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Posts Tagged ‘vanity’

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Speaking of cosmetics, this statue of Shiva, in an artisan’s workshop, is resplendent with eye make-up and lipstick. Even his toenails and fingernails are painted, and the snake detailed with gold glitter.

I love make-up. I love the little pots and brushes, the colors and textures. I have long loved the “makeover” sessions you can do with saleswomen in department stores. When I had my first play produced, I went to a Clinique counter in St. Louis and said I wanted my eyes to look like tropical butterflies, when I blinked, for opening night. Two of the women at the Clinique counter and I had such a good time, as I told them all about my play, choosing greens and purples. Other women stopped by to watch what they were doing to my eyes, and by the end, a whole crowd of us were excited to send me off to the opening night of my play.

It’s strange, these intimate encounters—a stranger’s hands next to your eyeballs. You can smell her breath and hairspray. She might tell you about a boyfriend she used to have, who went to your school. You might confide you’re nervous about something. A stranger walks by to compliment your eyelashes.

I’m always excited to explore beauty salons and fashion magazines in new places. For two years, I got my hair cut and highlighted in a little salon in the Bronx. Most of the other women were getting their hair relaxed and straightened. The first time I got my highlights, some sort of mistake happened, and four women came, peered underneath the foils into my hair in the sink, and had an argument in Spanish about how they should fix it. (I think; I don’t speak Spanish. My hair turned out okay, after much drama and consultation.) Very different from getting my hair cut on the Upper West Side; different music, presence or absence of children or significant others, of food brought in from the street, of how crowded/energetic the salon feels.

The second time I went to Haiti, my Mom came with me. She happened to bring along lots of shades of nail polish and make up. At first, I though, “Why in the world would you bring nail polish to an orphanage in Haiti?” The orphanage, in addition to having [somewhat] trained teacher and director, also employs several women to feed and clean the children, and take care of the facilities.  I don’t know how they made the connection, but the ladies and my mother had several nail painting sessions, chatting like old friends after the children had been put to bed.

Two days ago, I went to the mall across the street from our mandir here in Jaipur. Somehow, I ended up at the make-up counter at the department store. I complimented the eyeshadows that two of the women had used; they offered to help me do an eye makeover.

And so, I found my hand in another woman’s hand, as she showed me shade after shade of eyeliner, shadow, and lip gloss. With two other women, and a gentleman standing by, we discussed evening shades, daytime shades, and the fact that my eyes are blue. I wanted to know how to keep my hair from becoming a dusty bird’s nest after riding a tuk tuk—why was their hair all so sleek and glossy, when we were all in the same humid, dusty climate? We exchanged beauty tips and imagined different places we could wear the different colors of gloss. Sometimes, the man would provide a translation when we got stuck.

I purchased an eyeliner, a stick of eye shadow, and a lipgloss. After I paid, they presented me with an evening bag, a chocolate brown clutch lined with rhinestones. Free gift with purchase! I posed with the bag, and said, “Now I have an evening bag, and new make-up, I need someone to go out with tonight!” And one of the women said, “Oh, you must come out with me!” and we all laughed.

Maybe this isn’t authentic bazaar shopping in Jaipur. I’ll certainly take a spin around the marketplace within the pink walls before I go on the Varanasi. But I love stopping by the mall for coffee and seeing friendly faces, greeting again my kindred spirits from the make-up counter.

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After I wrote my first blog post for Eat the Damn Cake, on how I have a fundamental disagreement with lots of Kate’s writing (thumbnail: I don’t spend much time doubting my beauty, and sometimes have little patience for women my age who bemoan their self-perceived ugliness), many commenters wondered aloud, “What’s the difference between feeling good about how you look, and just being vain?”

I did consider that, and tried to fully answer it in another blog post entitled, “Why Thinking I Look Great is Not Vanity;” you can read it here.

I tried to really, truly articulate the following problem that frustrates me: a woman states aloud her doubts about the way she looks. Observers, impartial or even biased, give a compliment. The woman cannot or will not listen to or believe the compliment, and persist in their own internal, negative self-tape.  I don’t get it. It doesn’t make sense.  Why are some people committed to refusing to hear a possible different opinion, even it is repeated, over time, by many?

There’s a wrinkle here, which neither I nor Kate have talked about.  There are actually many people in the world who live with disfigurement, missing limbs, scars… For the most part, everyone I know here in the US, particularly those in my age group, is attractive.  Like, within the realm of being conventionally attractive, or attractive in other ways: being sexy, having a kind of physical prowess that is interesting or admirable, having another trait–voice, artistic ability, wisdom–that is attractive.

