Monthly Archives: December 2009

It’s Time for a New Beauty Backlash.

Beauty U goes on winter break tomorrow, so I’m gearing up to take the next 12 days off from blogging for Christmas, New Year’s, and the plentiful eating of real chocolate. It’s all good — we’re gearing up for advanced facials after break, and my skin needs some rebound time after a class effort to extract every comedone (that’s spa speak for pimple) currently erupting on my face.

But before I go ice my face, I’d like to direct your attention to “The Beauty Standards Backlash,” Amanda Marcotte’s fantastic post over on Double X. She argues that our culture’s current obsession with Brazilians and Botox (and pore excavation and everything else I’ve been obsessing over here for the last two months) is a backlash against the feminist movement:

Those of us who came of age in the ’90s apparently grew up in a feminist paradise in which you could totally be considered hot while not being on the brink of starvation. Body hair was only considered a problem if directly visible (and even then, armpit hair made a small comeback), comfortable clothes were the norm, make-up was applied sparingly and for artfulness rather than deceit, and natural hair became completely normal. The slovenliness of the grunge era has given way to sharp dressing, but it’s still done with a minimum of discomfort. And I swear to you that by applying a relaxed beauty norm, we were able to train the men of my generation to be sexually aroused by women who didn’t need to show suffering for beauty. Indeed, many men I know in their 30s and 40s recoil at the idea of finding waxed anorexics with plastic parts to be sexier than someone unafraid to wear a pair of sneakers on the right occasion. Or perhaps they’re flattering me for reasons I don’t understand, though their choices in partners tend to uphold their claims.

All of which tells me that we’re in a backlash period, much like the 80s as described by Susan Faludi. Which means that the oppressive beauty standards are a response to feminism, but also that we don’t have to give up hope.

Remembering the 1990s as a “feminist paradise” might be a bit of a stretch (water bras, Biore strips, the flip side of grunge being Kate Moss skinny/heroin chic), but you need only compare the original cast of 90210 (which first aired in 1990) with the remake to see Marcotte’s point. It’s not just the lack of mom jeans — thighs and eyebrows alike have been downsized.

You can try to make the case that we’ve come so far with women’s rights that it’s the CW Network’s prerogative to shrink their starlets or not — and fluffy window dressing issues like these shouldn’t play into the real problems, like equal pay, and how many women we’ve elected to public office. In fact, I’m sure there are some people running around calling themselves feminists (or more likely, prone to starting sentences with the phrase, “I’m no feminist, but…”) who see it as a sign of progress that a former beauty pageant queen can finally be a serious candidate for the vice-presidency.

But I agree with American Prospect writer Michelle Goldberg, who says the message Sarah Palin and friends really send is “it’s fine for women to do everything men do — as long as they stay skinny, sexy, young, and soignée at the same time.” That double standard is alive, well, and on a diet. And what’s really interesting about the current anti-feminism backlash and the ever-more-absurd beauty standards it promotes is that We. All. Know. This.

We (the media, blogs, people at dinner tables and water coolers everywhere) talk about how crazy beauty makes us all the damn time. I almost didn’t post those then/now photos of the 90210 casts because I thought, “gee whiz, everyone from Us Weekly to Oprah talked about that last year when the show first aired.” But then I realized: We got in a lather, and absolutely nothing happened. We’ve convinced ourselves that these extreme beauty norms can’t be all that dangerous because we’ve gotten so good at identifying them all around us. What we’re ignoring is how we’re sort of accepting them at the same time.

And that means pretty soon we won’t be shocked or scandalized by the onslaught of “waxed anorexics with plastic parts.” They’ll just be normal.

Unless: We do more than just talk about it. Marcotte says that we can fight oppressive beauty standards by doing less: “I’m trying to do my part—by refusing to dye my hair even as it turns gray—and what’s awesome is this rebellion is the easiest in the world. How often do you get to rebel by creating more leisure time for yourself?”

But if you want to take it a step beyond easy, it starts with asking hard questions about our own notions of beauty, as we’re trying to do here. Then we need more boycotts when brands like Ralph Lauren screw up. And, we need the environmental movement to join forces with women in a way that doesn’t involve us taking our clothes off and does push beauty companies to make safer products. Maybe we don’t need to go cold turkey on facials or even bikini waxes, but we do need to think a little more critically about why we think we need them.

