Monday, February 10, 2014


The Beauty Bridge

My best girl friend in the Peace Corps was an energetic, super-hot French whirl of a person who spoke five languages, taught me how to make pie crust and wore consistently excellent winged eyeliner even as we fended off wild dogs and pooped in the woods. One day I was poking around her room and opened a drawer that sprang forth with colorful, lacy, perfectly kept bras. "How many of these did you bring?" I asked her. She shrugged and said a dozen or something. I thought about my own suitcase and told her that I'd maybe brought like a couple bras, a couple sports bras too?

"For two years?" she said, genuinely and innocently surprised. I felt ashamed, but only vaguely. Those were gross times in general, and one must always pick and choose one's areas of interest: fancy underwear will never be up my alley in any sense, so to speak. So it had been a while, let's say, since my last purchase when I found myself on American Eagle's lingerie website a few weeks ago, looking to pick up a few clearance bralettes in a pleasingly abrasive shade of lace.

The Aerie brand is aimed at teenagers, but I've never stopped shopping there. Occasionally the site website will remind me that I'm not in their main market, especially for the bras I tend to order, which have reviews like This is PERFECT for under your school uniform!! Once I accidentally ordered the wrong style (the "Ella" instead of the "Emma") and the sculpted padding ("from Perky to Double Whoa") was fully two inches thick; the reviews, which I checked before returning it, were sprinkled with complaints from girls who had hoped to coax "better cleavage :/" out of their AA chests. So much of teenage girldom is about learning to perform your gender, to exude sex in preparation for having it; it can take much too long before you realize you don't have to do a thing that you don't naturally take to, and this website, while cheery and non-sensational, will sometimes give me a bit of weird.

Like the image to the right: it made me feel a little predatory. Stare as close as you want, my friend, these chicks are 100% real. I took a screenshot, filed it away, and then forgot about it until a few days later Jezebel offered money for unretouched photos and featured this exact campaign, saying to Aerie "nicely done." Then Aerie's campaign started to get some heat. Adweek called it "revolutionary," the brand gave a proud statement about "challenging supermodel standards," and we, the audience, responded: one Refinery29 article on why the campaign is "so important" has almost 50,000 likes on Facebook.

I will probably be buying my underwear from Aerie for the next decade, and it's lovely to see what they're doing with stomach texture and slight moves towards diversity. Their campaign is already very successful, and it's named, simply, "Real." The Dove version, where women in various iterations are told that they are actually more beautiful than they had suspected, is called "Real Beauty."

Many people acknowledge that these are just baby steps; nearly everyone calls them a step in the right direction, which they are, but only if we think the best we can do for women is try and shuffle a bunch more of us into "hot" from "not," if we'd rather constantly redefine beautiful than reject it as one whole gender's teleology at large. 


The way these campaigns use the word "real" here is exactly wrong in an important way, a way that has led to the particular fetish value of the "real" in America. We have a national attraction to authenticity, or the signification of authenticity; we heap enormous amounts of meaning and economic power on things that appear to be whole and true. We authenticate people, too, of course, fussing about whether movie stars, rappers and politicians have an ethos that matches their history that matches their face that matches their words. With women, our attention goes immediately to the body: when a woman is famous enough, her face and figure must be examined for alterations. Remember all that fuss about Britney in her tight white crop top, or Courtney Stodden when she had her brief moment: this authenticity fervor always comes out most strongly when the woman's body itself is her moneymaker. Searching "Kim Kardashian plastic surgery," in quotes, pulls up 900,000 hits.

Both Kardashian and Stodden have gone so far as to X-ray their bodies on television, but the desire to expose a non-effortless beauty is pervasive. "Kim Kardashian Needs to Come Clean About Her Surgery," scolds a headline on a website called CafeMom. This is America; if we're paying for it, for her—even just with our attention—we want to know that it's "real."


In the 1870s, economist David Wells wrote a tract called Robinson Crusoe's Money, a rewritten narrative in which the natives on Crusoe's island accidentally discover gold. Recognizing the substance as an "object of universal desire," they immediately lose their barter economy; gold "acquired spontaneously a universal purchasing power, and from that moment on, became Money." These natives get along quite well like this until they start printing fiat currency, mistaking paper (the "representative of a thing") with gold, which is the thing itself.

