A few weeks ago, I did something unusual for me: I put myself in the hands of three professionals who dressed me, styled my hair, and photographed me in various settings and outfits. I spend a lot of time outdoors, and Coiffed-and-Made-Up is not my customary uniform, as many of you know. And even when I’m wearing lawyer clothes, I don’t wear any makeup, except maybe a touch of lipstick.
But my close friend of more than thirty years, Julie Powers, lives much of her life at the opposite pole: she’s a performer, makeup artist, and costume designer for films, live theatre, and print and digital publications. We’d been tossing around the idea of doing a photo session for many years. I managed to keep that ball in the air, always being tossed, but never quite landing. The idea of doing a photo shoot like this was deeply unsettling. Behind a lens is a much safer place for me than in front of one. The idea of voluntarily stepping in front of a camera brought to the surface issues of identity, vulnerability, and fear. I’d have to confront my relationship with my physical body, my face, my appearance, and my deep ambivalence about what feminists call “the performance of femininity.”
Perversely, it was when I realized just how much the idea made my palms sweat that I was willing to do it. The older I get, the more I resist the phrase “I would/could never.” Confronting my “would/could nevers” has offered me some of the most interesting experiences of my life. I wanted to do the shoot to see how it would make me feel, and what I would learn about myself.
It took me more than a week to mentally unpack the experience.
Julie works with Chie Sharp, the owner of Perpetual Studio, a salon in downtown Indianapolis. (Her name is pronounced “Shy”.) That was good news to me. Julie had already sent me to Chie a couple of years ago, and I think she’s great. When I walked into her studio for the first time, I saw the following words, artfully painted onto her wall:
“Reflections in this mirror may be distorted by socially constructed ideas of beauty.”
Then there are the doll’s heads scattered about the studio and the framed print of Pee Wee Herman. It’s a comfortable place.
The only unknown to me was the photographer, Jen Carmichael of R&B Photography. But I’d seen her work on Facebook, and it had a style around color, clarity and light that I admired.
I spent the week before the session anticipating it with the confusing mix of curiosity and dread that I get when I know my vulnerabilities are about to be laid bare. Jen must have sensed my mood immediately – probably not a stretch, since I must have looked like I was about to blow chunks all over her studio floor. “Nervous?” she asked as she held open the studio door. I grunted out a barely civil yeah. Why was I being such an asshole? I wondered. Is this really a huge deal? Why did I feel like I was about to lay my head on the block?
There was no other way to figure it out but to do it, so in I went.
My husband likes to joke that he will only shave for weddings, funerals and job interviews. Otherwise, he uses a trimmer, and keeps a reasonable amount of scruff. I’m on about the same schedule, except when it comes to any kind of beauty regimen at all. There are a lot of reasons for this. First, I object to the fact that women’s worth to the world is so often bound up in their physical appearance. This is an area where the inequities between men and women are pretty stark: This is what happens to women around appearance, and this is what happens to men. Women still get criticized, even after photoshopping their bodies into near-oblivion. Men get lauded for “dadbods.” This is not a system I approve.
Of course, it’s futile to think you can opt out of the game entirely. I’m as conscious of my public face as anyone else, and I’m picky about the photos of me that get posted on social media. And if you’re at a time in your life when you have the physical capital, it’s tempting to opt into the game. I’ve had that capital a few times – most of us do when we are very young – and learned what a powerful currency it can be.
But even then, it felt like a game I couldn’t win. From an early age, I noticed that many people think a woman can be sexually attractive or she can be intelligent, but not both. In my early 20’s, men would look at my chest and draw the immediate conclusion that intelligence was not a significant feature of my internal landscape. When something knowledgeable would come out of my mouth, they’d look at me as if they’d discovered a new species of insect. When I became an attorney in my late 20’s, men could no longer make that immediate assumption, given the evidence to the contrary that my profession represented. But then it was women – the older female attorney who kept talking about how much “younger and prettier” I was than she was. Or the woman prison guard who lectured me on my dress when I went to speak to a college class at the reformatory – wearing a long-sleeved blouse and pants.
It was almost a relief to get pregnant, gain forty pounds, and slide into invisibility – until, five years later, my husband left me, citing an a litany of offenses I’d committed, including that I was no longer sufficiently attractive.
Some lines are so narrow it makes no sense to try to walk them at all.
On top of all this, I just have other things I’d rather do than work extensively on my appearance. I’ve never been very good at hair and makeup. I just don’t have the touch, so it’s always been a somewhat pointless exercise. To be sure, when I’m in the mood, I enjoy wearing clothes I love, including dresses, sandals, and occasionally some jewelry. But I refuse to allow it to become an obligation. That way, as they say, lies madness. Once you accept that you owe anyone anything with respect to your appearance, you have signed over title to yourself.
This is why I’ve always resisted the “but you look so good when you try!” argument. Sometimes—much of the time – I simply don’t want to try. On a day-to-day basis, I want to be me, not an idealized version of me. I want my original canvas to be sufficient.
