Prime Pulchritude: Navigating the World of Beauty in the Hills of LA
Issue one essayist Rachel Hochhauser ("The Hebrew Bride") reflects on the evolution of beauty standards in LA and across the country, and the lengths we go to attain them.
Shortly after moving to Los Angeles, I went out to breakfast with a friend — an agent at a top-tier modeling agency — and one of her clients. I watched as the client ate only egg whites, leaving her spinach, her bread, her yellow-orange yolks on the plate. Even though I am health conscious, I found this behavior extreme — but then, she was a model, and a successful one at that. This, it seemed, was what it meant to be beautiful in Tinseltown: 30-calorie meals being the price of success when it comes to setting the standard of beauty. The girl didn’t even use salt.
I moved to this city from New York a handful of years ago, and, for reasons both personal and professional, have watched the way people relate to their own physical self ever since. My breakfast experience was not unusual. The way one looks plays a significant role in L.A.; my daily commute takes me past multiple billboards boasting fat-blasting techniques. Plastic surgeons advertise on benches. A waitress once asked me if I wanted my vinaigrette on the side because the restaurant “tended to overdress,” and in a fitting room of a Robertson boutique, I pulled on jeans only to discover that they had a sewn-in padded ass.
Hiking the dusty mountain trails of the Santa Monica Mountains, I’ve seen reality television crews following women in bikini tops, overheard business calls conducted during high-intensity uphill sprints, passed famous musicians climbing in cowboy boots and Hawaiian T-shirts, and shielded my eyes from more color-coordinated spandex than appropriate in nature — all set against the background of the newly-painted brand-sponsored Hollywood sign, which you can only see on a smog-free day.
At Bar Method, an expensive ballet barré style studio, women sit in a carpeted room in mandatory socks, bending and stretching and plié-ing their way to a tighter derriere. The instructors — tanned, toned women who usually carry a fresh-squeezed green juice — learn the attendants names, so if you’re not bending deeply enough, if your tuck isn’t perfect, they take a sip of their kale-cayenne elixir and say, to the entire room, through their microphone, “Rachel, tuck deeper. Tuck. No, Rachel, tuck.” Or, more humiliating: “Great effort.” A sandwich board out front of the West Hollywood studio quotes Drew Barrymore: the classes really “knock your butt off.”
If one finds their butt insufficiently knocked, Angelenos have access to plenty of other options. A studio in Santa Monica offers Karaoke yoga. At SoulCycle, spinners spin on stationary bikes in a candlelit exercise oasis. Our city is king of the hybrid — yogilates (yoga-pilates) and piloxing (pilates-boxing) — and queen of the story: Richard Simmons still teaches aerobics three times a week and if you can’t kill it on the treadmill, you can always opt for Equinox’s Rockin’ Model Workout.
Equinox, perhaps above everywhere else, epitomizes my observations of the L.A. workout scene, and nowhere more so than the West Hollywood location. At the front desk, you’re greeted by name. You never have to wait for a machine, the towels are scented and there are Kiehl’s products in the locker room. You elipticize next to the likes of Fabio and Dr. Dre, and then stop for a quick shot of probiotics from the Earth Bar downstairs. If you’re feeling bougie, you can valet your car, get a “24-Carat Gold Facial” at the spa, or schedule a private session in the Pilates room. (Also on deck: teeth whitening, lash extensions, laser hair removal, and Reiki.)
The locale is only matched by the clientele: dudes lifting in sunglasses next to chicks who have taken scissors to their shirts so they’ll show more skin. (The men do this, too.) Not long ago, I finished running (next to someone reading a script) and went to the locker room. En route to the shower, I passed a woman posing in front of one of the vanity mirrors. She flipped her hair and jutted one of her hips and used her phone to take a photo of her reflection. When I returned from my shower — during which I shaved both of my legs, washed my hair, and took full advantage of that Kiehls — she was in front of a different mirror, still photographing herself. And after I had finished getting dressed, I had to step around her as she stood in front of a yet a different mirror, taking pictures. She might still be there. Equinox has a lot of mirrors.
Not to sound flippant. The woman could have been doing more than exploring her vanity in a vanity mirror — there are a variety of ways beyond the obvious for people to monetize their looks. In recent years, plenty of women have turned themselves into a sought-after brand through Instagram. This all goes to say that the physical body — the outward manifestation of how we present ourselves to the world — factors heavily into the local zeitgeist: meanwhile, people struggle to keep their actual weight low.
My observations aren’t new, and they’re not news. In the 70’s, my mother would drive all the way from Orange County to Palm Springs with her girlfriends so they could get a proper tan. Her friends ironed their hair with appliances intended for cotton. Medieval women utilized arsenic to whiten their face and the ladies of the Elizabethan era suffered headaches and nosebleeds from the sulfur and safflower powder they used to color their wigs. There is plenty to say about Chinese foot binding and laced corsets that impeded basic organ function. Now, post-glass ceiling and post-bra-burning feminists, in the age of Sheryl Sandberg and Hilary Clinton, there’s a trend wherein women are putting poop on their face. For beauty.
The New York Times initially alerted me: a bevy of beauty products featuring ingredients from creatures like bees and worms have hit the market, such as Wrinkle Butter with Earthworm Complex, a cream derived from the insect’s excrement. A New York spa now offers a treatment in which the main ingredient is bird feces. Sephora started carrying Masque*ology, a skin-care line from South Korea whose Cell Renewal Mask contains snail secretion.
