J. Cole: Rapper, Producer And…Body Image Counselor?

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When hip-hop artists spout horribly misogynistic lyrics, the Twittersphere weighs in, the media chooses sides and sometimes protestors take to the streets. Fair enough, but how about we give credit to rappers when they do something right? J. Cole deserves a shout out for his new single “Crooked Smile” from his Born Sinner album. The song delivers an uplifting message to women who are plagued with insecurities: “Love yourself, girl, or nobody will.”

It’s fitting that Cole recruited T-Boz and Chilli to lend their voices to “Crooked Smile” because like TLC’s  hit “Unpretty,” the song is about impossible beauty standards and self-image. In the first verse, Cole brags that he’s maintained his success without fixing his “twisted grill” and his “thick as hell” eyebrows. He urges ladies to stop trying to cover up their own perceived flaws.

Oh, you a woman? I don’t know how you deal / With all the pressure to look impressive and go out in heels / I feel for you / Killing yourself to find a man that’ll kill for you / You wake up, put makeup on / Stare in the mirror but it’s clear that you can’t face what’s wrong / No need to fix what God already put his paint brush on

J. Cole continues to showcase his sensitive side in the second verse by reassuring us that we’re fabulous just the way we are.

Take it from a man who loves what you’ve got / And baby girl, you’re a star, don’t let ‘em tell you you’re not / Cause what’s real is something that the eyes can’t see / That the hands can’t touch / that them broads can’t be / and that’s you

He uses the last verse to remind us that we don’t have to look a certain way to go for what we want in life. And, as he points out, there are bigger, non-superficial problems in America.

We don’t look nothing like the people on the screen / You know them movie stars, picture perfect beauty queens / But we got dreams and the right to chase ‘em / Look at the nation, that’s a crooked smile even braces couldn’t straighten / Seem like half the race is either on probation, or in jail

Although “Crooked Smile” is a refreshing display of social awareness, it doesn’t mean that Cole’s entire album is warm and fuzzy. Rappers have the right to say what they want, and offensive lyrics aren’t going away anytime soon. But perhaps if we pay just as much attention to inspiring songs as we do the controversial ones, the latter won’t have as much power.

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A Case Of Art Imitating (Black) Life

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Anyone who has ever harbored a secret desire to touch a black person’s hair got a free pass today thanks to the performance art piece “You Can Touch My Hair.” The exhibit was presented in Union Square by Un’ruly, a website devoted to the black hair experience. I watched as three brave models with different hair types willingly subjected themselves to stares, questions and yes, petting from random strangers. Controversial? Yes. Brilliant? Absolutely.

I don’t care if she has a massive mane of curls, a ‘fro, locs or a weave, at some point in a black woman’s life, she will experience unwanted hair touching from a curious white person. It’s a maddening experience, and it even happens to celebrities on live TV. The team behind Un’ruly, editor-in-chief Antonia Opiah and her sister and publicist of the site, *Abigail Opiah, view the exhibit as a catalyst to help fix the root of the problem: the widespread lack of knowledge about black hair. The piece was inspired by “Can I Touch Your Hair?” a popular blog entry that Antonia wrote for The Huffington Post. Antonia, who lives in Paris, was not present at the exhibit, but Abigail was there to oversee the spectacle. “This display is an experiment to see if, given the opportunity, will people actually come up and touch our hair and ask questions. It’s something that always happens anyway, so why not? I’ve worked at an all-white PR agency and I went to an all-white school–I’ve always been a topic of discussion. People have said things to me like ‘Oh my god, you only wash your hair once a week? How do you do that?’” says Abigail.

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The models, from left to right: Malliha, Joliana and Jade

While I was there, I only saw two people that actually dared to put their hands in the models’ hair, but Abigail said that the show was attracting a diverse group of participants. “So far, it’s been an equal amount of black and white people touching. The black people come up and say, ‘Oh yes girl, I know!’ or ‘You look fabulous.’ There have been some men coming up, too. But the whole point of this is to get the dialogue going,” she says.

