Sirens Magazine

6 Things I Learned When I Went Vegan for a Month

Like just about everyone in America, I was hankering to go on a slimming detox diet after New Year’s. But based on previous experiences with just about every form of cleanse, I knew I wanted a food-based diet. Eliminating everything but organic, natural foods seemed like the clear choice. Mission: Eat exclusively vegan for a month.

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Is Wearing Makeup a Feminist Act?

With all the self-tanners on the market today, it's hard to believe that women in the 18th and 19th centuries sought white, pale skin -- the beauty ideal at the time. But just as we use product to make us look like we returned from a week in Cancun, Victorian women used primitive cosmetics to achieve their version of the perfect skin tone.

Interesting dichotomy, sure, but more interesting still is the political ramifications -- or lack thereof -- of a few ounces of powder brushed onto the skin of different eras. Victorian women likely weren't as worried about setting their gender back a decade or two just by going all goth with the face makeup -- but does hitting the Nars Laguna powder these days make us traitors to our gender? Some radical feminists have been known to blame patriarchy for coercing women into using beauty products. On the surface, they have a point: After all, anything we're expected to do that men aren't is cause for suspicion. But a look at the history of beauty products suggests otherwise:

A GIRL-POWERED INDUSTRY

First -- and maybe even foremost -- women have always been the pioneers of the cosmetics industry. Names like Helena Rubinstein, Elizabeth Arden, Madam C.J. Walker, Estee Lauder and Mary Kay Ash are still recognized to this day, nearly a century after starting their own companies. And though entrepreneurs like Hazel Bishop and Annie Turnbo Malone may be less well-known, they were responsible for the development of smudge-free lipstick and African-American-centric cosmetics, respectively -- no small feats (and evidence of some great business minds).

But women's leadership in makeup dates back way further than that -- and further than the word "feminism" itself. Though Egyptians were known to use kohl (an early form of eyeliner/mascara) and Native Americans were recognized for their plant-infused formulas meant to fix facial flaws, the majority of cosmetic recipes are traced back to Queen Elizabeth and other women of the Victorian era, according to "Inventing Beauty" author Teresa Riordan. Most were simple homemade creations, made by bringing egg whites and alum to a boil until it thickened. Newspapers chronicled similar recipes, but no one thought to make a business out of such products until Harriet Hubbard Ayer decided to market her homemade brand of beauty cream in the late 19th century, making her one of the first female businesswomen in the industry.

Of course, the industry did host its fair share of male moguls. Max Factor emerged as the leading Hollywood cosmetics expert in the 1920s and 1930s. But behind every man in the business was a woman's voice: T.L. Williams -- the man who created the first modern form of Maybelline mascara -- was inspired by his sister Mabel's makeup techniques.

PAINTED LADIES

Widespread criticism of makeup existed as far back as the early 1600s, when young women would mix household products to create rouges and lip colors. Puritan Thomas Tuke, for one, wrote a discourse in 1616 condemning makeup for creating a "false face." When cosmetics use popularized in the 19th Century, many continued to see makeup purely as a mask for women's sins and vices. As author Kathy Peiss writes in her book, "Hope In A Jar: The Making of America's Beauty Culture," moralists felt these women "invoked Jezebel." And for quite some time, prostitutes were the only women to brave a "painted face." But with the female oppression of the 1800s came a sexual awakening, prompting many assertive women to wear cosmetics to enhance their sexuality and individuality.

Much to the chagrin of traditionalists, women began to promote their independence through rouges and lipsticks, bucking the homemaker stereotype in favor of dancing, city life and fashion. Though they continued to live the chaste life expected of them, women began to define their individuality through made-up facades that seemed to reflect a newfound sexual yearning.

But men feared women's new sense of identity, believing that such attention to makeup and beauty was only a cover-up for their desire to "unsex" themselves and demand equality, according to Peiss. Women who used cosmetics were viewed as rebellious, uncontrollable and dangerous.

It was only a matter of time before lipsticks and rouges made their way into the workplace. Women who predated Rosie the Riveter were indeed some of the first to shamelessly display their cosmetics use. Peiss writes, "Moving into public life, they staked a claim to public attention, demanded that others look. This was not a fashion dictated by Parisian, or other authorities, but a new mode of feminine self-presentation, a tiny yet resonant sign of a larger cultural contest over women's identity."