I’m all for miracle cures. And I’m all for people putting in effort and making changes so that they feel good about themselves and about their lives, but I’ve begun to wonder about progress and self image and modernity, and whether moving forward is just another way of moving backward; in ancient Japan, Geishas used to mix nightingale droppings into their face cream. And now, annually, about 400,000 Americans visit cosmetic surgeons. If people are going to such lengths to staple and sew and reform their bodies as they use excrement for skincare, it opens up a conversation about the price of beauty and the meaning behind our fixation. A study from the University of Colorado’s Center for Neuroscience revealed that the stress of having to exercise counteracts the actual relief of stress that comes from exercise. Though the center’s experiments were performed on a group of rats, I’ll gladly point out the obvious similarity between a bunch of humans running in place on a treadmill and a hamster wheel. Ultimately, the scientists found that rodents that were “compelled” to workout became extremely anxious. Our obsession with fitness might be making us less healthy. And therein lies the rub.
At the crux of the issue is the motivation behind our pursuit of beauty. Sales from the cosmetics industry alone amount to about 170 billion per year — why do we pay to primp and pluck, and beyond the preening, what’s the point? What is it about the way one looks that pushes people to open their wallets and pound the pavement?
Turns out the answer is: a lot.
Across the food chain, looks are an indicator of success. Different animals have different ways of reading physical markers as a signal for a potential viable mates: jungle birds in Asia go for brightly colored feathers because they lose their luster when invaded by parasites. Scorpion flies use symmetry as an indicator; well-matched wings make them more adept at killing prey. Attractiveness determines biological quality — and humans are no exception.
A psychologist at the University of Texas revealed that babies — yet untouched by media and western ideals of beauty — are more attracted to stereotypical agreeable features, and, in a series of experiments, would stare much longer at symmetrical faces.
And in the world of grownups, numerous studies have shown that people considered attractive do better with parents, teachers, friends, income, and even sex.
Newsweek points out that when it comes to procreation, waist-to-hip ratio is indicative of more than just supermodel curves — I am referring to the 80s glamazons, not the waifs of today — it’s a showcase of reproductive viability. Moreover, women are more sexually responsive to symmetrical men. A survey of couples showed that females with “attractive” partners are more than twice as likely to climax during intercourse — which may promote conception by “ushering” sperm into the uterus. What’s more, our ideals of beauty aren’t just determined by glossy magazine spreads. The small jaw that typifies a feminine and pretty face is an indicator of estrogen — and therefore linked to fertility. In turn, the rugged manly jaw line our society appreciates — and always has — is created by a surge in androgens: the sex hormones that can turn a young boy into a strapping and handsome adult capable of providing for his family, whether by hunting wooly mammoths or a high-paid job at a law firm. Having a masculine jaw is “biologically expensive” because the hormones it requires compromise the immune system, and so the growth of such handsome features ultimately shows disease resistance.
All of this goes to say that animals are designed to care about looks, and vanity, to an extent, is outside of our control. Beauty is about, and has always been about, survival. If Los Angeles, like everywhere else, is typified by façade, it makes it easy to overlook whatever depth may lay beneath. Shortly after my breakfast with the egg-white-eating model, I found myself at a nightclub that featured burlesque dancing — and bearded men and drag queens and aerialists who shot darts from their vaginas. I watched a young girl strip down to her underwear and “ride” a carousel pony. Some Lakers at a table behind me cheered, the audience stared, and I turned to the friend’s friend that had invited me and asked, “What do you think she tells her parents?”
He promptly informed me that it was his friend’s girlfriend, and before I had time to fit my foot into my mouth, I also learned that she owned her own pole-dancing studio, where she taught lessons to the theme of women’s empowerment, and had recently sold a multi-million dollar patent on a movable at-home stripper pole. Shame on me.
Ultimately, the scorn as I expressed then, and have expressed at other times while viewing the rainbow of neon in the hills of Los Angeles, could be chalked up to ignorance of cultural relevance. Women in Western Africa value curves and stretch marks (there are even fattening camps that women go to be fed 16,000 calories a day), and the Kayan women of Burma elongate their necks out with brass coils while the Ethiopian Mursi stretch their lower lips with large wooden plates. This city’s treadmill-dedicated hotties aren’t all that extreme.
In the end, my judgments are indicative of my own insecurities: I would love to have toned triceps. I was in those Bar Method classes for a reason. And if some guy is an asshole for wearing sunglasses indoors, I’m just as much of an asshole for making fun of him. I ridicule the boxed-blonde posing in the mirrors, but there’s also a part of me — a significant part — that identifies. We filter our lives and view ourselves through a physical lens, and there’s not a time I pass those vanities without at least glancing at my own reflection.
At the heart of it, my making fun of the tanned and toned of Hollywood rings false. I’d kill to look like some of those women — we are all the girl going from mirror to mirror. From the Asian jungle bird to the pony stripper, vanity has a purpose; narcissism is programmed in our bones. Some might call Los Angeles devolved and superficial, but, at the end of the day, if beauty comes down to biology, perhaps this primped and plucked and pitch-perfect city is the most evolved of them all.
This isn’t entirely bad; narcissus is a flower, after all, and a lovely one at that.
Rachel Hochhauser is a writer living in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in Cleaver Magazine, Per Contra, Who What Wear, Daily Beast, and Darling Magazine, amongst others. The recipient of the Pillsbury Foundation Creative Writing Award and an alumna of NYU, Rachel also has a Masters in Professional Writing from University of Southern California. Find out more at RachelHochhauser.com