Interview with Autumn Whitefield-Madrano

Autumn Whitefield-Madrano is a writer who deals with a crucial yet easily dismissed subject: beauty. Her blog, The Beheld, covers an array of issues, from feminism to cosmetics, from how to talk to young girls about beauty to how to think about one’s own body image. Her approaches to these issues are creative, surprising, and politically charged. We recently had the opportunity to ask Autumn a few questions, both about her work and about the kind of work we do here at Ma’yan.

 

Ma’yan: You write that telling young girls they are pretty is not a sufficient way to give “girls tools to navigate our beauty-obsessed world.” What kinds of tools do you think girls need?


 Autumn Whitefield-Madrano: Confidence is the first thing that comes to mind, but that’s vague and not something you can just hand to a girl (if only!). The specific tools will likely vary from girl to girl: Some girls may need parents to set strict guidelines about what sort of nods to beauty are appropriate outside the home; others might need explicit help with their body image; others may need help with basic grooming and hygiene so that they can navigate our beauty-obsessed world without being teased. Girls who are prone to appearance-based anxiety need adults to acknowledge their anxieties: Saying, “Oh, that stuff doesn’t matter” or “It’s what’s inside that counts [full stop]” is dismissive and sends a signal that what they care about doesn’t matter. And it DOES matter—that is, looks matter in general, but even if they miraculously ceased to be of importance past age 18, the fact is girls who care deeply about these things need to be heard and not dismissed. Putting the importance of looks in perspective is necessary, of course. It’s just as important to not dismiss their concerns as it is to help redirect their energies away from appearance if it begins to be too much. And better that messages about beauty come from a trusted source than from sources that don’t moderate the message, like, say, 90% of mass media.

 

Various projects on The Beheld involved self-experimentation of one sort another; you sometimes blog about changing an aspect of your daily routine, or systematically re-organizing your experience. How did you get interested in self-experimentation of this sort? Why do you use it as a means of inquiry?


So much “serious” discourse around beauty centers upon the supposed science of beauty: evolutionary psychology, for example, or studies about how people find symmetrical faces attractive. And that’s interesting and all, but I got tired of that being one of the biggest ways that beauty was looked at as a “legitimate” study. At the same time, the idea of experimentation is sort of scientific, in the sense that if you change one variable you’re forced to look at what remains with a different lens. When I went a month without looking in the mirror, I was controlling a variable to see exactly how important that variable really way, and in what ways it was important—something I couldn’t have truly known just by thinking about it.


As a writer, I’m very much of the “write what you know” camp, and what I know best is, at the risk of sounding narcissistic, myself. Experimenting on myself makes a sort of innate sense. I also think there might be something about it that appeals to women in particular—we’re already sort of “performing femininity” a lot of the time, so we’re living a grand experiment in certain ways. But more generally, people just like to read about others’ experiments—I’m thinking of the books “The Year of Yes,” in which a female writer accepted every date proposal made to her, and “The Year of Living Biblically,” a book chronicling what it’s like to live by the rules of the Bible for a year. We like them because there’s a sort of “hook” that larger questions can be organized around, and I think it also automatically prompts us to ask ourselves how we’d react in that experimental situation, so it’s a way of communicating about broad concepts in specific terms.

 

Along these lines, the longstanding feminist assertion that “the personal is political” is clearly relevant in your work. Do you think the meaning of this phrase has a different meaning today (and for you) then it did when it was popularized by radical feminists circa 1970? Why or why not? 


The core of the phrase remains the same, but the meaning has indeed shifted. Earlier feminists were using the phrase to point out that if they took collective action with regard to the “personal”—things so many women were living with on a day-to-day basis—they could not only identify and name but actually change these issues and put some of them in a legislative realm. We couldn’t have domestic violence laws if we didn’t start to consider the supposedly private horrors of some relationships as political issues. As Gloria Steinem wrote, because of feminism, “We have terms like sexual harassment and battered women. A few years ago, they were just called life.” 


And all this is still true. But feminists of my generation didn’t face as many of those kinds of enormous legislative battles to have basic rights like the ability to have credit in our own names, or to control our own reproduction. (We still fight that fight in plenty of ways, but not in the way we did before Roe v. Wade.) For many feminists my age and younger, “the personal is political” is more about the ways in which our sex affects our everyday lives, and taking note of the small inequalities or troublesome situations that are related to womanhood. Street harassment, makeup, even figuring out how much space to take up on the subway: These are personal issues that become political by framing them in a feminist context. Young feminists have gotten a lot of criticism for not paying enough attention to “real” feminist issues, for example pay disparity, the continuing battle for reproductive rights, and international women’s rights in places where women are literally second-class citizens. There’s something to that criticism, but I think what’s often overlooked is that by paying attention to the smaller, day-to-day ways in which gender roles are coded and reinforced, we keep feminism alive. Think of the way feminism was immediately treated as dead once certain basic rights had been won. If we keep feminism alive in our everyday lives that argument is going to be harder to make convincing.

