Saturday, January 13, 2007

My Most Popular "Thank You" Gifts

As I've mentioned in earlier posts, I like to bake cookies for friends and family as Christmas presents and thank you gifts. It's rare to find someone who doesn't enjoy homemade cookies, and even if they don't, they'll appreciate the time and thought you put into making them. I've tried many recipes over the years, some that failed pretty miserably (never trying rum balls again), but this year I finally hit it big with two recipes that everyone raved about. They are essentially foolproof (I've made many batches of each and they always turned out great) and each takes less than 5 minutes of work.

Cranberry Orange Cookies
(from the wonderful BakingSheet Blog)

2 cups All-Purpose Flour
1 1/2 tsp Baking Powder
1/4 tsp Baking Soda
1/2 tsp Salt
3/4 cup Butter
1 cup White Sugar
1 large Egg
Zest of 1 Large Orange
3/4 cup Dried Cranberries

Preheat oven to 350F and line a couple of baking sheets with parchment paper. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. In a large bowl, cream together the butter and the sugar, beating with an electric mixer until light. Beat in egg and orange zest. With the mixer on low speed, gradually add in the flour mixture, stirring just until combined. Stir in the cranberries. Drop dough by rounded tablespoons onto cookie sheets and bake for 9-12 minutes, until edges are only lightly browned. They will look a little undercooked, but they turn out best this way. Cool for 3-4 minutes on baking sheet then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. Makes about 4 dozen.

Coconut Macaroons
From Everyday Food Magazine, April 2004 Issue

3 Eggs (you'll only use the whites though)
1/2 cup Sugar
1/4 teaspoon Salt
1 package Sweetened Flaked Coconut

Preheat oven to 350F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a large bowl, whisk together 3 large egg whites, 1/2 cup sugar, and 1/4 teaspoon salt until frothy. With a fork, stir in 1 package (14 oz) sweetened flaked coconut until moistened. Drop mixture by packed level tablespoons onto prepared sheet (cookies will not spread). Bake until lightly golden, 20-25 minutes.

Happy Baking!

Friday, January 12, 2007

Weekly Best Dressed Award- Jessica Biel

For a girl best known for being fired from the family-friendly "7th Heaven" after scandalously posing topless for a D-list men's magazine, Jessica Biel dresses with far more modesty, grace and style than most of her starlet counterparts. While other actresses her age are photographed getting plastered, making out with a different guy each week or forgetting their undies, Jessica is only photographed working out, which she apparently does for hours every day. Her hard work paid off though, and despite having limited acting talents, she's become quite famous for her rock hard body, which landed her on the top of Esquire's Sexiest Woman Alive list for 2005.

While I normally hate any talentless, brainless girl who's only famous for a hot body, I have to give Jessica Biel credit for at least handling herself in a very classy way (when she's not posing for magazines, of course). She's one of the best dressed women in Hollywood (in my opinion), and I thought this outfit was a great example of her personal style:

I'm not 100% sure whether she's wearing a dress or a skirt and top, but this is a look that flatters her body while remaining professional and polished. She's mostly covered, with only her arms and calves exposed, but the gathered knot at the waist gives the outfit it's shape and adds visual interest to what is otherwise a fairly boring top and skirt. The high neckline is a stylish way to draw attention away from a large bust and the long top (ending a couple of inches below her hips) minimizes the width of her hips and creates a long, leaner line. The knee-length pencil skirt is also a great way to make legs look longer and hides any problem areas on thighs.

She smartly keeps her accessories to a minimum, with no jewelry and a simple pair of white pumps. The shoes are key, as they keep the outfit young and hip, as a little flash of white is very fresh looking. These shoes would look great with jeans or paired with dark tights for a more dramatic look.

Biel wore this outfit to present the Golden Globe nominations, and she needed to look professional, but still Hollywood. I think an outfit like this is very versatile and would look great for any occasion that required professionalism but allowed some room for style. Of course, if you need to look more serious, simply switch the white shoes for a more traditional brown or black.

Kudos to Jessica Biel (or rather, her stylist) for choosing to look classy and sophisticated when her equally pretty and talentless peers slowly kill off their reputations through overexposure (both literally and figuratively).

