Three little girls glide into Starbucks in summer dresses and sandals. They are obviously sisters with very similar features, each one with a shiny head of honey-blond hair. They are nine, seven and five—each exactly two years from her closest sibling by way of tight family planning, their respective heights reflecting this precision, a set of stairs. Contentedly toting their cups, the girls glide out onto the patio with their mother. They are in perpetual motion but almost always grouped together, collectively balancing on ledges, walking the perimeters of the raised garden beds, examining the contents of the free newspaper box, investigating ants.
Everyone watches the girls. Within the shop and on the patio, there is not a single patron who has not spent at least a few seconds taking stock of the image these girls create—their childness, their girlness, their physical similarity, their vitality. One or more patrons make small talk with the mother: “Are they sisters?” “How old are they?” “Three girls!” “You must have your hands full.” But most just absorb their presence—arrested, almost not able to do otherwise, compelled to stop and notice the entrance and exit of this small pageant of matching girls. The appealing spectacle is part of the mosaic of reasons that each of these people has come to Starbucks instead of brewing their coffee at home or rushing off to some other destination, drink in hand. We are all there to be with people, to be in the hum of strangers and the stories we invent based on their bodies, clothes, hair, handbags, ages and the way they hold themselves in a public space. Is she meeting a friend or colleague? Is it an interview? A sales meeting? Is he writing a novel on his laptop? What are those girls doing now?
I am the girls’ mother. I often watch people watch my children. The level of interest rises dramatically the more of them are collected together; it is as a complete group of three that they exert the most power over a public space. If I had four or five girls, I can imagine them dominating the attention of every venue we entered, with no one free to daydream or talk or work until we left. This sounds extreme, of course, and yet the girls’ batch presence is not unlike a public argument between lovers or the open palm of a panhandler—people are forced to give up a piece of their consciousness to their disruptive power. In perhaps a more comfortable way, the girls demand either attention or an active maintenance of inattention, a willful ignoring.
I also watch my daughters responding to being watched. Their behavior shifts and although they are not interacting with a specific viewer, they “perform” for the group. It is a subtle shift but they enact a pantomime intended to be adorable. They become highly solicitous of one another, more polite and helpful than their natural set point. The two oldest girls undertake ridiculous efforts to be helpful and sweet to the youngest, offering to fetch her a napkin, helping her climb up onto a high ledge and helping her jump down from it. It is not that they wouldn’t do these things in private, but rather that here the actions become theatrical and a touch saccharine. They are playing the role of sisters for their audience, and the sisters in this production are pretty and nice, kind and thoughtful. They do not shriek or hiss at one another. They act in the awareness that eyes are on them but without any particular awareness that this is a choice—that they have developed public personas.
Meanwhile I am part of the Starbucks performance as well. I am context. Is that their mother? Do they look like their mother? Will they grow up to be slim or heavy? She’s tall—perhaps they’ll be tall. Will their hair turn dark like hers? What does she do—does she work or does she stay home with them? Is she a good mother? How does she speak to them? Do they mind her? Is she succeeding or failing at mothering them? I am part of a picture of both what they are and what can be imagined for them at some future stage. I am also part of the matrix of opinions we all have on the state of the culture and the efficacy of parents today. I am an example of a specific set of ideas on American motherhood, with markers for my socioeconomic status and region and quiet little suggestions of my age, which generate assessments of whether I am aging well or not. It has been suggested that women over fifty could commit any crime because they move through the world largely unseen. When the girls are away at school and I am alone, I am a middle-aged woman who slips in and out of the coffee shop mostly unremarked, one more white paper cup, passing in and out of the public’s vision like a shade. When I am with my children, I am thrust into the light of scrutiny and surmise again, because I am part of their story as they—young, full of promise and presented in triplicate—claim their time from the world for being noticed and watched.
Being visible, when we are prepared for it, is pleasurable. It makes us feel alive. We set scenes for our visibility, preparing ourselves at home and then bursting forth in some public place, where we consider the way others respond to us and consider others in turn. This conscious presentation of ourselves is tightly bound to the desire to interact with beauty, to show or give beauty to others and to feel beauty in and on ourselves. Dining at a tiny and impossibly hip restaurant while visiting New York City, I watch the women who work there saunter through the space, contributing their special affect to the general impression of being someplace desirable and special. These women are physically attractive, but it is not so much their features as an attitude or style that makes them arresting—it is, in some sense, the fact that they have elected to be impactful.
