Want to End Violence Against Women? Start by Wearing Orange

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I had the privilege of attending an intimate lunch with an amazing group of accomplished and giving people at the U.N. the day before Thanksgiving.  The purpose of this luncheon was to commemorate the International Day to Eliminate Violence Against Women.  The gathering was hosted by the United Nations Trust Fund To End Violence Against Women and was kicked off by an event which included speeches, poetry readings and a panel.

This group’s mission is to “support(s) effective initiatives that demonstrate that violence against women and girls can be systematically addressed, reduced and, with persistence, eliminated….(It) has awarded USD 103 million to 393 initiatives in 136 countries and territories. The UN Trust Fund currently supports 95 programmes in 75 countries and territories with a value of USD 56 million.”

Of course I’m going to support this initiative!  I am fortunate enough to have been brought up in a loving environment and continue to live and work in safety.  But I also realize that there are many, many women — abroad and in our very own country — who live in harm’s way.  Imagine being under constant fear of sexual exploitation or being at high risk for HIV contraction because you live on the street in Eastern Europe?  Imagine living in Campbodia where a common form of punishment is acid being poured on your face, or if you were denied access to services after being sexually abused in South Sudan?  And the list of violent acts towards girls and women around the world goes on.

“What does this have to do with beauty?” you may be asking.  Certainly the subject seems so trivial in comparison to these UN’s initiatives.  Ah, but there is a connection.

The symbol of the commemoration was the color orange.  More than that, the event’s attendees were asked to wear something in the color.  Some people wore orange dresses or other pieces of clothing, like ties.  And if you didn’t have an orange garment, everyone was given a gift of a lovely orange scarf to wear.  I, too, received and wore one.  I’m sure most people didn’t think twice about donning it or why the very act of WEARING orange — not just having orange decorations and merchandise — is significant.  But it is.

What we choose to put on our bodies is important.  We don’t just wear clothing to shield our ourselves from the elements or to comply with social norms.  We wear what we do to tell a story — a story about ourselves, about our beliefs and about our hopes.  In fact, what we wear is often our first form of communication.  We are visual people.  Seeing is one of our first senses and certainly one of our most complex.  We compute information when we see it far faster than when we decode it via language. By my wearing the orange scarf and then posting the image to my social media networks (vs just tweeting a few words of encouragement), I undoubtedly caught people’s attention.  And by doing so, I both showed support for the cause, and, hopefully, prompted others to learn about the UN’s amazing projects.

But clothing doesn’t JUST communicate to others.  It reminds us of who we are and what we stand for.  It forces us to pay attention to our bodies and our personalities. When we ask, “does it fit?” when we put something on, we are asking, “Does it fit our physical selves?”   That question may urge us to get in better shape or remind us that we are fine as we are.  Or we may be asking does it fit our inner selves, i.e., is it too corporate, too immodest, too casual…you get the point.  It may force even more profound questions upon ourselves, like, who are we?  What do I want to be known for?  And, for many of us privileged Americans, how privileged am I to wear what I want without fear of attack.

We can choose to view clothing as something frivolous.  Or we can see it as a way to reconnect with ourselves, with others and our united hope for a better future.

I will definitely hold on to that orange scarf and wear it with pride.   It is a reminder of what we have done to help women around the world and how much further we have to go. And, in this time of thanksgiving, it’s a reminder of how grateful I am to live as a woman in freedom and safety.

What Do Beauty & Cannibalism Have in Common?

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The title isn’t a tease.  I’m going to give you the answer but I need to back track a bit.

Beauty can now be judged by artificial intelligence.  Yep, there is going to be a beauty contest using robots to judge people’s appearances.  The reason for the new type of contest?  According the recent article about this contest, Beauty Contest Features Algorithmic Judges, human judges are too biased to judge beauty fairly.

As a tech-lover and someone fascinated with A.I., I wanted to appreciate this new type of contest, but the idea is all wrong.  I’m sure many of you would begin by protesting the whole concept of a beauty contest.  I have mixed feelings about the benefit of these contests, and I’ve written about the pros and cons of them in many past posts.  But, for today, I’m actually going leave that argument alone.

