Fashion isn’t frivolous: the importance of engaging our girls about everything

My Thursday column is up at Healthy is the New Skinny this morning. Let’s Talk to Girls about Beauty, Too was written as a response to this generally excellent Lisa Bloom essay at the Huffington Post. An excerpt from my piece today:

…we also need to remember that fashion isn’t the enemy. Cruel and narrow standards and impossible ideals are. Ignoring subjects like clothes and hair does nothing to equip our daughters and little sisters (and, let’s face it, ourselves) to deal with the pressure to look good. All it does is leave many girls feeling shallow for still caring about beauty.

It’s not evidence of superficiality to take an interest in clothes or shoes or make-up. Girls can care about fashion while also caring about books, about sports, about nature, about making a difference in the world. We need to get past the myth that an interest in beauty makes you vain and frivolous. Girls need to be reassured that it’s okay to care about clothes and hair, but they also need reminders that they are valued for so much more than their looks. Let’s lose the false choice that says we either validate little girls for their brains or for their beauty. We need to be fearless about praising both.

This is personal to me. I’m not just a college professor and a writer. I’m also a father to a little girl. A day doesn’t go by that I don’t tell her how beautiful she is. But I also praise her for the other things she does, and as she grows more vocal, I engage her in conversation in a host of other topics. I read to my daughter every night – and I help her pick out her outfit for the following day. My little girl loves clothes as well as books. And I want to encourage her in both passions.

Read the whole thing.

Love Hurts, Beauty Hurts: waxing, pain, and the pursuit of perfection

My Thursday short column is up at Healthy is the New Skinny: Bare Down There: Waxing, Beauty, and Pain. It’s a brief look at teens and bikini waxing, and the growing popularity of the Brazilian wax among very young girls (including, as the article notes, among those who have not yet hit puberty and begun to grow pubic hair.)

Lots has been written about pubic hair and what its removal means. Count me among those troubled by what seems the almost pedophilic fetishization of hairless vulvas in pornography. (To put it simply, I find it sexually and aesthetically unappealing as well as politically problematic.)

But the larger point is that waxing, like so many other beauty rituals, hurts. (That’s true whatever’s being waxed, whether it’s the pubis or the lip or the space between the eyebrows.) As older sisters and mothers and the media instruct young women about how they should best pursue beauty, they teach girls that pain is not only a rite of passage into womanhood, but a necessary (and continuous) aspect of maintaining femininity.

Pain happens on a spectrum, from the merely itchy (pantyhose) to the permanently body-altering (major cosmetic surgery.) High heels, piercings, and hair dye all exact both a financial and a physical price. “Beauty hurts”, older women say to younger women. And it’s not just beauty, but love that hurts: think of what we expect girls to go through with first intercourse — or with childbirth.

For much of history — and in many other parts of the world — this pain has been and remains mandatory. Girls have their genitals mutilated against their will in Mali and suffer fistulas from giving birth too soon and too young in Afghanistan. There’s nothing quite comparable in America, where we at least claim to give girls and women a choice to avoid these agonies. We don’t cut off little girls’ clitorises, we generally don’t force 15 year-olds into marriages, and we certainly don’t mandate Brazilian waxes for high schoolers.

But as most women and some men know, the cost of saying “no” to pain is very high. If a teen girl wants to feel confident at the beach in her bikini, making sure she’s bare down there (or damn near) is a price she must pay. Young women are raised to fear ridicule and social exclusion far more than physical pain. Watch what most young women do when they trip and fall: they leap back up, more worried about what others have seen than about any injury they’ve sustained.

The law doesn’t mandate you wax your vulva or straighten your hair or put on hose and heels. The state doesn’t force you to give up carbs and dessert to fit into a bikini. But the fact that certain behaviors aren’t genuinely compulsory doesn’t mean that they can’t feel obligatory. And for so many women, the pain that comes with meeting those obligations is less than the social cost of refusing to pursue beauty.