Beauty is a cultural construct but also an individual and a daily one. It can comprise physical features as well as stance and style. We each take our cues from a set of received variables: what we find appealing or believe to be appealing to others; what we have absorbed from the styles of others; what images we want to inhabit, reference or sample. We have statements of belonging, statements of difference, statements of exactitude and of carelessness. And we combine and recombine a curated assemblage of visual elements, for others and for ourselves. Fran Lebowitz describes her response to any woman’s outfit, saying, “I notice her clothes if she knows how to wear clothes. … Maybe it’s superficial to exude a sense of confidence in one’s clothes. But it’s also integral.” She continues, “We have an appearance. Not all of us are beautiful. But we can appear fine looking. So we should.” Perhaps Lebowitz exaggerates the difference, for fineness itself can be beautiful. Fineness as the conscientious management of details—the awareness of affect.
It is difficult to discuss the subject of having, or using, personal beauty. This is partly because it seems so unevenly distributed. Unless we are trying to change them, we don’t always care to discuss what Susan Sontag calls “the intractable inequalities of birth and class and physical appearance.” Like genius, beauty is meant to be stewarded well but with little fanfare. Be beautiful if you are beautiful and do it fully, but don’t discuss it.
In a 2012 TED talk that went viral, the fashion model Cameron Russell approached the topic of her own attractiveness with self-deprecation. As a “pretty white woman” Russell suggests that she has “won a genetic lottery” for modeling. Yet the beauty that shaped her career is so impactful, it threatens to eclipse her views on the artifice of her industry or the fact that so many girls aspire to her profession. Her strategy is to wriggle out from under her visual impact by showing it as an effect she can partially unmake. After making her initial appearance, she steps out of her heels and into flats, then covers her tiny fitted dress with a long floral wrap skirt. For Russell, the best way to discuss what it means to possess her own arresting beauty is to disengage from and unwind it. In this way, she is self-aware yet still appealing in her humility.
Vanity may be undesirable, but so is naked ambition. Knowing one is beautiful and acting on this knowledge quickly appears as striving, or at least as manipulation. In the novel Brother of the More Famous Jack, Barbara Trapido wryly plays with the knowing, if benign, contribution of beauty. While in Rome, her sharp heroine narrates, “Leone and I … would each of us take a ludicrously small but picturesque basket into the Campo de Fiori where Leone would buy flowers and figs and present charming half-profiles to the Bohemian young men who hung about on the statuary.” Trapido creates the space to talk about the possession of beauty, but she undercuts beauty’s effect with the suggestion that it is being consciously wielded: artifice and guile are the enemies of loveliness. And so, as I bring up my girls and urge them to step forth boldly, there is the other secret message: conceal the effort well; the effort is poison to the effect.
I was “scouted” at the mall when I was fourteen. My mother let me take the proposed modeling class—largely, I recall, on the premise that I would be taught better posture, plus that it sounded like a bit of an adventure. I was also taught how to apply makeup, how to walk in three-inch heels, and how to stand before a camera and make my face look sexy by saying a rotation of the following: ooh, ah, hot, wet, and jazz. (I don’t think my mom knew this was going to be part of the curriculum.) I got a headshot card printed with my height, weight, hair color and eye color. I never tried out for any modeling jobs. I was too shy. This was fine with my mother, as was the fact that I continued to wear sneakers, jeans and t-shirts every day. When I wanted to step out of my sneakers, I would do so with assurance. My mom had on her hands a coltish, bookish introvert who had not yet begun to inhabit herself assertively, and even then I understood that she hoped I would learn to live in my body, as well as my mind. Be the pretty girl you are. Throw your shoulders back.
Mothers know instinctively that they are tasked with preparing their daughters to own their visibility. The awareness that we are guiding them into their physical selves is layered with the wishes we have for their minds, hearts and future achievements. I wish for my children that they be kind, compassionate and engaged human beings. I wish them to have vibrant minds, to have the opportunity to do work they choose and do it well. But however kind or accomplished, they will be women in bodies, women in a society. How do I fortify them for this? Encourage them to it? I prepare them, sometimes with agonized deliberation but more often with no introspection at all, in assorted variations of my own preparation—teaching them to groom and dress themselves to best advantage, to control farts and belches and odors, to eat well and exercise, to return the eyes of others.
