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Posts Tagged ‘beauty’

Lately I’ve been feeling like a bad feminist.

It kicked up a gear last month when my feminist book club read Feminism is for Everyone, by bell hooks. I learned a lot from the book, but the entire time I was reading it, I was thinking, “Wow, I feel like I’m really falling short, and I don’t even really understand how.” It talked about raising consciousness, and I’m pretty sure my consciousness is completely NOT raised. Whatever that means.

This month we’re reading Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay, which is making for a nice change of pace. Roxane Gay is smart and insightful and funny, and she also seems like she isn’t perfect, which is reassuring since I am also far from perfect.

For example, I have this fascination with eye makeup. It all started when my friend was visiting this coast from Boston, and the friends he was staying with invited me to stay for dinner. It was a lovely evening of good food and even better company, but I kept being distracted by the woman’s eyelashes. She had AMAZING eyelashes. And I was sitting there at the table, wondering if she glued on fake eyelashes every morning or if she was able to work these wonders with mascara, and if so, why had I never been able to work similar wonders with mascara?

Thus began my fascination. It started with mascara experimentation, but after some months I branched out to an interest in eyeliner and different colors of eye shadow. And a few weeks ago I took a field trip to Sephora and obtained this fat eyeliner pencil that is a modern wonder of cosmetics.

Flawed Feminist

Flawed Feminist

And every time I play with eye makeup, I know I’m probably being a bad feminist. I’m propagating a certain ideal of feminine beauty, and I guess as a feminist I’m supposed to deliberately subvert that ideal, and I don’t. I get almost as annoyed when people imply I shouldn’t wear makeup as I do when people imply I must wear makeup. I want to look the way I want to look, and I want to wear what I want to wear, and I don’t want to care about the messages I’m sending or the subconscious misogynistic ideas I’ve no doubt internalized over the years. And so I wear makeup when I feel like wearing makeup.

Also, when I’m on a date with a guy, I allow him to pay. I’m pretty sure a good feminist would not do this. My rule is never assume, but accept graciously. I cannot pretend that this is motivated by anything but self-interest. I don’t want to get into an argument about who’s paying for dinner (conflict adverse, me?), and also, it’s really nice when someone buys you dinner. The allure of free food and being fed, which to all rights should have died down after college, remains strong. The allure of being treated remains strong. It’s also super unfair, and I know this, and yet. I accept graciously.

Even my language is suspect, and for a writer, this is inexcusable. I like to say and write “you guys.” I like to say, “Man.” I know a good feminist would never say or write these things. And I do try to avoid this gendered language sometimes, especially in tweets. But there aren’t any good alternatives! I’ve tried “you all,” but I’m not from Texas and I’ll never be from Texas. “You people” is horrible. “Friends” sometimes works, but not always. And the best substitutes for “Man” are all profanity. So I have to choose between saying “Man” and swearing a lot.

I imagine if I had my consciousness raised, I wouldn’t do any of these things. I’d effortlessly never say “you guys” and I wouldn’t wear any makeup EVER EVER and I’d insist on going Dutch every single time. So where does this leave me?

I guess it leaves me far from perfect. But that doesn’t mean feminism isn’t important to me. That doesn’t mean being a feminist isn’t part of my identity. I think what it really means is that I’m human and flawed and complicated, and aren’t we all?

You guys, I’m a bad feminist. But even so, I’d rather be a bad feminist grappling with these issues than not be a feminist at all.

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Around my birthday, I received a request to write on the blog about my thoughts on aging. It’s a fabulous topic but oh so loaded, so I’ve spent the last few weeks thinking about what to say.

I could spend the next five hundred words dancing around the topic, and we all might be a little more comfortable if that’s what I did (I certainly would), but here’s the truth. My views on aging are inescapably tied to my own present experience, and my own present experience is as a woman of a certain age, and a single woman, no less. And what society and the media tells me about women like me is not palatable. I have to expend a certain amount of energy rejecting the negative messages I’m receiving, and even so, I sometimes internalize them by accident.

This is not pretty, but it is reality.

Like it or not, we live in a society that places a very high value on youth and on physical appearance. Women in particular receive constant messages from a very young age that their primary value comes from their appearances, appearances that will inevitably, because of our cultural beauty standard, fade with age. Aging, then, forces us to redefine our own value and place in the world. Women are also more likely to be defined in media by their relationships to others. By a certain age, if they’re in the movies at all, they’re most often somebody’s mother or somebody’s wife, and beyond these roles, they aren’t very fleshed out. (Television seems to do a bit better, which is why I adore Gilmore Girls, for example, in which the main character Lorelai, in spite of being a mother, consistently defines herself.)

