46: Arabelle Sicardi - beauty writer

photos by Ashley Jacklyn

Arabelle Sicardi’s work as a writer and general creative focuses on the relationship between beauty and power. They are interested in exploring the bargain between beauty and politics. They write about the beauty industry, queer identity, futurity, mythology, survival, and feminist theory. They are a genderqueer Taiwanese American based in New York. They are also extremely a Capricorn. 

Ashley Jacklyn isa twenty-seven year old Puerto Rican woman, raised in the beautiful ever changing, Jersey City. She’s a photographer with a focus in fashion, lifestyle & stylized portrait photography, social media content creation for small businesses, and is working towards creating beginner Photoshop & Lightroom workshops. 

This interview was conducted by Sophia Richards on August 21, 2018. Ashley Jacklyn photographed Arabelle in her Jersey City home.

SOPHIA: Tell me about your experience of girlhood, and then post-girlhood.

ARABELLE: Girlhood was very traumatic for me in the way that it’s traumatic for every person who’s ever been seen as a girl, so it doesn't feel very special. I went to school with the same group of people basically until college, so we were friends and enemies year by year. I remember in middle school they wrote a list of things that they didn't like about me and then gave it to me. [laughs] These are the same people that I eventually became really good friends with in high school and lived with in college. So we grew together, but I was unspeakably traumatized by this list written by people that I really cared about and thought the world of. That was adolescence. [laughs] 

Then I became really close with Tavi [Gevinson] and all the Rookie people. That was a very important era of my and my friends’ lives because we were creating this platform for girlhood and femininity and being a teen that didn't feel like a list of ways to improve. [laughs] 

But...I don't know. Even before I would ever identify as a former girl, I was always more comfortable just being a femme. Femme has so much more to do with queerness than girlhood necessarily does, though it's not precluded from it. I was always interested in the limitations of femininity—why it’s romanticized in the same way it’s disparaged. I feel like most of the time, feminist discussions of girlhood puts it in this moral binary, and I’m not interested in that.

What I liked about studying feminism in school and is that [it presents morality] as a compass and praxis, not a single decision.

SOPHIA: Could you talk more about this moral binary?

ARABELLE: I’m super not into the “hot take.” 

SOPHIA: [laughs]

ARABELLE: I think Jia [Tolentino] talked about this in her interview with you. One of the reasons why I love talking about beauty is that it’s a really good way to talk about how complicated morality is. What I liked about studying feminism in school and is that [it presents morality] as a compass and praxis, not a single decision. It’s something that you have to figure out every day all the time. I don’t think that most conversations about culture online allow for that type of interaction. Because it’s so dramatic! Everyone has a fucking epiphany all the time.

SOPHIA: [laughs]

ARABELLE: Either [writers] are seen as delusional, or they’re lying about how important a certain experience is for the money, which I get. But it’s boring, and it’s not really true. I think the hardest decisions are often the ones we make every day that we aren’t really paying attention to. We push them away because they’re not the biggest decisions we’re making in our lives, but they’re the things that fill our days. And when you’re not critically examining all the small decisions in your life, shit can go wrong really slowly. But that’s how we end up in a fascist state. It’s slowly normalized; you don’t wake up one day like, “Oh shit!” You’ve made a series of small decisions and everyone else has, too. That’s why I’m interested in reading about war. I read a lot of war reporting and a lot of journals and diaries from soldiers. And [gestures to bookshelf]  they’re all interspersed right next to beauty books.

SOPHIA: [laughs]

ARABELLE: I’m interested in how easy it is to end up doing the wrong thing just to survive. Most conversations about culture and politics right now consider [morality] in a way that’s not actually realistic to people who experience physical and institutional violence every day. The people writing essays are not necessarily the people who are getting hunted down. I mean, post-Gamergate – sometimes they totally are, and so it becomes twice as hard to even consider saying the hard stuff. There’s not a culture of responsible care involved in the way we examine cruelty. 

If I cannot faithfully say that fashion is democratic even if it’s political, at least beauty has more potential to be.

SOPHIA: Can you talk about how you started writing about beauty and feminism at such a young age [15]? What were you noticing in your environment that spurred you to do this?

ARABELLE: I was just a big fucking nerd about everything. And fashion happened to be a really interesting thing that I couldn’t talk about with friends IRL. (They were also nerds, but more traditional ones.) I wrote about that a little bit in the essay I just wrote for NYLON about high school. I had no friends for a while in high school because I was such a dick. I totally deserved to have no friends, because I needed to understand that being mean to people is not a form of affection.

