Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Skincare overanalysis overanalyzed

A writer questioned the skincare craze, and Twitter - OK, a good % of the women writers I follow on Twitter, plus a couple of early, quick-take articles backlashing the backlash - let this writer know that she'd been way off. Easy for a young woman (the writer is, apparently, young) to write something like that! And it's sexist to dismiss pursuits just because women enjoy them! And dismissing skincare as evil toxic chemicals is anti-science! Can't anyone have fun?

There were problems with the original piece, most notably the choice to snark at the skin quality of skin-routine-havers. That said, the response - or, rather, the skewed version of it my 34-year-old self was getting - struck me as overshooting the mark. Or maybe not that exactly - more like, the flaws of that specific article segued a bit too easily into a defense of skincare itself. Which... maybe doesn't need defending? Or maybe does? Gah!

To write about skincare (which I've been doing, here and there, for... long enough that my age is showing), you sort of have to situate yourself. If I say I'm meh about skincare, but don't say who I am, I'm a clear-skinned 20-year-old with no stressful life events to speak of. So allow me to gaze in the mirror and offer you a glimpse of My Skin, as of January 30th, 2018:

Now that I'm ancient and live in the arctic, I use a facial moisturizer. It's this one. For soap, this one. I also own, but never remember to use, a foaming face wash from Japan via Markham. I do not - should, but I don't - wear sunscreen in winter, in Toronto, under my giant hat-and-hood combination. In summer, yes - it's a Vichy stick. Because I wear makeup - eyeliner, sometimes mascara, concealer, sometimes that Glossier eyebrow mascara because who am I to judge - I also use eye makeup remover. Which is... it, I think? Where this puts me on the maintenance-ness spectrum isn't so clear.

Why I don't have (much of) a skincare routine is less about having good skin (more on that in a moment) than about having complicated hair. There's only so much time and $$ I'm willing-and-able to throw at looking like the best-looking 34-year-old 5'2" woman I possibly can. I chose hair, or maybe hair chose me. Between a natural hair texture described in countless essays by my fellow Ashkenazi ladies (who rarely mention their ethnicity in these pieces, lest that lead down the sinkhole of discussing what "Jewish" hair can mean, when not all Jewish women have it, I know, I know) and an immature devotion to dyeing my hair all different ways, there's just sort of a lot going on, hair-product-and-equipment-wise, at any given time. That means various conditioners and hair products in rotation, plus a recent trip to a salon to (this is embarrassing) fix the ombré I thought I could do myself but as it turned out, no. (My hair, for the record, isn't orange-tipped anymore.) Plus a hair dryer, hair iron, plus a somewhat-coveted hair-iron brush thingy.

Point being: I'm in zero position to tell other women a) that I'm sure their skin looks just fine, what are they worrying about, or b) that skincare, because I don't personally get much out of it, couldn't possibly be fun. I don't like how I look with unstyled hair. I also enjoy doing my hair! Both! Self-hatred? Self-care? Self-something; I'm quite certain no one else is losing sleep over what my hair is up to.

So it's partly a hair thing, but also... I suppose I do think skincare is - for me - fairly pointless. Not pointless because I have no complaints in that area - other stuff too, but most saliently, I'm 34! and I look 34! and our society demands women look under 25! I do not lead a stress-free existence! - but because I'm not convinced any intervention I could afford, and feel OK with, would do anything other than cause breakouts. I don't doubt that there are interventions that would remove every enumerable feature that makes me look 10 years older than I did 10 years ago - how could I doubt this when half the storefronts in my part of Toronto sell just that service? It's that I'm cynical and am convinced the women whose public personas have them looking flawless from $10 serums may well use those serums but look the way they do for other, more expensive (injectable) reasons.

(If I find I'm looking a bit pale and are-you-feeling-ok, I'm so easy-breezy that I don't use glow-inflecting skincare products... but instead go with the obviously much nobler option of a Charlotte Gainsbourg for NARS Multiple stick. Obviously. And - need this be stated? - if in ten years my home resembles a Shoppers Drug Mart parapharmacie aisle, never mind any of what I just said...)