In this framework, gold's beauty is evidence of its goodness. Its face evinces and is identical to its monetary value; its worth is incontrovertible and fixed. This is the same fantasy we have about the conventional American beauty standard, which shares many qualities with the gold bar: an "all-American beauty" is sleek, blonde, expensive-looking, devoid of complicating layers. We have a fantasy of literal face value, which is why pageants keep trying to force an organic connection between beauty and goodness, why you can pick up a magazine in a checkout line and immediately find before-and-after noses, accusatory arrows, the falseness in every beauty ferreted out.

Historian Walter Benn Michaels wrote about Robinson Crusoe's Money that its real point is "to show that nothing ever acquires value, that no money can become good and true unless it already is good and true." This, to me, was the ideological backbone of the Lena Dunham bounty. It is deeply bothersome to us to see women printing money if they don't have enough gold to back it up. It is disturbing to see women acquiring any sort of beauty-value that their bodies and faces can't trade on. Dunham's Vogue photos were fiat currency, divorced from the goods that were supposed to be backing them; they were the representative of the thing, when we were looking for the thing itself.

Now, Aerie is attempting to play their models off as the thing itself. But a campaign about "real girls," asserting that "the real you is sexy," hews exactly to the proposition it appears to subvert. I expect that for a long time we will continue to see these baby-soft, often obviously stupid ideas masquerading as empowerment, these ideas that push women around each other on the narrow, precarious beauty bridge rather than suggesting we just howl like animals and jump right off.


Later in David Wells's Crusoe, the islanders begin to understand representation and mimesis: they hire an artist to paint "the finest and most fashionable patterns" on a poor person's clothing, rather than giving the man "real" new clothes. The end result, with "jewelry and fancy buttons to match" looked so much like actual fancy clothing that the islanders happily ran with it, allowing "the shadow of wealth [to] supply the place of its substance."

To Wells, this storyline provided another argument against the validity of paper currency, whose intentional representation of value was supplanting the accidental representation of value, which "made warfare against the beneficence of the Almighty" and provided for "the survival of the unfittest."

But why shouldn't the islanders paint on some buttons? Not everyone's born rich, born uptown, born to win. I take a lot of personal enjoyment in sometimes using makeup to put a fancy face on my plain face, and that is because I feel comfortable knowing what game I'm playing, and know that I am playing, and by my own criteria, rather than fundamentally attempting to fool. Beauty has always been a matter of where you happen to fall in the cross-section of genes, money, priorities, passing fashions, lasting discriminations; beauty in the twenty-first century can really be boiled down to a combination of technology and time. But we keep effacing this. Like goldbugs, we are seduced by aesthetic pleasure into creating a fantasy of absolute value; we are refusing to recognize the incredible amount of meaning that is constructed in the space between appearance and worth.

Two years ago, the GOP officially considered the possibility of returning the national economy to the gold standard. The fantasy of "certainty, natural law and stable meanings" is as powerful as it is socially bankrupt; on a human scale it walks in lockstep with deep historical prejudice. Beauty, like gold, is valued as we choose to value it. We can print so much more paper, and perhaps just to burn it; there's no reason not to wildly, transgressively inflate our ideas of beauty, or better yet, cease to care.


When I was Aerie-aged and deeply concerned with what a teenage boy might rate my face and body on a scale from 1 to 10, I was never intimidated by the women I saw in magazines. What cowed me was how tremendously beautiful my friends were. It was a good lesson, maybe, from growing up in Texas: even when girls got plastic surgery or went full All-American, as blonde as can be—some are getting Botox now, at 27! Do your thing, you arrestingly lovely nuts—their "altered" beauty was, to me and to them and to everyone else around us, wholly and powerfully real.

To suggest that there is moral value in accidental beauty because it is accidental is to insist on an essentialism that erases the real complexity of what performing beauty and gender and sexuality means to the millions of people who are invested, for tremendously different reasons, in doing so. Policing and fetishizing authenticity in female beauty is a distraction, a politically blind one when nearly half of transgender people in this country attempt suicide, 87% of LGBTQ homicide victims are people of color, and on and on and on. It is useless to either erase the labor of being beautiful or punish it. The search for the "real" under these definitions will always turn up an answer that is fundamentally meaningless, leaving beauty as the primary mover, chasing turtles all the way down.

