My Afternoon with The Amazing Katie Couric

I’m finally back in Virginia after a whirlwind trip to New York to appear as a guest on the Katie show, Katie Couric’s new talk show. The segment airs today — January 11 — at 3 p.m. EST on ABC.

The segment is about going “au naturale,” and the pursuit of beauty — why women feel compelled to wear makeup and the signals it sends when we don’t or, conversely, when we wear too much. To hammer home the topic, Katie Couric filmed the entire episode without wearing a stitch of makeup! Not a big deal for a normal woman, but for a 56-year old super famous female television personality who works in an industry where women aren’t allowed to age on camera, that takes serious guts.  Though I’m sure it won’t surprise you to know that she looks as gorgeous without makeup as with, and she is as warm, personable, brilliant, intelligent and funny off camera as on. I was a fan before but a super fan now. Go, Katie!

I had the pleasure of appearing with Phoebe Hyde Baker, author of The Beauty Experiment about her year of ditching cosmetics with the intention of discovering whether she felt any different by the end of it (she did — watch the show today to find out). Also on the show was gender media expert Caroline Heldman, Ph.D., an extremely interesting and knowledgeable lady. I enjoyed talking to them both.

It’s an interesting topic, one that rears its head every five or ten years. I read Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth back in the 90s and was all ready to light fire to the beauty industrial complex, the patriarchy and manufacturers of “feminine wash products”…until I landed my first big job at Cosmopolitan where those high minded concerns quickly took a backseat to editing stories called things like What Flavor Sexy Are You: Salty, Sweet, Spicy or Rich?  (You bet your ass I was salty.)

Producers had me on to find out what it’s been like going from an industry that pushes thinness, perfection and warped beauty standards to living a quiet life in the country where mascara is almost a moot point and where I do things like sip moonshine and butcher chickens to unwind. To be perfectly honest, I haven’t noticed much difference in my approach to beauty. I still occasionally wear mascara to build fences with Jake and I didn’t wear any makeup up to New York.

The standard trope is that city girls spackle on the makeup while country girls only pinch their cheeks for a flushed, just-milked-the-cow look, but I find that to be a bunch of malarky. The overriding beauty aesthetic in New York is and always has been a very pared down, minimal but chic look. It’s not a big deal for a woman to go without cosmetics in Manhattan (or at least look like you go without cosmetics!). Most of my friends in NYC  – who by this point are at or near the top of their fields in publishing, design, fashion, television — eschew (heavy) cosmetics not as a rebuke of the beauty industrial complex but because taking on and off all that makeup is a time suck and these ladies have better things to do. I find a similar perspective among my friends in the country. Ladies around here are like, why? What’s the point? Does anyone really care if I wear lipgloss to Tractor Supply? 

I personally don’t find anything particularly trangressive about going without cosmetics, though I imagine it’s different for women in exceptionally high profile, high power fields e.g. Fortune 500 CEOs or television personalities like Katie Couric. In those fields, you’re expected to look a certain way. Makeup-free, frizzy, flyaway hair, big bags under the eyes could be read as unkempt, unprofessional and less serious.  Makes you wonder if a female Fortune 500 CEO would have made it to the top without makeup or sporting long, stringy Marsha Brady hair.

One of the great ironies about my career in women’s magazines was that we as editors were pushing a beauty standard that we ourselves didn’t live up to or even aspire to. This is something I wrote about in my book Rurally Screwed, but I remember looking around the conference table during editorial meetings and noticing just how plain Jane, grubby and frizzy a lot of us looked. Some of us showed up to work wearing flip flops, without deodorant, sporting panty lines and gnarly carbuncle cuticles. We looked like normal women, in other words.  Yet we were selling this idea there was almost something wrong with a woman who left the house with hairy legs, splotchy skin or without a tube of under eye concealer.

I think Katie asked whether I felt guilty about working in an industry that manufactured such an unrealistic ideal (though it’s hard for me to remember exactly because I was so nervous and tongue tied!). I guess I feel a little guilty about participating in a system I didn’t necessarily endorse, although I suppose you could say the same about any job. The rent must be paid. I liken the dichotomy to slaughtering chickens: it’s weird and gross when you first do it, but then it quickly becomes routine and you no longer question it. I guess that means I was ensnared by the beauty industrial complex and I didn’t even know it. [Evil Count Chocula laughter here] Bwaahaahaahaa! 

Anyway, it should be a great episode. I hope I don’t embarass myself too much (and I pray they don’t cut me out altogether, which is always a possibility) so if you get a chance check it out! Katie on ABC.

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Jessie blogs at Rurally Screwed. Check out her books Rurally Screwed and Tart & Sweet

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