Not surprisingly, cosmetics thus infuriated a misogynistic early 20th Century society that found makeup use insulting and deceiving. According to Riordan, a 1936 Vogue survey of men found that nearly 100 percent of respondents disapproved of noticeable makeup.

But women continued to ignore their husbands' and fathers' requests. Two years later, Volupte introduced two new lipstick shades to American women, labeled "Lady" and "Hussy." "Lady" was marketed toward women who prefer lighter shades and "quiet, smart clothes and tiny strands of pearls," while "Hussy" was developed for women who wear dark shades and "like to be just a little bit shocking," according to Mademoiselle magazine in 1936. "Hussy" outsold "Lady" five to one.

As the golden age of Hollywood began to emerge in the 1930s, however, some widespread opinions regarding cosmetics began to change. The success of Hollywood's heavily made-up stars led society to realize the marketability of makeup. With an increased commercialization of products came an acceptance of cosmetics among those who once deemed them brazen and shameful. Beauty writer Nell Vinick wrote that cosmetics were no longer tied to morality, or the lack thereof, and were "merely symbols of the social revolution that has gone on; the spiritual and mental forces that women have used to break away from conventions and to forward the cause of women's freedom."

NO BOYS ALLOWED

Some may wonder why men never caught onto such trends, choosing instead to go completely au naturale. After all, a look back at centuries-old paintings shows women and men alike caked with powder and lip color. But it wasn't long after the United States achieved independence that men began to assert their masculinity by ridding themselves of cosmetics. This change in attitude traces back to the most curious of places -- the White House itself. Several decades after Ben Franklin ditched his wig and thus the "effete affections of their continental counterparts" in what's labeled the "Great Masculine Renunciation," the 1830s saw a sharp decline in product sales to men after presidential nominee Charles Ogle ridiculed current president Martin Van Buren for using various creams, labeling him effeminate. Soon men began to dodge makeup faster than commitment.

Not that there wasn't any demand for men-centric cosmetics. In 1918, Cutex produced ads complete with coupons for free samples of its manicure products. Ten percent of respondents who requested samples were men. These men, however, never received their swag: Cutex employees intentionally threw out their requests. And in 1918, a journal named Toilet Requisites suggested that beauty-based businesses market products tailor-made for men, only to be laughed off because of society's inflexible stereotypes.

But just before the dawn of the new century came a new man who seemed to finally start turning the tide back: the metrosexual. Gay culture took off, and straight men found themselves mimicking fashion trends once reserved for homosexuals -- namely creams, colognes, and hair products. But, yes, in some cases, even makeup.

But who can we thank for men's newfound attention to looking better, dressing better and -- let's face it -- smelling better? You got it: women. A 1986 survey in Gentleman's Quarterly found that men developed a "more polished appearance" after noticing the refined looks of their female counterparts in the workplace.

So why not celebrate these innate refined tastes of ours by opening our cosmetic bags and embracing our inner make-up artist? Who knows? Maybe soon the words lipstick, eyeshadow, blush, bronzer, and mascara will conjure up feelings of empowerment. It certainly did for our sisters decades -- and even centuries -- back.

Is Technology Bad for Relationships?

Yesterday, at my corner bodega, the cashier was wearing a T-shirt that said, “You looked hotter on MySpace.” As far as I know, she doesn’t speak English. Last night, out on a date with one guy, I received a text from another and then answered it in the bathroom. (In fact, I have often taken to silencing my phone when I’m on dates because, when it rings, it always seems to provoke awkward questions. But, oops, not this time.) And a month ago, a bed-ridden friend of mine found out she’d spent a year in an online relationship with a person who literally did not exist.

I am not a Luddite. In fact, one of my favorite ways to simultaneously put guys in their place and turn them on is to casually respond to their blathering about home theater by mentioning I myself have a brand-new “1080p.” Stops ‘em dead in their tracks. But aside from that little dating trick (go ahead, steal it), I have to say, I’m not sure electronics have helped relationships.

We have so many great ways now to say what we mean, say how we’re feeling: We can write a text-message haiku or express regrets in a 5,000-word email or rekindle a flame by dropping in on an ex’s MySpace. But instead, we’re using our electronic options to lie more than anything. Whether it’s spending an hour crafting that five-line “totally casual” email, putting something “funny” for your birth date on MySpace, or Photoshopping your ex out of that photo (because your hair looks so good in it, natch) before posting it on Match.com, it’s all just so easy. How on earth was my date ever going to know I was standing on that toilet seat, waving my phone around like a madwoman trying to quickly find a better signal?

