Thursday, December 16, 2010

"Who cares about eyebrows?" UPDATED

The NYT Style section profiles Leandra Medine, the force behind the "Man Repeller" fashion blog, which I remembered having linked to here once before in reference to the perennial straight-men-and-women's-fashion question, but a search for "harem pants" lead me nowhere... turns out it was in reference to a certain chambray button-down.

So I will pause for a moment to kick myself for not thinking of the idea, and for a series of life choices based largely on the end goal of not living with my parents on the Upper East Side. My idea of the epitome of failure sounds, when described by a fashion journalist, like the very height of glamor.

In any case, I hadn't looked at Man Repeller in a while. Checking it out again, I was struck by how drop-dead gorgeous Medine herself is (and jealous, once again - am I the only dark-haired lady-Jew not born with those wonderful dark eyebrows? is there a woman in Scandinavia with my intended eyebrows, and when can we swap back?*), and what this means for the concept of her blog. Or, more broadly, what exactly is the relationship between beauty and fashion? 

A series on the Man Repeller blog is Medine putting on a sexy (slightly NSFW in this case) outfit, then showing how to style it so as to take it from conventional and man-getting to avant-garde, androgynous, haute-bag-lady territory. It's subverting expectations (think "What Not to Wear" or "Go Fug Yourself") to make those the "before" photos. To the uninitiated, "fashion" is about looking work-appropriate, age-appropriate, choosing flattering cuts, dressing to fit in, having the "right" jeans, looking "good." Medine is doing her part to show that that's precisely what fashion's not about. I, for one, approve.

While the concept is all about giving the finger to the notion that fashion's about pleasing men, the end result are a whole lot of pictures of a stunning young woman in skimpy clothes. Which brings us back to the question: if fashion isn't for men, how are fashion and conventional, man-attracting, female-jealousy-producing female beauty related? Two tentative thoughts on the matter:

-Even if the clothes fashion points women to are themselves not-so-sexy, a woman who thinks she looks good is one who will be drawn to clothing stores, or to looking at herself in the mirror in new arrangements of what she already owns, or to putting pictures of herself in lingerie on the Internet. 

-Ideally, fashion would be a way for those of all levels of attractiveness to express themselves through dress, and would allow even the odd-looking to be noticed, in a positive way, for their looks. In reality, dressing strangely and being appreciated for it is the privilege of the young and conventionally attractive. Not so liberating, when you think about it.

Finally, I found the end of the interview perplexing:
“I do think there are men who would see a girl wearing this stuff and think, ‘She has so much confidence and she still looks great despite the fact that I don’t know where her crotch starts in those pants,’ ” she said. “You can still tell when a girl is pretty. The men who really get repelled by what you’re wearing are a little shallow, and you probably don’t want to date them anyway.”
Is a man less "shallow" if he's able to look beyond clothes and see how good-looking a woman really is, than if he's thrown off by the presence of a miniskirt? This is like the nonsense about how men who notice women's faces rather than busoms are the nice guys, are not objectifying women. More than that, it reflects the opposite of what I took to be the point of the Man Repeller concept - that female concern about appearance need not have anything to do with "pretty."

But upon further reflexion, it kind of makes sense. The idea isn't that fashion is for women who don't care what men think of their looks. It's that fashion itself isn't employed to attract men. If that makes sense.

*"Seinfeld," distiller of all life's truths, uses the eyebrow question to show how straight women's perceptions of female beauty differ from those of straight men. As in, women notice eyebrows, men don't.


Sadie Stein at Jezebel takes the unsurprising-for-Jezebel approach, which is to point out that Medine's privilege is showing. Eh. Medine has a clothing budget that looks outrageous even to this Upper East Side-reared Jewess, but I'm not sure how any of that matters within the context of her blog and the questions it poses. (Of course, it appears she's living at home for college - maybe dorm money's just going to clothes instead?) If the issue is what man-repellent fashion means in terms of feminism, what matters is Medine's looks - her 'pretty privilege,' if you will. Along the same lines, I have trouble buying the self-deprecating, alternative-to-Fashion tone coming from Tavi, considering her slimness, symmetry, youth, and overall resemblance in everything but height (which is barely noticeable in pictures anyway) to runway models. And Tavi's not living in splendor in Manhattan, but is, famously, of the Midwest, of the suburbs, plucked from obscurity. I mean, there are certainly fashion blogs that elicit eyerolls at the ostentatious displays of limitless shopping budgets. But it's not the issue with the Man Repeller. Instead, this is another example of Jezebel spotting wealth and ceasing upon it as an opportunity to play the I'm-poorer-than-that-rich-bitch game.