What I will challenge instead is the idea that a robot can truly detect beauty.  This isn’t an argument for embracing inner beauty (though I appreciate that too).  Rather it’s argument against the idea that our definition of beauty is only measurable.  I agree that we are attracted to symmetry and a certain ratio of eyes to chin to forehead, etc. as a survival mechanism from our ancient pasts.  The thinking here is the more symmetrical our features, the healthier we are, and the healthier our offspring would be.  Of course a digital device would better discern these measurements.  I also agree with the story that human judges can be biased due to cultural norms.

My issue with such a contest is that what we perceive as beautiful is strongly associated with a person’s “essence.”  I’ve written about this concept in an earlier post, the Pleasure of Beauty.  According to author and Yale psychology professor, Paul Bloom, in his book How Pleasure Works: The New Science of What We Like What We Like, we derive pleasure from things like art, sports and beauty.  But this pleasure doesn’t just come from the rational combination of factors (think technical skills like amazing batting speed or the perfect pirouette) but from the ESSENCE of things and people.  The essence is that which lies beneath the surface –the history, background, personality, you get the picture.  As Bloom writes: “things have an underlying reality or true nature that one cannot observe directly and it is this hidden nature that really matters.”  This is why we pay tons of money for an original painting versus a counterfeit.  It also explains, not to gross you out, why some people are cannibals…they want to connect with the “inner-ness” of the person.  Net net, we seek the essence to truly get pleasure from things.

This goes for physical beauty too.  We all have an essence that comes forth to make us more or less beautiful.  Maybe you call that our “stories”, a certain depth, or our many sides.  And this essence shapes our perceptions of others’ beauty.

Bloom cites an experiment with college students in which classmates were asked to rate people’s looks.  The participants weren’t acquainted with the classmates beyond sitting with them in the same lectures.  Interestingly, attractiveness ratings went up when classmates saw people more often.  It’s not that now they had a better view of the people they were rating.  The point here is that more exposure to who a person is — their ESSENCE — the greater the appreciation of even his/her physical attractiveness.   In fact, what I think is even more interesting is that the subjects (i.e. the people assessing others’ beauty) didn’t even interact with their classmates!  They didn’t form their opinions because one was nice or the other was obnoxious.  It was merely the closeness that developed over time, and the greater recognition of the others as human beings, that affected their views.

This is not a call for eschewing physical beauty in favor of inner beauty.  And I’m not saying inner beauty determines our assessments of who is beautiful.  Rather, what I take from Bloom’s analysis is that beauty is a combination of physical characteristics and one’s essence.   Our sense of attraction can’t be deconstructed to include ONLY physical characteristics.  We just aren’t wired to see the world this way.

Yes, a bizarro beauty contest can turn beauty into something scientific and objective.  But, and what we all probably know at some level and what Bloom confirms, our physical attractiveness is actually quite deep.  We are beautiful because we are not just perfect, symmetrical robots, but because we are human beings.

 

“Things of Beauty Affirm Our Power to Change the World for the Better,” Roger Scruton: Why Beauty Matters Now More Than Ever

The Symmetry of Paris
The Symmetry of Paris

I have to admit I had a hard time thinking of what to write for today’s post.  After the tremendous horror of this past Friday night in Paris, I did not now how to respond.  All of the beauty stories that filled my feed seemed trivial compared to these events.  How could I write about a recent story regarding the genetic factors underpinning our perceptions of beauty or about the controversy in social media over the site 100 Years of Beauty?  They are all interesting stories, but they all seemed so banal.  How could I talk about beauty at a time like this?

But then I remembered Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky’s famous quote, “Beauty will save the world.” At a time like this, maybe this is EXACTLY what we need.  I’m not talking about being pollyannish and seeing the good or beauty in everything.  No, I’m talking about the actual social need for beauty, and how satisfying this need may actually make the world a better, safer and more loving place.

