Beauty In The Book Business: What Does It Take To Be Taken Seriously?
Allie Rowbottom on the connection between our looks and the work we put out, and how to untangle (or not) the two.
Photos by Maddy Rotman
In collaboration with Urban Outfitters and Dickies, we comissioned a series of stories that feature creative leaders who offer their insight on the “new” work world. Beauty Mark is a monthly column by Allie Rowbottom, where she answers readers' pressing beauty questions and explores evolving beauty trends. To submit your question, email firstname.lastname@example.org
At the writing festival, I am on a panel comprised entirely of women, discussing how we differentiate ourselves in the literary marketplace. The men are somewhere else, talking about their work. For a moment, I consider feeling annoyed. I want to be where the boys are, unpacking my novel, not my image. But I have to admit, I get it.
The challenge of self-presentation in the literary world–where thoughts, those floating abstractions, are capital–is a challenge particularly pronounced for women writers. Intellectualism has long been synonymous with disembodiment, or at least a disregard for the "frivolity" of appearances in the service of more "important" occupations like writing, reading, and thinking. Occupations that, until fairly recently, were seen as the purview of men–white men to be specific–and pretty much no one else, though, of course, that didn’t stop everyone else from writing, reading and thinking in obscurity. But for women of yore as for women of today, equated with our bodies by force of history and religion and image culture and endless, endless marketing campaigns, disregarding appearances is not an option. What, then, do we do? How do we stand out and still be taken seriously? How do we hack the beauty standards of the book business?
“I went to a lot of literary events when I was younger and would dress in my style–how I would usually dress–and knew that people didn’t take me seriously and thought that I was frivolous,” says Marlowe Granados, author of the novel Happy Hour. Marlowe has worn Versace in The New York Times, Pucci in Editorial Magazine, Comme de Garcons at the Met Gala. Indisputably, she’s a style icon with literary chops to boot. And yet, she tells me, “It’s become apparent that my writing is doing something very particular for a particular type of femininity that I think is important. But when it comes to the people who are reading my book…I don’t think the literary institution takes them seriously either.”
I tell her that once, lounging poolside at The Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, I looked up from my margarita to see a young woman in a floral bikini engrossed in Happy Hour. Another woman approached. “I love that book,” she gushed. It seemed to me like the epitome of literary stardom and success. But I know what Marlowe means. Most likely, these girls don’t follow literary awards or read Bookforum. Most likely they are drawn to Marlowe’s depiction of girls like themselves, who don’t follow literary awards or read Bookforum. If this seems like a dig, it’s not.
Elle Nash, author of Animals Eat Each Other, Nudes, Gag Reflex, and a new novel, Deliver Me, coming in October, says, “For a long while, I didn’t care how I looked as a writer or whether it was bimbo-coded at my readings. For much of my last book tour in 2021, I wore short shorts, low-cut tops, and was a platinum blonde.” I tell her that even when we first met, she always seemed to have her image nailed, inasmuch as she was hot online and still taken seriously by readers. “Do you think considering your outfits or even your hair color has helped or hindered your career?” I ask. She says, “It is easy to justify the tweakments I get done because my career is public-facing. But it can also be easy to think too much about your looks. When the Botox might wear off, when I need to time my appointments before public events, get my hair done, get chemical peels, all to feel presentable to an audience.”
“I literally went from blonde to brunette after my husband joked that nobody will listen to a blonde author,” Tea Hacic-Vlahovic tells me. “My husband is Italian and when an Italian jokes about aesthetics, you have to take them seriously.” Tea is the author of the novels, Life of the Party and A Cigarette Lit Backwards, which was one of the last books selected for publication by Giancarlo DiTrapano before his passing in 2021. She’s also fluent in three languages plus the piano and hosts the cult Italian podcast Troie Radicali, downloaded ten thousand times an episode.