 

Evolutionary, biological, and neuroscientific accounts of sex, gender, and beauty are ubiquitous in the American mainstream, sometimes at the expense of social or cultural accounts. For feminists, what are the advantages and disadvantages this emphasis on scientific accounts?


To be frank, I think much of the scientific fascination with beauty doesn’t have much to offer feminists. It can feel sometimes like the studies that go into the appeal of waist-hip ratios or symmetrical features are almost put there to be like, “Aha! You see! It DOES matter! There’s no way around it! SCIENCE SAYS!” And, you know, I’m not a scientist, and I’m not qualified to critique scientific studies in any real way beyond just having my eyes open. I can’t comment on the “truth” of these studies. But in a way, that’s just the point: We’re a nation that loves a cut-and-dried answer to things, and if a study finds a way to prove that men love a certain waist-hip ratio on a woman, that means we’re not supposed to be able to argue about it any longer. It can very easily become a way of putting feminists in their place for daring to question the nature of how we’ve worked for centuries; for daring to question the ways in which looks become an unfair burden to women. Not that I think beauty researchers are out to “get” feminists or women; if anything I think many of them are genuinely wanting to understand beauty so that we can have a more rooted conversation about the power of attractiveness. But one thing I do know about these studies is that they’re often woefully short on measurable criteria—in a major aggregated report of five attractiveness studies (for example) four of the five studies depended upon the beauty assessment of one person. One! These studies also tend not to take socialization into account, though most of them at least acknowledge that in their notes.


That said, let’s say that all the scientific analysis of beauty is 100% correct and it’s all about survival of the fittest and all that jazz. From there, we would potentially—emphasis on potentially—have a way of being able to tease out the significance of beauty in a way that could benefit all of us. If we understood that men were all programmed to desire a certain waist-hip ratio or whatever, we might be able to better examine the role of human agency in reproduction, for example, since plenty of women with “undesirable” waist-hip ratios have managed to reproduce for quite some time now, so clearly there’s something else going on. But generally speaking, I find that the scientific angle of beauty shuts down conversations about looks instead of starts them. It doesn’t allow for our own relationship with the mirror to be told, nor for the times we find ourselves physically attracted to someone we don’t think is beautiful or handsome, or for the ways in which looks influence the way women regard one another in public. 


I’m not trying to say that beauty is entirely subjective; I don’t think it is. A thorough look at beauty like what I try to do at The Beheld needs to include the science angle. But neither is beauty as measurable as the number of studies that try to pin it down would like it to be. In fact, I think that’s part of the fascination of studying beauty from a scientific angle—if you pin it down, you can understand it, and we all want to understand beauty. Feminists included. We just want to question what’s being handed down to us.

 

Most anyone who publishes writing gets some negative feedback, but I think women writers with feminist perspectives, especially online, often endure great vitriol in comment threads [and elsewhere]. Do people ever seem bothered (or even threatened) by the your work? How have you dealt with that experience?


I’ve been lucky in that people commenting on my work have overwhelmingly been supportive. In some ways I’ve been shielded by publishing in places that are mostly read by women, because so many women innately grasp the importance of beauty, so even if they vehemently disagree with me they don’t usually just call me names or whatever. I’m rarely attacked. What happens more is that I’m dismissed. I published a piece on a very mainstream website and also published a picture alongside it. Out of the hundred-plus people who commented, only six—I counted—addressed what I was writing. The others all commented on my looks only. Now, the piece was about getting a makeover, so that’s not as awful as it sounds, but still: six, out of 122! It was a 1,000-word essay! Other times I’ve published in more serious, intellectual outlets and people will tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about. Focusing on my face instead of my writing and undermining my intellect are both ways of dismissing women. I won’t lie: When someone just flat-out calls me stupid I don’t care because clearly they’re not worth my time, but if someone tells me I don’t know what I’m talking about, I have to fight to not believe them. Obviously just by writing my blog it’s clear I don’t actually believe everything my detractors say, but those comments can cut deep. 

 

One obstacle facing just about anyone with a writing project is, ‘who cares if I do this?’ (not to mention a long-form writing project about something often deemed frivolous). Did you wonder about that when you started The Beheld? Where did you get your confidence?


