Wednesday, October 8, 2008

You Don't Give A Shit What Boys Think About You

Not men, of course. Men are colleagues, friends, husbands and boyfriends of friends, potential lovers, potential fathers for those of us so inclined. Men bring their own set of affairs to the table, and as an adult woman you really have no choice but to engage with them unless you live in a separatist commune. But men will undoubtedly be a different post. I'm talking about boys.

Sheepdoggy boys with skateboards, boys in low-slung jeans and baseball caps, eager Ivy-League-bound boys. Sensitive boys who may or may not dye their hair (I hear the kids call them emo now?), friendly stoner boys, nonfriendly stoner boys, theater geek boys who really want to land the part so they can kiss the girl. Mathy boys who keep to themselves, wisecracking boys who feel bad when they hurt your feelings, Army-bound boys you rarely talk to but hope they don't get shipped away, boys with hot cars your mother tells you to stay away from. I knew these boys, and so did you.

My job brings me in peripheral but regular contact with boys. Boy models, to be precise. The only time I have any need to talk to them is when they get lost and need directions. Which happens often, despite the series of arrow signs reading ---> MODELS THIS WAY ---> in the halls. And you know what I see when a good-looking 20-year-old approaches me with a lost look in his eyes? A dork. A dork! A dork who, even five years ago, I might have blushed upon meeting.

It's not that I'm immune to the charms of a good-looking fellow. But women are so often trained to be polite in a way particular to male-female interactions (as opposed to just plain old human kindness) that it's easy to default into a vaguely deferential position in small, everyday interactions. I keep a watch on myself for this, preferring to keep things on a human level instead of a male-female one, but old habits die hard. And when you're young, it's not just the men your father or grandfather's age you're trained to be extra-courteous to; it's all men.

Part of getting older means that you learn to break these patterns bit by bit: You learn to appreciate men your own age as the people listed above: colleagues, other women's partners, friends, etc. But when you're younger, it takes more fortitude—a fortitude I certainly didn't have back then—to look at the individual instead of as A Male. A male who has power because he can look at you and make your heart race, or make you avert your eyes for fear he'll see you looking. And when you're thirtysomething, and the male in question is 20, suddenly he becomes sloughed off your radar as someone who you unconsciously allow any sort of power over you. He becomes just a boy again, after years of being something else. When you are six years old, an 18-year-old boy you're not familiar with is a sort of weird non-kid, non-adult, possibly fun conversation partner. End of story. And when you are 30, he suddenly becomes exactly that again.

I can finally recognize that they're just as unsure and lost—or headily cocksure, that too—as girls. I can see that because any power or possibility of attraction has dissipated as the gap between me and boys increases. It wouldn't occur to me to blush at a handsome boy who called me ma'am. I look at these boys and think, Somewhere, there's a girl whose heart has broken because of him.

It's not that I wish girls could see these boys for the dorks they so frequently are—the dizzy allure I felt at being near them when I was 16 was heady, exciting, fresh. It's that I wish they could know that they're just boys. No mystical powers, no automatic ability to break your heart. He's just a boy.

Monday, October 6, 2008

You Figure Out Skin Care

Prelude: I'm as aggravated as any feminist by the undue focus on skin care in women's media. We do not need to be told how to wash our face. That said, perhaps one out of eighty tips in a women's magazine imparts useful information. I'm not condoning that everyone go out and read women's magazines. But if you read women's magazines for a living, as I do, you do eventually reap a small benefit in the form of skin care knowledge. And that, friends, is this post.

I wasn't held hostage by acne as a teenager. I had a bout when I was 17, and another at 21, both easily combatted by a trip to the dermatologist. Zits, sure, but as far as scarring acne -- the kind that makes you want to plead illness, and perhaps rightfully so -- it was thankfully rare. But like most people, I still had the garden variety skin care issues. Greasy skin, the occasional zit, dryness, etc.

Along with hormones calming down, though, in my thirties I developed an actual goddamn regimen, which means I now basically have clear skin. I tried every product out there (easy when you have access to beauty-sale goodies, despite the general horror of beauty sales themselves), and eventually wound up with something that means I do my thing in morning and night and don't fret about it for the other 23 hours and 55 minutes of the day.

[For anybody reading who is curious, that amounts to Juliet's Clean and Smooth Acne Skin Treatment & Scrub at night, a 2% salicylic acid lotion in the morning, a foundation with SPF, and that's it. (I have slightly oily skin with the occasional pimple, and highly recommend this combination for anyone with the same.)]

