'Beauty is boring because it’s a tool used to maintain stasis and control'
In conversation with Candice Wuehle, author of "Monarch."
I’ve been thinking a lot about agency.
Beauty culture loves to tell us — and we love to repeat — that manipulating our physical beings to better conform to beauty standards is an exercise in agency. I do it for me! A woman should be able to do whatever she wants to her own face and body! It’s our choice! Yet when an alternative is presented — for instance, divesting from standardized beauty entirely — the general response is: But physical beauty affects how we’re treated in the world! It’s an act of survival! Some of us don’t have the luxury of opting out! The agency we so desperately cling to in defense of beauty culture suddenly disappears.
Doesn’t it seem like the mark of a fascist politics to engender feelings of agency in citizens when it comes to upholding a system that exploits them, and lack of agency at the thought of challenging it?
This is what was swirling around my synapses as I read MONARCH, the latest novel from Candice Wuehle. “To say fuck it is a sort of negative existential exercise; a proof of the concept of agency via the action which removes the agency,” says Wuehle’s main character, Jessica — a 1990s beauty queen who discovers she’s been a sleeper agent in a deep state government program for much of her life. She was trained on the pageant circuit, of course, since women who comply with its appearance requirements “already possess a strong propensity for obedience, discipline, manipulation, and self-effacement.” It’s a fantastical lens, but through it, MONARCH manages to expose real-life truths about beauty as a control tactic, the body as a political pawn, and the agency to be found in fighting the systems that train us to wield these weapons against ourselves.
To celebrate the book’s recent paperback release — you can purchase it here! — I talked to the author about deconditioning, “Daria” Face, why conventional beauty bores her, and so so so much more. Read our conversation below, and scroll to the end for an excerpt from MONARCH.
Jessica DeFino: Reading this, I could’ve sworn you were a former pageant girl like me! What was your experience of beauty like coming of age in the ‘90s — both in the moment, and now looking back on it? Did you enjoy performing beauty? Is that enjoyment tainted in hindsight?
Candice Wuehle: I wasn’t in pageants — just a lot of mall model cattle calls and, later, some commercials and stage stuff. But I’ve been really moved by how many former pageant girls reach out and send me their pageant photos! I’m kind of honored that the pageant stuff rings true enough that people assume it was my own experience. I certainly went all in on the opportunity to self-objectify that ran rampant in the ‘90s and I sure as hell subscribed to Top Model, Vogue, Cosmo, all of it. Is that tainted now? Yeah… I’m often envious of people who spent their time doing something more, you know, useful and filled with lifelong meaning that didn’t uphold the patriarchy. I often look back on it and feel like I’m seeing the scene in The Sixth Sense when he understands he’s been dead the whole time. Except instead of being dead, I see how I repeatedly erased myself through conformity to ideas of standardized beauty.
JD: YES! I know exactly what you mean. Within the book’s MONARCH government program, pageants are considered fertile training grounds since the girls in this space are easily conditioned to follow orders, not ask questions, give their bodies up to the cause, and there is (sadly!!) so much I relate to there. How much of that plot twist comes from your own experience of standardized beauty and its pressures — did you or do you feel easily duped? Conditioned? Like you’re doing all this in service to someone else?
CW: I feel extremely conditioned! As you’ve written about so elegantly, one doesn’t conform to the pressures of standardized beauty out of a desire to actually be “beautiful,” but rather out of a desire or, frankly, more often a need to enact the class performance that gets one into certain rooms (professional, social, familial, etc.). In this way, beauty is a tool and I make the choice whether or not I’m going to use the tool—am I going to blow out my hair for a job interview? (Yep, usually.) Do I put on makeup for my author photo? (I did and I regret it. Yet — while Publisher’s Weekly did not give my book a starred or even especially positive review, they ran my photo in color — several pages away from the page that actually mentioned my book…)
So final question here — am I ashamed that I don’t more often resist the class performance? Yep! But I want to be really honest right now that although I’m extremely self-aware about my own complicity in the insidious cycle of beauty and class performance, the process of undoing that programming is just that—a process. Melissa Febos writes about the adjacent idea of desire in her fantastic essay “Mind Fuck” from her recent book Body Work. She points out that “being given rules about a thing can shape your mind… The examples for this are probably infinite, but take for instance the way I related to my own body for the majority of my life, how it was determined by the rules I was given for how it should look. I spent years monitoring and punishing my own body for being something that it was not supposed to be. One of the ways I undid that conditioning was by habituating myself to other ways of thinking… Sometimes the best way to unlearn something is by simply cultivating willful defiance toward the unchosen rules.”