 I absolutely sometimes wonder “who cares?” about what I do at The Beheld. I mean, I’m largely writing from personal experience (which is easily dismissed as diaristic), and I’m writing about a topic that plenty of people are eager to write off as inane, consumerist, harmful to women, the sign of an inferior mind. It’s particularly difficult when fellow feminists say that hyperfocusing on beauty detracts from more pressing issues, because of course I think that, say, female genital mutilation is a more pressing topic than hairstyles. But I also know that it’s impossible for any of us to do the work we’re meant to do in the world if we’re being held back by the issues I examine at The Beheld, either insecurity and low self-esteem or preoccupation—and that attacking interest in self-presentation is a trap used to keep women fighting against each other. And I know that appearance is often a physical manifestation of those larger-scale, undeniably important issues: Think of the politics of black women’s hair, for example, or of what it meant when women shed their corsets. But still, yeah, I sometimes doubt the value of my work. When The New Inquiry asked me to blog for them, I sent the editor-in-chief an e-mail basically saying, “Are you sure?” I wish that weren’t true, but it is. I’m a case study of impostor syndrome.  


To combat that tendency, I remind myself of a phrase that shows up often in my writing: To talk of beauty is to talk of women’s lives. I believe that, deeply. Actual lipstick might not be that fascinating a topic, but ask a woman about the first time she put on makeup and you’ll get a story, probably a good one. I turn to the work of other women who are taking appearance seriously; I love reading writers and blogs like Virginia Sole-Smith, Final Fashion, Already Pretty, Decoding Dress and it’s a good reminder that if I love their work so much, that means it matters—and that at my best, the same will be true of me.


 When I’m seriously doubting myself, I try to be still. I try to be still and think of how acutely these things matter to me now, and they mattered to me at various crucial points along the way. I try to be still and think of how devastated I felt at my first dance when I was 12 years old when nobody noticed that I’d put effort into looking pretty, and the chutzpah of thinking that as an awkward 13-year-old, I’d win a Seventeen modeling contest. I try to be still and remember the anger I felt after my small-scale attempt at wielding my “erotic capital” failed; I try to remember the importance looking unremarkably pretty took on after leaving an abusive relationship. I try to be still and think of letters I’ve received from readers, some saying they’re writing to me in tears because a piece I wrote triggered a flood of emotion about their own relationship to looks. And I think of how beauty has the power to divide us and make us feel isolated—and how it also has the power to bring women together. I mean, even the least vain woman in the room will pipe up in a conversation about hair. The only way we’re going to shift the balance to beauty and appearance as a point of unity for women and girls is talking about it honestly. We don’t share our deepest vanities for fear of being judged narcissists, and we don’t share our biggest doubts because they’re impossible to articulate. The conversations that have been happening in the past several years about the beauty myth and body image and confidence are a huge start—but we all know that confidence, even if we all had 24/7 access to it, isn’t the answer to every question appearance presents. The Beheld is my attempt to keep the conversation going, and to get at the heart of why looks are so tremendously important to so many of us. If nothing else, the topic is tremendously important to me, and I suppose I have a sort of inner faith underneath all that impostor syndrome stuff that allows me to go forth and do the kind of work I do. Whatever doubts may lie on top, I trust that if something fascinates me enough, it’ll fascinate others too.

 

What are some concrete things parents, educators, and youth professionals can do to encourage a healthy relationship to beauty and self-image among teens? 


The #1 thing any of us can do is encourage that relationship with ourselves. If you tell a teen that she doesn’t have to be thin to be beautiful, and then moan about the size of your thighs, which one do you think she’ll remember? And unhealthy body image seeps through—even if you keep your lips sealed on the topic, remember that teens are perceptive. My mother was aware of body image issues and didn’t say negative things about my body or her own, but she didn’t have a good body image and I definitely picked up on that. So the work on your own body image has to be authentic, and it has to be meaningful. Nobody’s a self-image superstar all the time, but you can’t help those around you unless you’ve helped yourself.


There are plenty of concrete things you can do to educate the teens in your life: Pointing out photo retouching, showing them the never-ending cycle of beauty products our society asks girls to use (and asking them to think about who benefits from that cycle), talking about double standards, asking her about her reading material or favorite movies and suggesting supplemental material that might help prop up the messages you want her to absorb. (As in, if she’s reading Cosmo at 15, she’s not going to stop, but you can also point her to something like rookiemag.com which I think is fantastic.) But none of that will matter if you’re not listening and taking what they have to say seriously. If a girl is concerned about, say, acne, cheery talk about inner beauty won’t help, and it may even make her feel dismissed. Not that you shouldn’t talk about qualities that are more important than appearance—of course you should. But we need to meet girls on their own terms if we’re going to lay the foundation for them to be independent thinkers who are ready to transform the world. 

 

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