Helena Rubinstein reads in her bed in the late 1930s. Copyright Getty Images
My first introduction to Helena Rubinstein came in the form of a small, white tube with a red and fuchsia logo that was no bigger than my thumb. It was waterproof mascara, hidden away in my mother’s bathroom drawer. She never actually used it, and it looked different, older than all of the other mascara she had. As a 5-year-old in the early ‘90s, I was fascinated by its unique packaging, clearly from another era.
“Why don’t you use that one?” I asked.
“It’s old,” she said. “They don’t make it anymore.”
It wasn’t until I visited “Helena Rubinstein: Beauty is Power,” the current exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York, that I learned that my mother was wrong. Helena Rubinstein cosmetics haven’t been sold in the United States since 1985 (that is one old tube of mascara, Mom) but the company continues to thrive in Europe, Asia and Latin America.
Because of this, many people under the age of 40 don’t know who Helena Rubinstein is, and many people over 40 may not remember her impact. “She had this incredible influence but has been pretty much been erased from history, so this exhibition is an effort to rectify that erasure,” curator Mason Klein said about his inspiration for the show at the Jewish Museum.
Madame, as she was known, literally and figuratively changed the face of the beauty industry. Throughout her over 60 years of work in the cosmetics industry, she encouraged women to embrace their individualism. She didn’t believe there was one kind of beauty, and this was reflected in the way she lived her life as not only an entrepreneur but also as a patron of the arts and a philanthropist.
If you are among those who have not had the pleasure of being acquainted with Madame thus far, or if you’d simply like to remind yourself of her amazingness, here are some things you should know.
Welcome to Throwback Thursday, a weekly photo feature in which we sift 116 years of Forward history to find snapshots of women’s lives.
Would you rather be beautiful and stupid or ugly and brilliant? Think about it for a moment.
As a high-achieving high school student, I remember considering it a no-brainer: It was better to be beautiful and stupid. Today, studies have shown that people react differently to others based on looks, with attractive people benefiting in hiring, promotions and pay. And lest we think that’s a culturally conditioned response, even babies prefer beautiful faces. It seems that my basic assumption that life is, on average, easier for beautiful people was correct.
While stupid could easily be seen as a negative, as a high school student, I didn’t assume it was a bad way to live; I pictured a movie star who was professionally successful, but neither intellectually curious nor terribly deep. I figured a stupid person who wasn’t book smart might be less likely to notice or be upset by things that bothered the brilliant person, who might or might not have been emotionally intelligent.
This all seemed rather straightforward and obvious to me until I had a daughter. Lila, who recently turned two, is her own little person. She has always been incredibly outgoing and loves talking to strangers, so she makes friends and earns fans wherever she goes. As her mother, that makes me proud, but I’m also quietly aware of the compliments paid to my daughter. Many people remark that Lila is “so cute” or “beautiful.”
Last week I was marooned on my couch with a virus and finally watched the first season of “Girls,” Lena Dunham’s HBO drama about twentysomethings finding their way in New York City. Dunham is very serious about her enterprise, and even the show’s light-hearted moments — which are few and far between — are laden with meaning. At times, watching the series felt more like homework than entertainment.
But I had heard so much about Hannah Horvath, Dunham’s alter ego, that I needed to meet her myself. Like many women in middle age, I wasn’t resistant to looking back at my youth. I’m not like the doctor who examines Hannah for an STD, who swears she’d never want to go back to her 20s. If anything, I’m jealous of the limitless sky, the time that drains into more time of your 20s. Maybe that’s glossy hindsight, but it’s also the truth.
Remember that “Sex and the City” episode about secret single behaviors? You know, those quirky activities many of us do during our alone time, like Carrie’s grape and saltine sandwiches or Charlotte’s pore-staring, that, according to the New York Times, are done by real people.
Well, mine is searching for gray hairs. I have about a dozen of them now and nothing gives me a more complicated and perverse sense of pleasure than finding them — and removing them, one by one. It is kind of like hunting, except nothing really dies and I don’t have to leave my bathroom.