What do I mean? I’ve actually written about this topic in posts a few years back.  But the thinking, while super heavy, is still true today. Elaine Scarry points out in On Beauty and Being Just, the pursuit of beauty is really the quest for improvement. This dense but provocative piece explains: beauty’s spectacle encourages replication and further creativity. When I see a beautiful woman, for example, I’ll check out her look and make it my own. This inclination towards creativity affirms our uniquely human ability, that is, our power to make change and create a better, more just future.  Yes, the world sucks sometimes, but we KNOW that we can make it better.

In Beauty, Roger Scruton explains beauty is so vital, as it presents our ideals and compels us to seek them out.  Here are my words from my post, Beauty: A Moral Imperative: “things of beauty, like art, move us because they take us out of our everyday ‘by providing us (says Scruton) with objects, characters, scenes and actions with which we can play … in play … free (of) contemplation, reason and sense are reconciled, and we are granted a vision of human life in its wholeness.’  He goes on to say: ‘Our favorite works of art seem to guide us to the truth of human condition and (ultimately)… show the worthwhileness of being human.'”

Trying to summarize Scruton further, I wrote: “In our attempts to experience beauty, we measure our lives, circumstances, and surroundings against the order and fittingness presented … and we have the freedom to challenge the injustices, hardships and disharmony we see around us…Things of beauty affirm the transcendental part of all of us and our power to change the world for the better.”  We are compelled — at the moment we encounter beauty or after contemplation of it — to see our world in comparison to it.  This forces us to challenge ourselves and our world.

What am I really saying here?  When we feast our eyes on a painting at the Louvre or a garden at Versailles, we are seeing something extraordinary.  It shows us the power of people to make something from nothing.  We have the ability to improve our world.

When terrorists choose to massacre innocent people, we can’t just wallow in misery or cower in fear.  We need to believe we can overcome such horrors.  Sometimes it’s hard to have that sort of optimism or strength.  But when we engage with things of beauty, we are reminded that we have the brilliance and creativity to do so.

The topic of beauty may seem to irrelevant to us this weekend.   We are grieving, we are trying understand how something so terrible can happen, and we are challenging humanity.  But don’t dismiss it.  Embrace it. Things of beauty remind us that we can all be better.  Beauty not only soothes us during these moments, but it shows us we have the agency, the creativity, the sense of justice, to get us all closer to harmony.

How a Beauty Brand Does Philanthropy Right vs Contrived

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When large, money-making corporations invest in third world countries, I’m always skeptical.  Sure, they may be providing some benefit — funding or education — but I always wonder if the reason is either to look good for the fat cats in the West so they buy more of the corporations’ products or for the actual beneficiaries of this philanthropy to eventually spend their limited funds on the brands.  Either way I’m always left wondering how truly empathetic these companies are.

So when I read an article about Shiseido offering hygiene education and products to poor women in Bangladesh, I raised more than one eyebrow.  “Come on,” I thought.  This is just another ploy.

But then I read on.  And I changed my mind.

Shiseido isn’t pulling the wool over our eyes.  They ARE promoting their products to Bangladeshi women.  But these products are both specially designed for their skin and at a much lower price point than other skin care in the country.  Also, and more significantly, Shisiedo is investing in programs for Bangladeshi women to teach others proper hygiene and nutrition.  Yes, this includes skin care but it also covers important and life-enhancing benefits such as hand washing and better eating habits.

From afar we may ask ourselves, is this such a big deal?  Is Shiseido really doing anything that profound to help Bangladeshi women.  Beyond giving employment and teaching others skin care, the brand is giving these women a dose of confidence.  In a region where women are often uneducated and untrained, the ability to work or even just feel more beautiful and better about themselves so that they have the guts to find a way to climb up the economic ladder is a pretty BIG deal.

Does this make me look at Shiseido in a better light?  Hell yes!

In a nutshell, what is Shiseido doing right and what can we learn from their actions? Shiseido:

  1. Focused on their core strengths: beauty.  They didn’t venture into worlds that feel foreign and therefore contrived.
  2. Proved that is is empathetic and understanding of the culture by offering products specially designed for them — skin care and price-wise.  The brand changed for the market’s needs.
  3. Offered the most priceless of gifts: education.  Yes, the education isn’t computer classes or accounting lessons but hygiene, nutrition and beauty.  But they are still important.
  4. Like many beauty brands, it employs local women to educate the community thereby raising the profile and economic power of women.