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This guy isn’t shy.

I could talk for hours about my own experiences with offensive hair touching. I remember being in the third grade when a rowdy boy in my class came up behind me and gripped the pigtails that stuck out from the side of my head. He pretended to twist them, as if they were motorcycle handlebars, and yelled “Vroom, vroom!” I was a super-shy little girl so it was even more mortifying to be mocked and laughed at in front of my classmates. Little did I know that was only the beginning. I became a pro at answering annoying questions about my hair-washing habits when I was in junior high and high school. And as a grown woman, I’ve dealt with varying levels of white-coworker inappropriateness sparked by the Afro that I had for seven years and the down-to-my-butt weave I wore one summer. And there was my brief stint with braids last year. Oh, the stories I could tell.

Although I’m sick of the never-ending politicization of black women’s hair, I’m all for the “You Can Touch My Hair” exhibit. The Un’ruly team has taken something offensive and turned it into a teaching moment. Love it or hate it, the show provokes strong reactions from a wide variety of people. Isn’t that exactly what great art is supposed to do?

“You Can Touch Me” will be on display in NYC’s Union Square on Saturday, June 8th from 2 – 4 pm. If it rains, the show will be rescheduled for the same time on Sunday, June 9th. 

Related: The “Can I Touch Your Hair?” Issue Makes Its Way Into Primetime TV

*Updated 6/11: A previous version of this post listed Abigail Opiah’s title as managing editor.
An Art Exhibit That’ll Get Under Your Skin

Last week at the opening of “Borderline: Depictions of Skin,” an exhibition at the Garis & Hahn gallery on the Lower East Side, I was asked to think more deeply about skin and its place in the world.

The exhibit features mixed media work by Gwen Hardie, Cynthia Lin and Diana Schmertz. Each of the three artists presents different perceptions of skin in an attempt to force the viewer to “confront their own relationship between their body and the world,” as the press release puts it. My favorite pieces on display made me feel a little bit uncomfortable–and that’s a good thing.

When I go to an art museum or gallery, the works that make a lasting impression are the ones that stir up some kind of emotion inside of me—heartache, amazement, confusion or disgust. Standing in front of a photograph, installation or what-have-you, if I don’t feel something, I move on. At Garis & Hahn, I lingered on several paintings of interlocked hands by NYC-based artist Diana Schmertz. Her figures made me think of touching, of skin on skin, and I felt sort of squirmy. It was as though I had gotten a peek of something private, something I wasn’t meant to see.

I had the pleasure of meeting Diana at the exhibit and she shared her thought process behind three of her pieces.

1. Something on the Other Side Of It: “With the works that have piles of hands, as opposed to the circular moments of contact, I am conveying ideas about interconnectedness and perception, as well as, ideas of linear versus non-linear time. I believe the idea of interconnectedness is easily assessable. We are social beings and what we do effects other people and the environment we are a part of. The idea that each interaction stays with us and effects the rest of our experiences is also evident in the pile images.”

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2. The Cause of Itself: “It addresses the idea in western philosophy that something cannot come from nothing. Everything is a reaction to an action. Hence, it is believed nothing can be the cause of itself.  This leads to the question ‘What was the first action?’ In this painting, the pile of hands has no beginning or end demonstrating a lack of knowledge or understanding of ‘the cause.’”

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3. Container of Time and Space: “These works are a mixture of ideas from my gridded works and the piles. I express the idea of interconnectedness by piling the moments of contact together and dissonance in the fact that each moment is mechanically separated into a geometric circle.”

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In my daily life as a beauty writer, I tend to think of skin as just an organ that needs moisturizer or a blank canvas for makeup, which is why I really enjoyed the concept of “Borderline: Perceptions of Skin.” The exhibit as a whole is a reminder that skin is so much more.