Matt said...

women notice eyebrows, men don't.

I had a pretty good friend (who was himself very hairy, amusingly enough for the story) who dated a woman for a while who had some sort of genetic condition that made her pretty much entirely hairless. At first, he told us, he thought she was a bit exciting because (he thought), she shaved more than was usual for the time, but then she showed him that she was bald "on top", too. We asked him if he hadn't noticed that she didn't have eyebrows, and if that might not have been something to wonder about. "Who notices such things!" he replied, apparently quite honestly. (They broke up for non-hair related reasons soon after that.)

As for me, though, I do tend to notice eyebrows to a certain extent, in particular if they are modified very much. I guess I might not like some Bert-like unibrow, but otherwise, I don't much like it when eyebrows are plucked or made very narrow or changed very much, and think it falls into the category of things that almost always look worse when they are modified more than a tiny bit, if at all.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

"things that almost always look worse when they are modified more than a tiny bit, if at all."

This is probably an example of men not having the least idea what women do and end up looking "natural." You know that awkward look middle-schoolers have? For the girls, at least, it's because eyebrow-maintenance hasn't been sorted out yet. At a minimum, stray hairs between the brows have to go. But there's an approach to eyebrows that's basically getting rid of any eyebrow that isn't in a definitively eyebrow location. End result - men just think women, being less hairy than men overall, have neater eyebrows naturally, and only notice the obviously plucked.

Matt said...

This is probably an example of men not having the least idea what women do and end up looking "natural."

No. I've lived with women all my life, including sisters, and quite intimately with some others, and I know well what they did to their eyebrows. (And even my barber sometimes trims the wild hairs of my eyebrows, without my asking, and I can tell the difference.) Maybe some men live closely with women and don't see what they do or do not do. That's possible. But I think the idea that this is generally so isn't that likely, and is itself a myth. It's certainly wrong in my case.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I won't argue with anyone's individual experience of eyebrows. I'll say that I, too, have lived with women, and couldn't state with much precision who left which eyebrow hairs. I might also point out that I always notice when men have done something major with their eyebrows, whereas it's so normal to me that women would that unless it's done wrong, or the eyebrows themselves are spectacular, I don't notice anything.

My point is that there are different beauty things women do, some of which are about rounding up to "natural," others of which are about enhancement. Eyebrow shaping=enhancement. Plucking hairs from between, above, or below the brows, this is more akin to getting rid of a hair growing out of a mole or something - hair-removal where no one would ever guess that there'd ever been hair. You don't know if women have done this (unless you've seen the plucking), I don't know if women have done this, it's more something one can assess from the fact that as a population, it looks like women rarely have the stray not-quite-eyebrow hairs men virtually always do.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

To turn the conversation (I'm having with myself) back to the topic at hand, I'm impressed with the number of Jezebel commenters who miss the point entirely. Some point out that they can put together ugly hipster-outfits from thrift stores (the 'where's my medal' contingent,) including one who gets stuff at the dollar store and mocks those who spend "6x" that at Bloomingdales (which would mean... six dollars?), when the point is that high fashion repels men, not that it is the only type of dress that does, or the one that does so most effectively. Obviously a urine-soaked potato sack would do the trick.

Or the commenters who can't get past the "heteronormative" bent... it is a blog about lowest-common-denominator straight men and their approach to women's dress. I think the implication is that gay men and less gender-norms-fitting straight ones might like the clothes - they are obviously not the men in question in this context.

PG said...

I am never impressed by the number of Jezebel commenters who miss the point of anything done with a specialized focus.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


If something of this conceptual complexity (high fashion repelling straight men) counts as a "specialized focus," I'm not sure what the commenters there would catch the point of.

Anonymous said...

Well, here is an example of man-attractive fashion, how to marry a prince division (of Middleton): "The two then started dating, the story goes, after he was struck by her beauty as she modeled a sheer dress at a charity fashion show." dave.s.