Any solution to this problem of pain has to meet girls where they are. Parents can refuse to let their daughters get waxed or get their ears pierced, but in most cases that only delays the inevitable. The solution, whatever it is, depends on opening up a conversation with our sisters, our daughters, our mothers, our friends and lovers. And in that conversation, we need to look at the ways we consciously and unconsciously valorize physical and emotional pain as the price of beauty and true womanhood.

“Your body is not so powerful it can drive others to distraction”: a letter to a teenage girl about clothing, modesty, and Slutwalk

As the controversy over SlutWalk hits the mainstream media, provoking a larger conversation about sexuality, safety, privilege and rape, I wanted to revisit this “letter to a teen girl”.

Rachel Hills, who blogs at Musings of an Inappropriate Woman, recently posed this question from her 16 year-old self: how do I stop creepy old men from hitting on me? Rachel writes that she didn’t get a satisfactory answer when she was young, and she still doesn’t get good answers today.

As a feminist and a father, a professor and a former youth leader with years of experience working with teens, I thought I’d take a shot at answering Rachel’s query.

If I were writing to a 16 year-old named Rachel, I’d say:

Dear Rachel,

I wish that I could offer you specific fashion tips that would guarantee that creepy older guys wouldn’t hit on you. For that matter, I wish I could share with you how to dress in a manner that would assure that your peers wouldn’t frequently judge you, either to your face or behind your back. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you how to ensure those things — because the sad truth is that no matter how you dress, no matter what you wear, you will be perceived by some men as a target for their unwanted advances.

You may have heard people say things like “girls who wear short skirts are asking for ‘it'”. By “it” they may mean anything from rape to crude comments and penetrating stares. But as you may already have noticed, girls aren’t immune from harassment when they’re wearing simple or “modest” garb either. I’ve had plenty of students who’ve been accosted while wearing sweatpants or long dresses. I’ve had Muslim students who chose to wear head coverings, and they’ve been harassed both religiously and sexually. The bottom line is that there’s nothing you can wear that will guarantee respect from others. And the reason is that the root of this problem isn’t skin or clothing, it’s our cultural contempt for women and girls.

Have you noticed the way this works yet? If a girl is thin, she’s accused of being “anorexic”; if her weight is higher than the cruelly restrictive ideal, she’s “fat” and “doesn’t take care of herself” or “has no self-control.” If she wears cute, trendy clothes she “only wants attention” and if she wears sweats and jeans, she “doesn’t make an effort.” If she’s perceived as sexually attractive, and — especially — if she shows her own sexual side, she’s likely to be called a “slut.” If her sexuality and her body are concealed, she’s a “prude.” As you’ve probably figured out, the cards are stacked against you. You cannot win, at least not if you define winning as dressing and behaving in a way likely to win approval (or at least decent respect) from everyone.

The advice I’m going to give may sound clichéd, but it’s important nonetheless: you should dress in a style that makes you comfortable. Continue reading

Real Women Have… Bodies

My Thursday post at Healthy is the New Skinny is up: Are You In, Or Are You Out?

Excerpt:

I loved the movie “Real Women Have Curves” that came out a few years ago. Starring America Ferrera of “Ugly Betty”, it was a terrific reminder that beauty and health are found across an entire spectrum, not just at one narrow size. But as much as I liked the movie, I hated the title. The implication was obvious: if “real women have curves”, then women who don’t have curves aren’t “real.” And that’s a very damaging message.

Curvy women are real women. Skinny women are real women. Women who have had boob jobs or lip enhancements or liposuction are still real women. Size 0 may make no sense mathematically, but a woman who wears that size is as real as the one who wears a size 16. What makes us “real” people is not the shape of our flesh but our basic humanity. And we lose our humanity when we judge – not when we lose weight, gain weight, or make the intensely personal decision to undergo cosmetic surgery….

Women who diet are still real women. Women who gain weight are still real women. Women who can barely fill an A cup are “real” women – and women who’ve had breast enlargements are still “real”. If we want to change the way girls feel about their bodies, we need to stop using the divisive language of “real” versus“fake.”

