, if low-tech, but I was amused by what seemed to be a secondary showpiece of the exhibit: a wall listing dozens of albums of the era, no commentary. Jesus Lizard, Pure. Cocteau Twins, Heaven or Las Vegas. Fine Young Cannibals, Young Raw & Cooked. Girl You Know It's True, Milli Vanilli. I laughed inwardly, picturing this curator--whose English was broken but who still managed to liberally sprinkle his speech with slyly enunciated expletives--printing out lists of albums of 1989 and 1990, cutting them into strips with his scissors, gluing it onto construction paper. It seemed charming in its simplicity.

So today, when "Freedom '90" came on while I was looking at the enormous variety of yogurts in the Albert supermarket, I laughed again, noting that I couldn't escape this damn song. And only then did it hit me: This song is from 1990. This song has Freedom in its title. This song is important. I blinked, looking at the yogurt, spoiled for choice--hazelnut, passionfruit, espresso, pear, cream top or no cream top, mix-ins or no mix-ins, rice-based, for kids, chocolate, tiramisu, strawberry, blackberry, kiwi, pineapple, peach, cinnamon, banana, Balkan, plain.

But you can't buy a roll of paper towels.

The relationship of the past to the present is difficult enough to figure out in your native culture. Maybe in some ways it's harder; how am I to notice the things we Americans do that are peculiar? Europeans used to spot us by our jeans; yesterday in my class, all the Czech students but two were wearing jeans. But at least I always have a wealth of knowledge to turn to. Friendly, suspicious pioneers, we are, eager to save the world but too interested in getting somewhere bigger and better to bother with the skills to do it properly; at ease around foreigners--after all, they've invaded our country, right?--but wearing our money belts because you know how those people are. (And they are, at least in our country--look at our crime.)

Here, I don't have that information. I try my big, floppy, Muppet-like American best to get it right. I'm trying to understand whether the people in the apartment above mine play the same song over and over and over again because once upon a time they didn't have options, or because they're just those kind of people.

The Czechs say that Prague was founded by Princess Libuše, when she stood at the fortress of Vyšehrad and had a vision: I see a great city whose glory will touch the stars. Archeaological evidence shows that the timelines don't correspond; the princess was nowhere near Vyšehrad. It didn't even exist during her reign. But it's legend, therefore it stays. So when I read of the Velvet Revolution and think of the students being beaten but showing up again day after day to fight for their freedom, I see Princess Libuše pointing skyward. And then I talk with a classmate who tells me that her husband was one of the protesters. "You want to know what Velvet Revolution was? Velvet Revolution was a bunch of students in the pub, going to visit a bunch of other students in the pub, then doing it again the next day. They were beaten, yes, but they came back because they knew that Communism was on its way out. Every year my husband goes out and drinks to mark the anniversary," she says, then rolls her eyes. Archaeological evidence.

At first this makes me sort of laugh, thinking of how my history books are just like me: wanting to take this Second World story and make a sort of darkly romantic tale, when it was really just the wheels of history chugging along. But then: To her, the fact that her husband was beaten and went out again the next day to protest all over again was a sign that it wasn't a big deal, because "Communism was on its way out." She thinks that because during the time of the Velvet Revolution, she implicitly knew--at age 14--that not long ago there were people who had protested and had much worse things happen to them. Just a beating? Why wouldn't you go out again the next day?

Shall I believe the legend or the evidence? Or is the legend unfinished, waiting to be impressed upon by the living evidence at hand? Perhaps it's not a legend at all, just a collection of bits and dates and hair-dye boxes, Princess Libuše nowhere in sight.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Estonian Tech Wizards and Universal Access

Given that in the States we have people arguing that receiving basic health care isn't a human right, it's a relief to read that most people globally feel that another sign of developing civilization--Internet access--should be a right.

But what really caught my eye here was that Estonia, of all countries, is one of the places that has already ruled that it actually is a human right and has wired the whole country (including mobile access). I know next to nothing about Estonia, but one of the facts I do know is that it ranks extraordinarily high in its proportion of women in technology. Nearly 70% of those employed in science and technology in Estonia are women. I don't exactly think that the high proportion of women in tech is the cause of the advanced thinking on global information access...or, well, maybe I do. It makes sense that a country that sees technology as not being gendered would see it as being plain old human, much as our need to drink water and transport ourselves. By not having vague implicit ideas of restricted access by gender (which most of us in the States have--when was the last time you heard "tech gal" instead of "tech guy"?), restrictions are lifted across the board.