I commend all brands who want to help those in need.  But I believe a corporation will get that much farther with all it’s consumers by being authentic and true to itself, and, most importantly, by truly loving of the consumer.

The Unexpected Beauty of Business Travel

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Flamenco Dancing and Dinner

I travel quite a bit for business.  In fact, as I write this, I’m sitting in an airport in Madrid, Spain on my way back to NYC. I’m not one of those folks who lives on a plane but I have my share of long distance business trips.  As you can imagine, these trips are full of meetings with me rushing from place to place where I never have enough time for real sight-seeing.  I always feel like I’ve missed out when I get on my return flight. 

Business travel provides another type of window into foreign cultures though.  I may not be able to witness all the museums or ancient ruins available, but I get something different.  And I’ve learned to appreciate these travels even more as a result.  First, because I’m not traveling on my own dime, I feel less concerned about saving every euro.  I feel freer to explore without sweating the cost too much.  Second, my meetings with people are usually with people native to the city so I get access to interesting stories, places and people right away.  Third, I must immerse myself in the day-to-day activities of local life as soon as I land.  Of course I’m only mingling with a small subset of society, but I still need to understand the traffic situation, the local geography, where the closest super market is and the telecomm industry right away in order for me get to my meetings on time, with the nutrition I need and with full access to the rest of the world.  

I realize that my visits are so limited that I can’t quite argue that a get a full taste of the local environment.  But vacationers only get a certain taste as well.  There is a particular beauty in jumping in knee-deep into a small piece of culture.  It may not always be an aesthetically beautiful experience but it is a fascinating one nonetheless.  

For those of us lucky enough (or unlucky enough depending on how we look at it) to travel for business, we don’t have to necessarily extend our stays another week to feel we are deriving some beauty from our experience.  Sometimes it’s matter of taking advantage of the small moments to look around and realize we are surrounded by something new and exciting.  See some of my little moments during my 3- day business stay in Madrid below as an example.

Traditional buildings nestled amidst hyper modern ones
Traditional buildings nestled amidst hyper modern ones
My trip to the local Carrefour
My trip to the local Carrefour
More flamenco!
More flamenco!

A roundabout decorated with sculptures

How easy it is to get sucked into mob mentality

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I was on Cape Cod this past week.  To be more specific, my family and I vacationed in Chatham, MA, the most preppy of the peninsula’s towns.  Main street is packed with stores named “Puritan Cape Cod” or “Yankee Ingenuity.”  You get the picture :).

We used to go every year with the kids but then we started traveling around a bit more in the summers.  This year we needed to be out of the house during our renovations and sought an easy solution: Chatham, MA.

What in the world does lazy Cape Cod have to do with mob mentality?  When we think of this term, images of crazy soccer fan fights or even Nazi Germany come to mind.   Swimming in bays and dining on codfish don’t seem to fit.

Here’s how it does.  If you know me well, I am ANYTHING but preppy.  Sure, in the 80’s I may have worn a sweater over my shoulders or a plaid shirt.  But I’m much more rocker chick meets NYC sophisticate now.  

Well, I took my last jog of the week-long vacation and noticed a woman walking in my direction wearing navy blue Bermuda shorts with white sail boats on them. And I thought to myself: “Hmmm, those are kinda cute, how would I look in them.”

Whhhaaat!!???  You wouldn’t catch me dead in something like that?  They are certainly great for others…just not me.  I quickly came back to my senses.  And then I realized something: if I can change my fashion sense in the course of a week by being immersed in preppy-ville but yet only really interacting with my family, imagine what can happen to me when I encounter super inspiring and influential people on pretty heavy stuff!  Maybe I can really change my tastes, my convictions and even my beliefs.

Of course my incident on the Cape is ridiculously inconsequential. But I think it speaks to how fragile we are and how influenced (without us realizing it) by others.  Sometimes that influence can be good!  It can help us see the world and others in more interesting, compassionate ways.  But it can also be bad.  And it can stir us into a fervor before we know it.

