How much does “pretty” matter?

By Caitlin Kelly

Cover of "Pretty Is"
Cover of Pretty Is

Loved this blog post, from dressaday, by brilliant Bay area writer and dictionary editor Erin McKean, about why women don’t have to be pretty — unless they choose to:

You Don’t Have to Be Pretty. You don’t owe prettiness toanyone. Not to your boyfriend/spouse/partner, not to your co-workers, especially not to random men on the street. You don’t owe it to your mother, you don’t owe it to your children, you don’t owe it to civilization in general. Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked “female”.

I’m not saying that you SHOULDN’T be pretty if you want to. (You don’t owe UN-prettiness to feminism, in other words.) Pretty is pleasant, and fun, and satisfying, and makes people smile, often even at you. But in the hierarchy of importance, pretty stands several rungs down from happy, is way below healthy, and if done as a penance, or an obligation, can be so far away from independent that you may have to squint really hard to see it in the haze.

And this essay from The Wall Street Journal by an Iranian writer, Marjan Kamali, about returning to her homeland, where every woman she meets urges her to pretty up:

The first thing we noticed as we strolled to a fancy shopping mall were the couples. Young women in bright tunics and scarves that slipped back to show their hair walked with guys in jeans and tight T-shirts. The women’s eyes were accentuated with eyeliner and shadow…Their nails were red and green and hot pink.

“I didn’t know they were allowed boyfriends here,” my daughter said. “I didn’t think they could do lipstick.”…

Later that evening, over a feast of jeweled rice and walnut and pomegranate stew at my aunt’s home, we caught up on family and politics. Suddenly my aunt said: “I can take you if you want.”

“Take me where?” I asked.

“To our best beauty salon.”

“I didn’t come here for a beauty salon.”

“As you wish,” she sniffed. “But what is this look that’s no look that you have?”

At another relative’s house, it was the housekeeper who pulled me aside. “Madam,” she whispered. “Those eyebrows. Please. You’re a mother of two. You need to be tweezed.”

My naked face stood out among a sea of lipsticked and glamorous Tehranis glowing under their hijabs. The surprise bordering on concern at my un-made-up ways was everywhere. “Why don’t you wear more makeup?” asked women whose cheeks were caked with foundation. “What do you have against lipstick?”

In Tehran, it turned out, the standards for fashion and appearance were extremely high. Women dieted and went to Pilates and yoga. Though by law they had to cover up outside their homes, many women rebelled, especially the young. They let their head scarves slip as far back as they could and wore tunics that, while not revealing any skin, were vivid and tight. And they obsessed about their faces, moisturizing and plucking and exfoliating.

And this, from Danish blog Rebelle Society, one I recently discovered:

Brace yourself, beautiful.

We’ve now entered the PhotoShop era, where a fanciful fiction of fairness leads to a fall down the rabbit hole of deception and discontent, all designed by an ad executive who will tell the world what your ass should look like in those $300.00 jeans.

It’s a dizzying effect of distortion and contortion of beautiful form without adding real function and it’s pretty damn ugly.

I’m also re-reading DV, one of my favorite books, by the late, legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, a famous jolie laide, whose style was defiantly and gloriously and confidently eccentric.

Women use their disapproval of one another’s appearance as a channel for aggression, according to this recent study. Facepalm.

While we’re heavily socialized not to appear mean, women can be sneakily vicious to those who fail to meet our standards of thin, stylish beauty.

Here’s Emily Graslie, who does videos of science from the Field Museum in Chicago, talking — with considerable and real frustration — about the haters who comment on her appearance, not her effing big brain and all the cool stuff she shares. Morons!

If you’ve got time to watch it, this new British documentary about six extraordinary women — ages 70s to 91, including an active choreographer and the oldest woman in the House of Lords — is lovely. Each is stylish in her own way, from the Baroness visiting her hair salon of 30 years to the defiantly confident Bridget, who visits Vogue to see if they’d like to hire her as a model.

They each have terrific elan and confidence, and none is Botoxed or rolling in bags of cash. The film is 47 minutes long, and worth every minute.

Pretty is as pretty does.

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If one more woman bitches about the size of her body…

What scientists call "Overweight" ch...
What scientists call “Overweight” changes with our knowledge of human health (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am going to lose it completely.

Some of you read Kristen Lamb, who writes a blog about writing. It’s extremely popular and usually very helpful. But her latest post was a digression — an extended piece about being a size 10/12 and why she feels fat:

I am healthy, have beautiful skin and hair. I have enough energy to power a small city and am never sick, but I am still a size 10-12 and 170 pounds.

Why is it no one looks like me?

When we look on TV, we are confronted with extremes–super skinny or clinically obese. We are calling anorexics “beautiful” and calling dangerously obese women “curvy.” We are an a country that is dying because of euphemisms. I hear parents call morbidly obese children “husky,” “big-boned” or “muscular.” We have retailers calling anorexics “curvy.”

I get it. I’ve written about this as well.