I’m just saying, it would be nice if this next decade doesn’t end with us waxing nostalgic for 2009 as that more innocent time when that ever-shrinking 90210 cast was at least worth mentioning.

PS. Just in case you’re thinking, “oh the aughts weren’t SO bad for beauty,” check out BellaSugar’s Trends of the 2000s gallery. Trout pout? Celebrating extensions? For serious, people.

PPS. Another great take on this backlash/epidemic by DoubleX’s Claire Gordon.

See you back here in 2010!


Filed under Beauty Labor, beauty standards, For Extra Credit, week 8

[Ingredient Watch] Parabens

My 600-hour adventure in esthetics school. Read about the project, or catch up with weeks 1-7.

I’m making vocabulary flash cards for our Chapter 11 test, and thought I’d drop some knowledge on you, from Milady’s Standard Fundamentals for Esthetician, Chapter 11: Product Selection and Ingredients, page 242-243:

  • Methyl paraben — One of the most frequently used preservatives because of its very low sensitizing potential, this ingredient is one of the oldest preservatives in use to combat bacteria and molds. It is non-comedogenic.
  • Parabens — One of the most commonly used groups of preservatives in the cosmetic, pharmaceutical, and food industries, parabens provide bacteriostatic and fungistatic activity against a diverse number of organisms, and are considered safe for use in cosmetics.

Just in case you don’t get it the first time (is that “safe for use in cosmetics,” then?), both definitions are repeated in the glossary at the chapter’s end on page 248. Although it doesn’t spend much time clarifying this position, when Milady’s says “safe,” what it means is “will not cause your client to break out in a heinous, litigation-inspiring rash.”

True enough. A Google search reveals parabens, sold in crystalline powder form by the ton on Asian import sites like Made-In-China and Alibaba. The product descriptions, such as they are, emphasize the antiseptic, antibacterial properties.

What doesn’t fall under the Milady safety umbrella, or come up in the sales pitch: The fact that parabens are also endocrine disrupting chemicals.

We’re now exposed to a whole mess of these endocrine disruptors every minute of every day (see NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof’s recent and fantastic op-ed on the issue, plus the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics’ helpful summary) and the scientific evidence is mounting that all this of exposure may increase our risk for breast cancer and testicular cancer, and damage the developing brains and reproductive systems of babies.

Not surprisingly, the industry disputes this research. “The simple fact is that the Parabens are 100,000 times weaker than natural estrogen in the body,” reports The Personal Care Products Council on their safety website, adding that “Parabens have been shown to be 10,000 times weaker than the most potent phytoestrogens and 100,000 times less potent than estradiol, the estrogen produced naturally by the body. Most scientists agree that there is no endocrine- disrupting effect from the use of Parabens in cosmetic and personal care products because their action, if any, is so weak.”

Despite Milady’s, despite the Personal Care Products Council, Miss Jenny tells me that she tries to avoid products that contain parabens. We’re on another Sephora field trip, and I’m browsing facial cleansers. “You’re better off without them,” she says, steering me away from Clinique.

But when I ask her why, Miss Jenny looks away, to some distant point above the cash registers. “It’s not a big deal,” she says, a little hasty. “You can’t ever get away from them entirely anyway.”

[Photos: Made-In-China]


Filed under In Class, Ingredients, milady's, products, week 8

From the Department of Nothing Tastes as Good as Thin Feels:*

*Except for everything, ever.

Instead of “gorging on calories” this holiday season, The Cut encourages you to “satisfy your sweet tooth in a different, fat-free way,” by purchasing Jane Iredale’s Chocoholicks lip gloss gift set for $44.


I guess that’s a helpful diet strategy if you’re sad and hungry like Kate Moss (the pithy wordsmith/awesome role model behind the bons mots above) or working on Ralph Lauren’s Body By Gumby look. The Cut was also talking about the perils of Collagen Cheesecake last week, so it’s possible they’ve never tasted actual chocolate.

But I’m feeling just exhausted by all these beauty products that smell and look like the sugary goodness that women, of course, aren’t supposed to let ourselves eat. (Jessica Simpson’s Dessert line, I’m looking at you.) I don’t know if beauty marketers have decided that I’m just dumb enough to think that a chocolate-scented body lotion is as tasty as the real thing, or if I’m honestly supposed to hate my body so much that I’ll prolong the diet torture by covering it in glop that smells like everything I don’t let myself have.

