Over the past few days, I’ve developed a minor obsession with Gwyneth Paltrow. I know, I know – the only kind of “obsession” it is acceptable to have with Gwyneth Paltrow is an obsession founded on loathing. And yet, here I am.
I blame her month-long PR assault, which started with her cook book, was followed by a string of premieres for the new Iron Man flick, and culminated last week with her being named People magazine’s “Most Beautiful Woman.” I also blame my favourite celebrity gossip blog, Lainey Gossip, which consistently depicts Paltrow as a Hollywood “queen bee,” who always sits at the best table, hobnobs with only her coolest fellow celebrities, and basically serves as an arbiter for what’s hot and what’s not, while being simultaneously beloved by all in her industry (if not by the general public).
All of which makes her sound like a high school Mean Girl, I am well aware, but work with me here. I have a point, and I’ll get to it.
Either way, the result is that I must have uttered the words “Gwyneth Paltrow” about fifty times in the past week, peaking with Mr Musings calling out to me from the living room as I lay in bed on Saturday morning, “Did I just hear you muttering the words, ‘Gwyneth, Gwyneth…’?” And indeed, he had. Although in my defence, I was muttering them because I was writing this post in my head, and I often quietly talk to myself when I write.
I am fascinated by Gwyneth not because I covet her film career, her body (actively flaunted – I think the word may be justified in this case? – in recent weeks to entice the masses to buy her book and hire her trainer), or her ascetic lifestyle (although I have long found people who lead highly regimented lives intriguing – see also Wintour, Anna, with whom I always associate the sound of a whip cracking whenever I read or hear her name). What I covet - and what I am so intrigued by - is her enormous self-confidence. That she appears to unreservedly like herself. Like best pal Beyonce, Gwyneth is a queen, and she makes no apologies for it.
It wasn’t just her looks, but also her presence that so captured me. I was frantic, anxious, and insecure; high-achieving, yes, but never satisfied. I blurted out answers in class (very unladylike) and feared that my appetite for food was insatiable and out-of-control. Gwyneth, in contrast, seemed characterized by an aura of calm entitlement, i.e., the opposite of frantic insecurity.
As Kjerstin goes on to say, that “calm entitlement” is born of a multiplicity of privileges. Of having been born into a wealthy, influential family. Of inhabiting a tall, thin, blonde body that is computed as “beautiful” automatically and without thinking. Of “being privileged in every possible way that a woman can be, and feeling as though you deserve it.”
But that “calm entitlement” is also, I would argue, a product of Paltrow’s own doing. Gwyneth Paltrow isn’t “the most beautiful woman in the world,” and she knows it. She may have won an Oscar at 26, but she’s not exactly a leading actress of her generation, either – she’s no Kate Winslet or Cate Blanchett. But she carries herself as though she is all these things - beautiful, supremely talented, sitting at the best lunch table (the “best lunch table” being, by definition, whichever lunch table Gwyneth is sitting at), and the world responds to her accordingly.
(Beyonce is remarkably similar in style, but is received differently because, let’s face it, she has established her as one of the leading performers of her generation, possibly the leading performer.)
Gwyneth, perhaps, takes this further than is socially desirable, edging over from confidence to sanctimony, but I still think there are lessons to be learned for those of us who, like Kjerstin (or me), err more towards anxiety and insecurity. Lessons which have nothing to do with working out for five hours a day, or going gluten, dairy, sugar and egg-free.
Which is the reason for my Gwyneth obsession over the past few days. Whenever those petty insecurities rear their head - as they do several times a day - I ask myself, how would the Gwyneth in my head deal with this? And every time (this being an imaginary Gwyneth and all), the answer is that she wouldn’t give a toss. She would feel secure in the quality of her work. She wouldn’t complain about looking “fat.” She wouldn’t worry that “everyone was hanging out without her,” because she would be confident that wherever she was was the best place to be.
And imaginary or not, it has made me approach the world rather more calmly.
Related: How to be fabulous in three easy(ish) steps.
Elsewhere: Why I’m Breaking Up With The World’s Most Beautiful Woman: Gwyneth Was My Thinspo. (Mirror Mirror Off the Wall)
Just a quick note to let you know that the next London Feminist Discussion Group, hosted by Sarah Graham and I, will be held on Tuesday May 7 at 7pm, at LEON on Old Compton Street in Soho. We’ll be talking about the Dove ‘Real Beauty’ Sketches Campaign.