There's also a chance that the very notion of universal access in places that place a premium on gender equality in tech is shaped by the actual women in the field. Most of the open-access zealots I know are men, but then, I'm American. Despite this field of advancement, Estonia is far from a women's paradise, so I can't help but think that women in comparatively privileged positions (tech) would feel strongly that global information access is a necessity, for very concrete reasons in addition to tech-utopian ones.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

"We Are They": The Blame Game in Unrealistic Images of Women in Fashion

Fascinating rundown at Jezebel of a panel for the Council of Fashion Designers of America's Health Initiative, started in response to the eating-disorder-related deaths of three young models. (And having little result, per Anna Wintour.) Jenna and the commenters bring up pretty much everything I have to say on the issue, so I won't comment too much except to say that I'm relieved to read that so many people called bullshit on the neverending blame game.

Magazines say they "can't" feature models whose bodies are above the sample size (which is very small), because designers don't provide them with sample sizes in, say, size 8. Designers say they "can't" make their samples larger because they are responding to the norms of the industry. Which is dictated by...magazines and other designers. Model agencies say they provide prepubescent girls as models because that's what the industry demands, and hell, there's just so many of them from countries with shaky economies (unsurprisingly, often the same countries where sex trafficking is an enormous problem for this same demographic). The models themselves say they are powerless to stand up for their bodies' needs, because they often have families back in their native country to feed, and there's always another girl who will live on cigarettes to fit the norm to take her place.

I wish I knew the identity of the female fashion designer who said during the Q&A portion of the panel: "Trends start by agreement. We keep saying 'They started it,' but we are 'they.' We are they." I'd buy her clothes in a size 8 minute.

Binge Eating Disorder: It Officially Exists!

The American Psychiatric Association recently announced their officially proposed updates to the DSM-5. The mental health professional community had already let it be known that the addition of binge eating disorder would likely be among the changes--it's the APA's rationale that's news to me. (In the DSM-4, BED was listed as a variant of eating disorder-not otherwise specified; this change would make it a discrete diagnosis.)

*BED tends to run in families yet is not a simple familial variation of obesity.

*BED has a greater likelihood of male cases and a later age of onset than other eating disorders.

*Compared with obesity, BED sufferers have greater concerns about shape and weight and a higher likelihood of mood and anxiety disorders.

*BED is associated with a lower quality of life than obesity.

*BED has a greater likelihood of medical comorbidities than either other eating disorders or obesity.

*BED has a lower level of diagnostic stability and a greater likelihood of remission.

*Individuals with BED have a more positive response to specialty treatments than to generic behavioral weight loss treatments.

I’m hoping that BED’s inclusion helps with the last two items in this list. If mental health providers are more aware of BED and know that it is a treatable condition, it makes sense that patients will get care more swiftly--and that the care will be more effective--than they would were they to follow standard medical advice given to those whose primary issue is that they’re overweight, not that they suffer from BED. I wonder if the “later age of onset” for BED is actually “later age of diagnosis.” Of BED sufferers whose personal histories I know, their behaviors began in childhood, even if they didn’t reach clinical frequency until adulthood.

The proposed change is important for another reason: It would lessen the frequency of ED-NOS diagnoses. Right now, ED-NOS is the most fatal eating disorder, yet is the least-known—and, because of its breadth, perhaps the least understood. Given that BED has a greater likelihood of medical comorbidities than other eating disorders, this could shed some light on the actual risks of ED-NOS. Right now, ED-NOS is a sort of catch-all diagnosis; it’s actually the most common diagnosis at the Renfrew Center, a leading treatment facility. An ED-NOS diagnosis can mean anything from a binge-starve cycle, to chewing and spitting, to food rituals that disrupt one’s life, to purging disorders (purging without bingeing). It can also mean anorexic, bulimic, or binge eating behaviors that do not meet the criteria for frequency or severity: for example, someone who binges and purges twice a month as opposed to twice a week (required by DSM for a diagnosis of bulimia), or someone who restricts her food, has an intense fear of gaining weight, and has body dysmorphia but has not dipped below the 85% of appropriate body weight, as specified by DSM for a diagnosis of anorexia. (It’s noteworthy that another proposed DSM change removes the requirement for amenorrhea for being diagnosed with anorexia; this criterion “disqualified” a lot of anorexics from being diagnosed as such, and I’m glad to see it removed.)

