The Beauty of Fandom

I was walking on my way to work early this morning and passed a bar, which was already open.  Sitting there was a woman all alone — literally.  In the whole place, no one was there but her!  She was wearing a soccer jersey (I couldn’t identify the team or country as I am terribly sports-challenged) and staring intently at the World Cup game on the TV.  It was definitely an odd sight.  But at second glance I was struck with how beautiful it was as well.
Sports are a wonderful thing.  Not only do they promote physical activity but they sublimate our warring instinct.  In fact, if you examine the pre-game rituals of some countries, you’ll find they are reinterpreting dances and costumes used to prepare for battle.  But another way to look at it is that sports invoke a sense of loyalty among all of us.  And loyalty is a wonderful, beautiful thing!  Of course people can be loyal to the wrong people or organizations sometimes, but loyalty signifies a human being’s potential for love, community and willingness to sacrifice for others.
So let’s revel in the World Cup…as long as we’re rooting for USA of course!


Erasing the Past

I was sitting in my plastic surgeon’s office yesterday (now, don’t start visualizing images of body dysmorphism, I’ll explain why I was there in a bit…) seeing the results of major sun damage via one of those special cameras that can see beneath the skin’s layers.  And let me tell you, the image wasn’t pretty.
Why was I at a plastic surgeon’s office?  Well, I actually interviewed Dr. Amiya Prasard a few months ago to get an understanding of his patients’ hopes and desires when it comes to their appearances.  Given that he deals with the extreme measures of transformation, I thought he could shed some interesting light on the matter.  Indeed he did and I’ll share his insights in a coming post.
Now back to my sun-damaged skin.  The doctor was quite astute in showing me these images.  He was, in effect, acting as a prophet by letting me know that the skin damage would continually come to the surface in my future.  I’m not naive.  I know that medicine is a business as well as a calling, and I was a potential customer.  But I couldn’t resist: “Can it be reversed?” I asked/prayed.  “Yes, it can.”  I was hooked.  Not only could I prevent more damage or cover it up, I could go back in time and erase it! I was ready to roll.
This notion isn’t new.  Skin care companies talk about reversing the signs of aging often.  But it struck me at that point that there are very few parts of our lives that we actually CAN reverse.  Can I take away the hours slaving away on a pitch instead of spending time with my children?  Can I reverse the hurt I caused one of my best friends?   No.  Now sometimes that’s a good thing because these experiences teach us something. And they force us to see that there are consequences to our actions. But I would still prefer to have done these – and many other – things differently.
Perhaps my eagerness to take immediate action on my skin isn’t just to protect (or reclaim) my youthful looks.  Maybe it’s a form of catharsis.  It’s a way to erase at least one mistake when I’m powerless to erase all the other, more significant ones.

Modesty Made Fashionable

Source: Azizah Magazine

In a recent edition of Azizah magazine, an American-Muslim magazine for women, there was a spread of a beautiful fashion show.  Instead of rail-thin models prancing back and forth in amazing but often sexy haute couture outfits, the show featured Muslim women in bright, even funky but also modest outfits.  Not only were their bodies adorned from toe to fingertip but their heads were covered too!
Coincidentally, The Los Angeles Times reported a similar story about all the new sources of fashionable, “modest-wear.”  The article quotes Tabyyibah Taylor, the publisher and editor of Azizah Magazine saying, “In Islam, hijab (synonymous with the head scarf) allows us to identify ourselves as being on a spiritual path, but we can also be on a spiritual path and have flair.”
The Muslim community isn’t alone in establishing their own fashion lines based on religious rules and restrictions.  Hasidic communities in the U.S. frequent stores that design clothing to fit their levels of modesty, e.g., long-sleeved dresses that hit below the knees, high cut blouses and head scarves or wigs to cover their hair.
U.S. fashion and beauty trends have been influenced by powerful ethnic groups like Latinos and African-Americans — think rear boosting jeans or sneakers as dress-up shoes.  While the Muslim community is still small (though growing quickly, an estimated 7 million now reside in the U.S.), I wonder if their celebration of modest attire will capture this country’s imagination.  Head scarves can be kinda cool, no?