So there are some obvious problems here, and earlier this year, I began to feel a new uneasiness about my age. I heard a comment about how it’s all downhill for a woman after 30, and I was unable to deflect. So instead I felt anxious and self-conscious about my age, and then I hit a mini-crisis point. A new acquaintance asked me point-blank how old I was, and my knee jerk response was to refuse to answer. That had never been who I was–I’ve never had any problem telling someone how old I am–but in that moment, I saw that it could become who I was, that I had begun to buy into the absurdity of belittling myself because of my age.

I had reached a crossroads, and after some reflection, I realized that no, this was not okay. We have to embrace who we are–ALL of who we are–and our ages are a part of that. There is nothing to be ashamed of there, whatever society may tell us, and if the question is framed in such a way as to create that shame, that’s on the other person. If my answer causes disappointment or judgment, well, that’s not a person who is going to enrich my life in any case.

And I told the acquaintance my age without apology.

When I contemplated which candles to buy for my “Come as You Aren’t” party, I decided to buy 5 and 0 because if I was coming as I wasn’t, I wanted to come older than I am. I wanted to say, my life would be just as awesome the way it is if I were 50. My age does not matter. My life is defined by myself and by the priorities I have carefully chosen. Not by my appearance. Not by my relationships to others. By me.

You know what I'm not thinking here? "Do I look old?" Nah, I'm thinking, lightsabers and tiaras and this is the first time I've worn a tie, oh my!

You know what I’m not thinking here? “Do I look old?” Nah, I’m thinking, lightsabers and tiaras and this is the first time I’ve worn a tie, oh my!

And I like being who I am. I feel more attractive than I did ten years ago, and I feel more comfortable in my own skin. I have such a greater understanding of who I am. When I look in the mirror, I don’t think, “Wow, I look old.” I think, “Hey, I look happy today” or “I’m tired, I need to start going to bed earlier” or “I need to open my mouth more vertically for that belted note” or even “I like the way I look.” Heaven forbid.

We think so much about age as a physical thing, and in particular how it affects the way we look. But part of age is very much an internal thing. Sometimes I feel vastly old, and sometimes I feel bright and new. (This feeling may or may not be correlated to how much sleep I’ve been getting.) Sometimes I have the enthusiasm of a five-year-old, and other times I have the world-weariness of a sixty-five-year-old. I can be as naive as a ten-year-old and as wise as a seventy-year-old. All on the same day!

Much more important to keep in mind, then, is a commitment to openness, to change, to flexibility and resilience. Much more important to cultivate is a sense of humor. Much more important to remember is to see the beautiful parts of the world as well as the painful parts in order to keep some lightness of spirit.

Because in the end what matters is not our age but who we have chosen to be in whatever time we’ve had.

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“Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place.”

—Kurt Vonnegut

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“This is just too hard.” I declare this late at night, tears streaming down my cheeks, head rested on my friend’s shoulder.

To be soft is to be vulnerable. And to be vulnerable is to have those moments when it seems impossible to continue.

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Photo Credit: Send me adrift. via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Send me adrift. via Compfight cc

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I tell my friend about a share my blog post about grief got on Facebook. “I have never experienced loss to this degree,” the person said about my post.

“Why?” I ask my friend. “I want to be the person who has never experienced loss. Why can’t I be that person?”

I have all the silver linings for loss and suffering memorized. They build character. They mean I am living life fully, that I am throwing myself fully into the world around me. They have helped me develop the resilience that allows me to pick myself afterwards and keep moving. They give me a depth of experience that I can use to help other people and that I can use to enrich my writing. I wouldn’t give up who I am today, and my experiences have shaped me.

But I’d be lying if I told you that whisper of “Why?” doesn’t linger in the background.

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We cannot erase the why. But there isn’t always an answer to that question. There isn’t always a reason.

Life doesn’t always have a satisfying narrative.

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We don’t get to determine why. But we can try to affect the how. We can strive to retain our softness, or we can allow ourselves to harden in defense. We can allow a moment of impossibility to extend to a lifetime, our doors remaining securely locked, or we can reject that idea and live to fling the door open once more. We can withdraw in fury or fear or hopelessness, or we can look for a way to give, to reach out, to make our time count.

