This Continues

A little over a year ago, the nude model in me asked, What makes me beautiful? The journalist in me replied, Let’s find out. Thus was born All Dolled Up, a long-term, multi-media project documenting and examining the personal, social and political construction of feminine beauty.

June 30, 2011 marks the final day of the initial phase of this project. For one year – since July 1, 2010 – I have been documenting and recording everything that I, as one modern woman in our Western culture, do to “make myself beautiful”. I have saved all the artifacts and paraphernalia I have used, including eye shadow, make-up remover pads, lotion bottles, shampoo containers, nail polish and even some unwanted pubic hairs. I have saved all my receipts, so that I can know exactly how much I spend on beauty throughout an entire year.

I have also been keeping a daily journal, writing down thoughts on beauty and my body each day, and recording my regular rituals. In conjunction with the daily diary, I have created this blog.

I began this project because I believe that all women are beautiful – but very few of us actually think so. By discussing and documenting definitions and ideas that surround female beauty, bodies and sexuality, I hoped that more of us would be able to see ourselves and other women for the stunning creatures we all are.

This project is not about condemnation but about examination. Most women love creativity, beauty, colour and health, and we often express these passions through our clothes, make-up and bodies. Problems arise, however, when women feel forced to look a certain way in order to be socially acceptable and sexually attractive.
Over the past week, I have been typing up my daily handwritten journal entries. This has reminded me of the winding journey I have been on. Originally, one of my personal goals for this year was to fully accept my body, and to truly believe that I am beautiful. Through doing so, I hoped that perhaps I could inspire a few other women to do the same thing.

A year later, I do not think I have really achieved this goal – there are still many days when I feel ugly, and dislike various parts of my body. However, on July 5, 2010, I wrote in one of my daily journal entries: “I certainly do think that truly loving and accepting your body is a very profound feminist statement.”

I still believe this is true. I also believe that – even if women battle daily with beauty and body image – discussing, thinking about and sharing these issues is a huge achievement in itself. Having the courage to share our own stories and struggles is also integral to achieving change on a personal and social level and to developing a positive, respectful definition of feminine beauty.

When I began this project, I also envisioned that it would last for just one year. However, I now realise that I still have a lot more work to do! First of all, I am going to create multi-media collages from all of the beauty objects I have saved, and exhibit them (I will let you know when this happens!). I also hope to publish my daily journal entries in the form of a small book, so that you can read them too! Finally, I am developing a series of workshops to go along with this project, which I hope to host over the next couple of years.

I could not have done this project without all your love, support and participation. Thank you so much. I look forward to working and sharing with you all as this project continues. You are beautiful.

(The sign below reads: “The revolution will be feminist, or won’t be.”).

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The Politics of Pubic Hair

As the documentation phase of this project ends (June 30 is the final day!), I have been typing up my handwritten daily journal entries. I wrote this one on July 20, 2010, and thought some of you might appreciate it.

“Back to waxing pubic hair – it is such a funny thing. I find it ridiculous and abhorrent that culture dictates what that part of our bodies should look like (and now that I put it like that, I think of FGN and the “re-virgin” plastic surgeries, which I won’t get into now). I mean, fuck’s sake, you even have Bill Maher doing a “new rule” on pubic hair.

“So, part of me feels guilty, as a feminist, that I do anything with my pubic hair. Surely I am naturally beautiful and should accept my body the way it is, hair and all?

“On the other hand, my pubic hair is a constant source of embarrassment. I didn’t start waxing until my early 20s, because that’s when I discovered waxing. What a relief! For years before that, I had tried to shave my pubic hair, but that just leaves me with lots of little red bumps, which is even more embarrassing than the pubic hair. It was so relieving to discover that with some hot wax and some temporary pain, I could be rid of all the offending hairs! Even better, I could go to a salon, and have someone get rid of them all for me with a magic wax wand!

“I remember when we were teenagers, we used to go to KD’s family camp in the summertime. Her Aunt Jean, a very cool woman, did not shave her pubic hair. I have an image of he holding court with us kids, on the beach by the lake, in her black bathing suit, arms crossed at her chest, her long brown hair flowing behind her, pubic hair sticking out either suit of her bathing suit.

“I still remember her and her unshaved bikini like with a mixture of awe and horror. Is that the choice women have – accept ourselves but flaunt convention, and become an embarrassment to ourselves and everyone else? Or wax it all off, be the pubic darling in our own minds and those of others, be able to prance around in all the knickers and bathing suits we want, unfettered by embarrassment – but know deep down that we are not accepting our natural beauty; that, in our most intimate, feminine area, we are letting others tell us what is beautiful and acceptable?”

By the way, if you want more pubic hair, check out the latest issue of Whore! magazine – it features a great article on Vajazzling – that is, the growing art of decorating your vaginal area.

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It’s Raining Men

As all of you know, my meditations focus much more on female nudity than on male nudity. However, two recent events have made me ponder the latter – the other side of the coin, as it were (if we’re thinking in binary terms!).