I have seen one article on Jezebel.com, where the commenters are discussing the idea that not everyone will find someone (a romantic or sexual partner.)  Some commenters said, “Look, there are some of us that are actually, really and truly, physically ugly and we will not, no matter how positive you try to be, find lovers.”

I disagree with that, too, but that’s another post entirely.  I find it really interesting that although Kate (and I assume, many of the readers that share her pain) is very pretty, in both conventional and unconventional ways, _and_ the recipient of many compliments and assertions of her beauty, she doesn’t take up the issue of those with physical disfigurements that many would find unappealing.

This is difficult to write about, in no small part because we all have different ideas about attractiveness. In my own brief life as an adult, I’ve found myself greatly physically attracted to men that not everyone would find handsome.  For example.  I have found gorgeous women who don’t look like women I see in magazines. I get it: it’s objective. I’m sure not everyone who passes me on the street thinks I’m pretty, but I disagree.

I guess what I’m trying to say has two parts.

First, I think that women I know, and women my age especially, spend too much time worrying about their own beauty, and, even worse, spend too much time doubting that they are, in fact, attractive– and persist in these doubts even when evidence from others points to the contrary.

Second, there is the possibility that someone might _not_ fall into the realm of physically attractive at all— there are many people who have physical injuries or difficulties that very much make them feel “ugly,” and this “ugly” is different than the ugly Kate talks about.  At least, I think it is.

And I would like to know how these other people (unphotographed, unused in ads, under-represented in literary heroines) move through the world.  Finally, I wonder what women who say, “I’m so ugly in this dress!” have to say about things like illness, dismemberment, scarring, and physical tragedy.  Most of the time, though, I would be satisfied if women my age stopped using, “I’m so ugly in this dress!” as a shared shopping/compliment-resisting (possibly compliment fishing?)  tactic.

Anyway: vanity.  I do think a lot about humility, especially as a Christian virtue. I mean, for goodness’ sake, I spent three years of my life studying early Christian saints, and “humble” becomes practically a trope– a topos– in any hagiography.  I got a little obsessed. When the time came to apply for PhD programs, and I voiced this concern, “Hey, it’s hard to be humble, when I’m being asked to sell myself,” to my academic advisor (also a former monk and current Orthodox priest), he had to reassure me, albeit sternly, that I am not a monastic, I am an academic.

In fact, worry about being prideful kept me from mentioning one of my most-lauded academic achievements on my PhD applications.  Again: another post.  So it’s not that I don’t worry about being vain, or thinking too much of myself.  It is funny that this obsession with being humble doesn’t swim over into how I see my appearance.  I don’t know how to explain it, but I tried to do a good job of it on Eat the Damn Cake.

PS: Kate also put up a mini-reel of photos of me eating cake.  This, the commenters loved.

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One of the blogs which has stolen my heart recently is Eat the Damn Cake, written by Kate, a friend of mine and a bright and thoughtful writer.

Honestly, not all of her posts resonate with me. Mainly, I think, because I don’t have any striking, niggling, or even fleeting issues with my body. Or: I like the way I look the majority of the time. And some of the time, a lot of the time, I love the way I look.  I often feel “left out” of feminine friendships and conversations when the topic turns to, “Oh, I wish I didn’t have these arms,” or “I just can’t stand my neck.”

Kate and I share a deep commitment to valuing dialogue, so I e-mailed her, saying, “Sometimes your blog doesn’t resonate with me…”  And she asked me to guest post.

My post, “Stephanie Talks Body Love,” is an attempt, by me, to explain both why I am comfortable with the way I look, and also why I try to resist the negative self-talk that too many women my age (in my opinion) engage in.

The post has gotten a lot of comments– all of them from women who either applaud my statement, or wish they could share my confidence.  It’s slightly odd, given that I can be–in the middle of many a’night–riddled with anxiety, to think, “I am a confident women.” In this arena, however, I surely am.  I mean– I work at it to some degree, inasmuch that A: Men don’t so frequently undergo such self- and societal-scrutiny, and I don’t think that’s fair, and B: I am an educator and an advocate children, and I will be darned if I will allow negative voices (that aren’t true) to work against my girl students.

Well, there are other reasons.  It’s a lot to unpack. Haiti, and malnourished orphans have a little to do with it. My deeply held belief that I am a beloved child of God (and clearly God would think I am beautiful) has something to do with it, the way I have been influenced by Dominican sisters (in Truth, in true beauty and Grace, in What Really Matters), and in the way the most influential “images” of women in my lives come from literature, not from ads.  To begin with.

