Damned if You Do, Damned If You Don’t: In 2019, Let’s Be Done With With The Beauty Prejudice Already

 

 

Elizabeth I‘s make-up killed her. At least according to some historians. In her attempt to look youthful and blemish-free, the queen used a toxic white powder, Ceruse, containing high doses of lead. As you can imagine, lead isn’t something you want to put on your face every single day for years. No wonder the prosthetics and cosmetics to turn Margot Robbie into Queen Elizabeth I in the much-anticipated film, Mary Queen of Scots, gets so much attention. There’s an almost macabre fascination with it.  Margot looks freaky and that “look” actually ends up killing her.

But my fascination with her appearance is for a different reason. The queen went to great lengths to look like this (and suffer for it in multiple ways) for much of the same reasons we “kill” ourselves to look beautiful. According to Rebecca Onion‘s detailed story in Slate, The Real Story Behind Margot Robbie’s Wild Queen Elizabeth Makeup, Elizabeth was stuck. She was expected to look youthful and beautiful, as Onion explains: ‘People perceived a queen’s beauty as a sign of her divine right to rule.” In other words, she had to look good for her job. Sound familiar? Being the Queen, and a virgin at that, she became a worshipped, a cult-like figure that MUST remain youthful. Her appearance was one key aspect of that worship. “Living inside it all, Elizabeth clearly seemed to realize her presentation of a mask that didn’t slip was critical to her survival.” writes Onion.

At the same time, however, there was a strong anti-face-painting movement brewing. It’s questionable how much her subjects actually criticized her for it, but historians point to jokes made about her and published criticisms of the use of cosmetics in general stating that painted women are foolish, foul and abominable. Elizabeth just couldn’t win this game. Either she loses for looking old and ugly or she loses for masking her changing skin. And no question, she loses to her make-up’s poisonous effects.

Times have changed. Make-up won’t kill you (though some plastic surgery, like botched butt enhancements for example, can). Women can lead without having to be worshipped. And adorning ourselves with cosmetics is second nature. But we, women, aren’t fully immune from the high, and often complex, beauty expectations demanded of us in society. We have to look youthful, so as not to be deemed as frumpy and, thus, old-fashioned or not on the cutting edge of our fields.  And, at the same time, we can’t look too beautiful, so as not to appear too provocative or frivolous, and therefore, not smart or competent. Let’s be honest, how many of you — women and men — comment on what your female corporate or political leaders wear vs your male leaders wear? I remember these very discussions when my division was led by a woman.  I willingly took part in these conversations too! I’m not blameless. We didn’t want our female leaders to appear unstylish. Now that it’s being led by a man, not a word is raised. I’m not saying male leaders aren’t expected appear a certain way. It’s that it doesn’t become water cooler conversation, ever.

I love beauty. I love to play with make-up, wear fun outfits and get my hair blown out. I undoubtedly feel more confident and energized. And, yes, I want to be admired for it too. But why does it need to go beyond that? Why do women have to be caught between all of these tensions? Why can’t we look frumpy or dolled up without any of the negative associations? Why can’t we look beautiful without being accused of being flirty and flighty? My only hope is that as men invest in their beauty more (according to the American Association of Plastic Surgery, in 2017, nearly 100,000 men had filler injections, a 99 percent increase since 2000), we will level the playing field, and the conversations will turn from what women and men look like to whether they have something worthy to say and give to society.

 

The Beauty of Social Media isn’t Just Skin Deep

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In past posts, I have referenced the anthropology-based work around various technology platforms I had the privilege to develop, including a study on Social Media.  A recent article, “Instagram posts can reveal depression better than anything patients tell their doctors,” brought the insights of this social study to fore for me.  It reminded me of the deep beauty that we can actually derive from social media.  I’m not referring to pretty pictures, though that has an important role in our lives.  I’m referring to the deeper, societal benefit Social gives us.

Yes, for many of us social media is a playful pastime.  We can post great bikini pics or vacation vistas.  We can air our grievances or, at our worst, use it to put others down.  Social media — not matter which sites we frequent or how we’re using them (including the posting of seemingly banal stuff) –serves as greater purpose: one that fundamental and, well, beautiful.