My daughters often inquire about future womanly rites, never accepting my stated timelines for wearing earrings and bikinis and makeup. Each new day brings a new opportunity to ask again, to see if this will be the time I let them buy dress shoes with heels or wear a skirt as short and tight as those their teachers have worn. They campaign for the trappings of womanhood, knowing almost instinctively that the point of these things is their use in public—it is not enough to play with lipstick at home. What they want is to equip themselves with the accessories of feminine beauty out in the street. What they want is to be seen.
Sometimes, of course, we seek to be passed over by a dangerous eye, or we shrink from visibility because desirability creates an overwhelming set of problems. But being seen is also the first step toward being valued, appreciated or desired. Visibility is power—power to bring to ourselves some of the things we desire: love, money, influence, consequence. My daughters are just beginning to learn how to manage the power and potential of self-presentation in tandem with the vulnerability of exposure.
Despite their attraction to makeup, my girls have tremendous ambivalence about becoming women. Even as they experiment and shuffle through the house in my high-heeled shoes, even as they perceive the power of breasts and hips, the way these features can hijack a room, they prefer the streamlined smoothness of their own bodies. No jiggly bits, no coarse hair, nothing pendulous or dimply. My daughters do not currently believe they want breasts, and I acknowledge their dismay about this future development. They volunteered this confidence to me one day as I stood naked before them, dressing myself surrounded by four-foot critics. I’d once felt something similar.
I described to them how overwhelming my grandmother’s breasts seemed to me when I was young—a great bosom straining against a mighty, white, thick-strapped brassiere that cut deeply into the flesh of her shoulders. When she hugged me, I felt smothered by them. I remember her breasts as one of her most defining features, even though I know this to be unfair. What of the fact that she loved and liked me? What of our endless games of Scrabble or her laugh, which was quick and knowing? Why should her body so dominate my memory when my girls sleep beneath quilts she pieced and stitched by hand? But the bosom, the brassiere, the shirts that could manage them—these were her, perhaps more inescapably or unyieldingly than the other things I remember about her.
I also remember my childhood fascination and revulsion in the swimming-pool locker room, surrounded by naked, imperfect women. In some sense the women were aliens, interesting specimens entirely unrelated to my own lean child’s body. Lurking below this dissociation, though, was the fear of these impending shapes—collections of differences and irregularities and all manner of areolae.
Photographer Diane Arbus said, “You see someone on the street and essentially what you notice about them is the flaw.” The statement is harsh, suggesting our relentless natural criticism of one another. And yet although we strive toward something “flawless,” something divine and impossible, it is ultimately the flaw that endears us to one another and creates mortal beauty as its foil. The flaw makes beauty an experience of the real instead of a suggestion of the divine or exalted. As I have grown older, perhaps grown into myself more and grown into ease with my adult form, the locker-room bodies that once troubled me have become lovely in their diversity—lovely because there are so many ways to be appealing. Lovely because the appeal is actively and persistently transcending everything I reacted to as a child, the jiggly bits and moles and scars. The flaw comes of living.
When I began to think about public selves, I dug back into Jacques Lacan and other theorists who built on the idea of the “gaze.” This meant exploring the role we inhabit in a world of watching or surveillance. A concept expanded and fretted out in discussions of cinema, the concept of the gaze is almost always framed by the differences in power between the one watching and the “object” of the gaze. The one gazing, it is assumed, is the one in command, while the object is stripped of power and agency—that is, “objectified.” Beyond cinema, however, there is no bubble of cloaked watching, of the unobserved observer, and Lacan emphasizes the inevitable realization that we are visible objects ourselves. Autonomy is an illusion—because we are seen, we must perform. We are constantly both receiving and performing.
Moreover, the locus of power is constantly shifting. Odysseus encounters Nausicaa and is given access to his own sense of ecstasy in the experience of life, of the world: “I look at you and a sense of wonder takes me.” Dante is overcome by Beatrice—at once inspired and undone. Elaine Scarry points out that in each of these instances it is “the perceiver who is imperiled, overpowered by crossing paths with someone beautiful.” The power dynamic inherent in the idea of the gaze—the privilege of the watcher—is trumped by the formidability of beauty. We are vulnerable to one another in our need to experience that jolt, that elevation of contact with human appeal, both the physically inherent and the cultivated. We thrill to the process of receiving beauty from one another.
