Thursday, November 16, 2006

In Defense of Vanity

I know, I know, I've been a bad, bad blogger, but I have a good excuse, which is that I've been spending all my time studying the art of classical acting and the thea-tah. Instead of dutifully keeping the world abreast of the ordinary horrors of my existence, I've been reading plays, scanning verse, enunciating, combatting a new and uncharacteristic stage-fright, and breathing in and out. The only thing other than course-related work I've done in the past few months has been writing for the magazine I've mentioned on this site before. So, now that some of the issues of New York Moves to which I've contributed have hit the press, I can replicate them for a geographically broader audience..... here's one:

There’s a story from my babyhood that I often ask my mom to repeat, partly because it’s so damn cute, but mostly because it’s about me, and I like hearing stories starring me. She says that whenever I cried, she’d hold me, and I would angle myself to face the large antique mirror that hung on the door in our kitchen and then just watch my reflection as I cried. She’d have to hold me up in front of the glass for a good twenty minutes while I sniffled and sobbed until I started kicking her in the chest, which meant I was finished and now hungry. If I was in another room at the time of an upset, she’d pick me up, and I would twist and strain in her arms as she held me, and instead of the usual uninhibited wailing, my sobs had a hesitant, questioning quality--my perceptive mother would then carry me to my favorite spot in the kitchen where I’d finally let it all out “on camera.”

Even today I can’t resist checking myself out whenever I’m distraught. My face flushes so that my eyes look greener, my lips get red and puffy, the tears make my eyelashes all shiny and they stick together like a doll’s. But even better is how very soulful I look when I’m upset. I take advantage of my heightened state and perform Meryl Streep’s famous speech from Sophie’s Choice where she admits her father was an abusive Nazi abettor: I pretend the mirror is the window of Stingo’s Flatbush apartment, stare out into the imaginary Brooklyn dusk, cock my left brow, let a single tear roll down my cheek, and whisper, “…he said, ‘Zozia, your intelligence eez pulp………pulp!!...’” Or I pretend that JFK, Jr. and I are sitting in a coffeeshop in the Village and he’s breaking up with me because of insurmountable class differences or he can’t handle my Slavic temperament or maybe Caroline feels threatened by my libertine tendencies, and he’s really a homebody at heart after all. Tomorrow all the beauty of my pathos will be plastered across the Daily News and the Post. Single women all over New York will discuss the tragedy over cosmo’s after work, and the men will shake their heads and wonder how John-John could have let someone like me get away.

Yes, I spend a lot of time in front of the mirror. And not just crying, but toning, moisturizing, concealing, highlighting, powdering, SPF-ing, eyelash-combing, eyebrow-smoothing, and practicing smiles of varying degrees of toothiness. I’m currently trying to cultivate the ability to blush on command, very tricky indeed. I have spent thousands of dollars (in my lifetime, not like last week or anything) on hair removal, exercise classes, facials, not to mention clothing to accentuate all my favorite body parts. All to achieve that “I just rolled out of bed looking like this” look. Or better, that “I was born out of a giant seashell, locks a-flowing and heralded by naked baby angels” look.

I actually went to school with someone who laid legitimate claim to the natural Venus look: her name was Rafaella (how apt), and she had long blonde hair that curled and shone even though she washed it with pine tar soap. She never wore makeup and didn’t need to, as her skin was clear and her cheeks and lips naturally pink. No matter how little sleep she got, she never had dark circles under her eyes. She never bothered shaving, but why would she, with legs sprinkled with a soft down, invisible except when sparkling golden in the sun. I never saw her exercise, yet her legs were those of a dancer, without the duck-like turn-out. She never wore a bra, explaining that her C-cups were too small to need one (a thousand times, damn her). The ace up my sleeve is that since she’s too much of a hippie to moisturize or use sunscreen, the harsh New Mexico sun will dry her up like a yellow raisin by the time she’s 35. Hoorah!

Rafi was indeed the campus Venus, sort of a paradigm for unfussy hotness. Something bothered me, though, when people spoke of her, and despite the case I just made for my own monstrous and complicated vanity, it wasn’t quite competitiveness or jealousy, although I will understand if my reader thinks I’m a lying liar. When people discussed the Hotness of Queen Rafi, what they focused on almost more than her hotness itself was her seeming obliviousness to it: more than her actual beauty, it was her utter lack of vanity about it that most impressed people. “She’s so gorgeous, and she doesn’t even know it…” I couldn’t put words to it at the time, but it was peoples’ admiration of Rafi’s unawareness of her assets that offended and troubled me.

This is how people spoke of Audrey Hepburn and Brigitte Bardot, and is usually part of the hype over any starlet newly minted by the studios and the magazines. Even Vogue, that juggernaut of our collective obsession with the superficial, in a recent spread on Keira Knightly, cites couture giantess Vera Wang as gushing “…to be so beautiful and yet to be so unaware of it I find incredibly modern.” Please, Vera, tell us more about modernity.

There are two reasons not to praise someone for lacking vanity.

We live in a world which makes an unprecedented racket about physical beauty and places all sorts of debilitating pressure on people, and especially on women, to conform to evermore minutely finicky and widely unrealistic standards of physical perfection. It is unfair and hypocritical to expect a woman to be oblivious to, let alone unworried by, her physical assets or defects. How sick and self-destructive is it for us to uphold morals in direct conflict with our own self-generated ethos?

Secondly, it is backward and sexist to praise a woman for lack of awareness of any kind. In our society, beauty is power. A woman aware of her beauty, whether god-given or self-cultivated, is actually aware of a weapon in her arsenal that, if she’s smart about it, she can employ to her advantage. Someone (it’s usually a man) who praises a woman for her obliviousness to this very powerful asset is actually admitting his relief that the woman is wasting a tool she could use to gain the upper hand (with him) or to get ahead in our image obsessed society. Praising lack of vanity, like praising innocence, is praising the inability to function fully in this world.

For this embargo on vanity to be anything but bogus and oppressive, our society must either shift its monomaniacal obsession with physical attractiveness or allow for a less exclusionary definition of beauty, And until I see leg hair, ass fat, and crow’s feet on the cover of Vogue (which in the new world will be a women’s literary-political-theological journal), I’m not buying it.

3 comments:

Steve Bodio said...

Youa are beautiful, intelligent, and self- aware-- DAMNED!

I'll link.

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Hannah said...

oh this is good and so interesting! I never thought about it this way! :)