Finally Going East: Creating Ties Through Beauty and Culture

As I hinted in my last post, there were some changes going on with my website which was why I’ve been a bit delinquent about my posts.

Well, I’m happy to announce that I’m officially a member X UNIPX INFLUENCE Program!  In other words, I’m now acting as an influencer in the Chinese market leveraging UNIPX media platforms which focus on pop culture, lifestyle, media and entertainment.  Here is a recent article my friends at UNIPX published that effectively introduces me to the market as a strategist and lover of all things beauty (It’s super easy to translate into English :)).

While I’m going to represent one of many different points of view from the U.S. market, I realize I need to wrap my head around views of beauty in Chinese culture too.  As you can imagine this can be a life long pursuit, but even just peering in to this new world could be give some insight.

So the first thing I did was look into my past research.  To explain to my colleagues and clients how views of beauty differ across cultures, I compared how Americans vs French, Russian and Chinese natives interpret beauty.   Initially I jumped into social media and published research.  While it’s a few years old (I’m looking forward in my new role to motivate me to do update this), and I’ve had to generalize a bit, I believe some of these themes stand the test of time.   What intrigued me the most, and it surfaces in the article written about me linked above, is the true duality of inner and outer beauty in China.  While concepts of inner beauty are in “vogue” in Western culture, when we talk about beauty, let’s face it, we are really referring to our outer appearances.  From an outer beauty perspective, the Chinese tend to view a healthy body and skin, as well as white skin, and an sense of approachability as attractive.

As a woman wrote in social media (translated into English): “Actually health is beauty.  It’s better to get up early, do some exercise everyday and focus on the balance of whole body.”

At the same time, Chinese culture deems traits like confidence, intelligence and honorability as beautiful.  As another stated:

“Out long tradition emphasizes more the inner beauty of a woman.  Beauty is not only your appearance but also your charm, characteristics and nobility…..”

Of course this is only scratching the surface. But imagine if we started thinking about or appreciating beauty this way. I’m not saying that all the Chinese notions of beauty will be right for us here. In fact, maybe by sharing some of our more enlightened notions of beauty with them we can all grow. I’m looking forward to learning more about these differences, experiencing and adopting some of them myself.

Speaking of experiencing them, I tried to do just that.  While I couldn’t take the next flight to Beijing, I did the best I could and headed down to NYC’s famous Chinatown to explore the beauty world.  I went shopping with my friend, Kristi, at the neighborhood beauty shops, and indulged in some beauty treatments a few weeks later.  Not surprisingly, the shops offered way more beauty products from Korea and Japan than from China.   But that didn’t stop us from partaking. 🙂

In terms of beauty treatments, I went on a lark to a place that had a website offering manicure and blow outs on Canal St.  The manicure didn’t seem any different than one I would get at a typical salon uptown.  But the hair experience certainly was.   (Let me caveat by saying this is certainly not a comparison of all Chinatown salons since I only went to one. )  The first thing that happened was I was asked to sit on one the of the blow out chairs while a woman covered my collar in plastic.  She then gave me a 5 minute shoulder massage — which was awesome.  Here is where it gets really interesting: while I’m sitting there, she takes the shampoo, pours it on my head while another woman squeezes water out from a plastic bottle to be mixed with the shampoo.  The first woman washes and massages my scalp for another 5 minutes as I’m sitting right next to a gentleman getting his hair cut.  So I’m thinking, do they not have sinks?  What’s the deal?  They do! I know because after the 5 minute wet hair massage I’m led to the sinks where my hair is rinsed and rewashed and then conditioned.  Clearly a healthy, clean scalp and head of hair is a MUST!

Another interesting difference between “western” blowouts and and the ones I experienced myself or saw on others in the salon, is emphasis on smooth and straight (vs full volume).  I was not surprised at this look given the high preponderance of Japanese straightening products that have made their way around the globe, and especially in Asia.  Given the humidity and my general lifestyle the look lasted a day or so but experience was a blast.

No doubt beauty is more than skin deep.  But I’m not referring just to inner beauty.  Rather I speaking about how much beauty is a product and reflection of culture.  While there may universal truths about physical symmetry and health as markers of beauty, it’s so evident how our rituals around, beliefs of and issues with beauty tells us a world of information regarding our values, social politics, environment and the list goes.  This is one of the key goals of Beautyskew: to shed light on culture through the lens of beauty. More than that, as evidence of my new relationship with UNIPX media, beauty can be a vehicle to connect with and learn from others, even those from a totally different world.