37 Comments / Post A Comment


loved reading this, and also a huge fan of aerie even though i'm 26. i hadn't noticed this tendency for their ads...pretty interesting stuff.
i think your thesis relates to benevolent capitalism as a whole - selling dove products while using diverse-looking women is still ONLY selling dove products. but i think it is less harmful than selling dove with exclusionary versions of beauty, so that's something. i have a tendency to want to wipe clean the slate of american greed and injustice with fire and blood, but the reality is that change does come through these crappy little baby steps. i love seeing essays like this on the pin, though!!


what a queen. magnificent.@v


This was SO GOOD, Jia! I recently interviewed the head of the Dove Project. She's a really upbeat lady, really engaged with the work that she does. But I just couldn't get her to say one IMPORTANT thing about marketing and beauty and it was very frustrating... maybe I'm just not a great journalist.


THIS: "When I was Aerie-aged and deeply concerned with what a teenage boy might rate my face and body on a scale from 1 to 10, I was never intimidated by the women I saw in magazines. What cowed me was how tremendously beautiful my friends were."

Seriously, girls in ads or magazines never bothered me or made me feel anywhere near as inferior as my prettier, cooler, skinnier friends did.

Also, wow Jia. Best thing you've written for the site so far, IMO. Love it. Thanks for the great work.


@Ameelz123 I cannot agree with you more. As a teen and preteen I was constantly comparing myself in my head to my peers. Had completely convinced myself that I was the ugly chunky duckling of the group. I don't ever remeber comparing my body to the magazine or catalogue girls. But I definitly remeber comparing my curves to my lean and lanky best friend and my mousie brown hair to the blonde teen bombshell in gym class.
Not that people don't compare themselves to models but as a teen those werent my go-to comparisons we the girls beside me. Who were definitly real


@Ameelz123 thank you :)


TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN. And that reference, my brilliant friend, is one of the many, many reasons why I adore you. And now, I gotta go shop the Aerie clearance underpinnings.

(Do you think Smith/Handler ever read the hairpin? I hope.)

Stacy Worst

Can we stop citing "how many hits" a search for something turns up as some kind of indicator of something, though?

I mean, my real name plus "plastic surgery" turns up 14,200,000 hits.

(I love you and this article).


@Sister Administrator ha i'd meant to put the number of hits from just the SEO block of "kim kardashian plastic surgery" in quotes but didn't, will change it to that, which i do think is telling!


Thanks Jia, now I'm on aerie's website buying new bras.


@Gulfie yo they've got all the weird SIZES and everythingggg


@Gulfie They're all I ever wear! Plus $20 sale. No really, thanks Jia.

Sea Ermine

@j-i-a Aerie's boyshort underwear are the only kind I've found (in years of looking) that are comfortable, flattering on my (pear shape) body, and cover enough that I never have to shave wax or trim my ladygarden and no one can see (unless I want them to).


@Sea Ermine YESSSSS

At 7 for $26, they're also a steal! And come in both pretty patterns and solid black/white/"nude" (not me-nude, but there's only so much you can ask for)


@enic loooove the lace underwear too, even though i did peel like seven pairs of them out of the inside of my fleece leggings the other day when i took laundry out of the dryer, womanhood is disgusting


This was fantastic! I am reminded a quote -- maybe apocrophyl, I hope not, I love it so -- from Dolly Parton, who, when asked "are those really your breasts?" answered "Of course they are, I paid for them!"


Brilliant piece.


This piece is so great. But I'm partially excited about it because I felt like the only late 20 something that shopped there! I can feel the shop girls judging me for my frumpy work clothing when I'm there, but I want to be like, "No one else has a selection of A cups like you guys do! Victoria's Secret assumes that because I am an A cup, I want all my bras padded which is untrue!" So thanks for making me feel less shameful in my shopping habits.


Jia this is delightful!

dracula's ghost

I literally only own 2 bras, total, in my life. I got them both almost five years ago. They are bedraggled.
I don't get it, how many bras are people buying out there?? HOW MANY AM I SUPPOSED TO HAVE


@dracula's ghost I have three everyday bras and two sports bras. Due to my size, that's about all I can afford (stupid expensive necessary supportive bras ;_;). I try to leave buying new ones for as long as I can - about every two years generally. The day I have a whole drawerful of bras is the day I know I've made it.


@dracula's ghost This is fascinating to me, too. I have three ancient everyday bras, one weird racerback bra that opens in front, one strapless, two sport, and two sexy but super uncomfortable ones that I wear maybe twenty minutes a year in total. So, three bras that I actually wear.

Passion Fruit

@novak "The day I have a whole drawerful of bras is the day I know I've made it." Hell yes. Something to aspire to.

