Saturday, October 30, 2010

Fat-Hating and Eating Disorders

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

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

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

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

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

But then I remember my mother and the mustard cape.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Long Hair on Older Women

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

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

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

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

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.