My mom read the book Almost French by Sarah Turnbull, an Australian expat in Paris who makes the observation that, for the French, everyone consciously contributes to the experience of others. As the Aussie contemplates running out for a loaf of bread in her shapeless gray track pants, her horrified French boyfriend sputters out that to do so is “not nice for the baker.” The track pants will be a blemish on the baker’s day, an unhappy encounter with ugliness and lack of effort. This observation, that we are constantly crafting the visual world for one another, regardless of how deeply we actively interact, pleased my mom. It crystallized something that had always been important for her. She and I now call this “the tableau.”
I picked up Almost French recently for the express purpose of finding the passage where Turnbull discusses the tableau, only to discover that this was my mother’s means of expression, not the author’s. The word “tableau,” for me, suggests a static quality—something captured and held—and I think for my mom many of the public moments in which she participates become cherished snapshots. The tableau is indeed a frozen instant when someone’s skirt trails behind her as she walks, and a child’s ball is suspended mid-toss, and an old man in a worn-but-pressed black suit stands mid-shuffle, and the clouds stop moving across the sky, and my mom is in a very smart blazer and fantastic shoes.
I read what I have just written and worry that I have made my mother seem overly concerned with appearances. But appearances are a question of interconnection, and this is one of her abiding intellectual concerns. My mom has always had a deep interest in the natural world, foremost through botany. What she is often most intrigued by is influence and response: the environment stimulates and reacts to the plant, the plant likewise works in and on its environment. She is also refined, with a very strong sense of propriety. If anyone cares about the quality of the baker’s day, my mom does. She savors those moments when the public social experience is harmonious. Plants to plants, people to people—we are all in the fabric my mom recognizes and enjoys.
The mid-nineteenth century saw a kind of blossoming of the people-watcher. The industrial revolution gets credit for cutting loose the flâneur, or stroller, who spent his newly available spare time exploring the city and observing the human life he encountered as he did so. In 1863, Charles Baudelaire rapturously described the flâneur as a passionate spectator who takes delight in the heaving urban scene that greets his hungry eye. This spectator believes himself to be incognito—Baudelaire paints him as a “prince” with freedom of movement and no responsibility to the scene. The key intent and pleasure of the flâneur is detachment—unencumbered and even secret spectatorship—or, as Baudelaire enthusiastically suggested, “to see the world, to be at the center of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world.” Baudelaire describes the crowd as “an immense reservoir of electrical energy,” but his flâneur contributes nothing to it. The idea that one owes the baker more than shapeless gray track pants when ducking in for a baguette, this give-and-take mentality isn’t present in Baudelaire’s description and yet what he celebrates is beholden to our mutual maintenance of the tableau.
By seeing and interpreting strangers, we make them real and relevant, and by extension we make ourselves real and relevant. And yet I think we yearn to know that the possibilities are emphatically not manageable—that humanity as a whole is infinitely various and therefore beyond our capacity for response. Describing a disconcertingly scrubbed, one-note Singapore, the writer William Gibson points to the absence of the personal stylings of dissent. In a place with no visible bohemian or counterculture pushback, he laments, “I didn’t see a single ‘bad’ girl in Singapore. And I missed her.” He misses the mental question mark. We know we are here, each real, so long as each of us is not the same as the person to the left or right. It seems that we have a preferred bandwidth. Just as infinite variety is illegible, so extreme uniformity threatens to erase us.
Erving Goffman used an analogy to the stage in characterizing our quotidian interactions as contextual performances of the roles that define our relationships to one another (barista to patron, doctor to patient). He points out that the self, as a performed character, “is not an organic thing that has a specific location whose fundamental fate is to be born, to mature, and to die; it is a dramatic effect arising diffusely from a scene that is presented.” It’s no small thing to argue that the self is an effect generated by a situation. As we travel through various situations each day, we are recreating ourselves over and over again, editing our way into the context of the moment, then disassembling certain details of that identity to reassemble a slightly different one for the subsequent context.