What gets to me about skincare, then, isn't skincare routines themselves (which, again, I get it, even if I don't get it), but the increasing conflation of this one thing with conventional femininity, and more specifically, with a sort of humility. There's this odd shame in not going in for this, in not treating your skin as an ever-perfectable part of yourself. It's as if, if you're not really into skincare these days, it's because you think you're all that, or, conversely, because you don't value yourself enough to establish once and for all, and on your own face, what exactly is a retinoid.

To which one might say, skincare fans aren't asking others to care if they don't! Which, argh, it's tricky. Yes, it's annoying when non-hobbyists, in any area, make a bit thing about their indifference. But it's also the case that baseline expectations on what normal self-presentation requires can ramp up, and that there's this whole industry demanding that women, well, ramp up. And if the only thing that can be said about skincare routines is that it's rude to insult those who have them - which it is - where does that ramping-up stop?

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Remember the Food Movement?

Sara Mojtehedzadeh and Brendan Kennedy's Toronto Star exposé of a Toronto-area bread factory is great journalism. Great for so many reasons, but here's a less-obvious one: it's about the factory, not the imagined consumer of factory-produced bread. It's not that there isn't any connection made in the piece between factory conditions and consumption, but it's an aside, early on: "These may well be the croissants you eat for breakfast." The point of the article is not to make you, the individual possible-croissant-consuming reader, more closely examine your breakfast choices. It's about labor conditions and - as the headline "Undercover in Temp Nation" suggests - the structure of today's economy. That bread is an everyday item we're all familiar with is a way of bringing the reader in. The essential, though, is what happens in the factory where Mojtehedzadeh works undercover:

No one tells me where fire extinguishers or exits are. Another temp confides she didn’t buy safety shoes, which cost the equivalent of a day’s wages. She makes it through the screening anyway. 
The story is about injury, death, and shady business practices at bread factories. The implicit fix the article demands involves changes to, and increased enforcement of, labor law. There's no suggestion whatsoever that the source of the issue is the modern consumer, demanding bread produced in a factory. No cultural archetype posited as The Bad Croissant-Consumer, to be shamed either for being fancy, bourgeois, and croissant-nibbling, or, conversely, for being lower-class and not getting an artisanal-enough croissant (or for having processed carbs to begin with). Nope, the (correct) assumption underlying the piece is that people of all sorts eat packaged bread; that eating is a necessity; and that the issue is how the people producing that bread are treated. It's a story about consumer products, but not about consumption.

It's my sense that ever since the 2016 election, the food movement - and with it, the more general movement to consider individual (posh) consumer choices the ultimate political act - has been kaput. Yes, food is still political. But the thing where status as a good person hinged on choosing spelt over quinoa, or avoiding winter asparagus, that thing is, for better or worse, over. (Better because it was silly, worse because it's a sign of dire times that silly preoccupations get forgotten.)

It feels like ancient history, but there was a time when I felt a bit guilty about my grocery habits. Not for sometimes overspending on cheese (that I still sometimes do, and still feel guilty about), but for ignoring The Rules. Rules laid out by various prophets: Use only the freshest, most local, most seasonal, or else. Or else what? The concern was always a bit vague, but very much rooted in something ethical.

It wasn't 'clean eating' (which persists, as the euphemism for dieting it always was), but this arbitrary dividing line between real food and fake, where authenticity was measured by inconvenience. Inconvenience, and something a bit more sinister, but always between-the-lines: certain food could be trusted (sourced ingredients), whereas other food - in particular, ethnic food - could not. Everything, to be trusted, had to be served to you by a white, flannel-clad, bearded hipster, at a place with farms listed on the menu. This excluded all dining establishments and grocery options falling under the category once problematically referred to as "ethnic." Oh, but Scandinavian food, that was OK. (Gee, I wonder why the food movement as it once was feels passé?)

While the writing itself would often be in the third-person plural, it was clear that a "we" including food writers weren't buying packaged food at supermarkets - those other people were. "We" were spending 60 hours a week sourcing ingredients at Berkeley farmers markets, at Cobble Hill fishmongers (and to be fair, it is a good fishmonger). Except who were "we," anyway? Much was made of food and privilege - of how not everyone is able to live off kale and locally-sourced squab or whatever. But of those who could, how many ever were?

