Convo with Beauty Maven, Gad Cohen: Why Beauty Matters More Than Ever

It’s been awhile since my last confession…ooops, I mean Beautyskew post.  Like so many of you, the Covid situation hit me like a ton of bricks.  By March 2nd, my middle son had to be quarantined. His school was the first to be shut down in the country due to kids being exposed to one of the first known carriers of the virus in New York.  WFH became my reality early on. In addition to having five of us in the house, including my son home early from his year abroad, work has been the busiest it’s ever been.  So thinking about beauty took a back seat as I tried to adjust.  I barely had time to go to the bathroom let alone wash my hair, lol.  

But as I have begun to settle into a new rhythm, my need for beauty has resurfaced — big time.  I’ve been watching shows and reading more articles than I probably have time for around beauty topics. Making the Cut with Heidi Klum had me salivating.  I’ve been trying to figure out how I can express my love of fashion through a small screen — color, color, color.  And, as I run in and out of the only social space I venture into — the supermarket — fully covered (from sunglasses to mask to gloves), I’ve been challenged by how I can still maintain some sense of femininity. Sure, I spend 95% of my brain power focused on business strategy or my kids’ food needs, but there’s still that 5% that craves beauty — expressing it, seeing it, and talking about it.

So my good friend and celebrity-beauty-stylist, Gad Cohen, and I decided to begin discussing it — live — online.  For our first IG Live chat, Gad and I delved into why beauty matters NOW more than ever.  Beauty inspires us, fuels our sense of creativity, and enlivens us — all things we need during this crazy time.  Beauty reminds us that we are creative and imaginative enough to change our circumstances.  Maybe as individuals we can’t develop a vaccine overnight.  But we should have faith in the brilliant scientists who can.  And, even as individuals, we can change our situations to some degree.  It’s often constraints like the ones we’re facing that force us to come up with new solutions and amazing new ideas — from new ways to light our faces “just so” on camera all the way to new career ideas.  In fact, when I speak about creativity to large audiences during “normal times,” I challenge audiences to seek constraints to make them MORE creative. Gad, for example, can’t work right now.  He cuts and styles hair for a living.  That just ain’t happening now, as much as it pains us! But he isn’t sitting on his butt all day long. Instead, he’s focusing his creative energies on finally learning how to develop online videos and chats. The result? After Covid is over, he will have his own mini production studio.  In fact, he and I want to video tape our chats as he cuts and styles my hair in real time!

We may be inclined to ignore our need for beauty — after all, people around us are truly suffering.  I’m appealing to you all NOT to do that.  We should seek out beauty.  It nourishes us emotionally and fuels us creatively.

Our discussions have evolved over the course of the few we’ve done.  I’ll be sharing the key insights and videos from those chats in the coming posts.  Stay tuned!

Despite What David Brooks Says, We Can Experience the Deeper, More Spiritual Side of Beauty

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The world-renowned New York Times columnist and author, David Brooks, published a piece on Friday that initially depressed me.  In his Op-Ed, “When Beauty Strikes,” Brooks laments our lack of deep appreciation for the spiritual gifts of beauty — an appreciation that dwindled after the end of the era of Humanism.  Brooks writes:

“These days we all like beautiful things.  Everybody approves of art.  But the culture does not attach as much emotional, intellectual or spiritual weight to beauty.”  He concludes with: “The shift to post-humanism has left the world beauty-poor and meaning-deprived.”

Of course I see his point. There is no doubt that in our current times of hyper-rationalism, we don’t have the same relationship to beauty as we once had.  We see it as something that defines things, like a nice object or people, versus something that stirs our souls.  It is often something we critique.

So is that it?  Should we just cry in our soup?  Can we change this?

I refuse to be deterred by Brooks article.  Not only do I believe we want to have a deeper connection to beauty, I think we are driving towards it more and more every day.