I would love to see more research into ED-NOS, for a variety of reasons. Because of its breadth, it can be more difficult for sufferers to recognize themselves and seek help. (What I listed above—someone who restricts her food, has an intense fear of gaining weight, and has body dysmorphia without going below 85% of her appropriate body weight—applies to a lot of women who wouldn’t think of themselves as having eating disorders.) I’m still wrestling with the question of biology, and whether eating disorders are on a sliding scale or on an on/off mode—like, is a woman who perpetually diets actually a woman with a mild (or not mild) case of ED-NOS, or is there another factor--possibly a biological one--missing from the plain old dieter that she’d need to be considered an ED patient? (Carrie Arnold wrote about this much more clearly here.) And is ED-NOS actually, depending on the symptoms, a “touch” of anorexia or bulimia? (I don’t think that’s the case, but if the sliding-scale theory is correct, that’s a logical conclusion.)

What the DSM-5 proposed changes do for BED is begin to legitimize it. I’m sure that eventually the fat-haters will laugh at the diagnosis (“Put down the potato chips, honey, that’s your prescription!”) but I’m confident that it will encourage more sufferers to recognize that they can seek appropriate treatment, and that with time even some of the haters would see that treating BED as a psychiatric diagnosis instead of as mere obesity (all the better if more non-overweight BED sufferers speak up) is a better cure for both the symptom and the cause. I hope that eventually these changes will lead to the same for ED-NOS as well.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Spinning Is For Crazy People

I hereby withdraw everything I wrote about Zumba. (Inauthentic re-creation of the joy of dance; robs us of both discipline and the state of non-disciplined flow; etc. etc.) Because I just did spinning for the first time. Spinning makes Zumba look like a Grateful Dead show, as far as authentic expression of joyful movement.

Does anybody actually enjoy being told to visualize that they're making a right turn on an imaginary bicycle (well, a stationary bicycle, but its motion is imaginary)? I felt like I was in crazy-person-land. Merely by going to the gym, I'm conceding a nice chunk of my humanity: I'm acknowledging that I'm so far away from the life the human body was meant to live that I am going to put on special clothes, pay money to repeatedly lift heavy objects, get on a machine that makes me run but doesn't let me go anywhere, and maybe even imagine making a right turn on my imaginary bicycle.

I do go to the gym, though, and I even sort of enjoy it. It's my place to simultaneously zone out and tune in; I don't follow a punishing routine; I feel fantastic afterward. When I first started going, I was on guard for being hit on by men--I'd imagined that it would be one massive meat market, full of grunting men ogling women in purposefully revealing Spandex unitards. And while I've occasionally been approached at the gym by men, that's far from my usual experience there. (Why do men think that a nifty way to hit on a woman at a gym is to correct her form? Is this related to the insult-her-then-build-her-up routine in the Player's Handbook?) I can do my workout in peace, slipping in and out of the shared, sweaty space with nary a peep to the people lifting around me. I don't talk to anyone, male or female. And they don't talk to me.

Today, for the first time, that began to seem, well, weird. I don't know if it was going on a fake bike ride with a bunch of strangers or what, but suddenly I started to feel sort of antisocial for sharing space with these people, doing these intimate things eighteen inches away from them, and having absolutely no clue with whom I was sharing that space. The original gymnasiums in ancient Greece were places of not only physical exertion, but intellectual exercise--formal education actually took place in the gymnasium, in addition to sports training. I know a lot of people would be disgusted at the thought, but I sort of wish that we could make a return to that. There's a lack of options for adults to just hang out in public without paying a lot of money or screaming at the top of their lungs (a bar that learns that not all customers like the music at top decibel, that's my bar). When you're exercising, there's a focus point; when the conversation wanes, you can quietly retreat into your chest flys, or talk about them if you're grasping for small talk. (Maybe that's what the dudes who correct my form are after.) A vague sort of intimacy can develop when you're working toward a common but highly individualized goal--my boyfriend and I began as running partners, not partner-partners.

Group sports seem to be the immediate antidote to all this. But, see, I hate group sports--maybe it's leftover gym-class phobias of fifth-grade jock boys yelling YOU CAN'T BE AFRAID OF THE BALL when I'd run away from the kickball, not toward it, but the thought of other people depending on my physical prowess in order to have a good time terrifies me. Group sports introduce a whole other dynamic of community--one that I theoretically welcome, but in practice dread. I'm happy doing my individual activities, and I will always love the times when I'm wholly focused on nothing but my body mechanics. If we had more shared spaces maybe the idea of social gyms wouldn't seem as appealing to me. Maybe I just need to go to parks more.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Women and Men Eating

Criminy, I hate lazy scientific conclusions. Researchers at McMaster University found that when college students eat together, women eating with men consume fewer calories than they do in the presence of only other women, whereas men's caloric intake remained unaffected.