All women (and interested men) welcome. We are a trans-inclusive group. Just RSVP to email@example.com (or join our Facebook group) by Thursday May 2 so we can book an appropriately sized space.
A few articles you might want to take a look at before the meeting:
Dove vs Science: Thanks, But We Are NOT Our Own Worst Beauty Critics (Mirror, Mirror… Off The Wall)
Why Dove’s ‘Real Beauty Sketches’ Video Makes Me Uncomfortable… and Kind of Makes Me Angry (little drops)
The problem with the Dove Real Beauty Sketches campaign (Eat The Damn Cake)
One Narrative Fits All: Dove and “Real Beauty” (The Beheld)
Dove’s ‘real beauty’ sketches ad deserves some praise (The Guardian)
And there are plenty more where that came from if you care to Google.
Hope to see you there!
L-R: Conventional Selfie; “Ugly” Selfie; Totes Fug Selfie.
“Why aren’t you on Instagram, Hachel Rills?” a friend asked me over dinner on Saturday night.
“I’m on enough social media platforms as it is,” I replied. “And I don’t want to have to always be photo-ready. Besides, I’m not a very good photographer.”* But you don’t have to take photographs of yourself, my friend retorted. You can take photographs of your life.
But the truth is, I don’t want my life to always have to be “photo-ready,” either.
It’s a funny thing, this life on camera. When I’m out interacting with people and getting on with life, I generally feel confident and attractive, like the world is smiling upon me. It’s only when somebody whips a camera out that I become suddenly conscious that my body could be more willowy, my face more beautiful, my outfits more exactingly put together.
The same principle can be applied to my life in general. When I’m living it, it seems beautiful, exciting, something that I’d like to share with the world. When I whip out a camera to actually record it, the colours seem duller and framing all wrong. My life may be awesome, but like most people’s, it lacks the aesthetics of a popular lifestyle blog (or perhaps more accurately, I lack both the will and the investment to make it look like a popular lifestyle blog). And if I was on Instagram, I would free pressure to present it that way 24/7.
It’s something I’ve been thinking about over the past few months. The extent to which the photograph has infiltrated our lives, and how easily self-documentation can turn into self-surveillance. As I wrote in my Cosmo article on iNarcissism a few months back:
The internet allows us to control the way the rest of the world sees us like never before: you can be a model, an up-and-coming author, or a celebrity fashionista with a few strategically angled photographs and a well-written Twitter bio. But the ability to control our image comes with a price of increased self-consciousness. We don’t just play at being “celebrities” on the internet; our lifestyles increasingly resemble theirs, whether we like it or not, as anyone who has ever been tagged in an unflattering Facebook photo can vouch.
We document ourselves – and each other – in this way not just because we want to share our experiences with our friends, or because we enjoy the attention of a good Facebook “like” or Instagram “heart,” but because documenting our lives gives our experiences meaning. It makes them more real. The adage “pics or it didn’t happen” doesn’t just apply to the strange and improbable, but to the details of our lives themselves. Pics, or maybe that party wasn’t so great after all. Pics, or you’re not really in love. Pics, or no one will ever know how awesome your hair looked on that particular Wednesday afternoon.
But as my Cosmo quote states, self-documentation comes with increased self-consciousness. We are compelled to record our lives to prove they happened, but we also need to shape their presentation in order to make them worth recording. To make them worth looking at.
Enter the Ugly Selfie, which I wrote about for NYMag.com’s The Cut last week, and about which I think (but cannot be sure, since I am on the wrong continent to track down a copy) I have a story in Australian Cosmopolitan this month.
I first stumbled across the Ugly Selfie through Clementine Ford, who features in both stories. Clem started taking ugly selfies last year, following a text message exchange with a couple of friends in which she admitted “that any photo [she] uploaded online was usually the best of about 40 different options,” and then sent them through an “ugly” version as a joke. They thought it was so funny that she decided to keep doing it, taking an intentionally grotesque photo of herself whenever she uploaded a conventionally attractive selfie.
It struck me as both a brilliant act of satire, drawing attention to the constructed nature of the self-taken photograph, and a clever rebellion against the idea that our lives and faces should always be enviable and appealing. So naturally, I wanted to write about it.