I’m in the process of cultivating that willful defiance every day. I’m guessing that anyone who reads The Unpublishable and has the context to understand the deep cuts and insider knowledge on beauty that you write about every week does so because they understand “the rules” and has spent years “monitoring and punishing their body.” Me, too. Like any kind of healing, it takes time and attention and a lot of self-kindness to undo. I often feel guilt that I’m not rejecting the standards enough, that I’m using the beauty tool — but I’m actively reconditioning. And, hey, nobody leaves a cult overnight!
JD: Masks come up again and again in the text. “It never felt wrong, to be masked over like this. It felt safe,” you write. And “I believed my mask was my face.” What was the first “mask” you remember wearing, and how did it feel to wear it?
CW: To some degree, the mask is so ingrained that it’s unconscious. I very clearly remember the first time I realized that most people wear masks. It was during my PhD and I was deep into my trauma studies coursework and I was learning from several women who were astonishingly impressive. One of these women, a mentor who I respect enormously, was giving a presentation on the results of her recent Fulbright research. She’d spent seven years prior interviewing Holocaust survivors about their experiences performing theatre in concentration camps and now she was presenting on performance as a means of remembering countries impacted by genocide. What I’m trying to get at here is that this woman does deeply meaningful work. Yet — I noticed a strange dissonance in her presentation, which was that she smiled throughout the presentation. There was a real friction between the smile and pleasant tone while describing scenes of genocide.
After that, I noticed almost all of the female academics I knew did this — they talked about violence with a smile. But, again, beauty is a tool, the mask is a tool. Growing up watching the trajectory of, say, Hillary Clinton from headbands First Lady to the perma-smile while debating Trump has made me aware that masks create a space of both protection (from being judged for being too whatever — abrasive, loud, ugly) and transmission in the sense that the mask obscures a texture of a difficult message that makes it more palatable. It’s AOC’s Stila gloss in Beso, it’s certain news reporter’s uptalk, it’s what you wear so you can get into the mainstream in order to subvert it. The first mask I remember wearing is using the word “like” between every other word in high school English so I wouldn’t sound pretentious or unlikable when describing, like, Blanche DuBois’s trauma. My main character in MONARCH does the same thing — she uses vocal tics and appearance and affect to point away from her intelligence to both protect her and to allow her to be invisible enough to infiltrate systems she’d otherwise be excluded from.
JD: Is there a “mask” you wear now? How does it feel to wear it?
CW: Yeah, of course. I’ve been teaching in universities for a while and I notice that my end of semester evals are a hell of a lot better if I smile. Growing up in the ‘90s under the flat line of Daria’s mouth or Darleen Conner’s frown or Janeane Garafalo’s eye roll, I’ve never been a big smiler and I was opposed to the emotional labor of it for most of my teaching career. But I do it now because there’s such a direct connection between the smile → evaluations → economic reality. I compromise with myself by making a big point to tell students how often my appearance is commented in evaluations and to simply make them aware of this reality so they might take their bias about teacher’s affect into consideration more thoughtfully.
How does it feel? I usually step back into my office and feel like the mayor in Nightmare Before Christmas, my face spinning back to its real expression. So, dissonant.
JD: I also love how you explore boredom — the main character describes her father as a “professor of boredom,” boredom is described as “the portal used to access the spirit body,” and boredom is part of the program’s deep conditioning techniques. Does beauty bore you? (Visually, conventionally “beautiful” people bore me, I think.)