How?  Because of the very elements of social — it’s real time, and raw nature; and the relative anonymity or physical distance from others — we tend to be more real and vulnerable.  And, we will often say things and show things to MANY people that we would either keep to ourselves or only tell a few friends.  In doing so, we often use a sort of language, what we call “poetic language,” (imagery, gifs, emoji’s or slang) that’s full of nuance and emotion to truly convey what we feel.  For example, if you asked me how my day was over text a few years ago, the best I could offer was “good” or “GOOD” of “Way good.”  But now I can add some rainbows, a video clip and an emoji looking up towards heaven to show how amazing it was.

It’s these elements that compel us to share and be open to “hearing” back — whether that’s about the best restaurant in a foreign city or if a woman should leave her abusive boyfriend (true story on Reddit).  And this exchange of ideas, insights and challenges helps us learn about our worlds and our place in it.  We call this “Self-Making through Others.”   What does this mean?  We are less and less motivated by individual self-help and more by interdependence!

So when I saw this article about being able to detect depression in others thanks to Instagram images, I thought:”this is yet another wonderful example of Self-making through Others.”  The article explains how we can help alert others’ to their pain and maybe suggest ways to help them thanks to their Instagram photos.   According to EPJ Data Science, a pair of researchers, Chris Danforth of the University of Vermont and Andrew Reece of Harvard University, were able to analyze Instagram posts based on previously known markers of depression.   The article points out: “Depressed people tend to prefer grayer, darker colors, and to show less evidence of social activity (which the researchers thought might be evidenced by the absence of faces in posted images).”  And depressed people tend not to use filters.

Imagine if you and your social network realized one of your friend’s is experiencing deep, emotional pain and you could help him or her?  Wouldn’t you want to?  Thanks to social media, in this case Instagram, we can.   I realize social media can also contribute to peoples’ pain, for example, when the body-shamers rear their heads.  But as our research indicated, most of what we share and chat about is positive, helpful and insightful; not negative.  And now, thanks to this research, we can be more aware of others’ emotional states, and help them through their situations.

Social media is certainly light and fun, and and we should enjoy that.  But let’s not just sit back an admire people’s images or scroll past them.  Let’s pay closer attention to what others share.  Let’s uplift those even higher who are celebrating their lives and embrace those who are crying out for help.  And we will all be better for it.

 

 

The Evolutionary Proof of the Value of Beauty’s Pleasure

Let’s take pleasure in pleasure.  In case you’re feeling a bit hesitant about this, take a look at evolutionary theories to give you some extra ammo.

We’ve all learned the appeal and surprising evolutionary success of the peacock with it’s heavy but beautiful wings in middle school science class.  According to evolutionary theory, the strongest survive which explains why certain traits have lasted the test of time.   And this theory is also used to explain why the seemingly unfit species, like the peacock that can’t fly, still survives.  The theory is that the female assumes the peacock must be super strong in order to carry around his massive, gorgeous wings, and, thus, a superior mate.

Well, the recent book by Richard Prum, The Evolution of Beauty, challenges the notion that beautiful features in us, animals, MUST  surely be some health indicator.  Instead he says that certain species thrived in spite of being less fit because they inspired pleasure in others.  In an interview for the “Verge,” Prum refers to the Club-Winged Manakin that “actually evolved to become cooler but less fit.”  In order to attract its mate, the bird’s wings adapted to become more beautiful for the purposes of dance but actually less efficient in terms of flying — it’s main role!   In other words, the pleasurable beauty of the winged manakin attracted mates even if it meant the risk of less healthy offspring.  Prum asks if sexual pleasure in certain species is only to ensure reproduction, why do animals endure elaborate dance or singing rituals to attract the other.  Couldn’t one round of two-stepping or a few chords have done the trick?  Nope.  His explanation is that many species, including us, human beings, desire pleasure.  And we desire this not just to ensure survival of the next generation but because it has value in and of itself.