In the middle of researching the story – days after I had submitted the Cosmo version and as I was getting ready to pitch the NYMag version – the Ugly Selfie went viral, mostly a product of the Reddit thread Pretty Girls, Ugly Faces, which was the subject of a sudden flood of coverage across Buzzfeed, xoJane, The Daily Mail et al.
But something about the tone of the coverage – and about the Reddit site itself – rubbed me the wrong way. Where Clementine’s “uglies” had struck me as a form of satire and rebellion, the joke here seemed to rely on the “ugly” photo being accompanied by a more conventionally “pretty” photo. Indeed, the focus of much of the press was: “Look at these hot women who can also pull ugly faces!” (As this Daily Mail headline, and the accompanying article, illustrate well.)
The “pretty” photos were positioned as the normal images – the ones which accurately represented what the women on the website “really” looked like – while the “ugly” photos were just the strange distortions. Things their normally beautiful faces could do, if they really, really wanted them to.
But as I argue in my piece for The Cut, the truth is that neither conventional “selfies” nor their “ugly” counterparts represent what most of us “really” look like. They are both distortions, both constructions. Or perhaps more accurately, they represent the visual extremities of the multitude of faces any one of us have. (See this excellent post by Kate Fridkis at Eat The Damn Cake.)
More confronting than the intentionally “ugly” selfie is the unintentionally ugly candid. If I take a picture of myself poking my tongue out, scrunching up my face, or pulling my neck in to create a double chin, it does little to threaten my sense of self or attractiveness. In some respects, it is even less threatening than a conventionally attractive “selfie,” in which I am declaring, without explicitly saying so, that this is a photo in which I think I look good (but perhaps not good enough).
But in a photo that is taken unawares, in which I am staring blankly at my computer, or standing at an unflattering angle, or just caught making a less-than-flattering expression. there is the suggestion that perhaps that is what I “really” look like – if not definitively, then at least on those occasions where I haven’t artfully arranged my face for your viewing pleasure.
Of all the three photos at the beginning of this post: conventional selfie, “ugly” selfie, and self-taken candid (if such a thing is possible), it was the “ugly selfie” that took the least effort to put together. And it is the “ugly candid” that I fear most. (“Look how hideous she really is!”) I have untagged photos on Facebook for far, far less. But I share it here to illustrate my point that any of our faces can appear any number of ways: good, bad, and hideously ugly. And as Emma Froggatt, who rounds up the NYMag piece, puts it: “The ugliest photos are often the ones where you don’t mean to look ugly.”
* Although I would like to be. Monthly goal for later in the year?
Elsewhere: Ugly Is The New Pretty: How Unattractive Selfies Took Over The Internet. (NYMag)
The Photo is Lying (Eat The Damn Cake)
Trigger alert: Eating disorders.
Chloe has a brave post at Feministing today, in which she admits that despite the fact that she was an Eating Concerns Advisor at her university, and despite the fact that she is a professional feminist… she has been starving herself.
The main focus of Chloe’s piece is the contradiction between her feminist beliefs and her bad-feminist behaviours, but as a friend of Chloe’s - and a fellow former eating disorder sufferer - the thing I found most striking about it was that once you tell people that you’re starving yourself, it’s much harder to continue starving.
One of the saddest things about our collective relationship with bodies and beauty is that while we pay lip service to the “badness” of eating disorders (so sad! so crazy! so gross!), we also celebrate their results.
Many (if not most) women and men who starve themselves or purge their meals look little like the hyper-thin anorexics and bulimics that are presented to us in after school specials, magazines, and even medical discourse. They just look a little bit thinner, and then a little bit thinner still; a little bit closer to the Hollywood ideal. They don’t just “pass,” they are praised: for their “bikini bodies,” their “Chanel girl” lines.
When I was dealing with an eating disorder, a decade ago now, I kept it a secret. Partly because I was painfully aware that it wasn’t “cool,” that girls with eating disorders (particularly my brand) were considered “headcases.” But also because I knew that if I admitted to it, I would have to stop doing it. I would no longer be “So thin! Such a diet role model!” but just plain old me.
Which is why I found Chloe’s post so brave. Once the people who care about you know what’s going on, it’s harder to get away with “Oh, I’m not hungry” or “I’ve already eaten.” It’s harder to chug half a bottle of water with your meals and then slip away to the bathroom. These acts, previously unnoticed, begin to take on a new significance.