Here are a few similar dresses:

And some equally cute shoes:

Thursday, January 11, 2007

When Did 40 Become the New 15?

One of my biggest fashion pet peeves is seeing middle aged women dressed as teenagers. It doesn't matter how good you look for your age, if you're 45 and dressed in a cotton mini-skirt with "JUICY" or a similar adjective scrawled across your butt, you just look ridiculous. Same goes for any combination of low-cut tank top, low-rise jeans and tacky super-high heels. It seems that every fashion trend popularized by teenagers gets adapted by legions of women in their 40's and 50's who believe that either they look as good as the teenagers who get away with cheap, revealing clothes, or they're seeking the kind of attention teenage girls receive.

This is a phenomenon that's most obvious in the summer, but I was stuck watching "The Real Housewives of Orange County", and realized that their are entire counties (okay, maybe entire communities) full of women who dress this way year-round! These women go shopping with their teenage daughters and buy the same clothes, despite the fact that they do not have teenage bodies (though thanks to plastic surgery and crash diets, they come as close as they can).

It's obvious that our society places a premium on youth and beauty, and some women who are afraid they are losing one or both of those things are going to do whatever they can to get them back, or simply deny that they're losing them at all.

Even though I'm too young to really understand what these women are going through, it makes me really sad to see such blatant displays of insecurity in women of any age. And most of the women who fall victim to this ugly trend are totally unaware of how much sexier and more attractive they'd look in age-appropriate, flattering clothes.

I don't mean to come off as some kind of fashion fascist, and I'm certainly not advocating that every woman who reaches 40 should stick to Chico's (*shudder*), but I definitely think there's something to recognizing what clothes look best for which age groups. And trying too hard to be someone you're not is never attractive.

Now that "40 is the new 30", and there are so many middle-aged actresses stealing attention away from their younger co-stars, I hope that more women feel empowered to accept and even embrace their age. There are plenty of women in their 40's and 50's who I would die to look like right now (and I'm 20), so why look toward Hilary Duff and Mischa Barton and Lindsay Lohan as fashion idols (they have terrible taste anyway) when you could emulate gorgeous, stylish women like Diane Lane, Catherine Zeta Jones, Nicole Kidman and Julianne Moore? Then again, a few of those women are rumored to be surgically enhanced, so I guess nobody's free from age-induced insecurity.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Why I Love Beauty Products

In yesterday's post, I reviewed Jean Godfrey-June's "Free Gift With Purchase" and talked about some of the deeper issues behind our collective love for beauty products that the book addresses. Today I'm going to continue that discussion, and provide my own theories about why this relationship exists, and whether it's a positive thing overall.

As someone who also loves beauty products, "Free Gift With Purchase" led me to ponder some of the larger issues surrounding the relationship between women and beauty products, and my own relationship to cosmetics.

Why do beauty products hold so much power over women?

What leads someone to pay $100 an ounce for a face cream that carries no guarantee of working?

What do products do to create strong feelings (good and bad) toward them?

Are we all vain? Insecure? Are we victims of the messages we receive from the media about what makes a woman desirable? Do we do it to impress men or because we're simply brainwashed? And finally, is this relationship a good or bad thing?

I don't know the answers to all of these questions, but I can at least speak for myself and the women I know. I believe that women are led to buy beauty products at least once in their lives for all of the reasons I've mentioned. Sure, we've all run out to buy an eyelash curler because Allure says it's God's gift to women, or a firming gel because we're insecure about cellulite, but I don't think these situations are the norm. I tend to agree with Godfrey-June that the real reason that women love their products is because they feel empowered through the application of beauty products. Whether it's using a lavender-scented soap to unwind after a long day or using makeup to transform into a better-looking version of yourself, products simply make you feel good. And when you feel good, you're more confident, and confidence breeds success.