Photos courtesy of Diana Schmertz
Three Nagging Questions About Season Three Of The Walking Dead

Now that I’ve had a chance to digest Sunday night’s dramatic season finale of The Walking Dead (although I’m still mourning the unexpected death of one of the major characters), my mind has turned back to a few questions that have been bugging me for weeks.

1. Did Andrea somehow manage to find a curling iron? I know life in Woodbury is much cushier than at the prison, but in many scenes, Andrea’s hair looked awfully pretty for someone living in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. See Exhibit A below, from episode 13, “Arrow on the Doorpost.” Her curls are a little too perfect–like they got some help from a  Hot Tools curling iron. Which, of course means that Andrea also had access to a secret working power outlet.

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2. Why hasn’t Michonne lost her signature headband yet? We know Michonne is a woman of few words. We know she is a badass. We know that she can handle her sword like nobody’s business. But one thing we don’t know is how on earth has she kept that one headband for this long? That thing never slides off her head, not one little bit. Even when Michonne is chopping off walkers’ heads like crazy, her trusty headband stays put. Amazing.

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3. Who cuts Carol’s hair? Her short ‘do is slightly longer in the back now compared to what it looked like in season one, but still. Semi-regular trims must have been happening otherwise her hair would have grown into a little bob at this point. Same goes for the guys on the show. Their hair is noticeably shaggier, but not as wild as I would expect. So who acts as the prison hairstylist? My money is on Beth. I can picture her singing one of those haunting ballads she loves so much while carefully snipping away at Carol’s or whoever’s hair.

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You can tell that I’ve become desensitized to all the blood and guts on the show because instead of being grossed out while I watch, I sit there and think about this silly stuff. Can’t wait to see what happens to Rick and the gang next season!

Photos: Gene Page/AMC

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Yet Another Reason To Visit Paris This Spring (Hint: It Has To Do With Chanel No 5)

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The City of Light already has enough going for it in the springtime to warrant a trip—the sun is shining, the flowers are blooming, the usual hordes of tourists haven’t arrived yet and cafe culture is back in full swing. But on top of all that, a new exhibition celebrating Chanel’s iconic scent is opening in May. I want to go to there!

As reported by Blouin Artinfo, “N°5 Culture Chanel” debuts on May 5th at the Palais de Tokyo. The exhibit uses well-edited bits and pieces of Coco Chanel’s life—including her art, pictures and documents—to show what influenced the creation of the famous fragrance. It also features items from the brand’s archives. The highlights include photos of Madame Chanel’s old lovers, gifts from her artist friends like Picasso and the classic 1971 advertisement featuring Catherine Deneuve.

It’s amazing that the scent, which was made in 1921 by Ernest Beaux, has maintained such a loyal following for so many years. There’s just something about it that’s so sexy and intriguing. It’s not just the classic very French, very floral aroma. The label has done a brilliant job of keeping an air of mystery around the fragrance. Many of the celebrities who have appeared in the ads are the kind of stars who don’t reveal much about themselves like Nicole Kidman and Brad Pitt, although his commercial might have been a bit too cryptic. And, of course, there’s the much-publicized endorsement from Marilyn Monroe. She famously said, “What do I wear in bed? Why, Chanel N°5, of course.” I’m guessing that a spike in sales ensued.

Fragrance has way of reeling us in and playing with our emotions. I was reminded of that when I saw “The Art of Scent” at the Museum of Art and Design earlier this month. I took a whiff of Drakkar Noir and I immediately thought of high school. I swear every guy wore it back then. Chanel N° 5 must trigger all kinds of memories for so many different people because of its long history and status. It really is the perfect perfume to explore in a gallery. So, who’s down to go with me on a transatlantic field trip?

 

Do You Know Any Women Whose Armpits Look Like THIS?

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Whenever a brand or magazine gets carried away with Photoshop, the blogosphere is quick to call them out for screwing up women’s self-esteem with unattainable images of stick-thin legs, miniscule waists and suspiciously swanlike necks. Well, I would like to shed light on another unrealistic beauty standard: perfect armpits.