Why do I feel this so strongly?  Thanks to increasing globalization, we are being exposed to world views that challenge the assumptions that come with Western culture.  In Hinduism, for example, beauty is one of the “triad of ideals.”   “Appreciating beauty fully and in the right manner is to experience Brahmananda—the joy of being one with the universal one.” (Source: What When How)

Also, in this digital age, our relationship to beauty and creativity has changed dramatically.  The internet has helped us create, capture and communicate in a much more visual, aural and creative manner than mere words ever can.  We now observe the world differently thanks to our smart phones.  Open up a Facebook page, there’s no question visual communication is far more disruptive and engaging.  And our access to beauty is so much greater!  Look at the picture I used for this post.  This was among thousands that I was able to get my hands on in a matter of seconds.

And with the advent of digital, came the ability to put our creativity to amazing use.  Sure, sometimes we just want to upload something silly.  But the act of developing pictures, creating and editing videos and music, even mashing up others’ clips is not just fun.  It is exciting, mentally engaging and, yes, even spiritual sometimes. What better way to appreciate beauty than when we are creators of it!  No doubt this creative process taps a powerful, spiritual side of us.

Do I agree that our culture often has an unfortunate relationship with beauty?  Hell yes!  But do I think we should be resolved to live with it?  No way.  And the good news is that there are ways to tap the more spiritual side of beauty.  We can seek out the interpretations offered by other cultures, and we can continue to push our own creativity.  We are seeing changes in Western culture thanks to digital, and especially social media, and how these have affected the ways we interact and see our world.  Let’s harness these changes to help us reconnect with beauty in deeper, more powerful and more fulfilling ways.

 

“87% of girls aged 11-21 think women are judged more on their appearance than on their ability” And What We Can Do to change that

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I came across this stat in a study conducted by Girl Guiding, a charity for girls and young women in the U.K.  Though the study is a few years old, it was recently quoted in a Guardian article, “From Social Media to the Catwalk: Is Fantasy Beauty Failing Young Women?”

As you can imagine from the article’s title, the Guardian story reflects on the preponderance of images of models and idealized portraits of women in social media, and how this imagery gives false and harmful notions to our girls about their own bodies.  The statistic is indeed alarming, and unfortunately a belief that will be hard to break.  Why?  Not so much because of the actual imagery put out there.  Frankly, I think we, as a society, have begun to show a greater range of what’s considered beautiful.  After all, Kim Kardashian in by no means a size 0.  And digital’s ability to cross borders means we get to see images of people from all different ethnicities and backgrounds that we never have before.  Check out the posts I wrote: Beauty From Around the World and Why It’s Contagious  or What’s the Definition of Beauty Anyway?  (a story celebrating people with “abnormalities”) both of which tap into digital’s revealing of new ways to think about beauty.  Do I think we can go even farther in presenting more realistic images of girls and women?  Sure!  But that’s not going to change our being judged by our looks.

The reason this will be a hard habit to break is that we are a visual species.  Our ability to analyze information is far more sophisticated and quicker via our eyes than via language.  That is why we’ve glommed on to all the photo taking, altering and sharing in the digital space.  And it’s not such a bad thing!  By taking, sharing, and appreciating images, we get to see a deeper story behind people’s lives.  Images give so much more texture than mere words.  Images offer nuance and emotional details that our texting would normally leave out.  Moreover, these images remind us of the tremendous beauty that’s around us or oceans away.  And that reminder elevates our daily lives — showing us how amazing our world truly is.

We make assumptions, draw conclusions and make judgments based on what we see, first.  Should we be content with the high percentage of girls who believe they are judged by what they look like alone?  Of course not.  We have to face the reality that our eyes will draw conclusions.  Let’s not ignore that.  What we can do is urge one another to not STOP at what we see, but rather dig into what’s behind the exterior.  And we must start with ourselves.