So how come it took so long for someone recognize this?  Plum’s explanation:

“I think evolutionary biology has a ‘pleasure problem’ going all the way back to the Victorians who were very unsettled to the idea that animals, including people, might be motivated by pleasure. It might be anxiety about the power of passion, and so we’ve been going on a long time ignoring subjective experience.”

Let’s face it, so many of us in our culture are downright uncomfortable with notions of pleasure.  So we either explain it way as something that leads productive or reproductive ends, or we ignore it all together.  I confess, I’m sometimes guilty of the former.  I rationalize pampering my skin or wearing fashionable clothes as way for me look more professional or give me the confidence I need to take on a big career challenge.  Why can’t I just enjoy the pleasure of beauty without tying it tie to something purposeful.  I loved how Prum answered a recent question posed by Dr. Prakashin in the New York Times article by James Gorman, “Challenging Mainstream’s  Though on Beauty’s Big Hand in Evolution:” “Why are birds beautiful?” “Birds are beautiful because they’re beautiful to themselves.”  Full stop.

For those of us who eschew pleasure all together, we may be pushing against our nature.  I’m not saying “natural” behaviors are good.  Some are downright horrible, like murder or child pornography.  And I’m not saying all pleasurable activities/things should be embraced, example opiates.   But if we are built to seek pleasure — within reason — shouldn’t we be more comfortable with it?  Even better, shouldn’t we embrace it?  There are so many wonderful pursuits of pleasure.  Enjoying art, wonderful food, beautiful scenery, gorgeous music, and the list goes on.  If it makes us happier, isn’t that a good thing?  Maybe if we just let ourselves appreciate pleasure more we wouldn’t be sublimating our natural desires, and potentially channeling them into not so great behaviors.  As we all know, curbing natural desires has a way of leading us to harmful pursuits.

If we have the capacity to create pleasure for ourselves and others, I think we should see it not only as our privilege, but also as our responsibility to foster it, welcome it, and share it.  Let’s seek out pleasure!

The Role of Ugliness and the Need to Address the Topic Head On

A couple of weeks back I posted my point of view on the recent film, Beauty and the Beast. Honestly, I didn’t think many would read it too closely, let alone comment on it.

Well, I was wrong.  And I’m thrilled!

What’s even better is the conflicting point of view that I sparked. Certainly not everyone agreed with my argument, and that was fine by me.  The sheer number of views and comments reinforces the opening point I made in that post: the movie and the subject of beauty, which is clearly part of the story, generate a lot of interest.  My question was why?

Many of the commentators on my post explained that the story line around inner beauty touches us all and the fact that the Belle character is even more nuanced elevates the story even more.  I buy that.  But I was more interested in why the subject of beauty in fairly tales still resonates.  Period.  A few years back I wrote a post about the animated movie, Brave, and how I appreciated that fact that she was not regarded as beautiful or ugly, but rather stubborn, athletic, loving, etc.  In other words, beauty didn’t enter the equation.

I concluded that the subject of beauty has a key role.  It isn’t something to ignore, but a topic we should raise and discuss.

And this means we should also encourage the topic of ugliness.  This is the other side of beauty.  Can someone look or be ugly?  I notice that I dissuade my children from describing things or other people as ugly. But in doing so am I am I shutting them down entirely.  Is that right?  Shouldn’t we invite the discourse?  Doesn’t Beauty and the Beast do just that?

Here’s a reason to talk about it.  I recently read a fascinating article by Mindy Weisberger of LiveScience, Beauty and the Beast: Why We are Fascinated By Human-Animal Mates?  As you can tell from the title, the story delves into the role of half-human half-animal characters in fairy tales.  Interestingly the half-animal characters are mostly male.  I won’t summarize the whole article but share one reason.  In the times of fairy tales, young girls, say around 14 years old, would often be betrothed to much older men.  To these girls, older men were obviously bigger, harrier, more muscular, perhaps even animal-like in their eyes. To assuage their fear of their future husbands, stories would often depict the princes as part animal.  And as we all know, everything turns out all right and we live happily ever after.  What an interesting explanation to share with our children!  And you can imagine the profound discussion that this explanation would lead to around women’s rights, equality, strong partnerships with romantic partners, and the list goes.  But without the freedom to pursue the topic of beauty and ugliness, we may never get to broach those issues.