Needless to say, I’m looking forward to this great new relationship, sharing what I know and learning from others too, maybe just maybe, helping to build some amazing bridges.

To get a taste of some of the Chinese-American beauty influencers on U.S. soil, check out Soothingsista and Francis Lola.

The Other Side to Media’s Unrealistic Depictions of Beauty

Apologies for the break in posts over the past few weeks.  I’ve been cooking up a whole new aspect to my blog!  Stay tuned for the upcoming changes.

Courtesy of Numero Magazine

I was flying back from Paris last week and picked up the August issue of Numero magazine in the airport.  Though my French is terrible, my eye sight isn’t, so I relished in the magazine’s beautiful imagery.  But nothing blew me away as much as the amazing spread by Sophia Sanchez and Mauro Mongiello.  Of course the photography was gorgeous and the fashion beautiful.  What stopped me in my tracks, though, were the striking images of young and older women (see pic above).  Despite my heavy load, I knew I had to carry that magazine with me all the way home.  This photoshoot elated me.  And it confirmed what I’ve been believing for a while.  Let’s not fear and reject media outright for it’s shaming of men and women.  Instead, let’s find ways to uplift it.

As a young strategic planner at DDB in the 90’s, I couldn’t escape all of the famous quotes from legendary ad man and founder, Bill Bernbach.  As you’d expect I barely remember most of them but a few have stuck.  One that has influenced me throughout my career, and frankly kept me connected to the marketing and advertising business as long as I have, was this:

“All of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society. We can vulgarize that society. We can brutalize it. Or we can help lift it onto a higher level.”

Today, media, especially social media, is often vilified for projecting unrealistic, negative, stereotypical imagery of people.  And it can lead to the vulgar sides of society: body shaming, poor self image and crazy standards.  As a mother of girl entering puberty, I’m acutely aware of this.  Plus, I often catch myself measuring my looks against these standards.

But can we recognize the opportunity the media affords us too?

For better or for worse, we are visual creatures.  We are drawn to imagery, especially images of people.  Moreover, we are fundamentally attracted to beauty — beautiful people, beautiful images, and beautiful things.  Of course we have different interpretations of beauty.  But the truth they appeal to us… greatly.   And because we’re that much more likely to focus on a picture or video than sit down and read an essay, or listen to a pundit speak, we are likely to let these new notions of beauty and self-expression penetrate.

We could just bemoan today’s media or we could use our tendency towards beauty, and the media that leverages, it to “uplift”society, rather than “vulgarize it.”

How?

First, let’s use the plethora of imagery to spark a conversation with our kids.  We can ask them how they feel about it and how to view it all with a realistic eye.  Through that conversation we may venture into much larger issues of body image, aging, and confidence.

Second, we can influence media to push for more inclusive imagery.   And it’s happening already!  Media is starting to hear us.  A recent article in Digiday references the numerous examples from beauty and fashion magazines that are now reflecting the many different forms of gender, ethnicity, body type and age.

Finally, because we know we are attracted to such imagery, the world of beauty and fashion can be a vehicle for even greater social change!  This same article gave us two great quotes, one from Jenny Bailly, Allure’s executive beauty editor, and the other from, Cat Quinn of Refinery29, which summarized this well:

“Beauty is a great vehicle for driving conversations about social change, because it’s accessible to everyone,” said Quinn, of Refinery29. It’s a topic that many argue lends itself easily to the bigger picture. “When we talk to Halima or [trans model] Andreja Pejic, or [boy beauty star] James Charles, or a young woman on a reservation in Montana about hair and makeup, we’re also having intimate conversations about where they’ve come from, what they believe in and how they interact with the world,” said Bailly.

Let’s not expect to shield our children entirely from the imagery around us, or even poo poo it.  Plus, we all know they find ways to see to it anyway.  Instead let’s embrace the imagery.  Let’s use it as a forum for discussion, and even encourage our friends and our kids to let media outlets know what they want to see projected.  After all, isn’t that the beauty of social media?  Everyone has a voice :).

The Election, Ugliness and the Potential for Beauty that is Before Us

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Last week I wrote about the ironic, beautiful power of ugliness. This week I believe it that much more.

Like so many of us, I had no possible idea how this week would actually turn out.  I’ve seen so many of us in shock, so many of us horrified and so many of us saddened.  I saw many of my friends and co-workers absent Wednesday.  They were literally immobilized.