I actually think there’s even another way to look at this issue. Let’s not devalue the exterior beauty of what and who is around us. Let’s certainly NOT pretend it doesn’t exist. We SHOULD recognize it. In fact, let’s appreciate all people’s beauty, and recognize that how people uniquely appear is part of the story to be sussed out and listened to. It’s not an all or nothing proposition. We should value all the amazing characteristics of things and people — their unique beauty along with their origins, their stories, their talents and generosity. If we see — and remind our children and friends to see — that all people are a collection of traits, some physical, some emotional, some spiritual and some intellectual, we will value people as a whole that much more.

We have the amazing power to look AT and look INTO our world. Let’s do both and maybe that statistic will be a thing of the past.

 

Beautiful Protests: Don’t Dismiss Beauty Queens. The Chinese Govt is Downright Scared of Them & for Very Good Reason!

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There’s a lot of different ways to protest.  Unfortunately, we’ve seen some of the worst of them over the past few weeks.  But, for the most part, challenging the status quo, the social wrongs we see, or just plain ol’ anachronistic thinking is an incredibly valuable and innate human behavior.  And, tonight being the first night of Hannukah — a commemoration of the Maccabees’s protest against the repressive Greek regime of their day — it’s only fitting to celebrate it!

The more tyrannical or oppressive the object of our protest, the more crafty, clever and creative we must be in our rebellious acts.  We can’t always march in the street or publish our thinking.  We need to use what we have at our disposal.  And that is exactly what a few feisty beauty queens did as they protested against the Chinese government.  Over the course of the last few days, I saw news story after new story highlighting not just one, but two, beauty pageants that have enraged the Chinese government.

At the Miss Earth beauty pageant, the contestant from Taiwan, Ting Wen-yin, refused to change her sash from “Miss Taiwan ROC” to “Miss Chinese Taipei.”  Her explanation: “I was born in Taiwan, my sash now says Taiwan, I represent Taiwan, and I’m going to use the name of Taiwan in appearing at this pageant.”  She also shared in social media the horrible treatment that all the contestants were subjected to like not being served some meals and forced to attend night clubs to flirt with men.  The result? She was reprimanded, banned from certain activities, and not allowed to be in pictures.  Eventually she was kicked out all together. (For more of the story, read here)

Around the same time, another story hit the news stream about Anastasia Lin, a Chinese-born woman who was crowned Miss Canada.  She has been using the pageant’s platform and the subsequent press coverage to speak against the Chinese government.  She has also created films and written essays to share the corruption and repressive acts of her former government.  And the Chinese leadership was pissed.  Majorly.  They tried to ban her from the Miss Universe pageant.  This, of course, backfired creating an even bigger uproar and heightening her efforts that much more.

Needless to say, the Chinese government is super skittish now when it comes to beauty pageants.

What these stories show us is that the “popular” cultural activities, like beauty pageants (and the people who participate in them) which we may snicker at, can play a powerful role in society.  While I have a hard time endorsing the parading of women around in bathing suits, I also have the seen the power of these “institutions.”  Since the beginning of time and into today, pageants have served as spaces where women could achieve something — whether a way out of poverty or a podium to protest.    I applaud Lin and Wen-yin who not only risked their success to tell their stories, but who realized how to best use the gifts they had and the circumstances they found themselves in, i.e., beauty contests, to do it.  Would they have been listened to if they didn’t use this platform?  Maybe…but, then again, maybe not.

It’s easy for us to look down at people who want to show off and get rewarded for their physical beauty.  But many of us aren’t in the same social, economic and political situations as these people.  Moreover, when beauty contestants use their beauty, and the pageants that showcase their beauty, in ways that most of us wouldn’t have the guts to, how can we NOT admire them?

Lesson here? First, let’s never ever assume that beauty queens are dumb.  Second, we shouldn’t assume that the popular, seemingly frivolous events, like beauty contests, don’t have a potential role for social betterment.  Finally, let’s appreciate the fact that we live in a society where we CAN protest a multitude of ways without fear of reprisal.

 

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.