The girls and women you know in your life, whether you envy them or pity them, love them or hate them, are all real. The images in the magazines may be fake, but behind those images are women with real bodies, real hearts, real emotion. And even the most beautiful women can be hurt by cruel words.

For more on the infuriating habit of excluding countless women from the right to be real, see this Cathy Reif piece that ran in the Guardian last month.

Standing with the Sluts

This past Sunday, the world’s first “Slut Walk” took place on the chilly streets of Toronto, Canada. The official site is here. The march was organized in response to the infuriating remarks of a police constable, who told a safety workshop at a Canadian university that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” (The officer has apologized, but it’s evident that his trogolodytic view of sex and responsibility remains widely held.)

I’ve written many times in support of women’s right to wear what they want in public without fear of harassment or harm. This includes both revealing and concealing clothing; I’ve written in favor of the right to go topless in public and in opposition to bans on headscarves and burqas.

There are so many things that trouble me about the obsession with regulating women’s bodies. But as a man, I am particularly exasperated at the assumption that lies beneath the insistence on modesty: the myth that men cannot control themselves. As feminists often point out, the real “man-haters” are those who promote modest dress for women out of the belief that men lack self-control. There is nothing more contemptuous than the suggestion that those of us with penises and Y chromosomes are prisoners of our biology, liable to rape or commit infidelity at the first sign of cleavage. The myth of male weakness sells us woefully, heartbreakingly short.

I honor SlutWalk for many reasons. But I appreciate one assumption that the organizers made in particular. Though what constitutes “slutty” clothing is obviously open to debate, SlutWalkers believe in men’s capacity to do two things at once: be aroused by what we see while honoring the humanity of the woman whose body attracts our eye. The most pernicious of all lies about men is that because of our make-up, lust and empathy can’t coexist within us. If you want kind and compassionate men who will respect women’s boundaries, the myth suggests, those women will have to conceal the parts of themselves that will turn men bestial and irresponsible.

We present women with a brutal binary: hide your sexuality and be respected; show your sexuality and be slut-shamed, harassed, or worse. But if ever there were a false dichotomy, rooted in ignorance about male identity, male biology, and male potential, this is it. While none of us want to live in a culture where women are compelled to display those parts of themselves they’d like to keep private, none of us should settle for living in a society where women are compelled to conceal those parts of themselves they’d occasionally like to display.

Men rape and harass not because of biological imperative but because of cultural permission. To paraphrase George W. Bush, we treat men with the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” Of course, the real price for those low expectations is paid by women, who become responsible for managing and redirecting what we refuse to expect men to manage for themselves.

As a feminist, as a man, and as a father to a daughter, I stand with the “sluts of Toronto” – and with women everywhere who demand the right to be treated with decency regardless of their attire.

Man-Repelling at GMP

My post today at Good Men Project looks at issues of attraction, fashion, and harassment by discussing the hot new fashion blog created by 21 year-old Leandra Medine: The Man Repeller. My post is The Man Repeller: Not About Men. Excerpt:

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to see a woman’s skin. There’s nothing wrong with being turned on by butts, or boobs, or legs. But there is something wrong with the single-minded focus that so many men have on those body parts alone. Almost every woman has had the experience of having a man talk to her chest, unwilling to tear his eyes from her breasts. It’s not that women don’t ever want men to notice cleavage, it’s that when a conversation is happening, they’d like our gaze eventually to move to their faces—and our attention to move to the person behind the body. It’s the difference between “looking at” someone and “seeing someone.” Unless we’re blind, we all start by doing the first. But we need to move on to the second, making the effort to see what lies beneath the immediate visual appeal.

Despite the name, The Man Repeller isn’t really about men. From a fashion standpoint, it seems aimed at encouraging women to follow their own aesthetic, absent the constant calculating about what’s hot or not. There’s something undeniably liberating about realizing that it’s OK to take a break, however brief or extended, from focusing on being desirable.