But, I’m seeing something beautiful too.  I’m seeing my older son irate, passionate and communicative about our leadership.  I’m seeing my community look deeply within themselves to ask “why?”  I’m seeing people realizing that their daughters’ confidence, the amazing diversity of our country, and are ability to show love for others, should NOT be taken for granted.

Of course I’m scared.  Of course, I’m in shock and sickened.  I was so excited to be able to demonstrate to my daughter how powerful we, women, are and can be.

But, I must see this election as a wake up call.  I must react.  This is a lesson for us.  We have to care of our country — which includes EVERYONE.  We can’t assume everyone is fine or agrees with our values.  If we violently disagree with people, we can’t brush them off.  We have to understand them, and work hard to connect.

The morning after the election, I sent this short message to my team:

No question this was a doozy.  But here’s how I’m looking at this:

We can’t look down on society, we just have to set the example instead.  We need to be super encouraging to our daughters/young girls in our lives, extra generous, and loving to everyone from EVERYWHERE.

Lots of love for you all, A

Let’s use this as an opportunity to open our eyes to our OWN behavior.  Of course we have to express ourselves.  Maybe I’m too much a product of being in a engineering company, but I truly believe that it’s way more important what we DO than what we SAY.   When you’ve finished mourning, make extra effort to be wonderful, open-minded, socially active people.  When we demonstrate generous behavior, others will mirror us.

We had an ugly week.  But that ugliness just may have given us the impetus to be and act more beautiful than ever before.

Pant Suits & Misogyny: Don’t Let Election Ugliness Stop Our Daughters From Feeling Beautiful

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In response to all the conversations about beauty, pant suits and femininity in this election, writer and producer, Alli Joseph, wrote a thought-provoking article about beauty and raising girls.   Joseph doesn’t so much dwell on sensational elections talk, though.  Instead she pushes us, parents, to rethink how we teach our daughters about the importance of valuing beauty.

To raise independent, powerful girls, she explains that we should encourage our daughters to explore and enjoy their beauty.  Now that may seem totally counter to what we are all feeling right now.   After all, look at how women are demeaned by people like Donald Trump who seem to value our appearance over all other traits.   And there’s no question we are all applauding Michelle Obama right now for her speech about our girls being WAY more than just pretty faces, and they need to be protected from beliefs and behaviors of people like Trump.

But Joseph advises us NOT to eschew conversations and behaviors around beauty with our daughters.  In fact, we MUST have them.  And in spite of the climate, I feel the same way.

This story reminded me of a post I wrote a number of years ago after chatting with Sheila Kelly, actress and founder of the S Factor — essentially pole dancing for exercise and feminine awakening.  I was telling Sheila how impressed I was with author and TV personality, Lisa Bloom‘s post from 2011, “How to Talk to Little Girls” and I how I wrote a post about it.  Lisa was urging us all not to fall into the common trap of telling girls how pretty they look when we first meet them — something culture has ingrained into us.  I wrote the following:

…Bloom recognizes the inclination we all have to compliment little girls on how adorable they look. But this act affects them in deep and not always positive ways.

How so?  There are stats showing how young girls are increasingly more concerned with being fat and wearing make-up to make themselves more beautiful than ever before.

Now, I’m not disparaging looking nice, or adults recognizing this, but if our first encounters with girls are all about how they look, of course they are going to think that their appearance is their most critical asset!

Bloom recommends we begin our conversations with little girls not with talking about their clothes but, instead, with questions about what they’re currently reading or their favorite books. Not only does this type of talk get them off the beauty talk but it shows that we value their brains first and foremost.

I was pretty pretty satisfied with my pov until Sheila set me straight.  She said we should celebrate our girls’ beauty otherwise they don’t know how to handle it as they age.  Ignoring this topic  could lead to bad consequences.  In a follow-up post, “What Shelia Taught Me”, I explained Sheila’s words:

Of course we should embrace the many different sides of girls. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ALSO compliment them on their beauty. In fact, we should instill a sense of confidence and ownership of our girls’ beauty. We shouldn’t ignore or downplay it but rather teach them how to live with it with pride and love.

Being beautiful isn’t shameful.  So why should beauty be downplayed versus other characteristics? It’s certainly not MORE important than other aspects of their personalities, but if we ignore their beauty or push it to the side our girls won’t know how to handle it. They may feel it’s not worthwhile. Or, as they age, they may not have the ability deal maturely and confidently with the positive attention they eventually do receive from others.