I want to write more about this. I also want to answer the commenter who asks, “What’s the difference between self-confidence and vanity?” This is actually a question I ask myself in regards to my academic abilities, but I think it’s worth articulating how I feel about personal appearance.  I also want to connect my ideas with those of other women who have influenced the way I think…  Perhaps a short series on this blog will be forthcoming.

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Last year, I co-founded a new academic journal; it has an online presence, as well as a “non peer reviewed” online section, with additional articles.  It’s done well; we did a good job fund-raising, hiring a staff, and collecting a board.  When I presented at a conference in the field last month, many people had already heard of it and been reading it.  The first issue had articles from four continents, and we’ve been picked up by the press in places like Egypt and Indonesia.  Initially, my co-founder, Josh, was in Israel, and we worked long distance.

Yesterday, he and I met in person for our first-ever yearly staff evaluations, of ourselves.  (We had done the staff members earlier this summer.)  One thing Josh brought up: I undersell myself.  He said I have a weird mixture of confidence and no confidence, and I don’t realize that I could be doing so much more.

He said a similar thing when he saw my CV.  In the PhD application process, my CV was a piece that I sent to every school.  In included information about my work on this journal, including some of the accolades we’ve gotten so far, and included the fact that I will be presenting this year at the AAR (American Academy of Religions) conference, the major professional association in my field.

Josh, for one, was stunned that I didn’t get in anywhere, and asked me to send him my CV.  And what he saw made him call me, direct from Jerusalem.  He said, “Do you mind hearing some really important, honest feedback?”  I said, “Of course not.”  He pointed out that, at least for the section of the CV describing my work with the journal, I undersold myself on every point.

Now, because he and I are co-founders and co-Editors-in-Chief, ostensibly our CV sections for work on the journal would be very similar; he knows exactly what I’ve done.  I was actually surprised: I worried that I put a little too much emphasis on my contributions.  He also noted that some people actually fluff up their CVs a bit– and if my “underfluffed” CV was in a stack of fluffed ones, my work would look even less.

We talked about this again in the evaluation.  We talked also about our management styles, our strengths, and how we want to use them in complementary ways as we continue to build our organization.  But another thread emerged: sometimes I am more passive, even when I’m in an area where I’m strong, or should be strong.

It’s so interesting to think about these issues.  For one, I think there’s a masculine/feminine thing at play– I know that I’ve been socialized to be humble, polite, and more likely to wait and demur.  Add to this a spirituality piece I have, where I believe it is more important to be humble than prideful–although my professors, even the priests, have worked to show me how this doesn’t apply to academia.  Add to this a sort of natural inclination to “wait and see” or “watch and learn” when I’m in unfamiliar territory.

You can see that in the world of academia, particularly if it is competitive, I might not be using my best skill set.  I’m comfortable stretching myself in my work on the journal, with our staff, and with outreach. I’m still unsure about applying again next year for a PhD- and I don’t know yet how to change what I did this year.

I’d love to hear from others how to be able to share my work with confidence.  What’s the difference between being cocky and vainglorious, and truthfully sharing one’s skills?  How can I practice finding the right way to talk about my strengths, and how will I know when I’m doing it well?

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Airbrushing = whoa

This is really unbelievable– I actually gasped out loud.

Once you click the link, you’ll see a gorgeous, typical photo of a swimsuit model.  The directions let you move your mouse over the image to see what it looked like before any photoshopping/airbrushing took place.  I was amazed, and then mortified.  I mean, I know that models have some imperfections “brushed” out, but I had no idea magazines would go so far.

I read a lot of magazines.  I love them.  I love cooking, nesting, and fashion magazines.  When I saw these examples of airbrushing, I thought, “How many false things am I consuming?  And when I inevitably compare my hair, teeth, skin, fat… to them, what am I actually comparing?”

The site lets you click also on images of her whole body, and also a close up of her stomach and hand.  The untouched stomach made me smile a little, because she has “down” on her tummy skin, like I do.  And I was again shocked at what they did to her hand, and her belly button.

Finally, the scariest thing– the first time I saw her “real” face, I thought: “Ugly.”  But when I saw her whole body untouched, including her face, I realized that she actually _is_ pretty, even without the airbrushing.  But if you go from the airbrushed to the real, the real looks somehow really wrong.

(Thanks to digital photographer and artist Greg Apodaca for posting such amazing examples of work.)