The specifics are beside the point, though. It's the same as all the other life-maintenance stuff you struggle with when you're younger. What kind of exercise you like; what alcohol makes you feel like crap the next morning; what sex positions make your fingers curl; etc. But there's something about figuring out skin care in particular that feels satisfying, a somewhat tangible reward for the hours we spent in front of the mirror as teenagers, cursing pimples, scrubbing our skin, wasting our money on products that never really worked.

For me, skin care was part of the beauty myth that I bought into, because having messy skin felt like my insides were on display for everyone to see. It cuts to the core of beauty-based shame, but it's harder to talk yourself out of it intellectually than it is to quit wearing eyeliner. It's a vulgar reminder of the basic inequalities that help form the beauty myth. (And let's not forget that the medical term for acne is acne vulgaris, "vulgaris" being Latin for "common. With acne, we are all common, but acne humor still retains its mean, cutting edge, unlike fart humor, where we really are all just vulgaris underneath our cultural niceties.) With clear skin, you feel like you're leveling out the playing field enough to the point where other supposed flaws can be talked around. I'll never be terrifically well-endowed, but I can look at my curvy legs and be pleased; I won't spend the hundreds of dollars it would take to whiten my coffee-stained teeth, but I can take satisfaction in knowing that my money is going toward pursuits that fulfill me more than a gleaming smile would. But facing the beauty myth with an inherent reminder of the ways our biology betrays us takes a fortitude I'm still developing.

Rather, that I would be developing if I weren't in my thirties and had figured this shit out. I'll still fight the beauty myth battle. Happily. Just not on that field.

Friday, October 3, 2008

You Are No Longer An Intern, and You Might Even Have One

Now, I don’t actually have an intern, mind you. But I’m surrounded by them, the bright young women and men who have golden eyes for my industry and collapsed into excited giggles when they got the phone call notifying them of their acceptance -- not knowing that on the other end of the line was an editor who had to do this four times a year, had been both burdened and blessed by interns of yore, and was just hoping that the coin landed face-up this time around.

One arm of my job involves coordinating the 15 or so interns my workplace has every semester for a project. And it can really suck sometimes. I’ve had adult women—women who have graduated from college -- look me in the eye and outright lie, and what can you do with that? They’re not six; I can’t scold them. (Maybe in my forties I’ll grow more of a professional backbone.) All 15 of them rightly consider their segment of the project terrifically important, and even though I agree in the abstract, when they want to chat with me about it they don’t realize that I often have no idea what they’re talking about, because to invest myself in the details of each interns’ project and then have to start all over again next semester is impossible. So I answer the best I can, and occasionally nod and smile my way through the details that don’t matter in an effort to get to what does and what I can actually help them with. In effect: I wind up patronizing them. I don’t mean to. But I know it happens. And as I write this, I realize it’s been a long time since anybody in the workplace patronized me. Not because I am particularly respected or anything like that; it’s more because of the weight that comes with having been in an industry for nearly a decade. Even the craziest person I’ve ever worked with (it turned out she was running a small Vicodin-Percocet enterprise from her cubicle; the staff had quite a free-for-all when she was abruptly fired), people didn’t patronize her. Granted, I work with mostly women so none of us are dealing with men telling us little ladies how to do our jobs -- but I know from my own tone of voice when dealing with interns that women can do it too.

But besides the relief that comes with knowing that I’m not going to be asked to do projects that are an utter mystery to me, or compete with my peers to distinguish myself in a transient group that inherently lacks distinction, or have zero sense of how my work affects the larger scope, comes a greater reward. (That is, besides the occasional opportunity I have to ask an intern to take care of something that’s time-consuming and otherwise a drag.) And that is: They thank you. I never fail to be surprised at semester’s end by who leaves me a thank-you note. The interns in my immediate department, sure. But interns in neighboring areas who I have little interaction with -- I’ve gotten thank-you notes for my guidance, when all I did was do my best to be human with them. I’m not trying to pat myself on the back here (well, maybe a little, as I think mentorship is important); I’m saying that to be in a position where simply by doing your job, you’re able to inadvertently give a 20-year-old something that she feels is of value -- well, that’s nice.

I look back at my own internships and remember how mysterious and faraway the staff members seemed, how even their human foibles seemed a part of some web of the professionalism that I assumed they were always shrouded in. I didn’t realize that the associate editor unloaded her personal life on me because everybody else was tired of hearing it, or that the senior editor was being extraordinarily patient when I went in there and gave an excruciating amount of detail on a 200-word piece I was working on. I have no idea how our interns view me. I just know that I’m on the better end of the deal now.