Like what Joseph realizes, if we DON’T embrace our daughters’ beauty, along with their other traits, we may be leading them down a confusing path later in life.  I’m not saying we should just remind our girls they are beautiful but truly address the topic and how they feel about if.  If we don’t, they may grow up relying solely on the impressions of others, like those of Donald Trump, or determine their beauty in potentially screwy ways because we haven’t set the right attitude.  Think about it, we teach our kids the difference between healthy and unhealthy eating habits, the difference between right and wrong, or to tell the truth vs lie.  Why?  So when they age and encounter challenges on their own, they know the best road to take.  So too, we should do the same with regards to their beauty.  We should make girls feel beautiful and encourage them to explore and express their beauty in safe and encouraging ways EARLY on.  That way they will feel more secure in how they see themselves later in life.

I have a daughter.  And there is no way I want her taken advantage of, degraded or abused in ANY way for her beauty.  But I also want her to cherish ALL the sides of herself. I want her to learn that beauty is just another wonderful way — along with being curious, strong, smart, friendly, etc — of being human.

Can Technology Be Biased? This Beauty Contest Reveals How Much

 

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Before I start, allow me to thank you all for your super interesting comments on last week’s post.   I love hearing and learning from all of you!

And now for our regularly scheduled program…:)

For about a year I’ve come across a few stories about beauty contests being judged by robots, that is Artificial Intelligence.   By measuring people’s (let’s face it, women’s) facial structures these robots can accurately determine beauty.  And given the judges are robots versus actual humans, we assume that the judgements are devoid of cultural or ethnic biases.  I’ve read these stories with mild interest.  But this time, a recent story stuck with me…and not in a good way.

I’m sure such a contest raises a whole host of issues for many of you.  First, I imagine many of you oppose such contests — humans or no humans as judges.  How can one judge beauty anyway?  Second, so much of physical beauty emanates from within.  I’m not talking about inner beauty.  That’s a whole other subject.  I’m talking about the energy, the light, the passion that springs forth from someone making then either more or less beautiful.  Can a robot really judge that?

But those issues aside, my biggest concern with this contest is what is conveys about technology as a whole.  The results of these contests showed how actually, how terribly biased A.I. can be!

According to this article in NextWeb, the contest drew over 6,000 applications from across 100 countries. And despite the obvious diversity of beauty that the robots were exposed to, out of the 44 winners, only a few were Asian, one was black, and the rest were white.  None had dark skin.

WTF!

Are the foolproof “complex algorithms” that biased?  I’m afraid so.  How can that be?  Easy.  A human being has designed them that way.  And that’s pretty scary.

I’m not saying the engineers behind the algorithms intentionally developed them to be pro white.  It’s just that bias is going to inevitable when the majority of the brilliant brains behind the development of technology are of a certain gender, ethnic background or culture.  No matter how much we try to rid ourselves of our biases, it’s super, super hard to erase the ones we don’t even know we have.

If technology can be biased when it comes to beauty, could it also be biased when it comes to truly understanding the user and what s/he needs?  Or can it be biased with regards to places on the map or particular destinations?  You get the point.

So what do we do?  It’s not a new news that we should push harder for diversity our work places.  It makes for diversity of thought and ideas.  But it goes deeper than that.  Diversity ensures that the seemingly “judge-free,” non-biased technologies we create actually hold up to that expectation.  When humans are led by their biases, we forgive them.  Because, well, it’s “human” not to be perfect.  But technology shouldn’t make mistakes, right?  It can’t be biased.  So if technology, or in this case A.I., declares someone fit or beautiful or smart, well then it must be so!    And the result?  People deem the seemingly unbiased robots as arbiters of truth.

I’m not the first person to call for more diversity.  It’s a MUST.  But I’m also calling on all of us to challenge our notions of how “smart” our technology really is.  Believe me, I LOVE technology.  I’m benefiting from it in all aspects of my life, and, most, importantly in my job.  But let’s realize that behind all technology are human beings.  This recognition should mostly strike a sense of admiration in human kind. After all it takes a buttload of brilliance to be creating the amazing technology we have, and will have in the coming years.  But it should also open our eyes to that fact that technology isn’t fool proof, totally unbiased or “right” all the time.

Let’s remember, human beings are the smartest, most elegant and beautiful “machines” that exist.  We are complex, emotional and gorgeous in so many diverse ways.  We don’t need a technology-driven beauty contest to prove that.