The Guardian's take on this somewhat unsurprising finding is that women are choosing to eat less in the company of men in order to appear more sexually desirable. The study hints at that too, citing research about how minimal food intake is viewed as feminine, and the correlation between thinness and desirability. I'm not disputing those supportive theories wholesale, but I'm surprised at the lack of discussion and citations for other reasons that women might eat less in front of men.

Even though much of our focus on food is at face value--nutrients, taste--it will hardly surprise you to read that food has potent social value and can easily function as a stand-in for emotions or actions. Food means that you’re taking up space: your body, your plate, your palate, your scent. Food means that you are fulfilling your own needs, which pushes others out of the way for the time being. Food means sex, food means submission and rebellion and lust and awareness. And not all of those things are necessarily encouraged in women.

Women talk less in mixed groups--not because we don’t have anything to say to men, but because we're more self-conscious. While for some women this might lead to eating more (their mouths aren't otherwise occupied), for many, like me, a decreased caloric intake correlates to the same self-consciousness that silences us. Women's caloric intake went down with the number of men they was eating with, just as my voice tends to get smaller and smaller depending on the number of people around me who have rarely gotten the message that what they have to say might not be taken seriously.

When I was being treated for an eating disorder and was forced to examine what food really meant to me beyond calories and carbohydrates and fat grams and fat on my body, what I kept hearing from myself was: I don't have the right to eat. I repeatedly heard this in treatment from other patients too. Somewhere along the line, we had learned that food was something we had to earn--not something our bodies needed in order to function, or a pleasure that was ours to savor whenever we wished. But the thought of having the right to eat what I wanted because I am human had literally never occurred to me until I got help. I remember the first time I bought breakfast cereal (something I'd never managed to "earn") after entering treatment: I felt giddy, dizzy, teary, standing there in the grocery store aisle and realizing I could eat what I wanted. Something shifted--I could literally feel it in my gut, the sense of relief that came with letting go of the idea that every bite I ate was going not into only a caloric exchange, but a moral exchange. When I began to see that food was not punishment or reward for my earthly deeds or thoughts, I took a major step toward recovery.

Now, I had an eating disorder, so my feelings about the right to eat may have been more extreme than the average woman's. But I don't think it's a big leap to think that the women who were being observed were feeling something akin to what I was: That food was something you might not have full rights to, and in the company of people whom, rightly or not, we're told are somehow worth more than we are, you don't exercise your rights to the fullest extent. (The study cited research indicating that women may lift these self-imposed restrictions when they're with intimates, including husbands and partners--presumably, hopefully, the people that women do feel they're on equal footing with.) Also, it's hardly news that eating disorders are rampant; more than that, the overwhelming majority of women I know have some sort of disordered eating pattern going on. That includes imbuing food with values other than physiological need and pleasure…and it includes not eating normally in front of men.

I'm sure there are women who, consciously or not, restrict their intake in front of men in order to either appear or feel more desirable. But I'm guessing that it actually has more to do with feeling desirable (thin, virtuous) than actually appearing desirable: Call it the dietary arm of female chauvinist pigs syndrome. I know I'm not the only one who has eaten conspicuously non-diet food in order to impress a man (and the Times backs me up). Only the most Cathy-comic-strip-minded of women would ever consciously believe than a man would be turned off by her eating a hearty meal; every male-quote roundup about "what men REALLY love about women" inevitably mentions how hot it is when chicks eat steak.

It’s notable that men’s caloric intake was unaffected by either the number or sex of people they were eating with. It’s almost as though they feel they have the right to eat whatever they want. Imagine that.

Miniature Tales of Resistance

I picked up The Impostor's Daughter by Laurie Sandell, a graphic memoir (as in, memoir with pictures, not as in memoir with heaving bosoms, though there was some of that too) about how she dealt when she realized that her larger-than-life father was a fraud, in so many senses of the word. It was a good read overall, but its relevance to this blog lies in the depiction of a conversation the author had with, of all people, Ashley Judd.

Laurie (a writer for a women's magazine) goes to Ashley's mansion in rural Tennessee in order to interview her about her beauty routine, i.e. what makeup companies she's willing to shill for.