So I had to wrestle with whether doing this would be at odds with my values, given my belief that beauty is in part a performance to increase a woman’s social power. I’m wary of the response to this truth that insists that all women are beautiful, that we should be celebrating all kinds of beauty. I’m much more interested in dialing down the celebration of appearance altogether. I’d rather cut the ties between physical appearance – of whatever kind – and validation, approval, and social capital.
I understand that’s a tall order, and will happen on a comprehensive social level sometime after the guaranteed minimum income and the zero-carbon economy. The only thing I can do in the meantime is try to institute that framework in Jen-Land. It’s an ongoing struggle.
And anyway, what about art? What about the beauties of color, style, and light? Julie, Jen and Chie are artists, and they work in human clay. Color, shape and texture are all part of that art. Has the concept of female beauty become so toxic that it’s irretrievable? I don’t know the answer to that, but I would love to think that it need not destroy the appreciation of visually interesting art created on human canvas.
Given that I was tied up in knots, I found photographer Jen Carmichael a welcome presence, and refreshingly real. She was even-keeled, with a calm demeanor, soothing voice, and a patient and clear communication style. The session was held in her studio in Plainfield, Indiana. The building that houses it is full of warm tones and interesting accents – a departure from the bleak, sterile aesthetic of so many modern office buildings.
We put our things in a conference room, and Julie put me in a chair, pulled my hair off my face with a black band, and opened a large, intimidating-looking silver case. It looked like the sort of thing the bomb squad might carry, but in fact it housed an impressive array of multi-colored substances, liquids, adhesives and powders, along with the brushes, tissues, sponges, and swabs required to apply them in surprisingly precise ways to a human face. I know my friend has invested a great deal of time, expense, and effort in learning exactly how to do so.
After several minutes sponging and brushing and otherwise smearing things on my skin, she began applying a mysterious substance to the rim of my eyelid. This part of my body hasn’t seen a substance other than my own tears in twenty years, and I began violently twitching and jerking in protest. Somehow, though, she managed to keep working through my thrashings. When she finished, I realized she’d successfully attached a set of false eyelashes to my eyelids.
“These are tiiiiiiiiiny,” she promised. “Tiiiiiiiiiny.”
They felt like pythons that for some reason had decided to sun-bask on my eyelids.
But they were indeed tiny, as I discovered later when I peeled them off.
Once Julie was finished, Chie put me in a chair and started twisting and curling and moving my hair around. I was used to this; we’d done this before. Curl after curl after curl, punctuated by sprays of pungent aerosols, teases here and there, an occasional drive-by with her scissors, and then more curling. Julie’s movements were by necessity slow and exacting. Chie’s were fluid and streamlined, and moved more quickly. All of this was narrated by a constant stream of discussion including such topics as Chie’s no-nonsense grandmother, the maximum number of days I’ve gone without a shower, and the work ethic of porn stars.
And then all of a sudden they were finished with me.
“I have to pee,” I announced, and set off for the bathroom. I looked briefly into the mirror, curious. I tilted my head to the side like a Golden Retriever who’s seen something he can’t quite figure out. It wasn’t so much that it wasn’t me. It was just a very vivid version of me, like an autumn forest with its colors popping in overcast light. My skin looked far clearer than it usually does, and sported an even, warm sort of glow.
From there I was instructed to put on various things, take off other things, and sit in precise poses on various surfaces. Underwear, obviously, had to match the color of the outfits, and so had to be changed frequently. “Start with the shirt you stole from Travis and put on black underwear,” Julie said.
There was an elaborate choreography involved in the shooting, and Photographer Jen patiently explained where each leg and arm and hand were to be placed, and where I was to look (into her lens unless explicitly instructed otherwise). And the shutter started clicking. I was tense, and Jen had to keep reminding me to unclench my fist.
Next, Julie presented me with a black sequined dress. She had told me to bring “a pair of heels” and I had to tell her that I don’t own a pair of real heels.
“That’s okay,” she said, pulling out an arresting pair of black platform stilletos.
“Wait,” I said. “People actually wear these for real?” I wasn’t entirely kidding.
Julie laughed and put them in front of my feet, gracefully declining to remind me that she wore them, and usually sang while doing so. I stepped gingerly into one of the shoes and pressed my weight down. My body was launched so quickly upward that it left my other foot dangling precariously above the earth, with nowhere to gain traction. I wobbled in that stance for a terrifying second or two before guiding my foot, through sheer luck, into the remaining shoe.
The black sequined dress was my favorite, and with shoes on my feet that I could use to stab an intruder if the occasion arose, I wasn’t feeling particularly vulnerable. As I stood in front of a door, then draped myself over a red chair, all the while staring continuously into Jen’s lens, I started to relax a little bit.
But then came the pearls.
“Okay, put on all white, because I’m going to drape you in pearls,” Julie instructed.
I blinked. And I think my eyes might have narrowed a little. I was not thrilled about this. “You look like a cat that someone just put on a leash,” Jen joked. I cracked up. She was right. I felt like letting out a yowl of protest.
I don’t particularly like white, especially for undergarments. I have white undergarments only so I can avoid inadvertently wearing a black bra under a white blouse – and even then I might be inclined just to drape a red scarf over it. In fact, Julie might remember that we had to stop on the way to my first wedding to buy me a pair of white underwear, because I only had dark colors and it had never occurred to me that it would be a problem.