I am now a mother in action (I bore children and rear them) but my mother character is dependent on context. Are the children with me? Are we in the kitchen or am I parenting in public? Am I performing among a bevy of other mothers, in which case which sort of mother am I? Am I alone, and if so, how is my mother badge displaced by other badges? The expression of the self is a group enterprise; we rely on one another not just to build a collective social experience but also to define ourselves. Goffman refers to Robert Ezra Park’s idea that “we come into the world as individuals, achieve character, and become persons.” The assembly of character is what completes us.
At the same time, the assembly must be cohesive. The character we play outwardly needs to have some relation to the character we cultivate for ourselves—a balance we strike again and again. On more than one occasion in my young adult life I was hired for jobs entirely based on my aesthetic (or symbolic) contribution. No skills of any kind were expected. I was once hired to bartend a private event despite not knowing how to mix a drink. I was once paid thirty dollars simply to attend a party. In each case I agreed on a lark, then felt ridiculous in the execution, as if this character—the one that was completely reducible to my external shell—was so far removed from what I regarded as my true self as to be a mask I couldn’t comfortably wear.
In college, I worked a six-week summer stint as a receptionist for a tech company belonging to two co-proprietors who had absolutely no need for a receptionist. The phone rarely rang; there was almost no correspondence to type and no clerical work to be done. My employers, however, were thrilled with the fact of having a receptionist. They would emerge frequently from their offices to gaze on me—a coed in office attire seated at a bleak desk behind a hollow-core wooden door in a suburban office park. They had arrived. Nothing else was needed of me. But then, it wasn’t me that was needed in the first place; it was the character I was enacting. I didn’t feel any particular anger that I was being used in such a way, but I disdained the men for it. To be asked for so little was insulting.
I am no longer sought after as a symbolic receptionist. There is no longevity to any one character. The ones we inhabit erode away from us and must be repeatedly replaced.
My girls look similar but are quite different in temperament and personality. The oldest, whose vivid imagination is host to entire, richly complex worlds, is dignified and conscientious. The middle one, unflinching and quick to draw the measure of any scene she has entered, is a willing experimenter who, at the tender age of five, swallowed a live, twitching lake minnow in an act of devilish showmanship. The youngest, with the spatial discernment of an engineer, toggles between seriousness of purpose and quick-witted clowning. Somewhere in their three independent hearts they have concluded that it is mutually agreeable to participate in a gracious, visually unified, public production. Perhaps because they sense that, just as there is a gift in being an individual in the mosaic, there are gifts in belonging to some of the groups that compose it, including their own group of three. But how they engage the world as individuals will be different for each of them, their own. What, I will be asking, do you alone want to say to the baker? Just stand tall while you’re doing it. Take up your space and own your influence.
In the Wikipedia entry on the gaze (of course I stopped by), the author contributes a dour, almost sinister-sounding phrase with regard to Michel Foucault’s work on the concept: “self-regulation under systems of surveillance.” I mash that in with Turnbull’s ministry to the baker—that being watched is an unavoidable part of engaging in public life, carrying with it obligations of creating visual concord, even beauty. In this context, to be beautiful is to reassure the stranger on the street that there is beauty—in the world around us, certainly, and in one another. This need not be Cameron Russell’s beauty. It is a way of holding a wrist, an earlobe revealed, a tendril of hair let to fall, a gesture. It is a smile. It is the many bases for what Elaine Scarry succinctly calls “the pleasure people take in one another’s countenance.” Making the most of yourself is a debt we owe to the public, which includes ourselves.
We need this, I believe, because we need to love strangers just a little and we need them to love us just a little. It makes us alive and also knits us to one another. My daughters enact the Perfect Sister show for a host of reasons, perhaps, but core among them is that it pleases them to please their audience. One of the many ways that we as social beings can be solicitous of one another’s happiness is by preserving and embellishing on the harmony of the story we all participate in each day.
What I eventually wrap back around to for my little girls, then, is this: by instinct you will define yourself to your own mind by your debt to the crowd. The surveillance to which you can only submit will make you who you are. There is no retreat. Step forward and become the person you wish for the crowd to form back onto you. In a vacuum of surveillance you have no form, no definition—but then, the vacuum does not exist. The individual is made up by performing for the collective. You, they, I are all relative.
No one will love you for this knowledge. We value beauty that does not know itself. And yet Eve always reaches for the apple. You are destined to know yourself and your motivations, to know that you are seen. Though beauty is predicated on the supposed absence of self-awareness, there is no such thing among grown women, and a grown woman you will become.
Art credits: Elinor Carucci