Not to mention all the new rules. As if we didn’t have enough rules for the poets to have been writing about them for centuries, we now have a whole new set for electronic communication. Take 24 hours to answer an email if you get one after a first date. Only sluts make bootycalls, but a well-crafted bootytext makes subtle art of the whole business (“Hey, you out? J ”). Never, ever, EVER put your real email on a dating site or MySpace or Friendster and especially not Facebook. (Yeah -- just because he, too, went to Princeton, he’s not a psycho. Brilliant theory.)

What happened to handwriting? What happened to privacy on a date? What happened to friends-of-friends? What happened to it not being so easy to pretend to be something we’re not?

Yes, it’s nice to hide behind the wall of email and texts and profiles -- yes, we can say things both flirtatious and venomous over those channels we’d never have the courage to utter in person or on paper. But we’ve always found ways to flirt, haven’t we? And I’m sure my mother enjoyed throwing those wine glasses much more than I enjoy hitting “send.” But we all know there is only one secret to good relationships: Being honest. If you fall in love with each other because of who you really are, not because of who you pretend to be, you may not succeed, but at least you have a chance. Any other way -- the way text and emails and profiles make so easy for us, the way they make it so seductive to give in to our fears that we’re not good enough for anyone, let alone that special someone we like -- any other way, and you don’t have a hope.

About 10 years ago, I remember reading about a device they sold in Japan that could attach to a payphone (yes, kids, see, you would put change in, and it would allow you to call people on it by dialing actual numbers) and generate background noises from train stations, a busy street, the office -- wherever Cheating-san was pretending to be. When I started working on this article, I tried looking that device up the same way we all Google a new flame (Why? To see if they’re lying about anything … ). But what’s funny is they don’t seem to manufacture it anymore, a fact which, initially, you’d imagine I’d be pleased about -- one less piece of technology that enables assholes, right? But when I started to think about it, it made me sad. Because I can’t help thinking they don’t make it anymore for the same reason they stopped making the typewriter and the spinning jenny.

They stopped making it because I don’t need to buy one; all I need to do is go powder my nose.

Is Dieting Anti-Feminist?

I grew up without a scale in the house. My mother threw it away when I was 8 years old because she didn't want me to become a slave to it like she had as a teen. I also didn't have any Barbies growing up because my mom didn't want me to have a distorted body image. Hey, makes sense to me: I got My Little Ponies instead ... they have stumpy legs and plump bubble butts and are probably a much better body model for little girls. As a result, I grew up with a solid, healthy body image and a body to match: I'm totally average -- thick, but not fat; strong, not skinny.

However, six-plus years of working as a writer/sedentary lump accelerated my metabolism's natural decline. Despite a daily yoga practice, I've never been an especially active person and having a sit-in-a-chair career is without a doubt my biggest health liability.

I eat healthy foods. My diet is mostly vegetarian (I eat fish a few times a week), and I eat a lot of vegan food (thanks to a strict-vegan husband). I rarely touch fast food, rarely drink alcohol/soda/Starbucks, and my main vices have been sweets, nuts, and oily ethnic foods like Thai and Indian. My diet is infinitely healthier than the Standard American Diet of deep fried everything with a bucket-sized side of carbonated sugar. Despite all that, though, I'd steadily gained weight for the last five years ... three or four pounds a year. I wasn't terribly overweight, but I could already see how my lifestyle and eating habits had become the most unhealthy part of my life. And, well, my chin was starting to disappear into my neck.

I started wrestling with myself: I felt unhealthy -- and then felt guilty for feeling that way. Was I a victim of the patriarchal societal pressures my mother tried so hard to shield me from? Then again, does fighting the patriarchy mean stuffing myself? Was I buying into some clucky NOT ME style national weight obsession by feeling like I wasn't eating right? Then again, since when is eating healthier a national obsession? Americans eat terribly!

I knew that I was eating more food than I needed to, but the mere idea of portion control brought up an enormous set of issues for me. As the feminist daughter of a feminist mother, I've always felt like it was my duty not to think about food. Not only a duty -- it was something I owed to my best friend who'd suffered through anorexia and bulimia in high school, complete with a month of hospitalization. It was my job to be the one who held down the fort of healthy eating, setting a good example for women who were crushed under the thumb of eating disorders and weight issues.

