Ravishing Visual Beauty

My Selfies, My Selves

Sometimes in my head I say, “There are two kinds of people: there are people who take selfies, and people who don’t.” I try this statement on, but deep down I don’t think it’s true. Or maybe I do, kind of. This lame dichotomy does expose, though, some innate judgment or rancor against the practice of taking selfies. (Selfie-ing?) To take a selfie, on some level, is to be fascinated by the self. Too fascinated with the self, though, and you’re a narcissist, shallow, annoying. Yes? No?

Of course, back in the day, they were just self-portraits. But when did self-taken photos of yourself go from being self-portraits to selfies? Probably since social media became the way we socialize online. Self-portraits are serious, artistic — what Van Gogh and Rembrandt did. Selfies are what the Kardashians do, the McPortrait. And while everyone takes them, people rank on them as well.

As I do — I don’t think I’m alone in being irritated when someone’s sole Instagram or Facebook activity is taking pictures of themselves. (The only person who should do this is Rihanna, but that’s because Rihanna clearly lives in her own simulacrum wonderland, right? Rihannaland?) It gets irritating because the same duckfaced pic shows up in your Instagram, and then on Facebook, and then it kind of just saturates your day’s worth of Internetting. And you’re like, “Stop the duckface! Stop the pigeon toes! Just stop and bring me my pictures of cute kittens!”

(And honestly, I actually like seeing people in their photos, but too much of it is…just too much. I suspect that’s why I don’t follow a lot of semi-pro and pro fashion people on Instagram or Facebook, because so many of these feeds are just pics of themselves and it’s…just too much.)

Of course I’m guilty of an occasional selfie. I’m definitely not guilty of too many of them — I’m not photogenic and I wear the same things over and over. (Though my things are FABULOUS, ha!) But taking a selfie is a torturous process for me. So many poses, so many snaps, though it’s much since phones have cameras. (Though, come on iPhone, where the hell is the self-timer option?) And now we have retouching studios at our fingertips: filters, photo apps, etc. I note with a degree of amusement that while my preferred Instagram filter is the plangent, romantic Amaro, my skin looks best with Walden or Valencia. (Someone should start a foundation line named after Instagram filters.)

In some ways, the selfie is kind of the natural endgame of existing in such a media-saturated age. Certainly this is something women can understand: our bodies are objectified from an early age — a lot earlier than many of us are prepared for — and we grew up with a kind of double consciousness. One consciousness within ourselves: our feelings, ideas, inner life. But also an outer one, always looking out for how we look through others’ eyes.

(It’s like that weird goggles-machine you sit in when you get your eyes checked at the opthalmologist, and they ask, “This lens? Or this lens?” and switch between prescriptions. We have a lens directed towards our inner life, and one directed towards how we appear to the outside world.)

Our notions of beauty and our grooming rituals, too, are often calibrated with the photographic eye in mind — I’m thinking of all those foundations sold specifically for high-def camera lenses, for instance, which can pick up even the smallest bit of powder. I suspect one day we’ll buy foundations and powders not just by shade and formula, but by resolution as well.

(Sometimes I look at designs and wonder if they were created with the two-dimensional image in mind — I suspect that’s why prints and weird, challenging silhouettes have been so popular in fashion for some time now, because they photograph well. The idea of a garment that moves beauty and takes advantage of the subtleties of movement, actual light and drape seems rarer and rarer as our eyes and tastes become digitized.)

If we live in a world full of mediated images shimmering in front of us, isn’t it natural for us to want to jump into the beautiful mirage and become part of that? Especially if it’s set up as this idyll of sexybeautifulgorgeous fabulousness?

I remember reading somewhere a long time ago about someone — I honestly don’t remember who — who was obsessed with going out in NYC and becoming a kind of nightlife celebrity. (This was way before sites like Cobrasnake on the Internet. This was like Paper magazine-era domination, where gossip columns ruled the roost.) I remember them talking about how they wanted to “get to the other side of the equation,” and that metaphor has long lingered in my mind about a lot of beautiful chimeras like fashion. We just want to jump on the other side of the equation — rarely do we question the equation itself. We want to be part of wonderland. And maybe with selfies and social media, we can be. (more…)

When You’re High on Benadryl, Even Calvin Klein Perfume Commercials Make Sense

I spent much of last week in a drift of medication: an antibiotic, then an antihistamine I had to take after I developed a horrid allergy to the antibiotic and then Benadryl. It was the hottest week of the summer and I didn’t leave my apartment for much of it, except at night when it had cooled down and no one would notice my horrifically disfigured legs, covered as they were with raw, angry hives that looked like blisters from third-degree burns.

I couldn’t do very much. I was either itchy as hell or stoned out of my mind on Benadryl: light-headed, dizzy, with that weird “bell jar” airlessness where it feels like a glass wall has slipped between you and the rest of the world. I had whole conversations with people and didn’t remember a word we said. I watched movies but they felt like fever-dreams, and I’m still not sure if I really saw them. I was convinced every emotional calamity was just around the corner. I looked in the mirror and didn’t recognize myself. I wrote gibberish in my journal. I walked to McDonald’s, bought a hot fudge sundae and forgot it on the counter. It was really just the strangest week ever.