When I first found a gray hair a couple of years ago I didn’t think twice before yanking it out. An anomaly! I thought. How silly. That hair follicle clearly didn’t understand that it was totally out of place on my then-29-year-old head. But now that there are more of them I can no longer view those pigment-less strands as aberrations. Nope, I have a few gray hairs because I am aging.
Many little girls grow up on Disney princess cartoons. I grew up on Bollywood films, dancing to the Hindi music, the lyrics to which I had memorized by the time I was six. I was raised in the 1980s in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, and Bollywood’s charming wholesomeness was imported in droves. I’d wager that it was Bollywood’s lack of anti-Communist messaging — rather than its family-friendly nature — that appealed most to the Soviet government.
Only as I got older did I realize that those Indian heroines I idolized were, and still are, stuck in a post-colonial culture that venerates Western ideals of beauty, markets harmful skin-lightening creams and even imports British actresses and Brazilian models to play the part of Indians. They can’t speak the language? It’s nothing a voiceover can’t fix.
In what is dubbed India’s “Snow White Syndrome,” whitening creams far outsell Coca–Cola, and sales are growing at a rate of 18% a year. Recently, the already fair-skinned reigning queen of Bollywood, Aishwarya Rai, was furious over an overly airbrushed Elle cover in which her skin was lightened several shades.
Women are not the only ones who face pressure. When my favorite Bollywood actor, Shahrukh Khan, began serving as a spokesperson for Fair and Handsome, a skin lightening cream for men, I was disgusted. The commercials for the cream always show a darker-skinned man who is mocked or unable to attract female attention until he lightens his skin.
Now, an Indian company has introduced an intimate wash meant to brighten a woman’s skin. The commercial for the wash alludes to a light-skinned couple’s marital woes — woes that apparently vanish when the private-parts wash comes into the picture.
Teen Vogue magazine began mysteriously arriving in our mail a couple of months ago (probably because I subscribe to Vogue proper and the algorithms know how old my children are), and I am doing my best to keep it away from my 13-year-old daughter.
I take a quick look through it and then tuck it a few layers into the recycling pile.
To be sure, Teen Vogue includes an occasional redeeming story, like this one about young philanthropist Yael Cohen, and her F*** Cancer organization, which has raised more than $1 million to fund education about the early detection of breast cancer.
Still, it doesn’t seem to counterbalance the dozens of stories about fashion and makeup and TV personalities that avalanche through on paper and on the magazine’s website: Ashley Greene in jeans showing that she has a huge space between her thighs! Fairy Tale Prom Dresses! Actress Emma Watson, looking oh-so-Twiggy, and her ‘Red Carpet Secrets!’ Kendall and Kylie Jenner, new ‘creative directors’ for Venus brand razors talking about why they never leave the house without shaving their legs! How they learned from their older sisters, like, how to shave and, like, the right way to do it with, like, shaving gel!
These are not the models of woman-hood I want Girlchik exposed to.
‘Tis the season for year-end lists, and the pop culture web site Complex.com has come out with one that places them squarely in skeez territory: the 50 hottest Jewish women, a catalog of actresses, porn stars, and models with Semitic heritage.
“As a flame dancing atop a candle gives off heat, so do many of the Jewish women who’ve made their mark on pop culture over the years,” reads the web site. “No matter your faith or creed, after reading this list you’ll agree that the sexy ladies of the Tribe of Judah play second fiddler on the roof to none.”
Bad puns aside, there’s something very unsavory about the compilation, in that it’s the most recent instance of what seems to be a growing media fixation on Jewish women.
Why do we need to tell our kids that they can’t do important things for their own sake, but only to get some kind of reward? The notion of manicures for middle school girls in a Jewish school disturbs me on a variety of levels.
Since Elana Sztokman wrote so well about why they are a setback for women, I want to focus on the notion that girls will not be interested in studying Torah unless they get the prize of doing their nails out of it.
The assumption that kids won’t want to study Torah, engage in doing either ritual or ethical mitzvot without some kind of ulterior motive, cheapens the enterprise of these things. Why can’t we just say to our kids, this is our text and heritage and helps give our lives meaning and we need to study it? Midrash manicures seems to be telling these Westchester young ladies, “if you study this, then you get to do your nails.” Learning Torah, in this scenario, is something to be finished to get to the main focus: the manicure. What does that say about the value of study?