My aversion to pastel lingerie has caused some problems in other relationships. For some reason men in the 1990’s all seemed to want women eager to dress up in white and pink lingerie and act like coy baby dolls – or at least the ones I ended up with did. I don’t do coy. My response was generally to prefer black: dark, determinative, the color of power. Morticia Addams has always been my role model.
So there we were. To me, pastels signaled vulnerability and submission. Black signaled competence and independence.
And yet, a whole human being is a confounding stew of strengths and vulnerabilities. Paradoxically, it takes strength to be vulnerable. So I dived in once again, letting my friend of thirty years put a huge quantity of pearls all over me whilst lying on a soft rug.
I can easily imagine a woman, one whose history, proclivities and issues are different from my own, enjoying this pose. From a sensory perspective, the experience was rich; the rug was soft and warm on my back, and the pearls were sleek and cool on my skin. But I was abjectly miserable, chafing against some trigger from long ago, some war with an ex-lover over whether I was sexy enough for him or whether I wasn’t. Fortunately, we moved on quickly. But I felt exhausted and cranky by the next shot. The leash was strangling the cat.
We closed the shoot by getting out my hiking boots and pairing them with my own black dress. Chie put my hair up. Julie ran out to my car and got my dashboard alligator, and we used that too. We took one photo of me wearing Julie’s monster hat. Looking at those photos now, I chuckle. No one who doesn’t know me would understand those images. But I know what they mean: those images — and all the others — are a demand for the accommodation of complexity; an assertion that I am more than one thing. I am a wearer of hiking boots and a wearer of black dresses. Sometimes at the same time.
Every time I write about body image, or beauty standards, someone invariably pops up to tell me how immune they are to that kind of pressure. I’ve never bought into that trap, they’ll insist proudly. I’ve never felt pressured to be anything but myself. There is a touch of smugness to these comments.
Well congratulations, kitten, I want to say. You are the Patriarchy Unicorn, so you can sit down while the rest of us talk. The funny thing is, those attempts to be above the petty concerns of femininity are just another coping mechanism in a world that devalues what it codes as womanly, like concerns about appearance.
Related to this are the people who pop up and tell me that beauty standards can’t be the result of a sexist structure in which women have a strong role as ornaments, because women are the primary enforcers of those standards. And it can’t be sexist if women are responsible, right?
Why, then, do you think women invented makeup? Did artists like my friend invent it? Perhaps. But why did it not catch on with the majority of men? I believe the reason is simple: Women are human beings, and in a structure that assigns value to women’s appearance over other qualities, of course the ones who have what they need to succeed in that structure are going to try to preserve it. That doesn’t mean the system doesn’t end up screwing everyone in the end.
After the session, Jen immediately began work on editing and processing the images, and over the next couple of days she’d forward a photo here and there as a kind of sneak peek. Travis and I were on the way to the county clerk’s office to get our marriage license when a message came through on my phone that the rest were ready. I felt a strange twinge of nervousness in my stomach, but I couldn’t look at them until we were finished at the clerk’s office.
When I finally got back to the office, I accessed the files and reviewed them much the same way I do my own image batches – by scanning the group for the ones that immediately jump out at me, and performing a more studied examination later. Almost instantly I saw my favorite: an image of me in the black sequined dress, standing in a doorway, converted to black and white. It must have been one of the moments of relative comfort and ease, because I look the way I feel when I am happy.
And that, I realize, is what I wanted. What I wanted was not necessarily a photograph that was “hot” or “beautiful,” but one that was both visually interesting, and reflected the states of being that I most enjoy: serenity, confidence, contentment. The images I latch onto are the ones in which I’m happy to recognize myself. Jen seemed intuitively able to grasp those moments and capture them.
There were other photos in the group that might have been more conventionally attractive or sexy, but when I saw them, I was instantly able to recognize my own discomfort or hesitation. Those, too, are accurate reflections of the various parts of me, but not ones I’m comfortable entertaining for too long. Those reflect the things I struggle with, the darker parts of me.
Given the things I love to do in life and the way I generally prefer to dress and present myself, it might be surprising that I see myself so readily in that image, clad in a black sequined dress, wearing false eyelashes, while standing in platform stilletos. But if identity is anything, it must encompass two things: First, the exclusive right to name who you are; and second, the right for those names to be complex and even conflicting. Identity, like the larger world, must accommodate paradox. It would be tempting to look at that photo and say “That one just isn’t you.” And if you do, then you just don’t know all of me. Because trust me, that one’s me.
This photography reflected the people who were involved in it: artistic and curious, adventurous and fearful, and very aware that we were situated in a structure where female appearance means certain things. I think it’s a very human urge to seek images of ourselves that make us happy, for whatever reason they do so. And I further suspect many a woman, and several men, have entered Jen Carmichael’s studio in an attempt to wrestle with something in themselves. As a photographer, I’ve always said that images are where I go when words fail me, as they frequently do. Art has always been a place where people go to make sense of the world. But it’s also where we go to make sense of ourselves.
(I’ve posted more photos from the shoot on The Trailhead’s Facebook page.)