A Decade of Surface over Significance: Sleeveless by Natasha Stagg

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A year or two ago, when I still worked occasionally in the office of a fashion magazine, I ended up in conversation with a stylist about a particular young model: newly famous and extremely in-demand, her fearful symmetry did not quite look like anything in nature, prompting a discussion about plastic surgery that raised more questions than it answered. “She’s incredible in photographs,” the stylist said, “but slightly off up close.” For a civilian, looking better in an image than in life is at best impractical, and at worst liable to disappoint; this kind of dissonance, a separation between person and persona, is for people who spend more time being photographed than they do at their desks, or at the mall, or with their families. The decision to erase one’s natural face in favor of a new, unnatural, and therefore less “‘true” replacement might seem sad, duplicitous, or like a cry for help. Still, wasn’t looking unreal in a photograph this model’s job? And didn’t altering herself to fit the bill make her a genius at it?

“[People] meet at Cafeteria because the characters in Sex and the City did that,” Natasha Stagg writes in the opening essay of her new collection, Sleeveless. “The New York of that era is not the same as the New York of today, but even while the show aired, viewers argued that it wasn’t of a real New York.” The New York of the book, situated between 2011 and 2019, is a New York not unlike a supermodel’s redesigned, symmetric face: perfect in film and print and images, and slightly off up close. A former editor at V, Stagg is no stranger to the slippage between life and editorial. “New York,” she observes later, “is an actor playing itself.” The texts in Sleeveless, many of which first appeared in fashion magazines and literary journals, treat the city like a mirage, a delusion shared by a mostly millennial creative class who have seen one too many movies about New York in the 70s or 80s. In a piece that first appeared in a serialized column at the art magazine Spike, Stagg summarizes the conundrum: “Everyone in magazines and advertising is obsessed with Studio 54. Recreating the feel of the party, the eclecticism of the guests, the gossip about it on Page Six, the emptiness of an Andy Warhol superstar.” The catch? That even those who were at Studio 54 “can’t recreate it.”

Reality never matches up to fantasy, in other words, even for those who supposedly lived the dream. Spanning the majority of the 2010s, Sleeveless suggests a decade that is anxious, self-immolatory, and more interested in surfaces than in significance. Stagg is particularly insightful on such subjects as the Kardashian family, influencers, and the sociopolitical importance of tall, cherry-red Balenciaga boots; she also writes about her own life, drawing lines between her sexual encounters and the #MeToo stories in the news, or between her experiences in fashion and in advertising and the eerily pervasive glare of Facetune, Instagram, and D-List celebrity news. “We are celebrity-obsessed and all celebrity candidates,” she suggests. “We are being surveyed and surveilled, our opinions exploited via our own narcissistic tendencies; we are afraid of attacks and paranoid about the ways these attacks are being explained to us; and we are, as always, hoping to appear sexier than we feel.”

Prose has no temperature; assuming that it did, Sleeveless would bite like January in New York. Its best lines are chill as ice water: pellucid, unembellished, rich with subtext. “All my friends and I took pictures of our new free phones with our old ones,” she recalls, the scene “a pink neon-lit party” with “free cocktails… [and] hors d’oeuvres you had to work for.” “She must be a very good writer to get all that attention,” she says, drily, of a woman who happens to be both “thin and tall… and friends with all the kids who admitted to being rich.” “I once met a casting agent who scouted for reality TV,” she notes in another installment from her serialized Spike column, “and she didn’t seem at all like a conniving nihilist.”

In her debut novel, Surveys, Stagg fictionalized the experience of coming of age under circa-2010s capitalism by taking the uneasy separation of the image and the self to its most logical extreme: its central character, Colleen, is twenty-three, works in an identikit mall in Tucson, Arizona, and eventually becomes extremely famous on the internet. She does not seem like a conniving nihilist, either. “One day, I was not famous,” she says, blankly. “The next day, I was almost famous and the temptation to go wide with that and reject my past was too great. When I was legit famous, it was hard to tell when the change had occurred.” Because Colleen is a millennial, it does not seem unusual to her to lead a bifurcated life, and because she is a girl, she is aware that her most valuable asset is her youth. “You wake up,” she explains, “and someone puts a price on you. You grow old, and your price diminishes.”

One of Sleeveless’s most interesting themes is its interrogation of what happens to successful, intelligent women who are no longer as young and valuable as Colleen. Now in her thirties, Stagg admits to feeling frightened about not being appealing to the kind of men she’s interested in dating. “If I was anxious about anything,” she shrugs, “it was becoming obsolete, in my career and my sex life… was I not irresistible to anyone? Was being irresistible to men what I wanted most, out of anything in the world?” It is embarrassing to read a woman saying nakedly what most of the women I know personally, in real life, admit in private. It is also fascinating, thrilling in its disregard for the way we are meant to suffer the ongoing terror of our obsolescence without actually voicing it. A supermodel might decide to get a new face at the age of twenty-one or twenty-two; a writer, valued nominally for her mind, might still end up a bigger deal if she is also “thin and tall… and friends with all the kids who admitted to being rich.” In an essay about working as a corporate consultant, having left her “dream job” as an editor to very little fanfare, Stagg is circumspect about the struggle to stay cool, or relevant, or at least hot. “Dishonesty,” she maintains, “becomes a scale. Desperation becomes endearing. Plastic surgery melds with natural features. What at first alarms a person becomes a sign of resilience.”

What is most alarming about Sleeveless is also its most radical quality: its candor, sometimes offered at the expense of the author’s dignity or liberal credibility, becomes its own sign of resilience. Stagg is clearly feminist, but worries that in the immediate wake of #MeToo, “there’d be no one left to fuck.” “I insist that men should be impressed by me,” she writes, “until they are, and then they can’t stand it.” Hip and jaded, within fashion and without it, an active participant in the industry at work and dispassionately removed from it in her perspective and her politics, it is her continuing willingness to contradict herself that makes her one of the best and most interesting documentarians of our modern millennial media.

The F. Scott Fitzgerald quote about the test of a first-rate intelligence—“the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function”— is cited so often by critics and journalists that it has since become a cliché. Still, it feels worth noting here that Fitzgerald first made that observation in The Crack-Up, a three-part, serialized essay that Fitzgerald wrote as a then-unfashionable exploration of his own depression. Another brilliant chronicler of life in then-contemporary New York, and of life in New York’s literary circles in particular, he scandalized his peers by letting readers see behind the curtain of his glamour. What lay just beneath the mask, he wrote, was “not a pretty picture.” The illusion, even when we know it is illusory, is easier to look at. Sleeveless does not offer answers, per se; what is valuable in it is its rare acknowledgement of the impossibility of modern life, the horror of having to maintain a twenty-four-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week lie.

Even now, knowing what I knew, didn’t I still think that the model with the genius plastic surgeon had an enviable face?

Philippa Snow is a writer, based in Norwich. Her reviews and essays have appeared in publications including Artforum, Sight & Sound, GARAGE, Frieze, The Cut, and Tank magazine. More from this author →