I think of my mother, a woman who comes from a family of builders and is most comfortable working with her hands, building houses for Habitat for Humanity or planting bulbs in our backyard garden, clad in dirt-smeared sweats that she bought in the 80's. But no matter what she's wearing, where she's going or who she's seeing, my mom never fails to swipe lipstick onto her lips before she answers the door or exits her car. I'll wonder why she cares about her lips when she's covered head to toe in sawdust, but I don't have to ask. It's an act that gives her confidence, making her feel prettier and more put together, no matter what else she's wearing.

I think that as women we should allow ourselves to feel wasteful for spending money on the occasional manicure, or vain for wanting to look our best when we can. And while marketing and the media certainly play a big role in shaping women's views of themselves, I believe that most adult women are capable of making decisions based on what they want, and not what someone tells them they need. I'm not ashamed that I love beauty products, and I don't feel that Jean Godfrey-June should feel guilty for writing about them. But I do think that the relationship between women and beauty products deserves further discussion, and I'd love to hear what other people have to say about the matter. I've invited some other beauty bloggers to post their own reactions to my questions, and I look forward to sharing their answers with you in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, I'd love to hear your answers to these questions. Why do you love or hate beauty products? Do you agree or disagree with my thesis about the potential for empowerment? Am I looking way too far into this whole subject? Considering that my most popular post to date (based on reader comments) was my scathing review of Maybelline Great Lash, I hope that readers are willing to share in this dialogue.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Review, "Free Gift With Purchase"

I love to read, but last semester I had this misfortune of choosing courses that featured some of the most notoriously boring, difficult and even incomprehensible books ever written. So when I finished my finals, I was dying for a quick, fun read that wouldn't require a library of supplementary texts to understand. Thanks to Amazon, I had Jean Godfrey-June's Free Gift With Purchase waiting for me when I got to my parents house.

Godfrey-June is the beauty editor of my favorite fashion magazine, Lucky. I expected a juicy tell-all (a la Devil Wears Prada) about the backbiting and betrayal behind the scenes at Vogue and Elle (where the author was previously employed). Who doesn't love all the fun details of celebrity parties and top fashion shows? Not to mention those mythic closets that all fashion magazines have, filled with every piece, product and accessory shown in each issue, that employees are often allowed to borrow from.

If this is what you're looking for, the second half of the book describes all of these things in wonderful detail. But I was pleasantly surprised to find the first half of the book was more memoir/social commentary than gossipy expose, chronicling Godfrey-June's childhood as the daughter of two pop-culture ignorant Berkeley biologists and her unlikely career writing about beauty products for top fashion magazines. She tells wonderful stories about her awkward elementary and middle school experience and desire to fit in with the '"normal", glamorous others', along with her eventual transformation from social outcast to acceptably cool girl. This will speak to any woman who once believed that the application of Watermelon Lip Smackers made her instantly sexier and more sophisticated.

But my favorite part of the book, and the part that has been ignored in every review I've read and interview she's done, are the chapters that discuss the power beauty products hold over women. She writes, "Everybody loves beauty products. Even if you think you know nothing about them, or even if you think you hate them, you actually know plenty about them and, in fact, have several of them that you love. You have major opinions that lie barely beneath the surface. Woman who modestly/moralistically claim to "never use all that beauty stuff" are big Clinique ladies, usually with a healthy helping of Neutrogena to go with. I know this because I've seen their bags and I've seen what they lunge for at beauty giveaways."

And she's totally right. Women (and in increasing numbers, men) have a strong relationship to beauty products that is greater than any statistic about the multi-billion dollar beauty industry, or any misogynistic argument about women and vanity. She points out the thriving black markets for cosmetics in war-torn countries, and the importance of makeup and skin products to women with terminal illnesses as two small examples of this. The reason that Godfrey-June has a job, and that there are entire magazines (as well as hundreds of blogs) devoted solely to news and reviews of beauty products, is because of this relationship.

She discusses the way that beauty products fulfill an instinctual passion for perfection, the potential women have for exploring multiple identities simply by doing their hair and makeup differently. And without a doubt, products have the power to boost a woman's confidence (more about this later). The idea of "hope in a jar" is a particularly strong one, as products today reflect a huge variety of hopes and dreams that women hold, and one can't deny the power of the marketing behind these hope-filled jars.