Whatever the method behind their madness, color me not interested. My plan is to go ahead and enjoy eating some damn food over the holidays. And most other days.

Dear readers, do join me.


Filed under Glossed Over., Happenings, Makeup

Pretty Price Check (12.21.09)

The Pretty Price Check: Your Friday (only now it’s Monday) round-up of how much we paid for beauty this (last) week.

You can join the good fight here. Oh and speaking of Photoshop, what did they do to poor Carrie Underwood over here?

  • $25 to $120 is what you’re paying per eyebrow wax, says the NYT. And you are paying it, because not plucking is no longer an option (remember American Apparel‘s feelings on that?) and over-plucking is a crime so heinous that 3,484 corrective eyebrow transplants were performed in 2008 (up from 2,544 in 2004). Thanks to Jezebel for pointing out that we’ve lost the plot here.
  • The Italian government is considering making boob jobs illegal for anyone under 18. For the record, we have no such law in the USA, though the FDA says saline implants are only approved for use in ages 18 and up due to the fact that your breasts can actually keep on growing into your 20s.
  • From the department of two steps forward, one step back: Those neon high-waisted leggings (and the rest of their inventory) were 80% off at American Apparel factory stores this weekend, because even while Dov Charney is busy doling out the grooming tips, he’s donating all of Saturday’s proceeds to his 1600 immigrant workers who were forced out of their jobs in ICE raids this fall. Oh, plus he just added a line of nail polish, that’s free of phthalates, formaldehyde and toluene. See why I’m conflicted?

Happy Monday!


Filed under Dov Watch, For Extra Credit, Glossed Over., Happenings, Pretty Price Check

[Glossed Over] Twiggy, Out of Fashion.

Glossed Over: Taking a closer look at what advertisements are really selling.



Airbrushed Twiggy.



Normal Twiggy.


Quick props to Salon’s Broadsheet for an incisive analysis of the UK’s decision to ban this heavily-airbrushed Olay eye cream ad, but not to regulate heavy photo retouching more generally.

Having worked at fashion magazines (where before/after Photoshop exercises such as this litter photo department walls), I always sort of assume that everyone knows that the pictures you see in such places are all faked up. That is not the case. Last week in class, we hopped on to check out their latest “Express Service” makeup lesson offerings, and everyone contemplated this:

I’m no expert, but I’m willing to bet good money that every one of those photos has undergone the Photoshop magic, to ensure the light hits the Perfect Pout just right, to remove any trace of redness from the Smoky Eye, and to smooth out the planes on the High-Definition Makeup model’s face. But Miss Jenny didn’t see it. “Look how flawless that foundation is!” she exclaimed.

Now Miss Jenny is an expert. She knows makeup and knows what it can and can’t do. And of course, she knows about Photoshop and it’s ability to shave away pounds and under-eye circles. But I think there’s something sort of primal about the fact that when we look at a beautiful photo, seeing is believing — and we really, really want to believe.

So it pretty much sucks that beauty advertisers seem so happy to take full advantage of that fact.

[Photos: Salon, BBC, and Sephora]


Filed under Glossed Over., Makeup, products, week 7

Is It a Dress Code or a Body Code?

On Tuesday, I told you about American Apparel instructing female employees on eyebrow grooming. Now, bellasugar is reporting on two cases where elementary school children are in trouble over their hair. A Milwaukee first-grade teacher cut off one of 7-year-old LMya Cammon’s braids when the little girl wouldn’t stop twirling them in class (video above). And 4-year-old Taylor Pugh has in-school suspension in Mesquite, TX because the school says his hair is too long for prekindergarten.

So, what I want to know (and haven’t seen any of the news coverage asking):

A) Would the Milwaukee school teacher think it’s okay to cut the hair of a twirling-prone white student?

B) Does Mesquite, Texas have the same hair length rule for all students, regardless of gender?

I’m guessing no on both.