Beauty: A Birthright

“Beauty is my birthright.” This is a quote from an interview with a young Los Angeles woman.  These words are just fantastic to me because they totally capture how so many American women view beauty.  In my exploration of beauty in our culture, I have seen how women see it as something that ALL should be able to attain — just like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  True, most of us aren’t natural beauties.  But if we just  take a little time, spend a few bucks and work a bit, and we too can be beautiful.  None of us are destined to be unattractive! According to Lois Banner’s American Beauty this belief dates back even to the 19th century:  “In the innumerable analyses of beautiful women in the popular journals of day…the beauty advice was always the same: live right, eat right, exercise, and you will become beautiful.”
The other day I was talking to a friend who writes for beauty sites and her own beauty blog.  In an embarrassed voice she described a piece she was writing that helps people figure out how to flaunt their assets, e.g., legs, butt, neck, etc.  While I can see how she may have found the information in her piece a bit more shallow than, lets say, the BP spill or the latest battle in Afghanistan, let me tell ya, people still care a LOT about how to make their assets work for them.  Why?  Because it’s something all of us can do to fulfill our “birthright.” By the way, isn’t it interesting that we all use the term “assets” to define our best beauty parts?  Like it or not, we know how valuable — economically and otherwise — our beauty is!
The downside to this democratic attainment of beauty, though, is that we may spend too much time trying to fulfill it since we think that there’s no reason NOT to have it.  And the competitive among us can end up wasting a lot of energy (emotional and physical) pushing that much farther to be even more beautiful.
Still, I’d much rather live in a society where everyone has a chance at anything:  success, love, beauty, you name it.  With July 4th nearing, let’s celebrate the freedom to be happy, healthy and, yes, beautiful — and maybe even pick some bronzer along with the sparklers and hot dog rolls.

The Beauty of Bifocals

Yes, you can be more attractive the older you get! I’m not trying to be PC here, and I’m not referring to inner beauty, i.e., wisdom, perspective, and mellowness, that comes with the maturing process (though I do believe that’s beautiful too!).  No, I’m literally saying: the older you are, the more beautiful you get.
Let me explain.  I was preparing for a meeting with some female executives and as it often happens, the conversation turned to beauty.  A very attractive woman in her 50’s whom I had just met an hour earlier was celebrating the fact that her boyfriend is farsighted — a typical bi-product of his age.  The result?  He can’t see the scars or blemishes (plastic surgery related or otherwise) on her body when they’re in bed and naked!
Now I haven’t found any scholarly reports on the positive effect of farsightedness on perceptions of beauty but the idea seems to make sense to me.  Good thing my husband is 9 years older than me!
Now what happens if you’re dating a younger man?  Ah, that’s where mood lighting comes in.

A Legal Approach to Beauty

My mother (and undoubtedly the biggest fan of my blog) alerted me to a book review in last weekend’s New York Times.  The subject of the review, The Beauty Bias: The Injustices of Appearance in Life and Law, by Deborah L. Rhode, investigates the legal issues surrounding appearance and the behaviors we all indulge in, e.g., diets, tight shoes and cosmetics, to maintain or perfect it.
I really look forward to reading the book whenever I get off my butt and head over to the nearest Borders.  It’s great that there is a voice for appearance discrimination. But midway through the review, the journalist references the perils we women subject ourselves to for beauty, like ruined backs from high heels or thinner wallets thanks to expensive wrinkle creams.  When I read this, I got a little annoyed.  Like most decisions in our lives, the desire to pursue that which enhances our beauty isn’t simple.  Women don’t beautify just because they are enslaved by cultural norms or men’s expectations.  For example, high heels may be in style or amplify our sexuality.  But I wear them because they make me feel powerful, strong and confident.  I enjoy how they look on and how they add a bit of zip to the typical black outfit I wear to work.  As Debra Gimlin states in Body Works, women negotiate the rules and expectations of beauty to create a meaningful solution for themselves.
After my initial reaction to the review, though, I was really inspired by Rhode’s efforts to focus on these issues simply because she’s taking the role of looks seriously.  So many women choose to stay away from this topic because it seems too girly.  But, as the sheer number of beauty blogs, magazines, TV shows and products indicates, beauty is serious business. It means a lot to people and, whether we like it now, it profoundly affects them – positively and negatively.  Kudos to Rhode for tackling the topic and making people seriously take notice of it.


Miss USA: A Pageant of Beauties or Buffoons?