There was also this eternal pre-food-movement mother, the one who foolishly fed her kids supermarket foods, and who didn't value time-consuming food prep the way her son (there, generally, there was a son) the food writer would. Remember that? That was something.

Individual ingredients were declared problematic, the way individual celebrities (and internet randos) are these days. Everything was scary, in this semi-/pseudoscientific way. Tomatoes sprayed to look red, and farmed salmon treated in some way to be pink! Did you know that asparagus came from Chile? Did you? Exposés about how packaged food was engineered to... taste good, a fact presented as if inherently sinister.

From the prophets trickled down an aesthetic, but an aesthetic you could ignore at your own risk - if properly trained, you would think a Rules-meeting diet was the most delicious. There was no subjectivity to this, no possibility that anyone might actually honest-to-goodness prefer certain packaged foods to fresh, or value time over from-scratch preparations. Genuine nutritional concerns (why is sugar added to so many packaged foods?) mixed with aesthetic ones (much of locavorism), as well as ones that were clearly pointing the way to worse eating habits.

When I thought about this rationally, The Rules made little sense: wasn't it a better idea to eat less (or no) meat, rather than locavoring one's way through traceable steak dinners? Wasn't purism re: local/seasonal inhibiting vegetable consumption, if it left grocery-shoppers feeling guilty for buying the only vegetables actually available to them, for months on end, or at all? But most of all: if there were issues with the food system - there were! there are! - why was the proposed solution a change in individual consumer behavior? I found the whole thing irritating at best, pseudoscientific as well as casually sexist and xenophobic. But it still, somehow, led to this nagging sense of guilt, one I can't say has entered my mind in ages.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The pre-Moment moment

I'm thinking of a time that seems long-lost, but was really just a few months ago. The moment before The Moment. During that age, a vision of sex-positivity had emerged that seemed - in practice but not on paper - distinctly focused on giving straight men things they'd always wanted, and had indeed once had, before pesky feminists got in the way. Specifically: sex-positivity meant open relationships (for men; extended to women only if the men in question go for that), sexual adventure, threesomes (with two women). Anything-goes in theory; in practice, anything the people in society with the power over how things go demand. The freedom to be sexual, as long as being sexual involved being that model from that music video, being quoted as saying your latest photographed nudity was about empowerment.

It could seem, then, as if a pre-feminist men's utopia was just getting recast in new terms. As long as antiquated - that is, gendered - language (the "philanderer," say) was studiously avoided, we (intentionally vague "we") were expected to forget about who - for all sorts of reasons, including culture and economics - generally winds up in which role, who's the powerful, who's the passive or screwed-over. As long as there was a nod to the existence of individual women making the most of the new order, as long as there was the occasional Guardian story about a woman with ten boyfriends, that was - or was meant to be - enough.

For me, this all culminates with a Savage Lovecast call, from the immediate pre-Weinstein/#MeToo moment: A young man called in to say that a middle-aged male college professor of his had just asked out his female friend, a recent college grad. Eww! was the caller's thinking. She's just 22! (Or 21. Or 23. Something like that.) The caller was distraught because he'd considered this prof a real intellectual hero. How could A Great like professor whatshisname do something so crude, so tacky, as to ask out a girl he's friends with?

Dan Savage's answer - about consenting adults, the "campsite rule" (Savage's wise suggestion that in age-gap relationships, the older partner leave the younger better than they'd found them), and the possibility that there's something in it for the younger partner as well - struck me as technically right but... incomplete. Yes, there was something up with the caller, with his notions about sexuality (why wouldn't a prof exist as a human being, outside the classroom?). Yes, a 22-year-old college graduate is an adult, not a (college) student, and as fair-game for an aging prof to hit on as a random 50-year-old, 90-year-old, etc. And yes, it sure did between-the-lines seem as if the caller wanted to date his same-age friend, and was squicked out not so much by the prof but by the mere fact of another man hitting on the woman he wanted for himself.

But was that the end of the story? Consenting-adults - well, potentially consenting, assuming she returned his interest - and therefore, no one's business but theirs?