SOPHIA: [laughs]

ARABELLE: I didn't have friends for half of high school so I would just be at the library or hang out with my teachers, which meant that I had a lot of time to research everything that I liked. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, [the films of] Akira Kurosawa, Nietzsche, feminism...There was no conversation about feminism when I was in high school. But I was online friends with a particular nucleus of older feminists, and they acted like cool big sisters and introduced me to zines and all this language that it would’ve taken me a longer time to familiarize myself with otherwise. We all became friends through fashion blogs and Livejournal and Blogspot

After a couple years of doing fashion stuff, I wanted to get on the other side of the bylines. People were writing about me when I was in high school, and I wanted to be able to write the story, not be the story. So…this is so funny. I was friendly with [makeup brand] Urban Decay in college. They gave me my first eyeshadow palette. And that made me realize that, with makeup, I don't need to spend a lot of money in order to be able to create something. I can’t afford any of the clothing that I really love right now, so I’m just going to figure out a different way to access identity that doesn’t require so much financial investment. Because people may never be able to afford a Chanel dress, and fuck Chanel anyway. But they can probably buy a Chanel lipstick, or at least buy a lipstick that’s the exact same shade. So, alright. If I cannot faithfully say that fashion is democratic even if it’s political, at least beauty has more potential to be. I saw that in college, so I just started writing more about beauty. And literally no one ever wrote anything intelligent about beauty (that I was reading in magazines, anyway). So I was like, alright, let’s do it.

You’re a human being so you deserve respect. No one deserves beauty.

SOPHIA: In your part of Hazlitt’s sort of…roundtable on eyebrows, you said, “I think beauty is so much about inheritance: from mothers and sisters and people who have been left behind, and the people who had power over those people, and on and on.” Could you talk about the beauty you feel that you inherited? Either from your family or from external sources?

ARABELLE: My relationship to beauty was really trying to find my place in my family’s history. I’m mixed-race. My mom is Asian, and my dad is just like, this white dude. His father was adopted, so we don't actually know a lot about his lineage. But so much of what I remember growing up is people arguing about which one of my parents I look most like. It made me confused about what I looked like to other people. And I definitely had a favorite parent, so every time I didn’t look like my favorite parent, I felt like my body was betraying me. Then when I officially began identifying as a queer person and stopped identifying specifically as bisexual, I fell in love with queer history, and thought a lot about what it means to present as queer, and create [physical] signals that we look for and find safety in. So it was about finding a history that I can fit into in terms of my family lineage, my queer family and identity, and then what it means to be seen for who you desire and who you want to desire you.

SOPHIA: Do you listen to the Cheryl Strayed advice podcast?

ARABELLE: Dear Sugar?

SOPHIA: Yes! Their last episode was on privilege, and they brought on this woman as a guest, Catrice Jackson. Did you listen to it?

ARABELLE: I didn’t listen to that one.

SOPHIA: Basically she said, in the context of racism, that privilege isn’t necessarily a bad thing; what’s bad is the unequal distribution of privilege. And that made me think, in the context of beauty privilege, that whether or not we agree with that statemetnt, equal access to beauty privilege will never be possible. Even in our utopian imaginations, if we had equal access to beautification resources, “natural beauty” will never be evenly distributed. So…in moral terms, is beauty always oppressive? Is there a way to justify exercising beauty privilege?

ARABELLE: I think the ideal result isn’t that everyone is beautiful. I think that makes the term useless. Maybe that’s the wrong answer for some people, who would say, “Everyone is beautiful. We’re all valued.” Yes, you have value, but beauty doesn’t have to be the determining factor. You’re a human being so you deserve respect. No one deserves beauty. I’m fine with the uneven distribution of beauty because my version of it is highly subjective. Just because I don’t think someone is beautiful doesn’t mean that they aren’t beautiful to someone that they actually care about. My opinion of someone’s beauty shouldn’t really matter and neither should anyone else’s in terms of their worth. You should be able to have access to all the things that you need to be a human and to feel loved and to survive. That doesn’t mean that everyone needs to see you as beautiful. Beauty shouldn’t have to be the point.

Also, you can have a lot of money and access to all of these resources to help you change your body, but the funny thing is that there are always stories about people whom we end up feeling sorry for because they’ve done so much to their bodies that they essentially just become monstrous. You can become monstrous in the pursuit of beauty. The whole reason why everyone's always obsessed with beauty is because we can never solve it. We don’t have the answer to what the most beautiful perfect thing is. We never will. It is an unclimbable mountain and that's fine. I'm not interested in the end result if I could do anything to my body. Unless I'm getting Bella Hadid’s surgeon, there’s not going to be a huge change that’s going to change my life. It's fine. I’m not expecting beauty to solve anything.

SOPHIA: In a way, beauty (and aesthetics in general, I guess), signifies so much, but it also signifies nothing. I think we have this vague idea that if we change our appearance, it will “mean” a different thing, but it doesn’t actually mean any specific thing.

