A Pretty Pardon

As you can imagine, I come across a ton of wild news stories every day while scouring the web.  But this one takes the cake.  The Associated Press published a story about an ex-North Korean spy meeting with families of Japanese kidnapping victims.  The abductees were taken by the North Korean government in the late 80’s.  Her role is to inform Japanese agents about her former regime (AP Article).
Why was this story so compelling?  Sure, spies have always intrigued me.   But what threw me for a loop was that years ago this spy, Kim Hyon-hui, was convicted of blowing up a South Korean jet killing 115 people, and was then sentenced to death only to be pardoned, at least in part, because of her “classic good looks.”  Huh?!  Her beauty won the sympathy of the court.  Seriously.
I kept re-reading the story because it was so bizarre to me.  There’s no question that beauty can propel people forward in life, but help earn a pardon for a heinous crime?  Wow!  Deborah Rhode, author of the Beauty Bias: The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law, (see my post from June 6, Beauty Discrimination: Finally Fighting Back) must be having a field day.
The good news, though, is that Hyon-hui could have stopped there and lived a normal life as a hottie that got away with it.  But she defied the “beautiful people are dumb myth,” becoming a best-selling author of books about her experiences as a spy.  And now, she is working for the “good guys,” using her background to try to save lives.  In a way, you could say her beauty wasn’t, ultimately, a vehicle for injustice but an instrument for good.

The Power of the Power Dress

Power Dressing

Yesterday was a day of mourning for the Jewish people.  The holiday, Tisha B’Av (9th day of Jewish month of Av), commemorates the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem and the exile of the Jewish people.  While you can go about your normal routine (work, shop, take care of the kids), you’re supposed to be reminded of the suffering of the past in many ways (no eating, drinking, bathing, wearing leather shoes or anointing one’s self) and, hopefully, strive to become a better person.
I took part in this ritual.  Was I hungry or thirsty?  A bit.  But how did I truly suffer?  I had to go to work and interact with colleagues without any make-up!  You never realize how powerful a basic tool is when you can’t have it.  I definitely felt off my “game.”  Alas, not all was terrible.  To compensate for my insecurity, I wore an amazing dress (an H&M find!).  It wasn’t an elaborate piece but I knew it looked pretty darn good.  I was amazed how much wearing that simple dress gave me the emotional, even physical strength (perhaps I was imaging that physical part) to “perform” throughout the day.
When prepping for a big presentation I usually see the outfit and make-up as the final touch only.  Sure it’s important how I look.  I’m in the ad biz after all and market beauty brands for a living.  But I still take for granted the awesome impact that my appearance has on my sense of confidence and esteem.
Certainly yesterday’s fast reminded me of my people’s history and the need to develop my character, thoughts and actions – my inner identity.  All the various prohibitions really bring this home.  But I also learned just how important my appearance – my external identity – is to me.  This certainly doesn’t mean I’ll always attempt to look good – just ask my husband about the threadbare sweatshirt I wear to bed. But it did push me to wear something a little more special today.

Taking Beauty Seriously

Last week The New York Times published an article (Frenchwomen’s Secrets to Aging) revealing how and why French women seem to age so well compared to us Americans.   The article cited many of the same themes I’ve brought up in a number of my posts: confidence, self-care, effortlessness, etc.  What is really interesting to me, though, isn’t so much the content of the piece but the actual publication of the story and the subsequent reactions to it (Readers’ Comments).
True, the article was published in the Style section of the paper but the fact that it was published at all shows me that one of the most reputable news sources in the world recognizes the importance of beauty.  And this is proved by the almost 300 responses to the article by the well-read, highly-educated sort that reads the Times.   In other words, people REALLY care about looking great, no matter their age or intellectual capabilities.  Of course the latest economic and political news reports should take precedence over a list of beauty secrets,  but it’s great that the Times realizes that people’s concern for beauty isn’t just fun but truly serious stuff.

Reproducing Beauty

A few weeks ago a flood of articles were published about the dating site, Beautifulpeople.com.  Why?  The site has launched a sperm bank for people who want to have “beautiful” offspring (juicy articles).  The site’s primarily role is to match beautiful people with other beautiful people.  The criteria are so strict that some people who’ve gained weight or just got plain uglier were kicked off!
I have to confess.  I am conflicted about the whole thing.  There are many dating sites directed at particular groups of people, e.g., the very successful jdate.com where Jewish men and women “meet up”.  Let’s face it, we filter people in or out of our lives depending on religion, educational level, profession and even appearance.  It may not always be conscious but it happens.  And certainly, when it comes to dating, appearance is one of the biggest factors.
In terms of the beautiful sperm bank,  the notion of choosing sperm donors because of traits like appearance isn’t new. Why, then, are we up in arms about this story?  Some cried “eugenics” in response to the story and others who see beauty as purely subjective and viewed the notion of choosing sperm donors based on beauty as ridiculous.  What makes me most uncomfortable is that appearance seems to be the PREDOMINANT criteria of sperm selection for this sperm bank.  As I’ve stated throughout my blog, I believe beauty should be celebrated and pursued.  But not at the expense of education, charity, productivity or fun.  And, as a mother, I can say that kids’ looks are WAY down the list of concerns once you’re in the throes of dragging them to school, trying to teach fractions, nursing a terrible ear ache, cheering their soccer goals, taking away their desserts or managing any of the other thousands of child rearing activities.
I’m all for allowing people to decide how they want to choose their mates and even breed.  I just hope that they realize that what truly makes children beautiful isn’t the cute new outfit or long locks but their amazing potential for love, imagination, perseverance, and humor.