We are innately interested and appreciate beautiful things and beautiful people.  And in an effort to shield girls and boys from placing too much emphasis on beauty, of course we shouldn’t elevate it to the only, or the primary source of conversation.  As an aside, there’s a book that just came out this week by Renee Engeln about our attention on beauty as a form of sickness, aptly named, Beauty Sick, How the Cultural Obsession with beauty and Appearance Hurts Girls and Women.  The analysis shows the ramifications of too much thought around beauty.  Obviously I don’t endorse that.  But I also believe that we shouldn’t ignore the subject all together or even downplay it.  Let’s embrace beauty, the uniqueness of it, and the bad and the good that come with it.

What’s the Unexpected But Key Role of a Fashion Tech Boss? Check Out This Story & Find Out

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Welcome to our third podcast from the NRF Big Show a month ago.  For this podcast I spoke with Dolly Singh, founder of Thesis Couture, and Alison Lewis, founder of Switch Embassy.   We also had the privilege of re-joining with Monica Phromsavanh, Founder of Modabox.  Dolly and Alison shared with us gorgeous, hi-tech items including: Thesis Couture’s first-of-its-kind scrappy, high-heels that are as beautiful for your back as they are for your feet; and covetable purses like a light, “soft, squishy,” nature-inspired, blue-tooth enabled leather clutch with LED lights and flexible display.

Our conversation spanned topics from how to gather and learn from one another as tech bosses  (leveraging those “secret societies” out there) to what we wished our shoes could do in a dream world (flying, being able to hold our babies, you name it).  One of my favorite statements of the discussion came from Dolly: “It’s desire that drives the world…I don’t want ugly shoes, I want shoes that make me feel like a million bucks…logic doesn’t prevail.”  I couldn’t agree more!

What became so evident from our conversation is the importance  of these women’s ability to communicate — better yet — translate to others.  I immediately connected with that.  So much of my role at Google is to decode and translate the true value of digital to our clients, or translate the user’s underlying motivation and needs to my creative and engineering counterparts.

The same is true for these women.  Not only do they have an amazing sense of vision, but they have a strong ability to translate that vision to all the respective parties.  These different parties often come from very very, different “worlds”, like Silicon Valley engineers and luxury Italian shoe designers.   Alison named her company “Switch Embassy” because of the necessity to be able to pivot AND be “bi-lingual” (my words, not hers).  She has to “speak” fashion AND tech in order to combine these two worlds.  Her role is to really listen, translate and bridge all the expertise.   In her words: “Tech guys don’t know how to talk to brands, and brands don’t know what to ask.”

We sometimes forget how valuable being a great translator and communicator truly is.  We revere the creator, which, having grown up in the advertising world where the creative  director is king, I get it.  But without the ability to bring people together and to get them to see one another’s needs, aspirations and visions, nothing would come to fruition.  As Monica pointed out, “it’s about getting things to market, not just creating them.”  Without the ability to translate among many different teams, collaboration could never happen, and the final product would just be a nice image in someone’s head.  I don’t know about you but I want those beautiful, hi tech purses and shoes in my hands and on my feet, not in my dreams! :).

For the full, fantastic conversation among these tech bosses, have a listen to our audio podcast.

https://soundcloud.com/kathleen-kiley/show-3-beautyskew-mixdown

And if you want to see the live version on camera, have fun watching this…again forgive us for the sound!

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Are We Hard-Wired to Be Attracted to the Beauty of Our Elders?

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Is it me or are we finally looking at our elder beauties in a new light?  Every where I look I feel like people are starting to pay attention to the beauty of the older women and men in our society in a different, progressive and admirable way.  Or perhaps it’s because my birthday is coming up that I look at aging with a fresh eye.  Whatever the reason, I feel like we are finally starting to see aging beauty for all the glamour, wisdom and experience it offers.