Laurie: So, what's your biggest beauty secret?
Ashley: Serenity.
Laurie: OK, um, what's one beauty product you never leave the house without?
Ashley: My higher power.
Laurie: ...OK, so what would be your go-to beauty tip?
Ashley: Go to rehab for depression.

Leaving aside any question of the liberties Sandell took with the conversation to make it work in her 2"x4" colored panels, it bespeaks one of the paradoxes of women's magazines, which is that they are forced to have content that nobody cares about besides beauty companies. Ashley Judd has largely made a living off of being beautiful (she now has her own makeup line), so I'm doubting that her answers had anything to do with giving the beauty industry the middle finger. Rather, I'm guessing that, just like many a hapless women's magazine editor, she had more interesting things on her mind--maybe including resistance to the magazine industry, which isn't always kind to celebrities.

It got me thinking of those small beats of resistance I've seen in my time at women's magazines, the urges that never manage to make it into the pages.

*A battle between the photo department and an editor when the former wanted to airbrush the skin of a woman who had been severely disfigured in a car crash and had had skin grafts over nearly 80% of her body. The story was about being comfortable in your skin.

*A health editor trying to write about a little-covered eating disorder that is more fatal but less "glamorous" than anorexia and bulimia (ED-NOS, eating disorder-not otherwise specified) and being told by one of her higher-ups that because nobody knew about it, they shouldn't write about it.

*A beauty writer saying "Can't we just tell them to use soap and water?" in a fit of exasperation when the product she was supposed to be pushing cost over $40 and didn't do squat. (The question, we both knew, was rhetorical in that world.)

*Staff members protesting when they were told--not asked--to be photographed to be candidates for "staff makeovers," which showed up in the magazine pages. "I'm fine with the way I dress," said a staffer who lived in sweaters, jeans, and sneakers. "And I don't want millions of women judging me for it."

*A writer who was crushed, and furious, when her editor said that the subjects she had picked for a story about inspirational life turnarounds weren't "relatable" to the reader; she knew it was a superficially kind way of saying "not pretty enough." (I was once featured in a glossy mag, but was only photographed for it after the designer of the page had come by to snap a Polaroid of me to prove to the editor that I was "pretty enough" to be pictured. The article in question? I'd won the staff brownie contest.)

I'm not trying to make excuses for women's magazines; I'm trying to list ways in which I've seen that the very people responsible for stuff I consider damaging are on the right side. (You know, my side.) I stopped blaming the individuals years ago--not just to protect my sanity (by working at these magazines, I'm a part of it too, after all), but because I saw daily, firsthand proof of what Gloria Steinem was writing about in the essay from which this blog takes its name. The machine of women's magazines will never change. The best we can do is move on.

Superbad Superbowl

I'm just as disgusted as the next feminist by this year's Superbowl ads. What's striking me more than the rotten way women were portrayed in the alternate universe of SuperbowlLand is the way the target audience--men, presumably--was depicted.

The Dodge Charger ad begins with men talking about not women, but The Man. The actors were shown giving a litany of promises: I will be at work by 8 a.m.; I will sit through two-hour meetings. It quickly becomes clear that being good middle managers is only part of the deal, though, as the list grows to include "watching your vampire movies," recycling, and other things we're supposed to see as tedium.

I often wonder who these sorts of overtly pandering ads are pandering to, exactly, since nobody I normally hang out with thinks that way, at least not openly. I watched the Bowl with three men, all of whom are thirtysomething beer-drinking football lovers--the Bowl's target audience--and the irony of hearing them groan just as loudly as I did at these ads was not lost on me. But reading reactions from car geeks and Twitter reactionaries (annoyed Tweeters appeared to be men and women in equal measures) revealed that it wasn't just my little self-selected group of men who were turned off by the blatant appeals to an outdated mode of thinking.

I'm guessing that the thinking of the ads creators went something like this: The economy ain't so hot >> men's status as breadwinners is suddenly in jeopardy >> ergo, men must be in an ENORMOUS PANIC about this >> let's assure them they're still men by getting them to spend money on these terrifically masculine products >> Dove body wash. (I bring this up not because body wash is gendered, but because the ad, even in pushing a product that has feminine connotations, relied on such lazy stereotyping of what it means to be a man--this from a company that has done some decent work in trying to show a more authentic version of its customers than most companies would dare. The Dove ad was by far the least gross of the don't-worry-you're-still-totally-dudely genre, but still.)