CW: One of the first little pieces of information I gathered that made me want to write a book about pageants was this study that showed the most conventionally attractive woman doesn’t usually win a pageant, but rather, the woman who is the most average. Not the most beautiful, not the least, but right in the middle. The one who is the least threatening to status quo, I suppose, and the least remarkable. What bores me about beauty is definitely that it usually manifests as a lot of people looking the same, telegraphing the same thoughts and values, and just generally doing what’s already been done. There’s something really anti-future about our cultural idea of beauty. This is a wild swing, but I’m thinking of this conspiracy theory right now that alleges Grace Kelly was sacrificially murdered by the Illuminati. They chose her because she was such a perfect specimen. When I think of beauty culture, I think of a Sci-Fi conglomerate of white men trying to freeze the world as it was when it most benefited them. Obviously, that’s not just boring, it’s insidious. But I think beauty is boring because it’s a tool used to maintain stasis and control. I’m curious if there’s an aesthetic (I’m going to avoid using the word beauty here) you find interesting? I’m really fascinated by uncanniness — I love Madonna and Nicole Kidman’s frozen faces and I love Viktor & Rolf’s recent show for Fashion Week and I even love the saran wrap moment in Don’t Worry Darling. I like an aesthetic that points to its own violence or denatured quality. Do you have anything like this — a trend or look, etc., that fascinates you?
JD: Ooh, I wrote about the Saran Wrap moment from Don’t Worry Darling! It made me think of the “Saran Wrap skin” trend in the skincare community from a couple years back — fascinating for sure, and upsetting. Lately the only physical traits that fascinate me in a positive way are the intensely ordinary ones that point to non-modification. I find dark circles really appealing, and deep smile lines (like Linda Cardellini’s!), and uneven teeth, and frizz. I was dating a man with dandruff a while back and I found that oddly erotic too. Seeing the flakes was a relief, almost? Like a reminder that this person was just a human being in a human body too.
Your answer, though, reminds me of the scene where Jessica’s mother (also a former pageant queen) is hosting “Tupperware”-esque parties to sell neighborhood women these high-tech anti-aging boxes, kind of like coffins. Women lie at the bottom of the box “mummy-style” for hours a day while their “aging genes” are frozen. I’ve been wanting to write an article about how Tupperware parties became Botox parties for ages, playing with the idea of preservation and the evolution of “women’s work” — how after the second wave of feminism, the expectation of housework slowly morphed into the expectation of beauty work. Is that what you were going for? How did this idea come to you??
CW: So, this idea came to me from a show called “Eerie, Indiana” that was on NBC from ‘91-’93. There’s an episode where all the moms in the neighborhood sleep in Tupperware to stay young. Honestly, I thought I hallucinated this episode until I mentioned the memory in an interview with Nylon and a reader messaged me through my website with the info.
I connected this latent memory very directly to the way trauma “freezes” one in the moment of the trauma, often not allowing a survivor to mature past that moment in many ways. At least not until the trauma is reconciled. Trying to freeze the aging process — to literally stop developing, growing, changing, you know, living — seems like a type of trauma to me.
To your point about housework morphing into beauty work — I’m not sure I think there was a change so much as an addition. Like, you have to do housework AND do beauty work to compensate for the fact that you aren’t only working in the home any more. There’s a myth there that says after women moved into the workplace, they stopped doing as much home labor — but that’s not true! They just did more work all around. I’d love to read your thoughts on this!!
There’s something terrifically uncanny about this shift in the sense that at the same time women are asked to do unnatural things in terms of the amount of labor they accomplish, they’re also asked to achieve even more unnatural standards of beauty — especially as regards aging. The most interesting part of the Tupperware/anti-aging boxes for me was how it preserves these beauty queens into this creepy, fixed version of themselves. I pictured Nicole Kidman the whole time I was writing these scenes — how conventionally beautiful she is, but she’s also veering toward the upward curve of the uncanny valley because her natural skin and facial movements are artificial. I actually really like that look, but I also love haunted dolls and wax museums.
JD: Yes, yes, you’re 100% right about housework and beauty work. Of course we’re expected to perform both! I think there was a pretty big economic shift at that time, though — women’s spending was really redirected from home goods to beauty goods. Women’s magazines pre-1965ish were full of ads and articles about what to buy to improve the home and the family unit; women’s magazines after focused on what to buy to “improve” one’s own body. So even though modern women do still have to do all the housework and care work associated with being a homemaker and/or a mother, the media and marketing materials aimed at us (i.e., your typical Vogue or Marie Claire content or whatever) are much less focused on the home and family and much more focused on aesthetic manipulation. Like if The Cut were to publish five articles a day about how to be better wife and mother, it would come off as regressive and anti-feminist. But it can publish five articles a day about how to get better skin and hair and it’s fine!!