And that you can no longer get away with it - or perhaps more importantly, that you choose to give people the information that means they no longer let you get away with it - is an important step in recovery.
Related: We’re all bad feminists, really.
And for your present, here’s an essay I wrote back in 2005, with minor edits.
He’s got a smile and it seems to me
Reminds me of childhood memories
When everything was as fresh as the bright blue sky
And now and then when I see his face
It takes me away to that special place
And if I stare too long I’d probably break down and cry…
What can I say about Taylor Hanson? Light of my life, fire of my 15-year-old loins. The original “wonderboy”: smart, self-effacing and with a subtle wit I liked to imagine no one other than me was able to appreciate. A boy who spoke with his hands, who liked to wear tight t-shirts and funny scarves and more necklaces than any one person should, and who would light up whenever he spoke of music, architecture or Andy Warhol. A boy who would jump up and down behind his keyboard and tap his foot so hard I could do naught but refer to him as ‘thumper’. And just look at those pretty pretty cheekbones and that sharp sharp jawline. Le sigh.
He was a face that launched a thousand (non-relation)ships.
Beat on my Fender through my Gemini 2
Praying to the posters on the wall of my room
Thought I was crazy when I’d think about you
And the bells in my ears keep ringing
Why am I bringing up the boy I loved [fifteen] years ago? Because of a thread on the soon-to-be-defunct Fametracker, and a link to that old much loved website, Bright and Beautiful, which wrote of Taylor’s son: “He is also — although no one will admit this - a truly unique kind of Hanson: His mother is one of us. Ezra is a rockstar baby, yes, with his little striped scarf. But he’s also half mortal, and if the rumors are true, he is half teenie.”
For that’s what we were. Teenies. Teenies in denial, for sure, but teenies nonetheless. We were this little subculture of teenage girls who dissected everything a group of teenage rockstars did like a beat-up copy of Wuthering Heights. Who spoke about them like they were people we knew who might occasionally drop by to ‘borrow’ a cup of sugar, or discuss the latest developments on The OC.
And we didn’t just dissect, we invented and recreated. We turned them into something that had very little do with what they actually are, using them for our own purposes to learn to understand ourselves and the world around us. Very little of our Hanson discussions actually had anything to do with Hanson. They were all about us. Us finding ways to be witty, us playing around with words and meaning, us talking about pro-life, pro-choice, gun control, capitalism and neo-fascism. Us talking about Ayn Rand, writing and reading quasi-erotic fiction, and ending up in the pages of Smash Hits as creators rather than as fans.
I miss the sweet boys in the summer of their youth
It was because of this beautiful boy, with his sharp cheekbones and delicately defined jawline, that I was introduced to people, words and ideas that would change the course of my life.
Happy birthday, Taylor Hanson.
Like Hannah Horvath, I’m two weeks from book deadline, so I’ll keep this brief. In fact, I’ll just rip it straight from an email I just sent to a friend, with a couple of additions here and there.
I have been somewhat annoyed by the sex in Season 2 Girls. I feel like the first season was most realistic in its banality (some of the the stuff that happened was offbeat, but the sex was never the point of the show), but the second season has been more sensationalist.
I figured this was a response to all the praise the show got last year for its “gritty”, “unglamorous” depictions of sex, but the exchange between Hannah and her editor in last night’s episode made me think it might be something a little different.
Editor: Where’s the sexual failure? Where’s the pudgy faced liquid semen and sadness? What I’m getting here is a lot of friendship, you know, it’s very Jane Austen, but you know, we were talking about Anais Nin, you know, your life on your back. Right? That’s actually a great title. My Life On My Back.
Hannah: Okay, well I did have sex with a teenager last month, and I’m happy to talk about it.
Editor: I would love to hear about that.
Hannah: I was scared that maybe it was the kind of thing you could get arrested for.
Editor: That’s the kind of stuff we need. You know what I mean? In fact, I just had an epiphany. If you’re not getting fucked right now, make it up. Can you make it a novel?
A meta-commentary on the pressure Lena Dunham is under to make the show less about friendship and more about down and dirty twenty-something sex lives?
As well as, of course, a meta-commentary on how young female writers are asked to exploit their personal lives to get work. (See also: Hannah’s cocaine assignment from the xoJane.com parody, JazzHate.com.)