We can believe the world is still a beautiful place. Maybe not all the world, and not all the time. But we can start with a small moment: the beginnings of a smile, the release of a sigh, the comfort of a hand on a shoulder.

Why? We do not know. But the beauty remains, if we allow ourselves to remember how to see it.

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Please note: This essay is not an invitation to comment on my physical appearance. Any such comments will be deleted, even if they are complimentary, because that is counterproductive to the point I’m trying to make.

When I was a teenager, it was very clear to me that it mattered very much how I looked.

And I looked all wrong. I had an awkward phase that lasted years and years, complemented by having a mother who took no interest in physical presentation. So I didn’t know what clothes to wear that would flatter me. I didn’t know how to take care of my hair, or how the right haircut could make a big difference. I learned everything I knew about makeup from Seventeen and being in the theater. The style of glasses at the time was unfortunately large.

Eventually I figured most of these things out. I got better glasses. I started getting my hair cut and learned of the wonder that is conditioner. A few female friends in college went shopping with me and taught me about non-baggy clothing, and I began to develop my own sense of style.

I recently read Justine Musk’s post about the perception that women tend to be vain, and it struck a real chord with me. She goes on to say: “Even today, in 2014, the culture transmits the message to girls and women that there’s a direct correlation between looking good and being loved – or at least not being openly mocked.”

A few years ago Lisa Bloom wrote about how difficult it can be to refrain from complimenting a little girl on her appearance at the beginning of an interaction. She makes the effort, engaging girls about their interests and thoughts instead, because “teaching girls that their appearance is the first thing you notice tells them that looks are more important than anything.”

I’ve been taught since I was quite young that a real part of my worth is in my appearance. How many movies have I seen where the awkward nerdy girl gets a makeover that consists of tossing her hair around and pulling off her glasses? And then suddenly she’s worthy of attention and love and respect. The Princess Diaries. She’s All That. My Big Fat Greek Wedding. If the Shoe Fits. Grease, Mean Girls, and The Cinderella Story sans the glasses part of the equation. And let’s not forget The Breakfast Club. If we look at the quintessential Cinderella fairy tale, sure, Cinderella is patient and good and virtuous. But she needs her fairy godmother’s help with a makeover in order to win the heart of a prince. (The class implications of many of these makeover stories are fascinating as well. See Pretty in Pink.) The theme of transformation can be a powerful one, and an outer change can act to highlight an internal change, but the message is still clear: you are judged by your external appearance.

Photo Credit: Camil Tulcan via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Camil Tulcan via Compfight cc

At the same time, women are criticized and called vain for caring about their looks. It’s a Catch-22 in which the “right” physical appearance is supposed to come naturally and effortlessly. We are not supposed to care about how we look, and we’re certainly not supposed to be aware of how we look (that would be conceited), but we are taught that our looks are paramount. And thus thinking we don’t look the right way leads to all kinds of psychological problems.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with experimenting with personal identity by having a makeover (or several). I don’t think there’s anything wrong with expressing who we are through our physical appearances. And how we hold our bodies can affect both how we feel about ourselves and how we are perceived. For better or for worse, the art of personal presentation, or style, if you will, can deeply affect how others see us.

But when we teach that physical beauty is the main path to love and worth as an individual, we are teaching shame. We are teaching people to hate their bodies, to be uncomfortable, that they are in some essential way not good enough. We are creating impossible situations. Would we prefer to be vain or unattractive? Must we fall into the small band that our society deems to be traditionally beautiful in order to receive respect? And what if we can’t?

And so we put on a tightrope act. I think of physical presentation as a kind of game, and I’ve learned enough of the rules and conform to enough of the standards that it’s no longer such a painful one. I usually know what rules I can get away with breaking, and I can get away with it because of the ways in which I already conform and the place where I live. Not everyone has these luxuries. Meanwhile, unplugging entirely from the game can come with its own consequences, not least among them having to live with the general consensus that it’s okay to make negative comments to someone else about their appearance.

For myself, I try not to confuse vanity and conceit with confidence. Having confidence in yourself, which includes your physical body, and becoming comfortable in your own skin is not something that is wrong or shameful. As Theodora Goss says in her post with advice about how to be photogenic: “You must believe you are beautiful.”

Yes. Yes, we must.

