If Hollywood epics have taught us anything about the ancient world, it’s that Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt was drop-dead gorgeous. The original femme fatale has only been played by sultry screen goddesses — Claudette Colbert, Vivian Leigh, Elizabeth Taylor. But just how beautiful was she? According to the ancient biographer Plutarch, men were hypnotized not by Cleopatra’s looks but by her wit and charm: Her beauty was “not of the incomparable kind that would astonish everyone who saw her,” he wrote, “but her conversation was irresistibly fascinating, and her character utterly mesmerizing.”  She certainly knew how to make a memorable entrance: To meet Mark Anthony on the modern-day coast of Turkey, she arrived in a luxurious gondola dressed as Aphrodite and reclining on a gold bed as naked slaves fanned her with feathers. (The ancients did not share our sense of privacy; the minions would have kept fanning while… More…

 

The woman was decked out in a black one-piece bathing suit, her face matte and her body shiny. She wore gold bangles, gold platform heels, and a gold belt with a Miss Venezuela crown belt buckle so large that it looked like a rodeo or boxing trophy. And her pose — she wasn’t smiling, but with an acrylic nailed hand on one jutting hip, she was looking at the viewer as if she was destined for better things than the present moment.

This photo of the Miss Venezuela contestant had been ironed onto the matching oversized T-shirts of the group of people standing in front of me in line to get into the Miss Venezuela pageant. So here the contestant was: powerful, cold and unattached looking, but in a picture that was rippling over the normal drooping breasts… More…

 

I knew something was in the air when the local hair salon started calling itself a day spa. Now all the blue-haired old ladies in town are going to be able to get a Brazilian wax.

When I was growing up, my mother used to go twice a month to the beauty parlor. That was what it was called then — not the hair stylist or even the hair salon, all latter-day terms. She would have her hair cut, colored, or coiffed, and sometimes she would get a manicure. But hair and nails were the extent of it. The body that lay in between was off limits. Caring for that — whatever it might entail — happened in the privacy of the home.

Then, in the 1980s and ’90s, that once-private expanse of the body opened itself to… More…

As soon as I walked out of the train station on my first day in Kyoto, I knew that I would love Japan. I passed the ground floor of a department store on my way to the street. To my right, next to purses and scarves, was a wall of color and pattern — windowpane plaid, polka dots, orange and turquoise, red and magenta, lime and navy. Upon closer inspection, I realized it was a display of washcloths, the most beautiful washcloths I had ever seen. (Unlike their American counterparts, usually relegated to some fourth-floor linen department and confined to neutral bathroom hues, these squares of terry are not used for washing but are kept in purses for drying one’s hands in public restrooms.)

The washcloths were my first exposure to the attention to detail that characterizes much of Japan — both visually and socially. I soon… More…

There’s something about those medical paper gowns that just might be sexy. But sitting on the crinkly sterile paper of the plastic surgeon’s table, his eyes level to my nipples and his hand massaging the tissue of my left breast… it was not. In fact, I felt qualified to join a sideshow alongside the bearded lady and the freak who hangs heavy objects from his testicles. Show me to my bed of nails.

“Well, she’ll certainly like them better than a used car.”

As he said this he was looking at my mother, who sat watching in the corner, oddly impassive. She nodded and smiled, agreeing with him. I could practically see the wheels spinning in her head. She had always suggested that I go to medical school or law school since those were the places to get a husband with the best earning potential. I knew that she had… More…