But, seriously — it is time for women to move on.

Every time a healthy woman feels compelled to discuss the size of her ass or thighs or hips I want to throw a piece of furniture. Yes, being fat is annoying and unhealthy and no one makes pretty clothes for fatties.

I’m overweight, and have been since 2003 when I packed on 23 pounds in one year — the year I wrote my first book, traveling alone around the U.S., interviewing victims of horrific gun violence and crime, and dealing, alone, with my mother’s 3-inch-wide brain tumor and surgery in Vancouver. I was too damn distracted to even notice.

I’ve gained even more since then. Ugh. I’m not thrilled, believe me, to need to lose 40+ pounds. But we need to stop talking about this, and this is why I feel so strongly.

The larger issue here — pun intended — is this:

Whining about weight is the biggest fucking distraction that women indulge in! We have much bigger fish to fry!

Whining about weight is a huge time-suck.

Whining about weight teaches the girls in our lives, who look to us their role models, that this is just what women do, that focusing miserably and endlessly on our individual body size and shape is our most pressing issue as women — instead of political and economic issues that affect us all, size 00s to 24s,  like paid maternity leave or better domestic violence protection or access to birth control and abortion.

Whining about weight ignores and demeans the many incredible gifts we enjoy every single day. We are not living in Syria with government/rebel bombs exploding all around us, for example.

Whining about weight is the ultimate shiny object that women continue to focus their attention on, instead of:

— fighting for social justice, at home and abroad

— running for political office and kicking ass when we win

— creating astonishing works of art

— waking up every single day grateful for their health and strength, the not-so-simple ability to walk and stand and reach for things without pain

— knowing that women all over the world are dying of starvation, malnutrition and in childbirth at 14 or 16 because their young bodies are too weakened to do so healthily

— ditching the people in their lives who shame them by focusing on the size of their ass instead of what matters most, the size of our hearts and brains

— exploring the world, no matter our size, with excitement and anticipation

thinking, long and hard, about our legacies in this world

There is something ironic to me that Kristen’s blog post includes a photo of herself holding — of all things! — a very large gun. Having written a book about American women and guns, I know this decision isn’t one she made lightly, and showing her readers that she owns a gun takes serious guts. Shooting well also requires tremendous mental and physical control.

So, frankly, I don’t get it. You’re powerful and self-determining, or you’re not. A woman who knows how to handle a gun safely and shoot well is someone I respect; I’ve done a lot of shooting and know the power it conveys.

Labels are also something we generally choose to ignore after leaving the schoolyard, so why are women of all ages so eager to keep self-flagellating about how fat we are (or are not?)

At this point, I’m technically “plus size.”

Why don’t the curvy chicks start calling size 6’s and 00’s minus-size?

Give it up, ladies! This obsession is wasting our talent, energy, excitement and drive.

Give it up today.

Wearing Your Man's Clothes (Or Fragrance Or Ski Boots)

CIMG6795
Image by justgrimes via Flickr

Annie Hall did it in 1977 — wearing trousers and a white shirt and a man’s hat. Women borrowing their guys’ clothing is a perennial favorite.

Recent issues of Vogue and Elle suggest borrowing everything from his leather messenger bag to his gray flannel vest to a cobalt blue V-neck sweater.

Writes Joe Zee:

When it comes to the age-old sport of clothes-nabbing, my role has always been easy: the innocent bystander who listens and
spectates. The girls get together, compliment one another, “borrow” from one another, and then call me to complain that they don’t think they’ll ever see their things again. Now, for the first time it looked as though I was about to be the victim of closet robbery, and I didn’t like it one bit. I stopped my friend as she approached the door, my favorites in hand.

“No, not cool,” I said. “I wear those things all the time. Plus, they won’t fit you. And why do you want my clothes, anyway?”

“I’m doing the oversize men’s look that Rihanna’s been pulling,” she said.

“Can’t you get your own white shirts and blazers?”

“Not the same. There’s something about real men’s clothes from a guy’s closet that’s so much better.” And with that declaration, she was gone, clothing and all.

The dressing tables had been officially turned.

I liked Vogue’s picks better, including pajamas, a bucket hat, a watch and fragrance. My favorite watch is a 1920s silver man’s watch I bought in a London flea market and I’ve long loved 108-year-old Blenheim Bouquet, officially a man’s scent from the British firm Penhaligon‘s.

I’ve almost always dated shorter, smaller men, most of them stylish. One was small enough I could even borrow his ski boots.

I deeply coveted half of my sweetie’s wardrobe the first time I saw his stuff — a crisp white collar-less shirt, a charcoal sweater and the khaki-colored Nautica cotton jacket he almost never gets to wear because I love it so much. I’ve borrowed everything from his black polypro ski underwear to his sweatshirts.

The night we met he took off the red silk Tibetan prayer shawl he was wearing as a muffler and gently wrapped me up in it. It smelled of 1881, his cologne, and was warm from his skin.