But what is so shortsighted about this is how A) outdated, and B) erroneous it is. Let's look at the erroneous part first: Yes, men have lost out financially more than women in this recession. But the logical way to assure dudes that they're still manly is not to tell them to either spend more money or treat women as the enemy: It's to widen and reconstruct what manhood is. Any man who has been in an equitable relationship that is supported by his peers knows it's a helluva lot more fun to have partner-as-partner, not partner-as-enemy. And you know what? Women who don't act as harpies and rip men's balls out via forced Twilight viewings? We, too, like to have sex, and it will be more fun than it would be with the constructed harpy, because neither party will secretly be dreading the act. (I'd bring up other benefits of equitable relationships--relationship health, stability--but as we learned from the Megan Fox Motorola ad, really all men can think about is sex anyway.) As for the other things that are supposedly culturally castrating men--the job, the recycling, the responsibility--those are no longer merely the province of men.

Which leads me to how outdated this line of thinking is. I'm reading The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight From Commitment by Barbara Ehrenreich, which was written in 1987. It's, in part, about how constructed masculinity led to the epidemic of middle-aged crises among men, during which our fathers and grandfathers supposedly ran out, bought sports cars, and had affairs. I haven't finished the book yet so can't say what Ehrenreich's thesis is and how it stands up to today, but what's striking me is how much of what she's writing about applies to everyone now. Most women are in the work force now and are often the sole breadwinner. Escapist fantasies written by and for women in the '50s and '60s--when the men of 1987 were growing up--by and large reflected a desire to escape the monotony and drudgery of housewifery, because that was the feminine sphere then. There's no absence of that kind of tale today, but there's acknowledgement that women's lives outside of the home can feel like a trap too. I'm imagining an ad geared toward a unisex audience using the Dodge Charger premise: A series of close-ups of men and women listing the series of compromises they are willing to make in the world at large so that they can have this one amazing thing that will make them feel glad to be alive. That ad would be able to keep the marginally creative conceit without assuming that the audience secretly hates their lives. Hell, if you must, you could even still make it gendered by adding in the sort of daily work that is still often left to women (diapers come to mind). It's still gross on a consumerist level (whose life is made better for longer than a week by having a really cool car?), but it's not offensive.

I also don't think that the men-trapped-by-their-lives idea the commercials were promoting is as effective in 2010. Generation X supposedly created the nation of prolonged adolescence, without shame. Much of what Ehrenreich addresses as the cause for the flight from commitment is our idea of what constitutes "maturity," which doesn't have much latitude according to the rules that she cites. But with men and women getting married and having children considerably later in life, and with "bachelor" no longer being a euphemism for "homosexual"--indeed, "bachelor" now has a ring of glamour to it--men who once would have been considered hopelessly flighty or immature because they're choosing not to "settle down" now seem normal. As I wrote above, women are just as tired of men as the corporate grind--but more importantly, tales of alternate, noncorporate lifestyles aren't exactly hard to find these days. We're supposed to take glee in the fact that even though we may be married and bear children and maybe even actually like our boyfriend or girlfriend or husband or wife, we're still cool--isn't that why Judd Apatow movies exist? Isn't that why people liked Juno? Because they prove that we're different somehow from our yuppie parents? Maybe the answer is that as Generation X ages, we realize that we're not any different--maybe the Dodge ad is more relevant than I want to acknowledge.

There's another big loser in the Superbowl, besides men, women, and the Colts: creativity. I really couldn't care less about football; I watched it for what was supposed to be the showcase of America's collective advertising talent. (And for The Who. Which, really? No. Just, no.) I don't think the process of advertising can ever truly be creative, but from journalism school I do know that there are some brilliant creative minds working in advertising, and this was supposed to be their time to shine. I remember watching the hysterical Emerald Nuts commercial during the Superbowl a few years ago and thinking for the first time that maybe I was actually missing out on occasion by not watching more television ads. Last night, I kept waiting for the "real" ads to start--many of the ones that weren't ugly with sexism were just confusing instead of clever (why was there a whale? why was he pretending to be dead while eating Doritos?) or plain old boring (Shape-Up shoes couldn't have come up with something remotely clever?); and according to my fellow viewers, several of the ads weren't new at all. I get that this was a tough year for advertising, but c'mon! When Charles Barkley offers the evening's best non-football performance, something is amiss. At least he was just lovin' on tacos, not hating on women. Or himself.