The first was Bay to Breakers, a 12K race/walk that is held annually in San Francisco. The course takes everyone from one side of the city to the other, and is much more of an all-encompassing, mardi gras-style party than a race. People are free to dress up however they want – or dress in nothing all. However, although you see a few nipple tassels and “side-boobs”, or even one or two completely topless women, the overwhelming majority of the people who choose to go naked are older, straight, white men.

Then, the day after the race, I saw someone present a fashion collection that she had designed. It was for a male clothing line and her overall concept was fascinating. She pointed out that while women’s clothing often reveals our bodies, men’s clothing does not. She argued that men need to have the freedom to be vulnerable, exposed and naked.

I thought her remarks and her collection were very thought-provoking. I agree with her; we also need new definitions of masculinity, along with new constructions for femininity. Our ideas of what men should be like and act like are constricting and oppressive, as are the correlating ideas for women.

Both men and women should be free to be naked and celebrate their bodies. However, something about the male nudity at the Bay to Breakers race grated with me – and my gut reaction was one of revulsion, as it often is when I’m in the presence of naked men (with one notable exception!).

I wasn’t the only one who had this reaction. Along the race course, volunteers handed out cups of water. Right after one of the naked men passed by, a (male) volunteer held out some water and shouted into the crowd, “Here, have some water – because you’ve just seen a penis!”

I think what was bothering me was the fact that the naked white male form is so often a symbol of power and oppression, and the white male penis an enforcer and instrument of that oppression. I also wonder whether other groups would actually feel comfortable going naked in this context. As I said, I saw one topless woman, but she was with one of the naked men. If I were to go naked next year, would I feel safe and celebrated, or unsafe and uncomfortably sexualised? What about gay and lesbian men and women?

Interestingly, Los Angeles-based writer and professor Hugo Schwyzer has recently argued that our culture actually teaches us to be repulsed by the male body and discusses the negative repercussions of this in The Male Body: Repulsive or Beautiful? In the article, he states: “We’re raised in a culture that both celebrates and pathologizes male ‘dirtiness.’ On the one hand, boys were and are given license to be louder, rowdier, and aggressive. We’re expected to get our hands dirty, to rip our pants and get covered in stains. We enjoy a freedom to be dirty that even now, our sisters often do not. No mistake, that’s male privilege. But growing up with the right to be dirty goes hand-in-hand with the realization that many people find the male body repulsive.”

Schwyzer goes on to argue that one outcome of all this is that men internalise these messages, and find their own bodies dirty, repulsive and undesirable. He says: “So many straight men have no experience of being wanted. So many straight men have no experience of sensing a gaze of outright longing. Even many men who are wise in the world and in relationships, who know that their wives or girlfriends love them, do not know what it is to be admired for their bodies and their looks. They may know what it is to be relied upon, they may know what it is to bring another to ecstasy with their touch, but they don’t know what it is to be found not only aesthetically pleasing to the eye, but worthy of longing.”

What must we as a society do to help men learn that their bodies are beautiful? Is it through allowing men to walk naked through the streets on certain occasions? Is there a right time and place to fight for the celebration of the naked male form, or is it always appropriate? As men learn to truly respect their bodies, will they also learn to respect women’s bodies? Should we women even care what men think of their bodies, or should we focus on loving our own?

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Are You Ready for Summer?

The birds are singing, the flowers are blooming and the temperatures are rising. Many of us want to wear pretty, strappy dresses and cute little shorts. We want to wear sexy bathing suits to the pool and tiny bikinis to the beach.

However, if we simply allowed ourselves to be swept away by the excitement of the season, we would risk scaring the general public with parts of our naked flesh that are not up to par. As current magazines and advertisements keep reminding us, we should each be asking ourselves the question, Am I bikini ready?

Faced with this question, it seems that (as with other beauty questions) we have two choices. The first choice is to buy into it, to tell ourselves that we need to do certain things to our bodies in order to be beautiful. Around this time of year, the list is long:
1. Wax/save our legs
2. Wax/shave our pubic hair
3. Wax/shave our armpits
4. (Basically, get rid of any hair that’s not on top of our heads)
5. Exercise so that our stomachs are flat
6. Lift weights so that our arms, legs and asses are toned
7. Assess our body type so that we can buy a bathing suit that fits our type
8. For those of us who are white, we must moisturise with that tanning lotion before we go out, so we don’t blind everyone with our pale skin
9. Etc.

I think most or all of us choose this option to some extent. I don’t think we should be condemned for that though – I think we often have to make that choice if we are going to survive, and there is nothing wrong with survival. I know that I used to do everything on the list and – if I’m being really honest – I would probably do it all again if I had the money to do so.

The second choice, if you can call it that, is to ignore or defy these demands. On a physical level, we do this by not getting our body “ready” for summer, by not shaving our legs or buying flattering outfits. On a deeper level, we have to keep reminding ourselves that we are beautiful and lovable all year round, even when we don’t do these things.