Fondling the “brave” White Swan

As you can see in the photo below this post, Eira and I went to a Purim party on Saturday night, dressed as the “Black Swan” and the “White Swan.” Though my wife didn’t like the film, she was more than happy to go along with the costume idea that came into my head not long after seeing the movie for the first time. (Here’s my review of the picture, which I thought was the best of 2010.) I already have the obvious idea for next year’s party, which is to come as the Swans again, this time with me in the darker shade.

The costumes took a lot of time and work; the basic corsets and tutus came from Trashy Lingerie (on La Cienega), the tights and slippers from Capezio, and my wife’s red contact lenses from a specialty store in the valley. My mother-in-law, a seamstress, added sequins and fake feathers and made my headpiece; my brother-in-law, a make-up artist, did our faces. We were a big hit together.

At the party, I got a lot of compliments on my “courage.” (And when I posted photos on Facebook, more of the same.) I was surprised; we were at the Kabbalah Centre in West Los Angeles, hanging out with an ostensibly liberal, artsy crowd. In 2011, I wondered, does anyone think it’s particularly brave for a man to dress as a ballerina in L.A.? If I were a high school boy going trick-or-treating and wearing the outfit in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, that might be gutsy — but with my wife, in the 310 area code? It’s evidence that the bar is still set so disappointingly low for men; performing public sexual ambiguity shouldn’t be as revolutionary as it is.

I also got grabbed. A lot. On the crowded dance floor, drunken men and women alike squeezed the top of my corset, fondled my butt, lifted up my tu-tu. None of it was terribly aggressive, and all of it was done by people I know — and whom I knew to be intoxicated. I didn’t feel threatened, but I was exasperated. I knew damn well why they were doing it, because it’s happened to me every time I’ve cross-dressed for parties. They were grabbing me because they could, reminding themselves and me of my maleness. (Like it or not, we ascribe the willingness to be grabbed to men.) They were engaged, whether they knew it or not (almost certainly the latter) in “gender policing”. And they were grabbing me because it was a kind of safe transgression for them — an assault on something that was feminine without being female.

Of course, in real life, women are groped all the time, on dance floors and elsewhere. Though I didn’t need the reminder of that painful truth, it’s what I got on Saturday.

The Beauty Spectrum: changing how we talk about the body ideal

I wrote last week about my work with Natural Models LA, Healthy is the New Skinny, and the Perfectly Unperfected Project. We debuted our PUP program at Placer High School up north last Wednesday morning. Featuring stories and images designed to inspire young people to think differently about beauty and the body, it was very well-received by the students on the Auburn, California campus.

In the comments below last week’s post, and in feedback I’ve had from many quarters since coming on board with the PUP Project and Natural Models, there’s been concern that we’re simply reinforcing beauty culture rather than dismantling it. There are echoes of an old argument in this, one that continues to rage in feminist circles even now. How should we talk to girls about their appearance? Should we who care deeply about young women’s self-worth encourage them to resist beauty culture entirely? Ask them to turn off “America’s Next Top Model” and throw away their subscriptions to Vogue and In Style? Should we make the case that the pursuit of beauty is guaranteed to end in tears, and redirect that energy towards worthwhile pursuits? Or should we recognize that like it or not, we live in a culture where appearance matters deeply to young women? Shouldn’t we be working to expand and broaden the understanding of what beauty is — and can be — rather than simply dissuading young people from doing what we know damn well most of them will do anyway?

I’ve chosen to work with an industry about which I have many deep and well-founded misgivings. But I’m doing so because I believe that fashion models are role models to millions of young women, and that it is through models themselves that we have a unique opportunity to reach girls with a message of self-acceptance. When you’re working with teens, credibility is everything; deservedly or not, models have a powerful credibility with that audience. Models tell us what beauty looks like, they tell us how beauty stands and walks and dresses and speaks. The obsession with thinness grows ever more extreme, and the bodies of models today ever more at odds with the reality of women’s frames. (Cindy Crawford, one of the iconic faces of the supermodel era, recently mused that she would never have been able to be a top model had the standards in place today been around in the 1980s.) But while some of us are deeply concerned by the emaciated images we see, a generation of young women is coming of age longing for the very bodies we find repulsive. (We did our own survey at Placer High School in advance of our visit. At this “average American” semi-rural high school, 80% of the female students expressed a desire to lose weight, and almost all rated the “ideal size” for a girl as between 0 and 4. Other studies show similar results).

