Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Interview with Autumn Whitefield-Madrano of The Beheld!

The Beheld is a blog focusing on beauty from many different and thought-provoking lenses, run by Autumn Whitefield-Madrano. I find it particularly interesting as one of the few beauty blogs that explore beauty from a feminist perspective. I had the opportunity to interview Autumn about the many topics she covers on her blog.

What sparked your interest in writing about beauty?

Honestly, I don't know! I was researching a post on the history of makeup and found something in a Wikipedia entry about cosmetics history, and found what I was looking for, and when I looked at the footnote source saw that it was drawn from an article I'd written for my college magazine in 1999! So I've had this interest for a while. I think it's that I was reading lots of great feminist stuff, and was also engaging with beauty on my own terms, and I felt frustrated that there wasn't more examination of how women actually treated beauty beyond just condemning the beauty myth. Bust magazine broke some ground in that area, but they became a little too "yay roller derby and retro lingerie!!!" for my tastes. There's still very much the idea out there in the world that we're either smart OR pretty; that we're either serious women who don't care about our appearance or who do so begrudgingly, or we're big fluffballs who just wanna look purdy. And I know so few women who fit into one of those categories, and gobs of women who don't. I personally don't feel satisfied by the discourse of beauty that's out there--I still find a lot of it one-dimensional.

I guess I just really took to heart that "we write what we know." Anything truly good that I've ever written has come from a place of truth within myself. And the fact is, I think about how I look a lot. I think about how what I assign to my appearance affects how I move through the world; I think about how it shifts how I relate to others, and how they relate to me. I think intensely about a lot of appearance-related choices I make. And I used to belong to a Livejournal community in which I'd just write whatever came to my mind--it was really a journal, not a blog, so I wasn't thinking about how to make it readable to a broader audience. But when I started getting the real itch to put myself out there, I looked through my Livejournal and was surprised to see how many of the entries were tagged "beauty." Around the same time a good friend had been listening to my various thoughts on the matter, and he said, "You should either be thinking about beauty less or writing about it more." I chose the latter!

In regards to your Mirror Fast- what did you most take away from the experience? Would you do it again?

By now you've probably read my grand conclusion--if you haven't, here it is. The upshot is that I had to come to terms with how much I was using the mirror as a barometer of how I was feeling. I'm in recovery from an eating disorder, and one of the biggest issues surrounding eating disorders is a lack of awareness of how one is feeling. Food, or lack of it, or treating it inappropriately, becomes the way one deals with the slightest blip of emotion--it sublimates what you're actually feeling, so you don't really learn how to recognize and handle emotions. I'm still working on dealing with that, but I'm getting better. But when I was "mirror fasting," I realized how frequently I wanted to turn to the mirror to help me determine how I was feeling--like, I'd want to confirm that I was having a good time, or confirm that all was well, or assure myself I didn't need to be sad, which I'd determine by, say, how puffy my eyes looked that day. (Which is all in the head anyway!) And an unexpected outcome of the mirror fast was that for the entire month, I experienced hardly any eating disorder urges. I'd been doing okay at that point--not great, but pretty well, and WAY better than I was before I sought treatment. But for that entire month, it was almost like I'd never had an eating disorder--I ate normally without thinking about it. It was, quite honestly, sort of radical.

I would do it again if there were a situation that called for it. But actually, in some ways I'm still on it. My bathroom mirror is covered, and so is my gentleman friend's. I lift my mirror shroud to apply makeup, but I don't look at it at other times. I do when I'm in an office or another person's bathroom--it's reflex. But I look in the mirror WAY less than I did before. Highly recommended!

When did you begin to define yourself as a feminist? What aspects of feminism do you most identify with?

I don't remember a time when I wasn't a feminist; I was raised in feminism the way one might be raised Catholic. My mother was an active member of NOW when I was growing up, and she volunteered at the local women's resource center. This was in the Dakotas, which was hardly a hotbed of feminist activism, but that meant that people who were a part of the feminist community were tight-knit, so I was steeped in that culture. (I marched in an ERA march in 1980 dressed in all white like a miniature suffragette, and wore a pin that said "Ankle-Biting Feminist," which I still have and think is hysterical.)

But of course that meant there was rebellion. For a while when I was quite young--maybe junior high?--I declared myself basically a "notafeministbut." Even at age 12 I could see that the term brought up some negative connotations. But then I read a piece in Seventeen by Linda Ellerbee about how we shouldn't be embarrassed to use that word, and I figured if it was in Seventeen it must be cool! I haven't looked back since.

They say the personal is political, and certainly for me the whole idea of body talk and appearance has been central to being a feminist--learning to look at media messages critically has been helpful for my self-esteem, which enables me to be a better feminist. And, frankly, talking body stuff is way more interesting to me than politics. (Though, of course, even there I'm making a false division--marital rape, for example, was once considered "personal," but now we see it as political, because we've legislated consequences for it.) That said, I think it's very tempting for feminists who have reaped the benefits of feminists who came before us to ignore that sort of thing, and I really try not to. I'll never know what it's like to not be able to find birth control, or to not be able to get a credit card in my own name, or to be eyed with suspicion if I stay at a hotel by myself, or to know that if I got married my husband could rape me and the law wouldn't care. It's a luxury to be able to have my primary outlet of feminism be more philosophical than political, and I try not to forget that. But my way of supporting political women's causes is to donate money and to speak up on a personal level in conversation. Me writing an essay about reproductive rights would seem hollow compared to people who have had more intense experiences with that.

I also feel strongly about empowering women in developing nations, and support such causes financially, either through microfinance groups like the Grameen Foundation or through groups that support girls' education, like She's the First and the Vietnam Fund for Education, Music & Infrastructure. I spent time in Vietnam a few years ago and saw firsthand how essential it is to support women's work there in practical ways. Helping women in developing nations means helping communities; the two cannot be extricated from one another.

What do you think the role of feminism is in allieviating ridiculous beauty standards?

I think it's a process, and a historic one. Second-wave feminists played a crucial role in this by signaling to women that their role could be a public one that had nothing to do with their appearance, but rather their skills. We wouldn't have the beauty myth in its current form if that hadn't happened. But, of course, we DO have the beauty myth.

I see the role of feminism in alleviating harmful beauty standards as being twofold: 1) The more "real" women there are out there in the world saying to one another, "Hey, this is bullshit," the more alert and aware all of us will be. And while those women don't have to identify as feminists, without feminist discourse those non-feminists might not feel as free to challenge the beauty standard. 2) Feminism can provide an alternate script of what beauty means. I think that it's a human desire to want to beautiful ourselves; the problem is that we've created a rigid template on how we should do that. Feminism can expand that template, provide alternate modes of living and of seeing one another, and I think that's exciting.

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