“On one hand, the considerations I’ve made to be taken seriously have helped me,” Tea adds. “In making the effort to look more ‘serious’ I’ve been taken more seriously. But then again, I’ve also gotten less attention. And in the end isn’t being a creative person with success based on how much attention you get? In a way you’re hurting yourself no matter what you do.”
There’s also this: the considerations women writers make to be taken seriously are extensions of the considerations we learn to make, subconsciously and at an early age, when it comes to our safety, considerations that vary based on myriad factors, gender of course, but also race and the cultural microcosm of any given location we pass through. “I’ve learned to look at myself through the gaze of others so I can better navigate my environments, which has both helped and harmed me,” says Dantiel W. Moniz, author of Milk Blood Heat and National Book Foundation 5 under 35 honoree. “Sometimes I’m asking myself, ‘Do I look cute/professional enough?’ and other times it’s more nefarious, like ‘am I being perceived as a threat or prey right now? Could someone’s impression of me lead to bodily harm?’ Part of it feels like training passed down for survival and the other part like gendered and racialized social conditioning. It’s a mind fuck.”
At the writing festival, on the panel about self-presentation comprised only of women, the mic comes to me. I echo many of the writers interviewed here and say that considering one’s image often boils down to a balancing act of lesser evils. Because a "smart" author photo in black and white, designed to portray a woman writer readers can take seriously, can come at the expense of who that writer really is. A bathing suit picture on her Instagram can land her on reddit, her body picked apart by anons, or lead critics to assume she’s an influencer and demand a tell all, rather than the novel she wrote, both stories of my own which I’ll get to in the next installment of this column. For now, forgive me if I don’t see men grappling with this level of self-surveillance, collective-surveillance, scrutiny, and objectification. So it’s true, they don’t need a panel on this subject. It’s true this isn’t about them, not really.
Tea says, “My hacks are that I understand at this point that I have a persona and it works for me. I can’t fight who I really am. I do know that if I was just a toned-down bitch in a suit things would go better for me in the writing world. But as a woman I’ve developed these skills–skills that are actually really hard to learn, like makeup, outfits, hair. Once you achieve that skill set, it prevents everything else you do from being taken seriously. But when you’re good at writing and you know how to dress, why does that not add value to what you do? Why does it add value if you put less effort into your appearance?”
Delia Cai, author of Central Places and Vanity Fair senior correspondent, swoops in with the practical, a welcome shift: “Leaning into the idea of a uniform template has definitely cut down on a lot of anxiety. I buy similar or even same versions of one thing—black turtleneck/mock necks, long skirts, oversized oxford shirts. I make a conscious effort to balance dressing like ‘talent’ versus dressing like ‘staff’ depending on the occasion. I probably err more on the latter.”
Marlowe says: “Any sort of presentation as a woman becomes restrictive. So even in the way that I’ve gone in the opposite direction of what people expect from a writer, I sometimes feel in a prison of my own making because people have certain expectations of what I should be doing or what I should be wearing…What is most important to me is that I present a version of myself that I can stand by.”
Elle says: “Sometimes I catch my reflection in a window while walking and fantasize about letting myself get old. To quit involving myself in my youth and beauty with all of these habits. And I wonder if I do that, will I one day be seen as mysterious and intellectual and wise–rather than pretty and cool–because my work is valued?”
Dantiel says, “If someone wants to think less of me for any aesthetic thing, like a shoulder-baring author photo or me teaching a graduate class in platform Chucks and a Transformer hoodie, I know that’s more of a reflection of them than me. I’m here to make my art and become authentically myself.”
I started this piece hinting at some sort of actionable hack. A hack suggests a path forged by force. Or it suggests a mechanism for coping. Perhaps the only hack is this — finding a version of yourself you can stand by, allowing it to shift over time and acquiring some wardrobe staples to help you on the way. It’s everything or it is not enough, at least not when it comes to being taken seriously. But here we are anyway, somewhere in the middle of a path forged by force, coping.