Maybe that’s why this passage in particular hit me in the gut: “There was no such person as Jessica. There was no there there, just an encyclopedic understanding of makeup and dieting tricks.” I had this exact moment at one point in my life — it was after I had stopped working with the Kardashians, and I was having a really awful reaction to the topical steroids my dermatologist had prescribed for my dermatitis, and I felt so ugly and so worthless and I had this epiphany where I realized, Oh my god. I’m nothing and no one. I’ve cared so much about beauty for so long and now my life is empty and hollow and shallow because of it. Did you have a similar experience that inspired this character’s realization?
CW: That aspect of your work really resonates with me. There came a point in my life where the intellectual and physical cost of adhering to beauty standards became too expensive. Or, rather, I realized that I needed to spend the resources I was devoting to being conventionally attractive to writing. Up until my late twenties, I dieted and exercised so much that when I started grad school I realized I was either going to have to choose between being too lightheaded and exhausted to think or I was going to have to choose to eat something, have natural texture in my hair, and bare nails in exchange for having the energy to learn about Marx and experimental poetry and subversion in 18th c. gothic novels. In short, it came down to: I only have so many resources, do I want to spend them being smart or feeling like I’m pretty enough? It strikes me that his is the intellectual version of this verse from “Diamonds Are A Girls Best Friend,”
Men grow cold
As girls grow old,
And we all lose our charms in the end.
But square-cut or pear-shaped,
These rocks don't loose their shape.
Diamonds are a girl's best friend.
For me it wasn’t diamonds, but learning and art that wouldn't lose its “shape”. I restructured my life around being a writer from that realization. How did you decide what direction your life would take after you had the epiphany that everything you’d assigned meaning to actually meant nothing to you?
JD: That’s such a great question. I think it was maybe too painful to pivot away from beauty entirely — I felt like I had to make my obsession mean something. Like if I could use my exhaustive (and exhausting) knowledge of hyaluronic acid and contouring and the Kardashians to materially change beauty culture, to help other people realize how meaningless and manipulative and unfulfilling it all is, then the years I wasted would’ve been worth it in some way.
That’s probably what lends my work sort of a “Cassandran vibe” — the logo of this newsletter is a painting of her! — which is a phrase you use in MONARCH. If Cassandra could issue a warning about physical beauty right now, what do you think it would be?
CW: Yes! Jessica tells the reader that she “live[s] through the next vague decade with a sort of Cassandran vibe, bored by terror and temporality.”
Your work came to my attention after you tweeted about Kim Kardashian’s Marilyn Monroe Met Gala moment. You pointed out that despite being arguably the most influential aesthetic influencer in the world, Kim’s idea of the most contemporary beauty possible was…exactly what beauty standards have always upheld: skinny, straight blonde hair. That she’d starved herself out of her own icon-status to fit into an ideal from sixty years ago. A friend watching Don’t Worry Darling recently texted me, “Nostalgia is a powerful kink.” So I think if Cassandra could issue a warning about physical beauty now it would be: Don’t try. In the same way Jessica is “bored by terror and temporality” in MONARCH, I think Cassandra would know that beauty standards aren’t going to change. Or, rather, that the cultural, political, and social motivators for those standards—which are to telegraph complicity with white, patriarchal values while simultaneously robbing us of the energy required to think the thoughts to change the world those values creates—aren’t going to change. The entire point of having a standard of physical beauty is to oppress not just those who don’t meet the standard, but to control those who do. So I think the warning we won’t heed is: there is no way to be physically beautiful without being compliant and controlled.
JD: Last question: What’s your skincare routine?? (Juuuust kidding.)
CW: Arsenic, but only if it has the Clean at Sephora label!!
The following passage is excerpted from MONARCH by Candice Wuehle:
Deep shame overcomes me at the memory of the Mother-Daughter beauty pageants.
Certainly, you have connected some of the knots of my life by now—my beautiful mother, my obsession with my own skin, my overindulged vocabulary, my aloneness—enough to see that I was a child beauty queen.
In 1993, a few months after she began to visit our house, I decided I liked Christine enough to allow her to behold my Caboodles of industry grade cosmetics, my closet of tulle and sequin, my tiaras.
Truly, I was a brat. I expected her to be enchanted.
Instead, she removed a green sucker from her mouth and remarked, “Gag me with a spoon.”
Even if I wanted to, I assumed Grethe would never allow me to quit pageanting. It would be like a death to her. It would, in fact, be the double death of both of us; I had no memory of a time before the pageants. They were my life. They were our life.