I was on my way to Los Angeles Sunday night and caught the Miss USA beauty pageant on the plane. While I was very proud that our standards of beauty have broadened so much that the first Arab-American was crowned, I was still cringing the whole time. The contestants were certainly attractive, and I’m sure very savvy, driven, and resourceful (or they wouldn’t have gotten this far). But the show was designed to make the women seem ridiculous. Not only did the women parade around in a highly dramatic fashion but in the pageant’s attempt to include intelligence and eloquence as criteria, the women ended up fueling the pretty airhead image people have  of  good looking women.  These women had one minute to answer thorny questions that top politicians, economists, or social theorists struggle with. I mean, come on!  How on earth can these women appear intelligent when the pageant is designed (intentionally or not) to make them appear downright stupid?
Poise and eloquence have been a part of these pageants for decades, and I appreciate the attempt of the pageant to reflect our need to see women as more than pretty mannequins. But it backfires.  All it does is actually reinforce the notion that beauty MUST be associated with stupidity.  Let me explain.  My 6-year old son, Boaz, is an awesome chess player, and just last weekend he set a record for his school at the national championship  in Atlanta. Why do I bring this up?  At his tournament he was asked to play chess. That’s it. He wasn’t expected to show off his throwing arm or his musical abilities. He was born with a skill that he has honed over the past few years thanks to my husband’s tutelage (I can’t play for my life by the way!) The tournament was his chance to test his skill and have some fun. He certainly has other talents.  He knows how to make friends fast, he acts out dramatic battles with his brother and he’s very loving to his sister.  But there was no expectation that he reflect these abilities at the tournament.
Like my son, these pageant contestants were born with a gift: beauty.  And I’m sure, no, I know, they have other gifts.  Surely they are highly disciplined, have a strong work ethic and a gift for persuasion to get so many people to support them.  But why must a beauty contest be anything more than what it is? The focus on beauty isn’t implying that these women are ONLY beautiful. Just as my son’s tournament isn’t implying that he’s defined solely by chess. In fact, by adding more “talents” to the criteria list, the pageant is belittling beauty.  And, like I said before, the additional criteria force these women to appear ludicrous. Let’s face it, if you asked a bunch of adult chess players these same questions in front of millions of viewers, do you think they could answer them brilliantly in 60 seconds or less?
I have nothing against pageants.  They have been part of our history for centuries and have served many women over the years.  Pageants elevated women out of their often poor socio-economic stations back in the 19th century (see Lois Banner’s American Beauty for more detail) and, decades later, gave many the means to go to college.  In essence they’ve actually empowered women. While some women get scholarships because they were born with a talent for shooting hoops, there’s no reason others shouldn’t be rewarded for their innate talent to attract others.
That being said, if someone asked me whether I’d be willing to prepare my daughter for and encourage her participation in beauty pageants, I would probably say no.  Partly because it’s so hard for me to imagine, as she’s a big tomboy (thanks to having very “boyish” brothers.) But really I think it’s because I’m affected by  the very prejudice that I’m decrying.  I don’t want her to be labeled vain, frivolous and stupid.  I would want her to put her time against more cerebral pursuits, especially because she’s a girl.  While women’s power has grown exponentially in so many spheres — take Elena Kagen as a recent example –- I’m still holding on to that itch to prove we can do stuff just as well as, if not better than, the boys.
Perhaps my reluctance has a lot to do with HOW the contestants are portrayed and how beauty is being defined.  Why must the contestants always look so posed and happy?  Why can’t we get a true sense of who these women really are and how hard they worked to get to this point? Perhaps they could do real video grabs of their prep experiences where they actually appear human. Or perhaps the shows could mix up the segments so that we see the contestants dressed in fashions from different cultures. Beauty isn’t dumb, though the means by which we present it may be.
As Nancy Etcoff in Survival of the Prettiest points out, we’re not going to stop desiring and being fascinated by beauty. And if there are people out there who can empower themselves through it, why  ridicule and demean them?  It just makes  those who cultivate their beauty, gain from it, and display it, i.e.. our pageant contestants, seem stupid when they are actually just following the American dream of pushing oneself and using all available resources to succeed. Let’s continue to celebrate beauty, but let’s call for a new format: one that respects these beautiful women and gives them a forum to truly succeed.