There seemed to be a missing piece: There, to my ears, something not great about the situation, but what? What language was there for describing a situation at once OK and not OK? OK as in, yes, consenting adults, we should wish these two people (assuming the woman was interested) all the happiness in the world. Not OK as in, a clichéd scenario like that, playing out for the trillionth time, points to unpleasant things about sexism and power structures. It's OK that this prof asked out this former student; no one's individual, consensual relationships should be judged on the basis of whether they further a progressive cause. But it's not OK that 'powerful older man pursues much-younger woman' is the love story. Which, look, it is, whether it's being celebrated or condemned. Not the only one that's out there in the world - hardly! - but the only one that reliably, and across genre, sells.

A letter to an advice column is always going to be about real people, but also archetypes. And think of it like this: How many Great Genius professors - recognized as such by students of all genders, are middle-aged women? But also (and this gets at why the story was squicky): How many male students must deal with the anxiety of not knowing whether their (female) professors are helping them as educators, or are after something more?

Now what we have is pushback that goes... not too far, exactly, but in sort of the wrong direction. Is it predatory that a pushing-50 movie director has started dating one mid-20s woman after breaking up with another? Is it sinister that a 30-something male comedian was even going on a date with a 20-something female fan in the first place?

I don't think it makes a drop of sense to use the language of abuse to discuss consensual relationships that evoke, by their mere existence, broader unjust structures. But maybe don't ignore those structures, either? Maybe don't treat it as sex-negativity - or as evidence that women just plain don't experience desire because hormones - to mention and challenge the existence of these structures.? I don't know exactly which language is necessary, so platitudes about nuance and middle-ground and so forth will, for now, have to suffice.

Monday, January 22, 2018

The straight-lady non-bleakness manifesto you have been waiting for

What is female heterosexuality, in the age of #MeToo? It strikes me that we're stuck, as a culture, in "an evening that a woman in her early 20s spends with a man in his 30s." Time stands still at that specific life stage, at the moment when a straight (or straight-relationship-having) woman is out in the world, very desirable to others but not quite sure what she herself wants. Also, I suppose, in a specific cultural situation - the young woman is probably either a college student or a recent grad pursuing a glamorous profession, but still at the very lowest rungs. The wide range of women's romantic experiences (real or imagined) that don't fall into that framework are ignored.

Once the ubiquitous Story shifted from Weinstein and the truly vile (or, in a way, even before), it became this odd thing where entertainment narratives about powerful men seducing sheltered women got reinvented as something for everyone to be very concerned about, even if the genuinely very-concerned are a handful of earnest feminists on Twitter, and 99.99% of those following these stories are titillated or just entertained. How much of the Story is about a collective sense that the disappointing-and-worse encounters experienced by early-20s women of a certain class are among the more dire feminist causes has to do with a (justified I think!) sense that they matter, and how much is about the fact that this demographic of women plus this topic will get clicks?

But beyond this, there's a piece missing when it comes to how female sexuality itself gets discussed. There is, of course, the focus on consent, which is both necessary and something that can make it seem as though female heterosexuality consists of sometimes agreeing to what a man has suggested. Add "enthusiastic" to "consent" and what you get is a woman very happy to have said yes to acts suggested by a man, a man who had, initially, shown interest in her, before she'd had a chance to think about him either way. There's increasing understanding about the need to go beyond mere consent, which is a start. And I think B.D. McClay is onto something when she examines why female desire gets left out of the equation:

The problem is that you can't say yes in a world in which your yes is presumed until someone gets a no, just as you can't say no and be understood if no is the only word you're permitted. You can't express desire to a partner who can understand your desire only in terms of acquiescence.

There's a challenge, though - a couple of them, actually - as long as this topic stays in the realm of arguments. First has to do with the sheer bleakness of female heterosexuality as presented even in opinion-writing I agree with (or have, for that matter, written myself.) It's not clear what to do, in opinion-land, with the existence of female desire for men. Is it a real pity? How can it be, when it is, for so many women, a source of so much joy? Or, at least, for some women. For a non-zero number of women, is the most I could state with absolute confidence. Which... gets, in turn, to the problem with any conversation about what it means to be a member of an enormous category such as 'straight women.' What does it mean, then?