First, I was struck by the amazing comments I received in one of my recent Linkedin posts: Age and Decay: A Twist on What We Actually Crave.  The fact that we instinctively need to experience the aging process in others is what makes vinyl records, dilapidated buildings and older women so beautiful.  And then I came across a scientific study claiming that women don’t want beauty companies to offer them “anti-aging” products, but rather products that make them look and feel awesome as they are now. (Science Daily)  Finally, when I came across this story in Los Angeles Racked: “Fashion and Beauty Secerets form L.A’s Most Stylish Older Women,” I knew I must be on to something.  The article shares images of gorgeous older women, strutting their stuff, donning eclectic outfits, and displaying amazing hair and make-up (see pics above & below).  And what’s even cooler about them?  They are all active members of society — working in film, non-for-profits or even modeling!

But why try to stay beautiful?  For younger people it promises a mate and eventual propagation of the species.  But who needs it as we age?

But maybe there’s another way to think about people’s beauty.  Beauty — both inner and outer (frankly, I can’t separate the two) forces us to take notice.  It mesmerizes us.  It stops us in our tracks and draws like a magnet.  Nature has hard-wired us to react this way.  For the youth it may have one reason for it’s existence, but for others, another.  By admiring and being attracted to an older person’s beauty we can’t help but learn their stories, adopt some of their joie de vivre and hopefully take on their desire to keep building in this world vs let it all go and wait for the end to come.  When we see it in the best possible light, beauty’s allure can help us learn something, build for a better future, and see the opportunities before us.  We need the beauty of youth AND the beauty of old age.

Nature has made us beautiful creatures at EVERY stage so that we all strive to build a better world — whether that means more babies, more equality, better forms of entertainment, more happiness — and the list goes on.  Let’s hope I can adopt some of this lesson for myself as the big day rolls around :).



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How Beauty Truly Connects You to Yourself

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When I looked at my feed today, a few different sources mentioned this study.  What am I referring to?  A recent study commissioned by Revlon and conducted by Fordham University about the effect of beauty rituals on people’s relationships.

The study asked women to spend 7 days employing a number beauty techniques and spending more overall time and effort on their daily beauty rituals.  The result was that these women felt more “open to love” (this is Revlon’s brand positioning by the way so you see the connection) and their partners were more attracted to them as a result.  What is interesting is that the partners weren’t necessarily attracted to their altered appearances but rather to the boost of confidence that the beauty subjects felt.  No surprise, as it is documented in so many places, the better we think we look, the more empowered and confident we feel.

But I think it goes even deeper than that.

I’ve written about the “self-caring” effects of our beauty rituals.  When we caress our bodies, and connect with them in a nurturing way, we become more whole.  Our bodies aren’t vessels or canvasses merely to move us around and project us to the outside world.  Our bodies are inextricably linked to who we are.

Most of our days we live in our heads.  We plan for the day, develop ideas, navigate the craziness of the streets, etc.  And we often forget our bodies.  We feed them and maybe even get a workout here and there, but we don’t actually connect with them.  We don’t truly feel our bodies.

I’ve written in the past that if more people performed daily beauty rituals, especially those people who eschew any sort of pampering of their bodies, e.g., older men, they would not only connect more with their bodies but they would actually be a lot healthier.  The more we physically connect with our bodies, the more we will be in tune to them.  We will not just appreciate them and care for them but we will be that much aware of any health issues.

Our daily beauty rituals may seem like a pain in the butt sometimes.  I get it.  But let’s stop to realize that these few minutes in our day may not only boost our confidence and happiness, but they may also make us more whole, grounded and more loving people.  In the end, who doesn’t want more of that?!

The Awe in in What’s Right Above Us

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We get up, get ready for work, endure the work/errands commute, put in our many hours a day at the job — whether at home or in the office, race home, and tend to the kids, the home, you name it.  We go to bed and start the whole thing over. Day after day.  Even if we love our lives, they can feel mundane a best or even arduous.