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Why I Need Beauty

Ever since Rahul wrote about beauty and how we don’t have the language to discuss it, I’ve been wanting to write about beauty. But it turns out he’s right, and it’s surprisingly difficult to talk about. For starters, beauty is measured so subjectively, and then I’m not used to saying anything about it except for, “Oh, isn’t that beautiful?” Which does not a blog post make.

But what I can talk about is what beauty means to me personally. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot of beauty as it pertains to my home, and how critical it is for my well-being to have some beauty in my surroundings. I felt silly about this too, I think because this is not something we normally talk about. This is not something I feel like I ought to expect or prioritize. Square footage or number and type of outlets or layout, no problem. But beauty? I feel spoiled for even considering it.

But as I thought about it more, I realized every place I’ve lived has had its beautiful aspects that I have loved. Most often, it’s about the trees. Redwoods grew right outside my windows in Santa Cruz, which I loved so much that whenever I’ve had the chance to live near redwoods, I’ve taken it. Another place had a beautiful bay window in the front, as well as this pleasant curving opening between the kitchen and the living room. One place had beautiful cherry flooring that shone in the sunlight. And another had quaint lace curtains that hung in the windows.

So in my recent search, I rejected place after place. They all had many additional problems, but the main problem as far as I was concerned was that they lacked beauty. There were no trees to love. They were dark, grimy, not cared for. They were in neighborhoods with chain link fences around each yard, or they smelled strange and I left with a sore throat, or they were in sterile communities where I wouldn’t feel happy walking Nala. After I left, I wasn’t thinking about this or that piece of beauty that had caught my imagination. Instead I was worrying about crime rates and how much water and garbage would cost and if I could impose enough of my personality on the place in spite of itself that I could be happy there.

Until I found my new place. Its main feature of beauty is a very tall window that pours light throughout the space. I fell in love with the sun, and that was that. I knew I could turn the place into a home.

What beauty means to me. Photo by Amy Sundberg.

What beauty means to me. Photo by Amy Sundberg.

Why does beauty matter so much? Whenever I witness beauty, I feel an easing in my chest. When I’m happy, beauty adds to my sense of appreciation, and when I’m sad, beauty reminds me that all is not lost. The world cannot be a truly desolate place for me when I’ve just seen a hummingbird zoom by or watched the clouds being perfectly reflected on a still lake surface or looked at my copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Head of a Woman.” It is why, last year when I was under so much stress, I instinctively went to my study and stared out at the tree outside, the piece of beauty that had persuaded me to choose to live here.

Beauty reminds me that there is more than whatever is going on for me in this moment.

Of course, there’s a lot more to beauty than what I’ve said so far. But this is, at least, a beginning.

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A few weeks ago I was asked to write an essay, and the only requirement was that it should be inspirational. At first I wasn’t too worried: People had told me they found my essays inspirational in the past, so it was obviously something of which I am capable. Then I started to overthink and wonder if I could be inspirational on command. And finally I was given a more narrow topic (kindness) and the rest is history.
In that middle stage of overthinking, I asked myself what I find inspirational. And the first thing I thought of was one of my favorite books, Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery.
I want to be Anne Shirley (the protagonist) when I grow up. I’ve wanted to be her since the first time I read the book, which I received on my ninth birthday, and I imagine I will always want this. Possibly one of the biggest compliments someone could pay me would be to compare me to Anne. (Not that this will ever happen, since people don’t tend to go around comparing people to fictional characters. Except for Fred from the TV show Angel. I get that comparison a lot.)

Why do I love Anne? She’s wildly imaginative and creative, she’s intelligent and ambitious, and she always has good intentions. But she’s not perfect; she makes mistakes all the time, and she has character flaws that she struggles with (her temper, her vanity, her tendency to look before she leaps, an imagination that is occasionally a little bit too good). Her imperfections make her human, make her someone I can aspire to be. Perhaps L.M. Montgomery included so many faults because of the conventions of that era’s children’s literature to include morality lessons, but to me it never comes across as preaching.