As a four-year-old, I could sit motionless for over five hours in the backstage area of whatever high school auditorium or mall we were competing in. Grethe dressed me in one of my father’s button-down shirts, a self-styled artist’s smock, and then painted my face until I looked like a living doll. She brushed my hair back and shellacked my head in a thick cloud of hairspray before inserting a rat-sized bundle of pre-curled blond wig atop my head. Earlier in the week, we both visited a spray tan booth at her fancy salon. Naked, we held our arms over our heads and spread our legs wide while a technician used an air gun to mist our bodies with a fine, cold spray of DHA. I could hold my breath for nearly three minutes. I don’t know how long Grethe could go without air; a long time.
Right before we stepped on stage, I opened my mouth wide and my mother slipped a flipper over my baby teeth to match them to her immaculate dentata. It never felt wrong, to be masked over like this. It felt safe. My first memory is of a lipstick stain on a napkin.
We spent most of our time preparing for the pageants, including coaching from a woman named Crystal St. Marie. Crystal was the wife of one of my father’s colleagues in Boredom Studies. Although she was not herself an excellent competitor, my mother said she was an excellent coach. She was squat and underdeveloped as a gymnast. Presciently, she consistently wore stretchy exercise pants and a sports bra. It would take another decade for the rest of the country’s upper-middle class to realize they could always look like they were arriving to or departing from the gym. Her breath reeked of strawberry SlimFast.
I had no feelings at all toward Crystal, who, like my father, regarded me with the neutral attention a trainer gives to a show dog. This was, to some degree, confusing; although they never said so, I knew I meant a great deal to both my coach and to Dr. Clink. Crystal included a photo of me in a lavender gown the size of a small cloud on the cover of the brochure she gave prospective clients. Beneath my photo, in a loopy font, the words: The Best in the Midwest! Dr. Clink’s affection was displayed less directly. Instead of tucking me in for bedtime or—I don’t know—keeping my photo in his wallet, he named his most beloved discovery after me. The Greenglass Method (Greenglass is my middle name), published when I was four years old, combines hypnosis, kryotherapy, and proprietary Gjentakelse Tvang technology in order to erase short term traumatic recollections. He had never gotten the funding to prove it worked on humans, but he did restore a number of shelter pets to absolute tranquility with The Greenglass Method. Occasionally, Dr. Clink would sneak up next to me and snap his fingers beside my ear as if to test my reaction to sudden noises, just as he did the dogs. It was his way, I guess, of checking on my health. Crystal’s care was more practical. She discouraged my oleaginous nature and taught me that my life was to be performed in the service of the audience. She taught me to stop begging to be petted.
I suppose she was a cruel woman. She sometimes spent so many hours preparing me and my mother for the pageant’s interview portion that my voice became as hoarse as a barmaid’s. Train under duress, conquer every stress. This was the cornerstone of her philosophy.
Over the decade that we competed in pageants, I watched so many other children break that it would not be possible to account for them all here. Sometimes I dream that I am standing on a stage reciting their names. In the dream I have to urinate desperately, but I know the names will never stop and my act will never end. I’ve never dreamt the whole dream.
The little girls broke in different ways. A Tracy who couldn’t stand the hot wax poured on her face to remove the baby hairs above her upper lip. A Lisa who limped off the stage, one ballet slipper ombréd pink silk and red blood, who found that her smallest toenail had fallen off entirely. A Lindsey who loved Dippin’ Dots and didn’t fit into her gowns the day of a pageant. A Kimberly who was so exhausted she wept her false lashes off. A Belinda who, standing naked in the service hallway of a conference center, could not stop shivering as her coach repaired a tear in her leotard. A Samantha who hyperventilated after forgetting her prepared answers to the judge’s interview. A Britney who developed a bronchial infection from inhaling so much dust at the manicurist. They would be swept off the stage like day old confetti.
“Duress,” Crystal said as she surveyed a backstage glittering with girls who had not slept, eaten protein, or spoken to a normal child in weeks, “is a contagion.”
Jesus christ this is a fucking gold mine
“Nobody leaves a cult overnight” - Yes! This allows room for self-compassion, which we need to practice the most. The point is not simply to have a new reason to punish ourselves. Great interview. 🖤