Yet, life gives us a special treat.  This treat elevates us from the everyday and shows us time after time, day after day, the awe and magic in our lives.  This treat is beauty.  And it comes in all shapes and forms.  It often doesn’t cost A THING!  This beauty inspires, comforts, and bonds us with others.

Today, my son and I shared an awe-inspiring moment when we came across a story by the BBC called “Beauty Beyond — Winning Astronomy Photography.”  Holy Moly.  The piece shares some amazing pictures of astronomical wonders.   They take your breath away.  I’ve included some below.

After seeing such beauty — even from my relatively small computer screen — I can’t help but look up into the sky and see our world differently.  Not only do these sights remind us that there is a whole big universe out there (which is quite humbling) but they show us how very beautiful and awe inspiring the world around us is.

Of course it’s not hard to grumble about or day-to-day lives — they can sometimes suck or feel like they are full of drudgery.  But take a second to pause and look up, or better yet, take a look at these magnificent pics, and I guarantee you, you feel like you are part of a special, unique, amazing world.

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How Our Senses Affect Our Judgements

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I just finished this excellent and thought-provoking book: Sensation: The New Science of Physical Intelligence by Thalma Lobel. As you can imagine from the title, the book opens our eyes to how our senses — touch, smell, sight, etc — can influence our behavior and perspectives.  I also love the book because, while it’s clearly based on a rigorous analysis of psychological experiments, Lobel is still able to reveal her insights in an entertaining way.
What does this have to do with Beautyskew?  As you can imagine, our senses will also affect our judgements of beauty and ugliness.
It’s been known for a while that red makes women (not necessarily men) seem more attractive.  This book shows how and why.  Even more interesting, though, is that red, when used in other circumstances, e.g., test covers or notes in margins, negatively affects us and our responses to those tests or feedback!
Another interesting fact, white clothing makes people seem friendlier than black, and that height affects our belief in people’s abilities to lead.
And if you want to feel friendlier towards others or vice versa, drink something warm in their presence!
For so long our perceptions of beauty have been thought to be associated with evolutionary needs (e.g., symmetrical faces signal health which is important to ensure healthy offspring) or cultural norms (e.g., tans are a sign of leisurely lifestyles and wealth).  But what Lobel also shows is how much we are influenced by the physical senses that surround us everyday.
I urge you to read this book not only to learn about yourselves and what may unconsciously influence your behavior, but also to help you decide when to let or not let those senses drive us.
Happy reading!

Weekend Observations: Let's Get a Grip On What's Really Unfair

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Let’s talk about fairness.
I just read a post in the New Yorker (Does Beauty Drive Economic Success?) about a new study that correlates the good looks of newly appointed CEOs to a rise in their companys’ stock prices.  This study follows a long line of studies that show how better looking people enjoy more economic success than less attractive folks.
The post proceeds to add comments by cultural theorists, like Naomi Wolf, condemning the “unfairness” of looks-ism in the workplace.
Now, come on.
Successful business people share a lot of qualities beyond looks that I find unfair too!  I bet you most successful people have a knack for making friends, telling jokes, and speaking in public.  I wish I could have some of these traits.
EVERYONE is going to have a set of gifts that will raise them to great heights.  Is that fair?  Just today, as I was watching my daughter kick ass at fencing, I thought to myself: “Wow, I wish I had her ability to maneuver my body the way she does.”  She was born with a physical intelligence that I will never have.  Is that fair?  Of course!
Being better looking isn’t something we should be judged on exclusively, of course.  But having it be a component of our overall package isn’t shameful.
And if you want to talk about fairness, being 20 lbs overweight or bald does not nearly compare to being raised in an underprivileged household, being born in a poverty-stricken country, or being severely disabled.  Think these folks will have it easy being successful in business?  Now that’s unfair!
Let’s get real here.  If we’re all so worried about not being successful because of how great (or not) we look, then hone another talent or skill.  Nobody gets by via looks alone.  It’s a package.