In my mind, the only way to fight eating disorders and the all-too-common feminine weight neurosis was not to think about food or weight at all ... I ate HEALTHY food, but the thought "maybe I should eat less" always felt like it was just around the corner from some sort of Karen Carpenter nightmare, where I suddenly became a neurotic starving skeleton with amenorrhea. But still, I desperately wanted to loose the extra poundage, at least so I'd feel as healthy as I was supposedly being.

I tried various exercise regimes to try to balance my sedentary routine, but because I'm so solidly muscular, the effect was that I just got bigger. I ran stairs for six months and my ass grew (harder, but bigger!). I lifted weights for almost a year and the result was that my T-shirt sleeves stopped fitting.

Then someone recommended Weight Watchers. I know, right? Fucking Weight Watchers? A pay-for-play diet program? Not only was it the feminist in me that balked, but it was also the conscious consumer. Not only was I a victim of the patriarchy, I'd be a victim of consumer fitness culture! You can't pay someone to fix your bad habits! I can't deal with the "bad food/food bad" issues that many chronic dieters seem to embody. I think too many women spend their days connecting food with negativity, and it's just not healthy! Food is good; food nourishes us! Now, is there food that's healthier? Yes. Is there food that you should eat less of? Sure! But is there bad food? No! Then I talked to a woman I respected and she explained, "It's not really a diet -- it's a training for how to eat and cook for the rest of your life and not hate it." Oh, you mean it's not about special foods you can or can't eat? It's just about figuring out how much you can eat in balance with your lifestyle? About being more mindful of the foods you eat and the quantities that you eat them, as it compares with your activity level? Huh. That all made perfect sense. Still, I felt like a traitor to my sex, just a little.

I signed up for the program (but stuck to online-only and skipped the meetings altogether - I don't like the idea of "thearapy" for wanting to lose a little weight) and started found eating less quite relatively easily. There weren't any bad food/food bad issues. Part of why WW has worked for me is that there's no "bad food." There's just food that you can eat more of, and food that you should eat less of. Does that mean I can't have a grilled cheese sandwich for dinner sometimes? Fuck no! But I learned quickly that having a huge plate of oily Thai food for lunch every day eventually added up. I started learning about how, as a vegetarian, I need to get my protein from things like beans instead of things like, say, cheese.

I refused to buy a scale for the first three months, eschewing WW's weekly weigh-ins as unhealthy for me. I didn't want to fixate on a number. I just wanted to appreciate how I felt, and how my clothes fit. And what do you know! I felt better and my clothes got looser. (I did eventually buy a scale, but it lives in the basement where I'm not tempted to weigh myself. Once a week I go dig it out. Never more often than that.)

What I've found is that being more conscious is healthy. I have this feminist knee-jerk that thinking about food AT ALL equals Victim of Evil Forces. This is, of course, not true. So I've been eating less. I started taking aerobic dance classes instead of yoga classes (although I still have my home yoga practice). And I've lost weight. It feels so simple: I've been eating less and more consciously, although I'm certainly not deprived. I eat a lot of good, rich, healthy foods. Less oily noodles and nuts and cheese, sure. But WW encourages eating lots of vegetables and whole grains and high fiber foods -- foods I already enjoyed and already knew were good for me.

With this weight loss has come the realization that part of the issues that were coming up for me with my slow weight gain wasn't just the increased size and pounds -- it was that I felt like I was powerless to do anything about it. When you buy into the logic of thinking about food = victim of patriarchy, there's a certain loss of control.

But losing this bit of weight has actually made me get back in touch with my body and its needs and given me a better sense of understanding myself. If I find myself in a state of physical health that I'm not comfortable with again, I know what I need to do. Once I've got the tools that work, it's not that hard.

The only downside? Some of my favorite clothes have stopped fitting. I had to sacrifice the size 14 lime green pants that were always a little big but now reached the point of falling off. Regardless, I'm pretty close now to the weight that my body is healthy at. I'm not meant to be a stick, and my curves are back to the ratios that look good with my build. It's a nice place to be, and the process of getting here has been pretty enjoyable. I can be an overly cerebral person at times (gee, ya think?), and it's been nice to focus some attention on my physical vessel, as it were.

Women and food are big issues in this culture. I've tried to tip-toe through the minefield as carefully as possible, and I've had some great help from my mother and the women around me who've done everything to help me love my body ... and it's been my goal to deal with the process of losing weight in a positive, self-affirming, self-loving way. No deprivation or punishment but a pro-active approach toward my own health. It's been good.