9/11, A Case for Beauty & My Return

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This is my first post since June. For those of you who follow my posts on Beautyskew, you know this is unusual. I tend to post at least once per week. Not once every few months.

Where was I all this time?

And why am I posting today of all days?

The reason for my hiatus isn’t a bad one. I wasn’t terribly overworked or recovering from some illness. On the contrary! I had a wonderful summer full of fun, travel and first-time experiences. I was “quiet” because I decided to expand my online presence from Beautyskew.com to a full site, abigailposner.com, of which Beautyskew is a part. And this meant me spending time on site development versus writing. The new site allows me to share some other sides to myself while also sharing my love for beauty in culture. ( Check it out and let me know what you think. :))

Man, I missed writing so I’m thrilled to be back!

Why did I choose today, the anniversary of the worst act of terrorism on U.S. soil, to post? I post about beauty, after all. What a terrible, ugly, day to post about something so wonderful, right?

I remember 9/11 as if it were yesterday. I was living a few blocks above Hell’s Kitchen in New York City, and I had given birth to my first son, Elijah, only 14 days earlier. Had it been any other year, I would have walked to work that day. And I would have seen one of the planes flying very low overhead in preparation for the first strike. Instead I was going back to sleep after one of my son’s many morning feedings. No sooner had my head hit the pillow that my brother called me all the way from Israel. He had heard about the attack before I had. I rushed to turn on the TV and saw the images of the Twin Towers in flames.

Needless to say, I spent almost my entire maternity leave with one eye glued to the news in horror. But my other eye was focused on my son as I joyfully watched my new beautiful baby grow.

I’m sure you all have memories of that day — and they may be far worse than mine.

So why am I returning to post about beauty TODAY? It’s moments like this when we must remember that there is beauty in the world. And even more importantly, that we have the potential to create even more of it. The Freedom Tower isn’t just a memorial, or a sign to the world that we’ve persevered. It’s an example of our human capacity for brilliance, beauty and craft. Creating things of beauty, especially on top of ugliness, shows human beings’ amazing sense of imagination and our ability to make things better. And it’s this knowledge of our own agency — the belief that we have the power to make manifest our visions of beauty and creativity — that can overcome our feelings of helplessness, anger, and shame, i.e., the very feelings that push so many towards acts of hatred.

15 years later (and two more children for me :)), I’m not saying we shouldn’t mourn. We must. But let’s also remember that there’s beauty, and more importantly, the potential for beauty, all around us. And by recognizing, sharing and creating more of it, we can create a more just, humane and lovely world.

Beautiful Rebellion: When Media Breaks Down the Walls of Segregation

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The media, especially advertising, is often criticized for our warped expectations of beauty. There is no doubt about it: photoshopping, highly sexualized portraits and impossibly thin models, create unrealistic — even harmful — visions of the ideal. We just love to lambast the media, and I get it.

But then there are those instances when advertising becomes a source of progress. It challenges the status quo and pushes us to demand a better way. Even in the world of beauty.

Take the recent campaign by Shea Moisture, “Break the Walls.”  Shea Moisture is a line of skin and haircare products primarily for people of color. This ad, and the accompanying YouTube film, shed light on the segregation of “ethnic” beauty products to the a small portion of the beauty aisle.  As the spot points out, there the a beauty aisle for white people, and there is the ethnic aisle for everyone else.  The implication: white people are beautiful, others are, well, “ethnic,” i.e., not beautiful.  The hell with that!  The video dramatically shows the aisles blowing up as a metaphor for breaking our assumptions about what beauty is. It’s great!

As someone who grew up in the world of advertising, I see both sides.  I realize that we, in media, can present unrealistic worlds of exceedingly happy families, the glory of wealth and prestige, or flawless beauties.  But, I still believe that there are, and bear witness to, those times when advertising can raise our awareness to society’s ills a suggest a better way.  When I worked in the ad industry, believe me, all we wanted to create was something meaningful, no matter how idealistic our clients were. Given my years at DDB, I still can’t help but quote Bill Bernbach who said:

“All of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society. We can vulgarize that society. We can brutalize it. Or we can help lift it onto a higher level.”

For any of us who create media in some shape or form, let’s always strive to lift our world to a higher level.  And for those of us who merely engage with it (all of us, actually), let’s not just view it with a disdainful eye but fully embrace and applaud those advertisers and media makers who help lift it for us.