At the beginning of the first book, Anne’s had a really hard life. She’s a poor orphan who has spent all of her life in and out of various dysfunctional foster families and institutions. Her schooling has been irregular, and she hasn’t been treated particularly well. She has every reason in the world to be hard, bitter, distrusting, and unpleasant. No one would blame her if she felt depressed or discouraged. But instead, Anne reframes her own life and takes control of her own story. She uses her imagination to create her own best friends and to make her world more beautiful. She notices and appreciates the little things. She has a warm open heart and the ability to find kindred spirits everywhere she goes, even when the world doesn’t initially appear very friendly. She bravely learns from her mistakes and keeps moving forward. She rises above her initial circumstances and goes on to create a life for herself filled with love, friends, scholarship, and beauty.

Through Anne’s story, we get a glimpse of a better world. One of the recurring plots in the first three novels (those are the ones I’ve read over and over because I can’t quite handle the idea of Anne grown up after college) is how Anne affects the people around her. She meets people who at first glance are difficult and curmudgeonly, and she influences them for good. She has such an open, kind heart herself, and she spreads it to the people with whom she interacts. She charms people with her refreshing sincerity and genuine good will, and she brings out the best in them. In the world of Anne of Green Gables, kindness and good intentions prevail.

I don’t believe that this idealized world is the one we actually live in. But it is the world that I wish we lived in, and my vision of it inspires me to do my little part in bringing it closer to reality. I want to be like Anne, bringing hope and beauty wherever I go and lighting up the world with my presence. I want to emerge from adversity still in touch with the joys of life and determined to learn from my mistakes. I want to inspire others the way Anne (and through her L.M. Montgomery) inspires me.

What’s the first thing to come to mind when you think of inspiration? What are the books or movies, characters or real-life people who drive you forward? What inspirational influences do you think have been especially critical for you?

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1. Being in a foreign country, even one in which they speak my native language, forces me to see.  It shines a light on the world around me, but even more important, it opens myself up.  Whatever I’ve been trying to ignore, whatever I’ve been trying to leave behind me unexamined, well, there it is.  I return to the U.S. a different person from when I left.

2. The day we leave, we decide to get a cab after all because it’s raining, and slogging to the Tube with all the luggage and the wet only to squeeze into the steaming commute-time train sounds distinctly unappealing.  Plus I barely slept the night before.  Our cab driver talks to us the entire drive to the airport.  He is worried about the foreign embassy workers who won’t pay their parking tickets.  It’s mostly the Arabs, he says.  He’s been to Florida and Disney World, and he wonders if California is the same.  It’s not, I say.  Then it begins to snow in light swirling flakes.

3. It’s maybe one in the morning as I enter the large square room laid bare by its strong fluorescent lighting.  I instantly want to back out and run the other direction, but I’m an adult now and I have to deal with things like this.  I sit in the dentist’s chair in the otherwise bare room, noting how there is absolutely no high-tech equipment in sight.  No, wait, there’s a box that looks like a machine of some kind.  Until I realize it’s an old PC vintage 1998.  Not reassuring.  The assistant, wearing baggy white clothes that remind me of the gangster rapper wannabes at my high school, looks like he’s not more than eighteen.  He tells me, without knowing anything about my case, that it will either be a root canal or an extraction.  I laugh nervously and try to make a joke, only to realize that he is completely serious.  Those are the two things that happen in this room.  The dentist holds the X-ray up to the light, does a bunch of fast talking, tries to make me feel stupid and small, but luckily I’m too stubborn for that.  No way do I need a root canal in the middle of the night with old instruments and two assistants who cover themselves from head to foot with plastic bags.  I wonder about the sanitation.  I leave.  My cheek doesn’t swell up horribly the way he said it would if I didn’t get treated, so I feel pretty good about that decision.

4. Shiny twinkle lights adorn every shopping area in London.  Oxford Street is a steady stream of shoppers, already laden with paper bags on every arm, prominently emblazoned with big brand names that even I have heard of.  A sidewalk vendor sells crepes.  We stop and I have my favorite, with apricot jam.  My leather gloves are covered with stickiness by the time I am finished.  Shiny red ornaments, grotesquely over-sized, hang from the ceiling at the Covent Garden market, and a large green reindeer, two to three times as tall as me, stands to one side with a red ornament nose.

5. Thanksgiving night, we are going to the theater.  We stop off at a nearby pub and both order fish and chips.  I eat my chips with gallons of ketchup.  It feels like just another night but I’m okay with that.  I’ve been doing the “five things that make me happy” exercise pretty faithfully lately, so I’m very aware of just how much I have to be thankful for.  Back home I will have pie and think Thanksgiving thoughts.  I just have to decide between pumpkin and cherry.

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