And the vanity pay-offs make me forget all about feminism, if only for a minute.

The Last Defenders of Marriage

When photos of the same-sex weddings being performed in San Francisco started popping up online, I called my husband. Photos of happy couples, both sexes, all ages, in all kinds of outfits: I'll never forget the one newlywed pair who carried a stuffed monkey with them. Nor the image of the two young men in kilts, one heavy, the other slim, holding up their marriage certificate with mouths open in a joyous yawp of victory.

I called my husband because those pictures of other people happily and publicly pledging their lives to one another, made me glad he and I had done the same.

Much of the rhetoric opponents of gay marriage use depicts marriage as "under attack" from gay couples. They talk about the destabilization of society, about the dangers inherent in changing the way we see the word "spouse." Republican Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania famously warned that if gay marriage were permitted, "man on dog" would not be far behind. So to speak.

In the years since, more than a dozen states have passed laws restricting marriage to a couple consisting of a man and a woman. Even more states have ongoing court cases in which gay couples, most pleading for the simplest things we straights take for granted: the right to be at our beloved's side if he is ill, the right to adopt a child with her if she wants a baby.

Gay union opponents can grandstand all they want about the "defense of the family." That doesn't change the fact that these loving couples fighting desperately for this right are actually reminding us, at a time when some heteros slip easily in and out of marriage and divorce at will, how precious this institution actually is. They're making it damn near impossible for even cynical sworn bachelors and bachelorettes to deny how desirable a state betrothal can be.

The political battle, however, seems to play out more nastily in every election. During the 2004 campaign in Virginia, Republican organizations posted flyers saying Democrats (many of whom themselves opposed gay marriage) wanted to legalize same-sex wedlock while banning the Bible. This fall, the topic is sure to come up again in conservative-leaning states like Ohio and Wisconsin, where voters are considering whether to amend the state constitution to keep boys from legally bumping.

Even some advocates of gay rights sometimes urge a pullback on the marriage front, saying "civil unions" will be a halfway point that does not offend too many voters squeamish about gays (you know, the type who say, "I don't mind them being gay, but why do they have to shove it down my throat by demanding health insurance?"). Domestic partnerships are often viewed as a way to give homosexual couples some protections like health insurance and hospital visitation.

But domestic partnerships at the state level, even those reinforced by extensive power-of-attorney and custody arrangements made by couples themselves, don't address the hundreds of federal benefits granted automatically to those who meet the specific legal definition of "married" or "spouse."

Everything from Social Security survivor benefits to discounts for fishing on federal land is affected by marital status. In total, more than 1,049 separate statutes mention marriage, covering issues from tax breaks to timber licenses.

So it doesn't really matter if Becky Everymatron from Ittybittyville, Nebraska, doesn't like the thought of girls getting it on (though I'm sure Mr. Everymatron doesn't mind it). Our society rewards two people who have chosen to make a public commitment to one another, and it rewards them with financial security in the form of money owned by all of us through paying our taxes.

And once we've made the choice to do that, we either extend it to all our citizens, or we fail to live up to our constitutional obligations in the most fundamental way.

The gay marriage debate isn't about what we like and don't like to see, as though we can only sanction things in America that everybody agrees with. If we outlawed everything I found icky, we'd have precious little reality television, even less war, and wearing those sparkly tank-tops Old Navy sells to 'tweens and grandmas alike would be punishable by death.

On a more personal note, not a single one of San Francisco's or Massachusetts' weddings marred my wedded bliss one bit. I was more upset by those using my marriage as an excuse to deny others their right to equal protection under the law.

San Francisco's weddings made me remember my own wedding day, and the wedding days of some dear friends: thrown petals, good wishes, sufficient champagne, a bridesmaid snogging one of the groomsmen. They made me happier to be married, the joy of those couples reflected onto the rest of us, showing us how lucky we were to witness that kind of love.

And though those marriages were later invalidated by the state of California in a mean and small-minded court decision declaring San Fran mayor Gavin Newsom had overstepped his authority in granting them, the images of hope, of courage, of determination to live in love whatever the consequences, those images inspired me and many others. Those images were our conscience, saying, Look, how can you not approve?

But Sen. Santorum can breathe easy: My husband and I recently celebrated our eighth wedding anniversary, and there was nary a dog in sight.

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