The Importance Of What's Close: Beauty And Being Careful A few recent stories that have mishandled cultural history are a good reminder that the familiarity of a subject doesn't reduce its importance.
NPR logo The Importance Of What's Close: Beauty And Being Careful

The Importance Of What's Close: Beauty And Being Careful

A magnifying glass.

Writer Kara Brown recently reacted to an L.A. Times story about cornrows with one simple thought: "Friends, readers, ladyfolk, I believe we are being trolled."

She was referring not just to the cornrows piece — which went on and on about cornrows without mentioning a single black woman, as she pointed out — but also a Vogue piece that came under fire for seeming to have just gotten the memo that big butts exist (later echoed by The New York Times), Fashion Week's use of "baby hairs" (which she explains here) and some of the commentary accompanying those stories, like a hairstylist who said that cornrows "are moving away from urban, hip-hop to more chic and edgy."

In an article highlighting the cornrows of Kristen Stewart and Cara Delevingne, that sounds an awful lot like "from black women, on whom they don't matter fashion-wise, to white women, on whom they do."

Brown has covered this stuff very thoroughly, but even aside from the substance of her complaint, it raises an interesting reminder about "little stories."

Think about the way the rigor with which writers are understood to think about things conventionally expands as the distance (both literal and figurative) between the reader and the subject increases. Writing about international affairs is sometimes treated as more "serious" and higher in status than writing about national politics, which is more serious than writing about local politics. Foreign movies are more serious than Hollywood movies; inaccessible books are more serious than popular and accessible books. While it's certainly not the only metric that affects all these status decisions, we do very often wind up assigning ascending levels of importance alongside ascending levels of remoteness.

You can see echoes of this in lots of places: go in for medical treatment, and the status of the doctor who may see you only briefly will often be more credited for the success of your care than nurses who actually touch you, who swab your skin and move your limbs and wrap and clip and stick things around you and to you, on top of the expertise they're bringing. What feels close feels easier and simpler: I could take somebody's blood pressure, I guess.

It's sometimes the same in writing. When you write about appearance and beauty, it might seem like pure frivolity, and sometimes it is. But when you are touching on people's bodies, on their hair and skin and shape, you are actually treading on something that's powerful because of its intimacy. Writing about books or TV shows can be the same way: people are attached. It's personal. It's not a pass to take your eye off the ball. In a lot of ways, it's the opposite.

And it's not just beauty, either, and it's not just things that touch on race or other aspects of identity. Any time you shift your focus from what's far away and unfamiliar to what's close-up and knowable to more people, on the one hand, you may have to do less explaining, less application of conventional expertise.

But on points of analysis — which trend pieces are, to the point they are ever worth a flicker of brain activity — it actually calls for more care, if anything. When you get into people's houses, whether it's the music they listen to, the clothes they wear, the way they talk to their kids, the food they eat, that's when blind spots and wrong directions can actually make people feel the most like you don't hear them or know they're there.

These are things that run in the blood, you know? They are things about which people have feelings, and around which they build rituals. Something like hair is weighted down not only with all manner of cultural history, but for some people memory and emotion, rooted in personal experience, that often aren't in play when you're writing about politics or science. And it takes its own kind of rigor to get right.