That’s the rub, though: if we choose to not get ourselves “bikini ready” it’s not really a choice, it’s a fight – and who wants to do that in warm weather?

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Paid to Look Pretty

A week ago, I had my first public reading. The event was organised by Litup, and the evening’s theme centred around painful or funny work experiences. My essay, entitled Paid to Look Pretty, was about a photoshoot I did while working as a nude model in Amsterdam. While I may not have explicitly discussed the construction of feminine beauty in the essay, I did touch upon many issues related to beauty, bodies, sexuality, femininity and art.

The reading is on YouTube – feel free to check it out!

Thanks again to those of you who came to the reading – it meant the world to me!

Pictured: Jessica Langlois, Stephen McMullin, Liz Farsaci and Nina Tamburello.

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Menage a Trois

I just finished The Beauty Myth which, like Maxwell House Coffee, is good to the last drop. One of the final chapters is entitled Violence, and talks about how the Beauty Myth plays out in the medical and cosmetic surgery industries.

Overall, Naomi Wolf points out that, since women began to agitate for our rights in the Victorian era, and since the field of medicine was taken over by men and “professionalised”, the field of medicine has labeled many aspects of women’s minds and bodies as unhealthy. For the Victorians, this went on to the point where basically anything uniquely feminine was considered abnormal, something to be fixed by a treatment. As examples, Wolf pointed to the fact that everything from menstruation to childbirth to stubbornness was treated as a disease. We can see this play out today in the technoligisation of childbirth and other aspects of women’s health.

Wolf also compares these attitudes and practices with those in the cosmetic surgery industry today. This industry takes perfectly healthy, beautiful women and says that we need to be butchered and tortured in order to be pretty. There is nothing wrong with us naturally, and yet the cosmetic surgery industry demands that all of our boobs look like round, hard breast implants, and all our stomachs and bums and thighs have no fat or wrinkles or stretchmarks on them. (Wolf makes the good distinction between cosmetic surgery and plastic surgery, which includes reconstructive surgery for burn victims, etc).

I know that, at times, I have entertained the fantasy of having a nose job, a boob job or getting all the fat sucked out of my stomach. However, even if I would never actually let someone cut into my healthy body, I live in a society where the spectre of cosmetic surgery is always at the edge of my consciousness. We all do. All of us women are trying to feel confident, beautiful and healthy in a culture where drugging our minds and cutting up our bodies is perfectly acceptable.

Lately, I have been finding that this spectre is playing a role in my relationship with my body and with my partner. Whenever I am trying to feel sexy or be sexual, the spectre of violence mocks me from his position in the corner of my bedroom. I can be sharing precious, intimate moments with my partner, when suddenly the ghost forces his way into our bed, demanding that we heed his call to dissatisfaction and violence.

How do I kick this monster out of my bed? How do we, as women, convince both ourselves and others that all things feminine are not diseases, and that being a woman is perfect natural?

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The Personal and the Political

Throughout this project, I have focused primarily on feminine beauty as it plays out in our daily lives, and what it means on a personal level. However, I have always known that there are, of course, political and social dimensions and implications to the construction of feminine beauty. Through The Beauty Myth, author Naomi Wolf has helped me to understand just how political it is.

The beauty myth, Wolf argues, demands that all women be beautiful – this beauty being defined in such a way that no woman could ever be naturally beautiful. It is a tool wielded by the masculine power establishment, threatened by the inroads the women’s movement has made over the past four decades, in every aspect of our lives, including our work, our bodies, our sexuality and our pockets.

In relation to work, Wolf shows that as women have entered the workforce through a variety of different jobs, there has been a correlating pressure demanding that women all fit into a very narrow definition of beauty. As legislation helped women gain rights in the workplace, other laws were being created which argued that women must look a certain way (determined by their boss) if they wanted to keep their jobs. This applied not only to women in the “display professions” such as modelling or acting, but to those in all jobs. As women have been able to make money of our own, we have been required to spend more and more on products that will allegedly help us to attain this Professional Beauty Qualification, as Wolf says.

Another area in which the beauty myth plays an important role is, of course, sex, and our sexuality. Wolf argues that the power structure, through advertising companies, the media and other avenues, equates beauty with sex. Women are told over and over and over that if we are not beautiful – again using a very narrow definition – we are not sexy, and not deserving of sex.

Along with The Beauty Myth, I am also reading a book called Facing Codependence. One of the core symptoms, or consequences, of codependence (according to the author) is the inability to value oneself appropriately. Someone who has lived in a codependent family will often not value herself, or will really struggle to do so. She will struggle to value herself just as she is – not when she has the perfect job, the perfect house, the perfect partner, nor when she has accomplished her list of tasks for the day, cooked healthy meals, cleaned the house, etc.

My mind is connecting this idea with Wolf’s ideas on beauty. Society, the power structure, large corporations, etc. all want us to feel bad about ourselves, to not value ourselves just the way we are. What if we were able to value ourselves? That would be a huge triumph, both personally and politically.

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