I’m sure you’ve noticed that in pictures, most models and celebs have poreless, pimple-free skin, but retouchers don’t stop with their faces and limbs. Their pits always look incredibly smooth and even-toned, too. It’s as if no hair has ever grown out of them, ever. They’re like babies’ armpits. Check out these examples:

Karlie Kloss on her Muse Spring 2013 cover.

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Joan Smalls on the cover of the January issue of Vogue Japan.

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This model from the April issue of Elle UK.

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And there’s also Jasmine Tookes, pictured at the top of this post in a Victoria’s Secret catalogue. I’ve never seen a woman over the age of 12 with such pretty pits in real life, which is why they jump out at me when I flip through mags. Watch, I bet you’ll start noticing them more now, too. It’s kind of hard not to. Those pages are filled with flawless underarms! Filled, I tell you! I’ll get over this little fixation eventually, but in the meantime, I felt compelled to drag you down with me. You’re welcome. Oh well, at least Dove might be making some money off of the whole thing. Somebody’s got to. Might as well be Dove, right?

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Halle Berry Is Quite Possibly The Most Rapped About Woman In America

2011 FiFi Awards - Backstage

The gorgeous, ageless, actress Halle Berry has been busy making the rounds this month to promote her new movie The Call, in which she tries to help a young girl in danger while donning a very questionable wig. During her media blitz, I happened to catch a segment on omg! Insider where the co-anchor, Kevin Frazier, presented Halle with an interesting observation: Her name comes up a lot in rap lyrics.

Blame it on her stunning looks, but Kevin said that over the last 20 years, Halle has been mentioned in more rap songs than any other actress—and he had some great examples:

“The Macs and Dons” by Notorious B.I.G.: “I like long hair or them Halle Berry cuts.”

“Work It” by Missy Elliot: “Don’t I look like a Halle Berry poster?”

“Money Trees” by Kendrick Lamar featuring Jay Rock: “It go Halle Berry or hallelujah.”

Plus, I found a few other songs that name-check Halle via Rap Genius:

“Me & You” by Outkast: “Passes gettin’ thrown like Hail Marys and they’re looking like Halle Berries.”

“The New Workout Plan” by Kanye West: “Henny makes girls look like Halle Berry to me.”

“Higher” by J. Cole “My life is a movie, would you be my co-star like Halle Berry?”

And that’s just a sampling of what’s out there.  Halle Berry is 46-years-old and she still inspires men who are nearly half her age to give her shout-outs in their songs. I can see her being like Helen Mirren someday, with gray hair, a few wrinkles and still turning heads. Ain’t nothing wrong with that!

Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty Images

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Beauty On Display: A Tribute To Fragrance Artists At The Museum Of Art And Design

In true procrastinator form, I went to see “The Art of Scent” exhibit, curated by former New York Times scent critic Chandler Burr, at the Museum of Art and Design on Sunday, the last day of its four-month run. No other museum has ever celebrated fragrance creation as an art form before, but perfumers absolutely deserve to be called artists. They spend months (or sometimes years) designing scents that are loved and worn by people who want to express themselves a certain way or evoke a certain memory or mood. Consumers pay good money for fragrances and connoisseurs collect them. And some scents are considered classics that never go out of style. It’s about time perfumers got their due. Here’s how the exhibit showcased the talents of a select group of gifted noses.

The whole thing was set up in a small-ish gallery on the fourth floor of the museum. Right away, I was sucked in by a scrolling introduction of the show, which was projected onto the floor. It reminded me of Star Wars.

Nestled inside of the stark white walls, there were 15 mini caves, one for each of the featured scents, which included Chanel N°5, Angel, L’Eau d’Issey, Pleasures and Light Blue. Periodic bursts of fragrance were emitted from the caves, but you had to lean in to get a good whiff.

Next to each sniff station, a short summary of the fragrance faded in and out on the wall (lots of projectors were involved in this exhibit).