I should mention that while Godfrey-June repeatedly refuses to take her job seriously (at least once she mentions her guilt for not pursuing a profession that benefits society is greater ways than helping women find the perfect red lipcolor), there's no question that the marketing and consumption of beauty products is a subject ripe for analysis.

I strongly recommend "Free Gift With Purchase" as a fun, light read for any self-described beauty addict. In tomorrow's post, I'm going to continue this discussion about the relationship women have to beauty products, so don't forget to check back!

Monday, January 08, 2007

Anthelios, Why Did You Betray Me?

I've mentioned before about my near-obsessive use of sunscreen. I apply sunscreen (or at the very least, a moisturizer with SPF) every single day, rain or shine, whether I'm stuck in bed all day or lounging on the beach. There are a few reasons behind this: first, I have very pale skin and spent the first 18 summers of my life almost entirely outside, rebelling against my mother by refusing to wear sunscreen, and I know that I'm going to pay for it later, so I'm trying to undo the damage. Second, I'm using Retin-A Micro to treat mild acne and prevent pre-mature aging, and this makes my already sun-sensitive skin even more prone to burning and skin cancer. Finally, I've conceded that I'll never be able to tan naturally, as my skin's only two color options seem to be "Ivory" and "Tomato". So why even try?

After doing a lot of research on sunscreen effectiveness and comparing various sunscreens to see which worked best for my skin type, I found a product that served me well through manys long, hot, sticky commute during my internship this summer in New York: Shiseido's Ultimate Sun Protection Face Cream with SPF 50. The sunscreen did double duty as a mattifyer and sunscreen, and no matter how much I sweated (and sweat I did), it never came off. As an added bonus, it helped my makeup stick to my face far better than any other product I'd tried, preventing the dreaded makeup meltdown that often occurs in hot weather.

I loved my Shiseido, but as the weather cooled off and my skin adjusted, the Shiseido began drying me out. I needed a new sunscreen. It was then that I heard about L'Oreal acquisition of the patent for Mexoryl, a chemical that had previously been unavailable in the U.S. due to FDA restrictions. Mexoryl is the most effective sunblocking agent in the world, and it lasts almost all day long, whereas most sunscreens lose effectiveness after 2 hours (you can read more about that here). Finally, in November 2006, L'Oreal came out with Anthelios SX, under their La Roche Posay brand. Although the name reminded me of one of Paris Hilton's Greek shipping heir boyfriends, I wasnt discouraged, and I added it to the top of my Christmas list (yes, I asked for sunscreen for Christmas, I am a big dork).

I waited for a little over a week to try it, because I wanted to wait for a day when I'd be in the sun for a long time, just to see how it worked. Last week while I was still in Michigan visiting my family for break, I had a job interview in Cincinnati, and I figured that the 5 hour drive would be a good time to try it out. If you didn't already know this, your skin is exposed to UVA rays (the cancer causing kind) even when you're near windows during the day. I applied the Anthelios that morning and liked what I saw; it was a nice consistency, unscented, and didn't sting my dry skin when I applied it. I had high hopes for my little chemical-laden friend.

But when I reached my hotel that evening and finally looked in the mirror, I was shocked. My skin was blotchy and covered with dry, red patches. Anthelios!

Of course, I had forgotten my allergy medications, my good makeup remover, my many sensitive skin moisturizers... everything except for Cetaphil cream, which (for some unknown reason) made my skin even more red and irritated. I normally carry a backpack full of beauty supplies when I go on trips, but I thought that was overdoing it for a quick overnight trip. Moral of the story: always overpack, because the day you don't, you'll need everything you left behind.

The next day I was able to cover up most of the redness with concealer and powder, though I still looked a bit blotchy. And my interview went fine, despite my seriously uncomfortable skin. I wish I could have written a raving review about Anthelios SX, the holy grail of American sunscreens, but our relationship was simply not meant to be. When the weather warms back up and my skin is less sensitive overall, I'll give it another go (on a weekend I'm not leaving the house, of course) and let you know how it fares. Until then, it's back to subpar sun protection for me.