Passion Fruit

@novak As someone who can't hack it with any bras sold in malls, who requires support and side paneling and three-hooks, minimum, who has a love-hate relationship* with her body and breasts, a drawerful of bras would mean that I have chosen to spend my money, time, energy and ability to take care of myself on a (koff, koff) foundational level.

[*As an aside, to all women of all sizes, if your bra is uncomfortable or you feel frustrated with the way your breasts look in your clothes, get yourself professionally fitted at a dedicated bra/lingerie store, if you can! It is a commitment of your resources, but it is an investment that pays off. It made a WORLD of difference in the way I look and feel.]

And, Jia, I LOVED this. I really appreciate and value your voice and perspective on all things related to gender, race, class, sexuality. Reframing female beauty as voluntary performance, rather than as obligatory duty, has given me the freedom to explore my own style and presentation in a way that I had stifled for years and years. I wonder if many women opt out of looking "beautiful" as a means of rebellion and psychological self-preservation. I certainly did.


@Passion Fruit I have to mention this DIY bra size measuring method and calculator. It will give you a size you do not possibly think can be right. But it is right. I promise. You didn't accidentally enter inches when it thought you meant centimeters or vice versa, you didn't grossly mismeasure.

It will most likely give you a smaller band size and a MUCH larger cup size than you currently wear. We have been lied to all our lives about how to find our bra sizes: you're always told to measure under your bust and then add 4 or 5 to get your band size, then determine your cup size in relation to that, but this is totally wrong. You shouldn't add anything to your under-bust measurement.

I wore 36B, and my straps always fell down, and the tops of the cups always gapped. I figured I had narrow shoulders and an oddly-shaped bust. Then I used that method and calculator and got 32DD (!!). I thought that had to be wrong. But when I actually tried a 32DD bra (which I had to order online from a non-US store -- even still, didn't cost any more than bras from mall stores), it actually fit. The cups didn't gap. The straps didn't slide down. WHAT.

That website refers to the "Bra Matrix," and it really is like breaking out of the Matrix. It blew my mind and I can't stop telling people about it.

Cat named Virtute

Jia, I love this so much. I want to send it to all the ladies in my family who have such a fraught relationship with beauty.


This is so, so wonderful. (I originally typed "beautiful" but that seemed a bit too much.) Really just great. Especially this: To suggest that there is moral value in accidental beauty because it is accidental is to insist on an essentialism that erases the real complexity of what performing beauty and gender and sexuality means to the millions of people who are invested, for tremendously different reasons, in doing so.

(This weekend I got a bunch of new lady garments, very satisfying mentally but draining financially. This was right after going shopping, with my mother, for a floor-length evening gown to wear to a formal, black-tie, evening wedding in South America this summer. So: wonderful and timely!)


Just ordered 10 different bras to try on! I love their underwear (lacy thongs and boybriefs—the only briefs that don't ride up my curvaceous ass!!!!), but never took the leap into the bras (at the pricey... erm, $20 with free shipping!). As my three four-year-old Victoria's Secret PINK bras fall apart, clearly it's time to switch to another teenage-oriented bra line, especially since literally all of VS's are actually pink-colored now.

We'll see if I'm really a 34AA (rather than an A) and if I've been deceiving myself all along! (They generally don't sell AAs in stores).




This is one of *the* best Hairpin articles. This is why I come to this site. I can't wait to share this with all my favorite ladies. Thank you Jia!

baby crow

love this! A+ Birdman reference.

thuoc giam can

I LOVED this. I really appreciate and value your voice and perspective on all things related to gender, race, class, sexuality. Reframing female beauty as voluntary performance, rather than as obligatory duty, has given me the freedom to explore my own style and presentation in a way that I had stifled for years and years. I wonder if many women opt out of looking "beautiful" as a means of rebellion and psychological self-preservation. I certainly did.

Brante Slan

Yes I love this and totally agree with it.


my Aunty Maria recently got a nine month old Hyundai Sonata Hybrid Sedan by working online... Get the facts ℂ­a­s­ℍ­S­t­o­ℛ­e­d­.­ℂ­o­ℳ­


yeah, I am thankful for your being here (like Hairpin here? In my universe here?) every day, Jia. Isn't that strange and wonderful? Everything you bring into our little world together is great. Thank you, thank you. Glad you are here.

The Guide

The part about gold instantly becoming currency illustrates how humans place false value on items of no meaning. Gold as an ornament is really kinda silly, if you think about it.

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