Ah, French women

I have to confess, I have a major “girl crush” on my new French colleagues.   They are in their mid-forties, smart, statuesque, thin and have great style.  At a reasonable  5 ft 5 in, I feel like a munchkin compared to them.  They appear so sensual, womanly and edgy at the same time.  Oh yeah, they make is all seem SO effortless.  If I could just bottle all that class and beauty,  I’d make a killing!
I’m certainly not the first person to wax poetic about the particular beauty of the French.   I mean, how many of you haven’t read French Women Don’t Get Fat? Recently Jessica Simpson investigated French women for one of her episodes of The Price of Beauty (a pretty good show by the way).  We’re raised to see them as the icons of beauty and style.  If you look at historical sources on beauty, you’ll see that American women looked to Paris for fashion and beauty trends even back in the 1700’s and 1800’s.
I don’t pretend to know their secrets.  Yes, you can dissect their wardrobe, beauty regimen, diet and bone structure and extract some good tips.  But what I’ve seen that’s most inspiring is their attitude.  Forget the cliché of French snobishness.  That’s not what I mean.  And, honestly, I’ve only experienced warmth and collaboration from the French women I’ve encountered.  What I’m referring to is a general ease with themselves.  Their overall lack of pretense and comfort with their own individual beauty and their overall selves is palpable.  I read a blog post about a year ago on the difference between French and American women and it spoke of how French women “think of themselves as bodies in motion….the average well-dressed Frenchwoman produces an impression of much more elegance in person than can really be captured in a static photograph.”  American women, in contrast, “assemble themselves in front of a mirror and construct a very static image of beauty.” (Pandalous)   The French approach is so much more natural because the human experience is one of motion not of stasis.  When I refer to natural I don’t mean that they are devoid of make-up and grooming.  Au contraire!  I mean they are true to themselves and don’t try to be anyone else.  They are loose, human and full of authentic emotion and energy.  In posts from France I saw even more ammo for this.  In a French blog called: Au Secoures, j’amie la mode!, a  young women writes: (translated from French) “We just need to be natural and not to feel insecure with ourselves.  Charm makes all the beauty of a person.”
As trite as this may sound, I don’t think we all truly believe it.  So many of us are insecure and we feel we need to be more poised, or more eloquent, or more sophisticated.  Certainly I’ve felt this many times.  Following their example requires us to relearn a lot.  It means loosening up a little and not guarding our emotions, thoughts and energy so much.  If we do that I really think we could start capturing some of that amazing French “je ne sais quoi.”
Now, if I could only learn how to tie my scarves just so…