Worked for me.

What clothing of your man’s do you wear?

Gentlemen, is any of it off limits to your women?

Anna and Grace duke it out over Galliano — finally saw, and loved, 'The September Issue'

Anna Wintour at New York's Fall Fashion Week, 2005
Anna Wintour, Vogue editor. Image via Wikipedia

What a fun film!

OK, I am way behind on this one — the documentary, “The September Issue,” came out nationwide last September. I watched it yesterday. If you haven’t seen it, rent it with “The Devil Wears Prada” for a delicious double-bill, comparing real life to reel life.

For those of you not passionate about clothes, fashion, design or what Anna actually looks like without those damn sunglasses — the film is about the making of Vogue’s September issue, a legendarily enormous annual doorstop of a magazine weighing as much as a Thanksgiving turkey.

Tom Florio, publisher of Vogue, is a great character in the film as he tries to explicate Wintour’s terrifyingly glacial demeanor, deliciously parodied by Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada”, a film based on a book by  former Vogue assistant, Lauren Weisberger.

“She’s not warm,” he says. “I have to be warm for both of us. She’s busy. She’s busy doing her job.”

I’ve seen DWP so many times I can recite its dialogue by heart; I loved seeing how exactly it mimics Wintour’s real office, behavior and rareified lifestyle.

And the brutal, albeit very well-dressed, power struggles are Olympian!

Watching Grace Coddington — the magazine’s creative director — sparring with (and inevitably losing to) Wintour is a rare and telling glimpse of what it takes for two powerful, determined, talented and creative women to achieve, and remain at, the highest levels of this most competitive game. That both are British, coming from a culture where understatement trumps typical New York in-your-face-ness, only makes their civil but relentless jockeying for pages even more compelling.

Not to mention the enormous egos — photographers, models, editors, art directors, designers. However appalling to every feminist bone in my body, I loved the scene where the art director is deciding which image of Sienna Miller to use on the most valuable piece of real estate, the cover — and he’s dismayed by her visible fillings (!)

“I think this neck looks better. Maybe we’ll put this head on this body,” he says, revealing how their use of Photoshop and retouching is as automatic and unremarkable as breathing. Altered images, which I’ve blogged about here before, are normal in this world. Therefore Grace — desperate to rescue a failed shoot by using one of the documentary’s middle-aged male cameramen, complete with his real pot-belly, as a photo subject — has to rush to the phone to make sure his jiggly real-world belly is not artifically flattened by their ruthlessly fastidious re-touchers.

“We’re not,” she says to the camera, “all perfect.”

Even if reading Vogue has never been a priority, check it out.

It’s funny, moving, telling — few documentaries focus on women at work, let alone whose well-toned arms wrestle so fiercely for raw, pure power.

Fashion Advice From A 13-Year-Old?

Front (Sixth Avenue) entrance of Spring 2009 N...
New York Fashion Week. Image via Wikipedia

Of course you’ve heard of Tavi Gevinson, darling!

How many tweens have their own Wikipedia entry already — for blogging about fashion since they were 11? Not to mention she’s a muse (before puberty?) for Rodarte, one of the edgier fashion labels out there.

She appeared, of  course, at New York Fashion Week, which just ended, her hair (why, dear?) dyed an odd shade of pale blue-gray, the color of hypothermic skin. She lives in a Chicago suburb, but has been profiled in major publications from the Los Angeles Times to Vogue.

But, hey, her blog gets 1.5 million hits a month. Nice work if you can get it!

That's Why They Call It Conde Nasty — New Hotline Helps Colleagues Drop A Dime On Each Other

US Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour (2ndL) a...
Vogue editor Anna Wintour, in green.Image by AFP/Getty Images via Daylife

That’s my kind of corporation! Rat out your colleagues, courtesy of an in-house hotline. Reports the New York Post:

Insiders got a memo yesterday from Chief Financial Officer John Bellando, revealing that the company set up the hotline to stop the “release of proprietary information, accounting/audit irregularities, falsification of company records, theft of goods/services/cash,” and even “unauthorized discounts/payoffs.”

This could put a damper on some of the perks inside S.I. Newhouse Jr.‘s empire.

Last fall a hacker broke into Condé’s system and stole early copies of GQ, Vogue and other magazines, which were posted online.

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Yesterday’s move seemed to put the brakes on CEO Charles Townsend‘s happiness campaign. Trying to boost morale after 2009’s turmoil and layoffs, he recently did a coast-to-coast tour to give a corporate pep talk and encourage staffers to “get their mojo back.”

Conde Nast, named for the man who founded the publishing empire in 1909 by acquiring Vogue, is legendary in Manhattan publishing circles for its elite worldview. The 2006 film “The Devil Wears Prada”, starring Meryl Streep, is said to be based on Anna Wintour, long-time Vogue editor.

I interviewed at Conde Nast a few times, but never got hired there. It’s a great place to have on your resume, but maybe — now — not such a cosy place to crank out copy.