The New York Times recently wrote about a Jewish day school program for pre-teen girls which combines Torah study and nail painting.
In a response to the piece, Sisterhood contributor Renee Zhert-Gand wrote that she feels torn about the club, which is called “Midrash Manicures.” She explains that while she is always open to new ways of engaging students in Torah, she feels women fought too hard to study like men to now do something so gender-specific, and that this endorsement of manicures might make young girls think they need to have one in order to feel attractive. Well, I am all for Midrash Manicures, and here’s why.
I understand the instinct to think that young girls doing something “girly” like nail painting while also doing something serious like studying Torah somehow trivializes the latter. But I also think it is important for us to challenge that instinct.
Until recently, my relationship with waxing was unemotional. And then I went to a makeup boutique to buy some new foundation.
That’s when - during the application of a tint called “Blush Stone,” an incongruous elicitation if ever there was one - that the makeup artist said to me, “We gotta take care of those.”
There’s almost too much awful male behavior to write about this week, from the sexual assault allegations against Dominique Strauss-Kahn to the admission by Arnold Schwarzenegger to fathering a love child to this gag-worthy article about the rise of dude editors.
But a very special prize for awfulness has to go the folks at Psychology Today. The magazine published an article about black women’s perceived attractiveness that hearkened back to the era of racism being justified by science. Seriously, the next thing I expected to see was a piece called “Phrenology: Why It Still Matters.”
Not only did Psychology Today decide to print this offensive article but instead of apologizing for the subsequent uproar, they insisted that it had been good and healthy to air the discussion so everyone could understand how upsetting and loaded this issue was — as if black women don’t already know. This is an example of both utter cluelessness about the nature of racism and also a classic Internet fail: When you smear an entire group of people on the web, it’s always a good idea to apologize profusely and abjectly first, try to have a teachable moment later. And also: Don’t tell said group of offended people that they should be thanking you for offending them.
Maayan Madar won the title “Miss Gedera” in her local beauty pageant. And then she was kicked out of school. The 18-year old, who is finishing 12th grade in a state religious high school in Israel, was told by her principal that her participation in the pageant went against school rules. Most importantly, the principal reportedly said, Madar wore a strapless dress.
“I don’t think the school has the right to interfere in my personal life,” Madar, who is now a local celebrity, told reporters this week. “And anyway, before I entered the pageant, I made sure that there was no swimwear competition, and that the dresses were not low-cut.” In fact, Guy Harari, the pageant producer, said he arranged in advance with the head of the municipal council of Gedera Yoel Gamliel —himself a religious Zionist man — that the pageant would not have “immodest” components out of respect to the large religious community in the town.
Her parents are incensed about the principal’s actions, and Madar is worried about her future. She was meant to matriculate in a few months, and she is not sure what will happen to her next. The Ministry of Education has come out in support of the principal but said in an official statement that it is still “investigating the matter”.
Over the past 24 hours, I have been conducting an unintentional experiment in the “you look great” debate between Sisterhood contributors Elana Maryles Sztokman and Elissa Strauss.
Elana’s post begins with the declaration:
You look great” is one of the conversation starters that I most despise. When someone says that to me, it always feels like what they are saying is that the last time they saw me I looked terrible. Or is it that they are surprised to see me not bed-ridden or comatose? Or, maybe, they simply have nothing interesting to talk about other than our superficial appearances.
Elissa, in her response, begs to differ, viewing the compliment as “a real sign of confidence and camaraderie.”
My gut response was to agree with Elissa. This is mostly because I am someone who hands out the “you look great” compliment quite often. My philosophy is that if you are genuinely thinking something positive about someone, whether it involves their appearance, their intelligence or their accomplishments — why not tell them and make them feel good rather than keep it to myself? My “you look greats” are never mindless flattery.
While it would be impossible to deny that too much attention is put on women’s appearance, I still find it overly cynical to write off “you look great” as a violation, as my fellow Sisterhood contributor Elana Maryles Sztokman wrote in recent post.