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As I described in my Oliver Cromwell post (see, I still don’t want to say the “w*rt” word), the plantar warts on my feet have been causing me a great deal of psychic pain.  A little physical pain, and then lots of anxiety: ruminating on them, trying to scrape them out, worrying that they are spreading…  My doctor was kind enough to give me a referral to a podiatrist.

I felt very silly going into this very posh doctor’s office across from Central Park.  She’s the doctor for the Rockettes!  Photos of the glamourous ladies line the waiting room, signed with things like: “Thanks for keeping us on our feet!”  I felt bad, like I didn’t _need_ to be there.  

However, she is a great doctor, and put me at ease right away.  She said things like, “Only one thing cures these, and I’m going to give it to you, and they will be gone,” “These are not worth losing sleep over,” “I treat dancers all day long, and everyone has them,” and “It’s not a matter of being gross or ugly: just think: all the pretty ballerinas have them.”

The doctor works with a pharmacy that creates a special compound.  It includes a high dose of sycilic (?) acid, some sort of chemotherapy agent, and I think an anti-viral drug.  It comes in a little nail polish bottle, with a brush.  The pharmacy mailed it to me; I got it today.  I will put it on each wart twice a day, and then cover everything with band-aids.  (Or even tape, the point is that they are covered completely.)  Every two weeks I will visit the doctor again, where she will scrape them or something.  And soon they will be gone!

I can’t describe how happy I am about this.  I know, I know: small thing.  And believe me, I worry about big things, too.  But these have been really causing me such anxiety and stress.  I am so thankful for health insurance.  And a kind, smart doctor.  I just painted the awful little buggers with the solution, and feel very efficient and pleased.  Goodbye, ugly, bothersome, icky bits.  Hello, twinkle feet.

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Warts and all

First of all, because I’m a nerd, a quick etymology search tells me that “wart” is related to the word “verruca,” which means “swelling, wart.”  I made an instant connection.  Get it?  Remember Veruca Salt, from _Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory_?

Another search underlines the connection: “Dahl claimed that ‘Veruca Salt’ was the name of a wart medication he once had in his medicine cabinet” (Wikipedia).  She was a bad egg, “warts and all.”

Although, “warts and all” often has a slightly positive connotation, as in, “The candidate had nothing to hide; she was willing to talk to the press, warts and all.” Apparently, someone was painting Cromwell, and he wanted to be known as an honest man, not a gentlemanly soldier with vanities and affectations.  And he had a giant wart _on his face_, and didn’t mind being painted that way.

Note to my future biographers and potraitists: I want to be painted in the style of John Singer Sargent, for example.  Lots of light and luminescence.  No warts.

So: I have some warts.  I have one regular on on my ankle, and an entire constellation of plantar warts (flat, not raised) on the sole of my foot.  They are making me crazy.  I ruminate over them, over how ugly they are, over how they might spread, over getting rid of them.  I feel dirty and awful.  I _hate_ them.  I have tried cutting them out with nail clippers, and scraping them off with razor blades. Scary, I know.  And a mess, because it makes a mess of my foot, and doesn’t work.  But I want them _off_ and I can feel them all the time.  

I felt bad about using the doctor’s time with something so non-life-threatening and (relatively) insubstantial, but I couldn’t take it any more.  I need them gone.  I went today, and she was great.  She took care of one, and fixed up the scraping I’d done on my foot, and gave me a referral to a podiatrist.

She got out a big, colorful book with photos of amazingly horrible, terrible wart photographs.  I literally had to look away and focus on breathing.  The ugliness of them was outstanding.

But why do skin disorders bother us so?  If someone was talented, kind, smart, and good, but had fingers covered in warts upon warts… I wouldn’t want to take their hands.  And one of the photographs I’ve seen had a wart on the eyelid, hanging over the lashes.  I am riveted, and disgusted by these images.  And I feel so, so vain for worrying so much about these tiny, tiny things.

And no one even _sees_ my feet!  But just knowing they’re there…  My doctor said that warts don’t mean I’m dirty, or mean anything bad at all.  I said, “But there’s no euphimism for them–there’s no positive word for them–they have such a negative connotation.”  It’s true: I can call a zit a pimple, or a blemish, or even a spot, and feel better with each degree of positive connotation.  But what else can I call a wart?

I think, inspired by Mr. Dahl and Miss V. Salt, I will think of them as “bad eggs.”  Tiny, and many, but (merely?) bad eggs.  And soon, hopefully, they will be gone.

(Portrait of Cromwell via phrases.org.uk)

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