One More Minute Please

I was smearing my favorite and extremely hard-to-come by moisturizer by Trish McEvoy over my body this morning.  (Just as an aside, you can’t get the scented version anymore so I hoarded 5 bottles about a year ago thanks to a personal shopper on the look out for me.  Now back to the smearing story…) No, this isn’t the start of some erotic video but rather a typical scene from my actual morning routine.  As you can imagine with 3 kids and a hectic work schedule, my mornings are ANYTHING but languid.  So I’m always “speed dressing” and never spend more than 4 minutes on beautifying.  But today something different happened: I actually spent an extra minute massaging the moisturizer on my legs.  In that extra minute I was reminded of the tremendous value of self-care.
Let me explain.  A few months ago I interviewed Ying Chu, the beauty and health director of Marie Claire, and asked her whether American women approach beauty differently than European women. She told me a story of being in France a few weeks earlier with a number of American and French colleagues.  They were asked if they would take a pill that immediately took care of all their daily beauty routines.  The Americans jumped on it but the French said no way.
No surprise. We Americans want immediate results with little effort.  Who wants to work hard anyway?
The French don’t see beautification as work but view it as a form of, in the words of my good friend and Anthropologist, Tom Maschio, “self-care.”  For many French women their bodies aren’t detached objects to be prepared for public appearance but, rather, are inextricably linked to the self.  And every part of the body — appendage, organ, secretion, etc., function together harmoniously.  Beautification, i.e., the act of massaging, applying, fixing, plucking, whatever the actual activity, isn’t just a means to an end but an act of health care and self-love.
Unfortunately our relationship with our bodies is more distant.  We tend to see the parts of our body as separate from our own selves.  And, as Tom pointed out to me, we see our secretions (sweat, menstrual flow, mucus) as bad.  They must be managed at all costs. And, let’s face it, spending too much time taking care of our bodies in the form of massages, facials, make-up is considered an indulgence.  Think of the language we use to describe self-care: maintain, treat, transform.  Very objectifying, no? Like our bodies are machines.
Some good news.  Things are changing.  With the growing interest in Eastern medicine and holistic health, and the influences from other cultures, we are becoming much more aware and respectful of our bodies.  And we’re beginning to recognize the tremendous value in caring for them.  We just need to be reminded of this more often.
So the next time you reach for the jar of moisturizer try not to schmear it on in record time, but consider showing some love to your body, and ultimately, yourself.  Just don’t go for the almost extinct Trish McEvoy stuff!

Is Cute Beautiful?

Last Saturday the New York Times published an article about the growing trend of wearing eye-enlarging contact lenses (What Big Eyes You Have, Dear, but Are Those Contacts Risky?)  The main thrust of the story was that despite the lack of FDA oversight, the sale of these lenses continues to rise.  As critical as this concern over contraband lenses is (no doctor supervision necessary), I’m feeling another type of concern altogether.
While Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” video and Michelle Phan’s How-To video (both referenced in the article) may have spurred the interest in American women’s fascination with the effect these lenses give, the desire for big eyes originates in Asia.  Big eyes appear more “Caucasian” and “cute”, or ke’ai.  Many Asian Americans are adopting this trend as they increasingly look to Asia for beauty ideas that are more relevant to their facial and body types.  But women of other ethnic backgrounds are adopting it too. I’m all for sharing trends across the globe, but I wonder whether we women – Asian American or otherwise — should really be striving to be cute?  When I think of cuteness I think of submission, childishness, weakness, lack of respect from men, and the list goes on.
There’s been some recent interesting commentary on Asian women’s usage of cuteness in Asian countries to actually maneuver in, if not resist, the highly chauvinistic cultures they’re subjected to (The Power of Cuteness: Female Infantilization in Taiwan by Tzu-i Chuang).  The blog, The View from Taiwan , states “whereas before women were unconsciously but fully acculturated to acting cute, now they act cute because of the power it gives them over men, and because they are aware of the social advantages.”  So, perhaps we could argue the big eye lens trend is a symbol of that rebellion.  But I fear we American women may not truly understand this aspect of the trend and could be just channeling a young, girlish attitude.
On the other hand, the ability of American women to try on different looks – childish, sexual, sporty, masculine, which ever, may be the ultimate sign of empowerment rather than submissiveness.  The debates around how we portray ourselves seem to continually take place.  In fact, just last week the New York Times ran a piece about Lady Gaga’s overt sexuality in her videos (Lady Power).  It questioned whether Lady Gaga’s sexual behavior  furthers the objectification of women or, on the opposite end of the spectrum,  speaks to female power.   As you can imagine the subsequent posts were heated.  Perhaps the desire for cuteness represents neither side of the coin but just symbolizes a break from the pressure to be the Alpha girls we’re expected to be.  Whatever the reason, I say go ahead and look cute – it’s ultimately our right and choice to look how we want.  Just make sure to get a prescription 🙂