Elana explains that the common use of this phrase among girlfriends reveals a deep-seated instinct of women to scrutinize one another to see how they measure up. For her, being told she “looks great” can mean she didn’t look great before. Or it can mean that looking great is the only thing that matters.
Well for starters, where I come from, Los Angeles, a place where good looks are paramount, the real mean girls, or frenemies or whatever you call these competitive jealous types, most certainly do not gratuitously throw around this phrase. Instead, the better a friend looks, the longer and more profound the silence. When somebody does say, “you look great,” it is a real sign of confidence and camaraderie.
“You look great” is one of the conversation starters that I most despise. When someone says that to me, it always feels like what they are saying is that the last time they saw me I looked terrible. Or is it that they are surprised to see me not bed-ridden or comatose? Or, maybe, they simply have nothing interesting to talk about other than our superficial appearances. Regardless, I hate it because it reminds me how much people are constantly looking at each other and judging others’ entire lives based on thinness, youthful appearance and shallow versions of beauty.
I thought of this last week as someone remarked to me that she had seen my daughter and that my daughter “looks great.” My first thought was, duh, of course she looks great; she’s an active 13 year-old and has a beautiful spirit and she looks exactly how she should look. My second thought was, why are you observing and judging my daughter’s appearance? What are you looking for? What are you expecting to see? And what does “good” even mean? Does it have any meaningful interpretation at all?
I, too, thought “uh-oh” when I saw the now infamous “Glee” photo shoot in GQ — see our earlier, related post here — nodding my head in agreement to the chorus of critiques deeming it sexist and even pornographic. But then I remembered what I used to dress like in my early 20s and realized that perhaps I had been too quick to judge. Fine, I never wore underwear as pants while suggestively sucking on a lollipop like Lea Michele does in the photo shoot, but you could certainly say that my wardrobe as a married woman is considerably more modest that many of the Friday night get-ups I used to wear in my early 20s.
Because I am slow to learn, I had a similar knee-jerk reaction when reading Dodai Stewart’s response to the article “The Truth About Beauty,” by Amy Alkon on Pyschologytoday.com. I instantly sided with Stewart that the article, which encourages women to remain mindful of their outer-beauty and promotes the damaging messages put forth by mainstream women’s and men’s magazines.
Like Stewart, I was revolted by the closing line from Alkon’s piece.
In almost every single chick flick, there is a pivotal scene during which the character goes shopping. It is almost always presented as a montage of different stores, outfits, looks, and expressions, and it signals for the character a passage to second chances, redemption, and, ultimately, a resurrection. I would like to be able to roll my eyes and see this as one of the many silly elements of the chick-flick genre. But I can’t, and the reason I can’t is because it has happened to me. More than once.
Just like the tan, blond lead of any given chick flick, I too have felt the transformative power of a new dress. I have witnessed how it can give structure, even if just for a little while, to the messiness of existence and inspire new, superior, personal narratives. This embarrasses me.
I get why I shouldn’t like shopping. I get why it’s dumb, and even at times morally wrong. I get how I am beholden to the profit-driven, constantly changing whims of fashion designers, I get how my affordable garments may have been produced in conditions I would find detestable, and I get how generally lame it is to believe in something so cockeyed as salvation by way of material goods. But then I put on the new dress, and the truth is, I feel a bit more beautiful, and, well, who doesn’t love beauty, fleeting and luscious.
Women are getting more beautiful, and men are not, according to recent studies by Markus Jokela, a researcher at the University of Helsinki, and Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics, The Sunday Times reported last week. Relying on data from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study and the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, respectively, Jokela and Kanazawa’s combined findings are that attractive women tend to have more children than unattractive women, and they tend to have girls more than boys. Thus, “attractive genes” are getting passed on disproportionately to female offspring, making women more and more attractive over the years, while men’s attractiveness level stagnates.
The evolutionary explanation for this trend, as The Times explains, is that beauty is a more valuable trait for women than it is for men:
Kanazawa said: “Physical attractiveness is a highly heritable trait, which disproportionately increases the reproductive success of daughters much more than that of sons. … In men, by contrast, good looks appear to count for little, with handsome men being no more successful than others in terms of numbers of children. This means there has been little pressure for men’s appearance to evolve.