Another area of the gallery documented the making of Lancôme’s iconic scent, Trésor. During the process of creating a fragrance, a designer will develop different versions (based on direction from the client) called “mods.” The mods get tweaked and tweaked some more until the juice is perfected. This section of the show allowed visitors to sample four different Trésor mods and compare them to the end result.

I got to play perfumer at a table set up with a bunch of raw ingredients to smell and mix. I could see how easy it would be to get completely lost in trying to concoct the perfect blend of notes.

While all of this was going on, the back wall featured a rotating projection of words that described each featured scent’s aroma and vibe.

“The Art of Scent” was really well done and I hope MAD decides to take the show on the road. Did you get a chance to see it in New York City? For those that don’t live in NYC, would you check it out if it came to your town?

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The Price We Pay To Be Pretty

 

Could your desire to feel gorgeous be costing you your health?

I missed this interesting piece in The Atlantic last week, about 1930s movie star Jean Harlow, and how she suffered for her bleached blond hair. The tragic, yet intriguing story made me wonder if women will ever stop risking their health for the sake of looking beautiful.

In the story, writer Taylor Orci describes the toxic mix of chemicals Harlow used to get her signature hair color.

Harlow, towheaded as a child, insisted she was a natural blonde, but her stylist knew differently. “I used to bleach her hair and make it ‘platinum blonde,’” Alfred Pagano, hairdresser to the stars, once said. “We used peroxide, ammonia, Clorox, and Lux flakes! Can you believe that?”

Orci goes on to suggest that there’s a chance the actress’s untimely death at age 26 could have been caused by her frequent exposure to ammonia and bleach—she might have died from dyeing.  Even if it wasn’t the homemade hair color that killed Harlow, the concoction probably had some sort of negative impact on her health. Yet she endured the painful lightening process every week because she believed her success in the film industry depended on it.

We could blame ignorance for her behavior and say that Harlow and her well-meaning stylist were just working with what they had at the time. But even now, women embrace products that are likely to be harmful. For example, they fork over good money for Brazilian Blowouts that contain cancer-causing formaldehyde, relaxers, which have been linked to fibroids and perfumes with hidden ingredients that can cause allergic reactions. I’m guilty of knowingly using iffy beauty products, too. I’ve relaxed my hair on and off for years, and I have a pretty big collection of fragrances (although I don’t spritz myself every day).

Not everyone is aware of the risks associated with some of the beauty products they use, but I bet even women who’ve been informed don’t necessarily ditch everything that’s potentially bad. The desire to feel attractive is a very powerful, complicated emotion—one that apparently causes us to do questionable things.

Is there anything in your beauty stash that could be a health hazard? Have you ever stopped using a product because you learned that it might be toxic? ‘Fess up, please.

 

The One Thing I Just Don’t Get About Adele

Adele usually sticks with the same look everywhere she goes (thick, fake lashes, big hair, red lipstick), but her makeup always looks incredible. And last night at the Oscars was, quite possibly, THE BEST she’s ever looked (see above for proof). My brain fails to understand why the woman still does not have a beauty contract. Even Carly Rae Jepsen has one, for crying out loud!

No, Adele doesn’t need a cosmetics company to validate her fabulousness, but she is just as worthy as the other stars who’ve scored deals in the past year. And, I think if a brand scooped her up, it would send a positive message to all women: You don’t have to be rail thin to be considered a beauty icon. The only other voluptuous celeb I can think of with a makeup endorsement is Queen Latifah, and she was signed to Cover Girl in 2001.

As for who should court Adele, I picture her partnering with a sophisticated, high-end brand— Burberry would be the obvious choice. On the other hand, I could also see her going the edgier route and joining Rihanna over at MAC. Only time will tell, but I have a feeling we won’t have to wait long before a big announcement is made. These companies might be slow, but they’re not stupid.

Which makeup company do you think Adele should sign with? Think she’ll land a hair or fragrance contract, too? 

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