I did develop an odd fixation on the David Fincher-directed commercial for the new Calvin Klein fragrance, Downtown, which stars actress Rooney Mara, who played a spectral, ferocious Lisbeth Salander in the U.S. adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I don’t even remember how I stumbled upon it…maybe on some perfume blog or another? I just watched it again and again in my weird little stupor, strangely transfixed by its sleek black-and-white hi-res cinematography, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs song “Runaway” playing as the soundtrack, the crazy resemblance Mara has to Audrey Hepburn in certain shots.


Sparks & Beauties: Impressionism, Fashion & Modernity at the Art Institute of Chicago

It has been a remarkably chilly week for mid-July: the coldest July since 1980-something, according to local meterologists. I don’t exactly mind, really, except for the whole global climate change things, which is admittedly pretty apocalyptic-inspiring. My world is full of ups and downs, peaceful meadows and tumult, and I’m sort of in a very “WHERE IS EVERYBODY/GET AWAY FROM ME” headspace. And since I can’t really figure out the middle ground between the two, I’m kind of just being a recluse. But a glamorous one!

Anyway, there are some bright spots on the horizon: Eleanor Whitney, author of Grow, which I big-upped earlier, gave my book a great write-up at her blog, which made me so happy. As a writer, it is always so wonderful to know your work makes some kind of impact in the hearts and minds of the people who read it. Thank you, Eleanor! And academic superstar, fellow punk expat and feminist of color firebrand Mimi Thi Nguyen gave props to my old fashion blog nogoodforme.com in her recent interview at The Feminist Wire, which made me feel so proud. Anyway: this edition of Sparks & Beauties is devoted to one giant gorgeous firecracker of an art exhibition. I hope you enjoy it!

One beautiful thing possible when living in a city like New York: you get to have up-close and personal relationships to museums. And when I lived in NYC and was going to Columbia, I got to have lots of them, because one advantage of paying nosebleeds of tuition was free admission to places like the Metropolitan Museum and MOMA. After my two years of intensive coursework, I tried to go as often as possible — and I noticed I had very specific relationships to each museum. For me, MOMA was a bit like that person you date who looks good on paper — you think it aligns perfectly with everyone you ever thought you wanted in someone, but there is something missing. Some human eccentricity, some hidden dork factor that makes them genuinely fun to be around.

The Metropolitan, though, was my true love in museum form. For one thing, it was just so immense — I went almost weekly and there were still rooms I’d stumble into, having never seen them, so there was a constant sense of discovery. I had particularly favorite rooms and galleries: I loved the 19th-century American and European painting sections, for example: I’d sit for an afternoon in one of the galleries and just write or read. (I graded a whole sheaf of papers there once, much to the amusement of the guards.) I loved the decorative arts wings, and marveled at Marie Antoinette’s furniture. When I needed to think, I sat in the Temple of Dendur and the immense echo of the large room often soothed me.

I don’t really have a steady relationship with a museum anymore, and that’s a pity. So, in some major respect, my whole take on the “Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity” exhibition currently at the Art Institute of Chicago feels incomplete — it doesn’t quite benefit from the feeling of having lived with and experienced the work in a way that intimacy and familiarity grant it. I also feel as if, since leaving NYC, I’ve lost the “art muscle” that comes from seeing, hearing about and discussing art on a regular basis. It used to be easy for me to “keep up” with modern art, but since being isolated in the Midwestern semi-countryside, this kind of thinking doesn’t come easy to me anymore. Still, I gave it a try on my recent trip into Chicago: I spent almost three hours at the exhibition, as a result, felt like I was cramming in all the beauty and insight that it offered — because it’s truly an astonishing exhibition on aesthetic, intellectual and historical levels. It did its job, though: I walked out of it feeling thoughtful, inspired and energized — appreciative of how the past shapes the present moment, and full of a kind of serene lightness that only spending time with such wondrous art can give you.


Muses: Susie Bick, Nick Cave & Dominique Issermann

One lovely thing about muses and inspiration is how one can lead to another, and then another, and then here and there — and suddenly you’ve found yourself in a wondrous new place, a constellation of beauty and imagination. So this particular Sparks entry is that, a little map of a mental wonderland.

It begins, as many things do, with Nick Cave. He put out a new record recently, Push the Sky Away, which is one of his delicate, elegant records. Some Bad Seeds faithful complain it sounds more like a Dirty Three record, and I guess that makes sense, since Dirty Three violinist Warren Ellis has essentially replaced Mick Harvey. But I love it; I think it’s beautiful. And so the imais its cover:

As it turns out, the photo was shot at Nick Cave’s house in Brighton, and the naked woman is his wife, model Susie Bick.

This fascinated me to no end, because imagining Nick Cave as a husband and father is so weird. He’s one of those rock stars that I admire and think oddly attractive, but I’ve rarely ever really fancied him. (I was always one for Blixa Bargeld, however.) The fact that he’s married with a wife and two kids just blows my mind. I became slightly obsessed with Nick and Susie as a couple, digging up pictures of them together:

(Although for me, Nick and PJ Harvey are sort of the ultimate couple still:

The way he looks at her! So beautiful.) (more…)