Beauty is beautiful

When someone compliments how you look — your new shoes, your new haircut, your big eyes, your feminine figure, how often do you accept the compliment with a simple “thank you”?  If you’re like me, not often.  I usually respond with some self-deprecating, amusing retort.  Of course there are moments when I know that I look like hell and assume that the compliments are just a courtesy.  But most of the time I brush off such praise because I feel uncomfortable agreeing with it.  Why?  One reason is that this lack of acceptance reflects the complicated relationship we women have with beauty.  We don’t want to be totally defined by it, and yet we know it’s critical to catching a guy (or gal), impressing clients and navigating certain social circles.  (And I will surely dig into this conflict in my blog at a later date — stay tuned!)  But more fundamentally, I truly believe that we have a general unease with beauty — our own or even the beauty of others.
This unease with our beauty probably springs from our Calvinistic heritage which promoted hard work, economic progress and efficiency.  Interest in and attention to beauty only gets in the way.  It’s frivolous.  Combine this with our Puritan background that eschews anything too dramatic and flagrant, and the result is a long-standing expectation to downplay our beauty.
To this day the pursuit of beauty is often considered superficial and wasteful when there are so many more critical issues to tackle and problems to solve.  Interestingly, this notion of beauty as frivolous arose in a recent interview with Harvard Business School professor, Geoffrey Jones, who just published a book on the history of the beauty industry, Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Business. In the interview Jones is asked why the industry has been neglected by business school faculty.  He first cites the fragmentation and mystique of the industry as a reason.  He then states: “(T)here is the frequently observed gender bias in business school faculty.  I suspect male faculty, who comprised the majority in most schools until quite recently, regarded this industry as a feminine domain and rather frivolous.” (The History of Beauty, HBS Working Knowledge.)  In fact, the sheer dearth of scholarly explorations of beauty is also a testament to this.  There’s certainly been a number feminist critiques of the beauty industry, but I can count with my fingers the number of academic deep dives into the definition and role of beauty in our culture.  (I’ve listed a few below.)
But is this lack of respect for the pursuit of beauty truly serving society?  Are we better people for it? We spend countless hours and billions of dollars beautifying ourselves.  And if the past millennia tell us anything, it’s that we’re not going to stop this quest for beauty.  It’s important, gratifying and transformative.  So why must we consider it frivolous?  There’s no question that we shouldn’t focus entirely on outward appearance.  As kids we were taught not to judge a book by its cover and to look for inner beauty.  I’m certainly not rejecting this advice.  But it’s time to celebrate beauty!  It’s time to view beauty not as the inhibitor of progress but an inspiration for it.  Yes, it’s elusive and even magical but that doesn’t make it any less worthy. If anything it is extremely worthy!  Beauty begets more beauty.  It’s no coincidence that many places of worship are beautiful.  Beauty can lift our spirits.  Beauty can enlighten.  Beauty can even bring us closer to our spiritual selves.  I’m not arguing that buying the latest eyeliner or self-tanning lotion necessarily will turn us into more enlightened, spiritual beings.  But I am saying we should feel good of our pursuit of beauty, as beauty is a wonderful thing.  We should enjoy it and celebrate our individual beautiful selves.  And we should acknowledge and celebrate the beauty of our friends, colleagues, family members, lovers and even those we pass on the street.  To quote Nancy Etcoff in her Survival of the Prettiest (one of the few academic investigations of beauty I wrote about earlier), “How to live with beauty and bring it back into the realm of pleasure is a task for the twenty-first-century…the solution cannot be to give up a realm of pleasure and power that has been with us since the beginning of time.” p. 27.
So, I hope the next time someone praises your beauty, you accept the compliment with happiness, satisfaction and pride.  And I’ll try to do the same.



Some “light” reading:
Survival of the Prettiest Nancy Etcoff
Dress Codes, Ruth Rubenstein

Introduction: Why Beauty? Why now?

It was my 38th birthday yesterday and I gave myself that day (or a day or two afterward as unforeseen events  do happen, like my daughter coming down with an ear infection) to start this blog.  Why my birthday?  Well, it’s obviously a key date on my calendar but actually I chose the date because of the significance of getting one year older as a woman in America.  For most of us, one year older  means more accomplishments under our belts, another adventure taken, a bunch of failures and successes.  But it also signifies getting closer to losing a sacred part of all of us: our beauty. Of course one could argue that beauty doesn’t diminish with age but rather alters, even improves with it.  But lets face it, we live in a culture where youth is held on to for as long as possible.
And yet, this year, I don’t feel that sense of dread.  For one thing, I can’t help but believe that our perspective on beauty has and will continue to evolve as our roles in society change.  After all, for the first time ever American women outnumber men in the workforce.  That should say something!   But the reason I feel so differently this birthday is that I’ve spent the last year or so digging into the complexity, the fun, the mystery, the scariness, and the role of beauty in American women’s lives.  In this process I have developed a deep fascination with and a profound respect for the pursuit of beauty.  In reality, though, this journey began as an young girl (as it does with all of us) when I experienced the joy of dressing up, or felt the complex emotions that come with the reactions of others — either positive or negative — to my appearance, or when I would hear the message that looks are much less important than brains.  And like any other woman, this journey with beauty will never end.  But now, thanks to what I do for a living and my recent concentrated effort in understanding the role of beauty, I feel that I will face this journey with more insight and excitement.
I’ve been fortunate enough to look back into the history of beauty in our country, examine our relationship to it versus that of other cultures, and view beauty through the lens of American values.  I’ve had the privilege to talk at length with women around the country about their definition of beauty and get perspectives from experts as well.  And because this topic is so complex and multi-faceted, I continue to investigate the role, definitions and expressions of beauty with different people, through different means and with a new set of eyes everyday.
Please join me on my blog as I share what I’ve learned and continue to learn throughout this journey.  And I encourage all of you to share your thoughts, musings and observations as well!  Since it’s still my birthday (in a way), I will finish the evening with my family and dig into the study of beauty in my next post.