We, humans, are social animals and can’t change the fact that we can be affected by others.  The lesson here is to be aware of our opinions, tastes and beliefs, where they come from; and whether we should challenge them sometimes.  

Of course my rocker-meets-sophisticate tastes are influenced by my surroundings. After all, I live in NYC!  And I should challenge it too (among many other notions I harbor). Since my husband seems to like the look, though, I feel I can stick to it no matter how brainwashed I may be 🙂

Weekend Observations: What The Beauty of Your Home Says About You

Javitz Center Design Expo

I know, I know, I flaked last week.  But I had a good reason.  I was up to my ears in home furnishings at the Design Expo in NYC.  My decorator took my husband and me to see the plethora of furniture, rugs, lighting fixtures, you name it, on display.  It was both overwhelming and exhilarating.

Let me take a step back. After years of renting it out, we finally decided to breakthrough the apartment next door to us and renovate.  Why did it take us so long?  Of course the cost scared us a bit.  But the truth is we knew that reconfiguring our home, and decorating it too, would be a challenge for us.  We know a beautiful home when we see it.  And, luckily, we have somewhat similar taste.  But the process is still frightening.  After all, what our home looks like says a lot about us to ourselves and to others.

A few years back I wrote a post about how our serene, modern home reflected not just our taste, but our lifestyle.  The white walls and stark modern furniture served as an oasis amidst the hectic, over stimulating New York City that we both love.

But now we were ready for a change.  And not just a change for change’s sake.  This change will mark an evolution.  Of course our home is literally expanding.  But the vibe — the look and feel of it — is changing too.  This change is a beautiful testament to our kids getting older.  They need their own rooms now that they are bigger and need to study harder.  The change also marks a change in my relationship to my parents.  My mom will be spending more time with us and will need her own space.  And the change of decor — moving from serene to more colorful, exciting and dynamic — marks a change in our lives in NYC.  We no longer need such a respite from our lives outside of our apartment.  Our careers, albeit a bit hectic and super dynamic, are steady and going strong.  Our relationship is solid and our kids are more sedate (well, a BIT more sedate :)) So now it’s time to spice it up at home.

I’m psyched to see how our home turns out (and to be rid of all the sawdust too :)).  But more importantly, I’m looking forward to seeing how our new home changes us all for the better.

It’s Time to Celebrate the Ugly Heroines , For All of Our Sakes

Brienne of Tarth
Brienne of Tarth

11 Ugly heroines.  Well actually 11 not gorgeous-with-flowing-blonde-hair-and-hourglass-figure-heroines, I should say.  That’s the number of heroines discovered by Crystal Paul in her recent post in Bustle just the other day.

Paul recognized what we have learned to take for granted: most heroines in fairy tales or movies are both courageous and drop-dead-gorgeous.  Think about it: Wonder Woman, Rapunzel, Cinderella, Lara Croft….you get the idea.  But why should that be?  Why must these women look like they can easily jump onto the runway from their helicopters or horses?  Why can’t we admire women who are, well, ugly?  Eleanor Roosevelt was and still is admired, true.  But we always seem to hear how unattractive she was too.

Yet not all heroines are actually beautiful.  And they are pretty darn amazing figures.  Paul found those heroines for us!  While I agree with most of the list, I think Paul went a wee bit too far when saying Katniss isn’t beautiful.  Yes her hair is dyed brown (um, is brown hair ugly all of a sudden??) and she’s often dressed in scrappy clothes, but I think we can all agree she’s pretty, well, pretty.  But the rest of the list was quite interesting.  While you can read the article for yourselves, I’m going to quickly list them:

Brienne of Tarth (Game of Thrones)

Jane Eyre (Jane Eyre)

Arya Stark (Game of Thrones, and my favorite character on the show :))

Celie (Color Purple)

Anne Elliot (Persuasion)

Eloise (Eloise)

Shannon McFarland (Invisible Monsters)

Katniss Everdeen (Hunger Games)

Hermoine Granger (Harry Potter)

Mary Bennett (Pride and Prejudice)

Pecola Breedlove (The Bluest Eye — one of the most influential books for me)

I have nothing against beautiful heroines.  But I do appreciate a heroine who doesn’t NEED to be beautiful to be admired too.  And the more diverse our heroines, the more we can relate to them.  And what’s more, the more we will feel able to step in as a heroine from time to time ourselves.