As I’ve been telling my peeps about Beauty Schooled over the last few weeks, I’ve been noticing that the initial reaction of many folks is to laugh: Beauty school! So fun! Placenta in face cream, whaaat?! It helps that I happen to be hilarious and that a lot of what we talk about here is on the silly side (I know, sperm facials, I know). But part of why they’re laughing is because “those people who buy into that crap,” as in the women who splurge on $300 face creams or crave eyelash extensions or put their children in beauty pageants, seem somehow completely alien to us. They must be less intelligent or more insecure than all of us New York Times-reading, leg wax-eschewing enlightened types. And I’ll admit, I’ve marched in that parade myself a time or two.

But even with just six weeks down, this I know is true: Everyone but everyone buys into beauty standards, some way, somehow. If you own a lipstick, shave your legs, wear clothes, or tend to like people who do those things, you cannot consider yourself immune to the desires and messages of the Beauty Industrial Complex. And that’s not always a bad thing. We need to explore all the shades of gray here to figure out our own personal set of standards for what’s delightful or necessary and what crosses that line over to absurd or offensive.

But we also need to remember that no matter how examined our viewpoint, those standards of beauty bleed over into the way we perceive the world. And so, so quickly, they can turn into character judgments, into gender rules, into racism, into this world where a first-grade teacher grabs the scissors when she finds a black girl’s braids “distracting,” or a little boy needs a more masculine haircut to go to recess. What’s more, all of our preconceived notions and societal hang-ups about such issues help write the very beauty rules we’re dissecting here — the crazy ones that we can’t believe anyone really follows, and the not-so-crazy ones that just seem like good common sense. The differences between them aren’t always so stark.

So yes. This is about lip gloss, this is about popping zits, this is about saying, “Whaaat, sperm facials?!” Beauty is often best when we don’t take it too seriously. But when there are repercussions like these? I’m not laughing.


Filed under beauty standards, For Extra Credit, Hair, week 7

The European Facial

My 600-hour adventure in esthetics school. Read about the project or catch up with Weeks 1-6.

This is not the European Facial, but it is ridiculous, so enjoy.

We get down to business with the European Facial tonight, with everyone paired up on the spa beds while Miss Jenny perches in a director chair between us to critique our work.

The European facial is the most basic facial, so if you’ve ever been to a spa, you’ve probably had some version of it. There are six steps:

1) Cleanse.

2) Exfoliate for ten minutes under steam.

3) Facial massage for at least ten minutes.

4) Mask for ten minutes while you do a hand massage.

5) Tone.

6) Moisturize.

(It’s entirely possibly that I’ve forgotten something or mixed up the order. Learning here!) But every esthetician adds her own tweaks — Miss Lisa likes to do a foot massage as well as a hand massage, Miss Jenny worries it’s unsanitary to move from someone’s feet to their face. Her signature move is using hot towels to take off every layer of product.

“You should always be touching your client,” says Miss Jenny. “Never let them just lie there, wondering where you went.”

That means while the exfoliator is working, you massage their neck and “décolleté” (spa speak for your collar bone and the top of your breasts). While the mask is working, you work up and down both arms and hands, massaging until even their pinkies relax.

So I’m getting the hang of the massage because it’s pretty satisfying when you actually feel a tense muscle release. And I love applying masks — like frosting a cake — and peeling them off in one rubberized piece.

But my issue is that I take too much product.

In order to keep things sanitary, we use little plastic spatulas to scoop every product (cleanser, exfoliant, mask, and so on) out of their big containers and into tiny plastic bowls. I help myself to at least a quarter cup of cleanser and follow that up with several healthy tablespoons of exfoliant. Miss Jenny is on me like white on rice. “You could get three or four facials out of that serving,” she says. “Scoop about an eighth of it onto your hand and put the rest back.”

This is because product equals profit. The more facials you can get out of an $18 bottle of cleanser, the more profit you derive from every $75 treatment. “These are high quality, professional ingredients,” Miss Jenny reminds us. “You only need a little bit to get the job done.”

But we all like to use a lot of product. This is because it’s a lot less weird to rub your hands all over someone’s face, neck and décolleté if there’s some kind of substance between their skin and yours.

When I run out of oil during the massage, I’m acutely aware that I’ve more or less gotten to second base on Blanche. And I just don’t know her well enough for that.

[Photo: O’Grady Images]

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Filed under Facials, In Class, products, week 7