In the face of this, we need models with counter-stories and counter-images. And we need a counter-language to go with it. Continue reading

“The Skinny Bitch Discourse”: on mean girls, sexualization, thinness, and the cult of competitive individuality

UPDATE: This is now also posted at Jezebel, where the comments section is much more active.

In last Friday’s Guardian piece on sexualized rebellion, I briefly touched on the media-driven discourse of “compulsory individuality”. As contradictory — and as familiar — as it sounds, compulsory individuality requires women (and teen girls in particular) to navigate the paradoxical demands to “fit in” while “standing out”. This isn’t novel — but as I wrote last week (following Marjorie Jolles), the ever-more-sexualized nature of compulsory individuality is transforming young women’s self-image, not necessarily in helpful ways.

A related point can be made, of course, about skinniness. It is not new to point out that “thin is in.” The longing to be slender and the obsession with dieting goes back to the 1920s, and is due in part to radical changes in fashion and culture brought on both by World War One and pre-war innovations in style. In the USA, five generations of young women have now come of age surrounded by diet books, and what were once considered problems for middle-class white girls only (poor body-image and eating disorders) are now found in every racial and class demographic.

The key change in the past decade around skinniness is the explicit recognition of thinness as a marker not only of status, but of proud isolation from other women. Adolescent girls whose bodies come close to the fashion ideal have long been aware that they are, at least at times, the object of other young women’s resentment. “You’re so thin… I hate you!” is a phrase that many slender women have heard, with the only variation being the degree to which the second part of the statement is said with genuine loathing as opposed to mild, teasing envy. Lots of thin girls grow up being called “anorexic”, regardless of the presence or absence of an eating disorder. The mix of jealousy and resentment and pity often includes the refusal to believe tha a “skinny girl” has any problems about which to complain. (Think about what often happens when the most slender young woman in a room remarks that she “feels fat”.)

In the past decade, we’ve seen the appearance of what we might call the “mean girl narrative”. In addition to the now canonical (for millenials, anyway) Lindsay Lohan film, books like Queen Bees and Wannabees, Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, and the newest media darling, Twisted Sisterhood: Unraveling the Dark Legacy of Female Friendships all make the popular case that girls are, well, mean — meaner, certainly, in ways that boys simply could never be. It seems likely that this “discourse of female cruelty” works in tandem with the narrative of compulsory individuality to suggest to young women that theirs is a hyper-competitive world where success is a solitary and sexualized pursuit. Whether it’s chasing grades or getting guys, even your sisters are nothing more than “frenemies” at best.

The positing of thinness as a competitive tactic shows up in books like Rory Freedman’s Skinny Bitch. Freedman’s title reflects (or, one suspects, subtly reinforces) the reality that achieving the ideal body will invariably invite animosity from other women. It is taken for granted that it is better to be envied than to be liked. One imagines that the subtitle could have been this brutal but unmistakably powerful false dichotomy: “Would you rather be fat and liked or skinny and hated? Is that even a question?” Freedman uses this discourse of inter-female hostility to market a plan for success in this brutal, mean-girl world. (I like Freedman’s emphasis on a plant-based diet. But as a vegan, I’m not interested in using women’s fear of fat in order to transition people away from animal protein.)

The latest manifestation of the marriage of women’s enforced competitiveness and the cruel dictates of fashion comes from Bethenny Frankel, like Freedman a chef and animal-rights advocate and now a reality-tv sensation. Frankel, whose marketing term is “Skinny Girl” (slightly less confrontational than Freedman’s) just introduced a onesie for infants with the slogan “Future Skinny Girl” emblazoned across it. Frankel wanted it for her own daughter, and in a statement, insisted that she was motivated by concern for her little Bryn’s health. The pushback has been obvious and expected, and all of it drives attention to Frankel’s books and merchandise. Continue reading