Daily Shaving, Combing & Washing Mean A Ton More Than You Think

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As someone who is often on the road or running around even when I’m back at my home base, I was immediately struck by these first few words of an article’s headline: “Traveling salon…”  What I would do to get beauty services anywhere anytime (and add at a good price and then I’m set! We all can dream…).

But when I read the rest of the headline, I was floored.  The article didn’t advertise a new beauty service for the privileged few.  Instead it shared the story of a traveling salon in Pennsylvania called “Beauty in Transition” run by Kansas Artist Jody Wood.  This salon is no Red Door.  No way.  It offers hair and make-up services for the state’s homeless population.

Wow.  How cool is that?!  And how beautiful?!

No question our homeless need access to beauty.  It gives them the confidence to rise above their situation, interact with the rest of society and even find opportunities.   But, as we all know, beauty treatments don’t come cheap.  And so many people don’t have even have the ability to stand in front of a clean mirror and give themselves a good shave or hairdo.

Wood, along with the Asian Arts Initiative in Philly, developed this program to offer a path to greater dignity and as a way to build bridges between the homeless and the Asian community that also lives in the area.

We may think of beauty treatments as everyday tasks at best or frivolous past times at worst.  But for a number of us, they are tremendous gifts that just may be the difference between homelessness and pennilessness, and self-sufficiency.

So the next time you wash your hair, get your nails done, your shoes shined or shave, realize these are all GIFTS.  These small rituals not only connect us to ourselves but to society.  And thanks to our fortunate situations, we have the space, the money and the resources to participate in them every – single – day.

Let’s celebrate these small gifts.  Even better, let’s find ways to offer them to others who can’t celebrate them as often.

 

We Are All Too Sexy For UR Lab

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There’s a lot of wonderful things I’ve inherited from my mother, including my desire for a strong family life (be both have 3 kids), a love for fashion and beauty, and the belief that women can kick ass in ANY career.  My mother is pioneer.  During the 60’s when most women were gearing up to be stay-at-home moms, my mother was the ONLY female receiving her PhD at MIT in chemistry.  And she didn’t stop there.  She become one of the most loved and highly prolific professors in the sciences at Wellesley College.  She started the computers/IT department and still works in her chemistry lab to this day.

So when I read the incredibly sexist statements by Nobel Prize winner, scientist Tim Hunt, I was shocked and disgusted.  Here’s a taste of his drivel: “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them, they cry.” (Via Daily Mail)

After decades of women rocking it in science, we still have to confront people like this?  More than that, Hunt obviously felt his statements had enough legitimacy that he could say them in public without anyone batting an eyelash!

As soon as I read the stories, though, I was equally moved by the reactions.  How did female scientists respond?  Did they shout criticisms on YouTube videos or write tearful Op-Eds?

Nope.  Even better.  They laughed at Hunt.

Women scientists around the world photographed themselves in their unsexy, sometimes disgusting uniforms and headlined their pics with statements about how obviously sexual and sensitive they are.  The pics were signed with the handle #distractingly sexy.  Hilarious! See some of the pics below.

Humor is the best reaction.  Not only does it make the point but it empowers us.  I’m so proud of these “sexy, sensitive” women.  They breaking are ceilings in their fields AND have enough confidence, humor and beauty to fight the system in a united way.

The fact that women used the very media that is often blasted for harming women’s self-image, i.e., photos and social media, could have raised some eyebrows.  But I think it’s perfect.  When women can show that they are not victims of digital media but can actually harness these tools for their own empowering messages, makes their statements that much more powerful.

Of course Hunt’s statements aren’t funny.  And the fact that he can publicize such opinions signals how far we have to go in the sciences to finally give women the opportunities they need.

But the fact that women can congregate and react so quickly and beautifully gives me major hope!

_83574130_ds311d59aaddacc291c0e54e344ca1f1312835a8c61distractingly-sexy-7Distractingly-Sexy