For some women who so identify, straightness doubtless is about not feeling drawn to women sexually, and just sort of going along with convention - boyfriend, husband, settling down. For others, it's closer to what (some) gay men experience, and involves intense desire for men. (A sort of wiring that doesn't magically disappear upon encountering male awfulness of the #MeToo variety.) For others still, somewhere in between, or something else entirely. There's also a range in how affected individual women are by cultural scripts. It's possible to receive all those many cultural messages about who has which role, who wants what, and then go ahead and just... not live your life like that.

But I - like everyone else I suppose - have trouble believing my idiosyncratic thoughts about everything don't have broader political applicability. And really, wouldn't it be better if The Moment assumed that female heterosexuality consisted of something more than hoping the men life throws at you aren't terrible? Wouldn't recognizing I mean really recognizing the existence of women's desire for men - including for men who may not desire them back - help out in terms of banishing, once and for all, the foolish, dangerous myth that with enough persuasion (or force), any woman would want to have sex with any man? It couldn't hurt, is all I'm saying.

Friday, January 12, 2018

How to teach French if you are not and never will be Inès de la Fressange

A decade ago, I began teaching French classes. Also began teaching, period. I was 24, and arrived at the role petrified. I was, most importantly, Not A Theater Person. Language-teaching, I learned, was a performance, above and beyond how teaching is generally. How was I going to do this?! How was I - someone who had applied to history grad school but gotten into French grad school instead (long story), who had not specifically sought out the job of French teacher but who had somehow landed on the track where studying French history involved funding gained through teaching conjugations - how was I going to not just teach conjugations but do so in a way that would wow an audience? That anxiety sorted itself out easily enough, and more quickly than I'd have guessed. I just sort of go into teaching mode, not sure exactly how I do this, but it happens. All that my natural non-theatricalness means is that I need to sort of zone out in a chair for a while after doing so.

But my big anxiety, early on, was that I'm not French. Not a native French speaker, but also, not French. At NYU, it was my impression that there was a lot of value placed on being French. (Why did I have this impression? Neurosis, maybe, but also: A professor once told me how good the French was of one of my classmates... a classmate who happened to be - as we both knew full well - French. As if my own then-deficiencies in ease with the language could be fixed, if only I followed that classmate's example.) French classmates with perfect French and shakier English were (or this was my impression) revered for the thoroughness of their Frenchness. Ease in English was like white sneakers (pre-Phoebe Philo): not chic.

I, meanwhile, was in a bit of a bind. I'd gotten into grad school on the basis of being good-enough at the French itself and stronger on writing papers in English about texts I'd read in French. But all attempts at improving my non-nervous-breakdown-having while speaking French were impeded by the fact that I associated the language with an unrealizable goal: being and having always been French.

This sense of failure as a non-French person manifested itself most dramatically in my feelings re: teaching. While the job title was TA, it was always either teaching or co-teaching a course, and here was my big fear: What if a student asks me something I don't know? There's nothing like fixating on this, and more specifically, fixating on how if this were to happen, it would be the end of the world, to guarantee that when students would ask me about words I did know, and I'd freeze and suggest they consult the dictionary that they were ostensibly meant to use in class in cases like that regardless. (The great "poubelle" incident of 2007. How do you say garbage can? How indeed.)

It's only in the past year or so that I've come to realize the following: There are advantages to teaching a language as a non-native speaker. I know, I mean I know, that French proficiency is a skill that can be learned. I know that there's no shame in arriving at French not knowing the gender of new-to-you nouns. And I know that it's entirely possible to communicate in French while still sounding identifiably, to a knowledgeable ear, like a non-native speaker of the language. Yes, pronunciation is important. But the end goal - at least in most French language classes - isn't to turn everyone, no matter their ear, into one of the handful of people who can speak a foreign language and genuinely convince everyone, including the Académie Française, that this language was their first.

I credit this revelation to a bunch of things, but partly to the fact that I'm now teaching French in Canada. There's no expectation here that someone teaching French - native speaker or not - is from Europe as well as give-or-take Inès de la Fressange. That, and working in a French department in a bilingual country means I'm actually using French, at work, to an extent I never was at NYU. In any case, these days, when I teach French, I no longer feel the emotional need to apologize to the class for having not grown up in the 7th Arrondissement.