ARABELLE: What we think matters kind of doesn’t matter. Ultimately, I don't think it should have to, but because beauty has so much to do with the perception of safety and trustworthiness in terms of race and class and stuff, it has to matter in that context. But if we ended up figuring out ways to solve systematic racism and class inequity and all those stuff, then beauty would probably lose its connection to these things, and the people that we consider beautiful would probably change. It does change all the time! We’re just famously bad at remembering our histories.

SOPHIA: I thought about this question after reading your interview with Jenny [Zhang]. You were talking about women and femmes writing memoir, and publishers wanting these writers to just volunteer their whole lives and then not defend them when something goes amiss—

ARABELLE: Oh yeah, the tea.

[both laugh]

SOPHIA: It made me want to ask you about the kind of voyeurism and exploitation that comes with making a career out of—not entirely out of—but out of your body—

ARABELLE: —with your body as the foundation—

SOPHIA: —Yeah. Your work has obviously changed a lot since your blog, but even then you’re making yourself a product for people to consume. I wanted to ask you what about this work feels exploitative and what doesn’t. Where do you feel like you have freedom and where do you feel like you don’t?

ARABELLE: That's a good question. The fashion stuff is purely walking advertisement for other things. That’s why I stopped doing it. If the only reason you want to share anything is because you’re obligated to an advertiser, you have nothing to say anymore.

I stopped writing extremely personal essays a couple of years back. I felt disinclined to do so early on, but it took a while to adjust to how else I could tell the stories I wanted to without using my own trauma. Also, writing about trauma is incredibly profitable. It’s profitable in a way that other writing usually isn’t for women and femmes, because these are the stories that publishers and advertisers actually do want. They want the most dramatic pain that they can condense into a product. It makes them look like they really understand you and that they’re here for you, but [the same publishers] won’t be interested in the mundane, fun, interesting things women and femmes have to say in any other type of writing.  

The greatest thing we can do for the beauty industry is to treat it just as critically as we would anything else, because it affects us just as much.

SOPHIA: How would you and other women/femme writers in your acquaintance prefer to be treated?

ARABELLE: Getting paid on time, or getting paid ever. There are only two publishers I’ve ever worked with who have paid me on time consistently, and I’ve been writing for 10 years. To have an essay that will eventually take us two weeks of daily work to be valued at more than $100. When you break that down over an hourly rate, it’s like nothing. It's pathetic. People are actually paid less than they were for the same work a decade ago. You can ask any veteran of the industry—that is, the ones you can find, who haven’t been aged out and put out to pasture.

Beauty and fashion writers should get the same resources as any other reporter. There was that amazing 2015 New York Times piece about nail salons, where the writer [Sarah Maslin Nir] treated it seriously, as a journalistic enterprise from the business angle. It just happened to be about beauty. The greatest thing we can do for the beauty industry is to treat it just as critically as we would anything else, because it affects us just as much. 

Perhaps I come across like a bitter person about this stuff, but that’s fine because I totally am. I don’t bother pitching a great deal of my ideas anymore because I know with relative accuracy what publications have space for, and what they’d risk putting out, and the most interesting conversations to me are not the ones that are the most predictable traffic-drivers. Some times editors actually call me to say they can’t run pieces, I guess because they know putting it into writing would be like, too telling. 

I’m not saying that to be egotistical about my own position, none of it is about me– it’s more like, yeah, of course they’re not going to run something that may be damning to their own publishers or major advertisers, or that goes against the unspoken political position that the magazine upholds. 

Dealing with it has taught me that being refused can be a blessing, though. I’d rather do things on my own terms even if it takes a lot longer, than be beholden to other people’s circumstances. It’s not their name on the byline in the end. It’s mine. 

SOPHIA: What do women—or everyone who’s not a man—need or can do for each other presently?

ARABELLE: I think people need to get better at understanding that being called out isn’t condemnation, or it shouldn’t be. We need to relearn how to rehabilitate. The #MeToo movement is very interesting to me because it’s making us critically examine what we mean by restorative justice. What do we actually want from the people who have hurt us? Do we even know what we want? We don’t. Most people can’t agree on that. We can’t even agree on the damage that has been done, or why people damaged us in the first place. None of us can agree on anything. It’s important that we’re having a conversation about any of it.

I feel like I wrote through for two or three years straight exclusively about my trauma, and that’s fine. I never want to write about shit again. But I needed to do that because I didn’t have any other recourse. I think that people need to get better at understanding that healing isn’t something that other people have to do for you. People have to understand that healing is something that we have to do ourselves, for ourselves, and it’s a lot harder to get that than just telling someone they need to apologize. 

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bodies, class, sexualitySophia Richards