The Beauty of Luxury

My colleague, Nathalie, and I spent two days hobnobbing with luxury marketers at a conference called Luxury Interactive.  As you can probably tell from the name of the event, the conference focused on how the luxury industry can take full advantage of the digital space.  Nathalie is a real cool cat.  She’s French but has lived and worked in NYC for years.  Because she and I are working to grow our luxury, beauty and fashion practice,  we were asked to give a presentation on the first day of the conference.  Our spiel, in a nutshell, was to convince our luxury friends to elevate the importance of their digital efforts.

My favorite part of our little talk was when we advised our audience to bring the dream to life across all touch points, e.g., in-store, online, via an email. Huh?  You’re probably scratching your head right now.  What I mean is that the true beauty of luxury is that it allows us to express our dreams and aspirations.  For example, I may dream of being a French aristocrat and get a taste of that dream every time I spritz Chanel #5 on my wrists.  Or I may dream of being a true gourmand and buy a Viking outdoor grill.  There’s no question that real luxury goods and services can command a high price because of scarcity, heritage, craftsmanship, and creativity.  But a lot of the value comes from something you can’t dissect into parts and labor.  All of the various components speak not just to our creature comforts or even just our sense of the aesthetic but to our deepest desires and dreams. 
Being reminded that we can dream and aspire to a better future (materially and otherwise), is and vital to our sanity and happiness.  That’s certainly worth tons.  That’s the real beauty of luxury.

Thursday Nights in the Summer

There’s something special about Thursday nights in NYC during the summer.  If you were outside like I was last night (walking home from the office) you would have seen all the couples strolling to their various date destinations — restaurants, bars, hotels, clubs and the like.  It struck me how great it is to see men and women all dressed up for a night together.  With three kids and a full-time job I tend to be more of an observer of this behavior than a participant.  I’m sure many of these couples were still in their honeymoon phase — getting to know each other, trying to impress their date, or trying to look great when meeting their date’s friends for the first time.  But I’m sure many of these couples were also “long-timers,” that is they’ve been together for a while and there was no need to “impress” anymore.  And, yet, they still chose to go the extra mile to look fantastic.  What’s truly beautiful isn’t just that their hair, make-up and outfits looked amazing but that they chose to put effort into how they looked for each other. It was actually inspiring.  In a small way this effort symbolizes all the other things we do as couples to keep our love fun, fresh and thriving.  Looking beautiful for each other is a beautiful thing.
Now its my turn to go that extra mile.  Good thing I just got a new haircut 🙂

Seriously Fun

I was in Sephora over the weekend checking out what’s new.  I like to go in every so often to see what interesting brands have launched or just to get a new look.  I even bring along my daughter and we try out different perfumes or eye shadows together.  No question about it, Sephora is fun.  So much creativity to be had.  So much sensory delight to absorb.  But it’s not a relaxing sort of fun.  In fact it’s quite an intense experience.  The electricity is palpable. At any given second, women (and some men) are applying, undoing and reapplying colors with a ton of focus and energy.
Contrary to many opinions out there, make-up isn’t frivolous.  No way.  It’s pretty serious stuff.  It’s a way to express yourself, and that’s critical for self-esteem and personal development.  But, even more importantly, make-up can be transformative.  And the ability to transform is fundamental to being an American.  We should all have the ability to be whoever we want.  That’s what our forefathers and foremothers fought for centuries ago, and what all immigrants expect when they step into this country.  Of course we can’t necessarily change our personality, financial status or career overnight.  But with a bit of time, effort and cash we can change our appearance.  In the end, make-up isn’t just fun, creative or even gratifying.  It’s empowering. And no one can call power frivolous.


Wake Up, Dammit!

Remember my plastic surgeon?  In the short time I was there the other day, I picked up so many amazing nuggets.  I was waiting for the doctor to see me and “happened” to overhear tidbits of the conversation he was having with the patient next door to me.  It was obviously a follow-up visit because the doctor was appraising his “work” and asking the patient how he was feeling about his new look.  The doctor complimented the patient saying: “You definitely look refreshed now.” He clearly appeared more awake, more lively — like he had a good night sleep.  We heard similar language when we asked women around the country how they define beauty.  Many of them (particularly in NYC, I might add) used words like “awake,” “bright, sparkling eyes” and “not sleepy.
Isn’t it interesting how we define beauty as appearing reinvigorated and alert?  It makes perfect sense, as our culture values progress so highly.  It’s in our national DNA.  And how can we evolve, transform and create, create, create if we’re lethargic?  So, not only must we feel alert, we must look alert too.  But maybe it’s this work ethic that’s making us all feel and look so damn tired?!  If we just kicked back a bit, perhaps we wouldn’t have to pay someone all of our hard-earned money to make us look like we’re ready to take on the world.
Of course, as I’m saying this, I’m the last one in the office!  Oh well …